Sharing burdens and carrying loads.

May only the truth be spoken, and may only the truth be heard,
In the Name of the One True and Living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

For anyone who has been in the Church for any amount of time, the lessons assigned in the BCP lectionary for this morning will be familiar ones.

We all know, as Paul writes to the Galatians, that part of the calling on our lives as Christians is that we must bear one another’s burdens.  And many of us, I’m sure, are familiar with the healing of the 10 men with leprosy: they cry out to have their burden lifted, Christ hears and has mercy on them, all are healed, but only one returns to say “thank you”.

They’re familiar lessons, but as I sat down to read them this week, I was struck by something that, for how ever many times I’ve read it, I never really noticed before.

I was sitting at my desk, my Bible opened up to Galatians 6, where Paul writes “brothers [and sisters], if anyone is caught in any transgressions, you who are spiritual should restore them in a spirit of gentleness… bear one another’s burdens”…

“Oh good”, I thought.  “This is an easy one!” 

But then I kept reading.

“Bear one another’s burdens”, but then, two verses later, Paul writes “let each one test his own work… for each will have to bear his own load.”

Hold on…  What’s this about? 

He just told us that we have to bear each other’s burdens… and then, two sentences later, he’s telling us that we each have to bear them ourselves?  What’s up with that!?  That can’t be right, can it?

So naturally, like any student of scripture, I opened up every Bible translation I could find, reading them side-by-side.  And, amazingly, all agreed: “bear one another’s burdens, but, each one must bear his own load.” 

Then, being the nerd that I am, I left the office and ran home at lunch to get my Greek New Testament, just to make sure my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me.  And sure enough: yes, the scriptures are very clear: it is the solemn, God-given duty of every Christian to bear one another’s burdens, and, at the same time, each must bear their own load.

So what’s the difference?  What’s the difference between a burden and a load?

Calling out to God for what?

Every person who has ever lived knows what it is to have a burden.  A burden is something that weighs us down, that pushes us beyond our ability.

As I was thinking on it, a burden is something that causes our head to be cast down as we lean into the weight; it’s something that causes our eyes to be downcast and our bodies and attitudes to be come rigid and tense as we try to bear up against something that, in all reality, has the potential to crush us.

And yes, everyone know what it is to have a burden.  Your burden and my burden aren’t alike: something that might seem easy to you could be the very thing that is wearing me down, the thing that tempts me to go it alone, until finally, trusting only in myself, I find my soul crushed. A burden can be anything, but the thing they have in common is that they keep our heads down, they keep us from looking up and calling out to Christ, they make us rigid and tense as we try to brace ourselves against a weight that is too much for us to bear.

Everyone has a burden.  It could be an illness, a disease that we feel we have to battle alone as we become bitter in the process; it could be an addiction – drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography, gossip, or an addiction to creating drama in bad relationships – that keeps us from being who God wants us to be; it could be financial, stuck at the bottom of a pit of debt, or the reality that we live in a broken world where it’s cheaper to feed your kids chips and pepsi than milk and vegetables; or, our burden could be could be pride over how well we’re doing; or, it could be a burden of shyness that makes us sit back and feel insecure; it could be guilt over something that we’ve done that we feel is just too bad to really be forgiven; it could be the burden of our own life stories, as almost everyone has some traumatic hurt in their past which causes them to put on a mask, to put on a happy face as they try to bear the burden alone. 
Everyone has a burden.

But the Good News is that we, the Church, the Body of Christ, together bear one another’s burdens.

That Gospel way of life that Jesus invites us to live calls us to lift up our heads, lift up our eyes from those burdens that are too much for us to bear; and as we lift up our heads, we see Christ lifted up, we hear the Gospel that burdens are lifted at Calvary, and with our heads lifted and our eyes set upon the Lord, we notice our brothers and sisters around us to bear our burdens, knowing that – by God’s grace – what is impossible for me might not even be a temptation for you, and all of us together, with our eyes on the Lord, and filled with the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit will bear one another up so that we can do the work God has given us to do!  Amen?

But did you hear that last part?

Bear one another up so that we can do the work God has given us to do.

Bear one another’s burdens so that we can each carry our God-given load.

Everyone has a burden.  Everyone wants it lifted.  But, once it’s lifted, are we willing to carry our own load, to do the work God has given us to do?

One of the things I’ve learned over 18 years of one sort of pastoral ministry or another is that God never blesses us for our own sake.

Blessing, or healing, or the easing of a burden is never an end in itself.

If I say “Lord, heal me, so I can get back to living my own life my own way”, that’s not a prayer prayed in faith.  That’s a prayer prayed in selfishness.

If I say “Lord, this burden is too much for me; take it away so I can go back to relying on myself”, then we’ve missed the point.  No wonder the answer to that prayer is “no”.

God doesn’t bless us for our own sake.  He heals us, He blesses us, He strengthens us for His glory, so we can be part of His glorious story of salvation which we are called to bring to all people.

We, God’s people bound together by the Holy Spirit, bear one another’s burdens so that we can get back to doing that work that God has given us to do, so that we all can get back to bearing that easy yoke and light load of sharing the good news with others who need to hear it, of discipling, taking another Christian under your wing as an apprentice, as each person learns what it means to live as a Christian, to live as an apprentice learning to share the image and likeness of our Lord and Master.

Yes, we are to bear one another’s burdens so that each can carry their own load.  We bear one another’s burdens so that each can be a productive and fruitful member of the Body of Christ, the Church.

A Lesson from Lepers

I think we see a perfect example of all of this in the story of Christ healing the lepers.

Leprosy, as you know, was an incredible burden.  It was an all-consuming disease, there was no hiding it, but not only did it take your body, leprosy took away everything.

For those bearing the burden of leprosy, it meant they were fully banished from the life of the community.  Leprosy took away their work, it took away their families.  These 10 men in the Gospel, they were sons with elderly parents who needed caring for, they were husbands and fathers with wives and children who needed food and a roof over their head, they were men with real skill, bakers, carpenters, metal workers, leaders in the marketplace, leaders in their communities, each making a living with bills to be paid and work to do as they provided for themselves and for those they love.

Their burden, leprosy, took it all away. 

They couldn’t work, they couldn’t see their parents or wives or sons or daughters, they couldn’t provide for their families, as those they loved either relied on the goodness of their neighbours, or faced homelessness.

(You know, I can’t help but notice a similarity between these effects of leprosy in Jesus’ time, and the effects that addiction has in our own day)

They have this all-consuming burden.

And, turning to Christ, their burden is lifted.  But it’s a weird story!  They aren’t healed instantly and told to go on living the way they are. 

No, not at all.  How does Jesus heal them?  He says “go, show yourselves to the priest”.

Have you noticed this before?  He doesn’t wave His hand and say “your request has been granted, now go about your merry way”. 

No.  Jesus says “go back to town.  Present yourself to the leaders of your community.  Have them declare that you’re back, that the one who was lost has been found, have them declare that yes, you used to be a leper, but your burden has been lifted, so now you can get back to doing the work you have been given to do”.

Have you noticed that before?  In healing the lepers, Jesus doesn’t answer their prayer and leave them to go about their way.  Jesus answers their prayer by saying “go back to town”.  Jesus lifts their burden so that they can get back to carrying their load, so that they can get back to being sons, and husbands, and fathers, so that they can stop being outcasts and get on with being fruitful members of the community, so they can get back to using the gifts and skills God has given them, and as they get back, they carry with them this amazing, life-changing testimony of God’s fathomless mercy, as they now live lives to God’s glory in the world.

Friends, God doesn’t bless us for our own sake; God doesn’t lift our burdens so we can go back to living our own way. 

A Challenge for Ministry

My brothers and sisters, think about how the Church reaches out to those in need?

So often we as individuals, and together as the Church, will ease the burden of those who are weighed down. 

But are we sharing that burden as an end in itself?  Or are we inviting them to lift up their head, to see Christ lifted up, to recognize us standing around them as Brothers and Sisters, supporting and inviting them to bear their own proper load, to join us in that God-given work of being the Church, of being life-long apprentices of Jesus our Lord and Master, as those who were lost join their voices to the chorus of the redeemed in every age who proclaim the Good News of salvation?

My friends, we are to bear one another’s burdens; but we are to do it in a way that enables each, that teaches each, that supports each in doing the work we have been given to do, as many members knit together into one Body under one Head, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

May God Almighty guide us and lead us as we bear one another’s burdens, not as an end in itself, but so that, by His grace, as people who know what it is to have their burdens lifted, we can together sing “To God be the Glory, great things He has done…” now and forevermore.  Amen.

God’s Power Working in Us: The Bible is not a book of superheroes!

As we come towards the end of our year-long walk through scripture, this week we’ve read the amazing story of Paul’s ministry.

And if you’ve done that, if you read through Paul’s ministry as outlined in the book of Acts and in his letters, chances are you’re just blown away.

Wow!  Right? 

What a story!  What a life!  What amazing commitment!

What a brave guy – here he was, trained and groomed for a career that was opposed to everything the Church was about.  What courage it takes to have a total change of heart, and then be open about it; to admit his mistake and his failure, change directions, and move forward.

He was open and honest about his past.  He spoke up for what was right.

He helped people in need, right where they were, without any hope of getting anything back in return.

Such sacrifice; such boldness; such commitment.  Through many trials and tribulations, through many ups and downs, it was like each challenge propelled him forward to the next victory that God had in store.

We look at St. Paul’s life and we say… wow.

…And that makes sense. It’s an amazing story.

But then we get to First Corinthians 15.  And we’re confronted with a shocking message.  Paul says: No, I’m not special.  

Paul says: No, hang on here guys.  I’m just passing on what I received.  This isn’t my message – Jesus appeared to 500 others before I met him.  You might think I’m this great apostle, but hold on.  “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle… but by the grace of God I am what I am.”

What do we make of that?  We read our Bible and say “wow, look at Paul!  What a story!  How awesome, what a life, what a guy”.  And then, in the midst of that story, Paul says, “no, hold on now: I’m not special.  I’m the least of the apostles.” 

Superheroes take us off the hook.

I think the way we read it says something about human nature.  We love to find a good story, to elevate a good person to the status of “superhero”. 

Now don’t get me wrong – it’s good to recognize achievements, and for others to have a good example to follow.  But, too often, I think we want to put a good person on a pedestal, to make them into a superhero, because it takes us off the hook.

Wow.  Look at his boldness.  Look at his courage.  Look at how he helped others and made sacrifices with no chance of getting anything in return.  Look at his commitment.  Wow… “He must be special”, we say.  “I’m not like that.  I couldn’t be like that.  I’m no Paul, or Peter, or Mary”.

But if there’s one thing I hope we’ve learned as we’ve read through the scriptures this year, it’s that we need to stop doing that. 

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Ruth, David, Solomon, Esther, Jeremiah, Mary, Joseph, Peter and James and John and the rest.  They’re not superheroes.  And that’s the point.

They’re ordinary people, offspring of Adam and Eve stumbling along in a broken world, carrying hurts and pains, having a past full of struggles, each full of reasons to say “no”, but each having the grace and the faith to say “yes” to God, to take that next step in faith, and to trust that God will guide the future and finish the good work He has started in them.

Paul’s life is amazing.  But he isn’t special.  And that’s the point.

Peter’s life is amazing.  He offered the hope and healing and peace that comes through faith in Jesus.  But he isn’t special.  He was a stubborn fisherman with a short temper.

Matthew’s life is amazing.  He wrote eloquently about how Jesus fulfilled all the hopes of Israel as the Messiah.  But let’s remember: those inspired, divine words that we read here this morning were written by a sketchy tax collector who collaborated with a foreign army to make a few bucks.

And Mary Magdalene, that first witness to the resurrection is the same one that, just a few years earlier, everyone dismissed as demon possessed.

The Bible isn’t a book of superheroes.  And that’s the point.  They’re normal people; imperfect, scarred people with a past and more than a few bad decisions along the way.  But… what’s different about them?  They know Jesus, they trust him, and they decide to follow.  And all the rest is nothing more than the power of God working in us, which can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

They’re normal men and women.  They do extraordinary things because they say “yes” to God, and let His power work through them.

Let that sink in.  Think about that.

How much damage has been done through the years because we’ve read the Bible as a book of superheroes?

People look at those in the church, they look at you and me gathered here today, and they say “huh, what a bunch of hypocrites.  They’re no heroes, they’re not perfect, they’re normal people.”

Well, yeah, that’s the point!  The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.  And the Good News of God isn’t that he selects a few heroes for his work.  No, it’s that the power of God, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. 

Working in us.  Normal people, with normal problems and normal struggles.  The only difference is that we know Jesus, we trust in Him, and we decide to follow where he leads.

Your Story is part of God’s Story!

As we work our way to the end of the Story, there’s a big idea I want you to grapple with this week.

You have a story; and your story is part of God’s story.

Why?  Because God is at work in you.  God is unchanging.  He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever.

And the God of Adam and Eve, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob, of Ruth, of David, of Esther, of Mary, of Paul is the God of Isabel, of Mark, of Frieda, of Milly, of Alex, of Tanya, of you.

As we read Paul’s incredible story, you need to step back and realize that you have a story.  That your story is part of God’s story. 

…so are you willing to tell it?

Every one of us here has an incredible story of God’s grace and goodness.

Maybe you weren’t shipwrecked or thrown in prison, singing hymns until an earthquake broke down the door.  But you have an incredible part in God’s story.

Every one of us has a story full of incredible ups and downs.  Every one of us has a story where we thought we understood things, but then God opened our eyes, and we discovered we were looking at things the wrong way.  We were blind, but now we see.

Every one of us knows what it is to be in an awful, painful, terrible situation – to feel the effects of sin in a broken, sick world – and then have the grace to look back, and though the situation was awful and not what God wanted, because we trust in Him, He brought healing through the pain and our loving God brought good out of the bad.

Paul’s no superhero.  Paul was a mean guy on the wrong path.  But he came to know Jesus.  He came to trust in God, and made a decision to follow where God leads.  And Paul’s story became part of God’s story, because God’s power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

Your story is part of God’s story.  Will you tell it?

When we tell the story – our story – people will listen.  Honesty, openness – it’s a challenge, but it’s such a breath of fresh air that people are blown away when we take off our masks and speak of God’s goodness, far more than we could ever earn or deserve.

We worry about how to spread the good news.  But your story is part of God’s story, so all you have to do is tell it.  Now, we have to be clear that it’s God’s story: that God is unchanging, and what he did for Peter, Paul, or Mary, he did you for you, and he can do for any of us.  It’s a story of trust in God – it’s that same message we hear throughout the scriptures.  Ordinary people who say “don’t put your trust in me.  Don’t hope in me, but come, trust in the One I’ve learned to trust in.  Hope in the One who is faithful and who holds the future.” 

They’re not superheroes.  And that’s good news, because neither are we.  But, all of us, each of us, are children of God by adoption, those whom He loves, and by His grace alone, your story is now part of God’s story. 

So tell it, and give the Glory to God whose (say it with me) power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Messages and Honest Messengers

As we get back into The Story this morning, we find ourselves with the theme of messages and messengers.

You’ll remember that God chose his people, not for their own sake, but so that all the nations of earth could come to know the one true God; that Israel should be a light to enlighten the nations, a city on a hill with lamps burning brightly to draw in all those who are lost and wandering.

God gave them that opportunity, to be part of his amazing plan.

But, you’ll remember, they wavered back and forth.  They’d trust for a bit, they’d rely on God to get them through some incredibly difficult situation, but then they’d slam on the brakes. 

They’d trust in God to do the impossible, but they’d give up trusting as soon as they could: He’d lead them through a famine, but they’d not trust him in the regular seasons of planting and harvest; He’d lead them through the raging waters, but they wouldn’t trust him to provide food the next day; He’d defend them and fight for them when they were hugely outnumbered by a well-trained army, but they won’t trust him with the everyday faithfulness of learning to love their neighbours as themselves.

And so the great nation of  Israel brought together under King David was divided.  And to be clear, it was no accident: it was God’s doing as he sought to wake his people up and draw them back to himself. 

It’s brutal to read: they cry out to God in the hard times, but once things start to get easy, they forget God again; and so God removes his blessing, and they find themselves facing hard times again and wondering where to turn. 

But here’s the incredible part: even when God removes his blessing and protection, God never abandons them.  Even when they’ve become so deaf to God’s still, small voice, God will send human messengers to speak those challenging words and call his people back.

Now, here’s the question.  Do you think God still does that today?

We live in a time that looks a lot like Israel under King Ahab.  We trust in money, we’re distracted by the big stories of things beyond our borders rather than caring for those at home; we prize the fulfilment of the individual over creating a community that seeks the common good, and while we don’t call them Ashtoreth or Baal anymore, we’re a very much living in a time that worships beauty and power.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 95% of our neighbours only think of God when tragedy strikes, or when they take his name in vain in anger: seriously, if you added up the attendance at all three churches in town this morning, all three of us together make up less than 5% of Fort Smith.

It’s not unlike Israel in the days of Elijah, when only 7000 – just a tiny fraction of the population – were found to be trusting in God.

And yet, the message of it all is that God sends that faithful few to call his people back; God doesn’t abandon his people, even if we do experience the painful consequences of years of going our own way and trusting in our own plans, and giving in to that need to slam on the brakes before each new act of faithfulness.

But again, here’s the big question: Do you think God still sends messengers to call his people back?


Being a church member has changed.

40 years ago, you could sit on the sidelines, knowing there were a faithful few who would step up to do the work of ministry; to do the work of learning to lead, of learning to meet people where they are, of learning to trust God to fill in the gaps of what we don’t know how to do.

But those days are over.  There is no place on the sidelines, because we are the faithful few who are left. 

My friends, whether or not we signed up for it, we are like Elijah: look around, think through your family, friends, and neighbours.  Who will the Lord send to call his people back? 

Elijah said “I’m the only one left”; and isn’t that true in your circle of friends, too? 

And no, it’s not something we would ever sign up for – certainly Elijah didn’t either – but think about it: who else would God call to minister to that circle of friends? You’re already perfectly positioned for the task.

The Work of a Prophet

There’s a lot of confusion about prophecy.  The general understanding of most people is that a prophet is a fortune-teller, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The work of a prophet is to call people back to God, and to do so by both their words and the example of their own life.

And it is real work, though it looks different for each person.  Like I said, the days of a place on the sidelines are gone, there’s no comfortable pews left to sit on.  If we look at our reading from First John this morning, we’ll see that the key word there is “walk”; we can’t just sit in the light, but we will be called to move forward in faith, even if we can’t work out where the next step might land us.  It’s one step at a time, one day at a time, trusting that God will work all things together for good, in spite of our fears.

And central with that is the second half of that little reading: we must not “deceive ourselves”, but are called to be honest and quick to confess those times when we’ve been proud or scared or self-reliant or maybe just a little too comfortable (and I’ll be the first to admit that I have fallen into those categories too!).

…now I know what you might be thinking.    That’s nice… but I’m worn out.

Yes!  Amen.  Hallelujah.  Let’s be honest about that.  I’d say we’re not really worn out, but we are worn down.  This has gone on long enough, and if you honestly stop and look around this little congregation, these faithful few, it’s heartbreaking: how many families in this room don’t have some real burden to bear? 

And I’m willing to bet that, any family that you look at and can’t name their burden, it’s not because they don’t have one.

We are worn down.

But, my friends, there’s good news there too, also because we find ourselves in a position much like the prophet Elijah.

Do you remember from your reading this weekend?

Elijah was worn down.  He had delivered his message, and now he feared for his life.

What did he do next?

Did he say some spiritual-sounding words?  Did he give himself a little pep talk?  Did he tell himself to suck it up, put on a happy face, and pretend everything is alright?

No, not at all!  What did he do?

He got away from the noise, he went to be alone with God, and he was honest.  Brutally honest.  He poured out his heart.  He said “Lord, I’m fed up; I’m done with this; I wish I would die.” 

But God met him where he was.  And, miraculously, God gave him the rest and refreshment he needed.  Seriously, re-read it when you go home: God gave him not one, but two naps, and when he woke up, there was a fresh loaf of bread waiting for him to eat. 

And then God told him the truth: no, Elijah, these are not easy times.  And yes, what I’m asking you to do is hard.  I’ll go with you, but I need you to walk forward in faith, one step at a time; we can’t sit where we are, because I have a plan: that my people will be a light to enlighten the nations, that all people would have the opportunity to trust in the one true God, and I want you to be part of that plan.

God has blessed this church – but not for our sake.

God has blessed each of us – but not for our sake.

God has blessed us to be a blessing, for I’m willing to bet, as you look at your neighbours, as we look at our town, we’ll find ourselves in the place of Elijah: “Lord, I’m the only one left who knows you.”

But God is in the business of revealing himself.  All we have to do is trust him, to be faithful in each opportunity, to be honest with ourselves and with God, and to be willing to follow, even when we’re not sure where that next step will lead.

One thing is sure: God has called us according to his purpose, and he will never abandon those who walk by faith rather than by sight.

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

The Renewal of Baptismal Vows

My friends, I want you to think seriously about this covenant. 

You’ve made these vows before, dozens of times, but it’s important we don’t take them lightly.

These are vows that you’re making before God and his Church, and we really are the faithful remnant, as the three churches in this town are a tiny fraction of Fort Smith.  And God’s plan is that we invite our neighbours in. 

So take a moment to read these vows before I ask you to renew them, especially that third one that has proven so difficult for the church through the decades: “will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?”.

Read them now, and if you’re willing to make them, please remain standing. 

Chapter 9: Ruth from Moab — a bizarre twist!

Almighty God, give us grace to boldly speak of your amazing love. In Jesus’ Name.  Amen.

As we’ve been journeying through the Story together, with the goal of understanding the whole scope of God’s plan from Genesis through Revelation, this week brings us to the story of Ruth.

In some ways it’s the easiest episode so far: the chapter was only 7 pages, there’s really only three characters, and it’s a pretty simple story of people showing kindness even in adversity. 

But, we have to be careful not to read it as a self-contained story; like everything else we’ve read this fall, we see it in a new light – we see so much more depth – when we see how it connects to the ongoing work of the one true God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Moab: A bizarre twist

If we stop to think about it, Ruth should strike us as a really weird story.  Maybe we’re too familiar with it to really be struck with just how bizarre this story really is.

Israel has strayed once more.  God had been raising up judges to guide his people, but his chosen family – called to be a holy nation – were doing just the opposite.  They’d forget the covenant, they’d fail to teach it to their children, they weren’t strong and courageous, and soon enough they’d find themselves worshipping gold, or bronze, or carved stones, running from temple to temple – not to worship, but to find bodily pleasure.

Israel has disobeyed to the point that the promised land – that land where they would eat milk and honey without toil – had dried up.  This is no accident: this famine, like several we’ve read about before, is meant to remind God’s people that we don’t and we can’t ever rely on our own strength; no matter what, we must acknowledge that it is God alone who provides.

And in that famine, a family – a man named Elimelech and his bride Naomi – leave home from Bethlehem, and seek food elsewhere. 

But they don’t go just anywhere.  They go to Moab.

And if we think back to the earlier chapters, “Moab” should ring a bell.

Moab is not a happy place. Moab is not the sort of place any Israelite is eager to be found.  Israel and Moab are enemies, and have been since Israel first avoided walking through their land after the Exodus, generations before. 

Balak, we read earlier, was the king of Moab who hired a prophet to curse Israel (you might remember the whole talking donkey incident that followed!).  And then it was Moabite women who overcame the Israelite army by leading the young men astray.

More recently, during the time of the judges, Moab had taken Israel hostage for 18 years, as Israel forgot the God who led them miraculously out of Egypt, and turned themselves over to be enslaved to someone else.

Things are so bad in Israel, that Naomi’s husband goes there

The God who Redeems

But, God is faithful, and his perspective and knowledge of the big picture is far beyond what we could even imagine. 

From any one human perspective, we might not see how God is working out the salvation and redemption and restoration of humanity, but we can rest secure in that fact that, if God said to Adam and Eve that the son of man would one day crush the serpent’s head, he’ll do it. 

And, what was the promise made to Abraham?  Yes, he would have land and he would have many offspring.  But, much more importantly, God promised that through Abraham, through Israel, all the earth would be blessed. 

And God doesn’t forget his promise… that’s the central message of the book of Ruth.

A blessing to all nations

Sometime during the famine – scripture doesn’t give us all the details – Israel returns to the Lord, and God provides food for his people.  It’s such a big deal that word spreads to the surrounding countries, and all to God’s glory. 

Even over in mighty Moab they hear that the God of Israel has miraculously intervened.

Naomi, a helpless widow, is going to pack up and go home – surely some relative will take her in.  But those two young widows, her daughters-in-law, they’re free to stay.  They’re not Israelites, they’re Moabite women.  Naomi certainly can’t provide for them; and their husbands were born abroad – it’s not like they have any friends back in Bethlehem. 

But, having heard of God’s provision, and having seen the example of Naomi’s faith even through the death of her husband and her two sons, Ruth has made up her mind: she’s not going to do what was socially expected; she’s not going to do what was easy; she’s going to journey with this helpless older widow, and she’s going to put her trust in the God of Israel.

Now, with all of that background, maybe it’s becoming a little more clear as to why Boaz is hailed as being exceedingly gracious and kind.  Young Ruth isn’t just any widow gleaning in his field: this is a Moabite.  ‘We hate Moabites’.  ‘Moabites curse Israel.  Moabite women were the downfall of our army.  Moabites enslaved us for 18 years!’  And here she is in our field? 

Yes, says Boaz, and make sure she’s well provided for.  Don’t send her around to another field – they might hurt her.  Out of a famine, God has provided overflowing storehouses and leftover food on tables – let her take some home.

…and as we read this, the bells should be ringing in our ears: God’s promise and God’s desire is not just to bless Israel.  God’s plan is to bless all nations.

As they hear of God’s glory they will turn from their idols, they will turn from trusting in the might of men or swords or the size of their storehouses, and they will come and worship the one true God who created heaven and earth, and they will be blessed.

And what follows then for Ruth, as odd as the details of an arranged marriage may sound to our ears, is a story of adoption.

Ruth, who sought to follow the one true God – even though she’s a Moabite, an enemy of Israel – is adopted into God’s family.  She’s no longer a stranger, no longer a foreigner dependant on the charity of others. 

No, she sought the God of Israel, and she was adopted into the family of God’s people. 

And then, in the biggest twist of all, God makes an incredible statement.  Yes, God had called Abraham and his descendants to be his people.  But the promises aren’t inherited by blood – Abraham had faith, and that was accounted to him as righteousness.

Israel was born into these promises. But, to remind us that it is by faith, not by birth or anything else, God adopts Ruth, a Moabite woman, into his family.

And Ruth has a child.  And, tell me, who is Ruth’s great-grandson? 
King David, who defeats the Philistines and brings peace to Israel.

God, by faith, adopts a Moabite, makes her part of his story, and uses her faithful offspring to do what faithless Israel hadn’t been able to do before.

…But the Word of God doesn’t just promise to bless the nations.  He promises to crush the serpent’s head when He takes up residence among us as our friend and brother, the son of man: Jesus, the descendant of David. 

Ruth, a Moabite widow, a helpless foreigner, becomes the ancestor of Jesus: through whom, death, sin, shame, and all the devil’s lies are crushed through the one perfect sacrifice of the Son of God.

It’s an incredible story.

…but how did it all start?  What made it all possible?

Word of God’s goodness reached Moab.

Ruth couldn’t believe unless she heard.  There needed to be those thousand tongues telling of God’s goodness to all people; there needed to be prople willing to sing of those 10,000 reasons to bless the Lord. 

Friends: there are people all around us who worship all sorts of gods.  People all around us who have pledged themselves to all sorts of idols that they think can give them fulfilment, or can take away – or at least numb – the hunger that they have inside.  God’s desire is to bless all nations, but he’s calling you to be part of that. 

That doesn’t mean you have to be a missionary or hold up a sign on a street corner. 
No, not at all.  What it does mean is that, when God provides, when God gives comfort, when God proves that his wisdom is better than our wisdom, we have to be quick and bold to give him the glory; He’ll do the rest, as he did with Ruth. 

Whoever first spread that news that God had provided food would never know what God had planned… just like you and I can never imagine what God has planned for the poor widow across town, or the struggling kid across the street. 

But that’s not for us to figure out!  God will adopt any who come to him in faith. 
But they need to hear before they can believe – they need those thousand tongues to sing 10,000 reasons to bless the Lord.

And that’s the work he’s given to us.  May he make us bold: for, like Ruth, we’ll never know what incredible things God has in store, if only we’re ready to give him the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

Radical Generosity: I choose to see you as my equal.

James writes: “What good is it, my friends, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed or hungry, and you say “go in peace, be warm and filled”, without giving them what they need, what good is that?”

Today’s Lessons: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

We’ve all heard and know that faith without works is dead – it’s not enough to believe that Jesus is Lord, to believe that we’re all made in the Image of God and that we have a story of freedom and mercy to bring to all the world, if we’re not going to turn that into real action.

We all know that.

But have you ever thought about the fact that works aren’t just physical things we do: they’re not just deeds done – like feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick, or offering a word of encouragement or a listening ear when someone is lost and lonely.  Works are more than that.  There’s a reason that, when we confess our sins, we’re taught to ask for forgiveness not just for things done or left undone, or for the words we’ve said: no, we ask forgiveness for thoughts, words, and deeds.

The big idea for today is that, as much as faith without works is dead, one of those necessary works is changing how we think about and see each other.

God’s Generous Perspective

We all know that God is good and God is generous.  He provides for all people – the good and the bad, the faithful and the self-righteous.  What does anyone of us have that doesn’t boil down to a gift from God?

But as we read in today’s lessons, one of the great gifts of God that we rarely think about is the gift of his generous perspective.  God’s gifts to us aren’t just stuff or talents or health and strength; one of the greatest gifts he gives us is the way he chooses to see us.

In Proverbs today, we’re reminded that, unlike the way the world works, God doesn’t see rich or poor. As James teaches, God doesn’t see well-dressed or shabby, and he doesn’t see worldly power or the many distinctions we make between people.  Jesus shows us today in the Gospel that he doesn’t respect the boundaries we set up about race or language or inequality.

No: the great gift of God’s perspective is that He looks past all of that.  He looks at us, in the moment, as men and women made in His Image, and looks only to see if we’re reflecting that Image back.  He looks past all the distinctions and divisions we make to see if we’ve unpacked – or at least opened – that gift of faith, and whether we’re allowing his love, mercy, joy, peace, and abundant life to shine, reflected back – to His Glory, and for all the world to see.

Reflecting God’s Glory

Now, we’ve spoken before about the fact that we are created to reflect the glory of God.

But it’s important for us to remember that isn’t just about the warm, fuzzy ideas of reflecting God’s love and light.  Faith without works is dead, but one of those works is choosing to look at others as God looks at us, the work of choosing to share God’s perspective both for ourselves and for those around us.  And let me say: that’s a far more difficult task than donating some time, talent, or treasure.  Learning to share God’s perspective is the life-long task of allowing your mind to be transformed, renewed by being an apprentice, a disciple, of Christ Jesus.

Radical Generosity?

It’s easy for us to limit generosity.  The world thinks only of charity, giving from what you have to someone who has less, whether it’s a millionaire generously building a wing on a hospital with their name written over the door, or someone making a donation to support the food bank or PWRDF.  But like so many other things, God’s definition goes deeper, and asks more of us.

Now don’t get me wrong – that charitable sort of generosity is great.  In fact, James says it’s essential.  You can’t get emptier words than looking at a hungry person and saying “oh, feel full!  Think happy thoughts!  Don’t be hungry any more” and walking away! 

But, at the same time, we all know giving great gifts doesn’t mean you have a generous spirit.

So as James says, yes, we’re to fill and clothe those in need, but reflecting God’s generosity means we’re also going to look at them from God’s perspective.

Whether rich or poor, regardless of any of those distinctions or lines we draw based on   race, or gender, or addictions, or whether they’re unemployed, or whether they live in housing, or struggling against a mental illness, or fighting the demons of childhood trauma and broken families, or whether we disagree with how they raise their kids, or even whether they smell and just don’t appear to take pride in what they’ve been given, or even if they’ve earned a reputation for taking advantage of the system – regardless of all of that, God’s perspective is to look at that person and say “yeah, I know what you’ve done, but I love you, and I want you to be my child; I’ll always give you another chance as long as you live – take it, don’t trust yourself, trust in me”.

That’s God’s radical generosity.  And that’s the sort of incredibly hard work, without which our faith is simply dead, little more than empty words saying “be well, be full, be happy”.

Are we willing to look past all those lines that we draw and reflect God’s generous perspective back to a world that divides and enslaves and weighs people down?

Faith in Practice

Faith without works is dead, but the matter of putting faith into action is always a hard one.  God’s not saying “go, be taken advantage of”; after all, it was Jesus who said we’re to be shrewd as serpents but innocent as doves!  And we all know Jesus was making a point when he told the rich young man to sell everything if he wanted to be a disciple: it wasn’t that his stuff kept him from the Kingdom of God, it was the fact that his heart was attached, weighed down by that stuff.

But the point is, when it comes to reflecting God’s generosity, putting faith into action it’s not a matter of just writing a cheque, buying a meal, or spending an hour chatting with one who is sick or lonely. 

God generously looks at each person and says “I love you as much as I love my own Son; I want you to be my child”, so we’re to look at each person – no matter who they are, where they’re from, or what they did[1] – and change our thinking, to do that work of looking at that person and thinking “I want you to be my brother or sister”, of seeing that person, in whatever condition they might be, and honestly saying to yourself “I would love nothing better than if this person, right here, would come to church, put their faith in God, and be my brother or sister in Christ, so we can work together, learn to live together, and bear one-another’s burdens”.

That’s radical generosity.  Anyone – even the most selfish – can put in a few dollars for the Christmas food and toy drive.  But God’s generosity, the one we’re called to share, is to allow your mind to be transformed so that your honest desire is to welcome that hungry, or lonely, or annoying, or lazy, or sly, or mean person into your family of faith, trusting that God can do the same work of forgiving, healing, and changing their heart as he’s done for each of us.

What does the law of God require?

That you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and that you love your neighbour as yourself.

– The Summary of the Law

Yes, that’s our faith.  But the trick is turning faith into action, adopting the perspective, allowing your mind to be trained to think “I don’t see rich or poor.  I don’t see you as powerful, or unemployed. I don’t see you as anything greater or less than my equal, and as God looks at me, I’m going to choose to love you as myself.”

It’s a tall order.  But that’s the kind of faith-in-action that changes lives, and changes communities, and changes the world.  That’s the kind of radical generosity that God is calling us to live.  My God give us his grace to say “ok, here I am, I’m willing, send me.” 

[1] Yes, I guess that is a Backstreet Boys reference.  It just happened… sorry, I grew up in the 90s!

Children by Adoption: learning to be loved.

God the Father destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.

I speak to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This morning we hear once again this important, even central idea that we are adopted as God’s children through faith in Jesus Christ, expressed in the waters of baptism and the desire to live a new life following the commandments of God, and following the path of Christ, our Saviour.

It’s such an important idea that the Church in its’ wisdom has had us hear the first chapter of John’s gospel no less than 3 times – 4 if you include morning prayer – in just the past 3 weeks.  I think that should tell us that it’s worth unpacking, that there’s more here than meets the eye.

Who are God’s Children?

The first thing these lessons make clear is, admittedly, a little uncomfortable for us to think about.  It’s certainly not one of those warm, comfortable words that we like to live by, and it’s probably not the sort of thing you want to adopt for a church motto, but that doesn’t make it any less true, or any less important for understanding our mission and ministry in the world.  That uncomfortable truth that we’re faced with in these lessons is that, in spite of popular sentiments left over from the 60s, we are not all God’s children.

And let’s be clear – this is not about judging anyone, and we must be quick to acknowledge that only God can know the sincerity of a person’s faith.  But it really confuses the good news of the Gospel – in fact, the whole of scripture just doesn’t make sense – if we’ve picked up that non-Christian notion that everybody, by default, is a child of God. 

God the Father is the source of all life, the maker of all things in heaven and earth; but scripture teaches that when we are born, we are his creatures, made in his Image and for his glory; but you and I are not born sons and daughters of God.  No, he makes us, like a potter makes a vessel out of clay, like an artist pouring their love into a painting, we’re told he knits us together in the womb. 

And this is important.  No, not just important: this is central to who we are as the Church, called to work in the world.

If people were born “children of God”, if we were all God’s children, we wouldn’t need a Saviour who offers for us to share in his eternal life; we wouldn’t need a loving guide who offers to lead the way and share his resurrection power with us, we’d already know the way and have the power – and if you look at the world around us, it’s pretty clear we don’t know the way, we don’t have the power within us to choose what’s right… we don’t even have the power on our own to give up the thoughts and actions and habits that we want to stop.  If we were all born children of God, we would not need to decide to follow Jesus, baptism would serve no purpose, we would not need nourishment from God’s word and sacraments, we would not need to learn the life of prayer – we’d have it all by birth.

And most of all, this confusion – this lie – that we are all God’s children means that there is no good news to share; it’s the lie that tells us that we already have all the power we need within us, if we’re born as children of God, or the universe, or whatever higher power people like to talk about.  And if we buy into that, if we let ourselves think that our wandering neighbours, our anxious children, our hurting friends already have the fullness of God’s power within them, then either this god is extraordinarily weak, or we just need to try a little harder: and that’s the biggest, more dangerous lie that is consuming our society, chewing people up and spitting them out, exhausted, bitter, angry, and calloused.

So we say: No!  There’s more to life than this.  We aren’t born with all we need to succeed; we can’t place our hope in ourselves, neither in life nor death.  You and I and our children and our neighbours aren’t born children of God.  The good news is that we are invited to become children of God. 

“The true light, which enlightens everyone… was in the world; yet the world did not know him.  He came to his own, but his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God”; children who were not born by blood or the will of the flesh or of man – not children by nature – but by the will of God, by adoption.

And the whole point of adoption is to become that which you were not. 

You had one heritage, you had one identity, you had one inheritance, if it was one at all.  But the whole point of adoption is that you have become something new; you are made part of something bigger than yourself, you have a new identity, a new home, a new inheritance; you have a new relationship – a secure and enduring one – that gives you the rights of a son or daughter, not a guest.

Living as Adopted Children

If we believe in Jesus, if we’ve been baptized and have confessed our faith, then God is faithful, He has adopted us and will adopt as many as turn to Him.

The challenge, then, is for us to live as those adopted sons and daughters.

As many of you know, my family has been involved in foster care most of my adult life.  My parents had the blessing of working especially with young children who were coming out of group homes to be placed for adoption.

And it’s absolutely amazing, shocking even, how even a young mind learns to relate to the world around them.  A toddler is absolutely dependent on an adult for just about everything; in a healthy family, they learn long before they can talk that they can count on their family; they learn, in a healthy family, to feel safe and secure, as that bond to parents and siblings becomes the strength in which they explore and relate to the world.

And as vitally important as foster care is, it doesn’t take much for our minds to adapt, to try and become self-sufficient.  I remember one boy, raised in rented wing of an old hotel in Newfoundland by workers on 8-hour shifts, who had finally been paired with his forever family, when he came to live with mom and dad to adapt to life in a home.  If he was hurt or scared, he didn’t cry, at 4 years old he had learned to suck it up.  The word “love”, let alone the expression of that, the giving of yourself for the good of another person and the hope and longing to see them grow and thrive, simply wasn’t part of his vocabulary – it’s not a word that shift workers use.  The comfort of being held, or the joy of being tickled on the floor, were brand new ideas, that, after just a few years in the system built for his benefit, had to be slowly and carefully taught from scratch.  And, one thing I will never forget, is the real shock that he could count on the same person being there when he woke up; Dad worked offshore, and it took real time to learn that, just because you couldn’t see a person, they weren’t gone, and they still loved you and cared for you. 

My friends, we aren’t born as children of God.  That’s a lie.

God adopts us as his children, invites us to call him Our Father, if we accept his offer.

But we’re like those children in foster care.

The world has taught us to be self-sufficient.  The world has taught us that no one cares when you cry, so suck it up.  The world has taught us to cling tightly to the little that we have.  We have a hard time believing that love could be so lasting, that forgiveness could be so free.  We haven’t learned what it is to be held when we’re hurting.  We haven’t learned what it is to rest in the joy of a loving father.  We haven’t learned to trust that, though we can’t see someone, that bond of love endures… and if they say they love you and they’re coming back, they mean it.

We are God’s children by adoption, and as you see written on everything I print for this church, it’s not enough just to worship on Sunday.  We need to Heal all those wounds of self-sufficiency, we need to heal our relationships, we have to learn what it means to trust and to love and to be loved, not as wanderers bounced around the broken system of this world, but welcomed to your forever family as a beloved son or daughter. 

And once we start to heal, we need to Grow, as we learn what it means to grow into the image and likeness Christ, as we learn how to be a good brother or sister to those who are still hurting. 

And then, by God’s grace, we’re invited into the family business with a full share.  We become those sent to Reach Out with the invitation that yes, whoever is thirsty, whoever is hungry, whoever is weary or worn and sad is also invited to become a son or daughter of God, to become our brother or sister by adoption; all it takes is receiving Christ by faith, entering the fellowship of the faithful, and taking that first step on the lifelong journey to worship, heal, grow, and reach out as we learn what it means to be loved by God.

My brothers and sisters, as we take seriously God’s invitation to welcome us by adoption, let’s take seriously the need to share this good news with others.  No, our neighbours, our friends, our children don’t have within themselves all the power they need to be all they can be.  No, trying a little harder will never be good enough.  What they need – what all of us need – is to learn what it means to be held by the God who never forsakes us, to trust in the one who will never abandon us, to take off our armour, lay down our baggage, and learn what it is to be loved by the one who loved us first.

We are not all God’s children… but we all can be God’s children. 

And that’s good news.

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

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.


…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.

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.


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.