Monday, January 30, 2023

Beatitudes and Bricklayers: A Sermon For the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

 Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Proper 4] - Sunday, January 29th, 2023 

Readings - Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12


“Blessed are the meek/gentle, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5.3)

Twenty years ago, when I was in seminary, I went to attend a lecture by a theologian who was in town.     The lecturer was someone only known to me by reputation, Stanley Hauerwas.   I knew that this guy was a big deal in theology circles, a member of the divinity faculty of Duke University who the year before had been mentioned in Time Magazine as “America’s Best Theologian”

I got to the lecture hall early, and there were only a few people there, including one small, wiry old man with a bald head and a short silver beard.   He was wearing jeans, a denim shirt, and a tie that was adorned with a cartoon character (I think it was Daffy Duck but I wouldn’t swear to it).   I honestly thought it was maybe the college janitor who was still hanging around, or maybe one of those odd culture vulture seniors who like to come to academic lectures.  

Well, you can probably see where this is going, but please, bear in mind that this was before the days of smart phones, when anyone can google anything, or I would have soon be the wiser.  I only learned my mistake when the funny old guy was invited to the podium after a fulsome introduction.  During that lecture, I had ample time to reflect on how wrong and even patronizing my first impression of him had been.

Twenty years later I have a long row of Hauerwas’ books on my shelf, and he’s taught m a lot about being a Christian.   I could talk about him all day, but perhaps the most important thing to know about Stanley Hauerwas is that his father was a Christian man and a bricklayer who taught his son to be both.  

In his memoir, he describes how his father started him as a bricklayer’s helper, a labourer working mostly with black men because that’s how segregated Texas worked.  It was demanding, skilled work:  “every task associated with labouring for brick layers is a skill you must learn” (Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir 28).  The work taught him to appreciate skill, hard work, and the company of hard, rough men who took pride in work that nobody else could do or would want to do.

Years later, Hauerwas preached at his father’s funeral, choosing today’s gospel, Matthew 5:1-12, as one of his texts.  He began by describing his father as “kind and gentle, possessing each virtue with a simplicity that comes only to those who are good through and through” (Hannah’s Child 38).  

The reason why I’m telling you all this is because Hauerwas in his eulogy sermon said that his father’s “gentleness … helps us to understand better Jesus’ beatitudes” (Hannah’s Child 38).   While he doesn’t say so in the sermon, I’m quite sure that in talking of his father’s “gentleness” he was thinking of the beatitude “blessed are the meek”, which is a word that can be variously translated as “soft”, “submissive”, “obedient”, or “gentle”, though in the original Greek it means something like “self control” or “strength that shows in restraint”.

Now as soon as I start talking about things like “self control” we get to the heart of the difficulty of speaking about the Beatitudes, because these oh-so familiar words from the gospel also seem terribly intimidating, because they have an ethical dimension.  It’s thus easy to see the Beatitudes as things we should do in order to be better people.  I’m sure you’ve heard sermons (mea culpa!) where you’ve been told to be more pure, be more peaceable, or be more merciful.  The difficulty of such an approach is that the Beatitudes become lofty demands that intimidate us.  

To be sure, there are such ethical demands in scripture, and today’s readings are rich with them.  The prophet Micah, in one of the most well known verses of the Hebrew scriptures, calls on us to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Mi 6:8).  But then we hear the psalmist say that only the blameless can dwell with God (Ps 15:1-2), and we wonder how we could ever be counted among the blameless.

Here in this dilemma is where Hauerwas as a theologian is helpful.  In his eulogy sermon for his father, he said that the Beatitudes are not “ideals we must strive to attain” nor are they “general recommendations for anyone”; rather, they “describe those who have been washed by the blood of the Lamb, [for] it is they who will hunger and thirst no more, having had their lives transformed by Christ’s cross and resurrection” (38).  In other words, the Beatitudes only make sense because they come from Jesus.   They are spoken as gift (and what is a blessing if not a gift?) to those who wish to know and be part of the kingdom of God.

Like they say, context is key.   The Beatitudes are Jesus’ opening act.  Prior to this, Matthew hasn’t told us much about Jesus’ preaching, which is summed up so far in one line: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Mt 4.17).  Matthew also tells us that Jesus traveled widely, “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people”, to the point where his fame spreads and “great crowds followed him” (Mt 4.23-25).

So that’s all important because these are the same crowds that Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount to (in Mt 5).  If these people are there because they have not yet been healed, then this is just the waiting room of a walk in clinic, but I think there’s far more to it.  Matthew seems to be saying that many in these crowds are there because of the healings, that they’ve seen something of the kingdom of God and they want to know more about what it means to live in that kingdom. 

So these folks in the crowds, they’re the same as us, really.  We gather because we’ve been touched touched by Jesus, maybe even experienced Jesus’ love and forgiveness, but we are also here because we’ve felt the call of the kingdom of heaven.  And because we’ve felt the call of the kingdom of heaven, and as we start to understand how it works, we learn to see and want the things and the people that Jesus sees.  We become hungrier for justice to be done, our desire for mercy, kindness and peace increases.

In his sermon for his father, Stanley Hauerwas said that “We cannot try to be meek or gentle in order to become a disciple of this gentle Jesus, but in learning to be his disciple some of us will discover that we have been gentled” (Hannah’s Child 39).  I think Hauerwas is surely right here.  He reminds us that the kingdom of heaven comes to us as a gift, and in accepting the beatitudes, we find that we’re at a starting point, with further to go and much that might be required of us.

In our book study last week, we were reminded by Canon Martha Tatarnic that the church can be a difficult place.   We aren’t all saints …  well, not yet.   Church people can be awful, sometimes, we can lash out, gossip, be spiteful.   Tatarnic writes she and people she loves have been deeply hurt by others in their communities of faith.  And yet, she writes, the fact is that we have nowhere better to go.  

“We need one another.  We need one another to know and love Jesus.   We need the community of faith and the stories of how God has been at work in actual, real lives - not just our own, but others too - in order to love and serve God” (Why Gather 40).”

Maybe this is why we need the church.  The church exists to make the kingdom of God visible to the world, and the kingdom of God is lived out by people who accept the beatitudes, both as gifts, but also as skills that we must practice at.   Just as Hauerwas’ daddy learned gentleness from following Christ, so did the son learn to be a bricklayer from his father through long days of hard labour under the Texas sun. 

Meekness can be gentleness, but meekness (or humility) can also be a willingness to submit to a teacher.    Meekness can be honesty about our needs, it can be the willingness to receive a blessing because we know that without it our souls would be impoverished.   Meekness can be the willingness to be in community with those who lack in kindness, because we want the same healing for them that we want for ourselves.   

Church is the place where we learn to receive these gifts and slowly, imperfectly, practice them.  It’s also the place where we learn to see each other as who we truly are, all of us - from the humbest bricklayer and to the most brilliant theologian — all blessed, all loved, all gentled and transformed in Christ.  Maybe that’s why we come to church, to see one another as we truly are.  Amen.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Knowing and Known By Jesus. A Sermon For the Second Sunday of Epiphany

Knowing and Known By Jesus.  A Sermon For the Second Sunday of Epiphany (Yr A), Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 15 January, 2023.

Readings - Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42


38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ (John 1.38)

Sometimes these days, when I think about Covid and think that it might be over, I feel a bit like the prairie dogs I used to see in Alberta, when they pop out of their burrows and look around anxiously.   Are we done?  Are we back to normal?   (It doesn’t help that we now hear about a new variant called Kraken!).

As far as church goes, as we reflect on the last two and a half years, we can at least take comfort that we learned a few things.   We learned a lot about technology and live-streaming (full marks to this church!).  We learned a lot about the importance of inspirational leadership, thanks in part to Bishop Andrew and his folksy but faithful Friday emails to the Diocese.   We learned, the hard way, about our own fragility, as practically every church in the Diocese struggles to recover from deficits and diminished offerings.

I think most of all we learned how important community was.   Churches, especially larger ones, sometimes divided into cliques or tribes - the early service vs the later one, the old prayerbook vs BAS, and so on.  All that went away during Covid and we were hungry just to be with one another, like survivors of a shipwreck who run into one another on some island.   During the second shutdown in early 2022, when I was interim at another church, I decided that we would livestream our service rather than trying to do them by Zoom.

I had my reasons for this - I’d spent a lot of learning how to livestream, people could hear the organist, I didn’t really like preaching on Zoom - but I realized soon I’d made a mistake.   The congregation loved their Zoom times.  They loved visiting with one another, so much so that it was hard to get them shut up for the service.  And honestly, could you blame them?   I want Morning Prayer on Zoom, said almost no one ever!  In short, people wanted the community that church provides because people, especially older people, are often lonely.

Even before Covid, I think we in the developed world realized that perhaps the greatest scourge of our age is loneliness.   In 2018, an article in The Economist magazine described loneliness “as perceived social isolation, a feeling of not having the social contacts one would like”.   

Often loneliness is associated with particular groups, such as the elderly, immigrants, or transient workers, but it’s also seen as a more general problem.   Age UK, a charity, found that for 41% of Britons over 65, their only source of company was a pet or the television. A 2010 study found that 35% of Americans over age 45 felt lonely.  In Japan there is a word, hikikomori, for the half million people who shut themselves up in their houses for months at a time and who eat alone.  Our Thursdays CO3 gatherings and our Community Suppers offer warmth and food, but are also aimed at loneliness - the offer a chance to be with other people and talk to them.

Churches can (and should!) offer connection and community to the lonely, the elderly, and the forgotten, but so do other places.  The Collingwood Legion is just one place in town that offers euchre, lunches, and companionship.    The one unique thing that churches can offer is Jesus - if we’re bold enough to be up front about who we are as his followers.  Sometimes our natural Anglican diffidence about evangelism means that we shyly veil Jesus behind words like “loving”, “inclusive”, and “welcoming”.    The last All Saints mission statement was big on those words but shy on Jesus, and I’m not sure the name Jesus can actually be found on our website, which is odd, because we talk about him a lot on Sundays.

It’s thus helpful that we can spend another Sunday in the company of John the Baptist, because John knows who Jesus is and he isn’t shy in telling people about him.   In our gospel today John says, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” (Jn 1:34).  In fact, just before Jesus appears, in this very dense first chapter of John’s very dense gospel, John is quizzed by the priests and Levites about what he’s all about, and he says to them “Among you stands one whom you do not know” (John 1:26).  Ironically, the priests and Levites don’t even understand who John is, whether he’s the Messiah, or a prophet, and he says, no, I’m just a guy pointing to Jesus (Jn 1:19-23).

In many ways, John the Baptist shows us what the church at its best should do in a world that increasingly does not know Jesus   First, he has a lot to say about Jesus because he is absolutely sure of who Jesus is.  “[T]his is the Son of God” he says, pointing to Jesus’ identity, and twice he says “here is the Lamb of God” which points to Jesus’ obedience to God and his willingness to sacrifice himself to save us from sin and death.

Moreover, John does not seek his own benefit.  He has his own disciples, his own students, but he sets them free to follow Jesus.  As John says later on, Jesus “must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3.30).  The church exists not for its own glory, and it does not seek members to maintain the institution (which is often our motive when we talk of church growth).   Rather, the church exists so that people may discover who Jesus is.

It’s ironic that people gravitate to conspiracy theories like Q Anon that have no truth to them, whereas Jesus is not some arcane body of knowledge to be discovered, nor is he some unapproachable celebrity who has to be stalked.  Jesus wants to be known.  When John’s disciples meet he, Jesus initiates the meeting: ”When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ (Jn 1.38).  And that question, “What are you looking for”, is surely the greatest question that people are waiting to be asked, and that brings me back to the idea of loneliness.

When we the church think about outreach what we have to offer, we think about all sorts of things that are really secondary.  We think, we can offer a beautiful building, or a certain kind of music, or moral guidance, or programs, or theology, or whatever.   What if the greatest thing we can offer is an introduction to Jesus, to Jesus as God who wants to be known, who wants to come alongside us and tell us that we’re loved and we’re not alone?   That’s one the reasons why I love our Thursday morning gathering, because as I said earlier it’s a way to show God’s love to the lonely.

“What are you looking for”?  Jesus genuinely wants to know our answers to that question.  Our immediate answers may be obvious ones according to the rule of this world - health, wealth, strength, security.   However, it may be that we can only think about consider better answers when we spend time with Jesus and learn to see the Kingdom of God as Jesus sees it.  Learning to think of better answers to Jesus’ question may take time.

“They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’  He said to them, ‘Come and see.’” (Jn 1.38-39).   The invitation to spend time with Jesus is the core invitation of the church.   It’s not an invitation to self-righteousness, or an invitation to secret knowledge or some superior dogma.  It’s not an invitation to participate in one side or the other of the culture wars.  

Rather, it’s an invitation to spend time with Jesus the rabbi/teacher and to eat, laugh, and learn with fellow students of the rabbi.  It’s an open-ended process that addresses the issue of loneliness in two ways.  The first is the community, fellowship, or koinonia of the church that says “we seek truth and goodness together, and we’re glad you’re with us”.  

The second, more profound way that the church can answer the problem of loneliness is, and I’ll say this again, by introducing people to Jesus.   Jesus is not the remote, transcendent God.  Jesus is the immanent, incarnate God, the God who seeks to dwell among us, which is the first and greatest message of John’s gospel (“the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”).  And in spending time listening to this Word and learning how to speak the language of the faith, we can be led to better answers.

What are you looking for?’ (Jn 1.38).   One can imagine many good answers to this question:  forgiveness, a tender heart, courage to forgive another, strength for the day, peace, serenity, grace to face age and adversity - these are just some of the things Jesus will grant us.  But the best thing that Jesus offers, I think, is the promise that we will not walk alone.   Jesus embodies the presence of God promised by the psalmist , so that even if and when we walk “through the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps 23.4) we are never alone.    

All of this begins with the simple invitation “come”.   Come be with us.  Come and ask questions.  Come and learn. Come and rest.  Come and meet Jesus. Come and know that you’re loved.  Come and know that your life has meaning and purpose and does not end with death. For really, the church’s message is same as what Andrew says to Simon:  “We have found the Messiah” (Jn 1:41).  Amen. 

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Voices of God: A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday of the Baptism of Our Lord, 8 January, 2022.  Texts for this Sunday:  Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17.

17And a voice from heaven said, This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.  (Mt 3.17)

.After I was newly ordained and had given a few sermons in my first parish, a lady told me that I didn’t have a preacher’s voice.   Puzzled, I asked her what sort of voice that might be, and she told me that a real preacher sounded like the radio evangelists she had grown up with.   She wanted someone whose voice was loud and confident, which was a challenge for me because no one would cast me as a radio preacher.   I might get cast as a soft spoken, absent minded academic, but nobody would ever giving me the starring role in The Billy Graham Story!

 As I thought about it more, however, I realized that, above all else, my parishioner wanted to hear an authoritative voice.   Let me say up front that there’s a difference between authoritative and authoritarian.     An authoritarian voice is the strongman demagogue, ranting and raving behind a microphone.  That voice might be pleasing to those who want their pre-existing prejudices confirmed, but that voice is full of falsehoods, distortions, and gimmicks that can easily be seen through by the discerning.  

 On the other hand, an authoritative voice is one that you trust.    It’s the voice you want to give you directions during a natural disaster, or the voice that advises you when the markets are tanking.     An authoritative voice might be the voice of a beloved parent or grandparent, giving advice to a young adult whose realized that they’ve made a terrible mess of things.   Or it could be the voice of a trusted commander, rallying frightened troops on the front lines.

 Sadly, authoritative voices seem very rare today.   When I was a kid watching the TV news with my father, there were a few reliable voices that seemed to shape the world.  I remember the calm deep tones of Walter Cronkite, or the reassuring face of Knowlton Nash, who always seemed like he would remain calm and credible as he reported that Godzilla was loose on Parliament Hill.  Today there is a multitude of voices speaking about all sorts of things; most are highly biased, many are angry, some are conspiratorial and some just want to make a buck (or, sometimes, both).    As the Economist Magazine wrote recently, it’s not like there’s a free speech crisis, but there’s definitely a listening crisis, as more and more people today simply follow the voices they want to hear, voices that confirm their own biases and don’t challenge them with uncomfortable views.

 For today’s preachers, I think the challenge isn’t trying to find the right tone of voice to use, but rather, how do find a way to speak with any kind of authority in a world that increasingly isn’t listening.  The sociologist Joel Thiessen, in recent book on religion in Canada, says for most of the people he surveyed, they see religious beliefs as being all individual choices, and they ”detest it when others push religion on others” (Chp 1).   Thus churches like ours who want to grow, or even who just want to regain ground lost during COVID, have a difficult challenge in front of us.  How do we invite others to share our faith and join us when so many people today seem to distrust religious messages?  What gives our message any particular authority?  What voice do we use?

 I think the first thing we need to recognize is that we believe in a God who speaks.   Martin Luther wrote that God is “loquacious” (Deus Loquens) which is a fancy way of saying that God is chatty.   Think about how many times words like “voice” appear in our readings today.   In today’s psalm, the voice of God practically roars.  It is “powerful”, it “thunders”, it crackles with energy like a huge fire.  At times the voice of God seems like one of those giant wood chippers used by tree companies:  The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, Glory!” (Ps 29.9).  This particular voice of God is certainly authoritative – it’s the same voice that calls that roars like wind over the dark waters of creation and calls light and the world into being (Gen 1.2).  This is the voice of the mighty creator God, the God who speaks and does stuff, but it would be unbearable to us poor mortals, though it is unfortunately the voice that some evangelists aim for when the wave a bible in the air and demand obedience (an authoritarian voice).

 Fortunately for us, the voice of God is also heard in our readings in other, gentler ways.    The prophet Isaiah speaks of God sending a servant who will be surprisingly soft-spoken:   “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street” (Isa 42.2).   As Christians, we see Isaiah as pointing towards Jesus, and we see Jesus as being the most important voice of God.   Jesus is indeed the living Word of God, the one who as John says in his gospel the Word who was with God in the beginning (John 1.1) and yet this word comes into the world with no voice of its own save a baby’s cry. 

 Jesus gains his voice slowly, as any other human child does, and when he does appear as a grown man in Matthew’s gospel, how does he speak?  Jesus does not speak with a voice of thunder or fire, as in the psalm, rather, he speaks to John with a voice of humility and obedience to his Father.   Let it be so now” he tells a scandalized John the Baptist. “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness(Mt 3.15).  This is the voice of one who sees himself as a servant rather than one who expects to be served.   It is the voice full of love for God, a voice that wants to fulfil God’s desire to save humanity, and it has its own authority.

 And there is one more voice to be considered in this today’s readings, and it is the voice that speaks from heaven as Jesus rises from the water of the Jordan River.  “And a voice from heaven said, This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3.17).  We aren’t told how loud this voice is, but it is affirming and it is loving and it is a voice that, like the voice of God in Genesis, is creative, because Jesus comes out the Jordan as a new kind of human, the new man who can save us from the sins of the first man, Adam.

 Each of us has also heard this voice at our own baptism.    At our baptisms we were named, and our identities were formed, for each of us was said to a son or a daughter, a beloved with whom God was well pleased.   The voice of God was at work in the water and in the oil we felt on our foreheads, and the Spirit of God was at work in us, moving over the water of the font and creating us anew (2 Cor 5.17), not just as a child of our parents and godparents, but as a child of God.   That I think is the authoritative voice that more people need to hear, a voice from God that says “you’re made by me, you’re beloved, you have an infinite value that no one can take away from you”.

 The voice of God is authoritative because it forms us, it tells us that we’re loved, and it tells us that our lives have value and purpose.   It’s also a voice that allows us to see a new and better world, a world without oppression or injustice.  Do you remember the soft-spoken, gentle servant that Isaiah spoke of in our first lesson?  That person is the same who will open the eyes that are blind [and] bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa 42.7).   How can such a gentle voice achieve such great things?  Let me close with a short story from the last few days.

 Every morning on Thursday’s our regional ministry clergy team has a short Zoom call to catch up and encourage one another.   Our beloved Deacon at St. Luke’s in Creemore was telling us of horrific conditions of neglect at the Huronia Guest Home in Stayner.   This business has managed to dodge the regulations around proper long term care facilities by calling itself a guest home, a glorified boarding house.  Residents were living in filthy conditions, infested with bedbugs, and lacking proper food, and the staff had gone without pay.   Lorna’s quiet voice was full of anger as she spoke about what she was hearing.

 That same day we connected Lorna with a reported from Village Media, and the next day a piece appeared in Collingwood Today onthe place residents were calling “Bedbug City”.   On Friday the Health Unit was there, and on Saturday morning Lorna told me a CTV news crew was on site.   I understand today the place will be closed as soon as the residents can be rehoused.    I’m very proud of Rev Lorna for whatever role she played in helping put heat and light on this situation.  Hers was the voice of the servant who cares about the prisoners and captives, and thus her voice had credibility and authority.

 Here, I think, is the authoritative voice that churches need to claim in an increasingly secular world, but a world that still cares about justice and goodness.    All Saints, all of us, must remember that we speak with the voice of God, the voice that God gives us.   It is not an authoritarian voice, it is not a voice that makes demands or issues harsh judgements.  It is a quiet voice that speaks in the darkness and affirms each person as a beloved child of God.  It’s a voice that calls us to repent of our old selves and to be the new people that God always wanted us to be.  It’s a voice that gives a damn about the victim and the downtrodden, a voice that is compassionate but which can also get angry when it needs to.  It’s a voice that is authoritative.

 This is the voice that preachers and people need to find and speak with.    May the Holy Spirit grant us this voice, and give us the courage to speak with it.


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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