Tag Archives: ministry

Worship in the age of COVID-19 – Coming Together to Stay Apart

***This sermon can be viewed as a part of streaming worship on my congregation’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/sherparkwpg. ***

The Sermon starts at about 20:30 mark of the video

GOSPEL: John 9:1-41

...6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 (read the whole passage)

Okay…

So if you are feeling like this is a little weird raise your hands. It’s weird to be watching me on your phone, tablet, or computer, rather than sitting here in church, in your favourite pew with family and friends. 

It is weird for me too. Weird to be standing in a empty church, having worship with what feels like myself. I am talking to my phone like it is a person. 

But here we all are, on our own or with just immediate family. And for most of us, we probably haven’t spent much time with others during the course of the past week. The last 10 or so days have felt like the world has been turned upside down. It started two Wednesdays ago, I was watching the Oilers play the Jets (cheering for the Oilers, of course) when it was announced that the NBA had suspended its entire season. There was this feeling that things were going to change. 

Today, so many places are closed, public spaces, private businesses, schools and churches. Stay home as much as possible is the advice, the instructions from our leaders and public health officials. 

And so we are doing it for the sake of one another. We are staying home in order to keep our neighbour safe. Because any one case of COVID-19 might just be like a mild flu, or uncomfortable few days. But it can be deadly for the most vulnerable among us, the elderly and those who are immunocompromised. And too many of those cases at once can overwhelm the health care systems, as it already is in places like Italy. 

And so we stay home, and stay away. As as I like to put it, we are coming together to stay away. 

We are moving our social interactions to the phone, texts, emails and online. Someone tweeted a few days ago, “I didn’t expect to be giving up this much for Lent.”

And it is like a Lenten Fast… one that I hadn’t even really imagined was possible only 3 weeks ago when Lent began. We are fasting from in-person community, fasting from each other. 

Here in the church, we are fasting from the body of Christ. Fasting from being part of this community that gives us our identity as we gather week after week for worship. 

And we are also fasting from the Body and Blood of Christ. Not by our choice, but fasting none-the-less. It is weird how the Body of Christ that is the church is all mixed in with the Body Christ that is the Bread and Wine. Fasting from one means we fast from the other. 

So we look forward with joy to the time when we will gather, in-person, again to received one another as the body of Christ and to receive the Body and Blood of Christ – which is all mixed together into one. As my liturgy professor liked to say, “Swirling around the Cup are your siblings in the Body of Christ.”

As we continue our lenten journey in this new experience of worship, we have come a long ways. From the Valley of Ashes, to the desert with Jesus, to Nicodemus asking questions in the night, to the Samaritan woman at the well. Today, we hear the familiar story of the nameless blindman. 

The blind man who wakes up one day only to have Jesus stroll into his life, and turn his sight on. Instead causing a celebration in his community, it throws the people around the blindman into chaos. They want to know who did this to him, who just changed his fortune, his role and place in the community. You see as a blind person, he was the charge of the community to care for. It may have been pitiable, but he had a place in the social order. 

But Jesus threw that out window. 

And the religious leaders are angry, his parents are frightened, the community confused. 

Of course it isn’t about the man’s blindness. It is the disruption he represents to his community. If he could wake up one day and have his place in the world changed like this, could it happen to the rest of them?

This story takes on a whole new way of describing our world right now doesn’t it?

We are communities in chaos, communities wondering about what might happen to us, if we might wake up one day to find our world just tossed out the window. 

And in the midst of this chaos, it is hard for us to slow down and listen. The people around the blindman don’t really stop to hear his story, they want to know what or who caused this seemingly arbitrary change of fate. They are worried about comes next for them. They are seeking to find some way to control this agent of change. 

We are worried too about what comes next for us, and that makes it hard for us to slow down and hear each other’s stories. We are only looking for the data, the information that might give us some control over the forces of our world that affect us, changing everything we know. 

And interestingly the community in chaos stays in chaos, even at the end of this story. The blindman receiving his sight has changed them forever. 

But then Jesus comes back. 

He finds the blindman, or formerly blindman, again. 

Now remember the man had been blind from birth. Even as he was questioned by his community, he wouldn’t have known who he has talking to. Maybe he recognized voices, but he wouldn’t have known who, or even what, it was that he was looking at. 

So when Jesus comes back, he slows down. He asks the blindman what he believes, what he knows. And then he introduces himself. 

The very first person that the blindman comes to know by sight is Jesus. Because Jesus slowed down enough to know the blindman… first at the beginning and now at the end. 

In this new mode of existence, new way of being in the world, the first person that the blindman knows is Jesus. Even in the midst of the chaos of the community, even as people are fearful and panicking about what may come next, Jesus comes back for the formerly blind man, comes back to continue the transforming work of bringing the gospel to life. Not because the blindman had newly functioning eyes, but because this man now knew the Messiah, the one sent by God to save. 

And so it is with us. 

Even in the midst of our community chaos, even as we don’t know what might come next for us. 

Jesus is coming back for us. 

Even as this world terrifies us and we don’t feel like we recognize anything anymore. 

Jesus is coming back for us. 

Jesus is coming back for us, but also doing what Jesus has always been doing in us. Helping us to see anew, just who God is and where God is at work. Doing the work of transforming us for God’s new world. 

Jesus is helping us to see that new life comes in unexpected places, opening our eyes to know that even in the midst of the chaos, that new life comes into being, that Messiah is working to transform us and this world. 

So yeah, today is a weird day. 

The beginning of something we haven’t see before. And we don’t know what is coming next. 

But Jesus is strolling into our lives as well, right when we lest expect it. And Jesus will introduce himself to us, letting us know that he is the first person we will meet in God’s transformed world. 

Letting us know that we are not left on our own, but brought into the Body of Christ, scattered today, but still at home in God.

Amen

The woman at the well, fleeing deadly plagues, and the era of social distancing

GOSPEL: John 4:5-42

5[Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (Read the whole passage)

In 1527, Martin Luther wrote an open letter entitled “Whether One May Flee a Deadly Plague” as the Bubonic Plague passed through Wittenberg. In it, he gives detailed advice on how to care for oneself and for our neighbours in a very difficult and trying situation.

He wrote: “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me He will surely find me and I have done what He has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person I shall go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

As you many of you have likely read, the letters coming from Bishops and from myself are not new ways of churches addressing a situation like the one we are facing with the outbreak of COVID-19 as a global pandemic. The Church has been here before, many times over the past 2000 years.

And yet, there is something eerie and disconcerting about our Lenten journey this year. Usually, as spring encroaches on us, and we enter into this season of Lent, the wilderness is a primarily spiritual one, one of devotion and practice, prayer and personal piety. Yet this year, over the past days and weeks, we have entered into a Lenten wilderness of a wholly different sort. A social wilderness, a time of enforced distancing and isolation.

I cannot help but see a connection between where the world seemed to be last Sunday, or at least where we seemed to be last Sunday as we heard the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night, with questions that one would only whisper in the dark to today. Today, where we meet Jesus in the middle of blinding noon day sun. The light has been flipped on revealing to us the Coronavirus and the widespread panic, fear and hysteria that come with it.

As we hear this story of the woman at the well on this third Sunday in Lent, we see a woman who seems almost familiar to us in the midst of our situation. A woman who has come to the water well alone, in the middle of the day. She seems to be practicing social distancing, maybe even self-isolation. She has come to fetch water at a time when no one would be at the well. Women normally come to the well first thing in the morning and again in the evening, and they came together. It was a social event.

Yet this woman is at the well alone, in the middle heat of the day. As we discover, her story, her circumstances are tragic or difficult. She has been married five times, and now under the care of one who is not her husband. Now, don’t make the mistake of reading some kind of impropriety into this woman, the punishment of adultery was stoning. A woman married 5 times, was almost certainly a victim of tragedy. A woman who had had 5 husbands die, or who could not produce children as a proper woman should. And the fact that she was with one who was not her husband likely meant that she was being cared for by the brother of her deceased husband who was probably already married.

She was dead weight in her world. An extra mouth to feed, a cursed wife whose husbands kept dying, a cursed woman whose body would not let her become a mother.

She was at the well alone, not by her own choice entirely. She may have felt like a cursed person, but the rest of the community around her almost certainly agreed.

Sounds familiar these days doesn’t it.

Cough and people stare at you with distain and fear. Happen to have some toilet paper from a shopping trip a week ago in your front entry, and dinner guests look at you like some kind of hoarder (that may or may not have happened at our house). Get back back from an international trip, and you are now required to self-isolate like a pariah.

Even in regular life, circumstance easily defines us. Lose your job, and you are an unemployed burdensome statistic. Spend time the hospital, and you become a body in a bed in a gown. Become a public official or celebrity, and you become the larger than life persona that you portray in your work.

We know what it is like to be defined by our circumstances, to become only some event, to be only some job, to be only some characteristic that is but one part of our lives. We know what it is to make the people around us that.

But Jesus just strolls up to the woman at the well in the middle of the day and asks for a drink.

When no one even wanted to go to the well with her, Jesus asks her for a drink.

It is so shocking that the woman cannot believe it. Here she is, a woman, a Samaritan, a social pariah and this man, a Jew, a rabbi comes and asks her for a drink.

So Jesus offers her a drink! Of course he does!

He says that she should ask him for living water.

Jesus refuses to be defined his circumstances. He refused to define this woman at the well by hers.

Instead, he offers his real and true self. He offers the incarnate God made flesh, the source of all life found in the waters of baptism.

And then he sees the woman, even though knowing her circumstances, her five husbands, and current living situation, her social isolation… he treats her as a human being, as a person needed dignity and respect, needing love and care, needing the gospel.

Jesus breaks through circumstance, and sees the woman as she truly is.

Sounds like just what we need these days too.

As our world and communities succumb to fear and hysterics, as we begin to see one another as simply the circumstances that surround us, as we retreat further and further away from ourselves, Jesus continues to break through to us.

Jesus breaks through to see us as who we are, to see the real us beyond our circumstances, beyond our fears and anxieties, beyond our disease and isolation. And Jesus is breaking through to us in the ways that Jesus has always done – in Word, Water and Bread and Wine.

But also in these days to come, in phone calls and texts between neighbours and friends, in groceries drop offs and mail pick ups by those who can do those things for those who cannot. Jesus is and will be breaking through to the real us, as we comfort one another in this time of heightened fear and anxiety by the care that we show for another, by helping us to see beyond circumstance to ways in which we can be good neighbours and good siblings in Christ.

Today, we worship not knowing if we will gather again next week, or for a while after that. And yet the church has been here before. This is not out first plague and it won’t be our last.

And so Jesus reminds us that we do not stop belonging to one another, we do not stop belonging to God. Jesus reminds us to break through circumstance, and to see and care for another, as we are able.

And here on this third Sunday of this extraordinary Lenten journey, Jesus strolls up to us in our moment of social distancing and self-isolation and ask for drink of water, knowing that what he has to give and what we will need is the water of life.

Amen.

Questions in the dark

GOSPEL: John 3:1-17

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” … 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? (Read the whole passage)

Our Lenten journey takes us from the wilderness and desert of last week, to the dark of the night this week. And not just because of daylight savings time and a later sunrise this morning. Lent began last week as Jesus was driven out into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting and prayer, followed by temptation. We watched at Jesus showed us the way into the wilderness, into a moment of everything being stripped away that distracts from God.

On this second Sunday in Lent, rather than Jesus going into the wilderness seeking to grow in faith… it is a Pharisee, a leader among the people of Israel who is coming to Jesus for answers. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in the darkness away from the prying eyes of the city, risking his reputation and safety in order to ask this wandering preacher who threatens the established order, just who he is. Nicodemus takes this risk of meeting with Jesus because he needed to know more, he needed answers of some kind.

Nicodemus might not be wandering in the desert, but he is showing us another kind of wilderness

Nicodemus begins by stating that he knows that Jesus is more than just a wandering preacher. The signs and miracles say so. Nicodemus wants to know more.

But Jesus is cautious. He answers cryptically, in case Nicodemus is a Pharisees intent on catching Jesus preaching heresy. And so Jesus and Nicodemus begin a somewhat strange conversation about being born again, about the physical impossibility and about the unknowable nature of the spirit.

“How can these things be?” Nicodemus asks Jesus.

Maybe it was then that Jesus knew that Nicodemus wasn’t interested in tricking Jesus into some trouble, but really just wanted to know more about who Jesus was. Maybe there was something in the way that Nicodemus asked the question, pleaded with Jesus to understand.

Maybe even a religious leader, a teacher of Israel did not understand what God was up to in the world, could not see the Messiah right in front of his own eyes, could not comprehend what the Christ coming in flesh meant for creation.

Maybe Jesus needed to know just what humanity and all creation did not know and couldn’t understand.

As Nicodemus comes in the darkness to ask Jesus his question, to ask for understanding, it is about more than idle curiosity. Nicodemus comes with true doubt, true wondering. Not just about Jesus, but about himself and the world. He wants to know who Jesus is, want to know if Jesus is the Messiah because Nicodemus wants to know if the world is worthy of redemption. Can God fix the problems, the suffering, the sin, the death. Can God save God’s people? Can Nicodemus be saved, is Nicodemus worthy of salvation?

These aren’t the questions one asks over lunch at the local coffee shop. This isn’t water cooler chit chat. These are the kind of questions that scroll through our minds when yet another news story about the Coronavirus is told on the evening news. It is the wondering that we succumb to at the end of the day, after all the busy-ness of the day has quieted down. It is the kind of questioning that keeps us awake at night, starting into the dark abyss. Nicodemus asks the kind of questions that can only be whispered at night in the hopes that no one really hears them.

We know these questions because we have probably asked them too. Can this world be saved? Is there something that can be done about war and violence that never seems to end? Is there safety in the face of illness and disease that is spreading indiscriminately? Will our political leaders be able to step up, finally, at this moment?

And of course there are the questions that narrow down from the global scale. Will my family be safe? Will my job be affected? Do I need to fear my foreign neighbours?

Not to mention the regular worries that keep us up at night about our lives, and relationships and futures.

So we get it. We know what Nicodemus is up to, what he is feeling when he shows us to asks Jesus what is going on? Nicodemus just wants to know if there is hope for his community, his family, for himself.

Last week, as the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness he asked questions too. Questions that Jesus gave careful answers to.

And yet, as Nicodemus comes in the night, he needs something different. Not the warnings that Jesus gave to the devil, but assurance. Even as Jesus begins with cryptic answers about being born again and about the unpredictable spirit… Nicodemus presses for more.

“How can these things be?”

And Jesus knows that Nicodemus needs something different, something more.

And so Jesus begins with something familiar. Jesus uses an image that would have been well known to Nicodemus. If Nicodemus wants to know who Jesus is, look to the stories of God’s people that have been passed on for generations. To the story of the rescue of God’s people from slavery in Egypt. Rescue from sin and suffering, rescue from foreign powers and hardened oppressors, recuse from seemingly arbitrary and pointless death.

Just as the people of Israel were fleeing Egypt, only to be set upon by poisonous snakes, Moses lifted up the bronze serpent and the people of God looked upon it and were saved.

Nicodemus wants to know if his world can be saved by God, if the Messiah can do anything about this mess? Jesus reminds him of one of the lowest points of the people of Israel.

And then in one of the clearest passages of the bible – one that so many of us were encouraged to memorize as a concise articulation of the Gospel – Jesus gives it straight to Nicodemus.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…”

It is as if Jesus is saying, you see how God gave the people the bronze snake is their most desperate moment… well the Father is giving me to the world, in your most desperate moment.

If Nicodemus needed the questions that keep him awake at night answered, Jesus gives him what he needs. Jesus gives him an answer that gets right to the heart of Nicodemus’ fears and anxieties. Jesus gives an answer for which there can be no misunderstanding.

There in the dark night, Jesus shines a light on all the sin, suffering and death of the world and declares that even that stuff, God has a plan for.

It is not a fix in the moment and it isn’t about just making it all go away.

But it is a promise. A promise that there is hope and life on the other side. That all these things that keep us awake at night will not define us, they won’t control us, they won’t overpower us.

The Father has sent the Son, and the Son is on his way to save.

It is the same promise and hope that we are given week after week. Even as our nighttime anxieties and fears, our questions pile up… Jesus meets us here (even in the early morning) and reminds us again and again.

For God so loved the world…. For God so loved us… For God so loved you.

That all the sin, suffering and death. That the unending wars, and scary viral outbreaks, and rail blockades that divide us, and inept politicians who don’t seem to be able to do anything helpful… all the things that keep up at night…

That God has sent the Son for us in the midst of all that, and God has sent the Son to save.

To save us up high from the cross, to save us by walking with us out of empty graves.

To hear our nighttime questions and to go with us on lenten wilderness journeys.

“How can these things be?” We ask with Nicodemus.

And Jesus reminds us again, “For God so loved the world, For God so loves us.”

Amen.

Nailing down the mountain top

Matthew 17:1-9

…And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Read the whole passage) (Read the whole passage)

We are on the move again. Jesus is taking us to new places, to see new sights. Our journey first began in Advent. We made our way to Bethlehem, to the stable manger, to the Baby Jesus born to a virgin mother. And our journey continued through Epiphany, where the wise man travelled far to see this saviour born to human parents.

Yet, for the last 4 weeks, we paused. We rested. We took a break on the mountain side as we listened to Jesus sermon on the mount that begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” And we listened as Jesus talked about Salt and Light, as Jesus re-interpreted our understanding of the commandments, as Jesus reminded us that we do not save ourselves by our works, but that God alone saves.

Well today, Jesus gathers us up again to go up the mount of Transfiguration. With Peter, James and John, we find ourselves on the mountain top. And we witness something amazing, we witness Jesus transformed. Jesus shows these disciples, and shows us, a glimpse of the glory of God.

And you would think that the disciples would get it. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, they have been struggling to understand who Jesus is and what Jesus is all about. In this moment, as Jesus is surround by Moses and Elijah, the two most important figures of the Old Testament, the disciples should figure it out. They should be able to see that Jesus is that long hoped for Messiah, the one we waited for in Advent, the one we saw born in a manger, the one we saw begin a ministry of teaching, preaching and healing.

Peter, thinks he has it figured it out. Simon who Jesus has re-named Peter or “The Rock” on which he will build the church. If Peter had been alive today, he would have been a salesman type, maybe the top dog at a car dealership, and he would be chair of the council and he would be the biggest giver in the congregation. When Peter spoke, we all would listen.

And Peter does what Church people do best. Once he finds a good place to worship and good place to experience God, he suggests a building project. If you want to get people excited and involved in the church, build something and people will get on board in droves.

Peter knows that when you find something good, you need to get it nailed down, make sure you can keep hold of it as long as you can.

(Pause)

Jim had been a member of the St. David’s property committee for 2 years now. One Saturday a month, he would meet with the committee in the church basement at 7AM. Or least that was the official start time, but the rest of the committee, Jim suspected, was always there long before 7:00, with half finished cups of coffee in hand. At the age of 47, Jim was the youngest member by at least 25 years.

Each month, Simon, the chair of the committee, would call the meeting to order and then read a list of chores that had accumulated over the previous month. Simon was definitely the leader of the group, whatever he decided, was the rule of law for the property committee. After Simon read the list, the committee would spend the morning carrying out their list of tasks. Changing light bulbs, replacing furnace filters, tightening screws and nails anywhere they were loose.

This month however, Simon did not read from his list. This month he passed around a sheet of paper to each member. It was a list of questions. Simon then spoke, “Our worship attendance has been growing. The church is almost full every Sunday and I think it is time we expanded our sanctuary and added some improvements. When I suggested the idea to council, they were not in favour. So we are going to poll the congregation and then show council that this is what everyone wants”. Simon read the list of questions on the survey. Would your worship experience be enhanced by a nicer sanctuary? Would upholstered pews be more comfortable? Would adding a balcony allow more people to attend? Would you be willing to give more offering for a renovation?

Jim felt uneasy about this idea, but Simon had already placed a copy in every member’s mailbox.

(Pause)

We are often like Peter on the mountaintop. When we find something good or that we like, we want to get it nailed down. Peter sees Jesus transfigured and wants to keep him that way. We see God’s glory in some manner and we wish we could control it.

But Jesus has different ideas.

Jesus is merely passing through. Jesus is on the move. Jesus has plans for transformation. Jesus no intention of stopping now.

Jesus invited Peter, James and John up the mountain. And Jesus brought them in order to reveal glimpse of divinity, a glimpse of God. But Jesus is also headed down the mountain. As Jesus reveals himself to these three disciples, Jesus is showing them, not just who he is, but what he is going to do. Or in other words, Jesus is set to show the disciples that God is about do something that will change and transform the whole world. God is putting into motion a new way for creation. God is reversing the direction of travel, and planning a new way for the world, a new path.

Peter’s desire to nail things down, to control this wonderful moment points to a deeper problem within us. Our desire to keep things controlled and unchanging, to make sure we keep a hold of the things we think are good. And this leads us only in one direction. When we nail things down we are headed towards death.

(Pause)

The following month at the St. David’s Property committee meeting, Jim arrived a little late. He joined in the middle of Simon reading, one at a time, the responses to his survey. The responses seemed to neither for nor against renovating. People were somewhat interested but not really enough to want to pay for anything too costly. Simon seemed to be getting more and more frustrated with every response he read.

Simon finally got to the last survey. Simon’s face turned red as he looked at it. He slammed it down on the table… Jim could see that only one question had been answered. Simon hadn’t even read the answer, and instead was fuming in his seat because he had been expecting overwhelming support for his plan.

Jim picked the survey up and began reading the one answer out loud. It was to the question “Would your worship experience be enhanced by a nicer sanctuary”.

“Dear property committee” someone wrote.

“I live in world that is always trying to be or get the newest and best thing. In my job, I have to be constantly looking for more, to be better, to find something that will attract more buyers. I feel like I am always running up a mountain.

That is why I come here. That is why I worship here. At St.David’s I get to come down the mountain. When I see the people around me, when we sing and pray, when we share the peace and drink coffee together, I get to see God. And God isn’t on the mountaintop. God comes down to be with me, with us. God walks with me, and after I worship here each week, I am reminded that Jesus goes with me, that Jesus comes and trudges up my mountain each week and he brings me back down, back to be here with you. Back to the place where I can see God in your faces, and I can hear God’s voice in your voices. That is why I worship here, not because of the building, but because of the people, because of you.”

Jim set the paper down. For the first time Jim had ever seen, the group was silent. Most were just staring into their coffee. Simon was just staring at Jim.

Jim then said to the committee, “That was my survey”.

Simon simply nodded and said, “Well, I guess that is that. Let’s get back to work”. And off the committee went attending to their regular monthly chores.

(Pause)

As Church people, even we can forget what Jesus is doing in our world, what Jesus is doing right here among us. Today, we are reminded of who Jesus is, we glimpse the glory of God and then Jesus brings us down the mountain, despite Peter’s desire to nail things down.

We are descending into Lent. We on our way with Jesus into the valley and shadow of death. We will be reminded on Ash Wednesday that we are dust and ash. We will be reminded that we are dead. And journey through Lent will take us to the next the next mountain.

We will go with Jesus to Golgatha.

And on mount Golgatha Jesus will finally be nailed down.

Jesus will hang on a cross.

What Peter wanted to preserve on the mount of Transfiguration today, humanity will want to kill on Good Friday.

But that is what God has come to show us. Not that Jesus can be transformed, but that Jesus is going to do the transforming. Jesus is going stare death right in the face and change it. Move it. Transform it. Re-make it.

Death will no longer be death. We will no longer be dead.

Death will become life. We will be made alive.

Alive in Christ. Alive to move and change and be different. Alive to go with Jesus up and down the mountains. Alive with Jesus to see God in people around us and to be reminded that we are not alone but that we are on the journey together.

To whom do we belong

GOSPEL: Matthew 5:21-37

[Jesus said to the disciples:] 21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Read the whole passage)

Ouch, that was a bit rough. Jesus isn’t taking it easy on us. The sermon on the mount that began so gently with “blessed are the poor in spirit,” sure seems to take a turn towards some hard truths today. It is our 3rd week in a row of listening to that familiar sermon from Jesus, and the tone has changed a lot from when we began.

We are on the final green Sunday before we turn towards Transfiguration, Ash Wednesday and Lent. And this season following the Epiphany, the day on which the magi came to honour the Christ-child feels like it was lifetime ago. We have since then watched a grown up Jesus get baptized in the Jordan, meet his first disciples and call them from their fishing boats and now preach this 3 weeks long sermon on the mount.

And this list of things that Jesus talks about today is not so friendly: Murder, judgment, hell, adultery, lust, divorce, sin and swearing falsely. A bunch of things that would make for a really easy opportunity to preach a hell-fire and brimstone, turn-or-burn kind of sermon. You know, one of those sermon that your grandma used you warn you about hearing from the pastor. And to be sure, this part of the sermon on the mount has been used for that kind of preaching, and used to condemn and shame people.

Yet, we haven’t forgotten was Jesus was talking about for the past couple of weeks, the beatitudes followed by salt and light – things that are not so easy to turn into condemnation. It seems strange that within the same sermon, Jesus would go from promising God’s blessing for the poor in spirit, the mourning and meek, the peacemakers and persecuted to condemning people who don’t measure up.

And so of course, we know that this isn’t really about the threat of hell and condemnation that it appears to be on the surface.

So what is Jesus getting at?

After three weeks in the sermon on the mount, there is a theme beginning to emerge in Jesus’ preaching. A theme that only make sense when we unpack the world of the crowds sitting on the mountain listening to what Jesus had to say.

For the people of Israel, religion was a complicated system of keeping righteous, keeping in God’s good books. Follow the law, the laws handed on by Moses to the people escaping slavery in Egypt and wandering in the desert, and you will be righteous. And you will know you are righteous because you will be blessed. Blessed with health, wealth and status. You will be what God has deemed us to be, salty salt, light shining for all to see.

Except that most people weren’t blessed, most people weren’t salty sal or bright shining lights. Most people couldn’t keep the laws and remain righteous.

And so these unrighteous, unclean crowds had to find hope in other places. Hope in the desert listening to hermit preachers like John the Baptist. Hope on the mountainside listening to wandering rabbis like this Jesus of Nazareth.

And right off the bat, Jesus undercuts this system of keeping righteous. Blessed are poor in spirit, the meek and the mourning, the peacemakers and the persecuted. The blessings that you thought were signs of righteous are not in fact blessings — God’s presence is with the people you least expect.

And don’t strive for holiness and righteousness, strive to be what God called you to. If God has you to be salt, you are salt. If God has made you to be light, you are light.

Finally today, Jesus gets into the nitty gritty of the 10 commandments, the very core of the rules that if followed will lead to righteousness. And Jesus begins turning them on their heads too. These commandments aren’t checkboxes that if filled gain entry into heaven. Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie or bear false witness or steal. Simply not killing, or cheating or not telling an untruth or not slandering your neighbour is not enough. Each step of the way, Jesus elaborates and explains that these commands are also about loving our neighbour. About maintaining good relationships and caring for the people around us, not just limits on certain behaviours.

And when added up, Jesus’ message is: You are not as righteous or unrighteous as you thought, you are not as holy and perfect are you thought, and you haven’t kept the law as you thought. But more importantly, you are not earning your own salvation like you thought.

Of course, things are little different for us in our world. We don’t operate by quite such a rigid and structured a system as the people of Israel. Salvation and righteousness aren’t understood in such a clear cut path in our world.

In fact, knowing whether or not we are righteous really isn’t the right question for us as it was for the people sitting on the mountain listening to Jesus preach. For us, the question is more a matter of how… how do we attain righteousness and salvation. And our world has a plethora of answers. If you follow the rules, if you pray hard enough, if you are a good person, if you are enlightened enough, if you buy the next magic solution that someone is selling, if you are secure, protected and powerful enough… You too can be righteous and saved. All for one low cost, all for following the latest trend or fad, all for a little easy work in 20 minutes a day, all for following the simple steps, all for having the right relationships and network.

Righteousness and salvation in our world is about hearing the right voice in the multitude of voices vying for our attention and our dollar, about hearing the right voice long enough to hand over something of enough value to earn our salvation.

Except we know that this is all fake news and false hope too.

And just like the rigid system of rules that Jesus is undermining on the mountain, he is also undermining the multitude of voices in our world that tell us they know the secret to being saved.

Even if our questions are different from the people of Israel, our problem is the same. We are trying to earn our own salvation, trying to be righteous by our own efforts.

It is in the letter to the Corinthians where St. Paul states clearly the issue that Jesus is coming around to.

To whom do we belong? To Paul or Apollos? Will following this guy or that guy, these rules or those rules, this path or path earn you salvation?

No.

No, following neither will make us righteous.

To whom do we belong?

For we are God’s servants working together, you are God’s field, God’s building.

For we are God’s servants

For we are God’s.

To people wondering if they are saved, if they have done enough rule following Jesus says, Don’t worry about that. You belong to God.

To people wondering how to be saved, if we have found the right path, chosen the right thing, Jesus says, Don’t worry about that. You belong to God.

You belong to God.

And it is God who decides if you are blessed, God who comes and searches out the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourning, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted

And it is God who makes you right. God who makes you salty if you are salt, God who makes you shine if you are light.

And it is God who saves, God who makes you righteous. So don’t follow the rules because they make you right with God, but because your neighbour needs your love and care.

God is the one earning our salvation. This is what Jesus has been getting at for 3 weeks.

And this is what Jesus is preparing us to keep at the forefront as we move towards Transfiguration and Lent.

We belong to God, the One who makes us righteous, the One who saves us.

We don’t achieve it ourselves. We don’t find the right path or follow the right rules. We don’t save ourselves.

God does the saving work. And God does it in the one preaching the sermon on the mount, salvation comes to us in the Christ.

You don’t belong to Paul or Apollos. You don’t belong to yourselves.

You belong to God in Christ, the one making you righteous in all the unexpected places, the one making you alive when all there seems to be death.

The One who will meet us on the mountaintop, the One who goes with us into the valley, the One who will be nailed to a cross, and One who is raised from the dead.

You belong to that Christ, you are made righteous and saved by that Christ, and freed to love your neighbour, who is also loved by Christ.

And so on this day, at this end of the sermon on the mount, on the precipice of Lent…

Jesus reminds us one last time… it is not how we follow the rules or how blessed we think we are or how much good we do…

But rather is about to whom we belong.

And we are servants belonging to God, brought to new life in Christ.