St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Saskatoon
St. Andrew's exists to proclaim the Gospel and to share the love of God in our church and in our community

St. Andrew’s is renting out parking stalls!

Posted on October 16, 2017 in category: Announcements

We are renting out 10 stalls on the south side of the parking lot, Monday to Friday, 7:00 am to 6:00 pm. The rental fee is $200/month.

Please note that during the rental hours, only those who are at the church are permitted to park in the lot in the unreserved parking spots. Parking is no longer available for those who wish to park in the lot while downtown or for long periods of time. Anyone not paying rent will be ticketed if they park in a numbered stall during the reserved hours.

Please contact the church office if you are interested in renting a stall, or if you would like more information.

October 15, 2017

Posted on October 15, 2017 in category: Sermons
Tags: , , ,

Preached by Rev. George Yando on October 15, 2017

Exodus 32: 1-14
Psalm 106: 1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4: 1-9
Matthew 22: 1-14

Listen to this sermon

Minding What Your Mind’s On

I’d like to begin this morning by asking, “Who was here last Sunday for worship?” Now, of those who were here, how many of you remember what the hymn or song was that was sung following the “Time with the Children”?

Maestro, my note, please? Sing it with me if you remember it:

Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!

Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!

Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice!

Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice!

Well, there you go. For those of you who remembered it, “Good for you!” It’s a great little song with a catchy tune, and lyrics that are easy to remember and worth remembering.  For those of you who were here, and didn’t recall it from last week, I’m a little surprised.  The tune is one of those things that – once you’ve sung it – it’s really hard to get out of your head. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of you found yourself singing it well into the following week, and had difficulty getting it out of your head!

The words, of course, come straight out of today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. They’ve been crafted into a cheery little song, but taking them seriously and working out how to live by them is rather more of a challenge. And then there’s that line a little later that Paul adds to the challenge by talking about “doing everything in prayer with thanksgiving.”         “Always.” “Everything.” “Always and everything with rejoicing and thanksgiving.”  Now if there is anyone here who has managed to spend every moment of their lives in rejoicing and thanksgiving, I haven’t come across you yet, either in the coffee hour after church, or anywhere else; but I’d love to meet you – and ask you, “What’s your secret?”

The answer to the challenge from Paul to “Rejoice in the Lord always and to do everything with prayer and thanksgiving” is really a call to live thankfully, to cultivate a heart of gratitude and to look for the blessings in all things and all circumstances. Now perhaps there is a helpful clue in that explanation to help us accomplish this seemingly “easier-said-than-done” task, and it’s this: this heart of rejoicing and gratitude that’s needed is something we are to cultivate.

The Apostle Paul isn’t giving us a new law here: he’s not saying that if there is a break or a let-up or a slacking-off in your rejoicing, then you’ve sinned and you can expect to be punished for it. It’s not like that at all.  But Paul IS calling us to aspire to be people who are characterised by rejoicing and gratitude and to cultivate those attitudes within ourselves. He is saying that these qualities and attitudes and behaviours are things are characteristics of Jesus and hallmarks of the life he lived.  Paul is urging us to model ourselves on Jesus.

Now this is the same letter we heard from two weeks ago when Paul wrote to call his readers and hearers to have the same mind that was in Jesus. Taking Jesus as the model we strive to imitate is a big theme in this letter. Now, how we go about striving to cultivate these things is given some content in the final verses of the section we heard today, and it reminds us again of that idea of having the same mind as Christ Jesus because it’s all about what you set your mind on: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Think about these things. Fill your mind with these things. Seek them out and ponder them. Meditate on them. Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, whatever is gracious, whatever is loving, whatever is hospitable, whatever is merciful, whatever makes for reconciliation and peace. Think about these things. Make them the cud your mind chews on as you go about your business. And Paul reinforces the idea that positive imitation is part of this when he concludes by saying, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” Keep on imitating the good things you have seen in me as I keep on imitating the ways of Jesus who is in turn imitating the ways of his heavenly Father, the God and Creator of all.

Now, I don’t know about you, but one of the questions that occurs to me as I say all this is, “Is this just another version of the ‘Power-of-Positive-Thinking” movement that was so popular back in the seventies?” You remember, Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller and so on. Well, truth is truth, wherever it comes from, and I’m sure there are some points in common, insights that resonate with what Paul is talking about, but I don’t think it really is the same thing entirely.  Rather, a lot of the “power-of-positive-thinking” message hung on that first word – “power.” Whatever truth it had, it tended to get tangled up with the timeless concepts of power and success such that that message simply became just another strategy for the acquisition of success and power, just another road to achieving them. The crucified Jesus, rejected and hated and cast out, was hardly the ideal pin-up boy for the success-seeking power of positive thinking.

However, one thing they clearly have in common is the belief that what you set your mind on is a major factor in how things turn out for you. Many years ago when I first tried to learn to ride a motorcycle, I remember being told that one of the secrets to not running into things was to go where you focussed your attention. If you suddenly saw a pole in front of you and your mind goes “the pole, the pole, watch out for the pole”, then chances were you run right into what you’ve focussed your attention on. But if you respond by fixing your eyes and your mind on the empty space or gap to the left or right of the pole, then there is every chance that you will be through that gap unscathed before you knew it.

This of course raises legitimate questions for some people about some of what we do in the worship service. Why do we devote time to confessing our sins every week? Isn’t this focusing on the negative and more likely to hold us captive there than it is to help? Can’t we focus on something more positive?

Can’t we focus on something more positive? It’s a fair question. But our focus on the positive needs to avoid falling into denial and escapism. It needs to deal with the reality we face. Our confession of sin is the reality check that sets up our proclamation and celebration of the positive message of grace and mercy and forgiveness and the freedom to go and sin no more.

But that is a message that would be superficial and delusive if it wasn’t offered in the face of a real consciousness of our continued confrontation with sin. The message of forgiveness and release would have little power to change us if we were in denial or just oblivious to the reality of sin in our lives. It is a very positive message precisely because it is related directly to a named and faced reality.

If we want to fill our minds with things that are going to change our lives for the better, they have to be things that are well grounded in reality.  Positive thinking that has lost connection to reality is just filling your head with the mental equivalent of candy floss and it will be powerless to bring about any positive changes. And in some cases there may be some very negative consequences. I think a good example here is what is going on in this generation with pornography.

Since the advent of the Internet, which was only a little over twenty years ago, increasingly huge numbers of people of all ages and genders, from the elderly to young adolescents, and sometimes even younger, have been feeding their minds with the images produced by the pornography industry. Now part of the thinking and part of the marketing here is that by feasting your mind on such images, you better prepare yourself for sexual engagement.

But the truth is it usually fosters the opposite, because the patterns of sexual behaviour depicted in the majority of porn are not grounded in reality. It’s fantasy stuff, and so especially for those with little or no real life experience with which to compare it, porn distorts perceptions and expectations and thus drains authentic sex of its fulfillment and enjoyment. We’ve got a whole generation coming up who have been robbed of their capacity to engage in and enjoy a real sexual relationship because they have been crippled by the expectations created for them by the pornographers.

And please don’t mishear this as simplistic prudishness. I have no objection at all to the beautifully erotic and tasteful portrayal of healthy loving sex in movies or other art forms. But the majority of porn is anything but that. It’s worse than just not worth a person’s time, it’s not worth what it is capable of doing to your mind and heart and spirit and the capacity to be the best “you” God gave you the potential to become.

Anyway, enough about that. It is but one example of how vitally important it is to consider carefully what sort of images of God we fill our minds with, and I think the story we heard Jesus tell in the gospel reading tonight gives us a good example of the issues here. A lot of Jesus’ stories take a conventional image or a well-known stock story and twist it or turn it on its head. But you remember what Jesus himself said about how many will listen and never hear. Many will only hear the old story and its usual interpretation and nothing will get them to hear how Jesus is upending it.

I think that the story Jesus told that was our Gospel lesson this morning is a case in point. You see the conventional way to hear this story of the king who invites people to a wedding banquet is to equate the king with God, and so it is perfectly possible to hear Jesus tell this story and hear it that way still. But if you do, God comes out looking like Moamar Gaddafi. When people refuse this king what he wants, he launches violent reprisals, killing, maiming and burning their villages to the ground. No wonder the next lot of invitees turn up – they’ve seen what happens to those who refuse this king. And then he finds a man who still hasn’t done quite what he wants, so he has him chained, hand and foot, and thrown into the outer darkness. Fill your mind with images of God like that, and you will soon be relating to God from a position of constant fear and resentment.

But look what Jesus is doing with the story. He never says that the king equals God. Memories of King Herod’s bloody execution of John the Baptiser are still recent, and Jesus himself is about to be one who stands silently, giving no answer to an angry accusing ruler, before being bound and cast into the outer darkness of a disgraced death on the cross.

For those who have ears to hear, Jesus is turning the story on its head and inviting us to see the lone rejected non-conformist as the new hero of the story, as the messianic figure who will not be cowered by the brutality of the world’s powers, but who also does not return violence for violence. Feed your mind on that kind of an image of God, and God-made-flesh, and you will cultivate quite a different heart and quite a different way of being before God.

And just as a side note, when you are reading the similar parable of the wedding feast in Luke’s gospel, don’t assume it’s the same. It isn’t. Jesus can spin the same stock story in different directions on different occasions, and the king in the Luke version is not a violent vengeful figure, but is one who sends his invite to “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame”. A very different image, and one that can speak to us of the God who is made known to us in the crucified Jesus.

The images you fill your mind with really matter, and the Apostle Paul calls us to imitate him and Jesus and any other figures of heroic faithfulness and righteousness and generous hospitality in filling our minds with “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable” so that these might be the things that shape us and form us and sustain us and bit by bit become us. Make these the things your mind feeds on.

In closing, there is an old story you may have heard which I think has its origin in the wisdom and teachings from North America’s indigenous peoples.  It tells of a wise old man talking to a teenage boy about the inner struggles the young man was experiencing between his desires to do good and his desires to be violent and vengeful and spiteful. And the old man describes the two impulses as being two wolves doing battle within him for the mastery of his soul, a good wolf and an evil wolf, both big and powerful and formidable, and now pitted against each other in a deadly struggle for control of the young man. And hesitantly the young man asks the wise elder, “do you know which one is going to win?” The old man looks at him and replies, “The one you feed.” Amen.

October 8, 2017

Posted on October 13, 2017 in category: Sermons
Tags: , , ,

Preached by Rev. Diane Tait-Katerberg on October 8, 2017.

Deuteronomy 8: 7-18
Psalm 65
2 Corinthians 9: 6-15
Luke 17: 11-19

Listen to this sermon

With Grateful Hearts

“After you eat and are full,

give praise to the Lord your God

for the good land he gave you.

Make sure that you never forget he Lord

or disobey his laws and teachings

that I am giving you this day.”   

(- Deuteronomy 8:10-11)

Thanksgiving Weekend

For many of us:

-gatherings – family/friends

-lots to eat!  Turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie…. or whatever foods you associate with celebrations.

-churches decorated

-sense of generosity

-awareness of our blessings.

So, gathered here together, we give thanks to God.  Our hymns, prayers, conversations… focus on thanksgiving, on gratitude to God.

It is good to give thanks – to be aware of all the blessings we enjoy.

– Share things that you are thankful for this morning with your neighbor

On days like this, it somehow seems easier to name things for which we are grateful.  We are more aware of an attitude of gratitude.  But what would happen if I’d asked each of you to make a list of 100 things for which you give thanks?

Many of us would have a difficult time doing that.  It is not that we’re ungrateful.

It is just that we don’t spend a lot of time being specific about the things (and people!) for whom we are thankful.

We casually say, “Thanks!” to the waiter who delivers our coffee (or tea) — or maybe we don’t.

We don’t usually focus on the details:

-the smell of freshly brewed coffee;

-the delight and comfort in the drink,

-the fact that we simply have to say what we want and it is delivered to us;

-the fact that we have enough money to pay for the coffee and the service;

-the refreshment we receive from it.

Thanks!  Thanks be to God – for coffee & tea, for wait staff, restaurants and grocery stores; for moments of refreshment and relaxation; for company with whom we share these times of refreshment.  Thanksgiving isn’t, of course, something you can demand of someone.

David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2010:

“And right there’s the problem, don’t you think?  Thanksgiving—that is the expression of gratitude—can’t be commanded.  It’s like your mom, after you forgot to say ‘thank you,’ prompting you with the oh-so patient ‘Your Welcome.’  Sure, you say ‘thanks’ then, but it doesn’t mean quite the same thing.”1

 So is this Thanksgiving celebration of ours have any real value, or is it simply a means of “forced gratitude?”  And does that mean it’s “fake gratitude?”

The story we read in Luke about the 10 Lepers gives us some insight into what thankfulness really is. And I am thankful for the work of Professor David Lose for some of the insights I share with you today.

Where will we find ourselves in the story today?  Where in this story may we encounter God?  For some of us, the story may make us feel ashamed: ashamed for the times that

-we did not take time to express our gratitude.  Ashamed that a Samaritan – an outcast from the Jewish point of view-someone who would not be expected to set an example, who came back to thank Jesus.

However, guilt inducing is NOT the point of the story.

The story of the lepers is a story of God’s grace, not judgement.  And it is a story about the importance of seeing-of noticing, paying attention, and taking note – incidents of God’s grace.

We are told that Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee, which is interesting because there really is no region between Samaria and Galilee, they border each other.  This is almost like saying, the region between Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Since there is no real geography between, perhaps Luke’s point is theological.  Jesus was travelling between the location of much of his ministry – Galilee – and Jerusalem – where he would die.  It is a place of tension:  a place where ethnic and religious differences are intensely felt.  What he encounters along the way reveals something about the kingdom he will establish:  a kingdom of grace and acceptance, of healing and restoration, brokenness returned to wholeness.  A kingdom between what is the reality of life and the new reality of God’s kingdom.

So he encounters ten people who are cut off from the rest of the community by an illness.  No one wanted to be close to them:  they were “unclean.”  They knew their place.  They did not come close.  But they recognized him.  They called him “Master” which is a name otherwise used only by the disciples.  They asked for mercy.  As they turned to do what Jesus commanded:  “Go, show yourselves to the priests,”

all ten were healed.  All ten experienced God’s grace.

But one noticed. One saw.

One took in the awesomeness of what had happened changed his course to first give thanks.  What he did was to see and recognize.  That is what made the difference and, in gratitude, say “thank you!”

In noticing, letting what happened sink in, something changed in the leper:

  • he recognized Jesus – his reign and his power
  • he changed direction to express his thanksgiving and to thank God.

The story “…serves as an invitation to believers – then and now – to recognize that what we see makes all the difference. In the face of adversity, do we see danger or opportunity?  In the face of human need, do we see demand or gift? In the face of the stranger, do we see potential enemy or friend?

…. When we look to God, do we see stern judge or loving parent?: When we look to ourselves, do we see failure or beloved child?  When we look to the future, do we see fearful uncertainty or open horizon…how we answer dramatically shape both our outlook and our behavior.”2 David Lose

Ten people, socially, religiously, and physically unclean, encountered Jesus and were made well. One experienced even more: he recognized Jesus and expressed his gratitude which changed his life.  More than being healed, he was drawn back into relationship with God and humankind – what we call “saved.”  Being told to be thankful does not, in itself, make us thankful.  However, reminders sometimes make us aware.  And as we become aware, and are able to see, we may respond with true thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving  – “Harvest Thanksgiving” is a specific time of being reminded.  There are other ways that we may be intentional about reminding ourselves to open our eyes and our awareness to God’s many acts of grace in our lives and our communities.

For some of us, making a special time to reflect on the blessings of the day may help us be open to true thankfulness.  On “Hub” (a presbyterian website for women), theologian, writer, and friend Laura Alary has written an article about her growth in thankful awareness following a time of depression.

She writes:

“A few years ago a friend gave me a mala, a set of 108 beads used in prayer and meditation.  She explained that at the end of every day, I should sit down, take the first bead between my thumb and forefinger, and name something in my life for which I felt thankful.  At first, this seemed awkward and burdensome, like writing the than you notes my mom used to insist I compose every time I received a gift or was invited somewhere.  For the first few nights I handled my mala beads the way I had those thank you notes:  I zipped through the first few with zeal and good intentions but then ran out of ideas and grew bored and slightly resentful.  Determined to make my way through all 108 beads I started naming small things;  the first ripe peach of the season; the smell of the coffee beans when I opened the fresh bag; the gentle way the woman on the bus spoke to her little son; the feel of the hot shower on my skin in the morning; the evening breeze through my window; the tantalizing first chapter of my new library book; a particular chord in a song; some lyrics wiich touched me deeply.  To my surprise, one small thing quickly led to another and in no time I had travelled all the way around the mala.  After a few evenings of this I realized that I actually felt happier and more content.”

When we pay attention to the specific things that God is doing, we cannot help but be stirred to thankfulness and in our gratitude, find joy.

(Douglas Wood, “The Secret of Saying Thanks”, quoted in L. Alary article.)

“We don’t give thanks because we’re happy, we are happy because we give things.”

And this is yet another gift of God.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

October 1, 2017

Posted on October 3, 2017 in category: Sermons
Tags: , , ,

Preached by Rev. George Yando on October 1, 2017.

Exodus 17: 1-7
Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16
Philippians 2: 1-13
Matthew 21: 23-32

Listen to this sermon

Is it Time for a Change of Heart?

A number of years ago, I had occasion to visit a downtown church in a medium-sized city here in Western Canada, in the Okanagan Valley actually. The name of the church and the city where it’s located isn’t really important to the story. Like a lot of downtown churches in cities across this country, it had its share of challenges because of its location.

“The problem” as it was called by the church members with whom I talked was the fact that they shared the entrances to the church with homeless people – men and women alike, many of whom were migrant agricultural labourers who’d come during the growing season looking for employment, folk who would set up camp in the sheltered spaces of the nooks and crannies around the building and wandered into church most weeks. And most nights the easily recognizable, downright obvious “unmarked” police cars were parked within viewing distance, their occupants keeping a watchful eye for drug dealers looking to peddle their wares. And the church members and the migrants shared the parking lot with the sex trade workers. Early each Sunday, before the kids arrived for Sunday School, someone armed with rubber gloves and long handled tongs and sporting a wrinkled nose on his face, was tasked with the duty of collecting up the latex litter left in the wake of numerous “personal encounters” in the dark the previous night.

No one in the congregation was particularly thrilled by the people sleeping in the church doorways. They urinated in dark corners, they begged for money, and their arrival in church was heralded by particularly pungent body odours. I heard a lot muttering that weekend about the ways people used – or misused  – their church property. I certainly didn’t hear any reflection by anyone about the prospect that those sex trade workers and their pimps, the pushers and those homeless people might actually enter the kingdom of God ahead of the upstanding religious folk who worshipped in their grand old sanctuary on Sunday and left the building locked and barred, surrounded by an impressive wrought iron fence that nevertheless failed to keep the enterprising and the resourceful and the desperate off their pristine property.

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before you do.” How could this be?

Well, once upon a time, there was a woman who had a couple of kids. She went to one of them and said, “Sweetheart, I need your help in the garden.”

But her daughter said, “Can’t you see I’m reading?” and went back to her book. Later, however, when she’d finished the chapter, the girl put her book down and went and pulled some weeds. The mother went to her other child, “Sweetie pie, please come help in the garden.” The girl said, “OK, Boss” but never left the couch. Now which of the two obeyed her Mom?

Now, you folks know your Bibles, especially the many memorable sayings of Jesus and the disciples who authored many of the books within its pages: You’ve read – or heard it said, “Beloved, love one another. Love your neighbour. Love your enemy. Judge not. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth… for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. You cannot serve God and wealth. Forgive, forgive, forgive.”

We all know what’s expected of us, the right things to say. More than that, we mean them. We feel sympathy for the poor. We know that migrant workers and refugees and asylum seekers are treated terribly, and that justice needs to be done. We feel compassion, and empathy, and kindness, and love. We struggle with the difficult ideas underpinning our faith that nonetheless fly in the face of prevailing attitudes in our day.  We think and wrestle with sincerity and depth. We pray for others, that they be blessed as we have been blessed, and we really, really mean it. We are the good guys, the folk who feel kindness and compassion… and we know it.

But the problems of the world seem too big, too overwhelming. We can’t actually fix anything much. Whether it’s homelessness or injustice visited upon Indigenous people, whether its corporate ravages on the natural world or violence against women or wars in the Middle East or the terrors of ISIS and Boko Haram and whoever else; well, who are we to imagine that we might make a difference? There are too many problems and they’re all way too big – and we become paralysed, and then complacent. It becomes much easier to pray for the world, and preach kindness and love, and work on our personal relationship with God, than to take hands-on, personal, direct, concrete action.

In the parable, which of the children obeyed their parent? The one who said the right thing, and no doubt meant to get around to it, sometime; or the one who did the right thing? I think we all know.

Saying the right words is not enough. Thinking and believing the right things is not enough. Even praying the right prayers is not enough. We can feel oh so kind and compassionate, we can spiritualise obedience, we can pray for justice – but Jesus invites us – no, he challenges us – to more. Because if our words and our prayers are genuine, they must bear fruit. They must lead to action.

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul reminds us, Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Paul is talking about more than an attitude, a way of thinking.  Paul is saying, “In your lives you must think and act like Christ Jesus.” And how did Jesus act? Again, Paul is clear:

6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Paul is saying, “Christ did not think that being equal with God was something to be used for his own benefit. He gave up his place with God and made himself nothing. He took on the form of a slave…”   And as God’s slave, he loved. He loved prostitutes. He loved tax collectors, collaborators, liars and cheats. He loved snotty-nosed rambunctious children, bleeding women, and untouchable men with weeping sores. He loved the Roman soldiers who occupied his native land, and the homeless and the hookers. He fed the hungry with food and stories, and sat at the table with them.

And so Paul wrote, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in y’all – or youse – that was in Christ Jesus….” Now all of you out there that are former English teachers and those who fancy themselves guardians of good grammar, please forgive me, but I misspoke to make a point. Paul’s ‘Let each of you” is a plural “you” that’s easy to miss when we hear the text in English.  Paul was writing to a group; he was using a plural “you,” and we need to hear this. You see, as a group, I think our church is a relatively small faith community and a rather comfortable one. We know one another and are fairly good at examining ourselves. But maybe it’s time to expand our view a little.

If we peek out that door, we see a large, looming urban core in the midst of a large diverse city, one that reveals its dark side if you look closely enough.  A whole host of large, looming problems, threatening the peace and tranquility of the sacred space to which we retreat each week, in part to get away from those large looming seemingly insurmountable challenges.  Of course we can’t take on the whole mess of problems that are seething away out there. But, as we heard in Paul’s letter this morning, “God is working in youse to help youse want to do and be able to do what pleases God.”

And I wonder if that is happening right now. Because things are bubbling up. This transition time we’re in as a congregation is disconcerting for many. People are feeling anxious, uncertain about what the future holds. “How soon are we going to get a new minister? What will he or she be like? Will he or she be a good as the one who just left and look after us as well as did she? Or will he or she bring new, disturbing ideas that threaten to push us out of our comfort zones?”

Some have looked to our neighbourhood and are beginning to ask, “What different? What’s changed around us in the 13 years or so since our last minister arrived? What are the needs now in our downtown community?

Can this church do anything about them, or are we too small, and are our members too committed to other really good projects to do anything in this neighbourhood? And are we okay with this?”

Being equal with Christ is not something to be used for our own benefit. Answering the call of God on our lives means giving things up, sharing our resources, inviting others in. How we are called to do this requires discernment. But right out there, within walking distance, there are desperate people with desperate needs. Now, I realise that just because there are needs and we might be able to help meet them does not necessarily mean that that it is our calling and we should do it. I know that many of us pour enormous amounts of time and energy into building the kingdom in other places and other ways. Yet these questions are beginning to bubble up, in one form or another, in the minds and hearts of various members of the congregation in recent weeks and months, and so these are questions we need to grapple with.

On this World Communion Sunday, as we gather at the Lord’s Table, we gather at a table which he has set; a table where he is the host; a table to which we are invited, regardless of who we are; a table to which he bids us invite others, regardless of who they are.

In gratitude we gather, we eat and drink and remember and give thanks. Then after the meal, be prepared for Jesus to say to us, “Kids, go work in the garden.” Will we agree, and just keep praying? Will we argue, then go dig some earth? And which garden are we called to work in anyway? These are good questions for us. Let me leave you with one more. The one in Jesus’ story that initially struggled with the request to go and serve, eventually had a change of heart and went as bidden.  Perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves – and one another – is this: “Is it time for a change of heart?”

May the Spirit of our risen and living Lord, who has loved us – and everyone else, regardless of who we and they are – have his way in our hearts and minds, that we use our hands to serve as he served, always and only to the glory of God. Amen.

September 24, 2017

Posted on September 24, 2017 in category: Sermons
Tags: , , ,

Preached by Hastings Nyekanyeka and Patti Polowick on Presbyterians Sharing Sunday, September 24, 2017.

Jonah 3:10 – 4:4
Psalm 145
Philippians 1: 1-11, 21-30
Matthew 20: 1-16

Listen to this sermon

God Tears the Fence Down

Jesus used parables to describe the indescribable. These well-worn stories are portraits of the character of God, and signposts that point to God’s coming reign of justice and peace. They not only describe the indescribable – they also describe the unimaginable for us, living as we do by our own wits.  Whatever dream God had for Creation, we have made a world where effort is rewarded; where the weak know that their only defense is to be stronger.  In this world, justice is not always just, and generosity is a rare gift, found occasionally among equals and less often across the boundaries of wealth, power and privilege.  So when Jesus offers a parable, he speaks against our habits; against our common knowledge.  He invites us to consider an alternative that is God’s desire for creation, and God’s promised hope for humanity.

Inequality in the workplace is an all too common complaint in our world.  It surfaces in arguments about minimum wage, and is expressed in a multitude of ways across the country and around the world.  Those who pretend to understand economics talk about supply and demand, and pepper presentations with charts and graphs in an attempt to explain why the world is divided into those who have much, and those who have little.  But explanations don’t feed a family, or give a labourer a sense of purpose or accomplishment.

In this parable, Jesus tells of a landowner who is looking for people to work in his vineyard.  At the beginning of the day, he finds some labourers, agrees what to pay them, and then sends them to work.  He does the same thing at nine, noon, three and five o’clock and each time he finds people who haven’t been hired yet.  He tells them “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”

This could be a trick – an appeal to those still without work at the end of the day to see how desperate they are.  But this is a parable, and we are surprised at the end when those who began work at the end of the day receive the same wage as those who began first thing in the morning.  Naturally, those who worked all day in the scorching sun begin to grumble – why should those who worked only an hour get paid the same?  But the landowner says he paid them what they agreed – why should it matter that he paid the last people the same?

Have you seen the cartoon that shows the difference between justice and equality? Three people are trying to watch a ball game through a fence. Each is a different height. In the first scene, each person stands on a step that is the same height. This is equality – each had the same size step, but only the tallest person was able to see over the fence.  In the next scene, each person stands on a step of a size that best suits them.  And each can see over the fence. This is justice.

But Jesus’ parable goes beyond justice: God tears the fence down, offering love and grace and justice for all.  Through this parable, Jesus pulls back the curtain to see what is possible, what is desirable and what is longed for by God.

The beauty of the gospel – the treasure that is Christ risen – is that God’s power eliminates the barriers we would use to organize the world. Work and rest are distinct from one another, guarded by rules and restrictions.  Life and death are separate and always in tension.  But when we see the work of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we see those human boundaries are ignored. In God’s world, hope is offered against expectation; the ‘least of these’ are considered equally; tears are turned into laughter; the blind given sight.  These things shouldn’t happen – except that God disdains our ordering of God’s creation. That all the workers receive the same wage for different hours worked seems to be a travesty of justice.  But it is, in fact, a re-definition of justice and a reminder that God’s justice is first and foremost the embodiment of God’s generous grace.

As those who have declared themselves followers of Jesus, we in the Presbyterian Church in Canada are on a path, not just to discover the new thing that God has done through Jesus Christ, but to embody God’s hope, God’s love and God’s abundant life in our lives.  That is the impulse behind our worship, and the mission projects that grace our communities and enhance the lives of neighbours and strangers among us.

As a denomination, one way we express our desire to follow Jesus is through our support of Presbyterians Sharing. It is our attempt as Presbyterian congregations to bring Jesus’ parable to life – to live out the grace that we have experienced in Jesus, and to share that grace as widely as possible. When Presbyterians from across Canada join together to share in mission and ministry through Presbyterians Sharing, we are collectively putting our faith into action – across Canada and around the world. And we are working to create a world according to God’s vision – where all have equal access to God’s love and grace. By pooling our resources, we support leaders, create resources and connect together to do things we couldn’t do on our own.

Together we are able to proclaim a message of God’s hope through our actions.

Let us share with you just a few of the ways this is being lived out.

Supporting congregations

Congregations across Canada share the gospel in word and action – vibrant expressions of God’s love. Congregations helping congregations is at the core of Presbyterians Sharing. Together, we are equipping congregations, ministries and presbyteries by providing materials and resources for faithful ministry, supporting theological education, encouraging visionary leaders, supporting mentorship and providing grants to start new congregations and renew established ones.

And it is working. Congregations are stepping out of their comfort zones to try new things and witness to the resurrection of Christ in new ways.

La Communauté chrétienne Siloé in Montreal, QC is a small but mighty and growing congregation offering Presbyterian worship in French. The Rev. Eloi Agbanou shares: “We thank the Lord Jesus Christ for the progress of our community.  Our progress is neither the result of my strength, nor of any human strength.  I just see the strong and powerful hands of God over Siloé’s growth.”

Members from St. Luke’s Church, Bathurst, New Brunswick, where we are supporting renewal through a regional ministry say, “Working together in service for others has strengthened our faith as we support each other and the wider community.  There is great power in prayer.  We thank God for all who have encouraged us in our journey of faith.”

The Rev. Deb Rapport participated in a mentoring program to support her leadership in Toronto’s ARISE Ministry which provides outreach and pastoral care to human trafficking victims and people involved in the sex trade. She shares, “I have grown and strengthened my leadership capabilities through this process. I have been blessed and encouraged by the coaching, guidance and wisdom of my mentor.”

Offering hope 

Another way we help live out God’s vision of abundant life through Presbyterians Sharing is by supporting ministries in Canada that reach out to some of Canada’s most vulnerable people: refugees, Indigenous communities and inner-city communities. These include ministries like Tyndale St.-Georges and Action Réfugiés in Montréal, ARISE Ministry in Toronto and seven ministries serving primarily Indigenous people, including Kenora Fellowship Centre, Winnipeg Inner City Missions, Hummingbird Ministry in BC., and our own local Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry.

And lives are transformed. Lives of people like Jane, who participated in Tyndale St.-George’s employment program in the Little Burgundy neighbourhood in southwest Montreal.

The statistics for Little Burgundy are grim: 2/3 of children and youth live below the poverty line and 32% of students drop out before finishing high school. But Tyndale St.-Georges is helping provide community members– children, teens and adults — with the tools they need to realize their own dreams, at every life stage.  Tyndale’s employment programs not only teach job search techniques, but also build self-esteem and life skills. Jane shares, “I came to Tyndale during the lowest time in my life, and I decided to give it a shot. I was looking for something to bring back my self-confidence that would enable me to go back to the workforce.  And Tyndale delivered exactly what I was looking for.  And now I’m strong – I’m back again – and I’m ready to go back to work!”

You don’t have to look very far to see and hear stories of the tragic legacy of the Indian residential schools. Presbyterians Sharing is helping congregations and individuals walk alongside Indigenous people on a journey toward reconciliation. In June, 33 Presbyterians from across Canada travelled together to visit three of the PCC’s seven Indigenous ministries, worship at Mistawasis church – the only PCC church on a reserve, and visit the sites where two residential schools were run by the Presbyterian Church in Canada.  The group listened to stories of anger and pain and offered apologies.  They also witnessed some of the ways in which PCC ministries are transforming lives.

At Birdtail Sioux First Nation, site of the Birtle residential school, Doug Hanska thanked the visitors with an honour song. He explains, “The stop they did in Birdtail, I know it may not mean much to a lot of people, but to some of us it means a lot,” he said. “We can forgive and move on, like our teachings tell us.”

Lynn Vissers, a member of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in King City, Ontario, and participant on the tour shared, “The journey has only just begun for me.  This will be a long journey of building relationships.  I hope that I can help light a passion in others for the work that needs to be done in restoring relationships of dignity, kindness, and love for our Indigenous sisters and brothers.”

***Supporting international mission partners

But our efforts at tearing down walls don’t stop in Canada.  In a broken world desperate for God’s vision of grace and justice, our gifts to Presbyterians Sharing support international mission partners by sending mission staff and short term volunteers and providing grants.

The Rev. Dr. Paul McLean has been working with the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan for more than 30 years, helping them translate the bible into Indigenous languages so that people can begin to really know the gospel in the language of their hearts. Jackie Bannerman, a young adult intern, recently spent eight months in Hungary supporting the refugee ministries of our partner, the Reformed Church of Hungary.  And Dr. Nick Bauman is serving with the United Mission to Nepal for two years, training doctors and performing surgeries as a General Surgeon at the hospital in Tansen.

In the Middle East – probably one of the hardest places to be a Christian –Presbyterians Sharing supports the Near East School of Theology as they equip Christian leaders to serve congregations there and maintain a Christian witness of peace in the turbulent countries of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

This September, the Rev. Blair and Vivian Bertrand began a three year term with the Church of Central Africa, Presbyterian in Malawi.  Blair will support leadership development through the Blantyre Synod’s youth department, Zomba Theological College and the Theological Education by Extension program. And Vivian hopes to support the Synod’s work combating poverty. Blair feels called to this mission, and shares that “to be sent is to participate in the mission of God.”  Vivian adds, “As Christians, we are called into relationship. My understanding of mission centers around the idea that we are all impoverished in our own way, and as humans living in this world, through the grace of God, we have something to offer our brothers and sisters.”

These are just glimpses into some of the ways gifts to Presbyterians Sharing are making a difference in the lives of thousands of people – across Canada and around the world.

We have not perfectly learned the lessons of Jesus.  Our efforts at grace are still marked by our human impulse to manage, and to control.  We are still ruled by historical definitions of justice and equality – rooted in what we call fairness – and we forget that God in Christ has eliminated human boundaries, knocked down the fences and opened us to infinite possibilities in God’s generous grace.  We might be tempted, as those in the parable were tempted, to resent such generosity.  But led by the Spirit, perhaps we can be inspired by it.

By our witness, through our participation in the many projects supported by Presbyterians Sharing, may we be tempted to a broader experience of God’s generosity. And may we see God’s reign of justice and peace brought closer to all. Amen.

September 17, 2017

Posted on September 17, 2017 in category: Sermons
Tags: , , ,

Preached by Rev. George Yando on September 17, 2017.

Exodus 14: 19-31
Psalm 114
Romans 14: 1-12
Matthew 18: 21-35

Listen to this sermon

The Quality of Mercy

This past week has put us in a real crunch between the Gospel lesson for last Sunday and the one we read this morning.  You’ll recall how last Sunday Jesus talked with his disciples about the manner in which those who are members in the fellowship of the faithful ought to settle differences that arise between brothers and sisters in the faith.  If someone has offended you, it is your responsibility to initiate the process of reconciliation.  If the church is to have a ministry of reconciliation in the world, to quote the apostle Paul, it begins with being reconciled with one another.  And reconciliation begins with forgiveness.

That’s a hard lesson, especially this week, when this past Monday, the world marked the anniversary of September 11th, 2001, and the terrorist attacks on the United States that levelled the World Trade Centre, devastated the Pentagon building, and hurled four airliners and several thousand people in them and the collapsed buildings to their deaths.  Sixteen years have passed, yet the memories for countless millions are still fresh, for many – in particular those who lost loved ones – still very raw.  Those sixteen years have been marked by remembrances and reflections on our response.  We have seen and heard all manner of opinions expressed in regard to what that response should have been and has been: vengeance and retribution chief among them.  What we haven’t heard are many – if any –suggestions of forgiveness; indeed, if any have given thought to such a response, or attempted to give voice to that suggestion or insistence, those words have been lost amid the din of demands for retaliation and reprisal.

What we’ve also heard over the past fifteen years, one and a half months is the ongoing story of Omar Khadar, a Canadian citizen of Afghan descent who was detained by the United States at Guantanamo Bay for ten years, from the age of 16, during which incarceration he pleaded guilty to the murder of a U.S. Army medic, among other charges.  The saga of his recanting of his confession and appeal of his conviction, his eventual return to Canada, the subsequent suit against the Canadian government for alleged infringement of his rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its settlement earlier this year has been the subject of much debate.  Again, we’ve heard all manner of response to the news, ranging from satisfaction at what seems like justice being done to outrage that a convicted war criminal should be financially compensated. Again, what we’ve not heard is any discussion about forgiveness.

The gospel lesson this morning has Peter embroiled in a debate with Jesus about forgiveness.  It’s all quantitative: how many times should we forgive?  Societal norms of the day suggested once, or twice, maybe three times, but not four. Peter stretches it by asking, “What about up to seven times?”  Jesus responds, “No, not seven, but seventy-seven, according to more recent biblical scholarship and more modern translations – or in the classical translations, seventy times seven.

No matter.  Jesus pushes the limits beyond what anyone could imagine to be limits.  Then He goes further to tell a story to reinforce the point even resoundingly.  It is the story of the ungrateful servant, a story that hardly seems to the hearer to be good news.  Granted, it’s not news, because we’ve heard it before.  But that still doesn’t make it palatable.

The Bible repeatedly tells us that we ought to forgive those who have injured us.  We know that.  It is ingrained in our minds from the Lord’s Prayer and from passages such as the one that was our Gospel lesson for this Sunday.  Congregations are full of people who know they should forgive; those who recognize intellectually that there is some positive value in letting go of long-held hurts, but who find it well-nigh impossible to do so.  Being cheated on by a spouse, double-crossed by a business partner, having a confidence betrayed by a trusted friend – these and so many other wrongs of a similar nature are experiences that engender embarrassment and shame, anger and even rage, events that leave the injured party feeling defective, defeated, never quite good enough.  To be told that one ought to forgive and let go of the pain simply does not effect a change; in fact, it may add further aggravation to the situation – like salt in an open wound – by heaping a load of guilt onto an already vulnerable victim.

It’s in such a setting then, we seek to read and interpret the two pieces of our Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 18.  The first piece is a brief exchange between Peter and Jesus about the extent and nature of forgiveness.  Some biblical scholars in recent translations have had Jesus telling Peter to forgive seventy-seven times, rather than the classic “seventy-times-seven.”  Regardless, it is Jesus’ way of telling Peter that forgiveness is not a commodity to be reckoned on a calculator.  Forgiveness is not about arithmetic, but about mercy.  Forgiveness has no limits, indeed it can’t even be quantified.  The language of numbers is simply inappropriate when one contemplates forgiveness, a lesson well illustrated in the parable that follows, with the absurdity of the indebtedness of the first servant.

It is the parable told by Jesus that forms the second piece to our lesson this morning.  It is a vivid story, a story of a king who forgives one servant an impossible amount of indebtedness, but that servant is then unable to forgive a fellow servant a reasonable debt, a paltry sum by comparison.

The questions that go begging for answers are not about how either of those two servants came to be indebted – the second to the first and the first to the king. Rather, the first most pressing question is,  “Why does the first servant, having been treated so generously by the king, immediately act so ruthlessly toward his fellow servant?”  The king certainly seems justified in his harsh retaliation – torture and imprisonment.

But when we sit with the parable awhile and reflect on the difficulty of genuine forgiveness, it takes on a different tone.  Does the final verse mean that if I do not forgive those who injure me, God will withhold forgiveness?  Is divine forgiveness conditional on my letting go of grudges and hurts and wrongs committed against me?  That seems to be the point, but perhaps, not necessarily so.

Look again at the parable.  The most obvious point is that human forgiveness is rooted in divine forgiveness.  The king forgives the servant an incalculable amount of indebtedness. Depending on which biblical scholars you read concerning their best guesses of the relative value of different currencies in the time of Jesus, 10,000 talents is thought to represent more than the wages of a day labourer for 150,000 years!  It’s a financial burden in the order of the national debt.  The story doesn’t tell us how one individual even came to have control of such an astronomical sum, let alone how responsibility for retirement of the debt would ever be accomplished.  It’s just not an issue here.  Whether or not it is simply hyperbole, a fantastic number Jesus drew out of the air for no other purpose than to make his story listeners gasp in awe, or whether the individual involved had a position of responsibility that would make him a modern day counterpart to the Enron executives, is really anybody’s guess.  Again, it’s not the point.  The scenario calls for an impossible debt that simply could never be repaid.  It’s like sending a serial killer to prison with multiple life sentences totalling several hundred years; the point is, the individual is never, ever going walk free again.  The first indebted servant is buried so deep in debt that he will never see the light of a debt free day.

Again, the point is not the amount of the indebtedness but rather, the extent of God’s generosity.  There’s simply no way to measure the extent of God’s generosity when it comes to forgiving.  “Seven times,” or “seventy-seven times,” or “seventy-times-seven” just doesn’t say it, any more than suggesting “ten thousand talents” quantifies one’s indebtedness to God   Mercy isn’t about math, forgiveness isn’t something you can quantify, not where God is concerned.

But entrenched therein is the difficulty with the story, the problem with the first servant.  What happens to him?  There is a remarkable disconnect in the story.  He just doesn’t get it.  On hearing of his release from his obligation, the servant shows no appropriate response – no rejoicing, no gratitude, no celebrating with his wife and children who are spared from debtors’ prison, no reflection on the meaning of freedom and a fresh start.  We hear only that on the way out, he refuses the pleas of a colleague.  This “missing piece” makes the parable a puzzle, yet one that has to be taken seriously.  The first servant clearly has not discovered or experienced “forgiveness.”  We catch a glimpse of the problem in his initial plea to the king: though the debt is beyond any conceivable capacity to pay, he nevertheless makes his case to the king on a quid pro quo basis, “Give me time and I’ll pay you everything.”  He imagines he is dealing with the king on the basis of equity, of justice, of what’s due and deserved.  What he receives, but never grasps, is the king’s mercy.

Forgiveness has to do with something very different from distributive justice.   The parable wants us to know that.  The first servant still thinks of indebtedness and forgiveness as a kind of power game.  He has not come to view himself in a new light as a person who has truly been gifted, blessed, as the recipient of mercy rather than justice.  Consequently, he is simply not able to view himself in the same situation as the second servant, and is not able to show mercy in the same way that mercy has been shown to him.  The final verse makes it clear that forgiveness is a matter of the heart.  It involves a transformation of the inner disposition of the one who receives mercy, something the first servant just didn’t discover.

How then does this passage speak to those who are seriously injured, those who are battling with shame and alienation?  It portrays in a rather dramatic story the incredible kindness of God, who surprises people not by dealing with them on the scale of justice, even though they seek it in anticipation of a more favourable outcome, but by showing mercy.  It invites those who read or hear this passage to view themselves as forgiven debtors – no more, no less – living with and among other fellow debtors.  The difference between debtors is only slight.  To be forgiven means to give up the power game of playing innocent versus guilty, and to join a fellowship of forgiven sinners.

 

September 10, 2017

Posted on September 10, 2017 in category: Sermons
Tags: , , ,

Preached by Rev. George Yando on September 10, 2017.

Exodus 12: 1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13: 8-14
Matthew 18: 15-20

Listen to this sermon

Love and Living in the Light

We sometime picture the early Church as all sweetness and light and faithfulness under persecution. We read words like those we heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans earlier: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”  We read words like that and we can get a nice warm feeling about the early church and the deep and sustaining love that characterized their shared life. But then we come to the gospel reading we heard and you just know that there’s another side to it. [Jesus said]: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”

You can be absolutely sure that those words were not written for a church where the love and harmony was so perfect that they had never faced a situation in which they might need to take that kind of action. This was clearly written for a church that knew that unless it came up with a fair and grace-filled way of dealing with hurts and disputes in the church, they were in danger of tearing themselves apart. And that is the reality within the church: it was then and it is now, in pretty much any church, and for that matter in any group of people who are bound together by common commitments to shared goals and visions. Individual tensions and clashes will flare up periodically, because although we are all committed to the ways of love, all of us still have a fair bit of growing to do before we can consistently live what Paul says here:  “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

We do love one another, but we still do one another wrong because our love is still in its infancy. You don’t just become perfectly loving when you’re baptized – you grow into it gradually and often painfully as you continue to follow Jesus.  I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that although in my own mind and heart I’m committed to the ways of love, I much too easily find myself reverting to less altruistic and charitable strategies in order to get my own way.

For others among you it’s different. Your particular weaknesses may not be the same as mine, but each of us has our own buttons which, when pushed by someone, evoke responses in us that seem to override our desire to love.

Now all of this honest reality sounds a rather harsh note when we gather to worship. We gather in expectation that Jesus Christ will be present among us; that we can come together into the presence of God, be fed by the Word of God and be welcomed at the table where all creation is nourished for fullness of life.  But you heard the context in which Jesus said, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” He has just described a step by step process for bringing about reconciliation when the love has broken down among us. It is in the spirit of reconciliation, in the restoration of unity among people that Jesus says our coming together guarantees his presence. This is hardly surprising since the scriptures repeatedly describe the community of faith as the body of Christ. So when Christ’s body comes together, Christ is made present. But if we are busily dismembering the body of Christ, what sort of divine presence can we expect?

We’ve already acknowledged albeit in a token sort of way that we neophytes in this divine love business, seeking to emulate God’s love after the example Jesus set for us, but still very much works in progress.  But as I’ve said, this side of the fulfillment of all things, the repeated failure of love and the consequent fracturing of communion in the body are inevitable human realities, and though we can work for their healing and continue to grow into the fullness of love, we cannot help but fall far short of the ideal. And to pretend that it is otherwise would only add further failure upon failure and sin upon sin. And so in our worship we seek to take seriously these realities.

In the early gathering part of our liturgy we remind ourselves each week that we come to worship with all who trust in God, with all who walk in his grace, with all who hope for a world made new. We take ownership of our flawed natures and failing ways in our confession of sin. We know even as we gather with those who share our ideals and hopes and aspirations for a closer walk with God, together with our mutual missteps along that way, that our gathering also includes people who we have trouble getting along with. But we acknowledge that when the Holy Spirit gathers up all the worship from all the world into one great offering to God, that theirs is gathered up with ours and all becomes one sacrifice of praise. In our prayers of thanksgiving and petition, of supplication and intercession, we are reminded that we gather in solidarity with all who suffer in the tragedy of a world where the failure of love ranges all the way from indifference to neglect, from sarcasm to ridicule, from persecution to genocide.

As we approach God in worship and praise, in prayer and petition, we are reminded each week that our freedom to do so is solely on the basis of the love and mercy of Christ. We confess that we are entangled in sin and that our love has failed again and again and we have wronged one another. But then we hear the assurance that our sins are forgiven and that we will not be cast out of the presence of God on the basis of what we have done. Instead we will be embraced in the loving communion of God solely on the basis of grace, grace rooted in the extravagant love and mercy of God.

There are however, moments in our worship together when this dimension of our gathering and our relationships with one another are more tenuous and more telling.

In some ways it’s easy and safe to acknowledge the unity of our prayers with those praying for peace in Myanmar and Sudan, because our union with them is not being put to the test. Sometimes it is much harder to face our unity with that person just over there a few pews away as we gather at the Lord’s Table.  Because we know how that person actually let us down last week – or how offended they were by strong words of disagreement we uttered at a recent committee meeting. And now we have to face the fact that God is welcoming us both to the same table. We don’t get to veto the guest list. If we would come to the table we have to acknowledge that the reign of love is going to have to overrule whatever has come between us.

Because we are human and our love is compromised so often, it is not possible for us to always resolve every issue and restore every relationship before we meet together for worship or gather at the communion table. But what we are doing when we approach a time and place of worship, or of gathering at the table together, is declaring our willingness to be reconciled, our desire for reconciliation. It might still take quite a time and a lot of hard work to bring it to reality, but each of us comes to this sacred space and holy time knowing that God has called us – each and all of us – to follow Jesus together and that therefore we will have to work out whatever the differences are between us that sully and make less pristine the worship that we seek to bring to God.

The Internet brings such an abundance of information into our lives that hitherto would not have garnered our attention as it now does.  As an example, in one of a number of blogs I follow, a minister serving a church of another denomination on the other side of the world, shared a small but significant change in their congregation’s communion liturgy that was instituted some time ago.

The minister writes, “And so now at this table – after the invitation is given, the Communion Hymn sung, the elders gather and the communion elements are brought forward and laid on the table – we exchange a sign of peace together. We bless one another, wishing the gift of Christ’s peace each to the other.

And in our liturgy we precede that by saying together:

‘Though we are a company of strangers, we welcome one another with the blessing of Christ.’

He goes on to say, “For no matter how well we know one another, no matter how fully we have become brothers and sisters to one another, we are still to a greater or lesser extent strangers to each other. Every relationship we have is still a dance of repeated estrangement and reconciliation and groups that try to deny the stranger in one another are usually trying to impose an oppressive conformity on one another. That defeats love just as surely as any open division.

Add so we say:

‘Though we are a company of strangers, in approaching this table,

we bind ourselves to one another to live in love and peace

from this day forth.’

“We don’t say it because it’s easy. We don’t say it because it is even close to being fulfilled among us. We don’t say it because we want to delude ourselves or others that everything is lovely in our little group. We say it because it is the hope to which we have committed ourselves, and we say it again and again, week after week, because if we don’t keep reminding ourselves how big the vision is, we very easily lapse back into a complacency that allows us to sweep problems under the carpet and settle for superficial fellowship and keeping things nice. We say it over and over to keep challenging ourselves out of the easy option of tolerating shallow familiarity rather than dealing with the pain of pushing beyond our comfort zones and out into the terrifying depths of love that lie beyond our past failures and hurts.”

So writes this minister / brother in Christ from halfway round the world, yet as close to us in spirit as our next breath.

The covenant we undertake in baptism underpins the reality that having been called together by God, we commit ourselves to love one another. Sometimes the prayer for peace for another is the only step of love we are capable of, but when it is the only step you can take, take it. It is no easy thing to wish the peace of Christ to one who has wounded you. Nor is it easy to receive a genuine heartfelt blessing of Christ’s peace from someone you know you have wronged. We might be able to say the words, but to act on them and to keep saying them until we push ourselves into active peacemaking is a tough road. But where two or three gather to take that road together, there is Christ in the midst of us. As we grow into those words and so can increasingly say them with a real desire to make them come true, so Christ is re-membered among us.  And as Christ is re-membered among us, so healing is brought into our world, into the very creation itself. And so God’s plan is advanced towards its fulfillment, the reconciliation of the entire universe through Christ.  Amen.

 

September 3, 2017

Posted on September 3, 2017 in category: Sermons
Tags: , , ,

Preached by Rev. George Yando on September 3, 2017.

Exodus 3: 1-15
Psalm 105: 1-6, 23-26, 45b
Romans 12: 9-21
Matthew 16: 21-28

Listen to this sermon

Thinking Things Human and Divine

 [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

            — Matthew 16:23

We’ve all heard those good news / bad news kinds of stories.  Last week’s Gospel lesson was of the good news variety.  Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say I am?  Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied that Peter had divined the correct answer, one which could only have been revealed to him by God.  That was the good news.

This week’s lesson begins with the bad news, the downside of last week’s good news.  This morning’s Gospel reading makes it clear that while Peter knew the right answer to a pivotal question put to him by Jesus, he didn’t fully understand what it meant.  Jesus went on to explain that as Messiah, he would suffer many things and finally be killed.   Peter took Jesus aside and began to castigate him and scold him, rail against him and plead with him.  Whatever else he might have said to Jesus that Scripture does not record, the language was evidently strong; Peter’s rebuke was the same expression described elsewhere in the Gospels when Jesus’ rebuked the demons.  Peter was arguing quite simply that, “There has to be another way, Lord, a better way.  You’re supposed to liberate our people, not die, leaving that unaccomplished, those hopes unrealized and dreams dashed.” That’s when Jesus responded with what have become memorable words: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter had presumed to rebuke Jesus for speaking of his imminent death right after Peter had acknowledged him to be the Messiah. “God forbid it, Lord!” he said, “This must never happen to you.”

It was natural enough, a very human response that Peter should think it just plain wrong that the great leader and liberator whom he had now identified, should die at the hands of his own people. Yet here he was speaking of dying.  The Messiah was expected to lead the nation, to renew a glorious kingdom. If Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem would bring him face to face with such opposition that the outcome could very well be his death, the solution was obvious: don’t let it happen.  The typical human reaction to life threatening danger is what’s known as the “fight or flight response.”  Jesus was proposing a third way: that of suffering servant, one whose Passion, death and resurrection would pave the way for God’s salvation of humanity.

Matthew tells us that, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Mt. 16:21). Beginning with Peter, and no doubt, drawing in the other disciples, they struggled with what they expected of a great leader. Had they not been waiting a long time for him to appear? How could their hopes be so quickly disappointed? And as for being raised on the third day, what could that possibly mean? People of faith were able later to see that their liberation depended not on Jesus’ earthly success, but on his death, and that his victory over death was a greater victory than the greatest triumphs of their greatest kings in the past. Peter’s faith however, just could not see that far at that time.

Several aspects of this exchange between Peter and Jesus stand out. First, Jesus called Peter, “Satan.” Just as Satan had tempted Jesus in the wilderness, now Peter tempts Jesus by trying to turn him away from the hard road ahead. Second, Jesus’ order to Peter, “Get behind me” isn’t a dismissal, Jesus saying to Peter, “Get lost!” Rather it’s an invitation, a call to Peter to assume his proper place as a disciple; Jesus wants Peter to “have his back,” so to speak, to get behind him and support him come what may. Third, Jesus calls Peter a “stumbling block,” a “hindrance,” an “obstacle in the path Jesus is determined to take. Peter’s calling Jesus away from the road to the cross sets before Jesus the scandalous possibility of NOT suffering, dying and being raised – the very acts Jesus says will bring salvation to humanity.  As I read this passage, it strikes me that the possibility of disobedience to God’s will seems real for Jesus, even as he rejects the temptation of Peter’s proposal.  It is a temptation that will linger, worm its way into his resolve, even as late as the night before his death when he would pray in the garden, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”  But here and now, the temptation presented by Peter is resisted and set aside. Fourth, having called Peter, “Satan,” having called him back into line, and having refused the scandalous option of disobeying God’s will, Jesus tells Peter that his mind is set on human things, not the divine. Jesus lived obediently and served selflessly; but, in contrast, Peter seems to have his heart set on the easy road and the good times, basking in the adulation of the crowds as Jesus performed signs and wonders and delighting in the aura surrounding their master and teacher.

In Peter’s declaration of Jesus as Messiah, he got the right answer to Jesus’ question, but didn’t fully understand what it meant. Peter, though recognizing Jesus, didn’t comprehend the call to discipleship as a call to service; rather, he framed it as a call to privilege and power.   And Jesus labels such thinking as typically human and not divine.

The serving and suffering nature of his divinity was set against his human nature and the temptation to take Peter’s suggestion to avoid the cross, perhaps even to rally the masses and liberate them from the bondage of Rome by force. That struggle, as I mentioned, continued even up to night before his was given over to death. Nevertheless, it was a road he resolutely chose to take, in humility and obedience and service to God and on behalf of the whole of humanity.

And so he went, not lightly or with superior detachment but humanly, in struggle and despair to drink to the bitter dregs from the cup that was his to drink. That is what it meant for him to be fully human and divine. The disciples had difficulty holding those two qualities together — the human and the divine. They saw his greatness in human terms, as people still are inclined to do: setting their minds not on divine things but on human things. So, in lacking the divine vision, the disciple becomes an “adversary:” Satan. It is more significant than a lack of vision in human terms, as in the corny old saying I learned long ago:

“Two men looked through prison bars,
one saw mud and one saw stars.”

We do need to look up and see heavenly things, but there is more to it than that, in a strangely contradictory way. In one way it was the very greatness, even divinity, of Jesus, which caused the disciples in their limited understanding of the nature of God, to think in human terms.

What they did not understand about the greatness of God was that he was prepared in Jesus to be humbled. See what Jesus said next to the disciples after he told Peter to get behind him and think of divine things:

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ (v.25) ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’” — Matthew 16:24-25

To understand the nature of his divine sacrifice they needed to see him as the servant leader: how the great and holy one was to fulfill his mission of service to others and to enter into glory through humility: by emptying himself of his glory.  That realization would, in the early tradition of the church, become framed as an affirmation of faith, one we read in Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi, where he quotes what must have been one of the earliest Christian hymns with which they confessed their belief.  Paul wrote:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, …. who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” — Philippians 2:5-11

What does it mean for us? What then do we do? Looking up and seeing things divine yet human in Jesus Christ we are called to follow this humble servant leader, leaving ourselves behind, taking up our cross and following him. We should not be deceived about how difficult that is, especially today for people who have had some success in life and are reasonably comfortable. To lose one’s self flies in the face of popular wisdom and teaching today when there is so much emphasis on self-fulfillment. Jesus wasn’t saying merely, “Leave selfishness behind” but “leave yourself” or “leave your life behind.” The Greek word translated “self” or “life” here is “psyche,” which also means “soul.” So we could say instead of “for those who would save their life will lose it”, “those who would save their soul would lose it”.

Make no mistake, popular wisdom is all against this fundamental Christian teaching. Anyone who does not seek their own fulfillment is likely to be regarded with scorn and treated with contempt. When the values of the marketplace dominate all fields of human endeavour, talk of sacrificial service is likely to be greeted with deep suspicion as if it is only another way of seeking your own ends by devious means; cries of “Hypocrite!” resound because of the reigning assumption that “everyone must be self serving no matter what they might appear to be doing or what they say.” Have you noticed the cynicism of commentators when they say that it is necessary for politicians to lie and break promises, while they attack church people for saying it could be different, and how they are very quick to point out hypocrisy in church leaders as though it is characteristic of us all? As atheism and, more likely, pagan religions grow more common we can expect more of that kind of aggression against the disciples of Christ, because he really does challenge false values in a most fundamental way:

As Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

If you are not prepared to go that strange way, to see things in divine rather than human terms, you will be an “adversary,” you will be Satan like Peter; you will be blocking the path in front of Jesus, rather than being his follower. But if you are able to forget yourself and follow the servant leader, you will see those forces of evil overcome and in the end you will share in the rewards. As Matthew records these lofty words:

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.” Mt. 16:27. The kingdom will be established, contrary to – and in spite of – Peter’s limited vision.

The way of humble service, through struggle, disappointment, despair and death, through Jerusalem to Gethsemane and on to Calvary, leads ultimately to the day of resurrection, the gift of new life in the Spirit, the submission of evil to the goodness of God and the transformation of world in the Kingdom of God. It is in the Kingdom, both in this world and beyond, that the true nature of the Messiah is revealed.

Are we thinking human things rather than divine things? Will we continue to do so? Are we adversaries of Jesus or advocates for him? Are we stumbling blocks, or followers? Are we “in the way” or “on the way?”   It is an important question, a question upon which our life, our death, and our rebirth into eternal life hangs.  It is a choice we are called to make, not just once in a lifetime, but literally every day of our lives.  Each day as we make choices, we are asked to choose between life and death, between death to self and life eternal.  May God help us to make the right ones each day, to the honour and glory of His Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

August 27, 2017

Posted on August 27, 2017 in category: Sermons
Tags: , , ,

Preached by Rev. George Yando on August 27, 2017.

Exodus 1: 8-2: 10
Psalm 124
Romans 12: 1-8
Matthew 16: 13-20

Listen to this sermon

The Crowded Altar

One Sunday a while back, after I had been here for a few services, a member of the congregation came up to me after worship and told me how much she was enjoying the sermons.  She went on to say that the first thing she did upon arriving on Sunday morning and receiving a copy of the order of service was to look at the key verse in the bulletin’s title block, then at the sermon title, and try to guess – or figure out – what direction the sermon might go.

This morning’s key verse from Romans, with Paul’s urging for believers to present themselves as a living sacrifice to God – coupled with the sermon title, “The Crowded Altar” would suggest a focus on the passage from Romans. I recall years ago, shortly after making a recommitment to Christian faith in my early twenties, listening to a Baptist preacher speak on this passage from Romans and offer the observation that, “The problem with living sacrifices is they have a tendency to crawl off the altar.”  I’ve never forgotten that.

We’ll get to that comment in a few minutes, but I’d like to begin this morning by spending a little time on the story that was our Old Testament lesson. It presents the background to the birth of Moses and the drama that saw him lifted from a precarious advent among Hebrew slaves to a lofty position of advantage among the Egyptian elite.

In reviewing that story, we’ll come to discover that Paul’s impassioned plea about being living sacrifices to God resonates through the story of Moses; and in turn, that same story has something to say to Paul’s challenge to Christians in his day – and in ours – the challenge of faithful living.

First, a word about our context, about who we are as Christians living in Canada in the early twenty-first century.

For one, we don’t live under Pharaoh. Our prime minister does not have absolute power over us, nor is he revered as god. We at least hold onto the illusion of choice when it comes to our rulers. None of us are slaves. Things were very different in Moses’ day however.

In our context, it would be easy to hear today’s story from the Hebrew Bible as simply a rather charming tale about a baby in the bulrushes, and move on – and that is what many Christians do in response to this story. But to do so would be to overlook a story which contains a radically generous invitation to us all.

It’s true that we don’t have a Pharaoh. But powerful and manipulative forces do shape our lives in ways we cannot control. We all live under the domination of global capitalism. It is so big and so pervasive that the ways it affects our lives are almost invisible – but take a look around. Our elected representatives often make political decisions based not on what the electorate wants, nor on what the future holds, but in response to powerful corporate interests. How and where we shop, what we buy, what we eat, what we wear, how we travel and how we spend our leisure time are all affected by global capitalism.

Some industries, such as aerospace and automotive manufacturing, companies like Bombardier, General Motors and General Electric are heavily subsidized, while wind farms, organic growers and bicycle manufacturers do not receive the same subsidies. Much of our clothing is manufactured overseas in sweatshops which are not subjected to fair labour laws.

We swallow the myth that we are struggling, marginalized underdogs, even when it’s told to us in our homes, on enormous television sets located in the leisure and recreation rooms of the biggest houses on the planet. Meanwhile, those who really are battling – single parents, the chronically ill, students, the poor – are given short shrift in our government’s budgets; and asylum seekers are herded through a reception process like cattle through chutes and stockades as we bleat about protecting our borders, while annually thousands of air arrivals overstay their visas with little attention and virtual impunity.

None of us can control the processes and policies of global capitalism or its political minions. We are not terribly powerful. Nevertheless, we all benefit from the system. Because whether or not we feel comfortable with the idea, most of us are the rich; relative to a large segment of the global population, we are rich. We are the people who live in big houses, drive cars, have wardrobes packed with clothes; we travel for pleasure and spend more money on social or recreational pursuits than many families live on for an entire year.

This, then, is the context in which we encounter today’s story, a story that sets the scene for the Exodus, that great mass migration of a people out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. Knowing this, it is tempting to focus on the man who led them, Moses – but if we do, we miss the point. And it is tempting to focus on the idea of personal liberation, but again, we would miss the point. Instead, it is the many players who keep a baby alive who make the story relevant to us now.

The story opens with a new Pharaoh in Egypt, who decides to unite his empire by setting it against the Israelite people. He forces the Hebrews into slave labour, and instructs the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all the baby boys. But Shiphrah and Puah, the first savers of life, quietly refuse.

Then there is the mother who hides her baby away as long as possible, then places him in a basket and sets him floating on the Nile. Next we meet Pharaoh’s daughter, who finds the baby and takes pity on him. Finally there is the baby’s sister, who speaks to Pharaoh’s daughter and arranges for the baby’s mother to be his wet nurse until he is old enough to be adopted, and named.

The only reason the baby lived – the baby who became Moses and led his people out of slavery – was because of the saving actions of many: the list begins with Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who refused to follow Pharaoh’s orders, choosing life over death and the God of Israel over the god of Egypt. The baby’s mother also chose life, hiding the baby away then taking a chance with his life in a basket on the river. Then Pharaoh’s daughter, who found the baby and realised it was Hebrew, also chose life. And then there was the baby’s sister who lingered around the waterhole of the slave drivers at who knows what risk, to watch over her baby brother’s life.

This story of salvation required the action and involvement of many people. Some of them were nobodies: Hebrews, slaves, women. One of them was a somebody: Pharaoh’s daughter.  Yet it was only because of their combined efforts that the baby lived.

We need to hear this because, domestically, most of us are nobodies. We don’t have the ear of our Prime Minister. For all the petitions and campaigns and nonviolent actions we might sign or support, we often fail to effect much change in government policies which lock up children and asylum seekers. We don’t seem to have much impact on federal budgets which penalise the poor, single mothers, students, the chronically ill, and yet which make it even easier for big business to turn massive profits. Despite our efforts, the Arctic Icepack looks destined to disappear while new potash mines are opening up on some of our prime farming land. And for all our pleas and petitions, the promises made by both parties prior to being elected have yet to come to fruition in regard to real substantive progress in reconciliation with the indigenous peoples of this land.  In our context, we are little people.

As little people, it is easy to be discouraged. But this story should encourage us. It shows that the actions of little people, no matter how small, can have enormous impact. We don’t know what the impact will be, but when, like the midwives, and like the baby’s mother and sister, we reverence God more than we fear Pharaoh, when we choose life and love over personal comfort, then we too will make choices which are part of God’s plan of salvation. So we need to hear this story as the little people that we are.

But we also need to hear it because, internationally, we are big people. We are wealthy beyond measure while others suffer. Our houses are among the biggest in the world. Our wardrobes overflowing with cheap clothes are possible thanks only to the lethal conditions on Indian cotton farms, the appalling conditions of garment factories in China and Bangladesh and Cambodia, their special economic zones where normal labour laws don’t apply. Our comfort and wealth rides on the backs of countless, invisible, oppressed people, past and present, in ways it is difficult even to imagine.

We cannot opt out of all these systems of power which grant us privilege and control our lives. But we can make choices. And that is exactly what this story shows us.

The story makes clear that Pharaoh’s daughter was a member of the powerful elite. She was born into the wealthy ruling class. She had handmaids and attendants. Her house was built from bricks made by Hebrew slaves. Her clothes were fashioned from fabric woven by Hebrew women. Her wealth was built on the backs of others. It may have been more obvious in her time – she may have actually jostled up against the ones who served her, whereas we just read about them when their factories collapse – but she and we are in the same boat.

Now, the Exodus is a story told by the Israelites. It would have been easy for them to demonise their oppressors, and who could be more demonic than a member of Pharaoh’s own family? Or, instead of demonising their oppressors, they could have ignored them. It’s much easier to write them out of the story than to acknowledge their presence and name it good.

But this story doesn’t do that. Instead, it tells us that a member of the ruling class took part in God’s saving action. Pharaoh’s daughter – perhaps a spoiled brat, certainly an aristocrat and definitely the owner of slaves – took pity on a slave baby who was under sentence of death and adopted him. Who knows what the penalty would have been, had her father found out? It’s likely she took an enormous risk and yet, she chose life. So this story shows that God’s call to choose life over death extends to all of us, even those who benefit from the status quo.

And this is the beginning of a great story of salvation, of God’s liberating action in the world. It is a story first told by the underdogs, the youngest sons, the ones without land. It is a story told by the Palestinians. Now it is a story for indigenous peoples all over the world. It is a story for the Nepali men on work visas in Doha, Qatar who are constructing buildings and facilities for the 2020 World Cup Soccer championship, men whose pay and passports are being withheld by their employers and who are dying from heat exhaustion and extreme fatigue in brutal working conditions. It is a story for the garment workers in Bangladesh, and the virgins sold in the streets of Pnomh Penh, and the Kalahari bushmen of Australia forced off their land, and the African Americans living in urban slums and the refugees and asylum seekers who are turned away from borders in Europe and in North America.

But it is also a story for us, because it tells us that we are all needed: midwives and slaves, women and children and yes, the powerful, too. We are all invited to work, in ways big and small, against the powers which destroy people’s lives. The God of the Israelites is much, much bigger than one nation, one people, one clan, and God invites all of us into the work of liberation time and time again.

Our actions might be small: a letter to our MP, a name on a petition, a choice for fair trade, a cup of water to one of God’s little ones. Our actions might be big, like Rev. Lim, the Korean pastor jailed for helping the disadvantaged in North Korea, and the countless medical professionals and relief workers toiling on behalf of the desperately destitute in some of the most dangerous and war-torn places on earth.  Our actions might be carefully plotted and carried out with humour – think of the way the midwives played on Pharaoh’s prejudices, saying Hebrew women just slipped their babies out before the midwives could get there – or our actions may be a spontaneous, necessary response to a situation of oppression which presents itself on a quiet weekday morning. Our actions may be individual, just as the women in this story acted alone or in pairs; or they may be corporate, such as when the whole people joined together and left Egypt for the Promised Land.

Whether our actions are big or small, national or local, individual or corporate, this story shows that we cannot know what ripple effect they might have. None of the women in this story knew that her action would lead to the Exodus. In the same way, we cannot know what God’s plan is, or who will next be set free. But when we let our hearts of stone be moved by compassion; when we reverence God more than we fear Pharaoh; when we act not out of fear, but out of love, then we too will have a role to play in God’s unfolding story of liberation.

It doesn’t matter where we are placed. It doesn’t matter whether we are the oppressor, or the oppressed – and in our society, we are always a bit of both. Because this story tells us that we all have a role in God’s work against violence and exploitation; we can all participate in God’s passion for justice. Each of us, big or little, somebody or nobody, rich or poor, is invited to step away from the powers which control us, and walk towards a new way of life.

Remember Paul and his challenge to be living sacrifices? Remember that Baptist preacher’s wry observation about living sacrifices that are tempted to crawl off the altar? The story from Exodus confirms for us that the altar is not a lonely place at all but is in fact quite crowded. For where there is community, collaboration, unity and common purpose, there is strength and heightened resolve and hope.  The altar may be crowded but there’s room for plenty more. And with such sacrifices God is mightily pleased.  Amen.

 

August 20, 2017

Posted on August 20, 2017 in category: Sermons
Tags: , , ,

Preached by Rev. George Yando on August 20, 2017.

Genesis 45: 1-15
Psalm 133
Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: 10-28

Listen to this sermon

How Wide is Your Embrace?

It was late afternoon in mid-December, 2001. I had stopped in at Staples on the way home to pick up my new Daytimer appointment book for the coming year. Our daughter Beth had just arrived home from school and we were sitting at the kitchen table catching up on the news of the day. Beth was idly flipping through my new appointment calendar for coming year 2002 when she asked, “What’s Martin Luther King Day?”

What followed was a journey into the past, a recollection of what had been current events for me when I was my daughter’s age, but what was for her a lesson in ancient history. At least that what it seemed like for her at first. But as we talked, the story began to take on the appearance of fantasy, at least from her perspective, a chronicle that grew more and more bizarre as it unfolded, a tale whose telling became increasingly interspersed with increasingly incredulous questions and even more incredulous looks on her face at hearing the responses.

“You mean in the United States and in South Africa white people wouldn’t sit in the same seat on a bus with black people?” “You mean a black person couldn’t use the same toilet as a white person, just because they were black? “You mean white people and black people weren’t allowed even to drink from the same drinking fountain, just because they were of different races?”

It was such a bizarre concept for Beth, just had been for me at the same ripe old age of 12 or 13. I was raised in a home where discrimination of any kind was simply not an issue, and so I encountered and engaged the world from a perspective that never even considered the notion of discrimination. At that time in Canada we could afford to be somewhat smug about racial discrimination. There were very few black people living in Canada, relative to the rest of the population, and certainly none in the small farming community in southern Ontario where I grew up, so I couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. Besides, Canadians prided themselves on being multicultural in their outlook. Rather than adopting the melting pot mentality of our southern neighbours and insisting everyone forget their roots and become “one,” meaning “all the same and just like us,” Canadians were content to live and let live where differences in colour or creed, heritage and customs were concerned.

“Keep up your Ukrainian dancing, speak Hungarian in your home if you want to, worship in a synagogue or temple if that’s your preference. After all, we’re Canadians and we don’t discriminate against anyone.” That was the prevailing attitude in the home where I grew up and as a result, I was raised to believe that any other attitude toward those of difference races or religious affiliations was deviant.

It’s a different world now, and a very different Canada. Ethnic diversity has become so diverse that those of White Anglo-Saxon stock now seem almost in a minority. And although I had long since shed my naivety about the seeming lack of racial intolerance in Canada, life in Prince Albert in the nearly twenty years that I have lived there has opened my eyes to a piece of Canadian history about which I had previously been blind, namely the dealings my immigrant ancestors and subsequent generations of colonists have had with the people of our country’s first nations.

The discussion with our daughter about racial intolerance and discrimination that mid-December afternoon in 2001 happened barely three months after 9-11. “Islamaphobia” was quickly becoming the latest buzz word; the events on 9-11 in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania had fueled a growing suspicion of those of different religious backgrounds. In the wake of 9-11, these were attitudes which, on the surface at least, seemed understandable – until you came to realize that a misguided, wrong-headed radical misinterpretation of Koranic teachings by a minority of rabid fundamentalist Muslims had negatively skewed feelings toward all those of Islamic faith. Attitudes were hardened and hard attitudes often die hard.

The world has changed, but like so many people, I’ve become rather accepting of the changes. Although I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the changing attitudes around me in regard to discrimination, I’ve come to accept the reality of them nevertheless, accepting, and perhaps even becoming somewhat complacent in regard to the injustice of it all. Not surprising, given that attitudes have a way of evolving so that those who hold those attitudes are not even aware of how they have changed, and even if they were, how one can so easily justify ones particular stance.

Traditions, particularly religious traditions are much the same. For most of its history, for example, the Christian church has categorized people on the basis of gender, and many denominations continue to do so, excluding them from ministerial or priestly office and even from roles in lay leadership, then justifying their positions through a specific method of scriptural interpretation, a interpretative approach coloured and informed by the cultural context in which the gospels were composed.

This morning’s gospel reading is a case in point. It is a story filled with reflections of the culture in which Jesus of Nazareth walked and taught, and of the world of the late first century in which Matthew penned his gospel account.

Today’s passage is a difficult one. The difficulty stems from trying to import 1st century cultural values and explaining them away in the early years of the 21st. It’s part of what makes this what I believe to be one of the most difficult passages in the bible.

”What are you doing, Jesus, calling a poor woman a ‘dog’?”

One biblical commentator, William Barclay, suggests that perhaps Jesus had a glint in his eye when he said it, offering a knowing glance to the woman who would then know that he didn’t really mean it, that it was said ‘tongue in cheek’ in order to make a point for the disciples. Others suggest that the Greek term used for “dog” would be better translated “puppy” and thus Jesus was really using it as a term of endearment.

This answer, however, holds as much water for me as would a situation where a child calls his sister or mother the “b – word,” the term for a female canine, and then tried to justify it by saying something like “it’s in the dictionary.” He’d still be a prime candidate for whatever is the socially acceptable corrective these days that has replaced washing his mouth out with soap.

It’s crucial to understand this difficult passage in the context in which it is found in the Bible. At the beginning of this 15th chapter in Matthew’s gospel account, the Pharisees come down hard on Jesus because His disciples are not following rigorously the dietary and purification customs of their religion. Jesus responds by lambasting the Pharisees, calling them “hypocrites” and “blind guides” in an intense discussion of what comprises “clean” vs. “unclean.” Jesus refutes the argument that God’s love and grace and approval are dispensed on the basis of tradition and ritual, rituals and traditions that separate the clean from the unclean. In one instance, Jesus asserts that it is the words that come out of a person’s mouth, not the food that goes into it, that makes a person “unclean.”

It’s not the eating of pork chops that’s really offensive to God, says Jesus, it’s evil thoughts, murder, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony and slander. Jesus leaves that place and that discussion, and Matthew promptly sets up for us – in the wake of that war of words with the Pharisees – yet another confrontation. This time it is an altercation involving Jesus, His disciples and a Canaanite woman, a woman who, in the cultural and religious context of the time, epitomizes what the “world” considers “unclean.”

“Lord, Son of David” she cries. Her greeting reveals a rather sophisticated understanding of the Jewish religion, particularly for a Canaanite woman. It also demonstrates an understanding of Jesus’ real identity, one which the religious leaders – and even the disciples – have a hard time grasping.

“Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” she cries.

But in response to her plea Jesus replies, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” In one fell swoop, Jesus pejoratively demeans the woman and curtly dismisses her pleas.

Is this the Jesus we know? Is this the Jesus who loves little children, who graciously offers His gospel and love to all who receive Him, which the woman clearly does? Is this the Jesus we sing about when we say “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so?”

Not, apparently, if you are a Canaanite woman with a sick child. And certainly not if we read and hear this passage in isolation from its context, both culturally, – meaning the time and place in which it was written – and textually, referring to where it appears in Matthew’s gospel.

How do we resolve the tension between what we believe, – namely that Jesus is the full embodiment of God’s love – and the meaning behind the words that are coming out of his mouth? Jesus appears to be guilty of the same transgression for which he has just condemned the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. He’s called the Canaanite woman “unclean” on the basis of a religious tradition that considers Gentiles unclean, and, with the words that he has uttered, he seems to be voicing evil thoughts and slander.

Some commentators, as I mentioned, have tried to explain away the harsh words of Jesus as a simple re-echoing of the worldly discriminatory attitudes of the Pharisees that Jesus hopefully thought might be recalled by his disciples and resonate with their earlier lesson. The key, in this passage, however, isn’t going to be uncovered by sanitizing Jesus’

words. Like it or not, we are left with the text of the Bible, and we are left with the tension that exists between the love of Jesus Christ and the words that He speaks.

But rather than trying to bind or release Jesus from the literal meaning of His words, the power in this passage, I believe, is found in the woman’s response. She doesn’t cower down like the wretched cur that the world considers her to be. She doesn’t concede defeat to the powers and forces of the kingdom of the world, nor does she accept the overt slander and implicit evil thoughts that the rules and traditions of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law support. She faces Jesus’ voicing of the world’s response with persistence, a persistence based upon the understanding that, in spite of His apparent dismissal, Jesus really is he whom she addresses him as being, the Giver of God’s mercy and justice. In faith she recognizes Jesus to be who he really is, in spite of the distortion and deceit and deception and corruption of the world’s values represented in the words that come from his mouth, words that seem to slander and give voice to evil thoughts.

It’s in the woman’s response that we find a way to understand this passage. Confronted by the apparent indifference and scorn of Jesus, a scornful indifference that declares, “that’s just the way things are in this world,” her plea raises up for Jesus – and for his disciples [and for us] – a different vision of the world, one in which God will have his way.

Her comment is a declaration of faith. It is an affirmation of belief in a God whose love is above and beyond the corruptions of the world, and that she – even she, a woman, and a Canaanite – ought to be able to find gracious acceptance in God’s sight, in spite of who she is in the eyes of the world.

Contrary to the opinions of those previous commentators to whom I alluded – those who argued that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said, or that he was mimicking the Pharisees to point out how harsh and hard-hearted were their attitudes, – others have suggested that Jesus really was a man of his culture, one who had adopted the prevailing attitudes of those around him. They suggest that in the exchange between Jesus and that Canaanite women, the woman actually influenced Jesus for good, effecting a change of heart and an opening of his mind to the broader possibility of an all- inclusive kingdom of God, in effect, widening the embrace of Jesus to take in all who would trust in him.

I must confess I’ve struggled with how to understand the seemingly harsh words of Jesus, and can come to no comfortable conclusion. But perhaps that is of less importance than realizing where the wisdom of this story really lies: in the words and faith of the woman who recognizes in God a wider embrace, a warmer welcome for her and others like her, all those for whom the world would begrudge even bread from the table, much less a seat at it.

For our part, then, we can take a measure of comfort from the story, the knowledge that when we are confronted with what purports to be the indifference, or prejudice, or slander, or sexism, or racism of God, be it expressed by the church or by society or by those who presume to speak for God, we are guaranteed that God’s love for us expressed in Jesus Christ remains pure and uncorrupted, free from the slander and indifference and prejudice and sexism with which the world soils the Gospel. We are assured that the grace of Christ’s gospel continues to be bestowed upon each of us, in spite of the hatred and evil thoughts and slander and racism and sexism that the world throws at us in the name of the church and of Jesus Christ himself. We are assured that the love of Jesus Christ is as firm a foundation as we can ever imagine, in spite of God’s apparent silence or God’s apparent rejection of our sincerest prayers. We are promised that Jesus will respond with the love of God, no matter the barriers that the world erects, no matter how much the world tries to drown out Christ’s voice.

“Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” You didn’t scurry back to your hovel with your tail between your legs, like the dog some think you are, even after the whipping Jesus laid on you. Rather, you recognized Jesus for who he really is, and so you are blessed.

May we, in our turn, recognize Jesus Christ for who he really is, and may we never be driven from him by a world corrupted by traditions and rules of its own making. May we forever hear the love of Christ’s gospel, in spite of the voices that try to drown him out. May we see in Jesus the full realization of his gospel, and may our lives truly reflect his love, in how we live, in what we do, and by what we say. AMEN.

 

Older Posts »