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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. 

God Will Heal the People and the Land – With Us or Despite us

Content Warning: Residential Schools, Racism, Colonialism, Death of Children

GOSPEL: Mark 3:20-35
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

On Monday afternoon, after taking a family drive to make a socially distanced delivery, our household made its way to The Forks. As we drove through the city, the kids asked nervous and fearful questions about the news story that brought us there, trying to make sense of it all. After finding a parking spot and exiting the car, I couldn’t help but notice the symbolism that our family represented. Our children, reminders of the victims of the abuse and tragedy uncovered in Kamloops, Courtenay and I, members of the clergy class who took a central role in perpetrating it. 

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Today, we are turning the page on the first half of the church year, and entering into the more subdued season of green. For most of the next 26 or so weeks, we will remain in green Ordinary Time, hearing the stories, teachings, ministry, healing, exorcisms and exploits of Jesus, as told by the Gospel of Mark. 

Yet, this turn towards Ordinary Time begins in a strange spot. Jesus has been healing the sick, teaching the crowds and appointing his disciples. Then upon his return home, he finds several different groups of people upset with him. His family is searching for him, thinking that he has gone out of his mind. The scribes accuse him of teaching heresy. Crowds are clamouring to hear what he has to say. 

In the middle of it all, Jesus offers a parable-like example of Satan’s house divided against itself, about the strong man’s house being robbed, and about families in conflict and division. 

It is all rather messy and complicated: Jesus’ family, the scribes, his teachings and the crowds.

As usual, Mark is expecting much from his readers. He expects us to see the bigger and deeper picture: what it means for the divine Son of God, the Messiah to enter into the humanity’s messy state.

And this scene from Mark’s gospel is an example of a very human response to the divine Messiah. People got upset, people were confused, people demanded signs and miracles, people just didn’t know what to make of Jesus. 

At a time when our world is full of tragedy and suffering, full ICUs, struggling businesses, lonely seniors, haggard remote learning families and so on… This story comes to us at a particularly poignant moment in Canada. It has been difficult to overshadow the pandemic with news stories this past year. But there have been moments. Last year it was the killing of George Floyd. This year it is the tragic news coming out of Kamloops… the discovery of the remains of 215 children who attended the Kamloops Residential School. 

While the news came out Thursday night, it quickly snowballed into a furor of outrage, grief, sorrow and lament through days that followed. We have not changed. We are still the messy, confused, upset human beings that we hear about in Mark today. 

Just as Jesus points out that a house divided cannot stand, we are reminded that we are a divided and broken house. It was the revelation that opened the eyes of too many to Canada’s colonial history. It was something we should have known, a story that has been told over and over again to settler Canadians:

Six years on from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission…

After countless stories of systemic racism against indigenous peoples in our country… 

After news stories about the way the RCMP and other police forces target indigenous peoples…

After reports of indigenous over-representation in our prison system….

After it is revealed that indigenous communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19…

After indigenous treaty land rights are routinely ignored by governments for the sake of resource extraction…

After our governments and churches consistently apologize, lament, wring their hands, yet drag their feet when it comes to real action towards implementing reconciliation…

After decades of not providing clean drinking water to too many indigenous communities… 

After many mental health crises on First Nations causing too many young people to die of suicide…  

After all of that, it still took the remains of 215 children to wake us Settlers up, at least for now, to the fact that Canada is a divided and broken house, just like the one that Jesus describes. We are a nation that has yet to truly discern who our siblings and family are.

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When our family arrived at the Oodena Celebration Circle at The Forks, there were about a dozen people scattered around the amphitheater. In the centre was the impromptu memorial. Shoes and stuffed animals, flowers and photos. As we stood at the top of the steps, a boy just Oscar’s age, an indigenous boy, came up and said to Oscar, “Can we be friends?” Oscar looked up at me, and I nodded. The two ran off to explore the edges of the installation. A little indigenous girl Maeve’s age came up to her wanting to see the baby doll that Maeve had brought with her. Together with Courtenay, the two girls made their way down the steps to the centre of the circle to get a closer look at the memorial. They walked around the shoes and stuffed animals, as Courtenay carefully told them the story of why these things were left in this place. 

I found a ledge to sit on and watch while they examined the items left at the circle. The pastor in me wanted to gather people and lead them in prayer. Or least to pray myself. Yet, many wise teachers remind us in moments like these it is good to slow down and listen. So, I let my prayer be listening. 

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In the middle of the disciples, crowds, the angry scribes and his upset family, Jesus’ responses seem odd at first. He rebuffs the religious authorities, telling them that their houses are divided, and unable to stand. Later he brushes off his family, claiming that his family is those who do the will of God. 

And yet, there is something more to what Jesus is doing. As the community around him splits off into factions all looking out for their own, Jesus keeps attending to his business. 

He has been healing, teaching, calling disciples, and soon he will be teaching the crowds in parables that will ring with familiarity to our ears. 

In the middle of this chaotic moment, Jesus holds steadfast to the work of God in the world. Jesus has come for a purpose, to bring the Kingdom of God near to God’s people. Even as the mess of humanity desperately tries to derail his mission, desperately tries to get some more miracles and healings out of him. Jesus sets himself to the task at hand – announcing God’s kingdom come near. 

It isn’t flashy or bold or dramatic, but determined and unmovable. Jesus invites those around him into the mission. Jesus invites those who would hear him into his Kingdom building… but if they will not participate, he will go about his business anyway. If those around him want to join in, Jesus calls them to follow.

Jesus reminds the scribes that he is there to do God’s work. 

Jesus reminds his family that all those who do the will of God are his family. 

Jesus reminds the crowds, that he is there on behalf of the God of all, reconciling creation with Creator.

All too often God knows that we need this reminder. That the work and ministry that we are called to, that Christ through the Body of Christ is doing is the work of the Kingdom. 

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When Courtenay, Maeve and her friend finally left the memorial in the middle of the circle, another family arrived. The two parents, with their three young kids, walked down to the memorial. As they walked, the mother called to her oldest son, about 5, to stand beside her. Her calm soft voice echoed across the amphitheater, she reminded her son of why they came, 

“Remember, these things are for the little ones that I told you about. We are going to offer them tobacco and pray that they go to the good place.” 

She took a pinch of sacred tobacco herbs and placed them in her son’s hands. He gingerly sprinkled them over the memorial, and began to pray. “Dear God, take care of all the little ones. Amen” And then the mother did the same with some more tobacco, praying silently to herself. 

There I was, a member of the Christian clergy, the same clergy that took children away to residential schools, and in this ancient meeting place, where the people of this land have lived from before Jesus was crucified, before the temple in Jerusalem was built, before the pyramids of Egypt were built… and I was bearing witness to the people and to the land, beginning the work of healing. Here were indigenous children and families, just like the ones that the church and government sought to educate, doing the very thing they tried to wipe out. 

It was a moment of grief and sadness, yet also a moment of hope. It was a sign of the Spirit’s work, a sign that, even when humanity drags our feet in the work of reconciliation, God is doing the work of bringing new life into the world. 

In the middle of our human mess, of our various factions being upset and confused and angry… 

Jesus is doing the work of God – with us or despite us.

And God is bringing hope and healing to the land. 

And God is bringing new life into the world. 

And Jesus is bringing God and God’s Kingdom near. 

Amen.

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. 
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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.

Behind-the-Scenes-Philip and the Greeks who Want to See Jesus

John 12:20-33
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit…

Lent has been long and hard on us this year. Lent has been a long and hard year. Usually, this 5 week season of preparation for Holy Week is about opening us up to Jesus’ work in the world, helping us to see just where God is doing important work in our world. Instead of that, this year has felt like stumbling through the wilderness, learning to trust that God is leading us somewhere, even if we cannot see the way. 

We began Lent as Jesus showed us that wilderness is not the scary place we imagine, but where God meets God’s people. We continued as Peter rebuked Jesus for talking about death, and we were shown how our fears get in the way of seeing God’s work. We then watched as Jesus overturned tables in the temple, accusing people of selling God and we were shown that our own tables have been turned right side up. 

And last week, Jesus reminded us that the familiar verse of John 3:16 is not exactly the verse we hope to use to convert those around us, but instead comes in the context of a reminder of how we are condemned already… and it is in our dark world that God shines a light, even if that light stings a little. 

As Lent concludes this week, the disciple Philip is milling about the busy religious marketplace of Jerusalem. This scene actually comes after the triumphant entry, where Jesus rides into town on a Donkey. 

Unlike Peter, James and John, Philip is not a leader among the disciples. He is more of a background kind of guy. Peter is the one who speaks up as the leader of the group, even if he is putting his foot in his mouth half of the time. James and John are vying to be Jesus’ second in command. The three got to go up the mountain with Jesus. But Philip is behind the scenes. While Jesus is teaching the masses, Philip is finding the boy with 5 small loves and 2 fish to feed the 5000. Today, Philip is away from the action, from the crowds surrounding Jesus. 

And this is where some Greek Jews come to him. They are from far away. They have come to the Holy city for passover… perhaps this will be their only chance in a lifetime to be in Jerusalem for the festival. As foreigners, they are unfamiliar with the city, but they have probably heard about this rabbi and teacher who rode into town like a King.”Sir, we wish to see Jesus” they ask. 

Philip, uncertain, goes to Andrew. Together, they leave the Greeks behind to go and talk to Jesus, who gives them a long speech.

If Philip were a church member today, he would be an usher or greeter. He would be one of those volunteers who likes behind-the-scenes work. Peter, James and John might be up front preaching, reading the lessons, conducting the choir, or on church council. Philip would be in early to make coffee, he would probably have picked up some doughnuts for a snack after church. While others are up front leading or taking charge, Philip was the disciple looking for a place to eat or sleep, he is the one making sure that people are looked after and that everyone has what they need. 

But when the Greeks come looking for Jesus, when that visitor walks in the door of the church, he knows how to pass out a bulletin or a cup of coffee… but he isn’t so sure about taking people to meet Jesus. 

If I had to guess, it would seem that many church members are Philips. Faithful people diligently working behind the scenes, caring for each other.

And up until a year ago, we knew how to care for each other. We had tools and habits that we could rely on to maintain community. The chit chat with a sibling in Christ while setting up communion or washing coffee dishes. The conversations in the narthex following worship, or before choir practice, or in the parking lot after a committee meeting. 

And like Philip, the faithful and diligent behind-the-scenes disciple, we find ourselves out of our normal context. Our usual habits and tools for building and caring for community have been ripped away from us. Instead we have been forced to build and maintain community in the comments section of a Facebook video, and over sometimes awkward zoom calls “Gladys, I can’t hear you, you are on mute!”

And we have had to learn to be intentional about reaching out with phone calls and emails and check-ins. We have had to find new ways to be together and collaborate as community. Finding that nice spot in a house to film yourself doing a reading, singing hymns into your iPhone hoping that it can all be mixed together for Sunday, delivering sermon packages and hymnals, teaching an elder relative in faith how to zoom, sharing the peace with text messages and praying over the phone. 

And even as we have been worshipping from home, we have also been revealed to the world in perhaps uncomfortable ways with our worship being on social media, viewable by people across the world. 

Just when our old familiar tools and habits for being church have been ripped away, we have been joined by folks coming to us, wishing to see Jesus in our midst. 

Like Philip, every instinct tells us to go to Andrew instead. In the before time, we might have pointed a visitor asking for Jesus to the bathrooms, showed them how to use a hymnal, waved the pastor over hoping to make quick exit. These days, being out in the open and in the public space of social media might make us uncomfortable or uncertain about what to do when people we don’t know “show up” for worship. 

Before this past year it was easy for us to forget why people walk through church doors in the first place. To forget why we keep coming back again and again. To forget that the volunteer roles we sign up for, the jobs we agree to do, the relationships that become so important to us, the community we form and become a part of are not the things that make us the church.

But this past year has revealed to us a truth more important than ever. That even with all those things that seemed to make a community, those relationships and connections, those habits and tools, those jobs and behind the scenes things that bonded us together… even with all of those things mostly taken away, here we still are still gathering together, still a community of faith.

This past year has revealed the thing that binds us together… the One who binds us together, the One at the centre of the shared faith we confess… the one who has been dragging us through this long season of wilderness. The one that those Greek Jews asked Philip to see. 

When the always helpful Philip goes to Andrew, and the two go to Jesus not sure what to do with these foreigners… 

The Greeks are looking for the King who rode into Jerusalem. 

Yet, Jesus takes their question and steers it in a new direction. 

Jesus says, “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

God is busy drawing all people. All nations. All kinds, young and old, new and familiar, those leading up front and those behind the scenes… God is drawing all of us to the Christ who is lifted up on the cross. God is the ultimate reason that we are all here regular or visitor, seeking and searching or committed and devoted. 

God is gathering us together, and God who is we are ultimately looking for when we show up at church. God is who makes the church the church. God is who finds us, even as we are uncertain at times with what to do with that question, “We wish to see Jesus”

Today, Philip, even though he is not sure how to answer the Greeks, is still trying to be a faithful disciple and follower of Jesus. 

And Jesus recognizes that too. 

Jesus knows that even when our communities are thrown into turmoil and we have to learn completely new ways of being a community and gather using unfamiliar means and struggle with what to with when people come to us ask “We wish to see Jesus,”… Jesus knows that even with all that we are still trying to be faithful. 

And so God keeps gathering us. Gathering us around the word, proclaimed and shared in the most surprising of ways.  

God works with our faithfulness as it is. And from there, God draws us all to the cross. To the place where Christ will be crucified and will die.  

And yet also the place where death will drag us through the wilderness to the empty tomb. To the place where God’s faithfulness is fully revealed, to the reason that we continue to be and gather as community despite all odds.  To the place where God’s faithfulness is on full display when Jesus is lifted up, drawing us all to God’s love.