Sunday, January 31, 2021

Freeing Us From Our Burdens: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

 Preached via Zoom for All Saints, King City, on the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany, Sunday, 31 January, 2021.  Readings for this Sunday: Deuteronomy 18.15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8.1-13, Mark 1.21-28

 


“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mk 1.24).

Today’s gospel reading invites us to ask Jesus to free us from the dark things that burden and oppress us.

If there is any category of Jesus’ miracles that makes us uncomfortable, I suspect that it is his exorcisms.   We can make what we will of the seven times in the gospels that Jesus miraculously feeds crowds of people, or the times he shows command of nature such as stilling the storm or walking on water.  We can accept that Jesus somehow suspends physical laws, or we can question them because naturalism is so deeply ingrained in us as dwellers in the post-Enlightenment disenchanted world.    The exorcisms seem like something different.  

The exorcisms, as in today’s gospel reading from Mark when Jesus confronts forces that are clearly named as spiritual beings, bring us face to face with a struggle between Jesus and hostile, invisible powers.    That struggle was very real to three of the four evangelists (St. John does not mention any exorcisms) and to St. Paul.   In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6.12).

So what do we as educated, western Christians in the 21st century make of that passage from Ephesians, and how can we understand today’s gospel reading?  Do we want to see our walk with God as part of a cosmic struggle between God and evil?  While some Christian denominations are very comfortable speaking about spiritual warfare, we Anglicans tend to shy away from this sort of language.   We tend to look for naturalistic expressions to explain the kinds of demonic possessions that we hear of today.   I am sure that you have heard sermons about Jesus’ exorcisms that run along the following lines: psychology as a science didn’t exist in the ancient world, conditions such as schizophrenia were understood in terms of demonic possession, and by curing such people, Jesus shows his inclusiveness and love by freeing the mentally ill of their stigma and returning them to the community.

I am writing this sermon just after Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Day, a national campaign with a focus on mental health.   As a pastor and a former army chaplain, I’ve helped people struggling with mental illness and have done my best to refer them to counselors, psychologists, and doctors.   One of the first steps in persuading people to seek help is to overcome the stigma of mental illness.   Nobody wants to be labelled as crazy.   As with the man in today’s gospel, there is something unclean,  about mental illness in our society. 

I also know something about the complexity of brain chemistry and how a wide variety of treatments, from cognitive behaviour therapy to pharmacological treatments, can restore people to health and happiness.  However, as a pastor, I realize that mental health and wholeness have a spiritual dimension.   Spiritual possession is a thing and it exists in many forms, even if we have trouble recognizing it.   I’ve seen veterans drawn slowly to suicide, despite having loving families and bright futures.   Some dark force gets into their mind and soul and pulls them down. 

 Likewise I’ve seen people struggle with addiction.   While the approach of groups like AA to focus them on a higher power is helpful, it can be difficult for those who have never known God or who have lost their faith to believe in the existence of a higher power.   In such conversations, I like to point out that if something like alcohol has become a hostile power that controls and ruins your life, then why would you not believe in a higher power?  If we implicitly accept the existence of unclean things – alcohol, pornography, chronic rage, racism – that can possess us, then why would we refuse to accept the existence of a power that can make us whole and one with the God who created us?  Why wouldn’t we want that?

With this framework in mind, let’s return to the confrontation between Jesus and the possessed man in the synagogue.    What’s going on there and who can we understand it?   Mark tells us that the force possessing the man is a “spirit”.  The Greek word he uses, pneuma, is the same word he uses to describe the spirit that descends on Jesus at his baptism (Mk 1.10).   In Mark a spirit can either be with God or against God.   While the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism comes down from God like a dove, a symbol of purity, this spirit is described as being “unclean” and the word used, akathartos, is the word used to describe things that defile a person according to Jewish law (eg, Acts 11.8).  So whatever the spirit is inside this man, it has literally polluted him, it is something toxic and foul that has invaded him.  Even in the synagogue, on the holiest day of the week, the Sabbath, this man is possessed and set apart from the people of God. 

Now let’s look at another spiritual possession that Mark has just described a few lines earlier.  “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mk 1.10).  It may seem odd to think of baptism as a possession, but what is it really but a sacrament by which shows that we belong to God?   As I said a few weeks ago, baptism allows each one of us to be declared God’s beloved son or daughter?  Having the spirit of God, the spirit that Jesus promises, confirms and sustains our identity as a child of God.   Baptism is as much about wholeness as it is about holiness, it is about defining the person that God created us to be: social, just, loving, wise, curious, and fully alive. 

In baptism, we ask the parents and sponsors to “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” (BAS 154).  The baptismal liturgy does not name these evil powers  - it is enough to acknowledge them – but it does recognize their existence and it reminds is that these powers exist to alienate us from God and bring us under their influence, marring and disfiguring the image of God within us that we were created to bear.   Baptism also reminds us that through Jesus, God has “overcome sin and brought us to yourself”.  Through Christ the evil spirits have been and will be defeated and rendered powerless.   When the Spirit \in tbe man speaks to Jesus  “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mk 1.24), I imagine it as a howling wail of despair.  The spirit knows Jesus and knows it is beaten.  Mark includes this story to give us hope in the power of Jesus, who confronts and crushes the evil powers opposed to God.

The evil powers are routed but like the remnants of a defeated army, they are still dangerous.  They still have ways of ambushing and attacking the people of God.   They can wear us down in many different and addictive ways.   If you still feel that you are bondage to one of these unclean spirits, there are many forms of help that you can turn to – medical, psychological, addiction counselling, therapies – but always remember that spiritual help should be part of your recourse.  Spiritual help comes only from Jesus.  The evil spirits that seek to oppress us known him and fear him.   Jesus stands ready to free us.  Through the sacrament of reconciliation and absolution, through the prayers and encouragement of the faithful, and through the presence of the Holy Spirit, we can find your way back to the God who has always known each of us for who you 

Sunday, January 24, 2021

God Loves Those We Hate: A Sermon For the Third Sunday After Epiphany

 

Preached online to All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 27 January, 2021, The Third Sunday After Epiphany.

 

Readings for this Sunday:  Psalm 62.6-14; Jonah 3.1-5,10; 1 Corinthians 7.29-31; Mark 1.14-20

 



 

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it (Jon 3.10).

 

Recently I was interacting with a stranger on social media and I realized during our conversation that I had totally misunderstood him.  Whereas I had first thought that he and I were likeminded, I realized that we were on opposite sides of the political fence.   What saved the conversation was that while he corrected me, he was kind and gracious, and that was incredibly refreshing, considering how badly people can behave online.   I certainly would speak with him again and could learn to call him a friend. 

Recent events in the US have shown us what happens when large groups of people entrench themselves into more and more extreme positions.   Social media, 24-hour news cycles, and over the top rhetoric make us tribal, suspicious, and hostile to those who don’t share our positions.    Politics has become transcendent, so that we see our side as the greatest good we can imagine, and so we become programmed into ways of thinking that are self-righteous, judging, and which are very far from the gospel  of our faith in Jesus Christ.

Today's reading from the Hebrew scriptures offers us a way out of the mindset that leaves so many people angry and hostile to one another.  Unlike the other prophets who hector their own people about Israel’s failings to live up to God’s covenant, Jonah gets sent to a foreign people, and a very nasty one at that.  God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it” (Jon 1.2).  It would be like today a Christian evangelist getting sent to the capital of North Korea.

Assyria was so hated and feared that another Hebrew prophet, Nahum, wrote a whole book in which he imagined God destroying Nineveh, rather like the author of Revelation imagines God destroying Rome.   Nahum called Nineveh a “city of bloodshed, utterly deceitful” (Nah 3.1) and predicted that it would face “Devastation, desolation, and destruction” (2.10).

Not one to embrace a martyr’s fate, Jonah buys a ticket on the first ship going as far from Nineveh as possible, but as you recall the story, Jonah can’t escape his destiny.  God sends a giant storm, the sailors appease God by throwing their passenger overboard, and Jonah ends up in a giant fish which “the Lord provided” (Jon 1.17).  In the belly of the fish, Jonah thanks God for saving him and praises him as the true God: “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” (Jon 2.9), by which Jonah says more than he realizes.

It doesn’t occur to Jonah that if deliverance belongs to the Lord, then the Lord can deliver or save whomever he wishes, including the people of Nineveh.  After what is sometimes called the worst sermon every preached (loosely paraphrased as “Forty days from now, God will kill you all!” Jon 3.4), the King of Nineveh repents, along with the whole city, even the animals.  “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (3.8) and God has mercy on them.   Jonah however is not pleased at this, he pouts, and in the final chapter, God teaches him a rather comic lesson about mercy.  First God makes a plant grow to shelter the pouting prophet, and then God kills the plant, and when Joseph is angry, God teaches him a lesson:   you’re angry that the plant died, but you were ok with a whole city being destroyed, so how is that right (Jon 4.11).

Jonah is a strange book of the bible, and Joseph is one of the bible’s antiheroes, the patron saint of reluctant missionaries and unwilling evangelists.   The totally unexpected repentance of the Ninevites is probably intended to make show the superiority of the Hebrew God over people who, as Job says, “worship vain idols” (Jon 2.8), which is a very common Old Testament theme. In that respect, Jonah says the same thing as his fellow prophet Nahum.  However, Jonah makes a radically different point by imaging God forgiving Nineveh rather than destroying it.   If deliverance does indeed belong to the Lord, then God is far more merciful then the self-righteous Jonah could have imagined.

As one commentator put it recently with marvellous simplicity, the Book of Jonah teaches us that God loves the people that we hate.     Jonah wants Nineveh destroyed because he hates them and fears them, and with good reason.    The Assyrians were a terrible, cruel empire, and historically they suffered the fate of other cruel empires.   But history and theology don’t always teach the same lessons.    The author of Jonah dared to imagine the love of God for all of his creation, even for the enemies of Israel, and took that thought experiment to its logical conclusion, where bad people can repent and be forgiven. 

If Jonah teaches us that God loves the people that we hate, how do we implement this lesson in our lives and in this historical place and time?  A friend of mine said that the partisanship and bitter politics of the last four years made him a worse person.   I confess the same thing.   In times of bitter division, it’s a great temptation to think the worst of those we disagree with.   Here in Canada, we’ve seen a change in our own politics and a deterioration of our civil discourse that seems driven by the events of the last five years, and maybe longer. 

Let me be clear that the answer is not to give into a kind of “good people on both sides” kind of moral relativism.   The images we saw from the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January included many images of fierce hatred and moral evil, including people identifying with racist and neo-Nazi causes.    God may love the people that we hate, but God hates sin and hatred.    There is a place for moral outrage in the life and voice of the church, and  there are some on the extremes of left and right who need to be shunned by decent people and corrected by just law.

Paul says that we as church have the “mind of Christ”.    How do we as disciples of Christ live in an age of violent and extreme beliefs?   It’s not easy, but I think we start by avoiding the self-righteousness of Jonah.   We believe in a good and merciful God.  We believe that all are created equally by that same God.    Our voices, our actions, and our ethics need to flow from these starting points.  Today, at the end of the Week of Christian Unity, we are called to ask ourselves, what will our disagreements look and sound like when we realize  that those we may disagree with are just as beloved of God as we are?

 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Gift of Visibility: A Sermon for the Second Sunday After Epiphany

Preached Online at All Saints King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 27 January, 2021.

Readings for this Sunday:  1 Samuel 3.1-20; Psalm 139:1-5,12-17; 1 Corinthians6.12-20; John 1.43-51

 


Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (Jn 1:48)

 

Today I want to speak about visibility, about what it means to be seen and known by God, and about how, if we choose, we can start to see the world and one another through God’s eyes.

A woman I knew once told me that the hardest part of getting older was the feeling that she was invisible in public.   I was attractive in my youth, she said, but as I got into my sixties I felt that people no longer saw me.  Or if they did, in shops, they would call me “dear” or “dearie” and that infuriated me, because I was just another little old lady to them.  I am sure that men often feel the same way.   Old age can erase people from the public view.   Poverty and homelessness can have the same effect of rendering people invisible because others stop seeing them.

Someone has said that the most valuable gift we can give is attention.   We all want to be seen and recognized as human beings, because that’s where our dignity is confirmed, in the eyes of others.   In our society, the word dignity is often used today in our language around human rights, although this sort of talk can be very abstract and is usually used by lawyers and politicians.  As the English author Tom Holland has noted, our secular codes of human rights have their roots in Christianity, with its insistence that all people are created and loved by God.  Our faith makes dignity real because Jesus wants us all to be visible, and we really see others, we can start to see them as God sees them.

Last Sunday I preached on the baptism of Jesus and how it opens the door for us to become children of God.  For our status as children to be meaningful, we have to be seen and known.    A parent who doesn’t recognize a child when he or she sees them isn’t a very good parent.   Did you ever have one of those panicked moments as a parent when you lost sight of your child in a crowd?  I well recall one time when my daughter was a toddler, in a busy wading pool in a park.   From fifty yards away I caught sight of her in a mass of children – she had fallen in the water and was panicking, unnoticed by others.  I don’t know how I covered the distance in seconds, vaulting over other children, but I did and snatched her out of the water, and yet I was haunted afterwards by a sense of luck.  What if I hadn’t noticed my daughter nearly drowning?

 If a loving parent can be vigilant sometimes, then how much more does God the Father see?   As Jesus tells his disciples, not one small bird falls to earth without God knowing (Mt. 10.29).  I think the most interesting part of today’s gospel, is how sees the people around him..   In these brief accounts, there is something remarkable about how Jesus finds these strangers, as if he has known them all their lives and just been waiting for this moment to call them disciples and friends.

Just before the start of today’s gospel reading, one of the first disciples, Andrew, introduces his brother Simon to Jesus.   Jesus looks at him, and then immediately gives this stranger another name.  “You are Simon, son of John  You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).” (Jn 1.42).   Now, it’s odd to rename someone when you first meet them – “Hey Bill, nice to meet you, I shall call you Scooter from now on” –so why do this, unless, Jesus knew Simon thoroughly and saw a destiny that Simon wasn’t aware of (“Mt 16.18, “you are Peter, and on this rock I shall build my church”).

Then, Jesus goes to Galilee, a region, what we would call today northern Israel, so not a small place, and John simply tells us that Jesus “found Philip” (Jn 1.43).    How did Jesus find him?  Where?  Why Philip?  How did Jesus choose him?  John doesn’t tell us because it doesn’t seem important to him.   Jesus just says “follow me” and Philip follows.   Again, there’s a sense of destiny being fulfilled here. 

Finally, there is Nathanael, Philip’s brother, who is sceptical and sarcastic when he hears that he has to come and meet the Messiah, the saviour of Israel: “A saviour from a hick town?  Give me a break” (Jn 1.46).   When Jesus meets him, he immediately compliments him on his honesty, which, again, is an odd thing to say to someone you’ve just met, as Nathanael notes:  “How can you say that?  You’ve never met me!” (Jn 1.48).

 Jesus’ response, that he saw Nathanael “under the fig tree” before Philip went and fetched him, is one of those moments in John’s gospel when we realize that Jesus sees through God’s eyes, with a clarity and a range that we could not match.   Nathanael here reminds me of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, who tells her friends that Jesus “told me everything that I have ever done” (Jn 4.39).   Jesus’ foresight shocks her and shocks Nathanael, but we perhaps should not be surprised that the God who sees the sparrow can find and choose his disciples.

Would you be surprised that Jesus sees you just as clearly, knows you just as well, and has a purpose and a destiny for you?   If Jesus could see Nathanael under the fig tree, can he not see you at your workplace, in your car, or in the quiet of your house?  If Jesus knew these men before he had ever met them, does he not also know us, whose hearts are open, whose desires are known, and who have no secrets to hide?   

If Jesus called these men to follow him, does he not also call us also to go with him, to befriend him, and learn from him?    If Jesus had new names and new destinies for these men, does he not also call us into new identities as disciples, as friends, and as children of God?    In his long goodbye to his disciples, Jesus says “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father.   You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn 15.15-16).  One of our culture’s greatest myths is that we choose our fate, that we can be anything we want to be.  Our faith begs to differ. One of Christianity’s greatest gifts is that we are seen, chosen, and called by Jesus to be God’s friends and adopted children.   “My sheep hear my voice”, Jesus says elsewhere in John’s gospel; “I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10.27).

The Christian life doesn’t begin when we are seen.  Jesus sees all of us.   The Christian life doesn’t even begin when we are chosen, because I believe that Jesus would like to choose everyone – the good news is for all people.   The Christian life begins when some who are seen and chosen actually decide to follow. 

I said last week that to be baptized by John, to save us, Jesus had to walk down the muddy bank of the Jordan in the footsteps of every sinful person who had gone before him.  Now, on the other side of baptism, calling his disciples, we who choose to follow now follow in his footsteps.   We go where Jesus goes, to those who need God, and we see with Jesus’ eyes, seeing those who the world no longer sees, respecting those who are no longer granted dignity or worth.

Let me finish with an example of what seeing with Jesus’ eyes looks like.  A Canadian sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, has been making bronze statues of a man huddled in a blanket, sleeping on a public bench.  The feet protruding from the blanket have been pierced.  These “homeless Jesus” statues have been placed in front of churches across North America, and wherever they appear, they often provoke calls to 911 from passers-by who don’t realize that it’s a statue and who are concerned for the man’s welfare.   These statues give churches new ways to make homeless and poverty visible to the communities around them.

Jesus gifts his followers the gift of the visibility, but that gift comes with a responsibility.   We who are truly seen, known, and loved by God are given the privilege of seeing the world through God’s eyes.  We see those who would otherwise be invisible, and forgotten.    We at All Saints try to exercise this gift in our ministry to the residents of Crosslinks, truly seeing the residents there as fellow children of God, equally beloved.   Who else can we see through God’s eyes?   Since I’ve been here,  I’ve heard discussions about how housing, climate change, and reconciliation with our indigenous brothers and sisters should be priorities for All Saints.    We may not be able to address all these issues equally, but the fact that we see them is because of this gift of visibility, this gift of seeing through God’s eyes, that Jesus has given us.   

Let’s pray.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

In Our Muddy Footsteps: A Sermon For the Baptism of the Lord

 

 

Preached Online For All Saints King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 10 January, 2020.

Lections for The Baptism of the Lord:  Genesis 1.1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11

 


‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

So says the voice of God at the baptism of Jesus.    What would it mean for God to say the same thing for each of us?   “This is my son or daughter; with you I am well pleased”.  

Today I want to think with you about how the baptism of Jesus makes it possible for God to pleased with us, about how baptism is as much of an act of creation as is the coming together of the world in Genesis 1, and what it means for us to live that new creation.

You might remember that in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus presents himself at the Jordan, John is just as puzzled and says, shouldn’t you be baptizing me?  Jesus’ response is to say “Let is be so now, for it is proper to for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3.15).  Mark doesn’t report this conversation, but the question is worth pursuing before we proceed further.

What did Jesus mean about “righteousness”?  Why was it proper that he should be baptized?  I think to understand this, I suggest that we have to imagine Jesus stepping down the muddy bank of the river, following in the footprints of all those people -  all those sinful people -  who have gone before him to seek forgiveness.   It’s not that Jesus needed to become righteous.  Rather, he was baptized to offer us a new state of being, a re-creation, where we could become righteous. 

Jesus’ baptism is a moment when we see God’s creative, life-giving power at work, the same power which we see at the start of Genesis.  Jesus walks into the Jordan in the steps of human sinners, but he comes out as something new.  Just as the wind, the creative spirit of God, moved across the formless void in Genesis, so the Spirit comes down on (in Mark’s Greek, the grammar can even mean into) Jesus.   The same voice of satisfaction is heard:  in Genesis God saw that the light was good.  Here the voice says that God is “well pleased”.   That same creative power, working out of God’s goodness, is seen in both stories.   Here, as Jesus comes up out of the muddy Jordan, Mark signals that God has done something wonderful and new.

John hinted at this new thing when he said that he only baptized people with water; but Jesus he says “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”.  That same creative power that brought light and goodness out of the void in Genesis, that same creative power that descends on Jesus in the dove and pronounces Jesus “well pleasing”, that same creative power made us into new beings in the baptism that we share with Jesus.    In our liturgy from the BAS, it says that  we are baptized “by water and the spirit and so we were “raised to the new life of grace” (BAS p. 160).   Our baptism is thus a continuation of God’s creative action, made us new people by allowing us to be one with Jesus.  St. Paul wrote that “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor 5:1-7).

Through our baptism, we become the son or daughter of God, the beloved, with whom God is well pleased.  Now many of us might think that our baptism happened long ago in our infancy, and since then  we’ve all done things we’re not proud of.   How can God still be well pleased with us? 

Baptism shows us what God wants for us.  It’s not a vaccination against sin and subsequent misdoings, but it is the start of a relationship that we can grow into.   Baptism is the beginning of a lifetime of leaning into God, of trusting and depending in the Father’s love for us, because there are moments in life when we need to trust and depend in the Father’s love.

 

 

Do you remember what happens immediately after Jesus’ baptism?  Mark says that “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan” (Mk 1.12).   How does Satan tempt Jesus?  In Matthew’s account, every time Satan tempts Jesus, he starts by sayig “If you are the Son of God …” and then gives Jesus three opportunities to stop trusting in his Father’s love.   How does Jesus resist Satan?  He resists by relying on the Father’s love and on the Word of God.  Jesus never falls into the trap of doubting that he is the son of God.

 

Whatever we may think about Satan, I think we can all agree that we are frequently tempted, as Jesus was.   And what is the greatest temptation of them all?   To quote the preacher Timothy Keller, the greatest temptation we face, our greatest spiritual vulnerability, is to stop believing that we are beloved children of God.   

 

Keller says, and rightly so, that we get into trouble when doubt that God loves us, and usually we get into trouble when we suffer, when bad things happen.    Either we get angry at God because our life isn’t going according to plan, or we get angry at ourselves, because we decide that God feels that we must deserve this suffering.  Either way is a failure of trust in God’s love.  Either way is doubt that God really did want to create something new in us.

 

Here’s the thing about creation.  Humans can be creative, but we are created.   Despite all the self-help talk about inventing a new you, we can’t make ourselves new, better people.  Only God can do that, and that is what Jesus meant when he said to John that he had to “fulfil all righteousness”.   As Timothy Keller notes, Jesus is the Saviour because only he is able to go down into the Jordan, following all those muddy sinner’s footprints, and he is able to take those sins on himself because he is totally pleasing to God.  When Jesus came up out of the Jordan, he gave that life to us. John says at the start of his gospel, to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (Jn 1.2). 

Today, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, we are reminded that Jesus is a Saviour who opens the door of God’s creative power to make us all new.   This day reminds us that in our baptism, we have received the assurance that we are beloved children of God.  The challenge of the Christian life is to remember that love, to rely on it, and to return to it if we miss the path.  If you have already believed in Jesus, that gift of adoption was always yours.  If you want to believe, that gift is there for you.  The only way that gift can be taken away from us is if we are tempted into thinking that we are not worthy of it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Pandemic Church Closings - Saving Lives or Surrendering to Secularism?


Hello on this the Feast of the Epiphany.  I've made some comments on several recent videos in which some prominent figures (Tom Holland in particular) offer their thoughts on the pandemic, on churches willingly allowing themselves to be closed, and whether we are thus furthering our own irrelevance.  I would love to hear your thoughts after watching this.  MP+

Sunday, January 3, 2021

According to Plan: A Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany

 


Preached and posted online for All Saints, King City, Ontario, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 3 January, 2021, the Feast of the Epiphany (transferred from 6 Jan).

Lections for Epiphany:  Isaiah 60.1-6, Psalm 72.1-7,10-14, Ephesians 3.1-12, Matthew 2.1-12

Text: [T]he plan of the mystery hidden for ages in[d] God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph 3.9-10).

If you don't want to read the text below, here's a link to the video version I did for the parish website.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians tells us momentous things about the role of the church as an ordained part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world and the defeat of God’s cosmic enemies, sin and death.   We will consider these ideas shortly, while approaching them in a roundabout way in the steps of the wandering Magi, those mysterious figures who “bearing gifts … traverse afar”.   

Who were the Magi?   The Greek word magoi, from which we get our English word magician, suggests someone learned and clever, a priest, or an astrologer, or some combination thereof.   Earlier uses of the word in antiquity point to Zoroastrianism, one of the religions of Persia, or Parthia as the Romans called it, so somewhere far away, to “the East”.

They tell King Herod that “we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage”.  Their association with astronomy might allow us to think of them as scientists, people who use their intellect to observe and draw conclusions, though contemporary astronomers such as Neil de Grasse Tyson might scoff at the idea of a wandering star that stopped over Bethlehem.

Matthew however didn’t think of the Magi as scientists.   He saw them as heralds of the incarnation, as faithful foreigners who used their intellects to follow God’s leading and to make God in Jesus known to the world.   The Magi confirm earlier prophecies from the Hebrew scripture that the Gentiles will come and worship the God of Israel, as we saw in our first lesson.   Even the star, whether we think of it as a natural or supernatural sign, is hinted at in Hebrew scripture as a sign of God sending a ruler for Israel (Num 24.17-18).   The Magis’ gift of gold, frankincense and myrrh are also prophetic, pointing to Jesus’ role as the Messiah, a king in the lineage of David who will die for the sins of the whole world.

Like John the Baptist who we saw before Christmas, the Magi are included in the gospel because they point to Jesus.   They recognize God’s acts of revelation, of God revealing God’s self in the star and in the babe in Bethlehem, and they respond to it.   The Magi are thus an example for us, so that we are ready to recognize God in Christ and to respond with gratitude and adoration to our Saviour.

St. Paul likely didn’t know any of the nativity stories, or if he did, he never refers to them in his letters.    What he did know and preach was that God had revealed himself to us in Christ.    If we look at our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we see over and over again how Paul wants us to know one big thing – that it has pleased God to reveal himself to us, for no reason other than God’s goodness and kindness towards us.

Because of God’s self-revealing, Paul tells the church in Ephesus, he was made an apostle –“you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation” (Eph 3.2).   His commission, Paul explains, is to help others “to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ”  which has “now been revealed” (Eph 3.4-5).  The mystery that is now made clear is that all people, Jews and Gentiles – even magicians from far off Persia! – may be saved by becoming God’s family – “heirs, members of the same body” - through Jesus.

Had Paul known the nativity stories (he probably didn’t as Matthew and Luke’s gospels post-dated him), he would surely have said that they confirm God’s plan, a design that was kept a “mystery hidden for ages” but has now revealed in Jesus.  Furthermore, if Paul had known about All Saints King City, he would have said that we, like the church in Ephesus in the first century, are now part of that plan.   Paul writes that it is “through the church” that God’s plan to save the world in Christ “might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3.10).  

This statement is so extraordinary and so important to our existence that it bears restating.  Paul says that the church – all churches, any church – exist so that God’s plan for salvation, in all of its wisdom and graciousness,  can be shown to the world. Note that Paul makes it clear that the church is part of God’s plan, not ours – God has now revealed revealed this plan to us through Christ,  so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known”.  The words “so that” I think clearly link the church to God’s plan for us.  In other words, the church is not our invention or project.  The church is God’s gift to us to manage.  This realization is always worth keeping in mind for those of us entrusted with positions of leadership, as there is always the temptation in those roles for us to think that we own the church.

Paul writes that the church exists so that  “the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (v10).  If any church needed a mission statement, if any parish needed a reason why it should go through the hard and tiring business of staying open, there it is.  This church (insert name of church here) exists to show the world God’s plan to save the world.   That’s a paraphrase of a long and complicated text, but I think it captures the idea.  Let’s try it again.   All Saints King City exists to show the world God’s plan to save the world.  How does that sound to you?  We should put that in our next parish profile.

Paul says something curious about the church existing so that God’s plan and wisdom can be made “known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”.  What does that mean?  Who are the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”?  To answer this question, let’s go back to the Magi.  What do they say when they first meet King Herod?   They don’t say “Good day, Your Majesty, what a nice palace you have here”.  They say “Where is this child who has been born king of the Jews” (Mt 2.2).  Being so clueless as to Herod’s political role and status makes the Wise Men seem charmingly na├»ve and unworldly, but surely it is a deliberate message on Matthew’s part to say that there is only one King of the Jews, and it is not Herod.   Their question also foreshadows the sign placed over Jesus’ head on the cross, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews”.    Part of the mystery that Paul refers to is how Jesus’ kingship can be seen in the cross, an instrument of torture used by Rome to shame and humiliate its enemies.

Here, in the shadow of the cross, I think we find the answer to who are the “authorities in the heavenly places”, because Paul knows that the cross is the weapon by which God in Christ defeats the power of sin and death.   Sin and death are cosmic powers, they are the last enemies which God defeats at the end of the Book of Revelation (Rev 20.14), but until then they must be exposed and confronted.    Immediately after the departure of the Magi, we see these cosmic opponents of God in Herod’s ordering the massacre of the children of Bethlehem (Mt 2.16-18).  The killing of the Holy Innocents is an act of a petty and vicious tyrant, but its echoes can be heard across the centuries in every slaughter, every genocide, every death camp and ethnic cleansing.   Herod reminds us that for now, sin and death have a place in the cosmos, what Paul calls the heavenly places, but their foothold is temporary, and their defeat is certain.  We may seem well insulated from all that sin and death here in peaceful King Township, but all the more reason why we should return to our refugee sponsorship projects as soon as the Covid vaccines permit, because those projects are part of God’s cosmic struggle against sin and death.

Today we are at the start of a year, with a pandemic still raging and a future that seems uncertain and dangerous, and Herods aplenty on the world stage.  We see through them.  We know that Jesus is the king who defeats sin and death.   And so here we are, the church, established by God, entrusted with a mystery now made clear.  Like the Magi, like Paul, our role is simply to be and to say that God in Christ has a plan to save the world.  My prayer for us as a parish is that our faith, our lives, and our worship always point and lead others to this one great truth.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Friday Thoughts (On Saturday): On John 16.23b-30 and Praying in the Shadow of the Cross

 Hello!  As you may know, each Friday I write a short commentary on an assigned passage from the Anglican daily office lectionary for a friend who provides his parish with a daily devotional by email.   Normally I try to write these and record them onto YouTube on Fridays, but things got out of hand in the last few days, so there you are.  

 The passage in question is John 16.23b-30.   The NRSV text (courtesy of www.oremus.org) follows, and after that my comments.  I hope that they are helpful to you in some way, and would love to hear your thoughts and responses.

Jn. 16:23b-30

On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.

‘I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.’

His disciples said, ‘Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.’

 


In today’s passage from John’s gospel, these are among the last words that Jesus speaks to the disciples before his arrest, death, and resurrection.    The passage begins with Jesus speaking of a “day” to come, it would seem in the near future, when his relationship to the Father will be fully revealed in plain language.   In the last lines of our passage, the disciples seem confident that this day has in fact arrived, but they are mistaken.  


In the chapter that follows (Jn 17) Jesus turns his gaze to heaven and speaks directly to the Father, praying that “the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17.23).  We know what the disciples don’t yet know, that the full glory of Jesus and the full love of the Father will be revealed, not in words, but in the grim visual language of a tortured body lifted high on the cross, as Jesus has previously predicted  he would be (Jn 12.32-33).


Surely it is in the context of the cross that we have to understand Jesus’ words about asking “anything of the Father in my name” so that “your joy may be complete” (Jn 16.23-24).  The cross, which is about self-giving love, vulnerability, and forgiveness, should temper our expectations about how our prayers will be answered.  The cross tells us that we are not guaranteed some earthly security or prosperity.   The Father’s love works altogether differently.


Today’s passage asks us to pray trusting that Jesus is exactly who he says he is.  It asks us to pray trusting, as Jesus trusts, in the Father’s will and love for us.  It asks us to surrender what we may want in return for what God wants for us.  Imagine yourself praying in such a manner, and then ask yourself, how could my joy be complete if I put myself in the Father’s hands, as Jesus does?   

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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