Smashing the Patriarchy, The Rock, and Luxury Cars

A sermon based on John 7:53-8:11, traditionally known as Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery

So, two quick things before we hear this morning’s scripture.

Number 1.  If you read this story in your Bibles, it’s probably italicized, and has a disclaimer saying that this story isn’t found in the earliest manuscripts.  I did a bit of research on where this story came from, and why it’s here, and honestly, I can’t give you a great answer. Some people suggest it’s two different stories mashed into one and just stuck in here because the text flows.  Other people suggest Luke wrote it and it actually belongs near the end of Luke’s gospel.  Others say the story floated around independently for hundreds of years.  I can’t give you a great answer.

But what I can do is give a great question:  As we we listen to the story, and as I preach, in the back of your mind, wonder… Why was this story left out of the earliest manuscripts?  And why did it eventually get inserted into the gospel of John.  Why do you think it was left out, and why do you think it was added?

Number 2.  My sermon today might be a tad unsettling.  For all of us.   I’m going to say some things that I think the text could be saying to us, some hard things to hear, so I wanted to let you know that my usual disclaimer is in place:  You are all free to agree or disagree with me, if you want to continue the conversation we’ll be meeting in the side room after worship, but most importantly, some of the unsettling things I’m going to say unsettle me as well.  So with whatever I say today, I’m not saying them “against” you, but rather I’m saying them “with” you.  We’re all in this together.


So, you come to church on a Sunday, singing your hymns and enjoying the children’s story, and then a mob of men come through the front doors and down the middle aisle, bringing forward a woman.  And they are debating whether or not they should throw stones at her for committing adultery.

That’s a pretty dark scene, isn’t it?

What would you do?  What would we do?

Well, there are obviously many different ways one could respond.  But let’s start today by asking a question:

Where is the man?

Like, one does not commit adultery by themselves.  So, where is the man?

Was he at home?  Taking a nap?   Maybe he was visiting his parents in the nursing home?

Why does he seem to bear none of the consequences for adultery, while she faces death?  He’s supposed to, as Leviticus 20:10 says that they’re both supposed to die.

“If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.”

So where is he?

It’s probably worth noticing that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were all men too.

We can name it for what it is:  Patriarchy.

Patriarchy is a system of society or government or religion in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.

The men make the laws, the men carry out the laws, the men decide who lives and who dies, and conveniently, the man who committed adultery is nowhere in the picture.

One of the ways to understand this story is that it is Jesus confronting patriarchy, of giving this woman, and all women, the dignity and worth and safety that they deserve.

To borrow a popular phrase, we can say that Jesus is smashing the patriarchy.

When I was on Sabbatical, Ash and I went to a conference in Chicago called “Why Christian”, where they featured voices of people who have historically been left out, sidelined, or oppressed by Christianity.  So the speakers were all either women, people of colour, or sexual minorities.   When the list of speakers was published, and it was all women, people would ask the organizers… “I only see women speaking.  Is this a women’s conference?”   Their response?  “If there were only men speaking, does that mean it’s automatically a men’s conference?”

Of the 1000 of us who attended, I’d venture to say that 80% of the attendees were women.  And during one of the breaks, I went to use the washroom. And, as I got near the door, there was a grandma standing in front of the men’s room, and she said to me “I’m sorry, you can’t go in there.  We’ve taken over.”  To which I responded:  “You know, I’m all up for smashing the patriarchy with you, but I really need to go to the bathroom.”  She said, “No. I’m sorry.  You gotta go somewhere else!”

Smashing the patriarchy is great in theory and all, but there are some real consequences, people.  What about us men?  <smile>  (I don’t think I’m getting much sympathy from at least half of you right now).

In fall, I was talking to someone who was thinking about coming to our church.  We were in the basement, and one of the question she asked was, “Can women be leaders here?”  To which I replied, “Of course they can!  God calls forth both women and men to lead equally!”  And then her eyes drifted to the pictures of all the previous pastors put up on the wall.  “Oh shoot,”  I thought.  “We have only hired men as pastors.”

That was a really uncomfortable conversation for me, people.  I quickly chimed in:  “Despite our long history of hiring men as pastors, we really are cool with women pastors.  Like, really.”

Now, I actually think we do a pretty decent job here at Grace trying to get a gender balance in most of the thing we do… We are intentional about asking women to lead in a variety of ways.  But we haven’t hired any women pastors.

I wonder why.  Maybe none applied?    But then I wonder, why have no women applied?

And, to reiterate, I’m with you on this one. This isn’t a shot at anyone. I actually think we’ve hired good people over the years.  I’m grateful you hired me.  And when Mel was hired all those years ago I was a regular church member sitting in the back, and I don’t remember wondering about our history of hiring male pastors.  (Although, for the record, I am really glad we hired him…).

But the next time we hire a pastor, we need to intentionally sit with the question of why a church that affirms women as leaders, has yet to hire a female pastor.

Smashing the patriarchy can be… unsettling.  But I am quite sure it’s worth the discomfort.


Dwayne_Johnson_at_the_2009_Tribeca_Film_Festival

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has nothing to do with my sermon other than it’s about throwing stones.  But last sermon I used a picture of  Zooey Deschanel, so I figured I’d aim for a gender balance.  Plus, that sermon got about a 400% increase in hits, so I guess this is also blatant click bait.

Speaking of smashing things, do you know that you can follow the Bible and stone someone?  Like, you actually can.  The religious leaders were holding rocks in one hand and their Holy Scriptures in other.

You can follow the Bible and stone someone.

But can you stone someone while following Jesus?

Why would we want to stone someone in the first place?


I’m going to go somewhere here now, as gently as possible.   But I think this text speaks volumes to us as to why we’d want to stone someone in the first place.

Last month, I was talking to a friend…   And she asked me question:   “Kyle, why is someone’s sexual orientation such a big deal some churches? I don’t get it.”

Okay.   I’m going to tell you what I told her, but I do so hesitantly for a few reasons. Here are my disclaimers.

  • If you identify as LGBTQ+, or have friends or family who do, you are beloved, and you bear God’s image as much as anybody else. You always have and you always will.
  • We at Grace have asked ourselves,  “Regardless of someone’s age, race, culture, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, wealth, education, religious background, disabilities, or different abilities, is our church a place where they can explore and grow in faith in Jesus Christ?  Our hope is yes.   We can totally talk about whether or not we are succeeding at this or failing at this, but this is what we’re aiming for.
  • And I am really hesitant to even compare the woman caught in adultery with sexual orientation because I consider one’s orientation similar to whether or not someone is left-handed… I actually leave the “sin” part of the conversation right out. We’re not comparing apples to apples here.
  • Also, the woman caught in adultery faced being stoned, and I am aware that violence against sexual minorities is still a very real threat.  So I am treading lightly.

So those are my disclaimers.  But I think we can move forward from here.

I told my friend, “I think it’s a big deal to some for many reasons, but I think here are two big ones.”

  1. First deep within our DNA as churches, especially Mennonite churches, and as Christians, is the idea of purity. Not, like sexual purity, but that the point of faith is to “sin less.” Purity is the underlying value.  And, we come by it honestly. Deep in the history of Christianity we find leaders emphasizing Ephesians 5:27 –… “[the church should] be radiant, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”  Sin less. Don’t sin.   This partly explains the long history of Mennonite revivals, and thus churches splitting.  Flee from sin at all costs.
  2. Secondly, as we are seeking to not sin, we have to define sin. And the easiest way for us to define sin is to name something that’s really obvious, and open, and a sin we are most likely not to commit.    So, sexual orientation, and actually most “sexual sins” becomes an easy target in churches because many of us aren’t likely to sin that way.  Or at least, we can keep it a secret (until there’s a baby, or we’re caught in the arms of another lover).  It is easier to highlight and name and blame people who are “sinning” in ways that we are not likely to sin.  That way we will not be called hypocrites.  And it’s easy to be pure, it’s easy to be a church without spot and wrinkle, it’s easy to be in a church that doesn’t sin when we banish sin from our midst. We blame it, shame it, exclude it, we excommunicate it, we shun in, we stone it, and it feels good, because we are doing what God wants us to do.

But, for other sins that might hit a bit closer to home?  Oh, we are way more cautious.  When it comes to our wealth, and how we spend our money, and the luxury cars we buy, and the renovations we do on our houses… Oh, well, that conversation needs nuance.  Because we can’t stone everyone who buys a new luxury car with bells and whistles that we probably don’t need, can we?

Or.. take hospitality.  We read in Genesis 19 that God destroyed the entire towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, and then in Ezekiel 16:49-50 we explicitly read that it was because they weren’t hospitable to foreigners.

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”

Using my Bible, and some “interesting” biblical interpretation skills, I really could make the case that God’s going to destroy any church that doesn’t sponsor refugees.   Like, wipe them off the face of the earth like Sodom and Gomorrah for not practicing hospitality.

Or, if I wanted to be a little gentler, I could simply make the case that they are sinning, and we are not.  That we are following God’s law better than they are.  And that kind of feels good, doesn’t it.

If we frame our entire understanding of faith as “sin less”, we inevitably find a “sinful” target to blame, shame, exclude, excommunicate, to shun, or to stone.

And, if those targets end up being people with less social capital, less resources, less power, we will end up with blood on our hands.  Holocausts and lynchings and refugees crossing fields in winter and sexual minorities and women caught in adultery.

And we can do it all with a stone in one hand and a Bible in the other.

So, here’s an unsettling question for us all today, including me, because I especially love throwing stones at people who throw stones (so… maybe I should just skip a few steps and throw the stones at myself?).

Whom do we want to throw stones at?   


Here’s the good news.

Jesus doesn’t throw stones.

He forgave the woman, invited her to make better life choices, and then let her leave in peace.

And… Lent starts on Wednesday, and as we start looking ahead to Good Friday, we find that Jesus is the victim of mob violence.   “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” the crowds yelled.  The chief priest actually says in John : “It is better for one man to die for the people than that the whole nation perish!” (John 11:50).

By Jesus becoming the target, he reveals the entire system for what it is.  Violent. Evil.  And unnecessary.  And he then he actually goes one step further and offers forgiveness to the very people who are killing him.

Jesus doesn’t throw stones.

And the closer we are to Jesus, the less we want to throw stones at each other. – Shane Claiborne.

That is good news indeed.

Orangutans, Paleo Diet, and Sympathetic Listeners

In February, Ash and I were on vacation and we had the chance to take our children to the San Diego Zoo.  What a great place! We saw elephants and tigers and gorillas and giraffes and rhinos and pretty much all the animals.

My highlight was the orangutan.

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When we started the day, we went on a double decker bus tour, which my kids were really excited about.  We sat on the top, because that’s obvioIMG_6483usly where you want to sit when you’re on a double decker bus, and the bus driver/tour guide was showing us the animals and telling us about the zoo’s conservation efforts.

And as we were going on, she said “Such and such an animal is currently being threatened by climate change.  And yes, folks, climate change is real.  And we humans are the cause of it.  And we know this because science tells us.  And yes, science is real.”

I just looked at Ashley, who teaches high school biology, and we started laughing.  Of course science is real!  How can it not be? Every day we rely on science for our cell phones and our pain killers and our cars and our drinking water. You can’t just picks which parts you like and which parts you don’t.  It’s a methodology!   Who doesn’t believe science is real?

We’ll come back to this question in a bit.

But first, let’s draw a circle.

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Let’s say this circle represents us.  As individuals.  Central to our functioning as normal humans is the belief that for the most part, we’re good people making good decisions.

If I were to ask you to turn to the person beside you and ask them, “Are you a generally a good person?” I think most of us would say “Yeah.  I’m not perfect, but I’m pretty decent.”

And if you were to ask the person beside you “Do you make good decisions?”  They’d probably answer. “Most of the time.  Sometimes I eat too much cake, but most of the time I make good decisions.”

Central to our functioning as humans is the belief that for the most part, we are good people making good decisions.  This is normal and necessary and true for almost everyone.

So, what happens when we receive information or feedback or experiences that challenges the notion that we are generally good people making good decisions?  What happens when someone says that our beliefs and behaviours aren’t the best?  What happens when someone tells us that we spend too much time on our phone?  Or that we spend our money unwisely?  Or that we kill frogs and bees when we spray our yards with chemicals?  Or that we voted for the wrong political party?  What happens when someone tell us that we might be racist?  Or that you doesn’t take the Bible seriously?

When we receive information or feedback that challenges our current beliefs or behaviours, psychologists call it cognitive dissonance.   A really simple definition of cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort experienced when we encounter new information that contradicts what we already believe.   It’s the mental discomfort of having two opposite stories competing in our brains. 

What do you mean I vote for the wrong political party?  I’m still a good person.

What do you mean I kill the frogs and bees in my backyard? I’m a good person who just wants to create a weed free back yard for my kids!

What do you mean I’m racist?  I’m a good person.  I have a black friend!

What do you mean my church don’t read the Bible?  We’re good people!  Look at all the good work we do!

When we experience cognitive dissonance, we don’t really like that discomfort, so generally try to get rid of it through a variety of ways.

Sometimes, we attack the person who creates this discomfort.  We get defensive.  We shoot the messenger. We try to discredit them so the information they’re given us has less weight.  For example, sometimes I can read people’s Facebook comments when I put my sermons online. When they write negative comments, I immediately click their profile and create a mental list of everything that is wrong with that person.  “Oh, you don’t like my sermon?  Well, you spend too much time playing Candy Crush, your shoes don’t match your belt, and you’re probably a terrible person.”

This is very normal reaction, but I’m quite confident in saying it’s not very healthy or helpful (and if you find yourself doing this ALL the time, I’d highly recommend getting a spiritual director).

Another thing some of us do when we encounter cognitive dissonance is we reinforce our pre-existing beliefs, trying to prove that we are good and right. And in 2017, this is primarily done by typing what we already believe into Google and looking for an article that proves that we’re right. We look for Bible verses, we look for blog posts, we look for authors, we look for studies.  Ahhh… studies.  Especially food studies.  Studies say that coffee is good for you.  And then one says it’s not.  And then one study says that a low-carb Paleo south-beach gluten-free juice diet is good for you.  It’s the best!  And then another one says no.

Now, things might be good for us, or they may be bad for us, but usually, (and if we’re honest with ourselves), we’ll just search on the internet for what we already believe, or what we want to believe.   And what’s especially troubling in 2017 is that Google and Facebook do such a good job predicting what they think we WANT to read that they’ll pull those posts up first and not show us contradictory posts.  So any idea that we’ve done balanced research on the internet is probably a sham, because Facebook and Google want us to click on things simply for their ad revenue. So they’re most likely not going to show me articles or pages about how war is good and Jesus is fake and ultimate Frisbee isn’t a sport, as I’m probably not going to click those.

Another way that we deal with cognitive dissonance is kind of like an involuntary cognitive trance, where the physiology of our brains alters so that any feedback that challenges our identities simply goes in one ear and out the other. 

If you tell someone that they’re racists, the most likely won’t say, “Oh…. Right.  Sorry about that. I’m going to not be racist anymore.”

If you tell someone that they’re sexist,  they’re probably not going to say, “Oh… Right. I’m going to flick off the sexist switch in my brain and turn on the equality one.”

Or what happens if you tell a lifelong Pepsi drinker that Coke is better?  Well, they’ll probably lash out and attack the bearer of bad news.  But if they’ve calmed their inner beast-mode, they most likely will just ignore it and keep drinking their Pepsi.

And we can’t even get mad at people for this, because sometimes, it’s physiological.  Our brains just do it! We all believe that we’re generally good people making good decision, and we will simply ignore most of the information that challenges that.

So how does this relate to science and climate change and Earth Day?

Well, let’s go back to circle.  Let’s make it represent something a bit bigger.

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Let’s make it represent the groups that we belong to, the tribes that we identify with.  Our church, our faith, our city, our school, our gender, our political parties, our sports teams, our country… whatever groups that we identify with, they will all hold some common beliefs, and rooted in all of those is that, yes, there might be some flaws, but we generally believe that they are generally good, and making generally good decisions.

Canada?  Generally a good country.

Steinbach?  Generally a good city.

Christianity? Anabaptism?  Grace Mennonite?  Generally all pretty good, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

And then let’s draw another circle over her.  Smaller.

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This is a group that identify as climate scientists.  They’re generally believe they’re good people too, but they have knowledge that most of us don’t have. They have fancy schmancy thermometers and the scientific method and peer reviewed research, and over 95% of them say things like “climate change is real and is cause by humans.”  They say things like “16 of the past 17 years have been the warmest on record.”  They say things like “We are seeing more extreme weather patterns.  More intense droughts, more intense storms, more intense floods.”   They say things like “We are seeing the ice caps melt, we are seeing permafrost melt, and these are going to fundamentally change how our world works.”

And then the climate scientists and the paleontologist and the evolutionary biologists all got together and say things like “The planet has gone through 5 mass extinctions, and at the rate we’re currently losing species, we are currently living through the 6th.”

They say things like “If we don’t change something, we’re going to be in trouble.”

But those of us who aren’t climate scientists… we still believe we’re good people! What do you mean that some of our actions are bad for the climate?  So we’re either going to discredit those scientists, or we’re going to type into Google why we think they’re wrong and claim “Science isn’t real!  The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to steal our jobs!”, or we’re just going to simply ignore them.

Let’s draw a third circle.

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The easy way to describe this circle is “the poor”, but that’s a clunky, loaded term that is ideal.  So we can also think of this as the “global south”, or the under-served population, or those who are more exploited or historically looted, or however you want to put it.  Those with less access to resources to than others.  (And notice how much bigger it is?)

What are they going to do if food prices rise?

How are those who grow their own food going to respond to more intense droughts?

How are those on islands going to respond to rising sea levels?

How are they going to respond to floods when they can’t afford insurance like we have?

How are Northern communities, like Pauingassi, going to survive without ice roads?

Climate change is going to have a greater effect on “the poor” than the rich.  And with great confidence I can say that over the past 100 years, the rich have been more responsible for climate change than the poor (currently, the poorest 50% of the world are responsible for about 10% of the world’s carbon emissions).

But we’re good people!  Making reasonably good decisions!

I think in this case, when we hear stories from small scale farmers in Zambia, we don’t attack the messenger.  Or when presidents of small island nations say that that their home will literally disappear if the ice caps melt, we don’t really type into Google why they’re wrong.   Rather, we deal with the cognitive dissonance simply by ignoring it.

This is all, kind of depressing, isn’t it?

Well, there is some good news in all of this, especially for those of us in the church.

While the climate scientists and those with less resources are articulating their concerns, and most of us here in the first circle are busy ignoring them, their messages ARE heard by some people in the first circle.  The sympathetic listeners.  And if these sympathetic listeners are able to translate these concerns to the rest of their circle, maybe, just maybe, the rest of us will listen and take action.

But these translators must do one thing: They must continue to affirm the general goodness of the group, otherwise the group will not listen. 

These translators are bridge builders, not bridge burners.  The other circles don’t necessarily have to be bridge builders.  But the sympathetic listeners must be.

They are the ones who must be able to say, “Hmmm… These people might be saying something important, and we’re all good people over here, so maybe we should listen to what they’re saying and try to build a better world together for everyone.”

There is significantly less cognitive dissonance in that message, isn’t there?

We’re all good people trying to make good decisions, so let’s keep doing that.

And I think, those of us who are part of the church, we can speak to our circle by saying things like:

“The Bible says that God has given us stewardship over the Earth.  What kind of stewards are we if we trash the place?  Are we like a bunch of teenagers who throw a party when they’re parents are gone?”

Or we can say:  “The Bible has over 2000 verses about the poor.  We should listen to these voices and take action because the Bible says that God cares about the poor.”

Or we can say “Jesus tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves.  I wonder how we’re loving our neighbours when some of their homes will no longer be there?  Or if they can’t adapt to climate change because they lack the resources that we have? We’re all good people here trying be faithful by loving our neighbours as Jesus says, so how can we best do that?”

And the church, when it’s a tad unhealthy, is really good at divisiveness and guilty and shame and excluding and telling others why they’re wrong.

And the church, when it’s a tad healthier, is really good at loving its neighbours and affirming people’s goodness and working at justice and working with people we disagree with in very redemptive ways.  We can listen to these voices and work together for a better world by affirming each other’s goodness.

If you feel a bit less depressed now about climate change now, and our role in it, then great.

But I’ll throw one more wrench in here.

These people here, the climate scientists… They probably would read this “bridge building” sermon and say “That’s nice and all, but it’s about 20-30 years too late.  We are running out of time.”  So to those of us who are here, trying to translate this message, and to those of us who are trying to love our neighbours as ourselves, especially those with less access to resources, “We’re running out of time” is certainly a difficult message to translate nicely, isn’t it?

So, yes, science is real, our climate is changing, and human activity is the cause of it.

And yes, our actions, both big and small matter. And they matter because they are all faithful attempts on our part to love our neighbour as ourselves, especially those who in the world who have less access to resources.

I could end this sermon with a list of things we can do:  Bike to work, garden more, compost more, reuse things more… Just type the words “Green” or “Earth Day” into Google and you’ll find lists and lists of things we can do.  If my 6 year old knows how to be Earth friendly, I think most of us know there are things we can differently.

So instead of lists, let’s end with a prayer of confession.

Let’s pray.

Confession:

When we are unkind to people,
when we are careless with animals,
when we choose the cheapest or easiest,
when we don’t care about the consequences of our choices,
when we waste energy and water,
when we lack respect for the Earth,
when we are complacent and overcome by apathy:
forgive us, O God, and reconcile us to yourself,
to one another
and to the Creation.

May the wind of the Spirit blow through our lives
and enable us to be good stewards of Creation,
now and forever.  Amen.


Sources:

For all things climate change related, check out Katherine Hayhoe’s work, especially her “Global Weirding” video series.

For the piece on cognitive dissonance, there are many more than the three responses.  Those are just the 3 that I think are quite common.  I picked up the “involuntary trance” part, and the circles, from the Liturgists podcast “Prophet or Ass?

The confession is from the Canadian Foodgrains Bank worship material

Big Foot, Elephant and Piggy, and “Shake it Off”

Today I get to speak to you while wearing both my parent hat and my pastor hat.  I am quite excited about this prospect.

When Ashley and I were living in Winnipeg, we lived about two blocks from the church where I was working, so often I would walk to work.  And on my way to work I walked right past the local elementary school.

One day, while I work, I received a phone call.

“Hi Kyle. Can you help us lead the Lord’s Prayer before school starts? We’d love a pastor to be there.”

What was I supposed to say?

So the next week I found myself in someone’s living room, drinking weak coffee and eating dainties, coming up with a schedule to lead the local school children in the Lord’s Prayer.

Now, I’m usually quite grateful for the diversity within Christianity.  I’m quite okay with different denominations and different expressions of spirituality.  I grew up Roman Catholic in Steinbach with a brief Pentecostal stint before I found my way here to Grace Mennonite, and those are all very valid expressions of Christianity that helped shape me.  And to quote Peter Dick, my high school Sunday School teacher, in relation to all the different denominations:  “A shoe that fits one person, might pinch another.”

However, when the faithful volunteers started discussing who was going to lead the Lord’s Prayer on Halloween because they were all boycotting that day at school because it was a dark day, it became quite apparent to me that they probably didn’t yet know that they didn’t want me to lead their children in the Lord’s Prayer.

So I ended up offering to lead it twice a month.

Every other Thursday, I’d show up to the multi-purpose room, tell a story about me canoeing or when I was in Zimbabwe, and then we’d say the Lord’s Prayer.  When the weather was warm, we had about 40-50 kids, and when it was cold out, we had close to 100 (which shows that dodge ball is better than the Lord’s Prayer, but the Lord’s prayer is better than playing in -20 degrees C).

If you know me, I like kids, but I’m not that good with them.  Especially elementary school kids. I like to laugh and give high fives, but I usually talk too fast and use big words… When thinking of gifts for Arianna’s teachers, my first impulse is to buy them a gift card to the liquor store.   So, those Lord’s Prayer mornings were usually a bit of a circus with kids throwing things in one corner and other kids wrestling in the other corner.

And so, one day, I was a bit frustrated at the situation, and I said, “Alright!  I have a question to ask you!  How many of you go to church on a regular basis?  Like, Sunday School?”

I didn’t see one hand stay down.  As far as I could tell, almost every kid went to church!

And then I asked them another question:

“How many of you say the Lord’s Prayer with your families before you go to school?”

Not a single hand went up.

Now, I know that getting everyone out the door in the mornings with their clothes on and teeth brushed and lunches packed can be quite the gong show, as most of my mornings these days consist of me saying very slowly, “Arianna, please put the food in your mouth and chew it or you will miss your bus.”  Or maybe they said their prayers as a family every evening… but zero?

The thing about the Lord’s Prayer at this school was that it was a DOUBLE permission slip.  They needed to get enough parental signatures to ALLOW the Lord’s Prayer before school started, and then each and every kid had to hand in a permission slip to ATTEND Lord’s prayer.

I was/am shocked and perplexed and curious and wondering about how this was such an important ritual that parents signed two separate permission slips, but then sent their children to pray with pastor who dresses up as Big Foot and chases kids down his driveway on the dark day of Halloween (don’t worry… I only chase the teenagers who are too old to be trick or treating).

I finished that school year, and never led any Lord’s Prayers exercises at school again.  (But just this week it dawned of me that didn’t ask me to come back either, so maybe it was a mutual parting of ways.)

Because here’s the thing about kids and faith and how they grow in their faith.  The number one influence in kids and their understanding of spirituality is their parents.  Surprise, surprise, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

As parents, there is a direct correlation between nurturing our own spirituality and nurturing that of our kids.   And there is also a direct correlation between the quality of our relationships with our kids and whether or not they model their lives after us.  So every prayer we say by ourselves, every prayer we say with our kids, every candle we light, every time we ask how Jesus would respond to a global refugee crisis, every time we go swimming with our kids or cheer them on playing hockey, every time we cuddle and read stories of Jesus or stories of Elephant and Piggy, it’s all part of what it means to nurture our kids and their spirituality.

The other thing that really matters in nurturing the spirituality of our children is whether or not the adults in their church CLAIM the kids as their own, and invest in them and pray for them and give them high fives.  They’ve even found the ideal ratio:  5 adults for 1 kid.  5:1. If there are 5 adults in a community investing in each child, it means the world to them.

Years ago, some sociologists sent a young-ish looking reporter to go undercover in a high school to document life as a teenager, and what they discovered really surprised them.  They found a world where the adults weren’t nearly as present as they thought they would be.  Most schools have a ratio of 1 teacher to 20 kids, and if you include all the staff in school, it’s between 5-10 students to 1 adult.   And in the absence of an abundance of adults to model their lives on, the kids started looking to each other for guidance and support and role-models.

And while some kids can thrive under this, others of them go all “Lord of the Flies” on each other.

This was teenagers a few decades ago.

I was talking to an educator more recently, and they didn’t know about this study, but they made an observation of their elementary school.  They said “It seems to me that there are less and less adults in these kid’s lives, and the kids are turning to each other for guidance and support.”

Some of these shifts have been slow, like decades, but they’re not insignificant. Both parents often work (like Ash and I, so no judgment from us), and often longer hours, we have smaller families so there are less uncles and aunts around, we’re more mobile so we now have more families living across several provinces, we have more entertainment options so Netflix replaces crokinole and the TSN JETS four times a week replaces Hockey Night in Canada once a week, let alone how’re on our phones… And even those of us who enrol our kids in activities, while there are some great coaches and great stories out there of adults investing in kids, I am also quite realistic that many coaches are teenagers who are being paid and won’t invest in our children in the off season.  I know for myself, when Ash and I coach ultimate, I end up saying “I’m just glad that I get to teach these kids how to throw a Frisbee for two months, and that I don’t really have to care about them beyond that.”  (Although Ashley cares, since she’s a great teacher.)

So where are the adults?

I’m not going to suggest that the way forward is some idealized past, or how parents these days don’t know what they’re doing.

But what I am going to suggest is that a really big part of what we’re doing here today, of dedicating our kids, of giving them Bibles, is that we’re trying our best to create a community of adults that is looking out for our kids.  As parents, we are giving you, the congregation, permission to invest in our kids.  We are not trusting strangers leading religious exercises at schools to nurture our kids.  We’re trusting you.  That is your job. And by virtue of you being here, and participating in child dedication with us, you’re kind of stuck here doing it.  It’s like a Mennonite draft of sorts.

This is why, when we as church families go swimming or to the Moose game, you’re all invited.   We want you involved in the lives of our children.  This is why I invite so many adult to come with us to Pauingassi.  Because our teenagers need to part of a community where the adults serve.    This is why we need you to help us lead children’s church.  We want you to share with our children how the story of Jesus has changed your life.

We’re trusting you. Not strangers.  You.

Ashley came back from the women’s retreat in the fall just excited about faith and church and this great group of women, and she told me that on the way home, she and another mom were talking about role models for our children.  And Ash said “We are so grateful that our daughters have these strong women as their role models.”

We’re trusting you.  With our children.

In my house these days, we often have these epic dance parties while making and cleaning up supper.   We usually let the kids pick the music, so we often end up dancing to Shake it Off by Taylor Swift, Roar by Katy Perry, and All About that Bass by Megan Trainor.  It’s quite delightful.

But for the last month or so, we’ve been singing the soundtrack from Disney’s Moana.  (On a quick aside, we are just really thankful that Disney is finally starting to create strong, independent female characters.)

And there’s one line in that soundtrack that has actually led me to tears while dancing in my kitchen.

In a song about a bunch of South Pacific Islanders exploring the ocean and finding new islands, they sing a song called:  We Know the Way.

We read the wind and the sky when the sun is high.

We sail the length of the seas on the ocean breeze.  At night, we name every star.

We know where we are.

We know we are, who we are.

We know the way.

We know where we are.  We know who we are.

We know that we are here, in this place called Grace Mennonite.  We know that we are here, with you.  And because we know where we are, we know who we are… and whose we are.

We know that we are beloved children of God, together. We know that we are followers of Jesus, together.    We know that we are lovers of the world, together.  We know the way, together.

And with my pastor hat on, I wish you much grace and peace.

And with my parent hat on, I say “Thanks.”

Locusts, Indiana Jones, and Elsa

The story of John the Baptist takes place 30 years after the birth of Jesus, and yet we read the story of him in the wilderness every year on the second Sunday of Advent.

Part of me is always frustrated that I have to try to make connections between the birth of Jesus and this wild man who eats locusts and preaches some pretty harsh words of judgment. jbaptistbaptizing2

But… the other part of me is thankful that I get to use this picture every year.

John the Baptist’s words are harsh, and for many of us, bring up these terrible memories or associations of angry preachers banging the pulpit threatening hell unless we get our acts together. Words of fire and ax and judgement and winnowing forks don’t always sit very well with us.

I’m with you on that.

This week via Facebook and a few in person conversations, and I asked people what words/phrases came to mind when they heard the words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near!”, and more than half of the responses I heard were about fear, judgement, a white-bearded male looking down the from the sky shaking his finger at us, the crusades, quite a “repent or burns”…indiana-jones

Although my favourite one was someone conjuring an image on Indiana Jones, trying to reach the Holy Grail, repeating, “Only the penitent man will pass…KNEEL!”  And then he stops Nazi Germany (or something like that).

But John the Baptist still did tell everyone he met that they should repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.

As I was pondering these words this week, I had an epiphany.

The gospel of Jesus is meant to be good news for everybody.  The angels bring the shepherds good news of great joy that will be for ALL people.  God coming and living among us through Jesus is supposed to be a good thing (thanks Captain Obvious).

But can we salvage the good news of Jesus from all the negative associations we have with the word “Repent!”

I’ll give it a whirl.

First of all, I think the word “near” means more like it’s in close proximity, not time, so we can say, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is close by!”  This moves the repentance in fear of a future moment to repentance in the present, one where we’re waiting for God to come, to one where God is already here.

Secondly, I like to define the word repent as this: To turn. To do a 180.   So John is telling his listeners, “Turn around, for the Kingdom of God is close by!”

That’s more palatable, isn’t it?  I think that’s a pretty good start.

And we usually associate the word “Repent” with “Stop Sinning!”, which is probably a good thing when we’re killing people and stealing their cars, but can get a little tedious when the preacher gets to decide what’s a sin and what isn’t, and gets to decide who’s sinning and who’s not (and usually it’s not the preacher).

So what I do with this text is think of repenting in terms of not only turning, but specifically of letting go.  Of us letting go of what we are clinging to tightly.  That with all the things that we’re holding tightly onto, we change direction, and let go of them.

One of the greatest myths of life in North America is that we can just keep adding things to our lives.  We can just add more peace and more harmony on top of watching sports on top of Christmas shopping on top of church on top of loving our neighbours.

I don’t think it’s true.  We can’t add without subtracting.  We can’t take on more unless we are willing to let go of something else. We can’t live in a world of more love, peace, joy and harmony unless we let go of all that which is hindering those things.

So then the phrase becomes, “Let go of what you are holding on to tightly, because the Kingdom of God is close by.”

Well, that’s certainly different. I kind of like it.

Let go of what’s holding you back from living into the good news of Jesus.

In my early years as a pastor, I spent a few weekends at St. Benedict’s Monastery hanging out with some nuns and spiritual directors, learning how to rest and how to pray, and every year the first question that was asked of us was this:

“What is God calling you to let go of?”

We can’t live in the Kingdom of God unless we are willing to let go of things.

Our selfishness, our pride, our indifference, the security we find in our wealth, the feelings we cling to when we think about how that person did us wrong yesterday, our own sense of rightness…

The idea of letting go runs a bit contrary to the belief that “I’m okay. You’re okay.”  It actually says, “No. We’re not all okay.  The world is not all okay. We’re all a part of this.  What do we need to let go of to live into God’s new way of living?”

John the Baptist said:  Repent, for Kingdom of God is near.

Today, we can say:  Let go of what you’re holding on to tightly, because it might be keeping you, it might be keeping us, from living the life that God wants for all of us.elsa

And if you have little children, Queen Elsa from Frozen says:  “Let It Go!”  (My 6 year old daughter asked if we would be singing this song today.  I replied, “Your mom told me a long time ago that it was best for everyone if I didn’t sing from the pulpit.”)

What is God calling you to let go of?

As usual, let’s light a candle and pray through that.

Open your hands like you are receiving a gift.

Notice your breathing.

Imagine God looking at you with kindness, tenderness, and love.

Ask the question: “God, what is it that you want me to let go of?”

If something comes to mind, ponder it.  Don’t be mad at it, don’t be embarrassed by it, simply ponder it.

And, when you’re ready, imagine holding it in your hand, and then letting it go.

Amen.

Good news.  The Kingdom of God is close by.  And my hunch is that if we turn around, God will be there waiting for us with open arms.

Manure, the Antichrist, and Flossing – A post-election sermon

You spend 3 months on sabbatical thinking about what you’re going to preach about on Peace Sunday, and then you wake up Wednesday morning and find out that our neighbours to south of us elected Donald Trump.

I understand that we are in Canada, so we’re watching from a distance.

I understand that even here, we probably won’t agree HOW we talk about politics in church, let alone how we participate in our governments or who we vote for.

Also, I’ve heard it said that when we mix faith with politics, it’s like mixing ice cream with manure.  The manure isn’t ruined, but the ice cream certainly is.

But something profound happened this week, and I think for us to ignore it would be naive.  As wiseman Mel says – If we’re talking about it out there, we can talk about it in here.

This morning, I am going to try to speak as kindly and fairly as possible, but I am going to speak directly.  I am going to take the risk of saying something you may disagree with.  I am okay with that, and trust our relationship and our desire to be loving over our disagreements.  If Ash and I can still love each other and disagree on things, I’m sure most of us can as well.

For me, the best lens to look at this week’s election is through the lens of scapegoat theory.

Scapegoat theory works like this:

(Most of what follows are Brian Zahnd’s words from his book Farewell to Mars.  For the sake of flow, I didn’t cite which words were his and which were mine.   But if it sounds smart and concise, assume they’re his words.)

When a group of people perceive themselves to be slighted or wronged, displaced or threatened, they can grow into a vindictive crowd.  When a group or people becomes an angry, fear-driven crowd, the group-think phenomenon of mob mentality quickly overtakes rational thought and individual responsibility.  The mob takes on a spirit of its own and some of the words that describe the crowd are words that we usually associate with demonic forces:  Angry, vengeful, blaming, accusing. The words devil and satan both mean to blame and to accuse.

When the crowd is whipped up, it searches for a target upon which it can express the pent-up rage it feels.  The crowd looks for a scapegoat, whose role is to bear the sin of the crowd.  The crowd looks for a sacrificial victim to bear its sinful anger.

And when it finds a scapegoat, the mob becomes capable of evil that would be unthinkable for most of us as individuals.  The crowd proceeds to blame, shame, accuse, vilify, and possibly murder the scapegoat.

The scapegoat is usually a marginalized person or a minority group that it is easy to victimize.  And we as humans have been scapegoating since the dawn of civilization.   All of us, both on the left AND the right, are guilty

Some examples?

The Holocaust scapegoated the Jews.

The Crusades scapegoated Muslims.

Terrorists scapegoat the West.

The West scapegoats terrorists, especially if they’re Muslim.

We can even directly name things closer to home.

Community meetings against Bill 18 was about scapegoating members of the LGBTQ community.

The angry barrage of social media posts cursing politicians who weren’t at the Pride March in July was all about scapegoating.

Almost every partisan election is an example of scapegoating.  We scapegoat conservatives and liberals and urban folk and rural folk and rich people and poor people and more educated and less educated and Muslims and Quebecers and the Reformers and the Religious right and Hispanics and First Nations and African Americans and Jews.

We are always looking for someone to blame for our problems, to project our own anxieties upon.

The angry crowd is always wrong.  Even if it calls itself Christian.  Even if the issue is right, the angry crowd is wrong in spirit.   The angry crowd is dangerous because they are looking for a scapegoat.

Jesus does not lead the angry crowd.  Jesus does not lead his people to join the angry crowd.  Jesus never leads anything other than the gentle and peaceable minority.  Jesus hides from triumphalistic crowd that tries to force him to be their war-waging king.  Jesus weeps over the nationalistic crowd whose Hosanna’s are meant to egg him into violent revolution.   The angry crowd is the antichrist.  The angry crowd can evil kill the son of God.

The gospel narratives make it clear that Jesus filled the role of scapegoat.  By becoming the scapegoat, Jesus dragged the demonic practice of scapegoating into the light where it could be named, shamed, and once and for all rejected.  Jesus carried our blame down to Hades and left it there.  Jesus became the final scapegoat.

That’s why Christianity is the only religion in the world whose founder suffered a violent death and there was zero call for revenge or retaliation.  For three hundred years there was only grace and peace and forgiveness, even for “enemies.”

It was human systems of blame, sacrifice, and violence that put the Son of God to death. But this sacrificial death drags the sin of the world into the light where it is forgiven by Christ and where it is to be forsaken by us.

The Jesus way of producing peace is based in mercy and forgiveness, not blame and retribution.

So in any election, in any discussion or debate about what’s right and wrong, or who’s right or wrong, we can name our anxiety, we can lament the realities in front of us, we can work for justice, we can admit our fear and ask God to help us, but what we cannot do is turn towards others and blame them in anger.   Especially those on the margins of society.  Especially those with less social capital and resources and community connections and places to draw strength from. Doing so is the antichrist.  Not Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Rachel Notley (if you live in Alberta).   The angry crowd looking for a scapegoat is the anti-christ.

Two things for us today.

Number one.

The church doesn’t have a social strategy.  The church is the social strategy.  – Stanley Hauwerwas

The primary confession of the first Christians was three words:  Jesus is Lord.  No matter what happens, anywhere, anytime, the first task of the church is to simply be the church and say together that Jesus is Lord.  Saying that Jesus is Lord means that we give Jesus the right to tell us how to live.

So that means that we keep welcoming refugees and we standing with minorities and we keep feeding the hungry. We keep clothing the naked and keep inviting people to parties and keep being kind to immigrants and outsiders and we keep giving back all that we have received.

Jesus is Lord means that we say no to racism and say yes to reconciliation.

Jesus is Lord means that we say no to sexism and misogyny.  Bragging about sexual assault like it’s normal is not okay.  Especially in the church.

Denouncing sexism and racism isn’t a liberal agenda. It’s a Christian one. 

Jesus is Lord means that we say no to homophobia and yes to equality for all of God’s beloved children.

Jesus is Lord means that we say no to dropping bombs on our enemies and yes to praying for them.  It means that we say no to drone warfare and yes to doing good to those who would hurt us.

Jesus is Lord means that we are pro-life means that we care about the quality of life for everyone from the womb to the tomb, not just part of one’s life.

Jesus is Lord means that we say no to scapegoating others and yes to working for the common good.

Jesus is Lord means that we say no to fear and hate and yes to peace and grace and justice and love.

Jesus is Lord means that we keep loving our neighbours as ourselves, imagining a better future for everyone, even if it costs us… Love is not a victory march, but it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah. 

Jesus is Lord means that, to quote Bruce Cockburn, we keep (non-violently) kicking the darkness til it bleeds daylight.

Number one:  Jesus is Lord.

1669323205cbe57ace5e04433be5e389Number two:  Loving our enemies takes practice.  It doesn’t just happen.  It’s seems so counter-intuitive that often it doesn’t make sense.  But if we declare that Jesus is Lord, we have to practice ways to love our enemies.  Kind of like flossing our teeth.  We know we should do it, we don’t really want to do it, we don’t always like doing it, but when we do it, and do it well, we open ourselves up to the amazing world of good dental hygiene.  If we don’t choose to nurture loving kindness, it is unlikely that a year from now we’ll be any more loving (Richard Rohr).

So, today we’re going to nurture our loving kindness by ending few minutes of contemplative prayer.

As I light the candle, I’d invite you to sit a comfortable position and put your hands out like you are receiving a gift.

As you close your eyes, take a few breaths. Notice your breathing.

Begin by finding the place of loving kindness inside your heart, the place where God’s love and affirmation for you is as real as it can be.

Drawing upon this source of love, bring to mind someone you deeply care about, and send loving kindness toward them.

Now direct this love toward a casual friend or colleague, someone just beyond your inner circle.

Continue drawing from your inner source of loving kindness and let it flow toward someone about whom you feel neutral or indifferent, a stranger.

Remember someone who has hurt you or someone you struggle to like. Bless them. Send them your love.

Gather all these people and yourself into the stream of love and hold them here for a few moments.

Finally, let the flow of loving kindness widen to encompass all beings in the universe.  Imagine God’s love reaching into every corner and crevice of the universe.

Amen.

And grace and peace to everyone.

 

On the Apocalypse, Wookies, and Little Orphan Annie

For Lent, we’ve been intertwining two different paths.  We’re going through the gospel of Mark as Jesus prepares for his death and resurrection, and we’re also remembering the suffering that happens in our lives and in our world.

Last week, what text does Mel get to preach about?  On love being the greatest commandment, and of the widow giving her pennies at the temple.

This week, what text do I get to preach about? The apocalypse and the second coming of Jesus.  Not that I’m bitter or anything…

First of all, Mark chapter 13 is strange and weird and something that doesn’t make a lot of sense.  In actuality, we could skip the entire chapter, and the entire story of Jesus would make still make sense.

So why is it there?

Well, since you’ve been listening to me preach for almost 6 years now, hopefully you know that the first question we ask about hard biblical texts is, “Why was this written down?”

Mark 13 is a genre called apocalyptic literature.  There are a variety of ways to approach apocalyptic literature, with some of them a bit more helpful than others.

(But before I begin, I do want to remind us that our unity isn’t based on us agreeing on how to interpret apocalyptic literature.  Our unity is based on us being a community of Jesus followers coming together and trying to love God and love our neighbours.)

I’ll start by saying what I think apocalyptic literature isn’t.

Apocalyptic literature isn’t a literal prediction of the future.  It’s not a sequence of events to come.   If you take the text literally, I see how some of us end up there, but then that leads to all sorts of interesting ideas about Jesus and the end of the world.

For example, some of us were taught about something called “the rapture”, where all the Christians leave this world and the rest of the world has to suffer through trials and tribulations for several years on Earth til Jesus comes again.

“It’s like all the Christians leave the Earth and get box seats in heaven from which to watch all the bad people on Earth suffer.” – Nadia Bolz-Weber

Some of us might even be familiar with the movie from the 70’s called “A Thief in the Night”, where this exact thing happens, and proceeded to scare and scar an entire generation of Christians into not wanting to be left behind.  Or, if they came home from school and Mom wasn’t there, them thinking that they were left behind.

This train of thought can be more or less attributed to a guy named John Nelson Darby from the UK in the mid-1800’s.   And almost 200 years later, some of us still believe it.

Why?  As the author Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “This fear-mongering stuff sells like hot cakes. People eat it up.   And why wouldn’t we?  It panders to the selfish, hateful, vengeful-seeking parts of ourselves, like God himself is co-signing on it all.”

So, if treating apocalyptic literature as literal future events that is really just fueling our selfish and vengeful egos, is there a better way to approach apocalyptic literature?

Well, this is how I treat it.

“First of all, apocalyptic literature is style of ancient writing that was usually code for speaking about the world the people at the time live in: they were for people in politically dangerous situations to speak the truth about power – they were more commentary than prediction.”  Nadia Bolz-Weber.  It would kind of be like us in 2016 writing an epic story of good and evil and power and what happens when a raging lunatic gets a hold of the most powerful weapon in the universe, and us calling it Star Wars.  And then, in the year 4016, humans would dig up the remains of our houses and find a copy of Star Wars, and then they would start exploring the universe looking for Wookies.wookie.jpg

A commentary on good and evil and the possible destruction when big weapons fall into the hands of the wrong people? Very compelling and real.

Wookies and Ewoks and Jedi Knights? Not so much.

So, what’s the commentary of Mark 13? Well, the first few verses are about the temple being destroyed by the Romans, which, we now know happened around the same time as the gospel of Mark was written.  The sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans left huge buildings nothing but piles of rubble and dust.  It was the ultimate destruction.

And who was the gospel of Mark written to?  A small band of misfit, powerless Christians being persecuted and killed by the Roman Empire.  And Jesus tells them to not be afraid, for even though heaven and earth will pass, his words never will.

Often, apocalyptic literature is code.  It uses metaphors and symbols to describe the present reality of the readers.  Nowadays, we just fly drones to take videos of cities that have been leveled.  But back then they used apocalyptic literature.


Secondly, apocalyptic literature served as a reminder to be awake, to be on guard.  Some os us take that metaphor as a bit of a threat, a warning, that you’d better be ready for when Jesus comes back so as to not be left behind.  It portrays Jesus like an angry parent who has returned home from their vacation a day early and finds that their kids threw when they were gone. Oh man, you’ve been bad, and now you’re going to get it.

Actually, “the word apocalypse actually means “uncovering” or “disclosure” or “unveiling.” It’s about things being exposed for what they truly are…a true apocalypse, then, wasn’t something to be feared or dreaded but something to be anticipated and celebrated as evil is crushed and violence ended and injustice brought to an end as God makes all things right.” – Rob Bell

So watching out and being on guard aren’t only negative actions, but could also be positive ones.  If we throw a house party when our parents are away, and a bunch of strangers show up and start snorting cocaine in the basement, watching and waiting for your parents could be seen as a good thing.


There’s one other thing that apocalyptic literature does.  It’s an attempt to place our own experiences, our own joys, our own sufferings, into a bigger picture.  It sees our own earthly stories as part of a bigger story.  This kind of “apocalyptic literature stems from a worldview that believes that everything happening on earth represents and correlates with a larger, heavenly struggle between good and evil, between God and the devil.  By casting these stories in a larger, cosmic framework and in this way gives comfort to people who are currently suffering or being oppressed.” – David Lose

And, as we know, the first readers of the Gospel of Mark were suffering and oppressed, so any reminder of God’s love, any reminder of God winning in the end, was probably well received.  Some of this apocalyptic literature can be read as stories of hope.

Last year I came across a great definition of despair:  Despair is when we believe that tomorrow won’t be any better than today.  Despair is when we believe that tomorrow will be the same as today.

When times are good, and life is humming along, it’s easy to believe that tomorrow will be better.  Even little Annie Orphan believes that tomorrow will be better than today.

But in hard times?  That’s a harder sell.  In Lent so far, we’ve heard stories of depression and anxiety and mental health, we’ve heard stories of surgeries after babies, and stories of insomnia.  In those times, it’s hard for us to be hopeful, it’s hard to believe that tomorrow will be better, it’s hard for us to believe that God makes all things right.

Apparently some people throughout history have needed apocalyptic literature to remind themselves about hope.  Others of us nowadays might find hope in places other than apocalyptic literature, such as a walk outside with some friends, a good cup of coffee, or some warm weather in March  (But if the world’s superpower was actively killing us and destroying our cities, we may need something more than sunshine and coffee.)

But when we place our own stories inside of a bigger story in order to give us hope… maybe we’re not that far away from understanding apocalyptic literature after all.

Highlighters, Asking Mom for the Car, and Hair Transplants for Men

A sermon from the first Sunday of Lent, based on Mark 10:17-31.


 

This one time, about two years, I preached a sermon about money.  I thought it was okay… But then afterwards, there was an invitation to come and into that room over there with our coffee and talk about the sermon and money and Jesus. I waited, and waited, and waited, and in the end, and only Peter and Thelma came!  I commented that “I guess people don’t want to talk about their money,” but then Thelma kindly suggested that the low attendance was maybe because people went home to go watch the Brier. She was certainly more optimistic than I was.

Another time, about a year and a half ago, we had a series of conversations about marriage and sexuality.  We had between 70 and 100 people show up on 6 straight weeknights.  One of our speakers had this to say right off the hop (I’m parphrasing): “I’m glad that we’re all here on a weeknight to talk about the few Bible verses that speak about sexuality and marriage, but let’s just remember that there are oodles of Bible verses that speak­ about money, and I highly doubt that we’d have this many people here to talk about those.”

Or, as the artist Rich Mullins says:

“You guys are all into that born again thing, which is great. We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, I can tell you that you just have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy too…But I guess that’s why God invented highlighters, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.”

The snarky part of me smiles when we quote Bible verses to our liking, or when we say that we should just follow the Bible, or just do what Jesus says, because when we say these kind of things, we definitely do not mean these verses directed towards the rich young man.

Sell everything you own and give it away?  Surely, Jesus doesn’t mean me, does he?

We would much rather talk about who’s born again and who isn’t and who can marry whom, than talk about our money.

In most of the gospels, we have Jesus inviting people to follow him, and they enthusiastically drop everything and hit the road.  This story is one of the only ones where the invitation to follow Jesus, is rejected.  Maybe he doesn’t like talking about his money either?

Let’s start with the question that he asks Jesus.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I actually think he asks a terrible question.  I think it’s selfish and egotistical question.  He’s not asking questions about mercy or justice or community or suffering or peace or loving your neighbours  He’s just looking out for number 1.  Himself.  What must I do to be saved?

And he even does this little, buttering up thing to Jesus by starting with “Oh good teacher.”  It’s like when I was a teenager:  “Mom, I think you’re a great mom.  Can I take the car to Winnipeg?”  Clearly, this is a manipulative move disguised as a compliment so that I could get what I wanted.  Unfortunately, it didn’t work out so well with my mom.

How did it work out with Jesus?

Just as well.  First of all, he says, “Yeah, save your compliments. God alone is good.”  And then he tells the rich young man to follow the commandments.  And then he starts listing them.  But he Jesus sneaks something in there that I had never noticed before.

Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honour your father and mother…

Do you see it?  Did you catch it? Did you see the sneakiness?

Well, unless you have Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5 memorized, you might not notice.  And who really has those chapters memorized?  I don’t.

Jesus lists some of the 10 commandments… don’t murder, don’t steal, blah blah blah.  And then, he adds one in there!   Do not defraud!  It isn’t one of the 10 commandments!  Why would Jesus sneak an extra commandment in there?

Well, the young man was rich, so presumably he came from a family that had a lot of wealth.  And, back then, how did you become wealthy?  You owned a lot of land.  And, if you owned a lot of land, that means that you weren’t practicing the year of Jubilee.

Here, again, unless you know the book of Leviticus really well (which is okay), you might not know about the year of Jubilee. In a nutshell, Jubilee was this practice of cancelling all debts and returning all land to its original owners every 50 years.  It was meant to ensure that you never had people living in perpetual wealth or perpetual poverty.   Every 50 years there was a giant reset button of wealth re-distribution.

And biblical scholars tells us that the Israelites actually practiced Jubilee a grand total of… zero times.  They never did it once.

So, the young man having wealth isn’t even his fault!  He and his parents and his grandparents and great-grand parents were all part of a system built on not really following the law.

So, when he says that he’s followed all the commandments since he was as young boy, he is technically correct when following the 10 commandments, but technically incorrect because he’s part of this big, centuries old system that doesn’t follow the law and works to keep the poor poor, and the rich, rich.

Maybe, a parallel example is present day Canada.  Somewhere in Canadian history, European settlers came to occupy the land of First Nations, and for the most part, I think we can all agree that it wasn’t the European settlers that got the short end of the stick.

And now we are here, today.  Most of us are good, law-abiding citizens who work very hard, but we don’t quite know what to do with all the big questions about justice and reconciliation and land use and treaties and the Indian Act that we have to face.  We can claim that it’s not really our fault, or our parents, or our grandparents… We were given the land by the government and were told it was empty (or we looked the other way)!   We, too, are part of this big, centuries old system that works well for the favour for some, but not in the favour of others.

The next verse then, is truly good news, for all of us.

“Jesus looked at him, and loved him.”

The rich man isn’t a bad guy. He’s not the enemy.  He’s not morally bankrupt person who hates people with less money than him.  He’s not stealing candy from babies or shaking people upside down to take their coins.

Every time Jesus challenges those who have power and wealth, he never calls them personally evil or malevolent.  Instead, he points to the fact that they’re blind, and that they can’t see.”  – Richard Rohr

In this story, something is blinding the rich, young man. Something is getting in the way.  And Jesus names it:  His possessions.  This is why Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions.  They’re blinding him.  They’re causing him to be defensive.  They’re causing him to ask questions about how to save himself.  They’re causing him to justify his existence. I’m worthy! I follow all the rules!  I’m a good person!  Really!

Jesus continually seems to be telling his listeners that there are some pretty big things that blind us, namely, power, prestige, and possessions.  These three things seem to be quite universal, actually, and they seem to get in the way of the Kingdom of God.

Power, prestige, and possessions. 

Take a look at the billions of dollars we spend on elections. Or the money we spend on bombing our enemies to give us a sense of security.  Look at to our neighbours to the South. When some of the presidential candidates have talked about killing terrorist’s families, or turning away refugees even if they’re orphans, or they’re talking about who we can drop the most carpet bombs… Or when we in Canada casually talk about who we should bomb… Do we really have the capacity to decide who should live and who should die?  These are questions about power, and they make us blind to the Kingdom of God.

Take a look at how we talk about the low value of the Canadian dollar.  “Oh man, my vacation is costing so much more!”  “That boat I wanted to buy is thirty thousand dollars more now!”  Generally speaking, if we’re complaining about the exchange rate for our overseas vacations and luxury boats, we’re blind to the Kingdom of God.

What we’ve discovered amongst teenagers on social media is that they will take about 50 selfies, post one, and then if there aren’t enough likes within an hour, they’ll delete it.  The image they present to the world matters. And before us adults get to smug about “kids these days”, I think they learned it from us.  When Ash and I came back from South America in the summer, as soon as we landed back in North America, I noticed all the ads for laser hair removal for women or hair transplants for men or other cosmetic surgeries.  When we spend so much time and energy on the image we present to the world, I think we’re blind to the Kingdom of God.

So, the story of the rich young man is a story about money and wealth.  But at a deeper level, it’s a question about how power, prestige, and possessions are blinding us.

And asking what in our lives is blinding us, trying to figure out what’s holding us back, trying to address what’s getting in the way… That takes hours of contemplation and reflection and intentional decision making.  It’s hard work.  So hard, that it might be easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle.

It’s not addition that makes one holy, but subtraction: stripping the illusions, letting go of the pretense, exposing the false self, breaking open the heart and the understanding, not taking my private self too seriously. Conversion is more about unlearning than learning. – Richard Rohr

This is why we have this great tradition in Christianity of giving something up at Lent.  It’s about us trying to figure out what’s getting in the way. It’s about letting go of what’s blinding us.   And it is not always an easy journey.

Eugene Peterson wrote a translation of the Bible in contemporary English, and he translated the story like this:

Jesus looked him hard in the eye—and loved him! He said, “There’s one thing left: Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. All your wealth will then be heavenly wealth. And come follow me.”

The man’s face clouded over. This was the last thing he expected to hear, and he walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.

So what are we holding on to tight?  What do we not want to let go of?  What’s getting in the way? What do we need to unlearn?  What’s blinding us?