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.

Stories of hope and expectancy

Prepared for Wesley United Church’s Sunday Service of Oct. 28, 2018 (Year B, Proper 23, Mark 10:46-52).

Imagine a man, sitting on the side of a busy dirt road, people coming and going. Then, a large crowd begins to pass by. Can he hear the crowd talking? Or, does someone lean down and whisper in his ear, It’s him, the teacher they’ve been talking about!

When he learns it’s Jesus, Bartimaeus cries out demanding to be heard: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”[i]

The crowd grumbles: Don’t bother the Teacher… You’re not worth his time… Be quiet, you’re making a fool of yourself.

But, Jesus stands still.

Like the Woman with the Issue of Blood, the one who reached out to grab his cloak,[ii]Jesus stops for the people no one else wants to see.

Stopping for Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, our story today reminds us that Jesus stops for the people no one else wants to hear.

Who are the people in our community we don’t want to see?

Who are the people in our community we don’t want to hear?

***

“Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

“Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

How we long to hear these words. To be picked out of the crowd, to be seen, and asked: “What do you want me to do for you?”

“My teacher, let me see again.”

The past three Sundays we’ve heard stories of men asking Jesus for something: The rich young man wanted eternal life.[iii]James and John wanted glory.[iv]Bartimaeus wanted mercy.

Who made the wiser request?

***

A theme in Mark’s Gospels is the connection between faith and healing.

The man with leprosy is healed when he comes and begs Jesus, saying “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”[v]

The paralytic man is healed when his friends go out on a limb and lower him through the roof to reach Jesus in the crowded house.[vi]

Jesus heals the woman who reaches for his cloak, knowing he has what she needs.[vii]

And here, he heals Bartimaeus who refuses to let him pass by, knowing that this Jesus is capable of giving him the mercy he is so desperate for.

These healings take two: both Jesus who meets the seeker intimately, and the one who believes enough to come seeking in the first place.

***

The problem with these stories is that is so easy to think that this is about how “hard” we believe

Have you heard someone say before: You just didn’t pray enough? You just didn’t have enough faith?

Or, have you stop believing altogether that the Living God moves in our world? That God desires to transform us?

Jesus says, “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”[viii]But, when we hear those words we may begin to ask ourselves…

Why didn’t it turn out the way I wanted? Why haven’t I received what I asked for?

But, Jesus isn’t pointing us to a “vending machine God” we can demand miracles from…

Jesus makes a direct connection between our belief or trust, that God can change things and real change in our lives. These are stories about hope and expectancy.

These people who received healing came to Jesus with the hope that he could offer them something no one else could. And it is hope that makes space in our lives for transformation.

When we come to God expectant that she lives and moves in our world, we open ourselves up to her wonderful mysterious ways. When we are open, transformation becomes possible.

But, that means letting go of our preconceptions of what transformation looks like.

***

I’m reminded of the children’s story “The Velveteen Rabbit”. The stuffed toy wants so desperately to become a real rabbit and is frustrated when it seems impossible. But, through the love of the boy who owns and cherishes him, the velveteen rabbit becomes real to the child. That’s what leads to the rabbit’s transformation: both love, and an acceptance that what we desire most doesn’t always take the form we expect.

And I wonder, do youcome to Christ believing that transformation is possible?

***

One of the greatest lies the world tells us is that we’re stuck, that nothing can change. When we’re paralyzed by hopelessness that can feel so true; it can feel like every effort to do and be different is totally useless. We’re swimming against the current.

The world starts to fill our heads with a chorus of: Don’t even bother trying… You’re not worth it… Be quiet.

If that’s the place you’re in today, then I’m sorry. That is a hard to place to be in. It’s an even harder place to escape from.

But, we believe in a God that sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, and justice to the oppressed.[ix]We believe in a merciful God, whose stories of goodness were captured by our ancestors in the faith, to remind us when we begin to forget—to forget that something else is possible for us.

We need those reminders, just as Bartimaeus needed someone to tell him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

Throwing off his cloak and stepping forward, Bartimaeus reached out, in vulnerability and courage, for what he wanted. But, he didn’t stop there.

After Jesus heals him and releases him to go back to his community, back to the life he must have been dreaming of—Bartimaeus refuses. Instead, he does what the rich young man could not, and he gives up everything he has (though it is so little) to follow Jesus.

Our transformation will come in unexpected ways, riding the coattails of hope, but it is not without consequences. When God moves in our lives, we can’t expect to go back to the ways things were before, with small alterations. Transformational change is an irreversible life-altering thing, that tells us we must live differently now.

Do you have a memory of learning something or experiencing something that led you to say, I’m not the same now.

*****

Friends, the Living God offers mercy and transformation to all of us, but it is rarely how we’ll expect it to be. With courage and hopefulness, we can invite her to stir us, to stir our lives with newness. She offers only good gifts to her children.[x]

But, I caution you: As Bartimaeus shows us, we cannot expect to live as we did afterwards.

Amen.


[i]All quotes from Mark 10:46-52 are from the NRSV, denoted by use of “”.

[ii]Mark 5:25-34

[iii]Mark 10:17-31

[iv]Mark 10:34-45

[v]Mark 1:40-45, NRSV

[vi]Mark 2:1-12

[vii]Mark 5:25-34

[viii]Mark 11:24

[ix]Luke 4:18

[x]Luke 11:13