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

The Foremothers of Our Faith

Prepared for Wesley United Montreal’s Sunday Service of Dec. 23, 2018; based on Luke 1:39-55 (Gospel and Alt. Psalm for Year C Advent 4).

I’ve been thinking about the Parkland shooting in February of this year, as I’ve reflected on what a challenging year 2018 has been.

Specifically, I’ve thought of all the courageous young people across the globe who’ve spoken out against violence and hate, against injustice and the degradation of our planet.

When columnists and pundits were reflecting on the “March for Our Lives” movement in the US, focused on gun-control and spearheaded by these young people, and observation was made.

What do you expect from a generation that was raised on books like Harry Potter and Hunger Games? Youth and young adult fiction that said resistance is possible, we can change the world together.

As 15-year-old Parkland shooting survivor Anna Crean told reporters, “We can make a difference because that’s what books and movies have told us since we were little.”[i]

***

Today we read a section of the Gospel of Luke. I imagine much of it was familiar to you. It is to me, I’ve read and heard it countless times before.

And, a number of folks have asked if preaching this Advent is different because I find myself in a state similar to Elizabeth and Mary.

In a way, yes. Because I was struck by this passage this year, in a way I hadn’t been before. But, what struck me more than anything, was the loud voices of Elizabeth and Mary.

How I had not heard them before? I had been so focused on those little lives, coaxed into being by the work of the Spirit, that I had missed something.

***

In our Christmas pageants, who do we cast in the role of ‘messenger to the Good News’?

Angels. Shepherds. Even the incredibly late magi from the East.

But, it was the women who were the first. Who recognized, in this budding life, a new creation being made.

Our text tells us Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, like the roaming prophets of the First Testament. And she prophesies to her cousin Mary:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”[ii]

“Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”[iii]

Elizabeth echoes the words of the messenger, Gabriel. She affirms his declaration that Mary is “blessed […] among women!”[iv]

This is the woman who will raise John the Baptist, the one called to forewarn the world of God’s coming Kingdom. The angry man crying: Repent![v]

And I wonder, what stories Elizabeth told him at night… Did she recite stories of the old prophets, crying out in the desert?

 Did she tell him, in quiet whispers, of the promise God made to her and Zechariah, of who their son would become?

A child raised on story, believing that God is working in this world—doing something new—that is the kind of upbringing that inspires world-changers. These are the mothers, the parents, who lift their children up, and tell them a better world is within reach.

John’s vocation as a prophet, comes not, in my opinion, from his father the priest. But, from his mother who, filled with the Holy Spirit, was the firstto declare God is at work here!

Where her husband is struck silent in his disbelief,[vi]Elizabeth feels the baby moving in her womb and believes.

***

Prophetic genes must run in the family. As we turn, now, to look at Mary: We see a young woman, a teenager not so dissimilar from Anna Crean, who sings a song of rebellion and liberation. How right it is that God’s new work would be declared by both an old woman and teenaged girl.

The Biblical stories are filled with images of women who are not passive, but active agents of God’s workings. And, it is so easy to read them as secondary characters in this great masculine epic—but we lose out on so much richness when we see them as a reprieve from the main story.

It is through the last, the least, and the littlest that God’s Good News is revealed.

Mary’s song is not just a prayer of thanksgiving but a declaration, a taste of what God’s coming Kingdom will look like.

She sings of a God who exalts the lowly, fills the hungry, and rejects the powerful; a God whose reign is known by justice and mercy.[vii]

Mary is a revolutionary; and, what a woman to raise the man we know as Jesus.

Did he listen to her ranting by the fire as she cooked? Calling out the imperial regime, and railing against the Jewish leaders who had aligned themselves with empire?

Did she sing him songs of resistance as he fell asleep?

Did she tell him, with awe in her voice, about Gabriel’s visit and who she dreamed her son would become? Of the promises God made her?

***

What a disservice we do to our faith when we skim over these pages. The Gospel stories show women, children, the disabled, and the elderly as God’s actors in this great revelation.

God chose the most vulnerable in society to reveal her great workings of love. And, these people didn’t go about their calling quietly. They sang and prophesied loudly, they cried out in the streets, and rushed to Jesus. And, he responded by calling them “blessed”.[viii]

It was the women, filled with God’s Spirit, who were the first. Who recognized, in this budding life, a new creation being made.

What a God, whose Christ’s coming would be announced by women, and whose resurrection would be declared by women also.

If you remember, when the women came from the tomb to declare that their Teacher’s body was gone, the disciples didn’t even believe them.[ix]

What a God, who chooses the Good News to be delivered by those society doesn’t even consider a worth-while witness.

God’s Kingdom is such an easy thing to miss out on, when we close our eyes and ears to those around us declaring God is at work here!

***

Mary’s song is a precursor to John’s own ministry, and both set the stage for the life and work of Jesus. Both remind God’s people of the promises made to Abraham and his descendants;[x]a promise which is extended to us.

And, in a while, we’ll sing together the “Canticle of Turning”, inspired by Mary’s song. It is a prophetic declaration that we join in singing, believing that God’s great work of love is still being revealed today.

We follow in Jesus’ example, believing he has shown us the way to join our voices with our foremothers, singing God is at work here!

 

[i]“How Harry Potter Inspired The Parkland Student Activists — And What That Means For The Future Of Children’s Literature” by Sadie Trombetta. Mar 27 2018.

[ii]Luke1:42b NKJV

[iii]Luke 1:45 NKJV

[iv]Luke 1:28b NKJV

[v]Luke 3:3

[vi]Luke 1:21

[vii]Luke 1:46-55

[viii]Luke 6:20-22

[ix]Luke 24:11

[x]Luke 1:55

An unusual king and an “otherworldly” kingdom

This sermon was prepared for Wesley United Montreal’s Sunday Service for November 25, 2018 (Proper 29, based on John 18:33-37).

Jesus was brought before Pilate, and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”[i]

And Jesus replied: […] No, I am a CEO. My company is vast and I have amassed great wealth. There are tens of thousands under my employ, and I pay taxes in 17 different countries!

Jesus was brought before Pilate, and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And Jesus replied: […] No, I am a Prime Minister! My cabinet is filled with important men and women. I decide on policies that will benefit my donors. And, my legacy will go down in the history books.

Jesus was brought before Pilate, and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And Jesus replied: […] No, I am a Self-Help Guru! Millions hang on my every word, buy my books, and follow my diet plans. They will do anything I say.

[…] Jesus was brought before Pilate, […] and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And Jesus asked him where he got that idea from.

***

When Pilate asks the question, “Are you King of the Jews?”, he is assessing the threat that Jesus poses to the occupying Roman Empire.

Pilate wouldn’t very well care if Jesus is a religious figure. Roman rule was invested in allowing Judaism to exist in Israel—it was a political and military strategy to maintain control. But, if Jesus was a revolutionary figure, one who might want to rebel against the occupation? That would be a real problem.

When Pilate asks his question Jesus responds, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”[ii]Though Pilate might not care if Jesus is a religious figure, who broke no Roman laws, there are others who do.

The Gospel of John says it is Caiaphas, the high priest, and his men, who arrest Jesus and bring him before Pilate to be condemned to the cross.

This whole play is about power.

Pilate is unthreatened by Jesus; and, the Gospel even shows the governor as reluctant to condemn the man. It is the religious authorities who feel their power is most directly threatened by Jesus; they are the ones who push Pilate to finalize the execution.

***

But, what power does this man, Jesus, hold?

Jesus is not a king in any sense Pilate is used to—with borders, an army, and a treasury. Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom is not based on nation-states and the conquering of enemies—it is “otherworldly”.[iii]

I wonder what ran through Pilate’s head when he heard that. Did he think Jesus was just another roving Holy Man shouting bizarre things in the desert? Did he see it as a rhetorical ploy to avoid incriminating himself?

What does an “otherworldly” kingdom look like?

***

Personally, I find it hard to grapple with the term “kingdom”, because I can’t separate it in my mind from human institutions, power, and greed.

I like to think of it in terms of “kinship” like Paul uses, he calls the budding Church the “children of God”.

How would you describe this kingdom of God? What image has captured your imagination? Is it a table? A dance? A song? […]

In some of his parables, Jesus refers to it as a feast,[iv]seeds scattered on the ground,[v]and a mustard seed.[vi]

Surely, this is not the image Pilate had in mind when he questioned Jesus!

***

Now, Jesus is very coy when asked if he is a king—he seems to say yes, but he also seems to say no. At the very least, he is no kind of king that Pilate would recognize.

But, he does do kingly things: He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, like a king returning to the city at a time of peace.[vii]

And then, he turns around and does something wholly un-king-like

“He ate and drank with outcasts and sinners”, that’s a line from a communion prayer in the Anglican’s Book of Alternative Services. And, I used to hear that said every Sunday before I came to the Table.

“He ate and drank with outcasts and sinners.”

This is the kind of kingship that would feel so alien to Pilate.

Someone preoccupied with consolidating his own power, surrounding himself with powerful people he could trust, and those he didn’t dare turn his back on. He was the kind of “king” who put himself first.

But, Jesus. […]

Jesus continually puts others first…and not just any others but the last, the least and the littlest.

Jesus refused to align himself with other figures of power and authority; he rejected wealth and status.

Jesus is no kind of king that Pilate would recognize.

***

It is interesting, that Pilate has no idea what a threat this kingdom is to the empire. That’s where the religious authorities get it right.

Jesus is no kind of threat that Pilate is used to.

And, do we sometimes think that we know who Jesus is? Like Pilate, do we mistakenly perceive him as something he isn’t?

[…] Someone safe, docile. […] Someone always allied with our own self-interests. […] Someone to be followed when it’s convenient.

Friends, the Gospel that Jesus preached was a radical one. A few months ago when Heather preached on the Rich Young Ruler she challenged us to think about whether Jesus meant what he said when he asked us to give sacrificially.

[…] The kingdom of God is demanding. Because being part of a kingdom where all are welcomed, loved as children of God, requires a change in our behaviours and our priorities.

When we follow Christ’s example we find our own voice, raised with him, crying out against injustice, condemning those in power who abuse and extort the powerless.

We cannot remain silent while our human family suffers; we cannot remain silent in the face of human greed and hatred. This “otherworldly” kingdom will not accept the status quo of our world.

So you see: Jesus is no kind of threat that Pilate is used to, he is so much more.

***

And, how do we come to this Table today, hosted by this king?

A table where the last to arrive will be treated as the most honoured, and the first arrivals are called to help in serving. It is a table where the roles of host and guest are inversed—modelled by a man who washed his disciples’ feet.[viii]

What a table to sit at—to be invited to.

***

“God SO LOVED the world, he sent his only begotten son”.[ix]The son who would usher in this new idea of what kingdom could mean so that we might know it.

In a while we’ll come to this Table, to gather and break bread. And, I want you to think about what that means… to accept the offer of this unusual king, to be a part of God’s “otherworldly” kingdom; a kingdom that surprises us by turning our expectations on their head.

***

Friends, I pray that God would continue to show you the kingdom in a way you’ve never quite seen it before. What a joy, to continue to discover the depths of our God, and of our greatest example, Jesus. Amen.

 

[i]John 18:33

[ii]18:34 NRSV

[iii]John 18:36

[iv]Luke 14:15

[v]Mark 4:26

[vi]Luke 13:18

[vii]John 12:12-18

[viii]John 13:1-20

[ix]John 3:16