Scripture Readings: Isaiah 64:1–9 | Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19 | 1 Corinthians 1:3–9 | Mark 13:24–37
“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37).
When do you find it the most challenging to stay awake?
After a big holiday dinner? On a long drive home late at night? Sitting out in the sun on a lazy summer afternoon? Or here on a Sunday morning when the sermon seems to be dragging on and on. Sometimes it’s hard to stay awake… for all sorts of different reasons.
I’ve found that often when I am really stressed, I just want to sleep. In those moments, I get so tempted to just lie down and close my eyes… avoiding all the challenges and fears of what might lie ahead by slipping off into dreamland. It doesn’t work, of course… the challenges are always still there when I wake up… and sometimes they’re even worse. Though it takes effort, and courage… and sometimes an extra cup of coffee… it’s better by far in the end to keep my eyes open and face what needs dealing with, than to shut my eyes and try to shut out the world around me.
“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37).
As we know, today we celebrate the start of a new Church Year, with the first Sunday of Advent. A season of anticipation and waiting for the arrival of Jesus Christ our Lord: not just as we seek to re-enter the story of Christmas, and the coming of the Son of God, born of Mary as the Son of Man here among us… but we also await His return… His second-coming, drawing to a close the story of God’s great rescuing love for His creation… a story that culminates in the restoration and reconciliation of heaven and earth forever.
The season of Advent calls us to keep our eyes open… eagerly looking forward in hope for the day when we shall finally see our Saviour Jesus face to face in His glory.
And yet, the world around us seems to be experiencing its own season… not of anticipation and hope, but of anxiety. Wars and violent conflicts that seem to have no end in sight. Add to that, the growing threats to the fate of our planet, and the increasingly unpredictable effects of a rapidly changing climate. Economic instability. Major shifts in societal norms. It’s all left many wondering if the end of everything is drawing near.
And this idea fills many people with dread… both outside and inside the Christian Church… maybe some of us here today… unsure of what might lie ahead, and what we are supposed to do about it… and of where we’re to actually look for hope.
Unfortunately, there has been a lot of fear-filled ideas and teaching over the years about what the Bible has to say about the end of our world’s story. And so, even many of us Christians are more frightened than hopeful about the prospect of our Lord’s return. And if that’s us today, I think we need to ask ourselves the question: what is it that we believe Christ Jesus actually wants for His world? What has He shown us in all of Scripture that He wants for His world? And what is He going to do to bring that about?
Sometimes we forget that the One we are waiting for is the same One we meet at the cross… the same One who laid down His life in compassion and love for His enemies… to turn the world back to the Living God through His death. And the same One who was raised again from the dead to make all things new.
Whatever we may think about the end of our world’s story, as Christians we must remember that we are awaiting the very same Jesus who was sent by the Father to seek and to save the lost… to reconcile us sinners to our Creator… to offer His own perfect life in self-giving love to set us free, and bring us God’s divine forgiveness… and to rise again to bring about God’s New Creation which will never end.
This is the same Jesus who speaks to us in our Gospel reading today… who speaks to His followers of times of sufferings, and real uncertainty ahead. Who draws vivid imagery from the writings of Israel’s Prophets to warn of incredibly unsettling seasons to come… and who tells us flat out: “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:32-37).
Keep Awake. No matter how much we might want to fold our hands and close our eyes, and shut out the concerns of the world. No matter how long or short a time we may have until His return, our Lord Jesus has good work for us to do. Keep awake. That is, keep actively putting our faith into practice. Keep walking in the ways of our Master. Keep doing what Jesus has called us all to do… and trust that through His Spirit at work in us, He is with us even now, bringing about God’s great rescue mission… finishing what He has started long ago at the cross, saving this broken world that He loves to the end.
The truth is, our anxious world needs God’s people to keep awake. Our neighbours need to see signs of God’s New Creation at work in us… as broken and confused, and even frightened as we may be at times. They need to be brought into contact with people who have experienced the power of Jesus to forgive… to set free… to generously provide, and graciously embrace the outcast. They need to meet people who have already been given a glimpse of God’s New Creation, and can begin even now to share its blessings with them too.
And when we find ourselves in seasons of anxiety, unsure of what might lie ahead, what we are to do, or where to look for hope, we must remember the One we are waiting for, and what He has already shown us the Living God wants for His world… and for us all: to share in His holy love.
We won’t find hope by fixating on our fears. Or by closing our eyes to the challenges that surround us. But only by putting the holy love of God into practice. I think the theologian Donald Bloesch points us in the right direction when he says: “We find hope when we give ourselves in love – love to God and to our neighbour.”
So today, as we begin this season of Advent together, may we all keep awake… actively sharing the love of God given to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. And as we share His love with one other, and with all our neighbours, may the hope we find in Him shine out and lighten our world. Amen.
 Donald G. Bloesch, The Last Things: Resurrection, Judgement, Glory (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 259.
Scripture Readings: Ezekiel 34:11–16, 20–24 | Psalm 100 | Ephesians 1:15–23 | Matthew 25:31–46
“For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (Ezekiel 34:11-12).
Jesus is Lord.
Not just of our hearts as Christians, but over all of creation.
This is one of the oldest and most shocking claims that the Church has made over the last two thousand plus years. It is a claim we have confessed in our Creeds, sung in our hymns, and declared as we gather around His Table together each Sunday for generations. In times of plenty, and famine. In seasons of war, and prosperity. Under the shelter of Christendom, and under the thumb of tyrants and oppressors. At all times and in all places, at the heart of all we do is the Good News that Jesus Christ is King.
And so today, the final Sunday of the Church year, we commemorate the Feast of Christ the King… celebrating the reign of Jesus our Saviour now and forever.
But the question does beg to be asked: How are we to understand Christ’s rule as King of Kings, when the world around us seems to be ruled instead by the unruly? By those who are vicious… violent, and cruel… or at least indifferent to the fate of so many who suffer because of their self-centeredness?
Truly, today we can see many examples of would-be kings of all sorts… striving for influence and control, seizing what they want, and turning their backs on their fellow human beings. And sadly, we know that we Christians are not immune to this temptation either. We too can get caught up in the agenda of seeking to seize the reigns of power… to rule over others as we see fit… even in God’s holy name… but completely forgetting what God’s good Kingdom is about in our quest to make our kingdoms come, and our wills be done.
But the Good News is: the Kingdom is not ours… it’s God’s. And no matter how much we humans might make a mess of things, in the end, God’s will alone is the one that will be done. No matter how lost all might seem, Jesus Christ the King will set God’s broken world aright… He will bring and end to the troubles that plague us. He will sort out all our selfishness, and set us on the true pathway that leads to life. Like a good shepherd, Jesus our King goes before us, to gather, to guide, to provide, and to correct God’s wayward children, so they might come to truly share in the ways of the Kingdom of God.
This image of God and His chosen Messiah acting as a shepherd occurs all over the Bible, and our readings today from the prophet Ezekiel and the Gospel of Matthew both use this powerful metaphor to show us more clearly the kind of King we serve… and what it means to share in His Kingdom… which is both comforting and challenging.
In the book of Ezekiel, the Living God claims He will personally rescue His people, who at this time were scattered in Exile, and under the thumb of the rulers of Babylon. Ezekiel 34:11-12, “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.” Such a compassionate and gracious promise made to His people. Comforting them in their distress, and darkest moments that the LORD was still their loving Saviour.
Yet this comforting promise comes with a warning and a serious one… reminding them and us that the saving love of the Living God does not ignore what needs correcting:
Ezekiel 34:15-16, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”
He goes on to spell out how some of God’s people had gone astray: turning their backs on their neighbours, and thinking only of themselves… growing strong at the expense of others, causing suffering through their own indifference. Ezekiel 34:17-22, “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
We might have a tendency see ourselves as the oppressed and innocent sheep, and to write off those who rub us the wrong way as those who God is promising to straighten out one day. And at times, that may be the case. But the whole point that is being made here in Ezekiel is that God Himself will judge between all the sheep, and sort them out as He sees fit… and that even if we think we’re the ones hard done by, God sees the whole picture and what’s really going on… and in the end, it’s His judgment that matters, not ours.
God’s words in Ezekiel are an important message of warning to God’s own people that many of them have become self-absorbed… oblivious to the needs of their neighbours, and at times, have become their oppressors. And so, as One who truly cares for all of His sheep… for all of His human creatures, the Living God will not let this go on forever. This truly is Good News, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to hear.
God’s sheep, His people are meant to share in a completely different way of life from the selfish ways we often chase after… loving each other so that all might share in the blessings of God’s Kingdom together. And when we forget this, and get off track, and trample down or ignore others in our own self-centredness, we can expect that our Shepherd King will not stand idly by, but will take steps to sort us out.
With Ezekiel in mind, let us turn to our Gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 25, to a picture Christ gives of God’s chosen King offering divine judgement over all the peoples of the earth.
This well-known passage takes place right after the Parable of the Talents, which we looked at last week: which calls us to make good use of our Master’s treasure, the Gospel, with the time that we have been given.
And in today’s Gospel reading we’re given a glimpse of how we are to put the Good News we’ve been entrusted with to work in the world… teaching us how we can faithfully serve our King, and do His good will today:
Matthew 25:34-40, “‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
Christ tells us quite clearly: we serve Him by serving those in need. We love Him through loving our neighbours.
This word is a counter message to that of our culture, and to the wisdom of this world… which offers selfishness as the best way to get ahead and be blessed. But God’s Kingdom is not based on His people chasing after their own comfort, security, and peace… but about receiving and sharing God’s rescuing love with all those around us… bringing His help and hope wherever and however we can… seeking to meet the needs of our neighbours in body, mind, and spirit… and seeing Christ Jesus our King in the face of everyone we meet.
God’s Kingdom is not brought about by pursuing power, or striving to make ourselves feel secure, while others are left to suffer. God’s Kingdom calls His people to pursue peace for all… to embrace the way of self-giving compassion and love… that is, to share in the very life of Jesus Christ our King, who was crucified and died to seek and to save the lost, wherever and however they may be found.
Christ our King, the promised descendant of David Ezekiel points us to, is God’s Good Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep… not grasping after control, but out of compassion enduring the pain and the shame of the cross, so that sinners might be set free. He gave His life to bring God’s saving love to the loveless… His help to the helpless… binding Himself in humility to those who suffer… and saying to us that when we serve them we’re serving Him… and when we neglect them, we neglect Him as well… which is a truly dreadful thought.
But as severe as this all is, these words from Ezekiel and St. Matthew are not meant to fill us with terror, but to warn and remind us of the ways of our Saviour King, who seeks to bring even His most wayward… selfish… and sinful sheep back into His fold… in His righteous judgement, compassion, and rescuing love, correcting them, and turning them back from their self-centred ways, so that they too might experience the blessings and joys of His eternal Kingdom… instead of the truly bitter end that awaits those who only serve themselves.
The Kingdom of God shines out in the world when we Christ’s people share in the life of our King: when our ways conform to His ways, and our wills submit to His, and His holy love shapes all that we do. None of this is possible apart from His grace, and the Holy Spirit at work in and among us… binding us to our Saviour, who goes before us as our Good Shepherd… gathering, guiding, providing for, and correcting us His all too often wayward sheep.
So today, as we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, and confess Him as Lord of all, including our often selfish and unruly hearts… let us trust in His rescuing love, even for our selfish and unruly world. Let us remember the Living God’s eager desire to seek and to save the lost… to bring help and hope to the helpless and the hopeless… to straighten out and correct all that is crooked and corrupt, and set it all right at last. And let then us serve our Saviour Shepherd King by sharing His self-giving love with all those around us, especially those in need. Trusting that everything we do for them… and for Him, brings His good Kingdom to light, so that all of creation may share in the blessings and joy of knowing that Jesus is Lord, now and forever. Amen.
Out of the Hole of Complacency - Sermon for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost (November 19, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Zephaniah 1:7, 12–18 | Psalm 90 | 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11 | Matthew 25:14–30
“But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” (1 Thessalonians 5:8-10).
What is it that keeps us from making good use of what we have been given?
I can remember as a child, way back when in middle school, discovering a love for writing poetry. We were given an assignment to create a few poems of our own… and I found myself really enjoying it… and was actually quite proud of the few words I was able to put together. I remember feeling like I had discovered some new gift… some hidden treasure… but one that I didn’t know how to handle. In fact, the feeling that stands out the most in these memories is fear.
What if I tried to write more poetry, but then only ended up failing? Or at least, failing to measure up to my own newfound ideals. What if others didn’t like, or didn’t understand my poems? What if I wasn’t as good as I thought I was? All of these fears were swirling around in my pre-adolescent brain.
And so, I did what lots of folks do: I let my fear call the shots, and I stopped writing poetry. Which just about guaranteed that I’d never become a good poet.
But at least I wouldn’t be a failed poet, right?
What is it that keeps us from making good use of what we have been given?
Your passion might not be in poetry… but we all have things in life that do make us feel alive, and gifts we can share with our world… whether we recognize them or not.
But sometimes we all can be tempted to hide away our abilities… to not use the gifts that we’ve been given in life… burying our talents, and letting them just waste away. Which really is a waste.
This all sounds a bit like our Gospel Reading today, doesn’t it? I mean after all, it talks about ‘talents’ buried in the ground… and how that’s a bad idea. What else could Jesus be talking about than reminding us that we shouldn’t be afraid to make the most of our talents, and the opportunities that we’ve been given?
As is the case with all of Christ’s parables, the point is actually a little more complicated than it might seem at first… challenging and calling us to learn how to live in God’s Kingdom, here and now.
The parable of the talents, that our Lord tells is less about failing to live up to our own potential, from a human point of view… and much more about the very real dangers of complacency for God’s people… warning us of the high cost of not being faithful with the precious treasure that has been entrusted to us. A warning we all need to heed.
But as always, the warnings we find in the Scriptures are a vital part of God’s Good News… shaking us up from our spiritual slumber, and complacency… and offering us the way of salvation instead.
In our first reading from the book of the prophet Zephaniah, we heard a harsh warning for God’s people in the kingdom of Judah, about the coming consequences of their continued unfaithfulness to the covenant… their unique relationship with the Living God that was to shape everything that they did. Through Zephaniah, God challenged His people’s complacency when it came to living God’s way in the world, which would not be ignored… and would lead to their eventual Exile in Babylon.
“At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,” God says,
“and I will punish the people
who rest complacently on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good,
nor will he do harm.’” (Zephaniah 1:12).
The people set apart by the mercy and grace of the Living God were living their lives as if their Lord was completely removed from the picture. As if their relationship to the Master and Maker of heaven and earth made no difference to them at all.
‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’
‘So, let’s just get on with things, and not worry about where God fits in.’ Here we find at work a complacency that comes from spiritual apathy and disbelief. A path that we know led the Kingdom of Judah down the path of destruction.
Yet remember too, that even this exile wasn’t the end of Judah’s story. Even though God let His complacent, unfaithful people be cast out from their land, and lose all that they had, He did not abandon them, but held onto them through all of the sufferings that they had brought on themselves… speaking His words of hope to those in Exile… promises of restoration… mercy… salvation… far beyond anything that they deserved.
In short, we are warned that the complacency of God’s people brings disaster. But even disasters of our own making are no match in the end for the saving mercies of our Master.
This light shone by Zephaniah illumines much in the parable of the talents. It too is a warning for God’s people to remain faithful and not grow complacent.
Hundreds of years after Zephaniah, Jesus of Nazareth was now confronting the descendants of those who had returned from Exile… and who were at risk of loosing all that they had been given too. But for different reasons.
Though many in Jesus’ day saw themselves as faithful to the Living God and to the covenant, strictly obeying the Laws and Teachings of Moses… again and again, the things Jesus would say and do exposed their own hypocrisy, and self-righteous self-centeredness… especially in their ongoing opposition to the healing and hope-filled work of the Kingdom that Jesus was bringing about.
And so, Jesus told this and other parables to warn both them, and us about the consequences of becoming complacent with regards to God’s Kingdom… of living our days like it doesn’t matter what we do with this treasure we’ve all been entrusted with.
He tells the story of a man who goes on a journey, and puts his slaves in charge of his estate: giving each one a portion of his riches, to manage in his absence.
This treasure was measured in something called ‘talents’, a large sum of money, weighing about 34kg, or 75lbs, of precious metals, worth about 3,000 shekels. And in the story, two servants receive large amounts of their master’s treasure, manage it well, and were rewarded. While the one who received the smallest amount just buries it all in a field. And instead of receiving thanks, this ‘wicked’ slave is cast out, and loses his chance of receiving the reward and the joys intended for him.
It’s worth noting that the wicked slave didn’t try and fail… he simply didn’t try at all. He wasted his time, and the opportunities he had to be faithful with his master’s money. Why? Well, in his words, he was afraid of his master… believing him to be harsh… and grasping… eager to find fault. And so, he thought it best to just do nothing… which is what fear so often tempts us to do.
Fear can become such a powerful snare to keep us from living faithfully. The fear of failure. The fear of not having enough of what we need. The fear of displeasing those we want to share our lives with. Fear often tells us that it’s easier, that it’s better if we do nothing at all.
Fear keeps us complacent. Fear keeps us from being faithful.
And so, in this parable Jesus is bringing the charge of complacency against His people again… of falling into the trap of thinking that how they make use of their life as God’s people doesn’t really matter… and that the precious gift of God’s merciful love, and His holy ways can be handled carelessly… or worse yet, buried… so that nothing good comes from it.
Christ is urging His listeners, then and now, not to squander the time and the opportunities that we’ve been given… to take our calling to be God’s faithful people in this world seriously... to recognize that we’ve been entrusted with the treasure of the Gospel… the Good News of God’s precious saving love, given to the world in Jesus our Lord. And that if we want to share in the great joy of our Master, and have His Good Kingdom grow in and through us, we can’t simply bury it and forget about it, and go about our lives as if it doesn’t matter.
Christ wants us to make good use of what we’ve been given… that is, the faith, the love, and the hope that we have received in Him.
At the cross, Christ shows us the true heart of God, who is not some harsh and unfair master, but our gracious, merciful Lord who longs to rescue His world, sending His beloved Son to reconcile us to Himself, despite all our failures, and fears. Unlike the wicked servant in the parable, we don’t have to be afraid that our Lord is out to get us… waiting to find fault, and cast us away. Because of Jesus, we can trust that He truly wants us to share in His blessed life… and He wants us to be a part of sharing this life with all those around us.
And unlike fear, this deep conviction that we can depend on God’s enduring mercy and love does not lead to complacency, but spurs us on to live God’s way… helping us stay true to the One who stayed true to us to the end… our precious Saviour Jesus Christ the Crucified and Risen Lord.
So as St. Paul implores us, along with the Thessalonians:
“since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” (1 Thessalonians 5:8-10).
So, will we make good use of what we’ve been given?
Remember, it’s not about perfection, about never making mistakes, or stumbling… or failing. It’s about trusting in the mercy and grace of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, and treasuring the Good News of what He has done for us and for the world… reconciling us to God through the gift of His body and blood, and rescuing us from our own disasters so that we all can find forgiveness and new life in His name.
So, what can we do today to make good use of this precious treasure that we’ve been entrusted with? How can we be faithful stewards of God’s gracious mercy and saving love?
Each of us has our own part to play in God’s Kingdom. Our own gifts from God’s Holy Spirit, given to build up God’s family the Church, and to share His Good News with the world… not perfectly in our own strength, but trusting in God’s perfect love.
So, when we’re tempted to give into fear, and complacency, let’s look to Christ Jesus our Saviour, and ask Him to surround us with the faith, and love, and hope we need to be God’s people today… eager and able to share with the world what we have received in Him.
I want to end now with a personal note, and share a poem I wrote many years after middle school… after starting to confront my fears, and slowly coming to see that doing nothing is the best way to miss out on all the joys of learning, and growing, and living, and receiving grace.
This poem’s called “Perfect”.
Such a lovely and hateful word
to praise and to
An unbearable weight
born by the loving
the peace-wanting fellows
who cannot bear
An unbearable weight
thrown on their backs by
merciless hard hearts
to forget their own
An unbearable weight
shouldered by LOVE
for the sake of
oppressed and oppressor
…you and I
loved us all
Scripture Readings: Micah 4:1-5 | Psalm 46 | Romans 12:15-21 | Matthew 5:38-48
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21).
I’m sure it’s not news to anyone today that our world is not at peace. Sure, there are pockets here and there that have not known the horrors of war for a long time now… but even if we’ve managed to resist outright fighting, it seems more and more that our human family is set on tearing ourselves apart… turning on each other, and promoting deep divisions, some of which stretch back for generations.
We might think of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine; brutally seeking to displace and seize their neighbour’s homeland. We might think of the Israeli Army’s invasion of neighbouring Gaza, attempting to end the very real threat posed by Hamas to their own existence, but destroying the lives of so many Palestinian civilians in the process. Sadly, there are so many examples of lives and countries torn apart by war… we could go on for quite some time.
You all know I’m no expert on international affairs, and whatever the way forward may be to end these and other conflicts, I’m sure it’s not simple, or straightforward.
But that’s true of lots of things in life: The way forward for our world is not to be found without effort, and sacrifice… laying something precious down for the sake of gaining something greater.
Each year at Remembrance Day, we honour the memories of those who put their own lives in danger so others might be spared. We read the names of those from our Parish family who served in the military on behalf of our Country in war, some of whom never returned. And most of whom returned with deep wounds in body, mind, and spirit. We take time to remember the horrible costs of the conflicts that keep tearing our world apart… and we pray that God would bring the day when all wars come to an end, and His peace will reign forever.
And as God’s people today, called to place our trust in Jesus Christ, and follow His ways, we remember that the way forward for us too requires sacrifice… laying something down we might hold dear in order that something much greater can grow in our world… which is what our reading from Matthew’s Gospel today is all about.
Matthew 5:38, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” I’m sure many of us have heard something like this saying before, even if we’re not all that familiar with the Bible. This saying occurs several times in the Bible, specifically in the Law of God given to Israel to guide them in their life together as God’s covenant people.
For instance, in Leviticus 24:17-20 we can read that: “Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.” (Leviticus 24:17-20).
These days, this saying can sometimes be offered as support for the principle of retaliation: that is, if someone hurts you, then they should be hurt in return. We can’t leave a bad deed unpunished… we have to get back at them. It seems like a simple, straightforward way forward: this path of retribution. And so in this light, we might hear some people with reservations say things like: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind.”
But as usual, there’s much more going on in this commandment than a divine demand to seek revenge. It’s actually a law intended to set limits on retribution and violence… even for the sake of justice.
One way to wrap our heads around how “an eye for an eye” is intended to restrict violence and revenge might be to use the example of some modern legal practices around sentencing. I think many of us hear “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” as a mandatory minimum sentence. That is, if someone knocks out your tooth, they must have their tooth knocked out as well, and so on.
But in the context of the ancient Israelites, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” was about setting a clear maximum sentence… setting clear guidelines on how not to go overboard in punishing wrongdoers… and breaking the cycles of violent revenge that tear whole communities apart.
In practice, this means that in settling conflicts the guiding principle was not to be simply “getting them back for what they did”… but seeking a way forward that publicly acknowledges the injustice and harm that was done… but within limits, and without simply giving in to the destructive desire for vengeance.
Eye for eye, and no more. A tooth for a single tooth… not two. If someone breaks your arm, you can’t break both of theirs in return. A life for a life… and let it end there.
That was the heart of this guideline that God gave to Israel many centuries ago to help them live together in ways that sought to deal with injustice, but without going too far.
But in St. Matthew’s Gospel, we find Jesus Christ, God’s Son, calling His followers to go way beyond the guidelines provided in the Laws of Moses. Jesus, the One who completely embodies the self-giving love of the Living God, teaches His disciples to say no to vengeance, hatred, and prejudice… to forego all rights to take the path of retribution… and to instead embrace the path of forgiveness… a path He Himself has walked before us.
Jesus says to God’s people: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
You don’t need me to point out how radically different the way of Jesus is from the ways of our world. But before we find fault in what He says, lets seek to understand what He’s really getting at.
For starters, He’s not advocating that Christians ignore evil and injustice, but that we radically change how we respond to it… in this case, by being set free from the need to seek retribution at all… a freedom found by entrusting ourselves, as well as the fate of those who do us harm to the justice and life-changing mercy of God. Laying down our natural impulse to “get back at those who hurt us”, in order that something much greater can grow in our world: the gracious peace and love of God.
Matthew 5:43-48, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
These are more than just words, they’re the path that Jesus Himself embraced: laying down His own life at the cross to win our freedom… offering Himself as the perfect sacrifice to bring God’s peace and love to our broken and backwards world… and rising again from the dead to show us that the path to life is not found by getting revenge, but by giving forgiveness… and opening up the way forward for the healing of the wounded hearts that keep us apart.
An eye for an eye sets limits on our destructive desires for revenge. Forgiveness seeks to do away with it for good. It is by no means simple or straightforward, I know… but Christ Jesus the Crucified and Risen Lord shows us that forgiveness is the path to life… for us, and for our world.
As followers of Jesus Christ today, in a world torn apart by bitter divisions and wounds that go back for generations, we have a truly special role to play in bringing God’s peace to and life to light: like Jesus, we are to lay down our claims for revenge… and to practice forgiveness… not simply for our own sake, but to show our world that it is possible to stop tearing each other apart, and to break the cycles of violence and retribution by sharing the grace and love that God gives to us all in Jesus Christ.
So may we courageously seek to do all we can to pursue peace, here at home, and around our world. May we refuse to get caught up in the prejudice and hatred that fuels so much destruction. May we remember that Christ Jesus laid down His life out of love for every single human being, be they our loved ones, our neighbours, or even our enemies… and may that same love be at work in us, and guide us forward together. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Revelation 7:9–17 | Psalm 34 | 1 John 3:1–3 | Matthew 5:1–12
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”
(1 John 3:1).
How many of us remember having to sit at the “kid’s table” at family get togethers and holidays? For those who do, what did it feel like? Were you excited to have a bit of time away from the prying eyes and ears of parents… where you didn’t have to worry so much about being polite… or sticking to reasonable portion sizes of dessert?
Or maybe you felt a bit envious… a bit left out of the adult conversations and fellowship? Counting down the years before you would get to be included in this more mature branch of the family?
Now of course, there are lots of reasons why families might opt for adult and kid’s tables at get-togethers… and I can imagine it probably made things a lot easier for all involved. But as much as it might make sense in practice, having separate tables for adults and children… necessarily… separates the family… cutting off the interactions between the generations, and maybe even creating the impression that some members of the gathering are more welcome… more important more special than the others.
I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about family gatherings in this light before… and I’m certainly not trying to make anyone feel bad about how their families sort through the details of their get-togethers. Goodness knows, every family has its own rhythms, traditions, and ways of doing things.
But when it comes to the family gatherings of the Living God… the good news is there is no such separation. God doesn’t have a kid’s table… all are invited to dine with Him.
Today our Church Family is celebrating the Feast of All Saints, a day when we remember our connection to the entire family of God… past, present, and future. It’s a day we remember the beautiful truth of the Communion of Saints… the bond we share in Jesus Christ that even death itself is powerless to sever.
All Saints Day brings to mind many of our amazing brothers and sisters in Christ, whose lives and stories make known God’s holy love in all sorts of unexpected and remarkable ways. It’s a day we can cherish their legacies, and learn from their examples.
And yet, sometimes the way we think about ‘saints’ can cause some deep misunderstandings about our place within God’s family… misunderstandings that can have real implications for how we choose to live here and now.
For many, ‘saints’ seem like a completely separate class of Christian. An elite and elevated few, destined for spiritual greatness… models of piety and purity… almost a different species from the rest of us regular folk.
But the truth is, ‘sainthood’ is really our shared identity! It’s not just for a chosen few to become saints, it’s the common calling and destiny of all who are in Jesus Christ.
Being a saint, in other words, is simply what it means to be children of the Living God in this world. To be those growing up in His holy love throughout their lives, and into eternity.
So when we commemorate All Saints Day, we remember along with the well-know heroes of our faith, the rest of us ‘regular believers’ too… everyday Christians committed to living God’s way, whether anyone notices us or not… following Jesus Christ, and letting His Spirit shape and guide us into God’s new life, even today.
But sometimes… sometimes it’s hard to celebrate All God’s Saints. Sometimes it seems easier to just become disillusioned with the Church and our fellow Christians, especially when we’re not seeming to see and saint-like lives and behaviour out in our world… when those who claim loudly to be living God’s way carry on causing all sorts of self-centred wickedness.
The hypocrisy and failures of those claiming to be God’s faithful followers has always been a real source of concern, to be sure. And at times, we can be tempted to think that sainthood is more of a dream than reality. But our Scripture readings today give us good reason to hold onto hope in this regard… a hope not based on us at all, but on the saving grace of God that’s still at work in our world.
In our first reading today from the Book of Revelation Chapter 7, we’re given a glimpse of the reality from God’s perspective, through the grand vision granted to St. John the Divine.
In the vision, St. John sees a multitude of people from every nation… every branch of the human family, standing before the heavenly throne, clothed in white, and singing praises to God and to the Lamb, Jesus Christ, the crucified and Risen Lord of all.
Far from a defeated minority, left in misery and despair, St. John sees the vast communion of saints as a choir caught up in heavenly worship.
Far from a few pockets of likeminded people, with St. John we see humans from every corner of the world, joining their voices together in the song of praise and joy.
And far from being segregated and separated from one another, the saints are united in the one anthem… glorifying the Father of all, and His Son, the one Saviour of the world.
This vision is the destiny of the Communion of Saints: divisions set aside, replaced by divine harmonies; each one bringing their own joy-filled voice to compliment and elevate each other. And this is the direction Jesus is leading His people even now… preparing us to share His holy love with all God’s children for eternity.
This heavenly vision stands out as an open rebuke to our fractured society… exposing the lies and the sin at the heart of the racism, sexism, and everything else that cuts us off from one another, and from the holy love of God.
The theologian Ben Myers makes this point about the Church in his book on the Apostle’s Creed: “There is no social barrier that could exclude a person from inclusion in this body. The boundaries of the church are as wide as the human race… The gospel is not addressed to one particular social class or ethnic group. It is addressed to every imaginable human being. There is nobody in the world for whom the message of Jesus could be irrelevant.”
When it comes to God’s family, the Good News of Jesus Christ has open the door for absolutely everyone to come to the table.
But if this vision granted to St. John is a rebuke to our deeply divided world, that rebuke shines a bright spotlight on our sad divisions within the worldwide Church today.
We Christians who claim to be God’s children, living in faithfulness, growing in love, and sharing in a holy and heavenly hope, seem to have a really hard time getting along, and remaining in communion with one another. You don’t need me to go through the long and tragic history of the Church’s shattered fellowship this morning.
But even so, and maybe especially so, we need to be reminded again and again that despite all our brokenness, we are all members of just One Body, united to One Lord and through Him, to one another… a reality not just for eternity, but one we’re called to embody… to live out right now. After all, we believe, not in the segregation, but in the Communion of the Saints.
This is not an added extra… something we get to put off until we feel like getting around to it. We’re talking about one of the basic tenets of the Christian faith… part of the package of the Good News of Jesus, the Gospel, that calls us to address these divisions both in our daily lives, and in our communities. The Communion of Saints is a living reality… binding us Christians to one another… and even keeping us connected to those who have died in the Lord.
Again, Ben Myers says it well. Please excuse the long quote: “The greatest barrier that divides human beings from one another is not culture or language or class. The greatest barrier is death. It splits the human family into the two classes of the living and the dead. All other social divisions are petty compared to this great division. All human beings are powerless before this fundamental boundary. But in the resurrection Jesus has stepped across the barrier and restored communion between the living and the dead. He has formed one family that stretches out not only across space but also across time. The body of Christ is the most inclusive community imaginable because it includes not only those who are now living but also all believers who have ever lived.”
When we gather around God’s table, we do so with one another in this room, but also with every single human being who has ever or will ever belong by Christ’s side.
In Him, we are truly one… whether or not we get along now… we will have to one day. In Christ, we are reconciled to God and each other, and all divisions will finally be overcome by Him.
This is the most hopeful part of St. John’s vision in this morning’s reading from Revelation: the recognition that what makes the union… the Communion of Saint possible at all is that all the saints have been made saints by what Jesus Christ has done for us all at the cross.
“Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
What we share in common, what binds us together as Christians in the Communion of Saints is nothing other than the saving blood of Jesus Christ, which alone can wash away our sin, and set us free to share in God’s holy love.
Jesus Christ God’s Son is Himself the hope of all saints… He is the source of our peace, our joy, our comfort and our fellowship. Revelation 7:15-17,
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
It is Jesus Himself who sets us apart… no one’s supposed superhuman spirituality, purity or piety plays a part. Being in communion with Jesus Christ Himself is what can make saints of us sinners… with His Holy Spirit at work in us making us more and more like Him… even now!
After all, we’re not called to become saints someday… it’s God’s intentions for all of His children to share in His holy love all our days… for all God’s children to keep growing in the likeness of our Saviour Jesus.
Remember what was said in our reading from the first letter of St. John this morning:
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:1-2).
In Christ, we are God’s children now. And we will be made even more like Jesus, which St. John sees as a source of great motivation for us all to live a life set apart for God. 1 John 3:3, “And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” Purity, holiness, sainthood means seeking God’s grace to become like Jesus. It’s not about gaining status or glory, or winning a seat at the high table, but about receiving God’s gracious invitation to join Him at His table, and with all the saints of every age to share in the life of His beloved Son.
God doesn’t have a kid’s table… all are invited together to dine with Him.
There is no separation of saints by their own achievements. We’re all invited through what Jesus our Saviour has done for us all at the cross.
There are no second class citizens, but as children all are welcomed, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to grow more and more Godly… more and more like our Heavenly Father, in the likeness of Jesus Christ.
And though we might often be distracted by our own brokenness and our sad divisions, we can truly believe in the Communion of Saints because we believe in the Good News of Jesus at work in the lives of His people… His children. And what’s more, we’re called to put this belief into practice in the time we have together.
So let us come to Christ’s Table in faith, and join with our sisters and brothers across every age, and celebrate and give thanks for God’s gracious love in Jesus Christ… the hope of all saints. Amen.
 Ben Myers, The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism, ed. Todd Hains, Jeff Reimer, and Sarah Awa, Christian Essentials (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018), 104.
 Ben Myers, The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism, ed. Todd Hains, Jeff Reimer, and Sarah Awa, Christian Essentials (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018), 105.
Love the Lord your God... and your Neighbour - A Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost (October 29, 2023)
Sermon by the Ven. Cathy Laskey
Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 34:1–12 | Psalm 90:1–6, 13–17 | 1 Thessalonians 2:1–8 | Matthew 22:34–46
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind...
You shall love your neighbour as yourself." Matthew 22: 37 & 39
The other day I was talking with my sister about the year she and her husband, dressed up as Star
Trek characters for a Halloween party. I can still see in my mind the picture of them all decked
out in their coloured uniforms, pointy ears and make-up while both doing the Vulcan Salute.
My brother-in-law is a Trekkie, period. His man cave/theatre room is full of figurines, ships,
phasers, tribbles, dvd’s as well as a life size cardboard cut-out of Captain Kirk. He constantly
watches episodes over and over and over again.
My sister and her husband looked like the real deal for that party. She had made a costume
before when they were dating. He had looked out the window one day and saw someone dressed
up in a Star Trek uniform and got all excited. As her love for him was beginning to take hold,
she saw her opportunity to impress this young man and said that she could make one with her
sewing machine. She did and as they say the rest is history.
I was quite surprised years later to see her all dressed up that Halloween because I did not know
that my sister had become a Trekkie too! She was now into it. How come? Because her
husband loved Star Trek and she loved him. She loved what he loved, even though it was never
her thing. But her husband loved Star Trek and she loved him and so she now loved Star Trek
Our Gospel reading from St. Matthew today talks about love. Loving God and God’s love. This
passage sets the tone for our entire life. A life where we make God our thing.
So far in the 22nd chapter we have heard about how the religious leaders have been questioning
Jesus to try to trap Him. I do invite us to take some time this week to read again the entire
chapter in one sitting. Today, we are now reading at the point where Jesus answers one final
question. Soon their hatred will lead them to drag Him to the cross.
The religious leaders, thinking they will be able to contradict Jesus no matter what He says ask:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Jesus answers, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it:
‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law the
Jesus, the Son of God, is telling us how to live our life. This is the heart of the Law. Print this
out, put it on your fridge, frame it and put it on your wall, have it as a screen saver on your
phone, tablet, and computer. Begin each day by reflecting upon Jesus’ answer.
At the pastoral care workshop last week offered at Trinity Church, Hammond River, on The Art
of Visiting, the presenter, Rick Benson, encouraged those present to begin each day by taking a
moment to pause and give thanks. To name at least one thing at the beginning of the day that
one is grateful. Even when there seems to be nothing to be thankful for, remember that we do
have a Father in Heaven who sent His Son Jesus to love this world and to be our Saviour. God is
Over time, this pause and intentional focus at the beginning of each day will naturally create a
posture of gratitude within our hearts and how we live our lives. I would also think that
remembering and reflecting upon the commandment to love God with all our heart, soul and
mind, will go a long way in encouraging us to live a life of gratitude. Live a life of loving God.
This greatest commandment calls us to direct all our energies and all our love towards the
highest love. God. It sets the tone for what we do, what we say, how we use what we have, how
we respond to others, how we walk through each day.
I know that for me, this isn’t always the tone of my daily walk. I get distracted. I get focused on
other things. I sin. Here’s what happens.
[large paper heart with the word GOD in the centre placed on the floor] I know that Jesus has commanded
me to love God with my whole being. My love, my life is to be directed towards God.
[several smaller hearts] But, my heart, my love, that which I have been gifted with is often directed
elsewhere. Wealth, time, skills, energy, family. I’m really using these for my own benefit, not
out of love for God. [face them vertically so that they are not directed over the heart on the floor and drop them
one by one – they will miss the GOD heart]
Now watch what happens when our whole life is directed towards God, focused upon God. [after
picking up the smaller hearts, face them horizontally over the heart and drop them one by one and watch them land
on the GOD heart]
When our posture is intentionally directed first towards God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When
we intentionally take the time each day to discern God’s call on our lives each day. When we
have a heart of gratitude, a heart of love our whole being, our life is daily drawn towards God.
God must be the centre of our life. The focus of our life. The purpose for which we get up each
day and the reason for the life we live. Let us begin each day by reminding ourselves to love
God with all our heart, soul, mind before our feet touch the floor. Everything else in our life will
find the right position. Love God First.
St. Augustine is quoted as putting it this way. He said, “Love God – and do what you please. If
you love, what He wants will please you.”
This is the greatest and the first commandment, but did you notice that Jesus wasn’t asked by the
religious leaders for a second commandment. He voluntarily adds this in. Why did He offer this
Well, God loves everything and everyone that He has made. They wouldn’t exist unless He
loved them. Therefore, if we love Him with all our heart, soul and mind then we love what he
loves. We love Him, we love all that God loves.
[hold up the heart and turn over to show the word NEIGHBOUR]. As The Rev. Rob shared last week in
reference to the image on the coins, “[a]ll humans together bear the image of God.”
This is why the two commandments are intertwined. Jesus says all laws ‘hang on’ love for God
and Neighbour, meaning Law and the Prophets can be understood and lived only by one who
loves both God and others.
My sister loved Star Trek not because it was originally her thing. She loved it because the one
she loved, loved it.
We love our neighbour and everything that God has created, living as good stewards of this earth
our fragile home, within the great love we have first for Almighty God.
A fun fact to finish with. And no, I am not a Trekkie. Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) who came
up with the Vulcan salute shared that he based it on the Priestly Blessing performed by Jewish
Priests. When he was a child, his grandfather had taken him to an Orthodox synagogue where he
saw the blessing which one part meant ‘Almighty God’. Over time, this Vulcan salute has
become known as the universal sign for ‘Live long and prosper’.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 5, verse 33 includes the phrase as part of Moses’
admonitions to the Hebrew people prior to entering Canaan. “You must follow exactly the path
that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with
you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess.”
Christ came so that we may have life and have it abundantly. This is God’s desire and love for
Friends, let us live a life of gratitude each day loving the Lord our God with all our heart, and
with all our soul, and with all our mind ...and loving our neighbour as ourselves. Let us make
God our thing and love what God loves. Amen.
Give to God the Things that are God's - Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost (October 22, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Exodus 33:12–23 | Psalm 99 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1–10 | Matthew 22:15–22
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21).
This past week, the world has continued to wrestle with how to respond to the ongoing conflict in Gaza between the Israeli Defense Force, and Hamas, a militant group bent on Israel’s destruction… with many, many civilians caught in between. In retaliation for the truly brutal attacks on Israeli civilians, the IDF has blockaded Gaza, and bombarded the territory, in preparation for a full on assault apparently to rescue hostages, and to end the threat that Hamas has continued to play.
In the midst of conflicts like this, more tragedies are almost inevitable. And this past Tuesday, one such tragedy took place: Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City was hit with an explosion that killed hundreds of people. Both sides blame each other for this horrible loss of life… and people around the world joined in to voice their outrage by picking sides and protesting.
As it has been for centuries, our world is still deeply divided… and for many, the only way forward seems to be to just keep on fracturing, and then fighting over the pieces.
But there are other ways forward… ones which call us to step back from the power games at play around us, and to look at each other and ourselves from a very different perspective.
Our reading today from the Gospel of Matthew tells us of an encounter between our Lord Jesus, and members of two very distinct groups that had come together to trap Him and take Him down: the religious Pharisees, and the politically motivated Herodians.
The Pharisees are probably pretty familiar to many of us. They show up a lot in the Gospels, usually in confrontations with Jesus about what faithfulness to God and His Kingdom really looks like. As a group, they were not so much rulers or official leaders, as they were religious reformers… calling God’s people to separate from the ungodly, and to practice a more strict adherence to the Law of Moses given at Mt. Sinai. They were known for an uncompromising demand for religious obedience… but in the Gospels Jesus often calls them out for hypocrisy… neglecting the needs of their neighbours, while promoting a basically self-centered spirituality.
On the other hand, we have the Herodians: supporters of the puppet “King” Herod, the ruler of Galilee kept in place by the good graces of the higher-ups in Rome. Like Herod, his followers were a bit more politically savvy and power hungry than the Pharisees. They cared more about keeping control of the country, than with any particular ideology or agenda, be it godly or not. Rather than getting caught up in the religious debates of the day, the Herodians were more focused on self-centered power-games.
As you can imagine, these two groups, the Pharisees and the Herodians were usually at odds with each other. They represented the opposite ends of the political and social spectrum. The Pharisees were firmly entrenched in their Israelite heritage, seeking to bring back the glory days of God’s people by promoting moral purity… and obedience to God’s holy Laws… at least as they interpreted them.
The Herodians, however, had embraced the dominant culture and values of the wider Greco-Roman world… seeking to bring about a new and glorious future for… well, first of all themselves… and for the rest of their country too, all by keeping in Rome’s good books… through obedience to the Emperor’s whims, whatever they might be.
Like so many groups we could think of today, these two communities were polar opposites… but as we heard today they both came together to fight against a common threat: someone who challenged the influence and power of both parties… stirring up the common people’s hopes in a new way forward… a way devoted, not to their own sense of moral superiority, or to the whims of the tyrants of the day… but devoted to the Kingdom of Heaven, to the glory of God they had glimpsed at work in Jesus Christ.
As the saying goes: the enemy of my enemy is my friend… and so these two groups set aside their differences for a change, and teamed up to take this Jesus down… and trap Him with an unwinnable choice: Should God’s people continue to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?
Of all the questions to trap Jesus with, why would they choose this one? Why was this such an issue?
Well, it makes a lot more sense when we remember the long story of God’s people, and their unique relationship with the Living God to be set apart… to be a community devoted to Him alone.
A few weeks back, we took time to reflect on the 10 Commandments together. Without looking, can anyone remember Commandment Number 2? Right, ‘No graven images!’
And last week, we heard how at the crucial moment when the Covenant agreement was being sealed, Israel had broken this very Commandment, and made an idol of a calf to worship.
Idolatry, the worship of graven images, which was a practice shared by all of Israel’s neighbours, would remain a near constant trap and temptation for God’s people, from Sinai and down through the centuries… and after their Exile in Babylon, and eventual return to their homeland, many Israelites were afraid of what would happen if idolatry took root among them again. And so, groups like the Pharisees took a strong stance against graven images.
But on every Roman denarius there was the image of the Roman Emperor… a tangible reminder of who was supposed to be in charge and calling the shots in day-to-day life. Every transaction, every exchange was done in this Gentile Emperor’s name, and with his image. While under Roman rule, God’s people were forced by using these coins and paying taxes with them, to acknowledge again and again that their whole lives were in the Emperor’s hands.
And while some like the Pharisees might resist this claim… to openly reject it and teach others to stop paying taxes to Caesar would get Jesus into a whole lot of trouble… likely leading to His arrest, or worse.
But, if Jesus publicly supported giving taxes to Rome, the Pharisees would make sure that all the religious leaning folk who deeply resented Roman rule would know about it, and turn on Jesus, losing Him most of His popular support.
And so, while it might look like an honest question about Israelite religious law, this was all a political trap… an attempt to publicly force Jesus to choose between two options that would each have a disastrous effect.
It was a trap… but it was a trap based on a very particular perspective… an assumption both parties seemed to share: the idea that Jesus’ mission relied on the approval of other people… the crowds, the authorities… just like they did. And so they assumed that they could stop him by forcing him to choose one side or the other… undermining His support by dividing public opinion, so his opponents could finally gain the upper hand.
But Jesus knew full well that their assumption was wrong. He didn’t need anyone else’s support or approval to accomplish His mission. Rather than courting the favour of religious reformers or savvy political hacks, all Jesus needed was to remain fully devoted to His Father in Heaven, and to do His Father’s will here on earth.
Jesus knew that rather than playing power games, or fighting over control… the way forward is only to be found by sharing in the glorious life of the Living God.
This is what Moses was wrestling with in our first reading this morning. Atop Mt. Sinai, we found him interceding on behalf of the Israelites, pleading with the LORD and searching for a way for God’s people to move forward after Israel’s disastrous idolatry had threatened to completely destroy their new relationship with the Living God.
At this point, God had agreed not to abandon this whole project, but told Moses He would no longer dwell in the presence of His sinful people. He would not go with them personally, but would remove His glorious presence. Moses knew this would be terrible news, as God’s people only stood a chance if God was with them always… and so he pleaded for the LORD to reconsider. Exodus 34:15-17,
Moses said to the LORD: “‘If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
For Moses’ sake, God agrees to go personally, to share His divine presence and life with Israel. Once again, Moses’ intercessions open up the way for God’s people to dwell with the LORD… to stay in close connection to the One who is their only hope.
And in this moment, Moses expresses one of the desires of his own heart: that is, to see God’s glory. Not just to witness an awe-inspiring sight, but to have an experience of knowing the Living God intimately… of getting a deeper and truer sense of God’s own heart, and what makes Him tick.
And Moses is granted a glimpse of God’s glory… the most any mortal creature could handle. And as it turns out, it becomes a life-changing experience that reshapes Moses’ whole life, and changes forever how he related to those around him.
In Exodus 34:6-7, we’re given a glimpse of God’s glory too, a glimpse of His divine character and heartbeat as He reveals this picture to Moses:
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
There’s so much we could talk about here, but that will have to wait for another time. In short though, these words reveal God’s holy love to Moses, a holy love that invites Israel and the whole world to share in it wholeheartedly.
But then something else amazing happens. Exodus 34:29, “Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.”
Sharing in God’s presence and life changes us. And so getting a glimpse of God’s glory, Moses began to share in it too. Without even realizing it, he began to reflect God’s radiant life through his own life… which, after all, was God’s intentions for humanity since the beginning… and which was His gracious desire for His chosen people: to reflect His glory with their whole lives… as His images of holy love.
Turning now back to Matthew. Confronted by the trap from the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus asks them for a coin. Then He asks them: “Whose head is this, and whose title?” In short, whose glory does this coin represent?
The word here for “head” is actually “icon” or “image”… a word that we know ripples back all the way to Genesis 2, when all humans are described as being created in God’s own image… destined to reflect His divine glory through their lives together, sharing God’s goodness and love with each other, and with all of creation.
When the Pharisees and Herodians respond that the coins bear the image of the Emperor, Jesus says to them: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22:20-21).
The Roman coins made the claim that Caesar is in charge, and deserves everyone’s devotion. God’s image however is not found on coins, but on His human creatures… and so everything about them… about us all rightly belongs to Him.
All humans together bear the image of God. All humans exist to share in and reflect His goodness and glory, to the world and to one another. What we do with lifeless coins, which so many prize above all else, is so much less important than what we do with our whole lives… which belong to our Father in Heaven, and which we’re called to devote to Him wholeheartedly here on earth.
All humans together bear the image of God. Every life belongs to Him, whether they know it or not… and how we treat every life, every person, really does matter! While our world may be convinced that the only way forward is to tear humanity apart, Christ calls us to entrust our neighbours… and even our enemies, to the holy love of God. No one is disposable. No one is written off. All are beloved, and belong to Him. As Christians, this is the Good News our lives must make know to God’s broken world.
But these days, we’re constantly being asked to choose between all sorts of conflicting sides. To prove our devotion to this or that political party, social priority, and so on… and also to vilify and demonize, and de-humanize everyone on the other side... to imagine that “we alone” are the image of all that is good, and right, and true… and that there will be no peace until the “other side” is taken care of.
The truth is, it’s easy to fight. To turn on each other, and tear each other apart. But the way forward calls us to believe that the One who created, and sent His Son Jesus, to save us all, has not simply abandoned us to tear apart His good world. He has revealed His glory, His holy love… most of all through Christ’s own death for His enemies at the cross… so that we might share in it… and share it with those all around us.
Jesus calls us to not get trapped in the world’s ways of doing things, but to give our whole selves whole-heartedly to God… to the One who gave up His life to save us, and to share His glorious life with us.
Jesus, the One who truly is the image of God uncorrupted by sin and self-centeredness, is still with us… and He prays for us even now. In our moments of terror and temptation, He stands right by our side to save. And we can trust that in Him, God truly hears our prayers, and that He will not abandon those who turn to Him… even if, for a time we too must suffer, we know that we will share in Christ’s glory forever.
The Faith we’re called to Live is not about choosing the right side of any of the divisions that our world demands we make… our Faith calls us to see our lives and the lives of all others as destined, through Jesus Christ, to reflect the Living God’s goodness and glory.
The Love we’re called to Grow is not just for those who are like us in mind, body, or convictions. We’re called to extend God’s holy, self-giving love to everyone, even to our enemies, just as Christ Jesus did for us on the cross.
The Hope we’re called to Share is not based on “our side finally coming out on top”… but on our Saviour, Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, who has given His life to save us sinners from the wrath to come… so that all those around us might catch a glimpse of God’s glorious New Life too.
I don’t claim to have all the answers to the many deep divisions and conflicts tearing our world apart today. But if we’re to give to “God the things that are God’s”, as Christ calls us to, and as He empowers us to do, through His Holy Spirit… trusting Him with our whole lives, nurturing His love among us, and sharing this hope with our world, then I truly believe that our Risen Lord Jesus will guide us forward… and that His saving presence will dwell among His people, so that His healing, and resurrecting power might shine, and fill the whole earth with God’s saving glory. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Exodus 32:1–14 | Psalm 106:1–6, 19–23 | Philippians 4:1–9 | Matthew 22:1–14
“Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.’” (Matthew 22:1-2).
Have you ever showed up at a special event, and felt incredibly out of place because you didn’t really understand the expectations of your host? Imagine showing up to a back yard BBQ in a suit and tie. Or arriving at a fancy banquet in shorts and old work boots. Now at one level, we know that clothes aren’t all that important, really. They don’t make us any better or worse… even though all to often, we humans end up judging one another based on something as trivial as our appearances.
But at another level, if we show up unprepared to take part in something special that we have been invited to share in, it does say something about our attitudes towards our would-be hosts. It might say that we don’t really value their invitation… and the experience they had hoped to share with us… or maybe even the relationship we have with them. At this level at least, when we’re invited to a party… if we value our host at all… it’s actually pretty important to respond appropriately.
Right before our first reading from Scripture this morning in the Book of Exodus, the Living God had just invited the people of Israel into a special relationship with Him: they were invited to be His chosen, set apart people… shaped by His character and intentions, so that the whole world might also be drawn into His fellowship, and receive along with them the blessings and joy God longs to share.
But things had not gone as planned. Right after the vows of this covenant, sacred relationship akin to a marriage between God and this community, been made, as Moses was working out the final details of how the LORD would live in the presence of His people, down at the foot of the mountain, Israel was actively breaking faith with their divine Bridegroom… bowing down to an idol of a golden calf, and claiming that this lifeless statue was the true image of God, embodying their heavenly Saviour who had set them free.
Obviously, this was not how the celebration was supposed to unfold. And so, exasperated, God turns to Moses, and threatens to shut the whole party down, make an end of this whole project he had planned for Israel.
In Exodus 32:10, God says to Moses: “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” What had been planned as a great celebration… the start of a beautiful life together had turned into a moment of horrible betrayal, and near disaster for God’s people.
And yet… in God’s words we find, not only a warning of His righteous wrath, but also an invitation… an invitation for Moses to intercede. To step up and act as an advocate for Israel… as someone to act on their behalf, and plead to God for mercy and their deliverance.
God’s saying here: “Don’t try to stop Me, Moses… I mean it!” But these words beg the question: What would happen if Moses did try to stop God? What would happen if instead of taking up the offer God makes to start over with Moses, and abandon His unfaithful people… Moses actually tried to defend them? What would happen if Moses care more about God’s honour, and the lives of His people, than about Moses’ own glory… and what he himself might stand to gain?
In this high stakes encounter, God is inviting Moses into the tension between what it means to share in God’s goodness, His holiness… as well as in His faithful, steadfast love, even for His stiff-necked and sinful people.
Moses is given a choice of how to respond to God’s subtle invitation to intercede… and unlike the lifeless hunk of metal the people were worshipping at the bottom of the mountain, Moses actually ends up embodying God’s true likeness and character… God’s image by setting aside his own interests, and mercifully pleading the cause of God’s people… asking the LORD to set aside even well-deserved wrath, all in the service of holy, self-giving love.
By standing up before God, and pleading for Israel’s forgiveness, Moses actually reflects God’s own heart… His divine faithfulness and steadfast love… responding to God’s invitation to intercede by becoming even more like his LORD.
Of course, this does not mean that there will be no consequences for Israel. They had shattered their brand-new relationship with God… bringing about all sorts of heartache on themselves because of their choices. But through this encounter, and Moses’ prayers, we are assured that God will not abandon them to destruction. Instead, He graciously makes a way to maintain their covenant relationship… staying faithful to His own character, and promises, even if they don’t.
In all this, Moses’ response gives us a powerful picture of what it looks like to live as God’s image in a world that has all too often forgotten Him: loving God and our neighbours means praying for them. Praying for God’s mercy, and seeking the deliverance of those around us, even if the threats they may be facing would seem to be deserved.
Turning now to our Gospel reading this morning, we hear another parable of Jesus… with a particular context: at this point in St. Matthew’s account, Jesus was in the middle of a growing conflict with the leaders of God’s people in Jerusalem.
The parable paints a picture of those who respond with disdain and even violence to a king’s gracious invitation to the wedding feast of his son… and through this parable, Jesus was calling out the leaders of God’s people, who had once again turned their back on their relationship with the Living God, rejecting the messengers God had sent… the prophets, and their message of true repentance, and were now standing opposed to Jesus Himself, rejecting the One who is God in the flesh right before their eyes.
This is a parable of warning, to be sure… but it is also an invitation to turn around and take another path… to actually believe in Jesus, and follow Him, and find God’s kingdom at work in and through Him… just like many others from all corners of society were doing.
In the story, instead of the chosen, special, honoured and invited guests sharing in the fellowship banquet, it’s everyone else… the common crowds… the broken, the lost, and lonely and wandering, who end up sharing in the joys of the celebration.
This all reflects Jesus’ embrace of not just those seen as righteous… but sinners… those who were seen as worthless and lost causes by the religious leadership of the day. Through this story, Jesus shows us that sharing His time and teachings and compassion with these outcasts was not an expression of His lack of holiness… as evidence that He was somehow wandering away from the light, but rather, this is actually how He was embodying the compassionate, steadfast, and holy love of God… advocating and interceding for His lost and scattered people, and inviting them to be reconciled to God.
And in this light, it’s actually the leadership’s rejection of Jesus that proves that they are actually the ones who are out of sync with the character and intentions of the Living God and His holy ways.
The king wanted a joy-filled celebration for his son, but those he invited didn’t want to join in. Jesus tells us God wants the wide world to share in His blessed fellowship, but the most powerful and ‘respectable’ of His own people could not have cared less. Their responses to Jesus’ invitations to come join God’s kingdom celebration was to flat out refuse… and in the end, to pursue His death.
So much for the honoured guests who miss out on the party. But what about the guy who gets in, and then gets kicked out because he’s wearing the wrong kind of clothes?
As it turns out, this parable is not just a warning against responding to God’s gracious invitation with outright rejection… but it’s also a warning about saying yes but with presumption… taking the gift of this gracious invitation for granted, and in so doing, treating it with disdain and contempt, but in a different way.
The story goes that one of the guests shows up completely unprepared for the wedding party… assuming that as they were graciously invited, they don’t really have to bother to respond appropriately to the great honour they had just been given. And Jesus wants us to understand that saying yes to God’s kingdom… to the new life that God is inviting us all to share in… requires us to respond to this gift with reverence, gratitude, and love, not as if it’s no big deal.
The people of Israel at Mt. Sinai in our Exodus reading, had been graciously invited into a covenant partnership with God, and yet at the very moment when their union with Him was to be celebrated, they were shattering it… treating His gift as if it was nothing.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus had come to Jerusalem, which could have been the moment that the leaders of God’s people welcomed him as their Messiah… but they turned their backs on Him.
And here in Gondola Point, how might this parable be a warning for you and I as God’s people today? A warning against rejecting God’s gracious invitation… or maybe a warning against treating it as if it’s nothing special. As if it doesn’t require us to make any changes at all in our life to say ‘yes’ to the Living God, and share our lives with Him?
What do we think it means to receive God’s invitation to share in His gift of New Life?
Are we content to be casual Christians… happy to enjoy comfort and blessings for ourselves, but not bothering to clothe ourselves with the compassion and mercy of God that we have received?
Are we just looking forward to our share of a heavenly feast, but forgetting all about the needs of those hungering for fellowship, sustenance, and hope all around us?
Are we embodying… are we the image of the holy love of the Living God… or a self-centered spirituality?
Or, like Moses… are we starting to share in the character of our LORD… willing to intercede, and sit in the tension between a world wandering far off course, and the Saviour who gave His life to seek and to save the lost?
Are we like the guests that were invited freely, and still honoured their host through their appropriate response… the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners who messed up, but still find forgiveness, mercy, and new life by turning to Jesus in faith… letting go of our old ways, and turning to our Saviour who gave His life to set us free?
Jesus Himself is the truest image of God… He alone fully embodies the holy, self-giving love of God. And He does this by turning the world upside down, and taking onto Himself the fate of those who rejected Him, and who treated God’s goodness and grace with distain and contempt.
At the cross, Jesus gave Himself up to be cast out into the outer darkness of death for the sake of the world, laying down His life to intercede and advocate for us sinners… to make amends for us, and fully reconcile us to our loving Heavenly Father, and to one another. And rising again from the dead, He shares His New Life with us through the gift of His Holy Spirit, helping us respond rightly to His love, and reshaping us in Christ’s image.
None of us earn our invitation into God’s fellowship… it’s God’s gift to us all in Jesus Christ. And His parable is a warning and an invitation for us all to respond faithfully to all that He has already done for us: rescuing us from our sins and failures, and drawing us into the fellowship of God.
If we have been invited into God’s party… His fellowship of holy love… what does it look like to respond faithfully in our day to day lives here in Gondola Point?
It looks like trusting in and following Jesus. Letting His Spirit and New Life reshape our own… in every facet of life. In our relationships, our choices, our priorities… consciously conforming everything we do to the way of Jesus.
One simple and personal example of this shows up in our second reading. In St. Paul’s encouragement to the Christians in Philippi, we find him urging their community to become a people of peace and reconciliation. He even names two Christian women, Euodia and Syntyche, and encourages them to overcome their issues, whatever they were, and work together again as sisters in Christ. This is just one example, but it’s a powerful one: a reminder that at the heart of God’s character, and what Jesus has come to do, is drawing people together in holy love and fellowship with Him. If we have been invited to share this gift already, our faithful response must also include putting this Holy love into practice with those around us.
Our world desperately needs God’s holy love, and we His people are to be the way our world encounters it. Through the Holy Spirit, freely given to us in Jesus Christ, you and I are now to embody God’s self-giving, holy love… growing more and more each day in Christ’s own image, and being made into His hands and feet, working to bring God’s healing, forgiveness, compassion, and peace to everyone we can.
I’ll end now with St. Paul’s words to the Philippians, 4:4-9. May they remind us of what it looks like to faithfully say yes to the life Christ has invited us to share in:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Amen.
The Gift Of Learning To Love God's Way - Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost (October 8, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Exodus 20:1–20 | Psalm 19 | Philippians 3:4–14 | Matthew 21:33–46
This weekend, folks all over Canada are marking this holiday, which reminds us of the joyful gatherings and feasts that would accompany the harvests each year in the Fall. It’s a time to stop and reflect, and give thanks for the blessings of the past year, as well as to share both food and fellowship with those who are in our lives.
And it's a nice tradition in and of itself. But it can also become a true blessing if it can help teach us to live with gratitude, not just one day, but every day of the year… if it can help us respond to the many gifts we have received by encouraging us to work towards making thankfulness a way of life.
And as strange as it may sound, that’s what our Scripture readings this morning are doing as well: inviting us to stop and reflect on what we’ve already received… to express our gratitude, and to respond rightly with our words and actions… not just once and a while, but always… sharing in a new way of life together as God’s people.
Turning first to our Gospel reading this morning, we hear a less joyful harvest story: Jesus tells a parable about unfaithful workers in their master’s vineyard… a story meant to expose the unfaithfulness of the powerful leaders of Jerusalem… the chief priests and the elders of God’s people, who were resisting and rejecting Jesus, instead of receiving Him as God’s Chosen One… the rightful Son of the Master, sent to fulfill God’s good will once and for all.
In the parable, Christ compared these leaders to ungrateful, greedy servants who cared more about scheming after their own gain than with faithfully handling their Master’s harvest. It comes as a pointed rebuke of the profoundly self-centered motivations of those leading God’s people, motivations that would in the end cause them to reject Jesus, and pave the way straight to the cross.
Knowing what we know now, that the cross was not the end of Christ’s story, we can give thanks that God turned their envy and murderous rejection of Jesus into God’s gracious gift of salvation offered to all. But even so, this parable sheds light on a problem that we still face today.
After all, it can be easy to listen to other people be criticized, and their hypocrisy exposed… but Christ’s words serve to expose the sin at work in our hearts as well, laying bare our own tendencies towards self-centredness.
Our Gospel reading invites us to stop and reflect on some difficult questions: How might we be like the chief priests and elders in Jesus’ day? Preoccupied with our own concerns, and with what we can get, instead of being dedicated to our LORD? How are you and I driven by self-centredness as well?
When push comes to shove, who are we really devoted to? What does devotion to the Living God actually look like?
Turning now to our reading from the book of Exodus, we are given an important glimpse of what godly devotion looks like in the famous Ten Commandments, the cornerstone of the Law of God given to Israel at Mt. Sinai.
To modern ears, the idea of divine commandments can seem quite restrictive and limiting… an unwanted imposition from the outside, keeping us from experiencing the supposed ‘joys’ that come with the freedom to do whatever we want.
But in fact, God’s commands are actually meant to bring us freedom… to set us free from fruitless pursuits and destructive patterns of life, and to guide us towards the joys that come from putting God’s good ways into practice.
In short, these commandments are God’s good gift to help His people learn to respond to His saving love with joyful devotion to the LORD, and to each another.
But to be clear from the start: these commandments were never about earning God’s favour or good graces, but about learning to respond faithfully to what God has already done. The foundation for the Covenant relationship between the Living God and His people was not Israel’s obedience, but the saving love of the LORD.
The reading begins in Exodus 20:1 with this vital reminder: “Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” Long before God asks anything of His people, He had already shown them His mercy and love, rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, and graciously inviting them into a whole new and blessed life with Him.
The commandments were then given to teach Israel how to live with Him, and with one another… how to share in God’s good and life-giving ways… shaped not by self-centeredness, but by His holy love.
And so, the Ten Commandments show us what this holy love, this new way of life looks like:
No worshipping other gods beside Yahweh, the Living God who had rescued them.
No making idols… graven images that seek to reduce the Creator of all that is into something of our own design.
No misusing or dishonouring of the Name of God, wrecking His reputation.
No forgetting of the Sabbath day, which set aside sacred time each week for God’s people to worship and rest.
No dishonouring of ones parents.
No committing adultery.
No bearing false witness, distorting justice.
And no coveting.
That’s a whole lot of “no’s”… lots of things we’re being commanded not to do. These days, we tend to think of the word “no” as a challenge… or even as a violation of our free will… as a barrier, keeping us from experiencing the joys of life that come from pursuing our hearts’ desires. But the truth of the human heart, as the stories of the Scriptures and our whole history makes plain, is that so often what our hearts naturally desire would bring about all sorts of pain and destruction in our world. Unchecked, the human heart does not tend to bring freedom and joy, but enslavement and devastation… especially to those who are the most vulnerable.
And so yes, God’s commandments to Israel are restrictive, but in the sense that they guide His people away from self-destruction and exploitation… from turning on one another. His commandments are given to restrict His people’s self-centredness, and to teach them to love God, and to love one another… to be devoted to their LORD, and seek the best for their neighbours, not just for themselves.
In his book on the Ten Commandments, the scholar Peter Leithart makes this point: “we are genuinely free only if our desires are trained, only if we have been brought out of the Egypt of self-love to embrace proper objects of love.” In short, God wants His people to grow in love with Him and with one another… and to be free from only serving their own interests. And so, the Ten Commandments, the Law of Love, teaches us to learn to say “no” to to ourselves… self-centeredness in all of its many forms.
The first commandment calls us to place the Living God at the very centre of our lives… allowing no one else to become His rival for our devotion. When we elevate anyone or anything above Him in our hearts, we’re on the path away from freedom and life.
The second commandment calls us to resist the temptation to try and shrink God down, and remake Him according to our own ideas and ideals… to worship a god of our own creation, instead of worshipping the One Creator of all. When we pick and choose what kind of ‘god’ we want to believe in according to our own preferences, instead of seeking to know what the Living God is actually like, we’re only fooling ourselves, and devoting ourselves to lifeless objects, instead of to our loving Saviour.
The third commandment calls us to be devoted to honouring God with our whole lives. It’s not just about avoiding curses with our mouths, but lifting up God’s holy name with every action and choice we make. When we claim to be God’s faithful people, and yet live in ways that would drag His name in the mud, even when no one else sees it, we’re guilty of slandering our LORD, which He does not take lightly.
The fourth commandment calls us to devote out time to God… to reorient our days and lives in ways that nourish deep faith and genuine worship. Setting aside time, which is one of the most precious gifts we’ve been given, to be with God and with God’s people sets us free from the competing claims of our world, and gives us a taste of the sacredness of life. When we let busyness our preoccupation rob us of this sacred rhythm of rest and adoration, we forget our place in God’s good world, and the peace He longs to share with us all.
The fifth commandment calls us to honour our parents… to show devotion to the ones that God used to bring us into the world, and to give us life. It reminds us that no one is truly self-made… that life itself is a gift we have received, and that we are meant to respond to this gift with gratitude. Again, Peter Leithart words it well: “Your parents aren’t God, but they’re God’s gifts to you, as you are God’s gifts to them.” When we refuse to honour our parents, and treat those who raised us up with indifference or worse, we’re closing our hearts to those God has placed in our lives, for the benefit of all.
The sixth commandment calls us to be devoted to the preservation of human life. To recognize that we have no right to take God’s gift of life from one another. When we begin to disregard the sacredness of our fellow humans, created in God’s own image, we end up serving the forces of death and darkness, and defying the Living God who is the merciful Father of all.
The seventh commandment calls those who are married to be devoted to our spouses… to be faithful to those we have pledged ourselves to… in thought, and word, and deed. It calls us to say “no” to every opportunity that tempts us to break trust with them, and to reaffirm our commitment to them, again, and again, and again. When we turn our backs on those we’ve vowed to share our lives with, we turn our backs on the faithful love that God has shown to us all, and has called us all to share in.
The eighth commandment calls us to be devoted to our neighbour’s wellbeing, and to resist the temptation to simply take whatever we want from those around us. At the heart of this commandment is not simply the need to protect ‘property rights’, but the recognition that we must protect and not exploit one another. When we steal from others, we’re not only hurting our neighbours, we’re also embodying a lack of trust that God can provide what we need without us having to seize it for ourselves.
The nineth commandment calls us to be devoted to upholding the truth. Bearing false witness is not simply lying, it is perjury… building a picture of reality that is untrue, and which undermines a whole community’s integrity. When we bear false witness, we distort justice, and soon start confusing evil with good.
And the tenth commandment calls us to be content. To not covet, or long for what others have… which can be so hard in a society like ours built around consumerism… where we’re constantly told we’ll only ever be happy if we buy the next new thing… or have a house, or a job, or a family, or a life like those other people. When we chase after what others have… or even what we think they have… we cut ourselves off from gratitude, and embrace self-centredness, which is at the root of all kinds of misery.
These Ten Commandments are God’s gift to us, to teach us how to love Him, and to love each other… and to avoid the trap of self-centeredness that can so easily ensnare us. They are a gift I think we too often take for granted, forgetting the role they play in our lives… and we do well to stop, and reflect, and give thanks to God for them.
And yet, we need more than God’s commandments alone… we need His own holy love, which they teach us about, to actually be alive in us. To transform us from the inside out.
And this is what Jesus Christ, God’s greatest gift, offers to us: pouring out God’s holy love not simply written in stone, but now engraved in our hearts through His Spirit… empowering us to actually live God’s way in the world today.
The chief priest and elders of Jerusalem knew all about the Ten Commandments, and yet they continued to resist Jesus, and His work bringing God’s saving love to the broken and lost. And as our reading from Philippians tells us, St. Paul was once fully devoted to following the commandments, but he still found himself trapped by the same self-centeredness that had blinded him to the Good News of Jesus the Risen Lord… that is, until the Risen Christ forced him to stop and reflect, and ‘opened his eyes’ to the wonderous truth… that our relationship with God is never based on how good we are… but on the gracious gift of God’s Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ… the Cornerstone of our faith.
Listen again to St. Paul’s words:
“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” (Philippians 3:4-11).
Jesus Christ our Saviour is the living embodiment of God’s Law of Love… the One that the Ten Commandments prepare us to trust in, and point us to. And it is Christ’s power at work in us that enables God’s people to actually begin to overcome our slavery to self-centeredness, and to grow in true devotion to the Living God, and to our neighbours.
So today, may we stop and reflect on the great gifts that God has given to us all: sharing His self-giving, holy love with the world, first at Mt. Sinai, and ultimately in Jesus Christ His precious Son. May we express our deep gratitude to Him, and respond with sincere devotion all of our days… and may we share together in the joyful freedom and blessed new life we have been given in Jesus. Amen.
 Peter J. Leithart, The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty, Christian Essentials (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 121.
 Peter J. Leithart, The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty, Christian Essentials (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 68.
Scripture Readings: Exodus 17:1–7 | Psalm 78:1–4, 12–16 | Philippians 2:1–13 | Matthew 21:23–32
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…
The choices we make each day reveal a whole lot about what matters most to us. How we respond to our circumstances says a great deal about what we believe in.
This week many watched as our neighbours to the South endured yet another round in what seems like their never ending political battle. This time, it was disputes around the approval of funding for their federal government… disputes that highlight the deep divisions not only between the two rival parties, but also the factions within the parties themselves… infighting that threatened to bring an incredibly powerful country to a standstill, freezing funding for federal employees, and shutting down all sorts of programs that their citizens rely on.
It’s yet another display of shameless arguments over power… fighting about who’s will is done… while millions are placed in a state of insecurity, facing unnecessary hardships and pain… without a clear pathway forward.
It’s another dramatic example… but it’s certainly nothing new. Time and again history shows us that those who seek to wield power and authority over others have been tempted to make use of it without real regard for how those without that power will be affected.
And we know this isn’t just a temptation for politicians… but for us all, and even the Church has shared in this broken abuse of authority, as the tragic story of residential schools reminds us. This weekend, we mark the Nation Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and as Anglicans we must remember the part that our own branch of the Church has played in using spiritual, social, and cultural power to remove indigenous children from their families and communities, and through force… and in many cases outright cruelty… tried to erase their identities… and to remake them in our own image.
My point is that when Christians seize control in the world, we can be just as self-centered and oblivious to the misery of others as anyone else. God’s people are not immune to these temptations… we all share in a common capacity for corruption, and the abuse of power.
The writers of the Holy Scriptures knew this well enough. And while at times in the Scriptures we find God’s people in places of authority, on the whole the Bible was written from the perspective of those without earthly power… penned by those who lived in a near constant state of vulnerability, and in danger of losing everything. And so, the Bible frequently addresses the concerns of those of us who are powerless… inviting us to learn to live God’s way in those moments we feel the most threatened, afraid, and alone.
In our reading from Exodus this morning we heard how the Israelites responded when they found themselves without water as they wandered in the wilderness. Despite the amazing ways that the Living God had delivered them, and provided for them, they didn’t trust God, or Moses, the man God had chosen to serve as their leader. They didn’t believe that God was truly with them… even though He was, despite their doubts.
And in our Gospel reading, St. Matthew tells of an encounter between Jesus and the Jewish Temple leadership… the chief priests and the elders of the people. Those used to calling the shots in Jerusalem.
They clearly don’t trust Jesus, and come to confront Him in the Temple, questioning His actions and the supposed source of His authority… finding their own positions of influence undermined by His ministry, and worried that this nobody from Nazareth might stir up Rome to come and use their overwhelming military power to wipe away everything that the leaders in Jerusalem had worked so hard and sacrificed so much to preserve.
Thirsting in a dry desert, and trying to keep a challenging and controversial teacher in check… These are situations we’re not likely to face here in Gondola Point. But what are the ways that we feel powerless today? What challenges are we facing that make it hard to trust in the Living God today?
Economic shakeups? Rising global tensions? Cultural shifts and changes that surround us with the unfamiliar and the confusing? Grief, and the sudden or growing recognition of our own mortality? Losing those we deeply love? There are lots of ways we feel powerless.
We may never wander in a dry desert… but there will be plenty of times when we feel like we’ve been led to a dead end, with no possible way forward.
We may never have to try to hold together the fate of our country in the face of hostile forces… but there may be plenty of moments when we feel that the fate of everything we love lies squarely on our shoulders alone.
In those dry wildernesses of life, when we don’t seem to have what we need… what do we do?
In those crucial moments when our sense of control is challenged… our actions questioned, and our vision for the future is undermined… how do we respond?
Are we quick to complain? To catastrophize? To cut down others in order to feel secure?
The choices we make each day reveal a whole lot about what matters most to us. How we respond to our circumstances says a great deal about what we believe in. And Who we believe in.
Back in Exodus, the LORD graciously provides water for His grumbling, distrustful people, but as they continue down their path of mistrust, they increase the strain on their vital relationship with their Saviour… pulling their hearts and lives away from Him, rather than faithfully sharing in His fellowship. And yet… God’s gift of living water invites them to draw near in faith again… to come to Him even when they are powerless and afraid, and trust in His saving love.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus confronted the leaders of Jerusalem in such a way that He exposed their hypocrisy… revealing that they were far more concerned with holding onto their own security and power than with sharing in God’s Kingdom at work right before their eyes.
They asked who gave Jesus the authority to say and do the things He was saying and doing, but Jesus turns it around and asks them what they thought of John the Baptist: that controversial preacher of repentance that King Herod had recently put to death.
To side against John the Baptist would be politically disastrous… they would lose the support from the common people, who thought John had been a prophet. But to side with John would then require them to drastically change the path they were on… to make very different choices and actually respond to John’s message… and ultimately to follow the One John himself had claimed was sent by God, and even greater than himself. After all, as N.T. Wright points out: “It was at John’s baptism of Jesus that the voice from heaven had named Jesus as Messiah, God’s beloved son.”
But Jesus’ words were not just a clever trap exposing their unbelief… but a challenge… a bold invitation to turn around and to trust Him… to make a clear choice to let go of their own agendas, and respond in faith to His words and His Kingdom work … an invitation to believe that He is God’s Messiah, God’s chosen King, and trusting Him, to bow their knees and hearts to Him. N.T. Wright goes on: “Now that the chief priests were in a rebellious state, they too, like the ne’er-do-wells, could have changed their minds and obeyed after all. Even at this stage the challenge contains a coded final appeal.”
How might Jesus be appealing to you and I today through the challenges we are facing?
Do we believe that the Spirit of God is still speaking to us through the Holy Scriptures in our times of powerlessness and insecurity… telling us that we can trust Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son sent to save us and to save God’s world… even when we feel like we don’t have what we need… or that we’re being asked to surrender our hopes, and plans, and even our fears into His hands?.
The Good News is we can trust Him, and not just because we believe He’s all powerful, and we’re not… but because of what Jesus has done with His power… because of what He shows us God’s power really looks like in action.
In His letter to the Philippians, St. Paul reminds us of God’s way to handle power, which Jesus our Saviour lived out for us all:
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8).
Jesus did not grasp after influence. Or demand that others give in to His agenda… but instead He entrusted Himself to the love of His Heavenly Father, and He let go.
He emptied Himself… of all the honour and glory that were truly His, in order to share in the fate of those without honour and glory… to join Himself to the powerless, the oppressed, and the forsaken.
The Son of God allowed Himself to be publicly shamed… stripped of all apparent authority, and brutally executed as the lowest of the low.
And He did this all out of love. Love for His Father, love for His sin-filled, powerless people… love even for His enemies.
The choices that Jesus made reveal a whole lot about what matters most to Him. How He responded to His circumstances says a great deal about what He believes in: the Living God’s powerful self-giving love, which even death cannot undo.
And the cross is where we see God’s powerful love at work: at the moment when we were all at our worst, the Living God overturns our whole world’s failure and turns it into glory.
“Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11).
Jesus Christ, the crucified and Risen Lord reigns… even when we find ourselves in dry deserts. And He reigns even when we must surrender the things that make us feel secure and in control. He reigns even when those who seem to call the shots here on earth make disastrous decisions… and everything seems to be falling apart.
Jesus reigns… and He calls you and I to live His way in His world. To let His powerful love… a love that trust’s Him enough to let go… to guide us. And to correct us. And to provide for us. And shape everything that we do. So that our daily choices, and responses to life’s challenges reflect His love more and more… and so that we can share God’s powerful love with one another, and with our world.
“If then there is any encouragement in Christ,” St. Paul says, “any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…”
You and I are meant to share in the mind of Christ… to actually become Christlike. Not through our own power, but through God’s power… and God’s Spirit at work in us.
St. Cyril of Alexandria, an ancient Christian theologian wrote these words about Jesus our Lord, and what He has come to do: “He humbled himself, according to the Scriptures, taking on himself the form of a slave. He became like us that we might become like him. The work of the Spirit seeks to transform us by grace into a perfect copy of his humbling.”
He became like us that we might become like Him… transformed by God’s Holy Spirit to chose to live God’s way, and let His good and perfect will matter to us more than our own anxieties or agendas.
I’ll end now with these words from St. Paul’s letter:
“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Amen.
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year A (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2001), 108.
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year A (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2001), 109.
 Cyril of Alexandria, Festal Letter 10.4., in Thomas C. Oden and Cindy Crosby, eds., Ancient Christian Devotional: A Year of Weekly Readings: Lectionary Cycle A (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007), 221.
Through the Waters, To A New Beginning - Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (September 17, 2023)
Scripture Reading: Exodus 14:19–31 | Psalm 114 | Romans 14:1–12 | Matthew 18:21–35
“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” (Romans 14:7-9).
Water is a complicated thing in the Holy Scriptures.
It is of course essential… a basic necessity for the flourishing of Creation. Without water, there can be no life. But with it, life abounds. It truly is a gift from God.
And yet, water is also an image of dangerous, unpredictable power. And no wonder! We got a taste of water’s force this weekend, as the overly warm waters of the South Atlantic helped to generate Hurricane Lee, a storm which made its way to us here in the Maritimes.
Further afield, we’ve also heard about the devastating flooding in Libya this week. Over ten thousand lives were lost as dams burst, and the waters raged. Let us keep Libya, and especially the flood’s survivors, in our prayers in the days to come, as they mourn their incredible loss, and seek to rebuild their lives again.
For many ancient cultures, including those in the Bible, water… particularly the vast saltwater oceans and seas, held deep symbolic significance: they represented the abyss… the fierce chaotic forces always threatening to undo creation… the home of monsters and dragons… the realm of no return.
It’s no accident that in the first pages of the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, God separates the waters and makes dry land appear so that new life can begin. Or that when, a few chapters later, all of humanity was hell-bent on destroying God’s good world with violence, that the flood-waters returned, washing away all but Noah’s family, so that humanity, might have a new, albeit still very broken, beginning.
And in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus, we heard of another key biblical story in which the Living God brings about a new beginning through the waves: freed for a moment from Pharoah’s grasp by God’s dramatic acts of deliverance, Israel was on it’s way out of the land of Egypt, and into the land the LORD had promised their ancestors.
But they found their way blocked by the abyss… the waters of the sea stood in their way… and suddenly Pharaoh’s army shows up behind them, trapping them between Egyptian swords and the watery depths. Death seemed to be their destiny… but the LORD was determined to save them.
“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” (Exodus 14:21-22). And when Egypt’s army pursued them, the waters closed in again, washing them all away. Israel was saved through the waters of death, for a new life with the Living God on the other side.
The crossing of the Red Sea marks the dramatic break between Israel’s old life, and their new beginning, reminding them that what lay ahead would look nothing like what lay behind them… and that they could truly trust the Living God to lead them into life.
And this story points forward to God’s ultimate act of deliverance in Jesus Christ, God’s own beloved Son sent to rescue God’s beloved world and bring it a new beginning.
At the start of His ministry, the Gospels tell us that Jesus passed through the waters of the Jordan River… baptized by John, and identified with those Israelites who were again turning their hearts to the LORD with repentance and trust. In that moment, His unique connection to God the Father and God the Spirit was revealed, driving home how firmly united all Three divine Persons were, and would be in all that was to come.
And Jesus would once again pass through the waters, not of the Jordan, but the deep waters of no return… entering the abyss of death at the cross, washed away along with all the wickedness of the world, to set us free.
But the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot be ultimately overwhelmed by any flood, and in God’s steadfast love, Jesus was raised again, overcoming death once and for all, to share God’s new resurrection life, and a new beginning for all.
And we the Church, followers of Jesus Christ who place our hope and faith in Him, have already begun to share in Christ’s new life, united to Jesus in His death and resurrection. In our own baptisms, we cling in faith to Christ, and through His Spirit at work in us, God leads us from our old broken ways to the New Life shaped by His holy love, which even the waves of death cannot overcome.
One day, like everyone since the beginning, we will die. But in Christ we know our physical death will some day give way to a physical resurrection like Jesus our Saviour, a new beginning, fully embodied, but filled with the power of God’s the Holy Spirit, united together with Jesus in the love of God for all eternity.
In many ways, all this remains a mystery… but because of Jesus, it’s a mystery we believe to be reality. As St. Paul writes in Romans 14:7-9, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”
We are the Lord’s… whether we live or die.
Like Israel, once through the waters, we have a whole new adventure ahead of us. They were set free from Pharaoh’s power, not to wander each on their own way, but move forward together as God’s people in the world… to the destination that the LORD had in mind for them. Learning to live together His way.
And for us Christians, we’re not simply baptized… passed through the waters… to go our own way on the other side. Baptism is just a first step in a new journey, living God’s way… now no longer as one nation, but as God’s multi-ethnic, and beautifully diverse family that we humans were always intended to be.
Even so, as we know, this ‘new way’ presents us with many challenges: ones that can feel pretty overwhelming. How can we actually start to live God’s way in the world? Learning to put His holy love into practice in everything?
For the most part, our world is not asking this kind of question. It’s far more concerned with other matters. And many times in our history, Christians have forgotten God’s ways, and tried to be more like our neighbours… swept along with the current of whatever our culture says matters most, or just going our own ways, instead of moving towards the New Life God has prepared for us.
But this morning, our two readings from the New Testament remind us of God’s way… highlighting for us two very important facets of this New Life this new beginning we have been given as God’s family, both of which might seem unsafe… dangerous… and even likely to bring about our end at times… but our Saviour Jesus leads us through them both, not to overwhelm us, but to share His New Life with us… and those around us.
The first of these dangerously deep waters that Jesus leads us to in St. Matthew’s Gospel is forgiveness.
In Chapter 18, St. Peter asks a pretty important question for those who want to live alongside others about the reasonable limits of forgiveness.
Matthew 18:21-22, “Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Seventy-seven times. That’s quite a number… and oddly specific. I’m sure many of us would have a hard time wrapping our heads around forgiving someone even seven times, as St. Peter suggested… but seventy-seven times? That sounds a little extreme.
And it is extreme. Jesus is trying to make it as clear as possible for us what kind of life God has shared with us… the kind of life built on forgiveness, not vengeance.
This clearly stands out from the ways of our world, where ‘getting even’ in one form or another consumes so much energy, and tears apart so many lives. And even in the first few pages of the Bible, in Genesis Chapter 4, we hear an account of this spirit of violence and pride at work in one of Cain’s descendants, a man named Lamech.
As we might remember, Cain was the first murderer: out of envy and anger, he killed his innocent brother. But God had mercy on Cain, and offered to protect him from the violence of others he would meet. God promised that “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” (Genesis 4:15). In this way, God sought to spare even a murderer’s life, and stop the spiral of violence, and vengeance from spreading.
But several generations later, Lamech looked at God’s promise to Cain, and twisted it to be used to intimidate others, threatening those who insult or injure him with death. In Genesis 4:23-24, Lamech proclaims
“I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
And so the cycle of bloodshed grows, throughout humanity’s story. ‘If you do wrong to me, I’ll get you back... seventy-seven times worse.’
But Jesus flips all this on it’s head. He shows us God’s way is not too escalate retaliation, but to abundantly forgive.
To go far beyond the reasonable limits when it comes to seeking reconciliation, setting each other free from our failures and faults… to find a way forward together.
Jesus then tells a powerful parable, highlighting the logic of forgiveness at work within God’s family: that we must extend to each other what God has already given to us.
For how can we presume to receive God’s gracious forgiveness ourselves in Jesus Christ, and then withhold it from each other?
Jesus’ command far exceeds the expectations of His followers, back then and today. Even now, we can hear the voice of those who call themselves Christians calling for bloody vengeance, and targeting others around them with brutality. But imagine if God were to do the same thing to us whenever we fail? That’s what Jesus calls us to do: to reject the way of wrath, and to side with God’s gracious forgiveness instead. It might seem too dangerous to forgive… to unpredictable to step out and seek reconciliation. But Jesus leads us through these waters, and there is no other way that we can go to share in His New Life.
This leads us to the second dangerously deep abyss that Jesus calls us to cross, explored in St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome: the rejection of judgmentalism.
How many friendships, families, communities, and even churches have been torn apart by differences that ultimately don’t make any difference at all? How strong is the instinct that has been polarizing so much of our world today? Looking down with distain at anyone who disagrees, and desperately grasping after power.
But speaking to the Roman Christians, a community struggling with many deeply ingrained divisions… especially those at work between Christians from Gentile and Jewish backgrounds, St. Paul shows us a very different way.
Romans 14:1, “Welcome those who are weak in faith”, he says…that is, those still struggling in the early stages of understanding the nature of God’s gracious, saving love offered to us all in Jesus Christ. The Church was not to be an elite order for spiritual experts, but a family where we are all welcomed, and continue growing in God’s love together.
And an important part of this flows from what St. Paul says next: all are welcomed “but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” Those who are weak in the faith… beginners, might struggle with knowing the nature of this new community. That unlike the world around us, it’s not based on common interests, shared preferences, or opinions, but on the saving grace and love of God for sinners revealed in Jesus Christ.
And the examples St. Paul touches on may not seem too important to us, but they were actually sources of deep divisions within many early Christian communities.
I mean, these days what we eat has become a pretty big concern for many. People have strong ideas about what is the most ethical, healthy, and morally sound diet, and it can make it hard to relate to those who make other choices about their food.
But back in St. Paul’s day, there were lots of other reasons, including religious reasons, why food was such a source of contention. In Gentile cities throughout the Roman world, meat was often purchased in markets after being sacrificed in pagan temples.
St. Paul makes the point elsewhere, in his letters, that mature Christians know that there’s only One God above all, and that any food received with gratitude to Him does us no spiritual harm. But St. Paul knew that not everyone’s able to see this yet. Some were still worried it would be a sin to eat such meat, so they just ate vegetables.
And St. Paul’s advice was not to get caught up in arguments… to seek the truth, but at the same time not to look down on those who don’t agree with you! Don’t judge them! Love them! Walk with them. Make concessions for them as younger siblings in God’s family, regardless of their age or status. In short, treat them God’s way: with patience, grace, and welcoming love, even when it’s hard. And over time, help them to grow in their faith, just as others have helped us grow.
But another reason why eating food might prove divisive had to do with differences of religious heritage: Jewish Christians might opt to eat only vegetables to avoid non-kosher foods. In order to maintain their intentional distinctiveness from the Gentiles all around them… including those in the Church, causing all sorts of tensions between these two groups.
And this relates to the other example St. Paul deals with: considering one day as more important. This likely refers to the practice of Sabbath, resting on the seventh day, which was a central mark of Jewish identity, that some were arguing was a necessary practice for all Gentile Christians too.
According to St. Paul, this ancient Sabbath practice was not bad, but it was also not binding for Christians… those kinds of distinctions aren’t what make God’s people unique anymore. Their new way of life in Jesus Christ is what counts now… seeking to honour the Lord with our whole lives. In short, we must learn to welcome, and share our lives with, and love people who are very different from us. This can feel scary, and unsafe, but if we are to live as God’s people today, we must leave judgmentalism behind, washed away, just as God welcomed us all through His Son.
In Romans 14:4, St. Paul says “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
Can we trust the Living God to deal with us in His own wisdom, and righteousness, and gracious love? Can we learn to welcome each other the way Christ welcomed us? Freely, in order to set us free by His own blood?
There will always be tensions and differences within the family of God. The question is: What is God’s way for us to deal with these differences? And with each other?
It’s not to abandon our commitment to the truth, to the Good News of Jesus Christ and God’s saving love… the Living Faith we have received.
It’s not to retreat into our own private corners, and keep from Sharing the Hope we have been entrusted to extend to each other and to all those around us.
God’s ways forward is to continue to Grow in Love… to learn to walk with each other, even with our differences… to stay devoted to each other, despite the tensions that will arise from time to time. To offer compassion and care to each other, as Jesus Christ has offered to us all… especially at the cross… not to condemn, or seek vengeance, but to forgive and set even enemies free.
And though it might seem too daunting and dangerous of a path to open ourselves up to God’s forgiving and welcoming ways, we know that our Saviour Jesus has already passed through these dark waters, and with Him we will find His New Life at work in us… which is what we and our struggling world desperately needs: Signs of God’s new, forgiving, and welcoming beginning, that they too are invited to share in.
I’ll end now with a sonnet by the poet and priest Malcolm Guite, for the Baptism of Christ:
Beginning here we glimpse the Three-in-One;
The river runs, the clouds are torn apart,
The Father speaks, the Spirit and the Son
Reveal to us the single loving heart
That beats behind the being of all things
And calls and keeps and kindles us to light
The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings,
‘You are belovéd, you are my delight!’
In that swift light and life, as water spills
And streams around the Man like quivering rain,
The voice that made the universe reveals
The God in Man who makes it new again.
He calls us too, to step into that river,
To die and rise and live and love forever.
New Food, For a New Way Forward - Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost (September 10, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Exodus 12:1–14 | Psalm 149 | Romans 13:8–14 | Matthew 18:15–20
One of the things I really missed during the long days of COVID was sharing meals with others… eating alongside friends and neighbours in fellowship, and without fear.
It’s one of those things most of us took for granted. I mean, eating food is something we do each day, but which takes on a whole new level of purpose and meaning when it becomes something we do together.
In the womb, an unborn child is nourished directly from their mother… secretly, unconsciously… but once the child is born, they must begin to be fed in a whole new way. Now they must be sustained by love… by the gracious care and intentional provision of another human. Suddenly, they’re part of a community, and a whole new way of life opens up for them.
As God’s children, we too are nourished and sustained in a new way… by the grace love of God… rescued and invited into a whole new way of life. A way of life meant to be shared… picked up and practiced in community.
In our Old Testament reading from the Book of Exodus this morning, we heard about a key moment of the saga of Abraham’s family: the first Passover, a sacred meal, inviting those who eat to share in the story of the Living God’s gracious rescue of Israel… saved from slavery in Egypt and given a brand new beginning… born into freedom for a whole new way to be God’s people together.
The celebration of Passover was to become a perpetual practice, an incredibly important reminder of how God had graciously delivered them: hearing their cries of distress, dramatically defeating their oppressors, and in every way inviting them to share in fellowship with Him; the Almighty Creator of all that is, sharing His Heavenly life with a people with no home, no land, no strength, and no future… and giving them everything they needed for a whole new kind of life.
On Passover, all of the congregation of Israel, in their own households were to kill a lamb, consume it together, and cover their doorposts with it’s blood, marking themselves off from those around them, as those ready to respond to God’s instructions… who believed in His deliverance:
Exodus 12:13, “The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.”
This sacred meal marked the start of the Exodus… Israel leaving their old way of life as frightened and powerless slaves in Egypt behind… and it marks the start a new beginning for them as the rescued people of God.
Having eaten the lamb, and having been protected by its blood, in faith and obedience to the Living God, Israel was being formed into a new community… one meant to live God’s way in the world, and to share His rescuing love: telling and retelling the story of God’s salvation from generation to generation… by returning again and again to the table together… eating and drinking the sacred meal the Living God had set for them. A meal meant to shape every aspect of their lives… drawing them to their Saviour, so that they could share in His holy love.
And here we find ourselves today at St. Luke’s, one household within the worldwide Christian community, united across time and space by our response to God’s gracious and saving love: to what the Living God has done in Jesus Christ at the cross… the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
We believe the Good News of His self-giving love: laying down His own sinless life at the cross to rescue us sinners, and set us free from our sins, our guilt, and our shame. We believe in His resurrection, setting us free from the fear of death… the fear of abandonment, of loss, and rejection… the fear of our enemies… the fear of each other… and opening up for us a new way to live God’s way even now. A way that will never end… uniting us in Jesus to the Living God and to each other once and for all.
We believe Jesus died for us. That He was raised for us. And that He lives to sustain and save us… that we are baptised into His death and resurrection… in order to be born from above to share in His New Life.
By faith, we eat His body. We drink His blood, trusting in His perfect sacrifice and power to make us and our world new… to stir up in us God’s New Creation, through His Holy Spirit at work in us.
Jesus Christ is Himself our sacred, spiritual food… setting us free to leave our old ways behind, and to begin a whole new Exodus together… to share in the life of a new community… one meant to live God’s way in the world, and to share His rescuing love: telling and retelling the story of God’s salvation from generation to generation… returning again and again to the Lord’s Table together… eating and drinking the sacred meal that the Living God had set for us all. A meal meant to shape every aspect of our lives… drawing us closer to our Saviour, so that together, we can share in His holy love. And share it with all those around us.
The New life of God that Jesus has set us free to share in is His holy love… which has always been at the heart of what it means to be God’s people… together.
I know there are lots of questions that we Christians and whole Churches are asking these days… questions about what we should be doing in times like this to stay relevant, or to bring more people to us. Questions about how to keep our own communities alive and well, and able to last from generation to generation. Questions about who’s right and wrong… and how to best move forward in a strange and frightening world.
But one big question I believe we all need to be asking, again and again, is this: How do we really love one another? How does God’s holy love call us to live today?
In our reading from the letter to the Romans, St. Paul reminds us of the centrality of love for those around us when it comes to living God’s way. Romans 13:8-10,
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
To be God’s people today… to be a Church family, a Christian community… means sharing together in God’s love. Drawing near to Jesus together to receive and reflect His self-giving love. We are fed and sustained by what Jesus has done for us all, but then we are called to offer the grace and compassion He offers us to each other… growing closer together in His love.
This all sounds great, but of course it’s not easy, as both the story of Israel and the Christan Church reminds us. And even Jesus prepared His disciples for the real challenges they would face as they sought to be His followers, a people shaped by His holy love.
In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus gives His followers instructions on how to deal with the divisions and the fallout from sin at work within their community… acknowledging that as we’re learning to live God’s ways, we will not always get it right.
Matthew 18:15-17, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” That is, as one who is now outside the fellowship, because they have chosen to break their fellowship with their fellow believers and not to be reconciled. This whole process is meant to pursue every opportunity for restoration and reconciliation, not to shame others, or play power games.
The point is that even though sharing God’s holy love is God’s will for His people, His love cannot be forced. We can resist it. We can reject it. We can turn against each other and wreak havoc within God’s family. But Christ shows us God’s love does not ignore discord, and the evil still at work in His people… but instead He charges us to deal with it. To be open ourselves to correction, and to seek reconciliation, and to leave our old ways of life behind for the sake of those around us.
In short, we cannot be careless in sharing God’s love. We must take it seriously.
Again, St. Paul’s words to us this morning ring true: Romans 13:11-14, “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
‘Wake up’, we’re told, ‘and live in the light.’ Put on Jesus, and with Him take up a whole new way of life together.
Remembering that this is not a solo journey, but the new Exodus for God’s whole family. That none of us are meant to being doing this alone, but alongside our sisters and brothers in Christ. And even more, with Jesus Himself! With the Risen Lord, our Saviour, who promised that: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20).
It can be so easy to feel like we’re on our own though. To feel like it’s all resting on our shoulders, and that if we can’t keep things up it will all come crashing down around us.
Each one of us have areas in our lives where we feel like this, but this morning I want to touch on one example that we happen to share in common: the future fate of our Church.
St. Luke’s is a beautiful but small Church community. Thankfully, by God’s grace and the devotion of so many of you, we are still stable, and God’s Spirit is at work among us. But even so, as we look forward into truly unfamiliar territory, and see the world around us changing so fast, I know many of us at times are deeply afraid of losing our Church.
And this fear, while completely natural, can also get in the way of God’s holy love… making it harder to actually be the kind of community God set us free to share in, because we’re more concerned with holding onto what we know… than loving those around us.
When we find this fear at work inside us, we need to remember Jesus’ words: when even two or three are gathered together in His name… He will be with us!
In Jesus Christ the Risen Lord we are assured of our eternity, together with all of God’s people, throughout all of time. And even now, as we worship Him together we are actually gathering with the whole host of heaven! When we sing His praises, even if we only hear a few voices, we are truly joining in with the heavenly choir… glorifying the Living God together with all of Creation.
We could be a whole cathedral, packed full… or merely two Christians praying together by a bedside, and yet in that moment God is with us, and we are partaking in His Heavenly life.
Of course, it is right to acknowledge our fears, and concerns, and to faithfully do what we can to steward well what we have been entrusted with. And when we experience significant changes, or loss, it is good to grieve… to cry out to God, who hears and cares, and to bear our hearts to one other.
But as long as we faithfully draw near to God in Jesus Christ, and to each other in Him, we ultimately have nothing to fear. God’s holy love will see us through.
So then, if the way of holy love, which seeks to draw God’s often divided children back together again, is our new way of life… if this heavenly reunion is the future and freedom for which Jesus Christ gave His own precious body and blood to save and sustain, not only us, but everyone… what does this mean for how we seek to take part in it?
In other words: How do we really love one another? How does God’s holy love call us to live today?
Regardless of how long into the future our Parish continues to share in God’s mission, we here at St. Luke’s Gondola Point are called to fulfill the law of love… together, today. We’re called to let Christ’s love rule in our hearts, and our minds, and actions, and choices… sharing it with one another and all those around us. Receiving it from God’s Table in order to feed God’s hungry world. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Exodus 3:1–15 | Psalm 105:1–6, 23–26, 45 | Romans 12:9–21 | Matthew 16:21–28
“The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:9-10).
As you may know, I did not grow up an Anglican. I was raised in the Free Methodist Church, which is much more common in Ontario and further West… a branch of the Methodist movement, which was begun by John and Charles Wesley, way back in the 1700’s and existing within the Church of England until after the brothers had died. The Methodist movement was begun with intention of helping Christian people to stay on track… to remain faithful to God’s calling in a time of great upheaval and challenges, instead of slipping into complacency, or compromise with evil at work in that corner of the world.
Anyway, I grew up as a Free Methodist, and cutting a very long story short, it was with the intention of becoming a Free Methodist pastor that I attended Wycliffe College, an evangelical Anglican seminary in the heart of Toronto.
After my time at that wonderful school, I was struggling to find a clear next step: there were very few positions open for me within the Free Methodist Church across the country, and those I had been able to explore ended up passing me over. It was a pretty disheartening time, to be sure.
Shortly after hearing back from one such congregation, I ran into one of my Wycliffe friends who encouraged me to check out New Brunswick, and explore ministry with the Anglican Church… which by that time I had come to know and love while attending Wycliffe. That conversation led Bethany and I to consider a whole new path forward… one with many unknowns, and also many exciting possibilities. One thing led to another, and soon we were on our way to the Kennebecasis Valley, for me to work with young people and pursue Anglican ordination. And the rest is history.
Years ago, I would never have imagined myself here, with the life and ministry I firmly believe God has invited me to share in. But it seems sometimes what we… and our whole world, really needs is a change of plans. To let our goals give way to God’s… and let Him guide the way.
In our Scripture readings today, we see two people called to a whole new path in life… one they could not have imagined, didn’t seem to want, and even strongly resisted. And yet, both of them would come to learn that the Living God draws us to Himself, not to give us what we think we want, but to change our lives for good by His holy love. And so, drawing near to this God requires us to respond with humility and trust, but it also opens us up to share His New Life… not only for us, but for our world.
In our first reading, we heard the story of the call of Moses: how the Living God encountered him in the wilderness, in the burning bush, and commissions him to go back to Egypt as His chosen messenger to bring freedom and deliverance to His oppressed people.
“Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…
The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:7-8a, 9-10)
Now this was not at all what Moses had wanted for himself. He was content to hide out in the wilderness… to start a new life as a shepherd, in Midian, and to avoid all the dangers of Egypt that he had fled. Confronting Pharaoh the mightiest King in the region on the behalf of a people he technically belonged to, but barely knew did not factor into his life goals at all. But it turns out, God had other plans.
Plans to turn Moses’ life, as unlikely as it may have seemed, into a means of His grace… to work through him to rescue Israel from their bondage and misery, and to reveal to them the good news that the God of all creation really does care for them. That He knows their pain, and their suffering, and that He will save them… changing their lives for good… so they can come to know and share their lives with their loving Saviour, and learn to walk in His ways.
Long story short, Moses runs out of excuses, and soon get’s swept up into God’s great rescue mission… empowered to lead the people of Israel out of slavery, through the wilderness, and into a New Life with the Living God.
If Moses had stuck to his old plans… think of how different the story would be… not just for Israel all those years ago, but even for you and I today… for our world. God drew him close to change his life for his own good, and for the good of us all.
Turning now to our reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel, we heard Jesus teaching His followers about God’s plans for His own life… and how it would lead, not to triumph after triumph, but to suffering, to rejection, and to the cross.
Christ begins to let them in on God’s ultimate rescue mission: that He was heading to Jerusalem in order to confront the powers of darkness that held, not only His covenant people, but all of humanity trapped in bondage: breaking the chains of fear, of guilt, and of death. But this would mean choosing to suffer for the sake of all… bearing the sins and sorrows of the whole world on the cross. It would mean accepting humiliation, rejection, devastation, and a cruel, shameful death.
But doing so would reveal once and for all that the God of all creation really does care… not just for one people, or for “good” people… but for all. For sinners of all shapes and sizes. That He knows our pain, our failures, and our brokenness, and that He will save us… changing our lives for good… through His death and resurrection, so we can come to know and share our lives with our loving Saviour… so we could be filled with His Holy Spirit, and learn from Him to walk in God’s ways.
But not everyone was on board with the direction Jesus was plotting for Himself, and for their whole movement.
Matthew 16:22, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’”
And whether he understood this or not, St. Peter’s attempt to change the mind and path of Jesus was not just a temptation to avoid the horrors of the cross, but to abandon the entire project of God’s rescue mission and His Kingdom work in the world.
Up until then, Peter and the disciples were content to follow Jesus, assuming it meant growing their influence, achieving success… and that all the good things they saw Jesus do would keep happening. But all that would end if Jesus moved forward in this new direction. The cross simply didn’t fit into St. Peter’s plans, but God had other plans, and the cross turns out to be completely essential to what the LORD was up to all along.
And so we here in Matthew 16:23, Jesus “turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
And then our Lord goes on to say that, if we want to share in God’s New Life, this is the path He must take, and the path we must follow Him on… not the path of triumph, or of hiding and biding our time, but of practicing faithfulness to God and His ways, even in a world that has no place for it.
Even if it means that we must suffer like Jesus, maybe not on a cross, but in all sorts of ways, we do so in the hope of being raised to life with Him. Of sharing in God’s New Creation, finally set free from all sorrow, suffering, sin, and bondage to death. Set free by the blood of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord shed once on the cross for all.
Matthew 16:24-25, Jesus says to His disciples, back then and here today: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
But to actually do this… to follow Jesus, we really do need to trust Him.
To trust that God’s plans for us are actually better than our plans for ourselves. To trust that the hard road of the cross is actually the path to life. To trust that the One who created our world cares for us all far more than we could ever imagine, and that He will not abandon us, even if we must lay down our lives. To trust that just as Jesus our Lord was raised from the dead, in Him, we too will rise victorious.
So, will we trust the Living God and follow His ways… even if it means changing our plans?
Here’s where we run into our own set of temptations: the temptation to retreat like Moses, and avoid our risky calling to be God’s agents of grace in our own corner of the world. Or the temptation to turn aside like St. Peter, from the core of Christ’s mission, and seek to make Him into a means, not of God’s saving grace, but to achieve our own hopes for ourselves.
This temptation is a big one we can see at work all over the place: trying to make Jesus our Lord into a tool to bless our plans and to make our dreams come true… using God and the Christian faith to justify all sorts of things:
Rampant consumerism, selfishness, and greed. Oppression of others, cruelty, hatred, and violence. Idolized individualism… “everyone doing whatever is right in their own eyes” …instead of being transformed and shaped… changed by the holy love of the LORD for good.
Following Jesus really does mean denying ourselves… in the sense of saying 'no' to anything at work in us that resists God’s work, and leads us away from His plans.
In our reading from the letter to the Romans, St. Paul, whose whole life is a witness of what it means to let God change our life, gives us a clear image of the kind of life God has in mind for us His people… the kind of shape, reflecting God’s own holy love, that we are meant to embody: Romans 12:9-21,
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Many who call themselves Christians live lives that look nothing like this... or like our loving Saviour. Instead, they simply chase after their own desires, and wear a religious disguise... whether they realize it or not.
And if our lives are at odds with the clear path that Jesus our Lord has called us to follow, then we too need to heed His words to St. Peter… “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Thankfully, like St. Peter, we too can hear these words, not only as a rebuke, but as a renewed invitation to draw near again… and let Jesus change us by His saving grace. And like Moses, our fears and insecurities are no match for God’s mercy and power, able to work through us His rescued children to bring His New Creation to life.
The point isn’t to just get caught up in focusing on our own private religious experience… but to draw near to the Living God… and by His grace to participate in His Kingdom work and Great Rescue Mission in Christ… sharing God’s forgiveness, and the freedom of God’s holy love in our corner of the world here in Gondola Point.
The Living God draws us to Himself, not to give us what we want, but to shape us by His holy love… and so set us free. To follow Jesus requires a response of humble trust… of faith. But such faith opens up God’s New Life, not only for us, but for our world.
When as God’s people we trust Him enough to change us, and our plans… to truly take up our cross and follow Jesus, we play our part in God’s great rescue mission: revealing to all we encounter in our corner of the world that the God of all creation really does care for them, and wills to save them too.
That the Living God knows and cares about their struggles. That He understands all their burdens, and longs to set us all free and save us for good… through Christ’s rescuing love and resurrection life at work even now in His people… so we can all be filled with His Holy Spirit, and learn from Him to walk in God’s holy ways.
That together, we all might find the true life that only comes when we lay our lives down with Jesus. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Exodus 1:8–2:10 | Psalm 124 | Romans 12:1–8 | Matthew 16:13–20
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
So much of the destruction we humans bring into our world flows from our fear: from seeing each other as a threat, and the impulse to hold onto our own sense of security and power, no matter the costs.
We can see this fear-driven mania at work all over, and once again in the headlines this week: first of all, there was the death, likely an assassination, of the Wagner Forces commander, who led a failed mutiny earlier this summer against the Russian military leadership.
And secondly, just to the South of us, we’re privy to the endless debates and escalating divisions of our American neighbours, who seem bent on tearing their country apart grasping after political power… casting aside concern for the greater good, as long as “their side” comes out on top.
But we don’t have to look to the news to see the damage that fear can do in our world. In our own lives, how often does fear drive us to foolish and ungodly places? When our own insecurities wreak havoc in our homes, or in our relationships… and perhaps even tempted us to dominate those around us to make ourselves feel more in control?
And what about the damage unchecked fear can do within a community? Even a Church family? How much outright evil has been done even in the name of God by those driven by fear, and grasping for power?
We know that our world is all too unpredictable. And that these days, it feels even less secure than it used to.
We face questions, like: What does the future look like for ourselves… for our kids, and grandkids… for our Church family here at St. Luke’s? How are we going to keep going, when everything around us seems so uncertain?
In our Scripture reading this morning from the book of Exodus, we find the theme of faithfulness in the face of fear playing out again in a dramatic story, offering us wisdom and insight, not only into a godly way forward in times of real danger, but also into how God Himself is at work in our frightened and fractured world.
Our reading today from the first chapters of the book of Exodus marks the continuation of the story of God begun in Genesis: the story of the Living God, seeking to rescue and bless all the families of the earth, and to restore their shattered relationship to Himself and each other, through the family of Abraham.
Genesis ends and Exodus begins with the Israelites dwelling as honoured guest in the land of Egypt… embodying God’s blessing… just as God had intended for all humanity, going all the way back to the Garden of Eden. In Exodus 1:7, we’re told, after Joseph and his brothers died, “the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” It’s an image of God’s divine blessing at work, and the abundant life that flows from it.
But instead of rejoicing in and sharing in this blessing, the new king of Egypt saw the growing Israelite presence in his land as a curse… a threat, to his own power, and the security of his people. Exodus 1:8-10, Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Like so many tyrants, before and since, Pharaoh was deeply afraid. And his insecurity made him even more desperate to hold onto power.
Though this story is thousands of years old, we can still feel echoes of these same fears in our own corner of the world today. How do you and I respond when we feel like the fortunes of others are on the rise? When groups of people who might seem different from us, in ethnicity, politics, religion, social values, and so on, begin to grow in number and influence? When we start to feel outnumbered, and like our sense of control is slipping away?
In situations like this, it’s easy to be afraid. So often throughout human history, it is the strong and powerful who take advantage of those who are vulnerable… leaving us little reason to believe that if we lose too much influence, then one day we will find ourselves under someone else’s boot.
And all around us, in our world today, what response to we see to these kinds of fears? Example after example tells us to “Do anything it takes to stay on top!” And that the ends of our own security and survival justify any means… no matter how divisive, destructive, or corrupt… even if it means crushing our neighbours… those whom God has called us to love. I mean, what else can we do? Is there really any other way?
There is. But before we explore it together, Exodus also offers us a full fledged example of what happens when those with power are driven by fear:
In Pharaoh’s mind, the wise course of action is to first oppresses the innocent people of Israel, exploiting their strength for his own desires and purposes, through brutal and ruthless forced labour. In short, he stole their freedom, and made slaves of God’s people.
But the more Pharaoh oppressed them, the more it seemed God’s blessings spread. So, Pharaoh then tries to divide the people, and ensnare some of the Israelites to serve him instead of being devoted to the Living God and their neighbours.
But that plan also falls apart, so Pharoah throws aside all bounds, and turns the Nile red with the blood of the innocent… slaying every Israelite baby boy in the land. Well, almost all of them.
Oppression. Corruption. Death. These are the tools that tyrants use to get their way in the world. Yet, try as they might, they are all no match for the saving ways of the Living God.
Intertwined with the account of Pharaoh’s frightened plotting from the throne of Egypt, we’re also introduced to three of the most powerless and vulnerable people in the land: two Hebrew midwives, named Shiphrah and Puah, and a Levite mother. Three women who in the face of fear put their faith into action in some remarkable ways.
The two midwives come onto the scene when Pharaoh orders them to secretly kill all of the Hebrew boys when they were born… but these two women won’t: Exodus 1:17, But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.
They refused to follow Pharaoh’s evil orders… because they “feared God”.
But wait, isn’t fear the whole problem? Isn’t fear what led Pharaoh, and so many other tyrants, to these horrific deeds?
Well, as you may know, the Holy Scriptures offer us a more complex understanding of fear, and its proper place in our lives… and when it is directed to the Living God it is linked to the gaining of wisdom.
For instance, the Book of Proverbs makes the claim that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). And the book of Ecclesiastes, which explores life and all it’s paradoxes and mysteries, concludes with these words: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
But again, what kind of “fear” are we talking about? What does it mean to faithfully “fear God”?
We might easily think of fear of God as terror… the uncertainty and dread we might feel before a bully or tyrant we do not trust. In this light, many see God as an unpredictable, capricious oppressor… eager to crush those who stand in His way, and condemn all who fall out of line.
I grew up with this vision of God… with this kind of fear. And I can tell you, it did not lead me to wisdom. Or virtue. Or faith… but only towards despair. But thankfully, this is not the only way that the fear of the Lord is understood.
Fear can also refer to reverent awe… to a humble deference to one who deserves our wholehearted loyalty… inspiring not dread, but devotion.
Fearing God in this light means that He is the one anchor point around which all of our life is built. It means that when everything else around us crumbles, He is the One we look to for help. As the poet says in Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
This second kind of fear is what we see at work in Shiphrah and Puah… leading them to choose to act faithfully, and out of reverent devotion to the Living God, as they courageously defy Pharaoh’s wicked demands.
Can you imagine their situation? Slave women called before the mightiest ruler in the region. They’re choice of God’s ways over the King’s orders was incredibly brave. If their deception was detected, they were done for. But despite all the pressure to go along with the fear-driven schemes of Pharaoh, these women remained true to the Living God and His ways, and as a result, God’s blessings continued to flow.
Exodus 1:20-21, God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.” God worked through the faithfulness of two humble midwives to throw off the plans of a tyrant.
But as we know, terrified tyrants don’t give up easily. In desperation, Pharaoh resorts to an open act of genocide.
Exodus 1:22, “Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’”
In the face of this kind of bloodthirsty “wisdom of the world”, what can one do? How can we faithfully follow God when placed in this kind of position?
The next example of faith that our reading from Exodus offers to us is perhaps one of the hardest to imagine: the faith of a mother, who knows full well she will have to surrender the newborn life of her beloved child.
There was no way for her to avoid this loss. She was powerless in the face of Pharaoh’s decree.
But instead of giving into despair, she musters what hope she has and places the boy in a basket before letting the mighty river bear him away. For her, the boy is still gone for good. But she does what little she can out of love to preserve his life. To save him, she has to let him go.
In this crisis, she chooses to let go of all control, and leaves the boy in God’s hands. It’s a truly heartbreaking, desperate situation, but one that she faced faithfully.
And as it turns out, God was at work even as she surrendered her beloved son, for the river brings the basket to the palace of Pharaoh, and into the compassionate arms of the tyrant-king’s own daughter!
We’re meant to see God at work in this story bringing hope and life even up out of certain death… and against all hope, the boy is even returned to his mother’s keeping until he had grown up, and then he was brought back to the palace. God raises the child up from a watery grave, to the very household of Pharaoh.
And this is all just the beginning of the remarkable story of Exodus, and God’s gracious rescue mission involving this one Hebrew baby boy, Moses, in which God’s power and saving love are revealed, to the Israelites, and to the world: working through the lives of His faithful people, as powerless and vulnerable and oppressed as they may be, to bring His blessed abundant life.
And this story of Exodus points us to Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, and His ultimate act of saving love, as Jesus gave up His life on the cross to rescue His people, His enemies, and His world.
Like Shiphrah and Puah, Jesus refused to play along with the powerful people vying for influence in His day… the religious and political parties that divided the people of God, as well as the Roman tyrants and governors who held God’s people under their boots.
Like the Levite mother, Jesus let go of control… surrendering Himself to death at the hands of His enemies at the cross, not out of despair, but in faithful devotion, trusting in His Father’s love to overcome even the power of death.
And like the boy, raised up from the waters that threatened to overwhelm him, Jesus, the Son of God, was raised up alive again from the dead, resurrected not just for His own sake, but to bring God’s saving love and New Life to those who are lost.
Jesus has overcome all our true enemies through His life, and death, and resurrection. He has offered all who turn to Him in faith God’s forgiveness, freedom, and New Life forever.
And Jesus has opened up for us the way of faith, of trust in the Living God… revealing the self-giving, saving love of our Heavenly Father, so that we can share our hearts and lives with Him… empowering us to truly trust in Him no matter what troubles or tyrants we might face today, or someday down the road.
And as we follow Jesus, we too are called to faithfulness in the face of fear. Whether we’re tempted to feel like we have power we need to preserve, or if we feel vulnerable and oppressed… in Jesus we can trust the Living God to be our refuge and strength, our Saviour. With His Holy Spirit at work in us, and leading the way, we can find a way forward where we are not bound by fear, but by wholehearted devotion to the Lord of love.
As St. Paul says to us in his letter to the Romans:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2).
Our world will keep on finding reasons to be afraid, or to use fear to grasp after power. But as Christians, with the Spirit of Jesus guiding us, we can learn to live a different way.
So when we are being pressured to compromise with wickedness… what will we do?
When we must completely let go of control, where will we look for help and hope?
Let us look to the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer, and place our trust in His faithfulness to lead us into God’s blessed, abundant, and eternal life. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Genesis 45:1–15 | Psalm 133 | Romans 11:1–2a, 29–32 | Matthew 15:10–28
“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” (Genesis 45:7).
This summer, it’s been hard not to have disasters on the mind, especially if we’ve been paying any attention to the news. This week, for instance: the whole city of Yellowknife has had to be evacuated due to forest fires… and the B.C. interior is also facing the same fate. Last week, it was the island of Maui. And now, a fierce storm is approaching Mexico, and the Southwest Coast of the USA. Last month, Nova Scotia faced both fire and flood, and it seems like every day another serious crisis is looming, threatening some beautiful corner of our world, and those who dwell there.
Along with this change in our whole planet’s climate, we’re being given many frightening reminders of the frailty and fragility of life… and how much of what we so often take for granted can be taken from us in an instant.
Generally speaking, a lot of us in this part of the world aren’t used to this sense of instability… and vulnerability… but even though the climate crisis has certainly ramped up in recent years, this fragile state of our existence is nothing new. In fact, it’s the norm.
After all, most people, for most of human history have existed on the brink of disaster… one step away from everything falling apart… especially those living in poverty, who are still usually the hardest hit, and the first to suffer in any crisis. The dangers may vary: war, famine, disease, natural disaster… but the constant truth is: life is always a precious but precarious… and fragile gift.
But how can we keep moving forward… how can we keep from being overwhelmed by fear and anxiety… both of which can tend to make us self-focused and paralyzed… when we’re suddenly face to face with life’s instability?
In times like that, we can turn to God… and find that the Good News of Jesus Christ has the power to set us free from our fear. Trusting in the Living God, made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord, is the source of the courage and strength that we need, and which God longs for us to share with our world.
But what do we mean by that? What does trusting God with our lives look like, especially when it’s hard? And just as importantly: what are we supposed to be trusting God to do?
Our Scripture readings today from the book of Genesis, and from the Gospel of Matthew share two stories of people like us who trusted God when faced with their own disasters. Though very different, these stories invite us to see God’s plan is not merely to help us always feel safe and secure… but for us to trust in His mercy and love, even in the midst of disaster, and take part in His blessed work to bring redemption, healing, and hope… to bring New Life.
In our first reading, we heard the dramatic turning point of the book of Genesis, where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers who had betrayed and abandoned him. Genesis as a whole tells the story of how the Living God chose Abraham, and promised to give him descendants, so that through Abraham’s family “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3). But as the story progresses, we see that both Abraham and his family are a mess! Their stories are full of betrayal, selfishness, and deceit… often driven by fear… and yet God remains true to His word, and works with these broken people to bring His blessings into the world.
Three generations later, Joseph and his many brothers keep up the family tradition: out of jealousy, his brothers secretly seize him, and sell Joseph as a slave. He ends up in Egypt, as a household servant, and just when he starts to find some measure of stability and security again, he’s falsely accused of assaulting his master’s wife, and thrown into prison to rot.
Yet all the time, through all those betrayals, and injustices, and isolation, God was with Joseph. God blessed him and brought His blessings through him, even as he suffered. And in time, God brings about an amazing change: from the depths of prison, God raises up Joseph to the right hand of the Pharaoh, where he receives all authority and honour in the land of Egypt… just in time to prepare the land for the worst famine they’d ever seen: seven abundant years, followed by seven years of nothing. Through Joseph’s dramatic story, God saved a whole nation from disaster.
But all through those long years in slavery, and then in prison, Joseph didn’t know how his story would end. He never received angelic visitors telling him: “Cheer up, Joe. This is all part of God’s plan. Soon you’ll be up in the palace. It’ll all turn out fine.” No, Joseph was left in the dark. His whole life had been stolen from him. And yet Joseph trusted God, and he remained faithful to Him. And when he was set free and raised up from rags to glory, he could look back on all of his truly tragic story, and see how God’s merciful love had been with him and at work all along.
And this in turn helped him to do the truly unthinkable: to also offer merciful love to those who had betrayed and abandoned him… forgiving his brothers, and sharing his new blessed life with them. Genesis 45:5-7,
Joseph said to them, “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” And later on, Joseph again reassured his brothers of his forgiveness with these words: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” (Genesis 50:20).
Joseph’s words invite us to look back on the messed up story of him and his whole family, and see the Living God at work, turning disasters and even outright evil acts into a surprising source of His blessing and new life. He is not the cause of evil, nor does He condone it, but He can and does work through it, counter it, and conquer it again and again.
In the face of disaster, Joseph trusted in the Living God, and God’s merciful love transformed His life, and transformed so many others through His life.
Many centuries later, we pick up the story in Matthew’s Gospel of an encounter between Jesus Christ, and a desperate Canaanite mother.
All through St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is consistently identified with the family of Abraham, the Israelites. In fact, his Gospel opens with these words: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1). The picture the Apostle is painting for us is that Jesus is God’s own Son, sent to be the truly faithful one, who will fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, that through his descendants, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3).
And in Chapter 15, we’re told He runs into one of those other families of the earth: a Gentile, Canaanite mother, a descendant of Israel’s historic enemies, begging Jesus to deliver her daughter from the forces of darkness. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David;” she says, “my daughter is tormented by a demon.” (Matthew 15:22). It is a request He’s answered many times before… bringing freedom and healing, and hope to all sorts of people, again and again.
But this time, He remains silent. He does not respond to her pleas. But the mother doesn’t give up. She persists, to the point that His disciples start begging Him to send her away… to just say no to her, and be done with this Gentile.
But Jesus doesn’t say “no” to her. Instead, He highlights the major obstacle standing between them: She was not an Israelite. She was a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemies.
Jesus breaks His silence: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24). But wait… wasn’t it God’s plan all along to bless all the families of the earth? To bring them all His New Life? Does Jesus not care about what happened beyond the borders of Israel? What kind of response is this from the One who’s supposed to be the Saviour of the world?
There’s no way to fully unpack those questions this morning… not without a much longer service… and someone a whole lot wiser than I am leading the way. But as a start, I think we need to highlight the difference between an overall mission, and the first steps along the way. Maybe this analogy will help:
The overall goal of those planning the assault of D-Day during World War II was to end the conflict in Europe with the Allied Forces victorious. But the necessary first step was to take the beaches of Normandy… so that the rest could follow.
From the start, the Living God has sought human partners to bring about His good purposes on earth. And He promised Abraham that through him and His descendants “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3). Jesus was not a descendant of Abraham by accident… but as the culmination of God at work through the stories of Israel, to bless everyone.
Because God loves the world, and longed to rescue it, He sent His Son to be Israel’s Messiah… as a beachhead in order to bring God’s blessed New Life to all the earth. But this first step really mattered! He had a clear calling to follow: to take up Israel’s broken story, and bear that brokenness Himself… to be the faithful Israelite, who suffers for the sins of His people. To be the truly innocent one falsely accused, and betrayed by His family… abandoned to the pit, and the powers of death… only to be raised again to glory to the right hand of the Father... to bring God’s New Life to the world.
This was His path. This was the first steps He must take. He could not forsake it, and wander endlessly across the Roman world... doing good, but leaving the crucial battle of the cross unfought.
And yet… He doesn’t say 'no' to her. The obstacle remains, He makes it plain, but He doesn’t say no.
And this desperate Canaanite mother does not give up.
Matthew 15:25 “she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”
Again, Jesus doesn’t say no, but He does drive home the point that His mission is first and foremost directed to Israel, using an image that makes us cringe today, but highlights the deep and widespread divisions in their days between Jews and Gentiles: “It is not fair” He said, “to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Immediately, she responds: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (Matthew 15:26-28).
What an incredible example of faith under pressure! Faith in the face of silence… resistance, and even apparent rejection. She could have given up. She was given every reason to give up. Like Joseph in prison, she didn’t know how this meeting with Jesus would end. She didn’t know all the in’s and out’s of His mission… she was just a mother, doing whatever she could to save her daughter from disaster. She believed Jesus could help her. She believed Jesus would help her! She put it all in His hands, and Jesus responded to her faith with merciful love. There’s far more we could say about this story, but it’s enough for now to make this point:
Across every obstacle and boundary we humans can construct or imagine, those who look to Jesus Christ in faith will find God’s mercy and love. Heavenly silence is not rejection, but an invitation to draw nearer with faith. We may find when we do, that there are real obstacles that still stand in our way… but God’s merciful, saving love in Jesus Christ can overcome them all.
These two stories from the Holy Scriptures have much to say to us about what it looks like to trust in the Living God in the face of disaster: first of all, faith isn’t a guarantee to avoid all suffering… or a way to manipulate our circumstances, or the LORD to get what we want. Faith is the determination to hold on, even when we don’t know how things will turn out in the end, because we believe that the One we are holding on to will not let us go.
And we can believe that because time and again, the Living God has shown us that He is committed not just to holding on to a few ‘good’ people who seem to deserve it… but of reaching out to the ends of the earth, as the merciful Saviour of this world… bringing His freedom, forgiveness, and His own blessed New Life to all who trust in Him.
We can believe this because this is what we’ve seen in Jesus: stretching out His hands in suffering at the cross to take on Himself the burden of sin for all people, Israelite and Gentile alike… reconciling humanity to God through His own shed blood… bringing His betrayers full forgiveness… breaking the powers of sin and death… and setting us free to share in the goodness and glory of His blessed resurrection life.
Jesus did not shy away from disaster, but at the cross, He endured it for you and I… and for all. And through the life-giving, merciful love of God, He rose again from the dead, paving the way for us all.
We don’t know exactly how each of our stories will turn out, but we can trust that Jesus our Risen Lord, the Saviour of the world will not leave us to face it all on our own. We can trust Him to be with us, through it all. To share our sorrows, and bear our concerns and cares… and to raise us up from whatever pit we may find ourselves in to reign with Him forever.
So, in the face of our struggles today… in our moments of fear, of loneliness, desperation... or disaster, let us draw near in faith to the Living God through Jesus His Son. Let us look to Him, and hold on. Let us look to Him, and not give up. Let us look to Him, and let those around us know where they can find the courage and strength to carry on… where they can find the merciful, saving love of God that will never give up. Amen.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School