Category Archives: Sermons by Margot

Rev. Maggie’s (gulp) Stewardship Sermon

Church Window - croppedAnd now, the much-loved stewardship sermon, in which the priest hectors you to give more money, and you feel resentful, in the time-honoured cycle. Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy homily. We have just read that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Sell what you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Is Jesus really saying this, to us? Is that what we need to do, if we are going to be His followers? Is this the set of instructions for Christian living? That is what we often hear, when this passage is interpreted—here, Jesus is telling it, straight, if we all just sold everything we had and gave the money to the poor, everything would be fine. If you don’t do that, you’re a bad Christian. We put up with you, and we’re really grateful for your money, actually, it’s really useful, but you should know that you’re basically a schmuck. Virtuous poverty vs. filthy lucre, perhaps you are familiar with that idea? It’s a very old one. Medieval theologians pulled out this text and others from the Gospels, about possessions, and sex, and devotion to God, and called them the Counsels of Perfection. They were supposed to be descriptions of the perfect life, the life lived by Jesus, which we are supposed to imitate as closely as possible. Clearly, though, not everyone is capable of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Those who manage it, the Mother Teresas, are promoted to the ranks of the saints. The rest of us just wind up feeling that God must love us less.

But is that really what’s going on here? A serious, demanding Jesus, presenting humanity with the terms for righteousness, straight-up? I think, perhaps, that here, as so often, Jesus tells the truth, but tells it slant. Let’s look more closely at that conversation. The young man comes up to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He doesn’t say, Jesus, I see a lot of suffering among my brothers and sisters, how can I help? Not, Rabbi, I see our faith being neglected and forgotten, how can I teach people about God? No, the young man is concerned for himself, his own salvation. He frames it as an inheritance. He wants to get what’s coming to him, his legacy, he wants to ensure his place in heaven as if his claim to the family property were locked down in an air-tight will. He’s pretty sure of himself already. He notes smugly that he has kept the 10 Commandments, every article of the divine Law, all his life. What does he need to do now, he asks, secretly confident that he doesn’t needanything at all, that he’s about to get a pat on the back. What does he want from Jesus? Praise. Affirmation. Job well done, young man. Jesus just won’t play his game. He won’t reward this kind of striving for status with God. He takes the young man’s swollen little balloon of self-righteousness, and He pricks it. But here is the amazing turn, in the story. It doesn’t say, Jesus was angry with the young man, and ripped into him with well-deserved, almighty wrath. It says, Jesus loved him, and in fact, Jesus does what we often do with people we love when we feel they’re going off the rails a bit, he turns around and teases him, makes a joke at his expense. So to the young man who’s done it all right, earned everything honestly and made a good name for himself, Jesus says, oh, there’s just one more little thing you need to do: give it all up, give everything away. If you listen, perhaps you can hear him smiling through the words. Perhaps we can hear the roar of laughter, from those who were standing around, watching all of this. And the young man runs away in shock, feeling insulted, because Jesus saw through him, made fun of him.  Just like in the next verse, about the camel trying in vain to squeeze through the eye of a needle. It’s a funny image, whether the needle in question was actually a sewing needle, or the nickname of a low gate in the walls of Jerusalem. Either way, we know that camel is not going to fit, and we laugh at it, but if we’re wise we laugh with some rueful self-awareness. Jesus is making fun of our desire to save ourselves, to torture ourselves into different shapes and sizes, to rid ourselves of what’s impure, to get it all right, to be perfect. But we can’t save ourselves. We aren’t perfect. Even if we were, the desire to do it to save ourselves wipes away all the perfection, because what we’re doing comes from a place of selfishness, and fear.

So perhaps this story is not an instruction manual, for the perfect life. Perhaps it’s a gentle reminder, with a wink and a nudge, not to look in the wrong direction, not to look at ourselves, at all. There is a positive set of instructions to be found, though, it comes in the verses just before this story.  We read it last week, you might not have noticed it, it came just after that memorable passage about divorce. Jesus speaks to the disciples, and this time he is angry, he rebukes them for trying to manage the crowds pressing in on him and he says, “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them.” That’s our commandment, unambiguous and clear, no joke this time. It’s not about us, individually, and what we can do better, or get right, or even good enough. We are called to look around ourselves, to look outwards, at who we can welcome and let in. To look at those who are small, in all kinds of ways, in the world’s terms, and vulnerable, bringing their own needs but also their own wonder and love. What might stop them, from coming in and finding Jesus here? Judgment? The too-busy, no time for this self-importance that the disciples had? Our Lord gets right down on the ground and scoops the children up, takes them in his arms and lets them climb all over him—his robe probably gets sticky from their hands, they mess up his hair, they scream and giggle in his ear, one of them probably gave him a cold. Jesus had all the time in the world for the little ones this world sees as worthless, for all kinds of reasons. There was nothing to be gained, in being a friend to children, to disabled beggars, to outcasts and sinners, to me, and you.  Jesus doesn’t seem to have been a very practical person. And not even a very serious one, much of the time—he only took a few things seriously, things and people no one else took seriously at all.

Giving money to the church is not practical, and it won’t save you. I’m not going to pretend that it will. I’m not going to tell you how much to give, because I think you’re the best people to figure out how to manage your lives and your money. You’re grown-ups, not bad little boys and girls who need a lecture. And it’s not some sort of extortion, where I lean on you with threats about God’s anger until you cough up. I’m just going to remind you, with a smile, I hope, that we do a lot of impractical things, here, some of them expensive things, if I’m honest. We spend time, with little ones, with people in their need and wonder and love. Time the world doesn’t have to spare.

Jesus never asks us to save ourselves. For us, it is impossible. But for God, all things are possible. He is the one offering to give up everything, all of himself, offering us eternal life. It’s a free gift, it’s not a trade, not a negotiation. Jesus sets the terms of salvation, and they are not the world’s terms. In fact, it’s such a ridiculously unequal exchange, the only way we can really talk about it is as play, an absurd joke, except not at our expense this time, because even grown ups like us are little ones to God, the one who welcomes us with laughter and open arms.




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Rev. Maggie’s sermon for 9/30/18: “Pray about it”

Pray about it. I’ll pray for you. My prayers were answered. These can be loaded words, can they not? We hear, in the Letter of James, that prayer is powerful and effective. But how? Prayer can be a difficult subject. There are problems, questions that come up, especially for the modern mind. In some situations, being told to “pray about it” seems like a cop out, or even a slap in the face. Is it what gets said, when we don’t know what to say? Or when we know exactly what we want to say, but can’t say it? Asking for things in prayer can seem like begging—indeed, that’s often just what it is—and that puts the pray-er in a demeaning position. The very position Queen Esther assumes, when she begs her husband, the King, to spare her life, and those of her people, from genocide. Why should she have to beg for their lives, the lives of innocent people? Why do people in power, the world over, threaten the vulnerable, so that their only recourse is to turn to prayer?  Why can’t they have so-called real help? And what about all those times when those prayers, our prayers, are not answered? Powerful and effective? Not at Auschwitz. Not in Rwanda, or Myanmar, or Syria. Not in countless emergency rooms and battlefields and highways. So often, we strain to hear anything, in prayer, but the pathetic echo of our own helplessness. What is the point? In our results-oriented, product-driven world, surely there are other places we should be focusing our attention, our efforts?

And yet, so much of Jesus’ recorded ministry was about prayer. Going off alone to pray—his ministry is framed by times of agonizing, solitary prayer—being tempted by the devil in the desert, under the angry glare of the sun for forty days, and then, in the cool and dark of the Garden of Gethsemane, asking not to have to suffer the living nightmare to come. He taught the disciples to pray to God and for each other, giving us the words we still use, encouraging us to talk to God as our Father, to ask for what we need, to plead for help and deliverance. He prayed for his friends, as He prepared leave them in a dangerous world—this one prayer occupies an entire chapter of the Gospel of John. And the early Christians clearly put prayer at the center of their lives together, as we learn from James, with his instructions to pray in bad and good times alike. Paul commanded the early followers of Jesus to pray without ceasing. But prayer was more than just a holy way to pass the time. Prayer was the foundation of their belief, in the ancient formula, Lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of prayer is the law of belief—the way we pray is what we believe. The statements of belief that come to us from that time, our creeds, are in the form of prayers. These aren’t decorative ornaments around the edges of our spiritual lives, embellishing the real substance of doctrine or theory. The prayers are the words of our trust, and our fear, our joy and our grief.

But, in our modern minds, many times prayer is the lesser option, as opposed to action or, at least, rational thought. Modern people want to do research, make smart plans, take action. We want to use our strength and skill to solve the problem. There is a television show from a few years ago, for which I have a perverse love, perhaps because I also love its literary references. House is about a brilliant doctor who solves medical mysteries, just as Sherlock Holmes detected criminal puzzles. Like Holmes, House is cerebral and eccentric, without the sentiment and personal attachments that might cloud his judgment. House has no bedside manner, and terrible relationships with colleagues and students. He exists only to apply his mind to an abstract problem. If and when there’s nothing more to be done, he is gone. I must admit, there is a certain cathartic fascination in this kind of freedom, for a person employed in pastoral care.

Dr. House and Sherlock Holmes are extreme versions of the universal, understandable, even admirable desire to meet the world’s problems with the best that we can produce, to be equal to the challenges we face. The strengths and skills we bring can help, but they can also get in the way. In our Gospel reading, we find a caution from Jesus, about the importance of letting go, even of our strengths, if they become an obstacle, hurting someone else or yourself. He talks about our human habit of putting stumbling blocks in front of others, or getting ourselves into trouble. He’s talking about things that are, in themselves, not bad things at all, in fact, they’re good, they’re sources of our ability: hands and feet and eyes. He’s not talking about the more, shall we say, controversial parts of us, the parts that do get us into trouble frequently; he’s talking about the parts that help us get good things done in the world.

As hard as it may be for us to accept, especially those of us who love to check off boxes on our to-do lists, is that getting things done is not the heart of our call as Christians, those who follow Jesus. What did Jesus do, after all? Not really very much, in our human accounting. Those bracelets, WWJD, stand for What Would Jesus Do, because you have to extrapolate from a fairly scant record. He talked to a few people, in a small corner of the world, not a commercial or political center, by any means. There were no military campaigns, no exotic travels, he didn’t write any epic poetry or paint any paintings. He simply spent time with people that most others looked down on or ignored. He healed a few from illnesses. Had meals, went fishing. Died young, at a point when almost no one had heard of him.


What he did a lot of, was pray. The great thing about prayer (or, one of the great things) is that it is not about our strength. It does nothing. It is a reminder of our dependence on God. To pray is to say thank you, or ask for help, or just to be at peace with God and with those around us. It’s got nothing to do with our achievement, what we have gotten done, or what we should be getting done. I love to run, and I realized that one of the reasons I love it is because it’s the one time in a day when I don’t feel as though I should be doing a list of other things. That list haunts me, through every other hour, when I’m with my family, when I’m falling asleep at night, but out on a run, I know, this is what I need to do, right now. That’s prayer. When we are able to let go, to relax completely into God’s joy in us, or forget ourselves utterly in our concern for another, because we know there’s nothing more that we can do, all that’s left is to ask, to beg, for help.

When he died, the great theologian Martin Luther had a piece of paper crumpled in his hand. It read, “We are beggars, it is true.” It is true, thanks be to God. For it is not our strength or ability that moves God to come toward us. We don’t need to do anything. Only let go, of everything else.

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon for 9/23/18: “Ode to a Capable Wife”

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When I was a little girl, I wanted to be just like my Dad when I grew up. He had earned a Master’s degree in Astro-Physics, then went to Law School. He could sail across St. Margaret’s Bay, bike 50 K, swim so far out into the frigid North Atlantic that none of us could see him from the beach, and always come back. He would dress in suits and ties, and shoes that I had helped him shine, going off every morning to the impressive office tower downtown and do work that people respected so much they called him Mr. Arnold. I wanted to be just like that. As I’ve grown up, I found out that even with hard work and determination I needed one other thing to make it happen – a wife.

Everyone needs a wife. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to expect it, as the wisdom teachers in Proverbs do? Their task is to advise young men starting out in life and they offer guidance on being honest, practicing self-discipline, not being too impressed with wealth, sharing what you can. But clearly one of the most important pieces of counsel the sages have to give is that in order to make it successfully through life, you need a good wife. Someone to do all those never-ending, repetitive jobs that do not get you a fancy title or an office downtown: the cooking, cleaning, nursing, baby-sitting, Christmas card writing, birthday remembering, home-making stuff. The volunteering in the classroom, errand-running, car-pooling, chaperoning, fund-raising, neighbourhood watching stuff. The jobs for which my mother was called, not Mrs. Arnold, but Kathryn. Those ofus privileged with education and resources can be out there in the world, doing fascinating and fulfilling work, but as the authors of these sayings knew all those centuries ago, and it still seems to be true today, no one can do it all. Somebody needs to knit up that raveled sleeve of care when we get ragged. That’s why, for thousands of years, there have been wives, right? Well, what does it mean to be a wife? And who should do it?

This picture of the virtuous wife includes a lot. She has her husband’s trust, and rightly so, because she does him good, and not harm. She feeds the members of her household – growing food, cooking and serving and presumably cleaning up afterwards. She keeps herself strong, so that she has the energy to care for them. She gets up early in the morning, and her lamp burns late into the night. She extends the boundaries of her household, opening her hand to the poor and needy. She is also a steward of the beauty of life, clothing herself and her family, not just adequately, but richly, in crimson, fine linen, and purple. She is a teacher, sharing the wisdom she has earned from experience. When her husband takes his place in the city, it is her support that undergirds that place. And all this is not done grudgingly, it is not an odious burden that she suffers with resentment; she is confident, laughing at the time to come; she is happy, in her ability to care for her family and see them flourish, and she praises God for the blessing she has received in being able to do so much.

That, then, is the work. It is good work. The work of someone who values, and creates life, by giving of herself. The work of love. Who else do we know who values and creates life in joyful self-giving? Who invented the work of love? So if this is God’s work, then perhaps this is all of our work.

The first life you have to learn to value and nurture is your own. Sometimes, you will need to be your own wife. Like the husband in Proverbs, you will need to learn to trust yourself, because you do yourself good, and not harm. This is harder than it sounds. Begin by identifying what is self-destructive in your life, and know that you are worth more than that. Then think about how you nurture yourself, how you feed your body and soul, how you invite beauty into your life, and how you celebrate your accomplishments. As we learn to value ourselves, we learn a tiny bit about how God values, how God treasures, each one of us.

Then, if we are very lucky, we get a chance to be a wife to someone else. It doesn’t have to be an actual spouse – we can practice this work in many ways. Rejoicing with friends in their moments of triumph, tending them in times of sickness or depression. Extending the circle of friendship, the household, to include someone new. Sharing what we have with the poor. Offering your insights as a teacher and mentor. Bringing a little beauty into someone’s life, with a kind word, a song you love, a meal, a phone call. Above all, let this be joyful work.

And if you are very blessed indeed, you will find that which is far more precious than jewels, and someone will be a wife to you. This, too, does not happen only within the context of a marriage – it happens whenever we receive loving, creative nurture from someone else. Think about how much you, and I, all of us, have been supported for the work we do. Think of the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers,and friends who lift us up, feed us, clothe us, stay up late with us and get up early the next morning to do it all over again.

There is a famous children’s book about caring, which, in a way, I can’t really stand. Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Treeis about a very one-sided relationship between a boy and a tree. It starts out with a young, strong, thriving tree and a little boy. At first the boy plays in and around the tree, and both are happy. As the boy grows up, however, his desires change, and he demands things from the tree: money, food, a house, a boat, all of which the tree gives. Finally the boy, now an old man, bitter and tired, comes and sits on the stump that remains, and the tree is happy.

We could think of the story as an image of how God cares for us, and perhaps we do look very much like that little boy to God – self-absorbed and demanding, using and abusing until there is nothing left. Maybe we are meant to be reassured about the infinite nature of divine mercy – the tree, after all that it gives and endures, still welcomes the old man in the end. This story seems to me to be founded on a passive-aggressive image of God as offering a forgiveness we do not deserve, and making sure we know it.

But there is another image of God in our tradition, that we find here in Proverbs: God as faithful wife and loving mother, who cares for her family with joy, who is not used up in some masochistic calculus but thrives on the well-being of those she nurtures. This is the image of God, laughing, wise, generous, creative, and caring, that we all carry within us. That little boy could have learned to be a wife to that tree. We all could.

This mothering, this loving care, this work of a wife, is God’s work, in and for us. It is in the experience of having a wife, receiving love and care from others, that we learn how God cares for us. And it is in being a wife, to yourself and others, that you share God’s love with the world. God doesn’t do it because it’s God’s least favourite job but it has to be done, all the while carping and complaining, slamming the cupboard doors, then storming off to God’s room and nursing a solitary glass of wine. God is not withholding the best of God’s self for some other, better person that might come along. God knows each of us, inside and out, and finds us worthy of that most precious treasure, God’s own self.

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon from 9/16/18: “The Power of Words”

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Of all the human abilities, perhaps the most powerful, and the most dangerous, is language.  I think we’ve become really aware of this recently, with the advent of infinitely reproduceable speech through social media, and with the increasingly hostile tone of our civic and political discourse. It can be extremely fraught, these days, just trying to have a conversation. And yet, without conversation, we can’t connect with each other. How do we speak in a way that connects us, rather than divides?

In our reading from the Old Testament, the character of Wisdom gives us an interesting example of speech as condemnation. So it didn’t start with Facebook. The prophets specialized in calling people out, for bad conduct, in the midst of disagreements over religious practice and theology, issuing dire warnings about God’s wrath. Their words are hard to hear for us, now, and must have been agonizing, for those who heard the messages delivered in person, who felt the furious spittle landing on their foreheads. Often the images the prophets used were in themselves damaging, especially since their favorite metaphor for going astray from God’s plan was talking about Israel as an unfaithful wife or a promiscuous woman. Not to criticize biblical figures, but, How well did it work, what the prophets were doing? How well does confrontation work, as a technique for changing people’s hearts, and their actions? When should we go to that nuclear option, how bad do things have to be, before we have to take a stand against society’s wrongs, or risk being hypocrites? Surely some part of the battle is already lost, by the time you feel you have to go to battle, verbally or otherwise? Is there anything we could do, before we get to that point, that might work better?


As always, when we are trying to conform our lives to God’s will, we might take a look at how we are taught to pray. Today’s beautiful psalm guides us to say, “May the words of my mouth be acceptable in Thy sight.” How can I make my words acceptable to God? Acceptable seems like a good goal, not over-reaching. Pleasing to God seems ambitious, but I might try acceptable. The letter of James, which we’ve been reading for the past few weeks, has moved from telling us about the importance of our actions, to focusing on our words. We often think of the Epistle of James as being about doing, not talking: faith without works is dead, he famously says; don’t pay lip-service to people’s well-being without really helping to meet their needs. And yet, in the passage we’ve come to today, he returns to words, for speech is an action, too, and a crucial one. He reminds us to consider how much what we say (internally or out loud) directs what we do.  “If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.”

You are most likely more self-disciplined than I am, but do you ever catch yourself , as I do, having conversations, not to say arguments with the people in your life, but when they aren’t there, so just in your own head, and then going forward in your relationship as if those had been real conversations? Then I wonder, why don’t they know how I feel? I’ve been over it so many times! I’ve talked it through! How we frame things for ourselves, how we tell our stories to ourselves, has huge impact on how we live, and the decisions we make. And when we manage to get out of our own heads, and talk to those around us, that is how we create, and destroy, the relationships that can sustain our lives, or hurt them. When we think about how God wants us to live, we have to think about how God wants us to speak. What kinds of words is God looking for?

God has given us this great gift, the creative power of language. From the beginning, made in God’s image, we spoke, we named the animals, we began to know each other and to share our wonder in Creation. We can be a blessing, with our words. A 17 year-old that I love and respect very much told me that it had occurred to her recently, “What if we let ourselves say every good thing we thought?” Now, with the caveat, let’s say appropriate good things. I’m sure we can all think of good things that we think about other people but cannot say, we need to be respectful and polite. But there are so many good things that we don’t have the courage to say out loud, or don’t think are important enough. Taking the time to tell someone that you notice them, you see and are grateful for what they’re doing, the style and grace with which they pass through the world, that can be an enormous thing. We never know how much a kindness will mean to someone on a given day. How much does it mean to us, who often walk through our days counting over the mistakes and failures, to hear from even one person that we were helpful, perhaps even an answer to prayer?

Of course, if we can bless others with our words, we can also curse them. Every power, every good gift, comes with the potential to be twisted and abused. The Old Testament prophets did it, with the best of intentions, and Peter dared to rebuke Jesus himself., as we also heard today We don’t know exactly what Peter said, but the version of this story in the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Peter did not want Jesus to talk about his coming death, did not want him to suffer and die. Essentially, he’s asking, Why can’t you be the Messiah I had in mind? Why can’t you stick to things I’d feel comfortable talking about? Why can’t it be my script?

Our words can be good and helpful, or ill-considered and harmful. But, in the end, it is not ourwords that matter most. Our words are not going to save us. We betray ourselves too easily. Jesus shows us the way. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves.” To use that power of language against the self, to reject our own claims. He asks, “What can they give, in exchange for their life?” We don’t have anything to bargain with, no fancy speeches, and no threats—they’re all empty, before God. We can give one thing, and that is words. Not our own, that we might make up in our own defense, but God’s, spoken into the world, born into the world, so that we could hear them in a human voice. So that we could follow that voice when it calls our names. So that we could hear the words that matter, the words that give life, cried out from the Cross we put him on to die, “Father, forgive them.”


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Rev. Maggie’s sermon from 9/9/2018: “The Hidden God”

Why does Jesus want to keep Himself a secret? In today’s Gospel, we find Him doing some amazing things, things we often wish someone would do or could do for us today—he heals people who’ve been terribly, catastrophically ill, people no one could figure out how to help, lost causes. He has come to this area, wanting no one to know he is there, and he works these miracles, but he asks those he helps to tell no one about how they were healed, who brought about their miraculous cure. Why? He doesn’t even, at first, want to share his power with the Gentile woman who comes to him, in one of the hardest passages to read about Jesus, I think, how could he want to withhold his healing power from anyone who needed it? what’s going on, here? If God has decided to come to earth, to be here among us, why doesn’t he just come, all in?

There are a few possible explanations: perhaps he is showing us an example of humility, that God doesn’t want to be all, get me, I’m the Messiah; God wants to offer us a face of gentle modesty. Certainly, Jesus does show us that, in many places. He doesn’t claim any status, he hangs out with outcasts, with the poor. Not boasting about what he can do is consistent with his self-effacing approach to humanity. Perhaps, as we see during his forty days in the wilderness, or in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ sometimes had a profound need for solitude, especially as a counterweight to the constant demands of people pressing in on him from every side, wanting and needing, hoping and asking. Or maybe this secrecy was part of a calculated plan, indicating that the right time for Christ’s identity to be fully revealed had not yet arrived, just as when he says to his mother, when she asks him to do something about the wine situation at the wedding in Cana, “My time has not yet come.”

There could have been many reasons for Jesus to want to keep himself secret, to keep his true nature and destiny hidden—we don’t know what the reason was, but we know that he did desire it, at this point in his story, and that he often still does. God is still hidden from us, so much of the time. His motives, his presence, are kept from us, we feel it. And God seems hidden from some of us, more than from others—how is that fair? We all know people, people close to us, who just don’t seem to feel the need for God, or any sense of connection to faith, even though we wish so much that we could share that with them. And we all know times and ways in which God just seems to be absent from us, from our lives or from the whole, desolate world, usually when we need him most.

We can be in crisis, like the woman with her sick daughter, desperate and finding no help, nothing in our experience or resources providing a solution. Or we can have a chronic need, like the man who cannot walk, and we’re daily brought up again the atrocious injustice of God’s apparent favour on some, who are so readily given abilities and normalcy. When will God smile on our lives, as he seems to do with such unthinking ease on so many others?

The sense of God’s withdrawing from the world, from our reach, is so palpable and so universal that the church has developed a vocabulary for it. Deus absconditus, they called it in the Latin of medieval theology—the God who has absconded, run away, concealed himself from us. That is the God we meet in today’s Gospel, a Jesus who doesn’t want to be there for us, who is unavailable.

But there was a parallel term, the other side of the theological coin: Deus revelatus, the God who is revealed to us. When we look, we find him here, even in this enigmatic text. For just as much as Christ wants time to himself, wants to keep his miracles a secret, just as much do the people desire to make him known. This irrepressible desire bubbles up and must find its expression. They get the word out, that he’s here, and more and more show up. He’s close by, they say, he can be approached and petitioned for help—beg him, for whatever you want, he can’t refuse, he never does. Those who are healed, even though they are warned to keep silent, immediately go and tell everyone they know about the relief that has come unexpectedly, joyfully, into their lives.

God is revealed, even when God is hidden. In moments when we feel most abandoned and alone, we can be surprise by the kindness we are shown, by the presence and understanding of someone who is close by and approachable. God is revealed, in the midst of our darkness, by words that manage to move us out of places where we were trapped or stuck, and free us to discover some grace, wherever we are.

Who has revealed God to you? Who have made love real and visible, perhaps in a new way, or perhaps just reminding you of something you’d forgotten or become afraid to hope for? Who has shown up for you, friend or stranger, in your time of need? What if God hides his glorious face so that we, in our weakness, can see him in smaller places, in the sordid rooms and dim twilights or our existence, in these latter days. Could he be daring us to hear his distant, growing triumph, in the voices of our neighbours, and our not-so-neighbours, speaking familiar words in new ways?

How are we revealing God to our world? What is the part of the story that is bubbling up in you, that you cannot help but tell? Even if the world will think it’s weird, even if it seems more cool or more acceptable to keep quiet about it? Let’s notice, after all, that Jesus doesn’t punish or send away those who cry out for his help, or make him known—he praises and rewards them for their audacity. To the Gentile woman who dared to address him, much less ask him for something, Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go, your daughter has been made well.”

God is the one who is going to remain, in some way, hidden, until the end of time, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away. But we’re not supposed to—not supposed to hide our light under a bushel, not supposed to bury our treasure, not supposed to keep the Good News quiet. Our job is to speak, to tell his story, in every language and with every means we can think of, and some we haven’t thought of yet. Say it with words. Say it with acts of service and compassion. Say it to our children, to each other, to anyone who will listen, and even to those you think aren’t listening or can’t hear.

If Jesus were here, if he had come close by, and walked among us, would he say now, as he never did then, I love your silence about me, as you go about your business? What can we say, with all our lives and every moment we’ve got left, so that he will turn to us and answer, as he did to that woman, “For saying that,” I will heal.

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon from 9/2/2018: “Fake vs. real”

I remember that, growing up, when I came to the end of childhood, right around the transition to middle school, I became overwhelmed with a sense of the fakeness of the adult world. As we grow up, we get to that point, that pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz moment, when we see that the earnest and supportive environment our parents presented to us (if we’ve been lucky) isn’t the whole thing. There are a lot of ugly truths that we begin to wake up to. There’s so much competition, concern about appearances, and daily, grinding unhappiness that we soldier on with. Within a year, I went from being a fairy-believing, neighbourhood ballet choreographing little elf, to being sunk in depression and disillusionment about the whole project of human society.

Perhaps the suddenness and completeness of the realization happened because I experienced two suicides, early on—there was a colleague of my father’s, at his law firm, a man who was heavily involved in national politics; he took the fall for a campaign fundraising scandal, and consumed with shame, took his own life in a motel room. And there was a friend my age, a boy whose household always seemed strange and chaotic; one day he leapt, inexplicably, from the ninth floor of an apartment building. These tragedies seemed to underscore the fact that no one was admitting, that everything was a sham.

Then I started Confirmation classes, because that was the age I was, not because I was particularly interested, or had ever gotten very much out of Sunday School. The teacher was Father Fred, the young assistant at the church we went to. There were only a few kids, maybe half a dozen. All we did was sit in parlors much like the ones here, in ancient chintz armchairs in sunny rooms on long afternoons, and we read through the Gospel of Mark together. There were no bells and whistles, no particularly ambitious program. Just respecting us enough, and trusting the Gospel enough, to let us encounter the Word for ourselves, not explained or illustrated, just Jesus. And there He was, right in front of us, pointing to everything I had seen and been so devastated by. Calling out hypocrisy, the fake life, and saying, “That’s not all there is; there’s something else, something much bigger.” There is something real, something true, that you can pour all your love into and never see the end.

The Jesus we meet in Mark is not about appearances. Everything that’s ever made you think, that’s wrong, doesn’t anybody see that’s fake and worthless, doesn’t anyone care? Jesus just makes it plain, and doesn’t let us off the hook for an instant, doesn’t soft pedal it or clean it up. Yes, all these things people do are real and terrible, and you can’t put human scaffolding around them to hide it. You can’t make up little rules and rituals to make the bad go away like magic (if I wash my hands three times before eating, it won’t matter that I hate the job that pays for the meal, or if I recite the words of a prayer all the way through, it won’t matter that I berated my spouse). All that stuff that we try to fool others and even ourselves with, God is not fooled.

This revelation could have been even more depressing, but I have found it to be just the opposite, to be the most hopeful thing ever. We are seen by God, understood and known, with everything stripped bare, all that we do and even all we think, all the secrets we guard so closely. The darkness is not dark to you, O Lord, the night is as bright as the day. We are, in fact, judged, and judged with perfect justice, with perfect insight and accuracy. Growing up and coming to awareness of the world’s horrors, great and petty, I craved the sense that someone was watching, that someone was a witness. That sense was instantly satisfying. But, even that whole reality that I had come to, and found myself joined in by Jesus, isn’t the end. It’s just the next step, after we leave the safety and ignorance that we know, again, if we’re lucky, in childhood. We graduate to harder things, often with a shocking suddenness. It’s what happens next that has taken a lifetime to fall down before, a lifetime to serve. Because we learn that the God who sees, who gets it and admits it and pulls back the curtain, God doesn’t stand back at an infinite distance with cold condemnation, “Look what you did, look who you are,” but is the same Jesus who comes and stands in our place. Humankind cannot bear very much reality. Only God can bear it, and God does. That is not the moment’s dawning awareness of youthful anger. That is the rest of our lives. As Saint Paul tells us, this morning, “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” We have horror and anger, at what we have done. God has chosen to make something even more; God has not chosen to destroy, but to give His own life. The answer to hypocrisy, it turns out, is not a righteous, purifying anger, but humility.

At the Beach Service this morning, we baptized Louisa Greco, in the ocean. At every Baptism, Jesus stands beside us (He was there today, in the water, at Sandy Beach), saying yes, for you, I’ll do it all again, take up the life of being misunderstanding, mistrust, betrayal, torture, abandonment, and death. That fake life is our Creation, our whole reality, that we weave around each other until there’s no way out. No way out but through, so God will go through death itself, and take our hand, dive beneath the waves with us, and bring us up again into new life, into the sunshine of a beautiful day, surrounded by love.

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon from 8/26/2018: “The Whole Armor of God”

I love the passage we read from Paul’s Letter to the people of Ephesus, with its imagery of the whole armor of God, not because I love going into battle, but because I love a system. A plan. If life were a James Bond movie, then I would be the Q character, the nerdy, awkward, scientist with the neat little gadgets for every emergency. This text from St. Paul is basically that scene, for the early Christians. This is what you’re going to need, he tells them, this is your gear. I love how it’s all mapped out.

God doesn’t want us to be without a plan, doesn’t intend to leave us defenseless, for whatever life throws at us, the cosmic powers of this present darkness. Really, the whole of the Bible is a map of that plan, taking us from the place we found ourselves—lost, there be dragons—all the way through our lives to home, you are here, right where you need to be. God’s plan of salvation takes shape through the Creator’s guidance, in Christ’s Incarnation, death, and resurrection, and with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the follow-up. The implementation strategy.

Paul wants the strategy to be clear. This isn’t rocket science, actually, even though I might want there to be a souped-up Aston Martin involved. The plan isn’t supposed to be some esoteric mystery, available only to the spiritual elite. It’s meant to be accessible to all. So what does Paul describe, what is God offering us, so that we can face what’s coming and stand firm? It starts with the Truth. “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist.” Honesty is the plan. I really love this plan. It’s grounded on something so basic, so fundamental, we begin with living in Christ, who told us, “I am the Truth.” We have to start there. Whatever else we do, the truth will be the right guide, the truth will set us free.


But there’s more, because honesty isn’t enough. It’s the place we’ve got to start, but the truth can put you in danger, as Jesus’ own life shows us. So, next, we put on the breastplate of righteousness. Now righteousness is a tricky thing for us, because it’s so perilously close to self-righteousness, which we can see all around us in our world—in fact, as Christians, we are known for it, and that reputation can be a huge obstacle, when we’re trying to tell people about the Jesus who loves and forgives. We don’t want to use righteousness as a weapon to wound or dominate others. But, if we pay attention to what the text actually says, righteousness is not being proposed as a weapon at all, here. It’s not the sword of righteousness, or even the club of righteousness, definitely not the machete of righteousness. It’s the breastplate, the protection, for the most vulnerable place, the heart. Without that righteousness, we expose ourselves to all kinds of damage. We hurt our own hearts, when we do wrong, when we become the kind of person who is used to hurting others. Being just and living with integrity, is the best way to make ourselves and those around us safe from the spiritual erosion of callousness and cruelty. Bad actions endanger us, and those we love; eventually, inevitably, they lead to death. Living in God’s way is the only way out of that dead end.

The working out of God’s way, God’s desire for our lives, will be a little different for each person. Paul says, “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” The instruction here is graciously flexible; there is no one right answer. What helps you get ready, to proclaim the Gospel of peace? What gives you energy, feeds your passions, makes you more understanding and patient, more generous? Or, conversely, what do you know you need, to fill up your bucket of good will, or else you get cranky and mean? Running? Time by yourself or in nature? Enough sleep? Serious study and reading? Talking with a friend? Meditation? Experiences of the world and other people? Do what fuels you, make sure you’re equipped with what you need, to do the work and to be there for others.

So we’ve come this far, we’ve been cautioned not to get ourselves into trouble with dishonesty or bad actions, and to provide ourselves with those particular things that nourish us. What else do we need, to confront the forces of evil? Paul reminds us to take shelter, under the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. That’s one way evil works, especially in our world today, it makes everything seem so urgent, I must do this right now! I’ve got to respond to this horrible post on Facebook, or correct my neighbor who’s in the wrong, or make a judgment on this question of national importance, quick, now, before my own position is at risk, or I look foolish, or am judged, myself. I’ve got to handle everything, take every opportunity, or I’ll lose my chance, I, or my family, might be disadvantaged. It’s all got to happen now. Faith meets this temptation by taking the long view, faith trusts, faith waits, it abides, in the old language, resting secure in the knowledge of who God is, and therefore of who I am—God’s child.

We are under the shield of faith and we are under the helmet of salvation. For all of those temptations of urgency are really fears of our own mortality, disguised as the possibility of achievement. What wounds our minds? Fears. What wakes us up at 2 in the morning, racing round our heads? Fears. What keeps us from being in each moment, and cherishing what is, the gift of those around us? It is fear, that eats away at our life, our joy. God has promised, God has spent a lifetime, telling us that we are saved. That every hair on our heads has been counted. That each tear we shed is collected in a bottle. That we are not to worry, not to be afraid, for God loves us, and will gather us all in and make us new. Know that you are loved. Know that God has done everything, has given everything, for you. It’s not on you, saving yourself is not your job. You can’t get any more beautiful in God’s eyes than you are right now, because you are Christ’s, brothers and sisters of Jesus and one another. That is all the protection we need, that is the whole armour of God.

Paul only mentions one weapon, in this passage. It comes at the end, and it’s not a weapon in the conventional sense: the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. The Word that we are forgiven, sought out, loved as Christ by God, that is how we stand up and fight the forces of evil. Just those words. That they are true for me, true for you, true for everyone—no one is beneath God’s notice, no one is uninvited to the feast of the bread of life.

And always, there is prayer. Pray in the Spirit at all times. That is how we live in the awareness of God’s mercy and love. Prayer for everyone. Pray also for me. We rely on each other’s prayers. Feel them all at your back, when you need them, because they are there. Feel the protection of the truth, of righteousness, of the gifts you are given, of faith and salvation. Walk around in the strength of God’s power. Now we are strong enough to go and serve.

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Sermon from 8/19/18

The Rev. Maggie Arnold // August 19, 2018

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord our strength, and our Redeemer. Amen. 

As I get to know more people, and talk to you about what you love in the worship here at St. Stephen’s, I hear about many different things: the beautiful music, this sacred and inspiring space, the time with friends and family, the peace and solace in a busy week. All of these are important elements of what we do here. These things are hung around a structure, as ancient as the earliest centuries of the church, and even before that, drawing on the worship of the temple in Jerusalem. The structure has two parallel parts: in the first half of the service, we share the Word, reading from the Bible and reflecting on it; and in the second half we share in the Eucharist, coming together for Holy Communion. The Word is pretty clear, but what is going on when we have Communion? This practice is so central to our faith lives. And it is something we have in common with other Christians, over time and all around the world—we can think about it as a continuous, movable feast, that lasts for a whole day, as the earth spins on its axis: from Australia to Istanbul to Rome to Cohasset to California, the meal goes on each Sunday. This ritual binds us together so fundamentally that we call the whole body of the faithful, the Communion of Saints. We are part of a subset of Christianity, based on our particular history, and we call it the Anglican Communion, the churches that grew out of the English tradition. When we forge bonds with other churches, like the Lutherans of the ELCA, with call that being in Communion. So what is it, then, this Communion that we’re doing all the time, and why do we do it?

First, we do it because it’s commanded in scripture: the Story of the Last Supper, which we read in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, there is the account of the words Christ used, instructing them to “do this in remembrance of me.” A celebration of this meal has been part of the worship of Jesus’ followers from the very beginning, right down through two thousand years of the history of the church. So everyone agrees that we should be doing this, because Jesus said so, and because this is what the church He created does. The practice is nearly universal, among the Christian traditions. But what do we believe is happening, when we do this? That’s where we begin to differ.

One of the most influential thinkers who shaped our theology was St. Augustine, a bishop in North Africa right around the year 400—he wrote about sacraments, which is another way we describe Communion. What makes this meal a sacrament, rather than just dinner? Augustine said that a sacrament happens when the Words of God and physical elements, stuff from this world, are joined. God has promised to be here with us, when we put these words and these things together. In Baptism, that’s the Words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” together with the water that we wash or sprinkle, or dunk the person in. In the Eucharist, that’s the Words from the Last Supper, together with the bread and wine that we eat.

In those Words from the Last Supper, as well as in our Gospel passage today, Jesus connects this eating to himself, and that has always kind of freaked people out. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” The early Christians were accused of being cannibals by those who heard about this ritual, and the discomfort and questions surrounding it have persisted, and caused Christians to think about it in different ways. Medieval Christians weren’t so bothered by the cannibalism idea, but they wondered, as any child does, why the bread and wine don’t look and feel and taste like flesh and blood. Using the science of their time, they came up with transubstantiation, saying that the bread and wine keep their appearance and form but change in their essence, so that the elements physically are flesh and blood, they just look and feel and taste like bread and wine. As scientific theories have evolved, we’ve lost that idea of an essence of things, that goes beyond what our senses can perceive. Christians who’ve focused on the cannibalism problem, have denied that the bread and wine ever become Jesus’ flesh, except symbolically. In this way of thinking about it, there is not a physical eating, just a spiritual remembering. How do we understand what Jesus told us to do, how do we explain it to ourselves, and to other people? Is it a symbol, or is it “real” in some way, and what does that mean? Eating His flesh and drinking His blood—that’s pretty gross. Well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we can be pretty gross. The way our bodies are, the things that happen to us, can be downright undignified, to say the least. Do we want a God who’s above it all, purely spiritual, or One who lovingly comes right down into the mess with us, and says, there’s nowhere I won’t follow you? There’s nothing I’m afraid of, nothing I despise—decay, disease, death, you don’t go there alone, I go through it with you.

That is the gift of the Incarnation, the coming together of physical and spiritual, human and divine, for us. God’s Word of mercy and love comes to our hearts and minds. And God’s Word comes to our bodies, as well. Our bodies are made by God, and God desires to redeem them, too. Some people have believed that flesh is less than spirit, is evil or dirty, that we have to transcend it to become pure or even recognizable, to God, but the sacramental traditions say that God embraces all of Creation: Words and stuff are joined. God wants to feed and heal us, and live within us, in every way. Not just as an idea, but as every part of us. This is how we begin to live our eternal lives, at the same time as we are still here on earth. That is how we become, as the Rite I prayer after Communion says, “The blessed company of all faithful people.” I always think it is especially poignant to share Communion with someone who is grieving—for we say, as we distribute the elements: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” In that sacred moment, we are breaking bread again with our beloved ones, sharing the feast, across the great divide. Tasting the same food. I don’t know how that works. But I know, with gratitude, that this is the gift of Christ’s coming, to bring us all back together, so that nothing, no one, is lost. The one who eats this bread will live forever. Amen.

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Sermon from 8/12/18

The Rev. Maggie Arnold // August 12, 2018

The Bible presents us with a lot of contrasts, at the level of individual lines and at the level of stories. Think of “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Or the story of Mary and Martha, two sisters, one devoted to getting all the work of the household done, the other sitting quietly, listening to the Word of God, and annoying the heck out of her sister. Contrasts are a helpful teaching tool, especially for a book about the encounter between God and humanity.

There are poignant contrasts in the readings for this morning. First we find the conflict between King David’s men and David himself, in how they treat Absalom, the son who has rebelled and started an uprising against his father. The soldiers are seeking revenge, the complete destruction of the rebellion, in order to secure the power of their leader. They glory in the humiliation and defeat of Absalom, in his killing. But David mourns over Absalom as his beloved son, and cries out in grief, that he wishes he could have died instead. The soldiers thought they were defending their king, and promoting his cause, and they were, but what happened was, tragically, also the opposite of anything he could ever have wanted. Rather than triumph, at this moment when his reign is re-established, when the future of his regime is secured, instead he effaces himself, sets aside his own claims, his royal identity, and asks only for death. The cost of human victory is often like that—when what we achieve is held up against what we have lost, we are shown to be so helpless, so frustrated by circumstances beyond our control.

In the Gospel, again we see a dramatic, and frustrating contrast, this time between Jesus’ true identity and the way He is recognized by those around Him. He is the Messiah, God’s own Word, the bread from heaven, but His neighbours know Him as Mary and Joseph’s son. He was that boy they watched growing up, getting into mischief, breaking out in pimples, being human. They think they know Him, of course they do, they know everything they need to know about Him. They’ve got Him all figured out. But He tells them that He is the one who will lead them to know God, the mystery at the back of all Creation. How is that possible?

It can be so hard for us, to know someone in a different way, once we have gotten to know them as one thing. When I was fresh out of art school, I taught art and computer science, if you can believe that, for a couple of years in an elementary school. Sometimes small schools are very desperate. Anyway, there was a little boy I soon came to know as a troublemaker. He was disruptive, eager to attract attention, and, it seemed that he was obsessed with violence, in his drawings, in his play with other children. Before long, I began to write him off—that’s Matt, there he goes again, doing what he always does, and that’s who he was, for me. Our interactions got more and more difficult and stressful. I really dreaded the class sessions he was in—I didn’t know what to do. Until, one day, I was thinking about the things I loved (which was church, mostly) and the things I was having such a hard time with every day at work, and how far apart they were. I wanted to see if I could bring those two very distant, very contrasting things closer together. Could a little of the peace I found in church come with me, into the classroom? So I decided to pretend that secretly, unknown to anyone but me, Matt was Jesus, right there in the class. It changed my whole attitude to him. I listened to him, I tried to enjoy his presence, to learn about him and value him, for what he was, to stop dismissing him, for what he had been in my limited experience, as his teacher trying to get him to do something, to be a certain way, to make my life easier.

When we make other people into means to our own ends, pawns in our game, we are denying the image of God, the immortal soul, in them. For David’s men, Absalom was an obstacle to be gotten rid of; but, for David, even though Absalom had risen up against his father, causing strife in the kingdom and dividing their family, he was still a beloved son. When we look at other people with our very human, very limited knowledge, we can miss so much of the truth they carry, as children of God. The people of Nazareth knew Jesus only as the beloved son of Mary and Joseph; they did not see how he could be the one to lead the rebellion against the powers of this world, against death itself. The greatest contrast is always between our finite understanding and God’s own self, so infinitely creative and so truly free that God can best be described, as Jesus so often did, in paradoxes, riddles and jokes, proverbial smacks upside the head that remind us, over and over again: you think you know, you think you’ve got this put tidily in some box? Think again. It’s something else entirely, something you could never have expected.

Thanks be to God. That we can grow, in our understanding of others, when we approach them in humility. When we open ourselves to listen and learn from them, we can come to know the unique bit of God that is revealed in them. When we let God teach us and feed us in them. Paul sums up what that looks like, the possibility of a healed relationship to those we may have written off: we can speak the truth, expressing anger but not seeking vengeance, doing honest work, treating others with tenderness and mercy, connecting to them and giving of ourselves. It is a vision of life abundant, contrasted to the death we were so ready to deal out, in our ignorance, our quickness to judge and condemn.

Thanks be to God, that we ourselves have not been condemned, written off, as we surely could have and probably should have been. We can be disruptive, eager for attention, negative attention if that’s all we can get. Obsessed with violence, in one form or another, whether it’s violence against our enemies, or the violence of self-hatred and self-destruction. We can all be at our worst. God has chosen, and it’s a crazy, crazy idea, but this is what we’ve been told, and I’m going with it, God has chosen to know us in a different way, to care for rebels as beloved sons and daughters. To come and be with us, listen to us, rejoice in us, to learn us by heart. To see each of us, so helplessly ordinary and stuck in ourselves, and to discover a miracle, to look on us with the infinite love of a parent for a child. To grieve for us and what we do, but even more than that, to die in our place, that we might live. David couldn’t do it, but God could. “No one can come to me unless drawn by my Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.” Thanks be to God.

VBS prayer for Sunday:

Loving God, we give thanks for the gathering of children, young people, and volunteers for our Vacation Bible School this week. Bless their time learning together, help them to have fun, to make good messes and great music. Give our VBS leaders energy and patience. Help us all to know how thankful you are whenever we welcome a child in your name. May it be joyful, may it be safe, may it be a light of your love to the world. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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Bread of Life

The Rev. Maggie Arnold // August 5, 2018

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord our strength, and our Redeemer. Amen.

It’s a great joy to get to join you in worship today. Thank you, to all of you, for the work and prayer you have offered for the future of St. Stephen’s. I am so looking forward to getting to know you and learn from you. You might want to know something about me, so this is a kind of introduction. For a long time, I’ve had this feeling of wanting to be involved with the meat and potatoes of life. I’ve always been hoping to arrive at the classic, honest, unpretentious, distillation of whatever it is I’m doing. Not the fancy dessert, not the teasing, showy appetizer, but the main course, the thing that nourishes you. In college, I went to art school, a place where you can be immersed in every trend and movement, you can fall in love with what’s cool and provocative in the moment. Perhaps that experience solidified my commitment to what is timeless and true, to serving something greater than myself, something my grandparents would recognize. The meat and potatoes is how it gets expressed in my head, but you might think of it in another way, especially if you are vegetarian—what I mean is something basic, fundamental, like bread. If you’re gluten-free, maybe bread doesn’t work for you either, but let’s stick with bread—it has a good heritage, this image.

How do we sort out what the bread is, for each of us, in our own lives? How do we decide on what is worthwhile and necessary, as opposed to what might be fun or distracting for a while? It’s a lifelong process—it can be called finding your vocation, or discerning a set of values that you’ll hold to, that can bind you to others who share them, creating a family, a community. In graduate school, I studied the history of the church, focusing on the work of the sixteenth-century reformer, Martin Luther. He was a theology professor, at the end of the Middle Ages. For the past thousand years, monasteries and universities had echoed with endless debates over the meaning of the Bible and God’s will, everything from who Jesus is to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The amazing thing about Luther was his ability to see through this dense atmosphere of constant conversation and identify the few, simple questions that were relevant for real people’s lives. What is worthwhile, and necessary? It’s as vital, and as complex, a question today as it was then. That process of evaluating is different for each of us, and it evolves throughout our lives, as we bring a new sense of ourselves to a changing world. There isn’t one right way to think about it. One person’s bread might be a chocolate chip cookie, and that’s ok. God shapes, and desires, all our various abilities. What’s important is to engage in it thoughtfully, to honour the gift of our lives by offering what we are and have to God and each other, as St. Paul says, “to live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” To do that, we have to take our choices seriously, about how we spend our time and do our work. If you are truly a chocolate chip cookie person, whose transcendent baking could possibly bring about world peace, or even just make a hard day better for your child or a friend, how much time do you want to give to gorging on Skittles? Is that really going to satisfy you? There are so many bids for our time and attention—developments in technology have certainly brought us a crazy salad bar of options for every instant of every day, and yet they haven’t brought us even one more second of time in the day, or one more hour in the week. So the question of value, of worth, is crucial. What’s the junk, and what’s the bread?

In our own lives we will find different answers. In the common life of the church, there is a bread that we share. Jesus tells us, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me, will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” We have been given God’s Word, to nourish and satisfy us, in the scriptures and in the Sacraments. Christ has promised that, amid all the confusion of life, the demands pulling us in every direction, He will be here, for us. Each of us will be able to find Him in different places, in painting or running or solving problems or education or healing or whatever fulfills our God-granted talents, for “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” But all of us will be able to find God here, in the bread of life. This is where we come together, in the Word, in the flesh. Not that it’s easy, or uncomplicated, because life’s not like that. But this is the place where we wrestle with it, together, keeping faith with one another in this endeavour. There will be parts of the Word that we don’t understand, that we have to help each other with. Some of the Bible doesn’t feel like nourishing bread to us—some of these words are cruel, or contradictory. Some of our experiences of how these words have been used have been damaging and hurtful to us or to others, and we need to admit that.

It is my prayer and hope that we will engage together in this process of sorting out what’s important, what’s worthwhile and honest and true, for our life as a community of the Body of Christ and for God’s call on all our own lives. Doing that, together, takes trust. The journalist David Brooks wrote this past week that “Trust is won by persistence through failure.” As we explore and try things in this process of following Jesus, some things will fail, and those will be the most important things. Sometimes, we won’t get it right. Sometimes, we won’t understand. But what matters is being there again, for the next time. In fact, that’s the whole story of the Gospel, in a nutshell. Trust is won by persistence through failure. So that we might trust, completely, God even learns to fail, as we do. What is the crucifixion but the ultimate failure, of Jesus’ ministry, of God’s outreach to the world, of the unity and perfection within God’s self, a failure of everything, for all time. Just so that there could be, through that failure, persistence, a return, to those very same friends who had betrayed and abandoned Him. They were questioning, and searching, weighing their options, just as we do. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” They had been looking for some cataclysmic sign, a massive miracle like food raining down from heaven in the desert. Instead what they got, what we get, happens quietly, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”

That’s the meat and potatoes, the bread, that I have found, that I am grateful to be able to share in here, with you as we begin to walk in Jesus’ way together: Seek the truth where the Truth is found. When it all falls apart, come back again, in love, in trust. It’s not showy or trendy or even new at all. It’s the old, old story, of forgiveness and faith, the only one worth telling.

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