Who is on the Lord’s side?

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep; I will seek them out.  Ezekiel 34:11

Today the Church throughout the world is called to remember, celebrate, and live into the fact that, no matter how things may appear in the world around us, Christ is the King.[1]

And, of course, all of us know – we sing or hum along with glorious words that proclaim that Jesus, the one through whom all things were made, is the Lord and King of all creation.  All of us know, and recite each week in the Creed, that Christ will come in his glory, and that he will bring with him the undeniable Kingdom which he taught us to pray would come, “on earth, as it is in heaven”, as every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of God the Father.

But this celebration is important because it reminds us that our faith is not wishful thinking, or a fairy tale, or a distant hope that Christ will come someday, long after we’re gone.

No, my friends, the reality is that right now, even as we sit here, even as human politicians struggle to win against an invisible germ, even as the best-laid economic plans and financial empires corrode and waste away, even as this world seems to get itself caught up in one struggle after another as kingdoms and philosophies rise and wane, even as the dark and cold join together with the darker and colder experiences of isolation, shame, anxiety, and addiction, yet – yet – even now, as we speak, Christ is on the throne.  Like watchmen on the towers before dawn, we know that the Son of Man and his angels will come in his glory, and as the rightful King comes, the false powers of darkness will scatter before his path, only to be gathered up, convicted of their treason, and condemned, excluded from sharing in the glory of that restored kingdom of mercy, grace, and peace.

That’s what we believe.  Not that Christ will one day be King.  No.  Right here, right now, in spite of how it may look to those who have bought into the rhetoric of the occupying forces, in spite of how it may look when we fail to realize that all our present struggles are the death throes of a world that has rebelliously attempted to rule itself, in spite of the pain, grief, poverty, weakness, death and decay experienced by we who are caught up, and born into this great rebellion against our Creator,it does not change the fact that the Lord is King, God is on the throne right now, and we know that the palaces and headquarters of those clinging to power will simply pass away when He returns in power and declares “it is finished”, as the same voice that spoke the spark of the Big Bang speaks once more, with echoes that reverberate through all of space and time.

That’s what we mean when we say “Christ is King”.  In spite of how it looks to us born and raised in enemy-occupied territory, the rightful king is even now making preparations just across the horizon, and will return to claim the throne.

The Shepherd King

Our readings today speak of this glorious return – but only if we allow ourselves to read them as they were written.  If you look with me to Ezekiel 34 or Matthew 25, we hear of Christ’s return with the familiar imagery of a shepherd and sheep.

But we need to be careful – the comforts of modern life, coupled with stained glass images and the cute images of Christmas pageant shepherds in bathrobes herding cotton-ball sheep actually gets in the way of understanding the great message God is giving us in his word.

There’s more to shepherding than lounging in a field, whistling or playing some nice Celtic tunes on a pennywhistle in the lovely, lush, green countryside.

Shepherding is messy work.  Sheep, left to their own devices, are dirty, smelly animals.  Sheep are led by their bellies – they’ll go where there’s food and, without even lifting their heads, they’ll take step after step in the direction of something to fill their bellies, not even noticing the thorns or mud or pits around them.  And here’s the remarkable thing – as far back as 8000 years ago, with sheep being bred for farming, they were bred – created – to produce wool; wild mountain rams and ewes didn’t need a shepherd to shear them, but once they were moved to the pastures and bred to produce thicker and thicker wool, they needed a shepherd.  Sheep, left to their own devices, will die.  Their fleece will grow and grow and grow until it is so matted together that it cuts off circulation to their legs and they become weak and crippled.  And sheep, if confined to an area, will eat the grass right down to the root, destroying the very thing that they depend on.

Let’s be clear – it’s no compliment when scripture, dozens of times, compares us to sheep!  But it’s accurate: left to our own devices we’ll follow our appetites to our own destruction; we’ll use and abuse the good things meant to sustain us until they’re gone, or our lack of self-control has turned a blessing into a curse; and following our instincts, our fleece – the wool we pull over our own eyes – will grow and grow until it is matted and crusted together to the point that it cuts off our lifeblood and we become weakened and crippled, and there is literally nothing that we, as sheep, can do to shear ourselves, since we were bred – we were created – to have a Shepherd.

If we’re reading the scriptures clearly, we find that we’re sheep locked in a land dispute.  We belong to the Good Shepherd, the one who owns the flocks on a thousand hills, as the Psalms say.  But, because of disobedience, because of treason, the land doesn’t recognize it’s rightful King.  But he’s not one to write us off – He will seek us out, He will rescue us, he will judge between the sheep, fattening the ones who were down-trodden and lean, while casting out the ones who were headstrong and butted their way to the top of the flock.  And, all those who are ready to hear his voice will be welcomed into the good pasture they were created to inherit.  Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24.

Where are we now?

Christ, the Word who spoke at creation, is the rightful King, but we were born into this disputed, rebellious territory.  What does that mean for us?

Well, the other aspect of this day that celebrates the Reign of Christ is that we proclaim our allegiance to the King, not the occupying forces of the world around us.

In Baptism, and again at Confirmation, and again every time we repent and return to the Lord, we take the Oath of Citizenship of the Kingdom of God, as we become dual citizens or, as Paul says, resident aliens, as those living in the world, but not belonging to, not pledging any allegiance to it.

And though we live in the world, we know the rightful King will come over the horizon, and we who have pledged our allegiance are called to be the Resistance, preparing the way, sabotaging worldly powers of greed, injustice, and corruption at every opportunity, and willing to serve – even lay down our lives – to spread the news of the conquering King, so that, when He comes in glory, he finds citizens ready to welcome Him as Lord as the supposed glory of this world is cast out.

Like the French Resistance under the occupying forces of the Hitler’s Third Reich, our task as those who remain loyal to the rightful ruler is to stand firm, to proclaim and broadcast the message of hope and freedom, to sabotage the enemies’ actions, and to make our friends and neighbours ready to join us on that day when the liberating forces come in their glory.

…And we say, “Lord, how do we do that?”  Matthew 25:31-46

And the King answers – if there’s an empty belly, fill it.  If there’s a parched mouth, offer a drink from your overflowing cup, so that loosened tongue can proclaim God’s praise.  If a stranger is lost and bewildered by the ways of the world, welcome them in.  If the world has eaten someone up and spat them out, naked and afraid, clothe them with grace and dignity in my name.  If the sin of the world has weakened a sickened soul, lovingly nurse them back to health and wholeness.  And if the world catches on and oppresses someone in Christ’s name, visit and support them.  And any services rendered to the very least of these will be accounted as service to the King himself.

Who is on the Lord’s side?

Christ is King.  He reigns even now, though the darkness, grief, and sin of this occupied territory are still grasping at illusions of power.  And we, who have pledged allegiance to the King are called to be his messengers, the resistance, earnestly and eagerly making way for his Kingdom to come and his Will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

And so the question is, when he comes, and the rebellious forces of the world are rounded up, where will we be?  Will we stand with the Lord and his angels as those who assisted in the effort, as those who prepared the way, who stood firm, and conquered in the fight?

Or will we be accounted as those who colluded with the enemy, those who profited from the occupying forces of greed, injustice, and the illusion of power?

Those on the Lord’s side are welcomed in as the world against which we struggled is gloriously restored as the dwelling place of God’s presence.

Those on the world’s side will be cast away like the corrupt world which they loved so much.

Christ is the King.  This morning, this week, ask yourself – whose side am I on?  If our lives profit from worldly power, we betray ourselves as those who claimed Christ in Baptism.  No, rather, every action, every thought, every moment of every day should be an act of resistance, an act of sabotage as we seek to overthrow hunger, oppression, greed, anxiety, and the illusions of control as we prepare for Christ’s Kingdom to come.

May God strengthen us for that task.  May God convict us and call us to repent when we’ve sat quietly by.  And to God alone be the glory, now and forever more.  Amen.


[1] This goes right back to the heart of this Feast, first added to the calendar by Roman Catholics in the early 1900s in response to increasing secularism.

29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Matthew 25.

The lessons today sure are dark, aren’t they? 

In Matthew 25 we’re told very clearly that the Lord will return and expect an accounting of what he’s entrusted to us, and the strong rebuke that just chugging along, holding our own, giving back what we’ve received doesn’t cut it.  “No”, the master says, “you should have at least put it in a savings account so there’d be a little interest!”.

Just think about that.  God expects that whatever he gives us will not just be well-cared for; no, He expects it to grow!

And if we have our perspective right, as hard as it might be, it really only makes sense.

If we say that everything we have is from God – our health, our strength, our lives born into a land of peace and prosperity, perhaps that means that they aren’t ours to use as we’d like.   No. Why were we created?

If I asked that question at the 10am service, we’d hear a wonderful chorus of little voices respond: “God created us male and female in his own image to glorify him!”

We’re created to glorify God.  If God created us with that purpose, then the gifts he gives us, the opportunities and strengths and blessings he gives us must also be for His glory. 

And so the strong words in the Gospel today make it clear: perhaps the word “gift” as we’ve come to understand it in these days really misses the point, and perhaps even trips us up as we think about God’s blessings.  In our world of comfort and overabundance, a gift is something over-the-top, something that we can tuck away for a luxury or something fun – to buy that third pair of dress boots, or that extra watch, or that new side-by-side, or that new Xbox.  That’s how we think about gifts.  As we approach Christmas, I’d bet most of us as already thinking about what to get that special someone; something they’d really appreciate but would never get for themselves.

But if we think back even 100 years, that’s not how the average person thought about gifts.  No, gifts were something that you didn’t earn or necessarily even deserve, but which you could use to improve your life.  A warm sweater to work through the winter months; a new set of shoes for the family; a first suit and tie for the first son to move from the farm to take a job in the city; a new sewing machine so a mother can clothe her family; a graduation gift to pay for that first semester of nursing school or teacher’s college; some money to help with the down-payment on an old truck or boat or plane to start a business to feed your young family.  They’re gifts… with a purpose.

Yes, times have changed – but the way we think about gifts has changed too.  When we hear “gift”, we think “luxury”.  But, for most of human history, when you say “gift”, you mean investment.

An investment in the future of the person receiving the gift.
That little something above what they earned that has the potential to change their future, to make them something better than they could be on their own.

And the lessons today, while certainly dark, take on a new light when we approach them with the right perspective.

We are created for God’s glory, and the gifts that God gives aren’t 21st-century acts of luxury; no, God’s gifts, whether we’re talking about health or wealth or peace, or the spiritual gifts like compassion, mercy, hospitality, leadership, the ability to teach or serve, are more like what we would call investments.

God gives us something we haven’t earned, but which has the potential to make our own lives, and the lives of our families and communities better than they could have been otherwise.  It’s that sort of a gift.  God’s gifts are given with a purpose – the same purpose for which we were created – to give Him glory.  They’re an investment which makes the Lord proud to see them bear fruit.

God’s Return on Investment

We read in Matthew – and throughout God’s Word – that the Master will return and ask for an accounting of what the servants have done with the investments God made. 

And the big change of mindset here is that we really can’t think of whatever God has given us as a gift like the birthday card from great-aunt Susan with $50 to spend however we like. 

If that were the case, we could let ourselves off the hook quite easily.  If the $50 was ours to use however we wanted, then we could go to the store, spend $45 on a new pair of gloves, throw the $5 change into the collection bin for the Christmas Toy and Food Drive and say “wow, I’m generous today.  There’s my good deed done”.

But God doesn’t give gifts like that.  God makes investments.  And God expects not just 100% of the investment back – no, He expects it back with interest!

It’s more like this: a student gets $5000 in financial aid – that’s an investment.  And the choice is: do I use it to pay my tuition, my rent, a food and clothes for my kids, or do I buy that new TV, put a down payment on a new ski-doo, and run up a few nice tabs at the bar? 

See, it’s not enough just to pay back the $5000, because that wasn’t it’s purpose.  It was an investment; that $5000, if used properly, gets you your trade, turns into a new career, that translates into hundreds of thousands of dollars and a new future for your family. 

Those are the sorts of investments I believe Jesus is talking about in Matthew, and that’s the sort of understanding that shapes everything we believe and teach about blessings and giving and generosity and trust in God.  Not only does God expect 100% to be used to his glory – He’s looking for the interest.  And if we’re faithful in little, what does scripture say?  We’ll find ourselves entrusted with much.  But if we can’t be faithful with small things, God will call in someone else to do the work, and the little we had will be given elsewhere.

God’s not looking for a little generosity or a few good deeds – he’s looking for a good return on investment; he’s looking for us to be people through whom the world sees his light, for which we say “to God be the glory!”.

Christ’s Return?

I think that right understanding of God’s gifts – God’s investments – also changes how we understand his coming to hold us to account.

If great-aunt Susan gave us $50 to spend however we wanted, then no, it wouldn’t be fair for her to show up and question how you spent it. 

But when a generous investor shows up to check on their investment – that’s a different story.  They made that gift to get us where we could never get ourselves, so that we could accomplish something; and we should want to honour them; as we read in Hebrews, we should earnestly desire to hear “well done”.

The thing is, we’re told in 1st Thessalonians that we need to be ready to give an account at all times.  “Like a thief in the night”, or “like a pregnant woman going into labour”, you don’t know when you’ll be asked to give an account, and when it’s time, you can’t put it off.

This is a challenge for all of us.

When we were living down in the states, whenever Dad was coming to visit, one of the first things on my agenda for the day before I picked him up from the airport was to clean out the car. 

Growing up, he always had a clean car.  As a teenager, he certainly expected me to keep the car clean.  And though, as an adult, he never said “I hope your car is clean”, I knew it was something important to him, something that made him proud, so it was something I wanted to do, to have a clean car and a clean house… at least for that first day he was there!

Now, I was lucky – it took 2-3 flights and a day of travel, so I always knew when he was coming.

But now he lives down the road!  I guess we could say that now he shows up like a thief in the night or labour pains!!  The truth is, there’s no pretending that the van is always clean, or that, a lot of nights, we fall in bed with dishes still in the sink. 

And it’s the same message from scripture – we have to realize that, when God calls us to account for how we honoured his investment, there’s no hiding, there’s no warning so we can spruce things up.  When God says He wants our all, it means we have to think about how we’re giving him glory in every minute – not fooling ourselves into thinking that he’s impressed by the leftover minutes we might put toward good deeds. 

We need to give him glory when we’re at work, when we’re talking with our friends, when we’re biting our tongues to keep from spreading rumors or letting someone have a piece of our mind, when we’re relaxing and taking time for Sabbath rest, and even when we’re feasting with good food and good wine with those whom we love.  In every moment, we need to be ready to give an account not for the dregs, but for 100% — plus the interest God desires.

And that’s a tall order.

But the good news is that God is merciful.  If we try to hide, if we try to puff ourselves up, we know that’s not going to end well.  If we sluff it off like those characters in that first lesson from Zephaniah who said “don’t worry about it!  God doesn’t help us, God won’t hurt us”, then we are in for a rude awakening.

But if we confess our faults, God is merciful.

…last night I was cooking dinner for the whole family, 9 of us.  Dad came up, and sure enough, as I was at the stove, there were some dishes in the sink.

But you know what, he jumped in, he came alongside me, and he washed them as I cooked.

And you know what God does when we’re seeking to give him honour, to bring him a gracious return on his investment?  He comes alongside us in our weaknesses – in fact, his strength is made perfect in our weakness – and he multiplies his blessings, as those who are faithful in little suddenly find ourselves supported by Him as we learn to be faithful with much.

“Holding our own” is burying the investment in the ground.

My brothers and sisters, as this church looks at our ministry in our community, the message is clear:  it’s not enough to just keep going, to dig our inheritance out of the ground and hand it back to God as we found it.  No, God expects more – He expects interest paid to His glory from what He’s given St. John’s!

The good news is that, if we open the little treasure chest of opportunities and potential that is ours, and instead of burying it in the ground, or holding on tight, we invest it in the thousands of souls around us who aren’t living to God’s glory, you know what we’ll find?  Our merciful Father will come alongside us, he’ll give his strength for our many weaknesses, and before we know it, right before our eyes, we’ll find that once we’ve been faithful with a little, he’ll entrust us with more, and he’ll empower us to use it to his glory.

Let’s go all in – the field is ripe, and the time for the investment of our time and energy is now… for we never know when we’ll be called to give an account. 

To God be the glory, now and forever more.  Amen.

Looking back, Worrying Forward.

People everywhere are obsessed with endings.

I think it’s part and parcel of life in this messy world that our focus naturally tends to be on things coming to an end.

As we go through struggles – big and small, as communities and as individuals – our minds and hearts drive us to ask “when will this end?”

Ugh. When will this pandemic be over so life can get back to normal?”  “When will the news finally talk about something besides the election and the virus?”  Or, “with nations so divided on politics, race, and economics, what’s going to happen?  How will this end?

When will our struggles be over?

And it’s not just struggles that cause us to focus on endings. 

When something that is great, something that we’ve enjoyed and has done much good is coming to the end of it’s course, our first instinct is to focus on the ending.  Our gut reaction is to cling on to things until the bitter end, to become defensive or maybe even put on a mask of denial, as we become so focused on preventing the end of a good thing that it’s no longer good anymore.  So often we become so wrapped up in clinging on to good things that they’re no longer enjoyable, and our human instinct turns the victory, the “well done” at the end of a race into a bitter, dreadful defeat instead.

Our human instinct is to focus on endings; our human instinct is to grasp at things, to cling on to things that are passing away.

And sometimes we become so focused on the ending that we miss the blessing right in front of our eyes, like someone with their family gathered around the table, laughing and telling stories over a feast of good food and wine, yet the host is so focused on the end that they can’t help but to get up, rush to the kitchen and do the dishes, rather than enjoy the real blessing of family, friends, and food that is right in front of them.  Focusing on, even worrying about endings always draws us away from the blessings – and opportunities – that God has given us today.  I was going to insert a Bible verse about not being anxious about tomorrow, but there were just too many to choose from – at least 24 times in scripture we are told not to worry about what the future will bring, but to instead focus on being faithful today, here and now.

We like to focus on endings.  But God isn’t the God of endings. 
No, He is the author of new beginnings.

A Lesson from Thessalonians

In First Thessalonians chapter 4, the church there had written to Paul, anxious about endings.  Some of their members had died, their mortal lives had ended, and that was consuming their energy.  They wrote to Paul with great anxiety, consumed by grief, and when they came together, their focus, their conversation, their only concern was thinking about the good old days, and longing for the day when they would see those loved ones again. 

Their obsession with endings became a temptation, as they turned away from the blessings God had given them – and the work they had been given to do – and instead became a people gathered to look back and worry forwards.

And Paul writes to them and says, ‘yes, grieve – absolutely!’  “But don’t grieve as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).  Of course endings are painful, but we’re not a people of endings.  The entire story of Salvation – your Bible, cover to cover – is the story of those who have messed up, who have missed God’s blessings, who have forgotten their God-given task of drawing others in, who have gotten themselves into a situation where the only earthly response is to dig in, put up your defences, and wait for defeat.

But if we read scripture as the message of God presiding over endings, our eyes have been clouded by our human instinct to look back and worry forwards. 

No, “behold, I am making all things new”.  “Even heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word will not pass away”.  Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane, “but the word that proceeds from God’s mouth will not return to Him empty; it will accomplish what God desires, and it will achieve the purpose for which He sent it.”[1]

God gives new beginnings – time and time again.  In every situation we may see an ending, and yes, it may be painful, but if we can focus on the moment in which God has called us – not yesterday’s successes or failings, not grasping on to tomorrow, but trusting God and, most importantly, living faithfully here and now, we will come to see that yes, this sinful world and the consequences of past actions bring endings, but God presents us new opportunities each morning, if we’re willing to change our focus.

…and that proper perspective changes everything.

Even this week, as we celebrate Remembrance Day, there are those who would follow that human gut instinct, and focus on the dwindling number of veterans, on the shrinking number of people who are willing to serve their community in even the smallest ways, let alone answer the call of duty and lay down their lives for their friends.

But when we look to the past, we only become defensive and lose the opportunity God has given us in the present.  Remembrance Day – originally Armistice Day – was never about the end of fighting; it was about the beginning of peace.  We don’t need any help to focus on fighting, but to begin to work for peace – that’s a different matter, and one that calls all of us to put aside past glories and past differences, give up defensiveness about tomorrow, and instead, make a difference today.

The Gospel, God’s story of salvation, is a story of new beginnings, new opportunities every day, with every step as we follow.  But only if we’re willing to re-focus.  As Jesus calls us to scatter seeds and grow his kingdom, he gives a stern warning.  In Luke 9 he says straight up: “anyone who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for service in the kingdom of God” (vs. 62)

Our instinct is to see – and fear – endings, but God offers new beginnings.

Finish Lines and New Beginnings

My friends, this church is entering a season when we are called to re-evaluate and re-focus our mission and ministry.  What have we built on the foundation we inherited, a foundation once so overflowing that they poured a new one to expand, but which now, on the best of weeks, welcomes in 1.5% of our town… or, to put it another way, doesn’t reach 98.5% of our neighbours.

As those called to make disciples, as we look around this very room at our 3 services today, who have we raised up who will not just carry on, but grow and expand the spread of the Gospel in Fort Smith 10 years from now, or even 5 years from now? 

And there’s real grief in that: some of us, some who have done so much, won’t be here.  But as Paul says, don’t grieve as those without hope.

This is not about the past, and it’s not about the future, but who are we forming today to build on our foundation, to pick up the torch, and continue our God-given task as we as individuals come to the end of our race.

These are important conversations, and they challenge us because our instinct is to focus on endings.

Our instinct is to look back and cling on with all that we have to put off the ending that clouds our vision.

Our human instinct tells us that we need to balance the budget, so we should fundraise: but God never called us to fundraise for the Kingdom: he called us to grow the Kingdom.  Fundraising is looking back and worrying forwards, a distraction – or even an excuse – to avoid carrying out the work God has given us to do.

Our human instinct tells us to draw someone younger in so they can learn to do what we do and keep it going.  But again, that’s looking back and worrying forwards. 
God’s will is that old people would dream dreams of a future bigger and brighter than we could even imagine; not that the young carry on in our footsteps, but that they have a vision and follow in Christ’s footsteps, and we rejoice as each generation of faithful followers reach out to a confused and changing world and draw them in, not to rebuild what once was, but knowing that the God of new beginnings will always do something more glorious if we can stop worrying, get out of the way, stop looking back, and follow where he leads.

…But we have to be willing to put aside our focus and fear of endings, and instead trust that every day, every moment, is an opportunity for a new beginning.

An End of an Engagement or the Start of a Marriage?

In Matthew 25 there were 10 maidens going to a wedding.  Five of them were focused on endings – they filled up their lamp so they wouldn’t get lost in the dark, walked to the banquet hall, and focused on when the wait would be over and they could go in.

Five of them were focused on new beginnings.  They came with their lamp, but they knew it wasn’t about the wait.  Their focus wasn’t on the engagement being over; no, their focus was on the all night party that the master had planned.  They brought their lamp, but brought an extra flask of oil so they could party all night long in the light!

Those who focused on the ending got the ending they were hoping for, but weren’t prepared for the reward.  What should have been the victory at the finish line became a bitter end as the lamp went out and the guy at the door couldn’t even tell who they were anymore.  Those who knew that the Master always goes over the top and does more than they can imagine didn’t get an ending, but the start of something amazing, not just through the night, but spilling over into the bright new day that followed.

Friends, as we look around, as we come to the end of the budget year and prepare for an Annual General Meeting in January, we begin a season of conversations, not about budgets, buildings, traditions, the past, and the fear of endings, but about mission and ministry, about an inheritance that we received, and our task to raise up and grow the Church so that God makes it even more than we can imagine; as we do that, I call us, as your Rector, to remain focused.

Let’s not look back and worry forward.  Let’s not defend what we have and work to prevent endings.  No, let’s get to work, let’s enjoy every new opportunity.  And when something nears the finish line, as will happen to each of us, and every program, and every group, and every kingdom and nation under heaven, let’s celebrate what God has done, and grow from strength to strength as those who know, with full certainty, that God is the author of new beginnings, and it’s He who makes all things new.

To God be the Glory, now and forever more.   Amen.


[1] Revelation 21:5, Matthew 24:35, “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, Isaiah 55:11

Photo from BeachFellowship.com

Saints: Called to do the Impossible*

On this day the Church throughout the world celebrates the saints of God.  While we know from scripture that all of us – every baptized believer – is called to be a saint, set apart and equipped for the service of God, on this day we take encouragement in those who have gone before, those who are now at rest and who have joined that great cloud of spectators, praising God and cheering us on as they eagerly await the time when God will make all things new.

Of course, the Church remembers hundreds of saints throughout the year. If you have one of the lovely church calendars, you see that, most days, there’s the name there of someone who, while certainly not perfect, served God faithfully, repented when they missed the mark, and left a legacy of faithful service for the Church to follow.  (In fact, if you haven’t done it before, I encourage you to Google those names; every one of them is an encouragement, as each of them shows us an example of what it means to follow Jesus in the midst of a messy, broken world.)

But this feast of All Saints makes the point that it’s not just the recognized heroes of the faith who are part of that great cloud of witnesses.  No, the vast majority of the saints of God are ordinary people like you and me who sought to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and flowing out from that, loved their neighbour as themselves.  The great news of this day is that it’s not just Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that are at rest, praising God and cheering us on; no, every faithful Christian: that caring, Christian Grade 2 teacher who patiently spent the time to set you on the right path; that faithful, cheerful old man who always made time to speak to you, to let you know that you mattered, and to give you a word of encouragement; that stranger, in your life for mere moments, whose actions showed you God’s love and mercy at the exact moment you needed it – though they had no idea the impact it made; even that faithful, prayerful great aunt, raised in the depression, who kept her tables covered in plastic,  lovingly covered every chair to protect the fabric, and insisted that you always use a coaster, who taught the whole family, by example, to really know that every single thing you have is a blessing from God: all of them are saints at rest. 

Today we celebrate, and focus in on the examples and encouragement they are to us who are still running our race, and we thank God for those who, in every age, show us what it means to live by grace and to follow in the footsteps of Christ.

How do we follow their example?

First, let me offer this brief statement.

Saints are called to do what is humanly impossible,
not to earn a reward,
but to imitate Christ
with their abundant, over-flowing life.

Saints are called to do what is humanly impossible. 
And we are all called to be saints.

I think it’s important, especially in extraordinary times like these, to be clear about this. 

As we know, this pandemic isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon that we started running without even knowing where the finish line might be.  Are we nearing the end?  Are we only half way?  What surprises lie around the next corner?  We just don’t know.

Some have the instinct, the gut reaction to feel the adrenaline pumping and jump into action, caring for those around them; some have the instinct to retreat and conserve emotional and physical energy, not knowing what the future holds.  But listen to this: as Christians, as those called to be saints, we are called to do what is humanly impossible.

Jesus said “give all that you have and follow me”, and the disciples, like the rich man, got depressed and said ‘Lord, are you sure?  That’s a hard saying.  What’s the point?  Who can even be saved?’  But Jesus looked at them, calling them away from focusing on their own weakness, and said “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”.[1]

The saints aren’t those who have mustered up all their own strength to serve God. 

The saints aren’t those who are ‘trying their best’ or ‘giving their all’ in a difficult situation.

No, the saints recognize, right off the bat, that the task in front of them is absolutely impossible. 
The saints are those who know, right from the outset, that there’s no way I can do this. 

The saints are those who see what needs to be done, who sees the road laid out before them, and instead of taking a deep breath and giving it their best, they know, they even embrace, deep down, that ‘with man, this job, this task is going to be impossible; so it can’t be me, it’ll have to be God working in me, for with God, all things are possible.’

So much of the Christian life is simply and absolutely impossible on our own.  It’s not natural for the poor to feel blessed, for the meek to inherit the earth, for those who seek righteousness to be satisfied in an unjust world, for those who are persecuted to rejoice and be glad.[2]  With man these are impossible.  You’d wear yourself out trying, and wind up bitter, anxious, and depressed.  It’s only with God’s help that we can follow in Christ’s footsteps.

And, you know what my friends?  Thanks be to God, we’re doing the impossible!

Let’s be honest: we’re a small church filled with grey heads and little kids.  This time last year, we had just started our Kids’ Club and Community Dinners, and a lot of those parents who were reaching out were asking “where’s the Anglican Church?”.  Young people, parents living in this small town had never even noticed that we were here.

And now – in a pandemic – we’re doing the impossible. Bellies are filled.  Walls of isolation and despair are broken down.  Mountains of crippling debt that keep people enslaved are cast down as they access the money they are due.  People are finding the support they need.  People are finding hope in a time when it’s easy to give up.

The Saints are called to do what is humanly impossible – because it’s not us. 

Seriously, we’re having trouble meeting our budget.  We can’t feed the poor, we can’t free people from debt.  For us, that’s impossible.  But with God – all things are possible.

You know, that’s something I wish I could tell more people, but those who aren’t Christians just don’t get it.  I can’t tell you how many times I hear “wow, I don’t know how you do it.  Where do you get the time?  Do you ever sleep?  I barely have energy to get out of bed”.  But learning to be a saint isn’t about being a hero, or pretending to be perfect.  It’s not about drumming up energy and drive and purpose within ourselves.  It’s the exact opposite.  God presents an opportunity and we say, “I don’t think we can do that”; but if it’s God’s will, he will make a way, and before you know it we are doing the impossible. 

The Saints are called to do what is humanly impossible…

…but not to earn a reward.

All of the saints throughout the history of the Church point to this one reality: they – and we – don’t love God and neighbour to earn God’s blessing or the hope of heaven.  No, we just don’t have it in us to earn God’s favour; the second we start doing good, our pride kicks in, and suddenly we’re not serving others, but ourselves.[3]

No, as we read this morning, the saints at rest aren’t singing and chanting “we did it, we did it”.  Not at all.  It’s the opposite.  The saints are singing and cheering “salvation belongs to God.”[4] It was impossible, but God did it!  To God be the glory, great things he has done, and thanks be to God, he even let someone like me be part of his plan.

We don’t do it to earn a reward…
…but to imitate Christ

Jesus said to all the saints: “take up your cross and follow me”, “if you try to save your life, you’ll lose it; if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll save it.” 

It’s only as we lay down our dependence on ourselves, as we lay down our worries and anxieties – and even our hope and dreams – about tomorrow, and commit to simply live faithfully here and now, we find that the cross – the burden that demands our everything – is so much lighter than the load we were carrying before. 

The saints don’t do the impossible because of their heroic strength or courage or self-lessness.  God does the impossible through them simply because they’re willing to follow in the footsteps of Christ. 

Even our tiny-but-growing church can produce great things if we’re willing to just follow where he leads, instead of trying to predict the future or direct the path ourselves.  We know, and can trust, that whatever we do for our neighbours in Jesus’ name – a meal, mitts for cold hands, an encouraging word, an invitation to come and see what God is doing – is done for Christ, serving him to his glory. 

And, as we serve God that way, as saints doing what is humanly impossible, not to earn a reward, but to imitate Christ, we find that our who life takes on a different shape.

God didn’t say “serve me, try really hard, and fall into bed, wiped out at the end of the day”.  No, that’s the world’s message.

Jesus came to bring abundant life; the message of the Gospel is that our cups can run over, as God’s love for us spills over into our love of God spill, and that spills over into love of our neighbours.  The “blessedness” of the beatitudes, the freedom from hunger and thirst and the weariness of the heat of the day isn’t just something that awaits us when we die.  No, the saints learn that, as we imitate Christ in worship and giving and serving, we find ourselves with more, not less. 

In my own life, on the busiest days, the days with the least time, the more I stop and pray, the less I have to be anxious about… and it all gets done, to God’s glory. 

When I’m tired and want a break, when I offered my tired self to God instead of dwelling on whatever real complaint I might have, I find rest, and might even find the energy to get away, get outside, and get some fresh air.

And, when I know there’s simply nothing more I can do, that it’s impossible for me to help those around me, and instead of trying my hardest, instead of cooking up a solution, I simply offer myself to God’s service, suddenly, God does the impossible.

With God, all things are possible.

In these absolutely tiring, anxiety-causing times, we praise God for the example of those who have gone before us.  None of us have walked this path before.  But, thanks be to God, countless saints have served God through plague and pestilence, and have given themselves, allowed themselves to be used to God’s glory in times far worse than these.

It’s my prayer that, through this, generations will learn anew what it means to trust in God, to simply give up trying our best, to give up trying to earn God’s love, and simply follow Christ and let God use us to do more than we could ask or imagine.

To God be the Glory, now and forever more.  Amen.


[1] Matthew 19:23-37

[2] Matthew 5:1-12

[3] Article XIII of the 39 Articles of Religion

[4] Revelation 7:10

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