Today the committee took care of the church service, allowing our still-solo minister to have a well-deserved morning off. This meant another sermon for me, and this morning our committee chair, who was also serving as worship assistant, asked me how I was doing.
"Not great," I confessed. "I don't actually enjoy doing this, I enjoy having done it, if you know what I mean. Everything leading up to the actual doing is kind of unbearable, honestly."
It's true. I agonize over my choices, removing and replacing whole blocks of text, and prior to delivery, I get the clammy palms, sweaty brow and tumbling tummy associated with intense nervousness.
This sermon was a toughie for me, as it included a piece of text I hadn't yet reconciled for myself.
"But I wouldn't trade it for anything," I continued. "I get a lot of support from everyone, which is very gratifying, it's just a bit draining."
Soon enough, the readers had presented Psalm 31, Acts 7:55-60, and John 13:3 -14:14 (pasted in below for the theologically inclined), and it was time to get up an present my own variety of scriptural insights, morality tale and call from complacency, with a dash of political current events to boot, and hope it went over well...
The Price of Truth
It’s one of the things that I am most grateful for in terms of being in the lay worship leadership program here at St. Albert United. A couple times a year, I am required to sit down with some scriptures and try to wring something insightful out of them that I can share with others. I mean, I don’t have to, but I know y’all can read them by yourselves, so I have to get my value-add in there someplace, right?
I start by looking at the passages, sometimes in a variety of translations - New Revised Standard, King James, New International, Lexham English -and looking carefully at the word choices and footnotes. Sometimes a single word is enough to give me everything I need, like when I learned that the word meek, as in ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ doesn’t mean acquiescent, but teachable.
Then I look at the commentary written and shared by others. Sometimes you come across this in essays, other times blog posts, and in some circumstances, even complete sermons - which I can then copy outright and pray no one notices! (Kidding, kidding…)
After that comes the hard part - reflection. Discerning the lesson God wants me to take away from these words, and trying very, very hard to be open to new ideas and different interpretations. It helps to be aware of the privilege, filters, and cultural baggage I bring with me as a comfortable, middle-class, middle-aged, straight white Christian cis-male.
Sometimes the insights I gain, or the manner in which I am able to articulate them, are a little off-beat. This will come as a surprise to absolutely no-one who knows me, I’m sure. For instance, in this week’s reading from John, I realized the following:
The Bible is not a hologram.
Now, I’m certain that a lot of you were already well aware of this fact, but it is new to me. For the rest of us, let’s go back to first principles: does anyone know what a hologram is?
Right, those 3D looking images you see as a proof of authenticity on credit cards and what we used to call ‘paper’ currency. You hold them up to the light and turn them this way and that and behold! You can see part of that wee dove that you couldn’t before!
A hologram is a 2-dimensional object that replicates three dimensional space. That little credit card bird, he looks like a tiny sculpture, floating in space somewhere behind that plastic card, in a field of illusory depth. Manufacturing them is not an easy process, despite the fact you see it on hat -stickers and any other product requiring a seal of authenticity, but this ability to create a space wherein a 3D object can be viewed from multiple angles is not even the most astonishing feature of holograms.
If I tear a painting or drawing in half, I don’t really get two smaller drawings, I get two halves foa whole. If its a picture of a horse, someone is getting the back end of that horse, if you know what I mean.
If you have a larger hologram, and are able to tear it in half, you not only don’t break it, but you can still see the original image, in its entirety, in each half. If we took - hmm, what’s a good name for a mascot of credit cards...Billy! If we took that small sticker with Billy the credit card bird, and made it the size of a sheet of paper, then tore that sheet in half, we would have two Billys. If we tore those two sheets in half, we would have 4, all showing the same thing. It’s astonishing! I’m sorry I lack the hologrammatic engineering skills to have built a working example for you.
On a superficial level, you can find commonalities between the Bible and a hologram:
- They both create depth (one literal, one metaphorical), despite being stuck in a two-dimensional medium.
- You can look at them both from a variety of angles, and gain new perspectives, or insights.
- They are both, in some ways, indestructible; the hologram because of the properties of optical interference through diffraction grating on superimposed planar wavefronts, and the Bible because of capital T truth; the greater truth.
Consider today’s reading from the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel, which holds, for me, as someone who likes to think of themselves as a progressive, inclusive Christian, one of the most problematic verses in the New Testament: John 14:6: “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Well, gosh, that doesn’t sound very inclusive, does it?
In certain circles, this verse is what’s known as a ‘clobber text’. As in, when discussing the possibility of other, non-Christian viewpoints in terms of going to heaven, salvation, building God’s kingdom or whatever a particular denomination likes to call it, this is a verse that Christian exclusionists will trot out to clobber you with.
That verse, on its own seems pretty cut-and-dried: if you do not believe in and follow Jesus, well, I guess your theology is just not going to pay off, chum. But in the context of the larger conversation Jesus is having, this is the wrong message to be taking away.
First of all, some context: this is Jesus saying goodbye to his followers. Shortly after this final conversation, he will be arrested, tried and. crucified, and he is well aware of this. And yet, Jesus is the one comforting his disciples, who, in true human fashion are trying to make it all about them!
“You’re leaving us? Now? Why? Why so soon? Where are you gonna go? What are we gonna do? And how are we gonna follow you? WHAT THE HECK ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO NOW?!?”
To me, Jesus shows no more proof of his divinity than in this moment when he patiently, confidently, and compassionately reassures them. John 14:6, this supposed ‘clobber text’, actually clarifies that Jesus is not speaking to a multitude, but responding to an earnest question about the future, and four words make this abundantly clear: “Jesus said to him”, singular.
He is answering Thomas, the disciple we will almost always associate with doubt, who has heard Jesus say “You know the way to the place where I am going.” But Thomas doesn’t know, at least not right away, and says so: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
To which Jesus replies,”I am the way. And the truth, And the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.”
He goes on to say “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”
That’s quite a bit fuller picture than that single verse, isn’t it? The Bible is not a hologram. In fact, the very idea of people using that verse to express the notion of Christian superiority or exclusivity, knowing that the very same chapter begins with Jesus saying that “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” gets me a bit upset, if you want to know the truth of it.
Now, from the perspective of a dude with no formal theological training whatsoever, there is a vein of rich material in this first part of John 14 for sermons. There have been volumes written just about the relative worth of faith versus works, but like a lot of people, I am going to squat somewhere in the middle on that one because I personally feel they are interdependent. I happen to believe that labour done with a spiritual component has more impact and resonance than work done for strictly practical or worldly reasons. And that as good as prayer is, it stands a much better chance of moving those mountains when people roll up their sleeves and get to the digging.
Take last night’s Affirmiversary event: a Dragstravaganza! A bit of entertainment and fellowship to be sure, and a bunch of money raised for Little Warriors through the Northern Alberta drag society the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Wild Rose, to be sure. After all, the mission of the ISCWR is to support charities which provide direct services to the LGBTQ community of Edmonton or those which work to promote an accepting attitude to gays and lesbians in the community as a whole.
But we send a wider message about our work as a community of faith too, especially for our goal as an Affirming Ministry, which is “Working for the full inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the United Church of Canada and in society.” There is more to being an affirming ministry than having a rainbow sticker on the door, it means flying that rainbow flag, it means marching in Pride, it means supporting the LGBTQ community right here in St. Albert through groups like Out Loud and PFLAG. It means celebrating our third affirmiversary
And why is it do this, to stake our rainbow flag in the ground and not just implicitly welcome but explicitly invite and celebrate people from sexual minorities? Because of the persecution they have received and continue to receive at the hands of people calling themselves followers of Jesus.
Let me provide you with an example from current events: This Thursday, some 60,000 Albertans will begin picking a new leader for the new United Conservative Party. There are three candidates with a variety of diverse opinions and differing platforms, but the frontrunner feels that students who join Gay-Straight Alliances or GSAs should have their parents notified, regardless of the wishes of the student.
This flies directly in the face of most expert testimonials and statistical data. Kris Wells, from the U of A’s Institue of Sexual Minority Studies and Services, has a horrifying repertoire of stories dealing with youth who are outed before they are ready, who face the threat of scorn, exclusion, or even physical harm at home from those who are supposed to love and protect them.
The leadership candidate in last place talked to UCP members about GSAs being a useful tool to combat poverty and suicide among LGBTQ youth. What did he hear in response from some members?
That this is God’s punishment for them.
Take note: this is not a pronouncement from Biblical times, or from someplace deep in the backwoods, or in the hills of Talibanistan, this is from right here in our own backyards.
And yes, thank goodness, the United Church has taken a progressive stance on inclusivity going way back, and yes, we are an Affirming Ministry and proud to be so, but before we get a separated shoulder from patting ourselves on the back, let’s not forget that it was only, what, ten years ago, that our own congregation had a vote on sanctifying same-sex marriages that was by no means unanimous, and we saw a number of people leave us once we voted to do so. Even our vote to become an Affirming Ministry in 2014 wasn’t unanimous!
But I don’t say good riddance to those who left a decade ago, and I hope the more recent dissenter(s) from three years back are still with us, perhaps maintaining their skepticism but bearing an open mind as well, hearing this important truth: that God’s love is for everyone. Everyone.
Living the truth can be hard. Proclaiming the truth can be hard. Look at Stephen from our other new testament reading today, called to explain himself for telling others about Jesus, but instead of knuckling under, he turns the tables on his accusers, saying that they are the ones ignoring God’s law, and is killed for his troubles.
And who is there to witness this, but a young man named Saul, who I discovered in my research is none other than Saul of Tarsus, but who is better known as the Apostle Paul. Stephen’s attackers drop their coats in front of Saul, presumably to make throwing easier, and proceed to pelt Stephen with stones.
The fact that Stephen’s faith in the truth of Jesus is strong enough that he is willing to lay down his life for it is not even the most astonishing part of this story to me, it is the fact that before he expires, he loudly forgives his attackers.
This feels important to me, because too often, especially in recent years, we tend to demonize those who feel differently from us. In the U.S., the political left and right have become diametrically entrenched echo chambers, not only with each clinging exclusively to the values they have long held, but each with their own paragons, and their own sources of truth.
I don’t think the purpose of our reading from Acts today is to glorify martyrdom, or to suggest that one should be prepared to die for the things they believe in. Taken with the parting instructions from Jesus, it is a reflection of just how much strength can be drawn from God, from the holy place that exists inside each one of us when we serve the truth, when we act in the service of love. Strength enough to persevere in the face of ridicule, in the face of oppression, in the face of unpopularity, and if it should come to that, in the face of death itself. Gods help
Today’s Psalm sounds like it could have been written by one of those kids Kris Wells has had to help out, youth who are trying to live the truth about who they are: “I am the scorn of my enemies, yes even my neighbours; they see me in the street and they shrink away. I hear the whispering of many, fear is on every side.” But even in the face of this, the psalmist’s faith is unbroken: “I trust in you; you are my God.”
The Bible can be a complex, contradictory, non-intuitive, and often baffling piece of divinely inspired work at times, but wisdom can always be found there. Sometimes it is a lot of work to discern it, at least for me.
There are 31,102 verses in the Bible. We heard 38 today, and they have shown us a piece of the greater truth that no single verse, especially one taken (willfully) out of context, cannot hope to. Most importantly though, we heard that final commandment from Jesus that should underscore all our works, as a church and as Christians: “That you love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Love one another. Not just those who agree with you, or look like you, or who believe in precisely the same things as you, but everyone. The kingdom of God is not a geographic place, it resides in two relationships: the one we have with God, and the one we have with our neighbour.
Build a better world; a better, more loving, more tolerant, more inclusive world, with room for everyone to experience God’s love. That is what Christ calls us to do. This truth may have a price, but God is there to help us foot the bill
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
Let’s ask for a better world, created in the image of the kingdom of God. It’s tantalizingly close, almost within our reach, but love is the only thing that will get us there.
After the service, I got a lot of very positive feedback (which, if I'm being honest, is a big part of why I do it!), and a lot of agreement that John 14:6 can be a tough nut to crack, which was extremely gratifying.
But the first two people to leave after the service didn't feel quite the same. An older husband and wife I didn't recognize, they were in the narthex before Betty and I got there, but the wife turned, hesitantly, and came back to speak with me.
With a mildly European accent I couldn't place, she explained that God doesn't hate homosexuals, just their behaviour, which we shouldn't promote. She felt that the children's story, about a girl with two mommies, did promote this.
I was completely taken aback. Did they not know what kind of congregation we were trying to be? Had they missed the rainbow decal on our door, or the flag just above it? Had they not, I dunno, listened to any of the sermon or prayers?
Smiling, I explained that we were going to have to agree to disagree, that we were committed to inclusion, and I was glad they had come and were able to hear a different message, and that we were able to express our differences in a civil manner.
She smiled and they left, but it was unsettling nonetheless.
Thankfully their absence was soon filled by well-wishers from the congregation, all with nice things to say, and soon after, we were on our way home.
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In our first reading, we hear about the first Christian martyr, Stephen, called before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council charged with administering justice. Accused of blasphemy for proclaiming the teachings of Jesus, he accuses the council of ignoring God’s law, which enrages them.
But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
John 13:33 - 14:14
The Gospel reading is Jesus’ farewell to his followers. It includes his final commandment, and the importance of carrying on his works.
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”