Archive for October, 2015

“Calling to Repentance,” (Sermon, October 14th)

‘But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practised, without neglecting the others. 43Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places. 44Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.’

45 One of the lawyers answered him, ‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too.’ 46And he said, ‘Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.

Luke 11: 42-46


Several years ago there was a molestation scandal at Pennsylvania State University involving football coach Jerry Sandusky, who used The Second Mile charity for underprivileged and at risk youth that he founded to locate and groom victims.

What was most shocking about this scandal was the fact that many Penn State authorities had known about it and covered it up. Three school officials – the president, athletic director, and fellow football coach Joe Paterno – were charged with perjury, obstruction of justice, and failure to report suspected child abuse, and Paterno was fired. His dismissal was met with anger and violence by students, who rioted on campus in protest. When the school interviewed a member of student council about it, he said, and I’m paraphrasing, “None of us can really know what we would do in Paterno’s situation. We don’t know that we wouldn’t do the same thing, so we really can’t judge him.”

I’ll always remember that because both my husband and I looked at each other and shouted, “YES WE CAN.”

The abuse had gone on for nearly a decade and no-one alerted the proper authorities. Paterno admitted that he “may have heard a rumour” of Sandusky abusing boys as early as 1998. A graduate student later reported to Paterno that he witnessed an assault by Sandusky of a boy in the locker room in 2001. Sandusky was arrested in 2011. Lives were ruined. Paterno and the others were absolutely worthy of judgement.

What’s the Christian response in that kind of a situation? Are we to judge?

In our first reading we have the Apostle Paul saying the famous “Do not judge, lest you be judged,” which is echoed earlier in Luke. Many well-meaning Christians interpret this passage as a commission to be hospitable and forgiving. At times, though, I have seen this usage give rise to a Christianity that is silent on issues of justice and spurns healthy boundaries, which can leave the vulnerable in the place of proving (to the satisfaction of the powerful) that they are uncomfortable with a situation and need things to change.

And unfortunately this attitude can be taken to an extreme, with some church authorities using passages like these to silence victims of abuse, including children, and force them to forgive their abusers – often to their faces – but without comparable actions required of the abusers. The type of churches where this culture flourishes tend to be secretive and view the “outside world” with suspicion, so they are leery of submitting to any sort of “secular” discipline, which means they often don’t contact police to report these incidents.

Most Christians would obviously condemn that behaviour, but I think it is easy to, on a smaller level, be seduced by an attitude that misuses forgiveness to avoid confrontation with those who have practiced injustice.

I think part of the problem is that we regularly hear these passages out of context. Paul is specifically calling out a largely Jewish congregation who has condemned their Gentile members with idolatrous past behaviour, while papering over the fact that they have engaged in comparably idolatrous behaviours.

And it gets even more complicated, because then we have today’s Gospel reading, which feels like the exact opposite of “Do not judge!” This is such a weird pairing of passages! What could this possibly mean? Are we to leave all of the judgment up to God?

Yes and no.

Luke’s passage does not occur in a vacuum. Jesus has been invited to dinner at a Pharisee’s house! His rant is totally inappropriate to the occasion. But in the previous chapters he has been talking constantly about gaining eternal life through showing mercy, and how true blessedness is hearing the word of God AND doing it, and Nineveh’s repentance after Jonah’s proclamation, and “Consider whether the light in you is not darkness.”

That’s what he says just before he’s invited to dinner. “Consider whether the light in you is not darkness.” That somehow resonates with this Pharisee, so Jesus gets invited to dinner, makes a scene, and is met with hostility.

Good news: Repentance is possible. Bad news: No-one’s interested. As Dave Mustaine of the band Megadeth puts it, “Peace sells, but who’s buying?”

The consequences Jesus faced for calling the world to repentance were grave – much worse than being shunned, or called nasty names, or even losing a job or a friend. But he refused to be silenced. Why? Not because God demands just punishment of sinners by the righteous, but because those who were sinning were “unmarked graves.” That analogy doesn’t translate well to our Western ears. It might work better if, instead of “unmarked graves,” we hear “pitfall traps.” They are a hidden danger to others. They are those who may cause little ones to stumble.

Jesus wouldn’t have bothered to preach repentance if he didn’t think they were capable of being saved.

But they were. They are.

I really think that when Jesus told us to carry on his work, he meant for us to include calls to repentance among our own work. The strong person who willingly embraces weakness can always do more for justice than the weak person devoting every drop of energy toward wiggling out from under the boot.

Are calls to repentance judgmental? Well…yeah! If you’re telling the world that things have to change, you’re telling it the way things are doesn’t work! But we weren’t commissioned to bear bad news. We were taught to model a better way.

A kingdom way.

And I think sometimes we do that with words, and sometimes we do that with our lives.

When you come forward today to receive your Lord and Saviour, let his strength become yours. The best part of this heavy commission is that the work of repentance begins with our receiving.

What a beautiful thing: God’s gift to you becomes a gift for the whole world.

And if you live your life and only manage to proclaim repentance to yourself, do not blaspheme against your good work by saying, “It is not enough.”

In your own repentance, you gift yourself to the world.

What wondrous love. Alleluia.



“Union with God,” (Sermon, October 4th)

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ 5But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Mark 10:2-16


When you’re a curate, being asked to preach on this kind of Gospel reading falls under “paying your dues.”

Don’t panic.

I know what this sounds like.

I promise you are safe with me. Really. There are two generations of divorce in my family. On my mother’s side my grandfather was on his second marriage. On my father’s side my grandmother left her family, and later my grandfather married the woman I thought up until about ten years ago was my biological grandmother. Finally, my parents have been separated since I was two years old, and formally divorced since I was seven.

I was lucky. The split was perfectly amicable, and they remained very close for the rest of my father’s life.

Even though my parents split in the more liberal ‘80s, I know my mother still endured criticism for subjecting me to a “broken home.” That stigma still exists today. I had to shut off the TV several years ago during a debate because Mitt Romney was saying that, as a child from a broken home, it was only a matter of time before I was destined to go on a shooting spree.

I’m sure you’ve heard that statistic about 1 in 3 or even 1 in 2 marriages ending in divorce. Less people have heard that that statistic is a bald-faced lie. Divorce among married couples has been in decline for a for nearly forty years, and yet people still quote it as though it’s one of those universal truths. It just goes to show you how much sway a moral panic can hold over our population. Folks will often point back to how great and simple things used to be. Real life is always messy and complicated, and it was just as messy in Jesus’ time.

Divorce was actually pretty common then. However, it was very different, as you can imagine. Among the Jewish population, a woman could not divorce her husband – only the other way around. A divorce was also far more devastating for that woman. Unless she could marry again – which might be difficult since she would likely be viewed by potential suitors as (excuse the harshness) “damaged goods” – she was sure to become destitute. Without her husband’s protection, she could be forced into any number of degrading and dangerous jobs and crushing poverty.

Now among the Pharisees, there was debate about what grounds existed for divorce. The conservative Shammai school insisted that only marital infidelity was appropriate grounds. The more liberal Hillel school claimed that anything could be grounds for divorce, including – I kid you not – burning the bread. The Pharisees who come to Jesus to test him would have been familiar with this debate, and the very fact that they ask him this question show that they are not really interested in his answer. They already know the “lawful” response, which is yes…but, as sermon writer Mark Davis eloquently explains, it is not lawful in the same way that “Love your neighbour” is lawful.

Jesus is not encouraging anyone to remain in loveless, abusive, or broken marriages. To say otherwise is a complete perversion of our Lord’s command. What he commands here is far more Christian.

First: He reminds those in power of their duty to take care of the weak and vulnerable, which is evident from the placement of this passage just before the one where he blesses the children, the most vulnerable and voiceless within his culture. He also elevates these powerless ones. He elevates the woman by making her just as capable of divorce as her husband, which would have sounded absurd to his detractors. Equally absurd were his claims that a husband’s adultery was not a sin against another woman’s husband but against his own wife, and vice-versa. He later elevates children by claiming that it is they who receive the Kingdom of God – not in some romantic way that has to do with innocence or humility but in a way that says very explicitly that God chooses the small and the oppressed as royalty within the upside down kingdom.

Second – and even more wonderful: Jesus reaches outside the accepted parameters of biblical interpretation and makes marriage not just about legal contracts between families but about the whole intention of created order. In the freely entered union between empowered individuals, God intends a model for what we once had and have since lost between ourselves and our fellow human beings.

That’s why marriage is a sacrament.

This is not to elevate marriage above all other forms of human relationship. What it does do is say, “A freely entered marriage between two people demonstrates a deeply sacred truth. Any union of companionship between people, like it or not, is an outward and visible sign of the inward and visible grace of communion that humankind is meant to embody all the time. All people in these beautifully diverse unions are bound to this depth of commitment, but if you are going to stand before God and your families and friends and vow to model that union in your life, you had better read the vows carefully beforehand, because there’s no erasing those promises, even if the union ends.

That’s supposed to be good news. Marriages do end, for all kinds of reasons, and not all of them are dramatic. The truth underlying the ritual is never sullied by human frailty. Thank God for that!

And people wonder why it took me eight years to propose.

So that’s marriage. But there’s a whole other part of today’s passage that we must not leave behind. What about the children?

Here is another moment where the upside-down kingdom is made manifest. We are to take instruction from God on how to be closer to each other. We are to take instruction from children on how to be closer to God.

It is not that a child is smarter than an adult, or more innocent, or more humble. We mustn’t romanticize children in the way that women are sometimes romanticized. As flattering as it can be, being put on a pedestal is actually dehumanizing, literally.

What I have discovered about children is that a child has no time for shame during the process of learning.

What do I mean by that? I taught Celtic harp for nine years. Teaching harp to adults was way more difficult than teaching harp to children. Adults, upon making a mistake, dropped into a funk – with varying degrees of intensity – and often gave up, convinced they’d never get it right. They would become embarrassed and constantly apologize for mistakes as though I would be angry at them for not knowing everything. As often as I tried to say, “Learning is not something to be ashamed of,” they would forget it instantly.

That never happened with children.

They made a mistake. They tried again. There was often impatience, but rarely despair. There were no value judgements made against themselves for taking time to learn.

When you are a child, you don’t have time for that kind of weight. You are learning 24 hours a day. You let it go and move on.

There is a tremendous beauty, courage, and prophetic spirit in that. Heck, that attitude is great for a marriage! That is what childlike humility really looks like: the ability to simply learn, without pride insisting that you stop before someone laughs at you for being “useless” or “stupid.”

Jesus embodied that humility constantly throughout his ministry.

It is so hard to let go. That weight is accumulated gram by gram, year by year, until it feels like an organic part of you. But it’s not.

It was not always so, my beloved.

What could we do without that weight – if we were really willing to learn without Adam’s fear of being seen naked?

I think without that weight, we could even stay married to God.

When you come to the altar today to receive your beloved, try to set that weight down. Don’t worry if you don’t leave all of it there on the first go – it takes time.

Take some instruction from our children and start slow. Maybe try leaving just a piece.

Exchange it for bread.