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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The Upside-down Kingdom

This sermon was prepared for Wesley United’s Sunday service on November 19, 2017. The church has pushed Advent ahead by one week, so the readings for the day were for The Reign of Christ the King (Year A Proper 29, Matthew 25:31-46, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23).

Let me start off by saying—wow. The Gospel of Matthew, once again, delivers us a hard-to-swallow image of the end of time, and eternal punishment.

A lens I use when reading texts like this is to remember that this genre of the writing, is meant to be encouraging.

How? You might ask me. Because it doesn’t feel encouraging!

Well, it’s an image meant to encourage the early Christian community—a community that was experiencing persecution, and struggling to find its identity in the midst of the polytheistic Roman Empire. It’s also a community who believed Jesus was going to return soon—in their lifetime soon. So, this style of writing focuses on that… telling the reader that the bad guys will get what they deserve and the small community will be vindicated in the end.

But what about you and me, in 2017? Well, today we celebrate the king of an upside-down kingdom. Before the beginning of Advent, we take a moment to close our church year by celebrating “The Reign of Christ the King”. And this is the lectionary reading we’re given to do that.

It’s a funny celebration too, because in a world where we hold-up the strong, the powerful, and the ambitious, it’s counter-cultural to follow a man like Jesus.

Someone who didn’t exalt himself, but made himself low.

Someone who didn’t demand sacrifice, but invited it by modelling it even to his own death.

Someone who didn’t tell you what to believe, but instead invited you to come and see.

Today, we celebrate the undereducated, blue-collar, nomadic, brown, king of an upside-down kingdom.

And, when we come together, as Christian community, we gather as citizens of this upside-down kingdom. We talk about God’s vision for our world, we sing songs, read prayers, and share ideas about how God calls us to live this ideal out in the world.

But, we’re also citizens of other communities: NDG, Montréal, Québec, Canada. We’re members of companies, organizations, groups and movements. We give our loyalty to many causes, to different leaders, and to diverse ideologies.

Because, we no longer live in a world that is anxious for the imminent return of Christ. The author of Matthew, and the community he writes to was sitting on pins and needles waiting for the return of Jesus and the breaking in of his kingdom. The Ephesian Christian community too was anticipating Jesus’ return—the Apostle Paul genuinely believed Christ would come back within his lifetime.

But he didn’t.

Christianity, as it has continued throughout history, needed to begin asking questions about what it means to live the urgency and power of the gospel message—a countercultural call to justice and reconciliation—while living in our world, as it is.

We have moved from a future-focused vision of the kingdom to something already present and not yet.

We no longer live with the kind of abandon that Christian martyrs in antiquity lived with. Some of our Christian siblings in areas where they experience fierce persecution do. But life, in North America, is pretty comfortable—we’re ok to wait around for a while longer. Jesus can take his time.

But… what would it look like for you to live a life of urgency, with the kinship of God as your focus?

Not everyone can live a life of wild abandon—I’m not encouraging you to go out tomorrow and sell all your possessions to give to the poor (albeit I know someone who might). But, I do think we can still cultivate a kind of urgency here, now. A sense that, the instructions Jesus gave us are important (not because we think he’s going to descend down from heaven any moment) … but because he taught us that every life matters to God—to see his face in the face of those around us.

Those who are hungry… those who are thirsty… those who are lonely… those who don’t have enough… they all matter deeply to God.

There should be a sense of urgency to the way we embody the Gospel because our work brings people closer to God because we are God’s hands and feet in this world. The kinship of God is revealed only in so much as we feel called and are willing to reveal it.

The kinship of God is revealed only in so much as we feel called and are willing to reveal it.

A kinship where the marginalized are given the best we have to offer, where the privileged take a back seat. A kinship where children are highly regarded and have so much to teach us about our own faith journeys. A kinship where caring for the immediate needs of another takes precedence over whether they’ll listen to us first.

And, we’re part of a long tradition of people, trying to figure out the best way to go about it—a community of messy, normal, imperfect people trying to figure out what living as part of the kinship of God means in our context.

If we profess that Jesus is king, albeit in a way completely unlike any other monarch in history, what does it look like to live that out as you, or me, today?

I want to invite you to take a moment, to think about the ways you see the kingdom of God being built in our community, right now. We need to remember and celebrate these moments, because, kingdom-building is hard work.

Take a moment to think of a person, a program, a group, that is doing the work you see Jesus calling us to—it could be in these walls, at your workplace, or in our city.

Now, let’s think about what else God might be calling us to do. Is there a particular group, activity or idea that God has been percolating in you? Do you feel like, as a community, there is a need we’re overlooking? Is there a way we can better live out our citizenship in the world and in the kingdom of God? Where do you see urgency?

Now, think of one thing you can do to make a start, right now. Is there a conversation you think you should have? An organization you want to support? A story you might need to hear?

My hope, and prayer, is that as we go out into the world this week, God will begin stirring us anew and equipping us to continue the work that has already been started, to strength us and refresh our vision for the kinship of God in our homes, our schools, workplaces and communities; revealing it a little more, each day through our lives.

Amen.

Silly virgins, late grooms, and the end of time as we know it

This sermon was prepared for the United Theological College’s Wednesday Worship, November 8, 2018 (using the coming Sunday’s readings for Year A, Proper 27, Matthew 25:1-13)

Ten young women. I imagine them walking arm in arm—chatting—teasing one another—on their way to meet the bridegroom.

They all go prepared: bringing lamps (in case it gets dark). Because they all know they’ll have to wait.

But, five of them have the foresight to bring extra oil. I don’t know if you know this, but bridegrooms can get delayed.

I’ve heard this text countless time throughout my life, preached from a variety of angles. So, is this text about exclusion? Or “I told you so’s”? Is it about youthful stupidity? … I don’t think so.

I think it’s about ten equal women, with ten equal lamps, who ALL fall asleep. … But half wondered, and planned, in case there was a delay.

So, the kingdom of God is like …what? The women? The lamps? Or, the bridegroom. The bridegroom who hasn’t come yet, not when some were expecting him to. He’s delayed, and all have fallen asleep.

Le royaume des cieux est comme un marié qui ne sait pas … ni le jour, ni l’heure de sa venue.

How often, in the United Church, do we think about the end days? La fin des temps?

The Second Coming? La retour du Christ?

How often do we contemplate our own deaths? Notre mort?

Are we living as if we’re ready for the end of the world …or the end of our lives? As if we’re ready for Jesus’ return to earth …or our return to the dust?

Maybe? …when was the last time you thought about it? I know I find it easier to gloss over all of this. I also laugh at Christians who say they have it all figured out—they know exactly what’s going to happen. And what do I do? I avoid putting serious thought into what I believe about it all.

But, then it’s disconcerting coming face-to-face with a Biblical text that talks about it so directly. And, I can’t avoid thinking about it.

Je ne suis pas comfortable avec la discussion de la fin des jours, ou de celle de la seconde venue du Christ. C’est plus simple d’ignorer ce texte ou, de dire que l’auteur avait une conception metaphorique du retrour du Christ.

I suppose that all this makes me a “foolish virgin”? Not preparing myself for…whatever is to come.

Susan Hylen writes that “If we were to contemplate ourselves in relation to the end time, it might be easier to imagine ourselves as the slaves who work diligently while the master is away than as the bridesmaids whose primary job is to await the groom’s return. This is not necessarily something for which modern Christians should be chastised — after the passage of two millennia, we have grown accustomed to the master’s absence. It’s a long time to wait expectantly.”

Lucky us that the author of Matthew, ever an encourager, gives us a parable to raise our spirits. He doesn’t question whether we will fall asleep, he knows we have—all of us. Yet, he tells us about the wedding banquet that is coming—echoing the promises of the prophets, like Hosea.

And, when it happens—maybe the sky will part and Jesus will descend down. We could spend a lifetime guessing. What’s undeniable, even by lefty United Church theologians, is that the kinship of God stirring—we see the glimpses of new creation on its way.

Comment vivez-vous? Comme si Dieu l’Éternel etait en train de renverser ce monde? Comme si son royaume etait en train de se construire ici sur la terre?

How do we live: present here, and yet watchful?

In a culture that is not particularly big on waiting, how do we join with the two-millennia of other Jesus followers and…be? Be here, on earth, in this time and place; not too worldly and not too focused on things to come.

How do we prepare ourselves, for a kinship that’s revealing itself now and not yet? How do we confront our own finite-ness?

I suppose it could all start with asking ourselves these questions. But, I’d to see us start a little differently—so let’s start with a song. …