Posts Tagged ‘fear’

Sink or swim

August 13, 2017

Sink or swim; what will you do?  In Peter’s case (of course), both.  In a show of false bravado, he demands that Jesus “command me to come to you…”  And out into the waves he goes – successful at first.

Isn’t it wonderful to think that Jesus’ presence can provoke such acts of faith – such a show of the miraculous…except that all too soon we discover that not even Jesus presence can keep Peter from sinking.  And all Jesus can do (once all are safe and dry) is sadly shake his head; “…why did you doubt?”

And as I told the session (in Thorburn) on Tuesday night, THAT is the question.  Why – with our storied history and rich tradition and our tenacious ability to be the church in this place – why do we doubt?  Because we do; we can’t help it.  We’re full of doubt – overwhelmed by it – up to our necks in it – and for no good reason.

Sure, times are tough for churches,  and all organizations that depend on public generosity.  Yes, it is frightening to read the news of nuclear powered nit-wits…(umm) leaders acting irresponsibly.  It would be the easiest, and most sensible course of action to doubt the presence of a caring, merciful, all knowing/seeing God when things seem to be spiralling out of control, so some personal (and collective) doubt is perhaps predictable (and maybe even understandable).  But current global events continue to demonstrate that the product of our doubt is also predictable…and not understandable in the least.

We sink.  We hide.  We lash out.  We blame.  We rally ‘round old habits, and despicable behaviours.  Some have, in recent days, disguised bigotry as “white advocacy” – in the name of security, safety and self-protection –

with the ridiculously dangerous argument that every group except ‘plain white people’ have demanded some kind of special privilege.

None of these are Christian behaviours.  All of it brings me to the point of despair…except for one thing.  Jesus.

Jesus – calm in the centre of the storm – calls us to remember what is on offer (and what is at stake!).  Jesus defies the odds and meets us in the midst of our terror.  Though he is the embodiment of peace and purpose, his presence first prompts more fear (it is a ghost!).  His response is meant to overturn our objections:“Take heart – it is I; Don’t be afraid.”

That is how it begins.  He names the problem – fear.  Fear of the unknown; fear of the “other”, and ultimately, fear of the remarkable difference that Jesus represents.  Jesus calls us to join him on the water and we may eventually go, but we’re not convinced that we can take him seriously.

But we’re Christians, you say – we’re charged with “making disciples”, “spreading the gospel”; “keeping the faith”.  Except making disciples doesn’t mean getting people to think and act like we do, but to follow (think and act) like Jesus.  We don’t keep the faith; we use faith to keep the world at a safe distance.  Too many have claimed a faith (that they call Christian) that looks only to some heavenly reward, and cares nothing for the troubles of this present world – the world to which Jesus said the kingdom was surely coming.  Faith comes to us as a way to navigate the troubled waters that confront us.  The difference is explored in this morning’s gospel.

What we fail to notice about Jesus is that he too is in the midsts of the mayhem – the storm is no less severe where he is standing.  We imagine that Jesus will ‘fix it for us’, but he doesn’t.  He asks us to join him before it looks safe to do so.

Peter asks Jesus to command him – nothing less than a direct order will get him out of the boat because the situation is unsettled; Peter can’t imagine it ending well.  Likewise, when we wade into any of the current debates on offer in coffee shops or on-line forums, we are right to go cautiously – and to enter into these environments without Jesus is to invite disaster – but we are invited by Jesus to engage these difficult and often dangerous questions.  The light of the world stands steady in the darkness and gives us the courage to speak against the insanity that assaults us from the front pages and the news shows…yet we continue to sink, because our fear continues to master us.

Fear is winning because we have eliminated something crucial to Jesus’ message.  If the sixties era ‘hippie-Christians’ were guilty of ignoring judgement to claim love, there are those in our own time who would go too far in the other direction.  The so-called ‘christian response of those who give assent to the fanatical nationalism that is becoming so common in otherwise ‘civilized countries’ (USA and Canada) profanes the name and cause of Christ.  White supremacists and those who met them in violent opposition in Virginia – each twisting their minds to a different religious rationale – have chosen judgement over love of any kind, and it is fear that throws them together.  We can’t imagine listening in love (or listening at all) because, out of fear, we must not let our minds be changed or our hearts be moved.    The way forward is hurtful and hateful if we forget who (and why) we have been called ‘out of the boat.’

God is at work here – standing in the waves in the person of Jesus – and God will not be fooled, nor will God be faithless.  In Christ, God dares us to imagine something else; something different – something impossible – a storm that cannot overwhelm us; a world that honours love, faith and hope, all three in equal measure.  By his presence in the streets of Charlottesville – speaking peace to those deafened by their fear.   By his presence in the carefully considered conversations around immigration and economics and the global balance of power, Jesus would put our fears to rest – not because the crisis is over, but because his presence, his life, death and resurrection, have changed the terms of engagement.  It means that something new must emerge from the chaos.  You can be sure Peter was never the same after his near drowning, and remember, even his failure did not keep Jesus from trusting Peter with the job of engaging his culture in faith.

So yes, the times are dangerous.  And yes, we are liable to lose our nerve, sinking beneath the waves of worry and fear.  And certainly It is easier to fear than it is to learn; it is easier to sink (then pray for help), than it is to learn to swim, And Jesus shakes his head, wondering why we would continue to doubt. because I think that  Jesus is offering us life, eternal and abundant; gifts for the future and the present.  What could be better in times such as these, with the water already up to our necks, than swimming lessons – on the arm of the one who walks on water!


The least of these…

June 19, 2016

He had demons, this guy – naked, homeless (living in the tombs, in fact, which is worse than homeless), and introduced to the narrative as a raving thing – shouting at the top of his voice “What have you to do with me, Jesus – son of the most high God?  I beg you, do not torment me…”

Let’s consider this strange scene for a moment.

Jesus has come some distance – to a strange place (one where he is not known, one supposes). Jesus suggested this trip – during which the boat meets a storm and the disciples are terrified etc – (none of this has much affect on Jesus)  – and oddly, the minute he steps ashore, some lunatic identifies him – recognizes his holy mission and purpose – and then begs not to be tormented

I smell a trap, and it’s a trap set by the author of the gospel.

Luke’s account brings Jesus across the lake into gentile territory, where he soon meets someone who makes everyone uncomfortable.

Information about the cultural prejudices of Jesus day can be found in a multitude of ancient sources – but most of our information comes from Scripture, which does it’s best to remind us that Jesus is doing everything he can to undo, ignore, or otherwise subvert those prejudices.  Jesus does this by seeking out those people that have been isolated, ignored or evicted from the public eye.  So a trip to the tombs is on the agenda – to maximize the possibility that he and his entourage will encounter someone or something that his contemporaries hold in great disdain.  The poor – the disturbed – the deranged.  Never mind that they are also in the presence of hog farmers, a reminder that this province is full of outsiders (ie. those who are not Jewish).  Information about the usual treatment of the outcast of the time is found in the plea of the demon-posessed man; “…I beg you, do not torment me…”

Was it so common for the righteous to take a ‘slum tour’ – to mock the unfortunate inhabitants of the region, so that they might feel better about themselves?  I wonder.

Many of the assumptions we make about the life and times of the folks who lived in Roman controlled Palestine have the uncomfortable sound of truth – even those that we cannot confirm.  The Jewish population had reached an uneasy equilibrium with their Roman conquerors.  They were allowed their religious institutions, for the most part – so long as their devotion didn’t get in the way of their subservience to Rome.  Occasionally, someone would try to incite the citizens with wild ideas of God’s deliverance.  These kinds of rebellions were swiftly dealt with – no one messes, militarily, with Rome.  But in Jesus we are shown a different kind of uprising.  It’s not military, and it doesn’t seem overtly political – Jesus claims no power for himself, and even pays lip-service to the reality of civil authority – give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s, and all that.  No, what Jesus is promoting is a rebellion of personhood.  He visits the outer precincts, honours the outsider, the cripple, the lunatic fringe.  There is no power here (or so it would seem) to counter the power of Empire.

In truth, Jesus seems a joke in the political sense, because no one takes these people seriously…except Jesus.

“I beg you, do not mock me.”  And Jesus honours that request.  He asks the man his name.  He treats him as no one else has done for a very long time; Jesus honours his individuality.  Not ignoring his affliction, but refusing to let the man’s condition define him.  The result is a man transformed; clothed and “in his right mind” – and the ordinary citizens are terrified.

Why are they afraid?  He is no longer a threat – he is quiet, he is eager to honour  Jesus by becoming his disciple.  well, they are afraid of Jesus.

He has presented them with a way of relating, one to another, which is life changing – a radical shift in their well-established way of seeing the world, and it terrifies them.

So what does it mean for us?

In the church, we make it a habit to say that we are about love, justice and the way of peace.  We gather to honour God who is all these things and more.  But when our boundaries are challenged, and crisis threatens the comfort of our long-held ideas about ourselves as the collective voice of reason, moral authority and the way things ought to be, we are quick to revert to much older habits.  The church, which began in a community led by Jesus, a welcoming community that shared what it had, welcomed all comers, and challenged the right of the powerful to define justice, has always struggled with the all-too human tendency toward limit and control.

Some of the early moves to define the faith and ensure that all in the community were committed to the same cause came from a very real fear of violence and death.  The stories of martyrs for the faith confirm that, although some were willing to die for the cause of Christ, most preferred the opportunity to spread the gospel by their living witness.  While there are still places where the proclamation of the gospel brings the threat of persecution and death, the real fear is still among those who hear (and see) that the power of God is the power to change lives – to change relationships – to change (ultimately) the way we see and engage the world.

If this miracle – this story of a mad man freed of his madness – doesn’t terrify you, then I’m not sure what to say.  It is easy to be thrilled by stories of Jesus making people well – we are given hope that the power of God might serve us in our time of need, and that is part of the beauty of Holy Scripture.  But when I notice that the people whom Jesus makes well – the poor, the wild; the wicked and the rest – I am reminded that these are the inhabitants of the kingdom of God, and I have done my best to set myself apart from them – and that is a problem.

This is the legacy of a church that wants its own way – a church that sets rules and has standards – a church afraid of losing its way, and so keeps the expectational bar – for membership, for attendance – for involvement – set precariously high.  It becomes, without meaning to, an place that people don’t feel ‘good enough’ to belong.  and that should frighten us too.

He had demons.  A frightful, raving, naked menace – until Jesus dared to treat him like a child of God.  It may seem too much to ask of a people scared for the future – scared of failure – scared of somehow disappointing God – but such interest and compassion toward those whom society has abandoned – those who have been denied justice – the least of these – is the only thing that Jesus asks of us.

Modelling faith in our community, one conversation at a time

June 21, 2015

When I first put together the website for our two congregations,

I needed what they call a “tagline” –

something that briefly describes the work of the organization behind the website.

Almost eight years have passed since I put the site together,

and I’m still certain it was just the right phrase.

Modelling faith in our community, one conversation at a time.

Experience tells me that this is how it happens –

our faith is on display when we are talking, in small groups, or one on one,

about the things that worry us, or make us proud, or frustrate us, or give us hope.

When two or three are gathered in my name, Jesus said,

I am there among them – and he was talking about more than just worship.

This is a very hard thing to accept, especially for us –

two thousand years removed from Jesus ‘in the flesh’

but we know that, in certain company –

among people who have worshipped together and who share pride in a congregation, for example,

the conversations more easily turn to matters of faith.

the unseen presence of Christ – the silent encouragement of the Holy Spirit –

the bond of trust formed by the community of the Baptized;

all of these things allow us to be honest in faith in the course of ordinary conversation.

The conversations that occupy this morning’s readings

are important evidence of God’s constant desire

to remain engaged with us (and keep us engaged with God)

Think of the whole of Job –

a conversation among friends about God…

except that God reserves the right to be a partner in every human conversation,

and in the end, exercises that right.

“Brace yourself and stand up like a man: I will ask questions and you shall answer…”

God is serious about the dialogue; and that dialogue is life and death to us…

Life and death was very much on the disciples’ minds as they set out across the lake.

Storms – especially storms on the open water –

are a fearful and wonderful thing,

even for people used to making a living on the water.

They are badly frightened, yet Jesus sleeps in the back of the boat –

seemingly unconcerned.

The conversation is short and heated.

“Don’t you care?” they complain.

“Why are you afraid?” is Jesus reply.

“Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey…?”

There seems to be no resolution – nothing explicitly faithful about this exchange –

They are left expressing awe that sounds like doubt (“who IS this…?”)

and wondering about God whose intention and activity

simmer just below the surface of everyday events.

When we wonder about the place of the church in a changing world,

we would do well to widen the audience for our conversations.

People are desperate to talk about the state of things –

you need only go to a coffee shop, or linger near the benches in the mall,

or the bleachers at a ball field,

The topics are vast: politics, racism, the economy, the royal family, the Blue Jays

People are mad & scared & confused by what’s going on in the world.

We talk about everything and nothing – stuff that matters, and stuff that doesn’t

and the voice of faith is not always heard, partly because we’ve decided

that people don’t want to hear what we have to say and partly because we’ve the wrong idea

about how to talk faith into these ordinary conversations.

The model is before us in Mark’s gospel.

they expressed their fear; real fear.  they expressed their deep disappointment.

They were left with a sense of awe – and more questions,

which, I assure you, they asked (once they got to dry land).

It was a conversation that opened the door to the possibility that God really does care,

and most of the time, that’s all that is necessary.

Now, we’ve been told that the art of conversation is dead – that technology (of every kind)

is going to rob us of the need to talk together.

I don’t believe that, but I’m also sure that the way we present our ideas through technology

can have the same effect as a face to face chat.

Questions are raised – doubts and fears expressed –

and the notion of wonder does enter the equation when an online article

leaves room for expressions of awe that leave the question open;

(Who/why/how is this possible?)

No matter how we manage it, the conversation will continue – must continue;

our fears, our doubts, our hopes, our dreams – all these must find expression,

and when we trust our “audience” with these things, we will be rewarded.

Job and his friends were confronted by an awesome truth –

that God was far larger than their largest complaint.

Jesus disciples were forced to consider that there was more to Jesus that met the eye.

We are witnesses to all this and more,

and so are challenged to “model our faith …one conversation at a time” –

Conversation is our best weapon in the battle against hatred and ignorance

(as we have recently witnessed with the families of victims of the Charleston shootings)

Honest dialogue can calm the wind and still the seas;

in such conversations we find our faith strengthened, and our spirits lifted;

we may even find a way into the future.  Amen

Fear and amazement, then and now.

April 4, 2015

The week begins as the Friday story ended – in fear.

The women have come to the tomb at first light of a new day; a new week;

ready to return to something familiar.

Their unbelievable experience with Jesus –

the roller-coaster ride

under the guidance of this radical teacher, their compassionate friend,

has come to an end with his death at the hands of the authorities.

It is not to be forgotten.  Their time spent with Jesus was incredible –

a time of hope and promise; a time of new ideas and fresh energy.

They watched as over and over again the impossible became common-place:

Broken people were made whole; the outcast were made welcome;

the promises of the God of Abraham

were lifted off the page and brought to life in spectacular fashion by Jesus.

They could almost imagine that the righteous kingdom had arrived…

The events in Jerusalem brought all that crashing down.

Human reality has pushed aside Divine possibility.

Jesus was dead, thanks to the combined efforts of civic and religious authorities.

The revolution of compassion and real righteousness

has been ruthlessly laid to rest.

So the women, in the early light of dawn, return to what they know.

Gathering spices, they go to honour the body of their friend and teacher.

They go to mourn in the custom of their community,

hoping that attention to the rituals of death might put them back on familiar ground.  They can’t forget their experiences with Jesus,

but they long to find safety and stability again –

to ‘go back’ to patterns and habits that had been their refuge.

But they have met, in Jesus, something unique – something ‘other’ – 

and there is no going back.

For starters, the stone has been moved; the grave is already open.

Alarmingly, a young man meets them in the tomb;

radiant and confident, the essence of life and hope.

The women are met with astonishing news:

“Don’t be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.


Consider this, for a moment.

These courageous women,

looking only to honour their dead friend and express their deep grief,

are expecting something normal –

some hint that the world hasn’t gone completely mad.

They already know what we know:  everything that lives will die.

They know that the powerful will stop at nothing to maintain their power.

The status quo is not always what we want, but it is familiar;

we prefer (as a species) known chaos to unknown chaos.

What they find at Jesus’ tomb is the announcement of the death of ‘status quo’.

The bright stranger who surprises them at the tomb

tries to take the edge off their surprise.

He reminds them that Jesus told them this was coming.

All his kingdom-talk – this compassionate revolution

with a thirst for the things of God,

was going to change the way of the world and upset the status quo.

But they had not understood this while Jesus lived,

and their fear makes it impossible for them to hear it now, in this place.

The fear that the gospel captures is understandable.

New things are frightening things –

especially when they defy our expectations as an empty tomb does.

It’s not hard to imagine that terror might be a typical reaction to resurrection,

but fear and amazement is, in fact, an appropriate response

to a radical departure from our expectations.

And our expectations are what keep us from understanding

the significance of this day.

Two thousand years of celebration have taken the edge off of Easter.

The resurrection of Jesus no longer inspires fear and amazement as it should, because we have reduced it to just another sign of spring

– a festival of new life –

without a real appreciation for what this new life might be.

Easter is the reminder of God’s desire for grace and life,

set against the things we have settled for –

the things that we assume are normal and ordinary,

and which cannot (in our imaginations) ever be changed.

The world spins on, and humanity follows a destructive path.

We are content to be consumers of creation

and our competition for those things that God called good

lead us to evil choices.

In such a world as ours,

where dangerous radical thinkers wreak havoc on ordinary citizens,

it seems as though we can only watch and mourn.

In a world based on our expectations, we are left to conclude that our only hope

is to grasp a little glory for ourselves –

to leave our mark and hope we are remembered well.

This is only part of our modern reality,

because we also inhabit a world

that has witnessed the real power of God in the resurrection of Jesus,

and that means we cannot be complacent, and we are no longer powerless;

in the face of great evil, or in anything else.

Our Easter celebrations should arouse the fear in us;

fear that comes when we recognize that he world is not always as we imagine it.

Our response to the news that Jesus is risen should move us to amazement,

for the empty tomb is proof that God is still at work

seeking peace and showing mercy and offering grace.

Our status quo has been torn apart, and today is our annual reminder

that although new things are difficult, and often dangerous,

God is still at work, renewing and refreshing all things

through this one mighty act of defiance.

Easter is nothing less than God’s defiance of our expectations;

The empty tomb is God’s answer to our certainty that nothing can be changed, because in the moment when grief and (acceptance) turns to fear and amazement,

anything is possible – joy is possible – life is possible.

Thanks be to God that Jesus is Risen – he is risen indeed!

Hallelujah!  Amen!

“Have you come to destroy us?” Fear in the church – then and now.

January 31, 2015

Capernaum – an ordinary sabbath, with Jesus in the centre of a teaching event at the synagogue. He is turning heads, for they have never heard anyone teach like he does – authority, they say – that’s the secret ingredient. He knows his business – everyone says so – so an interruption is not welcome. Mark’s gospel says the man had an unclean spirit. We assume he is mentally unbalanced; an unfortunate soul with no self control. But I don’t think that is the problem.
He was part of this learning and worshipping community. Synagogue is the word we use to describe the meeting place for Jewish worship (today). It comes from a greek word that means ‘a coming together’ or ‘a gathering’. Here all were ready to listen, and most were allowed to speak. And in the middle of Jesus’ exposition of the text for the day, a man shouts out; “What have you to do with US, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
His spirit is akatharthos ; that is the Greek for the word usually translated ‘unclean’, or sometimes ‘impure’. It’s root word is familiar to us – catharsis; used to describe an event that cleanses the soul, or rejuvenates us in some way.  This is not a cathartic moment for him, but the opposite – a-cathartic.
The anonymous man is really upset; He speaks of collective destruction, but claims personal insight into the person (and mission) of Jesus “I Know Who You Are…” Perhaps he thinks that he should speak aloud the fears of the congregation? Is he the voice of reason – does he have the word of God on this day – or does he imagine himself the conscience of the congregation? Is it his duty to call their attention to the way things are, and always have been? It is worth thinking about, for it offers us a modern parallel.
It seems that Jesus explanations (of the things of God) – while they carry the weight of authority, and set some minds at ease – have also unsettled others; and that is a difficult thing. The question of the faithful in every time and place is constant; “How do we know this is from God?” But the response of the man in Mark’s gospel presents us with a more useful question, in my opinion: “What do we do when it IS from God?”
We are not always ready (or willing) to ask the “what next” questions in the church. As we seek to discern the word and will of God – something that we acknowledge as very difficult, and fraught with questions of understanding and interpretation – we forget that there will eventually be a second step; how do we carry out that will or act according to God’s word? It is easier to argue about who is right than it is to decide how to act, or how to live – and while the Spirit of God continues to work, and the redemption of all creation continues according to God’s schedule, the people of God, and the Church of Christ, appear paralyzed. We fearfully protect what we think know and what we imagine is ours. Jesus stands with us in the present and calls us into the future, but we are not sure we can follow. The fear that we may be wrong in our interpretation of God’s word and will makes study and argument preferable to action. Let me offer a current example.
Once more the Presbyterian Church in Canada is bracing for a conversation on the place of homosexual people in the church – overtures urging the church to remove the barriers that exclude homosexual people from fuller activity within the PCC have been referred to various committees in anticipation of this summer’s General Assembly. Currently, ordination of homosexual persons is permitted, so long as they remain single and celibate. It goes without saying that there have also been overtures appealing for the status quo. The church has gone back and forth over this question since the early nineties, and the conversation has been stunted and stifled because, at nearly every opportunity, people have been frightened by the “what’s next” question. Lately, an increasing number of Presbyteries, Congregations, Ministers and members have come to believe that God is calling the church to move forward in love and acceptance, and when we think about what that looks like, tempers get short.
So Jesus comes to synagogue to propose something new, and one voice dares to speak for them all; “What have you do do with us… Have you come to destroy us…?” It may be that what Jesus says will undo all that his community held dear. Will the ‘authoritative’ teaching of Jesus be the end of human held power and authority in this place? Promises of a new covenant, a covenant of grace and love, will be the death of any kingdom held together by fear – and that idea – that fear – is what unsettles both this man’s spirit and the modern church. But the good news is that fear is the kind of demon that Jesus can cast aside with ease.
Be quiet – come out of him – leave him alone. In the presence of Jesus, fear is revealed as not only powerless but troublesome and divisive – and at a word from Jesus, the man is returned to his own mind with a great cry and convulsions – the division is healed and the congregation is left to marvel at Jesus’ wisdom and authority.
Jesus – who faced death without fear; who forgave his captors and agonized for his executioners – Jesus has every right to rearrange the attitudes of those who claim his saving grace.
Jesus, who would silence voices of suspicion and doubt – not because doubt is bad, but because too much doubt fosters a fear that is not consistent with the gospel – Jesus rightly challenges those who would preserve structures that do not reflect God’s kingdom virtues of grace and forgiveness.
Jesus – who is for us the Word made flesh; God with us – represents wholeness and contentment in the kingdom, and so would banish the unsettled (unclean/ἀκάθαρτος) spirits from our midst, and free us to act. It was good news that day in Capernaum, and it is good news for us today.

Lent 3 – Grace unexpected (John 4: 5-42)

March 23, 2014

When Jesus meets this nameless woman in John’s gospel, we expect a showdown.  A woman – a Samaritan woman –the rules of behaviour don’t leave room for casual conversations between single men and unrelated women, especially if they are from opposite sides of the track.  Religion and tradition created fear between and among people of different heritage, different gender and different social status – some things never change.


John’s gospel – written almost 100 years after the resurrection of Jesus – brings with it a conviction that some of these differences are too deeply engrained to be overcome, even as it proclaims Jesus as the one who breaks down such barriers.  Not only was there tension between Jew and Samaritan, there was tension building between Jews and the followers of Jesus – people who were ‘the same, yet different’.  There is always plenty to be wary of – even more when you live on the edge of society, or under an oppressive government, or follow a faith that is misrepresented or misunderstood.


John’s gospel grows out of these tensions and in a community that is eager to define itself and explain its beliefs.  There is much in the fourth gospel that sounds like deep theological thinking to our ears, and that is not what we want.  We want to know who Jesus is and how he can lead us to the promised peace of God.  And then, Jesus meets a woman who is the object of fear and misunderstanding; a person without power, without voice, without social standing.

The woman at the well doesn’t have time for deep theological arguments either, instead, she confronts their differences.  She names the elephant in the room.

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  Their theological and social differences should divide them – these are differences that cultivate fear and breed contempt – but neither Jesus nor this woman will be bound by those expectations.

As it happens, they have nothing to lose by talking.  Jesus is following his own path – guided by a vision of God that is baffling even to his closest friends.  And this woman is already on the fringe of her society Her past (and present) have placed her in an unhappy place in the world.  She seems to have moved from one relationship to another without finding the husband that society expects her to have.  She is different, and so she is to be avoided.  But Jesus will not – cannot – avoid her.  And this looms larger than any other lesson that the gospel might teach us.

We find our own ways to describe and exclude people like her in our time – and we are none too kind when we do it; we are only too eager (it seems) to imagine differences that divide, for division separates us from things we don’t understand – things we fear.

We make moral judgements about people who are different – objects of our unspoken fears – there must be something wrong…(with them),  and these moral failings (so called) are the sort of thing that Jesus should call out and demand be corrected – (that’s what we do on Jesus’ behalf) – but Jesus does not make any reference to morality, or behaviour, or even sin…Jesus is not afraid of the differences between them (though he recognizes that they are significant).  He points to the one thing we all share; a connection to God. All of humanity has desire for relationship and a hunger to serve God, and each of us pursues this after our own fashion.  This “forbidden” conversation is about worship; it’s about faith; it’s about theology, and it’s simple.

We worship God, each in our own way, but God is even now seeking our true worship, not in one place over another – in one style over another – but in spirit and truth.

Jesus honours this woman with conversation, with knowledge, and with the same generosity of spirit that is offered to those who seek peace with God.

It is remarkable that the village responds to the invitation Jesus offers through this woman; it is remarkable that his disciples don’t appreciate the miracle that they are witnessing – and we are offered in this story a remarkable lesson, not in complex theological doctrines of omnipotence of Jesus (how did he know all that?), nor the divinity of Jesus (didn’t he claim to be Messiah?) but in the irresistible nature of grace and the triumph of love over fear.

When Jesus treats this outcast as a fellow human; acknowledges her as one beloved of God; he is making the grace of God plainly visible, and she is not only converted (from doubt to faith), she brings the whole village with her.  That is a far more powerful lesson – and a clearer path to follow – than any exploration of the finer points of theology can offer.

In the end, for all of the window dressing that John’s gospel offers us, the meeting at the well is a lesson in unexpected hospitality – in looking past cultural baggage and finding a child of God, both for Jesus and this nameless woman.  Jesus offers grace and love as the antidote to our fear, and we would be wise to take our medicine.


Fear, itself.

June 23, 2013

Jesus has (according to Luke’s gospel) just brought his friends

safely across the “the lake” (Luke 8: 22) through a fierce storm.

 Their fear has been conquered by Jesus presence,

and his “command of the wind and the waves”.

The last thing they need is trouble on land, but that is what they find.

Jesus steps ashore to a different kind of storm.

 He is accosted by a madman:

naked; raving; a danger to himself and others

(according to the hurried biography Luke’s gospel gives us).

This fellow has been banished to the edge of town.

 Because of his condition, he is perpetually unclean.

He is forced to make do for himself among the tombs;

on the boundary between the living and the dead.

He is neither.

 There is no medical, social, or personal response to this man

except bondage and the watchfulness of those set to guard him

(more likely to keep him “where he belongs”).  Luke’s gospel does not recall his name.

Yet for all the energy spent to keep him apart,

he has broken his bonds, evaded his captors,

and like steel to a magnet he is drawn to Jesus.

From this distance, we are convinced that this is as it should be;

Jesus, whose mission it is to heal the sick and bring good news to the poor,

 has already amazed us with his “way with the suffering”.

From our Resurrection perspective,

we accept that Jesus purpose was that we might be free of all that binds us –

so this story would seem to hold no surprises for us.

Jesus confronts the demon – demons, actually –

bargains with them and casts them out of our unfortunate friend

at the expense of a herd of swine –

(no great loss, and great ritual significance to a Jewish audience,

but a crushing blow to the innocent swineherds)

and there you have it:

another triumph for this gracious and generous man of God.

But this is not a triumphant moment in Luke’s gospel –

 there is no heroes welcome – no joyful retelling of this miracle of liberation.

This is all about fear.

The key to this text comes when the people discover what Jesus has done.

The swineherds complain about the sudden loss of income, disguised as a miracle,

and when the crowds come to investigate,

they find the village villain “clothed and in his right mind.

And they were AFRAID!

Fear bound this man and kept him nameless.

Fear chased him to the tombs to live among the dead.

Fear kept his jailers from getting to know him, or from daring to consider him human.

Fear made an animal out of him, and kept him at bay.

Such are the demons that Jesus meets and casts out;

demons that have been assigned to one person;

 projected on his condition/behaviour by a community gripped by fear.

That same community strips him of his humanity, and declares their fears banished,

But they are hiding behind their cruelty – they have committed the worst kind of crime.

Fear is at the heart of this.

 Their fear generates the companion sins of ignorance and oppression.

Fear of something different led to an imprisonment.

Fear of a life now changed – radically changed –

and thus unpredictable and uncontrollable,

brings their attention to the man who upset the applecart…

and so they turn their fear on Jesus next;

 the fear of one who refused to bow to the cultural expectation

and treat this man as less than human –

this fear brings them to show Jesus the quickest way out of town.

This is a common reaction in human beings –

the impulse to ignore the obviously odd, and shun those whom we do not understand.

The dividing line is easily moved –

be it race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation –

there is no end to the things that generate uncertainty in us,

and uncertainty too quickly turns to fear.

So the fear returns and Jesus leaves, and we are left with this remarkable story,

and an un-named evangelist, now set loose on the community that once imprisoned him

to tell of the things God has done for him.

The miracle in this story is left for us to discover.

           Can we not imagine ourselves bound by this same kind of fear?

Fear of the strange or the unknown –

fear of the “madman in our midst”,

whom we are quick to identify, but reluctant to call by name…

Are not we guilty of letting our fear bind the weak and strange among us?

Does our fear keep us from recognizing the work of God even in this “enlightened age”?

Those who talk, or look or think differently

do not fit easily into our tightly controlled communities of faith.

We test and we judge, and in the process we lose sight of the possibility

that these strangers may have had something to tell us/show us

of the grace, mercy and love of God.

We don’t even think to learn their names –

they are different, thus dangerous,

and we think ourselves well rid of them.

But the lesson – the miracle – that Luke’s gospel offers us

Is not that Jesus “cured” a madman,

but that the cure is so simple, and so easily within our abilities.

To offer compassion – to face the stranger and call them friend –

to touch the untouchable and offer the hand of friendship to the outcast;

Jesus does all these things, and invites those who would follow him to do the same.

To recognize the human being in the one being shunned, or persecuted –

that is what Jesus does in the name of God,

and we who are part of God’s covenant family must do the same.

This seems simple, but experience tells us it is hard; hard to face our fear –

hard to imagine that “they” are just like us.

Jesus saw only the man – Jesus is drawn, not to his madness, but by his humanity.

Jesus is quick to recognize the child of God in everyone he meets;

This attitude is central to his teaching, and affects his every action.

Our exiled man “at the tombs” discovered this to be true,

And his new knowledge turned him into an ambassador of God’s Kingdom of grace.

No name – no home – but a new sense of himself;

A miracle has changed him;

and all because Jesus recognized him as one of God’s own.

Think of what might be accomplished –

in the church; in the world – for the kingdom of God,

if we were to turn our hand to that kind of miracle.

“My Lord and my God” – what we learn from Thomas, ‘the twin’.

April 7, 2013

The gospel lesson this morning brings the most famous sceptic in Scripture before us –

Thomas the twin (doubting Thomas).

The story is another of those gospel lessons filled with tired old truths –

so allow me to wake them up for you.

Most of Jesus’ friends have locked themselves away “in fear”.

Jesus is dead and (as far as they know) buried,

and it is likely that, had they stood their ground and made their grief public,

they would have been included in the purge.

So they remain in a locked room, suspicious of everything.

They have heard the women’s tale of empty tomb and heavenly messengers and dismissed them.

Mary has said to them “I have seen the Lord”, but there is room only for their fear.

And suddenly, Jesus is there!  Among them –

though no doors have been opened their security is breached.

He calms them with a word of peace, shows them his wounds,

makes them a gift of his breath of life, and speaks of the power of forgiveness.

And for a week after this, nothing changes.

The gospel account makes brief mention of their joy, ( “…they rejoiced when they saw the Lord…”)

and yet, one week later they are still locked away by themselves.

Let’s think about this for a moment, because in our haste to expose Thomas’ doubts,

we neglect this little bit of business;

the disciples had seen, and been blessed, and been charged by the Risen Lord to get on with their lives,

and yet they have remained – trapped by their fear, and – I presume – their doubt, for an entire week.

No mention of bold proclamation, nor of anything else (at least in John’s account)

until seven days have passed.

“We have seen the Lord”, they say, when Thomas joins them.

“Prove it” says he, or words to that effect,

and le voila, Jesus encore!

Jesus greeting is the same: “Peace be with you” he says.

The proof offered is the same – see my hands and my side –

but finally in Thomas we have a reaction that matters.

“My Lord and my God”, he says, and from then on, the conversation is changed.

God is recognized as the power behind this profound event.

Thomas makes the theological connection that no one else has dared to make,

and this gradually moves this fearful group beyond their self-made prison and back into the world.

Fear and doubt continue to confine us as followers of the Risen Christ.

We can tell the story with conviction on Sunday – we can celebrate with certainty on Easter –

But the calendar quickly brings new challenges for which we cannot find answers.

The week between our worship services has its own character –

full of life without hope; full of activity without satisfaction –

and the fearful character of the world does not take long

to overpower the joy we felt when first we heard the news “He is Risen.”

I am not Jesus, so my promise of peace does not carry much weight.

There is no hard evidence for us – we are those blessed to believe without having seen –

and yet that ‘blessing’ holds no joy for us

We are fearful and suspicious, because the promise of faith

does not seem to be bearing fruit in the way we were told it should.

We are more like those first disciples than we want to be – and not in a good way.

We are paralyzed by our fears, and we are afraid to express our doubts.

There are doors we do not want to open,

because if we let the world in, we shall be changed,

And if we let the gospel out, it is no longer ours to control.

So before we offer Thomas any grief for his questions, let us admit that we lack his courage.

It took courage to question the security expressed while fear surrounded him.

It was bold of him to ask for even more than had been given on that first day –

“unless I touch his wounds…” where others had only seen the marks –

And it takes great courage to announce that you have seen God where others have not.

We need to show that kind of courage.

We need to be brave enough to express our doubts.

And it will take courage to hear (and see) and understand when our questions have been answered.

Only then will we be able to do what Thomas does;

proclaim, on very little evidence,

that God is still at work in the world.

Thomas’ statement marked the beginning of the disciples re-engagement with the world.

Their next encounter with Jesus is in the open; on the beach.

From this point on, there was no stopping their witness to the work of God in Christ.

Will we dare to be so bold?  Can we let our doubts overturn our fear?

Are we willing to demand a sign and will we recognize the response?

What will it take for us to see in our circumstances the presence of the living God?

Good Friday, 2013

March 29, 2013

Words of welcome and explanation

We call this day Good Friday, but it never seems good to us.

Today, we hear again a story of betrayal, misunderstanding, power, and powerlessness.

Today we reconnect with a story of denial and death – a story that moves us and mystifies us.

Today is the day that was cannot do without, because it takes great sadness to appreciate joy; we need to encounter fear to truly understand our freedom.  The bleak lines describing Jesus’ Passion in the Gospel according to John are preparing us for the dazzling light of Easter morning, but more than that, the lessons of this day give us hope as we live our lives in the presence of power, oppression, ignorance and fear.

So listen to the story, soak up the silence – sing again the mournful hymns – and let us imagine how we might follow Jesus, even on this fateful day.  Let us pray.

The Christ candle is lit

Opening prayer

Hymn – 230 – Go to dark Gethsemane (v. 1-2)

The Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus – (John 18: 1-11)

Hymn – 230 – Go to dark Gethsemane (v. 3)

Jesus before the High Priest – (John 18: 12-14)

First reflection:

“Go and do what you must.”  That is how Jesus sent Judas into the night, and Judas returns with the law.  Jesus has been playing with fire – stirring up the safe and sacred balance between the conquering Romans and the conquered people of Israel.  The Romans were harsh and most of the population was in survival mode.  If you were wiling to compromise, you could prosper, but the cost to personal (and religious) integrity was high.  Too high, Jesus said.  And in his constant appeal for repentance, for change, and with a promise of a new kingdom coming, Jesus offered hope to those who could not see past the grim reality of Rome.  This hope demanded action – and action, especially by the poor and insignificant – is disruptive.  So the people who feel threatened – the powerful, the self-appointed guardians of righteousness – everyone who benefits by the status quo are moved to action.  Put a stop to this renegade teacher, this man of God.


Peter Denies Jesus – (John 18: 15-18)

Hymn 237 – O come and mourn with me awhile (v. 1-2)

The High Priest Questions Jesus – (John 18: 19-24)

Second reflection

Jesus has taught among the people, making no distinction between those with faith, and those with no faith.  He has comforted the afflicted, and challenged the comfortable.  He operated in the open, boldly, without fear.  And his opponents show their true colours by coming at night – by operating in secret.  Their fear betrays them – and that fear is contagious.  Those who were faithful will be consumed by fear.  The denials have already started for Peter – soon all but the women will be gone.  But Jesus, true to his own teaching, stands against the fear that surrounds him.  He will not be ruled by it – he will not offer the fearful response.  HE does not fight back – he appeals to the facts of his case; and his determined course of action only increases the desperation of his opponents.  This should not happen – reason and good judgement should prevail, but it will not; in cannot.  Fear has claimed the stage, and it will not be denied.


Peter Denies Jesus Again – (John 18: 25-27)

Hymn  – 237 – O come and mourn with me awhile (v. 3-4)

Jesus before Pilate – (John 18: 28-38)

Third reflection

Pilate comes close to being the hero of this story;  a man of power, wealth and influence; a man in control of his situation and his emotions.  Finally, someone to whom Jesus can appeal – a man of reason and education.  But even Pilate is ruled by fear.  His position depends on fear in others – his power springs from fear, and he discovers fear himself when confronted by this fearless rabbi.  When the people you oppress show no fear, the oppressor loses power over them, and Pilate knows in an instant that he has no power over Jesus.  That is why Jesus must be stopped, because a people who fear only God, while they can still be beaten, imprisoned, tortured and harassed, can no longer be controlled by fear of Roman authority.  Pilate understands this – but he cannot accept it.  His fears are in control, and he will act, reluctantly, according to those fears.

Jesus Sentenced to Death – (John 18: 38- 19: 16)

Anthem – They Crucified my Lord –

Prayer –

Giver of life, we wait with you to offer the hope that comes from the cross to earth’s darkest places.

Where pain is deep and affection is denied:

let love break through.

Where justice is destroyed,

let sensitivity to right spring up.

Where hope is crucified,

let faith persist.

Where peace has no chance,

let passion live on.

Where truth is trampled underfoot,

let the struggle continue.

Where fear paralyzes,

let forgiveness break through.

Eternal God, reach into the silent darkness of our souls

with the radiance of the cross.  O you who are the bearer of all pain,

have mercy on us.

Giver of life,

have mercy on us.

Merciful God,

have mercy on us. Amen.                    

(prayer taken from “The Worship Sourcebook” copublished by: The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (Grand Rapids, MI); Faith Alive Christian Resources & Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI.  2004)       

The Crucifixion of Jesus – (John 19: 17 – 30)

(candle extinguished)                        silence

Jesus’ Side Is Pierced – (John 19: 31-37)

Final reflection

It is a hideous death.  A shameful example of human behaviour is here preserved in Holy Scripture.  It is more than just a terrifying story – the gospel accounts of Jesus arrest and crucifixion tell us things about ourselves that we would rather not know.  We will follow the crowd.  We do give in to our fear.  We are ruled by a sense of our own safety even when it means turning a blind eye to the truth.  But there is hope for us even as this story reaches the depths of human darkness, even as the light of Jesus life is extinguished.  For Jesus meets his opponents with dignity, answers brutality with honest indignation, and until he takes his final breath, acts out of a sense of love and commitment and purpose that comes from a deep faith in the goodness of God.  Today is the day that we must struggle with the way that hope is revealed to us as followers of Jesus.  Today is the day we try to understand the violent nature of those made in the image of a compassionate God.  Today, we are faced with our deepest fears.  Jesus death seems to justify those fears.  Will you continue to be afraid?

We have told the story often enough – you know it doesn’t end here – but do not dismiss the lessons that may be learned on this horrible day.


The Burial of Jesus – (John 19: 38-42)

Depart in silence

Fear not. (Lent 2, year A)

March 19, 2011

You’ll forgive me if I seem to find this morning’s gospel (John 3: 1-17) a little too ‘real’.

But here are two individuals –

one representing the established train of religious thought in Palestine,

the other comes preaching repentance (ie. Change),

and announcing that the kingdom of God is coming,

and, by the way, it will be like nothing you have imagined.

This is a meeting of sympathetic opposites – Jesus and Nicodemus are on the same side –

observant Jewish men whose lives are defined by a desire for the things of God –

yet they describe their mission and understand their surroundings in very different ways.

We know from later accounts in John’s gospel, from the synoptic gospels,

and from our own church traditions

that this basic misunderstanding – and Jesus particular kind of Kingdom talk –

eventually lead to Jesus arrest, conviction and execution.

We see this coming as we hear the gospel this morning – it is inevitable –

and the troubling thing is that I think Nicodemus knew – from the moment he arrived – that Jesus’ life was in danger.

What killed Jesus was nothing more than fear –

the same fear that Nicodemus tries so hard to express:

his disbelief that all he thought he knew about the ways and means of the almighty –

the sudden knowledge that his religious vocabulary has failed him

(he and Jesus are not communicating very well – they are using a different language – the conversation is not following regular rules of engagement…)

all these things feed Nicodemus’ fear –

a fear that is shared by the rest of the religious leadership – transmitted to the political leadership – resulting in the persecution and conviction of Jesus of Nazareth as a blasphemer,

a disturber of the peace, and an enemy of the emperor.

That is what ‘our sin’ looks like – that is what it means to have one die for the sin of all

Jesus was killed for our transgressions – that includes our fear;

fear of the new reality of God that he brought our in the open –

fear of this man, who spoke plainly and intimately

about the love of God and the working of God’s Spirit and the nearness of God’s kingdom –

using language that didn’t match our language ; talking about God in ways that we find uncomfortable; flouting traditional rules of religious practice, ignoring the past to concentrate on the NOW –

that’s what killed Christ,

and we still stand guilty of the crime.

We are fearful of the future.

We would rather everything was simple (like the ‘good old days’) –

we long for a way to hold on to what we had,

and in so doing we squander opportunities in the present.

You must be born from above, says Jesus – in response to what first seems like a compliment

(we know that you are from God…) but it’s not a compliment.

Nicodemus is judging Jesus performance by old standards –

tried and true methods of determining whether or not ‘there was a prophet in their midst’ –

and Jesus challenges him to go further – to think differently – to change his approach.

“How can this be?” says Nicodemus –

“I don’t understand (and therefore I fear – retreating into what I know – dismissing what I don’t)

and this is where we eagerly join the story.

We have the benefit of history – we have followed the story of Jesus

to it’s remarkable and glorious ‘conclusion’

we know that the power of God has redeemed the activity of our sin

that saw Jesus killed for his remarkable ideas –

Christ is raised – Jesus lives – God really is as fantastic as all that.

And yet we stand on our history, with Nicodemus – startled and afraid –

asking quiet questions from the shadows,

worried that the answers will lead us to a place we’ve never been.

Born from above? How can this be?

Life from certain death? Surely you jest!

Hope in hopeless times? Wouldn’t it be easier to remember the good, and pray for a quick end?

These are not direct quotes –

but they sound remarkably like conversations I have had (and heard) in and around the church –

a church that is frightened, because things aren’t as they once were.

A church that is in danger of being lost in the secular shuffle

a church bound by fear – bereft of faith.

That is who we are in danger of becoming.

Nicodemus’ is not instantly transformed by his encounter with Jesus.

We meet him again only twice – once before the council,

where he dares to ask his questions aloud and in public

(though just as quickly the questions die and the trial grinds on to its gruesome end (See John Ch 7)

and again at the cross, where he provides the means for Jesus burial (ch 19)

I wonder what became of Nicodemus on that fabulous first day of the week?

Were his eyes finally opened? Did faith flush fear from his system?

Scripture doesn’t say – Nicodemus’s story is lost to history –

but our choice is still before us.

Fear says we should retreat – regroup – recover what we think we have lost.

But faith invites us forward – to experience something new – to be “born from above”,

changed by the poser of God that was revealed in God’s raising Christ from the dead.

Our fear will not be displaced by courage, or personal conviction,

or individual effort to “overcome obstacles”

our fear is driven out by the overpowering love of God –

the love that brings life from death – creation from chaos – sheds light in darkness

the love that dismisses sin is ours in Christ.

Let us be the church today – messengers of this remarkable news –

witnesses to God’s blossoming kingdom – bearers of light in dark days.

Let us, through our risen Saviour,

claim that love, the hope, the life, the glorious joy, that is God’s gift to us,

let us claim all that, and live.