July 15, 2018: We Will Get it Wrong by Frances Kitson (Timothy 2: 8-18 & Micah 6: 6-8)

This is clearly not an easy passage to wrestle with. So the first question is: why choose it? Mostly because it’s personal. As a woman going into ministry, I want to know: what is my answer to people who will ask me: “How can you be a woman and still be a minister?” But I want to look at it collectively as well, because if we never address these texts from the pulpit, then we do not have a chance to grow together.

I also recognize that in choosing a passage like this, I am implicitly asking for your trust. I thank you for the permission to take risks.

I’m going to say something that sounds completely counterintuitive: this passage is actually not about gender. This passage, and much of the rest of Timothy, is really concerned with good citizenship, and that’s the angle I want to look at today.

To be clear: when I say “citizenship,” I don’t mean legal status. I don’t mean taking an interest in national affairs, or voting, or identifying with a particular country. I mean being a citizen of culture, being formed by an ethos, a way of looking at the world. And in this passage we see a conflict between the teachings of citizenship and the teachings of Jesus.

Now, to follow Christ is to live in tension. We are on a perpetual teeter-totter: on one end are the teachings of Christ and the Hebrew Scriptures; on the other end are the stories of the world. Our job is always to try and straddle the middle and keep both ends up. We’re never called just to sit at one end: we don’t land on the Christ end, ignoring or rejecting the world, but we don’t land on the world’s end, accepting its ideology without question. Both of them inform the other: we take Christ’s teachings to the world and challenge the dominant stories; and we take the beauty and heartbreak of the world to our faith, so that our practice and language and theology respond to our lived experience.

So we might look at the world and say, “The message of my teacher tells me that I need to be in the DTES feeding the hungry,” or “the message of my teacher tells me that I reject the idea that I will find happiness by buying more stuff.” And then we might listen to the world and say, “The hymns I sing in church need to reflect the pain of queer people who have kicked out of the church,” or “The language I use to pray needs to respond to the devastation of warming oceans and islands of plastic.” So lived reality and the teachings and practices of our faith are always in relationship.

But if we go back to our teeter-totter image, remember that balancing these two ends is never static. Gravity is always at work, and it takes constant focus and adjustment to balance the two, and sometimes one end is just going to drop. That’s what is happening in this passage: the writer has let the experience end drop and is sitting there comfortably, while the Christ end is up in the air.

Now, scholars argue, as they do, about when this letter was written and who wrote it. The sources with whom I agree theorize that this letter was written sometime around the turn of the second century CE: sometime between the years 80 and 120. And about a hundred years before that, Roman emperors began something of a family values campaign.

As Rome made the abrupt and violent transition from republic to empire, the various emperors had some power building to do. As a means of a distraction, they idealized an earlier Rome and played on nostalgia for a bygone Rome, a more virtuous Rome, when everyone knew their place.

They were pushing a particular social ideology, and that ideology taught that a properly religious and pious household was one where the male head kept his household in good order, including the people. Legally, the male head of a Roman household owned his wife, his daughters, his slaves, and any son who was not of age. So Roman propaganda is saying that a pious and devout male head of household will keep the subjects of his household in line, just as the pious and devout emperor is really a benevolent father figure to his subjects, keeping them in line. That’s the ideology that is creeping in here.

But does that mean that people really lived in this kind of pattern? Or is this how the empire wanted people to live? Is this like our popular images of how we should live: a good citizen of our culture is trim, lean, eats in accordance with [insert lifestyle of choice], has the work/life balance figured out, lives in perpetual family harmony, is endlessly productive, always organized, is in control of their money, and is never ever tired.

If I just described your life, please don’t tell me.

Is this ideal of the Roman household governed by the male head just as impossible an ideal as our culture’s myth of having it all?

Very possibly.

And: is this popular ideal congruent with Jesus’ behaviour towards women?

Nope.

Jesus never spoke directly to the role of women in church, but then, Jesus didn’t have a church. But Jesus spoke to women. He listened to them, he ate with them, he healed them, called them “daughter,” taught them and was taught by them. There was a place for women at the table of Jesus.

Now, it would be really easy to end here. And it would be really, really easy to point the finger at denominations who don’t admit women to the priesthood. And it’s really, really tempting to congratulate ourselves on doing so. But that misses the deeper message of this text.

It’s really obvious in this two thousand year old text how the teeter-totter of world and Christ is unbalanced. But the Christ sitting at one end of our teeter-totter is among us to both comfort and challenge, and the challenge of this text is to ask us to take a good, hard look in the mirror and ask how we may be out of balance. When have we sat comfortably within the world, leaving Christ hanging in the air?

It’s hard to see, because we are shaped by our world. So I tried to think of an example from my own life, and here’s what I thought of: Oreos. Oreos, like many foods made for shelf life, contain palm oil. The harvesting of palm oil is largely environmentally devastating and employs workers in third world countries under poor conditions for not enough pay. I know all this, and I feel it’s pretty clear that the message of both Jesus and the Hebrew prophets calls me to pay attention, which probably means not buying them. But I live in a consumer culture, where I deserve to have whatever I want, because the economy depends on people buying what we want.

Do I need Oreos? Not at all. Do I want Oreos? Heck yes. Am I going to give them up? Um… maybe?

Now, this sounds trivial, but it’s a microscopic example of how following God’s call to seek justice and love kindness can put us at odds with our culture.

On a larger scale, British Christianity built a cultural myth that taught that English culture was synonymous with Christianity: that white people owned the Gospel of Christ and were in every way superior to the heathen and misguided savages, however noble they might be.

We know where that landed us.

That is the challenge of this passage: we cannot be complacent about what it means to follow Jesus.

I said earlier that Jesus came to both challenge and comfort. We have our challenge. What is our comfort?

The comfort of this passage is this: we can trust. We can trust that God’s radical, irrepressible, unstoppable, unstinting grace is going to catch us every time we land on the side of the world. This is where Micah’s words speak to us. In the midst of seeking justice and loving kindness, we are to walk humbly with our God. Our God is a relational, active God: not hovering above, not distant and objective, but right here, right now, right among us and in us. And that God is worthy of our trust.

Let’s be clear about grace: grace does not translate to “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. You meant well, so it’s all good.” That is a cheap and sanitized grace.

Grace means that when we cause harm, when we conflate culture and Christ, we are challenged to see it, to acknowledge it, to repent of it – and then, when we feel most ashamed and least worthy, then God looks us in the eye and says: “I see you. I see your faults and the harm you caused; I see the lies you told and the times you looked the other way. And you are still my child. Come: leave your shame behind and walk in my ways, for my love is poured out for you.”

Can we accept both the challenge and the comfort that accompany this passage? Can we stand naked before God, and admit to where we have colluded with empire? Can we stand naked before God, and accept a grace so big, and so wide, that it defies logic and rationality?

It’s not easy. But my friends: what else are we going to live for?

July 1, 2018: Healed by Rev. Beth Hayward (Mark 5: 21-43)

When our girls were little we had this bedtime ritual where I’d ask them for some nouns and verbs then I’d turn it all into a story. So I might end up with a kid named Alex, a cow, a coral reef, a papaya, an airplane and some laughter. The girls loved it, loved the unexpected twists and turns that the story would take. I, however, came to dread what I’d created. It’s no small chore to come up with a story on the spot with a beginning, middle and end, with a challenge to overcome or a new insight to be gleaned and do all that while desperately trying to remember what animal and mode of transportation needed to be included this time. When I did manage to put my own story telling anxieties aside I noticed that the kids didn’t actually need the story to be anything in particular. It didn’t even really need to have a point. It’s like the story itself was enough.

We’ve memorialized our stories in the Christian tradition. Look around at the glorious stained glass windows of this building. There, larger than life, are the stories of our sacred texts and down below the stories of our colonial history. They’re stories that are important to remember. But let’s not forget that these stories, literally enveloping us, were made for the light to shine through. We can try to capture them in the glass but stories never stay the same because we read them from a particular vantage point, in a particular moment in time, with all of the other stories we know reaching for the hem of garment of this one.

Mark tells the story before us today in so much detail that some have wondered was he really there? Or did he talk directly to someone who was? “It has the ring of an eyewitness account,”[1] says pastor and theologian Frederick Buechner. These are the kinds of stories that have more to teach us in the way they flow over us and seep into us than in the way we try to explain and theologize about them.

Come with me, for a few minutes to the other side, the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which of course is not a sea at all but a big lake, but of course that doesn’t really matter. Jesus’ boat docks on the other side, near Capurnaum, where fishing is the livelihood of choice or of necessity as the case may be. Arriving on the other side, greeted by the smell of fish, gutted and cleaned and laid out drying lakeside; met by the sight of a crowd, fishers and whatnot, bare footed dusty children, all there because they’d heard about him and come to see for themselves or maybe there just because what else are you to do in fishing village in the first century. Jesus is the event, the only event, so why not come out and see for yourself.

Jesus and the boys get out of the boat and the crowd closes in and he starts to walk and the crowd presses in. We’re not told his intended destination, maybe the local hostel or a friend’s home to grab a meal, but no matter, before he ever gets there the story takes on a direction all its own.

He hasn’t gone far when Jairus, a synagogue lead, lays his body down at Jesus’ feet. Who knows how he managed to find his way through the crowd, maybe people cleared the way because they knew how desperate he was or maybe he was just important and people moved aside out of some societal sense of respect. But he doesn’t look all that important as he genuflects at the foot of this stranger. He’s been stripped of any pretense. In this moment the only story that is true about him is the one about a desperate father. Which may explain why he pleads “my little daughter is at the point of death.” She’s twelve, not actually so little anymore, more of a young woman on the threshold of adulthood, about to be launched into the next phase of life and maturity and possibility if not for the fact that she’s dying. But when you’re the heartbroken, desperate parent your kid becomes little again, the little being you first fell in love with and promised to protect and care for all those years ago.

“Who knows what kind of story Mark is telling here, but the moving part of it, I think, is the part where Jesus”[2] looks Jairus in the eye and goes with him: doesn’t assess just how sick she is, doesn’t make him fill out paper work, doesn’t add her to the waiting list, or compare her to all the others waiting for healing. And Suddenly we ourselves are Jairus, worried beyond belief, overcome with that desperate feeling that you have to do something, and you’re met for what feels like the first time by an opening door, a hand of compassion, where everything you’ve been fighting falls away and now there is hope, and it’s not so much that the way forward has suddenly become clear, as it is the way your heart knows you’re not alone, there is a power in this universe that desires so very much for you, that’s want you to know life again

Jesus has no sooner said, show me the way to your daughter, than someone else just as desperate as Jairus, though with far less money or power, comes up from behind and reaches for the hem of his robe. She doesn’t care that the rules say anyone she touches will become as unclean as she has been for twelve years. She doesn’t care about the rules, she’s desperate and so she reaches out, not waiting for anyone to lay hands on her, taking matters into her own hands. He stops and abruptly turns and demands to know who just drew that power from him? The disciples take the approach of the level-headed realists and remind him that the whole crowd is pushing in, how could they possibly know who touched him?

“Who knows what kind of story Mark is telling here, but the moving part of it, I think, is the part where Jesus”[3] looks in the eye of the woman who has suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years as she lays herself at his feet. He looks her in the eye and says “daughter, your faith has made you well.” And suddenly we ourselves are that nameless woman, and we realize our faith is not something that gives us all the answers, or makes our lives safe and easy, it’s not something we cling to as we hide away hoping things will get better. Our faith is one step in front of the other, pressing through the overwhelming crowd, reaching out for what we need, being bold enough to claim the life we know we were born to live in order for the bleeding to stop.

While Jesus is still speaking to the nameless woman some friends run up to announce that it’s too late, Jairus’s daughter is dead they say, don’t waste the time of the teacher. And Jesus looks Jairus in the eye, and reaches out a hand, gently placing it on his arm and says “Don’t be afraid, only believe.” And he makes his way to the home of that synagogue leader. And he sees the crowd outside the house weeping and wailing and he says to them “The child isn’t dead, just sleeping.”

“Who can say for sure what exactly Jesus did in that house where Jairus lived or how far down into the darkness he had to reach to do it, but in a way who cares any more than her mother and father can have cared. That was all that mattered.”[4]

Pastor and Theologian Frederick Buechner says of the little daughter

I picture her looking something like the photographs we have of Anne Frank a wry, narrow little Jewish face full of irony and wit and a kind of bright-eyed exhilaration; I picture how it would be to have the child that was Anne Frank back again somehow, the way she was before the gates of the concentration camp closed behind her. I picture how one way or another, if such a thing were to happen, we would all of us fall to our knees. The whole world would fall to its knees.[5]

“Who knows what kind of story Mark is telling here, but the enormously moving part of it, I think, is the part where Jesus takes the little girl’s hand and says, “Little girl, get up”—and suddenly we ourselves are the little girl.”

Little girl. Old girl. Old boy. Old [ones] with high blood pressure and arthritis, and young [ones] with tattoos and body piercing. You who believe, and you who sometimes believe and sometimes don’t believe much of anything, and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could. You happy ones and you who can hardly remember what it was like once to be happy. You who know where you’re going and how to get there and you who much of the time aren’t sure you’re getting anywhere. “Get up,” he says, all of you—all of you!—and the power that is in him is the power to give life not just to the dead like the child, but to those who are only partly alive, which is to say to people like you and me who much of the time live with our lives closed to the wild beauty and miracle of things, including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live and even of ourselves.[6]

The woman was healed. The child lives. Things don’t always work out that way.

I’m not sure what to say about that. I don’t think these stories were told to explain that.

I don’t think they’re intended to be an exact blueprint of how to be healed. I don’t think they were told to shame all those who don’t have the courage to push through the crowd, who can’t stop the bleeding, who never get raised up.

And I wonder if maybe a story like this one with a couple of miracles and a big crowd gathered by the sea, with a whiff of an eyewitness tone might just be most useful to us today in the way it can touch our senses, more than our minds.

The life-giving power that is at the heart of this shadowy story about Jairus and the daughter he loved, is at the heart of all our stories, the power of new life, new hope, new being, and whether we know it or not, it keeps us coming to places like this year after year in search of it. It’s the power to get up even when getting up isn’t all that easy anymore and to keep getting up and going on and on toward whatever it is, whoever he is, that all our lives long reaches out to take us by the hand.

Sometimes I wonder if we settle for stained glass Jesus stories, transparent, frozen in time, two-dimensional stories; instead of the eyewitness account stories.

I don’t really mean that as a judgment on any of us, just a bit of an observation.

I mean, Jesus is what makes Christians Christian. But sometimes I’m not sure we know what to do with him. Because when he reaches down to the depths to pull us back, well it’s a lot! Sometimes we’re healed and sometimes not but one thing is sure, Jesus is always reaching a hand to those who, in this moment, are the most vulnerable, even you. Amen

[1] http://www.frederickbuechner.com/blog/2018/6/25/weekly-sermon-illustration-jairus-daughter I am indebted to the writing of Frederick Buechner for this sermon. I have borrowed liberally from his words in Secrets in the Dark and trust that what I have added to them upholds the same Spirit to which he was reaching.

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

June 24, 2018: Imagination by Rev. Beth Hayward (Matthew 25: 31-46)

You know that thing they do when you’re watching sports on TV? There’s some spectacular play, so they slow it down and play it again and again and again? It’s been an instant replay sort of week. The images of children in chain link cages, video of little ones crying out for their parents, green mats on a concrete floor, with children curled up under crackling space blankets. The images sear into our collective consciousness, like other images before – the ones of numb high school students pouring out of the building after a mass shooting, the three year-old refugee boy washed up on the beach. The shock and horror reaches us in real time, in this virtual world that we live in, and the replay of those images on our screens again and again is like a slow motion hockey game replay. Each time we see it we become more shocked, shamed and stunned.

I confess, my initial response this time round, to the gut wrenching images and the accompanying sense of anger and helplessness, was to distract myself by binge watching my latest Netflix drama. I might have chosen instead to Trump-bash on social media, it’s always nice to have somewhere to put the blame. The idea of separating children from their parents breaks my heart  and this week and I didn’t know what to do with that. I told myself this is America’s problem; they have the resources to fight this absurdity. I tried hard to turn my gaze the other direction, to wag my finger at Trump, to say shame on you America. I couldn’t shake this feeling that we have to take a real good look at what’s happening in our own backyard.

On Wednesday, World Refugee Day, we were reminded that Canada doesn’t have a perfect track record on immigration. We’ve been known to detain children too. And on Thursday, National Aboriginal Day, we remembered the intergenerational trauma caused when children were torn from parents’ arms and sent to residential schools. Reminded too that indigenous children constitute about 50% of children in care in this country while only being about 7 percent of the population.[1] And somehow the slow motion replay of the children in cages in Texas, well it landed closer to home. It became harder to ignore.

I’ve been told that I can get too political in my preaching. Of course I’ve also been told that I’m not political enough. It’s the nature of the beast. I hear the critique from both sides and I’m not sure I’ll ever find the right balance. What I do know is that Jesus’ efforts to bring about a new kingdom had political undertones. And besides that, if looking for an appropriate Christian response to children torn from their parents’ arms is a political act then I’m willing to risk getting a bit too political, at least today I am.

As the week wore on I knew my Netflix drama was going to do little to inform my preaching. But I was finding it hard to move beyond Trump bashing. I did eventually choose to start reading and watching and absorbing the images of the week and I made a last minute scripture lesson switch. I thought it might be wise to choose a Bible passage that could easily speak to this moment. I had hoped that this passage from Matthew could speak to such a time as this. What better word from Jesus this week than “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you brought a drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you took care, in prison and you visited?”  What better line for this week than the powerful concluding bit of this scripture: “just as you do it to one of the least of these you do it to me.” Clear and simple: be a sheep, not a goat. Be the kind of person who does the right thing.

It’s just that I’d forgotten this is a parable. And the thing about a parable, which I say every time we wrestle with one, is that parables are trouble. They have these twists and turns and trap doors. And this one is no exception: “You wander into it thinking you can figure out how to be counted among the sheep, only to discover that the very attempt locates you within the goat herd.”[2] Apparently I forgot about the bits in here around the question of eternal judgment too. So please bear with me because I was trying to make it simple this week and it’s just possible that I have inadvertently done the complete opposite!

I could skirt the eternal judgment issue a bit. As a parable there’s no reason to think we are talking about literal and eternal damnation. Eternal judgment in a parable is more of a tool to get a point across than a predictor of the future. I might also bring to our attention the translational issue that suggests the judgment on all the nations here is actually just referring to two “nations” the Gentiles and the Jews. So it’s not a universal sort of thing and maybe doesn’t apply to us.

But here’s the thing: whether there’s eternal judgment or not, whether it’s used here to get a point across in a parable or whether it’s foreshadow of what is to come, all that’s moot. Because as one commentator points out “Matthew’s Jesus does not instruct disciples that they should become the salt of the earth or the light of the world; he tells them they are [those things]… Jesus does not command his followers to hunger and thirst for justice, pursue peace, and so forth; he blesses those who do (5:1-16). Judgment simply brings out a reality that has been present all along.”[3] It’s not who you are it’s what you do.

Do you know what I mean? Judgment isn’t something that happens when all is said and done and some all-powerful God reviews all the evidence and makes a ruling. We’re not judged by the findings of a tally sheet. Not by who we are, or who we think we are but by how we live moment to moment. Each moment is a choice to bear good fruit or not. Judgment already is, right here and now. Judgment is already found in the choices we make. This is a story that reveals a glimpse of how to live our lives not how to set ourselves up for judgment day. This is about being a Christian, now. It’s not that we have to wait for some afterlife to learn on which side of the great divide we land. In fact, every effort to identify ourselves as good sheep will inevitably make us goats.

Which I find pretty humbling because most days when it comes to political things I am very much convinced that my side is the sheep side! The challenge here is to spend less time trying to place ourselves in the story, and more time living it.

  1. S. Lewis wrote a book many years ago, The Great Divorce. The narrator finds himself in Hell, Grey Town it’s called. There’s a bus excursion to heaven. A lot of people leave before the bus ever arrives but those who wait find their bodies have become transparent as they arrive at the foothills of heaven. Being so transparent makes the experience rather larger than life, the luscious grass pokes at their feet, it’s all absolutely stunning but nonetheless a bit unsettling, overwhelming even. The spirits of heaven keep offering care and reassurance but many choose not to stay. Some of them have obligations back in Hell, others are annoyed that people lesser than them are in heaven. Some are convinced the whole thing is a trick, too good to be real. You know how it is when you don’t try that new thing because you are so stuck on what is, so used to good enough, so familiar with the way things have always been that you can’t even imagine that things could actually be better?

As it turns out, all you need to do to stay in heaven is receive the gift. Those who return to Grey Town, they don’t even realize it’s hell, because honestly it’s not that bad, a lot like earth in fact. It’s joyless and friendless and uncomfortable and people keep getting farther and farther apart but it’s not so bad. They return to hell, because they simply can’t receive the gift. They choose instead to hang on to all sorts of things that they’ve told themselves have value. They’ve lost their ability to imagine something better. I don’t know, maybe there’s a story you’re familiar with in there?

These moments when we are collectively transfixed on such gut wrenching images, like the children in Texas or the students after a mass shooting or the three year-old refugee boy on the beach, they provide this opportunity to tap back into our collective imagination. The whole world focuses on these impossible images and we begin to see things that we were blind to before. The horror, the real lives they represent cause us to pause and ask ourselves, is this all there is? Can we not do better than this? These moments piece our imagination. And we begin to remember that we can be more than this, we can do better than this.

When Jesus says to the sheep I was in prison and you visited and when he says to the goats when I was in prison you didn’t visit, they offer back to him the exact same response. Both say: When did I do that? I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I have no recollection of doing/not doing that. This is where the parable trap door gets revealed. We have no business thinking that we are the people who have it right. No business sitting back and thinking – at least I’m the one making a difference.

Christ doesn’t come “in the form of those who visit the imprisoned but in the imprisoned being cared for…. Christ doesn’t come to us AS the poor and hungry. Because as anyone for whom the poor are not an abstraction but actual flesh and blood people knows… the poor and hungry and imprisoned are not a romantic special class of Christ like people. And those who meet their needs are not a romantic special class of Christ like people. We all are equally as Sinful and Saintly as the other. ..Christ comes to us IN the needs of the poor and hungry,” and in the youth pouring out of schools and in the needs of the babes being torn from their parents arms, “needs that are met by another so that the gleaming redemption of God might be known. And we are all the needy and the ones who meet needs. Placing ourselves or anyone else in only one category or another is to tell ourselves the wrong story entirely.”[4]

As José Míguez Bonino wrote: “God would not presume to appear to a hungry person as anything but bread.”[5] God wouldn’t presume to appear to the lonely as anything but companion. God wouldn’t presume to appear to the child torn from a parent’s arms as anything but reunification. God wouldn’t presume to appear to the students of another mass school shooting as anything but a sense of true safety from terror and violence. The same holds for your life. Every last one of us is both

The sheep didn’t know they were sheep because they were doing Christ’s work not being Christ. The goats didn’t know they were goats because they were doing the same old thing.

If you take anything away from your hour here week in and week out I hope it’s a touch more courage to have the imagination of Christ, a bit more courage to imagine a better world and a little conviction to let go of the labels people throw around and instead to offer the action most appropriate to the need. Let’s not shame and blame Trump, let’s tend the soil so better trees can grow. Good soil produces good trees good trees produce good fruit. Maybe the slow motion instant replay of tragic events offers a way for us to pause, see what’s really happening and do the right thing for such a time as this. Maybe our imaginations can be sparked in ways we could never imagine all on our own.  Amen

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/04/indigenous-children-canada-welfare-system-humanitarian-crisis

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2403

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2209

[4] https://sojo.net/articles/matthew-25-how-i-met-my-husband

[5] José Míguez Bonino Room to be People, 1979.

 

June 3, 2018: Anger Vs. Contempt by Kathy Kwon (Matthew 5: 21-22)

I first want to thank you for having me here at Canadian Memorial. I

know it’s always a risk when you invite someone new, and this morning

you took a risk on a guest preacher who will be speaking on anger…

Maybe to ease you into it, I’ll start off with a metaphor. I personally love

metaphors. I think they’re some kind of magic. Every metaphor, of

course, breaks down at a certain point, but for awhile there the

metaphor just runs and you get this glimpse into the fact that the world

is all connected and that truth is everywhere and in everything.

 

One of my favourite metaphors from Scripture is the metaphor of a

garden, because when this metaphor runs, it seems almost endless.

There’s something about planting and tending, pruning, diversifying,

soil, seed, fruit, seasons, harvest, growing, sowing and reaping. The list

goes on, and the potential metaphorical narratives seem infinite. But the

narrative I’d like to sit with today is of our hearts as the soil from which

the Kingdom of God grows. My heart, your heart, this community’s

collective heart—

 

Our hearts are the soil out of which the Kingdom of God here on earth is

coming.  Now don’t get me wrong, this is not a sermon about personal piety. But it is simply to say that you and I are in this world. Our actions bear

consequences. And they come from somewhere. We as individuals

nonetheless play a part in systems of oppression or systems of

reconciliation. So, there are two stories I’d like you to imagine—maybe to actually write out the stories in your own mind.

 

One is the story of what kind of soil your heart has been, is, is becoming.

Soil actually carries a history in it. Soil agronomists or agricultural soil

scientists can actually identify certain aspects of the life of particular

soil by studying it. The thing about soil is that in order for it to actually be

soil, it requires organic material—it has to be infused with things that

are alive in order to be life producing. Otherwise it’s not actually soil, it’s

just dirt.

 

The story of good soil is very interesting, because it’s filled with life—its

filled with living organisms like earthworms and insects and

microorganisms. But..it’s also filled with things that have died to feed

the living parts of the soil. The decaying dead organisms also provide

life to the soil. And so that cycle of life and death is carried out within

the soil and the nutrient richness of that soil is determined by whether

that cycle involves life and life-giving death.

 

What life is in the soil of your heart? What death is in the soil of your

heart?

 

The second story I’d like us to consider is what sort of seeds have you

been, are you, will you be planting in your soil? What is the story of

what you plant in your heart? What is the story of your harvests? Are

they sustainable? How many more seasons of faithful tending and

patience before the apple seeds you planted years ago finally become

fruit-bearing trees? Or how many more rotations of eroding crops using

eroding practices and products before your soil finally turns into a

desert?

 

As we have these two running stories of our soil and seed hovering in

the back of our minds, I’d like us to consider the seed of anger.

The seed of anger: what are we talking about here? Some of you might

be saying to yourself “Ah, I’m good. I’m not an angry person.” Probably

for the average person the best test of that would be to place a hidden

camera in whatever vehicle you might be driving and send you off into

rush hour traffic. I’ll be the first to admit that that is when my true self

comes out.

 

But yea, what are we talking about when we say anger? And is it bad?

The short answer is not necessarily. Ephesians chapter 4, for example,

says “in your anger, do not sin.” Or actually the literal translation is “Be

angry, and do not sin.” So in this instance, Scripture makes a distinction

between anger and sin.

Sometimes we should be angry. Sometimes anger is the only correct or

reasonable response to a situation. And I speak more emphatically to

women, people of colour and anyone else who falls under that culturally

conditioned category that says it is socially unacceptable for you to be

angry. Sometimes the appropriate thing is to be angry. And that doesn’t

make you aggressive or “the B word” or petty or overly-sensitive.

Sometimes anger validates your humanity and it empowers. And those

are good things. So that caveat there: anger and sin are not one and the

same.

Scripture also makes a distinction between largely two different types

of anger.

For the most part, we find two Greek words translated in the New

Testament as anger: thumos and orge. Thumos anger is the type that

fires up in a passion. It’s the explosive, passionate temper kind of anger.

It is the source of crimes of passion. Orge anger, on the other hand, is the

premeditated sort. It’s the kind of anger that settles and turns into a

disposition towards something or someone. Orge anger is a seed. Now

technically we’re still in neutral territory here. God’s anger, for example,

is most often orge anger against various things categorized under sin

and evil.

Part of the problem I imagine, is that, of course, we humans do not often

have the capacity to hold orge anger in the long-suffering way that God

can without it destroying us. When we are set ablaze—even with

righteous anger—we are in danger of the fire within us burning us up if

it is not directed towards life-giving action. So when Scripture talks

about orge anger with respect to people, it’s most often not neutral. This

isn’t the anger that we slip into in a moment of passion. This is the anger

we choose to hold onto—to let it burn within us. This is the anger that—

if we let it—grows murder in our hearts and precipitates death.

And this seed of chosen dispositional anger towards—this orge anger—

is the word used in our Scripture readings from this morning.

Matthew 5:21-22

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not

murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to

you that if you are angry (orgizo) with a brother or sister, you will be

liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable

to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of

fire.”

Here Jesus goes one step further and says that it’s not just orge anger of

its own accord that leads to judgment and death. No, it is specifically the

kind of orge anger that leads to insults and degradation of another

person. A good friend of mine provided me with a great semantic choice

to describe this kind of anger, and that is contempt. Contempt is

condescension through a self-determined moral hierarchy.

According to the Gottman Institute a la clinical psychologist Dr. John

Gottman, “contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over

[someone].”1 Gottman is a really interesting fellow; he’s conducted 40

years of research on marital stability. And what he found was that the

presence of contempt in a marriage is the single most accurate indicator

that a marriage or relationship will not survive. Contempt is so

significant in its ability to kill something, to lead to death, that using this

indicator, Gottman could predict the likelihood of divorce in couples

with over 90% accuracy.

Matthew 5 is not about threats of judgment, court, and hellfire. It is a

plea in the face of the reality of what happens to us when we cultivate

the seed of contemptuous anger in our hearts. Death. Matthew 5 is

saying, “Do not plant in your hearts the seed of contempt. It will kill all

of the living things inside your soil. You will produce bad fruit and it will

affect your relationships. It will burn you up from the inside out. And

sometimes it’ll take its sweet time doing it.” One day you wake up and

you are filled with a general posture of bitterness, cynicism, resentment,

judgmentalism. These are the fruits of a heart from the seeds of

contemptuous orge anger.

Time for a till, maybe.

Maybe we don’t relate to the idea of being angry people. I certainly grew

up with the notion that anger is dangerous and should never be toyed

with. But what I found was that anger still comes. And by not naming it,

1 https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticismcontempt-

defensiveness-and-stonewalling/ it turned into something else—something that festers. Maybe we are not the thumos angry sort, but perhaps we foster in our hearts contempt for someone or a group of people. People we have deemed as morally inferior.

Christian philosopher Dallas Willard described contemptuous anger in

this way. He wrote that contemptuous anger when indulged “has in it an

element of self-righteousness and vanity. Find a person who has

embraced [contempt], and you find a person with a wounded ego.”2

So what do we do with all of this? Where do we go from here?

James 1:19-20

“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen,

slow to speak, slow to [become orge]; for [the orge of people] does not

produce God’s righteousness.”

When it comes to anger, both Matthew 5 and James 1 are concerned

with righteousness, otherwise interpreted as right-relatedness. The

righteousness that Scripture talks about and we as Christians seek in

this world is reconciliation. To act righteously is to act in such a way that

enacts reconciliation—that establishes right relationship with

ourselves, one another, creation, and the Creator.

Many of you will know that the Matthew 5 passage comes from the

Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is talking about—among other

things—what it looks like to be the “city set on a hill.” To be the “salt of

the earth” and the “light of the world”. What it looks like for our rightrelatedness to exceed that of the “scribes and Pharisees”—to exceed

that of “the Law or the Prophets”. And that right-relatedness is not

simply a matter of do’s and don’ts—rights and wrongs. It is a matter of

soil and seed; it is a matter of our hearts and what we plant in it—what

we let grow in it.

Are our hearts full of fertile soil filled with living things with life? And

are the seeds we plant in our hearts capable of producing the fruit of

God’s reconciliation—the fruit of God’s Kingdom?

2 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God

These are far more difficult questions to ask than who’s right and who’s

wrong, because suddenly we realize that we take on some responsibility

for participating in the gardening process. We are not just victims of our

own circumstances, we are not fruit-bearers simply by believing the

right things. We are invited to be co-gardeners. We are planters and

pruners and tenders. And we can plant seeds of contempt, or we can

plant seeds of reconciliation.

And the crazy thing is that it doesn’t start with Liberals vs.

Conservatives or right vs. left or any other theoretical and ideological

categories we can come up with. Rather it starts with the heart of the

individual in community. Matthew 5 is talking to you and someone close

to you: “if you are angry with a brother or sister.” Though it does not end

there, the work of gardening certainly involves our own soil. We can

help the soil of communities, we can help the soil of neighbourhoods, we

can help the soil of systems with the good fruit we are bearing out of our

own soil.

Our hearts—my heart, your heart, this community’s collective heart and

beyond—our hearts are the soil out of which the Kingdom of God here

on earth is coming. It involves us and that is good news. Amen.

 

June 10, 2018: Out of Our Minds by Rev. Beth Hayward (Mark 3: 20-35)

I wonder what would happen if we could unleash into the world the life-saving good news that we are enough, that we are accepted, that we [are] created in God’s image and loved unconditionally?[1]

A friend posted these words on her blog this week. They resonated. The profound simplicity resonates. What would happen if we unleashed the life saving good news that we are enough, accepted, loved unconditionally?

Jesus’ life work was about unleashing that good news, about tearing back the layers and exposing our prejudices, lifting people up from under all that had been thrown on their backs and inviting all of us to dare to imagine a world where we behave as if we trust that we are all created in God’s image and loved unconditionally. But it’s hard and there are so many ways that we push down rather than lift up. I know this is true. I do it.

The suicides of two American celebrities this week remind us that mental illness continues to hold stigma, continues to be a place where we fall short of understanding that even you are loved unconditionally. The fact that we need an inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls reminds us that we fall short of understanding that all are loved unconditionally.

Today this congregation is being asked to vote on whether to become an Affirming congregation; to join a network of ministries that seek to go beyond issues of gender diversity and sexual orientation to work for justice and inclusion of all. And we do this because we still fall short of embracing the truth that we are all created in God’s image, loved unconditionally.

In 1988 the regional governing body of the United Church in London Ontario sent a petition to the national Church asking, among other things, “that the United Church affirm that the practice of homosexuality is a sin.”[2] The wishes of London Conference weren’t heeded that year as the denomination took the decision to say that all people regardless of sexual orientation were eligible to be members and ministers in the church. The thirty years since have not been a story of one success after another. There has been no linear upward trajectory. The 1988 decision was more like a starting place than a destination, more like an invitation than a badge of honour. And if we’re honest, those of us who lived through it will admit that at the time it was truly hard, gut wrenching, painful. There was blood on the floor. We wondered if a church so divided by hatred and fear could pull through.

Who’s in and who’s out, it’s a tension as old as time, in churches, families and whole societies. It starts in the schoolyard and goes from there. None of us are immune from those quick judgments and deep-rooted assumptions. It’s nice to be with your clan, with the people who make you feel safe. But sometimes that can turn into a place that we hide and use as protection and we begin building walls. We fill ourselves up with comfortable people and miss a world of potential deepening. We begin to think, often not even consciously, that everything is scarce, that there just isn’t enough love or grace or charity or justice to go round.

Who’s in and who’s out? Is God’s love really big enough to accept all unconditionally? Is ours? It’s a question that Jesus didn’t shy away from. Though human sexuality was not in his consciousness, other issues were. He kept breaking down walls and letting folks in. And it really annoyed the powers that be. They didn’t have the science to understand that change pushes our amygdala-buttons but they knew change when they saw it and they didn’t like it!

Time and again Jesus was breaking the rules and word was spreading and no one knew what to do with him. And so his family shows up, which honestly I think is lovely. There are plenty of us who come from families who don’t care enough to show up and so the fact that Jesus’ mother and siblings walk twenty hours from Nazareth to Capernaum to look out for him, says a lot. I expect they made the effort to talk some sense into him, maybe in hopes of taking him home, help him get out of the spotlight and certainly out of the trouble that was brewing.

No doubt they’d heard it all. They’d heard all the stories of God’s love being big enough, about: Simon’s mother in law up, lifted up from her fever; the leper he’d knelt down beside. They’d heard about the time the crowds grew so large that the roof had to be raised to lower in the paralytic. Maybe they’d even heard the rumours about how the unclean spirits would see Jesus and fall down shouting “You are the Son of God!”

And they’d heard that those with power were beginning to mobilize, there were whispers of what to do about the Jesus problem. They knew that only someone out of his mind would set out to unleash the life saving good news that we are enough. And so the scribes blame it on Satan and the family, well they just try to cover it up with a quick escape.

Jesus admits to being out of his mind, if out of your mind means being one who offers radical welcome. We could stop right here. If the rest of the world, the people in the know, your family and those who hold the power, if they think you’re out of your mind because of who you love, well then maybe you’re on the right track.

But there is this thing that can happen when we start thinking we’re on the right side of history, when we start thinking that our values of radical inclusion and breaking down walls are the right way. There is this thing that can happen when we put up church signs that read: If Jesus were here he would have made the cake and danced at the reception. It’s this self-assured arrogance and it wasn’t part of Jesus’ message.

People like to say that the church is counter cultural, it’s a particular favourite throw away line of those who like to align themselves with the more progressive side of things. You may have heard me say it from time to time. The assumption is that we are called to be counter cultural, like the crowds who followed Jesus in the first place, not giving in to the entrenched biases of family or scribes but open to something new and different. Out of their minds!

The problem with being counter cultural, argues Karoline Lewis, is that it is a slippery slope to a sense of superiority. “Too soon counter-cultural becomes us verses them,…“ when in truth, we’re not different from everyone else. Do you not judge too quickly, dismiss too readily, ignore the stranger too easily? Do you not prefer to stay in the safety of your “family” however you define it? No we’re not different from anyone else. The difference, “What makes the church stand out, perhaps truly out of its mind, is that we tell the truth of our own sinfulness. We’re willing to admit it. Our story gives us the stories and words and theology to admit our failings… and yet we still believe that forgiveness is possible.”[3]

We’re not meant to go around criticizing the world, at least never as our starting place. We’re called to “choose a different starting point” We begin by naming our own sin. We dare to name it because when we name our failings we ground ourselves in “mercy, compassion, and justice — not fear or condemnation or judgment.”[4]  Where you start matters. This isn’t a question of left or right, certainly not a question of political correctness; it’s a question of identity. What is our starting place?

It’s hard to believe that it’s taken this congregation thirty years to engage a process that will hopefully lead to an explicit affirmation of the LGBTQ2S community in our midst and beyond. It’s a good reminder that if we vote to become Affirming today, it’s not an invitation to pat ourselves on the back any more than it is a chance to say “that’s over with.” It is more of a starting place.

Last weekend, thirty years after first voting in favour of a petition that said homosexual acts are sin, the governing body of the United Church in London passed another proposal saying: “we apologize and further declare that proposal is no longer the conviction of London Conference.”

Hanging a rainbow flag on our door is the easy part. Jesus asks more, for a commitment, a promise, to name our failures and shortcomings, to know we’re forgiven and to keep on trying. Today, when the Board and the ministry team and the dozens and dozens who’ve actively participated in this Affirm process ask you to vote, what we’re really asking is whether you’re willing to unleash into the family that gathers in these walls the life-saving good news that each and every one of us is enough, accepted, created in God’s image and loved unconditionally?[5] It’s just a start and it might just help sustain our hearts when people start asking if we’re out of our minds.  Amen

[1] https://kellybbrill.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/cherish-your-one-wild-precious-life/

[2] http://www.londonconference.ca/files/documents/dh-2018.pdf  See proposal 3, page 44

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5174

[4] ibid

[5] https://kellybbrill.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/cherish-your-one-wild-precious-life/ Based on the words found here and used to open this sermon.