Tag Archives: Sermon

Having only Bad Choices – God’s Third Option

Matthew 18:21-35
21Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
(Read the whole passage)

I wonder what was going through the minds of the Israelites standing on the banks of the Red Sea… an army chasing them down from behind and turbulent waters ahead of them. No good options, only bad ones. 

Here we are, into month 7 of this global pandemic, and it feels strange to be preaching again about a virus… and yet this illness that spreads so easily and makes just enough folks really sick has changed life and the way we live it. It is in the news every day, it has become an important factor in nearly every decision we make from how to buy groceries, to visiting with family, to going to work or school or even coming to church. 

We have been walking along side the stories of God’s people during this entire pandemic in a new way, a way different from before when we likely felt degrees of separation from the struggle. Again and again we have found the world and story that we have been living out in real time is one that is already told and experienced in the bible. From Abraham and Sarah and their descendants making their way in the wilderness, to the disciples cluelessly following Jesus, to Moses and the Israelites preparing to escape Egypt. 

We are firmly in the back half of this long season of green. 15 Sundays into Ordinary Time, and there are only ten or so left before we flip the calendar on a new church year in Advent. Yet, even now, those ten weeks seem like they are still a lifetime away, the predictability of our lives has been taken from us as we wait each day to hear whether or not this pandemic thing is getting better or worse. 

Along side the the story of the Israelites feeling Egypt’s armies and crossing through the parted waters of the Red Sea, Peter asks Jesus how many times ought he to forgive. Peter’s guess was a number he thought to be quite generous. 7 times. But Jesus responds by multiplying that number 70 times 7. Which is not to say 490 times, but forgiveness ought to be offered more times than Peter imagines possible. 

There is something about the Israelites standing on the brink of destruction or disaster that goes with Peter’s question about forgiveness. 

As the people of Israel, the community of God’s people stood there on the banks of the seashore, the feeling of helplessness and defeat must have been overwhelming. There was no good choice to make, only bad options. Options that both include death for many. Death at the hands of Egyptians soldiers, or death in the waters.

In the same way as Peter considers forgiveness, he too stands between hard choices. Forgiveness really exists at the edge of a difficult choice, to let go of harms and wrongs done. Does forgiveness condone bad behaviour? Does it simply allow for more harm and abuse? Or does not forgiving hold us in bitterness and judgment, in resentment and anger? There is no easy answer or obvious choice. 

The people of Israel and Peter are standing at the precipice of bad options and choices all around. Not dissimilar to where we are stand theses days. We too have been struggling with how to move forward in life when there are are only bad and unsatisfactory options all around us. Do we stay home or risk seeing family and friends for the sake of mental health and wellbeing. Do we go back to workplaces and jobs risking exposure but needing to support businesses and the economy? Do we send children to school with untold numbers of contacts or do we risk their growth, learning and development. 

And of course, do we begin gathering in-person for ministry and worship as churches once again? Is the community that we share in this place worth the risk of transmission? Do the restrictions placed on how we worship (masks, no singing, no visiting, socially distant and brief) justify the effort to be together inside of a beloved church building and church home?

Today, the Lord God of Israel and Jesus the Christ offer third options. A parting of the waters, a new and unexpected pathway to salvation. An understanding of forgiveness that expands far beyond what seems generous and reasonable at first. 

Yet, as Moses raises his staff and hands over the sea and the waters part… I am not so sure that stepping into the newly revealed sea bed would have felt any safer. I don’t think I would have been the first to follow the path between the two walls of water, not knowing if or when they might come crashing down. Salvation and rescue doesn’t always feel low-risk and secure. Being safe isn’t always comfortable.

Yet, as Jesus speaks of forgiveness beyond what Peter can imagine, forgiveness that is not just generous but abundant and lavish. Forgiveness that extends beyond close friends and family, that is given for the whole community, for all of creation… I am not sure I would want to walk away from the ability to hold others accountable, to hold them in my judgment… who knows how that might be taken advantage of. Letting go my judgment and resentment doesn’t feel natural or straight forward. Setting feelings and gut instincts and coping mechanisms aside isn’t easy. 

Yet, the Lord God of Israel brings the people through the waters to safety to other side and on their way to the promised land. 

Yet. Christ goes to the cross and even while hanging there in the final judgment of humanity, prays for mercy and forgiveness for all of us. 

For you see, God reveals something beyond our impossible choices, beyond the risk of armies and raging waters. God pours out forgiveness, release from judgement and condemnation that cannot fathom. 

God invokes options and futures that we cannot conceive of. Christ shows us the way to abundant new life beyond ourselves, and beyond what feels safe. 

And for us, for the church as we face a world full of bad options, full of risks and stress and anxiety about what the right thing to do is, God is working among us already, parting waters that will send us on our way to the promised land – there just might be 40 years in the wilderness first. 

And Christ is exhorting us to forgiveness knowing that resurrection and new life have begun already in our world, even if the cross of Good Friday comes first. 

God in Christ promises that even through this pandemic, even through the separation of communities, friends and family, even through the limitations on the way we worship and the way we can gather… that the transformation and salvation of God’s people has already begun… that there will be parted waters ahead for us, that there’s abundant forgiveness waiting for us… that a new way of living and being in the world for this pandemic church of 2020 is on its way. 

We might feel stuck to between bad choices theses day, but God is with us, God is beside us, God is among us… carrying us to the new and unexpected thing that we cannot imagine yet. 

Because God has already brought God’s people, and will bring us, through the struggle and to the other side, 

to the promised land 

of mercy and new life. 

Wrestling with God, a hungry crowd of 5000 and a surviving a pandemic

GOSPEL: Matthew 14:13-21
16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

If you were all here in person, I would probably begin with an informal survey where you would raise your hand. Even though you aren’t here, we are going to try it anyways. I’ll pretend like I know what your answers are. 

So 4 and half months into this pandemic, who here is feeling a little tired of social distancing measures? 

Most of you? Okay, that makes sense. 

Who here is ready to go back to normal? 

Everyone? I can see that. 

Who has learned or acquired some new skills or abilities during this time, such as new technologies or cooking and baking or puzzles or new workout routines? 

Ah, yes, I see a lot of hands up. 

Who here finds themselves judging pre-pandemic tv shows by pandemic standards, as in hey those people aren’t social distancing!? 

Yup, a lot us. 

Who finds themselves judging others about their social distancing while out and about in public?

Be honest now. Yeah, most of us eh?

Who here has bent a social distancing rule to see family or friends? 

Yeah, almost all of us.

Who is ready of trust that most other people will diligently follow restrictions in order to keep us all safe?

That few of you… umm hmmm… 

Okay, who feels completely confident in government plans to re-open our economy safely and without unnecessarily increasing risk? Including the re-opening of schools?

Anyone? I am not surprised. 

Who is anxious about jumping back into fully participating in public life before a vaccine? 

Wow… most of us… yup….

So on the surface our little informal survey shows a pretty mixed response. Most of us are pretty tired of all the pandemic restrictions and ready for life to go back to normal. Yet, we also are finding it hard to trust that our neighbour and trust political leaders to safely guide us through this pandemic. And most of us are guilty of bending the social distancing rules ourselves. 

So we want all this stuff to be over, but we aren’t sure we are ready to trust the outside world. 

This Sunday, on the 9th Sunday of Ordinary Time, we continue with the story of Jacob and his family (the grandson of Sarah and Abraham). We also hear a family story from Jesus’ life and ministry, the feeding of the 5000 with five loaves and two small fish. And in both, there is a glimpse of just where we may be at these days.

Jacob is the second born Son of Isaac. And Isaac the second born Son of Sarah and Abraham. Abraham is one of two brothers. And from Abraham all the way to Jacob’s own sons, God shows a surprising pattern of preferring second born sons to pass on the covenant, the promise given to God’s chosen people… when of course by normal Hebrew custom, the double portion and birthright was passed on to eldest sons. 

So far we have heard the stories of Isaac following his brother Esau by holding onto his heal right out of the womb. And then tricking his older brother out of his birthright for a bowl of stew. Jacob then met the angels of God descending from heaven on a ladder. And last week Jacob was tricked himself into years of servitude in oder to marry the woman he loved. Women with whom he would father 13 sons and more daughters. 

Yet, finally this week we meet Jacob in an unusual place. He is into solitude. Despite being surrounded by his wives, children, servants and herds he is fearful about finally being reunited with his estranged brother. 

As Jacob sends his large posse ahead, he spend the night alone on the river Jabbok. There he encounters and then wrestles with God. 

While Jacob encounters and wrestles with God alone, the disciples are wrestling with things in the midst of a great crowd. Shortly after the popular John the Baptist was executed by King Herod, a community in shock gathers around Jesus. Even as Jesus mourns his cousin, he is confronted by a community in crisis. A great crowd gathers before him and he teaches and heals them. 

By the end of the day, the disciples are worried about feeding the masses. They implore Jesus to send the crowds to the villages for food. But Jesus tells them to feed the crowds and all that they can come up with 5 loaves and two fish. Seemingly not enough for 5000. 

Jacob’s lonely dark night of the soul and the disciple’s consternation about the feeding the crowd may seem to have little in common at first glance, yet in both stories there is wrestling with circumstances. Jacob wrestles not just with the unknown stranger in his tent, but with the prospect of meeting his estranged brother across the river. The disciples wrestle not just with feeding the crowds, but with understanding just what is going on with their beloved teacher as he compassionately preaches to the masses in crisis. 

Mixed feelings about complicated situations all around. 

Certainly we recognize the wrestling. Certainly we recognize the difficulty understanding just what and who we are wrestling with and why. 

As we struggle with how long this pandemic is lasting with no clear timeline for an end in sight we wrestle with our feelings of wanting life to go back to normal and fearing a serious outbreak of the virus in our community. 

Jacob chooses to wrestle with this stranger and to focus on winning a blessing, rather than the looming confrontation with his brother in the morning. The disciples become event planners and managers for Jesus, focusing on the practicality of feeding the crowds rather the looming confrontation between their Messiah Master and the religious authorities (like his cousin John just faced). 

And our wrestling pushes us to focus on issues other than the big ones before us. Our whole world is debating the technicalities of safe re-opening. We are twisting ourselves in knot over border closures, self-quarantine requirements, safely opening malls and hair salons, remote working conditions, school and day care reopening and of course resuming in-person church services. We are trying to avoid thinking about how this prolonged pandemic and 2nd wave realities will force us re-evaluate how we structure out society, what we consider safe working conditions, how we support families, the elderly, students rather than forcing so many to live on the brink of financial ruin just to keep our consumption of cheap products habits afloat. 

We would rather wrestle all night and demand a blessing or mask wearing then consider what our world needs to become on the other side of this pandemic. We would rather event plan the catering than consider just what God might be already up to in our midst, changing and transforming and preparing our community for the next thing by giving us what we need. 

And yet, as Jacob wrestles, God blesses him with a new name. Israel – the one who wrestles with God (and wins!). A new name confirming his identity as the bearer of his families birthright, the covenant and promise of God’s chosen people. An identity confirmed by the embrace of his brother Esau, whom God had blessed in the way that Esau needed.

And as the disciples distribute the loves and fish, they discover that their Messiah teacher insists on being revealed even in event planning. As they pass the food around the meagre offering blessed by Jesus, they discover an unimaginable abundance. Enough food to feed thousands and 12 baskets left over – enough for the 12 tribes of Israel (the 12 sons of Jacob). 

And certainly, as we wrestle with our pandemic world… with our event planning and insistence on the things we imagine to be of importance, God is already at work preparing to surprise us with the very things we need. 

With the abundance of covenant promise. 

With the blessing and identity that we have trouble accepting. 

With the revelation of the divine even in event planning. 

God is already at work bestowing us with the gospel promise of life and salvation no matter how we gather to hear it – in person or online. 

God is already preparing to walk with us into places that we never imagined we would fear, workplaces and schools, malls and restaurants. And God promises to go with us out into the world or stay with us at home. 

God is already carrying our tired and aching souls. Tired from pandemic, tired from compliance. Aching for community, aching for the familiar. 

God is already where we need God to be, even when, especially when, we would rather wrestle with some other problem, focus on some other issue to keep from having to face the looming danger, the presenting problem, the uncertainty of today that was unforeseen yesterday, and the uncertainty of tomorrow that is unimaginable today.

And so today, with mixed feelings prevalent in our hearts and minds, with wrestling with the things we think we can control in the face of problems and overwhelming anxiety… we go with Jacob across the Jabbok river, we collect the abundance of 5 loaves and two fish with the disciples…

Today, God is already before us, already in our future, already preparing us for the world we need to face. God is already making ready the blessing and abundance we need. 

Today, God reveals to us again that God is already ahead of us, already in the places we have mixed feelings about going toward… And God promises that no matter what will befall us that our future is held in God’s hands. 

The Kingdom of Heaven Isn’t In Hidden Places But In Surprising Places Meant to be Found

GOSPEL: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
{Jesus] put before [the crowds] another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed …
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

It was a month ago that I last preached a sermon to you. And a lot can change in a month’s time. 

A month ago COVID-19 was slowly but surely being socially distanced out of our communities (although with some alarming rising case numbers in the US). Our province of Manitoba was talking a lot about restarting economies and lifting restrictions. The protests of May were falling out of the public awareness and the end of school and summer plans were on the minds of most. 

Today, surging case numbers across Canada and a tsunami of cases numbers and deaths are crashing into our neighbours to south. Our Manitoba government’s plan to further lift restrictions to near normal levels of activity was met with swift push back from citizens. Political leaders in Canada are under ethics violations for possibly giving wealthy government contracts as favours to a cozy with politicians WE charity. And south of border an unstable President with strong facist tendencies is sending in secret police to escalate non-violent protests and punish protestors all while looking like the “law and order” candidate to his electoral base of support.

No to mention the persistent issues of racism, discrimination (such as recent attitudes towards Hutterites in Manitoba in response to covid outbreaks) police brutality, the unavailability of childcare for working parents, questions about a safe return to school in the fall, the outsized effect of this economic downturn on women and the recovery being put on the back of essential workers who are often the poorest among us. 

Phew… does that about cover the last month?

Nothing in 2020 has been normal or expected and each day, week, month brings with it things that we wouldn’t imagine being possible. 

And somehow in the midst of this unimaginable world we are living in, we are left to sort through what God might have to say about all of it, and just where the good news of the Kingdom of God might be. 

Today, we continue along into our season of green Ordinary Time. Jesus again is speaking in agricultural terms and in parables. And the people of Genesis, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah continue to navigate their way through the world with God’s covenant promise along side them. Their complicated story continues with Abraham and Sarah’s grandson Jacob making agreements for marriage only to be tricked into having to do twice as much work in order to get the woman he wants to marry. 

And somewhere in the collision of our COVID world and Jacob, Leah and Rachel’s reality, we find something of our story being retold in the biblical witness. Somewhere in the parables of Kingdom that Jesus tells today, we are reminded of where the Kingdom of heaven is revealed. 

Today, Jacob sets out to make a deal Laban for marrying his daughter Rachel. Jacob as you recall is Abraham and Sarah’s grandson, son of Isaac and Rebekah. Jacob we already know is a trickster. He has tricked his older brother Esau out of his inheritance and wrestled with God. Yet, when it comes time to negotiate with Laban he meets his match and Laban tricks Jacob into marrying both of his daughters for 14 years of work. 

But of course there is a back story here. Laban is not some vague relative as the story suggests, but the brother of Jacob’s mother… Laban is Jacob’s uncle. And when Laban was younger, Abraham sent his favourite servant to find a wife of Jacob’s father Isaac. Laban was in charge of that negotiation too. But the clever servant managed to trick Laban to giving Rebekah away for less than he wanted, by appealing to divine Providence. 

So this time Laban is ready to negotiate, maybe even to get back with interest what he lost out on by negotiating harder and tricking Jacob. 

So now let’s set aside. The problematic aspect of this story. The close family relationships, the sale of women as if they are chattel to be owned and traded for. 

This family is a complicated system and web of relationships. And we know that after this Jacob ends up fathering children from 4 women, Leah and Rachel and their two maids, Bilhah and Zilphah. And the 12 sons that result become the forebears of the 12 tribes of Israel, with the most famous son, Joseph, whom after being sold in slavery by his brothers saves his family from slavery by bringing them into Egypt… which then leads us to the story of Moses and so on. 

In fact, the twists and turns of the story of the family of Sarah and Abraham feel awfully familiar. Jacob puts in the time and work with the promise of getting what he wants at the end, only to find out he has to start all over sounds a lot like what many of us are feeling after months of staying home only have to a resurgence of the virus. 

What Jacob imagined for his life and what he ended up getting in Rachel and Leah and his many children sound an awful lot like the expectations we hold for coming out on the other side of this pandemic wanting things to go back to normal while at the same time knowing that 2020 is going to change our lives and world forever in ways we cannot imagine. 

As the new coronavirus surprises at each turn,

As we grow tired of restricting our lives for what can feel like an invisible benefit,

As we juggle keeping people safe, healthy both physically and economically during this pandemic, 

As politicians make messy promises and make self-serving decisions,

And as the people of the world having unimaginable stressors placed on us…

Maybe we are just an extension of the story of Abraham and Sarah’s family. 

And maybe as they did, we might wonder what does God has to do with us? What does God have planned for us? Where is the good news of the Kingdom of heaven?

As Jesus speaks in parables today, he describes the Kingdom of God over and over again. The Kingdom of God is like… Like mustard seed, like yeast, like a treasure in a field, like a fine pearl and so on. 

And we might wonder, why is that the Kingdom seems to be in hidden places? 

But I think that it isn’t about where the Kingdom is hidden, but that the Kingdom is found. Found in unexpected places, founds where we wouldn’t usually think to look, found in the messy and surprising places of life. 

The message of these parables isn’t that God’s kingdom is hidden from us, but that it is constantly being found. Found where? Amongst our complicated and twisting and turning lives. And boy do we know about complicated, twisting, turning life, don’t we?

The Kingdom of heaven is constantly showing up in places we never imagined it would be, so that in our complicated, twisting and turning lives, the good news of God’s love and life given for us keeps finding us. 

The Kingdom of heaven that was promised to Abraham and Sarah in the covenant at the beginning of their story, and that God keeps bringing back to this family, this chosen people over and over again as they cast about in the wilderness. 

The Kingdom that we got used to hearing promised to us in person, at church, and next to our neighbour, at the font and at the table, has been finding us through computer screens, through zoom calls, text messages and over the phone. 

The Kingdom of God that is hard to see, hard to know, hard to believe some days, is finding us unexpectedly and surprisingly the care that we have been giving to one another in hard and difficult times of which we don’t when the ending will come. 

Today, our story, like Jacob, Leah and Rachel’s seems to start and stall. Our world, like theirs, is a world with twist and turns and challenges and surprises. And yet in the midst of that, the promise that God made in beginning, the promise of the covenant, the promise of the Kingom, the promise of love and live given for us…. That promise somehow keeps finding us. The God of that promise keeps finding us, keeps showing up where wouldn’t expect to find God, or to be found by God. 

And God promises that the complications of this life won’t overwhelm us, that the surprises of this world will not define us… but rather the Kingdom of Heaven will. 

God promises that when we wonder where God is in this messy world of ours, that God is coming and finding us in the Kingdom of God. 

WIlderness and Pandemic – Doubting the Promise with Sarah and Hagar

Genesis 21:8-21
8The child [Isaac] grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” (Read the whole passage)

My son, with all the gravitas that a 6-year-old can muster, frequently refers to the COVID-19 Pandemic as the “Time Period.” 

“When this time period ends,” he will say, “we can see our friends again.”

While his confusion with pandemic terminology is smile inducing, there is a heartbreaking earnestness as well.

I also think there is something to his unintentional term… While many others have referred to this pandemic experience as an extended Lent, an extended time of sacrifice, I am not so sure that is what we are experiencing. 

Not all experiences of sacrifice and loss are the same, and this pandemic isn’t a short, defined time of sacrifice with a known end point like Lent is. 

It is a time period, a new way of being people and being communities and being society that we are going to have to live with for quite some time to come. A time period indeed. 

This is a transitional time period, a time when everything is being changed around us, whether we agree or not. 

Last week, we set out into the Wilderness with Abraham and Sarah. Their journey was not a short one. In fact, they began a journey that kept on going for generations, as Sarah laughed at the prospect of giving birth, yet then saw the fulfillment of God’s promise in Isaac. 

This wilderness journey of Abraham and Sarah feels like it is a story that is telling our story today. When so many of the familiar stories we hear on TV or in books or in movies fail to speak to this pandemic yet, this story of faith is an ancient version of our current reality. 

No, they weren’t trying to avoid a plague, but they were people who were set out into the unknown with no map, no instructions other than occasional updates from God, on what to do and where to go. And things that they never imagined possible happened to them. It was messy and complex and things often didn’t go right and they often showed a lack of trust or faith in the covenant, the promise that set them out on their journey in the first place. 

Their story sounds a lot of like ours doesn’t it? A story where we can see the same feelings, emotions, fears and anxieties that we are bearing. An immediacy that they were forced to live in… not knowing the plan for the future means you have to live in the moment. And living in the moment, just surviving day-to-day can make it hard to trust God.

Today, as we hear the next chapter in their journey, we are reminded that the promised Isaac who arrived last week was not, in fact, Abraham’s first son. Ishmael, whom Abraham conceived with Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar, was Abraham’s first born. 

And Sarah who laughed at the absurdity of bearing a son in her old age, is fearful that the child of promise would not receive God’s promise made. 

So she implores her husband to send Hagar and Ishamel away. 

Which Abraham does by God’s direction. 

And so cast out in the wilderness, Hagar and Ishmael go. But it isn’t long before they are in dire trouble… and facing an impossible choice, to die with her son, or to at least have one of them survive, Hagar leaves her son under a bush and walks away. 

Filled with unimaginable grief at her impossible choice, Hagar implores God to least spare her watching her son die. 

Two women in the wilderness discover new complications, new unimaginable circumstances, new impossibilities, new absurdities. They are in not just in the wilderness, but wilderness upon wilderness, complication upon complication, mess upon mess. 

How could either Sarah or Hagar be expected to carry on in faith, to trust that God’ promises would hold true? They were both human beings. 

Like Sarah, we too have been living in wilderness upon wilderness. Even though it seemed like the whole world was put on pause in the early stages of this pandemic we soon discovered it was not. Violence, house fires, gun shots and a shooter dressed like the RCMP in Nova Scotia cracked open the heart of a nation. George Floyd was murdered underneath the knee of a police officer, causing protests to erupt around the world. Accusations of racism and discrimination have tarnished the reputation of one of the crown jewels of our city at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. And the one party leader of colour in Canada was kicked out of the house of commons after he called another MP a racist after that MP scuttled the passage of bill declaring the existence of systemic racism in the RCMP. 

Wilderness upon wilderness. Complication upon complication. Mess upon mess. 

Even though Sarah had been given a child of the promise, she couldn’t keep up the faith. She was human after all. 

Even though Hagar had been given a child of the promises she couldn’t keep up the faith. She too was human. 

And even though we are made children of the promise in the Waters, even though we are given a new identity and belonging in the bread and wine, even though we are given forgiveness and new life in the Word, we too cannot believe the promise, day after day, week after week, year after year. It is simply not in us to keep the faith that way…. The wilderness gets us every time. Ever since the garden of Eden, ever since Adam and Eve trusted themselves above God. We hear the promise, but cannot keep up the faith. 

And yet, the promise does not depend on us. 

When Sarah laughed, God still brought new life into a barren womb. 

Almost casually, God waltzes into Sarah and Abraham’s wilderness and declares that the promise will be fulfilled. 

When Hagar was at the limit and prepared to give up, God answers Hagar’s pleas with gentle assurance, with water and the renewed covenant.  

When these women cannot keep the faith, God’s promise does not rely on their ability to believe it. 

Instead God’s promise holds true, God promises includes wilderness moments, wilderness upon wilderness moments. God’s plan for Sarah and Hagar, for Isaac and Ishmael extends beyond their present wilderness into future generations. God’s plan for these first families of faith begin in wilderness, in transition, in wandering through the unknown. 

And the convent extends through generations, through kingdoms, through exodus and exile, from judges and prophets, all the way to Messiah. And Messiah’s promise of Good News comes through fledgling communities to empires, institutions and faithful generations upon generations to us. 

And even with all of that. 

Even as we laugh at the absurd promise that we are God’s Body, knit together in water, bread and wine, when we cannot even be in each other’s presence, let alone share these things… God comes into our wilderness with the Word, the Word of promises given for us, week after week. 

Even as we are prepared to give up, unable to keep the faith in the face of pandemics, and shootings, and police brutality. In the face of generations of racist systems, and hypocritical institutions, hypocritical leaders who do not get it… God deals gently with us, granting promise  in the word, relief for parched and cracked souls nearing death. 

And in the wilderness that keeps us from seeing beyond the present, God’s declares that God has plans for our future, plans that span generations and that include multitudes more numerous than the stars in the sky. 

God promises that God is not done with us, wether we believe it or not, whether our wilderness upon wilderness is more than we can bear or not. 

And in this wilderness, this transition, God reminds us again our story is being told again, told in ancient stories of faith, told in the present moment that we can see today. 

And so like Sarah and Hagar we fail to keep the faith…

We cannot help it. 

But God can.

And God does. 

And God declares that God’s promises will bring us through the wilderness, through the wilderness upon wilderness, to when this Time Period is over and we will see our friends again. 

In the meantime, God’s promises will still hold true, even when we don’t believe them…

Promises that will carry us through the wilderness to the promised land. 

“I can’t breathe” and the Fires of Pentecost

GOSPEL: John 20:19-23
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (Read the whole passage)

“I can’t breathe”

If you have been paying attention to the news at all this week, you will know that this is a quote from George Floyd. George Floyd was killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes as Mr. Floyd was being arrested by Minneapolis Police. The officers involved were fired and one has been charged with murder. 

It is another incident to add to a long list of black men and other people of colour being killed in encounters with police. While at the same time our news has also been filled with images of white protestors congregating at state capitals, in masks and brandishing assault rifles who are allowed to “protest” without police engaging. 

This past week protests have grown violent in Minneapolis and around the United States. Cities on fire and protesting crowds have been flooding our news feeds. 

Breath, fire and crowds. 

These are the images of Pentecost. Pentecost 2020. 

Once again, we arrive at another significant church festival, and things aren’t the way they usually are supposed to be.

Pentecost at home and social distancing is a something we never imagined as a way to mark this moment… at least not until just a few weeks ago. 

Like Lent, Holy Week and Easter this year, the Pandemic has imparted a certain authenticity to the moment. Lent required an unusual amount of sacrifice this year. Our Easter confinement to our homes was more like the original Easter than we ever imagined. And just last week, as the disciples wondered when things were going to go back to the good ol’ days, we too have been wondering when things might return to normal, or at least return and open up at all. 

Today, the Easter story is now bringing that community of disciples to an important moment. A moment of transformation and change. All the preparing that Jesus has been doing, helping his followers for what comes next, for their life as an Easter community comes to fruition as the spirit pushes them out into the streets and through them proclaims the gospel to all the nations. 

As we hear the Pentecost story each year, it is easy to get focused on the well known details of the story. It is easy to think that it is all about the disciples having tongues of fire landing on them (what is a tongue of fire anyways?), about going out into the streets and preaching in all different languages, about the accusation that they are drunk and finally the 3000 people that were baptized. Those details that lull us into thinking that Pentecost is all about the rapid expansion of the church, a model for faithful church planting and growing, a sign of the Holy Spirit’s blessing that good ministry is happening. 

Yet, this year amidst lockdowns and quarantines, we cannot even offer up our merger reproductions of that Pentecost experience by gathering for our small neighbourhood outdoor worship services and BBQs that we usually celebrate with.

All the while, just down the road from Winnipeg in Minneapolis, the images of fire and crowds, protests and anger speak to another version of pentecost this year. 

And they remind us of police involved shootings of indigenous people here in Winnipeg. We are forced to recognize that pandemic has locked down many things, but not the complicated (and often racist) relationship with police that people of colour have both in our country and just across the border to the south of us. 

And so despite the lack of tongues of fire, speaking in different languages, and 3000 baptisms… despite not having our usual pentecost celebrations and observances… and with the unmistakable pentecost images flooding our news this week… we might be wondering what is the Spirit actually up to among us? What does Pentecost mean for us today in 2020?

In John’s gospel we are given a clue. 

As the disciples are hiding out after the crucifixion, hiding in fear from the outside world, Jesus appears in their midst, speaking peace. 

Nothing else is familiar in this moment, but peace – shalom – is something they know. The greeting of the faithful, the peace of God shared between the people of Israel in the synagogue, in the street, in homes, wherever they are – Shalom Aleichem. 

And then Jesus breathes on them the spirit, the sign of life itself, the breath of God, breathed into Adam and Eve, now breathed again into them. 

Peace and breath given by the Word of God. 

The Word who was there in the beginning, speaking all of creation into existence.

The Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. 

The Word who rose from the dead on the 3rd day, transforming the life of creation itself, detaching us from death. 

And now the Word whose breath came upon the disciples, and 7 weeks later, whose breath and fire drove the disciples out into the streets to proclaim the good news to all nations.

The Good News of resurrected life found in the Word of life. 

This Word brought the disciples to the Pentecost moment. 

But Pentecost, this story central our identity as church, is not the destination. 

Pentecost was not and is not the new thing. 

Even as this community of disciples had gone from following Jesus for 3 years, to the experiences of Holy Week, and the re-orientation of Easter and resurrection, even as Jesus prepared them to be the new Easter community…

Pentecost was not the destination. Pentecost was temporary, a transitional space, a moment of disconnection. It was unlike anything they had experienced before, nothing like offering sacrifice in the temple, nothing like learning the Torah in the synagogue. 

And Pentecost, big spirit filled gatherings, full of converts hearing the good news and being baptized… is neither what this Easter community would become. 

Pentecost is a moment of disruption and disconnection. The moment that separated the disciples from the baggage they carried from before. The desire for the return of the Kingdom of Israel that they were still asking for just last week. From their desire for power and control, from their desire to shape and contort the spirit into their image. 

Pentecost instead was making them leave the old things, the old ways behind. 

And soon the early church became small communities of faith spread throughout the Empire, communities of 15 or 25 or 40 gathering around the Word and the shared meal of the Eucharist. 

And yet through all of it, the thread that connected this new Easter community to the faith that birthed them, to the ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, to Pentecost and then to the early church… the thread that connected them was the Word. 

The Word of God speaking from the beginning of time and still speaking to them now. 

And just as this pandemic world is unfamiliar to us and we don’t know where we are going, it is plain to see the we are living in our own Pentecost moment. The Spirit is not necessarily showing us the new thing that we are about to become, Pandemic church is not our new future. 

Instead, the spirit is stripping us of our baggage. 

Stripping us our of attachment to the old ways that we believed being faithful was all about. Of our attachment to culture and traditions that may not be helping us anymore, stripping us of our attitudes and assumptions that contribute to prejudice, racism and white supremacy that allow for a world where Black Indigenous People of Colour can be killed in broad daylight with almost no consequence, even as they cry out, “I can’t breathe.”

Stripping us of all the things that we thought we so important about being church, with the hopes that we will discern again what is essential. 

Yet, Pentecost is not our destination. 

This moment is one of transition for us too, the way are as community in this pandemic world is not the new way are going to be forever.

But as we await the new thing that we will become, Jesus is still speaking peace to us. 

Speaking peace in our homes, behind our locked doors, tying us to the thread of the Word that has been with us all along the way. 

The Word that centred the Church from before the time it was the Church.

The Word that birthed faith in us, in well-traditioned church communities that knew how to be church in their time. 

The Word whose resurrection and Easter story has been gathering us for generations, and will continue to gather us, even if it is in new ways. 

The Word who breathes the spirit in us, even in our socially distanced Easter, even in our homes at Pentecost. 

This Word is the constant all the way through, while the fires of Pentecost seem to be burning the rest of the world down around us. 

This is Pandemic of 2020 is our Pentecost moment when we know everything is changing while we still don’t know what we are changing into.

But Pentecost this year is also the reminder that the Word of God has not left us, nor sent us into this new word alone. 

Instead Jesus is coming again into our midst, speaking Peace to us, bringing us that familiar wind of the spirit, that familiar Word that gives us life.