The Kingdom of God is like a …weed?

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This week’s scriptures: Ezekiel 31:1-9 AND Matthew 13:31-32

In less than a week, I will be heading down to Berwick United Church Camp as I have almost annually for the past 33 years. Berwick Camp is located at the end of Commercial Street in the town of Berwick in the Annapolis Valley. It is unique camp in that it is situated inside town limits, but it is also inside a large, old hemlock and pine grove. These trees are incredible – they grow straight and extremely tall. They remind me of the mythical, mighty cedar of Lebanon that we read about in the Bible. Standing among these old, monumental trees can make one feel quite awestruck and very small. When the sun shines through, the way that it does at certain times of the day, it feels like a holy experience just to stand there in their presence.

But here’s the thing about mighty earthly things – when they fall, they fall hard – Berwick camp learned all about this on December 13, 2010 when a storm ripped through the Valley and the camp experienced what has been described as “Unfathomable destruction”. Over 100 trees fell. Many literally crushing cottages in half. Over 30 buildings were destroyed. The camp has mostly been rebuilt, but the spaces left behind where the trees once stood is still an ever-present reminder of loss.

Trees like that take a long time to grow and new trees, hemlocks especially, are difficult to get going because the plants are highly susceptible to pests and deer. They take a lot of work to grow. If they do make it, it takes a very long time for them to reach maturity to the point where nh birds are nesting in their branches.

I wonder if this is one of the reasons that Jesus subverts the idea that the Kingdom of God is a mighty cedar and says that it is like a mustard seed instead. A mustard seed grows to be a plant that is usually a viewed as a weed. This means that it germinates easily and quickly grows and is hard to get rid of. The mustard plant grows to around 4 feet although there are some bushes as high as 8-10 feet. It surely does not grow into a tree despite what the translations might say. So, it would have been surprising to the listener to hear Jesus teach that the kingdom of God was a like weed. Actually he says it is like the seeds of the weed!

There were even rules around planting mustard because it was so intrusive. It was considered lawfully pure to maintain an orderly garden. Vegetables were for the garden proper. Grains were for plots in the field. Only one kind of grain was to be sown in a plot because sowing more than one could make the crops of the field indistinguishable and therefore unclean according to the law.

The man in our story is risking an unclean crop by sowing mustard seeds in his ground! What is Jesus possibly trying to teach us about the Kingdom?

Just the nature of the word “kingdom” conjures up might and power! The kingdom of heaven is surely more like the mighty cedar of Lebanon – well established, widespread and prosperous! This is the human standard of success and this is what we expect of any kingdom worth being a part of! –established, widespread, and prosperous! But no, Jesus says that the Kingdom of heaven is like this little seed that grows wherever it lands. The Kingdom of God is still growing, still reaching, still spreading…

In the Old Testament, particularly in Daniel, the Psalms, and Ezekiel, the mighty cedar represents great power. Sometimes the power was that of God’s and sometimes it was of that of a ruler that thought they were more powerful than God. In our reading today, the poem by the prophet Ezekiel uses the image of the mighty cedar as warning to the king of Egypt that his kingdom –is like the Assyrian one before him – the prophecy is that this tree will fall as it has before. Have you ever seen the destruction when a mighty tree falls? Not only is the tree destroyed, but so is everything around it and that is what was happening in Israel each time a kingdom fell.

To say that God’s kingdom is like a cedar wouldn’t have made sense to Jesus. He understood that God’s power and might were beyond our human understanding. The power and might of the human kingdoms is not what God’s kingdom is like.

Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of God is not a destination or a grand tree to climb to reach the clouds, he doesn’t even say that God’s kingdom is like a Mustard Plant… no, he says it is like the Mustard seed that is sown. It is still full of potential! It has the potential to grow into being shelter and comfort to all who flock to it. The Kingdom of God is like the seed that can grow anywhere. If given the chance, the seeds of the kingdom of heaven will grow among all the other things growing in the garden until it takes over! Unlike mighty cedars, weeds don’t really fall down. Anyone who has had weeds in their garden know that they come back again and again and again. They grow, and they grow, and they grow.

The summer after the great storm at Berwick, I noticed something that I hadn’t before. In the sunlit places left behind where the mighty trees had once shaded, were now full of saplings and sprouts of all kinds plants and grass – and there were dandelions too. Dandelions are another weed that we want to hack out of the ground yet they provide so much goodness for the creatures like honey bees. What if the parable was “The Kingdom of God is like a dandelion…”

In any case, I had never seen so much green on the ground that had always been just brown with pine and hemlock needles. But where the trees had fallen, new life was able to take hold in the soil and grow. I wonder if that is what is like when we let go of our lofty ideas about what life should be like and begin to focus on the simple things. The Mustard Plant provides just as much shelter and protection for the birds as the mighty cedar after all, but unlike the cedar that takes forever to grow and requires just the right conditions, it seems that Jesus might be saying that all the kingdom of God just needs us. That’s it. And, if we let it grow, it will grow and we will start to see it invade all the areas of our lives. The more we let go of the desire for power and wealth and all the things that we think of as mighty then room is made for more heaven in our lives – there is more room for God.

So, how do we reconcile this idea that the Kingdom of God is like a little seed that will turn into a weed which is something that we usually fight against??? Don’t we want the Kingdom of God? I think we do, but we resist it because we think that the riches of the human world are easier to harvest. We have been fooled into thinking that God’s kingdom is beyond our reach in the highest branches of the tallest tree. But it’s not – it’s as close as bending down to pick a dandelion.

Maybe I connect with this idea of a pervasive, weed-like, almost annoying God because it reminds me of how God has worked in my own life. I have never been able to get rid of God… and I can tell you I have tried more than once, but God just kept growing back into my life each time I tried to cut God off. The things that really matter in my life are simple things and I think these are like the mustard seeds that plant the potential for an experience of the Kingdom of God in my life. Things like a roof over my head, clothes on my back, a hand to hold, a friend to hug, tasty food, fresh ocean air, a good book, some sunshine, a good storm, and even dirt between my toes. These things are grounding.

Whenever I have tried to plant the seeds for extra things in my life. You know the things I want, but not the things I need? – particularly things like money, expensive clothes, fancy vacations, or concern about my reputation as a business woman and maybe even now when I seek perfection in my academic work – I experience a profound sense of being out of balance. For me, this experience easily leads to depression and anxiety. And to me, that feels a lot like falling. I think that the higher you get climbing after those things you don’t really need, but that you think you want because the world tells you that is what success is, then the farther you have to fall when you realize those aren’t the things that really matter.

When our lives are out of balance and the ‘extra stuff’ becomes more important than the simple things then we are all at risk of this fall. What each of us need is going to be unique to our journeys as is what it will look and feel like for us to be out of balance. I think all of us experience feeling unbalanced and ungrounded from time to time.

This coming week I invite you to think about this image in your own life. Where are you likely striving to climb a mighty tree, rather than seeking the comfortable nest of a gentle shrub that’s right in front of you. That’s where I think Jesus is calling us in this parable. Out of our lofty towers and trees and a little bit closer to the ground where the seeds of God’s love are sown. What is it that grounds you and reminds you that you belong to God?

Bernard Brandon Scott, one of my favourite writers on parables, suggests that they are “entrances into a mystery”. I invite you to enter into that mystery with me, that mystery of God and let yourself be stirred up to think about what these parables mean to you….there are no easy answers, and often just more questions, but let those questions fill your heart as you leave this place. Let those questions ground you in an experience of God.

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Not Fair

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Todays Parable: Matthew 20:1-16

I have two daughters who are three years apart in age. During the school year, we take some time on the weekends to do weekly chores. My eldest daughter has more chores than my youngest and I have more to do than she does, but all of us have to finish our work before we get to relax with a movie or take off on an adventure. My eldest child has more than once said to me, “That’s not fair, I have so much more to do than her! How comes she gets off so easy?” I remind her that when she was smaller she had less to do too, and if each of us does what we can, according to our ability, then we all get to have fun when the work is over. This appears to be similar to the lesson in the parable today. Division of work for the same reward kind of makes sense in this context, even if it seems unfair at first. For my girls and I, the little one seems to have it the easiest, and the eldest, me, seems to have the hardest – the last shall be first and the first shall be last and all that, and at the end of the day we all get to go to the zoo!

It seems simple enough to grasp doesn’t it? This is how the parable is often interpreted –As a lesson about the fair division of labour and economic justice. Unfortunately, when we interpret it this way it means that we have tried to make the kingdom of heaven make sense according to our ideas around what is fair and just. As we often do, we have attempted make sense of the mystery of God by forgetting that although we may be made in the image of God —God is not like us!

The parable begins,“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard.” This parable is about the kingdom of heaven, it is not about the way things work in our world. If it was then the message might be easier to understand – it’s kind of like the lesson I taught my kids about their chores.

If we have learned anything about parables in these past two weeks it is that they are not meant to be easy. If the parable is about socioeconomic justice then it is about what we earn for what we do…period. Unlike the story about my kids and their varying capacity for work, this parable doesn’t tell us what the quality of the work was or who did a good job etc. It just lets us know that they were all paid the same wage regardless of what time they were hired.

Too often we infer things about the kingdom of heaven according to our narrow understanding of how things ought to work. We live under the absurd assumption that the person who works the hardest and does the best job deserves the greatest pay. This is clearly not the way things really are in the world, but we still claim that when that doesn’t happen the system is not “fair”. But inequity is exactly what capitalism relies on. The people making the most money are not the people doing the most work or working the longest hours. We know this. The people that make the most money are the ones that own the companies that employ the folks that do all of the labour. There is great injustice in our system and it is ingrained in us. According to statistics Canada, women make 87 cents to every dollar a man makes in this country. And that is just one example: Migrant workers make significantly less and international factory workers make almost nothing! When we read a parable like this one, we make sense of it through this very clouded context.

When we assume that the Householder in this story is God, we either see God as a generous boss – making sure that everyone gets paid the daily wage regardless of the time they worked – so that it is “fair” for everyone. This means that the guy that complained is just a greedy whiner. Or maybe we see God’s actions as unfair as the system we live in, but maybe just not as unfair because all still make a living wage – just some don’t have to work as hard. In the real world we’d probably file a grievance with the union about that, but in this story we might justify it by thinking “well at least it works out in God’s kingdom.” Yet, a sense of injustice will still lingers in our psyche because the model of work equals reward is so much a part of who we are.

Here’s the thing about thinking about parables and the kingdom of heaven though– we ought to be watching for where the story turns everything upside down and changes the way we have always looked at things. Look to the riddle at the end for example, “so the last will be first and the first will be last.” Sure, the workers at the end of the day got their wage first, and those at the first of the day got theirs last, but did that really matter if they all got the same thing? It seems like a very clever thing to say, and that line is often quoted, but it is just stating the obvious really.

So, what if this is not a story about socioeconomic justice at all? As I mentioned, if we try to make sense of it that way then it means that its all about what we earn and we better just get used to the idea that no matter how hard you work for God we will all earn the same reward. God will either be fair and just to those who are good and faithful servants all their lives or God will be really generous to those who didn’t seem to work as hard to get to the kingdom of heaven. But, I don’t think that the lesson in this parable is about our world where what we earn depends on what we do. This parable is about the kingdom of heaven, so I think that this is a lesson about Grace.

With that in mind, the good news is that God’s Grace is not earned. The kingdom of heaven is not a reward for a life well lived. That might be a hard pill to swallow if we are only think in terms of what is fair and just – I might subconsciously believe that “I work hard, I do good things… so I deserve this or that…” But, in that light – I don’t do good things for the sake of being good – I do them with the expectation that good will come to me. We know that that is not how life really works even here on earth. If that was the case then nothing bad would ever happen to good people and we all know that that is not true. That is how we want things to work, but they just don’t. Human life on earth is not “fair”, but I thank God that the kingdom of heaven is not about what you or I think is “fair”!

God’s grace, by it’s very definition has nothing to do with fairness. Think about it like this – what if acceptance into the kingdom of heaven was only for those who always lived a life committed to loving and serving God? What does that mean for those of us that turn to God later in life or feel that we are unworthy because of the things we’ve done until now? What about folks that don’t receive God into their hearts until they become sick or are near death? Does God deny them access to the kingdom of heaven? Does God deny them Grace? No, because God’s grace is unmerited and freely given simply because we are loved beyond a measure that we can ever comprehend.

I saw this cute cartoon (above) when I was researching this parable. There were two sheep standing talking and one says,

“This parable bugs me! That first guy gets totally ripped off”

The second sheep responds, “Well, if you think about all the people Jesus called before you and I, we are coming into this a little late in the game too don’t you think?”

The first sheep goes, “I LOVE this parable”.

Thank God our worthiness is not determined by any human standard of what is ‘right’ or ‘just’. If that were actually the case then nobody would ever be deserving of the kingdom of heaven because none of us would be judged good enough! Jesus taught us that in God there is no judgement. There is only unconditional love and mercy for all. To receive it we must accept God’s invitation. According to this parable, anyone that answers the call to “go into the vineyard” receives God’s Grace. That grace is not just reserved for those who show up early in the day or from the beginning and work all their lives as good and faithful servants. God’s grace is freely given to anyone open to hearing and accepting the invitation to leave the life they’re living and enter into a new way of being that follows the way of Jesus.

Jesus came into the world to shake us up from seeing the world with our often-narrow view of what is fair and invites to see the world and ourselves as God does. God see us all as beloved, all as worthy, and all as deserving of love and acceptance. I believe that is how God’s kingdom will come and God’s Will will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, like we prayed just a moment ago.

In the end, this parable may not be about socioeconomic justice, but when we live in a way that we see every human being as being worthy of love and acceptance then we can no longer turn our backs when we see things in this world that demonstrate apathy and exclusion. The work of justice on earth flows from Grace. For those of us that believe, the kingdom of God is possible now. The Grace of God is here. Christ is continually inviting us to go into this world to serve and love one another, as God would have us do. As you go from here today, I ask you to think about what that means to you to be invited to “go into the vineyard”? … Do you expect a reward at the end of all this living? Or do you trust that God’s grace will be freely given not earned?

May you go from here trusting that you are worthy of God’s love and acceptance just as you are. When we trust in God’s unconditional love and acceptance, then we have learned to be that to one another.

May it be so… Amen.

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That’s Righteous!

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Painting By Rebecca Brogan

Today’s Parable: Luke 18:9-14

There’s a word that stands out to me in the parable that was read today. The word is righteous. It’s a word, that, as a child of the 80s, came to mean “Cool!” or “Awesome!” or maybe even “Wicked Decent!” Righteous, in a biblical sense means something a little bit different (although perhaps not too much depending on the context). In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, when we are introduced to Zechariah and Elizabeth (who would be the parents of John the Baptist), the writer of Luke explains one meaning of “righteous.” He says, “Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”

In this light, “righteous” meant that you were maintaining the covenant that your ancestors made with God. If you obeyed the covenant you would be blessed and if you didn’t you would be cursed… This understanding of righteousness still influences our thinking to this day. What do we say when something good happens like having a baby – “they were blessed with a son!” For Elizabeth, who had never been “blessed” by a child, would have been thought to have been cursed by God by her people, like she had someone offended God. We still wonder if we have been when we have a string of bad luck and might even think, “Why me God, Why?”

Jeremiah prophesied that a time was coming when God will no longer bless only those who know God, but all will know God and in knowing God all will have universal access to God’s forgiveness. No longer will God’s relationship with the people be based on the old understanding of the law (that most people were really bad at keeping anyway), but the law would be written on each person’s heart so that all might come to know God when they came to know their own hearts. No longer did righteousness depend on knowing and following the 613 commandments detailed in the Torah, righteousness according to the new covenant meant living according to God’s will not your own. We see Jesus as the fulfillment of this new covenant that he prophesied. For Christians, our example of how to live in this new way is found in Jesus. The parable we read today was one of the ways that Jesus taught the difference between self-righteousness and righteousness in the eyes of God.

The parable today begins like this, He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:” Anytime we come to a story we bring our preconceptions to it don’t we. For example, when I hear that this parable is about Pharisees and Tax collectors then I know who the villian is because I grew up listening to these stories in Sunday School. I know that I don’t want to be identified as the Pharisee so I don’t identify with them before the story even begins. To those listening to these stories at the time of Jesus, the Pharisees would have been identified as some of the good guys around town – these WERE the righteous ones. They were observant Jews, they prayed when they were supposed to pray and they tried to follow the commandments: They were honest upstanding citizens who gave 10% of everything they made to the temple. According to Josephus, a Jewish-Roman historian writing in the same century as the writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke said, “the Pharisees maintained a simple lifestyle, were affectionate and harmonious in their dealings with others, especially respectful to their elders, and quite influential throughout the land of Israel.” They actually sound like people that we would want to be like, don’t they?

In Luke, the Pharisees and the Tax Collectors are often pitted against one another. Tax collectors are everything that the Pharisees are not. In the Bible, Pharisees often challenge Jesus saying things like, “Why are you always hanging around sinners and tax collectors?” But, we don’t necessarily think about the tax collectors as villians. We may not realize that the tax collectors were not your average Canadian Revenue Agent. Sure we grumble when taxes seem to high, but these guys would actually be more like members of a crime syndicate collecting the protection money from the neighbourhood merchants, or may like the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Robin Hood stories, stealing from the poor to give to the rich and line his own pockets in the process through extortion. These were greedy men chosen by the Romans to do their dirty work because they were already powerful, rich men who owned the land that the Jews lived and worked on.

Many tax collectors were not observant Jews, but if they were then they were banned from the temple because this profession made them ritually impure. Handling Roman money and doing business with the Romans was forbidden in Jewish Law. The idea of a tax collector praying in the temple would have been absolutely ridiculous to the listener in the time of Jesus.

Let’s rewrite this parable to feel a little more like how I suspect Jesus would have liked the story to land on his students…“Jesus gave this lesson to some who thought they were living well in the eyes of God and who looked down on other people with distain: ‘Two men went to church to pray, one man was a well-respected elder in his church, he was a on the board of trustees, headed up a Bible study group, and was seen front and centre at all church events. The other man had never stepped into this church or any church since he was a child. When people saw him they usually walked to the other street unless they were shaking his hand to pick up the drugs he was selling! He had a long rap sheet, but each time he got out of jail, he would hit the streets again doing the only thing he was ever good at, making money from selling drugs.

Every week, the church-man sat in his pew three aisles from the front of the church. He stood looking up praying to God saying, “God, thank you for blessing me so that I am not like the hookers, the addicts, or even like that drug-dealer I saw at the back of the church this morning. I’m doing everything right! I do devotions every morning, I have never missed Maritime Conference, and just increased my PAR giving to the mission and service fund. Thanks for keeping me awesome God!”

Meanwhile, the drug-dealer couldn’t even enter the sanctuary. He just stood in the narthex, with his head hung low and tears streaming down his face. He prayed, “God, I’ve had enough of this life. I’m not sure what brought be through these doors this morning, but here I am. I am so sorry for the harm and pain that I have caused to so many people and their families! I know it breaks my own mother’s heart every time I go away, but this is the only life I’ve ever known and I don’t know how to change. Please help me!”

Jesus finished his story by saying, “the drug dealer went home with God’s blessing and the church-man did not.” I would say, “Wait….What? What did the church-man do wrong that he goes away without a blessing? I thought it was good to give God thanks and praise?! Of course, the church-man assumed he already had God’s blessing! Why wouldn’t he? He was doing all the right things! He always chooses the right path.” But, I wonder if Jesus might say to me, “The drug-dealer begged for God’s mercy, but the church-man assumed he already had it and so he didn’t bother to ask.”

But … after awhile the church-man feels pretty proud of himself for doing such a good job. He might even pat himself on the back. He begins to expect praise and is disappointed when he doesn’t get it. Eventually, his life is going so well that he doesn’t need to ask God for anything. Even if he has a problem he doesn’t feel he should bother God with anything, because God has blessed him so much already. So, he’ll just count his blessings…and thank God he’s not like those “other people.”

On the other hand, the drug-dealer breaks the law and he hurts people with the drugs he sells. He sometimes sells the drugs for more than his supplier requires, so he can pocket the extra cash. He knowingly accepts stolen goods, and accepts sexual favours in exchange for drugs when the addict has no cash. He has even convinced young men and women that become so addicted to the drugs HE sells that prostitution is a way for them to get the money they need to pay him for drugs they are now addicted to! This guy is the lowest of the low. He has no respect for God’s will. In the eyes of society, it is very clear who the hero and the villain is in this story.

But, here’s the thing that I think Jesus wants us to hear: We are all equal in the eyes of God… We are all equal in the eyes of God. Remember how the scripture began? He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” Jesus is not telling that story just to the people of the first century…I can’t speak for you, but I know that I think I’m pretty good person and that I try to stay on the righteous path, but I will admit that I have thought before, “well, at least I’m doing better than that!” I rarely come to prayer to beg for forgiveness or help because I think that, like the church-man in the story, I don’t have to bother God with my problems. I am blessed enough already – Gratitude is what I being to God in prayer. Jesus tells this story for all of us that are too proud to ask God for help no matter how blessed we think we are already! How humbling is that?

In the eyes of God, there are no heroes or villians. It doesn’t matter what “side” you are on. It doesn’t matter how little or how much help you need. We all belong to God and God wants to help us. Being righteous in the eyes of God means humbling yourself to ask for that help. Being self-righteous means you think you don’t need God’s help. When you are self-righteous you are going to think that other people need God more than you do and this will lead to contempt. We think, “At least I’m not ‘them’.”

Here’s the problem with self-righteousness and contempt. When we become full of contempt for someone then we are incapable of loving them. When we are incapable of loving someone, then we are capable of hating them, and even worse, I think, we are incapable of seeing them as worthy human beings at all. When our neighbors become “the other” as a result of our self-righteousness then we are in trouble. All potential for healing relationships is lost because we don’t think we are equals. That is what sin is – broken relationship that yearns to be healed.

The most seemingly righteous in our histories have so often been the source for the greatest wrongs because they claimed that what they were doing was pleasing in the eyes of God. Current debates regarding recent news stories about Omar Khadr, the Proud Boys demonstration in Halifax, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement are prime examples of this “othering”. Just ten minutes reading the comments from both sides on these issues quickly reveals a disheartening and destructive rhetoric that nobody will win because nobody is listening. Everybody thinks they are right (or left as the case may be). How will we ever be at peace going on and on like this when we can’t even see each other as equals?

I think it starts with prayer and contemplation. The parable today teaches us how to pray. And before we think, “So that’s all you have to do, ask for help and forgiveness and BAM everything is fine?” There is something we must understand. Yes, all is forgiven, but that’s not all there is to it. The work that will go into changing your life to one reconciled to God’s will and not your own, is a life-long endeavor. God’s forgiveness is not a quick fix! It is the beginning of a new journey that one must choose again and again and again – every time we come to pray!

It is our hope that a new journey is what this “bad guy” does with his blessing, but we never learn that. We don’t learn it, because what he does with the blessing of forgiveness is not the point. The point is that if we accept and trust in the unconditional mercy and love of God that Jesus taught by his life and his teachings, then we must also accept that when anyone comes before God with a humble heart in prayer, that God’s forgiveness is given each and every time. How that forgiveness works to transform each person is a mystery waiting to unfold. This parable teaches us that God’s merciful forgiveness is not earned. God doesn’t see us for what we do. God sees us for who we are when we come to God in prayer. God’s blessing and forgiveness is for all who swallow their pride and come before God with a humble and contrite heart and ask for it. It is for the tax-collector. It is for the drug-dealer. It is for the Pharisee. It is for the church-man. And, it is for us too. What we do with that forgiveness is where the journey to real transformation really begins.

I believe that God’s will is to be in this on-going relationship with each of us. Being in relationship with God in this way teaches us how to be in relationship with each other. We learn to forgive, by being forgiven. Imagine that world – that all may be one. May it be so.

 

 

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“Good and Faithful Servant”? – to whom?

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Phil Pacey – ” A Good and Faithful Servant” of Halifax and Fort Massey United Church. 

Scripture: Matthew 25:14-30 

When I was here last summer, I was inspired to preach sermons based on ten of the windows here in this sanctuary. When I was asked if I would like to come back to Fort Massey again this summer I decided to do another 10-week sermon series. This past year at AST (The Atlantic School of Theology), I fell in love with contemplating the parables. I soon discovered that the parables were not the neat and tidy little morality tales that I once thought they were. No, they were meant to turn the way that we saw the world completely upside down. Jesus told these stories that are provocative, alarming, sometimes insulting, often confusing, and always subversive. These stories are not allegories where each character or object in the story directly represents something else. We have a tendency do that sometimes to try and make them easy to understand like the fairy tales we are used to where the moral is so clear. The problem with this thinking is that the parables weren’t meant to be easy.

Parable telling was a common practice in Jewish teaching. When explaining why the parables are hard to understand, Jesus says that to those to whom the Kingdom of God has been revealed through him the parables will make sense if: “He who has ears to hear let him hear.” This is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah prophesied that the day would come when a king would reign in righteousness and the rulers would rule with justice – “Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. The fearful heart will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear.” We are among those who have ears to hear should we choose to use them, but even though we know about the Kingdom of God, we still live in the world and it is often easier to hear and not listen and see and not perceive what these stories are trying to tell us about ourselves. The books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, Acts, and Romans all tell us about this resistance we have to God’s kingdom. Again and again, we can read about how we (the people) are afraid to see and hear what God is trying to show and tell us… again and again we learn that it is fear that keeps our hearts from turning away from all that the world tells us is good and true, and keeps us from turning to God who has is always waiting to work in our hearts.

Change is scary – but that is what the parables provoke us to do – change… And that is what the parable today does too.

I thought of this parable right away when Phil Pacey was described to me by Rev. Trent as “A Good and Faithful Servant”. I have no doubt that he was, but maybe not in the way that this parable might suggest. You see we have done to this parable exactly what Jesus expected those that weren’t ready to hear the message would do to it. We have allegorized it so that it makes sense to the way we understand OUR world. I’m willing to bet that most of us automatically made the Master in this story a representative for God. If you did, then you are not alone as it has been interpreted this way for centuries by many preachers and scholars. Let’s take a closer look…

If the master in this story is God then the heroes of the story are the first two slaves who take what their master gave them and turn it into profit. In return for their good work they are told that they are good and faithful servants and are rewarded equivalent to their good deeds. The third slave, who took what his master entrusted in him and just gave it back to him in kind, is punished. He speaks up against the master and calls him a scoundrel. The master does not like this (although he doesn’t deny it) and calls it just an excuse for wickedness and laziness. He casts the third slave into the outer darkness – “where men will weep and gnash their teeth!” It seems that he was right to fear this man who punishes him with pain and suffering for simply returning to him what is his (remember – give to Ceaser what is Caeser’s!). In this version, the Master says that wealth would be given to those who already have wealth and everything would be taken from those who had nothing. Please think about that for a moment… does this sound like the God you have come to know?

Do you imagine that in God’s Kingdom the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, financially, spiritually, or otherwise? Do you imagine a God that doles out rewards and punishments based exclusively on our performance? Do you imagine a God that inflicts pain and suffering on his servants? This God is vengeful and unforgiving… That’s not the God I’ve come to know.

The first clue that this story may not be what it appears on the surface comes in the sheer ridiculousness of the giving of talents. Reading the parables has taught me that stories that have extreme examples are clues to the reader to flip the story on its head! Setting aside that this sermon has been misguidedly preached so many times to interpret “talents” as the gifts of the Spirit that God has given each of us (like playing the piano or being good at mathematics). In this case, a talent is an actual unit of measurement for money. Some report that a talent would be five years worth of wages, some say 130lbs of silver coins… so think about that. Slave 1 was given 650 lbs of coin! No Slave Master would give a slave that much money. It just wouldn’t happen. There is another version of this story in the gospel of Luke that gives another clue to what this story is really about. There are scholars that share that there was a well-known story of that time about Archelus, who, after his father King Herod’s death, set out to be crowned king in Rome. As King he would receive all the taxes and literally reap the benefits from what he did not sow. He punished harshly the Jews that tried to fight his rule over them.

Let’s consider for a moment what this story might mean with a different hero. What if this parable is not about the kingdom of God that is to come but a warning against the kingdoms of the world that are already here?

Let’s rewrite the story and see what you think…

The Owner of an Multi-national Manufacturing company was leaving the continent and entrusted all his investments to traders that worked for him. To those that had a reputation for turning the largest profit he gave the most responsibility, and to the rest he gave just enough to keep them in his service. The one that reported the highest earnings became CEO of the company and the one that doubled his investment, but had less to begin with, became Chair of the Board.

While he was away, one of his employees learned that this company used child labour in Asia, polluted rivers, and had a reputation for destroying landmarks in poor neighbourhoods to build office buildings. This employee didn’t want any part of that, but was also deeply afraid of losing her job in this fragile economy so she just kept the investment safe until the owner returned. When she blew the whistle on her boss, he didn’t deny her accusations, but said that if she didn’t want to risk trading she could have at least put the money in the bank to earn interest! Her ethics required that she did no business with those funds and so she returned to the boss what was his. She was fired on the spot and the owner of the company made sure that any future employer knew that she was not a good and faithful employee! The owner of that company is the kind of man that believes that being rich means that you deserve power and he has no problem taking everything from the poor if it means that he becomes wealthier. He knows that this is just the way to be successful in the world.

I don’t think that anyone would identify God as the owner of the company in that story. And the Good and Faithful servant is likely the whistle blower isn’t she? – the one that stood up against an unjust leader, and the one that refused to become a part of the problem. That is the Good and Faithful servant that I want to be.

Good and Faithful servants are the activists among us like Betty and Phil Pacey that fight for what they know is right. These are the people that put their money where their mouth is when they see the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. These are the one that stand up against big business and corrupt governments that make their profit on the backs of others.

The cost of being that kind of Good and Faithful servant means that those whose measure success on the values of the kingdom of earth will see those that seek the kingdom of God as fanatics, troublemakers or maybe even lazy whiners. Sometimes they are seen as real societal threats and lose their jobs, their freedom, and sometimes their lives. I think this parable is about the cost of being a Good and Faithful servant of God, like Jesus, who was willing to die on the cross for what he knew was right. Those that long for power in this world may attain it, but if they do so at the expense of others then they are not seeking the Kingdom of God.

So, for who will you be a Good and Faithful servant?- for the World or for God? It is my hope that each week we will engage in these parables as Jesus called his disciples to do: with our eyes ready to see & perceive, with our ears ready to hear and listen, and with our hearts steadied and readied for change. That is the challenge we will face together over the coming weeks. May it be so. Amen.

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Canada150 – After the Hoopla

PrintI’ve been thinking a lot about Canada150 and all the hoopla that goes with it. I say hoopla because I have never been a fan of parades, concerts, or fireworks. Then again, I’m not a fan of Disney either, so I know that already I am sounding like hippy dippy liberal grouch trying to poo-poo the party. I’ll own that, but I am also a thinker and at least a handful of you are interested in my thoughts, so here you go:

Setting the financial cost of all the hoopla aside for a moment (that is indeed where I usually grumble about this), I want to think about the other cost of celebrating Canada150.  Don’t get me wrong,  I understand the need that some people have to celebrate the milestones of the place where they live. Celebrating that the British Colonies known at that time as the province of Canada (Ontario & Quebec together), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick coming together as the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867 makes sense in that context… Please check out this link for a CBC article that breaks down the “confusion” about how old “Canada” really is. 13000? 19? 150? It really is unclear. As long as you know what you are celebrating, this one particular moment  in time, then I say shake your Pom-poms and eat your strawberry and cool-ship canada flag desserts!

I simply pray that we never forget that what we are celebrating is only possible because we Colonized and then declared Dominion over lands that belonged to people long before we took over. All of us want to celebrate the achievements of those that went before us…and I do too and I am very grateful that I live in this nation and in this province that they built for me. I earnestly think it extremely important that we never forget the cost of those achievements and see it as a call to all of us to continue to work at healing the wounds of the broken promises and relationships that made that which we celebrate possible. The same people that will shout, “don’t hold me accountable for the wrongs of my ancestors” will naively reap the benefits of their ancestors’ work.

When all the hoopla is over and the last firework is cleaned up, let’s keep celebrating Canada by striving to be better neighbours to one another. That includes the neighbours whose ancestors were colonizers, the neighbours whose ancestors were here long before the colonizers arrived, the neighbours whose ancestors came to North America as slaves, the neighbours whose ancestors came to Canada seeking a better and safer life, and the neighbours who are new Canadians seeking the same. We are all Canadians now. 

No matter who we are, if we are Canadian, let us never forget the stories that brought us here to 2017. May we celebrate what is good. May we learn from what went wrong. And, may we strive to write new stories that reflect the kind of Canada we claim to be!

 

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Called to stand up

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Nervous before preaching, but stirred by the Spirit!

I am now entering into my last year of studies at The Atlantic School of Theology. I am about to embark on a 10 week sermon series on the Parables at Fort Massey United Church in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia and it was my intention to start this blog up again then, but the Spirit is funny. As the sermon below will share, my heart has been stirred recently. So, this morning I (nervously) presented a sermon at Crossroads United Church Pastoral Charge at St. James United Church in Goodwood and at Trinity United Church in Timberlea that I was stirred to write. I was the student supply minister here and have only preached there once before a few weeks ago. I would like to thank them for being so open to the Spirit as I shared what may have been a difficult message to hear. I hope you are also stirred by this sermon. May the Peace of Christ be with all of you.

Matthew 10:24-39

SERMON – Faithful Discipleship 

How about that scripture reading? Just a little light reading for a Sunday morning. It would be an understatement to say that today’s gospel reading is “difficult” to process. It was because it was hard that I decided to sit with it this past week, instead of choosing something else that may have been easier to write about. I have come to understand that it is these difficult readings that push me to be a better preacher and, I hope, a better human being.

This past week, I spent some time in Madison, New Jersey at Drew University for the Feminist Studies in Religion (FSR) conference titled “Making Alliances, Breaking Taboos, and Transforming Religion”. I was in the presence of some of the greatest feminist and womanist theologians and activists of our time – five generations of them we were told. Our Keynote speaker was a woman named Ruby Sales. Ms. Ruby Sales or Sister Mama Ruby Sales as she is sometimes called, is a social activist who, among many incredible acts, walked in the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 – marches made famous by the movie Selma about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s involvement in that demonstration. I believe that Ruby Sales is exactly the kind of person that Jesus calls us to be in this morning’s scripture – she is what I would call a faithful disciple.

In 1964, following a demonstration in Alabama where she had been arrested, she was buying a soda with her friends when threatened with a shot-gun by a man that would try to shoot her dead. A fellow marcher stepped in front of that bullet and it killed him instead. That man’s name was Jonathan Daniels. Jonathan Daniels was also a civil rights activist, but unlike so many marching in that time he was white. He was also practicing what he was learning to preach while studying to be a minister. Jonathan Daniels was literally willing to take up his cross and lay down his life in the face of violence because he fought for what he thought was right in the eyes of God.

Ruby Sales and the rest of the civil rights movement were deeply transformed by Daniels’ death. And, it is no mystery why his death mattered to the national public and politic more than the death of so many black activists that went before him –A white man had been killed because of his fervent belief and stance on the side of goodness and the problem stopped being about “black folk” not getting the vote. Daniels did something that few of us are ever willing to do even if we like to think we would: He used his power as a member of the colonizing culture to lift the voices of those who were fighting to be heard. He became a co-conspirator in the fight for civil rights instead of being a silent allied bystander. He followed Jesus Christ who stirred him from placidness and called him to be a a faithful disciple even unto death.

Ruby Sales said in an interview with Dr. Vincent Harding (best known for his writings for and about his close associate Dr. King) that, “Religion, for me, growing up in Columbus, Georgia, was the ground that I stood on that positioned us to stand against the wind.” My friends, that is the ground on which we too stand this morning. Our religion, this scripture, can help us stand against the wind that wants to keep us moving in the same direction that we have always moved. Not only does it ground us against that wind, but I hope that it will stir us in a new direction! In September of last year she did an interview for onbeing.org that addressed public theology and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In it, she said,

“…there’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning <…> we talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology <…> I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European American. That’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed. And I don’t quite understand that. It must be more sexy to deal with black folk than it is to deal with white folk if you’re a white person. So as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were.”

In addition to hearing Ms. Ruby Sales speak, I had the honour of bearing witness to some very challenging words this last week from other powerful women. The words that touched me in the deepest (and often darkest parts of my soul) came from the mouths of  Dr. Rachel Harding, Dr. Fulata Moyo, Dr. Melanie Harris, Dr. Traci West, and Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman. These women called me out! They called me out of a slumber that I first began to awake from last year when I watched a video of a black man being shot through the window of the passenger seat of his car while still wearing his seatbelt! These women called me out from the comfortable bed of white privilege in which I have been firmly and comfortably nestled my whole life. Yes – I went there. I said, “white privilege” Talk about breaking Taboo!

Let me be very clear: each and every time I hear those words they sting—but they sting for a different reason than they used to. I used to think that the term “white privilege” was  “anti-white” and was meant to shame or hold all people with skin like mine responsible for the atrocities that happen to people of colour. When I would hear or read this term used by black people I would want to scream,  “But, I’m not a racist!” Like many people that look like me, I would think, “isn’t it racist to talk about me and all people like me because of the colour of our skin?” But, I started to listen to what these voices were telling me, I started to learn that this is not an anti-white term or even a form of defensive racism (whatever the hell that is).  These words sting now because my eyes and heart are opened to the reality that having skin this colour means that I automatically experience life in a very different way than people of colour. It also means that I have the responsibility to speak up for those whose voices others have tried to dismiss or silence because it makes them feel bad about themselves. Like Jonathan Daniels, I have a responsibility to use my power to help fight for justice in the name of all that is good and right in the eyes of the God I so believe in.

Because of the colour of my skin, I have the privilege to have the choice to make changes to systems where people with the same skin colour as me hold more political offices and positions of authority than all other skin colours combined. This is true in America and this is true in Canada. The colour of my skin does not make me better than anyone else, I have never believed that, but what it does is give me the choice to decide if I want to get involved in matters of racism. If I decide not to get involved then my life will not be affected either way. Because let me be real honest with you: I have never been denied a job because my name is associated with the community I grew up in that is constantly getting bad press. I have never had anyone make fun of the name my mother gave me because it sounds weird or because they can’t pronounce it. Clerks or security guards have never followed me around in a store. I have never been pulled over by the police except when I was actually speeding. I have never been called a name associated with the colour of my skin or ethnic group that was meant to demean or belittle me. I have never been called a terrorist or a gangster or a thug. I have never been asked what country I’m really from. I have never been asked if I am a “real” woman or to explain how I have sex. I have never been asked what colour my parents are. And, I have never had to prepare my children because any or all of these things might happen to them just because society has shown that, “that is just the way it is”. The truth is that I’m not involved unless I choose to be. That IS one of my privileges as a person that looks like me.

That is not to say that my life is perfect just because I’m white. I have problems just like other people. My whiteness does not mean that I am automatically rich or successful or part of the 1%. My whiteness doesn’t mean that I don’t have to work for what I have. My whiteness doesn’t protect me against the stigma of mental illness. My whiteness didn’t prevent me from being treated differently, and sometimes poorly, because I am female.  At the end of the day though, I am a cis-gendered, white, heterosexual, educated, middle-class woman in a socio-political system that is mostly made up of people that look and sound like me. That doesn’t mean that I automatically have it easy, but studies and countless anecdotes tell me that it does mean that I have it easier than people that start from where I start, but have darker skin than mine. That is not a judgement –That’s just the way it is.

I know that this is not an easy message for you to hear because most of you also look like me. Our scripture today did not call us to make life easy for systems and powers that provoke fear, that damage souls, and destroy whole communities of people. That is the system that we inherited… right here in our province we can’t forget the reality of residential schools, the tragedy of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, or the atrocity of bulldozing Africville. No – our call this morning is to stop injustice going forward even if we can’t make passed wrongs right. It isn’t about blaming ourselves or taking responsibility for the racism of our ancestors, but about finding ways to stop making the same mistakes over and over again. It is about change – The scripture is meant to stir us from placidness and make us angry when we know something isn’t right. That might mean that our opinions and actions are not popular. I know there are people that would like me to just shut up about all this including members of my own family and community. Some of you may wish I would just get this over with already, but this past week I promised that I would stand up from now on instead of just standing by. I have heard the call to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ and fight against injustice, oppression, and fear. And so, I am trying.

This is just the beginning and I’m not even sure sometimes where to start. In my small group at the FSR conference I told them this story:

Last year I watched the video of Philando Castile (the video I alluded to earlier) being murdered by a police officer (A police officer who was acquitted on June 16 of Mr. Castile’s murder despite overwhelming evidence that proved his guilt). I had avoided watching those videos because I knew they would affect me and I wasn’t ready for that. I recognize now that even that is a product of my privilege – that I have the ability to choose whether or not I want to expose myself to such things. I watched that video though and it horrified me. I immediately wanted to talk about it. I wanted to feel better. I wanted to connect with black friends and figure out something – I don’t even know what I wanted…but I quickly realized that I didn’t have any black friends to talk to. I had a few black facebook friends, but they were not from Nova Scotia. I didn’t know right away why this was the case. I certainly don’t hate black people. I grew up in Dartmouth and remember having black friends in high school. It became painfully clear that just because I don’t hate, doesn’t mean that I made an effort to love.

I don’t have a good reason why I have not made this same effort with my black neighbours that I have made with others. This revelation told me that I don’t care enough to be intentional about being friends with people who look different than me. It told me that I might be a silent ally standing by (if I am even that), but I am certainly not a co-conspirator willing to stand up and march beside Black Nova Scotians in matters of social justice in the same way that I am willing to walk beside my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters during Pride Week. My eyes were open and I knew I had work to do. The problem was that I didn’t know where to start and here I am a whole year later I still have no idea! How do I become a friend, an ally, a co-conspirator after all this time?

That’s what I earnestly and naively asked Dr. Traci West, a womanist activist and theologian who was in my small group of 5 women at the conference. And do you know what she told me? —-She told me that my work is not to try and interject myself into the lives of black people to make myself feel better! –Ouch. But, because Dr. West knows how to love people into change she proceeded to tell me what I DID have to to do next. She told me that my work is to stand up before people who look like me, other white people, and tell them this story. My work is to help others open their eyes to their own complacency and to the places where they could and maybe ought to choose to make a difference. My work, my responsibility from my place of white privilege, is to stand up when I see injustice and do something about it! I believe that Christ calls to us in the voices of other people. God had a voice last week and that voice spoke through Dr. West, Ms. Sales, and all those other women at the FSR conference who stirred me from placidness.

Today, I’m telling you that until black lives matter as much as white lives do, until First Nations lives matter as much as much as white lives do, until Syrian lives matter as much as white lives do, and until common actions and systems demonstrate that all lives really do matter instead of just being a pollyanna pipe dream embraced by white people like me to feel better about our place in the world, then we have work to do! The work isn’t easy and it must start inside of you. It starts by correcting people when they use racial or ethnic slurs that are so common that people don’t even know they are slurs anymore until someone like you brings it to their attention. It starts by telling someone that a joke about refugees, gay people, indigenous people, or black people isn’t funny – its no longer good enough to just not laugh. It starts by recognizing the difference between respecting and supporting other cultures and appropriating them. It starts when you start to speak up for what you know in your heart to be right and don’t let things slide because you are afraid of what others will think of you. It is possible to be angry and respectful while you do this work! –I’ve seen it and I’m trying to practice it. But, no matter how respectful or nice you try to be about it, it won’t make you popular, it won’t make you famous, and it certainly won’t make you rich. Standing up like this will go against everything our culture tells you is appropriate and right and it will even hurt sometimes because it will feel lonely.  But know this: standing up will no longer cause harm to others like standing by sometimes can. In following Jesus Christ, who calls you through this scripture to take up his cross and follow him in the ways of justice and compassion, it is possible to find the kind of meaning that you may have been searching for all your life so that your life may give hope and meaning to others.

In his speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: Time to Break the Silence” drafted by Dr. Vincent Harding, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said these things,

“Now let us begin.”  “Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world.”  “Shall we say the odds are too great?”  “Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?”  “The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”

Are you ready to start a journey to faithful discipleship? Don’t worry if you don’t know where to start…. Just sit with it awhile. Let it stir you, let it wake you up from your slumber. That feeling is the work beginning. It will move you if you let it…What is your heart calling you to begin today? Then, may it be so…

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“Like a Child”

likeachildMatthew 18:1-6, 19:13-15

SERMON

The last window of 10 in this 10-week series is inscribed like this:

Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto me for of such is the kingdom of heaven” In memory of Joseph Wood 25 years an elder of this church.

This is only one of two times this summer that I have not been able to find out anything about the person noted in the inscription. So, as we did before, let us pause and give thanks for all those, like Joseph Wood, who have been active in the life and work of this congregation. Thanks to all of them and to all of you for ensuring that God’s work happens through this church.

Today’s reflection is a wee bit shorter than you’ve gotten used to from me. It is shorter because the message didn’t require a lot of research. It didn’t require the exegetical examination to determine the deeper meaning that I had to do for previous sermons. There was no digging apart the meaning of certain words or determining what they would have meant in the original Greek or Aramaic. The message is shared across the gospel. It isn’t a secret. We find it in Matthew, Mark and Luke and  even the book of Thomas. The mystery today is in the simplicity of the message. In God’s Word we will always find that there is something worthy of our reflection and contemplation. Unlike some of our scriptures this one needs little more from us than to just sit with the words as they are, set them in our hearts and be present to how living according to their instruction radically changes our lives….if we let them

So let me ask you this….how did you feel this morning when we sang, “Jesus Loves Me”? Did you wonder why we were singing a children’s song when there are few to no children in church this summer? Did you feel a little silly singing that song? Or maybe you felt sentimental? Did you feel that those words were yours…Jesus loves ME… or were you thinking how nice it is for children to sing that song? Or did you feel like a child?

There comes a point where we put childhood things behind us. Things like our toys, our silly games and our little songs… Songs like “Jesus Loves Me”. When does that happen? It is difficult for us to pinpoint the moment when we were no longer a child… but it does happen. If we are lucky it happens very slowly over time. Our brain is still developing from the brain of child to the brain of an adult well into its mid-twenties. I say “if we are lucky” because some of our children are pushed into adulthood well before they should be thanks to violence, poverty, war and trauma. But, if we are lucky enough in our childhood to avoid being corrupted by things such as these then our minds turn slowly over time from child to man or woman.

Here’s the thing about little children and their parents in relationships untainted by trauma. Little children love their parents unconditionally and believe that their parents will always love them. Little children count on the understanding that their parents will feed them, clothe them and take care of all their needs – they don’t even question it. They also care about what their parents think of them. They don’t want to disappoint them and they do their best to please them. (I’m speaking of little children here – not teenagers or even pre-teens!). They ask for their help when they are in trouble or don’t know how to do something. Little children need their parents to survive. They really need them and they know that they can’t do it without them. Even in healthy homes…but our dependence on our parents changes over time…

I have two young children who are in that time of growing. As I watch them develop I see how their demeanours have shifted over time. When they were very little, they had no shame. They were blessedly unaware of the potential judgment of others. They would kiss me easily in public and hold my hand. They would run around naked if I let them… but, as they grow up, I now catch them watching to see if anyone is around before planting a big kiss on me on the playground. There is less of a tendency to reach out and grab my hand when we are walking together in public. Both are still very loving and wonderful children…but they are becoming aware of what other people think of them. Despite my best efforts, they feel ashamed sometimes to be themselves.

They also wonder about things in the world. They hear reports on the radio in the car and now comprehend that the news is talking about real people being hurt in the world. They ask questions about why bad things happen. They are aware that they may not be safe. Despite my assurances that they are, they sometimes feel afraid.

They notice that some people have more than others and that some have nearly nothing. They see that there is an order to “The way things are”. When they started school they saw that some people were more liked than other people. They realize that there were heroes and there were bad guys. There is good and there is evil. They are trying to figure out who’s who. Despite my assurances that they are great just as they are, they began to wonder where they fit in that order. All of these things are the slow steps of growing up in the world.

The world of adults has always been a different world than the world of children -even at the time of Jesus. And as much as we think we may have evolved as a society, the adult world at the time of Jesus, in essence, wasn’t that different from our world. As far removed as we are from them in culture and time and geography, Jerusalem under the Roman Empire had a very similar definition of success as we do in the west today. Success was judged by how much power you had; by how many people you had defeated in war; by how much money you had. by how much land you owned; and so on. So, when the disciples asked Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” They wanted to know who the top dog was. Who was the man in charge? Who had the most power? Who was the best? Who was the Hero? Jesus answer would have shocked them.

The scripture that my daughter Lillian read this morning says he placed a child among them as the exemplar of who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. A child? But, a child was worth nothing! A child was completely dependent on her parents. A child had no power! How could a child be the greatest?…

…Because to be great in the eyes of God is paradoxical to what it means to be great in the world. God wants us to be humble. God wants us to be innocent. God wants us to love unconditionally. God wants us to be vulnerable to the reality that we can’t do it all alone. God wants us to be like a child again. Jesus is very clear on this teaching. It is time to turn away from being concerned with being great according to the world’s kingdom and start being concerned with what matters to God.

Jesus teaches us that all God wants is for us to want God and to live according to what God wants for our lives. Jesus taught these lessons with his stories and with his life. It’s that simple. Yet, even the disciples didn’t grasp this message any easier than we do! After teaching them this lesson in Chapter 18 of the book of Matthew, we hear in Chapter 19 that the disciples turn around and tell those bringing their little children and infants to Jesus to stop what they are doing. Jesus is not happy about this. Not only was he saying that we should be LIKE children, he was saying that children are welcome in the kingdom of GOD. There is nothing they have to earn. They are a part of God’s kingdom simply because they are. Children and those like children need to be welcomed and when we welcome them we welcome God. Another simple instruction.

I am not gifted as a teacher of children for longer than a children’s time on Sunday morning. I tried to teach a children’s yoga class one time and even Lillian left the room! But, I can tell you this… whenever I have the opportunity to welcome a child into my life by having a conversation with them I take it. In those special moments I have recognized how I am very close to someone still so indefinably connected to God. This is a connection that goes beyond religion and culture. Children don’t care what God is called. They ALL know God. Some have a name for it. Some don’t. But every little person that I have ever taken the time to connect with one-on-one – whether after church, at a funeral, or in the hospital have this thing that we just lose somehow….Jesus says we need to turn back to that way of being to be closer to God.

I want to tell you a story today about my daughter who is here today. I have her permission to tell this story. I have a number of God stories to tell about when Lillian was a very little girl. Let’s just say at one point she had a T-shirt that said “Little Guru” which means teacher. She and her little sister are my favorite teachers when it comes to things about life and God. When she was very little, she used to talk to God all the time. I didn’t know who she was talking to at first and just assumed it was her imaginary friend. One day I decided to ask her who she was talking to and she proceeded to tell me three names that I cannot pronounce. I asked her what she was saying to them. She told me that they were angels and that they just talked about God and stuff and she told them about her day. Then she said something I will never forget. She said, “Mama they said to tell you that they knew you too, before you forgot.” Chills went up my spine because just for a split second I knew that she was telling me the truth. I think that’s what happens to our child-like innocence… Eventually….we just forget.

Thankfully we have Jesus to show us the way to remember what it means to be a child of God…. And we have the children to show us. Jesus showed the disciples that the greatest of those among us are our children… I encourage you to take the time to talk to children who you meet when you meet their parents. Lean down and take the time to ask them an important question. Get beyond the cute and see them as your teachers. Welcome them at church, not just because they are adorable, or because they are the “future” of the church. All that is true, but get to know them because they are the Greatest in the kingdom of God. Look to them to learn how to be with God. You won’t regret it… Pay attention and you will find God in those conversations. God is in our relationships…always. The mystery in the message today is in it’s simplicity.

Be like a child.

Be humble.

Be vulnerable.

Be kind.

Be loving.

Be sweet.

Be trusting.

Be joyful.

Be goodness.

Be God’s.

Amen.

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