Three Lessons from Thomas

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

These posts will be on hold while I am on Sabbatical from May 1st to July 31st. They will resume in August. — Andrew Jensen

Three Lessons from Thomas

Scripture: John 20:19-31

Today I am going to break one the first rules I learned in seminary: I am going to preach a three-point sermon. Don’t worry, it won’t be the kind from a hundred years ago where each point took 15 minutes! But today’s assigned reading from John about Thomas has three major points that intertwine, braid together, and I don’t want to leave any of them out.

Number One

I will begin with the end of the reading: the purpose of the book. This was the original ending of John’s gospel. Other chapters got added on for clarification. Remember; John’s gospel is structured to deliver a theological message with seven signs spaced out to reveal important things John believed about Jesus. Here the author makes it clear – people are supposed to read it and believe, and through believing, gain eternal life.

This ties in with the main part of this lesson we usually remember: poor old Thomas being branded “doubting Thomas” because he expresses a very modern desire – to see evidence. John’s gospel was the last one to be written and it was in an age when few apostles were still alive; few eye-witnesses left. So, all the telling of the story of Jesus was being done by a younger generation, by people who heard it from someone else. Therefore, John is trying to address this issue by giving an example of an early uncertain disciple who not only gets the evidence he needs but is also told about how blessed are the people who are able to believe without that evidence. It’s an acknowledgement that belief in an age without evidence is really hard and it’s an encouragement to embrace that belief anyway.

This focus on belief as a means to salvation has made John’s gospel very popular in the Protestant tradition.

Number Two

The second lesson here is tied right in to John’s purpose from the start: John was writing to oppose the Gnostics, a group that said that all flesh is sinful and that only spirit can be holy. I’ve mentioned this before. It gets quite complex and involves rejecting nearly everything from the Hebrew scriptures.

John’s depiction of the resurrected Jesus gives us a complex image. On the one hand, Jesus is able to appear in a locked room and then disappear again, as if he had Scotty at the transporter controls. We also know from this and other bits of the gospel that Jesus wasn’t instantly recognized by his followers; he had to reveal himself somehow before they recognized him. At the same time he is solid, not just spirit. How else could Thomas touch his wounds?

So there is a reaffirmation of the physical nature of Jesus, that the Word become Flesh has not abandoned the flesh but that there is more to it than a simple resuscitation. This resurrected body is something special, something greater, perhaps more in line with the ideas Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 15 about the Spiritual body except that Paul really does step far away from the idea of a resurrection of the bodies we leave behind when we die.

Clearly, there was a debate in the early church about how all this worked and John is clear that he wants us to avoid embracing the Spiritual life at the expense of the Physical. He would agree that God made creation and that it is very good, so we shouldn’t turn our backs on it for some poorly defined future spiritual existence. John would support what we call today an “embodied” faith; a spiritual life made real in the flesh but which also bringing benefits that go beyond mere physical reality.

Number Three

This brings us to our third point: the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This is an alternate version of how the Holy Spirit came to the church,

different from the one Luke offers us about Pentecost. This has contributed to the biggest split in Christianity as the Western church added the phrase “and from the Son” to the Nicene creed 1000 years ago when talking about the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father. The Orthodox part of the church couldn’t accept that change and so East and West have been divided ever since.

But John’s point is clear: he is claiming the authority and power of God

for Jesus. John is making a statement of what he understood the phrase “son of God” to mean and he carried that further in this reading by having Jesus give the church the power to forgive sins.

That’s one the Protestant church has challenged. It was an early bone of contention for the Reformers against traditional Roman Catholic theology and it remains one of the parts of this gospel that makes Protestants very uncomfortable.

It’s complicated: not only does it reflect a very high Christology with an emphasis on Jesus being divine, it also underscores the divine nature of the Holy Spirit in John’s theology. It is the Holy Spirit that makes the church real, bringing the spirit of God into human lives.

I would suggest that a modern take on this would accept God’s divine presence amongst the people of faith but would be more uncomfortable with the judgmental aspects suggested here, just as the Reformers were uncomfortable with the institutional interpretation that had been adopted over the centuries by the Catholic church where this reading supported the idea of the keys of heaven and hell being given to St. Peter and his successors.

We have seen the damage done by judgmental Christians speaking in the name of nearly every branch of the church. So this kind of pronouncement about sins forgiven and retained needs to be examined closely before it is embraced.

These three lessons can all speak to us today. We live in an age that demands evidence and we examine the scriptures with a critical eye

as I’ve been doing in this sermon. At the same time we acknowledge that there is more to life than what can be seen and measured. We recognize the need for spiritual engagement with our creator and the rest of the world.

We can see the wisdom of John’s assertion against the Gnostics; the refusal to separate human life into the extremes of the base material world and the lofty spiritual realm. We haven’t figured out how our humanity balances these two but we know that each is incomplete

without the other: we are physical beings with a spirituality informed by our forms, by the diverse shapes we have. While what happens in the next life remains a mystery, we are told once again that it will be shaped by the lives we live now.

And while we may not care about theological niceties, like whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or also from the Son and while we may not even have a clear agreement on what we believe about the divinity of Jesus, we do have a sense that not only was God’s Spirit at work in Jesus and his ministry but that God’s Spirit is still at work in the community of faith.

That is not because we want to claim God’s authority: we don’t want the power to decide how someone else will spend eternity. No, it’s because we have seen God’s inspiration at work, God’s spirit moving in and through the lives of people who have quietly made a difference, who have demonstrated God’s love in very practical ways.

God’s work begun in Jesus still manages to get past locked doors, to transform frightened followers into courageous leaders and confused and aimless people into miracle workers; still gives insight to those dismissed as foolish and hope to those who have lost everything.

That’s what we can take from Thomas and the other disciples: the understanding that no matter how much we have had to hide behind our locked doors in the past, no matter how much uncertainty we may feel, God can and will do amazing things with us as we go forward if we learn to make room for the kind of inspiration that can come from God’s creative spirit.


A Fresh Start

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

A Fresh Start

Scriptures: Acts 10:34-43; Luke 24:1-12

It always struck me as amazing how easily Easter could have gone wrong. Last week we had a glimpse of the kinds of expectations that surrounded Jesus: the high hopes of the Triumphal Entry. So, when Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified, it must have looked like the end.

By Easter Sunday the disciples were in hiding and very discouraged, bitter enough that when the women came from the tomb saying that Jesus was risen, the men didn’t believe them. They dismissed it as an “idle tale” except for impulsive Peter who had to run and see for himself. And even when he saw the empty tomb, he went home to think about it.

No one expected a resurrection. No one expected that Jesus could defeat the power of Rome by dying on the cross. It was absurd!

Or, from another perspective, it was an unexpected way to see the world: it was a twist; the ultimate way to turn expectations on their head, just as Jesus had always done.

How do you defeat the mightiest empire the world has seen? You let it kill you; you overcome power with weakness; you don’t let any of the conventional understandings slow you down; you take that principle of the first shall be last and the meek shall inherit the earth and you follow it to its extreme conclusion.

The disciples had been living with Jesus, absorbing his teachings, trying to make sense of his parables but they didn’t expect him to go this far.

The women were open-minded enough to understand it first, because they’d never bought into the male power dynamics of the world. Women have always known that there are other ways to get things done; that subtlety and imagination and sideways thinking are more powerful than anyone ever expects.

The male disciples had to overcome a lifetime of assumptions and basic prejudices to accept that the women might be right and they had to do it quickly. Otherwise, what was left for them?

If they had expected Jesus to claim the throne of King David followed by a full-on confrontation with power facing power, then they knew that they had lost and the only casualty was their leader. The disciples were discouraged and disillusioned and their best option was to go home and start fishing again.

Instead, the women brought them a new interpretation of what Jesus had done; that he had overcome the power of Rome by dying, and by being raised by God to a new kind of life.

The effect was amazing: just when disaster had taken everything away, the disciples found a fresh start, a deeper understanding of what Jesus had always taught and the exciting idea that no matter what structures society puts in place, God provides a way to work around those structures to create something of lasting value.

This wasn’t just a startling lesson for Easter day, it continued to be a deep understanding for the early church. Look at today’s lesson from Acts where Peter preaches to the Gentiles.

This message represents a radical departure from the traditional idea of a covenant people based on blood ties. The message is that everyone gets a fresh start, that all people are loved and embraced by God, even those hated Romans.

Easter represents the most amazing turn-around we can imagine. It represents hope coming out of disaster, joy coming out of the deepest mourning, life arising out of death.

In order for the Easter message to sink in that first Easter day the disciples had to forget what they thought they knew; they had to put aside their assumptions and prejudices and realize that beyond what seems obvious can be found God’s unexpected truth.

We struggle today with disasters: the endless COVID pandemic and all of the stresses and isolation that brings; the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the flood of refugees adding to the many other refugees who are just trying to keep their families alive; social challenges at home, like how hard it is for young people to afford a home and how much harder it is for so many people just to get food and clothing; and the challenges to churches, many of whom have not been able to stay open during the last two years; and our own challenge at Knox to meet our financial needs going forward.

These are all real concerns, big disruptions. They aren’t about to vanish with the wave of a magic wand.

But what the church faced at Good Friday and Easter was the deepest existential crisis possible and they made it through by opening their eyes and hearts, to discover the unexpected thing God was doing.

They found a new way to live, a fresh application for the ideals they had learned but not fully grasped.

So what fresh start God is offering us today? What new vision of the church,

what new vision of the world, is God offering us this Easter?

The only way we will find out is if we put aside our assumptions and prejudices, open our hearts and minds, look beyond our fears and bleak thoughts to discover God still bringing new life to the most challenging parts of our lives.


Making Assumptions

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Making Assumptions

Scriptures: Isaiah 43:16-21     Philippians 3:4b-14

As Christians, we have a long-standing hang-up with the idea of personal salvation. Centuries of teaching about Jesus dying for our sins, coupled with the exciting prospect of eternal life or conversely, eternal punishment have been at the heart of a lot of church teachings.

Even in the Reformation, when the various Protestant churches rejected practises like formal confession, acts of penance, and ideas like Purgatory, the idea of personal salvation was still addressed:

  • The Lutherans embraced the idea of salvation by faith alone, rejecting what is called “works righteousness” for the idea of believing the right things and having a strong faith;
  • The Reformed Church, including the Presbyterians, took this farther and settled on Double Predestination where God decided in advance who was saved and who was damned. It was supposed to be reassuring: if you were part of the church and living a righteous life, then you were obviously saved. There was nothing you could do to earn salvation because God gave it as a gift;
  • The Methodists had a very different approach, with personal salvation being something offered as a gift but not applied until you embraced it. There was a serious outreach program to get as many people as possible to gather in tent meetings, be baptized and embrace both salvation and the righteous lifestyle that it demanded.

In all these situations, there was a determination to understand how it worked: How can I be saved?; What’s the system?; Or perhaps more directly, How can I be sure I’m not going to Hell?

That’s a very individualistic approach to faith. You could even call it selfish because it makes the central questions of religion all about “me” and what I need to know or do be right with God to be able to assume that I will be safe for all eternity.

That is NOT the approach we find in most of the Bible when we examine the relationship between God and humans.

In our Isaiah lesson, we find the people of Israel in exile in Babylon. The prophet reminds them of their exodus from Egypt and promises a new wilderness trek with water provided in the desert to the chosen people to such a degree that even the wild animals will celebrate!

That’s their promise of salvation: these people are God’s chosen ones and they will be rescued from their Babylonian captivity.

That’s the kind of relationship with God Paul is talking about when he goes on his rant in our Philippians lesson. Like so many people, Paul likes to know what the rules are and he likes to get them right to the full extent of his abilities.

So Paul points out his credentials: He was born into this same chosen nation and he was circumcised on the 8th day under the law as the confirmation of the covenant given through Moses.

Paul describes himself as a Pharisee which means he was meticulous about obeying the law, going well beyond the literal demands to follow extra rules that would prevent him from ever accidentally breaking a law. This practise, called Fencing the Torah, is still alive and well today.

Paul was not just legalistic. He was passionate about obeying God so that he persecuted the church when he believed that Christians were perverting Judaism.

Paul finally declared that under the law he was righteous. He clearly had never heard of the doctrine of “original sin”; he believed that he was sinless. If the issue were personal salvation, Paul was convinced he had it made. He was in good with God and he worked exceptionally hard to keep it that way.

And look, he goes on to say, I am prepared to trash all of that rule-bound assurance for the sake of the gospel, for the privilege of knowing Christ.

You might think: okay, he’s exchanged one reassurance for another; not salvation under the law, but salvation through faith, which is a very traditional Protestant way to read this.

But Paul makes no assumptions. He doesn’t feel like he can rest on his laurels because of knowing the freedom of Christ any more than he could under the law.

Paul is an obvious Type A personality, so he strives even harder, he even says he doesn’t consider that he has achieved the resurrection yet but that he must keep striving, keep pushing “upward”, because that phrase “the heavenly call of God” literally says “the upward call of God”.

Paul uses athletic language here, like “faster, higher, stronger”. We can blame passages like this for all the times Jesus gets invoked in football games.

Some of what we are seeing reflects Paul’s personality, even when he considered himself perfect under the law. He kept trying harder and harder so too, when he is given freedom from the law and is connected to God through faith in Christ, he still feels compelled to try harder.

But for all his striving, Paul isn’t struggling to become saved. That’s not his issue. Paul has never lost his sense of community; that God is dealing with a chosen people. Paul just sees God’s choice opening up

to welcome those who were excluded before.

From Paul’s perspective, this has nothing to do with personal salvation

or anything that self-centred. Paul says righteousness is a gift that comes through knowing Christ. It can’t be earned; it’s not a question of believing the right things; it’s about a relationship. It has always been about a relationship.

Which is why Paul ends up striving like someone trying to win Gold at the Olympics. So he feels compelled to share that relationship with as many people as he can.

In this passage, Paul does what Jesus did all the time: he demonstrates that we have been preoccupied with the wrong questions for centuries: the gospel is not about personal salvation; it was never about Heaven or Hell. Those are selfish concerns, foolish assumptions that blind us to the real message. It has never been about “me”; it has always been about “us” in relationship with God.

Paul understood that God’s love is all about us looking beyond ourselves and our own narrow concerns, to help others as Jesus did.

Knowing that, Paul took his formidable energies, tossed his concerns about his own righteousness on the garbage heap and put those energies into making a difference for others. In doing so he touched countless lives and still does through his writings, centuries later.

We may not be as driven as Paul was but there are so many more of us. What do you suppose we could achieve if we followed his example, abandoned our self-centred fears about salvation and put our energies into reaching out to others?

Just imagine what we could achieve; how many lives we could touch.

Better yet, instead of imagining, let’s follow Paul’s example and actually do it.


Repentance, Resentment and Reconciliation

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Repentance, Resentment and Reconciliation

Scriptures: Luke 15:1-32

Today’s lesson a very long one consisting of three parables Jesus told in response to one challenge. They are usually read with the first two connected and the parable of the Prodigal and his Brother set aside to stand on its own.

Doing that saves us some reading time but it breaks up what Luke presents together; it deprives us of context, especially for the final parable, because we often forget that it was told to answer a complaint about Jesus eating with sinners.

We all know what social rejection is like: tax collectors and sinners were the target here; they weren’t considered good, religious people; they weren’t considered good enough or righteous enough to be embraced by God.

It was more than just social. The sinners were the people who didn’t

live acceptable lives and may well have been actual criminals. The tax collectors were traitors, working for the hated Romans and often over-charging ordinary people. They were considered corrupt at the very least.

Didn’t Jesus, supposedly a prophet, know what sort of people he was associating with?

Jesus turned things on their head, as usual, telling these three parables, each of which addresses the problem from a different perspective:

  1. The good shepherd leaves the 99 sheep alone and goes to collect the single missing sheep. As usual, the main character represents God and the sheep represent ordinary people. We are forced to look at things from God’s perspective: the shepherd feels responsible for the lives of the sheep; it is good shepherding to leave the flock together and go retrieve the missing one. The kind of shepherd who is prepared to do that is the kind of shepherd who will bring back the whole flock, safe and sound;
  2. The woman and the coin parable is next. This time God is the woman and the theme is not “responsibility.” The lost coin is not going to get eaten by wolves. It’s a question of value: God, the woman, values the coin and is prepared to work hard to find it when it goes missing; the lost coin, which represents sinners and tax collectors, shows us that these lost people have value to God, despite what their social “betters” may think;
  3. Then we come to the story of the family with the father and the two sons. It brings us a picture of the complexity of the relationships between everyone in the family. First, there is the father who, once again, represents God. No mother is mentioned and some scholars have pointed out that Jesus deliberately portrays the father with a mix of traditional masculine and feminine characteristics, both in behaviours and in language used, which fits right in with the two previous parables in which God is a male shepherd and a female homeowner. God is the father, but he is no macho man. He is prepared to let his son make mistakes and runs in a most undignified manner to greet him and shower him with hugs and kisses and make the most absurd fuss over him.

The prodigal himself is pretty clear-cut as the sinful, tax-collector sort. He’s selfish, greedy, wasteful, and immature. He wants to live an easy life with no effort and party, party, party. He’s a real jerk who doesn’t care about his family’s feelings when he makes his unreasonable demands and runs off to squander his future. It’s like the addiction groups say: he had to hit rock bottom before he would admit that he needed to change. And being envious of the pigs he was working to feed is pretty rock-bottom for a good Jewish boy. So, he had his reality check and he decided to go home and beg to become a slave, because he knew his father treated his slaves a lot better than this son was managing by himself.

The big brother represents the people who feel like they know how things work and are comfortable with the system; they define themselves as good people. He presents the standard big brother image: hard- working, responsible, self-righteous, resentful of the way his brat of a brother is indulged, maybe also resentful of the father more widely and thinks he’s too generous with his resources (which are now entirely that son’s future inheritance); he wouldn’t do things the same way as his dad and he certainly wouldn’t welcome that good-for-nothing waste-of-space of a brother after what he did! Hrrmmph! “Father always liked you best, didn’t he?”

The family dynamics are painfully realistic, aren’t they? Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about. We can all relate. We’ve all been one of these characters at some time or another, or we’ve seen them up close and personal.

And a really vital question is left hanging at the end of this third parable: Is there going to be reconciliation? Will the family get back together?

The first two parables had happy endings: the sheep was rescued; the coin was found and the celebration was held, with God as the host in each case.

But in the third one, the happy ending is left incomplete. God is delighted at the rescue of the one lost, and then found, and it is the resentful older brother who is left standing outside the party, welcome to come in but unable, so far, to bring himself to do it.

We see all kinds of versions of this brother’s complaint: “Those people should pull themselves up by their boot straps the way I did”; “Those people should get over things like residential schools and stop complaining — look at all the government money they get out of my taxes. Is that justice?”

I could go on. There are a lot of ways to deny structural bias, racism and historical injustice and every one of them misses the point of this trio of parables: That God loves and values the people that others despise – the lost, the damaged, the hopeless, the foolish, the meek, those who hunger and thirst, those who are persecuted.

In the first two parables, God goes the extra mile to rescue the lost, revealing how much value God puts on those who are outside.

In the final one, God loves both sons enough not to treat them like sheep or coins. God lets them make their own choices, and mistakes.

God makes a special effort for each of them: running like a fool to greet the prodigal half-way, then leaving the celebration to try to reconcile his resentful son. The story is left on a cliff-hanger because it is up to US to decide whether the final reconciliation happens.

Our challenge is to recognize when we are behaving like one or the other of the brothers and learn to stop being so selfish and jerky (adjectives that apply equally to both, by the way).

And through it all is the example that God sets for us to emulate: generous, loving, ready to go the extra mile to find the one who is lost and needs help; ready to try to get past unreasonable behaviour to restore relationships and create reconciliation; not worried about rules, or rigid interpretations of justice; not even worried about his own dignity but motivated by love above all else.

It’s a breath-taking example God sets for us here: Let’s aspire to get beyond being the squabbling siblings and learn to be like the loving parent.


When Bad Things Happen

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

When Bad Things Happen

Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 Luke 13:1-9

We want the world to make sense, don’t we? When something bad happens to someone bad it’s not hard to imagine thinking: “Well, he had it coming”. When something bad happens to someone good, or someone innocent, like a baby, we react to the unfairness of it all. The injustice is overwhelming sometimes.

This seems to be hard-wired into us. Evidence of this kind of reaction goes back into ancient times. Even in the Bible you sometimes see assumptions such as that anyone who is rich has been blessed by God and must be a righteous person, when real life tells us that some rich people got rich by being very bad.

We have struggled with this across the years and across cultures. Today, a popular word is “Karma” that we’ve borrowed from Hinduism, possibly because it suggests a universal law where the very universe balances out life. Traditionally, Christian cultures talked instead about the judgment of God, either in terms of problems of life: plagues, famines, invasions, fires; or in terms of some kind of settlement in the next life: rewards in Heaven, punishment in Hell; so much so that the Catholic church had to invent Purgatory, limbo and similar ideas to address what happened to people who weren’t totally evil but not pristine and holy, either.

Look at what Jesus does with this question: Pilate killed some Galileans as they brought their sacrifices to the temple, which could have brought all kinds of symbolic messages into his answer if he had wanted. Then he mentions people who died in the collapse of the Tower of Siloam just outside of Jerusalem.

What would we do about these kinds of incidents? We might protest police brutality and the injustice of the governor in using deadly force with these visitors who were, at worst, somewhat rowdy. We don’t know why this incident happened, but Galileans were renowned

for being both unsophisticated and rebellious. Who knows? Maybe they brought their transportation and had a camel convoy or donkey demonstration.

And as for the tower of Siloam, we would demand a public inquiry looking to see if the developer cut corners: maybe the engineer was someone’s incompetent brother-in-law, or the materials were sub-par. We would want to know if there’d been kick-backs and government corruption.

Some of us would want someone to blame. Some of us would want an explanation, maybe to prevent it from happening again, or maybe just so the world felt less irrational, less random and uncaring.

I heard someone on CBC earlier this week saying that the people of Ukraine were suffering and dying as sacrifices for Western democracies who were afraid to confront Russia directly, who were afraid of WWIII, and of nuclear weapons being unleashed.

And I was outraged; partly because there is truth behind it and the Christian imagery of someone dying for someone else’s benefit is a powerful one. It’s a truly unjust situation and I wanted to get hold of Putin and smack some sense into him! This was the other part: I didn’t want to feel guilty about their sacrifice; I wanted the president of Russia to take the rightful blame.

Jesus is brilliant, really. He takes all these natural inclinations and impulses and throws them out the window: Don’t look for “why” he says; let these tragedies motivate us to examine our own lives; instead of looking “out there” for explanations, let’s look inside to see if we are prepared in ourselves for the unexpected things that might happen.

We get hung up on the language in this reading. We hear “repent” and we think of sin and guilt. The title for this reading in many versions of the bible is “Repent or perish” which is appalling and imposes an interpretation before we even start reading.

That’s not what Jesus is talking about. “Repent” literally means to “turn around”; to “change direction”.

This isn’t about considering whether we are ready to die; ready to “meet our maker”; ready for judgement day. It is about stopping to consider the direction of our lives. Are we living the kind of life we would want to see in an obituary or a news report?

More to the point of Jesus’ lesson, are we living lives that reflect God’s values? Or as the parable says: fruitful lives?

We know what Jesus meant by that: the first being last and the last, first; the meek inheriting the earth; the weak being strong. All those things that lift people up, those things that create justice and make a difference for real people.

That’s what Jesus is really pointing out here: when bad things happen

we tend to complain about the injustice; instead we should be looking at ourselves and what we are doing to create the justice God is calling us to achieve.

That’s a hard lesson. We want the comfort of blaming someone else. Instead, we are called to accept the responsibility of creating the justice we are looking for, of being the change we want to see.

But then, Jesus was good at being a prophet, even when that meant revealing uncomfortable truths. If we want comfort, we should look to our other lesson, where Paul reassures us that God will never give us

more than we can cope with and that the troubles we face are common to all humanity.

That’s not completely comforting. Humanity has endured some appalling abuses over time, as we are being reminded these days, and people can struggle through suffering that we would prefer never to have to imagine, let alone endure.

The comfort is not that we will escape suffering and tragedy. Rather, it is that God will be with us every step of the way, no matter how bad things get. We are not alone. God will get us through, even if it is ultimately through death into the next life.

Until that time, Jesus is clear: tragedy and suffering are not punishments from God; they are not payback for something; they are not Karma. But, we can learn from them: to re-focus our lives on what really matters; on living lives that create the kind of justice we cry out for when tragedy strikes.

We want a just and balanced world and our Creator calls us to share

in creating this just world. So, when bad things happen let’s pause, and ask ourselves: “What am I doing to make this a better place?”


A Complicated Covenant

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

A Complicated Covenant

Scriptures: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 Luke 13:31-35

Our Genesis lesson is fascinating for many reasons. It goes back to the very origins of Israel; to the roots of the formation of a people of faith; back to when Abraham was still called Abram.

The name “Abram” is a pretty good one. It means “exalted father”, which would have felt pretty ironic at the time because Abram was elderly and had no children.

But “Abraham” is like “Abram” on steroids and means “Father of a Multitude”. This fits very well with the image we see of Abram and God looking at the stars and God promising that Abram’s descendants would be just as numerous, just as uncountable as the stars of the night sky.

To really understand this you have to get out of the city in the summer at night and look up to see all the tiny points of light that are hidden by light pollution. It’s a wonderful, overwhelming number. If we get technical, astronomers tell us that the maximum number of stars we could see with the naked eye in any hemisphere of the Earth is a bit over 5000.

But that’s not what it feels like! It feels closer to the estimate of the number of stars that exist which is 2 sextillion, or 2 followed by 23 zeros – a mind-blowing number – especially if it is a promise for your descendants, when you really wanted some and thought you’d never have any.

All of that number stuff feels like a bit of a spoiler; it’s too technical. But people often treat Biblical covenants like they were legal documents. They are even explained as a kind of contract between unequal parties. The end of our Genesis lesson actually gives us the ritual for such a contract: with the animals sacrificed and cut in half; with the torch and incense pot carried between the halves as symbolic of how closely the two parties of the covenant were to be bound together; like two halves of a body.

And if you were to be technical and legalistic, then the number of descendants has been more than achieved. God’s promise to Abram has been kept, with well over 5000 Jewish descendants and counting – many more if you take it in spiritual terms – and include all Christians and Muslims as spiritual descendants; an interpretation that goes all the way back to the Apostle Paul.

Abram wouldn’t have counted things that way; Eliezer of Damascus was part of his extended household and might well be called a spiritual descendent, but Abram really didn’t want to count him.

So, the “numerous descendants” clause of the covenant was fulfilled but there is another part that never was: the giving of all the land between the Nile and the Euphrates to the descendants of Abram. In other words, from central Egypt to central Iraq.

The Hebrew people have certainly travelled over all this land. Their origin stories include starting in Ur near the Euphrates and multiplying as slaves in Goshen near the Nile in Egypt (or, as we would say now, workers in the Gig Economy). But they have never ruled the whole Fertile Crescent, not even in the days of Solomon when the kingdom of Israel was at its largest.

People have gotten tied into knots over this kind of thing: What do you do with a covenant that is unfulfilled? Does it mean that the fulfillment is still to come?

There are some who hold to this notion, who would really like to see the boundaries of modern Israel expanded with this kind of promise in mind. On the other hand, does it mean that God is unreliable? That God doesn’t keep promises? Traditionally, that idea is considered blasphemous, which is why we don’t hear about these unfulfilled bits very often in traditional sermons.

The basic challenge here is that covenants and contracts are words, while relationships are living things. We refer to marriage as a covenant because it is one of the best Biblical analogies we can find. Sure, there are marriage contracts but that is legal language, not faith language.

The covenant you make at the beginning of a relationship is vital. But it is also the starting point and the relationship will change and grow. So, the original covenant may not reflect the ultimate reality.

Look at the state of the covenant by the time Jesus was speaking. He referred to Jerusalem as the city that killed the prophets. The prophets were messengers sent by God to the people of God and they were stoned. Stoning, as a means of execution, was symbolically important because everyone in the community was required to throw at least one stone so the responsibility for the death was shared by the whole community.

No wonder we had to invent the phrase “don’t kill the messenger”. We have been killing messengers in real life for thousands of years.

King Herod was supposed to be ruling as God’s representative over the Galilean population of God’s people; someone who had a particular responsibility for the covenant; both to God and to the people.

Jesus describes him as a fox, which might just suggest Herod is wily, until Jesus talks about the people of God as chicks that he wants to gather under his wings: a powerful image of a mother hen preparing to defend her brood against the fox that will destroy them.

Jesus is speaking as a prophet here, the words coming as God’s own voice, giving us a wonderful, fiercely protective, motherly image for God to balance some of that “beard in the sky” stuff we know so well.

And we also see the disappointment when the chicks refuse to shelter under God’s wings.

The covenant has clearly moved way beyond questions of descendants or issues of territory. There is a long-standing relationship being worked out and it is like a marriage in need of counselling, with Jesus trying to bring the parties together.

And the part of the covenant that is clearest is that it is permanent: divorce is not an option. God and God’s people are together for the long haul and as we travel down the road of Lent, towards Good Friday and the cross, we are given a glimpse of how far God will go to bring us back into a good relationship.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus expanded the original covenant

beyond the physical descendants of Abraham, to include us in that complicated relationship between humans and God.

I would suggest that our best way forward is not to become legalistic about this covenant or others; not to demand strict adherence to the letter of the law; but to recognize the way relationships always work: with love, and compromise, and dreaming together, and differences, squabbles, and sometimes, long stretches of silence.

At the core of the message Jesus gave us is that God’s approach to us is one of love; of wanting what is best for us; wanting to guide us and protect us, even when we think we know better and we put our trust in someone like King Herod.

We have entered a complicated covenant with God and God is not going to give up on us. So, let’s see what we can do to make this relationship work. Amen.

Cutting Corners

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Cutting Corners

Scriptures: Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Luke 4:1-13

Wandering in the wilderness is a powerful idea. It is much more than symbolic: the wilderness is the opposite of civilization; you don’t have the infrastructure of society; you don’t even have planted crops; you don’t know where your next meal is coming from and if you are truly alone, like Jesus was, you don’t even have other people to help you.

Being in that place, alone with God and the raw world, forces you to look at what really matters; it compels you to deal with basic needs like hunger, thirst, and shelter. If you’ve learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs you know that these basic needs are so fundamental that other priorities go out the window until they are met.

At least, that’s one interpretation. At the very least, an empty stomach and parched mouth command a person’s attention and other things can take a back seat.

Jesus is described as being really hungry at the end of his long time alone in the wilderness and the first thing he is offered is a temptation

based in his physical hunger: transform stones into bread – “just a little abuse of power – eat and you won’t feel so desperate.”

It doesn’t take the theories of modern psychology to know that physical needs can be powerful, can even overwhelm our better judgement if we become desperate enough.

And that’s how this passage is often seen: it has been used by Christians for centuries to demonstrate Jesus’ perfect self-control; to defend the doctrine that he was sinless. And when you look at it that way, this whole lesson makes Jesus seem super-human. We can admire his iron will but we know we’ve stumbled and we always doubt that we could ever match what we read here.

But consider what was going on in each temptation. Each one was the offer of a short-cut; a corner-cutting way to achieve something: a full stomach; world domination; or the fame and admiration that would come from proving that God is protecting you.

Each of these things is a common human desire: the basic needs of life; power; fame and fortune. But what we see from Jesus’ teachings and his life is that he didn’t want to fit the common mould. He wanted to re-shape our understanding of what is important; to re-define what power really is; to become known for who he really was rather than a flashy false image.

The shortcuts offered Jesus really wouldn’t do the job. Yes, the miraculously transformed stones might briefly satisfy his hunger but you’d always know you had eaten granite and worse, it would cut him off from the community he planned to establish. He would need them to support his ministry, to feed him, and if he started using miracles to feed himself he would undermine the very basis of his work: to build a family of faith.

Getting the armies of the world on his side might look effective but Jesus chose to go to the cross instead; to welcome vulnerability and weakness and demonstrate that what we think of as power ultimately will not win.

Sadly, I believe that over history the church has failed in this temptation, over and over: when we became the official religion of the Roman Empire and when we tied ourselves to other empires over time. If we had not embraced the kind of power Jesus resisted we would not need to apologize for the Residential Schools, would we?

And as for leaping off the temple and being borne up by angels? Well, our modern world has a much better sense of how shallow fame works than past ages could ever have imagined. Social media has allowed all kinds of people a time of fame, and how well do we really know them? How cynical have we become knowing that even regular people only ever put the good pictures up for us to see and hide the failings and flaws. How many people are tempted to believe the pictures everyone else puts up and then consider themselves failures

because their lives aren’t picture perfect?

Jesus was able resist these temptations, I believe, because he knew that such short-cuts never work. The quick and easy solution comes with hidden costs. But more to the point, it skips the parts where we lay the ground-work, where we do the things that matter, where we put in the time to connect with others, establish relationships, earn trust, and allow ourselves to become vulnerable and real.

By the end of his time in the wilderness, Jesus was clear about what really mattered and he knew that these tempting short-cuts would undermine everything he was trying to do.

He decided to go at it the hard way, the real way: talking to people; sharing his understanding; teaching ordinary people to become leaders – not with a horse and a sword, but with a community and with love,

One of the ironies of all this is that Jesus managed to work incredibly quickly. The gospels give different time frames for Jesus’ ministry, but the longest time possible is three years from the wilderness to the cross. Matthew, Mark and Luke seem to agree that Jesus did it all in a year or less – he didn’t need a short-cut!

Of course, the hard way was really hard for Jesus. It involved betrayal, torture and death. But it worked.

If Jesus had chosen another path he might have become as famous as Caesar Augustus who ruled a huge, powerful empire. But we wouldn’t be studying his wisdom right now; we wouldn’t be trying to follow his example. And it is because of what Jesus taught

that when we see someone who wants to become another emperor, like Vladimir Putin, we are filled with horror rather than admiration.

This lesson about the temptations of Jesus isn’t about following rigid rules. It isn’t about being perfect, either. It is about keeping clear in our hearts and minds what matters, what is important. And recognizing that short-cuts don’t work.

Jesus brought his honest, real self to his ministry; he admitted his hunger, and trusted others to feed him; he worked to persuade by love, not by power or flashy tricks and he even let his vulnerability become a message: that his weakness was greater than the power of the Roman Empire.

So, as we live our own lives and as we go forward as a congregation,

with finances and membership concerns hanging on from our meeting last week, let us remind ourselves of what matters. Let’s not be tempted to take short-cuts.

Let’s be ready to do the real work to which we’ve been called: to connect with others; to love, and share and to build a community where God’s love is found, one relationship at a time. It won’t be quick, but it will be authentic.


Glowing Faces

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Glowing Faces

Scripture: Exodus 34: 29-35

Today is Transfiguration Sunday and our reading is one that gives the example of Moses, his face transfigured by light from speaking with God, as a precursor to what would happen to Jesus.

This passage has led to some problems. The Hebrew word that describes Moses’ face as glowing is also the root word for horns and so in the Vulgate Latin translation of the bible, it says Moses was “horned” by speaking with God. This led to a lot of Medieval artwork to depict Moses with a pair of horns on his head: even Michelangelo included them on his famous statue of Moses – but it was a bad translation; Moses’ face was described as glowing.

This kind of thing gives us trouble if we take it literally. In the modern context, people who hear about “glowing faces” are likely to think about UFO contact or a nuclear accident, or even the healthy glow that comes from exercise, rather than about any kind of divine effect. All of this can lead a lot of people to dismiss this story as embarrassing.

This is too literal, and too bad because it works so very well as a metaphor.

If this time of pandemic has taught us anything it should be how much we have always relied on reading people’s faces when we communicate. Our masks have made it so hard to talk, because the cues we rely on are hidden.

Every face we see tells a story. Every face reflects inner realities, even faces that are locked down. “Poker faces” that seek to hide behind blank expressions are still telling a story and the face we present to the world has an effect on the people that see us. And all of this may happen without any of us being particularly conscious of it.

Considered that way, how could Moses come down from his mountaintop religious experience and NOT have his face tell the story?

The way the story continues, Moses wore a veil after he came down

so people wouldn’t see God’s glory fade between encounters with God. As you will see shortly, I don’t think Moses set a good example when he did that.

So what example should we be following? What are we called to in this lesson?

Glow-in-the-dark faces might be fun at Hallowe’en, but we aren’t called to embody some strange special effect. We ARE called to deal with God; to come close to the divine every day in our thoughts and prayers as we consider our decisions; as we weigh what is right and wrong; as we make choices about how to treat others.

And the more we let God guide us, the more divine influence gets into our choices, the more our faces will reflect that reality: the more people will be able to read in our faces the hope, the justice, the peace, the love, the determination to make this world a better place.

Our faces will be transfigured; they will glow, not literally, but metaphorically through body language, with a story that is there to see for those who can read it.

I would suggest that we need to present our glowing faces for the world to see right now, urgently.

We are all looking with horror at a kind of face that has always existed but that we’ve told ourselves had vanished since the second world war: the face of naked, empire-building greed and aggression as Russia has invaded the Ukraine.

It is tempting to panic, to fear for the future, to let that kind of bullying terrorize not just the Ukrainians but the rest of the world too.

That is why we need to present our transfigured faces for others to see as we go forward with the sense that people can be helped and rescued; that God is greater that Vladimir Putin and that God’s call for us to work together can salvage even this disastrous situation as we find ways to share love, healing and hope and as we work to overcome the injustice that is being played out so obviously before us.

The glowing face of Moses, bringing a message from God from the heights of Mt. Sinai made a profound difference on the people of Israel, a difference that still guides us today.

Let us show our own glowing faces to the world as God transforms us every day and inspires us to change not only our own lives but the world around us.

Until we do, we won’t know how profound a difference we can make.


Heavenly Minded and Earthly Good

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Heavenly Minded and Earthly Good


1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

The Apostle Paul lived in a world of philosophy. He was surrounded by all those Greek philosophies that we learn about as things from the past. He would have understood the need to present a logical argument for anything he claimed, or his culture would not have taken him seriously.

That feels rather different from now, when people seem to be prepared to do things and make claims with fairly flimsy justifications, and not much logic in some cases.

Paul had a profound personal spiritual experience that turned him into a follower of Jesus. He had a vision of the risen Christ as Paul was on the road to Damascus to persecute Christians. In the vision he saw Jesus and Jesus spoke to him. The experience left him temporarily blind and some kind and welcoming Christians in Damascus took him in and taught him while he healed.

That’s the kind of thing you expect from a spiritual revelation: it’s dramatic, and deeply moving. Paul mentions it in one of his letters and his friend Luke tells an expanded version in the book of Acts.

But look at what Paul does in today’s lesson. He is putting forward a logical argument based in his personal experience. He is making connections between the specific and the general and he challenges those who deny a resurrection. With his certainty that Jesus was resurrected – he saw it with his own eyes in a vision, after all – the argument is straightforward: if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Jesus cannot have been raised. So, because Jesus was obviously raised, then the resurrection of the dead must happen.

There are some logical challenges here. You could argue that Jesus was a special case and that becomes an even more powerful argument if you accord Jesus a special status, like John’s gospel does.

But Paul is pretty clear about believing in the humanity of Jesus. He doesn’t elevate him the way John does and he clearly considers that what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. In terms of the resurrection, what works for Jesus works for all of us.

Don’t get hung up on the word resurrection here. Paul wasn’t concerned about a physical, bodily resurrection. He believed in a resurrection into God’s presence, not all that different than what we might call “going to heaven”. The medieval artistic grimness that imagined people coming out of their graves to reassemble their bodies would have been utter nonsense to Paul.

Paul was being driven by something mystical, something spiritual, and it is clear from his argument in this lesson that he considers it so central to Christianity that without it everything falls apart.

Contrast this with our lesson from Luke: it is part of what is sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain, Luke’s equivalent to the Sermon on the Mount, and today’s lesson includes a lot of the Beatitudes and some matching woes to go with the blessings.

The pattern of “Blessed are they” balanced with “Woe unto them” is pretty traditional. You can see it in our Psalm reading and even in the verses surrounding our call to worship from Jeremiah. If you look at those verses you will see an accursed tree that is not planted by the water that represents the people who don’t turn to God.

The point here is that these blessings (and curses) reflect another aspect of our faith. In the United Church there is a strong social justice ministry and it is motivated by passages like these; passages that focus on balancing out an unjust world; that focus our faith on the good we can do here and now.

For many, if you’re concentrating on helping others, if you’re fighting the good fight to change the world, you don’t have a lot of time or energy to worry about what happens after this life because this life has enough challenges to keep us busy.

The two approaches to faith aren’t mutually exclusive, but people do seem to be drawn more to one or the other. It has been like this for centuries. My sermon title even comes from one version of it, where a person might be criticized for being “so heavenly minded he’s of no earthly good.”

For myself, I believe we need to have both in our lives. We need that practical side of our faith to make things better, to do the concrete things that our scriptures have been telling us are improvements for millennia.

And we need the mystical side: that passionate, irrational calling; that sense of vision that lifts us beyond the bounds of this life and spurs us on to bigger thoughts; inspires us to do things that will live beyond us.

Paul felt the need to subject that part of things to a philosophic study; to use the tools of logic that filled his world; to examine the possibilities that his vision opened to him. But you notice that he never questioned that deep, personal experience that he had. He embraced it. It was the foundation of the rest of his life and led him to spread Christianity throughout the Greek-speaking world.

That was the fire that burned within him, but a lot of the people he attracted – the “righteous gentiles” who were attached to local synagogues – were people who found Judaism attractive

because of its emphasis on justice; because of its focus on a righteous lifestyle and the fair treatment of others. In other words, they had been attracted to Judaism because of the practical aspects of the faith.

We would do well to remember that 2000 years later, both of these elements are still with us.

We are called to live our lives in a faithful way, which includes the way we treat others, the way we try to change the institutions of our world, the way we try to lift everyone up and treat everyone as beloved children of God. Being kind, generous, just, loving, hopeful will be attractive to people, especially right now as folks are wondering about the meaning of their lives and looking for a way of living that matters.

But people are also looking for deeper meaning and our faith offers that spiritual dimension. We don’t always agree on exactly how it works and we’ve had lively debates for 2000 years as to what life after this one might look like. And we’re still not agreeing.

The gospels record Jesus arguing with the Scribes about this. Paul was having the same argument a decade or so later and it is still happening today. I’m good with that. It shows we have a healthy faith.

We live in a world where some of the big questions about life and death are avoided because people are afraid of them, but we are not. We can even live with the understanding that some mysteries won’t be solved in this lifetime, but we are willing to discuss them. We are open to the possibilities.

We share a faith that calls us to balance: so let us keep room in our lives for the spiritual and the mundane; the abstract and the concrete; the urgent needs and the meditative questions.

We are called to both, and one should never push out the other. Amen.

Growing Up

While we are locked down for pandemic safety, Knox has Podcast Services. For those who can’t access these we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my sermon notes into text.

Growing Up

Scriptures: Jeremiah 1:4-10 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

In religion, old is good. But our society doesn’t always see things that way. I can remember the “don’t trust anyone over 30” days and while the generation that said that is getting on with retirement now, the marketing wing of our society still tells us to be youthful, to look young (especially if they can sell you skin lotions or fashions that make you look younger); to act young, or in an extreme scenario to find a much younger trophy spouse.

In religious terms, that’s never been the standard. Back in the Bible it was always the elders we wanted to hear; those who had lived a long time were expected to have experience and were clearly blessed by God since they weren’t dead at such a venerable age.

We have many examples of young people called by God who expected that no one would listen to them simply because of their youth. Jeremiah worried about that in our first lesson today. Samuel faced the same problem and Paul had to reassure Timothy that he could teach and lead despite his young age, while acknowledging that some others might have to get used to the idea.

I have remarked in past years that Knox is the first church I’ve served that is actually younger than I am. We don’t have those stories of older churches like my congregation at West Adelaide near London, where the opposition to the new organ was so strong that on Sunday morning the congregation found it lying on its back in the cemetery. They picked it up, brought it in and started using it. It was a little damp, but otherwise fine.

Or the congregation near Bradford, north of Toronto, where the minister and elders disagreed so strongly that the elders padlocked the church doors and the minister went, got an axe, chopped off the chains and preached to an empty church.

Church life could be quite lively over a hundred years ago although that kind of history doesn’t always reassure me of the wisdom of the past.

But in a faith that traces its founding back two millennia and roots centuries further back, a congregation celebrating its 59th anniversary is just a young pup.

Knowing that we are young, that we have more experience to gather, is not a bad thing at all. It’s so much better than thinking we know it all or that we’ve tried everything. Trust me, there’s still lots for us to learn and more for us to try.

Growing up is a difficult process. Gaining experience generally includes experience of loss, disappointments and heartbreak, coming to terms with the idea that we are mortal (which applies equally to individuals and to congregations) having to make difficult choices, and learning that we can’t have it all.

Those are some of the harder parts of growing up. But there are good things too: you stop being the children and begin to enjoy the children that follow; you learn what you are good at and you find ways that you can help others. And if you are wise, you discover within yourself the grace to accept help when you need it.

Maybe grown-ups can’t do everything children think they can, but grown-ups can still do a lot and have the chance to develop a more subtle knowledge of how the world works and what new things are possible.

These past two years of pandemic have pushed Knox to grow up, have challenged us to re-examine our assumptions, have called us to re-imagine what it means to be a faith community in this century.

It has been hard: we’ve been kept apart when a deep understanding has always told us that it is our purpose to come together; we’ve had to get creative and we have given some serious thought to new ways to look into the future and to embrace what is to come.

We needed to do this anyway. Every church has faced challenges in recent years and this pandemic has pushed us so that we can no longer ignore the fact that so many people around us don’t think we are relevant in the modern world.

One surprising thing about the pandemic is that it has re-awakened in many people a sense of the need for a spiritual life.

And here we are, with over 2000 years of practise, of thinking and sharing and living with a spiritual core to our lives, and an understanding of the meaning of daily life that goes beyond the superficial.

The pandemic has challenged us to look beyond ourselves, to go outside of the “same old same old”, to try new ways to reach beyond our walls, just in time to encounter the people who are reaching out for connection, who are thirsting for a taste of the spiritual life that can take them beyond the four walls of their COVID prisons.

After today, Knox enters its 60th year: we’re not kids anymore. We have a lot to contribute to the world including experience, and even wisdom.

And if we ever feel that nagging uncertainty shared by Jeremiah, Samuel and Timothy, we should remember that just as God put the words into Jeremiah’s mouth, so too we have been told the truth to share.

Paul put it so well: we are to be a community of love, sharing, welcoming, patient, kind, wanting what is best for others and displaying in our lives all those good things we read in 1 Corinthians 13.

That message manages to be both simple and profound at the same time and it is the very message that our society needs to hear; the spiritual truth that can make a profound difference in any life it touches.

Let us resolve to go forward as a mature church, a wise community of faith that is willing to share what we have received, freely, and with love as we greet the future with hope and an eagerness to discover what God has in store for us.