Some people are never satisfied

A sermon for Sunday, August 1st 2021, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid. In the news, billionaires race to the edge of space; at the Olympics, Simone Biles chooses health and teamwork over personal triumph; the moratorium on evictions extended through earlier seasons of the pandemic is allowed to expire. In the Gospel, the people fed by the thousands want more from Jesus.


Some people are never satisfied.

Jesus had fed five thousand people with a few fish and some bread, and now they wanted more. “What will you do for us?” they asked. “Moses gave us manna in the wilderness and it came morning after morning. Where is our bread and fish for today?” (John 6:31)

They had witnessed, they had consumed what Jesus could provide, and now they wanted him to dance to their tune. They wanted to own him.

In the wilderness, the people grumbled about Moses, and whether he was doing enough for them now that they were free, now that he had saved them from Pharaoh’s army and from the Red Sea. “Where is today’s bread?” they demanded. And God provided (Exodus 16:2-15).

God rained down quail in the evening and manna in the morning, and the people ate – but were they satisfied?

Jesus told the people, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. … For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. … I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” (John 6:27-35)

When he called the fishermen, James and John, Andrew and Simon Peter, he told them that from now on they would be catching people instead of fish. Their appetite for satisfaction would no longer be bound by the sea but would be caught up in the imagination of God, the revelation of God’s grace to God’s people (Matthew 4:18-22).

From the hillside, he told them, “Blessed are you when you hunger and thirst after righteousness, for you will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)

Some people are never satisfied. But that’s the kind of hunger that comes not from want but from envy. 

Envy sees a young woman full of grace and power, and demands that she perform for them, as though she owes them her vitality, which is the life of God within us all.

Envy can twist our appetites and our priorities in awful ways.

Envy sees the heavens and instead of being humbled seeks to conquer, to dominate, to crown themselves among the stars.

While down below, hundreds of thousands and more suffer the consequences of climate change, pandemic disease, and the kind of envious and unmitigated capitalism that seeks to profit from everything, at any expense, from peoples’ homes to their health, life-giving water to the air that we breathe.

I wonder how many evictions one trip into the atmosphere could offset.

Yes, there is real hunger here, in this life, in this world; some of you perhaps have known it. Jesus has instructed his disciples already by their resources and their resourcefulness and with their faith, by all means to feed the hungry. And then there are those who are full, but who are never satisfied.

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life,” Jesus advised them, as they tore into the baskets of bread and fish left over from the night before. (John 6:27; imaginatively, John 6:13)

“I am the bread of life.” (John 6:35)

In her 1939 retelling of Exodus, Moses, Man of the Mountain, Zora Neale Hurston had Moses tell the people,

“This freedom is a funny thing,” … “It ain’t something permanent like rocks and hills. It’s like manna; you just got to keep on gathering it fresh every day. If you don’t, one day you’re going to find you ain’t got none no more.”

Hurston, Zora Neale. Moses, Man of the Mountain (p. 252). Amistad. Kindle Edition.

Like manna, God provides for us the food of eternal life: the kind of love and justice, selflessness and peace; the healing mercies that Jesus shed like manna wherever he trod – but we have to gather it fresh every day, and to share it, if we are to sustain it and be sustained by it. 

We have to wake up with our faces set to follow Jesus – not for breadcrumbs but for full satisfaction, thy kingdom come; not to own him, nor to bend him to our will, but for thy will be done.

Not for the love of our own bellies, but for the love of God, and of our neighbours.

“No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them,” wrote Paul; “if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” (Romans 12:20)

Only then will everyone be fed. And if the envious are still not satisfied, maybe they just need some more Jesus. “I am the bread of life,” he said. (John 6:35)

And they said, “Sir, give us this bread always.” (John 6:34)

Amen.

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The faithful shepherd

A sermon for the eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 18, 2021


God does not ever leave God’s people comfortless.

Our Bible study group read through many a minor prophet during the spring, and we found that no matter how dire the situation, how judgmental the oracle, how angry the prophet, there was always a counterpoint: the promise of God’s faithfulness, God’s undying love for God’s people. 

Jeremiah, a major prophet who majored in dismay, is no exception. Unflinching in his condemnation of faithless and uncaring leaders, Jeremiah is just as certain that God is a faithful and compassionate shepherd to God’s people, and will not abandon them to wickedness and its ways.[I]

Jesus, who was no one if not the Son of his Father, follows suit. When he saw the people lost and scattered, he had compassion upon them, and became their shepherd.

Notice the witness of the psalmist that this does not mean that we, God’s flock, will not encounter valleys full of shadows and the shades of death. As many have observed, to be human is to suffer.[ii]  Jesus himself suffered doubt and despair in the Garden of Gethsemane, physical pain and the torture of dying on the cross, the bereavement of friends and family. Even here in the introduction to this passage, he is divided and depleted by so many demands that he doesn’t have time even to eat. 

The Incarnation of Christ is the certainty that God has experienced and undergone all that drags us down into that valley. God is with us in its depths, with rod and staff, the faithful shepherd.

I am reminded of the parable that Jesus told about leaving ninety-nine perfectly content sheep to seek after the one who was lost, whether through straying willfully, or through injury, or through abandonment by its flock we are not told; regardless of cause, the good shepherd will not leave the lost lamb to suffer alone.

C.S. Lewis famously wrote in his book of tears, 

“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”[iii]

I do not want to fall under that suspicion. I have some experience of grief, and of depression. I know that there are valleys so deep and so cold that it feels as though we have reached the bowels of the earth, have been buried alive. In those places, those powerful prisons of time, the idea of consolation seems laughable.

And yet Jesus has been there, even there, too, sealed in a stone-cold, unfeeling, unlabeled tomb. Even if we cannot see him, he is there. Even though we cannot hear his breathing in the darkness, resurrection is coming. Somewhere on the surface, green pastures still grow, and water still pools to cool our thirst.

I suppose that what I am saying is that if and when we find ourselves in those valleys, we are not as alone as we think. God promises through the prophet to send help: whether friends or pharmacists, physicians or therapists, or simply prayerful companions, “who will shepherd [us], and [we] shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.” 

If we have the capacity to turn our faces to the sun, we will find our way back to the green, to the flock, to Jesus. If we have the strength, we can carry a weary lamb along with us, or even just keep company for a time. And if we are simply too exhausted, broken, sad, know that the good and faithful shepherd has already set out to find us. He is never too busy for us, never too far from us. They have not forgotten us. Trust in God’s faithfulness.

Christ spreads a table for us, in the full and clear sight of all that confounds us. The Holy Spirit anoints us with healing mercy. God’s goodness and loving-kindness are for us, and are for ever.

Amen


[I] See also Alicia Hager, “RCL – What is a good shepherd?” at https://revgalblogpals.org/2021/07/12/rcl-what-is-a-good-shepherd/

[ii] A Google search of this phrase will attribute it to Nietzsche, Frankl, and more; its absolute origin is unclear.

[iii] N.W. Clerk [C.S.Lewis], A Grief Observed (Greenwich, CT: The Seabury Press, 1963), p. 23

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Wednesdays

Anniversaries are strange; the passage of time feels almost arbitrary. Ten years pass in a heartbeat, while an hour drags on for days. The anniversary of joy is marred by bad temper, while grief sneaks up on the calendar secretly, planning an ambush, and is turned aside by a child plucking dandelions.

Still, we mark out our days, commemorating this and them, and by the word of the Bible time is sanctified: three days here, forty there, seven weeks of seven, and a thousand years under God’s unblinking gaze. Sabbaths sigh, and Wednesdays teeter on the hinge of the week; we can look forward or back. Or we could pause here for a moment, recollecting all the Wednesdays that have brought us to this present presence. We could sit for a time and contemplate the timelessness of God, the anniversary of eternity.

July is full of ghosts for me, but Wednesdays are alive. They turn their face toward the sabbaths of yesterday and tomorrow, the resting place of hope, the fulcrum of eternity.

“For behold, … deep gloom enshrouds the peoples. But over you the Lord will rise, and God’s glory will appear upon you.” (Isaiah 60:2-3, which is included in the recommended Canticle for Wednesday Morning Prayer)


This post first appeared last Wednesday at the Episcopal Cafe.

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Who killed JB?

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. The Gospel reading recounts the beheading of John the Baptist at Herod’s feast.


Herod regretted killing John. It was a guilt that haunted him, so much so that he convinced himself that Jesus, John’s cousin, was instead his reincarnation, or his repossession, returned to convict Herod of his crime.

It’s a nice question, how people respond to the gospel, to Christ.

There are those moments, rare but profound, when even Peter falls to his knees and begs, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8) Jesus came to the Galilean countryside proclaiming repentance before the coming kingdom; confession is an appropriate response.

Yet others, desperate in their need, came to him for healing. They had already wrung out before God all that they could imagine could have caused their current suffering, and they had come up short. Now, they looked only for mercy. And Jesus looked upon them with compassion, and he healed them.

Some came searching for wisdom, whether in crowds on the hillside, leaning in to his beatitudes, or sceptically, ironically, looking to poke holes in his gospel in case it might otherwise change their hearts. Jesus heard them all, reiterating to anyone who would listen his gospel of repentance, of mercy, embodying God’s steadfast and forbearing love.

Herod did not come to Jesus.

When he killed John, Jesus’ cousin, Herod did not act alone. Herodias, his former sister-in-law and wife is often cast as the true perpetrator here, putting out a contract on John that Herod had no choice but to fulfill. We do not know the age of her daughter, whether she might bear some blame for failing to recoil in horror at her mother’s suggestion. Then, there were the soldiers who carried out the act in cold blood – do they bear no guilt for executing an innocent man simply because they were so ordered?

But what of the guests at the feast? I am curious about those people. Herod, we are told, was torn about severing John’s head, since he regarded the man as righteous and holy, yet he had made promises in front of his guests and wished not to lose face.

Were they such a bloodthirsty crowd that they would rather see the letter of Herod’s drunken, excited oath carried out before them than offer some substitute, some way out, for Herod and for John? Was there not one who would stand up, speak up, against this atrocity? Not one who would step in?

Herod was fully responsible for his own decisions and actions; but he was not the only person responsible for the death of John, the cousin of Christ.

We have all known situations where we should have spoken up but didn’t: when a racist or sexist joke was told, or bullying was observed, or worse. We – the world – bore witness to the murder of a man on the streets of Minneapolis last summer, and we saw how afraid anyone must be in the moment to help, how powerless to avert tragedy. And since then, how many of us have shied away from addressing the situation by demanding reforms, still afraid of the ramifications, still relying on the conviction of one person to carry the blame of us all? It is a fearful thing, to confront the king.

It is a fearful thing to confront our own guilt. Herod and Herodias hardened their hearts; by the time Jesus finally appeared before Herod, he was over it. Who knows about the dancer and the soldier, what moral injuries they carried and how they were scarred? 

But the guests at the feast: we can relate to the ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary moment, confronted unexpectedly with the violence of greed, lust, and rage that rule too many of our decisions. From our seats at the table, they have a choice to make: whether to let Herod have his way and live with the horror of John’s beheading, or whether to speak up, speak out, and hope to hell that someone else at the table has their back.

We all have moments we regret, personal words and actions we wish we could take back, flows with which we wish we had not gone; systems of oppression which we have accepted or from which we have benefited; philosophies of greed from which we have failed to protect the poor. Where we have failed and share the guilt of Herod and his guests, we have a path to forgiveness.

Every time we come together we make our confession, and God hears us. If there are particularly poignant sins that plague us, there is in our prayer book a form for personal and private confession with a priest. None of us is alone in our sin, and none need wander alone seeking forgiveness. God has provided for our absolution.

There will be new opportunities to do the right thing, to refrain from doing wrong for the sake of the crowd, to make reparations for the harm that has already happened. God grant us the grace to accept those opportunities. Herod had one when Jesus was sent to him late in his life, and he squandered it; but fed and led by Christ, we need neither harden our hearts against guilt nor wallow in it. Fed and led by Christ, we are free.

Unlike Herod, we need not be haunted or hardened by our guilt. We can, like Peter, fall to our knees and confess our guilt before Christ, our Saviour. We can, as those in need of healing, present ourselves for mercy. We can, like those who heard the call beside the Sea of Galilee and followed without question, repent, and turn our hearts to follow the way of Christ, wherever it may lead us. We can come to Jesus.

Here at Christ’s table we can rest and refresh our bodies and souls and spirits for the love of God. Our confessions are heard, our forgiveness is announced, our frailties are understood, and, we are reminded, Herod is not our host, nor does he rule over us, but only Christ.

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A haiku on Psalm 30:5

Following tracks of

rain down to the lake for joy

that comes by morning

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A red, white, and blue sermon

A sermon for July 4, 2021, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid. The Gospel lesson is from Mark 6:1-13


Red, white, and blue. There was a day not long before we left the UK to move to these United States when the children’s primary school was celebrating the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, and everyone was encouraged to wear red, white, and blue. On that historic occasion, my youngest child presented herself between the foot of the stairs and the front door, book bag in hand, dressed in her favourite velour sweatsuit, which was a lovely pale purple.[i]

“Isn’t it red, white, and blue day?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said, “and I’m wearing them all mixed together.”

Ezekiel received a word from God, who told him, “Whether they hear or refuse to hear…, they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.”

But Jesus returned to Nazareth, as a teacher and as a prophet, and the people were unimpressed, and he was amazed at their unbelief. 

William Barclay, commenting on this passage, notes that, “There is laid on us the tremendous responsibility that we can either help or hinder the work of Jesus Christ.”[ii]

We can hold ourselves a little apart if we want to, reserving our judgement as to how much he tells us, of God, of life, of mercy really applies in our current circumstances, how much Jesus of Nazareth knows of modern-day America, its unique problems and its preferred solutions; but then we will be like the people of Nazareth, among whom he was amazed and not a little disappointed that only a little healing could happen, and no great deeds of power.

The gospel, with its emphasis on repentance of sins, its insistence on that the love of God means loving our neighbours and even our enemies; this gospel can seem hopelessly naïve in such a world as this, that runs on leverage instead of love. The problem with pride, our stiff-necked and rebellious pride, that keeps Jesus in his place and resists the repentance of the prophets, that insists that we already have the more perfect way – the problem with that, if we choose it, is that we are doing ourselves out of great deeds of power.

Now clearly, since we are gathered here, we are not like those who refuse outright to receive his teaching. We are in little danger of having foot-dust shaken at us – surely?

But might we be just a little afraid of what might happen if we allow ourselves truly to be changed, converted, transformed by the grace of our Saviour, Jesus Christ? Are we just a little concerned about going against the flow of popular culture, painting with a different brush, suggesting that mercy is greater than might and love more lasting than power; that even the great and the wise need repentance? Are we afraid to trade in our red, and blue, and whiteness for something in a soft velour?

After his own rebuff at Nazareth, Jesus sent his disciples out to risk rejection and ridicule, but their reward was to cast out demons and to raise the sick from their deathbeds. Can you imagine how that would feel, to be able to bring life to the most desperate and sorry situations? 

If we were to allow ourselves to be transformed by Jesus and his gospel, what would we do? Who would we heal, if we weren’t counting the cost? Which demons of destruction and division, of hatred and harm would we cast out? What comfort would we bring to the grieving, what confoundments to the proud, what compassion and celebration to the meek, the inheritors of God’s earth?

If we could let ourselves live fully converted lives, as obedient to the gospel and as uncluttered by other claims – possessions, politics, profit, popularity – as his chosen disciples, what could we not accomplish?

A little later, “the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said , ‘Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this children is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’.” (Matthew 18:1-4)

Red, white, and blue. A quick survey of world flags finds that countries as diverse as Chile, Cape Verde, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Liberia, Australia, Mordovia, the Faroe Islands, and more – even Russia and North Korea – fly flags of red, white, and blue, in different configurations, of course.

We are in no danger of dissolving, of losing our identity; we lose nothing if we lean a little further into love, into the understanding of another’s life, into the love of a different neighbour, into the heart of God, who created all people in her image. But we will be transformed, if we allow Christ to lead us and to send us; we will be made new.

And isn’t that something to celebrate?



[i] Permission was sought and granted to tell this story.

[ii] William Barclay, The Gospel according to Mark, The Daily Study Bible, 2nd edition (Westminster Press, 1956) 

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Do not invite death

A sermon for Sunday, June 27, 2021 at the Church of the Epiphany. The readings include extracts from the Wisdom of Solomon (see below) and Mark’s story of the healing of the woman with a haemorrhage and the raising of Jairus’ daughter


On the face of it, Solomon’s wisdom seems to be in contradiction to our creeds, which affirm that nothing came into being without God. God is the creator of all things, seen and unseen; the devil, however we understand that concept, cannot create, but only corrupt. Death is a corruption of life.

God does not delight in the death of the living, writes Solomon, and we agree; death is part of our human condition, but in God we understand it to be incomplete. Death cannot eradicate love, memory, hope. And because we have hope in the Resurrection, death is temporary in its severing, or suspending, of relationships. Death is incomplete because it is the corruption of life, Solomon (and we) might say; not a creation in itself.

Jesus does not love death, nor bloodshed. Although he goes willingly to his own death on the Cross, his doing so throws into sharp relief the inane and arbitrary and thoroughly wrongful nature of that execution. He has done nothing to provoke or punish his tormentors. Jesus would rather stem the flow of blood, raise up the child, restore the family and the woman to her friends than see death and bloodshed hold them hostage. This is our faith: that God does not delight in the death of the living, but rescues us from oblivion, restores us to the life of love, the eternal life which God would prefer for God’s beloved creatures. That we, made in God’s image, are not destroyed by death, since God has the first and final Word over us.

But there is more going on in this piece of Solomon’s wisdom than our brief extract explains. Immediately before the verses we read, Solomon wrote,

“Do not invite death by the error of your life, or bring destruction by the works of your hands” (Wisdom 1:12) And in between, in part, he wrote, “The ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they pined away and made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his company” (Wisdom 1:16)

Do not invite death … or bring destruction by the works of your hands. Do not make covenants with death.

But we do, don’t we?

We have made covenants with death and contracted with the suppliers of works of destruction.

We have passed laws to allow Christian hospitals to deny treatment to many sorts and conditions of people, including the woman with an issue of blood in her time of need; we have allowed all sorts of providers to plough the parents of little girls into debt, or into impossible decisions about how much life one afford, and we have called it freedom.

We have contracted with the suppliers of the means to make poison gas and heart-stopping solutions, and we have called it judgement.

We have invested our security in mutually assured destruction, and where the assurance is not mutual, we have enacted Stand Your Ground laws, which some call Shoot At Will laws; and we have called them justice.

We have armed our police and sent them out in force on our behalf.

We have allowed guns to invade our homes, our children’s bodies, our suicidal imaginations, our streets, our schools, and we have called it [a] right.

God save us from the deadly, grasping greed which is the envy of the devil.

We have not, either, shared the burden evenly, but we have chosen whom we will sacrifice.

By our words and deeds, the works of our hands, we have summoned death, considering him a friend. We have made covenants with him, because we are fit to belong to his company.

And still, God has other plans. “For God does not delight in the death of the living … for God created us for incorruption, and made us the image of [God’s] own eternity” (Wisdom 1:13b, 2:23)

We are not made in anyone’s image but God’s. We are not made for the corruption of death but for the covenant of life. Jesus does not love death or bloodshed – but Jesus loves us. Knowing this, how can we not consider turning from death to life; to pour out healing without counting the cost; to withhold death and restore relationship wherever it is possible; to deny the devil’s envy and replace it with love?

Jesus does not love death or bloodshed – but Jesus loves us. Knowing this, how can we not consider turning from death to life so that we, too, can hear him say, “Your faith has made you well; go in peace” (Mark 5:34)?

Do not make any peace with the corruption of death, the death that corrupts the soul, for you are made in the image of eternity. Choose instead, at every opportunity, the way of life, even if it leads through the Cross.

For, Solomon wisely writes just after the verses we read,

“But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality” (Wisdom 3:1-4)

Our hope is in the living God, and we do not hope in vain.

Amen.


Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24

God did not make death,
And he does not delight in the death of the living.
For he created all things so that they might exist;
the generative forces of the world are wholesome,
and there is no destructive poison in them,
and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
For righteousness is immortal.

God created us for incorruption,
and made us in the image of his own eternity,
but through the devil’s envy death entered the world,
and those who belong to his company experience it.

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Stormy weather

This Sunday’s sermon grew out of a reflection shared earlier in the week at the Episcopal Cafe


When the disciples awakened Jesus, what did they expect him to do? They had seen him quell demons and restore wholeness to people in trouble and need; they had heard him speak in parables of his relationship to the reign of God. Did they know, yet, how deep that relationship ran?

In the beginning, says Genesis, all was formless and empty. The Spirit of God brooded over the face of the waters that were the opposite of creation, the anti-creation: chaos. God asked Job: Were you there, when I brought land out of the depths and life out of the ocean? When I swaddled the waves and rocked them like an infant?

This is why his disciples, after he had spoken the storm into silence, asked one another, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It was beginning to dawn upon them that this man, whom they had already left everything to follow, was not merely some new and powerful prophet, filled with the Holy Spirit and as close to God as the ancestors. Out of the stillness that followed the storm came the thunderbolt of realization: this, somehow, was God’s own self come among us.

Is that what Jesus meant, when he asked them why they were afraid? Was he asking whether they had recognized him yet? Whether, in their little faith, they had not yet realized the lengths that God would go to to answer that question: Do you care that we are perishing?

Many of you know that I swim in our lake whenever I can. This week has been full of storms and the opportunities have been few and far between. On Monday, there seemed to be a sliver of a chance, so I took it. But the storm came out of nowhere. Swimming close along the shoreline, I saw the wind bending the trees away from the cliff. The lake was whipped up into waves and the beach emptied fast of families and small children. I couldn’t tell if it had begun to rain, or whether it was the lake itself showering me with spray. Needless to say, I got out in a hurry and walked back across the beach.

Out on the horizon, I saw a small boat racing the current toward safe harbour. The storm tossed it like a bath toy. I watched it out of sight, hoping it had reached the river mouth and calmer waters, that its people would have more stories to tell when they reached home than bruises.

Did they pray, as they hurtled toward harbour? Like the disciples, did they demand, “Do you not care, Lord, that we are perishing?” When they finally reached land, did it feel like the hand of God cradling them in its palm?

None of us expected, as we set out, such a change in the weather, with so little warning. We would not have placed ourselves in the water, trusting only in miracles to return us to dry land.

I do not think that when Mark wrote down this story he was thinking about the storms that attend our lives, about getting God’s attention to quell the disturbances of spirit that well up within us: grief, anxiety, rage. I think that it is as it seems: a story about a storm that sprang up suddenly, boaters who were afraid, and the miraculous self-revelation of Jesus as the One who called wind and water into being, the Word who could calm the very depths.

Still, the question and its answer reach out beyond the confines of the story and its little sea: “Do you not care?” “Why are you afraid?”

“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks them. “Do you not believe yet that I love you? That I am with you? That I am for you? Have you still no faith?”

Perhaps he meant faith in his power to still the storm, or to pluck people out of the strong currents that sap our energy and threaten our buoyancy, our lives. There are so many storms that assault us and make us afraid: Do you not care that we are perishing, ask the children of Gaza, the children of the South Side of Chicago, the children of Black mothers and fathers in America, the children orphaned by disease, abuse, and addiction. Other times the storm seems to come out of nowhere.

There is power in the Gospel of love to be harnessed and employed to rein in the power of those storms. There is power in raised voices and lifted hearts that confront oppression and racism and violence and despair with the determined faith that God would wish it otherwise, that Jesus would want us to suffer the little children to know his love. There is power in prayer, and in the compassion of a friend in Christ to sit out the storm alongside us.

But if the story is, in fact, about a storm on a lake, and a Messiah who is the very Word of God to still it, maybe Jesus meant faith in that: that yes, he cares; that God is not unmoved by our fears and our trials; that the clouds that run in on the wind cannot obscure God’s judgement or muffle her mercy; that the Holy Spirit dances in the tree tops, bending with them towards the earth, kissing the ground that we walk upon with grace and loving kindness, walking with us as Christ incarnate, the very body of God’s love.

This is our faith: that Jesus Christ is the very Word and Wisdom and embodiment of God; that he is known to us still, in the breaking of the Bread and in the prayers; that he cares for us still, through the storms and their aftermath; that he is our safe harbour, and our home.

Amen.

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Gardening with God

Gardening with God

A few of you who are keen gardeners know that it is best to keep me away from plants. But this parable, of the seed that grows without interference from the sower, is comforting to me, because it assures me that God’s providence does not depend upon my expertise to bring forth its bounty. God will provide for God’s creation: from the birds of the air to the hungry souls lined up before the farmer’s stall.

Still, God does invite our participation in that providence. Someone has to sow the seed.

When Gareth and I moved into our first home together, it was September. It was harvest-time. We inherited from the previous owners of our house a garden full of produce. There was spinach and chard, marrows and peas. I particularly remember the cherry tomatoes, because I could walk out into the garden every morning before work and pick a tub of them, newly ripened, to take for my mid-morning snack. It was a true gift: sustenance and delight for which I had done nothing, and which was now mine to enjoy. In fact, there was so much deliciousness that I had plenty to share around the office.

It felt like manna from heaven. But someone had to do the planting. Someone had already tended that garden. The fruit, for all it felt like a free gift to me, did not come from nothing.

This is the tension within this pair of parables. It is only by God’s gracious provision that creation produces within itself shelter for the birds, food for the hungry, growth for the seed, awakening for the earth; and yet God graciously partners with us to nurture the soil, to spread the germ, to discover, to harvest, to share the gifts of the Creator.

Think for a moment about who it was that planted the seed of the gospel within your imagination. Was it a parent or a loved one? A teacher or a writer, the author or illustrator of a beloved book? Did it feel as though it fell like manna from heaven?

Who nurtured that seed? Was it the same one who planted it? Was it left to grow in secret, in the welcoming darkness of your soul, or drawn out into the light in camp songs and bonfires?

Did the person who first told you that God loves you as deeply and profoundly as God loves anything, anyone whom God has made – does that person know the fruit that their planting has brought forth, in you, in this community that is blessed by your presence to enlarge it and enliven it?

The seed can be so small. A simple gesture of love, welcome, acceptance. The refusal to deny the image of God in another, any other. A word of affirmation, of absolution: God loves you. God wants to be near you. God knows you, inside and out; and God loves you.

God loves you enough that, in order to become our way, our truth, our life, Jesus was born as the smallest of humans, and lived among us, and was crucified as the least valued of men, and was buried, and from that planting brought forth a whole new life.

Nothing we can do can change that progression of creation, engagement, reconciliation, redemption, resurrection: like a seed it roots and sprouts and grows without our interference.

But we can harvest its fruits, and its seeds, and we can spread them.

At the end of the first parable, the farmer harvests the grain so that it can become food. At the end of the second, the mustard bush not only seasons the food that the farmer has gathered in, and makes poultices to relieves all kinds of ailments; but it provides shade and shelter even for the birds of the air.

There is so much more that we can do with the Gospel when we share it.

The good news comes from God alone; but God graciously partners with us, to tend and to nurture the good news among us, to provide sustenance to those hungry for a good word, and healing for those parched of love, and shelter for those hurting for a safe place, and bounty for those in need of celebration.

As much as God loves us, God also loves the sparrow, and invites us to take notice, and to love them, too, growing and spreading and stretching ourselves to provide them rest.

And still, and always, we return to the Word that God has given to us; to the great things that God has done for us, out of God’s great love for us. Hot as mustard and sheltering as a familiar tree; nurturing, healing, and homely; greater than we may imagine, and small enough to walk among us: such is God’s love for you. No exceptions.

Amen.

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We are family: a sermon for #WearOrange weekend

A couple of years ago I was window shopping for kayaks in a large sporting goods store on a summer evening, when from somewhere on another level, in another part of the store, someone yelled, “Everyone get out!”

Nothing else was said. But anyone who heard that voice, that brief phrase, knew that the what the woman was really saying was, “Gun! Gun! Gun!”

So, that incident turned out to be a false alarm, as regards the gun. Fortunately, every came out of the situation in one piece. But it left me wondering at the way in which my mind instantly and correctly (it was what she meant, even if she was mistaken) translated, “Everyone get out!” to, “Gun! Gun! Gun!”

How did we get here? How did our garden of democracy, with its high aspirations to liberty, life, and the pursuit of happiness, become infested with gun violence to such a deadly extent?

The serpent has been at work, tempting us to believe that we have the power of life and death, and the authority to wield it at will, instead of submitting our will to the One in whose image life was made.

“Madness!” we say of the call of Christ to lay down arms, to refuse the way of war and choose instead the way of the Cross. “Madness. That’s not how things work in the real world.”

But Jesus came into our very real world in a very real way and suffered very real consequences for our sake. And he was resurrected to new life, proving that the way of death-dealing is not the way of victory.

The pervasiveness of guns and gun violence in this country leave some of us numb, some of us afraid, some of us despairing, some of us determined. 

Hadiyah Pendleton was only 15 when she was shot to death while hanging out at a local park after school. Her family and friends launched #WearOrange to raise awareness of the effects of this pervasive gun violence, because it is the colour that hunters wear to say, “See me, don’t shoot me.”

I’ve been reading a brilliant and devastating book about the effects of gun violence on our children – Children Under Fire: An American Crisis, by John Woodrow Cox. It is a difficult read, but it is hopeful, because it points to ways in which we can begin to change our landscape of violence. I recommend it, and I hope that we can continue to work together to raise awareness of the effects of our relationship with the gun, and the spiritual work of our disarming gospel, our maddeningly peaceful Messiah.

When they said that he was mad, Jesus retorted that they had better watch whom they were calling mad! (Mark 3:20-35)

When they said that he was on the wrong side of God, he laughed at them.

When they said that he should toe the family line, Jesus responded that those who follow him are his family. Those who travel in the pathways of love: loving God, loving neighbour, without exception.

This is also our graduation Sunday, and we have young people among us who deserve a better landscape in which to pursue life, liberty, and happiness than one littered with the fallout from gun violence. 

Whatever we do to change our landscape of guns and gun violence – whatever policies we support or initiatives are inspired – it begins with our conversion, our repentance, our turning from the tempter’s whispers to the Word of God.

We can plant peace. We can convert hearts to love instead of fear, if we remember, constantly and repeatedly, the love that God has for us, in creating us, sustaining us, redeeming us, living as one of us, without violence, without retaliation, with resurrection.

“Madness!” the neighbours might say. But then, they said that about Jesus, too.

This is also our graduation Sunday. But for anyone who is embarking on something new, trying some new way of being in the world, remember that Jesus is family for you. He has called you his own.

When there are difficult times, remember that he has been there first and for you. He knows how to help you through them. He is your family.

When you need him to, remember that Jesus knows how to bring people together. He is your family.

And because of him, we are your family, with all of our quirks and foibles, and we love you.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

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