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.

Celebrating Canada and the Reformation: Uneasy Gratitude and Semper Reformanda

If you are a Protestant Christian in Canada, 2017 is a pretty big year. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, which took effect on July 1, 1867. This year also marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation—or, at least, 500 years since the Reformation’s symbolic beginning, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517.

Celebrations of all sorts are already underway for both anniversaries, and they’ll be ramped up even more once the magic dates hit. Tomorrow is going to be quite the party, all across the country.

But if you read the news, both the mainstream news and the news in Christian circles, you’ll know that not everyone is celebrating Canada’s 150th or the Reformation’s 500th. These celebrations—well, it’s complicated.

I remember when both Canada and the Reformation were easy things to celebrate for me.

I’ve always been among those millions of Canadians cheering Canada on in all the big hockey games. Canada Day has been a big date on our family calendar, whether it has meant parades or fireworks or a private celebration during our brief sojourn in the U.S. “I am Canadian”—born and bred and blood bright red.

As far as the Reformation, well, I identified for most of my life as an evangelical Christian. This meant, among other things, believing we evangelicals were the true heirs of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther’s story was told for us in evangelical terms: his conversion out of a heretical works-righteousness tradition-bound Roman Catholicism to a Scripture-alone grace-alone faith-alone Christ-alone salvation is a staple of evangelical lore.

Now, however, I think I’d characterize my thoughts and feelings about both Canada and the Reformation as a kind of “uneasy gratitude.”

The gratitude is strong. Very strong.

I am grateful that I live in a country that has a high quality of life: a liberal democracy with an excellent education system, publicly funded health care, and opportunities for meaningful work, all governed by the rule of law and so safe and secure and peaceful for most people, most of the time. I am grateful, even proud, to be a citizen of a country that more often than not has welcomed refugees, promoted multiculturalism, celebrated diversity, and played the role of peacemaker abroad.

I am also grateful for the Reformation. The medieval western church needed reform, even a resurrection, not just theologically but also culturally, socially, ethically, and more. I am grateful, then, for the Reformation’s focus on not just ecclesiastical reform but also individual repentance and societal transformation. I am grateful also for its application of Renaissance humanism to Christian faith and life: ad fontes (to the sources!), a critique of traditional authority structures, and more.

Yet this gratitude is mixed with a strong dose of unease.

Over the past few years I have become ever conscious of Canada’s colonialist and racist past and present. What I had understood earlier in my life as merely “bumps along the road” of an otherwise glorious Canadian journey were—and still are—massive barriers of systemic bigotry and injustice toward our host indigenous peoples and others of non-European descent. I’ve also become increasingly aware of nationalist and protectionist undercurrents in Canadian society, much of which ain’t pretty. Sometimes these things scare me, quite frankly.

As for the Reformation, I’ve come to recognize its ugly aftermath of schismatic ecclesiology (“Disagree? Split the church!”) and individualistic soteriology (“I’m saved—phew!”) and quasi-gnostic every-ology (“Give me heaven, earth be damned!”) that have little to do with the theologies reflected in the Bible. I no longer view Catholics as heretics, and I’m not convinced Luther got “justification by faith” right. And, of course, as an Anabaptist, I’m not all that fond of the general Protestant pining for the good old days of Christendom (just let it die already).

One of the realities of growing up is a realization that the world is not so neatly sliced into “good” and “bad.” When we’re kids it can seem as if the world is that way: people, things, ideas, are either thoroughly good or completely bad. But as we grow up we put away those childish ways (or so we should—the recent “you’re either for us or against us” polarization within our society on nearly every issue makes me wonder). We realize that good people do bad things and bad people do good things. We recognize that many good ideas, many good ideals, have bad elements to them. Politics, economics, people, church, society, history, theology, ethics—well, it’s complicated.

So it is with Canada, and so it is with the Reformation: there is much that is good, much to celebrate, but they’re peppered with elements that are bad—some things simply wrong, others unjust—and need to be changed. It’s a sign to us that, however many positive steps we may make toward a more just and peaceful and good and beautiful world, we have not yet arrived.

This is where my favourite Reformation-related phrase comes in: semper reformanda, “always reforming.” Karl Barth may have coined the phrase in reference to the church less than a century ago, but it expresses something good at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, the Radical Reformers who pushed even further, and all those who keep pressing on the status quo to make the world a better place.

We haven’t arrived. The road goes ever on. The arc of history must continually be pressed toward justice. We may have reformed—somewhat, in some ways—but we are still always reforming, still repenting, always resurrecting, until God’s kingdom comes, God’s will is fully done, on earth as it is in heaven.

So we continue to pray, and for this we continue to strive.

“From sea to sea”: On Canada, the Church, and the Kingdom of God

This post is adapted from my sermon this past Sunday. It was prompted by the reading from Zechariah 9:9-12 in light of both Canada Day and the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly this past week.

Update (July 2018): Here’s the audio of a recent revision of the full sermon:

A mari usque ad mare. “From sea to sea.”

That’s Canada’s motto, a symbol of our national unity from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic.

Canada Flag 2Most Canadians probably know the motto, but they might not know it comes from Psalm 72. It’s a psalm that was likely part of the coronation liturgy of ancient Israel. It’s a prayer for each new king in David’s dynasty, expressing all the hopes and dreams of the people of Israel with each successive king:

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth… (Ps 72:1-8)

It’s quite the prayer, whether for ancient Israel or for twenty-first century Canada. In fact, ancient Israel and modern Canada have a few things in common: both relatively young nations in their eras, both small nations in the shadow of giants, both with big dreams for a glorious future.

While most Canadians might know our nation’s motto, and some might know its biblical origins, I suspect very few are aware that it also comes up in a later biblical book, in a much different setting.

The book is Zechariah, and in Zechariah’s day things were not at all like they used to be. Israel has been divided and conquered, their grand hopes for the future crushed. The people have been cast into exile, and a few have just recently returned from that exile to re-build Jerusalem’s walls and temple.

In many ways this ragged band of Jewish returnees felt much like many Christians feel in Canada today: the glory days are behind us, the days of a sanctuary bursting at the seams, bustling with worshipers and filled with choirs. Like the old-timers in Zechariah’s day who remembered the original temple of Solomon, many among us today remember the old days, and weep (Ezra 3:12).

But here’s what Zechariah does: he takes this ancient song of Israel’s kings and uses it as a powerful symbol of hope for the future:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech 9:9-10)

One day, Zechariah promises, God will come again among his people. One day there will again be an anointed king of Israel who will fulfill those ancient hopes. One day the prayer of Psalm 72 will be answered.

Jesus is this king. So we as Christians believe. The prayer of Psalm 72, the promised answer to that prayer in Zechariah 9—these are fulfilled in Jesus.

Jesus is the world’s true Lord and King. Jesus has come to bring justice to the world and peace on earth, the full shalom of God. Jesus has come to bring flourishing life to all God’s creation: a healing of wounds, a restoration of brokenness, a very reversal of death. Jesus is this promised king, who brings in God’s promised kingdom, God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is what the New Testament means when it declares that “Jesus is the Christ,” the Messiah, or “Jesus is the Son of God.” This is what it means when it proclaims that “Jesus is Lord.” This is what the gospel is all about, “the gospel of the kingdom” or “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

But while God’s kingdom will come on earth, this kingdom is not “of this world” (John 18:36). It’s not like any kingdom this world has ever seen, unlike any nation on earth. It operates by a different set of rules, values that are upside-down compared to the values of earthly realms.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the last are first, the least are feasted, the lost are found.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the poor are richly blessed, where the sick are freely healed, where the outcasts are at the center.

God’s kingdom is a realm where enemies are loved as neighbours, where neighbours are loved as ourselves, where our selves are denied for the sake of others.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the king is a servant who suffers in love, and that sets the agenda for everything else.

But God’s kingdom is also a realm where real life is found, resurrection life, through that self-giving love.

God’s kingdom is a realm where parties break out when the lost are found, where banquets are laid out for the last and the least.

God’s kingdom is a realm where water for ceremony is turned into wine for celebration.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the whole world is invited: from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, slave and free, men and women and children of every tribe and nation.

In fact, God’s kingdom is not any nation at all, nor any organization. It’s a perpetual grassroots movement, starting with a ragged band of followers: a tiny seed that grows into a world-shading tree. God’s kingdom is the dynamic reign of God, the Creator God ruling over all creation in love and faithfulness, bringing justice and peace and flourishing life.

MC Canada doveWhat does this all have to do with Canada’s future, and with the future of the church in Canada? Just this: our hope for the future lies in Jesus, the one who truly answers the Psalmist’s prayer and fulfills Zechariah’s expectation, the one who has truly been given all authority from sea to sea.

Our hope for the future does not lie in any nation, even one so glorious and free as Canada—may God keep it so. Should Canada fade from history, should the world map be radically re-drawn, God’s kingdom would remain. Jesus would still be Lord.

The kingdom of God cannot be identified with any nation. A nation can reflect kingdom values to a greater or lesser degree, but no nation is the kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom is bigger than any nation—it has no borders, in fact it breaks down borders of geography and race, economics and social status. God’s kingdom is outside the power structures we create, our governments, our laws, our law enforcement, judicial system—because however good those things may be, they are inevitably abused and corrupted, always in danger of supporting systemic evil.

God’s kingdom is among us as people, not among us as a nation.

Our hope for the future does not lie in any church organization, whether globally or nationally or regionally—or even us locally. Should Mennonite Church Canada or Manitoba be dissolved, should Morden Mennonite Church even cease to be, God’s kingdom would remain. Jesus would still be Lord.

The church is not the kingdom of God.

The church is called to be a witness to God’s kingdom, a signpost of the kingdom, pointing people to God’s dream for the world. Local churches like Morden Mennonite are to be a kind of outpost of God’s kingdom on earth, nurturing the upside-down values of the kingdom, a test plot showing what the kingdom of God can be like.

But God’s kingdom is bigger than any local church, broader than any particular denomination—it encompasses the world.

Our hope for the future lies with Jesus, the world’s true Lord and King. And this means our hope for the future lies in the extent to which we follow the way of Jesus, the way of God’s kingdom.

Do we truly want to follow the way of Jesus, the way of God’s kingdom? Do we really want to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice? Then let’s count the cost. Let’s ask ourselves some hard questions—as a nation, and as a church.

Who are the last and the least among us? The vulnerable, the marginalized, those outside our white, middle-class, heterosexual norm? Who are the lost? The doubting, the confused, the spiritually seeking, even the most egregious sinners?

To the extent that we first the last, feast the least, and find the lost, God’s kingdom is among us—as a nation, and as a church.

Who are the poor among us? The needy in our community, the homeless in our cities? Who are the sick? The dying, the mentally ill? Who are the outcasts? The elderly, the lonely, the disabled? The refugees, the immigrants, our host indigenous peoples? The convicted criminals, the shamed victims?

To the extent that we richly bless the poor, freely heal the sick, and center ourselves on the outcasts, God’s kingdom is among us—as a nation, and as a church.

Who are our enemies? Our theological enemies, our political enemies, those difficult people who seem to always be against us, those who seek to harm us? Who are our neighbours? The people next door, the people down the street, the people in that other church, the people in that city next door?

To the extent that we love our enemies as neighbours, and love our neighbours as ourselves, denying ourselves for the sake of others, God’s kingdom is among us—as a nation, and as a church.

These things have nothing to do with how many people we have in our pews or how many programs we have in our church. They have nothing to do with how closely our society’s laws parallel our sexual ethics, or how well Canada’s economy is going. These may well be good things, but they are not signs of the kingdom.

Rather, Jesus says the signs of the kingdom are these: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:5). In other words, the last are first, the least are feasted, the lost are found, enemies and neighbours are loved alike.

To the extent that we do these things as a church and as a nation, God’s kingdom is among us—and Jesus, the world’s true King, reigns from sea to sea to sea, a mari usque ad mare.

May it be so.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.