"The kind of food our minds devour will determine the kind of person we become." - John Stott, Your Mind Matters

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Sermon: Letting Go of Our Stones

Letting Go of Our Stones
Acts 6:16-8:1
(preached at First Baptist Church, Edmonton, Alberta, on April 22, 2015)
Today, we enter into the story of Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian faith. The first – but not the last. Long before the likes of ISIS and long after, we will continue to hear the stories of brave men and women who were killed – often brutally – because of their faith in Jesus of Nazareth. From our earliest years of Sunday School, we are taught to stand up for our faith and to boldly declare the name of Jesus, regardless of the consequences – whether they be ridicule, ostracism, or even death. We in the First World have sometimes cheapened the idea of martyrdom, misapplying the word “persecution” to ourselves who have so many rights but perhaps not all of them. But most of all, we have a rich history of outstanding saints who stood firm to the end – whether that end came by stone or lion or fire or machete.
As we enter into the story of Stephen, it’s interesting to note that he didn’t get killed by the government. This time at least, the Romans weren’t the ones doing the persecuting. Stephen got killed by the religious officials in the name of the very God he was proclaiming. One commentator writes this:
The people who kill Stephen are neither the local hooligans nor the Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus to a cross. They are…upstanding members of religious communities: regular members of synagogues, elders, religious professionals, priests. They are guardians of vital traditions. (source: Matt Skinner)

Two groups of people – brothers, Stephen will call them – who each claim to worship the same God, but one ends up dead at the hands of the others. Christians, Jews and Muslims – three cousins, all with a faith grounded in the God who appeared to Abraham – have repeated this story over and over again, killing each other in the name of the God we each profess to worship.
Lord, have mercy. How did this happen? And why does it keep happening?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Sermon: The God of Shalom

Last fall I was asked to preach my third sermon, on the topic of justice. For several reasons, it was my hardest and most challenging sermon yet. I'll post separately on the process, but first, the sermon:


The God of Shalom
Amos 5:14-15, 21-24

5:14 Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. 15 Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph....21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (NRSV)

“Let justice flow like a mighty river, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” These words, plucked from the book of Amos, are powerful, compelling words. They paint a majestic picture of justice and righteousness as powerful forces at work in our world. They inspire rich images of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration. They are the rallying cry for a World Made Right.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to overlook the fact that a rallying cry implies a battle of sorts. And fighting injustice is no small skirmish. It’s a full-on war against the powers in our world that seek to oppress, exploit and degrade. Systemic injustice runs rampant in our world. Hunger, poverty and slavery abound. Children, women and men are used and abused in the pursuit of money, material possessions and power. Even the earth itself – God’s good creation – suffers at the hands of injustice.

The great battle for justice wasn’t so hard for me to imagine as a child. There was one time when my parents took me to the Smithsonian Museum and as we were walking along the Mall in Washington DC, we came upon a group of demonstrators. They were from the middle east and I’ve long since forgotten the details of their stories. But what I remembered so vividly were the poster-sized photographs they had on display of people from their home country – pictures of men and women with the scars of torture all over their bodies – people who had been mutilated by their government.

Seized with compassion, my imagination jumped into overdrive as I began plotting a way to stop this injustice.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Mourning With Those Who Mourn: A Prayer for the Displaced, Lost and Grieving

Since I started attending our liturgical Baptist church in the city, I've had the opportunity to try my hand at writing small bits of liturgy along the way. I've been so fascinated by the process, of looking at the first and second testament readings, pre-reading the sermon if available, and then weaving common themes into prayers of invocation and calls to worship. This past Sunday was my first time being in charge of the prayers of the people - a daunting task for me, since I have felt like a prayer-novice all my life.

I got some helpful guidance from the wise pastoral staff at church, but one that was particularly freeing was the advice to let the prayer sound like it's from me and not someone else. So, I pressed forward to combine the sermon theme ("seeking the peace and well-being of the city" - Jeremiah 29:7) with some of the themes that have been on my own heart recently.

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been doing quite a bit of mourning with those mourn and, my own version of this verse: questioning with those who question. My parents have been facing a second summer of intense wildfires that have destroyed friends' homes and threatened many others. My province has faced some of the worst floods in the history of Alberta, forcing 100,000 people to evacuate their homes, not knowing what they'll find when they return. Friends of ours have travailed through the adoption process for close to four years, only to have their beloved daughter pass away weeks before she was to come home to them from across the world. An old friend of mine chose to take his life on Father's Day, leaving a wife and four young children behind to figure out how to make sense of something so senseless.

I wrote this prayer with these things in mind.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

When Two Plus Two Equals Five: The Spirit in Community

Well, I got my second chance at a sermon, preached on May 19, 2013 at First Baptist Church in Edmonton, AB. Here it is:

Acts 2:1-4 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.


Today we conclude our 37-week narrative lectionary with the story of Pentecost – the long-awaited outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the holy Wind which blew new life into the people of God. Over the past few Sundays, we’ve jumped ahead to see what grew out of that first amazing wind-and-fire experience: we’ve watched the clueless disciples grow into spirit-filled leaders of the early church.

And it all started with Pentecost. I wonder what images or ideas come to mind for you with the word “Pentecost?”

Perhaps you or someone you know has had a “Pentecostal” experience – a supernatural outpouring of some kind. Perhaps it brought you joy. Or perhaps it made you uncomfortable. Maybe the word ‘Pentecost’ awakens your own discomfort with anything that feels too mystical or touchy-feely in the spirituality department. For some of us in the Baptist tradition who have trouble knowing just what to do with mystery, perhaps we’ve simply skipped over Pentecost rather quickly to the more tangible aspects of our faith. Or, maybe it’s a word you don’t even really understand.

My strongest association with the word is one of discomfort and it comes from my Bible College years, when I volunteered for a weekend with a Christian prison ministry. What I witnessed that weekend was a manufactured event that used spiritual themes to manipulate broken people. My disillusionment turned to indignation when I received a follow-up letter in the mail, declaring the event a rousing success. In fact, the letter stated: whereas only 3000 people were saved on the day of Pentecost, over 5000 were saved this weekend alone at the Weekend of Champions!!!

Unfortunately, this is what often comes to mind when I hear the word “Pentecost” – the way a Christian organization boiled down this climactic moment in history where God fulfilled his ancient promise to pour out his own Spirit on his people – to a success story about numbers.

And this is how some people think about the Spirit – that “it” is a powerful force which can be harnessed by people to manufacture results – numbers saved, miracles performed, power demonstrated – all of which are more about the product than the people. Or even worse, some have seen such demonstrations and declared the whole business to be phony, a sham.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Accidental Agents and the Texture of the Kingdom

"And there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain."

So says God himself in the Book of Revelation: Here is what my redeemed, restored world will NOT look like. All of this crap will be gone – forever! It’s a comforting thought, a verse that has encouraged me in some of my darker days.

But I've only been getting half the point. These things - death, mourning, crying, pain - won't be there. What will be there in their absence?

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Questioners and The Comfortable: Toward a Healthy, Robust Community

There's a river, swift and raging and growing bigger every day, of people who are leaving: leaving church, leaving evangelicalism, leaving orthodoxy, leaving God altogether. They are wounded, cynical, discouraged, and angry. And more than a few of them are sad to be leaving, but feel there is no place left for them in the traditional church. The reasons are as varied as the people who make them, but there is one theme that flows like a strong undercurrent, forcefully lending speed to the waters. There is one accusation that recurs again and again, murmered, whispered, shouted, or thrown like a dagger to strike a mortal blow:
"My questions weren't welcome."

I have read so many stories of sincere and intelligent, tenderhearted people who were earnestly seeking to understand God and the Bible - people who asked honest, difficult questions - who were made to feel unwelcome by Those In Charge. Their questions, their very presence in the church, were viewed as a threat. Their struggles and doubt and openness to shades of gray were viewed as a disease, which, if given a voice, might spread and infect others in the church. Some were silenced. Others were asked or forced to leave. 

Not all of us have such scary questions. Some are content with a simple faith, one that doesn't ask much but trusts completely, and nestles into the comfort of unquestioning faith. Some have questions but have learned through trial and error which ones are safe to speak out loud, and which are better left unasked. Some have no questions left because they presume to have found all the answers. But others - a growing number in our postmodern age - are full to bursting with questions that cannot be silenced and will not be pacified with pat answers. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Is There Childcare in the Desert?

I wrote up a rather passionate post last week, but in the end I decided it was a good vent, but a bad post. As Steve pointed out to me, it'll need a few more drafts. Stay tuned.


In the meantime, I've decided to tell you about the great new book I mentioned in my last post, titled In the Midst of Chaos by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore. Let me begin by saying This Book is Awesome!! I've only read the first fifty-something pages, but I'm savoring it as I go, luxuriating in the feeling of releasing some of my previous ideas about what constitutes or contributes to true and meaningful spirituality. The guilt is lifting, by degrees.

Even the preface made me feel encouraged. Here's how she concludes her introduction:
Now I release this book, imperfections and all, and bless it on its way to you. Rather than additional burden or guilt, I hope it will free you to practice your faith more abundantly, loving those around you in the midst of life's craziness and letting go of failures, faults, limitations, and sorrows to live more deeply in grace. (xx)

In Chapter 1, Contemplating in Chaos, Miller-McLemore challenges the pervasive belief that spiritual transformation of the highest order happens in solitude: peaceful, prayerful, and silent. We have romanticized and idolized the stations of monk, pastor, or ascetic as the most suited to spiritual growth and development. People such as these have the necessary space to make room for God in a way that your average parent of children simply can't...or so we've often been led to believe. As a new mom and inexperienced Bible Study leader of a group of moms, I once brought up Martin Luther's comments regarding his prayer life in the midst of busyness. He wasn't too busy to pray, he said, rather his busyness was exactly why he needed to pray, on average, 2-3 hours a day. I cringe at the memory of the guilt I must've inflicted on these women (myself included).

Monday, January 21, 2013

Four Resolutions for 2013

A cynic or an unkind person might conclude by the title of this post that the battle's already been lost: it's three weeks past January 1, after all. An optimist or a generous person might point out that's just how committed I am - I won't give up, even after getting started so late! Reality wanders in the fog somewhere between my intentions and my acedia*, my spirit and my flesh.

The house is fairly clean, the holiday things are mostly put away, my correspondence is somewhat caught up. Good enough. Time to make a plan! Resolutions have gone notoriously bad for me. Most years I have made a long and detailed list of the Me I Want To Be, and....nothing changes. I am still disorganized, I am still a slacker, I still couldn't be bothered to do fifty sit-ups if my life depended on it.

Last year's list.
And yet, I persevere! This time I'm going with themes rather than itemized points that set me up for failure. And I'm gonna try to keep it short this time: four resolution-themes. And just because I Am That Nerd, my themes are alliterated: Blog, Body, Babies, Bible. This might help me remember them for longer than the first week, and putting them on my blog might hold me accountable for even longer still!

Resolution Theme #1: Blog
The blog has been neglected. Life has gotten busy. Facebook has gotten so interesting! But mostly I'm just too lazy or undisciplined to be effective in my writing life. And yet it plays a part in so many of my dreams: to finish my Master's degree, to write a book, to gain wisdom. So, a modest goal: write at least one post a week. Who knows but that little seed of discipline will grow into something strong and tall someday!

Resolution Theme #2: Body
Time to get back on the wagon and start living a healthier lifestyle once again. There will be no calories counted, no check marks ticked, but the bigger theme of caring for my body will be my overarching goal. A friend shared a post from Michael Moore's Facebook page and I got sort of inspired:
But the truth is, exercise does not work, diets do not work, feeling crummy does not work. Nothing works. My advice: Quit trying to be something you're not, be happy with the life you've been given, and just go for a pleasant walk outside. With me. Wherever you are. Get off the treadmill, stop drinking diet Coke, throw out all the rules. It's all a scam and it conspires to keep you miserable. If it says "low-fat" or "sugar-free" or "just 100 calories!" throw it out...The path to happiness - and deep down, we all know this -- is created by love, and being kind to oneself, sharing a sense of community with others, becoming a participant instead of a spectator, and being in motion. Moving. Moving around all day. Lifting things, even if it's yourself. Going for a walk every day will change your thinking and have a ripple effect. You'll find yourself only eating when you're truly hungry. And if you're not hungry, go clean your room, or have sex, or call a friend on the phone...You do not feel better admonishing yourself or beating yourself up or setting up a bunch of unrealistic rules and goals with all the do's and dont's that are just begging to be broken. You wanna know something? I eat ice cream every friggin' day. I drink a regular Coke every single day. I put butter on things. But I also walk every day. Some days now, I walk twice. And now I've started to do some push-ups and lifting stuff. It's building muscle, and in doing so, has created an extra furnace to burn stuff and create energy. Weird! That, in turn, makes me sleep 7-8 hours a night which is another game-changer. And all the walking and lifting makes me thirsty, so that makes me drink more water -- another huge plus!
(Read the entire post here.) 
Walking, moving, being kind to myself and enjoying my life. It sounds good. I'll give it a whirl!

Resolution Theme #3: Babies
Have I mentioned before that my experience of motherhood has been rife with guilt? In the midst of my culture shock as a city girl in a rural locale over nine years ago, I was also coping with a whole new ballgame: being a Mom. I'm still trying to get a handle on the whole thing. I love my kids, I always dreamed of having them, but I just haven't managed to be the Supermom that I'd always imagined I would be. I know I'm a pretty good mom, I know my kids love me, and I'm confident they know I love them, but I'm just not as intentional as I thought I'd be - about imparting my faith, inspiring their imaginations, or doing cool crafts. Most days I'm overwhelmed just surviving!

Yesterday I read a blurb for a book called In the Midst of Chaos, by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore:
In the Midst of Chaos reveals what it takes to find the spiritual wisdom in the messy, familial ways of living. By rethinking parenting as an invitation to discover God in the middle of our busy and overstuffed lives, it relieves parents of the burden fo being the all-knowing authority figures who impart spiritual knowledge to children. Finding spirituality in family activities such as reading bedtime stories, dividing household chores, and playing games can empower parents to notice what they are doing as potentially valuable and to practice it more consciously as part of their own faith journey. 
Chaos, messy, busy, and overstuffed sounds right up my alley. I put in an order for it today. :-) I'll be looking, and making room, for ways to be more present with my children as we share life together - normal, everyday, chaotic life.

Resolution Theme #4: Bible
This one is always there. I never read it as much or as often as I like. I tend to read a lot of great books about the Bible, and that has been immensely helpful to me as I've wrestled with issues of hermeneutics, interpretation and worldview, but in the process I've become aware of some large gaps in my biblical literacy. I tend to focus on the trees and lose sight of the forest.

I've been thinking about the particular idea of wrestling with God's word ever since I read Rachel Held Evan's blog post, entitled I Love the Bible, in which she likens her own experience of wrestling with the Bible to Jacob's wrestling with God. We cannot encounter God and his word and walk away unchanged. I'm ready to jump into the ring for a fresh round of interaction with this Word-and-Flesh that informs my entire life. I need to immerse myself in The Story for awhile, to reframe my story within it. My goal is to read the entire Bible, from start to finish, by the end of June. I'm going to resist lingering too long at any one point so I can get that forest-view, and begin to see where the trails merge, and separate, and peter off. I might even find a surpise lookout or two.

And that's it! Pretty reasonable, I think. Say a prayer for me as I press ahead. And what about you? Any resolutions, or perhaps an anti-resolution or two?

*Kathleen Norris defines acedia as "spiritual sloth or laziness." She wrote a book about it (Acedia and Me), but...I haven't gotten around to reading it yet. ;-)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Respectful, Waiting, Recycling, Weaving: A Review of Cross Roads by Wm Paul Young

Disclosure: I received this book free in exchange for agreeing to write a review for Speakeasy

Wm Paul Young, the self-published author of the megahit The Shack has written another novel, this time with the help of Faith Words publishers, who released Cross Roads last month. Once again, Young writes of an encounter between a broken human being and the three members of the Trinity, depicted in his characteristically earthy, accessible and (in my opinion) winsome way. This book reminded me in turns of The Shack, A Christmas Carol (Dickens), The Great Divorce (Lewis), and Pilgrim’s Progress (Bunyan).

To get my biggest criticism out of the way, I’ll just say that the first thirty-some pages turned me off completely. If I hadn’t been committed to reading the entire thing and writing a review as part of my agreement with Speakeasy, as well as having liked The Shack well enough to press on in faith that Young's storytelling abilities would win out, I would’ve abandoned the effort. The first few chapters are meant to introduce the reader to the deplorable state of the main character, Tony’s, life, but do so by a string of preachy commentary and psychoanalytical insights that leave no doubt that we’re being set up for a redemption story.

After his rough beginning, however, Young does what he does so well and draws the reader in by telling good stories and writing great dialogue that develop each character in a meaningful, fleshed-out way that feels natural and engaging. Finally, I began to care about the main character. Tony is a successful businessman, too self-absorbed and too busy to really care about or even notice the trail of broken relationships he’s left in the wake of his path to the top.

After a medical situation (you can read the fifteen paragraphs of technical medical lingo yourself if you want the details) which leaves him in a coma and near death, he wakes up to find himself in what is later described as the “in-between place” that separates the “life-before” from the “life-after.” The characters he meets in this place have different roles to play on his path to self-discovery and redemption. The main characters here are Jesus-in-blue-jeans and Grandmother, who represents the Holy Spirit as a feisty elderly Native American woman.

Part of Tony’s journey involves “sliding” into the minds of several people in the life-before, most notably a 15-year-old boy with Down Syndrome named Cabby and a feisty African American woman named Molly. These perspectives allow Tony the opportunity to experience the world outside himself by “walking a mile in another’s shoes,” as it were. Here, Young’s storytelling and character development are wonderful. I fell in love with Cabby almost instantly as I, too, got to experience a perspective outside my own. I had a few good laughs when Maggie was convinced she had a demon because Tony spoke inside her mind to prevent an awkward situation.

The back of the book sets up the premise of the story: God gives Tony the chance to choose for one person to be healed: will it be himself, or someone else? His time inside the minds of four or five people in the present time (the life-before), interspersed with his conversations with Jesus and Grandmother and a few other surprising characters in the in-between help him to make his choice, which wasn’t quite as predictable as I’d thought it might be.

Several things have stuck with me since reading Cross Roads. I was intrigued by Young’s repeated theme of God as one who respects relationship, who is willing to wait for his creation to make room for him in their lives. “While he is never absent, he also waits for you in the forest, outside the walls of your heart,” says Grandmother to Tony. “He is not one who forces relationship. He is too respectful.” (80)

Through Jack, a companion of Tony’s in the life in-between, Young pictures God as a great recycler, through whom nothing is wasted: “God wastes nothing, not even the wrong we have imagined into existence. In every building torn down there is much that remains that was once true and right and good, and that gets woven into the new; in fact, the new could not be what it is without the old. It is the refurbishing of the soul.” (159)

Lastly, and my favourite, was the way Young characterised the Holy Spirit. Grandmother, Young’s image of the Spirit, describes herself this way: “‘I am she who is more than you can begin to imagine and yet anchors your deepest longings. I am she whose love for you, you are not powerful enough to change, and I am she whom you can trust…I am a fire and fury opposed to everything that you believe that is not the Truth, that is hurting you and keeping you from being free. I am the Weaver, you are a favorite color, and he,’ – she tilted her head toward Jesus – ‘he is the tapestry.’” (93)

Respectful, waiting, recycling, weaving. As with The Shack, I’m sure some will take issue with the ways that Young has chosen to represent the members of the Trinity. And my response is the same as it was with The Shack: you don’t have to agree to be challenged in your own understanding of what God is like, and to grow from the experience. The man is not writing a theology textbook or attempting to rewrite the Bible. He’s using his God-given imagination to explore his own understanding of God and our interactions with him, and overall I was quite pleased with the effort.


Check out the brand-new trailer here and the archived Cross Roads interview here.
Check out these links to find out more about Wm Paul Young:
Paul's website
Paul's old blog
Paul on Facebook
Paul on Twitter
Crossroads chat on Amazon

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

It's Because I'm a Girl, Right?

Oh no!

These are a few of the responses I got from some of my close friends and family when I shared the happy news that I'd been asked to preach at my church. Some others - who found out via Facebook - said nothing at all.

And I get that. It's weird. It's different from the traditions we came from. And besides, woman preachers are all ultra-liberal-feminists with an axe to grind...right?

But still, it hurts. It hurts to see the reservation in someone's eyes when you're sharing your exciting news. It hurts to know that, even though they're not comfortable with it, they don't even try for your sake to fake interest, let alone excitement, on your behalf. It hurts to know that if it was Steve who told them he was preaching, they'd be thrilled. They'd ask him questions, offer prayers perhaps for a good experience, invite their friends to come and hear him speak on the Big Day.

But, because I'm a girl, it's weird. It's awkward. 

And I know most don't mean it this way, but it's a little bit shaming, too. Instead of rejoicing at the chance to follow my passion and use a gift that's been growing in me, I feel apologetic somehow, like I need to explain that I'm not trying to be a rebel, I'm not trying to be a usurper. I'm not one of those ultra-liberal-feminist preacher-women.

I'd like to explain to them that I've never sought out preaching. I've intentionally never asked or inquired about opportunities in this area - that has been my own personal fail-safe to make sure that if and when it did happen, it was from God and not from my own ambition. Seven, eight, nine years I spent silently waiting, and two months ago, I was asked. I trust that God is willing to work with my personal fail-safe to trust now that this request was approved by him.

I'd like them to know that I have struggled with this issue, researched it, and used my brain and seven years of theological education to make an informed decision. I didn't just decide it sounded better because I wanted it to be. I found the arguments for egalitarianism to be the most persuasive and in line with Jesus and with the Biblical witness as a whole.

But I won't tell them anything - because attacking complementarianism and winning converts isn't my goal. Living out my vocation is. And that's been huge for me - to realise that, although I'd like the approval of those closest to me, I don't have to have it. The confidence is there now, I have peace that God is walking this journey with me.

But still, it makes me sad. It hurts to know they very well might think I'm sinning by following what I sincerely believe to be my God-given passions. In truth, it often frustrates me that people think it's wrong for me to preach - simply because I'm a woman. This is how it feels:

  • View A (mine): Wow, how wonderful that you're so excited and passionate to share God's Word!
  • View B (others): How unfortunate/wrong that you're a woman who wants to share God's Word!

It reminds me a bit of the story of the blind man in John 6. While everyone else was debating whose sin was responsible for his blindness, Jesus healed him. And instead of Response A...

  • Praise God, a man who was blind all his life can now SEE!!! How amazing! How wonderful!!! 

...the religious folks gave Response B:

  • Um, it's SATURDAY! How dare you heal on the SABBATH!!

Is it fair to say they might've been missing the point? 

All that to say: I'm not trying to pick on those with a different view in this area, and I'm certainly not suggesting that my hurt feelings are reason enough for a change in one's theology. But I think it's worth sharing/hearing how it feels to be a woman on the outside - to feel judged by another believer for using the gift you are fully confident is from God - for no other reason than your gender.

Is there some way to rejoice with each other in this area despite our differences? Or is avoiding the issue the best we can do?

PS - If you're so inclined, you can read my sermon here.
PPS - Since Rachel Held Evans tweeted this post, I've got an influx of new pageviews. If you'd like to hear a little more about my vocational journey, check out my earlier post, Finding My Voice: A Turning Point at Calling Lake. :-)

Monday, July 30, 2012

More Than We Ask Or Imagine

This Sunday I got to experience for the first time a dream many years in the making. I preached my first sermon! There are quite a few posts I've been wanting to write leading up to this point, but I'll have to get to that later. For now, because some have asked and because the audio recording didn't happen, here's my sermon! Thank you, thank you, thank you, to those who dreamed with me and encouraged me on this journey - I couldn't have gotten to this place without you!

More Than We Ask Or Imagine
Liturgical readings: John 6:1-21; Ephesians 3:14-21
preached at First Baptist Church, Edmonton, Alberta on 29 July 2012

Today’s passage is taken from the beginning of John 6. It’s a familiar story: the sun-weary crowds follow the healer-teacher Jesus, who multiplies a small boy’s meal to feed them all as they sit on the grassy hillside. It’s familiar because it’s a darling of children’s Sunday School lessons – give what little you have and God will make much of it!

It’s also familiar because the Bible itself tells the story so many times – this is the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels. Why this miracle? What’s extra special about this one?

As I read and reread this passage along with the thoughtful commentary of many scholars, I was surprised at how much more there is to this story than I had ever noticed before. What is the “point” of this story? Generosity? Faithfulness? Jesus’ supernatural power? His deity? The importance of caring for the physical needs of weary souls? God’s power to make much out of little? Hm, yes, I think – and more!

Let’s see what there is to discover within this familiar story…

In John’s Gospel we find Jesus, travelling across the countryside. He’s begun to have quite a following, as he performs signs and healings along the way. There’s been a lot of doing, but Jesus has also been doing a lot of talking - his healing acts are not an end in themselves, but are meant to communicate something about who he is, what he is all about. What does Jesus want his hearers to hold onto?

At the moment, the truth the people are holding on to is: Miracle Worker. Here is a man with power. And the people, in their neediness and powerlessness, follow him. The other gospel accounts fill in the picture a bit here for us, telling us that the people “ran on foot” to catch up to Jesus, who then had compassion on them and healed them and began teaching them.

But John’s account doesn’t tell us any of those details. It simply tells us “The Jewish Passover Festival was near.” Three times in his gospel, John highlights the season of Passover. With each brief mention of it, John calls to his Jewish readers’ minds an entire history of experience with the saving power of Yahweh. This second mention of Passover foreshadows the rest of the story, starting with the latter part of John 6, when Jesus turns his attention from physical bread that satisfies hungry bellies to the heavenly bread that nourishes souls. Jesus, who serves the bread, will soon be serving us himself as soul food in the truest sense.

As he surveys the mass of people before him – no doubt hot, dusty and exhausted from their enthusiastic pursuit of him – Jesus has a very practical thought: These folks must be starving! Then he asks a very impractical question: Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?

Now, John is nice enough to let us in on a little secret so that we don’t look as supernaturally naïve as Philip when he answers Jesus with a very reasonable denial of such a possibility – there’s no way we can afford to do that, Jesus! Instead, we are told in advance that Jesus was simply testing him. Jesus had a plan, but first he wanted to test Philip. Eugene Peterson’s Message translates it this way: Jesus wanted to “stretch his faith.” I’ve begun to see it this way: Jesus asked the question to “stretch his imagination” – Jesus had already imagined a perfect ending to this story; he wanted to see if Philip could catch the vision, too.

But alas, if this was a test, Philip didn’t exactly pass with flying colours. He is thinking rationally, logically, realistically – he has knowledge aplenty, but something’s missing. Consequently, all that information stifles his imagination as he focuses on the financial reality: there’s not enough dough this side of Galilee for that much bread, Jesus! Taking another tack,  Andrew weighs in with a seed of possibility: “Well, there’s this boy, and he’s got a bit of bread and a couple of fish, minnows really, but…how far will they go among so many?”

Well, it looks like Philip and Andrew have some growing to do in the imagination department – they are a far cry from the faith-filled, God-confident evangelists of the Book of Acts.

And can we blame them for their lacking here? Do we routinely expect or even imagine that God will perform in such amazing and unpredictable ways? Do we imagine he will drop twelve basketfuls of groceries on our steps as we make our way to the Mustard Seed to prepare dinner? Do we even have it in us to imagine that God would just multiply out of nothing to meet the needs of those around us? There are real-life stories of those throughout history who did and were amazed, but I suspect most of us, myself included, tend to limit our prayers to the safer realm of the “reasonable” and the “possible.”

Jesus doesn’t blame Philip and Andrew either. He just carries on, without rebuke or reprimand for their smallish, uninspired faith. I’d like to think that as he told them to get the people seated, he said it playfully – with a wink and a grin, perhaps. Jesus was Rabbi – teacher – after all, and I think he enjoyed the opportunity to teach in such a way as this: Let me give you a peek into my imagination, he says: Watch this!

The people sat down – five thousand men, in addition to the women and children who were also there – no doubt waiting for something awesome, another impressive “performance” by this powerful man, Jesus. (They, at least, had imagination of a sort.) Jesus took the little boy’s lunch sack – five small loaves of bread and two fish – and gave thanks. And in that act of gratitude, something happened. Jesus handed out the blessed food and fed the entire multitude until they were satisfied – full to bursting with bread and fish – so much so that they had twelve basketfuls leftover! God is not stingy with his gifts.

The crowd is rightly impressed: “Surely this is the Prophet who is come into the world!” These desperate, needy people latch onto a new understanding of Jesus – Political Hero! – and desire to crown him king by force. But it’s a misunderstanding. They’re still not getting Jesus – who he is, what he is trying to teach them about himself. Jesus withdraws to a mountain by himself, and we are left to wonder: What is the response he was looking for? How was he wanting to stretch the imaginations of those around him?

The disciples were limited by their own sense of how-it’s-done, and the crowds-people were limited by their own agendas of what-needs-doing. Jesus was stretching them, challenging them to take a look at how God gets things done: His way is better because he satisfies with abundance, his agenda is bigger because his salvation is for the whole world, and his ability is limitless because he is all-powerful!

Thankfully, that isn’t the end of the story for the disciples’ understanding of what Jesus was all about: they didn’t miss their One Big Chance to prove their big faith and elastic imaginations. Their faith – like ours – is a continual journey of being stretched. That very same day, the disciples get to have another crack at it.

After Jesus withdrew, the disciples went ahead and left without him onto a boat and headed off across the lake for Capernaum. Once they were quite a ways from shore, a storm began to brew and the winds whipped their faces and the water turned the colour of mud. As if that weren’t concerning enough, they wiped the sea-spray from their eyes to see…Jesus? And he’s…walking on water??? Jesus is not holding back with the faith-stretching now and the disciples are terrified. Matthew and Mark’s accounts of the scene tell us what they’re really thinking: It’s a ghost!!!

Jesus, in his mercy, doesn’t allow them to stay terrified for long. “It is I,” he says, “Don’t be afraid.” His response is two-fold: It is I, Jesus, the one who you’ve seen heal bodies, feed multitudes – yes, I can walk on water too! I can speak to the seas, I can command the winds. I am powerful beyond your wildest dreams! …But that bit of truth on its own might not help with the terror, so he adds these words: “Don’t be afraid.” Even with all that mighty power, there is no need to fear. I love you. So much – beyond your wildest dreams!

And with that, John’s gospel tells us, they were “willing to let him into the boat.” It’s a funny response, I think, to Jesus’ amazing demonstration and declarations. But, it’s a start, a beginning, and it’s all God needs.

So, as we look back over the characters in today’s story, I wonder if one – or more – resonates with you?

§         Are you like Philip and Andrew – thinking carefully, rationally, responsibly, and missing the point?
§         Are you like the crowd –limiting your understanding of who God is with the narrowness of your own expectations?
§         Are you like the disciples in the boat – afraid of God and unsure of his intentions toward you?

§         Or maybe you’re like the other, silent character, the one I think came closest to the response that Jesus desired – Are you like the little boy, perhaps not amounting to much in the eyes of others, but the possessor of a great childlike imagination that makes room for the unexpected to happen?

I suspect most of us have identified with each of these characters at different points in our journeys. But no matter: Faith-full, faith-little, dreamers, worriers, analyzers, and zealots – Jesus’ response was the same: all were fed and ate their fill. All were satisfied with the abundance of God’s meal. All were stretched – some more, some less, perhaps – but all left that place with a bigger, truer picture of who Jesus was than the one they brought with them.

How is Jesus wanting to stretch our imaginations this morning?

How does he want to satisfy us with abundance out of who he is?

Ryan has recently been referring to our church as FPC – First Pentecostal Church – and challenging us to consider how we can share in the vision of Joel 2: speaking prophetically, seeing visions, dreaming dreams. How is God inviting us to participate with him in his imaginings?

I’d like to read a quote by Madeleine L’Engle from her book Walking on Water. It’s from a chapter titled “Probable Impossibilities:”
“It might be a good idea,” she writes, “if…we practiced believing six impossible things every morning before breakfast, for we are called on to believe what to many people is impossible. Instead of rejoicing in this glorious ‘impossible’ which gives meaning and dignity to our lives, we try to domesticate God, to make his mighty actions comprehensible to our finite minds.”

How is God inviting us to “rejoice [with him] in the impossible?”

Is there some thing – some relationship, perspective, or mode of being – that we’ve resigned ourselves to when God has a plan for something new and wonderful? Are we willing to dream dreams with him? Are we willing to have faith that what he calls us to is good?

I’m going to give us a minute or so to rest in that – to make room for God in our imaginations, to meditate on what it means to be abundantly satisfied by Jesus, and then I’ll close with a prayer from Ephesians 3.


I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge —that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God…Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory …for ever and ever! Amen.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Quotes À La Carte

I've been chewing on some good thoughts over the past few days. Here are a few:

On Becoming the Church
Lots of thoughts to be provoked...
"We decided to stop complaining about the church we saw, and we set our hearts on becoming the church we dreamed of." - Shane Claiborne in The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (p. 64)

On Tithing and World Poverty
"Today, on average, evangelicals in the United States give about two-fifths of a tithe...if American Christians just tithed, they would have another $143 billion available to empower the poor and spread the gospel. Studies by the United Nations suggest that just an additional $70-$80 billion a year would be enough to provide access to essential services like basic health care and education for all the poor of the earth. If they did no more than tithe, American Christians would have the private dollars to foot this entire bill and still have $60-$70 billion more to do evangelism around the world." - Ron Sider in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (pp. 21-22)

On Living the Bible
“The New Testament was written in everyday street language,” Peterson said. “Words make something. They don’t just say something. … You are free not to study the Bible but to enter into it, to let it become part of you, — not deciding what you need, but receiving what’s there.” - Cathleen Falsani, quoting Eugene Peterson at Sojourners with Lost in Translation: Eugene Peterson and His 'Message'

On Guilt-Free Spirituality
“Pay attention to what’s there, not what isn’t there,” Peterson said. Go about the journey of faith — the Christian life, the Way — relaxed, he said, “not feeling so guilty, not having to prove yourself all the time.” - Cathleen Falsani, quoting Eugene Peterson (again) at Sojourners with Doing Nothing For Lent. 

On Passion, Vocation and Wisdom
Steve and I attended a conference with Gordon T. Smith (former Academic Dean and professor at Regent College) speaking on "Vocation, Work, and Career" and I liked his definition of (vocational) passion as "where we feel most keenly the brokenness of the world." I was also intrigued by his suggestion (inspired by Waltke) that the Proverbs 31 woman was not an addendum to the Book of Proverbs, but perhaps the capstone: the embodiment of Wisdom (Sophia) as one who does Good Work. So cool!

On Partying With Jesus
“Jesus never said, 'The Kingdom of God is like a church service that goes on and on forever and never ends.' He said the kingdom was like a homecoming celebration, a wedding, a party, a feast to which all are invited. This idea was too radical for the religious leaders of his day. They were more concerned about etiquette, manners, traditions and religious rituals than about partying with Jesus. And that’s why they missed out. That’s why we miss out.” - Steven James at CNN with Stop Sugarcoating the Bible

What are your thoughts? Any good tidbits to share?