A Thief in the Night

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

A Thief in the Night

Scriptures: Isaiah 2:1-5 Matthew 24:36-44

Jesus seemed to take delight in using controversial language. I’m not saying he tweeted like Trump or anything, but Jesus did use images and language about God that often shocked people.

Our Matthew passage today is a great example when he says that the Son of Man will come like a thief in the night.

This is rather scandalous. The Son of Man refers to a human sent from heaven by God to overturn the existing unjust order. The image from the book of Daniel involves him descending from the clouds of Heaven directly from the Ancient of Days – in other words, God – to take up his everlasting kingdom. It’s a very glorious image and impossible to miss. Very “in your face.”

By contrast, a thief in the night is a sneaky person, skulking around in the dark, quietly breaking and entering when all are asleep. How could this person, sent by God, predicted by Daniel in glorious terms, be sneaky? It’s like accusing God of creeping through the shadows. It seems absurd!

But Jesus was trying to shake people up. He was challenging their assumptions and warning them not to get complacent because God can be full of surprises.

We have some sense these days of what it’s like to be shaken up. The pandemic has turned our world upside-down and the sense of world stability we have held more or less since WWII has been shattered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even the sense that we had that no one would dare use nukes since the Cold War ended has been disturbed by the threats we are hearing these days.

In the midst of all this political stuff there is the existential threat of climate change. The repeated failures of the human race to gather around and prevent further warming has left many people afraid for the future, wondering if we are facing some version of the end of the world.

We really have been shaken up; our assumptions challenged and there is a part of us that longs for a return to normal, to the way things were.

Jesus warned his hearers to be ready for change and said that profound change can come at anytime, unexpectedly and with no warning at all.

Christian tradition often relegates this lesson to a very specific case: the end of the world. I think it’s a mistake to dismiss it this way for a couple of reasons.

First, the original idea of the coming of the Son of Man matches our Isaiah reading much better than the disasters in the Book of Revelation. The Son of Man was supposed to come and establish in Israel an earthly kingdom of righteousness and justice so compelling that the other nations of the world would be drawn from their own ways of doing things to be guided by God’s wisdom. This thief in the night was going to bring good news: a wonderful new kingdom, although part of the message of Jesus is dark: he is warning of the people who will be left out because they are not prepared.

Secondly, the idea of the end of the world is one that has been played out over and over. In the first century, the world ended for the Essene community who marched out as an army: men, women and children, to cast out the Roman legions from Judea. They were all slaughtered and Jerusalem was torn down and the occupants killed as punishment for the rebellion. But there was still a world out there that went on and the Jews and Christians who had anticipated this particular apocalypse had to find a new understanding, a new interpretation, a new way forward after the dreadful events were over and the dust had settled.

Rome fell to the Goths. Byzantium fell to the Saracens and each time an empire fell it was a kind of end of a world with culture disrupted, trade profoundly changed and challenges to how people understood life itself.

But the world itself carried on each time and that is a lesson we must learn. No matter how bad things got, life carried on in some form. God never gave up on people and for all the apocalyptic images of seas of blood and falling angels and dragons and the number 666, there was always something to do afterwards, pieces to pick up, life to get on with and that is the history we have inherited.

As people of faith, we would do well to put aside the visions of apocalypse we have and instead understand what Jesus was saying: that God is full of surprises; that things happen unexpectedly and that we are called to be ready to respond.

This isn’t a call to become doomsday preppers: people with underground bunkers, huge stores of canned food, and a disturbing number of weapons. Rather, it is a call not to be wedded to the same-old, same-old; not to be tied to the familiar way of life we know. It is a call to be flexible, responsive to the needs of the situation, responsive to the needs of others.

It is a call to be ready so that when change happens we are able to respond with a sense of God’s vision for the kind of world that should be and the kind of lives we should live as a community and as individuals.

The change we are seeing all around us is not the end of the world even though it might seem very large and very scary.

Our society is changing, assumptions about jobs are changing, commuting is changing, cars are changing, food availability is changing, Christmas shopping is changing, how we care for our senior citizens is changing – even our language is changing: we don’t call people “senior citizens” anymore.

The list could go on and it would certainly include the fact that the church is changing, and that’s okay. God has a vision for the future and we have the challenge of discovering what that will look like.

On this Sunday when we lit the candle of HOPE, I hope we can avoid feeling like this is apocalyptic. I hope we can re-discover that hopeful vision that Jesus knew very well of the creation of a just and righteous place that arrives in unexpected ways without warning.

We are called to watch, to be ready, and to be creative as the future unfolds.

I believe we are up for this challenge.

Amen.

What Do they Want?

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

What Do they Want?

Scriptures: Micah 4:1-5John 15:9-17

When I was young, growing up in Quebec, Remembrance Day was complicated. The Vietnam War was on, lots of anti-war sentiment was being expressed and quite a lot of it was aimed personally at serving military personnel.

Everyone agreed that Hitler had needed stopping, so WWII was where our Remembrance was focused, but there wasn’t much respect shown for people who chose to volunteer for the military in the1960s and 70s.

Over the years, Remembrance became safely stored in the past. The 1939-45 period still had living veterans to remind us, WWI was far away, with only a handful of those vets left and Korea, and peacekeeping efforts had cost lives, but not in every Canadian town.

So for many of us kids there was a real contrast created: a romantic vision of stopping the Nazis, supported by our plastic toy soldiers and the other war toys that were popular in the 1960s, versus that angry response, condemning anything military as war-mongering and evil.

A lot has changed since then. Here at Knox we’ve had Remembrance Sundays when we’ve had photos of serving Canadians who had died in Afghanistan; fresh losses that wiped away any romantic notions and brought home the human cost with the images of real men and women, mostly young, leaving families behind.

This year we have a new war: the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. The news images show us bombed out cities and homes that aren’t very exotic at all except for the destruction. They could look like neighbourhoods here. The people look enough like us that we can’t insulate ourselves from the feelings: the horror, the fear; the thought of raising your children in that environment and the threats that nuclear weapons might be used re-kindles memories of the Cold War.

We can’t help asking: why is this happening? What do they want?

If you are asking about leaders, like Putin, the speculation and conversation could go on for hours covering topics of empire-building and even criminal cover-up. But if you ask about the people serving in the military, you might find your answer in our lesson from Micah with its image of swords being beaten into ploughshares.

Micah wrote 2700 years ago at the time when Assyria had conquered Israel and when Babylon was threatening Judah. He knew war very well; he knew the deep desire for peace; and he believed that it was through God that an international peace could be achieved.

The people we remember on this day wanted to get the job done and go home. They wanted to stop the tyrant, end the violence and go home to enjoy peace; to be with their families, their loved ones even if it meant coming home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That would be an improvement over the fresh traumas waiting for them each day.

Our lesson from John brings a different perspective to remembrance. It talks about there being no greater love than when someone lays down their life for their friends.

This was written so we could understand the sacrifice of Jesus, but the words are general and apply across all humanity with the clear message that people will sacrifice themselves out of love.

We know that’s true: people who die in battle are often trying to protect someone else. Sometimes it’s for their buddies in their unit, fighting beside them, sometimes for their loved ones at home: I’m making sure that the invading troops stop here and never make it to the edge of my family’s town. It is a desperate love that gives people the courage to do this.

The context we are given here is the same big picture Jesus so often gave us: all of this should be seen in the light of love which means that one of the things we try to remember today is the love of the people who have died to protect us and the love of those who are again putting themselves in harms way in modern conflicts and crises.

What do they want? They want their loved ones to be safe; they want peace and freedom from tyranny; they want to come home.

Sure, there’s the occasional person who wants to be a hero, the movies used to be full of them, and there are those who are full of a sense of duty. In a lot of those cases, if you look closely, their sense of duty is also a sense of love because they love the people they are sworn to protect. Duty is a bit of a four-letter word these days but there are deeper, more positive feelings when we look closer.

And, of course, they want to be remembered, not necessarily in terms of glory and honour but as people who loved their families, friends and country enough to risk, and even sacrifice their lives.

It is part of our calling to remember them: to remember the lessons of sacrificial love that scripture talks about; to remember the deep wish for peace that they held so strongly that they died to obtain it.

In this time, and on this day, let us remember and let us pray that the peace they died for may be restored without costing the lives of too many more loving people.

Amen.

Lessons of the Trees

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Lessons of the Trees

Scriptures: Jeremiah 17:7-8 Matthew 13:31-32

The symbolism of trees in the Bible is breathtaking, covering Christian scriptures from the first book to the last.

In Genesis 2 we have the planting of trees in the Garden of Eden, particularly the tree of Life and the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Only the second tree was forbidden and eating from it led to humans being banned from eating from the first, so the prospect of eternal life was denied and humans were ejected from paradise.

Then in Revelation 22 we are given the vision of the New Jerusalem with the tree of life planted on both sides of the river of the water of life with its fresh fruit produced each month and its leaves growing for the healing of the nations.

And in-between these two book-ends we have lots of examples of trees, from the cedars of Lebanon, through our two lessons today of the flourishing tree planted by the stream, and the tree that grows from the mustard seed.

There is a grim dimension to this too: Deuteronomy pronounces a curse on anyone who hangs on a tree. This was a prohibition against displaying the body of someone subjected to capital punishment that was a common practise for centuries in many lands. It was considered a warning for others to see someone’s body decay and be picked at by the carrion birds and it punished the families who were not permitted to give their loved ones the dignity of a burial. This practise was finally discontinued in England in 1832, a mere 190 years ago.

The book of Acts on three separate occasions describes Jesus’ crucifixion as him hanging on a tree, perhaps as a reminder of the shame he endured, even though he was buried promptly.

Despite these dark images, the tree is a wonderful image of faith, especially if you consider that these texts come from a land surrounded by desert and wilderness. A tree in a waste place can be seen for miles; it can be beacon for someone seeking water.

A tree grows strong, it reaches to heaven which was considered both literal and symbolic when these texts were written and it gives us a great image for ourselves, as humans: firmly rooted and strong against the storm, reaching ever higher every year.

It is not a perfect image: the Knox neighbourhood knows that trees fall in storms although it is a wonder how many remained standing after the tornado and of course, trees can’t travel but it’s still an inspiring image for us.

Trees provide a place of life where birds can nest and be safe from predators, where cool shade is offered in the hot sun. Growing trees help resist the encroachment of the desert and anyone with a farm background knows the value of a windbreak: a line of trees that prevents strong wind from removing the topsoil or otherwise damaging delicate crops.

You’d think that with all this weight of historical knowledge the idea of clearcutting whole forests would be unthinkable, especially in those places where there is no plan to re-plant the sections cut, where they will be converted into pasture land or simply stripped of their profitable wood and be abandoned, possibly to see their soil run off into local waterways as the soil-binding tree roots break down and the canopy is no longer there to be an umbrella.

I’ve learned a few things about this simply by living in the Ottawa Valley. The valley has been thoroughly logged in past centuries and yet there is a healthy tree cover in most places because people made a point of planting after cutting. You might not even be able to tell it was thoroughly logged until you visit Gillies Grove in Arnprior where there are still old-growth red pines: trees so massive that if you wanted to hold hands around some of them you’d need a lot of people. I grew up with pine trees as part of my world and I had no idea they could grow that big or that old.

This plot was preserved by the Gillies family outside their grand house. The Gillies were local lumber barons and I guess they appreciated the glory of these old trees.

The sense of awe this kind of tree provides really does make you feel more closely connected to God. It’s not just the reaching upward, it’s the sense of something that goes so far beyond a mere human lifespan that represents something ancient. Pictures just don’t convey the sense that these ancient living things carry in their physical presence.

A grove of these trees gives you a natural example of what architects are trying to reproduce when they build a cathedral. The architecture can be magnificent, and those buildings are wonderful to sing in, but God does it better.

We even catch a bit of that feeling here, at Knox as we worship in this cedar building. The look and the smell remind us of God’s hand at work in all living and growing things.

The planting of a tree really is an act of faith. The person who plants a tree will never see the full height it achieves. There are exceptions, of course, fruit trees are kept short for practical reasons: it’s hard to pick apples too high in the air and waiting for them to fall just gives you a bruised apple. But the wild versions of some of these trees can surprise us.

My childhood experience of mulberry trees was the sculpted weeping mulberry my grandmother had. We would scoot under its bowing limbs and eat the berries in this hidden place which grown-ups could never enter. As an adult, when we moved to Chatham, we found a park where the mulberry trees grew straight and tall, certainly over 60 feet (20 meters) tall. It was a wonderful place for birds, but parking there in the fall could leave you with a purple car after the birds had been feasting. Trees, when left to their own devices, can astound us.

To plant a tree is to express faith in the future; to believe that something will go on beyond our own brief lives.

A tree is a gift to future generations; something to take very seriously now as Millennials worry about surviving in the world which older generations are leaving behind.

And it is an investment in the future as deforestation becomes part of global warming, as we start to remember that trees are made of carbon and are wonderful ways to pull carbon dioxide out of the air.

Let us re-discover the things our ancestors knew: that these beautiful, grand, magnificent plants reaching towards the heavens are a symbol of faith, growing from the smallest seed into the tallest of trees. Trees are a reminder of God’s creative power and a bridge of love between generations.

I pray we never become so disconnected from nature that we forget the lessons of the trees.

Amen.

The Bread of Life

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

The Bread of Life

Scriptures: Deuteronomy 26:1-11John 6:25-35

Thanksgiving is a holiday that the church has adopted from the secular world. Americans have a whole mythology built up about the first Thanksgiving, with starving pilgrim settlers unprepared for a North American winter and the generous indigenous people sharing their bounty with them to save their lives.

There are a lot of religious overtones in the secular story. After all, these were pilgrims: they left England seeking freedom from the state religion and they couldn’t help but notice the parallels with the settlement of the promised land and the first fruits of a harvest that they had never planted to be offered to God in thanks for this new land. So, secular culture was informed by this deeply rooted religious story.

Nevertheless, Thanksgiving as a festival has been borrowed from our experience of settling North America. It was not a celebration that was much encouraged in the Old World, where both Heathen and Pagan fertility festivals are still remembered today. Indeed, a big harvest thanksgiving was discouraged because it seemed awfully close to Paganism.

The average person over here isn’t aware of this, but church leaders have long memories and we have to consider these things.

One way I am affected by this kind of reflecting is how this festival resonates with what we did last Sunday as we considered Truth and Reconciliation and as we reflected on the effects of European settlement on the first peoples of this land. After all, the mythology of America starts with the generous natives of the Thanksgiving story, and moves on to consider the indigenous people to be basically extinct now. Indigenous people have been romanticized as safely contained in the past, although recently that way of thinking is being thoroughly challenged today.

I have to confess that there’s a part of me that feels uncomfortable with a traditional Thanksgiving celebration. If all this bounty we feast on has come at the cost of another culture, of other people, shouldn’t I be feeling guilty instead of thankful?

Let’s start with a quick and easy answer to that question: it is always appropriate to be thankful. Giving thanks for the wonderful life we enjoy is a way of acknowledging that it is a gift. It is not something we can claim because we deserve it. Giving thanks is a recognition of a higher power, of our creator who has made all this life and bounty possible. It puts our egos aside and declares that what we have isn’t our right. It is a blessing, a gift.

That kind of perspective is an important place to start. If we remember that there is a higher power above us who blesses us with food and other gifts of life, then we can move out of the centre of our own thoughts and go beyond focusing on our own needs. We can remember to be as generous as our creator is.

We can bring that attitude to all our reflections so that when we consider this land and our place in it beside the first peoples, we can go beyond guilt into a healthy relationship of respect and reconciliation; of finding new ways to live and work together. And maybe we can bring an attitude of thanksgiving to the people whose ancestors were willing to help total strangers even though it cost them so much in the end.

Notice that our Gospel lesson for today is one that puts the whole question of thanksgiving into the spiritual realm. Jesus shifts the natural human desire to have daily bread to a consideration of spiritual food. It’s not enough just to take care of the food on our plates, we have to feed our spirits every day.

Before COVID, we reminded ourselves of this during communion with that sung reminder as the elements were being served:

Eat this Bread, Drink this Cup

Come to me and never be hungry

Eat this Bread, Drink this Cup

Trust in me and you will not thirst

It’s a direct reference to this gospel lesson and the spiritual food provided in Christ and in communion.

That reminder should bring us an even deeper perspective because in communion we celebrate the way that people are brought together across all divisions of time and space, divisions of race and culture, language and status, even divisions between friend and enemy.

The main point of World Communion Sunday is to remind us that in this meal that Jesus created for us, we can still be connected despite all the ways we find to stand apart and become “other”.

So on this Thanksgiving Sunday as we celebrate communion and remember that God provides both physical and spiritual food in our lives, let us truly be thankful for all the blessings we have and let our spiritual connection with others, exemplified in this meal Jesus prepares for us, move us to the kind of sharing that God intends.

That kind of sharing is a question of faith, not just a question of thankfulness.

A farmer who offers first-fruits is showing trust that they will be able to harvest second fruits, and whatever future harvest remains. This kind of giving thanks is a statement of faith that we believe that God will provide for our needs.

Most of us don’t live on farms or have literal harvests to bring in so let’s transfer that idea to sharing: when we share what we have generously, we are trusting God to provide for our needs. That can be scary. It’s a real step of faith, but it is the kind of sharing Jesus taught his followers and the kind of approach to life that is still part of our calling.

May we never stop feeling thankful: thankful to God, and to all the people to have helped us. May we always have the courage to bring a spirit of thankfulness and generosity to all our dealings as we re-imagine where we belong in this land and in these times that are changing so much.

Amen.

A Strange Land

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

A Strange Land

Scriptures: Exodus 3:1-8 Matthew 5:1-12

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” That’s how Psalm 137 puts it. It’s a cry of pain from a displaced people taken from their land and forced into exile by a powerful empire.

Our human relationship with our homeland is complex. Where we grow up gives us our identity, our language, our vision of the world, our expectation of what shade of blue the sky should be, how the air should taste. There can even be a deep spiritual connection: the people of the Middle East in ancient times believed that gods lived in a particular geographical place. One of the remarkable things about the God of Israel is that proven ability to reach out of Canaan into Egypt, into the home of dozens of other gods to rescue a nation from slavery. A trans-border deity was a powerful idea, the kind of idea that fuelled empires who decided to see how far their gods could reach by invading the lands next door.

That cry of loss in the Psalm is remarkable in light of our Exodus lesson which makes it clear that the land the Psalmist is mourning used to be the homeland of a whole list of other nations. It became the promised land of Israel at the cost of invasion and genocide which was justified by calling it the will of God.

Behind that is a more human justification: “We are victims.”

When we feel most vulnerable, when we want our children to stop starving, when we are desperate for survival, that’s when we are most prepared to displace someone else.

The Hebrew invasion of Canaan was organized and planned with military precision and religious objectives but at base it was motivated by the same movement of desperate people that keeps repeating in human history, and that was responsible for a lot of the European settlement of Canada. Things like the Highland clearances, famines, overpopulation and disease, land displacement caused by the industrial revolution, hungry and desperate people who were promised an empty land that they could simply walk into and become landowners, something they might never achieve in the old country where land ownership was jealously guarded by the rich and powerful.

Of course, Canada wasn’t an empty land. There were lots of people here, living in a way Europeans called savage. But the government wanted to “open up” the west and produce lots of food for Canada and for export using traditional European approaches to farming. Indigenous approaches to land would not meet this production goal. Neither would revealing the true hardships ahead to the immigrants: they might not come to settle the land if they knew how hard it would be, how cold the winters were. The colonial authorities lied to a lot of people to achieve what they considered to be the greater good.

The indigenous people believed that the land was alive, that they belonged to the land, not the other way around. They had a vision of the land as a great and spiritual reality, not something to be conquered or tamed but something to be loved and respected.

That kind of thinking was not unknown to Europeans; artists expressed those feelings in paintings and poetry, but it was dismissed as frivolous.

To legally justify their displacement of indigenous people, the Europeans adopted some religious justifications: we know them as the doctrine of discovery and the concept of terra nullus which, together, said that you could claim any empty land you discovered and declared that any land was officially “empty” if the inhabitants were not Christian.

Included in this was the idea that Christians had a duty to try and convert anyone they discovered to Christianity so they could save their souls. The best way to do that was to separate them from their old ways, especially their old spiritual ways. This was considered very tolerant and Christian – even noble in the eyes of some: because it didn’t go all the way to the scorched earth policy of the invasion of Canaan, where the instruction was to kill everyone – men, women and children – so their religion could not infect Israel. Rather, they planned to eliminate the “doomed, savage culture” and absorb the people, who were often considered individually “noble” and to do it using “modern methods” while staying within a limited budget.

It is not a big jump from there to isolating indigenous people on tiny plots of land and sending their children to Residential schools. I would argue that it’s not a very Christian way of being Christian; it relies on power and coercion rather than love and cooperation.

For the people who came as desperate settlers, their justification was their own difficult situation. They wanted a place to live safely and feed their children. For the people in positions of authority, their justification was a twisting of the teachings of Jesus, a misapplication of biblical texts that could make them feel like they were doing God’s will as they abused people.

That’s one reason decision makers rarely visited Residential Schools: it’s easier to keep your decisions comfortable if they remain abstract and theoretical, if you don’t have to look at the suffering. If you don’t mark the graves, you don’t have to count the bodies.

Our Matthew lesson contains the beatitudes, considered by many to be the core of Jesus’ teachings, a summary of the most profound things he said.

Two of the beatitudes have a particular resonance today. First: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”. This Sunday arises out of Orange Shirt Day which is all about mourning the children who died. So we must ask: “What will it take to comfort all those who mourn the dead children?” Can we, as Jesus calls us to do, weep with those who are weeping? Can we get past the feelings of guilt, the justifications like “I didn’t know!” and simply feel deep empathy? And what comfort can we help the families find?

The other beatitude is: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”. “Earth” often means “planet” for us but Jesus didn’t intend that. A better translation for that word is “land”.

The meek shall inherit the land

Jesus would have had a clear sense that the meek were never those who are in power. We must ask ourselves: “What will it take to restore the land from the hands of the powerful to those who had it stolen from them?”

In this day when the world is becoming over-populated, traditional nomadic lifestyles have been restricted by law for centuries and are now dismissed as impractical in an overcrowded world afflicted by climate change. What will it take to restore an attitude that the land doesn’t belong to us rather, that we belong to the land?

I don’t have all the answers. I wish I did. But I do believe that as we are challenged to acknowledge the relationship between the land under our feet and the indigenous people of this land, that our acknowledgement will not be complete until we struggle with all that the land means: the home that cannot be replaced and that calls you back no matter where you are taken; the source of milk and honey that is greater than we are; the promise of refuge for desperate people.

Amen.

A Very Secular Lesson

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

A Very Secular Lesson

Scriptures: Amos 8:4-7 Luke 16:1-13

Today’s gospel lesson is another one of those memorable sayings where Jesus shocks us with a story that seems to go against his own teachings.

We’ve had a number of those in recent weeks which is a reminder that Jesus really understood how to make a point in public. He wasn’t afraid of courting controversy.

The main story about the dishonest manager is followed by a series of statements about honesty and the impossibility of serving two masters. While the scholars who try to figure out what words originated with the historical Jesus may dismiss some of these statements, they agree that Jesus really did warn us that trying to serve both God and ill-gotten gains was impossible. So, this really does look like we have two contradictory lessons out of the mouth of Jesus. What do we do with that?

I believe that one of the best things we can do is recognize that Jesus could be very subtle. He had a deep sense of human nature and the ways life can be complicated. He was also aware that in the field of faith and religion, people are always trying for easy answers: black and white rules to follow, or simple statements that relieve us of the burden of having to think to make value judgments.

The branches of Christianity that record the fastest congregational growth these days are typically the ones that provide the simplest answers: “follow these four spiritual laws”; “follow the ten commandments”; and other variations on that theme.

People may respond to this simplicity, but so much of the bible shows us a picture that captures some of the deeper twists and turns of life, that we really can’t stop at that two-dimensional level of faith.

Our Amos lesson is a wonderful example where the prophet is accusing people of injustice through subtle fiddling of the economy: “tinker with the weights and measures so we increase our margins of profit”; “shorten the time we have to let people rest so we can get them working again and maybe keep them on call”.

Can you imagine what Amos would have said about smart phones and the bosses who demand instant replies from their employees 24/7? Just working seven days a week was being condemned – Amos would have blown a gasket.

One could argue that Amos wanted to be strict about following the law. As true as that is, he wasn’t being legalistic. Rather, he knew that so much of the law was written to protect ordinary people from abuse. The Sabbath day law remembered the time of slavery in Egypt: being driven by managers to work with no rest: to bake bricks with inadequate materials; being given inadequate food and water.

According to Deuteronomy, these laws were written to prevent that from happening to anyone, including their own slaves. Amos was remembering that the law was founded in justice. He wasn’t being legalistic; he was criticizing those who were finding ways to bend the laws for profit. He had a subtle eye and he could see the sneaky tricks being used to take advantage of others for gain.

Jesus has taken this to the next level in this parable, telling us about an absentee landlord with a manager who is cooking the books. I was reminded this week that there are people in Canada whose ancestors fled similar situations in Scotland, where absentee landlords might take up to 90% of a farm’s production for themselves, leaving the tenant farmers with too little to live on.

Jesus’ audience would have no love for the landlord; they’d be cheering on the crooked manager for trying to create a future for himself, using unjust means to survive an unjust situation.

It’s uncomfortable. No one comes out of this looking very good, although the manager at least looks clever and that’s what he is praised for: his shrewdness in working the unjust system to his advantage.

If you have the luxury of stepping back from the situation then the obvious answer is to fix the unjust system and that is exactly what should happen. But of course, the manager doesn’t have that luxury; the manager can’t change the system, only try to survive within it.

It’s remarkable how often these sorts of examples are given to us. Tamar, one of the three women Matthew includes in the genealogy of Jesus is denied her rights under the law by her father-in-law, Judah: her right to marry the youngest son of Judah after her previous husbands, the two older sons of Judah had died leaving her childless. Her first son should inherit and be able to care for her. She was being denied her pension plan, her very future, and her status as the mother of the senior heir who would be the next patriarch of the tribe of Judah.

To overcome Judah’s refusal, Tamar went ahead of Judah to a village and disguised herself as a prostitute from a pagan fertility cult. Judah, whose wife had died months before, sought out her services and promised payment, leaving his ring, staff and cord as security and promising her a goat when he came back. The goat would serve as both payment and as a sacrifice for the fertility god she was pretending to serve, probably Ba’al.

Judah was being a bad boy at many levels: morally, legally, and in terms of his faith.

Tamar quickly went home, was found to be pregnant a few months later and Judah sentenced her to be burned to death for prostitution. When she produced his ring, staff and cord, he had to admit that he had been unjust to her and that her trick to have his child and gain justice was a success.

How many laws were broken in that story? The unjust manager was only guilty of fraud, but what Tamar did would have ended in her death! (the law required death by stoning: burning to death was a nasty touch).

That fact is a comment on that society’s views of the place of women and double standards around sex. Judah was in no danger of being punished for visiting a prostitute or worshipping Ba’al.

But the message in each story, hundreds of years apart, is that people who are at a disadvantage are smiled upon by God when they use their creativity to overcome their weakness and gain real justice, despite powerful people trying to stop them; despite corrupt and unjust systems and rules that trap them in impossible situations.

This really is radical stuff but it’s fascinating to see how Jesus is right in line with other Biblical characters, like Jacob, who tricked so many people: and Tamar whose example I just mentioned; and with other people whose stories are told over centuries of scripture.

Personally, I like things to be clean and clear-cut. I like the idea of fixing the system and getting rid of systemic injustice. But Jesus is reminding us here that this isn’t enough, that all of those programs to catch welfare cheats and others who try to get more out of the system doesn’t change the fact that they can’t live on what the system provides.

These Biblical stories demonstrate that every society, every generation, has a version of the people who work hard and simply can’t get enough to feed, clothe and house their families. And if you listen to economic warnings these days, we are producing a whole generation in Canada who will never be able to buy a house.

We have to fix what is broken in the system. That’s a big job, and we have to take it on. To do anything else is to accept permanent injustice.

But until the system is fixed, we have this call from scripture to be shrewd, to be creative, to do what it takes to help vulnerable people, even if it involves breaking a few rules,

Amen.

Second Chances

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Second Chances

Scriptures: 1 Timothy 1:12-17Luke 15:1-10

It seems rather obvious to say that Christianity is about second chances; forgiveness is central to our faith.

But expressions of our faith haven’t always lived up to that principle. Many people associate Christianity with being judgmental, with people who are unforgiving and rigid.

That’s a challenge we have to overcome as we deal with our history, as we challenge some of our past practices, as we challenge some current attitudes that are expressed in faith terms and that are still very exclusive and judgmental.

But we have a bigger challenge still: our whole society seems to be set up right now to create division and conflict. People won’t forgive; in many cases, they won’t even talk to someone they disagree with. We have watched as trolling has become a hideous and destructive art form. In ongoing ways we see people taking loud positions that will make it seemingly impossible for them to come to any kind of reconciliation with the people they are criticizing.

That’s a far cry from what our scripture lessons today teach us. Jesus gives us two parables that emphasize how much joy God feels whenever someone who has strayed from God’s love is restored to a good relationship. There are interesting factors here: in both stories God takes the initiative to find what is lost. There isn’t judgment on the lost sheep or the lost coin, simply joy at their recovery. It is also interesting to note that Jesus made a point of representing God by both a man and a woman, which was radical in those days.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had written off the tax collectors as traitors to God and to their nation since they worked for the occupying Roman forces. The sinners were people who failed to follow all the religious rules properly. Maybe their job prevented it. Maybe they didn’t care. Maybe they were too poor. In any event, the leadership had written them off. They saw them as bad enough that Jesus could be targeted just because he ate with them; spent time with them. It was as if Jesus were consorting with the enemy or contaminating himself with these “unworthy” people.

Jesus responded to this with those two parables with this clear message: God wants to connect with these people; God wants to bring them back into relationship.

Then we have Paul’s example as expressed in the letter to Timothy. We know a lot of Paul’s story: he used to be one of these religious leaders: he hated Christianity and tried to arrest Christians and bring them to trial in religious courts. On the way to a foreign jurisdiction with an arrest warrant he had a blinding vision and when he got to Damascus in Syria he was not only blind, but he was ready to change; to stop persecuting the church.

The Christians there knew he was the enemy. Paul was dangerous, but they let themselves be vulnerable. They took Paul in and taught him about Jesus and his teachings. While Paul regained his sight he made a complete turn-around and became the most successful evangelist in the history of the church, planting congregations in Turkey and Greece that are still functioning today, 2000 years later.

What if those early Damascus Christians had not followed Jesus’ example? What if they had been so afraid for their own safety that they had locked Paul out and let him fend blindly for himself? Paul was famous for being there at the stoning of Stephen in Jerusalem. It is said that he didn’t throw a stone himself, he just held the coats of the others who killed Stephen. But in our letter today Paul describes himself as a man of violence and there is no doubt if he had captured those Damascus people and taken them to Jerusalem for trial they might well have died. They had every reason to be afraid. We can only speculate that the church would be much smaller than it is today if they had avoided Paul.

Instead, they took him in; they gave him that second chance despite the fact that he was coming to arrest them. We owe them a great debt for their courage and for believing that even the worst enemy could become a friend.

What they did was exactly like Jesus eating with the tax collectors and sinners, only more dangerous because they didn’t have his public stature; they were just ordinary people.

We are ordinary people too. Sometimes the call to follow Jesus and to follow the example of Jesus gets intimidating, even overwhelming. It’s tempting to say: “Okay, but that was Jesus, how can I do what he did?”.

Here we are being called to do what these ordinary people did: to give others a second chance, even give our enemies a second chance which is sneaking up on that really challenging teaching of loving our enemies.

In a world that is quick to jump to judgment, in a world that seems determined to judge harshly, and in a world that often refuses to forgive, we are called to be different: to live out forgiveness, to offer that second chance that makes God so joyful.

God knows that the world needs this kind of example right now and it’s up to us to provide it.

Amen.

A Shocking Choice

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

A Shocking Choice

Scriptures: Jeremiah 18:1-11Luke 14:25-33

Our Luke passage today is shocking and frankly, Christianity has spent hundreds of years trying to take the sting out of it.

“The Cost of Discipleship” is the title given to this passage in many versions of the Bible. It fits the experience of many early Christians of the era when the gospels were written down.

Choosing to follow Jesus was divisive: Jewish families would be split over theological issues and pagan families would be split as the Roman authorities grew to see Christianity as a kind of treason, punishable by death.

Our modern read on this is often one of relief that we don’t face those kinds of perils, at least not the “being thrown to lions” kind, although families do still end up deeply divided by religion.

Our relief is really about explaining to ourselves why this “cost of discipleship” passage doesn’t apply to us; why we are safe from it in our enlightened age.

But all of this is a distraction from the truly shocking things that Jesus said about hating your family. What Jesus said is offensive and it would have been even more offensive in first century Jewish culture which was structured around the family as the basic unit of society and of religious observance.

It was built right into the 5th commandment: “Honour your father and your mother”. Here Jesus is announcing the opposite; that you must hate your father and mother.

The family structure of Israel was like that found in most of the middle east. There was a father: the patriarch of the family and if he was successful there would be at least one wife, possibly more, as many as he could afford. Most of the time the patriarch’s word was law. He had to conform to God’s law but if anyone did anything wrong, they were brought to him for judgement.

The father would have authority over his wives, children and grandchildren, all of their servants and slaves. A rarely used law even permitted that a rebellious son should be stoned to death to ensure the stability of the family and the nation, because a rebellious son was guilty of treason against the man God placed as the governor of the family.

Today we know that, psychologically, our families have a powerful grip on our lives. The things we learn growing up go so deep that we often don’t even see them clearly let alone find ways to question or challenge them. Families can be sources of great love and strength or places of abuse and fear.

In Jesus’ day abuse was more open and it didn’t make much difference: families were considered the central building block of society and all family members were expected to be obedient because they were told it was God’s will.

Anyone who lived outside this structure was vulnerable, like the often-mentioned Widows and Orphans who could not own land except in some truly exceptional circumstances. They didn’t have the structure of the family to protect them, to feed them and shelter them.

We look back and see that this was sexist and ageist, where the women and the younger generations were treated like property, at least in legal terms.

Most of the time there was actual love. Patriarchs were not all selfish boors; most tried to be wise and loving, but they were living in a system that gave them a great deal of authority and they didn’t want to lose that.

Jesus spent at least part of his young life in a single-parent household, led by Mary. She had no legal standing but tried her best. The Bible tells of that occasion when Mary was told that Jesus was crazy because of his preaching and she showed up with his brothers and tried to capture him and take him home. That was how basic policing worked in those days, particularly for anyone identified as having a mental illness.

But really that was the job of the patriarch of the family; Mary was trying to keep her family together as best she could, following the rules of the day, even though those rules excluded her authority.

Jesus refused to play that game. On that occasion, Jesus publicly disowned his family, saying that the people who followed his teachings

were his real mother, and brothers and sisters: a personal application of today’s lesson.

Jesus is challenging us to question all the assumptions we have about how our society should work. Today we might say he’s sticking it to the Patriarchy and centuries of Christianity have tried to keep us from really examining that fact.

It has been convenient for those with authority to keep their authority –

starting with the men over their households – even to the point of women and children being seen as forms of property until recent years; and sermons have often supported this thinking.

To the people of Jesus’ day, there would be no question: this relationship would be seen as God’s commandment. Jesus had experienced life outside this patriarchal structure, and his group of followers includes James and John, who left their father and walked away from his boats, and their future. It included a number of women, some married, who left their families to travel as disciples, some of whom were wealthy enough to finance Jesus’ ministry.

There were so many outcasts following Jesus, so many people who either didn’t fit into the standard patriarchal system or who chose to walk away from it, that it’s breathtaking.

Jesus taught about God’s love, not hate; he taught the love we are called to have for each other. Jesus also used hyperbole: he said shocking things to make important points and to fix them in our memories.

The important thing here is that the call to follow God to live just lives, the call to make the first last and the last first, the call to embrace the outcast and love our enemies is more important than any social structures, more important, even, than family ties.

Jesus’ words are offensive because he is trying to shock us into doing something challenging at a deep level.

He is calling us to examine all our preconceptions; to consider all our relationships in the light of God’s standard for relationships where love overcomes all those all those assumptions, all those prejudices that allow us to dominate each other.

We are being called to take nothing for granted, but to let God’s love and justice be the standard for everything we do, every relationship we have in our whole lives.

We have let our social prejudices bury parts of this teaching for centuries. It’s about time we tried to apply Jesus’ offensive words in the transformative way he intended.

Amen.

What Is Pride?

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

What Is Pride?

Scripture: Sirach 10:12-18 Luke 14:1, 7-14

I should begin by pointing out that I almost never preach from the Apocrypha. The book of Sirach is not considered scriptural in the Reformed Tradition although it is canonical for the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and most Oriental Orthodox churches.

It came up in the Revised Common Lectionary for today as an alternate reading for Anglicans and Lutherans and the fact that the Capital Pride Parade is today just made it too tempting to resist. The Sirach reading summarizes well what the Christian church has felt for centuries about the idea of pride.

Anyone who has read Paradise Lost knows that pride was considered the sin that caused Satan to rebel and fall. It was the most original sin and our Sirach lesson describes the reasoning: pride is said to be the sin by which we replace God with ourselves, so we see ourselves as the centre of the universe.

The medieval church declared Pride to be the first and worst of the Seven Deadly Sins; the one which caused a person to go directly to Hell: do not pass GO, do not collect $200.

Jesus even addresses pride a bit with his advice about not taking the best seat at a celebration. Jesus’ words are in the tradition of Wisdom Literature, like the kind of advice we read in Proverbs. Jesus spins it differently, making this into another lesson on one of his favourite themes: about the first being last and the last being first.

He tells us not to assume we are better than others. The lesson even reminds us that in God’s economy helping others is more important than trading meals back and forth with friends.

But Jesus doesn’t go as far as the Church would in later years. Yes, there are Biblical injunctions against pride: typically they are aimed at rulers. After all, people with great wealth and power are at much greater risk of needing to keep their egos in check than average people are. The Romans even had a special staff position for this: the auriga was a slave whose job was to whisper “remember, you are mortal” in the ear of any leader who was being cheered as he celebrated a victory.

Sadly, for centuries in the west these biblical teachings on pride were used to keep people in line. Society accepted that kings were allowed to be proud while the rest of us had to be good, humble Christians and not challenge the social order.

One practical reason for this acceptance of royal pride is demonstrated over and over in the Bible and in other history: prophets who were sent by God to challenge the pride of rulers were tortured or killed for their words.

Can you imagine how well you would be treated if you were to go up to Vladimir Putin and denounce him for his overweening pride? Or to go up to Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, and suggest he looks like Winnie the Pooh? I wouldn’t recommend it.

This long and troubled history has given the word “pride” a deeply negative meaning for many people in our society and particularly for many religious people.

The Pride Parade and related Pride celebrations approach the idea of pride from a very different perspective: pride is presented as the opposite of shame; it’s about people not having to hide who they really are.

That approach raises some issues which are important to our faith: human dignity, truth, identity and the value of a person. It should make us ask whether our faith demands that we conform to cultural expectations that don’t reflect the values that Jesus taught.

This approach to pride didn’t start with the LGBTQ community. I remember it being used years ago by other groups that have been similarly oppressed. In the early 80s I went to a multi-media presentation (remember those in the days before PowerPoint?); a friend of mine in an Evangelical communications group was putting it on in a university auditorium near Toronto.

One of the things the show did was to play a piece of popular music that sang of pride while they projected images that clearly criticized the idea of pride. The point the very white, Canadian university crowd missed was that the song was about being black in America and the black youth who were the intended audience for this song were being encouraged to be proud of their heritage, their skin colour; to be proud of who they were.

The problem here is one of language: we are trying to make one word do a new job without giving it the chance to lose its centuries of baggage.

People have always known that too much individual pride can be a problem. The pagan Greeks didn’t care about the Bible’s perspective and they wrote about it. They called it Hubris, the kind of pride that leads to the destruction of someone great.

Nowadays many people call it Malignant Narcissism where people consider that their own needs are much more important than anyone else’s.

At the same time, we know we need to value ourselves. If you don’t love yourself, then loving your neighbour as yourself can be destructive.

And that’s where we can identify the core of the problem: pride is destructive when it causes us to think that other people don’t matter as much as we do, or when we believe that because someone is different we can ignore their concerns.

God gives us a focus for our faith that requires us to look beyond ourselves. That is at the very core of what Jesus taught every day.

If we are fortunate enough to fit the expectations of society, we can become very comfortable and we may not want to be unsettled; we may not want to be reminded of how difficult others may have it.

One of the things a Pride parade is supposed to do is to challenge us to consider what life is like for a community that was illegal until the 1970s and which is still considered by some to be a legitimate target of hatred and violence.

I would suggest that an important part of our faith is our call to love and support people who have been pushed to the margins, people who have been told they are worthless, people who have been told they are wrong just because of who they are,

We are not called to this because they are poor or pathetic or because we’ve been moved by a sad story, but because God loves them for who they are and we should too.

That can be challenging.

But if we assume that everyone should be like us, or that everyone should conform to the expectations that our culture has held for years, that is when we become guilty of the kind of pride that is condemned in scripture, the kind that drives a wedge between us and God as we fail to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Jesus calls us to look beyond ourselves and to love others as much as God does. Today is a good day to challenge our assumptions and push our comfort zones to see who that love should include.

Amen.

Guarding God

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Guarding God

Scriptures: Jeremiah 1:4-10Luke 13:10-17

When we read about Jesus healing the woman on the Sabbath, two important issues stick out:

One is the healing itself. Modern society is uncomfortable with the idea of miracles and this story is centred on a miraculous healing. I don’t plan to go down that rabbit hole today; the reading simply reflects what was commonly understood: health and illness were considered spiritual issues, so any kind of healing could be explained as some kind of exorcism: as a removal of the evil spirit that had caused the illness.

Our modern understanding, that there is a deep split between physical health and spiritual well-being, has been so strongly developed that many people are pushing back, urging us to re-discover the spiritual dimension of our health.

The trouble is that if we focus only on the miracle – did it happen or didn’t it? – we will lose the true focus of the lesson: the issue of healing on the Sabbath.

This may feel like a rather archaic concern in the 21st century. It has been a long time since the Lord’s Day Act kept nearly everything but religion and sports locked tightly down on Sundays. Growing up in Quebec, I can remember what a big deal it was when they started to allow drug stores to open on Sundays. They had to rope off any aisles that didn’t deal with prescriptions or similar medical supplies.

Things are wide open now. All kinds of stores are open and Sunday is treated like any other day. Of course, the Sabbath Jesus violated was Saturday but either way, it feels irrelevant now: we don’t legislate shut- downs on many holy days, the exceptions now being Christmas and Easter.

The commandment to observe the sabbath day is one of the 10 commandments, which is why it has hung on so successfully even when the early Christians dropped Kosher food laws and other commandments. We changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday to honour the day of resurrection, but we kept the strict rules in place.

Lessons like this one in Luke only caused small exceptions which tended to be medical in nature or hospitality based, like rooms and meals for travellers.

What Jesus was doing was pointing out the hypocrisy of the way the rule was being used. Healing a woman of 18 years of illness could probably have waited a day, yes, but why should it? The healing clearly showed the hand of God at work and Jesus was frustrated that as people were being so careful not to break the laws, other people were suffering as a result.

Notice, by the way, that the synagogue leader was telling the crowds to go away and come back for healing the next day, as if they were breaking the law by seeking healing, instead of Jesus, who did the work. He was obviously concerned about offending a powerful prophet.

You might be able to justify the position of the leader based on the version of the commandments in Exodus. The sabbath law is laid out so we follow God’s example of resting on the 7th day of creation. It’s good theology: it makes God the focus and sets us the task of following God closely.

The main difficulty is that it limits the ways we can help others and puts following a rule ahead of doing something loving. Frankly, an awful lot of problems in our faith history have come from exactly this process: when we have put rules first and not looked to the needs of people and found a loving way to address them.

This is less of a problem if you look at the version of the 10 commandments found in Deuteronomy. The commandment to honour the Sabbath is the same, but the reason for it is different. Deuteronomy is considered by scholars to most likely be the oldest book of the bible.

The Deuteronomy reason for the Sabbath Commandment is that God had rescued the Hebrew people from slavery and the Sabbath rules were established so that everyone could get a rest, especially the slaves.

This was a law based in social justice: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and cried out because you had no rest. I rescued you, so treat your own slaves well and let them take the same rest day you take”.

What a difference! This isn’t about following God’s example; this is about making sure that everyone gets a break, everyone is spared from endless toil and drudgery. Even if your boss is a workaholic and never takes a break, he still has to give one to the workers.

When Jesus healed this woman on the Sabbath, he rescued her from 18 years of suffering. It’s perfect! This healing fulfills the spirit of the law.

We humans get lazy. We try to find a simple way to deal with complex things and create rules to help us simplify things. Rules can be very helpful if they are created with solid principles in mind and if they have room for flexibility when an important exception arises.

Sometimes we get very rigid, even very passionate, about religious rules. The United Church was formed as a deliberate challenge to this idea. It was necessary for the founding denominations to look at their differing doctrines and accept that they could be Christians together in one church without letting doctrines drive us apart.

But we can’t rest on those laurels. We can’t be smug about how diverse and accepting we are. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t have moments where we were so convinced that somebody else is wrong that we have to do something about it.

Some outrageous things have been said in the name of Christianity. During the pandemic, for example, and during the occupation by the truck convoy not to mention some new statements in the news on Friday where a standoff is developing in a church in Lowertown. It has been tempting to dismiss the people making those statements as less than Christian, or simply crazy.

But as offensive as we might find some religious declarations, we don’t need to guard God. It is not our job to police others, whether they are doing something on the sabbath or saying things that misrepresent our faith.

God is safe, no matter what we do. That’s one of the nice features of being all-powerful.

We do have a responsibility to speak the truth, to present our understanding of our faith so others can see the differences and experience a loving expression of Christianity.

Our truth needs to come from a thoughtful and prayerful consideration of what really matters; of what the issues are at their core and what we believe God wants us to do.

Jesus spent a lot of time teaching us to go beyond the rigid laws of history and to embrace the law of love which is no less demanding but which replaces rules of law with the love of people.

He was calling everyone back to basics and as we see in today’s lesson, even the ten commandments themselves demonstrate that God wants us to think about others, to care for others.

Even in times of conflict when we find our beliefs questioned and challenged, it is still our calling to base our response on love and to set an example of love.

Love is the example God has set for us which goes way beyond simply taking a day off. Jesus emphasized that for us in today’s lesson.

Let’s try to keep love at the centre of our lives.

Amen.