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

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

Jesus, a good Jewish boy

Prepared for Wesley United, Montreal Sunday Service of November 4, 2018 (based on Mark 12:28-34 for Proper 26).

For the past three weeks we’ve read consecutive sections of Mark’s Gospel, we saw how three sets of men approached Jesus to ask him a question. These texts are so wonderfully crafted; we can miss so much with our short readings on Sunday mornings so it was nice to have a continuous reading for a while.

However, having jumped a few chapters ahead this week, we’ve missed the first part of our story today!

After Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, a series of religious authorities come to question him.

  • The Chief priest and elders of the Temple ask him… with what authority is he teaching and performing miracles?[i]
  • Some Pharisees, Jewish reformers, ask him… should we pay taxes to the Roman Emperor who is oppressing the Jewish people?[ii](That one sounded a lot like entrapment, to me! Is this radical guy going to say don’t pay, which is illegal, or is he going to align himself with the occupation? Which wouldn’t look good either. But Jesus comes up with a pretty good answer.)
  • Then, some Sadducees, the religious conservatives, ask him… whether he believes in bodily resurrection, providing an especially complicated example of whether a remarried woman would have two husbands in heaven![iii]
  • And then, one of the Scribes comes to him and asks… “Which commandment is the first of all?”[iv]

This is not a hard question. Now, there are some preachers who’d like you to believe that Jesus is just so much smarter than all the other Jewish religious leaders of his day, that he figured it out when they didn’t! But, as we heard from the Book of Deuteronomy earlier, the greatest commandment had been established—by God, no less. And ancient Jews recited its words as liturgical practice, similar to how we recite The Prayer Jesus Taught His Followers.[v]

Jesus is a good Jewish man, he knows the answer because he knows the teachings of the Torah. He says:

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ … This is a passage from Deuteronomy, which we heard earlier [Deut. 6:4-9].

Then he says:

“The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[vi]… A passage from Leviticus 19.

As a young boy, Jesus would have been taught the pillars of the faith, just as we try to instil the basics of our Christian faith through kid’s time, Sunday school, storybooks and conversation at home.

If you grew up in a faith community as a child, do you have memories of certain stories, verses, or prayers you were taught? If you didn’t grow up in a faith community, do you have other memories of adults trying to instil their values in you?

My parents really liked mottos and recited them often: “To know and not to do is not to know!” was a favourite. And, they said it often enough it likes to pop-into my head occasionally.

***

What’s interesting about this particular story is that Jesus enters into a theological conversation with this Scribe. It’s not a test, like with the other religious leaders.

The Scribe reiterates what Jesus said, and then continues by adding, “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”![vii]

He says this, in Jerusalem, the city that existed to house the Temple complex; the people who lived there year-round were all part of its functioning: priests, animal herders, temple scribes…. It is a very big deal to say something like that in Jerusalem.

And, maybe this Scribe had heard of Jesus, heard how the day before Jesus had walked into the Temple and told the people working and worshipping there that they had turned it into a “den of robbers”![viii]This is the story where Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables and herded the animals outside.

Maybe the Scribe saw Jesus had something in common with him because Jesus criticizes the Temple system just as the Scribe does.

Now, Christianity has a dangerous history of interpreting these texts as anti-Jewish, and considering the events of these past few weeks, I think it is incredibly important to clarify a few things here.

  1. Jesus was a Jewish man, born of a Jewish mother; someone who went to synagogue, memorized Torah, discussed scripture with his companions and visited the Temple regularly.
  2. An internal debate around the authenticity of religious practices had existed within Judaism for centuries.

Both Isaiah and Hosea criticized God’s People and their religiosity. Amos delivered an especially pointed prophetic message to the House of Israel:

I hate, I despise your festivals,

    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,

    I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals

    I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,

    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[ix]

Wow! That is not an easy message to hear.

So, though it would be easy to say Judaism was all about rules, rules, rules, and Jesus brought authentic worship based in love, that is a misrepresentation of a rich faith history, and Jesus as a faithful man of the Jewish faith.

Prophets had been providing course correction for the Jewish people since before they started writing it all down.

How human, we all are, that we need those corrections.

A good translation of the word “to sin”, or hamartia in Greek, is to say you’ve “missed the mark”. Humans beings continue to miss the mark and get things wrong, God knows that and provides us with lots of help along the way.

***

Each of these passages shows us that humanity has known about God’s desires authentic, robust love for millennia. It is a love that engages all of who we are—our feelings, our understanding, and our actions.

Amos teaches us that worship without acts of justice is just noise. God requires more than words and posturing from us.

Each of these texts invites us to begin to look inward, at our own communities of faith, to ask whether we’re living out these two commandments in the work that we do.

Are we using love of God, love of self, and love of the other, as our lens when we make decisions about the work we do?

Is it influencing our committees? Our practice of hospitality?

Is our worship integrated alongside our justice work?

When Jesus said to the Scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,”[x]he is giving us a framework we can look to as we hope to further God’s kingdom here and now.

Are there people or places that make you want to say, “Wow, you’re not far from the kingdom of God!” What is about the way they put their faith into practice you find encouraging?

***

It is remarkable that we have inherited a faith tradition that encourages dialogue and thoughtful reflection on the scriptures and our purpose in this world.

We’re fortunate to have inherited a faith tradition that believes in educating children, asking them questions, and inviting them into the conversation. This work is the building blocks of the coming kingdom.

And, how remarkable that God had the foresight to send us those people, like the prophets and this scribe, to help us on our faith journey. Providing the course correction, we so often need, to love God more fully with our whole selves—with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength.

Friends, this week may you find new ways to act out this call more fully: loving God, your neighbour, and yourself; since there is no greater commandment than these.[xi]

 Amen.


[i]Mark 11:28 NRSV

[ii]Mark 12:13-17

[iii]Mark 12:18-27

[iv]Mark 12:28b NRSV

[v]Based on Matt. 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4

[vi]Mark 12:29-31 NRSV

[vii]Mark 12:33b NRSV

[viii]Mark 11:15-19

[ix]Amos 5:21-24 NRSV

[x]Mark 12:34 NRSV

[xi]Mark 12:31b