The Wild God who sees me: a sermon on Genesis 16

The following sermons was preached by Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink at Wine Before Breakfast on 20 September 2022.

Sermon on Genesis 16: “the wild God who sees me”

My church tradition, the Christian Reformed Church, has strict guidelines for how we are to speak about God. The official position of the church is that we ought to speak of God in the way that Scripture speaks of God, using the standard biblical names, titles, and designations for God. In other words, we are to use only the names that we have been given in the Bible and not to name God ourselves.

I can see the wisdom of this position. We do not, after all, want to create God in our own image, to shape God into exactly who we’d like God to be. But I wonder whether we limit our understanding of God if we don’t challenge some of the traditional ways we’ve thought about God or if we refuse to try on new images of God, like how we might put on Christ like we put on a favourite blue sweater.

If you know me, or if you know anything about campus ministers, you’ll know that we don’t like being given too many rules. And if you know anything about academics, you’ll know that we question almost everything and are often looking for exceptions to rules.

The text, Genesis 16, feels like that exception to my church’s guideline of how we are not to name God. Because in this text, Hagar does name God. She calls God, El Roi, the God of seeing. And when so often it is men who have come up with the rules and guidelines, including still too often, in the church, I find it powerful to have a woman – and not just any woman, but one who has so little power – to be one who names God.

I had planned to write a sermon about how inspiring I found it that the Bible has Hagar, a person of little power and seeming insignificance. I had expected to share inspiring words about how God sees the downcast and gives power to the powerless. How God shows up in unexpected ways.

And then God – the Spirit – did show up in an unexpected way. Because while all that I’ve just said is true of who God is, I also saw that I was shaping God into being exactly who I wanted God to be and thus risked ignoring what this text actually says. With the help of folks at GCF, this community’s grad fellowship, I saw more of God in this text than I had originally seen.

You’ll notice in the text that when God’s messenger speaks to Hagar, she is told that she will have a son, Ishmael. This son will be a wild ox of a man, living at odds with others. These do not seem to be words of blessing. Yet, Ishmael’s name means “God hears,” suggesting that God has indeed heard Hagar. In Ishmael’s wildness, Ishmael is everything that Hagar is not but has wished for: he will be free and independent, and he will not be controlled by people who don’t see him or try to use him for their own ends.

Like Ishmael, God is wilder than I might be comfortable with. Hagar’s reaction in the text to God’s appearance captures that a bit – she seems astonished, as if she’s pinching herself to check that it really happened, and that she’s still alive. This is not our usual reaction to meeting God in church or elsewhere. Hagar’s reaction seems appropriate after an encounter with a God who, even more so than Ishmael, can not be controlled. God cannot be controlled or limited, no matter how positive or inspiring those limitations might be.

If I could control God or the text, I’d fix up some of the things that I don’t like here. I don’t like how the messenger of God names Hagar, as slave of Sarai, as if her identity is tied up in this relationship where she has been treated unfairly. And then, what feels worse, Hagar is told to return to that situation. If God really saw her, if God really heard her, shouldn’t Hagar herself have been given freedom? But if we are indeed to take the Bible seriously and allow the Spirit to speak through the text, we don’t get to edit out the parts we don’t like. Instead, we are allowed to question, and we can give thanks that this is not the only picture of God we see in the Bible. The God whom we encounter in the OT prophetic books cares very much for those who have no power, for those who have been harmed by those in power. And Jesus Jesus raises up the downcast and takes down the powerful in ways that both inspire and make us uncomfortable. (I’m happy to say more about it).

Back to the text of Genesis 16 and how we can not make God only into who we’d like. Trying to force God into being and doing what we’d like is, to some degree, what we see Sarai and Abram doing in this text. Sarai assumes that God has prevented her from having children, which honestly seems a reasonable assumption since she hadn’t any children yet. And so Sarai tries to fix things, using the cultural norms she knows – here, Abram, take my slave, Hagar, bear a child with her and I can them claim the child as mine. The text says that Abram goes along with the plan. Perhaps Abram even goes along because God, as we can read in the previous chapter, had indeed promised him children.

Both Sarai and Abram act on God’s behalf, and they appear to do so foolishly, as if they assume that God had not seen or heard them. As we continue reading the story, we see how wrong that assumption is: God not only sees and hears Hagar but also sees and hears Sarai and Abram, who act foolishly multiple times.

In looking more closely at the story of Sarai and Abram, I am struck by how I want the God in this chapter to be the God of Hagar, and not actually the God of Abram or Sarai. I want God to be for the outcast; I want God to fight for the powerless and to help Christians, as we strive for justice for all. But I don’t really want God to be for the powerful. I don’t want God to show up for the foolish, but for the people who have their act together, or at least the ones who can’t help their situation. Ironically, Sarai and Abram, in taking things into their own hands, would be the ones who are considered by our society to have more of their act together.

If I’m honest with myself, I recognize that I am more like Sarai than Hagar. As a person who is white and who has lots of education, I tend to be a person with power, a person who can make things happen.

There is grace in God being not only the God of Hagar but also Sarai and Abram. God does not show up as I’d always like, and for this I am deeply thankful. Whether we act foolishly or not, whether we use whatever power we have well or not, God sees us. And we can trust that we won’t get written out of the story, no matter how unimportant our characters may seem to be.

As we look at different images of God this semester, I pray that we continue this journey of allowing ourselves to be surprised by the text, surprised by how God is not who we expect, surprised by how God is wilder than we might even be comfortable with. I pray that we might have the courage to question God when God does not act in a way that seems fitting of how we imagine God – and may we have the courage to question ourselves and how we might be limiting God.

And through the whole journey may we be comforted that this is a God who is in relationship with us. God who hears us and wants us to speak and question. God who sees us and who wants us to see God. And maybe even pinch ourselves, like Hagar, in astonishment: Is that really you, God?

God loves us no matter what

A sermon by Nico Foslett on the last part of Romans 8, which he preached at WBB on July 19, 2022.

Even if we don’t understand all of the passage, one thing I know for sure, God loves us no matter what happens. I have learned this in my life.

Because of the way I was treated in church, it felt like the church doesn’t really believe that God loves people with disabilities. My pastor hurt me at church. He always said “you have to get married, you have to have kids, you have to be successful in your life, you have to be rich”

People say if you have mental health challenges you don’t believe in God, or you don’t believe enough.

It felt like hell. That’s my life, I felt not loved at all by God. Jesus doesn’t want me, Jesus doesn’t want me to experience his love.

But as I started to read the Bible for myself, and finding out for myself who Jesus really was, I started to understand a different message than the ones I was receiving at church.  In Romans 8, people assume Paul’s talking about something totally different than what it is actually about.  Sometimes they think it means they can ignore people who God loves, because they’re different or not special.

But I disagree.  I believe it’s all about love.

The Bible is Love – people assume the bible is one big rule book, but it’s totally not. It’s one big love story to God’s people – that means us! Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God because that is what Jesus is known for – he left the 99 to save the one sheep – that means everybody, even us. People always say if you do this, if you’re in the LGBTQ community, have a disability, mental health challenges, they say you’re not loved by Him.

But “nothing can separate us from the love of God.”  I’ve never heard this verse before in the church. I wish I had.  I’m thankful that I learned it eventually.

In September 2020, I came across a guy named Adam Weber. His new book had just come out, Love Has A Name, and he is one of the first pastors I ever heard talking about disability with compassion and empathy. And I messaged him right away to say thank you for what you’re talking about.

In November, I had the amazing honour and privilege to meet him on Zoom. The first time he turned on his camera he had the biggest smile and I know in his eyes he already loved me so much as a brother in Christ. And I had the best 20 minute conversation with a pastor that I’ve ever had. I’ve been watching his church online ever since.

In his book, he talks about a guy named Antonio. He had a really bad seizure when he was little and he developed a disability at a really young age. He is 22 right now, but his mind is at 10 or 11 years old. In his book, Adam said: “Antonio is one of my favorite people on the planet. I’m better because of him. Just thinking about him makes me smile. He’s a joy spreader! Our church is better because of him. Oftentimes, I think Antonio is Jesus in our midst. Reminding us not to take ourselves too seriously. Reminding us who and what is really important. The world is better because of him. Antonio has taught me that love adores extravagantly” (31)

It’s the heart of the gospel right there, and the heart of Jesus. That is Jesus to me. 

Because of technology, I had the amazing privilege to become friends with Antonio and Adam. They live in South Dakota and because of the internet, I’ve met with them regularly online. Adam and Antonio are two of my favourite people I’ve ever met. They are really dear friends to me.

Adam and Antonio have really, really impacted my life – they’ve showed me God’s love.  Their love and God’s love has been really important to me especially when I have been struggling, when it’s easy to doubt anyone loves me.  That’s when God’s love matters the most.  Paul writes in Romans 9 that he has also experienced sorrow and pain, but God is always with him.  And in Psalm 34:18, it says, “The Lord is near to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” The Bible is always reminding us of God’s love!

So it is amazing to hear these verses. I feel like I am Paul today because I have a disability and mental health challenges, but I always proclaim: nothing can separate us from the love of God. I have experienced that love over the last two years.

I don’t need to change in order for God to love me.

In the TV show The Chosen, the multi-season show on the life of Jesus, they portray Matthew with a disability, on the autism spectrum. It made me feel like “ok I am a follower of Jesus.” When Jesus called him out of the tax collector booth, he said to Simon, “Get used to different”. That’s my favourite line because Jesus was different, too. He was always talking about love, so much love. It’s hard to understand God’s love but if we want to be more and more like Him, we have to live like him, and love everybody no matter what. Everybody: disability, LGBTQ community, people with mental health challenges, people who hate you, we have to love them because that’s what Jesus does. He loves like God loves.

When we have God’s love, it can never be taken away.  Paul says: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any power, neither height nor depth, nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that’s in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Even if we don’t understand all of the passage, one thing I know for sure, God loves us no matter what happens. I have learned this in my life. I hope you know it, too.

Fear and hope in Easter – sermon on Mark 16

The following sermon was preached by Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink at Wine Before Breakfast on April 19, 2022.

WBB Easter Sermon – Mark 16

Of all the resurrection narratives, I find the one in the gospel of Mark the easiest to relate to. Instead of joy and wonder, the reaction to Jesus’ resurrection is terror and astonishment. And then they run away. This feels more like real life. God does things that surprise us – and we’re not quite sure what to make of it or how to respond. We ignore it or practice avoidance, which is a tamer version of running away.

And yet the end of Mark, often known as the shorter ending, lacks resolution and doesn’t fit with what we know to have happened. After all, clearly the women couldn’t have told no one about the resurrection or how else would we know about it? Fairly early on people had a sense that the original ending of Mark was incomplete, and so they fixed it up by adding on a longer ending.

Because the longer ending of Mark is not seen as original, we often ignore it. But I wonder what we might miss by doing so – Verses 17 and 18 give an inspiring picture of how God will work through those that follow Jesus. These verses say, “Powerful signs will follow the ones who follow me. Here are some of the things they will do in my name, representing who I am: They will force out evil spirits, pick up and throw out snakes, and even if they drink deadly poison it will not harm them. They will speak in new languages and heal the sick by laying hands on them.” Church history has shown us that these things have indeed happened. When I read those words, I wonder what it would look like to have that kind of faith. What might it look like to believe that God can and would do these things through me and other followers of God?

And yet, as much as I long to have the charismatic, move mountains kind of power that we saw the prophet Elisha to have, the text makes me uncomfortable. It feels like an impossible standard to follow, and that if this is the only way to follow Jesus then I will fail at it.

And yet, in my failure I would be in good company. In the gospel of Mark, the retelling of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is a retelling of the multiple failures of those who follow Jesus. In the events leading up to Jesus’ death and crucifixion, one by one the disciples fall away. Judas betrays him, Mark – whom many assume is the young man mentioned in Mark 14:51 – runs away naked, discarding his garment in order to escape. And at the end of Mark 14, Peter denies him. All of the disciples have failed him. None of them are left to witness Jesus’ death and burial. The only ones that are left are Joseph of Arimathea, who is notably not named as a disciple, and Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Joseph of Arimathea takes Jesus’ body and buries him, and the women witness Joseph putting Jesus’ body in the tomb and rolling the stone back.

At the beginning of Mark 16, we read about how these women go to the tomb in order to anoint Jesus’ body. As they go, they wonder how they will move the heavy stone in front of the tomb. I have sometimes wondered why they didn’t plan it better, but perhaps in their grief it was too hard to plan, especially when those they might have asked for help – the disciples – were wrapped up in their own grief and shock about losing Jesus after following him for years – and the disciples likely feared that those who had harmed Jesus would come after them.

The women as they approach the tomb find out the problem with moving the stone had been resolved – and now they were faced with an even greater challenge. An angel! An angel with strange, impossible news! The angel meets them and says: “6 “Do not fear!” the young man said to them, “The one you are looking for is not here! Creator Sets Free from Nazareth, who was killed on the cross, has returned to life. See for yourselves. Here is where they laid him. 7 Now go and tell his followers, and Peter, that he is going ahead of them to Galilee. It is there that they will see him again— just as he told them.” 

8 Terror and amazement came upon the women, and they ran as fast as they could from the burial cave.

Can you blame them for fleeing? Who of us, when we encounter God and when we are being forced to change all of our paradigms about what we believe and what that might mean – who of us would not be amazed, terrified, and want to run away?

Yet, it still feels like failure. Jesus is risen is the greatest news possible and they ran away. Jesus is risen are words we proclaim with hope and conviction – and practice speaking throughout Easter. Jesus is risen. He is risen indeed.

These women do not greet that news with joy or share it exuberantly with others. We, too, might not be able to greet that with joy – after all, it’s the end of a semester, the end of the busy Easter season, two years of a pandemic. We’re weary and feeling disconnected from others and life. And it feels like failure. And yet, when we look at the failure in this story and in our own lives, that is where we see Jesus. That is where we see the good news of the Gospel.

We get a first glimpse of the good news with the mention of the man running away naked back in Mark 14. What person is willing to admit that they ran away, shamefully naked? But in doing this, the young man places himself with the others who have abandoned Jesus – Judas who betrayed him, Peter who denied him. As one of the writers from Mockingbird ministries notes about this text: “And by telling the truth about his inability to stick with the Lord, he winds up exactly where Jesus wants him, exactly where Jesus has a chance to do something with him, exactly where he can become the recipient of what the Lord has to offer.”[1] It is in and through our failure that we recognize our need for God.

We see the good news again when Jesus specifically names Peter in his words. Because Peter had denied Christ, he might have considered himself to be no longer welcome. The women are told to tell Jesus’ followers about the resurrection – and make sure Peter know that includes him, too.

Jesus tells the disciples that he would go ahead of them to Galilee. This is where Jesus began his ministry, and Jesus is inviting the disciples to join him – he is inviting them to go back to the beginning, to remember what he has told them, and to remind them that their failure in no way excludes them. He still wants them to join him.

Jesus’ invitation to the disciples to join him in Galilee alludes to something Jesus told them at the last supper. In Mark 14:27-28, Jesus says, “You will all fall away,” “For it is written: “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” Jesus knew that their failure would be inevitable, but their failure – our failure – was an opportunity for Jesus to show his faithfulness, to show his grace. An opportunity for the disciples to turn back, for all of us to turn back, to recognize our frailty, and allow God to work.

The failure shown in this chapter is not the end of the story, but instead can prompt us to read the story again to ask what the good news really is. And the good news is that Jesus has risen, Jesus has conquered death. And if God has conquered death, then God can do all things, including healing us. Heal our anxiety and fear; heal our brokenness, forgive our failures; take away our shame and help us to follow Christ. And while these are words of comfort, they also ought to be words that bring a little fear to us. After all, we are following a God who is capable of challenging all of our paradigms.

Esau McCaulley, a black theologian and New Testament scholar, wrote about Mark 16 for the New York Times last year. He noted that “The terrifying prospect of Easter is that God called these women to return to the same world that crucified Jesus with a very dangerous gift: hope in the power of God, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and an abundance of love. It would make them seem like fools. Who could believe such a thing? Christians, at their best, are the fools who dare believe in God’s power to call dead things to life. That is the testimony of the Black church.”[2]

May we learn from the wisdom of the Black church and other Christians from racialized groups. And may this also be our testimony here at WBB. That we may return to the world with hope in the power of God, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and an abundance of love.


[1] Ken Sundet Jones, About That Random Naked Guy in Mark’s Gospel… – Mockingbird (mbird.com)

[2] Esau McCaulley, Opinion | The Unsettling Power of Easter – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Mentor Jesus – Sermon on Luke 22:24-38

The following sermon was preached by Michael Buttrey at Wine Before Breakfast on April 12, 2022.

A few years ago, Deb introduced me to the term “Sassy Jesus.” Since then, I’ve seen Sassy Jesus often in scripture, and often found it a helpful way to imagine Jesus’s tone.

This passage has some sassy moments, but reading it in the First Nations Version gives me more “Dad Jesus” vibes. Now, I’m not suggesting Jesus had kids! I … also don’t want to say Jesus is our dad and we are Jesus’ kids. So maybe I’ll say “Mentor Jesus” instead.

Anyway, I feel like Jesus gives off some classic mentor vibes here, such as “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.” Or when a mentor has to sit you down and warn you that you’re on the path to disaster. Or when a mentor gives you some practical advice you don’t understand at the time.

Today’s text is set during the Last Supper in Luke’s Gospel. This chapter opens with Jesus arranging to eat the Passover meal with his disciples, and in verse 19 he says the famous words: “this is my body; do this in remembrance of me.” Some 20 verses later, we get the scene in the Garden, where Jesus prays “If you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

Our passage is between these two scenes. We get Jesus intervening in an argument between the disciples, him warning one disciple in particular about the trials he will face, and some cryptic advice about how to prepare.

What ties it together is Jesus being a mentor to his disciples. He has one last evening with his followers and he’s trying to make the most of it.

First is the argument. Perhaps because Jesus has been dropping hints about his upcoming betrayal and death, the disciples are anxious about what the future holds, and debating who of them is the greatest. We don’t hear the argument, but we get Jesus’s response, and that’s where I see “disappointed Jesus” vibes.

In verse 25 Jesus reminds them, not for the first time, of the difference between his way and the ways of the Nations. Rulers from the Nations force their way on people: they not only tell us what to do, but make systems so that we must do as they want, and it’s hard to imagine what else might be true or possible. And then, they have the gall to tell us that they are our benefactors: they know what is best for us, and out of their greatness of spirit, they donate some of their generous resources to “help out.” Of course, where the queen’s shilling goes, the queen is not far behind, meaning that these gifts come with expectations of compliance.

Jesus contrasts the way of Rulers with the way of being like a child or a servant. Now, the difference is not that only Rulers have power. I agree with Diane Langberg: “even the most vulnerable among us have power.” An infant has the power to cry, and if they have caring parents, their cries cause their parents to act. Servants also have power: they can serve eagerly, doing their best, or they can “work-to-rule,” doing exactly as instructed, no more or less. Or servants can withhold their labor, going on strike, or quit. The consequences may be dire, but there is always at least a little power there.

Nor is the difference that Rulers have more power and servants have less power. In verse 30, Jesus promises that his disciples will sit in council seats and decide all things for the twelve tribes of Israel. If the message is “less power is good, more power is bad,” Jesus is being a little inconsistent!

Rather, in verse 27 Jesus asks rhetorically “Who is greater, the one who is being served, or the one who serves?” Our version adds the comment that the disciples all hung their heads and would not look Jesus in the eye, and that’s very apt. Jesus has explained this, he has modelled this, and they still don’t get it – in fact they’re arguing about it. Imagine his disappointment as he reminds them “Here I am serving you.”

Jesus’ way is serving others. A simple idea. Hard to execute, easy to get wrong. Maybe that’s why he pivots to Simon Peter, and warns him of his upcoming test. Here, Mentor Jesus is telling one of his most eager students that he will make mistakes, big ones. Simon Peter – whose first name means the one who hears – doesn’t hear Jesus: “I am ready to go to prison and death with you!” This time, Jesus is sad, and tells Peter he will deny him three times.

But like a good mentor, Jesus also tells Peter it’ll be OK. He says he has prayed that Peter’s failure will not turn him away from the good road, and when he turns back again, he can help the others to do the same. Note that Jesus says when Peter turns back, not if: Peter will fail, but he will also return to the way, and then he can help the others.

I don’t know about you, but when I’ve tried to serve others, I haven’t always done so. I’ve forced my way upon people and pretended it was for their benefit, I’ve hurt people I’ve tried to help, and like Peter, I’ve made promises I’ve quickly broken. Being a servant is a good and worthy ideal, but it’s no guarantee you won’t harm others – sometimes while loudly insisting it’s for their benefit. For those prone to self-absorption and self-deception – which is all of us – just saying you’re serving others doesn’t mean you won’t make some big mistakes.

Making up for your mistakes is hard, in part because apologies aren’t always enough. Another reason it’s hard to make things right? Shame. Later in this chapter, Peter indeed betrays Jesus just as was prophesied, and then weeps bitterly. I don’t know how Peter felt after Jesus was crucified, but I’m certain it was even worse. Not only was his mentor and teacher dead, but Peter had betrayed him shortly before his death. Can you imagine the shame Peter felt? The agony he put himself through?

I believe that’s why Jesus makes a point of giving Peter a warning. Jesus is sad, but I don’t read him as mocking or berating Peter for what he’s going to do. Rather, Jesus tells him there’s hope. He promises Peter that he’ll return to the good road, and help his companions to do so as well. In other words, there is life after failure, and our relationship with Jesus doesn’t have to by defined by our worst moment. That’s good news for me, and I hope for you too.

Serving others instead of being served. Turning back to Jesus when we fail. And trading in your cloak to buy a long knife. It all fits together. Right? …

Actually, the buying knives bit is a little confusing! Jesus reminds his disciples that when they went out to share the good story, they took nothing, and that turned out fine. This time, though, he warns them they’ll need their money pouch and travelling bundle with them to be prepared. And then he says in verse 36, “if you have no long knife, then trade your outer garment for one.” Or as another translation puts it, “the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.”

Understanding this verse is challenging. I’ve seen it come up in debates about pacifism, as a proof-text to show that Jesus is OK with violence. However, in verse 38 the disciples show Jesus the two long knives they have, and he says “that’s enough.” Which is strange, because a dozen verses later a crowd of priests, elders, and police officers come with swords and clubs to arrest Jesus. Two weapons aren’t enough to hold off an entire armed group, unless the disciples happen to be master swordfighters. Spoiler alert: they aren’t, because the one who tries to fight only manages to cut off a servant’s ear. And then Jesus rebukes them for fighting, saying “No more of this!”

Clearly, Jesus is not trying to arm his disciples for a coming insurrection. So what’s going on? Verse 37 gives us a clue. Jesus says there’s a prophecy that must be fulfilled, and then quotes part of Isaiah 53, which reads “because he poured his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors.” Or as Jesus puts it, “He was numbered with the rebels.” Basically, Jesus tells his followers to get some swords to fulfill a prophecy that he will be considered a sinner, or even a terrorist. Which I think means that the swords are not for the disciples to fight with, but are meant to function symbolically, as a signal that Jesus and his followers are no longer law-abiding citizens.

If this interpretation is right – and that’s a big if – what should we make of it? I think it may come back to power, again. Jesus could have had his followers all buy swords and fight to protect him. Or in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus claims he could summon twelve legions of angels to his side. Perhaps he even could have had his disciples train in secret with the zealots and start an insurrection. Regardless of the strategy, Jesus had the power to start an armed conflict; and yet he doesn’t. The two swords are just there to drive that point home.

How does this apply to us today? Lots could be said, but when I look at the text, I see the beginning again. We’re supposed to serve others, not lord it over them. That’s the way of Jesus. But what lengths can we go to in serving others? Can we use the same tools as the Rulers of the Nations?

No. To quote Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Using the tools of the Rulers to serve others can work for a while, but unless you turn back to the Way of Jesus, you’ll end up being just another ruler, lording it over those you claim to “help.” It’s a constant temptation, which is why we need the welcome of Jesus to bring us back.

However, we can and should still buy swords. Perhaps not literal swords, but to really serve people, we may have to look like rebels. Growing up as a Canadian, a Mennonite, and a peacemaker, I’ve spent my whole life thinking that being nice, polite, and easy-going was the apex of Christian life, and everything would be better if people were just nicer.

I don’t think that anymore. Which isn’t to say we should all become cruel, mean, and selfish. There’s enough of that. Rather, like John Lewis said, we need to be willing to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

When and how to make trouble are hard questions. I’ve certainly gone off half-cocked and hurt people. I’m glad Jesus welcomed Peter back. I need the same welcome, to release my shame. I also need people holding me accountable and asking me to apologize for my mistakes.

But Peter didn’t live a trouble-free life after he turned back to Jesus. Following the good road led him to his death. The road is long – as long as a lifetime. You don’t have to be prepared to die today. I’m not. But one day, if you follow the Way, you will need to be counted among the rebels, and get in some good trouble. Hopefully not for the gratification of your ego, but to truly serve others.

Just like our mentor, Jesus.

Amen.

At the borderlands – Sermon on the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30

A sermon by Sylvia Keesmaat, preached at Wine Before Breakfast on March 8, 2022.


They met in the borderlands.
 
He: a travelling preacher,
who fed those who were hungry,
healed those who were sick,
spent his time amongst the poor villagers of Galilee.
 
She: a Syrophoenician woman
from the wealthy district
of Tyre and Sidon,
a Greek woman,
cultured, well-heeled.
 
Her people had the power that mattered:
access to the seaports,
economic control,
a hand in all the trade that
passed too and from his land.
 
His people provided the power
that had no status:
supplies, labour, and cheap food.
 
His people kept in poverty
by her people.
 
Her people: the powerful,
his people: the exploited.
 
They met in the borderlands,
as he sought respite from the relentless
needs of his people:
needs heightened by the exploitation
caused by her people:
sickness caused by the lack of nutritious food,
mental illness caused by the uncertainties
and violence of poverty.
A hunger for food,
a hunger for justice,
underlying the needs
that shaped the rhythm of his days.
 
Perhaps here,
perhaps in this house,
perhaps in this liminal space,
there would be rest,
there would be peace.
 
They met in the borderlands,
as she sought healing for her daughter,
her daughter left at home,
lying in a proper bed,
not the straw pallets common
for his people.
 
She sought healing for her daughter
in a world where daughters were disposable,
not usually worth a trip to a healer.
 
Did she know already that
Jesus had healed the daughter
of a synagogue leader?
Perhaps.
 
They met in the borderlands,
the woman of high status,
lowering herself before
this peasant healer,
begging in a way
that she had never begged
for anything before.
 
Was this because she sensed
that she had already taken
more than her due
from his people?
Did she beg because of her shame in
asking for more?
 
She, who commanded
and it was done.
 
Was she worried
about a refusal?
Or did she assume
that healing would be granted?
 
Was she surprised at his response?
Was she surprised at the hostility?
 
Or did she recognize the justice
in his words:
“First let the poor,
those you have exploited,
finally be satisfied,
for it is not good to take their food
and throw it to the well-fed dogs,
who have always had enough.”
 
Perhaps she saw justice in his words.
For her response
accepts the rebuke:
“Yes, but even the dogs under the table
can eat the children’s crumbs,”
she says.
 
Even the dogs under the table
can eat the children’s crumbs.
 
She is willing to forgo a seat at the table,
willing to be counted among the dogs,
willing to accept the crumbs
that are usually all that the poor receive.
 
They met at the borderlands,
where she willingly gave up her status
for the healing of her daughter,
where he willingly recognized
her well-chosen words,
and offered the oppressor healing.
 
He challenged her, yes.
But she also challenged him.
Who changed whom in the borderlands?
 
But perhaps there was more.
For Jesus’ trek into the borderlands
is bordered in Mark,
by stories about food,
stories about crumbs,
stories about leftovers.
 
Did the woman know that Jesus
had previously fed far more than 5,000
people with five loaves and two fish?
 
Did she know
that the whole exploitive economy
on which her people relied,
was being undermined by this teacher,
this healer,
who was able to take crumbs
and turn them into a satisfying meal,
into abundance for all who came?
 
Did she know that this abundance
was more than they could ask or imagine,
that twelve baskets of leftovers
were carefully gathered up,
that in this economy all were fed,
and excess was carefully gathered,
gleaned for the feeding of those who still hungered?
 
Perhaps she did.
Perhaps she knew that
at the table Jesus set,
there was always enough,
always enough for the hungry,
always enough for the overfed,
always enough for those who need healing,
no matter who they are.
 
And if she didn’t know this,
Mark seems intent on letting us know.
 
For when Jesus heads back
out of the borderlands,
into the land of Galilee,
he once again provides bread.
This time there are more than 4,000 people.
This time he begins with seven pieces of bread
and a few small fish.
This time there are seven baskets left over.
 
Numbers have meaning in this story.
In the first feeding, Jesus creates abundance
out of five loaves and two fish:
a minuscule amount to feed so many.
And there are 12 baskets left over:
one basket for each of the twelve tribes of Israel.
The leftovers of Jesus’ abundance
are enough to feed all of Israel.
 
In the second feeding,
Jesus begins with seven loaves of bread.
Seven.
In the Bible seven is the day of completion,
of enough,
of fulfilment.
This time, instead of creating abundance
out of the crumbs of empire,
Jesus is working out of the abundance
of the reign of God.
Of course there is enough for all:
there always was.
 
And there are seven baskets left over.
Even after all have eaten there is abundance for all.
 
But that is not all.
There were seven Gentile nations
named in Deuteronomy 7
when the people entered the land.
Seven Gentile nations to be destroyed,
seven Gentile nations
who were not to be shown compassion.
 
Could it be,
that after Jesus heals this Greek woman,
that after a Syrophoenician woman
is offered the crumbs from the table,
that Jesus is making a statement
about the abundance of the kingdom
being for those seven Gentile nations as well?
 
If the 12 baskets of leftovers are the twelve tribes,
do the 7 baskets of leftovers represent the fulness of the Gentiles,
all welcome to share in the overflowing abundance
of the bread of life?
 
Perhaps the leftovers of Jesus’ abundance
are enough to feed the whole world.
 
* * * *
How do we read this story?
We who have much
and we who have little?
 
How do we live into this community
that Jesus is shaping?
A community of welcome
for oppressor and oppressed,
a community of abundance,
where those who live with crumbs
are offered abundance,
and those used to abundance
offer to be satisfied with crumbs.
What do we sacrifice so that
there is abundance for all?
 
They met in the borderlands.
He challenged her world.
And she challenged his.
Both went their ways
with a fuller vision
of the healing on offer,
with a new vision of abundance.
 
Perhaps the borderlands
is where we should be.
 
Amen.

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