We’re getting closer!

IMG_4231Today the proof copy of my book ‘A Time to Mend’ arrived in the mail. Now I have to read through it and check for errors, correct them, reload the corrected manuscript to Amazon, and then hopefully the book will be ready to go live around the first week in October.

It’s getting exciting!

Don’t forget that if Kindle is your preferred platform you can already purchase it here (Canada), or by the same title at your local Amazon website,

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Bruce Cockburn ‘Going to the Country’

This is the opening track from Bruce’s first solo album, ‘Bruce Cockburn’, which was released in 1970. It was also the first album ever released on the ‘True North’ label. My wife has a particular fondness for this song, which I think expresses a philosophy of life she’s quite enamored with!

The God who looks for the lost (a sermon on Psalm 14 and Luke 15.1-10)

I suspect that when we read our psalm this morning, some of you had a strong negative reaction to it. I’m thinking especially of verses 2-3: let me refresh your memory by reading them again to you, this time in the New Living Translation:

‘The LORD looks down from heaven upon the entire human race; he looks to see if anyone is truly wise, if anyone seeks God. But no, all have turned away; all have become corrupt. No one does good, not a single one.’

Really? No one? Not Jean Vanier? Not Mother Teresa? Not the people who put in hundreds of hours a year volunteering at Hope Mission or Habitat for Humanity? Not the parents who run themselves ragged week by week trying hard to make life good for their kids? Not the counsellors who answer emergency calls in the middle of the night to listen to people who are on the verge of suicide? What on earth is the psalmist talking about? Did he get out of the wrong side of bed that morning? What had happened to him, to give him such a negative view of the human race?

Let me say two things right away. First, to read the Bible with your brain in gear means that you begin by asking yourself ‘What kind of literature am I reading here?’ Obviously, if you go to your local library and pick out a volume of poetry, a copy of the Criminal Code of Canada, a history of Alberta, and the latest novel by Stephen King, you know you’re reading four very different kinds of books. You’ll have to read them very differently if you’re going to understand them and enjoy them.

And it’s the same with the Bible. The Bible is a library of books written over a span of about fifteen hundred years. It contains letters, hymns and poems, biographies, historical chronicles, and the criminal code of ancient Israel, to name just a few genres. Reading a poem or hymn is not the same as reading a sermon or theological essay or a law book. And Psalm 14 is a poem. Poets use vivid imagery to make a point, but they don’t always expect you to take their images literally. Sometimes they’re just being imaginative, and sometimes they’re being intentionally provocative.

Secondly, I think I can begin to understand the mood the psalmist was in. I’ve been in it myself for a couple of years now. For a long time I’ve been in the habit of skimming the pages of my newspaper as I eat my breakfast, but lately I’ve noticed that I’m getting more reluctant to do that. It feels more and more like a really negative way to get ready to go to work. I read about Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin and all the other political leaders who seem so blatantly unfit to lead their people. I read about corruption scandals and murders, wars, acts of injustice and oppression, and the refusal of so many people to take climate change seriously. I read these things and I say to myself, “Has everyone turned away from virtue and goodness and become totally corrupt? Is there, in all the world, any such thing as a single uncorrupt politician? Is there anyone left who’s in it for other people, not to build their own kingdom?”

But then I look into my own heart and try to face up honestly to what’s there. I think about some of the things I’ve done in my own life, things I’m ashamed even to remember. And I think of the famous story of the writer G.K. Chesterton, who was responding to a newspaper article with the headline, ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ His letter to the editor was very simple. ‘Dear Sir: I am. Yours faithfully, G.K. Chesterton.’

I think this is what the psalmist was grappling with here. I don’t know whether or not he was familiar with the words in Genesis chapter one: ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1.27 NRSV). But if he was, I’m sure he must have been struck by the contrast between these two visions of human nature. On the one hand, Genesis sees us as the pinnacle of God’s creation: we were the last thing he made, the climax, the thing every other creative act had been leading up to. Here was a being made just like God, like a daughter or son made in the image of their parents! Surely such a being would show the love and compassion and creativity and sense of justice of God? Wouldn’t you think so?

But then, how do you explain the rest of the Book of Genesis? Within two chapters you have Cain murdering his brother Abel. And the rest of the book talks about faithlessness, family intrigues, jealousies, and acts of manipulation and violence. How can a creature like that be made in the image of God?

Today we maybe feel the same way. Our human knowledge has expanded enormously over the past century. It’s now within our power to do all kinds of good in the world, using technologies our grandparents couldn’t even dream about. So why is it that the story of humanity feels very much like it always has? Wars and rumours of wars, thefts and murders, acts of greed and corruption, the rich exploiting the poor, people dividing up by race or religion or skin colour or political opinions—we can find it all in the Bible, and we can find it all in the latest edition of the Globe and Mail. Most people who think the Bible is out of date have never read it. When you read it, much of it feels depressingly familiar.

It seems to me that a Christian who reads the scriptures thoughtfully and prayerfully is forced to discard two simplistic views of human nature: one that says all human beings are basically good, and one that says all human beings are basically bad. If all humans are basically good, how do we explain the acts of evil committed by people brought up in loving homes by good parents who gave them the best possible moral guidance? How do we explain the fact that even the best possible projects for the improvement of the world seem to run aground, over and over again, on the rock of human selfishness and self-interest? But on the other hand, if all humans are basically bad, how do we explain the incredible acts of kindness and generosity we see around us every day?

We humans are made in the image of God, the best of all parents. And like a good parent, God doesn’t force us to do his will; if he wants us to grow and mature, he has to allow us the freedom to make our own choices, in the hope that they will be good choices. Is there any way to offer that freedom without the possibility that humans will make the wrong choices? I can’t imagine any way that could happen. Growth in maturity involves forming the habit of rejecting the way of hatred and injustice, and choosing the way of love and goodness. It has to be a meaningful choice: one in which making the wrong choice has real consequences.

The Bible tells the story of how so often we humans have made the wrong choice. It’s as if sin and evil is an infection that comes into our systems at a very early age. Some theologians would say we have it before we’re born, although the Bible doesn’t very often speculate about that. But the reality is that humans are made in the image of God, but are also infected with evil and selfishness. We have our better angels, but we also have our inner demons. We do acts of kindness and love, but we’re always tempted to be selfish and angry and judgemental and cruel, and we struggle with that every day.

And that struggle is made doubly difficult if we don’t have God’s help. Our psalm began with the phrase, ‘Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God”’ (v. 1 NRSV). That might give us warm fuzzy feelings about ourselves: we’re not atheists, so we’re not fools! But we need to think again. In the ancient world atheism was almost unknown, so it’s highly unlikely that the psalmist was describing literal atheists here. What he was likely describing is people who act as if there is no God:

‘The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God…Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the LORD?’ (vv. 2, 4 NRSV).

The fools are the people who tell the census taker, “Yes, of course I believe there’s a god of some kind—doesn’t everyone?” But then they don’t do anything about that belief. They don’t let their belief in the existence of God influence a single moral decision they make. It doesn’t change the way they spend their money. It doesn’t change the way they treat a poor person, or a person of a different race. It doesn’t have any effect at all on the way they vote in an election. And they certainly don’t put any energy into trying to build a relationship with God. They’ll work their fingers to the bone to get an expensive university education; they’ll incur hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to get exactly the home they want, but how much time and money are they prepared to put into learning how to know God? No, the psalmist says, ‘they ‘do not call upon the LORD’ (v.4 NRSV).

And this is where our gospel reading starts. God loves his people and longs for them to know him. He wants them to seek him with all their hearts, but they’ve demonstrated over and over again that they won’t. So what does he do? His people are lost and they don’t even seem to know it. In fact, they refuse to acknowledge that they’re lost. “We’re fine—nothing to see here—move on, please!”

How do we respond to people like that? The Pharisees and scribes have a very judgemental attitude toward them. They’re not at all happy with how much time Jesus is spending with them. ‘And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”’ (Luke 15.2 NRSV). As far as they were concerned, it was up to the lost sheep to find their shepherd. After all, they were the ones who got lost! It was their fault! Why should God go looking for them? It wasn’t God who strayed away!

But I suspect Jesus saw things differently. He knew that most sheep don’t wander away on purpose. They just aren’t thinking ahead. They keep their heads down, eating grass, thinking only of the needs of the present moment, and then after a while they look up and realize that the rest of the flock seems to have vanished! They were so concerned about the need of the present moment—grass—that they took their eyes off the shepherd.

And that’s the way it is with people. Often, we don’t mean to stray away from God; we just get so tied up meeting the needs of the moment—a bit more money here, a moment of relaxation there—that we lose sight of what life is all about in the first place, and we lose sight of the Good Shepherd who gives our life meaning and purpose. It doesn’t take a big sin to take us out of orbit around God – just a little distraction will often do the job.

And so God doesn’t wait for the lost sheep to find him. He knows that’s not going to happen. Psalm 14 says that the Lord looks down from heaven to see if there are any who seek after God, but there aren’t. Our track record there is not very good.

But fortunately for us, God doesn’t leave it at that. After centuries of trying to get our attention through prophets and preachers, he sends his Son to us, the one who is the perfect image of the Father. The Gospel of John tells us that God himself comes to us in his Son. ‘In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God…So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.’ (John 1.1, 14, NLT).

So Psalm 14 isn’t the last word on the subject. It’s a true word, but by itself it’s not complete. Psalm 14 brings us face to face with the bad news about ourselves—what Francis Spufford calls our ‘Human Propensity to Mess Things Up’ (except that he uses a stronger word than ‘mess’!). We can’t pretend this doesn’t exist; we can see it all around us.

But the Gospel gives us another word: God doesn’t wait for us to seek him. He came among us to seek us. That’s what Jesus was doing. By his life and teaching he was demonstrating for us what a life of love and godliness is like. He was showing God to us through every word he spoke and every action he took. And he was reaching out to the last, the least, and the lost, going the extra mile, doing all he could to bring the love of God within reach to every human being.

That’s who Jesus is. That’s what God is like. That’s what the Gospel is. We may be more messed up than we like to admit, but we’re also loved more deeply than we’ve ever dared to imagine. Jesus came all the way from heaven to earth and gave his life on the Cross for us. He says, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11). And not just for the sheep as a group; Paul says in Galatians ‘The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). You matter to God. So do I, and so does every other individual on the face of the earth. God is out searching for us, and he won’t rest until he has found us and brought us home. That’s what the Gospel story is all about. Human failure doesn’t have the last word. The love of God has the last word. That’s why the Gospel is Good News.

‘A Time to Mend’ is now available on Kindle

timchesterton_A5My new novel, ‘A Time to Mend’, is now available for purchase in the Kindle store.

I call it ‘my new novel’, but I first typed the (now totally unrecognizable) ancestor of this story on a manual typewriter in my study in Aklavik over thirty years ago! Although it follows ‘Meadowvale’ chronologically, it was conceived before ‘Meadowvale’; in fact, I first wrote ‘Meadowvale’ because I was interested in the back story to ‘A Time to Mend’.

The basic story will not be strange to long-time readers of this blog, who will have read earlier versions of it. However, it has been substantially revised from the last version that was published here.

If you have a Kindle (or the Kindle app for your computer or iPad) I’d love it if you’d buy it, and I’d love it even more if you’d write an Amazon review for it afterwards! I will soon be announcing a paperback edition (from Amazon), and also hopefully Kobo and iBooks versions.

Here’s the blurb:

‘Two years after the loss of his beloved wife Kelly, Tom Masefield comes face to face with a new challenge: his father—the one he originally left England to get away from—is dying. For twenty-one years they have lived on different continents and have kept their personal contact to a bare minimum. But now Tom’s conscience tells him he needs to make one more attempt at reconciliation before his father dies.

‘So Tom and his daughter Emma decide to move back to England. Over the next two years, they will find out whether it is possible to mend relationships that have been broken for half a lifetime. And along the way, Tom will make a discovery that will transform his life in ways he never imagined.’

Links:

Canada

USA

UK

Australia

New Zealand

If you aren’t listed above, simply do a search on your local Amazon website.

 

‘What’s In It For Me?’ (a sermon for Sept. 1st on Luke 14.1, 7-14)

The Serendipity Study Bible is an old edition of the New International Version, designed to be used in small groups. For every passage of the Bible, it has a set of discussion questions in the margins. We often use those questions in our Wednesday afternoon study group, and when I’m doing my sermon preparation I often start by working through those questions for the passage I plan to reach on.

When I looked at the Serendipity Study Bible questions for Luke 14.1-14, this was the first question: ‘If you could have the best seats in the house, which house would you choose?’ I wonder how you would answer that question? For me, what I’d like is to go to a small concert hall where a guitarist I admire is playing, and be able to sit right in front of the stage so I can see what he’s doing with his fingers. With some guitar players, I don’t think I could do what they’re doing, but I understand how they’re doing it. But there are others for whom I have absolutely no idea how they’re doing what they’re doing! So I like to get really close, so I can see exactly what they’re doing with their hands. I still might not be able to play it, but at least I can try!

That’s pretty harmless, of course, but in some situations this desire for the front seat might be more insidious. In today’s Gospel, Jesus has a lot to say to people who always want the front seats—people who want the best deal for themselves and don’t care who they displace in order to get it. Whether they’re going to a dinner party put on by others, or throwing a party themselves, they aren’t actually thinking about the other people at all. Their first question is always “What’s in it for me?”

Let’s refresh our memory of the story. Jesus goes to dinner at the house of a prominent Pharisee. There are two things you need to know about these dinner parties. First, these were not private occasions. The doors of the house were left open all the time, and it was common for the curious to wander in and out while the meal was going on—especially if well-known people were there and it was likely there would be interesting discussion and debate. And this leads to the second thing: in the Gospels, these dinner parties are often occasions for teaching and discussion.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells the dinner guests two parables; the first is about not taking the highest place, and the second is about who you ought to invite when you give a dinner party. In each parable, self-interest is Jesus’ target. In the first parable, he warns against using the banquet as an opportunity for others to see how important you are. In the second parable, he warns against issuing invitations to your party out of self-interest: “If I invite Lord Caiaphas, then I’ll get an invitation to his party in return, and everyone will be able to see that I move in the best social circles in the city.” In both cases, gatherings that ought to be occasions for human companionship and fellowship are being spoiled by people’s self-interest.

So let’s think about what Jesus has to say about lining up for the last place.There’s a story told about St. Francis of Assisi, of a time when he was invited to a meal with the Pope and many other important church dignitaries. In those days before photo technology, people were a lot less familiar with the faces of celebrities, and when Francis turned up at the door of the Vatican in his ragged brown robe, the doorkeepers thought he was a beggar. So they sent him round to the kitchen to take his place with the other beggars. Francis didn’t complain; he went joyfully as usual, and was soon having a good time with the folks in the kitchen.

Meantime there was consternation at the high table; where was the guest of honour? Eventually it was discovered that Francis was in the kitchen with the beggars, and a message was sent that he should come to the banqueting hall. He did as he was told, sat down with the guests at the high table, and immediately began to share with them the scraps he had gathered on his beggar’s plate!

Obviously Francis was a person who had no problem taking the last place in the pecking order – in contrast to the people Jesus is aiming at when he warns us in his parable: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour” (v.8a). Nowadays we don’t often see this happening in a literal way. I’ve attended lots of wedding receptions and I’ve never seen someone marching boldly up to sit at the head table, only to be told a few minutes later “Madam, I’m afraid this seat is reserved for the wedding party!” But the attitude Jesus is talking about is still common. Let me point out two common examples of it.

The first is the inability to sit back and be part of the crowd. You know what I mean: there are some folks who have a deep-seated need to be up front all the time. They can’t just be ordinary members of the group; they have to be visible, they have to be leaders, so that people can look up to them and they can feel important. Don’t misunderstand me: real leadership, offered genuinely, is a real gift to a group. But the hunger for leadership, so that we can be recognized and looked up to, is poisonous and dangerous for the group and also for the person who wants to be a leader.

The second example of this attitude is less obvious; it’s when we’re always wondering what others are thinking about us. Many people are constantly worrying about whether others will like or approve of them. It’s as if they’re constantly checking a mental mirror, to see how they look in the eyes of others. The root cause of this is usually insecurity and a low sense of self-worth. We have an empty, aching space inside; we’re not sure if we’re loved, if we’re valued, if our life has any significance. We need others to reassure us of these things. But the trouble is, we can’t rely on them to do it, so we have to engineer situations that prompt them to do it for us.

What I want to say to you this morning is this: the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes down like rain on the dry field of our insecurity. The vital word in the vocabulary of this Gospel is the word ‘Grace’. Grace is God’s free and unconditional love for you and for everyone else he has made. You don’t have to earn it, you don’t have to deserve it; it comes as a free gift, and nothing can change that. As Philip Yancey says, grace means that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less; God already loves you infinitely, and nothing can ever change that. As another friend of mine likes to say, “God loves you, and there’s not a thing you can do about it!”

Jesus is inviting us to trust in God’s love for us, and relax in it. You don’t have to rush to get first place. And of course, you don’t have to rush to get last place either, if your motive is to get someone to invite you up to first place in the end! No—the Gospel way is not to think about precedence at all. Rather, you can relax, enjoy the feast, and share God’s love freely with the people who happen to be around you, in the secure knowledge that you are loved by God and nothing can ever change that.

Let’s now go on to think about Jesus’ second parable, in which he discusses invitation as a form of grace.

In June 1990 the Boston Globe told the story of an unusual wedding reception. A woman and her fiancée had arranged to have their wedding reception at the Hyatt Hotel in Boston, and as they had expensive tastes the final bill on the contract came to over $13,000, which was a huge amount of money twenty-nine years ago!

But then something unexpected happened. On the day the invitations were to go out, the groom got cold feet and asked for more time to think about things. When his angry fiancée went to the Hyatt to cancel the reception, she found she could not, unless she was willing to forfeit most of the money she had paid.

How here’s where it gets interesting. It turned out that ten years before, this same bride had been living in a homeless shelter. She had been fortunate enough to get a good job and get back on her feet, but now she had the idea of using her savings to treat the down and outs of Boston to a night on the town. So in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken—“in honour of the groom”, she said—and sent invitations to shelters and rescue missions throughout the city. That summer night, people who were used to eating out of garbage cans dined on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’ouevres to elderly vagrants propped up by crutches and walkers. Bag ladies and drug addicts took a night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big band melodies late into the night.[1]

For this jilted bride to be, this unusual dinner party was an angry response to the collapse of her wedding plans. For us, however, Jesus is inviting us to embrace it as a way of life. Look again at verses 12-14:

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous”.

This parable cuts me to the heart, because I have to admit that most of my social interaction is chosen on the basis of my own enjoyment. “I’ll go and visit so and so—that’s always enjoyable for me.” But Jesus is inviting me to make those decisions on the basis of unconditional love. I don’t think Jesus is literally condemning every family party or quiet dinner between friends. I think he’s challenging us to look for creative ways of reaching out to those who have no friends and no status in society at all. I find it interesting that the literal meaning of the word ‘hospitality’ is ‘love for the stranger’.

Many years ago when Marci and I were living in Aklavik in the western Arctic, we happened to read this gospel passage, and we were especially gripped by verses 12-14. I knew there were many parts of the teaching of Jesus I’d done a poor job of putting into practice, but I had to admit this was one passage I’d never even tried to put into practice! So Marci and I talked about it, and then we invited a particular family from the community to come and join us for dinner. The husband had been in and out of jail—in fact, we strongly suspected he committed a crime every Fall so as not to have to spend the winter in Aklavik. Both husband and wife were from families with a very high incidence of alcoholism and criminal activity of one kind or another. But they came, with their kids, and we had a meal together.

I have absolutely no memory of how the evening went, but it sticks out in my mind because it’s the only time I’ve tried to literally practice what Jesus says in this gospel reading. I don’t know if any of you have tried it; I’d be interested to hear if you have!

And to think of a less dramatic example, I wonder who you know who could benefit from a social invitation—perhaps for a cup of coffee, or an invite to dinner? It might not be someone you would naturally think of inviting, or someone who could pay you back. What might be the best way for you to reach out to that person?

Fund raisers discovered a long time ago that it’s easier to raise money if people can get their name on something – a brass plaque on a pew, or a list in a book. In this passage Jesus is offering us a vision of a different way—a way of freedom from slavery to self-interest. If we learn to live by his vision, we can interact with the people around us without quietly asking ourselves “I wonder how I can get them to admire me”. Instead we can concentrate on listening to them and loving them. We can initiate relationships with others, not for what we can get out of them, but for what we can give to them.

For some of us it might seem an impossible dream to think we could ever be that free. I put myself in that category. I’m well aware that my fundamental sin is self-centredness, which is why these parables hit me so hard. But on the other hand, I’ve met people who live the way Jesus is inviting us to here, and their lives challenge and inspire me.

We don’t always have to be silently asking the question “What’s in this situation, this relationship, for me?” Rather, because God loves each one of us out of pure grace, we can learn to live our lives in the same spirit, and discover in it the way of freedom, joy, and love.

[1]I first read this story in Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace?

Bent Out of Shape (a sermon on Luke 13.10-17)

Have you seen the spoon bending trick? That’s the one you do by holding a spoon between the palms of your hands with the bowl sticking out at the bottom, and then making it look as if you’re bending it, when in fact all you’re doing is dropping the handle between your palms. It’s quite impressive if you’ve never seen it before! It really does look as if you’re bending that spoon, and it’s quite surprising at the end to discover that it’s still straight.

One of the reasons it’s such a convincing trick is that spoons are quite easy to bend. Most of us have done it at one time or another! Quite often we do it when we’re trying to scoop rock-hard ice cream out of a pail. The handle of the spoon’s not strong enough, so back it bends, and hey presto! – you’ve got a useless spoon! Don’t try using it for soup, or you’ll spill it down your shirt front! When a spoon’s all bent out of shape, it’s not much use for anything.

Of course, we sometimes say that peopleare all bent out of shape. This might be a literal thing. When I lived in Ulukhaktok in the Northwest Territories there were two elderly women in the community who were literally bent double. I suspect they’d spent their whole lives carrying heavy loads on their backs, as well as bending down and crawling in and out of small snow houses. However it happened, it was now impossible for either of them to stand up straight. If they were sitting on a chair they could look straight ahead; if they were standing up, they really had to twist their necks to be able to see ahead of them.

And it doesn’t have to be that extreme. All of us, as we get older, suffer from aches and pains and find movement more difficult—and more painful—than we did when we were young. Sometimes we laugh about it: you know the old story about the man who bends over to tie his shoelaces and then thinks “What else should I do while I’m down here?” But sometimes the pain is much more intense and debilitating, and people find the suffering more and more difficult to bear.

But ‘getting bent out of shape’ isn’t only a term we use for physical ailments. Sometimes we use it for people who get all wound up about issues. We have our share of that in the church! You decide to change the colour of the carpet, or—dare I say—replace the pews with chairs, and some people ‘get all bent out of shape’! It happens whenever the familiar is replaced with the unfamiliar, whether it’s furniture, or hymn books, or music styles, or prayer books, or whatever you like.

Often people get all bent out of shape about things that aren’t ultimately important, and maybe we can laugh it off. But sometimes it’s more serious. Sometimes when church leaders decide to speak out about social justice issues, some church members disagree, and occasionally they get so bent out of shape that they leave. And to use a slightly different illustration, I think of a person years ago who invited a friend to church; the friend had no shoes with her, so she came barefoot. In those days the church was a bit more conventional, and some people got bent out of shape about it; the welcome was not, shall we say, overly enthusiastic. This is what happens in this sort of situation: people get hurt. Sometimes, sadly, when people get bent out of shape they keep others away from the healing love of God.

When we listen to today’s Gospel reading, it seems at first as if there’s only one person ‘bent out of shape’: the woman who had been bent double for eighteen years. But when we look a little more closely we see that in fact there are two people bent out of shape in this reading: one in body, the other in spirit. Jesus was able to heal one of them, but the other wasn’t willing to accept healing, because he wasn’t even aware how twisted he was in spirit.

Let’s picture the situation. It’s the sabbath day, so all sorts of restrictions apply. The Old Testament command was simply ‘For six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work’ (Exodus 20:9-10). But the problem with a command like that, of course, is that people immediately start asking questions about it. What exactly is ‘work’? Is cooking work? Lighting a fire? Can you walk, and if so, how far? These aren’t facetious questions; they’re the questions of sincere people who want to know what it means to obey God in their daily lives.

The teachers of Israel developed traditions and regulations about the Sabbath Day to help those people. Those regulations continue to this day. In Chaim Potok’s excellent novel The Book of Lights,the hero is an Orthodox Jewish chaplain serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. The winters are bitterly cold and the chaplain is living in what we used to call in the Arctic a ‘tent frame’, lit by an oil stove. The stoves are turned off during the night, and he wakes up on winter mornings to sub-zero temperatures. But he’s forbidden to light a fire on the Sabbath Day. Remembering this, his assistant, who is not Jewish, digs out the snow from the entrance to his tent and comes in to light the fire for him.

Jesus, of course, was constantly running into this sort of thing. We shouldn’t imagine that Jesus was on a campaign to abolish the Sabbath. Far from it: as far as we can tell, he went to synagogue every Saturday and used the day as a day of rest, just as the Law commanded. But the hundreds of man-made regulations were irksome to him. He told his followers that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath, and that it was permissible to do good on the Sabbath.

So here is Jesus, on the Sabbath Day, in the synagogue. The men and women would be seated separately; the young children would be with the women, but boys over the age of twelve who had gone through their bar-mitzvah would be with their fathers in the men’s section. The Sabbath service consisted of readings from the Torah scrolls, a time of teaching based on the readings, and prayers together. The teaching wouldn’t all be done by professional rabbis or synagogue elders; it was their responsibility to make sure teaching happened, but they were free to invite anyone to expound the Law if they thought he was competent enough (I say ‘he’ because in those days it was always a man). Jesus was a well-known teacher, so he had obviously been asked to read from the Torah scrolls and then comment on them. This might have been previously arranged, or it might have just been a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. Jesus would come to the front, remain standing to read from the Torah, and then sit down to teach.

The first person we meet in the synagogue is a person whose body is all bent out of shape. Let me read verses 10-13 to you from the New Living Translation:

One Sabbath day as Jesus was teaching in a synagogue,he saw a woman who had been crippled by an evil spirit. She had been bent double for eighteen years and was unable to stand up straight.When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Dear woman, you are healed of your sickness!”Then he touched her, and instantly she could stand straight. How she praised God!

I can imagine Jesus sitting at the front of the synagogue, looking out over the congregation as he teaches them. His eyes scan the crowd, noticing the expressions on the faces of the people. Some are happy, some are irritated, some are anxious, some are angry. And then he sees a face etched with suffering. Normally that face can only look down at the bare earth, but in the synagogue the woman is sitting down, so she can look at Jesus eye to eye. Maybe Jesus can read the longing in those eyes: if only God could heal her! Eighteen long years she’s been looking down at the ground; she’d love to be able to look up at the sky again!

And so Jesus stops his sermon and calls her to the front of the synagogue. This, of course, wasn’t a normal part of the procedure, and we can imagine the synagogue elders doing a facepalm when they realize what’s going on. But to Jesus, this wasn’t unusual; he’d had violent encounters with evil spirits in synagogues, and healed people there as well. “Woman,” he says, “you are set free from your ailment.” And then he lays his hands on her, and immediately she stands up straight. Can you imagine how she feels? Can you imagine the joy of being able to look up at the roof of the synagogue? No wonder she begins to praise God! She isn’t bent out of shape anymore!

But now we meet a person whose soul is all bent out of shape.The leader of the synagogue gets angry. “There are six days of the week for working,” he says. “Come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath” (v.14, NLT). Apparently it was okay for Jesus to teach the Law on the Sabbath, but not to behave like a doctor. Doctors and their patients had to wait!

But Jesus has no time for this sort of hypocrisy; he knows the Sabbath legalists aren’t consistent. So he says, “You hypocrites! Each of you works on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water?This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years. Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?” (vv.15-16, NLT).

These Sabbath legalists remind me of the people in that church who got bent out of shape about the young person who came with no shoes on. There are rules about these things! People should dress respectfully! They shouldn’t bring coffee mugs into church! Little children should sit quietly with their parents, not run around and make noise! Gay couples shouldn’t hold hands in church! What’s the world coming to?

But Jesus has a different agenda. The Sabbath Day is a day to meet God. It’s a day for people who feel burdened by life to lay down their burdens. It’s a day for hurting people to find healing. When it comes to the Sabbath, as they say, ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’, and not get buried under the details!

So how does this apply to us today?

First, like this woman in our gospel reading, sometimes our bodies get bent out of shape.And I have to acknowledge right away that when it comes to healing the sick, human beings don’t have the same excellent track record as Jesus. In the gospels Jesus goes around showering healing all over the place. Young and old, men and women, rich and poor, with all kinds of sicknesses: they all come to him, and all of them get healed. The only ones who don’t get healed are the ones who won’t come to him, because they don’t have faith in him. But if they have faith—or even if their friends have faith on their behalf—Jesus is willing and able to heal them. He’s the strong Son of God, and the Spirit of God is working through him in a powerful way.

Since the time of Jesus Christians have not stopped praying for sick people to be healed, but even in the book of Acts the record isn’t so spotless. Often people are healed, but sometimes they aren’t. Even a great apostle like Paul has a bodily ailment—a ‘thorn in the flesh’, he calls it—that isn’t healed. He also has sick colleagues who he presumably prays for, but who continue to be sick. And today we pray for the sick, because that’s what we’re commanded to do, but we have to be honest and say they aren’t always healed as we would wish. Some people are helped by God by being healed; others are helped by a sense of God’s presence and support even in the midst of their suffering. But all are invited to reach out to God and ask for his support and strength.

However, sometimes it’s not our bodies that get bent out of shape: it’s our souls. Often this is not our fault; it’s a result of sins that have been committed against us. Think of a puppy who’s been trained up with lots of punishment, and then watch the adult dog cower in fear whenever its master approaches. There’s a wound inside, and the dog is forever scarred by it. Some people are like that, too: they’ve been wounded inside by the sins of others, and they spend their lives in fear, afraid to speak or act because they’re terrified of what people will say or do in response.

God wants to reach into these poor folks’ hearts and heal their wounds. This doesn’t usually happen in an instant. Usually it takes a long time. It involves lots of prayer, and also lots of love on the part of the people of Jesus. We’re called to be a community where people with wounded souls can find the love and healing they’re looking for. Unconditional love is the indispensable ingredient in that healing.

Sometimes, like the synagogue leader in this story, our souls are bent out of shape because of the way we see the world. The God we believe in is an angry judge who demands detailed obedience to all kinds of commands, even though they don’t always seem to make sense and don’t always seem very important. This God is the God of a certain kind of people with a certain skin colour and creed, and not the God of others. This God likes all the people we like and hates all the people we hate. His values exactly coincide with our own.

If this is us, we need to ask Jesus to open our eyes, because we’re as blind as anyone he healed in the gospels. The god we believe in isn’t the real God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—he’s an imaginary idol we’ve made in our own image. We need to learn to believe the truth that John taught us in his letter: God is love. ‘Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God.But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love’ (1 John 4.8 NLT). We need to remember how Jesus summed up the Law: love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. Everything else is just window-dressing.

Jesus lived his whole life on the principle of love: love for his Father in heaven, and love for the people God sent him to save. Anger and hate always bend us out of shape. Usually the process starts with anger and hate we receive at the hands of others. This anger and hate has the effect of making us in its own image, so that we live in anger and hate as well. Religion is no guarantee that this won’t happen; religious people seem just as capable of anger and hate as anyone else, unless they constantly remind themselves of the law of love, and ask God to help them walk in it and live by it.

If our souls are bent out of shape, Jesus wants to see us free, so we can stand up straight and see the world as God sees it. When that happens, we’ll rejoice like we’ve never rejoiced before. ‘When Jesus laid his hands on the woman, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God’ (v.13), and ‘the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing’ (v.17). When Jesus brings God’s healing power into our lives, the result is always joy, praise, and freedom. May it be so today, for you and me. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

God, the Anguished Parent (a sermon on Hosea 11.1-11)

I suspect I’m not the only parent in church today who remembers being nervous about the impending birth of their first child. Becoming a parent can be joyful and exciting, but it’s also an invitation to a life of worry and anxiety, self-doubt, guilt, and a strong sense of your own personal inadequacy! I don’t know too many parents who really believe, deep down inside, that they’re doing a good job. We all feel like we’re struggling to keep our heads above water.  And yet, as we saw last week, when Jesus is teaching us how to think about God, he invites us to say, “Our Father…”! In other words, Jesus’ favourite metaphor for God’s activity in our lives is parenting.

There’s a common caricature of the Old and New Testaments that says that the God of the Old Testament is an angry and scary God of judgement, and the God of the New Testament is a warm and cuddly God of love. In fact, of course, there are plenty of passages about judgement in the New Testament, too—anybody remember who actually gave us the parable of the sheep and the goats?—and the Old Testament has some tender and loving passages. And one of the most beautiful Old Testament passages about the love of God is our first reading for today, Hosea 11.1-11.

Of all the Bible writers the prophet Hosea is most adept at describing God for us in human terms. And he gives us some striking images while he’s doing it. In last week’s passage, God commanded Hosea to go marry a prostitute, and he obeyed; he married Gomer, and it didn’t take her long to be unfaithful to him. And so Hosea’s marriage became like an acted parable of what it felt like for God to take Israel as his lover, and then have her cheat on him. Philip Yancey says Hosea gives us the striking image of ‘God the jilted lover’!

This week we’re still using family images, but now we’re into a parental metaphor. This week our image is ‘God, the anguished parent’. Do you want to know what it feels like to be God? In this passage from Hosea, God’s heart is laid bare for us.

Hosea begins by describing the people of Israel as children of a loving God.‘When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son’ (v.1). God saw the Israelites suffering as slaves in Egypt, and sent Moses down to lead them out of slavery to freedom. He sent the ten plagues on the Egyptians and finally forced Pharaoh to let the slaves go. He defeated the Egyptian army at the Red Sea and led the people on their long journey through the wilderness. When they were hungry he gave them manna from heaven and quails to eat. When they were thirsty he brought water out of a rock for them. And through it all, he taught them his ways through the Ten Commandments and the other laws he gave them.

In verses 3 and 4 we see God describing Israel poetically as a much-loved child.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them, and fed them.

Note how this image usually works in the Old Testament. We’re not yet at the idea of each human as a child of God. Here we’re talking about the nation as a whole as God’s son. But nonetheless, the language is vivid and compelling. We see the parent watching anxiously as the toddler takes her first wavering steps across the room. Suddenly she falls down, but before she hits the ground she’s scooped up into the arms of her mom, who quickly soothes away any hurt.

That’s what God was like in the early days. Israel took their first wavering steps as a nation, and God hovered over them, picking them up every time they stumbled and soothing away their pain. God is like a mother overwhelmed with love; she can’t help but hold her child cheek to cheek, communicating security, love and peace.[1]

In the New Testament, of course, Jesus’ favourite image for God is ‘Father’. In fact, it’s almost the only name he uses for God. And he invites his disciples into this relationship too, teaching us to pray ‘Our Father in heaven.’ Note that gender isn’t the issue here; God isn’t a male as opposed to a female God. It’s the loving, caring parental relationship that counts. Even if we’ve had a bad experience with human parents, we’re invited to imagine the best possible parent and think of God in those terms: one who always loves us, always provides for our needs, always guides and teaches us and corrects us when we go the wrong way, one who protects us from harm. And for all this, of course, the framework is God’s steadfast love.

But now we come to the hard part. Israel isn’t only seen as the children of a loving God; they’re also seen as wayward children.

We know that no parent is immune from having struggles with their kids. Our church is named after St. Margaret, who was the mother of eight children. She’s recognized as a saint, but even she didn’t have a perfect record—at least one of her children turned out very badly, so we’re told! And we can go even higher than that. In Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, the father of the prodigal is meant to represent God, and he certainly comes across as a wise and loving parent. But still, his son rebels against him and takes off for a far country where he wastes all the money his father gave him in what Luke calls ‘dissolute living’ (Luke 15.13).

Israel’s rebellion against God is spelled out in verse 2:

The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.

What a contrast with Jesus, the Son of God! In the New Testament, Jesus’ whole life is defined by his close relationship with God, his heavenly Father.  But in the Old Testament, we could say that Israel’s life as a people was largely shaped by their rejection of God. This is the major story of the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, and even back into the earlier books that tell the Exodus story.

The specific form their rebellion took was idolatry: the worship of things that are not God. In other words, they rejected their ideal parent and ran off with another one – and then another – and then another – and so it went on. Note this: God isn’t giving in to a fit of jealousy here, like an insecure parent who complains because his child doesn’t worship the ground he stands on. No—idolatry is poisonous for us as humans, because so often we humans become like the things we worship.

We can see an innocent example of that in fans of rock bands who sometimes dress up in the same kind of gear their idols wear. I’m old enough to remember Bay City Rollers fans from the 1970s, all dressed up in tartan like the boys they loved so much! But far less humorous is the story in the Iliad of the Greek king Agamemnon, leader of the army that was trying to cross the Aegean sea to fight against the city of Troy. But the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, and the Greeks were getting incredibly frustrated. Eventually Agamemnon’s prophet told him the only way he could get a favourable wind was if he would offer his daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice to the gods. And Agamemnon did that. He worshipped savage gods, and he became savage, just like them.

This sin is also mentioned in the Old Testament: some of the Israelites were influenced by worshippers of the god Molech, and they began offering their children in human sacrifice to Yahweh, the God of Israel. Yahweh is appalled by this: “I never asked this,” he says, “nor did it ever enter my mind!” And there are other things that seem to go hand in hand with idolatry in the writings of the prophets: injustice, cruelty, oppression of the poor, sexual immorality and so on. Apparently, to reject the God of Israel is to reject his moral and ethical teaching too.

This is not ancient history. In case you hadn’t noticed, idolatry is alive and well today. When we turn to created things and ask them to fulfil God’s role in our lives, we make them into false gods. Many people do that with money and possessions, or success, or popularity. In the scary world we live in, nationalism is a powerful idol for some people: loyalty to their country is the highest ideal they can think of.

In our culture these are powerful God-substitutes that call us away from the worship of the one true God. Christian conversion, to St. Paul, involves turning away from these idols. Listen to his words in 1 Thessalonians: ‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead’ (1.9-10).

This turning from idols to the one true God isn’t just a one-off thing. False gods are constantly tempting us. Think of how many times we fall for the ads that promise us ultimate happiness if we just buy their product. We’ve seen again and again that they’re peddling lies, but still we give in! So daily conversion involves intentionally turning away from the lies of those false gods, and turning back to the one true God who alone can give us what we’re looking for.

We’ve seen that we’re the children of the living God, but we’re also wayward children who tend to stray away from him and worship false gods. So how is God going to respond? Is it going to be judgement or forgiveness?

Let me read verses 5-9 again, only this time from the New Living Translation:

“But since my people refuse to return to me,they will return to Egyptand will be forced to serve Assyria.War will swirl through their cities;their enemies will crash through their gates.They will destroy them,trapping them in their own evil plans.For my people are determined to desert me.They call me the Most High,but they don’t truly honour me.

“Oh, how can I give you up, Israel?How can I let you go?How can I destroy you like Admahor demolish you like Zeboiim?My heart is torn within me,and my compassion overflows.No, I will not unleash my fierce anger.I will not completely destroy Israel,for I am God and not a mere mortal.I am the Holy One living among you,and I will not come to destroy.”

Here we are really gazing into the pain in the heart of God, aren’t we? What parent hasn’t felt this way? “I can’t believe she did this! How could she betray my trust like that? If I let her get away with it, her feet are going to be set on a path that leads to a very bad place. I need to stamp this out right now! But wait—if I do, she’s going to be really hurt! She’s going to think I’m rejecting her, and she’ll hate me for it. How can I possibly cause her pain? I can’t bring myself to do that. But if I let her get away with it…”

In this section we see God mulling this over. He contemplates sending them away into exile, but then he recoils from this thought. In fact, he sounds like a parent who says rash things in the heat of the moment, then thinks it over and in the morning gives a more measured response. Are there any parents here who have done that? I know I have! “No”, God says, “if I behaved like that I’d be acting just like a mortal—a human with a temper problem!” God will correct us, but in love, not in anger.

In one of his books Philip Yancey talks about a conversation he had with a Japanese friend about the love of God. His friend told him that in his culture father-love and mother-love are complimentary but different. Father-love is the love that pushes children to achieve and makes demands on them. Mother-love is the safe place they can return to when they’re exhausted or lonely or demoralized. Philip’s friend felt that his culture had over-emphasised the Father-love of God but under-emphasized God’s mother-love. We can see this tension in the verses we’ve just read.

How does God balance these two kinds of love? Surely this demands infinite wisdom on God’s part—a wisdom all parents long for! Sometimes children misinterpret parental discipline. “You hate me! I hate you back!” If you’re a parent, this pierces you to the heart! We don’t hate our kids—if we did, we wouldn’t care. No—it’s because we love that we feel the need to correct and train our kids. But the overall framework for all of this is the deep, deep love we have for them. Balancing the contrasting demands of the different kinds of love is what makes parenting such a tough gig. Ask God—he knows all about how tough it is!

 So we’ve seen that we’re children of a loving God, but we’re also wayward children. We’ve seen the dilemma God has—balancing what Philip Yancey’s friend called father-love and mother-love is a tough gig. Finally let’s look at verses 10-11, which deal with responding to God’s call.

‘They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.’

These two verses have a poignant quality to them. They remind me of a parent shaking her head over her children, saying “One day they’ll smarten up!” We can hear the sadness in her voice; she sees the pain her child is putting himself through because of his choices, and she longs for him to change his mind and change the direction of his life.

Our NRSV Bibles translate this in the third person: ‘They shall go after the Lord.’ But the New Living Translation puts it in the first person: ‘For some day the people will follow me.’ We hear God saying, ‘Some day—I wish it was today!’

God is committed to respecting the free will of his people, so what can he do? He can call—and I think that’s what the lion’s roar in verse 10 is all about. The lion is roaring to signal to his kids that the street lamps are about to come on, so it’s time to come home! The kids have been having fun, so the call is a bit of a shock. “Whoops—I guess we stayed out too long!” So they come ‘trembling’, says the reading—they’re expecting a scolding!

Remember again Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. The son asks for his inheritance, then goes off to a far country and wastes it all. When it’s all gone, and a severe famine comes to that land, he gets a job feeding pigs. That’s when he comes to his senses, and decides to go home. He makes up an apologetic speech to give to his dad, and I’m sure he practices it many times on the way home. Why? Because he’s expecting to encounter anger, not welcome.

But to his surprise, he encounters not anger, but joy. His father gives him a bear-hug and a kiss, sends a servant off for new shoes and new clothes, and throws a feast in his honour to welcome him home. Jesus says this is how God treats us when we come home to him. We’re wayward children, yes, but we’re still his children, and nothing can change that fact. ‘They shall come trembling…,’ says God, but ‘…I will return them to their homes.’

The heart of God is our home. We’ve seen that God’s heart is full of love for us, a love stronger and wiser and fiercer than the love of any parent who has ever lived. We’re constantly being tempted to stray from that home, but God is constantly calling us back. The welcome feast is spread out for us this morning. Let’s come home again to the heart of God.

[1]I’m indebted for this image to Paula Gooder, Hosea to Micah (The People’s Bible Commentary, BRF, 2005).