Saturday, January 4, 2020

Children of God: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas






Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, Diocese of Toronto, 6 January, 2020.

Texts: Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 147:12-20; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:(1-9)10-18



But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (Jn 1:12)


What was the best Christmas gift that you received this year?


I can remember asking that question to my school friends when I saw them in January after Christmas holiday.   Someone would say “A new bike” or “new skates”, and everyone else would go “lucky”.   Now firmly in the territory of middle age, I confess that these things don’t matter too much to me.  I’m happy if I get a nice warm pair of socks for Christmas, to be honest.


However, today’s gospel, the prologue of St. John’s gospel, allows us to rethink the coming of Jesus into the world as the ultimate gift given to all of us.    John does not offer us a nativity story as Matthew and Luke do, but if we are willing to listen to his theologically dense and rich words, we receive a kind of executive summary of why God sent Jesus into the world to be born as one of us in a stable as “the Word became flesh”.  There is so much to think about in this rich passage, but today I want to spend some time focusing on John’s statement that “to all who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12) and to think about that what that means for us.


First, though, I think we need to remind ourselves that “children of God” is a metaphor, a way of speaking about things that we might not understand.  All of us have different experiences of being children and of relating to our families of origin, some positive, some not so positive because our parents and families were not perfect, and some far from perfect.  That’s fair and good to get out of the way at the start.  Let’s therefore understand that “children of God”is one of those terms and ways of thinking that helps us understand that God, even a God who as John says “no one has ever seen”, wants to know us and wants to be in an intimate and caring relationship with us.  The metaphor “children of God” also helps us understand our faith lives, specifically that we may not be fully formed in our Christian identity and that we need to grow and develop in our faith under the care of a loving parent, which is why we come to church.   


So our first question, what is a child of God?  The first words of John’s gospel, “In the beginning”, with their unmistakable echo of the first words of Genesis, link the coming of Jesus with the story of creation.   They remind us of God’s role as creator, as someone who gives existence —  the world, our lives in the world — to us as an act of goodness.   As John says, “All things came into being through him”.  God, who is outside of space and time, does not have to do anything for us, but chooses to give us world and life as a pure gift, motivated by nothing except for God’s goodness and generosity.


Just as creation is a gift, “in the beginning” tells us that the coming of Jesus, the incarnation of God as the Word made flesh, is also a gift.   Jesus brings the same things that God creates in Genesis, light and life (Jn 1:3-4).   In this second act of creation, light and life come to a people who are alive but who live in the darkness of fear and death, a people who would not otherwise know God.   Jesus thus comes as “light” but also as “grace and truth” (1:14), as the one who shows God to the ones in darkness.     The coming of Jesus in this second act of God’s creation makes it possible for us to be children of God.  Without Jesus, we would not know God and could not be God’s children.


So how does one become a child of God?  We all start out as created beings, with human bodies made by our biological parents, but that doesn’t make us children of God.   The children of God are not physically made, but are spiritually made.   John writes that the children of God are “born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God”  (1:12-13).   


Rather, we become a child by recognizing who Jesus is, to see in this one, physical person, the fullness and goodness of God.   John says that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (1:12).   In the history of the church, we have debated when this process happens, whether at the baptism of infants or when a mature person makes a conscious decision to follow Jesus, but that debate can miss the point if we think of it as a human process.   John’s point is that it is God’s process.  God gives us the power or as it is sometimes translated, the legal authority, to become God’s children, which Paul sometimes describes as our being adopted by God.    


In the simplest terms, we get to be children of God by recognizing Jesus and saying that we want to belong to Jesus.   If you are here because you see God in Jesus, then you are a child of God.



So how does being a child of God change us?


Being a child of God puts us into a special category of those who believe in Jesus when others don’t.   In this respect, nothing has changed since Jesus came into the world.   John says that “the world did not know him” and “his own people did not accept him” (1:10).   Despite the testimony of prophets like Isaiah, Jesus was not recognized then as the Messiah.   Today Jesus is widely known but not widely accepted.  In the last week, when people asked me what I did over Christmas, I was tempted to say that “I went to church a lot”, which I sometimes didn’t because that would have been awkward for some.  Maybe I should have said it often.


So to be a child of God is to be distinct from the world, or from the secular, in that we choose to have knowledge of God through Jesus that others don’t have.  This knowledge should make us happy, because as John says, to be a Child of God means that “we have all received grace upon grace” (1:16), which means a bunch of things - knowing that we are abundantly loved by God, that our sins are forgiven, knowing the we matter, and knowing that we don’t have to fear our deaths.



Does being a child of God make me special?  Well, yes and no.   We’re special in that we are saved, welcomed into God’s family, and so have a special relationship to God through Jesus.   That’s reason for a lot of rejoicing and even a happy dance!   But an ancient trap that Christians have fallen into, is that we are better than the rest of the world, who are sinners, heathens, etc.   The example of John the Baptist reminds us that the church’s work is to point people towards Jesus.   “I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel”.


As church, we embrace the task of mission because we believe that what we have is too good not to share.  There are all sorts of tactics and strategies for mission and evangelism, which we sometimes selfishly think of as church growth.  Sometimes these strategies are good, sometimes they are quite flawed.  In my work with the Diocese of Toronto as a congregational adviser, I prefer to think in terms of what the Natural Church Development survey calls Passionate Spirituality.


Passionate Spirituality is found in people who believe that they are children of God, who are excited about Jesus, who want to name and share the good news that they have found.   Passionate Spirituality makes for a church that others want to join.   Sometimes we try to attract people by saying that “our church is good at fellowship” or “our church is just like a family”.  These enticements fall short of conveying what is special about being a child of God, about being part of a particular family.   If I have taken my time walking us through John’s dense language, it’s because I want to explain what’s important and unique about our identity as followers of Jesus.   I would say that if we want to entice people to join us, we need to say something like “until I really knew who Jesus was, I felt unloved and lost and now I feel loved and I think I have a grip on life”.   That sort of statement flows naturally out of believing that we are children of God, and I think it can be persuasive.


So why is this important?


In one of his most powerful lines, John writes that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5).  As we move into the new year, and look at the stories we are told to worry about, the darkness seems to be gathering.   Apocalyptic firestorms rage across Australia.   Glaciers melt.   Democracies falter.    Social media deluges us with lies, propaganda, and false news.   Unity breaks down in angry tribalism.   Poverty, drug abuse, and homelessness can be found close to home.   Parents and teachers struggle to manage children.   Young adults wonder what matters.  Churches decline.


Perhaps it has always been thus, and the fears of each new year has always offered grim prospects.  Yet across two millennia, John’s promise has held true.  The light of our faith shines and defies the darkness.  The darkness has never won.  God continues to welcome his children and, like the father of the Prodigal Son, looks for their return.   We the church know the truth and we know God’s love.  Perhaps, as we stand at this new and uncertain decade, the world needs the children of God more than ever.

Monday, October 21, 2019

In Search Of Justice: A Sermon For The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Sometimes I spend less time on a text than I would like, and this sermon was one of them.   I had however never thought of the parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge as being about justice, despite Jesus' words to that effect in vv 7-8.   I think I've previously thought of it as being about persistence in prayer, which is part of it, to be sure.  At any rate, I'm happy I now see the text in a newer light.  MP

A Sermon Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON, 20 October, 2019, the

Lectionary Texts for the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost:  jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:15-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:7-8)

This last week at work, one of my colleagues has spent a lot of his time with Canada Revenue Agency, trying to something fixed with his tax file.   I’ve frequently looked into his office to chat and seen him on the phone, only for him to say “It’s ok, I can talk, I’m on hold”.   Sometimes I could hear the muzak coming from his speaker phone when he was waiting for someone to get back to him.

After going through three or four different people, over the course of several days, my friend got his problem fixed.   I’m sure you’ve all had similar experiences, perhaps with a bureaucracy of some sort, where you’ve had to get you want from sheer persistence, just by making a nuisance of yourself.

So there are times in life when we might feel ourselves to be like the widow in the parable which is today’s gospel reading.   Of course, the difference between us and the widow is that the people and the bureaucracies we have to deal with are not wicked.   They may be slow-moving, maddening to deal with, and their rules may be ridiculous and even stupid, but they are not generally corrupt.   The widow on the other hand has to deal with “a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people” (Lk 18:2).  

Certainly there are places in the world where justice, such as it is, is in the hands of the wicked and corrupt.   Imagine if an updated version of this parable was set in some neighbourhood in Central America that was controlled by cartels, and the widow having to go ask a drug lord to help her settle a dispute.  In this version of the story, we would admire the widow’s courage and persistence, while wishing that there was some way that she could obtain proper justice from people with integrity.

Jesus’ audience would I think have had a similar reaction.   They lived in a society where tyrants and despots like Herod enforced the rules.  The would have seen the parable through the lens of the psalms, which see people like the widow as being especially deserving of God’s justice:  “Give justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and destitute” (Ps 82:3).

For those who first heard or read this parable, the point of it would have been the widow’s persistence.   They wouldn’t have said, “Well, it goes to show, eh, the squeaky wheel gets the grease”.   Rather, the point of it would be to reinforce the call in Israel’s scriptures for God to come with God’s justice:

“O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek, you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice for the meek and for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more.” (Ps 10:17-18).

Jesus’ parable thus takes up a call for justice for the poor and powerless that runs throughout the Hebrew scriptures.  Verse 7 of the gospel reading should be read in this context as a powerful promise that God’s will bring justice to the world:  “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” (Lk 18:7).

Jesus is explaining the parable as follows:  If a stubborn widow can get some justice out of a wicked judge, how much more can the faithful get from God?  The final lines of the gospel reading are eschatological, in that they point to a day of justice that God will deliver at a time of God’s choosing: “I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”   However the Gospel ends on a question that seems almost foreboding: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

There are several answers we could give, depending on how we read today’s gospel.  if we read it as being about prayer, we could say that faith is measured by our persistence in prayer.   However, I think that if we read it as being about justice, we could say that faith is the extent to which we believe in and strive for God’s justice, in our actions where possible, and in prayer often.  In this context, “faith” is understood to include “faith/belief in God’s justice”.

Caring about justice doesn’t necessarily mean that we as Christians and as Canadian Anglicans need to align ourselves with any one political party or cause, though it does mean I think that we care about what happens in the political realm.   I think we have pretty good instincts when it comes to looking around us and recognizing injustice.  Injustice is simply that which isn’t right.

For example, it’s not right that children go to school with empty bellies

It’s not right that so many of Canadian indigenous communities do not have safe drinking water

It’s not right that God’s creation is being destroyed and that species are going extinct daily

It’s not right that hundreds of thousands of people are abandoned and left defenceless after two powerful men have a brief phone conversation

And on and on and on …

In this parish there are ways that we can and do act for justice.   Our deacon’s cupboard is one example.   Being an open and inclusive community is another.    But as the gospel reminds us, we are called to pray always and not to lose heart. 

Our prayers of the people should always include prayers for our community and for the world.   We need to be as intentional and as deliberate in praying for Barrie, for Canada, for troubled places in the world, as we are when we pray for our families and for our loved ones.  Praying for justice requires effort and patience, especially when it’s easy to lose heart.  Praying isn’t a way of alerting God to bad things happening here or there.  We can presume, I think, that God knows and God cares, passionately, and that God is acting in the world.  Praying for justice, I think, is a way of aligning ourselves with God in the world.

I think of two men of faith who were in the news recently.  Both exemplify the faith in and persistent work for God’s justice that are relevant here.

One is Elijah Cummings, the American political who died last week,  The son of poor farmers and Baptist preachers, an advocate for residents of poor neighborhoods in Baltimore, champion of healthcare for the poor, he worked right up to the day he died

The other is Jimmy Carter - married to Rosalyn for 73 years, longer than some presidents have been alive.  Now in his nineties, he still teaches Sunday school, and still devotes time to Habitat for Humanity, building homes for the homeless.

Both men are examples of good people who cared about God’s justice and did what they could to pursue it.  As impressive as they are compared to what you or I might do, their efforts may seem like a drop in the ocean compared to the injustice in the world. 

However, prayer reminds us of God’s purpose and plan to rescue and redeem the world, to return it to the way he created it.  I think of another widow in Luke’s gospel, not the widow of the parable that we heard today, but one who is mentioned in the nativity stories, the prophet Anna, who lives long enough to see the Saviour born:

She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.  Luke 2:36-38)

Anna reminds us that prayer is heard and answered, that God does care for the world enough to send us his son, and that as Christians, are prayers are part of God’s ongoing work in Christ to save and rescue the world.

Gracious God, we thank you that you are not like the judge in he parable, and we thank you that you do hear our prayers.  We pray that you give us hearts for your justice and for the world you have given us.   Give us faith and persistence to pray, so that our work and prayers may become part of your justice.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

At What Price? Thoughts On God's Strange Economy

10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Timothy 6:10).

Preached at Trinity Protestant Chapel, Canadian Forces Base, Borden, 29 September, 2019.  Readings for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost:  Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 146, 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

I love how the church's lectionary, it's regular cycle of scripture readings, can speak into the particulars of my life.   Take the readings this Sunday, which touch on money and mortality, which illuminated for me some of the content of the "How to Retire" aka SCAN (Second Career and Networking) seminar I took last week.

SCAN is one of those things you do in the CAF checkout lane.   Its a useful sort of activity, because we all have to leave, voluntarily or otherwise, and theres a lot to think about as we go from a military life to a civilian life, and theres a lot about resume writing and networking and retraining and possible second careers, which are all good to know about.

Briefings about benefits, educational opportunities, pensions, disability allowances.  In other words, there was a lot of stuff about money:  how much do you need, how much you can get?   Can I get compensated for an injury incurred during my military service?  Can I get money to go back to school?  Can I get money to go back to school and retrain for a second career?

The people in the room, mostly middle aged, got really thoughtful when they started to reflect on their own mortality.  That happened when they talked about what age you could take your pension - 55?  at 60 when, as the presenter said, you have one foot in the grave?   at 65?   

Then, when they started talking about survivor’s benefits and the importance of making a will, that’s when people were reminded that they we can’t take it with us.     Everything has an end.  There’s nothing more sobering than realizing how actuarial tables work, and how choosing when to take a pension is to place a bet on how much longer one will live.

Life,  career, money, death.  All of these things are good and necessary to think about.   Someone once said that being hanged in the morning concentrates the mind marvellously, and the same is true when you realize that the pay check and benefits that we’ve come to depend on will come to an end. 

The good news that day was that by and large, the people in that room will be ok.  They have decent pension plans, they have good benefits and good prospects of second careers.   The medical release process is fairly generous.   People will be looked after and the wolf will be kept from the door.

As I left the seminar, I couldn’t help but wonder, what about all the people facing old age without these things?  According to Statistics Canada, fewer than half of Canadian workers, and fewer women than men, have a workplace pension plan.  Many people will enter their late years without much security or rest.  That cheerful old person greeting you at WalMart may not be there by choice.

Why spare a thought for them?   Because that’s what Christians do.  The gospel is pretty clear that our responsibilities extend well beyond meeting our own particular needs and responsibilities.   For every word that scripture tells us about what to do with our bodies, there are many more that tell us what to do with our money, and this is especially true of the gospels.

Two of the readings today speak very clearly about our relationships to wealth, to God, and to one another.   They describe both God’s economics and God’s justice, and they give us some rich opportunities to reflect on what we do with the material gifts that God has given us:  “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (v 10).  Note that it is not the root of all evil, but is definitely a source of evil.  If there “godliness” can bring us “contentment”, then the desire for wealth leads in the opposite direction, taking away from “faith” and into a state of life where we are “pierced with many pains” (v10).  

What are these pains?  Could they include anxiety?  A restlessness that comes from never having enough?   Worry about what happens when the money runs out?   A materialism that leads us away from our relationship with God and into a kind of idolatry where we think that we must be self-sufficient in all things, not needing God or anyone else?

Surely we see all these things in the world around us, in our politics, our popular culture, even in our neighbours and in ourselves.   I think of a man I knew who tracked his stock portfolio online, back when that was a new thing, and would shout red-faced at the screen when his investments had a bad day.   He had by any standards a comfortable existence, and yet he was “pierced with many pains”.

Of couse, wealth and more are one of those subjects, like war and non-violence, that Christians have long debated.  It would take far too long to sketch a summary of Chrisian attitudes about wealth and money over the years, but it would probably start with the earliest church, in Acts 2, which sold its goods and lived held all things in common, the church in Corinth which Paul accuses of ignoring the social divisions of its members, through the middle ages and the established church’s great acquisition of land and wealth.    We could spend an hour looking around Christianity today, with the debate over the prosperity gospel, and the way that churches today tend to mirror social, class, and racial divisions in western culture.

Well, when in doubt, ask a simple question:  what does Jesus say?  Last Sunday I preached on the first half of Luke 16, the parable of the dishonest manager, which is perhaps the most difficult of the parables to interpret because it’s the story of a rascal who cooks the books, tricks his master, and yet appears to do well from it.  The important thing about the parable is that Jesus twice uses the phrase “dishonest wealth”, and Jesus contrasts the dealings of the people of this age with the dealings of the children of light.

The phrase “dishonest wealth” invites us to read the gospels as showing that Jesus had, at the very least, a healthy skepticism about wealth, as we might expect from an itinerant preacher.   Certainly we know that Jesus and his disciples needed money to get by; they had a common purse, women of some means who helped them financially, and they had trades and means to make a living, like boats (Jn 8:2-3, 12,6).  Was this a lavish lifestyle?  I’ve heard that some defenders of the prosperity gospel argue that Jesus and his disciples were in fact quite wealthy, but to me that argument seems to fly against the teaching of Jesus.

If we look at some of the parables, there is nothing that a shrewd financial adviser would admire.  Consider the three parables in Luke 15 that come just before our gospel reading today.  A shepherd abandons 99 valuable sheep in the wilderness and goes off to find the lost sheep (Lk 15:1-7).  A woman searches for a lost coin, and when she finds it, invites her friends and neighbours to a celebration that costs more than the coin is worth (Lk 15:8-10).   A father throws a lavish party for a son who has squandered half of his net worth (Lk 15:11-32). 

Whenever Jesus talks about money, he doesn’t follow the rules of shrewdness and cunning that we would want our own wealth managers to give away.  People with money tend to happily give it away, or like he parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew, they get the same wage regardless of how long they’ve worked (Mt 20).   The laws of capitalism as we understand it don’t seem to apply to the kingdom of heaven.

Today’s gospel reading is a parable about a rich man who has no compassion for a poor man named Lazarus (16:19-31).   The first part of the parable paints a highly exaggerated picture of contrast, from the rich man’s purple robes to the dogs licking the sick and frail body of Lazarus.  Both die, and the rich man discovers the truth of 1 Tim 6:7 “we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it”.  In the afterlife, the rich man is punished and now envies the comfort of heaven given to Lazarus, but unlike he ghost of Jacob Marley in Dicken’s Christmas Carol, the rich man is not given the chance to warn others of his fate.

Some approaches to the parable however focus on the proximity of the two men, and the fact that the rich man knows Lazarus’ name.   How does he know that?  If he knew Lazarus’ name in life, was he not even more obligated to do something for him?  The rich man doesn’t even have our excuse of treating the homeless on our streets as nameless, faceless things that we can safely ignore, or even treat as nuisances.   And yet, as the commentator Mitzi Smith notes, "he asks that Abraham demonstrate mercy by sending Lazarus to cool his tongue by dipping his finger in water and placing it in his mouth to alleviate his agony (Luke 16:25). In death as in life, the man treats Lazarus as if he is a slave/subordinate whose purpose is to serve him.”

Again, I would say that when trying to understand a parable such as this one, context is everything.   We need to look at what Jesus says elsewhere and how that parable fits into his wider teaching.  In fact, he has a lot to say to the rich, including that they "consider selling all their possessions and redistribute the proceeds to the poor (18:18-25); be commended for giving half their possessions to the poor and making restitution to those they defrauded (19:1-10); and he shames the rich who contribute gifts to the Temple from their wealth, while a poor widow gives her; she sacrificed (too) much and they gifted relatively little (21:1-4)” (Mitzi Smith, commentary).

It would be tempting to end this sermon by encouraging you to try a little harder to remember the poor, to show the less fortunate some kindness, and give a little more at church.    However, that sort of exhortation might risk buying into a kind of works righteousness whereby we simply try harder to do our best to be kind and, hopefully, to please God.   It is true that 1 Timothy 6:18 encourages us to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share”.

Certainly its words go far beyond token efforts.   The passage is a vigorous exhortation to the fully engaged Christian life:  "Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ (12-15).

Let me finish by focusing on the word “confession”.   It is not meant, I think, in the sense of admitting to bad things that we might have done, as the sheep in the cartoon at the top seems to think.   Rather, as the Lutheranscholar Karl Jacobsen notes,

"Confession,” homologeo, has to do with two things: first, it may be a confession of faith, like the description “I believe in ... ”. Second, this confession is an exhortation to faith, like the prescriptive, “Believe this ... ” or “Do not doubt but believe” (to coin a phrase). Homologeo occurs just a few times in the New Testament. Here, of course, and tacitly in the description here in 1 Timothy in the story of Jesus before Pilate, and again in Hebrews 3:1, where Jesus is called, “the high priest of our confession.” Here in Timothy, that good confessions is, as I have said, first made by Jesus and then echoed by Timothy. In Hebrews, the good confession is both the confession of Jesus the high priest—he is the one who makes it for us—and at the same time the confession we, in turn, make about Jesus our high priest. There is both a subjective and an objective sense to our good confession. Most striking is the use of homologeo in 2 Corinthians 9:13, as it parallels 1 Timothy’s pairing of the good confession, and the warning about the love of money."

Our relationship to wealth must begin and end in our relationship with Jesus, our full identification (confession) of him, and must be grounded in a fulsome participation in the economy of the kingdom of God.   As we have noted, God’s economy as seen in the parables of Jesus doesn’t look much like earthly economies.   In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, it is easy to imagine that we might tinker with the edges of it to make it less intimidating.  What if the rich man had spent a little more time worrying about Lazarus?  What if he had given a small fraction of he wealth to the poor?  Would that have saved him?

Possibly.  Martin Luther once said that  “You can’t feed every beggar in the world, but you can feed the one at your gate”, which in the end may be all that we can do. 

However, I think we also need to be open to a radical imagining of the world, in which divisions of wealth and poverty are completely swept away in the kingdom of God.   Certainly it will be thus in the kingdom of heaven, when we arrive there with nothing that we had on earth, but only our soul, which might indeed be a very poor thing indeed, but whose value only heaven can tell. 

I once knew a person who had learned that they had a month to live, maybe less.   We talked about what that person imagined their arrival in heaven to be like, and to their credit, it was not the kind of thing you hear in many eulogies where the afterlife is a lovely place where we do what we want.   No, this person had thought through the mechanics, the economics, of their arrival.

First they will read my account in the Book of Life, this person told me, just like in St. John's Revelations, and it won't all be pretty.   Then I will be asked what I have to say for myself and I will point to Jesus and say, "ask him.   He's the only reason why I'm here".   I reckon that will be enough to get me in.

I thought that answer was simply splendid.  Christians, I think that we are called on to remember, as best we can, that our economics must align with the economics of heaven, and that the final transaction we are involved in will but be our own, but God, through our confession of his son, Jesus Christ, purchasing and redeeming our poor and impoverished soul, at a great price, through the abundance of God’s love.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

God's Rascal: The Parable of the Dishonest Steward; A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost




A Sermon Preached 22 September, 2019, at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, Diocese of Toronto

Readings for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13


And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”  (Luke 16:8)


Imagine that you are at a diocesan or church conference, and a motivational speak tells you the story of a parish that really turned itself around.


There was a church warden, and things had gone poorly because the parish whose finances had been badly managed.  And the priest said to the warden, “What have you done?   The Diocese is going to close us down because things are so bad, and we could both go to jail.”   So the warden spoke to a business that the parish owed a lot of money to, and said, “We’re broke and I can’t pay you, but if you rip up your invoice I’ll give you a receipt for a tax deduction for the same value” and they did.   Then the warden went to three different families and said, “that money that you were going to leave the church in your wills, give it to us now and we’ll rename the church after you when you die”.   And then the warden closed the parish daycare, which was losing money, and bribed a friend at city hall to give him a license to reopen the space as an after hours dance club.   And the church books looked great, so the priest was happy, and the Diocese was so impressed that it hired the warden to run all of its business affairs.


And the moral of the story is …. ??   Yes, right.   That’s the problem, isn’t it.    My story isn’t really conducive to any morally improving conclusion.   If it had actually happened, the people involved would be in court, and for good reason.


Which is why today’s gospel reading, known as the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, is in its own way as problematic as the silly story I just told you. 


In the parable, a master tells a servant. who is probably a slave, that he will be fired for his poor management of the master’s goods, but first, he demands a financial statement.   The manager turns to his master’s debtors for help, thinking that if he can help them reduce their debts, then they will be grateful and give him a soft landing when he is fired.    The master learns of the scheme, and praises his manager because is so cunning.   We don’t learn what happens to the manager, but presumably he keeps his job.


The problem with the parable, as many preachers have noted, is that Jesus doesn’t explicitly condemn the dishonest manager.   In the second half of verse 8, when the parable seems to end and Jesus makes his first comment on the story, he says “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light” (Lk 16:8b).   


The phrase “children of light” seems to apply to Jesus’ followers, to us, and is contrasted with “children of this age”, who appear to be the dishonest manager and those like him, people who want wealth and comfort most of all.   But in verse 9, Jesus seems to tell us to be like the dishonest manager and make friends “by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (16:9).   In this verse “eternal homes” (the Greek word for home is tabernacle, which has a sacred meaning) seems to speak of heaven or the afterlife, in which case, we are left to wonder, how does “dishonest wealth” get us into heaven?


The parable does not offer an easy interpretation.   In the early days of the church it was considered a bit of a scandal, and some pagan writers would point to it and say how could you take a religion seriously if it has such a story in its scriptures?  Biblical scholars have struggled to interpret it, and preachers like me grimace when it shows up in the Sunday readings, because it’s hard to know exactly what Jesus is getting at.


If we break it down into its core concepts, there are three aspects of the parable that seem important.   First is the manager’s cunning, which is the trait that gets him off the hook with his master.  Second is wealth, which Jesus stresses in his teaching after the parable.  Third is the role of the manager as someone who is charged with looking after things that don’t belong to them.


So cunning first.  We’re told that “his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly”.  This could mean that one rascal admires another rascal, but the word “shrewd” can also mean a person with good judgement, someone who is astute.   Those are good qualities in a financial adviser or a banker, for example.   Is Jesus telling us to be shrewd, sort of like in Matthew where he tells the disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16)?


However, if we look at some of the other parables in this part of Luke’s gospel, there is nothing that a shrewd financial adviser would admire.  Consider the three parables in Luke 15 that come just before our gospel readying today.  A shepherd abandons 99 valuable sheep in the wilderness and goes off to find the lost sheep (Lk 15:1-7).  A woman searches for a lost coin, and when she finds it, invites her friends and neighbours to a celebration that costs more than the coin is worth (Lk 15:8-10).   A father throws a lavish party for a son who has squandered half of his net worth (Lk 15:11-32).  


Whenever Jesus talks about money, he doesn’t follow the rules of shrewdness and cunning that we would want our own wealth managers to give away.  People with money tend to happily give it away, or like he parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew, they get the same wage regardless of how long they’ve worked (Mt 20).   The laws of capitalism don’t seem to apply to the kingdom of heaven.


Furthermore, people who want to hang on to their money don’t fare well in the gospels.   You can’t take it with you is one of Jesus’ core teachings (Mt 16:19-21).  In today’s gospel reading, Jesus twice refers t wealth as “dishonest”, and concludes by saying that it is impossible to serve God and wealth.   This teaching irritates Jesus enemies, the Pharisees, who Luke tells us were “lovers of money” (Lk 16:14), so Jesus tells another story, the parable of Dives and Lazarus, where a rich man is tormented in the afterlife while the poor man at his gate is taken to heaven (Lk 16:19-31).


It’s fair to say that Jesus regards the pursuit of money and wealth with suspicion.   Acquiring money for it’s own sake is “dishonest wealth”, and is not something that his followers, the “children of light”, should pursue.  


And this is where the role of the manager needs to be considered, because a manager, or steward, is someone who looks after someone else’s property.  Today, when we talk about giving to the church and its work, we talk about it as stewardship.   The fundamental idea here is that what we have, our wealth and possessions, even (and especially) the world we live in, is given to us for a time by God but is not really ours.  This idea flows out of the doctrine of creation, the idea that God made the world for us to use for our time here.


In a society where we praise rich people as “wealth creators”, the idea that wealth is given to us by a creator God is outlandish and foolish, but so is much of the church’s teaching.    The very first Christians took this idea to heart (44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Acts 2) and made it part of their way of life.  Today the practice of tithing, of giving a fixed percentage of our wealth to the church, reflects this idea that we are stewards of what God gives us.


We give to the church so that the church may share God’s love and grace with the world.  That’s the only reason we’re here.   Yes, we pay salaries and bills and keep the light and heat on, but those are necessary things to the church’s mission.  The church exists to love as God loves, generously, without hope of return, for all who want it.  We call this love grace, and graces spends its wealth freely.


If there is anything that the parable of the dishonest manager shows, it is, curiously, grace.   At the end of the story, the master’s debtors have their debts reduced.   They did nothing to deserve these discounts, they just got them.   Likewise, at the end of the story the manager keeps his job.  The master recognizes that his manager is a rascal, but forgives him.    And Jesus seems to imply, if worldly people (the children of this age) can be so forgiving, then how much more forgiving can God be?


The story of he dishonest manager resists easy interpretation, and may even be, in some people’s eyes, a scandal to the gospel.   But if anything about the gospel is scandalous, surely it is the scandal of grace, about a God who does not pay and punish as we deserve, but who gives freely and forgives freely.   If we want the rascally manager to be punished, and are disappointed, then what other disappointments might we expect from a saviour who parties with tax collectors and sinners, who kills the fatted calf for the prodigal son, and who makes the thief on the cross beside him welcome into paradise?

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

New Findings On The Relevance Of Clergy Are Not Inspiring

A new poll suggesting the waning influence of clergy doesn't really surprise me.  Perhaps the only thing that is at all newsworthy is that the poll describes religions opinions in the United States, which reinforces ongoing findings that even the US is becoming increasingly secular.

That the clergy are less respected than other professions (financial, medical, etc) seems to me a wholly expected result of secularization and the general decline of participation in churches.  As someone who wears a cross on a military uniform and, occasionally, a civilian clergy shirt and dog collar, I don't expect deference from strangers.  Usually I hope for a sort of forbearance or polite tolerance, and hope to build on that.

What I find most interesting, and most hopeful, from this article is this part:

“There are people who are smarter, more competent, more equipped in certain fields, and that’s where we go for those sorts of answers,” said Kurt N. Fredrickson, associate professor of pastoral ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Clergy, Fredrickson said, must recognize that churches today are often seen as fire stations — places to go when all else falls apart.
“I help younger pastors, pre-service, flip the power structure upside down; rather than seeing pastors as the top of the triangle I want to help pastors become servant leaders.”
My advice for practicing and aspiring clergy who wish to be relevant would be that, in lieu of seeking or expecting a mostly vanished social respect and prestige, seek instead to cultivate character, empathy, and compassion.


Friday, July 5, 2019

The Chaplain Kit: An Online Resource for Chaplains


I am posting a link to a US website called The Chaplain Kit, an online resource centre for military chaplaincy in an American context.

Some interesting resources including a guide to chaplains as depicted in films and movies.

I have a soft spot for this photo found on the site, as the reference to Hattiesburg in the caption gives it away as being taken in Camp Shelby, Mississippi.   My late wife Kay grew up in Hattiesburg and worked in the PX there as a teenager.  Not sure how that's relevant to anything, but there you go.

Blessings,  MP+

Friday, May 31, 2019

Is Boomer Religion At An End?

If you're inclined to say yes, it may not be for the reason one would naturally think - demographics.

In this article for Commonweal  magazine (not overly familiar with it until now, but it appears to be a progressive Catholic publication), Wesley Hill argues that the future of liberal Protestantism will be politically progressive but theologically traditional and creedal.

Writing primarily about the US Episcopal (Anglican) church, Hill sees clear signs of a "generational shift", where it is unremarkable to see clergy and laity who are progressive on a host of issues such as LGBT writes, but who have no patience for the boomer clergy and theologians, such as John Spong, who once defined liberal theology in terms of metaphor, ambiguity, and a vague spirituality.

Hill writes:  "the new face of mainline Protestantism may well be someone in a clerical collar who marches for gun control and says “I believe in the resurrection of the body” without crossing her fingers."

From my own limited vantage point, I think Hill's claim has merit.    My own Twitter feed (you can find me at @madpadre1) has been expanding to take in a number of people who - clergy and laity) who call themselves Weird Anglican Twitter.   Some of their content seems campy and slightly precious - a delight in vestments, for example - but there is a deep desire in them to explore the full history of the Anglican tradition - pietism, Anglo-Catholic devotion, creedal belief, the church fathers.    Some of the people I follow on Twitter are also signatories of this document.

As I find myself sliding inexorably towards retirement as a late boomer myself, I find great comfort and hope in the emergence of post-boomer religion.  I doubt that I will ever share their fascination with, say, the Solemn High Mass, but I will be cheering them on from the sidelines.


Saturday, May 25, 2019

An End and A Beginning: A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter:  Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10-14,22-23; John 14:23-29.  Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, Ontario, 26 May, 2019


“Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them’ "  (Jn 14:26)


Recently, during this month’s session of Faith On Tap.  we talked about what Easter means to us.  We also talked about why it is, in the life of the church, that Easter is a season, like Advent or Lent, rather than just one day.  Now if you can’t come to church that often, Easter Sunday is a pretty good day to come, it’s true.   But if you come to church even semi-regularly, you’ll notice that we do things a little differently in the seven weeks between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday.  


During these seven Sundays after Easter we do certain things in church that we don’t otherwise do.   We say “Alleluia” (a lot!), we dress the church in white, we light the paschal or Easter candle, we hear the stories of the earliest Christians from the Book of Acts in the place where we normally hear the Hebrew Scriptures read.   During our Faith On Tap conversation, we talked about what these actions are designed to teach us and we agreed that they all point us towards the resurrection of Jesus as an ongoing fact rather than a one-time event.   By repeatedly visiting his followers in the days and weeks after his resurrection, Jesus is showing them a new reality, a new creation, a new way of life that we are invited into as his disciples.  In this new reality, joy replaces sadness, forgiveness replaces guilt, life conquers death.


So while the Easter season is a special time in the life of the church, we don’t stay here forever.  Like every season, Easter has a beginning, middle, and end, and I think this was true of the first Easter.  I suspect that if we could talk to any of the disciples about their time with him after the resurrection, they would have said that they knew that risen Christ had to go.  I think all the disciples knew that in their hearts.  There was just something about his mysterious comings and goings - passing through locked doors, suddenly appearing to them on the road, or standing by the side of the lake while they were fishing - that suggested that Jesus had changed in some profound way, that he was no longer part of the physical world as they knew it, and so he could not stay with them forever.  


Certainly Mary Magdalene knew that.   In John’s gospel, in his first appearance after his resurrection, Jesus says to her, “Go to my brothers and say to them, “I am am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn 20:17).    While John thus mentions it, the Ascension itself, Jesus’ return to heaven, is only described in one gospel (Luke 24:50-53).   The church remembers this event on May 30, the Feast of the Ascension, though we don’t often think about it because this feast is not normally celebrated on a Sunday and is not often preached on.   


So the Easter season begins with church remembering the resurrection, and as the Easter season begins to wind down, the story changes to Jesus returning the Father.  We can ask, what are we supposed to think about as the Easter season ends?  What would be helpful for us to reflect on?  If Easter was a time when the Kingdom of God has never seemed closer and more real in the risen Christ, the man who stands before us having broken the chains of death, where does the Kingdom of God go when Jesus leaves the disciples for the last time?     


In today’s gospel we see Jesus beginning to prepare the disciples for the time when he would leave them.   John 14 is the start of the longest goodbye in the Bible.   Now you might hate long goodbyes at the airport, but if you read all of John’s gospel, this is an epically long goodbye, what scholars call the Farewell Discourse.   In John 14 Jesus begins three chapters of last instructions and teachings to his disciples before he is arrested in John 17.    In these chapters Jesus tries to tell his friends why he must leave them, and tries to reassure them by saying that his death is necessary because it will lead to better things.


The language in today’s gospel is complicated (aka Johanine) but it in essence it is a promise that the disciples will never be abandoned and need never fear.   Jesus will return to the Father after his death and resurrection, but in his place the Father will send the Holy Spirit:  “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will tech you everything, and remind you of all that I have” (Jn 14:26).    The disciples won’t begin to understand this until the miracle of Pentecost, as we’ll hear in a few Sundays, when the Holy Spirit comes and allows them to take the message of Jesus into all the world.


So here are the key messages from today’s gospel for us, the descendants of the first disciples.

  1. We are not alone, and we never have been.   The Holy Spirit is the final gift of God’s presence to us in Jesus.   
  2. In returning to the Father, Jesus opens a ways for us to be with God in all God’s fullness:  “we will come to them and make our home with them” (14:23)
  3. The Holy Spirit gives us peace and joy, by freeing us from the worldly pressures and worries that pull us away from God “(I do not give to you as the world gives”).
  4. The Holy Spirit is our teacher and our memory - it will “teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you”, and so the Holy Spirit allows us to live as God wants us to live (“those who love me will keep my word”).


In short, the Holy Spirit allows us to be the church.  It allows us to be a people who live in the knowledge that the resurrection is the start of a new creation, the first glimpse of that New Jerusalem in Revelation, where there is only life, only love, only light, only God.  The church is thus called to be the promise of something better, something yet to come, for we are situated somewhere between the Ascension and the New Jerusalem, somewhere between the return of Jesus to the Father and his return in glory at the end of time.   


As we stand between these two times, we at St. Margaret’s are not that different from the little community that we heard of in our first lesson  from Acts,  the believers who welcome Paul and the apostles at Philippi.     Lydia and her small group of believers are prayerful, open and attentive to what God may be calling them to do, ready to minister to the world but subtly apart from the world (at the gates), ready to be hospitable and ready to share the work with others (the apostles) to show Christ to the world.  


Two thousand years later, our reality, our life as a community, and our strength as a parish comes from our faith in Christ and in the reality of his resurrection. and our belief that Jesus is one with God the Father.   The Spirit that works in us - our humour, our prayerfulness, our care for one another, our hope, our hospitality and our willingness to share our belief with others - comes from the Holy Spirit working within us.  As we think to the years ahead, and to what we can offer to the community around us, our greatest strength and advantage is precisely this same Spirit, the presence of God in Trinity who will never abandon his people, our greatest hope, and our greatest joy.


My prayer for us at St. Margaret’s, as we discern our future and our mission to those around us, is that we may always build on our greatest strength, namely the Spirit that is the very presence of God among us, the God who will never abandon us, and who empowers us to show God’s life to the world.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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