Archive for June, 2018

Heralds and Prophets: Summer 2018 Preaching Series, Part 3

Today’s citations:

Isaiah 40:1-11

Luke 1:57-80

Our third installment of our preaching series on kings takes a detour as we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist.

So far in our journey together, our stories have shown us the importance of letting God be the absolute monarch of our hearts, and about what kind of monarch God is. God’s will is never done solely through the work of the powerful, but becomes most purely manifest in the secret work of seeds and servants. This not only shows us that God is truly just, but that God and the kingdom are truly inclusive: all are invited to join in the celebration, regardless or colour, creed, gender, orientation, age, or ability. If this seems too good to be true, it would be, for an earthly kingdom.

And speaking of celebrations, let’s take a look at one of the tasks God has given those who proclaim Her kingdom: that of herald and prophet, performed by both Isaiah and our bizarre, beloved brother John.

We have two days in our calendar where we celebrate John the Baptist. The first is today, a happy occasion, where we celebrate his miraculous birth. The second, which we celebrate in August, is John’s beheading, a decidedly more complicated feast which nonetheless shows us that as beautiful as God’s kingdom is, it is nearly always opposed, often violently, by the kingdoms of earth.

We’re most accustomed to hearing about John the Baptist in Advent. Many of us can’t hear that Isaiah reading without also hearing Handel’s Messiah. The prophet Isaiah was active during the reign of King Hezekiah, lionized in Scripture as one of the righteous Israelite kings. He introduced many temple reforms and defeated King Sennacherib of Assyria, the empire seeking to claim Israel as a vassal state. Eventually, however, the kingdom was swept into exile by the Babylonians.

Isaiah was Hezekiah’s advisor, a courtly prophet unlike the poor vine-dresser Amos or the locust-eating wildman John, and the text that bears his name (which actually consists of three separate books) includes both poetry and prose. The three chapters preceding today’s are all narrative, stories about Hezekiah and his dealings with the Assyrians and Babylonians. We then shift abruptly into the poetic songs of Chapter 40, which anticipate a final restoration to Jerusalem embodied by the whole of creation, a reconciliation of the exiled to the arms of God.

You can understand why this would have been so important to early Christians, living under the yoke of Rome waiting for the return of the Messiah. The word Messiah means “anointed,” a royal ritual practiced across cultures for thousands of years.

Isaiah also offers us a window into perhaps the most important gift the Western world ever received from the Jewish people: the idea that God’s strength was not solely determined through the successes and failures of Her chosen people. The belief of the ancient Near East was that when nations went to battle, gods went to battle. The Jewish people, always at the fertile crossroads of vast empires, suffered many defeats and decimations. This difficult history pushed them into a more nuanced understanding of what a truly powerful and loving God would look like. Christians, attesting to God made man in Jesus, had an even steeper learning curve: what kind of God could not only die but be murdered shamefully by the state?

God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.

That’s one herald and prophet. Let’s look at the other.

While all of the Gospels attest to a relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist, it is only the Gospel of Luke which gives us a full birth narrative for John, and only in Luke is he said to be related to Jesus. Many scholars believe that the writer of Luke wrote to a community that included Gentiles who may not have been familiar with the recurring themes of Hebrew Scriptures, and so he wove many of those motifs into the story as both a nod to the Jews and a teaching tool for the new believers. Elizabeth, like Hannah, like Sarah, though righteous and devout, is barren, which in the ancient Near East was a source of shame. This sort of upside-down series of surprises is a constant theme in the Gospel of Luke, and dovetails well with our exploration of God’s upside-down kingship.

These stories are important not only because of the beauty of God’s redemption, but because they demonstrate that the theologians who collected these stories into our Bible were far more intelligent that we give them credit for. Unlike so many contemporary prosperity gospel heretics and theologically lazy autocrats, these theologians thumb their noses at the false doctrine of just-world theory, the idea that everyone gets what they deserve. In John’s birth we also a wonderful depiction of privilege transferred from the priest Zechariah – whose voice, which would have been held in high honour, is taken away, while his wife Elizabeth gains a voice. Not only that, but we see another comic irony where Zechariah doubts his incredible angelic visitor and thereby loses his voice, while as far as we know Elizabeth receives no angelic visitor but somehow knows the name God has chosen for the baby and recognizes Mary as the “mother of her Lord.”

Once Zechariah gets his voice back, he prophesies – an anticipation of the work his son will do as the herald of the Messiah.

As heralds, we too are called to lead the whole world into pilgrimage, to point creation toward the shining sun of our King. This must be approached with joy and humility. Remember Christians did not come up with inviting the world to the party on our own. The Book of Isaiah proclaims that all the world will be gathered up into God’s embrace. This is a treasure we received from our grandmothers and grandfathers in Judaism. We march beside them, not ahead.

As prophets, we too are called to name God’s truth and intent for Her beloved cosmos. It’s important to note that while modern ears tend to think of “prophecy” as an utterance predicting the future, the biblical understanding of prophecy was more about “truth-telling.” You’ll note that Zechariah’s prophecy is more concerned with what he has already witnessed – the grace and mercy of God – than it is with what will happen in the future, which only takes up four of the eleven verses of his song.

All of us are capable of being prophets, naming truth and speaking out against injustice.

In the chapter of Isaiah before today’s passage, a Rabshakeh, or high ranking advisor of the Assyrian King, visits the Israelites to boast that their God will not deliver them from the empire. Let our conviction be so strong, because our world is full of such proclamations of disaster. Our world is full of petty empires who take delight in their own fascism, who have stopped their ears to the weeping of babies in cages and desperate parents. Our world is full of the so-called faithful who have so little faith in God’s power to redeem the world that they will throw their allegiance behind liars and manipulators. Our world is full of oppressed people who still have the strength to cry out against their oppression.

As prophets, we must remember that the wicked are like chaff that the wind drives away. As heralds, we must remember that the kingdom is breaking in:

In the powerful who set aside their voices to give space for the powerless; in the powerless who trust in their redemption; in the Body of Christ which is here and in countless churches across the world right now, doing its work of healing, redemption, and rejoicing. We must not fear, for our king is alive and enthroned forever.

Let’s end with a portion of Psalm 2, so appropriate in a world like ours.

The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
‘Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us.’

The One who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.
Then God will speak to them in wrath,
and terrify them in fury, saying,
‘I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.’

Two Masters: Summer 2018 Preaching Series, Part 2

This week’s citations:

1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13

Mark 4:26-34


Last week we began our summer preaching series, and I introduced the big theme, which is to reclaim the idea of God as a monarch – a king or a queen. A lot of people feel uncomfortable with this idea nowadays, because kings and queens have been pretty iffy over the course of our history, using their power to keep others down and taking a lot more riches than they need. But God is unlike any king or queen that has ever been on earth, because God turns the whole idea of absolute power on its head.

Last week we talked about divided allegiances. Some of us answer to our parents and teachers, some of us answer to bosses at work, some of us answer to Bishops – Archbishops. We also answer in a different way to our friends and partners. And this is all fine, but ultimately we are to answer to God above all others.

That doesn’t mean we neglect our other relationships. It means that we allow God to teach us how to manage those relationships. So we care for our friends and partners, and love them, and we listen to and respect those who have authority over us like our parents and bosses and teachers and Archbishops.

But if there comes a moment where those who have authority over us demand more respect than God in our lives, or if they push us to do something that we think God would not want us to do, we should put God first. Not because God is bossy but because God is love, and love should always come first. And since sometimes love looks gentle, and sometimes love is fierce and says, “No, that’s not okay,” sometimes we find ourselves at odds with the world around us. Think of someone like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malala Yousafzai, or our friends on Burnaby Mountain fighting for the environment.

The good news – the gospel, even – is that God doesn’t expect us to have faith and take big risks for something abstract, or “out there.” God has shows us something concrete, something “right here,” and something totally unexpected.

So what kind of monarch is God?

First let’s look at what God isn’t.                                      

Last week we heard that Saul became king, and there was a big gap in the reading from Samuel. This week there’s another big gap. Saul is made king, and Samuel and God are hopeful that things will turn out okay. The people ask for a king, and God, against her better judgement, decides to give it a shot, because God loves the people. In the text that’s missing, the people even admit to God that maybe asking for a king wasn’t a good idea. Samuel says, “Just let God be the real king here.”

But then the story shows them messing up again and again. Saul offers a sacrifice, which he’s not supposed to because that was Samuel’s job, he makes an oath without thinking it through which puts his son in danger, and he does not follow God’s instructions.

All of his slip-ups have to do with trying to gain more power than God wants him to have. What’s really interesting is that Saul’s intent doesn’t matter. Sometimes he disobeys instructions but says that he did it to give greater glory to God.

God’s no fool. God can see that kind of doublethink a mile away. And if you were paying attention to the news this week you probably did too. The Bible is a tool as well as a book, and you can use a tool to build a house or a gallows.

Finally God gets so frustrated that she tells Samuel, and Samuel goes to Saul and says, “You haven’t been listening!” Saul says, “Yes I have!”

Samuel says, “God has rejected you as king,” and Saul says, “Okay, I messed up, but it was only because I was scared. The people kept nagging me to give them what they want.”

What kind of excuse is that? You’re the king!

Despite everything, Saul wheedles and whines until Samuel agrees to help clean up his messes.

But it’s too late. As we learn this morning, God has already chosen someone else.

And who has God chosen?

A shepherd boy – the youngest of the seven sons of Jesse.

Again, this person is chosen entirely according to God’s will, and is not what anyone expects. Again, like with Saul last week, there is a secret coronation long before a public one. And once it has occurred, the Spirit of God comes “mightily” upon David, and leaves Saul tormented by an evil spirit in its place.

Here’s where the Samuel reading and the Gospel come together beautifully. Remember Saul became king with the help of a servant boy, who brought him to the appointed place to meet Samuel. And again, it is a servant who suggests that David be brought to Saul because David’s music will calm the evil spirit.

God is with the servants. God is with the Hebrew midwives who save the children in the Book of Exodus. God is with Jochebed and Rahab and Jael and Ruth and Tamar, women who are disgraced and oppressed and yet find themselves doing God’s work in secret, without glory in their own lifetimes but remembered in our Hebrew Scriptures.

Massive royal dynasties are set up through the secret work of servants. And God, who was so annoyed with Saul, still brings comfort by returning the Holy Spirit to his house through David – secretly.

Jesus’ parables today are all about secret work, aren’t they? In fact most of the Gospel of Mark is about hidden work. We can plant our seeds, and we can water them and put them in the sun, but that’s all we can do. All of us know that thrilling moment when we go from feeling a little foolish checking a pile of dirt every day to feeling amazed and excited when the first shoots pop out. Somehow, in the dark, in secret, seeds burst forth into shoots, and shoots grow into stalks, and stalks bear fruit. Just imagine the awe and gratitude of farming people who depended on those tiny seeds to live!

Here, Jesus teaches and models the faith that we need to allow God to be our monarch. The parable of the Sower, Jesus says, is the parable by which all of his other parables are understood. That means the Kingdom of God comes from us taking risks. Scatter the seed, trust that it will grow and flourish where it should, and if it doesn’t fall on good soil, that’s up to God. God knows where it will flourish, and there’s little we can do to determine that.

Saul was afraid to take risks. He didn’t trust that God’s authority would steer him right. He performs the illegal sacrifice because Samuel is running late. He makes the rash oath that puts his son at risk because he is afraid he cannot win the battle without it. He doesn’t trust that God will show up. He demands more control.

Jesus surrenders control completely. He sows seeds everywhere, and gets in trouble for it, not because he was saying things that people didn’t know, but because he was sowing seeds where polite society said he shouldn’t – among lepers and tax collectors and sinners! No wonder people got so angry about what he was doing! If seeds could bear fruit among the lowest of the low, what hope did the powerful have in holding on to their power? What could earthly authority mean when the gates of the powerful could be broken down in an instant?

This is the kind of monarch we are called to serve: the kind that doesn’t want our money or land or labour but our hearts, and not to keep them in a golden box, but to scatter seed upon them. She wants to give us something in return.

That’s the only kind of king worth kneeling to.

Let’s pray together, because that’s how we prepare the earth of the heart. We’ll be receiving our seeds here at the table in a few minutes.

Remember that while you can protect and nurture your seeds with the water of faith and the sunlight of love, only the king, only God, can make them grow.

King Jesus: Summer 2018 Preaching Series, Part 1

Having been left in charge of St. Margaret’s while the rector was on sabbatical for the summer, I decided to start a preaching series as we journey through the saga of the kings of Israel. My first one was preached June 10th, 2018. The series will continue through August 26th and will be shared in full here.

This week’s citations:

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14–15

Mark 3:20–35

Being as how this is Heidi’s last Sunday before her sabbatical, you might wonder why she’s not up here, as you’re going to be tired of hearing my voice by the end of the summer.

Well, Heidi wanted to spend her last Sunday with our children, and it’s the perfect way for us to begin a special journey through the summer months while Heidi is away.

See, I noticed that the lectionary readings take us through the story cycle of the monarchy in Israel, starting with the call of Samuel and moving through the coronations of Saul, David, and Solomon. We don’t always have the time to link story cycles together the way we can in the summertime when that whole long green and growing time stretches out before us.

So I thought, starting today and ending August 26th, where the cycle ends, we could talk about kings – and not just kings, but leaders of any kind, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And if that sounds just awful to you, well, on July 15th I’ll be away, so you can hear my dear friend Rev. Paula Porter Leggett talk about something else.

We began our story cycle with the birth of Samuel from barren Hannah, and last week we heard about the call of Samuel and that emperor of awkward moments where Eli says to his protégé, “Well, what did God say? Did he say anything about me and my sons?”


Things aren’t looking good for Eli, but I like to think that Samuel got his first piece of real wisdom from Eli’s reaction to the news, which was quiet acceptance of God’s will. It couldn’t have been a surprise to poor Eli, right?

What the Eli and Samuel story sets up for our journey can redeem the image of kingship for those of us who find it uncomfortable, something we’re going to come back to again and again:

God is not a monarch like any other monarch we’ve seen before. God overturns every assumption on its head, and I think this makes the image of the kingdom something worth reclaiming.

So let’s begin our journey.

Something really fascinating about the First Samuel passage is that it’s been cut up into pieces. We don’t get the first two verses and there’s a giant chunk taken out of the middle – we jump from Chapter 8 to Chapter 11. Those first two verses are a significant subtraction, because we learn that, like Eli, Samuel has two corrupt deadbeat sons. It’s the writer’s signal to us that Israel still has all the same challenges it ever did. I love the Hebrew Bible for this refreshing honesty.

Anyway, seeing that Samuel’s boys are a wash-out as successors, the elders come to Samuel and say, perhaps more plainly than he would like, “You’re old and your sons do not follow in your ways.” In Hebrew they start with “Hine,” which the King James Version translates as “Behold,” but which is more actually translated as “Hey!” or “Look here!” It’s rude, but maybe they felt they didn’t have time for civility. They want to be like other nations, to have a king.

But this is God’s chosen nation. They are not meant to be like other nations. They are meant to absorb them, or graft them onto themselves.

Then they add insult to injury by saying they want someone to lead them in battle! Who’s been leading them in battle this whole time?! God has been fighting for them since the Exodus!

God’s annoyance might make more sense to us now, but what’s amazing is God’s response. People like to talk about how the God of the Hebrew Bible is all fire and brimstone, cruelty and jealousy, but far more often you will find this God, who says, “They can have a king, but it’s going to turn out poorly. Make sure they understand that,” and then follows that up with as much meddling as She can get away with.

And so the huge chunk taken out of the middle of the passage tells us how Saul came to be the first king of Israel. It involved a lot of cheeky maneuvering by God and Samuel – choosing him ahead of time through the machinations of a servant boy, staging an event where it looks like he was chosen by lot, documenting the rules of kingship as a safety net, the possession of Saul by the Holy Spirit to lead an army to liberate a lowly tribe (which of course brings out the isolationists who get angry with Saul for risking their lives for these lowlifes), and finally a formal coronation.

Strangely enough, next week’s passage leaves out another huge chunk of text. We go straight to the selection of David and bypass most of the rest of the Saul story. What we miss is that Saul, after doing so well at the beginning, almost immediately drops the ball and begin to first ignore the will of God and then to abuse his power.

So God tried Her best – don’t give Her all the flack!

This story shows us not only the boundless love of a God who truly is like a parent, letting us make mistakes while trying to mitigate the consequences as best She can, but the shortcomings of earthly authority. When Samuel warns the people of the consequences of monarchy, he lists war and stolen labour. Back then, one’s children working for the king was not something to celebrate. Any work they did for him was work that didn’t benefit their own family – some errant chunks of Marxism in our morning Scripture, hey?

All of Samuel’s and God’s objections to monarchy are rooted in a belief that for its time was truly radical: that equating an earthly king with the divine patron of the nation, a belief nearly universal across the ancient Near East, was idolatry. Only God was worthy of ultimate obedience, and that obedience should never be divided.

And yet, human beings constantly choose division of allegiance, over and over.

So how does this relate to our Gospel story?

Jesus explains that division of allegiance leads to destruction. A kingdom divided cannot stand. The worst thing about that truth is that it’s true for good and for ill. The undivided kingdom of God would be a kingdom where all flourish because we would love God and our neighbour. And the undivided kingdom of fascism and totalitarianism, while cruel, also tends to be a pretty high-functioning one. Dictators know that when you erase all alternatives to power, getting people to sacrifice their lives is a lot easier.

Jesus also shows us that there are social consequences to choosing allegiance to God alone. His family is embarrassed and tries to restrain him, or in the Greek, control him. It should be noted that there is a translation error – although the English suggests that people in the crowd are saying Jesus has gone out of his mind, the Greek suggests that this is actually spoken by his family. They don’t understand what he’s doing. And the scribes, justly frightened of acts that could lead to punishment from Rome, the great Empire, disavow his work as demonic.

But we also learn that life is there for those who choose God. I think of the sound of a hundred voices singing, “Courage, my friends, you do not walk alone” as water protectors on Burnaby Mountain were being arrested. I think of the wormwood branches that my friend Pastor Brian gave me, branches which to me looked quite dead, but planted in new earth are indeed beginning to sprout anew.

The structure of monarchy calls for undivided hearts. Knowing our frailties, God chose to embody this fully in the person of Jesus Christ, a model for a king truly worthy of undying devotion: a brown poor oppressed king, who feeds people not by co-opting the labour of the poor but by offering up his own flesh and blood; who served us not by demanding accolades but by healing without cost; who was exalted not through war but through ultimate surrender at the hands of a hostile state, only to once again lay claim to our allegiance by conquering not Empire but death.

That’s the only kind of king worth kneeling to.

We’ll talk about this more next week.

For now, let’s prepare to receive his gifts, free for the taking.

Let all who hunger come and be filled.