Hope in our bones

This sermon was prepared for St. John’s United Church, Marathon on Sunday, January 12th, 2020. A video version was posted online for use by the United-in-Worship project for Year A Epiphany 2 (Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17).

At a time when we’re disillusioned and disappointed by our leaders, the Prophet’s words offer us something different. There’s that tingling feeling in your bones of hope.

And we need hope…

Migrant detention Paso del Norte by Ivan Pierre Aguirre
Children inside a temporary migrant holding area set up by Customs and Border Protection under the Paso del Norte International Port of Entry. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre

In a world where children and parents are kept apart by cages.

For an earth increasingly devastated by fires, famines and floods.

For a generation where (on average) every two-and-a-half days a woman or girl is killed in our country, a statistic that disproportionally effects indigenous women and girls.

This year has got to be better. It’s got to, because there are real problems in our world. What’s more is we’ve been twiddling our thumbs, debating whether they’re problems at all, and all-the-while they’ve just gotten worse.

Or, we’ve tried to solve them the old way, and things haven’t gotten better.

***

Israel had problems, too.

Israel was a conquered and humiliated people.
Israel was exiled from its home and longed to return and re-establish.
Israel was looking for hope, for a future for its children and its grandchildren.

They lived with the same dreams and anxieties modern-day asylum-seeker have—fear for their own lives and the lives of their families, and a determination to dream of something better for their children.

In many ways that dream was realized, in the form of the King of Persia. Cyrus the Great brought justice to the children of the Exile, they were restored to their lands, and hope for a new and stronger Israel was born.

Now, the Prophet does an interesting thing here in the text. At first we see Isaiah speaking about Cyrus the Great, but suddenly the text seems to be referring to someone else. Someone God’s spirit is upon, yes, but someone who looks wholly unlike Cyrus does.

There is this distinction between Cyrus, who represents the old way of doing things,[i] and this new figure who won’t shout in the street, or bruise a reed, or even extinguish a smoldering wick.

The prophet’s voice is proclaiming a new way of doing things, it shows us glimpses of God at work, and it looks nothing like the old way….

Where the King is concerned with conquest, the Servant is concerned with righteousness.

Where the King is celebrated and magnified, the Servant is persecuted and despised.

Where the King is mightiness enthroned, the Servant is the embodiment of gentleness.

The justice of the King is force and power, while the justice of the Servant is meek and humble.

These are not the same people.

And, how often do we mistake the Cyrus version of justice for God’s? We’re hurt or offended, we get so angry that we want to get even.

Israel was like that too. Beaten down in war, driven from their home, the children of the Exile wanted their enemies to be crushed, to feel the pain that they had felt. They wanted a King, like Cyrus, to destroy their enemies.

The disciples too, seemed to hope that Jesus was that same way. They lived under the reign of Rome, who oppressed the Judeans much like Babylon oppressed their ancestors. The disciples’ image of a messiah aligned more with the vision of the conquering king than the one Jesus offered. They seem to continually get it wrong as Jesus tried to explained that the Son of Manwas called to something else.

It’s crazy to think that this new way of doing thing this is still new, even today.

If we’re on the “left” we want the “right” to be humiliated. If we’re on the “right” we want the “left” to get what’s coming to them. We applaud when we see just-desserts doled out online, or instant karma in the parking lot.

We cry a chorus of “Serves them right!”

***

Cyrus was used for Yahweh’s plans and purposes, but the Servant offers more to his Master. Jesus, our greatest example, embodies this path of service.

I often think about how, as a young boy, Jesus would have been taught these texts, listening to them read aloud from the scroll at worship gatherings. And I wonder how the words of Isaiah shaped his heart and his ministry? [***]

Because…

A Choice by Laura Wright Pittman
A Choice by Laura Wright Pittman

Where Cyrus is concerned with conquest, Jesus cared about God’s kin-dom.

Where Cyrus is celebrated and magnified, Jesus is betrayed, condemned and killed.

Where Cyrus is mightiness enthroned, Jesus reaches out tenderly to the last, the least and the littlest.

The justice of Cyrus is force and power, while the justice of Jesus is characterized by mercy and faithfulness.[ii]

So, too, Jesus calls his followers to these things, in his parables and in his Sermon on the Mount. And we, as the readers of the Gospel of Matthew, are so called.

***

In Montreal I knew a man who worked at a shelter. He was young, and kind, and he had terrible road rage. He was a very ordinary person.

He did the kind of work other people would look at and say, “You are such a good person,” or “how brave of you!” And, he would shrug, responding, “I’m just doing my job”.

But sometimes he was brave. Sometimes his work was scary. He would tell me stories about how fearful he felt when someone was angry and acting irrationally, when they would lash out in their pain and hit him or threaten him.

We would sit, and he would tell me these stories, then he would say: “They are so kind when they’re having a good day,” or “I just sat with them on the floor so they could cry, because they were hurting.”

When I think of that person who won’t shout in the street, or bruise a reed, or even extinguish a smouldering wick, that is the person I think of. Someone focused on justice, who finds a well of compassion for the person who lashes out at them, someone who says there is a different way of doing things in this world—someone who sees those glimpses and holds onto them.

I wonder: who you think of when you hear Isaiah’s description of the “Servant”? Who comes to mind for you?

***

Today we remember the Baptism of Jesus, of how the Holy Spirit filled him in his ministry, and how God’s identity and authority rested on him. We remember our baptismal vows: to follow Jesus, and to seek justice and resist evil. We remember how we have been invited into his ministry, to share his work and his struggles.

We’re called to look critically at the old way of doing things, that used power and force for its own sense of justice. And we’re invited to imagine what the world would look like if we embraced the call of the Servant, a call to righteousness, light and life.

The Gospel of Matthew tells us what kind of life Jesus lead, and what kind of life his followers would lead. It tells stories of rejection, persecution, and condemnation.

The new way of doing things comes with a price, so thank goodness our call to ministry is not a solo mission, it is in community, as even Jesus’ own was.

Let’s be reassurance in the knowledge that we are not alone. We are walking this path of service in the company of our creator, our brother-Jesus, the spirit, and a whole host of ordinary saints.

***

There are real problems in our world, and they can feel overwhelming. Insurmountable, even. But these real problems have real solutions.

Now, I can hear one skeptical eyebrow being raised somewhere in the pews, so don’t worry. I’m not saying these problems have easy or obvious solutions. If we’re truly called to a vision for the world like the one Isaiah offers—a world where wolves lay down with lambs and children can play by the den of snakes[iii]—then the response we’re called to is going to look wholly unlike what we’ve seen before.

We need bold and imaginative responses that are grounded in our time and place; little acts of resistance that together shape a new way of doing things in our world.

And it might look weird. Really weird. As weird as offering your other cheek to the person who strikes you… as weird as insisting you carry a soldier’s pack another mile after he’s forced you to walk one… as weird as forgiving our enemies, or putting the last, the least, and the littlest first in our vision for a new world.

This way of doing thing, doesn’t make any sense, at least to the old way of doing things. It’s counterintuitive; it was strange in 1st century Palestine and it’s strange still today.

But we’ve seen glimpses of what our world could become, glimpses of the kin-dom of God here and now. Glimpses in Marathon: Where have you seen them?

I’ve seen them…at the foodbank and thrift store, in the generosity of the people who live here, in the little movements toward sustainability, in the passion for the landscape….

***

Friends, let’s hold on to that tingling feeling of hope in our bones, let it be the guiding gut-feeling for this year. Let it wake us up in our daily lives to see this new way at work, and to prod us to live differently because of it.

And, on days when the path feels extra challenging, and we lose sight of those glimpses, lets gather in community to reassure one another that we are not alone, we walk this path together.

Amen.
[i] Isaiah 40:2
[ii] Matthew 23:23
[iii] Isaiah 11:6-9

Each to Their Own—Our Special Edition Gospels

Prepared for the Ecumenical University Chaplaincy’s Cathedral@6 (cathédrale18h de l’Aumônerie œcuménique universitaire) Sunday evening service on March 3, 2019 (Year C Transfiguration Sunday, based on Luke 9:28-36), preached in French and English.

Cathedral Evening Service 2019-03-03
Selina preaching under a photo of her dad’s moustache, Christ Church Cathedral Montreal

Pendant la majeure partie de mon enfance, mon père avait une merveilleuse moustache.  On était iconique.

Mais, après quelques années, il a rasé sa belle moustache. Quel dommage! J’étais inconsolable. Pourquoi? Parce que mon père était méconnaissable. Soudainement, il n’était plus mon père. Le visage de mon amour et ma confiance étaient déformés.

Maybe you have seen videos on YouTube of babies after a parent has shaved their beard. They become distraught because the face of the person they trust who is the most familiar to them is suddenly alien.

It is an alarming thing to see someone you love so changed before your very eyes that you can hardly recognize them.

I’ve been reflecting on this Luke passage since January, and the thing that keeps coming back to me is this: this man, on the mountain top, is not my Jesus.

Au moment de la transfiguration, je ne reconnais pas cet homme. Je ne reconnais pas Jésus.

And, how was it for the sleepy disciples, to suddenly see the man they had been travelling with so altered? Luminous like a flash of lightning! Suddenly in the midst of two others, when he had been praying quietly alone only a moment before.

Probablement, les disciples se frottaient et clignaient des yeux!

Et, après un instant, Pierre dit à Jésus: « Maître, il est bon que nous soyons ici. Nous allons dresser trois tentes, une pour toi, une pour Moïse et une pour Élie. »[i]

“Wow, Master, this is so great! We’ve got you, Moses, Elijah… Let’s start a construction project!” How different my response is to Peter’s!!

I like to think that James and John stood dumbstruck, like me, thinking: Who is this guy? Where did Jesus go? Is this the same teacher who came to meet us on the shore at our boats?[ii]

Because all three of them have been with Jesus since the start of all this, since he returned from the desert and began his teaching. And, James and John have been putting up with Peter’s obnoxious brown-nosing this whole time!

Peter, who’s always so quick to say something, to fall down on his knees, to cry “Lord”, to want to build a frigging tent.

**

Last time we gathered together Kaeden preached a little bit on Luke’s “blessings and woes”, Jesus’ sermon on the plain.

Now, there’s a Jesus I recognize.

We all have our own versions of the Gospel texts, the stories we prioritize over others, the ones that come to mind when we’re asked to recount the story.

If you were going to commission a new stained-glass window for our church, what depiction of Christ would you want the artist to render?

Chacun et chacune de nous a ces histoires préférés de Jésus. Quelle est l’histoire qui décrit le mieux l’image de Jésus que vous adorez ? Quel est le vitrail dans votre esprit ?

Because we all have moments that make us say, “Yes! That is the Jesus I follow.” We all have a Christ that makes us feel comfortable—safe. We all have a vision of Jesus that is familiar to us.

**

But, then Jesus will go and do something alien and uncomfortable.

For you, that might be the image of Jesus in the Temple courtyard yelling at money changers, flipping over tables.[iii] Or, it might be him arguing with the Syrophonecian woman, when he uses the slur “dog” to refer to her and her child.[iv] It might even be the resurrection, like Kaedan mentioned last time.

Pour moi, le moment où je me sens mal à l’aise devant l’image de Jésus c’est lors de la transfiguration. J’aime mon Jésus un peu plus humain. Un peu plus proche de moi. Je ne reconnais pas le Jésus transfiguré.

The transfigured Christ feels alien to me, uncomfortable. I want the Jesus preaching on the plains, healing, praying silently to God because he feels anxious and alone. That Jesus mirrors me; he feels so close—so real.

Peter's Denial by Michael D. O'Brien
Peter’s Denial by Michael D. O’Brien

But Peter, what does he see? He sees Moses both in the glowing image of Christ and standing next to him. He sees Elijah, the prophet whose return has been hoped for passing on the mantle to Jesus. There’s so much in this image that comforts him. A comfort that will dissolve the closer we get to Good Friday.

Peter—the one so quick to fall to his knees and cry “Lord”—we will discover seems disturbed not by the transfigured Christ but by the battered and bruised Jesus on the way to his execution.[v]

The Gospel stories are not about making us feel nice and safe, they confront and discomfort us. Sometimes to a point where we ask ourselves: Who is this I’m even reading about?

**

And then I began to wonder about how someone else felt in this story. The disciples are not the only ones encountering their beloved here.

How did Jesus? Did he recognize his father in the cloud that overshadowed the group? Did it look like the same as the one he saw on the day of his baptism? Did it feel familiar and comforting, or did it disturb and disorient him?

We don’t get to hear his response.

Then I began to wonder about all the different times Jesus reached out to God in prayer, these little moments the Gospel of Luke captures for us. How did he feel praying in the desert during his retreat? Or when he was praying, in agony, in the garden of Gethsemane?

Luc écrit que Jésus priait d’angoisse, il priait avec encore plus d’ardeur. Il dit « Père, si tu le veux, éloigne de moi cette coupe de douleur. Toutefois, que ce ne soit pas ma volonté qui se fasse, mais la tienne. »

Did even Christ feel unsure about the father he prayed to? If he did, what does that mean for us? For me?

Si Jésus est invité à présenter son doute et ses incertitudes à Dieu, sommes-nous aussi invités?

**

This week we mark the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday.

Lent is an invitation to journey with Jesus towards death and new life. We’ll explore stories we find familiar and ones that itch at our uncertainties.

Dans la saison du carême, nous allons accompagner Jésus sur sa route au Calvaire. Nous allons revivre les histoires avec lesquels nous sommes à l’aise ou mal à l’aise. Nous verrons un Jésus familier et étranger.

Notre espoir dans la foi est que Dieu continue à nous rencontrer même quand nous avant des doutes. Le carême est une invitation à contempler cet espoir.

Lent is an invitation to contemplation and prayer, a space where God welcomes us with our frustrations, our agonies and our doubts. Just as God welcomed Jesus, we are welcomed to this place. That is the hope in the midst of our skepticism and discomfort, that God continues to extend herself to us even when we’re unsure.

Human parents often reflect the stubborn love God offers us as her children—persistent and patient in the midst of our hesitancy or rejection.

That is the grace we are offered on our Lenten journeys: a grace to embrace the mysteries of our faith as a gift, not some stumbling block we have to overcome, or some personal fault we need to fix.

Jesus was welcomed to the garden to pray earnestly and honestly with God, and he invites us to do the same.

My hope, these next six weeks is that your Lenten journey will highlight new uncertainties in you, question you haven’t yet asked about who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. And be encouraged in that wondering, that a God who is not cowed by our doubts waits within those mysteries to reveal herself to us anew.

J’espère que vous avez hâte à votre voyage du carême, et que vous allez rencontrer Jésus de nouvelles manières cette saison.

Amen.

 

[i]Luc 9:33 BFC

[ii]Luke 5:1-11

[iii]Matt. 21:12-16

[iv]Mark 7:24-30

[v]Luke 22:54-62

Good News for Who?

Sermon prepared for Wesley United Church Montreal’s Sunday Service of Jan. 27, 2019 based on the Gospel (Luke 4:14-21) and Epistle (1 Cor. 12:12-31) for Year C Epiphany 3.

With the up-coming by-election in the riding of Outremont, I have been watching as colourful party signs appear on lampposts and balconies around my neighbourhood.

I’ve also been receiving some material from candidates, on Facebook, by email, and in our mailbox. And, let me tell you, they seem to have all sorts of Good News to tell me.

They are proclaiming Good News to the underemployed, to the middle class parent, to the business owner, and newcomer. Their promises are filled with hope, and assurances, and an invitation to follow them.

***

Jesus, here in Luke, has just returned from his not-so-relaxing retreat in the desert, and is giving his first public appearance in his hometown. He’s in the right place, with the right people, at the right time. He stands at the front of the assembly to read from the Scroll of Isaiah. He is amongst his neighbours, those who saw him grow up, and he speaks with power and authority.

It’s all very good optics.

And, Jesus reads these words from the prophetic text:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good newsto the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captivesand recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressedgo free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[i]

It’s a solid opening. And when we read this passage we can’t help but think to ourselves, Yes! This is the kind of man whose side I want to be on. This is the kind of teacher I want to follow.

Because, we could all use a little Good News in our lives. It is a New Year, and yet it feels so much like the last, with our newfeeds brining us one hard story after another.

But, this isn’t a unique experience to our time and place. This past week we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and we were reminded of the past and present struggle of the Black community for equality and justice. With the on-going conflict between the RCMP and Wet’suwet’en People, we are reminded of the continued struggle of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. This week is Muslim Awareness Week in Montreal, and we think of the not-so-distant shooting at the Quebec City mosque, and the history of islamophobia in our country.

Is it any wonder that these words of God’s rescue and favour have been echoed throughout history? Throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures? They are a sweet reminder to those who are struggling in a world filled with Bad News.

***

Yet, we’re missing part of the story here in Luke.

Jesus announces that the scriptures are fulfilled as he sits down, and folks say to themselves… “Is this really Joe’s kid? Yeah, the one who was really bad carpentry… Huh. No kidding!”[ii]But the story doesn’t end there.

Next week’s reading will show how Jesus’ first forays into public ministry end up with a furious crowd who want to throw him off a cliff!

The Nazareth Gazette the next day likely read: Hometown boy bombs first townhall of his public career.

***

Jesus’ Good News doesn’t seem so good to this crowd. But, why? What is so startling about Jesus’ message?

He proclaims a great reversal of fortunes, that the bound will be free, the impure will be made pure, and the oppressed liberated![iii]What’s wrong with that?

You see, the thing is: Jesus is not preaching merely to his neighbours, the people in that assembly. In the following section he recalls a story of how Elijah, the great Jewish prophet, was rejected by God’s people and instead went to Sidon, to stay with a non-Jewish widow.[iv]

The Good News is great news if you’re the one God is talking to, but it is a tough pill to swallow if you’re not.

Certainly, the Jewish people in the 1stcentury were oppressed by the Roman Empire, but the rural populace was also weighed down by the administration of the Jerusalem elite—who Jesus criticizes openly in his ministry.

Yet, Luke shows Jesus as stepping even further to the margins. He doesn’t just speak to his neighbours (Jewish men and their families), but he reaches out to children, the disabled, the widowed, and non-Jews in the surrounding region, offering them Good News as well.

The image of a righted world, reconciled with God, is so much bigger than his listeners would like it to be. Throughout his ministry, Jesus begins to break open the text to say God is not just speaking to you and I—the vision of God’s Kingdom is bigger.

***

Luke’s version of what we call the Beatitudes is a bit different than you might recall, because Luke pairs his four declarations of “blessing” with four declarations of “woe”.

Blessed to you who are poor, who hunger, who weep, and who people hate because of the Son of Man.[v]

But woe to those who are rich, who are well fed, who laugh, who are spoken well of.[vi]

The mission Jesus was gifted in his baptism and time in the desert, to proclaim Good News, is a double-edged sword. Yes, he delivers a message of hope, but he also has a hard message for those who hold power and privilege.

The Kingdom of God is not some vending machine of niceties and goodwill—it is a great upheaval, a reversal of a world set too long down the wrong path.

***

When Indigenous Peoples in Canada speak about reconciliation I am often struck by this recurring sentiment: that right-relations will feel wrong to those who are used to holding power. Equality will feel like injustice, because settler people are so unused to a balance of power; we will feel off-kilter as we try to find equilibrium with our Indigenous relations.

***

All this makes me wonder, whether this Good News is truly good news for you and I?

There is a part of me that says, yes! Yes, because there are things in my own life I need liberation from. Things I no longer want to be captive to.

And yet, there is another part of me that is contrite, knowing I am culpable in the oppression of my neighbours.

I am both the someone who Christ would call “blessed”, and the someone to whom he would say “woe”.

And, I can respond in one of two ways: I can choose, like the Nazarenes who hear Jesus’ teachings, to refuse to acknowledge that God’s Kingdom extends beyond the boundaries of my imagination; or, I can choose to allow God to make me new in this great upheaval.

***

How remarkable that God offers us grace in this in-between place. How remarkable that we are invited to take part in this great working of love.

Jesus, throughout the Gospels, not only extends us the invitation to be a part of God’s Kingdom, but he also asks for our elbow grease too. Today in our readings the Apostle Paul reminded us that we are each gifted, and called.

We are gifted, and called: from the last, to the least, to the littlest. We are called from the margins of society, and out of its great houses of power. We are made new in this Kingdom of God, as equals.

It is a Kingdom that desires us to be reconciled with our creator, and fellow created. It looks to put back in balance a world so off-kilter.

And, Jesus tells us this isn’t some far off utopia—some distant promise—but that it is fulfilled today, in our hearing.[vii]Wherever God’s people are, proclaiming the Good News and acting in service of the Kingdom, there is God at work. There we find our world, and our own selves, being made new.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[i]Luke 4:18-19 NRSV

[ii]Luke 4:22

[iii]Luke 4:18b

[iv]Luke 4:24-27

[v]Luke 6:20b-22 NIV

[vi]Luke 6:24-26 NIV

[vii]Luke 4:21