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.

The Trinitarian Gospel of Paul

“When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15-17).

I love Paul’s angle on the gospel here. This is good news for a prodigal child, as we all are in some way. It’s good news for one who returns thinking they’ll live as a slave, only to have their Abba run out to meet them with a full embrace and insist that, not only are they a beloved child, they are a full heir. Bring on the music and dancing! Let the angels rejoice!

You might think the whole “suffering” theme puts a bit of a damper on this party. But when we read on we find that this suffering is the suffering of Christ as he joins in solidarity with the suffering of the world, even all creation. Jesus in his life and death walked in solidarity with the most wounded of sufferers and outcast of sinners. We are invited to join in this suffering in solidarity with the world, so that all people might one day recognize the truth of their belovedness as God’s children. Cue the music once again! Look at those angels dance!

This, then, is the Trinitarian gospel of Paul in Romans 8: we who walk in suffering and sin are beloved children of God the Father, joint heirs with Christ the Son, birthed of the Holy Spirit. May this good news prompt us to praise and stir us to step out in faith and hope and love this week.

The Not-So-Nice, Not-So-Safe Spirit of God

We have walked with the resurrected Jesus to his ascension and exaltation, and now this coming Sunday we are at Pentecost. Naturally, then, our lectionary texts for this Sunday are filled with references to the Spirit.

Mennonites haven’t been entirely sure what to do with Pentecost, I’d say. To be honest, we haven’t always been sure what to do with the Spirit. Yes, we have developed our nice, safe ways of interpreting the Pentecost coming of the Spirit, mostly around things like “God’s presence is with us” and a lot of stuff about “communal discernment” as the work of the Spirit.

But I’m struck by this reality regarding the Spirit in our upcoming lectionary texts: the Spirit isn’t “nice and safe.”

When the Spirit comes in Acts 2, there are tongues of fire and the sound of a rushing wind (in southern Manitoba these days, this doesn’t sound all that safe). There is a cacophony of voices and languages, exuberantly declaring God’s praises (in most of our Mennonite churches, this would be frowned upon).

There is a declaration of the Spirit’s prophetic presence, falling on old and young, women and men equally (it’s dangerous having one prophet, let alone a whole church full of them, crossing gender and class lines). There is a cut-to-the-heart repentance for complicity with state violence, and a radical turn to a generous and simple common life, a life held together by breaking bread and prayers and the teaching about Jesus (in our nationalistic and capitalistic society, these things are far from safe).

And that’s just Acts 2.

Elsewhere in our Scripture texts, the coming of the Spirit brings sudden life out of dusty, dry-bones death (Psalm 104, politicized in Ezekiel 37 as the return of conquered and enslaved Israel from exile). The Spirit groans with us in our deepest griefs and longings—indeed with all creation, groaning under the weight of human greed and hubris—anticipating with hope the fullness of redemption (Romans 8). The Spirit convicts the world of its harmful ways and guides Jesus’ followers into the fullness of truth regarding Jesus and his justice-bringing ways of love (John 16).

It turns out that while the Spirit is unquestionably good, the Spirit is not necessarily safe. While the Spirit does make us secure in God’s love, the Spirit does not guarantee our physical or social security. While the Spirit does bring us comfort, the coming of the Spirit is not comfortable. The wind of the Spirit blows the doors off our categories, it shatters our illusions and self-delusions, it turns power on its head and our world’s values upside-down.

As we enter Pentecost, let’s attune ourselves to the true Pentecost Spirit in our churches and in the world around us: the not-so-nice, not-so-safe Spirit of God. And let’s ask ourselves: how, then, can we support one another as we follow this dangerous Pentecost Spirit into the world?

Dwelling Embodied in the World

I’m writing this in our new house, looking out at a busy West End intersection. Busy—and it’s Sunday. During a pandemic lockdown.

We’re not in Morden anymore, Toto.

In the first day of our initial “campout” in the new place, I’ve seen ambulances wail by, heard fire trucks head out, watched intoxicated men stumble past, witnessed meth users yelling at their invisible demons. I’ve also seen young moms pushing strollers with toddlers in tow, and couples out for a walk with their dogs. I’ve met our next-door neighbours, a courageous immigrant mother caring for half a dozen friendly children on her own.

Cars whiz by on their way from Point A to Point B, unaware of the menagerie of life on this single block in inner city Winnipeg.

I hear this word from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings, the prayer of Jesus for his disciples: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one… As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15,18).

We aren’t called to whiz by the messy reality of life from Point A to Point B. We are called to live life incarnate, like Jesus, dwelling embodied in the stuff of earth. For us, now, this will mean dwelling embodied in this West End neighbourhood.

I’m also reminded of “the world” we are leaving behind in Morden. It’s no more the “rural haven” many imagine than West End Winnipeg is the “urban blight” everyone thinks it is. Within those immaculate rural homes there are untold stories of domestic and sexual abuse. The quiet streets and friendly smiles paper over the evidence of a toxic mix of unaddressed poverty and racism. And don’t get me started on anti-vaxxer religion.

“The world” is all around us, whether in Winnipeg or beyond the perimeter. “The world”—in all its dappled shadows and light, all its many-hued array of goodness and evil, love and harm. May we have courage to follow Jesus in fully dwelling embodied in the world in which we live, exposing the shadows with grace as we bear witness to the light in love.

Abiding in Jesus

In this fourth week of Easter, Jesus says to us, “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4).

Much has been written about what this means. Some understand it in a more mystical sense: abiding in the presence of the Spirit of Jesus as the Spirit of the risen Jesus dwells within us. Others understand it in a more practical sense: abiding in the words and ways of Jesus of Nazareth as his words and ways remain lodged within our hearts and minds, lived out in the everyday.

I tend to think it is both of these, and perhaps more than these. John’s Gospel and letters connect this “abiding/dwelling/remaining” both with the presence and work of the Spirit and with the teachings and commandments of Jesus. In Johannine thinking, Jesus “abides in us” both by his words and ways remaining within us and by his Spirit dwelling within us; we “abide in him” both by dwelling in the presence of the Spirit and by living out the words and ways of Jesus in our everyday lives.

The language here also pushes us beyond individualism: the “you” here is plural. Jesus is not just saying, “I abide within you,” each of us individually; he is also saying, “I abide among you,” all of us together. Both the living presence of the Spirit and the embedding of Jesus’ words and ways in our lives needs to be a reality among us collectively as well as individually.

This calls us to find balance, a harmony of body and spirit. If we tend toward the practical, perhaps we could attend more carefully to the mystical, developing our attentiveness to the presence of the Spirit in us and among us. If we tend toward the mystical or “spiritual,” perhaps we could attend more carefully to the practical, developing our understanding of Jesus’ life and teachings and seeking to live these out in our lives. And if we tend toward emphasizing these things either individually or collectively, perhaps we could turn our gaze outward or inward as needed.

As we seek this balance of “abiding in Jesus just as Jesus abides in us,” we have his promise before us: we will “bear much fruit” as his beloved disciples (John 15:8).

Living and Loving in the Way of Jesus

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”  (1 John 3:16-17).

The whole passage from this coming Sunday’s lectionary readings is worth reading: 1 John 3:16-24. It’s a good summary of what the Christian faith is all about.

It’s all there: a focus on Jesus, on his life and teachings of love, on his death as the ultimate example of love, on his resurrection presence in which we abide, alongside a call to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, praying boldly and relying on the Spirit to love not with mere words but “in truth and action.”

The passage reminds me of words from earlier in the Elder’s sermon-letter: “By this we may be sure that we are in [Jesus]: whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked” (1 John 2:5-6).

And this in turn reminds me of the famous words of early Anabaptist Hans Denck: “No one may truly know Christ except one who follows him in life.”

May we keep it simple in our Christian lives: day by day focusing on living and loving in the way of Jesus. In this moment, and now in this moment, and now in this: how can I live out the love of Christ for those around me, for the person right in front of me?

Life Finds a Way

In this second week of Easter, this verse from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings has lodged itself in my brain: “You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15). It’s in Peter’s address to those “men of Israel” (not all Jews!) who colluded with their rulers and Rome to execute Jesus.

There are three astounding claims in this verse.

First astounding claim: Jesus is “the Author of life.” Jesus is the origin of life, the ruler of life (archēgos). Everything Jesus did, he did to bring about life. Everything Jesus continues to do by the Spirit, he does to bring about life. This, then is who God is: the Author of life, the one who writes our stories toward a full and thriving life. That which brings about death is not-God; this is the Satan, the anti-God, the thief who comes “to steal and kill and destroy.” Jesus has come to bring life, a life that is abundant (John 10:10).

Second astounding claim: Jesus, the Author of life, was killed. Humans killed the origin of life. Powerful humans, coalescing in the powers-that-be—human structures and systems of injustice and oppression—killed the ruler of life. The Author of life was written out of his own story. While God always moves creation toward life, we can do things that bring about death—even the death of God.

Third astounding claim: God raised the Author of life from the dead. God overturned the verdict of the human powers-that-be; God undid the death and destruction of the Satan, the anti-God, the thief. To quote that well-known theologian, Dr. Ian Malcolm, in Jurassic Park: “Life, uh, finds a way.” The God who always and only moves creation toward life, finds a way to bring life even out of death.

May we be chastened by the reality that we as humans can do things that bring death, even writing the Author of life out of their own story. But may we be encouraged that the Author of life still lives, and God is writing our story toward a full and thriving life, an abundant life for all persons and all creation.

“Concrete Koinonia”

As I look ahead to this coming Sunday’s lectionary readings, the reality of koinōnia stands out to me. Koinōnia comes from the Greek word for “common” or “shared” (koinos), and so koinōnia has the idea of “that which is held in common,” “that which is shared among us.”

Contrary to the way we often use the word “fellowship,” in the New Testament Christians don’t “fellowship,” as a verb. Rather, we have “fellowship,” as a noun. This koinōnia is a gift from God, a gift of God’s Spirit to us as God’s people.

1 John 1:3 describes it this way: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have koinōnia with us; and truly our koinōnia is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” There are things we hold in common, realities we share together—in 1 John these would be things like “life” and “light” and “love”—and as we share these common realities together we discover they are in fact realities God has shared with us, realities we hold in common with Jesus.

This “fellowship,” this koinōnia, is not just some abstract truth but a concrete, lived out experience. The love, light, and life we share together in Jesus works itself out in a shared life together, a common way of life in which we come together in acts of love and deeds of light that bring life among us and beyond us.

This “concrete koinōnia” comes out in another lectionary text for this Sunday, Acts 4:32-35: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common (koinos)… 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.”

This is the new reality the resurrected Jesus creates among us by the Spirit: a shared reality in which we hold in common a new life of love and light, in which we live out this new reality in ways which re-order our common life so that no one is needy, no one is marginalized, no one is oppressed by forces beyond their control.

The Good News of “Holy Terror”

As we begin our Holy Week journey toward the cross, we know already that the story ends with the good news of resurrection. But Mark gives us a different take on Jesus’ resurrection than we typically think of.

Here are the (most likely*) final words of Mark’s Gospel: “So [Mary, Mary, and Salome] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Fear, even terror? How is this good news?

There’s a long history in the Bible of “holy fear,” even “holy terror,” in the presence of God. This isn’t (normally) because God is angry or abusive, but because God is so…absolutely other. “Holy,” to use the biblical language. When we humans find ourselves in the absolute presence of the transcendent God, we realize that God is not like we had imagined: God is so much greater than we had ever imagined.

This biblical thread finds its way into Mark’s Gospel story of Jesus. When Jesus teaches, people are “astounded.” When Jesus casts out demons, they are “in awe.” When Jesus heals, they are “stunned.” When Jesus walks on the water, his disciples are “terrified.” When Jesus calms the storm, they literally “fear with a great fear.” “Who is this,” they ask, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

So we really shouldn’t be surprised when Mark ends his Gospel with these same words, following this long biblical tradition. In Jesus’ resurrection, God has revealed God’s self in all God’s fullness: in life rising out of death, in peace growing out of violence, in liberation bursting out of oppression, in love blooming in the midst of hate. In Jesus’ resurrection, God has blown the doors off all our expectations of who God is and what God does.

This Easter may we, like the two Marys and Salome, come face to face with God in the resurrected Jesus, so that the walls we build around God might be shattered in the revelation of God’s life and peace and liberation and love. This is a good “holy terror.” This is good news.

* Mark’s Gospel has several different endings in ancient manuscripts of Mark. Most textual critics think Mark’s Gospel originally ended here, at Mark 16:8. Later scribes weren’t satisfied with this ending so they added their own or borrowed from the other Gospels.