The Huron Carol

Bible Text: Luke 1:46-55 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

In the summer of 2002 I was completing my field placement in Prehistoric Archaeology at Discovery Harbour in Penetanguishene, a small community on the shores of Georgian Bay. Each day on our drive from our camp in Midland we would pass the Martyrs Shrine a huge cathedral in the middle of nowhere. Directly across the street was another archaeological site, St. Marie Among the Hurons. Throughout the summer we were able to stop in and visit both of these historical sites. St. Marie Among the Hurons was Ontario’s first European community. It was originally constructed in 1639 for the Huron or Wendat peoples and French settlers by Jesuit missionaries. At the Martyrs Shrine one can find the remains of these 8 Jesuits including St. Jean de Brebeuf, the author of the Huron Carol. He was the first Jesuit missionary to the region and he became a master of the Huron language.
The Huron carol is Canada’s first Christmas Carol and older than many well known carols such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Joy to the World and Silent Night. It is sung to the tune of a French folk song, Une Jeune Pucell. When Brebeuf wrote the carol he of course adapted the story of Jesus’ birth to fit his context. God’s name is Gitchi Manitou, the wise men are chiefs, shepherds are hunters, swaddling clothes are rabbit skin and the stable is a lodge. Many of us know parts of the story of the Huron Carol and it has been romanticized over the years. We all picture a Jesuit priest in his cassock robe, sitting by a desk at candle light jotting down his inspiring words for a people whose language and culture he was just learning.
However, the truth is that this hymn took over a decade to write, starting in 1626. Brebeuf and the other French settlers found those first winters very difficult. They found themselves without food come mid-winter. There was also concerns that since the Jesuit’s arrival the native population where experiencing the destructive and fatal introduction of new diseases. Finally in the winter of 1642, Brebeuf wrote in his journal that the Wendat were feeling a connection to Christmas. They were particularly captivated by the story of Jesus’ birth. A small chapel of cedar and fir branches was built and housed a small manger scene. In the middle of this harsh, hard experience Brebeuf was able to write a hymn that has lasted through the ages.
By the late 1640s tensions between the Wendat and Iroquois or Haudenosaunee grew. The Wendat were attacked in 1649 at St. Marie Among the Hurons and the Jesuit and French settlers were forced to abandon their community. Brebeuf, however, refused to leave the people to whom he had ministered for so many years. He was captured and martyred six miles from the settlement.
Although we have this peaceful image it is a startling end to the story. We often treat Jesus’ birth in the same way. Imagine being a teenaged, unwed, mother. Imagine being an apprentice carpenter with little money to spare. Imagine being forced to walk the 111 km journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem while pregnant. I imagine that the nativity story is not as romantic as we often make it out to be. But in the middle of this frightful, difficult, and tumultuous experience Mary finds joy and sings a song. It is a song that speaks to her people’s context, history, language and experience. It is also a demonstration of ultimate praise.
We know that Mary was extremely poor because in her song she calls herself lowly. The Greek term tapeinōsin actually means not only humble but absolute poverty. Mary is dirt poor, pregnant and unmarried. Under any other circumstance she would be in a real mess and likely convicted to death and yet Mary sings!
What makes this the ultimate example of praise is that her magnificat moves from the deeply personal to the explicitly political. It moves from an internal praise, that God has lifted up a lowly servant, to a hymn of thanksgiving for the redemption of all, God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. Mary not only sings a song about her own destiny but a freedom song on behalf of all the faithful in the land. She sings to God’s divine relationship for not only herself but for all. One commentator wrote, “Mary keeps singing, ranging high on her scales of praise, soaring in her expectant and revolutionary libretto, because God has reached so unexpectedly down to where the least and the lowly still struggle for life.”
Mary’s song is almost a complete reflection of Hannah’s song found in 1 Samuel 2. It is a song that the Hebrew people knew well and would have understood. This is an important connection because Luke has carefully included these words to link the trials of the Israelite people to the birth of Christ. It is a retelling of a familiar story of struggle to a people who otherwise would not understand. Mary or rather Luke, uses the language of the people to tell them exactly what God has in store for them.
We come to the table today knowing the story. However, I wonder what it looks like to the outsider. Firstly, instead of a sacred moment it looks more like a ritual. Secondly, instead of feast it looks like a measly piece of bread and tiny cup of juice. How would you tell or explain this story to a people who may not understand the liturgical language? What song would be on your heart? When we come to the table remember that God has the ability to place a song of praise, of joy, in our hearts even when things seem dire, even when struggles are expected, even when it appears that joy is no where to be found. Mary’s soul bursts with yearning for God, who has intimately chosen her but has also declared that her child will change the world. How will your soul burst with joy this season?
That is the ultimate praise we should be giving to God- not only do we give thanks for our individual relationship but thanks for the community of believers–not only do we lose control and sing our hearts out but we also have humble moments, like coming to Christ’s table, in which our hearts and souls are fed by God’s love. What a joy it is to be God’s people.


Bible Text: Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

Did you know that a very important anniversary passed us not too long ago. The internet turned 45 years old this year. It’s true. On Oct. 29Th, 1969, the first link between a computer at UCLA and a computer at the Stanford Research Institute was realized at 10:30pm. It went something like this, a telephone connection between the folks at UCLA and Stanford was set up. UCLA’s computer typed “L” and they asked over the phone, “Do you see the L?” “Yes, we see the L” came the response. Then they typed “O” and asked, “Do you see the O?”, “Yes, we see the O”. The UCLA computer was supposed to transmit a G but then the system crashed. As a result the first word ever transmitted across the internet was “LO”. The internet revolution had begun and 45 years later we send people messages over the world wide web, and our systems still crash. Webster’s dictionary defines the word “Lo” as a word used to call attention to something or to show wonder or surprise. These two simple letters, “L and O” are used to declare and announce the arrival of a more important message. It can be a precursor to important words of greetings, like the Angels to the Shepherds, “Lo, I bring you tidings of good news and great joy” or words of warning. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah often used the word “Lo” to bring attention to their warnings. Like in Isaiah 59:9 “We wait for light, and lo! there is darkness.” Two simple letters can be the bearers of good or difficult news.
Although it is not written as such I imagine that John the Baptist used the word “Lo” a lot too. Like the prophets of the Old Testament he was trying to bring attention to words of repentance. The Gospel lesson for this week introduces us not only to the person of John the Baptist but it is also the very beginning of Mark, the Gospel for the majority of the New Testament readings throughout the coming year. Yes, the Gospels are all about Jesus, but before Jesus there was John. John, like the word lo, is not the important person but is the one who brings attention to the important message.
Before John there was Isaiah. In Mark’s Gospel John the Baptist is essentially an Old Testament figure. His clothing is based on descriptions of Elijah. In fact, Mark believes that John IS Elijah, just as the prophet Malachi predicted. John serves as a link between these two testaments, between these two worlds. He behaves much like the prophets of old, hence why I suspect he used the term Lo, but he is also announcing new words of promise. There are many carols that reflect these two stages in the life of faith, the Old Testament words being used for a New Testament announcement. Our opening hymn, “Hark the glad sound”, includes references to words from Isaiah as well as “Angels from the realms of glory” , “It came upon a midnight clear” and “O little town of Bethlehem”. Isaiah’s words are embedded into much of our Advent and Christmas language.
The Gospel passage today reflects that of Isaiah 40, our Old Testament lesson. The passage announces God’s intention to visit, to be among, God’s people and reminds those listening to be prepared. It is a resounding announcement that the time of promise is drawing to a close and the time of fulfilment is drawing near. The voice of God in Isaiah’s text does not say, “Tell my people to get ready and when they have done so, I will come to them.” No, God says, “Prepare the way! I am coming to my people (whether they are read or not!)” Now, for Isaiah, the time of fulfilment was not in fact a coming of a messiah but rather the end of exile for the Israelites in Babylon.
In 587 BCE Jerusalem fell to Babylon and a large portion of Jerusalem’s population went into exile. Chapter 40 in Isaiah through to about chapter 66 are all about this time of exile. As a result what we hear are not words of warning because the worst case scenario has happened. Now the people of Israel are in need of words of comfort and hope for a new future.
Passages from Isaiah often dominate our advent readings. This is partly because Isaiah is often referred to by the Gospel writers when demonstrating that what was promised is coming into being through Jesus. But also because Isaiah often holds in tension this idea that we live in between- in the already and the not yet. But that does not mean we remain stagnant. Advent is about waiting but it is not about doing nothing. Isaiah reminds us that embracing hope has implications for our lives now. Christine Yoder a professor at Columbia Seminary says, “The prophet reminds us that Advent is as much about what we watch for as how we wait” and it is in the how that we are granted peace.
In John’s message even the geography has a role. The baptism occurs in the Jordan River, a river famous in the Old Testament as the boundary marker for the promised land. We know from the story in Exodus that God’s people wandered in the wilderness for forty years until at last they reached the Jordan River. When they entered these waters, they knew their waiting was over and that God’s promises to them during their wandering was about to be fulfilled. Essentially, the basic Advent theme sounding out this week is that the time of promise is drawing to a close and the time of fulfilment is drawing near. For the wandering Israelites the fulfilled promise was that of crossing the Jordan, for the exiled Israelites it was returning to the banks of the Jordan, for the searching Israelites it is the announcements declared at the Jordan river.
  One of my favourite carols is “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming” or “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”. There’s that word “Lo” again. Like John this hymn blends Old Testament words with a New Testament message. This carol first appeared in a German hymnal in 1582. The song originally had 19 verses and in fact those carol loving Germans bumped it up to 23 verses in 1599. You will note our version only has 4 verses. But knowing that at one time the song had 23 verses is important because over the last 415 years this hymn has been tweaked, changed, and theologically redacted. Many purists struggle with it because it not only blends Old and New Testament words but blends a lot of theological myths as well. For example, it says that Isaiah foretold of a rose. There is no mention of a rose anywhere in Isaiah. Isaiah does however, mention the branch of Jesse. The German word for twig or branch is Reis and somewhere in the redacting it was translated as Ros, or rose. The version we will sing leads us to believe that the rose is Jesus but in the original 23 verse German version the rose was Mary. Throughout the medieval period mystic commentators often used a rose to represent Mary. We get a hint of that original image in our second verse but the English translation says that “with Mary we behold it,” when in fact the very early hymn said “From Mary we behold it.” We can thank the protestization of the hymn for this change. Michael Praetirous, son of a Lutheran minister, was the composer who changed the words so that the rose represented Jesus rather than Mary. Praetorius is also the one who is credited with giving us the beautiful harmony and the challenging, yet, beautiful tune.
It is a peaceful tune and the use of the word lo, harkens to the message from the angels rather than the words of warning in the Old Testament. However, as we wait in this Advent season we also prepare. Lo, have peace in your heart and comfort one another. For the time of promise, the time of waiting, the time of exile is coming to an end and the time of fulfilment, the time to experience God’s covenant is approaching. Much like a lush rose blooming at the end of a prickly stem. We arise from a time of struggle or pain or challenges and we have hope and peace in the fulfilled promise of Jesus Christ, alluded to in words of Isaiah, foretold by John, born of Mary, a flower whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air, dispels with glorious splendour our darkness everywhere, true saviour, king of glory.

Hymn:151 Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming

Smiling Sheep

Bible Text: Matthew 25: 31-46 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

Have you ever wondered, why we smile? Is smiling universal? How is it that we know a smile means an expression of happiness? Maybe these questions do not keep you awake at night but they are rather curious. Did you know that Charles Darwin actually had a theory about smiling? He said that “facial expressions indicate the intention of animals-and by extension, humans”. In his explanation, an animal will bare its teeth as a warning to other animals. He suggested that humans co-opted this behaviour as a greeting. I prefer the answer given by researchers at Marquette University, a Jesuit University in Milwaukee. Dr. Nakia Gordon, assistant professor of psychology said, “Smiling, like most facial expressions, communicates to those around us what we are feeling. Individuals with relatively little contact with the industrialized world were able to accurately identify that a smile meant happiness. It has not been resolved whether expressions are learned or innate, but it does seem that all humans use the same expressions to communicate basic emotions.” In fact, research shows that if one smiles during a particularly difficult or distressing task it results in better emotional adjustment at a later point. Meaning that smiles not only communicate to others what we are feeling but also help us experience happiness. Basically the jury is still out about why we smile but it is universal and can have universal effects. I believe it is innate. Smiling is something we do starting at a very early age. Of course there are cynics that say a Baby’s smile is just gas, but it is rather intriguing how a smile can affect those around us.
We may not feel we have a lot to smile about with regards to our Gospel passage. Despite struggling with the two previous parables, this parable, is one of my favourites. However, the more I studied it the more distress I got, the more I had to smile through it. Some scholars and commentators do not think of this passage from Matthew 25 as a parable. It is true that it comes across as more of a vision than a parable in the traditional sense and the Jewish listeners would have understood this imagery well. The opening image is that of a king seated on the throne. This reflects many images from Hebraic apocalyptic literature. The closest parallel is found in the book of Daniel when Daniel has a vision of a king coming from the clouds ready to judge humanity. It is this judgement that has me a little worried. But before we touch on this judgement we need to touch upon a few other important details. It is the fact that this story has a meaning and a moral that I count it as a parable. It also deals with something that was very familiar to Jesus’ context, the sacrifial lambs and goats. It is for this reason that I count it as a parable.
At the very beginning it states that “All the nations will be gathered”. This phrase has puzzled, relieved, and concerned many a commentator. The Greek translation is panta ta ethne which literally means “all the peoples” or “all ethnicities”. The NRSV, the version we use, translates ethne to gentiles in some contexts and nations in others. Some people have understood that the ethne that are gathered are those within the Christian faith, others have understood it as those outside the Christian faith. I take a much more universalist approach that it is neither about those within our outside the church but rather all humanity, all nations in the truest sense. This can b a bit controversial but in my understanding of salvation it is for all people not just an elite few. This universal understanding goes both ways in this parable. The collection of sheep and goats were made up of all people but also those who are counted as the least of these represent all people- not just those within the church.
There is also an interesting link in all three parables that we have encountered over the last three weeks. In every single one there has been the element of surprise. The foolish bridesmaids were surprised to discover that the bridegroom was not coming on time and that they had run out of oil. The servants were surprised when the master was delayed. We are surprised when the third servant is demoralized for not taking big risks with the money. In this parable, BOTH the sheep and the goats are surprised. This concerns me and excites me and brings me back to this idea of why we smile. The point is that the righteous and the unrighteous have no idea that they did or did not serve the King when serving those in need. The sheep did what they did not because they expected a reward but because in seeing those in need they responded. The so-called sheep had no idea they were doing anything good or righteous when they fed the hungry, gave to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, gave clothing to the naked, took care of the sick, or visited the prisoners. They are just as shocked as the goats when Jesus tells them that when they did these things they were doing it to him. Like a simple smile, it was within their nature to be compassionate and kind. They served the needy because there was a need to fill.
So let us return to this idea of the judgement. If we believe that we are justified by faith and not by works, than theoretically this passage has very little to offer us, we are not the ones who will be judged because we have faith. But we must remember that Matthew is not writing from a grace versus works dichotomy. That theological debate came centuries after this Gospel was written. For Matthew the gospel is all about doing what Jesus says. In his Gospel Jesus commissions his disciples and says, “Obey everything I have commanded you.” However, he is not oblivious to grace either. For example, Matthew’s Jesus does not instruct the disciples that they should become the salt of the earth or light of the world; he tells them they are. For Matthew there was not debate- faith leads to works.
The fact that the sheep and goats are surprised means that it isn’t solely about works. For Matthew, and I would argue this is what Jesus is trying to teach the disciples in all the Gospels, ethical behaviour is indeed a response to Jesus’ commands. However, it does not result from effort, from trying hard, instead it comes from being human towards all humanity.
There is a Jewish proverb that says, “My neighbour’s physical need is my spiritual need”. Emmanuel Levinas, a 20th century philosopher would often refer to this proverb when discussing Matthew 25. There is a convergence of practice and faith when there is care for the least of these. Like the natural ability for all people to smile and share happiness these acts are not works to guarantee a place for us in heaven or a reason for us to be judged as righteous but rather acts that are responses to God’s merciful grace. Righteous behaviour is not done for the sake of reward but to be apart of Christ’s kingdom, to be in the reign of Christ ,is to act as if our neighbour’s physical need is our spiritual need. What a reason to smile! Amen

Hidden Talents

Bible Text: Matthew 25: 14-30 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

On January 24, 1941 a boy was born in Brooklyn, New York. Growing up he moved from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, attending 9 different elementary schools. As a result he suffered socially, always having to make new friends. His parents decided that it would be best to keep him busy by enrolling him in music lessons. He decided to play guitar after watching a camp counselor play one night at a camp fire. But he really thought nothing of it. After he graduated high school he enrolled at NYU on a fencing scholarship in pre-med. While in university he met a few other musicians and would play at open mic nights around town. Again, not thinking much of it. One night Jack Packer heard him play and wanted to release a duet album with him. Now, this album was never very successful, so he continued in his studies. After all, taking the risk of having a career in the music industry was, well, risky. Medicine had more promise in terms of secured income, success, and stability. But during his senior year a music publishing company made him an offer he could not refuse, to write songs for $50 a week and this started him on the road to stardom. After receiving his undergraduate degree this man decided that instead of pursuing a career in medicine he would take the risk and sign a deal with Columbia. This man was Neil Diamond. Imagine a world without The Monkees’s song “I’m A Believer” or “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon” let alone a world without “Sweet Caroline”. Talk about sharing your talents.
Ok, maybe Jesus wasn’t talking about star search, talent quest or American Idol when he used this parable to describe the Kingdom of God. The term talents in this parable comes from the Greek word “talanton”. It actually means an “absurd amount of money”. In fact some scholars believe that the amount of a talent was equal to fifteen years’ wages for a common labourer. We aren’t talking small change, especially when we realize that this master had eight talents to trust in keeping to his servants.
This parable uses the image of money and what it can achieve to describe what is important in the kingdom and for the kingdom of God. It is slightly missing the point to think it is talking about how we use our various natural abilities (talents in the modern sense). It has more to do with how we allow the life of God to flow through us – because it is powerful- like money. But also because the stock market is risky.
We hear that a very wealthy man decides to go on a trip. He calls his servants together and delegates responsibilities, each according to their abilities. To one he gave five talents, to another two talents, to a third one talent. Right away the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single talent dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.
Now I want to stop here, because for the longest time I always thought that it was the third servant who did the best thing. After all, putting money into big investments is risky business. It is easy to feel for the third servant especially in today’s economy. Who doesn’t feel like burying his or her wealth in the ground?! In Jesus’ day, it wasn’t considered foolish to bury one’s wealth. Burying money was regarded as the best security against theft. There are similarities in this parable with the parable we heard last week, namely, there are things I don’t like. I don’t like that this is a story about a wealthy master who has slaves. I don’t like that it says that the master gave the servants responsibilities according to their abilities because it tells me that the master knew the third servant was incapable of taking the risk. But like in our parable from last week the wealthy man’s return is delayed.
When he does return he goes to his three servants to settle up his accounts. He is pleased that the first two servants have doubled their investments. However the servant who was given but one talent says, “I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.” I don’t like that the master is furious and I don’t like what he has to say about it. “That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least?”
Jesus is using this parable to illustrate that one’s work as a follower of Christ is supposed to be risky. It takes courage to believe and even more courage to spread the good news. The parable challenges me because, like last week, there are things I don’t like and I identify most with the third servant. However, being a disciple of Christ takes a leap of faith and it is risky business.
If the modern use of talents has any relation to the text, it is at the level of allowing God to work through us and putting our talents (our natural abilities) at God’s disposal. The tragedy is that we are afraid when in reality we have been made courageous. Through Christ we have been given the freedom to take risks. Martin Luther called it the “freedom of the Christian in the gospel. We do not have to be afraid of failure. We do not have to fear criticism from our Master, so long as we take those risks because in Christ we have been given our security.”
Protecting our talents is like protecting God. We do not need to protect God-the greatest talent- richer than any earthly wealth. In fact a lot of the time we find God is pulling in great profits in areas which we have deemed beyond God’s interests. We can’t bury God in the backyard. We can’t put God under the mattress for a rainy day. We need to take risks- even when they are scary, even when we don’t know what the future will hold, even when we think we aren’t talented enough. We need to trust that God is moving through us, changing lives, changing the church, changing our community so that we may all be changed in the kingdom of God. Amen

Be Prepared

Bible Text: Matthew 25:1-13 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

I enjoy listening to Old Time Radio shows, or OTR for short. This love started early in life when my brother began collecting these shows to share with the more senior members of our church family. At Christmas time he would deliver episodes of Burns and Allen, Abbot and Costello, Amos and Andy, depending on ones tastes, to our church family. This hobby developed particularly as we watched my grandparents age. With the loss of his eyesight and the difficulty of communicating with my Grandma due to her Alzheimer’s my Grandpa would bring tapes of these shows whenever he visited her and they would sit together for an afternoon with smiles on their faces listening to yet another silly shenanigan in Our Miss Brooks or the Bickersons or the Aldridge Family. If you’re looking at me thinking who are these people and what on earth is she talking about, trust me, tune your radio to Parksville’s The Lounge any night of the week at 8pm and you will hear these shows. Its what Mike and I do for fun on our free evenings. My particular favourite is Fibber McGee and Molly. Fibber is always getting into some kind of trouble while level headed Molly says, “heavenly day” and usually fixes the problem.
The Golden age of radio is often thought to be between 1925 and 1950. What often strikes me is that during the second world war, these shows continued to broadcast often followed by service announcements by the characters reminding people to buy war bonds, or return their tin cans or do their part by following the rationing guidelines. In amongst their laughter and adventures there are reminders of the realities of the effects of war even on the home front. It is hard for me to imagine what all that must have been like or what it would have been like growing up in Europe where there was not only rationing but the threat of attacks. I know many of you know these experiences first hand, lived them on either side of the conflict. There must have been a real sense of emergency and always preparing. Preparing to go to the basements and cellars in the event of an air raid, preparing to leave in the event of an attack, preparing to hide, preparing to fight, preparing to run, preparing for whatever the situation demanded. One’s survival depended on it.
In many ways that is the metaphor for the parable of the bridesmaids. It reminds me of my Girl Guides’ motto, “be prepared”. Matthew’s Gospel is rather unique. Compared to the other synoptic gospels Matthew has a greater interest in the final judgement. Luke references to it once and Mark never mentions it at all. But Matthew refers to it and includes parables for it, six times throughout his Gospel, three parables in this one chapter. What we hear today is just one of a series of our distinctly Matthew parables bearing upon the relationship between the return of Jesus and who will be in and who will be out. We will hear the other two in the weeks ahead.
In this parable there is only one thing that separates the wise and the foolish bridesmaids. Five bring extra oil. Otherwise they act the same. They all arrive on time. They all wait. They are all tired and they all fall asleep. When they all wake up they all trim their lamps. When the bridegroom arrives only the five wise ones have enough oil to light their lamps. What makes them wise is that they thought ahead. They planned for what might happen. The Bridegroom might be late and therefore its a good idea to bring a little extra. Being prepared is the only distinction.
Honestly, this parable makes me uncomfortable for numerous reasons. It likely makes all of us uncomfortable one way or another. I don’t like that the five foolish bridesmaids are rejected. I don’t like that the bridegroom claims to not even know these innocent foolish women when they return with oil. But the reason this parable makes me most uncomfortable is I don’t think I’m very wise in fact most of the time I am very foolish. I am more like Fibber getting into trouble than Molly who seems to always have the right answer. Sure I plan ahead for a lot of things and I even think about what might happen. But upon reflection I don’t feel I’m all that prepared. I will admit I don’t even have my earthquake kit ready let alone my second coming kit and I know what’s supposed to be in my earthquake kit. What would be in our second coming kit?
I once heard that a church leader was asked, what would he do today if he knew that Christ would return tomorrow. His response, “I’d work in my garden.” This was not because he was so prepared with his kit that he wasn’t worried but rather that in all that we do we are living in Christ. Whether we are working together, working in our community or working in the garden. Discipleship is not a passive waiting but a lot of doing. That is what our kit entails.
The point of this parable is not only that we should be prepared but it points to how we should prepare. Christians are called to active discipleship during this time. The time before the arrival of Christ. One commentator writes, “Like the maidens, we may know what is needed, oil, but we may lose the opportunity for proper action.” Meaning, we have oil, we bring it with us on Sunday morning, but sometimes our oil runs out during the week. What happens then? We are distracted with our duties, distracted by our wants and distracted by other’s demands. We are no longer prepared.
This parable is challenging because it calls Jesus’ disciples to a state of constant alertness. Not just one day of the week or one hour of our day, but at all times. As Greg Carey, a New Testament Scholar puts it, “It calls Jesus’ disciples to a state of perpetual openness to God’s dramatic future. We’re talking about living with a keen awareness of Jesus’ return, an alertness tempered by preparation for a long haul.” It is not an easy task. Being ready, being prepared is about getting our actions in line with God’s in all we do. Every day of the week. To think that we have all we need, to think that we have enough oil within ourselves, to think that we can live this life without God. That is foolish. I am often very foolish. Wisdom comes from God, and God alone. Daily prayer, practice, and faith that’s what’s going into my kit. What’s going in yours?

Saints and Sinners

Bible Text: Matthew 5:1-12 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

You know this week, I was very surprised to discover that the Irish have actually given us TWO holidays. One involves dressing up in costumes, filling yourself with goodies and participating in fellowship, which we all know is St. Patrick’s Day. But it turns out that Halloween comes from the Irish as well. The original festival celebrated the harvest and was the traditional New Year’s Eve celebration. It symbolized a renewing of the year as well as a time for reflection on the year that was. Like so many other non Christians traditions the early church took this holiday and shaped it into its own important festival All Hallow’s Even. The word hallow meaning “saint”. Halloween of course being the night before All Saints Day, which was yesterday. A day dedicated to reflection.
Growing up All Saints Day was one of those church traditions that we didn’t celebrate. It was something that only the Roman Catholic church participated in, venerating the saints of centuries ago, reflecting on their goodness and example. But after some thought and research I discovered that it is a tradition from the very early church, before the establishment of what we understand as the Roman Catholic church. It goes back to the early days of missionaries in Europe, particularly Ireland. So why not celebrate it.
Christians differ in their estimations about who and what constitutes a “saint,” and so they celebrate this feast day differently. Roman Catholics and Orthodox believers view saints as extraordinary Christians whose lives were characterized by heroic virtue, genuine miracles and divine visions. Saints Francis or Patrick or Andrew come to mind. They venerate but do not worship these deceased saints, and pray to them for help. Essentially viewing saints as people who are just slightly closer than the average person to God. I too am grateful for the inspiring examples of these remarkable Christians. I am particularly drawn to Saint Ignatius of Layola and Saint Catherine of Siena. As a Presbyterian, however, I affirm that every ordinary believer, those from the past, those in the present and those who will be, are “saints,” not just the elite heroes. You see, the protestant church believes in the sainthood of all believers. Paul, for example, addressed his letters to “all the saints” in Rome, Ephesus, and Philippi. People who were alive and living as followers of Jesus. Being a Christian is one of the few things in life you cannot or should not try to do alone; we need help from all the saints—known and unknown, and especially the everyday, ordinary believers.
God has claimed each one of us, and as a result even with our imperfections has granted us sainthood. As children of God we are all members of an equal family. We are not suppose to compete with each other, particularly in matters of faith. I know that everyone of the saints in my life were not perfect, but they managed to reach to me in ways many others couldn’t.
Looking back on my life there are a lot of people who had to demonstrate sainthood in order for me to be here today. You will never read about these saints in any church history book. There will never be any days of commemoration in the church calendar set aside to solely honor and remember them. They are just ordinary folks like you and me, but in the course of seeking to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, in striving to love the Lord with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind, they ended up touching my life in ways that changed me and had a profound effect on where I am today.
Mr. Millar was one such saint. I’ve been thinking about him a lot after last week’s service. He was my pre-teen Sunday school teacher, who also took us out to basketball and hockey games which taught us the importance of convenantal fellowship. He invited us over to his house many times for dinner, and practiced a lot of patience when we wanted to listen to our hard rock tapes over his selection of Gaither Singer records. Most importantly he introduced me to God and spawned a desire to study Scripture. He is one of many saints in my life. By their example and witness and faithfulness to the love and grace of God, they made an indelible mark on me.
Who are the saints in your life ? Who taught you how to celebrate
God’s love and grace? Who managed to influence your spiritual life? It is those saints I wish to celebrate on this All Saints Sunday. I also know that years from now members our congregation and Sunday school will remember you, because you taught them about Christ’s compassion and gave them foundations in faith. That’s what this All Saint’s Sunday is about, a time to remember and to thank God for all those saints down through the ages, whose names may not be recorded in books, but whose names are certainly written on our hearts. Some of them have moved on while others still play a part in our lives. The one thing these saints have in common is their love for God, and their willingness to allow God to use them in reaching out and ministering to others, allowing the grace, love and compassion of God to shine through them.
But we also know that we are not perfect. There are people in our lives that we may not remember so fondly, just as others may not think of us as saints. We are all called to be saints but there is no doubt that we are all sinners. Perhaps that is what makes our gospel passage this morning so special.
In his translation of the Bible, called The Message, Eugene Peterson puts it like this, “Jesus tells us, blessed are the poor in spirit. You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. Because God’s kingdom is waiting for you. Blessed are those who feel the weight of the world’s suffering, those who feel as if they have lost everything. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. Blessed are the humble, You’re blessed when you are connected with who you are-no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can not be bought. Blessed are those who hunger and long for what is right and good. You are blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. Because God’s food and drink is the best meal you’ll ever eat. You’re blessed when you get your inside world- your mind and heart-put right. Because then you can see God in the outside world. But not only that- count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”
So many times we find ourselves as sinners, struggling to maintain a right relationship with God and with others. But that is when Jesus comes a long and reminds us that even in our imperfections and up hill battles we are blessed. We are called to be loving, kind, compassionate, generous, faithful people. But we are often challenged by those around us and struggle to live that type of life. The important thing is that we let it all characterize our lives. Because maybe, just maybe, some day there will be some one else standing up here remembering us on this day. All Saints Sunday. Amen

Only Two Things are Certain

Bible Text: Matthew 22:15-22 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

Benjamin Franklin wrote in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” The phrase, “nothing is certain but death and taxes” can often be viewed as rather fatalistic and sardonic. It is rather cynical. Some might cringe at the comparison between the inevitability of death and the unavoidable act of paying taxes. I like to believe that this has become a common mantra for anyone who has experienced change. I like to believe that the phrase has come to symbolize that everything is uncertain, that no matter how much we plan, no matter how much we keep on track, things beyond our control can change everything. It makes life exciting and for my type A personality, who likes to plan everything, its a good way to keep things unpredictable. There are songs, movies, poems, novels, comic books, even a beer that all share the title, Death and Taxes. Even Jesus seems to understand that there are many uncertainties in life but taxes isn’t one of them.
The Pharisees and Herodians, who otherwise would not even be talking to each other have found a common bond, to get Jesus between a rock and a hard place. Many would have said with certainty that the Pharisees and Herodians would never talk to each other but here they are working together to trick Jesus. The question seems rather simple, as law abiding, tax paying, rule following people, we don’t see the conflict but this very problem of paying taxes is what separates the Pharisees and Herodians. If Jesus answers that the taxes are lawful, he will offend the Pharisees, as well as the entire Hebrew people, who are currently living in an oppressive state. In particular, he will offend the people who follow him most closely, the poor, for they are especially burdened by the Roman tax system. Conversely, if he speaks out against the tax, the Roman supporters, the Herodians, have all they need to take news of such treasonous talk back to the authorities. Treason being a crime punishable by death.
This story was likely remembered and repeated throughout the life of the early church who also suffered a great deal under oppressive rulers and a strict tax system. When these two, otherwise enemy groups, gang up on Jesus it is because they thought they might be able to trap him into saying something offensive, either about the Romans or about his Jewish faith. Of course, like anyone trying to trap someone, they preface this conversation with flattery. “Jesus, you are honest, sincere, and speak the truth, you are a great teacher, you would be able to solve this for us.”
Jesus is of course all those things but he is also not fooled by their flattery. Being the honest, sincere, truth speaking teacher that he is, he is also wise, even clever. Like all great teachers, he re-frames the question and turns it back on them. He asks for a coin. It is important to note that the coin Jesus receives is a denarius. Earlier in his Gospel, Matthew says that a denarius is a full days wage for the common labourer. Clearly for someone to have a denarius on hand means that Jesus’ audience at this very moment are not the common or the poor but rather the wealthy- the political and religious authorities. People whose job it is to serve the common and the poor.
Upon receiving the coin, a denarius, Jesus asks whose inscription and face appears on it. It is of course the face of the emperor. In fact the inscription would have read, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.” This gives us a couple things to think about because two great laws within the Hebrew tradition are being broken. One, the blasphemous claim to divinity by the Roman emperor and the fact that for Jews there was a prohibition against human images. It’s idolatry. Which is why Jesus can respond, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The Gospel says, both the Pharisees and the Herodians were amazed and they left Jesus alone. It would appear that Jesus’ answer was not only satisfactory but thoughtful and cleared up any dispute.
But few things are certain in this life-despite his audience being satisfied Jesus’ answer has lead to centuries of debate on what he meant. Some scholars point to this passage as proof that religion and politics should be kept separate. Others argue that this proves that Jesus taught that it is our duty as followers of Christ to support the government and be involved in politics. The most common scholarly interpretation is that this is proof that Jesus only cares about the things of faith and that mundane things like taxes don’t matter or that we shouldn’t pay taxes because they are blasphemous and idolatrous. To complicate things, earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus spoke on the subject of money and divided loyalties. He said that no one can serve two masters. One cannot serve God and wealth.
Sometimes we get too wrapped up in scholarly talk and not enough on the practical application. When Jesus asks about who appears on the denarius he is pointing to a few things about our relationship with God. The image of the emperor is stamped on this coin- it is stamped by human hands for a human purpose. I am reminded of the story from creation, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” We are made by God for God’s purpose. God placed a stamp on us.
As a result this raises questions, whose image do we bear? Who do we belong to? And ultimately where does our loyalty lie? We pay our taxes, and so we should, we place money into RRSPs, GICS and savings accounts. Being apart of this congregation means we fund raise, encourage planned givings, take up collection and so we should. Some of those funds go straight back into our operating costs, some of that goes into community causes and some of that goes into reserve accounts as they should. But no matter what we give, no matter how we save, no matter what we do, we must never forget that we belong entirely to God- our emperor, our king, our Creator.
Perhaps for those of us who appreciate our independence, those of us who desire certainties, those of us who plan, this can be a concerning statement, that our entire being belongs to God, not even to ourselves. It might seem rather unpredictable. However, the realities of belonging to God are refreshing, renewing, and remarkable. God will not forsake us. God cares for us. Like with Moses, God is present with us, affirming who we are.
When we belong to God we belong to the people of God, the body of Christ, the community of believers. We are registered in a wonderful savings plan. Our response must be to invest in our worship filled lives. All of this worship, all that we bring, all that we are, all that we will be, belongs to God. There are a few certainties in life but three come to mind, death on this earth, taxes, and the love of God found in Jesus Christ, among us in the Holy Spirit. Amen

It’s a Thankless Job

Bible Text: Luke 17:11-19 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

Saying thank you is one of the first lessons in manners we ever get. Parents turn to their children and ask, “What do you say?” and usually a quiet “thank you” follows. This lesson is often included with a few other manner moments with questions like, “what’s the magic word” followed by “please” and the one I used a lot with my brother. “Tell him your sorry”, “I’m sawry”, “Say it like you mean it.” “I’m sorry”. I don’t know many languages but at last count I knew the words thank you in French (merci), German (Danke), Spanish (gracias), Japanese (Domo), Mandrin (sheshe), Cantonese (doja), Hawaiian (Mahalo) and Hebrew (Toda). This is not because I have any great linguistic experiences but because when we encounter those who speak other languages it is the first sentence we try to learn. It’s a simple phrase that can mean so much. Thank you. But it would appear that sometimes, like children, we need a reminder. This past summer a challenge popped up on facebook, “The Grateful Challenge”. How it worked is that someone would challenge you or nominate you to do the challenge and for seven consecutive days you were to post 3 things for which you were thankful. Days one and two often expressed thanks for things one would expect, spouses, children, friends, family and location. But after about day 5 the things people were thankful for became a little more obscure and a little more trivial, things like the food they ate, the television show they watched. It is actually a more challenging exercise than one might expect. In fact, I would argue it would be easier to write about three things we don’t like for 7 consecutive days. Yet, there really is so much to be thankful for but the very fact that something like the “grateful challenge” exists means that we don’t say thank you enough.
Thankfully, Jesus didn’t expect much thanks in his life and ministry. Good thing too, since most people responded with everything but thanks. This morning’s gospel passage is a little different. When Martin Luther was asked to describe the true nature of worship he answered, “The tenth leper turning back.” I was curious about his answer. It seems obvious, in that the true nature of worship is praise to God. However, this Samaritan leper does a few things differently that makes him stand out from the rest. I wonder what it says statistically, that one in ten praise God with thanks? What other things make this Samaritan leper different.
Jesus often worked in the in between, in between the righteous and the radical, in between the wealthy and the poor, in between men and women, in between borderlands. Luke begins our story this morning by stating that Jesus was travelling to Jerusalem through the region between Samaria and Galilee. Samaria and Galilee border each other which means there really isn’t a region in between . It is also a very bizarre way of getting to Jerusalem. In fact, if Jesus is at the border of Galilee and Samaria he is actually going in the opposite direction, away from Jerusalem. But many scholars believe Luke is using the geography to make a theological point. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem meaning on the way to the cross, and along this journey all over the countryside Jesus encounters the very people who need to meet God, people in between. Along the way he reveals something about the nature of the kingdom God wishes to establish. This story is exactly that, an encounter that happens in between- between ethnic and religious differences, between the healthy and the broken, between those who see and those who don’t. It is those who are on the margins, who are most firmly established in the in between regions, who encounter God.
Jesus is passing by these lepers who call out, “Master have mercy on us.” Taking a good look at them, seeing them for who they are, broken, hurting people, Jesus says “Go show yourselves to the priests.” The priest in the village being the one who has the power to determine whether they are clean or unclean, whether they are welcomed into the community or rejected to the outskirts, whether they show signs of leprosy or not. One of the lepers, who happened to be a Samaritan, someone deemed doubly unclean by the Jewish priests, realizes, sees, that he has been healed and runs back to Jesus, kneeling at his feet in gratitude.
Perhaps part of our thankfulness comes when we truly see what we are thankful about. Meaning that it is only when we stop to recognize what it is that is being revealed that we have a deep sense of gratitude. As people of faith we know that seeing and believing are not necessarily related, we are often required to believe without having any insight or tactile experience, but perhaps gratitude is about seeing, as well as about encountering God.
All the lepers are healed- each and everyone of them but one, however, saw, recognized that his experience included an encounter with God . Our NRSV translation says, “When he saw that he was healed he turned back”. This former leper saw, noticed, stopped rushing off in the same direction as all the others and turned back to praise God. This former leper let it sink in and he realized his gratitude. Because he sees what has happened he recognizes Jesus. Because he sees what has happened he has something for which to be thankful and praises God with a loud voice. Because he sees what has happened he changes directions. I believe this is what Martin Luther meant when he said that this was the true nature of worship. Saying thank you is one of the most basic human behaviours and yet we don’t do it enough or it means nothing more than a greeting. But true thankfulness means seeing, recognizing, changing, and ultimately praising God with a loud voice.
This is often easier than it seems. We might see God in our midst and even recognize Christ’s example in each other but we rarely see change as part of the equation. This story is an invitation to recognize that what we see and how we react makes all the difference. David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary asks, “In the face of adversity do we see danger or opportunity? In the face of human need do we see demands or gifts? In the face of the stranger, do we see potential enemy or friend?” But this seeing, believing and gratitude goes even further. “When we look to God, do we see stern judge or loving parent? When we look to ourselves do we see failure or beloved child? When we look to the future do we see fearful uncertainty or an open horizon?” How we answer these questions are closely related and shapes our behaviour, outlook, and gratitude.
One key point about this story is that the leper who turned back praising God is told, “your faith has made you well.” Jesus’ vocation was often a thankless one but there were the few who stopped to see God in their midst. Nevertheless, the gift of healing was not restricted to just that one leper. It was given to all ten-regardless of whether they saw, recognized or praised. In fact the only thing these ten have in common is in fact that they changed. These are people who lived in between, on the margins, and Jesus healed each one of them without the expectation of being thanked. Sometimes when we see others we also project expectations- we expect that if we do something for them, they will do something for us. We expect that if the church helps them than they will in turn help the church. But Jesus did not withhold healing from those who did not turn back. Being healed is offered to everyone, those living in between, on either side, or completely lost. There are no restrictions and no expectations. All ten were made well. The difference is that the one who turned back was not only healed but made whole. He has encountered God and when he sees what has happened this former leper is drawn back into relationship with God through his gratitude.
Among the traditions and turkey or the quiet afternoon, between the special events and the ordinary, God is constantly offering moments in which we can truly encounter God and one another. Moments when we are invited to stop, see, recognize, change and ultimately praise God in a loud voice. For that, we can truly be thankful. Amen


Bible Text: Exodus 17:1-7, Matthew 21:23-32 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

Whether you know it or not this Sunday is, Presbyterians Sharing Sunday. Perhaps you know what Presbyterians Sharing is or perhaps all you know is that we give an amount to Presbyterians Sharing each year as determined by the national church, like a due or perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, “Don’t Presbyterians share already-why do we need to devote a whole Sunday to sharing?!” The short sermon is “Presbyterians Sharing is the national church fund that supports the mission and ministries we do together in Canada and around the world. Presbyterians are sharing in a wide range of ministries from encouraging and equipping congregational renewal and development, to supporting inner city , native, refugee, urban, remote and chaplaincy ministries in Canada, to supporting conferences like Burst Forth and Canada Youth, to sending mission personnel to work with our international partners.” Although I support short sermons that ones just a little too short. What the Presbyterians Sharing fund does is help us make the unimaginable, imaginable, the impossible, possible.

Like the people in the desert we often set limitations. The Israelites have been travelling from place to place as God had commanded but they are beginning to grow weary and thirsty. It’s not the first time they quarrelled with Moses. It’s not the first time they questioned God and it will not be the last. Yet, every time they had a need it was met. This time God gives Moses a solution- the unimaginable happens. Water begins to flow. Our God is a limitless God and God responds time and time again with unimaginable answers. We often forget that the God of Moses’ day is still at work today. I want to tell you a story about one of the many projects supported by Presbyterians Sharing about a man who saw what he thought to be impossible made possible.

When I attended General Assembly in 2012 I had the great privilege of being a witness to the very first edition of the Hakka Bible. For 30 years the Rev. Dr. Paul McLean and his family devoted their time to complete a translation of the Bible in the Hakka language. It is a dialect predominately spoken in Taiwan but also in Indonesia, Malaysia, China and Australia. Although Dr. McLean was the head of this translating team, and was beaming when the Bible was revealed at General Assembly, he was supported by Presbyterians Sharing and had help from many of the locals. One such local was Elder Liau Tet-thiam. While working on the translation Dr. McLean asked Elder Liau how it was that he became a Christian. The story begins like this, one day Elder Liau’s paternal grandfather and family were visiting the nearby town of Liung-tham (Dragon Lake) to attend a large Hakka festival. There was a big rain-storm during the festivities and the family looked for some place dry to wait it out. They saw a simple building with an open door and wooden benches, so they went inside. There a kind man named Dzung A-moi offered them tea and chatted with them about the “God of Heaven and Earth”. The men had wandered into a small Presbyterian preaching hall. Over the next few months they got to know Mr Dzung, a disciple of Dr George Leslie Mackay – a Canadian Presbyterian missionary to Taiwan at the turn of the 20th century. Elder Liau remembered as a young boy walking miles from their farmhouse to worship God at Koan-si Presbyterian Church, even as neighbours yelled at them and called them fan-e gui, “foreign devils.” He learned from an early age what it meant to deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow Jesus. His first Bible was printed in Romanized Taiwanese. He won it as a young boy in a Bible memory contest at Church. He thanked God for that precious Bible, but was always a bit sad that it was not written in his mother tongue, Hakka. His second Bible was written in Japanese which he learned to speak when Taiwan was still part of the Japanese Empire. Elder Liau realized that he himself could not share many of the stories of God’s love with his own people because they were not as privileged as he to learn the other languages. All they knew was Hakka. Although Elder Liau Tet-thiam stood only 5 feet tall, he was a giant in Christian faith, hope and love among Taiwan’s Hakka people. When Dr. McLean arrived thanks to Presbyterians Sharing he asked for assistance and Elder Liau came forward. In fact often Elder Liau taught Dr. McLean new words or sayings. Sometimes as the team struggled over a verse, Elder Liau would come up with a brilliant solution. Presbyterians Sharing supported all the elders, staff and volunteers over that time. Elder Liau worked on the translation team well into his 90s, until the Hakka Bible was published just two years ago. Elder Liau died at the age of 95 this past April. But before he died he saw how God turned the efforts of a few into what would have once been unimaginable – the entire Bible in his mother tongue. Translating the Bible into Hakka allows Hakka people to hear God’s words in the language that speaks to their hearts. It tells them they are important to God, that God loves them, that Christ sacrificed his life for them. Through Presbyterians Sharing we get to be a part of this story too. And our partnership with the Bible translation ministry in Taiwan hasn’t stopped. Now that the Hakka Bible is complete, Dr. McLean is advising four translation teams who are preparing Bibles in the indigenous languages of Amis, Bunun, Drekay and Paiwan. God keeps blessing the work. When we give to Presbyterians Sharing we act in love, offer hope and proclaim God’s compassion to the world. God is transforming lives. We may not all have the gift of being Bible translators – but we can all share in Bible translation by supporting and praying for that ministry. We may not all have the gifts to be chaplains, to work with refugees in Canada or abroad, we may not all be brave enough to take jumps of faith. But we can be inspired by their stories and know that as a connected church we are connected with brothers and sisters across this country, sharing our time and money. We are connected with missionaries around the world, sharing our prayers and support. As a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in Canada we share in God’s call to do mission. As a national church we collaborate together on many different things. We support one another’s ministries. We help start new congregations and renew others. We share the good news of the gospel with mission partners around the world. We discuss theological issues and make decisions at General Assembly. We learn from one another, share our experiences and establish healthy ways of working together. We walk with theological students in their journey to become ministers and ensure they have a quality education. We speak out on matters of justice. Together we are involved in mission and ministry bigger than our individual efforts. Together we are a church bigger than our individual congregations. Together we are sharing in God’s mission. Presbyterians Sharing makes this possible. It is about joining together to do God’s work – and letting God work through us. The miracle of water coming from a rock was not Moses’ doing but God’s. However, Moses allowed God to work through him so that the people of Israel would know that God is with them. It is often easy to think that the God of miracles is a God of the past. Yet, miracles are happening all the time. Prayers are answered over lifetimes. Presbyterians Sharing is one way in which we allow God to work through us so that others may know that God is with them. We are called to be like Christ- in what we do and how we do it. Where do we find Christ? Hanging out with people, listening, serving, healing and helping with the authority of God. Jesus helped people contemplate the big questions in life. He engaged people in whatever circumstance he found them and spoke to their deepest needs. Either figuratively or literally, he spoke their language and touched their hearts. Christ saw how they were excluded and included them. Christ saw their hurts and healed them. There are moments in Jesus’ ministry when he went alone on a mountain to pray- to refuel- but there are many more moments when he allowed God to work through him. If we do as we are called to do, if we are faithful and follow Christ, God will work through us. And we can see, as evidence in Elder Liau’s story that God is working through us – accomplishing more than we can hope for or imagine. Amen

It’s a Family Affair

Bible Text: Matthew 18:15-20 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

In 1971 Sly and the Family Stone released their greatest hit. They were one of the first integrated musical acts with both black and white musicians. The Family Stone included siblings Sly, Rose and Freddie Stone as well as numerous other musicians throughout the years. Each one, regardless of race were “adopted” into the family. This hit I referred to was the fourth and final number one for this funk-r&b- soul-pop group. It is their only song to rank in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All time. It was a song that was markedly different from any of their early work. It’s got a nice groove to it but its much more somber. It uses a rhythm box- or drum machine. It was in fact the first number one hit to ever feature a programmed rhythm track. Something that is now used by most pop artists. Sly Stone and his sister Rose were the lead vocals on this song which is fitting because the lyrics talked of both the good and difficult aspects of being- a family. “It’s a family affair, it’s a family affair.” Sly delivered bass tones which differed from his previous work as a gospel singer. Interestingly enough, even though this was Sly and the FAMILY Stone’s biggest hit. With the exception of his sister Rose singing the refrain none of the other members of the band were utilized in the recording. Sly played all the instruments except for the piano which was played by Sly’s friend Billy Preston. Imagine the discussions when it was decided that this song- featuring few of the group- would be the single. Imagine the claims to rights when this song became their greatest hit. Sometimes the challenges of being in a family are brought on by our own behaviour, our own choices and sometimes they are brought on by the people we love most.

Families can be unpredictable and difficult but they are also the closest bonds we will ever have. When families function well they are God’s way of teaching us important virtues- things like sharing and working together, compassion and forgiveness and most definitely patience. But more often than not families can also teach us how to fight. My brother and I practised that lesson a lot. Today’s Gospel lesson touches upon the relationships within a family. The lesson is a little more than how to reconcile with a sibling. It is a lesson on how to live as a Christian family and community- with all our sibling rivalries, parental support, and growth spurts.

Jesus teaches in this passage that a Christian community is not a private matter. It is not something that happens when you are alone. This is difficult for our post-post-modern world to comprehend. We are often focused on our own personal journeys. In fact lots of denominations will require that we have a personal relationship with Jesus. I am comfortable with supporting the desire to have our own independence within our faith journey and relationship with God but this passage reminds us that it is in fact not only about Jesus being a personal Lord and Saviour- but a redeemer of the whole- the entire family of God- the community and creation. When two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name that is when Jesus promises to be in our midst not when we are off by ourselves feeling righteous or spiritual. However, that also means we are challenged with the difficult task of listening to and loving one another. Before we can gather together in prayer we must reconcile our differences. This is by far the most challenging task of all.

Matthew 18 provides a communal approach to dissent and reconciliation in which an individual has at least three opportunities to rethink, reconsider and listen. The desert Fathers and Mothers, who were monks and ascetics who predominantly resided in the deserts in Egypt around the third century often discussed these rules in Matthew. Abba Bitimius asked Abba Poemen, “If someone has a grievance against me and I ask his pardon but cannot convince him, what is to be done?” Abba Poemen answered, “Take two other brothers with you and ask his pardon. If he is not satisfied, they pray to God without anxiety, that God may satisfy him, and do not worry about it.” Essentially what Abba Poemen means is that once a grievance has been raised if the sister or brother refuses to change then the change must occur within ourselves.

There are a few curious things about Jesus’ advice that goes against some of our cultural behaviour. Jesus puts the burden of reconciliation upon the victim. This is contrary to our penal system which tries its best to remind victims that it is not their fault. However, I believe it is in anger management programs that try to remind those who have a temper that it is only they who can control their reactions when dealing with how others effect them. Jesus’ advice is essentially saying the same thing. That if one feels a wrongdoing has occurred it is not their job to place the blame, or seek revenge or retribution but rather they are required to confront with a listening ear those whom they feel have wronged them.

I am sure there are many of us out there who would rather avoid confronting conflict at all costs- whether its by ignoring the situation or being passive aggressive or even manipulative or feeling blameless. But Jesus’ teaching gives us hard advice. In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Lewis describes a hell that resembles a world we inhabit. Hell is this large, grey community, that is both full of people and empty in centre. “A city inhabited only at its outer edges with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle. Empty because everyone who once lived in them had quarrelled with the neighbours and moved, and quarrelled with new neighbours and moved again, leaving empty streets full of empty houses behind them. That,” Lewis writes, “Is how hell got so big with an empty centre and inhabited fringes- because everyone in it chose distance instead of confrontation.” They chose to leave things unresolved rather than find a solution. It is important to remember that in confronting a conflict the end goal is to build a relationship not break one. The ultimate goal being reconciliation. Jesus reminds his disciples that this reconciliation is a mutual experience. That the one who feels wronged must also reconcile rather than accuse the other.

The other thing that marks this as a unique relationship is that Jesus does not appear to be concerned with who is right and who is wrong. In fact Jesus implies that even if the conflict was not your fault it is still important to admit one’s own wrongdoings. It is difficult to admit when we have been wrong and likely even harder when someone else tells us how wrong we are. But Jesus says we are all wrong when we choose to work as individuals rather than for the community. The best way to act as a community is to listen to one another and then pray with each other.

Barbara Brown Taylor says, “It is a real nuisance to belong to a family. It would be so much easier if we were just a bunch of individuals, loosely bound by similar beliefs but whose affairs remained a private matter between us and God. But according to Jesus, there is no such thing as privacy in the family of God. Our life together is the chief means God has chosen for being with us…Our life together is the place where we are comforted, confronted, tested and redeemed by God through one another. It is the place where we come to know God.” This is not a personal, private affair but rather a family affair.

It is scary being a family, being a community. It goes against some of our cultural behaviours, certainly our desire to be private people on our own individual journeys. And yet, there are great gifts too. When a family functions well we are interacting with people who love us, people who support us, people who listen to us. As this community takes shape-be it a change in building or not, as the Presbyterian Church in Canada develops new doctrine and policies remember that listening is one of our greatest gifts. God listens to our prayers when we are gathered in unity together. It’s a family affair that is full of rhythm and blues and a lot of soul.