The Thin Veil that Clouds our Vision

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Today the Church invites us to offer our bounden duty and service of prayer and praise to Almighty God, but with particular attention to those whom we love but see no longer.

Every one of us here has been touched by the death of a loved one, and while on the one hand the Church tells us that we are to rejoice in the knowledge that Christ overcame death and the grave, this day reminds us that grief – that sadness and even that deep longing that we feel in the pit of our stomach because of separation from those whom we love is not just legitimate, but is part and parcel of life in this fallen world, marred by sin and corruption.

That longing, that desire to remember those who have died, as painful as it sometimes might be, is actually a gift.  It’s a gift that points us through the pain to the deep reality that every one of us is created for immortality; that while our bodies perish and memories fade, life continues in the nearer presence of the merciful, righteous, and loving God, who alone is the source of life.

Life and Death

We live in a time that is more confused about life and death than ever before.  Confused by conflicting teachings mixed with shreds of science and fear of our own mortality, it seems many of us come to understand life and bodily death as infinitely separate, as categorically different manners of being.

In the eyes of the world around us we’ve come to believe that, once that last breath is drawn, existence itself is somehow cut off.  This plays out most clearly, and is most sad, in the language of our fellow Christians: perhaps we can speak plainly about the life of faith in Christ Jesus, and perhaps we can even speak plainly about the eternal life that comes after future judgment, but the Church has largely fallen subject to the wider culture, in being unable and unwilling to speak with confidence the truths that we proclaim at Easter: that Christ is risen, trampling down death by death, and winning victory over the grave. 

And, if that’s the case, if death is defeated, then our longings to be reunited with those we love are not wrong at all; instead, they’re a foretaste of the eternity that God is calling us to share.

You see, life and bodily death are not categorically different; they are not separated by some chasm of our imagination or even by eternity itself.

Rather, it’s quite the opposite.  Death and life are imminently close.  The veil between our mortality and eternity is infinitely thin, separated at all times, and for all people, by nothing more than a single breath.  There hereafter is not far off, but imminently close.

And, on this side of the veil, we see things dimly.

The Church, as a bride prepared to be united on that long-awaited day, looks to Christ, our loved ones, and our eternal home with vision obscured by the gauzy veil of time.

And, when that last breath, that last beat of temporality is ended, it’s not as though we close our eyes.  No, it’s quite the opposite.  With that last breath, the veil is lifted and it is then that we see fully what we have longed for, it’s then that we ourselves are fully known, and as partakes in the death and resurrection of Christ, it’s then that we are born to eternal life.

What of those who weren’t model Christians?

Of course, there remain hard questions, for the veil – though thin – is real.

We proclaim in our Creed the truth of resurrection and of judgment, and the hope of everlasting life.  But what of those fellow pilgrims through this fallen world for whom, for whatever reason, we don’t feel as though we can boldly claim the assurance of God’s forgiveness.  Those – perhaps even those we love dearly – who had real struggles and real failings; perhaps even hurting those around them.

In times like these, it is of the utmost importance that we remember that none of us earn God’s mercy through good deeds; none of us can earn eternal life.  All who are saved are saved by grace, by Christ who loved us first.

Of course, it’s God’s will that we would grow in the likeness of Christ in this life, that we would follow in the steps of Christ leading us to the new heaven and the new earth, to the very throne of God in the new Jerusalem.  But, lest we prove our own unworthiness, we must remember that, when that veil is lifted, we stand as equals inasmuch as we stand only by the grace of God.

And, of course, as Christ himself tells us, we are called to be faithful, but it’s the master – not us – who will weigh the faithfulness of the servants.  Some are entrusted with only a little with which to be faithful, while some are entrusted with much; whether we lived in faith from birth, or turned to Christ as adults, or whether a wretched soul reached for that extended hand of mercy as the darkness of death itself was falling over their eyes, the reward is not ours, but Christ’s, offered freely as we accept his invitation to share in the victory over death, the resurrection, and the ascension of the very Son of God.

Prayers for those we love but see no longer.

So, tonight, we remember the dead; but not just recalling the happy memories.  Tonight we remember them before God in our prayers and in our worship. 

We pray for them because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.[1]

True, when those we love pass through the veil, we see them no more; but that’s when the people of God, throughout history, have confidence that those who have gone before will be caught up with Christ, even those whose faith was unknown to us, or who received the gift of faith at the final hour like the criminal on the cross, who, even that day, was with Christ in paradise.[2]

And, by the mercy of God, we believe that the process of sanctification, the process of being healed and conformed to the image of God, does not end with the wearing out of this frail flesh.  Indeed, how sad would it be if, once the scars and weight of this sinful world are healed, and our vision is unclouded, and we can finally know things as they truly are, how sad would it be if we did not then have the opportunity to go from strength to strength as those redeemed by Christ, growing in grace and love to become more like Christ our Saviour.

Tonight we pray for ourselves, acknowledging our grief and pain, just as we trust that those saints who have gone before are interceding even now for all of us those who are still in their pilgrimage.  And, our prayers for the faithful departed are nothing short of us proclaiming our faith, and our assurance that Christ has destroyed the power of the grave, and has made us partakers through our baptism in that death and resurrection; that we, like them, are united with the whole people of God, so that we, too, may come to that unspeakable joy in that place where nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So let us proclaim that faith with true hope and full assurance for all who die in Christ, not in sadness, but as those who know that our merciful God has won the victory.

            May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.
            And may light perpetual shine upon them.  Amen.


[1] The Catechism of the 1979 BCP.

[2] For a fuller exploration, see N.T. Wright, For All the Saints: Remembering the Christians Departed (Morehouse, 2004).

Humble, not Humiliated

Luke 18:9-14

“Humility” is not a very popular concept.

On the one hand, those writing the history books of the future might look back at the past 100 years and declare that this was the century of “equality”, as it became the lens through which we view each modern controversy: from women’s suffrage in 1916, to civil rights movements leading to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as we’ve attempted to deal with issues from land claims and self-government to the decisions to redefine marriage and definitions of the family in Canadian law, with each movement claiming “equality” as its goal.

But, for all the talk of equality, we continue to create new and different ways to distinguish ourselves from our neighbour.  We all do it – and it is so ingrained that it’s almost sub-conscious.  You know, those quick, fleeting thoughts that flash across our minds when we encounter someone who, for whatever reason, we’ve categorized as “other”: it might be that warm flash of pride when we see our shiny new car parked between two old jalopies; it might be that silent “good heavens” when we see someone still in their pyjamas with a couple of unruly kids hanging off their shopping cart at the store; it might be that splash of dopamine, that moment of pleasure that we’ve learned to crave as we check our Facebook again and again to see how many likes that post had – or, depending on our mood, perhaps even clicking to see who has liked it, and who hasn’t.

As a society, we’ve made great strides in the name of “equality”.

But, in a world bent towards corruption by the effects of sin, we simply cannot help ourselves from creating division.


From the start, the chief effects of sin are division and separation.  Separation from the God-given blessings of the land, divisions between parents and children and peoples and nations,
and separation from life in the presence of a holy God, as we choose darkness over light and death over life.

We’ve come a long way from our great-grandparents, whose society built dividing lines based on race or gender; but where one dividing line falls, it seems a new one is built.

Humility is not a very popular concept.

It was Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian of the 1900s who wrote that, above all else, ‘pride is the chief sin of the religious person’.[1] 

Now, if we’re living our lives as disciples, as apprentices, students of Christ, and our call is to follow where he leads, we’ll find ourselves moving from strength to strength as grow in the imitation of Christ, as we increase in charity and love for each other, as we become able to speak the truth in love, following that narrow path of obedience.

But the problem with this narrow path carved through the mountains alongside the valley of death is that, if you stop to look around, to see where you are compared to the others, if you lose track of the footprints of the one leading the way, you risk losing your footing, and then you fall.

Yes, pride is the chief sin for a religious person, precisely because it only springs up after we’ve avoided the more public, the more visible sins.

No good Christian would boast that you have lied, or committed murder, or dishonoured your parents.  You wouldn’t boast that you sat down and carved a false God, or lost your house and livelihood to addiction. But how easy is it for any one of us to see those sins in another, and suddenly feel that warm rush of sinful pride as we thank – not God, but ourselves – that we aren’t like those people.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

In the Gospel today, we hear the Pharisee saying his prayers: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get”.

Now, I hope we all recognize that there’s a problem with this prayer – standing up and telling God how great you are.  But that’s not the lesson for us.

The reality, you see, is that the Pharisee is right

Everything he’s saying is true.  The Pharisee’s concern above all else was keeping the laws of the Old Covenant as strictly and carefully as possible.  By the objective religious standard, he is a better Jew, a more observant God-fearer than thieves, evildoers, adulterers, or tax collectors.  The law required a fast once per year on the Day of Atonement, but he offered God a fast twice each week; the law required that you offer back to God a tenth of your living expenses and farm profits, but he offered back a tenth of every thing he received.

According to the law, according to the cultural and religious expectations of his day, the Pharisee is right.

The problem – and the lesson for us – is that, for as right as he certainly is, the second his “rightness” became a badge of honour that he could show to the world, it loses its value.

Sure, he’s no less right.  But, you know what the scriptures say: if you announce your good works, sure, they’re still good works, but “truly, I tell you, you have received your reward”.[2] 

After resisting the temptations to disobey the law, the Pharisee falls victim to that more sinister, chief sin of pride, which makes all of his obedience and religious progress worthless.  All the effort of following that narrow path becomes worthless if, in your looking around at others in their journey, you lose your footing at fall.

What is Humility?

There’s a lot to think about there.  Pride and humility are big ideas.

Unfortunately, we aren’t helped by what “humility” has come to mean in the way we speak.

We think, before anything else, of “humiliation”, when you’re made to feel ashamed or foolish by an attack on your dignity: that’s not humility, and as sons and daughters of God and members of Christ’s Body, humiliation is the furthest thing from what God wants for us.  After all, we’re made in His image, and he loves us so much, we’re worth so much, that before the foundation of the world He would offer his own son to redeem us.

Humiliation – an attack on your dignity by someone else – is not humility.

Humiliation – feeling humiliated – is an emotion, and a highly negative one at that, the feeling of responding to a public attack by another.

Humility, on the other hand, is not an emotion, but an attitude. 

Where humiliation is reactive, responding to what someone else has done, humility is a direction, a course that we set for ourselves.

Humility – having the quality of humbleness – means that we have become intentionally aware of our status, of our strengths and weaknesses, and our relationships to others.

Too often, we’ve allowed everyday speech – the same speech that, just under the surface, is building walls to divide “us” from “them” – to define “humble” as a polite way of saying “poor”, or as a kind way of saying that someone is weak or passive. 

But that’s not the point.  A person who is humble is aware of their status before God.  The word itself comes from a Latin word meaning “of the earth”, as our faith itself tells us that our entire existence depends on God, and as the dirt will one day be sprinkled on the earthly remains of every one of us, we are called to remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Confidence in Christ

The Pharisee, proclaiming how much better he is than the others, is certainly not humble.

But, let’s take a moment to hear again the words of St. Paul, the blessed Apostle to the Gentiles, and see if we hear the difference in his speech:

“As for me, I am already being poured out as an offering, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me…”[3]

Is this a humble speech?  Yes.

St. Paul knows his worth in the eyes of God as a sinner forgiven by grace, even as he awaits his trial in a Roman prison.

Like the Pharisee, St. Paul knows he has done what is required of him, and when he has messed up, he’s asked for forgiveness and started again.  Again, St. Paul, like the Pharisee, has full confidence in the reward that accompanies a life of faith.

The difference, though, is the attitude, the direction of their gaze.

St. Paul, a student and follower of Jesus, followed the narrow path; and now, nearing the end of what he describes as his earthly race, what does he do?  Does he stop and turn around to see how big of a lead he has?  No.  He keeps his eyes firmly fixed on Christ, knowing that, whatever he may face, his worth, his identity is secure as a child of God.

The Pharisee is also running the race of obedience, but instead of keeping his eyes on the prize, he’s focused instead on the others that he thinks he has left in the dust; but no one wins a race by focusing on how much better you are than the others; and the surest way to lose a race is to assume that you’ve already won.

And what about that tax collector?

Well, there’s no question: this man was a sinner.  Tax collectors were those who cooperated with the Roman oppressors, and were authorized to charge as much as they liked and to collect the debt by any means, even violence.  There’s no question, he robbed those in his own community to line his own pockets, and was probably personally responsible for widows losing their homes.

He was certainly universally hated; he had hurt everyone around him.  He came to the temple, but wouldn’t dare even enter, but stood out in the porch with his head down so people wouldn’t recognize him.  And while everyone else was performing the daily rituals of prayer, he bent down and said “God, have mercy on me a sinner”.

…And here’s the scary bit: that criminal – he’s the one who went home in a right relationship with God.

Is Jesus telling us to follow the example of the tax collector?  By no means; Jesus doesn’t condone the sin; and whenever Jesus encounters people in the Gospels he tells them to go and sin no more, making right what they have done wrong.

But it’s a matter of attitude: the tax collector knows where he stands; he knows he needs God’s mercy, and he makes no excuses.  He doesn’t stand there and say, “well at least I didn’t murder someone, or at least I’m not a homeless drunk”.  He needs mercy.  He asked for mercy. And he received mercy.  The Pharisee, as right as he was, didn’t receive anything, for he had already received his reward.

How, then shall we live?

Humility is not a popular concept.  But, it was St. Cyril of Alexandria who said “no true soldier who has seen battle brags that they came out alive while others fell”.[4]

We’re all on this journey.  The temptations may look different, but “there, but by the grace of God, go I”, and the moment we take our eyes off the prize to see how much farther ahead we are than those who are struggling is the moment we fall. 

But, from a place of humility; with the knowledge that we are all God’s children, and with our course set as followers of Christ, everything changes.  When you know who you are, as a forgiven Child of God, the dividing walls are no longer necessary.  When you know where your value lies, puffing ourselves up with pride no longer gains us anything.  When we are honest with ourselves about our own struggles, then we realize the mercy we’ve received, and can extend that grace to a world that is desperately hurting.

For, truly I tell you, all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.  To God be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.


[1] Volume IV.1, 60.2 of Church Dogmatics.  Barth begins by saying the chief sin is “unbelief”, which he explains as the pride of man in believing that we can be god, being our own law-giver, judge, and saviour.

[2] Matthew 6:2

[3] 2 Timothy 4:6-8a

[4] Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on Luke, Homily 120, para.

Featured Image: “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector”, Acrylic on Canvas by Rebecca Brogan.

Thanksgiving: Check your privilege

It’s probably no surprise that, on this long weekend when many of us will be joining friends and family to celebrate Thanksgiving, we find that our lessons this morning share the theme of thankfulness.

After all, thankfulness – gratitude – is important if we’re going to share our lives with those around us.  In fact, I’m willing to bet that for most of us, one of our first lessons in using our manners was to say “please” and “thank you” when we asked and received what we needed.  Even this week, I had a great conversation with someone about the simple act of sending a thank-you note, and how, in this age where communication is quicker and easier than ever before, we rarely take the time anymore to thank someone for what they’ve done for us, other than a quick “thanks” on the way out the door.

There’s no question: gratitude is important.

Yet, as many Canadians sit around the thanksgiving table for a feast this weekend, I wonder if our gratitude has become somewhat shallow.

Thankful for What?

If we were to hold up a mirror and really unpack what we think and say on this weekend meant to give thanks for food, shelter, clothing, freedom, and family, I wonder how often that gratitude goes beyond “me”.  After all, it takes hard work to keep food on the table, a roof over our heads, and toys in our kids’ hands, and those freedoms that have been won by those who have gone before us are now our absolute rights to which we are entitled.

It’s a tough question, but one worth asking: if we scratch below the “good manners” that we’ve been taught, how much of our thankfulness stops at “I’m thankful for me”, or “I’m thankful for what I’ve done”.

Privilege

We live at a time when we are constantly being reminded in the media and in public discourse to “check our privilege”.  Maybe you’ve heard the phrase.  In younger circles, it’s becoming a phrase to live by when engaging in the discussion of politics or religion or beliefs about society.  The idea is simple, but for those who have adopted the phrase, it’s meant to cut deep: before you say something, or before you enter a discussion with someone with a different viewpoint, before you argue for what is “rightfully yours”, you “check your privilege” – you step back and consider if what you believe, if what you bring to the conversation, is universal, or if it only appears to be universally true based on your own experience; you step back and ask if your position and your actions would be true if the “privileges” you enjoy were removed – privileges that reflect the uneven playing field on which we are born: a world bent and tilted towards pride and selfishness, with race, money, status, level of family support, and opportunities either as privileges that give us a leg up, or as pitfalls which hold us back.

This idea of “privilege” is popular in public speech today, but it’s really an ancient idea found in philosophy: if God is eternal and unchanging as we believe him to be, if the One True God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, then for anything to be really and truly Good, True, or Beautiful in God’s eyes must be equally Good, True, or Beautiful in every time and place, and for every culture or situation.

Of course, every culture and society needs rules and customs and systems to operate, but for something to be ultimately Good, and Good in God’s eternal eyes, then it has to be as true for the wandering nomad in the desert as it is for us; for something to be really True or Beautiful, it has to be as true and beautiful for the 7-year-old slave girl working in a clothing factory in Pakistan as it is for me.

So, this Thanksgiving, let’s check our privilege.

The truth is that every one of us here has had struggles, requiring real work for us to get to where we are.  The food on our table hasn’t been manna appearing overnight, but has taken effort to put there.  All of us, at some point, have had worries and anxieties about work or our homes, often requiring hard and costly decisions, even uprooting our families and leaving loved ones to make our living.  Many of us, at some point, have had to make hard personal decisions, reaching a decision point when we reached the end of the rope and had to decide if we would keep going the way we were going, out of control, or if we would turn our lives around and get on the right path.

Perhaps you, like me, have a lot to be thankful for.

But if we check our privilege, if we take the opportunities that we were given through no effort of our own out of the equation, we find that “I’m thankful for what I’ve done” doesn’t hold true.

All of us have free will and are responsible for the moves we make, but none of us chose where we started out.  The privilege of a supportive family; the privilege of skin colour or an accent that doesn’t stand out; the privilege of that connection to get a foot in the door for a good job; even the privilege of access to education, of access to loans and funding, even the privilege of having someone to teach you how to speak kindly-yet-assertively to people and to make yourself look presentable so that you earn someone’s trust. 

When we take these into consideration, “I’m thankful for what I’ve done” is a most privileged statement, only true from the vantage point of those who have been given much.

Looking Back: An Older Model

So where do we go from here?

In Deuteronomy 26, God’s chosen people under the Old Covenant are given instructions for what we might call the first Thanksgiving. 

“When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess … you shall take some of the first of all your harvest, and bring it to the house of God.  You shall go to the priest who is in office and make this declaration: “Today I declare to the Lord that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us”.[1]

Then, the people were instructed to make an account of the blessings their ancestors had received, which brought them to that point: that God saved Israel out of Egypt, provided for them in their time of need, and brought them into this pleasant and fruitful land.

In the Biblical narrative, Thanksgiving isn’t about our effort and what we’ve each achieved.  It’s the exact opposite.  Thanksgiving is about acknowledging our inheritance.  It’s about acknowledging all of those God-given things outside of ourselves that have brought us here.

Now don’t get me wrong: there’s no question, these people worked hard for their food.  They tilled the land, they woke up early and worked late; this was the work of human hands.  But, the were called to acknowledge that it was by the grace of God that they were in their position.  It was by the grace of God that they had strength, and health to work and freedom to enjoy their leisure.  It was only by the grace of God that they, at harvest time, found themselves in a position to celebrate.  After all, not one of us can add even one breath to the span of our lives.

And celebrate they did – but God had instructions about that too.

You’re to celebrate with all the bounty that God has given you – a true feast with all of God’s good gifts of wine and meat and maybe even a second plate of dessert.  But, verse 11, you’re to celebrate with the alien who is in your land.    You’re to celebrate with the person who isn’t privileged; the person who has no family, the person who doesn’t have the same opportunities and connections to get a decent job, the person who doesn’t have the support structure they need to turn their life around and build bridges to get back to where they belong.

Acknowledging what we have

Thanksgiving calls us not to look at the things around us and be thankful, but to think upon and appreciate those things that paved the way for us, and to thank God. 

We thank God for that which is really Good, True, and Beautiful.  As we heard from Philippians, we’re to rejoice always, with prayer and thanksgiving, thinking on whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just and pure and pleasing and commendable.  This Thanksgiving, think on these things.

And, we think back to the manna from heaven.[2]  God’s inexplicable provision, that came with the caveat that whenever you tried to store it up so that you wouldn’t have to trust  God for tomorrow, it spoiled and grew maggots.

And maybe that’s the point: when we check our privilege, when we’re honest about what is really the fruit of our labour, and what is really just the skewing of the playing field through sin, anything that we think we’ve stored up is actually rotten.

It’s by grace that we’re here.  Not one of us, no matter how anxiously we worry, can add a moment to our lives or an inch to our stature: it’s the Lord who provides.

So, this Thanksgiving, I want all of us to remember that first Thanksgiving in scripture.

Today or tomorrow, take a moment, and consider all that you have.  But, take a moment and consider all those who God has put along your path to help you get here: those friends and loved ones who went before you, who shared what they had, who helped you get to where you are. 

Think on, rejoice in, those things that are Good, True, and Beautiful.  And declare – truly declare – that “these are gifts from God”.

And then, whether it’s today or tomorrow, or whether it’s one day this week, follow through: share your celebration with someone in need.  Whether it’s an invitation to dinner, a visit to someone who is lonely, supporting someone who is going without, or coming alongside someone who is at the end of their rope and needs a hand to turn their life around, a true celebration, a real Thanksgiving, is one that takes what God has given you and offers it freely to one in need.

For you never know what mighty tree God might have in mind for that small seed of kindness that you sow for your brother or sister, and Christ says, whatever you do for the least of those in need, you’ve done for him.

To God be the Glory forever and ever.  Amen.

This sermon was paired with the hymn “My Worth is Not in What I Own” by Graham Kendrick and Keith & Kristyn Getty

Note: “Privilege” as a framework has its limits, as does any attempt to subjectively categorize the complexities of human interactions in which each individual perceives different advantages and disadvantages from their individual vantage point. This is behind my shout-out to “the Trancendentals” — universal Goodness, Truth, and Beauty — which are used in Western Christian theology as truly universal descriptors of God’s Being, and as interchangeable or intertwined (that which is Good must also be Beautiful and True, etc.).

My use of “privilege” is intended to expand the horizons of this discussion at a holiday during which when family, traditions, and worldly gains are increasingly front and center.


[1] Deuteronomy 26:1-11

[2] Exodus 16:1-36

What happens when we die?

This is perhaps the oldest and most fundamental of human questions.  Every culture, every society that has walked the earth has sought the answer to this question. 

Every person ever born has, at some point, felt the tug of the Holy Spirit drawing them toward the questions of eternity.  Every person has looked at the frailty of life, the loss of loved ones, the declining health of a parent, or the tragedy of a life cut short and, as we were created to do, we all look up and say “there must be more than this”.

What happens when we die?

That is the age-old question that unites all people; a question – a longing – that itself is a part of God’s revelation to us, as he created us for relationship with himself and has revealed his plan for our future through his covenant with Israel, through the prophets, and ultimately in the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Word made Flesh, our Lord.

There is much that has been said about what awaits us after death. 

We live in an age where, as the world grows ever smaller, we come into contact more and more with ideas from other times and places.  Unfortunately, it seems that instead of giving us greater understanding, we find ourselves with a jumbled mess, where in the well-intentioned name of peaceful coexistence, our modern culture finds itself not more at peace, but caught up in whatever crisis finds itself trending on Twitter this week.  And the only framework we have left to decipher our fears and concerns is an inconsistent mixture of popular and positive ideas from here and there, ideas that sound good, but in their inconsistency, ultimately fail to answer our deepest questions as this jumble only succeeds in disrespecting and misrepresenting the very cultures and viewpoints they claim to include.

One friend of mine put it this way: replace the hard questions like “what happens when we die”, with what should be an easier question: “what kind of cookies should we make”.  In the past, we knew with confidence where we could find our recipe book, with the answers to the “cookie question”, tried and tested recipes that have been handed down in the family for generations. 

Today, though, it’s as though our eyes have been opened to the vast varieties of cookies possible, but instead of actually committing to any single recipe to try it out, our culture invites us to throw the parts that appeal to us from of all the recipes together into one. 

The obvious problem for anyone who has ever baked is that recipes exist for a reason: baking is a science as much as it is an art.  Recipes exist precisely because, no matter how nice the ideas might be on their own, you cannot simply throw shortbread, chocolate chips, oatmeal, ginger, molasses, peanut butter, dates, marshmallows, raisins, and lemon juice together in a bowl and hope for the best. 

To make a cookie, we need the recipe – a consistent recipe with all its parts, a tested recipe, where the ingredients work together to produce what was intended.

We wouldn’t bake cookies haphazardly.  Yet, for so many, that’s exactly how we attempt to answer the hard questions that life throws at us.

A Recipe

What happens when we die?

The Church, the Body of Christ and his messengers in the world, have been entrusted with a recipe – a tried and true recipe, handed down from one generation to the next.

If we were to read and study our scriptures faithfully, we would find that God has been revealing his plan for us from the beginning.

Unfortunately, and disgracefully, some leaders, claiming to work in the name of Christ and his Church, have hidden the answers to these questions for selfish purposes; it’s no secret that, at various times in human history, the Church has relied on fear of the flames of hell and the unbiblical image of an angry judge to scare people into submission instead of truly addressing that God-given longing for eternity.

What happens when we die?  I’m inviting us today to “stick to the recipe” handed down to us, and appreciate what it actually says as the answer to that question.

No cartoon pitchforks or wings and harps to be found.

The parable we heard today is the most extended teaching of Jesus specifically about what takes place after death. 

It’s a parable, meaning that it is an illustration specifically used for teaching those ideas that would be hard to grasp on their own.

In Luke 16, beginning at verse 19, we hear of two men. 

One is rich – well fed, very well dressed, lived for lavish parties and opportunities to enjoy and display his wealth.  He’s also safe and secure: we’re told his house has a gate, and we can imply from the context that also means he has gatekeepers among his several servants, the poorly paid workers who grow and process his food, who sew and mend his clothes, and who build the things in his house.

The other man is poor; not just living from paycheque to paycheque, but poor.  His name is Lazarus.  He’s suffering from an illness that cripples him and prevents him from working, and he’s now living on the street with the stray dogs as his only companions, but even they betray him as they gather the scraps from the rich man’s trash before Lazarus can get there himself.

Both die – but neither ceases to exist. 

As Christians, we believe that God created humankind for immortality.  That’s what we mean when we say that we were created in God’s Image, that his Likeness is imprinted on our souls.  We believe God created everything that is – and modern science shows us each day just how much more wonderful that creation is, with space extending beyond our wildest imagination, made up of particles so small that we only know they exist by their effects on the world around them. 

And, we believe that, out of that vast creation, God created us to be different – to exist in relationship with him, to have free will rather than raw instinct, so that we could experience the free giving and receiving of Love, which is God’s Nature. 

Both the rich man and Lazarus die – their bodies wear out – but that’s far from the end of the story.

As Christians, we confess every time we gather that we believe in the resurrection of the body.  We believe, as taught by the scriptures, that our bodies, and all creation, matters

This is one of those places where, especially in the modern era, some have been mixing ‘recipes’.  The resurrection of the body was counter cultural in Jesus’ time, and runs counter to the many Greek, Roman, or Eastern philosophies that reject the body and the earth as bad and of no worth.

As Christians, we don’t believe that. The Church doesn’t teach that.

We believe that God created the heavens and the earth, and that he called them “good”. 

We certainly don’t believe that good and evil are equal and opposite powers fighting for control – that’s anything but Christian!  No, rather, God is good.  The problem is not some equal force of “evil”; it’s disobedience and rebellion.

It was in using our free will to serve ourselves rather than return the love shown to us by God that the world became not ‘evil’, but fallen.  God made it and called it good, but disobedience caused it to be stained, corrupted.

Our hope – our eternal hope – is not that God would free us from our bodies and the world.  There are religions that teach that, but not Christianity.  Our hope, as found in the scriptures, is found in God’s promise to restore our bodies: that’s precisely why it’s essential that Jesus was raised from the dead with a renewed body. 

Our hope, as found in the scriptures, is in God’s promise not that we will end up in some disembodied spiritual realm, but that we will be made citizens of a renewed earth, one where those who have accepted Jesus’ offer as the remedy for our corruption, and who share in that resurrected body will live in relationship and communion with him and with each other.

And, until that time, we are told that our flesh rests in hope, and that for the faithful, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

Punishments or Justice?

The experience in the grave is very different for the rich man than for Lazarus.

Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson provides an image, and it’s one worth our attention.

There’s no little red devils with horns and hooves wielding pitchforks – in fact, you can search the scriptures all day long, and you won’t find them anywhere: that’s not what the Church teaches, and it’s not what the Bible says.

What we do see is this: the rich man in the grave (Hades, the place of the dead) is separated from Lazarus who rests in “paradise”, awaiting the last day and the resurrection.  And, the scriptural image is, at least for me, much more powerful than the cartoon devils given to us by false preachers.

The chasm – the walls of the cell, if you prefer – separating the two men are of the rich man’s own devising. 

The wall, the gap separating the rich man from the peace of paradise is the very wall that he himself constructed.

In his life, he did all in his power to separate himself from the plight of the poor.  He paraded around in his new clothes; he was so well fed that the food that he wasted or threw away would have been enough to feed those in need; he built a wall, in the name of safety and security, which also served to guard his eyes from having to face those in need around him. 

But, Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

The great divide that the rich man experiences after death is the reversal of the great divide that he inflicted on others in his life.

It’s not as though this is a punishment unfairly imposed by an angry god who keeps a tally of wrong deeds. 

No.  It’s simply justice.  We reap what we sow. 

We lock away and hoard our treasure now, we find ourselves locked away grasping to what has become worthless in the age to come. 

We celebrate and rejoice, or save and spend at the expense of our brother or sister, and as we hear in scripture, that love of money and the eagerness to become rich result only in wandering from the faith and piercing ourselves with many pains.

Those who take great comfort now, be warned.  “For blessed are those who mourn” now for injustice and wrong; because those who are comfortable, like the rich man, will watch as those who mourned shall be comforted.

Those who take great pride now, be warned: for you shall see the meek inherit the earth.

The Answer to the Question

What happens when we die?

We believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting.

And as our bodies rest, our eyes are opened and we see the justice of God. 

But, it’s for us to decide, in this life, if we will be those who strive for God’s truth and justice now, who take up their cross and follow Jesus in spite of the persecutions we might face, and who will rest in peace. Or, if we are those who build, inherit, or benefit from walls that have been built, then justice demands that we experience life outside those walls in the age to come.

The rich man said “I beg you to send someone… I have a family, and they need to be warned so they won’t come into this place of torment”. 

No, came the answer. “They have been warned.  If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if one rises from the dead”.

None of us can earn paradise; we’ve all, every one of us, benefited from building chasms between rich and poor, friend and foe, between races and languages and nations. 

Our only hope, then, is to believe the message of the one who rose from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Notes:

This sermon is consistent with how Christians from the Early Church interpreted this parable before the politics and polemics that led to and stemmed from the Reformation. It draws largely on St. John Chrysostom’s Four Discourses on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, particularly discourses 2 and 4.

The idea of “digging one’s own abyss” in interpreting this passage comes from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and Resurrection (in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, CUA Press, vol. 58, pp. 232-234); St. Augustine emphasizes the idea of reaping what one sows, or the concept of the equal balance of the scales (“the measure you give is the measure you get”) in this passage in his Sermon on this parable (#367 in his collected works).

Numerous fathers of the Early Church (Justin Martyr, Clement/Pseudo-Clement, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, among others) are sources on the topic of the state of the righteous and unrighteous dead before the return of Christ and the general resurrection.

Anglican bishop and professor N.T. Wright has written extensively on the topic in recent years. His chapter “Purgatory, Paradise, and Hell” in Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008) is a fascinating and accessible study.

Shrewd Managers

Luke 16:1-13

Today the Church gives us what is certainly one of the most difficult sayings of Jesus; indeed, at various points in Christian history, the Church has been outright embarrassed by these ancient words passed down for us to hear today.

We’ve grown accustomed and even expect Jesus to raise the bar on obedience – “the law said don’t commit adultery?  I say don’t even look at another person with lust;” “the law says don’t murder?  If you hate your brother or sister, you’ve already committed murder in your heart.”

We’ve grown accustomed to hearing Jesus calling people to keep the law rightly, as he summarized in the two great commandments: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.

And yet, now, we hear Our Lord commend this dishonest manager, one who, by any objective standard, falsified the accounting books to ensure that he would land on his feet after he was fired.

It’s no surprise the Church found this passage embarrassing over the ages – on face value, there’s no question – this manager is not a good guy.  You don’t want this guy working for you.  What a mess we would be in if we read this passage and concluded it with a hearty “go and do likewise”.

It’s a hard text, but it’s one that deserves our attention precisely because it doesn’t say what we expect; and when we think we’ve got God all figured out and conveniently ignore those hard parts of his Word, that’s when – time and time again – we find ourselves dangerously close to worshipping a god made in our image, rather than the one in whose image we were made.

A Parable in Context

If we were to open our Bibles to Luke 16, the first thing we would find is that this passage doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  It’s a parable – a certain type of story, often using unexpected characters and situations to teach a lesson, and if we were to flip back a page in the Gospel of Luke, we’d see that it exists as part of an extended collection of more familiar parables: last week we heard the first part of Luke 15 – the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin, a pair of stories told to illustrate God’s persistence in finding even one who is lost.

Then, later in Luke 15, but not in the lectionary this year, we have the well-known parable of the prodigal son.  We all know it well: a wealthy man has two sons and divides his wealth among them.  The younger one takes his money and travels the world, spending this great fortune on fabulous parties and wild living, and eventually finds himself broke, on the streets of a foreign land, feeding pigs and perhaps sleeping in their barn just to have a roof over his head. 

Now, with all of his father’s hard-earned wealth wasted, he returns home begging for his father to take him back as a hired hand. 

And what does his father do – he welcomes him with open arms, forgives the wasting of the family wealth, and, like we saw with the lost sheep or the lost coin, celebrates that this one that was lost has been found.  Of course, as we might remember, the rich man’s other son is angry, saying, “look, my brother wasted all your hard-earned money, but I’ve worked hard at the family business all my life – why are you celebrating?”, the moral of that parable of course being that it isn’t about the wasting or the dishonour or disrespect brought upon the family, but it’s about the restored relationship between a loving, merciful father and a child that had wandered away.

And it’s as part of that string of familiar stories that Jesus tells the parable of the dishonest manager.  

Jesus’ Theology of Money

If we want to understand the point that Jesus is making here, we have to first take to heart his absolutely radical, earth-shattering approach to money.

We all know “Money makes the world go round”.  Every one of us in the room base many of our day-to-day decisions on their financial impact.  In today’s world, it’s money and livelihood that brings communities together, as we grow up and, more often than ever before, have to leave home in search of work and… money.  Money to buy what we need – food, shelter, clothes; money to buy what we want – cars, books, toys of whatever sort, whether it be a Nintendo or Xbox or a boat and skidoo; and money to plan for our future – to pay off debt, to put something away for our kids, to have a place to call our own.

Money, for better or worse, is the driving force behind many of our choices: decisions to work harder now to pay off that student loan, or to put off retirement for another year to pay off the truck and take that great vacation.

And if we actually read Luke 16, perhaps the most unexpected thing that we find is that Jesus is actually acknowledging the role of money in our lives.  Jesus, having just told the parable of the prodigal son who wasted his father’s wealth, and who as told the rich man to sell his goods because it is easier to enter the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, takes this opportunity to teach his disciples – you and me – about worldly wealth.

“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?

The problem is not money.  The problem is when we forget what money is.

Money is not God.  Money is not the master.  You cannot serve two masters.

So if money is not the master, then what is it?

Money is a tool. 

It’s a worldly tool; all tools are.  It’s not as though God installed ATMs and printed bills with his face on them to use in the garden of Eden, where, without pride and greed, everyone’s needs were met without toil or labour. 

Money is a tool.  And tools, even worldly tools, can be used for good or evil. 
A hammer can be used to build or to destroy; fire, used wisely, gives light and heat, but left to its own devices will consume everything around it.

Money is decidedly worldly – it does us no good in the Kingdom of God; we can’t buy our way in, and we can’t take it with us.

But, in this world, we find ourselves entrusted with it. 

“And the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.  For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”

Now, let me be clear – this is not about stealing.  This is about Christians understanding the right use of money – not as a supreme goal or measure of worth, but as a tool, as a means for accomplishing things in this world.

The Dishonest Manager

As was common in the first century, the master had hired a manager to oversee this area of his business.  And business managers, like tax collectors were entrepreneurs rather than servants working for room and board; they had a quota due to their master, and then they would add their commission over top, or charge interest if one of the debtors had missed a payment and the manager had to cover the expense.

When the manager’s position came under scrutiny and it looked like his contract wouldn’t be renewed, a short-sighted manager, one viewing money as the goal rather than as a tool to be used, would have called up the debtors and demanded payment.  A short-sighted manager would have said “I’m going to lose my job, I need to collect some money right away”.

But this shrewd manager said, “they’re going to cut my position, I need to make friends while I can so that, when I’m no longer in authority, I have people to look out for me.” So he calls them in, slashes his commission, writes off the interest, and sends them on their way.

He writes-off the debt that is rightfully his because he knows that his time is short. 

He writes-off the debt that is rightfully his because he knows that money can only get you so far; that worldly wealth runs out.

He writes-off the debt because he understands that everything he has ultimately belongs to the master, and can be taken away at his next breath.

A Parable Applied

Now, remember the prodigal son? 
Remember the undeserved mercy shown by the Father?

God is the master.  We are the managers.  The Master has given us everything – grace, forgiveness, blessings beyond measure, and he has put us in charge of his accounts.

But word comes to the master that we’re squandering his possessions.  That grace, that mercy, that forgiveness, those blessings, those positions, that influence – we’re not using them to their full potential for the master’s kingdom.

So, he wants an account.  He wants to check the books.

And this is where he wants us to be shrewd.

So, we call in those who owe us.  Our debtors; or to use the older language, those who trespass against us.  And recognizing that everything that we are owed pales in comparison to what we have received from God, and realizing that whatever worldly wrongs done to us, whatever we are owed, is worth nothing in the age to come, we forgive, we write-off those debts.

For whoever is faithful in little will be faithful in much.

And, in forgiving our debts, in laying down what is rightfully ours, in not seeking revenge, in repaying wrongs with kindness instead of anger, we use our worldly powers to gain friends for ourselves, relationships which reflect the mercy that we ourselves have received from God, and which will pay eternal dividends.

No one can serve two masters.  But, use your worldly wealth – money, positions, power, influence, relationships – the things that, in the long run matter very little and will pass away; use them in such a way that we will be welcomed into our eternal dwelling, where we will be entrusted with true riches – abundant life where neither moth nor rust destroy and where thieves do not break in a steal – for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

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

The Cross: Cosmic Solution to a Universal Problem

Today is all about the Cross.

This weekend, many Christians around the world are celebrating Holy Cross Day – a Holy Day that, according to our own church calendar, ranks just below Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost.

This celebration of the Holy Cross is an opportunity for us to look at the cross once again, something we normally do in Lent and particularly on Good Friday, but to see it now with a different emphasis, to look at it in a different light.

Historic and Individual – Cosmic and Corporate

On Good Friday – and the majority of other times we think to the Cross – the focus is on the earthly work which Christ accomplished for us.  What do I mean by that?  Well, the focus is often on the Cross as an instrument of death, the Cross as the place where an angry crowd, a crowd in which we all find a place, was spurred on by jealous politics and empty pride to put an innocent man to death, a death, as we hear each time we celebrate the Eucharist, he freely accepted, offering himself to reconcile humankind with God.  The focus, almost exclusively among some of our Christian brothers and sisters, is on the blood that was spilled, in keeping with the Old Testament imagery of sacrifice, where since that first time that animals were killed to make clothing to cover human nakedness, it was blood that paid the price for the shame of our sin.

On Good Friday, the focus is so often on the individual.  Even in our music – “When I survey the wondrous cross”, or “were you there when they crucified my lord?”. 

That focus on the individual isn’t a bad thing – in fact – to quote another old song, everyone one of us, at some point, need to decide for ourselves if we will follow Jesus (“no turning back, no turning back”).

But as good as it is to focus on the Cross as a place of sacrifice for us as individuals, and to focus on the Cross as a historical event which we recall when we gather, that’s only part of the story. 

Today, the Church gives us an opportunity to view the cross not as an instrument of death, but as the symbol of victory; victory, once and for all, over the grip of death; victory, once and for all, over the power of shame and guilt for past wrongs to which we are shackled, and which so often hold us down until we’re crushed under their weight.

Today, the Church invites us to look at Christ’s death on the cross not only as a historical event impacting your individual life, but to view the power of the cross on a universal, cosmic scale: that singular moment of sacrifice and victory as a ‘big bang’, if you will, that ripples out through the whole created universe, changing the very fabric of life itself, as everything that happens when time and eternity meet, in that moment after we take our final breath, is forever changed.

Today, the Church invites us to think upon the power of the cross as it really is; though, like a star being born in a distant galaxy, the light, the experience of that truth is not yet visible to us as we journey through this mortal life.

Death defeated by death.

In the Cross, Death is defeated by death.

In the Cross, Death – the power of the grave over creation – is itself defeated as it tries to close its jaws on the one who cannot die.

And, in that moment, the lifeless body of the incarnate Son of God lying in the tomb becomes not a sign of weakness or mortality, but, as the scriptures say, he becomes the firstborn from the dead – a new “Adam”, piercing the veil between life and death and opening the door into the new creation – and, again as the scriptures tell us – not the fluffy, disembodied “heaven” of fairy tales or romantically inaccurate Sunday School lessons, but to lead us into the city of God, where we, in our resurrected bodies, share in the life of the resurrected Christ.

Of course, “death being defeated by a man who dies” hardly looks like victory to those looking on.  Indeed, in our epistle today, Paul admits this as he calls out, “Where is the wise man?  Where is the teacher of the law?  Where are the philosophers of this age?”[1]  Come, explain this, teachers and lawyers!  From a human perspective, from those only thinking about creation from our little place in the vast universe, “the cross is foolishness”.  But, Paul quotes from Isaiah 29: this is no surprise, for God says that in the day when his power is put on display, the world will be turned upside down, the wisdom of the wise will be destroyed, and all the understanding and theories of the intelligent will be frustrated as a new structure is put into place.

We see this new structure, death defeated by death, foreshadowed in Moses.  Like so much of what Jesus does on an eternal and universal scale, we see it first in earthly, human terms as God delivers his people Israel. 

They are led through the Red Sea from bondage into freedom, as we are led through the waters of baptism.  They are fed in the desert with food from heaven and water from springs, as we are fed with the bread of life and drink from the cup that runs over.  And they are led through by God through a time of wandering in which they learn what it means to trust in God and to repent and return when they go astray, as the Holy Spirit leads the Church in our own day.

In the lesson we heard today from Numbers chapter 21,[2] we find God’s chosen people growing impatient and wavering once again in their obedience and trust; as a result, they come across poisonous snakes who begin biting the people in their tents.  Realizing that it was God who was protecting and providing for them, they repent and beg for the snakes to be taken away – and God says to Moses, make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and lift it up for the people to see; anyone who is bitten can look upon that pole – a sign of God’s power over creation – and they will live.

The very thing that was harming them – snakes – was defeated as God claimed his authority over it; and in looking upon it, they were healed.

We, like all people, are chased and bitten by death.

And, Jesus says,[3] “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man will be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life”.

Death itself, an innocent man, beaten, bruised, stripped, shamed, tortured, abandoned, and hung to die – is defeated as God claims his authority over it; and that gruesome image becomes the gift of life to all who believe.

The power of the Cross is the triumphant power of life over death itself.

Searching for the Lost

But it’s not enough that God would defeat death and then leave us to figure it out.

The glory of the Cross – indeed, our whole faith — is that God himself sees the worth, sees the intrinsic value in each human man, woman, and child made in his image, and seeks to bring them home.

It’s that wonderful parable of the lost coin.[4]

This woman has lost no ordinary coin.  Rather, in 1st century Palestine, one sign of a married woman was a set of coins sewn to her headscarf; some suggest this was part of the dowry, and in times of need – like if the woman were to become a widow – it formed a small savings that could be used.

It’d be like one of us today who lost a wedding ring. 

The ring might not even be of great monetary value – it might just be a plain gold band – but in the eyes of the ones who gave and received it as a sign of their vow, it is of incredible worth.

You look, you look again, you clean the house, you retrace your steps, you do all in your power to recover that thing that means so much because of the pledge, and the love attached to it.

And the Cross is the story of that person searching for that which is of great value, as each and every person – regardless of what they did with their life – bears the image of God, and was wired to live in relationship with him.

This is that part of the Creed that we recite each week: Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, he was crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended to the dead.

Or, in the older prayerbook language it’s even stronger: he descended into hell.

Think about that: God loves you and me and every person that he has made so much, that Christ not only died, but descended to the place of the dead in order to find and release those who were in bondage. 

This is where the New Testament[5] would speak of Christ preaching to the dead as his body rested in the grave on Holy Saturday, like the shepherd or the woman who doesn’t rest until every effort has been made to find that which has been lost.

And, in the parable, there’s great rejoicing when that which was lost has been found; and in the Power of the Cross, Jesus himself becomes that strong man of Mark chapter 3,[6] who ties up Satan and the powers of Death, so that he can plunder his house, and that house – the place of the dead – now divided against itself will fall as Christ arises victorious, leading captivity captive as he invites us to share in his risen life.[7]

Our Hope

This is the power of the Cross.

Not a fairy tale or a distant historic event, but a cosmic event whose ripples are moving throughout creation until that day that the light of that Truth finally reaches our eyes.

So, we live in hope – eyes firmly fixed on the Cross – that tool of death that becomes for us the way of life, as the one over whom death has no power destroyed death once and for all.

…Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness – look up, and live.  Amen.


[1] Paraphrase of 1 Cor 1:18-24

[2] Numbers 21:4-9

[3] John 3:14-15

[4] Luke 15:1-10

[5] 1 Peter 3:17-22

[6] Mark 3:26-27

[7] Ephesians 4:8-10

The Potter and the Clay

So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.
The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
(Jerimiah 18:3-4)

“You are the potter; I am the clay”.

This is, no doubt, one of the more familiar images we have to describe our relationship to God, his patience with us, and his fearful-but-wonderful ability to re-shape us and re-fashion us for his service.

It’s a beautiful image that has been used again and again in hymns and songs, especially in the last 50 years, as we sang just a few minutes ago.

Yet, if we’re going to allow ourselves to learn from the wisdom handed down to us in the scriptures as interpreted by the Church, we have to be careful; we have to be careful not to let romanticism or cozy sentimentality cloud our understanding of these powerful words.

In our lesson from Jeremiah chapter 18 we have a powerful image, but if we’re to understand it, we have to be careful not to let our modern circumstances get in the way.

Jeremiah is called by God to visit a potter’s workshop, where God, by his Spirit, gives him a word of caution to speak to a people who have forgotten their covenant with God – a people who have done the rites and rituals required of them, but whose actions and attitudes don’t match their words; it would be like someone who is baptized, who has promised to turn away from evil, to proclaim the good news of forgiveness in Jesus by word and example, and to love your neighbour as yourself, but whose life doesn’t match those lofty words.

It’s in this context that we find the image of the potter and the clay.

And it’s important, too, that we take a second and allow the image to sink in.

Maybe you, like me, have had a chance to visit a pottery studio.  In our day, potters are artists, specializing in vases and ornamental work; the studio I visited was pristine – beautiful art on the walls, a nice area where you could stand and watch the potter working at the wheel, while the finished pieces baked behind the glass of a kiln at the back.

But, we have to be careful not to let our own experience cloud the message.

The potter in Jeremiah’s day is not an artist, but a tradesperson working to keep a city functioning, and the product is not something beautiful to admire on a shelf, but the everyday stuff that makes life possible – clay jars to store flour and oil to preserve the harvest so that the people survive the winter; pots for cooking soups and stews to stretch you meat and vegetables to feed a family; even chamber pots and, in Jeremiah’s day, ceramic pipes to direct waste into the sewer.

This is no beautiful, romantic image of an artist in a pristine art gallery.

The potter works tirelessly under the heat of the Mediterranean sun; it’s sweaty work, mixing the mud and turning the wheel by hand; the potter is covered head to toe in sticky clay, as the workshop attached to his house is filled with the bitter smoke of the fire in the kiln, as he lives and works in the industrial part of town, alongside the slaughterhouse, the butcher, and the tanner. 

God with us.

And this, my friends, is the image of God that Jeremiah gives us.

Yes, God is Almighty; yes, he alone is above all kings and powers, and worthy of all worship; but, in spite of that, our God gets his hands dirty. Our God is not limited to the palace, though he’s a great king, but is found in the dirty workshop on the outskirts of town, intimately involved in fashioning the everyday, commonplace vessels needed for everyday life in the city of God.

This is no artist working in a rarefied, gleaming gallery; this is a skilled craftsman who makes what is needed for the city to thrive.

You are the potter, I am the clay.

It’s important, too, that we remember what that means.

While much of Christianity in the last century has focused, perhaps overly so, on us as individuals, the clay is again a powerful image to remind us of our relationship with God.

You see, at no point does the potter need the clay’s permission to remould it.

Think about that for a second.

While it runs counter to the individualism and freedom that we so often enjoy, what potter looks at the clay and says, “is it alright if I mould you today?”. 

Imagine your neighbour buys some lumber to build a fence, and you look out, and there they are, picking up each piece, holding it close to their face, and asking, “is it alright if I cut a few inches off to make you fit?”, or “would you to stand upright, or would you rather be a horizontal beam?”.

That’s ridiculous! 

But that’s also the point that is being made in Jeremiah.

Verse 6: “Can I not do with you” – my covenant people – “just as this potter has done?  Just like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand”.

No, the potter, a skilled and careful master at their trade, takes the lump of clay and sets out to turn it, to mould it, to shape it into something useful; the potter’s desire is to take that raw clay and give it a purpose.

The potter takes what the world looks at as dirt, but the potter knows its value. and skillfully, lovingly, brings that value to the surface as it is shaped to do the work that the potter intends.

And, in these terms, in this context, the image of the clay and the potter takes on a different light. 

Uncooperative Clay

In Jeremiah, we’re told that the clay is not cooperating with what the potter has in mind.  The potter set to work, but they clay was spoiled – as the clay is moulded, it dries out, it cracks, it won’t hold its shape.

But the potter isn’t wasteful; the potter doesn’t throw tantrums because of the wasted effort.

The potter, calmly, as a skilled master, simply pushes the spoiled clay back into a ball, washes it, pours on water to make it malleable again, and reworks it, again and again, until the clay takes the shape that the potter intends.

You are the potter, I am the clay.

If that’s true, then God is – even now – shaping you and me into a vessel that serves a purpose in his Kingdom.

He doesn’t need our permission, and our loving, patient God is working on every one of us, every person made in his image, whom he loves, and for whom he is willing to leave his throne and get his hands dirty.

Our call, though, as the Lord said to Jeremiah, is to cooperate as he shapes us by his hand.

Israel was given the covenant which was intended bless them, but, in the days of Jeremiah, they had forgotten that their obedience wasn’t just about rites and rituals, but about their actions and attitudes; the clay was drying out and wouldn’t keep its shape.

Our New Testament lessons today call us to cooperate, making the hard decisions asked of us under the New Covenant. 

To make the decision to put pride aside, and to welcome back those who have wronged us as a brother or sister.  The decision to prioritize and to trust in God, and to realize that, so often, we take the blessings that God has given us – family, talents, possessions – and turn those blessings into idols, or allow them to become badges of pride, as though one lump of clay sitting on the potter’s wheel could look down at another, when both are a work in progress.

The Cost of Discipleship

Our call is to cooperate – “to count the cost”, realizing that whenever we let go of those blessings that we have idolized – whether it’s the wealth and power to build a tower, or whether it’s the wholesome, God-given blessings of family – whenever we let go of our grip on what God has given us, we’ll find that we’re able to really receive the peace of Christ, to receive forgiveness for the past failings that we’ve been clinging to, and to find that – to our amazement – the potter is never done with us; when we’re broken down, when we’re worn out, he doesn’t throw us away, but reshapes us and gives us a purpose in his Kingdom. 

Our call is to count the cost and be a disciple.  When we’re worn out, when we’re exhausted, when we’re dried up, trying to resist the potter’s hands, we hear the call of Jesus to give up everything – mother, father, family, and even life itself.  And that sounds crazy.  But, you see, when we’re resisting the hands of the potter, it feels like to give in, to let God reshape us, will cost us everything. 

But, in the hands of the potter, cooperation with the will of God doesn’t cost us anything except our pride.

Let us pray:

Have thine own way, Lord.
You are the potter, and I am the clay.
Mould me, and make me after your will;
Fill me with your Spirit,
Till all shall see Christ:
only, always living in me.  Amen.