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Third Sunday in Advent: Joy

In the classic Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence, an angel-in-
training, shows George Bailey what life would be like if he had never been born. Clarence

is not your typical angel. He bumbles along, at times seems uncertain about his ability, and
definitely does not instill the kind of fear at seeing a holy apparition that one might think.
Yet, through his time warping tactics the message is clear that the world is a better place
because George Bailey is in it and of course, at the end of it all Clarence becomes a real
angel by getting his wings. While the story is sweet and heartwarming, and a definite
classic in our house. I’m going to say that Frank Capra and the other screen writers didn’t
consult Biblical text when developing their angelic character. Throughout scripture, when
angels appear, they often terrify those who have received such messengers. In Ezekiel the
angel appears surrounded by wind and fire and he writes, “This was their appearance, they
were of human form. Each had four faces and each of them had four wings, The legs were
straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot…as for the appearance
of their faces the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side,
the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of eagle.” Definitely not what Clarence
looks like but definitely a being that would make me quake or run in terror. I think
perhaps this is why, when the angels appear to the shepherds, the first words spoken are,
“Do not be afraid” because in truth…I’d be afraid.
Today we hear the beginning of the story of Mary. It says that when Gabriel was
sent by God to Mary he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with
you.” And then it says that she was perplexed by his words and wondered what sort of
greeting this might be. Now,in this story it gives no physical description of Gabriel but I’m
going to bet that he didn’t look like what most of the angelic painted depictions of him
look like. It should be pointed out that this is not the first time Gabriel is mentioned in the
Bible. Gabriel first appears in the Book of Daniel, which if you recall from two weeks ago
I said that the Book of Daniel is a pretty apocalyptic book. It is filled with terrifying and
confusing visions. Daniel happens to say, however, that Gabriel had the appearance of a
man, but this isn’t an ordinary man because Daniel goes on to say that as he came near
Daniel became frightened and fell prostrate. Gabriel then goes on to help Daniel
understand his vision of the end times. The name Gabriel means “God is my strength” and
I get the sense that Gabriel was one tough or strong looking dude. So- no wonder Mary is
perplexed and wonders what sort of greeting this might be.

Often this story is called the annunciation, a formal announcement. Sending an
angel is certainly one way of making whatever has to be said have some gravitas. And this
is a big announcement. Gabriel says, “The Lord is with you.” There are a few other
instances throughout the Old Testament in which an angel or prophet tells the person that
the Lord is with them. It was an angel that appeared to Gideon and said, “The Lord is with
you, you mighty warrior.” In his commendation of David the prophet Nathan says to him
“The Lord is with you.” That phrase takes on a whole new meaning as Mary hears how
the Lord will be with her. She will bear a Son, “the Son of the Most High.” She is about to
give birth to the one through whom we will be able to see the invisible God. And the Lord
will be with her through the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps it is this knowledge that the Lord is with her that allows Mary to so
faithfully accept this news. Because this pregnancy, out of wedlock, could have cost Mary
her upcoming marriage, even her life. It certainly would have brought shame to her family.
Yet she has an openness to God that is unlike most people. In our Bible study we heard
how William Barclay said, “Mary had learned to forget the world’s commonest prayer-
“Thy will be changed” and to pray the world’s greatest prayer- “Thy will be done.”
Faithfully, Mary cared for Jesus, helped shape his thinking, encouraged his abilities, and
followed him to the foot of the Cross. We will hear next week Mary’s Magnificat- the
moment in which she is able to actually sing about her pregnancy. This is in part because
she is in the presence of her relative Elizabeth- the only other woman who could possibly
know what she is going through.
Isaiah’s words help us to also understand how Mary could have received this
announcement from Gabriel with such willingness. This passage is not only about God’s
longing to heal the brokenness of humanity but it also challenges us to not only be
recipients of the reconciling love but to be bearers of that love in our own time and place.
Mary completely embodied what being a bearer of love should look like. And it all started
with words from a terrifying angel.
While the carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is a well known Christmas Carol
the tune did not start out that way. Charles Wesley, one the founders of the Methodist
church, wrote the poem but it was then called “Hymn for a Christmas Day” and he
requested that it be played to slow and solemn music. And it was sung to that tune for over
a hundred years until Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata to commemorate the 400
th
anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable printing press. One of the pieces
entitled, “Vaterland, in deinen Gauen” begins the second part of the cantata and it was that
tune that was later adapted for Hark the Herald Angels sing. I actually appreciate that a
song about an invention that changed the world became the melody for a poem about an

announcement that changed the world.
The incredible angel Gabriel says “For nothing will be impossible with God.” For
me, those words are more important than the actual annunciation and they ring hard in my
ears this year. None of us were prepared for the kind of year that 2020 turned out to be.
But what gives me joy is knowing that throughout these unprecedented times, these
unusual times, these unpredictable times, that God makes the impossible possible. Mary
teaches us much about discipleship in challenging times because the only response we
should be giving to our time and place are “Here I am, a servant of the Lord; let it be with
me according to your word.” Because after all, even throughout this year, it is a wonderful
life, that God has granted us. Amen

Second Sunday in Advent: Peace and Communion

If you’ve been to Port Hardy, you know that a must stop photo opportunity can be
found, in front of the big carrot at waterfront park. The plaque in front of the carrot reads,
“this carrot, marking the northern end of the island highway, is a symbol of government
road building promises, dangled in front of the North Island settlers since 1897. The successful 1970s ‘carrot campaign’ was aimed at making the government keep promises of
a completed highway.” It is hard to believe that prior to 1979 the only roads connecting
the north island to Campbell River was a series of unpaved, dirt, narrow, winding,
dangerous logging roads that over the decades saw many a car get stuck in mud, fall into
ditches, or blow a tire- as seen in the Port Hardy Museum. Each election year a politician
would promise to pave the road but when it came time to keep said promise there was
always an excuse. So, in 1976 the local paper encouraged residents to send carrots to the
provincial capital to remind their MLAs that the highway was still not finished. It was a
successful campaign that saw them get their flat, paved and completed highway three years
later. Now, it’s a smooth, accessible road that easily transports traffic to the north of the
island. While I am sure that the author of Isaiah did not mean the highway to Port Hardy
when he wrote, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, the rough places a plain,” I do think it could have
resonated with the residents of Port Hardy in 1976.
This passage in Isaiah was likely written while the Israelites were in exile. The
prophet was preaching to an audience that had experienced major trauma- these were
extremely challenging times and their relationship with God was deeply wounded as a
result. This is perhaps why this passage seems a bit timeless and has been called “the heart
of the Old Testament.” It dramatically demonstrates the challenges the relationship
between God and God’s people have throughout history. But unlike most political
promises- these promises are kept.

This text also happens to be a bridge between the before times and now times.
You see, the end of chapter 39 anticipates the fall of Jerusalem while Isaiah 40 assumes
the fall has happened. And yet, the first word of chapter 40 is comfort. The Israelites were
in need of words of comfort- not empty promises, but words that would bring the truth of
God’s presence among them. After the destruction of the temple, the shattering of
illusions, the years of captivity, surely a little comfort was in order. However, only in
understanding the conjunction of the verb in Hebrew do we realize that the cry for comfort
in this passage is a plural imperative. It is a command to offer comfort, not to be
comforted. Despite their tragedy they are being commanded to stop thinking of themselves
and comfort others.
It should also be pointed out that this highway that is being levelled and
smoothed is not for them, it is not for the Israelites in their hope of returning to Jerusalem
but rather for God. Sometimes finding a pathway to God is bumpy and full of uneven
ground. It can be muddy and messy and sometimes we can get stuck. But what this
passage implies is that while it feels as though God has abandoned the people in exile God will be accessible again. The glory of God will be revealed and all people shall see it
together. Old Testament scholar Michael Chan points out, “The language of revelation in
v. 5 is very important. The glory of the Lord needs to be revealed because, from the exiles’
perspective, it has been hidden, and a hidden God is a terrifying God. This passage seeks
to convince its audience that the season of God’s hidden-ness has come to an end.” God is
made accessible.

And what better way to make God accessible than through the accessibility of
Jesus Christ. The passage we heard in Mark accompanies the Isaiah passage in our
lectionary because Mark quotes from Isaiah 40- linking this prophecy with the appearance
and ministry of John the Baptist which then connects John with his cousin Jesus. Despite
it’s abruptness this is a pretty theological 8 verses. The Gospel of Mark is not known for
its subtlety. But Mark also does something that was previously not done in any of the
other books of the Bible. Mark announces the name of a new genre and its theme at the
very start. He writes, “The beginning of good news.” Mark creates an entirely new genre
of literature within the story of God and God’s people. And the good news is that Jesus
makes God accessible-to everyone!

The road to Bethlehem for Mary and Joseph would have been a bumpy one. I can
only imagine what it would be like travelling, likely on a donkey, when one is 9 months
pregnant, on a dusty and dirty road that is pretty much always going up. Yet, in Cecil
Frances Alexander’s poem “Once in royal David’s city” there is a peacefulness that
surrounds this story. In her second stanza, as we sang it, it says, “Christ came down to
earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all…. with the poor, oppressed and lowly, love
on earth our saviour holy, and our eyes at last shall see him.” The promise of a God that is
accessible, and present, and knows our human condition is revealed.
Most roads have highs and lows- especially on this island. The highway to Port
Hardy may pass through the Sayward Valley but it also drives beside Mt. Cain. For the
people of Israel in the Isaiah passage, this is an extremely low point and yet the words
declare that at the people’s lowest point God breaks through. Mark tells us that this is good
news. I have to say 2020, was full of low points. For the Israelites in exile God felt more
hidden then present. For most of this year- our physical presence with each other has been
non-existent. But we have not been hidden from one another. And God’s presence is made
known and accessible through the person of Jesus Christ. Today we come to the table
which Jesus has prepared for us- another accessible way God’s glory can be revealed and
we find peace in this good news. Amen

First Sunday in Advent: Hope

In just one brief conversation, the Rev. Danni taught me much about hope. Danni
is a second generation Presbyterian- Palestinian Pastor at a Church in Bethlehem. When
Danni was a student in University, like many of his peers, he took part in the first Intifada.
He was beaten, he was arrested, he lost friends, some of whom died right before his eyes.
Yet- even as he talked to us about the current occupation and the awful, ugly wall that
surrounds Bethlehem he said, “Maybe I have the right to hate the Israelis. But God has
taught me how to love my enemy. I don’t hate the Israelis, I love them, I pray for them, I
have Israeli friends, and my dream, like other Palestinian leaders here, is to live in peace
with Israelis.” Despite all the challenges that Danni has had to endure he still prays and
hopes for peace and reconciliation in the Holy Land. I was amazed with each of the
Palestinians we met in that they all had hope. Hope in a future that would be drastically
different then the present they were living in. They hoped that the world would wake up to
their cries and work with them, rather than against them, in establishing peace in the Holy
Lands.

Hope is of course our advent theme this morning. But hope for what? In Mark we
hear what is often referred to as “the Little Apocalypse” by scholars. It is the most
straightforward report by Jesus about the last days. And yet, it sounds pretty hopeless.
First of all, Jesus says that the sun will darken, the stars will fall from the sky, the powers
in heaven will be shaken. He later follows that up with a parable about staying awake. I
don’t feel a whole lotta hope in this passage. And quite frankly the Isaiah passage isn’t
much help either with all its talk of quaking in God’s presence, fading away like the
sinners we are and the anger of God. So why on earth are these the passages for the first
Sunday in Advent with it’s theme of hope?

The Isaiah passage is a very startling passage with which to start advent. Yet, the
rending of the heavens is exactly what we seek at this time of year. In Advent, we recall
heavenly visitations of the past and anticipate the final visit yet to come. However, even
though Isaiah is a prophetic book, this passage is much more of a lament psalm. And the
lament comes in two ways. First, humanity’s failure to do what is right, and second feeling abandoned by God and the two are most definitely related. This psalm was likely written
and used during the exilic period- when the Israelites were living in a foreign land and they
asked God-where are you? Why do you harden our hearts against you? Will you continue
to be silent? This passage is asking us to explore the dark side of Advent- a communal
lament explored through waiting and wondering, where is God? Or perhaps more
precisely, where is God when we, humanity, make a mess of things?

This passage is lamenting this waiting- but also encourages the people to look
back and look ahead. Look back at what God has done in the past as proof that God will do
wondrous things in the future. You just have to be a little more patient and wait. Yet, that
too, waiting and wondering where God is, is a faithful response to God. I also appreciate
that this passage ends- not with an answer but a statement. It says, “Now consider, we are
are all your people.” Drawing back upon the hope that Rev. Danni taught me- I am
reminded that this isn’t about who is in and who is out but that we are all God’s people.
Hate has no place in hope.

The Mark passage is a little less clear- in part because it is easily broken into two
parts. First we have Jesus using prophetic language. It is filled with apocalyptic images
and is concerned with the coming of the Son of Man. These verses reflect language,
images, and ideas from Old Testament prophecy- particularly Daniel, a rather apocalyptic
book. But what makes it different, and hopeful, is that Jesus alludes that he is the Son of
Man. And that Son of Man, suffered, died, and was raised and it is he who will exercise
divine judgment. Despite the fact this Sunday is the start of a new church year, this
passage ties in beautifully with the passage from Matthew that we heard last week. At the
heart of these verses is the declaration that God, a God of love, will have final say over
the destiny of creation- including the sun and moon and stars-and Jesus will play a central
role in this promised judgment. Oddly enough, viewed that way, this passage should instill
us with more hope than fear. Jesus, the one who lived like us, knows what it is like to be
human, the one who died for us, is the one who judges us.

It is the last part that draws me back to this idea of hope and what it is we are
hoping for. We are hoping for a better future. Perhaps right now that is a future with a
vaccine. For my Palestinian friends it is a hope in a peace filled future. But waiting in hope
is not passive. Jesus reminds his disciples that, because we do not know the time in which
it will come we are to act like the servants of a grand home in which the Master’s return is
unknown. We should keep awake- keep busy- working toward that future we hope for. The
kids these days use the term “woke” (and honestly if I know about it, it means the kids
these days have moved on from using the term woke). But to be woke means to be
attentive or alert to the issues of social justice, often in reference to racial injustice. We need to wake up to the fact that hope for the future means living the future we hope for.
Music is a big part of my life, period. You all know that. Music is a very big part
of my advent and Christmas celebrations. One of my favourite Advent carols is “People in
darkness”. It might be new to some of you, although I do try to sneak it into a service each
year. The hymn was written and composed by the Rev. Dr. Dosia Carlson, who had hopes
of becoming a missionary in China but a bout with polio shattered that hope and resulted
in her being differently abled. But this change in her hoped for future did not deter her.
She was ordained and earned a doctorate in religion and counselling. She is the founder of
the Beatitudes Center a Christian retirement and assisted living facility in Arizona. Dosia
celebrated her 90th birthday this year. We are going to sing this hymn later on, think about
Dosia’s story and how she truly knows what it was like to be dealing with darkness,
sickness and trouble- yet she knew how to have hope and wait for the coming of Christ.
While we wait for Christmas we need to remember that Christ came into this world as a
brown-skinned Palestinian Jew, born to refugee parents. Yet, he preached a message of
hope that was bigger and grander than anyone could have imagined. Let’s wake up and live
the future we hope for. Amen

Reign of Christ

November 22 2020

I am going to be upfront and say that normally I avoid preaching Reign of Christ
Sunday- which is what this Sunday is called in our church calendar. In the past, this is a
weekend I have tried to take off as holidays, using the excuse that it will help me feel
rested for Advent but in reality, it is simply because I don’t like preaching on this Sunday. I
equally try to avoid using the synonym for this Sunday, Christ the King Sunday. I think
this is for two reasons. One, my feminist side baulks at all the masculine language around
this Sunday- even in our opening prayer I struggled with the language of kings to describe
idolatry- but I wanted to give it a try. Two, I often find the language around King and
Kingdom a bit archaic. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part, I might think of myself as a
monarchist in terms of my Canadian identity, but for me that language often brings up
ideas of feudalism, or Game of Thrones kind of leadership. When I think of Christ as
King, I have trouble imaging the incarnation of God, who hung on a cross, also having a
bejewelled crown on his head. So, this is where I am coming from when I think of Reign
of Christ Sunday. I just don’t like it…conversely however, perhaps ironically, the passage
this morning is one of my favourites. In fact, this passage in Matthew is likely why I have
remained in the church. As a teenager there was very little in the Bible that spoke to me
but this passage drove me to want to lead- because this is what the Christian community
should look like. So, this morning I am caught in this strange dichotomy of both wanting
to avoid and wanting to delve in.

To my relief, I discovered that Reign of Christ Sunday is actually a fairly new
concept within the church. It has only been in existence since 1925- so I could argue that
seeing as it is not part of the early church traditions I could avoid it all together. However,
I was curious why in 1925 a new day was declared in the church calendar. It was just after
the First World War- a war that was supposed to end all wars and a war that essentially
changed warfare forever. Pope Pius XI (11) was very concerned about the state of the
world. He wrote in his encyclical that established the feast day that he was worried that
“the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives; that these
had no place either in private affairs or in politics: and…that as long as individuals and
states refused to submit to the rule of our Saviour, there would be no really hopeful
prospect of a lasting peace among nations.” It was initially an effort to acknowledge that the power and order of God transcends political authority. Acknowledging the reign of
Christ is supposed to be an act of protest and responding to injustices. Unfortunately, if
you know your Roman Catholic and 20th century history, you know that Pope Pius XII
(12) the following Pope didn’t quite get it as he signed agreements with both Mussolini and
Hitler. But admittedly there is something prophetic in Pope Pius XI’s edict and concern.
Having just recovered from elections in our province and the United States, religion and
politics have become rather uncomfortably murky but instead of our faith dictating our
response to justice it is being used as a weapon- and I’m definitely not comfortable with
that.
Thankfully the Gospel passage does- what it did for me so many years ago- draws
me back into the point of all of this. In this judgment of the nations, Christ- who is indeed
portrayed as King sitting upon his throne- calls the nations together but instead of this
being about the ego of the ruler or the loyalty to king and country of the nations this
judgment is entirely based on our love for neighbour. In Matthew this is the final parable
and conversation that Jesus will have with his followers. Matthew also tends to lean heavy
of this idea of Jesus as King. From the story of the Magi to the Pilate’s questions the focus has been on Jesus as King of the Jews. So it should come as no surprise that this parable-
which only appears in Matthew- has Jesus sitting upon a throne.

Those that are righteous are placed on the right and Jesus says, “inherit the
kingdom prepared for you for the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave
me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you
welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.” Later Jesus will turn to those on his left and say that
they are accursed because when he was all those things they did not respond with loving
kindness. What I find so striking is that both sides, the righteous and the accursed both ask
Jesus, “When was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in
prison?” Those on the left make it sound like an excuse- if we’d known it was you we
would have helped.

Church leader Dirk Lange points out. “When the question is asked by those on the
right, the question stems from what might be called a holy ignorance. These were people
who had entered the joy of their master without even knowing it. Such participation is not
self-evident. The joy they knew was not complete; it was mixed with suffering, danger,
risk, tribulations and most likely many disappointments. And yet, it was joy. They acted
out of mercy. They went the way of the cross and now find themselves at the right hand of
the Son of Man…On the contrary, those on the left did not know mercy or joy…They
complicated every situation allowing their own judgment as to whom they had to serve deafen them to the cry of those who were calling out in need.”

What has always drawn me to this passage is that no where does it say that one
must be ‘saved’ or even baptized, it certainly does not say that one must be a Presbyterian
or a Roman Catholic…in fact it doesn’t even say one must be a Christian, yet strangely
enough it was this passage that kept me in the church, because I wanted to follow someone
who didn’t put stipulations on my loyalty or doctrine. I wanted to follow someone who
would always push me to think beyond myself. When Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just
as you did it to one of the least of these you, who are members of my family, you did it to
me.” This means we must envision our “King” as any of those who are victims of the
opiod crisis or struggling with secure housing or patronizing the Sonshine lunch club. The
image of Jesus wearing some gaudy crown doesn’t work for me and it is because of this
passage.

As much as I love this parable it does make me squirm because it reminds me
how many times I have failed to see Christ in least of these. Yet, if I think of Dirk Lange’s
words I am drawn back to this understanding of joyful living. Joyful living is not about
blissful ignorance nor is it even about moral behaviour, it is about being willing to go to
unexpected places- to go not to the throne but the cross. It takes disciples to the place of
God’s suffering in the world.

This is the last Sunday in our Church year. Next week we begin a new year with
Advent- which is full of apocalyptic readings- preparing us not only for the story of
Christmas and the incarnation, but for Christ’s arrival in our world- not as a typical king
but as those who are on the margins, who are suffering, who are voiceless, who are
isolated, who are vulnerable, who need to be housed, fed, quenched, welcomed, clothed,
cared for, and visited. That’s the king we serve, that’s the Christ that reigns for and in us
and that’s the king we must thrust into our lives because that is how we will find and create
hope, peace, joy and love in our world. Amen

Devotional November 15 2020

 

For the last few weeks I have spent time honouring the legacies that have been left to us. Whether it was in honour of Reformation Sunday, All Saints Sunday or Remembrance Day Sunday we have been spending time reflecting on what others have done for us and how that connects us one to another. Well, today that all comes to a head because in our denominational calendar this is called Legacy Sunday. Part of the purpose of this Sunday is to get us to think about the financial legacies we might leave behind but that’s not all. God is pleased when we share what we have- in all that we have. Portions of this morning’s sermon come from the resource for this Sunday as written by Jim MacDonald.  You may recall that Jim came and spent a weekend with us this past February.  While it was kind of a different world back then I have drawn on some of our conversations with Jim about legacies to build on our own current church experience.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells the story about a rich master about to  embark on a journey. Before leaving, the master entrusts three servants with some of his money. The first servant receives five talents, the second receives two, and the third receives only one talent. When the master returns, he discovers that his first two servants have invested his talents and doubled his returns. He welcomes them to share in his joy. The third servant, however, buried the talent in the ground and hands back to the master only what he was given. The master is angry and sends the servant away. This seems like a simple story about the management of a rich person’s assets. However, if we dig deeper, we discover that Jesus once again reveals something unexpected, something surprising about the kingdom of God.

In the ancient world of the New Testament, a talent was a measurement of weight and a single talent weighed several pounds. We don’t know exactly how much a talent was worth, but one talent could have represented 9-years of wages for a skilled labourer or as much as 15 years of a day-labourer’s wages. So, even the single talent was a huge responsibility. According to the parable, the master evaluated the servants before he gave them the money. He had faith in their abilities and all three should have been able to manage the money. In order to double their investments – an impressive return – the first two servants probably needed to take considerable risks. The listeners would have known that. They would have known that the first two servants could have lost the master’s money. They would have known that to earn those returns the investments might have been unethical or even illegal. The listeners might have been surprised that these two risk-takers were so celebrated by the master.

The servant who buried the talent actually acted in a law-abiding, commandment-following way. He didn’t go to lenders to try to earn interest. By burying the talent, he protected the master’s assets. He didn’t gain the master anything, but he didn’t lose anything either. The listeners might have wondered whether he deserved such harsh punishment. Why was the master so angry?

Jesus was revealing something about the kingdom of God. The people welcomed into the kingdom might not be clean or careful or safe or upright. They might be messy risk-takers. They might be the type who would risk everything for their master. The first two servants saw potential in their talents: an opportunity to increase the master’s assets. They recognized the trust the master had in them, had faith in the master and used their knowledge and experience to grow their gifts. They took risks with what they were given because they could see what they might gain. The third servant saw scarcity, not potential; letting uncertainty drive him. He expected loss, guarding what little he had at the expense of what he could have had. Even though he knew the master expected to reap what he had sown, he didn’t see the master’s faith in him. He did not invest in the hope of growth and overlooked the possibility of surprise. By burying the talent, he denied both the potential of the gift that he was entrusted with and his responsibility to the master.

The kingdom of God is about having faith. The kingdom of God is about seeing the possibilities God presents. The kingdom of God is not about playing it safe but using our gifts, risking them all, for a future of hope, the way Jesus eventually would. Shortly after sharing this parable, Jesus took the greatest risk of all. He left the safety of Galilee to go to Jerusalem, where the religious authorities regarded him as a threat to their own power and privilege and where the Romans would consider him a disturber of their peace. In being faithful, Jesus risked everything God gave him, including his very life. The return was immeasurable, everlasting, and a blessing to all creation.

We are the soil in which God’s gifts are planted. God has given us tools to do God’s mission. What will we do with what we’ve been given and what will it say about our faith? Over the last few months two people have come to my mind as people who left legacies for this church so that we could be prepared during this pandemic. When Pieter Riedijk was finding it more difficult to attend services on a regular basis he approached Mike and I and said, “why can’t we live stream the service?” And I resisted. I told him I didn’t want to be on YouTube, that it was too risky to be online every week. My self-esteem wasn’t prepared to go viral.  And Pieter looked at me and said, “This isn’t about you. This is about the congregation.” He helped fund some of the changes needed and pushed us to take the risk and go online. This meant that we had been live-streaming services for nearly two years before the pandemic and so, we had some experience with the technology. Quite a legacy for him to leave us.  But now that we have so many more viewers watching on line than in person further upgrades were required- we realized that the quality of the live stream had to be such that it felt like worship despite many of you sitting in your own homes. Doug Beattie had listed the church in his will and left a substantial amount from his estate to us. Some of those funds have helped us upgrade to new cameras, microphones, and a computer (and numerous other things that Mike has told me but I don’t remember). This will allow us to provide services into the future whether it is in person or online or some variation of the two.

Right now, we are living under the shadow of a pandemic. We have no idea what is coming up next. With the future so uncertain, it would be easy to respond like the third servant, with fear. We could protect the gifts we have been given, fail to recognize them or pretend that we never received them. We could bury our funds or heads in the ground. Or, we could be like the first two servants: living in faith, trusting God’s faith in us, stepping outside of our comfort zones to take risks and using our gifts to participate in God’s kingdom and share God’s message of hope.

The third servant’s legacy was fear. The first and second servants’ legacy was faithfulness. Pieter and Doug’s legacy was hope for the future. God confidently plants seeds of ability and faithfulness in each of us. We are given the freedom to choose how to use the treasures we’ve received. We can choose to hoard these gifts, or we can choose actions, great or small, to produce works of love and mercy. We can leave our comfort zones and take risks for God. I’m so thankful for the many people who have helped us live out a legacy of being Comox Valley Presbyterian Church even in unprecedented times. Amen

Legacy Giving Sunday 2020

For the last few weeks I have spent time honouring the legacies that have been
left to us. Whether it was in honour of Reformation Sunday, All Saints Sunday or
Remembrance Day Sunday we have been spending time reflecting on what others have
done for us and how that connects us one to another. Well, today that all comes to a head
because in our denominational calendar this is called Legacy Sunday. Part of the purpose
of this Sunday is to get us to think about the financial legacies we might leave behind but
that’s not all. God is pleased when we share what we have- in all that we have. Portions of
this morning’s sermon come from the resource for this Sunday as written by Jim
MacDonald. You may recall that Jim came and spent a weekend with us this past
February. While it was kind of a different world back then I have drawn on some of our
conversations with Jim about legacies to build on our own current church experience.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells the story about a rich master about to
embark on a journey. Before leaving, the master entrusts three servants with some of his
money. The first servant receives five talents, the second receives two, and the third
receives only one talent. When the master returns, he discovers that his first two servants
have invested his talents and doubled his returns. He welcomes them to share in his joy.
The third servant, however, buried the talent in the ground and hands back to the master
only what he was given. The master is angry and sends the servant away. This seems like a
simple story about the management of a rich person’s assets. However, if we dig deeper,
we discover that Jesus once again reveals something unexpected, something surprising
about the kingdom of God.

In the ancient world of the New Testament, a talent was a measurement of weight and a single talent weighed several pounds. We don’t know exactly how much a talent was
worth, but one talent could have represented 9-years of wages for a skilled labourer or as
much as 15 years of a day-labourer’s wages. So, even the single talent was a huge
responsibility. According to the parable, the master evaluated the servants before he gave
them the money. He had faith in their abilities and all three should have been able to
manage the money. In order to double their investments – an impressive return – the first
two servants probably needed to take considerable risks. The listeners would have known
that. They would have known that the first two servants could have lost the master’s
money. They would have known that to earn those returns the investments might have been unethical or even illegal. The listeners might have been surprised that these two risk-
takers were so celebrated by the master.

The servant who buried the talent actually acted in a law-abiding, commandment-
following way. He didn’t go to lenders to try to earn interest. By burying the talent, he protected the master’s assets. He didn’t gain the master anything, but he didn’t lose
anything either. The listeners might have wondered whether he deserved such harsh
punishment. Why was the master so angry?

Jesus was revealing something about the kingdom of God. The people welcomed
into the kingdom might not be clean or careful or safe or upright. They might be messy
risk-takers. They might be the type who would risk everything for their master. The first
two servants saw potential in their talents: an opportunity to increase the master’s assets.
They recognized the trust the master had in them, had faith in the master and used their
knowledge and experience to grow their gifts. They took risks with what they were given
because they could see what they might gain. The third servant saw scarcity, not potential;
letting uncertainty drive him. He expected loss, guarding what little he had at the expense
of what he could have had. Even though he knew the master expected to reap what he had
sown, he didn’t see the master’s faith in him. He did not invest in the hope of growth and
overlooked the possibility of surprise. By burying the talent, he denied both the potential
of the gift that he was entrusted with and his responsibility to the master.

The kingdom of God is about having faith. The kingdom of God is about seeing
the possibilities God presents. The kingdom of God is not about playing it safe but using
our gifts, risking them all, for a future of hope, the way Jesus eventually would. Shortly
after sharing this parable, Jesus took the greatest risk of all. He left the safety of Galilee to
go to Jerusalem, where the religious authorities regarded him as a threat to their own
power and privilege and where the Romans would consider him a disturber of their peace.
In being faithful, Jesus risked everything God gave him, including his very life. The return
was immeasurable, everlasting, and a blessing to all creation.

We are the soil in which God’s gifts are planted. God has given us tools to do
God’s mission. What will we do with what we’ve been given and what will it say about
our faith? Over the last few months two people have come to my mind as people who left
legacies for this church so that we could be prepared during this pandemic. When Pieter
Riedijk was finding it more difficult to attend services on a regular basis he approached
Mike and I and said, “why can’t we live stream the service?” And I resisted. I told him I didn’t want to be on YouTube, that it was too risky to be online every week. My self-
esteem wasn’t prepared to go viral. And Pieter looked at me and said, “This isn’t about you. This is about the congregation.” He helped fund some of the changes needed and
pushed us to take the risk and go online. This meant that we had been live-streaming
services for nearly two years before the pandemic and so, we had some experience with
the technology. Quite a legacy for him to leave us. But now that we have so many more
viewers watching on line than in person further upgrades were required- we realized that
the quality of the live stream had to be such that it felt like worship despite many of you
sitting in your own homes. Doug Beattie had listed the church in his will and left a
substantial amount from his estate to us. Some of those funds have helped us upgrade to
new cameras, microphones, and a computer (and numerous other things that Mike has told
me but I don’t remember). This will allow us to provide services into the future whether it
is in person or online or some variation of the two.

Right now, we are living under the shadow of a pandemic. We have no idea what
is coming up next. With the future so uncertain, it would be easy to respond like the third
servant, with fear. We could protect the gifts we have been given, fail to recognize them or
pretend that we never received them. We could bury our funds or heads in the ground. Or,
we could be like the first two servants: living in faith, trusting God’s faith in us, stepping
outside of our comfort zones to take risks and using our gifts to participate in God’s
kingdom and share God’s message of hope.

The third servant’s legacy was fear. The first and second servants’ legacy was
faithfulness. Pieter and Doug’s legacy was hope for the future. God confidently plants
seeds of ability and faithfulness in each of us. We are given the freedom to choose how to
use the treasures we’ve received. We can choose to hoard these gifts, or we can choose
actions, great or small, to produce works of love and mercy. We can leave our comfort
zones and take risks for God. I’m so thankful for the many people who have helped us live
out a legacy of being Comox Valley Presbyterian Church even in unprecedented times.
Amen

Remembrance Devotional Nov 8 2020

Remembrance Devotional:
Throughout the pandemic we have used language like, it is your duty to stay at
home, it is your obligation to others to wear a mask. I can remember early on that some
even stated, “Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being asked to sit on the couch.
You can do this.” While I would never use the language of fighting against a pandemic in
comparison with those men and women who have served our country by choice, in various
ways I do feel like we are living in volatile times. In fact, because we are pre-taping this
service in October I don’t know the results from the US election but I am worried about the
divisive and volatile times that are unfolding south of us. The passage from Isaiah this
morning speaks to conflict, suffering, volatile times, and hope.

Yes, there is both hope and tragedy in this passage. Hope and tragedy is a
combination I know well. I celebrate that there is a bond between my family and a family
in the Netherlands that goes back to when my Grandfather billeted with them in 1945. This
friendship goes back over 75 years and spans three generations but it was born out of
tragedy. We would not have this strong connection with the Van Scuppens had my
Grandfather had no reason to go there. The same goes for the Schulte family in Germany
where my in-laws were stationed, and where Mike was born during the cold war. These
incredible friendships- full of joy and blessings- were born out of tragedy and volatile
times. I remember well sitting with David Sakade and Jim Rae as they talked about their
various health issues when they hit their 90s. I heard them laugh and swap stories. Two
men, who in their 20s fought on opposite sides- brought together in hope talking about the
tragedy of ageing.

The passage in Isaiah begins by describing the experience of conflict and
destruction that takes place in war. We can certainly interpret that it is God who has
brought on this violence- that is certainly implied but what is also important to note is the
transformation that takes place. The fortified city that now lays in ruins symbolizes the
imperial power of the oppressor- the violence that has seen this city fall- was nothing
compared to the oppression that took place within its walls. And the hope is that as a city
of a great empire falls there is recognition that God’s power is far greater. The destruction
was not caused by God but overcome by God and now this place becomes a place of refuge for the poor, the needy in their distress, and a place of shelter. Hope that the ruthlessly powerful will not win out over those unable to defend themselves shines through here.

The passage then changes in verse 6 and begins to describe an incredible banquet
on Mount Zion. We have to realize that throughout the history of the Hebrew people,
meals have played an important role. Meals become opportunities for religious
transformation. If we think of the first passover to the last supper this remains true for us
too. This particular banquet in Isaiah is one of reconciliation. And, perhaps the description
of rich food and well-aged wines brings to mind our communion celebrations- another
meal in which reconciliation takes place.

 

I often hope that Remembrance Sunday is a time in which we can seek
reconciliation too. It is most certainly a time to honour those who sacrificed their lives or
youth to serve their country but it is also a time in which we can turn tragedy into hope. In
which we can think to a time when there will be no war- when, as Isaiah says in another
passage- our swords are turned into ploughshares. Remembering is also an opportunity for
renewal and reconciliation- this is what brings me hope even as we face our own volatile
times.
We remember today all the ordinary people ripped from their towns and villages,
torn from their families to serve their country in war. We remember today all the ordinary
people left behind to keep things going in factories, on farms, on the streets blitzed by war.
We remember today the ordinary people who lost their lives in war and those left behind
who never saw their loved ones again, who grew up without a parent, a sibling, a partner
or friend, those who never discovered love again and who grew old alone. We remember
today all the ordinary people on either side of the conflict whose lives were changed
forever, all those who paid the price of freedom and, in our remembering of the ordinary
people who died and served for us, we remember that the cost of war will always be too
high and paid for by ordinary people. This year, think of how hope is born out of tragedy,
how God is greater than volatile times, and how in remembering we can reconcile. Amen

 

November 1, 2020 Devotional

Today is a different kind of day, at the time that I was beginning to put this
service together I didn’t know we would have people here, but that’s not what makes it
different. Yes, most of us may feel a little bit of extra energy because we got an extra hour
of sleep- but that’s not what makes it different. Yes, it is the day after Halloween and so
maybe some of us are still on a bit of a sugar high having eaten the candy we had planned
to share with children. But, Halloween exists in some fashion because of today. This is a
day that is traditionally called All Saints Day. In the early church it was known as All
Hallow’s Day, hallow meaning a person who has been made holy or a saint. Part of the
original celebration included vespers on Oct. 31st and ended with All Soul’s day on Nov. 2nd which commemorated everyone who had died. Perhaps some of you are familiar with
the traditions associated with this season in Latin America often called Dia de los
Muertos- the Day of the Dead. For us in the Reformed tradition All Saints Day is not
something we are used to celebrating or honouring. Yet, in one of my commentaries it
said, “All Saints Sunday is one of the most important of the special days in the Sundays
after Pentecost, but it may also be the most misunderstood.” For so many reasons, from the
fact that Nov. 1st falls on a Sunday this year, to the reality that many of us have grieved the
loss of a loved one during the pandemic but it has all been in private, without the usual personal and public supports and commemorations, to the fact that this is the first in-
person worship we have had since March 8th. I felt we needed to give space to recognize that today is All Saints Day. In the Roman Catholic tradition this is a day that
commemorates those who have attained sainthood or been canonized. But for us, we
believe in the sainthood of all believers, meaning that anyone who calls themselves a
Christian is a saint. And so today is a chance for us to acknowledge that we are saints but
also that we have lost some wonderful saints this year. Today’s service may involve some
emotion- give yourself permission to grieve.

This day also acknowledges that we believe that there is a powerful, even
spiritual, bond between those who have died and those who are living. Today is about
understanding the doctrine of the communion of saints. This is the idea that we are bound
together in a kind of spiritual union with one another. Both those of us living today and
those who have died are united to and in Christ forever. This is meant to bring us comfort
in the idea that time is an imperfect construct and in God’s perfect presence we are
surrounded by all those saints- our loved ones, our husbands and wives, our parents and grandparents, our ancestors, our friends, our classmates, our colleagues, our congregation
members from years gone by. We are surrounded in this ever present communion, a
sharing in common, with those who have gone before us. And we remember that we are
bound together with those who will come after us.

Paul often referred to those who were receiving his letters as “saints”. As I
mentioned, essentially a saint is a Christian. There certainly have been many outstanding
Christians over the millennia and often they receive the title of Saint- but within the
reformed tradition we are all saints. That’s a bit of a daunting thought, isn’t it- that we are
saints. Nancy Cocks in her all-ages service for All Saint’s Sunday suggests passing out
mirrors and asking those gathered, “Where would you look for a saint?” and then directs
them to look in the mirror and says, “You are looking at a saint! Everyone who follows
Jesus can look in a mirror and see a saint!” I grew up with the TV show Romper Room
and at the end of each episode Miss Betty would pull out the magic mirror and start to say
the names of those who were watching. It was always a glorious moment when every once
in awhile you heard your own name. Strangely, that’s kind of how I feel about the word
saint, both nervous and excited.

In the portion from the First letter of John that we heard this morning we hear
words of encouragement to a community that has been challenged by a split. We don’t
know the details as to why a schism has taken place but the disagreement has caused some
people to leave the church. So, the primary aim of this letter is to persuade the remaining
community that they can not give up. They must hold fast to their faith and the glue that
will hold the church together is God’s love which has bound them together into one family
as children of God. The author will use the title children of God six more times in this
book. What God has in mind for these children is not completely known, but the author is
sure that we who have God’s love will in the end become more like Christ. As children of
God we are all saints and we are bound together with those witnesses, those saints, that
have come before us and will come after us.
This is another aspect of understanding the communion of saints. It reminds us
that we have a continued relationship, a continued connectedness, with those who have
died. Rev. Tom Gordon actually ties that into grief, stating that essentially one of the
reasons we feel a loss is because we are inextricably linked with those who have died. In
the loss and separation of a death we also feel a continued union and influence with those
who have died.
Every time I walk past her former house I think of Jean Stamm’s wit and
ingenuity. I think of the visits we had and how she told me she had fixed the bumper of her
car with a blow drier after looking up the solution on Youtube, not bad for a woman in her 90s. I have thought often of Des Hagarty’s laughter and grace. He would share insights
from his experience in the Moravian church and I often used liturgy in our services that he
had shared with me. David Friesen and I would often read the psalms together and he
shared how it was the psalms that helped him through some tough times. Week after week
I miss the thumbs up I would receive from Bob Taylor after every service as I processed
down the aisle. He was always generous in his words of encouragement. Every summer I
enjoyed a visit over homegrown and homemade blueberry scones with June McLeod. I
tried to make my own this year and they were a disaster. She had an incredible knack for
hospitality. And Bob Cunningham had a smile that would make anyone feel welcome. It
was amazing how he could minister to the care aids and nurses even when he could no
longer put a sentence together. And I know that many of us have lost other family
members and friends during this challenging year, some where expected and others just
shocked us- regardless we have not been able to honour them as we would like- we haven’t
even been able to hug one another for support. And yet, through the communion of saints
we are bound together. God’s love surpasses the restrictions of time and space.
I once read that the Book of Revelation is like an epic poem and like most poetry
it is not easy to interpret.

We heard one of the more accessible passages in Revelation as the sixth seal is opened and there is a great multitude of people- from every nation, tribe, and language and they are worshipping together. It is this incredible image of a heavenly community gathered around God and free to be who they are that helps me understand the communion of saints. But notice that it says that the multitude was so great that it could not be counted. This suggests that this gathering is incomplete, in that it is waiting for all the saints. Rev. Gordon says, “God’s grace and mercy is still calling God’s own to God.”

The story is not over yet- even in the Book of Revelation. This means again that we are
drawn into this connection with our friends and family that have gone before us.
It may feel like our grief is on hold. We hope that some day we can come together and
mark how the lives of those who died have touched our lives. But know that in this great
communion of saints we are interconnected, woven together in an unfinished tapestry,
because just as they have been saints in our lives, we are called to be saints in the lives of
those around us.

I want to close with a poem by Ruth Burgess entitled, ‘We Are Part of Each other,’

Those who have died live in their friends and families;
those who have died live in you;
those who have died live in me.
Living and dying we are part of each other,
touched by eternity,
circled in love.

Amen

October 25,2020

Devotional: Agape

At our Easter Sunday service I mentioned that I had been taking in the free Metropolitan Opera streams most evenings. The Met streams a different opera from their immense catalogue every 24hrs. I have not watched every day- but on average I have watched 2 a week since March. I have watched over 50 operas. The most pervasive theme in opera is love, and usually it involves a tragic love. Whether it is the complicated love triangle between Jose, Escamillo and Carmen or the dangerously passionate love between Mario and Tosca, or the gut wrenching heartbreak of Madame Butterfly, love is sung about in arias and stanzas throughout most operas. Often in operas this love happens in an instant, at first sight. In La Traviata the moment Alfredo sets eyes upon Violetta he is determined to make her his one and only love. In Die Zauberflotte, Tamino only looks at a photo of Pamina and determines that he is in love and will do anything to find and save her.  Characters are willing to give up their lives for the person they have just met because they are madly in love. I will admit that often I watch these characters and hear their songs of desire and desperation and I think to myself, “Oh, get a life! You’ve only just met him!” But that could be because,I have a slightly more cynical view of romantic love- or even just love in general. In fact, modern language does a disservice to understanding love and as I encountered these often recited lines in the Gospel this cynicism about love came up.

Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord Your God and love your neighbour as yourself.” As well known as this passage may be it is rather problematic to our contemporary understanding of love. We often think of loving God and loving neighbour as an emotion- as a passionate feeling of deep commitment that might inspire us to sing a great aria of how our lives are forever changed. It certainly does happen…that’s what a lot of our hymns are about. But the love that is described in this passage actually has very little to do with emotion. Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.

First, this passage is the last of the various debates and entrapments that the religious leaders, from the Herodians to the Sadduccees, the Pharisees to the Scribes, have had with Jesus while he is in Jerusalem. Within the arc of the overall narrative, Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a colt, cleansed the temple by turning tables, delivered some pretty damning parables and is now answering questions meant to trick him. This is likely the Tuesday of Holy Week, three days before the last supper. You might remember from last week that Jesus has managed to amaze the religious leaders with his wit and wisdom. But the Pharisees decided to take one last crack at him and ask, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus responds with, “ You shall love the Lord, Your God, with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” It is a variation of the great Shema found in Deuteronomy- a passage that is placed on doorways within Judaism. And then Jesus builds upon it and says, “A second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” It likely comes from the ancient Rabbinic statement, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole law.”  But in order to understand what Jesus truly meant we need to know what kind of love Jesus was talking about.

I have turned to scholar Clayton Schmit to help me clarify. As I mentioned we often think of love as an emotion, and it can certainly be that in many of our interpersonal relationships. We also often think of love as passive, something that just happens to us. In opera, the female lead will just look at the man and his heart melts and he becomes fully invested even before they have shared a word. In the Old Testament, however, there are references to all kinds of love, most of which are active responses by people towards God or vice versa- God chooses to love Israel and therefore the people of Israel choose to respond to God with their heart, soul and mind. It is an active choice that both parties make- and it should be pointed out, within the Hebrew tradition emotions came from the gut, thought came from the heart, living came from the soul and devotion came from the mind. Which means to love God with all our heart, soul and mind has little to do with emotions and everything to do with study, breath and dedication.

Within the New Testament there are actually three main types of love. I’ve talked about this briefly before. There is Eros, where we get our word erotic from, which is the word for passion or desire. This is the love that is sung about by two people deeply enamoured with one another.  There is Philia which is a passionless love and is often translated as brotherly love or friendship. In scripture it is used to describe love between family. Interestingly enough the word in English usually comes as a suffix when describing obsessions, like a bibliophile is someone who loves books. Both Eros and Philia are sparingly referred to in the Bible. The third kind is Agape love and it is this kind of love that Jesus is describing in this law. Agape is a sacred and divine love but it is also often called loving-kindness. Which means that this is a very active kind of love or mercy. As Clayton Schmit states, “It is marked by patience and generosity…both acts generated by the one who loves. In short, [agape] love is a choice, not a feeling. Biblical love is not passive. It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will. Biblical agape love is something we do. It is loving-kindness, merciful action that is both generous and continuous.”

We have encountered this discussion about love in our recent Bible study. Augustine wrote, “When you see love, you see a Trinity.” In his understanding, there is the lover, the beloved and the love that they share. Now originally when I encountered this statement I was thinking about romantic love- but then as we studied the active trinity I began to think of this agape love. There is the lover- the one who acts with loving-kindness. There is the beloved- the one who receives this action of loving-kindness. Then there is the love itself- the transforms the situation. It is a transformation that takes place when true acts of loving-kindness happen.

This being Reformation Sunday it seemed appropriate to quote Martin Luther in his understanding of this Gospel passage. He wrote, ‘Thus you are to regulate your life and conduct. There are in our day many customs, many orders and ceremonies, by which we falsely think to merit heaven; and yet there is only this one principle, namely: the love to God and to our neighbour, that includes in it all good works.” Meaning, that our liturgy, our expression of worship, our doctrine, comes second to this commandment of love- not a gushy feeling but a discipline.

Quite honestly I am mixed with a bit of relief and concern. For example, I am relieved to know that loving neighbour doesn’t really involve the emotion of love because in my own cynicism about love I don’t think I can feel love for people I don’t know.  But then, honestly, I struggle with doing love for people I don’t know either. God chooses to love me and us. God chooses to forgive me and us (even when we fail to love in action). Therefore we are told to choose love of God which, as Jesus pointed out can not be separated, from loving people. Loving God and our neighbour is not something we feel it is something we do. And this is a key distinction because it means that we are meant to reach out in generosity and kindness, even when we don’t feel like it. Trust me, I fail at that often. However, God has chosen us- sometimes that notion is so wonderful it causes me to sing about it- so I will continue to work at choosing loving-kindness for it is through loving kindness that I can be reformed- made new, each day. Amen

October 18, 2020

Devotional: The Taxman

          Have you ever been to a comedy show and an audience member begins to heckle? I’m always amazed at the audacity, that someone feels they can just interrupt a performance and attempt to engage the person in conversation- one would never do that during an play or sermon! Well, at the risk of offending those of fine Scottish heritage, did you know that the first hecklers came from Dundee? To heckle actually means to tease or comb and it was used for dividing two types of fabric or flax for making yarn and the capital of the jute industry in the nineteenth century was in Dundee. It just so happens that the hecklers in Dundee then established quite a reputation for being trouble-makers, often due to arguments or debates. In fact, in a heckling factory, one heckler would read out the day’s news while the others worked, to the accompaniment of interruptions and furious debates. And thus, we get our modern word for heckler from the hecklers of Dundee.

Jesus, had to deal with his fair share of hecklers. And today, we have two groups, who often don’t get along with each other, finding some commonality in their desire to heckle Christ. This is the first of three attempts in the Gospel of Matthew on the part of religious leaders to entrap Jesus and discredit him in front of others. If that’s not heckling I don’t know what is. They want to engage in a debate with Jesus in such a way that it makes his followers find fault in him- but of course, just like with most hecklers, it doesn’t go their way.

It should be pointed out that the Pharisees and Herodians rarely paired up together. Politically speaking they have nothing in common. The Pharisees, which in Aramaic means, “set apart” were the leaders within the temple. It was they who established the laws, liturgy and rituals of rabbinic Judaism. Therefore they felt Jesus was a threat to the comfortable control they had over the Jews. Less is known about the Herodians. They may have been a group who supported the pro-Roman Herodian dynasty and therefore because their political party aligned closely with Herod the Great, would have been rivals to the Pharisees who saw Herod and the Romans as the oppressor. Or They could have been a sect of Hellenistic Jews, basically a mix of Judaism and Greek mythology which would have made them heretics in the eyes of the Pharisees. But here in this story the two parties put their differences aside and attempt to entrap Jesus with their question about paying taxes.

The tax in question was likely a “head tax” placed upon the Hebrew population in Israel by the Romans. Completely different from the tax that is mandated in the Old Testament in support of the Temple, which Jesus did indeed pay. The question of paying taxes to Rome was a contentious issue in Jesus’ day. If Jesus answered yes, then He could be seen as supporting the Roman occupation which would then result in the Pharisees and his followers turning against him. The entire understanding of the messiah at this point is, that he was to save the people from their oppressor, so to say yes, that they should pay taxes would have revealed to everyone that he was not the messiah they had hoped for. On the other hand, if Jesus were to answer no, He would be seen as plotting against Rome and would have surely been arrested on the spot.

Both parties smirk at their opportunity to give Jesus false flattery and set up this trap. However, he sees through their trickery and calls them on it. Jesus calls for a coin and asks them to identify whose head and title is on the coin. It is important to remember that the coin Jesus receives is a denarius. You might recall a few weeks ago I mentioned that a denarius was a full days wage for the common labourer. Which means that for someone to just have a denarius in their coin purse at this very moment, Jesus is not speaking to common labourers or the poor. Jesus’ audience at this stage are the wealthy- political and religious leaders whose job it is supposed to be to serve the common and poor.

The face and inscription on the coin is of course that of the emperor’s. It would have read, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.” Which means that two great laws within the Hebrew tradition are being broken on that very coin. One, it is blasphemous to claim divinity by the Roman Emperor, and Two there was a prohibition against human images, on anything, coins, paintings, statues,  because it was seen as idolatry. So, in truth, a Jew who was obedient to the commandments would not be comfortable holding this coin at all. Which of course, begs the question, who had this coin on their person in the first place.

Jesus then responds with, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” At which point the Pharisees and Herodians are amazed. This actually happens more than once in Matthew. Think of the disciples in Matt 8:27 when Jesus calms the storm, “they were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?”” or when the crowd is amazed by Jesus’ healing in  Matt 15: 31, “So that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking and the blind seeing.” Jesus amazes his followers and the crowds through miracles and now the Pharisees and Herodians are amazed through his wit and wisdom. Basically Jesus’ answer was not only satisfactory but thoughtful and really hushed his hecklers.

The problem is that Jesus’ answer has lead to centuries of debate on what he meant. Some scholars say this passage is proof that religion and politics should be kept separate. Others argue that this proves that Jesus taught that it is our duty as disciples to support the government and be involved in politics. It has even lead interpreters to state that we shouldn’t pay taxes because they are blasphemous and idolatrous.  For me, when Jesus asks about who appears on the coin he is pointing to a few things about our relationship with God and Country. The image of the emperor that is stamped on this coin-is stamped by human hands for a human purpose. When God created humankind God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” God has stamped us for God’s purposes.  Maybe this is a bit of an alarming statement- particularly for those of us who like to have some control on our lives- but in truth it is meant to bring comfort. God will not forsake us. God cares for us. God affirms who we are. When we belong to God we belong to the people of God, the body of Christ in this world.

Ultimately who we are, what we do, every ounce of our being, is wonderfully and fearfully made by God. To be perfectly honest, I heckle God fairly often, questioning God ALL THE TIME. And yet, God listens, maybe even laughs, definitely puts me in my place, stamps me with God’s image, makes me ready to give to God what belongs to God and amazes me every day. Amen