Not What We Signed Up For

This sermon was prepared for Wesley United’s Sunday service on October 21, 2018. Year B, Proper 22, Mark 10:35-45.

James and his brother John, some of the first disciples Jesus called, came to their teacher and said: “Teacher, we want you to do something for us.”[i]

Jesus, knowing better than to blindly agree with a precocious disciple, says: “What is it you want me to do for you?”[ii]

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”[iii]

Glory.

That’s what this ministry is all about, after all. This obscure teacher who’d roamed the countryside, collecting a following; calling out religious hypocrites and corrupt authorities; performing amazing miracles, demonstrating his power.

The past few Sundays our Gospel readings have shown Jesus on the road to Jerusalem the Holy City, the epicentre of the Jewish world. Those who walked with him were likely expecting a triumphant entrance. They put their hope in him, that he would bring about a new age for Israel.

And, there would be glory.

When Jesus cryptically replies: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”[iv]…the brothers are confused. They’ve shared meals with Jesus, drunk the same wine; they know he was baptized by John in the Jordan, as many people from the countryside were[v]—maybe even these brothers.

So they reply, “We are able.”[vi]

It seems they thought they knew exactly what was to come; exactly what they were getting themselves into. We, however, have the luxury of knowing the ending.

Not often enough, we share the story of a man, a labourer turned teacher, who was seen as enough of a threat by the authorities that he was publically executed. A good man, who had committed no crimes, was killed on a cross, hanging next to criminals—one on his right, and one on his left.

Though the disciples don’t seem to notice, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus spends an awful lot of time trying to tell them what his glory will look like. And, it is not pretty.

Right before the verses we read today, as the teacher and his followers walked towards Jerusalem, Jesus shares how the Son of Man would be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, be condemned to death; and killed.[vii]

The life, that Jesus offers to his followers, is a good one but it… is… hard. And, though his followers answered the call, it’s obvious at this point in the story, that’s not what they signed up for.

In the following part of the story, the other ten hear what the brothers have asked and become agitated.[viii]

When I was a child my dad used to tuck me in at night. This was a special one-on-one time just for me and him, to connect.

One night, and I remember it so clearly tucked under the covers looking up at my dad, I asked him:

“Daddy do you love me more than mom?”

He paused. And said, “Well, I love in different ways.”

 I think I scowled because I didn’t like that at all. I wanted to be loved the most, and I didn’t want to share that love—even with my mom.

Later on in life I was very happy my parents loved one another, but it took a little perspective to get there…

Is it our human nature, that we want to have more than everyone else? Or, do we live in a world that tells us there is so little that we have to hoard—even love?

These two brothers, come to their teacher and ask for more than their friends, their travelling companions, and fellow students. It is a competition. Only a few can come out on top.

But, don’t these men ever listen? Haven’t they heard Jesus’ chorus of “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”?[ix]His teachings are littered with it!

The kinship, that Jesus calls us to turns competition and success on its head. Glory doesn’t look like empire… Leadership is servanthood… The Gospel is about self-sacrifice.

That is at the heart of the cross, for me. Jesus resists the urge to align himself with power and empire; and instead commits himself, even unto death, to faithfulness and justice.

What a cup to drink, and a baptism to be baptized with!

Whenever I feel like the Christian life has become a passive thing, about being nice and singing hymns—the Gospel is here to shake me awake, and remind me that the Kinship of God has a very different perspective.

It is only with God’s help, that we may begin to be transformed by this call to live so differently in a world that tells us to be afraid, to be tight-fisted, to be suspicious. What Good News it is, that there is another way to live.

Amen.

 

ENDNOTES

[i]Mark 10:35 NRSV

[ii]Mark 10:36 NRSV

[iii]Mark 10:37 NRSV

[iv]Mark 10:38 NRSV

[v]Mark 1:5

[vi]Mark 10:39 NRSV

[vii]Mark 10:33-34 NRSV

[viii]Mark 10:41

[ix]Mark 9:35 NRSV

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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, Proper 13, John 6:24-35, Eph. 4:1-16).

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.

God’s steadfast compassion

Sermon prepared for Wesley United Montreal’s Sunday morning service on July 1, 2018 (Year B, Proper 8, 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.