Our National Inheritance: a mess.

May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

On this Sunday closest to Canada Day, we’re right to notice the difference in tone as our nation begins to recognize the human cost of securing worldly power.  As Christians, we’re to acknowledge the authority of government,[1] and should rightly be thankful for the widespread peace, freedom, and prosperity that we enjoy as Canadians – things that so many of our brothers and sisters around the world can only dream of. 

Yet, our Christian duty requires us to flee from any blind patriotism.  As St. Paul instructs the Church, we’re to see ourselves as dual-citizens or even ‘resident aliens’; we proclaim in the Creed that even our own country of Canada won’t last forever, but like everything else will come under the judgement of Christ, where the question isn’t whether or not we stood proudly and waved this or that flag, but whether we understood ourselves as needing the mercy that only God can give, whether we sought to be faithful with what we’ve been given, and when we fell short, whether we admitted it, stood back and looked at the situation from God’s perspective, and did our part to change course. 

Our National Inheritance.

Chief Cadmus Delorme of the Cowessess First Nation had this to say when the bodies of 781 children were found on their territory.

“You know, in 2021, we all inherited this.  Nobody today created residential schools. Nobody today created the Indian Act.  Nobody today created the Sixties Scoop.[2] But we all inherited this.  And if we want to say we’re proud Canadians, then we will accept the beautiful country we have today, and we will accept what we all inherited…”

Chief Cadmus Delorme, Cowessess First Nation

While the truth is very uncomfortable, as Christians, we should be familiar with the idea that yes, the effects of sin can be inherited – as pain, suffering, disadvantage, worldly wealth and power are passed from generation to generation.  We believe that even the most beautiful, innocent-looking baby isn’t born neutral, with a blank slate to choose their future; but we’re all bent inward and – left to our own devices – will seek our own glory and our own good at the expense of others.

No, we don’t bear the guilt for the sins of those who have gone before; but we do inherit the mess.  And if one thing should be absolutely clear from scripture, it’s that if we try to cling to things of the past in order to change them, we’ll lose sight of the present and future; we can’t undo the past.  No, rather, our task is to be faithful to the Lord’s calling to imitate Him as His disciples – to be faithful with the mess we’ve inherited.

An Inherited Mess.

On first glance, if you flip back to your lesson from 2 Samuel 5,[3] it might look as though this lesson displays a day of national pride.  It’s the coronation of a new king, a king beloved by the people and confirmed by the word of the Lord.  A wonderful record of the triumphant history of a king who restored and rebuilt the capital at Jerusalem, rebuilding its walls and restoring its glory.

But this is where knowledge of the whole story of scripture is important.  David, my friends, inherited a mess.

When God led his people out of Egypt and into the promised land, He never intended for them to have a king like other nations.  Kings make laws; kings decide a nation’s destiny.  No, the Lord would be Israel’s king, and instead, they would be led by judges, those men and women who had the task of reading God’s Word and interpreting it faithfully to the situation the people found themselves in.  Whether it was a war, a property dispute, a case of divorce, or the building of a new city, the judges’ role was to decide whether the actions of those involved showed love for God and love for each neighbour as yourself, as illustrated by all of God’s instructions.

But the people grew tired of that pretty quickly.  You see, it’s hard to become powerful in the sight of your enemies when you’re loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  It’s hard to amass a goodly inheritance for your children when you’re also concerned with loving your neighbour’s children and seeking their best interests too.  By the time Moses’ grandson was judge over Israel, the people north of Jerusalem had realized they could do better with trade if they worshipped the idols of the Canaanites instead.  From there, the people spiraled away from seeking the Lord’s will, until finally, with the people divided, worshipping whatever they wanted, and forgetting the calling to love God and neighbour, they find themselves facing a hostile enemy.

They remember the old stories about God strengthening their great-great-grandfathers in their time of need, so they go to the house of the Lord and take the ark of the covenant – the ark containing the Law of God which they’ve neglected to read, and containing the bread of the Lord’s provision, which they’ve long since given up for favour of trusting in their own strength.  And, without seeking the Lord’s will or help, they take that central symbol of God’s love, mercy, care, and provision and march it out as a triumphant sign on the field of battle, as they conveniently claimed to be acting in the name of the Lord.  And then, much to their surprise, the Lord doesn’t come to their aid, but allows them to experience the consequences of their faithlessness.  The ark – the very symbol of the people of Israel and God’s leading them out of Egypt and into the promised land – is captured by their enemies, and they return home broken and bruised.

So, having forgotten the law and lost what they thought was a symbol of power, they chose a king – Saul, a man known for his impatience, his bravery, and his jealous – even murderous – protection of what is his.  They seek out a prophet to anoint him as king over the people of God; they don’t want someone to interpret God’s law, they want a strong man who can make new laws as he wants.  The Lord is furious, and yet, he bears patiently with those faithful few who call upon him and seek his will.  Ultimately, Saul disobeys the word of God given through the prophets, loses his faith, becomes unable to trust anyone around him, falls into despair, and takes his own life without an heir to take the throne.

David, the young shepherd that God called and equipped to serve him, inherited a real mess.  God never intended that Israel would have a human king in the first place, and yet, because of the effects of the sins of those who went before, here we are.  God never abandons us even in the worst mess that human sin can create, but rather reaches out his hand, calls us to cling to him not to whisp us away, but to give us the strength to be faithful in and through the mess, knowing that faithfulness is not just personal, but is intended to bring the good news of hope and restoration and mercy and healing and peace to our neighbours or even those who would be our enemies. 

Reconciliation: A task best done in weakness.

Being faithful in the mess is a tall order, not least because each of us are the product of part of that mess, and carry the baggage.  Though it’s not what God intended, your skin, your language, and your last name bear the weight of one side or the other of a long and complex history, a tangled web of injustice and oppression.  We bear that as our inheritance, even as we seek to be faithful.  But, you know, it’s not unlike our Lord, or any faithful prophet, who is looked at suspiciously in their hometown.  We bear the weight of that family history – they look at Jesus, the one who had healed thousands and preached at every village around, but all they wanted to see was the carpenter’s son.  Even the Lord won’t open the eyes of those who don’t want to see – but that doesn’t change the call to be faithful and do what God requires.

Rather, when it comes to reconciliation, when it comes to both the mess and the freedom, peace, and prosperity that we have inherited as Canadians, like Paul, we can say that weakness is a gift.

When we’re strong, when we’re in the spotlight, when we’re on top of the world, we could boast – no let’s be honest, we would boast in ourselves.  But, it’s in the mess; it’s in opening our eyes to the pain and disadvantage inherited by our neighbours and fellow-Canadians; it’s in experiencing not the guilt, but the weight that comes with being those who inherited one side or the other of this mess of injustice; it’s there that we learn to depend not on strength, but on grace.

“’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me”

No, not just weaknesses, but “I am content with insults, hardships, persecutions,” and, as we look at the violence that pain and anger bring on, even “calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

My fellow Canadians; my brothers and sisters in Christ; let us not look to worldly power, or prestige, or ways to quiet and bottle up pain by easy words and federal dollar signs.  We have inherited a mess; God reaches out to us – He calls out to us – where we are; and our task as dual-citizens of the Kingdom of God is to be faithful, accepting weakness as the pathway to healing and peace, as worldly power is replaced by the power of Christ, to heal and to save, as God seeks to draw all people to himself.

Love God.  Love your neighbour.  Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.  Amen.

[1] Romans 13

[2] Sixties Scoop | The Canadian Encyclopedia

[3] As it happens, a typo on a chart two months ago led to this lesson being read instead of the one actually appointed for this morning.  Never dismiss a coincidence that may be God’s providence!

God’s presence is life.

Mark 5:21-43

Once upon a time there was a freshly-ordained deacon.  She had been a convert to Christianity while she was in university, one who really dug in to understand the richness of the traditions that had been passed down through the ages, as the rich symbolism and language and ritual became tools which helped her understand the good news and the Christian life. 

One Sunday at her new parish, she was assisting the priest in getting ready for the service when a life-long member of the congregation burst in through the sacristy door.  “Is that incense?!” the older woman said.

The young deacon, having first met Jesus when she was enthralled by the rich sights, sounds, and smells of Christian worship looked up.  She was always happy to dive in and point out the many aspects of our worship tradition that draw directly upon the scriptures and shape, form, and re-focus us towards the things of eternity.  “Yes,” she said, “it’s a major feast of the church’s year, and we’ll offer incense to God at the altar, as the smoke purifies ourselves as an offering to God!”.

“I don’t care what day it is”, the parishioner said.  “I have bad asthma, and I just can’t sit up front – in my pew – if there’s going to be smoke!”

The eager young deacon heard pain and frustration in the woman’s voice.  She reached into her pocket, reaching for her stock of anointing oil.

“That must be so hard,” the young deacon said.  “But we know God still heals, and he’ll do more than we can even ask or imagine.  If it’s alright, I’d love to pray with you and anoint you, that God would heal you of your asthma.”

The parishioner turned beet red.  “No!”, she snorted.  “I don’t want to be healed – I just want you to put that smoke away so I can sit in my pew!”.

Do you want to be well?

We all need healing.  We all will need healing as, by God’s grace, the scars, pain, and trauma of broken people in a broken world are bound up, anointed, and brought back to life as both our bodies and our hearts are made more fully alive, better able to receive and reflect the life and light that God desires to share with each of us.

But, no matter what sort of healing we require, step 1 is always acknowledging that we need it.  Whether the ailment is physical, mental, spiritual, or in our relationships, we first need to realize when something isn’t as it ought to be, we need to realize that we need a power greater than ourselves to fix it, but most importantly, whether we want to heal our broken relationships, whether we want to soften and heal the calloused wounds of the past, or whether we need strength to deal with broken bodies, we have to want to be well, and be willing to make the necessary changes as we become more like God wants us to be, as even the worst afflictions that the world, the flesh, and the devil can dream up can be worked together for good, as we are conformed to the image and likeness of Christ.

Each of us here today are broken in one way or another, and the good news of Jesus is that the Church is meant to be a hospital for the afflicted, where imperfect people learn to trust in God to do what they could never do for themselves, and, where we learn to see ourselves, each other, and the world around us as they really are – creatures of God who are wholly dependent on grace.

God is not the source of our problems.

As our first lesson puts it today, and as scripture reminds us again and again, part of acknowledging our need for healing is remembering that God is not the author of death and decay. 

I think the biggest lie, the biggest deception that keeps people from accepting the healing that God offers is the lie that says “your pain is part of God’s plan”.

Don’t believe it.  “For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”.[1] 

Anyone who says that the awful things of this life are God’s will has been deceived, and it’s the worst kind of lie because it keeps you from what God actually has in store.

“God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.”  He does not take any pleasure in the death of a sinner, but in his unsearchable patience calls all people to repentance.[2]

God doesn’t make you sick; God doesn’t desire for people to hurt one another; God doesn’t send calamities out of nowhere to leave you scratching your head.  Just as science – and common sense – tell us that “darkness” doesn’t exist (it’s just the absence of the energy of light), and “cold” doesn’t exist (it’s just the absence of the energy of heat), death and decay are the absence of the life-giving power of God.  And while the realities of life in a sinful world mean that our bodies will die, we proclaim each and every week that even that is not the end.  Our bodies – the flesh and bone sitting there in those pews, the faithful dead planted in the resurrection garden over there, even those lost to the deep or those innocent children buried without names or markers at the hands of too many unrepentant, proud sinners preaching the hopelessly twisted gospel of power and empire – all will have new life breathed into them at the day of resurrection, as the absence of God’s life-giving presence is overcome, and we stand before him, either humbly as our friend and Father or, full of pride, we meet him as our judge. And while our bodies await that day, the faithful rest in God’s presence.

God’s presence is life.  God is not the author of death and disease; death and disease are the product of a world, of humanity that has found itself absent from God’s presence.

The Righteous One comes to the unrighteous.

The good news we read this morning is that God is not content to let us walk away.  Rather, he comes and walks among us, the Creator among the creation, patiently reaching out to those who, often through no fault of their own, are suffering as victims of a world bent on removing itself from the care of the only one who can sustain it.

I don’t know if you noticed, but Jesus, in today’s gospel, breaks the law for the sake of those he came to save. 

It was illegal for anyone to touch a woman who was discharging blood.  For 12 years this woman had to live outside the city, and her own family, her own children could not come near to hug her or hold her hand, or they would be impure until the following day.  Imagine the pain – imagine 12 years knowing not just the physical discomfort, but the mental anguish of knowing that anyone who comes near you risks becoming unclean, forbidden to worship, forbidden to take part in the life of the community.  12 years of feeling she’s worthless.  12 years of being forbidden to go to the synagogue or the temple, 12 years of being unable to go and pray with the priest and offer a sacrifice to God.

But Jesus, the fulfilment of the law, doesn’t come to bless the righteous, but to redeem the sinner.  Jesus, the Holy One, is grabbed by that desperate woman.  And does He become unclean?  No, her faith makes her well. 

And then there’s Jairus’s daughter.  It’s illegal to touch a dead body – that’s the whole point of the Good Samaritan story: it’s not that the priest and Levite were being jerks, it’s that if he wasdead, they wouldn’t be allowed into the temple.  Does Jesus leave the girl for fear of being unclean?  No – if death and decay are the absence of God, His touch brings life – even in the midst of hopeless situations.

Healing pushes us out of our comfortable places.

But, though He comes to meet us, we need to seek Him out.

Notice from the lesson where these people meet the Lord.  This woman has spent a dozen years condemned to the outskirts of town, certainly crying out to God for mercy.  But does God meet her in that place of shame?  No.  In faith, she had to step out, to come boldly into the Lord’s presence, falling on her knees to reach out in hope.  The Lord was near, but she had to leave what had become a comfortable place of coping and pity in order to receive the healing and new life that God could give.

And Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue.  He was a big deal, living in a mansion, with servants to do his bidding; not the sort of guy who came into the marketplace.  Jesus didn’t come into his comfortable house and make an appointment on this man’s busy schedule. Rather, Jairus had to leave his mansion and meet the Lord among the common people – which, I’m sure, was costly and turned some heads.

My friends: God still heals, and deep down, each and everyone of us knows something is broken, we’re not yet as we ought to be.

The Lord, the giver of life, is seeking us out.  But as comfortable – perhaps even as proud – as we sometimes become with our ailments, the first step is always acknowledging that there’s a problem, and wanting to be made well.

And then, unlike that dear woman with her asthma, we need to learn not to be comfortable with – or even proud of – the disease, death, and decay around us. We need to be willing to seek the Lord while and where he wills to be found, ready to take that humbling, costly step of faith to fall down before Jesus, knowing that His very presence – the same presence that burst the power of death and that the gates of hell could not contain – is like a candle dispelling darkness and the cold: going out to meet him isto invite life itself to overcome the power of death.

My friends, God still heals.  The Lord comes to meet us, but not in our comfortable places.  The question still is: do we want to be well?

[1] Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24; Jeremiah 29:11

[2] Ezekiel 18:23; 2 Peter 3:9

Sleeping through a storm.

And Jesus was in the stern of the boat, asleep on a cushion.  Mark 4:38

Today we learn what trust looks like from God’s perspective.

This is an amazing scene.  Jesus has been travelling the countryside with his disciples, teaching in parables, healing the sick, bringing hope and mercy to those who are lost.  All along the way, we’re told, he goes into greater detail with the Twelve, sitting quietly with them in the morning or evening and answering their questions about how the parables apply to life.  And then, one night after teaching about faith – you’ll remember the parable from last week, about the gardener who spread his seeds and then did what?  …went to bed, and got up, and faithfully went about his day, and went to bed again, and kept on faithfully going about his days until one day, without him knowing how or even really when, the seed of faith had sprouted.

So it’s evening, Jesus has just shared this last parable, and then he says “guys, it’s time for us to go to the other side of the lake”.  The ‘lake’ we’re talking about here is the Sea of Galilee, 13 km across, the same lake where Peter and Andrew and James and John had fished for years.  So they hop in a sail boat and head out into the dark night, along with the other boats also catching the evening wind as it changes direction. 

So there they are, bobbing about in a little lboat on the dark waters when the gentle breeze becomes a mighty storm, so big that the waves are crashing up over the side, as they start to notice the water gathering around their sandals.  And having just been taught about faith, what do the disciples do?  They freak out.  They’re anxious.  I imagine them calling to each other, passing around buckets or basins.  Having grown up around opinionated fishermen, I imagine them calling to each other in pretty salty language about whether or not they should turn back.  We know it wasn’t their boat, so I imagine Andrew or John, one of the guys who had called in a favour from an old fishing buddy, worrying how they’re going to pay for the damage to the boat since Jesus already had them give up fishing, so it’s not like they were earning any income.

The wind is howling, the waves are crashing as chilly water creeps up over their feet, they’re yelling, they’re worried, they’re scared and probably fighting amongst themselves. 

…and where was Jesus?

Mark 4, verse 38: “and Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion”.

(Isn’t this fun?  The Bible is full of surprises!)

Now this might seem a little shocking.  It might even seem offensive, or wrong when we first think about it.  Our Lord’s closest friends aren’t just anxious – they’re fearful.  They’re scared to death: they yell at Jesus, “don’t you care that we’re going to die?!”  They’re scurrying about, talking about turning around, wondering about the damage that could be done, maybe even wishing that Jesus would get off his cushion and give them a hand bailing out the boat.

What’s going on here – in their moment of life and death anxiety, hearts pounding, wind howling, waves crashing, the Lord’s asleep! 

I think the disciples’ question is a fair one: does Jesus not care that they’re perishing?  It’s like the Israelites in the desert with Moses: “have you brought us here to die?  There were plenty of graves back where we came from!”

Yet, even through all these difficult questions, this is where we find an incredible lesson.

Faith is a gift; it’s not something we can drum up within ourselves. Like the gardener, our task is to faithfully rise and go about our day while God gives the growth.

But trust… well, that’s a different story.

Trusting God in the Storm.

Trust isn’t a gift – it’s something that must be exercised, it’s something that increases with use, just as we know that being found trustworthy with something small results in being entrusted with more.

Are the disciples’ worries and concerns and fears legitimate?  If you’re out at sea in a sailboat at night in a windstorm, you don’t have a lifeboat or any lifejackets, and your boat is taking on water, is it fair to be worried?  Yes.  The concerns are all legitimate.

But this is where trust comes in.

Whose idea was it to get into the boat this night?  Was it Peter?  Andrew?  Matthew?  No, Jesus set the course.  Jesus knew the starting point, he set the destination, and he knew the way to get there.

And, did Jesus send them off alone to fend for themselves?  No.  Now, you might say it doesn’t look like he’s very actively involved – he’s asleep on a cushion, after all.  But the question can’t be “do I see exactly how God is involved in this situation?”.  No, the question of faith is simply “is Jesus with me?”.  The same Jesus who said that when we go forth on his mission, he is with us always.  The same Jesus who said that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he’s in their midst.  So maybe you can’t see what he’s doing – maybe it looks like Jesus is taking a nap – but is Jesus in the boat?  Yes.

So, out on the dark, stormy sea, is it right for those disciples to take action, to grab buckets, to bail out the water?  Yes, absolutely. 

Is it right for them to call out to Jesus and say ‘Lord, we need you!’.  Yes. 

Is it right for them to say ‘maybe we should turn back.’  ‘Maybe the cost is too high, who will fix the boat if this doesn’t work’.  Is it right for them to say ‘I can’t see a way out of this, this will be the death of me.’  No. 

Even when the storms are swirling around us, that’s where trust teaches us to draw the line.  My friends, hear this –

            If Jesus sets the course
            and Jesus is in the boat
            we will make it to our destination.

It’s far better to be in the raging storm with Jesus, following faithfully where he leads, headed with him and with our brothers and sisters towards the destination that our mission requires, than home, safe asleep in our beds, but going nowhere.

It’s an odd sort of encouragement, isn’t it?

How much easier it would be if, by having Jesus in the boat, we could just avoid the storms altogether.  But that’s not how it works. 

Jesus didn’t create the storm – the storm is just part of life in this fallen world, and we know Jesus didn’t purposefully make a storm come up to teach them a lesson or any other pious foolishness; after all, Jesus rebukes the storm – he wouldn’t rebuke it if it was doing what He wanted. 

But I believe Jesus knew the storm was there, he knew it was coming.  But can the storms of life separate us from the plans God has, from the destination to which he’s asking us to follow?  No, never. 

Jesus set the course.
Jesus is in the boat.
They’re going to make it to their destination.

But it requires trust.  Here’s the hard lesson: it’s not the storm that’s going to keep them from their destination.  The one who created wind and waves is with them, and He’s at peace.  The only thing going to keep them from their destination is if they give in to their fears. 

If they say “I know Jesus wanted to cross over, but this was a bad idea, lets go back”, they might try to blame it on the storm, but the decision to turn back was theirs.

If they say “I know He can walk on water; I know he can heal the sick and feed the hungry and raise the dead, but I’m scared, I’m running around franticly, and he won’t run around franticly with me”, we might blame it on the storm, but the decision to turn back is ours.

Rather, the question we can ask is: “are we going where Jesus leads?”  Did He set the course, or was this my plan?  If it’s my plan, turn back! 

The question we can ask is, simply, “is Jesus with us?”.  Am I going my own way?  Do I have the body of Christ, my brothers and sisters, carrying this burden, facing this storm with me?  Have I invited my brothers or sisters in Christ to walk with me, knowing that when two or three are together, Jesus is there; or, am I trying to face this alone, with no room for Jesus or anyone else?  If the only one you can trust is yourself, then yes, turn back.

You see, trust is knowing that the one who set the destination and is going with you on the way will complete the good work that has begun.  He will guard us, guide us, keep us, and feed us; he will guide the future as he has the past – because, really, no matter how anxiously we flail about, who else can be our helper?  If the waves are going to crash through the side of your boat, your little bucket isn’t worth trusting in.  Our only hope – in life and in death – is that we are not our own, but belong to God; and if we’re in the boat that he chose, on the course that he set, and he’s journeying with us, we don’t need to fear the storm.

Not just forgetting fear.

But this is not just about ignoring the storm, or bottling up our fears.  We are disciples.  We are the apprentices learning from our Master. 
And what is the goal of the Christian life?  The imitation of Christ.

“Jesus awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” and the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

As we grow into the image and likeness of Christ, as our anxious mind is transformed by following God’s will, as our hard hearts are replaced with tender hearts of flesh, we not only trust God’s destination, but we, too, will learn to be at peace – maybe even able to sleep through! – the storms life throws at us.  Even more, when we trust the course He has set and are sure of his presence with us, we will learn, with Christ, to simply echo his voice which settles the storm and brings peace.

Have you met those people?  People facing incredible hardship, real pain, maybe even those for whom the dark clouds of death are closing in.  Yet, through a life of faith, they’re not afraid.  They know that Jesus set the course they’re following; they know that Jesus is with them; they trust they’ll make it safely to their destination, and that, my friends, opens the door to the peace that passes all understanding – peace that makes no human sense, apart from the sure and certain faith that God will complete the good work that he has started.

And Jesus was asleep on a cushion.  Should we fear?  No.  Put your trust in God, and remember:

If Jesus sets the course
and Jesus is in the boat
we will make it to our destination.

A sleepy gardener?

Mark 4:26-34

How many times do we read in scripture that the good news of the Kingdom of God is like a seed being scattered or a vine or a tree being planted?  After sheep and shepherds, those farming analogies are among the most common in God’s Word.  They’re familiar, they’re accessible, they’re easy enough to understand – and yet, they teach lessons that it can take a lifetime to put into practice.

Gardening Lessons from Jesus.

“The Kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground”; ok, that part is easy enough to understand.  But listen to what comes next: the gardener works hard, waking early and going to bed late, carefully fertilizing the soil and pulling weeds?  Or, does the gardener hire some servants to watch the field, scaring away the ravens and squirrels who come to snatch the seeds for a quick snack?

No.  Look at what comes next: Seeds are scattered on the ground… and “he sleeps and rises night and day; and the seed sprouts and then it grows, but he doesn’t know how.”

This guy plants his seeds… and then what?  He goes to bed!  He gets up the next day and then what?  He goes about his day, and then goes to bed again.  He repeats this, day after day, and then – he doesn’t quite know how – one day, he looks out and, lo and behold, the seeds have turned into plants.  And Jesus says “the Kingdom of God is like that”.  Alright then!  It’s amazing – and there’s a central, but uncomfortableidea here about faith. 

The point that Jesus is making here is one that we hear throughout scripture: faith is a gift from God.[1]  At the end of the day, faith is not something that we can drum up within ourselves.  It isn’t something that we can search out and satisfy, as though if I just learned a few more things or could figure a couple more things out, I would know the answers, I wouldn’t have to trust and believe anymore.  No, faith is a gift.  We can prepare the soil for planting; once the seed has sprouted, we can water it and tend it, support it if it becomes weak, fertilize it to make it fruitful.  But think about it – we can’t make a seed sprout.  The best we can do is stay out of the way and let God give the growth. 

Gifts make us uncomfortable.

Now, unfortunately for us, we’re raised in a culture that isn’t good at receiving gifts.  Children get gifts, and we teach them to say thank you, but as we grow, we’re taught by our families, in our schools, in the workplace, we learn across our society to replace gifts with hard work and earned rewards.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that’s all bad.  But, as adults in our part of the world, what free gifts do we receive?

We work hard for the things we get – and even if our work offers us a bonus, it’s something we’ve earned, not a gift, right?  Sure, we send cards to one another; we might send some flowers when someone is sick; those who bake might trade their specialities with their friends – dropping off a pie to a friend, who next week brings over a loaf of homemade bread.  But, beyond that, I think most of us are well-trained to be uncomfortable with gifts.  We say “you shouldn’t have”, and sometimes I think we mean it, because now we have to come up with a way to return the favour!

We like to be self-sufficient.  We like to work hard and earn what we have, and sure, we’ll share and be generous out of what we’ve earned, but none of us like the thought of being on the receiving end of someone else’s charity. 

The big message, though, is that if God is our Father, if we truly are his children, if you and I really are Jesus’s baby brother or sister, adopted into God’s family and learning the family values to take up our role in the family business, then we really are like kids on Christmas morning – we need to be able to accept the gifts given freely, given with no expectation for anything but love in return, gifts above and beyond what we could ever muster out of our own strength or savings.

That’s the great message in today’s lesson: the gardener knows that the soil had to be prepared; he knows that plants need water and food and light and nurture.  But the one thing he can’t give the seed is growth.  All that gardener can do is go about his life, go about his days, sleeping and rising, trusting that God will use the soil that was prepared and that, when the time is right, those seeds will sprout, and then that gardener can faithfully tend them as they grow.

Faith, not just belief.

My friends, faith is like that.  More often than not, we need to get out of the way; we need to go about our lives as children of God, one step at a time, one day at a time; we need to lie down and rest, and get up and do what need to be done, but let God give the growth he has in store for each of us.

But it’s hard, isn’t it?  It’s hard to take life one step at a time, to simply go to sleep when night comes, and get up and go where God leads when the next day dawns. 

We like to have a plan; we like to know what the next steps are; we like to know what we have to do to make the next thing happen, because we’re so well trained to want to earn what we have rather than accept it as a gift.

And we’re not alone in that mistake.

Think of Abraham – God told him he would be the father of many nations.  Did Abraham believe what God said?  Yes!  But what did Abraham do next?  He looked at his wife, said, wow, she’s old, she’s not going to give me a son, so he took matters into his own hands and had a baby with his servant.  Abraham believed God, but he didn’t have faith… he wasn’t yet willing to let God give the growth.

Or what about Peter?  He sees Jesus walking on the water and says, “if you’re really God, let me come and join you out there!”.  Jesus says, “yes, ok, come out and stand with me”.  Sounds great!  Peter takes that first step, obeying the Lord’s voice, and then he remembers that people aren’t supposed to float, and what happens?  …He starts to sink and needs to be pulled up to keep from drowning.  Peter believed, but his own mind, his own limited view of how the world works got in the way of the growth that God was trying to give him.

Or what about the apostles feeding the thousands?  The people are out on the countryside, being fed with the words of life from the Lord himself, when they feel their bellies growling.  Yes, the Lord is letting the crippled walk, and healing the blind, and opening the ears of the deaf, and casting out illness and depression and madness… the Lord is giving hope and freedom from anxiety and despair, the Lord is changing lives, but we missed our afternoon snack, so what will we ever do?  Ye of little faith, right?  The one who heals your infirmities and gives strength in your weakness and knows your heart certainly knows that you’re hungry.  They’ll trust God in the miracles, but doubt that God knows that they need their daily bread.

It’s one thing to believe.  But, like the farmer, who takes his life one moment, one step, one day at a time, trusting that yes, the seeds will sprout, sometimes we just need to get out of the way and let God’s gift of faith take root in your life.

The seeds were planted.  There’s no need to sit there, staring anxiously at the dirt, wondering what will happen next.  How ridiculous!  There’s also no need to anxiously plan what needs to happen next – there’s no weeding to be done, no seedlings to be staked or thinned – sometimes, as incredibly hard as it is, our task is to simply be still, and know that He is God.  Don’t try to force his hand, to jump the gun like Abraham, or squash an opportunity with doubts like Peter, because I can guarantee that God’s way is going to be far more spectacular than anything you or I can cook up.

Thank God He’s Persistent!

…that’s hard sometimes.  Well, no, let’s be honest: it’s always hard.  Being still, waiting on God, it goes against everything that feels right, it goes against all the things that feel productive.

But that’s the only way it can be real faith. 

St. Paul says in Romans that “hope that is seen is not real hope”.  If I know what is going to happen next, if I can tell you the next three steps that it takes to realize God’s plan for my life, then we must agree that isn’t hope – that’s planning.  If I know my action today will result in God’s action tomorrow, that’s not a gift of faith given freely from my gracious Father – that’s a negotiation, and God doesn’t work that way!

But, you know what?  God is a very persistent giver of his gifts.

Out behind my greenhouse I have a little vegetable garden.  There was a little green rhubarb plant there from when someone had a garden there years ago, one that had survived years of being run over by a lawnmower.  Well, it was right in the way of where I wanted to extend my beds. And I picked up two nice red rhubarb plants at Northern, so you know what I did?  I ran right over that old green rhubarb plant with the tiller – I didn’t want it, and it was in the way, so I, in my wisdom, plowed it under.

But you know what?  (And you can go out behind the Rectory and check!)  Right there, between two potato stalks, there’s two rhubarb stalks with big dark green leaves.

God gives the growth – sometimes even after we’ve done our best to tear down and undo what he has planned for our lives.

We need to be still, we need to let God give the growth, and not worry about what that will look like. 

We’ve died with Christ, planted in the ground; and we’ll rise with Christ to new life.[2]  When does the seed become a plant?  The gardener doesn’t know – the faithful gardener just goes to sleep, rises, one day at a time, and waits for the Lord to do the transformation.

But one thing is sure – at some point, without us even knowing, God takes that dry, lifeless, rock-hard shell of a seed and turns it into something tender and green and lively – full of growth, full of potential to grow into something that gives food and shade, and produces thousands more seeds to be scattered across the ground. 

I don’t know – you don’t know – when that dry, calloused part of your life might sprout.  But the good news is this: if we get our plans, and our excuses, and our doubts out of the way, if you let God give the growth, even the hardest callouses and the deepest wounds will be softened and healed, and His strength – made perfect in our weaknesses – will grow into something glorious, for His glory, and your salvation.[3]  Thanks be to God.

[1] Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Peter 1:1, Philippians 1:29; Acts 3:16, and I’d include the hundreds of Old Testament references to “I have chosen you”.

[2] 2 Corinthians 5:14-17

[3] For it is by faith that we are saved.  And faith is a gift from God, that none may boast.

Life in the Spirit: “They must be drunk!”

Read Acts 2.

Do you remember the first time the Bible really made you think?

The first time you were sitting in church, following along, and then something in the reading really catches you off-guard, makes you say “huh, what’s that about?”, and you go home thinking about it, or looking it up, or texting your priest to say “what’s up with that reading today?” (and, seriously, I don’t know any priest who doesn’t get excited by that kind of call or text!).

I remember the first time that happened to me.

I was 10.  Me and my best friend from school, Adam, were the servers at communion, sitting up at the front of the church in our white robes, doing our best to sit still and look like we were paying attention so that our moms wouldn’t give us a hard time after church. 

And it was Pentecost, like it is today.  And the reading, like today, was from Acts 2.  I remember it so clearly: we were sitting there, following along with the lesson printed in the bulletin, since one of us had to get the cross ready for the procession at the Gospel before the lesson was over.  And then we got to those most remarkable Bible verses: Acts 2, verse 13: “And some people made fun of them and said, “they have had too much wine”. 

For us 10-year-old boys, that verse caught our attention.  Eyes open wide, glancing at each other like “did you hear that?”.  They’re talking about having too much wine – in church!  With that wonderfully immature humour that little boys have, it struck us as pretty funny.  Sure, you know, our parents drink wine on Friday night when they’re playing cards and we’re watching Star Wars and playing Lego downstairs… but that’s not something they talk about on Sunday morning! 

And then, with all of that racing through our minds, it was followed with that amazing (but rarely quoted) verse of scripture, Acts 2:15: St. Peter stands up and says, “these people aren’t drunk, it’s only nine in the morning!”.

That one struck Adam as funny as he let out a little “ha!” and the woman reading – one of the, let’s say, more experienced and more stern Sunday School teachers – swivelled around to look at him; and let’s just say that I was the sort of 10-year-old who might be described as giggly, as her spinning around like an owl made me burst out in laughter.

Needless to say, we both got a good talking-to from our moms that morning.

But those verses stuck with me, nearly two and a half decades later.

The story of Pentecost is the day when God does something in the lives of the followers of Jesus that causes the rest of the world to look at them and say “you’re drunk!”, there’s no other explanation.  To which Peter, always one who had a certain way with words, responds, “we’re not drunk… it’s only 9am!”.

Now of course, while scripture affirms that wine and beer are gifts from God to make the heart glad, we’ll also agree with scripture that drunkenness – putting aside wisdom and sober-mindedness and making yourself powerless to worldly passions – is a problem, particularly when it becomes a tool used by pain and hurt and shame to wear in an easy path to destruction.  That’s certainly another topic, one we’ll talk about another day.

But today, I want to think about that reaction: when the whole world looks at the followers of Jesus and simply can’t figure it out; they look at what God is doing in the lives of his people and say, “what’s going on here?  This makes no sense.  Who would live like this?  Who would act like this?  They must be drunk!”.

Just imagine a church where the way of life that God inspired in us was so remarkably different than the ways of the world that people looked at us, at the way we live, and at the way we love and serve one another and are simply astonished, scratching their heads, and saying “what’s going on here!?”, “why are these people acting this way?”.

The Work of the Spirit.

As we read in today’s Gospel, before Jesus’ crucifixion, he explains to them that, just as He and the Father are one and the Father sent the Son, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, and the Son sends the Spirit to enlighten and guide those who follow Jesus on the path of life.[1]

The Spirit, translated in English as our Advocate and our Helper, is called a word in New Testament Greek that essentially means “lawyer”, one who stands alongside the person making a defense.  Our Lord sent the Holy Spirit to be our legal counsel – to encourage us when the right course of action is to admit our faults and ask for mercy, and to strengthen us to stand firm when we are being faithful.  As Jesus says, “it’s to our advantage” – we’re better off – to have the Spirit with us, making us aware of sin, righteousness, and judgment”; it wasn’t God’s plan to leave us with and the endless and perfect counsels of God to figure out on our own, no, it’s far better, Jesus says, that God gives us the Spirit of truth to guide us into the truth, glorifying our Lord as that truth comes to light.[2]

But what’s the result?  What does that look like, to have the Spirit of God guiding us?

Well, frankly, straight from the pages of scripture, a Spirit-filled life is one that catches the world off-guard, one which defies all worldly logic or explanation, to the point that the world looked at the disciples and said “you’re speaking nonsense, you’re drunk!”.

And really, if we lived the way God intended, I think we’d get the same reaction:

When the Holy Spirit comes into your life, when the Holy Spirit becomes your defense attorney, standing beside you through life, telling you in each situation whether you need to plead guilty and ask for mercy or whether you need to stand firm and do what is right, I can guarantee – I know from experience – that your life will not make sense by worldly standards.

The Holy Spirit will guide you to love God and neighbour, and convict you that loving your own life – putting yourself first – will cause you to lose what little life you have.  Living for God and others rather than yourself?  “What foolishness”, the world says, “listen to yourself, what’s wrong with you?”.

The Holy Spirit will guide you to carry the burdens of those who sit beside you here, and then go out and extend a hand to lift the burden from those you don’t even know.  The world says “nobody’s got time or energy for that, you gotta look out for #1”.  We ask for a yoke to be put around our neck, knowing that, in the long run, it’s better to share a load than to haul it yourself.

The Holy Spirit, standing beside us, will teach us not to cling to things, but to share what we have since everything, including the health and strength we have to work and the family and country we were born into are not our own doing.  The world tells us to store up for tomorrow, the Holy Spirit tells us to trust God and open our storehouses, barns, and bank accounts, for whatever we store up today is going to lose value tomorrow, and wealth is a harsh master.  The Holy Spirit says, “if someone takes your coat, let them take your shirt too” – don’t get worked up, don’t worry about it, don’t get your heart set on revenge; “no”, the Holy Spirit says, “pray for your enemy”. 

The World says “you’re nuts.  Listen to yourself!  Are you drunk?”

The Holy Spirit says “all my hope is in Christ alone”, I will not trust in gifts or strength or wisdom or power or might.  The Holy Spirit says, if you think you’ve got your faith and the future figured out, that’s not faith: faithfulness is putting your trust in God, not because you can chart out the pros and cons of why it makes sense, but simply because He’s God and we’re not.

The world says, “we don’t need God.  Religion served a purpose before we knew how everything works.  Look at all the bad that hypocrites have done in God’s name; trust in yourself, find your identity in yourself, be proud of who you are, rest easy, eat, drink, and be merry, for you only live once.”

The Holy Spirit says, “trust in God, for you were created by one greater for yourself for a purpose bigger than yourself; there’s more to life than what we see, there’s more to love or grief than a chemical in the brain, there’s more to pain and shame than social expectations and bad memories, there’s more to the pain passed from generation to generation than social work and a helping hand can fix”.  The Holy Spirit says, “you’re longing for more because you were created for more, but you can never spread yourself thin enough or stare at the emptiness within long enough to fill that void; the piece that fills that God-given hole is outside of yourself, just waiting to be invited in”.

The world says, “no, shoot for the stars, make a name for yourself; work harder, put your best foot forward, pull yourself up from your bootstraps, do what makes you happy, take your time off, live your best life, you deserve better, just keep going, ignore the pain, post the happy moments to your timeline, take that extra loan, cut those people loose, be the person you want to be, life is passing you by”. 

But the Spirit cries out “your young people will have visions of God’s faithfulness even though the world is set on exhaustion and decay; the old will dream dreams, trusting in God to do what they now know they can never do for themselves.  There is a way that leads to life and wholeness, all you have to do is look up and live, follow rather than stubbornly trying to lead, admit your weakness, admit your failures, and instead of wearing yourself out, plug yourself in to a source of unending power.”

…And the world says, “that’s insane.  These people must be drunk.”.

You are my witnesses.

And Jesus said, “The Spirit… will bear witness about me.  And you also will bear witness.”.

You see, the world will notice.

The wisdom of God is foolishness to those who are perishing.  The wise of the world have become futile in the darkness of their minds.

If we allow the Spirit to guide us in this absolutely ridiculous way of life, yes, the world might think we’re nuts.  But they will notice what God has done.

Friday night, Kristina and I went to the legion for a burger.  Someone who works for the Town was there, someone very involved with the evacuees from Fort Simpson.  This person mentioned how all of the staff were worn out from the work, how there’s so much overtime to get sorted out.  Then they paused.  “You must be wiped out”, this person said, “it seemed like you were coming and going all week”.  “Yeah, it was a long week, but I’m glad we had the opportunity to help”.  “Yes, but the staff were being paid, this is their job.”  “It’s my job too, we’re supposed to carry each others burdens and help those in need”.  On the way back to the table, she said, “I’ve never thought about it like that.  Thanks for all the church is doing in the community”. 

Always be ready to give an answer.

My friends, this is all foolishness in the world’s eyes.  And it will stay that way until they see for themselves what it is for ordinary people like you and me to choose not to live for ourselves, not to collect up flowery thank-you posts on Facebook, but to simply, quietly, constantly, and faithfully live for God’s glory. 

And then, like good old St. Peter, when they say we’re nuts, we too have the opportunity to say, “no, we’re not drunk”, we’re not crazy, God is faithful – and I’m putting my trust in him. 

Let’s be a church that’s so faithful, so out there, that people stop and stare, and then, by grace alone, when they realize that doing the same thing will only produce the same result, that trusting in themselves to somehow do better than they did yesterday will only end in stubborn frustration, we’ll be here with open arms, living as the Spirit leads us on.

To God be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] John 15:26-27

[2] Acts 2: 4b-15

“I’ve given them my words”: God entrusts you with his mission.

One of the aspects of our Lord’s life that has always fascinated me is his great humility.  It’s not just that he was humble in his conduct and the way he carried himself, but, as we sing from time to time, I’m fascinated by that bigger idea that Jesus, enthroned in Heaven and worshipped by angels, would lay aside all of that that glory and majesty to do… well, this.

I simply can’t put myself in his place, I can’t fathom just how frustrating that costly humility could have been.  Whenever He speaks of the Kingdom of God, his listeners miss the mark and start thinking about political power; his own disciples get sidetracked arguing amongst themselves, even putting up barriers to keep people away; and when it comes time for the final sacrifice, he’s betrayed, denied, and deserted by those who loved him.  The patience is simply amazing.

Yet, the thing that I find even more fascinating is that Our Lord’s patience and humility doesn’t stop when he re-ascends to the Father’s side. 

Really, you’d think that the Ascension, the Lord’s return to his throne in glorious majesty would be the time to set things right.  You’d think that, no longer limited by the frustrations of life in this broken world, the Lord would show forth his glory in the most spectacular ways, no longer putting up with a band of bumbling disciples to spread the good news.  You’d think, after all the trials, the misunderstandings, and the shameful crucifixion and death, that the Lord would leave the weaknesses and failings of human followers behind.

But that’s not how it works, is it?

No, having suffered at the hands of fallen people like you and me, having been misunderstood and even betrayed by imperfect followers, the Lord’s plan isn’t to finally break free from dealing with humanity; it’s the opposite. 

Jesus prays to the Father, “as you have sent me into the world, now I send them into the world” (John 17:18).  That’s right – after all the great humility and patience already shown, after all the times the disciples messed up, it turns out that God’s plan isn’t to cut the disciples loose and reveal his great and incredible glory.  No, as Christ ascends into heaven, awaiting that day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, Jesus entrusts us with his mission. 

Isn’t that simply incredible?  It certainly isn’t a plan that I’d cook up.  No human author would read the gospels and then think, “oh, I know what comes next – we’ll take those same followers who made a mess of things while their Lord and Master was right there walking alongside them, and now entrust the mission to them!

But that’s God’s plan.  The absolutely incredible reality is that, though I don’t know why, though I know I don’t deserve it, God trusts me with his mission.

Jesus said, “I have given them the words you gave me” (John 17:8).  God trusts you with his mission; the message of good news are no longer just the Lord’s words to speak – they’ve been given, entrusted to me and to you.

It’s absolutely incredible.  Why would God trust me?  I’m learning to follow my Lord every day, offering myself for the life of a disciple – a student, following one day at a time and one step at a time, but, if we’re honest, which of us is deserving of God’s trust?  After all, God knows that we have a hard enough time trusting him.  God knows that, left to my own devices, we’ll choose what is easy over what is good, and we’ll choose what is cheap over that which requires sacrifice.

Yet, in his incredible humility, the Lord’s plan is to entrust you with the message of hope and forgiveness and mercy that will change lives and save souls.  Again, in today’s Gospel, Jesus comes right out and says, verse 9: “I pray for [my disciples]; I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.“ 

Jesus – the same yesterday, today, and forever – is praying to the Father for you, that you will succeed in the unfathomable mission that you’ve been entrusted with, because you and I are the ones that God planned to bring his good news to those who are searching for someone to trust in and worship, to bring his truth to those who are so curved in on themselves that they think the world revolves around them, to bring hope and the promise of eternity to those who are perishing.  God trusts you to do that. 

But why would God trust me?

I can’t save anyone, I can’t fix anyone or take responsibility for their decisions or actions.

No, that’s absolutely true, we have no strength or power of our own to offer.  But, as we read this morning, “whoever has the Son has life” (1 John 5:12). And we know that life is the light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness, the light that overcomes the darkness.

I can’t save or fix another, but if the life of Christ is in me as it is in each of you, then God is trusting me to shine that light to those still in darkness.

The great miracle of Pentecost is that, rather than the Word of God being found in one sinless man walking this dusty earth, each of us is sent out to have the Word of God on our lips and in our hearts, bringing life and light wherever we go.

And God’s trusting you to do that.  Honestly, you might be thinking, “God, that doesn’t sound like a good plan.  Don’t trust me!  I’m shy, I’m weak, I have a hundred excuses”.  But, for better or worse, our excuses don’t change God’s plan; our human weakness doesn’t change the fact that God is trusting you to bring the good news to a world in desperate need of hope and mercy.

The genius of God’s plan is that, by entrusting you with the Lord’s mission, the Body of Christ can now spread out and fill the whole earth.  Very practically, God’s plan is that when a person sees you, when they hear your voice, they have seen and heard Jesus.

Friends, think about that one.  He who has the son has life.  You share the risen life of the Son of God.  When your friends, when your family, when your neighbours see you, God’s intention is that they will see and hear the words of Jesus himself.  He’s entrusted us with his message, maybe even in spite of our own objections!

God’s plan is to trust you and me.  It’s certainly not a plan I’d come up with, but there’s really only one way forward – to carry out our mission. 

“Greater love as no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

I’m no prophet, but the reality for us in this part of the world is that we probably won’t be asked to give up life and limb for the sake of the message that God has given us.  But there’s a lot more to life than flesh and blood.  Life is full of days and moments, full of time and energy and effort, full of joys and set-backs, full of successes and even some sorrows.  As those entrusted with the Word of God, the greatest love that we can ever show is to lay down that time and energy and effort, to bear patiently the sorrows or the rejection, patiently looking forward to the little victories, as we show real love by carrying the Good news to others.

My friends, God trusts you.  He entrusted you with his good news.

And the great truth is that, if we’re willing to be faithful, He’ll provide what we need.  God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called, giving us gifts and strength and energy to do more than we could ever ask or imagine. 

He entrusted us – let’s trust him, for there’s a world just outside our door just dying to know that they matter, that they are loved, that they can be forgiven, and that there’s hope for a yet more glorious future. 

Let’s get to work – to God’s glory.

He calls us his friends.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Over the past few months we’ve spoken quite a bit about duty and commitment and sacrifice.  We’ve walked through the covenants as opportunities for God’s people to accept and reflect back the love and faithfulness that God shows to us.  We’ve looked at the incredible awesomeness that is God’s will and desire to save us from our sins, as Jesus, the Lamb who was slain from before the foundation of the world, offered himself freely as a sacrifice to cover the sins of the whole world.  And then we’ve turned our focus to the absolutely necessary – but extraordinarily difficult – message about the desire and sacrifices that true love requires.

In all of this, it’s clear that God loved us first, that He reached out his hands of mercy long before we were ready to accept it.  For that alone, God is certainly worthy of our praise.

But, as much as God deserves our worship, as much as we know that – when he comes again – every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, today we hear our Lord say something absolutely incredible: yes, He’s the Lord of all creation; yes, He alone is worthy of all worship; yes, He’s the one who has conquered the power of death, and has opened the pathway to abundant life, but, he says, “no longer do I call you servants… I have called you friends”.

Jesus calls us his friends.  Jesus wants to be your friend.

Friends or Neighbours?

Now, to be completely honest, “friend” really isn’t a category that gets much attention in theology.  If anything, what we hear most often is to down-play the importance of friendship: we’re reminded, time and time again, that we’re not just to love and serve and care for our friends and family, but our neighbours.  Our love, our desire for a yet-more-glorious future isn’t limited to those we like, but extends to strangers and even those we might consider enemies, those who work against us and what we have planned.  As followers of Jesus we all know that the entirety of what God commands is summed up in the love of God and the love of our neighbour; we all know that serving the person across the street or across town is an act of faith, whether it’s a simple act of kindness, whether it’s a second or third or seventy-seventh chance offered in grace, or whether it’s being ready to offer that simple word of hope and mercy when you feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck or get that little twinge in your gut that it’s time to speak up.

We all know that love carries obligations.  But then, after Jesus teaches us about love, and as he prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice, He calls us his friends.

And the difference, of course, between friends and neighbours is what brings them together.

My neighbour, your neighbour, those to whom you owe a duty to love as much as your love your own life, is anyone who crosses your path.  Anyone within your sphere of influence is your neighbour: the good, the bad, and the ugly; those whom you would choose, and those who, let’s say, give you an opportunity to exercise grace.

But friendship… friends are those we want to be with, those we want to share our lives with, those whose presence we enjoy, with whom we look forward to chatting, to sharing the ups and downs of life, those we can’t wait to call when we get good news, and those whose burdens we would gladly bear in their time of need.

And, though He’s worthy of all worship, though He’s Lord of all creation, though angels and the host of heaven bow down in worship before him, Jesus wants to be your friend.  Think about that.

Obligation or Desire?

One fundamental truth proclaimed by scripture, cover to cover, is that God doesn’t want us to serve him out of obligation.  True, there is no one or nothing else worthy of worship, and certainly the Lord and the Holy Spirit working through the Church have provided certain ways of worshipping that are beneficial.  But as soon as our worship or our service or our offering becomes something we have to do, rather than something we earnestly desire to do, it loses its’ value.  God knows the heart, and it’s the attitude of the heart that matters.

And so Jesus calls his followers his friends.  Yes, we believe every person will stand before Christ, and every person will have to acknowledge that our deeds, the fruit of the life we lived fell short of the glory of God.  But, in the most incredible way, the judge on the throne wants to be our friend.  He told his friends how these cases play out, that the only hope is to plead guilty and ask for mercy.  And then, the whole point of Pentecost is that he sent the Holy Spirit to be our advocate to guide us along the path.  It’s absolutely incredible, it’s a plan we could never write ourselves: we actually do have friends in high places.  Jesus wants to be your friend.

What a friend we have in Jesus.

The thing is, though, that friendship can’t be one-sided.  It has to work both ways, doesn’t it?

I have to be honest: I have a hard time making friends.  Sure, I do my best to honour, serve, and love my neighbours, and my door is always open to walk alongside whoever pops in.  But, deep down, I’m an introvert, and any fellow introverts in the room will probably agree that friendship is sometimes hard work.  Taking the time to share joys and concerns, even just taking the time to call and have a chat after a game of phone tag can sometimes feel like a bit of a chore.  But, as one who has lived in 3 countries and whose friends move around even more than I do, the cost – the sacrifices – of friendship are worth it.  Nothing can replace that handful of people who I know I can pick up the phone and share my life with, with whom I can pick up where I left off, even if I never did return their last email, and who know I’ll do the same for them.  In a lot of ways, honestly, it’s that handful of friends, those few strong relationships, that allow me to bear the ups and downs of loving my neighbour.

And the absolutely amazing thing is that Jesus wants to be one of those friends.

It’s not enough that the Lord of all Creation says that you have value, that out of all the things in the vast universe, you matter, personally.  But more than that, the Lord of it all wants to be your friend.

He wants to be one who you chat with not to get something done, but just for the sake of chatting; one who you know you can just pick up where you left off, even if you forgot to return that last call or message.  He wants to be one who can listen when you need to get something off your chest, who can be there when you need to vent, and like any real friend, who can just be there at those times when there just aren’t words to say.

Jesus wants to be your friend. 

And like everything, God always makes the first move.  He’s made the offer, he’s made the invitation to sit and chat.  He already calls you his friend.  But, have you done the same?

You’ve heard me speak a dozen times about the importance of taking even just a few minutes each day in prayer and Bible reading.  No matter how busy you are, every one of us has at least 10 quiet minutes that we can carve out of our day.  (Many of you do that already; if you don’t, the time to start is now!) And maybe it seems daunting, maybe we don’t know where to start.  But the whole story of Pentecost is that God sent the Holy Spirit to guide you.  Jesus, the Lord of Heaven and the righteous and merciful judge wants to be your friend, so simply open up and chat.  Read a psalm, read one of the lessons assigned for morning prayer, read Our Daily Bread, read something so you spend a few minutes listening to what God says in his Word, and then simply say what’s on your mind, like you’d say to your friend.  It might just be “Lord, today’s great.  I’m feeling useful.  I did good and made a little difference.  I’m so glad I had the opportunity.”  (yes, that’s a prayer – it doesn’t have to be fancy!).  It might be “I’m frustrated.  None of this is working out.  I’m sick of wasting my time”.  (Yes, that’s a prayer too!).  And, it might be “I’m broken. I’m tired. This hurts.” 

Jesus wants to be your friend.  He wants to be the one you can trust in, the one you can lean on.  He wants to be your friend in high places, encouraging you to see the big picture and to trust in that yet-more-glorious future for which you were created.

But friendship means making time to be together, not because you have to, but because you want to. 

Jesus said, “you did not choose me, but I chose you.”  He considers you his friend; so today, this week, have a chat, pick up where you left off, or maybe get to know him for the first time.  He’s a friend like no other!

To God be the glory!  Amen.

Languishing, Growth, and Direction

“I am the vine; you are the branches.” John 15:5a

As this pandemic wears on, all of us – in one way or another – are feeling the effects.  For many of us, the anxiety or fear of March 2020 has faded, having gone through cycles of frustration and tiredness, having set mental goals for when this would be over, only to have them come and go, and now finding ourselves knowing that, yes, this will one day be over, but not wanting to get our hopes up. 

On a conference call this past week, I was introduced to the term that some mental health professionals are now using to describe where we are.  We’re not in crisis mode anymore, but we’re certainly not flourishing or moving forward.  The term, I’m told, is “languishing”.  Languishing.  Now, I said to myself when I heard it, “that sounds kind of dire… and maybe a bit dramatic.”  But when you look it up in the dictionary, it fits.  “Languishing” means, simply, “to lose or lack vitality, to grow weak, to suffer from remaining in an unpleasant situation”.  I, for one, find it helpful to have a word to describe that sense of “blah” that so many of us are feeling.

The Branch is Invigorated by the Vine

Today’s gospel is a familiar one: we’ve all heard since Sunday School that Christ is the vine and we are the branches; we’re to abide in him so that we can bear fruit.  But as I read this lesson with the fresh – or maybe tired – eyes of our current situation, something jumped out at me for the first time.  The branch only has one job.  The branch is to be invigorated by the vine. That’s it. Think about it: the branch has no roots of it’s own, it can’t pick itself up to find a better source of water.  If you’ve ever tried to train a vine – whether it’s grapes or peas and beans or an ivy on a trellis – you know that the branches can sometimes have a mind of their own, and need to be gently bent back in the direction that they should go.  But, really, the branch’s job – all it has to do to thrive – is to receive what it needs from the vine – to be invigorated by the vine – and to trust the gentle hand of the gardener.

And that jumped out at me this week.  Jesus doesn’t say, ‘get your act together, figure out some plan to multiply 10 or 50 or 100 times’.  He doesn’t say, ‘get creative and come up with a scheme to bear fruit’.  What does he say?  Four times in today’s short lesson, Jesus repeats again and again exactly how it is that we are to bear fruit: abide in me.

The work of the branch is simply to be invigorated by the vine.

It’s the vine that is connected to those life-giving roots, that supply of fresh and life-giving water.  As the branch sends out feelers, looking for something to grasp on to, the branch needs only to trust the gentle correction of the gardener.  You see, that’s the remarkable thing in what Jesus is saying today: all the branch has to do is be invigorated, accept the life flowing from the roots of the vine, to be content to simply abide in the abundant life that the vine provides.

So what does that look like?  In this season of languishing, what does it look like to be invigorated as a branch on the Lord’s vine?

The Invigorated Life

I think our lesson from Acts today provides a fabulous example of the invigorated life, a life, a way of being that receives it’s vigor, receives it’s vitality, receives it’s drive from abiding in what God provides.

We heard this morning the wonderful account of Philip, who noticed a politician reading the Bible and engaged him in conversation that led to the glorious question: “why can’t I be baptized, too?”, as another branch was added to the vine that day.

I think the first obvious lesson about a life that receives it’s vigor and drive from the abundant life that Jesus provides is simply about the energy that the branches receive.

It says in our lesson that an angel said “rise and go toward the south, to that road through the desert”.  And then that key, short sentence: “and he rose and went”.  If we’re abiding in the vine, if we’re well-connected and receiving what the vine provides, we’ll have the energy to do what is expected.

And, I have to say, that’s something I believe is universally true.  There are so many things in life that suck out our energy and leave us drained; but the actions, the conversations, even the sacrifices that bear fruit aren’t like that, they’re life-giving.  There’s plenty of days I feel ‘done in’ by the demands of every-day life: laundry, picking kids up, dropping kids off, a never-ending pile of dishes.  There’s plenty of days I’d like to haul on my pyjama pants, grab my book or put on whatever I’m watching on Netflix, pour up a glass of wine or a beer, and ‘refresh myself’ by lounging on the couch.  And, to be honest, I get that feeling on Wednesdays after supper, with Celebrate Recovery scheduled for 8pm.  But, when this church started Celebrate Recovery, it was made clear through prayer that it was a direction that God wanted us to go, it was where God was telling us to “rise and go”.  And, you know what?  No matter how tired or ‘ready to relax’ I might be on Wednesday nights, when I let myself be energized by the vine, when I trust the direction the gardener is gently directing me, that work becomes life-giving.  I leave 9:30 or quarter-to-ten on Wednesday night more energized, more ‘vigorous’ than I went in.  Even when we’re tired and ‘languishing’, we’ll know if what we’re doing is fruitful, because we’ll find ourselves invigorated, energized by the vine with deep roots and abundant water.

Now, as Philip follows that road south, he overhears a powerful politician reading aloud, as people did in those days.  And, amazingly, the Spirit of God says “go over and jump up with him!”.  Do you ever get those?  Ridiculous promptings to do something out of the ordinary, but which is going to make a difference in someone else’s life?  Let me tell you, that’s part of the invigorated life that God provides if we simply abide in Christ.  I’ve never actually heard the voice of the Holy Spirit, though there are some people who say they do; I know for me, when God’s giving me an opportunity, when I know that an idea or a conversation isn’t my own, I get a little tingle on the back of my neck.  It could be the smallest thing: I pass someone in the store who I know is having a hard time, I say “hi, how ya doin’?”, they say, “living the dream” or “oh, one day at a time”, and I’ll be ready to take the next step towards the milk when I’ll feel a little tingle on the back of my neck, an invitation to let the person know that, if they ever need to talk, my door is open; or to offer to add them to our prayer list.  To abide in Christ, to receive the life and energy and fruitful vitality that the vine provides – and, practically, to do the work of bearing fruit and adding more children of God to the Body of Christ – it’s really just a matter of accepting what Jesus offers: when we have a life-giving opportunity, go for it; when we have that feeling, to talk, or act, or offer, to make that one extra step outside our comfort zone, just do it; it may well be that the feeling you have is the hand of the gardener gently guiding you in the direction where you’ll bear the most fruit.

Vines are a long-term investment.

I want to leave you with one other observation this morning.  At least for me, even with all the great things we’re doing, this sense of ‘languishing’ as we’re 14-months into a pandemic doesn’t leave me feeling very fruitful.  Don’t get me wrong, we’ve done a lot of great work together, but it’s harder to see in a time when we’re not allowed to gather all the harvest in to one room to fellowship together.

But, I noticed this week for the first time, that Jesus intentionally uses the image of a vine and a vinedresser here.  He’s not talking about a harvest of wheat or carrots or zucchini; he’s not talking here about something that you plant in Spring and dig up in Fall.  Branches on vines aren’t an annual crop – they’re a long-term investment, they’re something to be tended year after year, decade after decade.  Some of the best vineyards have vines with roots going back over a century, carefully tended, fertilized some years, pruned other years, often with new shoots lovingly grafted in along the way.

A vinedresser would tell you that each season is unique: the flavour of the vintage varies year to year, but as much as the vinedresser wants a good harvest each season, He’s equally concerned with the long-term health of the vineyard.  Because the final product in that bottle of wine isn’t the fruit of a single branch of grapes, the final product is the sum total of the whole vineyard together.

Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, each of us: yet, we’re to be invigorated by the vine to be fruitful together.  When it’s time for a gentle pruning or push in the right direction, we’re being changed from glory into glory not so that you or I bear fruit, but so that we bear fruit.  It will take all of us, abiding in Christ, receiving the energy and direction He provides, if we’re to bear fruit as the hands, feet, and voice of God here in Fort Smith.

So this week, when you find yourself “languishing”, as I know I will, take the Lord at his invitation.  Simply abide in him; take those life-giving opportunities that He offers; when you feel the gardener’s gentle hand – and you will, if you look for it – follow in the direction He’s guiding.  And together – even in a difficult season – we can trust that God’s long-term investment in us will indeed be fruitful.

To God be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

Do Love: Priority, Desire, Sacrifice

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us…” 1 John 3:16a

Love is a common theme for the Christian life.  The scriptures are brimming with instructions to love one another, to love God, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. 

Yet, as so often happens, when something becomes “common”, when something becomes routine or expected, before we know it we find ourselves sharing common misunderstandings; sometimes we need to step back and unpack those ideas that appear simple and which we’ve taken for granted, and when we do, we usually find there’s a lot more there than we thought.

Love is an action.

If I asked you “what is love?” – to give a definition of love – what would you come up with?  Think about that just for a second: what is love?

It’s a good exercise, taking something that is common and just assumed, and unpacking it to see if there’s more to the story. 

For most adults, if we were pressed into coming up with a definition of love, we’d waffle around with a few ideas and probably land somewhere in the realm of “a feeling of deep affection”, but, anyone who loves or has been loved would be quick to add “…but that definition doesn’t quite do it”.  What is love?

If I asked the kids, though, do you know what we’d get?  “Love is when Mom hugs me and makes me feel better when I cut my finger.”  “Love is when me and Dad made cookies together for Mommy”.  One kid – you can probably guess which one – told me “love is when you play on my Minecraft server with me, because I love Minecraft”.

But, you know what?  As limited as those children’s definitions might be, they understand something that almost every adult definition of love fundamentally misses: love is an action.

And this isn’t some lofty church idea: our language tells us that love isn’t a feeling or an emotion; love is a verb, an action word.  Think about it: we say “I love you”, or “you love me”.  We don’t say “I happy you” or “you sad me” – those are feelings; our language lets us say “I love you” because ‘love’ is a verb, an action word. 

The kids are right, you know: to love someone or something isn’t to feel something about them, though affection certainly has something to do with it.  Love isn’t a feeling we exchange.  To love is to do something; if love isn’t an action, we’ve slipped into a misunderstanding that is everywhere in our society today.

How to ‘do’ love.

So, if love is an action word – not a feeling or emotion – then how do we do it? 

Like any action, there are clear, definite, purposeful steps required: if it’s walking, I have to get up off my butt, pick a direction, lift up one foot, swing it forward, put it down, and repeat over and over, one step at a time, until my walk is done.  If the action is cleaning, I have to find a mess, get some cleaner, and put in some elbow grease.  …believe me, if walking or cleaning were just feelings, I’d be a whole lot healthier and my house would be a whole lot tidier!  But they’re actions, and so is love, so there are definite steps required to do that action.

I want to suggest that there are three components, three parts required to “do” love.  The action of love requires, first, making something your priority.  Second, to do love requires a desire.  And third, to make love happen requires sacrifice.  Priority.  Desire.  Sacrifice. 


First: Priority.  We all know words are cheap.  It’s easy to say something, to throw a few words out there.  But actions speak louder than words not least because they require effort.  Or, to put it as St. James does, “faith without works is dead”.  There’s no life or lasting value to be found in merely saying, thinking, or feeling something without the effort to follow through to the best of our ability. 

To love someone or something – to take the action of loving them – means making them a priority in your life, and showing that in your actions.

It’s amazing: the kids know this, even if they don’t have the words for it.  “Love is when me and Dad made cookies together for Mommy”.  All of us adults would know from experience that, when Saturday afternoon rolls around after all week with both parents working, there are a dozen high-priority things that need to be done around the house.  Laundry to be washed, groceries to be picked up, a squeaky door to be fixed, a flat tire on a bike that needs to be fixed, online banking to be done – the endless list that goes with being responsible for a household.

But if love is more than a feeling – which it has be to – then the first thing love requires is Priority.  Loving you, loving my family, loving my neighbour, loving God means, first, prioritizing the one who is loved.  The kid knows that Mom or Dad is busy, but the kid sees that they are loved when they are bumped ahead of bills or laundry or things around the house, even for half-an-hour.  The first step in the action of love is priority.


The next step, I want to suggest, is desire.  Now, when I say desire, I mean it in it’s broadest sense: love as an action requires a strong want or wish for something to happen.

Or, in other words, love requires a goal being worked towards, to love someone or something is to want it to become the best it can be, to picture that person as the best that they can be, and to want to get there together.

It’s not enough – it’s not really love – just to prioritize something.  If I prioritize someone or something because it makes me feel good, or I get something from it, that’s not love (that’s pleasure – another action word).  Love requires prioritizing someone because of the hope, the deep desire you have for their yet-more-glorious future.  If I love my wife just because she makes me laugh – or if I love God because He’s good to me, that really isn’t love; love is looking forward to being better together, having the hope for what you and them together can become, and desiring, deeply and strongly wanting it to happen.

Love as a verb, as an action, first takes priority and then desire for that more glorious future.


And then the action of love requires sacrifice.  It takes offering yourself to take the steps necessary to make that future a reality.

This is where the modern misunderstanding of love as an emotion throws us off the rails. 

It’s one thing for me to say “I like my dog, I should take her for a walk”.  I can even have that good desire for my dog’s future, that good desire for her to have a good life, for her – and me – to be fit and to enjoy that wonderful time out in the sun, out in the beauty of God’s creation, rejuvenated by the fresh air.  I can have the desire to be a good and responsible dog owner, to want to be in the sort of relationship you see on TV where the happy dog runs to the door with its tail wagging, leash in its mouth, asking to go for a walk together. 

I can think highly of my dog, prioritizing her; I can want to be a good dog owner who takes her for walks… but does that priority or desire produce any action?  No.

No, the priority and desire require follow-through with sacrifice.

Now, sacrifice takes different forms.  Some are very costly, and the greatest love that can ever be shown, scripture says, is the laying down – the sacrifice – of life itself.  But all love requires sacrifice, and not as a one-time thing.  The action of love, the action of loving someone or something, requires sacrifice.

And this is where we so often go wrong. 

You know 1 Corinthians 13, “the love chapter” read at almost every wedding?  For your homework this week, give that a read… but recognize that each of those descriptions of love is actually a description of sacrifice.  “Love is patient, love is kind; it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, … it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”  You know the list; but these aren’t feelings – they’re costly sacrifices, steps to be taken for one who is prioritized and for whom you have the hope of a more glorious future.  Patience is a sacrifice; kindness is a sacrifice; putting aside pride, biting your tongue when you have every right to be angry, giving second chances if and when the person recognizes they were wrong and turns from it: those aren’t feelings.  That’s what it takes to do love.  It might be as simple as a parent patiently trying to be interested in Minecraft on a rare day off; or it might be as humbling as helping a parent or an ailing spouse get to the bathroom and then get dressed again when they can no longer do it for themselves, but one thing is sure: it’s only love if we set that priority, have that desire, and work towards it with sacrifice.

On these two commandments…

Love is costly.  Love is involved.  Love is an action.  And yet, all of the commandments of God are summarized in these two greatest commandments (say it with me): you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.

So, let’s ask ourselves: do you love God?

Is God a priority, not just on Sunday, but every day that He gives you, and every night that He lets you sleep in safety and peace?  Is God your desire – do you desire a better future together with God, is that a goal that defines your life?  And then sacrifice: do you, will you take the steps to patiently, humbly make that love an action: as “the love chapter” says, love always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres until the end.  If love is an action, do you love God?

And then, the other side of that commandment, and perhaps the more challenging of the two.  Do I love my neighbour?  And my neighbour isn’t just my family or my friends, but every single person made in God’s Image whom God has placed in my path; those who drive me nuts, those with whom I disagree on just about everything imaginable, and those who are just plain rude and make me feel like dirt.  Do I love them?

It’s not a feeling.  And let me tell you, that’s a good thing!  Because we all have plenty of people we don’t feel happy to be around.

But do I love my neighbour?  Whoever they are, good or bad, kind and generous people, or rude and ignorant people, do I love them?  Do I prioritize them? Huh.  Because that’s what God expects… will I put that rude man who doesn’t know how to speak to anyone ahead of myself and my own desires?  Talk is cheap.  And I can say all the words there are, but if I have not love, I’m a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

Do I desire my neighbour to have a yet-more-glorious future?  Do I want them to know true love, do I want them to experience true hope and mercy and forgiveness, do I want them to know God and to live with me forever, do I want them to be better for having known and lived alongside me, such as I am.  Think of the rudest, most grating neighbour you know.  Do you want him or her to know mercy?  Do you want them to know love, to be cleaned up by the grace of God just as we will be, and to spend eternity redeemed with you?  Because, if that’s not your desire for even your rudest neighbour, then no matter what we might tell ourselves, God says no, we don’t yet know love.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, love requires sacrifice.  Are you willing to take the steps so that your neighbour can have that yet-more-glorious future, both in this life, and in the life to come.

My friends, this is why the church isn’t a voluntary organization.  If anyone ever told you that Christians volunteer their time to teach Sunday School, or help at the food bank, or help people with their taxes and paperwork, or to teach young moms to cook for their families, or to visit those who are sick or alone, or to make the church building clean and ready to welcome those who come in, or to greet our brothers and sisters as they gather, they’re wrong.  Those are not good deeds, and they’re not optional.  They’re the sacrifices that love requires.

If you say you love your neighbour, but you won’t fill his belly; if you say you love your neighbour but you won’t share her pain and do your part to life them out of despair and set them on the path to glory, then we’re nothing but a noisy cymbal.

Love is action.

My friends, lets make this a church where everyone learns to love God, and learns to love their neighbour as themselves: not thinking good thoughts or feeling happy feelings about God and our neighbour, but making God and our neighbour a priority every day; having that earnest desire for a better future with God, and wanting our neighbours to share that hope; and then making the sacrifices that true love requires.  That’s a church that will grow, that’s a church that will change the world around us; but it’s got to start with love, and it’s got to start with each one of us, loving God, and loving our neighbour as ourselves.

To God be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

No longer subject to the kingdom of death.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

We know that since Christ has been raised from the dead, he is never going to die again; death no longer has dominion over him.  So too, consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Romans 6:9, 11

Death no longer has dominion over him. 

The Son of God, who shared our human nature in every way except sin, is no longer subject to the kingdom of death, the kingdom which claims the power of pain and decay over everything in this fallen world.

The good news that Jesus preached can be summed up in the simple-yet-earth-shattering truth that God himself broke into this dominion of death to proclaim the coming Kingdom of God, and did what was necessary to offer us citizenship, to adopt us as sons and daughters of the one who sits on the everlasting throne.

In this fallen world, in the kingdom of death, one thing is certain: everything dies; everything wastes away; everything winds up more scarred, calloused, bruised, wrinkled, and broken than it started out.  John tells us that even the ruler of the kingdom of death knows that he himself will be destroyed – and that’s the point: to bring everything to destruction rather than glory.

Christ proclaimed another Kingdom – the Kingdom where everything in this fallen world is turned on it’s head.  The Kingdom where the latter state is better than the first, where, by grace, we learn to let go more of the dirt and dust, more of the pain and hurt as we mature by faith; the Kingdom where scars and callouses are healed and become signs of God’s glory working in us; the Kingdom where true justice is found not in revenge, not by making things fair, but by letting go, as the one willing offering of the innocent Lamb of God covers all the strivings and failings and best intentions of those who were subject to a twisted kingdom whose goal was death and destruction.

Death no longer has dominion over him. 
So, too, consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus

We know that no servant can obey two masters. 

We cannot let there be light while we try to hold on to the darkness.  We cannot learn to live and let ourselves be healed and allow God to make us better and better than we were when we began if we choose to decay, if we choose to heap up scars and callouses, if we choose to cling to worldly wisdom gained through a life of pain, if we choose to cling to, if we choose to value that which, at best, grows old and wrinkled, becomes swollen and inflamed, and goes down into the dust of the grave.

We cannot be subject to the kingdom of death and the Kingdom of God; by your words and actions, and all the way down to the core of your being, you will love one and hate the other; when it matters, a choice will be made.

The Good News of the empty tomb, the Good News of a whipped, beaten, mocked, pierced, and spit-upon man walking and talking with those he loves, with each scar now a glorious sign of God’s power to turn the very worst the world has to offer into life and light; the good news in all of that is that we, too, can be made subjects of that kingdom.  Though we’re still within the borders of this kingdom of death, we can be granted citizenship, armed to live as rebels against the world, the flesh, and the devil – even against death itself – equipped by the Holy Spirit to simultaneously get better and worse with age: that God at work in those who are united to Christ in his death and resurrection takes whatever pain, hurt, and decay the world throws at us for our destruction and turns it into His glory, accomplishing His perfect purpose for us in spite of the failings of the flesh, preparing us for life that transforms us from glory to glory in the presence of God.

But we cannot be subject to both kingdoms.  We love one and hate the other. 
We can only serve one, and must rebel against the other.  Each lays claim to our all.

If we trust in God some of the time; if we trust in God’s power as a last resort, only when money and willpower and science and doctors fail – don’t worry, God’s power is sufficient – if we only trust some of the time, we’ve chosen to cling to the dominion of death.

If we live a life of forgiving others, of giving second chances, and third chances, and seventh chances, and seventy times seventh chances, but hold back forgiveness from that one person who did that one thing we could never forgive – don’t worry, God’s mercy is boundless – but, if there’s something you won’t forgive, you’ve chosen to cling to the dominion of death.

If you’ll offer your time or talent or treasure or commitment to the service of the Kingdom of God, but only when it doesn’t conflict with your existing commitment of money or time or energy to things that rust and decay, to things that grow wrinkled and die, then it’s already clear where your allegiance truly lies.

My friends, we must follow Christ, who came to offer citizenship in the Kingdom of God, who came to equip us to live as rebels in this fallen world.

We must follow Him; it’s not a box of envelopes or knowing when to stand or sit or what words to say; we must follow the one who walked out of the grave because he would not be subject to it!  We must follow the one who let go of worldly ambition or wealth and power because he knew it would only chain us down to a dying world.  We must follow the one who let go of revenge for past wrongs, because he knows it only shackles us to the past.  We must follow the one who offered it all, knowing that, in the Kingdom of God, loss is gain, mercy leads to glory, and even the grave itself is the path to victory.

This day, this glorious day proclaims that, if we cling to something that is passing away; we too will pass away.  This glorious day proclaims that if we cling to pain or hurt or wrong inflicted to us, we will live and die in that pain.  But… if we cling to the one who overcame death and the grave, if we cling to our citizenship in the Kingdom of God, a kingdom where all things, even death on a cross, work together for the good of those who belong to the Author of Life itself, then, my friends, death no longer has dominion over us, either.  We, too, can go through life knowing that even scars proclaim his glory, and even after this failing dominion of death does it’s worse, we too will rise from the tomb to live in the presence of God forevermore. 

Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!