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

Idle Tales and Other Stories We Dare to Believe

Prepared for the Ecumenical University Chaplaincy’s Cathedral@6 (cathédrale18h de l’Aumônerie œcuménique universitaire) Sunday evening service on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, based on Luke 24:1-12.

Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 9.55.43 AM

I have this bad habit of not believing people. I always think they’re bending the truth, making the story a little bigger than it is, or skirting around the timeline.

“Did you put the laundry away?”

“Yes.”

But all I hear is, “No I have not put away the laundry, but now you’ve reminded me of my intention to do it, so I’ll say yes, and then go and quietly put it away before you notice.”

Belief is about trust.

I am not inclined to trust that people are being truthful. I am not inclined to trust that people know right from wrong—especially if it has to do with how to wash the dishes. I am not inclined to trust that people know better than me.

**

The disciples, certainly don’t think much of the women in Luke, who bring a perplexing story back with them from their morning visit. They are dismissed…

“Women like to gossip.”

“Women like to stir up trouble.”

“Women are so gullible.”

Can you hear the angry muttering of the disciples? Crowded together in a house somewhere in Jerusalem, tired, worried and grieving.

Have you ever been in a house like that? Some people have brought over food—a lasagna. You’re in the living room, perched on couches and dining room chairs, feeling a bit numb. Grief washes over you in waves of sadness, anxiety and fury.

Because grief comes with a special kind of anger—it just sits below the surface, bubbling up with the slightest irritation.

And here these women come, talking about the Teacher. They were supposedt o be bringing spices to his tomb, they were supposed to go and care for his body—and then they come back with this crap? Shame on them!

**

Besides, if he wasn’t there, then what? If wasn’t really dead, which we all saw, then where is he?

Because he’s not here, with us.

He’s not… here.

**

Sometimes imagining the other possibilities, the impossibilities, is more painful….

But Peter—Peter who never wanted any of this to happen—he listens. He doesn’t believe the women at first, but… but there’s a chance.

Peter, who loved the Teacher so deeply, with the wild abandon of a toddler who would rushes forward so quickly he inevitably falls and stumbles. Peter who gets so much right and so much wrong in a single breathe.

Peter’s heart asks, What if?

And suddenly his sandals are slapping the packed dirt road, his cloak flapping madly behind him.

“What if” moments are terrifying, because while they go unanswered our deepest fears and greatest hopes hang in the balance.

What if… I don’t get accepted to the program?

What if… the cancer comes back?

What if… we can’t make this relationship work?

But, “What if” moments also offer us that tiny terrifying sliver of hope:

What if… the impossible could be true?

What if… there’s more than this?

What if… everything works out ok?

“What if” moments are terrifying—they are vulnerable acts where we silently mouth our deepest desires and squeeze our eyes shut tight, fingers crossed, barely able to breathe because as long as the question goes unanswered there’s that infinitesimal amount of hope.

**

Resurrection stories are not about proof, Luke shows us women who encounter two strangers when they find the world not as it should be—strangers who tell them the impossible has become reality.

And the women are “perplexed”, confused. Yet, they embrace that “What if?” and bring it back to the others. They open themselves up to the terrifying possibility of more.

There’s the risk in this story: the risk of sharing your hope, and of trusting it with another.

And, what happens when we dare to hope, even if it’s just that infinitesimal amount?

Well, this story is not tidy. Those who risk, who make themselves vulnerable, and they don’t get the kindest greeting. Even more frustrating is the fact that Jesus doesn’t show up and settle the issue for a little while yet.

But, it is the start of something, the beginning of the Easter season.

The belief that there is new life beyond death is the small shoot springing up from the desolation of the forest fire—it is small, fragile and painful.

As a church and as a community, we can choose to sit in the darkness of Good Friday, drinking sour wine, and beating our chests in grief, or we can dare to imagine an Easter morning filled with the hope and possibility of new life.

And that’s terrifying.

Believing the impossible could be true, that there could be more than this, that everything could work out ok, is terrifying.

Yet, every time we recite our baptismal vows and wet the head of an adult or child, we make a declaration of hope.

Every time we break bread at the Table, sharing the cup of remembrance together, we make a declaration of hope.

We say together, that despite the death and grief around us, we’re willing to let ourselves be vulnerable for the chance at something more.

Over Lent we’ve spent six weeks contemplating our human nature, our mortality, our creatureliness. And, now we step into Easter with the declaration that the Spirit transforms and uses us—springing new life within us as a response to the hard things in our world.

Good things come and go, tragedies strike, and we are reminded of our smallness and our humanity, but God offers us more. She calls us blessed and invites us to trust her, to risk ourselves and hope.

Hope that she will take what we find impossible and make it true.

Hope that she will offer us more than this, more than we can imagine.

Hope that she will work everything out in her way and time.

Stirred by this terrifying leap of trust we are invited, like the women and Peter, not to stay silent and patient, but to be stirred to action.

**

Have you felt hopeful this Lenten season? Have you watched the news and said, I feel really optimistic about where we’re headed?

Maybe not.

Yet, we are dared by a God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine, to face the new morning, hearts in our throats, with an infinitesimal amount of hope.

So what will you dare to hope for, this Easter?

A planet loved and cared for by humanity.

A city without poverty and addiction.

A news cycle without violence and massacre.

And, if you’re willing to risk that hope then who are you going to go and tell it to?

What road are you going to race down? 

**

May we dare to risk this Easter season, dare to see God’s new life taking root within us. Amen.

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