King of Kindness (Col. 1:9-20) (An Old Sermon Preached on Nov. 20, 2021)

If you could have dinner with any famous person, dead or alive who do you think you would choose and why?

I don’t know if there are any people here who are fans of the Royal Family.  Personally speaking, I am not one to really keep up on Royal Gossip though I do know the basics of what is happening with them.  Prince Harry has  done some amazing work with mental health and racial justice, and Prince William has certainly done some innovative work with climate change, however, out of all of them, I believe the Queen to be the most special.  I actually had the opportunity of seeing the Queen in real life when I was in Scotland and  I must say that she is even shorter in person.  

Obviously, the Queen did not talk to me.  To her, I am a nobody.  She was on her way to church and while crowds gathered around to take a peek and snap up a photo, she was simply preoccupied with the place she was going.  She didn’t even turn around to do her classic wave.  There was no possible way to get closer to her – guards were on either side and if anyone made a move, they were armed.  That’s simply the truth of it: the Queen is a very Godly, righteous, and spiritual woman, but in the end of the day she is royalty, and people who are royal simply do not talk to commoners like us.  They don’t know anything about us.  They don’t know who we are, what our name is or what we do for a living.  They don’t know who we’re related to, who else we know, or what our hobbies are.  And here’s the sad truth of it all: they don’t actually care.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, and we are talking about another person who was Royalty but who actually does know and care about us deeply.  The Bible says that Jesus knows every single hair on our head, that he knows our comings and goings, and most importantly that he cares and empathizes with our struggles and burdens because he has experienced all the trials we have in our lives.  In Hebrews 4:15 we read, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weakness, but was tempted in all points as we are, yet did not sin.”  And it is exactly because of Christ’s empathy towards us and the weaknesses we present, that he urges us to “cast our anxiety on him because he cares for us” 1 Peter 5:7.

In preparing for my sermon this morning, I found myself struggling with a few different pieces of this Sunday.  On the one hand, I was struck between acknowledging the reign and rule of Christ in his supremacy, but on the other hand, I also was reminded of times when the reign of Christendom has been used to coerce, control, and force submission on others.  My mind went to images such as the Crusades, the Residential Schools, and even people who remain stuck in unhealthy relationships or marriages due to a misunderstanding of certain Scriptural truths.  

As a chaplain, I do many cold calls.  I walk into people’s hospital rooms unannounced, introduce myself, and hope that they might like to have a conversation with me.  Many people are eager to talk and share and there are always at least a handful of Christians on the unit who sometimes want me to pray and read Scripture with them.  However, guaranteed there will also always be patients who want nothing to do with me and are even angry that I asked.  Spiritual care in a hospital setting is not the same as religious care.  One does not have to be religious to benefit from the listening ear and services of a chaplain, but unfortunately, some people are so tainted by a bad experience of the church that any mention of God, religion, or spirituality will turn them right off.  This deeply saddens me as I believe everyone is spiritual at their core, however, I also must respect their wishes.  It just goes to show me how deep the wounds of Christianity have been inflicted on some people that due to a bad experience here or there they have written off church and their faith completely.

However, Christ’s rule is not about any of those things at all.  Christ’s reign is not about subjecting people to believe in something or demanding devotion, after all, it is impossible to force faith.  Rather, Christ is the King of Kindness, the Lord of Love, and a Magistrate of Mercy.

In Christ, we see a cohesive force which holds the universe together, a life-source that brings beauty and joy within creation.  Christ is both the Creator and Preserver – he is the one who forms and the one who sustains.  And in reading verse 13, “He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the Kingdom of the Son he loves” my mind was immediately drawn to those stories many of us enjoyed as children where a knight in shining armour rescues a damsel in distress who is stuck in the castle prison guarded by a fire breathing dragon. It’s that type of heroic and daring act of courage that Christ has used to rescue us from the shackles which bind us.

It might be helpful to have a bit of background about the Colossians so that we can better understand why Paul wrote this particular letter to them.  Colossae was a very culturally diverse town located in modern day Turkey, mostly made up of Gentiles, though there was a strong contingent of Jews (scholars suggest up to 50,000 of them).  Colossae used to be a very powerful town between the 8th Century BC and the 6th Century AD.  It was a hub of immigration, artistic expression, and skilled craftspeople, and although the major industry lay in ceramics and pottery, there was also great potential for farming as the land was good. The fact that there was so much immigration, also meant that the town was rich with cultural diversity.

 However, by the time Paul got around to writing this letter (around 60 AD), the town had all but shriveled up and was relatively small.  Therefore, many scholars suggest that this was perhaps the least important church addressed by Paul.  The Colossian believers met in a small house church, but even though they were small they were mighty.  Paul actually was not the one who planted this church and it is likely that he never even visited it.  The house church was actually founded by a young man named Epaphras who heard the Gospel message in Ephesus and then went on to plant a church.  Epaphras visited Paul during his first Roman Imprisonment and asked Paul for advice on how to best lead his church.  This small church was passionate, committed, and its reputation preceded it.  This community didn’t let size hinder it – it continued to be faithful in its love and service to others, yet ,it was also met with challenges.  

There were some from outside the church who wanted to present a different Gospel than the one the Colossians knew so well.  The outside culture pressured the Colossians to accept  new doctrines such as Gnosticism which suggests that salvation is purely based in knowledge rather than in relationship, Asceticism which is the belief that the human body is evil and that human needs must be destroyed in a pursuit of spiritual things, and Sophistry which is basically intentional deception through philosophical means. The Colossians now faced a dilemma: how to stay true to the uniqueness of the Gospel, while also desiring to be liked by those around them.  However, Epaphras had very good insight and wisdom, for at this point, the topic had not gotten totally out of hand, but Epaphras wanted some encouragement and advice for how to deal with it when push finally came to shove.

We also live in similar times, just like the Colossians our world is also very diverse and complex.  A quick Google search revealed that there are over 4,000 world religions and even in Christianity alone there are thousands of unique denominations.  We know that the Body of Christ is made up of many people from multiple ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and our backgrounds – where we were raised, how we were brought up, and the values instilled to us in childhood and adolescence generally inform our theology to one degree or another.  So, it makes sense that in any church there would be differences of opinion on many different topics.  How do we continue to live out our faith and find unity, even when we hear differing views from different sides?

We recognize that faith is spacious and expansive.  That in God’s realm there is room for all – that the Spirit of God is always inclusive, never exclusive.  That it is open to all who seek after God – that God makes himself known, he does not hide who he is.  And God is revealed in more than just the Bible for not everyone connects right away to the God of the Bible, he is even revealed in creation.  Romans 1:20 tells us, “For since the Creation of the World, God’s invisible qualities, divine nature, and eternal power have been seen.”

The Passion Translation calls us “reservoirs of wisdom and spiritual understanding.”  Yet, we are not simply a lake that stands still, rather God uses us to be a source to draw water from to nourish others with.  Living in the true knowledge of God’s rule and reign is inseparable from living in harmony with it.  It is this life source which calls us to reconciliation – the righting and re-establishing of relationships.  I am currently taking a course called “Indigenous Realities Within the Christian Church” by Dr. Ray Aldred and in speaking to a relational worldview he stated that a just ruler is someone who can heal the brokenness caused by injustice.  That a true ruler is one who can affirm without assimilating.  

For a long time, Christendom wanted people to be “like” them.  But being like something doesn’t actually mean being something.  If you look at a twenty dollar bill or a stamp, you might see the image of the Queen on it, but it’s not actually the Queen.  It is her likeness but it isn’t her.  Instead, God calls us to be a manifestation of who he is.  A manifestation means an embodiment.  That we are so alike to Christ that when people look at us, they see Christ.  We are not just Christ-like having some of his features or attributes, but we display ourselves as those who are in Christ.  

Choosing to engage in our Christian heritage of Christ being the King and us being heirs to his throne, a part of the Castle realm, does not mean we have to exclude all others who are not like us, rather it means that we welcome them in.  That we do not see ourselves as supreme in rank, but rather as servants.  That we claim the access to God’s wealth we already have through Christ so that we do not have to chase after the world’s corporate greed.  Today’s passage at first may have seemed highly theological, but in reality we don’t have to over-spiritualize it.  It is encouragement for us here today, it is the ultimate invitation for all others to meet with Christ.  

In closing today, I want to leave you with one final thought from The Message Bible.  In Colossians 1:10 Paul writes, “As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work.”  

As we continue to seek after God’s original intent for our lives, we will discover restoration of our souls and of our world.  As we continue to believe that God qualifies us for the tasks which He has called us to, we will find the strength to continue towards the goals set in our hearts regardless of obstacles in our path, and the patience to stand firm against opposition without giving up.  God will grace us with the wisdom of how to deal in difficult situations and with difficult people.  And ultimately, we will be transferred to the Kingdom of the Son He loves – the land of our soul, released from legalism, where darkness is defeated and where only hope and freedom reign.  

May it be so.  Amen.


Finding Faith in the Foreign (Ruth 1:1-18) Sermon from October 31st, 2021

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you felt like a foreigner?  Have you ever been in a place where you looked different from those around you, perhaps you spoke a different language, or perhaps you just held very different views and beliefs from others and so felt alienated?   Has there ever been a time in your life when you moved away from the familiar – whether that was physically relocating to a new city, province, or country, or whether that was spiritually moving into a different denomination or perhaps even religion, or discovering that your Christian walk was much different than it was in the past?

Change can be both exciting and also very nerve-wrecking.  I work in the housing industry helping people who are homeless transition from off the streets into an actual apartment complex for the first time.  This past week I assisted two individuals to move into their new homes.  I noticed how important it was to honour this sacred space – to affirm that yes it was exciting to be able to be in their own place, but also how overwhelming it could feel for them having been used to a certain way of living for so long.

I have spent much of my adult life travelling and I have lived in lots of different places including Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, and Scotland.  In each of these places I arrived without having known anyone.  I showed up having to learn a new culture and new customs.  It was both exhilarating and also frightening.

If you have ever moved away, you are likely aware of how difficult it can be to integrate into a new environment.  True, sometimes things click right away and you may end up loving the new location, but often it takes time to develop strong bonds of trust and friendship.  It takes a long time to learn new customs and practices and to be fully integrated into a new culture even when that culture is relatively similar to our own. When I lived in Nova Scotia I was always referred to as “the girl from away.”  When other people know that we are a foreigner in this new land, it can cause a well of insecurity and self-consciousness and perhaps even invoke suspicion or at the very least curiosity and questions.

In today’s passage from the book of Ruth, we read about a young woman who also experienced a massive transition.  Ruth is an often overlooked Bible character, the entire book only being four chapters, and yet, she is also one of the most profound women we meet in Scripture.  So profound in fact that she found herself a place in the genealogy of Jesus as David’s great-grandmother and so a direct ancestor of Christ.  

The story begins with a Famine in the land, forcing Ruth and her family out of Bethlehem (which ironically means “house of bread”) and into the foreign land of Moab.  We do not entirely know why Moab was chosen as the final destination, however, it was in a pretty ideal location being rather high up and thus likely not subjected to the famine.  What we do know is that Israel and Moab were often at odds with each other stemming all the way back to Genesis 19 when this nation first came into existence through an incestuous relationship between Lot and his eldest daughter resulting in a truly flawed heritage.  There are numerous passages in Scripture pointing to Israel’s intense dislike of the Moabite god Chemosh who was first introduced by King Solomon and had a reputation as a destroyer.  Some verbs historians have used to describe Chemosh include: fierce, inescapable, angry, and a consuming fire.  Chemosh also was a wrathful god who demanded sacrifices to appease him.  Mostly as a result of this god, the Israelites considered the Moabites their enemies and intermarriage was considered a sin because it would put the Israelities at risk of potential idolatry.

It was in this foreign land that Naomi faced tremendous loss.  First she lost her husband, and then she lost her two sons.  Loss is always tragic and upsetting.  Especially during this pandemic season, many of us have experienced great loss and many of us have had our grief interrupted by restrictions.  I lived in Scotland for four years and while I was abroad I lost both my grandmother and my uncle.  Grief is a strange thing when one is living in a strange land.  Grief is also a strange thing when one is living in strange times.  In Naomi’s case her grief was compounded not just due to the emotional attachment she would have had with her family members, but also because of the practical troubles this tragedy caused her.  Living in the patriarchal world of that day, women relied heavily on men to take care of them and provide for their needs.  Now Naomi’s family, spiritual, and financial support was completely wiped away from her.  I can’t help but think of the parallels between what Naomi experienced in this story with the experience of Job who also tragically lost his family.  In both cases, these losses produced significant emotional upheaval.  

In this short book, names are very significant and we will begin to discover this in our time together.  The name Naomi means “joyful” and “pleasant” but in Naomi’s distress she chooses another name for herself.  Instead of being called “happy” she wants to be called Mara which means “bitter” because this is exactly how she feels.  Sometimes the life experiences and circumstances we face also change how we see ourselves and the world around us.  Sometimes it is easy to find our identity in our situations rather than in our salvation.  

This is where Ruth comes to the rescue.  Naomi has two daughter-in-laws: Ruth and Orpah.  Both of these women are young enough to remarry and have children.  It would have been unusual at this time for these women to have been married for a decade without children but the Bible does not mention kids and the assumption of the text seems to be that there weren’t any.  Naomi urges both of her daughter-in-laws to leave and create a life for themselves. At first both Orpah and Ruth push back and want to stay with Naomi, but she dissuades them by stating how ridiculous this idea is.  Eventually, Orpah who name means “back of the neck” caves in, chooses to depart, and go on her way.  The Bible does not condemn her for this logical decision, it simply states this is what happened.  However, Ruth, whose name literally means “compassion for the misery of another” chooses to journey with Naomi and thus shows courageous, faithful, and generous love. Ruth’s declaration is therefore doubly profound: first she takes on a new nationhood (sort of like switching over her citizenship) and then she also takes a new religious affiliation (converting to Judaism).

I wonder if we can ask ourselves in this moment: has there ever been someone who has journeyed with us even in the most foreign places of our lives?  Friendships and relationships are always precious.  A friend is someone who is devoted, loyal, and committed to us and who journeys with us in both the ups and downs of our lives.  A few years ago I was learning Arabic and I discovered something very profound.  The word for Friend is Arabic literally means “one who always tells the truth.”  And a friend is just that – an encourager, a cheerleader, but also a truthteller.  

However, having a friend who journeys with us in the foreign and strange places of our lives is even more special and real.  For example, a friend who embraces our questions and doubts perhaps even about Scripture, about the church or about God.  Who lets us voice our concerns and fears.  A friend who journeys with us during the major transitions of our lives: perhaps when our life has been turned upside down and we realize the life we have been living up until this point is really not the one that God has destined for us all along.  Perhaps even a friend who walks with us during times of seeking, experimentation, longing, wrestling, and doing things a little bit differently than we did before, a bit out of the norm.  In the case of my current work, a friend who walks with my clients on this strange and bumpy journey of getting sober, of finding recovery, of finding healing, psychological wellness, and spiritual wholeness.  These friends who dare to journey with us in these precious moments are literally the Ruths in our lives.  The ones who don’t give up on us.  The ones who refuse to leave even when we tell them that we are a lost cause and that there is nothing left for us to give. They stay not because of what’s in it for them, but because they truly desire and value to embrace this transformation with us.

The story of Ruth might not get a lot of press time in many of our circles, but Ruth remains an important Jewish heroine even to this day.  Her story is re-told every year during the Jewish feast of Shavout which celebrates the Torah being given to the Jewish people.  This is a fitting tribute for Ruth because is speaks to her loyalty to her new God.  In fact, Shavout gives the image of a wedding between God and the Jewish people, not unlike the covenant that the foreign Moabitess Ruth gave to her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi.  

In studying today’s passage my mind was immediately drawn to Hebrews 11:13-16 which reads, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for God has prepared a city for them.”

This week we are going to encounter many different types of people.  We are going to see people who look and act a lot like us, and many others who are very different than we are.  We are going to meet people with all sorts of different values, beliefs, and worldviews.  The question I want to ask is how can we consider showing these individuals radical hospitality?  What can we do to make ourselves brave enough to reach out a helping hand even when that might feel uncomfortable to us?  

This week we also will be met with longings and stirrings.  I urge us to pay attention to these.  If we are being drawn into something out of the ordinary, perhaps this is a nudge from God.  Perhaps we truly are looking for a country of our own.  In those moments of quiet discontent, it is entirely possible that God is leading us to something better and ultimately more fulfilling.  I have assurance that we will all get to that special city, if we are open to this adventure.  May it be so.  Amen.  

The Stuff Superheroes Are Made Of (October 17, 2021 Sermon)

Who is the most heroic person you know and what makes this person a hero?

Since as far back as we can imagine, our world has looked for superheroes.  Humanity has always been drawn to tales and legends, and our minds seem to enjoy heartwarming stories where regardless of how awful our world is there is still hope and good will.  It is likely that the earliest North American superhero was Superman.  Created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster of D.C. Comics, Superman’s motto was, “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive… The Man of Steel fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.”

Nearly 85 years later, fans still flock to this character and others like him as a symbol of compassion and responsibility.  And yet, we are not drawn to him because he is greedy or wants to rule over the world, but rather because he embodies the goodness of the human spirit and the capacity that lies within each one of us to do the right thing.   There are now over 153 superheroes and the list is growing.  Children and teens collect superhero comic books, people of all ages are drawn into the latest movies featuring superheroes, and children enjoy dressing up and role-playing as superheroes.  Superhero shirts, mugs, and memorabilia are sold in the millions annually, and often superhero movies have ranked in top cinematic sales.  As a nation and as individuals we continue to be drawn into sensational stories of epic battles being won in the name of justice.  

In the Bible passage that we read together from the Gospel of Mark, James and John also sought to become superheroes, except rather than coming from a desire to help others, they were drawn into fame and reputation.  

The story begins with James and John approaching Jesus to ask a simple request: they would each like a place of honour in Christ’s Kingdom with Jesus in the middle throne and one on either side of Him.

James and John were known as the “Sons of Thunder” because they were bold and outspoken, and this is a classic example of where they truly lived up to their name.  However, there seems to be a problem right from the outset. Ever since Jesus established His band of disciples He had three chosen men whom He was closer to than anyone else: James, John, and Simon Peter.  These three had walked with Jesus the longest and experienced the most intimate moments with Jesus – His greatest triumphs and darkest trials.  These three were present with Christ when He raised Jarisus’ daughter from the dead, when the miraculous catch of fish occurred, and at the time of Christ’s transfiguration when His glory was fully revealed.  These three would also be the ones with Him in His last moments before His death in the Garden of Gethsemane when He agonized over God’s will for Him to leave this world, and all three would later come to be prominent leaders of the early church. Yet, in their request, it appears that James and John were only focused on themselves and their own desires.  They had completely forgotten about Peter and have excluded Him.  This is lesson number one: sometimes when we become so concerned with the world and with our own selfish agendas we forget about the many who are around us.

Today we remember World Food Day, a day to commit ourselves to more just and equitable actions when it comes to sharing our wealth with those who do not even have the basics they need to survive.  It is estimated that between 700-800 million people are suffering from hunger all around the world.  According to the United Nations this means that close to eleven percent of the world are currently starving or at risk of starving.  In Canada alone, it is estimated that up to 57,000 children face hunger on a regular basis.  Many of these children are from single parent families, are Indigenous, or rely on social assistance.  Meanwhile we also know that over 2 million tonnes of food are wasted each year in Canada resulting in over $17 billion dollars. Pre-pandemic all you can eat buffets which often resulted in gluttony and over-indulgence were a popular choice for special occasions and parties and  the obesity rates are only increasing with nearly 65% of Canadian adults being overweight and 30% considered critically obese.  Meanwhile the dieting industry of fad-diets, pills, and detoxes has increased exponentially.

The reason I share this is not to shame anyone.  As you can all see, I am not exactly skinny either.  I enjoy all sorts of fast food, sugary treats, and often indulge in decadent desserts.  I am not saying this as a way of convincing anyone to stop eating the foods we all enjoy and celebrating special events at restaurants or buffets.  Rather I am sharing this to raise an interesting point which many of us have likely considered in the past: how is it that we all have enough food to spare to end world hunger and yet world hunger continues to be a prevalent issue even in our day and age? The answer is likely because of corporate greed.   The book is a bit outdated now but one very common text which I engaged with in my economic justice class in seminary called “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” by Ronald J. Sider addresses this very issue.  In this book Sider suggests we can all do our part by actions such as: gardening, joining a food co-op, lowering our energy consumption, and resisting consumerism.  

Interestingly enough, this past week also marked the United Church’s annual commitment of 40 Days Towards Anti-Racism.  As we consider how we can better include and care about all people especially those who do without we must be willing to ask ourselves “who is not at the table.”  Who are the people who still remain on the margins and outskirts of our society?  Even in Canada, a country that many regard as progressive, polite, and welcoming, there are people who are excluded because of their gender, race, ethnicity, or disability.  Just like James and John, many times the people who make the policies consider people like themselves and forget about the Peters in our midst.

Back to our story, Jesus humours James and John by asking what their request is despite that fact that Christ knows all things even before we speak them.  James and John see Jesus’s mission and vision as political.  They want to be His chief advisors and they want a place of prominence whereby everyone around them knows just how important they really are.  This is so different to how Christians should actually act and behave for in Luke 14:10 we are actually told that when we enter a banquet we should be willing to take the lowest seat.  It is better to consider ourselves less than and to be invited up to take a seat of honour, rather than to assume a place of honour and be told that we have to back down.  In James 2 we also read that we should treat everyone the same way: we shouldn’t give the position of honour to someone just because they are considered mighty in the world’s eyes by showing favourtism to the rich over the poor.  To Christ we are all equal and we all must take the form of servants.  Sadly, James and John did not seem to fully grasp this.

Rather than simply rebuking James and John, Jesus used this as a teachable moment.  He asked these two brothers a question: would they be willing to suffer the way He knew He would?  James and John seem to be rather idealistic as they choose to agree.  We know that later on in their lives both of these men would suffer immensely for the Gospel.  Jesus hints at this reality, though the two do not yet realize it.

Later when the other ten disciples heard about this request, they became furious with  James and John.  I can imagine them asking questions and making statements like “so you think you’re so special, eh?”  “So you think you’re better than the rest of us?”  I always found this text quite upsetting as well.  How could James and John consider themselves more important than their other friends who were also part of God’s mission, and yet what we see here is not that uncommon to what we experience in our world today.

There are some churches who preach about a Prosperity Gospel.  These churches which are especially common in the States tell their congregants that God wants us to be rich and happy.  That God wants us to get a bigger house or drive a nicer car.  Many of these churches tie how spiritual a person is with how much wealth they have accrued.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with treating ourselves from time to time.  We all work hard to make a living and we all deserve to pamper ourselves once in a while.  There is no shame in taking a special vacation, buying ourselves something new which we really need, or having a new experience like going to the opera.  However, the Prosperity Gospel is so outside of what God’s actual will for us is.  The Bible tells us to pray only for our daily bread.  To be grateful for the provisions which God has afforded to us.  The Bible also reminds us that if we are in the financial position to do so that we ought to be generous.  When God gifts us with wealth and resources it is not to lord it over others or to make ourselves appear better than those who do not have, but to use it to help increase the Kingdom of God sharing of our time, talents, and treasures.  When we give back to God and others we reap a harvest of righteousness.  We receive rewards not just for this world but for the life to come.

It isn’t just about the Prosperity Gospel though, every year the reality of Black Friday gets to me.  First started in the States, this tradition has now spread to Canada.  How is it that we go from celebrating Thanksgiving and remembering to be grateful for the harvest, to worrying about what we do not have and seeking to buy things which we may or may not need.  In some states it is estimated that Americans spend over $100,000 in merchandise.  Again many people in our world seek to acquire things they don’t need to impress people they don’t know or care about all that much.

The trouble with James and John is that their priorities were all skewed.  Jesus reminds them that they were actually similarly to the Roman emperors who sought to oppress, overpower, and tyrannize the marginalized at that time.  Roman imperials often sought to maintain their dominance through control and coercion, but Christ called His disciples to have a different mindset.  Rather than living life out of self-interest and self-protection, Christ called His followers to pursue justice and break boundaries.  Jesus Himself lived a life of servant leadership from the cradle right up to the grave.  His death exemplifying a martyr’s tragic protest against an unjust system.  

It is easy to fault James and John for their careless question but it does cause us to pause and ask ourselves a few questions.  When we pray how often do we pray about our own needs and desires and how often do we actually pray for the needs of those around us?  Again, there is nothing wrong with asking God for things which we need.  Christ wants us to come to Him, speak to Him, and trust Him to provide for the areas we are lacking in.  However, as Christians we also must get outside of ourselves and think about what others around us need.  Often this means that we ought to “pray with our feet.”  Not just saying the words, but praying through our acts of service, through our advocacy, and through demanding justice.

How often do we try to fit Jesus into our own plans rather than seeing how we might fit into His?  Do we ask God in prayer what He would have us do or do we tell Him what we would have Him do?  C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce, “In the end there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and those who in the end God says to them ‘Thy will be done.’”

It seems to be our human condition to want to be approved of and rewarded.  Who among us doesn’t like to be told we have done a good job, that we are valued, and that we are appreciated.  Who among us isn’t thankful for a raise, a promotion, or an award?  There is nothing wrong with being honoured for a job well done.  My primary love language is words of affirmations.  I really value being told verbally or in writing that I have done something well.  However, this Bible passage warns that if we see the Kingdom of God only in terms of power and status than we have gotten it all wrong.  The Kingdom of God is not about how we can benefit from those around us, but how we can benefit those around us.  Jesus said in Matthew 25:14 that if we have done something to the “least of these” to those whom society deems as unimportant and not valuable, then we have done it to God Himself.

Spiderman once reminded us that there is a superhero inside each one of us that keeps us honest and noble.  These superheroes remind us that we can be even better versions of ourselves.  Yet our inner superhero is only found when we consider how we can use it to help others.  We are all given superpowers (also known as Spiritual Gifts) by God to make this world more enjoyable and liveable for others around us.  May we seek to be a superhero to our world, our society, and our city in this coming week.  May it be so.  Amen.

Thanksgiving in Trials (Sermon from October 10, 2021)

Since 1879, Thanksgiving has been a federal holiday in Canada.  Originally set aside as a day of gratitude for the harvest, Thanksgiving has now grown into one of North America’s most commercialized holidays secondary only to Christmas.  In Canada alone, nearly 5 million people purchased over 2 million turkeys, and the amount of money spent on this holiday is only increasing.  Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to gather with loved ones, share in elaborate meals, and to take a long weekend off work or school to rest and relax, and yet, in the hustle and bustle of the season it is so easy for us to forget the real reason we are celebrating.

While recognizing that the Indigenous people who came before us had their own ways of showing gratitude, and while acknowledging our complicated history with colonialism, this Sunday is still an important date for us to mark and remember.  And I believe it is no coincidence that this year Thanksgiving falls on the same day as World Mental Health Day.

We are now nearly 20 months into a global pandemic and we have all experienced radical life changes as a result.  For the past two years our world has known loss, grief, uncertainty, fear, disillusionment and disappointment in epic proportions.  Mental wellness issues have sky rocketed as our world has faced increased isolation especially within vulnerable populations.  Some people have felt a distrust towards the government, some people have felt exasperated, some have faced strained relationships with family and friends, and many have felt alone.  We likely have people within our own family and friend groups who have suffered immensely through the pandemic and not everyone has been able to cope in the best possible ways.  I personally have lost three friends to drug related overdoses, some of us have lost loved ones in this time, many of us have faced pandemic fatigue.  Perhaps questions of how much longer this time will last, when we will be able to do the activities we once loved and enjoyed again, and if our world will ever be the way it once was have surfaced for us.  There might even be some here today or people within our networks who wonder if there is any point to keep going, and if there are any reasons to keep hoping and dreaming.

With everything that has happened in our world over these past several months not just with the pandemic but also with the violence, poverty, and social inequities we continue to see on the news, it can be easy to focus purely on the negatives.  To think solely of what we have lost.  Part of this is a healthy practice.  Research and professional counselors have shown that we cannot fully heal and move on until we have acknowledged our pain and distress.  However, practicing thanksgiving and gratitude is one way for us to continually remind ourselves that even in the painful seasons God walks with us.

The Bible is one book that literally touches on pretty much any hardship or issue we could face in this life, and yet it mentions thanksgiving or a derivative thereof at least 139 times.  Even one of the most important symbols of the Christian faith, the Eucharist literally means “Thanksgiving.”  How is it then that Christians can continue to praise and seek God even when the rest of life has been thrown upside down?

Last week, Phil gave me permission to do something a little different with this sermon so instead of focusing solely on one Scripture verse, I would like to jump around a bit and touch on several different sections which deal with this issue.  In my own study for today’s sermon I located over 15 Bible verses that lay out the who, what, when, where, why, and how of this particular topic (don’t worry I won’t be sharing all of them here).

Firstly the WHO.  The Bible says that everyone, all people should give thanks to God for what we have been given.  Psalm 150:6 says, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”  I would like for us to all take a deep breath in and then do a slow exhale.  Feel your pulse.  Feel the ground under your feat, your back against the chair.  Take notice of where you are and what you are doing.  If you feel this, you are alive.  Life might have thrown some curve balls our way, but instead of worrying about what happened yesterday or what will come this week, we can focus on the present moment.  And in this present moment we are sitting here at church or comfortable in our homes, among our friends, and in the presence of God. It isn’t just Christians who benefit from this reminder though, but everyone in the general public, even though who do not identify themselves as believers.

 Research from Harvard Health experts has shown that gratitude profoundly alters both our mental and physical state for the better.  Being grateful, mindful, and in the moment, reduces our stress, improves our sleep, and even boosts our immunity.  Psychologically speaking, thankfulness makes us more resilient, improves our friendships, and helps us deal with adversity through relishing in the good experiences we previously had.  Many people choose to engage in practices such as having a gratitude journal, list, or jar where they write about the things they are thankful for.  This is more than just a simple exercise, it can become a deeply spiritual practice, and is also mentally satisfying.  There is proof that in recalling and writing about a good experience that we receive double the results.  We get our first hit of Dopamine (the natural drug inside our bodies that makes us happy) when we first experience the situation, and we receive our second hit again when we recall it.  So gratitude is a natural joy booster.

WHAT is Thanksgiving?  The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes thanksgiving as “conscious of benefits received, expressive of thanks, and well-pleased.”  This seems to be pretty in line with the Biblical understanding of thanksgiving as well.  In the Bible thanksgiving means talking and sharing about what God has done.  Psalm 9:1 says “I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart, I will tell of God’s wonderful deeds.”  In some Christian circles, these moments are referred to as testimonies, and sometimes they can get quite rich and deep.  But they don’t always have to be profound.  Even just sharing with another person about the good news that you have received is one way of being grateful.  It is not about bragging or making ourselves better than others, but it is about remembering that we have been given a gift. And it is in remembering this gift that our outlook usually can shift and the focus of our attention changes to something better.

WHEN should Christians be thankful?  In the passage we read today from 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 we read that we are to “rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances.”  This is not just because these actions are good ideas, but because it is actually God’s will for our lives.  Paul also wrote in Philippians 4:6 that we are not be be anxious or worried, but instead to lift up our prayers in thanksgiving.  Paul is not talking about clinical anxiety here.  There are many believers who do struggle with anxiety and depression.  Rather Paul is reminding us that when we pray we should be grateful just as much as we ask God for things.  I taught Sunday school for a number of years and it was interesting to see the spiritual development in the children.  When they were young many of them had rather self-centered prayers.  That’s not always bad.  God wants us to tell Him our troubles and concerns.  But as the children got older, they often remembered to start thanking God as well.  

WHERE should be practice thankfulness?  Essentially anywhere.  Lots of people, myself included, feel very connected to the earth and to nature.  My happy place is outdoors and I would probably spend every waking moment outside if I could and if the weather cooperated.  For other people this happy place is in drinking a cup of tea by the fireplace, in curling up with a good book, in listening to their favourite music, or in getting lost in a wonderful piece of art or in crafting.  Wherever your happy place is, I encourage you to go there.  When you go for an autumn walk, feel the crisp air against your skin, feel the crunch of leaves beneath your feet, sip on a cup of Pumpkin Spice Latte and let the delicate flavours dance around your tongue.  In these moments, we once again are being mindful and grounded, and in our being present to the moment we are practicing gratitude.  Of course we can practice gratitude at church, but being physically present in this building is once a week, whereas our worship lasts all week long.

WHY should we be grateful? Aside from the physical and mental health benefits we already touched on, it has been proven that people who are grateful tend to be more generous, more empathetic, more open to other people’s perspectives, and are more likely to be content rather than envious.  This attitude of gratitude can even improve our jobs, our relationships, and our life goals.  We all know people who complain about every little thing and who are never happy regardless of what good things come their way.  These are people we likely do not want to spend much time with.  We also all know people who are always jovial, friendly and helpful even when they themselves are experiencing difficult times.  Who we spend time with makes a world of difference to our own outlook as well.  In Colossians 2:7 Paul writes that thankfulness can strengthen our own faith, and in 2 Corinthians 4:15 we read, “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” Being grateful is actually a wonderful way to witness to other people.  Those around us are more likely to want to take part in our faith and to be curious and interested about our beliefs when they see that we are kind-hearted, loving, and thankful people.

Finally, the HOW.  So we know that gratitude is a wonderful attitude to have and that it really benefits us mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, but how exactly do we become grateful?  Being grateful is a practice that takes time and is not cultivated overnight, yet the more we remember to be grateful, the more it will come to us naturally.  There are several verses in the Bible that point to how we can develop this skill: through prayer, through being generous to others, through sharing, and in song.  Colossians 4:2 lays out a two part command: to be watchful and to be thankful.  The two go hand-in-hand.  Watching ourselves and noticing when we are starting to feel grumpy and discontent, challenging the thoughts and assumptions that come into our mind that suggest we should be unhappy or that everyone has it better or easier than we do, and being careful of the comments we make even if we think they are only in jest help us to better develop this sense of contentment.  Paul taught his mentee Timothy that “Godliness with contentment is great gain” in 1 Timothy 6:6.  It is not easy to be content in this world of advertisements targeted just at us, social media, apps that beautify our appearance, and social pressure that reminds us that we need more or will be happy once such and such happens or when we finally meet our soul mate, but if we are able to learn to be content and at peace with our present circumstances, our spirits will become more free and light as a result.

Thanksgiving might just be one day, but the attitude of gratitude is one that we can adopt for the other 364 days of the year.  By asking God to help us be content regardless of how difficult the circumstances surrounding us are, by honouring and tending to our own mental wellness and sharing our burdens with others when we aren’t able to be content through no fault of our own, and by working towards a world where all will be thankful for the basic necessities of food, shelter, and clean drinking water, we are practicing the very acts that God calls us to.  This week may we be ever more mindful of the ways God is at work, may we seek to find joy in the little things, and may we always seek to stay present and grounded in each and every sacred moment.  May it be so.  Amen.

All Sins Are Bad…But Some Are More Bad Than Others

First off, please forgive the poor grammar in the title (it is a spoof off of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”).

This week I attended a tough questions night at my young adults group.  I always love the hard questions, those moments of wrestling with doubt, those sacred experiences of coming to terms with the fact that no one (no matter how wise) has all the answers. There were a number of very important and interesting topics raised, but there was one that intentionally stood out for me. An anonymous young adult posed the question about God’s forgiveness following someone committing a “really bad” sin with no remorse. This question brought up a secondary question: how exactly does one define “really bad?” This is a very difficult question to answer because there is no clear-cut and definitive response, however, what I do feel strongly about is that pastors need to stop using the cliche “to God sin is sin….there are no big or little sins.” The reasons pastors and Christians in general need to stop saying this line is two-fold: a) because it is an insensitive response to someone who has truly felt the devastating effects of sin (for example as a result of having lost a loved one to murder or having been sexually molested) and b) because it is entirely unbiblical. There is no verse anywhere in the Bible that says “to God sin is sin and all sins are the same.”

The word “sin” is mentioned over 400 times in the Bible and literally means “missing the mark.”  It is important to note that all Christians no matter how godly and spiritual they are will sin at various times because it is part of the human condition.  Everyone messes up and I don’t care whether you’re the Pope or Billy Graham (1 John 1:8 “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”).  Romans 3:23 reminds us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and Romans 6:23 further explains that the results are devastating “the wages of sin is death.”  No one can measure up to God’s Holy Standard. In fact in Habakkuk 1:13 we read, “Your [God’s] eyes are too holy to look on evil, You cannot tolerate wrong-doing.” Thus our first take-away is this: God cannot tolerate sin. He hates it.  This is one argument in favour of the verdict that sin is sin because God’s heart breaks despite the type of sin we commit.  God doesn’t like stealing anymore than He likes lying or sexual immorality any more than He likes idolatry.  There will be consequences for any sin that we ever commit and the Bible is clear that we must be accountable towards our actions whether we consider their effects big or small (2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we [believers] must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ so that each one may be repaid for what has been done in the body – whether good or bad.”)

What Sin Is and What It Is Not

In my mind there are essentially six types of sins but I am willing to contend that there might be more. The most common ones you will hear about in church are:

Commission: Sins that we commit  (“Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression” Psalm 19:13)

Omission: Things that we don’t do which we should have done and which the Holy Spirit later convicts us of (to me this also includes failing to stand up for justice) (James 4:17, “If anyone then knows the good they ought to do but does not do it, it is sin for them.”)

Intentional: Sins that we commit on purpose knowing that what we are doing is wrong (this category is the most discussed in church) (“If we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sin, but a fearful expectation of judgement” Hebrews 10:26) 

Unintentional: A sin we commit without knowing it’s a sin, in other words “not on purpose” (this usually is more the case with younger and less mature Christians who are not as familiar with Scripture and have not been discipled) (Leviticus 4:2 “If anyone sins unintentionally…”)

Leading a Sibling Into Sin: Doing something which is not a sin to you but will cause someone else to stumble (“Never put a stumbling block or a hinderance in the way of a brother.” Romans 14:13)

Habitual Sin: A sin that someone commits so many times that it has now formed into a habit.  These are the strongest to break and require prayer, Godly counsel and sometimes inner healing from demonic strongholds.  Most commonly these sins are tied to sexual encounters but they can also be found in various forms of addiction or even actions such as gossip or lying (“Sold as a slave to sin” Romans 7:14).

We also know that some sins are immediately evident to others around us whereas others are more secretive.  Even if we sin thinking that we will get away with our hurtful actions, we can rest assured that at some point it will catch up with us (1 Timothy 5:24 “the sins of some are conspicuous, going before them to judgement, but the sins of others appear later.”)

There are also a few things sin is not (in my opinon): Sin is not necessarily character defects.  We all are predisposed to certain temperments, thoughts, and attitudes as a result of our genetic make up and family of orgin upbringing, yet these do not necessarily have to lead us into sin.  For example, you may be be geneticially predisposed to anger, but you can still choose to respond calmly and rationally thus ensuring you do not sin (Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry yet do not sin”).

Being tempted also does not equal sin.  All of us will be tempted at various points in our faith walk, but by crying out to God rather than giving in, we do not have to be led into sin (1 Corinthians 10:13)

The Worst Sins

The Bible has several lists of sins which God deems abhorrent (spoiler alert – if you read these verses you will discover that everyone fits into them!)   In  almost all cases the root cause of these sins is our own pride and selfishness (James 1:14 “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire”).  

Yet, we also know that Scripturally speaking God does not see all sins as equal.  Throughout the Bible, God gave punishments in line with the consequences of those particular sins.  The first judicial system came right from God Himself!  A sin like murder resulted in the person’s life being taken (Numbers 35:16), but lesser sins usually only included a time of ritual impurity or a sin offering.  A huge factor in how God views sin also comes from our motivations, because God judges the heart of the matter, our intentions are just as important to Him as our actions.  Yet, in all sins regardless of their weight or severity, all Christians are called to repentance and remorse, and must take responsibility for our actions.  

When Jesus came He created an even higher standard than the law that was laid out before His time.  Jesus taught that hate was murder, lust was adultery, and divorce was sexual immorality (except in severe cases) and yet hate alone does not leave a person dead and lust alone does not devastate a marriage to the point of disrepair.  Jesus’s words here might have sounded extreme, but they were given through the lens of love  Their function to restore relationships.  This verse alone does not mean that all sin is the same sin to God, but it does remind us that we must be careful of our actions and how they will be interpreted by those around us.  We must do everything with the pretext of drawing others to Christ.  We must be careful to see how our witness can be destroyed by anger, careless words, or greed.  There are two sins in particular that God knows will destroy our testimony and that is why He mentions them over and over again: sexual immorality (In 1 Corinthians 6:18 we are told that this is one of the worst sins because all other sins are against other people but when we commit impure acts we actually sin against ourselves) and idolatry.  Both wrongful sexual attitudes and idolatry run rampant in our day and age. Idolatry is not simply about joining a different religion, but our gods take many other roles in our lives from laziness to apathy to relationships.  In fact Paul writes that any earthly sin we commit is actually idolatry (Colossians 3:5).

Furthermore, the Bible reminds us that some of us have more responsibillity not to sin than others.  This group includes those who have oversight towards us (pastors, elders, deacons, and teachers).  This is not to say that a minister will not sin or that when they sin that their sin is far worse than that of their congregants, but again their sin has far more lasting consequences because it can lead others into sin.  Places like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 remind us that anyone who wants to take responsibility must have spiritual maturity and not be given to besetting and controlling sins.  This is also why James warns us that not many of us should become teachers because of the extra pressure God has placed upon leaders.  Even 1 Corinthians 5:11 warns us that we should not associate ourselves with people who claim to be believers but do not have the fruit of the Spirit in their lives as a result of sin.  Again this is not because believers are immune from sin, we will all sin at various times regardless of how spiritually mature we are or how long we have walked with God, but because we can tell a lot about a person’s character through their actions and who we spend time with and wish to emulate will also affect our spiritual walk.  If we want to grow in our faith, we need to surround ourselves with people who although sinful still seek to honour and adore Christ above all else.  The difference is that when a mature Christian sins they will be led to repentance, they will be sincere, they will seek Godly help and wisdom to help them conquer their trials and temptations, they will have accountability partners, and they will constantly be praying over their sin instead of just accepting that it is the way it is.  

However, the Bible does say that there is one sin which is the worst one of all and this is called the “Unforgivable Sin.”  Lots of research has been given to discovering and trying to avoid this sin, but most scholars have arrived at the same conclusion: the unforgivable sin is simply to not acknowledge God. There might have been a time in your life even as a mature believer that a severe tragedy struck and you cursed God.  This was not good.  This was not a nice thing to do to God, but that alone does not mean you are struck from the Book of Life and can never repent.  The Bible reminds us that God is merciful and does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9) and so He gives us multiple opportunities over and over again to come to Him, but there comes a time when we are no longer given that opportunity and that is at the point of death.  So if we die without having acknowledged His Lordship and still having denied His power, then we have committed the unforgivable sin.  We cannot be pardoned from it.  1 John 5:16-17 also speaks to this reality: we are to pray for our brothers and sisters who are in error and are sinning, we are to encourage them, to help them, and to support them in finding healing and forgiveness, but there is one sin that leads to death – the unforgivable sin. We can pray for our brother or sister to come to know Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour, but we cannot force this.  God alone can work within a person’s heart to convict them of sin and of their need for Salvation and to encourage them to walk in righteousness (John 16:8).

And yet God has infinite grace towards us.  As we read the Scripture we discover that we all fit into several of these categories but we are given this incredible promise “AND SUCH WERE SOME OF YOU, but you were washed, you were sanctified, and you were justified” (1 Corinthians 6:11) In other words, it is through Christ’s merit and atoning death alone that we are made right.  It is in this grace that we must recognize our own tendencies to sin which will be different for each person.  2 Peter 2:19 writes that “we are slaves to whatever has mastered us.”  Satan works in different ways for different people and what I struggle with might not even be on the radar of things you struggle with, but if I continue to allow the evil one reign over this area of my life it will soon lead to destruction.  

Our Response to Sin

It would not be the best practice to simply write about all the ways we sin without giving some practical “how-tos.” When confronted with sin here are some ways the Bible tells us we can address it:

  1. Flee.  Scripture tells us that our first defense against giving into temptation is to get out of there as fast as we can.  Examples include Jesus’s injunction to cut off a body part that leads us into temptation (Matthew 5:30), and Joseph fleeing from Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39).
  2. Resist.  There are times when we won’t be able to get out of the situation and we might have to stay in it for various reasons.  In those moments we must resist and stand our ground.  James 4:7 reminds us that if we keep saying no to Satan he will eventually recognize the authority we have through Christ and will flee from us (so who’s running away now?!)
  3. Be Aware.  We must know our limits and what is going to potentially lead us into temptation (this will be different for each person). 1 Peter 5:8 reminds us that Satan is like a roaring lion always on the look out for who he can devour.  If you know that you won’t be able to stop after one drink avoid going to a bar or pub in the first place.  If you know that hanging out with certain friends will lead you to gossip or to speak in ways that you otherwise wouldn’t choose new friends.  If you know that watching certain movies causes you sexual fantasies don’t watch those movies.  
  4. Be In the Word and In Prayer.  The closer you are to God, the less likely you will want to be to hurt Him.  We are all still human, we will still struggle and sometimes give in, but remembering to be in daily contact with God means He will be on our radar and we will think of Him when tempted.  Being in the Word also means that we will be more in tune with understanding the nature and gravity of sin and that we will understand and be aware of our sins especially when society tells us it’s ok (Romans 12:2).
  5. Don’t judge others who sin differently than you.  We must be careful to maintain our humility and not to think of our sins as less evil than those around us (Matthew 7:5).  It is not our job to determine who’s in and who’s out because of God’s redeeming love that seeks to include all people who willingly come to Him.


In university I read a book called “What About Hitler.”  The main premise of this book was to talk about how pacifism is possible when an atrocity like WWII takes place.  The truth is that we are less likely to come across Hitler and more likely to have to practice peacebuilding in much smaller ways within our own lives.  It is the same with sin.  Most of us are likely not going to be in daily contact with murderers,  we are more likely to be in touch with people who gossip, are sexually tempted, and pursue money more than anything else.  In other words, people just like ourselves.  In my view, I do believe that some sins are worse than others (sins which are intentional, cause greater harm, are done maliciously, are habitual, or are done by church leaders especially if they use the Christian banner to accomplish them such as in the case of the Residential Schools).  However, despite my belief that these sins are “worse” what I am more concerned about is our own personal response to sin: the way we ourselves come into repentance and feel remorse, the ways we work towards avoiding sin and temptation altogether, and the ways we support our fellow believers who find themselves in the grips of struggling with sin.  Even though some sins may be “worse” than others, God still finds all sin abhorrent and evil.  God is still too Holy to be in the presence of any type of sin, and yet He graciously walks with us, offering us forgiveness and compassion if our true desire is to make things right with Him.  The most important role a Christian plays is not in asking “is this sin worse than mine” but “how can I personally grow and be strengthened in my own walk with the Lord?”  It is only when we seek to break free with God’s help from the chains that bind us that we will be able to walk in freedom. Our ultimate aim is not “how can I stop others from sinning” but how can I personally walk in victory.  All sins are bad, some are “more bad” than others, but Christ’s love covers a multitude of sins, even the worst kind, and as children of God, we joyfully rest in that promise (1 Peter 4:8) 

The Weight of Words

I’d like to begin today’s sermon by asking you to think about this question: “Who is the person you most trust in your life?”  For many of us this will likely be a spouse, family member, or very close friend.  When you consider what makes this person trustworthy or how you have come to trust them the answer is probably based on spending a significant amount of time with them.  The more time we spend with  someone, the more likely it is that we are going to exchange stories, anecdotes, theological views, and jokes. The average person speaks about 16,000 words per day and their choice of vocabularly really does show us the true character they hold.  As my Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor said during our class “the stories people choose to tell us about themselves reveal a great amount about who they are.  Who they are reveals a lot about their values and beliefs.”  Trust is not granted right away, it is something that needs to be earned and developed, and also which can be shattered in a matter of seconds.  Trust is something that builds slowly, but crumples quickly.  One of the biggest reasons why we may decide to no longer trust someone we once did is not only because of their actions, but also because of their words.  
In today’s passage from James 3, we learn all about the dangers of the tongue.  James writes that the tongue is one of the smallest parts of our body (in fact, the average human tongue is only about 3 inches long or the size of a ring finger) and yet it has the power to control and ultimately destroy friendships, marriages, careers and our reputation.  

The tongue is so influential in fact, that over 100 Bible verses are devoted to it with the power of words being one of the most sustained topics in all of the New Testament.  The power of speech is so crucial that the Bible actually gives us the following instructions and this is just scratching the surface: we should be slow to speak, we need to guard against careless words, we ought to answer one another graciously, we must seek to build up and encourage others rather than to tear down, and our words are to be seasoned with love.  Some Scripture passages take this even further though to show the true seriousness of verbal transgressions.  If we back up a few passages, James warns in 1:26 that the careless words can completely demolish one’s public faith witness, and in Proverbs Solomon tells us that “the more words that are spoken the more likely we are to transgress” (Prov. 10:19) and that “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21).  At first this may seem a bit of an over the top reaction, but sadly we know it to be true.  Verbal bullying has resulted in teens ending their lives.  Bullying can severely harm and damage the soul of an innocent child. 

For James, the way a person handles their words shows a great sign of spiritual maturity, and I believe this to be true.  If you have ever spent time with children, people with developmental disabilities, or the elderly who endure dementia, you likely know that when someone is not completely cognitively there that they often lack a filter.  They may sometimes say things which no one else would get away with. As a child grows up, they learn that some of their words and phrases are no longer culturally sensitive or appropriate and they learn that when they are angry, they cannot just lash out at someone and expect to get good results.  The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 that when we were children we thought, acted, and behaved in the way a child does.  We spoke in baby language.  But as we become adults, we mature, and we learn to speak, act, and behave the way an adult does.  We must put away childish things if we are to grow more into the likeness and image of Christ.  

To put words into visual images, James gives us four different pictures to show how the tongue can be used for good or evil.   First, James says the tongue is like a bridle used for a horse.  This would have been an image that many in the ancient world connected to because they were used to seeing horses in military capacities. A wayward horse could really put an army operation at risk.  The second image used is the ship’s rudder – again a common form of transportation in that day. The third image is of a forest fire, and the fourth image is that of the body being corrupted through disease.  All four of these images share a few common threads – firstly, they all are means of control, secondly, they are small things which can grow and expand into destruction.  Yet, whereas the first two images: a horses bridle and a ship’s rudder are rather theoretical, the example of a forest fire is destructive.  In Canada 1 in 4 fires are caused by carelessness – even a small cigarette left unstamped can cause severe damage, a burner left unattended can bring damage to a kitchen, and an unattended ember left at the site of a campfire can quickly spread to greater extremes.  I love the way the Message version puts it, “by speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it.”  

The discussion continues when we consider the difference between humans and animals.  Humans are given a greater intellect, emotional capability, and spiritual yearning, but yet as Eugene Peterson writes in the Message, “You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame the tongue.” I liked this analogy that I came across as I was researching for this sermon.  When we were younger, many of us had to go for check-ups at the doctor’s.  One of the things the doctor did was to depress our tongue with a wooden stick and look inside our mouths.  Sometimes the doctor would even ask us to stick out our tongue (probably the only time we would ever get away with it).  A skilled doctor can tell a lot about our physical health just by looking at our tongues, and people can tell a lot about our spiritual health by the words we speak and the way we speak them.  

I can’t help but think as well that in this day and age social media and texting have become an extension of our tongues.  So much irreparable damage has been done in the heat of the moment through firing off an angry email or text or through posting something on social media without a second thought.  We may come to regret it later, but once something is said, it can never be taken back.  I used to do this activity with my Sunday School children where I took out a tube of toothpaste and squeezed as much out as I possibly could.  I would then ask the kids to try to put the toothpaste back into the tube.  Of course despite all their great ideas of how to do so, it remained impossible.  It is the same with our words.  Once they are out, the damage has been done.  

In the last part of this passage, James addresses a certain conundrum.  How is it that the tongue can be so inconsistent?  Such an enigma, so complex, and such a paradox?  Almost to the level of being an oxymoron?  It is the great mystery and puzzle of life that our tongue can be used for both good and for bad.  That our words can be both worshipful and wicked, our speech sacred or sinful.  James draws on this as a series of impossibilities: a fresh spring cannot produce salt water because a spring is to be pure, fig trees cannot produce olives, and a grapevine cannot produce figs.  As the Eugene Peterson writes in the Message, “you are not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of cold, clear water, are you?”  It is the same for those who are living into God’s image.  When we are following God, we have a call for accountability.  Someone who delights in God cannot speak evil of someone else whom God delights in.  Words of racism, sexism, and classism have no role or function for them.  Someone who desires a heart like God’s conducts themselves in a way that values and esteems others providing them with dignity and worth.  Words are weighty and there is no better example than to point out that Hitler is often cited as one of the best speakers of all time along with Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr. And Mr. Rogers.  This just shows how words can so easily be used or misused to either inspire or harm the masses.  
People may pretend to be all sort of things.  When we first meet them they may try to convince us that they are someone they aren’t through sweet talk or impressive words, but eventually a person’s real character will always reveal itself.  Eventually a person can no longer keep up with the façade, and the let something slip which shows who they really are.  

This was the case in John Bunyan’s famous book “Pilgrim’s Progress.”  For those not familiar with this book, a pilgrim named Christian tries to find his way into the Celestial City (or Heaven) and encounters various traps and temptations on his way.  These temptations are all personified in characters.  One character he meets is named Mr. Talkative.  At first, Mr. Talkative appears to be very refined and informed, he speaks eloquently, even spouting off Christian Scripture and doctrine, yet his fake spiritual disciplines gradually get exposed and Christian discovers that “religion has no place in his heart, his house, or his conversation” all he is saying is mere noise without weight.  

At first this reflection may generally appear to be bad news. Hearing about how the tongue can harm can be quite distressing and alarming, and yet it is also a great conviction for us to consider our speech carefully.  Just as the tongue can be used to destroy, it can also be used to heal.  Our words can encourage and affirm another who is struggling to find their own path.  Our words can bring great inspiration and can even begin to cause positive change on major issues.  God has given us a voice for advocacy, reasoning, and guidance.  These positive attributes should never be forgotten in light of the damages we just discussed.  It is good for us to continually check on our spiritual heath through our words and to ask a few key people who we are close to to also help steer us in the right direction when we go astray.  
To conclude today’s sermon I would like to leave you with four resolutions that 18th century theologian and revivalist Jonathan Edwards left us with when it comes to speech.   

  1. Resolved, Never to say anything at all against anybody, but when it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of Christian honor, and of love to mankind, agreeable to the lowest humility, and sense of my own faults and failings, and agreeable to the golden rule; often, when I have said anything against any one, to bring it to, and try it strictly by, the test of this Resolution. 
  2. Resolved, In narrations never to speak anything but the pure and simple verity. 
  3. Resolved, Never to speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call to it. 
  4. Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak. 

May God guide and direct us this week as we seek to honour one another through our deeds but also through our words seasoned with love, grace, mercy, tolerance, and acceptance.  May it be so.  Amen.  

The Synergy of Faith (Sermon from September 5, 2021 on James 2:14-26)

What image or attributes immediately come to mind when you think about living the Christian life?

The answer, may of course, profoundly vary depending on your own denominational upbringing and previous church experiences, yet they probably include some combination of the following: personal spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible reading, attendance and involvement at church, sharing our faith with those around us, and perhaps, most importantly, our acts of service.  

Bible reading and prayer are vitally important to a Christian’s life.  They are our toolkit and handbook for living in a way that pleases God, and yet, studies have shown over and over again that missional living and providing love and compassion to the vulnerable and marginalized is really what draws people into the church.  Think about it for a minute.  For those of you in this congregation who did not grow up attending a local church, what first drew you to Christianity?  Perhaps even to this specific church?

Many people first started attending a church not because they drove past a flashy billboard or because they were walking around the neighbourhood and noticed this interesting building one day.  Most people started coming around because they were drawn in by relationships. Every year people seem to stumble upon churches even if it’s only for something like accessing the food bank or getting a pair of clean jeans, but then they end up staying when they notice that the church is full of love and warmth and truly accepts them just the way they are.

This is a similar scenario to what we discover in the book of James.  James, the brother of Jesus and author of this epistle was writing to a group of Jewish Christians who had lost the soul of their faith.  Sure they were very devout and regularly practiced the laws and traditions which they considered important to them, but instead of making the congregants excited, they were simply going through the motions.  They were more concerned with acquiring their own wealth than in providing for the needs of poor.   In general, their actions were selfish and focused only on what would give them the greatest gain.  This then led to the believers being rather silent and inactive.  Their faith was rather passive.  Something akin to going to church and hearing a message but not letting it convict them.  Doing the bare basics to keep some connection to their faith, but not pushing themselves out of their comfort zone.

This is why James presents an interesting philosophical conundrum what works better: faith without works or works without faith?  In other words, what’s more important: God-talk or God-acts?

Let’s explore both of these possibilities and see what conclusion we can draw.  First we will look at the idea behind faith without works. Faith is very important.  The Bible repeatedly points out to us that faith is what ultimately brings us salvation, faith is a gift sent from God and given to those of us who will believe and receive it and salvation is not achieved through any actions that we do on our own merit.  

I remember back when I was 19 I went through a time in my life when my soul was often filled with anxiety.  Back then I believed that it was my own good deeds which would gain me entry to heaven.  I had many late night talks with my roomates at my Christian university who believed otherwise.  One day in desperation one of them told me to read the book of Ephesians for myself.  I got to Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace that you have been saved, and this is not of yourselves, it is a gift of God, lest anyone should boast.”  Reading this verse made all the weights fall off me like a ton of bricks.  I no longer feared for my eternal security.  I no longer worried if I was good enough for God.  I knew in that moment that God loved me and accepted me unconditionally, that God truly forgave any missteps and mistakes from my past.  My anxiety completely disappeared.  

This is the same for James, James is not telling us in this passage that our salvation is works based.  Our eternal status will stay the same whether we do good works or not.  He is not leading us into an unhealthy questioning of salvation.  However, James is still urging us to consider doing good to others, not because it will make God value us more, but because it will help us to mature in our faith.  It will help us to become more Christlike.  After all just one verse later in Ephesians 2:10 after we are given the assurance of our salvation, Paul writes, “for you are God’s handiwork created in Christ Jesus to do good works.”  It is part of our Christian mission to help others, and if we are truly wanting to follow the ways of Christ then it is hardwired in our DNA to search out ways to help anyone who is hurting. Furthermore, James shows that this type of service is continual.  It is not a one-off event, but it is something that all believers will joyfully return to again and again in their pursuit of pleasing God.

James uses a very concrete example in the story of a sibling who comes to the church in need of help only to be told to stay warm and well fed without any physical sustenance provided.  James asks a rhetorical question: “can such a faith save him?”  The answer is no.  The Bible might be food to our souls, but it is not the physical daily bread that we actually require to survive. Faith without works is dead and believing without doing anything is utterly useless.  We cannot get paid if we decide not to show up at work, we cannot expect to be fed if farmers just believe there will be a harvest without tending to the land, and we cannot presume that good deeds will be done just by virtue of our faith without the effort.

Now the second option that James presents to us is the possibility of works without faith.  At first this does not sound like too bad of an option.  After all, I am sure that we all know many people who are Atheists or Agnostics who are philanthropists, care about social causes, and are actively involved in their community.  Many of these Atheists still live very moral and upright lives and many of them still hold a desire to help others and to make the world a better place.  So then what is the difference between a Christian who is doing good works and an atheist who is also doing good works?

The difference stems from the place of motivation.  For a Christian, the motivation comes from wanting to extend the peace, justice and mercy of Jesus and ultimately to express their faith through works.  An atheist might also be driven by many good factors – a desire to right injustice, a desire to end oppression, or a wish to bring peace and harmony, but ultimately their motives only get them so far.  For an atheist, the most important thing is this world.  Any good deeds are done to make life on this earth more bearable and tolerable.  For a Christian, our values are eternal.  We do things because we want them to have a Kingdom Impact.

At first it can be easy to look at this picture as an either-or dichotomy.  Either we are faith based or we are works based.  Either we are more concerned with personal piety or with communal commitment.  And we definitely can point to many denominations which hold a preference of one over the other.  Sadly, these preferences have sometimes led to misunderstandings.  There are many people today who do not hold a high regard of the Evangelical church believing that their sole objective is simply to convert people and to maintain that there is only one way into heaven.  There are also sadly some Evangelicals who look down on social justice minded churches believing them to be more enmeshed with the ways of the world than with the Gospel of Christ.  Unfortunately, choosing one option as more vital and meaningful over the other only leads to further division and harm.  James’s answer lies not in making a choice or even meeting somewhere down the middle in a compromise, but rather in bringing faith and work together hand in hand and lifting both up as equally important in Gospel work.

For James, the height of Christ’s love stems from having an active and living faith.  Mere theology alone might be fascinating for some who wish to be scholars and students of religion, but without that practical piece can become cold, sterile and unfeeling.  Mere good works alone might be of interest to people who are given to activism and advocacy, but can also lead to burn-out, anger and even depression when one realizes that it is impossible to correct all wrongs.  James suggests that there is a third option – that faith and works are inseparable and that by combining the two, Christians will be able to have a truly energizing mission. The Greek work that is used in this combination is “Sunergeo” which to me sounds like synergy a word that the dictionary describes as “the interaction or cooperation of two or more agents producing a far greater effect than the sum of their separate effects.” On their own either faith or works would be very good things, but together they are powerful.  For James, belief is not merely given through intellect or conviction, but through action and love.

What does a living faith look like in our time?  Where do you see signs of hope springing up around you?

I see hope in the new job I started out of St. Thomas.  I now work for a Christian charity  which helps homeless and at-risk people transition from shelters to affordable housing.  Wrapping around our clients in love and offering support, we are able to help many people find their own purpose and value.  Where once they were not accepted and perhaps did not even feel loved, today they are experiencing new grace, freedom, and community.  We look beyond their past – beyond their addictions, mental wellness issues, or even their criminal offenses and we seek to pierce their hearts with connection and confidence.  Are all of our clients Christian?  No, many of them are not.  Will all of our clients become Christian?  Probably not.  We share our faith, but we do not force our faith.  However, my only hope is that even if the individuals we support never decide to align with any type of spiritual practices, that they will discover there is something unique about a Christian who loves because they have first been loved by God.

I saw this same hope when I was working as a student chaplain in inner-city Saskatoon.  The chaplains I worked with and myself tried to see beyond the gangs, drugs, and violence and to treat the person with the dignity of a beloved child of God.  Many of my patients told me at first that they were not Christian and had no interest in religion and just wanted to be left alone, but when they discovered that Spiritual care was more than just proselytizing some of them were happy just to have someone to talk and share with.  They left the hospital smiling and thanking us for  having invested in their stay.  Perhaps it got some of them to think about the faith of their childhood.  Perhaps some might make that journey back to the church one day.  But for now that’s not the point.  For now, they have left knowing that to be a Christian means to give and receive love.

This was the same type of living faith I saw this past Tuesday when I attended a drop-in church on the steps of Central United Church in Downtown Windsor.  A group of people whom society would probably deem as rag-tags and misfits discovered that they really do fit into the grand scheme of God’s plan and it was in a homeless man offering the minister hospitality in the form of a half-smoked cigarette that I truly saw the face of Christ.

It’s true that our upbringings, our temperaments, our own interests and values may drive us more towards faith or more towards work, but Christ’s life wants to draw us to the throne of love.  God’s compassion wants to draw us to the character of God.  God’s grace wants to draw us towards God’s generosity.  God is loving, accepting, and committed to each one of us and it becomes our joy to be loving, accepting, and committed to those that we will meet this week.  Our faith works not because we always do the right actions or say the right things, but because we give the Holy Spirit permission to work through us.  This week, I pray that we will be mindful of those who are in need of love, those who are in need of a home, and those who are in need of encouragement.  For when we offer hospitality to those whom society views as undeserving, we actually are giving directly back to Christ.  May it be so.  Amen.

Finding Christ in a Half Smoked Cigarette

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The Statue of the Homeless Jesus was first sculpted by Timothy Schmalz and installed at Regis College in Toronto. Similar statues have now been placed around the world.

On a Tuesday night in downtown Windsor, about a dozen people gather outside the old Central United Church – a building that has been there since 1904.  Chairs are out, some bring their walkers, and a boy around eight or nine eagerly greets all the “congregants” handing them out water bottles and a snack bag comprising of a banana, granola bar, and a pack of Bear Paws.  The church that runs this outreach is called “Lifeline” and they have been in the central core neighbourhood for the past five years or so.  

I arrive right at 6:30pm, and when I get there, I do not see any action – I only notice two visibly homeless men on the church steps smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.  I go up to them and dare to ask, “Is there anything happening here tonight?”  They look puzzled, unsure of what I am referring to.  One of them, the man who has been drinking a four pack of beer looks at me, “Whatcha mean darlin?”  “Like a meeting or something…” I query.  The man takes a stab at what he thinks I’m referring to, “You mean like AA?”  “Not quite” I counter, “something like a church service.”  They both shrug signifying they really do not know or care what I am looking for.  Finally, the other man who appears a bit more sober, tries his hand at sweet talking me.  “Beautiful lady,” he says not impolitely.  “I  love your shirt.  I love the roses on it.  Life is full of beauty.”  And I have to marvel in awe at how right he is.  A homeless man recounting gratitude in an age when most of us want more.  He suggests that the church service might be happening on the other side of the building, but admits he doesn’t know for sure.  I thank him for his directions and as I walk over to the other side I hear him yell out, “You’re so beautiful!”  

It is 6:35pm and finally I notice one of the gentlemen from the church carrying some chairs out, I offer to help him.  We set them up and then I notice another group of people are setting up the snack table.  We all settle in.  6:40pm.  The pastor strums a few songs on his guitar – some sacred, some secular, but all careful chosen for this occasion.

About six homeless folx and a few people from the church carefully watch the pastor with rapt attention.  A few more briefly stop to listen, grab a bag of goodies, and then head out on their way.  After a few songs, the pastor stops playing and puts down his guitar ready to offer a reflection.  Not a sermon, just a quick word of encouragement.  He is just getting into his talk about how Jesus accepts and loves everyone, when a homeless man who I will call “Barney” stops the pastor and very animatedly has his own conversation.  This is the same man I met earlier who was drinking the four pack.  The pastor gracious indulges him, before Barney says he will only leave once a song from the East Coast is played.  The pastor obliges him a bit later on.  For now, Barney’s attention has shifted to the goodie table where I see him talking to the others and trying to sneak a drink of the hand sanitizer.  

When the pastor is done sharing his message, Barney is back giving the pastor a litany of song requests.  The pastor is gracious, forming and building a relationship, not telling Barney to be quiet, but rather just honouring his presence as a beloved child of God.

Right as the service is nearing its end, a homeless man barges up to the front of the steps.  He has not been there at all throughout the service, but suddenly he finds a pause and he wants to do a good deed.  He hands the pastor a cigarette, which the pastor declines, but in that moment I see his gentle spirit of hospitality.  This homeless man does not take any of the snacks he was offered, he only wanted to help someone else.

I work in the homeless sector myself and sometimes it can be easy to imagine the reasons why someone is homeless.  Judgement sometimes triumphs over mercy rather than the other way around.  Yet, it was on this day, on the stairs outside an old imposing church, with the odor of body sweat and stale beer, that I truly saw God.  It was a sacred moment where those who occupied spaces of the high and low, those caught in the cycle of addiction and poverty and those willing to give back, all found themselves co-mingled together in God’s embrace.  I have attended many different churches and denominations over the years.  When I was in seminary, I was often required to visit churches which seemed unfamiliar and foreign.  I went to inner-city and rural churches.  I visited the Charismatics and the Catholics, the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians, the Apostolics and the Anglicans and I have always found a home.  Yet, it was on this day that church began to have different meaning to me.  It was on this day that I saw that church is not simply about what we preach, but about what we practice, and that sometimes Christ is found in a half smoked cigarette.  Sometimes devotion pours out from a drunken man, and sometimes trust is formed from the basis of trauma.  

Finding Our Identity in Funhouse Mirrors (August 29, 2021 Sermon from Psalm 15 and James 1:17-27)

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If you were to describe yourself in a few words what would you say?  What do you consider your identity to be?  

When I think of who I am and the multiple identities I hold I can say that I am a thirty year old, a student chaplain, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a mental wellness worker, a writer, and a traveller to say a few things.  I am biracial of mixed Eastern European and Asian decent, a native English speaker, and a Canadian citizen born a Windsorite.  I also am a wannabe Scottish lass.  These are all things that give you a glimpse into who I am, but there is one aspect that overshadows everything else: I am a Christian.  I am someone who follows Christ, who wants to be more like Him, and who is training to be in ministry because I want others to know they are also known and loved by God.

In today’s Scripture passage from the book of James, two questions are brought to our attention.  The first one is Who is God?  And the second one is: Who are we in relation to God?  

We will begin first by looking at who God is.  The book of James refers to God as the creator of heavenly lights in whom there is no shifting shadow.  This references the fact that God made us and knows each one of us personally.  God is invested into our daily lives and wants to be part of our world.  This verse also mentions that God does not change – that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  

We all change and these changes can bring with them new identities.  For example: first you were single, and now you might be married.  First you were an employee, and now you might be a supervisor or project manager.  First you were young and then you got older.  At one point in time you might have worked and your identity might have centred around job roles and responsibilities, and now you may be retired.  For a large chunk of your life you might have self-identified as a student, and now you may think of yourself more as a professional who continually learns and grows on the job.  Many of us face major life changes at various points in our lives: the birth of a child or grandchild, our own children or grandchildren getting married and having a family of their own, moving to a different geographical location, changing careers, discovering a new hobby or interest and so on.  When these changes occur we stay the same person but our identity grows and develops, but God who is perfect always remains the same and some of God’s identities are listed to us in the Bible.  

Many of us grew up with the understanding of God as our Father and this is true, but the Bible also describes God in many other ways including as a friend, a comforter, a healer, a restorer, redeemer, companion, and teacher to name a few.  At various times in Scripture God refers to characteristics such as love, patience, faithfulness, and steadfastness.  

This shows that God can also have many identities and yet still be one person, yet God does not change in the way that humans do.  A person can decide one day that they no longer want to be a painter, a writer, a poet, or a musician and just put their gifts and talents away, but God can’t do that. In fact, in 1 Timothy 2:11-13 we read, “Here is a trustworthy saying: if we died with Him, we will also live with him.  If we endure, we will also reign with Him, if we disown Him, He will also disown us.  If we are faithless, God remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”

Now that we know how God is described in the Bible, the question is: do you see yourself as you truly are?  The way God sees you?

When I was in Scotland I met a brilliant minister who described the concept of identity to me like being in a fun house.  If you have ever visited a fun house you know that there are various types of mirrors.  Some mirrors may make you look taller or shorter, some might make you look thinner or bigger (guess which one most of us would choose), and some might even make you have funny faces.  When we look at the mirror we can laugh because we know that this is not really who we are – it is a distortion of what we actually look like, but sometimes in our own lives we easily forget that.  We let other people define us.  

When we were younger we might have had a teacher tell us that we weren’t good at drawing or painting and even as an adult we might still believe that we are not artistically gifted.  We might have had someone tell us that we couldn’t carry a tune so in our adult life we might be self-conscious to make a joyful noise.  We might even have had someone tell us that we weren’t going to do well in university and so we should just consider joining the workforce.  As an adult we might still believe that we are incapable of doing something or that we aren’t a strong learner.  Believing these negative things that others have said to us can really hold us back from doing the things that would truly be life-giving to us.

Instead of letting others define us, though, we can choose to listen to the ways God defines us.  In the book of James we are told that we are the first fruits of God’s creation.  If you have ever picked your own apples or other fruit at a farm, you know how exciting it is to take the fruit right off the tree or vine.  Yet, in Biblical times, first fruits had even greater significance because it meant that a greater harvest was yet to come.  This is how God sees us.  We belong to God, we are claimed by God, and we are wanted by God.  God sees our full potential even if we don’t.  God knows that we were created for even more than we believe we are capable of.    God is the great gardener who plants, tends, and waters our souls so that we can produce beautiful flowers and bear fruit in our own lives that will help others.

The second half of the passage asks us a new question: Who are we in relation to God?  What James is asking here is really pointing to the difference between religion and spirituality.  

We probably all know someone who is very religious: they likely make sure to carefully keep all the rituals and traditions, they never miss a Sunday at church, and they are always quick to correct someone else who they feel is living their lives all wrong.  These people may have a head full of Biblical wisdom, but the question is: do they have a heart full of Christian love?  

Then we have people who are spiritual but not religious.  They may claim no religious doctrine at all, they may not even hold a belief or faith in Christ or a recognized Higher Power, but they believe that there is something greater out there and they try to live a moral life and help others.

Somewhere in between these two extremes lies the true Biblical lifestyle.  When someone is fully living for Christ, they do not merely concern themselves with Biblical commands, nor do they create their own version of belief, but instead they look to how they can demonstrate Christ’s love to others through outward acts.  They have a sensitive spirit, and they wish to relieve others from unnecessary suffering. In Aramaic the word “Spirituality” actually translates to “true ministry” and these are the people who really want to minister to others for the right reasons.

Now what’s interesting about this text is that James could have said anything when addressing the topic of spirituality and later on in the passage he does address some social justice themes, but he starts off with first drawing on personal character.  James writes that anyone who truly wants to follow Christ must be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry because anger can diminish one’s ability to be an effective spiritual role model. The Message translation of the Bible reads, “lead with your ears, follow with your tongue, let anger straggle along in the rear.”

Just for interest’s sake, I decided to find a few fun facts about listening to share with you all.  Did you know that 85% of what we learn is through listening rather than talking or reading something, and yet, after someone has shared we only immediately retain about 50% of what the person said and that is assuming that we found the topic interesting.  An hour later we actually only remember 20% and 75% of the time we are distracted, preoccupied, and forgetful.  This explains why sometimes  you hear an inspiring sermon or powerful testimony and later on in the day you can’t totally recall all the details.  This is also why I personally like to take sermon notes.

Our world is constantly filled with noise and chaos, and yet there are not many people who truly listen to what we are saying.  These past two weeks I took a United Church course from the Centre for Christian Studies and one of the topics we addressed was related to conflict.  The truth is that almost all conflicts can be avoided simply by respectfully listening to someone, honouring their differences, and properly hearing their concerns, and yet too often people want to jump in with their own agenda and steamroll others.  Sometimes in the midst of an argument it can be easy to think about our next comeback line rather than to take a moment to pause and reflect.  There are times when we are in a group setting and are so emotionally attached to a topic that we can’t even fully hear what the other person is saying because we are so excited just to formulate our own thoughts that we can’t wait to share with those around us.  At least this has been the case with me in my own life as an extrovert.

Being slow to speak is another challenge in our society.  Today with so many of us using social media and technology, it can be very easy to just share everything about ourselves online and sometimes this is to our detriment.  Sometimes in the heat of anger, it can be very tempting to send someone a nasty text and when we do not see the person in front of us we can forget that the person behind the screen also has feelings.  The best advice I can give is that if you are seriously angry about something, please hide your phone and don’t log onto Facebook until you’ve been able to calm down a bit.

Slow to become angry can be a confusing request at first.  After all, it is sometimes because of righteous anger that major changes have taken place in our society.  It was anger that caused the Suffragettes to fight for a woman’s right to vote, anger that caused abolitionists to stand up against slavery, and anger that caused people to care more about the environment.  Yet the anger that James is describing here is not that type of anger – he is referring to resentments which eat away at us, cause us to lose sleep, and cause us to be generally unhappy people.  James cautions that these attitudes can hinder our effectiveness as ministering people rather than promoting righteous purposes. Instead James urges us to be careful, thoughtful listeners, to carefully choose our words, and to be patient, reflective, and forgiving.

In the last part of the passage, James urges us to be doerers rather than hearers and he uses the analogy of a mirror.  When we wake up in the morning, many of us look at a mirror.  We make sure we brush our teeth, that our hair is brushed, and perhaps we even put on make up.  Now imagine that you looked at a mirror and you saw that you had a huge streak across your face, but as soon as you left the washroom you forgot all about it and went to the party looking like that.  What do you imagine others would think?  Perhaps they would point it out to you and you might become embarrassed.

This is how it is with God’s children.  If our desire is to be set apart from the world’s agendas, then we need to spend time gazing deeply at the Bible which acts as our mirror.  We need to ask God to reveal the things that we need to become conscious of.  We need to be alert to times when we are given encouragement or even correction from others.  In this passage being a hearer implies hearing instruction from God but then failing to internalize it.  Basically hearing something convicting and letting it brush off us rather than applying it to our situations.  This is different than doing which implies an active and continual obedience to God’s precepts.  In other words it’s not a one shot deal.  We might need to be reminded again and again of the same thing.

 Here’s an example: say that you were trying to have a healthier lifestyle.  It wouldn’t be enough just to eat fruits and vegetables and go for a long walk today after church and then eat chips and chocolates for the rest of the week and expect to have good results.  We would need to apply ourselves daily, we would need to make the right choices every day if we wanted to see improvement by the end of the month.  It’s that kind of commitment that James is referring to here.

We began this sermon by considering how we describe ourselves and how we see our own identity.  In Psalm 15 David asks “Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain” and he answers his own question with these words, “Only the one whose walk is blameless.”

It is impossible for any of us to be blameless.  We all falter and fail at various times.  There are times when we need to rely on the help and support of others to help pick us up, and yet, we all are worthy of entering into God’s presence.  

We are invited to come into God’s midst not because we have done all the right things, not because we always live out true spirituality, and not because we have all mastered the perfect balance between speaking and listening and never getting angry.  Rather we are part of God’s family because God sees us as His first fruits.  He sees us for what we are capable of becoming.  He delights in the harvest we bring in through reaching out and loving those around us.  There are many ways that we can see ourselves and some of those ways are accurate and others are more like those fun house mirrors which seek to give us a false perception, but there is only one way that God sees us.  God sees us all as beloved children, as worthy of love, and as deserving of His grace.  It is only in claiming our true identity in Christ, that we will able to serve and bless others.

May it be so.  Amen.

“Cave Time” – Psalm 34 (August 21, 2021)

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When was the last time you were in a cave?  If you have never been in one, you can imagine what it would be like. What did you see?  What did you hear?  How did you feel?  What did you experience?

I have not been to too many caves in my life.  In 2010, I was able to visit the Caves of Qumran in Israel where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and about two years ago I visited Gilmerton Cove, a hidden cave in Edinburgh where the Scottish Covenanters (a group of 17th Century Presbyterians who were against the country’s religious and political views at the time) hid for their own lives.  When I think back to my experience of being in these caves, I remember them as being dark, cold, and damp.  However, caves aren’t such bad places to spend time in because while they do have these negative characteristics, they also have positive ones; they are quiet, often remain at the same temperature, and provide natural shelter from storms. From a practical Biblical worldview, caves also would have made the perfect spot to hide from enemies as was the case with David.

David, the writer of this Psalm, found himself in a cave not just physically but also spiritually and emotionally.  Although this Psalm is a stand-alone chapter, it’s important to recognize the context of what came before it, this is all outlined in the book of  First Samuel.  Believe it or not, the cave story doesn’t start with David, it actually starts with Saul.  When Samuel, a great prophet of God, first met Saul, Saul was shy, a spotlight dodger, and lacked confidence.  The Bible describes Saul more or less as a nobody.  He was from the smallest tribe in all of Israel (the tribe of Benjamin).  This tribe was only 25 miles in length and 12 miles in width – so smaller than the distance from Windsor to Essex, yet the area was strategically located and had a population of just over 35,000 people.  The Bible says that Saul stumbled upon his kingship accidentally – he was looking for his father’s donkeys that had gotten loose when he turned in to ask Samuel for advice.  Samuel told Saul where the donkeys were alright, but he told Saul something else – that he would be the first King of Israel.  With this new knowledge, Saul hid from the crowd on coronation day until the other Israelites found him and dragged him out.  We are told that Saul was 30 years old when he was appointed King and he had a reign of 42 years.

Saul did not start off entirely corrupt.  Sure, he lacked wisdom, experience, and inner strength, but he also followed what he was commanded to do and as such was able to rescue some of the Israelite cities from destruction.  It didn’t take long, though, before Saul’s insecurities led to narcissism and he began to do thing his own way without accountability to anyone else.  Saul soon became rebellious, self-seeking, and eventually even rejected God’s ways in favour of his own.  The Bible actually says that as a result of this there came a definite point when God had enough and the Holy Spirit’s presence departed from Saul.  This is when David, a young shepherd boy, who is equally powerless, inexperienced, and naive enters the scene, and yet David exudes a sense of confidence and faith in God almost immediately that quickly endears him to those around him.  It’s a little vague, but the gist of it is that even though David is now King, Saul still thinks he is.  Saul refuses to relinquish his power and control, and begins to feel a professional jealousy towards David.  Although the Bible describes the emotion as jealousy, we know that what it really stems from is anger and fear.  This anger and fear causes Saul to try to kill David on several occasions, but his lack of success drives David to flee for his life.  

David’s flight first takes him to Gath, where he was unable to find refuge.  It was here that he came face to face with the evil king Achish.  A king who mocks him and seems to want to cause him harm.  David is afraid and acts undignified rather than King-like and once again takes off.  

This is how David finds himself in the Cave of Adullam – a limestone cave in the mountains of Judah between Philista and Hebron. This cave is the perfect place for David – not only is it a good hiding spot, but it is also highly protected – because it is on Philistine territory if Saul were to attempt to attack it the Philistines would defend it. David has now found himself between the proverbial rock and hard place – between fleeing from King Saul and fleeing from his other enemy King Achish.  King Achish is also called Abimelech in some translations though scholars suggest that this is a title rather than a proper name.  

It is in this cave that David becomes a band leader of a group of misfits whom the Bible describes as distressed, indebted, and discontented, probably not unlike how David would have felt given the circumstances and he asks them to allow him to stay with them until he learns what God will do for him (1 Samuel 22:3).

How would you feel if you were fleeing for your very life?  I think this is an image that many of us have heard about in the news such as when we consider the issue of the refugee crisis, but it is likely not one that most of us here have experienced.  If I were to run for my life, I think I would feel a mixture of shock, fear, and exhaustion.  And it’s important to remember that back then this was not about hopping in your car and driving over the speed limit, David likely literally and physically ran for his life.  I started training to run a 5K about 4 weeks ago and I am already tired after every session.

Yet, David seems to take a different approach.  He is not filled with self-pity, he does not collapse in exhaustion, and he doesn’t hold on to a grudge of bitterness.  Instead it was in this cave and at this particular time in his life that David proceeded to write three Psalms.  Today we know these Psalms as Psalm 34, 57, and 142.  These Psalms all capture the spirit of crying out to God in the midst of great distress, and seeking God in a time of great fear and anxiety.  Psalm 57:1 in particular sums this up perfectly “I will take refuge in the shadow of Your Wings until the disaster has passed.”

At first all looks bleak.  David feels abandoned, disillusioned, and starts to wonder where God is in the mess, but with God’s help, the cave becomes a symbol of character building, strength, and hopefulness.  It is in the cave that David’s inner being is developed.  Instead of seeking revenge when he is given multiple opportunities to kill the very man who wants to murder him, David refuses to act unjustly.  Instead of giving into a wave of defeat, David decides to depend on God, instead of allowing the trials to swallow him up, David learns complete trust, and instead of choosing to sin, David decides to surrender to God. Therefore, what looks to us like a massive frustration, becomes a great source of fruitfulness.  David refuses to be a victim, instead he pushes himself to become victorious.  Theologian James Montgomery Boice articulates this whole notion beautifully, “David may have been hiding in a cave, but his heart was hiding in the Lord.”   An unknown theologian said it perfectly “many are the afflictions, but more are the deliverances.”   It is sometimes in the most pain and inner chaos that our most beautiful moments are formed.  Think about how many inspiring songs, beautiful hymns, meaningful prayers, and poignant poems were produced by individuals during the bleakest seasons of their lives.  Think about how many artists have created beautiful emotive masterpieces through seasons of depression and loss.  Perhaps even some here can relate to how close God felt in those times even though it felt like everything around you was collapsing.  

In Psalm 34 David earnestly cries out to God.  The imagery he gives of God is of a deliverer who rescues him by pulling him out of a pit.  The challenge he gives himself is to continue to believe that God provides for the righteous, and the action point David requests of his listeners is one of praise and thanksgiving. David acknowledges that belief in God does not equate with an absence of difficulties and trials.  He notes that even the lions (the most noble wild beasts of the day) will sometimes be hungry, but in the same breath he trusts God with provision and sustenance.  This is a call not just to moral uprightness but also to spiritual integrity.  I like the imagery of God as a compassionate lover of Creation.  It reminds me that through the struggles, God still loves our world.  Even though we constantly hear of upheaval in the news, political dissension, natural disasters, external divisions, and economic collapses, that God is still bringing good things in.  Humans may sometimes take advantage or even trample those things, but God still provides beauty, grace, and righteousness to this life.  Think about the ways that children show innocent wonder, the ways activists practice solidarity, and the ways churches provide for the least of these.  These are all signs that goodness is not extinct, that truth is not dead.

Where do you need God to show up in your own life this week?  What image of God do you need to hold in your mind today?  Are there things in your life that are causing you to call out for God and to seek after God? What is afflicting you and of what do you need to be delivered?  Are we living from a place of grumbling or of gratitude?

This past week, one of my friends from my clinical pastoral education class put out a challenge to write a Psalm in our own words.  I would like to close with a poem I wrote based on Psalm 34 that I hope will be uplifting to you this morning:

I will lift God’s Name up at all times

Telling everyone I meet about the awesome things He has done,

The hidden surprises He has brought,

And the stealthy ways He has moved.

I will talk about how great God is,

Even when I feel defeated, deflated, disappointed and depressed.

I hope you will join me in elevating this Name.

I looked for God, but at first it was in all the wrong places.

At first I looked for Him in places of fame, fortune, and status,

I sought for Him on the road to relationships,

Looked for Him on the path to prestige,

Jumped into the lake of lust,

Swam in the river of regrets,

He was nowhere to be found.

But when I truly called out to the Lord in eager expectation,

When I cried out in trying tears,

He heard me, and He yelled back “Here I am!”

I was in a pit of pretense,

A snare of sin,

A prison of passivity,

And He lifted me out

Setting my feet on the rock of righteousness.

Those who look to God,

Whose sole desire is to find rest in Him,

Suddenly change their tune,

No longer singing a song of self, but of salvation.

Their hymn of holiness rather than a poem of pride,

Shame has no meaning to them,

They are not ensnared in guilt,

For they have access to heavenly glory.

I knew a man once, he was poor and had nothing,

Even his backpack was barren,

His clothes tattered and torn.

Yet all he did was cry out “God, please help!”

And God did.

He didn’t even have to wait for God was with him.

God is everywhere, but He is especially close to those who want Him to be,

Those who want deliverance from the collateral damage of this world.

God invites us to dig into His Word,

Just like it’s a huge piece of chocolate cake.

He invites us to jump into His peace,

As if it were a cool, refreshing spring on a hot day.

God doesn’t hold back,

He doesn’t deny access to His throne,

He doesn’t keep treasures to Himself,

Nor does He force forgiveness,

He only offers it freely.

His only invitation “come.”

If you love life,

If you long for love,

If you are crawling towards compassion,

Pursue peace. It’s there.

God looks after the weak and weary,

His ears perk up when He hears injustice,

His heart pangs when He perceives pain.

The Lord is close to the broken,

He bandages the bemused,

He performs surgery for the stricken,

First-aid for the frustrated,

CPR for the one who has lost their childhood.

That’s not to say life will be perfect,

No more troubles from henceforth,

But it is to say that God is true in trials,

Trustworthy in tests,

He builds and restores,

He fuses together the parts that are broken.

It’s not like that for those who choose not to access His grace,

But the rescue is there for the restless and righteous.

Anyone who chooses Him won’t be disappointed.