Love the Lord first. Go all in. Love isn’t scarce; God provides.

Speak to all the congregation of God’s chosen people and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Leviticus 19:1

You shall be holy.

One of the eye-opening moments we had while studying the scriptures last Tuesday evening was realizing that, as far as the Bible is concerned, we are saints.

That’s worth saying again: according to the Word of God, we – you and me, right here, right now, are the saints of God.

Time and time again the scriptures make the point that there are no rankings among those who follow Jesus; after all, what point would that be if the first will be last and the last will be first?  No, all of us – whether we’ve learned through a life of careful discipleship to live and speak and act in imitation of our Lord, or whether we’re more prone to miss the mark, stumble, and accept our Lord’s outstretched hand of forgiveness once again – all of us are called by the same name: saints.

And that’s an important, even crucial point.  No matter how successful you’ve been at following Jesus last week; no matter how many times you did or didn’t remember to give thanks for what God has given you; no matter how many times you did or didn’t take a few minutes out of your day to read and hear God’s Word; no matter how many times you did or didn’t put someone in need ahead of your own best interests; no matter how many times you did or didn’t offer forgiveness and release yourself and your brother or sister from the weight and bitterness of their sin; no matter how many times you did or didn’t open your mouth to speak the Good News of new life in Jesus, and go to make disciples of all nations – no matter how we did with that, there’s no escaping this one point: all of us have the same job description in God’s eyes. 
We are saints.

To the Saints of God:

The word “saints” simply means “holy ones”, and the Word of God is clear: that’s the only option, the only position available for those who have been baptized.  While we’ve made all sorts of excuses through the years, and have come up with all sorts of reasons why only some followers of Jesus are called to be holy – the Mother Theresa’s of the world – the truly remarkable, and downright frightening reality is that, in the eyes of God, none of those human excuses hold any water.  As a baptized member of the Church, God looks at me and sees Alex, his child, called to be a saint.

God looks at you.  God looks at _____ and sees his child, whom he has called to be a saint.  He looks at _____ and sees his child, called to be a saint.  God looks at each of us, just as one day we will stand before God, and he sees one whom he has called to be a saint.

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel” – not just the leaders, not just the most devoted, not just the elders, all the congregation, “and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

God, in his awesome mercy, makes no distinctions when he makes us part of his family; and this is where the scriptures say the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: the Lord looks at us as those who are called to be his holy ones… and how have we done with that? 

This is why, once all our excuses are stripped away, we can proclaim without reservation that all – even the most ‘saintly’ among us – have fallen short of the glory of God; that all of us – even the most ‘saintly’ – need the mercy of God; that none of us, no matter how hard we try, can ever earn a place in the Kingdom of God apart from complete and total dependence on Jesus: the only way is to follow where he leads.

You shall be holy.

The Lord sees us, and has called us to be, his saints, his holy ones
But what does it mean to be holy?

Holiness means, simply, “set apart”.  The call to be holy is the call to be, simply, set apart.  This building is holy – it is set apart for the worship of God, for fellowship, and the equipping of the saints for our mission in the world.  This holy table is holy because it is set apart – that means it isn’t used like other tables, to fill our bellies, or as a place to hold our coffee while we chat; it’s set apart for the glory of God; it’s holy

The Bibles in our pews and in our homes are holy – at least I hope they are – because they are set apart from the other books on our shelves.  No, it’s not about their location, that they should be kept somewhere special; not at all.  But the Bible is holy, or at least it should be, because of how we read it.  Other books we read once and then put down, but the Bible is set apart – we’re called to read it daily.  Other books we read to hear the thoughts of human authors, but the Bible is set apart, we read it as God’s word to us, with the prayer that it will shape our thoughts, words, and actions.

So what does it mean that God expects you to be holy? 
What does it mean for us to be set apart?

If we are set apart as those who give glory to God it means that we no longer live for ourselves, but for God.  Now that’s a tall order; so tall an order that people through the ages have done well in dreaming up excuses for why only some are called to live that way, as we imagine all the ways we can try to get ourselves off the hook by separating the ‘professional’ Christians from the lay people, or putting the elite followers of Jesus on a pedestal to try and excuse ourselves for just being ‘average’ disciples.

No, there’s a lot more to that first and greatest commandment than meets the eye. 
If we’re to be holy as God is holy, it starts by loving the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  It demands my all.

We can’t be half-holy.  Think about it: something can’t be sort-of set apart.  It’s either set apart, or it isn’t. 

That’s the fundamental teaching of Jesus, summarizing all the Law and the Prophets.  We have to learn to love God first, and to do it whole-heartedly and single-mindedly. 

If we love God first, if we love the one who Created all that is, who desires our redemption, who reaches out to us in mercy, and who is himself the source of love, then a good and holy love of our family, friends, neighbours, and even our enemies will flow out of that.  But if we love God with anything less than our all, then we aren’t set apart.  Remember, there’s no such thing as half-holy; if I love God, but love myself more, or I love my freedom, or my own desires, or my ability to provide for my family and bring happiness to others around me, if I love anything more than God, then my heart, soul, and mind aren’t holy

I think, often, we’re afraid to go all the way.  It could be trusting God, it could be finally forgiving someone who has hurt us, it could be letting go of a habit or attitude that has become comfortable like an old friend.  We’re afraid that if we actually go for it, we’ll lose control and won’t be able to get it back.  But, God has already called you to be one who has gone all the way – one who is set apart, one who is holy. 

God says ‘love me first’, not that we become no fun, or we become so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good; not that we become like some of those crotchety caricatures of self-righteousness that have sometimes been seen as ‘saintly’ as an excuse for why the rest of us don’t live that way. 

Sometimes I think we’re afraid that if we go all-in, we’ll no longer have enough love or enough time or enough energy for the things that already matter to us.  We say, I barely have time or energy for what I have to do now, how can I possibly add another relationship, another concern, another daily task of reading and praying to that list?

But, God says love me first, and love me completely, all in. 

And, contrary to all our fears, we find we then share in that overflowing, never-ending source of love itself.  All our concerns that keep us from loving God fully assume that love is scarce, that we only have so much to go around.  And that’s true, if we’re trying to drum it up within ourselves; but God’s plan for you to be holy is the opposite; if we finally go for it, we find ourselves tapped in to the source itself.

…and it’s only then that the second part of that commandment is truly possible.  It’s only then, when we’ve put all our anxiety and reservations aside and have put God first, and have set ourselves apart for his glory, that we can ever truly love our neighbours as ourselves.

As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of love, we can’t imagine wasting it on our enemies.  As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of mercy, we could never imagine wasting it on those who have hurt us.  As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of wealth, we could never imagine giving joyfully to anyone in need, even those who would take advantage of us.  As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of energy, we can barely imagine getting through the day and making time to say a few prayers, let alone giving up our lives to his service.

But if we allow ourselves to be set apart, if we allow ourselves to be as God calls us to be, we suddenly find that He supplies what we need; He makes the way; He makes us holy as we learn to love him with all our heart, soul, and mind.

You see, that’s the other misconception with holiness. 

Holiness isn’t something we earn; holiness isn’t something we do, or try with all our might to produce within ourselves.

“Be holy” simply means “be set apart”. 

Let yourself be set apart for God’s purposes.  Learn, by grace, to go all-in and love God first, with all the love we think we can drum up.  And, as we do that, as we allow ourselves to be set apart, it produces holiness, and God provides.

Suddenly the love of neighbour isn’t a chore; as we grow into the likeness of Christ, we learn that holding that grudge only binds us to that past sin, and we learn to forgive; before we know it, we can’t imagine why we ever thought love, or time, or energy was a scarce thing to be hoarded, because we’re tapped into the source of it all, just as God desired.

My friends: God says that you and I are saints.  That’s your job description.  This week, let that sink in. Have we let ourselves be set apart, or are we trying to be half-holy, holding something back, lest we run out?

This week, or perhaps even this morning, in this holy place, at this holy table, as we eat this holy food for a holy people, lets be holy; let’s go all in, finally hold nothing back, and love God with all that we have.  I guarantee, because God promises, that we’ll taste and see that the Lord is good, and be happy and blessed as all those are who trust in him.

 Saints of God: be holy, for the Lord your God is holy.  Amen.

Is anyone sick? Call the presbyters, pray, and anoint in the Name of the Lord.

One of the core messages of the gospel is healing: God’s law to love him fully and to love our neighbours as ourselves is itself a plan to heal our relationships, to heal the wounds of sin that separate us from God.  The Prophets speak of the Kingdom of God as a place of healing, with nations streaming in to see the glory of God, finding healing for what ails them.[1]  Throughout the Gospels, our Lord displays the mighty power of God and teaches us to understand God’s will through dozens of healing miracles, and those examples of healing continue through the apostles and through the Church, even to our own day, as God continues to heal, as he continues to make a way where there seems to be no way; doing what we thought was impossible; reminding us that, just when we think we have it all figured out, we couldn’t be further from the truth.

Healing of the whole human person – body and spirit together – is central to our faith.  Indeed, our faith in the resurrection – our hope of eternal life – is not that we would be freed from our creaky, cranky old bodies, but that they would be made new, and be able to reflect the Image of God, no longer subject to pain or hunger or exhaustion, but being perfectly satisfied by union with the source of life itself.

And, though we’re not great at expressing it, faith in the healing power of God is – and must be – one of the marks or signs of the Church.  Where the Spirit of the Lord is, wherever two or three are truly gathered in the Name of the Lord, we should expect to find healing: if we’re the Church, if we’re the Body of Christ, if Christ is here as we know he is, then part of the evidence of that are lives that experience freedom from the despair of pain and suffering, bodies and souls that reflect the glory of God here and now.[2]

…but, then again, in a time when it seems the only ones talking about healing by faith are the multi-millionaire preachers asking for money on TV, and at a time when – by God’s grace – we’re able to understand and treat physical and mental illness better than ever before, what is the place of healing in the Church?

Why do we pray?

About 5 years ago, I was leading a discussion on this very topic with a group of students who were preparing for ordained ministry; we were discussing how each discovery of science and medicine further reinforces just how awesome and powerful God is, if only we can stop trying to make God in our own image and accept Him as He’s revealed Himself in the scriptures through the Church as wiser and more gracious than we could ever imagine.

And then, one of the students, who had become really quiet and looked pretty distraught, finally piped up.  “Fr. Alex”, he said.  “I believe it, I really do.  But there’s one part that I just don’t get, and I’ve never told anybody, because if the bishop found out, I guess I’d never be ordained”.

…uh-oh, I thought, what are we in for now?

“If God is merciful and good, if God really wants to work all things together for good for those who love him, if Jesus wants to draw the world to himself to share in his risen life, then why do we need to pray?  If God’s so good, why do I need to convince him to do something?”

(That, my friends, is why clergy need to go to seminary, to ask those deep questions before they find themselves in a pulpit, or worse, at your bedside!)

But it’s a fair question, perhaps one that you’ve asked yourself one way or another. 
If God is so good, why do I have to convince him to help me?

Right off the bat, though, I’d suggest that question shows that we haven’t appreciated just how great God’s love for us really is.

If we’ve made God in our own image, if we follow our society’s vague idea of an old king set apart on a distant throne, we end up with an image of prayer in which we are the poor peasants who must cry out and beg for the king’s mercy.  But, read your Bible cover to cover; not once will you see God described that way.  That’s simply not what we believe.

No, in the one prayer that Jesus Himself taught us, how do we, poor, struggling, often-disobedient mortals address the almighty Creator of heaven and earth?  How do we?

Our Father.  But, even that translation has become too formal over the years.  Throughout the New Testament, Jesus and St. Paul refer to the Father as abba – “dad”.

It’s a purely human invention to imagine prayer as begging a distant King to hear the cries of a poor peasant – and no wonder prayer becomes such an unpleasant experience if it’s approached that way. 

No, Jesus teaches us not to plead with a distant king, but to speak, to share with his dad, who has adopted us as his own.  Prayer isn’t a dry, lofty ritual; the God who makes himself present in bread and wine invites us to pull up a chair at the great thanksgiving feast and commune – meaning to “talk over” or “discuss” – with him.

Prayer is the furthest thing from convincing God, as if we had any power or ability to plead our cause before the Almighty.  No, it’s so much more – prayer is our opportunity to pull up a chair at the kitchen table, where a loving dad offers you your lunch – your food for the journey – and asks you, patiently, ‘my son, my daughter, how is your day?’

Tell me what’s on your mind.  Get it off your chest. 

And as we name our concerns, as we cast off our burdens, as we thank our loving dad for being there having the food ready, even when we were late, or wandered off and didn’t come home at all, do you know what happens?  We commune – that talking things over – goes both ways.

If we’re waiting for a grand messenger from a lofty palace to come with the king’s message, we’ll miss it – because, when we pray to our dad who has adopted us as brothers and sisters in Christ, he speaks directly to us, in that still small voice.

And, just as prayer isn’t us attempting to convince Him, God’s response to us isn’t just a set of “approved” or “denied” stamps.  No, the amazing part of prayer – throughout scripture – is that, as we pray, as we simply speak to God, He reveals his will. 

As we simply name our concerns to our loving father, his quiet response allows us to see things as he does; problems are put into perspective; the frustrating failings of another person become our own opportunities for mercy; the life-shattering news that shatters every plan we had for our lives, the hopes and dreams that fall apart, become opportunities to learn to trust; and, as we learn to trust, as we learn to live one day at a time, as we learn to recognize every breath in this weary world as a blessed gift, as we learn to live for his glory as faithful, loving children, not begging, not wishing for things to go back to how they were, not clinging to yesterday, not trying to earn a favour, but simply trusting in the goodness of God, we find that our prayers are answered in the way that are best for us, as through that conversation, through that communing – that chatting, that talking over, that communion – with God, we learn to understand his will.

What about Healing?

If prayer isn’t about convincing God of anything, then why should we consider taking the church up on it’s offer of healing prayer?

In short, whenever any of us brothers and sisters in Christ are sick, we should request the healing prayer of the church simply because our father tells us that we should, in his word.

In the Epistle of James, we’re told, straight-out:

Be patient, then, brothers, and sisters, until the Lord’s coming.  See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. … Is anyone among you sick?  Let them call the presbyters of the church [that is, priests and elders] to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person whole; the Lord will raise them up.  If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.[3]

James 5:8; 14-16

We don’t anoint with oil or ask for healing prayer as a last resort; we don’t do it as an extra boost of spiritual power; we certainly don’t do it as an alternative to medical treatment, since all healing and knowledge and science are gifts from God for our benefit.

No, we simply do this because God says we should; and obeying his word is one of the ways we demonstrate, and live into, our trust in Him.

Think about it – how often do we pray about, chat with our loving dad about our health, our physical and mental and deep spiritual concerns, perhaps hoping for a miracle or some grand display of power.  Yet, he has already said, right there, in black and white, for us all to read, when Christians are sick – yeah you take your medicine, yes we remain patient, yes the Body of Christ, the Church comes around the sick person and helps you do the things that you’re not well enough to do yourself, but what does God say we are to do?  Call the priest and ask for prayer and anointing with oil in the name of the Lord.  As far as interpreting the will of God goes, it literally couldn’t be more straight forward, spelled out in three simple steps: call the priest, ask for prayer, and anointing in the name of the Lord.

We must be careful, as we pray for healing, not to reject God’s plan because it seems too easy or too simplistic.  Remember Naaman, the great general who sought healing from God, and was told to bathe in the Jordan 7 times, but wasn’t going to go because it was too easy; he’d rather have a prophet come and say some words or wave his hands.  Remember those whom Jesus healed, for whom the healing came in a simple: ‘get up’ or ‘go show yourselves to the priests’, and the healing came as they obeyed.

If we’re going to pray for our own healing, we must also be ready to obey the simple response that God has given: ok, now call the priest, ask for prayer, and be anointed.

What happens when we’re anointed?

Once we’ve been anointed, what happens?  Does that then convince God to heal us? 

No, and if we think that, we’ve missed the point about what it means to have a loving dad who wants to discuss, chat, commune with us about our journey.

Rather, anointing is the outward and visible, physical sign of our willingness to obey. 

Like baptism and repentance, we can say we’re following Jesus, but the first thing he tells us to do is to be baptized and repent of our sins – so if you haven’t done those things, you can say you’re following Jesus, but your actions don’t match up with your words.

It’s the same thing with healing.  If we say we’re trusting God for healing, then our actions have to show that.  If we’re praying for healing of body or soul, we must also do as God directs. 

So this morning, we’ll have that opportunity to simply do what God says.  After the Prayers, as Isabel leads us in song, any who are praying for their own healing – it could be physical, it could be spiritual, it could be the healing of an anxious or burdened mind – come to the end of your pew, and I will come around and do as our Lord directs. 

We do so not to earn any favour with God, but simply to be obedient, to put our faith into action, to show God – but also to show ourselves – that we are ready and willing to listen. 

Are any of you sick?

Call the priests and elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  The Lord will raise them up.   To God be the Glory.


[1] Isaiah 58:8, Ezekiel 47:12

[2] An application of 2 Corinthians 3:15-4:1

[3] James 5: 8; 14-16

You can’t earn Blessings, but it takes Faithfulness to keep them.

The lessons today – from Isaiah, the Gospel, and even our Psalm – all speak in the parable of a vineyard planted by God.  In all three versions, it is God who has done the work of clearing the brush, tilling the soil, and building the fence and a watchtower to keep out the wild animals.  It’s God who has dug out the huge wine vat for a plump, juicy harvest, and it’s God who has chosen and carefully planted the vines.

In all three versions of this parable, God has done all the work to plant his crop.  In Isaiah, the Lord even says straight-out, “what more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done?”.  Really, the only thing left to do is for the grapes to just grow.

God has given those grapes all that they need and more.  Their task, their work, is to simply fulfil their purpose; their task is to grow into what God intended them to be in their very nature. 

God’s desire is that, when the harvest comes, those sweet, luscious grapes will come together in that place he has prepared, and sprinkled with the leaven – the yeast – of the Holy Spirit, the wedding feast of the lamb will be supplied with the very finest wine imaginable, so much that every cup is running over.

That’s God’s plan.  That’s their purpose.  All the grapes need to do is grow.

A Lesson on Blessings

These parables tell us a lot about God, his purpose for humanity, and our hope of eternal life lived to his glory.  But today I want to focus on what these parables tell us about blessings: what it means for us to acknowledge that we’ve been blessed by God, and what impact that should have as we grow between now and the harvest, in God’s good time.

As we look at scripture, holding all of the Bible together as one narrative, one grand story of God’s redemption of the world, as our Anglican Articles of Religion expect us to do, I see two big statements that we can make about God’s blessings:

            You can’t earn it.
            But it requires faithfulness to keep it. 

You can’t earn it.

In spite of the many would-be preachers who have made themselves rich by telling people what they want to hear, if we hold scripture together as the Word of God, there is no way anyone can wind up believing that we earn God’s blessings.

Sure, you could pick and choose a few verses here and there and publish it as a trendy self-help book and make yourself millions of dollars while deceiving millions of lost and searching people in the process; but the whole message of these parables, of God’s calling of Israel, of Christ’s death and resurrection, and even Creation itself is simply that God has given freely.  God has blessed, God has given us so much first, not because of anything we’ve done to deserve it. 

Those tenants working the vineyard didn’t earn it or cause it to be built.  God built it for himself, so that his feast would be well-supplied. 

No, rather, the great message of scripture is that God gave those tenants a chance not because they deserved or earned it, but because he is generous by nature.  God is so recklessly generous – at least from a human perspective – because he wants us to choose him, love him, and serve him freely. If we could earn or buy God’s blessing, we’d no longer love him for who he is; it’d be like the kid who makes a few quick friends only because he has the newest and fanciest stuff. 

We can’t earn God’s blessing.  He gave the first gift – bringing us into being.

But – and this is important – we are then entrusted with whatever he has given us.

While we believe the inequality between people is the direct result of our disobedience of God, and we believe and trust that, one day, sickness, pain, disease, and decay will be done away, each of us has the task of being faithful with what we’ve been given.

Some have been given much – some, it seems, have more than what they need, and everything they touch turns to gold; some have been given little – born into awful situations weighed down by the ways those around them have missed the mark, and having to learn the hard way that the purpose of life isn’t to get ahead, but to lean on one another and carry one another’s burdens.

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, those tenants had been given much.  If God had given them a wooded plot of empty land in Spring, he wouldn’t have expected much of a harvest come Fall; just clearing the brush and building the fence would have been great work in the right direction.  And, as we read elsewhere, those who have been faithful with small things will be entrusted with more.

But those tenants had been given all that they needed, so the Lord had every right to expect a full and plentiful harvest.  Yet, in the biggest twist yet, those selfish tenants not only failed to hand over the produce; they had totally forgotten that it was a gift in the first place.  They had totally forgotten whose field it was, and how it got there.

Sure, in the short term, we might say they were right.  They were the ones getting up at dawn and working the field until sunset all summer.  They did the work.

But they didn’t cut the brush.  They didn’t till the ground.  They didn’t haul away the rocks.  They didn’t dig the posts and make the fence.  They didn’t put in the wine press or build the watchtower.  That was a gift, that was a blessing that they had been entrusted with.  But they forgot; they were so focused on themselves, that they simply forgot where it all came from.

You can’t earn God’s blessing.  But it requires faithfulness to keep it.

Those tenants wouldn’t acknowledge the gift that they had been given.  Even when the Master’s Son came, they plotted to kill him rather than hand over what was due.

Jesus said “now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time”. (Matt. 21:41-42)

The Bible acknowledges, time and time again, that the wicked and greedy appear to prosper, at least from our perspective.  The Psalms are full of rich and wonderful laments about how it appears that evil people get ahead because they rely on each other and the traps they have set for the working person; yet, since everyone alive has received the gift and blessing of God, they too will be called to give an account of how they used it, whether to bless others, or to puff themselves up, forgetting what they received as a gift.

Living Faithfully

Our task then, is to acknowledge the blessings we’ve received, and then to live faithfully, presenting to God the fruit of our labour at harvest time, whatever that fruit might be: whether it’s using our skills and talents to grow the Kingdom of God, whether it’s using our time and energy to free up others to do that work, and all of us together using the fruit of our labour – that’s money, in modern terms – to provide food to the poor, to give people access to the help and support they need, and to support the local church and it’s work as the visible dwelling place of God in our land, calling in all who need the mercy, hope, healing, and peace of God which passes understanding.

But faithfulness is about more than what we do with the harvest.  It’s also about what we do along the way.

St. Paul in Philippians tells us to keep our eyes on the prize. 

We know we’ve received God’s good gifts.  We know he’s blessed us greatly.

But the Master didn’t plant a vineyard for the sake of having a vineyard.
This isn’t a make-work project.

A vineyard has a purpose.  You build a vineyard because you want wine.  And God’s purpose is to have lots of it: after all, he’s preparing an eternal feast.

So while, on the one hand, we have to be careful not to forget that what we have is a gift from God, at the same time, it’s not enough to say “this is a gift from God” and then sit on our butts.  The Master’s still coming to collect the harvest.

No, St. Paul says, we need to keep our eyes on the prize.  We need to run the race faithfully.  “I press on”, St. Paul says – we press on working the vineyard.

“This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14).

You can’t earn God’s blessing.  But it requires faithfulness to keep God’s blessing.

There’s great news here. 

We’ve all been blessed differently.  Some seem to have much, some seem to have little.  But we’re not to be faced backwards, comparing gifts and blessings.  We’re to be facing forward, toward the goal, being faithful with what we have.

That’s going to look different for each person.

If our eyes are off the prize, we’ll get stuck, distracted, saying, “look, their vineyard’s so much nicer than mine”, or, “ha, their vineyard’s a mess, they don’t know if they’re coming or going”.

But don’t get distracted.  Look forward.  Move forward.  Remember that what has gone before is a blessing, and our task is to be faithful with it here and now, for there’s work to be done.

And, you know what?  That’s when things start to happen.

If we’ve been faithful with little, we’ll be entrusted with more.  Don’t get distracted, don’t look around, don’t look back, but look ahead. 

And before you know it, the little church is growing; the small balance sheet is entrusted with more; the impact grows as this little vineyard is producing enough fruit to spill over and bless the community, and before you know it, acknowledging the blessings of God, and being firmly committed to the journey ahead, we present to God a harvest bigger and fuller and juicier than we ever imagined, knowing full well that He gave the blessings, He gave the growth, and if we press forward and remain faithful, He will say to us “well done, my good and faithful servants”.

My friends, this little vineyard is really something.  Let’s keep our eyes on the prize.  Let’s run the race faithfully, always moving forward.  Because God has blessed us, we’ve been faithful, and this growing church will be entrusted with more.

To God be the glory, great things he has done.  Amen.

Forgiveness requires Follow Through

“when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it… but when the wicked turn away from their wickedness and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life”.[1]

Forgiveness is a familiar theme.  Indeed, the whole message of the Gospel is that the Church is a Kingdom of second chances: you can’t be born into it, you can’t work your way into it, and none of us deserve to be here – all of us are forgiven by the free gift of God, and our God-given mission is to invite others to receive that gift as well.

Along with that, the central point holding the entire Christian understanding of forgiveness together is an idea so simple that many of us learned to recite it by heart as youngsters: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” 

The prayer that Christ himself taught us has us ask God to forgive us to the extent that we are people willing to forgive others.  The point is simple and clear: it does no good for the human soul to “collect up” – as it were – the grace and forgiveness of God, if we refuse to let go of the past hurts and wrongs and disappointments that crowd out the abundant, healed life that God wills for those who follow him.

It’s like an old guy who smoked a pack-a-day his whole life and whose lungs have given out.  Sure, the doctor has an endless supply of pure oxygen that can flow in as breath of fresh air, giving a new lease on life, with all the renewed energy and joy that comes from that weight on the chest being removed.  …but, you can’t have – you can’t receive – that life-giving supply of fresh air while you’re standing out by the door puffing on your beloved cigarette.  In fact, what would happen if that rich, life-giving, pure oxygen came into contact with that slow-smouldering end of your smoke?

The two are incompatible.  You try to hold on to both, and you end up in an awful state.

The same is true with forgiveness – we simply cannot fully receive the mercy of God for our failings while we refuse to let go of the anger, hurt, shame, and disappointment caused by the failings of others.  The two are simply incompatible.

“Fine.  I’m sorry.  Can I go now?”

You have to forgive others for your soul to be in a state to receive forgiveness.  Now we could leave it there and call it a day, but the reality is that it’s not enough to just say “I forgive you”.  We have to mean it.  We have to follow through.

So, the other day, two very energetic children are sitting in the living room after school; one is building a circuit, the other is dressing up Barbies.  All is going well until someone starts screaming… somehow – though apparently no one started it – a wire got pulled out of the circuit that was being built, and a doll was thrown into the corner behind the chair, and a certain young electrician is yelling that his sister needs to go away and can never come back to the living room ever again because she ruins everything ever.

Once things calm down, and the Barbie has been rescued, you know what happens next: it’s time for everyone to say they’re sorry.

But you know yourself: how do you think that goes?  Do the kids sit and reflect deeply for a few minutes on their actions before saying, unprompted, “yes, I realize that I over-reacted, and that we were really both at fault, but I should have been the bigger person and walked away instead of yelling and throwing… will you please forgive me?”

Ha! No… that’s not how it goes.  Both kids sit there, arms folded, pouts on their face, not looking at each other.  One grunts out “I’m sorry”.  The other huffs and almost yells “FINE.  I’m sorry too, ok?  Can I go now?” 

Here’s the thing – it’s probably been a while since you’ve thrown your sister’s Barbies (at least I hope so), but adults and kids really aren’t that different when it comes to offering forgiveness.

Sure, we say the words; but do we follow through?  We say “it’s ok, don’t worry about it”, but do we really lay down the hurt and the anger?  Do we really stop worrying about it?

Actions vs. Intentions

In our Gospel lesson today (Matthew 21:28-31), Jesus tells us a parable about how God sees and understands human actions versus human intentions.

Two sons are with their father who runs the family farm.  The dad tells them that there’s chores to be done that day.  The first son gets huffy and puffy, talks back, says “no way, I’m not doing it; I don’t care what you say, I’m not listening to you”, and stomps away.  The other son – I picture him with a big grin on his face – says, “oh, don’t worry dad, I’m the good son… I’ll get the chores done”, and goes on his way.

But what happens?  The guy who blew up and stormed off calms down, comes to his senses, and goes to the field and does what needs to be done, while the one who actually said he would do it ends up over in his friends’ basement playing Xbox… or, you know, whatever teenagers did back then.

The point Jesus makes is this: the words don’t matter without the actions to follow through.  The first son – though he disobeyed and broke one of the commandments in the process – was the one who actually did his Father’s will. 

And the same is true with forgiveness.  Saying you forgive someone really doesn’t matter a whole lot if you’re going to walk away with anger, pain, hurt, and bitterness in your heart.  Like that second son, the words were empty, they were cheap, and at the end of the day, what did they accomplish?  The work didn’t get done, but worse than that, those empty words strained the relationship between that son and his father; because of those empty words, that son now has to make excuses, and sooner or later, he’s stuck in a web of lies to maintain that grinning outward façade, while inside he’s weighed down with anxiety and the deep reality that he knows his own word is worthless.

Meanwhile, sure it wasn’t pretty when the first guy blew up, said what shouldn’t be said, and stomped away.  But once the heat of the moment had passed, he settled down, came to his senses, and did what needed to be done.  That loving, merciful father ended the day pleased with him in spite of the blow-up along the way, because the work was done, the trust was restored, and that son learned something along the way about obedience.

The weight of sin

As a people of second chances, as those whose own ability to receive forgiveness depends on our willingness to let go of the pain caused by others, we have to be willing to follow through.

We come to the Lord for forgiveness, and he tells us to lay down the heavy burdens that we’ve been carrying.  But, so often, we lay them down, but don’t undo the straps that held them on; to quote the psalms, we don’t cut those cords of death that entangle us.

Sure, we laid them down.  We say the words: “have mercy upon us most merciful Father…”, but then when the time comes to leave, we drag those burdens back home with us like a weight attached to our ankles.

The words were empty.  The words were cheap. 

The one who does the will of the Father is the one who follows through; the one who lays down their burdens – and leaves them there; the one who acknowledges and names the real hurt and pain caused by others, but can then, by the grace of God, let it go, and follow through with forgiveness.  Even if, sometimes, like that first son, we’ve spoken our mind and stomped off, it’s better we do that and then truly forgive than fall into the trap of saying the right words while carrying the bitterness in our hearts.

If we do that, we’re like the old smoker, puffing on a cigarette with a bottle of oxygen waiting at our feet. 

Or, as we read this morning: if the righteous, those who call upon the name of the Lord, the scribes and teachers of the Law, those who say the right words, commit iniquity, they shall die; they will meet destruction.

But if the wicked, no matter what they’ve done, even the tax collectors and prostitutes don’t just say the words, but follow through and do what is lawful and right, the Lord says it is those who enter the Kingdom.

Lets leave here this morning with our burdens left here before the Cross. Lets leave here this morning without the cords of death around our ankles, tying us to, and holding us back with past hurt and pain. 

And may God give us the grace to be people who follow through.  Amen.


[1] Ezekiel 18:26-27

To Hell with Fairness!

As imperfect people living in a broken and corrupted world, our culture and our society has developed and given us an important concept to manage our lives together.  From the time each of us were toddlers, playing on the rug with our neighbours while our parents sipped their afternoon tea at the table, we’ve been reminded – time and time again – to be fair

As we grow and move from our mother’s arms off to school, the importance of fair play only becomes better reinforced, as we learn the rules that allow us to play together on the playground – the rules that allow us to know which team has won, and which team has lost, and which allow us to agree whether the referee or the umpire or the judge has acted fairly.

And, of course, any educator or psychologist would tell you that the sports and games we play as children are just as important, perhaps even more important, than what we learn from our textbooks.  At the end of the day you can know all the right answers, but if you don’t know how to work with others, those answers won’t get you very far.

As we leave school and enter the workforce, fairness takes on a whole new level of importance.  So much of our lives centers around working our way into a job that we believe pays us fairly, we all want to work for a boss who treats us fairly, and, even in a pandemic, the one key phrase you can absolutely count on finding in each and every news story about government restrictions, wage subsidies, relief programs, and economic bailouts is – simply – “it’s not fair”.

Fairness is the central virtue of our modern society.

Yet, as we’re confronted with ending of the work of the prophet Jonah,[1] and as we’re confronted with the difficult and challenging teaching of Christ in the Parables of the Workers in the Vineyard,[2] we should find ourselves facing a troubling question: is God fair?

What is “fairness”?

If we dig in and actually read these passages as they’re presented, we should be shocked at what we find.

We all know the beginning of the story of Jonah, that whiniest and most toddler-like of all the prophets, who threw a tantrum and ran away when God asked him to go to Ninevah; but, at least if your Sunday School education was like most, you probably never spent much time on the end of that story because, well, it’s unfair.

Jonah’s people, God’s chosen people Israel, had been overrun and taken captive by the Assyrian Empire, whose capital was the city of Nineveh.  The absolute brutality of the Assyrians was known throughout the world; when they attacked, they leveled cities, murdered civilians, and took survivors home to be put on display as slaves. 

Jonah, the descendant of those who had been humiliated, shamed, and had their land, prosperity, and freedom taken so brutally by the Assyrian Empire wanted the one true God of his fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give the Assyrians what they deserved; to overthrow their Empire, and mightily restore the kingdom to Israel.  That would show the nations who the true God is; that would teach them their lesson for messing with God’s chosen people.

But, that isn’t God’s plan.  God wants Jonah to march into the capital city of the nation that has stolen Israel’s land, killed off most of a generation in battle, overthrew the kings who sit on David’s throne, and continue to oppress and strike fear into the hearts of the entire known world… and preach forgiveness. 

God wants Jonah to march in there, tell them that they’re on the path to destruction, but, if they repent, if they ask for mercy, God will forgive them their sins.

And that’s the background that leads Jonah on this wild goose chase, taking a boat in the opposite direction, being caught up in a storm, winding up beached, and ultimately wandering in the desert wishing that he would die, while God sends shade to thwart his spitefulness. 

God’s people had been humiliated.  It’s only fair for God to overthrow Nineveh and restore his people’s glory.  Why would God forgive them after all they’ve done?  It’s not fair.

And then, at the same time, a close reading of Matthew 20 rubs every one of us the wrong way.  It’s harvest time, and the vineyard owner goes out at dawn and hires labourers to work in the field; they agree to a fair wage and get to work.

…but the owner has more work to do; he needs more labourers.  So he goes back later in the day and hires more, and they get to work.

This goes on, and finally, one hour before closing time, he sees some guys standing around outside, so he goes out and hires them too, even though the work day is practically over.

It’s time to and out paycheques at the end of the day, and these last guys are called up first, and lo and behold, they’re given a full days pay for an hours work… an hour in the evening, when the heat was gone from the sun, and most of the work was already done!

The first guys get excited.  ‘Wow!  They got a day’s pay for an hour of easy work.  We’ve been here all day; we’re gonna be rich!’

But no, they worked twelve times longer, and worked through the heat of the afternoon sun, but when they’re called up the owner hands them the same as those last guys.  They’re outraged.  It’s a good thing they didn’t have shop stewards and union reps, or we’d have the first recorded walkout. 

“It’s not fair”, they cry… and, really, our whole world joins with them. 

It just isn’t fair. 

But the owner looks at them and says, “guys… Sorry to disappoint you, but you knew exactly what you signed up for.  You agreed to this at the start of the day.   It’s my money; if I want to be generous, I will… it’s not your decision”.

…But… it’s not fair!

Is God fair?

One of the hard lessons in scripture is that, as much as it makes our world go around, fairness is not a Christian virtue.

Aristotle and the Greek philosophers spoke about fairness;[3] the secular ethicists of the 1800s wrote extensively about fairness;[4] but, you can read your Bible cover to cover: it’s just not an idea you’ll find there.

No, “fairness” is a human concept that assumes that compromise is necessary. 

And rightly so – if we didn’t teach kids to play fair, the biggest brute of a toddler would be sitting on a hoard of toys while the smallest one had none.  If we didn’t teach fair play in sports, the meanest team would literally claw and scratch their way to the top while everyone else trembled at the thought of playing against them.

But fairness isn’t a heavenly virtue; we need fairness only because our instincts and our wills are so terribly deformed that, left to our own devices, the strong would hoard and fight their way to the top.

But the hard lesson for all of us as we re-train ourselves to see the world as God sees it, is that fairness – that great safeguard against our sin – only comes into play when our sinful, prideful desires to put ourselves first are at work.

No, God is not fair.

Seriously.  That’s a truth we can proclaim.

Rather, God is just.  He is righteous.  He is merciful and kind.  He is slow to anger, and he is unimaginably generous.  

No, thanks be to God, He does not treat us fairly.  If He were to repay any of us as we deserve, what an awful state we would be in.

Instead, like the owner of the vineyard, He is just, and He acts righteously.

As much as we might hate it, as much as we might think it’s unfair, as much as we might wish it was another way, like those labourers, we work for the wages for which we and all humanity were hired: the price of missing the mark is death; those are the terms we’re born into and, along with taxes – about which scripture also has something to say – death is something we can all count on.

The issue – and where we need to allow our minds to be retrained as disciples, as students of Christ, is that, while fairness is a human concept, God is at once perfectly merciful and unthinkably generous.

The hard truth for all of us in the Church is that none of us, in spite of what we might think, are those first labourers who worked all day for a fair day’s wage.

Each and every one of us was invited into a work already begun.  The fair wages of sin is death, yet each of us has been given second, third, fourth, dozens, hundreds of chances; each of us has needed forgiveness not seven, but seventy times seven times.

God has been merciful to us.  And while sometimes we wish that the ways of God were a little more black and white like the fairness of the world, thanks be to God that He doesn’t treat us the way we sometimes wish He would treat others.

A God who was fair would be a terrible thing, because all of us require mercy, and all of us have received more than the fair wages we deserve.

How then shall we live?

As the Church, this is a lesson we must constantly keep before our eyes.  But, it’s especially important when we are people who are active and engaged in our mission to grow the Kingdom of God.

Earthly wisdom, earthly fairness has taught us all that those who were there first are worth the most; that seniority matters.

Yet, our Lord said this morning, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16).

The challenge for the Church is that, like Jonah, worldly standards would demand that we deserve something for our efforts, for our patience, for our faithfulness through the years.  Yet, God extends the same mercy that we rely on – perhaps even more mercy to cover a multitude of failings – even to those who have actively worked against us.

While the world would say that the opinions and comments of those, like me, who were raised in the Church and have followed Christ my whole life, should be worth more – that our seniority and experience should matter as we plan our activities and the mission and ministry of our congregation, Our Lord says a resounding “no”.

The Lord says, ‘those whom I called in a few years ago, or last month, or who finally said yes and started working for me yesterday, or even those who come into my vineyard in the moments before their final breath all receive the same mercy; for all of you were due the same wages, but my mercy is more, my grace is sufficient so that I can have mercy on whoever answers my voice and agrees to work in my vineyard, and pay you all not what is fair, not what you deserve, but what is just, what is right, what none of you could earn no matter when you started working: a new life full of grace and mercy.’

That’s the challenge. 

For each of us, the purpose of learning to turn the other cheek is not about being passive; it’s about becoming those who have overcome the goal of “fairness” and instead understand mercy, both in what we’ve received, and in what we’re called to give.

And together, as the Church throughout the world, we should be the most nimble and adaptable of all institutions.  While the truth we proclaim is unchanging, our Lord and Master, whose mercies are new every morning, tells us that we’re in this together; where we undo the worldly yoke of “fairness” and instead work side-by-side, those who worked through the heat of the day alongside those who’ve just come in, working as equals, sharing the load, outdoing each other in mercy, until we become a body whose new members are given a vision for our mission, and whose oldest members dream dreams of a thriving ministry for the Kingdom of God which they will pass to those who come after.

My friends – and I choose these words carefully – to hell with what the world teaches about fairness.  Let us rejoice in the mercy we’ve received, and eagerly get to work, for the harvest is plentiful and the labourers are few, and we have to work, for night is coming.


[1] Jonah 3:10-4:11

[2] Matthew 20:1-16

[3] See Book 5 of Nicomachean Ethics.  An introductory discussion is available here: https://koukis.org/index.php/philosophy/aristotelian-virtues-ethics/fairness/

[4] I’m thinking specifically of John Stewart Mill’s utilitarianism, with fairness being a catch-all phrase for bringing the most happiness and avoiding the most pain for the most people.

God’s Revolutionary Plan

“I have made you a watchman”, says the Lord, “whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me” … “if you do not speak the warning, their blood will be on your hands… if you warn them, and they ignore the message, the fault is on them.” (Ezekiel 33:7-9).

Last week we saw, very dramatically, that God’s will is for his people to be nourished and sustained by the Word of God.  It’s his will that we should feast and ‘fill up’ on the truth that God has revealed in scripture, and not just bits and pieces that we remember from Sunday School, or a hazy understanding of the overarching themes filtered down through an unchurched society; rather as the prophets very dramatically showed us last week when we saw them literally eating, munching on the Word of God making the point that the teaching and reading of the Bible, handed down through the Church, is meant to be our daily bread, our food for the journey.

After all, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut. 8:3 / Matt. 4:4)… or, as I like to say, one of the key points of Christianity is, simply, “you are what you eat”.  If we want to become Christ-like, if we want to be those whose mouths proclaim the good news of forgiveness, of love, of peace, of second chances and purpose, then we have to first be filled with those messages, those promises from God.

The readings appointed for today pick up on that theme: that our purpose is not just to believe in God, come to church on Sunday, drop in an envelope to pay the minister and keep the lights on, and leave to go about our business until next week.

No, the message of the Church is much more radical than that. 

The faith we proclaim is that the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit have been poured out on all who believe, just as Jesus promised.  It’s no longer reserved for the professional ministers – that was true in the Old Testament, when the Spirit of God was reserved for prophets, priests, and kings; from Pentecost on, God has sent his Holy Spirit to empower every baptized person for the work of proclaiming the good news.  Or, to put it another way, the reason the Church doesn’t appoint “prophets”, and, very practically, the reason that our service books or church documents don’t use the outdated term “minister” for clergy is that, fundamentally, we believe that if you’ve been baptized, and if baptism brings with it the gift of the Holy Spirit, then each and every one of us here is on the hook as a messenger of God; each and every one of us here has been empowered by the same Spirit that empowered Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel to share the good news, to point people back to God, back to the one who loves them and is waiting with open arms to forgive them, to teach them what it is not to trust in your own strength, and to adopt them as sons and daughters of our heavenly king.

God’s plan at Pentecost was that people would no longer travel hundreds of miles to find one of his appointed messengers; rather, with every Christian called to that task, the whole world would have the opportunity to hear.

God’s plan was that, rather than sending a weird guy eating locusts and wearing camel skin to bring hope to Fort Smith, there would be, and there are right now, a hundred or more active, baptized, followers of Jesus, all empowered by the same Spirit who empowered the prophets of old, all given the task of bringing God’s message to those who are right here.

It’s a great plan.  Why have one prophet, why have one messenger, when you can have a hundred or more, even in a small town like this.  On paper, the plan is brilliant: if one prophet could turn the hearts of kings and rulers, just imagine what a hundred could do! 

…except, those prophets, those messengers, are people like me and you sitting here today, together with our faithful brothers and sisters at the other churches in town. 

It’s a great and awesome plan to bring mercy and forgiveness and hope to the world, but, if we’re honest, we haven’t been great at doing our part.

Messengers given a choice

Now, as we know from scripture, God wants us to love him freely, so even when he calls and empowers and appoints someone to do a task, there’s always a choice to be made; it’s not in God’s nature to use us against our will.

The same is true here: when God called prophets, like we read in Ezekiel this morning, there was an option given.  The messenger could choose to deliver the message, or not; that’s the choice.

But, like everything in life, one thing always leads to another, and choices – no matter how simple or private they seem – always have consequences that are far-reaching. 

The choice given to the messenger of God was no different: you can deliver the message and, no matter how it’s received – whether they accept it and take that first step to turn to the Lord, or whether they outright reject it and laugh in your face – the messenger has done their job.  Or, to put it in the dire terms we heard today: if you did your part and delivered the message, their decision to reject it is on them.

But, on the flip side of that, if you refuse to deliver the message – which you’re free to do, after all, God doesn’t force us – it just means that we’ve chosen to accept the consequences: Ezekiel 33:8, “if you do not speak to them…”, they’ll go on living their lives, but when they die, “I will hold you accountable for their blood”.

Now, that’s the kind of statement that should get our attention.

God’s plan is that, across whatever denominations of churches there are, there would be hundreds of opportunities, each and every day, for our own friends and neighbours to run into someone who is sustained and nourished by our daily bread, and on whose lips is the good news of hope and mercy and the joy that comes from no longer trusting in your own strength, and learning to rely on a loving saviour.

It’s great news, and an awesome plan to share it.  But, as always, it’s our choice.  We can choose to keep the message to ourselves… it just means that, one day, when our journey has ended, when we are called to give account for the good things and opportunities entrusted to us, when the opportunities we had to give someone just the smallest word of hope, or to let them know that they are loved, or that we’re in this together as children of God, or that you’ll pray for them, or that you know a church that would be happy to welcome them, or a priest that would be happy to chat with them; as God reveals all the dozens or hundreds of people that He has put in your path, the terrifying choice is ours – do we hear “well done, my good and faithful servant”, or do we say, “you sent me but I wouldn’t go; I am accountable for their blood.”

A wake-up call

Sometimes I think the church, and especially clergy, forget that our business is a matter of life and death.  We’re not sent out to be nice and unobjectionable, our mission isn’t to run programs to keep our social calendars full. 

We’re part of God’s plan to go from having one prophet for a hundred miles to having a hundred messengers in every nook and cranny and corner of the earth.  It’s that reality that needs to colour everything we do: when we pack hampers for new college students, it’s not because we’re nice people – it’s because our God-given task is to love the stranger and foreigner, to let them know that they are loved, that they are welcomed, that no matter what they’ve done or where they are in their journey, the Church, the Body of Christ, is reaching out with those same arms of forgiveness and love that would embrace the wood of the Cross; when we help low-income families do their taxes, it’s not because we’re nice people with nothing better to do – it’s because our God-given task is to relieve the plight of the poor, to let them know that they are loved and that, no matter what choices they, or their parents, or our parents made that put them in the situation they’re in, there is forgiveness, there is mercy, and there is hope when we learn to stop trusting in ourselves, and to put our trust in Jesus.

My friends, we have opportunities to be God’s messengers presented to us every day.

How we missed those opportunities yesterday doesn’t need to hold us back; if we acknowledge that we missed the mark and ask for forgiveness, God remembers it no more, he wipes it from our account;[1] and we need to let it go too. 

Instead, as we wake each morning, take our daily bread, and ask God to forgive us as we forgive others, we treat each day as a new opportunity to be those messengers we are called to be.

And let’s be clear… no one’s suggesting that we should be ranting on street corners.  If that was God’s plan, Pentecost wouldn’t have happened; God could have kept sending prophets in camel skin, eating locusts… or even eating their Bibles.

No, what God wants is an army of ordinary people; a mighty throng of humble servants, those willing to open our mouths at those times when you know you should say something; those times when the hair stands on the back of your neck and you know, somehow, deep down, that you’re supposed to let this person know that they are loved, that they don’t need to worry, they don’t need to try so hard, that surrendering and learning to follow Jesus is the first step in overcoming the things that weigh us down.

It’s nothing more than living honourably, loving our neighbour, putting aside the works of darkness, and getting to work, for night is coming,[2] and when the opportunity comes to deliver God’s message, choosing to simply deliver it, rather than being accountable for the consequences of keeping it to ourselves; knowing that, by God’s grace, we might be the faceless, unknown messenger,[3] who sparks something that changes generations of darkness and addiction and despair in that family, all because we were faithful and spoke a little word of hope or mercy in that moment.

Just remember: God’s plan to send ordinary, shy, quirky people like you and me is completely revolutionary.  We know that where two or three are gathered, Christ is in our midst.[4]  Jesus wasn’t in a building when he said that, so we shouldn’t limit that promise to these four walls.  If two or three, or twenty-five, or a hundred of us are united to be God’s humble messengers in our town, you know what?  Christ will be here, in our midst.  And that, my friends, is the sort of thing that changes a church, that changes a community, and, by God’s grace, can change the world.

The choice is ours – let’s speak up.

To God be the Glory.  Amen.


[1] Don’t worry, I’m not advocating a juridical or accountancy-based soteriology.  “Being held accountable” is the image in Ezekiel 33.

[2] Romans 13:8-14

[3] Messenger: in Greek “angelon”, from which we get “angel”!

[4] Matthew 18:19-20

What if it tastes like Toothpaste and Orange Juice?

The Prophet Jeremiah said: Your words were found and I ate them, and they became to me a joy and the delight of my heart… Jeremiah 15:16

Throughout scripture, cover to cover, we learn that God’s word is to be on our lips and in our hearts.  We are people who are to speak the Good News and guard our tongues against speaking words of deceit or slander – after all, ‘the tongue is a double-edged sword’[1] and – as we heard last week – it’s what goes out of the mouth, not what comes in, that defiles us.[2] 

No, that the Word of God should be on our lips is certainly no surprise.  As one of the most famous prayers from the prayerbook puts it, our task is to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest”[3] the truth of God as revealed in the pages of scripture, guided by the Holy Spirit at work in the Church.

But – it might shock you to find out – that on at least three occasions in scripture, the prophets, the messengers of God, took this literally.  Yes, three times in scripture, someone eats the Bible.[4]

The prophet Ezekiel chows down on the word of God;[5] John the Divine is told in a vision to eat a scroll, and it turns his stomach;[6] and then in today’s Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah munches on and swallows up the Word of God written out on a sheet of goatskin.

Now before we get any ideas, this was not one of those “go and do likewise” sort of moments.  No, this is a symbolic action[7] meant to help us visualize and enter into the lessons God has for his people, much as the light spreading outward from a single candle in a dark church on Christmas Eve speaks the truth of our hope in the darkness of this world more deeply than any sermon, or praying alone in a darkened and silent church on the night before Good Friday allows us to really recognize the sacrifice of the cross.

The point is this: all the instruction about having the truth on our lips, about speaking the truth, about loosing our lips to praise, about opening our mouth to sing a new song of the Lord’s faithfulness, about our lips never failing to recite what the Lord has done, are not just happy thoughts or motivational words on a pretty plaque hung on your wall.  No – God’s Word is not just something to think about; no, it’s meant to sustain us.  God’s Word – the Truth we proclaim – is something to live by, something to guard us, guide us, keep us, and feed us through the ups and downs of life.

You Are What You Eat

I’ve always said that one of the central points of Christianity is, simply, “you are what you eat”.  It was through eating that which wasn’t ours that humanity first tasted the fruit of disobedience.  It’s through looking back through our journey through the lone and dreary wilderness that we taste and see that the Lord is good, and happy are those who put their trust in Him.  Christ invites us to join him as sons and daughters of God adopted in the waters of baptism and cleansed in his one perfect offering on the cross, but to do that – to share in his risen life, to remain part of his body, to become like him – we must eat his flesh and drink his blood in the sacrament he gave us.  And, we are a people who feed on the truth of the Gospel. 

And this is where those symbolic actions of the prophets are important.  The Word of God was never intended to be knowledge safely stored in a book, learned once in Sunday School or Confirmation Class, or studied in the hallowed halls of seminaries, and then put back on the shelf.  The Word of God was never meant to be displayed – covers closed – on a coffee table or next to your bed.  No, these aren’t just words to live by, they’re words to live on; as the prophets show us, they’re meant to be consumed – one translation even says “devoured” – to give us the energy, the direction, the substance we need to move forward; like the manna in the wilderness, like the gifts from the Lord’s Table, the Word of God is our daily bread. 

Like an athlete fueling up for a race, we’ve been given a banquet of truth and hope and good news to fuel up as we face the road ahead each day.  As we read today in Romans, we’re to rejoice in hope, and be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer.  Add that to turning the other cheek, praying for our enemies, and caring for those in need, and that’s quite a tall order, especially if we find ourselves scavenging and scrounging just to find enough hope to get out of bed in the morning, as we have some days lately in our house.

But God never intended for us to scavenge and scrounge within ourselves to drum up some hope or peace.  He’s laid out a banquet; he’s given us our daily bread; he’s invited us to pull up a chair and feast on his Word… but, just like the prophets, God doesn’t force feed us; it’s on us to open up, take it in, enjoy the sweetness, chew on the tough parts, and let that God-given diet of even a few verses of His Word transform us from the inside out, like our daily vitamins and glucosamine pills that transform us, that loosen up our stiff joints as we prepare to run the race ahead.

I ate it… and it turned my stomach sour.

You are what you eat, and we are to inwardly digest and live on the truth of God’s Word.  But there’s one other warning we see in the example of the prophets who took this image all the way and munched on their Bibles.

John chewed on the scriptures, but found very quickly that it turned his stomach sour.

Now, let’s be clear, that’s not a defect in the word of God.  No, no matter how good and nourishing the meal, the are just some things that cannot go together.

It’s happened to all of us – you brush your teeth, so you can present yourself to the world all fresh and minty clean, and then you pour up a refreshing glass of orange juice.  Now it could be the finest, freshly squeezed orange juice in the world, but if you drink it after brushing your teeth… ugh, I cringe just thinking about it.

The same goes for scripture – it’s often hard to swallow when we’ve been trying to freshen ourselves up in the eyes of the world.  But, like lots of good medicine, there’s no benefit if it sits in a bottle on the shelf; sometimes we have to get over the taste and let it work from the inside out.

Someone asked me this week, “how have you managed to keep going in the pandemic?  It seems like you have so much energy, and I just feel like sitting on the couch in my pyjamas.”

“Well,” I said, “don’t be fooled.  “I’ve spent plenty of time on the couch… and have the pandemic gut and chin to show for it”.

But – and I say this with all seriousness, and not just because I’m the priest – when I drag my butt off the couch and come to the church to say morning prayer – yes, a couple times even with pyjamas under my cassock – I find my daily bread.  Every day, without fail, there’ll be a lesson, or a phrase, or maybe just a word I hadn’t noticed before, that gives me energy, that gives me hope to rejoice in, that gives me strength to persevere, that gives me the trust I need to be patient, and to allow God to guard me, guide me, keep me, and feed me.

…and then I come home, and I don’t want to do anything.  Some days I’ll get stuck scrolling Facebook; some days I’ll make the mistake of turning on the news and wind up depressed; some days I’ll stare out the window and wonder why the clock has stopped moving and time is going so slow.  But, sooner or later, the story, the phrase, that word will bubble up from within and encourage me, and suddenly I’m given the hope that I lack, the energy to run the race, and the patience I need to keep myself out of trouble.

Feed your enemy, and offer them something to drink.

God’s Word is our daily bread.  And I want to draw your attention to one more thing we heard this morning.  From Romans (12:20-21): “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”

Do you think this is just about a slice of bread or a plate of cookies?

If someone drives us nuts – if someone goes out of their way to embarrass us, or put us down, or make us feel worthless, or is just stubbornly in our way, we’re to have the word of God on our lips, we’re to rejoice in hope and speak the truth in love, even when it’s hard to swallow.  That’s because, even for our worst enemies, our task by the grace of God, is to lead them to the living water that is Jesus Christ, who pardons us, provides for us, and guides us on, all the days of this (crazy) journey set out before us.

My friends – let’s be people who feed on the word of God… just not literally; after all, self-serve food is prohibited.


[1] See James 3:9-10

[2] Matthew 15:1-20

[3] The Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent written by Abp. Thomas Cranmer in 1549 and contained in every Book of Common Prayer since.

[4] Ok… not an actual modern-day Bible, but a scroll containing biblical text…

[5] Ezekiel 3

[6] Revelation 10:8-11

[7] In Biblical Studies we would call this a “prophetic sign-act”, a non-verbal dramatic action to visualize the message they brought to the people.

A Living Sacrifice overcomes the Gates of Death.

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters… to present your bodies as a living sacrifice”. Romans 12:1

Last week we heard that crucial part of the good news that the world, and even many in the church, get backwards: we don’t come to church because we’re good people who have our lives together.  No, the good news – as surprising as it sounds – is that none of us are good enough to claim any right to stand in God’s holy house; the good news is that, though we can never do anything or be good enough to deserve it, God gives us his mercy, that little spark of holiness that begins the life-long process of transforming us from the inside out.  Or, to put it another way, none of us deserve to even gather up the crumbs under the Lord’s table like the dogs in their masters’ house; yet, not because of what we’ve done, but because of his great mercy, he clothes us, cleans us up, and invites us to join him at the table as his guests.

This week, we’re presented with another of the great truths of the good news that, all-too-often, has been understood backwards: Romans chapter 12, verses 1-2, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Sacrifice?  No thank you.

There’s no doubt about it, the call on our lives is a call to sacrifice, a call to take up our cross and follow Christ.  But what exactly does that mean?  What should that look like?

Right off the bat, any call to sacrifice is a call away from the instincts we’ve picked up from a fallen world built around self-preservation and pride, built around making a name for ourselves and earning the respect, or admiration, or perhaps if we’re honest, earning the envy of those around us.

Certainly, “sacrifice” just sounds not just pointless, but downright pitiful to those who have built their lives on trying to get ahead, on trying to make themselves good enough one way or another.

And yes, as we confess our failings and start fresh each day aiming at the target that is the example of Jesus, there are real sacrifices to be made: as we take that leap and finally trust the God who says “I want you to trust me, not your bank account, so give up 10% of what comes in”, there are things to be given up while we learn the freedom that comes with no longer being focused on the dollar; when we take that leap and finally trust the God who says “I made you in my image so that you can have good judgment and make a difference, so take back the control you’ve given to a bottle, or your cigarettes, or the pointless scrolling on your phone, or whatever you’ve used to distract you from what needs to be done”, there’s real sacrifice, and often real pain, that comes with making those changes; when we finally listen to the God who says “vengeance is mine, I will repay”, and “only I know a person’s heart, so turn the other cheek and trust in me”, when we finally lay down the anger and bitterness and revenge and pride that makes so much of the world go around, it’s there we find some of the biggest sacrifices, as we put out those silent fires that have burned within us and learn instead to find peace within. Yes, those are real sacrifices – and, guaranteed, as we crucify those unhealthy ways of life, those false religions, those false gods, there’s real work and even real pain as we learn to live in the imitation of Christ, as that heart of stone slowly warms to a heart of flesh, and we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.

But here’s where the world gets it wrong.

The sacrifices of God give life, rather than take it away.

The world hears “sacrifice” and thinks “that’ll cost you”. 

The world hears “sacrifice” and thinks that you give something up only to end up poorer and more pitiful than you were before.

The world hears “blessed are the poor, blessed are the humble and meek” and instantly twists it to imagine that God desires us to be helpless, mindless sheep, weak and easily taken advantage of.  Someone told me as much, just a month ago, when we were chatting about why he quit coming to church years ago – he thinks church should help you think positively and feel good about all that you’ve accomplished, he wants a church that tells you to stand tall and be proud of what you’ve done, but all the talk of humility, of being a follower rather than a leader, is like letting the world pass you by, and “that just won’t get you anywhere”, he said.

A living sacrifice?

The world has heard bits and pieces of the Lord’s call to sacrifice, but the twisted message they’ve heard is hardly one worth getting up and getting dressed on Sunday morning to hear.   

And, sadder still, too many congregations for too many years have only reinforced that twisted message, as churches everywhere allowed ourselves to ‘put on our Sunday best’, to pretend that we’ve got it all together, as too many congregations gathered only to focus inward, while the world outside saw a locked building whose doors are rarely open, and whose members are neither equipped to reach out as the hands of the body of Christ, nor prepared to speak up as the voice of that body in the world.

The appeal to you, my brothers and sisters, by the mercy of God, is to present your selves, your souls, and bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.

A living sacrifice… and that makes all the difference.

The world has more than its fair share of sacrificial lambs.  The prideful ways of the world know all about sacrificing people to get ahead.  In every age, countries send their young to the slaughter for a few kilometers of land, or to defend their honour.  Our own pension funds sacrifice local jobs and entire communities to get ahead by moving work overseas.  Sadly and inescapably, actual human lives, sons and daughters, in Bangladesh and Pakistan have been sacrificed for the clothes on our backs, while at home, lives are sacrificed every day as drugs, human trafficking, and violence are allowed to run free on the back streets of our cities.

The world thinks it knows all about sacrifice – and, every time, people end up dead.

Death’s battle is lost. 

But here’s where the world gets it wrong: yes, the life of following Jesus begins with surrendering our attempts at pride, with dying to self.

But God’s will isn’t to take our sacrifice, say “thank you very much”, and then let us lay there.  That couldn’t be more wrong.  We’re called not to be a sacrificial lamb – the price of death has been paid, once and for all, on the cross; no, we’re to be living sacrifices… and that makes all the difference.

Yes, we’re called to give up the lives we thought we had, to work through the pain in removing whatever it was that was driving us: trust in money, trust in our strength, slavery to work or something to take the pain away, or a life fueled by anger or bitterness or self-pity.  But as that life dies away, as that sacrifice is made, we find ourselves made more alive than we ever were before.  And it just gets better.  We’re not called to make a change and stay put – to sing “I have decided to follow Jesus” one day and be done with it.  No, unlike the ways of this world, we’re called to be daily renewed, daily transformed as our minds learn what it means not to be run by the ways of the world, but to be conformed to the will of God, to see things as God sees them, and to learn our place in the universal Church, the Body of Christ sent with a job to do in the world.

God takes our sacrifice, mercifully carries us through the pain as we die to our old ways of life, and infuses us with life like we’ve never had it before.  And that life isn’t just for our own benefit, as though God wanted to put his saints on display.  No, we’re given a life full of purpose.  We, the Church, are built up so that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

And that, my friends, is all about reaching out, going outside our walls.

It’s funny how that verse has so often been preached and read backwards.  I’ve known entire congregations who live on the defensive.  It’s as though Jesus said, I’ll build my church, and I expect it to stand here, with the powers of darkness knocking on the door trying to knock it down.

It’s the other way around: the church, the body of Christ, is on the offensive; it’s the powers of death that are scrambling in defense.  After all – have you ever known a gate to be attacking someone?  No, it’s darkness, death, and the grave that have locked their gate, defending their would-be kingdom in a losing battle.  And those gates of Hades, the gates of death and the grave will not prevail against us, the Church, when we come knocking: indeed, that’s the whole message of Easter – death closed it’s awful jaws on the body of Christ, but Christ broke free, he loosed the chains, he released those imprisoned inside, and he trampled down death by death itself – and now he wants to accept our sacrifices, not just to die to the ways of the world, but to share in that risen life, and not just for ourselves, but that we can join him, that we can be his hands and feet and voice, not to sit safely inside a fortress, but to go out and knock on the gates of death, to release the prisoners and captives, as the powers of this world, and even death itself, trembles when it sees us coming in the Name of the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

That’s the living sacrifice you are called to share. 

Yes, make those hard decisions to turn around.  Yes, take whatever fleeting, passing, worldly thing you have put your trust in, or whatever you have used to numb the pain, and put it on the cross and let it die, but then find out what it actually means to be truly alive.  Let you mind be changed – transformed – as you learn to see things as God sees them.  And then, confident as only those who are truly alive can be, get to work, as we reach out to those around us who are imprisoned by the choices they’ve made, and rattle those gates, for they simply will not prevail against the Body of Christ, truly alive.

That’s the good news.  That’s a living sacrifice.  And that’s what the Lord asks of us. 

May he give us the grace to take up our cross, share in his life, and get to work.

Amen.

…But that’s not the way it’s been done!

It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person.
…even to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a person.
it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.                                                Matthew 15:11, 20.

As I go about my days meeting people around town, chatting with them about what’s going on in their lives, looking for the little opportunities God gives to speak a word of truth or hope, it’s surprising to note just how many are shocked – really shocked – to hear me, a priest, tell them that Christianity really isn’t about following rules.

It usually starts as we’re talking about the realities of life, the ups and downs, the real anger or sadness or disappointments we all feel.  Then, the person lets a little word slip – you know, the sort of word you wouldn’t say to a priest – and then they catch themselves, turn red, look away, and apologize.  …And I chuckle, say “don’t worry, I know those words too; go on, what were you saying?”.

Or, sometimes we get talking about life, and someone talks about the bad thing they did to get back at someone, and quickly looks up and follows with “oh, I’m really going to hell, aren’t I?”… to which I usually respond, “you know, that isn’t for me to decide, but confession is good for the soul”. 

An Exercise in Missing the Point

While the churches and Sunday School classes of past generations were certainly fuller, we know God doesn’t look at the outward appearance, but instead tests a tree by its fruit.  And, hard as it is to admit, the fruit of those full pews is a culture that was taught traditions, rules, and good manners instead of a life-changing faith that carries us through the ups and downs of life.

One way or another, and in spite of the good work done by many faithful people, we’ve gotten to a place where the 95% of people who aren’t in church this morning think that we’re here to congratulate ourselves on being people who engage in the right activities and hang out with the right friends; on being people who are seen and not heard; on being people content to live a quiet, perfect, traditional life.

Unfair and incorrect as it is, if you ask anyone not here today what Christianity is all about – even if you ask some on our parish list who we only see at Christmas — you’ll hear “it’s about being good and following the rules or you’ll go to hell”.  And then, more often than not, I’ll hear some version of why they can’t go to church because they’re a sinner:  it starts with a joke like “oh, if I showed up the roof would fall in”, or “I’d be struck down if I walked in”.  But, under that chuckle lies the twisted version of the Gospel that they picked up along the way: church is for good people who did the right things.

That, for those outside these walls, is the lesson that they and their parents took home from Sunday School years ago.

The heartbreaking thing, though, is that they literally couldn’t be more wrong.

But… that’s not the way it’s been done!

In the Gospel today, continuing our readings through Matthew 14 and 15, we see Jesus once again out teaching and healing the people.  And we’ve got to remember – because it’s a huge point – that he’s decidedly not doing this in the temple, the place where you can only go if you’re ceremonially clean and ritually pure; he’s not even doing this in the synagogue, where all the good, righteous, upstanding citizens gather to pray and hear the scriptures.  No, the Son of God Himself is out in the countryside with the farmers and the butchers and the salty fishermen. God Himself is out speaking face-to-face with those who haven’t dared to step foot into a religious building except for a wedding or funeral; God Himself is answering the calls of those outcast foreigners who would never be welcome; God Himself is found ministering to those who his own ministers think are just too far gone to be worth their time.

And here, as word travels that Jesus fed the crowd on the other side of the lake, as word travels that Jesus is offering forgiveness and healing to those who grab at the hem of his cloak, or to those who, like dogs at the table, are longing for even just a crumb of God’s blessing; here, on the outskirts of that crowd, we see the familiar faces of the good old religious people, those who were raised with the right teachers, those who know the commandments – and have memorized every possible exception to weasel themselves out of keeping them. 

Here, on the outskirts of this great crowd being forgiven, being healed, being ministered to by God Himself, the religious people are shocked.  It’s not the healings or the forgiveness of sins, or the poor, broken people who are being lifted up and given a second chance that shocks them.  No. ‘Can you believe it? It’s absolutely scandalous,’ they say.  Jesus’ followers ate bread without the ritual pouring of water from a cup!  ‘Quick!  Call the elders!’

Now the Jewish purity rules required every good, religious person to ceremonially pour water over their hands any time they were going to eat a meal containing bread; there was really no excuse as long as you were within 4 miles of a water source.[1]

“Well, that’s it”, I imagine these on-lookers mumble to themselves.  “It’s bad enough this man pays these people any attention at all – but look, his own followers don’t even keep the good, old rules our parents and teachers taught us.”  I imagine they whisper amongst themselves, until one of them, totally indignant that a religious teacher (let alone God Himself) could be so careless about the old traditions, finally speaks up.

…and the response from Jesus is earth-shattering.

It is not what goes in that defiles a person.
…even to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a person.
it is what comes out that defiles.        

All the good practices, all the rule-keeping, all the righteous living in the world doesn’t make you pure or impure, righteous or unrighteous. 

No, to really make the point, Jesus goes even further in verse 17: these outward signs of religion are like food.  Yeah, maybe it’s great when it enters the mouth but, Jesus says, “it goes from there to the stomach, and from there straight to the sewer”. 

No, all the spiritual or religious practices in the world, by themselves, purify you as much as what you find in the sewer.  “What defiles you”, Jesus says, “is what proceeds out from the heart.”  Verse 19: all the ritual purity, all the good manners, all the charity, all the right living and good citizenship in the world is worthless if, in our hearts, we find evil intentions, hatred, revenge, lust in all of its forms, lies or half-truths, gossip meant to undermine or put down another, or the hoarding of money or food or possessions while others go without.[2] 

You can go to church every day, you can wear your Bible out, you can write a cheque every week, you can wear down the floor by your bed from kneeling to pray but, Jesus says, if you think those outward practices, by themselves, are going to make you pure, or righteous, or holy, then you’ve totally missed the point.

Holiness starts with the heart.

God’s Law, following God’s commandments, doesn’t make us holy.

No, it’s the opposite.  We’re made holy when we cry out to God for help, when we accept that help, that healing, and that forgiveness. 

And then it’s that holiness, that grace, that gift from God that empowers us from within to try and live, day by day, as God commands.  And it’s that same gift, that same grace, that invites us to acknowledge when we fall short, to own up to our mistakes, and like a crippled beggar being lifted up in Jesus’ name, to accept another chance for the gift of holiness within to spill out into a holy life.

…and yet, the message learned by the world around us, perhaps even the message we hear whispered inside our own heads from time to time, is that “I’m not holy enough to go to church.”  “I’m not good enough to be a church person… and you wouldn’t want someone like me anyway”.

Jesus doesn’t stand on the outskirts with the Pharisees.  No.  Jesus, God Himself, is in the middle of the broken, tired, lonely, guilty, unclean crowd, not to look down his nose, and certainly not to bless their mess, but to lift them up, to call them up higher, to replace the heart of stone with a heart of flesh, to put the gift of holiness, of forgiveness, into those weak hearts so the gift of holiness may seep outward into a changed life.  It just doesn’t work the other way; to paraphrase the Lord, outward practices with a heart of stone are as valuable as last night’s steak dinner once it’s in the sewer.

There’s work to be done.

The world around us – and, perhaps, many of us – learned it backwards.  For generations Sunday School taught manners and good behaviour first, in the hopes that faith, holiness, and heaven would follow, if only we followed the rules to make God happy.  That’s what the Pharisees taught.

The good news – the message each of us is supposed to bring to the world – is that none of us keep God’s Law, none of us live as we ought.  Our message for the world is that none of us are good enough, and none of us ever will be.  None of us are worthy to come in those doors.  None of us has any right to approach the Lord’s Table.  None of us has any right to stand and boldly claim that God is ‘our’ Father.

But, though we’re unworthy, God Himself came to be among us; God Himself reaches out and, if we go against everything the world tells us and simply acknowledge that we don’t have it all together, that we can’t do it on our own, God’s own gift of holiness begins to transform us – not from the outside,[3] but from the inside out, as that spark of holiness within urges us to live as God commands as we start to follow Christ.

And this is crucial. 

I speak to people every week who tell me that they can’t come because they’re not good enough.  But that’s only half right.  No, they’re not good enough to be here.  No, you’re not good enough to be here.  No, I’m certainly not good enough to stand here and minister in the name of God.  But that’s the point.  The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.  We’re here because we’ll never be good enough on our own to stand before a righteous God.  We’re here because Jesus reaches out and calls us in, not because the work in our lives is done, but because we acknowledge, in every service, that we have fallen short, that we have done and left undone, that we have missed the mark in thought, word, and deed.  None of us deserve to be here; but God reached out to meet us where we were, washed us, clothed us, and invited us not to gather up crumbs like a dog, but to sit at the table as a son or daughter.

But most importantly, Jesus still goes out to meet the broken, tired, lonely, dirty, unclean world.  It’s not his human body that’s sent to do that work.  No, it’s us, His Body the Church, that is sent with that earth-shattering message: no, you’re not good enough; none of us are good enough, and no rules or practices will ever get us there on our own.  But come, unworthy as we are, and know the healing, the mercy, and forgiveness of being transformed from the inside out.

That’s our message.  And like those first followers, we have to get off the sidelines and get our hands dirty.  After all, dirty hands don’t defile you.  God looks at what’s in the heart.


[1] This comes from the Halakha.  The custom was known as mayim rishonim (first waters).  Maimonides codified the detailed rules about seeking water from up to 4 miles in the direction of travel, or 1 mile in the opposite direction.

[2] It’s well established that “theft” in the Old Covenant isn’t limited to the taking of another’s property but includes the omission of oblations and alms.  God is robbed when the tithe isn’t presented; the poor are robbed when the gleanings from the edges of the field aren’t left for them.

[3] With apologies to any Lutherans loving Luther’s supposed/mythical “snow covered dung” analogy.  This puts me at a middle ground between both hard-line imputed and infused righteousness.

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