Forgiveness requires Follow Through

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine.  I’m sorry.  Can I go now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actions vs. Intentions

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

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

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

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

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

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

The weight of sin

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

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

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

The words were empty.  The words were cheap. 

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Ezekiel 18:26-27

To Hell with Fairness!

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

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

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

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

Fairness is the central virtue of our modern society.

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

What is “fairness”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It just isn’t fair. 

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

…But… it’s not fair!

Is God fair?

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, God is not fair.

Seriously.  That’s a truth we can proclaim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How then shall we live?

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the challenge. 

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

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

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


[1] Jonah 3:10-4:11

[2] Matthew 20:1-16

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

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

God’s Revolutionary Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messengers given a choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wake-up call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The choice is ours – let’s speak up.

To God be the Glory.  Amen.


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

[2] Romans 13:8-14

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

[4] Matthew 18:19-20

What if it tastes like Toothpaste and Orange Juice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Are What You Eat

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

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

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

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

I ate it… and it turned my stomach sour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feed your enemy, and offer them something to drink.

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

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

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

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


[1] See James 3:9-10

[2] Matthew 15:1-20

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

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

[5] Ezekiel 3

[6] Revelation 10:8-11

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

A Living Sacrifice overcomes the Gates of Death.

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

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

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

Sacrifice?  No thank you.

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

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

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

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

But here’s where the world gets it wrong.

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

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

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

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

A living sacrifice?

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

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

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

A living sacrifice… and that makes all the difference.

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

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

Death’s battle is lost. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

An Exercise in Missing the Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and the response from Jesus is earth-shattering.

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

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

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

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

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

Holiness starts with the heart.

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

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

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

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

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

There’s work to be done.

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

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

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

And this is crucial. 

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

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

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


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

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

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

You Feed Them: Empowered to serve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Called forth in His Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, sure enough, everyone ate and was filled.

Hungry to Feed Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

To God be the Glory now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Romans 9:1-5

[2] Isaiah 55:1-5

We aren’t the dirt.

“A sower went out to sow”.

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

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

They’re familiar words.

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

What’s up with that sower?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the same is true here.

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

If God isn’t the Farmer, who is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

The Problem of Positive Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Sin-Sick Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Spiritual Problem needs a Spiritual Remedy

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Worship: Is God worth it?

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

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

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

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

Struggling to Connect

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is worship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Biblical Understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about worship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Prayers (PDF) from the Book of Alternative Services

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


[1] Romans 8:26-30

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

[3] Psalm 96

[4] Genesis 22:1-14

[5] Romans 6:12-23