WORDS THAT CHANGE EVERYTHING

Annunciation

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,

To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.

And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.

And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.

He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:

And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.

For with God nothing shall be impossible.

And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

— Luke 1:26-38

 

In his book Peculiar Treasures, the American theologian Frederick Buechner reflects upon this familiar passage of scripture. He writes:

“She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. And as he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.” *

The whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl. Imagine all the angels gathered around, looking down, holding their collective breath. “What will she say? Will she do it? C’mon, Mary, say yes!”  Because they all know the way God works is only by allowing people freely to answer “yes.”

Freedom of choice, the exercise of free will, has always been God’s way with people. God never forces a “yes” from anyone, never tricks anyone into a response of love. We human beings have—always—the right of refusal. We are allowed to say, “no.”

That’s the way God has been from the beginning. God respects our freedom—has, since those days way back in the garden. If it weren’t so, God would not have to come up with new ways to reach out to people, to ask them again and again to say yes—to freely say yes. And now an angel stands before a girl, answering her questions, his knees knocking together, trying to keep the quiver out of his voice, as he and all the angelic host—and even God—wait. Will she do it? Will she say, “Yes”?

We know the answer Mary gave: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” With this answer, all the heavens rejoice! With this answer, a plan is set in motion—a plan that will cause new light to shine in the darkness.

During Advent, we hear about how to prepare for the coming of the Lord, how to become more and more the disciples—the followers of Christ—we are called to be. We hear about Advent’s gifts to us:  a time for self-examination, a time for repentance, for turning away from things that keep us from drawing close to God.

Today, the Advent gift we hear about is the gift of commitment. We are called to turn toward God and make the commitment to offer ourselves as his servants; to say—along with Mary—our own yes:  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” These are words that change everything.

Mary was not the first to say these words. She stands in a long line of witnesses who have been brave, or adventurous, or grateful, or obedient enough to say to God’s request, “Here am I!”

Noah said, “Here am I,” and God told him to build a floating zoo and wait for the rain to fall. God told him that he would spend the next 40 days feeling seasick and wondering why this was his reward for righteousness.

Abram said, “Here am I,” and God told him to pack up his wife, and his belongings, and go—sight unseen—to a land that God would show him.

The boy Samuel said, “Here am I,” and then began a long career of speaking truth to the powers that be—King Saul in particular—and being the bearer of the unpleasant news that Saul had done wrong in God’s sight. Samuel had no way of knowing if he would still have his head—let alone his job—in the morning. And Mary, this young girl—probably just old enough to bear a child—ponders and asks and wonders … and then says the words that change everything:  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

And she would give birth to the One who would make service—even service unto death—the way of discipleship. She would give birth to the One in whose service is perfect freedom. The name of Mary’s baby was Jesus. In Hebrew, his name is Yeshua, which means, “Yahweh liberates.” God liberates. God brings freedom.

When we are willing to serve God and do what God asks of us, we find true freedom. When we can stop asking, “What’s in it for me? How does this help me? What can I get out of it? What have you done for me lately?” then we will know true freedom.

When we present ourselves as God’s servants and are open to hearing what it is that God asks of us, we will take our places in a long line of faithful people who have done just that. We will be made available for the adventures God has in store for us, for the work God needs us to do, and the work God has designed us—uniquely—to do.

That’s the beauty of it. Even though you may never have thought about what God is asking of you, it doesn’t mean that God hasn’t been preparing you to do it. Or that God doesn’t need you—and you in particular—to do it.

Mary has already taken care of giving birth to the Divine Word Incarnate, so God won’t ask you to take that on. But don’t think the angels aren’t all holding their breath to hear your answer when God approaches you with a task. And don’t think—just because you can’t hear it—that all the heavenly hosts are not singing, “Alleluia!” when you freely say, “yes.”

So listen, my friends. Listen for God’s call—not just in Advent, but all the time. And when the time comes for you to respond, you won’t need to find new words. These words will do:  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” Amen.

_______________________________________

* Buechner, Frederick. Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. New York: HarperCollins, 1979, p. 113.

 

Voices in the Wilderness

Second Sunday of Advent (Advent 2B)

TEXTS:  Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8

 

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5)

The Bible is filled with stories of God’s people finding themselves in the wilderness. The word wilderness means a desert place—a solitary place, a lonely, desolate wasteland.

In the Book of Exodus, we read the story of how God’s people were led from a land of slavery to a land of hope and promise. But in the 40 years that it takes them to get from Egypt to the Promised Land, they spend their days wandering in the badlands of the Sinai Peninsula. These 40 years bring them through some hard times with God and with one another and with Moses, their leader. The wilderness is for them a place of struggle—the in-between place they must pass through to reach their final destination.

The gospels record Jesus spending time in the wilderness before he begins his ministry. It is there, in the desert, that he is tempted to reject God’s plan for his life and instead choose an easier path.

In the scriptures, the wilderness is a risky place to be. It is a place where one is alone and exposed and vulnerable. We may not literally reside in a desert climate, but I think that during the season of Advent it is not too hard to imagine ourselves traipsing through a wilderness, wandering in a dry and desolate place.

Christmas is just over two weeks away, and—even though we are in a season of preparation, and journeying towards a day of celebration—sometimes, on the way, we get overwhelmed. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle; in the midst of shopping for presents, preparing our homes, finalizing travel plans, and planning and attending activities at home, school, work, and church; we may lose our sense of direction.

It may seem like we are astray in the barrens, longing for the end of this exhausting season. The holidays are meant to be a happy time; but many people experience them as a season of distress—a time of loneliness, frustration, and hard work. Somewhere in the midst of Advent, we become disoriented.

It is just when we have lost our way that prophets are called to speak. And so, today, we read two passages, each offering direction for people who are struggling through a wilderness. Through the words of Isaiah and the preaching of John the Baptist, we find messages for such times as these—guideposts intended for people who find themselves lost in the wilderness, wondering what to do.

The prophet Isaiah speaks to the people during a time in Israel’s history when they had been forcibly removed from their own land and exiled to Babylon. It was for them a time of existential crisis. Having been torn from their homes and transported to a foreign country ruled by hostile forces, the Hebrew people cried out for deliverance. They longed for the day that they could return home and end this time of displacement, of waiting, of wilderness.

Where was God? Did He care about their plight? It must have seemed to them as if the LORD had forgotten them—that they would never again see the holy land and the holy city. But God had not forgotten His people, or ceased to care for them. And so God spoke to the prophet Isaiah and told him, “Cry out!”

“What shall I cry?” Isaiah wants to know what he could possibly say to them. The response comes: “Comfort, O comfort my people … Speak tenderly to Jerusalem … In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God … the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together … Here is your God! … He will gather the lambs in his arms.”

And in our gospel lesson, Mark starts things off with a bang. Unlike Matthew and Luke, who talk about Jesus’ birth, describing the Christmas story, Mark gets right down to business. John the baptizer appears in the wilderness, in the spirit of Isaiah, proclaiming baptism, repentance, and forgiveness—and announcing that the Messiah was coming, that the Kingdom of God was about to arrive.

As in Isaiah’s time, once again the people of Israel found themselves in a desolate place. Israel was an occupied country, and the Roman government was oppressing its people. Although the Jews were in their own homeland, they were not free. Their lives were monitored and controlled by these occupying forces. It was a wilderness time. So people were coming to John, repenting of their sins and being baptized in preparation for the one John said was coming—the one who would bring with him God’s Kingdom.  

These two voices, Isaiah and John—seven centuries apart—both cry out to people who are lost in the desert. What did their proclamations mean for those who so desperately needed to hear them?

Let’s think again of the Israelites when they were wandering, led by Moses. I think one of the reasons why the Israelites had such a difficult time in the wilderness is that they were always trying to get out of it, so that they could get on with their lives.

Forty years is a long time to live in transition, to wander with no fixed address. And it certainly does not seem that the Israelites tried to make the best of it.

Forty years is a long time to live in transition—but it is a good amount of time to live. You can do a lot of living in 40 years. But the Israelites seem only to have done a lot of complaining, and wishing they were already in the Promised Land.

Advent is like that. Only in part is Advent about reaching the destination of Christmas. It is also about the journey itself—the journey of preparation. Sometimes we forget that the process is as important as the product—that what happens on our way there is as important as what happens when we arrive. We can spend all of Advent wishing that it was already Christmas—or wishing, even, that Christmas was already past. Or we can cherish every moment of this Advent sojourn: this invaluable time of preparation.

The prophets’ message is that we do not have to arrive at our destination in order to find God. God is in the wilderness. God is in the journey. God is in the wandering. God is in the desert.

Isaiah cries, “Here—here is your God!” That is the comfort that God offers us, in the midst of a season that can fill us with so much anxiety. We do not have to wait until Christmas to experience Emmanuel—the “God-with-us” who shall arrive in the Christ Child. We do not have to wait until we exchange presents. We do not have to wait until the candlelight Communion on Christmas Eve.

To be sure, we are waiting—waiting for the baby; but while we wait, God says, “Here I am!” And in the wilderness, we respond: Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.

“BEWARE, KEEP ALERT!”

First Sunday of Advent (Year B)

TEXT: Mark 13:24-37

 

But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:32-37)

Quite a gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent! We begin, it seems, at the end. We jump into the story near its conclusion—not Jesus’ story, but the world’s story. We begin at the world’s end. We begin this new church year with a reading describing the end of days.

Today’s reading from chapter 13 of Mark is startling, isn’t it? Suddenly, we are face-to-face with the strange contradiction of Advent.

Through Advent, we wait for Jesus’ arrival—both as a baby in Bethlehem and in a fiery cloud descending from the sky. It’s as if the hope of new birth and the terror of judgment share the same crib, fighting over the blankets. In Advent, we get both stories as if they mean the same thing.

I remember once, years ago, getting an earful from a church member who did not appreciate the judgment emphasis of Advent.

“Advent is like waiting for a baby!” she said. “What’s judgment got to do with being pregnant?”

But you know, it seems to me that judgment has everything to do with waiting for a baby to arrive—not in a condemning sort of way, but in a reflective, “worrying-about-the-world’s-future” sort of way.

If you’ve gone through a pregnancy—either as a mother or as a father—you know what it feels like to wonder about what kind of world this little person is going to be born into. You wonder what kind of life he or she is going to have.

Will he have the opportunity to explore old age? Or will he be cut down by illness or accident or addiction, way too early?

Will she have a chance to use her gifts—to find meaningful work? Or will she find herself trapped in a life controlled by other people’s expectations and agendas?

Will he continue down our path toward overheating the planet, and fighting over water and oil? Or will he be part of a solution to the world’s problems?

Will she have hope for the future? Or will she despair for a world consumed by its own greed and self-interest?

The judgment that meets a child’s birth is not so much a judgment of the past, as a judgment on the future. This judgment does not condemn. This judgment merely asks questions.

However, these are hopeful questions. We may worry about our children, but we hope for the best for them, don’t we? After all, isn’t that what birth is about—having hope for the future? Isn’t that what we’re waiting for, really? Isn’t hope at the heart of Advent?

Today’s gospel reading is only the second half of a much longer discourse by Jesus, where he talks about how the world is going to see terrible suffering. You can read it for yourself, if you like, beginning at verse one of chapter 13.

While Jesus and his disciples are walking out of the Jerusalem temple, one of them says to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings.” And Jesus responds by saying that someday it will all be thrown down, not one stone left upon another.

The disciples, naturally enough, ask when this will happen, and that’s when Jesus launches into his lengthy monologue about the end times. And it sounds pretty awful.

He laments for those who are pregnant because he sees terrible pain waiting for both mother and child.

He sees abject powerlessness for fathers who cannot protect their families.

He sees cities crumbling and people dying. He sees false prophets offering false hope—a delusional escape out of the destruction. He sees the end of the world.

And he asks his followers to “keep alert.” Sleep with one eye open.

“But in those days,” Jesus says, “after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Mark 13:24-27)

That’s quite the scene, isn’t it?

Of course, this is not a newspaper account of the final chapter of the earth’s history. But Jesus is talking about great change: the sun and moon darkened, stars falling—a terrifying thought in an ancient world of dark night skies and no street lamps. All of this is what’s called “apocalyptic imagery,” and the Jewish Bible is chock full of it. Jesus’ disciples would have immediately understood what he was referring to. For example, “the Son of Man coming in clouds” … That’s taken directly from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, where it says: As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven …” (Dan. 7:13a).

All of this stuff is shorthand for signaling the world’s coming transformation. It may sound perplexing to us, but it wouldn’t have made first-century Jews bat an eyelash. What may not be so obvious, however—and it wasn’t obvious to Jesus’ contemporaries, either—is that all this apocalyptic language really is not about an angry God bringing judgment upon a sinful world. That’s not the point.

No. the point is that Jesus comes here. Jesus comes here, bringing not condemnation, but mercy. Nothing is said here about condemnation. The point is that Jesus comes here to bring transformation—healing, justice, peace on earth. And the Son of Man—“one like a human being”—stays here, transforming everything.

Change is coming … and it’s coming to a neighbourhood near you!

And what’s your role? What are you supposed to do? Well, here’s Jesus’ message: You are to keep awake, because change is coming—coming here, coming soon, and you’ve got to be ready to be part of it at the first sign. At the first inkling, you’re going to fling wide the door and get everything prepared for the big changes that are on the way. Why? Because you are going to be part of the transformation that’s around the corner. You are part of God’s change for the world!

When we hear apocalyptic language, when we think about the “end time,” we tend to assume that it’s all about Jesus rescuing us from a broken planet and lifting us up to the heavenly realm. This is an idea that’s been made popular by the “Left Behind” series of books and movies. But we need to look closely at today’s gospel text to see what Jesus is really saying.

Jesus is saying he is coming down, not that we will be lifted up. Jesus isn’t saying that we’ll be rescued from this world, but that we will be agents for change in this world. Jesus isn’t saying that he hates this earthly realm. He is saying that he loves this world so much that he’s going to fix it.

And our job is to watch for him. Our job is to keep alert to what God is doing all around us. And when we do see God—with his sleeves rolled up, and sweat on his brow—we are expected to join in, to become part of the saving work that God is doing all around us. Today, God is recruiting us to work alongside our sisters and brothers in Christ—to become part of his Big Solution for a broken world. On this first of Advent, we are being asked to live God’s future today.

So keep alert. Watch. Be part of the change that God is doing in the world. But always remember that it’s God’s mercy that transforms, and God’s everlasting kindness that brings renewal.

A PRAYER FOR THE REIGN OF CHRIST

Christ the King Sunday

TEXT: Matthew 25:31-46

 

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matthew 25:34-36)

 

Gracious and merciful God, we give you thanks and praise this day for sending your Christ to be our King:

  • King of the poor, to whom belongs the kingdom of heaven;
  • King of the sorrowful, who experience a comfort this world cannot give;
  • King of the meek, who are destined to inherit the earth;
  • King of the hungry and thirsty, to whom are promised heavenly bread and wine;
  • King of the merciful, who give without expecting reward;
  • King of the pure of heart, who find hope where others see only desolation and despair;
  • King of the peacemakers, whom you call your children;
  • King of persecuted believers, who rejoice to be counted worthy of suffering for his sake.

Thanks be to you, God of Christ our wounded King, for everything he has taught us, for the humble path he has shown us, and for all he has suffered—for us, and for the whole world.

We think, O God, of all the places where we can find your Son and hear him calling to us.

We think of how he is present in the lives of those who are sick, and of how we can see him in the face of the strangers in our community.

We think of how he longs for us to visit him in prison; how he cries out to be fed, and clothed, and given shelter in the cities of our nation, and in the deserts and refugee camps and combat zones of our world.

We think of those who have no power; who find themselves at the mercy of forces over which they have no control—economic, political, military, and social forces which bring conflict, poverty, and myriad forms of hardship; climatic and environmental forces which bring drought, famine, and natural disaster; forces of nature which work to destroy the weakest and most helpless amongst us—forces which we are called to oppose, as people to whom you have given dominion over the earth.

Make us more aware of how Christ Jesus is to be found within the least of our brothers and sisters; of how he meets us in those we consider unimportant or less righteous or less deserving than others. Grant to us this day compassionate hearts and the will to serve.

By the power of your Spirit, O God, help us to live out our discipleship with increasing faithfulness; to show our commitment to Christ through our actions every day: through how we spend our time and our money; through how we employ our hands and direct our feet; through how we speak and how we think; through how we work and how we play.

We pray for your healing touch and assurance and peace for all those who are in need this day. We pray for those near to us, and for those dear to us. We pray for those whose names we know, and for those whose names—and needs—are known only to you.

Inspire our service—to all of these, and to the least of these—that we may feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked and visit the incarcerated, as faithful believers in the hope to which Christ Jesus has called us; in his name we ask it. Amen.

CURRENCY OF THE KINGDOM

25th Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 28A

TEXTS: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and Matthew 25:14-30

 

For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security”, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! (1 Thess. 5:2-3)

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away …  After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.” (Matt. 25:14-15, 19)

“The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night,” when the master returns to settle accounts with his servants.

The first half of that statement comes, of course, from the epistle to the Thessalonians—and the second half is from our gospel lesson. First we hear from Paul, writing to the church in Thessalonica; and then from Jesus, speaking to … Well, speaking to his original 12 disciples, but—since Matthew saw fit to record it—speaking to us, as well.

Both Paul and Jesus sound rather harsh here, don’t they? Sudden destruction coming like labour pains, with no chance of escape. Outer darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Before I go any further, I want to draw your attention to one point and remind you of another.

First, notice what Paul tells us. As believers, we are not lost in darkness—and we are not abandoned to destruction. As the apostle elsewhere assures us, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

Second—with regard to the gospel lesson—remember that this is Jesus speaking. Yes. Jesus. The lover of hyperbole. Jesus. The master of attention-grabbing oratory.

Also remember that this story Jesus tells—which we refer to as the “parable of the talents”—is meant to convey a truth about the kingdom of heaven. That’s an important point, because (as we should all know by now) what’s important in heaven’s kingdom is not gold or silver or stocks or bonds. It’s not currency that will garner more interest in a mutual fund or an RRSP.

You understand this, right? The coin of the realm in God’s kingdom is not convertible to Canadian funds, US dollars, Euros, or Yen. You may indeed have a mansion in heaven, but you can’t flip it for a quick profit.

So what is this illustrative tale actually about?

Let’s back up a little bit, and clarify our terms. We call this the “parable of the talents.” But what is a talent, exactly?

That word “talent” has a double meaning. In its original sense, it refers to a huge sum of money. In the ancient world, a talent was worth about 15 years’ wages for an ordinary person. In present-day terms—based on the current Alberta minimum wage of $15.00 an hour—one talent is worth about $4.6 million! So, when the master gives his slaves (we might rather call them “servants”) five talents, or two talents—or even just one—he is entrusting them with a sizable fortune.

The second meaning of the word “talent” results from a particular interpretation of this parable. As the master entrusts his servants with talents, so does God entrust each one of us with practical gifts. “Talent” has therefore come to mean “ability” or “skill.” We say that someone has a “talent” for writing, or acting, or music, or business.

However, this “parable of the talents” is not really about money or ability. It’s about something far more important. “The parable of the talents” is about trust.

The story begins with an act of trust. As the master is about to depart on a journey, he entrusts his wealth to three of his servants. Each is given a different sum—yet each sum is immense. Clearly, the master trusts these guys. Notice he hands over the money without any instructions.

Eventually, the master returns and calls in his three servants. Two of them have doubled their money. The third has made nothing at all; he returns to his master exactly the amount he received. It turns out that he has simply buried the money in the ground.

Why? Well, as it turns out, his motivation—or lack of it—was born out of fear! And the explanation he gives isn’t going to endear him to his employer: “Boss, I know you’re only too glad to reap the benefits of other people’s labour without doing any work yourself—and I know how harshly you deal with those who fail. So I didn’t dare take any chances with your money at all. Here—have it back!”

His trust in his master was zero, so he reduced his financial risk to zero. Yet he reduced the possibility of profit to zero, as well.

You know, this story begs a question. How would the master have reacted if the first two servants had not brought in a profit? What if they had gambled and lost? What if they had put the money at risk and come back empty-handed?

Here’s what I think: I think the master would have forgiven them! Remember, this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven. The master commends not profits, but faithfulness. He does not praise the servant who produced five talents more than the one who produced two.

Each receives the same commendation: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Each receives the same reward: “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

And in responding to the third servant, the master makes it clear that he would have accepted any kind of return—even rock-bottom, savings-account interest! Anything that was motivated by faith rather than by fear.

Moreover—since this is one of Jesus’ teaching stories—I think it’s significant that the servant who is given five talents makes five talents more, and the one who receives two makes two more. This doubling in each case suggests that the growth is automatic. It’s not the cleverness of the servants that produces results. No. It’s their willingness to trust.

Like I said, this parable is not so much about money or ability as it is about trust. The master trusts his servants—and he acts on this trust. Two of the servants return the favour by responding in trust, and they come back to their employer with one fortune stacked on top of another.

But the third servant … Well, he makes his boss out to be a greedy tyrant who demands success. And so, what he gets for his trouble is precisely the rejection he so deeply fears. He is a small-minded man convinced that his master is equally small-minded.

The other two servants, however, recognize generosity when they see it. The piles of cash thrust their way speak of an employer who is both trusting and generous—who is willing to take a risk, who has confidence in them, and will honour them for their efforts.

Finding themselves at the receiving end of such outrageous trust, they feel emboldened to take risks of their own. The love their master has shown them overpowers any thought of failure. They realize that a person who treats his money managers in this open-handed way is more interested in them—and in their abilities—than he is concerned about making a profit.

Like so many of the stories Jesus told, this one turns the standards of the world upside down.

According to Jesus, the worst thing that can happen to us is not failure. No. The worst thing that can happen to us is believing that God is an acrimonious old curmudgeon who will smite us if we fail.

The worst thing is not losing out. The worst thing is never risking. In the eyes of God, keeping his treasure buried in the ground is a terrible and shameful waste. It is a faithless act, symptomatic of an insidious form of atheism.

Faith, on the other hand … Faith dares to put God’s treasure to work. Faith dares to put God’s treasure at risk. And—even if the whole kit and kaboodle is lost as a result—our faith will earn our master’s praise. After all, we can learn from our failures. And, let’s face it, very often, it is failure that teaches the most valuable lessons. Fear teaches us nothing at all.

The word of Christ to us is, “Fear not!”  Over and over again, we hear him say, “Do not be afraid.” And—with his trademark hyperbole—he shocks us into the recognition that failing to trust in God is … Well, for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, such infidelity is unbecoming.

Jesus tells numerous stories to illustrate that point. There’s the spiteful older brother who refuses to welcome home the prodigal son; the all-day workers who demand that late arrivals receive less than the daily wage; and the Pharisee who thinks God will accept him because he has kept the rules—and not because the Lord is merciful. All of these characters live in a gray, fearful world—a world devoid of grace, where underachievers get thrown to the wolves.

Now, before we dismiss these folks as pathetic losers, we should ask ourselves: are we ever like them? Do we ever bury our talents in the ground, out of fear? Have we ever misperceived—and mistrusted—God?

Here’s another question: what if the true, living and only God has no interest in keeping score? What if God’s concern is simply that we all step up to the plate and take a turn at bat?

And still another question, no less challenging: what does all of this mean for those—including me—who wring their hands and stew about the future of the Church?

The Good News of Jesus breathes new meaning into our notions of success and security. Success is found not in accumulating more “stuff” than we can ever use—or in filling every seat at Sunday morning worship—but in our willingness to take risks for the sake of God’s kingdom. Security is found not in keeping pace with our rising paranoia, but in trusting our utterly reliable God—the One who trusts us before we trust ourselves; the God who takes risks—and calls us to risk, also.

The “parable of the talents” reminds us of something that we too easily forget—and that is simply this: what God requires of us is not success, but faithfulness. And I, for one, think that is very good news.

TENDING THE LAMP: KEEPING THE LIGHT BURNING

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 11, 2023

REMEMBRANCE DAY (CANADA)

TEXTS: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 and Psalm 78:1-7

 

Give ear, O my people, to my law:
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable:
I will utter dark sayings of old:

which we have heard and known,
and our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
shewing to the generation to come the praises of the LORD,
and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done.

For he established a testimony in Jacob,
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers,
that they should make them known to their children:
that the generation to come might know them,
even the children which should be born;
who should arise and declare them to their children: that they might set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments … (Psalm 78:1-7)

Both of our scripture readings for today are linked by a common theme: the theme of telling the story and—in the telling of the story—recommitting oneself to the principles and the personalities revealed in the story.

The story we are to tell is, of course, the story of our God and how he has been faithful to us as a people.

It is in remembering and telling the story that we discover who we are and the meaning of our lives. It is in recalling the past that we may best see our way into the future. Through remembering what happened and why it happened, we discover the principles and the guidelines by which our lives should be governed.

Telling the story. Recommitting ourselves. Recalling the past. Looking to the future. That is, of course, what Remembrance Day is all about. And as I began thinking about a message for today, it occurred to me that someone had already done a better job of it than I ever could.

So, today, instead of the usual blog, I’m going to do something different. I’m sure we all know John McCrae’s timeless poem, “In Flanders Fields.”  Now, I want to show you another poem. John Mitchell wrote it. It’s called “Reply to Flanders Fields.”

Reply to Flanders Fields by John Mitchell

Oh! Sleep in peace where poppies grow;
The torch your falling hands let go
Was caught by us, again held high,
A beacon light in Flanders sky
That dims the stars to those below.
You are our dead, you held the foe,
And ere the poppies cease to blow,
We’ll prove our faith in you who lie
In Flanders Fields.

Oh! Rest in peace, we quickly go
To you who bravely died, and know
In other fields was heard the cry,
For freedom’s cause, of you who lie,
So still asleep where poppies grow,
In Flanders Fields.

As in rumbling sound, to and fro,
The lightning flashes, sky aglow,
The mighty hosts appear, and high
Above the din of battle cry,
Scarce heard amidst the guns below,
Are fearless hearts who fight the foe,
And guard the place where poppies grow.
Oh! Sleep in peace, all you who lie
In Flanders Fields.

And still the poppies gently blow,
Between the crosses, row on row.
The larks, still bravely soaring high,
Are singing now their lullaby
To you who sleep where poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.

Amen.

https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/reply-“-flanders-fields

PHYLACTERIES AND FRINGES

23rd Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 26A

TEXT: Matthew 23:1-12

 

They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.”

That, of course, is part of Jesus’ tirade against the Pharisees in chapter 23 of Matthew’s gospel.

“Phylacteries and fringes.” Do you know what that’s about? If not, don’t feel stupid. I would wager that very few of us modern Christians have any idea about “phylacteries” or “fringes.”

So here’s a brief explanation. The Pharisees, you may remember, were the good religious people of their place and time. Jesus and the Pharisees actually had a great deal in common—which may explain why they were so frequently the target of his criticism; he figured they were capable of better things.

Anyway, the Pharisees took two articles of dress which were worn by many other Jews, and they emphasized them. One of these was the phylactery. It was a tiny box—usually made of leather or metal or wood—which was fastened to the forehead (or sometimes to the hand) by leather straps. This little box contained scraps of parchment inscribed with Bible passages referring to the Passover, and to the redemption of the first-born.

Why would they do that? Well, because of their zeal to obey the Torah. In chapter 13 of Exodus, Moses is trying to impress upon the Hebrew people how important it is for them to remember their history—especially the story of their liberation from slavery in Egypt.

This history, Moses tells them, should always be uppermost in their minds—just as if they inscribed the story on their hands, or carried it upon their foreheads.

Now, you and I might think Moses was using a figure of speech here—but the Pharisees took his words quite literally.

The other special feature of the Pharisaic dress code had to do with blue fringes—or tassels—placed at the corners of their garments. If you’ve ever seen an authentic prayer shawl, you’ll know what this is about. This custom, also, comes from the Torah. In chapter 15 of the Book of Numbers, we read: The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner” (Num. 15:37-38).

Well … okay … So the Pharisees took the Scriptures very seriously. So what? What’s wrong with that?

In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. Trouble is … according to Jesus … too many of them were practicing their religion for the wrong reasons. Listen again to what he says: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi” (Matt. 23:5-7).

Even worse is this criticism: “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore do whatever they teach you, but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matt. 23:2-3).

Ouch! This is not the first time Jesus has called out the scribes and the Pharisees for hypocrisy. Indeed, these good religious people must have felt—often—that this Galilean rabbi was picking on them. But why? Certainly not because they were inherently evil, or because Jewish law no longer mattered. No. In fact, Jesus constantly reminded his followers about the importance of the law.

Here’s what I think: I think Jesus singled out the scribes and Pharisees because they thought too highly of themselves … and because—in all their humanness—they fell so very short of the ideals which they espoused.

I wonder what Jesus might say about us. The truth is, it’s extremely difficult to live up to our ideals. Well, isn’t it? It’s awfully hard to really practice what we preach.

And perhaps, in our day, professional clergy (or “accountable ministers” like me) are among the worst offenders when it comes to not living out the humility we recommend to others. It’s amazing how much time and energy my own denomination has spent—and continues to spend—on questions relating to titles and privileges and showing due respect to the grand high exalted ones who stand behind a pulpit on Sunday mornings.

Should I “gown up” or not? (I do have a gown, by the way—along with a whole bunch of other regalia; but I don’t enjoy wearing it. I’ve never learned how to sit properly while wearing a dress.)

Here’s another question: who has the right to wear a clerical collar? And who does not? And why?

Should you call me “Reverend” or “Pastor” or “Mister” or just … “Gary”? (I’m OK with any title except that first one.)

Is an ordained minister inherently holier than an “ordinary” Christian? And why do we ordain anybody? Whatever happened to “the priesthood of all believers”?

Maybe we’re not so different from the scribes and the Pharisees.

Of course, the problem actually goes much deeper than what we wear or how we are addressed. Phylacteries and fringes, vestments and titles—all of these have their place, I suppose, when kept in perspective. Jesus’ concern, however, remains the same: when those things get out of perspective; when our motivations for doing them get distorted; when they become an end in themselves; then we have a problem. Because these superficial things can too easily become substitutes for what we really should be about: glorifying God and living as disciples of Jesus.

If their flawed human nature made it hard for the scribes and Pharisees to keep their motives pure, to practice what they preached, we in the 21st-century church may be even more profoundly challenged. Why? Because we still have the same human nature, and—on top of that—we live in a culture that values appearances, status, position, achievement, and material wealth.

That is pretty challenging, isn’t it? And coupled with the fact that the influence of religion in Canadian society is rapidly diminishing, it’s no wonder that so many of us are tempted to do things to make ourselves stand out. Like marching at the front of the Pride Parade. Or heckling the Pride Parade while waving signs objecting to it. Or angrily demonstrating outside an elementary school. Or calling for the defunding of the police. Or—perhaps especially in the so-called “mainline” churches—boldly stating how very little we actually believe … as if that’s a good thing!

Unfortunately—even when it’s undertaken with the best of intentions—this kind of behaviour too easily degenerates into bombastic self-promotion; and that leads us far, far away from the kind of discipleship to which Jesus calls us.

Christian discipleship has nothing to do with standing out or putting ourselves first. To the contrary, we—all of us—are called not to seek glory for ourselves, but to serve others. Jesus consistently reminded his followers that “the greatest among you will be your servant” (Matt. 23:11).

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus said, “and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12).

So we’re caught between what the gospel calls us to, and what our culture promotes. No wonder we so often find ourselves in the same bind as the scribes and the Pharisees. We believe one thing—in fact, we hold it in our hearts—and yet, our behaviour … Well, our behaviour contradicts our beliefs.

In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus paints a lurid picture of a barren religious life—one which features all the outward signs of righteousness but none of the inward reality. The scribes and the Pharisees looked good. And they were always ready to lay down the Law, to inform people about the rules and regulations. But the power of God’s love was absent from their pronouncements. They did not practice what they preached.

What if we were forced to be accountable in matters of faith? What if we were made to preach what we practice, not the other way around? What if we had to confess—in front of God and everyone else—what we actually do practice?

Would you or I be prepared to do that? I would guess … probably … not.

Jesus tells us that there must be a connection between our professions of faith and the quality of our lives. A code of ethics—however noble—is hollow without something to back it up.

Today’s gospel exposes the tragedy of being religious without being real—of emphasizing outward conduct rather than inward character. The scribes and the Pharisees did not recognize their own desperate need for change, for transformation. Too many of us, I fear, are just like them; we may “talk the talk,” but we do not “walk the walk.”

We may think we possess a high-octane faith, but—when forced to rely upon our spiritual resources, we discover that our tank is empty. We are all fumes, and no fuel.

I know this stuff isn’t easy. None of us is a hypocrite on purpose. It’s just that it’s hard for us to connect Jesus saying “Love your neighbour” with the guy next door who plays his music too loud or lets his dogs bark late into the evening. Or with the young woman selling her body on the street in order to satisfy her addiction.

It’s hard to reconcile Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek” with the necessity of increased defense spending and reports of violence at home and abroad.

It’s hard to heed Jesus’ injunction not to “worry about what you shall eat or what you shall drink or what you shall wear” (Matt. 6:31) when your unemployment benefits are about to expire, or when your investments tank, or when your landlord tells you to clear out by the end of the month.

It’s hard to live up to our ideals. Sometimes we can’t even figure out how to practice what we preach.

There’s only one answer to this dilemma. There’s only one cure for what ails us. And that answer is God’s grace.

Yes. God’s grace. The grace of God. No matter how many times we stumble—no matter how often or how badly we fail as disciples of Jesus—God will give us yet one more opportunity for faithful living. One more kick at the can. No matter how often we behave selfishly, we will be given yet more chances to put others first. No matter how badly we fail to practice what we preach, God’s love and God’s grace are still there for us.

God’s love and God’s grace continue to hold us, and comfort us, and sustain us. We will always have yet one more chance. One more chance to get it right. One more chance to answer Jesus’ call to humble service; to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

That’s what Jesus teaches, my friends. And it is very good news for imperfect people—people like me … and maybe even … people like you. Thanks be to God.

DO I LOVE AS I OUGHT?

22nd Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 25A

TEXTS: Matthew 22:34-46 and 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

 

When the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

In other words, you are supposed to love God totally—without any division between heart and soul and mind; and love your neighbour the way you love yourself. Total love—total, undivided love—this is what Jesus calls us to.

It sounds good in theory, but it’s not so readily put into practice, is it? If you’re like me, you find it a lot easier to love in the abstract than to love in the concrete.

Yet, God calls us to love him totally—and out of that love, to love our neighbours as ourselves. The two commandments are bound into one—total love of God, and total love of neighbour—so that one becomes the measure of the other.

There is an old story about the fourth evangelist, Saint John. You may recall that John was the youngest of the twelve disciples; he also lived the longest—well into  his nineties, in fact—and he was the only one of the original twelve to die a natural death. In his old age, John lived in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor (what we know today as Turkey). In his later years, unfortunately, he became feeble—not only in body, but also in mind. John’s ability to think and express himself became ever more limited, until finally he could say only a few words. This, however, did not matter to the Ephesian Christians, who held John in the highest esteem as the last surviving member of Jesus’ inner circle.

On Sundays, he would be carried into the midst of the congregation that had assembled for worship. The people would fall silent to hear his words. Then the old man would open his mouth; and this is what the aged disciple would say: My children, love one another. My children, love one another. My children, love one another.” Over and over again, just that: “My children, love one another.”

Jesus says that we should love God with everything we have—that our love needs to be shown in every part of our lives. We are to love God—and, in the end, love our neighbours—with heart, and mind, and soul: the heart, where passion lives within us; the mind, the thoughtful and rational part of us; the soul, the mystical, spiritual part of us. There should be no division inside of us, and no division outside of us—no division, in other words, between how we love God and how we love ourselves and our neighbours.

At least, that’s the ideal. Personally, I always fall short of it. Sometimes, in fact, I’m not even sure what is the loving thing to do. It’s as though my heart and soul and mind disagree about what actions are or are not loving. I find myself inwardly divided. Maybe it’s that way for some of you, as well. And so, I want to tell you something about how we can love when we feel like that—when the path before us is unclear.

Now, before I say anything else, I want to say this: in the end, the only love that counts is the love of God. Not our love—whether it be for God or for neighbour—but God’s love for us. It is on this—and this alone—that we stake our salvation. We do not earn our way into heaven. God embraces us in Jesus and calls us to come to him as a gift of his love. That is the important thing; the rest is simply us trying to respond as faithfully as we can.

God knows what we are like. God knows that we are often divided within ourselves, that we have conflict between the different parts of ourselves—that desires seek to overwhelm us, critical thoughts seek to misguide us, evil spirits whisper to our souls. God understands this, and God is forgiving when our love does not quite measure up. But still God calls us to love totally!

So, how do I know if I am loving well? What standard can I use to determine if I am on the right track, especially when other forces within and without me are calling into question the integrity of my love?

The apostle Paul knew where to look for such a standard. As our epistle lesson reminds us, Paul found his own integrity being questioned. His reputation came under attack from people who suggested he was not doing all things well, that he was in fact preying upon vulnerable people—seeking his own welfare rather than theirs and building up his own self rather than working for the glory of God and the good of others.

Paul faced the kind of accusations that most of us face during our lifetime—accusations that may be made by others, or even made within ourselves by our own self-doubts. How did he respond?

Well, in our reading from First Thessalonians, we see that he defended himself by appealing to a set of standards—and to how he has acted in accordance with those standards. He uses words like deceit and trickery and holds up concepts like purity and trust. He refers to actions like “shameful mistreatment” and states how one ought to share oneself with others while proclaiming the gospel to them. He speaks about flattering others and seeking personal praise—and he speaks about their opposites: about seeking to please God and being tender with others.

As we read Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, we find that there are in fact standards by which we can judge the quality of our love. They are the standards of the Bible—the standards of morality: the concrete and fixed morality of God, rather than the relative and ever-changing morality of humankind.

How do I know if I am loving as I ought? To me, the answer is found in Jesus’ observation that the greatest commandments do not replace the law and the prophets—they summarize them. If we feel as if we are off course, that the love we express in one part of our lives is somehow not showing up in the other parts, then we can check out our performance by looking at the guidelines found in Scripture. Using the standards of the Bible, we can check ourselves out—not as a way of judging or justifying ourselves, but as a way of improving ourselves, and thus of improving our world.

We Christians have two testaments, Old and New. There is the new message for us about God’s love, the nature of his Kingdom, and about eternal life; and there is also the older, original message which makes the new one understandable—which tells us who God is, in the first place. The first testament contains the law of God which Jesus summarizes in today’s gospel reading, and it shows us how to apply that law; and the second testament shows us—in Jesus—the perfect fulfillment of that law in human living. It gives us a great example to follow and to believe in.

In other words, there is a whole message, and not just a summary. We need to hear the whole message if we are to understand what is going on in us and in our world. That message reminds us that there are things like duty, responsibility, justice, accountability, sin, and punishment. It also reminds us that there are things like prayer, power, peace, reconciliation, mercy, and redemption.

Do I love as I ought? Am I on the right course? Those answers can be found in the answers to certain other questions—questions like: Do I have respect for others? Do I allow others to retain their dignity? Do I try to force my opinions upon my neighbours? Do I in fact give myself to others out of love? Or do I offer them only a sham of courtesy concealing some hidden agenda?

Do I love as I ought? The answer is found in the answer to questions like: Do I render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s? Do I pay my taxes and accept my responsibilities towards my fellow citizens? Do I support the legitimate work of the police and other authorities, or do I mock my nation’s laws? Do I lie or cheat to get ahead? Do I share my blessings willingly?

There are a lot of questions we can ask ourselves to help us decide if we are loving God and one another in the way we are called to do. It is good to ask these questions, for they do keep us honest. And, if sincerely asked and prayerfully thought about, their answers can lead us and our world to a greater wholeness. Ultimately, that is what Christian love is all about: it is about our wanting to be—and trying to be—faithful to God. It is about praying: “Lord, help me do what is right. Lord, help me love as I ought to. Lord, make me more like Jesus, who lived and died to set me free.”

Praise be unto his name, now and ever. Amen.

“WE SHALL BE DISTINCT”

21st Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 24A

TEXTS: Exodus 33:12-23 and Matthew 22:15-22

 

“For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” (Exodus 33:16)

“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:17-21)

How many of you have had the experience of being nagged? As I set about trying to build a message for today’s blog, I found myself in that situation. But it wasn’t another person inflicting the harassment.

No. What was nagging away at me was a sort of dim recollection of an event that happened long ago—sort of a “half-memory,” if you will. It was such a sketchy remembrance that I’m not even sure whether I recall the actual event—or just remember being told about it.

But the memory—or whatever it was—simply wouldn’t go away. And no matter how hard I tried to concentrate on writing my message, I found my mind coming back again and again to this sketchy, aggravating, barely recalled, long-past event. It was nagging at me!

Now, those of you who know me well understand that I hate being nagged. But you probably also understand that—no matter how much I hate being nagged—it works! If you nag me, I will respond. And so, finally, I had to pay attention to this nagging memory.

The memory was this: Many years ago there was a debate between the evangelist Billy Graham and the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.1

Now, we all know who Billy Graham was. And probably many of us remember Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Mrs. O’Hair’s atheism was of the militant sort. She asserted the position that no divine consciousness created the universe—indeed, she was convinced that there was no such thing as a Supreme Being. She did not believe in God, and she did not want the rest of us to believe, either.

As I said before, I cannot remember whether I witnessed this debate on TV, or read about it, or was simply told about it. But I do know that Mrs. O’Hair was an intelligent and articulate person—and Dr. Graham was the person who got me interested in Christian faith.

So, as I began to pay closer attention to the nagging voice inside my head, I grew curious. What was there about this event—this encounter between America’s best-known evangelist and its most notorious atheist—that had anything to do with this morning’s Scripture texts? And how could I research such a question?

First, I consulted Dr. Graham’s excellent autobiography, Just As I Am. But I could find no reference there to such a debate—and no mention of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

Well, praise God for the Internet! Probably, I should have searched on-line first. For—after only about 10 minutes—I found myself directed to the website of St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church in Bowie, Maryland. And there—in an archive of sermons by the Rev. Richard E. Stetler—I found what I was looking for. Richard Stetler remembered the debate between Graham and O’Hair—and, thank goodness, he chose to write about it!

According to Rev. Stetler, the discussion between the two was actually quite civil; “fair and well-balanced” was the phrase he used. That surprised me a little, because I remember Mrs. O’Hair as being a rather bombastic—even vulgar—person. Certainly, she was one of these annoying people who seems to have an answer for everything. (Aren’t you glad we don’t have people like that in the church?)

Close to the end of the debate, however, Billy Graham asked Mrs. O’Hair a question that she could not answer. The way Richard Stetler remembered it, Dr. Graham said something like this:

“The compassion of Christians for the rest of humanity has been such that through the years we have founded and built countless libraries, hospitals, colleges and universities. We have improved the agricultural techniques and established schools in countries around the world. We have promoted psychological services, prison ministries, supported free clinics, and distributed clothing and food to those in need. We are frequently the first to arrive on the scene of local and national disasters. Mrs. O’Hair, can you give us a modest listing of the agencies and organizations that serve humanity that have sprung into being because of atheism?” 2 

Madalyn Murray O’Hair, apparently, had very little to say in response. But now I understood why this long-ago (and evidently quite obscure) debate was relevant to today’s lectionary readings.

In our selection from the Book of Exodus, there is a very insightful verse. Moses, I think, may have been having a crisis of faith. He appears in this passage to need reassurance from God that God will always be with him—and with the people of Israel.

Moses is outlining what he would like God to do. During his conversation with God, Moses says, in effect: “Your presence with us will distinguish us from any other people on earth.”

This was precisely Dr. Graham’s point. The people of God are a very distinctive people. Not perfect, mind you—but distinctive. Unique. Called—even “called out” of the world. Whether we are mindful of it or not, we who refer to ourselves as “Christians” belong to a group whose mission it is to make God’s love visible.

Oh, I know we’re not always good at it. Often, our behaviour stinks. We make mistakes in judgment. In fact, sometimes we make the mistake of judgment! We say things to each other and about each other that are unworthy of our high calling—and which betray the kinship Christians have with one another. Too often, we hurt each other with our judgments and perceptions. Too often, we backslide in our loyalty to Jesus. It’s embarrassing, and shameful, and scandalous.

Even so, God allows us—even calls us—to become the channels through which his grace becomes visible. We are the ones whom God sends into the world with the message of the gospel: the message of God’s redeeming love in Christ Jesus.

More than that, God calls us to be the embodiment of that redeeming love—the picture of it, if you will. The likeness of Christ is supposed to be stamped upon us as indelibly as Caesar’s likeness was stamped upon that coin Jesus spoke of in Matthew’s gospel.

When the energy of grace—of divine love—touches someone, it affects everything about them. Even the most miserable people can have their hearts touched by it. We are called to be the carriers of that energy—the bearers of that unique, distinctive, other-worldly love … no matter what!

Yikes! What a challenge! What a difficult task, especially when the people in our lives are being obnoxious. We may get to feeling like Moses did, dealing with those obstinate, faithless Israelites.

But look: when others are irritable, when their attitudes are lousy, when their words and deeds try our patience, can we see that such behaviours are, more often than not, a cry for help? Or a call for love? Can we respond graciously, because of who we have become within the Body of Christ? If so, then others will see in us the likeness of our Lord. If not, well …    

Christians are often judged as being hypocrites, as saying one thing and doing another, or of being no better than those who don’t believe in anything! And often—too often—the shoe fits. Hypocrites. Phonies. Sinners! We are all those things. But we are also much more than that. We are the body of Christ—“and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). We are Christ’s body. We carry his likeness. And that is what makes us distinct.

Those of us who are longtime church members tend to take our faith experience for granted. Yet—however uncoordinated and disjointed our witness may at times appear—we are members of one body. The collective consciousness (some would call it the “Christ consciousness”) of this fellowship nurtures us in God’s love. We do not see it. We may not always feel it. But it is among us and within us nevertheless. And when we remember to express it—when we remember to make Christ visible in our lives—then we see tremendous results!

When we seek to live what Jesus taught, our lives begin to change. To be sure, we have all fallen short of the glory of God—but we have all been created in the image of God. When we learn to give without counting the cost, our authentic identity begins to surface. When we learn to treat other people as we would like to be treated, even more of our identity begins to show. And so it is that, gradually, we become God’s own distinct people.

We too often forget that “where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.” We need to thank God for the treasure we find in Christian fellowship. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are called out of the world—but we are also called into our distinct spiritual home. By claiming Christ as our Saviour and Lord, we are made one with him. We are re-created. We are made distinct. We are made different … and we are called to make a difference!

That’s what newness of life is all about, isn’t it?

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1 Yes, that is the correct spelling of her name: “Madalyn O’Hair” not “Madeline O’Hare.”

2 “Who Gives God Visibility?” Sermon preached by Rev. Richard E. Stetler on October 20, 2002 at Saint Matthew’s United Methodist Church in Bowie, Maryland, U.S.A. (http://stmatthews-bowie.org/Worship/Sermons/2002/sermon_10_20_02.asp).

A PRAYER OF LAMENT FOR GAZA AND ISRAEL

Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind. (Psalm 12:1)

Over this past week, close to 3,000 people have been killed in Israel and in the Gaza Strip following Saturday’s unprecedented surprise attack by Hamas on Israel and the resulting Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. As of this writing, an Israeli ground assault on Gaza appears imminent.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, has said that “between 100 and 150” hostages, including women and children, are being held in Gaza after being kidnapped.
According to the Israeli military, more than 1,300 people in Israel have been killed so far, and some 2,700 wounded; Gaza’s health ministry reports over 1,400 people dead and close to 7,000 wounded in their territory. And on both sides of the border, the death toll continues to increase.
The attack by Hamas put Israel on a wartime footing in what’s been considered the worst attack on the country since the Yom Kippur war in 1973. It is now being called “Israel’s 9/11.”

 

Almighty God, we come before you as your children, giving thanks for the blessings of life: for your gift of love in Jesus Christ, we give you thanks; for your love reflected in the lives of people we know—spouses, parents, grandparents, children, siblings, friends—we give you thanks. For the wonders of creation—for mountains, prairies, seashores, whispering pines, beautiful flowers, graceful beasts, and the starry sky at night—we give you thanks. In all of these things, we feel your presence in and around us. Thank you, Lord, for never leaving us nor forsaking us. Thank you for giving to us not as the world gives, but as Jesus gives—freely, and deeply, and eternally.

We come before you today praying—as so often we pray—for peace and harmony amongst the peoples of the earth; for an end to armed conflict and to the injustices which precipitate it. Yet today we bring this prayer with heavy hearts and much discouragement. As we witness the tragedy unfolding in Israel and in Gaza, we are shaken to our very core, and we find ourselves asking whether there is any point to our continued prayers for peace. A ground assault by Israeli forces appears inevitable (and perhaps, unavoidable). Thousands of innocent people are already dead—and we do not know how many more will die in the days and weeks to come.

God, please help us. Help us to believe that peace is still worth praying for. Hear us as now we pray, and strengthen our prayers with that grace which is called courage. We pray for all those whose lives have been shattered or ended by the events of this past week. We think of ordinary people in Gaza City—women and children and men—who find themselves caught up in a conflict not of their own making. We remember the Israelis who were slaughtered by Hamas at a music festival and in their homes. We remember those hostages who are being held in Gaza and used as human shields. We think of those who lost and are losing loved ones. We think of those whose lives will yet be lost as this cycle of violence continues to spin out of control and the blood of innocent victims cries out from the ground. Lord, help us to understand the distinction between justice and vengeance.

We pray for the leaders of the world, that you might guide them as they choose how to react to the terrorist threat which is before us. Especially we pray for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the members of his National Unity government; give them comfort and courage, but also true wisdom. May their legitimate desires for justice and for the survival of their nation be tempered with compassion and concern for innocent people who may stand in the path of retaliation. Also, we pray for our own Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and his cabinet; and for American President Joe Biden and his cabinet; as they stand in support of our friends in Israel, may they also benefit from the guidance of your Spirit.

Mighty and tender God, you are supreme not only in justice but also in mercy. You bring release to the captives and rest to the weary, and you know the way of suffering in Jesus Christ our Saviour. Hear us as we pray.

In the midst of our anguish and shock over the gigantic evil which has reared its head in the land called “holy” by three great world religions, let us not forget that you are a God who cares for each one of us. Lord, we pray for your continuing care for the least of our human family, asking that your healing, reconciling power might come upon them. We pray for all your children who are suffering this day—for the hungry, the homeless, the abused; for the imprisoned, the despairing, the diseased and the dying.

God, be with them, and with those who care for them. Insofar as we are able, let us be your messengers of hope and comfort in this troubled world; and keep strong our resolve to live and work for you, even in the worst of times. All these things we ask in the name of Jesus, who is our Prince of Peace. Amen.