Category Archives: Sermons

Reflections given as sermons at a public service. The members of the community take it in turns to preach to the whole community.

Created for Community (Homily for Lent 1)

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7    Psalm 32      Romans 5:12-19     Matthew 4:1-11

 Created for Community

 by Sherman Hesselgrave

Human beings were created for relationship—relationship with one another, and relationship with God. When God realized it was not right that Adam should be alone, God set about to create a companion for him—‘companion,’ a word whose roots are in sharing bread together. The stories from Genesis and Matthew that we hear again today are foundational stories for us. The story of Jesus’ temptation in Matthew is Shakespeare’s reference when, in The Merchant of Venice, Antonio says to Bassanio: “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” The stories are foundational because they show us how our relationships with God and others can be distorted or corrupted by our everyday human desires.

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Life Together (Homily for Epiphany 3)

Readings:  Isaiah 9:1-4   Psalm 27:1, 5-13    1 Corinthians 1:10-18     Matthew 4:12-23

Life Together

by Sherman Hesselgrave

The week between January 18th, the Feast of the Confession of St Peter on the Church calendar, and the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul on January 25th has come to be known in ecumenical circles as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I imagine to many the words ‘Christian Unity’ must seem oxymoronic, for Church history is littered with the bodies and detritus of countless battles. St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us that Christian disunity has been around pretty much from the beginning.

Disunity comes in a variety of flavours. I have noticed a flurry of online discussion recently about bullying in church, bullying of all stripes—bullying of parishioners by pastors, bullying of lay people by other members of a congregation, and even bullying of pastors by congregations. One congregation, First Assembly of God in Madison, Indiana, a town with a population of 13,000, had a decades-long reputation in the town and denomination for being a clergy “killer.” Four successive pastors had been called and then painfully driven out until the latest pastor helped them to name and own their dysfunction. They made the news for holding a service of reconciliation that involved calling their former pastors back to ask their forgiveness for the way they had been treated. The liturgical action at this service was the current pastor washing the feet of the former ministers on behalf of the congregation.

According to St Paul, one of the conflicts in the new community of Christians in the port city of Corinth appears to be related to people forming cliques around the missionaries who baptized them: Apollos, Cephas, or Paul. I suspect we all have seen the power of personality cults, and the Church is certainly not immune to their seductiveness. But in falling for the charisma of the various leaders, the new converts missed the one thing they all had in common: their baptism into the community of Christ. This passage is emblematic of so many of the things that have caused division in Christian communities when the original vision of what makes up the core of the Gospel is lost. I believe Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, was satirizing the Church when he described the wars between the Big-Enders and the Little-Enders, those who ate their soft-boiled eggs by cracking them at opposite ends. There are many distractions that make it difficult at times to keep our eyes on the prize, so to speak.

When Jesus invited Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave their nets and follow him, one has to wonder what they thought “fishing for people” would look like. What kind of community were they being called to? From the record, it seems that, even after following Jesus around for quite some time, they weren’t sure. Today’s gospel and today’s Hebrew scripture both quote this passage from the prophet Isaiah: “…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,…” In the original context, the darkness that has fallen over the people is the darkness of death that accompanied the continuous warring in that critical geopolitical region. Isaiah was promising that a Prince of Peace would be coming to bring a new dawn. In the gospel context, Jesus was the light who had come to bring a new day, and the way he was going to do it was by inviting people to help him to spread the news that God was taking a new approach to creating peace and justice on earth. He spelled out the details as he travelled from town to town. In the Sermon on the Mount he claimed that God blessed peacemakers, the pure in heart, the merciful, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He told his followers that they were the fertilizer of the earth. He taught them how to pray, and how to live one day at a time. And he taught them about the danger of storing up treasure on earth. The kind of community that Jesus’ followers were called to was a community of character that stood in stark contrast to the values of the surrounding empire.

Flash forward to Germany in the mid 1930s. A different empire, the Third Reich, was coming into being, and the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been called to lead an illegal, clandestine Confessing Church seminary in the then North German town of Finkenwalde. Sharing a common life in emergency-built housing with twenty-five seminarians, he wrote a book, Life Together [New York: Harper & Row, 1954, p. 26], describing his insights into living as an intentional Christian community. Early in the book he observes that many a time “a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream.” The disillusionment that shatters such dreams is an act of grace that helps a group of Christians to discern the true community God is trying to create. Look at Jesus’ disciples and how disillusioned they were when Jesus turned out not to be a political messiah. Until they were purged of that fantasy, they could not become part of the apostolic movement they were commissioned for.

Over the centuries, Christian communities have struggled with the tension between unity and uniformity. There are some who believe that unity requires uniformity, but that is not what either Jesus or the apostle Paul taught. Paul speaks of the diversity of the body of Christ, the Church, and the many gifts with which God’s Spirit has blessed God’s people—but there is one Spirit behind those gifts, so all spiritual gifts are complementary. And, I believe that when Jesus prays that we may all be one, as he and his Abba are one, he is speaking of the oneness that comes from being intimately connected to the source of all life, truth, and beauty.

Diversity, too, can be a source of tension. We have seen how new ideas or scientific revelations have challenged Christian communities over the millennia. And just when you think consensus is about to solidify after decades or centuries of debate, someone comes along and tries to bring back the Middle Ages. As a Roman Catholic nun once remarked to me, “The Church changes very slowly—one funeral at a time.”

To be true to our calling as a community in Christ, there will be times when we will struggle to discern which fork in the road to take, or how to make the most of our resources, or the best way to retool for carrying on our mission in a new context. We may be called to make bold leaps of faith or to overcome a fear of failing. These are all situations that faithful Christians have faced in the centuries leading to this moment in time, so we are not alone as we continue to make sense of our life together—we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and God’s Spirit is the wind that fills our sails.

Roma Rising, a homily delivered by Michael Creal, November 10, 2013

Today the Canadian Council for Refugees is launching “we’re proud to protect refugees” week and this congregation won’t have the slightest difficulty in being part of it. Over the years, the Refugee Committee at Holy Trinity has organized the sponsorship of 118 refugees with two more currently on the way. That’s a huge achievement that we can properly celebrate. Looking back, on May the 21st, 1992, along with Alex Neve of Amnesty International and Mary Jo Leddy, a number of other people, members of this congregation signed onto a document promising to protect 23 refugee cases – individuals and in most cases whole families – people who were facing deportation on grounds we couldn’t accept. That was the beginning of the Sanctuary Coalition which has always had a home in this parish. So we have been welcoming refugees both those from refugee camps overseas brought here for resettlement and those who came to Canada on their own to make their refugee claim but who were wrongly rejected by the authorities. Both these expressions of support for refugees continue.

 

Let me put this in a larger context. This country has had a mixed record in responding to refugees and immigrants. Some random examples. Think of the nineteenth century refugees from the potato famine in Ireland who received less than a warm welcome in this country. Before the First World War, immigrants in large numbers came to Canada – Western Canada in particular – from central and eastern Europe, but they were often stigmatized, regarded as second class by their neighbors who sometimes called them by unflattering names like “bohunks.” In 1939 when a boatload of 1000 Jewish refugees arrived in our waters, they were turned away, sent back to Germany where they eventually faced extermination in the death camps. Late in the Second World War, when a senior Canadian immigration official named Charles Frederick Blair was asked how many Jewish refugees Canada should accept after the war, his famous – infamous – response was “none is too many” (the title of a book some of you will have read on this issue by the historians Harold Troper and Irving Abella. That’s part of the dark stuff in our history .

 

But after the war, Canada did accept many refugees and displaced persons from Europe. Canada signed onto the Geneva Convention of 1951 which committed this country to give protection to any person fleeing persecution for reasons of race, religion, political affiliation or membership in a particular group. Thousands have come to Canada under that provision. And in 1956 Canada accepted refugees from Hungary, after the Hungarian uprising; in 68 from Czechoslovakia after the soviet tanks rolled into Prague. And in the 70’s some 60,000 Vietnamese boat people were welcomed. And then there were the American draft evaders in the Vietnam war some of whom slept in this church. There were dissenting voices in all these cases but most Canadians took pride in what we were doing. Those were the glory days in Canada’s refugee history, a time of open doors, of welcoming the stranger.

 

By the 1980’s refugees were coming to Canada from all parts of the world and it was a heavy responsibility for immigration officials to determine their fate. In 1985 the Supreme Court made a landmark decision, the Singh decision which declared that all refugees coming to Canada were entitled to protection under the Charter. There had to be due process in determining who was accepted as a refugee. An arbitrary decision by an immigration official was no longer acceptable. That led to the creation of the Immigration and Refugee Board in the late 80’s a quasi judicial body independent of the Dept of Immigration. That was a step forward. The system worked reasonably well – but mistakes were made – poor legal representation, traumatized claimants, faulty translation, misreading of country conditions. But there was no appeal system, the kind that exists in every other area of our law. It was in response to these mistakes – which meant lives were at risk – that the Sanctuary movement came into existence in Canada and continues to this day. But now we are dealing with legislation that has fundamentally compromised the principle of fairness in determining who is a refugee and who is not. And no group is more adversely affected than the Roma.

 

Overall, the number of refugee claimants arriving in Canada has dropped from an annual figure ranging from 25,000 to 30,00 to around 10,000 and this is happening at a time when the number of refugees world wide has never been greater. Canada’s doors are closing at a time when the need to welcome and protect has never been more urgent.

 

There continue to be programs of government sponsored refugees for re-settlement and privately sponsored refugees from refugee camps in different parts of the world. Considering that there are over 16 million refugees world wide – and counting – the numbers sponsored in Canada are pretty tiny. The government’s target for this year is around 7,000. Now I think we want to be responsive to those in greatest need, as generous as possible within our limited resources. That doesn’t, however, seem to be central to the government’s current policy. Recent memos to the Minister propose that Canada select refugees from three targeted areas, reduce the number of refugees with “high needs” and select those who are healthy and who are expected to integrate more easily. The proposed changes all make Canada’s refugee settlement program less generous.

 

So that’s the current picture: 1. reduce the number coming to make refugee claims and make the process as adversarial as possible, and 2.sponsor those who suit our needs rather than those who themselves are most in need.

 

OK, that’s a very brief sketch. I want to leave lots of time for Gina. So I’ll conclude by asking in what way do today’s readings speak to our situation?

 

The setting for the first reading from the prophet Haggai was the time when the Jewish exile in Babylon was over and the returning Jews were faced with the task of rebuilding Jerusalem and rebuilding the temple in almost impossible circumstances. The message of Haggai is a message of encouragement in the face of huge challenges. The situation may be difficult but we are not alone, says Haggai, God’s spirit is with us. Remember this house in its former glory, he says, and look forward to a future where all nations can share in common riches. OK, doesn’t that speak to us today?

 

The Gospel: Jesus words in Matthew’s story of the Last Judgement are straightforward and compelling: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Need more be said?

 

The reading from Mary Jo comes out of her experience at Romero House. The knock on the door literally happens. We can take it literally or metaphorically. In today’s complicated and stressful world we can say no, we’ve already got far too much on our plate. Or, we can say “this we must do.” Protecting refugees is not an option. It’s a moral imperative.

 

 

 

Roma Rising, homily delivered by Michael Creal, November 10

 

Today the Canadian Council for Refugees is launching “we’re proud to protect refugees” week and this congregation won’t have the slightest difficulty in being part of it. Over the years, the Refugee Committee at Holy Trinity has organized the sponsorship of 118 refugees with two more currently on the way. That’s a huge achievement that we can properly celebrate. Looking back, on May the 21st, 1992, along with Alex Neve of Amnesty International and Mary Jo Leddy, a number of other people, members of this congregation signed onto a document promising to protect 23 refugee cases – individuals and in most cases whole families – people who were facing deportation on grounds we couldn’t accept. That was the beginning of the Sanctuary Coalition which has always had a home in this parish. So we have been welcoming refugees both those from refugee camps overseas brought here for resettlement and those who came to Canada on their own to make their refugee claim but who were wrongly rejected by the authorities. Both these expressions of support for refugees continue.

 

Let me put this in a larger context. This country has had a mixed record in responding to refugees and immigrants. Some random examples. Think of the nineteenth century refugees from the potato famine in Ireland who received less than a warm welcome in this country. Before the First World War, immigrants in large numbers came to Canada – Western Canada in particular – from central and eastern Europe, but they were often stigmatized, regarded as second class by their neighbors who sometimes called them by unflattering names like “bohunks.” In 1939 when a boatload of 1000 Jewish refugees arrived in our waters, they were turned away, sent back to Germany where they eventually faced extermination in the death camps. Late in the Second World War, when a senior Canadian immigration official named Charles Frederick Blair was asked how many Jewish refugees Canada should accept after the war, his famous – infamous – response was “none is too many” (the title of a book some of you will have read on this issue by the historians Harold Troper and Irving Abella. That’s part of the dark stuff in our history .

 

But after the war, Canada did accept many refugees and displaced persons from Europe. Canada signed onto the Geneva Convention of 1951 which committed this country to give protection to any person fleeing persecution for reasons of race, religion, political affiliation or membership in a particular group. Thousands have come to Canada under that provision. And in 1956 Canada accepted refugees from Hungary, after the Hungarian uprising; in 68 from Czechoslovakia after the soviet tanks rolled into Prague. And in the 70’s some 60,000 Vietnamese boat people were welcomed. And then there were the American draft evaders in the Vietnam war some of whom slept in this church. There were dissenting voices in all these cases but most Canadians took pride in what we were doing. Those were the glory days in Canada’s refugee history, a time of open doors, of welcoming the stranger.

 

By the 1980’s refugees were coming to Canada from all parts of the world and it was a heavy responsibility for immigration officials to determine their fate. In 1985 the Supreme Court made a landmark decision, the Singh decision which declared that all refugees coming to Canada were entitled to protection under the Charter. There had to be due process in determining who was accepted as a refugee. An arbitrary decision by an immigration official was no longer acceptable. That led to the creation of the Immigration and Refugee Board in the late 80’s a quasi judicial body independent of the Dept of Immigration. That was a step forward. The system worked reasonably well – but mistakes were made – poor legal representation, traumatized claimants, faulty translation, misreading of country conditions. But there was no appeal system, the kind that exists in every other area of our law. It was in response to these mistakes – which meant lives were at risk – that the Sanctuary movement came into existence in Canada and continues to this day. But now we are dealing with legislation that has fundamentally compromised the principle of fairness in determining who is a refugee and who is not. And no group is more adversely affected than the Roma.

 

Overall, the number of refugee claimants arriving in Canada has dropped from an annual figure ranging from 25,000 to 30,00 to around 10,000 and this is happening at a time when the number of refugees world wide has never been greater. Canada’s doors are closing at a time when the need to welcome and protect has never been more urgent.

 

There continue to be programs of government sponsored refugees for re-settlement and privately sponsored refugees from refugee camps in different parts of the world. Considering that there are over 16 million refugees world wide – and counting – the numbers sponsored in Canada are pretty tiny. The government’s target for this year is around 7,000. Now I think we want to be responsive to those in greatest need, as generous as possible within our limited resources. That doesn’t, however, seem to be central to the government’s current policy. Recent memos to the Minister propose that Canada select refugees from three targeted areas, reduce the number of refugees with “high needs” and select those who are healthy and who are expected to integrate more easily. The proposed changes all make Canada’s refugee settlement program less generous.

 

So that’s the current picture: 1. reduce the number coming to make refugee claims and make the process as adversarial as possible, and 2.sponsor those who suit our needs rather than those who themselves are most in need.

 

OK, that’s a very brief sketch. I want to leave lots of time for Gina. So I’ll conclude by asking in what way do today’s readings speak to our situation?

 

The setting for the first reading from the prophet Haggai was the time when the Jewish exile in Babylon was over and the returning Jews were faced with the task of rebuilding Jerusalem and rebuilding the temple in almost impossible circumstances. The message of Haggai is a message of encouragement in the face of huge challenges. The situation may be difficult but we are not alone, says Haggai, God’s spirit is with us. Remember this house in its former glory, he says, and look forward to a future where all nations can share in common riches. OK, doesn’t that speak to us today?

 

The Gospel: Jesus words in Matthew’s story of the Last Judgement are straightforward and compelling: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Need more be said?

 

The reading from Mary Jo comes out of her experience at Romero House. The knock on the door literally happens. We can take it literally or metaphorically. In today’s complicated and stressful world we can say no, we’ve already got far too much on our plate. Or, we can say “this we must do.” Protecting refugees is not an option. It’s a moral imperative.

 

 

 

Homily for October 20th: Never Give Up

Jeremiah 31:27-34    Psalm 119:97-104     2 Timothy 3:14–4:5    Luke 18:1-8

 

Never Give Up

 by Sherman Hesselgrave

The parable of The Persistent Widow (or the parable of The Unjust Judge, as it usually called), like the parables of The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, and The Rich Man and Lazarus, is unique to the Gospel of Luke, and I have to confess up front that it is probably my favourite parable. I’m sure we have all, at some point in our lives, heard one of Winston Churchill’s speeches in which in exhorts his audience to “Never give up” or “Never give in” followed by several repetitions of the word “Never.” Well, that is today’s gospel lesson in ten words or fewer. As I surveyed the appointed readings for today, I saw a never-give-up thread running through them. In the Jeremiah reading it is God who never gives up; in the Epistle, Timothy is urged to never give up turning to the Scriptures for wisdom; and in the gospel we are urged never to give up demanding justice.

Taking a closer look at our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, we are once again reminded that the people of God addressed by the prophets were people in a covenant relationship with God. First, there was the covenant with Abraham and later, the covenant with Noah after the Flood, and further on, the covenant God gave to Moses on Mt Sinai, the Ten Commandments. One can visualize a covenant by imagining the two parties gripping the forearm of the other. If one party lets go, the other party continues to hold on. And this is how it went, as we read in the Hebrew prophets how time and again, God’s people did not hold up their end of the covenant. Yet God never let go, and today we heard about another way that God never gives up on us. Jeremiah, speaking a message of hope from Jerusalem to God’s people, many of whom have been taken into exile in Babylon, a message of a new covenant that will not be inscribed on stone, but on their hearts, so it will be with them wherever they may be. The God who never gives up shows how to create a fresh start by offering forgiveness, a model that still works to this day, despite the tired old model of retributive justice that our civilization seems unable to shed. An eye for an eye, a missile for a missile—or closer to reality, 20 missiles for one rocket. God holds on, never lets go, even when we refuse to live into that new covenant we were given so long ago.

Looking next to the reading from the Second Letter to Timothy, the writer of this pastoral letter reminds Timothy that, here paraphrased by Eugene Peterson [The Message Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. (NavPress, 2003]:

why, [Timothy,] you took in the sacred Scriptures with your mother’s milk! There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.

The never-give-up piece in this reading comes in the next sentence where Timothy is given this charge: “proclaim the word, be urgent in season and out of season;…” In other words, never cease to find nourishment from Scripture and never miss an opportunity to pass along the insights you have discovered.

Now, I know, of course, that in our post-Christian age we have bones to pick with the Bible because it is a book that came to be over many centuries, and out of cultural contexts very foreign from our own. But in story after story we recognize the human tendencies that are familiar to us even today: the lust for power, rampant greed, trampling on the poor and marginalized like widows and orphans, lack of trust in the ways that God has instructed us to live our lives: loving God with all we have, and loving our neighbours as ourselves. And THESE stories and values we can regard as ethical standards that we embrace, defend, and invite others to join us to live by.

There are some in this room who, like Timothy, have known the Scriptures since childhood, and I know there are others, because you have told me, whose familiarity with the Bible is not where they wished it were. It’s time for us to offer an opportunity for those who would like to fill in the gaps or build a foundation. Maybe the group meets here or maybe it meets in a home at a time of convenience for the group’s members. In Advent we are planning two forums that address the challenges and responses to Biblical Interpretation, but the real meaningful work happens when people engage the texts and discuss them with others. One of the ways I stay in touch with large swaths of Scripture is to read the Daily Office readings over breakfast. There is a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Epistles, and Gospels for every day of the year, and they can be easily found online or in the Book of Alternative Services. There are plenty of fringe benefits to becoming better acquainted with the Bible. In The Great Code, Northrop Frye writes about a discovery from his “earliest days as a junior instructor”: ”I soon realized that a student of English literature who does not know the Bible does not understand a good deal of what is going on in what he reads: the most conscientious student will be continually misconstruing the implications, even the meaning.” // I independently came to the same conclusion when I was studying Shakespeare in university. My professor was the son of a Methodist pastor and I had grown up in a Lutheran parsonage, marinated in Scripture from the crib. The works of Shakespeare presuppose a knowledge of the Bible, for there are countless scriptural references throughout, which many only discover if they read the footnotes.

After moving to Toronto, I added a number of other Northrop Frye books to my library, most recently his 1962 Massey Lectures, The Educated Imagination, whose opening lines go like this:

For the past twenty-five years I have been teaching and studying English literature in a university. As in any other job, certain questions stick in one’s mind, not because people keep asking them, but because they’re the questions inspired by the very fact of being in such a place. What good is the study of literature? Does it help us to think more clearly, or feel more sensitively, of live a better life than we could without it?… What difference does the study of literature make in our social or political or religious attitude? In my early years I thought very little about such questions, not because I had any of the answers, but because I assumed that anybody who asked them was naïve. I think now that the simplest questions are not only the hardest to answer, but the most important to ask,…

 It occurred to me that you could substitute the word ‘Scripture’ for ‘literature’ and ask the same questions: What good is the study of Scripture? Does it help us to think more clearly, or feel more sensitively, of live a better life than we could without it?… What difference does the study of Scripture make in our social or political or religious attitude?

Every Sunday we hear snippets of readings from the Bible and some kind of commentary on them in the homily, so I expect that it is possible that we are being shaped by these encounters with God’s Word. But I also know that it is difficult to grasp a sense of the whole by only looking at the puzzle pieces out of their fuller context. So, one more reason for a more in-depth study of the Book that is central to Christian belief and living.

Finally, we return to the Persistent Widow. Our reading begins this way: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the need to always pray and never to give up.” The example Jesus goes on to give is a case study about a widow (read: woman in a powerless social position) who has failed repeatedly to be granted justice against someone who has wronged her in a court of law. Yes, it is about prayer, and that God will grant justice, but we can also relate to the parable as a community that has, like the persistent widow, struggled for social justice for decades—whether it was around housing and homelessness, LGBT or refugee issues, or economic justice. Well, a lot longer than that, actually—this parish is coming up on the 166th anniversary of practicing a ministry of social justice on October 28th, the feast Day of St Simon and St Jude. The issues were different in 1847, like a potato famine in Ireland, and rampant prejudice against certain immigrants to Canada, but Holy Trinity was open to all, and has honoured that part of our DNA ever since. There is no better summary of the message of the Parable of the Persistent Widow than Sir Winston’s words: “Never give up. Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.”

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Homily for September 8th: Shaped for Mission

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Shaped for Mission

Sherman Hesselgrave

Readings: Jeremiah 18:1-11     Psalm 139      Philemon 1-21     Luke 14:25-33

The main point of today’s homily will be to assert that Jesus, through his public ministry and the coaching of his disciples was shaping them for mission. St Paul continued this practice in his missionary work, and the Hebrew prophets also passed along God’s messages to instruct the people of God to shape up. Now, the word ‘mission’ gets tossed around to the point that it almost seems like meaningless church jargon at times.  But thanks to my Latin teacher in grade nine, I know that the English word ‘mission’ comes from ‘mittere,’ to send. Not long ago, we had the story of Jesus sending out the 70 (or 72 disciples, depending on textual variants) to tell people that the reign of God was right on top of them, and to give them an opportunity to learn about it. For decades, Christian churches have been going through the wrenching discovery that the way things worked in the past don’t work so well anymore. A church that communicates the message that “We’re open Sundays, y’all come, if you want”, is a church that probably is well on its way to being de-commissioned. Mission involves engaging in the world by looking around for the hurts, and doing something concrete to heal them, as Jesus and others in our scriptures showed us. There is nothing passive about it. We gather here for spiritual nourishment and encouragement, and, if you will, to be formed or shaped into the disciples we have been called to become, but the mission field is out there, beyond our doors.

The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah in today’s reading, like Isaiah before him, uses the image of God as potter to get our attention. “Can I not deal with you, O Israel, just like potters deal with their clay? For you are clay in my hands, O house of Israel.” Any one who has watched a potter work, knows the infinite variety of shapes into which a lump of clay can be fashioned, and re-fashioned. The theme of judgment in the reading stems from the house of Israel not living into the purpose God shaped them for; they had become useless vessels. Every human being, according to the Creation story in Genesis has been given the radical freedom to choose what we will do with what God has given us. Any one of us has the freedom to do exactly what the house of Israel is accused of by Jeremiah: not using our unique giftedness to help create a society that works the way God would have it work, a society of justice, mercy, and shalom.

When I was in seminary, the church I was assigned to had an annual auction, and at one of these auctions I bought a set of ecclesiastical candlesticks made by a gifted potter, Sasha Makovkin. There are a few things you should know about Sasha before I continue. John Killinger met him in the late 80s and wrote this about him in a sermon:

Sasha’s uncle was the dean of St. Basil’s Russian Orthodox Church, the great landmark on Red Square in Moscow. During the revolution that created the Soviet state, the soldiers carried all the icons from the church and threw them onto the pavement in the square. They offered the dean a bargain: if he would walk on the icons, denouncing his faith, they would permit him to live; if he would not, they would shoot him. For many years, Sasha did not understand why his uncle refused and died for his belief. Why would anyone hold belief dearer than life?

[Sasha’s family moved to the United States, and Sasha ended up in Mendocino, California.]

Then, while leading a pottery workshop for a local Presbyterian church, Sasha began to read the Gospel of John. Over and over, he felt confronted by the challenge to believe in Christ….

“More than eighty times,” said Sasha. “More than eighty times it says we must believe. I could not get away from its insistence. At last, I had to surrender to Christ.”

At last, too, Sasha understood about his uncle. There are some beliefs that shape one’s attitudes so completely that one will even die for them. [“Belief: You Are What You Believe,” http://www.preaching.com/sermons/11563596/     Pages 3 and 4]

     Several times I was fortunate to watch and hear Sasha preach, perched on a stool at his potter’s wheel, on a large sheet of plastic in the middle of the church.  He would talk as he threw, telling a story as he turned a mound of clay into something beautiful, and then he would take the formed pot and smash it into a lump of clay and create a different shape with a different story.

So back to my candlesticks, which normally live on the buffet in my dining room, a fitting place for them because, as I understand it, every meal is holy, not only the Eucharist. Bill Countryman, in his book, Calling on the Spirit in Unsettling Times (Church Publishing, 2012), writes:

It may have been Archbishop William Temple who once said, with reference to the Eucharist, that the bread on the altar could not be holy if all bread were not holy, and we could not know that all bread is holy without seeing that the bread on the altar is holy. The bread of the Eucharist does not monopolize holiness; it calls our attention to itself so that it can send our attention back out to the bread of the world, which is holy because it maintains life. [p. 27]

See how the liturgy shapes us for mission beyond our doors by showing us a deeper way to look at the common things we encounter every day. Many of us pray every day the words “Give us today our daily bread.”  This petition is really a prayer that everyone will be given sustenance for today.

One of the things I discovered after winning my Makovkin candlesticks at the St John’s auction, was that their design made it possible for them to also serve as vases, as they were glazed on the inside as well—a metaphor for way God shapes us to be flexible in the ministry and mission we may be called to. We may think we  don’t have what it takes to do something we’ve never tried, and then someone (maybe even the Holy Spirit) cajoles us into trying that thing, and suddenly the candlestick in us has become a vase.

There is another story of being shaped for mission in Paul’s letter to Philemon. Paul is in prison, possibly in Ephesus, and there he meets a runaway slave, Onesimus, whose name in Greek means ‘useful,’ who belongs to Philemon, someone converted by Paul and who is a leader of a house church (thought to be in Colossae). While in prison, Onesimus has also been converted by Paul and has become very close to Paul. It is an awkward thing that Paul is asking of Philemon in his appeal that he take back Onesimus, “no longer as a slave, but as something much more—as a dear brother” in Christ. And there is a huge risk for Onesimus, because in the Roman Empire runaway slaves could be put to death, if the owner wanted. But Paul, in his appeal, one follower of Christ to another, tries to make his friend understand that all Christians—equally—are servants of Christ. In his letter to the church at Colossae, Paul writes: “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” [Colossians 4:1]  Paul sees Onesimus as a very useful member of the new community of faith, someone who will help to spread the good news that God had now equipped him to share. We are not told the outcome of the situation, but we can hope that Onesimus’ sending resulted in something other than the punishment and degradation that the law allowed, that Philemon took Paul’s appeal to heart and did something no one in his social circle would have considered proper, but was something that flowed from the new belief system he had claimed in his baptism.

And thirdly, we encounter Jesus, who is being followed by large crowds, drawn by his charismatic acts. He explains to them in brutally clear terms the conditions for discipleship. Some of the language seems harsher in English than in the original language (the Greek word translated as ‘hate’ does not come with the same emotive content as the English). But still, saying that “If you come to me and you do not hate your father, mother, brother, sisters, [husband or] wife, your children—even your own life—you cannot be my disciple” must have caught many of his followers up short. The summary in verse 33, “…if you yourself do not say farewell to all your possessions, you cannot be my disciple” has caused me to think of these conditions more in the way that Buddhism speaks of “attachments.”  Jesus requires that we give up any and all attachments that would or could get in the way, or compromise, the mission and ministry we have been shaped for. Sasha Makovkin’s uncle could not have refused to walk across those icons strewn across Red Square if he had not let go of all attachments that might have made him take the way out. Just as Kazantzakis, in The Last Temptation of Christ, demonstrated that Jesus, too, had a choice at the end to escape crucifixion, but instead chose to follow through with what he had spent his entire public ministry preaching and teaching: that to be a disciple who has been sent into the world to spread the news of the reign of God and to invite others to commit to living its values included the requirement that one be willing to walk the way of the cross, to give one’s life for one’s beliefs.

I spent Friday evening and yesterday afternoon at Soulpepper Theatre’s production of Tony Kushner’s award-winning play, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The play, set in New York City in 1985 as the AIDS crisis escalated, is in two three-hour parts, the first entitled Millennium Approaches. (That would be Millennium with a capital M, the biblical reference to the end-times, not the looming 2000.) Part Two is entitled Perestroika, the reference to the political movement for reformation within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. The word literally means ‘restructuring.’

As the background notes in the program inform us, “Kushner fearlessly explores and exposes the intersections of love and hate, religion and belief, the personal and the political in a robustly imagined community of souls in New York City at the end of the last century.” They go on to say, that “When Angels came out its epic, ambitious reach and frank examination of sex and homosexuality shocked some. Multiple perspectives are interwoven, overlap, and blend into one another, certain actors play several characters, expected gender roles are reversed. Some critics said the plays were too liberal: they accused Kushner of preaching to the choir and he didn’t deny it.” In response to his critics, he wrote: “The role of the preacher is…to help the faithful grapple with doubt. You go to the edge of what you’re certain about. You ask the congregation to come with you…no candle no map..you ask them to explore the darkness with you.”

In the lobby there is a large display that everyone entering the theatre has to pass by. It is a chronology of the response to the AIDS crisis in Toronto. It starts in 1982 when the syndrome was first defined, and it mentions a coalition of groups that rallied to create a place where people suffering from AIDS would be taken care of at the end of their lives at a time when there was no cure. That place would become Casey House. Several groups are mention as part of that first coalition, including the Toronto Hospice, St Michael’s Hospital, June Callwood, and “representatives from Holy Trinity Church.” I have to confess that I felt a burst of pride for this community for being part of that effort to lay a foundation. That was the same year I began seminary in Berkeley, California, and I recall a two-pane “then and now” editorial cartoon in the San Francisco Chronicle around that time that depicted in the first frame Jesus healing a leper, and in the other, the televangelist Jerry Fallwell proclaiming AIDS as God’s judgment on homosexuals. The shaping for mission at Holy Trinity that happened in this instance was no accident. It happened over time by the Spirit’s acting through members of this community—the same Spirit that is here today to shape each of us into the vessels of God’s grace that God created us to be.

We continue to be shaped for mission in a variety of ways. Recently, Jessica Howsam and Jeff Scholl, recent college graduates, found their way to Holy Trinity, and inquired about ways to become connected. Were there any small groups they could join? I had to confess that we have done small groups during Lent or Advent, but that we didn’t have any ongoing groups for newcomers to plug into. Then I had an email from them, asking to meet over coffee to present a proposal for a small group that would meet in their home, an opportunity for people to gather to explore the question: “What is faithful witness in Toronto?”  As you heard in their announcement this morning, they are ready to get started.

We are called to be God’s heart and mind and hands in the world, and God is continually inviting us to be shaped for mission in the world and for ministry through our community. We can accept the invitation or we can let our attachments to other things make us hesitant to take the plunge, to go to the edge of our certainties and together explore the unknown that God has in store for us.

Homily for August 4th: You Can’t Take It With You

Hosea 11:1-11   Psalm 107:1-9, 43    Brueggemann, “Giver of All Good Gifts”   Luke 12:13-21

You Can’t Take It With You

 Sherman Hesselgrave

There are some people who think of the Bible as a book that has all the answers. I long ago came to see the Bible as a book that helps us to consider the most important questions. I was curious to see how many actual questions there are in the Bible, and it is now very easy to discover. All you have to do is go to a Bible browser—I used Oremus, which uses the text of the New Revised Standard Version—and instead of searching for a word, I searched for question marks.  There are a total of 2,887 in the whole Bible, and 832 in the New Testament. Many are great questions, some posed by Jesus, some by those he encounters, and later on, by his disciples and the people they encounter. For instance:

  • Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? (Mt 7:3)
  • Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? (Mark 10:7)
  • The [Samaritan] woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (John 4:11)
  • What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? (Luke 9:25)

 

That last question from a few chapters earlier in Luke’s gospel anticipates today’s reading, which contains three more questions:

 

  • [Jesus asks] Who appointed me to be your judge or your arbitrator?
  • [The rich man with overflowing barns asks] What am I to do?
  • [And Jesus again] This very night your life will be demanded of you; and this stockpile of yours—whose will it be then?

 

As we bring this ancient encounter into the midst of our circle and probe it for what it has to say to us today, we have observations and, perhaps, a few questions of our own.

 

It starts off with a younger brother, who has a beef with his elder brother, who, apparently, is not dividing up the family estate in the prescribed way, and he wants Jesus to intervene on his behalf. Jesus responds testily, who knows why?; perhaps, because anyone who has been following Jesus for any time at all would have probably heard stories about Jesus’ attitude towards earthly wealth and possessions and their power over us, so he needed to expeditiously disabuse this fellow of his misperceptions.

 

At any rate, Jesus uses the prompt to pivot and tell a memorable parable about a rich man who has had such a good harvest that his silos have run out of room. One thing one notices immediately is that the rich man’s conversation is not only entirely an interior conversation with himself, but there is really no regard for anyone else, although, admittedly, eating, drinking, and being merry might conceivably involve other people, but, as the parable makes it seem, primarily for the rich man’s own hedonistic satisfaction. Then, of course, because most parables have a twist at the end, or, in this instance, a firm yank on the choke chain: we have the notice that the rich man has an appointment with the grim reaper that very night. Jesus concludes with this summary: “That is how [it is] for those who store things up for themselves—but are not rich in what matters to God.”

 

So we, who might have an interest in being “rich in what matters to God,” may be thinking what does that entail?

 

What does it mean to be “rich in what matters to God?”  

When a lawyer came to Jesus, asking, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked him “What is written in the law? How do you read?” And then commended the lawyer when he responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” This “summary of the law,” as it has come to be called, embraces all of the Ten Commandments in shorthand, including the individual commandments about honouring God, and how we are to treat our neighbours—for example, no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no coveting, no bearing false witness.

 

Jesus’ entire ministry was dedicated to spelling out what matters to God, from his first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, to all the sayings in the Sermon on the Mount, to his disputations with the Scribes, Pharisees, and Saducees.  Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar? Show me a coin… Whose image is on it? Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.  Or, let the one who is without sin cast the first stone at the woman caught in adultery. Or the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, who were all paid the same day’s wage, no matter what time they started work (a biblical example of income equality—though not everyone thought of it as fair).

 

Some of you may know the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song, “Alfie”:

What’s it all about, Alfie?

Is it just for the moment we live?

What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?

Are we meant to take more than we give

Or are we meant to be kind?

And if only fools are kind, Alfie,

Then I guess it’s wise to be cruel.

And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie,

What will you lend on an old golden rule?

As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie,

I know there’s something much more,

Something even non-believers can believe in.

I believe in love, Alfie.

The song acknowledges the tension we live in in Post-Christendom: we may know or have a vague recollection of the ethical demands of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but so many of the messages we receive from the surrounding culture completely contradict them.

 

Steven Greenhouse, in a New York Times  [July 27, 2013] recently wrote a column entitled “Fighting Back Against Wretched Wages,” in which he writes about the Caterpillar company, which recently made news in Canada for closing plants:

Caterpillar has pioneered two-tier wage systems, in which workers hired after a certain date are consigned to a significantly lower wage scale than others, and it recently pressed its longer-term employees into accepting a six-year wage freeze. Many Caterpillar workers ask why the company insisted on a pay freeze when it reported repeated record profits — $5.7 billion last year, amounting to $45,000 per Caterpillar employee.

Caterpillar’s chief executive, Douglas Oberhelman (whose compensation has increased more than 80 percent over the last two years), says the freeze was vital to keep wages competitive with rival companies. “I always try to communicate to our people that we can never make enough money,” he recently told Bloomberg Businessweek. “We can never make enough profit.”

The Occupy Wall street movement has drawn attention to the ever increasing disparity of income in North American society.  A few years ago, two British epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, wrote a book entitled, The Spirit Level, in which they posit that “societies with a bigger gap between rich and poor are worse for everyone in them—including the well-off.” [Book cover]  By looking at data from dozens of countries, they correlated indices for a wide range of health and social problems—like Trust, Life expectancy, Infant Mortality, Obesity, Mental illness, Education scores, Teenage birth rate, Homicides, Imprisonment, and Social mobility—and demonstrated that countries where income inequality is the greatest tend to score worse than countries where income inequality is less. The authors and others set up The Equality Trust “to educate and campaign on the benefits of a more equal society.” It is a resource for continuing this provocative conversation. The book also includes a nearly 40-page chapter called Building the Future, which proposes some routes to greater equality and names corporate power as the “elephant in the living room.”

What can we do?

The rich man in today’s parable asked himself, “What can I do?”  He wasn’t asking what he could do to help heal the brokenness in the world beyond his ken, but how to hoard his largesse for his own future security.

 

It seems to me that one of the ways that we can become “rich in what matters to God” is to look at how we can be a part of healing the breach between rich and poor. We can use our individual political influence. We can look at our own financial resources and how we invest them in the spread of social justice, whether that is through a faith community or by supporting those who are directly engaged with taking on the various elephants in the living room, or other ways. We can consider using some of our volunteer time to work on this intentionally. We could read The Spirit Level, if we haven’t already. What is today’s gospel asking you to be or do in the coming week?

 

I close with these words of Walter Brueggemann from today’s second reading, “Giver of All Good Gifts” from his book Prayers for a Privileged People. It is the cure for the disease the rich man in today’s parable suffered from, and which we, too, may be familiar with in our own or our families’ lives:

 

“Stir us by your spirit beyond fearful accumulation

toward outrageous generosity.”

Homily for Lent V: Never Resist A Generous Impulse

 

Sherman Hesselgrave

Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto

17 March 2013

Isaiah 43    Psalm 126      Philippians 3:4b-14       John 12:1-8

 

Stop dwelling on days gone by and brooding over events long past.

I am about to do a new thing;

at this very moment it is unfurling from the bud—

can you not see it? —Isaiah 43

 

Thornton Wilder wrote that the “whole purport of literature…is the notation of the heart.” [The Bridge of San Luis Rey, p.16]

In seminary, I took a course entitled Evil and Recovery: A Christian Perspective on Shakespeare.

One of the most dramatic themes in literature, and well represented in the canon of this great

documentarian of the human heart, is the theme of renewal. And one of the most memorable

insights I took away from that class was a deeper understanding of ‘kindness.’ Whether one is

unpacking the text of As You Like It, King Lear, or The Tempest, what often makes renewal

possible for Shakespeare is the transformative nature of kindness, the recognition that we are all

of one kind. Kind-ness. Whether in the socially stratified world of Elizabeth England, or in our

own, where the chasm between rich and poor expands daily—kindness is the practice of the

biblical command to “love one’s neighbour as oneself.”

By becoming human like us—literally sharing our kind-ness—Jesus, through his actions,

storytelling, and faithfulness, lived the self-sacrificial love that brings about the healing of

creation. Shortly before his death, in the context of the Last Supper/First Eucharist, Jesus gave his

disciples a very easy-to-remember commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” He

expected them to figure out that by doing so, they would become partners in God’s plan of

bringing about God’s reign.

We encounter that kind of selfless love in the person of Mary of Bethany. The dinner

given in Jesus’ honour bears some similarities to the meal in the upper room where Jesus will wash

the disciples’ feet a few days later. Mary’s generosity is scandalous to some in Jesus’ entourage; to

them it is extravagantly wasteful to spend the equivalent of a year’s wages for this embarrassing

and sensuous display that would normally be performed on the body of a person after death;

certainly, not at a dinner party.

 

There are two observations about the Bethany scene to which I would draw attention:

First, a closer look at the concept of ‘generosity.’ Though the word itself does not appear, Mary’s

generosity is unequivocal. It is worth noting that our English word, ‘generosity,’ is related to the

Greek and Latin verbs meaning ‘to give birth to.’ I would even go so far as to posit that generosity

is one of the mechanisms God has provided to bring about a “new thing” when a “new thing” is

needed. Anyone who has committed or been the recipient of a random act of kindness knows the

power that generosity can unleash, the hope it can create, the healing it can catalyze. Never

resist a generous impulse is a worthy personal motto.

The second is the inclusion of the detail that “the house was filled with the fragrance of

the ointment.” Recall that, in the previous chapter, when Jesus arrived after Lazarus had been

dead four days, Mary’s sister Martha warned that there would be a stench if the tomb were

opened. Now the fragrance that fills the house is a fragrance more powerful than the stench of

death, perhaps it is even a sign that Jesus’ resurrection will remove the fear of death forever.

Mary’s generosity has transformed the life of this entire household—her generosity is literally in

the air. At the moment, they may not realize the extent of that transformation, but, as

philosophers have noted: life is lived forwards, but understood backwards.

Grace—the generosity of God—is always transformative. In today’s Isaiah reading, the

prophet reminds his audience that God’s grace saved them when they were delivered from

slavery in Egypt, but God does not want them to become fixated on what happened in the past to

the exclusion of the new thing God is doing at this moment. The situation seems bleak on the

ground. Israel is still in captivity in Babylon. Something life-giving—the defeat of Babylon—is

about to bud, but the attention of God’s people is elsewhere. God promises streams in the desert,

but their eyes are on idols. The Second Commandment warns of the danger of placing other

gods before Yahweh. Every idol demands human sacrifice, whether it is Moloch, who required

the sacrifice of children; Aryan Purity, which resulted in the sacrifice of millions who were

deemed not to qualify; Economic Oligarchy, which was called out by the Occupy Wall Street

movement; or Chemical Dependency, which has destroyed families and dragged millions to an

early grave. Whatever draws us away from God draws us away from the deliverance, the “new

thing” God has in store for us.

 

Sometimes we avoid grace because we know it will bring about our transformation, and

we fear change. The comfort of what is familiar trumps the leap of faith we know we should take,

the new thing that will bring new life, but will also move us out of our comfort zone. How many

times have we heard of congregations who say they want to grow, but when new people try to

stake a claim in the community, offering their gifts, which might include doing something a

different way, their ventures are foreclosed because they upset the community’s equilibrium or

threaten domains of power? To walk by faith, and not by sight, means there will be times we

simply can’t see for certain what is around the corner, but we have to step off the curb. We

HAVE to move out of our comfort zones.

Despite Isaiah’s exhortation to stop brooding over events long past, the past is always

present, in the sense that, everywhere we go, we carry the results of every choice we ever made,

and, as T. S. Eliot put it, “every moment is a new and shocking/Valuation of all we have been.”

[Four Quartets, “East Coker,” II]

When the burden of stingy or poor choices overwhelms us, however, God’s grace is capable of

lifting that burden from our hearts and steadying us on a new path. The second verse of today’s

gradual hymn, Holy Woman, Graceful Giver, states this reality in terms of today’s gospel:

Like the vessel [i.e., the ointment jar], we are broken;

Like the ointment, we are token

Of God’s loving unto death;

Like the woman, we are serving;

Like the scolders, ill deserving

Such a rich, forgiving faith. [Words by Susan Palo Cherwien]

Sometimes the “new thing” that God has to offer is a fresh perception of something that

has long been taken for granted. There is a famous optical illusion, called the duck-rabbit

illusion. You have probably seen it. A simple black-and-white drawing that can be perceived

either as the head of a duck or the head of a rabbit.

The image is static; what changes is the way our brains manipulate the visualized information to

interpret it. The night sky looked pretty much the same the before the Copernican revolution as it

did the day after the Aha! moment. But the scientific community would never see it the same

way again. Of course, the Church would take somewhat longer before it could come around. It

is understandable that the Church would be slow to adopt a new way of thinking that overturned

centuries of theological reasoning and assumptions. But, in the end, it had to accommodate the

new perception. As a nun I knew long ago once told me, “The Church changes very slowly—

one funeral at a time.” Sometimes the old ways of seeing simply have to die out before the

perception of God’s vision can come into focus.

God. Promises. Renewal. The “new things” we thirst for—the streams in our desert—flow

from the practice of giving our whole selves in radical trust to God and by faithfully living the

generosity modeled by Jesus, by Mary of Bethany, by the little boy with the five loaves and two

fish, by the father of the Prodigal Child, and by countless saints through the centuries, who

accepted God’s invitation to share in the abundant life that Christ offers all who love God with

heart, soul and mind, and their neighbours as themselves.

jenniferhenry

The Liberating Song of Jesus: Sermon on Luke 4: 16-21

Second Sunday after Epiphany (January 20, 2013) by Jennifer Henry

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of God’s favour.’ (Luke 4:18-19)

 

You will likely recognize these words. And even if you didn’t grow up in a strongly biblical denomination, you might be able to place them in the scriptures. For those of us who understand the Christian mandate as saturated with the call for justice, this is a text as critically important in the New Testament as Micah 6:8 is to the Hebrew scripture.

 

Here Jesus read from the scrolls at the beginning of his ministry, claiming this text as his mandate. It’s kind of like a book launch before a tour, except it’s not a new book, it’s a reinterpretation, a claim to embody older texts that may have been forgotten. The passage ends with the words: “And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ “

 

It’s high drama…and that is before we get to the part in the narrative where the crowd essentially runs him out of town.

 

Today we begin a series of four Sundays reflecting on the same text–Luke 4:16-21. We are going to look at this same passage through different glasses and see whether by shifting our perspective we might gain greater wisdom. Today we will look at it in its ancient context, as a text within a text, focusing on the way in which it draws forward Hebrew scripture (particularly Isaiah 61:1-2). Next week we will look at it in relation to contemporary global and local challenges. Then we will explore it inter-generationally and lastly, in music and art.

I have to tell you that for me this text is first and always a song. There is sung refrain of this text from my youth ministry days that cycles through my mind. So I am going to talk about it in that way, asking first: what notes, what textual, historical notes, might we hear in this music?

Ultimately I want to suggest that Luke 4: 16-21 is the key to the rest of Luke, or to put it a musical way, it is the “key” in which we should sing the rest of Luke’s gospel.

There are four aspects to this song that I want us to listen for.

The first is the bright strong notes of Isaiah 61. I think Isaiah 61 is my favorite scriptural text, and definitely the one I want read at my funeral (with a little help from inclusive language). It is a beautiful, powerful, graceful text, with an incredible fusion of both the pastoral and the prophetic. “Binding up the brokenhearted” and “proclaiming release to the captives.” As Susie Henderson has noted, what is wonderful here is that the mourners, having been comforted, build up the ruins, restore the former devastations, and repair the ruined cities. They are the ones who lead and enact social restoration. I hear a particular resonance today in the way in which Indigenous peoples, emerging out of the grief and loss of residential schools, coming out of the history (and present) of colonization and injustice, and may very well point a way forward for not only for their people, but for all of us. They may very well show us how to repair and restore a more sustainable way of life, when our way of living in the world has become so unsustainable. You can hear in Idle No More a theme: the opposition to C-45—the protection of land and waters–is not just for Indigenous peoples but for all Canadians.

But back to the notes in Jesus’ song of Luke 4…Why does Luke bring this ancient text forward to the inauguration of Jesus ministry? Particularly, he brings forward Isaiah 61:1-2, leaves behind the notion of “binding up the brokenhearted” and “day of Vengeance of our God” (and adding “recovery of sight to the blind”). We could look at these changes in detail and ask why, but I venture that we are not properly equipped for that kind of heavy duty bible study.

I think we can say that Luke is reaching back to what is called 3 Isaiah—texts “imaging social reconstruction” after exile. [Walter Brueggemann, Deep Memory and Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post Christian World (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2000),37.] The song of Isaiah 61 is an anthem of the great liberating reversals that God promises. This is song of struggle, but also of confidence akin to “We Shall Overcome.” Luke picks up the bright notes from this song and brings them forward to Jesus who could be understood to say: “Not just then, but now, God’s promise of social transformation is real. And I am here, we are here, to do this together.” A song of great social change, notes transposed from one imperial context, the legacy of Babylonian exile, to another, Roman occupation, and perhaps by us, to another.

If we listen carefully, however, we will also hear notes from another Hebrew song and that is Isaiah 58: 1-12, particularly verse 6. [Robert J. Karris, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer and Roland E. Murphy(Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990), 689.] Isaiah 58: 6 says: “Is not this the fast that I choose to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free?” This is one of my favorite texts and one which we drew on very recently at KAIROS to invite participation in a solidarity fast—a solidarity fast timed to occur to focus prayerful intention on meeting between the Prime Minister and some First Nations leaders. It is a text, again from that post-exilic time of 3 Isaiah, which Brueggemann summarizes as a “linking of right worship to right public ethics.” [Brueggemann 38.] I will suggest it could mean something like this: “Let’s not get all pious here and forget what holiness is about. Its about acting justly, living in covenantal relations with our neighbours.” Right worship includes right justice where our acts of liberation are a prayer.

In Luke, Jesus is like a jazz singer, who, singing along in an ancient anti-empire ballad (Isaiah 61), throws in a few notes from another anti-empire tune, this one about religious imperialism. And he does so right in the heart of the synagogue. Did the religious authorities notice the mischievous riff? I think he was saying: “I am here to disrupt empire—social, political and religious—are you with me?” A song of great social change, directed not just at political empire but religious authority, notes transposed from one religious context to another, and perhaps, by us, to another…

Now, we need to take account of the rhythm, and if you listen, you can’t miss it. The drum beat is Jubilee. Here it is not the words of the Leviticus 25 that Luke brings forward in Jesus’ song, but Jubilee is still undeniably present. As the Kinslers assert, the essence is there, even if the set of social reversals in the Luke 4 text are different from the practice of cancelling debts, freeing slaves, restoring the land which are at the heart of Jubilee. [Ross and Gloria Kinsler, The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life (Orbis Book: New York, 1999), 17.] In the phrase “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” the whole vision of Jubilee in which every week, every year and every 50 years society acts to correct the result of human tendencies towards greed and injustice—that ancient rhythm of equitable and sustainable life–is brought back into hearts, bodies. In bringing forward Jubilee, Luke brings forward what Brueggemann refers to as the “most subversive social action ever imagined.” [Brueggemann 38.] This is really my favorite text! With the beat of the Jubilee drum, Jesus asks : “Have you forgotten? I am here to remind you. Here in my heart beats the drum of Jubilee. I am the embodiment of Jubilee.” Let’s not lull ourselves into too much of a ballad here, it is a syncopated, subversive beat. An ancient rhythm, brought forward from a Hebrew song to a Gospel song, and perhaps, by us, to the anthems of our time…

I want to suggest that there is one last thing we should listen for in Jesus’ song of Luke 4:16-21, and that is his Mama’s voice. He sings a little like her, you know, her tone, quality, styling. He grew up to her lullabies. [Ched Myers, Preaching in Advent: Luke’s Revolutionary Christmas Carols. Presentation on October 26, 2012. https://unitedchurchofcanada.adobeconnect.com/_a974744807/p9fz76a0wbi/?launcher=false&fcsContent=true&pbMode=normal (accessed December 9, 2012).] His favorite one he called the Superhero song:“Mummy sing it to me again.” It went like this: ”God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:51-52).

It is Luke’s Mary, the Mary of the Magnificat, that births Luke’s Jesus, with this liberating inaugural song to his ministry. Guess what? The Magnificat is one of my favorite scriptures. It’s a woman’s song, Hannah’s then Mary’s, and again about God’s great promise of social reversal. It is a truly liberative text, sung confidently, prophetically, by women who know acutely the liberation that is required. Gail Yee makes the connection this way, “Jesus begins his public ministry by unleashing his prophetic voice, speaking truth to power, to announce the fulfillment of the liberating word that Isaiah uttered centuries ago, the message of liberation that both Hannah and his own mother proclaimed.” [Gale A. Yee, “The Silenced Speak: Hannah, Mary and Global Poverty,” Feminist Theology 21 no.1 (2012): 53.] He knew what good news would look like for his own mother, and he proclaimed it.

In Colombia KAIROS works with the Popular Feminist Organization (OFP). They do incredible human rights work, in a violent repressive context, almost always with song or a dance. One generation into this movement, you can see the involvement of the children, the children of the feminist founders. This includes the boys, now men, who lift up their mothers’ work as their own. The women who rocked the cradle, rock the boat and so, now, do their sons

Mary’s boy child sings like his Mother, maybe with her dialect. He does not forget his roots, an extraordinary birth by a poor ordinary woman. In response to his song in Luke 4, the people say in surprise, “is this not Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22). If they heard more clearly, they would have said: “truly this is Mary’s boy.” Perhaps the crowd in the synagogue do begin to understand, as their awe turns to rage, and the significance of the great reversals of the Magnificat, reinterpreted in Luke 4, begins to hit home. This is social, religious, political revolution—good news for the poor, but what does it mean for us? To stray into our time, “what does a round dance revolution mean for us settler folks?” It feels more than a little unsettling…

Uniquely in Luke, Jesus announces his ministry with this inaugural song. In it we hear the notes of social and political, even religious, transformation from Isaiah, the counter cultural, subversive rhythm of Jubilee, and the tonal quality of Mary, a genuine voice of the oppressed, who passes intergenerational wisdom, and politics, on to her son.

What does it mean for Luke to put this first, to have Jesus assert, “my ministry begins now, with this mission statement.” What does it mean to a gospel that can stray, away from this anti-imperial song to a later sense of tolerance or even acceptance of the Romans and empire.

Brigitte Kahl’s reading of the Magnificat, suggests that the primacy of the Magnificat text—right at the beginning of Luke’s gospel–gives a “norm-setting interpretation of the Christ event…[relating it] ‘from the beginning’ and hence, ‘in principle’ with the gospel of women—and children.” [Brigitte Kahl, “Reading Luke Against Luke: Non-Uniformity of Text, Hermeneutics of Conspiracy and the ‘Scriptural Principle’ in Luke 1” in A Feminist Companion to Luke, ed. Amy Jill Levine (London and New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 87.] It gives Kahl “scholarly legitimation” to invite future reading in the “key” of Luke 1:24-57, transposing the rest of the Gospel to manner that does justice to women and children. [Kahl 87.]

Might we think the same of Luke 4: 16-21? Whatever happens next, however ambivalent about authority or empire the Gospel of Luke might become, can we not see it, sing it, in the key of Jesus’s liberating first song? Can we not read the ministry of Jesus by its first principles, by its own interpretation, as transformation–social, political, religious–from the side of the oppressed. When revolution is the ministry of Jesus, we can sing Luke’s gospel in key of liberation.

Our churches so often attempt to spiritualize and depoliticize the gospel message. While they (we) often fail to get the message, of peaceful, but powerfully disruptive revolution, those in the narrative, appeared to get it. As Bruggemmann says, “The evangel turns out to be a gospel of deep public transformation, deep enough that authorities sought to kill him.” [Bruggemann, 39.] This week, as we recall the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., we remember that it is not only in Jesus’ time that anti-imperial songs can stimulate imperial wrath. The civil rights movement brought social, political, even religious revolution, by peaceful means, but at a great cost.

As a round dance revolution arises in our country, complete with the messy conversations about tactics and direction that characterize every movement (including the civil rights movement before it), let’s remember that Christ’s ministry was an unsettling, disrupting, transforming liberation song. When we hear that music, we can remain on the sidelines, or we can join the dance.

Rejoice… and Begin it Now (Homily for Advent 3)

Ian Digby, Homilist

 

Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20;  Isaiah 12:2-6;  Philippians 4:4-;  Luke 3:7-18

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always pleasing to you, my God.

 

Good morning, and I offer a warm welcome to visitors who are joining us at Holy Trinity for the first time today. My name is Ian Digby, and I am a long-term but sometimes irregular member of this congregation. It is a pleasure to work through the Bible readings with you today for the first time in many years.

 

We are now at the third Sunday of Advent, three quarters of the way along the path of waiting for the coming of the Christ Child. This is often known as GaudeteSunday from the Latin word for “Rejoice”. It is called Guadete because of the repeated references to Rejoicing and Gladness in the readings and music. The Ancient Hebrew texts tell us to “Sing aloud, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart!” Paul, writing from his jail cell under the Roman occupation, tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord Always”. There is hope and expectation in the air, the Christ child is coming!

 

But for many of us we have an internal conflict with this guidance. For this is the darkest period of the year, a time of cold, rain and snow, and a time when life is hard. Many people suffer seasonal affective disorder and depression at this time of year. Life is difficult for those with disabilities and health problems. Many are suffering pain, and many are sick or dying. Around the world there is poverty, injustice, civil crisis and war. And in the midst of this dark period, this week we also struggle with an event of unspeakable horror that occurred in the United States.

 

So, while acknowledging that we live in a very difficult world, my challenge in this Homily is to balance the difficulties with the call to “Rejoice!” And in this balance, I want to talk about the urgency of action. The Bible tell us that the Rejoicing must begin now, and the actions must be those of social justice.

 

In the late 18th century, the German poet and philosopher Johann Goethe pronounced on the idea of action in a quote that has been much repeated. Goethe writes “Whatever you can do or dream you can… begin it now.” There is a need for action and commitment to heal the sick world around us, and it must begin with a first step.I will speak about Goethe more in a moment, but before we go there let’s review the texts.

 

We start with the book of Zephaniah, which is attributed to several different prophets from about 600 BC. In this book the writer makes great promises to an oppressed people who have suffered enemies and been outcast. Earlier in the writing, Zephaniah describes the world they inhabit as a “soiled, defiled [and] oppressing city” which is filled with reckless and faithless officials and judges.

 

But even in this oppressive context, the prophet tell the people to “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! … Yahweh is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” Zephaniah tells us that God will rejoice over the people with gladness, remove disaster from them, deal with their oppressors, and bring them home. These are great promises, that many in the modern day would wish for. But Zephaniah’s people of twenty-seven centuries ago were unlikely to have experienced these dreams in the way imagined by the prophet. Historically we know that there was — and continues to be — much more suffering to experience. But the promise was written in this ancient text, to be called on again by later preachers at the time of Jesus.

 

Likewise, the psalm from Isaiah, which occurs in basically the same time period and social context as Zephaniah, carries a similar message. Even in a period of great political unrest, turmoil and injustice the prophet says: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for Yahweh is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”

 

So where does one find that strength? Where does one draw the energy to act in the face of deceit and oppression? I’d like to read with you some of Goethe’s writing for inspiration. The quote I am referring to is variously titled “On Commitment” or “Begin it now”. Here’s what he says:

 

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness… The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”

 

I find this tremendously powerful, especially at times of indecision or paralysis. A first step is always required to make the journey. A phone call or conversation is needed to understand a social issue and commit to change it. Witness the wider discussion that has occurred in this parish since Michael Creal’s recent homily on refugees, and the action in the national church that has come out of it. Witness the movement that developed around the proposed Mega-Quarry in Melancthon Township with musicians, chefs, politicians and neighbours joining for a common cause to stop the Quarry. They all started with a few neighbours alarmed with a common threat, and deciding to act on it.

 

What Goethe says is that when we make a decision to act, “All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.” Move on what is before you and “A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance…”

 

So let’s try to merge the words of Goethe and the Ancient texts with today’s Gospel. Imagine that we are in a crowd flocking to hear a radical preacher named John. He is baptizing believers on the shores of the River Jordan, and causing a lot of excitement. You approach the preacher, expecting perhaps to hear some motivational words. Instead, this is what he says: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?… Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham…”

 

Rather than reassuring and calming this crowd, John tells them that they are self-righteous and prideful. They claim their strength from their ancestor Abraham, but they are no more worthy in God’s eyes than the gravel on the ground. John goes on with a blunt message that those among them who aren’t producing good fruit will be cut down with an axe. They ask him “what should we do?”, and what follows is a list of actions: share your coat with someone who is cold; give food to the needy; those who are Tax collectors should do their work justly; those who are soldiers should use their power justly. Use the skills and services you have to do good works. To a reader in the 21st century, these directions from John sound like the basic moral values that we teach our children in Kindergarten: share what you have, be kind, don’t be a bully. But at the time of John, this was a phenomenal revelation and something truly worth noting.

 

Just on the cusp of the coming of Jesus, John is turning social philosophy of the day on its head and giving new guidance for how to live life. Not only is he saying “Trust in Yahweh”, but he is imploring the people to “Act on it”. And moreover John is only the precursor. What he is offering is just a taste of things to come, for just around the corner is an even greater prophet who “will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

 

So we can see a common pathway in these writings. We are implored to see the world around us for what it is, its oppression, its hardship. This is not candy coating to try to ignore what is evident around us. But also among the hardship seek the Spirit of God, then choose the path of justice, of fairness, of anti-oppression. And don’t just wait for others to do it, or hesitate in your convictions, but “Begin it Now”.

 

Paul’s letter to the Philippians, written from the challenging conditions as a Roman prisoner, with an unknown fate before him, expresses this well. Saint Paul writes “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is what God is calling us to do — to rejoice and begin it now.

 

I’ll end with words from the opening hymn today, which resonates with these ideas:

 

Although you go forth weeping

Carrying your seeds to be sown,

You shall come back rejoicing

Carrying your sheaves full grown.

 

Amen.