Archive for August, 2012

August 19th – 12th Sunday after Pentecost

So this is our second last week to be reading from John’s Gospel, and today’s reading is one that often causes problems for people. Before we get into the problem areas, I just want to make a brief comparison between this gospel, and Mark’s, which is the one we have been reading for most of this church year. Several times, I have commented on the fact that Mark’s Gospel seems to be rushing. We keep seeing the word “immediately”, which Mark chose to push us as quickly as possible to the cross. John, on the other hand, is slower, more deliberate, often repeating himself. Moving from reading Mark to reading John can be just a bit irritating, especially if we are hoping for a simple narrative. But one of the benefits of reading John – speaking as an English teacher – is that it gives us a chance to read in a different manner. We can read meditatively, noticing that John’s circular style allows to focus on something again and again. This circular writing, then, is actually a spiral of greater intensity and meaning, rather than just a circle of repetition. It is like the rhetorical device of emphasis – by saying the same thing over and over, even with the words slightly changed – John is laying greater stress on his message. And the message this week is pretty straightforward. It is also a bit disgusting, because he says no less that five times, using slightly different words each time, that his followers are to eat his flesh and drink his blood.
In last week’s reading, Jesus commented on the fact that those who ate manna in the desert had died, but said that those who would eat the living bread would live forever. He repeated this in this week’s reading, so that we would understand the importance of the living bread. In a way, this also circles back to the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, when Jesus spoke to her about living water. In fact, he used very similar words: Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. In that conversation, the woman was asking if Jesus were greater than Jacob (since they are at “Jacob’s well.”) Here, the question is whether Jesus is greater than Moses, through whom God provided the manna in the wilderness.
Let’s get to the problem part of this reading. Many people are revolted by this reading, which seems to say that we must actually eat Jesus’ flesh, and drink his blood in order to obtain eternal life. It is for this reason that some denominations believe in transubstantiation – the act by which the bread and wine is actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ. The priest, at the moment of consecration, hold up the bread – usually, but not always, in the form of a host and announces: This is my body. Then he does the same thing with the wine, saying: This is my blood. Other denominations believe in something called consubstantiation, which means that, at the moment of consecration, the bread and wine, even though they remain bread and wine, also take on the qualities of his body and blood.
When we, in the Presbyterian Church, celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we use specific words at specific times. However, we attribute those words to Jesus, by saying them like this: We give thanks to God the Father that our Savior, Jesus Christ, before he suffered, gave us this memorial of his sacrifice, until he comes again. At his last supper, the Lord Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he took the cup after supper and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this in remembrance of me.” For whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. And when the time comes to break the bread and pour the wine, I say: When we break this bread, it is a sharing in the body of Christ. When we drink this cup, it is a sharing in the blood of Christ. And most of us are so accustomed to hearing this that we forget the words Jesus used when talking to the crowd of followers. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. You can’t put it much more simply than that, can you?
But before you rush on to assume that Jesus was espousing some kind of divine cannibalism, let’s remember that Jesus seldom spoke in a straightforward manner – especially in John’s Gospel. He went around and around things, preferring to muddy the waters rather than clarify things. So it is up to us to figure it out. We are not the only ones to be a bit confused by Jesus’ words. If you listen again to verse 52, you will hear that the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves: How can this man give us his flesh to eat? And, as you will see in next week’s Gospel, these words, and the arguments which followed, caused some of his followers to leave him. You see, the whole idea of eating and drinking blood would have been really offensive to the Jewish people. Laws concerning food include a prohibition against drinking blood or eating meat with blood still in it. And what about us? Granted, many of us like our steak rather rare, and people even eat raw steak, in steak tartare. But still, eating Jesus’ flesh, and drinking his blood? I think that most of us would draw the line at that. We prefer our religion neat and clean and appropriately done and appropriately metaphorical if you please.
And we are not alone in this. The early Christians, the people to whom John was writing, were not only offended at this language about eating and drinking Jesus; they were also offended by the very idea that Jesus was really human. They preferred to think that he was a sort of being who only appeared in human form, but was really all spirit. And John chose to write the way he did to emphasize the humanity of the Saviour. In the original Greek, he could have chosen one of two words to mean “flesh”. The first SOMA means BODY, but John didn’t use this word. Rather, he used SARX, which actually means FLESH. I believe that he did this to make it clear that Jesus was a real human being, one with all of the emotions and feelings of any other human being. You see, if Jesus had not been truly human, he would not have suffered and died, and the resurrection itself would have been nothing more than a cruel joke.
Robert Coleman, in his book, Written in Blood, told a story about a little boy whose sister needed a blood transfusion. After all of the testing had been done, it turned out that the little boy was the only one whose blood was a match. The doctor asked, “Would you give your blood to Mary?” The little boy’s lower lip began to tremble; then, he took a deep breath and said, “Yes, for my sister.”
After the nurse inserted the needle into his arm, the little boy began to look very worried, then he crossed himself, finally he looked at the doctor and said, “When do I die?”
Suddenly, the doctor realized that the little boy had thought that to give his blood to his sister meant he had to die, and miracle of miracles, he was willing to do that for his sister.
And that is what Jesus, our brother, was willing to do for us. It was not a metaphor, not a “pretend” death, not a staged resurrection. Jesus died for us, and his resurrection foreshadows our resurrection into eternal life. Jesus said: I tell you the truth, unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. Too often, we allow these words to be applied only to the time when we share communion at the Lord’s Table, when, in actual fact, they should be a part of our daily lives. The daily devotional which many of us in this church read is called “Today”, and its main message is: refresh, refocus, and renew, which is what we do each time we share in Communion. But the point of the devotional is that we should do this every day, and the point of Jesus’ words is that we should feed on him every minute of every day.
So now comes question time. I want you to think about your answers to these questions. With Jesus Christ available to us, what do we choose to feed on every day? With an invitation to share in the table of the Lord, whose table do we sit at on a regular basis? Do we sit at his table or at one placed before us by a secular world?
Too often, it seems that many of us who should know better – and I include myself in this category, unfortunately – feed on the kind of food that creates worry and anxiety, selfishness and intolerance, hatred and despair. We see things that our friends own, and, rather than rejoicing that they have been blessed by God, we are envious because we don’t have the latest gadget ourselves. We watch the news every night, and, rather than applying God’s understanding to what is happening in the world, and laying blame where it rightly belongs, we become bitter, wondering what kind of God would allow such things to happen. We see hypocrisy all around us – in our workplaces, in our neighbourhoods, and in our churches – and, instead of forgiving others as God forgives us, we become cynical. We see the rich and famous falling from grace, and we react with a: SERVES YOU RIGHT attitude, instead of showing compassion, and saying: THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD, GO I. Cynicism and bitterness can permeate our lives, if we let it.
There is an old Cherokee legend which you may have heard. One evening an old Cherokee looked into his grandson’s eyes and asked, “My son, I see fear in your eyes. What is troubling you?”.
The boy responded, “Often I feel as if two wolves are living inside me, one is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way. But…the other wolf… ah! The littlest thing will send him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all of the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his pain and fear are so great. Sometimes it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit and are always struggling against each other.”
With tears streaming down his face the boy looked intently into his Grandfather’s eyes and asked, “Which one will win, Grandfather?” Grandfather smiled and replied, “The one you choose to feed.”
And for us, it is not only the one we choose to feed, but with what we feed ourselves that will determine the winner. A little junk food never hurts anyone. Even though I don’t like ice cream, which is my husband’s favourite junk food, I confess that I have more than a passing fancy for a good French fry – or a chip, as I prefer to call it. But eating such food on a regular basis is not good for us. If we eat only junk food, without balancing it out with regular, healthy eating – including fresh fruit and vegetables – we will end up in trouble. And the same is true of living bread versus the bread offered by the world.
Throughout Scripture, and especially in this chapter of John, God’s word – spoken, written, and now living in Jesus Christ – is compared to food – to bread, the living bread. It is in Scripture that we will find God’s word, the word which is the bread of life, a life which is able to conquer sin and suffering, a life eternal which is waiting for us. So, when we share in communion, we are not actually eating his body or drinking his blood. Rather, by remembering what he did, both at the Last Supper AND on the cross, we are sharing in his life.
Keith and I got back from Labrador on Thursday. It took us the better part of two days to drive here, and on the way, we kind of ate bits and pieces of all sorts of things, including a lot of red licorice. By the time we got home, we were both famished for a real meal. We, as people, can’t survive on snacks, even though we enjoy them. We, as people, need real meals. We, as God’s people, need the living bread which gives us strength for the journey. We need the word of God. We need the people of God to show us where he is. We need a community of God’s faithful people to laugh with, to cry with, and to pray with. And we need to share the living bread with them. For it is through this that we affirm our belief that Jesus did come to live among us as one of us. It is through this that we affirm our belief that he died on the cross, spilling his blood to redeem us. It is through that we affirm our belief that he was raised from the dead, and taken into glory to sit at the Father’s right hand for all eternity. It is through this that we affirm our belief that eternal life is what awaits each one of us who eats of the living bread. Thanks be to God.

August 5th – 10th Sunday after Pentecost

Today we continued chapter six of John’s Gospel, which, on the surface, seems pretty straightforward. Jesus had gone away alone – no doubt exhausted after preaching to and feeding the crowd of 5000, and walking across the water to the boat in which his disciples went across the lake to Capernaum. But the crowd was having none of this – after what Jesus had done, they wanted more. And isn’t that typical? No matter how much we are given, we want more. If we go to a concert, we applaud for encores; if we have an amazing meal, we crave dessert; and if we see miracles, we expect them to continue.
But today, that’s not what Jesus is about. He isn’t performing miracles, or – as John calls them: signs – for the crowds. Rather, he is talking theology, in much the same way as he did before in this Gospel. Remember, if you will the stories of Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman. I was warned when I was in seminary that I couldn’t just say something like that and expect everyone to know what I was talking about, so I will just refresh your memory, so that you won’t need to frantically and quietly search through the pew Bible to find the references.
Nicodemus was one of the important religious leaders of the time, and came to Jesus under the cover of darkness to ask what he needed to do in order to be saved. Jesus’ reply perplexed him more than it helped him, when he told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again in order to enter into the kingdom of God. Of course, we in the 21st century understand this term “born again” to refer to a spiritual rather than a physical thing, so it kind of makes sense to us.
And the Samaritan woman – Jesus was sitting at a well, when she came to draw water, and he asked her for a drink. Then they had this whole discussion about living water, the water which would take care of thirst forever. Actually, she seemed to understand Jesus better than Nicodemus did, which tells us that great amounts of education won’t necessarily make a person smarter.
Now, back to today’s reading. The people came looking for Jesus. Why? Jesus is pretty pragmatic here. He said to them: You are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Now, one of the things that we often fail to understand is that Jesus was speaking to a particular people, a people who were educated in a particular way, a people who would have understood references that may escape us. In much the same way as when I use illustrations in sermons – I choose them in the hopes that they will be understood by the people who hear them. Unfortunately, this means that people who do not have the same background will often be left looking puzzled, as they try to figure out the underlying meaning. And that is why we explain Jesus’ references. That is why we need to study Scripture, to discover exactly what Jesus meant.
His audience would have understood – which we really don’t – the connections between what Jesus did and what was done in the book of Exodus. His walking on water directly referenced the fact that Moses was able to part the sea for the Israelites to cross over on their way to the Promised Land. And feeding the 5000 – of course, while the Israelites were wandering, they needed food, and Yahweh provided manna for them. But John’s purpose was not to show that Jesus is a new Moses. Unlike Moses, he is not simply leading the people out of bondage into a land flowing with milk and honey. Rather, he is delivering us from slavery to sin and death and into eternal life.
But the people following Jesus in today’s reading don’t seem to grasp that. They see Jesus as a wonder worker, as one who can perform signs and fill stomachs, and that is all they want from him. They ask him: What miraculous sign will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Sadly, that is often the case today. People are searching for something to believe in, for something to hold onto, but they want some kind of proof before they believe. But he can give them – and us – so much more. He offers the true bread from heaven, the food that endures to eternal life. And he offers it as a gift. What is so difficult to understand about that?
I am sure that you have all heard the comedy sketch called “Who’s on first?” Well, often, when I am reading John’s Gospel, I feel as though the people are in that sketch. Jesus is talking to the people, and they are replying to what he says, but there is a definite disconnect in the conversation. Jesus says: Do not work for food which spoils. They say: What must we do to do the works God requires? He replies: The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent. In other words, we don’t have to DO anything – just believe. Why was it so hard for them to accept this? Why is that so hard for us to accept this? Just believe, and you will be given the bread of eternal life.
You see, Jesus knew that the bread of this earth will not long satisfy us. He knew that we crave something more. St. Augustine said: My heart is empty until it rests in thee. And this is what we are craving. We know that there has to be something more, and here Jesus is, offering it to us – free for the taking.
If you will remember, when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, and being given manna for each day, some of them tried to gather more than they needed. This extra rotted overnight, and was filled with maggots. That is what happens when we try to get more than we need. And that is why we pray: Give us this day our daily bread. Not our bread for the week or the month or the year. We ask for our daily bread, the bread which satisfies, the bread which fills us. This bread is only to be found in Jesus Christ. And, you know what? That is the most amazing thing, the most miraculous thing, the most wonderful sign. It is only to be found in Jesus Christ. We don’t need to look anywhere else. We don’t need to church shop, as many people. All we need to do is to find Jesus Christ, and there is the bread of eternal life, waiting for us.
Look at the world we are living – this world of the 21st century. Despite the huge advances since the time of Jesus, very little of substance has really changed. It is still populated with people who, having had their fill of the bread of this earth, long for something more, and who seek that something more – not only in the pursuit of more earthly blessings, but in the empty spectacles and false promises provided for them in the pleasure palaces and cultic coliseums of our world.
The Romans called it “bread and circuses” and their rulers believed that if they provided enough of each their citizens would be happy and their
civilization would last forever. And they were wrong. We call it “reality TV”, and believe that it reflects what life is really like. And we are wrong. There are more important things to seek than the bread which spoils; there is more to life than the pleasures of the flesh which are fleeting at best. And Jesus offers them to us – in the bread of life.
In a former life, I used to be an English teacher, and became familiar with much of Shakespeare’s work. One quote from Hamlet, I believe, fits in nicely here. Speaking to Horatio, Hamlet said: There are more things in heaven and in earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Truer words were never spoken, especially when applied to what happened in today’s Gospel reading. Last week, one of the hymns we used was: Jesus Calls us Here To Meet Him, and we will be hearing the melody again during the time of meditation. We are called, not only to meet him, but to share the bread of life with him, to become part of him.
But for some people, that isn’t enough. They STILL want signs; they STILL want proof; they STILL want bread. And Jesus talks about faith. Fred Craddock wrote: they still want to be in charge, even of faith itself. Show us a sign, and we will see, we will weigh the evidence, we will draw the conclusions, and we might even decide to believe. We MIGHT decide to believe? How arrogant can someone get? We MIGHT decide to believe. First of all, I don’t think that one can DECIDE to believe. Either you do or you don’t. But, you know, that sounds like us sometimes. Sometimes I hear people say: I decided to believe. I have to confess, I find it difficult to keep silent when people say this. It is like DECIDING to have blue eyes. Obviously, I can’t reference hair colour, since we CAN decide on that, but our eyes – well, what we get is pretty much what we have. What we CAN decide as far as faith is concerned is whether or not we accept what it is that Jesus offers. We can decide if we are going to take the living bread or leave it. We can decide for or against eternal life.
I have read about people who view faith and church membership as something pragmatic. Such people see faith and church membership instrumentally, as something they can choose for themselves to use for their own needs or to pursue their own interests. Now, it IS possible to look for a church which meets your own needs best. After all, we live in a consumer-driven society, and we are used to getting those things which suit our personalities, our pocketbooks, and our philosophies. But there is more to faith than that. Benjamin Sparks wrote an interesting commentary on people like this. He devoted part of it to a list of the WRONG reasons to become a member of a church, and I would like to share them with you. While I am reading them, think about whether or not any of these reasons ever drew you or anyone you know to a particular church. Because, of course, there are many reasons we go to church. We come for the fun and the fellowship. We come because we’ve always come, because our parents and grandparents instilled in us the responsibility of coming to church. But eventually, all of these reasons aside, we have to ask ourselves why we are really here. What is it that makes us come back again and again when there are so many other demands on our time, when we are already too tired out, when we already have plenty of other people and events to fill our busy lives? We come for the same reasons the crowds came, pressing on Jesus. They asked for signs, they received healings and even loaves and fish to eat. They wanted to see miracles. But they wanted more than that, more than they even knew or were able to articulate. Jesus knew what they needed – they needed the living bread, the living water. We too come for more than the fellowship, really. We really do come for more than a sense of obligation, though sometimes we let ourselves believe otherwise. The truth is, if we only felt a sense of duty, or we only came to meet with friends, we could fill these needs elsewhere. Something draws us back to this place, to a community of faith, to a time of worship. Why are we here? What and who are we looking for?
Some of the wrong reasons suggested by Sparks are as follows. He says that we should not go: “for the ‘right’ kind of worship; for political engagement on behalf of the poor and downtrodden; for the sake of a Christian America; (Or Canada, in our case!) for a strong youth and family ministry; for the opportunity to practice mission in a downtown location, or to go on mission trips to Africa or Central America.” I have to confess that several of those seem to me to be very good reasons to invite someone to become part of the life of the church. However, Sparks claims that we offer something much greater than all of these, something which he calls ‘soul food,’ which lasts forever and does not change with the changing circumstances of the church or the world. Does this sound familiar? Does this not sound like the Bread of Life offered by Jesus? Sparks says that this is the kind of food that will nourish us even after our physical hunger is satisfied and the world is as it should be. He refers to the gospel preached by North American Christians as “a broken, truncated gospel”.
Sadly, I have to agree with him in too many cases. There are far too many faith communities which do not live their faith. They do good works, of course, but tell me of any group of volunteers which does NOT do good works. But there needs to be a difference between us – the Presbyterian Church in Canada – and the Rotary Club or the Shriners. If Sparks believes that we have slipped into the trap of the consumerist culture by meeting the physical needs of those who come through our doors rather than “proclaiming a gospel that offers us faith in the only begotten Son,” we might examine more closely how we go about proclaiming the gospel: are we, as he claims, “good marketers rather than true witnesses”?
In this church, we do not preach a social Gospel. We are not here for the feel-good aspect of feeding others, even though we give to the food bank regularly. Why, then, are we here? We are here because we don’t need to look elsewhere. We are here for the bread of life, for that which will satisfy us and everyone for all eternity. In my research this week, I found a quote by Bishop Desmond Tutu which says it better than I ever could. I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, “Now is that political or social?” He said, “I feed you.” Because the good news to a hungry person is bread. And the bread for which we all hunger is offered to us, freely. Thanks be to God.

July 29th – 9th Sunday after Pentecost

During this year, ever since the first Sunday of Advent, we have been focusing on the Gospel of Mark, and we will be going back to it in September. But, for the next five weeks, we will be dealing with John’s Gospel, but only with chapter six – the one which deals with the Bread of Life. This is probably the only time that we will get to study one chapter in such detail, so be prepared for it. I may also deal with some of the other readings, but the focus for the next five weeks will be the Bread of Life – how important it is to us, and how we can best claim and use it.
We have heard many times that each of the Gospels has a particular audience and a particular message. Each one is set in its own literary world, each with its own assumptions, purposes, and strategies. The one we have been reading since November of last year – the Gospel of Mark – is the speedy one, the one in which Jesus seems to be rushing towards the Cross. It is as though Mark wants to share just enough to convince us that Jesus is the Son of God before getting right down to business – the business of love and redemption.
John’s Gospel is different from the others. It is not one of the synoptic Gospels, which means that it really doesn’t tell as much of a story as the others do. In the part we read today, there are two miracles. The walking on water miracle is referred to in three of the Gospels – Luke makes no mention of it. But the feeding of the multitude is found in all four, albeit in a slightly different format. But for today, we are concentrating on John’s version. Now, we could take a lot of time and talk about how this blessing and breaking of bread foreshadows Communion, which it no doubt does, but somehow, I don’t think that this is all that John meant us to do. If he had, I don’t think that he would have paired it with Jesus’ walking on water. You see, both of these stories emphasize the power of the Son of God, and that seems to me to be what John wants to share with us – his knowledge of the power of Jesus Christ.
I have heard people try to rationalize the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, using various explanations. Some people suggested that, when the boy offered his food, it inspired other people to offer theirs, so that there was more than enough to feed everyone. But, I think that, if this had happened, it would have been recorded somewhere, and it isn’t. As well, people who offer this as a rationalization of what happened miss the point that John is making about God at work in our midst, God’s amazing power to completely “transform human expectations”; instead, we modern, self-sufficient types think it’s up to us humans to handle things, to help ourselves. Some people suggested that there was already plenty of food to go around, that Jesus was expecting this. Expecting to need to feed 5000 people? I don’t think so! Even the kitchen in the Kirk Hall would be hard-pressed to do something like that!
One of the professors at McGill while I was there – Douglas John Hall – thinks we’re focusing on the wrong thing when we concentrate on explaining the miracles of multiplying loaves or walking on the sea, when the more remarkable miracle is the hope that Jesus inspired in the masses who followed him, by his undoubtedly compelling presence and his awesome deeds. Hall suggests that Jesus’ powerful presence and deep compassion for their suffering and need might explain the ability of “ordinary, insecure and timid persons…to walk where they feared to walk before.” Again this week, I was struck by the way that the readings lately seem to connect with the theme of this year’s General Assembly – On The Edge. With God’s help, we can venture beyond the edge; we can do great things. In his commentary on this text, Hall urges us to not to focus so much on these miraculous incidents that we miss “the wonder of divine grace that permeates the whole of life.” He laments the skepticism of our age that seeks to provide rational explanations for everything and loses “the capacity to wonder” at “the extraordinary within the ordinary” of our everyday lives.
We see some of this in what Andrew said: Here is a boy five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many? How often do we look at what we’ve got and see only “not enough” to be worthwhile? We, in our abundant society, live as though we have a culture of scarcity. I found a story which illustrates our attitude, even though it does not take place in any place familiar to us, and I would like to share it here. It reminds me of the story of the fisherman and his wife, but it seems to fit today’s readings even better. It is an old Japanese story – a fable actually – about Tasuku – a stonecutter.
Tasuku was a poor man who cut blocks of stone from the foot of a mountain. One day he saw a well-dressed prince parade by. Tasuku envied the prince and wished that he could have that kind of wealth. The Great Spirit heard Tasuku, and he was made a prince.
Tasuku was happy with his silk clothes and his powerful armies until he saw the sun wilt the flowers in his royal garden. He wished for such power as the sun had, and his wish was granted. He became the sun, with power to parch fields and humble people with thirst.
Tasuku was happy to be the sun until a cloud covered him and obscured his powerful heat. With that, he had another wish, and the Spirit complied. Thereafter Tasuku was a cloud with the power to ravage the land with floods and storms.
Tasuku was happy until he saw the mountain remain in spite of his storm. So Tasuku demanded to be the mountain. The Spirit obeyed.
Tasuku became the mountain and was more powerful than the prince, the sun, or the cloud. And he was happy until he felt a chisel chipping at his feet. It was a stonecutter working away – cutting blocks to sell to make his daily living.
Just think about this – even though Tasaku was given everything he wanted, none of it really made him happy for an extended period of time. Instead of recognizing that true happiness comes from accepting what we have, he kept hankering for more. Just like Andrew in the Gospel, he felt that what he had was too little. And now I ask you, how many of us are like this? How many of us are unable to find satisfaction for more than a few minutes at a time? And yet, it is there for us – within our grasp.
Let’s just look at how this started. Andrew brought a small boy to Jesus, and Jesus took it from there. He did something wonderful and unexpected. By the way, it is interesting to note that John didn’t use the word MIRACLE, rather, he called it a SIGN – a proof, if you will, of Jesus’ power. And he did it because of what the boy offered. What do you offer? Every week, we bring our offerings. Every week, people do things to help – whether it is reading Scripture, taking the children for Sunday School, preparing the coffee and juice for fellowship. To many, these seem like small things, but they aren’t. In Jesus’ hands, they are transformed into amazing things. Ask yourself what you can offer. Can you offer the ability to help a neighbour?
Visit a sick person? Listen to a problem? Bake a cake? Make an apology? Sing a song? Lead a youth group? Whatever you can offer can lead to wonderful things happening, with Christ’s transforming power at work. There are no limits to the possibilities and probabilities when God begins to work his purpose out through us.
This story, of the loaves and fishes, is a story of what can happen when we give what we have. It is a story of amazing multiplication, or exponential multiplication. More than that, it is a story of compassion. Jesus taught the crowd, yes, but it didn’t end there. He knew that they were tired and hungry, and he fed them. His heart went out to them, to the weary and hungry, and his heart goes out to us today. He is concerned with all of our lives, not just the spiritual aspect. Of course, he is with us on Sunday, when we worship together as a community of faith. He is here as we try to understand the word of God. But he is also with us on the other six days. He wants to be involved with our work and our play, with our family and our friends, with our joys and our sorrows, with our needs – for food, for exercise, for relaxation. He wants to be involved with the whole of our life. But he can’t do that unless we bring it to him. This is what Andrew did – he brought the little boy to Jesus, with his seemingly insignificant portions of bread and fish.
I mentioned earlier that the breaking of bread foreshadowed communion – the Lord’s Supper. At the Last Supper, we are told, Jesus took the bread, blessed it, and broke it, saying that it was his body, broken for us. It was broken to supply our needs, broken to bring us wholeness. The breaking of bread also foreshadows the road to Emmaus, the road on which the disciples did not recognize the risen Christ until after he broke bread with them. When we break bread with others, when we share with others, then the compassion of Christ is recognized in us.
On the surface, this story is the story of a kind of picnic – of a crowd being fed while they were listening to Jesus. But, as usual, it is so much more, as it shows us what we can do. We – like many other congregations – are concerned about money. We – like many other congregations – have been hit by what the pundits call a recession. But, unlike people of the world, we have God on our side. We want our church to survive so that it can minister to the suffering and speak a prophetic word in a world that has often wandered from compassion and justice to hoarding and aggressively defensive self-interest. It’s understandable that we worry about shrinking endowments and offerings in the face of rising costs. However, we need to focus not just on the “reasonable,” not just on “basic needs,” but on “multiplying resources,” so that we, too, might experience “a revelation of amazing grace” . There are those words again: grace, and amazing, both of which belong in a discussion of miracles and wonders. Have you ever witnessed such sharing, such wonders, such grace? Generosity itself is a miracle to me, and it expresses a power – God’s power – to completely transform lives. And I don’t mean the lives of those who receive as much as those who give.
You see, one of the ways God responds to our prayers is the way Jesus responded when he saw the crowds who had followed him. He said: Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat? Philip, of course, replied, as no doubt many of us would in the same circumstances: Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite. When we pray – as we do each week – for the needs of the world, God responds by first asking us: What do YOU have? If we think of the abundance many of us have, even in these economically challenging times, can we not trust in God’s generosity, in God’s abundance, to find ways to share with each other? It is time for us to trust in the power of God to multiply our resources, and to recognize that we have enough and more than enough.
Part of the miracle in the Gospel story is not only that Jesus fed the crowd, but that he gathered up the fragments for later use. Too many people turn away from the left-overs, deeming them only worthy for the garbage. But Jesus sees more there. Jesus pays attention to what has been put to one side, and that is what we are called to do. Jan Richardson wrote a poem, called Blessing The Fragments, which I would like you to listen to.
Cup your hands together, and you will see the shape this blessing wants to take.
Basket, bowl, vessel: it cannot help but hold itself open to welcome
what comes.
This blessing knows the secret of the fragments that find their way into its keeping,
the wholeness that may hide in what has been left behind,
the persistence of plenty where there seemed only lack.
Look into the hollows of your hands and ask what wants to be gathered there,
what abundance waits among the scraps that come to you, what feast
will offer itself from the fragments that remain.
In our reading, Jesus will not let go of what is broken and in pieces. Rather, he gathers them up, as a sign of the wholeness that only he can see, as a foretaste of the banquet yet to come. We, in the West, have a vested interest in perpetuating the myth that the limited resources of the world mean that many will starve. The story of Jesus feeding the crowd shows the myth to be a lie. By feeding a crowd with a little boy’s lunch, Jesus demonstrates for us how the simple act of sharing can tap in to the power of God. Ghandi put it best, I think, when he said: We have enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.
Our calling today is to open our hearts, open our doors, open our tables. Invite one and all to join the feast of God’s goodness. And when we are afraid that what we have is too little, we must remember the little boy and offer up what we have, trusting God’s abundance and blessing to make it enough. Thanks be to God.

July 22nd – 8th Sunday after Pentecost

You know, when I started preparing this week’s service, I was struck by the richness of today’s Scripture. I was really tempted to focus on the Old Testament reading for a couple of reasons. First, it talks about David, and his desire to build a home for the Ark of the Covenant. But the Lord did not want this, because he felt that God should not be confined to one place, but that we should see him everywhere. This emphasizes for me the idea that we should not be tied to a building, that our energies should be invested in worship rather than the trappings of it.
Then, there was Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which we have been reading a lot during these past few weeks. Here, I could have talked about being welcoming to the stranger and friend alike. I could have talked about inclusion, and shared with you stories from my time as a teacher, when inclusion meant something very different from, and yet startlingly similar to what Paul was saying.
But, instead, I decided to focus on the Gospel, and on one particular word in our reading for today. As some of you know, I have worked in the past with spiritual directors, and one of the methods used is known as Ignatian meditation, because it was developed by St. Ignatius. When reading Scripture using this method, one of the possibilities is to allow one word to take hold of the reader, and just see where your mind will take you. And that is what I did this week. The particular passage is a short speech by Jesus to the weary, hungry apostles. When they gathered around him, he said: Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest. And the word which immediately leaped out at me was the word REST, probably because I know that most of you, like me, could use some.
In the book of Genesis, we are told that God himself rested on the seventh day, from all the work of creating that he had done. And in Mark’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus recognized the need of his followers to rest, so who are we to consider ourselves any better than any of these, that we do not need rest? I know that I do, and I know that I often don’t get it, or don’t take it when the opportunity presents itself.
Just think about the word for a minute, and what it can mean. Rest. A break from all the activity surrounding you, a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Rest. A chance to renew, to recreate, to re-energize for the next period of busy-ness. Rest. Part of me still connects rest with recess, that time in a school day when most people were not required to do anything. Rest. At the end of the day, putting your feet up, even if only for a few minutes. Rest. That period of time when you are not DOING, but just BEING. Rest.
I have to admit that I was a bit surprised by my own reaction to the word, but I have learned that, when this happens while I am reading Scripture, there is a reason for it. It is God’s way of getting my attention, which is often difficult to do. So I looked at my life, and realized that it is very busy. Now, this is not a complaint – just a statement. One thing that I really dislike is the idea that one person is less busy than any other. Sometimes it seems to me that people are in a competition to see which one is busier. So I have no intention of telling you that you are not as busy as I am. I was assured at one time that, after the 250th anniversary celebrations, things would quiet down here at St. Andrew’s, and I would have time to relax. This has not happened, and it doesn’t feel as though it is going to happen any time soon. For as long as I can remember, I have filled my days and my nights with things to do. I spend a lot of time each week working on Sunday worship. Someone once commented that I should be able to “wing it” by now. Let me assure you, you would not want to hear what would happen if I attempted to do that! As you know, I have a large house, and just keeping up with that takes time every day. I visit people who are in the hospital, and telephone others regularly. I have obligations connected with the church, and others connected with the community, and still others connected with the Presbytery, Synod, and our National Office.
It’s funny that, in the middle of the summer, in the middle of what is supposed to be down time, we are still craving rest. But, when you think about it, it really isn’t surprising. As most of you know, my little dog, Wooly, had a rough week. We were back and forth to the vet several times, and she prepared us for the worst, thinking that Wooly couldn’t possibly survive this latest crisis. But, thanks to modern medicine, she did survive, and will probably be with us for some time yet. However, there have had to be some changes to accommodate her new condition. For instance, she can no longer use any stairs, which means that we must carry her up and down whatever stairs are in her way. She must be carried outside when she needs to go, and someone has to stay with her, to make sure that she doesn’t fall down. That doesn’t sound like too much, but when it is added to the list of other things to be done, it certainly cuts in on the time designated for rest.
And, as Keith can tell you, even when I AM resting, I don’t rest. If I watch TV, I knit. I even take my knitting to movies and concerts and meetings. I just don’t want to waste that precious time. I think – and I think that Keith would agree with me – that I have forgotten how to rest. And how about you? Have you forgotten how to rest? Have you forgotten how to take time to rest? If so, you aren’t alone.
I recently read a study based on 32 couples in the Los Angeles area, and I am pretty sure that the same statistics would apply to just about any family. The idea was to take a detailed snapshot of American family life early in the 21st century. The results, according to one researcher, were “disheartening.” So consumed with working, collecting, amassing, and generally “getting ahead,” they actually spent very little time together enjoying what they were working for. As reported by the Boston Globe, Jeanne E. Arnold, lead author and a professor of anthropology at UCLA, shared her particular dismay at how little time family members spent outside: “Something like 50 of the 64 parents in our study never stepped outside in the course of about a week,” she said. “When they gave us tours of their house they’d say, ‘Here’s the backyard, I don’t have time to go there.’ They were working a lot at home. Leisure time was spent in front of the TV or at the computer.”
They have not time, in other words, to rest. And, it seems to me, nor do we.
There is a story which I have shared with some of you, about Martin Luther, one of the busiest people of his time. Whenever he knew that he would have an exceptionally busy day,, he took the first hour after waking up as a time to read Scripture and to pray. He commented that it was this extra hour with God which gave him the strength and energy to get through such a day.
Most of us have at least a nodding acquaintance with the ten commandments, and most of us feel pretty good about believing that we don’t really break them. I would like, at this time to remind you of the precise wording of the fourth commandment, which may be found in both the book of Exodus and the book of Deuteronomy. Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Six days shall you labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock or the alien residents in your towns. We have come to interpret this as rather differently from what was intended. When I was growing up, it meant that we HAD to go to church. In Roman Catholicism, it was considered a mortal sin to miss church, unless you were desperately ill, or in hospital. There was really very little about rest in our interpretation of this commandment. However, let’s put it in context. The commandments were given to Moses while he was leading former slaves of the Egyptians to the Promised Land. For them, the key part of this would have BEEN the word “rest”. Just imagine being given permission to do nothing. In fact, not only were they given permission, they were COMMANDED to rest.
I have begun to think that too many of us find ourselves in the same situation as the Israelites in Egypt, with one significant difference. We are, ourselves, our owners. We are, ourselves, the slave-drivers. We are, ourselves, the ones who refuse to give us permission to rest. This self-imposed slavery is difficult to admit to, and even more difficult to escape from. Rather than being enslaved by a dominant race, we are enslaved by our dreams of success, so many of us are working longer and longer hours. We are enslaved by the idea that our children must do everything they possibly can – from swimming lessons to sports to music to anything you can imagine – so that they have no time just to be. They have no time just to lie on the grass and look for shapes in the clouds. They have no time to rest. We are enslaved to the idea that the person who dies with the most toys, wins. Wins what, exactly? Possibly an early grave as a result of working him or herself to death. This is the idea of wanting more – more clothes, more gadgets, more jewelry, whatever the MORE is that drives you to work and work and work until you have no time in your life to enjoy the fruits of your labours, until you have no time for anything but more work.
Listen again to Jesus’ invitation: Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest. He is not inviting us simply to take an afternoon off and sit in the sun or even to take a vacation to some exotic place. He is inviting us to talk off our self-imposed shackles, to open the doors of our self-constructed cells, to release ourselves from the belief that, if some is good, then more must be better.
A few years ago, I read a book by Barbara Gordon, called I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can, which is the true story about how her own life spiralled out of control, because she was driven to succeed in the highly competitive world of television documentaries. After years of work, years of abusing her body with prescription drugs, years of achieving, her body rebelled, and so did her mind. She collapsed, and was forced to rest. The rest of the story you can read for yourselves, but the point is that, even if we don’t consciously recognize that we are doing too much, that we need to rest, our bodies will eventually let us know. This is why people – notice I did NOT say “men”, as this is one area where, unfortunately, women have achieved equality – are having heart attacks at younger ages. This is why more and more people – assuming that they live to retire – find themselves lost. They have no idea what to do with all this time they suddenly have. They don’t know how to rest.
Today, I want you to listen to the opening verse of the 23rd Psalm. The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. Usually, when we read this verse, we focus on the first phrase. But today, just think for a minute about the second one. I shall not want. It is BECAUSE the Lord is my Shepherd that I shall not want. Because I trust God, I will not give into society’s clamouring for me to do more and more and more so that I can have more and more and more. Because God has promised to take care of me, I will get off the treadmill of work and accumulation so that I can rest, and notice the abundance, and rejoice.
And that, my friends, is what Sabbath rest is all about. Sabbath rest gives us the opportunity to step back, to stand apart from those things which usually consume us. It gives us the opportunity to feel God’s presence, to feel God’s love, to appreciate the gifts God has given us. It gives us the opportunity to feel content with what we have, to realize that we don’t need more and more and more.
I will not tell you that this is an easy thing to do. As people living in the 21st century, we have been conditioned NOT to do this. We have been conditioned to believe that our slavery is success. But the Lord knows better. He knows that we need rest, which is why he not only invites us to rest, he commands us to take it. We heard it in the 4th commandment. Further on in the 23rd Psalm, we read: He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He doesn’t encourage us to do this; he MAKES us do it. He knows, even if we don’t, how desperately we need rest. He knows, even if we don’t, how much we need time to commune with him. He knows, even if we don’t, that life — abundant life — doesn’t consist of merely more and more and more, that “abundant” ultimately isn’t a quantitative term but a qualitative one.
I have a challenge for you – and me – this week. Pick an evening – any evening – and turn off the television and the computer and your cell phone. Replace it with time – time with your family, time with your friends, or time alone. And don’t stop there. Consciously make a Sabbath time a part of your daily life. Consciously take time to think about all the good and wonderful things God has provided for you. In this way, we will create a Sabbath community, one which encourages, consoles, and celebrates together whenever we keep the Lord’s commandment to rest. Thanks be to God.

July 15th – 7th Sunday after Pentecost

One of my favourite inspirational poems is called Footprints. I am pretty sure that most of you are familiar with it, but I am not so sure that you may have heard this version, so bear with me.
Imagine you and the Lord Jesus walking down the road together. For much of the way, the Lord’s footprints go along steadily, consistently, rarely varying the pace. But your prints are a disorganized stream of zigzags, starts, stops, turnarounds, circles, departures and returns. For much of the way it seems to go like this. But gradually, your footprints come more in line with the Lord’s, soon paralleling His consistently. You and Jesus are walking as true friends.
This seems perfect, but then an interesting thing happens: your footprints that once etched the sand next to the Master’s are now walking precisely in His steps. Inside His larger footprints is the small ‘sand print’, safely enclosed. You and Jesus are becoming one.
This goes on for many miles. But gradually you notice another change. The footprint inside the larger footprint seems to grow larger. Eventually it disappears altogether. There is only one set of footprints. They have become one.
Again, this goes on for a long time. But then something awful happens. The second set of footprints is back. And this time it seems even worse. Zigzags all over the place. Stops. Starts. Deep gashes in the sand. A veritable mess of prints. You’re amazed and shocked. But this is the end of your dream.
Now you speak. “Lord, I understand the first scene with the zigzags and fits and starts and so on. I was a new Christian, just learning. But You walked on through the storm and helped me learn to walk with you.”
“That is correct.”
“Yes, and when the smaller footprints were inside of Yours, I was actually learning to walk in Your steps. I followed You very closely.”
“Very good. You have understood everything so far.”
“Then the smaller footprints grew and eventually filled in with Yours. I suppose that I was actually growing so much that I was becoming like you in every way.”
“But this is my question. Lord.. Was there a regression or something? The footprints went back to two, and this time it was worse than the first.”
The Lord smiles, then laughs. “You didn’t know?” he asks? I shake my head, sadly.
He says. “That was when we danced.”
That was when we danced. Two of today’s readings are concerned with dance, but in each reading, the dance served a very different purpose. Before we talk about them, though, I would like to share with you some of my own experience of dancing. First of all, you should know that I am not a good dancer. It’s not for want of trying, and not for want of appreciating the art of dance. I’m just not good at it. I have had to accept that, and live with it.
But I have had many experiences of dance, and I’m sure that most of you will be able to identify with at least some of them. To quote Sophia from the Golden Girls: Picture it. But not Sicily. Picture, instead, a school gymnasium, decorated for a dance. The girls stand on one side of the gym, and the boys on the other, neither one daring to make the first move. Often, there isn’t much dancing happening at these dances, but, for many of us, it was the first introduction to couples’ dancing.
Jump with me now to a dance recital. If it is typical of many I have seen, we will see classical ballet, tap, and jazz, each with its own beauty. The ballerinas – no matter their age – move in the timeless, graceful movements that ballet has used for generations. The tap dancers click their way rhythmically across the stage, culminating in a sweeping bow. And the jazz dancers move with an amazing energy, as the music flows from the speakers into their very bodies. If you’ve ever attended the Irish show in Shannon for St. Patrick’s Day, you will have also seen Irish dancing, which is often a combination of all three types, with a special little Irish accent.
Later in my life, I studied two different kinds of dance, and was surprised to find that, when I didn’t have to depend on another person, I wasn’t that bad. I did country line dancing, as a kind of exercise programme, and found that, if I concentrated, I could actually do it. I was never really good, but at least I didn’t fall over my own feet, which I can easily do. Then I did belly dancing. I wasn’t as comfortable with that as I was with line dancing, but by the time the course ended, I was actually sorry that it was over.
I used to love ballroom dancing, but was useless at it. I couldn’t master the art of counting, listening to the music, moving my feet, and following my partner all at the same time. The only time I ever looked good with partner dancing was with my father. He had the ability to make a log of wood look good on the dance floor. Other than that, my experience with ballroom dancing consisted of watching it in movies, with people like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
And now we come to today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings. In the Old Testament, David danced for joy. This is in stark contrast to the man who, just a couple of weeks ago, was grieving the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. Here was a man who was capable of great emotion, and who was not afraid to show it. Compare this, if you will, to people of today, who have been encouraged not to show emotion, who are being urged to keep calm and carry on. Today’s passage about his joy gives us another side of his passion, his profound gratitude and praise for God’s work in the life of the Israel, bringing the people together, uniting the kingdom, strengthening them in common cause against the enemy Philistines, establishing the people and their land and the Davidic dynasty to the glory of God, fulfilling the promises of God right before their eyes, in their own lifetime.
He wore only a linen ephod, which was a kind of apron, and we are told that he danced before the Lord with all his might.
It was important, both in a religious sense, and in a secular one, that David establish himself as being faithful to God and to the religious traditions of his people. By doing this, this dancing in public, David reassured the people that, even though they were establishing a new city, it would be balanced by the stability and orthodoxy of the Ark of the Covenant. It is difficult for me to picture any of today’s secular leaders doing something similar.
The dance described in the Gospel story is very different from this one. Salome, the name we have given to the daughter of Herodias, danced seductively before Herod and his guests, in exchange for a gift of her choosing. Herod, who no doubt had been indulging heavily in wine, made this promise, assuming that she would ask for jewels or clothes or property. He probably never expected her to ask for John the Baptist’s head. But she did. And she asked in front of the assembly, so that Herod would have no choice but to give it to her.
Here, then, we see two contrasting images of dance – much more contrasting than the types of dances I shared with you at the beginning of this sermon. And, of course, we can see the difference easily, and easily discern which of the two is right, which of the two honours God, which of the two is destructive. But what is not so easy is to determine what kind of dance – if any – we do here at St. Andrew’s, or what kind of dance – if any – is done by the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
Let’s look at the dances I already talked about, starting with the one in the high school gym, which is characterized more by non-dancers than by real dancers. A congregation or denomination at this kind of dance is one which is immobilized. There is no dancing happening, no real living, no serving, no real worshiping of God. This congregation or denomination is afraid – afraid to take risks in case of failure, afraid to self-invest, afraid of being hurt by caring for others. If you will remember, the theme of this year’s General Assembly was On The Edge, but as long as we stay on the edge, we will not be dancing. It is time to move beyond the edge, and to trust that God will guide our steps, and that we will dance together with him.
Maybe we are the congregation of the dance recital. We know our steps; we know what is expected of us – in our lives and in our worship. But are we ready to step out of the formal steps? Are we ready to dance exuberantly, as David did? Can we wear jeans to church? Well, no, it really isn’t appropriate, is it? How about guitars and drums in church? Well, no, we have a lovely organ, and, besides, we DO use the bagpipes once in a while, don’t we? Is it time to change? Well, no, we’ve always done it that way, and if it was good enough then, it is good enough now. Visitors have told me that our worship is beautiful, and it is. But, like the dancers in the recital, we are bound by our traditions. We make the appropriate motions at the appropriate times, but true worship and fellowship are sacrificed for the sake of the product.
I am not saying that our way of dancing is wrong, just that it can be so much more. When we dance – like the students in the gym, who are afraid to dance or the participants in the dance recital, who follow a rigidly proscribed ritual – we are striving to be faithful, but we are depriving ourselves of something truly special. Henry Brinton has compared our “frozen chosen” worship, especially in Euro-American churches, to a modern dance solo by Paul Taylor, the dancer/choreographer who “simply stood motionless on stage for four minutes.” Like Taylor’s dance, our worship is often motionless.
Of course, I am not talking about physical dancing. While some places do this, it isn’t something that many of us would be comfortable with. But there is interior dance, a dance which transports us, and one which we all can do, regardless of age or ability. We come together each week to worship God, and the point of this worship is twofold. Of course, we are commanded to praise God, and this is how we do it. But the other point is that we are to leave this place each week somehow changed, somehow renewed, somehow filled up for the week to come. If this doesn’t happen, then we are going through the motions.
Each week, we sing hymns in praise of God. Even though sometimes these hymns are unfamiliar to you, each one was chosen for a theological meaning – either they match with the Scriptures, or they are for a specific purpose. For instance, the our opening hymn today – Take My Life And Let It Be – was chosen because on this day we welcomed Martin as a member of this congregation. But while you were singing – this or any other hymn – were you reading the words? When you sing a hymn, do you ever apply the words to your life? Or, if you DO read the words, do you somehow cringe from what they are saying?
Most Sundays, we call the children forward for their special time. Oh, and by the way, there will be a change in that soon. In the future, even if there is something special happening, like a Baptism or Communion or a reception of new members, the children’s story will continue. I know that many of you really like the children’s story, explaining as it does, some part of Scripture in an accessible way, but when it comes to the children, do you nourish them? Do you encourage them? Are you willing to give up one Sunday a month to take the Sunday School? Young people have long been called “the church of tomorrow”, but I tell you that they are the church of today. And we have the right AND the responsibility to hold them up whenever we can, to support them in their plans for this church.
Every Sunday, we offer our time, our talents, and our treasure to God. And I ask you if you are giving all you can. I am pretty sure that – for most people – the fact that they put money in an envelope each week absolves them of any responsibility for any other kind of giving. But we have a prayer chain here, and we need people who are willing to pray. We need people to read Scripture every week. We need people who are willing to prepare the things for fellowship after worship. We need people who are willing to support the church when there are other events happening here – like the flea market which is being planned for September, like the Tartan Tea, which will take place in November. And the list goes on. Are you giving in proportion to what you have received from God?
Every week, we gather together to worship God the Father and Creator, God the Son and Redeemer, God the Holy Spirit and Counselor. Are we dancing before God with all our might?
If we are not, then we must ask ourselves why not. I remember a few years ago, attending a conference in a church which had a sign posted. The sign read: Ladies wearing pants may not enter the sanctuary. One of the guest speakers saw this sign, and was not impressed, so she sought out the leaders of this church to find out why such a sign was posted. He found them worshiping together, singing the old hymn: Just As I Am. She said, “My friends, you must change either your sign or your song.”
We should not change our song. It is a good one, blending as it does, grace, hope, and praise. Maybe it is time to change our sign – our outward expression of our inward song – by changing the way we dance. There has been a cartoon circulating on the internet, which shows a person dancing. The caption reads: Dance as though no one is looking. Let our dance say that we can come – just as we are – to worship God. Let our dance say that we are not afraid to take risks in the name of Christ. Let our dance say that we can take leaps of faith because we want the church to grow. Let us dance in a way that shows the depth or our relationship with God and the joy with which we praise God. Let us dance with all our might, as though no one is looking. Thanks be to God.

July 8th – 6th Sunday after Pentecost

One of the things I talked about last week was time – chronos time, in which we try to live, and kairos time, God’s time, which is the one which really controls us. All things happen in God’s time, no matter how much we want to make them happen when it suits us. In the reading from the Book of Samuel, we heard about this, when David – already anointed by Samuel – had to wait until the drama that was Saul’s life played itself out. Saul was already dead by the time this book began, and there was a bloody war between the house of Saul and the house of David, which you can read about in the chapters immediately preceding today’s reading. After the wars were finally over, the tribes of Israel came to David, and acknowledged him as their rightful ruler, and, we are told that, at the age of thirty, he became king, and he reigned for forty years. For the most part, he was a good king. There were some rather serious glitches, but today is not the day to talk about them. What we need to know today is that David had to wait to become king. He had to serve, faithfully and patiently for days, weeks, months, and years, before the time was right. And during all that time, he was preparing to be king. He was getting ready for God’s plan for him. That is what we all do, throughout our lives. We get ready. We don’t know what God’s plan is for us, so we spend our lives getting ready. And while we are getting ready, we serve, in any way that we can. It is all preparation, a matter of being ready when God’s call for service comes. And without preparation, we will never be ready.
Paul’s getting ready was rather different from anything we would imagine. In this letter to the Corinthians, he talked about his suffering, saying, among other things: I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. You will remember that, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, one of the things I say is: Come, not because you are strong, but because you are weak. We are all weak. We have human bodies, and, as such, we are subject to all of the ills which can afflict human bodies. We have human minds, and, as such, we are subject to all of the doubts and wayward thoughts which can come upon us unawares. But, unlike Paul, I think that most of us would find it difficult to thank God for our weaknesses, our suffering.
Actually, as I may have told you, I have always had difficulty with Paul. As a woman, in the time before I went to seminary, I would avoid reading his letters most of the time – for a whole host of reasons. First of all, there was his attitude towards women, which seemed to me to be condescending, at best. And there seemed to be many ways when he delighted in telling people what to do – and I don’t mean what they had to do to be saved. I mean, just ordering them around. But I think that the worst thing was his attitude. So many times, he would say something like: I would never brag about myself. And then he would open his mouth, and self-praise is all that would come out.
Today’s reading really shows this. Paul starts by talking about some unknown person who had died fourteen years ago, and he says: I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. And that’s not too bad. But then, he goes on to say: Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say. Now, correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t that also boasting, albeit in a convoluted way?
But he doesn’t leave it at that. He says that, to keep him from becoming conceited, he was given a thorn in his flesh to torment him. And he goes on to say that he delights in his weaknesses, because it is through these weaknesses that Christ’s power rests in him. I often wonder how many of us would be able to say the same thing. How many of us would be able to look at our hardships, our sufferings, and say that we delight in them? Very few, would be my guess. But Paul, well, he has that ability. We don’t know, today, exactly what Paul’s so-called “thorn in the flesh” is. He never says outright. It may be an illness he struggles with, or something of a more spiritual or emotional nature. We’ll never know. But we know how it made Paul feel – a thorn in the flesh, a constant pain in his life, one that he asks repeatedly for God to take away from him. And when he doesn’t get the answer he wants – he turns it into strength. And that is what we need to do – to turn our weaknesses into strengths. But, in order to do that, we need to admit that we have weaknesses. We need to identify them. We need to figure out in what way they can be strengths.
And we need to understand the thorns which we have. Not only understand them, we need to be able to work with them. Some people turn them into what I call deal-breakers. They will say to God, for instance: If you take care of this (whatever THIS may be), then I will follow you; then I will believe in you; then I will do what you want me to. It seems to me that people who say this are saying that they know better than God, that their plan for their lives is better than the one God already has in place for them. We will admit that God is all-powerful, but still. . . If only I could win the lottery, my life would be so much better. If only I could have a loving relationship with a significant other, then I would be able to worship God better. If only I could have some time for myself, then I would be able to help others better. But that’s not the way God works.
And our thorns are there for a reason. Just think about your thorns for a minute. What is the thorn, the obstacle in YOUR life that keeps you from doing what you know you should be doing? What excuses do you give to God for not following where and when he calls? Maybe your thorn is a physical one. Today, there seem to be even more illnesses than in bygone times. Part of this, of course, is due to the fact that antibiotics result in ever stronger germs. It is rare for any family to be untouched by serious illness. Maybe your thorn is an emotional one. Many people deal with depression, anxiety, or some other form of mental illness. People on the outside of mental illness find it difficult to help, simply because they don’t know what to do or to say. People on the inside suffer, and pray for relief. A thorn could even be intellectual, which I see as a kind of inner debate, an argument with oneself. But whatever the thorn is, it can interfere with OR enhance our relationship with God. The choice is ours to make.
Too many of us let our thorns interfere with our making the right choice. But, you know, Scripture is full of people whose thorns didn’t interfere with their serving God. Moses was unable to speak in public, and yet he led the Israelites from Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land. David, the little shepherd boy, became, as we have heard, one of Israel’s greatest leaders, and his dynasty eventually resulted in Solomon and even the Messiah. Mary, as an unwed mother, could have been ostracized and even stoned by the society of her time, and yet her pregnancy produced Jesus Christ. And what about Thomas? His thorn of doubt haunts us today, and yet it also frees us. In our own Living Faith, doubt in acknowledged, for it is through doubt that our faith can grow ever stronger. Peter, the rock on which Jesus built his church, probably had more thorns than most of us, but he was the one who was chosen. Proof positive that God doesn`t call the equipped, but equips the called. Now, if God can use all of these people despite their thorns, then surely God has a place for us too. And if all of these people can follow God despite their thorns, then surely, we can too.
In following Jesus, we need to know that we are not alone, even though we may often feel just like that. We have a company of saints with us, and, even more importantly, we have Jesus Christ himself, who will be with us on our journey, whether we realize it or not. But you know, there were times when even Jesus felt alone. Take today`s Gospel reading. Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, returned to his hometown, where you would think that he would have been welcomed with opened arms. If we were to move this to more modern times, you could think of a revivalist preacher who has had an amazing successful circuit. The first five chapters of Mark`s Gospel are filled with stories of Jesus going from place to place, healing people, casting our demons, and even – almost as a climactic act – raising Jairus` daughter from the dead. So he heads home to Nazareth, to show his friends what a success he has become. And what happens? In modern terms, he falls flat on his face. He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, as had been his custom, and began to teach there. But the people said: Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son, and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters with him? And they took offense at him. They took offense at him. But I am not the only one who is shocked by this. In verse six, we read that Jesus himself was amazed by their lack of faith. Maybe it was due to their lack of faith that Jesus could not do any miracles there in Nazareth, other than a few healings. But he learned something that day, something which we all should learn. He learned while you can control what you say, you cannot control what people hear. He learned while you can control what you do, you cannot control how people respond. He learned while you can control how you show your love, you cannot control how people receive it.
Reading that Jesus’ power was somehow limited by the people’s unbelief may raise questions in our minds. Barbara Brown Taylor uses a wonderful metaphor in her sermon on this text to explain why Jesus couldn’t work the same miracles in his hometown, where the people refused to respond to him. Jesus was still Jesus, she says, but the people – then and now – have to be open to him and his transformative power. In other words, if they – and we – are not open to receive him, then he cannot work in us. She compares it to the experience of trying to light a match to a pile of wet sticks: “So call this an ‘un-miracle’ story, in which Jesus held the match until it burned out in his hand, while his family and friends sat shaking their heads a safe distance away.” Instead of working great wonders, Jesus had to walk away from his own hometown that day, and went on “to go shine his light somewhere else.” Taylor then compares us to those people in the synagogue, and to Jesus’ own family – after all, we are the church and claim Jesus as our own, but how faithful, how open, are we to his transformative power in our lives? Taylor’s sermon challenges us to consider our discomfort with being challenged, especially by the unexpected, unlikely people sent by God to do just that. I believe that God is still speaking, even though we may not recognize his voice. “God is all around us, speaking to us through the most unlikely people.” Sure it might be the stranger or even the enemy who preoccupies our thoughts, but sometimes – surprise! – it’s the people who are right around us, every day. Who’s to say that Jesus can’t and won’t work through those most everyday people?
So he left Nazareth, with his followers. But the time had come to expand his work, so he sent his followers out to preach the good news of repentance. Not only that. He gave them the power to drive out demons and to heal the sick. A prime example of equipping the called. He instructed his followers not to take anything with them – no bread, no bag, no money, not even an extra tunic. They were to depend on the charity of others for everything. But the part that struck me in this was Jesus didn’t send them alone. He sent them out two by two, which shows the importance of community. Remember we have been told that where two or three are gathered together in his name, there he is also. I think that Jesus told his followers not to take anything with them because he knew that, too often, we are hampered by THINGS. Too often, our relationship with THINGS interferes with our relationship with others and with him. f we focus too much of our time and energy and resources on the physical plant of our church, for example, then we might grow dependent upon it, a material resource, a possession, in a sense, a security blanket, perhaps. An expression that I have often heard is: Married to the building, and that is so true in many cases. It’s what we humans do when we feel insecure, after all: depend on things instead of God. Our intentions are good, but we depend on the medium more than the message, on the physical rather than the spiritual. Jesus knows, and we SHOULD know, that the message – the gospel itself – is more important than anything else in the church. We think of ourselves as heirs of the church – the building, the congregation, the endowment, the history. In actual fact, we are heirs of the Gospel. We are stewards of the Gospel, and we need to share the good news with others. And when we do this, we can trust that we will be given everything we will need along the way. Thanks be to God.

June 24th – 4th Sunday after Pentecost

I really like it when readings from one week flow nicely into the second, as it gives me a chance to touch on some things I may have missed in the previous week. And that is what happened this week. As you may recall, last week, David was anointed as Saul’s replacement, but then, it seemed that not much happened. David returned to tending the sheep, and at some point, was invited into Saul’s service. You see, because Saul had turned his back on the Lord, he was plagued with an evil spirit, and the only thing that could soothe him was soft music. David, in addition to being a shepherd, was a bit of a musician, and he was pressed into Saul’s service. When David played on his harp, relief would come to Saul, and the evil spirit would leave him. But Saul didn’t know that David had been anointed for a specific task.
So today’s reading from the first book of Samuel showed Saul and his army at war with the Philistines, one of whom was Goliath, described in our translation as being over nine feet tall. Other translations claim that he was six feet nine inches, which is not nearly as far-fetched. But in any case, he was significantly taller than other men of his time, and put terror into the hearts of Saul’s army. In true mythic tale fashion, Saul promised great wealth to the person who could defeat Goliath, along with his daughter’s hand in marriage. As well, he promised to exempt the hero’s family from taxes, which I found most interesting.
So, as you already heard, the shepherd boy David volunteered to face the enemy, alone. And we all know the outcome. Now, this story has been used for generations to show how the weak can overcome the strong, but I have a slightly different take on it. Lately, we have been talking about faith. For instance, last week, we discussed the parable of the mustard seed, which Jesus used to show how a little faith could lead to great things. And I think that this is what happened here. David knew that he had been anointed, and that the Lord meant him to do great things. He had faith that God would not let him down. Just listen again to verse 37: The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw off the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine. David’s faith was such that he didn’t even pray before going into battle, knowing that the Lord was on the side of the Israelite army, and that he would be the victor in this lop-sided battle. I used the word lopsided deliberately, because, to the Philistines, it seemed sure that this untried youth was no match for their champion, but to David – and to us – it was obvious that Goliath was doomed to defeat, because David had the Lord on his side. While David knew what he had done to protect his sheep, he did not take the credit himself, because he knew that it was down to God that he had been able to succeed then, and that he would succeed now. Not only would he succeed, but the whole Israelite army would succeed, because this was the army of the living God. Imagine having that kind of faith!
Compare that faith, if you will, to the lack of faith shown by the disciples on the sea of Galilee that stormy evening. You need to remember a couple of things to understand what was happening here. First of all, most of Jesus’ companions at that time were veteran fishermen. If the storm was powerful enough to scare them, it must have been really something. And secondly, they had already seen Jesus do wonderful things, yet they feared that he would be unable to help them in their time of direst need. And there is a bit more to it than that. When they woke Jesus, they asked him: Don’t you CARE if we drown? That question has more than one meaning, as does just about everything in Scripture. It could indicate that they wonder if Jesus is capable of doing anything, or it could indicate that they wonder if he could be bothered to do anything. First of all, COULD he do it? And secondly, WOULD he do it? Because, as you know, these are two very different things. Many times we are perfectly capable to doing something, but we choose not to do it.
In the midst of the storm, Jesus was sleeping peacefully, with much the same mindset as David had before facing Goliath. Both of them knew, even if others didn’t, that everything would be all right. David had the faith that God would take care of him and the Israelites, and Jesus – well, he was God, so he had faith that he would be able to control whatever happened around him, until the time came for his death. The giant Philistine was a threat to David and the whole army, in just the same way as the storm was a threat to the disciples. Both were facing what seemed to them to be certain death. I found the choice of words in Mark’s Gospel interesting. Jesus got up, and REBUKED the sea into submission. Now, in the first chapter of this gospel, Jesus rebuked a demon. To me, the choice of words was no coincidence. To the people of Jesus’ time, the sea must often have seemed demonic, representing forces that were chaotic and threatening to human beings, who would have felt small and vulnerable and weak. And on this evening, it was certainly a place of chaos. Richard Swanson, in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel, makes a connection between what is happening on the sea and what Jesus has been doing on land. He has certainly been stirring things up, and making sure that people aren’t resting easily. Swanson commented: “He is already on the boat, on the sea, floating on chaos, which matches the implications of some of his teaching.” Just think again about the mustard seed from last week’s reading, which is so tiny, and which, at that time, could and often did grow into an uncontrollable weed. It’s odd to think about faith as a weed, but when you consider that it can choke out all other things which interfere with our relationship with God, then it makes sense.
For most people, this story of the storm at sea brings to mind the story of Jonah, who was also caught in a storm. He also was responsible for the calming of the seas, but in a very different way from Jesus. And we need to remember that this Gospel, like the others, was written after Jesus’ death and for a very specific community. This Marcan community would have seen the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale and cast out after three days as symbolizing Jesus’ being crucified, and in the tomb for three days before his resurrection. This early Christian community must often have felt like a crew on a storm-tossed ship, facing persecution and feeling small against the powerful and unfriendly forces who wanted to eradicate them. Mark, then, writes to strengthen the faith – the trust – of the early church in God’s goodness at work, beneath the surface of every storm and every trial.
However, we have to be careful. Too many people take this reading – and the one about David and Goliath – as assurance that, no matter what happens, God will deliver us from anything bad that happens to us. In this 100th anniversary year of the sinking of the Titanic, we know that bad things do happen. We can still remember Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans and the tsunami which killed so many people in Japan. This year my sister is again hosting two children from Belarus, which is still trying to recover from the Chernobyl disaster. I am pretty sure that the people involved in all of these, as well as countless others, prayed for God’s help at the time. And they must have felt that their prayers were not answered. The message in this story, then, is that, no matter what happens, God will be WITH us, not in a warm, fuzzy, everything’s-going-to-be-fine kind of way, but that he will be with us in any circumstances. And, you know, this is not necessarily comforting. When Christ quiets the forces that threaten chaos, makes the unclean clean, and restores the unacceptable to wholeness, these acts upend our cherished assumptions about order, security, autonomy, and fairness. Basically, we have to acknowledge that God at work in our lives can create rock our little boat, that he can create chaos. When God comes so near, we cannot hide. Nor can we push God away. And this is terrifying.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, when he calmed the waves, the disciples were terrified. And Jesus said to them: Why are you still afraid? Do you still have no faith? I hear words of accusation here, and I realize that these questions could also be asked of each one of us. We, like the disciples, seem all too willing to believe that God is all-powerful, able to do anything, to fix any problems we might encounter. We always seem to have faith that God can do the miraculous. But somehow, faith of this kind works against us and against God instead of for us and for God. First, we put so much trust in God’s supernatural powers, that we forget to use our own skills and gifts which God has given to us. We, like the fishermen who suddenly were floundering on the sea, act like we don’t know what to do or how to help ourselves with what God has already given us. What we don’t realize is that God’s power and miraculous abilities are revealed as much in our gifts and talents as they are in multiplying fish and loaves, parting of seas, or bread from heaven. Some of us are gifted with music and drama. Some of us are gifted with a listening ear. Some of us are gifted with organization and management abilities. These gifts are miracles, God’s love and power manifest in us. When we face faith crises, these gifts are God’s way of already providing us with help in times of need. Instead of looking for a quick defying-the-laws-of-the-universe fix, God asks us to look inward to our own resources.
Maybe this is what frightens us. Maybe, this is what made the disciples still afraid. Maybe, indeed, this is why they were TERRIFIED. At least, that is the word used in the pew bibles. In other translations, it is rendered: they feared a great fear. And that isn’t a word we often hear in church – the word “fear”. And when we DO hear it, it is often re-translated into the word “awe”, since they are the same word in Greek. So we – instead of saying “fear of the Lord” – say “in awe of the Lord”, which is not inaccurate, but is also not as powerful. In addition to being awestruck by the Lord, we SHOULD fear him. We should fear what he may demand of us, what he may expect from us. What is the true cost of discipleship? For many members of the Marcan community, it was ostracism by their own society, by their own families. For many of them, it was torture and death. If that doesn’t strike fear into someone, then I have to question their sanity.
Scott Hoezee, one of the guiding forces behind the Centre for Excellence in Preaching, wrote a reflection about Jesus as Teacher, not as mighty military or political leader or – in today’s language – as celebrity, but a man preaching from a fishing boat to huge and hungry (in more ways than one) crowds on the shore, talking “about seeds and birds and trees, and most people went away scratching their heads and wondering when in the world they’d get to see one of those spine-tingling miracles they heard tell of”. Maybe, then, when we think we need a miracle, what we need most is to be fed by God’s Word. Or is God’s Word itself not the greatest miracle of all? Is God’s Word not the thing that is most likely to cause chaos in our lives?
Not that we need any more than we already have. The church itself is in the midst of a storm. This was obvious at General Assembly, where the theme On The Edge was meant to propel us into the water. We see the storm as denominations are splintered; we see it as churches are closing; we see it as people wander about faithless – or rudderless, to continue the ship at sea analogy. Without a rudder, a ship will go nowhere, and without faith, a church and a people will go nowhere. I am not saying that religious activity is declining. We see what is referred to as “seeker-friendly” churches springing up virtually out of nowhere. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint – they vanish almost as quickly, because they have no substance. We see people claiming to be spiritual, but not religious, and you already know how I feel about that. In this country, we have the freedom to be religious in just about any way we want. The problem is that the way most people choose to be religious has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And that is where we need to start and to end – with the Good News, as it was brought to us by Jesus. Jesus knew that we would need to be told this again and again and again, just as the disciples were told again and again and again. Parable after parable covered the same material, bringing the same messages to them and to us. Jesus told them again and again about God’s love and about what Jesus would have to do in order to show God’s love. Jesus would go around the lessons with them again and again, helping them to become faithful servants. So it is with us. Have we still no faith? Faith in ourselves, and faith in our congregation. Faith in the vision laid before us, the path God calls us to? Fear not, God is a patient teacher, who will stay the course with us. Let us put our trust in our father, our creator, our teacher. God will not leave us alone to face Goliath or to be tossed about on the stormy waters. He will always be with us. Thanks be to God.

June 17th, Third Sunday after Pentecost

As I started to prepare for this Sunday, I was pleased to find that all three of the Scripture readings fit together very nicely. There are many times when this doesn’t happen, and then I have to choose one message over another. Since I think that there are great messages in every part of Scripture, this sometimes causes me problems, as I try to decide which one I should use. This week, however, there was no such problem, as all of the readings have the same basic message, which is that we can never imagine what God can do. Whether we are talking about a shepherd boy becoming a mighty king, a mustard seed growing into a plant large enough so that a bird can build a nest in it, or walking by faith and not by sight – these all point to what God can do, if we let him. They show us the possibilities that God can see, whether we can see them or not.
So, let’s start with the reading from the first book of Samuel. This part of the Old Testament is from what we call the historical part of Scripture. That is partly because much of what is there has been verified by other sources as being historically accurate, but, more importantly, this is where we learn the history of Israel. I have a special affinity for this part of the story, since my father was named Jesse, and my brother is David, but that really has nothing to do with the message – I just like saying it. If you remember, in last week’s reading from Samuel, the Israelites came to him, asking for a king. Samuel, being advised by God, warned them that this might not be the best thing, for a number of reasons, but they insisted. The Lord told Samuel to give in to the people, which, of course, turned out not to be the best thing to have done. It is like a parent saying “no” to a child who wants McDonald’s every day for lunch. There is a reason for the negative response.
However, like many parents who give in to keep the peace, God told Samuel to anoint Saul as the first king of Israel. Of course, as they had been warned, this was NOT a good thing. We skipped over the next few chapters, which serve to prove that having a king was a mistake. The Israelites went to war, and turned away from God, while Saul was their king. This led to the Lord’s rejecting Saul as king, and Samuel’s being sent to Bethlehem, where he was to anoint a new king for God’s people. This brings us to our reading for today.
You know, I think of this story in almost the same way as I think of a search committee in your average church. Saul, the king everyone wanted, the one described as an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites – a head taller than any of the others, he was being removed. He had been rebuked by Samuel, and it was recognized that his time as king was coming to an end, because he had failed to obey the Lord’s commands. And, of course, the search was on for his replacement. Now, I don’t know how much most of you know about a search committee, but they usually start out with something fairly specific in mind. They have a list of requirements, and most of them make good sense when you are discussing a new minister. Or, in this case, a new king. Samuel, following the instructions of the Lord, headed off to Bethlehem, where the elders met him in fear and trembling. Remember, Samuel was known as Saul’s emissary, and where the emissary went, war almost certainly followed. So they were no doubt greatly relieved to learn that Samuel was actually there to choose and anoint a new king. The Lord had told Samuel that the new king was going to be found among the sons of Jesse, so the search had already been narrowed down a bit. Jesse – no doubt bursting with pride – called his oldest son before Samuel. And Eliab looked fine to Samuel. But the Lord rejected him, and advised Samuel not to consider the outward appearance. Because, you see, like most of us, Samuel and the others tended to judge by appearances. If an opinion poll, such as the ones which are done today, had been done in Bethlehem at that time, David would certainly have been rejected. Even Jesse thought that his youngest son was certainly not to be the anointed one. It reminds me of the Cinderella story, in which the wicked step-mother his Cinderella from the prince. Again, we had the youngest child, the one whom the family really didn’t think to be of much account. David was out tending the sheep when Samuel arrived, and it wasn’t until Samuel asked specifically about another son that Jesse even acknowledged his existence. And even then it was dismissively. You can almost hear Jesse say: Well, I have one more son. But I doubt you’d want him. He is the youngest, and he’s just a shepherd. Who would have thought that the older sons who were brought in as more obvious choices were to be rejected? Samuel himself had been surprised that the Lord had rejected Jesse’s other seven sons, but when David was brought in, the Lord said: Rise and anoint him; he is the one. Just imagine the shock of Jesse and David’s brothers. This youngest son, this one who had no authority at all in his father’s house, this shepherd – this is the one who was chosen by God to be the king of Israel? And this shows clearly that discerning of a call is the work of God more than of man. If it were up to us alone, we would choose using earthly standards; but God uses a different measure.
The same applies to other things in our lives. We always think that we know best, but sometimes – in fact, all of the time – God knows better. This is why we need to be very careful, and prayerful, when trying to discern God’s will in our lives. The “Eliabs” in our lives can look really good, but they are not necessarily what is good for us. It is best, whenever possible, to hold out until we clearly hear God say: There, now! That’s what I want for you. That’s what I had in mind for you since the day you were born. And that day, in Bethlehem, David learned what God had in store for him. God knew – even if no one else did – what potential there was in David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons. God knew – even if no one else did – that the smallest, the most insignificant, can be used to accomplish great things. Samuel learned, as we are to learn, that God is concerned with the unseen, with the HEART of a person. And God, through Samuel, said: Bring in the youngest son, the one not considered. This is the one who will be anointed. This is the one who will lead the people, and be known as their greatest king, the hope of the Israelites, the vision for their future.
In a sense, David was the smallest of Jesse’s sons. Maybe he wasn’t the smallest physically – we really don’t know that for sure, one way or the other – but he was small in that Jesse didn’t even see the possibility hidden in him. As you heard in the children’s story, seeds are also small. And, in one of my favourite hymns, we sing about the apple tree that is in the seed. Each verse of this hymn ends with: unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see. The parables in today’s Gospel reading compare the reign of God with the mysterious way of a seed’s growth. Even today, in this advanced technological age, we are fascinated by this. And, if you don’t believe me, find a small child, and teach him or her how to sprout a seed. You will be just as amazed as the child, as the seed bursts open, and the first tendrils of green start to appear. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like those seeds, the ones scattered to grow even though the farmer doesn’t know how this happens, and the tiny mustard seed, which will grow into a plant big enough for birds to build a nest in.
Now, you know that Jesus taught in parables, and, to me, it feels that parables are not unlike seeds themselves. They contain so much more that we can imagine, and this is why they need an explanation. If you will notice, at the end of today’s Gospel reading, Mark wrote: With many similar parables, Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. Jesus taught in this way because of his audience, which was diverse, to say the least. He spoke to the learned and unlearned, the rich and the poor, the powerful and those with no power at all. He knew, as do most modern preachers, that a story – or a parable – was the best way to reach the most people. I would be willing to wager that the sermons which you remember most are the ones with good illustrations, the ones with interesting stories, rather than the ones filled with academic facts. When I working on an English degree, one of the things we were told is that, after food and drink, humanity hungers for stories. Henry Brinton, a Presbyterian minister in Virginia, said that Jesus used parables “to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the people who crowded around him, aching for insight and inspiration” . Even then, people were seeking, people were looking, people were wanting more. And Jesus gave it to them in the form of parables.
Today, we see the power of story even more strongly, as we see people respond to spiritual themes in films and novels. Harry Potter – even though some fundamentalist groups decry this as a Satanist work – is a classic story of good vs evil. When I was in seminary, we were required to watch Gran Torino, which I would recommend to anyone. It was a fairly typical Clint Eastwood picture – an older Clint, of course – but had a redemptive quality which made it, in many ways, one of his best. The ending was a bit forced, but when you consider that many in the audience were likely unchurched people, it was probably the best way to make the point.
But parables are more than just a good story, more than an illustration to help explain things. If anything, parables sometimes make things harder to understand, especially for those close-minded and hard-hearted people who listen but will not hear. Parables make us think, and, just when we think that we have figured out what Jesus meant, along comes another thought which shows us that it means even more.
In this 21st century, we tend to use the left side of our brains more, as we figure things out in a logical manner. But that is not how the parables are to be understood. We need to – if not think outside the box – then, at least to use the right side of our brains more. Parables challenge us to see two very different realities – the one that is most obviously presented, and the one that requires some explanation. Sometimes it is like going into the wardrobe, and coming out in Narnia. And, while Narnia is full on magic, is it where we really want to live? Before answering that question, before looking deeper into the parables, think about the cost of discipleship. This is something we have often discussed in this church, and something we will continue to discuss. But once we realize that the parables are, at the same time, a story, and yet so much more than just a story, then we will know that they tell the truth of our lives.
For we are mustard seeds in God’s garden; we are the seed scattered by the sower; and we are the ones who will bear much fruit, and grow so big that others will see us plainly. But even then, we need to be careful. For to us, in Québec, the mustard seed might seem like something fairly innocent. But to farmers of Jesus’ time, it was not so innocent. In fact, it was regarded as a weed, in much the same way as dandelions are regarded here today, if not worse. Jesus’ hearers would have likely been offended by the reference to such a weed, which they would themselves never have planted. But, like most weeds, this plant would have been tough and tenacious. Think about the followers of Jesus as mustard seeds in the world of their time. They would have been going against all that was orderly in their world – against the religious leaders and the civil leaders of their day. Their faith, which would sustain them through many trials after the crucifixion, was as stubborn as any weed, refusing to be eradicated. And that is what our faith must be. In this secular world, it is harder and harder to hold onto faith, but, as Christians, that is what we must do. As Paul said, we live by faith, not by sight. We trust that God will see what we cannot see.
Faith, like the mustard seed, may begin in smallness, and may even continue in smallness for a long time. But it will grow. And the growth, according to Jesus, leads to greatness, a greatness we cannot even begin to imagine. But God can imagine it. God can see it. Even more, God intended for it to happen all along. We are surrounded by big things – by governments, by institutions – and yet, our faith can conquer all of these. Without faith, we can do nothing. With it, there is nothing we cannot do. Thanks be to God.

August 2012