‘Listen to Him’ (a sermon on Matthew 17.5)

I think we all know instinctively that there’s a big difference between ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’.

I’m sitting on my couch at home with my laptop open. I’m checking emails, surfing some blog sites, reading some Facebook posts—the usual computer stuff. Marci comes in and starts talking to me. I can hear what she’s saying, but she doesn’t really have my attention. I’m hearing her, but I’m not listening to her. I know the difference—and so does she!

Or think of a parent complaining about their child’s behaviour. “She never listens to me!” she says. She’s not describing a hearing problem; this is about action, or the lack of it. The child isn’t doing what she’s told; that’s what it means to say ‘she’s not listening to me’. ‘Listening’ in this sense includes not just attention, but also obedience.

Our Gospel reading for today includes a command about listening: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17.5). This command is given on top of the mountain of the Transfiguration, where Jesus has gone with Peter, James, and John. If you’ve read the book of Acts, you’ll know that in the early chapters these three are going to be the leaders of the Jerusalem church. They’re the ones who will set the tone of its life as a community of faith. And surely the defining characteristic of its life is that this will be a community that listens to Jesus, in the fullest sense of that word ‘listen’! So let’s think about this for a few minutes.

First, why should the disciples ‘listen to him’? And what difference would it make for them to do so?

To answer that question let’s read today’s story in context. When Matthew wrote his gospel he didn’t divide it into chapters; those divisions were added later. And it’s clear that chapter 16.13 to 17.13 were originally written as a connected whole. There are three distinct units, but they lead logically from one to the other.

First, in 16.13-20, the subject is Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (16.13). The disciples reply, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” But then Jesus presses the issue. “What about you?” he asks; “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16.16). Jesus affirms this: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (16.17).

But what does it mean for Jesus to be the Messiah? The common idea was that the Messiah would be a king like David, setting Israel free from foreign invaders by military force, and then establishing a just and holy government. In other words, he would lead a sort of ‘Make Israel Great Again’ movement! This Messianic hope was dear to many people in Israel; it was something they were really longing for.

But Jesus refuses to go along with this. In the second unit, we read that he ‘began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’ (16.21). Peter can’t accept this and he rebukes Jesus: “Never, Lord! This will never happen to you!” But Jesus turns and rebukes Peter; he accuses him of listening to human ideas, not the thoughts of God. Jesus is walking a different path altogether, the path of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. People will reject him and nail him to a cross, but he will embody the love of the God who loves his enemies and prays for their forgiveness. In other words, Jesus’ version of the Messianic hope is to change the world, not through force, but through indestructible love. And he calls his followers to do the same: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (16.24).

Now we come to the third unit, today’s passage. ‘Six days later’, Jesus leads Peter, James and John up a high mountain, where he is transfigured before them: his face and clothing begin to shine with a brilliant light. Two dead guys appear with him, Moses and Elijah. These are very significant people! Moses was the first great leader of Israel, the one who led them out of Egypt and gave them the Law of God that has guided their lives ever since. Elijah was the first of the great prophets, messengers sent by God to call the people to turn back from idolatry to the true and living God, and to lives of justice and goodness.

If the words ‘Listen to him!’ could ever be applied to anyone in Israel’s history, it would be to these two! “Listen to Moses! Listen to Elijah!” It’s unlikely that Peter, James and John could imagine anyone being greater than them. Peter no doubt thought he was being generous to Jesus when he put the three of them on the same level: “Lord, it is good for us to be here! If you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” (17.4). Few people could imagine Jesus being on the same level as those two! And they were also a sort of living embodiment of the Old Testament scriptures. In the time of Jesus, when people were talking about what we now call ‘the Old Testament’, they often called it ‘The Law and the Prophets’. Well, the Law came through Moses, and Elijah represented the prophets! So these are the heroes of Israel’s faith, and they represent the books that shaped Israel’s life.

But how does God respond to Peter’s suggestion that he put Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah? Verse 5 says, ‘While Peter was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”’ Moses and Elijah were both excellent servants from ancient times, but Jesus is on a whole different level: he’s God’s beloved Son.

I read a story a while back by a preacher who had attended the funeral of the great English runner Roger Bannister. Many tributes were given by friends and colleagues who had known Roger over the years, but the last to speak was his son. The preacher’s comment was, “There are some things about a father that only a son or daughter can know.” And it’s the same with Jesus and his heavenly Father. In the Gospels, Jesus is always listening to the Father and doing his will, and he passes on to his disciples the things he sees and hears from God.

Nowadays when we think of a father-son relationship, we think of love and support and encouragement. But in the ancient world most sons followed their fathers into the family business, and they would work together. The father might have other employees, but none of them could speak on his behalf with the same authority as his son; the son was the uniquely authorized representative of the father. Jesus is the Son of God; there is no one who can speak on God’s behalf with the same authority as him. What is the Church? The community that does its best to ‘listen to Jesus’. What is a disciple? Someone who ‘listens to him.’

So what does it mean for us today to ‘listen to Jesus’?

First, it means that we’re part of the community that listens to him. Nowadays we tend to see a church as a loose collection of individuals who listen. Since printing was invented, Bibles have been available for private reading, and prayer has become mainly something we do alone. Coming to church? Well, we do that when our busy schedules permit it, but we don’t see it as really vital for us. But in the gospels, listening to Jesus was something done in community, gathered around him. Later on as the Christian faith spread, the listening happened in small house churches. Printed books weren’t available, but people might have some hand-written copies of Old Testament stories, letters of the apostles, stories of Jesus. These were read out loud, and then questions could be asked and discussion take place.

This listening community is the church we’re baptized into. This is what baptism means. Listen to Jesus again, speaking to his disciples after the Resurrection:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28.18-20).

“Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” For Matthew, this is the heart of Christian faith. Discipleship means watching Jesus, listening to him, doing what he says and imitating what he does, so that we become ‘Christlike’. That’s why we’re baptizing Myles today: we’re bringing him into this community of disciples. His mom and dad Erica and Ty, his godparents Katrina and Dusan, his wider family, and the whole Christian community—we’re all called to gather round him, show him what following Jesus looks like, and teach him how to work it out in his own life.

In a few minutes I’m going to ask you this question: “Will you do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” and you will reply, “We will, with God’s help”. There’s a twofold responsibility here. There’s a responsibility on Ty and Erica’s part, to keep bringing Myles to join us for worship and take part in the life of our faith community. But there’s also a responsibility on the part of all of us, to keep praying for him, loving him, witnessing to him about the love of Christ, and helping him to grow as a Christian. Are you up for that?

But then, of course, we as individuals are also called to ‘Listen to Jesus’. How do we do this?

The central way, of course, is in our day by day opening of the Bible, especially the gospels, reading the stories of Jesus and the things he said, thinking them through, working out what they mean, and praying about them. “Lord, how do I live this out in my life today? What difference would it make if I put this into practice? What would it look like? What specifically would I need to change?”

What kind of listening are we talking about? Well, we need to listen carefully—not assuming we already know what Jesus is going to say before he says it, and not assuming that we’re understanding it correctly. Often, we’re not! The Bible is a collection of ancient books; words, ideas, and customs were very different when they were written. One thing I try to do for you folks in sermons is to bring some knowledge of the background of each passage, and maybe help us all to a deeper understanding of what it might have meant in its original setting. But I’m still discovering new things! Over and over again, when I hear a passage read out loud, I’ll notice a little detail and think, “How come I didn’t pick up on that before?”

So we listen carefully, and we also listen prayerfully. The old monks had a way of doing this; they called it in Latin ‘lectio divina’, which means ‘holy reading’. It had four steps: reading, thinking, praying, and being quiet. In ‘reading’ they’d look for a word or phrase in the passage that really spoke to them, and they’d repeat it over and over again in their minds, holding it there, really trying to enter into it. In ‘thinking’, they’d meditate on it and what it was saying to them, trying to hear it as a word from God, thinking about how to apply it to their lives. In ‘praying’ they’d actually pray about the passage, asking God about it, asking God’s help for any situations the passage brought to mind. And in ‘being quiet’ they’d end by simply sitting in the presence of God, enjoying the silence, as sometimes happens when two old friends get together—they might have a long conversation, but they know each other so well that they’re not afraid of being silent together too.

It’s a good method, isn’t it? Reading, thinking, praying, and being quiet. Are you up for it?

So we listen carefully, we listen prayerfully, and we also listen obediently. We understand that in the words of Jesus God is speaking to us, and we need to take what he says seriously.

Sometimes we think we need to be sure we really understand a saying of Jesus before we put it into practice. I get that, but there’s another way of looking at it too. You learn how to be married by being married. No amount of studying ahead of time can really do that for you! And it’s also true that often we learn to understand the teaching of Jesus by obeying it.

Rebecca Manley Pippert suggests a way of doing this in her book ‘Out of the Saltshaker’. She suggests we start reading one of the Gospels in the careful, prayerful way I’ve been talking about. As we do so, sooner or later a command of Jesus is going to really hit home for us. We’re going to feel it as a word from God to us, and we won’t have any difficulty guessing how we would go about obeying it. Well, she says, at that point we need to put the book down, pray for God’s help, and then actually go out and try to do what we’ve been told. Practical Bible study means putting the Bible into practice. It’s not just about brains, but hands and feet as well.

So we listen carefully, we listen prayerfully, we listen obediently. Are you up for it?

This week we start the season of Lent. What a great time to practice listening to Jesus! Can I make a suggestion of something you might like to do?

Why not pick one of the Gospels and read it through in Lent. It doesn’t matter if you finish it early or late; reading and listening is the thing. Mark is the shortest gospel, but Matthew has lots of practical teaching about discipleship, and Luke pays lots of attention to how Jesus reaches out to outsiders. John is more theological and mystical, and some people really respond to that.

So pick a gospel, pick a time each day, and start to read. Don’t be in a hurry. Read slowly, going over a passage two or three times. Don’t be afraid to use a pencil to mark your Bible if there’s a word of phrase that stands out for you. Think about that word or phrase; what is it saying to you? What difference could it make to your life?

You might find it helpful to keep a little notebook with you. Each day, maybe jot down one or two things—not just things you’ve learned, but practical things you want to do as a result of what you’ve read. You might even jot down questions: “I don’t understand this, so I need to ask someone about it!” And then turn your reading into prayer. Ask God some questions. Ask for his help and guidance as you think about putting what you’ve read into practice. Ask the Holy Spirit to fill you and strengthen you to do God’s will.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” May God bless our listening and following as we go into this Lenten season.

Telling the Truth (a sermon on Matthew 5.33-37)

This morning I want to concentrate on one paragraph of our gospel reading: the paragraph where Jesus talks about oaths and truth-telling. Apparently Jesus thinks that lying, or breaking your word, is a big deal! But before I dive into that, let me just let you in on the process by which I decided to focus on this section.

Our gospel today comes from the Sermon on the Mount, and it contains four distinct units of teaching from Jesus: one about anger and reconciliation, one about adultery of the heart, one about divorce, and one about oaths. These four units follow on from last week’s passage where Jesus talked about us having a greater righteousness than the scribes and Pharisees. To him, their righteousness was just skin deep; it was outward conformity to the Law of Moses, but nothing was changed on the inside. Jesus wants us to experience inner change as well. So, for example, it’s not enough not to murder; we have to turn away from anger and work for reconciliation.

How does a preacher decide what to focus on in a passage like this?

One thing you could do—and it’s what I did last time I preached on this passage—is to do an overview of the whole thing. You don’t go into a lot of detail on each unit, but you paint the big picture of what Jesus is trying to say. And that can be helpful.

Another thing you can do is to pick the unit that people will find most painful or challenging or controversial, and help them deal with it. If I was to follow that method I’d probably pick the paragraph on divorce, since it affects many of us here today.

But today I’m not following either of those methods. Sometimes you have to turn away from the urgent in order to focus on the really important, and I’d argue that in our society today, one of the most important issues is the breakdown of trust. How do you know you can believe what people say? Politicians, we’re told, will say anything to get elected. Robots on Facebook perpetrate total lies to influence elections and get you interested in ads, and people repost social media memes without even the slightest effort to check their accuracy. And I’d argue that one of the major contributors to marriage and family breakdown is the erosion of trust. Can we trust that our spouse is telling us the truth? Or our kids? Or our parents?

Jesus presents the issue in terms of a formal oath, which in the ancient world was usually worded as a request for a god to punish the swearer if they don’t fulfil their promise. What does Jesus think of this practice? Look again at Matthew 5.33-37:

‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’

In Christian history there have been different opinions about how we should follow this passage. Some people, particularly in the Anabaptist/Mennonite and Quaker traditions, have interpreted this as a blanket condemnation of oath-taking, and so when they go to courts, consistent Mennonites will refuse to swear an oath. Other Christians have said no, it’s the inner spirit of what Jesus is saying here that matters; it’s about telling the truth at all times.

Let’s remember what Jesus is trying to teach us in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. He’s not happy with the Pharisees who think that just obeying the ‘thou shalt nots’ in the Law of Moses is enough. But what sort of person are you on the inside? Are you just obeying God reluctantly, because the Law tells you to do it, or are you being changed into the kind of person who delights in God’s will and walks in God’s ways because they love it? The kind of person who instinctively tells the truth at all times, because that’s the best way to live?

Jesus is going to the heart of the issue. Why do we have to make promises at all? Why do we have to use oaths or sign contracts? Surely, it’s because people can’t trust our word! What are we actually saying if we feel we have to swear an oath? Are we saying, “Well, normally, you can’t trust what I say, but in this instance I’ve made an oath calling on God to punish me if I’m not telling the truth, and I do fear God, so now you can finally trust me”?

Jesus is encouraging us to imagine a different level of honesty. Try to imagine a situation where I’ve been called on to be a witness in a court of law. So I take the stand, and the clerk approaches me with the Bible so I can swear to tell ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God’. But suddenly the judge stops the proceedings. “Wait a minute,” he says, “that’s Tim Chesterton up there. The whole world knows he’s a man of absolute integrity and honesty. There’s never been a known occasion when he’s told a lie, or when he’s said he’s going to do something and failed to do it. It would be an absolute insult for me to ask him to take an oath and swear to tell the truth, because that’s what he always does.

Is that me? No, I’m afraid it’s not—but I have to say, I would love to be that person. And Jesus is telling us that this is God’s dream for us: a life of absolute honesty and integrity. So aim for this. Don’t settle for a life of controlled dishonesty; aim to be known as a person who lives truthfully and speaks truthfully.

This leads to a couple of questions, at least in my mind. First, what are the common situations in which I will tell a lie, or exaggerate or promise more than I can deliver, or fail to keep my word?

Let me try to be honest about this, because after all, this sermon’s about honesty! So, sometimes I lie or exaggerate because I want to impress people. I’ll tell a story and exaggerate certain aspects of it, because it makes it a better story and I get more of a response from the hearers. Or I’ll commit myself to doing something I know I don’t have time for, because I want people to think I’m a good guy.

Sometimes I do it because I’m afraid. I’ve done something I shouldn’t have done, and I’m afraid I’m on the verge of being found out. So I’ll lie about it, or find some fictional reason why ‘it’s not really my fault.’

Sometimes I do it because I’m lazy. I say I’m going to do something, but it’s not something I particularly want to do; it’s too much like hard work, or I’m not really interested in it. So as the deadline gets closer, I’ll put it off and put it off, and eventually the deadline passes and the job just doesn’t get done, and I’ve just provided the world with one more reason not to trust my word.

Now: what do these three situations have in common? I think it’s that they’re all about self-absorption, rather than loving others and caring for their needs. want to impress people with my dramatic story. I want people to think I’m a good guy, so I try to pull the wool over their eyes about my misdeeds. I want to have an easy time and not exert myself doing things I don’t want to do, so I don’t follow through with my commitments.

But sometimes that self-absorption is about our deep inner fears and insecurities. We’re afraid that if other people really knew the truth about us, they wouldn’t love us any more. So we create a false persona, someone much more impressive than the real me. Problem is, it takes a huge amount of effort to keep that persona in place. That persona is built out of all the lies and misleading statements we’ve made about ourselves and others over the years. Just keeping track of them all is a full time job!

It’s time to lay that burden down. And we get the confidence to lay it down when we remember that the one person who knows the complete truth about us is God, and God has promised never to leave us or forsake us. We don’t have to pretend to be better than we are. Grace means there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us less. God already loves us infinitely, and nothing will ever change that. He’s promised it, and he keeps his promises.

So as we get to know God better, and learn to rely on his love, maybe we can take the risk of letting the mask down and being real with God, and with other people too. None of us here has everything together in our lives. We’ve all messed up, and we all have secrets we don’t want anyone else to know about. There’s no need to be afraid of shocking the people around us by telling them who we really are; what’s actually happening is that they’re whispering to themselves, “Jeez, I thought I was the only one!”

The second question this reading brings to my mind is, how could the Christian world become more truthful? Because a truthful church would be a big encouragement for truthful Christians, wouldn’t it?

One thing we could do would be to stop exaggerating. Many of you have heard me talk about the song I learned when I was a young Christian:

At the cross! At the cross
where I first saw the light
and the burden of my heart rolled away;
It was there by faith I received my sight,
and now I am happy all the day.

‘Now I am happy all the day’? What sort of a lie is that? At no point in my life has that ever been true for me. Every day, at some point, I have found something to be sad about. So when I used to sing this song I would find myself thinking, “Is there something wrong with me? Have I not really given my life to Jesus properly? Have I not really been filled with the Holy Spirit?” And so I’d try to do it all over again: confess every possible sin I could think of again, give my life to Jesus again, pray that the Holy Spirit would fill me again. It never worked. I was happy some of the time (usually when I wasn’t thinking about trying to be happy), but I was never ‘happy all the day.’

Songs like this give impressionable Christians a false idea of what the Christian life is really like. When they can’t pretend any more, they do one of two things: they give up on Christianity because it’s obviously not true, or they give up on themselves, because they’re obviously a hopeless case. And all because of a song that makes untruthful statements about what it feels like to be a Christian.

We need to be really careful about this. We need to make sure we aren’t making unrealistic promises to people about what Christianity is like. And we also need to be willing to tell the truth about our own sins and failures. Not to everyone, of course, but we do need safe places where we can learn to be more honest about ourselves. I don’t need to tell you that in many places, this isn’t encouraged! Think about something I said earlier in this sermon. I can imagine what some of you were thinking.  “He tells lies? What sort of priest is he?” Well, yes, I’m not proud of the fact, but I have to admit that sometimes I do tell lies. I’m trying to do it less often, but I’m not all the way there yet.

Most pastors have had people sit in their offices at some point, telling sad stories about the messes they’ve gotten themselves in, and then saying, “I wish I had my life together like the other people in this church!” And we pastors smile to ourselves, because we know that if we stay long enough in our congregation, we’ll hear that same line from dozensof people, including highly respected members of the congregation. Highly respected members, that is, who haven’t been honest about themselves and their own struggles.

Back in the 1950s a Bible scholar named William Barclay told a story about the origin of the English word ‘sincere’. Apparently it comes from a Latin phrase that means ‘without wax’. It comes from the world of sculpture. Sometimes in years gone by, a sculptor would make an error and gouge out a hole in a statue that wasn’t meant to be there. A dishonest sculptor would fill in the hole with wax, and then paint it so it looked just like the stonework. A statue that had no such coverup jobs was ‘sin cere’ – ‘without wax’.

Sisters and brothers, Jesus is calling us to be people of integrity—sincere people, people who are honest, open and unpretentious. People who don’t exaggerate to make a good impression or promise more than they can deliver. People who don’t need to take an oath to guarantee their honesty, because they’re known to all the world as people who always tell the truth and keep their word.

How do we get there? As I’ve suggested in this sermon, one way of getting there is to acknowledge that our dishonesty is often about fear: fear of what other people will think if they find out the truth about us. We can address that fear as we learn to trust the God who knows everything about us, but still loves us anyway. And as a church, we can help each other address that fear by gradually letting down our picture-perfect masks with each other, so that everyone knows we’re all in this together. You probably won’t shock the person sitting beside you by letting them know you’re not quite as perfect as they thought! Guess what—neither are they!

Let’s close in prayer.

God of truth, you know how we love to spin illusions with each other, and you know why we do it. Help us learn to really believe, deep down in our hearts, that your love for us is absolute and complete, even though you know the whole truth about us. And help us take the risk of honesty with one another, so that we can rebuild trust and maybe, just maybe, help build a world where illusions are recognized for what they are, and the truth is honoured and loved. We ask these things through the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Making a Difference (a sermon on Matthew 5.13-20)

There’s a very important difference between a thermometer and a thermostat. A thermometer tells you what the temperature is inside your house, but it doesn’t actually change anything. A thermostat, on the other hand, is connected to the furnace; it changes things! When the temperature dips below a certain level, the thermostat sends a signal to your furnace, and the burners fire up, and a few minutes later things are toasty warm again. Thermometers give you information about the world. Thermostats change the world. We Christians are called to be thermostats.

Last week at St. Margaret’s we celebrated the Feast of Candlemas, and Susan led us in our reflections on Jesus as the light of the world. So it’s a nice piece of serendipity that Matthew 5.13-20 follows on as our gospel reading for this week. In John, Jesus tells us that he is the light of the world, and all who follow hm will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. But in today’s gospel he turns it around, as he looks straight at us and says, “Youare the light of the world.” In today’s Gospel we think about how we’re called to shine the light of Jesus in the world around us. Like a thermostat in a cold room, a candle in a dark room makes a difference; it changes the world. We’re called to be that change.

I’m glad we celebrated Candlemas last week, but it’s too bad that it preempted the usual gospel reading for the day, which would have been the Beatitudes, the opening passage in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I’d like to suggest to you that the Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. Most people who enroll in the School of Jesus do so because of a sense of need in their own lives; we’re coming to Jesus for help for ourselves. That’s fine as a place to start, but we’ll soon discover that the School of Jesus doesn’t just exist for my personal benefit; it exists to change the world. This is very clear as we read through the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus starts in the Beatitudes by telling us we’re welcome in the Kingdom of God whether we’re saints or sinners, beginners or long-time Christians. But he then goes on immediately to remind us that the purpose of the School of Jesus is to produce disciples—people who can make a difference in the world by being like salt and light. That’s what today’s gospel is about. 

“You are the salt of the earth”, says Jesus in verse 13. The word ‘You’ is a plural; he’s addressing his followers as a community, not just individuals. We, as a community, are to act on the world like salt acts on food.Salt was mainly used in the ancient world to prevent meat from going bad. The purpose of the salt was to influence the meat, not the other way around! So Jesus calls us, his disciples, to have a positive influence on the world around us, and we can’t do that if we’re no different from the world. If we’re going to be useful to the world, we need to be different, to live by different values, to follow a different Master.

In this passage Jesus explicitly warns us about losing our distinctive flavour. Modern table salt actually can’t lose its flavour, but in the ancient world the salt wasn’t pure. It was picked up from the shores of the Dead Sea, and many other impurities were picked up with it, impurities that looked just like salt but actually weren’t. The pure salt was water soluble, so it wouldn’t be uncommon for all the saltiness to be washed away and only the impurities be left. So Jesus warns his disciples: there will be a lot of pressure for you to ‘wash away’ your distinctiveness and blend in with the world around you. He’s warning us not to give in to that temptation, because if we do, we kiss goodbye to any opportunity to make a real difference for God in the world.

And we are to be visibly different; that’s the point of the second illustration. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (vv.14-16).

It’s interesting that in John’s gospel Jesus says, “am the light of the world”, but here in Matthew he says to us, his followers, “You are the light of the world”. Darkness in the Bible stands for evil, sin, and ignorance, and Jesus is bringing light into the world – truth, goodness, and holiness. He calls his disciples to be like him, so that they also may spread his light wherever they may go. And the question for us as a church community is surely this: does our life together as followers of Jesus remind people of our Master? Do they see his light in us?

I think we sometimes have a tendency to assume that they don’t. Many of us have a perfectionistic streak in us, and all we can see is how far we fall short, without giving ourselves room to be thankful for the good things that arehappening. I need to take some responsibility for this, too; Marci sometimes reminds me that I’m the resident Eeyore in our family! But then I remember some years ago when a member of our congregation brought me a cheque for $300. She told me a friend had given it to her to pass on to our church. Her friend wasn’t a member of St. Margaret’s, but she’d heard on the grape vine that we were a church that knew how to be a blessing to the poor and needy. Not a bad reputation to have!

But of course, there always is room for improvement, and so as a community we need to be constantly listening to the teaching of Jesus in the gospels and asking ourselves “How would that change the life of our community? If we actually did what he tells us here, how would we be different?” And then, of course, we need to actually make the necessary changes. That’s what it means to be a Christian church, a community of disciples of Jesus.

But in order for this to happen – in order for us to truly be salt and light and to have a positive influence on the world around us – there needs to be genuine transformation in our own lives, and it can’t just be superficial; it has to go deep. This is what Jesus goes on to address in verses 17-20, where he says,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.

As it stands, there’s an obvious difficulty with this teaching: it doesn’t line up with the practice of Jesus. Jesus actually sat rather lightly to some of the commandments. For instance, he allowed his disciples to harvest grain on the Sabbath. He healed the sick on the Sabbath. He said it was no longer necessary to keep kosher, because it wasn’t unclean food entering the body that made a person impure, but evil actions coming from within. He wasn’t always scrupulous in observing every little detail of the law himself. So how are we to understand this passage?

We need to remember that Jesus was raised in a tradition in which exaggeration was an accepted form of teaching. He talks about a camel going through the eye of a needle, and about not trying to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye when there’s a great plank of wood in your own, and being able to use faith to move mountains. Teachers in Jesus’ day often exaggerated in order to make a point, and we need to take this into account when we’re interpreting what Jesus had to say.

So what’s he trying to say in this passage? Surely the point is that faith in him involves obedience to God’s commandments. Jesus hung out with sinners, but that didn’t mean he was okay with sin; he wasn’t. He wanted to welcome everyone into the kingdom to begin a journey of transformation, so that together they could become people whose lives were visibly different. In this way, he said, he came to fulfil the law and the prophets; his movement would produce people who were more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees, not less.

In the rest of Matthew chapter five Jesus gives us some concrete examples of what he’s talking about, and in every case it’s clear that he’s taking the law and internalizing it. He’s not interested in righteousness that’s only skin-deep; he wants the word of God to penetrate into our hearts, so we’re transformed on the inside as well as the outside.

So it’s not enough, he says, to congratulate yourself because you haven’t murdered anyone. Murder is caused by anger and resentment, and you must root these things out of your lives as well, and do your best to be reconciled to your adversaries instead of nursing a grudge against them for decades. And it’s not enough to congratulate yourself that you’ve never committed adultery, while all the time you’re nursing secret sexual fantasies about other people. It’s not enough to congratulate yourself on the fact that in your divorce you followed the law to the letter; God didn’t establish the institution of marriage with divorce in mind, so we’re called to work for reconciliation. It’s not enough to proudly say that when you take an oath in court you never break it. Why do you need to take an oath in the first place? Are you telling people you can’t be trusted unless you take an oath? It’s not enough to follow the Old Testament law that limits vengeance to exact equivalence—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Rather, don’t take vengeance at all; turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and love your enemies, just as your heavenly Father sends sunshine and rain on both good and bad alike.

You see what’s going on here? Jesus is focusing not so much on the letter of the Law, but on the positive values God is looking for – reconciliation, faithfulness, honesty and truth, forgiveness and love for all. This is what Jesus means by ‘fulfilling the Law and the Prophets’, and it helps us make sense of his saying about our righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees.

The scribes and Pharisees were seen as the most religious people of their day, but the problem, according to Jesus, was that often their religion was only skin deep. They would keep the commandment about murder but continue to seethe with anger against others and see nothing wrong in that. They would keep the commandment about adultery but continue to nurse lust for others in their hearts. They would keep their oaths but not be so scrupulous about telling the truth at other times. They would congratulate themselves on having achieved an amicable divorce rather than working for reconciliation in their marriages. They conformed to God’s standards outwardly, but inwardly they were unchanged.

This may look good on the outside, but it’s not what Jesus is after. Not that he’s against outward actions. Sometimes that’s the way it works; we learn to do some outward action, and gradually it transforms us on the inside as well. We learn a new habit, which at first is only an outward thing, but gradually it starts to go deeper. Young couples who are madly in love with each other often hold hands, but it works the other way around as well; older couples who continue to hold hands often find that it enhances the love they feel for each other. The outward action is meant to lead to an inward transformation, and it’s the inner transformation that Jesus is most interested in, because that’s what makes it possible for us to make a difference to the world around us.

Let’s go around this one last time.

Everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God, because God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are. However, he loves us too much to leave us there. He knows that living lives of disobedience and sin is ultimately bad for us, so his purpose is to lead us out of darkness into the light of a new way of life. And he’s not just doing this for our own sake; he wants the whole world to be transformed by his light. We, the disciples of Jesus, are called to be a community that learns a new way of life from our Master, and then practices living it together. We, as a community, are the salt of the earth, the city set on a hill, the light shining for all to see. The world is meant to be able to see our way of life and take note: this is what God’s Kingdom looks like.

But in order for this to happen, our obedience can’t just be skin deep. Rather, the Holy Spirit has to work below the surface to transform us into people who love to do the will of God. As we continue our studies in the Sermon on the Mount next week, we’ll look a little more closely at the examples Jesus gives of the deep work of transformation that God wants to do in us.

I’m not OK—you’re not OK—and that’s okay

I’m dating myself here, I know, but back in the late 1970s when I began my ministry, I’m OK, You’re OK was still a very popular self-help book. Based on the psychology of Transactional Analysis, it outlined several different approaches people take in their relationships with each other. “I’m OK—you’re not OK”, “I’m not OK—you’re OK”, “I’m not OK—you’re not OK”, and finally (you’ve guessed that this is the one the book recommended!), “I’m OK—you’re OK.”

I was discussing Transactional Analysis one day with a good friend of mine and he made what I thought was a very wise comment. He said, “The problem is that they missed out the best option: ‘I’m not OK—you’re not okay—and that’s OK.'” I have never forgotten that. To me, it was a profound statement of the Christian experience of grace, which is that God loves us with a fierce and stubborn love that absolutely refuses to let us go. We all fall short of what we ought to be ‘through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault’, but God is patient with us, refusing to abandon us. And God calls us to the same love for each other. Hence, ‘I’m not OK—you’re not okay—and that’s OK.’

I’ve been thinking about this lately in connection with a statement I read in Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection: ‘Everyone is basically doing the best they can.’ I love that statement. It’s encouraging us to be gentle with each other. We all have complicated stories, and they’ve shaped us into the people we are today. None of us has a perfect story, so none of us is a perfect person. Knowing that about ourselves, and hoping others will be gentle with us, we ought to be gentle with them too.

But is it really true that everyone is basically doing the best they can? To answer that question I need only look into my own heart. No, I don’t always do the best I can. Sometimes I choose not to, because I’m getting older now and I have to be aware of my energy levels. Sometimes I choose not to, because I’m selfish and lazy, and my natural inclination is to aim for a pass mark rather than the best mark I could achieve. Am I proud of that? Of course not. Is it reality? Absolutely.

I remember a conversation with my friend Steve London about this subject. We’re both lovers of the Anabaptist movement, which has a high vision for Christian discipleship. It emphasizes how each of us is called to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our daily lives, including the tough stuff like loving your enemies, living a simple life, caring for the poor and marginalized, telling the truth, and seeking first the Kingdom of God.

But Steve and I both realize that we fall far short of that, and we’re also lovers of Brennan Manning’s book The Ragamuffin Gospel, which basically takes the view that all of us fall short, and without God’s grace we’d be sunk. I know this is true too. Yes, we should all be trying harder, but at the end of the day it so often feels as if it’s two steps forward and one step back—or sometimes one step forward and two steps back. But God’s mercy and grace is the safety net, and when I fall, it’s there to catch me. Or rather, he’s there to catch me.

So we have what appear to be two contradictory visions of what it means to be a Christian. There’s the discipleship vision, which calls us to press on as followers of Jesus, working hard to put his teaching into practice in our daily lives, so that we’re transformed into his likeness. And there’s the ragamuffin vision, which basically seems to say that we’re ragamuffins today, we always will be, and so will everyone else, so we’d be wise not to be too hard on ourselves or other people.

How do we reconcile these two visions? Are they totally contradictory?

It occurred to me a while back that they’re really not.

The ragamuffin vision is profoundly true. I am not OK. I try to be, but I fall short. There’s never a day when I don’t need to pray the prayer, “I have not loved you, God, with my whole heart, and I have not loved my neighbour as myself. Please forgive me.” And I can pray that prayer with confidence, because God is a God of indestructible grace, patient and gentle, ‘slow to anger and abounding in love’.

But where does the discipleship vision come in? Well, it seems to me that, when it comes to putting the teaching of Jesus into practice, some of the toughest parts of it are about forgiving one another and being patient with one another. In other words, the ragamuffin vision assures us that God loves us in the midst of our failures. And the discipleship vision challenges us to love other ragamuffins in the same way we’ve been loved—in the midst of our ragamuffin-ness.

And at the end of the day this is what matters. Business leaders may exhort me to ‘be my best self’, but I really don’t think my best self has anything to do with metrics and sales figures. My best self is to do with love, patience, gentleness, compassion, kindness, and generosity. It’s about forgiving others and refusing to give up on them. And the Christian gospel tells me I can do these things with the help of the God who refuses to give up on me.

One of my favourite Bible passages goes like this:

‘Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.’ (Ephesians 4.31-32, New Living Translation).

I think this gets right to the heart of the matter. God help us to live by it, for our own comfort and the comfort of others.

‘Faith Enough to Forgive’ (a sermon on Luke 17.1-10)

The subject of forgiveness is a hugely painful one for many Christians. Pastors and priests are confronted with it all the time. People come to us with stories of horrible things others have done to them, and then they look at us angrily and say, “And I suppose you’re going to tell me I should forgive him!” Or, alternatively, they look at us with tears in their eyes and say, “I know I should forgive him, and I’ve really tried, but I just can’t.” 

One of the most famous modern stories of Christian forgiveness took place thirteen years ago in the community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Here’s a story from three years ago from the Washington Post:

A single word in black cursive font hangs above a large double-pane window in Terri Roberts’s sunroom. It says “Forgiven.” The word—and the room itself, a gift built by her Amish neighbors just months after the unimaginable occurred—is a daily reminder of all that she’s lost and all that she’s gained these past 10 years.

The simple, quiet rural life she knew shattered on Oct. 2, 2006, when her oldest son, Charles Carl Roberts IV, walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse on a clear, unseasonably warm Monday morning. The 32-year-old husband and father of three young children ordered the boys and adults to leave, tied up 10 little girls between the ages of 6 and 13 and shot them, killing five and injuring the others, before killing himself.

Terri Roberts’s husband thought they’d have to move far away. He knew what people thought of parents of mass murderers. He believed they would be ostracized in their community, blamed for not knowing the evil their child was capable of. But in the hours after the massacre, as Amish parents still waited in a nearby barn for word about whether their daughters had survived, an Amish man named Henry arrived at the Roberts’ home with a message: The families did not see the couple as an enemy. Rather, they saw them as parents who were grieving the loss of their child, too. Henry put his hand on the shoulder of Terri Roberts’s husband and called him a friend.

The world watched in amazement as, on the day of their son’s funeral, nearly 30 Amish men and women, some the parents of the victims, came to the cemetery and formed a wall to block out media cameras. Parents, whose daughters had died at the hand of their son, approached the couple after the burial and offered condolences for their loss.

Then, just four weeks after the shooting, the couple was invited to meet with all the families in a local fire hall. One mother held Roberts’s gaze as both women’s eyes blurred with tears, she said. They were all grieving; they were all struggling to make sense of the senseless.

But the Amish did more than forgive the couple. They embraced them as part of their community. When Roberts underwent treatment for Stage 4 breast cancer in December, one of the girls who survived the massacre helped clean her home before she returned from the hospital. A large yellow bus arrived at her home around Christmas, and Amish children piled inside to sing her Christmas carols.

“The forgiveness is there; there’s no doubt they forgive,” Roberts said.

Steven Nolt, a professor of Amish studies at Elizabethtown College, said that for most people, forgiveness and acceptance come at the end of a long emotional process. But the Amish forgive first and then every day work through the emotions of it. This “decisional forgiveness” opened a space for Roberts to offer her friendship, which normally in their situation would be uncomfortable, he said.

I wonder what you would have said or done in the position of those Amish families? I wonder what would have done?

Our Gospel for today contains straight talk on the subject of forgiveness. Jesus teaches us that when our brother or sister sins against us—the original language says ‘brother’, not ‘another disciple’ as the NRSV has it—when our brother or sister sins against us, we are to rebuke them, and if they repent, we are to forgive them. At that point his disciples might have thought “Wow—that’s a tough one! We’ll need to be a lot further along on the road of faith to be able to do that!” So they ask in verse 5, “Increase our faith!” In the rest of the passage Jesus corrects their misunderstanding of what’s necessary for them to be able to forgive.

As we read between the lines a bit in this story, we come to understand that the disciples were mistaken on two counts: they had a wrong view of forgiveness and a wrong view of faith. Let’s look a little more closely at this together. 

First of all, the disciples had a wrong view of forgiveness.My guess is that they made the same mistake on this subject as many do today: they were confusing forgiveness with excusing or with the healing of the hurt. 

What’s the difference? Well, excusing says “What you did was no big deal, so I’m not going to make an issue out of it”. But forgiveness says “What you’ve done was sinful and wrong, but I’m not going to exact vengeance on you. Instead, I’m going to continue to act in a loving way toward you”. But acting in love to someone doesn’t necessarily mean letting them get away with evil. Those of us who are parents know this very well: forgiving our kids and acting in love toward them doesn’t mean we let them get away with wrongdoing without trying to stop them and help them change. What it does mean is that we do what’s best for them, rather than what feels good to us.

In our Gospel, Jesus is clearly not talking about excusing. He says in verse 3 “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them, and if they repent, forgive them” (NIV 2011). The command to rebuke is as plain and clear as the command to forgive. And it is important for the other person, too. If someone sins against me and causes me harm, it is clearly spiritually harmful for them as well. I am commanded by Jesus to point that out to them and to call for repentance.

I wonder if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this sort of thing? Some years ago I had said something unkind about someone to a third party, and the person I’d been talking about had heard about my remarks. She was a lot younger than me, but nonetheless she very bravely confronted me with it, quite tearfully in fact, and told me how hurt she had been. I blustered a bit, but the plain fact was that she was right and I was wrong. Eventually I stopped blustering, admitted she was right, and asked her forgiveness. She dealt faithfully with me according to Jesus’ teaching here, but then she freely forgave me when I repented and apologized. I was not excused, but I was forgiven.

So forgiveness is not the same as excusing. Neither is it the same as experiencing healing of the hurt we have received. I think that when many people say, “I can’t forgive him!” what they really mean is “I can’t get over the pain he caused me”. And of course that makes a great deal of sense; the healing of pain, especially emotional pain, often takes a very long time. If we wait for the pain to go away before we forgive someone, it’s likely we’ll never reach the forgiveness stage.

Now I hear you thinking, “Well, if forgiveness is not excusing and it’s not making the pain go away, what exactly is it?” Forgiveness is an act of the will. It’s a choice I make, a choice to continue to actin a loving way toward those who have hurt me, whether I feel like it or not. It’s a choice to accept the injury and to return for it love and not vengeance. I say again, it’s not about feelings but about actions. It’s well described for us by Paul in these verses from Romans:

‘No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will be heaping burning coals on their heads”. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:20-21).

Forgiveness is an act of the will, a choice to love another person, not matter how we feel. Why is it so important to Jesus? Because to refuse to forgive is to bind ourselves to the past and to refuse to move forward and grow in love. Clinging to bitterness, anger and the thought of vengeance is not growth; only love is growth. So Jesus gives us this command for our own sake, because he loves us and wants to lead us from slavery into freedom.

We’ve said that the disciples probably had a wrong view of forgiveness. Secondly, they also probably had a wrong view of faith.

The disciples were obviously overawed by Jesus’ command to rebuke and forgive. “This is far beyond us! We’re going to need a lot of supernatural help to put this into practice! Increase our faith!” They obviously expected that Jesus would somehow do this miraculously, as in his healings and his exorcisms. But the truth is that Jesus usually answers a prayer for more faith by allowing us to get into situations where we have to exerciseour faith, so that our ‘faith-muscles’ can grow.

What do I mean by that? Well, it’s often been observed that most stories of God’s miraculous healings in the world today come from countries where there are no expensive clinics or cheap drug plans. The people have nowhere else to turn but to God, so their faith-muscles get a lot of use. They grow in faith by exercising their faith on a daily basis.

How might God answer a prayer like “Increase our faith”? I’d suggest that if we as a congregation prayed this prayer, one way God might answer it would be to allow one of our members who makes a major contribution to our budget to move to another city. The prospect of a budget shortfall might have the effect of forcing us to rely on God more and pray constantly for God’s help! So—be careful what you pray for!

This leads us to verses 6-10. After the apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith, here’s what happened:

The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.

‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”’

These verses make more sense when we take them in the context of what has gone before. Jesus is saying to his disciples “You’re asking for more faith so that you can forgive as I’ve told you. You think the problem is your lack of faith, but in fact it’s not. You already have all the faith you need. You are a servant; you’ve been commanded to forgive—not to feelforgiveness, but to forgive in action. What you need is not more faith; what you need is a little bit of simple obedience 

A few years ago I read this story in Brian Zahnd’s book ‘Unconditional’: 

During the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917, one and a half million Armenians were murdered by Ottoman Turks, and millions more were raped, brutalized, and forcibly deported. From the Armenian Genocide comes a famous story of a Turkish army officer who led a raid on the house of an Armenian family. The parents were killed, and their daughters raped. The girls were then given to the soldiers. The officer kept the youngest daughter for himself. Eventually this girl was able to escape and later trained to become a nurse. In an ironic twist of fate, she found herself working in a ward for wounded Turkish army officers. One night by the dim glow of the lantern, she saw among her patients the face of the man who had murdered her parents and so horribly abused her sisters and herself. Without exceptional nursing, he would die. And that is what the Armenian nurse gave – exceptional care.

As the officer began to recover, a doctor pointed to the nurse and told the officer, “If it weren’t for this woman, you would be dead”. The officer looked at the nurse and asked, “Have we met?” “Yes”, she replied. After a long silence the officer asked, “Why didn’t you kill me?” The Armenian Christian replied, “I am a follower of him who said, ‘love your enemies’”.

This young woman didn’t wait until she felt forgiveness, or until she felt more faith. She apparently didn’t consult her feelings at all. She simply acted in obedience and offered the practical care that her enemy, the man who had injured her, needed in order to survive. And God honoured her obedience; her story is still being told today as an example of the forgiveness and love for enemies that Jesus commands of us.

No one is pretending this is easy. But it is vital, for two reasons. Firstly for our own spiritual and emotional health. To refuse to forgive is to bind yourself to the past with chains of iron. To refuse to forgive is to decide that the future will look exactly like the past: you hit me, I hit you harder, and so on, and so on. Only forgiveness has the power to change the future. 

Secondly, it’s vital for the future of the Christian church—including our own church. These days there’s all sorts of hand wringing in Christian circles about shrinking church attendance and proving we’re still relevant and so on. But those aren’t the most important issues facing the Christian church. The most important issue facing the Christian church is this: will we look like Jesus? Will we live in such a way that people learn about what Jesus said and did just by watching our lives? Nothing else is as important as that. And of course, forgiving and being forgiven is right at the heart of the life and teaching of Jesus. 

So today, let’s not pray as the disciples did, “Increase our faith”. Let’s recognize that we’ve already been given enough faith to do as we’re told. Let’s simply resolve that when we will leave here today, we will do our best to put Jesus’ words into practice:

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent’, you must forgive them” (Luke 17:3-4 NIV 2011).

‘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?


‘And then (Jesus) added, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.”’ (Mark 7.20-23 New Living Translation)

The verses immediately before this passage are a discussion about eating ritually clean and unclean foods. That doesn’t tend to be a big issue in Christianity today, but many of us still seem to believe that ritual acts can purify us.

Jesus takes a different view. What goes into the body doesn’t makes you dirty; it’s what comes out of your heart that does that. He lists all the ‘vile things’ that spew out from us into the world on a regular basis. Want to be clean? Work on changing that list!

But how do we do that? Well, we’re told in several places in the New Testament that love is the fulfilling of the law. Love is also the first fruit of the Holy Spirit and the theme of Jesus’ great commandments. As we gradually learn to centre our lives on loving God, our neighbour, and ourselves, we will find these ‘vile things’ getting weaker, and eventually shrivelling away to nothing.

So let’s work on practising love for God, our neighbour and ourselves, and let’s pray that as we do so, the Holy Spirit will cleanse the poisoned well within and transform us on the inside into people formed and shaped by love.

‘The Image of God’ (a sermon on Colossians 1.15)

Today is a joyful celebration of new life in Christ. Today, in a few minutes, Holly is going to commit herself to Christ in faith and baptism, and then she and Craig are going to offer their son Henry to receive baptism as well. I think the last time we celebrated the baptism of a mother and her child at the same service at St. Margaret’s was nineteen years ago, so it’s not something we see very often! But it’s a beautiful witness to the decision of a family to put God at the centre of their lives and follow the way of Jesus together, and so we rejoice with them here today.

Baptism in the New Testament is like a beautiful diamond with many facets. We turn it around and examine it closely, and the light falls on a different facet each time. Sometimes baptism is about being born again into the family of God. Sometimes it’s about dying with Christ on his cross and being raised with him in his resurrection—that symbolism was very powerful when adults were baptized by total immersion, going down into the water and coming up again. Sometimes it’s about God making a covenant with the person being baptized, and baptism being the sign and seal of that covenant. Sometimes it’s about repentance and forgiveness of sins.

Most of the language used about baptism in the New Testament works better when it’s an adult being baptized, as Holly will be baptized today. That shouldn’t surprise us; after all, most of the New Testament books were written by the first generation of Christians. They remembered what it was like to be without Christ in their lives. They remembered how they came to believe in Christ, and how they were baptized into his family. So they loved using the language of dying and rising again, or being washed from your sins. That language really resonated with their experience. They looked back on their conversion to Christ using the sort of imagery Paul uses in the two verses immediately before our reading from Colossians today, where he says,

‘For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins.’ (Colossians 1.13-14 NLT)

But what does baptism mean for a person who experiences it the way Henry is going to experience it today, right at the beginning of his life? I think the New Testament text that best fits Henry’s experience is the one from the end of the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus sends out his disciples to preach the gospel to all nations. Let me remind you of what he says:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a NRSV).

A disciple is a learner—we might even say, an apprentice—someone who is intent on putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in their daily life. Adults can decide to do this, of course, but parents can also decide to make this the centre of their lives with their children. We love Jesus and we want to learn to follow him, and as we’re learning day by day, we’re also passing on what we learn to our children and grandchildren, by our words and by our example. So a family that brings a child for baptism is a family that has decided to follow Jesus together.

But why would we want to do that? Why would we specifically want to follow Jesus? After all, there are many different religions out there in the world today. We have many different options to choose from. What makes Jesus so special? Is it just because we live in Canada, and historically Canada has had a Christian tradition? Or is it something more than that?

I want to focus with you on one verse from our reading from Colossians this morning: the first verse of the passage, Colossians 1.15. Here it is:

‘He (that is, Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’.

That’s how the New Revised Standard Version translates it, rather literally, from the original Greek. The Common English Bible gives what I think is a good paraphrase of it:

‘The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation.’

This is amazing language for our author to use! We’re not exactly sure when the letter to the Colossians was written. Many scholars think it was written by Paul the apostle, as it claims, which means it would have had to be written before the mid-sixties A.D., since Paul was probably executed by the Roman Emperor Nero about that time. But other scholars think it was written at a later date, by a disciple of Paul, perhaps a decade or so after Paul died. Even so, we’re talking about no more than forty-five years after the death of Jesus—and likely quite a bit earlier than that—and someone is already using astonishing language to describe the carpenter from Nazareth who’d been executed as a rebel against Rome by Pontius Pilate.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean. C.S. Lewis died on November 22nd1963, so that will be fifty-six years ago this coming November. Lewis continues to be a very popular Christian writer. His Narnia stories have been made into movies several times over the years. His books still sell in the millions. Many people have been inspired by him and some have become Christians because of his writings. There have been dozens of biographies and studies about his life, to the point that you’d think there would be nothing left to say, but no, people are still writing them! So it’s safe to say that Lewis was an impressive man and a great religious leader and teacher.

But no one has ever said of C.S. Lewis the sort of thing that we read in Colossians:

‘C.S. Lewis is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation, because all things were created by him: both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him.’

It would be unthinkable that anyone would talk about Lewis like that. After all there are still people alive who knew him! His character flaws are well documented, and if anyone tried to teach that Lewis’ life was some sort of special revelation of God, Lewis and his friends would have been the first ones to protest. “I’m just a man,” he would have said, “and a sinner too. Please pray for me!”

When these verses from Colossians were written there were certainly people still alive who had known Jesus well. Many of them were Jewish people, and Jewish people were very strict about not worshipping anyone but the one God, the Creator of heaven and earth. They were also very strict about not making images or idols. How could you possibly make an image that would sum up everything that God is? The whole universe can’t contain the likeness of God, so what hope does an image have of doing it? And so Jewish people were told quite clearly in the Ten Commandments not to make any sort of image to bow down and worship.

But now here is Paul, using that image language about Jesus, calling him the Son of God, and going on to say, ‘The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation.’ And none of Jesus’ early followers protested that, despite the fact that it cut right across their Jewish sensitivities. Why is that? Surely it’s because, the more they thought about their experience of Jesus, the more they realized that this was the only sort of language that was adequate for him.

The Anglican bishop of Toronto is called Andrew Asbil. Andrew’s father Walter was also an Anglican bishop in the Diocese of Niagara in Ontario. About twenty years ago, long before Andrew became a bishop, I was at a national church meeting in Toronto where he was one of the speakers. The person introducing him said, “I want to introduce Andrew Asbil to you today. Some of you know his father Walter, and you’ll agree with me that you now know exactly what Jesus meant when he said, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’!” And it’s true! If you put photographs of Andrew and Walter beside each other, the likeness is uncanny!

But of course most children bear the likeness of their parents to some degree. And children also inherit some of their characteristics from their parents. The older I get, the more I realize that some of my deepest convictions about what it means to be a Christian priest come from my dad, who was a priest before me. And I chuckle sometimes when I hear some of the things my daughter says to her children, and I realize that she heard the very same words coming out of my mouth when she was growing up!

“Like father, like son.” “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” Many of you have heard me tell the joke about the little girl in Sunday School who was trying to draw a picture of God. Her teacher was surprised. “But no one knows what God looks like!” he said. She replied, “They will when I’m done!” And when Jesus was done living his life of love for God and others—even going so far as to love his enemies and pray for those who hated him—when he was done living a simple life with few possessions, focussing only on God and the people God loves—when he was done crossing boundaries and loving people no one else had any time for—when he was done healing the sick and raising the dead and welcoming sinners and teaching us what God had in mind for us when he created us in the first place—well, when Jesus was done all that, now we know what God is like. God is like Jesus.

Let’s be clear what we mean here. We’re not saying that God hasn’t revealed any truth about himself to anyone in any other religion on the planet. That would be absurd. God hasn’t left himself without a witness anywhere. There are good and wise things taught about God in many different religious traditions. But at one point in the history of the planet, as St. John says in his Gospel, ‘The word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1.14 NRSV) God has come among us in Jesus, to live and die as one of us. That’s why we follow him.

But there’s one more thing we need to remember about this verse in Colossians. Jesus doesn’t only show us what God is like; he also shows us what humans are meant to be like. ‘He is the image of the invisible God,’ says Paul. But you remember in the Book of Genesis, when God creates human beings, he says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” (Genesis 1.26 NRSV) and the writer goes on to say,

‘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)

Scholars have speculated for years about what it means to say that we humans are made in the image of God, but the simple answer was staring us in the face all the time. Five chapters later in Genesis the same language is used when Adam has a son. ‘He became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth’. (Genesis 5.3). Parents have children in their image. God created humans in his image. We were meant to grow up to be like God, just as children grow up to be like their parents.

But so often we choose to disobey God, and the rest of the Bible is a sad record of that. We break our relationship with God, we’re alienated from others, we hurt the people we love, and we bring devastation to the natural world God created. This is still going on today. Yes, we’re still made in God’s image, but we struggle with evil and wickedness as well. We human beings are a mixed bag, capable of incredible love but also incredible cruelty. Our whole lives long, we struggle with this.

But Jesus shows us the way. Yes, he is God come to live among us, but he’s also a real human being. He shares our struggles. He knows what it’s like to be a refugee and have to flee from death squads with your family. He knows what it’s like to have to earn a living by the work of your hands. He knows what it’s like to have to share a small house with siblings, and later on, to be misunderstood by them, and called ‘out of his mind.’ He knows what it’s like to be hungry and thirsty, to love people and be rejected by them, to be gossiped about and slandered, and ultimately to die a painful death for a crime he didn’t commit.

Jesus wasn’t removed from our life; he lived it to the full. But somehow, when we read his story, we find ourselves drawn by him. Through all the difficulties, he seems to know God is with him all the time. He doesn’t get sidetracked from doing God’s will. He reaches out to the poor and the sick and the marginalized. He treats women and children, and lepers and Roman soldiers, and tax collectors and sinners, as if they matter to God. He inspires us, and we find ourselves wanting to be like him. That’s what being a disciple is all about: learning from Jesus what it means to be truly human, made in God’s image.

Let’s go around this one last time.

Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Jesus shows us what God is like. So if someone tries to tell us that God is pleased by people who plant bombs, and force children to become soldiers, and fly airplanes into buildings to kill thousands of people, we know that’s wrong. Jesus has shown us what God is like. “God is love.” “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” If you want to know God, come to Jesus.

But Jesus is also the image of what it means to be human. He teaches us that loving God and loving your neighbour is the secret of life, and as we watch him, we realize he’s right. Jesus is truly alive, in a way we rarely see in others. He can teach us how to be truly alive.

Today, Holly and Henry are setting out on this path. As they get closer to Jesus, Jesus will teach them to know the God who loves them. And Jesus will also show them what it means to be a real live human being, the way God had in mind when he first created human beings.

But this reminder is for all of us, not just Holly and Henry. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. He’s the best picture we have of what God is like. He’s also the best picture we have of what humans are meant to be like. So let’s follow him, so that we also can be transformed into his likeness.

Looking Beyond Ourselves

‘We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves. Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and to repent them; and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation. When the sun is vertically above a man he casts no shadow; similarly, when we have come to the Divine meridian our spiritual shadow (that is, our consciousness of self) will vanish. One will thus in a sense be almost nothing: a room to be filled by God and our blessed fellow creatures, who in their turn are rooms we hep to fill.’

C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3 (30 November 1954)

Wandering in the dark and walking in the light

‘Once again Jesus addressed the people: “I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall wander in the dark; he shall have the light of life.’” (John 8.12 New English Bible).

The REB revisers changed this NEB translation to the more common ‘no follower of mine shall walk in darkness’, but I’m struck by the vividness of the NEB rendering: ‘wander in the dark’. I’ve done a lot of that wandering in the dark, trying to find the right way forward. It might be a relational issue with a friend or loved one, or a problem in my parish that I need to find a solution for, or a time when my relationship with God seems to have gone dry and barren, or my struggles with my own sins and weaknesses. I seem to spend a lot of time wandering in the dark.

Today’s psalm includes the familiar verse ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light on my path’ (Psalm 119.105 REB). What the psalmist says about the Torah, or Law of God, John’s gospel applies to Jesus: he is the Word of God, so he is the light of the world. His light shines in the dark places and shows us how to live, how to love, how to serve God, how to be a blessing. The opposite of ‘wandering in the dark’ is following Jesus. Lord Jesus, help us today to intentionally shape our lives after your teaching and example. You have shown us the way, so now help us to follow it—to follow you—so that we may have the light of life. Amen.