Cast Away the Works of Darkness (a sermon for Advent Sunday)

We’re in the middle of a season of getting ready right now, and if you’re taking your cues from the retail industry, your mind has been on Christmas since before Remembrance Day. The joys of Christmas are on everyone’s mind: presents to buy, cards to send, parties to arrange, visits to plan, food to prepare, turkeys to stuff and so on. Personally, I love Advent and Christmas, so I’m a sucker for all this stuff.

However, if we’re taking our cues from the scriptures and from our church calendar, there’s another type of preparedness that should also be on our minds. It tends to get lost these days, because the Christmas season starts earlier and earlier, and so we forget that Advent is not the same as Christmas. Advent isn’t just about looking forward to the manger at Bethlehem, and the shepherds and the wise men and all that. In Advent we’re not just putting ourselves back into the Old Testament and looking forward to the coming of the Messiah; we’re looking forward to our own future, too. The Creed says, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’. The Christian church teaches us that if there’s a judgement coming, then it’s wise to spend some time getting ready for it. And it’s wise not to put it off; usually it’s not smart to start your studying for the final exam the night before.

In the Anglican tradition we have specific prayers set for each of the Sundays of the church year, one for each Sunday and holy day. We call them ‘collects’, because they collect together the themes of our scriptures into short, pithy little prayers that we can easily memorize. It used to be the tradition in the Anglican Church that the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent was repeated on every Sunday of the Advent season until Christmas Eve, and so it was especially easy to memorize, as you heard it again and again through the four weeks of Advent, year after year. I’m going to read it to you again, but I’m going to use the version found in the old Book of Common Prayer, which is slightly different from our B.A.S. version. 

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, now and ever. Amen.  (BCP)

This prayer helps us think about two questions, and you might think at first that they’re a little strange. The first question is, ‘What time is it?’ We have to answer that one first, because the second depends on it: ‘Okay, given the time, what should we be doing about it?’

The answer to the question ‘What time is it?’ is ‘It’s in-between time’. In between what? In between two comings of Jesus. The Collect describes them for us. There’s his first coming, which is the theme of Christmas; the Collect refers to this as ‘the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’. Viewed chronologically, of course, that coming is behind us, in the past. But there’s another coming, which is still ahead, on ‘the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the living and the dead’, the time when ‘we may rise to the life immortal’. The Collect contrasts these two comings: long ago, Jesus came to visit us ‘in great humility’, but when he comes again, it will be ‘in glorious majesty’. Furthermore, at his first coming, he entered ‘this mortal life’, but at his second coming we will ‘rise to the life immortal’.

What does the Collect teach us about these two comings? One of the reasons I like the old prayer book version is that it uses the word ‘visit’. The B.A.S. says ‘when your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility’, but the prayer book has ‘in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’.

Why is this important? Well, if you read the Bible, especially in the King James Version, you’ll notice that a visit from God is always a significant thing. He never shows up empty-handed; he always brings something with him. It might be plague and suffering and judgement, or it might be blessing and salvation. So in Jeremiah 9:9 the Lord sees all the wickedness of his people and says, ‘Shall I not visit them for these things, says the Lord? Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?’ And in Ruth 1:6 old Naomi hears that the famine is over in Israel, because the Lord has visited his people and given them bread.

So what’s this visit at Christmas time all about? Well, in Luke 1:68 old Zechariah reflects on it; he says, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people’, or, in a modern version, ‘he has come to his people and set them free’. This is definitely a visit to bring blessing. This is a wonderful visit!

But how did he come? The Collect says, ‘in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’. This reminds me of what Paul has to say in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians:

‘Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (vv.5-8).

This is what Christmas is about: Jesus shares the divine nature—he is equal with God—but he lays aside all his divine prerogatives. The one through whom all things were created humbles himself to become part of his creation; the one who is immortal by nature puts on mortality, and goes on to become obedient to the point of death on a cruel cross. And he does all this out of love, to serve his creation, to show us what God is like, to show us God’s will for our human life, and to deliver us from sin and death.

So we stand in time after this first great event; we live on what C.S. Lewis calls ‘the visited planet’. But we also look forward to a future event. The collect speaks of ‘the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the living and the dead’.

Strangely enough, this is actually a message of hope. We live in a time when the power of evil seems enormous. I’m not just talking about the fact that terrorists can commit outrageous acts, even murdering thousands of people in one go. I’m talking about the fact that the world economic system seems to be set up in such a way as to provide cheap goods to the richest people on the planet, while denying the poorest people on the planet the right to a fair living wage. I’m talking about the fact that in the average multinational corporation the highest paid individual in the company earns more than three hundred times what the lowest paid individual earns. I’m talking about the fact that the single most common category of websites on the Internet is pornography.

These are just a few of the symptoms of the power of evil in the world today. In the face of such great evil, I’m always surprised when people tell me they don’t like the message of God’s judgement. Surely the message of God’s judgement brings hope! It tells us the day is coming when God will bring this evil to an end. God cares! He cares about the children who have been stolen from their homes and forced to become child soldiers; he cares about the children who never had a chance because they were born in refugee camps where there was never enough food to go around; he cares about the people who spend their lives slaving away for starvation wages growing cash crops for people who live thousands of miles away.

God is not prepared for this state of affairs to continue. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says the day will come when the king will sit on his glorious throne and gather the nations before him, and he will separate them into two groups as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. On one side will be those who recognized Jesus in the hungry and thirsty, in those who have no clothes to wear, in those who are sick or are refugees or immigrants or prisoners; their conduct will be affirmed and rewarded. On the other side will be those who had the opportunity to do good for all these people and refused to do so; their conduct will be judged.

This is our Advent hope: that the last word will not go to the forces of cruelty and hatred, selfishness and prejudice. The last word will go to God, and Jesus teaches us that the vital evidence of our faith in him will be practical love. And so the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed will be the only reality in God’s creation, and the prayer we have prayed for the last two thousand years will finally be fully answered: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

So this is the in-between time we live in. We look back on that first coming, when God’s Son Jesus Christ ‘came to visit us in great humility’. And we look forward to ‘the last day, when he will come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead’. On that day, every one of us hopes to be among the number of the saints who will ‘rise to the life immortal’, as the prayer says.

So as we look back on Christ’s first coming and look forward to the day when ‘he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end, what should we be doing’? The prayer says, ‘Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light’. What’s that all about?

When Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote this prayer for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, it was immediately followed by a slightly longer version of our reading from Romans this morning. We read Romans 13.11-14, but in the Book of Common Prayer the epistle is 13.8-14. Here it is in full:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

So you can see where Cranmer got the language about casting away the works of darkness and putting on the armour of light. I like the way the New Living Translation puts it: ‘So remove your dark deeds like dirty clothes, and put on the shining armour of right living’.

The dirty clothes are plain enough: again, here they are in the New Living Translation: ‘Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarrelling and jealousy…Don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires’ (vv. 13b, 14b). But the armour turns out to be something of a surprise. ‘Armour’ is a military image, so we might think of it as being something like courage, or strength, or self-discipline. But once again, what Paul actually focuses on is love. All the commandments, he says, ‘are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law’ (vv.9-10).

We’re back with the sheep and the goats, aren’t we? The sheep are the ones who notice the suffering of others, and then do what they can to help. Love isn’t just a warm fuzzy and it’s definitely not just words; it’s being there for others, spending time with them, doing what we can to be a blessing to them, whether we especially like them or not, whether we feel like it or not. This is what God is like; the Old Testament talks about his chesed, a Hebrew word that our New Revised Standard Version translates excellently as his ‘steadfast love’. I like that word ‘steadfast’: love you can depend on, love that’s unconditional, love that never gives up. That’s what we’re called to imitate.

Shall we pray this prayer through the Advent season? Shall we remember how God’s Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility? Shall we look forward to the day when he will come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead? Shall we ask God to help us to cast away the works of darkness like dirty old clothes, and put on the new life of steadfast love?Are you ready to pray that prayer, and to expect God to answer it?

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Luke 1.76-79: ‘Into the Way of Peace’ (a sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday)

Sometime in 1984—I can’t remember the exact date—I became a Canadian citizen. I had to do a bit of preparation for it, of course, because there was a citizenship exam and I needed to make sure I knew the things I needed to know to pass that exam. When the day came, we drove down from Arborfield to Saskatoon, I took the exam and passed it, and I joined in the citizenship ceremony, swearing an oath of allegiance to the Queen and her heirs and successors, and promising to faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.

Of course, I was already a citizen of the UK, so strictly speaking I was already under the authority of the Queen. But I had never actually sworn an oath of allegiance to the Queen before—if you’re a natural-born citizen you’re never actually asked to do that—so it did feel a little different for me. And in later years I’ve pondered even more what it means for us as Christians to give our allegiance to an earthly ruler, when we are all committed to another king—the King of Kings—who we confess to be the true Lord of all.

In fact, a baptism service is a kind of citizenship ceremony. Adults who are being baptized are giving their first allegiance, above all else, to Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Children who are being baptized are being brought into that allegiance by their parents—like natural-born citizens—and when they get older, they’ll be asked to affirm it of their own free will when they come to confirmation. In fact, the heart of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus Christ is Lord of all—Jesus Christ, not any earthly ruler or dictator or corporate CEO or celebrity superstar. The reason that’s good news is that Jesus loves us with an undying and indestructible love, whereas many earthly lords and authorities only want to exploit us to build their own empires and line their own pockets. But the Gospel tells us that on the last day, they will have to answer to the same Lord as us: Jesus the Messiah, the Lord of love.

Let’s think about our allegiance to Jesus for a few minutes. Most of us here were baptized as children; we had no choice in the matter. Many of us were brought up in Christian homes where Jesus was honoured and we were taught to follow him. But many of us were not. Some of us were brought up in churchgoing homes where, unfortunately, Jesus was never mentioned in an informal way from one week to the next. And some of us were brought up by parents who had us baptized because it was the thing you were supposed to do, but had no idea how to bring us up as Christians and no interest in learning how.

So for all of us, we had to go through a process by which we made this allegiance to Jesus a thing that was real for us, too. Some of us were confirmed, but perhaps we didn’t really have any choice about it; our parents decided it was time for us to do it, so we did. For others, confirmation was a real choice we made, and we were conscious of making our own personal commitment to Jesus as our Lord and King as we made our confirmation promises. Others of us had a more informal and personal conversion experience, short or long, a process by which we came to trust Jesus and decided to follow him. 

As you look back on your own journey into Christian faith, I wonder how you would tell someone else about it? As I look back on my own story, three words come to mind: ‘preparation’, ‘encounter’, and ‘change’. I thought about these words as I was reading the Song of Zechariah in Luke 1:67-79, which is our psalm reading for today. This is the song that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sang over his baby son when he was given the name ‘John’. I want to start out by reminding you of a verse near the end of the song, verse 76:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”

John the Baptist was the Lord’s forerunner—he went ahead of Jesus to prepare for his coming. He did that by telling people that the kingdom of God was coming, by calling them to turn from their sins, and by pointing to Jesus when he finally arrived. Once Jesus was on the scene, John couldn’t wait to get out of his way; “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30), he said. John’s role was to prepare the way for Jesus, to point people to him, and to rejoice when they made the decision to become followers of Jesus.

This was the first stage in my Christian journey, the stage of preparation.No-one just decides to become a follower of Jesus without something happening to prepare the way. It might be special people that God puts into our lives—parents, friends, ministers. It might be circumstances we go through that make it clear to us that without God we can’t make sense of our lives. It might be books we read or meetings we go to. It might be a combination of all those things and more besides.

When I ask myself ‘What people and events did God use to set meon the road to Jesus?’ I can think of several. Undoubtedly the first would be the influence of parents who knew and loved Jesus, and made it their business to teach me the Bible stories from my earliest years. Like many of you, I can’t remember the first time I heard the story of Jesus; I feel as if I’ve always known it. Nor can I remember my first prayer, although I’m sure I prayed it with my parents.

The Christian Church played a ‘John the Baptist’ role in my life too. I was carried to St. Barnabas’ Church, Leicester long before I could walk, I was baptized there before I was two months old, and from then on, I was taken to church every Sunday of my life. Undoubtedly this participation in worship from my earliest years helped lead me to Jesus. 

A third ‘John the Baptist’ figure in my life was a little paperback book, Nine O’clock in the Morning, by Dennis Bennett, that my Dad gave me to read when I was thirteen. In this book I read about personal experiences of the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. I read about gifts of healing, dynamic and immediate experiences of God and so on. This book really whetted my appetite for God and got me on the fast track in my journey toward Jesus.

What about you? When you look back on your own life and ask yourself the question ‘How did God prepare the way for Jesus in my life?’ I wonder what story you can tell? Are there people who modeled the Christian faith for you and taught you about Jesus? Are there particular circumstances you went through—perhaps a difficult time, or maybe even a happy time—circumstances that pointed you to God? Who or what did the job of ‘John the Baptist’ for you – pointing you toward Jesus? Who or what did God use to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ in your life?

If the first stage in my Christian journey was preparation; the second was encounter.Let’s look again at Luke 1:76-77:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.”

In the Old Testament, which would have been Zechariah’s Bible, the word ‘knowledge’ doesn’t very often refer to just knowing the facts in your head. Rather, it’s about experience. ‘The knowledge of salvation’ means the experience of salvation; in other words, the experience of God coming into your life and rescuing you from things you could never save yourself from, and restoring you to a living relationship with him. ‘Sins’ are mentioned here because they are one of the major barriers in the way of a living relationship with God. Before our relationship with God can be restored, our sins have to be forgiven, and this is what we experience through Jesus.

At the age of thirteen I had a quiet encounter with God, when I prayed a prayer giving my life to Jesus and asking him to come into my heart. I’m one of those who can remember the time and place when this happened for me: March 5th 1972, in my bedroom. Of course, there are many people who have made a living connection with God through Jesus who can’t remember when or how they did it. But there are also churchgoing people who have never made that connection, and so are desperately trying to get through their lives with only the institution of the church to help them, and not a living relationship with God. To people like that Jesus says. ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). ‘Come to me.’ Of course, there is no place that Jesus is not present, so ‘coming to him’ is simply a matter of intentionally turning to him and putting our lives in his hands.

I have no recollection myself of the words I prayed that night, but I’m sure they weren’t very sophisticated. I was hungry for God, and I’d been told that giving my life to Jesus was the next step on the journey. I’m sure that’s how I would have worded my prayer: a giving over of my life to Jesus as Lord. Very simple, but I can say now without a doubt that it was the most decisive moment of my life.

In the long history of Christian spirituality, some of our greatest teachers have often talked about this as an experience of surrender: the surrender of control over our own lives, and a submitting of ourselves to the loving will of God. It’s a happy accident that in the English language the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ at the centre of it, and when I’m at the centre of my own life—when I see myself as the lead character in my own play, with everyone else, including God, just there for my benefit—then that is really the essence of sin. But conversion involves intentionally getting off the throne of my own life and letting God’s anointed King, Jesus, take his rightful place there. In that moment—or process—of surrender, human beings often have profound experiences of encounter with the living God. 

I’ve said that the first stage of my story was preparation, and the second stage was encounter; I would call the third stage simply change ,ongoing change. Look at verses 78-79:

“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

One of the earliest names for Christians was ‘Followers of the Way’. There was a way of life that went along with being a Christian, and Christians had to learn it. Zechariah calls this way of life ‘the way of peace’, and he tells us that Jesus will guide our feet into it.

As baptized followers of King Jesus we commit ourselves to following his example and obeying his teaching, and this certainly involves change for us all. It means that we are continually rebuilding our lives according to the blueprint Jesus gives us in the Gospels. Instead of living by the values of the materialistic world around us, we’re learning to live by the values of the Kingdom of God—love for God and love for our neighbours. 

I think it’s telling that Zechariah uses the word ‘peace’ to describe the Christian way. The word he would have used in his own language was ‘shalom’, which means far more than just ‘the absence of war’. It means wholeness, life on this planet as God originally intended it. It means an end to greed and violence, and the growth of a new world characterized by justice and peace. That’s the way of life Jesus is teaching us, and he is with us to help us as we grow and learn.

If I were to ask myself the question, “What difference is following Jesus making in mylife today?” I would think immediately of two main things. First, I pray every day, and in my times of prayer I often sense God’s quiet presence with me. I’d be totally lost without those prayer times. I’d feel completely rootless and abandoned in a scary world. But when I pray day by day, by myself and with Marci, I get a deep sense of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in my heart, and the peace that comes from him. That’s what helps me make it through the rest of the day.

The other thing is that Jesus is teaching me how to live. I struggle with the same sins as most other people. The temptations of a materialistic world are all around me, and I get sucked into believing that buying and owning more stuff will make me happy, just like everyone else does. But then I come back to the Gospels, and I read what Jesus has to say there, and then I look at my life and I say, “Yes, it looks like you’re right again, Lord!” And so, with the Holy Spirit’s help, I’m trying to bring my life into line with what I read there.

I wonder what difference being a follower of Jesus is making in your life at this point? It doesn’t have to be something dramatic. Perhaps you find yourself thinking sometimes ‘Well, God must have helped me through that difficult time, because I sure couldn’t have got through it by myself.’ Or, perhaps there’s an issue in your life, some habit or behaviour pattern that Jesus is helping you to change right now, in order to bring you more in line with his teaching. Maybe there’s a particular command of Jesus you’re working on, trying to learn to obey it. What difference is it making to you right now to be a follower of Jesus? And if the honest answer to that question is “not really very much”, then is it time to pray about that, and to ask God what he wants to do in your life, in a practical, concrete way?

So these are three stages I have gone through on my journey as a citizen of the Kingdom of God, a follower of King Jesus: preparation, encounter, and change. I suspect I’m not alone in that. I suspect many of us go through these kinds of experiences as we journey on the way of Christ.

Let’s close this morning by asking ourselves what the next step on that journey might be for us. Perhaps we haven’t yet had a moment of genuine encounter with the living God; maybe we need to ask someone to help us with that. Maybe there are some questions that are still troubling us that we need to talk to someone about. Maybe we’re aware of a change that God wants us to make in our lives, and we’ve been resisting it for one reason or another. Or maybe we realize that we’re at the point where a simple prayer giving our lives to Jesus would make all the difference in our journey with God.

Let’s close by taking a moment of silence. In that silence, let’s each of us talk to God in our hearts about what the next step in our journey might be, and let’s make the response to which we feel God is calling us. Don’t worry about getting the words right; God knows what’s on your heart. Let’s pray.

St. Margaret of Scotland (sermon for the Feast of St. Margaret 2019)

Toward the end of November every year, we celebrate the feast day of the saint our church is named for, St. Margaret of Scotland. Margaret died on November 16th 1093, nine hundred and twenty-six years ago this year. She’s not one of the well-known saints. Most people who join this church don’t have any idea who she was or what she did, but as we learn about her and get to know her story better, most of us come to love her and admire her, and maybe even see her as a role model for our community and our life as followers of Jesus.

Every year on this day I tell her story, and some of you have heard it many times; you could maybe even tell it for me, if you wanted to! But other people have joined our church since the last time we did this, and many of you will have been away on this Sunday in previous years, for one reason or another. So I’m going to tell the story again today, and then focus on one particular lesson I want us to think about as we put Margaret’s example into practice.

Who was St. Margaret? She was the granddaughter of the English king Edmund Ironside, but because of dynastic disputes she was born in Hungary, in the year 1047. She had one brother, Edgar, and a sister, Christian, and many people in England saw her father Edward Ætheling as the rightful heir to the throne of England. Edward the Confessor became King of England in 1042, but he never had children, and in 1054 the parliament of Anglo-Saxon England decided to bring Margaret’s family back from Hungary so that her father could inherit the throne when King Edward died. So the three siblings were brought up at the Anglo-Saxon court under the supervision of Benedictine monks and nuns, who trained the young people according to the Benedictine ideal of a life of work and prayer.

It’s hard to overstate the influence of those Benedictines in Margaret’s life. From them she learned the importance of balancing times of prayer and times of working for the good of others; this would be a good description of her later life as Queen of Scotland. We know she learned to read the scriptures in Latin, and she also knew the teachings of the church fathers from the early Christian centuries. Her sister Christian went on to become a Benedictine nun herself.

Margaret’s father died in 1057, and her brother Edgar became heir to the throne. But it was not to be. King Edward the Confessor died in 1066, and soon afterwards William the Conqueror invaded England and claimed the throne for himself. Edgar and his sisters were advised to go back to Hungary for their own safety, but on the way their ship was blown far off course by a fierce gale. They spent some time in northern England and then sailed up the coast to the Firth of Forth in Scotland, where King Malcolm gave them a warm welcome to his kingdom.

Margaret was now about twenty years old; Malcolm was forty, and unmarried, and he soon became attracted to her. But she took a lot of persuading; she wanted to become a Benedictine nun, and Malcolm had a very stormy temperament, despite his other virtues. It was only after long consideration that she finally agreed to marry him, and their wedding took place in the year 1070, when she was twenty-three. In the end, although she was much younger than him, she was the one who changed him; under her influence, he became a much wiser and godlier king.

Margaret was now in a high position in society, and very wealthy according to the standard of the day. But she continued to live in the spirit of inward poverty. She saw nothing she possessed as belonging to her; everything was to be used for the purposes of God. As Queen, she continued to live the ordered life of prayer and work that she had learned from the Benedictines. In a very male-dominated society she was only the wife of the king, but nevertheless she came to have the leading voice in making changes that affected the social and spiritual life of Scotland. She had this influence because of the depth of her husband’s love for her. Malcolm didn’t share his wife’s contemplative temperament, but he was strongly influenced by her godly character, so he tended to follow her advice a lot—not only for his own life, but also for the life of the church and people in Scotland.

It’s actually quite remarkable that the Scots accepted the church reforms that this foreign queen proposed, but she herself lived such a simple and Christ-like life that they seemed to feel instinctively that her way must be a good way. Let’s think about the sort of life she lived as Queen of Scotland.

Margaret would begin each day with a prolonged time of prayer, especially singing the psalms. In this she was following the example of the Benedictine nuns; the Rule of St. Benedict prescribes seven prayer services a day, and in this way the whole book of one hundred and fifty psalms would be prayed through once a week!

After her prayer time, we’re told that orphan children would be brought to her, and she would prepare their food herself and serve it to them. It also became the custom that any destitute poor people would come every morning to the royal hall; when they were seated around it, the King and Queen would enter and ‘serve Christ in the person of his poor’. Before they did this, it was their custom to send out of the room all other spectators except for the chaplains and a few attendants; it was important to Margaret that what they did was done for the love of God and the poor, not to win spiritual brownie points from admiring onlookers.

In those days there were basically two traditions of Christianity in the British Isles. The older way was preserved in Ireland, Scotland and northern England, and today we would probably refer to it as ‘Celtic’. The newer way had been brought from Rome when St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived in England in 597, and it had quickly spread around southern England. The two ways were agreed on the teachings of Christianity but they had different emphases, different calendars and different customs. You might think, “Well if they agreed on the teachings, what’s the problem?” but you and I know that’s not how things work! People get used to their customs and traditions and feel very strongly about resisting change!

In those days the church in Scotland had been formed in the Celtic way of Christianity. But Margaret had been raised in the way of Rome, and she was keen to bring Scotland into unity with the rest of the world. However, she didn’t do it in a domineering or authoritarian way. She often visited the Celtic hermits in their lonely cells, offering them gifts and caring for their churches. But she also held many conferences with the leaders of the Church, putting forward the Roman point of view about things like the date of Lent and the proper customs for celebrating the liturgy and so on. In the end she convinced them—not so much because of the strength of her arguments, but by the power of her holy life.

In those days many people in Scotland used to go on pilgrimages to see the relics of St. Andrew at the place now called ‘St. Andrew’s’. Margaret wanted to help the pilgrims, so she had little houses built on either shore of the sea that divided Lothian from Scotland, so that poor people and pilgrims could shelter there and rest after their journeys. She also provided ships to transport them across the water. Interestingly enough, that place in eastern Scotland is still called ‘Queensferry’!

I think it’s fair to say that most people recognized as saints today by the Catholic Church were monks and nuns who lived lives of celibacy, far removed from the demands of the world and the pressures of family life. But Margaret is remembered as having a happy family life. She had eight children—six sons and two daughters. Her oldest son Edward was killed in battle, Ethelred died young, and we’re told that Edmund didn’t turn out too well. But the three youngest, Edgar, Alexander, and David, are remembered as among the best kings Scotland ever had. David I, the youngest son, had a peaceful reign of twenty-nine years in which he developed and extended the work his mother had begun. The two daughters, Matilda and Mary, were both brought up under the guidance of Margaret’s sister Christian in the Abbey of Romsey, and both went on to marry into the English royal family.

Margaret was not yet fifty when she died. As she lay dying, her son Edgar brought her the sad news that her husband and her oldest son had been killed in battle. Despite this grief, we’re told that her last words were of praise and thanksgiving to God, and her death was calm and tranquil.

Now—what lesson do we want to draw from the story of Margaret this year?

Last week when Sylvia was preaching, she mentioned the importance of ‘taking a stand for Christ’. As I listened, I found myself wondering “What would that look like in daily life?’ And I came to the conclusion that the most important part of taking a stand for Christ is simply to obey the teachings Jesus gave us.

In John 14 Jesus says very clearly, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14.15) And what’s the best way of summing up Jesus’ commandments? I’m sure I don’t have to remind anyone here of the answer to that question. Jesus himself was asked which commandments were the most important of all, and he replied,

“The first is, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12.28-31)

I’ve quoted these commandments in the form Mark gives them to us. But in Luke’s Gospel it’s actually a scribe who quotes them to Jesus; Jesus commends him for his answer, and then he says, “Do this, and you will live.” I don’t think he means, “Do this, and God will let you go to heaven as a reward.” I think he means, “If you learn to live a life of love for God and your neighbour, you will discover the sort of joyful and fulfilling life you were designed for in the first place. This is really the best and most wonderful way to live. This is life as God intended it.”

The Benedictine nuns who taught Margaret to live as a Christian had a long tradition of balancing work and prayer—loving your neighbour and loving God. I first came across this myself in the early 1990s when I encountered the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine. These Sisters are Anglican nuns who follow the way of St. Benedict, and they used to have a priory in Edmonton, up near Alberta Avenue. I stayed there a few times, and I was always impressed with the way their day was punctuated by prayer. They were always busy; individual sisters travelled and gave retreats and conferences, and there were often events happening at the Priory itself, or individuals coming for spiritual help and guidance. But the sisters were also strict about observing their Rule, and that included praying Morning Prayer, the Eucharist, Mid-Day Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline every day. They did it together in their chapel, with any friends who were there and wanted to join them, including their two full-sized poodles, Phoebe and Caspian!

So they gathered for four prayer services and a Eucharist every day. As I mentioned earlier on, St. Benedict’s Rule for his monks prescribes sevendaily services, with names like Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce and Compline. Modern Benedictines have softened this expectation a bit, and in the 16thCentury Archbishop Thomas Cranmer combined bits of all the daily services into two: Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, sometimes called ‘Matins’ and ‘Evensong’, which he included in the first Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Many of us older Anglicans grew up with Morning Prayer as a Sunday service, but it wasn’t originally designed for that; it was a daily service, to be said with others if possible, but if not, then alone.

We Anglican clergy still follow this discipline, and many lay people find it valuable as well. This past week it was reading week at the University of Alberta. I follow our Anglican chaplain, Heather Liddell, on Instagram, and on Tuesday morning I saw she posted a picture of her Bible and Book of Alternative Services. The caption was, ‘Morning Prayer continues all reading week at 9am in HUB 176 – why not join us in prayer?’ So you see, over fourteen hundred years after St. Benedict died, and over four hundred and fifty years after Thomas Cranmer died, their vision of daily prayer based on the psalms and scriptures is still being practiced in Edmonton—not just at the U of A, but in many other places too.

This is probably the discipline Margaret followed. I doubt if she prayed all seven Benedictine daily offices, but she certainly joined in some of them, and we know she also spent time in silent prayer, fasting and contemplation. Strengthened by this life of prayer, she was then able to get up and go about her daily work—the work of following Christ and trying to make Scotland a better place for the people who lived there.

What about us? We’re all busy people. Many of us work long hours at demanding jobs. Some of us are students with worries about student debt, working various jobs to try to make ends meet, wondering what sort of world we’re going to be working in. Some of us are retired and spend a lot of time looking after our grandchildren and doing what we can to support our kids in the busy world they live in.

How can we avoid burnout? Where can we find strength from God to deal with the things life sends our way?

Surely the Christian answer is that we need to stay in touch with God so we can know his presence in our daily lives. God loves us and wants each of us to experience his love. And prayer is one of the best ways of doing that. In prayer, we can lay down our burdens in God’s presence. We can bring our requests—for others and ourselves—to the one person who’s best able to deal with them. We can thank God for the blessings we receive and ask God’s forgiveness for our sins and shortcomings. We can listen to the voice of God in Scripture and in silence, and seek a word from God to guide us through our day.

Seven times a day is a bit much for us! But maybe, like Thomas Cranmer, we can manage once or twice? At the beginning and end of the day, we can turn to God for strength and peace.

Last Lent we did a five-session course called ‘Prayer Smorgasbord’, exploring five different styles of prayer. One of them was ‘the daily office’, the sort of prayer I’ve described, based on the way of St. Benedict and Archbishop Cranmer. As part of that course I made available a condensed version of Morning and Evening Prayer for people to try out, just using one folded page. I’ve put some copies of it on the table in the foyer; I encourage you to take them, and if you need help with it, feel free to contact me. I’d be delighted to help you.

‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’. Jesus’ vision is a life of loving relationship with God and our neighbour. Many of us in this church are doing a lot to help our neighbour, but let’s not forget about our relationship with God. Margaret of Scotland was a very busy person, but she never forgot her daily time with God in prayer. Let’s follow her example, and be people of prayer as well as people of good deeds. The two belong together, and when we combine them, we’ll find the life we were made for.

A Community of Saints (a sermon for the Feast of All Saints’)

Today in the church year we celebrate the Feast of All Saints’. Well, actually we celebrated it on Friday, which was November 1st, which also happens to be my birthday! But All Saints’ Day is considered to be a major feast, and so it commonly gets celebrated on the closest Sunday, so that as many people as possible can join in.

Why would we want to join in? Possibly because, of all the saints’ days in the Church calendar, this one is the one we’re all involved in. We celebrate many famous saints throughout the year: St. Paul on January 25th, for instance, or St. Luke on October 18th, or St. John the Baptist on June 25th, or our own St Margaret on November 16th, and so on. But All Saints’ Day is a day that celebrates all of us. Why do I say that? Because in the Bible, we are ‘all saints’.

It’s true that in popular usage the word ‘saint’ usually gets applied to a particularly good or holy person. Right now in the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope is in the process of declaring John Henry Newman a saint. Newman was an Anglican priest who lived in the nineteenth century; he was one of the leaders of a movement that led the Anglican Church back to its Catholic roots. But Newman wasn’t satisfied with this, and so eventually he left the Church of England and was received into the Roman Catholic Church. He went on to become a cardinal.

I’m not sure if the Pope is declaring Newman to be a saint in order to congratulate him on his smart move away from Anglicanism, but I’d like to think not! And anyway, that’s not the point I’m focussing on today. What I’m interested in is this idea that a saint is a special kind of Christian: one who is a particularly good example of holiness or heroism. Ordinary rank and file Christians like you and me aren’t included in this description. “I’m no saint!” we say.

But the apostle Paul would disagree. When he writes his letters in the New Testament, he commonly addresses them to ‘the saints of God in such and such a town’. And when he started a fundraising campaign in the Gentile churches to help the Christians in Jerusalem through a difficult time, he just called the project ‘this ministry to the saints’ (2 Corinthians 8.4). A good example of his usage is the beginning of Second Corinthians:

‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother. To the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia.’ (2 Corinthians 1.1)

Ephesians is similar:

‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus.’  (Ephesians 1.1)

Paul’s meaning is clear. To him, you don’t become a saint by being canonised by the Pope. John Henry Newman became a saint by being baptized and putting his faith in Jesus. Or rather, I should say, that’s how Newman joined the company of the saints. That’s another difference between our usage and the Bible. We tend to use ‘saint’ in the singular: “Saint Paul” or “Saint Matthew”. “She’s a real saint”, we say. But in the Bible the word is most commonly used in the plural. It’s not about individual spiritual superstars; it’s about a community God has chosen for a special purpose: to do his work in the world.

We first run into this idea very early in the story of the Bible. In Genesis chapter 12 God calls Abram and his family to leave their home in Haran and go to a country God will show them. Why is he doing this?

‘Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”’ (Genesis 12.1-3).

In other words, God didn’t call Abram and his family because he thought they were more special than anyone else, or because he loved them more. No: he called them to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. He was going to teach them to know and love and follow him, so that they could shine as a light to everyone else. That’s what the saints are here for: to be a channel of God’s blessing to everyone else in the world.

As Christians today, we share in that call. Jesus told us that we are the ‘salt of the earth’ and the ‘light of the world’. Salt and light are called to have an influence on their environment. In the ancient world salt wasn’t so much a flavouring as it is today; it was mainly applied to meat to prevent it from going bad. And of course we all know what happens to darkness when a light is brought in. Even a very small light can transform a dark and scary place into a warm and cozy room. So Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5.16). He says this near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount; the ‘good works’ he’s talking about are the works he sets out in the rest of the Sermon. It’s found in Matthew chapters 5-7 and there’s a different version in the passage today’s Gospel reading was taken from, Luke 6. It would be good to read and reflect on them today as we think about how we saints can be faithful to our call to let our light shine.

It’s actually quite important for us to do this, because at different times in history, religious communities have had very different ideas about how to live as the saints of God. We can see one example of this in today’s Psalm, 149. In the first part of the psalm the Israelites are encouraged to praise God with dancing and singing and the banging of tambourines and playing of lyres. It all sounds very festive and joyful. But then the mood changes in the second half of the psalm:

‘Let the high praises of God be in their throats,
and two-edged swords in their hands,
to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters
and their nobles with chains of iron,
to execute on them the judgement decreed.
This is glory for all his faithful ones.
Praise the Lord!’ (Psalm 149:6-9).

I expect that when we were praying the psalm a few minutes ago some of you felt a bit awkward about saying these words. They don’t feel very Christian, do they? They feel more like the words that would come out of the mouths of terrorists preparing to go on a bombing mission.

What’s the theology that’s being expressed in these verses? I think the people who wrote them have forgotten their call to be a light to the world. To them, the darkness around them is absolute. You can’t change it; the only thing you can do is fight against it and destroy it. The enemies of God are the enemies of God and they will always be the enemies of God. God is angry at them, and he wants you to wipe them out as a sign of his judgement on them.

What’s behind this theology? I think it’s mainly fear. And not just fear of foreign superpowers, although that was always a factor; we should never forget that Old Testament Israel was situated between three superpowers—Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria—and was always in danger from at least one of them. But it’s also the fear of idolatry. God’s Old Testament people had many examples in their history of times when they’d been led astray to worship false gods. Those stories had never ended well for them. You can’t trust those idol worshippers, they would have said. Better to avoid them, or wipe them out.

Are there Christians who believe this? There certainly have been in our history. There have been many times when we’ve used violence and coercion ‘to advance the cause of Christ’—or so we’ve mistakenly believed. The Crusades is the obvious example, or the conquest of South America by the Conquistadores, in which the indigenous peoples were often given a stark choice: baptism or death. And certainly many so-called Christian countries have gone to war with their neighbours ‘For God and for Country’, as they would have put it.

But I think it’s even more subtle today. Since the 1980s, many Christians in the western world have spent a lot of time and energy engaging in what are sometimes called ‘culture wars’. Should our culture be secular, or should it reflect the Christian heritage it comes from? The various battles waged in these culture wars range all the way from issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, to rather minor and silly things like whether or not we can say ‘Merry Christmas’ or have prayer in state schools (neither of which were issues that Jesus lost a lot of sleep over!).

I think it can be said with some confidence that these culture wars have been a complete failure in advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why? Because they’ve gotten non-Christians used to the idea that Christians are their opponents, and how willing are you to listen to the ideas of your opponents? What that means is that when Christians get around to doing what we’ve actually been commanded to do by Jesus—share the gospel and make new disciples—the potential new disciples don’t want to listen to us, because we’ve squandered all the good will we might have had on secondary issues like school prayer and Merry Christmas.

Culture wars teach us to view the people around us as enemies. We can’t trust them; we need to defeat them, or force them to accept our point of view. But Jesus has an entirely different strategy. Did you notice these words from today’s gospel reading?

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:27-31)

Why do we saints act like this? Because we believe in a God who acts like this. In Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expands on this a bit:

“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5.44-45).

We’re called to imitate our heavenly Father, who loves all people with a stubborn and indestructible love. And Jesus imitates his heavenly Father in this. When his enemies nailed him to the Cross, everyone knew what any self-respecting god in the ancient world would do: send down thunderbolts to fry them! But Jesus doesn’t do that; he prays that God will forgive them.

So there’s a discontinuity between Jesus and certain strands of the Old Testament here. And this shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus was a devout Jew and observed the Law; he loves the Old Testament Scriptures and stands in continuity with them, but he doesn’t unconditionally endorse everything in them. Sometimes he makes a change; he says things like, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…but I say to you…” He contradicts the Old Testament food laws by declaring all foods clean; he’s not too happy with how easy Moses makes it for men to divorce their wives, and he’s got no time for ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.

We Christians believe that the title ‘the Word of God’ is most applicable to Jesus himself. That’s how John uses it in his Gospel; ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And 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 1.1,14). Jesus is the clearest statement we have of God’s word, God’s thoughts, God’s message. We interpret everything else in the Bible by the standard of Jesus’ words and actions.

So how are we saints to live? God told Abram that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. God wants to reach out to all the people of the earth through us, his saints. He wants us to love enemies, give generously to the poor, share the gospel at every opportunity, and live by the teaching and example of Jesus.

There’s a blessing my dad sometimes used at the end of services, and a few years ago (before he died), I asked him to send me a copy of it. Apparently it comes from the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England as proposed in 1928. It goes like this:

Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast to that which is good; do not repay anyone evil for evil; encourage the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honour all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you always.

That sounds to me like a good blessing for the saints of God: half blessing and half commission, in fact! May God give us the strength to go out and put it into practice, so we can be the community of saints he’s calling us to be.

God of the Temple, of the World, of the Earth (a sermon on Psalm 65)

When I was a teenager and first getting to know God, I developed a rather serious pollen allergy. This meant that being outdoors in the summer was often not a very pleasant experience for me. Also, I was a shy and introverted kind of kid and didn’t find big crowds easy to handle. All this meant that the most natural way for me to meet God was to do what Jesus suggests in Matthew 6: Go to your room, lock the door, and pray to your Father in secret!

Several decades later, with my pollen allergy much less of an issue, I started to enjoy the outdoors more. We started visiting Jasper National Park, we made a point of walking more in the river valley trail system, and I began to develop more of an awareness of the presence of God in nature. I still love my private prayer times, but they’re no longer enough for me. I find I need to get out into the grandeur and beauty of God’s creation as a way of encountering the God who made all these things.

I suspect we’ve all got our favourite ways of meeting God. For some it might be the Sunday worship and the bread and wine of Holy Communion. For others it might be the smell of good coffee and the laughter of conversation with friends. For some it might be holding hands with a spouse and praying together at the end of the day. For others it might be working together on a project to make the world a better place. People meet God in all kinds of ways and all kinds of situations. And I’m absolutely sure that God is always inviting us to expand our horizons and find new ways of connecting with him.

Why am I making these observations this morning? Because as I read through our psalm today it struck me that God is seen here in at least three different ways. In verses 1-4 God is the God of the Temple. In verses 5-8 God is the God of the world. Finally, in verses 9-13 God is the God of the Earth. Let’s take a closer look.

First, God of the Temple.

‘Praise is due to you,
O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed,
O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come.
When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.
Happy are those whom you choose and bring near
to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
your holy temple.’ (vv.1-4)

Here we have the people of Israel gathered together in Zion, in Jerusalem, worshipping God at the Temple. There was a general sense in Israel and Judah that this place, this Temple, was where God had ‘put his name to dwell’, as they would have said it. They knew as well as we do that God is present everywhere on earth, but still they made pilgrimages to Jerusalem because they believed God had made a special promise to meet them there.

Note that this was a community occasion. We do have stories in the Old Testament of individual encounters with God in the Temple, but most of the time prayer is something the community does together. People in Bible times were much more communal than we are, and they tended to see prayer together as the most basic and most important kind of prayer. They were God’s household, God’s family, and worship was a family gathering.

What happens in the Temple? The author mentions making vows to God, which is something that was common at the time: ‘To you shall vows be performed’ (v.1). Perhaps God had blessed you in a special way, and in thanksgiving you made a vow to perform some special service for him. That vow would usually be ratified in a place of prayer like the Temple, probably with the offering of a sacrifice.

The author mentions answered prayer: ‘To you shall vows be performed, O you who answer prayer! To you shall all flesh come!’ (vv.1b-2a). We are a needy people, and so we come together to make our requests to God. By ourselves our prayers can often feel rather feeble, but when we ask for the prayers of the community, we can join our little voices to theirs; many people find that a real strengthening experience for their faith.

The author also mentions forgiveness. ‘When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgiven our transgressions’ (v.3). Again, this was usually accomplished by offering an animal sacrifice. The people’s sins would be confessed, the animal would be sacrificed and the blood sprinkled as a sign of God’s forgiveness being extended to the people.

The author goes so far as to mention living in God’s house. ‘Happy are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts’ (v.4). He’s probably referring to priests and Levites; how lucky they are, he says, because they get to live here all the time! It’s not the beauty of the building so much as the beauty of the presence of God.

How does this apply to us as Christians? Let’s remember that for the first three Christian centuries worshipping in a church building was not the norm; most churches were little house churches that met in people’s homes. And in the writings of Paul it’s not the physical building so much as the people of God: he tells us we’re like a spiritual temple, a place where God lives. When we gather together, whether it’s in a special building or not, there’s a special presence of the Holy Spirit with us.

So we gather to offer our prayers for the world and each other. We ask for God’s forgiveness and we share in the bread and wine of the Eucharist as signs of God’s forgiveness being extended to us. We make vows—baptism and confirmation promises, for instance—and we pray for strength to fulfil them. And as we worship, our sense of God’s presence grows. Even though we don’t live here, we know God’s presence goes with us when we leave this place, so that day by day we’re living in fellowship with God.

So God is God of the Temple. Secondly, God is God of the world.

‘By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
By your strength you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.
You silence the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.
Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy’ (vv.5-8).

I don’t want to be too dogmatic about my divisions here. I’m tempted to overstate my case and says that this middle section of the psalm is about God as God of the world, in the sense of the whole of humanity, whereas the last section is about God as God of the earth—that is, the non-human creation. In fact, of course, the  non-human creation is mentioned in this middle section too—the mountains, the roaring of the seas and so on.

But there’s a slight suggestion that the roaring of the seas might be a metaphor; did you catch that? ‘You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples’ (v.7). Israelites weren’t natural sailors and they were a bit nervous about the sea. It was an unpredictable place, full of sea monsters, and it was likely full of demons as well! So it wasn’t hard for them to see a storm as a symbol of the violent acts of mobs of people opposed to God and God’s purposes. It was reassuring to remember that God was perfectly capable of silencing them if he wanted to!

But what exactly is the relationship of those faraway people to the God of Israel? Is he their god too, or do they belong to their own gods, and is Israel’s god really only in charge within the borders of Israel? In ancient times everyone believed in tribal gods, so when you crossed the border into Moab it was wise to know a bit about Chemosh! After all, you were on his ground, and it was wise to know what he liked and what he didn’t like, so you didn’t accidentally offend him!

But this psalmist takes a different view. He’s well aware that Israel has been chosen to come into the courts of the Lord, but he’s also quite unapologetic in claiming that Yahweh the God of Israel is in fact God of the whole earth too.

‘By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas…
Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy’ (vv.5, 8).

I love this line: ‘You are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas’ (v.5). I’ve no idea which people the Israelites would consider as living ‘at the ends of the earth’, but we can be sure that the world was a lot bigger than they had ever imagined! And in this verse the psalmist proclaims his faith that God the Creator is their God too, no less than Israel’s. The people of Israel knew it was their privilege to call on God in time of need, and to expect God’s answers. Now the psalmist says the people at the ends of the earth can do the same thing.

I think this is an invitation for us today to lift up our eyes, look out beyond the borders of our churches, out into the streets and coffee shops and bars and places of business in our cities and towns. We don’t need to take God there; God is already there! God understands politics and economics and science, and I expect if he put his hand to it God could cook a great meal and brew a wonderful cup of coffee! And God is already at work in the lives of men and women, sometimes in surprising ways.

But sometimes those men and women don’t know that they can call on God for help as well. So it’s our job to tell them they can. We can even offer to pray for them if they’d like us to! We can share with them how we experience the love of God in our lives, and sometimes they’ll surprise us with stories of their own. We can point to Jesus and do what we can to recommend him to people. And we can do this confidently, knowing that God is already at work, way ahead of us.

Speaking for myself, I want to say that this is one way I really enjoy meeting God. I spend a lot of time in non-Christian circles and have some great friendships there. Over the years I’ve been amazed to see how God is at work in people’s lives, whether they know it or not. I’ve met God at open stages and song circles just as much as in Eucharists and Bible study groups. He’s not just the God of the Temple; he’s the God of the world as well.

Finally, God is also God of the Earth. Look at the last part of the psalm:

‘You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.’ (vv.9-13).

This is the God who meets us in nature, in the cycle of the seasons; the God who ‘sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain. the breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain’, as the old hymn says. This is the God who has set the earth up in such a way that it can provide for the needs of all its inhabitants, if we use it wisely and share generously. This is the God who paints the sunset using colours artists would never dare to combine on one canvas! This is the God who has decided to create some of the most beautiful creatures on the planet and then have them swim so deep in the ocean that human beings can never see them except with expensive diving equipment! This is the God who has apparently decided that the earth needs several million species of beetles!

It’s important for us to learn to meet this God. If we spend all our time praying in small rooms, we can too easily fall into the habit of thinking of God as a being who lives in small rooms. We need to lift our eyes to the night sky and think about what our Eucharistic Prayer calls ‘the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home’. This God is far too big to fit into a small room—and yet, miraculously, he made himself small enough to grow within the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Incarnation becomes even more miraculous when we remind ourselves of who was being incarnated!

So God is seen in this psalm as the God of the Temple, but also the God of the whole inhabited world and all its peoples, and also the God of the whole created earth. We all probably have a favourite of these three, but we can all grow too, and learn to experience God’s presence in other settings.

Let me close by pointing out to you how the earth and its people respond to God’s presence. In verse 4, at the end of the first section, we read, ‘We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.’ Verse 8 tells us that ‘Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.’ And verse 13 sounds the note of joy again: ‘The valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.’

Awe, satisfaction, joy: these are what we experience in God’s presence. The God we meet in temple and world and earth is so great and glorious that we can only feel a sense of awe in his presence, like the sense we feel when we first see a huge mountain like Mount Robson. But as we get to know God better, we also experience satisfaction, in the sense of people being satisfied after a nourishing meal. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’, the Bible says; to know him and live in his presence is the most satisfying experience we can ever enjoy. And we do enjoy it: joy is the third thing we experience as we meet with this living God.

So let me end by asking you these questions. First, when you think of God as the God of the Temple or church, of the world and all its peoples, and of the earth in the sense of the natural creation, which one do you feel the most affinity for? Which one works best for you right now, as a place of encounter with God? And second, which one seems less real for you, but could be one that God is inviting you to explore? And how might you begin to explore it, so that you can enter even more fully into the awe and satisfaction and joy of living every moment in the presence of God?

On Avoiding the Dangers of Prosperity (a sermon for Thanksgiving on Deuteronomy 8.7-18)

I don’t very often announce titles for my sermons, but today I want to do so. My title for today is ‘On avoiding the dangers of prosperity’.

It might come as a surprise to you to hear that prosperity can be dangerous. It certainly isn’t a message our politicians want us to hear; they’re committed to the position that prosperity is a pure and unadulterated ‘good thing’ and must be cultivated at all costs. Marketers don’t want us to hear it either, because their entire strategy is to encourage us to be discontented with our current level of prosperity, so they can sell us more things.

Nonetheless, when I read what Jesus has to say in the Gospels about money and possessions, it sometimes sounds to me as if he’s talking about radioactive materials: they can do a lot of good if they’re used properly, but you have to be extremely careful how you handle them if you want to avoid being poisoned. And the authors of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy have the same viewpoint. To them, the prosperity of the nation of Israel is a blessing from God for which they give thanks, but it also has potential dangers. How do you handle prosperity without being poisoned by it? That’s the theme of our Old Testament reading for today.

Let’s get the context. The Hebrew slaves have been set free from their bondage in Egypt, they’ve received God’s commandments at Mount Sinai, and they’ve spent forty years wandering in the Sinai desert. They’re now standing on the borders of Canaan, their promised land. Their leader Moses is an old man about to die, and he’s gathered the people together to give them what you might call his ‘Last Will and Testament’. Deuteronomy is presented to us as a sermon preached by Moses, in which he restates God’s laws and encourages the people to remain faithful to their God. Listen to what he says in verses 7-9:

“For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper”.

I’m sure this sounds pretty mouth-watering to the Israelites as they stand on the borders of Canaan. But there’s a potential danger, which Moses outlines for them in the following verses. They might go into the Promised Land, settle into their new homes, enjoy the prosperity of the land and then get so used to it that they forget it’s a gift from God to them. As verse 17 puts it, they might start to think ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth’.

Today as we celebrate Thanksgiving, we may need to guard against a similar danger. Despite our recent economic woes we still live in one of the most prosperous societies that has ever existed on the face of the earth. I’m not very old, but even in my lifetime our expectations around ‘standard of living’ have increased exponentially.

When I was a little boy, going out to a movie was a big thing. We weren’t very well off financially and it wasn’t something we did very often; I remember going to see ‘Bambi’ and ‘The Sound of Music’, but that’s about it. We also didn’t have a TV in my home, but my grandparents did, so part of the fun of going across the road to visit them was being able to watch Fireball XL5 or Thunderbirds on my grandparents’ TV (in black and white, of course)! But nowadays, being able to watch TV shows or movies on demand on the Internet is taken for granted, and people feel deprived if they can’t do it. Also, when I was a little boy one bathroom per house was the rule, and in hotels you assumed you’d have to share a bathroom with others. Not so nowadays! And so it goes on – microwaves, personal computers, GPS, smart phones, smart watches, ‘Alexa’ – all these very new things have become an integral part of many people’s lives.

I enjoy these things, I give thanks for them, and I don’t relish the thought of living without them. Nonetheless, from a spiritual point of view, not all is well with this picture. First of all, in this prosperous society the danger of what Moses calls ‘Forgetting the Lord your God’ is very real; we can get so self-satisfied with our prosperous lifestyle that we lose all sense of need for God at all. And second, of course, not everyone shares in the prosperity. Twenty-five years ago the average CEO of a large American corporation earned about 44 times as much as their lowest paid workers. Today the average CEO earns more than three hundred times what their lowest paid workers earn. That’s a dramatic example of the way the gap between rich and poor in society is increasing.

Our Old Testament reading for today points out this danger to us, and gives us three strategies for dealing with it.

Strategy number one is to ‘Remember’. When I first came to St. Margaret’s nearly twenty years ago, we did a number of ‘Meet the Rector’ evenings at which we used an exercise called the ‘Four Quaker Questions’. Two of the questions were “Where did you grow up and what were the winters like?” and “Describe the house you lived in? How was it heated?” So we spent time sharing stories about our roots with one another. A couple of things were very interesting to me. Firstly, many of us grew up in circumstances much humbler than those we now enjoy. Second, many of us have very fond memories of those simpler times.

Moses’ first strategy for the Israelites to protect themselves against the potential dangers of wealth is to remember where you’ve come from. Before our reading starts, in verse 2, he says “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness”, and in verse 14 he goes on “…do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness…and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know”.

Moses reminds them that they were slaves in Egypt, in conditions of backbreaking labour and unimaginable suffering. He reminds them of the long forty-year trek through the desert. But he also reminds them of the good things: how God set them free from their Egyptian taskmasters, how God provided them with food every day on their desert journey. “Remember how you depended on God day by day”, he’s saying, “and how God came through for you”.

The interesting thing is that the people for whom the Book of Deuteronomy was written had no personal memory of the slavery in Egypt or the desert years of Israel. In writing these stories down and passing them on, the authors of Deuteronomy were encouraging the cultivation of a kind of ‘ancestral memory’. The same thing happened when Israel celebrated the Passover every year; they re-enacted the night before they left Egypt, so that the younger generations who hadn’t been there could enter into the experience for themselves.

Those of you who’ve visited Fort Edmonton Park will probably have seen the house Premier Alexander Rutherford lived in during the early part of this century. The interesting thing to me was that many of us in this congregation now live in larger houses than the Premier of Alberta lived in a hundred years ago! I think Moses would encourage us as a society to remember where we have come from. Our present standard of living is not something we enjoy as a human right; most people on the face of the earth do not, in fact, enjoy it. It’s a privilege, and it should lead us to thankfulness to God.

And that brings us to Moses’ second strategy for dealing with prosperity. Verse 10 says, ‘Bless the LORD your God’. In other words, we are to continually thank God for all the blessings we have received.

Thankfulness is a habit that needs to be cultivated. Some people never learn to do that; our society has largely forgotten how to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. Instead we’ve developed complaint into an art form, and we usually aim our complaints at different levels of government. Our modern governments provide us with incredible services and benefits that most of the people of the world can only dream about, but so often our response is complaint: we’re not being given enough, or we’re being charged too much for it.

Thankfulness is an antidote to this. The way Moses tells it here, thankfulness is not a feeling but a habit. He doesn’t say, “Feel thankful”; he says,“You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you” (v.10). Thankfulness, in other words, isn’t a matter of waiting until we feel gratitude; it’s a matter of saying thank you, and saying it every time we eat. Our words have the power to transform us. The more we repeat something, the more it sinks into us and becomes true for us.

This isn’t just about saying grace at our daily meals, although that’s important. It also includes making a habit of including a good dose of thanksgiving in our daily prayers, and pausing often during the day to say “Thank you” to God. It includes experiencing the truth behind the words of the old chorus: “Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done”. I challenge you to do that: count your blessings, name them one by one. Then do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. Do it until it becomes a habit. It’s a habit with the power to change our hearts.

So Moses has given us two strategies to guard against the dangers of prosperity: we’re to remember where we’ve come from, and we’re to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. The third strategy is to keep God’s commandments. Look in verse 11: “Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today”. Obedience, in this passage, is not a way of buying blessing from God; rather, it’s a way of saying thank you to God for the blessing we’ve already received.

But I have a question: which commandments are we talking about here? When we hear the phrase ‘God’s commandments’, we tend to think in terms of the Ten Commandments and other laws about personal morality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, the Law Moses was commanding the Israelites to obey was much bigger than the Ten Commandments. It’s preserved for us in the first five books of the Bible, and it includes not just laws about personal morality but also laws about building a just society.

For example, when you were harvesting your field you had to leave some grain standing at the edges so the poor could glean a living from it. You had to let the land lie fallow every seventh year and rely on God sending you a bumper harvest in the sixth year. When you sold land, you had to offer it first within your own family so that equality of wealth between families was preserved. And every fifty years the Year of Jubilee was celebrated. In this year all land was to revert to its original owners, all debts were to be forgiven and all slaves set free. The ideal was equality; that society as a wholeshould prosper, and not just individuals in it.

My point in bringing this to your attention isn’t to suggest we should revive the entire Jewish civil law. Rather, I want to remind you that God’s law has never been just about personal morality; it also asks us to work toward the creation of a just society, where the rights of the poor and vulnerable are protected.

Today at St. Margaret’s we gather to give thanks for all the blessings we have received from God. Moses encourages us to cultivate this habit. We ought to verbalise this as often as possible—both to God and to others. So let me encourage you to be intentional about growing the habit of thankfulness. My observation, over forty-one years in pastoral ministry, is that people who make thankfulness a habit are happier people who enjoy their lives more.

But the other side of thankfulness is to show our gratitude by making sure others alsoenjoy the fruits of prosperity. Today at St. Margaret’s we’re doing this by our offering of non-perishable food items for the Food Bank. We’re also doing it by our special offering today for World Vision’s ‘Raw Hope’ initiative.

But of course it can’t end there. We’re encouraged in the Scriptures to move through our lives with our eyes wide open, ready to see the needs of others and look for ways to help them – not just in our community, but in the world at large as well. This is another way we show our thankfulness to God for all the blessings we have received.

Prosperity can be a blessing, but we need to handle it carefully. We need to remember where we’ve come from; we need to cultivate the habit of thankfulness; we need to live in obedience to God’s commandments, especially the ones that require us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. In other words, we need to learn to see our prosperity as a trust from God, to be used to advance God’s purposes in the world. If we can do that, we might just be able to handle it without being poisoned by it! May the Holy Spirit guide and strengthen us to use what has been entrusted to us according to the will of God.

‘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).