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!

“I’ve given them my words”: God entrusts you with his mission.

One of the aspects of our Lord’s life that has always fascinated me is his great humility.  It’s not just that he was humble in his conduct and the way he carried himself, but, as we sing from time to time, I’m fascinated by that bigger idea that Jesus, enthroned in Heaven and worshipped by angels, would lay aside all of that that glory and majesty to do… well, this.

I simply can’t put myself in his place, I can’t fathom just how frustrating that costly humility could have been.  Whenever He speaks of the Kingdom of God, his listeners miss the mark and start thinking about political power; his own disciples get sidetracked arguing amongst themselves, even putting up barriers to keep people away; and when it comes time for the final sacrifice, he’s betrayed, denied, and deserted by those who loved him.  The patience is simply amazing.

Yet, the thing that I find even more fascinating is that Our Lord’s patience and humility doesn’t stop when he re-ascends to the Father’s side. 

Really, you’d think that the Ascension, the Lord’s return to his throne in glorious majesty would be the time to set things right.  You’d think that, no longer limited by the frustrations of life in this broken world, the Lord would show forth his glory in the most spectacular ways, no longer putting up with a band of bumbling disciples to spread the good news.  You’d think, after all the trials, the misunderstandings, and the shameful crucifixion and death, that the Lord would leave the weaknesses and failings of human followers behind.

But that’s not how it works, is it?

No, having suffered at the hands of fallen people like you and me, having been misunderstood and even betrayed by imperfect followers, the Lord’s plan isn’t to finally break free from dealing with humanity; it’s the opposite. 

Jesus prays to the Father, “as you have sent me into the world, now I send them into the world” (John 17:18).  That’s right – after all the great humility and patience already shown, after all the times the disciples messed up, it turns out that God’s plan isn’t to cut the disciples loose and reveal his great and incredible glory.  No, as Christ ascends into heaven, awaiting that day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, Jesus entrusts us with his mission. 

Isn’t that simply incredible?  It certainly isn’t a plan that I’d cook up.  No human author would read the gospels and then think, “oh, I know what comes next – we’ll take those same followers who made a mess of things while their Lord and Master was right there walking alongside them, and now entrust the mission to them!

But that’s God’s plan.  The absolutely incredible reality is that, though I don’t know why, though I know I don’t deserve it, God trusts me with his mission.

Jesus said, “I have given them the words you gave me” (John 17:8).  God trusts you with his mission; the message of good news are no longer just the Lord’s words to speak – they’ve been given, entrusted to me and to you.

It’s absolutely incredible.  Why would God trust me?  I’m learning to follow my Lord every day, offering myself for the life of a disciple – a student, following one day at a time and one step at a time, but, if we’re honest, which of us is deserving of God’s trust?  After all, God knows that we have a hard enough time trusting him.  God knows that, left to my own devices, we’ll choose what is easy over what is good, and we’ll choose what is cheap over that which requires sacrifice.

Yet, in his incredible humility, the Lord’s plan is to entrust you with the message of hope and forgiveness and mercy that will change lives and save souls.  Again, in today’s Gospel, Jesus comes right out and says, verse 9: “I pray for [my disciples]; I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.“ 

Jesus – the same yesterday, today, and forever – is praying to the Father for you, that you will succeed in the unfathomable mission that you’ve been entrusted with, because you and I are the ones that God planned to bring his good news to those who are searching for someone to trust in and worship, to bring his truth to those who are so curved in on themselves that they think the world revolves around them, to bring hope and the promise of eternity to those who are perishing.  God trusts you to do that. 

But why would God trust me?

I can’t save anyone, I can’t fix anyone or take responsibility for their decisions or actions.

No, that’s absolutely true, we have no strength or power of our own to offer.  But, as we read this morning, “whoever has the Son has life” (1 John 5:12). And we know that life is the light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness, the light that overcomes the darkness.

I can’t save or fix another, but if the life of Christ is in me as it is in each of you, then God is trusting me to shine that light to those still in darkness.

The great miracle of Pentecost is that, rather than the Word of God being found in one sinless man walking this dusty earth, each of us is sent out to have the Word of God on our lips and in our hearts, bringing life and light wherever we go.

And God’s trusting you to do that.  Honestly, you might be thinking, “God, that doesn’t sound like a good plan.  Don’t trust me!  I’m shy, I’m weak, I have a hundred excuses”.  But, for better or worse, our excuses don’t change God’s plan; our human weakness doesn’t change the fact that God is trusting you to bring the good news to a world in desperate need of hope and mercy.

The genius of God’s plan is that, by entrusting you with the Lord’s mission, the Body of Christ can now spread out and fill the whole earth.  Very practically, God’s plan is that when a person sees you, when they hear your voice, they have seen and heard Jesus.

Friends, think about that one.  He who has the son has life.  You share the risen life of the Son of God.  When your friends, when your family, when your neighbours see you, God’s intention is that they will see and hear the words of Jesus himself.  He’s entrusted us with his message, maybe even in spite of our own objections!

God’s plan is to trust you and me.  It’s certainly not a plan I’d come up with, but there’s really only one way forward – to carry out our mission. 

“Greater love as no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

I’m no prophet, but the reality for us in this part of the world is that we probably won’t be asked to give up life and limb for the sake of the message that God has given us.  But there’s a lot more to life than flesh and blood.  Life is full of days and moments, full of time and energy and effort, full of joys and set-backs, full of successes and even some sorrows.  As those entrusted with the Word of God, the greatest love that we can ever show is to lay down that time and energy and effort, to bear patiently the sorrows or the rejection, patiently looking forward to the little victories, as we show real love by carrying the Good news to others.

My friends, God trusts you.  He entrusted you with his good news.

And the great truth is that, if we’re willing to be faithful, He’ll provide what we need.  God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called, giving us gifts and strength and energy to do more than we could ever ask or imagine. 

He entrusted us – let’s trust him, for there’s a world just outside our door just dying to know that they matter, that they are loved, that they can be forgiven, and that there’s hope for a yet more glorious future. 

Let’s get to work – to God’s glory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Lesson on Blessings

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

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

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

You can’t earn it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Faithfully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s great news here. 

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

That’s going to look different for each person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Hell with Fairness!

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

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

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

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

Fairness is the central virtue of our modern society.

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

What is “fairness”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It just isn’t fair. 

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

…But… it’s not fair!

Is God fair?

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, God is not fair.

Seriously.  That’s a truth we can proclaim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How then shall we live?

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the challenge. 

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

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

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


[1] Jonah 3:10-4:11

[2] Matthew 20:1-16

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

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

A Living Sacrifice overcomes the Gates of Death.

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

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

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

Sacrifice?  No thank you.

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

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

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

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

But here’s where the world gets it wrong.

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

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

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

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

A living sacrifice?

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

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

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

A living sacrifice… and that makes all the difference.

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

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

Death’s battle is lost. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

An Exercise in Missing the Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and the response from Jesus is earth-shattering.

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

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

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

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

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

Holiness starts with the heart.

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

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

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

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

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

There’s work to be done.

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

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

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

And this is crucial. 

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

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

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


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

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

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

You Feed Them: Empowered to serve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Called forth in His Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, sure enough, everyone ate and was filled.

Hungry to Feed Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

To God be the Glory now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Romans 9:1-5

[2] Isaiah 55:1-5

Called to be an Epiphany

Today we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ; that occasion over two thousand and twenty years ago when non-Jewish astronomers and philosophers from Persia read the Hebrew scriptures and took note that the God of Israel had promised to send a king to sit on David’s throne, who would be a great priest and anointed one who would save his people from the consequences of their sin and disobedience.  Then, these scholars of their day noticed a bright light in the sky – one theory suggests that what they saw was the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter on August 12th in the year 3 B.C., a pattern that repeated 10 months later on June 17th, perhaps coinciding exactly with the time it would take to prepare for a journey, travel 800 kilometers across the desert, and then wait for an audience with King Herod.

The Epiphany – a word that means “a life-changing discovery”, a great insight, or a big “eureka” moment – is the realization that God’s promise that he would work through Israel to reveal himself to the entire world had happened with the birth of Jesus.

All of the Old Testament promises that God would bless the whole world through Abraham; that Jerusalem would not just be a holy city for the Jewish nation, but would be a beacon on a hill shining forth light and life for all the world to see; that the true glory of Israel would be in enlightening the nations with the truth of God’s mercy and love.  This is the “eureka” moment, the realization that all of this is finally happening, that this Holy Child is indeed God’s Son, uniting God’s nature with human nature so that he can blaze a new path for humanity, a path of humble obedience that leads to life in place of the age-old path of pride that leads to death.

Who knew a bright light in the sky could mean so much?

Epiphany is a big deal.

For much of the Christian Church around the world, ourselves included, today marks the beginning of a season of Epiphany, a season from today until the start of Lent in which we focus on how Christ is revealed for the world to see, and how we are to respond.

And Epiphany is a big deal – especially for us gathered here today.

We probably never stop to think about it, but Christmas – that major celebration of the promised Messiah, God’s own Son, coming to earth – only applies to us because of the Epiphany.  After all, as far as I know, none of us in this room are the biological descendants of Abraham, members by birth of the Hebrew people in accordance with the law given to Moses.  It’s only by the grace of God, and his revelation of himself to the whole world and not just the Jewish nation, that we’re invited to be included in God’s great work of redemption! 

It’s only by the grace of God… and that’s a key point we read in today’s Gospel as we hear of the wisemen coming to King Herod at Jerusalem – our relationship with God, our status in God’s covenant community, is not something that we can take for granted.

Just picture it: There in Jerusalem you have the beautiful, carved stone palace for the king, sitting on a hill on the western side of the city, almost directly across from the great Temple on the mountain of the Lord on the city’s east side.

Statues and art and tapestries depict the king’s greatness, while by this point, all the trappings of the Roman Empire are also displayed, while the soldiers in their blood-red tunics and bronze armour stand guard. 

The king sits surrounded by the highest ranking priests and the expert teachers of the Old Testament law, those who see themselves as the exclusive keepers and interpreters of God’s will for the world.

And then, a messenger comes in and says “Your Majesty, there’s a group of foreign scholars here to see you.”

And this is where it gets interesting. 

I’m sure they make an appointment and then enter in with all the pomp and circumstance you would expect in a royal palace; King Herod is sitting on a platform, I’d say he’s surrounded by his high-ranking advisors, and then what do these wisemen say?  “Your Majesty… what a splendid palace you have, and thank you so much for your hospitality to us.  Now, O King, please tell us where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?”

Can you imagine the look on Herod’s face?

The lesson we read this morning says that he was “disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him”, but I think that’s putting it politely.  Imagine a foreign contingent arriving at a royal palace to celebrate the birth of the heir to the throne, except the king and his wife haven’t had a baby.

I’m sure they were politely removed from the room as the King totally lost it.  Yelling at his advisors, “what do they mean?  I’m the king of the Jews!  What’s this star they’re talking about?”

The chief priests and the legal experts come together, perhaps shaking in their boots, embarrassed and now fearful of the King’s notoriously short temper.  Trying to save face, they say, “oh yes, of course, we know what they’re talking about… there are some old prophecies that we forgot about while we were going about our business and trying to get by in the modern Roman world – a ruler would come out of that farming town about 9 kilometers south of the city, the town of Bethlehem.

A great revelation with a solemn warning.

With the Epiphany comes an embarrassing warning for all of us.  God is in the business of revealing himself.  You would think that these chief priests and experts in the Old Testament law would be the first to notice and recognize when the prophesies are fulfilled, and how embarrassing that it’s not just people outside the royal household, but foreigners – those who aren’t even Hebrews – who are now teaching them their own religion. 

And it’s a warning to the Church, too.  When we, like them, become too caught up in the business of day-to-day life, when we become too worried about how we make our religion fit in a changing society, without being too costly or overbearing, lo and behold, the proud chosen ones are left behind as God carries on revealing himself to whoever is searching for him.

What happens next?  Well, Herod begins to weave a web of lies, feeling threatened that he may lose his worldly status – threatened to the point that he would lie and even kill innocent children to protect his so-called God-given right to rule.

Meanwhile, it’s foreigners, Gentiles, who fulfil the Old Testament prophecies with their gifts.  Gold, a gift fit for one who would be King of Kings and Lord of Lords; Frankincense, the incense burned by priests in the temple and still used by millions of Christians around the world in their worship today, demonstrating that Christ is the Great High Priest, the one foretold by prophets who is able to enter the heavenly sanctuary and offer the blood required for the price of sin; and myrrh, the perfumed oil of anointing, the oil used to anoint kings and prophets, the oil used to prepare bodies for burial, proclaiming that he is the Messiah – a word that literally means “the anointed one”. 

This is the Epiphany – the life-changing eureka moment that proclaims that Christ is the one who fulfills the Promises of God.

The Epiphany Challenge

But, we have a problem.

The anointed saviour of the nations, the light to enlighten all humankind has come into the world, but so many haven’t recognized him.  So many, like Herod and the priests, were so busy with their goals and priorities that they forgot what they had been taught; many more, I’m sure, were just worn down with the struggle of everyday life that, if they even noticed Venus and Jupiter lining to make a bright light in the sky, they thought “oh, that’s nice” and went on their way.

But God is in the business of revealing himself.

And one of his great revelations – a great epiphany – is that he doesn’t want to use lights in the sky or the movement of planets and stars, but now wants to use us instead.

Every person who is baptized, whether we realize it or not, is called to be an epiphany – a revelation of God to the world.  We are called to speak the truth and reveal the good news of God in Jesus just as that light in the sky called wisemen to cross the desert.  We’re all called to do that – some of us do it well, some of us really need to work on it, but, if you’re baptized, there’s no escaping that duty to reveal Christ to the world.

And as we start this new year together, this is an opportunity for each of us to reflect on how we’ve done.  God wants each of us to be that star that shines for those who are searching for truth, not pointing to ourselves, but leading the way to Jesus.

And how have we done? 

I can guarantee you that there are many who are searching.  Each of us rubs shoulders each week with those who have no direction in their lives, who are searching for meaning and purpose; each of us knows someone who is silently struggling, putting on a strong face to mask frustration, and disappointment, and pain; we’re all surrounded with people who, at the end of the day, feel like they don’t belong anywhere, like they don’t have anyone to really share their burdens. 

And how have we done with showing them the way?

When they look to us, do they find a light inviting them out of the darkness, or do they find us silent, or perhaps worse, do they find us bewildered ourselves as we, like the priests and teachers of the law, have missed the point of our own religion.

You are to be an epiphany; you are to be a revelation, a “eureka moment” for those you meet.  How many have we invited to church this year?  Or invited to Kids’ Club, or offered to pray with, or even offered for them to talk to your priest in their time of need?  Or do we only invite our friends to share our worldly concerns, to give us money for fundraisers, without inviting them to share in the benefits of belonging to a church family that cares?

These are big questions, but a new year is always a good time to start.

The point of Epiphany is that it’s only by the grace of God that we’re here; and that, one way or another, our great God is in the business of revealing himself to the world, and he wants us – he wants you to be a part of that. 

Now, are you willing to be that light, to be that Epiphany for those around you?

May God help us to respond, as with all our promises at baptism: I will, with God’s help.  Amen.