St. George’s United Church
10th Sunday After Pentecost
Psalm 133
Matthew 15:21-33

“Blurred Lines”

So our scripture reading from the gospel of Matthew is one of those hard stories. It can be a real challenge for people. Not just because Jesus doesn’t sound like Jesus—he says some not-nice, Jesus-like things. But it’s the fact that Jesus is challenged by an outsider. And the challenge seems to change his mind.

If you don’t know the story, Jesus has just finished a really successful ministry all over the country. Judea. Samaria. Galilee. All over Israel. He’s healed people. He’s cast out demons. He’s gathered followers, and challenged authorities. But here Jesus is the one who is challenged.

For whatever reason, Jesus decides to leave Galilee, where he’s still on home turf, and head towards the border country. “He went away,” it says, “to the district of Tyre and Sidon.” This means they are entering Gentile territory. Gentile, meaning, not Jewish. Not part of the story of Israel. They are getting in to the thick of a different culture, different customs, different people. Different story.

And on their way, this woman pops out of nowhere. She’s about as different as they get. She’s a Canaanite. And if you know your Old Testament, you’ll know that she comes on to the scene with a big tattoo of “enemy” on her forehead. Canaanites are Israel’s ancient foes, and the people who are usually trying to convince Israel to leave God and worship their Gods.

But this woman comes to Jesus with a problem. She comes in need, begging healing for her daughter, who has a demon. She’s probably desperate, like any mom with a sick or troubled kid. So when she sees Jesus coming along, she reaches out for mercy. In desperation. Not knowing where else to turn.

Jesus just ignores her at first. But she persists, shouting after him. Jesus’ followers aren’t very impressed. “Tell her to get lost,” they say to Jesus, because she won’t let up. And so she runs to him and kneels at his feet. “Lord, help me,” she pleads, once more.

But when Jesus finally answers, he just doesn’t sound like Jesus. A few days ago, I told someone that I was preaching on this story, and they said to me, “you know, I’m not sure I’m supposed to say this, but Jesus sounds like a real jerk.” To her cry for mercy Jesus replies, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch. I mean, Jesus not only calls her a dog, but he calls her entire people, the Caananites, dogs. Jesus is pretty clear—I have only come for people who are already part of the fold. This is a members-only movement. For the kind of healing you’re looking for, you’ve got to be a member to get the benefits. Insiders-only.

Now, I don’t know if the people of Jesus are generally are like this to folks who come to us and aren’t already “in.” There are obvious exceptions—where Christians are cruel and aggressive towards outsiders—but generally, we don’t turn people away by calling them dogs! And here at St. George’s, especially, I’ve experienced such a spirit of welcome, kindness, and generosity since coming here a month and a half ago. So much so that I’m tempted to simply step away from this story and say “not us.”

But I wonder if this story gets at something less obvious for us. Something even deeper. Outsiders for us, represent a big challenge. At one point in time, we could expect anyone who walked in to our doors to have some experience of the United Church of Canada. Or if they didn’t, they’d have some kind of experience with the Christian church in one way or another. They’d know the stories, and would probably share—more or less—the same background, same values, and same outlook of the people already here. Everyone came as insiders to the faith and traditions.

But times are really different, and, like Jesus and the disciples, I’m not sure we know what to do with outsiders.

Like the Caananite woman, people come, not knowing the traditions. Where the Canaanite woman comes to Jesus as a flat-out pagan, some of us come not really knowing what we believe. Some of us come and haven’t completely bought in to things yet. Some of us even come skeptical as to whether or not faith is believable, or a good thing to have in the first place.

But even in spite of all these things, people are still drawn to Jesus. It could be a search for meaning to life. Maybe it’s a search for purpose, seeking something greater than ourselves. Maybe a tradition to hand down to our kids in a culture that doesn’t seem to provide deep roots. Or—like the Canaanite woman—some of us come seeking healing for ourselves or hope to care for the afflicted people we love. Healing and hope for a world that knows such brokenness. But perhaps when they come might be met with silence, or get the sense that Jesus is “only sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” That you’re only welcome if you’re all in.

I don’t even think it’s intentional. We want people to come. We’re warm and we’re friendly. But somehow, there’s still the sense that people have to cross some threshold, to be on the inside, before coming to us. Even if they are reaching out for healing. Outsiders can be a real challenge.

But, in the story, this challenge seems to change everything. The interesting thing is that the Canaanite woman is not even deterred by Jesus’ “members only” sign. She won’t let up. “Yes, Lord,” she says. I may be a dog, she says. “But even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Like any other mom with a sick or troubled kid, she’ll settle for anything. Even a crumb in a barren pantry, the smallest sliver of light in the darkness will make a difference. She persists, even against silence and outright rejection.

And Jesus doesn’t think much about it. Immediately he answers her—without an apology, I might add—“Woman! Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter, who isn’t even on camera at this point, is healed instantly. Just like that, things turn around.

I can’t stress how important this part of the story is. Because, here, Jesus’ mission and focus shifts from being about the needs of insiders, to God’s mission in the whole world. One that includes people who don’t yet fit in. In the next scene, we see Jesus on a mountain surrounded by throngs of people, gentiles, non-Israelites. And he’s offering them healing. And by the end of the story, Jesus gives his followers the great commission, commanding them to go out to all the world, to make disciples from all nations of the earth.

This little story is pretty much what the history of the Christian church hinges on. This little challenge from an outsider changes everything. For a woman and her daughter in need. There’s a cry for mercy, one that crosses boundaries, and blurs lines. It changes things for Jesus, too. Because it says that the power of God’s love can’t be hemmed in, even by Jesus. Jesus can’t even keep his own love contained.

And I wonder if this challenge could change everything for us, too. And for those of you who find yourselves on the inside: A pastor once described the faithful church as one where God’s grace and energy flows in to the church through the Word and the sacraments. But then the communion cup and baptismal font overflow, and it spills out through the doors and into the streets. We might be challenged by outsiders. Know that it’s probably not going to be easy. The shift isn’t going to be as instant as Jesus in this text, either. But know that the challenge can change us, renew us, and our life together as a congregation. Because the life-giving power of God that you may have come to know as an insider, is good. But it’s too good to keep to ourselves.

For those of you who come to us, feeling like you are on the outside, without a place at the table: know that you are welcome here. However you were drawn to this place, for whatever reason you find yourself here. Know you are welcome. Here in this place, at the table of Jesus Christ, like the Canaanite woman who cries out for mercy, you have a spot at the Master’s table. No matter where you are in your life or the journey of faith. It’s okay to belong before you believe. Certainly, we hope that your life will be drawn up in to this story. Because it is life-changing and life-giving. But know that we trust that God is already at work, and that Jesus’ power to heal extends beyond our wildest imaginations.

Let’s end in prayer. Gracious God, you have welcomed all people into your kingdom. Remove from us the barriers that we build to keep people from you, especially ones we don’t even know that we are building. Help us, so that all might live in your grace and peace. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.[i]

[i] This prayer is adapted from the daily prayers for the Narrative Lectionary


This sermon was preached at the joint service for Cumberland, Comox, and St. George United Churches, held at St. George’s on August 10th.

St. George’s United Church
9th Sunday After Pentecost
Matthew 13:22-33
Joint Comox Valley Service

“Risky Business” by Ryan Slifka

This past week I’ve been asking myself the question, “If you had all three United Churches in the Comox Valley in the same room together, what would you say?” I mean, it’s got to be good. New minister, new to the valley. Gotta impress. Gotta inspire. And I felt the same way I always do when I’m putting together a sermon. So much to say, so little space to say it all.

At the same time, preaching a sermon isn’t so much about what the preacher would like to say. It’s about what people need to hear. And I think that in times like ours, what we need most is encouragement. Not someone to simply say “things are fine.” Things are OK as they are. But en-couragement. To make courage possible in the face of challenge. What we need most is encouragement.

Which makes our passage from Matthew’s gospel a strange choice to preach on. Because courage seems to be the last thing this passage is about. It’s all about fear. It’s all about doubt.

After feeding thousands in the wilderness, Jesus sends his disciples on a boat to go ahead of him, to cross the sea of Galilee. Meanwhile, Jesus stays behind, opting to spend a little me-time on the top of a mountain in prayer.

But as night falls, a storm hits. “The wind was against them,” it says, and waves crash and torture the boat, tossing it back and forth for hours. The wind drives their little wooden vessel far out to the middle of the sea. And there’s no land in sight.

But the worst part is that, just when they need him most, Jesus is nowhere to be seen. A few chapters back they had hit a storm like this one, and Jesus was asleep when it hit. But when they called out in terror, he awoke, he spoke, and stilled the storm. But now, Jesus is back on dry land. And so they spend the better part of an anxious night navigating the waves, hoping for the storm to cease. It’s a time of great fear.

My guess is that this sense of anxiety and doubt is not unfamiliar to those of us gathered here, as the people of Jesus, in this time, and in this place. I don’t need to say much about waning church attendance–you all know enough about that. And I don’t need to say much about the decline of the influence of religious faith in people’s personal lives, or in the public square. You already know that–we live in British Columbia, the most secular, least religious part of the country. And in the Pacific Northwest, the least religious, most secular part of North America. None of this is anything new.

But I get the feeling that we gather together as the body of Christ with a common sense of uncertainty about the future. Like the disciples, we’ve seen times of abundance, where our churches were full, and people seemed to be hungry and were made full by what we had to offer. But now we find ourselves in the middle of a perfect storm of fear, distrust and doubt.

Maybe it’s fear for the loss of our institutional church as we know it. Maybe it’s distrust of religious institutions based on our own role in the pain and anguish of other human beings. Or maybe it’s doubt–the sense that Christian faith is archaic, a backwards relic of the past, that can’t help but crumble in the face of overwhelming evidence. In the same way that the disciples have left Jesus behind on the shore, for us Jesus can be left behind in history, relegated to the status of archaeological interest. When it comes down to it we feel the waves crashing in on all sides. We’re cast out to sea with no solid land in sight.

But they say the darkest hour is the one right before the dawn. And it’s in the darkest hours of the morning in the boat, just before the sun rises Jesus comes in walking on the water to meet the wind-battered disciples.

The disciples, understandably, think he’s a ghost. And are terrified. But in the midst of their fears, Jesus speaks, reassuring them. “It is I,” he says. “Do not be afraid.” And his encouragement works, as Peter, one of the disciples in the boat is emboldened enough to ask for Jesus’ invitation to step out on the water. He’s confident at first, and manages to take a few steps. But the wind picks up again, and he becomes scared again, and begins to sink. Just then, Jesus reaches out and grabs him. While Jesus questions him on his lack of faith, it’s at this moment that the disciples are astounded, and they see Jesus as if for the first time, confessing, “Truly you are the Son of God.” They recognize him. They know who he is. And what he’s about.

Which is kind of weird, if you think about it. Because just before this Jesus managed to feed thousands of people. And before that he healed the sick and the lame. They’ve just seen him do incredible wonders, but it’s here in the midst of their terror and their doubt, where they manage to see who he really is. Here they finally see the “real Jesus.”

I wonder if in our days of success, in the days where our society was culturally Christian, I wonder if this somehow got in the way of a vital and authentic faith that doesn’t just recognize God at work in the good times, but sees God powerfully at work in times of uncertainty, times of stress, pain, or doubt. Maybe we haven’t figured that part out.

And I wonder if this is due to the fact we spend so much time in our lives trying to establish safety and security for ourselves and our families by buffering ourselves from risk and uncertainty (jobs, investments, mortgages, RRSPs). On one level, this is good, because God desires us to have the stable space to flourish as human beings. But on another level it also makes us fearful of change. It can make us afraid to experiment, and take risks as people and as congregations for the sake of the gospel. And renewing ourselves and our congregations. Because change seems to push us further into uncharted waters, rather than back to the safety of the shoreline.

Yet, if we take this story seriously. Which I like to think we do. We discover that Jesus isn’t just back on the shore with the good times. No, he is powerfully present even in the midst of the storm. Even though Jesus brings a word of comfort to the disciples in the boat, they don’t recognize him until Peter takes the risk. The risk to step out off the boat, and step out towards Jesus on the raging sea. And even when Peter risks everything to step out, and he loses heart and fails, Jesus, Emmanuel, God with is, is there to hold on to him when he begins to sink. And when all seems lost.

To be honest, I don’t know entirely what this kind of risky business is going to look like for us in the days, and the years ahead. Undoubtedly, as a congregation we’ll be trying new and different things that call us out of our comfort zones and into turbulent, untested waters. And that will require plenty of courage, trust and risk.

But it’s even more than that. I know that we live in a stormy world where courage is needed more than anything else. It takes courage to face daily struggles of addiction, fear and distress. It takes courage to risk our time and our money to care for others in need. It takes courage to care for and continue to love someone even though they keep letting you down. It takes courage to stand up for the most vulnerable and the good of our community. And it will take courage to face our global environmental challenges with a sense of mercy, justice and compassion. It takes courage to “step out of the comfort of our own traditions and places, and go into the waves, reaching for the hand of Jesus.”1

Because following Jesus is risky business, and always has been. The One who calls Peter out of the boat and stills the storm is the same One who calls disciples just like you and me from our ordinary lives, and says “pick up your cross and follow.” The risk is what faith is all about. And the risk is what changes everything.

It’s a big challenge. And one that we will face together. But the good news is that when we know that God is with us, and for us, we are empowered to live with courage and with hope, even in the face of fear and uncertainty. Trusting that even when we begin to sink, God will grab hold of us with forgiveness, mercy, comfort and grace. And will never let go. Of people like us. In times like these. In a world like ours.

Thank God. Amen.

1. This was said by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in his inaugural sermon, “We Will See a World Transformed.”

Ryan Slifka
St. George’s United Church
6th Sunday After Pentecost
Genesis 28:10-22

“The God-Given Dream”

Our text from Genesis this morning is all about a dream, one of many in the bible, the Christian story. Dreams in the bible are filled with meaning. Dreams matter, because they somehow mysteriously shape the future. Whether we say so or not, we take our dreams very seriously. How we dream matters, too.

From the beginning, Jacob’s lives his life on the heels of a dream. From the beginning, Jacob is driven by a dream of measuring up to someone else’s expectations.

He’s named Jacob, because it means “heel-grabber”–because he comes out of the womb with one hand clutched to his older twin, Esau’s heel. He comes out with his hand on his brother’s heel because this is the way his whole life is going to go. Not only is his brother bigger, stronger, and covered in more body hair than he is, all around more manly in every area. Jacob is smaller, weaker, fair haired, and more likely to be seen puttering around the family tent with his mother than anywhere near a bow and arrow. And so Esau is their father’s favourite from day one.

But the worst part is that due to the simple order of their birth–Esau first, Jacob second–Jacob’s brother is set to inherit everything from his father. You see, Esau is set to inherit the promise of God, as the eldest son. A promise made to their grandfather Abraham. And you pass down the inheritance to the oldest son. Just the way it is. There’s the promise of land–a place to live and call your own. The promise of a big, healthy family. World-renown. And prosperity. This pretty much covers everything anyone ever dreams about. And no matter what he does, it seems like Jacob is always fated to second place.

And so, Jacob sets his whole life towards pulling himself out of second place, trying to change his destiny. He hatches a plan to win the dream. He puts on his brother’s clothes, so he’ll smell like his brother. He puts on animal skins, so he’ll be hairy like his brother. And then he brings freshly caught venison—you guessed it, just like his brother. And, thinking that he’s Esau, Jacob gives him the blessing. His dream finally comes true.

Like Jacob, we all have a twin. Someone else, and someone else’s expectations we measure our lives by. Blessings that we want more than anything in life. These expectations take hold of our dreams, and can drive our lives without even really knowing it. [1]

The dreams might fall in to the same categories of Jacob’s–a sense of inadequacy, never measuring up. In our personal lives, it could be winning the approval of your father (or mother) or winning respect, period. It could be any one of the blessings promised to Abraham, and passed down to Esau. Land–the dream house, the mortgage, or even just a place to call your own. The dream family–perfect kids, perfect spouse, or the perfect relationship with your kids or grandkids. Renown and prosperity–the respect of friends, culture, society. Prosperity–driven by the pursuit of money, a comfortable life, etc. etc.

And, like Jacob, we’ll do anything to get them. We’ll play the part. We’ll put on the clothes of our twin and do whatever we can to chase the dream and win the blessing.

And Jacob’s gets what he always wanted. He’s stolen the blessing. But he has to leave everything behind because his brother wants to kill him. So his brother sends him toward Haran, an unknown place to live with people, and a family he’s never met, and, and to start over. Away from his family and the never met before. He’s won the blessing, through sheer will and determination. He’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps—or, more precisely, by his brother’s heel. But the cost is great. So now, he sets out for a strange land after losing everything. Family, friends, even the blessing he wanted seems out of reach. Sometimes our most cherished dreams can tear us apart from the people we cherish the most.

Sometimes the dreams that drive us, drive others away. It could be our jobs. It could be our marriages. It could be an addiction—which might even be the result of a crushed dream It could be anything that consumes our lives at the cost of anything else. We can want something so bad, and then when we get it, we actually end up losing everything else we’ve held dear. Like Jacob, we wander the wilderness. Dreams turn to nightmares.

But even at that moment where it seems like everything is lost, Jacob dreams again. But this time, it’s God who gives him the dream.

In his dream, he sees a ramp between heaven and earth. Angels are going back and forth, up and down. There is traffic between heaven and earth. Jacob sees God standing on the ramp, standing over him. I’m sure there’s some joke in there about stairway to heaven, or merging on to God’s onramp. But these are the words God says to Jacob:

“Then God was right before him, saying, “I am God, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. I’m giving the ground on which you are sleeping to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as the dust of the Earth; they’ll stretch from west to east and from north to south. All the families of the Earth will bless themselves in you and your descendants.”

Jacob has been striving all his life on his brother’s heels, working and scheming to steal the blessing, chasing the dream down until there’s nothing but the dream left. And God comes to him and offers the blessing as unearned gift. And what’s more, even though he finds himself all alone, God makes another promise: “Yes. I’ll stay with you, I’ll protect you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you back to this very ground. I’ll stick with you until I’ve done everything I promised you.”[2]

The old dream has come crashing down, his life is a mess. Yet, God comes in this unexpected time, and this unexpected place. With a blessing. And a promise. A promise to be with Jacob wherever he goes, and a promise never to leave, no matter what happens, until the day where the promise is finally made good on.

And this is the same blessing offered to us, the same promise that is offered us and all people—and the whole of God’s creation. The God-given dream meant to drive the lives of the people of Jesus.

No matter where we are in life, even if we are living in the midst of shattered dreams and broken lives, we are loved, and we are given a blessing. We are offered new life, and given a dream to carry us where ever we may go. When God takes a hold of our dreams, can change the direction of our lives completely. When Jacob wakes up, he cries out “surely the Lord is in this he place, and I did not know it!”

Perhaps you don’t know it, but in that place in your life amidst your failures and your broken dreams, it is God who is there, offering a future. Still at work, making all things new. This is the dream that drives us. And it’s grace. Nothing but grace.

So, remember as we gather for worship today, as we gather for worship each week, that we do so to remind ourselves of God’s dream, God’s ultimate intention for our lives—a blessing and a future. This place is the stone where we rest our heads in a world of broken dreams, so God’s dream might get in and take over our imaginations.

This dream can shape our future. Dare we dream this dream together?


[1] I am indebted to a sermon by Craig M. Barnes for this idea.

[2]From Eugene Peterson’s Message translation.

My first sermon as minister at St. George’s United Church in Courtenay, B.C.


St. George’s United Church
July 6th, 2014
Scripture: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

“This Generation”

By Ryan Slifka

New beginnings. What a week it’s been, too. A few challenges. But lots of excitement, and lots of energy. Excitement for the new minister, excitement for the church. Excitement for the future. I think the anthem, “Make a Joyful Noise” sums things up pretty well, don’t you think?

First service, first sermon too. A wee bit of pressure, of course. You’ve got to start off on the right foot. It’s gotta be a really good one. First impressions count. Funny, though, when I was listening to our reading from the gospel of Matthew this week, I heard something different. I heard something that I probably wouldn’t preach my first sermon on, if I had the choice. But I find that’s usually how things are with Jesus. He doesn’t always say what you want him to say.

So, what I want to say to you today, in the midst of our excitement, in this new beginning, is that things from here on aren’t going to be easy. They may be exciting, they may be wonderful and grace-filled, and they might be fun, even. But they aren’t going to be easy. They aren’t going to be easy.

We find ourselves roughly in the middle of Matthew’s story of Jesus. Jesus has just gathered his twelve disciples together, taught them his way the best he can. And then he sends them out to teach, and to proclaim his message, to get the news out to the nearby cities. Like newly ordained ministers fresh out of seminary, ready to gather their first congregations and take on the whole world. Some followers of a popular local preacher, John the Baptist, come to Jesus and ask him if he’s the one they have been waiting for, and Jesus, no fan of understatement, says “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, people are healed, the deaf hear and the dead are raised.” I mean, if my first ministry is half as good, we’ll be in business!

It looks like things are going to be a piece of cake. There’s change in the air and things are finally turning around. Imagine the excitement! Imagine the energy!

But this doesn’t last long. When the disciples finally arrive in the cities, there’s a generation of people who, no matter what Jesus or the disciples do, or say, simply don’t respond.

“To what will I compare this generation?” Jesus says. “Like children sitting in the market places, calling to one another—we played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance, we wailed and you did not mourn.” Jesus and the disciples are out in the market place—right in the center of town, in plain view. They are at the corner of Fifth Street and Fitzgerald. They’ve got the music on full blast, nobody seems to pick up the rhythm. Dirges are sung, and the deepest emotions are conveyed, but the people just walk on by. Blind people are seeing, deaf people are hearing, and even the dead are being raised—Jesus is pulling out every trick in the book to get this generation’s attention.

But Whether they dance, whether they wail, whether they do all the right market research, no matter what they try. This generation is not easily persuaded. They have their work cut out for them.

Our own generation, probably everyone who was born after the second world war, is not easily persuaded, either. Try as the church might to dance and sing, few seem to hear. We have our work cut out for us.

A few generations ago, it seemed so much easier. But now, the church—not just this one, but the whole North American church is struggling to find its way in a culture so different than the one many of us grew up in. If you played the flute, if you built a church, the people would hear and they would come. But now they don’t. And some are even hostile to Christianity, to the church, to religion in general—if you remember from the reading they first say John the Baptist has a demon, and then they call Jesus a drunk. It seems that no matter what we do or try, most won’t dance to our tune.

Once the music came naturally. The stories, the habits, the prayers, that everyone seemed to know at one point are no longer part of people’s every day experience. I’m reminded of when I worked at a grocery store stocking shelves and packing bags. At this store, like a lots of stores, they played music over the speakers at all times. I didn’t even like the music, but before I knew it, I’d be lip-syncing there in the aisle. Somehow, I’d built up a whole repertoire of K.D. Lang, Michael Bolton, and Celine Dion. It was all in the background, day after day. And so I could sing along.

A generation ago the music of faith was on all the time, everywhere. At work, at home, on TV, people were saturated with the Christian story, whether they wanted to be or not. And so when we sat on the corner and played the flute, people would know the rhythm. And they would dance along. But now we’re the only ones playing. We might play the tune, but people just don’t seem to dance. We might wail, but they won’t mourn. Things aren’t the same as they once were. Things aren’t going to be easy.

But even in the face of apathy, confusion, and outright hostility, Jesus doesn’t lose heart. First he says that even though a whole generation seems to be tone-deaf to his message, some will hear. Some will hear, and some will be made new.

Jesus’ first move is to prayer. “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven, and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” Jesus thanks God for his failure to convince crowds of people. He seems to thank God that he doesn’t win followers easily. I mean, Jesus seems to think it’s good that the tune he is playing doesn’t come naturally to anybody. It’s not playing on the speakers down every aisle for every wise and intelligent person to take as common sense, but the “little children,” those who, in their deepest longings, hear the music, and they follow. Even though most won’t, some will hear. And some will get caught up in the music.

You can look no further than this pulpit. I didn’t grow up with hymns playing on the speakers in the background. I didn’t grow up going to church. I didn’t grow up saying the Lord’s Prayer in public schools. And yet a month ago, many of you took a bus all the way to Nanaimo to see fellow members of the Body of Christ lay their hands on me and entrust me to carry this story forward to the next generation. Somehow, one of the people of “this generation” finds himself drawn to the ministry, and called here to this congregation.

But, more importantly, look no further than the group of people gathered here. Look no further than yourselves. Of all the things we could be doing on a Sunday—and I’m discovering that there’s plenty to do in the Comox Valley on a Sunday—the Spirit has, in some mysterious way, in ways beyond our knowing, gathered us together in this place. Of all places. You might be new, and you might have been coming for a long time. This might be your first Sunday. We come for many different reasons. But you have come to this place, where we rehearse this ancient story, strange story, in hopes we might discover together where the Spirit of God is taking us next. And maybe, to learn the unforced rhythms of grace,[1] following Jesus’ lead, and maybe we might even meet the One who wrote the song. And be changed by it. So my prayer at this time echoes Jesus: “thank you God of heaven and earth, for you have shown these things to those gathered here, even if it goes against the conventional wisdom of this generation.”

Though many will hear the flute, but won’t dance, some will. It doesn’t come easy. And Jesus seems to even prefer it that way.

Even with the most exciting start, we will still have our work cut out for us. Because the Way of Jesus doesn’t come naturally to this generation, or to any generation for that matter. Many will not hear, and many will not see. But I thank God for those of you who have, and look forward to walking this path together, as difficult as it may be. But we can take courage that in the days, months, years ahead, that God is already at work, making a new way forward. That for us thirsty people, we are already being given the water of life. That though you may find yourselves wearied and burdened, come and you will be given rest. That we who take up Jesus’ yoke, to learn from him, and to follow in his way, will discover that in doing so we are being set free, to be human, as we were always meant to be.

“Come all who are weary,” Jesus says. “Come with me and you’ll discover life. You’ll find real rest. “For my yoke is easy,” he says, “and my burden is light.”

And for this, thanks be to God.


[1] This is how Eugene Peterson translates taking on Jesus’ heavy yoke in his Message translation.

I preached this sermon at Ryerson United Church. Ryerson has been home to many notable preachers, including Alan Reynolds who was the minister in the 1970’s and 80’s. Long retired, Alan is a member of University Hill, my home church, and has been a kind and gracious mentor. I wore his hand-me-down alb to preach his sermon.

Ryerson United Church
1 Peter 2:1-10
Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 18, 2014

“Serving the Kool Aid”

First Peter. Not a text that is read often in worship. Not on the greatest hits of the bible list. But here it is. Like a stranger we’ve invited Peter to spend this morning with us, inviting the stranger to speak, recognizing that–at least according to our sacred story–strangers can turn out to be angelic messengers through whom God speaks.

Peter (could be the apostle, the well-known disciple of Jesus, could be someone else) writes this letter to encourage a group of churches struggling to be faithful in a context and culture that sees them as backwards, irrelevant, and even dangerous to the society in which they live. Nestled in some of the most modern, well-educated places in the world, economic powerhouses and centers of commerce and culture, there is little room for backwards, superstitious traditions, weird stories and even stranger ways of living. There isn’t quite full-blown persecution. This letter was written a decade and a half or so before any official Roman persecution, more like the community is on the receiving end of slander, anger, and general suspicion from the people who live next door and down the street. The community is disappearing in the face of pressures far beyond their control and is trying to survive as a minority in a culture that seems alien, suspicious, and even hostile to them and their way of life.

We, might not live in the fear of persecution, open anger, or public discrimination. But there is a sense that faith communities like ours are odd, out of step, they just don’t fit in to the cultural landscape like they used to. A minister in south Chicago tells a story his congregation holding a beer tasting and barbecue in his backyard one fall in celebration of Oktoberfest as a way to reach out to the community. Things are going well, then one guest asks the minister how all the people here know each other. And the minister replies, with a little nervousness, “we know each other from church.” The man looks at him sideways. “Church, eh. Well,” he smiles, “I’ll drink your beer. But I won’t be drinking any of your Kool-Aid.” You might have had the same experience, maybe fear of embarassment. Trying the hide the Koolaid so your guests, friends, neighbors, coworkers, don’t see it and somehow judge you as a nutjob. Many of us are simply growing up suspicious of all traditional institutions–political, economic, not just the church. But how do we survive as communities of Jesus in the midst of a culture that has changed so drastically that we’ve ended up at the fringes of our neighborhoods, rather than the center? We just don’t seem to have a place on the map anymore. Faith was once taken for granted is now on the sidelines, is a suspicious activity. And so we often find ourselves lost, and find our communities in danger of fragmenting, disappearing in the face of pressures far beyond our control. Where do we go next?

Peter’s probably the last guy anyone wants for a minister, especially a church that’s trying to figure out what to do next. As a young minister, married, two kids, for some reason I am drawn to church, the question I’m asked the most is: “How do we fix it?” How do we attract people to our churches? Peter doesn’t offer any easy solutions or techniques. He’s so… impractical. The congregation asks, “what should we do?!” and he says “Like newborn infants long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.” We sometimes imagine that there might be a right infant formula, or technique that we might be able to invent to solve our problems. Change the music, change the God language. Become more liberal, or become more conservative. Find the right program to meet people’s needs. But here that would only be a substitute for the real thing. And for him, the real thing is a sense of longing… a sense of hunger for spiritual milk to grow in to salvation. It’s a weird suggestion. How do you tell people to be hungry?  I think he’s reminding his people, he’s reminding us to remember what’s at stake here. Keith Howard, a United Church minster who taught me leadership at VST once told me that the church always seems to be reminded that it’s all about changing lives. There are no easy solutions or techniques.

Not only that, but success might not look like success at all. Big church, solid budget, overflowing Sunday school. Public prestige and influence.

“Come to him,” says Peter, “come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.” He’s talking about Jesus. Jesus is the living stone. What’s more is that Peter says that God is building a temple with this stone. He uses this image of God constructing a new temple on mount Zion. The builders look at this stone, see it as useless and toss it to the side. Jesus, the living stone, is rejected–by his friends own people, his own culture, his own society, and put to death by the powers that be. Rejection, suspicion, being marginalized by our culture might be one of the harder things for us to deal with. There was once a time when the Prime Minister of Canada would consult the Moderator of the United Church before major policy decision. And now people just think we’re passing out Kool Aid.

The reason why this image is so powerful is because Peter’s people are used to rejection. Though Jesus is rejected by his culture, he’s chosen and precious in the sight of God. While the builders reject him, God chooses him as the solid foundation of the new temple. Jesus was rejected by his culture, they have been rejected by theirs. Jesus is chosen and precious by God, they are chosen and precious by God.

Nonetheless, God… seems to have a completely different criteria for measurement than the builders do or the world does, or we do. Success might not look like success at all.“Come to him,” says Peter, “like living stones,” like Jesus, “let yourselves be built in to a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God in Jesus Christ.” I imagine one of those human pyramids that cheerleaders do. A spiritual house being built by God. This is temple language, this is the temple that he’s talking about. In Israel, God’s dwelling place is the temple, where God’s presence can be encountered. The Celts would call it a “thin place” where heaven and earth intersect. God is building a beloved community to take up residence.

But God isn’t just building us in to a house to hang out in. Experiencing God in our lives, as a community, isn’t enough. It’s not all about us. Peter says the living stones being built into a temple for God are also the priests inside the spiritual house, offering spiritual sacrifices. Our word priest comes from the Latin pontiff, meaning “bridge.” A priest in the temple is a bridge-person. A bridge between God and humanity, where God can be met and encountered. In the temple a priest is a conduit for the energy of God. And whereas in the Jerusalem temple, this happens through a sacrifice, here Peter says the sacrifice is actually our lives. Our lives are being built in to a dwelling place for God, but also a bridge between God and the world. Through our relationships. Through our vocations, our jobs. Through our care for one another and the least of these in our neighborhoods and our city. God is somehow met in and through us. We are transformed so the world can be transformed. When people see our lives, and our life together as a community, they are to somehow encounter God. The Apostle Paul calls the church in Corinth “ambassadors of Christ.” This is at the core of that the people of Jesus are, what the church is meant to be: people, a community who represent God in and to the world. When they are meeting God they are meeting us.

I can tell you, that, as somebody who wasn’t raised in the church, who doesn’t know the story. Who walked in to a church one day almost by a fluke, someone who was completely suspicious, always worried, always telling myself, well I’ll hang out with them, I’ll drink their beer, but I won’t drink the Kool-Aid. What drew me in, and what now draws me in to the life of the church as a minister wasn’t the right theology or the right ideas. Though I think theology and ideas are important. It wasn’t the right directions or actions. Do justice, support the right political party or the right political issues. Though these things are important. It was the fact that I encountered a community, a people where the story of God, the story of God’s work in the world, was somehow made real. The Word made flesh. Living stones you could touch and see, and when you did, you could feel the energy. Now I’m the one serving the Kool Aid.

So, brothers and sisters. Remember this–in these strange and difficult times we know as the people of Jesus, the times we now struggle through in doubt and suspicion. Remember that we are here to witness changing lives, of being nourished by spiritual milk, and growing in to salvation, the shape of the Risen Christ. Remember that  success does not always look like success. It is often hard to see success when you’re standing on this side of the cross. But remember, even in the midst of trouble, sorrow, and rejection, that God is building a beloved community with you as living stones, firmly planted on the solid foundation of Jesus, the living corner stone. You are the ones chosen for this high calling of priestly work, ambassadors of Christ to a world in need.

Come to him, as living stones
though rejected by mortals
chosen and precious in God’s sight
Once you were not a people
but now you are God’s people
Once you had not received mercy
but now you have received mercy

Mercy for you, mercy for us, and mercy for a world in such need.

The following sermon was preached on April 19th at University Hill Congregation for the Easter Vigil service. It was my pleasure to preside over the baptism of Patrick Fuller, the outgoing president of our campus club, and baptism renewal for three other students. It is a custom at University Hill to address the sermon to the person being baptized, so the sermon is addressed to Patrick. Though, as we find in the Bible, single people can be symbols for whole nations (Abraham as Israel, for example), so it is also addressed to all.

University Hill Congregation
Matthew 28:1-11
Easter Vigil, April 19, 2014

“Do Not Be Afraid”

    Patrick, this seems like an appropriate time for a baptism. Not just because the ancient church always did baptisms like this. Not just because it’s Easter. Not even because you are surrounded by the love of good friends. But this seems like a good time for a baptism, for your baptism, because this is a time of transition for you. The school year is ending. Your formal leadership of our campus community is coming to a close. But even more than that, you are preparing for a strange new world beyond University. A strange new world that is no doubt filled with uncertainty. Your baptism tonight marks not only your transition to full participation as a member of the church on earth, but it also marks another transition between your life as it once was, towards a future that is hidden, out of sight. There isn’t a better time for a baptism.

And the scriptures for this evening seem to sense this, too. Talk about transition. Talk about uncertainty. By the time we get to our reading in Matthew’s gospel, it looks like all is lost. Jesus has been crucified. He’s dead.. Most of his followers have fled or have been scattered, just like he said they would.  He’s laid in a tomb, like a cave, and they roll a huge boulder in front of the entranceway, heavy enough to take several people plenty of effort to move out of the way. And, worried that his followers would steal the body and claim that Jesus has risen, the Romans and the Jewish authorities set armed guards at the entrance. It looks like all is lost.  No one is getting in or out.

Not everyone has deserted him, however. On this, the third day after his death, Mary Magdalene and, the “other Mary,” presumably his mother come to see the tomb. Their worst fears have been realized. Not only is Jesus’ own ministry over, where he gathered disciples, healed the sick and fed the hungry and proclaimed God’s kingdom in their midst. What appeared to be the dawning of a new age has come to a tragic end. It looks like the world is back to the way it was–the status quo, a world set in order by violence, poverty, oppression, and worst of all, fear. Fear that God either would or could do nothing to heal or restore creation to its intended goodness. For these women, all there is left to do is to keep vigil, to mourn and to grieve the loss in front of a sealed tomb with a battalion of soldiers in the back ground. There is no hope.

But suddenly, in the midst of their fear and their grief, an earthquake hits. You can imagine them reaching for something solid to hold on to, as the world shakes and shifts underneath them. Then, out of nowhere, an angel of the Lord descends. The angel comes, rolls the heavy boulder away from the tomb, then sits on it. The appearance of the  angel, whose face, it says, looks like lightning and whose clothes are white as snow, causes the guards to shake and faint in terror like men struck dead.

The angel looks at the women. “Do not be afraid,” says this terrifying figure. “Do not be afraid, because I’m here to tell you that Jesus who has been crucified is not here in this tomb, but he has been raised, just like he told you he would.” And if its appearance itself isn’t enough proof, the angel tells them to take a peak inside the tomb. “Come, see where he lay,” says the angel. “But then go quickly to tell his disciples that he has been raised, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him. This is my message for you.” Just when they’d lost hope, just when they’d thought it was the end, just when they thought life itself was sealed up inside a tomb with Jesus’ body, God shakes the whole world under them. Nothing can keep God locked in. He is risen! Jesus lives! He lives and out there on the road they will meet him. And there they will see him.

But there’s something strange about it. They do what the angel says. They come and see, and then they go and tell. But as they rush out to do so, the story tells us, they do so “with fear and great joy.” Great joy and fear. It can’t be left over fear from Jesus’ death because they’ve heard that he’s alive. Even though, the one who they thought was dead now lives, even though the world as they know it has changed for good, even though the angel says “do not be afraid,” they still fear. Even in the midst of great joy. They are still afraid.

Will Willimon, former Dean of the Duke University Chapel, tells the story of a man from one of his first congregations who once came to confide in him a secret he’d kept bottled up for a long time, one that still weighed heavily on him. The man told him that while wandering home after a late night poker came, he had a stunning vision of the Risen Christ. That Christ appeared to him “vividly” and as real as anything he’d ever seen. But even though this event shook him deeply, he’d never told anyone else about it in ten years. Willimon asked why he’d kept it silent for so long. “Were you worried about embarrassing yourself?” He asked. “Or afraid others wouldn’t believe you and mock in disbelief?” “No!” the man explained, “the reason why I told no one was I was too afraid that it was true.” “I was too afraid it was true.” “And if it’s true that Jesus had really risen, that he had come personally to me, what then? I’d have to change my whole life. I’d have to become some kind of radical or something. And I love my wife and family and was scared I’d have to change, to be somebody else, and it would destroy my family, if the vision was real.” Perhaps the two Marys are afraid because since Jesus lives, it changes everything. And it means their lives will never be the same again.

This is why this is your baptismal text, Patrick. Because this news changes everything. I think we are often tempted to imagine that religion, Christian faith, is something that is meant to give us stability. It’s meant to bring us comfort, and bring us peace, to soothe our fears.  The opiate of the masses, meant to dull our senses in a world of suffering. None of these things are bad things. But here, even the words “do not be afraid” said by a heavenly messenger, don’t offer much comfort at all. They don’t erase fear, at least not entirely. It’s almost like this wonderful, astounding news actually creates new fears. Perhaps that’s why the angel has to say “do not be afraid.” Because if it’s true, if Christ is risen, it means that life as we know can never be the same again. Life has to change.

Because when the angel says that Jesus will meet the disciples in Galilee, it’s not only the place where he promises to gather his scattered sheep again. It is also the place where his ministry begins way back in the beginning of the story, with his own baptism in the Jordan. It’s where Jesus is healing, feeding, proclaiming God’s kingdom to the least and the lost, showing compassion to the suffering, blessing the children and eventually suffering and dying on account of it. The risen Christ summons his disciples to the very same place where it all began and invites them to “go and do likewise.”

This, Patrick, is where your baptism summons you to. This place on the road where Christ will meet you. This is where baptism summons us all to. This is the scary part. If Christ is risen, it means that the world that seems so normal to us, the world which knows such violence, hatred, and despair, as the norm, just as the way it is, is actually a lie. It’s real, but it’s a lie, and has no real hold on you. If Christ is risen, it means that even in spite of evidence to the contrary, justice, joy, hope, and faith will ultimately prevail over these things. It means that what you do matters, that your life is now part of God’s mission to redeem and heal the world. If Christ is risen, it means all the things you fear now, aren’t worth being afraid of, at all. As crazy as it might sound, the good news is that the words “do not be afraid”–which Jesus repeats to the women when they see him on the road–mean that the only thing you have to fear is God. Not because God is mean and will punish you, but because God might use you to do something risky, and something beautiful in this world. You are told “do not be afraid” because it takes immense courage to face this new world, to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  It also means you have been given the gift of courage no matter what your life holds ahead, no matter what  might happen next, no matter what the world might ever throw at you, and you will be able to share this same news with those around you. This is what you’re getting yourself in to tonight. This is your last warning!

So, Patrick. Do not be afraid. Though you may fear the future and you don’t know what is out ahead, do not be afraid. Though you now live a life that is not your own for a mission that is not of your own doing, do not be afraid.  Though the earth might quake beneath your feet, do not be afraid. When you leave this place, go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak, and help the suffering; honour all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. Be willing to risk it all because you know Christ is Risen and is waiting for you on the road ahead, where he will always be with you, until the end of the age. Do not be afraid. Christ is risen, indeed. Hallelujah! Amen!

"Apokalypse" from Luther's Bible

“Apokalypse” from Luther’s Bible

This past semester we discussed the possibility of going through a whole book of the Bible as part of our regular Monday Night Meals. There was some interest expressed in going through the much misunderstood, often-maligned book of Revelation. Since the book is quite long and dense, we thought we probably can’t get through it quick enough with the attention it deserves as part of the Monday Night Meals. Instead, the Campus Minister, Ryan Slifka, will be blogging his way through it chapter-by-chapter. You’re invited to join in the conversation either on Facebook or on the blog itself under the Revelation button or tag. Continue Reading »