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.

The 7 Pillars of Christian Unity

Lord Jesus, teach us to echo your prayer, and to live by the Spirit, that we may be one as you and the Father are one.  Amen.

This morning we hear again that second-most-famous prayer of Jesus: that we, the Church, may all be one, as He and the Father are one.

Unity is one of those things that looks great on paper, but the reality is something that requires a lot more work – and a lot more humility and sacrifice – than you’d ever think it would.

On paper, unity is easy: it’s the coming together of different parties to create something better than they could ever be on their own.  Yeah, sign me up!

The coming together is one thing.  Even here in this room, it’s not that we don’t like each other, but we have a great group of people who wouldn’t naturally be found in any other setting.  And that’s a good thing: any “church” that is only made up of people who share worldly interests or who look the same or vote the same isn’t much of a church at all.

Coming together is one thing, but coming together to create something better than they could ever be on their own – that’s another matter.

If you’ve ever found yourself working in a union, you know that unity by itself isn’t always productive; but when everyone can come together with the goal of working together, everyone benefits and some real progress can be made.

And certainly scripture uses the example of marriage as the image of unity within the Church – a man and woman coming together, not to lose themselves, but to really create something that goes beyond the individual – and as we all know, that, too, requires real work.

For any sort of unity to produce fruit, to create something better, we need both the willingness and the action.  It’s not enough just to want to be united – it’s not enough just to sign up or show up; we need to match that willingness with steps to carry it out. 

Unity, the creation of something better than we are on our own, requires both willingness and action.

The Unity of the Church

In Confirmation Class at some point you probably learned (I hope!) that as Christians we have 7 pillars of unity.  Jump in with me if you remember them:

We have one Body, one Spirit, one Hope of our eternal calling.
One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all.[1]

(What?  Well remedial confirmation classes start on Tuesday!
If these aren’t familiar you might want to take notes!!)

Those pillars, those 7, are the “willingness” side of Christian unity.  In a marriage you make vows to each other, stating your willingness to come together as one, to the exclusion of all others.  In a union, you have a collective agreement that both parties are willing to follow, to the exclusion of anything that violates the agreement. 

In the Church, we have 7 things that we are all willing to abide by for the sake of unity, to the exclusion of all else. 

We will to be one body.  Our purpose is to come together as one, throwing away all the worldly divisions that get in the way.  We have to actively work against the constant human temptation to break us up into groups based on one thing or another.

We agree to abide by the same Spirit, given at Pentecost.  That’s why, for instance, in today’s lesson from Acts 16, fortune-telling is forbidden, because it’s reliance on a different spirit.  That’s why in Revelation 22, “sorcerers” are among those who find themselves left outside of the eternal city, because turning to witchcraft is a refusal to rely on the Holy Spirit of God.

As the Church we have one hope.  That’s one we often forget, because there are as many reasons to go to church as there are people in the pews.  Some of us need peace and quiet, a break from the week; some of us need an opportunity to serve, while others need the support and friendship or to hear words of encouragement. But, beyond all that, to be a member of the church is to be willing to pin all your hope on Christ’s promises in the New Covenant – on his victory, and God’s provision, and that strength made perfect in weakness as we seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

Then there are the four other things that we have to agree to, that we have to will if we want to be members of the Church: we agree to acknowledge Jesus as Lord.  We know He is the one true Lord, so we don’t fool around with any falsehoods about that.  We proclaim one Faith passed down from generation to generation and found in the Creeds, knowing there’s a lot of room for interpretation, and no one of us will ever ‘figure it all out’, but to be a member of the Church is to say that unity on these pillars is more important than you or me “figuring out” each tiny detail.  We agree to be united in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, recognizing that it’s God who saves us and cleans us up, but that anyone who wants to clean themselves up will find themselves left out.[2]

And that last pillar that we all agree to for the sake of unity is that we agree to have one Father of us all.  That’s huge.  It means that, anyone else who is living by these same 7 pillars is my brother or sister… whether I like it or not!  It means we may bitterly disagree on how to live our faith, or the church’s duty to transform the world around it… but if God’s my Father, than anyone else who calls God their Father has to be my brother or sister.  So I have to live like it.

That’s why Revelation 22 says the sexually immoral and murders and idolaters and everyone who loves falsehood is left outside of eternal life – not because they checked the wrong boxes in terms of sins.  No, not at all.  But because these are things that destroy the family of God.  To abuse a brother or sister, to lie to them, to kill them, or to go all out and refuse to recognize God as Father – they rip apart the fabric of the family, and we’re called to live as those with one Father of us all.

Those are the 7 things all Christians across time and space have agreed that it means to be part of the church.

But real unity, the creation of something better than we can be on our own, requires both willingness and action.

The Action of Unity

It’s not enough just to sign up, to consent to those 7 things.  That’d be like planning a wedding and making marriage vows and then thinking the hard work was over! 

The work of echoing our Lord’s prayer that we would be one means that we put that willingness into action. 

And for the Church, when we’re talking about the unity of the Church, that action shows up in three ways.  Unity of Identity, Unity of Purpose, Unity of Direction.

Unity of Identity

Identity is a bit of a buzzword these days, as it should be.  How do you identify?  Is it enough to say “oh yeah, I believe the creeds.  One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, that’s greatIs that enough?  Or do we need to make that faith our identity.

Or, in other words, is going to church something you do, or is being a member of the Church something you are?

If we ever want to see Christian unity in the world, we need to get serious about making our faith a key part of our identity… not an activity on the side.

Unity of Purpose

Have we gathered for the right reasons?  When one congregation only supports its’ own activities, when we don’t see ourselves as being on the same team, then the answer has to be “no”. 

You know, this was St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians… when they gathered, everyone had their own motives.  And, the first and easiest rule of biblical interpretation is, simply, don’t be like the Corinthians!  As a general rule, if the Corinthians did it – don’t!

When we gather, when we serve, when we fundraise, is it to achieve our own goals?  Or is every action – from washing pews to folding bulletins to shovelling snow to feeding the hungry and comforting those who grieve – is it all part of carrying out that mission to go and make disciples and share the good news?

Unity of Direction

You can have the same purpose but be headed in opposite directions.  The leaders of the Liberals, the NDP, and the Tories all have the same purpose: they want to win, but they’re headed in very different directions to get there.

If we want to put Christ’s second-most-famous prayer into action in our lives, if we want to finally know and see what it’s like for the church to come together to accomplish more than we could ever do on our own, more than we could even ask or imagine, we need to walk the same way. 

Thankfully, we don’t need to make that up – after all, we’re called to be followers, and when we get off track, we have a good shepherd who will put us gently over his shoulder, or put his crook around our neck and reel us in – one way or the other!

But it’s no good, either within our congregation, or amongst the three Christian churches in our town, or in the Church around the world, for us to be walking different directions.  Unity requires that we set the same goal and walk forwards with humility, trusting that there’s a job for each of us to do, and if it’s done to God’s glory and with even a little pinch of real faith, even the mighty mountains will hop out of our way.

My friends, think about these things.  And, this week, take a look and see if there’s an opportunity in your life to really echo Jesus’ prayer with action.  And may we always pray, with Him, that we may all be one, as He and the Father are one.  Amen.

[1] Ephesians 4:4-6

[2] This is the reference to the “dogs” in Revelation 22, being unclean.

The dangerous lie of self-reliance

We live in a world based on personal choices.  Our society is based on the freedom to choose: we can decide what we want to be when we grow up, and work towards it; we can choose who we want to marry; more than ever before, we can choose where we want to live, as families are spread out across the world; we can choose our leaders at the ballot box; we can choose which church we attend, or not to attend at all.  Modern society is founded on the idea of choice.  Even when it comes to controversial topics, the virtue we hear spread far and wide is the ‘virtue’ of minding your own business.

Now don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot of benefits that come from our freedom to make decisions.  As Kristina and I celebrate 10 years of marriage this week, I’m reminded that even 60 years ago, our marriage would have been practically impossible: she was raised a Roman Catholic, and I’m an Anglican; it’s not that long ago in Newfoundland that the idea of ‘intermarriage’ would have been completely unthinkable.  Or, even my freedom to answer God’s call to ministry: it wasn’t that long ago that the son of a fisherman simply couldn’t choose to attend university, let alone find himself kneeling before a bishop to present himself for ordination.  There’s a lot of good that comes with the ability to choose.

But there’s a flipside to that, one that we rarely think about.

As “mind your business” has been drilled into us by the world, we’ve learned along the way that my life is my business.  We’ve learned that, just as we’re free to make choices, we’re supposed to depend on ourselves to carry them out.  And, when things don’t work out, what are we taught to do?  Forge ahead, making lemonade out of lemons.

The flipside of the freedom to choose is the lie that life is meant to be every person for themselves.

Building one another up.

One of the most radical – and, sadly, under-emphasized – ideas of Christianity is that it’s not each to his own, come hell or high water.  The radical truth that we proclaim is that your efforts won’t secure your success; that it isn’t up to us to pull ourselves up and dust ourselves off; that the most important choice we can make is to surrender our supposed freedom to the Lord and accept the shared life of the Body of Christ.

But it’s a hard lesson, isn’t it? The best choice we can ever make is to stop relying on ourselves alone.

This lie of self-reliance, the flip-side of everyone having to mind their own business, is truly heartbreaking.  If our eyes are open, we see the effects even here in our little church.

Every week… no, closer to every day that I walk around town ‘in uniform’, I run into hurting people who come straight out and say “oh, you’re the minister?  I can’t come to church until I get my life back together”, or, “you wouldn’t want someone like me in your church”.

It’s gut-wrenching.  There’s all sorts of explanations, but a big part of it is the lie that we have to put ourselves back together.  It’s the downside of a world that tells us to “mind your own business”.

Maybe you’ve experienced it yourself: what’s the instinct when you’ve had a bad week, when something embarrassing or sensitive has happened, or when word gets out that your marriage is in a rough place, or money is too tight, or you had too much to drink and made a fool of yourself, or it turns out that your child isn’t a model of good character?  Our instinct – taught over and over again by a society built on self-sufficiency – is to hide away.

At those very moments when God has provided the Church, the Body of Christ, and instructed us very plainly that we are to carry one another’s burdens, not just to rejoice with those who rejoice, but to weep with those who are hurting and, when someone finds themselves beat up and lying in the ditch of life, to bind them up and nurse them back to health. The twin lies of minding your own business and relying on no one but yourself lead us to reject the fellowship and ministry of the Church… at least, we say, until we straighten ourselves out first.

As we read this morning in Ephesians, the message of the Gospel is the exact opposite, almost uncomfortably so.

“walk… with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” (It’s as if Paul knows it’s going to be messy!)  “… There is one body and one Spirit…” and the work of the ministry that we offer to each other isn’t from a place of ‘having it all together’.  No, what does Paul write?  He says that on our own, we’re immature, “tossed two and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” and by craftiness and deceit.[1] 

On the one hand: ouch!  That’s pretty harsh, especially as those raised to fend for ourselves: Paul says we’re immature and easily tossed around.  But if we can get away from that lie of self-reliance, we’ll find that the message of the Gospel, that God’s plan, is for us to be knit together, a family where every person – broken though we may be – has a place and the opportunity to both build one-another up and to be built up by the ministry of God through others.

Just look at that last line from today’s epistle: “when each part is working properly” – joined to Christ, the head – it “makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love”.

Do we build ourselves up?  Do we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps?  Does the person lying beaten in the ditch have to clean himself up first and take a shower before the Samaritan can bring him to hospital?  Does the family carrying the burdens of life need to get their act together before they come to  my office?  Does the drunk on the bench at the four-way need to get sober before she’s welcome at a recovery meeting?  No!

Sure, it’s insulting, but Paul’s pretty clear: you can’t build yourself up, you’ll only be tossed about and blown around by lies.  What we need is to come together, all of us as imperfect followers of Jesus, and the result is that we’ll all be built up together, better than we could ever be alone.

It takes that harsh realization that yes, all I once held dear, and everything I’ve tried, everything I’ve built my life upon, at worst it backfired; at best, it’s going to be worthless because I can’t take it with me.  It takes the bold move to go against everything the world teaches, and instead of putting on a brave face and listing the things that make you a “good person”, admitting that the greatest thing you can do is make the choice to surrender, to proclaim not yourself – successes and failures – but proclaim the love of Jesus, and to say together with all the Body that Christ alone is the sure foundation, our only strength and stay amid the waves and winds of life.

Just imagine if word got out that the Church was the place to go when life is rough, not the place to hide away from until you get your life together or make yourself “good enough”.  Just imagine if word got out that the Church was a hospital for sinners, where our business isn’t “minding your business”, but carrying one another, lifting one another up, working together as apprentices of Jesus our Master, as we are built up together.

It’s a choice.

As great as it is to live in a world of choices, a world where we can choose to be what we want to be, it means we have to be honest about the shocking message of the Gospel. 

More than ever before, we’re told to seek what makes us happy; we’re told to find fulfilment and to find our purpose; to be mindful and seek our well-being, to satisfy that inner hunger.  We’re not unlike that crowd in the Gospel, who had their bellies filled with loaves and fishes, so they showed up the next day looking to get their bellies filled again.[2]

But the choice of turning to Jesus, the choice of coming into the embrace of the Church isn’t one of choosing what fills you up or makes you feel good.  It’s the stunning act of saying “yes, I’m free to choose; I’m free to go it alone.  But, I choose to come as I am – not as I hope to be, I choose to surrender, I choose to give up chasing what fills me up or makes me happy, and instead I offer myself as a servant, to begin the work of being built up by the Body of Christ, as I also let myself be used by Christ to build up others.

That’s the key to growing into maturity as followers of Jesus, of becoming all that God wants us to be to do the work he has given us to do.  And, in a world of choices, yes it starts with a choice: the earth-shattering, life-changing choice to stop going it alone, to admit that, yes, as harsh as it sounds, left to my own devices, I will be blown around by the lies of the world, so I choose the sure foundation that is faith in Jesus.

Relying on ourselves and following our bellies will leave us tossed about and empty.  But whoever turns to Jesus will never hunger or thirst, and will find themselves built into something greater than we could ever ask or imagine. To God be the glory. Amen.

[1] Ephesians 4:1-16

[2] Luke 6:24-35

Who is on the Lord’s side?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shepherd King

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are we now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is on the Lord’s side?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


As useless as a box of rocks…

A sermon on cement and sticking together.

1 Peter 2:2-10.

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, in Fort Smith, as it is in Heaven.  Amen.

As we continue through the letter of Peter to the Church on this Mothers’ Day, we’re given a glimpse of the vision that God has for His spiritual family, not just our earthly parents and siblings, but the family, the household of faith, made up of everyone who sincerely calls God “Our Father”.  It’s a family in which all of us are adopted by faith, a family in which each adopted brother and sister is equally dependant on God’s mercy – fully dependent on the goodness and willingness of God to welcome us in, in spite of whatever we’ve done.  A family that, like any other, is called to honour our parents – to bring honour and glory to God our Father as we live together as his people in the world.

So far in our walk through 1st Peter, we’ve heard that our Father’s will is that we would live on earth as we will in Heaven.  We’ve heard that, “thy will be done” isn’t wishful thinking or a desperate prayer, but is an instruction for the Church: God’s will isn’t a mystery; He tells us how we ought to live, and our job is to do it; and in doing so, we bring His will to bear in the world around us, as we strive to be holy, as God is holy.

And then, last week, we heard the clear call of how we ought to live in the sight of the world.  Regardless of our opinions, our preferences, our politics, as members together of God’s family, we’re to live so that, when the world wants to insult us, they have nothing to go on – nothing to say except to name our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.

Just imagine what our world would be like, if every time someone drove by this building dedicated and consecrated to the glory of God, if every time someone met a member of this church, if every time someone saw “St. John’s Anglican Church” on Facebook, all they could say was “wow…”, and “see how they love one another”, and then, even if they don’t know it, they’re giving God the glory for the works done through us, His hands, feet, and voice. 

Those have been great instructions these past two weeks for what we should do.

But today, rather than focusing on what we do, St. Peter digs in and casts a vision for what we should be.  He’s laying a foundation for who we are, as we are built together in the household of faith.

Peter writes: Come to Christ, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

A living stone. 

We’re to be living stones.

Now, right off the bat, this is a weird sort of phrase.  I mean, really, if you had to pick a word to describe a rock, I’m guessing “living” is the exact opposite of what you’d say.

I mean, yes, it could be a compliment if you say someone is ‘a rock’.

But, a “living stone”?  It’s a weird phrase.  Honestly, we’re more likely to think of someone as being “stone deaf”, or, if we’re being honest, I’ll admit there have been times – not my proudest moments – when I’ve thought someone was about as useless as a box of rocks. 

What does that mean, living stones?

What if we looked at this phrase this way: living stones are stones that have life.  Living stones are stones that have purpose.  And, like all things that are alive, living stones are connected, even dependant on one another to sustain that life.

We, being built up on Christ, who is the cornerstone, are no longer mere stones scattered across the ground, lifeless, but are joined together into something with purpose, to build a house that can be filled with life, and warmth, and joy.

Yes, God’s vision for us who become members of his family is that those scattered and loose stones, as numerous as the sand of the sea, are gathered together and built into something with purpose.

And, if we stop to think about it, that’s really remarkable news.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel pretty insignificant.  It happens to all of us, but sometimes we get “low minded”, all we can focus on is how small we are.

And, while we’re being honest, I think many of us have times when we feel about as useless as a box of rocks.  One of the effects of this pandemic is that, for a lot of us, people who woke up every morning with a routine, with things to do; people who were involved in their communities, visiting those who can’t get out and about; people who were involved in church and many groups in our communities now have moments when we just feel useless, like we just don’t know what we should be doing. 

And, of course, left to our own devices, one of the great temptations in the world around us is to get weighed down by those feelings, to dwell on our own smallness, and, sadly, many then begin to question their own worth – they feel as insignificant as a piece of crushed stone spread on the ground.

But here’s the good news that Peter is bringing to the Church:

Because we’ve been made part of God’s Family, Our Father wants to build us together into something with purpose, a household full of life.

Yes, sometimes we feel as insignificant as a piece of gravel, and yes, in the grand scheme of human history, each of us alone is pretty small.  But, in the hands of a master builder, building on the firm foundation of Jesus Christ our Lord, even the smallest stone becomes part of something much bigger.

And the glory comes not in what the stones are by themselves, but in what they are made together.

Think about it: if you wanted to build a mighty fortress; if you wanted to build a temple for the presence of God; if you wanted to build a heavenly kingdom, little pieces of crushed stone is hardly what comes to mind as your building material. 

But what happens if, once the foundation is firmly laid, those crushed stones are bound together, and moulded – formed – as they come to follow the pattern laid for them. 

You take those tiny stones, mix them together until they are bound to one another with cement, pour them into the mould to matches the plan of the builder, and suddenly those stones are no longer weak, small, or insignificant.  No, being cemented together, those stones can reach to amazing heights; they become a structure that can withstand waves and storms; a fortress that can withstand any attack; they can even become the grand palace of the King, with dwelling places prepared for all the King’s sons and daughters.

That insignificant piece of gravel, when infused with purpose, and bound together with love, and strengthened from within by the power of the Holy Spirit, is built into a great spiritual house that, because of it’s firm foundation, can withstand whatever comes its way.

Those insignificant stones, strewn along the ground and trampled under foot, become together something much larger – something not trampled down; no, suddenly we’re joined with Christ, the stone that must be noticed, a stumbling block, that will trip up those who are walking down the path of life without a lamp. We become stones infused with life and purpose, bound together in love and built into a dwelling place fit for no less than the very presence of God Himself, as the Church – all of us cemented together – becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit, and all for the sake of the world around us.

Built into something great.

This is the message to the Church. 

If we say God is “our Father”, we must mean it; and, as with our earthly parents, we honour our father by doing his will.

And, by grace, God takes each of us – tiny as we are – and gives us life and purpose, not that we should stand alone or in a heap of gravel, but that we should be bound together, the greatest and the least, the first and the last, the strong and the weak all built up together into a spiritual house, a home filled with the light and life of God Himself; a house built high on a hill, shining it’s light out into the darkness, inviting all who would see it to follow the way, the truth, and the life, and being made new with the life of God, we find our purpose, we find our calling, not in who we were, not in what we’ve done, but in who we have become as members, joined together as the Body of Christ, living not for our own glory, but to the glory of God.

But, Peter says, even in this great building project, we have a part to play.

Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…”  We have to be willing to be built up, to be incorporated into what the Lord is doing in our midst.

To do that we have to be holy, as God our Father is holy. 

…to do that, we must work to do his will… in Fort Smith, as it is in Heaven.  Amen.