You Feed Them: Empowered to serve.

How many times have you heard the feeding of the five thousand?  It’s one of those very familiar passages, one that many of us would have learned in Sunday School, or from a picture book about a boy with loaves and fish.

Yet, for all it’s familiarity, I’m willing to bet that there’s one crucial aspect that has been glossed over – at least, that’s a bet I’m willing to make because, out of the dozens of sermon’s I’ve heard on this passage, there’s something here that totally escaped my notice until Friday afternoon.

Matthew chapter 14, starting at verse 15: When it was evening, the disciples said to Jesus, “this is a deserted place, and it’s now late in the evening; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.

Ok – that’s all familiar enough.  This crowd had trekked along the sea shore to find Jesus, and had been listening to him and experiencing his healing all afternoon, and now it was getting late.

But then comes Jesus’ response, in verse 16.  Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat”.

Huh.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve missed that crucial detail every time I’ve read or heard this miracle.  It’s late, they’ve wandered far from home, they weren’t at all prepared for the journey ahead, and the disciples – on first glance – appear to be doing the caring and compassionate thing: ‘Lord, today’s been great, but it’s time to wrap this up… these people need to get home and have some supper.”

But Jesus looks at them, looks at these average, everyday, hard-working, not especially trained followers and says “feed them”.  You do it.  Don’t send them away – they came looking for healing, they came wanting to hear the truth; don’t just give them what they were looking for… give them what they need.

Isn’t that just incredible?  Jesus doesn’t say, “hold on, I’ve got a plan.” He doesn’t say, “I’ll take care of it, you’ll see”. 

No, he looks at his followers and says “ok, they’re hungry; so feed them!”.

Called forth in His Name

It truly is remarkable, but this highlights one of the great challenges for anyone who would be a follower of Jesus.

While the world tells us to step up and be the master of our own destiny, the great mystery and majesty of the Cross is that true freedom comes in laying down our burdens and instead willingly putting on that blessed yoke of the Lord’s service; the truth of the Gospel is that we find freedom in giving up our own attempts at control and humbly offering ourselves as servants of the kind, loving, and merciful Master who knows our fears and failings, and offered Himself for us.

On the one hand, all of us are called to give up trusting in ourselves and hand ourselves over to Christ’s service.

But – and here’s the challenge – the Lord calls us to follow him and be his servants; yes, to have a whole-hearted, child-like faith and to be innocent as doves, but not to be timid or to laze about like cattle fattening in a pasture; no, as servants, we’re to be good and faithful in the work we’re given to do.

In other words, once we give up trying to be the masters of our own life, once we call Jesus our Lord and Master and agree to be his servants, a great turnaround takes place: we who were powerless, we who were slaves to sin, become empowered; we become empowered to be our Master’s hands and feet and voice in the world.  We’re not to sing “I Surrender All” and then lie down in pastures green wistfully humming hymns while life passes us by.  No, we’re to go forth into the world in the power of the Spirit, and when we go forth, we find people who are broken, who are lost, who have been weighed down; we find people who are hungry – hungry for purpose, hungry for relationship, hungry for somewhere to belong, hungry to know that there is something more, that there is a feast prepared and a seat waiting with their name on it.

…And we bow our heads and pray, “Lord, have mercy on my sister, and my cousin, and my neighbour, and my friends; Lord, these people are confused and lonely; Lord, they’re carrying heavy burdens; Lord, they’re feeling empty… they’re hungry”. 

And Jesus looks us in the eye and says to us, in that clear, still, small voice: don’t send them away.  You give them something to eat.

And we look back, and very sincerely, we say, “Lord… I can’t… I don’t know how.  I don’t know the Bible, I don’t have any answers, most days I’m just barely hanging on myself… all I have is five loaves and a couple of fish, but these people need healing and forgiveness and so much that I don’t have to offer.”

And Jesus says, “I know what you have.  Offer it to me, let me use it.”  And once we hand over even the impossibly small bit that we have, once we offer it in obedience, Jesus turns our little bit into an overflowing abundance, more than enough, more than we can ever ask or imagine. 

But, then, did you notice what happens?  Verse 19: Jesus took and blessed the little bit that was offered, but did Jesus then take over and give everyone their supper?  No.  Jesus was quite clear – “you feed them”. 

Jesus gave what had been offered back to his disciples; He didn’t take it and do it all himself; he didn’t take what was offered and call in some professionals or someone with more experience or someone with greater gifts.  No, his words are unchanging; they endure forever.  He blessed it, gave it back to them, and said “you feed them”.

And, sure enough, everyone ate and was filled.

Hungry to Feed Others

In Romans[1], St. Paul speaks of the great longing – the great hunger – in his heart for his friends and neighbours, for his own family and community, to lay down their burdens and know the forgiveness and love of God. 

If we’ve actually known Christ’s love and mercy, if we’ve had our hunger satisfied at the Lord’s table, and not just as a token memorial meal, but to actually come to the Lamb’s high feast and, although we are unworthy even to gather the crumbs, to take our seat as a son or daughter and be filled with the Lord’s goodness, then we too will share St. Paul’s hunger, that longing for our friends and neighbours to know the glory of God, to know the blessings of the law, to know the wonder and refreshment of worship, and the promises of forgiveness and everlasting love.

But, even today, as we are invited to eat at the Lord’s Table, as we are invited to pray for the concerns of the world around us, the word of the Lord endures forever.  As we pray, as we offer the little bit we have, as we offer what sometimes feels so small that we can’t imagine God could use it at all, we hear the Lord’s voice: “feed them”.  Offer what you have to me, let me bless it, and then feed a hungry world.

Isaiah[2] said that, after the Messiah came, everyone who thirsts would be satisfied, that even those without money could come and feast on bread and wine.  But, even then, the prophet says, you shall call the world around you to come and feast – the Lord God has glorified you, Isaiah said.  The Lord God has taken the little you had and blessed it, and now you’ve been empowered to work in Jesus’ name: now, go.  O Church, you’ve knelt in prayer, now arise, suit up, and get to work.  Feed them.

Nobody said it would be easy.  Being willing to speak of the hope that is in us is hard.  Being willing to do what is necessary to invite others in, being ready to bend to make room for others as God, by his grace, fills his house once more is hard.  Being willing to reach out to meet those needs is hard.  But anything less is to ignore that call of Christ, our Captain. 

Today, as we receive that bread and wine freely, without price, take a moment, silently, and as you remember those deepest concerns laid on your heart, offer what little you have – even if it feels like crumbs – to God.  And, do you know what He’ll say?  “Feed them”.  And may each of us have the grace to respond, “ok… I don’t know how, but I’ll go where you send me”.

To God be the Glory now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Romans 9:1-5

[2] Isaiah 55:1-5

We aren’t the dirt.

“A sower went out to sow”.

Anyone who has spent any time in the church at all will be familiar with the parable of the sower.  It’s a beloved parable, not least because it’s one of just a handful of parables where Jesus goes back and explains what he meant – a great gift that guides us in interpreting the other parables of scripture.  And, it helps because the farming image comes back again in the letters of Paul: one plants, another waters, but God gives the growth; only God can wrap the full potential and beauty of a strong, fruitful plant into such a small package.

The sower is a wonderful image because it’s so down-to-earth, so simple.  Seeds are planted, some are eaten by birds, some spring up before others but are scorched because their roots can’t reach water, some are choked out by weeds, some grow and produce a mighty harvest of grain.

They’re familiar words.

But sometimes, familiarity gets in the way.  Sometimes we become so familiar with what we think something says that we actually miss something important.  Just as a prophet isn’t welcome in their hometown, or the hardest thing we can do is try to speak the truth to our own families, familiarity can cloud the message.  So I invite you this morning to look at this parable with fresh eyes.

What’s up with that sower?

One of the obvious questions with this misunderstood parable is “what is that sower doing?”.  Seriously, what sort of a farmer wastes seed like that?  If we stop to think about it, most of those seeds never had a chance from the start. 

You know I’ve got a garden planted behind the Rectory.  When I bought my carrot seeds, I borrowed a roto-tiller and tilled a deep bed, mixing in some rich black dirt; I raked it out to make sure the water wouldn’t wash the seeds away; I planted those little carrot seeds in a neat row, and sure enough, almost every one of them sprang up and is now a leafy stalk with a little tasty orange root growing by the day in that soft, well-prepared soil.

But, come on – if I bought that carrot seed but just started wandering around throwing them here and there, no one would think I’m being generous.  You’d think I’m foolish, even wasteful.  If I threw carrot seed in the parking lot, you’d think I’ve lost my head; if I threw carrot seed on the grassy front lawn, you’d think I’m insane.  Those seeds never had a chance!

…And there’s the big misunderstanding so many of us bring, even without thinking about it, to this parable.

For many of us, yes, we understand that God is unceasingly generous and merciful, but at the end of the day, we see God as a bit of a foolish farmer, wasting seed.  After all, we say to ourselves, we’re just the dirt in this story: it’s not the dirt’s fault that no one tended it, or that it was full of rocks or thorns.  Perhaps, as we see people snatched away or scorched or choked by the cares of the world, we think “well, that’s just how it is; God scatters the seed, but sometimes he doesn’t give any growth.  He’s a generous farmer scattering seed, but sometimes the soil just isn’t ready.” 

But, right off the bat, something there should smell fishy: anytime our understanding of God’s merciful desire to adopt us as his sons and daughters takes us off the hook, we can be guaranteed that we’ve missed the point.

And the same is true here.

If we step back, if we peel back the years of comfortable sermons we’ve heard on the topic, if we look at the actual words of Christ, one thing should jump out at us: at no point does it say that God is the farmer; at no point does it say that God owns the soil, that it’s His fault the soil was left rocky, or shallow, or full of weeds.  God, in the parable, is just the sower – the hired hand scattering seed on the land allotted to the farmer.

If God isn’t the Farmer, who is?

Sowing seeds in Jesus’ day wasn’t like our backyard gardens or our commercial farmers today.  Planting seeds in neat rows is a modern invention, impossible without modern tools.  No, rather it was the farmer’s job to wait for that first heavy rain of the Middle Eastern spring, then, as quickly as possible while the moisture was still on that hard crusty, sun-baked top layer, hitch up the oxen to the plow, and plow up the soft soil underneath.  The seeds from last year’s harvest were stored in the large granaries owned by the king or the wealthy land-owners, and once the farmer had done the back-breaking work of overturning that hard soil, removing the rocks and weeds, then a sower would come behind with the bags of seed borrowed from the storehouse of the king.  Seed was broadcast – thrown evenly from one border of the farmer’s field to the other.  And then, the farmer was to plow the field again to bury the seed, dragging branches behind the plow as a rake to smooth out the ground.  For every bag of seed borrowed to the farmer, the farmer owed that much seed and a portion of the harvest back to the king’s storehouse at harvest.

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that, in this parable, God is the sower.  The sower’s job is to take the good seed from the king’s storehouse and scatter that seed evenly from one edge of the allotted field to the other.

And, in spite of how we might be used to hearing this parable, at no point does it say that we are the soil.  After all, soil is just, well, dirt… you can’t expect much from dirt… and certainly not a relationship or a lifetime of discipleship.

No, my friends.  We are the farmer, the one responsible for the dirt.  We’re the one to whom a field has been allotted, and which the king expects we will tend.  It’s our responsibility to have the ground plowed and the rocks removed, to have the thorns weeded out, and to have the soil of our own lives ready for when the sower comes with the good seed from the king’s storehouse.  The Sower – Christ – is doing as he was commanded: scattering the seed evenly from one corner of the field to the other.  It’s the farmer’s job – it’s our job – to have that thick, sun-baked crust broken and ready to receive the seed.  It’s our job to go back through our own fields and plough the seed under so that they’ll have deep roots.  It’s our job to make sure the field has been weeded so the sprouts aren’t choked by thorns. 

That’s the extent of God’s patience and mercy, and his desire in giving us free will to freely choose to become his sons and daughters: Christ will faithfully scatter the good seed, again and again, year after year, season after season, in the hopes that we will have chosen not to sit idle, or to let our field grow in with weeds, or to stumble around drunk with bellies filled on another’s harvest, but that we will have our field ready.  Because, when the time comes for harvest – and that time is coming – we will need to give an account for the seed that has been lent to us.  The time comes when we must pay it back, with a portion of the harvest, into the king’s storehouse.

All that to say, when we look at ourselves, when we look at the fields allotted to our family members who have gone astray, when we look at those around us whose fields are as dry and dense as a well-worn path, or overgrown with weeds, we’re not to shrug and say, “oh well, I guess God didn’t give the growth”.  No, the seeds from the king’s storehouse are always ready to sprout.  With God all things are possible… after all, haven’t you ever seen a little evergreen tree sprouting horizontally out of the side of a cliff?  Seriously, the good seed can take root in even the most unlikely of places.

But we’re never to take ourselves off the hook.  God invites us into relationship with him.  God offers us the opportunity, season after season, to let that seed take root.  But, as the farmers that we are, responsible to tend and keep and have dominion over the soil we’ve been given, it’s on us to cooperate.  It’s on us to have our soil ready to plant, to bury the seeds deep in the furrows of our hearts, and to tend the field, knowing full well that we are the ones responsible to repay, to make account for, to offer back a portion of the seeds we’ve been given.The Good News.

The bad news, as we read this parable with fresh eyes, is that we’re not off the hook.  We’re not the dirt.  As farmers, it’s up to us to prepare and tend our own field, for which we will give account.  That’s the reality: we can’t blame the lack of growth on anyone else; after all, the good seed can take root in even the most unlikely of places if it’s given a chance.

That’s the bad news.  But the good news is that, while God won’t force us, he does have a plan to help each farmer prepare that soil.  When you were baptized, when you were confirmed, when you renewed those vows, you accepted God’s call to be a labourer in his vineyard; that call to come alongside another, to step into their field, to help them prepare and tend the soil.  That’s what Paul means when he says one planted, another watered; it’s our task, as those sent forth by God’s Spirit, as those whose seeds are already sprouted and have taken root, to step into another’s field and help them clear the weeds, to help them break the boulders, to wake them from their slumber when that spring rain of the Holy Spirit is falling on their field and the time has come to prepare the soil for planting, to get down in the dirt in our mission field and work to prepare even space for one of the Lord’s good seeds to take root – even on the side of a cliff – to produce fruit, knowing that each stalk produces hundreds of seeds, as our rocky fields become fertile, fruitful land bearing much fruit for the king as we learn, year after year, to be better stewards, better farmers, better able to share our God-given knowledge and experience with those struggling around us.

My friends, as we look to the year ahead, a year where everything as we know it will look different, this is a call to action: once we know our seeds have sprouted, once we’ve tended our own field, watering it with the daily dew of prayer, and weeding it with daily study of God’s Word, we have work to do: God is scattering seed all around.  I’ve seen seeds taking root in the most unlikely of places.  Some are waiting to be planted, while the ravens pick away at them.  Others have found receptive soil because of this pandemic, but unless those seeds are lovingly plowed under to grow deep roots, the plants will shrivel. 

We’re the farmers.  We’re the labourers in Christ’s mission field.  The seeds have been scattered.  Let’s get to work, for harvest always comes sooner than we expect.

Notes:

My exegesis follows that of Cyril of Alexandria (from Matthaus-Kommentare aus der griechischen Kirche, in ACCS, Manlio Simonetti, ed.), and John Chrysostom’s homilies on Matthew as found in Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church.

The Problem of Positive Thinking

Paul writes: I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want to do; instead, I do the things that I hate.  Romans 7:15

Have you ever found yourself thinking the same thing?  You make a decision, you say “I’m going to change my life for the better”, you say “that’s it’, I’m going to take charge; I’m going to start exercising, I’m going to watch what I’m putting into my body.  I’m going to take control of my attitude, I’m going to let go of the anger over things I can’t control, I’m going to stop reacting to those around me and start making my own decisions”.

…Or maybe it’s much more basic than that: we repent from our sins, we ask for forgiveness and decide to follow Jesus – no turning back, no turning back.  But then, a little ways down the road, we find ourselves right back where we were.

This is exactly what St. Paul is speaking about in his letter to the Romans.  Much like ourselves, the citizens of Rome considered themselves to be educated, sophisticated people.  When Paul was writing, there were a number of very popular philosophies, particularly among those who viewed themselves as up-and-coming, enlightened people.

Some taught and believed that true happiness could only be found in gaining control over your emotions, in learning to overcome your gut reactions and your own desires, and instead being guided by pure reason and rationality.[1]  Others taught that it wasn’t our actions towards others, it wasn’t right or wrong that mattered, but whether we had gathered up the right knowledge: knowledge is power, so the goal of life is to find the right teacher and gather up as much knowledge as possible, and then you’ll be in control of your destiny.[2]

And, honestly, we find ourselves in much the same situation today.  Those claiming to be the spiritual guides, teachers, and counsellors of our own day offer much the same as Paul found in his day.  Some live by “the power of positive thinking”, or what mental health workers now call “toxic positivity”: the idea that we should repress our actual feelings and our real-life situations, and just be positive instead of calling it like it is.  (Thankfully, the health care community is now speaking out about just how dangerous this positive thinking can be!).

On the other hand, plenty today would choose to reject their emotions altogether and instead live by knowledge, science, and reason alone – and it only takes a visit to the bedside of a dying person to show that, yes, knowledge indeed looks like power when you’re strong, when life is going your way, and when you seem to be in control.  But when faced with things that you can’t change, when faced with situations that you didn’t choose, and circumstances beyond your control – when faced with the harsh realities of real life – all the knowledge in the world only serves to remind you how very powerless you are to change anything that really matters.

There are all sorts of would-be spiritual guides or teachers of the right knowledge all competing for our attention, all competing to gather us as followers.  But, as attractive as an idea might be on the surface, anything that’s lasting, anything that’s good, true, or beautiful shouldn’t just sound nice in our ears today – it should bear fruit.

…and at the end of the day, how many of those resolutions, those decisions to take charge and change your life have actually stuck?

A Sin-Sick Soul

Paul’s message is an unpopular one, precisely because it’s true – uncomfortably true for each and every one of us.  At the end of the day, I cannot carry out the decisions I make.  I know what is right, I know what I want to do, I decide how I want to live, but time and time again, I look back and I see myself doing the very things I hate, the very things I detest in other people, the very things I declared I would give up.

Paul’s message – and the message of the Gospel – is that there’s more to us than just our mind.  As one theologian famously put it, humans are not just a brain on a stick.[3]  It’s not like we can just jam our minds full of the “right stuff” and then be set for life, in spite of all the self-help books or YouTube documentaries we might turn to for knowledge.

We’re more complex than that: we are spiritual beings.  Alongside our knowledge of right and wrong, of good and bad, of what is healthy and what leads to destruction, we find ourselves face to face with passions and desires and emotions that seem to run entirely against what we want for ourselves.  

The Christian faith confronts this head-on.  No, we don’t choose what we know is right – and it’s not because of a lack of knowledge or opportunity.  It’s because, deep down, my soul – that part of me that gives me emotions rather than instincts, that part of me that lets me love, and hope, and dream, that part of me that is made in the image of God – is sick.  My soul, your soul, is sick with sin.  Some of it is our own doing – like an upset stomach is our fault when we sit down and eat a family size bag of chips by ourselves, even though we know it’s not a great decision.  (Not that I’m speaking from experience…)

And some of that sin-sickness isn’t our fault, but inherited from our parents, like a family history of poor digestion; and some of it is caused by our environment, like allergies that crop up in response to the pollen in the air.

Some of this “sin-sickness” is our own doing, and some of it isn’t, but either way, it’s there.  And, we read in Romans, the reason I cannot carry out what I decide to do, the reason I keep on doing the things that I hate in others and the things I know are bad for me is because my passions, my emotions, my desires, the things my soul loves are working against me – and no amount of knowledge or positive thinking in my rational mind can change that fundamental problem.

Our problem isn’t a lack of knowledge.  We know it’s wrong.  We know smoking, or drinking that half case of beer, or going back for that second slice of cake, or taking that second or third glance at that person who caught your eye, or obsessing about your bank account, or holding that grudge, or pretending we know all that’s going on in another person’s life are all destructive behaviours.  But we persist against our own will precisely because it’s not our mind, but our soul that is sick.

A Spiritual Problem needs a Spiritual Remedy

That’s half the battle – you’ve got to know the illness before you can find the remedy.

If I break my leg, the remedy isn’t positive thinking: it’s a cast. 
If I have cancer in my body, none of the theories about the big bang and evolution are doing to fix it: I need to cut it out.

The truth of the Gospel is that Christ entered into that frustration shared by all humanity, that sin-sickness that wars against our mind and our body, not just so that we can calm ourselves by knowing he has shared our weakness.  The solution isn’t knowledge: it’s a transplant!  The truth of the Gospel is that Christ wants us to accept a transfusion, to allow God’s own Spirit to heal our sin-sick soul.  It’s a process.  Sure, it might seem faster if he could just swap our sick one for his own, but just as a doctor must carefully give us the right dosage of our medicine over time, God’s will is that the ongoing indwelling of the Holy Spirit would, over a lifetime, begin that process of healing our desires, our emotions, our passions, our longings, until that day when we share in Christ’s likeness, and are no longer torn between what we know is right and what our bodies desire; until that day that we are fully known, that the effects of our own sin, as well as the sin of the world around us are done away, and we can be as we were intended: fully alive, and united with one another in the presence of God himself.

So, the next time you find yourself kicking yourself because you just don’t understand why you did the thing you hate, first, remember you’re in good company.

Then, more importantly, acknowledge that you’re not a brain on a stick.  It’s not that you don’t know right from wrong; it’s that your soul, our souls, my soul is still sick.  And as we repent and return to Christ, as we resolve to follow Him, pray not just for more understanding, but pray for a transfusion of the Holy Spirit.  Positive thinking or all the knowledge in the world can only get us so far: a spiritual illness needs a spiritual remedy, and Christ the Great Physician offers it to all of us… We just need to follow the doctor’s orders.


[1] Yes, this is a gross over-simplification of Stoicism.

[2] A sloppy but apt description of the mindset behind gnostic movements.

[3] James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom, and the popular adaptation You are what you love.

Worship: Is God worth it?

One of the great opportunities we have in these unprecedented times is to ask, “what lessons should we be learning?”.

There are lessons to be learned just about everywhere: how to strengthen our health system, how to better care for the elderly, how to make low-paying jobs worth more than the emergency response benefit, and how to respond to the brutality and injustice shown to other people made in the image of God.

And, as people in whom the Spirit of God is at work, we must also ask “what is God saying to the church in this time?”.  We know from his word that God always works some ultimate and eternal good out of even the most dire human circumstances, as long as we love him and follow where he leads.[1]

While God no doubt has many lessons for us, one jumps out at me this morning: why do we worship?

Struggling to Connect

For a lot of us, Sunday mornings had been a comfortable routine for as long as we can remember: familiar songs, familiar words, a well-worn pew in a beloved building dedicated to the glory of God and the worship of the church, familiar faces and the warm welcome of people – brothers and sisters – you know would be there for you, to celebrate with you when you’re happy, and to lift you up when you’re weak.

And, of course, we’ve done the best we can: by the grace of God we’ve managed to stay connected on Sunday mornings, to stay connected by phone and now dropping in on one another all week long.  We’ve kept calm and carried on; we’ve made do as best we could.  And, thanks be to God, we’ve become more visible and more involved in our community than we have in years, with more parishioners volunteering in new and different ministries every day of the week.  We’ve had people digging in and learning to study the Bible as a message that applies to our lives today, and we’ve had people asking hard questions and inviting God’s gift of healing into their lives, not just for their bodies, but doing the greater work of healing the memories that hold us down.

It one way, the pandemic has been good  – this is our moment, and we’re stepping up, boldly, in the name of Christ.

But, if I’m being honest, Sunday mornings have been hard, and I say that as a priest whose work is the worship of the church. 

It was one thing when the weather was icy and cold, but if I’m being honest, the idea of talking to a camera, or even setting up church on the lawn, just doesn’t “do it” for me.  I can only imagine what it’s like on the other side, watching on a screen in your living room, or batting away flies outside under the sun.  If I’m honest, one of the thoughts that crosses my mind is, “I don’t get much out of this”… and I’m sure I’m not alone.

It’s ok for us to admit how we’re feeling: God is truth, and He knows the secrets of our hearts anyway.  But once we name our perception, our task as disciples, as students and apprentices of Jesus, is to learn to see things as God does.

What is worship?

I think all of us naturally think about worship as something for us.  We come to be fed, we come to learn, we come to feel the support of our church family.  We come to sing uplifting songs.  We come looking for something familiar, something stable when the world is spinning, something that will fill us up to face the week ahead.

In short, we come to worship because of what worship gives me.

So then, when I don’t feel like I’m getting anything out of it, it’s easy and even natural for me to excuse myself and choose something that feels more beneficial instead.

Indeed, an entire generation has done that, as churches everywhere have grey heads and young families, but very few in the middle, usually because they “got more” out of some other option for Sunday morning.

But in this time of revaluating everything, if we stop and listen to God’s word and the faith of his church, we learn a hard lesson: worship isn’t about us.

If I get fed, if I learn something, if I come away refreshed and ready to face the week ahead, those are added bonuses: but they’re not the point. 

Worship, rightly understood, is only every about God – he is the one and only worthy of all worship, he alone is worthy of praise, and he not only deserves but commands that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and not just once in our lives and not just when we feel we need him, but that He would lay claim on one day each and every week as we proclaim the resurrection, eat the bread of heaven, and tell one another the old, old story, for the cares and concerns of the world cause us to forget so soon.

Even the word “worship” is all about God.  It means “to ascribe worth”, to declare that the thing we worship is worth our time and our talent and our treasure.[2]  Worship has nothing to do with how I feel or what I get out of it – in fact, any time my thoughts or my excuses circle back to me, I can be assured that I’ve been held captive by the sin of pride, as I’ve allowed my understanding of the world to have me and my feelings at the centre. 

Worship is not something we do or something that feeds us; worship is what we give.  Our task, as God’s people, is to ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; to bring and offering and come into his courts; to bow down before him not for what he has done for us, but simply because He is God and we are not; He is powerful and we are weak; He is merciful, and we stand in need of mercy before the one who knows the deepest secrets of our hearts.[3]

It’s a hard message, especially if we’ve been doing it backwards most of our lives.  But I believe it’s also a wake-up call.

A Biblical Understanding

Worship becomes so much clearer if we turn from our familiar patterns and look with fresh eyes at what God says in his word.[4]

In Abraham taking his son Isaac – a story that should rightly challenge us and raise all sorts of questions – we see the realities of worship laid bare.

God called Abraham to worship him upon the mountain of the Lord; to present himself along with his son – the son Abraham had longed for in his old age, the son who literally represented everything Abraham had in the world, and his entire hope for the future. 

It’s truly painful to read – I can’t even imagine the grief in Abraham’s heart as he brought all of his hopes and dreams, bound up in the person he loved more than anything else in the world, and carried to the Lord.

But, Abraham said, “we will go over there, and we will worship”.

That’s Abraham’s act of worship – no uplifting songs, no fuzzy words of comfort, no goal of being filled up for the week ahead.  Rather, simply and only because God is God, Abraham shows us what it means when we say “I surrender all”.

Abraham says (in his actions) ‘I will worship, I will give God the honour and glory due his name, even though it looks like it will cost me everything. I will worship, not because of what God gives me in return, but I will ascribe God’s worth simply because God is worth it.’

And, of course, we know God doesn’t desire burnt offerings; as we see with Abraham, the only sacrifice truly acceptable to the LORD is the one that the Lord provides. But that’s the point: if God is worth it, if God is who we say he is, then worship is nothing short of our being willing to give him everything we have, and more than that, everything we love

I can guarantee that nothing about Abraham’s walk to worship that morning made him feel good; it certainly wasn’t what he wanted to be doing.  But the call to worship is just that: a weekly reminder that “I surrender all” really means surrendering all; to weekly take ourselves off the pedestals we build and return to the Lord, not for our benefit, but simply because God is worth our time and our effort; to weekly remind ourselves that God alone has been our help in ages past, and in spite of the work of our hands, he alone will be our hope in years to come.

What about worship?

So, if you’re like me, and Sunday morning on a screen, or on the lawn just doesn’t do it for you, or even if the thought of returning to the church building without any singing or greeting one another doesn’t seem like something we’d get much out of, it’s good for us to name that. 

We should name how we’re feeling, but then we need to call it like it is.

We aren’t Christians because we enjoy church services.  We’re Christians because we said “I surrender all”, and God said “come, my child, and feast at my table”, and then “go, make disciples of all nations”.

We need to confess our frustration, and remind ourselves, time and time again that we worship simply because God is worth it.  As Paul said in Romans, we come obedient to the command of God, and present ourselves – surrender ourselves, laying ourselves down as willing servants before a gracious master.[5]

Of all the lessons to learn from COVID, this is a lesson that we – the Church – have needed to learn for generations, and it only continues to show God’s wisdom that he could use something as awful as a pandemic to help us see how the sin of pride and individualism has even infected what we do on Sunday morning.

The reality is, whether we’re online or on the lawn, whether we’re back in church or away at the cabin, worship isn’t something we do for our benefit.  Whether we’re in our pews, on vacation, or watching in your pyjamas with your morning coffee, God commands us to keep the Lord’s day, gathering with even one or two others to proclaim his greatness, to offer ourselves and all that he’s given us, and to tell the old, old story to our children, to the world, and to ourselves, for we forget.

By the grace of God, sometimes it builds us up.  Sometimes we leave re-charged.  And sometimes, let’s be honest, it’s a chore, especially toting young children along on a sunny day after a stressful week.  But whether it’s in the pews, online, on the lawn, or by yourself with your Bible and a prayerbook for 15 minutes at your campsite in the woods, when it comes to worship there should only ever be one question: is God worth it?

…And it’s only after we say “yes” that we realize the great blessings he has in store for all who follow him.

Looking for help structuring worship at home or on Sundays away from church during these strange times? Check these out!

Home Prayers (PDF) from the Book of Alternative Services

Forms of Prayer to be Used in Families (PDF) from the Book of Common Prayer


[1] Romans 8:26-30

[2] For a helpful discussion, see John Piper at Desiring God.

[3] Psalm 96

[4] Genesis 22:1-14

[5] Romans 6:12-23

“We have sinned” — sin, slavery, and individualism.

…that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.  Romans 6:6

What does it mean to be enslaved to something?

In a week filled with talk of racial injustice, of the long-term effects of oppression and calls to re-evaluate how we understand our history, it’s important that we step back from hot-button commentaries on statues or Aunt Jemima pancake syrup and think for a moment on the bigger issues that are under the surface.  This is important not because of politics – really, I think the last thing we need is a politically-motivated church; it’s important because our job, you and me together, is to be Christ’s voice of hope and forgiveness and mercy right here, close to home.  How can any of us offer hope, or reach out in mercy, or even attempt to guide our children’s understanding of the world around them, if our understanding is built on nothing more than the talking heads on TV, and whatever article happens to have the most likes, shares, or angry faces online.

Big problems require big solutions.  And in a world set on quick and easy solutions, we’re not going to find any lasting answers unless we step back and think before we speak, or comment, or like and share.

Slaves to Sin?

Freedom from oppression is one of the key themes of God’s work from Genesis to Revelation.  And, as much as it may make us uncomfortable, slavery is a key idea in St. Paul’s message of the Gospel; the language is familiar: we are slaves to sin. And this message really has two goals: that we would understand the world’s predicament, and, from there, we would understand the sort of freedom offered to us by Jesus.

But if we step back from the noise of current events, we’ll find one of our issues, even for preachers and clergy, is that we love to talk before we’ve listened.  The Apostle Paul says we were slaves to sin.  But before we can make any sense of that, we have to first stop and make sure we understand what is really meant by those key words: sin, and slaves.

Sin: it’s bigger than you.

We live in a world that is entirely built around the individual: my hopes, my dreams, my freedom, my work, my earnings, my responsibility, my rights.  And, as we’ve built this world all about me, we’ve come to define sin the same way: the individual things I’ve done and choices I’ve made that have directly hurt someone else.  It’s a definition of sin that protects me: I can sleep easy at night because I haven’t murdered anyone, I haven’t actually had an affair with anyone, so it’s all good.  I don’t need a saviour today; I have nothing to confess, because I haven’t purposefully hurt another individual today.

But that’s not what scripture means by sin.  That’s an awful individualistic lie.

I wish sin was defined that way, because it lets us off the hook; but it isn’t.  We made that up.

“Sins” aren’t boxes, individual actions, to avoid checking off the list each day.  Sin is an archery term.  It means “missing the mark”.  It’s not about individual things done or left undone; sin isn’t even just about things done on purpose, or things done by yourself.  Sin is what God calls anything that isn’t a bullseye.  This isn’t horseshoes and it isn’t hand grenades: almost living a perfect life is sin.  That’s why scripture can say “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”.  The hasn’t been and there will not be a day I can pat myself on the back and say “I don’t need a saviour today”; there has not been and there will not be a day when I – my decisions, my choices, and the unintended consequences of my actions or my silence in the world around me – haven’t fallen short of the glory of God. 

We are enslaved by sin.

And, lest we slip back into our individualistic view of the world, this “missing the mark” isn’t just about me.  We do not sing “O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the Alex.”  …or the Kristina, or the Ruth, or the Theo.  We did not sing this morning “the sacrificial Lamb who saves the ‘me’ from sin”.

We’re not just talking about the individual things you or I did on purpose to hurt someone else. We’re not even talking about the sins of a group of individuals. 

Sin, falling short of the target, is not just individual, but corporate; God sees sin when our relationships, our politics, our laws, our marketplace, our investments, our pension plans fall short of the glory of God, fall short of God’s will for how we will live in the Kingdom of God.

Sin is – pardon my use of a word you’ve heard in the news – systemic.

A network, a system of which you or I might be the tiniest of insignificant parts, but which, in spite of the progress made, in spite of the work being done, in spite of choosing only the necessary evils that do the least harm, nevertheless misses the bullseye.  Nevertheless it’s sinful: it falls short of the glory of God. 

We have to put aside the old progressive lie that we can pat ourselves on the back as a society, because there has not been and there will not be a day when the Lamb did not have to be slain for the sins of our world. 

We have to acknowledge – foundationally – that, short of the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, our individual and corporate efforts will never be good enough to pay the price of a world that not only falls short, but isn’t even aiming at the target that is the Kingdom of God.

And this is hard for those on all sides of the current debates to hear: but if the sins aren’t just individual, purposeful actions, then the solutions can’t be personal empowerment.  If the focus on me and my rights is part of the problem, then more individuals fighting for more individual rights can never be part of any ultimate or lasting solution.

There will never be a day that me or you haven’t fallen short, and no amount of rights or empowerment can change that.  But that doesn’t take us off the hook.  Rather, that is the hook: we have to follow Jesus.  Every day, every day, I have to acknowledge where I’ve fallen short, and more than that, I have to look at the world around me and acknowledge where we have fallen short. 

Not to talk our way out of it, not to congratulate ourselves for doing better than yesterday, but to look around, acknowledge the mess, and say all we can say: “Lord, have mercy”, and “Lord, let me take up my cross and follow you.”… and then do it.

And that’s where things change: so many of the voices we hear today would either have us excuse ourselves (“I’m not a racist; I’ve always treated people fairly”) or else attempt to carry the entire weight of the world on our own shoulders.

Like an addict in recovery, we cannot escape this system by ourselves; we need a higher power.  The weight of the world would crush us; but if we die to self, die to sin, and cling to Christ’s death and resurrection, we’re not released from the burden, but we find that, sharing our load with him and one another, the yoke is easy, and the burden is light.

Enslaved to sin.

You were slaves to sin, Paul writes.  And if there’s one thing our modern, individualistic minds get wrong about slavery, it’s how all-encompassing it is.

We want to believe that we can make good choices, clean up our act, and be masters of our own destiny.  But that’s this world’s biggest lie.  That would be true, we could make our own bed to lie in, if we were free. But we’re not.

No, it’s not fair. Slavery isn’t fair.

In Genesis, Abraham has two sons.  One born to a free woman, one born to a slave.  One born with an inheritance, and a land, and a name.  The other born of despair and regret, born indebted to another, with no hope to ever inherit, own, or lay claim to anything in the world around him.

Which of those boys are responsible for how they were born?  Neither.

But here’s the uncomfortable truth that St. Paul wants us to hear: In spite of what we tell ourselves or what the world tells us, none of us is that first boy.  All of us are born enslaved to a world of sin.  All of us are born into a system of corporate consequences built up and compounded by every missing of the mark.

And the slave can clean up their master’s house as much as they want, they can give their life to the cleaning up of that house, but as long as they’re enslaved, it can never be theirs, they can never pass it to their children, their work can’t last. We are born enslaved in this world of sin.

Christ came and paid the ransom for the sins of the world.  Christ paid to emancipate you and me from the slavery to the system of sin we were born in to.

But, once we’re free,  once we’re made free in Jesus, then we are responsible for our own decisions, and not just the things we do on purpose, but for all the ways we take part in the system we ourselves were freed from: we find ourselves called to repent, day in and day out, not just for things we’ve done, but for all the ways we’ve dishonoured that ransom paid; for all the ways we’ve been happy to remain slaves, sweeping the floors and polishing the furniture in the household of sin.  Once we learn to accept that we are sinners in need of a saviour, then we no longer need to cling to the worldly structures around us.  Once my identity is rooted in Christ, I can call it like it is, speak the painful truth, and reach out in mercy with the good news that we all need to surrender, lay down our arms, admit our failings, accept the ransom that was paid in exchange for our pride, and then simply follow with the humility of one dependent on the free gift of God.

Difficult Words

Stepping back from the news headlines, these words from scripture are uncomfortable.  They’re difficult because they go against the arguments on all sides; they’re difficult because they confront the lies of individualism, rights, and personal freedom that our world has built upon.

Our task is to confess our faults and humbly follow Christ.

We don’t need to yell, we don’t need to shout, we don’t need to put up signs.  But we do need to be faithful: to first learn the truth of the Gospel, to accept that all of us fall short every day, and then speak that Gospel truth to a world that is confused and divided.  We need to stop before every comment, before every good post that we share, and ask the question: “is this telling the truth that every day, each and every one of us has fallen short of the glory of God, or does it let someone off the hook, or let us pat ourselves on the back as though we don’t need a saviour?”

Because if it isn’t the truth, it’s a lie.  If we’re not for the truth, then we’re against it, and we’ve allowed ourselves to be enslaved by sin.

“Jesus said, “do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword… and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 

Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worth of me.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

What can we say?
Lord have mercy.  Let me take up my cross and follow you.  Amen.

Boast in your Hope.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ … and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Romans 5:1-2.

To say that this has been a rough couple of months might be the understatement of the decade.  Our country, our world changed overnight as the virus travelled around the globe, and all the routines, everything we considered “normal” was suddenly replaced by new terms we had never even heard before: social distancing, and self-isolation.

Then, in the weeks that followed, we began to see the economic impacts, as hard-working, self-supporting families turned to food banks, and hard decisions had to be made by people all around us; decisions whose effects will continue to ripple for months and years to come as we recover.

And with that, came the many less visible effects that have spread through every community, as isolation breeds depression, and people who had cleaned up and turned away from a life dependant on a bottle or a puff or a pill bought on the street were tempted to throw all that away to occupy their idle hands.

Many of us have also seen, or at least heard of, the effects of isolation for those whose homes are not happy places, as support structures – and ways to blow off steam – were taken away, and here in Canada, domestic violence help-lines have seen a 300% increase in calls,[1] and that’s not to mention the normal, everyday grief and frustration that slowly simmers into anger as so many simply feel powerless as this invisible virus changes everything we’ve worked and hoped for, and everything from graduations and birthdays to mourning and supporting one another in times of need has changed.

And if that wasn’t enough, anyone who turns on the news knows the pain and deep division that’s coming to the surface now as racial tensions rise, and it seems day after day, even very close to home, video after video emerges to show just how depraved we can be in the way we treat one another.

It’s enough to make you throw your hands up in despair.  No wonder the world around us is anxious.

…But then we turn to scripture.  Hard as it is, we don’t turn to God’s Word to hear what we want to hear, but to hear what God is saying through the Church.  And today, with all that’s happening in our world, what is God saying?  “We have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ… and we boast in the hope of sharing in the glory of God.”

Boast in your hope.

Now I must say I’ve read this verse hundreds of times, but never before has that phrase jumped out like it did this week.

One of the marks of a Christian – one who has been forgiven, who has been made right in the eyes of God by believing and following Jesus – is that you boast in your hope.

Think about it: this is totally upside down from the world’s perspective.  According to the world, we should boast in what we have, in what we’ve done.  In the world, in the workplace, that’s how boasting works: people boast pridefully as they try to prove to others just how good they are.  “I’ve done this, I’ve accomplished that; I built this from the ground up; look at my home, look at my car, look at my kids: one’s a teacher, one’s an engineer.”

But, for those following Jesus, that’s not the way.  We boast in our hope; and hope, in a biblical sense, isn’t positive thoughts or wishful thinking.  Hope, in scripture, is nothing short of the confident expectation that God will keep his promises.

When the world is swirling around us, when everywhere you look is nothing but bad news, those whose lives are built on themselves, on the work they have done, on their own accomplishments, are thrown into anxiety and despair.  There’s not much to boast about when businesses are closed, bank accounts are draining, and you’re being asked the hard but serious questions about whether the opportunities you’ve been given and your success would have looked different based on the colour of your parents’ skin.

But, if we want to live as followers of Christ, we’re not to build our identity or our value or our worth in wealth or possessions or positions, we’re not to put our trust in the work of our own hands.  The message of the cross is nothing short of radical surrender.  The invitation of Jesus is to finally admit that we can’t do it on our own, that we can’t rely on ourselves, because, I can’t hope in my own future if I’m powerless to change the world around me, and the outcome of that, as we’re seeing every day, is anger, frustration, and despair.

Whether we work a trade like Sts. James and John, or work in an office like St. Matthew, or are among the ruling elite like Paul, or work with our hands and care for our families like Tabitha, all the world’s ambitions, hopes, and plans are worthless… all the world’s training in positive thinking and personal empowerment come crashing down when we learn, in times like these, that I really can’t control anything outside of myself, and no amount of worrying can add even a single hour to my life.

But the message of the cross is to surrender; to admit defeat; to stop playing the life-long games of trying to get ahead, and finally acknowledge my life is in God’s hands, I can’t do this on my own, I can’t see the path ahead… so Lord, let me follow you.

And when we finally bring ourselves to give up, everything changes.

My circumstances in this moment no longer matter.  My identity, my value, my worth, isn’t found in the things I have done.  Paul says I can even boast in my suffering.

Now, who in their right mind boasts in suffering… unless we have full confidence that even being the least of the sons and daughters of God is still better than all the praise or boasting that this world can offer.

It’s that confidence, that sure and certain hope, that the uncertainty, the frustration, the worry, the anger, the fear of today – even the loss of every thing that I have – cannot change my value or my worth as one who has been made right in the eyes of God by surrendering, by giving up the lead, and simply following the One who knows the way because he’s walked it before: Jesus knows poverty, he knows hunger, he knows ridicule and shame, he knows doubt, and he knows what it is to triumph over the sin of this world and to live not for yourself, but as a member of a body knit together by love, sacrifice, and a sure and certain hope in the One who holds the future.

Boast in your hope.

In spite of what’s happening around us, boast in the knowledge that tomorrow, and the day after that, and the days and weeks and years to come are in God’s hands; boast in the fact that your value isn’t in what you have or what you do, but in who you are in the eyes of God.

And does that mean all your anxiety goes away?  Does that mean you never worry?  Does that mean you won’t have days like I had on Friday morning when you are so darn frustrated that you’re ready to throw things out the window and snap at the next person unlucky enough to cross your path?

No.  Not at all.  That’ll still happen. 

But that anxiety, that frustration, even that pain now carries no weight, because we know who holds tomorrow, and we know where our true worth is found.

And when we snap, or when we find out we were wrong, there’s no longer any need to be ashamed and get defensive.  We can own it, and surrender once more, knowing that every time we’re out of line, the answer isn’t forging ahead, but to fall back and follow  the Good Shepherd.

A Mission:

This is how we’re to live in difficult times.  And, the harvest is plentiful – let’s not kid around, we don’t have to look very far to find someone who is anxious, depressed, frustrated, worried, angry, or fearful.

If we can learn to boast in our hope, even just a little, then two things happen:

We become the labourers in that harvest, like Jesus said.  And, as we learn that confident hope, by God’s grace we find what we can never find for ourselves: that anxiety, that stress is replaced by a peace that passes understanding – a perfect peace that really makes no sense in the eyes of the world.

And yes, sometimes that hope sounds ridiculous.  Who can blame Sarah for laughing anymore than we would laugh if someone said one of our dear 80-year-old ladies would bear a child.  But that’s our task right now: to grin in the face of the impossible and say “God’s got this, I’m not going to worry about it; He’ll work it out, I’ll trust in Him, and follow where He leads, one day at a time”.

That’s hope to boast about.  It sounds simple… simple enough that you and me, normal, everyday followers of Jesus, can start living that way today.

So let’s do it – because if there’s one thing the world needs now, it’s hope that the God who loves us will lead us, that his grace is sufficient, and that no matter what we face, he offers his peace; all we have to do is surrender and follow where he leads.

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


[1] https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/advocates-scramble-to-help-domestic-abuse-victims-as-calls-skyrocket-during-covid-19-1.4923109

Relationship: Three in One

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… so God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

Every time we gather, we profess our faith in the Trinity, God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We see the Trinity at work in scripture, and by faith, confess that we were created by the Father, redeemed by Jesus Christ, and are being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

But let me admit – if your head hurts when you stop to think about how all that works, you’re in good company.  Every analogy, every sermon illustration fails to accurately describe the eternal majesty of God, at least in part because, in this broken and fallen world, we can’t even imagine what it would be like for even two – let alone three people to be perfectly united, without pride, without fighting and holding grudges, without manipulation, and without wanting to hoard the power or opportunity for themselves.

At the end of the day, we can’t even imagine that perfect unity of perfect love, absolute trust, and complete understanding, because, no matter how hard we try, it is so very different from our own experience of relationships.

But, right there, is perhaps the most important thing we can say or learn about the Trinity: God, in his very essence, is not only eternal, all-powerful, and all-knowing; God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is perfect relationship.[1]

The Importance of Relationship

God is perfect relationship.  And that’s incredibly important not just because it tells us about God, but because it tells us something about ourselves.

At Creation, God said “Let us make humankind in our image”.  It’s no accident that the scriptures use the plural there: the Trinity are active together in creation, the Father, the Creator as the source of life; Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word which spoke all things into being, and the Holy Spirit, the breath of God who swept over the chaos of the universe, and breathed the spark of life into our nostrils.

God, who is perfect relationship, created us to share that image and likeness.  God Created us to share in His own ability to create, and to think, and to have control over and responsibility for the earth he created.  And God, whose very essence is united in the perfect relationship of the Trinity, made us to reflect that likeness as well: we were created for relationships, to be in relationship with God and with each other.

Have you ever stopped to think why it is that we crave relationships?

Even in this broken and fallen world, where even something as pure as love gets twisted as it is bumped and bruised, we all crave relationships; we all crave to be heard, to be understood; we all crave to be noticed and cared for; and we all crave to have someone or something else depend on us, even if we don’t know how to express it.

To be created in the image of God is to be created for relationship.  We were created with the intention that we would freely choose to accept God’s love, and to perfectly love, trust, and obey Him in return.  But, of course, you know how it went: we just couldn’t bring ourselves to believe that the boundaries God put in place were truly for our benefit, we wouldn’t trust that God’s simple invitation to trust and obey was truly the best thing for us.

And so began the rest of human history.  Relationships were replaced by pride and power.  Our fellow men and women, our families, our siblings, even our own spouses are no longer those to be trusted and loved as people perfectly united; no, instead each person becomes an way for us to exert power or to be oppressed, as relationships are no longer a gift for us to experience the joy of God’s unity, as I become the centre of my universe, and my rights – not my responsibilities – become the law by which all others must live.

Lessons from the Trinity

As Christians, at baptism, we’re called to repent of the ways that the world uses relationships.  We’re to put off oppression and injustice, to renounce evil, and to live as brothers and sisters united as one body with Christ as the head.

But, if you’re like me, there’s times you’re not good at that.  As much as I want to be like Christ, even the most faithful among us have been formed by a world built not on unity, but on protecting and building up ourselves.  More than we’d like to admit it, in place of honest conversation, we’ve become skilled at manipulation; in place of offering ourselves freely to those we love, we’ve become masters at ensuring others need us, as we pat ourselves on the back.  In place of the vulnerability that comes with trust, we shield ourselves with sarcasm or a public persona, and when we don’t feel noticed, we allow ourselves to boil over so others will react and give us our way.

We’re wired for relationship from creation, yet so much that is wrong with our world comes from relationships gone wrong, right back to that original sin, where we just couldn’t trust that God knew best.

In this fallen world, with scarred, bruised, and broken people, relationships are hard.  But as Christians, we can begin to put things right if we look to God as our example.

Satisfaction

There’s one simple thing that separates the relationship of the Trinity from human relationships; one simple thing that keeps our minds from even imagining the unity between the Father, Son, and Spirit: satisfaction.

The Eternal, Unchanging God is eternally satisfied.  The Father is satisfied in the Son and the Spirit.  The Father’s self-worth, the Father’s self-esteem, the Father’s future hope and joy doesn’t depend on the Son going to university and getting a good job; the Father’s happiness isn’t dependent on the newness of their car or the size of their house; the Son isn’t trying to prove his worth or earn the Spirit’s trust; the Son doesn’t wait for extravagant gifts to prove the Father’s love; neither feels any jealousy or competition that almighty love and power is shared with the Holy Spirit.  All are satisfied knowing that they are united in love, expressed in trust and sacrifice. [2]

If there’s only one thing we learn from the mystery of the Holy Trinity, it’s this: we were created for relationships, but we’re doing it wrong.

Relationships aren’t about me; what they do for me, how they make me feel; how they build me up.  Relationships are about what we become, together.

If I come to a relationship, any relationship, looking to increase my value or my self-worth, if I come looking to gain power or to exert control over another, if I look at another, even if a parent looks at a child as a way to increase my pride, to increase my image, to give me hope for the future, then those relationships can never have any satisfaction.  Those are relationships built on yearning, longing for something we don’t have, jealous of what isn’t ours – even if we don’t realize it.

There can be no satisfaction in a relationship built on wanting what another has, or hoping that a friendship or a relationship or a marriage will make you appear better.

No, the Father and the Son and the Spirit are united because neither is jealous of the other, neither views the other as a source of pride to build themselves up.  They are bound together in perfect love, each aware of themselves, yet each aware that they’re fully and equally part of a relationship bigger than themselves, each offering themselves to the others, not for what they offer to be hoarded by one, but to be united in their offering, and satisfied in perfect peace.

If we want to understand the height and length and width and depth of the love of God, we have to start with our own relationships.

How many of my relationships, or even my day-to-day interactions, are built on longing for something better for myself, instead of being satisfied to offer myself as I am?  How many of our disappointments or fights aren’t because of our concern for another, but because their decision means myplans or the image I want to project can’t pan out the way I wanted, the way I hoped and longed for.

Even in our relationship with God, how many of us come simply acknowledging that He’s God, so I’m not; that he’s powerful, but I’m weak; that he’s righteous, but I’ve sinned, and come not yearning for a taste of God’s power or healing or to make my life more like I hoped it would be, but just to be satisfied, to be still and know that He is God, seeking only the forgiveness of our sins, and the gift of faith to trust simply in his goodness and follow, rather than yearning for a future we cannot see.

 The overflowing love of the Trinity brought this world into being, and brought us here today.  This week, consider your relationships with God and with each other.  Are we content to be still and be satisfied, to offer love freely without expectation of reward, or are we longing, hoping for others to build us up and feed our pride?  May God give us his grace to love Him and love our neighbours as Christ loved us, who, while we were still sinners, gave himself up that we could share in his unity and peace of a relationship with Him.  To God be the Glory now and forever more.  Amen.


[1] The theological idea here is perichoresis, a concept fleshed out from its scriptural basis most notably by the Cappadocian Fathers and accepted as a core teaching of Christianity in the Nicene Creed as adopted at the First Council of Constantinople (381).

[2] Theologically speaking, “without passions”.  See T.F. Torrance’s The Christian Doctrine of God, or, from a Reformed perspective, the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Endless, free power: flip the switch!

“Peace be with you; as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

On this Day of Pentecost, we don’t just remember that strange and awesome day long ago when the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus.  No, today, as the followers of Jesus, we don’t just remember, but celebrate that Jesus has kept his promise; that Jesus has sent us the Holy Spirit of truth and power that we, ordinary people going about our business, could be used as part of God’s plan.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that talking about the Holy Spirit is unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortable ground for a lot of us.  We understand our loving Father, who created us and loved us so much that he would send his Son to save us.  We understand our Lord Jesus Christ, who shared our pains and struggles, who overcame the grave, and is preparing a place for us until he comes again in glory.  But my bet is that most of us have a much foggier view of the Holy Spirit.  And, if we’re being honest – and church is the perfect place for honesty – some of us probably know people who speak about the Spirit in such dramatic and, frankly, strange ways that our reaction is a lot like the crowd in our lesson from Acts: this sounds crazy!  Remember, Pentecost is the day our Lord’s apostles were acting so unexpectedly that they were accused of being drunk at nine in the morning, so let me tell you that it’s okay if it takes us, too, a bit of time to figure out what the Holy Spirit is doing.

The Power of God.

As people grounded in the scriptures, the first thing for us to remember is that, while God is definitely doing something new at Pentecost, this is not the first time we see the Holy Spirit at work: He is eternal, and has been active since the very beginning.

It was the Spirit of God that breathed as a rushing wind over the waters of creation, driving away chaos and bringing order to the created world.  The Holy Spirit is that breath of God that was breathed into humankind at creation, giving our souls the ability to think and to reason, empowering us to interact with the living God, and giving us the potential to share in his eternal life.[1]

And, when our disobedience and the effects of sin in our lives, when that messiness and disorder meant our bodies could no longer be temples of the Holy Spirit as we were driven from God’s presence, it was then that God sent his Spirit to his appointed prophets, priests, and kings to guide his people in the way they should go; it was the Holy Spirit at work in those leaders who urged people to repent, and who invited ordinary people to participate, to play a role in God’s great plan to save and restore our fallen world.

In short, the Holy Spirit is the Power and Presence of God at work in the world.  God works by the Holy Spirit; throughout the scriptures, the example used time and time again is the wind: we can’t see it, we can’t see where it comes from or where it goes, but we know it’s there – we see it’s effects, whether a gentle, cooling breeze or a mighty hurricane, and though we can’t see it, or capture it, or put it in a box, we can feel the Holy Spirit when it blows over us.

And the good news of Pentecost, the wonder of Pentecost, is that, now that the problem of our sin has been fixed by the offering of Christ upon the Cross; now that the separation between us and God has been fixed by Christ’s ascension into Heaven, God the Holy Spirit is no longer reserved for God’s chosen leaders.  Now that those problems are fixed, the Holy Spirit can now dwell within every one of us who has been forgiven and made new in the work of Jesus on the Cross.  Pentecost is a first step towards putting things back as God intended.  Like the breath breathed into our nostrils at creation, Christ breathed that breath of God on his disciples, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit”.  And he did so with a reason: the work of God is no longer just for prophets, priests, and kings.  There’s work to be done; there are sins to be forgiven; there are deep, hurtful lies that must be confronted with truth; there are disciples to be made: and, “as the Father has sent me”, Jesus said, “now I send you”.[2]

…And, just like that, the temple of God is no longer a stone building on a mountain surrounded by guards and thick walls, waiting to be found by those who come in.

Just like that, the temple of God, the dwelling place of the Presence and Power of God is in you.  Not a temple waiting for people to come in, but millions of temples, temples with feet, and hands, and voices to bring that presence of God into every corner of the world.

Is the Holy Spirit in me?

Every one of us who calls Jesus our Lord has the opportunity to become the dwelling place of the Power of the Spirit of God.  In baptism – in that action of being included in Jesus’ work on the cross, and being made new – our God, who is faithful, wires us in to this ‘power grid’, this network, this invisible body joined together throughout the world.

But then the question remains: if we’re connected up, why do so many faithful members of the Church not feel this power of God, or at least see it’s effects like wind blowing through our lives?

Where is the power of God in our lives?  It’s a good question; but if we’re having a problem with power, then perhaps we should look to the Power Corporation for our answer…

An Analogy

Imagine: you move into a house, a house built to be a home.  A house that was well designed, where the architect and master builder have planned for there to be lights to light up every dark corner, all the comforts we crave – heat in winter and air conditioning in summer, and outlets exactly where we need them.

You’ve been given a perfectly designed house.  But all the light fixtures on the ceiling and all the outlets on the walls aren’t going to help you unless that house is connected to the power grid.

It’s in baptism that connection is made.  And, unlike the Power Corp., every time someone asks to be wired up, every time someone asks to be joined in, that work is done on time, and it’s done right.

But this is where even faithful church people get lost.  God wires us in.  Just like that, we have unlimited, endless power – more than we could ever need – right there, ready to flow in.  The Power Corporation connects you up; but it’s not their job to go it each room every evening and flick on the lights… that part’s on you.

We’re connected to – we have access to – endless power.  But whether or not we receive it is up to us.  Though the house was built to have this energy flowing through it, we’re free to leave it turned off.  If we want, in spite of unlimited, endless, and completely free power at our fingertips, we can say, “no thanks, it’s okay, I’ll manage on my own”, as we wander about in the shadows with an old flashlight, stubbing our toes and tripping over things instead of turning on the light.[3]

A lot of us live that way.  Though we’ve been wired up, though we were built to be empowered by God, for any number of reasons we say “I’ll manage”, and stay in the dark.

But God wants us to take advantage of the opportunity he’s given us.  And as he has always called and nudged his chosen people to follow his Will, God still gives us nudges to let the Spirit’s power work through us.

Now, some people claim great and miraculous things done through them by the Spirit.  I can say that I’ve never experienced something like the dramatic events of Pentecost.  But, I have felt the Breath of God; for me, sometimes it’s like the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and that’s the nudge inviting me to ‘turn on the switch’ and let the Power of God work through me: sometimes it’s that urge out of the blue to pick up the phone and call someone, only to find that they’re in need of someone to talk to; sometimes it’s that desire to do something completely out of the ordinary that ends up giving a glimmer of hope to someone feeling lost.[4]

Yes, faith like a mustard seed could move a mountain; but our work isn’t to move mountains.  As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us to share in his work of seeking out, raising up, and drawing in those who are lost.

God’s Presence is not bound up in a stone temple; you are a temple of the Holy Spirit.

So this week – and I’m sure there will be an opportunity this week – when you feel that little nudge, that nudge, go out on a limb: this time, flip the switch.  Say, “okay, God”, and let him work through you.  You probably won’t move a mountain, there probably won’t be a flame like fire on your head, but I guarantee: even the smallest action led by the Holy Spirit can accomplish more than we could ever ask or imagine, and usually more than we’ll ever know.  To God be the glory.  Amen.


[1] I follow Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on John here.  A great summary is available here.

[2] John 20:19-23

[3] I remember this analogy being worked out by Fr. Darrell Critch and Richard Donnan when the youth of the parish (myself one of them) were hanging out casually discussing Baptismal Regeneration at the rector’s apartment one Sunday evening around 2005.  Yes, that happened.

[4] Compare “turning on the switch” to the various times the apostles and first deacons were “filled with the holy spirit” in the first 8 chapters of Acts.  The gift of the Holy Spirit is not a one-time occurrence, but the faithful are “filled” for the God-given task at hand.  I’m not suggesting we can control when God wills work through us, only that we must cooperate rather than being ‘possessed’ in any way.  Admittedly, this is where the analogy breaks down: we can turn on lights when we like, but we cannot say “the Holy Spirit will work through me Tuesday at 7, come and bring a friend.”

What good is a resurrected body? Why Easter needs the Ascension.

In my Father’s house are many rooms… And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. John 14:2-3

Today we celebrate one of the most central teachings of our faith; an idea equal with the messages of Christmas and Easter, and one that we confess every time a faithful follower of Jesus says the Creed: Jesus ascended into Heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and from there He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

In the official teachings of the Church – found in those essential beliefs laid out in the Prayer Book for us to read, learn, and share with the world around us – a lot hinges on the Ascension.  Yet, this major celebration and its message became largely ignored; not least because it was one of those celebrations, like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday that traditionally fell in the middle of the week on a Thursday, the 40th day after Easter, and as busy work schedules took over, it was lost in the mix.

The problem, though, is that Jesus’ ascension into heaven is absolutely central to understanding our faith.  No kidding: skipping Ascension is as if we decided that Christmas just didn’t matter anymore, or if we decided to skip preaching about Easter for a couple generations. 

Seriously: Christmas tells us that Jesus, God’s Son, was born and raised to share our humanity; Easter tells us that Jesus experienced death in a human body, and did what we couldn’t do for ourselves – conquering the grave, and making human flesh incorruptible, making it able to last forever.  And the Ascension tells us how that matters for you and me.

Think about it: Every time we gather to worship, we confess Christ’s resurrection.  But how does Jesus coming out of a tomb long ago and far away have any impact on your physical body?  If the resurrection isn’t just about spiritual thoughts and warm, happy feelings about a fuzzy afterlife – and it isn’t! – then how, exactly, does his body, raised to new life, have any impact on what happens to you, so that you and I no longer fear the grave?

These are essential questions that make your faith make sense… and, it’s the Ascension, the return of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, that holds it all together.

The Plan:

We all believe, one way or another, that God the Father created us so that we could share in the overflowing life and love of the Trinity: a relationship so profound that it creates and invites the creation to join in their endless life of joy.

And, we all believe, one way or another, that for love to be real, it has to be freely given and freely chosen; so God invited us to love him and become infused with his eternal life and the fire of eternal love, knowing full well that giving us that option to love him freely includes the possibility that we could reject that offer instead.  As humankind decided to trust itself and seek our own glory, we went the way of all things that trust in themselves: we found darkness and the grave, as the spark of life given at our creation became something that grows cold and flickers out, like a candle left unattended that hollows out the middle until the very flame that gave it purpose causes it to collapse and snuff itself out under the weight of the heavy walls it has built.

But, God, knowing that darkness and the grave was our choice to make, built a solution into the system.  This is the message of Christmas: God’s plan was to build a bridge, a ladder even. If Creator and creation, God and humankind, are separated by a chasm, by the steep walls built as our flame burned inward rather than sharing light with the world, then the solution could only be one who was fully God and fully man: one who could enter the deepest, godless pits of despair built by humanity, and yet, being God, had within himself the very flame and source of life that cannot be extinguished, even when the heavy walls of the grave collapsed in.

And that is the message of Easter: as those heavy, waxy walls of darkness and the grave closed in, they found not a weak, flickering flame as they always had before; they found a mighty, blazing torch, unending life itself, and the more the walls of death closed in, the more they were consumed and melted away.

Jesus rose from the grave, blasting a hole in the gates of death, and emerged from the tomb with our flesh, but now as it was meant to be when that choice was first given: our flesh no longer attempting to be self-sufficient inside the walls we have built; our flesh transformed into forever flesh, connected intimately to the source of life itself, now able to accept the invitation to share in that everlasting relationship of the God who created us for eternal life in an everlasting creation; an eternity without pain or grief, without tears and sadness, without wars or disease, where the lion and the lamb can lie together with satisfied appetites because they’re connected to the source of all that is.

So Jesus rose, but what impact can that have on me?

Well, that’s where the Ascension comes in. 

As we see even in Jesus, there’s not much use for “forever flesh” in a world that is still full of death and decay.  And, truly, in spite of our attempts to put off aging – expensive creams and gallons of hair dye – there comes a point when we must admit: who would want to live forever in a world based on self-isolation behind walls of greed?

Yes, we absolutely believe that God will restore creation; that, in his time – and it’s not for us to concern ourselves with the time or date – the time of God inviting the flickering flames of human life will one day come to an end, and whether it’s the opposite of a big bang as scientists speculate, or some other spectacular mystery as prophets have attempted to put into words, there comes a time when time stops – and then all is made new, but this time, without the possibility of the universal pain and regret: this time of making choices (and the painful consequences of making them) has ended.

Christ the Forerunner

And so, 40 days after Easter, Christ, showing us the first glimpses of what humanity will be like when the deadly walls we’ve built no longer have dominion over us, then takes that glorified, forever flesh out of a decaying world.  He returns to the right hand of the Father, to that original life-giving relationship of the Trinity, but, bringing our flesh, he has a mission:  “do not let your hearts be troubled.  You believe in God, believe also in me”, he says.  “My Father’s house has many dwelling places… and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that where I am, you may be also.”  And, he adds, “you know the way to the place where I am going”.[1]

He, having brought our humanity into the presence of God, is preparing a place for us to be with him until that final day – guest rooms where we may wait in the palace of the King; not our eternal resting place, but where we will rest in peace and be satisfied until that time when all is made new, when our forever flesh finds a home in the kingdom that shall last forever.

And we know the way: when the walls of death close in, there’s the well-trodden path of stubbornly holding out until the weight of our own choices leads to destruction; or, knowing where to look, we see the way, the truth, and the life: Jesus reaching out and leading us through the hole that he blasted; a steep and narrow path, one that requires full reliance on the one who has walked it before, but one that leads to a peaceful rest, to the words “well done” being spoken over us as the door swings open, and the Father sees not the flickering flame of a weary life, but hears the Son saying “this is my brother; this is my sister, who now shares my flesh and blood”, as the Spirit clothes us and ushers us into the feast.

Think about it, every time you say the Creed.  He ascended into heaven: not to leave us, but to blaze a path and prepare a place for us.  And, even now, he’s at the Father’s right hand, waiting; and when I die, when you die, he reaches out, leads us in, presents us as his friends, and leads us to our rest, as we, too, await his coming in glory, that day when finally, clothed in his righteousness alone, our forever flesh meets our forever home, standing faultless before his throne.

To God be the Glory.  Amen.


[1] John 14:1-4

Repressed Questions and an Unknown God.

Our Father… Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in Fort Smith, as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Today we come to the end of our walk through First Peter, a journey that has highlighted how we ought to live if we take seriously what it means to be members of God’s family. 

It’s God’s explicit desire that anyone bold enough to call Him their Father would bring that heavenly lifestyle to bear in the world around us; that he would empower us to make our own town – here and now – a little more like heaven as we, his sons and daughters by adoption, serve him in thought, word, and deed.

And that’s nothing easy: it requires us to be willing to undergo a total change, for those perishable, even rotten parts of our human nature to be transformed into the image and likeness of the Risen Christ.  We have to be willing to live as Jesus; willing to give up our pride, to give up our own best interests, to give up revenge or proving ourselves right: living instead so that all we’re known for are the good works and mercy shown at our hands. 

And, as we heard last week, this is not an individual project.  Living into the new life of Christ, carrying out God’s will here as in heaven, is not something that you or I can do by our own effort.  The Good News is that we don’t have to pretend to be strong and mighty. We can be ourselves: we can be small, we can be vulnerable, we don’t have to worry about leaving a legacy, because our strength and our worth isn’t in our small selves; our strength comes from being cemented together and grounded firmly on the foundation that cannot be moved: Jesus Christ, the Cornerstone.

With all that in mind, today, we see why it is that God wants us to live this way; we come to see the master plan – what it is that God intends to do with us, members of his family willing to live as he intends.

Good Intentions: An Altar in Athens

This plan is nothing new – in fact, it looks a lot like what we read in Acts.[1]

It’s a wonderful scene: St. Paul, having journeyed to the great, ancient city of Athens, notices how enlightened the people are, with everyone concerned with religion, politics, and philosophy. 

But then he notices something that strikes him: these modern, open-minded, educated people have, alongside their traditional religion, their temples, their synagogues, and their university debate halls, something most curious: a temple to unknown gods.

In the name of being progressive, of embracing the best bits of ideas brought from all over, the ancient myths of the heroes and gods of Greece had become a hodge-podge, a cafeteria-style religion where you choose what suits your taste, where you choose to take bits and pieces of whatever teachers happen to resonate with you, but are left knowing that your choices may or not be the “right” ones.  So, just in case, you hedge your bets: you throw in a little offering to the unknown gods just in case it turns out you were wrong.[2]

Paul, arriving in Athens, found a highly developed, modern, peaceful, democratic society with a fatal flaw: in the name of sophistication, in the name of open-mindedness, they had given up any sort of coherent, wholistic, logical system of belief and had instead developed nothing more than a choose-your-own-adventure set of superstitions. 

This modern society, in the name of progress, accidentally went backwards: they had a common language to discuss science, politics, and the economy, but lost the ability to discuss the things that, deep down, matter so much more to each of us: the questions of life and love, the nature of thought and emotions, and the questions of why we’re here, and what shall become of us hereafter.

That was the issue facing the Church 1900 years ago: their world had become a hodge-podge of well-intentioned religious superstitions that, added together, made little sense at all.

And Peter, writing to the Church living in that secular society, tells us simply: “do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.  Always be ready to give anyone who asks the reason for the hope that is in you – but do so with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear…”[3]

Do not fear what they fear. 

Yes, at it’s root, all superstition is grounded in fear.  Now, it might not be heart-pounding terror – and that’s part of the problem.  When we’re terrified, shaken to the core, people – more often than not – are able to identify the cause, and do something about it.  No, superstition comes from that sort of weak, but constant anxiety, the sort of deep unsettledness that causes even the most brilliant minds to retreat and avoid the very things they want most.

You see, altars to an unknown god are no first-century problem.

With the best of intentions, we’ve built a society where each of us has to build our own altars.  In the name of enlightenment, in the name of progress, we’ve unhinged and unanchored religious ideas from any sense of logic and reason, and we’ve created such a hodge-podge of beliefs that those within the same family can no longer even encourage or build each other up, because no two people agree on what they hold to be true.

And, when push comes to shove, we resort to nothing more than superstition.

In terms of science, in terms of medicine, in terms of technology, we live in the most advanced time the world has ever seen.  Literacy is at an all-time high, and all the world’s information is a few clicks away on the phone in your pocket.

But, we’re anxious.  Deep down, our world is searching for answers.  For all our knowledge, we’re less able than ever to answer any of the big questions.  What’s the purpose of family?  Why do we have this desire for love and relationships?  What is the purpose of life?  What is the value in life?  What is the ‘common good’, and why would we seek it?  Why is life worth living if I’m not feeling happy?  What’s the point?

For every simple, scientific, mechanical question we’ve answered about the world around us, we’ve been asked to ignore the deeper questions that allow us to ground our life on a firm foundation.

If love is just a chemical reaction in the brain, then why does it hurt so much when a loved one is lost?

If memory is just electrons in brain tissue, then why can we be moved to tears by a favourite song, or even a familiar smell?

If the purpose of our species is self-preservation, then why would so many doctors, nurses, police officers, soldiers, social workers, and volunteers put their lives at risk every day for the sake of the weakest and least profitable among us?

If the purpose of life is survival of the fittest, then why is true joy found in the service and company of others?

Repressing the Deep Questions

We, like them, in the name of being enlightened, in the name of progress, have given up the very logic and reason that allows us to answer even a child’s most basic questions – let alone our own.

Our friends and neighbours, and sadly even some in the church, have such a mish-mash of beliefs that, when we need stability the most, we find ourselves adrift in a sea of foggy, half-hearted superstition on even the most basic matters.

I think friends with a young family who suddenly lost a pet.  Their little girl wanted to know what happened to their beloved kitty after she died.

Having nothing but a mixed plate of cafeteria religions, and having been trained like most in our society to bury these deep, anxiety-causing questions in the deepest part of our being, the mom did as she’d been taught: she did a quick Google search. 

She found a convenient option: she told her little girl about a rainbow bridge reaching into the sky, where pets are happy forever.

The girl’s father, when the girl went to him separately, went another direction: he went to a cheap, easy mis-interpretation of Buddhism and said that their cat was already re-born as another kitten to make another family happy.

Confusing for the child, but all well and good, and the anxieties and deep questions buried deep under the surface once again… until a few years later when the grandmother dies. 

“Where’s Nan?”

At moments like these those deep, repressed questions rush to the surface, and the anxiety becomes so overwhelming that so many in our society no longer even have the language to voice the reality of their grief.  So little of the language of the deep questions of life has been passed on, that it takes a trained counsellor just to fish the questions out, let alone begin the search for answers.

“Where’s Nan?” the very bright 12-year-old asks.

Obviously she didn’t walk over a rainbow bridge to be with Fluffy.  Is she reborn already into a new baby to make another family happy?

A well-meaning aunt steps in and offers the religion of The Lion King movie: “she’s gone to be among the stars, and every time you look up, she’s there looking down.”

“…but”, says the bright girl, “the stars are balls of hydrogen gas lightyears away… that doesn’t make sense.”

…and she’s right.  It doesn’t.

Neither leg to stand on.

All around us are well-meaning temples to an unknown god.  All around us are people who’ve been led to believe that the most enlightened thing they can do is to simply abandon the deep questions; bury them, and focus instead on the far easier questions of what is found through a telescope and under a microscope.

But we see the effects even now: a society that has no language to discuss the common good; a society that has no language, no venue to discuss the value of human life relative to the security of our economies.  Societies that have no way to discuss that my freedoms – and my retirement portfolio – depend on other people being willing to do work that I’m not willing to do, under conditions that I would no accept.

And the hidden effects are even worse, precisely because we cannot speak of them: people stressed, deeply anxious because they do want to get back to normal, and they are willing to take some calculated risks, but they aren’t willing to endanger anybody else… and we have no shared language to discuss what is right.

The Bold, Gentle Task

This is nothing new – in fact, it’s very old.

And our task is the same as those first Christians: we’re to proclaim the truth.

And it isn’t good enough to offer just a bit of truth.  That’s the problem we’re in. 

God didn’t send Jesus to offer us a smattering of happy thoughts and good advice. 

He has revealed, in his Word and by the Holy Spirit, a coherent system of belief and practice: a life of faith that is at once logical – that is, word-based – and reasonable – engaging our gifts of reason and thought.

He has given us the Spirit of Truth[4], to see and know the way, the truth, and the life laid out before us, as a lamp for our feet and a light to our path. 

And if we’re doing God’s will, here and now, as we will in heaven, then our task, like Paul in Athens, is to come alongside those who have caught glimpses, shadows, and reflections of that light, and gently and respectfully take them from the warmed-over smattering of leftover cafeteria-style ideas and invite them instead to a feast – to a banquet table overflowing with the finest food and the richest wine, and which offers the language to ask those deepest questions, and the opportunity to find rest, as the never-ending meal is digested over a lifetime with patience and faithfulness… and we become what we eat.

With gentleness and respect, your work is to give an answer to those muttering deep questions at the altars of unknown gods.

But for that to happen, you yourself need to be confident in the truth.  For us to do God’s will together, you need to know what we believe.  You and I need to throw out the half-hearted leftovers, and know why it was Jesus came as one of us, why he had to die, why bad things happen to good people; to know that prayer works, and to have experienced that God still heals; to know that all that we have comes from God, that strength comes in humble service, and that true life is only found in admitting defeat, asking for mercy, and allowing yourself to become part of the Body of Christ.

Then, and only then, will we fulfil our pledge that God’s will would be done… in Fort Smith, as it is in Heaven.


[1] Acts 17:22-31

[2] Archeological evidence points to temples and altars to “foreign and unknown gods”, and refences in Greek literature point to sacrifices “to nameless gods” or “to the appropriate god”, essentially prayers addressed to whom it may concern.

[3] 1 Peter 3:14-16

[4] See John 14:17