An Easter Sermon

Yes, I know Easter is a long way off…but some folks asked me to share a sermon I delivered in class today. The assignment was to preach an Easter sermon using John 20:1-18 and Colossians 3:1-4 for a congregation comprised of ‘regular’ members and the ‘C and E’ crowd.

I.

It’s Easter Sunday and we are gathered here to celebrate!

After all, we’ve been through the agony of Good Friday, the grief and nothingness of Holy Saturday, and now here we are on the most joyous of days! The tomb is empty – so let’s celebrate!

But wait…Easter Sunday does not start with joyful celebration; it starts with darkness and an empty tomb.

So, before we rush to say that ancient Easter greeting (you know the one that begins Christ is…), like Mary Magdalene, let us linger at the mystery of the open tomb.

Empty tombs are not cause for celebration; empty tombs raise questions: where is the body? Who took the body? Why did someone take the body?

At this point on Easter Sunday, all we have is a tomb that confronts us with its emptiness, demanding an answer as to its meaning.

Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum. So, with Peter, the beloved disciple, and Mary, we rush to fill this vacuum with perfectly rational explanations.

Like Mary, some conclude that Jesus’ body was removed from the tomb by an unknown ‘they’. Perhaps ‘they’ were the Pharisees or maybe the Romans or even Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea?

Mary reaches her conclusion after seeing “that the stone had been removed from the tomb” (20.1). This was enough evidence to convince her someone took Jesus’ body from the tomb. So, she rushes to Peter and the beloved disciple to share with them her perfectly rational conclusion: “They have taken the Lord out the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (20.2).

Of course the two disciples rush to the tomb to confirm the truth of Mary’s conclusion. The beloved disciple arrives first and peeks in the tomb and sees grave clothes lying there.
Peter, known for his boldness, enters the grave to investigate further and sees the “cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself” (2.7).

Mary, Peter, and the beloved disciple reach different conclusions on the evidence presented.
Mary concludes that Jesus’ body was moved by unknown parties to an undisclosed location. Her grief becomes all the more pronounced as she weeps outside the tomb.

The silence of the text suggests that Peter leaves knowing nothing. He is agnostic about what happened; Peter concludes that he simply cannot know what happened one way or another.
Peter’s agnostic silence is underlined by the response of the beloved disciple who “saw and believed” (20.8). However, the question is: saw and believed what, exactly? We might immediately conclude that he saw the empty tomb and believed that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Rather, we are told that the beloved disciple saw the head cloth and linens and believed.

What is clear that he did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead because, he, along with Mary and Peter, did not yet understand the scripture (cf. 20.9). The beloved disciple believed that Mary’s conclusion was correct: someone moved Jesus’ body.

As rational as these conclusions are, they offer no definitive closure. Empty tombs can only ask questions, they cannot offer answers. So, the questions of the empty tomb remain.

You see, Mary and the two disciples were basing their conclusions on what is humanly possible. The considered the evidence at hand and deduced the only rational conclusions possible: 1) the body was moved; 2) we simply don’t have enough evidence to conclude anything.

Each of these conclusions leads to a particular action.

For Mary, the uncertainty about where Jesus’ body is compounds her sorrow. Paralyzed by her grief, she lingers at the tomb, hoping for the answer to where Jesus’ body is.

For Peter and the beloved disciple, there is nothing to do but to go home; go home and resume the lives they had before they answered Jesus’ call; go home with more questions than answers.
Mary, Peter, and the beloved disciple are left with their sorrow, the questions, their logic, and ultimately their despair at the vast emptiness and nothingness of the tomb. The empty tomb, in many ways, stands as a powerful metaphor of their own spiritual state, and, for some of us, our spiritual state.

II.

Whereas the other Gospel accounts of the resurrection narrate the events of Easter Sunday in quick succession and end rather abruptly, the author of John’s gospel intentionally slows down the action. The author does this in order to make us linger in the questions the empty tomb raises, pushing us to reach our own conclusions about what happened.

And, as we’ve seen, there are only two possible outcomes: the body was moved or we simply can’t know. After all, seeing is believing, right?

If that is where the story ended, that would be the logical conclusion.

However, this is not the end of the story. Moreover, because it is not the end of the story, the author of John’s Gospel is asking us to question the way in which we are seeing things; what lens are we looking through? Are we looking through the lens of Scripture?

Doubt and faith come to a pitched climax on Easter. The entire Christian faith hinges upon the answer to the question: why the tomb is empty?

When we look through the lens of the humanly possible, we believe that the tomb is empty because the body was moved. Our gaze is limited to the bare facts of what is in plain sight before us.

However, the author of John’s gospel wants us to see not through the lens of what is humanly possible; he wants us to see the face of the resurrected one.

Mary lingers at the tomb, numb from her grief. Even the appearance of angels does nothing to assuage her sorrow or sway her from her conclusion that someone took Jesus’ body: “they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (20.13). Mary remains convinced of the facts as they present themselves.

Even when she turns and sees Jesus standing there, she does not recognize him. She did not recognize the person whose death she was mourning; she clings to her conclusion that Jesus’ body is gone, assuming that Jesus is the gardener: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (20.15).

The possibility of Jesus’ bodily resurrection remains impossible for Mary.

That is, until Jesus says her name: “Mary”.

One simple word and Mary’s world is changed forever; not only her world, but the entire order of things is completely reversed. The humanly impossible is revealed as divinely possible. No longer does she cling to her conclusions; she now clings to the one who is the beginning and conclusion of all things. More than that, Mary’s name, the marker of her identity, is on Jesus’ lips. He has not forgotten her, but calls her by name. Her identity is forever wrapped in the one whom she embraced; Jesus’ Father is her Father; Jesus’ God is her God.

Mary’s embrace is not only the result of overwhelming relief; it is joyful worship. Because she sees Jesus fully and truly, she believes. She recognizes the one who called her name; she recognized the one was crucified, dead, and buried is now alive, risen from the dead. Worship is born of recognition of who God is and who we are in God. Mary’s embrace is a passionate and worshipful clinging to the one who has defeated death.

But Jesus cuts this embrace short; there is work to be done! Mary must tell the disciples that she has seen the Lord. You see, worship and witness are really the only two responses to resurrection. After all, it is not every day that someone comes back from the dead, never to die again.

Because Jesus’ is the resurrected one, he no longer wears the linen wrappings of the grave; no longer is his face hidden in a shroud. His identity is clearly revealed. Even then, this is not the end of the story. Jesus makes it clear to Mary that he must ascend in order to sit at the right hand of the Father in heaven. In ‘Bible-speak’, to sit at someone’s right hand is to be identified with the person you are sitting next to. Sitting next to the heavenly throne, Jesus’ identity as the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord is established.

The only way the humanly impossible becomes divinely possible is in and through Jesus Christ.
The only way I can see what God is doing in the Easter story is to believe in the one who defeated death, to hear him call my name.

Therefore, the meaning of the empty tomb means that death no longer has a hold on us. We are not destined to rot in a grave. Rather, because of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, our identity is not in the emptiness and nothingness of death; our identity is in him alone, the one who brings life (with a capital ‘L’) to all who embrace and cling to him; indeed life to the entire cosmos.

Jesus’ resurrection is not the end of the story. Rather it is just the beginning.

III.

Easter is a time for new beginnings. It is a time to put the past behind us as we look to our future in Christ. However, this future is not a distant reality; it begins when we see and believe what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ, when we recognize that that our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3.3).

When Paul instructs his readers to set their minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (cf. Col. 3.2), he is not suggesting that we become so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. Rather, he is telling us that when we fix our eyes on Christ, we are reminded of who God is and whose we are. This propels us to worship and witness.

We worship the one who calls us by name to follow him, the one who always recognizes us, even when we can’t recognize him because of our conclusions about what is and isn’t possible.
We witness to the one who makes all things possible, including the defeat of death. We proclaim his resurrection and the possibility of new life in him with every word, thought, and action that brings life and light to a world held captive to death and darkness.

Easter is the time to “set [our] minds on things that are above”, to re-discover our identity in Christ, and re-connect with his earthly body, the Church.

At Easter, indeed every time that we gathered as a church family, we are reminded that we belong to him and him alone. I am not defined by my past wrong-doings, my bank balance, or my social status. My future is not defined by the encroaching nothingness of death.

Right here, right now, I am alive because I am in Christ; I am alive because Christ is the risen and ascended Lord.

Now that is something to celebrate!

Will you celebrate with me by worshipping and witnessing to the one who calls us by name?

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

He is risen indeed.

Amen.

The Virgin Birth? Really?

A sermon delivered on Sunday December 21, 2014 at Trinity Anglican Church (Aurora, ON)

Texts: Luke 1:26-38; Revelation 21:1-6
Picture the scene: a group of close friends are gathered together over tea, talking about the recent happenings in their lives, discussing current events in their community, and sharing a joke or two. The atmosphere is relaxed and the conversation flows freely, ranging from topic to topic. The ebb and flow of lulls and silences in the discussion are comfortable because of the company that is being kept.

Then, one of the friends pipes up: “Did you hear about Miriam?”

Suddenly, the silence becomes uncomfortable; backs become tense; ears perked up. Everyone in the room knows about Miriam; she is the talk of the town.

It’s difficult to avoid being the subject of gossip in a small town.

It’s impossible to avoid being the subject of gossip when you are an unwed, pregnant teenager in a small town.

“Poor Yosef; he must be devastated”, adds another, to which the group of friends responds with nodding heads.

“The nerve of Miriam to go and get knocked-up. What a disgrace to her family. What a disgrace to our town!” The friends become more audible as they voice their agreement.

“And to think that she has the audacity to claim that her pregnancy is an act of Yahweh! Not only is that blasphemy, it is ludicrous! We all know that virgins don’t get pregnant by themselves – that’s impossible!”

The friends continue their conversation, guessing who the real father is and wondering what Joachim and Anne, Miriam’s parents, think of all this.

                                                                                                                                                         

Although this is a fictional, it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see that it is probably quite accurate, whether it took place 2000 years ago or 2 days ago. While unwed mothers are less of a scandal in our day, the notion that a virgin can become pregnant without intercourse or through reproductive technology is the stuff of sheer fantasy. It is utter nonsense. It is impossible.

The notion of the Virgin birth is scandalous. It offends our modern scientific sensibilities. This leads some conclude that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is an embarrassment to Christianity and should be omitted from the beliefs of the Church as an archaic and outdated beleif. The question “Do you believe in the Virgin Birth” is a way of separating the rational from the deluded, the enlightened from religious nuts.

So, do you believe in the Virgin Birth?

However, skepticism and unbelief of the Virgin Birth is not only a modern phenomenon.

Mary herself is incredulous about it. Listen again to her response to Gabriel: “How can this be since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1.34).  In the original Greek, Mary’s response is “How can this be since I have known now man?” She means ‘know’ in the biblical sense. Like us, Mary knows exactly where babies come from; and it doesn’t involve a stork delivery service.

So, we have to be careful that we don’t make the chronologically arrogant and categorical mistake of assuming that ancient people, unlike we enlightened moderns, were more gullible and susceptible to nonsense and superstition.

Mary, the one whom God chose to bear his Son, has a hard time believing that this is possible. Until her belly began to swell and she felt that first kick, I suspect that she continued to struggle with believing the impossible, that she, a virgin, could be pregnant.

From the Gospel accounts, we know that even Jesus’ disciples had a hard time accepting and believing the many miracles Jesus performed; and they were eye-witnesses!

Mary is visited by a messenger from God – hardly a regular occurrence – and she still asks “How can this be?”

It is only when Gabriel reminds her that “nothing will be impossible with God” that Mary accepts what is about to happen: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk. 1.38).

Let it be…according to your word.

These words sound familiar don’t they? They echo words spoken long ago, in the beginning.

“And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Gen. 1.3).

Do you see what St. Luke is doing? In re-telling the story of the Annunciation, he is making a direct reference to the creation of the universe. But why?

Luke is making it clear that the child that Mary will bear will be the one to re-create the world.

Luke is saying, in and through Jesus, all things will be made new.

So, the Church’s confession that Jesus Christ “was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” is not about ancient taboos around sex and purity or about worshipping Mary.

The Church’s confession of the Virgin Birth is about the identity of the baby in Mary’s womb.

He is the one who does not abhor human flesh, but loves that which he created so much that he became one of us.

He is Immanuel – God with us and for us; the man of sorrows and familiar with suffering (Isa. 53.3).

He is the one who bears God’s justice and restores the world.

The Virgin Birth matters because it is about the identity of the one with whom the baby was conceived: the God for whom nothing is impossible.

Through the Virgin birth, the origin and identity of Jesus Christ is made clear.

Through the Virgin Birth, God makes the purpose of the Incarnation clear: “for us and our salvation, [Jesus] came down from heaven”.

No wonder Mary is called the Theotokos – the God-bearer. No wonder Mary is held with such high regard in the Church.

We live in a cynical culture; when it comes to the miraculous, our default position is suspicion. We will only accept what is deemed possible.

However, if we subject the Virgin Birth to what is deemed humanly possible, the identity of Jesus Christ becomes impossible; the Christian faith collapses under the immense weight of the human limitations we place on the gospel; it collapses under the demand that we will accept it only on our terms on the rational calculus of the humanly possible.

If God is not the God who can do the impossible – conceiving a baby in a Virgin, feeding 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, physically resurrecting the dead – then all the Church is left with is mere religion: empty ritual and tradition for its own sake and the barest moralism of encouraging people to ‘become better’.

However, if God is the God for whom all things are possible, then the seemingly impossible becomes irrelevant because all of our hope and trust is put in him. The miraculous becomes possible.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that any of this is easy to accept. I’m in seminary and its baffles my mind. However, regardless of our ability to comprehend the deep excesses of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus, we are not expected to fully understand. After all, how can anyone rationally comprehend love? When we get caught up in debates about the Virgin Birth, we lose sight of the very one to whom the Virgin Birth points.

So, we are not expected to fully understand; we are called to worship. It is precisely in the worship of the one who was born of the Virgin that we learn to trust the God who does the humanly impossible.

Yes, we can reject the Virgin Birth on the grounds that it is not humanly possible.

However, we cannot reject the Virgin Birth on the grounds that it is divinely impossible.

We do not worship the God of the humanly possible; we worship the God who does the impossible because of his deep love for all he has created.

                                                                                                                                                         

Advent, like pregnancy, is a time of waiting.

In Advent, we wait not only for the birth of Christ, but also for his second coming.

We live between Christmas and Christ’s coming again; between Creation and New Creation.

Living in the in-between can be difficult to say the least. We need only read the recent headlines to confirm this.

In a world where injustice is rampant, where children go hungry, where creation is destroyed for profit, where communities do not have access to fresh water, it is easy to become cynical and hopeless.

Nevertheless, the Church is called to be a community of hope in our broken world. Not ‘hope’ in terms of a feeling of general optimism, but hope that is as real and tangible as the baby in the manger 2000 years ago.

Therefore, our Advent-waiting is not passive; it is active.

God intends for the Church to be a foretaste of his new creation. After all, the Church is the body of Christ; we are his presence in a real and tangible way.

Like the Virgin Birth, the Church is conceived of the Holy Spirit. The fact that God would call a particular group of imperfect people to continue the ministry of his Son on earth is impossible. After all, we all know that the Church doesn’t have the best track record.

And yet, God entrusts us with the task of sharing the good news that Jesus Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The Church is able to fulfill this task insofar as we trust the God through whom all things are possible.

Therefore, we become involved in things like the water project, not to be able to pat ourselves on the back because we are good moral and religious people or as a form of penance for past atrocities, but because we know that in the act of helping people receive physical water, a necessity of life, we are also giving people a taste of the one who is Living Water, the source of all life.

We become involved in the water project because we are firmly established in our hope that God “will wipe every tear away from [our] eyes and that “death…mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev. 21.4).

The Virgin Birth matters because it points to the cosmic redemption of all things in and through Jesus Christ.

Mary’s “let it be so” is the beginning of God’s making all things new for it was in her womb that Emmanuel, God’s love in the flesh, was conceived and born;

As we prepare for Christ’s coming, both as the baby in the manger and the one who will come again to quench all thirst, spiritually and physically, let us not focus on what is humanly possible, but on the God who does the impossible for us and for the salvation of the universe.

Let it be so!

Amen and Amen.

Wycliffe Chapel Sermon

A sermon delivered at the Wycliffe College Chapel, Friday October 3, 2014
Text: Acts 21:37-22:16

The lectionary is a wonderful tool for guiding the reading of Scripture. It can also be quite frustrating in the way it divides the text, as is the case with today’s reading from Acts. After visiting with apostles in Jerusalem, Paul heads to the temple with some Gentile converts to make the appropriate sacrifices for purification. After seven days, Paul is seized and dragged out of the temple and into the streets where the crowd tried to kill him (cf. 21:31) because he was, in the words of those who seized him, “teaching…against our people, our law, and [the temple]” because he brought “Greeks into the temple (cf. 21:28).

The local tribune and his solders stop the crowd from beating Paul, and then they arrest him and put in him in chains. After a failed attempt to interrogate Paul in front of the crowd, the tribune brings Paul into the barracks, which is where our reading picks up. The tribute mistakenly assumes that Paul is a pseudo-Messiah from Egypt who, according to Josephus, had thousands of followers and was planning to take Jerusalem from the Romans. After assuring the tribune that he is a Jew from Tarsus, Paul is granted permission to give a defense of his actions, thereby beginning of a series of events that leads to Paul’s appeal to Caesar.

Paul’s apologia is this scene is essentially the same one he will give to King Agrippa in chapter 26. It is the story of what is usually called the conversion of Paul. However, calling it a ‘conversion’ assumes that Paul had a say in the matter. Rather, what happens on the road to Damascus is a primarily a confrontation: Jesus Christ confronts Paul, and tells Paul that he has a specific plan for him. God is not a respecter of the autonomy of those whom he calls; God confronts and God seizes whom he wills for his own purposes. Unlike the crowd who seized Paul and was forced to release him to the tribune, there is no one to whom God must relinquish his grasp of those in his possession. This is precisely why Paul shares the story of his confrontation: it identifies both who confronted him and why. Therefore, Paul’s testimony is gospel-saturated-speech; it is the kind of apologetic of which Karl Barth would approve. Paul is confronted by the Lord Jesus Christ who called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles.

Rather than immediately play the ‘get-out-of-jail-free card’ of his Roman citizenship, Paul takes the opportunity to share his testimony with a hostile crowd. This is a decision that can only be made be a person who recognizes that his life is fully gripped by the one who laid hold of him. God will not let go of those he calls.

In his book God’s Companions, Samuel Wells writes that God gives us everything we need to worship God and follow Jesus through practices of the Church. I would add that one of the most fundamental things God gives us to enact his mission in the world is our individual testimonies of where, when, how, and why God confronted us. Sharing our testimonies will inculcate the kind of trust and courage we need when facing a hostile or indifferent crowd because it is rooted in the realization that we are seized by a God who will not let us go. But more than that, our testimonies are true stories about this God who holds us in his grip. It is for this reason that the sharing of our testimonies is the sharing of the gospel itself – the good news that the God who confronts and seizes us is Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, who washes away the sins of the world.

In the midst of all the bad news about ‘church decline’ and so-on, it is easy to gets side-tracked by seeking the solution in the next-best-thing in worship or church programming. Let us not become blinded by these things, but rather let us be witnesses “to all the world” (22:15) simply by sharing the stories of what God has done and is doing in our lives, giving our testimonies of the God who confronts and seizes us in order to bring the gospel to the world. Amen.

BOOK SALE! Theology, Biblical Studies, Youth Ministry, and more!

I have too many books. There I said it. It’s an utterly heretical statement for a seminarian to make, but so be it. I need to downsize my library, so this book sale is a start.

The majority of these books are in good to excellent condition. The price of the books ranges between $1 to $8 (but I’m willing to haggle a bit) + shipping. I also have a sizable collection of philosophy books as well, so if there is something you’re interested in, I might have it.

It’s a bit of a mixed bag, ranging from theology, to biblical studies, to leadership, to youth ministry.

Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views
AGAMBEN, Giorgio, The Church and the Kingdom
ALLENDER, Dan, To be Told: God Invites you to Coauthor Your Future
ANNAN, Kent, Following Jesus Through the Eye of a Needle: Living Fully, Loving Dangerously
ANKER, Roy, Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies
AULEN, Gustaf, Christus Victor
BARTHOLOMEW, Craig, et. al., Behind the Text: History and Biblical Interpretation
BAVINCK, Herman, Reformed Dogmatics (Abridged in One Volume)
BEAL, Timothy, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book
BECKWITH, Ivy, Formational Children’s Ministry
BENSON, Robert, In Constant Prayer
BERARD, James, et. al., Consuming Youth: Leading Teens Through Consumer Culture
BERNARD, Jack, How to Become a Saint: A Beginner’s Guide
BINZ, Stephen, Abraham: A Transforming Experience with the Word of God
BLOCHER, Henri, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis
BROCK, Rita Nakashima and Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire
BRUNNER, Emil, The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation
BUCHANAN, Mark, your Church is Too Safe
BUDDE, Michael and Robert Brimlow, Christianity Incorporated: How Big Business is Buying the Church
BUSCH, Eberhard, Drawn to Freedom: Christian Faith Today in Conversation with the Heidelberg Catechism
BUTLER BASS, Diana, Christianity for the Rest of Us
CARLSON, Kent and Mike Leuken, Renovation of the Church
CARROLL, Jackson, Bridging Divided Worlds: Generational Cultures in Congregations
CARY, Phillip, Good News for Anxious Christians
CHASE, Kenneth (ed.), Must Christianity Be Violent?
CHILDS, Brevard, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture
CHILDS, Brevard, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture
CLAIBORNE, Shane and John Perkins, Follow Me to Freedom: Leading and Following as an Ordinary Radical
CLAPP, Rodney, Border Crossings: Christian Trespasses on Popular Culture and Public Affairs
CLAPP, Rodney, Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels
CLARK, Chap and Kara Powell, Deep Ministry in a Shallow Word: No-so-Secret Findings About Youth Ministry
CLARK, Chap and Kara Powell, Deep Justice in a Broken World: Helping Your Kids Serve Others and Right the Wrongs Around Them
COLE, Neil, Organic Leadership: Leading Naturally Right Where You Are
CUNNINGHAM, David, Reading is Believing: The Christian Faith Through Literature and Film
DARK, David, Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, the Simpsons, and other Pop Culture Icons
DUIN, Julia, Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do About it
GREGORY, Brad, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society
EAGLETON, Terry, After Theory
ENNS, Peter, Telling God’s Story: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching the Bible
FITCH, David, The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church
FOSTER, Richard, Celebration of Discipline
FOSTER, Richard, Life With God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation
FROST, Michael and Alan Hirsch, ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church
GHEZZI, Bert, Adventures in Daily Prayer
GUITIERREZ, Gustavo, The Power of the Poor in History
HABERMAS, Jurgen, The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historians’ Debate
HAHN, Scott, Kingship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises
HARDING, Vincent Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero
HEATH, Eliane, The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach
HENDERSON, Jim et. al., The Outsider Interviews: A New Generation Speaks Out on Christianity
HIRSCH, Alan, The Forgotten Ways Handbook: a Practical Guide for Developing Missional Churches
HIRSCH, Alan and Lance Ford, Right Here, Right Now: Everyday Mission for Everyday People
HOEKEMA, Anthony, The Bible and the Future
HOUSMAN, Brian, Engaging Your Teen’s World: Become a Culturally Savvy Parent
HUNT, Stephen (ed.), Christian Millenarianism: From the Early Church to Waco
JENNINGS, Theodore, Transforming Atonement: A Political Theology of the Cross
JENSON, Michael, How to Write a Theology Essay
JOHNSON, Robert, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue
JONES, Tony, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier
KEEL, Tim, Intuitive Leadership: Embracing a Paradigm of Narrative, Metaphor, and Choas
KELLER, Catherine, Apocalypse Now and Then
KINNAMAN, David, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity
KIRSCH, Jonathan, A History of the End of the World
KNIGHT, Douglas and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible
KUGEL, James, the God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible
LEWIS, C.S., God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics
LEWIS, Robert, et. al., Culture Shift: Transforming your Church form the Inside Out
LIVERMORE, David, Cultural Intelligence: Improving your CQ to Engage our Multicultural World
MARSHALL, Paul, Heaven is Not my Home
McKNIGHT, Scot, Fasting
McLAREN, Brian, We Make the Road by Walking
MORSE, MaryKate, Making Room for Leading: Power, Space and Influence
MOUW, Richard, Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport
MYERS, Joseph, The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups
NOVELLIE, Michael, Shaped by the Story: Helping Students Encounter God in a New Way
OGDEN, Greg, Leadership Essentials: Shaping Vision, Multiplying Influence, Defining Character
PELIKAN, Jarosalv, Whose Bible is it?
PERKINS, Mitali, Ambassador Families: Equipping Your Kids to Engage Popular Culture
PINCHES, Charles, Theology and Action: After Theory in Christian Ethics
RAINER, Thom and Jess, The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation
RICE, Charles, The Embodied Word: Preaching as Art and Liturgy
RICHARDSON, Rick, Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey
RIDDERBOS, Herman, The Coming of the Kingdom
ROBINSON, Anthony and Robert Wall, Called to be Church: the Book of Acts for a New Day
ROLLINS, Peter, The Fidelity of Betrayal
ROLLINS, Peter, The Orthodox Heretic
ROSSING, Barbara, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation
ROXBURGH, Alan & Fred Romanuk, The Missional Leader
SAWLER, David, Goodbye Generation: A Conversation About Why Youth and Young Adults Leave the Church
SCHWEIKER, William, Responsibility and Christian Ethics
SINE, Tom, The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time
SMEDES, Lewis, Union with Christ: A Biblical View of the New Life in Jesus Christ
SMITH, Christian, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers
SOBRINO, Jon, Spirituality of Liberation: Toward a Political Holiness
TEN ELSHOF, Gregg, I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life
THOMAS, Gary, Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path to God
VANDEBEEK, A., Why? On Suffering, Guilt and God
VANDERBROEK, Lyle, Breaking Barriers: The Possibilities of Christian Community in a Lonely World
VANDERWELL, Howard (ed.), The Church of All Ages
VAN SLOTEN, John, The Day Metallica Came to Church
VON RAD, Gerhard, Old Testament Theology (2 Volumes)
WEBBER, Robert, Ancient-Future Evangelism
WEBB-MITCHELL, Brett, Christly Gestures: Learning to be Members of the Body of Christ
WEBER, Eugen, Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages
WILSON, Jonathan, Why Church Matters: Worship, Ministry, and Mission in Practice
WILSON-HARTGROVE, Jonathan, God’s Economy: Redefining the Health & Wealth Gospel
YODER, John Howard, Revolutionary Christian Citizenship

A Faith for the Dogs: A sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon preached at St.Andrew’s-by-the-lake (Turkey Point, ON).

I.
When it comes to their children’s health and well-being, parents can be desperate creatures. There is little they will not do, going to great, even absurd lengths, in the attempt to bring comfort and relief to their sick child. Parents know all too well the plight of the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel reading. Here is a parent who is desperate for her child to get better, going so far as to stalk, yell and beg at an out-of-town teacher and faith-healer from a different religion. This is desperation at its fullest.

II.
Prior to being pestered by the Canaanite woman, Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees. The problem was that apparently Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands before eating. To our modern ears, it is easy to assume that the Pharisees were rightly concerned with personal hygiene. However, this is not the case; the Pharisees were actually concerned about ritual purity. You see, according to the Pharisaic interpretation of the Torah, hand-washing before all meals was mandatory. Those who did not wash their hands were considered symbolically unclean and, therefore, were in violation of both the Torah and covenant.

Jesus insists that this accusation is nonsense because it has nothing to do with honoring God and everything to do with honoring the Pharisees who had created a rather large list of rules that they felt helped people follow the Torah. You see, the Pharisees saw themselves as the religious elites; they were the truly faithful Jews, the ones who kept Torah and were, therefore, the ones who truly deserved God’s favor.

However, Jesus tells them that their additional rules have nothing to do with keeping Torah; their additional rules actually miss the point of Torah entirely. Of course, the Pharisees were offended at Jesus’ response. Yet, Jesus’ point sticks. Consumed with following their own rules, the Pharisees were completely blind to the fact that keeping Torah is not about being ritually pure; keeping Torah is about protecting one’s heart against evil and directing it toward the worship of God. Their faith in their own piety and morality kept them blind to recognizing Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah and Lord of the universe.

III.
Unlike the Pharisees, the Canaanite woman knew exactly who Jesus was – shouting that he is both “Lord” and the “Son of David”. It is not unlikely that she had heard of Jesus. However, is her address an authentic expression of faith or is she, as a desperate parent, simply trying to get the attention of a person who might be able to help her daughter?

Jesus’ response to her is silence; he ignores her shouts. This is not the response we expect from Jesus, who is known for showing compassion to those in need. After all, he recently fed over 5,000 people!

Jesus’ silence is born of his experience growing up as a Jewish boy in Galilee where Jews were an ethnic and religious minority who were often economically exploited by the Canaanite majority. Furthermore, we know that the rivalry and even hatred of Canaanites by the Jews goes back to the story of Joshua and the conquest of the Promised Land. Old antagonisms do not die easily.

Remember, Jesus is in “the district of Tyre and Sidon” (Matt. 15:21), which is Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus is in pagan territory. Once again Jesus finds himself in a place where he is amidst old adversaries, a minority in the midst of a powerful majority who exploit minorities for their own gain. Jesus’ silence is a kind of prayerful reflection, a discerning of this woman’s intent: is she truly expressing faith in him or is she trying to exploit him for her own ends?

But the woman persists with her shouting to the point that the disciples ask Jesus to send her away. It is at this point that Jesus breaks his silence. However, his response is nothing short of offensive: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matt. 15:26). What are we to make of this response, particularly when Jesus himself said earlier in Matthew that ““Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matt. 11:6)? What are we to make of this response, especially when Jesus just finished telling the Pharisees that it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person (cf. Matt. 15:11)?

Jesus’ abrasive words are meant to get the attention of all those who are within earshot, including those of who read and hear them today. His response to the woman is directed to her as much as it is directed to the disciples. If we attempt to explain away Jesus’ response as a kind of ‘nudge-nudge-wink-wink’ joke or as pure bigotry, we become deaf to what Jesus is trying to teach both the woman and his disciples. Implying that the woman and, by extension, all Gentiles, are dogs is offensive to our modern ears. However, we must be careful that we do not impose or project our modern sensitivities onto the text lest we tame Jesus in to a “gregarious social worker”, thereby concealing his claim “to being the truth of God” (Hauerwas). We need to hear Jesus’ words in the full context of the story and remain open to what Jesus is saying. The rhetorical force of Jesus’ words is meant to open our ears to the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom.

IV.
The Canaanite woman is on her own turf, surrounded by her own people, close to home. In his response, Jesus is teaching the Canaanite woman what it is like to feel excluded and marginalized.

The Greek word Jesus uses literally means a ‘house dog’. In other words, he is calling her a pet dog. Jewish people considered dogs unclean, so they were not kept as pets in Jewish homes. And yet in this image, Jesus is implying that the house of Israel has dogs for pets. At this point the disciples are getting a bit uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the sting of the insult remains; Jesus is saying, ‘OK, you can have a place in the house, but, remember, you are a dog – you have no status, power, or privilege. You do not get to eat the same food as the people of the household’.

The disciples would have agreed with Jesus’ insult toward the woman. But the sting of the insult is also directed at them and their rush to get rid of her. Remember, the Israelites were the descendants of Abraham, the one from whom God promised to make a great nation that would be a blessing to all people. Throughout the Old Testament we see God’s chosen people forget their calling to be a blessing to the nations. Moreover, this is exactly what is at the heart of Jesus’ earlier criticism of the Pharisees – they were legalistically obeying Torah as a means to their own ends rather than following Torah as the foundation for what God was calling Israel to be in their relationship with other nations. Jesus is saying that dogs actually do have a place in the house of Israel.

Time and again, Jesus’ disciples, both then and now, get caught in the trap of thinking that the gospel is for them alone, that they alone are the people chosen for salvation. Jesus’ disciples, both then and now, have a tendency to exclude and marginalize those they assume that don’t belong as ‘one of us’, those they assume don’t deserve to hear the gospel because of a moral fault.

In his response, Jesus is testing the disciples to see if they will speak out against his insult, to call Jesus out; their silence implies their agreement with the insult and they fail the test.

However, it is the woman who speaks up.

Though his initial silence and abrasive response, Jesus was discerning this woman’s intent; he got his answer in her response.

Not only does she endure the experience of being marginalized, she sees an opening in Jesus’ metaphor and uses it to push back, turning the insult into a blessing. Seeing that she, a Canaanite, is in the house of Israel, she responds: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matt. 15:27).

She completely turned the tables on Jesus, leaving him with nothing to say but “Woman, great is your faith!” (Matt. 15:28).

What is also remarkable about the woman’s response is that she specifically identifies the food to which Jesus refers as bread. Whereas Jesus makes no mention as to what kind of food she is referring to, the woman, who has arguably heard of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000, makes an explicit connection to bread.

Remember, the wider context of Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees and the Canaanite woman is two miraculous feedings: the feeding of the 5,000 occurs previously and the feeding of the 4,000 afterward.

After the feeding of the 5,000, which took place in Jewish territory, there were 12 baskets of leftover bread, which symbolizes the 12 tribes of Israel.
The feeding of the 4,000, however, takes place in Gentile territory, the home of the woman who is identified as a Canaanite, the ancient enemies of the Israelites. There were seven baskets of leftover bread, which symbolizes the seven Canaanite tribes that God commanded Joshua and the Israelites to “utterly destroy” in Deuteronomy 7:1-6 (7:2).

Do you see what has happened? Do you see the picture St. Matthew is painting of God’s Kingdom?

God’s kingdom is one in which all people are invited to feast, Jew and Gentile alike.

God’s kingdom is one in which there is a reconciliation between nations, where enemies are transformed into friends.

God’s kingdom is one in which there is movement from rejection to embrace and affirmation, where the Canaanite woman is initially excluded only to find that she, and her people, are embraced and welcomed into the kingdom.

God’s kingdom is one in which those who are outcast and marginalized are invited to find their true identity as God’s beloved children.

V.
The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is rooted in a long history of hatred. However, by the end of the story, there is healing, not only for the woman’s daughter, but for all of Canaan as indicated by the symbol of the seven leftover baskets of bread.

The bread that Christ offers is for both Jewish and Gentiles because all are God’s beloved children.

The Pharisees were blind to Jesus’ identity. However, through her faith, the Canaanite woman saw Jesus as the one who provides bread for all people; she saw him as the bread of the world.

Whereas Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, was chastised in chapter 14 for being “of little faith”, here in chapter 15, a Canaanite woman is praised for her “great faith”.

Her faith is great because it is audacious. She is not concerned with personal decorum; rather, she persistently and desperately follows Christ, shouting after him, and unafraid to get on her knees to beg for help – “Lord, help me!”
Her faith is great because she knew that Jesus Christ is the one who is able to feed and heal the world.

Her faith is great because of the one in whom she places her complete trust, the one who welcomes outcasts, feeds the hungry, and transforms enemies into friends.

Faith in Christ is not for the proud, the morally self-righteous, or self-sufficient, self-made people who rely on themselves; faith in Christ for those who recognize their need for God’s healing and forgiveness and desperately pursue it in the one who is ready and willing to turn the tables on us in order to invite us in to God’s up-side down kingdom.

Let us pray.

Lord, we thank you for the great faith of the Canaanite woman and the example she sets for all those who follow you. Help us to recognize our need for your grace and salvation; help us to follow you persistently and desperately with an audacious faith through which we see your kingdom where all are invited, all are fed, and all are loved.
Amen.

With appreciation and thanksgiving for the work of folks whom I am privileged to call friends:
Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat (and Grant LaMarquand) – http://www.thebanner.org/features/2011/01/genocide-or-healing
Dr. Nik Ansell – http://www.thebanner.org/features/2011/01/jesus-on-the-offensive
Shiao Chong – http://3dchristianity.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/going-to-the-dogs/

9th Sunday After Pentecost (A): A Sermon

I.
Jesus’ disciples mistake him for a ghost on more than one occasion.

However, considering that the disciples have witnessed Jesus do the impossible again and again – calming a storm at sea, turning water into wine, making blind people see and paralytics walk, and feeding thousands of people with only five loaves of bread and two fish – the disciples should be used to expecting the impossible. And yet, here we find them in the middle of a storm completely terrified because they think they’ve seen a ghost.

Despite Jesus identifying himself, the disciples remain paralyzed by fear, unsure if what they are seeing is truly real. So, Peter demands certainty in order to calm his fear: “Jesus, if that’s you, then call me to come out to you”. Jesus calls him and Peter gets out of the boat.

However, Peter’s demand for certainty will not be satisfied in a situation like this because certainty is concerned with the limits of the possible. Walking on water is impossible. So, Peter’s fear gets the best of him and he begins to drown. It is only when Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter that Peter’s life is saved. It is only when Jesus gets into the boat that the disciples’ fear disappears and their faith in him is restored – “Truly you are the Son of God!”

II.
It is easy for us to criticize the disciples for their lack of faith in these stories. The disciples know who Jesus is and what he is capable of doing. Yet, time and again, the disciples are shown to have a flimsy faith that is often overwhelmed by fear.

You see, the opposite of faith is not doubt. Rather, the opposite of faith is fear.

Jesus’ most repeated command to his disciples was “Do not be afraid”. Throughout his ministry, Jesus continually told his disciples to neither worry nor be afraid. Yet, once again, the disciples are consumed with fear. They are not having intellectual questions or doubts about a particular point of doctrine; they are scared out of their minds! It is precisely their fear that prevents them from seeing Jesus. Fear distorts the sight that comes through faith, the sight that fixes itself upon the person and work of Jesus Christ. Fear is fixated upon the unknown because the unknown is beyond the limits of possibility. Therefore, anything that appears to be impossible must be an illusion or myth. Fear refuses to accept that with God all things are possible (cf. Matt. 19:26) and assumes that the limits of the possible are within my personal control.

The life of faith is learning to give up control, learning to fix our eyes on Jesus Christ.

This means that the life of faith is an ongoing process of conversion, of turning away from our fears and turning toward Christ, meeting him face-to-face and allowing him to touch us, healing our fear.

Amidst the storms of life, both staying in the boat and getting out of the boat are risky. The decision to stay in the boat is an attempt to control our environment in the midst of chaos; after all, the boat is the safest place to be, right? However, the reality is that in the storm, things are out of our control – the boat can capsize at any time, regardless of our sailing abilities.
The decision to get out of the boat requires a radical trust, a singular fixation on the one who calls us out of the boat, the one who comes to meet us. Drowning is only a possibility for those who allow fear to take hold of them. The beautiful risk of faith is the willingness to do the seemingly impossible because one’s eyes are fixed on Christ.

There is a back-and-forth relationship between fear and faith is at work in all of our lives. This dynamic is heightened by the fact that we cannot see Jesus; he is not physically present with us the way he was with the first disciples. Nevertheless, all of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus find ourselves in the same situation amid the storms of life: out of fear we can stay in the boat or out of faith we can get out of the boat.

III.
I cannot offer you a 5-point list on how to get out of the boat because there is no such list; God has already given us everything we need to worship him and follow Christ in and through the practices of the Church. One of these practices is the gift of witness, of sharing how God is at work in our lives, healing our fear and bringing us closer to him.

Although I grew up going to church every week and was raised by Christian parents, I intentionally spent my first two years of university outside of the church. I would occasionally visit various local congregations of different denominations, but, like many of my peers, I assumed that identifying as ‘spiritual but not religious’ was good enough. After all, I was too intelligent and too modern to believe the Sunday School stories I’d grown up with were actually true. In order to hedge my bets, I figured it was best to vaguely identify myself as a person of faith; not a particular faith, mind you, but a kind of faith in faith; the kind of faith that doesn’t require anything of me other than a positive assessment of faith itself in a general sense and, perhaps, going to church once and a while.

Looking back, I can see how this time of wandering and drifting was an important part of my faith formation. I experienced a profound sense of lack and meaninglessness in my life. Sure, life on my own terms was lots of fun, but even that got boring after a while. However, I slowly began to realize that I wasn’t even in the boat; I was drowning. It was with this realization that God pulled me out of the water and into the boat.

In the summer between my second and third year of university, I spent my time growing in my faith and made the resolution to immerse myself in a Christian community back in university. After some searching, I found a great community and a personal mentor, Graham, our university chaplain, who guided and challenged me in my faith. I was back in the boat; all was well and life was comfortable.

Everything changed one day during my third year of university. As I was walking past the library, I heard a voice in my head saying “You are going to do an M.Div. because you are going into the ministry”. I stopped in my tracks; I had no idea what an ‘M.Div.’ was. Plus, the idea of an audible voice in my head? That’s impossible; that’s something that happens to crazy people.

So, I stayed in the boat, content to ignore the voice I’d heard. But after a while, my curiosity got the better of me, so I researched what an ‘M.Div.’ was and learned that it is a Master of Divinity, a graduate degree for those preparing for ministry. Clearly this wasn’t my vocational path since I was preparing for law school. But the voice kept echoing in my head, so I sought Graham’s counsel, who affirmed my gifts for ministry. I, on the other hand, remained skeptical. However, by the end of my final year I applied to the M.Div. program at Regent College in B.C.

Upon my acceptance into the program, I panicked. There was absolutely no way that I was cut out for parish ministry. After all, I was way too young to lead a church. So, once again, I decided to stay in the boat. I applied to an M.A. program at the Toronto School of Theology, telling God that I would make a better professor than pastor, that I was too young, that I needed more time, that I needed to stay in the boat.

Thankfully, God is patient and once again used this time to form my faith. Once again God placed a person in my life who worked to gently nudge me out of the boat. The Academic Dean, who also happens to be an Anglican Priest, told me that despite high grades, academic work was not my true calling because I’m focused on where-the-rubber-hits-the-road; she suggested parish ministry was the place I was called to put the rubber of my theological training onto the road of life.

Upon returning home from two years teaching English in Japan, once again, that voice was back. On the advice of a close friend, I applied for and was hired as the Pastor of Youth and Outreach. I figured that this must be good enough for God. I learned a great deal in 16 months at that parish before moving to Newmarket where I was hired by a different church. Once again, I figured that this must be good enough for God. Once again, I learned a great deal. And yet, once again, the voice I heard when walking by the library started to echo.

The voice began to get louder as my time at the church in Newmarket was drawing to a close. Resigning from that church, I conditionally took an offer at another church. I knew it was the wrong decision to make, but it was the decision I made because I felt most comfortable staying in the boat; I was afraid of what would happen if I got out of the boat.

God is patient. But by this point, he was ready to push me out of the boat. At the advice and encouragement of parishioners, friends, and family members, I turned down the job offer and enrolled in the M.Div. program at Wycliffe College in Toronto. In faith, I stepped out of the boat, completely unsure of what the future would hold. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that learning to walk on water is difficult; it is hard and often exhausting because it requires a full and complete trust in the one who calls me out of the boat. There are times when fear does start to creep up, threatening to drown me. There are times when I want to run back to the boat. But I’m learning to walk on water by focusing on Christ alone, trusting that he will give me everything I need to follow his call.

All Christians share two similarities: the one who calls us and the calling to which we are called. Christ calls all of his followers to get out of the boat and join him on the water.

Not everyone is called to be a parish priest; yet through baptism, we become part of what the Reformers call the priesthood of all believers. The Reformers argued that having faith in the faith of the parish priest was not adequate because Christ calls all those who follow him to participate in his mission of reconciliation, to be his body on earth. We are to have faith in the faithfulness of Christ, to put our trust in him alone and his promise to be with us always, never leaving or forsaking us.

So, the question is: where is Christ calling you to get out of your comfortable boat and to take the risk in following him on to the water? How are you called to minister in your daily life at home, school, work, and play? With whom are you called to share the gospel? Who is the person in your life that is hungry to know Jesus?

Learning to walk on water is learning to rely on the God who makes the impossible possible. However, we do not walk alone – we walk with each other and we walk toward the one who is walking toward us, the one who will not let us drown, the one who provides us with everything we need to follow him onto the water.

Come, let us take the beautiful risk of faith by getting out of the boat and learning to walk on water.

Come, let us learn to fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (cf. Heb. 12:2).

Amen.

Zombies in Church – A sermon for Pentecost 9 (A)

A sermon preached at St.Andrew’s-by-the-lake (Turkey Point, ON)

I.
Zombies; The Living Dead; The Walking Dead; rotting corpses partially returned to life. Existing somewhere between life and death and having no emotion, personality or individual identity, zombies limp and shuffle along, limbs bent out of join, mouths agape, emitting guttural groans as they hunt for their next meal of human flesh.

Not exactly a topic you expected to hear about in church, eh? Perhaps some of you are confused and maybe even offended. While zombies are a standard fixture in popular culture, what place do they have in the church? After all, zombies are the stuff of horror movies, not the gospel! However, if we are willing to immerse ourselves in our Scripture readings from today, we will see that there is a place for zombies in the Church.

II.
The key to understanding the relationship between zombies and the gospel is in our reading from Isaiah. You see, chapters 49-55 of Isaiah were written during Israel’s Babylonian captivity. Once again, the Hebrew people find themselves living in the shadow of empire, this time under the power of the Babylonians. As you can imagine, the Israelites are completely disoriented in the midst of their exile. All of the primary markers of their identity are now gone: the land is seized, the Temple is destroyed, and the Ark of the Covenant disappears. This disorientation results in a profound experience of despair: where is God? Are we not God’s chosen people? Has God abandoned us? Who are we? What are we supposed to do now?

The Israelites identity as God’s people is supplanted by their identity as slaves. Once an independent nation, the Israelites are now a conquered people whose identity and worth is entirely based upon their economic value to the empire. Once they were a chosen people, a royal priesthood and a holy nation (cf. Ex. 19:6) called to be a blessing unto the nations, now they are nobodies – powerless and utterly disposable objects – who exist at the destructive whims of their conquerors, those who have the power of life and death.

Indeed, the existence of the Israelites is that of all people who are enslaved to an empire: they exist somewhere between life and death, not really alive and not quite dead.

The Israelites are the walking dead; they are zombies.

III.
This morning, I want to suggest that like the ancient Israelites, we too are living in the shadow of an Empire. This Empire goes by many different names, but it is an empire that easily recognizable. While it is true that ours is captivity that is completely different from that of the ancient Israelites, it is captivity nevertheless. Our captivity is evident both in the language we use and in the practices that define our daily lives.

We are captive to an Empire where a person’s identity is determined by their possessions and their worth defined by their economic output; where ‘somebodies’ are those with the most stuff and ‘nobodies’ are those who are unable to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It is an Empire that is driven by the fear of scarcity, to which the solution is increased consumption; an Empire driven by the fear of becoming downwardly mobile to the point of becoming a ‘nobody’; an Empire where having ‘enough’ is never an option because ‘more’ is always available – but supplies are limited!

Like all Empires, this empire demands my total allegiance. It dictates that since my desires are most important, I must look out for ‘number one’ above everyone else, regardless of destruction this requires of creation or other human lives. My whole existence is defined by my desire to not only keep up with the Jones’, but to surpass the Jones’ because the one with the most toys wins, right? Therefore, I must ensure that I am properly educated so that I can competitively enter the rat race so that I am able to exit the rat race at a reasonable age with enough money and stuff to ensure a comfortable and, therefore, prolonged life until my eventual death. Such is the ‘good life’ defined by our Empire.

However, is this truly a ‘good life’ when I am expected to frantically and competitively rush through my life driven by the fear of scarcity, down-ward mobility, and the lingering reality of my death? Are we not zombies ourselves as we pursue this kind of life, devouring one another to satisfy our personal desires? The truth of the matter is that because ours is a comfortable captivity, it very difficult to see it as captivity, to see ourselves as zombies. Furthermore, the pursuit of a good and comfortable life makes it difficult, indeed nearly impossible, for us to hear the good news that both the prophet Isaiah and the stories of the loves and fish describe.

IV.
Our inability to hear God’s word to us is precisely why we need the prophets. The prophets address God’s people, both then and now, in language that refuses to pull punches because they are single-mindedly focused on describing the reality of God’s truth. Therefore, prophetic language is often uncomfortable and offensive to those to whom it is addressed. The prophets call us to challenge the myths of Empire, myths that insist the status-quo is simply the way things are. Furthermore, the prophets invite us to imagine the world through the lens of God’s Kingdom in defiance of the wisdom of Empire.

Isaiah 55 begins with a short word that is easy to disregard. Listen again to verse 1: “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price”. You see, ‘Ho!’ is a word that was used to get the attention of the dead in funerary laments. God prophetically addresses his captive people as the living dead, as zombies, for that is exactly what they are within in the shadow of empire; in one small word, the prophet describes the entire situation.

However, God’s address does not end there. In Isaiah 55, God’s people in exile are given a divine word that addresses their fears and offered a new hope rooted in God’s promise of provision and forgiveness if the people return to him. New life is possible for God’s people because God refuses to leave his people enslaved, to leave them living death in the shadow of empire. God refuses to do this because God is the one who liberates captives and resurrects the dead. God is the God of exodus and resurrection.

However, in the midst of captivity, God’s promises sound too good to be true – how can those who have no money buy food? How can they buy wine and milk without money and without price? Is it another way of life really possible where we no longer need to work to buy things that can never satisfy? Cynicism and distrust are the default settings of those living in captivity.

Nevertheless, Isaiah 55 gives God’s people a glimpse of the freedom and new life that God offers to his people if they would but return to him, living within the promise and provision of his kingdom.

V.
The glimpse of the freedom and life God offers his people in Isaiah 55 finds its fullest expression in the person and actions of Jesus Christ. Standing in the middle of the wilderness, with no markets nearby, Jesus tells the disciples to give food to the thousands who followed them into the wilderness, to feed them with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. The disciples respond with cynical distrust rooted in the myth of scarcity, the myth that tells us what we have is never enough. And yet out of this meager supply, Jesus feeds the multitude not only to the point that they were filled, to the point where there are leftovers.

To our modern ears it sounds like a fairytale, utter foolishness believed by the weak-minded, an embellished story that is too fantastic to be true.

But what if it is too fantastic not to be true? What if it is so fantastic it must be true?

The abundance of the freedom and life God extends can be overwhelming to the point where it seems absurd, sheer fantasy. It is easier to live in the comfort of captivity than to follow Jesus into the wilderness. Following Jesus into the wilderness is an act of radical trust where we place our lives in his hands and where we learn “to want the limitless things God gives us in Jesus…[and] to take the right things for granted” (Wells, 5, 11).

The economy of God’s kingdom is completely different from that of Empire because it is defined by generosity, not scarcity, by the restoration of life, not its destruction, by relationship in community, not autonomous self-expression. In God’s kingdom, people are identified as God’s beloved children through the gift and promise of baptism.

Because their appetite can never be satisfied, zombies continually feed on the living, and in so doing they produce nothing but death. However, in feasting on Christ, the living bread, our appetites are satisfied as we receive the life that comes from the one who died and rose again. In feasting on Christ, we learn a new way of life outside of the shadow of empire where scarcity abounds and inside the light of God’s Kingdom where overflowing abundance is the norm; a new way of life where God gives us everything that we need to worship him: bread and wine without cost, ordinary items through which God offers spiritual nourishment and abundant life.

The good news is that no longer must we be zombies, enslaved to empire; in Christ, we are offered a new life where freedom and provision are abundant, and we are invited into a community that is learning what it means to trust, receive, and embody Christ’s generous and self-giving love. The community of those who follow Christ into the wilderness, a community called the Church, learns how to trust, receive, and embody Christ’s love through the practices God gives the Church: baptism, Eucharist, prayer, reading Scripture, preaching, teaching, hospitality, confession, sharing peace, washing feet, and giving praise (cf. Wells, 6). These are ordinary things, but through them God does extraordinary things. By faithfully performing these practices, we are shaped into a people who, empowered by the Holy Spirit, strive to make the entire world into a Eucharist where the living dead may receive resurrection life and become transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Dare we trust that the super-abundance of Jesus Christ is too good not be true? Dare we trust that in him we will truly be satisfied?

Come, let us feast on Christ.

Amen.

(The book quoted is Samuel Wells God’s Companions – a remarkable ‘must read’)