The Holy Mystery of God in Flesh and Blood

As I am reading through the upcoming lectionary texts for Sunday, the two passages from Hebrews stand out. They give us a unique glimpse into the mystery of the incarnation.

In Hebrews 1:1-4, we see the exaltation of Jesus. He is the divine Son through whom God pre-eminently speaks in these last days. Through him God created the worlds, and he is the rightful heir of all things. He is the perfect reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and all things are sustained by his powerful word. Since making purification for sins, he now sits in the position of penultimate authority at the right hand of God.

That’s quite a list for just a few verses! It’s also quite a thing to say about a man who lived only a generation before.

Hebrews 2:5-18 gives the other side of the incarnation coin, the humility and even humiliation of Jesus. He was for a little while made lower than the angels. He is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters, entering into the same life as us, being of the very same flesh and blood. He has tasted of the suffering of death for us—for everyone, in fact.

This, too is quite a list. It’s quite a thing to say about the one “through whom all things were made,” the perfect “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”

The mystery of the incarnation is one of the central mysteries of our faith. It’s also one of the most significant, and one of the most immediately helpful.

We worship a God who lovingly created us and sustains us—through Jesus. We worship a God who speaks to us and guides us—through Jesus. We worship a God who purifies us from our sin—through Jesus. And this God whom we worship has become one of us—in Jesus—sharing in our flesh and blood, participating in our frailties and fears, our sufferings and sorrows, in order to bring us into the very life of God.

May this holy mystery encourage us as we walk through this week in our flesh-and-blood lives. God our Creator has become flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus of Nazareth, and the Spirit of the enfleshed and crucified and risen Jesus is with us still.

Following the Discomforting Jesus

Mark 8:27-38 is one of my favourite passages of Scripture. One of the things I love about it is that, after years of reading it and re-reading it, studying it and preaching it and teaching it, I’m not sure how well I actually understand it.

Why does Jesus want to know what people are saying about him? Why do so many people think he’s a long-dead (or recently dead) prophet? What does Peter mean by “You are the Messiah”? What might Jesus have meant by this? Why does Jesus order the disciples not to tell others this?

Why does Jesus switch from “Messiah” language to “Son of Man” language? Where did Jesus get these ideas of a suffering, rejected, murdered, and resurrected Son of Man from? How does this connect with the confession of Jesus as the Messiah? Why exactly does Peter rebuke Jesus for this? Why does Jesus see in Peter “the Satan” who had previously tempted him? What exactly was it about Peter’s rebuke that reflected “human ways” as opposed to “God’s ways”?

Where does “the crowd” suddenly come from, and why are they invited into the conversation? How does Jesus’ call to discipleship connect with Peter’s previous confession and Jesus’ Son of Man teaching and his rebuke of Peter? What does it mean to “deny yourself,” to “take up your cross,” and “follow Jesus”? How in the world can we save our lives by losing them?

Over the years I’ve developed what I think are good answers to most of these questions. Nevertheless, I am never fully comfortable with my answers.

And maybe that’s as it should be. These words of Jesus should always be discomforting, perpetually pulling us out of our comfortable ways of believing and thinking and living, drawing us ever toward the peculiar magnet that is Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah and Lord. Somewhere deep down we’re all like Peter in John’s version of this episode: “Lord, where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).

As we return to the rhythms of fall set against the drumbeat of COVID, may we be prepared to encounter Jesus afresh. And may we be prepared for some “holy discomfort” in this encounter, a sacred unease that compels us to follow Jesus in new ways into the uncharted future before us, a future filled with life even through death.

My Journey Toward Being Affirming

I have been fully affirming of LGBTQ+ folx and supportive of equal marriage for a few years now. This was the culmination of many years of research and reflection and, most importantly, relationship with LGBTQ+ people. Although my story of becoming affirming is not the most important story to be heard in this, my story might be helpful to others. Here it is.

Note that my views do not necessarily reflect those of my current or previous employers.

Finding Our Home

Home is something we all long for. We shape our living spaces to create a home, a place of safety, some creature comforts, and, for most of us, a family of some sort (pets included!). When we don’t have this home, we yearn for it. Immigrants to a new land are filled with nostalgia for the home they knew. Refugees weep as they leave their home, yet long for a home yet to come, which they only see by faith.

Right now, our own home is pretty chaotic. We’ve got two reno projects going simultaneously, upstairs in the bathroom and downstairs in the kitchen. We’ve still got boxes sitting in unhappy places, waiting for their own home in our unsettled home. We are in our house, and it’s feeling more like home every day, but it’s not quite there yet.

In this coming Sunday’s lectionary texts, home is a common theme.

In 1 Kings 8 Solomon dedicates the new temple to God, describing it as God’s home on earth even as he recognizes that no building can contain the Creator. As Genesis 1 describes, the heavens and the earth collectively are God’s true home.

Psalm 84 expresses the joy of worshiping, even simply being, in God’s earthly home. (I love the image of the sparrows “finding a home” within God’s home—I imagine sparrows nesting among the gold and cedar of Solomon’s glorious temple.)

Then there’s John 6. In John’s Gospel Jesus is set up as God’s eternal Word made flesh, God’s very “dwelling” on earth (John 1:14 uses the Greek word for the tabernacle). In Jesus, God makes God’s home among us. When we are with Jesus, we are at home in God. No wonder, when the crowds start leaving Jesus because his teaching is too difficult, Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” In other words, “Jesus, you are our home. Why would we go anywhere else?”

As this summer winds down and fall sneaks up, whether our own homes are chaotic or calm, whether we still have plans to find some time away from home or we’ve finished our vacations, may we learn to see the spiritually and physically homeless around us and help them find their home, and may we find our ultimate home in God, the one who made their home among us in Jesus, who still makes their home in us and among us by the Spirit.

David and David’s Son on Love and Power

In this coming Sunday’s lectionary texts there’s quite the juxtaposition between the Old Testament reading and the New Testament epistle.

On the one hand there’s 2 Samuel 11:1-15. The headings in the NRSV describe the story as, first, “David Commits Adultery with Bathsheba,” and second, “David Has Uriah Killed.” More accurately, these should be “David Rapes Bathsheba” and “David Murders Uriah.” This is Israel’s favoured king, the king who would form the template for the Messiah to come. But instead of walking in righteousness and establishing justice through self-giving love, David’s lust and abuse of power leads him to rape and murder.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Carl Bloch, “Healing of the Blind Man”)

On the other hand there’s Ephesians 3:14-21. This is a prayer of Paul (or a Pauline disciple) for power and perception, but not the kind that David displayed. This prayer is for spiritual power, to be “strengthened in our inner being” by the presence of the risen Christ and to “know the love of Christ” in all its multi-dimensional fullness. This is a power that walks in righteousness and establishes justice through self-giving love. It’s the power of Jesus the teacher and healer from Nazareth, crucified and risen. It’s the power of the Son of David, the Messiah who surpasses the expectations of his template.

In these days of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, of #EveryChildMatters and #CancelCanadaDay, David’s story is a cautionary tale of what happens when we wed ourselves to earthly power and then abuse that power for our own selfish ends. Paul’s prayer points to a different way: living in the infinite love of God, the Jesus-love that compels us toward justice and peace and joy in the kingdom of God.

Paul’s “Marxism”

In this coming Sunday’s Epistle reading (2 Cor 5:7-15), we see Paul at his most “communist”:

“Now finish doing [the collection of money for the needy in Jerusalem], so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,

‘The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.’”

Not exactly Marx: this is from “each according to their means” to each according to their needs. Yet the goals are similar: that no one should “have too much” and that no one should “have too little.”

These principles were not unique to Paul. They were seen in the earliest church as reflected in the early stories of Acts. “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:45). “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35).

James Tissot, The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

And the earliest Christians were simply following the example of Jesus, the Messiah who led a band of followers funded by women of means, who taught his followers to give generously in answer to prayer for “our (collective) daily bread,” and who distributed food freely and equitably to the needy (Luke 8:1-3; 6:30-38; 11:1-4; 9:10-17).

All this is a far cry from our day. In January 2019 Oxfam reported that the world’s 26 richest people had as much wealth as the poorest 50% (3.8 billion people). All reports during the pandemic indicate that the rich have only gotten richer while the poor have stayed the same or gotten poorer.

Is the church any better? When adjusted for scale (there are few billionaires in the church of any denomination) it’s hard to say we are. The wealthier among us often hold disproportionate power and influence. We who have comforts really, really like them, while those without might get a Facebook post from us or a few cans for the food bank or maybe a march to the Legislature.

This is not to burden any of us individually with the pressure of dealing with systemic poverty—systemic issues require systemic change. But are there things we can do individually, as families, even more as congregations, as MCM and MC Canada, to help us as a society take constructive steps toward real and lasting economic justice?

This is not Marxism—it is walking in the way of Jesus, who walked in the way of Moses and the Prophets.

Paul’s Impossible Credentials for Ministry

In this coming Sunday’s Epistles reading, the Apostle Paul lays out this impossible list of ministry credentials for servants of God:

We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Cor 6:3-10)

It’s quite the list. And, as I said above, it’s rather impossible, at least all the time. Even Paul at times struggled with “patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love.” It’s also a dangerous list, for without good self-awareness and understanding of wider context, this list can nurture an ego-centric persecution complex that tramples the needs of the genuine poor and vulnerable around us.

Rembrandt, Paul in Prison

But as impossible and dangerous as these kinds of lists might be, they are helpful. They are good for us to reflect on as followers of Jesus. What afflictions have we actually endured for the sake of the gospel? How we have we shown genuine love in our ministry, or truthful speech? Are we too concerned for our reputation to be effective servants of God? Do we have too much, are we too comfortable, to make others rich in Christ out of our poverty?

Things Are Not as They Appear

As I read the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday, one theme strikes me as tying all four texts together: things are not as they appear. Reality is often much different than it seems at face value. The truth often requires a deep dive beneath the surface.

There’s 1 Samuel 16, where the prophet Samuel is persuaded that Jesse’s son Eliab is God’s choice for Israel’s next king. After all, not only is Eliab the eldest son, worthy of double blessing, but he is strong and tall just like a king should be (like the first king, Saul, was, in fact—see 15:35 for how well that went). But God says no to Eliab, for “God does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.”

Then there’s Psalm 20, where we hear these words of David: “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God. They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.” Military might and strength seems like it should be the way forward for an up-and-coming nation. Yet David insists that’s the wrong way to look on things. (Too bad he and later kings and queens forgot this.)

There’s also 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul comes straight out and says, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a ‘fleshly’ point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a ‘fleshly’ point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” No one, not even Jesus, can be taken at face value. It requires a “new creation” heart-change to see people for who they really are.

“The Parable of the Mustard Seed” by James Paterson

Finally, there’s Mark 4 with two of my favourite parables of Jesus, the Growing Seed and the Mustard Seed. These parables highlight the unexpected insignificance and inherent mystery of God’s reign, both in how it begins and how it grows. God’s dominion does not begin or grow like other royal reigns; it comes not through conquest or coercion, but through small acts of love in solidarity with the least in the world’s eyes.

These texts invite us to look beyond the surface of things, to dig a little deeper. They encourage us to see people for who they really are, not merely who they appear to be. They call us to look for the reign of God not in the powerful and mighty, not in the big and flashy, but in the small and insignificant things of life.

God Regards the Lowly

A sermon preached at Glenlea Mennonite Church on June 6, 2021.

The Queen, the Golden Boy, and the Children’s Shoes

This past week I went to the Manitoba Legislature.

It was my first time there, the first time I had ever walked the grounds. They are beautiful, with their lush green lawns and expansive spaces. Soon the flower beds will all be planted and the grounds will be even more beautiful.

And, of course, there’s the magnificent architecture and decoration. Statues of important people adorn grounds and building, from nameless soldiers to the Famous Five, from Louis Riel to Queen Elizabeth II.

There’s Queen Victoria on her throne, holding her royal sceptre in one hand and her royal orb in the other, symbolizing her reign over the British Empire throughout the earth as the representative of Christ.

And wrapped around her feet is a plain orange cloth, with children’s teddy bears collected at its base, framed by simple wooden crosses bound with orange ribbons.

Sculpted into the façade on the north side of the Leg there are the symbols of the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, with a woman representing Manitoba in the very centre, in the position of authority.

And on the grass below is a tipi with orange flags, the words “Bringing our children home” painted on its side.

High above Queen Victoria  and Lady Manitoba there’s the Golden Boy, the god Mercury, the god of Prosperity. He faces the north, with all its raw minerals and forests and mighty rivers, ready to harness these for Manitoba’s wealth and success.

And far below, on the steps of the Legislature, there are hundreds of children’s shoes laid out, interspersed with other trinkets of innocent childhood. A sacred fire burns, tended by Indigenous elders and volunteers.

As you’ll now have guessed, I was at the Leg for the vigil this past week for the 215 children whose remains were discovered in unmarked graves at the site of the former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. It was one of the most sobering experiences I’ve ever had.

I stood in front of those shoes, transfixed. There was a pair of shoes just like the ones our son Michael wore when he was a boy. There was a monkey teddy bear just like the one our son Matthew used to sleep with. There was a peanut butter sandwich in a plastic bag, ready for a student’s lunch. There was an apple, polished to give to a teacher. Sounds of living Indigenous children echoed around me as they played on those beautiful grounds.

All so very normal.

Yet what happened to these 215 children, and thousands more like them, was not anything that should ever be normal. Taken from their families. Forced to renounce their language, their culture, their identity. Many of them beaten, some of them raped. These 215 killed through disease or malnutrition or abuse, their families never told.

When I got to the sacred fire, I took my pinch of tobacco (with my left hand, because it’s closer to the heart), I spoke my name to the fire, and then all I could think to say was, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

I stood there on these grounds filled with their imagery of colonialism, from Queen Victoria to the Golden Boy, yet dotted with these symbols of the colonized, the colonized themselves scattered around me, and I could only say, “I’m sorry.”

Where was God in the midst of all this? Was God in the Queen, the British Empire’s proclaimed representative of Christ on earth?

Where is God right now? Is God in the Manitoba Legislature, with its power propped up by its daily Judeo-Christian prayer, its Golden Boy still focused on extracting prosperity from the earth?

“God Regards the Lowly”

The words from one of our lectionary texts for today, Psalm 138, speak to me in these questions. Maybe they will speak to you as well. Listen to verses 4-6 once again:

All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O God,
for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of God’s ways,
for great is the glory of God.
For though God is on high, God regards the lowly;
but the proud and mighty God perceives from far away.

It’s quite the image. All the royalty of the earth is gathered before the Creator God: kings and queens, emperors and empresses, lords and pharaohs, earthly rulers of all kinds. And in this image, all these mighty ones praise the one true and living God, the Creator. They have heard the words of God’s mouth, God’s supreme law, and so they sing of God’s power and righteousness.

So far even Queen Victoria in all her powerful state would have agreed with this. Like all Christian monarchs through history, she saw herself as under the power and authority of God—the only monarch to which she would bow. Like all Christian monarchs before her and since, Queen Victoria gave praise to God as the High King above all kings and queens of the earth, the Great King whose word is supreme law.

But I can’t help but wonder how Queen Victoria might have thought of the rest of this passage.

“Great is the glory of God,” the Psalm says, then goes on to define “God’s glory” in an unexpected way.

The glory of God is not that God is great and powerful, though this is true.

The glory of God is not that God’s words are reliable and authoritative, though this is also true.

Rather, the glory of God is that “even though God is on high, God regards the lowly.” The “proud and mighty God perceive from far away,” but God regards the lowly. This is the glory of God.

This is the glory of God. That the almighty God, the Creator of all things, hears the cries of the oppressed, sees injustice committed against the dispossessed, pays close attention to the most vulnerable and powerless—and comes to them, walks with them, strengthens them, and lifts them up toward wholeness.

And this, in David’s vision, is ultimately why the “kings of the earth” shall praise God. Because they will one day see God’s glory, the glory of the God who regards the lowly.

I would dare say that this would have been harder for Queen Victoria to hear, and most other Christian monarchs through history. Especially when Jesus shows us the full implications of this view of God, when King Jesus shows us the full glory of God.

The Glory of God in Jesus

“We have seen God’s glory,” John says in his Gospel, in John 1:14. And how has John seen God’s glory? “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”

The eternal Word of God—the Word behind all the true and trustworthy words of God spoken through Moses and the Prophets, spoken in creation—this eternal Word of God has become flesh and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Messiah, our King. This is how we, too, have seen the glory of God.

The glory of God, that God regards the lowly—seen in Jesus bearing the burdens of the sick and the disabled, bringing healing to those who most need it, who can’t give him anything for it.

The glory of God, that God regards the lowly—seen in Jesus welcoming the children, embracing them in joyful, protective love, naming them heirs of God’s kingdom.

The glory of God, that God regards the lowly—seen in Jesus reaching out to the outcast, pulling in the pushed-aside, honouring the shamed, forgiving the repentant sinner.

The glory of God, that God regards the lowly—seen in Jesus blessing the poor and the pressed-down, walking in solidarity with them, naming them, also, heirs of God’s kingdom.

The glory of God, that God regards the lowly—seen in Jesus walking in solidarity with these wounded and humbled and outcast and shamed and sinners and poor and oppressed, all the way to the cross—a criminal’s death, a slave’s death, a shameful death, a death for oppressed and dispossessed peoples.

Jesus not only lives in solidarity with the lowly, he dies in solidarity with them.

It is in these ways that we see most clearly the glory of God in Jesus, the glory of the God who regards the lowly above the proud and mighty. The glory of God is in the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the way of love.

God With #215IndigenousChildren

So, where was God when these 215 children were neglected, perhaps beaten, perhaps raped, dying without their mothers and fathers?

Was God in the Queen, the British Empire’s proclaimed representative of Christ on earth? Was God in the Prime Minister or in the Department of Indian Affairs, the orchestrator and perpetuators of these schools? Was God in the residential school principals and teachers who allowed these things to happen, even, for some of them, directly causing these things to happen? Was God with the mighty?

As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we must say “No.” God was with these powerful people only as much as God is everywhere, with everyone.

But God regards the lowly. God in Jesus walks in solidarity with the lowly. God in Jesus walks with the crucified.

So where was God? God was with the children. God was in their suffering, in their wounds, in their cries of pain and anger, in their tears of loneliness and rejection. God was with the children. They were the very least of “the least of these,” in whom we see Jesus, whom we are called to clothe and feed and welcome and protect in the way of Jesus.

And so, I must ask, where is God right now? Is God in the Manitoba Legislature, with its power propped up by daily Christian prayer, its Golden Boy still focused on extracting prosperity from the earth? Is God in other powerful people, in other human systems of power and prestige, in the wealthy and the esteemed?

God is where God has always been. God is with the children. God is with the widow and orphan. God is with the poor and stranger. God is with the suffering. God is with the outcast. God is with the least of these. God is with the lowly.

The almighty God, the Creator of all things, hears the cries of the oppressed, sees injustice committed against the dispossessed, pays close attention to the most vulnerable and powerless—and comes to them, walks with them, strengthens them, and lifts them up toward wholeness. This is where God is. This is the glory of God.

And so, my friends in Christ, this is where we must be. If we want to be with God, if we want to reflect the glory of God as those in the image of God, if we want to walk in the way of Jesus, we, too, must regard the lowly above the powerful.

We, too, must hear the cries of the oppressed, we must see the injustices committed against the dispossessed, we must pay close attention to the most vulnerable and powerless—and then we must go to them, walk with them, strengthen them, and lift them up toward wholeness.

May we have the courage to walk in this way of Jesus, his way of the cross, his way of love, and so prove ourselves to be his disciples. And, as we do this, may we be encouraged by two profound realities: Jesus has promised that when we walk in Jesus’ way of love, the way of his cross, that we will then find true life; and, Jesus has promised to be with us all the way, strengthened by his Spirit, until the very end of the age. Amen.

The Glory of God: Walking with the Lowly

“All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O God.
    for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of God’s ways,
    for great is the glory of God.
For though God is high, God regards the lowly;
    but the haughty God perceives from far away.” (Ps 138:4-6)

In this psalm of David, what is it that especially makes the kings of the earth praise the God of Israel, the one true and living God? They “hear the words of God’s mouth,” yes, God’s Torah words of justice and equity. But ultimately it is that, “though God is high, God regards the lowly.”

What makes the powers-that-be in this world really sit up and take notice of God is not that God is more exalted than they are (which is true), it is that even in God’s exalted state God pays special attention to the lowly: the weak, the suffering, the vulnerable, the oppressed, the dispossessed. This is “the glory of God.”

I’m not sure how often this is true, that the powerful of this world—presidents and prime ministers, the super-wealthy and those celebrity influencers—admire God because God loves the lowly. Maybe, as David says, this will happen some day yet future.

Nevertheless, this is what we should sit up and take notice about God. As God’s people, we praise God for God’s words to us—as Christians especially God’s living Word, Jesus—but even more we praise God because God pays special attention to the lowly. This is “the glory of God” revealed to us in Jesus, and this is the divine glory which we are called to reflect as image-bearers of God.

When we are among the lowly, may we be encouraged to know that God’s eye is upon us, God’s ear is attuned to our cries, and we are held in God’s loving hands. And when we are not among the lowly, may we reflect this glory of God by walking in these ways of God with the lowly among us and around us.