Happy Belated Canada Day, everyone. When I originally signed up to speak with you a few weeks back, my obvious thought for a sermon was to speak on faith and our nation, seeing that it was right after Canada Day. I had that sermon ready to go.
But the events of this week south of the border have been on my heart and mind. It is an oddly Canadian thing to feel connected to the controversies in the United States. Some days Canadians follow politics in the States closer than our own, perhaps because our politics are just so much more respectful, we feel bored listening to it.
The United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and that has us Canadians talking about it, even though it does not directly affect us. It has been all over CBC Radio, which I listen to on the way to work. For many of us, we feel connected to these events. Many of us have American family members. Many of my friends are American Baptist pastors. Many of us wonder whether something like this could happen here. Others of us hear the toxic rhetoric from our own circles.
Over social media, I have seen a disturbing mix of gloating on the part of conservatives and rage on the part of liberals, finger-pointing memes that attempt cute but all too simplistic “gotcha moments” like it is all one big game.
For conservatives, the gloating justifies why they supported Donald Trump, finally coming to fruition. Supporting an immoral man so that republicans could control the Supreme Court was worth it. For others, this marks a terrible victory for bigotry that is taking over the public discourse, where people have climbed into places of power using lies and demagoguery, pushing the United States closer to something like Margaret Atwood’s dystopia, Gilead.
For us, north of the border, I am very thankful that we have a completely independent judiciary, can I just say. I also feel like we are watching our neighbours, our closest ally in the world, pull themselves apart. The rage is palpable as the protests by both sides edge closer and closer to violence. I wonder if the US is on a collision course for another civil war.
And so, I told the organizers of the service this week that I would speak on the topic of abortion today. But let’s be clear about something up front:
This is not a liberal versus conservative issue.
This is a scriptural discernment issue.
This is a truth and compassion issue.
This is an issue that involves people.
When the world wants to shout, I think that is a good indication for us, Christians, that we need to stop and listen, but not to the shouting. We need to listen to the whispers of God’s voice in Scripture; we need to listen to the advice of our Baptist forebearers, but also, we need to listen to each other, especially to the cries of the lives affected, the voices of women.
So, I have entitled this sermon “Learning to Listen: Abortion and Becoming ‘Pro-Voice.’” The term Pro-Voice is based on an excellent book by Aspen Baker that I will reference later.
1. Listening to Scripture
So, first, can we listen to what God might have to tell us in Scripture? I say that knowing that this is a debate where people love citing the Bible as if it is obvious and clear on the matter. However, let me survey some of the Scriptures people cite in these debates, and let me suggest that perhaps the voice of God might not be saying what people try to make it say.
This is a topic that cannot be discussed by just one Scripture. As I thought about it, there is really no other way to handle this than by going through a couple¾there are about half a dozen of them–that people bring up (there are others, but these are the most pertinent ones). So, that is what we are going to do.
Now, there are several scriptures that don’t say much at all about this issue that constantly get quoted. So, let’s start with those:
A. Psalm 139
For instance, Psalm 139:13 says, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” There are similar ones in the books of Job and Jeremiah. I saw this on a billboard driving through the South one time, but it really has nothing to say about the legal status of a fetus. Technically, God knits all life together. So, already, one of the most commonly cited passages in this debate says actually very little.
B. Luke 1
There are other Scriptures that are not as convincing but have some weight to them. One of these is how in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, sees Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus, and it says that the “child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” You see this one often around Christmas time. Some have taken this to imply that, obviously then, all fetuses are children. Well, I don’t think that is really Luke’s point in this passage, but be that as it may, we also don’t know how far along Elizabeth was. To feel a baby leaping is something that would happen well into the second trimester, so if this text does speak to this issue, it does not seem to say anything about the condition of the unborn in the first trimester. In Canada, 90% of abortions happen in the first trimester before movements can be felt. So, this text doesn’t say enough.
C. Genesis 1
A much more important text in this debate is Genesis chapter one, verse 27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
This term “image” is used later in the book of Genesis to speak about how Adam’s son, Seth, is like him in his image. It is a parental term. If you were to look at my sons, you might say they are chips off the old block. They look like me. They are in my image. Genesis 1 is saying that all humans are God’s children; God sees himself in them and them in him. Genesis 1 teaches that human life has inherent dignity and worth in God’s eyes, no matter the gender, the health, the mental ability, which should say something when we are placed in a position to decide what kind of human life is worth living.
However, as important as this passage is, this passage does not tell us when a human person, in the legal sense, begins. It tells us the worth of human life, but not its origin. So, it is important, but it is only one piece of the puzzle.
D. Exodus 21
The only passage in the Bible that deals with the destruction of a fetus is Exodus, chapter 21. It reads as follows:
22 “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
The laws of the Old Testament are made up of different types. You have some, like the ten commandments, that are direct: Do not commit adultery, do not lie, etc. Others, like this one, is a case law that work as applications: if this happens, you should do that.
This situation is a fight where a pregnant woman is struck, and a miscarriage happens, and if the woman is harmed permanently, the offender is harmed in retribution. It is not the case when a woman seeks an abortion. For in the Hebrew mindset, birth control of any kind was just not on their radar because the ideal was to have as many children as you could.
This is the only case where the destruction of a fetus occurs, and according to this passage, a fine is paid. It is paid to the husband because he, in that culture, was considered the patriarch and lord over his wife, who has his property. So, one quickly feels that this is a text written for its own time and place.
Nevertheless, the most important detail of this text is that a fine is paid. According to Old Testament laws, if you murdered a person, you got the death penalty, life for a life. The implication here is that if a miscarriage happens, and we are not told anything about how far along the pregnant woman is, the offender pays a fine. Thus, it implies a legal person has not been killed.
Some more conservative commentators have tried to argue that this is merely referring to a premature birth, that the word for miscarriage could mean something else, but that is not how it was understood in its own time or in later Rabbinical and Christian commentaries.
However, some later Jewish commentators argue that this case only refers to when it happens to a woman in the first half of her pregnancy, before the fetus is formed sufficiently. In the second half, it could be considered murder.
And so, some have argued that just as Scripture pushes God’s people toward equality between men and women as the biblical narrative progresses, so also does Christian tradition become more sensitive with regard to the unborn.
But the question remains, when does a fetus become a person? When does it become a legal person? When should the government protect what it can discern to be human life?
Some have argued, based on this passage, that a person is a person when they take their first breath after birth. When the first human in the Bible, Adam, was made a living soul, this occurs in Genesis 2 when God breathed into him the breath of life. With the first breath after birth, the human person is identifiable. This was the view of Palestinian Jews in ancient times, and in modern times, this argument was made by the Baptist ethicist Paul Simmons.
However, is breath the real mark of life with dignity? After all, there are lots of creatures out there that are alive but don’t have lungs and acquire oxygen in other ways, and we believe in animal rights. A fetus gets oxygen through the blood in the umbilical cord. Does that count?
If the first breath is the mark of personhood, can a pregnant woman have an abortion right up until labour starts? Late-term abortions are very rare, and in Canada, they are really only done when the life of the mother is at stake. In Canada, abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy account for 0.59% of all abortions.
On the other side of the spectrum is the view that a human person begins at conception. This is probably the one we are most familiar with, often called “life at conception,” but that is a misnomer in the debate. No one is debating whether life begins at conception. In fact, the sperm and ovum are also alive before conception. The question is rather does a fertilized zygote, a set of multiplying cells, which does not have thought, a nervous system, or a heart, so small it could fit on the end of a pin, growing to about the size of a lentil as an embryo–should this be considered a legal person? Baptist ethicists like David Gushee and the late Glenn Stassen hold that the sanctity of human life compels them to refuse abortion even at this early stage.
Early Christian writers like Clement and others support a similar view. They held this view because they assumed the philosophy of Plato. What does that mean? Plato believed that humans have souls in the sense that what made the person truly a person was not based on their bodies or brains but was based on an eternal substance of the mind that could be divorced from the body and brain. That is a bit different from the earlier Jewish belief in the soul that would say that while we have a spiritual dimension to ourselves, it is always in connection to our bodies. One writer put it that we don’t so much have a soul. We are a soul, a holistic unity of spirit and flesh. We are enspirited bodies.
So, several early Christian writers adopted this more Platonic notion that separates mind and body, soul and flesh, and by this, a zygote from the beginning of conception has a full soul, the same as a fully developed human. And this position became Catholic dogma and, by extension, the default setting of most of Christianity, including the modern pro-life movement.
Now, as I said, the early church and Judaism had two wings in the spectrum of their views: one was personhood beginning at first breath, the other, beginning at conception. However, there was a diversity in the early church and Judaism.
The most common view was a middle-ground view. Thinkers like the Alexandrian Jewish writers but also important Christian writers like Tertullian, Origen and Augustine (if you don’t recognize these names, let’s just say they are heavy hitters in theology). They believed that a fetus was a person somewhere in the second trimester, corresponding to the degree of the formation of the fetus.
Now, we know today that a fetus’s heart is discernable at six weeks. But does a heartbeat define a human person?
We know that somewhere around the 12th week, the fetus has a formed nervous system and thus, probably can feel pain. Does the ability to feel pain indicate to us that this is a life we need to protect? 80% of abortions in Canada occur before the 12th week.
We know that the fetus becomes viable around the 24th week, which means if it was born then, it’s probable that it would live. Is this the point where the government has the prerogative to say an abortion should not take place unless the life of the mother is at risk? As I said before, late-term abortions are very rare in Canada.
2. Listening to Our Baptist Principles
As you can see, this topic is one that leads to more and more questions. What do we do with that? I have learned that the principles of our Baptist tradition were devised in many ways to aid the believer in walking these difficult paths, where the road ahead comes to a blind crest. So, what might our Baptist principles tell us?
While I don’t think Baptists are automatically the “best” Christians, much less the “only” Christians, I do think our Baptist principles can be virtuous practices that can help us navigate this complex post-Christian, post-modern world we live in.
A. Humans have Rights and Freedoms
One principle that all Christians share is that we believe that because we are all made in God’s image, all human life has dignity and has been bestowed rights and freedoms. Baptists have particularly emphasized rights and freedoms.
Now, someone might pipe up and say then what about the rights of the unborn? Here is a tension between the rights of the pregnant woman and potentially the rights of the unborn.
B. Separation of Church and State
In this case, I believe it is important to keep in mind the second Baptist principle: separation of church and state.
That is to say that if we believe that life begins at conception, and by that a full person because a full soul is imparted at conception if this is a premise based on the beliefs of Christianity, a particular belief about the soul, my Baptist faith cautions me from imposing this view on others who might not share it.
Again, someone might say that imposing this view is necessary when human life is in danger. Many would insist that a fertilized zygote is a potential human being, and by the sanctity of human life in any form, it ought to be protected.
But this conversation must admit that what it means to be a person and when a person begins legally is not clear, both in public discourse and in Jewish and Christian theology. As we have been asking: Is it at conception? An established heartbeat? The development of a nervous system? Fetal viability? Or at first breath after birth? Arguments can and have been made for all of these with no clear winner.
If we cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that one option is the obvious standout, we ought not to be insisting that the government enforce one view, particularly not the earlier ones that impose so much on a woman against her will.
C. Liberty of Conscience
In this case, another Baptist principle is important to keep in mind: we believe in the liberty of all people to decide matters based on their conscience.
Now, this is not an absolute liberty. This does not mean we ought to be free to do anything we want. I did not have the right, as we have seen in the pandemic, to jeopardize the health of my neighbours or co-workers or people I interact with in public spaces but refuse to wear a mask or show vaccination information. Governments and organizations do have the right to regulate spaces based on health and safety.
And if the nature of the unborn was obvious, as some think it is, I can see a better case to say why it ought not to be left up to choice.
While it is not a person’s decision that makes a fetus into a person, it is up to people to recognize another person, and the question is, who has this power? Who has the right to pronounce when a zygote, an embryo, or a fetus becomes a person when the matters are not clear?
If these matters are not obvious, it is appropriate then that the power of this decision lay neither in the hands of the state nor the church nor the biological father, who simply does not have the same bodily risk in the matter, but rather the power of this decision should reside in the hands of the person who will be most affected by that decision, namely the pregnant woman herself.
This does not mean that we have to view a decision always as the right decision. There are lots of bad reasons to have an abortion, but at the end of the day, the responsibility falls on the woman herself to make this difficult choice.
3. Listening to Each Other, especially Women
If we can understand these things, this issue takes on a different character. It is quite possible for Christians to occupy a muddy middle ground that sees abortions as a tragedy but is not interested in imposing our convictions on another person using the laws of our nation.
We can ¾in fact, we must¾resist the either-or of our polarized culture and its toxic, corrosive effects on honesty, decency, and thoughtfulness. We can be profoundly and fervently committed to the dignity of all human life but admit that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about that.
A. Accepting the Diversity of Voices
In the midst of a world that is divided and diverse and even a church that is as well, I know people who take their views and live them out graciously. I know people who are pro-life that have chosen to adopt the babies of unwanted pregnancies. On the other end of the spectrum, I know Christian social workers who are pro-choose that have worked at deep personal expense to help women out of abuse and poverty through education and empowerment. I think the church would be impoverished if we refused to see the good character of either of these people.
I think of the conviction of former US president and evangelical Baptist Jimmy Carter. He writes in his important book, Our Endangered Values, that during his presidency, he believed that the Bible taught the sanctity of all life, so he was and still is, personally, against abortion. However, he also believed in the separation of church and state. He believed it was the right of a nation to choose its values democratically. So, instead, he funded programs to help young women and mothers–things like sex education, birth control, free contraception, testing, funded daycares programs, work programs, etc.–so that if a woman truly wanted to keep her baby, she could feel supported. The result was that abortions were lower doing his presidency than during the two Republican pro-life/anti-abortion presidents that came before him and him after.
The right way to go about this issue involves giving people the space to work out for themselves what quite possibly could be the most difficult, life-altering, haunting decision a woman could make in her life.
The right way is to listen to and support people medically, financially, and emotionally–people who are vulnerable and scared and only then do people feel empowered to make an informed decision because they know they are not alone.
B. Listening and Walking with Women
Aspen Baker formed an organization that is devoted to doing just that. Her philosophy, the title of this sermon, is called “pro-voice.” Look up her Ted Talk on this subject. Her organization is a helpline devoted to listening to the needs of women who have had abortions. She believes that one of the most important things we can do in this debate is to listen to the experiences and needs of women without judgment.
And this does not mean all women will think the same way. What she found was that there were many on the pro-choice side that valorized abortion as liberating. Feminists that when they got pregnant, just could not bring themselves to have an abortion or when they did have one, they found themselves experiencing regret, guilt, and anguish.
On the other side, she handled calls by women, fathers, husbands, and pastors who were adamantly pro-life before, but because of certain complicated circumstances, they ended up considering that abortion might be the necessary path, and they felt deeply unprepared to consider these things.
Aspen Baker, in her book, speaks about navigating life in the areas that are gray, where the questions do not lead to clear and definite answers. The question we have been asking (although there are many other questions in this debate) is when does the fetus become a human person, a person in the legally definable sense? How do we live this out? And when we have surveyed the most pertinent Scriptures, we come up short of complete answers.
Now, I am sure you all want me to solve this issue for you. I could tell you where I feel most comfortable drawing that line. But I am a man that has never experienced anything a pregnant woman might face. It is not my decision, nor is it an obvious decision. Let me just tell you that some issues are not easily solved. In fact, they shouldn’t.
Can I tell you I have so badly wanted these questions to have an easy answer? When I was in my first year of Bible college, I had a friend that knew me as a Christian and as a Christian that always had an answer for things. She came to me quite troubled. She was pregnant. She was pregnant with twins. However, one twin died and became what is called a molar pregnancy, essentially becoming something like a tumour that kept growing. Doctors said it should be removed as it could cause serious health risks (infertility, even cancer, later on), but to do this, the other baby–that is the term she used¾had to be aborted and removed.
What would you do if that were you? What would you say to her if you were me? If you can believe it, in Bible College, I was a member of the pro-life club, and my answer as the plucky and ultra-pious, know-it-all Bible college student was: “Don’t do it. Abortion is wrong. Pray and have faith.”
This woman–fortunately–did not listen to me. She went ahead with the procedure, and because of it, she is healthy today and has gone on to have a family.
That experience impressed me that life and faith might be more complicated than I want them to be. Anyone who says the solution is obviously this or that is usually someone who has not really come to grips with the complexities of life and the intricacies of the Bible. Life and morality are not always an obvious thing.
It can be frighting thinking about just how messy and grey the world can be.
It can feel scary not knowing what to think, especially if you believe that your salvation depends on believing and doing the right things.
This can cause many of us to retreat into easy answers, black and white thinking that permits neither questions nor alternatives.
But it is here in reality, in this messy thing called life, that our humanity is found.
And it is here that God’s grace finds us: not despite our humanity but in it.
C. The Character of Grace
If we can realize this, we must know that to become a mature follower of Christ in this complicated world involves moving from partisan politics and obsessing over having the right position or policy (although these have their place) to simply dwelling with people, hearing their stories, and being a gracious presence there in their midst.
I have learned the difficult lesson as a theologian, who has devoted my life to reading Scripture and the great works of theology, all to strive to synthesize the best answers on doctrinal topics in our pursuit of truth (which I believe is a pursuit we all must do). I have learned that some issues don’t have clear answers–that’s the truth–and sometimes in life, the point of things is not having the answer, but meeting these difficult situations with a certain character, that difficult balance of honesty and empathy, conviction and compassion, and that this is the only way to live with a clear conscience in this corrupted world.
If this is the case, we might listen and hear the voice of God from Scripture say something else beyond the Scriptures we just surveyed. In all the ambiguity of life, the Word of God might simply be saying something like this:
“Let everyone,” says the Apostle James, “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry” (James 1:19).
Or it might be what Paul simply advises, that in all the fragmentation and division in this world, he simply says, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Eph. 4:32)
Or it might be what the Prophet Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). When life gets complex, sometimes the only thing we can do is be fair and forgiving and admit that in all of life’s moments, whether moments of success or failure, joy or tragedy, we need God. We need the grace revealed in Jesus Christ. We need the one who has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:6).
No matter what our views on anything, all we can do, all we must do, from beginning to end, is to trust that.
Pew Research, one of the largest sociological research groups in North America, surveyed mothers and fathers. Fifty-seven percent of fathers described being a father as “extremely important,” which was virtually identical to the women surveyed (58%). However, most of the moms surveyed said they did “a very good job” of raising their children; among the dads, just 39 percent said the same.
On the whole, fathers care about being fathers at the same rate as mothers care about being mothers, but a significant gap exists in how fathers feel about how they are doing at being fathers. Most fathers feel like they aren’t great fathers. Why is that?
I read an interesting article coming up to this father’s day by Daniel Engber from the Atlantic (I think the Atlantic writes probably the best articles on social issues out there, in my opinion). The article is entitled, “Why is Dad so Mad?” He writes,
Everybody knew that dads used to earn a living; that they used to love their children from afar; and that when the need arose, they used to be the ones who doled out punishment. But what were dads supposed to do today? In former times, the definition of a man was you went to work every day, you worked with your muscles, you brought home a paycheck, and that was about it… What it is to be a man now is in flux, and I think that’s unsettling to a lot of men. Indeed, modern dads were left to flounder in a half-developed masculinity: Their roles were changing, but their roles hadn’t fully changed.
They are left in a kind of lurch. Fatherhood is in a state of flux, retaining some conventional patterns but scrapping others.
I was reminded of this just this morning. My wife called me into the room. “What is it?” I said. She pointed to a spider on the wall. Apparently, in our marriage, it is the man’s job to kill the spider.
I jest, but many men feel seriously caught: if I work too much, as many jobs are demanding, this is no longer considered virtuous, and I am seen as a workaholic, neglecting my family.
If they work too little, society could perceive them as a deadbeat or lazy, particularly by the older generation that built and achieved so much.
Society used to value a man’s more forceful presence in discipline, but most parenting books have denounced harsher forms of discipline.
Women have made inroads in the workforce, but men have not gravitated the same way to homemaking or childcare, traditionally female roles.
There are increasingly fewer jobs that require physical strength. And increasingly, fewer fields of work are considered male careers.
It has left some men wondering: what do I contribute to my family or in my marriage? And this has many men feeling like they have lost their place in society and in the home. They don’t feel valued. They don’t feel what they do has value, or they don’t feel like they are successful in doing it. Fatherhood feels like it is in a state of flux.
In the wake of this, political groups have attempted to capitalize on this feeling of instability and nostalgia for the good old days. The movements by Jordan Peterson, who dies the existence of systemic sexism, or Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson have tried to say that there is a war against masculinity wagered by feminists and liberals and other monsters under the proverbial bed of culture. These guys have made a lot of money saying what they are saying because this is a message a lot of men want to hear.
However, probably the more accurate explanation is that with the cost of living going up so much compared to what it was decades ago and wages not increasing in proportion, the idea of a single-income household that owns their own property can have a designated stay-home parent, is becoming extinct for the average Canadian, and with it that male role.
Culture is in a state of flux. And when people feel this unease, this displacement of identity, it is very easy to look for someone to blame.
For many Christians, this has caused many to recede into nostalgia, longing for the days when everyone went to church, or when there was prayer in schools, when there was allegedly no divorce, or when, allegedly, everything cost a nickel (why was everythin always a nickel, by the way?).
Nowadays, I’m nostalgic for when gas costs a dollar a litre.
The text I am going to read today is a text that has often been misused by Christians. It is a text we have so often read, wishing to get back to the way things used to be when fathers’ and husbands’ roles were clear and revered.
It is really one of the most important passages on being parents and spouses, as well as being fathers and husbands, in the New Testament, but we often forget that the Biblical writers were writing for matters in their own day. They were writing because their situations were in flux also. We forget that.
It is Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5, what is often called the household code. I am going to first read this passage, but then we are going to ask some questions about what this means, both in the ancient context and what it means for us today:
21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 ‘For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 ‘Honour your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: 3 ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’ 4 And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. 9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
So, let me pause for a moment. Did some of those words make you uneasy a bit (particularly the submission and slavery parts)? Did some of those words sound agreeable (like the love parts)? I imagine most listeners will have mixed feelings reading this passage.
Perhaps you know this passage well. Maybe a pastor told you this is God’s pattern for marriage for today. Maybe you believe it is.
But, if this passage was giving us an obvious, clear, and timeless definition of marriage and parenting, why does it tell husbands to love their wives in order to make them holy and without blemish? Is Paul saying all women are unclean? Or is that what Jews assumed in that culture? May Paul is speaking in a way his audience would have understood.
It also says that wives should submit in everything. Should wives do that today? Aren’t there stories of women who did listen to their husbands and God was honoured, like Abigail or Rachel or Tamar. Maybe Paul is reacting to a certain circumstance woman in Ephesus face.
Sadly, this passage has been used to say to women that they cannot question or disagree with their husbands. It has been used almost like a club to clobber some people.
Maybe this passage brings up painful memories. I have dealt with women who were told that they had to submit to their abusive spouses because that is what this passage means. Let me be clear and say that whatever this passage means today, it does not mean that.
This passage also mentions slavery. It tells slaves to obey their masters with fear and trembling. I have heard some preachers say that this passage applies to bosses and employees today, but I just don’t think that is the case. There were day-labourers in the ancient world. But more importantly, as an employee with rights living in a country with employment laws, I just don’t think I should obey everything my boss says, let alone with fear and trembling.
But worse still, this passage has been used to justify slavery rather than the good news of God’s kingdom that Jesus announces: “freedom to the captive, that the oppressed can go free” (as he says in Luke 4).
For five years, I pastored the First Baptist Church of Sudbury, which had historic roots in the Social Gospel. The church historically led the charge for the miners of the city to have employment rights, safety standards, and eventually unions. They believe working to improve human life was an aspect of the kingdom of God. I think they were correct.
So, how do we understand this important passage today? How do we understand it as offering words that can build us up?
This will be a bit of a technical sermon (if you have not realized this already). I don’t know if you have met me, but I kinda like to go deep with my sermons. I do this because if we are going to become the fathers and husbands God wants us to be (and of course, this goes for all Christians as well), one vital way we get formed for that purpose is by meditating on God’s word, understanding it rightly, not in facile, careless ways.
Just like navigating what it means to be a man or a father in today’s world, God’s Word takes wisdom and work. So often, the church has assumed that the Bible is always so clear and straightforward it makes us ill-prepared to live in a world that isn’t.
Many want to go to the Bible to escape just how messy the world is, hoping to find a place that is black and white and clear, and there are some passages that are very clear, don’t get me wrong. But often, if you have read through the Bible, you see a lot of passages that cause you to have questions. Some that, at face value, don’t sound all that redemptive. In those cases, the path from what the words on the page say and what it means for us today is not straightforward.
Part of the reason for that is that the Bible was written not as an escape from the flux of history but written in its very midst. It was not written despite our humanity. It was written by humans for our humanity.
The Bible is a complex thing, and it’s complex because life is complex. And if we care about God’s word, we have to be willing to put in the effort to study and think about it in all its depth. It’s only then that its richness is fully appreciated. It’s only then that we realize that God isn’t trying to save us from the complications of life. God is trying to meet us there, in its midst, gently moving us forward in grace.
I sit on the board of an organization called the Atlantic Society for Biblical Equality. It is an organization that was founded by Hugh McNally and Harry Gardner to promote that men and women are made equal in the eyes of God and that when the Scriptures are considered in their fuller context and meaning, it teaches equality in marriage, that women can serve as pastors and things like that. I would encourage you to become members and support the work (perhaps the church could even be a supporting church partner in its mission).
This is one passage that people stumble over. I know people that are content to ignore a passage like this. But as Christians, that is just not a good plan, and so, our work as ASBE is to help Christians understand the Bible better.
My advice is that we need to study the Bible and study the difficult texts: Find the Bible’s meaning in the flux of history because that can really help us understand what it could be saying to us today.
So with that very long introduction, let me ask this: what was going on in Paul’s day that he needed to write this passage?
Well, the Apostle Paul is writing to the Ephesians, a Greek city in modern-day Turkey. It was a very important city both for Greek culture and the church. The Christian church had grown rapidly there, comprising of both Jews and Gentiles coming together, and that had caused some issues. The beginning of the letter speaks about how God’s household is where both Jews and Gentiles come together as one under God in Christ. Later in the letter, here, Paul turns to talk about what individual households could look like through the love of God in Christ. Here, if we do some digging, we find that Ephesus and the church there were experiencing their own state of flux, and Paul had to navigate that.
1. Christianity in Ephesus was in Flux
Christianity came on the scene in the ancient world and caused a profound social change. You see, Christianity preached the individual responsibility of all people to repent and believe in the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ, and this proclamation saw Jews and Gentiles, men and women, adults and children, wealthy individuals as well as slaves seeing the gift of the Holy Spirit, and people trust this and are justified.
In the ancient world, however, if you were a wife, a child, or a slave, your obligation was to worship the god of the head of your family, your father and master. If you were Roman or Greek, you were expected to follow the local gods. Christianity did not uphold this, and it caused friction.
Jesus warns about this in Matthew chapter ten. Jesus says that I have not come to bring peace but the sword, which is kind of a strange thing for Jesus to say. What does he mean? He speaks about how households will be set against one another, and if you are loyal to your family members more than Jesus’ way, this is not taking up Jesus’ cross. In other words, you are not a true disciple. For Jesus says, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus isn’t saying he is going to cause literal wars, but rather that the way of Jesus is going to cause social upheaval, and any peace that means people can claim loyalty to their families against Jesus to please them is not true peace. It isn’t the peace that Jesus’ way offers.
Well, this insistence soured marriages and split families. Christians were viewed as traitors. Paul notes in his first letter to the Corinthians that spouses were leaving and deserting their partners over their change in religion, but Paul tries to say to Christian spouses to do their best to keep their marriages if they can: if their spouses leave, that’s their decision, but for the Christian spouse, commit to working it through, loving the other, hopefully winning them over. That is a good witness to the Gospel.
This is a thing Paul has to keep reiterating. In his letter to Titus, he says to young women to love their spouses so that “the word of God will not be maligned.” Paul’s letter to the Colossians chapter 4, just before it gives a similar household code, says that Christians need to walk wisely in how non-Christians are seeing them. 1 Peter similarly advises Christians to live in a way that prevents slander.
Christianity in the Greek and Roman world was being perceived as a group of people that were disloyal to their nation, to their marriages and families, and therefore were out to ruin society. There were rumours that Christians were cannibals because they ate flesh and drank blood when they got together for worship. Christians were thought to be atheists because they refused to worship the gods of their communities.
For many, Christianity was perceived as strange and even dangerous. Now, while it was true that Christians opposed the worship of Greek and Roman gods and opposed the ways of the emperors, it wasn’t true that Christians hated their families. Far from.
We have to appreciate the irony: today, we look at Christianity and the way things used to be, and we think it’s our culture that has caused all this disruption and flux. For Ephesians, they believed their culture’s values gave stability, and they saw Christianity as causing the disruption and flux. Our contexts are very different.
And so, this helps us understand the statements in the New Testament, where the Apostles keep telling Christians to honour the Emperor (even though the Emperors were immoral people), submit to authorities (even those that were brutal and corrupt as the Roman powers), leave peaceable lives, and so on. Those are passages that also don’t straightforwardly apply today because we live in democracies where we can choose our government, whereas, in the New Testament, they couldn’t.
The Apostles were doing everything possible to prevent Christianity from being perceived as a threat to the well-being of their home communities. They are trying to walk this tightrope of the faithfulness of Jesus and peaceableness with their families and fellow citizens. What were they worried about? Its something we just aren’t worried about in our country:
The Apostles did not want to be perceived as an insurgent movement as they spread the Gospel. Why? Revolutions ended in violence, with Roman soldiers slaughtering anything that could be perceived as a rebellion or disloyal to the Empire, and so, the Apostles tried to be wise in portraying Christianity as upholding certain social mores that Greeks saw as fundamental to social wellness.
What were those? Well, one of those was the Greek household code.
2. Ephesian Culture Believed Men were the Heads of their Households. Paul believed Jesus was the Head
And so, the second important aspect of Paul’s context was the Greek understanding of marriage. Ephesians believed it was good and proper for the husband and father to be the head of the household. The husband was often the educated one, legally was the one who managed the finances, and he was the one that procured the income for the family. Often the man was the religious representative of the family as well.
Because of this, he was regarded as the authority of the family, and Ephesians felt it was only good and proper to have wives, children, and slaves living in complete submission to the family’s leader.
However, men in Ephesian culture were regarded as the heads of their households, and as such, they were afforded power and privilege. Wives, children, and slaves were their servants, all for the purposes of affording them a better life. Husbands had little to no moral obligation to their wives and could act with a great deal of self-interest.
If the Apostles attacked this teaching too forcefully, a lot of women, children, and servants could find themselves without a roof over their head or worse. It wasn’t that the Apostles were afraid to sacrifice for their faith, but they were trying to be prudent to not pick unnecessary battles. In their judgment, in this context, which is different from ours, they choose a cautious and more subtle path.
Women did not have legal rights, no sources of income; there were no women’s shelters; there was no such thing as unemployment insurance or alimony in a divorce. These are things our culture has created, and if we are tempted to see these as an obstacle to living this passage, we must look to the history of Christian suffrage advocates and Christian abolitionists, Christians that have looked at how humans are made in God’s image and said our laws should reflect justice and equity.
Our culture has been influenced by 2000 years of Christian proclamation; Ephesian culture was not. That does not mean we are always better, but it does mean we are in a very different place.
Paul was dealing with a world that operated under certain conditions, things that the culture took for granted as the norms of how things functioned, while Paul was against things like slavery (he was a Jew, after all, that knew full well the stories of the Exodus, where redemption meant liberation from physical oppression), he also realized that for some people, slavery was their sole means of provision or that to oppose slavery in a revolution could end with Roman legions coming and killing everyone involved with a revolt.
We have to do this in similar ways today: We know, for instance, that our use of fossil fuels is not good for the environment, but for many of us, we still have to own gas-powered cars or have homes that use oil. If we tried to just rid Canada of all fossil fuels right now, that probably would leave a lot of people without transportation and without heat in the winter, so we are trying to transition off fossil fuels. I don’t know if we are doing a good enough job of that, but that is a topic for another sermon.
So, what Paul does then, is try to word the Christian life in as close of terms as possible to the way Ephesians understood marriage and parenting and managing their homes. He meets them where they are at and how they understand things, but he adds a Christian twist to it. He sows a seed of Christ-like transformation in it.
And this is where we really miss the point of the passage when we refuse to read the Bible in its historical context.
Let me read one of the more well-known household codes in Greek culture. Ask yourself, how is Paul’s version different from this? This is from Aristotle’s Politics:
Of household management, we have seen that there are three parts—one is the rule of a master over slaves… another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the older and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature… [W]hen one rules and the other is ruled we endeavour to create a difference of outward forms and names and titles of respect… The relation of the male to the female is of this kind, but there the inequality is permanent.
Both Paul and Aristotle talk about husbands and wives, fathers and children, and masters and slaves. That’s how we know that Paul has something like this in mind for the context he is writing in. Did you spot some of the differences?
Aristotle talks about the rulership of all three. Men rule over women. Why? Because men are more intelligent by nature. They are, by nature, superior. They live in permanent inequality, and that inequality is a good thing.
Is that what Paul believed?
Paul is a Jew, and he knows that men and women are both in the image of God. He knows that if women are not equal to men, it is not because of nature but because of sin. The curse of Genesis 3 was that women’s desire would be for their husbands, but men would rule over them.
We have to ask ourselves: is it the church’s job to uphold the curse of sin? Or is it the church’s role to undo the effects of sin in this world with the power of salvation?
Paul says in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free, all are one in Christ Jesus.”
If we look at Paul’s writings, we see that he had women leaders spreading the Gospel with him: church leaders like Chloe and Nympha, Pheobe (a deacon from Cenchrea), Eudia and Synteche (apostolic leaders along with Clement), Junia (an apostle listed that the end of Romans). If you have not heard those names before, look them up. Paul very much believed that the Spirit was moving to bring about equality in the world broken by sin.
We need to keep that big picture in mind when we interpret these passages. And when we do, the point of these passages of today becomes clearer:
Ephesians 5 begins with Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. When it gets to the next line, it actually uses the same verb as this sentence: Be subject to one another… wives to your husbands. In other words, wives are doing something all Christians, men, fathers, and husbands included, ought to be doing too. Yet, so often, we preach this passage as if the burden is on women to do something unique to them.
Aristotle’s view of headship in the family emphasizes male rulership; Paul takes that notion of headship in God’s family and emphasizes mutual submission.
The Greek household code said men did not have to care for their wives, children, or slaves beyond food and shelter. Families served the man’s own self-interest. Paul says things like this in his household code:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.
Masters, know that both of you have the same Master in heaven.
Aristotle emphasized authority; Paul introduced accountability. Which one do you think then is the principle that applies to us today?
3. Jesus’s Love is the Pattern for Parents
Jesus told his disciples that “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
In speaking to them about the authority, he said,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28).
Paul summarizes the pattern of Christ in Philippians chapter two when he says,
4 Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
And so, in a culture where men were assumed to be the heads of the household, Paul, in essence, says, “Okay, men, if you want to be the head of the household, then be one like Jesus. Be ready to give up everything for your family.”
But that is not some new way to reinforce male power. It is consistent with what all Christians are called to do. Notice the principle that Ephesians chapter five begins with: Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (v. 1-2).
This is the guiding principle for what Paul says in this entire chapter, and it says all Christians are to live self-sacrificing love towards one another, and when we come to verse 21, the guiding principle for the household code, Paul says all Christians are to submit one to another. The household code is merely applying these to the way Ephesians needed to have it applied in that context. But ultimately, submission, respect, service, and accountability¾these are things all Christians ought to be doing for each other, regardless of gender.
It is funny how we have looked at Ephesians chapter 5, and we have tried to apply it to mean something more like the philosophy of Aristotle than the way of Jesus.
If we defined authority in Jesus’ way, we would give up our authority, not hold onto it.
If we define what it means to be a man through Jesus, we won’t be worried about how we can get power out of our marriages and families, power over our wives and kids. We will ask ourselves: How can I serve them? How can I even submit it to them? What sacrifices do I need to make in order to love them better?
That might mean doing something things that our culture, perhaps even our church cultures, might view as not very manly.
When Meagan and I were first married, we had just bought our first house, a little townhouse in Bradford, one hour north of Toronto. We had our first child, Rowan, soon after moving in.
Meagan was teaching at a Christian school, and the school wanted her to upgrade her teaching degree to a full Bachelor of Education. So, she used her mat-leave to go back to school full-time.
I was also in school, working on my doctorate. I was between work, and I eventually got a contract as a pastoral intern at Bradford Baptist Church, a few hours a week.
But with Meagan in school in an intensive program, I had to pivot to caring for Rowan most mornings as well as do cleaning and some cooking.
Can I confess something to you? I am just not as particular about cleaning as my wife is. If there is a dirty spot on the counter, I don’t notice it. My wife enters a room, and it is like radar detection. But in order to have a household that felt orderly enough that my wife did not feel stressed about, I had to learn how to clean better.
Admitfully, after 13 years of marriage, I still am not there.
Of course, not having a full-time job, I got comments from family members: “So, when are you going to get a real job.” The implication is that my current situation was not what a man, a biblical husband, was to do. And I felt feelings of worthlessness, staying home, and caring for our son.
I had learned to equate my worth as a man and father with work and money.
I had to come to a point and say, but what does my family need? It is not about fulfilling some expectation of what a man or a husband or a father is according to our culture or even our church cultures. It is about asking our families, “what do you need?”
What does that mean for a world that is in such flux? Well, it is going to mean something very different for every couple and family.
It means that whatever life entails, it probably is not going to be easy. It means navigating decision-making, household work, finances, and childcare with fairness, with mutual submission.
And that takes sacrifice, and that is what we are celebrating today on Father’s Day. The ways our fathers have sacrificed to show their wives and children they love them.
For many of our fathers and grandfathers, these sacrifices fulfilled a traditional need, but for the younger generations, these sacrifices might look different.
Whether it is working a tough job away from home or working as a stay-home dad, whether it is mowing the lawn or cooking dinner, driving the kids to soccer or reading to them when they go to bed, there are little acts of service that show your families how much you love them.
The tasks may change, but love does not.
Paul says that when we do this, we are reflecting the reality that God is showing us in Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he came in human form, became a servant, and became obedient even onto death, death on a cross.
Can I just say that Jesus knows a thing or two about changing to love those he cares for in the way they need it?
Fathers, husbands, men in the audience today, sometimes the world tells us that to be a man means relying on no one but yourself, don’t ask for help, don’t be vulnerable. Men don’t talk about love. Real men don’t cry and things like that.
That is just not true. It is not the pattern of Jesus. We can share our needs with our families and friends, but most importantly, we need to share our needs with God.
When we feel frustrated in life, we know that God understands, God is with us, and God is for us. God raised Jesus from the dead in victory over sin and all of life’s struggles.
Ask God, trust him, and he will help.
In all the change and uncertainty of life, God’s love remains constant. God’s love does not change. God’s love is perfect. God’s love is faithful and true. And God loves you.
Fathers, husbands, and men today, can you leave this place trusting that love in a new way today?
Loving and gracious God our Father.
You are our creator, and we are your children, made in your image and likeness.
We praise you today because you are loving and good.
You have shown your love for us in sacrificing your very self.
While we were sinners set against you, you died for us.
God, we are thankful.
And you have called us to reflect this love, this love that is your very being.
Father, teach us how we can do this better.
Many of us feel like we are not all that good at it.
And in a changing world, many of us desire to follow our ways, but the way does not seem all that clear.
God, give us wisdom.
Encourage our hearts: Remind us that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love you have for us.
Show us how we can love our families better.
Thank you so much for all the examples of fathers we have around us. Thank you for the sacrifices they have made, the lessons they have taught, and the fun we have had with them. May we cherish these gifts among us today.
We pray that today the fathers, husbands, and men of this church would know your love in a new way, be able to trust that love, and live that out.
Give us your Spirit, for we know you are faithful.
There are many great passages that I could use to talk about the Trinity. One of the challenges, however, if anyone has endured a sermon on the Trinity and thought, “the fact that God is like a cloverleaf really isn’t all that reassuring to me,” is that the Trinity is hard to explain with just one passage. The Trinity, as I will say again in this sermon, is not so much a doctrine of Christianity; it is the very structure that all doctrines cohere in. For all intents and purposes today, that is like saying, you know how some people say you don’t see the forest through the trees? Well, with the Trinity, it’s more like we see this vast forest, and now, we have to explain that majestic, complicated forest with just one tree. That’s hard.
Yet, if I had to choose one passage to explain the Trinity, it would be this. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is at the last supper, and he prays for his disciples: Jesus, who is God himself, as John says, the Word of God made flesh, the logic of God’s being dwelling among us personally and fully, this person Jesus is praying to God the Father. Listen to what Jesus says to the Father and what he prayers for his disciples.
17 When Jesus finished saying these things, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you. 2 You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him. 3 This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. 4 I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5 Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created. 6 “I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8 This is because I gave them the words that you gave me, and they received them. They truly understood that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. 9 “I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. 10 Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them. 11 I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one…
20 “I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. 21 I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22 I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. 23 I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me. 24 “Father, I want those you gave me to be with me where I am. Then they can see my glory, which you gave me because you loved me before the creation of the world. (John 17:1-NRSV)
A Longing For Oneness
So, Jesus prays as one who is in the Father and the Father in him, one with God, but more than that; he prays that we would be one, share in this oneness as well. This gets to the heart of what the Trinity is all about. There is a band. You may have heard of it. It’s called U2. Bono from U2 has a song called, “One,” that goes like this:
Is it getting better?
Or do you feel the same?
Will it make it easier on you now?
You got someone to blame
You say, one love, one life
When it’s one need in the night
One love, we get to share it
Leaves you baby if you don’t care for it
Did I disappoint you?
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without
Well it’s too late tonight
To drag the past out into the light
We’re one but we’re not the same
We get to carry each other, carry each other
U2 sings a song that speaks to this deep longing of the human heart. We long to affirm that we are one global family of sisters and brothers. We long to be at one with each other. And yet, we are different. And in our differences, we have competed against one another as if the resources of life are a zero-sum game, and in that striving against one another, we have hurt one another. We are not one with each other.
There is a fear that has pointedly inflicted us in this time of the aftermath of the waves of the pandemic. It is this feeling that a time of scarcity is upon us. The pandemic has had a cost in Canada of roughly a billion dollars a day. Last year (this is last year’s, please note), the US estimated the total cost today of somewhere in the ballpark of 16 trillion dollars. People worry: How do we get the economy back up and running? Will it ever get back to what it was before? Will I be able to hold onto what is mine? Will I keep my standard of living? What will happen if I can’t? Behind many political messages is the fear that in a time of scarcity, I am going to lose what is mine, or worse, I will have it taken. And it can be a drive to self-protection and self-preservation against others, whoever that may be, whoever becomes the scapegoat.
Is our freedom and meaning in life only found against others? Is this what it means to be human? Is this the right mentality to have? Worded another way: Is this what we trust about the way the world works and about our future?
I have learned that what we trust, we also worship. The word “worship” comes from the old English word “Worth-ship.” In other words, we worship what we are invested in. Whatever we trust ultimately is what we treat as God to us.
There is a simple fact that whatever we believe God to be, whatever or whoever is divine and ultimate to us, we will act like that God in some way. We become what we worship. And this means that each and every one of us has to ask this, who is God? What is God like? What are God’s character and essence? Do I trust? Because the answer to that question will decide who we are as a church, as a society, how we treat each other, and what our futures will be. So, who is God? Hold that thought for a second.
My son, Asher, is a very curious kid. The other day my son was sitting there at night in his bed. He asks the most random questions. The other day he was drifting off to sleep, then he perked awake and asked me, “Dad, if an earwig goes to your ear, could it get into your brain?” What, how is that the question that popped into your head?
Other times they are more spiritual in nature: “Dad, will we have skin in heaven?” Skin that is what you are worried about? The other day he asked me, “Dad, is Jesus God or is God, God?” To which I could only say, “Well, both…God is a Trinity.” I don’t think he was satisfied with that answer. It was kind of a theologian dad fail moment there.
I think my son’s question is probably pretty common. The Trinity is one of the most difficult and confusing teachings in Christianity. I want to impress upon you that it is also one of the most beautiful and essential. It’s fuzzy but fundamental.
The word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible (but, then again, the word “Bible” never appears in the Bible, either), and so some groups throughout church history have denied the Trinity. My grad student just wrote a great thesis looking at the movement called Oneness Pentecostalism. Anyways, this does not mean the reality of the Trinity is not there in the Bible. The word ‘Trinity” comes from the early church where St. Tertullian coined the term in the second century to explain that when he read Scripture, he saw God have a “tri-unity” of identity. The word names something that goes on in the Bible; it summarizes it and brings a central truth together for us. This is where Christians, especially we, Protestants, can’t be afraid to recognize that while we don’t consider tradition an authority, we don’t deny that it is good advice, that the great saints of the past do have lessons we can learn to help guide us.
So, the recommendation of 2000 years of Christians reflecting on the Bible would say yes. The Trinity is the best way to read the Bible: that God is one being who has revealed God’s self in three persons, each fully God, one but not the same, that the experience of God in the Bible is the experience of God above, God beside us, and God within us. But how does the Bible teach the Trinity? That is the interesting part. And moreover, it gets to what the Trinity means for us today.
It has something to do with what U2 sang there: this profound longing for oneness, the oneness of all things, different things, different peoples, brought together by love, forgiveness, equality, and solidarity, which is all found in the very heart of who God is.
Dorothy Sayers, the great Catholic thinker, once joked that she felt growing up that the Trinity was something theologians thought up one day to make life difficult for the rest of us. Some of my students might be tempted to agree with her. Ya, caught me, Sayers! Just kidding. But Dorothy Sayers also has a great line that helps provide a solution: One reason why I think the Trinity is so confusing and abstract and ultimately feels irrelevant (the theological equivalent of the appendix: it’s there, but we don’t know what it does), is because we forget that the Trinity flows from the experience of God in the narrative of Scripture. Sayers says if you want to understand the doctrine, you need to look at the great drama of Scripture. The drama is the doctrine.
The Drama is the Doctrine
As I said before, one reason why the Trinity is hard to teach is because you have to look at the entire Bible to see the big picture. Obviously, we can’t do that because I suppose you want to get out of here before supper time. So, let me do a few snapshots of the story where hints of God’s character show up.
Snapshot One: You need to look at the beginning in Genesis 1 and see a God who makes this world out of nothing, out of the sheer charity of God’s being. And God makes through God’s eternal word, and it says, God’s breath of life hovers over the depths, bring form out of the formlessness. Here God is this creativity that brings all things into being through an eternal logic of generosity, God’s word, and life itself is animated by the wind of God’s breath resuscitating, refreshing, and restoring. God creates, but he creates with. God creates with breath and word.
Snapshot Two: The narrative continues to Genesis 2. God makes humanity in God’s image, male and female, collectively. God is imaged through relationship. In Genesis chapter two, the story reads how God made the woman from the rib of the first man, and the man, who realizes he is alone and empty by himself, sees this companion and realizes he sees himself in her; he can’t be himself without her: bone of my bone flesh of my flesh, he rejoices. That is a profound statement, a subversive statement, for a time when women were treated as property.
This coming together in love of individuals who are different yet in love become one flesh–one but not the same–shows that already from the very first chapters of the Bible, we see God revealing God’s very self as creator by word and spirit, who are in a oneness, the very essence of which is love and relationship, and God makes us to share in this, to reflect it and to embody it.
Snapshot Three: Eventually, after being ransomed out of Egypt into the promised land, the people want to be governed by a king, and so God concedes and allows Saul and David and Solomon to be kings. However, as time goes on, we see the lines of kings fail. No human king can set right all that has gone wrong, and the people plummet into injustice and self-destructive corruption. But God is this liberating love, promises that one day a new king will come, a perfect king. But in the prophecies that long for this perfect king, there is a kind of hint here: No human king can be perfect. Only God is the perfect king. And so, these prophecies suggest that this messiah, this true king, will bear the presence of God. So, God promises a king that will be the presence of God himself. We read Isaiah 9 in the season of Advent: It says they will call him, “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” God up above promises to be God beside us.
Snapshot Four: As the story shows, Israel has a hard time keeping God’s law. Israel constantly falls away. And each time, there is this force, this imminent presence that comes and helps. This force empowers the judges to act formidably to protect God’s people, endowing them with wisdom and strength. It is like this breath from the original creation that breathed life into everything is resuscitating and re-invigorating God’s people with new life. This breath comes upon prophets to speak God’s word, his pronouncement. The prophet Jeremiah talked about the fire moving within him. So, the Judges and the Prophets sense this breath of God coming in them, moving them, empowering them to do God’s will. This breath is this mysterious agency that allows us to live out the word, the commandments, in the way they ought to be.
As God sees our hearts constantly captive to sin and evil and idolatry, God promises a gift of himself, the Spirit that sustains life will be poured out on human hearts and flesh to renew us from the inside out, bringing to fruition the fullness of life. So, God, who is word and Spirit, God who is relationship, this God above promises not only to come and be God beside us but also God within us.
The Centre Picture: This all sets us up the text we read earlier: Jesus appears on the scene as the Messiah, God Immanuel: God with us, the word from the beginning made flesh.
And Jesus keeps reminding the people that he is at one with the God they worship, who they pray to as the Father. Jesus is the Son that when you look at Jesus, the man who heals the sick, the one who commands love, the one who loves his enemies even to the point of dying for them on the cross, this is who God is. Love itself with us. And Jesus promises to bring us into this love by imparting his Spirit.
And so, he prays here in John 17 that this oneness that the Son has with the Father in their very being, the Son in the Father and the Father in the Son, perfectly equal yet different, perfect love within themselves and perfect love for all–this Jesus prays that all people will experience and participate in, begin with us. The Trinity is this longing to have God above come and be God beside us as well as God within us bringing us into the oneness of God’s love. The Trinity is this movement of love that wants to bring all things, everyone into the loves of God.
How Can God Be Three Yet One?
Now, I have to pause and ask: How can God be above, beside, and within? How can God be the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit without being three Gods? How can God be one being and yet have these relations within him?
Theologians have tried to solve this question for two thousand years, trying to get all the right terminology or the right analogies: God is one being three persons, God is like an egg or water or a cloverleaf. The problem with these pursuits is simply this: God is not like anything in this world. When Moses says, what do I call you?” to God in the book of Exodus, God simply answers, “I am who I Am.” God simply is.
Saint Augustine once said that the God that I can comprehend would not be my God. So, if you find that you have a hard time understanding the Trinity, you find it confusing and hard to wrap your head around, don’t feel bad. I think it is actually a very good thing. If we ask ourselves how God can be three persons in one being, we are simply left with this fumbling: I don’t know; he just is. I don’t know about you, but I find it comforting that there is nothing in the world like God.
We will not be able to understand what God is. However, when we ask, “What is God showing us when he reveals himself as the Trinity?” Here we get a different answer: this God who is ineffable, infinite, incompressible, this God loves us. This God is for us, not against us, and God is showing us that God is love with his very being, and we are invited in.
The Trinity Means God is Love
I did not understand the value of the Trinity until when I was pastoring. I had the privilege of meeting on a weekly basis for coffee with a woman who struggled with addiction.
Often she would describe times when she was failing at managing her addiction, and these were dark times. I would ask her: “Where do you think God was?” Her answer was clear: “God was not near me. H wants nothing to do with me in those moments.” And I would ask, “What makes you think that God was not with you? Who do you think God is?”
“Well, God is holy and just, and he is, I think, full of anger at me because of all the bad choices I have made. God was nowhere near me.”
Her image of God was one where God was not fundamentally love, and so, God was far away because God was primarily something more like a distant parent figure that was always disappointed with her. I wonder where she got that idea.
So, I asked her: “When you look at the cross, Jesus in the place of sinners, where is God there?” She answers, “God is up able, looking away.” I suspect she learned this from that song we always sing on Good Friday, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” which is a beautiful song, but it has a line in it that says about Jesus at the cross that “the Father turns his face away.” Nowhere in the Gospels does it say that. The Gospels are saying something much more profound: When we look at this man, crying out forsaken, bearing the weight of sin, we are staring at the face, the very heart, of God revealed.
If Jesus and God the Father are one, and Jesus at the cross is at one with sinners, you are seeing the truth that God is with us sinners. God was there in our worst moments.
To see the cross with the help of the Trinity is to know that the same love the Father has for the Son, God has for all sinners through Christ dying in our place.
The Triune God came in Jesus to say that I love you with my very self. What happens to you happens to me. We are in it together. That is my choice. However, what happened to me also will happen to you. Whatever darkness your life is stuck in, whatever darkness you have chosen. God is there with you. God has bound God’s very self to our fate to say, “I will never leave you or forsake you, for I cannot forsake myself.” And so, in those dark moments, God brings love and life and light, shining in the darkness of hate and shame and hurt and blame, and John says, “the darkness could not overcome it.” The same love that made and moves the sun, moon and stars, the eternal loves of Father, Son, and Spirit, invaded the corpse of crucifixion with Easter’s hope of new life. This is the hope we are invited into. This is the oneness that God longs for everyone one of us. May they be one as we are one.
The Trinity Means We Were Meant for Love
The Trinity is not just an abstract doctrine; it is a revolutionary truth of how to be human. We were meant for love.
Desmond Tutu, who passed away at the end of last year, was the Anglican Archbishop in South Africa, who opposed the apartheid, enduring threats and violence, terrible racism, bringing a message of forgiveness and reconciliation, receiving a Nobel peace prize for his work on the commission for truth and reconciliation. In his message, he preached the Gospel of God’s love for all, victim and perpetrator, justice and restoration. He used an African proverb to drive this home: Ubuntu.
What is Ubuntu? It is an African saying that people are people through other people. That is essentially what the Trinity is, only perfectly.
Ubuntu. In other words, we are all essentially connected. We cannot succeed ourselves without helping others succeed. If I diminish your dignity and humanity, I will have diminished myself. People are people through other people, reflecting a glimmer of how God is God through Father, Son, and Spirit.
There is a myth we have as westerners of the self-made person. This myth has gotten us in a lot of trouble. We believe as modern western individuals that our autonomy is so fundamental, moral obligations are burdensome, relationships are seen as an affront to our identity, and community is seen as repressive to self-expression and mobility. There is a saying that goes like this: “No person is an island.” Well, I think our assumption as modern people is that we are islands.
But this is where Desmond Tutu’s saying helps us understand the mystery of the Trinity that we are invited into. God is free and equal between Father, Son, and Spirit, through a relationship of perfect, mutual, self-giving, other-empowering love. It is through love that we are free. It is through love that we truly are ourselves.
That is a better account of how we came to be who we are as individuals and what we are as a society. Before we could walk or talk or even feed ourselves, we were nourished by the love of our parents, born into a society we did not choose but greeted our existence with order and stability, basic things we needed to flourish. These relationships, this connectedness, makes us who we are. As I think about it, as a Father and Husband, these roles define who I am. They do not monopolize who I am, but to say that I am less free because of these commitments and obligations, misses what Ubuntu is saying. True love ought not to be co-dependent. It sets boundaries and loves with tough love some days, and it is a love that is not afraid, to be honest. With that in mind, these relationships are freedom in a deeper sense: the relationships of our lives that liberate us into goodness, the freedom of love.
This is what God wants for all society. God wants us to realize that we are never going to succeed as a society if all we ever do is obsess about me and what is mine. We are never going to get through all this unless we learn how interconnected we all are.
What would the world look like if we took to heart these truths? The scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said that society was revolutionized when human beings harnessed the power of fire all those millennia ago: to cook meat, warn homes, sterilize water, see at night, refine and craft metal, to power engines. Civilization was made possible by harnessing the power of fire.
However, he says, the next age of humanity, the next revolution of human social potential–which we may be living on the cusp of–will only be possible when we trust the truth of love. If we accept the true potential of love, the power that is God’s very presence and being, if we are open to living that love out, allow it to permeate all levels of our society and self, he wagers the world we could build with that will make our world today look like the stone age.
That sounds very ambitious, but it begins with simple tasks. It starts with us, the church, the family of God. Mother Teresa once said, “I never tire of saying God loves you,” because she knew that in it, even the smallest act has the power to heal our broken world.
Do we trust this love today? Can we commit ourselves to sharing this love with others today?
Preached at Bethany Memorial Baptist Church, Sunday, January 30th, 2022, for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I, by my works, will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus, the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead. (James 2:14-26, NRSV)
When I was young, I attended a little Bible camp for many years. I loved it. Set out in the woods, it was always the highlight of my summer there: the sports, the crafts, the campfire with singing and snacks afterwards.
But most importantly, as a Bible camp, they did bible stories. At the campfire, they would do dramas of different bible stories, and one person always told a story of a famous Christian like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Nickey Cruz. Those stories left a profound impact on my faith as a young person. It was at this camp, really, where my love of the Bible began.
So, when one of the leaders talked about baptism, inviting anyone to be baptized if they professed to believe in Jesus, I naturally came forward, all to have myself abruptly halted. “I would like to be baptized,” I said. However, the leader simply said, “Spencer, I can’t baptize you.”
I said, “Why not?”
He answered, “Because you don’t go to one of our churches. I can’t baptize you in good conscience unless I know for sure that you will go to a biblical church after.”
Now, for the record, I attended a Christian and Missionary Alliance church at the time, one that prided itself with being bible-believing. His words shocked me.
I remember protesting this with him: “Are we not all Christians here? Don’t we all believe in Jesus here?” His response was a bit sheepish, but his answer was, “Sorry, Spencer, that is not enough.”
That experience, as I think of it, was really the first instance where I witnessed exclusion within the body of Christ for myself. It was the first moment I became aware that just because we are all Christians, who believe in Jesus, that does not mean we all treat each other as Christians.
And as you listen here this morning, think about is yourself: what was the first instance where you felt demeaned by another Christian about your Christian beliefs? Or perhaps, can we be challenged to think about how we might have been the ones who did the excluding?
This week has been if you did not know, the week of prayer for Christian unity. It is a week where Christians pray in repentance for how we have so often divided the Body of Christ based on our faith convictions: Catholic against Protestants, and of course, Protestants against other Protestants, even Baptists against other Baptists in our own churches.
It is kind of funny that we put together this preaching schedule, John and I, just going passage by passage. Interestingly enough, this passage takes place on the week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I say “funny,” you might call that providential too.
James challenges us to live our faith, that we are rendered just by what we do. And we will see, the language of this text here is very different from the words of Paul on justification, which he says is by faith. As we will think about this morning, this text challenges us to live our faith but also live out our beliefs in the midst of the diversity of Christianity in a Christ-like way.
1. Seeing Diversity
First, I want to tackle what seems like a point of diversity and tension in the Bible. James calls us to live our faith. He puts it in pretty strong terms. He says, So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead… You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Here a scripture says you are justified by works.
Now, Paul in Galatians says, this: …a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
One says justification by faith, the other justification by works.
Martin Luther used this teaching from Paul to found Protestantism (and we are all Protestants because of him, by the way). Five hundred years ago, he protested the Catholic Church and its corrupt practices. Martin Luther saw how the Church was using sacraments to enforce their power, saying if you comply with this, if you pay money to us, we will give you forgiveness, and you or the loved one you pay for will be saved. Luther called this works righteousness, making salvation conditional on what you do. He saw what Paul was saying in his own day as applicable to his: Jewish Christians in Galatia sought to make Gentiles accept laws like circumcision to be members of God’s people, and so, the Catholic church was making certain things the requirement to receive grace. Luther’s protest against this succeeded, recalling the church to what the Bible taught, sola scriptura, by scripture alone, and the rest is history.
However, there was a kind of flaw in Luther’s argument. He argued for sola scriptura, but there was a scripture that did not quite conform to what he said. James says no one is justified by faith.
Martin Luther saw this passage, and he hated it. He called James the “epistle of straw” and did not think it ought to be in the Bible. It is ironic that a Reformer that wanted things to be biblical oddly did not want to listen to this Bible passage. Have you ever done that? Many of us are guilty of picking and choosing.
Why did he do this? I suspect Martin Luther assumed the Bible to be uniform. The Reformation as a whole certainly believed that if you just trusted God and read the Bible, one biblical view of things would always emerge with the Spirit’s help.
Well, as the years following the Reformation showed, that did not happen. One after another, groups like Anabaptists and Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals all looked at biblical texts with a passion for living out the Bible and came to different conclusions, splitting off from their previous group.
And what happened when they did this? Their tendency was to think, “Aha! I have the Holy Spirit, and I have it right. God revealed to me the true apostolic pattern that has been lost for centuries, and all those other Christians must not have the Holy Spirit, and they need to listen to this discovery I found, or they must be evil.”
Well, when they did not all agree, they fought and, in some cases, killed each other. Reformers hated Baptists and would take Baptists and drown them in rivers, giving them what they felt was their real baptism, terrible things like that.
The result of these religious wars and violence is that Western society saw Christians fighting over doctrine and said, “I don’t think we can build just laws on what they believe.” In other words, if we lament the loss of Christianity in the public sphere, if we lament that we live in a secular society in Canada, I don’t think we need to wonder why. It was our fault.
It all comes down to this tendency that Christians have not known how to manage, this notion that two sincere believers can come to the same text and conclude very different things. We don’t know what to do with that, other than by treating differences as dangerous:
You are either too liberal, too conservative, too traditional, too informal, too emotional, too rational, too this or too that. We are quick to label and dismiss, or worse, exclude.
In my experience, the two primary things Christians have fought about in recent years are styles of worship and ethics of sexuality. And if you cannot come to grips with the fact that there are good believers on either side of a debate, trying to navigate it because they love Jesus, we are only furthering this 500-year-old problem.
We have not been good at dealing with diversity. When we see it, we divide. To date, there is somewhere in the ballpark of 50 000 denominations of Christianity, who have all, more or less followed this tendency.
But what if diversity is not all bad? What if diversity is not always a cause for division? What if there is something about our faith that is naturally diverse? What if there is diversity in the Bible?
I think these texts have something to say about this. Some scholars have suggested that these two passages in Paul and James could reflect two views in what was really the first theological debate of Christianity. What is the role of works? What is the role of faith and the law? James and Paul answer it differently.
It is interesting that James quotes the exact same texts from the Old Testament as Paul does in Galatians, referring to Abraham and Isaac, and they interpret it two different ways. Are we witnessing here the records of two Apostles differing about their faith in Christ?
Of it is, that raises some interesting notions for our faith. We like to think that early Christianity was perfect, that they agreed on everything, that they miraculously never fought, never disagreed, never had to discuss and debate. They all just supernaturally knew what to believe about everything. Well, if we read the book of Acts or other books in the New Testament like these, we just know that is just not the case (and frankly, I for one find it oddly comforting to know just how weirdly messed up the church at Corinth was).
And if you look at a book like John or Mark, in particular, you will see that in the early church, there were different ways to tell the story of Jesus.
The Bible, the inspired Scriptures, contains diversity: different ways of thinking about Jesus and following him that the early church did not ultimately see as bad. Maybe God is trying to give us a hint with that.
And when it comes to a disagreement like the role of Jewish laws for the church that now includes Jews and Gentiles, Paul and James had to come together with the rest of the church, as it shows in Acts 15 and work it out. They had to come to terms with their differences. Now, we don’t know if the book of James was written before the events in Acts 15 or after, but the fact remains: in the Bible are two Apostles speaking quite differently about their faith in two different letters of the early church, which the church today draws inspiration from. Again, I think God might be giving us a hint here. Diversity is to be expected, and what we do with that is really the mark of what it means to follow Christ.
Now, the question is, how far do they actually disagree? For instance, there were groups in the church that did not believe Jesus came in the flesh and did things that harmed fellow Christians, and John says in his first epistle that this is too far. Clearly, there are limits to diversity, and we need to think about those.
When we look at the history of the church, we see the creeds of the faith offering decisions that I think provide helpful standards, classic summaries of what Christians hold as central. That does not solve it all, however. For instance, the Apostle’s Creed says nothing about how the church is to confront modern racism or climate change, but they are all part of the task we have as the church of discerning wisely together.
And, on many matters, there is a kind of range of views being worked out that is well accepted amongst Christians. And on this matter, as it goes with many theological debates with Christians, what sounds like a deep divide between how we talk about our faith, is, in reality, not that big of a difference.
I remember one time in seminary, listening to two students talk about eschatology (the end times) over soup in the cafeteria. One student said that when they looked at the biblical evidence, they just did not see a premillennial rapture. They saw something more like an amillenial kingdom. The other was mortified, and I remember them saying: “If you don’t’ believe in premillennial dispensationalism, I don’t know how you can be in the truth!” (Now, if you don’t know what those terms are, consider yourself spared)The important thing that struck me was just how ridiculous this was: I am pretty sure both still believed that their hope was Jesus.
I think something similar is happening in Paul and James, just in different contexts: Paul is going after Judaizers that believed you need to obey the whole law, including getting circumcised, in order to be one of God’s people. However, Paul very much believes that we need to obey the law of love, love our neighbours as ourselves, and live in a way that manifests the fruit of the Spirit.
And James, here it seems, is not interested in ritual laws like the people in Galatia are worrying about. His concern here is with the poor. If we believe that God loves the poor, if God loves anyone really, we will do something to help. And if you believe something, he says, we ought to live it, namely, just like Paul, by following the “royal law:” the law of love, love your neighbour as yourself.
So, James goes after a faith that does not do anything to help, whereas Paul goes after a view of the actions that make people believe they are better than others.
Yet both, however, are committed at the end of the day to humbly trusting Jesus and following him.
Both are committed that at the centre of the Christian life is living out love.
Ask yourself, if you have had a debate about your beliefs as a Christian with another: what are the things you hold in common? Are you really so different?
An old motto of Christian unity is this: In the essential things, unity; in the non-essential, liberty, but in all things, charity. Let that be your guide.
2. Living Reconciled Faith
So, we need to take James’ point: Faith is something we need to live. And when it comes to diversity, we need to live out Christ’s reconciliation. And if that is the case, we have not done in our works what we often believe.
Paul says in Ephesians 4:4-6 says, There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
James might get us to look at that and ask, “Do you really believe that?”
James says You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. The real difference is that we are willing to act on this.
Do you really believe that we are one?
Do you really believe if someone is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they are your brother or sister in faith? Even if they are a Catholic, even if they are a liberal, or even if they are a fundamentalist? Or whatever group in Christianity is the group you tend to have very little patience for. They share in this oneness, and we need to live accordingly.
It is one thing if we all call ourselves Christians. James might say. It is quite another whether we actually treat each other as Christians.
The opposite is a dark path of believing only people like us are the true believers, and everyone else is wrong, or worse, evil, and living out our days in an ever-shrinking echo chamber of our own making.
This does not mean that we compromise on what we think is true and good. It does not mean that just because someone calls themselves Christians, we give them a free pass to believe anything they want.
I say that as a person that had to leave the Baptist denomination my grandfather helped found because I became convicted that God’s kingdom means equality between men and women and that women should be ordained. After I was given a threat that if I kept speaking about this, I would lose my funding as a church planter, I realized I had to leave for a denomination that did support women’s equality.
And if you have ever had to leave a church family, you will know these moments are painful. We have to be wise on what we take our stands on and be diligent to be healers of the wounds that mar the body of Christ.
There are things we need to take a stand on, but that does not mean seeing those who differ from us as evil or stupid, and hopefully, we can navigate these tensions with gentleness, patience and peace.
Other times, our differences should not get in the way of Gospel work. I remember when I worked at a soup kitchen. This ministry attached Christians from all different strips. And it always struck me that when we centred on the task at hand of helping those who were in need, our differences always felt smaller.
So, I will repeat this, realizing that Christianity is a diverse place does not mean we compromise on the truth, but it does mean we go about the truth a different way.
It might mean giving the benefit of the doubt before judging.
It might mean having some sense that we are just as fallible, and we need to listen.
It might mean taking steps to be patient and forgiving.
It might mean being tolerant and focusing on our shared tasks of caring for others.
All of this speaks again of what James is challenging us with: we need to put our faith into practice. We need to step up and do the work of listening and discerning, confessing and repenting, forgiving and reconciling.
It means treating people like family, knowing that God is bringing together all peoples into one family through what Jesus Christ has done for us.
3. Witnessing the Spirit in Unity
Only then will we welcome differences not as dangerous but as a reflection of what the Spirit started doing at Pentecost, bringing people together as members of many tribes and nations, languages and ways of thinking, into God’s family.
Can we allow ourselves to be open to this?
I remember one event where the Spirit moved in this way. It was at a unity service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity seven years ago. I was pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. Our church participated in the ecumenical service for several years before that, but I suspected we did that as some way of showing the other churches just how much more biblical we were than them. Well, over the years, that didn’t quite work out that way. Members of our church got to know members of the Catholic, United, and Anglican churches, and different members attended each other’s events. In a small town like Garson, that meant we all started saying hi to one another at the grocery store and being neighbourly to one another. We all intuitively started thinking we were not so different after all. Maybe we do have something in common.
Well, that unity service, held at the catholic church that year, it is like this all bubbled up. I remember the one pastor gave a great monologue as if she was the woman from the well. And people were asked to come up in pairs to a pool of water. They were asked to say words of repentance, acknowledging how we have harmed each other, the body of Christ, and then make the sign of the cross with water over the other’s forehead.
I remember sitting there with the other pastors when I looked back and saw people beginning to break down and cry. Others were hugging, saying, “I’m so sorry. I am so sorry.”
I can tell you that I have never seen the Holy Spirit move in a room like I did that service, and it happened by a willingness of those in the room to repent and realize the people in this room, despite different traditions of Christianity – were all family.
Bethany Memorial Baptist Church, how might we see the Spirit move among us today if we are willing to reconcile with other brothers and sisters in our Christian family? What might our witness be in this broken, fragmented world?
What would the Spirit do if we are willing to let go of our arrogance, be willing to listen and learn, but also go forward together to care for one another and serve those who need help in our communities? I am excited to see what the Spirit will do.
God, our Father, who has brought us all together as a family through your son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us for all the ways we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves, and especially have not treated fellow Christians as family.
Let your Spirit move amongst us with a spirit of repentance and humility, a spirit of service and solidarity. Show us ways we can come together and live our faith in the Good News.
In Christ’s name, amen.
Preached Sunday, January 23, 2022, at Bethany Memorial Baptist Church.
2 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” No,w if you do not commit adultery, but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.(James 2:1-13, NRSV)
In 2011, while I was studying as a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, I applied to be the coordinator of a soup kitchen one night a week a few blocks from Queen’s Park, if you know the area. It was called the Gathering Spot, a weekly drop-in food ministry that operated in the basement of Walmer Road Baptist Church, an old historic church in the downtown. I applied because I wanted a simple, one-night-a-week gig to earn a few bucks while I did my studies. What I got was a lot more than what I figured for.
That is kind of like what we see here in the book of James. This packed little passage will give us more than what we figured for as well. James is a book that does not let us off the hook when it comes to difficult questions about how we treat others. This passage in James gets us to ask difficult questions like Just who are the poor? What is our responsibility toward them? And have we failed at this? Have we forgotten and shunned those of different status from us? These questions are what we are going to explore today.
Who are “the Poor”?
So the first question: who are the poor? Growing up in a middle-class suburban neighbourhood, I never really saw “the poor” in any tangible way. I was aware that we were not rich and some of my friends had it worse off than me, some were better off, but that was about it. Some of my friends had smaller houses than me, and others had bigger ones. I grew up in a conservative family where common dinner conversation was complaining about taxes and about how poor people were just lazy and didn’t deserve any of our hard-earned money. So, I had an assumption that if you did not have a job, it was because you were lazy and if you were collecting unemployment or a related service, you were essentially a leech on the system. That is who the poor was.
Well, at the Gathering Spot, my job was the program coordinator. I bought groceries and helped prepare a meal. I greeted people once they arrived, and I put together activities after dinner, usually learning seminars on city programs or helpful skills like first aid or price matching. On an average night, we would serve about 30-50 guests, most of which were people who lived in low-income housing in the area, but also people who were homeless and found their way to the Gathering Spot. All of a sudden, every Tuesday night, the “poor” had a human face. It was startling. I soon realized what poverty was. The poor was a gay youth that his parents had kicked out and was now on the streets. The poor was a senile elderly lady, who had a successful career as a nurse, but now in old age started hoarding things and her family stopped caring for her. The poor was an elderly man with the intellectual age of a 12-year-old, but with no family and not “disabled enough” to require more help in the government’s mind, he was left on his own.
Who are the poor? As I got to know a lot of the individuals, what they were going through was mental illness, plus abuse, plus addiction. Inevitably their choices were their own at some point. And yes, there were dishonest people that just wanted to use the system, but even their stories were not just straightforward as I assumed. Everyone had a story. Poverty had layers.
Who are the poor? I realized that poverty is the systemic consequence of the loss of family. A homeless person is “home-less” well before they are found without a roof over their head. Many of the homeless of Toronto were mentally ill individuals that had been deserted by family due to their erratic behaviour, such that they did not have a single person that they could crash on their couch or lend a few bucks or whatever. I had to think to myself: If I had something terrible happen in myself where I lost my home or health, I could still impose on my two siblings or even my uncle and aunt or even a few college buddies that would help me out. I had people to fall back on. They didn’t.
Who are the poor? I think about the fact that I was born into a loving family. I was raised with discipline and responsibility. I went to good schools. I am able-bodied and able-minded. I was financially supported through high school and college. But all of these factors that contributed to me getting where I am, I did not choose. I did have to work hard, but my father modelled that for me. I could have been born into a family that cared nothing for instilling basic virtues. I could have been born into the foster care system, getting bounced around. I could have been born with a mental illness or with a physical disability. Or take the instances where a person acquired a disability: a car crash, developing severe depression later in life or something like that. That could happen to any one of us, and that could mean at any moment we could be without a career or livelihood in the traditional sense, dependent on the care of others. We, as people that prize our achievements and autonomy, don’t ever want to think about the possibility of becoming dependent and unable. If we really understand that many of the people that face poverty were born into the absence of a support system of family and friends or have been stricken with a lack of mental and physical ability, then there is that nagging possibility that this could have been me.
This is why James connects the love of the poor with the love of neighbour as yourself (even if your neighbours aren’t particularly poor): 8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” He calls this the “royal law” (the law that is king over all the others) – it is the criteria Jesus gives as to whether any law of the Bible applies and how it should be applied. Why do we love the poor? The logic is simple: because that could have been us. And if that is the case, we have to ask ourselves, if we can place ourselves in their position, what kind of society, what kind of community, what kind of church would I hope to be there to help me? Whatever our answer is, much like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, we are bound deep down in our conscience to then go and do likewise.
Have We Forgotten the Poor?
Working in a soup kitchen in many ways caused me to reevaluate how we are responsible to others in society how we may have forgotten the poor.
Our society wants to shun the poor. There are all kinds of reasons for this. The biggest, I think, is fear and guilt. There is a simple disgust at looking at a dirty homeless person. We see them and are afraid because they could be dangerous, we tell ourselves. But as I said before, I think the real fear is that their lives are unthinkable to us. The thought of being homeless is so terrifying, and the fact that it could happen to us if we had been born into a situation without family, with a circle of support, with challenges that make housing difficult. That could have been us, and we can’t even think about that. That fact scares people deep down, and so, we have to rationalize their situation to make us feel better: They obviously made bad choices, we tell ourselves. Just as the would-be friends of Job find it easier to blame than to help, it is because we cannot face the truth that calamity could have happened to us. Job replies to his friends, “Now you too have proved to be of no help, for you see something dreadful and are afraid” (Job 6:21).
If we get past the fear, there is usually an unproductive sense of guilt. The guilt of seeing poverty is that intuitive sense of feeling obliged to help but turning a blind eye. We do this often when we see a panhandler begging at a street corner, and we pretend not to see them. Or we give them some small token of money, which is more about appeasing our guilt than actually taking steps to help them often. And what if we did try to help them? Many of us would be overwhelmed at the amount of care many require: housing, medical needs, counselling, education, job placement, etc. The poor are a lasting reminder of the impotence of our civilization, our abilities. Ironically, the homeless make us feel powerless.
Frankly, most cities then decide that they just need to segregate the poor from the rest of us. Take the instance of Orlando, Florida, where it is now illegal to be homeless. If you don’t have a home, cops will just drive you out to the middle of nowhere, dump the person there, and tell them don’t come back. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, it is illegal to give food to the poor on the streets. A 90-year old Christian man, Arnold Abbot, in 2014 refused to comply, and he went out to give out food and blankets. Cops arrested him, and he faced either a 500-dollar fine or up to 60 days in prison.
The government of Fort Lauderdale and Arnold Abbot illustrate two very different responses to poverty. One wants to reduce poverty by getting rid of the poor, the other by serving them. But we have to ask ourselves: Why take Arnold Abbot’s way? It can be uncomfortable, frustrating, even dangerous. And many of us know there is a strong likelihood that our attempts might not end with success. In a world that prizes autonomy, helping the poor is seen as too great an expense to oneself and even enabling those who refuse to “lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.” In other words, why should I give my hard-earned money and time to those that I think won’t help themselves?
To ask this leads me to conclude that I think to care for the poor is made possible by something like a religious conviction. I say “religious-like” not because all religious people care for the poor – they don’t – or that only religious people care for the poor – which is not the case either. I felt a great kinship of goodwill with the atheists I worked with, sadly a closer kinship than them than with my fellow Christians, who were hard-hearted. I say religious conviction than because the drive towards empathy and service, whether in a religious person or an atheist, is spurned by a conviction that cannot be reduced to the world as it is. If it was, apathy would take over. The poor are just there, and that is just the way the world is: Too bad, so sad. We learn that true loving actions, as C. S. Lewis argues in his book The Four Loves, are “other-worldly” in some sense. Why should I empathize with people I do not know? Why should I experience unnecessary heartache? Why should I give at great expense to myself, not just a feel-good charity as guilt-relief exercise, but to help others that may not even say “thank-you”? The choice to care, to empathize, to serve beyond what we are naturally predisposed to do, what is naturally advantageous to us, beyond what we culturally are obliged to do that has to be in some sense a religious decision: a choice to act in the world in a way that is different than the ways of the world typically run. It runs against the grain.
Yet, sadly, as I said, many Christians have found reasons, couched in religious language, to forget about the poor. The “prosperity Gospel” is very popular in many streams of Christianity, far more popular than what we typically realize. Its central tenet is that if God loves you, you will be blessed, and blessing means health and wealth. Corrupt preachers have capitalized on this where, for instance, in the case of Toronto based preacher at the “Prayer Palace,” the pastors there have manipulated their congregation into thinking they should earn exorbitant salaries, drive fancy cars, and own mansions since this is a sign of God’s blessing. Then the preachers state that if people want to be blessed like they are, they need to give money to the church (to God, but really to them) and trust that God will bless them. While that is manipulative enough, the implication is that if you are not financially well-off, then God does not favour you. This means the rich are loved by God, and the poor are forgotten.
Of course, many of us know that this way of thinking is wrong, and we would never go to a church where a minister owned several mansions, hopefully. Let’s just say if there was a Bethany Memorial Baptist Palace, I would not attend it. But we all know there are subtle ways we forget the poor in our midst. We fall into similar mentalities.
I remember speaking with a church leader. While he was an honest person, he sincerely believed God would never forsake anyone who believes in him, and so, what that meant for him was that if you did not have enough in your life, you just did not have enough faith. I remember saying to them, “But what about the passage that says, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…But woe to you who are rich, for you, have already received your comfort’ I remember him turning back to me scoffing, “Oh ya, where is that in the Bible?” And I said, “That is Jesus saying that in Luke chapter 6.”
I remember talking about our responsibility to the poor with a group of pastors, and I talked about what the Prophet Isaiah said: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7). I remember one pastor, not hearing that I was quoting the Prophet Isaiah, getting upset at me that I was promoting socialism. In his mind, that was obviously one of those Old Testament Scriptures that did not apply anymore. That struck me as a very convenient interpretation.
James, similarly, has to contend with congregations who are showing favouritism to the rich, and it sounds like they have created a few excuses for their apathy towards the poor. The example he gives is the treatment of people who look wealthy when they come to a church gathering. The rich are given places of honour. Meanwhile, those who are not being told to sit on the dirty floor. And from a worldly perspective, who’s to blame them? What church doesn’t want to woo some potentially generous tithers? Such wealth obviously means they would be good to serve on a management board or may even be deacon material, we tell ourselves in excitement.
I remember being told by one pastor who did church planting: don’t bother much with the poor of your area. They have way too many problems. They take way too much of your time, and in the end, they don’t have any money. You can’t build a church with people with no money, so let the poor be someone else’s problem.” Frankly, what he said explicitly many believe implicitly.
What is interesting about James is that he says that when we treat people differently based on their wealth, their social-economic status, we do something actually terrible: have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? He says. He calls this evil. He goes on to say this:
10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now, if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
A transgressor of the law? If you notice the way James is talking about the matter here, you will notice his rhetoric is subtle but severe. He talks about the neglect of the poor alongside those that commit adultery and particularly those who commit murder. Ouch. That hits hard.
Have we thought about it that way? I think most of us think of charity work as a kind of the cherry on top of what is required, something that is not expected, but if we do, that’s an extra jewel in our crowns in heaven. Many of us have inherited a kind of checklist spirituality, by which we measure whether we are okay with God. An old Baptist saying is, “I don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t chew, and I don’t date girls who do.” That is a bit silly sounding, but many of us have these: I know I am good with God because I don’t sleep around. I don’t use bad language, even at work. I don’t watch HBO. I don’t get wasted on the weekends. Whatever that is for you. We can set a simple bar for ourselves.
That is not how James sees it. If serving the poor, including the poor, is the way that is most in tune with Jesus’ law of love, the way of conscience and empathy, the way that most honestly admits to the fragility of our existence and why we are bound to others in life, then going against that, well James does not mince words: Its not just bad or inappropriate or rude, but evil, he says. He begins the passage by asking: My brothers and sisters, do you, with your acts of favouritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? This is a legitimate question for James.
When you allow God’s word to do its work in you, you wake up to our responsibilities to each other in ways most don’t want to think about. Have we forgotten the poor? The worst night I ever experienced at the Gathering Spot was a night of a deep freeze in January (not unlike what we felt this week). In front of the store where I would get groceries, I saw one indigenous fellow who regularly attended. He had told me previously that he and his sister had been abused in the residential school system. His pain from what happened there was so much that he lived with a constant hatred of God and everyone else for what happened. He could not stand to go to a shelter. It would cause his anxiety to explode, and he would get in a fight. “What are you going to do tonight in the cold?” I asked. “Same I do other cold nights,” he said. He panhandled enough money for a bottle of whiskey. As the night fell, he would down it and sleep behind a dumpster. He would drink to the point that his blood turned to anti-freeze in order to survive in the cold. Can you imagine living like that, drinking yourself half to death just to stay alive?
What is our responsibility as Christians as well as Canadians to right the wrongs of the residential schools? We might be quick to say, “Well, I have never used a racial slur, or thought racist thoughts, or intentionally did harm to an indigenous person.” James might push us further: Ya, but what if that was you?
As I thought about this man, that same night, we had an above-average amount of guests, so the food ran out. One man came in late out of the cold, and you could tell he was hungry. A young man had lost his apartment because he unexpectedly lost his job. We scrounged up something for him, not much. He told me that he had lost his apartment and had nowhere to go. I told him where some of the shelters were, but also, I suspected they would be full by now. He figured he would try anyway. We prayed together, and he left. I remember riding home on the bus back to my home in Bradford. I wanted to go with him, to be honest, but there was a cut-off for the last evening bus from the downtown back to Bradford (which was an hour and a half bus ride away). I could barely sleep that night. I worried about him, and I felt terrible, going to bed in my warm home.
In the morning, I read reports that 35 people were found frozen to death throughout the city. It did not make the papers since the city does not really want to know about this kind of thing. When a homeless person is found dead in an alleyway, no one cares. No one wants to be reminded that the tax breaks they got from the politician they elected were made possible because they cut funding throughout the city to programs that people needed to survive. No one wants to consider that if people are freezing to death in our city, maybe in some way it is our responsibility. The poor are our responsibility, and sadly, we have forgotten them.
So What Do We Do Now?
James says, in verse 12, So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
James hints that there is a way of obeying God, doing his will, following his way that is freeing, liberating, the law that brings liberty. Then he says that if we live without mercy, we will be judged accordingly. It is similar to what Jesus says about judging others: by your own standard, you will be judged. Or think of Jesus’ words that on the day of judgment, he will tell us, as you did to the least of these in this world, you did onto me. In other words, if you can live your life with a kind of comfort and apathy about those in need, God wants to prod us a bit, and said, what makes you think I won’t show you apathy then? The lord’s prayer says, Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. God is trying to say something here: If you really believe in God’s grace, forgiveness, and mercy, you have to show it. If you don’t, really saying that you don’t actually understand it.
We might be tempted to think that God is doing this to strong-arm us into being obedient, but the truth is that this is fundamentally a better way to live: the law of liberty, a rule or way that is liberating. When we show grace to others, when we are always ready to forgive, when we make room in our lives for those in need, putting others ahead of ourselves, while it is difficult, potentially dangerous, is fundamentally a better way to live. It is a way of living in clear conscience. It is living in the way that best appreciates that this is how God treats us.
Dwelling with the poor at the gathering spot also gave me some of the best memories that year. I watched people that had very little always be willing to give something, help in some way, or say a kind word. I saw some of the worst of human depravity, but also some of the best of human decency.
James remarks something: Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? I don’t think he has a naïve or too rosy view of the poor here. I remember meeting with a woman who had suffered from severe addiction her whole life long. I asked her, “What does your faith mean for you?” She said, “I know God loves me because he gave himself for me. I know I can’t get up in the morning without acknowledging his grace in my life. Without it, I can’t live.” I remember thinking, I am pretty sure I got out of bed and forgot to pray and got going on my daily grind of stuff. I was too busy that day to acknowledge my need for God when I got up. The thought occurred to me that I was the one, not her, that really needed to think harder about the nature of God’s kingdom. I had it in mind that I was there to help her, but I was the one blessed.
Christmas time was beautiful. Now my mother had died the previous year at Christmas time from cancer, so that season was something I was not looking forward to. I remember going into Christmas thinking the Grinch was really a misunderstood figure. However, having dinner – a feast actually that the kitchen manager, a frugal and stern but gracious Dutch lady named Marijke, made – was one of the best meals I had ever had. I tell you that lady could penny pitch and make the best meals with next to nothing. We ate, and we all got up and sang Christmas carols. Hearing a carol like “Joy to the World” sung by people that have nothing other than the simple thanks for a good meal and good company renewed my love of the season.
There is this wonderful permission to be yourself around people that have accepted they are imperfect. As I began to joke to people who couldn’t understand my work, I would say, “It is amazing how hanging out with mentally ill people each week keeps you sane.” I meant it as a joke, but it was true. “A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9).
Loving God, God of the oppressed, the poor, the outcast, reminds us that our lives are fragile. That where we are is made possible by so many privileges. Convict us in the various ways we want to forget these facts and forget those around us.
Do not let us sit and wait for needy people to just show up in our church. Stir us to see the ways we can go out and meet them. Give us eyes to see and ears to hear the ways people cry for help, yet often without words.
Give us the wisdom to serve, to have big hearts, to endure the heartache of the tragedies we see in people’s lives. Allow these all to bring us closer to the mystery of what you endured for us at the cross in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Preached November 21, 2021, at Brookfield Baptist Church for their 159th anniversary service.
Let me read to you a text of hope for our troubled times. It is a vision of Ezekiel’s from Ezekiel chapter 37:1-14:
37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. 11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’” (NIV)
God bless the reading of his word.
I remember my first day as a lead pastor. This was after several months of applying around, resume after resume, each church turning me down – they did not want to take on a doctoral student, they also wanted someone with more experience.
Life then was so uncertain back then. I was just beginning my dissertation for my doctorate at the University of Toronto. My contract as a coordinator of a drop-in center for those who faced homelessness and poverty in downtown Toronto had ended due to the funding cuts to social programs in Toronto. My wife and I just had our second child, Emerson, a few months prior. We had just bought a home and now were realizing we might have to sell it. My contract as an intern for church planting in another Baptist denomination had come to an unfortunate end: the denominational leaders found out that I was in favor of women in ministry, and for this Baptist denomination, such a belief was beyond the pale. I had a meeting with a denominational leader, a card-carrying fundamentalist, who gave me an ultimatum: he put on no uncertain terms that the belief that men lead (and are the only ones that can be pastors) and women submit – this conviction was for him and the denomination essential to the Gospel, and that meant for me that I had to either shut up or have my funding as a church planter cut. I decided I could not in good conscience continue. It was hard leaving the denomination that my grandfather was a founding pastor of. When you have to leave the church family you were raised in, it feels like you are leaving Christianity itself, since it is the only Christianity you know. When you are literally threatened and attacked by your church family, the one that raised you, attacked over the beliefs you feel are biblical, if you have ever had a similar interaction with some of your Christian friends, it can make you wonder, does the church have a future? If it does, is it a future with me in it?
So, in all the uncertainty, a Canadian Baptist church, the 120 year old First Baptist of Sudbury hired me. They wanted a young pastor. First Baptist Church of Sudbury was a little church four hours north of Toronto, a place I had only visited once when I was in high school in the winter, a place that gets down to minus 40 in the winter, and I wondered how any human being could live here. It was this church that voted to hire me.
All of that is to say, I remember walking into my office to see that the interim pastor had left a report on my desk. It was a church growth flow church, charting the birth of a church, the peak years of a church, and then qualities and stages that indicate decline, and finally twilight and death. There was a big red circle around the word death.
This was a church, as I found, that had experienced over a decade of turmoil to no fault of its own. Two pastors one after the other had really done a lot of damage to the church. One ran off with the wife of one of the deacons. The other was hired and did not tell the church he was going through a bitter divorce with his wife and then divided the church. I remember that summer the church attendance was less than a dozen people.
It was not a very encouraging first day as I reflected how we just moved my family 400 kilometers away to a small church, all of which were twice and sometimes three times my age. Does this church have a future? Does the church have a future?
This is a question I think many are asking especially in this time of the aftermath of the Pandemic. Financially the pandemic has rocked Canada: the Toronto Star has estimated that pandemic has costed Canadians 1.5 billion dollars of every day of the pandemic. For the United States, the total cost to date is estimated to be over 16 trillion dollars. People are worried whether there will be enough to go around.
Yet, it is the human cost that is most important. According to the most recent numbers on John Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, there has been 256 million reported cases globally and there has been 5.1 million deaths attributed to the virus. Canada has seen 29 000 deaths. We call that being fortunate, but it is really so, so tragic. Many of these individuals have been seniors in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. But make no mistake: this virus is unpredictably deadly. I heard that a classmate of mine a few months ago, a woman my age with a child, got the virus, went to bed, and did not wake up.
For many, it has been the emotional toll that people have felt the most: feelings of isolation, burn out, anxiety. Churches have felt this as their pastors have been over worked to put services online and adapt to new health standards. All our churches have felt distant from members of the community but also feeling obstructed from doing ministry in the wider community.
As we look out at a post-pandemic world, as it moves to endemic stage, while we are still facing waves and new variants, it feels like we are surveying the wreckage. It feels like we are the survivors of a battle.
In my reading of Scripture, recently I went through the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a prophet and a priest that proclaimed messages and visions from God about 600 years before Christ. Ezekiel watched a foreign empire, Babylon, come and destroy his home. The Jewish armies were decimated by a cruel and brutal military superpower. The people then were brought into exile. Ezekiel went with them where he served as a priest and teacher to a small expatriate community, living in exile.
Such hopelessness and insecurity can make our own situation seem so insignificant, but then again, we too are feeling a sense of dislocation, insecurity, and uncertainty, and when we come to Scripture, the Spirit of God animates these ancient words to say something to us today, something we need to hear.
It is in this context that Ezekiel has a vision of the aftermath of a battlefield, filled with corpses, dry bones, and it is a vision that is symbolic as it explains, but it names the spiritual reality that God’s people were in: a state of feeling defeated.
Yet, the spirit of God is not. God says to Ezekiel: Can these bones live? And Ezekiel replies in the most human way he can: “I don’t know. I don’t know the future. But you God do know.”
And he is given this vision: he sees the dry bones being raised up, the breath of God, the Spirit of life that animated all humanity and all living things in creation, this breath now is causing death to be reversed, a new creation.
God says of these bones that they are the house of Israel. They are God’s people who have said, “Our strength is gone, our hope feels lost. We feel cut off and separated.”
And God says to them, “I will restore you. I will bring you home. I will put my spirit in you and renew you.” God is saying this to us today, I believe.
It can feel like the church in Canada has lost a battle or just barely is scrapping by. So many of us have sent the past year stressed and anxious, our bones feel dried up, our hope feels lost.
And yet, the Spirit of God has not been defeated. God is still God, the Lord Almighty, the God of all possibilities, the God whose plans are always good, the God whose promises will not be thwarted.
Our God’s will and plan and promise is to bring salvation, forgiveness, healing, life, love, and liberation to all people – these have not been stopped for they cannot be stopped: God’s kingdom is still coming so that earth will one day be as it is in heaven.
And we know this definitely because this vision here is a prefigure of what happens to Jesus, God’s son, the messiah. For when the forces of darkness, of death and despair came against Jesus, Jesus gave himself up as a ransom to liberate us from these things, dying on a cross, a god-forsaken death. God became a cursed corpse. By this we know God is with us in our darkness moments. And in that time of hopelessness, in the time that it seems like the plan of God was truly foiled, that Jesus’ claims to being the messiah were disproven, on the third day the tomb was found empty; Jesus is risen from the grave by the Spirit.
As we celebrate where we have come today as a church, we must remember that we stand on the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are his body as the church, and the body of Christ, while it was bruised, beaten, and crucified, the Spirit raised this body to new life.
This is our hope for a time that has seen such death. This is our hope in a time that has seen such sadness. We have the hope of Jesus.
The church is founded on this truth, and we cannot forget this. We live because Jesus is Lord.
The same Spirit that raised Jesus is the same Spirit that came on the first disciples to begin the church at Pentecost. It is the same Spirit that moved the first Baptists in Nova Scotia, prophets is like Henry Alline, to speak God’s word boldly, to live God’s gospel courageously, even in the face of all that has gone wrong in this world. It is the same Spirit that moved that is alive with us today.
As we remember God’s faithfulness to our churches in the past, and ask the question what does the future have in store? Our question sounds very similar to what God said to Ezekiel, and our answer must be the same:
O Lord God, you know. We trust you and your way. You know because you are sovereign. You know because you are good. You know because you have made promises you keep, plans that will come true.
These are words I know I needed to hear when I first started pastoring. Because the fact is many of us have convinced ourselves that we can control the future, that we can predict it and change it by our power and skill. I thought that pastoring. Looking at that depressing church growth document all those years ago in my office, I thought to myself: I can change that. I thought I could save the church.
I became obsessed over the next few years of starting programs and fundraisers and advertisements. Many of these did not have much effect (at best people from other larger churches came to these programs, used them like a free service and continued attending their own churches), and after two years of it, I just found myself burnt out and wanting to quit.
It was in that moment that I realized I don’t know what the future of this church will be. Only God knows. But what I do know is that I must be faithful to live what God is calling the church to be.
The church was located in the town of Garson. The church relocated out there in the 70’s hoping that this new suburb would be the next up and coming neighborhood. The reality was the city zoned it to be where the poor of the city were sent: supplemented income housing was built on all sides of the church. Many of the stores had graffiti on it. You would very often see police cruisers making stops.
One day a guy called and wanted a ride to church. He lived in a one room apartment around the corner from me, and as I got to know him, he faced a lot of mental health challenges. He had attended other churches that frankly saw him as a burden and ignored him. Other churches wanted to grow the church by attracting easier, and I should say, richer sheep.
This was the person God had given us, our family of faith, so we did our best, and I soon found he had a lot of friends. I put out a sign in his building that if anyone needed a ride to the foodbank on a Tuesday afternoon, I would drive them to the other end of town and have coffee with them after.
Many would ask me, “Are you just being nice to me to get me to come to your church?” And I would say emphatically: “While I strongly believe that a community of faith and weekly worship is important to our spirituality, I will always be there to help you, even if you never set foot in our church.”
I realized in those experiences that if the church is to have a future, it will be by taking up our crosses in a new way. The church must die to self: it must lay to rest its obsession with money that causes it to see the poor as worthless; it must lay to rest its expectations of what a successful Christian life is, which causes so many to feel they are not worthy to be in the family of God: the mentally ill, those who face addictions, those whose love lives are messy and complicated, those who are in the sexual minority. The church must take up its cross in a new way, embracing the discomfort the Spirit is calling us into.
It was in those moments that I know I saw the church, what it can truly me, a place where th outcasts was welcomed, a family of misfits. Let’s face it: we all are seeing very pointed reminders of the failures of the church today: racism and residential schools, stories of bigotry and abuse, or just the stories of apathy and irrelevance where churches just don’t actually care about doing what is right or sharing God’s love.
One elderly lady in my church said to me, “Pastor, I don’t know what to do with some of these people.” And I said to her, “I get it, I don’t know how to handle some of these issues either, but at the end of the day, a lot of these individuals are people without parents. I know you know how to be that.” So, the ladies of our church started cooking meals and putting them in Tupperware containers to give out. We organized community meals for people in the common area of the apartment building. It was the old folks of the congregation that said, “We know we need to be open minded, because we know what happened when we weren’t.”
It was pastoring this little church that renewed my confidence in the church: the church that is not a building, but a community of disciples, imperfect but willing to bare one another’s burdens, living like a family, being family to those that have no family.
It is amazing what can happen when the church is ready to take up its cross.
And it must be said, if we want to see the reality of resurrection, the Spirit moving and breaking in and causing new life, it will only happen, when a church is ready take up the cross, to sacrifice all that it is and even can be.
I emphasize here “can be” because so often we go out on mission for the purpose of the “future of the church,” but that really means we just want to keep what is ours. And when we do that, we will ignore those who don’t matter to our budget, our building maintenance, our membership lists. We will be vulnerable to politicians that promise power to the church. We will make the church and its mission about us.
While the future offers no guarantees – I know I constantly worried: “Will we have enough money to pay the bills? Will we have to amalgamate with another church?” – the promise of God in this passage is that God will do wonderful things, surprising things, in the valleys of dry bones.
I had a bunch of stories I wanted to tell, but here is just one: In ministering in Sudbury, I came across a young man, who also lived in the low-income housing development.
Early twenties, a poor kid, as I got to know him, he had endured the worst in this world: terrible abuse, such that just to talk with him, he was deeply erratic. It did not take long in his presence to know his soul was in deep chaos: that lethal mix of hatred and hurt.
I would come by his apartment from time to time to check on him. He was on welfare, but there was a strong possibility that it would run out, so he was looking for a job. He was about the same height as me, so I gave him some of my dress clothes. We practiced interviews. He applied around all over the place. Each time, employers would just hear how he talked, how it was hard to hold down a conversation with him and go with someone else. Didn’t matter he was willing and able. As he applied here and there, the more downcast he got.
One day, I did rounds around the apartments asking if anyone needed a ride to the food bank. I would take them as per my Tuesday noontime routine. I knocked on his door, and he answered, a bit dishevelled. I figured he was just getting up. He decided to come along to the food bank that day, even though he did not need anything.
I turned to him in the car and gave him a Jesus Calling devotional. I had gotten a bulk order of these things, figuring this was an easy way for some of the people, who were not strong readers that I ministered to, could nevertheless hear an uplifting Scripture spoken over them on a daily basis.
While the one guy went in, this young man turned to me and said, Spencer, I was sitting in my room thinking I got nothing to live for. I have no peace in my life. I was ready to end it when you knocked at the door.
I prayed with him, and I suggested, let’s see what words of encouragement the devotional he had in his hand had to offer. Turns out that day, the topic was scriptures relating to finding peace in life.
He did a stint in the hospital. After he got out I met up with him again. He seemed to be in a bad state of mind. I learned that previous to me meeting him, he had committed a crime, which he was going to be sentenced for. The possibility was weighing heavily on him. I asked him about what he believed in, whether he trusted God’s love and forgiveness in all this.
He turned to me and said that he admitted his mind is so erratic, so faulty, he resolved at some point to just stop believing anything. He figured his brain is just so unreliable, there isn’t any point to believing in anything. He told me he felt ashamed about all the ideas that would get him worked up. So, one day he just decided he would stop believing in anything.
I tried to offer some words of encouragement, but I was taken back. How do you get someone to believe in Jesus, when they don’t even think they are capable of believing anything?
I went home that day particularly distraught. I remember praying, “God how can a person like that be reached? How could a person like that be discipled? God you’ve got to reach this person, but if the Gospel means anything, it has to mean something to a person like that. The Gospel is good news to everyone, especially a desperate, troubled young man, who needs hope in his life.”
My prayers for the next little while took on a tone of frustration and disappointment.
A little while later, I came by his apartment. I found him in the apartment’s communal kitchen. He turned to me. “Spencer, I was sitting in my apartment. I was ready to end it all. I just felt so worthless. But then he showed up.”
“Who showed up?” I asked. He just pointed upward. In that dark moment, he heard a distinct voice say to him, “Your life is worth something to me.”
“Spencer, I don’t know what I am, but I know I ain’t an atheist anymore.”
God surprised me that day. God surprises us most often when we are ready to be the Gospel for the broken and when we are willing to be broken for the Gospel.
It is a beautiful irony that church growth did not happen when I obsessed about growing the church. The church started growing when we resolved to be there for those in need in our communities even if it could cost us “the church” as we know it.
The church will only find itself when it is ready to die to self. It will only rise when it is willing to dwell in the valleys of dry bones.
As we celebrate today, Brookfield Baptist Church, where we have come from, where we are now, where we hope to go. Remember we are the body of Christ: We live in this world crucified and only in and through this, we can see moments of resurrection.
God of hope and new life, we praise you that you are faithful. You have been faithful through the years in this church, and so we trust you with our present and future.
Lord, we do not know what the future holds. And we have seen so much discouragement these days.
Lord, teach us in new ways to trust your Spirit. Inspire us in new ways to take up your cross.
Empty us into this world, so that we can be with those who need to hear about you.
Permit us to see moments of resurrection, moments of your kingdom come.
We pray longing for the salvation of all people, the restoration of all things.
These things we pray in your name. Amen.
When I got the email wondering if I would be up for speaking at Port Williams for thanksgiving, and I was told that Pastor Don would be away, it caused me to reminisce. This fall marks my fourth year here in Nova Scotia, moving from Sudbury, Ontario. It has been an eventful four years to say the least. Along the way, I am thankful for the friendship Don and Anita have extended to me. They were one of the first who called me up four years ago and said, “Hey you’re new to the area and so are we, come on over for dinner.” So, I am thankful for that gift of friendship.
Can I just say that it has been interesting to see Pastor Don climatize to being Canadian in real time? The culture shock has been a pleasant surprise, or at least that is what it seems like from his Facebook page. Now, I came from living in the hustle and bustle of Toronto, then pastoring in Sudbury where it was winter for a solid six months out of the year, but I think Don and I have both have had this feeling like Nova Scotia has been this refuge that we have both grown to love. Autumn in the valley is simply beautiful. Last weekend, my wife and our five boys – yes we have five boys (we had three and my wife really wanted to try for a girl and then we ended up having twin boys – three are with me today as my wife was also asked to play at Bethany Memorial to relieve their pianist) – but anyway last weekend we went hiking. We went to Noggins to picked apples and got terribly lost in their corn maze. I bought a caramel apple pie from there for later today.
We are so blessed. These are the words that ring in my mind this weekend, and I want to reflect more on what they mean today. I want to reflect on a text that I read this week with my son, Rowan, who we have been trying to read the Bible together every night. The passage, James 1:1-18, is about acknowledging God’s giving. I will read from the beginning of the book in chapter 1 for context, but I want to focus on the last verses.
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. 2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 9 Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10 and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away. 12 Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14 But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved. 17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. (NRSV)
James, who is very likely the brother of Jesus himself, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, one of pillar-leaders of the early church along with Peter and John and Paul, writes a letter to the Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman world to give them important advice about how to live wisely in light of the challenging times they face.
We are facing challenging times today, aren’t we (not that ours is the same)? It looks like they faced issues of division in the church, poverty and persecution, and to all of these, James recommends living out the character of Christ.
He begins this letter with advice on confronting the trials they face, but then he quickly addresses the rich and the poor. And then he makes a point of warning his congregations: “Don’t be deceived,” He says. Well…what are they deceived about? He says, “Make no mistake. Every good and perfect gift comes from God above, whose character does not change. But,” he says, “he has chosen us according to his purposes as first fruits.” If you read the passage quickly, it gives an impression like James is constantly segueing between several subjects, but they are actually all very connected.
People are facing trials where they are tempted to go another way than Jesus’ way. It sounds like staying on the right path will cost them, at least some of them, deeply, financially. Many are facing tough times. Yet others seem untouched by all this misfortune. And they are wondering, where is God, how is God acting in all this?
It kind of sounds like there are people in his congregations who believe God made them fall to temptation or that God brought calamity on them, meanwhile there are those who have made it through pretty good, and they are tempted to think God has done good to them more than others. Perhaps God makes some people rich, because he loves them more, and others poor, because he does not love them quite as much.
For five years I was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. This is a church about four hours north of Toronto. Sudbury was a cold place with very warm people. The church itself back in the late 70’s moved from its old building in the downtown to the area of Garson, which was a sub-urb of the city about ten minutes from the city centre.
The church moved out there thinking this would become the next up and coming affluent neighbourhood in the city. The reality was the opposite. The city built supplemented income housing there in an effort to move the problems of crime and poverty out of the downtown.
As I got to know my neighbourhood, I realized this was an area that struggled. A few moments really reiterated this to me. I remember one summer taking my kids to a playground behind our house. This playground overlooked on several sides a couple of different sub-divisions of the neighbourhood. There was ours, which was a group of semi-detached homes, then down the street were larger ones, a sub-division of newly built two story detached homes, but on the other side there were row homes and small apartment buildings, supplemented income housing and homes like that. My kids began playing with some of the other kids, and I joined in, playing tag. The one boy introduced himself. My son introduced himself pointed to our house. “We live just over there.” The boy turned and said, “Oh, you live there. My mom says that is where all the rich people live.”
I was stunned. My house was smaller than the house I was raised in. I always thought of our home as modest at best. But of course, that was my perspective, being raised in a middle-class family.
A part of me wanted to insist, “What? I am not rich! I work as a pastor! Pastors are not rich!” (Or if they are, let me just say, I have some questions).
I remember walking back home lost in thought. I felt conflicted. You see, I was raised in a fairly strict Dutch Baptist family. My dad was the son of a card-carrying fundamentalist Baptist pastor that came over from Holland. And there was a particular set of values instilled in me, many of them good, but they went like this:
Dutch people believe in hard work and that the life you live reflects that hard work.
A Dutch man is to provide for his family for this is the measure of being a man.
If you were poor, it was because you were lazy or not frugal with your money, pure and simple, and you needed to just man up and work.
To be a Christian is to be honest, have integrity, and to fulfill your obligations at work, church, and home.
If you do these things, these are the kind of things that God blesses.
God’s blessing means among other things, material provision, our daily bread and probably a good career with a pension.
God is sovereign, so God chooses what he wants to happen, and nothing happens that God did not choose. Somehow this strong sense of social mobility was married to this notion of God’s sovereignty, even though they actually don’t really go together that well.
These values have served me incredibly well, and I know as a father to five boys, I will teach them to be men one day that are honest and hardworking and of course to trust God. But when we stroll into the territory of God’s blessing, I never understood passages in the Bible like the one James just lists: “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.“
Well, that seems mean. What does James have against rich people? It is not their fault! That does not seem particularly wise given what the Proverbs say about hard work and everything else. Doesn’t God want us to plan and be frugal and save our money and work hard and through all of that enjoy the fruits of our labor? Those passages are in the Bible too, and I must say, I like those passages much more than this passage here.
But the reason for why James says what he says was illustrated to me one thanksgiving. As our church started doing outreach in the community. When I started pastoring, our church was that summer a dozen people, all easily twice my age. In some cases, three times my age. I worried about the future of the church, but I figured I can’t make this church grow, and I can’t attach young families to our church where there are churches with slick programs and staff in the area. So, I resolved to minister to those least fortunate in the community. We volunteered at food banks. I would drive people to the food bank and then take them out for coffee. I would deliver food to shut ins and we organized a community meal at one of these single-room apartment buildings. That meant over time a hand full of people started attending the church.
One person in particular was a man quite troubled. He faced a lot of mental health issues. He had no family. He lived in a one room apartment around the corner from me. I remember in church that thanksgiving Sunday remarking that I felt very blessed: a good home, good job, good family, health…I said I feel so blessed. Well, this person came up to me after the service. He, a young believer, although he was older than me, often asked those curious questions after the service. So, he came up to me, “Pastor, how do I become blessed like you? I wish God would bless me like that.”
As we talked, he shared with me that deep down, he worried maybe God did not love him all that much at all. Or at least not as much as God did for others. After all, God heals those he loves, and he has struggled with a severe mental illness his whole life. God provides for those he loves, and he could never find work, often he could barely leave his apartment due to his illness, and he struggled on disability payments that barely covered his rent let alone food for the month.
God blesses those he loves, and that implied for him, either he has done something wrong his whole life, his whole faith, or God just didn’t choose to love him as much as others.
My heart sank with those questions. I remember having a very pensive and reflective thanksgiving that year. My wife wondered why I was so quiet, lost in thought. I am always lost in thought by the way (that is an occupational hazard of being a professor), but this time more than usual.
I thought to myself, for instance, I was born able bodied. I didn’t have to be. I couldn’t control that. I was born able minded. I didn’t have to be. I was born into a loving household. I didn’t have to be. I was able to meet a person who has been an exacellent life-partner, my wife, where I know some people, some good people, that the person they married just was not the person they thought they were. We were able to have children, lots of kids (some days I am tempted to think too many kids). They are healthy boys.
It gave me pause, a pause that lasted through the day, of just how many opportunities I had received, that those, who were just as able, smart, and good, in many cases better, did not get. And yes, while there were good choices and hard work along the way, I felt overwhelmed by the fact that so much of the goodness of my life was not because of me, what I could choose and control.
That conversation fundamentally changed how I think about prayer, blessing, what it means to have good things in my life, and what my responsibility to others is.
This is what James is getting at: he says that all good things come from God. If you ever think God wills bad things, or shows favouritism, loving some more than others, that goes against the God who has an unchanging character of love, perfectly for every human being: every human being, without exception.
But we forget this. We have to find ways to adjust, shall we say, this truth in order justify why our lives are materially better than others, why we don’t have to feel bad about that fact, or more importantly, feel obliged to do something for those that have less than us, how we don’t have to do something as churches, as a society, about poverty, about mental health, or about systemic injustices.
That is when days like today, thanksgiving, we engage in that religious talk about being blessed or being thankful, and yet, if we ignore our responsibility to those less fortunate, that God loves all people with the same perfect longing to provide and lift all people into a place of flourishing, if we forget that, I am going to suggest to you we are not truly engaging in thanksgiving.
When we talk this way, thanksgiving ends up meaning something more like self-congratulations: I am thankful I worked hard; I am thankful I got good grades; I am thankful I made good career choices; I am thankful I did not marry someone who does not pull their weight; I am thankful I am such a good parent; I am thankful I have done so well.
This is a part of a mentality in our culture, a cultural myth of sorts that has a long history and endorsement in the church: the myth of the self-made person. You see our culture has this very strong insistence on the worth and power of the individual. This in many ways is a good thing. We believe people have inherent dignity and worth, individual freedom, conscience, and responsibility, but these insistences can have a down-side when made into an extreme: We can turn these values into the notion that all the good things in our lives are our doing. It is not because of privileges we were born into, opportunities we did not choose, all the various ways the starting line in the race of life was a bit further up for us than other people. This breeds a culture of entitlement where those that have less are effectively blamed for their misfortune.
Or we do something even worse: we think to ourselves that God wills this inequity to be the way things ought to be. We end up saying something, implicitly, truly terrible: we say I am thankful for the fact that God loves me a whole lot more than most of the people on this planet. I am thankful God wanted me to be privileged.
But that is not the pattern of Scripture. The deep contours of Scripture show that God chooses no one for ultimate ruin nor does God will evil or tragedy to anyone.
But what God does do is chooses, as James says, those who he will use to be the first fruits of an entire harvest of the goodness done to all people.
This is a pattern that begins in Father Abraham, who was blessed in order, the Book of Genesis says, to be a blessing, so that all the families of the world can be blessed through him.
It goes on to the Book of Exodus where God says he chose the Israelite slaves not because they were so much better or stronger or promising than any other nation, but because God favours the weak and the oppressed. God chooses the least of these in the world. God chooses to liberate them from bondage, not because he loves them and only them, but that through them, God says, they will be a kingdom of priests, firstborn of the family, as if all nations are God’s congregation, all our God’s family, but Israel is God’s paradigm and instrument of doing good to the rest inviting them in.
This continues on to the time of the prophets where, when God’s people grow haughty and disaster comes on them, Isaiah says God will uses a righteous remnant who will live in these difficult times self-sacrificially for the sake of the rest.
This all culminates in Jesus Christ, God himself who came in human form and chose himself to bear rejection itself at the cross, so that if anyone every questions, “Has God chosen me a sinner? Does God love me? Does God want what’s best for me?” All they must do is look at the cross and see the God that was willing to give of his very self for the sake of others, even those who meant him harm.
This is all so, so, so important to keep in mind in this time of a pandemic. We have not seen the disaster living here in Nova Scotia that many have elsewhere. We live in the safety of the Annapolis valley. While this past year was tough for me, teaching online and being stuck at home with my kids, I think my life just not been as bad as those who have faced unemployment, the loss of their business and livelihood, the impact of anxiety or depression.
I have seen how this terrible virus can hit. Some are not affected badly, others fatally. A college classmate of mine back in Ontario got covid, a person my age, went to bed with a cough and did not wake up. A person I know in Toronto got covid and he will now never breath again without a respirator.
Where does all this leave us: Do we pat ourselves on the back for having a government that responded well to the crisis when so many people did not choose where they live nor did they vote for the governments that are not acting responsible? Do we say God has protected us and God has blessed us, when the implication of that might sound like God has refused to protect others? We can very easily fall back into a thanksgiving that is actually self-congratulations and self-thanking. It is thanks-getting not thanks-giving.
Let me tell you the story of an inspiring person that illustrates the attitude we must have. His name is Charles Mully, born in 1949. He is a Kenyan business owner and philanthropist. At age 6, his parents abandoned him on the street. He spent years begging and getting by living on the street. He was able to be enrolled in school, and being exceptionally intelligent, succeeded. At age 16, he walked into a church and heard the Gospel, and he accepted the message of salvation. He did not have any money to go into higher education so, he packed up his things and walked 70 kilometers to Nairobi to find work. He did odd jobs until he eventually worked as a farm assistant and then for a construction company. He met his wife and they had eight kids together. During all this he saved enough money to buy his own truck and began his own trucking company. Within a short amount of time, he procured several other companies. Very quickly he became a multi-millionaire.
One day he was driving by in his car, and he saw a street boy, homeless, and he realized that there was no achievement he had that made God love him any more than those kids on the street. In fact, he concluded that the reason why God brought him from homelessness into such wealth was not for him to keep it but to give it away. And that is what he did. In 1989, he sold all his businesses and properties, opening up his homes to serve as shelters for the many street kids of Kenya. Since 1989, he and his family have helped 23 000 kids out of homelessness.
I tell you this story because If ever there was a self-made person, if ever there was a person that you could say, “That man earned every cent he owns,” if ever there was a person who might be tempted to think God has favoured me from rags to riches, it would be Charles Mully. And yet for him, his faith compelled him to believe that all the good things of his life were from a God that loves all people with that same perfect love. And with the goodness he has been given, with true thanksgiving, he realized he was to be the first fruits of a plan of God to help others with what he has been given.
What does that mean for us, for you and me, Port William Baptist Church? I hope you don’t take anything I have said to be some kind of kill joy on your festivities this weekend. God surely does want us to cherish the good things in our lives. Give thanks for your families with your families, enjoy turkey and pumpkin pie, play with kids and grandkids in the back yard. These are gifts from God that I know I don’t deserve.
But let us not stop there. It can’t stop there. For it to be true thanksgiving, it must be both giving thanks to God, but also giving thankfully to others.
If we acknowledge that all the goodness we have in our lives comes from God above, that God wills tragedy and misfortune to no one, what will we do to make sure we bring this goodness to others, those that don’t family, don’t have work, or don’t have health? How will we be fathers and mothers to the fatherless, the motherless, empowers to the oppressed, comforters to those in despair? How will we be first fruits in the way the Spirit of God might be call us of a harvest of blessing that is intended for all people?
Sermon preached on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, at Billtown Baptist Church, NS.
On Thursday, a new national holiday will be observed: the Day of Truth and Reconciliation, a day to remember indigenous peoples and the tragic events that happened to indigenous children in the residential schools.
In June of this year, while we were all trying to get by from the pandemic, we learned of an atrocity that, for many of us, made our problems seem so small. The unmarked graves containing 215 remains of indigenous children were found in Kamloops, BC. Others have been discovered.
While this shocked many of us, indigenous communities have been fighting for awareness of what took place in these schools for decades. To date, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified 3 200 remains. They listed the names on a long red banner, and it was revealed in October of last year. Here is a picture of it, and as you can see, it goes around the room and out. It is so large. That’s how many. If you saw this as I did, I remember falling back in my chair, overwhelmed with the magnitude of this massacre.
These schools operated for over 150 years, the final ones being shut down in the 1990s. That means it is estimated that about 150 000 indigenous children went through these schools. The survivors face terrible mental health difficulties from these experiences. They estimate that the death toll to be somewhere around 5 000 children. In other words, there are many more graves yet to be discovered.
There were 137 of these schools throughout Canada run by churches. Most were Roman Catholic, Anglican, and United, but there were Baptist ones as well.
How do we wrap our heads around the fact that our nation, our churches, participated in something so cruel? How do we process the fact that these schools were operating in plain sight for over a century? It was not a conspiracy of a few individuals. There were reports, visits by other clergy, politicians, and townspeople. People knew. It was an act of systemic racism and genocide because it took many people, many laws and administrators, a whole culture of prejudice to do it. What words can we muster to talk about something so unspeakable?
I am going to suggest to you that we need to talk about God’s wrath. We cannot help but think about God’s anger, for if we don’t, the possibility that God is okay with these things, people doing these things to others, the alternative is worse: it makes God look uncaring and apathetic.
Many of us, however, have a toxic understanding of God’s wrath inherited from our fundamentalist upbringings. I am going to suggest to you that if we think rightly about the figures of hell and the fact God’s wrath actually flows from God’s love, we have a way of grasping this formidable failure of Christian morality. And yet, there is hope; there is hope for redemption and reconciliation.
In order to do that, I am going to read a text of bitter medicine. It comes from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah 7:1-11, 17-20, 30-34 (abridged for time):
7 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”
5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord…
17 Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? 18 The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger. 19 Is it I whom they provoke? says the Lord. Is it not themselves, to their own hurt? 20 Therefore thus says the Lord God: My anger and my wrath shall be poured out on this place, on human beings and animals, on the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched…
30 For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. 31 And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. 32 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. 33 The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. 34 And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.
What I have read to you is one of the most important judgment passages in the whole Bible. It is Jeremiah’s judgment sermon on Jerusalem that he delivers in the temple.
Jeremiah is called the “weeping prophet” because he was called by God to give the people the worst news in the whole Old Testament: Because of the sins of the people, Jerusalem will fall.
What could have led them to that point?
Jeremiah, in this temple sermon, says why. The people have become so lax in their walk with God that they turned to idols: the gods Baal, Molech, and Ishtar, whose title was the queen of heaven and was celebrated with ceremonial cakes that Jeremiah mentions.
Idolatry in the ancient world was really an attempt to barter with the gods, to get power and prosperity out of them, forgetting God is the only true God.
The way of God is a sharp rebuke of this: God is already on our side; we now just need to follow his way if we want good things in our lives because the right way is the best way. Goodness begets goodness, and God’s justice is good for everyone. We can’t manipulate God out of doing the right thing. We can’t butter him up with long prayers or church services. God simply says, repent and do good.
Justice is always hard work, especially compared to idols that offer a seductive bargain: if you give this to Baal or Molech, then you will be blessed without having to be a blessing to others. It sounds so much easier.
But the allure of idolatry is fatal: if you are trying to convince false gods of our delusions to do good to you, what is enough? Do you sacrifice more crops? Do you sacrifice more animals, even the ones you need to make it through till next harvest? Do you slash your body and bleed in the act of devotion like the prophets of Baal did in the time of Elijah? Or do you go even further and sacrifice the very thing, the very person you place hope for the future in, your own child, whom you love and care for?
This is what the people did. The idolatrous religions of Canaan demanded you sacrifice your child in the flames. With the growing worry of a new superpower in the east, the Babylonians, the Jews, after they prayed in the temple, took their children secretly outside the city to the valley. It is here, in the valley of Topheth, the valley of Hinnom, that the people did something unthinkable, a crime so terrible, God calls it an abomination. And he says that if the people tolerate the sacrifice of children in the flames, Jerusalem will have an ironically similar fate. Jerusalem will burn.
The people responded mocking Jeremiah: “We are God’s people. Jerusalem is where the temple is. That will never happen. God is on our side. We’re safe.”
The king, Zedekiah, ignores Jeremiah, and in his arrogance, breaks his alliance with Babylon, siding with Egypt, thinking God would protect him. After Jeremiah warns the king not to do this, God’s judgment was simply God saying, “Alright, have it your way.” The same callous hearts that sacrificed children was the same that sealed Jerusalem’s fate. Sin is its own punishment.
The brutal armies of Babylon came and laid siege. As the defences broke, the city was burned, and the people were pulled out of their homes, tortured, and killed. The corpses were set ablaze and left smouldering in the valley.
Jeremiah’s prophecy stated that there would be so much carrion and bitumen produced by the fire that he calls it a permanent, unquenchable fire.
In fact, writers like Philo and Josephus 600 years later speak about how the effects of the flames were still visible in the valley. The scorched soil, Philo says, permanently had sulphur in it, a lasting reminder of the inescapable inferno.
1. Places Reveal
In indigenous spirituality, their culture is not a written culture but an oral culture. For them, places are revelatory, for the land holds memory; the land tells a story, stories that are told and retold down through the generations. In that regard, their culture is closer to ancient Israel than ours, and perhaps we can understand our Bible better if we are willing to learn from them that places reveal things.
When my family and I were on vacation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, we stayed at cottages owned by an indigenous family in the unceded village of Wikwemikong. Each day we would explore a different part of the island. It has beautiful beaches, breathtaking trails, waterfalls, as well as villages with little cafés and shops. One day we drove into Wikwemikong. We were looking for a hiking trail, and as we drove just outside the village, there stood these eerie ruins.
This was the site of one of the residential schools. This was the old building of the Wikwemikong Residential school that operated from 1840 to 1963.
I read an account of these schools by a woman named Ida Embry. She tells of how every fall she would be forced to go to this school, her and her sister. The children were beaten severely with a thick leather strap for things such as simple as trying to talk to another in their native language. The children were referred to by number, not name. The curriculum openly taught them to despise their parents in an attempt to rid them of indigenous thinking.
Why did these schools exist? The first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. MacDonald, was one of the first initiators of the schools and said the schools needed to cut off contact between the child and their family in order to get rid of the “savage” in them. He believed this was his Christian duty to Christianize the world. These actions are a part of a long history of Christian imperialism and colonialism, where Christians felt it was their responsibility to take indigenous land from them and impose a Christian order onto their society no matter the cost. Put another way: it did not matter the sacrifice.
The people of Jeremiah’s time sacrificed children in the flames of the valley of Topheth to idols in order to gain divine favour. I am going to suggest to you that Canadian society has engaged in its own child sacrifice. Only the children were not Canadian children, nor was the land ours to do it on.
But they were sacrificed to idols. These were sacrifices to the idols of power, empire and colonization, cultural superiority and racism, idols that led Christians to believe their faith automatically made them the good no matter what they did, and that the mission of the Gospel could be accomplished by doing very things Jesus was categorically against.
Part of me wondered, why didn’t they level this evil place to the ground? But, this place stood as a reminder. Places reveal if we listen.
I have known a few survivors of these schools. I got to know them in Toronto, where I was the coordinator of a soup kitchen, as well as in Sudbury, where I pastored for five years.
The stories these children of God have told me have kept me up at night. The crimes of these schools are so terrible we don’t even want to think about them. They are so jarring; they are an existential threat to who we think we are as Christians and Canadians, what we believe about ourselves, and our responsibility to each other.
Are Christians always the good guys of history? No, not always. Is it possible that Christians can use the Bible and their beliefs to motivate horrific acts of hate? Yes, we have.
I am going to suggest to you, however, that if we don’t dwell in these painful places, repent, and learn what is necessary to rectify these injustices, we will never display a faithful witness in Canada fully. But more than that, we will never learn to love in a way God wants us to, to love the stranger as ourselves, to love the victims of our foolish beliefs. The God of Scripture loves the forgotten of this world and us also too much to let us get away with this.
We forgot about those unmarked graves. God did not. Those schools, those graves, are our Topheth. Putting it that way is certainly startling, but we must understand something else:
2. God’s Anger Intends to Heal
I apologize if you came this morning with the expectation of a cheerful sermon, but let’s think about these things more today because I have realized that when we understand God’s anger correctly, God is trying to heal us, not hurt us.
What is Topheth? It has many names in the Bible: the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna. Here it is called Topheth. It is a valley that stretches outside the city down to the Dead Sea, which also had a nickname that is a part of this land of judgment: the Lake of Fire. Perhaps you recognize that one from the Book of Revelation.
As I said, the effects of these moments of judgments on Jerusalem linger to this day, and that is why the fire was called the “unquenchable flame” or the “eternal fire.” When we understand the geographic figure of Topheth, of the valley of Gehenna, the Lake of Fire, we also understand what God is doing a bit better with what Christians have called hell.
The word, “hell,” is a European term that does not do a very good job at translating nearly a dozen places of judgment in the Bible. The doctrine of hell has been really one of the most misunderstood and abused ideas in the church. I will suggest to you it is because we have forgotten that it comes out of this history of the land.
I remember as a boy coming home from church being shaken by a sermon a pastor preached that if you don’t stay on the straight and narrow path, I will go to hell for eternity. I remember crying that night, terrified that I just would not be good enough, terrified of the thought friends and family or anyone could be trapped there.
Maybe you have had similar experiences. Perhaps you are like many modern Christians that just choose to ignore hell. Some of us are content to say, God is love, and therefore God never gets angry, and when we come to a passage of the Bible that says differently, we more or less just skip it and go on our merry way.
Many of us are content to think of hell as a place under the ground ruled by cartoonish devils dressed in red and with horns and pitchforks. It looks a lot more like European mythology than Hebrew memory. Many of us modern people are content to think of this version of hell in the same way we think of unicorns or leprechauns.
I did this for a time, but I just could not get around how Jesus uses this language. Jesus uses this figure of Topheth and Gehenna to warn people.
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that when we refuse to reconcile with others, we are in danger of going into Gehenna.
Jesus also says that when we refuse to deal with sin, it would be better to cut off our arms or eyes that cause us to stumble than have our whole bodies go into the unquenchable fire (that’s language from Jeremiah’s Topheth).
The fact that these scriptures exist and are even statements of Jesus breaks through our assumptions about what love is and what judgment means. Love is not about turning a blind eye to how we harm others, but neither is judgment about God giving up hope on us.
I never understood why Jesus, who has died for the sins of the whole world, who is perfect and has self-sacrificial love towards sinners, who reflects the heart of God, who Paul tells us, “desires all people to be saved” – I could never understand why Jesus gives these warnings. Not sweet, gentle, never hurt a fly, Jesus?
Then I became a father. As you already know, Meagan and I have five very busy boys. Being a dad is really the greatest privilege and responsibility one can really have. It is your job to do what is best for them and try to stir them towards the best future. But we all know we can’t control our kids, and sometimes our kids make terrible decisions. Sometimes this fact is exasperating, and it makes us, parents, angry. Angry because we love them so much. I can tell you the things that make me the angriest as a parent is when my kids hurt each other and don’t care. It is in those moments, as parents, we plead for our kids to stop. We word our warnings in the strongest possible terms in some hope our kids will take the consequences of their actions seriously.
One time my one son was about to hit their brother, and I said, “You do that, and you are dead meat.”
Another time they were really rude to one another, and I said, “You keep acting like this, and I am just going to take away TV forever.”
Have you ever said anything like that to your child? These are called hyperboles. A hyperbole is a statement purposely worded so strong it will grab the other person’s attention. Jesus uses hyperboles all the time. God’s wrath is his outcry so loud and so strong that God hopes it will break through our stubbornness and apathy.
Let me suggest to you that the images of hell work something like this. What seems to be happening here is that these memories from Jeremiah’s day, of fire, permeant, and unavoidable destruction, become pictures of the end, and God uses these to warn the people about the course they are on.
He does this, sadly, because we so often use heaven and salvation as a big cop-out. We tell ourselves that God loves us so much he will fix all that when we get to heaven. I don’t have to do what is right; God forgives me; I’m good. When that happens, God, like in the Book of Revelations, holds up this moment of the valley of Topheth (which in that book is called the lake of fire) and says, one way or another, you will have to deal with this. I love you too much to just let you avoid it. If you don’t deal with this evil, this sickness in our soul, what makes you think you can participate in the fullness of eternal life I have for you?
3. But Hope is Real
God’s judgment is often those moments God steps back and allows us to feel and see the consequences of our decisions. When we fixate on these moments, however, we are tempted to believe God gives up hope on us, that God has chosen some to be saved and others not, or that God does not actually love all people and want to save them. But the prophet Jeremiah says this in his book, Lamentations, chapter 3:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness…
31 For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
33 For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone.
Notice that Jeremiah warns the people with the figures of unquenchable fire but also comforts them, saying God’s love never fails, and ultimately God rejects no one. No one is cast off by the Lord forever. It even says that when he does bring punishment, he does so reluctantly, unwillingly. The prophet Ezekiel says God takes no pleasure in punishment. The prophet Isaiah actually depicts God as weeping as he judges the people, feeling their pain. That sounds a lot more like a loving father trying with everything he’s got to turn his children from hurting themselves and each other towards something better.
The images of Topheth, Gehenna, and the Lake of Fire are God mirroring our brutality back at us. But make no mistake, God is not brutal or pleased with torture, nor does he give up hope in us or ever stop loving us. Isaiah depicts God’s judgment fire like it is the fire that purifies polluted ore into precious metal. Malachi imagines the fire judgment of God burning the sickness of sin away like a strong soap cleansing infection.
We often fixate on these dire warnings, but these warnings must always be coupled with the promises of restoration: We can’t understand redemption without both.
Jesus uses these punishment images of Gehenna, but we must never forget that Jesus went on then and accepted Gehenna’s punishment on our behalf.
With these warnings, how do we know there is hope for us with these atrocities in Canada’s past? We can have confidence because God in Jesus Christ was the child of God sacrificed for our sin. He was deemed expendable by the religious authorities, who wanted to keep their power. He was arrested, taken, beaten, and brought outside the city, to a place in the valley of Topheth, a place called Golgotha, the place of the skull, the place of death.
It is there that God counted the murder of his son as a sacrifice for the sins of those murdering him. He died praying for forgiveness for the very people who killed him.
If we have any doubt that God loves sinners, even when we have done the very worst of things, we can look at Jesus and know, he has gladly taken the hells we have made, the ones we are trapped in, and he chooses to bear them on the cross.
But that does not mean we get off the hook for the wrongs done in our world, in our history, and in our society. It does something different. It says there is hope that we can overcome them. The God of second chances forgives us and is now giving us opportunities to make it right, to learn and to repent, to heal and to restore: others and ourselves.
If there is no darkness that cannot be overcome by resurrection light, there is no wrong of the past that cannot be amended with God’s forgiving, reconciling future. But God gives us a choice: confront the hells we have made, unmake them with God’s gracious help, or the hells we have made for others will become our own.
But there is always hope because our God is a God of hope, a God that was pierced with the nails of hopelessness itself on the cross so that all the graves that Death and Sin have scarred God’s earth with might one day be emptied into Jesus’ eternal life.
Jeremiah reflects on the valley of Topheth later in his book, in the light of God’s promises to one day save his people, give them a new covenant, and place the law of love in their hearts, renewing them, and he says this in Jeremiah 31: 38-40:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when the city shall be rebuilt for the Lord… The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes… shall be holy to the Lord.”
One day, these places of brutality and judgment will be healed and holy. The places of our greatest failures can be sites of forgiveness.
Let me suggest to you that if these graves of the residential schools are Canada’s Topheth, the hells we have made, it is a place of warning if we forget what happened there. But it will also be a place of hope if we remember the stories these places tell. It will be where we must look for how to repent fully, authentically, where God is sending us to carry out the work of reconciliation, where we as the church in Canada will find a new sense of Christ’s hope, a hope he has for us all.
If we treat these graves of these precious children as holy, letting their family’s laments be our laments, their battles for justice be our battles too, letting go of the idols of power and self-preservation, the arrogance that the face of Christ can only be found in faces that look like ours, these mentalities that centuries of Christians have held on to before us, to our own determent and destruction, if we do this – if we do this, God promises we will see glimpses of nothing short of heaven on earth, holy ground, the inbreaking of what Peter called the hope of the restoration of all things.
So, Phase Five of the reopening plan in Nova Scotia has been delayed until October. I don’t know about you, but when I read that, while I think it is the right decision, I just groaned with that sound a drain makes when I try to pour soup down it: ugh. When will this be over?
Believe it or not, the people in Zachariah’s day were asking a similar question: When will the end come?
Zechariah is a prophet that writes at the time of the return from exile (this is 520 years before Jesus, in case you are wondering), but we need a bit more background to understand what is being said in our passage today before I read it. You see, the nation of Israel after King David and his son, King Solomon, split into two halves: The Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom, and this was due to the idolatry of King Solomon and the foolishness of his son, Rehoboam. While the Southern kingdom continued on for about two hundred more years, it was defeated by the Babylonians. Jerusalem was burned and levelled, and its people were carried off into exile in Babylon.
This destruction was prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah also prophesied that God would restore Israel after the exile. He says,
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (Jeremiah 29:10-11)
How many of us have had that Scripture read lately? We like that part of Jeremiah, don’t we?
After 70 years, God would fulfill his promises for Israel. These promises include God bringing about the kingdom of God. If you are already doing the math and thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute, Jesus came 520 years later,” hold that thought.
So, when the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians, and the Persian kings ordered the return of the Jewish exiles back to their home, the Jews got back, and they started rebuilding, hoping for the imminent coming of God’s kingdom. They did not want the past to repeat itself, so they did the good religious thing, and they started fasting regularly. But beneath the piety, they had not actually changed.
God sends Zachariah, and Zachariah tells the people he has had visions in dreams. Chapters 1-6 record them, eight in total, each one perplexing and fantastic in its symbolism, and the first four and last four seem to mirror each other.
Zachariah dreams of four powerful angelic horsemen returning to Jerusalem, but then in his eighth dream, they are going out on patrol on standby. What is happening there?
He dreams of the horns of the oppressive nations being dismantled. But then he dreams of a woman being carried off in a led basket by angels to Babylon, where a permanent dwelling awaits her.
He dreams of measuring a new Jerusalem, where God dwells and protects his people. But then he dreams of a flying scroll going out into the land and finding anyone who has dealt with another falsely and cursing them.
He dreams of the high priest of his day, a man named Joshua, being accused in heaven by the Adversary, and God coming to his defense, taking his filthy, soiled clothes, and giving him a beautiful new priestly robe to serve the people.
Then he dreams of a golden lamp stand with a bowl with seven lamps standing beside olive trees. This, an angel explains, is the governor Zerubbabel. This is what he can be for his people if he trusts not his own strength but trusts in the Spirit.
Reading these, one cannot help but ask: When is this going to happen? Did it already happen or is it yet to happen? How are they going to happen? It does not exactly fit into a neat timeline (more on that in just a minute). Then the dreams close with God saying something strange in Chapter 6:15: “This will happen if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord.”
If? That’s weird. That can’t be right. The future is set and determined. The translator probably got that waw wrong. Or did they? Well, this brings us to our text today:
7 In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, which is Chislev. 2 Now the people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-melech and their men, to entreat the favour of the Lord, 3 and to ask the priests of the house of the Lord of hosts and the prophets, “Should I mourn and practice abstinence in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?” 4 Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me: 5 Say to all the people of the land and the priests: When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? 6 And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink only for yourselves? 7 Were not these the words that the Lord proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity, along with the towns around it, and when the Negeb and the Shephelah were inhabited? 8 The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying: 9 Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; 10 do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. 11 But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. 12 They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts. 13 Just as, when I called, they would not hear, so, when they called, I would not hear, says the Lord of hosts, 14 and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus, the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and a pleasant land was made desolate. (Zechariah 7:1-14, NRSV)
1. We want to know when all this will be over.
So…After the book recounts these dreams, it says that a delegation comes to Zechariah, and they say, “Hey, it’s been 70 years of exile since Jeremiah said God would come and restore us and fulfill all his promises. The clock is ticking. We are back, but life is terrible!” Let’s just say it was worse than a life of zoom calls and mask-wearing. So they say, “When is God going to come? When and how are all these dreams going to take place? When is God’s kingdom going to be here?”
Jeremiah’s prophecy looms in the background, and so the prophet brings it up. They want to know, when is it all going to end? When is a golden age going to dawn? You might say that they want to know if they are living in the end times.
I grew up in a religious tradition that was almost singularly obsessed with this question of the end times. As a person that has always loved reading, in my early years, I read book after book on predictions for the end times. As a young person, I felt deep down that things were not the way they were supposed to be. The world was becoming a darker place, not better, and when you read through a book like the Book of Revelation, it is very easy to draw the conclusion that the end is certainly near.
On Dec. 31st, 1999, my family was vacationing in Florida at my Grandparents’ condo over Christmas. Everyone was worked up about Y2K. Could this be the end? Will there be a mass computer failure, resetting civilization? Will the armies of the middle east rise up against the Western powers like what we saw in the Gulf war? Will the European Union become the new Babylon? Some of the preachers I read said it would. It’s 2000 years from the life of Christ. It makes sense. Two thousand years from Abraham to Jesus, the beginning of the covenant, so logically 2000 years from Jesus to the second coming.
I remember asking my dad about this, and part of him was skeptical. The other part was scared and felt anxious.
We watched the countdown: 3, 2, 1, Happy New Year! The ball dropped in New York, and people sang silly Irish songs. And as people out in the pool house of the condo ran around blowing their horns and noisemakers, my dad and I looked at the TV screen: reports came in that everything was fine. Nothing happened.
The end did not come.
I wish I could tell you that I learned a lot from that experience, but through high school, I really just went on to another prediction, figuring that the Y2K prediction was the right approach with the wrong conclusion.
Another event happened in my young adult life: 9/11. I watched from the big TV in the corner of our classroom in high school the planes flying into the World Trade Centre Towers. Then the war on terror was launched, then the Iraq war. The books I read suggested that these are the real prophesied enemies, Gog and Magog, and now, not Y2K, was the real beginning of the end. It felt like it.
But already, as a young person, this approach became dissatisfying to me, and perhaps you have felt this too (if you have any clue about what I am talking about). It seemed like those most certain that this politician or that terrorist attack was clearly this man on a horse in the Book of Revelation or that seal or bowl or trumpet or beast – whatever it was – it seemed that these preachers had been making these predictions for decades.
Protestant Christians have been habitually predicting the end since Martin Luther, who was convinced that the beasts in Revelation were Roman Catholicism. For 500 years, Christians have been treating apocalyptic literature as a code to crack and that we are now living in the definitive age that has provided the cipher, all to be proven wrong time and time again. Anna said last week: We have been living in the end times for 2000 years.
A few months ago, I was driving to work. I took a different way than I normally do. As I drove, I admired the farms and trees and all the beauty of the Annapolis Valley. Of course, I passed by churches. One church in particular (which will remain nameless) struck me. It had a sign on the front. It was a quotation from the Book of Revelation. It indicated that COVID-19 is one of the plagues from the Book of Revelation, revealing that we are in the definitive end times. Oh, and by the way, service is online at 10; all welcome.
A piece of me really wanted to deface that sign. Adorn a ski mask and spray paint something on that sign in the middle of the night. I don’t know what I would spray paint it with. Maybe Matt. 25:13: “You don’t know the time or hour!” I don’t know. I decided that probably was not the best idea.
I was tempted to call that church up and lecture them about how you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. I can’t imagine that going well.
But the other part of me had to say: Aside from the sign being in bad taste, it is a question people are asking: Is the world ending? Cause it kinda feels like it is. If not, when will it end? How will it end?
So, to give these folk some credit, all our hearts feel the same thing: the foundations of our world are shaking, and our social fabric is tearing, and that has led so many of us to pray: How long, O Lord? When will your promises be fulfilled? When will your kingdom come and will be done? Because our world today feels like it is on the precipice to oblivion.
2. What does the end reveal about us now?
As I reflect on it, that sign probably revealed just as much about me as it did about that church. Apparently, I have tendencies towards vandalism, and I get really bothered by other people’s bad theology (It is an occupational hazard).
Something similar, however, is true of the visions of Zechariah.
An apocalypse is an unveiling, a revealing, that is what the word in Greek means, but it is not God giving believers a spoiler video clip of the conclusion of his own movie before the movie comes out.
It is prophetic poetry that uses fantastic and frightening symbols: of fire and flying scrolls, beasts and bowls of wrath, angels and dragons – and if we read it as literal, something will happen exactly like this or that, or we dismiss it as vague mythology of a by-gone era, something modern science with its laws of the conservation of energy has disproven, we miss that these figures are trying to unveil something in us, something in front of us.
Books like Zechariah or Revelation are not maps to the future. They work more like postcards and compasses because we so often lose our way on the journey of faith.
Sometimes we are tempted to go our own way, take history into our hands, and think that now we can make God’s kingdom come here. All we need to do is lie here, cheat there, or kill those getting in the way.
Other times we are tempted to be so certain Jesus is coming we sit back and do nothing and watch idly as the world becomes a darker place as we wait to escape it. We think the end is about fleeing earth to get to heaven, rather than living a way on earth as it is in heaven.
Other times we fall to despair and say God isn’t coming, there is no hope, and we recede into ourselves, caring only about our little slice of the world we can control, and we try to distract ourselves with life’s few fleeting moments of pleasure and peace.
Which have you been most tempted to do during this pandemic? Have you spent the pandemic angry at others? Or just waiting for it all to be over because you’re just done? Or have you just stopped caring?
These visions give us something more like a collage of pictures and mirrors: pictures that point to God’s end for all things, yes, but also mirrors that reflect these figures on ourselves, allowing us to see what is going on in our selves at a particular time so that we can get back on the right path to God’s end.
These are the things these visions are trying to truly unveil. Notice the move Zechariah makes, and it is a move that Jesus makes as well when the disciples ask him about the end in Acts 1. The people ask: when is it going to end? Zechariah responds with a challenge:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”
3. The End is an Invitation
Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist pastor and theologian, once said, “It is for us to see the Kingdom of God as always coming, always pressing in on the present, always big with possibility, and always inviting immediate action.”
We want God to come. But then God opens a door and says: ok, step through. The future is an invitation, the future is a choice, and it is being presented to us every moment of every day. In this way, we are living in the end.
Embrace God’s future, live in line with the restoration of all things, or hold on to your past and the ways of this world and live in line with the road that leads to Gehenna’s destruction. The choice is before us, and it is a call we so often ignore.
We want to know what is true in this world, seeing it as it truly is, but we cling to easy answers and protect ourselves with lies.
We want a world of justice, but we cling to our privilege and complain about the sacrifice it calls for to set right what has gone wrong.
We want a world of love, but we don’t want to forgive or empathize with those we disagree with.
We ask God when will all this be pandemic stuff be over? When are you going to bless us and fulfill your promises?
God replies: Be honest; start being kind to one another; stop oppressing the marginalized of society; stop hating others. It is simple, but we keep refusing to listen.
During this pandemic, have we learned just how important it is, to be honest, to pursue sound truth and follow good common sense?
Have we learned through this pandemic just how interconnected we all are, just how much our actions affect those around us? That our health is connected to the health of others, that we are only as protected as those least protected.
Have we learned how we are connected to the earth and to each other and how the only way we can succeed as a society is by using our rights and resources to lift each other up?
Have we learned to be kind to those with whom we disagree? Have we learned that people have more worth in them than their opinions and that no opinion can make them worth any less?
Have we learned to care more about the vulnerable of society: our seniors, those that live in long-term care facilities, front-line and minimum wage workers, those who face eviction, homelessness, unemployment, mental illness, and disability, those that face hardship through no fault of their own?
Have we learned that money cannot dictate morality? Have we learned the real thing that has kept society together has been individuals coming together and giving their time and service to the common good?
If we have not learned these things, this might sound apocalyptic, but will society survive another pandemic? Can we even survive the next few years or even months?
When will all this be over? Scripture flips this question around on us and simply asks: What will you choose now?
But the answer to that is predictably dim and disappointing. Zachariah says that the people refused to listen, and here we are 2500 years later, and we still don’t want to listen. Have we learned that much from the pandemic about how to live in the way God wants us? I don’t think we have.
And so, Zachariah, like many of the other prophets, calls us to repentance and justice, and he offers us words of warning and even wrath, but then also ends with hope, hope that does not depend on us, although it constantly invites us into it.
He proclaims in chapter 9: “Rejoice O Daughter Zion, your king will come to you. Triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” Then God says, “Because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free… I will restore you.”
It is the hope that the God that made this world and has spoken promises through prophets has come into the world in Jesus Christ, his Son. God became a man, and this man died on a cross because of our failure to embrace goodness and truth when God has proclaimed it. But the forces of death, disobedience, destruction, and despair did not have the final say.
In this, we trust and hope today, despite our own selfishness and stubbornness, that God desires the resurrection for everyone and everything so that the force that emptied the tomb will fill every corner of this world, every heart and mind, beginning with us.
And so, we ask: When will all this end? The church knows it will and simply prays: Come, Lord Jesus Come. We are ready to step into your kingdom!
Lord, God, Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end, you are Lord of history because you have taken on the darkness of history and bore it in your very flesh, then you rose from the dead into a future of hope, forgiveness, and joy.
Lord, we long for this pandemic to end. But may this be the end of our selfishness and hatred; put an end to our deceit and ignorance; may this be the final day we tolerate injustice and division.
Let a dawn of resurrection righteousness shine in our hearts, in our relationships, and our communities. May we see something new among us, in us, and through us, by the power of your Spirit.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.
Acadia Divinity College, Simpson Lecture Prayer Breakfast, at Manning Memorial Chapel
Tuesday, February 12, 2019.
Steve McMullin has invited me to offer thoughts for this years prayer breakfast. He told me to keep it “practical and inspiration.” I can tell you that after a big plate of bacon and eggs, I don’t really know what is going to come out of me. You might have to settle for vague and semi-coherent!
Someone asked what I was talking on for the prayer breakfast. I paused and looked at them: “Umm…I am going to talk about prayer.” Am I being unoriginal? I suppose I could have talked about the meaning of breakfast, but that probably would not have been as practical or inspirational.
There are many great passages on prayer, but I found myself drawn to these words in thinking about the subject this morning: 1 John 5:13-15 writes,
13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
Stated right at the end of the First Letter of John, like many epistles with powerful theological treatments at the beginning, the closer is often simple words of wisdom for everyday life. John begins his epistle with explaining how God is light and how Jesus is the atoning sacrifice. He treats difficult topics like apostasy and apostolic discernment. He gives his beautiful explanation of how God is love, but he reserves his final words of advice to remind his congregation about the necessities of prayer.
I think that is a fitting reminder for today as we listen to all the wisdom Dr. Theissen has to show us, all the sophisticated ways we can be more effective pastors and leaders, understanding our communities. There is so much data and effective strategy and wisdom to be learned here in these few days.
But lets just take a moment, as John does, to remind ourselves of the simple fundamentals: we need to pray. We need to ask God, what does this mean? How do we act on this? How do we follow Jesus? How is God’s Spirit addressing us? Where is God’s Spirit sending us?
For five years I served as Pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. It is a small aging church. Through my time there, it should be no surprise to you that I realized just how integral prayer was to pastoring.
It should also be no surprise during times of trying to do it all on my own or merely going about my day forgetting to centre myself in prayer that day, that it effected what I did negatively.
Of course the opposite was also true, the times where I was in deepest prayer, those were often the times that I saw God act. I am sure God was and is always acting, but it was prayer that helped me see it.
I would like to tell three stories of realizing the necessity of prayer in pastor. The first shows that God is a God that listens to us, comforts us, gives his presence as provision to us. The second shows that he invites us to partner with him in realizing his kingdom. And the final story shows us that God is faithful to meet small needs, that God also is capable of wonderful surprises that we are to expect.
He listens. He partners, and he even surprises.
1. God Listens
As you can imagine, pastoring a church with a number of elderly people meant I often made visitations to the nourishing home. One lady in our congregation had surgery, and was placed in long term care. As we visited her, one of the deacons of my church and I, she instructed us that we should visit the lady down the hall.
So, she phoned her, and the lady was up for us visiting. As we walked down the hall, I suspected this would be a difficult turn in an otherwise mundane pastoral visit.
We stepped into a room with this middle-aged lady. I tried not to stare. Bedridden, her limbs were terribly, inhumanly swollen. “Come in, don’t be alarmed,” she said with a beaming, bright smile. I was surprised. She was in wonderful spirits.
We inquired what her condition was. She had a rare lymphatic infection, that has left her bedridden, functionally paralyzed. Every day, day in and day out, she had to receive a steady drip of strong antibiotics. But also, steadily, day by day, the infection grew immune to the antibiotics. The very thing that was saving her, was also the very thing slowly killing her. Day by day the inflection slowly but surely was winning.
And yet, to my amazement, I have never met a happier person.
She proceeded to tell me that at the beginning, she was bitter and resentful. She prayed angrily that she would be healed, and of course, while she still does pray for that now, something changed in her disposition.
“What changed?” I asked.
“I realized that Jesus was enough. Everyday, I get to thank God for another day, and I know he is with me. He listens to me and is my friend. That is enough for me.”
She told me that she saw her condition as a calling to be Jesus’ presence here in the nursing home, to the nurses and other patients, who in her mind needed hope and healing more than her.
I think this helps us understand a bit of what John is saying when he says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
This person knew the gift of eternal life. She knew the gift of his presence. While she still prayed for healing, that was enough.
Whenever I am tempted to ask, “Does prayer actually work?,” I am reminded of a quote that P. T. Forsyth once said, “The greatest answer to prayer is first and foremost prayer itself.”
Before we can fret about getting anything through prayer, we have to cherish the gift that prayer is. We have to cherish the fact that God is listening, that the first and greatest gift is eternal life, in how Jesus died for our sins and rose from the grave.
In Jesus Christ, all our prayers are already answered. Jesus is enough.
2. God Partners
So why do we trouble God to ask for more? When we rest in Jesus we know we can because he is generous. When we know he is generous, we also confess that everything we have and are comes from him, so we ask in acknowledgement of him. We ask because we cannot do and be anything other than what God in his generosity gives. As God is at liberty to give in the abundance of his generosity, we ask because we know we are free in relationship to ask.
So, I am reminded that John tells us, “…that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” What is God’s will?
During my doctoral studies, I was the co-ordinator of a soul kitchen called the Gathering Spot at Walmer Road Baptist Church in Toronto, off of Blood and Bathurst if you know the area.
It was an odd job. I applied to it because it was near the University of Toronto, where I did my studies, and I really just needed the money, and I wanted something ministry related. I got more than I bargained for.
At that point in my faith, I was going through a disorienting time. Pastors can go through disorienting times. We don’t like to admit that to our congregations, but we do. As some of you know both my parents died while I was in seminary, and I was still processing that as I was trying to grasp my calling in ministry and in academia. Grief effects us all different, and looking back at that, I remember feeling for several years, numb inside
I don’t think I ever stopped praying or stopped believing in praying, but let me just say that it certainly just did not feel like prayer was doing much. Your soul just felt dried up inside.
Well, my perspective changed working at the Gathering Spot. It changed as I was surrounded one night a week, by people whose problems in life vastly exceeded my own.
I felt moved to pray, not sure what this whole prayer thing was anymore, but praying nevertheless because I cared about these people.
You see a scary underside of humanity, the realities of poverty, of the dehumanizing despair of homelessness. People would come off the streets and wanting a meal, needing services of various kinds.
My prayers took on a different fervour. Mostly because I wasn’t praying for me anymore.
I have learned that service moves us for prayer, and prayer moves us to service.
I remember one bitter cold night in January. We had a large crowd that night and the food went quick. But just as we were finishing, a guy showed up out of the cold. “Is there any more left? Sorry I had trouble finding this place.”
We scrounged up as much as we could. He ate quickly, and I sat with him. I heard a little bit of his story, about how he lost his job and so he was recently evicted from his apartment.
He had to leave because he wanted to get to the shelter before it got too late. But he asked me to pray for him. I did. “God please get him to a shelter.” I wanted to go with him, but I knew I had to stay there at the kitchen till closing. I also had to get the bus home to Bradford, or else I would be stuck too. I prayed with him and he left.
I thought of nothing else as I rode home on the bus that night. And I just kept praying.
I got home late, and I sat in my warm town house in Bradford, think and praying about him.
I heard the next morning that 30 people froze to death that night on the streets of Toronto.
I don’t think I ever prayed so passionately in my life that night, and the only thing I could resolve to do in the light of that is to say that if I see someone in need, and if I pray for their well being, we have to consider that perhaps God has moved us to pray for that person because he is moving us to do something for that person.
Why? Because as John says in the passage previous to ours this morning. God is love. God’s will is love. God is light and in him there is no darkness.
Mother Theresa once said God wills no one to be poor, it is our will that keeps others poor.
The question then is whether we will partner with God in obedience to his will, not ours.
I told you that story to tell you this one: Several years later, as I pastored First Baptist Church of Sudbury, we ran a community meal at one of the low-income residences a few blocks from the church. One person, a young guy came to our Christmas service. He just kind of look like he had a dark cloud over him.
Turns out that dark cloud was serve mental illness. One night, after giving a lecture at Thorneloe University, where I also taught, I came back home, ready to relax and get some sleep. I got a text from him. “Pastor, help me. I have been evicted. I went off my meds, and they kicked me out. It was stupid. I know. The shelter is full.”
I can tell you I was tempted to ignore that text. I was tempted to say, “Hope everything works out. I’m praying for you.” But I knew I just couldn’t live with myself if I did. So, I prayed, “God help me to help this man.”
So, I grabbed my coat, and met up with him at a Tim Hortons. We drove from Hotel to Hotel, trying to find something. I could tell he was taking his meds again, but he really was not in a good place still.
Hotel after hotel was either too expensive, or they took one look at him and made some excuse. I asked him whether he had any friends that he could couch surf for a few nights. He didn’t have any friends. No family in the area. Nothing.
It is the fundamental truth that many people are homeless well before they don’t have a roof over their head. People are homeless before they are houseless.
I thought to myself, “What if we don’t find anything? It is getting late. Should I just bring him back to my house to stay the night?” He really did not sound safe or in a good state of mind. In fact, he seriously turned to me and wondering, if he just went out and committed a small crime, he would at least get so stay in a prison where it is warm. He had been to jail as a young man, and I told he wasn’t going to take that way out.
Finally we found an inn above a small pub that was not too expensive, and we went with that. The next day, I was able to arrange a bus ticket for him to get to where he did have some folks that agreed to take him in.
As we pray, God partners. We partner with him, in conformity with his will, and he claims us as his own and uses us. St. Theresa of Avila once wrote, “Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands, with which he blesses.
We pray for our prayers to be answered, and sometimes God can turn that back to us and commission us to be that answer.
If ever you pray to God, “God I pray someone would do something about crime or poverty or sickness or whatever.” Be prepared that that someone could be you.
3. God Surprises
I say God surprises because while that last point is true – God chooses to use us – so is the simple fact that God also goes beyond us.
God is powerful, but he chooses to partner with people. Humans are free and Christians are Christ’s hands and feet, but that does not mean God does not act. God acts in wonderful and surprising ways.
Notice I have described three ways God answers prayer: by giving comforting presence, by commission us to act out his will, and also acting beyond us. We would be wise to know that to say that God answers prayer is not too say that God is predictable. And that is why I say God surprises.
In ministering in Sudbury, I came across a young man, who also lived in the low income housing development.
Early twenties, a poor kid, as I got to know him, he had endured the worst in this world: terrible abuse, such that just to talk with him, he was deeply erratic. It did not take long in his presence to know his soul was in deep chaos: that lethal mix of hatred and hurt.
I would come by his apartment from time to time to check on him. He was on welfare, but there was a strong possibility that it would run out, so he was looking for a job. He was about the same height as me, so I gave him some of my dress clothes. We practiced interviews.
He applied around all over the place. Each time, employers would just hear how he talked, how it was hard to hold down a conversation with him, and go with someone else. Didn’t matter he was willing and able. As he applied here and there, the more downcast he got.
One day, I did rounds around the apartments asking if anyone needed a ride to the food bank I would take them. This was my usually Tuesday noontime routine. The food bank was at the other end of the town and often the food bank packages were heavy, and often people had mobility issues. So, I put out a sign at one of the low income apartments that if anyone needed a ride, i would help. Word spread and there was about a dozen or so I would regularly meet up with.
I knocked on his door, and he answered, a bit dishevelled. I figured he was just getting up. He decided to come along to the food bank that day, even though he did not need anything.
I turned to him in the car, and gave him a Jesus Calling devotional. I had gotten a bulk order of these things, figuring this was an easy way for some of the people, who were not strong readers that I ministered, could nevertheless hear an uplifting scripture spoken over them on a daily basis.
While the one guy went in, this young man turned to me and said, Spencer, I was sitting in my room thinking I got nothing to live for. I have no peace in my life. I was ready to end it when you knocked at the door.
I prayed with him, and I suggested, let’s see what words of encouragement the devotional he had in his hand had to offer. Turns out that day, the topic was scriptures relating to finding peace in life.
He did a stint in the hospital, but after he got out, I met up with him again. He seemed to be in a bad state of mind. I learned that previous to me meeting him, he had committed a crime, which he was going to be sentenced for. The possibility was weighing heavily on him.
I asked him about what he believed in, whether he trusted God’s love and forgiveness in all this.
He turned to me, and said that he admitted his mind is so erratic, so faulty, he resolved at some point to just stop believing anything. He figured his brain is just so unreliable, there isn’t any point to believing in anything. He told me he felt ashamed about all the ideas that would get him worked up. So, one day he just decided he would stop believing in anything.
I tried to offer some words of encouragement, but I was taken back. How do you get someone to believe in Jesus, when they don’t even think they are capable of believing anything?
I went home that day particularly distraught. I remember praying, “God how can a person like that be reached? How could a person like that be discipled? God you’ve got to reach this person, but if the Gospel means anything, it has to mean something to a person like that. The Gospel is good news to everyone, especially a desperate, troubled young man, who needs hope in his life.”
My prayers for the next little while took on a tone of frustration and disappointment.
A little while later, I came by his apartment. I found him in the apartment’s communal kitchen. He turned to me. “Spencer, I was sitting in my apartment. I was ready to end it all. I just felt so worthless. But then he showed up.”
“Who showed up?” I asked. He just pointed up. In a dark moment, he heard a distinct voice say to him, “Your life is worth something to me.”
“Spencer I don’t know what I am, but I know I ain’t an atheist.”
God surprised me that day. It is because what John says, “we know that he hears us.”
God listens, God partners, God surprises.
And of course, as God is faithful to save from sin, to give comforting presence, to commission for courageous service, and to show up in all sorts of unexpected ways, God is also, I fundamentally believe, there for you. He has not forgotten you or your family. God has not forsaken his pastors, his chaplains, or his church.
His will is love, life, and light, says John, pleasing and perfect. And we will know this as we ask, as we follow, as we wait on him – all by prayer. Can not do this any other way.
What are your needs? What are your church’s needs? What our your community’s needs? Are they small? Are they big? Do you sometimes think they are too big? Perhaps sometimes you think they are too small.
Whatever they are, John says, to pray for we have confidence in him.
Pray about it anyway. Pray boldly. Pray persistently. Pray to the point that you think you are praying foolishly and wildly, because then it is a very likely possibility that you are praying in line with God’s will for us all: the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Now, let’s turn to God in prayer…