Good News for Who?

Sermon prepared for Wesley United Church Montreal’s Sunday Service of Jan. 27, 2019 based on the Gospel (Luke 4:14-21) and Epistle (1 Cor. 12:12-31) for Year C Epiphany 3.

With the up-coming by-election in the riding of Outremont, I have been watching as colourful party signs appear on lampposts and balconies around my neighbourhood.

I’ve also been receiving some material from candidates, on Facebook, by email, and in our mailbox. And, let me tell you, they seem to have all sorts of Good News to tell me.

They are proclaiming Good News to the underemployed, to the middle class parent, to the business owner, and newcomer. Their promises are filled with hope, and assurances, and an invitation to follow them.

***

Jesus, here in Luke, has just returned from his not-so-relaxing retreat in the desert, and is giving his first public appearance in his hometown. He’s in the right place, with the right people, at the right time. He stands at the front of the assembly to read from the Scroll of Isaiah. He is amongst his neighbours, those who saw him grow up, and he speaks with power and authority.

It’s all very good optics.

And, Jesus reads these words from the prophetic text:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good newsto the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captivesand recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressedgo free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[i]

It’s a solid opening. And when we read this passage we can’t help but think to ourselves, Yes! This is the kind of man whose side I want to be on. This is the kind of teacher I want to follow.

Because, we could all use a little Good News in our lives. It is a New Year, and yet it feels so much like the last, with our newfeeds brining us one hard story after another.

But, this isn’t a unique experience to our time and place. This past week we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and we were reminded of the past and present struggle of the Black community for equality and justice. With the on-going conflict between the RCMP and Wet’suwet’en People, we are reminded of the continued struggle of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. This week is Muslim Awareness Week in Montreal, and we think of the not-so-distant shooting at the Quebec City mosque, and the history of islamophobia in our country.

Is it any wonder that these words of God’s rescue and favour have been echoed throughout history? Throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures? They are a sweet reminder to those who are struggling in a world filled with Bad News.

***

Yet, we’re missing part of the story here in Luke.

Jesus announces that the scriptures are fulfilled as he sits down, and folks say to themselves… “Is this really Joe’s kid? Yeah, the one who was really bad carpentry… Huh. No kidding!”[ii]But the story doesn’t end there.

Next week’s reading will show how Jesus’ first forays into public ministry end up with a furious crowd who want to throw him off a cliff!

The Nazareth Gazette the next day likely read: Hometown boy bombs first townhall of his public career.

***

Jesus’ Good News doesn’t seem so good to this crowd. But, why? What is so startling about Jesus’ message?

He proclaims a great reversal of fortunes, that the bound will be free, the impure will be made pure, and the oppressed liberated![iii]What’s wrong with that?

You see, the thing is: Jesus is not preaching merely to his neighbours, the people in that assembly. In the following section he recalls a story of how Elijah, the great Jewish prophet, was rejected by God’s people and instead went to Sidon, to stay with a non-Jewish widow.[iv]

The Good News is great news if you’re the one God is talking to, but it is a tough pill to swallow if you’re not.

Certainly, the Jewish people in the 1stcentury were oppressed by the Roman Empire, but the rural populace was also weighed down by the administration of the Jerusalem elite—who Jesus criticizes openly in his ministry.

Yet, Luke shows Jesus as stepping even further to the margins. He doesn’t just speak to his neighbours (Jewish men and their families), but he reaches out to children, the disabled, the widowed, and non-Jews in the surrounding region, offering them Good News as well.

The image of a righted world, reconciled with God, is so much bigger than his listeners would like it to be. Throughout his ministry, Jesus begins to break open the text to say God is not just speaking to you and I—the vision of God’s Kingdom is bigger.

***

Luke’s version of what we call the Beatitudes is a bit different than you might recall, because Luke pairs his four declarations of “blessing” with four declarations of “woe”.

Blessed to you who are poor, who hunger, who weep, and who people hate because of the Son of Man.[v]

But woe to those who are rich, who are well fed, who laugh, who are spoken well of.[vi]

The mission Jesus was gifted in his baptism and time in the desert, to proclaim Good News, is a double-edged sword. Yes, he delivers a message of hope, but he also has a hard message for those who hold power and privilege.

The Kingdom of God is not some vending machine of niceties and goodwill—it is a great upheaval, a reversal of a world set too long down the wrong path.

***

When Indigenous Peoples in Canada speak about reconciliation I am often struck by this recurring sentiment: that right-relations will feel wrong to those who are used to holding power. Equality will feel like injustice, because settler people are so unused to a balance of power; we will feel off-kilter as we try to find equilibrium with our Indigenous relations.

***

All this makes me wonder, whether this Good News is truly good news for you and I?

There is a part of me that says, yes! Yes, because there are things in my own life I need liberation from. Things I no longer want to be captive to.

And yet, there is another part of me that is contrite, knowing I am culpable in the oppression of my neighbours.

I am both the someone who Christ would call “blessed”, and the someone to whom he would say “woe”.

And, I can respond in one of two ways: I can choose, like the Nazarenes who hear Jesus’ teachings, to refuse to acknowledge that God’s Kingdom extends beyond the boundaries of my imagination; or, I can choose to allow God to make me new in this great upheaval.

***

How remarkable that God offers us grace in this in-between place. How remarkable that we are invited to take part in this great working of love.

Jesus, throughout the Gospels, not only extends us the invitation to be a part of God’s Kingdom, but he also asks for our elbow grease too. Today in our readings the Apostle Paul reminded us that we are each gifted, and called.

We are gifted, and called: from the last, to the least, to the littlest. We are called from the margins of society, and out of its great houses of power. We are made new in this Kingdom of God, as equals.

It is a Kingdom that desires us to be reconciled with our creator, and fellow created. It looks to put back in balance a world so off-kilter.

And, Jesus tells us this isn’t some far off utopia—some distant promise—but that it is fulfilled today, in our hearing.[vii]Wherever God’s people are, proclaiming the Good News and acting in service of the Kingdom, there is God at work. There we find our world, and our own selves, being made new.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[i]Luke 4:18-19 NRSV

[ii]Luke 4:22

[iii]Luke 4:18b

[iv]Luke 4:24-27

[v]Luke 6:20b-22 NIV

[vi]Luke 6:24-26 NIV

[vii]Luke 4:21

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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, Proper 13, John 6:24-35, Eph. 4:1-16).

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.

More Guilt? Yes, Please! How Our Church Has Co-Opted Shame and Disguised It as Guilt

Written by Selina Mullin, a version of this article first appeared on Unfundamentalist.com on May 21, 2018

Have you ever heard the phrase “near-enemy” used before? No? Well, a near-enemy is when two things look very similar but are intrinsically different. I first read the phrase in a Louise Penny book, where she wrote about a woman who appeared compassionate and caring, but in fact wanted others to be totally helpless so they would need her. The woman seemed to have good intentions, but she was, in fact, hurting others so that she could receive gratitude from them. A near-enemy appears to be one thing while in reality it is another; it masquerades as a more noble version of itself.

Shame, in my opinion, is the near-enemy of guilt. Shame is a debilitating sense of humiliation or sadness; it immobilizes us and disintegrates our confidence. Guilt, on the other hand, is a pro-social reaction to how our actions affect others. Guilt helps us make our way through the world — it is the internal compass of our decision making.

Our churches have co-opted shame and parade it as guilt.

Here is an example. When I was little, I was told that to have a sexual thought in my mind was just as bad as if I committed the act (see Purity Culture). That’s an idea with a biblical basis (see Matt. 5:28). So, every time I had an even remotely sexual thought, I felt ashamed of myself. I was ashamed of my body, of my mind, and genuinely believed I was a bad person because of it.

Logically, this idea is absolutely ridiculous! Natural responses to stimuli from the world around us shouldn’t be morally policed. I developed depression as an adolescent and I believe this type of thinking played a large part in that, because it extended into so many areas of my life. No matter how hard I tried, I saw myself as a “bad person,” because all I could do was fail the impossible standards the church set for me. I was trapped in a body that, I felt, kept betraying me. I could never achieve the behaviour that I thought God wanted from me; which, apparently, was a totally sexless, emotionally unaffected, and endlessly generous saint — a goal I’ve since given up.

No wonder I was depressed! I’m lucky to have had some amazing counselors and fellow people of faith who’ve been able to speak into my life and start to put an end to that horrible way of thinking. I know I still have so much damage to undo, and more shame to deconstruct and put to rest.

Shame is a self-destructive cycle; guilt is a pro-social feeling.

Shame is a feeling of humiliation, of hopelessness, that can become chronic. It can poison us and erode any sense of our own goodness. Guilt, however, helps us to learn from our mistakes; it invites us to reflect on how we treat others, their feelings and needs (hence it is “pro-social”). Guilt also motivates us to apologize, and experiencing it allows us to forgive more easily. When we understand what it means to be on the offending side, to experience guilt, we also come to understand what it means to be repentant.

Let’s return to our example. If I had been sexually active at the time, the questions I should have asked include: How do my actions affect others? What are my intentions? Am I honouring myself and my sexual partner? Am I respecting them, their body, and their autonomy? Do I see them as a whole person or just a sexual object?

If I had indeed been harming others with my actions, then my concern would have been warranted. But that wasn’t the case, instead I was immobilized by shame, which prevented me from honouring myself the way God made me — a sexual being.

There is no repentance without guilt.

Nowadays, we see folks leaving the churches of their childhood, saying, “I can’t stand the guilt.” A church in Calgary even has a sign outside it that says “We don’t do guilt!” Theoretically, I love that, but I wish I could cross out the word “guilt” and pencil overtop the word “shame.”

I hope I’ve convinced you that guilt isn’t a bad thing. It’s a big part of living in community and doing justice work. In both instances, we invite people to reflect on their actions, and, if necessary, repent. We can never be truly repentant if we don’t have guilt. If we repent because we’re terrified of an eternity of pain, then we’re only paying lip service to a God who controls us with fear. Guilt is about wanting to be in good relation with the world around us — our neighbours, our God, the earth — making amends, and choosing a better path.

So, let’s put the guilt back in church!

I want to hear folks shouting like the biblical prophets at people who put their greed over the lives of their human family. I want to see folks feeling convicted (i.e. guilty) because they’ve helped to propagate white supremacy, which harms racialized people in countless ways. I want men to feel the pang of guilt when they realize the ways they’ve contributed to misogyny in their lives. Then, I want all of us to do something about it. Shame festers and immobilizes, whereas guilt calls us to new ways of life and relationship. Honestly, that sounds a lot like the Gospel.