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Songs of Ascent: Arrival

INTRODUCTION

I remember the first trip that I had planned for myself. I was traveling to Victoria, BC to visit some good friends. There was a lot of preparation for this trip – I was in the midst of intense planning that didn’t seem like it could afford two weeks off. There was paper work to get in place and meetings to happen. A couple of days before I left, a meeting happened that jeopardized the whole project. My journey to Victoria started in a state of confusion, being overwhelmed and wondering if God was truly with me. I imagine that is how some of the Israelites felt as they journeyed from Meshech and the desert to Jerusalem. A journey that started with the Israelites asking hard questions, proclaiming “woe is me” and wondering where God was in all of this as Jerusalem stood far away.

After a five hour flight, the plane descended into one of the most magnificent sunsets I have ever seen. The sun glistened on the waters and the colours of pink, orange and purple were brilliant – so brilliant that I can still picture that moment in my mind. Once landed, I was greeted by my friends who ran over to me. I had arrived – and it was wonderful. I remember being so filled with happiness that I was practically jumping for joy. I had made it in my journey to Victoria and it was good.

Today’s Psalms of Ascent are ones that celebrate having reached Jerusalem and how good that was. I invite you to turn with me to your pew Bibles.

PSALM 132

We begin today by looking at Psalm 132. This psalm stands out in the Songs of Ascents. It’s a longer psalm than the others and doesn’t seem to be a song in the same way. It seems to be a reenactment of a story that the Israelites had known well (2 Samuel 6-7). David had been trying to bring the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The Ark was where God was believed to dwell. When the ark was present in a person’s home, that family was blessed. When the ark was present in battle, that nation would be strong. It was considered holy – so holy that irreverent acts led to death. David struggled to bring this ark to Jerusalem, which is what the psalmist is referring to when he asks God to remember how David was deeply oppressed and brought low by this task.

David also wanted to build a house for the Lord – a Temple. Let’s pause for a moment. The psalmist tells us that David swore to the Lord, that he vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob:

“I will not enter my house

or go to my bed,

I will allow no sleep to my eyes

or slumber to my eyelids,

till I find a place for the Lord,

a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.” (NIV)

David had decided that God needed a house. And David had decided he would not rest until God had a house.

The plan seems well-intentioned. Let us go into His dwelling place; Let us worship at His footstool (NRSV). It would be a place of worship. Where the priests would be clothed with righteousness and the godly ones sing for joy.

The story in 2 Samuel (7:5-7) tells us what God thought of this plan. God gave a vision to Nathan the prophet:

Go and say to My servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Are you the one who should build Me a house to dwell in? For I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the sons of Israel from Egypt, even to this day; but I have been moving about in a tent… Wherever I have gone with all the sons of Israel, did I speak a word with one of the tribes of Israel which I commanded to shepherd My people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built Me a house of Cedar? (NRSV)

David’s plan is backwards. God had always directed where the Ark of the Covenant would go by the pillar of fire by night and cloud by day (Wilcock, pg. 241). God does not need David to build a house for Him. Instead, God has chosen Jerusalem to be his resting place. God has chosen to bless the people of Israel by making Jerusalem his home.

And it is good. God will abundantly bless Jerusalem with provision, satisfy the needy with bread. God will clothe the priests with salvation and the godly ones will sing aloud for joy.

I wonder… are there times in our own lives when we insist on doing things our way and God has other plans? Perhaps God wants to bless us with his presence and more than what we imagined and we need to surrender our own desires and plans to God.

Psalm 132 also points forward. During God’s response to David, the Lord makes three references to the future leadership on the throne of David. First, he says Of the fruit of your body I will set upon your throne. Second, that his sons shall sit upon your throne forever. And that in Jerusalem, the Lord will cause the horn of David to spring forth. This latter reference also means to blossom, perhaps playing on the words to spring forth. It is a reference for giving birth. There is also a reference to preparation for God’s anointed one – which is sometimes translated as Messiah.

Here we see a reference to the coming of Jesus. God will bless the line of David and through David will bring the anointed one, the Messiah. Through this Messiah, the enemies will be clothed with shame but the Messiah’s crown will shine. This coming of the Messiah will be good. The Lord will make his dwelling place among the people for ever and ever. The hungry will be fed, the searching will be blessed. There will be singing and dancing in joy among the godly ones.

PSALM 133

Arriving in Jerusalem, with God abiding there and promising to send continual blessings through the anointed one is a glorious thing. What a different place the Israelites are in from the beginning of their journey! Here we move into our next psalm. Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! The Israelites prior to this journey would likely have been scattered. Jerusalem would be a point when all the Israelites would gather together in community.

Imagine for a moment how good it feels when someone returns to the church for a visit after moving away. It is a time of rejoicing and celebrating in one another’s lives. It’s a time to catch up and see what God has done. Now imagine the joy that would be experienced if all Christians came and gathered together to share what God has done in their lives and to celebrate each other. How good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity!

The psalmist likens this joy to two different images. The fragrant oil upon Aaron’s head is spilling over his head and down past the edge of his robes. This image of Aaron’s beard may be strange for us. For the Israelites, they would have connected themselves with the patriarchs, with family lines. The image of precious oil coming down Aaron’s beard was a poetic way of saying that the line of Aaron and all who are connected with him are blessed.

The second image is the mountain of Hermon which experienced significant air moisture and dew. The unity of the Israelites gathering was like the dew of Hermon overflowing and coming down upon the mountains of Zion. The dew is so great that it cannot be contained.

Here as the Israelites journey up to Jerusalem, the blessings of God are coming down. The psalmist mentions this coming down of blessings three times, giving us a sense that this community is overflowing with blessings and goodness (Wilcock, pg. 244).

PSALM 134

And now the Israelites have gathered in blessed community and much like we are gathered here today, they gathered to worship the God of all blessings. So I invite you to say psalm 134 with me.

Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord

who minister by night in the house of the Lord.

Lift up your hands in the sanctuary

and praise the Lord.

May the Lord bless you from Zion,

he who is the Maker of heaven and earth.

The journey ends with a call to worship – we are to bless the Lord. Day and night, we are to thank him, to praise him, to worship him.

And the Lord who made heaven and earth blesses us. The Lord that brought us safely to this day and to this place of worship, blesses us. The Lord who brings us into community, blesses us.

APPLICATION

How do we bless the Lord? One author writes that “to bless God means to recognize his great richness, strength, and gracious bounty and to express our gratitude and delight in seeing and experiencing it” (Piper). At the end of morning prayer, the leader says “Let us bless the Lord” and the rest of us respond “Thanks be to God”. In our liturgy, we recognize that all that we have experienced in worship has been given to us through God’s grace.

How do we bless the Lord in our everyday lives? As we attend to our jobs that demand much of our time? As we care for our family members day and night? Or perhaps some of us here today are called to bless God in the midst of want and need – whether that be needing a job or wanting a family or something else? How do we cultivate gratitude in our daily lives?

How do we become a community in which all people are welcomed into our midst and experience the precious oil and the dew of Hermon over flowing? Is our community one in which the stranger, the outsider can find a home? People who are not like us? Who look different? Act different? Believe different? The journey of ascents was likely for Israelites – but the horn of David, the one whose crown will glisten – came for all people. Christ came so that all may experience the blessings of God. After all, this is God’s home and God will decide who will dwell in his holy house.

CONCLUSION

Today, as we end our time with the psalms of ascents, let us look back over the past few weeks and the journey that God has taken each of us individually and as a church collectively. Let us celebrate and bless the Lord for all he has done and for bringing us to this day, to this point in our journey. Let us give thanks for His presence that he blesses us with. Let us give thanks for one another and the beautiful community we have here. And let us worship the Lord in his house today and every day. Amen.

He went away grieving: A reflection on Mark 10:17-22

He was shocked and went away grieving for he had many possessions. The Gospel of Matthew tells us this man was rich and the Gospel of Luke tells us he was a young ruler and so this man has traditionally been referred to as the rich young ruler.

It was custom in those days to seek a teacher who is both educated in the scriptures and draws in a crowd by their teaching to ask them what they might do to inherit eternal life. This wasn’t so much a reference to the future as to the here and now. A typical teacher would answer by giving their take on the law and in particular the commandments and would invite the inquirer to follow their sect (NT Wright).

This young man didn’t quietly seek Jesus. Instead he ran to him and knelt in front of him. Here is a man who understands that this Jesus is someone special. The rich young ruler was there to ask Jesus what he thought of the law and what kind of movement he was leading.

I can imagine Jesus playing with the rich young ruler to see how much he really understands when he calls Jesus “good”. Jesus replies by asking, “Why do you call me good? Only one is good and that is God.” This is more than about words. It is about Jesus’ divinity. By claiming that Jesus is good, did the rich young ruler realize he was claiming that Jesus was God?

Jesus then answers his question – you know the commandments:

You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother

The rich young ruler says that he has been keeping these commandments since he was young.

Jesus loved him. There is something admirable about someone who is trying to keep the 10 commandments and is seeking the truth. Then Jesus gazes deeply into the young man’s eyes with a piercing love that sees right into the soul. “You lack one thing”

Notice which of the 10 commandments Jesus did not mention:

  • Putting God first
  • No idols before God
  • Not taking God’s name in vain
  • The sabbath
  • and covetousness

Once again, Jesus gets at the heart of the matter. The rich young ruler was so attached to his wealth that he couldn’t sell everything to put God first and follow Jesus.

So the rich young ruler went away deeply sad.

He relied on his own wealth too much to rely on God.

Afterwards, Jesus says to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” and that it will be “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”

The problem here is not the wealth itself. I know many faithful and wealthy people who serve God and who use their wealth to generously fund God’s mission around the world. The problem is not what you have in your bank account.

The problem is the attachment to money. The problem may not even be related to money. The problem is relying on something other than God.

Probably searching their own hearts, the disciples ask Who can be saved then? If a rich young ruler who is following most of the commandments and seeking the Good teacher cannot be saved because of the wealth is there any hope for me?

Jesus replies: With people it is impossible, but not with God, for all things are possible with God.”

So what about us? For some of us, this is our second worship service we are attending today. We try to live a good life, though we admittedly do not live a perfect life. We seek God in prayer and His word. If you and I sat down with Jesus today and asked what we must do to inherit eternal life, what would he say as he lovingly peers into our souls? What would he say to you that you need to hear so that you could trust him more?

Perhaps because I have been a perpetual student, I’ve been protected from the attachment to wealth. But I am not protected from doing things on my own strength.

Often in ministry, I am tempted to think and act as if it all depends on me and that I must care for the person out of my strength instead of looking to the God who cares for the person more than I ever could. I rely on myself, my gifts, my strengths, my skills and sometimes forget all together that really it is only God who can transform, heal and change a person. As I imagine Jesus lovingly peering into my soul as I reflect on this passage, I imagine him saying to trust him, to lean on him, to forget myself.

I might walk away deeply grieved and saddened for this often seems impossible for me.

But I know this is not the end of the story. For God is in the business of making the impossible possible. All we need to do is trust and to follow Jesus. We need to take that next step. For the rich young ruler, it was to sell his belongings. For me, it might be to remember that God is the only one who saves.

The sad thing is that the rich young ruler walked away. He just couldn’t do it. He didn’t ask for help. He just walked away in grief.

May we let Christ peer lovingly into our souls and speak to what we lack. May we also turn towards Christ in response instead of walking away. May we see that God takes what is impossible for us and makes it possible in him. Amen.

A Light in Darkness

December 24, 2015 1 comment

 

IMG_0654.jpgThis was a message I shared at a gathering that marked and remembered that Christmas is difficult for many.

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I belong to several Facebook groups and decided to share that I was gathering with some friends tonight to mark that Christmas is difficult and to welcome them to join us. Between the various groups, I got over 100 likes, comments and private messages. Christmas is hard for many people.

Hallmark, TV and the stores try to sell us a story that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year – that if we by the right present, hang out with the right person and wear the right clothes this Christmas will be the best Christmas we’ve ever had. And if you can’t do this – Santa will. I remember feeling shocked at a modern Christmas song that says that Santa is the answer to the prayers I’ve had all year. A bit of a strange thought to think that Santa knows my inner desires that well and rather disappointing to think that Santa – the great giver of gifts – will put something under my tree that is the answer to prayers of deep longing.

For any of us who are struggling with loss, depression, estranged relationships, poverty, illness and a whole host of other things life deals us, that kind of Christmas is empty and leaves us wanting. To quote the Grinch – maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store, maybe it’s about something more.

I’ve been thinking about the story that is the reason for the season. One of the words of wisdom we read talked about the life-light coming into the world. Christians believe that was Jesus. But what I love about the words that follow the ones we read is that God in Jesus moved into the neighbourhood. God subjected himself to be born of a woman – an unmarried Mary. Stigma and judgment still exist today when a young girl becomes pregnant but back then a woman could be killed. Without Joseph keeping his commitment to marriage, Mary and the baby would have become destitute. He was born in a manger which I am sure looked different than our tidy nativity scenes. I worked on a horse farm for a few years and while these horses were well kept, the barn stunk and I went home smelling like the stinky barn. The first visitors to great this life-light were a bunch of shepherds – people who were so poor they had to sleep out in the fields with their sheep. More than that – they also stunk and were so dirty that the temples would forbid them from entering.

Jesus had a messy start to life – not quite the beginning we would expect for God coming to earth. But the messiness didn’t end there. Around age two, Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to Egypt because the king in charge felt threatened by this young child and was out to kill him. Jesus as a young boy taught in the temple and his own parents didn’t understand him. He healed the sick and fed the hungry and the religious rulers of the day plotted to kill him.

Jesus lived in the darkness that we live in. He knows what it is like to hurt, to be sad, to be alone. He knows what it’s like to not have a roof over his head. He knows what it is like to be misunderstood by his family. He knows what it is like to be rejected by his friends. He knows political injustice that kills innocent people because of unfounded fears.

As Sufi poet Rumi says, The wound is the place where the light enters you.

I believe that Jesus came to earth as a helpless babe in a stinky manger worshipped by the outcasts and lived a life as light in the darkness so that wherever we are at, we can know a God who understands our deepest pains and longings. I believe that as we open our wounds to a God who knows us and knows what we are going through, the light enters us.

But more than that – Jesus was not overcome by the darkness of this world. The religious and political rulers of the day had their way in putting him to death on the cross. But he overcame death in his resurrection. The light overcame darkness.

And I believe that the light can overcome the darkness in our own lives. That as we let the light into our wounds, that light will fill us and we will become light. We will have opportunities to be light and show light to others walking in darkness. In the end, darkness does not win.

So we gather tonight, in brokenness and pain as Christmas draws near. As Leonard Cohen sings, there’s a crack, a crack in everything. We are not alone in our brokenness. But let us remember that while that crack is there and we may not be able to do anything ourselves to change that – the crack is where the light comes in.

Sermon: Giving All Mark 12:38-44

Preamble: This was a sermon that I gave today for preaching class on Mark 12:38-44. I received some helpful comments but have not integrated them into the original text of the sermon partly because I have been realizing that there is something about the moment of preaching that cannot be captured again. A sermon is an event, not just a piece of writing, and while the comments would honestly have made this a better sermon, I feel it is dishonest to edit and then say ‘this is what I preached’.

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Introduction

Esra and Fethullah are not your typical bride and groom. In August, this Turkish couple decided to spend their wedding day feeding 4000 Syrian refugees with the money that had been given to them to start their married lives together. In their wedding attire, they served a banquet meal to those who had been displaced from their homes, families, and lives. Fethullah told the media that “seeing the happiness in the eyes of the Syrian refugee children is just priceless. [They] started [their] journey to happiness with making others happy” (Telegraph, 2015). Esra and Fethullah knew something about giving what they had to God and to others.

Context

Today’s passage is the last story in a series of encounters with the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees in the Temple in the Gospel of Mark.

Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey as the crowd spread their clocks and shout “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”. The crowd has declared Jesus to be king over them as he rides into town.

His next visit to the Temple was overturning the tables of the money changers and driving out those who were selling and buying in the temple. The temple had become a symbol of violence as the Orthodox Jewish leaders of the day were plotting a violent rebellion against Rome. As NT Wright says, the temple had become to mean “Violence towards outsiders; injustice towards Israel itself” (Wright, pg. 152). This was quite different from the Kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming, whose king would make his entrance into Jerusalem on a humble donkey and in only days from the crowds praising Him, would be crucified on a cross.

Jesus’ judgment on the temple were not taken well by the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. The temple was central to their professions and understanding of Jewish life. These three groups of Jews make their attacks on Jesus, questioning his authority and trying to trap him. In the meantime, Jesus passes judgement on the Temple itself through his responses and teaching, inciting the Jewish leaders to want to kill him.

One scribe came to Jesus, knowing that Jesus had given wise answers to the questions that were meant to attack him publicly. In discussing the greatest commandment, the scribe articulates that the commandments to love God with all your heart, understanding and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself, is far greater than all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices. Jesus responded by saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (12:34)

The kingdom of God that Jesus was bringing was not some radical and violent rebellion against Rome. But one in which we are called to follow the old law of the Jewish people – to love God with our whole hearts, souls, minds and bodies and to love our neighbours as ourselves. In one way, there was nothing new about the revolution that Jesus was bringing. In another way, it was a strange way to start a revolution.

Passage

While this one scribe understood this strange way of Jesus, the majority of Scribes did not. The scribes were given elite positions in society, wearing robes that told everyone what place they held and the respect that they should be treated with. They were given seats of honour – the special places at the high tables. And they expected such! They entered the marketplaces knowing that they would be greeted with respect.

Clearly the Scribes enjoyed their outward appeal and the benefits their position afforded them. However, this wasn’t their only downfall. The Scribes offered prayers out loud that were long and were to show off in front of those who would hear them. But these prayers are empty for we are also told that these same scribes would devour widows’ houses. The Greek word interpreted as devour is actually a much stronger word. It meant to take absolutely everything from the widows, to leave nothing beyond. The scribes were not only taking advantage of the very poor and vulnerable in society – they were voraciously taking all that they had, leaving very little hope of recovery. Outwardly, the scribes would try to project an image of superiority and nobility, but inwardly, their hearts were far from God’s and they prayed verbose prayers and devoured widows as if the two could be separated.

I can imagine Jesus sitting back and letting his words sink into the disciples’ hearts as he watches what is happening around him in the temple. There are lots of wealthy people putting in money into the treasury. Some of them likely wanted to be seen. Perhaps a plaque could be made in their honour for their generous donation. At least people around them would see that they are important people, wealthy people, generous people and good people who give to the purposes of the temple.

And then quietly, a poor widow walks up to the treasury and puts in two small coins which Mark goes out of his way to tell us only amounted to a cent. This poor widow would not have been important in society, she was definitely not wealthy and perhaps she was even a little embarrassed to be in a temple with people of fine clothes and generous donations. Perhaps she wondered if her two coins even mattered in comparison to the donations that were so obvious of those who walked up to the treasury before her. But she quietly walked up to the treasury and quietly walked away.

This nameless woman does not go unnoticed in the kingdom of God. Jesus calls over to his disciples and points out this woman to them, saying, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.”

This vulnerable widow who was at risk of being devoured by the scribes, who had only two cents, demonstrated her love for God with everything she had, with her whole heart, her whole soul, her whole body, her whole mind. She put the things of God before her own needs. And she did so quietly. She didn’t need anyone to notice – she did it out of love.

Application

Esra and Fethullah provide a modern-day example of what it means to give out of everything we have for God. Like the widow, they surprise us as they are a Muslim, not Christian couple. They do not follow the words of Jesus as we do and yet their actions embody a love for God and love for neighbour that is unmistakable.

We may not be in a position to feed 4000 Syrian refugees. And perhaps it would be reckless to suddenly give all that we have to the offering plate when we have children in our own homes to feed and provide a warm and safe place to live. Perhaps though there are steps that we can take towards giving all that we have and all that we are to God. And maybe there are ways that we can give all that we have in ways that only God sees.

Maybe we could set an extra space at our table for someone who is in need of some sort – perhaps they are hungry for food or hungry for friendship.

Many of us have been taught to give a ‘tithe’ of our earnings – or ten percent. How many of us could honestly give more? If we add up our coffee expenses, could we give up a few overpriced coffees? Could we use our cars less and save the money we would spend on gas, parking and wear and tear to build up the kingdom of God?

The poor widow gave all that she financially had – but she also travelled to the temple to give it. Are there ways that we can give of our time? Could we give up a Sunday morning to teach Sunday school or a Friday evening to hang out with the youth in our neighbourhood? Could we babysit for the young family that can’t afford to pay a babysitter but desparately needs a date night?  Or perhaps we could offer to drive the single mom down the street to the grocery store on the weekend to do her shopping for the week? Could we take a leader in the church out for coffee to hear what excites them in ministry and what keeps them going and to pray with them?

How do we order our time at home? I know I can find a whole host of things to keep me busy that really need not to be done. I busy myself with Facebook, email, quick computer games that turn into half an hour breaks from whatever I am supposed to be doing. Others find distractions in TV. Could we fast from one of these distractions for even half an hour to pray?

Conclusion

Giving all that we are – our bodies, souls, hearts and minds – to loving God may seem impossible when we look at how hard it is to give a single hour of a day or a portion of our money. Maybe we can be moved by people like Esra and Fethullah who gave their wedding day and wedding gifts to feed refugees to give more of who we are and what we have to the God who gave all that he had in Jesus. Maybe we can participate in the strange revolution of serving and generosity that Jesus started this kingdom with people declaring him king as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in order to give all He was and is through the cross for those he came to save.

References

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/turkey/11783353/Meet-the-Turkish-couple-who-spent-their-wedding-day-feeding-4000-Syrian-refugees.html

Wright, NT. The Gospel of Mark for Everyone

Sermon: Matters of the Heart (Mark 7:1-23)

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A sermon on Mark 7:1-23

Introduction

The season of fall is my favourite season. I love the traditions of getting ready for school, new books, fancy pens and pencils and new clothes. I love the cooler weather and watching the leaves turn colours. I love the smells of pumpkin spice and apple cider.

It’s also the time for one of fashion’s most sacred rules: don’t wear white after Labour Day.

This was drilled into me as a child as we would put away our summer clothes and shoes and polish our black Sunday shoes. Perhaps you are like me, though, following this fashion etiquette without understanding why.

Perhaps you assumed, as I did, that it had some practical reason. Maybe white clothing tended to be lighter or cooler and the darker colours made the colder weather more bearable? Perhaps white shirts showed off your hard earned tan better than darker colours?

However, fashion does not have a reputation for being practical.

According to a Times Magazine article, this was a hard and fast rule for the elite classes by the 1950s and for “those savvy enough to learn all the rules increased their odds of earning a ticket into polite society. “It [was] insiders trying to keep other people out,” “and outsiders trying to climb in by proving they know the rules.” Times Article

Our tradition to put our white clothes away come labour day is away to keep insiders in and let outsiders try to climb in by proving they know the rules.

Pharisees and Their Traditions

The Pharisees and Scribes were obsessed with the traditions of the law – after all, their lives’ work depended upon it. They would have been the ones keeping tabs on who was wearing white after labour day. The Pharisees were the interpreters of the law, trying to interpret how the law could be kept in the current culture by the common people and the Scribes were the teachers of the law and traditions. Before we dive into today’s Gospel reading, it is helpful to be reminded that the Pharisees and Scribes devoted their lives to ensuring that the law was kept – in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:20) The trouble with the Pharisees and Scribes, as we shall see, is that they often missed the point of the law and reinforced traditions that enabled them to keep insiders in and outsiders out.

This wasn’t the first time that the Pharisees questioned Jesus. Jesus and his disciples were traveling, teaching and healing the paralytic, demon possessed, sick and unclean. He stilled the storm and fed the five thousand. Meanwhile, the Pharisees were concerned about the disciples not fasting, and picking heads of grain on the Sabbath. Of course, they were more concerned with who these disciples followed, especially as Jesus continued to draw crowds wherever he went.

The author of Mark writes very succinctly and at times very abruptly. Sometimes we go from story to story with a brief “Immediately!” as our only signal. So when Mark provides details, we usually need to pay attention. Whenever the Pharisees and Scribes are mentioned up until our reading today, there is a note that they come from Jerusalem. Jerusalem represents the opposition to Jesus, culminating in the crucifixion. Therefore, the Pharisees and Scribes remind us of the building threat against Jesus.

Let’s take a moment to look at the complaint against Jesus.

The Complaint

The complaint had some validity according to Old Testament laws of touching the unclean for the villages and market places were filled with people who were sick. The verse right before our passage tells us that Jesus and his disciples had been spending a lot of time in such places precisely with such people: Whenever He entered villages, or cities, or countryside, they were laying the sick in market places, and imploring Him that they might just touch the fringe of His cloak; and as many as touched it were being cured. Everything about those encounters would have made the disciples ritually unclean – even the shadow of a Gentile falling across a dish or plate would make it unclean. Jesus and his disciples had spent time with the ceremonially unclean and needed to be ceremonially cleansed.

The greek word used to describe the ceremonial cleansing means “with the fist”. According to one scholar, it “may mean rubbing the fist in the palm of the hand, but more likely involves washing the hands up to the wriist or even using a fistful of water rather than a larger amount.”  (English, The Gospel of Mark) Mark is telling his audience about this tradition perhaps because it is not widespread in the same way that Sabbath is.

What lies at the heart of the dispute, is that Jesus and His disciples did not follow many of the traditions of the elders. These oral traditions were upheld as just as important as the law for they explained how to keep the law, how to be a faithful Jew. For the Pharisees and Scribes, Jesus was rejecting not just their authority on these matters but what it meant to be a Jew in their times. At the very heart of their complaint was the question of who Jesus is – did he have the authority to change the traditions and law at the heart of Jewish society?

Jesus’ Response

Jesus takes a two-prong approach to answering the Pharisees and the Scribes. First, He addresses their concerns directly. Jesus calls them hypocrites because they outwardly honour God but their hearts are far from God. The Pharisees and Scribes are so concerned with oral traditions and interpretations of the law that they miss the point of the law completely. Later, Jesus describes what defiles a person – and it’s not a dirty cup or unwashed hands but a sinful heart.

Jesus then attacks their traditions more generally by looking at how the Pharisees and Scribes use their traditions to invalidate the law. The example Jesus chooses is about Corban, a tradition that has to do with dedicating one’s possessions to God and in doing so, those possessions cannot be used for anyone else. One scholar writes, “If a son made such a dedicatory vow, ancient scribal law of the Jews stated that the vow could not be cancelled, even to support one’s parents with one’s possessions.” So while Scripture says to Honour your father and your mother and he who speaks evil of father or mother, is to be put to death, the Pharisees and scribes created a loophole when it came to their possessions. They could not honour their father and mother if they had previously set aside money or possessions as Corban because that would be breaking a vow before God. In fact, it was possible to set aside all the money that would normally be devoted to care for aging parents. And this was wrong. The Jews were finding ways to not fulfill the law of caring for their father and mother through fancy traditions that would make them seemingly exempt.

What Defiles a Man

Jesus was not about the traditions of the elders but about the heart of the law. He would not care if we showed up in white after Labour Day – or not – but how we would treat one another.

Jesus is not concerned with a dirty cup or plate, or dirty hands from touching the sick or the Gentile. He is concerned with the heart. Jesus gives us a long list of evil thoughts and deeds that stem from the heart -evil thoughts, fornification, thefts, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, arrogance and foolishness. While not exhaustive, if you are like me and see yourself somewhere on the list, perhaps you feel the weight of the matters of the heart in comparison to a dirty cup or unwashed hands. Perhaps those traditions – or the rules about when to wear white pail in comparison to the areas of our hearts that need attention.

Our reading in James today takes this a step further. He writes, Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. 2-3 Thousand Refugees have been crossing over the Macedonian border each day this week. One man is quoted saying that “we just want our children to have peace and go to school”. Surely James had such situations in mind when he calls for a purity that cares for orphans and widows in their distress.

Application

I don’t have a whole lot of answers for us today. But I do have some questions that I’m going to invite us to reflect quietly on for a few moments.

  1. What traditions do we hide ourselves in so we don’t have to face the real matters of our own hearts?
  1. What ways of Jesus do we uphold as good and righteous to follow while explaining away the ones we don’t like?
  1. Who are the orphans and widows in our society? How do we as a community care for them?

Today’s passage is not an easy one. For it is not as simple as wearing or not wearing white past a certain date. It is not about simply washing hands or dishes. But it is about having a heart that is right with God. And if we are honest with ourselves, we all fall short.

But.

In a moment, we will gather around the table and remember together that

God is steadfast in love

and infinite in mercy

And we can be confident as we confess our sins because he welcomes sinners at his table and into his presence.

Amen.

Sermon – 2 Corinthians 2:16-3:6

On Sunday I had the privilege of being able to preach at both services as part of my internship – a first for me! Another first was preaching within a series – we have been going through the various styles that we experience God (e.g. mystical, ascetic, sensory) and linking that with Paul’s writings in 2 Corinthians. I have edited the sermon as some of what I wrote is specific to this community. I had significant help and coaching from my supervisor for which I am really grateful and this was a good experience. It was really encouraging to hear people’s feedback as people commented on the various things that I have really been working on to improve. Sunday affirmed for me that preaching is something that I want to be doing, however hard it is.

One of my tasks was to rely less on the script and make eye contact. So this isn’t exactly what I said. I also had images to illustrate and there were pauses that the script itself doesn’t allow you as the reader to hear. But some have asked for it – so here it is.

Introduction

Today we continue our journey through 2 Corinthians and looking at the various styles that we experience God. Today’s passage allows us to reflect on the sacramental style which looks to patterns and symbols of what God has done to draw us closer to Him.

Potential Problems

Just as with the other styles that we have looked at, there are very valid concerns and risks that come with this style.

  1. Idolatry

First, for those of us who strongly resonate with the sacramental, there is a risk of idolatry. Our worship can become focused on the traditions and practices that are meant to lead us to God but become ends in themselves. Some fear that icons bring us dangerously close to worshiping Mary or praying to the saints. More subtly, we may become so attached to our particular liturgical practices that we are not open to other forms of worship.

2) Hard for newcomers

Another valid concern is that the sacramental style can be hard for people to enter who have no background in it. The high sacramental style will not allow the traditions to be changed or polluted by the ways of the world, often creating a sense of disconnection for those who haven’t learned about or embraced the beauty of the sacraments.

I want to set aside these problems and have a look at a familiar space but perhaps in unfamiliar ways.

The Mall and Other Spaces

[Showed a picture of the Eaton’s Centre]

Here we have a space which people come everyday, with many making repeat trips. The large glass atriums invite people into the space to purview a number of recognizable spaces that are part of an international community. If you are unfamiliar with the space, there is a map and people to direct you. There is constant noise in the common spaces that urges you to walk into the side chapels. Here you see models of what the good life is, dressed in attire and symbols that changes with the seasons. An usher is there to greet you and show you to the items you need in order to follow the good life or to let you wander in as you are comfortable. An offering is made as you hand over money and receive the item that will bring you closer to the good life. Some people wander in knowing exactly what they want. Others do not know what they are looking for – but know when they have found it.

James Smith uses the example of the everyday shopping mall to demonstrate that we are worshiping beings – whether we are Christians or not. We worship what we love. Our lives contain items that serve as symbols – whether conscious or not – that tell us how we are to act, believe or worship. Let’s look at a few more examples.

Hockey Arena – There is a goal that is clearly defined. The audience stands for the national anthem, cheers for their team and celebrates the victory. The players know the rules of the game and where they are supposed to be and act.

Transparent pulpit – preaching of the word of God is the highlight of the service. The service builds around it. The lectern is clear symbolizing that nothing stand between the word and God.

Coming from a Salvation Army background, we purposely avoided sacraments and symbols in our worship. And yet, we had our own symbols – the uniform, the band, the songsters – that defined who we are and what was important to us.

Thanks be to God who always leads us (vs 14-16)

The Roman world had symbols and practices that had certain meanings as well. When they overcame an area in battle, they would often have a processional through which the triumphant general would follow the captives in a parade. This was often preceded by the practice of the burning of incense and/or a sacrifice which would signify that the triumphant general had arrived. The purpose of this procession was to celebrate with the victors the victory and remind them of the rewards that lay ahead.

Paul gives thanks to the God who leads us in triumphant procession. Elsewhere Paul refers to us as slaves to Christ, and we parade before God as we celebrate the victory of Christ over death into the resurrection life. This morning we re-enacted this as we processed through the church. Many churches do this on a weekly basis as a weekly reminder of the victory of Christ.

Paul says that God uses us to spread the aroma of Christ. NT Wright describes this well:

[those] who are in the procession, are wafting the smell of victory, the smell of triumph, to people all around. To those who are being grasped by the love and power of the gospel and who are responding to it, the smell is sweet; it means victory, joy, hope and peace even in the midst of present troubles. (Wright 24-25)

It is like freshly baked bread that fills the house with its sweet aroma. It is inviting, comforting and enjoyable. Paul emphasizes that we are called to be that sweet aroma and yet asks who among us is worthy? We will return to this important question in a moment.

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? (v1)

Paul then addresses what seems to have been on his heart when writing this letter. It seems that the people of the Corinthian church were asking Paul for a reference letter for himself. This was common practice when accepting new people into a Christian community. Perhaps the Corinthians did not feel that Paul was a real apostle as he was not there when Christ lived and died, a claim that Paul has dealt with elsewhere. Paul anticipates this when saying that he – along with the apostles – speaks from sincerity, from God, in Christ, in the Sight of God.

Paul does not provide self-justification. Instead, he claims that the Corinthians are Paul’s letter of commendation. This letter is not written with ink or on tablets of stone but written on the hearts of the Corinthians themselves. How interesting given that Paul spends much of the letter dealing with the short comings of the Corinthian community. Paul is saying that the Corinthians – through their lives, words and actions, however messy – speak of the type of leader Paul is. Paul is saying, “I don’t need a letter – I have you” and instead turns the gaze from his own life to the lives of his followers.

In the same way – YOU are our letter. You encourage the Pastors here as you grow, change, witness and disciple others. You make the struggles and toil of ministry worth it with every step towards Christ you take.

Our Confidence is from God (vs 4-6)

This may seem like a risky move on Paul’s part! If Paul was looking for a glowing recommendation, it would have been much safer to choose a few people who were shining exemplars of the the work he had done.

Paul returns to his original question – who is adequate for these things?

The truth is none of us are. Only God is. And only God can make anything in us adequate for him.

Paul is so bold in calling the Corinthians his letter because of his confidence in the work of God in Jesus Christ. Paul is not qualified in any human sense – No one is adequate but God. But Paul knows the God who works in our hearts, changing us and working with our desire to be more like him. And in doing so, the Corinthian church bears witness to Paul’s care and leadership.

Application

How do you evaluate effective Christian leadership? Not by titles. Surely not by their own testimony. but what is written on the tablet of human hearts.

The measure of effective ministry of any kind – Sunday school, church leadership, community involvement, neighbourliness…

The measure of effective ministry is written on the tablets of human hearts. On how people are changed to be more like Jesus.So what is written on the tablet of your heart? Who gave you that? God of course, but what people did God use to do that? Who encourages you to have confidence through Christ before God? Who helps you to be competent?

When was the last time you thanked them. You likely have no idea how embattled they are – or were. A simple word of thanks could encourage them by building their confidence and making them more competent in Christ.

If you are in leadership of any sort, what is it you hope God will write on human hearts. Seriously – stop and think about that. What differences do you really want to make in the people you lead? Is how you are leading consistent with what you hope God writes on their hearts?

Celebrate what God has written on the hearts of the Rez and how he is using you to write on others’ hearts. I first came here because [the Pastor] said it would be a good place for me to rest and recharge my batteries. You provided that for me. It is because of you that I had the courage and strength to return to Wycliffe. And now I am loving what I am doing. Thank you! You have written yourselves on MY heart. And I will be forever thankful.

Prayer

May we pray

Everything – A reflection on Matthew 13:44-46

A short reflection that I preached for a Taize service on Sunday.

Introduction

Anh Cao knows something about doing everything he can to attain a degree from the University of Toronto. He is a Vietnamese student who had straight A-plus marks and received numerous prizes upon graduation. The surprising thing about this gifted scholar is that he lived in a homeless shelter in order to pursue his degree. His studies were so important to him that he gave up everything for one thing.

Tonight’s parables are short descriptions of the kingdom of heaven that shift from the giver of salvation to our response. In each parable, the seekers sell all that they have in response to the treasure they have found.

God gives the treasure

In both parables, the treasure is already hidden. The treasure is already in the field and the pearl is already out there. The person who finds the treasure is not responsible for its creation. In the same way, the treasure of salvation has already been given to us. Christ has given his life for us so that we can have eternal life but also experience joy and peace in this world.

Response in the Parables

In the first parable, the person happens to find the hidden treasure and realizes that he has been looking for it all along. He then sells all that he had to buy the field. In the second parable, the person is searching for the finest pearls and finds what he is looking for. When he finds it, he realizes it is worth selling everything he has in order to buy it.

For Anh, he sought a university degree with all that he had. He gave up the comforts of home when it was the choice between living in a shelter or continuing his studies.

But for Christians, we have a treasure far greater than any university degree could give us. We have been given the promise of salvation and the presence of the Holy Spirit. We have found a treasure that gives us peace and joy that transcends all understanding and circumstances.

The merchant likely had other pearls that he had collected – each of them probably worth something and beautiful in their own right. Like the merchant, we might need to discern between what is good – and what is better.

Our response

I wonder what it would look like to give up everything for the kingdom of God – if you and I gave up everything we had to love God and love our neighbours. I wonder what things we would need to let go? How would our days be ordered differently?

Perhaps we are not ready to give up everything? Maybe our own comfort stands in the way. Maybe we are afraid. Maybe we would rather dip our toes into the water before jumping in with both feet. But I wonder how each of us can take a step closer to giving all we are to God.

Conclusion

I’d like to close with the words of one writer:

“Each of these tales requires everything. And each requires just one thing. The price for the treasures of God is everything we have.” (Nancy Rockwell)