This is my first attempt at a blog. I thought I'd use this as a forum for sharing my sermons, but I am especially interested in discussing where faith, culture, and politics collide, to gain a greater understanding of where the church is heading and how the message of the gospel is impacting the world.
But to begin with, here is a sermon I preached a few weeks ago. Enjoy!
Pentecost 13 - Year C
“Bill” was a mentally ill resident of a homemade shelter that sat on the north corner of the parking lot at Brunswick Street United Church in downtown Halifax. Everyday, “Bill” would wake up and head to the church for a donut and a coffee from the mission inside. Every so often Bill would wander into the pastor’s office and slip him a couple dollars. “Condo Fees” Bill would call it. “Just wanting to pay my due,” he would say.
No one really knew Bill very well. He kept to himself and didn’t talk very much. He would just sit alone at his table sipping his coffee and eating his donut, muttering quietly to himself as he dusted chocolate sprinkles from his long grey beard with his cigarette stained fingers. That was Bill’s life.
One morning Bill didn’t show up at the church for his morning coffee and donut. This was odd since he’d been there everyday for years. But no one gave it too much thought.
The next morning, still, no Bill. So someone from the church went outside to Bill’s shack to see if everything was alright. The 4 X 8 spruce board Bill used as a door was slightly off centre and there were various boot and shoeprints in the snow coming in and out of the shack. When she took the board out of the way and looked in, there was Bill, hanging from a pole in the middle of the shack, with his hands and feet tied together behind his back
The police were immediately called. After a brief investigation the police concluded that Bill’s death was suicide. But as a retired officer in the congregation pointed out, “It is not impossible to tie your hands and feet together then hang yourself in a structure held together with chunks of old cardboard, pieces of wood, and discarded lead pipes, but it is very difficult and highly improbable.”
But of course, the police were busy people. They had other crimes to investigate. A dead homeless man in a violence and drug infested neighbourhood didn’t rank very high on their priority list. This was a suicide, they said. Case closed.
Maybe we like to tell ourselves that the universe has been flattened, that in Canada, each person, equal under the law, is protected with rights and freedoms and that we treat our people with a dignity unparalleled when compared with other parts of the world. Maybe we like to think that as long as folks work hard, play by the rules, and keep their hands clean, opportunities will naturally unfold. Maybe we like to think of ourselves as good hearted people who see only the best in others.
But I’ve heard good hearted people make excuses for what happened to Bill. “He must have been involved with some pretty shady dealings for that to happen to him.” One person suggested to me. “Was he an addict?” another asked “He must have been mixed up with the drug trade downtown.” “He wasn’t a friendly character; maybe he picked a fight with the wrong person.” Some folks tried to pin the blame on Bill when no one really knew what happened in that shack. If Bill had been a business owner from the south end or a lawyer from Bedford there would have been public outrage. There wouldn’t have been questions about the victim’s culpability in his own murder, there wouldn’t have been suggestions that he deserved what he got, and there wouldn’t have been speculation as to his personal character. But like it or not, even within our liberal democracy there is a pecking order that determines who receives justice and who is denied justice. Where wealth is equated with virtue, poverty is deemed a moral failing. Where status is linked with merit, homelessness is tied to laziness. Where power is connected with value, mental illness is felt to be shameful.
Jesus heard the same stuff were he was, and he was sick of it. Jesus was invited to Simon’s house, and to his surprise he found himself sitting down to dinner with a bunch of Pharisees. Jesus, for the most part, had a good relationship with many of the religious leaders. He could see the good work that they were doing: trying to keep the faith from being completely compromised by the ruling Roman authorities.
The Pharisees weren’t hurting for money. They were paid very well for what they did. And they were perched pretty high in the pecking order of 1st century Palestine. They simply assumed that they were to take the places of privilege in corridors of power and in the streets. They expected people to defer to their authority on matters great and small. Some Pharisees, like Nicodemus, took this responsibility very seriously and sought to enrich their understanding of God’s promises by asking important questions and seeking deeper wisdom, no matter where it came from. Others, like ones we meet in today’s gospel, were more concerned with strict obedience to the law and with maintaining their high status in society, at the cost of sharing the vibrant and living faith, of which they were chief custodians, with a people hurting and hungry for God.
“Those who humble themselves will be exulted; those who exult themselves will be humbled.” Jesus says, and the Pharisees rolled their eyes and the disciples gasped with embarrassment.
Gee-whiz, Jesus, if you’re trying to launch a popular movement, these are not the sorts of things you want to be saying. How about Unlimited Power, Personal Empowerment, Possibility Thinking? That’s what people want. People don’t want to hear any talk of sacrifice; they want to feel powerful. People don’t want to be challenged; they want to be affirmed. People don’t want to be taught, they want to be entertained.
Even the disciples don’t get it. They love it when Jesus gets in the Pharisees’ face, but look what happens when Jesus turns it around on them. James and John fight over who gets prime digs in Heaven. Peter is horrified when Jesus asks to wash his feet. And they all scatter like cowards when Jesus finally gets caught and crucified.
For me I can sympathize with the Pharisees and with the disciples. They had great hopes for the Messiah. They were hoping the Messiah would be a great military leader who would cast off the shackles of Roman oppression and usher in the new golden era of Jerusalem rule not seen since the glorious reign of the mighty King David. Who wouldn't want to regain former glory? So the Pharisees were thinking conquest. Jesus talked about suffering. The people were thirsting for freedom. Jesus talked about rejection. The disciples where anticipating glory for themselves and for all Jewish people. Jesus talked about dying a horrible death. C’mon Jesus, this isn’t how this Messiah thing is supposed to work.
This is not the god we expect either. This is not the god that our society and culture demands. What kind of self-respecting “god’ would allow himself to be betrayed then arrested? What sort of self-respecting “god” would allow himself to be tried and convicted of false charges? What sort of self-respecting “god” would allow himself to be ridiculed, tortured, and executed? Certainly not the god of our culture, for the “god” of our culture, the god of wealth, power, status, and success abandoned Jesus on the cross, turning his face away in disgust from Jesus’ humiliating defeat.
But that’s not the way the God of the bible does things. According to the god of our culture, the God of the bible does some really nutty stuff. The God of bible would be crazy enough to ask you to sit in silence holding the hand of 90 year old woman who can’t speak, hear, or see, and probably doesn’t know who you are, but is grateful for the gentle human contact she feels as her wrinkled hand is being lightly stroked. The God of the bible would be stupid enough to ask you to spend your Thursday mornings once a month, chopping vegetables for the soup that feeds hungry people downtown – the same hungry people, day after day, month after month, year after year, seeing no discernable change in their lives other than the fact that these same hungry people have a full belly on the last Thursday of the month only because you were there to help fill it. The God of the bible is naive enough to ask you to believe that someone like Bill was a person of worth and value, even though he doesn’t offer a thing to enhance the world.
It may not be pretty. It may not be glamorous. But it’s just your normal, everyday miracle working that Jesus expects from us each and everyday. I don’t know why the God of the bible works this way but this God does. This God asks us to do some pretty strange stuff when you think about it.
“Those who humble themselves will be exulted, those who exult themselves will be humbled.”
Strange stuff, but life-giving.
May this be so among us. Amen.