Give us a King

The following are a few excerpts from a sermon preached by Peter Haresnape at Wine Before Breakfast on January 24.

Growing up in England, Elizabeth was the queen, Maggie was the Prime Minister, Kathryn Janeway was the captain, Margaret was the pastor, and my Mum was in charge. And now, 2023, men seem to be everywhere. We have men prime ministers, men popular entertainers, and even men preachers. And now, a man queen…

A king can symbolise concepts that are hard to grasp. The Crown in right of Canada represents the immaterial presence of authority and power, the power that lies behind the institutions of courtroom, cabinet, and cop. It’s the assertion of sovereignty over vast tracts of land, on the basis that the Crown holds the land on behalf of the Indigenous nations, administering it in their best interests. It’s a complicated legal fiction designed to make it hard for Indigenous nations to have their land rights recognized, and simple enough for the citizens of Canada to believe. A king can be very helpful.

So the people say, ‘give us a king’. And why not? These are the elders of Israel, speaking on behalf of the whole nation. ‘Give us a king’, because Samuel the Judge and Priest and Prophet is old, and his sons are corrupt, and there are no more righteous judges. The days of Deborah and Gideon have gone, the old days when God called leaders to respond to specific problems. They want an end to the uncertainty, a permanent king and army and state, like other nations.

….

In the fullness of time, God sends someone into the line of King David, in the form of a prophet, with the authority of the judge. And this person is plunged into the pain of the world, filled with the Holy Spirit, and tempted with three great temptations – hunger, safety, and power. And he says ‘worship God’. And this person is acclaimed as a healer and a miracle worker, a teacher and storyteller, and he says ‘God’s kingdom is here’. And this person forms an army of outcasts and insiders, and marches on the capital, and says nothing to those who demand his life.

And these rulers crown him, and raise him up, and call him the King, and kill him.

This is God’s solution to the violence of the world. The true King who holds absolute power of life and death, who could summon angel armies and darkness and blight, but who chooses to forgive. This is God’s solution. This is God’s Kingship. And this Kingship undoes every abuse of power and every claim to innocence. This Kingship exposes every tyrant’s pretension and every strongman’s terror. . . .

To read all of Peter’s sermon, see his website.

God as clothing – Sermon on Colossians 3

The following sermon was preached by Deb Whalen at Wine Before Breakfast on January 17.

It all began in the garden. A loving and shrewd God squinting at Adam and Eve.

“Who told you you were naked?”

It’s ironic that Adam and Eve’s first lie was an attempt at covering up their wrongdoing, and they chose to make it about their need to cover up their bodies. And we’ve been dealing with the fallout ever since. Because of Adam and Eve, every one of us, each and every day stands in front of our closet, asking:

“What am I going wear?”

By this point in our lives, as evidenced by all the fully clothed people in the room today, we’ve all learned to dress ourselves, no longer relying on someone else to choose our outfits on for us. Even those of us for whom getting dressed is merely a basic necessity, we’ve figured out at least what doesn’t work. What colours we hate and won’t wear. What fabrics we simply cannot bear because they are a punishment to our skin. And we know generally what size we like to wear, even if it is too big, like some of our most forthright friends and family will insist on telling us. Perhaps some of us have adopted a bit of a uniform, with a number of items in our closet that are in multiples. 3 plain black or white t-shirts, a few button up shirts, maybe one white and another a darker colour. A sweater or a cardigan. A pair or two of jeans. 1 pair of “nice” pants, or a skirt that goes with anything, and a bare minimum amount of shoes. Perhaps you have assembled a wardrobe of pieces that are interchangeable with one another so that when you get up in the morning, the decision making comes down to whatever is cleanest. And then at the end of the week, one load of laundry resets the whole situation and you can begin again on Monday.

But for others, getting dressed is FUN. There’s a creativity involved that allows us to match colours and patterns and fabrics. Even in the winter, a fashion-excited (and weather-savvy) person can check the temperature and think “Minus 15. Right. That means either the black or green cardigan. Am I feeling sleek and mysterious today, or do I need a pop of colour? You know what? It’s going to be grey all day, so green it is. Which means the white button up, and… I can wear my teal plaid pants with the brown boots. Great. I love these boots!” For some, calculating an outfit can be as exciting as redesigning a room in one’s house, or choosing a subject and colour palate for a new painting, and we can spend as much time as we are afforded on exploring all the possibilities. Not to mention the bonus of the endorphin rush that comes with shopping for more and more possibilities.

Each of us in the room will fall at various places along this spectrum of how we feel about dressing ourselves every day. And we might even harbour some judgements about people who approach it differently to us. And I hope you don’t expect me to tell you who is right. I don’t believe in a Biblical dress code, so far as what is appropriate to wear. Because I don’t think it matters. Frankly I am far more interested in WHY we dress the way we do. Because whether the wardrobe you have is styled after Johnny Cash or Moira Rose, it is a sad fact that many people wear their clothes as a means of covering up more than just their bare, cold skin.

Some of us are covering up bodies we hate -or at least bodies we think could be better. Men, women, and non-binary people alike, for so many different reasons, often desire different bodies than the ones we have, and while things like exercise, diet and plastic surgeries can (for better or worse) help us change those bodies, in the interim, clothing allows us to deal with the ways we feel our bodies are falling short.

Brenda mentioned in this week’s email that I spent a long time working in retail -and it’s true. For over 10 years I worked as a bra-fitter, working with people of all shapes and sizes, and I saw, in a very intimate way, how impacted we are by the expectations of how we think we should look. But I actually want to tell a personal story, from long before my bra-fitting years. All the way back to my adolescence.

I went to high school in the 90s, and I was a grunge-era, artsy kid. I was a girl who didn’t feel beautiful. I was bigger than the pretty girls. I didn’t fit into any of the trendy clothes at the mall. So I wore baggy jeans and tshirts. That was my uniform. Even at summer camp, because I didn’t want anyone to see my arms or legs. I LOVED being in the water, but I dreaded those few seconds it took me to remove my outer layers and get my bathing-suited self into the obscurity of the water. I was so ashamed of my body.

When I was 17, I got a solo in one of our school variety shows and the number required me to wear a look that was more formal than I was used to. The director told me to bring in 2 or 3 dress options and she and my dance teacher would decide which was best. I had nothing at home, I was sure, that would be appropriate, so my mom took me shopping and we found a few long dresses that would cover up my legs, and were very in style, and even though they made me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable and awkward, I took them to school and shuffled out onto the stage in one dress after the other, while the program director and the dance teacher hemmed and hawed over them, from the safety of the seats in the back.

I can’t remember what I ended up wearing in that show, but I remember as clear as if it were yesterday, what happened next. My dance teacher, Ms. Frid, a gorgeous and toned woman with full, luscious dark hair rolling down her back, waved me to the back of the auditorium so she could speak to me privately. It was just the two of us, and she was careful and kind, but very direct: “I can see that these outfits you’ve been showing us are very different to what you wear from day to day, and that it’s making you a little uncomfortable, so I just wanted to encourage you a bit. You wear a lot of oversized, baggier clothes, and if that’s for the sake of comfort or intentional style, then more power to you. But if you are trying to hide a body that you think is ugly, please hear me when I tell you it is not. What I just saw up there on that stage is a body that is strong and feminine and beautiful and if you want to, you are allowed to show it off.”

Well. It was one of the most vulnerable and important moments in all my life. The idea of being beautiful was so bone alien to me. So I muttered, “Ok thank you.” And then ran to the bathroom where I locked myself into a stall and bawled my eyes out. Part of me was scared, part of me was confused, and most miraculously, part of me wondered if Ms. Frid could be right. Maybe I wasn’t hideous. Thank God I was already in counselling, and had someone to talk to about it. And I am thankful, every day, for that turning point where the voice of the Holy Spirit, through a perceptive dance teacher, was able to break through the walls I’d built up around myself. I was hiding more than just a body behind all those baggy clothes. I was also hiding a lot of anxiety and self-loathing. But still, all of a sudden, that voice reached into the heart of me and asked:

“Who told you you were ugly?”

I had fallen victem to all the voices that surround us every day, telling us we aren’t acceptable the way we are. We need to be smarter. Faster. Prettier. Stronger. Have more followers. Be married. Have children. Play the game. Wow the judges -no matter who you need to step over or throw under the bus. It’s been a long time since I was a teen-ager, and I’m sorry to say that none of these lying, incessant voices have gone away. But I have learned to distinguish God’s voice from the din, because God doesn’t talk like them. God doesn’t need me to do, say, achieve, wear or look like anything in order to be a beloved child in the Kingdom. But the transformation that can happen when we accept that we already belong… it is life-changing. And, in fact, it comes with a functional and gorgeous new wardrobe.

“The Great Spirit has chosen you to be his holy and deeply loved children, so put on the new regalia he has provided for you. Put on the deep feeling for the pain of others, kindness, humbleness of heart, gentleness of spirit, and be patient with one another. Learn to forgive. Be thankful.”

God doesn’t just hold out unconditional, affectionate loving kindness; God wraps us in it. We wear it like a warm coat. And as we come across those who are shivering, naked, and hiding in the bushes, we need to do our best to coax them to come out so we. In turn, can wrap that loving kindness around them. When we’re not worrying over ourselves and whether or not we measure up, we are free to move through the world with an ease that will make any outfit sing, and more importantly it frees us up to care for one another. To beckon and welcome more people to the Kingdom and to put on all this stunning regalia.

This is how the Kingdom gets built. With the very fabric of compassion and empathy. With humility and gentleness of spirit and gratitude. These are things that mark Christ-followers and set us apart from a world that wants us to compete with one another, to cover up our faults, to hide our true selves. God doesn’t want us to hide. He wants us to be transformed. We’re already made in God’s image, what we’re shedding is the façade that we create when we give into the pressures of earthly Kingdoms. We’re becoming more and more like God as we are renewed. More like the selves we were always meant to be. Creation is not something of the past. It is still happening, because God is still at work in us.

Even so, I’m afraid to say, clothing is still not optional. One of my favourite writers, journalist Caitlin Moran, wrote an article about women and clothing once and pointed out something that I don’t think you have to be a woman to relate to. She says that when we stand in front of our closets thinking “I have nothing to wear!” what we are actually saying is “I have nothing that looks like who I am supposed to be today!” While we do need to figure out what will be appropriate for the lives we lead from day to day -here on campus, in offices, in churches, travelling around town- I hope that urgency to demonstrate ourselves can be curbed, as Christ-followers, by knowing that the main thing we wear is our strengthening Christ-like character, that regalia God has given to us. It may seem like just a white t-shirt and jeans. Or a vintage dress. Or a jacket and tie. But how you move in those things, the confidence and kindness you show in those outfits, the forgiveness or encouragement you can give to people who don’t expect it, these are what will make people look at you twice and wonder what makes you different. It’s the royal attire we wear from the inside out, giving us our holy beauty. That is what will stop people in their tracks.

“The Holy in the Common” Sermon on God as bread

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.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

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 [1959]), 200.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

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.

15 Ibid.

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.

Sermon on Psalm 32 – God as dovecote

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.

Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 and God as trickster?

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.

1 Byrd Gibbens, quoted epigraph in Napalm and Silly Putty by George Carlin, 2001. Taken from wikipedia article on tricksters.

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

God of Action – sermon on Mark 11:11-25

A version of this sermon was first preached on October 18 at Wine Before Breakfast by Matthijs Kronemeijer, a Dutch theologian. It has been expanded and revised after feedback.

Mark 11:11–25

Dear friends,

“God is action”. This is our image for the day, as we consider images of God this season.

God is action. These words create a tension, a question.
If God is action, what action is this, and who acts? If God acts, where are we? If we act, where is God?
If there is no action going on, does that mean that God is somehow absent, not paying attention? What should we make of this inaction?

A lack of action can be hard to endure. It makes people impatient. I know that all too well myself. I have been unemployed since my family and I moved to Canada two years ago. Being unemployed does not equal being inactive, but even so, it can certainly lead to a sense of impatience. Especially when the urgencies seem to pile up around one, as I have experienced, both in the United States and in Canada.

A large part of what I have done over the past year and a half is study the gospel of Mark. Mark is the gospel of action, of God’s action. Mark presents Jesus’ ministry as a sequence of fast action, especially towards the beginning and end. The middle section has room for something different: it has more reflections, and it tells the story of Jesus’ disciples being led up the mountain where they hear God’s own voice. “This is my Son; Listen to him”.

The general plan of action in Mark develops a bit like the hymn we are going to sing in a moment, “The love of Jesus calls us” (Common Praise 434). After the initial joy and wonder at God’s mercy there follows a period of reorientation and transformation to be true followers of Jesus. And after that comes a time to challenge the status quo, the powers that be, by means of direct action. This is where the confrontation with ongoing abuse and exploitation can get pretty overwhelming – as it does for Peter and the other disciples in our chapter 11.

There is also a part of the action plan in Mark that is missing in the hymn, but I’ll come to that. Before I get deeper into Mark, I want to consider an obvious point about God as action, so obvious that I neglected to mention it when I preached this sermon live. “God has no other hands than our hands”. Thus runs a famous saying attributed to St Theresa of Avila, a 16th century nun, who was both a contemplative and a woman of incredible action.1 God has no body but ours, and thus we should act for God, use our hands and hearts and minds. If this is so, if our works can be the works of God, this is one way for God to be action. But you will agree that this understanding of God’s action is not too prominent in our passage. I would not want to read this text as an exhortation to smash the furniture of this lovely church or a call to do good works of love and mercy. We have many other Bible texts about good works, and the fate of the furniture in this church should be left to its congregation. Although I fancy it would make a great banqueting hall, if a suitable cover for some of the windows could be found.

In one word, our passage is about a home-coming – Jesus coming into his true home. We have skipped the story of the homecoming parade, 11:1–10, which has Jesus on the colt entering the city. (I am not sure if you do that at the University of Toronto, but we did at Michigan State). The verse we started with is a spectacular example of (seeming) inaction. After Mark has raised all these expectations, Jesus does nothing more than go to the temple and look around. It is almost like he takes a glance at his watch and decides it is time to walk back to Bethany. After all the royal hosannas it feels like a letdown. Where is the action?

Action kicks in the next day. Jesus and his disciples are back on their feet, walking from Bethany to Jerusalem. And the action is negative – Jesus curses the fig tree. I find the image of the cursed fig tree profoundly sad and in fairness, disturbing. We would want our God to stop random destruction, least of all to carry it out himself. To me, this image evokes the ongoing news of the ongoing destruction of our natural environment that clamours for action. It also captures the apparent futility of so many of our efforts, including mine, to produce meaningful change. We might well wonder: Was this destruction really necessary, given that it was not even the time for figs? And does this destruction also foreshadow our own, unable as we are to produce good fruit at a critical time?

Jesus’ true homecoming, the next day, leads to his most dramatic public action, the “cleansing” of the temple. Jesus puts an end to the work of sellers of cattle and of doves for sacrifice, and to the work of moneychangers. We hear of him overturning the tables they use, the seats where they sit, and prohibiting the carrying of any gear, “vessels” or merchandise. (There is something in these words). Now why did Jesus do that, and what is happening here?

One explanation for Jesus’s actions can be found in the verses Jesus quotes to support his actions in the temple. “My house shall be called a house of prayer before all peoples”. As a Jewish friend and bible scholar suggested to me, this verse is the key to Jesus’ actions. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the selling of animals, the changing of money, or the carrying of merchandise – except that in Jesus’ view they got in the way of the core function of the temple. That is: to be a house of prayer, for all people.

Jesus truly comes into his own here. The actions that Mark squeezes into four verbs show how Jesus acts as messiah, king, and prophet. He exorcises evil, establishes his authority, and teaches. The need for an exorcism fits with his claim that the temple is a “den of robbers” – the second verse Jesus quoted. A den that is being purged, at least temporarily. Temporarily, since after all, the temple is going to be destroyed.

As I read Mark, he comes very close to the belief that the synagogue and the temple were to be replaced by the Christian church. This means that the words Jesus speaks in the temple can also be applied to the Christian church. Understood in this way, Jesus’ words suggest that to live up to its calling, the Christian church should be exactly this: “a house of prayer for all people”. And to be sure, it needs to be uncorrupted by commercial interests. For us who live in North America, where Christianity long sustained a culture of exploitative colonialism, domination and slavery, leading to all forms of internal corruption and also sexual abuse, that criticism hits home. By their subservience to these abuses, our churches and other Christian establishments have become “dens of robbers” too, in spite of the good intentions and true devotion that were and are still present in them. (Chapter 12 of Mark captures these tensions very well). Some Christians continue to align themselves with the political heirs of racism and colonialism, and in any case, the negative patterns created during earlier times – defensiveness, a closed mentality, self-protection – are still ongoing. To some degree, perhaps a significant degree, our churches are still corrupted and in need of cleansing.

With that in mind, let us look at Jesus’s surprising response to Peter’s remark on the withered fig tree. I will admit to finding this the hardest part of the text and of God’s call to action. Not because it is unclear or unappealing. What stands out, first of all, is the compassion Jesus displays to his disciples. No more dramatic action centered on Jesus, but an exhortation to pray with confidence. To pray, specifically, the Lord’s Prayer, which Mark’s readers would have known by heart. Because it seems to me that this prayer is what the text is hinting at in vs. 25, where Jesus refers to God as the heavenly father of his disciples. As for Peter, who alerted Jesus to the withered fig tree, he might have been torn between different feelings: Awe at the power of Jesus’s curse, or regret for the loss of the fig tree. But the fig tree was always Jesus’s own anyways, as God’s son and the heir to God’s vineyard. (This story opens Mark 12). The delightful little book of the prophet Jonah shows that God can grow and give trees as he wishes, and take them away. As Christians, we have no entitlement – to the land, to the fruits of the land, to goods, even to life – only to God’s promise, never to give up on us, the people of God. God did not give up on the sinful people of Nineveh, much to Jonah’s chagrin. So Jonah sulked while God acted, even through him, perhaps in spite of him.

Jesus talks about prayer, which is exactly where the temple and its community had fallen short. Where I fall short. Prayer, for Christians, is God’s action per se – through the Holy Spirit that is moving in our hearts. It is a STILL kind of action, what contemplatives call the ‘opus divinum’, divine work. It is very hard to accomplish and to get oneself to do. Thankfully, some people are better at it than others. A great friend taught me that in prayer to God as our heavenly father, we can permit ourselves to be immature and demanding – like little children. Perhaps that image suits the kind of father – a father who is also very much like a mother – that we could allow our God to be. After all, we are told here (as elsewhere in the New Testament) to ask for the whole world. So that is another part of the action we are invited to engage in.

That said, I still much prefer more dramatic action. “You will say to this mountain”, Jesus says, “be taken up and cast into the sea”. No more dramatic action than that can be imagined, to move a massive heap of rock. But is that necessarily what the text is telling us?

Consider that “this mountain” is the temple mount, which as we just heard is corrupted by forces of evil and has become unsuitable for prayer. Next, consider that the sea can be a symbol for the waters of purification, perhaps even of baptism. Does that change our reading?

To me, it makes it sound much less supernatural, and more realistic – and more impossible at the same time. The stains on the temple mount are going to be washed away, even the blood that after an intermezzo of centuries is again shed on it. The stains on our churches are going to be washed away, even if our buildings risk being sold or destroyed, and many probably will be. That is the impossible possibility we are being confronted with.

Many young and young-at-heart people are ready to overturn tables and chairs, to unseat the powers that be, and to try to prevent commerce and exploitation from running our societies into the ground. Some form of radical action, of revolution in short. I agree that it is needed. But I suggest that we, as Christians, are not ready yet. Our action is not God’s action simply because what we do seems right and necessary to us. In matters of charity and good works that may usually be the case, but in matters of faithful engagement in politics – where the bigger challenge lies – not so much. I suggest that contemplation and deeper thinking are still needed more than action, which is also in large part why I choose to focus on it, for the present time. And perhaps we all need to have some of our convictions and sacred beliefs overturned before a way forward opens up.

The church should be a house of prayer for all nations. This speaks to me, as a Dutchman who is caught between countries, church communities, languages and cultures. It speaks to me about the need for action in the form of contemplation – watching, observing, reading scripture and meditating. But this form of action cannot be undertaken alone. If the church is going to be what she is meant to be, Christians must pray in communion with others. The needs of the present world are too overwhelming for individuals or broken communities to carry.

More practically, it suggests to me that before we pray for God to intervene and ideally solve our problems as if by magic, we followers of Jesus should work to carve out a truly Catholic space where the concerns and needs of all nations can be weighed and explored in comparative safety. Where the lives lost through war in Tigray and Ethiopia weigh as much as those in Ukraine and Russia – and here. In connection with this exploration there is a need for proper discernment and analysis. This is where the work of universities, think tanks, opinion leaders and civil society groups comes in. There is failure in politics, but also integrity, and the need to shoulder burdens that may seem to heavy to carry.

Let us dream of a temple square where people from nations and cultures large and small, poor and affluent, humble or prestigious, can meet in sufficient equality and freedom to understand each other’s needs and perspectives. For to all of us God has said, in the words of Isaiah (chapter 55), “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways”. The realities of our countries and of our part of the world are certain to look very different in the eyes of others, as theirs do to us. Only in dialogue and prayer can we lift them up to God and move mountains. Let that be God’s action plan.

1 For another version see https://www.ncronline.org/spirituality/soul-seeing/soul-seeing/christ-has-no-body-earth-yours

Prayers of the People – Mark 11:11-25

Opening Prayers

How long, O God,
until things are made right?
How long before you act?

We lament the brokenness in the world.
We lament how hard it is
to discern your actions,
to see the Spirit’s presence.

As we come to worship,
grant us your table-flipping,
mountain-hurling convictions,
and may we recognize your presence
in your house of worship this morning.
Amen.


Prayers of the People

God of power,
you entered Jerusalem on a colt
and with an army of peasants.
You entered the temple,
became angry and raised your voice, 
and overturned the tables of injustice.

Tear down the injustices in our churches,
the university and our workplaces. 
Remove those who have abused their power,
reveal racism and ableism.
Let exploitation and thievery wither
so that restitution may grow in its place.

May your house once again
be a place of prayer for all peoples. 
May the university and workplaces
be spaces where all may flourish.

[Prayers for the church and the university]

God of power, you have promised
that if we say to a mountain 
‘Lift up and go into the sea,’ 
with hearts that believe and do not doubt, 
then it will be done.

But, O God, we doubt.
Our world is filled with mountains of oppression,
valleys of polarization we cannot cross.
We are weighed down by heavy burdens
placed on ourselves and one another. 
What sea can hold these mountains?
How do we not drown from our efforts?

Help us to imagine a different world,
a world where rulers humble themselves
and fight for the poor and oppressed.
Help us imagine a world
where we tear down mountains together
and where all creation flourishes. 
 
We lift up ourselves and those close to us.
Help us to trust in you.
Help us to believe your promises.

[Prayers for ourselves and those close to us]

God of power,
we believe you hear us. 
May we trust in you. 

As we wait for your answer,
give us courage as we fight for justice,
give us wisdom to rest in your presence,
and fill us with hope.
Amen.

Text borrowed partially from WBB service in March 2022 and January 2017.

God as Mother – a sermon

The following sermon was preached by Sarah MH on October 4, 2022 at Wine Before Breakfast.

God As Mother

Today I am preaching on God As Mother. As most of you know, I do not have any human children, although I do have a dog and a cat, and lots of plants. For that very good reason, I was surprised when Brenda asked me to preach since Jess is probably going to have a baby any minute now, but I suppose that’s what I get for requesting that we explore the image of God As Mother in the survey Brenda and Deb sent out in August.

Like maybe some of you, I grew up knowing that God was my Holy Parent. God the Father was never something that was overt, he was there, however it was really only when we talked about the Trinity that God was Father. As a child, our bedtime prayer was “As a hen covers her chicks with her wings to keep them safe, spread out your wings and protect us this night”. In my family, it is the women who lean towards ministry. My grandmother, Nell, wrote her chaplaincy thesis on women in ministry in the Bible. My other grandmother is one of the most prayerful people I know, and has dedicated her life after retirement to being a church leader and missionary. Women and God have always been closely intertwined in my life.

It wasn’t until I was old enough to go to youth group and then really pay attention to what was going on at summer camp that all of a sudden God was really Father, and somehow God was really manly, or in the words of a girl in my youth group: Daddy God. Because of the guys that camp attracted- macho, “manly” and very loud- and because camp ran on a framework of patriarchy and submission, I came to understand God as a Father who was deeply disappointed with me and my feminine side, who was strong, powerful and not afraid to use force or guilt to turn my heart to him. The version of God that I learned about at Evangelical Christian camp was strictly patriarchal.

Yet, as I grew up and began to distance myself from camp and youth group, as I came into my own faith, away from Hillsong, Bethel and Jesus Culture, back into mysticism and tradition, I found a God that wasn’t all Father, somewhat like Mother, and sometimes very much like neither at all, Parent God.

The reality is, God is neither male nor female, yet this was never obvious as a child. I feel like I was cheaped out on, in what I could have learned as a teenager and young person and taught as a leader. Yet, God as Parent was always there, hazy in the background, waiting for me to discover them. My Heidelberg Catechism taught me that God is a Spirit, and has no body as we do. Genesis teaches us that God created humans in their own image, from two most holy things: the breath of the Holy Spirit and dirt from the earth God created, and God saw that both humans created were very good, neither less good than the other. So as I came to terms with God as Parent, God as Mother became more believable. I started to look at the language of the Bible and early Christian teachings, and I began to see the fluidity of God as Mother, Father and Parent; the Trinity.

While the first two members of the Trinity are the Father and the Son, and those are the two that most modern Christianity leans on, I think it is in the Holy Spirit that we find Mother God. I’ll explain more as we go along today, so if you are ready to walk out, please stay and hear me out! For me, the Holy Spirit is the balance that I was craving in my relationship with God the Father. The Holy Spirit has escaped our need to gender everything and yet I feel the most close to God the Mother when I look at how the Holy Spirit is symbolized in scripture, with wind, fire, light and water. For myself, a solid definition of the Holy Spirit is: the inspiring and freeing power of God let loose on the earth. This allows me to hold space for both God the Father and God the Mother.

It should be noted that the word spirit was translated as masculine with the Latin form of spiritus, however was originally feminine with in the Hebrew word ruach, and the Greek is neither male nor female with the word pneuma. The activities of the Spirit as creator, nurturer, protector, as a force of nature, seeking out the needs of her children to empower and encourage them is remarkably parallel to that of women’s experiences. Some of the ways the Spirit has been mentioned in Scripture with the traits of a mother are as a God that gives birth, nurses her young, protects them and attacks those who would harm her children.

Isaiah 49:13-16 reads: Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.

Even more precise of an image of God as Mother is Isaiah 42:14 in which God identifies as a mother who’s forceful labour lays waste to the land and leads the children to paths and high places and will not abandon them. However, a few verses before this, God identifies as a warrior and a soldier, proving to be mighty against enemies. While we think of being a warrior and a soldier as being traditionally masculine, there are women in the Bible like Jael and Deborah who are fierce warriors too. It is unhelpful to say that military might is explicitly masculine. In any case, God here is comfortable with being on both ends of the spectrum that we humans have created in gender: both the masculine and feminine side and God is comfortable being both in the middle and outside the spectrum.

The theologian Lynn Japinga wrote in her book Feminism and Christianity that language about God should help us to understand and encounter God, but we should not confuse the reality of God with the limits of our language [Feminism and Christianity: An Essential Guide, Abingdon: 1999, p. 64]. God is beyond gender, the pronouns are only there so that we can more clearly understand God who is beyond our understanding. God is clearly comfortable with identifying as male, female and non-binary, it’s us who needs help and understanding, not God who needs more labels.

Using feminine images for God is not new or radical, it’s part of early Christian history. Lynn Japinga also writes that in the second century, Clement of Alexandria mixed his metaphors in his description of Christians nursing at the breast of God the Father. Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart described God’s daily activities: “What does God do all day long? God gives birth. From all eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth.” [Feminism and Christianity, p. 65]

Yes, it is problematic to reduce the Holy Spirit to a mother figure only, not all women are mothers nor do all desire to be a mother, nor does motherhood define femininity. However, those who transcribed the scriptures and continued the early church teachings found a lot of material in the contemporary cultures about women’s roles in society which helped to articulate the Spirit’s function. When Jesus meets with Nicodemus, he provides a birthing metaphor: “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). Jesus explicitly describes the Spirit as one who births. In addition, the Psalms describe the Spirit as a midwife, a washerwoman and one who knits life together inside the womb. In addition, the bird symbolism that we see all over the Bible, from cover to cover, was commonly employed to represent female deities in the ancient near east.

From this, the Bible and what we know of the times in which the Bible was transcribed, there is a Biblical case for the feminine in the divine: God as Mother, nurturer and just as much female as male. God’s creation of humans in God’s own image signifies that God is the fullness of femininity, masculinity and non-binary, God transcends gender binaries and constructions. The creation of women in God’s own image means that the realities women live offer helpful metaphors for describing “divine mystery”. There is room for creative, spiritual re-imagining while remaining true to what the Bible says, embracing God’s femininity, mothering and the God-given giftedness of women. Some of us, for too long, have heard one version of the Bible and that has hurt and crippled our relationship with God. When we include the femininity of God in our perspective of the Trinity, we are restoring Scriptures to what they once were and taking the Bible more literally than those who claim God only reflects male characteristics alone. How can we understand God fully if we are only seeing part of God and part of the Trinity? How can we be a complete and authentic community if we do not see the Trinity as equally feminine, masculine and non-binary? Our need for harmony in community is reflected in the perfection of the Trinity. The Father, the Son and Holy Spirit exist in complete mutuality and dependence without a hierarchy of leadership importance and it is the Spirit that reconciles us to model together perichoresis, the authentic and reciprocal community between human and divine in each other. Together, the Trinity sets the example for all people of their God-given capabilities to birth, tend and care, as well as to protect and provide, like a Mother and like a Father. The Trinity is bringing us to an awareness of the fuller picture of God’s being so that all people can find themselves in God’s embrace. Friends, may you find all of yourself in the embrace of Mother God today.

Amen.

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.