Reconciliation and the Parable of the lost son

Sermon preached at WBB on January 11

Reading: Luke 15:11-32 (Parable of the lost son)

Many people feel connected to the parable we read today. No matter how wild or tame we’ve lived, we recognize how we’ve wandered from God and gone our own ways. We’ve demanded our share of what is coming to us and chosen to live as we’d like.

Yet, when we, like the youngest son, come back to our right minds, we return to God. And who is not deeply moved by the image in the text – the image of a parent who is waiting for us, who runs to us and throw their arms around us to welcome us home? Especially in this difficult pandemic season, this image of being embraced and welcomed is a powerful one.

But is the point of a parable only to comfort us? Shouldn’t it also challenge us and even make us a bit uncomfortable? And this is often where the interpretation of the second half of the parable moves: those of us who have followed God faithfully all of our lives – who have done all that was asked of us – are challenged to be less bitter and judgmental.

And while Jesus certainly commands people not to judge – and this is a real problem in the church and world – such an interpretation misses part of the messiness of the text and part of the invitation of the text to give and receive grace.

I want to acknowledge that it is the work of Amy-Jill Levine that helped me question my own understanding of the parable – her knowledge of the Old Testament helped me see that we should be surprised about the direction the parable moves.

First of all, Genesis tells multiple stories of two sons, like Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau – and it is the younger who chooses to do what is right. Yet in this parable, the younger son chooses for himself, choosing here to ask for as much as the father could give. There are questions about how appropriate it was that the younger son ask for his share of the inheritance – the version we read today provides, in italics, the interpretation that he ought not to have done so. The text here further explains that the father was good-hearted and loved his sons – and so the father gave in to him, allowing him to make a choice that had the potential for a lot of negative consequences – for both the younger and the older son.

You’ll notice that I’m gently prodding at what the text says about the father. One of the hardest challenges I find in interpreting this text relates to the beautiful image in the parable of the father’s welcome and loving embrace ––this image might shape our understanding so much of the text that we find it hard not to identify the father in the text with God. And thus it is difficult to question how good a father they actually are.

And while I can appreciate the image of God being a parent full of abounding love, I wonder how much of that appreciation has to do with my implicitly centering the story on me. Such an interpretation can easily center on how, on the basis of my own efforts, I came to my right mind and returned to God. Such an interpretation can easily shift to focusing on how I deserve the lavish gift of a banquet and being clothed in the best clothes while the consequences of our actions are ignored, including any harm done to others or how others might be excluded by our centralizing ourselves in the story.

When we look closely at the parable, we see that the older brother, as he is returning from a hard day’s work in the fields, hears the music and dancing. There was a feast going on without him – a feast that would have taken hours to prepare – to prepare the food and gather the guests. And no one in all that time had thought to let the brother know or invite him. And then, to add insult to injury, he needs to ask a servant what is going on: “Well, your father has prepared a great feast for your brother, because he is alive and well.”

And so, not surprisingly, the brother is angry. And he refuses to go in. The First Nations Version says that he refuses to go into the lodge, which helps me understand the weight of the brother’s refusal – he is refusing to go into the place that is home, the place that symbolizes welcome – for it has become a place of not-welcome, a place where he feels he has been excluded.

And so the son speaks angrily to his father: “Why can you not see?!? I have done all that you asked of me.” And in his anger, he distances himself from his brother, naming him not brother – but ‘this son of yours’ and accusing him of wasting all his money on sexual favours with women, an accusation that is not backed up earlier in the text. And so the older brother lashes out at the family who had wrongly hurt him.

And his father looks kindly on him. He does not address his son’s accusations, nor does he even acknowledge that what he or the younger brother did was wrong. Instead, he reminds him of the family relationship: my son, you are close to my heart. Your brother was dead but now he is alive. We must celebrate this return of the lost, we ought to celebrate the restoration of the family.

As Levine notes, the father’s words are an invitation to reconciliation. More specifically, she notes that in a family with two sons, “if we lose one, the family is not whole.” And so, she asks “Can we recognize that perhaps they can reconcile — perhaps not from repentance, but perhaps because of expediency? There might be something here as well — do we have to wait for someone to say ‘I’m sorry’? Perhaps we can be generous enough to say, ‘You’re welcome. Welcome home. You’re part of the family.’” [Levine: ‘Prodigal son’ forces reassessment of Bible’s other brother pairs]

I find this a beautiful invitation: choose grace, choose reconciliation, choose celebration and God’s abundance. For God is deeply abundant – and it would be so deeply costly to lose a member of the family.

And yet, such an interpretation makes me a little uncomfortable if I place myself in the shoes of the older brother. The words don’t entirely sound like an invitation to grace and reconciliation and even God’s abundance. Instead, they sound like words of expediency and a sweeping under the rug of things gone wrong. How much do these words not echo the words spoken too often by white people to people of colour – can’t we all just get along and move forward? We’re all one family, right?

In light of these questions, the words of the father feel empty – there has been no apology and no talk of consequences, an empty promise of land and freedom with no true listening to the brother’s hurt regarding how the rest of his family had taken from him.

How often must those who have been harmed cry out: Can you not see?!? Why are you not listening?!?

The parable has no happy ending. Sure, there is a feast and celebration – but there’s no guarantee that the family will come back together. No guarantee that the younger son and father will provide restitution for their actions or that the older brother will be reconciled.

It is a messy story, and yet, because of that it fits with our world today.

For many things in life, there are no simple explanations and no simple solutions. Even our pictures of God are not as simple as we’d like – even if I believe the image of God as loving and abundant is true that does not mean all have experienced God to be that way.

And there is no simplistic solution for resolving the damage that we as humans have done to each other.

And yet, there is hope in that. For it forces us to long for grace – grace given to us by God, who when asked to reconcile always says yes. God always works to bring us back to their open arms and welcomes us home – and yet that welcome is also an invitation into the hard work of restitution and forgiveness, of pointing out to each other when we do not see and responding humbly when we recognize how we have not listened to others.

Thankfully we have the Holy Spirit working in us, and we have the rest of God’s family, who are spread from east to west, to help us as we make this challenging journey.

May we trust that God’s ever abounding grace will be with us along each step of the way.

In the name of the Father, the son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen

– Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink

December 2021 Update

Once again we are inviting you to support us in our work at the University of Toronto. Through Wine Before Breakfast and Graduate Christian Fellowship, we challenge, mentor, and enable students to think, work, and live as Christian disciples in the academy and in their professions. Through wrestling with Scripture and difficult topics, we invite people into radical Christian discipleship, inviting them to rest in the hope of Christ and to participate in God’s work of bringing justice. 

The following words from Stephanie, an alumna of the ministry, give an example how God has worked in the past, and continues to work though this ministry into the present.

“I can’t express how much I have enjoyed staying connected via the weekly newsletter and the invitation to virtual gatherings during CoVid19.
This week’s topic [on politics] takes me back to a similar discussion held while I was on campus and there was a federal election. It was formative in my early walk as a Christian and I keep going back to those nuances I took away from that session each time I consider an issue presented in the political fora.
Although I am not I’m able to be present in it, it’s an important reminder to me that my fellow brethren are out there contemplating life with the lens of their faith.”

Grateful for how God uses this ministry to bless people’s lives, from generation to generation of students, we want to thank you for your support and participation, as well as invite you to partner financially with us in the shaping of a vibrant Christian community and witness at the University of Toronto and the wider city. 

For more detailed update about this past fall at Graduate Christian Fellowship and Wine Before Breakfast, including how we’ve been meeting in person, see the newsletter.

Elijah leaving – prayers of the people

The following prayers of the people written by Mike Walker were used in our Wine Before Breakfast service on October 26.

Gracious God,
God who comes to us in whirlwind and fire,
God who offers us both caution and courage,
We come before you humbly this morning.
Give us Elisha’s courage, 
so that we can accompany each other.
In our world, there are many doubtful voices,
Voices that cause us pain.
Give us Elisha’s courage, 
so that we can strengthen each other.
We intercede for many who need courage
and caution this morning.
We pray for those who seek to resist climate change.
We cry out for refugees and migrants 
in Europe, the Middle East, and everywhere,
And we mourn with all those whose lives 
are disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
We pray for our country of Canada as well,
Especially for truth and reconciliation 
between Indigenous and settler peoples.
Give us Elisha’s courage,
so that we may offer reparations 
to our Indigenous siblings.
We ask for prudence like Elijah’s too,
So that we can use our natural resources wisely.
Give us Elijah’s wisdom,
and grant us large portions of your Spirit,
so that we can do your work.
(prayers silent and spoken for justice
 in Canada, and in the world)
God of passion and prophecy,
We pray for our communities in Toronto,
And in every place where we are.
Be with our loved ones, God,
Especially those in physical, 
spiritual, and financial need,
And help us to be with them too, 
even from a distance.
Help us to support our street-involved siblings,
And all those who are marginalized.
At this time, in every way open to us,
We pray for our communities and our loved ones.
(prayers silent and spoken for our loved ones)
God who calls us out of our comfort zones,
We pray for ourselves.
Give us Elijah’s spirit, 
so that we can sense your presence.

In our hearts, 
with our mouths, 
through our hands,
We offer you our conviction and our confusion,
Our faith and our fear,
Our longing and our love.
In all these ways, Holy One, 
we pray for ourselves.
(prayers silent and spoken for our own needs)
We pray all these things in your name,
The name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

Subtle clues in the text: The word of the LORD in 1 Kings 17-19

In 1 Kings 19, Elijah comes exhausted to God. You would think that a prophet, especially one like Elijah who had done so much for God, wouldn’t need to be reminded of how much he needs God’s power and strength. Yet, if you look closely at the text, you’ll see how it subtly suggests that Elijah has been trying to do things for God on his own strength instead of doing things with God.

If you look back at 1 Kings 17 and 18 where we are introduced to Elijah, you’ll notice how often the word of the Lord comes to Elijah.

The word of the Lord came to Elijah to tell Ahab there was a drought, then to go to the wadi, then to travel to a foreign land where the LORD had commanded a widow to take care of him. And the word of the LORD comes to Elijah to tell Ahab that the drought will end.

On the way to Ahab, Elijah meets Obadiah and scorns how Obadiah has been serving God. And then there is the contest between Baal’s prophets and the LORD.

When the text has mentioned the word of the LORD in directing almost everything Elijah does, it is noticeable that in these last two interactions – with the other prophet, Obadiah, and with the contest between Baal’s prophets and the LORD, the word of the LORD is not mentioned.

God still shows up and sets the altar on fire, because God can still work despite us. But there’s something off with the story and the story ends in a strange way – with Elijah killing all the prophets of Baal. And while there are more times in the Old Testament where God commands people to be killed in God’s name, that command is noticeably absent at this point in this text – instead, there are subtle allusions in the texts to other killings – like that of Moses who killed the Egyptian and then also fled into the desert, fearing for his life. (Thomas Brodie, The Crucial Bridge, 12, footnote 18.)

These subtle clues in the text are confirmed with God’s response to Elijah. God does not directly tell Elijah that he is wrong, so much as Elijah is redirected and reminded that he is not alone, nor does he need to do things alone on his own strength. God provides a helper for Elijah in Elisha. God promises Elijah a new king, who will punish all those deserving of God’s judgment. Last of all, God reminds Elijah that he has never been alone – there are seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed down to Baal.

While our own stories are not yet fully written, may we still have the courage to look back at our own stories to wonder what subtle clues might be inviting us to imagine anew how God might work in and through us.

I’m done

Sermon on 1 Kings 19; preached at WBB on October 12, 2021

Many people love superheroes, as they inspire us and help us imagine a different world. Stories about superheroes feel especially important in this season when so much continues to be asked of us.

If anyone could be called a superhero in the Old Testament, it would be Elijah. He speaks and acts with great courage. He is able to run faster than a chariot and even raises the dead. And yet, when we meet him in the passage we read today, Elijah is exhausted: he is terrified for his life, feeling deeply alone, and complaining to God about his situation.

As much as I believe that God used Elijah when he was speaking and acting with great courage at the top of Mount Carmel, it is when Elijah stops doing all those things – and brings to God how difficult the situation is – I believe it is in this moment that we see God most clearly. When the difficulties of his situation force Elijah to recognize that he cannot continue alone in his own strength, that is the moment when we see God’s grace and God’s power in a profound new way.

Exhaustion – and the sense of not being able to continue the way things are – is a hard place to be. Yet, it is also an opportunity to pause. Do we keep trying as hard as we can? Or do we seek God’s presence and allow God to do something new?

Looking back at the previous chapters, we see in 1 Kings 17 and 18 that God cared for Elijah, through providing him food in the time of famine, and God used Elijah to do incredible, powerful things, like raising the widow’s son. The story found here in 1 Kings 19 might then come as a bit of a surprise. How can this be the same prophet that called down fire from heaven? What happened to the superhero we saw in the previous chapters? And why does Elijah declare that he is alone, especially when we see Elijah interacting with another prophet, Obadiah, at the beginning of 1 Kings 18?         

What is going on here?

Exhaustion seems to be part of the explanation. Elijah is tired from serving God, he has been isolated from other prophets – all of whom fear for their lives – and he is ready to give up.

And so Elijah does what he can to escape: he flees to the wilderness and there he rests. An angel comes to him, not once, but twice, and gives him food. And this restores Elijah enough for him to take a journey to come further into God’s presence. And there God meets Elijah, encourages him, and invites him into a new journey.

Restoration is something I think we all long for, especially at this stage in the pandemic. We are tired of being apart from people we care about. We are tired of making decisions about what is safest. And we’re not sure how long this will last or what our jobs or even church will look like in the coming year.

Like Elijah, we may be feeling done with all of this. And while hopefully we do not – like Elijah initially asks – desire for God to end our lives, there are many small and large ways that we can escape our lives – we can escape through Netflix or books, through becoming absorbed in work or by clicking on one more link on the internet. We can feel deeply alone and forget that God has not actually asked us to be superheroes.

Looking at the text, it can be easy to say that the solution to our exhaustion is simple. If we just take care of ourselves well enough – that we, like Elijah, would just eat healthier meals and get more rest then we’ll be better. And while God can and does work through food and rest and exercise to restore us, the weariness that Elijah was facing – and that we are facing today – is something deeper than can simply be restored by finding the right diet or the right motivational tools.

This exhaustion that we are feeling – as hard as it can be – can actually be a gift of God. It can provide incentive and space to recognize that our efforts – no matter how hard we try on our own – will not be enough. This weariness is an invitation – are we going to try to keep going as we have been, or do we enter into God’s presence and listen to what God might say to us?

Looking back at the text, we see that for Elijah food and rest were not enough. Elijah’s soul is still weary. Elijah is still done. Verse 10 gives us Elijah’s words: I have been very zealous for the Lord, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.”

God answers not by correcting Elijah but instead inviting Elijah to come further into God’s presence – to the mountain, the place where God dwells, for God is about to pass by.

First, there is a wind – so strong that it could shatter rocks – but the Lord was not in the wind.

And then there is an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earthquake.

And then there is a fire – but the Lord was not in the fire.

And after the fire, there was sheer silence.

And when Elijah heard that, then he went to the mouth of the cave and he spoke to the LORD. Once again, he says the exact same words to God: “I have been zealous for the LORD, for the Israelites have forsaken you. I alone am left and they are seeking my life.”

Once again, the LORD does not correct Elijah. God doesn’t remind Elijah of his fellow prophet Obadiah. God doesn’t remind him of how the people had turned to God after God had sent fire from the sky to light the water-drenched altar. God doesn’t tell Elijah to change his tone and to come back when he sounds a lot less angry – to come back when he is more hopeful and trusting.

Each time Elijah speaks, God hears Elijah. Instead of God telling Elijah to work a little harder, God invites Elijah at this pivotal moment into recognizing the truth behind Elijah’s words. Elijah feels alone because he has been trying to do it alone. And he cannot do this on his own anymore. Elijah desperately needs God’s help.

When God responds to Elijah, God is agreeing with Elijah – yes, you are feeling alone. You must be exhausted. For you cannot follow God faithfully on your own strength.

And so God invites Elijah to trust God again and to imagine a new way of serving God – not on his own but with others. God provides a helper for Elijah in Elisha. God promises Elijah a new king, who will punish all those deserving of God’s judgment. Last of all, God reminds Elijah that he has never been alone – there are seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed down to Baal.

Like Elijah, we, too are invited to come into God’s presence. We are invited to bring all of our troubles to God and expect God’s comfort. We can let go of our own efforts of trying to do things on our own and instead accept God’s help, including through other people.

I invite you thus to join me this week in taking some time to bring your situation, your emotions, and whatever else might be troubling you to God. Be as honest as you’d like, as God can handle our complaints. And I pray that God will show us all where we might be trusting in our own strength and where we could use God’s grace and encouragement, including through other people.

And I believe that just like God shows up to Elijah, God will show up to us.

Perhaps God will show up through silence or through a windy walk, through thundering music, through a fiery conversation, or through meditating on a prayer or biblical text. 

As God appears to you, may you know that you are not alone and that you do not need to do things on your own strength. God has provided us with people to help us and God’s grace and power are enough for us all.

In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit. Amen

– Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink

Prayer: Like Mary…

We share with you the following prayer by Amanda Jagt, in the hope that it will help you in creating space for the hope and joy that comes with Jesus’ coming.

Holy God,
like Mary, our lives have been changed this year;
after nine months, our hearts have given birth to many things:
frustration, acceptance, anger, futility,
contentment, sorrow, confusion, malaise.

Each day the night deepens further, and we wait.
Come, thou long-expected Jesus.
[Silent, spoken and written prayers of the heart]

Holy God,
‘tis the season of promises and fulfillment.
A child will be born unto us;
the lowly will be lifted up, the hungry fed,
all things made new.
And yet, like Mary we are restless, on the move;
we want to run into the arms of another,
we want to be greeted with joy,
we want to be reassured that all will indeed be well.

Each day the night deepens further, and we wait.
Come, thou long-expected Jesus.
[Silent, spoken and written prayers of need and struggle]

Holy God,
what is it that you call us to,
in this season of wants and wishes?
You call us to believe and so be blessed,
to believe, and so be fulfilled.
Help us to believe, O God,
with our hearts, our minds,
and in the work of our hands.

Each day the night deepens further, and we wait.
Come, thou long-expected Jesus.
[Silent, spoken and written prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving]

Holy God,
you made the night and declared it good.
And so, in the comfort of the night
our spirits sing of the wondrous things
that you bring to the ones who wait.

May you live into the coming of Jesus, and may you make space for whatever the Spirit is birthing in your life in this season.

Sermons: Wake up Jesus

The following is a sermon Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink preached earlier this month at Wine Before Breakfast.

These past few months I have deeply appreciated the lyrics of the song “Wake up Jesus” by The Porter’s Gate. The song stood out to me at first because Jesus in the storm is one of my daughter’s favourite Jesus’ stories, but I have kept listening to it as the words have resonated with how I feel this season. When I look at the world around me – at the injustices we hear about and the suffering connected to covid-19 – I feel as lost as Jesus’ disciples on the raging sea. 

And I wonder, Jesus when are you going to wake up? Don’t you care that we’re drowning?

This song captures Advent, especially Advent this year. We are in the middle of a storm. Waves of anger and hurt crash over us. Polarization and frustration rain down us. The wind blowing over us carries the cries of the downtrodden. Our boat has been shaped by the systems of privilege that help some of us but do tremendous harm to others of us.

We’re sailing blind in the middle of that boat, not sure if we should jump out or hold on. We catch glimpses of the suffering around us: domestic abuse, gun violence, empty stomachs, discrimination. But we also realize how little we see when most of our attention is focused on our own feeble attempts at staying afloat.
Jesus, wake up. Gracious God, do something.
Come and heal this world.
Don’t you care that we’re drowning here?
Wake up already and calm this raging sea.
I find it easy to imagine the panic of the disciples in the storm, as it echoes my own sense of being overwhelmed.
When I tell this story to my small daughter, though, her reaction is not that of being overwhelmed. Jesus in the storm is really one of her favourite Jesus stories, and she interacts with and interprets the story with the enthusiasm – and wisdom – of a 3-year-old.
When I start talking about how the disciples are panicking because of the wind and the waves and the rain, and they start looking for Jesus to come fix things, I ask my daughter where Jesus is. And she enthusiastically replies that Jesus is sleeping. Perhaps her enthusiasm is because she recognizes the absurdity of the situation – that in the middle of the raging sea Jesus is sleeping.
But perhaps my daughter’s answer is one of joy because she knows what comes next in the story. The disciples go to Jesus and tell him to Wake up. Jesus, Save us. Jesus, wake up. And sometimes my daughter lets me know that the disciples must have stolen Jesus’ blankets to help him wake up. And just like her Papa responds so well when you pull the blankets off him in the morning, Jesus must also have woken up. And when Jesus wakes up, he tells the wind, the waves, and the rain to stop. And they stop. And things are restored to the way they ought to be. 

When I tell my daughter this story, I am struck by her complete and utter conviction of how things ought to be. Of course, Jesus will wake up. Of course, Jesus will fix things. Of course, Jesus can be asleep in the middle of chaos – because he sees and knows things that his disciples – and we – do not.

When I listen and read Mary’s song, I hear that same conviction. The words Mary speaks are the words of someone who knows how the story ought to end. Mary knows the stories of God redeeming the people of Israel. She knows that the Messiah’s coming will change everything. She knows that God will keep the promises made long ago to the people of Israel.

Because Mary knew these stories and knew she belonged to the Mighty God who does great things, she could sing this song, a song that was active resistance and fierce hope. Because as much as Mary’s song is a song of elation – of joy that the Messiah is coming and that she gets to play a part – it is also a song that is sung in a time when Mary’s words were not obvious – like us, Mary was living in a time when it wasn’t obvious how God was working.

As much as Mary knew the stories of how God had acted in the past, she and her people were living in a time when God seemed silent. The great stories of Elijah and Hana were from the distant past. Despite the fiery message of the prophets, the people had gone into exile. While some returned, as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah tells us, it was only a small remnant. And after that came the Greeks, and then the Romans. Even Judas Maccabeus, who had looked like he might be able to rescue the Jewish people, was more than a hundred years in the past. 

Mary’s song is more powerful because of the context in which it is sung. She is singing out of the conviction of who God has been to the people of Israel and out of trust in the promises that God has made – and not primarily out of her current situation as a young woman whose people had not been free for centuries. 

Furthermore, Mary sings this song even though she does not yet know what will happen in her own future – she does not know if she will be rejected by Joseph and forced to raise her child alone, if she even survives childbirth. She didn’t yet know that Jesus would reject her one day or that she would witness the world’s rejection of him with his death on the cross. She did not know what would happen and yet, because of who she knew God to be – the Mighty One who does great things – because of this she declared that all people would one day call her blessed. 

It is one thing to sing this song of joy when all is well. It is another thing to sing these words about God’s mercy from generation to generation, words of how God has shown strength and scattered the proud – when you were still waiting for those to happen in your own life. Mary expected Jesus to be the answer. And he was and is, but perhaps not exactly the way Mary or even we expect.

Because of Jesus, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. (Matthew 11). Because of Jesus everything has changed. But the changes are not always how we want them to be. Jesus didn’t come as king into Jerusalem and conquer the Romans. Instead, his love and power were shown by his laying his life down. Even Mary’s song invites us into this revolutionary way of power and love – letting go of our own power, riches, and privilege so that we might be part of what Jesus started – a kingdom where all are welcomed, the silenced are given voices, the loud are invited to listen, and all have enough. 

Because of Jesus’ life and the Spirit’s working in this world for hundreds of years, we now know more than Mary did about how the Mighty God has done great things for all people. At the same time, we, like Mary, haven’t lived to the end of the story yet. We often feel like we are still in the middle of the storm waiting for Jesus to wake up, waiting for God to come and heal us and this world. 

In Advent, we name the difficulty of living in the middle of the storm, living in the middle of the story. As we celebrate Christmas, especially when we long for things to be different, we need to be reminded of the whole story – and that we, like Mary, can be certain of how the story ends. Mary’s song of active resistance and fierce hope is a reminder to us of how God has worked in the world and will continue to do so. 

By singing this song with her, we can find hope when all seems hopeless, courage enough to keep fighting the waves of injustice and despair around us, and strength to turn to each other and Jesus when the storm overwhelms us. 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermons: Resisting a Culture of Violence

The following is the sermon on Amos 6.1-8 that Sylvia C. Keesmaat preached on October 6, 2020 at Wine Before Breakfast … After Dinner.

What you hear
depends on the story that you are living.

For instance,
I’m sure that as that passage was read,
some of you heard:

“Alas for those who lie on their king size beds,
and watch TV on their couches,
and eat KFC from the flocks,
and Big Macs from the stall;
who shout empty lies to the cheers of the crowds,
and improvise on twitter,
who drink diet coke,
and anoint themselves with hair product and tanning oil,
but are not grieved over those dying of Covid.”

It is easy to hear that, isn’t it?
Easy because many of us 
have been immersed in the story
fed to us by the news cycle. 
Our imaginations have been shaped,
our consciousness surrounded,
by the out-of-control spiral of news
that is covid, and Black Lives Matter,
and the permutations of politics 
both in Canada and south of the border. 

And these stories are so loud,
so all-pervasive,
that it is hard to hear any other story,
hard to imagine plot twists that will bring
healing and hope,
hard to tear our eyes away
from the grim fascination 
of a society spinning out of control.
Part of what makes that story so fascinating
is that Canadian society
doesn’t seem to be spinning out of control.

In general we seem to have managed covid well.
In general our government has come to our aid.
Compared to the rest of the world
we’re doing okay. 
Aren’t we?

For we aren’t actually hearing that one story anymore. 
The story of the Canadian dream,
of a multi-cultural society 
were people of different ethnicities
live in harmony,
the story of Canadian acceptance
and politeness,
the story of a society
where everyone is taken care of
(don’t we have universal health care?
and then CERB and now CRB?)
has been challenged more and more loudly:
missing and murdered indigenous women,
the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
the deaths of Joyce Echaquan
and Regis Korchinski-Paquet,
and now covid,
these stories surface
and disrupt the smooth flowing 
of the cultural narrative of increasing progress,
and upward mobility.

But they are seen as aberrations:
if we give some time to other voices,
hear their concerns,
have an investigation,
and just weather the pandemic,
we can get back to normal again
and continue with our dominant cultural narrative. 
The problem, of course,
is that our dominant cultural narrative
isn’t a life-giving story. 
And Amos knew this.

All of the prophets, including Amos,
make it clear that what lies behind
the injustice and violence at the heart
of Israelite life
is amnesia: 
the people have forgotten their story. 

Instead they have put their faith 
in the dominant narrative,
a narrative that itself is rooted in violence. 

That violence can be seen
in a number of ways in our text.

First, and most clearly,
is economic violence:
beds of ivory, one of the most precious commodities,
traded by their Phoenician neighbours;
an abundance of meat from flocks of lambs;
barns with stalls to house the calves;
so much wine that they drink directly from the bowl rather than a goblet
(wine in those days was mixed with spices in a bowl before being served);
and the finest oils—
all of this points to a life of opulence, excess and luxury. 

But, oddly enough, 
and this is the second point,
this life of excess is described
in ways that seem devoid of community
and oddly disconnected. 
Instead of being entertained by musicians
this well-fed person is singing idle songs on the harp
and improvising music for themselves.
They are anointing themselves, 
not being anointed by others with the finest oils. 
And, most telling, they are not grieved over the pain of others.
They are emotionally isolated. 
There is a sense of disconnection from community in this text.

Except, of course, for the slaves. 
The slaves who ensure the beds are comfortable and clean
who kill the lambs and calves 
and cook their succulent meat,
and bring the wine. 

You see, this kind of opulence 
this kind of economic injustice
is always rooted in violence
towards people who are not really human:
in ancient Israel that was the poor,
in our culture it is Indigenous people,
Black, and Brown people.
If you aren’t grieving over the pain of others,
then it is easy to use those others
to ensure your violent system survives.

And this lack of grief over the ruin of other people
hints at another kind of violence that is always
paired with economic violence in the biblical text
(and this is my third point):
the sexual violence described elsewhere in Amos. 

The lack of grief that characterises these people
is made possibly by not giving voice
to the pain of those who are abused.
The idle songs and improvised music
serve to cover up and silence the voices of lament.
It is a powerful contrast:
strong, purposeful songs of lament
that call out for God to act now, and act with justice
and idle songs that just fill the air with meaningless jingles.

All of these kinds of violence is considered normal
in a culture where the narrative is one of 
privilege for the wealthy,
denigration of the poor, 
and belittlement of women. 

Here’s the thing. 
If we are surrounded by this kind of a narrative,
if a culture of violence is all that we have access to,
then it is hard to imagine
what the way forward will be. 

Right now in our world,
all around us voices are calling
for the story to change,
for justice to be done,
and many of us are finally waking up and saying,
“yes, yes, it is up to us to change the story,
confront the violence,
bring change.”

But we don’t really know what to do. 
And this is why, I suggest, 
we need to draw deeply once again
on the story that shaped Amos
and his view of the world.

This is the ancient story of Yahweh,
the God who called Amos from his sheep
and his sycamore figs to challenge the people
about their forgetfulness.

Here are some ways that the story challenges
the three kinds of violence 
I described in the dominant narrative—
(and I am dependent on Walter Brueggemann for these three broad categories). 

1. First of all, the economic violence
that demands that the luxury of some
be rooted in the scarcity of others
is challenged over and over 
by the narrative of a generous Creator,
who created a world of abundance
and enough. 

This abundance is demonstrated 
again and again in the story: 
Abraham welcoming and feeding three strangers;
Boaz providing bread for Ruth;
Barzillia and Abigail providing food
for David as he fled for his life;
a widow providing cakes for Elijah in a famine.

All of these rooted in the larger narrative
of a God who provides enough in the wilderness,
manna, water, and quail, for a group of refugee slaves
trying to find a place to call home. 

And, of course, such generous abundance
culminates in the story of Jesus,
who can’t seem to help himself,
feeding 5000 in the wilderness,
then 4000,
with such an abundance that there are always left-overs
carefully gathered up by the disciples
to have for breakfast the next day. 

Is it any wonder that Jesus says to eat together
as a way to remember what his death and life
are all about? 

That’s why we get together every week,
to eat bread right?
Because the sharing of bread at the table in liturgy
is kind of like a dress rehearsal for the sharing of bread
we do in our daily lives. 

Ironic isn’t it?
We aren’t allowed to act out this bit of liturgy right now,
no dress rehearsal for acting out
the generosity that undermines an economics of violence. 

But, as someone who spent high school on the stage,
I can tell you that sometimes you just have go out there
and act out the story even without a rehearsal. 

If we remember the story of our God,
the story of generous abundance
that pulls us in, 
we will find ways to make it come true in the lives of others.

Maybe we can’t invite people to eat with us,
but we can still cook meals and deliver them,
we can still plant gardens for others to eat from, 
and we can enable those programmes 
that make food abundant
in the lives of others even now.  

2. Secondly, the disconnection from community
that makes it possible to live in safety
while the front line workers risk their lives,
is undermined again and again
by the narratives of care, welcome and acceptance
that shape a covenantal community.

The people are to take their cue from God,
whom Moses describes in this way:
“For the Lord your God is God of gods 
and Lord of lords, 
the great God, mighty and awesome,
who is not partial and takes no bribe,
who executes justice for the orphan and the widow,
and who loves the strangers, 
providing them food and clothing.”

This God is more important than the Prime Minister
this God is the supreme President of all the presidents,
in Harry Potter terms, The Supreme Mugwump
of the International Federation of Wizards,
and what is God up to?
Growing food at the Common Table,
handing out food and clothing at The Dale,
or bending over the hot stove at Church of the Redeemer, 
or covered in PPE at Sanctuary trying to build community,
or working at Romero House,
trying to figure out the intricacies 
of registering a refugee for health care. 
These are the things that God is up to. 

Because God loves the stranger, 
it is no surprise that Boaz welcomed a Moabite named Ruth,
or that the widow who fed Elijah 
was from Zarapheth near Tyre
(in other words, not an Israelite),
or that Elisha healed an enemy army commander,
or that the four women 
mentioned in Jesus genealogy in Matthew
are all foreign women, 
or that the early church made sure 
that Gentile widows were fed along with Jewish widows. 

This is a community that crosses ethnic and racial lines,
showing hospitality and solidarity
with those who might seem to be strangers. 

That’s why we share the peace every week,
to put into practice a welcome and acceptance
that we hope will spill out into our daily lives.

And there the irony hits us again. 
I won’t go through he whole dress rehearsal schtick again,
but just say this. 
Even in the midst of covid we can start by saying,
“Hey Jacqueline, tell me your story.
Hey Thea, Joyce, Ash, Cynthia, Mel,
tell us your stories.”
Or go to the facebook page of the
Black Anglicans in Canada
and watch their series on 
Anti-Black and Anti-Indigenous Racism.
This is where we begin to enter into the story. 

3. Third, this is a story
that breaks the silence of sexual violence.
Where else do we have an ancient text,
that tells the story of a slave raped by her master,
alone in the wilderness
to whom God appears not once, but twice, 
and who is the first person to name God
—and the name is “God who sees.”
God has seen the abuse that Hagar has suffered.
In a world of silence about the abused,
our God sees what is really going one.

This is a story where a king rapes a woman,
and is called to account for it.
(Just let the comparison with today’s leaders
sink in for a moment). 
This is a story where sexual violence happens, 
it is true, 
but where that violence is never presented as acceptable.
It is a story where the women’s testimony,
at the end, is true.

This is a story where the songs of lament
outnumber other types of psalms,
where the voices of rage, pain and resentment
are heard,
where pain is privileged 
and where the voices of the grieving
are not only heard, but lifted up. 

This is why in this community
we do something that isn’t done so often at church anymore:
we enter into lament.
We voice the pain. 
We read Amos and sit with the discomfort of hard truths. 
Because we hope that hearing the voice of lament together 
will give use ears to hear the voice of lament 
in other places
and in the lives of our wider communities. 
And because we believe the pain
of those we meet here,
perhaps we will believe the stories
of others when we hear them. 

You will notice that when I talked about the way
that the Bible counters our dominant cultural narrative,
I talked about specific people
in specific circumstances.
Because our story is not an abstract one,
it is rooted in real lives, 
with real struggles,
real pain,
and real acts of courage and imagination
that counter the stories of violence we are fed daily. 

We can work at a structural level
to undermine economic, racial and sexual violence,
and we should. 
But unless we have claimed 
these particular stories as our own,
unless we are living the story of generous abundance
in particular ways,
unless we are practicing radical welcome of the other 
with particular people,
and giving voice to the pain of those who are abused,
unless our imaginations are being shaped
by the actions of ourselves and others,
we will soon run out of stream.

If we are living only 
out of resistance to something
we will tire, 
but if our imaginations 
are being shaped by another story,
by the story of a new world
that God is bringing into being
in the lives of those around us,
if the story of a God who acts in resurrection 
is carrying us forward, 
why then our lives will be the story that God is telling 
of how to bring healing, newness and hope into the world.