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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Fair’s Fair, Right?

This sermon was prepared for the United Theological College’s weekly chapel service. Year A, Proper 20.

Have you ever felt like you were being treated unfairly? That everyone else got more time, more stuff, or didn’t have to work quite as hard?

Growing up in a family of three, having everything be “fair” was a really big deal—partially because my parents stressed equality, but also because it’s tricky dividing things into thirds.

It was always five slices of pizza if the adults got some, and chocolate bars divided into three’s for the kids. Funny how so few packages of candy in threes—it’s always two or four—which almost always meant a struggle at our house.

It was very important for things to be fair.

***

Reading of Matthew 20:1-16

***

I interpret this passage, in light of the rest of the Book of Matthew, to represent God’s plan to include Gentiles in Jesus’ message of hope—extending it beyond Judaism to include others who didn’t get “in on the ground floor”, a topic we all know there some tension around in the early Jesus movement.

But, what does it mean for you and me?

This is a story about God’s justice—a confusing, infuriating justice that isn’t fair. God’s grace isn’t proportional to our faith, our prayer life, or our martyr-complex, even if we sometimes act like it is. God’s grace is abundant and available to everyone—equally.

And yet, sometimes we want to limit or contain it when it comes to what others receive.

Sometimes we want to say that God’s grace is only for people who’ve read the right theologians, who subscribe to the same kind of biblical criticism as we like, who have an inclusive theology, who think kids should be welcome in our church services… Sometimes we think God’s grace is only for the impoverished or the marginalized.

God may have a preferential option for the poor, but his grace is abundant and available to everyone, equally. With the caveat that we’re willing to accept it.

God also lacks the corruption of a human employer, who might not “play fair” to manipulate or punish. Instead, God invites all people into the fields and all workers to the bounty. He seeks out those who have been left behind and invites them to join in.

And, he challenges us, who’ve been at it a while longer, who feel like we’ve been working harder, to put aside our human concept of what’s “fair”. There is no “fair” in the Kingdom of God. Instead, those who would normally have less receive an abundance, and those who expected more get just the same.

There’s a popularized saying making the rounds right now: when you’ve experienced privilege, equality feels like oppression.

Just like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, just like Peter being chastised to continue to forgive others, sometimes God needs to knock us down a peg—to remind us that God’s kingdom plays by a different set of rules.

And, thank God, they’re not our rules, which so often are manifestations of our self-centeredness and bitterness. Instead, we’re invited into a kinship where there is work and bounty for all, which is better than fair.

Amen.

Unsplash.com | Igor Ovsyannykov

Have we lost our saltiness?

This sermon was prepared for Chapel at the United Theological College / La Seminaire Unie for February 1st, 2017 (based on the following Sunday’s lectionary, Epiphany 5). This was the Wednesday following the shooting at le Centre Culturel Islamique du Québec on January 29th, 2017, in Québec.

I had another sermon prepared, that is, until 10pm Sunday night. I had another service prepared until Zack called to me down the hall.

After I had heard about the events at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec, I laid awake in bed, knowing it was my turn to lead chapel on Wednesday. And, I thought to myself, there was no way I could lead you in the songs and prayers I had planned. Then, I asked myself: If I change the songs, and the prayers, should I also change the scripture reading? Does this reading, from Matthew, speak to the tragic loss of life, perpetuated by fear, ignorance, and hatred?

And, the next morning, I turned back to the passage and asked: Where is God in this? Where was God on Sunday night, when God’s children knelt in prayer?

I thought about how today is the first day of Black History month. I thought about Christianity’s bloody history of discrimination and exploitation against Muslims and People of Colour.

I read and reread the Gospel passage, and this is what I heard…

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

And, I wonder, have we lost our taste? As a Christianized nation, a nation built on Biblical ideas, for better or worse. Have we, as a society, lost our saltiness? Have we shrouded our city on the hill? Have we hidden our light?

And I was overwhelmed by grief because the answer seemed so clearly to be yes, and the passage seemed to say that our saltiness could never be restored.

If we are the “light of the world,” and we have been called to “let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to God,” how do we undo what has been done? How do we rewrite the horrific Gospel we have been proclaiming?

But, salt doesn’t lose its taste. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. And, light leaks through the cracks.

No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.

Last week, when we heard Jesus say: blessed are the poor, the meek, the marginalized… We imagined that he was speaking to the people in front of him: trades people, parents, widowers, orphans, slaves, and all those others who gathered on the hillside.

To these people, Matthew’s Jesus proceeds to say “you”. You, who are blessed and marginalized, are salt and light.

You are salt. You are light.

He calls these blessed people to live their lives as a testament to God’s work, a universal work of love that we see lived out in Jesus.

When the world seems to lose its taste, when it overwhelms us, we look for those “salt of the earth” people. Folks whose words and actions flicker like a light in the darkness. These people quietly and loudly proclaim the Gospel message. They act out their testimony to the Living Word, the Gospel message of Jesus.

Fred Rogers once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

People like Mohamed Belkhadir, a 29-year-old engineering student at Université Laval. Who, when hearing gunfire, returned to the mosque he had just left. Who provided First Aid to a friend who was shot. Who fled when he saw a man with a gun, thinking it was the shooter, not the police. Who said, “I understand, I respect, that they caught me. They saw me flee, they thought I was suspicious, that’s normal. For them, someone who flees is a suspect.”

Where were you God, on Sunday night? In the hands and feet of people who reached out against fear, ignorance, and hatred in acts of love.

In the following weeks we will hear the continuation of this sermon, and the instructions Jesus gives on how to shape our lives to be an inward reflection of a God-inspired ethic. Thereby shaping our actions to be an outward reflection of this same God.

This is a crash course in being salty and bright; in being a “salt of the earth” kind of people.

And, we will hear more about how being salt and light is a call to live a revolutionary life, a radical life of justice and of love–a call to demonstrate the Gospel message.

But for now? We mourn, we respond, and we care for one another. For now? We look for the helpers and hope to find that we, too, are one.