The Bechdel Test, Policy Binders, and Calling Out the King

Have any of you heard about the Bechdel test?

It’s a test developed by Alison Bechdel used to evaluate how women are portrayed in fiction, including literature and television and movies.

The Bechdel test works like this:  If there are two women with names, talking to each other about something other than a man, then it passes the test!

Two women.  Whose names we know.  Talking.  Not about men.   That’s it.

Simple enough, right?  Well, actually, when you drill down into it, most of what we read and watch fails to pass the Bechdel test.  It’s really kind of pathetic, actually.

However… this week, when reading this morning’s Scripture, I dawned on me that Ruth chapter 1 passes the Bechdel test!

Women characters named? Yup.  Naomi and Ruth are the main protagonists, with Orpah making a cameo.

Talking about something other than men? Yup. While the background is that all their husbands passed away, and Naomi telling her daughters-in-law that she won’t be having any more kids, there is that one part where Ruth pledges to never leave Naomi’s side, and Ruth declares that whatever fate befalls Naomi will befall Ruth too.

Alright!

This is actually one of the only times that any story in the entire Bible passes the Bechdel test.  Yikes. The roots of patriarchy are deep.

When Ruth pledges her fate to that of Naomi, the Hebrew word best used to describe that his Hesed – It’s an act of loyal loving, of loving-kindness.  It’s a covenant of love, so it’s something one commits to regardless of how you’re feeling.  A wedding vow might be a similar comparison. Through thick and thin, health and sickness, good times and bad.  Hesed is also used to describe God’s love for God’s people.  It’s loyal love.

Ruth and Naomi talking about loyally loving each other is certainly better than them talking about men, right?  Although that does come in chapter 2.

We’re going to come back to hesed in a bit.


Naomi and her husband and their two sons are Israelites, and they move to a foreign land called Moab.  And, the sons marry two Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah.  And then when all the men pass away, Naomi decides to go back home to her own country and her own people.

Now, according to the customs of the day, Naomi’s daughters-in-law were free to go back to their own families, their own people, their own rules and customs and culture and religion.  Naomi “released” them.

And Orpah went.

There is something freeing about rules, isn’t there?  That there are clear expectations of you, and you know that if you do what you are supposed to do, it’s probably going to be okay.

Pay your taxes, and CRA probably won’t send you a letter.

Don’t speed, and you won’t get a speeding ticket.

Take out a building permit before you add on a sunroom, and then you won’t have to take down the sunroom that you just built.

I know someone who started their new job as a chaplain, and on her first day she was given a big black binder labeled “Policy Binder.”

At first she was a bit overwhelmed.  She thought, “How am I ever going to follow all these?”

But after a few months, she actually came to appreciate the policy binder.   She said there was a certain level of freedom in there, where she knew what the expectations were and if she followed them, she’d probably be okay.

Rules, can be freeing.

Naomi knew the rules.  She was free to release her daughters-in-law back to their own people and culture.

And Orpah followed the rules.  They hugged, they kissed, they said goodbye, and they went on their different ways.

There is a place for the rules… and then there’s what Ruth did.

Ruth went BEYOND the rules in her love and devotion to Naomi.  She said, “I know what’s expected of me. I’m going to let my love move me beyond the basic requirements.”

In almost all our relationships, I’d suggest that the more committed we are, the more we go above the basic requirements, the better off that relationships is.

Our cars – If we wash them in winter, they’ll last longer.

Our lawns – If we fertilize  and water, they will look nicer.

Our gardens – If we weed, they will give us more food.

Our jobs – If we show up and work hard and take courses to keep learning, we will have more satisfaction.

And I think our relationships with each other is similar.  If we’re committed, if we go above and beyond what’s “required” of us, I think we’re setting ourselves up for all sorts of positives. Because love moves us above and beyond what is simply “required” of us.

And we’re back at hesed – Loyal loving.  Covenant of loving-kindess.  More than a feeling. Beyond what’s required of us.


And do you know what makes the story of Naomi and Ruth and hesed even more cool?

Naomi was an Israelite from Judah.

Ruth was a Moabite, from Moab.

Ruth was a foreigner.

We read lots in the news about foreigners, don’t we?  Refugees from Syria, asylum seekers making irregular border crossings into both the USA and Canada.  We tend not to hear much about how my French ancestors were kind of unwanted to New France 500 years ago by the First Nations, perhaps even considered illegal immigrants, but that’s a different sermon for a different day.

But Ruth was a foreigner.

What are the requirements of treating foreigners?

Well, as Christians, our first loyalty is to God, not our country, so we’ll spend our time there.  (although, interestingly enough, it’s that loyalty to God over country that resulted in Mennonites being banned for a while from moving to Canada, as we couldn’t be relied upon to fight for our country, but I digress).

Well, let’s start with the Old Testament:

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.  Leviticus 19:34

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.  Exodus 22:21

And then there’s Jeremiah, sticking in to the kings of the world.  “This is what the LORD says:  Do what is just and right… Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.”   Jeremiah 22:3

Or Isaiah, blasting his own people:  “Is not this the kind of fasting I have choses:  to loose the chains of injustice… to set the oppressed free… Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter?”  Isaiah 58:6-7

I’m usually not a fan of cherry picking verses from the Old Testament to support what I already believe, so let’s take a jaunt into the New Testament, shall we?

But first of, we should make note that the New Testament says very little about foreigners directly, because the life and teachings of Jesus AND the apostle Paul tore down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, between them and us.

Galatians 3:28 – There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, but you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 2:19 – Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of God’s household.

But I really love reading Scripture through the lens of Jesus, where we give more weight to the words of Jesus than the other parts.

We can talk about how the Jewish leaders tried to kill Jesus after he referenced a bunch of times in the Old Testament where God was found among foreigners (Luke 4).  Or the time he spent eating with and healing Romans, the hated oppressors of Israel (Matthew 8).  Or when he healed foreigners (Mark 7) .  Or how he treated the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).

Or when in doubt, we always have good old Matthew 25:

“Then the King will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me,you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Jesus kind of says that if we don’t look after strangers in need, we risk the fires of hell.

Yikes.  So harsh, right?   Good thing we’re gonna be like Ruth and err on the side of doing MORE than the law requires, right?

Let alone all those other part of the Bible about hospitality, or when we host strangers we might be hosting angels, or if we have two cloaks we should give one away, or that Jesus was a refugee who crossed into other countries, or that time Jesus told a story about how the hated foreigner is actually our neighbor, or how “Love does no harm to its neighbor.” (Romans 13:10).

One of my favourites, though, about Ruth being a foreign Moabite, is actually found in the gospel of Matthew.  We’re going to working through Matthew starting in January, but we’ll just quickly jump in there.

Right at the beginning of Matthew, before the Christmas story of angels and wise men, we’re given the genealogy of Jesus. Matthew was written to a primarily Jewish audience, so the genealogy is there to give some street cred to Jesus.  Kind of like us living in rural Manitoba figuring out who are grandparents and great grandparents are.

And in the genealogy of Jesus,  we have all sort of big hitters:  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, King David, Solomon, Josiah…

And then, tucked away into there, we read the name Ruth.

…Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth…

Ruth, a foreign woman, made it into the genealogy of Jewish Jesus.

The son of God, the prince of peace, has a foreigner in his bloodline. They could have left her out of the list.  She doesn’t have to be in there.

But she is.  They intentionally listed her in the genealogy of Jesus.

Maybe, just maybe, they knew that including a foreigner in the genealogy of Jesus was revolutionary.

Kind of like how Ruth choosing hesed, to go above and beyond what was required of her, choosing to loyally love someone she isn’t required to, is kind of revolutionary.

And so, in conclusion, may we continue to practice love… Love for our families, love for those in our community, and those who are from different parts of the world.  May we continue to love our neighbours as ourselves, and may we always remember that love does no harm to its neighbour.

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Homer Simpson, My Teenage Girlfriend, & the Last Male White Rhino: Maybe the Cross Changes Everything

Why did Jesus die?  I’ve been asking people this question this week, and I’ve gotten some great answers.  My favourite, though was when someone sent me this picture:  hoer 

Homer Simpson.  I definitely would have put that on the bulletin cover, but alas, our church bought these fancy printed ones with palms on the front.

Why did Jesus die?  

The most common answer I received was along these lines:

Jesus died to save us from our sins.   Jesus died for our sins. 

Now I generally don’t like religious clichés, so I asked another question.

But what does that mean?  How does that work?               

There was a bit more wondering and pondering about that.

Which, there should be.   No example, no illustration, no sermon, no metaphor, no article shared on Facebook, can fully capture the whole picture of Jesus dying on the cross.

It’s like our church building project.  If we describe what we’re seeing through my office window, that’s a good and true and necessary perspective.  But if we open that side door over there and look, well, we’ll see another perspective. (Plus we’d fall into a hole, so don’t do that).  We need to look through multiple windows to see the whole picture.

So, I’m going to give you a glimpse through one of the windows that I see the cross, but if you see it through a different window, that’s great.  We need all the windows.


So we’ll start with a story of when I was a teenager.

I had a crush on a girl.  Before I was dating Ashley.  And, some of us are getting a little old to remember what it was like being a teenager and having a crush on someone, but you know, you’re always asking and wondering… Does she like me?  Does she not?  Did she just look at me and smile?  Or was that for the person behind me?

So anyhow… I had a crush on a girl.  And then one day, she came up to me.  And she said, “Hey Kyle.  I just wanted to let you know that I don’t just like you.  I am smitten with you.  I love you. And I’ve loved you for a long time.  We’re going to have a wonderful life together.  I want to be with you forever.”

So teenager Kyle at this point is quite excited.  But you know… play it cool.  All smiles, I respond, “This is great!  I like you too, and maybe one day it’ll grow into love!”

She looks at me.  And with smile, she says, “That’s great.  Because if you didn’t love me, I’d make your life a living hell forever.  You will never get away from me.   My wrath will be fierce, and I might even torture you.  Forever.  But since you love me, it’ll all be fine, right?”

“No!  This is not okay! This is unacceptable behavior, and you are a monster.  And I’m going to call the cops.”

Okay, so this really isn’t a true story.   Sorry about that.  (But thanks to Michael Hardin for the story.  I read it in Executing God by Sharon Baker) Maybe a different day I’ll share about my teenage relationships. But only if you share about your teenage relationships too.  Unless they involve my parents. Then I don’t want to hear them.

But I don’t think it’s a bad comparison to some of our understandings of God.  God says to humanity, “I made you.  I love you.  I want to be in relationships with you.  And if you don’t love me back the way that I want, there will be hell to pay.”

That God sounds a bit like my fake girlfriend.  A monster.

Is God a monster?

What is God like?

Take a moment and sit with this question.  What is God like?

Maybe today, since today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday where we celebrate Jesus as King we can say that Jesus is like a king.

But what kind of King is Jesus like?  A nice king?  And harsh king?  A king who kills those who oppose him, or, one who runs attack ads against him?  Is Jesus a triumphant king?  Does Jesus hold post-election victory parties?

Pontius Pilate made a sign for Jesus.  It said,  “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

And he had it nailed to the cross where Jesus was crucified.

Our king was crucified.

What is God like?

Crucified.

We worship a crucified God.

But what does it mean that we worship a crucified God?  What does it mean that our king was killed?  What does it mean that our king allowed himself to be killed? Why is this significant?

Us worshipping a crucified God, I think, gives us a lens, a perspective, on what God is like.  The crucifixion is one of the windows that we get to try to see and understand who God is.

The cross is not us trying to avoid an angry, monster God.

Because the crucifixion of Jesus is not about God changing God’s mind about humanity.  The crucifixion is about humanity changing its mind about God.

To explain this, I’m going to explain some concepts with how Christianity has traditionally explained them, and then compare them with how I see them.  And then I’m going to show some famous pictures that point to what I’m getting at.

And, remember… We are deep in the world of images and metaphors here.  We’re doing our best to describe a mystery.

Okay… Three concepts that we have to talk about when talking about the cross.  We’re going to talk about God’s wrath, God’s justice, and sacrifice

1. God’s wrath.

When I say the phrase God’s wrath, we come up with images of God sending lightning bolts and floods and dropping pianos on us.  The Grapes of Wrath are being stored up for those who refuse to do God’s will.  We can imagine my imaginary teenage girlfriend who’s gonna make my life a living hell.

Or we can look at it as God allowing us to experience the consequences of our decisions. Central to any loving relationship is freedom. Otherwise it’s coercion, and coercion isn’t love.   We are free to be in a relationship or free to not be.  We are free to choose our own actions, or not.  But we are not free from are the consequences of any choices we make.

Examples.  If I were to speed on the highway, I can get a speeding ticket.  It’s not God angrily sending me a police officer to give me a ticket.  It’s God saying “You have the freedom to choose your actions.  There are consequences for our decisions.”

A good way to understand this is to ask,

Are we punished for our sins?  Or by our sins?

Another example: The other day I made a bonfire in my backyard.  And I told my kids “Don’t touch the metal.”  Now, if they go and touch the metal, did I do that to them?  Could they say “Dad burned me!”  Or is that just the consequence for their choice?

And when God chose to become human, God chose to live in our world, and was not immune to all the things going on in our world.

So, at the crucifixion, Jesus encounters violence, torture, betrayal, abandonment, anxiety, pain, and empire.  These are all real things.  And many of them are the natural consequences of simply being human, and many of them are the consequence of engaging (and enraging) the powers and authorities.   We’re all free to choose violence or not, to stick with our friends or not, to serve others or not, and no matter what we choose, there are consequences for those choices.  And they are real.  They can be bloody.  But they are not divinely orchestrated.   God is not pushing the “drop piano” button.

2.  God’s justice.

This one’s a little easier to understand.  When we think about justice, because of our time and place in history, it’s really hard for us not to think of a judge. judge-judy

Like Judge Judy.  You do bad, and there’s a punishment.

This type of justice is called retributive justice.  You speed, you get a ticket.  You murder someone, you go to jail.

But, God doesn’t treat us according to our sins.  God treats us differently.

The type of justice God is into is restorative justice.  It where we acknowledge that something bad has happened, and we work hard at restitution, we work hard at making it right, and we try to restore the relationship. This is a really simple definition, but it’s a really important important.

God hates sins, so does God punish it?  Banish it?

Or does God work at the relationships that are broken.  And work towards restoration?

I believe that God cares more about the restoration of relationships more than the punishment of sin.   If this is seems strange or unique or unfair, well, it’s kind of the definition of grace.  Small-g grace. Grace is a gift undeserved.

3.  Sacrifice

We can understand the cross as Jesus giving his life as a sacrifice for our sins.  Similar to how in the Old Testament you were supposed to kill a goat or something to atone for your sins.  Or by dying on the cross, Jesus took our place.  Someone has to die because of sin, so Jesus dies instead of us.  Like a substitute sacrifice.

But what I do with the word sacrifice is not that God demands it, or that someone HAS to suffer or die, but rather, when someone does suffer or die, they reveal to us the consequences of sin.  They reveal sin for what it is.  A sacrifice can expose evil, and hopefully prevents further suffering or death.

So if we call Jesus a sacrifice, it’s not God killing God’s own kid to make God happy.  It’s God allowing him to die in an effort to expose sin and evil and show us what they truly are, and also shows us how to live.


Okay.  To sum up, and before we start looking at some pictures, here’s where we’re at.

God’s wrath is less about God being angry and smiting humans, and more about there being very real consequences for our decisions.

God’s justice is less about punishment and more about restoration. 

Sacrifice is less about God demanding it, or something dying in our place, and more about revealing evil and sin in our world, and showing us how to respond.


I’m now going to show you some pictures.

1.  The man is Zacharia Mutai, moments before Sudan, sudan-white-rhino-DSC_4822.adapt.590.1the last male Northern White Rhino on the planet, died.

Did God’s wrath kill the rhino?  No.  But we did.  God allowed us to poach them, to encroach on their territory, to pollute the Earth, and the result is another extinct species.

Is God punishing the rhino by killing him?  Is God punishing us by killing the rhino?   No.   But I think that even though the dead Rhino doesn’t make God happy, I think God cares more about our relationships with each other and the Earth than seeking punishment.  It’s not like God is saying “You let the Rhino die!  As punishment, two thousand of you humans will now be trampled by hippopotamuses.”

Was the rhino a needed sacrifice?  Well, on one hand no.  We can learn to take care of the Earth without an almost extinct species.  But on the other hand, does the Rhino’s death expose to us the evil we can inflict upon the world?  Yes.  And will its death hopefully prevent any other species from going extinct?  Well, that’s up to us, right?


2.  NEP3881386We’ll use a relevant example for us in Canada. This is our new $10 bill, coming out soon.  And that woman is Viola Desmond.  Her story is that she was in a movie theatre in Halifax, but she sat in the “whites only” section.   When told she couldn’t sit there because of her skin colour, she didn’t leave.  She was dragged out, arrested, thrown in jail for 12 hours, and fined.

Was God’s wrath poured out on her?  Oh gosh no.  She’s a hero.  But God allowed her to suffer the consequences of racism.  There are consequences for our sins, and they are real.

Did God care about punishing her for not following the rule of law?  Does God care about punishing us for our sins of racism?  Or does God care more about the restoration of relationships?  (I loved watching the news conference where Viola Desmond’s sister Wando Robson shared the stage with the Finance Minister.)

Was Viola’s sacrifice necessary? Well, on one hand, absolutely not.  We white people didn’t have to be racist, and could have just let her sit where she wanted.  But did her actions, did her suffering, prevent further suffering for others?  Did it reveal and expose the evils of racism?  Yes.  Will it help us work to end racism in 2018?  Well, that’s up to us, right


3.  (In my sermon, I showed a picture of Alan Kurdi on the beach, the two year old toddler from Syria who drowned and was found on in Turkey. I showed it for only 30 seconds, but I can’t bring myself to posting it here.  I’m sure you remember the picture, but I’m posting a picture of him happily playing instead.)

Alan_kurdi_smiling_playground.jpg

This is Alan Kurdi.  We’ve seen this picture before.

Was God’s wrath poured out on a two year old migrant from Syria who drowned and washed up on a beach?  No.   Does it show the consequences of sin?  Yes.  And there is a whole lot of sin wrapped up in this picture.  Violence and weapons manufacturing and barrel bombs and racism and religious bigotry and fear and anxiety and desire for control and the disregard for human life and profound, profound apathy.  The consequences of sin are real, my friends.  And God lets us choose.

Was this God’s punishment for sin?  No.  Is God going to send a foreign army to Canada and make us refugees as punishment for not taking in more folk?  C’mon.  I think God cares a heck a lot of more about the relationships between humans, and how we get along, more than punishing us for our sins.

Was his life a sacrifice?  On one hand, goodness no.  A sacrifice for what?   That someone has to die, and he drew the short straw?  That notion is ridiculous.  But on the other hand, does his death prevent the deaths of thousands of other kids?  Will his death ensure others will have a different fate?   If his death revealed and exposed the evils that we perpetuate, if his death shook the world into action, if this death shook our church into action, if his death shook me to action, if his death continues to affect me, then yes, his life then was a sacrifice.  Not God ordained.  Not God planned.  One that we wish didn’t happen.  But it did.  And will it help us work towards peace and welcoming more refugees into our lives?  Well, that’s up to us, isn’t it?


4.  Jesus on the cross.   jesus.jpg

Was this God’s wrath being poured out on his own kid?  No.  The cross reveals the consequences of violence, torture, betrayal, abandonment, anxiety, pain, fear, and empire.  The cross reveals that even in our efforts to be true and faithful and safe, we can even crucify the son of God.  The consequences of our sin are real.

Was it God punishing Jesus for our sins?  Well, a) what would that accomplish?  And b)  Does God care more about punishing people for our sins?  Or our relationships?  I would venture to say that the cross reveals how God views sinners… Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.  I mean, if God doesn’t punish the people who killed his own son, who does God punish?  

Was Jesus a sacrifice?  Well, on one hand no.  Does God really need blood to be satisfied?  Does God serve a higher power than Godself?  Does God get a kick of out animals and people dying?  Does something have to die?  No (Well, our egos need to die.  Maybe our addiction to power and our desire for control.  But here I actually mean “Does something need to physically die?)    But on the hand, does the death of Jesus reveal the evil in this world?  Does the death of Jesus reveal how God responds to violent sinners?  Yes.  Does the death of Jesus prevent further deaths?  Does the death of Jesus show us how to live?  Well, that’s up to us, isn’t it?


The crucifixion of Jesus is not about God changing God’s mind about humanity.  The crucifixion is about humanity changing its mind about God.

And the key word for me to understanding the cross is REVEAL.

The cross reveals our own sin and brokenness.

The cross reveals how destructive the power of sin can be.

The cross reveals how God treats sinners.

The cross reveals who God is.

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.  Colossians 2:15

Why does any of this matter? Why does us worshipping a crucified God matter?

Because us worshipping a crucified God means that the God we worship is a “loving God who  sacrificially gives up receiving payback for sin, who is satisfied by a justice that reconciles and restores relationships, who sees to it that mercy triumphs over judgement, and whose love for enemies works to win them over with grace, mercy, and compassion.” – Sharon Baker

We worship a crucified God, and that has the potential to change everything.

 

Homicidal Maniacs, Seven Miracles, and Sociology

“What is truth?”  This is question Pilate asks Jesus.

The good news for us is that this morning we’re going to get an answer.  2000 years of wondering about truth is all going to be solved today.  Lucky us.   <smile>


To better understand what’s all going in today’s Scripture, we’re going to take a quick dive into history.  (I got most of this from the book The Upside Down Kingdom by Donald Kraybill, which continues to be one of the most influential books on Jesus I’ve ever read)

At the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire was busy sending their armies all over the world and conquering new territories.  And one of those territories was what is now modern day Israel and Palestine. The homeland of the Jewish people.

But… the Jewish people, for some reason or another, didn’t like being ruled by a foreign power.  I know, right?  I can’t imagine why.  And so, history tells us that they were notoriously difficult to rule.

When Jesus was born, the Roman Empire had set up a puppet king named Herod the Great.  He’s the one we read about at Christmastime when the magi went and visited him.    There were two important parts to Herod the Great’s job:  Make sure the locals pay their taxes, and maintain the peace.

Unfortunately, King Herod was a homicidal maniac.  So after the magi told him about Jesus being a new king, he was pretty sure a new king wasn’t ‘maintaining the peace’, so he ordered the murder of all the children 2 and under.

That one’s bad.  And there are lots more.  But to put an emphasis on what kind of king Herod was, here’s one more story.  Near the end of his life, he knew he was dying.  But he didn’t want people to celebrate his death.  So on his death bed he ordered Jewish leaders be put in jail.  And he gave the orders that when he died, they were all to be killed, so that the people of his kingdom would shed tears on the day that he died.

Homicidal maniac.  (Lucky for everyone, after he died, his orders were not followed, and the captives were released.)

After he died, his puppet kingdom was split up and given to 3 of his kids – Herod Antipas, Philip, and Archelaus.

These puppet kings had two main responsibilities:  Make sure the locals pay their taxes, and maintain the peace.

Philip did fairly well at managing his part of the kingdom, so the history books don’t have much to say about him.

Herod Antipas was a bit worse.  We read about him cutting off the head of John the Baptist after John called him a fox.  (Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Unless you call me a fox.  Then I’m going to cut off your head.)  After 42 years of ruling, the Romans put him into exile.

But Archelaus – What a disaster he was.  He was in charge of the kingdom that included Jerusalem.  At the start of his rule, he removed the high priest and installed his own.  And then a riot broke out.  And then soldiers were sent in to stop the riot. And then the soldiers were killed by the rioters.  And then Archelaus had 3000 people killed in retaliation for that.

But, that kicked up some more revolutionaries.  A former slave named Simon led a rebellion against all the palaces and estates of the wealthy.  A former shepherd named Athronges led a rebellion for a few more years.  And then there was another guy named Judas who became a flaming revolutionary and declared himself king and ruled for a few months.

But the Romans weren’t really okay with this, so they sent in a legion to stop all this nonsense.  They burned down the hometown of Judas, sold its population into slavery, and killed 2000 more people just to make sure they got the point.

And this doesn’t include that time that people were chucking stones off the roof of the temple onto the heads of the Roman soldiers.  Or the assasins called “Daggermen” who hid in caves.  Or the Zealots who thought the only good Roman was a dead one.

After Rome came and “cleaned up the mess” of Archelaus, they installed a Roman governor to govern all of Judea.  And that governor had two main jobs:  Get the locals to pay their taxes, and maintain the peace.

Pontius-Pilate-202x300.jpg

Pontius Pilate

And at the time of Jesus’ death, the guy in charge was name Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilate ruled for a few years, but was eventually removed from his position for massacring some Samaritans.  One Roman historian recorded Pilate’s rule as “marked by corruption, violence, degradation, ill treatment, offenses, numerous illegal executions and incessant, unbearable cruelty.”Are you noticing a pattern here?

If this all feels a bit like the TV show Game of Thrones, yes… That would be a very good comparison.

Another one of the dynamics here is that throughout all this violence, the religious leaders in Jerusalem were busy trying to lead their people.  They were trying to faithful to God.  They were trying to maintain some form of independence from the Roman Empire.  And they were also trying to ensure that their people wouldn’t kill the Romans so that the Romans wouldn’t come and obliterate them off the face of the Earth.   Let me tell you, when we have our staff meetings here at church, we do not have on our agenda “How to keep our church members from being massacred by a foreign army?”   We talk about who’s preaching next week.

So that brings us to today’s story.

As part of being under Roman rule, the religious leaders weren’t allowed to kill people.  That power laid with the Roman authorities.

But the religious leaders were probably afraid of a whole bunch of things… They were afraid that this Jesus character was going to mess up their gig.  They were afraid about their own of sense of identity and purpose, because nobody really likes changing jobs that they’re good at.  And… and this is key… They were afraid that the people are going to declare Jesus to be King.  And if there’s a new king in town, that will bring the wrath of the Roman armies, and dang it, that’s a lot of extra funerals to do on the weekend.

So they want Jesus gone. Done away with.  Killed.  They had a meeting, and they said “If we let him (Jesus) go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” The head priest Caiaphas said “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”  John 11:48, 50

So they bring Jesus to Pilate.

Now, Pilate doesn’t live in Jerusalem, as his palace was on the coast in Caesarea Maritima, about 120 km away.  So why is he in Jerusalem?

Well, we don’t know for sure, but we can take a pretty good guess.  What are Pilate’s two main responsibilities?  Make sure the locals pay their taxes, and maintain the peace.  And the weekend that Jesus died in Jerusalem was the Passover.   It’s the Jewish festival where they remember the Israelite slaves leaving Egypt… Which can also be told as a story of the Jewish people being freed from the shackles of an oppressive foreign government…

A festival celebrating freedom from an foreign oppressive regime in a region known for violent uprising against foreign oppressive regimes might make Pontius Pilate’s responsibility of “keeping the peace” at little bit difficult.  Jerusalem is like a tinderbox, ready to explode.

And so here we are.  Jesus is before Pilate.

Now, based on this text alone, I don’t think Pilate cares much about Jesus.  I think all he cares about are maintaining the peace and taxes.

So he asks Jesus if he is a king. Because, you know, having a rival king would be bad.

And pay attention to Jesus’ response:  “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

My kingdom is not of this world.  My kingdom is different.  It’s one you don’t understand.  You clearly understand violence, as that’s how both the Roman Empire and Jewish revolutionaries work.  But my kingdom is different.  It doesn’t need violence and taxes to govern it.  It’s about love… self-emptying love.  For everyone.  Even our enemies.  It’s about peace and forgiveness and kindness and gentleness.   And it doesn’t have borders. My kingdom is from a different place.

I don’t think Pilate really gets what Jesus is saying.  All Pilate hears is Jesus admitting to being a king:  “So you are a king, then! “


Okay, this is a big deal because this is the first time in the gospel of John that Jesus declares himself to be king.  This is the first time that he owns the title.

And why is this a big deal?

Because the gospel writer of John spends the first 11 chapters of his book describing 7 miracles, or signs of Jesus.  (We preached on some of them.  But Easter is early this year, so we ran out of Sundays to preach on all of them.)  These signs are:

Changing water into wine.

Healing the royal official’s son

Healing the paralytic at Bethesda

Feeding the 5000

Jesus walking on water

Healing the man blind from birth

The raising of Lazarus from the dead.

Now, if someone turns water in wine and feeds the hungry and raises people from the dead, they would surely be made king.   I mean, who here in Canada wouldn’t vote for free healthcare, free food, and free alcohol?!?!

And Jesus knew this.

And he said…. No.

Here’s what we read after he feeds the 5000.

After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.”  Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”

When Jesus was the hero, he didn’t claim he was a king.  Even after all the miracles.

But it’s here, in front of Pilate, where Jesus is arrested, vulnerable, a prisoner, alone, betrayed, at the mercy of others, facing death… It is here where Jesus declares himself to be king.

What kind of king is that?  And what kind of kingdom is that?

We understand Roman armies and taxation.  We understand modern day armies and the CRA.  We understand aircraft carriers and strong borders and nuclear weapons.

But a kingdom of vulnerability and self-emptying love?  That’s ridiculous.

Pilate thought so too.  That’s why he didn’t order Jesus to be killed.  He probably thought Jesus was delusional. Any of us here could declare ourselves to be Prime Minister, but without an army, a show of force, some rules of engagement, nobody would take us seriously. We’re not a threat to Ottawa.  People would just say we’re delusional.

And so Pilate didn’t find any basis for charges, because Pilate was operating out of the the kingdom that he understood.

And Pilate gave the people a choice too.  They can have their vulnerable king Jesus, or they can have the violent revolutionary named Barabbas.

What’s interesting about Barabbas is that in some translations, he’s referred to as a bandit.

And the other time that the word bandit is used in the Gospel of John is in John 10, where the bandit is contrasted with the good shepherd.  The good shepherd loves his sheep, gives his live for his sheep, while the bandit steals and destroys.

 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.  All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.  I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The bandit comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10:7-10

Do the people want the good shepherd?  Or do they want the bandit?

They chose the bandit.  “Give us Barabbas!” the crowds shouted. They too, chose the kingdom that they could understand.  They chose to play the game of thrones, where you win or you die.


A quick aside – Like footwashing, self-emptying love like forgiveness, these are decisions that we make for ourselves, as individuals or communities.  We can’t force people to choose the Good Shepherd while we choose to be bandits to them.  A manifestation of this is the unholy alliance between church and state, especially related to the history of colonialism. The missionaries would show up, invite people to follow the good shepherd, and simultaneously the “Christian” state would show up and act like bandits.

If I am actively oppressing someone, I can’t tell them to choose the shepherd.  They are free to make that choice, but it cannot be forced.  Christianity is not about coercion.

Okay.  Moving quick aside is done.


 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.  (Pilate sounds like he’s in a first year sociology course learning about postmodernism).

Maybe Pilate asked the wrong question.

Maybe Pilate should have asked “Who is truth?” Because that’s how Jesus answered him.

Jesus says that he is the truth.

And that’s a bold claim, isn’t it?  The arrested, vulnerable king facing death, is truth?  That’s the way of God?!?


This is where we let the artists speak for us.  A poet wrote in Isaiah 55:8-9,

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

            Nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

            So are my ways higher than your ways

            And my thoughts than your thoughts.

In my Lenten readings, Walter Brueggemann writes, “It is not your way.  You would not have imagined this alternative way nor been able to predict it, and you surely cannot control it.  There is a way into the future in your life, because God is at work doing strange, wondrous things for you and in spite of you.  And your job is to get your mind off your ways of need and control, to give your life over to God’s large, hidden way in your life…”

“The poet holds out to the exiles (and to us) an alternative way, the waters of baptism, the bread of the Eucharist, the wine of new covenant, the capacity to risk and trust and obey, and then to find ourselves safe and joyous, close to God, and enlisted for a very different life in the world.”

Let’s pray:

God of becoming, be with us as journey through Lent.  May we learn to relinquish our old ways to that we are ready to receive your newness.  Amen.   

The St. Lawrence River, Life Sentences, and Super Bowl Commercial Flops

Many of us here know about a river in Quebec called the St. Lawrence River.  But do any of us know why it’s called the St. Lawrence River?

Well, before Europeans settled Canada, the Iroquois lived on it and called it Kahnawáʼkye, which means “The Big River.”

220px-St._Stephen_the_Martyr_(Omaha),_chapel_window_4,_St_Lawrence

But it’s still referred to as the St. Lawrence River today because Jacques Cartier, who was the first European to see the river, entered the estuary of Kahnawáʼkye on St. Lawrence’s Feast Day.

But do any of us know who St. Lawrence is?

This is a picture of him.

And do you see what’s behind him there, that metal square like thing?

It’s a griddle.  Like an actual griddle.  Just like the ones we put over campfires for our bacon and eggs in the morning.

But, of course have to ask, “Why in the world is St. Lawrence depicted with a griddle?”

Well, the year was 258, less than 200 years after the gospel of John was written, and before Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire.

And since Christians kept declaring that Jesus was Lord (and thus that Cesar wasn’t), they were viewed as a threat to the Empire, as people whose patriotism was suspect. So at the time Emperor Valerian declared that any bishop, priest, or deacon should immediately be put the death and all their wealth be confiscated by the state.  And so relatively quickly, Pope St. Sixtus II was captured and executed in Rome.

At the time, St. Lawrence was a deacon of the church, and he was in charge of the treasury.  And so the prefect of Rome summoned St. Lawrence and demanded that he turn over the riches of the church to the Roman Empire.

Upon this request, St. Lawrence asked for 3 days to gather all the riches of the church.  And he was granted those 3 days.

And do you know what he did?  During those 3 days, he took all the riches of the church, and he gave every penny away to the poor and homeless.  He gave it all away.

And then, on the third day, he gathered up those whom he had given the money to, and they all walked to the prefect of Rome.  The prefect was expecting gold and silver, and when he saw St. Lawrence leading his unique band of followers, the prefect asked:  “Where are the riches of the church that I demanded?”

St. Lawrence replied “Here are the riches of the church!  And you will never be as rich as they are!”

Yeah, well that didn’t go well with the authorities. I can’t imagine why not.  So they made a big bed of hot coals, and put a big griddle over those coals, and placed St. Lawrence on them until he died.

Legend goes on to suggest that after a while of laying on the griddle, St. Lawrence lifted his head and yelled “I am well done.  Turn me over!”

And this why he is the patron saint of cooks and chefs.

St. Lawrence died on August 10.  And that is the day that Jacques Cartier sailed into the St. Lawrence River.


Deep within our Christian tradition we have the image of a towel and a basin, the story of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet, of Jesus serving, of Jesus inviting us to serve.

At the time of Jesus, do you know who did the foot washing?

Slaves.  Some scholars point out that it probably was primarily women slaves who did the foot washing.  So for Jesus to do what he did and get on his hands and knees and wash the feet of his disciples, finding a good 2018 comparison is difficult.

I asked on Facebook for some modern day examples, and some people suggested it would be like CEOs cleaning toilets (like undercoverboss!), or like us cleaning up at hotels and the movie theatres instead of us leaving our garbage for the staff.

pope-francis-1

Pope Francis tries to model this.  Two years ago he got down on his hands and knees and not only washed and dried the feet of 12 Muslim migrants, but he also kissed them.  And last year he went to a prison and washed the feet of inmates, some of whom were serving life sentences.

In my Lent readings this year, Watler Brueggemann has offered this:

“Get your mind off yourself long enough to care;  be so concerned about the well-being of the human community that you don’t have to worry about your place, your church, your class, your values, your vested interests.”  – Walter Brueggemann

The image of the master getting down on their hands and knees to wash someone’s feet, is profound.


But it’s not only profound in how counter-cultural it is.    It’s also profound because it foreshadows the self-emptying love of Jesus.

It’s the embodiment of one of the oldest hymns we have as found in Philippians 2.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

The Greek word for this is kenosis – Self-Emptying Love. It’s the renunciation of one’s own status in the world to love others, and treat others better than ourselves. Kenosis is the way of Jesus.


A quick aside, but an important one. Foot washing. Kenosis.  Self-Emptying Love.  Serving.  These are voluntary acts on our part. They cannot be used as tools of manipulation. “I served you, and now you need to serve me!” Kenosis is not about people owing you favours.  Nope.  It’s about love freely given.

For example, in today’s story, it takes place the night before Jesus is crucified.  And we read that Jesus washed the feet of all 12 disciples… Including Judas.  And that very night Judas still betrayed Jesus.

And Jesus didn’t play the “Hey man… Don’t betray me.  I washed your feet two hours ago!”

Genuine acts of love come with no strings attached.


But, while we’re talking about Judas…  Can you believe that Jesus washed his feet?  The same night that Judas betrayed him?

I, for one, would not want to wash the feet of Judas.

I would want to throw rocks at Judas. But I guess the pacifist side of me might show up, so instead of rocks I’d at least make a snide Facebook post about Judas.  But definitely not wash his feet.

So here’s a question for us today:

Whose feet do we not want to wash?

I can think of lots of reasons why I don’t want to wash certain feet.   And every time I do, I am reminded not only of the example of Jesus, but also the commandment of Jesus.

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.   I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”   – John 13:14-15

This is part of the deal.  This is part of following Jesus. This is part of declaring Jesus to be Lord.  We don’t get to decide if we should serve or not.  We don’t get to decide who gets served or not.  We serve.


Here’s some good news.  If we do these things, if we don’t consider ourselves better than others, if we get on your hands and knees and wash the feet of others, if we are able to serve those around us, Jesus says that we are blessed.

“Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” John 13:17.

Not #blessed, like you are going to get good health and financial security.  Not #blessed like God is going to do something big to knock your socks.  God is not like Santa Claus, where he’s keeping a list of who’s naughty and nice and going to give us a present or a lump of coal.    Jesus himself still died the next day.  Jesus being a “good guy with a good heart who helped people” didn’t spare him from being crucified.  St. Lawrence was still burned alive on a griddle.  There’s no guarantee that we’re going to get anything out of serving.

Rather, this is the blessing.  When we serve, we already are blessed.  “When we serve, we are close to God and live in God’s presence.” (Jean Vanier)  When we serve, we are already living the abundant life Jesus promises. When we serve, we are already living the grace-filled peaceful life that transcends time.  That IS the blessing.   Serving others IS the blessing.


And here’s some even better news – We don’t have to be famous or a leader to serve.  We don’t have to the deacon in charge of the treasury like St. Lawrence.

During the Super Bowl a few weeks ago, if you were able to watch some of the American commercials, you might have seen a truck commercial that featured people doing things and some trucks driving around.    And throughout the background was the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, giving a speech about serving.

The ad was pretty much considered a flop.  Like, don’t use Dr. King to sell trucks.

And then, people started digging a little bit deeper into Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s entire speech, and then it came out that the speech was actually an anti-consumer speech!  It was a speech advising people to not care about upward mobility, not to care about keeping up with Jones’, but to serve. And the speech even went so far as to say don’t trust the advertisers because they are telling you that in order to make your neighbours envious of you, you must drive this type of car.

That was a really expensive Super Bowl Ad flop.

But, the words behind the ad… Those are great.  Here they are:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0xq0cFvyks

 

Lent. Desert. Life.

Lent is starting today.  I’ve known for a while that it’s coming (you know… being a pastor and all).  And I’ve been wondering what these 40 days before Easter will bring to my soul.

A few weeks ago, Alana Levandoski emailed her Patreon supporters a song called Hymn from the Desert, about how sometimes the desert shapes us.  That same day, one of my kids brought home a Dr. Seuss book about deserts.  I could name this as coincidence.  Or I could name it as something divine. (Actually, does it really matter?)

I found the word desert to be a good word to sit with, as I sense that I may be in one.   Just a little one, but something feels off a bit inside me.  Maybe it’s the cold and dark of winter.  Maybe it’s a full schedule.  Maybe it’s the expectations I feel others have of me. And maybe it’s because it’s been 3 months since the sudden, tragic death of a loved one and grief is an unpredictable beast.  I’m having a hard time precisely naming it, other than knowing it’s there.

So I’ve settled on the word desert.

And in the desert, one is thirsty.

Thirsty for rain.  Thirsty for living water.  Thirsty for life.

“Lent is an opportunity to give up something is sucking the life out of us so we can be filled with God, with life, with love again.”  – Shane Claibornne

So I have asked myself two questions:

  • What gives life?
  • What takes away life?

So, I’m going to wake up early and practice Centering Prayer, followed by working through Walter Brueggemann’s book A Way Other Than Our Own.  I’ve done this in the past, so I know I find life in these spiritual practices (We’ll see if my kids will blow out my candle each morning again).

And to make up for the lost sleep (since that takes away life), I’ll do my best to head to bed early (it’s a good thing Easter is early this year so this won’t affect the Jets making the playoffs).

40 days. That doesn’t seem too hard, does it?  Maybe one of the beautiful things about Lent is that it’s only 40 days, so I have a definite goal to work towards (unlike those pesky New Years resolutions, which have no end date other than when we quit 5 days in).

Maybe I’ll find life in the desert.  Maybe I won’t.  Either way, I’m looking forward to the next 40 days, as I’m quite sure God can be found in the desert too.

Grace and Peace,

Kyle

Smashing the Patriarchy, The Rock, and Luxury Cars

A sermon based on John 7:53-8:11, traditionally known as Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery

So, two quick things before we hear this morning’s scripture.

Number 1.  If you read this story in your Bibles, it’s probably italicized, and has a disclaimer saying that this story isn’t found in the earliest manuscripts.  I did a bit of research on where this story came from, and why it’s here, and honestly, I can’t give you a great answer. Some people suggest it’s two different stories mashed into one and just stuck in here because the text flows.  Other people suggest Luke wrote it and it actually belongs near the end of Luke’s gospel.  Others say the story floated around independently for hundreds of years.  I can’t give you a great answer.

But what I can do is give a great question:  As we we listen to the story, and as I preach, in the back of your mind, wonder… Why was this story left out of the earliest manuscripts?  And why did it eventually get inserted into the gospel of John.  Why do you think it was left out, and why do you think it was added?

Number 2.  My sermon today might be a tad unsettling.  For all of us.   I’m going to say some things that I think the text could be saying to us, some hard things to hear, so I wanted to let you know that my usual disclaimer is in place:  You are all free to agree or disagree with me, if you want to continue the conversation we’ll be meeting in the side room after worship, but most importantly, some of the unsettling things I’m going to say unsettle me as well.  So with whatever I say today, I’m not saying them “against” you, but rather I’m saying them “with” you.  We’re all in this together.


So, you come to church on a Sunday, singing your hymns and enjoying the children’s story, and then a mob of men come through the front doors and down the middle aisle, bringing forward a woman.  And they are debating whether or not they should throw stones at her for committing adultery.

That’s a pretty dark scene, isn’t it?

What would you do?  What would we do?

Well, there are obviously many different ways one could respond.  But let’s start today by asking a question:

Where is the man?

Like, one does not commit adultery by themselves.  So, where is the man?

Was he at home?  Taking a nap?   Maybe he was visiting his parents in the nursing home?

Why does he seem to bear none of the consequences for adultery, while she faces death?  He’s supposed to, as Leviticus 20:10 says that they’re both supposed to die.

“If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.”

So where is he?

It’s probably worth noticing that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were all men too.

We can name it for what it is:  Patriarchy.

Patriarchy is a system of society or government or religion in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.

The men make the laws, the men carry out the laws, the men decide who lives and who dies, and conveniently, the man who committed adultery is nowhere in the picture.

One of the ways to understand this story is that it is Jesus confronting patriarchy, of giving this woman, and all women, the dignity and worth and safety that they deserve.

To borrow a popular phrase, we can say that Jesus is smashing the patriarchy.

When I was on Sabbatical, Ash and I went to a conference in Chicago called “Why Christian”, where they featured voices of people who have historically been left out, sidelined, or oppressed by Christianity.  So the speakers were all either women, people of colour, or sexual minorities.   When the list of speakers was published, and it was all women, people would ask the organizers… “I only see women speaking.  Is this a women’s conference?”   Their response?  “If there were only men speaking, does that mean it’s automatically a men’s conference?”

Of the 1000 of us who attended, I’d venture to say that 80% of the attendees were women.  And during one of the breaks, I went to use the washroom. And, as I got near the door, there was a grandma standing in front of the men’s room, and she said to me “I’m sorry, you can’t go in there.  We’ve taken over.”  To which I responded:  “You know, I’m all up for smashing the patriarchy with you, but I really need to go to the bathroom.”  She said, “No. I’m sorry.  You gotta go somewhere else!”

Smashing the patriarchy is great in theory and all, but there are some real consequences, people.  What about us men?  <smile>  (I don’t think I’m getting much sympathy from at least half of you right now).

In fall, I was talking to someone who was thinking about coming to our church.  We were in the basement, and one of the question she asked was, “Can women be leaders here?”  To which I replied, “Of course they can!  God calls forth both women and men to lead equally!”  And then her eyes drifted to the pictures of all the previous pastors put up on the wall.  “Oh shoot,”  I thought.  “We have only hired men as pastors.”

That was a really uncomfortable conversation for me, people.  I quickly chimed in:  “Despite our long history of hiring men as pastors, we really are cool with women pastors.  Like, really.”

Now, I actually think we do a pretty decent job here at Grace trying to get a gender balance in most of the thing we do… We are intentional about asking women to lead in a variety of ways.  But we haven’t hired any women pastors.

I wonder why.  Maybe none applied?    But then I wonder, why have no women applied?

And, to reiterate, I’m with you on this one. This isn’t a shot at anyone. I actually think we’ve hired good people over the years.  I’m grateful you hired me.  And when Mel was hired all those years ago I was a regular church member sitting in the back, and I don’t remember wondering about our history of hiring male pastors.  (Although, for the record, I am really glad we hired him…).

But the next time we hire a pastor, we need to intentionally sit with the question of why a church that affirms women as leaders, has yet to hire a female pastor.

Smashing the patriarchy can be… unsettling.  But I am quite sure it’s worth the discomfort.


Dwayne_Johnson_at_the_2009_Tribeca_Film_Festival

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has nothing to do with my sermon other than it’s about throwing stones.  But last sermon I used a picture of  Zooey Deschanel, so I figured I’d aim for a gender balance.  Plus, that sermon got about a 400% increase in hits, so I guess this is also blatant click bait.

Speaking of smashing things, do you know that you can follow the Bible and stone someone?  Like, you actually can.  The religious leaders were holding rocks in one hand and their Holy Scriptures in other.

You can follow the Bible and stone someone.

But can you stone someone while following Jesus?

Why would we want to stone someone in the first place?


I’m going to go somewhere here now, as gently as possible.   But I think this text speaks volumes to us as to why we’d want to stone someone in the first place.

Last month, I was talking to a friend…   And she asked me question:   “Kyle, why is someone’s sexual orientation such a big deal some churches? I don’t get it.”

Okay.   I’m going to tell you what I told her, but I do so hesitantly for a few reasons. Here are my disclaimers.

  • If you identify as LGBTQ+, or have friends or family who do, you are beloved, and you bear God’s image as much as anybody else. You always have and you always will.
  • We at Grace have asked ourselves,  “Regardless of someone’s age, race, culture, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, wealth, education, religious background, disabilities, or different abilities, is our church a place where they can explore and grow in faith in Jesus Christ?  Our hope is yes.   We can totally talk about whether or not we are succeeding at this or failing at this, but this is what we’re aiming for.
  • And I am really hesitant to even compare the woman caught in adultery with sexual orientation because I consider one’s orientation similar to whether or not someone is left-handed… I actually leave the “sin” part of the conversation right out. We’re not comparing apples to apples here.
  • Also, the woman caught in adultery faced being stoned, and I am aware that violence against sexual minorities is still a very real threat.  So I am treading lightly.

So those are my disclaimers.  But I think we can move forward from here.

I told my friend, “I think it’s a big deal to some for many reasons, but I think here are two big ones.”

  1. First deep within our DNA as churches, especially Mennonite churches, and as Christians, is the idea of purity. Not, like sexual purity, but that the point of faith is to “sin less.” Purity is the underlying value.  And, we come by it honestly. Deep in the history of Christianity we find leaders emphasizing Ephesians 5:27 –… “[the church should] be radiant, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”  Sin less. Don’t sin.   This partly explains the long history of Mennonite revivals, and thus churches splitting.  Flee from sin at all costs.
  2. Secondly, as we are seeking to not sin, we have to define sin. And the easiest way for us to define sin is to name something that’s really obvious, and open, and a sin we are most likely not to commit.    So, sexual orientation, and actually most “sexual sins” becomes an easy target in churches because many of us aren’t likely to sin that way.  Or at least, we can keep it a secret (until there’s a baby, or we’re caught in the arms of another lover).  It is easier to highlight and name and blame people who are “sinning” in ways that we are not likely to sin.  That way we will not be called hypocrites.  And it’s easy to be pure, it’s easy to be a church without spot and wrinkle, it’s easy to be in a church that doesn’t sin when we banish sin from our midst. We blame it, shame it, exclude it, we excommunicate it, we shun in, we stone it, and it feels good, because we are doing what God wants us to do.

But, for other sins that might hit a bit closer to home?  Oh, we are way more cautious.  When it comes to our wealth, and how we spend our money, and the luxury cars we buy, and the renovations we do on our houses… Oh, well, that conversation needs nuance.  Because we can’t stone everyone who buys a new luxury car with bells and whistles that we probably don’t need, can we?

Or.. take hospitality.  We read in Genesis 19 that God destroyed the entire towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, and then in Ezekiel 16:49-50 we explicitly read that it was because they weren’t hospitable to foreigners.

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”

Using my Bible, and some “interesting” biblical interpretation skills, I really could make the case that God’s going to destroy any church that doesn’t sponsor refugees.   Like, wipe them off the face of the earth like Sodom and Gomorrah for not practicing hospitality.

Or, if I wanted to be a little gentler, I could simply make the case that they are sinning, and we are not.  That we are following God’s law better than they are.  And that kind of feels good, doesn’t it.

If we frame our entire understanding of faith as “sin less”, we inevitably find a “sinful” target to blame, shame, exclude, excommunicate, to shun, or to stone.

And, if those targets end up being people with less social capital, less resources, less power, we will end up with blood on our hands.  Holocausts and lynchings and refugees crossing fields in winter and sexual minorities and women caught in adultery.

And we can do it all with a stone in one hand and a Bible in the other.

So, here’s an unsettling question for us all today, including me, because I especially love throwing stones at people who throw stones (so… maybe I should just skip a few steps and throw the stones at myself?).

Whom do we want to throw stones at?   


Here’s the good news.

Jesus doesn’t throw stones.

He forgave the woman, invited her to make better life choices, and then let her leave in peace.

And… Lent starts on Wednesday, and as we start looking ahead to Good Friday, we find that Jesus is the victim of mob violence.   “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” the crowds yelled.  The chief priest actually says in John : “It is better for one man to die for the people than that the whole nation perish!” (John 11:50).

By Jesus becoming the target, he reveals the entire system for what it is.  Violent. Evil.  And unnecessary.  And he then he actually goes one step further and offers forgiveness to the very people who are killing him.

Jesus doesn’t throw stones.

And the closer we are to Jesus, the less we want to throw stones at each other. – Shane Claiborne.

That is good news indeed.

An Apology, Boring Church Services, and Zooey Deschanel

A sermon based on John 3:1-21

Okay, first of all, I need to start my sermon with an apology.  When I preached a few weeks ago, I didn’t communicate clearly.

I made the comparison of how someone asking if anything good can come from Nazareth is like Dog River speaking ill of Wullerton in Corner Gas, or how Steinbachers make fun of Grunthal, and how we need to repent of our arrogance.

The feedback I received was the most passionate and immediate I’ve ever received in 8 years of preaching here, and I’ve said a lot of things.  But of this feedback, there were definitely two camps.    I will apologize to both of them.

The first camp was those of you who are from Grunthal, or have family there, or love it, and you felt you had to defend it, and were a bit miffed at me comparing it to Wullerton <spit>.  I am sorry for not clearly communicating how our arrogance and conceit are sin.  Nobody is better than anybody else.  I have coached ultimate Frisbee for the past 7 years in Grunthal, and I have genuinely seen the light.

But the second camp… You were the ones who came up to me in the foyer and started telling me jokes about Grunthal, and how the only good thing to come out of Grunthal was highway 205.  I am sorry for not clearly communicating to you how arrogance and conceit are sin.  And nobody is better than anybody else.  There will be alter call after today’s sermon, and you’ll be invited to come as you are to repent and be born again.

But the worst that week was Mel.  Yes, wise Pastor Mel, whom I missed so much when he was on Sabbatical.  He was the worst because in the office that week, he introduced me to a new teacher from the Red River College English classes.  He said “Kyle, this is so and so, and she’s from Grunthal.  Hey, you mentioned Grunthal in your sermon on Sunday. Why don’t you tell her what you said?”

After I told her that I invited people to repent of their arrogance, she said to me, “Oh, don’t worry about it.  I may live in Grunthal, but I’m from Kleefeld, and Grunthal think they’re better than Kleefeld, so I get it.”

(And we won’t even start with the Mennonite town, French town thing).

We do this wonderful ability to divide ourselves up and declare ourselves better, don’t we?  We take a piece of our identity, an important and good and healthy piece of our identity, and we sometimes put it up on a pedestal and use that position to criticize and disparage others, and think we’re better than them.

I think that’s what happened with the “born-again” over the past several decades.  The phrase was used to describe those of us who made a deliberate decision to follow Jesus, an acknowledgment that Jesus is Lord and that we give Jesus the right to tell us how to live.   To be “born-again” was an attempt to articulate all sorts of good things that we Christians participate in:  confession, repentance, salvation, growing in relationship with God.

But what some of us turned it into was a checklist of things that we use to prop up our own sense of self, our own sense of rightness, often at the expense of others.  So being  a “born again” Christian meant something else, something special, something better, than the other Christians.

Great example: I grew up Catholic here in Steinbach, and I distinctly remember being told in Grade 10 Geography that Catholics are not Christian.  I didn’t take kindly to that assertion, so I responded with some ingenious non-violent resistance by taking that kids binder and writing all over it “Catholics are Christian!  Catholics are Christian!”  I think I converted him that day <smile>.

As I was preparing this sermon, I actually had quite a few stories of people being told “Are you born again?  You should probably say a prayer, just to make sure you’re good.”  Or, “Some Christians believe, but we, true Christians, believe this.”  Or, if we’re flying somewhere and the stranger next to us asks “Are you a born again Christian?” we quickly put in our earphones?  They were so easy to come by, I took most of them out.

But I do think it’s remarkable how something that can be a good part of our identities, can become something toxic. I think it’s because we the labels we use, such as Mennonite or Evangelical or Born Again or Catholic or Christian…  I think we use these words, very earnestly and well intentioned because they’re an important part of our identity and do a decent job to describe how we try to live in this world.  But when we use those labels to divide the world up into categories, or make ourselves seem better than others, well, yeah, I think we’re setting ourselves up for some disappointment.

We’re going to come back to the phrase “born-again” in a bit, so just hang on to it a bit

Let’s go to John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”    This is probably one of the most well-known verses in the Bible.

I preached on this verse 6 years ago.  I found my old sermon, and I kind of still liked it, which is surprising, because usually I re-read old sermons and think “What was I thinking?”

So, many of you weren’t here 6 years ago, so this might be new.  And some of you might have been here 6 years ago, but I’d be pleasantly surprised if you remembered it!  But I’ll risk it and repeat some of what I still find to ring true.

John 3:16 has been understood as a pathway to get to heaven (eternal life) and avoid hell (perish).  That Christianity is about spending eternity with God, playing our harps on streets of gold, and most of us will surprised to see that Mennonites aren’t the only ones in heaven.  <smile – That was a joke>.  Some people call it fire insurance… others call it God’s evacuation plan.

But I don’t really think that’s what this verse is saying, though.  It’s one of these questions about reading Scripture:  Are we reading what the text is saying?  Or are we reading what we think the text is saying?  What came first, the chicken or the egg?  Is the text shaping our thinking?  Or is our thinking shaping how we read the text?  In this case, I think that when we read the words eternal life and perish, what we end up doing it taking take our pre-conceived ideas of heaven and hell and applying them to the text.

Why do I think this? (Thanks to Shane Hipps in Selling Water by the River for spelling this out so clearly to me).

When we read in English “eternal life”, the Greek words are aion zoe.  Which we have traditionally translated as eternal life, the literal continuation of time as we know it.  365 days a year, over and over and over again.  Billions and trillions of years.

That is not the proper translation of aion zoe.  Aion zoe is not forever and ever and ever in the afterlife.

Aion has two meanings:

The first is that it means an age, a period of time.  Something that has a beginning and an end.  Not forever, but a tangible timeframe.  For example, if you see someone at Sobeys you haven’t seen in a while, you say:  I haven’t seen you in forever!  You’ve been gone for ages!  You don’t mean literally millions of years.  You mean:  I haven’t seen you the last time I saw you.  A beginning and an end.

Or we say:  The hippie era was a good era.  By driving your electric VW van, you are really capturing the spirit of the age of the hippies.  Woodstock was so great, it was like I was there, man.   Beginning, end.  An age.

The second definition of aion means an intense experience that transcends time.  Positively, it’s like a good movie.  You’re having such a good time, 60 minutes passes and it feels like seconds.   Kind of like church on Sunday morning.  Or, negatively, Aion is like a boring university lecture, or a sermon about the Greek words used in John 3:16 might only take 20 minutes, but it seems like hours.

Aion.   So it’s an intense experiences that transcends time, but has a beginning and an end.

Zooey-Deschanel-e1510168742416-833x768.jpg

Zoe, besides being a very popular name for children, and the same name as my favourite actress, Zooey Deschanel, it means life, but not life on the surface, like the things we do or what happens to us, but existence itself.  Like no matter how great or how hard life is at any moment, we still breathe in and we still breathe out.  Easily or barely, we breathe. Zoe is life itself.

 

Zoe goes by other names in English.  Some call it the human spirit, the divine spark.  Others call it unconditional love, others call it grace, and others call it the peace that passes all understanding.

So eternal life, aion zoe, is the intense experience of peaceful, grace-filled life that transcends time.

God loved the world so much that he sent his one and only son so those who believe in him can have aion zoe.

But what about the word perish?  That surely means hell, right?

No.  Jesus refers to Hell only a handful of times in all of the gospels, and the only people he sends there are either rich people or religious leaders.  Which is bad for pastors who live in suburbia.  And Jesus uses the word Gehenna, which was a dump outside Jerusalem where they threw dead bodies and was always on fire.

And even then, Jesus does not use the word Gehenna here.

The word used in John 3:16 is Apollumi.

And Apollumi can be translated:

Ruin.  Loss of personal welfare.  This is the word Jesus uses to describe the Prodigal son who took half his Dad’s wealth and partied.  He was apollumi.  Not dead, like dead not breathing dead.   Just ruined and missing everything good in this world.

It’s like saying:  You’re dead to me.  You’re not physically dead, but the loss of personal welfare in your life.

So to summarize, for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not experience ruin and a loss of personal welfare but have an intense experience of a peaceful, grace-filled life.

Yeah, I know.  Crazy.  Maybe we should just stick to making fun of small cities and towns that we don’t like.  That’s a lot easier, isn’t it?    Here are the rules, here are the categories, and it’s simple.  Toronto thinks it’s better than Winnipeg, Winnipeg thinks it’s better than Steinbach, Steinbach thinks it’s better than Grunthal.  Grunthal thinks it’s better than Kleefeld.  Kleefeld thinks it’s better than New Bothwell.  New Bothwell thinks it’s better than Randolph.  And we all think we’re better than Saskatchewan.

Here are the rules. Here are the categories.  It’s simple.

And then Jesus tells Nicodemus – No.  You think you have it all figured out, but no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.

Born again is a metaphor.  All language for God is metaphor (this goodie is from Richard Rohr).  Jesus uses metaphors ALL the time.  He’s always saying “It’s like this, or like that, or here’s a story for you.”   Born again is a metaphor.

Nicodemus doesn’t get really get it, as he asks how one can re-enter their mother’s womb.

And then Jesus goes on and uses more metaphors and similes.  He talks about the Spirit being like wind… You can experience it, but you can’t see it.

And Nicodemus couldn’t understand.  Nicodumus thought he knew the answers.  He knew the laws.  He knew the rules.

But Jesus invites him to “think differently”.

That’s what I’ve settled on this week as a good understanding of “born again”.  Think differently.  God is bigger than any of us, and if we remain open to God working in ways that we don’t understand, then I think we’re on the right path.

Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without “thinking differently”.  Think differently about money, about power, about control, about success, about surrender, about servanthood.  Think differently about enemies, about who’s first and who’s last.  Think differently about about the stock market and political parties and our country. Think differently about our own sense of certainty. Think differently about winning and losing.

And I think, when we are able to do this, to open ourselves to God’s infinite possibilities, to God’s upside down kingdom, then I think we’re opening ourselves up to aion zoe –  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not experience ruin and a loss of personal welfare but have an intense experience of peaceful, grace-filled life that transcends time.

Now that’s quite the invitation, isn’t it?