Weeds and Wheat – A Sermon for Proper 11 (A)

Preached at St.John’s (Port Rowan) and St.Andrew’s-by-the-lake (Turkey Point)

When I was growing up, the May long weekend meant one thing: gardening.

Every year my parents, siblings and I would spend the entire weekend in the dirt, preparing and planting our garden.

While planting the garden was truly a family affair, tending the garden was not.

Although the children were allowed to water the garden as we grew older, we were not allowed to weed the garden.

Weeding the garden was my mother’s responsibility.

Mom knew that if she let us weed the garden, we would have pulled the garden bare.

You see, as children, we didn’t know the difference between weeds and garden plants.

In order to protect her garden from her overzealous and uninformed children, mom reserved the title “Executive Weeder of the Postma Family Garden” for herself alone.

In our gospel reading for today, we see that God bears the sole responsibility for taking care of the weeds in the world.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s back up and take a closer look at this parable.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus does the majority of his preaching through parables, stories that use everyday imagery to convey a deeper spiritual meaning. However, Jesus use of parables is strange: in spite of the large audiences he attracted, very rarely did Jesus explain the meaning of his parables to the crowds.

Moreover, it is only when Jesus’ disciples ask him to explain the meaning of the parables, that he does so, although always privately.

The parables are, in Jesus’ words, for those with ears to hear (cf. 13:43); the parables can only be understood by those who grasp the deeper reality about which the parables are about.

The parables are about one thing: the kingdom of God.

Therefore, the parables are not solely addressed for the crowds and disciples gathered around Jesus then, they are also addressed to us today.

The parables are not meant to entertain us or to offer us advice.

The parables are windows into the kingdom of God through which we are invited to imaginatively see what the kingdom is like.

However, we must remember that the parables are windows. We cannot piece them together in order to get the whole picture and we cannot assume that a single parable fully represents the whole of the kingdom. The parables offer us the briefest glimpses into the kingdom.

Because the parables describe what cannot be fully described by human language, we must be careful that we do not interpret them literally or read our own assumptions into them. If the disciples had to have things spelled out for them, we should not be too hasty in jumping to our own conclusions about the meaning of the parables.

Moreover, even when Jesus does explain the meaning of the parables, one question still remains: so what? If the parables describe what the kingdom looks like, what difference does this picture make to how we live?

This question is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It is a question that we are to continually ask as we engage with Scripture.

Through the parables, Jesus describes the world through the lens of the kingdom; he expects that his followers will learn to see the world through this same lens. It is in learning to see the world through kingdom eyes that we learn to live under the reign of Christ.

Jesus is the kingdom of God in the flesh; he is the key to understanding the meaning of the parables in terms of how we are called to live a kingdom way of life.

Therefore, the cross and the empty tomb stand at the centre of our kingdom vision and way of life.

The parable about the wheat and the weeds has less to do with the future and more to do with the current state of affairs in the world as they exist in the light of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

The fact of the matter is that evil is real. We need only turn on the news to confirm this reality.

Not only is evil real, it seems that evil is the dominant force in the world.

The powers that perpetuate evil know how to justify their actions to make them seem anything but evil.

However, in this parable, Jesus is cutting through the lies and calling out evil for what it is: a malignant and parasitic force that preys on life.

You see, the weed that Jesus refers to is darnel. Darnel grows all over the world; it is a universal weed. If it is ingested, it is toxic and sometimes fatal. It is easily infected by a certain kind of fungus that quickly spreads, destroying an entire wheat field.

Another thing about darnel is that until the ear appears, it looks exactly like wheat, which is why the farmer and the workers had no idea that the field was contaminated until the ears started to appear.

Jesus’ point is direct: inasmuch as evil is real, no one should ever self-righteously assume that they are the wheat because in so doing, they’ve actually identified themselves as weeds.

The implication is that although the wheat and the darnel weed look nearly identical, the difference is that weeds will always justify their actions, whereas wheat will always recognize its need for grace.

Wheat is wheat not because of its own moral superiority; wheat is wheat because it is the good seed planted by the farmer, because it recognizes that its very existence is due to the farmer, the same farmer who patiently waits until the harvest to separate the wheat from the weeds, lest he lose his entire crop.

God is the Divine Farmer; he is the one who bears sole responsibility for weeding the field. The good news is that this God promises to deal with evil once and for all.

But that is in future. What about now? So what? If this parables describes what the kingdom looks like, what difference does this picture make to how we live our lives? How do we live in the midst of evil?

We must recognize that pulling up the weeds – attempting to eradicate evil – is not an option because the result is that the entire field will be uprooted. It is not our responsibility to liberate creation.

Rather, we are called to follow the example of the farmer whose response to the weeds is to forgive them. You see, when the farmer says “Let both of them grow together until the harvest”, in the original Greek, the word translated as ‘let’ is the exact same word translated as ‘forgive’ in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”; forgive the weeds who sin against us. The farmer is forgiving because he is patient; he is patient because he has things under control.

Because the Farmer has things under patient control, we are called to be patient. In Romans 8:25, Paul says that those who live by the Spirit are called to “wait with patience” (8:25). They wait with patience because they have hope that the whole of creation “will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).

This liberation is achieved through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; Christ alone is the means by which the farmer will deal with the weeds.

The wheat does not get to dictate to the farmer how to till or plant. The wheat is not responsible for the care of the soil. The wheat does not tell the farmer when and how to harvest or how to deal with the weeds.

Wheat exists in the midst of weeds; it cannot uproot itself and seek to move to a different part of the field and it cannot seek to destroy the weeds.

This means wheat lives at the mercy of the farmer, trusting that the farmer will deal with the weeds and will harvest his crop.

As those who are called to be wheat in the world, we need to recognize our own propensity to be weeds; it is the recognition of and acceptance of God’s forgiveness that the divine farmer can turn weeds into wheat. It is a sheer act of grace that this miraculous transformation is possible.

Therefore, it is not ours to worry about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ of the kingdom. We need not worry about the weeds; our responsibility is to be wheat, to grow in Jesus Christ and to bear seed where we are planted, even if this means living next to weeds.

We do this by focusing on the patience of the farmer, by seeking first his kingdom, by learning to see through kingdom eyes.

However, in a world where evil wrecks havoc in the world, it is easy to get impatient and seek to take matters into our own hands. It is easy to place our trust in shallow optimism that through sheer effort of human will-power that the world will get better if only we try to be better people.

Patience is an important virtue. However, it is also more than a virtue; it is the kingdom way of being in the world; it is the modus operandi of the Church.

We do not threaten evil people with eternal damnation or attempt to enact God’s justice on our terms. Rather, we seek to overcome evil by doing good (cf. Rom. 12:21). The weeds are enemies; but they are also neighbors. Christ calls us to love our neighbors and enemies as we love ourselves.

We refuse to give up ground to the weeds. Rather, we patiently resist the weeds because we, as wheat, exist in and through the one who will set the world to rights. We refuse to succumb to the weeds, yet we forgive the weeds as well, reminded of our own similarity to the weeds.

We patiently endure because the world is not ours to save; the world, including the weeds, exists under the stewardship of the divine farmer.

We patiently resist and endure because we have hope that Christ, not evil, gets the final word. It is through his power, not ours, that the world will be liberated from bondage to evil.

We learn the way of patient love and forgiveness in the world where weeds grow by ordering our lives according to the kingdom.

We cannot learn kingdom patience flying solo, but alongside other stalks of wheat who are learning to see the world through kingdom eyes.

We learn kingdom patience through regularly participating in the communal practices of the Christian community – baptism, prayer, reading Scripture, worship, Communion.

It is through the patient repetition of these practices – over and over and over again – that we grow and begin to bear seed where we are planted.
It is through the patient repetition of these practices – over and over and over again – that we are slowly shaped into the likeness of the divine farmer.

Let us pray.

God you are the Patient Farmer who cares for his crop. May we be the wheat you plant in the world. Help us to grow in Christ so that we may bear seeds of the kingdom. Help us to put our trust in you so that we may patiently resist and endure the evil of the world, responding to it with the same love and grace that you extend to us through your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

5th Sunday After Pentecost (A): A Sermon

Preached at St.Andrew’s-by-the-lake (Turkey Point, ON).
“All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State… shall be – then, thenceforward, and forever free”.

These are the opening words of the Emancipation Proclamation, written by President Abraham Lincoln during the height of the American Civil War. There are four characteristics of the Emancipation Proclamation that are worth noting:

First, the Proclamation was immediate: The freedom of the slaves took effect at 12:00AM New Year’s Day 1863. Therefore, regardless of whether or not the newly freed slaves knew they were free, they were free at that exact moment.

Second, the Proclamation was unconditional: the freedom of the former slaves came freely. It was not something that was purchased; they were free because they were declared to be free.

Third, the Proclamation was permanent: the newly freed slaves were guaranteed that they would never be slaves again.

Fourth, the Proclamation freed all who were enslaved: all slaves, every single one, were free, no longer condemned to a life as someone else’s property.
In many ways, the Emancipation Proclamation brings to mind St. Paul’s description of the gospel.

In Romans chapters 5-7, Paul describes the way in which all people – every single person – find themselves caught in the web of sin, enslaved to our selfish desires.

However, in Romans 8, the climax of his argument, Paul makes a great reversal, signaled by the word ‘therefore’.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1).

In one word Paul completely overturns everything in chapters 5-7. He moves from stating that everyone is under the condemnation wrought by sin to – “there is therefore now no condemnation of those who are in Christ Jesus”.
What is going on here? What does this mean?

Listen again to verse 2: “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set [us] free from the law of sin and death”.

We who were once condemned by our sin are now free because Christ “condemned sin in the flesh” (8:3).

In other words, through Jesus, God definitively says “No!” to sin and death and, therefore, definitively says “Yes!” to those caught in the web of sin.

This is the good news of Christ’s liberation.

Similar to the Emancipation Proclamation, there are four central characteristics of Paul’s description of the gospel in Romans:

First, the gospel is immediate: whereas we were previously caught in the web of sin, “there is therefore now no condemnation” (8:1). The ‘now’ indicates the present state of affairs. Our previous identity as slaves to sin no longer defines who we are because now we are in Christ Jesus; our identity is defined by him and him alone.

Second, the gospel is unconditional: There is nothing we can do or need to do in order to purchase our freedom; it is, as Paul describes, a “free gift” (Rom. 5:15) given to all people through Jesus Christ.

Third, the gospel is permanent: nothing can undo our liberation; Christ’s condemnation of sin and death is final. Moreover, we have the promise that “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to [our] mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). Never again will we be enslaved to sin.

Fourth, the gospel is for everyone: As Paul explains at the beginning of his argument in Romans 5:18: “Just as one man’s trespass [Adam’s] led to condemnation for all, so one’s mans act of righteousness [Christ’s] leads to justification and life for all”.

But wait a minute – the gospel is for everyone? Really?

What about those who, in Paul’s words in verse 9, do not “have the Spirit of Christ” and do not “belong to him”?

Does this mean that they are not chosen by God? Moreover, does it mean they are rejected by God?

Is Christ’s liberation limited to those whom God has chosen, to the so-called ‘elect’?

Doesn’t God love everyone?

The fact that God chooses particular individuals is undeniable. The question is: why?

Why did God choose Abraham?

Why did God choose Isaac over Ishmael? Jacob over Esau?

In the face of all the options, God’s choices seem arbitrary, and therefore scandalous.

Why did God choose the people he chose? Abraham frequently lied to save his skin, Jacob was deceptive, and the people of Israel had a penchant for worshipping false gods.

God’s election of particular individuals and people is for the purpose of fulfilling his redemptive project; the only way to make sense of God’s choice of particular people, is within the context of his promise to restore the cosmos to original shalom and to bring people back into perfect fellowship with him and each other.

God maintains and fulfils this promise through those whom he chooses; election – the doctrine of God’s choosing particular individuals and people – has nothing to do with who is going to heaven and who is not and everything to do with God’s redemptive project here and now. “God elects for the sake of bringing his plan to fulfillment; he does not elect in order to recognize or champion our efforts and projects” (Reno, 219).

As arbitrary and scandalous as God’s election may seem to us, it is good news precisely because God does not elect people on the basis of any “earthly measure”, “human standard” or “calculation of merit” (Reno, 219). God chooses whom he chooses according to the priority of his grace as “he works toward the consummation of all things” (Reno, 217).

God’s choice of particular individuals is good news because it emphasizes God’s love for humanity; God does not love us in a generic, purely transcendent way; he loves us in our particularity. Moreover, God’s election of particular people demonstrates God’s willingness to become deeply involved in human history; God does not leave us to fend for ourselves while he watches from a distance, hoping that things work out for the best.

Furthermore, like God’s election, God’s love defies all reason. It seems arbitrary and indiscriminate, but this is because it is not on the basis of any human standard. God’s perfect love is without limit or boundary; it is immediate, unconditional, permanent, and it is extended to all people.

So, God chose Abraham to be his covenant partner, to be the one from whom God would make a particular people called to be a blessing to all people (cf. Gen. 22:18). God chose Abraham’s descendants to be the particular family who would help bring God’s redemptive plan for the entire cosmos to fruition.

Therefore, the answer to the question: ‘why did God choose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?’ – is simply: ‘Jesus’.

God sent his Son to become incarnate, to become God with-us and God for-us, in a particular time and a particular place in a particular human body, to be a descendant of a particular family: Abraham’s.

Jesus is the one elected by God to be the representative of humanity, to bear the violence of sin and death, and to set us free through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Just as the logic of God’s electing love defies human logic, so too does the logic of how Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension achieves human freedom.

Therefore, attempts to figure these things out are exercises in futility; rather, our response should be awe and gratitude at God’s choice to emancipate humanity through his beloved Son.

What also defies human logic is Jesus’ choice about who would continue his ministry after his ascension.

Why did Jesus choose the disciples he did, uneducated working-class men who had a tendency to doubt and betray?

Why did Jesus choose Paul, a murderous fundamentalist (cf. Acts 9:1)?

Why did Jesus choose us, the Church, prone to division and distraction?

Once again, there is no human logic Jesus’ choice. But that is exactly the point! The good news is that God’s redemptive plan will unfold on God’s timeline according to God’s ways, despite the best efforts of humans to frustrate these plans.

Nevertheless, Jesus chose the disciples, Paul, and the Church to proclaim the gospel – the good news that Christ has freed us from the web of sin and death and offers us the freedom of life in him.

Jesus chose us, the Church, to recklessly sow the seeds of the gospel, the good news of the liberation of all people. Our task is simply to sow the seed. We need not worry about the soil for the soil remains God’s responsibility alone for God alone is the one who can turn rock into rich soil and uproot thorns (cf. John Chrysostom). God alone is the one who can and has already defeated the evil one who attempts to subvert the freedom of the gospel.
Yes, there will be those who will choose to reject the gospel. Nevertheless, this rejection does not negate the liberation Christ offers. In fact, nothing can annul this freedom.

The gift of Christ’s freedom remains for all people precisely because God’s love “does not depend on what we do or what we are like. He doesn’t care whether we are sinners or not. It makes no difference to him. He is [patiently] waiting to welcome us with joy and love” (McCabe, 157). It is in this embrace that we find true freedom and true humanity. Everyone is offered this freedom in Christ, a freedom that is immediate, unconditional, and permanent.

Today we celebrate Holy Communion, where Christ unites himself with us so that we may be united with him in freedom.

This is the freedom that Christ offers: healing and wholeness, life and peace in and through him.

Come let us taste our freedom in him.

Amen.

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost (A): a sermon

Preached at St.Andrew’s-by-the-lake (Turkey Point, ON). Admittedly, it’s a bit long, but I felt the Romans text warranted an deeper look (and the conclusion rambles, but I wanted to close on a high note).

I’m sure we’ve all seen pictures or cartoons of the little devil and little angel sitting on someone’s shoulders, urging the person to make a decision, either for good or for evil, each stating their case with a compelling argument.

Appealing to the sense of pleasure that will surely follow, the devil usually wins the argument more often than not. Showing its displeasure, the angel vanishes until the next time the person is faced with a decision.

Although the angel and devil on the shoulders are typically used for comedic effect, I think it is an image that perfectly captures what Paul is getting at in Romans 7.

Paul is exploring the depths of the human heart.

What he finds is the human heart at odds with itself.

What he finds there is nothing short of chaos.

Paul does not mince words in making his point: all humans find themselves in the same situation: we are under the influence of sin.

Sin is result of the human propensity to mess things up, a propensity shared by all people.

The effects of the human propensity to mess up are best illustrated in the recent television series Breaking Bad.

This show follows high school chemistry teacher Walter White who, as his name indicates, is an all-round decent guy. He is married with a teenage son and new born daughter.

Walt is soon diagnosed with incurable cancer. With no health insurance, Walt decides to take drastic measures into his own hands. Working with one of his former students, Walt becomes a manufacturer of Crystal Meth.

The show follows Walt’s transformation from mild-mannered teacher and family man to violent drug king-pin. Walt’s transformation is not linear; but as he becomes more involved in the drug trade, his true character becomes manifest.

As the show progresses we come to realize that the ‘nice guy’ Walt appears to be is merely a façade for who he really is: a ruthless man driven by his desire for power and control.

Of course, Walt justifies his actions: “Everything I do, I do it for the family. To provide for [them] when I’m gone”. It’s a justification that sounds noble, particularly since Walt’s cancer will leave his wife a widow and his children fatherless. Moreover, his death will leave his family penniless, in debt to health care providers.

I won’t offer any spoilers as to how the show ends for those who’ve have yet to watch it other than this: despite the noble justification for his actions and his nice-guy façade, the effect of Walt’s actions spread like a cancer through his community and beyond, doing incalculable damage to numerous lives. Walt is a retched man; he is nothing less than a monster.

It is easy to point the finger of condemnation and disgust at people like Walter White. However, Paul’s point in Romans 7 is that people like Walter White are no different than you and I. There is not a clear division between ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’. No, the division goes straight through the heart of every individual.

Yes, we can point the finger at Walter White, but in so doing we are pointing the finger directly at ourselves.

Each and every one of us is Walter White; each and every one of us is the “I” Paul refers to. The “I” refers to those who are descendants of Adam (cf. Rom. 5). In other words, the “I” refers to every person who has ever lived.

When we read this text, we read it in our own voice as our own words: “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it”.

This is an ugly and uncomfortable truth: that deep-down inside, we all have the capacity to become monsters.

Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote: “it takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your soul than it does for a solider to fight on a battlefield”.

I would rather believe that I am a decent person that to admit and accept that I am a fundamentally broken person. After all, I go to church, I love my wife and kids the best way that I can. I try to do nice things for others. I’m not involved in the illegal drug trade. I am an overall good person, aren’t I?

It is difficult to take a good hard look at myself; I am full of secrets, lies, and addictions that I don’t want to see the light of day. I know that I am not innocent; I have caused damage to myself and to others. I am selfish; I think not so-good thoughts about others. I use words to bring others down.

Let’s go a bit deeper. How good would I really be if there were no laws and consequences? How good would I really be if I could do certain things knowing that I could get away with them?

It is difficult to take a good hard look at myself because it inevitably leads to the conclusion that I cannot save myself from myself because, despite any outward appearances to the contrary, deep-down inside I am a mess.

My refusal to take a good hard look at myself is ultimately the result of my stubborn refusal to accept God’s love, grace, and forgiveness; my refusal to look at myself is rooted in my insistence that I can fix things on my own if I try a bit harder, if I’m a super-nice guy, if I do all the right things and follow all the rules.

However, in Romans 7 Paul is also cutting through the type of thinking that suggests that human wickedness will be overcome if people simply ‘do the right thing’ and ‘just love each other’.

This is impossible, says Paul, because the human propensity for cruelty and violence remains; we know this is true from what we see on the news and from our own life experiences.

The root of the problem, as Paul suggests, is that we are “of the flesh” (Rom. 7:14).

But what does this mean? Is Paul arguing that the problem is simply a result of the fact that we are flesh-and-blood creatures? Is Paul suggesting that the root of all our problems is our physical bodies?

Absolutely not. When Paul speaks of “the flesh” here and elsewhere, he is talking about disordered desire. To be of the flesh is to be, in the words of St. Augustine, “curved in on oneself”.

I am of the flesh when I selfishly put my desires first with no regard for others.

I am of the flesh when I abuse the humanity of others for my own gain, when I “inappropriately use power” to set myself above others (Keck, 186).
In other words, to be in the flesh is to be caught in the web of sin, a web that all people are caught in where people are turned against God and each other.

None of my efforts, no matter how good or well-intentioned, can undo or free me the web of sin or reverse its effects.

Paul sounds like a pessimist; no one likes to be brought down and told how awful they are. Being confronted with my sin is never a comfortable or painless experience. Nevertheless, despite his refusal to mince words, Paul is not a pessimist precisely because he “views the human condition from the standpoint of what God has already done to overcome it” (Keck, p. 185).

Paul takes sin seriously because God takes sin seriously; God takes sin seriously because of his boundless love for all people, those created in his image.

God’s definitive response to sin and death is “No!” a response he gives through the death and resurrection of his Son. God’s judgment against sin is the good news that we are liberated from the power of sin through Jesus Christ.

It is like a doctor giving a diagnosis; initially the news may not sound good and the remedy difficult and painful. However, it is only in naming the cause of the problem that the appropriate treatment can be offered. If we refuse to hear the cause, we cannot accept the cure.

The human heart is the place where God and sin collide, a place where sin often wins the battle.

However, the good news is that the war is already won in and through Jesus Christ.

In Christ, we are restored to proper fellowship with God and given a new identity as God’s children.

Christ takes upon himself my guilt and fear in order to liberate me from sin, freeing me to try again and fail again…and again (cf. Spufford, 166).

Christ overwhelms sin with the only things that can defeat it: God’s love, grace, and forgiveness.

Every person in the world knows sin and its effects; we are all “knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery of the world” (Beuchner). Sin and death remain real forces in the world and we continue to struggle against them. However, as Christians, we know sin defeated; we know Christ stands with us in the muck and misery and therefore we have hope and assurance that sin and death will not get the final word.

Our response to sin is confession.

When we confess, we are admitting that we are caught in the web of sin; that we are “of the flesh”.

When we confess, we are opening ourselves to receive God’s embrace.

When we confess, we are taking Christ’s yoke upon ourselves.

We take on Christ’s yoke because he took on our yoke – the yoke of slavery to sin – and destroyed it.

We take on Christ’s yoke because his yoke is nothing less than our freedom, the freedom of knowing and experiencing God’s boundless love and forgiveness.

Christ’s yoke is easy because it means that we no longer have to rely on own attempts to untangle ourselves from the web of sin. Christ’s yoke is easy because he is the one who bears the burden of our sin; he alone is able to do the work of restoring our true selves in fellowship with God.

We can give up trying to be good because we rest in the one who is the embodiment of goodness. Morality does not save me; listening to the angel on my shoulder does not lessen the chaos of my inner-self.

Taking on Christ’s yoke means that I give up control. No longer am I the one calling the shots. Rather, I let Christ assume control and walk beside him.

Giving up control is a difficult thing to do, especially in our culture where the will of the individual reigns supreme.

However, as Paul reminds us, insisting that I am in control is nothing but an illusion that leads to all kinds of problems.

Taking on Christ’s yoke is the difficult process of dying to my selfish desires and fixing my eyes on Christ, the author and finisher of my salvation.

The fundamental struggle of every person is between sin and grace, between the insistence that “I am in control” and the acceptance of God’s forgiveness.

Taking on Christ’s yoke means that I am bound to him, the one who binds himself to me. My identity – who I am – becomes entangled with Christ. In him, I am made and remade into his likeness.

No longer am I oriented to myself and my past mistakes; I am oriented to Christ and to the future, of being perfected in and by Christ.

Being yoked to Christ means that we see the world through gospel eyes.

We see that the world retains the blessing of original goodness, but that it is also marred by sin.

We see that God has not left the world to its own devices, but that he has liberated it in Jesus Christ.

This means that we who are yoked to Christ do not think and act according to a list of abstract moral principles or guidelines; we think and act according to the gospel – the good news that God says “No” to sin and “Yes” to those who are caught in the web of sin.

This means that we think and act according to the way that God treats us: with love, grace, and forgiveness.

This means that we think and act according to God’s will: to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.

In the end, we should not be surprised at human propensity to mess things up because it is shared by all people. Yes, the depths of human cruelty and violence seem to know no bounds, but despite our best efforts, our own morality and goodness cannot untangle us from the web of sin.

What should never cease to surprise and amaze us is the unfathomable love of God expressed in his Son, Jesus Christ, who lived with and for us that we might live with and for him through the power of the Holy Spirit.

May you accept the good news of God’s “No!” to sin and “Yes!” to sinners.

May you know and experience the liberation Christ offers by taking on his yoke and walking alongside him.

May you know and experience the working of the Holy Spirit in your life as you are formed into Christ-likeness.

Amen.

Abraham tests God: A sermon

Preached at Memorial Church (Port Ryerse) and St.Andrew’s-by-the-lake (Turkey Point) on June 29, 2014.

Abraham is definitely not in the running for ‘Father of the Year’.

After all, he willingly goes along with God’s command to sacrifice his son.

Abraham, the same man who boldly confronted God, imploring him not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, offers no protest or complaint when God tells him to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering.

Abraham, the same man who was distressed (cf. 21:11) at Sarah’s demand to cast Hagar and Ishmael out of the family, remains silent in the face of God’s request, a request that would leave Abraham without an heir and would effectively undo God’s promise to make Abraham into a great nation that would bless all other nations.

This is a difficult story; it is a story that makes a cringe, especially those of us who are parents.

Our discomfort is complicated by our response “the word of the Lord”.

Really?

This story about a God who demands child sacrifice and who is willing to undo a promise for the sake of ‘testing’ someone is the ‘word of the Lord’?

This story about a father willingly to follow through on this demand without objection is somehow good news?

The short answer is ‘Yes’.

Of course this does little to assuage our discomfort and difficulties with the story.

However, as real as our difficulties with this story and with other difficult texts in the Bible may be, the difficulties lie not in the stories themselves, but in our ability to receive the entirety of Holy Scripture as a gift, a gift given by God in order to communicate his lavish grace.

It is easy to attempt to explain away the difficult stories of the Bible as culturally backward. In doing so, we can make these difficult stories fit our culture’s notions of acceptability and in so doing, we ignore the way these stories confront our comfortable expectations of who God is and what God is like.

It is much more difficult to engage these texts head-on, to faithfully wrestle with them, like Jacob did with the angel of the Lord, until they give us a blessing.

We, the Church, faithfully wrestle with the difficult stories of Scripture not because we want to take away the sting of their offense, but because we expect that God will speak to us through them, if we have ears to hear his word of grace.

So, the primary question we ask of this text is: who is this God?

Who is this God who tests those who put their faith in him?

Who is this God who is willing to undo a promise he made, to take back a gift he gave?

Is the God that demands the sacrifice of a child the same God we meet in Jesus Christ?

In Hebrews 11, Abraham is listed as one of the heroes of the faith: “By faith, Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’

Is this what heroic faith looks like? The willingness to sacrifice one’s child?

The key to Abraham’s faith lays in verses 5 and 8.

Listen:

Verse 5: “Them Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”

Verse 8: “Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for burnt offering my son.”

Do you hear?

Abraham fully expects to return with Isaac after he is done worshipping.

Abraham fully expects God to provide a lamb for the sacrifice.

No wonder Abraham is credited as having great faith.

Abraham is not a religious fundamentalist who quietly submits to the demand of voices in his head that tell him to kill his child.

No, Abraham is able to go forward in faith because he trusts that this God will remain faithful to his promises, including the promise to make Abraham a great nation through his son Isaac, a promise God repeats several times.

Moreover, in listening to God’s request, Abraham is expressing the same boldness he did when confronting God at Sodom and Gomorrah.
Abraham’s obedience is not simple compliance with an outrageous demand.

Rather, he goes forward in order to see whether or not God is truly faithful.

And so, Abraham binds his son, places him on the altar, and raises his knife.

This is the moment of truth as the blade points downward, posed to strike a fatal blow, ending not only Isaac’s life, but also God’s promise.

This is the moment where not only Abraham’s faith will be tested, but also God’s faithfulness.

This is a moment that surely lasts an eternity for Abraham. It is one of the most dramatic moments in the entire Bible.

In this moment, not only is God testing Abraham, Abraham is testing God. Is God truly faithful to his promises?

Wondering about whether or not Abraham would have actually killed his son had God not intervened is pointless speculation that distracts from what this story tells us about God.

Who is this God?

This is a God who does not demand child sacrifices. In Abraham’s time, the practice of child sacrifice was quite prevalent, particularly to the god Molech. In this story, God decisively identifies himself as a God who will not permit child sacrifice, as is evidenced in numerous other verses throughout the Old Testament.

This is the God who faithfully protects and provides; since calling Abraham to leave his homeland, God promised to be his “shield” (15:1) and to bless him.

This is the God who graciously gives.

This is the God who remains faithful to his promises.

Abraham experienced God’s faithfulness firsthand; this experience was precisely why he was able to faithfully respond to God: “Here I am”.

God’s faithfulness is the sole basis of our faith; it is because God is faithful that we can respond to him in faith: “Here I am”.

This response is the essence of faith; it is an unconditional response of total allegiance made possible because of the one in whom we have faith. We give ourselves to God, fully and completely.

We respond “Here I am” and pick up the cross and follow Christ because we know that Christ went on the cross for us, defeating death in his resurrection.

We respond “Here I am” because we know this God does not demand sacrifices in order appease him or to placate his wrath because this is the

God who ended all sacrifices with his self-sacrifice on the cross.
In saying “Here I am” we are, in the words of St. Paul, “present[ing] [ourselves] to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (Rom. 6:13).

We do this because we live under God’s grace.

We do this because we are united with Christ whose faithfulness is the sole basis for our faith.

“Here I am” is not a half-hearted response; it is the language of total commitment.

This is precisely why Paul refers to us as being “slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18).

Paul’s strong imagery is meant to convey the good news of our liberation from sin and death. Because of Christ’s faithfulness, we are no longer separated from God and estranged from each other, rather we are free.

We are free to enjoy communion with God.

We are free to enjoy fellowship with our neighbors.

Paul’s strong language is also meant to convey what should be our obedient response to God’s liberation.

Therefore, we respond to God’s faithfulness by joyfully and thankfully offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God for the sake of the world, we allow God to use us as his “instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13).
As God’s instruments of righteousness, our purpose is to point Christ our righteousness (cf. 1 Cor. 1:30).

The primary way the Church points to Christ is through the practice of hospitality.

Christian hospitality is not merely inviting people into our homes to share a meal.

Rather, Christian hospitality is rooted in the God’s hospitality for sinners; it is nothing less than God’s open-armed welcome to the broken and burdened.

This means that Christian hospitality is lavish; it knows no bounds; it is extended to everyone.

Despite the fact that there will be those who reject God’s hospitality, nevertheless we are called to extend this hospitality without remainder or stipulation, doing so in the name of Christ, our righteousness.

We often fear putting ourselves out there because we fear rejection:
– What if I share my faith with someone and they say something mean or hostile?
– What if I offer to pray for someone and they react negatively?
– What if I invite someone to church and they say ‘no’?

And yet, when we go forward in faith, we are entrusting ourselves to the faithfulness of God knowing that any rejection we may face is not a rejection of us, but of the one who sent us.

Of course, this does not make our task any easier.

But the good news is that none of this is up to us and our strategic plans; in going forward in faith, we are trusting in God’s promises to protect and provide, to remain with us.

The good news is that even when we are faithless, God remains faithful, waiting for us to return to him with open arms. The fulfillment of God’s promises does not rest on human ability or performance because God’s faithfulness is unilateral.

The Church worships the God of Abraham, the God who tested Abraham.

This God is also testing the Church to see if we will be faithful to his call on us to be a royal priesthood, to be Christ’s earthly body.

Will we put Christ first in our lives so that we may love others the way he loves us?

Will we take up our crosses and follow him?

There are some in the Church today who extol the virtue of doubt as a necessary element of faith.

There is wisdom in this claim; faith is a journey that involves struggling with our beliefs, putting them to the test to see if they hold up.

However, in the end, faith is the resolve to say to God “Here I am”, laying our fears and doubts at the feet of Christ.

Our response of “here I am” rests on Christ’s promise to always be here with us.

The Church does not need more doubt.

Rather, the Church needs to have the audacity put God’s faithfulness to the test.

We need to practice audacious faith that is rooted in the faithfulness of God.
In fearlessly going forth in faith to proclaim the gospel – the good news that because Christ has liberated us from sin and death, God is waiting with open arms – we are putting God’s faithfulness to the test.

And we know God will not disappoint.

May you go from this place to show the world an audacious faith rooted in God’s faithfulness.

Amen.

Pentecost (A): A sermon

A sermon preached at St.Andrew’s-by-the-Lake on June 8, 2014.

Who doesn’t love birthdays?

I know my kids do. The day after their birthdays, they are already thinking about their next one.

And who can blame them. After all, birthdays are the time when I am the centre of attention.

Plus, let’s not forget all the stuff that goes with birthdays – cake, parties, and, of course, presents!

What was the best birthday present you ever received?

For me it is a tie between the present I received on my fifth birthday – a Dinobots transformer – and my sixteenth birthday – tickets to see Red Green.

Today we celebrate a birthday; the birthday of the Church. I’m not talking about St.Andrew’s-by-the-lake, but the church universal; the church across time and in every place where a community of disciples existed or exists; the capital ‘C’ Church.

Today we celebrate Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit was poured out to the first disciples. It was in God’s act of giving the Holy Spirit that the Church was born.

This is completely backwards to how we normally celebrate birthdays; we can’t celebrate birthday by giving gifts until a person is born.

And yet in our reading from Acts today, in God’s act of giving the Holy Spirit, the Church is born.

This means that everything the Church is and has is the result of sheer grace, of pure gift.

The Church is created out of God’s self-giving: the giving of Christ as Savior and the giving of the Holy Spirit as Sustainer.

Not only does the Church exist because of God’s gracious giving, the Church is to exist as a gift to the world in order to be a blessing to all people.

However, throughout history, up to and including the present, it seems as though the Church is anything but a gift to the world.

Recent polls among the un-churched indicate that the Church has, shall we say, a PR problem.

I don’t need to repeat the litany of sins committed by the Church, both past and present, in order to emphasize this.

Problems arise when the Church assumes it is God’s gift to the world rather than a gift that points to the Gift – Jesus Christ.

The Church is to act as Christ’s body in and for the world.

The mission of the Church is to continue Christ’s ministry.

The shape of Christ’s ministry is the shape of the cross.

Christ’s ministry was nothing less than God’s grace in action; Jesus did not seek power, fortune, or fame.

When the Church has sought these things, she has neglected her mission and placed her own well-being above those whom she is called to serve.

When the Church has sought these things she has rejected the gift of the Holy Spirit, throwing it back in the face of the self-giving God.

If the Church exists because of grace and to share grace, this requires that the Church operates with a profound, and, dare I say, reckless trust in God.

This trust propels the Church to focus on nothing else other than the proclamation of the gospel.

Unless everything the Church says and does is rooted in the gospel, the Church is bound to fail because it will be relying on its own power rather than that of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit alone is able to communicate the gospel.

In our reading from Acts, the focus of the text is not about the sudden ability of the disciples to speak different languages (though this is miraculous).

Rather, the focus of the text is the sheer fact that the gospel is communicated and that this communication can only occur by the work of the Holy Spirit.

But what is the gospel that the Spirit communicates?

The gospel is, as St. Paul tells us, the declaration that “Jesus is Lord”.

And, he continues, this declaration is only possible by the Holy Spirit.

To claim that Jesus is Lord is a declaration of allegiance; it is to claim that final authority rests not with those who have power, fortune, and fame, but in the one who refused to pursue these things, choosing to graciously give up his very life for the sake of the world.

To claim that Jesus is Lord is a declaration of allegiance that binds me to Christ’s ministry and the mission of the Church to speak the gospel to the world.

The Church is able to speak the gospel insofar as the Holy Spirit is at work in the life of the Church.

The Church speaks the gospel when it proclaims the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ.

The Church speaks the gospel when it shares the same peace that Christ did with his disciples in today’s Gospel reading.

In this reading, we find the disciples terrified for their very lives; completely driven by fear, they are concerned for nothing else than their own skins.

Compare this to the disciples’ fearlessness in our reading from Acts. With no fear of reprisal or of death, the disciples boldly proclaimed the gospel.

In defiance of the Roman Empire, the early church claimed that Jesus is Lord and Cesar is not.

What is the difference between the disciples in our readings from John and Acts ? The presence of the Holy Spirit.

The Church cannot exist apart from the Holy Spirit and the Church cannot speak the gospel apart from the Holy Spirit.

Christ commissions the Church to be his body on earth; the Holy Spirit consecrates the Church, then and now, empowering it to fulfill its mission.

Therefore, the Church does not exist for itself; when it speaks the gospel, when it speaks Christ, it exists for the sake of the world.

However, like those in the crowd at Peter’s sermon, the world will react with ridicule and rejection to the utter strangeness and foolishness of gospel-speech.

Yet, we should not expect that everyone who hears the gospel will respond positively. Furthermore, reception of the gospel is never the church’s responsibility; it is never the result of flashy advertising or top-notch programming, or rock-concert-stye worship.

The Holy Spirit alone makes reception of the gospel possible. Our responsibility it to make our entire lives open to the Holy Spirit so that everything we say and do is gospel-speech.

The Church has a single mission and purpose: to proclaim the gospel.

The Church is a community united by a shared purpose. Yet it remains a community comprised of individuals with different personalities, interests, career-paths, and so on.

The Church is a community in which is Spirit gives different gifts to everyone; gifts that are given in service to proclamation of the gospel.

In other words, the Church is kind of like a hockey team; there are different positions, but everyone on the team is playing together for the same purpose: defending their net and scoring goals in order to win the game.

The Church works in tune with the Spirit, using the gifts of the Spirit so that the Spirit can speak the gospel through the church to the world.

I once heard a pastor say “the Church has nothing to say to the world until it throws better parties”.

I think there is a lot of truth to this.

Great parties are joyful occasions. Not only is joy contagious, it is, as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians, a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Because joy is contagious, the Holy Spirit is contagious.

When the Church focuses on itself, it is unable to joyfully celebrate the gospel and it closes itself to the reception of the Holy Spirit.

However, when the Church gives itself for the sake of the world, it will work in sync with the Holy Spirit, throwing the best parties the world has ever seen, parties that anticipate the eternal party that Christ promises to throw when he returns.

Of course, these parties will not look anything like the parties we are used to (though Jesus does promise that at his eternal party there will be lots of food and wine), these parties will be where people are transformed, healed, and restored,

where relationships are mended,

where the poor and sick are receive everything they need,

where the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner receive care and provision

where the outcast and rejected are welcomed with open arms and receive a place at the head table

where those who mourn will be comforted

where God’s justice and peace abound.

As we celebrate the birthday of the Church, may we be continually open to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the life of the parish, but also in our individuals lives.

May the Holy Spirit speak the gospel through the lives of our parish.

May the Holy Spirit speak the gospel through our individuals lives, at home, at work, at school, and at play.

May our joy be contagious as we celebrate the good news.

Let the party begin!

Amen.

Second Sunday After Pentecost: A Sermon

A Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s-by-the-lake (Turkey Point), June 22, 2014

Families are a blessing; but sometimes they can seem like a curse.

And I’m not saying that just because I am the father of young children.

Every family has its issues and tensions.

Siblings that refuse to speak to each other.

Estranged parents and children.

Extended family members who cannot be around each other for one reason or another.

In many ways, the family stress we see in our reading from Genesis is familiar.

Rivalry is the root of the stress in Abraham’s family.

Indeed, rivalry is the root in the family stress in most of Genesis: rivalry between Cain and Abel, between Jacob and Esau, between Joseph and his brothers.

And rivalry is at the root of much of the stress we experience in our families as well; rivalry rooted in unfriendly competition, antagonism, or even hatred between family members.

Rivalry feeds resentment, it builds walls between people, and when it comes full-force, it seeks retribution.

Rivalry is destructive of all parties involved.

Rivalry is the root issue between Sarah and Hagar.

God promised to give Abraham a male heir. Convinced that she was too old to have a child, Sarah gave Abraham her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar, as a wife. Sarah attempted to force God’s promises to come to fruition on her own terms; she assumed she could force God’s hand.

Her plan worked because Hagar became pregnant. However, as Genesis chapter 16 tells us, after becoming pregnant, Hagar looked upon Sarah “with contempt” (16:5). Hagar assumed that she was now wife number 1 since she bore Abraham’s heir when Sarah could not.

Sarah’s reaction? She treated Hagar so poorly that Hagar ran away into the wilderness.

However, God met her in the wilderness and made this promise to Hagar: “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for the multitude” (16:10). Sounds quite similar to the promise God made to Abraham, doesn’t it?

Following God’s instructions, Hagar rejoined Abraham’s family and gave birth to Ishmael.

When Sarah became pregnant and gave birth to Isaac, the old rivalry was rekindled.

In Sarah’s eyes, Ishmael is a threat to Isaac. Since Ishmael is Abraham’s firstborn son, he has a legitimate claim on the inheritance.

Sarah decides to once again take matters into her own hands, to end the rivalry once and for all by ensuring that Hagar and Ishmael are cast out of the family once and for all.

Cut-off and rejected by her family, Hagar is once again driven into the wilderness.

And yet, in spite of all this, God is good to Hagar and Ishmael.

Although Abraham sent Hagar away with next to no provisions, essentially sending her and Ishmael to their deaths, God provides for and protects Hagar and Ishmael. He tells her to not be afraid for he will be with them.

Moreover, God promises once again to make a “great nation of [Ishmael]” (21:18).

Ishmael receives God’s blessing despite the fact that he is not the promised son; he is the son of a foreigner and slave-girl; he is an outsider. For this reason, Abraham and Sarah feel they are completely justified in sending him and his mother into the wilderness to their deaths.

We humans have a remarkable capacity for self-justification, especially when it comes to treating others, particularly our rivals, less than charitably. We will even go so far as to claim divine inspiration in order to justify our acts of exclusion.

Regardless of what we might think about Abraham and Sarah’s actions, the primary character of this story is God.

Who is this God?

This is the God who, despite the best efforts of humans to take matters into their own hands, remains faithful to his promises. This is the God who protects and provides.

However, how does this fit with our Gospel reading for today where Jesus appears to condone rivalry and family dysfunction?

Is Jesus saying what we think he’s saying?

Is he advocating for broken homes?

And what about the sword Jesus refers to? Is the Prince of Peace justifying violence?

Jesus’ direct language makes us uncomfortable because it directly challenges our concept of him as meek and mild.

Jesus’ refusal to mince words makes us uncomfortable because not only are they addressed to his disciples then; they are also addressed to his disciples now.

Our Gospel reading for today is part of a speech called ‘The Missionary Discourse’ that begins at verse 16 where Jesus says: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves”.

Jesus direct words are meant to prepare his disciples for their mission to go out and proclaim the gospel.

Jesus is telling his disciples that they will face ridicule, rejection, and even persecution.

And yet in the midst of the suffering they will face, Jesus promises them God’s protection and provision.

For this reason, Jesus tells his disciples to fearlessly go forth on their mission.

Jesus charges the disciples to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom.

The good news that God is restoring all things.

The good news that God welcomes outcasts, rejects, and losers with open arms.

The good news that God will forgive sins when we confess and repent.

Because this is a message for all people, it must be proclaimed publicly.

However, as Jesus’ makes it clear, there are only two possible answers to the invitation to participate in God’s kingdom: yes or no.

Some will say ‘yes’; many will say ‘no’. Moreover, some of those who say ‘no’ may do so with hostility.

However, there is no middle ground; either we are united with Jesus through his death and resurrection or we remain enslaved to sin, caught in the web of rivalry, hatred, and destruction, imprisoned in a hell of our own making.

There is also no middle ground for those who claim to be Jesus’ disciples; we either fully participate in the mission Jesus sends us on or we don’t; there is no such thing as a Sunday Christian. If we do not practice what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘costly discipleship’, we cannot call ourselves followers of Jesus.

A disciple is what Psalm 86 calls a devoted servant who fully trusts God alone.

A disciple is someone who gives total allegiance to Jesus Christ by picking up their cross and following him.

The cross is the sword to which Jesus is referring.

The cross is, in the words of St. Paul, a “stumbling block” and utter “foolishness” to those who reject the kingdom (1 Cor. 1:23).

The cross is the sword that divides those who confess that Jesus is Lord and those who do not, those who accept God’s forgiveness and those who refuse it.

We know those in our own lives and families that there are those who follow Jesus and those who do not.

This is why Jesus quotes the words of the prophet Micah in describing the division between those family members who trust in a God alone and those who trust in their own plans and devices.

The cross of Christ is a sword that divides.

Because of this division, Jesus redefines what constitutes ‘family’; he is hardly an advocate of what we know as ‘family values’. Listen to these words from Matthew 12:50: “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother”. Jesus is defining family through the lens of the Kingdom.

Jesus is calling his disciples to put their complete and total trust in him alone, to bring everything they love and value, particularly their families, under his lordship.

In so doing, Jesus is creating a new family, a family that we know as the Church. As disciples, we belong first and foremost to this covenant family of God.

This family is not defined by blood relationships, ethnicity, gender, political affiliation or any other human categories that are so often used to divide us.
Rather, this family is united in Christ through the sacraments, prayer, and worship.

And this family is united to each other through as we worship, fellowship, and participate in Christ’s mission to the world.

This is a family of disciples that is learning to accept and extend the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness.

This is a family that is both constituted by and practices the forgiveness and reconciliation made possible in and through Jesus Christ.

The Church is the family of the covenant, the family promised to Abraham. We are people who worship and serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

We are also the people who worship and serve the God of Ishmael, the God of the outcast and the marginalized.

Therefore, we worship and serve a God who calls all people to himself, who promises to bless them.

Because God’s love knows no bounds, the Church is called to be a blessing unto all nations, to all people.

We do this by proclaiming the gospel, the good news of God’s grace, forgiveness, and love for all people.

Yes, there will be some who reject the gospel and there will be some who ridicule the gospel.

And yet, our task remains the same, to proclaim and show Christ’s love to all people.

Belonging to God’s family is not a matter of privilege or superior status that we can lord over others.

We are disciples; therefore, we are not greater than the master, the one who calls and sends us into the wilderness to proclaim the gospel.

We are sent into the wilderness, knowing that we will face opposition as we proclaim the gospel.

However, as we go, we go with the promise that God will go with us.

We go into the wilderness carrying the cross of Christ.

All too often, Christians have wielded the cross as a weapon, using it to divide and destroy.

Rather, we are to carry it in such a way so that all we do and say points to Christ, that by our very lives we demonstrate that we are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

We can do this because sin and its fruits – rivalry, division, hatred, etc. – no longer have dominion in our lives because God has stripped sin of its power, defeating it “finally and utterly at the death and resurrection of Jesus” (John Webster, “Dead to Sin”, The Grace of Truth p. 49).

We live under grace, under the authority and lordship of Jesus Christ, the one who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps. 86:15).

Come, let us take up our cross and go into the wilderness, with the promise that God is with us as we proclaim the Good News of God’s liberation to all people!

Amen.

Seventh Sunday After Easter (A) – A Sermon

A Sermon Preached at St. Andrew’s-by-the-lake (Turkey Point), June 1, 2014

I speak to you in the name of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

At a recent visit to their grandparents, my two eldest children, Sophie and Logan, were introduced to a new book – “Horton Hatches the Egg” by Dr. Seuss.

The book tells the story of Horton the Elephant who, as you can guess from the title, hatches an egg.

You see, Mayzie the bird is impatient; sitting on her egg is boring. So, tired of sitting on her egg, Mayzie recruits Horton to act as a surrogate egg-sitter while she takes a break. Although he is initially reluctant, Horton promises to sit on the egg with Mayzie’s assurance that she will return. However, Mayzie quickly realizes that she likes her newly found independence and decides to abandon her egg, as well as Horton, in order to go on a permanent vacation.

Horton is left alone to perform a boring and thankless task.

Though he is ridiculed and abandoned by his friends, endures horrendous weather, and is eventually captured by hunters, Horton continues to sit on the egg, refusing to budge, repeating his refrain:

“I meant what I said

And I said what I meant…

An elephant’s faithful

One hundred per cent!”

Despite not knowing when Mayzie will return, Horton is true to his promise; he remains faithful until the end.

            The story of Horton and the egg is, I think, a modern parable for the Christian life.

            Let me explain.

            I have a confession to make – I am not always the most patient person. This is partly due to living in a culture where everything is instantaneous; I get impatient when my internet speed is slow or when my order from Amazon does not arrive immediately. In a culture where instant gratification is an expectation, patience is not a virtue; rather, patience is considered an archaic habit for those with too much time on their hands. I have things to do, so I require that my demands are met right now!

            However, I also think that the church is not very good at waiting either. This past Thursday, the church celebrated Christ’s Ascension; the event in which Christ ended his earthly ministry and returned to his Father. In the nearly 2000 years since this event, there have been numerous attempts to determine the exact time, date, and place of Christ’s return, as if figuring this out would somehow hasten his coming. On other hand, there are those who are rightly skeptical of such calculations, preferring an attitude of general indifference or even uncertainty about whether or not Christ will actually returned as promised.

The church exists between the time of Christ’s Ascension and his second coming. So we wait. And waiting is not very fun. So, the church’s strategy continues to be busying itself with pet projects and campaigns in order to dull the sense of absence or to justify its very existence.

            So what does this have to do with Horton?

            Horton is recruited to perform a task on behalf of someone else. In many ways, the church is like Horton the elephant. God recruits the church to be Christ’s body on earth. We are recruited to this task through our baptism. Our task, our mission if you will, is to continue Christ’s earthly ministry of preaching the gospel and acting as ambassadors of God’s salvation by bringing healing to the sick and proclaiming God’s forgiveness of sins.

We participate in this mission in the absence of the one who called us, assured by his promise to return. This means that we proceed with our mission of love on the basis of faith and hope. We trust in the promise of Christ’s return and we long for that day when Christ will renew the cosmos, when, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”.

But in the meantime, we wait.

Waiting is not fun, especially since the task we are given, like sitting on an egg, can be thankless and, frankly, kind of boring (or so it seems). We are called to faithfully worship, to read Scripture, to pray, to eat bread and drink wine, and to invite others to join us in these practices, as we proclaim the gospel that Christ is risen. Simple things that are not exactly adrenaline inducing.

We would much rather enjoy life on our own terms and do the things we want to do than to sit around and wait.

Waiting becomes all the less fun when we are assured that, like Horton the elephant, we will face ridicule and even suffering at the hands of others. In our second reading for today, the Apostle Peter describes this ridicule and suffering as a “fiery ordeal” (1 Pet. 4:12). In other words, in being faithful to our mission, Christians can count on living through hell on earth.

No wonder the church impatiently looks for ways to distract itself from its mission of proclaiming the gospel! After all, who willingly subjects themselves to persecution and suffering? Who wants to confront the powers that be with the claim that Jesus is Lord and they are not? We know what tends to happen to people who take their religious beliefs too seriously; they usually end up dead.

Plus, we’ve been waiting for almost 2,000 years! Isn’t that long enough to indicate that our faith and hope are misplaced? Shouldn’t we be rational about things and accept the reality that Jesus is not coming back?

And yet, Christ’s call remains; he calls us to continue our mission to be his body on earth.               

We are called to be faithful; to live a lives of sacrificial love, willing to endure ridicule and rejection for the sake of God’s kingdom of justice and peace.

This is not a life for the faint of heart.

            What makes this possible?

How is any of this good news to us gathered here today?

                                    The good news is that Christ prays for us on our behalf.

In today’s Gospel reading, we hear Jesus praying to the Father, asking him to protect the church, the church then and the church now. Jesus asks for protection because the church belongs to him. Because the church belongs to him, it belongs to the Father. This belonging is not a matter of possession; it is about intimacy, the way that a husband and wife belong to each other.

The good news is that we belong to Christ and are therefore sustained by God’s grace, the grace that heals and redeems, equips and sustains.

The good news is that we do not go into the fiery ordeal alone; we go with the one who goes ahead of us and walks alongside of us, casting our cares and woes upon him who bears them unto the Father.

The good news is that we are given Christ’s words. In Jesus’ prayer, we hear that the words that God gave to Christ, Christ gives to us.

When we faithfully proclaim the kingdom and preach the gospel, we are speaking Christ’s own words: words that speak the truth in love.

The good news is that Christ promises the gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples, then and now, in order to empower and equip them to be Christ’s body on earth and to faithfully endure.

The good news of Christ’s Ascension is that the God who took on human flesh now takes human flesh to his heavenly father. Jesus Christ is the mediator between humanity and God; he shows us who God is, and he also brings humanity before God. Christ provides the final and intimate connection between God and humanity; he is the beloved Son who intercedes on our behalf to the Father.

And so, following Christ’s Ascension, we wait.

            Our waiting is not passive nor impatient.          

Rather, we wait for Christ’s return patiently and prayerfully, faithfully participating in the mission he gives all those who follow him.

May Christ Jesus bless us as we act as his body.

May Christ Jesus save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.

And may Christ find us faithful to him and his mission, 100%.

Amen.