We, of little faith

This sermon was prepared for the Trinity United Church, Montréal’s for Sunday, October 15th, 2017. The scripture reading it is based on is Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6,19-23 (Year A, Proper 23).

This Exodus story always reminds me of Peter, who, on seeing Jesus walking on water jumps out of the boat, rushing towards him.

But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”[i]

Anyone who has felt bold enough to get on an especially steep roller coaster or an especially long zip-line, and then immediately regrets that decision when faced with the drop, knows what I mean.

When everything is going well, it is so easy to have faith. There’s nothing at risk, everything is good. The line looks sturdy enough…the cars will stop at the red light…it’s a safe bet…. We make countless decisions in our life based on the fact that we, more than trust, the outcome—we are darn sure of what it’ll be.

But, it’s an entirely different matter when what’s important to us is at risk.

It’s in those times when we can’t see or feel something secure, where there isn’t anything that seems sturdy enough to rely on when we really have to bring out our faith and see if it’s enough.

I had the privilege of working as a chaplain at the Halifax Infirmary this past summer, and I talked with patients and families about this exact issue. In crisis, we see what our faith is made of, and sometimes it isn’t enough to get us through hard times.

When senseless violence takes place, or an unexpected diagnosis comes our way, our beliefs can get rocked. Because what we’re living doesn’t match up with how we’ve seen the world so far—the story doesn’t fit anymore.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

The people in Exodus had been very patient. I know they often seem whiney when we read their stories, but we also know how it will all work out in the end. They don’t.

Here they are, in the middle of nowhere, alone and scared. We’ve read how they left an oppressive, but somewhat comfortable place, to follow this crazy man into the wilderness, where they’ll wander around in literal circles with the hope of reaching a “promised land”.

They left behind a life of “certainty”, not a great life but a certain one, for a future based on hope. Where we’re reading today, that hope has yet to be fulfilled. Instead, they got a bunch of rules, at Mount Sinai, and their leader, who wandered up the mountain to talk to this new unfamiliar God and has left them all alone with no more instructions.

So, in the face of uncertainty and discomfort, they revert back to what they know best—they go to the second-in-command, Aaron, and they say, “Look, buddy, Moses left us high and dry, and we need something. Something to believe in.” So, Aaron makes them a god, not unlike other gods they would have come across—something familiar and safe to believe in.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

I have met people who put their faith in the power of medicine, the hands of doctors, the power of prayer, of nature, and the power of their own minds. Some of these folks are able to articulate this clearly and easily, and others might not have used the language I’m using, but they spoke about hopes and certainties.

I have met people who have regurgitated things they thought they were supposed to have faith in. But, were filled with fear and dread, because those ideas, of the world and of God, weren’t strong enough, or real enough to bring them peace.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

I would love to tell you, that when I’m faced with crisis I meet it with total confidence in God’s goodness. No doubts, just total unquestioning dependence on God. But that would be a bold-faced lie.

My faith has been tested, and will likely be tested again, by the circumstances of my life. And, I’m not ashamed to say that at times my faith has been found wanting. At other times, there have been parts of it that have held fast—that have held me up. These are what I call my life preservers.

Life preservers are the little snippets of belief that have always stayed with me—the stuff that works. When I’m struggling I try to reflect on who I truly believe God is and what I see God doing in my life. Then, I try to weed out all the stuff that doesn’t mesh with God’s character as I’ve seen it in our scriptures, our communal tradition, and in my own life.

Even if someone has spent my entire life trying to convince me otherwise.

There’s a really fancy word for this type of work, and it’s constructive theology—it’s very “in” right now so you may hear different writers and ministers talking about it. But, it just means you’ve thought about who God is and whether other parts of your belief system align with that. It’s about finding a way of talking about God that is consistent with God’s character as revealed to us.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

Our faith, is made up of the things that we sincerely believe are important or true. And, it informs the way we live. How we make moral choices. Our personal and work ethics. Our faith sets the stage for how we receive the wonders and tragedies of our lives.

Sometimes we find ourselves repeating lines, like platitudes, even though we might not believe them.

God never gives you more than you can handle.

God must just be testing you.

God just wants to teach you a lesson.

But, are these ideas consistent with the God we know from scripture and personal experience? What has your experience taught you about who God is and isn’t.

All that reflection is the work of theology—you’re all theologians when you reflect on the character of God. And know, doubting and questioning is what we’re built to do. We see countless stories in the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Testament showing our ancestors in the faith doing just that.

Jesus said to Peter, “Why did you doubt?” I love that question because he’s calling him into self-reflection. He’s asking him about where the fear came from, what about his beliefs wasn’t enough to hold him up.

When you’re in crisis, and your stomach drops, what are those things you struggle to believe in? And, what has your experience taught you about who God is? Is there a disconnect there?

And, what are your life preservers? The ideas that support you in difficult times? What keeps calling you back to God? Do you always come back to God’s love, God’s grace, or God’s compassion?

For me, I always hear a call back to peace. That has been a defining experience in my journey—Christ, for me, will always first and foremost be the Prince of Peace, the nonviolent revolutionary, the God of the Sabbath Day.

I invite you to take a few moments to reflect, for yourself, on who God is. And, do so knowing that God, and Jesus the Anointed, are big enough to handle all of our doubts, all of our questions—waiting, as ever, to reveal their character more fully to us.

Amen.

[i] Matt. 14:30-31, NRSV

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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.

A reflection of a reflection

This sermon was prepared for the Camp Hill Veteran’s Memorial Building (at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital ) chapel service for Sunday, May 28th, 2017. The scripture reading it is based on is John 17:1-11 (Year A, Easter 7).

Jesus, in our scripture reading today, says these words to God: “you have given [the Son] authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God.”

Jesus tells his disciples, in the Gospel of John, that through knowing him we know the Father, this one true God.

Jesus also speaks in a way that often sounds a little like a riddle. The words are confusing in English, as well as in the early Greek. However, with a little patience, we can hear him echoing this idea of knowing God over and over again.

Jesus says that he has made God’s name known. He also says that God gave authority over believers to Jesus during his time on earth. He speaks about teaching these believers the word, or truth, that he learned from his Father.

Jesus, in our John passage, makes it abundantly clear that those who follow him also follow God, and that they do this in truth.

Through Jesus, whom we call The Christ, or the Anointed One, we learn about who God is. This idea invites us to go back, to re-read and reflect on the man we see portrayed by the different gospel writers.

What did he stand for? What did he call us to do?

And, if we believe, that through Jesus, we are presented with this God, we must then conclude that those things Jesus calls us to, God is calling us also.

When Jesus says: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.” It would follow that, in our glorification of Christ, by living in the truth he taught us, that we are also glorifying God.

As we read about Jesus’ ascension last week, on Ascension Sunday, we heard about how we are God’s representatives here on earth. We have the opportunity to glorify God, and Christ, in the world.

In the Acts passage which is part of the lectionary today, we see the disciples standing dumbfounded on the hill after Jesus’ ascension. Two robed men, who we believe to be messengers of God, come and laugh at the disciples, saying: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

They’re saying, are you going to stand here forever? Until Jesus comes back? This would never let them fulfil all he had asked of them—to be his witnesses out in the world. To go and care for others, the impoverished, lonely, sick and incarcerated.

Jesus didn’t ask the believers to just stand around twiddling their thumbs, how would that glorify him or the father?

Instead, he commissioned them and sent them out. And, he does the same for us, wherever we are in our lives.

The Gospel stories are just the beginning of the Story of Christianity. The Book of Acts and the Epistles tell us stories of men and women, Greeks and Jews, slaves and free persons, living out their beliefs.

We read their stories to find strength in common struggles, to learn from their wisdom, and to become part of this larger story.

We join with them, acting as witnesses to Christ’s “Good News”, reflecting his image in the world, thereby reflecting God through Christ.

And so, I wonder how you might be that reflection of Christ in your daily life. What are the ways you represent the Gospel message of forgiveness and redemption? (pause) What, in your character, reflects the character of God? (pause)

Do you practice those gifts that Paul extolled in Galatians? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? (pause)

I firmly believe that each of us is able to live out the Gospel message, in our own ways, in the lives that we have been given. We are not all called to be preachers, missionaries, or Biblical scholars…

Instead, God calls us to do well with what we have been given. To steward our talents, to be good neighbours, and to be open to the call of the Spirit—the presence of God in this world.

So, as you go out this week, I pray you can reflect on all you’ve been given, to steward it wisely, to be neighbourly, and to be stirred by the call of the Spirit.

Amen.