Tag Archives: Church

Jesus is not talking about divorce in the way we think

GOSPEL: Mark 10:2-16
Some Pharisees came, and to test [Jesus] they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

When I was 7 or 8 years old, I remember the first one of my friends telling us that his parents were getting a divorce. It was a strange and complicated situation. Over the following weeks and months, he began living one week with his mom and the next week with his dad. And while there were two birthday parties, two thanksgivings, two Christmases, I could tell that having parents who didn’t live with each other anymore and having to move your whole life back and forth every Saturday was not something I would ever want. 

Fast forward to one day when I was 19 and working as a camp counsellor, we got a panicked call from the camp director during our hour off. We were needed to come and settle a group of unruly campers. The old pastor who was doing bible study with the group of high school aged campers, had gotten into a heated discussion with one teenaged girl over whether or not it was a good thing for her parents to divorce. He was insisting it was a sin. She was insisting that the fighting, and anger and frustration that was tearing apart her family had finally gone away once her parents separated and that this was a good thing. 

Despite being relatively common and something that many couples experience these days, divorce is still a word that carries stigma and shame. The wounds of divorce can be deep and slow to heal. 

So, when we hear Jesus offer some pretty strong words about divorce, it can sound like condemnation. “Because of the hardness of your heart.” he says… and yet ask anyone going through a divorce what their heart feels like and they will probably tell you the story of a heart being ripped to shreds, a wounded and broken heart. Not a hard one. 

So what is the deal? Doesn’t Jesus get how messy and complicated this is? Doesn’t God have compassion and mercy for two flawed people who don’t know how to find their way back to each other? Can’t Jesus see that sometimes a marriage needs to die for the individuals in it to live?

We can’t forget which Gospel we are reading today. This is the Jesus who has just called the Syrophoenician woman a dog, who has called Peter Satan, who has told John that it would be better if he were thrown into the ocean than get in the way of Jesus’ mission. 

Jesus in Mark’s gospel does not suffer fools and he doesn’t have time for people who don’t get it. 

So what are we not getting?

For a long time the church has used this passage to clobber anyone considering divorce. Pastors have told abused women that it would be a sin to leave their husband. We have told incompatible couples that they must continue to suffer together. The church has forbid divorce on any grounds, just like Jesus seems to be doing here. 

So again, what we are not getting that Jesus gets? The clue is in the in the question. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Not is it lawful for a couple to get divorced, but for a MAN to do the divorcing. 

The Pharisees and Jesus are not talking about marriage as we know it. This is not about two people who enter into a loving covenant to share a life of love together. 

This is about the contract between a man and a woman’s father. This is about men buying women just like they would buy a cow or a sack of grain or a piece of land. 

In the world of the Pharisees, women were not people. They were property. Property whose function was to serve and provide pleasure for the man, and ultimately provide a male heir. And if these things were not provided whenever the man wanted them, this was grounds for divorce. In fact, pretty much any dissatisfaction was grounds for divorce.

All man had to do was say, “I divorce you.” and his wife was cast out of the marriage and onto the street, where her only two options were prostitution or begging for survival. 

So when Jesus calls the Pharisees hard of heart, he is speaking of a power imbalance in a contractual and economic relationship. Not hardness of heart between a modern husband and wife. 

Jesus is calling out the Pharisees for being selective in their reading of the law of Moses. They say that the legal procedure of divorce is simple. But they know that the law of Moses is full of concern for widows and destitute women. It was the duty of a widower’s brother to marry a widow. It was the duty of a widower’s kin to provide a widow with children if she didn’t have any. And if re-marrying was not possible for a widow, it was the duty of the community to care for her. The men harvesting fields were to leave a portion of the harvest behind to be gleaned and collected by the widows. It was a law that a portion of the offering collected in the synagogues and temple be given to the widows and poor. 

For a set of laws to be so concerned with the care of husbandless women in a community to make it so easy for a man to divorce his wife doesn’t make any sense… it is a deliberate misreading of the rules. 

And Jesus knows it. The Pharisees know it. The disciples know it. Mark knows it. 

It is why the passage about people bringing children to Jesus is tacked onto this passage about divorce. 

Jesus is calling the people around him to care for the weak and vulnerable among them. He is telling men that it is wrong to dump their wives onto the community to care for. He is telling those in power that they don’t get to abdicate their responsibility to care for the powerless. Jesus is calling out and condemning those who would tell the weak and vulnerable to pull themselves up by their own boot straps. He is telling those in authority that their power comes with the obligation to use it for good. 

If Jesus were to have this conversation with us today, it would not be about divorce at all. 

If Jesus were talking about our hardness of heart he would be calling us out for very different reasons. 

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart it took the discovery of unmarked graves for your nation to wake up to the tragedy that is Indian Residential Schools in Canada. 

Let those are who have been lost and forgotten by too many for too long come to me, because the Kingdom of God belongs to them. 

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart many are persecuting and causing violence to the healthcare workers, doctors and nurses and other medical staff who are simply caring for those that need it.

Let these tired and exhausted and depleted caregivers come to me, for there is rest and comfort and peace in the Kingdom of God. 

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you are afraid of those who are different, those from other countries, who worship and pray differently, whose skin is differently coloured. 

Let those who are marginalized for the way they worship, for the colour of their skin, for the language they speak come to me for the Kingdom of God belongs to them. 

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you have told married couples on the ropes that their need to divorce is a sin. 

Let those who dying to separate in order to live come to me. 

Yeah… it is hard to hear Jesus challenge the hard places in our hearts. 

Yeah… it has been rough to listen to Jesus call us out week after week. 

Yeah… this might not feel like good news. 

And just when it feels like Jesus has just come to stomp all over us for having hard hearts, Jesus reminds us that we easily forget who we are, and we easily forget what Jesus is doing for us, to us. 

As we gather around the Word, as we remember being washed and joined to the Body of Christ in the waters at the font, and as we are given bread and wine from the table of the Lord… Jesus is blessing us. For ours is the Kingdom. 

Jesus is reimagining our world. Jesus re-humanizing all those are pushed down to the bottom. Those who are marginalized by those in power, those who wind up the victims of hardened hearts. Those whom the disciples would try to send away but Jesus would welcome and bless. 

Jesus is restoring humanity and dignity to all. Lifting up those on the bottom by bringing them back into relationship with their community, but also by bringing down the high and mighty by bringing them back too into relationship with their communities. 

Yes, we have hard hearts. No we have not lived up to the power and responsibility we have been entrusted with. 

Jesus names that and it is hard to hear.

But Jesus also names our humanity and dignity, restoring us to community – wether we are the privileged on top or the marginalized on the bottom. 

Despite our hard hearts. Despite what we have failed to do for the weak and vulnerable, Jesus says, come to me. All of you. Because you too are all the weak and vulnerable in some way. And because I have named you my children, the Kingdom of God belongs to you.

Who is this greatest? There are only sinners, like us.

GOSPEL: Mark 9:30-37
35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Sermon

As we round into the final weeks of this long season of green, on our way to the end of the Church year and Advent, we continue to hear Jesus interact with his disciples. Last week, Jesus asked them who they thought he was. It was a moment of revelation followed by rebuke. Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah but then turned around and lost the plot, getting upset with Jesus for following the path set out for the Messiah, the path of suffering and death. 

This week, following this key revelation, as they are traveling between towns, the disciples begin to bicker about who among them is the greatest. It sounds childish considering who they are following and the teaching about what it means to take up their cross that Jesus had just given. Arguing about who is the greatest feels like it is something that belongs on the playground, a conversation for children….

And yet, it is an argument that drives so much of our world these days. Only about a month ago three billionaires raced to see who could be the first private citizen to fly to space. As we speak, Canada is in the midst of a Federal election with the leaders’ debate was last week, where every question was a nuanced version of ‘who is the greatest?” And of course, our society is full of controversy over COVID-19 public health measures, including vaccine requirements. My home province of Alberta tried to win the race to be the greatest in declaring the pandemic over in July, only to now be looking at a total healthcare system collapse over increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases. 

So this argument that the disciples are having might seem immature, but it is certainly not an unusual one. Maybe it is worth considering just what is really going on. 

As Jesus continues to preach and teach, he has been speaking more and more about what is the come for the Messiah – more and more about his impending suffering and death. And the disciples have started to put it all in the context of understanding Jesus to be the Messiah – just as Peter confessed last week. 

Yet, the disciples still don’t understand what this all means for them. Before, when they were fishermen and tax collectors, they know their place in the world and their place in their communities. In their extremely ordered Hebrew society, they knew their rank and station.

Yet now, as Jesus has called them out of those known places and into this unknown position of being his followers, followers of the prophesied Messiah, they are struggling to know who they are and where they fit. The place of the Messiah in the world comes predicted and described, but where Messiah’s number 2 through 12 followers fit might not be clear. 

So they do what human beings so naturally do, they try to sort out where they fit and who they are, within the context of their community. They try the best they can to answer that deep question within all of us that asks who we are and how to we fit into the world around us. 

But also like us, they go about it in toxic and self-destructive ways. They try to order their community by rank, putting themselves on top and those around them below. It comes from the same place that the question that the serpent posed to Eve came from, the question about knowing her place in the garden. 

This question is one that continues to plague us today, this desire to know where we fit and who we are. And even though it can feel like the kind of question that children ask or argue about – think “my dad is stronger than your dad” – it is is one what drives so much of our world. 

It is a question subtly asked in car commercials, suggesting that a new car would improve our station in life. It is one baked into the marketplace and corporate world, constantly demanding more productivity, more profit, more loyalty. It is part and parcel with every political move and decision, and at the heart of every political campaign. It often shows up in churches when we look at and wonder about the neighbour congregation down the street and how they are doing. 

And in the midst of crisis, as we are now, it shows up as we try to figure out what to do and how to proceed. And when opinions differ, especially when agreeing to disagree isn’t possible but instead decisions have life and death consequences, we can be guilty of posturing according to our position rather than searching for the course of action that it is best for all. 

Trying to sort this all out, trying to understand where we fit – or more specifically “Where do I fit?” is something deeply imbedded in how we understand ourselves. We need to know where we stand and where we fit into the world around us, no matter how destructive the search for the answer can become. 

When Jesus hears the childish argument of his disciples, we might expect the grumpy Jesus who called the needy but persistent Syrophoenician woman a dog two weeks ago or the angry Jesus who rebuked Peter. 

But instead Jesus stops and calls his disciples to gather around and asks “What were you arguing about on the way?”. When none of them has an answer, Jesus has them sit down with him. You can imagine that Jesus sees beyond the childish argument, and instead sees disciples who are struggling to understand their place in the world. Disciples who need reassurance rather than competition, disciples who need to be reminded that they belong. 

“Whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all.” he declares.

Then Jesus brings in a little child and puts it among them. But not just any child, but greek suggests that Jesus has brought an infant into their midst. Children in this world were considered to be blessings but also people for whom you didn’t get too strongly attached, lest they didn’t survive childhood. Children’ weren’t considered full persons until grown. 

So with this baby in his arms, Jesus holds one who is considered to be the least of all in that world. And Jesus says that whomever welcomes this one, who is the least and lowest in world, welcomes him. 

Jesus is chipping away at the disciples need to establish an order, their need to know where they fit by creating ranks and status among themselves. Jesus is using the tangible example of this baby as the means of showing his disciples what it means to belong to the Kingdom of God. There is no rank, first and last have no meaning. Belonging is what matters. God welcomes them, they belong to the Kingdom. They are children of God, servants to one another, members of the Body of Christ. 

The question about who is the greatest doesn’t apply here, instead who do you belong to is what matters. And with God, all belong in the Kingdom. 

It is a message that almost does’t compute in our hyper competitive world. Defining ourselves by who is on the top feels like the only way to understand ourselves. But God gives us a different understanding, an understanding based on belonging and not on rank. 

It is a part of our understanding of who we are that has been challenged by this pandemic. Our sense of “we” or community has been shaken. We have had for more opportunity than we really need as individuals to contemplate our individual identity.

Yet, God reminds us again and again, there is no greatest among us. 

There are only sinners to whom God gives grace, mercy and absolution. 

There are only suffering people for whom God promises healing and reconciliation

There are only the lost, least and forgotten, whom God welcomes into the Body of Christ. 

There are only the unwashed, whom God makes clean in the waters of Baptism. 

There are only the hungry and starving, whom God feeds at the table of the Lord. 

There are only disciples, whom God sends out to heal a world in need. 

In confession, in the Word, in praise and prayer, in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God reminds us again and again of not who, but whose we are – we belong to God. There is no greatest and there is not least, but instead there is a place for all in the Body of Christ – all belong to God. 

The Kingdom is not in us. We are in the Kingdom.

Mark 4:26-34
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Today, our journey into Mark’s gospel continues. Last week, we started this long season of green by hearing how Jesus’ family thought he was crazy. But we also heard that in the middle of all the human chaos, and the divided messy nature of human relationships, Jesus stays the course of bringing new life to us and to the world. 

Today, we return to more familiar parables: Parables of the Kingdom. And while this teaching may be familiar for us, it wasn’t for those to whom Jesus was teaching and preaching. When Jesus tells parables of the Kingdom, lessons that often begin, “The Kingdom of God is like…” we hear them with 2000 years of Christian tradition that has made us ready to hear them. But to the people of 1st century Israel, their understanding of the Kingdom of God was very different from ours. Before unpacking what Jesus said, it is important to know what the people would have expected. 

The Kingdom of God for the people of ancient Israel had a very specific form. As we are reminded each Advent, the Israelites were waiting for the Messiah, the Saviour King who would free them from foreign oppressors like the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and Romans. And this Messiah King would establish an earthly Kingdom with divine approval – a powerful kingdom with powerful armies – maybe even powerful enough to do some oppressing itself. A wealthy kingdom with abundance – maybe with enough abundance that other nations would come begging to it. This Kingdom would keep Israel from ever again being ruled over by foreigners. This Kingdom would find favour with God, and would therefore be a holy and righteous Kingdom. This Kingdom would be centered in Jerusalem, with the temple, God’s dwelling place, as its symbol of power. The Kingdom of God was long hoped for but also had to live up to very specific criteria. 

Into this expectant time Jesus showed up. And he started telling parables about the Kingdom of God being like unknown seeds scattered in a field, with the sower having no clue how they would grow. Jesus told parables of how the Kingdom of God was like the humble mustard seed, the 

smallest of seeds that would grow into the most unruly of garden weeds. 

These parables would not have described a Kingdom like that which the crowds would have expected. This was not the Kingdom of God they were looking for. 

Even though we have heard all the Kingdom parables, we too can have a pretty narrow definition of what the Kingdom of God should look like. We too often want a Kingdom of power, security and predictability. We expect that God will fit into our narrow vision of what the Kingdom should look like. 

These days, just like those first century followers of Jesus, we too are in a moment of expectation. The world is waiting for things to get back to normal, for our pandemic misery to end, for all our pent-up desires for our favourite outings and gatherings to finally happen. 

But we are also reeling. Reeling from the discovery at Kamloops Residential school two weeks ago. Reeling from the next tragedy and reminder that we are a broken and divided house in Canada.  Reeling from the terror attack on a Muslim family in London, Ontario. Reeling from day after day of multiple COVID deaths in our province, including the death of a teenager this week. 

And this experience of tragedy pushes us to ask for, to demand, to expect something of our leaders, of those in charge. To demand and expect a response from God. 

Our hopes for the future, our hopes for the present can look a lot like the hopes and expectations of the crowds listening to Jesus today, wanting some very specific things because of our world in need, because of the cries for justice from the oppressed, grieving, and marginalized. 

Yet, today, we know that this parable of Jesus’ is about defying expectations, about doing the unexpected. God is asking us, in the middle of the chaos, to step back and consider just what the Kingdom of God might look like. 

So let me ask a question. And it is for the gardeners among us, in particular. 

Does anyone know of a seed that looks like the plant it produces?

I can’t think of any. 

You might never guess what plant a seed turns into until you plant it. In fact, many seeds also look very similar to each other and it can be hard to tell them apart without labels. Planting seeds is a bit of a guessing game. And churches, like all human beings, don’t like facing the unknown. 

In the best of times, churches often prefer to know that the things they do, the ministries, outreaches, projects or programs that they start will be predictable, identifiable, manageable.

As human beings in this moment, most of us are longing to regain some predictability into our lives (every day might feel the same as the last, but our weeks and months feel impossible to plan for). We want to go back to a world that is predictable and safe. We long for a world that isn’t blindsiding us every week with another tragedy or another big news story or another thing to get all worked up about.

But the Kingdom of God is simply not that way. 

God is up to something that is not safe or predictable or manageable. Scattering seeds is not predictable, or safe. Scattering seeds is not easily managed. Scattering seeds is a bit of a guessing game. And sometimes God ends up planting mustard seeds in the middle of the field – mustard seeds that grow into wild, weed-like over-powering bushes. 

This is what Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like: A sower who scatters seeds, but who isn’t sure just what will grow or how it turns from seed into a living plant. 

And yet again, this is what Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like: A small unassuming mustard seed, planted in a garden and threatening to take over. 

As people of faith, as workers and tenders of God’s garden, we declare that the Kingdom of God is near to us. That it is here. But sometimes we imagine that it is only here. That the Kingdom is contained only within the Church. And then God has other ideas, seizing opportunities to throw us out of our comfort zones, to call us to find new and unexpected ways of being. God demands that we give up our narrow vision of the world, and instead embrace the wide-open, possibility-filled vision that God has for us. 

We forget that the Kingdom of God is not contained within our imagination and expectations. The Kingdom of God appears and grows in unexpected places from surprising seeds. 

The Kingdom is not in us. We are in the Kingdom.

To people who have a very narrow view of what the Kingdom of God looks like, to the Israelites of the 1st Century, and to Christians of the 21st century who often have equally narrow views, Jesus reminds us that the Kingdom of God is so much more than what we know.

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is spread with seed that is scattered all over.

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom is sprouting in un-expected places.  

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is growing into life that we would never have predicted from the seed. 

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is teeming with life where we would have only imagined barrenness. 

The Kingdom of God is meeting us on our screens, in our social media pages, in the outpouring of righteous outrage and compassionate support for survivors of residential schools and Indigenous communities, for the family and community of victims of the London terror attack, and for Muslims across the country. 

And in the scattered seeds of the Kingdom, God is reminding us that there is more work for us to do in order to achieve reconciliation – the work of justice, education, and change is upon us. God is reminding us that there is a new and unknown way of being the Church and a community of faith ahead for us, even if we don’t know what that will look like. 

New plants growing from the most surprising of places.

So as we struggle in this moment to find a world that meets our expectations, that conforms to a controllable, manageable state… we are reminded that God is busy with other plans. 

God is scattering seeds of the Kingdom all over. God is growing plants that we would never have guessed from the seeds. And God’s Kingdom is showing up, taking over, filling the fields with life. 

Needing Pentecost more than ever

GOSPEL: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
[Jesus said,] 26“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning….


After seven weeks of celebrating Easter, we have now moved from the great joy of the Season of the Resurrection to the Day of Pentecost. For much of Christian history, Pentecost has been the third great festival of the Church alongside Christmas and Easter. Pentecost tells the story of the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples and equipping them to proclaim the Gospel. This day is also known as the Birth of the Church. The day that the community of believers called the Body of Christ was established with its mission to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and peoples. Pentecost was a confusing day, with many being uncertain of exactly what was going on. 

In the two thousand years since, Christians haven’t done much better to figure out exactly what is going on with the Church. But this past year, making sense of what the Church is all about has been especially difficult and confusing. Pentecost comes to us at time when we may be struggling more than ever to know to what and to where God is calling us. 

In the fifty days following the Resurrection, the disciples were left in a confusing and uncertain place. The first experiences of the Resurrection seemingly didn’t offer them much help in figuring out what to do and who to be as a community. The women’s report from the empty tomb had caused much disruption. The disciples who walked with Jesus to Emmaus did not recognize him until the end. Thomas could not bring himself to accept that Jesus had been raised until he was forced to. And when Peter met Jesus on the beach and was asked if he would lay down his life for Jesus, he could only respond by saying that Jesus was his friend. 

The Resurrection experiences hadn’t provided a clear path forward and the disciples were still trying to figure out how they had gone from following Jesus around Galilee to being locked away, hiding from Herod’s soldiers and the Roman soldiers. 

The disciples’ world since Easter had become dangerous and threatening, while also raising questions of who they were now were and what they were supposed to do. They were not yet the Early Church community; they had not yet been given a mission or purpose. They were an aimless, frightened and fearful bunch of former followers of Jesus. 

The Church today is also full of uncertainty and confusion. We had been living on a mostly predictable path before now. One that, even though it wasn’t exactly working great, was a way of being what we thought we knew and understood. 

Many congregations were small enclaves and communities gathered around a common identity, often around families, neighbourhoods, or cultural backgrounds. We had histories and traditions. Before 2020, most churches knew very well what most Sunday mornings or council meetings or Christmas Eve services or potluck meetings or Bible studies and more would look like for them. 

Sure, a lot of folks tended to be aging and resources for ministry tended to be declining, but this was very much in consort with  a nation, province or city also facing declining resources for every other institution. 

Maybe we aren’t quite as intensely confused and uncertain as the disciples were during their fifty days of wondering between Easter and Pentecost, but with 2,000 two thousand years of history behind us, with generations of established traditions and practices, and a lot of ministry to stand on… our Easter-to-Pentecost wondering is rooted in deep questions about what the Church is still called to be, and how the Church, our community of faith, is supposed to fit into our rapidly-changing world. 
___________________

On that first day of Pentecost, as the disciples remained confused and uncertain as ever still fifty days on from the Resurrection: Jesus had risen from the dead, Jesus had appeared to them in locked rooms, along roads and then finally on mountain tops. And now Jesus had left them… but not alone. Jesus had left them a promised advocate… a Spirit. But who among them knew what that really meant?

And then in the midst of all that confusion and uncertainty, there was rushing wind blowing through the group. And then, tongues of fire resting on them. And then, they were compelled to go out into the streets to tell the story of Jesus. They were sent, speaking many languages so that all could understand. They were sent to preach to all the nations. The Holy Spirit gave them what they needed to preach the Gospel.

The wind and fire, the miraculous ability to speak in other languages mark the story of this day. They reveal and point to the Spirit of God working a new thing among God’s people. But they aren’t the most significant part of the story. Instead, these signs and miracles from God serve to orient us back to the main point of the story.

This band of Jesus’ followers, uncertain about who or what they are as a community, what are they are supposed to do without Jesus’ literally holding their hands and showing them the way… The band of Jesus’ followers, confused about all that has happened to them since Jesus called them from their boats, from under the fig trees, from their jobs as tax collectors, carting them around Galilee and then asking them to bear witness to his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death… only to be surprised by his Resurrection three days later. 
This band of Jesus’ followers is suddenly thrust into Pentecost from their post-Easter hiatus, thrust back into the world. The Spirit pushes the disciples out of hiding with a reminder of the mission that Jesus left in their hands. They are to share the good news with all peoples. 

That is the point of Pentecost — the sending of God’s people into the world for the sake of the mission of the Kingdom. 

And just the same, the Holy Spirit is swirling around and among us, too. Long before the pandemic, we gathered and huddled away in our churches for too long, waiting for people to just start coming to church. People like us, people who already knew who we are were. Waiting for the world around us to figure out that going to church is what good, decent people are were supposed to do. But they weren’t just showing up, no matter how hard we hoped. 

Now, after we have been huddled away from each other, the Spirit is pushing the Church again. Pushing us to quit waiting and to go out. Tongues of fire have been sent to us, like Facebook, YouTube, Zoom and other online platforms that connect us to the entire world. Christianity and local churches have gained interest  more interest from the news media (both good and bad) in the past year then in the previous decade. The Spirit is making us known again to the world. Our Pentecost moment is upon us. 

Like the disciples who went out to preach the Gospel, the Spirit is calling us to adapt our message to our hearers, to meet people were they are, to preach to all nations. The Spirit is reminding us that God speaks in many voices, in our voices, allowing all to hear.

And the Spirit is telling us not to expect everyone to become like us, not to wait for the world to come to us. But to go out with the story of the Jesus whom we have experienced. To announce the crucified and risen Christ, to announce God’s plan to save all people and all creation. To tell of God’s grace given for all. 

The Holy Spirit is working here and now, among us. The Holy Spirit is with us preparing us to be a new Church, yet still the Body of Christ, the same that we have always been. 

The Spirit is blowing and swirling the Pentecost wind in and through us right now.

So this year, when we find ourselves in a state not terribly different from that of those disciples  locked-away disciples who were about to be thrust into the World… we hear again that the wind of the Spirit is blowing all around us. Pentecost is here and now. The Gospel is being preached with our many voices and God is speaking God’s creation. God is announcing God’s plan to save all of creation, to forgive sinners, to heal the suffering, and to bring the dead to life. 

 God is telling the World that the crucified and risen Christ has come to save.

Amen. Come, Holy Spirit.

Abiding in the Branches

GOSPEL: John 15:1-8
Jesus said: 1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

Abide in me as I abide in you.

Here we are into month 14 of this global and pandemic, while it feels like we are in much the same place that we found ourselves one year ago, so much has taken place during this past year. 

This Easter season has again been a journey begun in Lent, Lent 2020 that is. And when we gathered at the foot of cross on Good Friday and then again the empty tomb on Easter morning with the women who were afraid, our journey barely paused for moment. 

These 14 months have dragged us through much, through world changing times, even as so much of it has been about staying in place and keeping to ourselves. 

In this back half of our second pandemic Easter, Jesus lays out this metaphor of the vine and branches for us. And today, we need as much as ever to hear Jesus’ promise again… the invitation to Abide. 

To stop, to gather ourselves, to lay aside our fretting and worrying, to take a breathe and simply abide.

Abide in me as I abide in you.

This 1st century metaphor of a grape vine may be an image mostly lost on our 21st century ears. While there are certainly many green thumbs out there, grape vines are fairly uncommon in wintery Manitoba. I know because I remember them being uncommon in wintery Edmonton where I grew up. I know because many summers growing up, the back walls of my parent’s house bore the unusual sight of heavy, leafy, green vines growing up makeshift trellises, tended to by my father. Dutifully grown, and pruned each spring and summer. Harvested and picked clean each fall. Carefully wrapped and buried each winter only to be resurrected each spring. 

So unusual were the grapes, that my kindergarten class took a walking field trip to our house to see them. So did other gardeners come from time to time, interested in seeing these uncommon grape vines. 

Now the thing that almost all the first century folks listening to Jesus would have known about grape vines is that they are complicated plant systems. The vines twist and tangle up around grape trellises to find sunlight and air. The branches grow big leaves which protect the fruit from the sun and the rain. Other branches grow to make structure and support space for the fruit to the grow in sheltered areas between vines and branches. The grapes grow in luscious bunches when they find the combination of supported vine, protected shade and space. 

The vine, the support systems, the branches, the leaves all work together in symbiotic harmony to produce fruit. Unlike apples or some other fruit bearing trees and bushes that just seem to grow something no matter the conditions, grape vines need attention and care, they need all the parts of the plant working together towards the common purpose of growing fruit. 

And the branches that don’t work in the system need to be pruned back, even sometimes the branches that do work need to be cut back in order to keep the fruit growing. 

And it is this image of the complicated, fragile plant system that Jesus choose to describe the community of the church. If Jesus were Canadian he would describe a well coached hockey team, with all team members working toward the common goal… the players who weren’t getting cut from the team or traded away. 

The branch who does not abide withers away. 

Abide in me as I abide in you.

Whether it is a withering branch, a hockey player cut from a team, or a church members feeling disconnected from church community… it can feel a little rough to consider being cast out from a community from which we think we should belong. 

A branch withering on its own maybe hits a little too close to home these days. We get what it means to feel like we are withering way having cut pruned from the other branches and vine that we thought we belonged to. 

And on the other hand, we also know of the branches who will not abide. Those who insist on striking out on their own, those who will not abide working in harmony with the community, those who would rather be cut off than be beholden to system working together for the common good. 

Either way the effect is much the same, being cut off from community is life draining. Both for the branch who cannot abide or will not abide, but also for the system as it must heal and regrow to compensate for the loss. 

Abide in me as I abide in you.

And so it feels almost harsh that Jesus seems to suggest that not abiding is cause to get cut off by the vinegrower. Yet, Jesus is not being prescriptive, Jesus is not suggesting condemnation for those who aren’t getting along. 

Jesus is describing what happens to the branch that leaves the plant system. The branch will not abide, so the branch withers and then the branch is thrown into the fire and burned. Immediately our minds turn to the medieval visions of hellfire and brimstone. 

And yet to Jesus’ ancient hearers, hell would not be the place that they would be thinking of. 

Instead, they would imagine the cleansing fire pit of agricultural land. The place where the pruned branches, the branches who will not abide are reclaimed. Reclaimed, found again,  and brought back into the fold, into the plant system. 

These burned up branches are reclaimed and turned into new life, sprinkled as fertilizer onto gardens and vineyards, or added to compost as key sources of nutrients. 

Even the branches who will not abide, the branches that are burned up are still found and reclaimed by the vinegrower and put the purposes of new life. 

The withered branches are not left or abandoned or punished by the vinegrower, but instead are brought back into new life. 

And this complicated system of vines, of branches for leaves, branches for support and branches for fruit, are joined by branches for fertilizer ash. In the vines and branches, the community of the church there is room for all, for all kinds of gifts and skills to join in the work of producing fruit for the sake of the world, for all kinds of people who work in the midst of community and those who have trouble abiding. God vine grower pursues them all and finds a places for in the community that produces life. 

This is good news for us who are withering away these days. Those who of us who are having trouble abiding alone. Those of us who have forgotten how to live in systems and communities tasked with working for new life, for life for the sake of the world. 

That even when life feels as though it is draining from our bodies, God is the One seeking us out, finding and reclaiming us for the sake of the kingdom, putting back into the business of growing into new life. 

As we enter into yet another withering lockdown, as we contemplate our ever shifting and uncertain future, as we imagine what comes next in this topsy, turvey world, as the life feels as though it slowly draining away from us… God is busy at work, pruning, watering, tending and finding a place for us to grow into new life. 

God is making us ready to grow into new life when the time comes, making us ready for life in community, for being part of a system of vines, branches, leaves and fruit… and fertilizer once again. God is preparing us for life in together in the church, for being part of a worshipping, baptizing, word proclaiming, meal gathering, learning, growing, music making, praying, serving, community of faith once again… soon. 

But today, as we wait and wonder for God’s future… Jesus says:

Abide in me as I abide in you.