LOVE BADE ME WELCOME

TEXT: Luke 12:32-40

“Blessed are those servants whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.” (Luke 12:37)

Perhaps I don’t often enough quote from the King James Version of the Bible; it has an eloquence like few other things ever written in English. But knowing my usual habit, you may ask yourselves, “So what’s with the King James English this time?”

Well, at least in part, it’s because I want to quote something else to you—and it’s from roughly the same era. It’s the opening passage from a poem called “Love,” which was written by George Herbert, who lived from 1593 to 1633—about the time of Shakespeare. Here goes:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
           Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
           From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
           If I lack’d anything.

Herbert actually wrote three poems with the same title of “Love,” but near his death, he left this poem, the one that begins, “Love bade me welcome,” as the last poem. It was his final word, so to speak, on the subject of faith.

The poet George Herbert was one of those on his way up in the world of King James* (the one who commissioned the translation of the Bible which bears his name). Herbert may have aspired at one time to an important government office under King James. But then he decided to let his life take a permanent and irreversible detour to an out-of-the-way parish in the southwest of England, where he served quietly as pastor for the last three years of his life of just 40 years.

He could have taken steps leading toward high political office, but he gave up his secular ambitions in order to preach and to write poetry. Herbert said, “his soul drew back” in the presence of Love. In this poem, Love is his word for God.

We understand, don’t we? We also draw back in the presence of a superior. Wherever you are in life, are there not people above you? And in their presence, are you quite the same as you are with your peers? In the presence of one with titles, or position, or power, do not all of us show some kind of deference—or even reverence?

Life is marked by roles and expectations. Social rules dictate that some are higher and some are lower on the scale. And even though democratic societies are founded on the notion that all are created equal, we still live and work in situations where this ideal is not practiced.

This is an “up-down” world. But if we think we live in a time marked by expectations about roles and about one’s place in society, it’s nothing compared to the world that Jesus knew. Jesus lived in a time where a few were privileged and most were deprived. We see the issue of class in all those parables Jesus told about a master and the servants—and in today’s gospel reading.

And of course, what caused Jesus all kinds of problems was that his opponents thought he didn’t understand the rules governing society and religion. They thought he was just an ignorant carpenter, and they said he ate and drank with sinners—as if he didn’t know any better.

The whole ministry of Jesus was marked by a curious kind of crossing as he moved from the segment of society ruled by the religious establishment to that of the ruled—the underclass, those without property, the outcasts. He said the first would be last, and the last would be first. What a revolutionary statement! It was a message to trouble the powerful and comfort the powerless.

Jesus told his disciples that they should think of themselves as servants. That may be harder for us to consider than it was for them. They called him “rabbi” or “teacher.” In the Greek New Testament, the word is kurios, which means “lord” or “master.” Applying that term to Jesus shows that they already looked upon him in a special way. They were ready to serve him and his cause. It is a role that Jesus even commends them for (see Luke 17:7-10; John 13:13). The loyalty of a servant to a master is commendable.

Duty makes sense. You do what you have to do, and when you do it well and thoughtfully, it feels right. To be sure, you don’t always get rewarded for doing your duty or for doing what is right; it is just what you do.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says servants should have their lamps lit. They should be ready for action. They should be waiting for their master to return. That’s what you would expect faithful servants to be doing. If the master comes in the middle of the night, he will be pleased to find the house well-lit. Once their master has returned, those servants will know they have done the right thing by being ready and watchful.

They would also still be servants. They would be ready to continue as servants. Like George Herbert, in the presence of their master, their souls would draw back, “guilty of dust and sin.” They would know their place in the system—a place ready to serve their lord and master—ready to serve his needs and not their own.

Then Jesus says something really astounding—something so shocking that this had to be one of those little parables that quickly made its way from house to house and town to town. This had to be one of those stories, for it contains something totally unexpected.

Jesus says of the master that he should fasten his belt. Now, you’ve got to understand, masters of a household don’t do this. In Jesus’ place and time, there were all kinds of rules regarding dress and decorum for both men and women. It’s a world where very little skin shows. For example, men who wear long traditional robes will hardly even make their feet visible. To “fasten his belt”—as a modern translation has it—or “he shall gird himself” as the King James Version translates it, means to hike up your robe.

The robe is lifted up and then tied around the waist, so it doesn’t drag on the ground. Once the robe is out of the way, a servant can move easily and quickly. Being a servant means getting a job done, even if it means sacrificing your dignity—even if it means letting others see your legs!

Never, though, never would a master gird his loins, except for a most extreme or unusual emergency. But Jesus says the master becomes the servant. And yes, Jesus said that of himself: “I am among you as one who serves”  (Luke 22:27). Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, an act so memorable that John felt it was the keystone event of the last supper. And here in today’s gospel, Jesus says that the servants will sit at the table while the master waits on them. All of these were images and ideas that stunned his original audience. And when we grasp the full meaning of it, we, too, can stand in utter awe that God would love us that much.

Here, again, are the words of the poet George Herbert:

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

           Love said, You shall be he.

I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

           I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

           Who made the eyes but I?

 

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

           Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

           My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.

           So I did sit and eat.

The dialogue between master and servant comes to an end as the servant accepts the offer.

How hard it is to accept such a reversal. How difficult it is to accept that our faults, our unworthiness, our inferiority, do not matter at all. Shame and guilt—that is the point at which we are met and accepted! The grace of this relationship with God is all about the gift that is given—not about a gift that is earned. It is about a place at a table that is there when we least expect it—because it is about the Lord who loves the undeserving ones. So when we are less, when we are least, and when we are lost, God stoops to welcome us. Love bids us welcome. To call Jesus “Lord” and “Master” does not mean that the gulf between us is so great that we must hang our heads in shame all the while we are on our knees. “I no longer call you servants,” he said, “but friends.” (John 15:15)

This change in relationship—where we are fed at the table—is not about us, but it is about Christ. It is about our accepting God’s grace, and it is about how God meets us in our lostness and in our leastness. That understanding permeates Herbert’s poem—and it explains why his poem is so enduring. “Quick-eyed love”—the “love that bore the blame”—does not ask us to prove ourselves or to climb up on some ladder of perfection. We are simply asked to be part of a community marked by acceptance and forgiveness.

Let us pray that the sense of community we have in the church may be marked by a willingness to be centred in such love. Let us pray that we, like the servants described by Jesus, might let him serve us at the point of our greatest need. Let us accept the welcome offered to us by the “Love that bore the blame.” Amen.

__________________

* When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, Scotland and England united under King James VI of Scotland who then became King James I of England, the first of the Stuart line. In 1604, at the Hampton Court Conference, James authorized theologians to start a new translation for all English-speaking parishes. Forty-seven scholars were convened, worked for seven years, and produced The King James Authorized Version of the Bible in 1611.

“Who’s Calling, Please?”

Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-20

. . . the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!”  And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:10)

A common question that pastors are asked is, “What is the call like?”

When this question is asked, everyone knows that the questioner is not enquiring about a telephone call, but a much larger call—the call from God, the call to pastoral ministry—to “accountable” ministry, as the church likes to call it these days.

So, what is it like? As you might expect, it’s different for each person. For some, it is a slow evolution over a period of time. Some ministers say they knew when they were in elementary school. Some felt the call to ministry take them by complete surprise. And some of us, in retrospect, say we think that God must’ve got the wrong number! Or that we wish we’d left the receiver off the hook.

Today, we hear the story of Samuel’s call. God had a vision for his life, and not only called him once, but four times.

First Samuel 3 begins, “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” This tells us that heavenly calls were not frequent occurrences during Samuel’s time. In fact, there had been a 300-year period when no prophet had spoken the word of the Lord.

If you remember the story of Samuel, you’ll recall that his mother Hannah had dedicated him to a life of serving God. So when he was about four years old, she took him to the Temple and gave him to the priest Eli as his assistant. Since then, Samuel had been raised in the Temple, and was not only Eli’s helper but also a sort of surrogate son for the old priest, whose own sons were hopelessly corrupt and evil.

At any rate, it made sense that when Samuel heard his name being called in the night, he would go to Eli and say, “Here I am, for you called me.”

But Eli—roused from his slumber—said, “I did not call; lie down again.”

Three times Samuel heard his name being called. Three times he asked Eli what he wanted, and two times Eli told him to go back to bed.

But after the third call, we are told that “Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy.” Eli then gave Samuel some excellent advice: “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’”

In other words, Eli told Samuel to be quiet and let God do the talking. Samuel went down to lie in his place, and the Bible says God did come back, and stood beside Samuel’s bed, calling as before: “Samuel! Samuel!”

This time Samuel answered God’s call saying,  “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” Then God spoke, and Samuel listened. And Samuel became from that young age onward one of the most significant prophets that Israel would ever know.

Well, so far we’ve talked about two calls: the call to accountable ministry, and the call of Samuel. But, so what? Why should this matter to you, or to me?

Here’s why. You may think that calls from God only happen to pastors, or occur in the Bible—but make no mistake about it: God has also called you to be a minister, to be a servant.

What is your calling? You may or may not have a sure sense of what it is. If you would like a greater understanding of how God wants to use you, there are three important questions that are helpful to ask.

The first question is, “What do I feel called to do?” Chances are that you have a sense of what it is. If the answer is not clear, ask yourself, “What am I good at?” Very often our call is related to what comes naturally or easily to us.

The second question is, “What do other people tell me I am good at?” While it is important that we feel a sense of call, it is also important that others validate the call. Someone may feel deep within that she or he is called to be a pastor, or a Bible teacher, or even a church treasurer; but no one can fill those roles without affirmation from the larger church. Samuel was being called from the outside as well as from the inside.

And finally, the third question you can ask is, “Who’s calling, please?” To determine our true calling, we not only need to feel a sense of call and have others tell us we are called, we must also make sure that the call is from God. When Samuel finally understood this, he said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

God spoke, and Samuel did what God asked him to do. Throughout Samuel’s life God continued to speak, and Samuel continued to act on God’s behalf. God used Samuel in a powerful way. He served as a judge, a priest, a prophet, and played a key role at a significant point in Israel’s history.

For Samuel, answering God’s call became a lifestyle. Each one of us is asked to carry on in that tradition.

You are called to be a minister. Yes, YOU. You are called to be a minister for God. You are called to minister to other people. We live in a world that is hurting, in a world where 40 per cent of all people report being intensely lonely, in a world that suffers from hunger, want, need, and injustice.

God is calling you to take stock of your gifts and to listen for God’s voice and the invitations of other people. God is calling you to a life of service, to a life of ministry. God is calling you to live your life in a way that God might be glorified.

There is no higher calling. So listen well. Amen.

The God Who Hears

TEXT:  Luke 11:1-13

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10)

It’s apparent everywhere you look—from television talk shows to school classrooms, from seminars to social media. People want to be more spiritual. Many, including people in churches, say they want to pray, but don’t know how. Perhaps we in the church even contribute to the feeling of never being able to do it right. We pray certain types of prayers, leading folks to think they need to pray at a certain time of day or for a certain length of time.

Here’s the question most people are afraid to ask: “Is anyone on the other end of our prayers, anyhow?” Or, “If there is a God, does God really care about my little life?”

Jesus tells us that someone is on the other end of the line. The disciples had the same questions we have. “How are we supposed to pray, Lord?” And they take out their pencils and paper to take notes, to write down this new form of prayer. Jesus gives them a different kind of form. It arises naturally from real life. It is real life. Prayer is a response to what is going on right in front of us, a response to what is going on within us.

Our prayers come right out of the circumstances of real life, not apart from it. Jesus gives them an example of a prayer composed of completely natural elements: thanksgiving, petition, and request for forgiveness.

For instance, when something good happens, we are motivated to breathe a prayer of thanks.

Thanks for: the beauty of a cool morning after a series of blistering hot summer days; children who make us laugh; a high grade on a test; a good friend; a kind word.

Thanks for: a new job or joy in a current job; enough money to pay the bills; a glorious vacation; new life in a marriage; a good night’s rest; forgiveness; healing from an illness; good results on a medical test; chocolate!

We don’t have to wait until some set time to give thanks. What if we were moved to say a quick prayer of thanks each thankful moment? Wouldn’t we learn to connect the giver of the gift with the gifts of life?

In the exact same way, we are motivated to pray when things don’t go so well: when someone is sick; when the children misbehave so much we want to give them to the grandparents who think they are perfect; when things go badly at school; when there isn’t enough money to pay all the bills; when the marriage is in trouble; when we can’t sleep at night; when worry overcomes us; when we are grieving a loss; when we hate our job; when the medical tests don’t turn out right. Rhubarb pie …

Again, prayer at such a time draws us into the connection between faith and life. We cry out to God, wanting God’s presence, hope, love, protection. And sometimes we feel those things immediately. Sometimes they come along slowly.

Sometimes we don’t feel them at all. That’s when we wonder if God really hears.

Our own failings, too, lead us to think of praying: we realize it’s probably not right to wish the children would move to live with their grandparents; we cheat to make our money stretch; we say something and the second it leaves our lips we wish we could take it back; our anger overcomes us and makes us do things we regret.

Afterward—hopefully—it occurs to us to ask forgiveness and to hope we can keep from making the same errors in the future. That is when we turn to God, again in prayer.

Jesus’ model prayer arises out of the ordinary acts of living: thanksgiving, petition, and forgiveness.

Luke then reports an additional teaching about prayer, in the form of a parable that is based on a Middle Eastern understanding of the requirements of hospitality.

Hearing with our 21st-century ears, we often misinterpret this parable, feeling sorry for the one who was awakened in the middle of the night by a rude neighbour who was too lazy to prepare something for his own houseguests. Jesus’ listeners would have heard something quite different.

A traveler who came to the home of someone in the village was considered to be a guest of the entire town. Inasmuch as hospitality was—and still is—a tremendously important cultural value of that area of the world, anyone in town could be called upon to help make the visitor comfortable.

An unexpected guest at night could be a cause of particular anxiety, if one had no leftover bread from the day. At night, you do not build the fire for baking, but you might be aware that your friend next door had baked a few extra loaves that morning. The neighbours would consider it an honour to help you out of your bind.

The neighbour in Jesus’ story is the one who does not act according to the way the listeners would expect. He refuses even to get out of bed and answer the door, but shouts from within, “Leave us alone! The children are in bed. You can’t expect me to get up and help you.”

Well, of course the friend could and did expect the neighbour to get out of bed and offer whatever he had to ease the discomfort of the other. Finally, when the friend continues knocking and calling out for help, the lazy and selfish neighbour forces himself out of bed and to the door, just to shut the guy up.

“How much more than this awful neighbour,” asked Jesus, “is a good God willing to hear you?” You may think your prayers are unheard, that no one is listening. But that is not true. God hears. Always.

“Okay,” you say, “suppose I buy the line that God hears my prayers, that there is someone on the other end when I raise my voice to God.

“Then what about when I ask for something good and receive something bad instead?

“What about the time I prayed for my friend to be healed and she wasn’t? What does that say about God’s character?”

Those are good questions, and they have been asked for as long as people have been able to conceive of a good God. And to those good questions, Jesus offers no glib answers. But here is what he makes clear: God hears us even when we think no one is listening or paying attention, like that unhelpful neighbour.

We may feel as though we are pounding on the doors of heaven, trying to awake a sleeping God to our desperate, heartfelt need. At such times, we need to keep pounding!

Don’t give up on prayer. Pray as people who know that God is listening, even if you feel that nothing comes of your prayers. Pray as people who are knocking on heaven’s door, and imagine God leaping from bed, not even bothering to put on shoes, running to the door to see what it is that you need. Imagine God flinging open the door, putting an arm around you, and inviting you in to share your joy or your pain.

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks, receives, and everyone who searches, finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD

TEXT: Colossians 1:15-28

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether in earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:15-20)

The story is told of a teenage boy who became attracted to a girl in his math class. Asked what about her appealed to him most, he answered: “Her mom. She’s hot!” Then he explained that, as he figured it, in a few years his classmate would grow into the very likeness of her “hot” mother.

It seems not to have occurred to him that she might grow up to look like her dad. However, the young man was thinking analytically. He deduced that the daughter was more or less the incarnate image of her mom.

In Colossians, Paul figures the same way. “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (vv. 15, 19). Or, as Jesus himself put it, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus is the clearest picture of God available to us.

Do you want to know what God is like? All you have to do is look at the earthly ministry of Jesus.

  • Look at his grace toward sinners, and his joy in the presence of children.
  • Look at his healing compassion for those who hurt, and his impatience with smug self-righteousness.
  • Consider his love for the disadvantaged and oppressed—and his willingness to offer fresh starts and second chances.

In these and countless other ways, we are shown the very heart of the Creator. “He is the image of the invisible God.” Additionally, Paul identifies Jesus as the glue that connects everything. “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (v. 17).

“In him all things hold together.” Need an example? Consider the diversity of the Christian church. Our skin colours vary, as do our denominations, our politics, our genders, and our ages. Often, we do not understand one another. Nevertheless, in spite of our differences, we are family to one another because we all gather together around Jesus.

Or, as the apostle Paul liked to put it, we are gathered together in Christ. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). We find the same terminology in today’s epistle lesson, where—in verse 24—Paul refers to “[Christ’s] body, that is, the church.”

We are the church. We are Christ’s body. Individually, we are members of him. That concept, by the way, is called “extended incarnation”—and it challenges us to do what Jesus did. The name “Christian” literally means “little Christ.”

If we are Christians, then by definition we are supposed to be doing what Jesus did. As Paul says, we are to be “blameless and irreproachable … [to] continue in the faith, securely established and steadfast” (vv. 22-23). In short, our witness to the world is to be Christlike.

A tall order, I know. And yet, the truth is: if our witness for Christ is not “blameless and irreproachable … securely established and steadfast,” then it is a broken witness.

When churches (corporately) and church people (individually) are prejudiced, greedy, insensitive, arrogant, uncaring, or wasteful, the world is not likely to be won over. Only when people look at us and see Jesus—only when experience his love through us—will they see something that may attract them. It’s all about authentic witness.

From time to time you encounter people who have a bee in their bonnet about the Bible and they tell you in all earnestness that every word of the Bible is relevant and authoritative for every person today, and that we all have to obey every word of it. Ever meet folks like that? Here’s a Bible verse you might ask them about: Romans, chapter 16, verse eight. Ask them about how obeying that verse has been meaningful for them.

Now, I’m sure you’ve all memorized Romans 16:8, because it has been so meaningful to you … But in case you haven’t, I’ll tell you what it says. Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome, and he tells them: “Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord.”

Hands up, all those who’ve ever met anybody called, “Ampliatus” … Me, neither! Now what would happen if your relationship with God was dependent on obeying that specific verse? You’d have to find someone called Ampliatus so that you could greet him. But how? You can’t look him up in the phone book, because “Ampliatus” is probably his first name. You can’t just wait until you spot him in the street, because you don’t know what he looks like. Without an image of Ampliatus in your mind, you would not recognize him, even if you did see him.

Now of course, I’m being facetious here. But you see the problem, right? As disciples of Jesus, we are called to grow in godliness—or god-likeness. Our tradition tells us that, while we were created in the image of God, that image has been distorted. Jesus calls us to reclaim that image. In the Sermon on the Mount, he even goes so far as to say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

Well—just as if we were seeking to “greet Ampliatus”—if we are seeking to become godlike, we need to have an image in our mind of what we’re striving for. We cannot work towards something without some idea of what it looks like. If you visit any of the numerous gyms in your city, you will see people who are there every day—pumping iron and running on treadmills. If you asked them, I’m sure you’d find that they all have an image in mind of how they want to look. Maybe they want to build up some muscle. Maybe they want to get slimmer. Maybe they want to look like Brandon Curry. Or Rachel Cammon. But all of them have an ideal that they are working towards.

Not only with regard to physical attributes does this principle apply. If our goal is to be like God, then we need a clear image of God to work towards.

And—just to clear up a misunderstanding before it develops—I am not saying you cannot make a start until you have the full picture in mind. You can respond to what you know of God now—and the gaps in your picture will continue to be filled in as you go.

So, how shall we formulate our image of God? In our reading from his letter to the Colossians, Paul gives this question some serious thought. Listen once again to the words he wrote. Like I said earlier, Paul starts by saying that “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God” (v. 15). That’s probably the most radical statement ever made about God. It is the thing that most distinguishes Christianity from other religions.

Our tradition insists that Jesus of Nazareth—a person who was born in disreputable circumstances, who broke all kinds of religious rules, and who died a criminal’s death—is the image of the invisible God! No other major religion claims that we have seen in human form the exact image of the Creator of the universe. Most religions would call that blasphemy.

But Paul goes even further than that. He says that the great mystery of God that was hidden throughout the ages—and is now being made known—is that Christ is in you. That’s right; the image of God is in you!

Remember the message that Jesus proclaimed—and sends us to proclaim: the nearness of God. “The Kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9). The image of God is within you. Christ is in us.

Now, when Paul describes the characteristics of this Christ who is the image of the invisible God, what does he say? Well, I’m sure he did not intend this to be an exhaustive description of the image of God, but it is a pretty good thumbnail sketch. First of all, Paul talks about creativity. Christ is the firstborn of all creation, and all things on earth and in heaven were created in him, through him and for him (vv. 15-16). The God made known in Christ is an enthusiastic Creator; he pours his very being into every creative act.

Then, Paul talks about sustaining what is created. That’s what he means when he says that, in Christ, “all things hold together” (v. 17). This is a remarkable image, one that grows richer the more you think about it. Christ is the power of cohesion within the universe.

The first image of creation in Genesis is about giving form to the “formless void”—or the “original chaos.” Christ is pictured here as the One who keeps everything from descending back into chaos. If Christ’s Spirit were withdrawn from the world, the whole structure of matter would just cave in on itself.

You can also think about this in terms of relationships. We know that good relationships require ongoing attention; we need to keep working at developing and holding together our relationships. The more intimate they are, the more this is true. Christ is the power that holds things together; he is the One who makes it possible for the togetherness to continue.

Thirdly, Paul describes Christ as the reconciler. Christ is the image of God in that he seeks to restore whatever is damaged within Creation. He identifies that which has become separated from the sustaining energy of God, and seeks to reconcile it.

And the thing that is especially notable about this characteristic of the Christ is that he is willing to suffer incredible personal loss—even an agonizing death—in order to bring about that reconciliation.

Paul says that in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things … by making peace through the blood of his cross” (vv. 19-20). Notice that it doesn’t just say “all souls”—or even “all people.” It says all things. All people, all animals, all mountains and trees, all families and ethnic groups, all institutions and forms of commerce, all political and economic systems, all the realities that shape life in the world as we know it.

Through Christ, God was pleased to undertake the task of reconciling to himself all things that are not in right relationship with their Creator.

 And as an example, Paul uses …

Well, the example he uses is you! He says, you—“who were once estranged and hostile in mind … he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death …” (vv. 21-22).

Our most common use of the word estranged is for an estranged husband and wife, after a separation. They are estranged, and there is hostility in their minds towards one another. According to Paul, this is how we were towards God. But, through his suffering, Christ has reopened the lines of communication. Reconciliation is made possible—and now, Christ presents us to God “holy and blameless and irreproachable” (v. 22). Christ presents us to God completely purified—totally beyond reproach. Now, there is absolutely no accusation anyone can bring against us before God. Nothing will stick. Before God’s throne, you and I stand in holiness. We are without blame and beyond reproach.

God creates and reconciles and sustains all things. That, in a nutshell, is the image of God that Paul says Christ demonstrates to us. Do you notice how Trinitarian that description is? One of the many good alternatives to describing God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is to refer to him as “Creator, Reconciler, and Sustainer”—and those are indeed the three roles that Paul attributes to God in this passage.

There is, of course, much more that could be said about how Jesus gives us our image of God. Paul did not know Jesus before the crucifixion, so Paul concentrates upon the risen Christ. There is much more we can learn about God from the earthly life of Jesus, as reported in the gospels. However, even if all we look at is this first chapter of Colossians, the images of godlikeness offered here provide a lifetime’s worth of growing for us to do.

If we want to be more like God, if we want to grow to maturity in Christ, we must strive to be creators—people who produce and appreciate beauty and practicality. We are to be reconcilers—people who are willing to go out on a limb to ensure that all things are brought back into right relationship. And, we are to be sustainers—people who overcome what is divisive; who nurture healthy relationships; who seek to ensure the sustainability of Creation.

That is what discipleship is all about. This is what it means to try to imitate God.

Our epistle reading concludes with Paul saying that all his proclaiming and warning and teaching have but one purpose: so that we may be presented in heaven as mature persons in Christ. Friends, as we go out into the world to be the church, let’s make sure the apostle’s words are not lost on us.

God chose to make known … the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Col. 1:27-28)

Amen.

“GO AND DO LIKEWISE”

TEXTS: Colossians 1:1-14 and Luke 10:25-37

For this reason … we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:9-10)

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30)

In “American History According to Hollywood,” the Old West was a wild and dangerous place—a place where larger-than-life villains ruled by force of arms.

In the frontier America of the silver screen, anarchy has always held sway. The atmosphere of the typical Hollywood western is permeated with gunsmoke. It’s a place where bullets dart like horseflies across the prairie, and ordinary folks cower in fear until some larger-than-life hero comes to save them—somebody like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood … or if you’re a lover of newer versions of old classics … Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, et al. in The Magnificent Seven.

Historians tell us that—while the reality of life on the American frontier was considerably less violent than Hollywood’s portrayal of it—there is a germ of truth behind the screenplays.

As for the Canadian frontier—historians tell us that it was a much tamer place, thanks in large part to a concerted effort by British authorities to ensure the rule of law in the developing territories west of Fort Garry. The North-West Mounted Police force was created for that purpose—and it was very effective.

There were instances of lawlessness and violence, of course—Fort Whoop-Up near Lethbridge being a notorious example—but, relatively speaking, the Canadian west was quite a civilized place. And I think we can say that Canada is still a pretty civilized, law-abiding place. Certainly, Canadians—for the most part—retain a deep-seated respect for the law of the land (so-called “Freedom Convoys” notwithstanding).

The Hebrew people in Jesus’ time had an even deeper respect for the Law—for the Torah. In fact, their feelings about the law transcended simple respect. Torah was a beloved thing. Torah was good. Torah was sweet. Torah was their delight. Then, as now, faithful Jews lived for the observance of the Law. For them, the Law came from God, not from human beings—and God’s commands could not be subject to argument. Torah demanded all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.

For centuries, the struggle to observe the Law kept the people of Israel and Judah focused on the living God. The prophets amongst them recognized that obedience was the best sacrifice one could offer to such a Deity. Even so, the struggle to observe all the fine points of the Law continued. Now—and it probably goes without saying—the outward observance of the Law was always easier to attain than true purity of heart.

Certainly, outward observances were more easily monitored by others—especially by the self-appointed “morality police.” And the people who paid attention to appearances were content to think of themselves as righteous. But then, along came Jesus—this famous teacher and healer, a rabbi who spoke of God and God’s kingdom as no one else had ever done—and he confounded them!

When someone sick came to him on the Sabbath, he did not hesitate to heal that person. When a woman who was an outcast—a Canaanite—asked him to heal her child, he listened to the pleading of the foreigner and granted her request. He did not keep himself aloof from tax collectors, even though other Jews considered them traitors because they served the interests of the occupying Romans.

Jesus did not seem to care much for the outward niceties of the Law. Indeed, he declared that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath!

Those who heard him would have understood—correctly—that what Jesus was saying about the Sabbath, he extended to the whole body of Jewish law. According to Jesus, God intended the law to benefit the people, not to burden them and become a hardship. But this was a radical idea. Many who heard Jesus were deeply offended—and probably more than a little frightened, as well.

We can understand that, can we not? They did not want to lose the security of their traditions—the certainty of that which was familiar. Many of us would feel the same way, I think. Also, Jesus was asking them to think for themselves—and that is a tall order for human beings in any era!

Others, of course, were attracted to this charismatic young teacher who spoke about grace rather than perfection—about how God’s perfect justice was tempered by God’s perfect mercy and delivered through God’s perfect love.

Jesus filled Galilee with his loving presence, and people wanted to know his secret. They wanted to have what he had: a peace that could come only from close, daily communion with God. They desired to enter—to inherit—the kingdom of heaven, of which he spoke. So they came to Jesus to ask him about it. People from all walks of life sought him out.

We find several instances of that in the Gospels. The one in today’s reading from Luke occasions the telling of one of the most beautiful stories in all of Scripture. We know it as “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”

In Luke’s account, a lawyer comes to Jesus, and asks him: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus refers the inquirer to what he (being a lawyer) must already know—the Mosaic Law: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

The lawyer answers correctly with words from the Shema, quoting its magnificent injunction to love God with our whole heart, soul and mind—and our neighbour as ourselves.

Jesus commends the man’s answer: “Do this and you will live.”

But the lawyer finds a stumbling block in the last part—the part about “loving your neighbour as yourself.” And so, he asks the probing question, “Who is my neighbour?”

In the story that Jesus tells to illustrate his answer, the wounded man is bypassed by two of the most respectable members of the religious community—a priest and a lay assistant. They pretend they don’t see the dying man. It is easier to pretend not to see, much less bother.

They are both so busy, you understand. They have important, holy business to attend to. Their hands are clean. Their clothes are fine—they must not become soiled with blood and dirt!

But the Samaritan (whom they would have considered an outcast) is not troubled by such concerns. He stops and offers help—the kind of help that takes responsibility, that is not “here today and gone tomorrow.” He takes the victim to the inn. He treats the wounds with his own hands. He stays with him through the night. He pays the bill, and he comes back to check on him.

No questions are asked here, except the one posed by Jesus: “Which one of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the wounded one?”

The answer—obviously—is: “The one who showed him mercy.” And the simple command of Jesus is: “Go and do likewise.”

Some years later, the apostle Paul would pick up Jesus’ message and spread it throughout the ancient world. Paul urged his fellow Jews to see past the minutiae of the Law in order to embrace the holy freedom proclaimed by that itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, whom we know as Jesus the Christ.

Paul—who as a young man had dedicated his life to the Torah—came to see how impossible it is for any of us to keep the Law perfectly. But—instead of being filled with despair over the human condition—Paul found good news to preach:

[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col. 1:13-14)

Jesus has shown us a way to God that is not dependent upon our ability to obey outward rules and regulations. What he offers us is a chance to walk in the light of freedom.

With the power and grace of God through Jesus Christ, we can indeed go out and emulate the Good Samaritan. We can “do likewise.” We can show mercy to our neighbours. We can “lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work as we grow in the knowledge of God.”

So our Scriptures for today have given us some good things to remember—to take with us, as we journey into the future. First, there is the vision of the Good Samaritan from our gospel lesson, along with the words of Jesus, “Go and do likewise.” Then, there is Paul’s advice to the Colossians: “Bear fruit in every good work. But at the same time, grow in the knowledge of God.”

What can that mean, I wonder—to “grow in the knowledge of God”?

In part, I think, it means realizing—and really caring about—the fact that each human being was created in God’s image. And so, each person we meet is of infinite value in God’s sight.

Mother Teresa once said that her goal on the streets of Calcutta was to see that no one died unloved and alone. She was not able to save the lives of most of the dying, because the people were so sick when she found them. But she could give them a clean bed, a loving touch, and a measure of comfort.

We cannot always undo the effects of evil—but we can make sure that evil does not have the last word!

Bear fruit in every good work. Grow in the knowledge of God. Love your neighbour as you love yourself … and trust that the law of God is thereby fulfilled.

A SPIRIT OF GENTLENESS

TEXT: Galatians 6:1-18

“May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters” (Galatians 6:18).

These words, written by Saint Paul to the Christians in Galatia, come coursing down the centuries, a benediction on us from this man of God. And then, being the teacher that he is, Paul gives us some instruction, not on how to obtain this grace—for he would be the first to tell you that grace is a free gift from God—but rather on how, having been so gifted, we should then live our lives.

Early in the Epistle reading appointed for today, we hear Paul speaking of “a spirit of gentleness.”

This is not the only time we will hear about the quality of gentleness in Holy Scripture—nor, indeed, the only time we will hear Paul talking about it. But what does it mean—gentleness? What kind of person can be described as possessing this quality?

We probably need to rid ourselves of the image of one who is meek, mild, ineffective—what we would call a “doormat.” We’ve all read St. Paul’s letters and it is doubtful that you would use any of those terms to describe him.

Earlier in this same Letter to the Galatians, we read: “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face …” (2:11)

Cephas, you understand, is Peter—even then, considered by many to be the chief of apostles. But Paul wasn’t afraid to take him on! The disagreement they had doesn’t bear re-hashing here—but the point is: Paul was not a meek doormat!

However, he also knew that “a gentle answer turns away wrath.”

Remember his advice to the Galatians: “If anyone is detected in transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.”

In other words, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!

In a given instance, we may be right and our sister or brother may be wrong. But if we speak to that person in such a way as to anger them, or cause them to become defensive—or so as to shame or humiliate them—the only thing we will accomplish is to slam the door shut on future discussion.

Hostile words can destroy relationships.

“Speak the truth in love,” Paul encourages us in the letter to the Ephesians (4:15). A spirit of gentleness leaves the door open for the other person to think about what we have said, perhaps to talk again.

It leaves the door open for us as well. Because sometimes—just possibly—we will be the ones who are in the wrong!

This same spirit of gentleness is needed when we share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. The author of First Peter wrote about this:

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15-16).

Nobody likes being hit over the head, even if it is with good news. “Let your gentleness be known to all,” Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians (4:5).

The Christians in Galatia lived in a world that was much in need of a spirit of gentleness. So do we! As ambassadors of Christ, it is up to all of us to contribute this spirit of gentleness.

  • In a world where competitiveness reigns, can we sometimes just yield to one another?
  • In a world full of road rage, can we practice a little courtesy, even on the freeway?
  • In a world of worsening climate crisis, can we live gently—and responsibly—within nature?
  • In a world where politicians demonize their opponents in order to win elections, can we listen to both sides?
  • In a world where even Christians let disagreements fracture the body of Christ, can we still be agents of God’s reconciliation?

Earlier in this same Epistle, Paul writes: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).

And, as we hear in today’s reading, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow” (Gal. 6:7).

Let us, then, sow the kind of harvest that we will be happy to reap! As it is written in the letter of James: “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (James 3:18).

Lord, make us instruments of your love, your peace, your gentleness—this day, and always. Amen.

What a Hard Case!

TEXT: Luke 9:51-62

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 9:57-62)

The week before last (on June 10), I posted a blog which referenced the 1996 movie, “Leaving Las Vegas” (I guess it qualifies as an old movie, by now). Today, I’m going to talk about another movie from that same year.

How many of you have seen the Tom Cruise movie, “Jerry Maguire”? *

If you’ve seen it, you know the title character—played by Tom Cruise—is a sports agent who has a moral epiphany which turns out to be very costly.

As the film opens, life is pretty good for Jerry Maguire. He represents some of the most gifted and talented athletes in sports. He lives in the fast lane, dashing from one meeting to the next, wheeling and dealing in multi-million dollar contracts. But then something happens. He starts noticing the greed, the selfishness, and—most importantly—the destroyed lives that go along with big-time, professional sports. Jerry Maguire realizes something has to change. He can’t go on representing spoiled, overpaid athletes.

One night Jerry suffers a “breakdown” (religious types might call it a “dark night of the soul”). He tosses and turns in his bed, unable to sleep. Finally, he gets up, turns on his computer, and begins typing a mission statement for the future of his company. As he writes, he tries to recapture his own love of sports—the excitement he once felt simply watching an athlete perform.

He writes about the values that his profession once had, but has lost in its quest for more money and more power. By the time he stops typing, he has written 25 pages. He entitles it, “The Things We Think and Do Not Say.” In the middle of the night, he takes the document to a copy center and makes 110 copies. Then he gives a copy to everyone in his company.

The next morning, Jerry realizes what he’s done. Timidly, he walks into his office. To his surprise, he receives a standing ovation for his act of courage. One person says, “Finally, somebody said it.”

Jerry feels more alive than he has in years. He’s just 35, but he feels like he’s starting his life all over again. It’s a wonderful, exhilarating feeling.

However, a week later Jerry is fired by one of his closest friends, who believes that the “new” Jerry Maguire poses a threat to the company. The new Jerry Maguire does not conform to the company’s values and cannot achieve the company’s goals. So Jerry is tossed out onto the street. Within a few days of losing his job, he also loses his fiancée—a woman who does not want to be married to a loser.

Just like “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Jerry Maguire” has a stunning realism. When a person stands up and speaks out for what is right, and defends what is true, there is inevitably a high price to pay. Just as “Leaving Las Vegas” does not soft-pedal the deadliness of alcoholism, “Jerry Maguire” does not romanticize or sentimentalize the role of the courageous reformer. Jerry never gets his job back. He loses the contract for the number one draft choice to the man who fired him. He does not get revenge. The tables do not turn. Jerry Maguire learns that idealistic choices are expensive choices.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus presents the high costs of discipleship—and his words are not easy to hear. You know, Jesus probably would have been a total flop at parish ministry. Pastors are supposed to be diplomatic and non-threatening … aren’t they? They’re supposed to comfort, not convict … right? Pastors are supposed to encourage, not demand. Jesus says all the wrong things. His words to his would-be disciples are sharp, tough, and unreasonable. The first disciple approaches Jesus beaming with enthusiasm offering his time and talents announcing that he is willing to follow the rabbi from Nazareth anywhere. Jesus tells the man, “If you follow me, expect to be homeless, hungry, and alone.”

In the second encounter, the would-be disciple just wants to attend his father’s funeral. You might think that Jesus would try to show a bit of compassion, and wait for the poor guy. But no. He tells the man that discipleship takes precedence over family. Your family commitments—your family obligations—must be put aside, if you want to be a disciple.

The third aspiring disciple only makes one small request. Before he signs on the dotted line, he wants to go home and say good-bye to his family. That seems reasonable enough. But once again, in his call to commitment, Jesus issues a rebuke. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)

I am reminded of a rather odd question that was put to me once (years ago) in a written examination.  It was actually more of a thought-experiment than a question. It went like this: Imagine you have a time machine, and you go back to first-century Palestine and meet Jesus of Nazareth face-to-face. Imagine you spend some time with him. Imagine you listen to his teaching. Imagine you observe him as he interacts with other people.

Now imagine this: After you really get to know Jesus, you decide that you don’t like him! (And let’s face it—a lot of people who met Jesus didn’t like him!)  Then you get back in the time machine and return to the present.

Now what? What, if anything, would change about your Christian faith?

The way I actually answered that question was to regurgitate some theological mumbo-jumbo about the Jesus of history being different from the Christ of faith. I think I also threw in some pop psychology about clashing personality types and how that shouldn’t be allowed to detract from Jesus’ underlying message. That apparently satisfied the examiner, because I passed the test!

But as I contemplate the story Luke serves up to us today, it occurs to me that I might answer that examination question differently if I was facing it today. Because I don’t like the Jesus I read about here! But, if I’m being honest about it, I have to admit that what I don’t like about him is the difficult challenge he’s putting forward. He’s asking his disciples—and that includes me—to be absolutely single-minded about discipleship. He’s asking me to care about nothing else besides following him—not my family, not my home, or my friends, or my career, or even my own well-being.

“I’ll follow you, Lord, but first I just need to spend half an hour to get my cholesterol level checked…”

“No! You don’t have half an hour. You don’t have five minutes. Follow me now!”

This Jesus guy is a hard case, isn’t he? On the other hand, he certainly did practice what he preached. Maybe that’s why he makes us so uncomfortable. Perhaps too many of us—myself included—have a sort of “bookshelf” approach to God. Most people believe in God, but they place him on the shelf to admire—or to refer to in the proper company. God becomes a possession—one commodity amongst many. Every home should have at least one. Then, when we invite company over, we can show off our new living room furniture, our new dining room table, our new kitchen cabinets … and our quaint little “bookshelf God.” And God will stay on the shelf until a crisis strikes. Then we offer a “bail-out” prayer, and we expect our “bookshelf God” to comfort, support and assist us with a miracle.

But the God of the Bible is nothing like that. The God revealed in Jesus is a God who makes discipleship an arduous—even back-breaking—thing. He is more than a sympathetic, hand-holding personal friend. He calls his followers to make difficult choices—decisions that require sacrifice and commitment.

I don’t like it, either. But discipleship is not about creating a safe, caring environment where people’s needs will be taken care of. No. It is about a radically different way of life. It is about making hard decisions. It is about responding in faith to the demands of the living God. That does not mean that the church should forget about maintaining a safe and caring environment. What it means is that we cannot create a loving and supportive community of faith unless people are willing to make sacrifices to the difficult demands of discipleship.

Jesus knew what that was about. He gave himself wholly. He committed himself fully—so completely that nothing was left over. Like it or not, that’s what he asks of us, also.

Now, there’s something to think about on our summer holidays! May God grant us both insight and courage as we ponder what discipleship means for us. Amen.

_________________

* https://www.netflix.com/ca/title/60022922

 

A BAD DAY FOR PIGS

TEXT: Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As [Jesus] stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. (Luke 8:26-27a)

So begins Luke’s account of this familiar story. It is a remarkable story—and not just because of its supernatural aura. Consider, if you will, some of the details of this account. First, Jesus arrives in the country of the Gerasenes; this district east of Lake Galilee was a largely non-Jewish area. Second—from what Luke tells us—pig farming seems to have been a mainstay of the region’s economy. Certainly, large quantities of pork would have been purchased by the Roman army to feed its soldiers in the vicinity.

Pigs, of course, were considered unclean animals by the Jews—and the fact that the Gerasenes were making a profit by feeding the Romans probably didn’t make them popular with their Jewish neighbours across the lake. This wasn’t a place you’d expect a travelling rabbi to visit! But this is precisely where Jesus and his disciples arrive as our gospel lesson opens. He has come, we may presume, to bring them his message of good news. Gentile or Jew—clean or unclean—it makes no difference to our Lord; all are children of the same Creator.

So Jesus steps out of the boat onto the Gerasene shore, and the very first thing that happens is that he is approached by this deranged person. Before Jesus can do anything else—before he can find a place to stay, before he can set up any speaking engagements—he is confronted by the spectacle of this man who has been living in a graveyard, who has been driven out of town by a frightened populace. He’s naked. He’s raving. In his fury, he can break strong chains and burst shackles applied to restrain him. He runs at Jesus, and throws himself down at his feet, screaming: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”

If none of the Gerasenes had noticed Jesus arriving before this, all their eyes were trained on him now! Jesus asks the man, “What is your name?”

“Legion,” he replies. “My name is Legion. My name is Mob. I have a whole mob of demons inside me.”

Taking pity on the man, Jesus orders the demons out. He casts them into some swine which are feeding on a nearby hillside, and then the whole herd of them goes berserk. They rush headlong into the lake, and they are all drowned.

Quickly, a crowd of villagers gathers; and what do they find? They find Jesus standing with the former demoniac, who is clothed and in his right mind. And they discover that their pigs—all of them—are gone!

Well, they say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And the Gerasenes won’t give Jesus a chance to make a second impression. They’re afraid of what he might do next. So they ask him to leave—to get out of there, to get away from them, to go somewhere else. Anywhere else.

The disciples who had come across the lake with Jesus might have wondered what he was doing. After making the difficult voyage—during which there had been a violent storm—Jesus has squandered his opportunity to evangelize the Gerasenes. After going to all this trouble, after putting their lives in danger, after expending the effort to calm the dangerous wind and waves (we hear about this earlier in the chapter)—after doing all this just to preach to a bunch of worthless, pig-farming Gentiles—Jesus blows off the whole plan in order to heal this one pitiful soul.

What was he thinking?

You know, this story reminds me of another one—of a parable Jesus tells a bit later in Luke (15:4-7), about a lost sheep. You remember it, I’m sure. It’s about a shepherd who has a hundred sheep, but notices that one of them is missing. And so he leaves his 99 remaining sheep to fend for themselves, and he goes off and searches for the one who is lost.

Now, you’ve got to understand that Jesus was preaching to rural people—to farmers and sheep-herders. These were people who knew about the realities of keeping livestock, and they would have listened to his parable, and they would have thought that shepherd was irresponsible. You don’t go off and leave your flock unattended—unguarded, uncared for. You don’t trust the 99 remaining sheep to stay put. You don’t gamble that predators won’t attack them. You don’t risk losing all your sheep just to go looking for one that is lost. Not if you’re an experienced shepherd. Yet Jesus tells us that God is like that foolish shepherd. If we are his sheep, he’ll risk everything just to save one of us.

“Just so, I tell you,” Jesus says, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

And so, the Son of God lands on the beach near Gerasa, all set to bring his message to this place which observant Jews find so repulsive. And immediately he is faced with a choice. Will he let this one disturbed individual get in the way of his larger mission?

Well, we know the choice he makes. He heals the demon-possessed man. But he wrecks the local economy in the process! And he so profoundly freaks out the Gerasenes that they don’t want to hear anything he has to say. All they want is for him to leave them alone. So Jesus steps back into the boat, and his disciples prepare to cast off from the shore. What a disaster! Can anything be salvaged from it?

Perhaps one thing can be. The man who was healed—for whom Jesus sacrificed his plans—the former demoniac wants to come with them. He wants to be one of them, to join in their ministry. And just think about that! Talk about a testimony! Can’t you imagine this guy standing before the crowd gathered on a Judean hillside, talking about all that Jesus has done for him? Can’t you imagine him dressed to the nines? All freshened up and clean-shaven and handsome in a nice tailored suit, saying: “My friends, I was not always the man you see before you now. No. Once I was a madman! It’s true. Once I had a mob of demons living inside me. And my friends and family had to drive me out of town. And I was naked, and I lived in a graveyard, amongst death and decay. But then, this man—this Jesus—he healed me!”

If Jesus was a TV evangelist, he’d want this guy in front of the cameras, introducing him. But Jesus doesn’t let the man into the boat. He doesn’t bring him back across the lake to star in his travelling salvation show. No. He tells him: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”

Luke tells us the man did exactly that. He stayed put in Gerasa, amongst his countrymen and his neighbours—everyone who had known him at his worst—and he proclaimed the truth that Jesus had come to tell. And so maybe the mission was salvaged, after all. Maybe this Gerasene man—now cured of his afflictions, restored to his sanity, to his home, to his family—maybe he was a much more effective messenger than even Jesus could have been, for these people. Maybe this familiar face, this long-lost sheep, would have a much greater impact than some strange rabbi from across the sea.

I wonder … maybe for those of us in mainline North American churches, this gospel story salvages a truth that we too seldom proclaim. We do not often speak about individual salvation—or about individual experience of God, about knowing Jesus personally. We speak often about how all of us together comprise “the body of Christ” but we don’t often mention the fact that God cares about each member of that body—that while Christ came to save the entire world, he also seeks to have a relationship with each person in it.

That’s what the man delivered from his demons had—he had a relationship with the living Christ, with God, who healed him. He had a real and compelling testimony to give, one that would continue to touch hearts and change lives long after the foreign rabbi had left his country’s shores. I think that’s why Jesus left him behind; because he knew that, once the shock and fear had died away, the Gerasenes would realize that—while they could always get more pigs—it wasn’t every day they saw a lost sheep return home.

How great is our God, who risks all to save one—and who, by saving the one, gains the many.

 

Learning From Las Vegas

TRINITY SUNDAY

TEXTS: Romans 5:1-5 and John 16:12-15

[Jesus said:] “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 6:12-15)

OnTrinity Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary serves us up the words of Jesus and the words of Paul. Both passages speak about the Holy Spirit, and both refer us to Christ.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that the Spirit who will come will guide them into truth. More than that, Jesus says, “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The Spirit comes to bring us the things of Christ. And if we aren’t sure quite what that means, the apostle makes it clear to us. Writing to the Christians at Rome, he says: “… since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand … and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:1-5).

The things of Christ are declared to us: “this grace in which we stand … God’s love … poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

Before I go any further, I want to ask you a question: have you ever seen the movie, Leaving Las Vegas? If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you consider renting it.* Nicholas Cage won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in that film in 1996, and Elizabeth Shue was nominated for Best Actress.

Now, as I’m recommending it to you, I have to warn you that it has an “R” rating. And it got its “R” rating the old-fashioned way—it earned it! Still, it’s one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen, for reasons I’ll make clearer shortly. For now, I’ll just tell you that it’s a film about—among other things—unconditional acceptance.

That’s a theological term, by the way. Unconditional acceptance. It was a favourite theme of the great theologian Paul Tillich, who sought to outline the gospel of Jesus Christ for a post-religious age. Writing from just after World War Two through the tumultuous Sixties, Tillich aimed to translate Biblical concepts into the language of a world whose faith in God had been shaken to its very foundations. In one of his great, ringing passages, Paul Tillich preached the following: “Sometimes a light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted by that which is greater than yourself and the name of which you do not know. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek anything; do not intend anything; do not perform anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted’.”

In the writings of Paul Tillich, the interchangeable terms “acceptance” and “unconditional love” appear over and over again. He specifically used the term “unconditional love” as a modern translation—a new synonym—for the Biblical term grace. “Unconditional love” means “the grace of God.”

Grace is the undeserved, unearned, unmerited love that the children of God receive from their Creator. Grace is the love of the father who keeps the candle flame of love burning for his wayward, prodigal son. Grace is the care of the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 members of his flock on the hillside pasture and goes out searching for the one lost sheep. Grace is the Lord Jesus Christ nailed to a heavy, rough wooden cross, managing to say with virtually his dying breath, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

You and I depend upon the grace of God in the same way a skydiver depends upon his backup parachute. Grace is the forgiveness of our sins. Grace is the assumption of our debts.  Grace is the mending of our brokenness.  Grace is the affirmation of our identities. Grace is the restoration of our relationships. And the modern way of saying “grace” is “unconditional love.”

I think Paul Tillich would have been intrigued by the promotional blurb for the movie. It reads: “From the moment Ben and Sera (the two main characters) connect, they form a unique bond based on unconditional acceptance and mutual respect that will change each of them forever.”

What does our culture mean by “unconditional acceptance”? This motion picture provides us with some vivid insights about how we have come to understand that term.

Leaving Las Vegas is, quite simply, a portrait of two individuals in hell. Ben is a successful executive for a Hollywood film company, and he has it all—the BMW, the split-level home with a swimming pool, the gorgeous blonde wife and the terrific son. Or at least, he had these blessings until he drank them away. When we first meet him, Ben is being fired from his job because of his alcoholism. His wife has already left him, and has taken their child with her.

We don’t know any of Ben’s reasons for wasting his opportunities, and we are not let in on them as the story unfolds. And that’s a good thing, really, for every man who has ever drained away his future at the bottom of a bottle has done so with all the most plausible excuses in the world. All we know about Ben is that he has lost his will to live, and he has made up his mind to move to Las Vegas and drink himself to death. There in the glittering city of the night, he meets Sera, a young prostitute who has seen it all—at least twice. He hires her—not to have sex, but just to talk. And this is how their relationship begins.

By and by, Sera’s pimp meets with a violent death—and so she becomes her own boss. At the same time, her affection for Ben grows to the point where she invites him to move in with her. They are a very odd couple indeed, with Ben drinking himself into total oblivion every day and Sera going out to walk the streets every night. Her customers range from polite-seeming, well-dressed men to vicious creeps, and she comes out much the worse for wear.

At one point early in their cohabitation, Ben spells out his condition for staying with Sera: “You must never, never ask me to stop drinking.” In her turn, Sera expects Ben to not interfere with her performance of her chosen career.

What binds them together is their shared, desperate sense of loneliness. Some claim that a primary motive of alcoholics is to distance themselves from other people. Likewise, selling sex is a way to de-personalize this most holy of our physical gifts from God. Both Ben and Sera have made up their minds that—as far as the rest of the human race is concerned—they’re simply going to “check out”.

As tough as it is to watch, Leaving Las Vegas is a film with a heart. Before long, you care about these people. You want them to turn their lives around. You really believe that they love each other—and some of their tender moments together are achingly romantic. Yet the story is too realistic to have a sugary happy ending pasted onto it. The sad truth is that most people who set out to destroy themselves eventually succeed.

What happens? After a month of steady binge drinking, Ben finally defeats his body’s ability to absorb massive quantities of alcohol. Binge drinkers usually die either from acute liver failure or from aneurysms of the esophagus or the stomach, literally drowning in their own blood. Sera is there when Ben dies, after he mutters something about “putting us asunder”—a tragic echo of Jesus’ words so familiar to us from the church’s marriage ceremony.

We hear Sera’s perspective on her relationship with Ben through vignettes of her speaking to a therapist. These are her last lines: “I think the thing is, we both realized that we didn’t have that much time, and I accepted him for who he was. And I didn’t expect him to change. And I think he felt that for me, too. I liked his drama. And he needed me. I loved him.”

And that, my friends, is what our culture means by “unconditional acceptance”—to accept someone for who they are, and never expect them to change.

Mark my words: this is not—repeat—this is not grace. This is not the love God gives us, and it is not the love God calls us to have for one another.

The untold story of Leaving Las Vegas is all the other people like Ben and Sera. I think most of us would be shocked to learn how many real lives are careening out of their orbits. Not just in Las Vegas, but right here in our own pleasant neighbourhoods, people are perishing from loneliness and the hopelessness of thinking that no one really knows them—and that if they did know them, they wouldn’t like them.

Feeling so vulnerable—feeling so desperate for companionship—too many of us expect too little of others, just as we expect too little of ourselves. God loves real people who are sinking into the muck just like Ben and Sera.

The grace of God is the love of a parent who wants the very best for his or her beloved child. Can a loving parent stand by dully while his or her children let the promise of life slip through their fingers? No way!

To be sure, 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (v. 7). But does love not care about such things? Of course it does. Love cares about what happens!

Our culture has an expression that perfectly describes the commitment level of too many modern relationships: “I’ll always be there for you.” That’s great. But there is more to love than just being in the room when a loved one manages to commit suicide. Love also must be willing to intervene for the sake of the loved one.

Here is the crux of what the apostle Paul was getting at: “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly … God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:6, 8)

This is love’s intervention into the destructive pattern of sin. Through Jesus Christ we have been given emergency access to the grace of God. Simply being there for his children was not enough for the God of infinite love. God has always been—and always will be—there for us. God loves us as we are; that’s a given. But in his boundless compassion, God saw that our persistence in sinning required a more dramatic, more effective action on his part. And so God intervened.

Can we learn something from movies like Leaving Las Vegas? You bet we can! The number one lesson we can learn is how lost we are without the love of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But the good news is that this loving God is capable of turning any life around—no matter how messed up it is—through the transforming power of unconditional love. And that’s what it really means.

 

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* “Leaving Las Vegas” is apparently unavailable on Netflix Canada. However, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you should be able to view it there: https://www.amazon.ca/Leaving-Las-Vegas-Nicolas-Cage/dp/0792838068

 

INCARNATION: GOD IN OUR SKIN

The Day of Pentecost

TEXT: Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-4)

During the past six months or so, the Revised Common Lectionary has led us on a remarkable journey with the Lord.

Throughout the season of Advent, we anticipated his birth.

During the short season of Christmas, we witnessed that birth, and rejoiced with the shepherds who came to adore the holy Child. And yes, what we witnessed was a miracle—not only the miracle of birth, but the miracle of God becoming flesh, taking on our human form.

During Epiphany, we heard about Jesus’ first visit to the Jerusalem Temple, when he was still a tiny infant. That was when Simeon predicted his future and Anna the prophetess blessed him.

We began the Season of Lent by following Jesus into the wilderness. Forty days later, we watched as he entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. And then began that holiest of weeks—that week which culminates in the resounding cry that we hear on Resurrection morning: “Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!”

With these words, the Season of Easter begins—a season during which we celebrate the good news that Jesus lives.

Yes, we’ve been on quite a journey over these past six months. We’ve not only heard the story of Jesus, but also lived it along with his first disciples, witnessing through their eyes the landmark events of his life.

And in this story that we’ve been re-living for half a year, we have once again experienced the central mystery of our faith—the story of the Incarnation, of “Emmanuel,” of “God with us.” We’ve been reminded that, in Christ Jesus, the Creator of the universe became one of us.

As the Church has always insisted, Jesus was fully and absolutely human, even though he was fully and absolutely God, as well. We may not completely understand that truth, but we celebrate it, anyway—just as Christians have done for over 2,000 years now.

Yes, we celebrate Incarnation. But what do we mean by that? What do we think of when we hear that word?

I’d wager that most of us think of the Incarnation in this way: “God walked on this earth, physically, for 33 years or so. Then he died, he rose again, and—finally—he returned to heaven. When he left, he sent the Holy Spirit to be present among us—but the actual physical body of Jesus was gone forever.”

Isn’t that how we usually think of it? Jesus was here on earth healing, teaching, and revealing God for about 30 years. But he is not actually here anymore—he’s in heaven. The Incarnation—that time when God was physically present and walked among us … Well, that time is over. And while the Holy Spirit is real … the Spirit is not the actual, physical presence of God—at least, not in the way that Jesus was.

Some days, I find myself wishing that Jesus was still here—right now—in the flesh. Do you ever wish for that? Do you ever wish that he was still here, so that we could touch him and feel him and actually hear his voice? So that we could see the compassion in his eyes?

There’s a story I heard once about a child who woke up in the middle of the night after a terrifying dream. She was convinced that there were all kinds of monsters and goblins lurking under her bed and in the corners of her room—so, frightened and crying, she ran to her parents’ bedroom. After her mother had calmed her down, she took the child back to her own room and said, “You don’t need to be afraid, you’re not alone. God is right here with you in your room.”

And the little girl said, “I know that God is here, but I need someone in my room that has some skin on!”

We all need a God who has some skin on, don’t we? We need God to be present here and now, in the flesh, in 2022 in the midst of this frightening world. We need someone we can hear and touch and smell and see.

You know, after talking to many people over the years, I’m convinced that most of us don’t need to find God in some obscure setting—like a remote mountain monastery, or the solitude of the desert. No. Most of us need to find God in the kitchen, and in the backyard, and in the parking lot, and on the telephone.

We need God to hold us when we are discouraged.

We need God to give us a gentle kick in the butt when we ignore somebody in need.

We need a God who has some skin on.

Ronald Rolheiser is a Roman Catholic theologian from Cactus Lake, Saskatchewan. In his book, The Holy Longing,1 Rolheiser offers some helpful observations for those of us who long for a God “with skin on.” He suggests that the reason we find it difficult to experience God as real and alive and physically present has to do with a faulty understanding of what Incarnation means.

Rolheiser points out that most of us have a rather short-sighted perspective in this regard. It’s as if we think the Incarnation was a 33-year experiment—a one-shot excursion by God into human history. And now, it’s over.

You know, if that were really true, I think I’d suggest that we just close up shop, give everyone a pat on the back, and then head on out to make the best of it on our own.

However, the truth is different. The Incarnation did not come to an abrupt end when Jesus ascended into heaven.

No. The Incarnation is still going on. It’s just as physically real today as it was when Jesus of Nazareth walked the dusty roads of Palestine.

Why do I say that? Consider once again today’s passage from the Book of Acts. When the Holy Spirit came to fill up those believers on the Church’s first Pentecost—after Jesus had gone back to heaven—God once again took on flesh. Once again, God put on some skin. Not in the way it happened when Jesus was born, of course, but in another way.

On the Church’s first Pentecost—through the power of the Holy Spirit—God was again clothed in human flesh. And ever since then—down through more than 20 centuries—God has been sending the Holy Spirit to the Church. Still today, God sends the Holy Spirit to us, and for the same reason. By giving us the Holy Spirit, God awakens gifts in each one of us—gifts that the world still needs; gifts that God needs to continue giving, here and now, in this weary old world.

It seems strange to us, but—on that day we think of as the first Pentecost—God came to depend on us, just as we depend on him. I know how odd that sounds, but that is the message of the New Testament: God depends on us to do his work in the world, to be the living Body of Christ in the world.

Through the power of the Spirit that lives in us, God lives in us. God is incarnate in us!

Does that sound weird? Does it sound like heresy? It’s not. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

The season of Pentecost is the longest season of the Church Year, lasting until the season of Advent arrives, and we once again find ourselves waiting, and anticipating.

In a way, much of the Pentecost season is “down time” in the Church. Soon, summer will be upon us, and many of us will depart on vacation. Worship attendance will drop, and perhaps most of us won’t really think much about church until September. So the Pentecost season sounds kind of … well … like a non-event, doesn’t it?

And that’s a shame, really. Because it seems to me that in many ways, the long, seemingly boring season of Pentecost is perhaps the most important season of the church year. Why? Because this is the season wherein God once again fills us up with the Holy Spirit. This is the season wherein we can be renewed in the Body of Christ. This is the season wherein God wants to make sure that people see him with some skin on.

During Pentecost, we are called to use the gifts that God has given us. God has blessed us with gifts so that we can bless others. God has given us time and talent and money to share with those who need it. God has given us ears for listening and compassionate hearts for understanding.

The gifts God has given us are meant to be used for others, used in such a way that those who need God—a real, physical God with skin on—will be able to find that God. That’s what Jesus did 2,000 years ago—but now God is depending on us to do it.

St. Teresa of Avila captured it so well when she wrote:

Christ has no body now but yours,

no hands but yours,

no feet but yours.

Yours are the eyes through which

Christ’s compassion must look out on the world.

Yours are the feet with which

He is to go about doing good.

Yours are the hands with which

He is to bless us now.2

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus—God made human. At Pentecost, we celebrate the birth of the Church—where God takes on skin as the Body of Christ. It seems to me that these past six months we’ve traveled with our Saviour, have been something like a dress rehearsal. And now we’re at opening night.

Ready or not, the curtain has been lifted—and now it’s up to us to make sure that the show goes on.

What are we going to do about that, during this season of Pentecost? What are we going to do, to make sure that the Incarnation continues to live on in us, as the Body of Christ? What are we going to do, to make sure that those who desperately need God’s unconditional love will be able to find it?

In us, may they find a God with skin on—a God who will hold them when they need to be held, who will fix a leaky faucet for a cup of coffee, who will comfort and reassure them when they are afraid.

In us, may they find a God with skin on—a God who will laugh with them when they are delighted, who will run an errand for them when they are homebound, who will pick up the phone to let them know that they are being thought of, who will mourn with them when they grieve.

In us, may they find a God with skin on—a God who will house them when they are homeless, feed them when they are hungry, and visit them when they are in prison; a God who will sit silently with them when they simply need a quiet companion.

So, of each one of you, I ask this question: what are your gifts from the Spirit? You have them, you know. Young or old, long-time church member or newcomer, if you’re part of Christ’s Body, you have gifts from the Spirit. And—especially during this season of Pentecost—you’re called to use them. We all are.

And remember—God is depending on us.

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1Rolheiser, Ronald. The Holy Longing: The Search For A Christian Spirituality. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

2Attributed to St. Teresa of Avila and quoted in The Holy Longing, p. 73.