Prayers of the People – Matthew 20:1-16

The following are the prayers of the people written by Deb Whalen-Blaize for the WBB service held on 8 November 2022.

Oh God, who is all-knowing
Who forms us in the wom
And is still placing stars in the sky
We approach with confusion and yearning
We ask: are you powerful and mighty
Or humble and gentle?
And we hear you answer:

This morning we bring you all our assumptions,
Our preconceived ideas
The worldviews and narratives in which we find identity
We offer them to you in trade for humility

In your presence
May we practice the art of listening,
Mull over your morsels of wisdom,
And learn to ask the right questions.

(Moment of Silence and listening)

O God, the journey to wisdom is long
Thank you for your love along the way

We pray for Your Church
We have built so many walls
Based on so many presumptions
We have forgotten that sometimes
It’s just more important to love
Than to always have it right

Will you foster in us not only humility,
But curiosity?
To delight in discovery, and marvel in mystery
To remember that you have taught us
To love the Lord our God
With all our heart, soul, mind and strength
And to love one another as we love ourselves.

(Prayers for forgiveness for our faults and failings, for the strength to make amends, and to be who God wants us to be)

O God, the journey to wisdom is long
Thank you for your love along the way

We pray, too, for your Spirit
To guide all of us here
At the University of Toronto

For the students and faculty
In pursuit of knowledge
We pray that they will continue to experience
The joy and excitement of learning

We know that in every realm of society and community
Your desire is for justice and equity
We pray today for educators and support staff
In institutions across the province
Be with them in this time of outrage and protest

Console and sustain those with stress or anxiety
Free all from presumption and pride
And from the temptation to abuse power and privilege
May we see you at work
Here on campus, and on the picket lines, O God.

(Continued prayers for U of T students and faculty and for equitable working conditions in education in Ontario)

O God, the journey to wisdom is long
Thank you for your love along the way

As Remembrance Day approaches, God,
We thank you for your nearness
As we continue to grieve loved ones
And rage against history repeating itself

(A moment of silence to remember those we have lost to war and violence, and to resonate with God’s desire for peace)

We offer you these prayers
Knowing you accept each and every one

As we carry on along this journey towards
wisdom, justice and peace.
Thank you for your love along the way

We know that, as we seek you, God
You hide behind a tree, and laugh
Beckoning us to come and play
To walk beside you
To consider and reconsider
And to savour the richness of the journey
Long before we reach the destination.

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

Prayers of the People – God as hiding place

The following prayers were used at the WBB service on November 1, which focused on Psalm 32 and God as hiding place. Some of the prayers is an adaptation of prayers written by Carrie Bare from “On Prayer: At the Start of New Year.”

God of comfort, you are our hiding place.
You know who we are
in our inmost parts,
You see what is beautiful
and what we are ashamed of.

You know this world in which we live,
from the CN Tower to research labs,
from city hall to grocery stores.
You know what has wasted away
in ourselves
and in the world around us,
and you do not hide.

[Silent and spoken prayers of confession and lament]

God of comfort, you are our hiding place.
You grant forgiveness and healing,
reviving our strength,
restoring creation.

You provide a safe resting place,
may we create places of safety for others.
Help us to listen.
Help us to notice.
May we see your presence.

God of comfort,
we pray especially for the university.
May professors and students be full of grace
so that classrooms are conducive to learning,
to discovering together what is possible,
to being places of joy and hope.

You provide a safe resting place,
Where there is anything toxic going on in any of the departments, bring wholeness.
Bring peace and good will.
Help us honour one another as your image bearers.

[Silent and spoken prayers for the university]

God of comfort, you are our resting place,
and we are so often in turmoil.
Provide wisdom to those who are struggling,
bring peace to those who are anxious,
help those who are lonely to find friendships.

You are our resting place,
and too often our strength is dried up.
Refill us with the energy we need to live well.
Renew us, restore us,
and set us back on good paths,
so that we can use our gifts to your glory,
to help the university, the church,
and our workplaces.

[Silent and spoken prayers for wisdom and restoration]

God of comfort,
Please help us discern
what is actually ours to do, and what is not.
What you are calling us to do,
and what you are not calling us to do.
Help us be attentive to your Holy Spirit
so that we receive guidance and help and insight,
and the courage to do what lies before us.
Help us not to over-commit,
over-extend and fail to finish well.

When we fail, may we know your grace,
may we find in you a resting place.
May we be surrounded by your steadfast love
and find joy in you.

Opening and Closing Prayers on Mark 4 and Creation as God’s Body

The following opening and closing prayers written by Sarah MH were used at the WBB service held on October 25 which focused on Mark 4:26-41 and Creation as God’s Body.

Opening Prayers

God, we are full of hope and desire for goodness
in this city this morning,
For the Kingdom of God is here, and coming.

It is like someone scattering seed on the ground.
By itself, seed cannot grow,
But with water, darkness, soil, warmth and light
The seed grows into itself with stalk, leaves and fruit.

God, we are ready for goodness and healing in this university, this city, this province, this country.
For the Kingdom of God is here, and coming.

It is like a mustard seed, small and fragile at first,
But full of promise as it grows big enough to shelter all the birds of the air.

Give us patience as we wait,
Let us be strengthened
for the harvest that is coming.

Closing Prayers

Creator God,
You scatter seed on every kind of ground,
And give what is needed to grow that seed into
deep roots, strong branches and bountiful fruit.

Remind us that for all the gifts you bestow on us,
You do so thoughtfully and with joy.
Give us patience to see those gifts through to fruitfulness
to hold on to the promise that we will be a shelter to many.

So we boldly proclaim, 
filled with hope, courage and perseverance:
Glory to God, whose power working in us,
can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
Glory to God from generation to generation,
in the Church and in Christ Jesus,
forever and ever. Amen.

Prayers of the People connected to Mark 4 and Creation as God’s Body

The following prayers of the people written by Deb Whalen-Blaize were used at the WBB service held on October 25 which focused on Mark 4:26-41 and Creation as God’s Body.

Creator, Sculptor, Breath of Life
You brought life into being in the darkness and quiet
Where you were priming, preparing,
nurturing, and growing.
Bring us to stillness and slow breathing
Pause to our anxiety and make space for hope
May we trust that you are with us.

(Silence in which to breathe and be still before Creator God)

We praise you, for you show yourself in Creation:
Your strength and your beauty
Your endurance and resilience.
And you have created us in your likeness

Though we sometimes forget.
When the storm clouds gather, our brows furrow
When the leaves begin to wither,
we wring our hands
Sometimes the spirits of deception
Convince us the end is near.
Where we have been worn down,
and fear has set in
Restore our faith in you and in your presence
Remind us who you have created us to be

(Prayers spoken and silent for places in our own lives where we need healing, nurturing and restoration)

Despite our doubt and our callouses
Hope persists like a sprout in concrete
Defying imprisonment and death
And refusing to give up.

May we see our hope and our faith
Grow thick as mustard and plentiful as mint
And when we are fearful or wounded, O Creator,
May we find nourishment in the faith of one another,
In the relentless hope you have planted in each of us
May we find home in its thick brush
Shelter from the storms that trouble us so

(Prayers spoken and silent for the needs of U of T, our neighbourhoods, workplaces and churches)

Where we fail to serve, O Creator
Forgive us
May we not turn inward or crave dominance
But revel in what you have given us to do for one another.
Help us to celebrate life together,
Cultivating connection and balance.

We pray for places around the world
Where life is threatened;
Where humanity and dignity are disregarded;
Where injustice is used to stockpile power,
Causing suffering for so many.

(Prayers silent and spoken for places around the world where Creator’s justice, compassion and welcome is needed)

We pray, Creator God,
That your justice and balance be restored;
That suffering be tended to, down to its source.
We trust that where harm has been done
You are powerful to correct and to heal.

May our prayers be pleasing to you, O God,
Reaching your ears like the lapping of waves
And rising like the fragrance of wildflowers.
We pray all these things in the name of your Son,
Jesus, Creator Sets Free,

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

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.

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.

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

Prayers of the People – Numbers 14:13-25

The following are the prayers of the people that Robert put together for the WBB service focused on God as pilgrim (Numbers 14:13-25) held on October 11, 2022. Some of the following text has been borrowed from An Iona Prayer Book by Peter Millar and Gathered and Scattered: Readings and Meditations from the Iona Community by Neil Paynter

Lord of every pilgrim heart,
you are beside us and before us on the way,
surprising us through your Spirit
at every turning on the path.

Yet, like your disciples on the Emmaus road,
we often fail to recognize our companion.
In this morning hour,
and in whatever the day may hold,
help us to recognize your presence,
so we may celebrate with you the gift of this day.

[Prayers of thanks for people, places and moments that have shown us God is near.]

You lead us through the day and to our rest.
We are not afraid,
for your sun and moon are above us.

God of the pilgrim path
and of every pilgrim heart,
reveal yourself in situations
we would prefer to pass by.
Lord of the excluded,
help us to notice those who are different from us.

Lord, kindle to our hearts within,
a flame of love to our neighbours.

Go with us on this pathway.
Weave our walking with yours,
that the steps of our feet
may be a journey with your Spirit.

Be with us, like a pillar of cloud by day
and a pillar of fire by night. (Numbers 14:13)

Lord of the land, Creator,
it is so easy for us to reach out
and take what we want from the world.
Help us to see when our bargain
is someone else’s impoverishment.

[Prayers for our neighbours near and far,
who are in need.]

Journeying with you, Creator God,
is to journey in your world,
full of marvels and beauty in sky and sea,
and the earth and rock beneath our feet.

Journeying with you, Holy Spirit,
is like journeying with the wind.
Enable us to move to your wild music
and then to sing your song.

May the journey ahead
be blessed with your joy, O God,
As well as with your silences,
your peace, and all your surprises,
- perhaps all in one day.

[Prayers for God’s presence where there is need in this city, at the University of Toronto, and across the country.]

Pilgrim God, be with us
on every road, on every hill,
and each step of the journey. Amen.

Opening prayers for God as pilgrim

The following are the opening prayers written by Deb for the WBB service which focused on God as pilgrim. The service took place on October 11, 2022, the day after Thanksgiving.

Creator God, Pilgrim, Sojourner:
As we walk with you, from day to day,
We wonder:
How is it that you never tire?
We are in awe,
But our feet are sore
And we miss home.

It is so hard to imagine what’s ahead
And so easy to remember what we left behind.
May we not forget that you are with us,
And you are the Eternal One,
Who was and is and is to come.

This morning, we pause to take stock
To look at you, O God,
And give you thanks
To see how far you’ve guided us,
And give you thanks
To hear your clear, clean whisper,
And give you thanks
To be refreshed and inspired for our next steps
And give you thanks.
For your word, for your love
And for your guidance, O God,
Who was and is and is to come
We give you thanks.