Prayer: Like Mary…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermons: Wake up Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermons: Resisting a Culture of Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen. 

Sermons: Seek God and Live

The following is the sermon on Amos 5:1-17 that Deb Whalen-Blaize preached on September 29 at Wine Before Breakfast … After Dinner.

Last week, we gathered together, and listened to Aileen talk about apocalypse.  This week, my dearly beloved, we are gathered together to talk about death.

Hear the words of the prophet:

 “Fallen, no more to rise, is maiden Israel; forsaken on her land, with no one to raise her up.”

No one to raise her up.  Strange words to hear the prophet say, as one who is speaking on behalf of a mighty God.  “The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth”…  Surely THIS God can raise anything from the dead.  Surely Israel’s God, who delivered them from Egypt through a parted Red Sea and kept them alive in the desert -surely THIS God can save them.

But what I hear Amos saying to Israel in its apocalypse is not that God can’t raise her up.  What I hear Amos saying is that God won’t.  They have become a society God will no longer endure.  We’ve been reading this for weeks: they no longer behave like people who had once been delivered from oppression.  They, instead, have become oppressors who capitalize on the weak, poor, and needy. The memory of how it felt to suffer under systems of iniquity and captivity is no longer within reach of the most powerful among them; instead those with power choose to nurture a system that sacrifices the wellbeing, livelihood and humanity of the poor.  And in so doing, the rich and powerful have sacrificed their own humanity, and fail to live up what it means to belong to a just God.  There’s a decay of life in all directions, and justice has been turned to bitter wormwood.

To add further insult, they continue to participate in worship and observe holy festivals as if God still means something to them. The rich and powerful of Israel bring grain and livestock in portions that barely affect their legers and expect that God will be appeased and overlook their rotting culture of injustice.  Perhaps they think their offerings are just about meeting that bottom line.  Perhaps Yahweh will look away from what they know is piss-poor conduct for those who belong to the Most High, so long as they offer him a cut of the reapings.  The worship they offer includes nothing of devotion or gratitude, and does not resemble sacrifice by any stretch of the imagination.  I wonder which came first…  Did their conduct of increasing injustice corrupt their worship?  Or did an indifference creep into their worship and corrode their sense of righteousness and equity?  I certainly can’t tell you which came first, but there IS a co-relation.  Their devotion to power and greed flickered to monsterous life as their devotion and gratitude toward their life-sustaining God shriveled up and died.  Worship is supposed to be life-giving.  Yahweh asked for a practice of worship for Israel that would nurture and sustain their relationship, to God and to each other.   But this token appeasement?  It’s not worship.  It’s not service or devotion.  It’s no better than bribery -Hush money in exchange for the allowance of abusive inequity.  Of course, this is not the kind of worship God desires, nor accepts.

And thus the harsh critique is issued:  God is calling time of death.  Start the funeral.  Time for this whole system of death just die.  God is not interested in restoring THAT Israel.  But, thankfully, God is not done talking.

“You are dead.  But…  Seek me” God says, “And live.”

Death is not just a metaphor.  Most of us, by this point in our lives, have been very deeply affected by death.  We have been robbed of people precious to us by death.  COVID-19 shook us so harshly because of it’s capacity for death.  God uses this image of death because of how serious it is -and also because it’s more than a metaphor.  Systems of inequity literally lead to death for those who can’t find housing, who have no support through addictions or mental health challenges, and who can’t access income because they’re not seen as hire-able or because the wages for the jobs they are doing are insufficient and unfair.  Those of us with privilege can’t just brush these things off like they have nothing to do with us.  A society is not just a bunch individuals who are just near each other.  Our behaviour affects each other and we need each other, especially when things get bad.  So when things go well, we need to use our fortune and privilege to support and sustain those in need.  Everything we get is supposed to be seen as a gift from God, which helps us to nurture our understanding of Godly generosity.  However, if you’ve gained what you have from evil, unjust practice, you’re not going to think of what you’ve gained as being from God, or for God either.  The hoarding of wealth so often implicates that it was wrought by illicit means.  If you don’t care who you crush to acquire your fortune or your power, you’re probably not interested in using those assets to support and empower those you are responsible for crushing.

And it’s not just wealth that is acquired or maintained easily by unjust means.  Power works that way too.  And I think this is where the church is the most susceptible to evil, death-dealing practice.  How many of us have suffered under power-hierarchies built and sustained by those in the church who do not actually represent all who belong?  How many of us have been told that we are less than, that our gifts are insufficient, because of our gender?  Our sexuality?  Our nationality or skin colour?  How many of us have been shut down and rejected because of expectations we could never meet?  Expectations never put on us by God.  Expectations that are set impossibly high so that only a select few have actual access to leadership and influence.  This exclusion and dehumanization for the sake of power is STILL happening in the church.  God’s church.  Rather than being an example of justice and equality and unconditional love and commitment, the Church in so many respects reflects and practices exclusionary economics.  And then the church says this is God’s way, sign God’s name to it and convinces themselves this is how God taught them to do church.

But this is not the unconditional, empowering, life-giving way of God.  It is the way of death.  It kills faith.  It keeps people from God.

I worry that as society wakes up to injustice and fights to dismantle it and evoke change, the church is getting left behind.  A few weeks ago I attended an online session about racism in the context of church.  It was sobering.  The lecture was being given by Michael Blair, a black man in leadership in the United Church of Canada.  He spoke clearly and prophetically, talking about the lack of diversity within the church in Canada, and the way that Canadian churches haven’t made any formal statement in support of the anti-racism movement.  Most of us don’t even realize how ethnocentrically European the church here is.  Many of us don’t WANT to know.  Because we benefit from this ignorance.  And because the work of change is hard.  Changing means we need to face and confess to the injustice we’ve perpetrated and participated in, and then we have to keep working and dismantle the corrupt system and then rebuild a new system that shares power.  If I’m honest, the white girl in me who hates conflict and has been fortunate enough to be able to ignore the problem of racism in the church for so long…  that part of me doesn’t want to do the work.  Because once we start, we can’t quit and it’s going to take a long time.  Injustice in the church runs deep in our history.  We’re going to be digging up and destroying those those roots for a while.  For so many reasons, I would much rather keep singing nice songs to Jesus and go on about my business, pretending I’m not ignoring the voice of God calling us to account.  I don’t want to confess to the wrongs I’ve participated in.  But how can I look at my family and friends of colour, how can I listen to their experiences of injustice and denied humanity, and keep behaving as if there’s nothing wrong?  My life-denying practice of racism and presumed privilege needs to die.  I’m finally willing to admit this.

At the end of Michael Blair’s lectures, I decided to be brave and ask a question:  Where do we start to dismantle our system of racism in the church?  What will it take for the church to get to a place of practicing justice and rebuilding a reputation for being anti-racist?  How do we seek God and live?

He said we need to start by admitting we have a problem -that racism IS present and practiced in the church.  We have to do the work of understanding racism so we can identify it and uproot it.  One of the things he says the church needs to do is recognize the diversity of its members, even beyond race. Each individual church community should be excited by diverse theology, experience, resources… there are more kinds of diversity than just racial.  We need to practice expressing and celebrating that diversity.  The more diversity that is on display in a congregation, the more it provides an opportunity to visitors to see something of themselves in the congregation, which leads to that community growing.  Diversity might be a challenge, but it’s absolutely a strength.  And it absolutely indicates, perpetuates and honours life.

“Seek me and live” says our God.  Whether through the audible voices of prophets and teachers or the inner voice of the Spirit, I am grateful that God continues to call us away from fear and death, and is ready to remind us how to nurture and practice life.  God is not afraid of death, but is powerful enough to overcome it.  I am grateful that death can be a disruption to evil, and can make room for life to happen.

And as it goes with practicing anything, when we commit to practicing justice, it will get easier.  We will see more and more life springing up around us and we will forget the fear we once nurtured.  Valuing the humanity in one other will become our riches and our pride.  We will be enlivened as we cultivate life.  We will love God as we love each other and justice will begin to flow from us with ease.  When the church practices justice, it will flow out of the pews and down the aisles, out the doors and into the streets.  Let’s stop damning up this river and instead trust God’s promise that his way of justice brings life. 

Dearly beloved: Let’s seek God.  And let’s really live.

Sermons: Listening to Injustice

Aileen Verdun preached the following sermon on Amos 1-2 at Wine Before Breakfast… After Dinner on September 15, 2020.

At the time that the book of Amos was written, the nation of Israel had split into two kingdoms: the northern Kingdom kept the name Israel, while the southern kingdom became known as Judah. At this point, both kingdoms were in the midst the long and peaceful reigns of their respective rulers, and Israel in particular attained a height of territorial expansion and national prosperity that was never again reached. At the same time, this prosperity led to gross inequity between urban elites and the poor. Through manipulation of debt and credit, wealthy landowners amassed capital and land at the expense of small farmers. The smallest debt served as the thin end of a wedge that lenders could use to separate farmers from their patrimonial farms and personal liberty.

This is the context into which Amos arrives. This sheepherder-turned-prophet traveled from his home in Judah in order to speak to the nation of Israel.

Amos begins without delay, launching into a speech that, to his original audience, would be immediately recognized as a prophecy. It was a common feature of Israelite prophecy to indict foreign nations, because this implied God’s universal sovereignty, and that is exactly what we see here. Amos begins to indict six different nations that neighbour Judah and Israel, each for ethical transgressions not only against Israel and Judah, but against other neighbouring peoples. Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, the Ammonites, and Moab, are all decried by the prophet for their unjust treatment of their neighbours, and are told that they will suffer punishment at the hands of the Lord: their strongholds will be burned and torn down, their places of power will be reduced to rubble.

Each of these indictments begins with the sentence, “For three transgressions of ‘this people’, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.” This too, would’ve been a common idea amongst the Israelites. Three plus four equals seven, the number of completion. Amos doesn’t actually lay out seven sins of each nation, but instead uses this phrase to allude to completeness: the injustice of these nations is complete, their transgressions have reach fullness, and now God will bring fire upon them.

So far, this is a prophecy no one in Israel is having difficult time listening too. God’s going to bring down judgment on the pagan nations around Israel for their war-mongering violence and injustice? Yes! I can imagine a crowd growing around Amos as he spoke these words. The people listening might have felt excitement to be an Israelite, and proud to follow Yahweh who could judge all the nations from a position of sovereignty and power.

But this crowd, while enjoying Amos’ words, would also be waiting to see where this whole sermon was going. So far, Amos has condemned six nations around Israel… but who would be the seventh? Of course Amos’ sermon would name seven nations; after all, seven is the number of completion. The expectation of a final seventh oracle would be as obvious to the Israelites as it is to us that a movie is finished when the credits are rolling.

So who is it? Who is the seventh nation to receive the wrath of God? Where does the fire of judgment finally settle in this farmer’s prophecy?

For three transgressions of Judah and for four, I will not revoke the punishment. Yes! This would certainly bring a smile to the faces of the people of Israel, perhaps even a cheer went up from the crowd. Of course it was Judah! This prophet from Judah had first hand knowledge of the sins of his own people. Of course this final oracle would land at the feet of Israel’s southern neighbours who thought they were so much better than Israel because of their Davidic dynasty and their so-called “city of the Great King”. Let them suffer judgement, they deserve it. The crowd all breathes a sign of relief at being spared God’s judgement.

But let’s bring this all a bit closer to come. Imagine with me, if you will, that we had a guest preacher from the southern USA coming to speak to us in Canada. This preacher begins their talk by teaching us the long history of racism and slavery in our world – naming all the ways the various colonial empires stole and oppressed and raped and murdered, naming the way science was use to created racial divides that have no actual bering in biology, naming the racist laws and systems that were set up so that wealth could be extracted from the earth by the blood and sweat of Black people and Indigenous Peoples and other People of Colour for the benefit of wealthy whites… this guest preacher then continued in this history of racism and slavery, to name the USA as the absolute peak of all of this horror: the most racist, the most systemically unjust, the true pinnacle of the colonial project of white supremacy.

Such a talk likely wouldn’t offend most Canadians. Some of us might even nod along to such a speech. Our popular culture certainly seems to agree with this notion. Yea, American is the worst! Just look at who they elected as president. We’re definitely not like them. We breathe a sign of relief that we are spared from dealing with this colonial history…

But this isn’t where Amos finishes his prophecy. The crowd expects him to stop at seven, but like an after-credits scene in a Marvel movie, the story isn’t quite over. To his listener’s horror, he goes on… For three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke the punishment. What? Can’t Amos count? Eight oracles doesn’t make any sense! The sermon is over, God’s wrath has been dealt out, we should all be able to go home.

But Amos isn’t finished. He goes on to tear apart Israel, pointing to the way that they sell the righteous and the needy into slavery without a second thought, exploit the marginalized in every imaginable way, and unjustly amass wealth at the expense of the poor. And unlike the other nations, who were judged without knowledge of God and God’s laws, Israel knows better. The prophets points to Israel’s long history as God’s chosen people, and the ways that they have ignored and forgotten who God is and who they are supposed to be. As the eighth oracle, their sins and systems of injustice go beyond completion, beyond fullness. Through Amos, God is expressing just how deeply and profoundly Israel is out of line. The fullness of God’s wrath and judgement will come down, says Amos, on those who exploit the marginalized: those who have taken and exploited and held no compassion or mercy in order to become strong and powerful will be pressed down and will loose what they took unjustly.

Our southern prophet has defied expectation by slamming the north with their own corruption. He subverts their exception in order to shake them awake to their own systems of injustice toward which they’ve willfully turned a blind eye.

So where are “we the north” to find ourselves in this story?

As Canadians, our dominate white society is so quick to compare ourselves to our southern neighbours. News story after news story, we right opinion pieces on what we think the state of the States means for us as Canadians, we point to their systemic racism and ask how could it get that bad, and we define ourselves as being not American. We’re quick to say, well we’re certainly not as bad as all that!

But Amos is telling us that’s the wrong game to be playing. Stop looking to condemn your neighbours while your society is filled to the brim with injustice. We have nothing to say to our southern neighbours when Black people in Toronto are 20 times more likely to be shot dead by police. We have nothing to say when there are 61 long-term water advisories still in effect on Indigenous reserves. We have nothing to say when our government is criminalizing Indigenous people for defending unceded land, only one hour away from Toronto. Amos points to the reality that our society has no legs to stand on in the blame game, and that if we don’t open our eyes to the see the injustice going on around us, we have no way of participating in the Kindom of God.

Conversations like this one are always hard, because they’re so big. It’s true that Canada is built upon legacy of colonial racism and injustice, that the society that we exist within has systemic injustice baked into it’s core. But it’s all so much more than I can handle. There are so many ways our society is unjust, so many ways that our society is set up to further marginalize the marginalized. I find myself asking… what do I do? what can I do?

As I was reflecting on this passage I realized that Amos doesn’t ask Israel or the people of Israel to do anything in these first two chapters. Amos is just naming the injustice that he see running rampant. This is not to say Amos has no action plan for Israel, he will certainly get into that later in the book, but in the first sermon that he preaches, the first word of God that he shares with the people of Israel, he is simply asking them to listen. To see. To become aware of the injustice they are embroiled within, the systemic oppression that fuels their society.

We are often quick to look for something to “do” about it all. I’m guilty of this – I want to feel, If I’m brutally honest, not even hopeful but productive… I want to push down these overwhelming feelings of exhaustion, sorrow, anger and despair at I see around me and what I see myself tangled up within, by grabbing onto something to do. I rationalize that if I can be part of the solution, maybe I can absolve myself of those hard painful feelings, absolve myself of this unjust society.

As natural as these feelings might be for people who have grown up benefiting from a white dominate culture, we must resist the instinct to run from the difficult words and painful feelings by finding something to do. Instead, we need to start with the hard work of listening, of opening our eyes to injustice, and to sitting with the pain. We need to hear what is being said, not just in the scriptures, but by the people in our society who day-in and day-out suffer at the hands of the extractive, exploitative, unjust, powerful systems in our society. Marginalized people have so long been telling us that things aren’t right, and we need to listen. We need sit with the words we hear from these texts and from the marginalized, and see ourselves in light of those words.

This community has taught me a lot about lament. And one of the things that I have learned is that without lament, there can be no deep, abiding hope. As we walk through the book of Amos over the next few weeks, we will be encountering God’s condemnation of injustice and God’s calls for justice. My prayer for us is that we can hear the words of God in our own time, that we can see our ourselves and our society for all the injustice, and than we can sit in lament together in order to experience deep resurrection hope. Amen.

April 4

From Story to Character
Remember last week?
The whole business of not losing the plot,
of finding ourselves immersed in a new story,
the story of Jesus?
Well, this week Paul moves from story to life.
From finding the plot anew, to living it.
Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once wrote,
I can only answer the question “What am I to do?”
if I can answer the prior question 
“Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”
Our deepest stories provide us with a narrative
out of which we live our lives,
together with the character traits that
will move this narrative forward.
If the story is one in which progress is identified
with unceasing economic growth
resulting in the good life of consumer choice
and the accumulation of economic goods,
then it wouldn’t be surprising that such a story
produces people who are self-centred,
acquisitive, greedy, autonomous, and insatiable.
That insatiability would be permeate all of life;
from stock portfolios to real estate to sexual conquest.
But what if the story was,
Christ has died
Christ is risen,
Christ will come again.
If that is the story of our life,
then how does that shape our daily living,
and more deeply,
how does that form our character?
What kind of people are we called to be
if this is the story that grounds and directs our life?
Well, says Paul, such a story
would rule out certain kinds of things
(most of which look surprising like
the consumptive lifestyle I just mentioned),
and engender another sort of character,
a character that manifests things like:
compassion,
kindness,
humility,
meekness,
patience,
forgiveness,
love,
peace,
gratitude,
wisdom.
These virtues would permeate our lives so that
“whatever you do, in word or deed,
do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3.17)
I know, it all sounds great.
But there is nothing easy about any of this.
While some of us are blessed with some of these virtues,
as something that comes somehow ‘naturally’,
none of us is blessed with them all,
and none of us can grow into such virtues without work.
And if these are virtues shaped by the story of Jesus,
then dwelling deeply in his story,
allowing “the Word of Christ to dwell in you richly,” (Col. 3.16)
is surely indispensable.
That’s why we gather on Tuesday mornings.
To dwell in the story of Jesus
and be nurtured in the virtues that carry that story forward.
This week we engage in the ministry of gratitude
through our once a semester offering.
Andrew Federle will be preaching and presiding.
Joyce Mak will be serving us at the table.
Mark Novak is crafting our prayers.
Beth Carlson-Malena has curated the service.
Deb and the bandhood go folk-rock with some Blue Rodeo and “Gospel Bob” Dylan.
Wine Before Breakfast (Colossians 3.5-17)
Offering Tuesday
Tuesday, April 4 @ 7.22am
Wycliffe College Chapel.
Looking forward to seeing you this week.
Brian
Campus Pastor

March 28

On “losing the plot”

“He’s totally lost the plot.”

That would be the way that my British friends would describe someone who has lost touch with reality, gone a tad irrational, or perhaps (more seriously) is suffering a significant mental health breakdown.

And it’s an incredibly apt way to put it.

When you “lose the plot,” you find yourself disoriented, confused, and undoubtedly anxious, because you can’t quite put it all together. The story of your life has lost its sense of meaning, direction and hope.

It is no wonder, then, that much of what we do in personal psychotherapy is deep plot restoration. Something is amiss. The story isn’t making sense. You’ve hit a dead end. Your story has reached an impasse, a plot conflict, and you can’t find a way to resolution.

Or maybe the story has a plot that no longer rings true. Maybe there were past moments of plot tension, betrayal, trauma and perhaps abuse that make it impossible to find a new plot, a new narrative meaning to your life.

Well, that’s when we are on the precipice of “losing the plot.”

When Paul was writing to the young Christian community in Colossae, he was worried that they might lose the plot.

And well might he have worried. They were so young in their Christian faith that they didn’t yet have very deep roots in the story of Jesus. This was a plot under constant threat.

So the apostle writes to encourage their faith and to warn them.

With a sense of parental affection and protection he wants to secure them against stories, worldviews and ideologies that would strip them of their identity in Christ, rob them of their freedom in Christ, and take them captive to visions that look good, but are a sham.

In a phrase, he doesn’t want them “to lose the plot.”

And the best way not “to lose the plot” is by finding your life ever more deeply embedded in the plot-structure of the story of Jesus.

That’s why, in Colossians 2 and the beginning of chapter 3, with the repetition of the phrase “in him,” Paul persistently identifies the story of Jesus as the story of these Colossian Christians.

In him you have died.
In him you have been buried.
In him you have been raised.
So set your minds on the one who sits at the right hand of God in heaven.
For when he is revealed, so also will you be revealed.

There it is.

The basic plot line of the life of Jesus:
crucified,
buried,
risen,
ascended,
coming again.

Or as we so often say together in the Eucharist,
Christ has died,
Christ has risen,
Christ will come again.

And Paul is saying that the story of Jesus, is the story of his followers.
What happened to Jesus, happens to us.

Paul writes a letter to this community so they will understand the plot, and not lose it.

That’s really why we gather on Tuesday mornings as well.

Most of us have felt, at one time or another, like we are losing the plot.
We’ve had these painful experiences of our story coming apart.

And often enough, it has been a story about Jesus, or at least a particular telling of that story, a particular way in which that story has been taken up in destructive ways, that has so deeply bruised us.

So we gather at a table of remembrance. We tell the story anew, listening for a plot that sets us free, rather than holds us captive. We sing that story as a liberation song. We are invited into the story of Jesus as a healing story, a story of deep forgiveness, a story that has a plot that goes beyond death to resurrection.

We come together, dear friends, so that we don’t lose the plot.
We come together, beloved siblings, as if our life depends on this story.

And it does.

This week at Wine Before Breakfast: Colossians 2.16-3.4:

Beth Carlson Malena will be preaching. She knows something about finding ourselves in the story of Jesus.
Luke McRae will set the table and Andrew Asbil will serve the meal of remembrance.
Kiegan Irish has crafted our prayers.
Amanda Jagt has curated our worship.
And Deb Whalen and the bandhood are mixing up some Laura Marling, Curtis Mayfield, a little gospel and some classic hymns to help us find the plot anew, in case we were losing it.

And remember, friends, WBB is called to be a community of hospitality. So if you’ve got some friends looking for a plot to make sense out of their lives, invite them to our story-telling gathering on an early Tuesday morning.

In Christ,

Brian
Campus Pastor