The following is our December 2022 newsletter with updates about the ministry.
The following prayers were written by Robert Revington for the WBB service on 29 November 2022. Some text derived from “Darkness Goodness” by Jacqueline Daley and “Cloth for the Cradle: Worship Resources and Readings for Advent, Christmas, & Epiphany.
Lord, who created the universe and humankind out of darkness; “light for the day; dark for the night,” be with us. We came from the darkness of the womb and to darkness we will go. Through darkness you helped the Hebrews escape Egypt; Through darkness you summoned Moses; Through darkness the Holy Family escaped Herod; Through darkness you allowed the slaves to escape on the Underground Railway. Our saviour was laid in a dark grave to bring salvation from our sins. Darkness brings liberty to the captives. (Prayers for those who are oppressed in body, spirit, heart and mind.) Darkness is not evil. Your people sin in daylight, as in the stories of Adam, Eve, Cain, David in the afternoon light. As Jesus was crucified in the morning light. The greatest sins are not always on the streets at night but in an office in the daylight, where the poor are neglected. We remember your servants Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and others whose Black lives shone light on White sin, enlightening the world to let freedom win and that black is not the twin of evil. (Prayers for leaders and people of influence to move the world toward God’s justice.) In darkness, love ignites, passion soars, and lovers unite. Prayer and meditation happen in closed-eyed darkness; the friendly darkness, where sleep also rescues us from tiredness. We bless you, Lord of light and dark; teach us to be still in your deep darkness. (A moment of stillness and silence.) Two thousand years ago, in the town of Bethlehem, when the world was dark, and the city was quiet, you came. And no one knew, except the few who believed. As the old song says, “It came upon a midnight clear” —a child born, a message of peace to all. Show us how hope rises in darkness as it did in Bethlehem, whisper to us gently in the dark, and remind us that you are there even when we do not see you. Amen.
The following prayers were written by Amy for the Wine Before Breakfast service on 22 November 2022.
Lord we come to you as your creatures, your servants, your beloved children, your subjects, and collectively as your “bride.” And today we are reminded that you also call us your friends! In an age of social media platforms, where a person can have hundreds or even thousands of Facebook “friends” even some we have never met, it’s hard to know what ‘friendship’ even means. Has the term lost its meaning? Lord do we even have a sense of what it means for YOU to call US friends? You said that there is no greater love than when someone lays down their life for their friends. That is just EXACTLY what you did for us, each and all! This shows your friendship toward us. How do we show OUR friendship for You? Through how we demonstrate love for one another. In the way that we endeavour to follow your commandments, the greatest of which IS to love one another as you have loved us! By how we get to know what you are all about, and use that as our model for interacting with the people around us. Help us create spaces where we can gather to care for one another; Spaces where we can share refreshment of body and soul; Spaces where we see You in each other, You, who are the original, Source, purest, and most perfect Love. And in creating these spaces, may we learn from our failures and pursue healing for things that have gone wrong. Help us create space to bring our cares; laying it all out to you in prayer. And oh, we DO have cares on our mind, Lord. Overwhelmed hospitals, an ongoing pandemic, and the new flu season that is already claiming lives. Grief, sorrows, regrets, debts, wounds, and worries. A city that treats our vulnerable and homeless citizens as if they were disposable. The ongoing travesty of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and of Native communities without safe drinking water. Violence against those who are different, fears for the very climate we live in, and guilty concern about the impact of the everyday choices we make. The prospect of “Women, Life, Freedom” protesters in Iran being sentenced to death. Worries about the outcomes of the political representatives we choose, and the choices they make “for” us. It can feel overwhelming Lord, when there’s so much troubling news! Help us to bring it all to you in prayer. When we turn our cares over to you, may we find solace and courage there. In the expansiveness of your love, comfort, and care. In the streets, in our homes, and wherever we meet with others. May we meet, see, and greet each other In your love, your word, your example; Joining hands with friends and strangers alike. Treating those strangers as if they are Your own dear friends, and therefore to be valued by us, and cherished. Beloved, where we are, you are there. And you can brighten the darkest night, when we call on you and you meet us. Thank-you, Lord. Amen.
The following sermon was preached at WBB on 15 November 2022 by Robert Revington, the ministry’s emerging leader.
Let me begin with a question. How many of you, at some point in your lives, have had a sandwich from the chain Subway restaurants? I have many times and liked the taste. However, Subway has a bit of a reputation for the fact that their ingredients aren’t always what they claim to be. For example, one lawsuit argued that Subway’s tuna sandwiches had little actual tuna, but were a mixture from a variety of animals.1 Perhaps even more damning, two years ago, a court in Ireland ruled that the bread used in Subway’s sandwiches did not legally deserve to be called … bread.2 After analyzing their ingredients, the court found that Subway’s bread had a surprising amount of sugar relative to the amount of flour, and so, it would be more accurately labeled confectionery than real bread.3 Subway released a statement saying that they believed their bread really was bread.4 I think we can agree that in Gospels, when Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life,” (John 6:35) he didn’t have Subway bread in mind. No. But it is a recurring theme in that Gospel that Jesus uses metaphors to represent himself which point to some of the basic and most foundational things in existence. I titled this sermon “The Holy in the Common.” It’s taken from a line by the British theologian John A. T. Robinson. Robinson wrote that many people today “are more likely to respond to the sacred in the secular, the holy in the common … than in the distinctively religious.”5 Robinson laments that too often, “localizing the holy in the sanctuary in fact for many makes it more difficult to recognize.”6 Robinson also says that the phrase “the holy in the common” is “basically the meaning of the holy communion.”7 There’s something symbolic about that: the coming of God is represented in one of the most common of all things—a piece of bread. It was like that in Jesus’s time. So much so, that in the New Testament, the Greek word ἄρτος means “bread,” but can be used interchangeably just to mean “food” in general; when the Lord’s Prayer tells us, “give us today our daily bread,” it means keep us fed—not just to keep us well stocked in grain products specifically. Jesus chose one of the most common of foods to represent his body. He came into our common history—into the real world. Not just the world that we hear about in church, but in the world where people wait in line when they go shopping at the store, or get put on hold when we make a phone call, or get stuck in traffic. The world where kids have school and someone has to do the vacuuming and do dishes. That world. As the Gospel of John tells us, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The holy can be found among the common because the Incarnate Lord came in common flesh for common people. When Jesus calls himself “the Bread of Life,” he is identifying himself with the essential food we need to sustain ourselves. Because we need him to live. Sometimes, the most common things are the things we need the most.
Similarly, when the preacher G. H. Lang visited the Middle East in 1928, the meaning of another of Jesus’s metaphors in the Gospel of John was brought home to him in a striking manner.8 It was a hot June day; the temperature was 102 degrees Fahrenheit.9 The sort of day that gets you all sweaty, leaves your tongue dry, and makes you long for a sip of cool water to quench your thirst. Lang visited an ancient well “and drank of its cold and clear water.”10 It was refreshing on such a hot day. But it wasn’t just any well. It was the site of the story in John 4, where Jesus meets the woman of Samaria. Here, Jesus speaks of how he offers living water (John 4:10). Jesus says of the well, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). Drinking of the water in that same well on such a hot day made Lang understand that story in a new way. And he reflected that as wonderful as it was to get those sips of water on a 102 degree day, it was nothing compared to what Christ offered: living water from which one would never thirst again.11 We see again that Jesus is identifying himself with something pure and almost elemental: the water we need to live. There’s something hard to beat about having something in its pure, elemental form. I have liked drinking orange juice for many years and always thought Tropicana orange juice was particularly good. But until recently, I didn’t know what I was missing. When I was studying in the U. S. earlier this year, after going to an American grocery store chain called Trader Joe’s, for the first time in my life I tried freshly-squeezed organic orange juice. It was like I’d never had orange juice before! It was so pure and tasty and natural. If Jesus had made a metaphor about orange juice in the Gospel of John, he would have said: “I am the freshly-squeezed organic orange juice.” And he would not have said, “I am orange cocktail made from concentrate.” Because it’s not the same thing—especially once you’ve had the real thing. A little like Subway bread compared to the warm, fresh baguettes I had some mornings when I went to France.
I’d like you all to take a look at a picture. This is a painting from around 1850 by an Englishman named John Everett Millais. It’s called Christ in the House of His Parents; it shows the young Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and other members of the Holy Family—including a young John the Baptist carrying water.12 And it’s dense in biblical imagery in the background—like the Good Shepherd and Jacob’s Ladder. Surprising as this might sound, when this painting first came out, it caused a scandal. It was considered irreverent, even though this wasn’t the author’s intent. There were a lot of different reasons people reacted this way, but here’s one: in Victorian England, people were scandalized by how, in the painting, Joseph’s carpentry workshop wasn’t spotlessly clean—and this was the Holy Family! You can see scraps of wood all over the floor. Shocking, isn’t it? Now, you’d expect that this is what you’d find in a real carpenter shop where people did real work. But sometimes, the world of the Bible is treated as unreal—and not the world of common things.
In fact, an American Presbyterian theologian named Robert McAfee Brown once went to a church conference in the Philippines. He went to a worship service that used a Filipino dialect called Tagalog. Although Brown didn’t know the language, he discovered “that the Tagalog word for ‘holy’ was banal.” At first, he was put off by that, because in English, if something is “banal” that means it is uninteresting, unimportant, or ordinary. But when Brown reflected on it further, he realized that for these Filipino churches, “the ‘holy’ was not located in some far-off place, but in the very midst of the banal, the ordinary, the apparently unexciting—the places we North American folk would not be likely to notice.” Brown writes: “Even the coming of the Messiah into the world was an example of banality: Jesus was a nobody from the boondocks.” He concludes: “I count this interpretive key one of the major theological discoveries of my life.”13
Similarly, if you read the Book of Colossians, you’ll discover an interesting thing. The early chapters of the book talk in great, cosmic terms and speak of how the whole universe is under Christ’s dominion. In Colossians 1:15-17, Paul writes of Jesus that
he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
But we need to remember that when Paul says, “all things,” he means “all things.” Even the little things of everyday life. In the later part of the book, Paul gives rules for how people are to live at home or treat the people around them—for example, how husbands and wives are to treat each other, how children ought to obey their parents, but parents ought to treat their children well. Today we might think that Paul stresses the authority of the husband too much for modern tastes or not like how he has to tell slaves to follow their masters. Still, there’s an underlying point here. As the Bible scholar Luke Timothy Johnson writes, in that letter, Paul went from talking about these great cosmic ideas to something more grounded: the household.14 As Johnson says, “this illustrates Paul’s point made throughout: instead of seeking the ‘extra’ or ‘higher’ things, Christians should look to their own community and their present experience of God, for there they will find the manifestation of everything they so fervently desire.”15 In other words, when Paul said that “all things” come together in Christ, he meant the cosmos and the rulers of nations—but also the things of everyday life.
G. K. Chesterton writes that when Jesus chose the leader of his movement, he picked “a shuffler, a snob, a coward—in a word, a man.”16 It was Simon Peter. Chesterton adds:
All the empires and kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian church, was founded upon a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.17
In essence, Jesus chose to make the rock of his church not a great man, but a common man. Likewise, the minister Peter Marshall reminds us that “Jesus liked people—all kinds of folks—red blooded folks … for he himself was red-blooded.”18
And another important thing also comes in common forms: love. Throughout history, there are so many stories and poems about love. We might think of descriptions of young, beautiful people in a meadow on a sunny day. Yet, I would submit to you this: sometimes, love is most pure when it’s least glamorous. What, then, is love? Love is what makes a parent get up in the middle of the night to bring a bowl to a child who has thrown up and then clean up after them. Love is pushing someone in a wheelchair around a hospital floor, and giving them something to lean on for support to help them walk. And love is visiting someone in a nursing home when they may not always know who you are and won’t remember that you came.
Where does this leave us? Jesus came in a common form and we commemorate him in the breaking of bread. He came in the humdrum existence of everyday life. Sometimes the most holy things are found in the most common places, because the most common things are the things we need the most. As with bread, and as with love, let us remember each day, that, the holy is in the common. What could be clearer evidence of it than this: the Good News that the Son of God came down in human form to save us common people? Amen.
1 Tim Carman, “The Subway Tuna Lawsuit Is Back, Alleging That Samples Contain Chicken, Pork, and Cattle DNA,” The Washington Post, 10 November 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/food/2021/11/10/amended-subway-tuna-lawsuit/.
2 Sam Jones and Helen Sullivan, “Subway Bread Is Not Bread, Irish Court Rules,” The Guardian, 1 October 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/01/irish-court-rules-subway-bread-is-not-bread.
5 John A. T. Robinson, “Where May I Find Him?,” in Where Three Ways Meet: Last Essays and Sermons (London: SCM Press, 1987), 165-66.
6 Ibid., 165.
7 Ibid., 165-66.
8 G. H. Lang, An Ordered Life: An Autobiography (Shoals, IN: Kingsley Press, 2011 ), 200.
12 For the discussion which follows, see Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church, vol. 2(London: Adam & Charles Black, 1970), 62; 67-8.
13 See Robert McAfee Brown, Reflections over the Long Haul: A Memoir (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 263.
14 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 355.
16 G. K. Chesterton, Heretics (London: The Bodley Head, 1905), 60.
17 Ibid., 60-61.
18 Catherine Marshall, A Man Called Peter: The Story of Peter Marshall (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951), 301.
The following prayers were written by Alicia for the WBB service held on 15 November 2022. The theme was God as bread.
God who gives, we pray to you for bread each day. You taught us to pray like your people in the desert, receiving what they needed each day and no more, learning to depend on you. Jesus, bread of life, you turn our eyes from daily bread to living bread. Give us this bread always. God who came down from heaven, we thank you that you care about life in this world, that you are our staff of life. God who promises to raise us up at the last day, we praise you for the hope of resurrected life. Give us this bread always. (Pause for silent meditation and praise.) Jesus, living bread, we are hungry. Provide for those who have little to eat, whose budget is tight, who must often go without. We pray especially for your blessing on the work of the Common Table among the homeless and vulnerably housed in Toronto. Help us to be your hands to the hungry, baking and sharing daily bread. (Prayers for those struggling in the city, the country, and the world in a time of economic difficulty.) Jesus, living bread, we are hungry. Provide for those who lack wholesome spiritual food, who long for strength and meaning, who seek life that lasts. We pray for this ministry and others in the university, that you would use us to bring words of hope and life to those who need them. Help us to come to you and feed on you, and hold out that food to others. (Prayers for the university and the wider culture it feeds, for those lost and needing spiritual food.) Living God, those who feed on you will live because of you. We ask you today and every day: give us this bread always. Amen.
The following were the opening prayers for the WBB service held on 15 November 2022. The prayers build on the service’s theme of God as bread, as well as the opening song: “Falling at your feet” by Daniel Lanois.
Gracious God, we come to you stumbling and falling down, bringing with us our needs and imperfections. You invite us to surrender ourselves to you, to trust in your good and holy will. We come hungry for renewal and justice, thirsty for joy and restoration. Give us the bread of life. May we taste and see that you are good. Amen.
The following are the prayers of the people written by Deb Whalen-Blaize for the WBB service held on 8 November 2022.
Oh God, who is all-knowing Who forms us in the wom And is still placing stars in the sky We approach with confusion and yearning We ask: are you powerful and mighty Or humble and gentle? And we hear you answer: Yes. This morning we bring you all our assumptions, Our preconceived ideas The worldviews and narratives in which we find identity We offer them to you in trade for humility In your presence May we practice the art of listening, Mull over your morsels of wisdom, And learn to ask the right questions. (Moment of Silence and listening) O God, the journey to wisdom is long Thank you for your love along the way We pray for Your Church We have built so many walls Based on so many presumptions We have forgotten that sometimes It’s just more important to love Than to always have it right Will you foster in us not only humility, But curiosity? To delight in discovery, and marvel in mystery To remember that you have taught us To love the Lord our God With all our heart, soul, mind and strength And to love one another as we love ourselves. (Prayers for forgiveness for our faults and failings, for the strength to make amends, and to be who God wants us to be) O God, the journey to wisdom is long Thank you for your love along the way We pray, too, for your Spirit To guide all of us here At the University of Toronto For the students and faculty In pursuit of knowledge We pray that they will continue to experience The joy and excitement of learning We know that in every realm of society and community Your desire is for justice and equity We pray today for educators and support staff In institutions across the province Be with them in this time of outrage and protest Console and sustain those with stress or anxiety Free all from presumption and pride And from the temptation to abuse power and privilege May we see you at work Here on campus, and on the picket lines, O God. (Continued prayers for U of T students and faculty and for equitable working conditions in education in Ontario) O God, the journey to wisdom is long Thank you for your love along the way As Remembrance Day approaches, God, We thank you for your nearness As we continue to grieve loved ones And rage against history repeating itself (A moment of silence to remember those we have lost to war and violence, and to resonate with God’s desire for peace) We offer you these prayers Knowing you accept each and every one As we carry on along this journey towards wisdom, justice and peace. Thank you for your love along the way We know that, as we seek you, God You hide behind a tree, and laugh Beckoning us to come and play To walk beside you To consider and reconsider And to savour the richness of the journey Long before we reach the destination. Amen.
The following sermon was preached at WBB by Alicia Smith, a post-doc at PIMS, on 1 November, 2022.
This morning I want to bring you treasure from two places: from God’s Word and from the heritage of the medieval Church. The image of God that I was asked to speak on is of a hiding place, as we heard in Psalm 32: and to help us think about this, I want to offer you a word-picture used in medieval literature, which is Christ’s body as a dovecote. A dovecote is just a house for domesticated doves: usually a tall house or tower studded all over with small entrances for doves to shelter in. It’s not the most obvious of metaphors for Jesus’s body!
But images like this can do us good simply by making us stop and think, by stepping outside our usual selection of imagery and words for God. My hope is that it will help us think in a fresh way about God’s wounds, our wounds, and the protection that the one can offer the other.
My academic background is in medieval English literature. I first encountered this image in a Middle English ‘Meditation on the Passion’. This is sometimes said to have been written by a man called Richard Rolle, a hermit and spiritual maverick who died in the Black Plague. But it isn’t certain that he was in fact the author.
The author of this Meditation takes us slowly through the narrative of the Passion, demonstrating how medieval readers were supposed to pay careful attention to every detail of the scene and turn it into prayer. The text lingers for a long time on the image of Jesus’s dying body, often using vivid and even gruesome terms. It addresses Jesus directly throughout, making it an intimate encounter that the reader can enter for themselves. Let me read some to you:
Sweet Jesu … Your body at that time was like the sky, because just as heaven is full of stars, so your body was full of wounds.
And again, sweet Jesu, your body is like a net, because just as a net is full of holes, so your body is full of wounds. …
Once more, sweet Jesu: your body is like a dove-house, because just as a dovecote is full of openings, so your body is full of wounds, and just as a dove being chased by a hawk is safe enough if she can only get to an opening in her dovecote, so, sweet Jesu, your wounds are the best refuge for us in every temptation.
The author goes on to compare Jesus’s wounded body to a honeycomb, dripping sweetness from every cell, a book written in red ink, and a meadow filled with flowers and health-giving herbs.
So in Middle English, Christ’s body is like a dufhouse, a dove-house, a dovecote. ‘Your body is like a dovecote, for as full as a dovecote is of holes, so full is your body of wounds.’ We’re supposed to use our visual imaginations first of all, grasping the sheer quantity of Jesus’s wounds, how they are all over his body.
But we aren’t supposed just to look. We’re not even supposed to stop where Thomas did, putting his hand to the wounds of Christ. Here is where it gets weird: we are supposed to go close, to go in, to be enclosed in this broken-open body and find safety there. ‘Your wounds are the best refuge for us.’
The desire to enter into Jesus’s wounds isn’t unique to this text in medieval literature. Late medieval spirituality in particular was intensely concerned with the physical body of Christ, most of all at the point of his death. When you look at visual art of the Crucifixion as it developed through the Middle Ages, over time you start to see Jesus transform from an almost stoic, still figure on the Cross, to one visibly wracked by pain, his limbs twisted, his blood running freely.
This intense, tactile focus led to a particular devotion among many medieval people to the wounds Jesus received, particularly the wound in his side. It’s not uncommon to find illustrations of that wound in medieval manuscripts which are smudged from being touched by reader after reader. People wanted contact with Jesus’s wounded body. They wanted to be close to him, close enough to be protected by him, in the very moment when he gave up any protection for himself.
This brings me to our Bible passage, Psalm 32. You don’t find a dovecote here, but you do find a description of God as a ‘hiding place’, someone who surrounds us with love and protects us from trouble. This verse has been important to me for a long time – I actually wrote it on the ceiling above my bunkbed as a teenager – I don’t think my parents were necessarily on board with me defacing the paint! But I didn’t know until I was preparing this sermon that the word for hiding place in the verse, the Hebrew noun seter, is in fact the same word used in the closest Biblical source we have for the dovecote image.
This is in the second chapter of the Song of Songs, where the Lover says to the Beloved:
My dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the hiding places on the mountainside,
show me your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely.
It might not be immediately obvious to us what the link is between this wild dove in the mountains, which is an endearment for the Beloved bride being wooed in the Song, and the manmade dovecote of the Meditation, which is an image of the wounded Christ. But it would have been simpler for medieval people. They were used to highly allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs as representing the love between Christ and the human soul. So the twelfth-century Cistercian monk Aelred of Rievaulx makes the connection, when he says this about Christ: ‘wounds have been made in his limbs, holes in the walls of his body, in which, like a dove, you may hide’.
The image of the hiding place is used differently in the two Scriptural passages I’ve mentioned. In the Song, the Lover is calling to the Beloved to come out from the hiding places in the rock, whereas in Psalm 32, the speaker rejoices in how protected they are by God as their hiding place. But let’s think for a moment about this psalm, and what it says God is protecting us from.
In verses 3 and 4, the speaker of the psalm is suffering. They are weak and wasting away, unable to sleep, groaning in pain. And the reason for this is that they have kept silent about something they need to speak aloud: an acknowledgement of sin. Physical wounds are the symbol of a moral or emotional woundedness, a brokenness that can only be remedied by hiding themselves in God.
Often when we pray for protection or deliverance, it’s from external circumstances: illness, physical threats, conflict with others or in our world. The psalm is aware of the need for protection from these ‘mighty waters’.
But while we certainly face danger ourside ourselves, if we’re honest, we know there are dangers within as well. I’m probably not the only one who relates to Paul’s words in Romans: ‘I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.’ Many of us face turmoil in our emotions or thoughts that it feels hard to escape. We can end up trapped in patterns of behaviour that hurt ourselves and others, and then we’re further trapped by shame that stops us speaking about them.
The psalmist knows this, and the author of the Meditation on the Passion knew it too. That’s why, I think, the dovecote of Christ’s bleeding body is said to be a refuge for us ‘in our temptations’, which pursue us like hawks.
Now, the intense, even obsessive focus on Jesus’s broken, hurting body can feel uncomfortable to us. It’s a lot! And this is a pretty mild example of that trend in medieval culture, to be honest. I’m often thrown off by how unfamiliar this way of thinking feels to me. But I want to say to you, and to myself, that it is really, really important that Jesus Christ is our hiding place precisely because he is a wounded body to whom we can bring our wounds.
In some ways, if you think about it, the medieval image doesn’t make a lot of sense. A wound is by definition an open space that shouldn’t be open. It’s a place where what is inside is laid bare and pain is the result. The inside becomes the outside. So it doesn’t seem like the most promising place to hide.
But that is the point, I think, and it makes an important connection with Psalm 32. The speaker of the psalm becomes sure of the protection and surrounding love of God at the moment when they lay their troubles bare.
It can be painful to be honest with God, let alone other people. But it opens up a path to blessing, and to a safety much greater than the secrecy of shame. We don’t need to cover up our own wounds because Jesus was already wounded. We are safe enough to speak honestly. Maybe there is a way you can live in that radical safety this week.
One way of doing that is to sing, because this is the kind of safety that brings joy. The Lover of the Song says: ‘Let me hear your voice’. The psalmist says, ‘Rejoice, be glad, and sing.’
I’ll close with another voice, the poet Siegfried Sassoon. This is a poem called ‘Everyone Sang’.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
The following sermon was preached on 8 November 2022 at Wine Before Breakfast by Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink.
As I’ve been telling Bible stories to my daughter, Lydia, I’ve remembered how fun it is to tell good stories: stories where there is suspense and surprise. Unfortunately, the way many Bible stories are told to children they clean up some of this suspense and some of the sneakiness of the characters – and I think we are all the worse for that.
So I’ve been naming some of that sneakiness in the Bible, and in my own family we see playing sneaky tricks on each other as a good thing. It is a way for me to practice being child-like, to being naive enough that I can be tricked. It’s a way for us to laugh with each other and to be surprised by each other.
It’s with this understanding of being tricked and tricking others that I want to explore the idea of God as trickster. This image of God who invites us into being foolish and learning to see the Bible, ourselves, and the world in new ways.
I also want to acknowledge that this image of God as trickster is still an image that I’m wrestling with. Few people like being tricked and neither tricking or being tricked are positive images for it messes with our understanding of what is fair. So I want to acknowledge that is not a comfortable image of God, nor is it necessarily an image of God that is or should be all-encompassing. Yet I also believe that it’s an image that is worth exploring.
The image of God as trickster is not one that we associate with Christianity; it’s an image that fits more with other religions, with myths and folktales. Yet, this quote from Byrd Gibbens suggests ways that we might learn from the role of tricksters: “Many native traditions held clowns and tricksters as essential to any contact with the sacred. People could not pray until they had laughed, because laughter opens and frees from rigid preconception. Humans had to have tricksters within the most sacred ceremonies for fear that they forget the sacred comes through upset, reversal, surprise.”1
What if a willingness to be tricked is part of what it means to be a Christian? As 1 Corinthians 1:21 says, “Creator knew that the world through its wisdom would not come to know him. So his heart was glad to rescue and set free the ones who trust in the ‘foolishness’ of the good story we tell.”
To explore this idea of trickster a bit more, the following are several Old Testament examples about tricksters and then move on to the parable that we read.
I’ll start with the story of David and Goliath. David shows up in the army camps, bringing in food for his older brothers. He asks why everyone is standing around while Goliath is making fun of them and their God. When he hears about Goliath’s challenge to fight a champion, he offers to go himself. Instead of intervening when David makes the offer, those in charge agree and offer to lend him armor, which doesn’t fit, kind of like a child playing dress-up.
When David approaches Goliath, Goliath makes fun of him – and probably doesn’t take David seriously. Because of that, David shoots him with a slingshot. Which probably violates all proper rules of combat. As a child I never questioned the unfairness of what David did – after all, God was on David’s side. As an adult, I appreciate how David won also because of how he tricked Goliath. And I wonder what it might look like to live in such a way that we allow God to use our trickery to do good for God – what it might look like to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves, as Jesus commands us [in Matthew 10:16]
Then there is Joseph, who is introduced to us by his obnoxious habit of telling his family about how his dreams show how they’ll bow down to him. After Joseph is dragged off to Egypt and his dreams actually come true, he meets his brothers again. And while the story eventually ends with a tearful reunion, again and again Joseph plays tricks on his brothers. He returns their money, accuses them of theft and cheating him, takes one of his brothers prisoner, and even conspires to take his youngest brother for himself. As Joseph’s brothers experience his tricks, they are convicted of their sins, arguing that what is happening is God punishing them for selling their brother. The conviction goes even so far that Judah changes from being the person who was willing to harm his daughter-in-law, Tamar, to being someone who was willing to lay down his own life for that of his youngest brother – so that no harm might come to him or their father.
As I hear that story, I wonder how trickery might play a role in my being convicted of my own sins, of the church and society might be convicted of how we need to change.
One last story, the story of Abraham and Sarah. God tells Abraham that he would have a son. Abraham laughs. Abraham and Sarah try to make that promise true by involving Hagar and things get very messy. Then three visitors come and Sarah overhears them telling Abraham that in a year he would have a son. Sarah laughs. What kind of person is foolish enough to believe that someone her age would have a baby?
But babies don’t come from nowhere – and Abraham and Sarah were foolish enough to try to make a baby. And indeed within a year, Isaac is born. Isaac whose name means laughter, a constant memory of their being foolish. And how God was gracious enough to meet them in spite of and because of their foolishness.
In these Old Testament stories we see how God uses trickery and foolishness to convict and to work in and through us humans. Trickery and foolishness also have a place in the New Testament. The parables and Jesus’ very life rearranges our expectations of who God, how God works, and what it means to follow Jesus. How often did Jesus not say – you have heard it said, but I tell you… And then he would tell a saying or parable.
In the parable we read today, many people see it as showing how salvation is about grace and that we can’t actually earn it with all our hard work, no matter how early or late we come to know God. The parable is also seen as a reminder that how God treats people doesn’t necessarily fit with our ideas of justice.
Yet, parables are meant to convict, like tricksters do. While God might need to convict us of our envy of how God treats others differently than me, perhaps the parable has an even harder lesson. After all, if the parable is really about how abundant God’s grace is for the first and the last, then why are people not actually being paid abundantly in the parable? All of the workers in the vineyard get paid only a day’s wages.
Amy-Jill Levine notes that the workers focus on how things are not fair but the landowner instead shows them what is right. She argues that “the point [of the parable] is not that those who have ‘get more,’ but that those who have not ‘get enough.” Furthermore, “If the householder can afford it, he should continue to put others on the payroll, pay them a living wage (even if they cannot put in a full day’s work), and so allow them to feed their families while keeping their dignity intact. The point is practical, it is edgy, and it is a greater challenge to the church then and today than the entirely unsurprising idea that God’s concern is that we enter, not when.”2
I think her words are both hard and convicting, especially right now when we in Ontario are surrounded by a conversation around how much education workers are getting paid. And while I don’t know enough about the situation to be able to speak to which degree each party is both right and wrong, I am struck by the truths of this parable. God cares that people have enough to live on. And this parable argues that those in power should do what they can to make sure that happens.3
I hope and pray that people, including ourselves, will use what influence we have to try to ensure that people do receive a living wage – that people can feed their families and themselves, have safe housing, and do so with their dignity intact.
As a final example of God as trickster, I’ll acknowledge that as much as I think it’s important to pick texts that are relevant to today, I’m a little unsettled by how relevant today’s text is. Alongside of all these OT examples of tricksters, I wanted to share a parable. The reading from today seemed fitting because of how it convicts us that our understanding of fairness might be wrong. I wasn’t expecting the conversation of fariness and a living wage to be one that the whole province was having and arguing about. And hopefully Christians have been praying and thinking about.
Even after all these examples, I’m not sure how well this image of trickster will connect with you – and that’s okay. But I do hope that you find joy and hope in God not always working as we expect. That you can find comfort in how God convict those who need convicting. That it will give you hope that people can change, including ourselves, and that the world can change so that more people will have a living wage and more people will have safe and affordable housing.
I pray, too, that you might open yourself to being naive and open to being tricked, so that you can make space for God to work and space to be surprised. And last of all, I pray that you might experience laughter and that this might help you to better know and love God, yourself, and others.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
2Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 218.
3After all, Jesus “tends to focus less directly on ‘good news to the poor’ than on ‘responsibility of the rich.” Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 218. Cf. Deuteronomy 15:11
The following prayers were used at the WBB service on November 1, which focused on Psalm 32 and God as hiding place. Some of the prayers is an adaptation of prayers written by Carrie Bare from “On Prayer: At the Start of New Year.”
God of comfort, you are our hiding place. You know who we are in our inmost parts, You see what is beautiful and what we are ashamed of. You know this world in which we live, from the CN Tower to research labs, from city hall to grocery stores. You know what has wasted away in ourselves and in the world around us, and you do not hide. [Silent and spoken prayers of confession and lament] God of comfort, you are our hiding place. You grant forgiveness and healing, reviving our strength, restoring creation. You provide a safe resting place, may we create places of safety for others. Help us to listen. Help us to notice. May we see your presence. God of comfort, we pray especially for the university. May professors and students be full of grace so that classrooms are conducive to learning, to discovering together what is possible, to being places of joy and hope. You provide a safe resting place, Where there is anything toxic going on in any of the departments, bring wholeness. Bring peace and good will. Help us honour one another as your image bearers. [Silent and spoken prayers for the university] God of comfort, you are our resting place, and we are so often in turmoil. Provide wisdom to those who are struggling, bring peace to those who are anxious, help those who are lonely to find friendships. You are our resting place, and too often our strength is dried up. Refill us with the energy we need to live well. Renew us, restore us, and set us back on good paths, so that we can use our gifts to your glory, to help the university, the church, and our workplaces. [Silent and spoken prayers for wisdom and restoration] God of comfort, Please help us discern what is actually ours to do, and what is not. What you are calling us to do, and what you are not calling us to do. Help us be attentive to your Holy Spirit so that we receive guidance and help and insight, and the courage to do what lies before us. Help us not to over-commit, over-extend and fail to finish well. When we fail, may we know your grace, may we find in you a resting place. May we be surrounded by your steadfast love and find joy in you. Amen.