The NRSV version of the Bible gives us a heading for the Romans chapter 12 passage we heard earlier today. The heading it gives us says “marks of the true Christian.” Paul outlines his thoughts on what being Christian in his time and place means. So I thought I would start today’s sermon by posing a question back to you all.
I’m going to give you a moment to think about the question, and I’d love to hear a few words from some of you - adults and kids alike. The question is this:
What does it mean for you to be Christian in today’s world - in this time and place? I’ll repeat the question, and then, if you have a response, raise your hand and I’ll bring the microphone to you.
Remember, anyone of any age is welcome to reply, and there are no wrong answers. OK, once again, the question is: What does it mean for you to be Christian in today’s world - in this time and place?
When you’re ready, raise your hand and I’ll bring you the mic. Remember you need to talk right into the microphone.
I can start… Being Christian means being welcoming, affirming, and loving toward everyone I meet - even those who are different from me.
(Time for responses)
Being Christian in today’s world is not just one thing. There is not just ONE thing that makes us Christian. And, I would be willing to bet that if we posed the same question to other churches and other denominations, we would get different responses.
So, why does Paul give us this list of what he considers Christian qualities? It might make us wonder what was going on in his world that he felt the need to offer this reminder to the people he ministered to.
We know the world of Paul’s time was quite different than our own time.
But in our own time, we live in a world of never-ending distractions in the form of screens - televisions, computers, phones, tablets, and the list goes on and on. And of course now even young people have access to these neverending distractions. Many of us are also exposed to social media regularly, where we are witness to and perhaps even participate in social media disputes over things that are relatively unimportant.
This just happened to me yesterday - I made a simple comment on a post about neutering a dog who was showing some behavioral concerns, and someone else disagreed, and before I knew it we were debating about neutering dogs and how old they should be when we decide to do that. And neither of us was going to change the other’s mind. So what was the point?
We are bombarded with versions of “ourselves” and our communities that are not necessarily who we actually are. The world perceives us one way, and we might even perceive ourselves a certain way that is not the reality of our identities. It can become a front - a deception that we place on ourselves or our community to appease the outside world.
We are essentially on a stage for the world to see. Paul’s world, of course, was much smaller. But within that world, people were also much more involved on a closer level in one another’s lives - sometimes out of necessity and sometimes out of nosy neighbour syndrome.
But, in today’s world, what often happens as we are connected to people around the world at our fingertips, is that we assume the best in ourselves, and we assume the worst in other people. It turns our brains into places where “we” make the world a better place, but “they” are destroying this place and corrupting all that used to be good about this world.
Rarely will we admit to thinking things like:
Instead of admitting these things out loud, we commit ourselves to a public image that presents only our best selves, and we assume that everyone assesses our actions as only our best intentions. After all, we are just trying to follow Paul’s words when he says “loathe what is evil, and cling to what is good,” right?
Of course, we might be misunderstanding what Paul’s intentions were a little bit. But the list he provides also can feel rather difficult to adhere to in today’s world. And, it can cause some feelings of guilt or shame to crop up as we hear this list and wonder how well we have adhered to it in our own lives.
But, the point is not to adhere perfectly to this list. Paul is speaking to people who are struggling, just like we do, to live out Christian faith in practice. The challenges we face in our own Christian faith today are no different than the challenges Christians faced in Paul’s day.
Well, that’s not entirely true of course, because we live in vastly different worlds. But the human mind has not changed all that much, and we are still challenged by our human emotions and our limited human understandings.
So, what does it mean to be Christian today? What is essential to our life as Christians, even as we are challenged to live up to what Paul considers the marks of true Christians? Paul gives us a pretty good run-down, but what it boils down to from what I can tell is love. Love of God, love of neighbour, and love of self. His list is a reminder of how to treat one another.
The very first thing he says is “let love be genuine.” He then says “love one another with mutual affection.” A bit further along, he says “rejoice in hope.” Love one another with mutual affection, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. If we remember only those four things, we have a pretty good start to being Christian.
Next week we are going to start a sermon series on what Moravians consider the essentials to our Christian faith. And I’ll go into more detail next week as I introduce the series, but the Moravian motto, as many of you know, is “In essentials, unity; In non-essentials, liberty; In all things, love.” This motto is one of the reasons I was drawn to the Moravian Church.
I don’t want to ruin the message for next week, and I don’t want to bore you next week by going into detail too much today, but we’re going to talk in depth about the six things the Moravian church considers essential, why those six things and not other things, and how they fit into our lives as Christians.
But, in the meantime, I want to talk about one element of our Christian Faith that is incredibly important and meaningful, and which we are going to participate in together today. That act is the celebration of Holy Communion. In the Moravian church, we consider only two things to be sacramental - Communion, and Baptism.
Thus, Communion is a deeply important aspect of our Christian faith. And, I know you all have been celebrating communion regularly through COVID, but today is the first day we are going to go back to the celebration of Holy Communion in the traditional Moravian way.
And, because I understand it has been a few years since we’ve done this, and there are people here who have not experienced the traditional Moravian way of doing communion, I want to talk a bit about the importance of this practice.
First of all, as you can see, I am wearing this flowy white robe today. Some of you may be wondering what the purpose of this robe is. In the Moravian church, it is called a Surplice. There is a long history of the use of the surplice for sacraments, but in a nutshell, it symbolizes the gift of purity and the blessings of Christ that are offered through the ministry of those who act in Christ’s name.
It takes the attention and focus off the individual pastor and is intended to allow the focus of the sacrament to be on Christ. Some pastors wear it for the entire service, and others just put it on during the sacrament. I find it easiest to just wear it for the entire service, but it can be done either way. Some Moravian pastors have even moved away from wearing it at all.
Secondly, we use a Communion liturgy which gives you and me direction on how to proceed with the sacrament. In the Moravian church, the pastor goes out and serves the elements to you all, and you stay in your seats. We also wait until everyone is served, and we partake together. So, I will pass out the bread first, we will partake together, and then I will pass out the juice next, and we will once again partake together.
The Moravian church defines sacraments as a visible sign of invisible grace. It is a reminder that we ALL receive God’s grace. All are welcome to the table in the Moravian church. At least in the Northern Province, you likely will not hear a pastor say that some are excluded from taking Communion.
There is a sacredness to communion that sometimes gets forgotten in the hustle and bustle of busy lives, in our eagerness to get out of church, or in the logistics of receiving the elements. But when we receive communion, we should slow down, breathe, and appreciate the sacrifice Christ made for us.
My very first opportunity to serve communion was at my previous church. I will never forget it, because I was nervous. It was my very first week serving as their appointed pastor, and it was Ash Wednesday. I had been working as their pastor for two days, and I had to serve communion.
You can imagine what was running through my head beforehand - what if I trip? What if I spill? What if I spill ON someone? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I forget what to say completely? Oh, the things that could go wrong! Good thing communion is a sign of grace, right?! It’s also lucky the Moravian church isn’t as picky about it going perfectly as some other churches are!
But you know what? It went perfectly. And, I didn’t think I would feel much other than relief that it was over and that I didn’t mess up. But the moment I began serving the bread and made eye contact with every member of that church, I experienced something I did not expect. It was a beautiful moment, incredibly powerful and meaningful, and one I will never forget.
I experienced God’s grace that day. I don’t know if anyone else experienced it the way I did, but I thought it was beautiful. My anxiety was gone, and all that was left was joy at serving people on behalf of Christ, who died for all of us.
The other beautiful thing about Moravian communion is that, as I said, the pastor goes out and serves you, rather than you coming to receive the elements. It is, for me, symbolic of God meeting us where we are. But, I have noticed something else as well. The people I serve are able to relax and appreciate the sacrament this way.
It takes the pressure off of you all, and you don’t have to worry about what happens if you trip, or hold your hands the wrong way, or swallow wrong because it’s hard to walk and chew at the same time in front of people.
It is a more intimate ceremony, and, I think, it’s symbolic of the way Jesus served others. Jesus went out to the people. Jesus didn’t sit back and wait for them to come to him, though of course some people came to him anyway. But in going to you, the experience becomes personal. And hopefully, you experience grace in that moment you make eye contact and accept the elements.
That is, after all, the purpose for receiving communion. So, I hope that as you receive communion today, you recognize the symbolism behind the act of being served. I hope you experience grace and connection to the divine. And I hope in that grace that you remember what it means to you to be Christian in this time and place.
Christ is the reason we gather together each week. Our collective experience of grace, along with faith, love, and hope brings us together and fills us with joy in our love of the divine. In communion, we experience the good news of Jesus Christ, and we experience it together, as one unified body. Amen.
Let us pray: Jesus, we pray with gratitude, hope, and joy today. As we prepare to come to Your table, we feel the joy of welcome. Some of us come to Your table with our brokenness, our anxieties, our worries, our traumas, or our heartaches, and you come to the table with healing grace and with your love for us. Some of us come to Your table in joy, self-confidence, and hope, and you welcome us with open arms.
No matter what we bring to Your table today, you offer Your grace and mercy. You do not require anything of us other than that we come to the table, and for this we are grateful. Many of us have felt unworthy at one point or another in our lives, and yet You have always welcomed us, invited us to sit down, and carried our burdens.
And You do that without complaint, day after day, week after week, month after month, lifetime after lifetime. For this, we thank you. May we open ourselves to your grace as we prepare ourselves to receive Holy Communion today. All of this we pray in your name. Amen.
Growing up, one of the models I had for teaching was my dad. And I’ll be honest with you - my dad was not always the best teacher. My dad was one of those people who would get easily frustrated with teaching and would just say “aww just let me do it.”
As much as I loved him, I learned quickly that if I wanted to learn something, Dad probably wasn’t the best one to teach me. When it came time for me to buy my first car, the one I wanted was a stick shift, but I didn’t know how to drive a stick. So my dad tried to teach me, and it was the most frustrating experience trying to learn that I’d ever had.
So I quickly took him home, and said you know, I got this. And I drove back to my apartment, totally winging it, and I eventually figured out how to drive it on my own.
And, after that experience, I promised myself that if ever I had the chance to teach people, I would not fall into the same patterns as my dad.
They often say, sometimes we learn just as much about what NOT to do as we learn about what we are supposed to do when someone else is teaching us.
Many of you may remember from my first sermon that prior to becoming a pastor, I owned my own business.
I promised myself when I became a dog trainer that I would not teach people the same way my dad taught me. And in many ways, what my dad taught me ultimately was how to be a better teacher. So, I learned that I needed to meet people where they were at - I could not expect them to know everything I knew. That’s why they came to learn, after all!
I took this approach with clients and with staff, and I also quickly realized that I could not just expect everything to be done exactly the way I wanted it done all the time. It could not be a “my way or the highway” approach, or I would never keep my staff around, and I would be fighting constant battles for perfection that I could barely expect from myself, let alone other people.
I also took the approach that my goal was to train people so well that they could eventually take over the business if they wanted to. Essentially, I wanted to train people so that they could do my job as well if not better than I could.
I was not worried about competition. I wanted to collaborate with my staff.
And, I wanted to help them grow. My goal was always to help them develop career skills, even if that meant they would eventually leave me and move on to better things. While they worked for me, I wanted them to become a better version of themselves.
Doing this meant I had to let go of certain things. Yes, I might have wanted some things done a certain way. But if there was not a safety, cleanliness, ethical, or other important reason something had to be done a certain way, it did me no good to force people to do things the way I did.
It did not matter if the towels were folded exactly the way I liked, or if the desk was organized the way I liked it. As the business became more successful, and I became busier with my pastoral internships and schooling, my staff did the majority of the work at the business anyway, so I could allow them the freedom to do things the way they wanted, as long as it didn’t cause a safety or ethical concern.
As a pastor, I learned a lot from being a business owner. And one of the things I learned is that in church environments as well, people all have different skills, gifts, talents, and abilities, and people have different things they like to be responsible for. I had seen what happens at churches when pastors come in and put their foot down right away and say it’s “my way or the highway.”
Ministry is no longer a collaborative effort when a pastor does that, but instead it becomes a battle between the pastor’s authority and the people who are doing much of the unpaid volunteer work.
Now of course, lacking leadership skills isn’t a great thing for a pastor either. But it has to be about collaboration, not competition.
I never saw myself as competing with my staff - in fact, if it was a competition, I wanted them to become better than me! And I don’t see my role in a church as a competition either. I see it as collaborative leadership, working with the skills that the congregation has.
As Paul says, present your bodies as a living sacrifice. For my purposes, I apply this to my own life by reminding myself that I need to set aside my own ego, present that as a living sacrifice to become even more holy and acceptable to God. If I hold onto ego, if I expect everyone to conform to my way of doing things, I squash other people’s joy for ministry.
Paul goes on to say that we should not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but instead approach ourselves with sober judgment. Again, set aside our egos, collaborate, and build up the gifts of others.
If, as a business owner, I insisted on everything being done exactly as I wanted it done, I would have missed out on new ideas or new and better ways of doing things.
And if, as a pastor, I insisted that you all did things exactly as I said, I would stifle your own gifts for ministry and your own talents. And, I would be creating a whole lot more work for myself, too!
Likewise, if you all expect one another to do things exactly as YOU insist they are done, even if there are other ways of doing things that are equally as good, you squash one another’s desire for collaborative ministry.
Paul reminds us today that we all have our own spiritual gifts and talents.
We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us. Some of us are preachers, some are singers, some are musicians, some are administrators, some are teachers, some are caregivers, some are technology gurus, some are handy around the building, and the list goes on and on. And as we come together as a church, we share our gifts and talents with each other.
But Paul’s word of caution remains: do not think more highly of yourself than you ought to.
I think the way this applies most in churches is that people often forget that just because you have certain gifts doesn’t mean that others don’t have those same gifts.
I have worked with a number of different churches, and it always seems the case that certain people are in charge of certain things, and everyone knows not to step on those people’s toes. But in pigeonholing people into certain roles, we do two things: first, of course, we risk no one knowing what to do if something happens to the person responsible.
But, I think more importantly, we might end up stifling the gifts and talents someone else might have for those things. Rather than teaching others with similar gifts, helping them grow into their own talents for ministry, we suggest they try something else - something that may not be the best fit for them.
Or, worse still, we might discourage that person from volunteering for ministry roles at all because they feel they don’t bring value to the church. This is where ego can get in our way. In some ways, Paul is speaking directly to us today in reminding us to set aside our egos and let the gifts of others shine, and by extension, this allows our own gifts to shine brighter.
In ministry, like in business, we leave ourselves open to risk when one or two people are the only ones responsible for a certain skill set. We also may not be the best stewards of our resources if we are holding onto our own egos. It is a difficult line to walk - one in which we are using our skills and abilities in the best way we know how, but in which we are also boosting the skills and talents of others around us.
What might it look like in life if everyone could set aside their ego - presenting their bodies as a living sacrifice - and lift up the gifts and talents of those around them. Humans tend to struggle with jealousy, and if we see someone else successfully using their skills and talents, we tend to want to compete with them, or show them up, or bring the spotlight back onto ourselves.
We all struggle with this! But what if, as we work to lift others up and boost the talents and skills of those around us, we start to become better stewards in our own right? When we set aside our own egos, we may suddenly be able to see the value and importance not only of the work we do, but the collaborative efforts we have with others.
God has given each of us skills and talents, and many of us use those skills and talents wisely and humbly. Nevertheless, Paul encourages us to set aside our own pride and instead focus on the talents of others, and in doing so, we lift ourselves up as well. We become good stewards of our collective time, talent, and even treasure.
We become more generous with our thoughts and deeds, more generous with our compliments and encouragement, and more generous with our gratitude toward those who give of their talents and time to support the community. And, we may even become more generous with our treasure if we become more aware of the needs of others and of our community.
In that way, our spiritual gifts become a catalyst for our stewardship, and stewardship begins to become a priority not just for us as individuals but for the community as a whole. It becomes a collaborative effort - one we can focus on collectively because we are individually lifting one another up, creating an uplifting, welcoming, and encouraging environment.
So, as Paul suggests, I encourage us all to set aside our own egos this week, notice the things that others in our church and our community do for the common good, and begin to think about how we are using our own time, talent, and treasure for the benefit of others.
As Christians, this is one of our calls. We are called to love God, and to love our neighbours as ourselves, but we are also called to be good stewards of our own time, talent, and treasure, but also of the community’s time, talent, and treasure, and of course we are called to be good stewards of God’s creation, which includes ourselves and our communities.
May you go from here today in renewed dedication to discovering your own talents and interests in ministry, but especially with renewed dedication to uplifting those around you, appreciating their spiritual gifts, and becoming more generous with your support and love for others. Amen.
Let us pray: Most generous and loving God, we pray today a prayer of gratitude for all that you have provided for us. We are grateful for our collective spiritual gifts that enable us to be a faithful community of Christ-followers. We are grateful for the financial resources we have at our disposal, and we are grateful for the talents of each of the individuals in this congregation who work tirelessly to build up our ministry and our church.
In that gratitude, we pray that you would help us remember to set aside our own egos if we are becoming too prideful, and instead put that energy into lifting up those around us. In lifting others up, supporting them, and being mindful of how our words and actions affect them, we pray that you would also help us to use our own spiritual gifts in ways that honor You, your church, and this community.
With love and gratitude, we pray all of this in your name. Amen.
Today’s gospel message is a challenging one for preachers. I am a member of an online clergy group, and there was a post in that group earlier this week about this Gospel message, and one person said they actually have a note on their calendar to take vacation during this week in the lectionary. Many others had similar sentiments. But why were so many pastors reluctant to preach on this passage?
Well, because we hear in this Gospel message what sounds to us today like a Jesus we don’t particularly like. And obviously, we’re Christians, and we want to like Jesus all the time. So we want to go about justifying his behavior toward this Canaanite woman to make ourselves feel better about this passage.
It helps, I think, to understand what is going on here a little bit better. It is not our job to blindly accept everything Jesus does as perfect, nor anyone else for that matter. It’s also not our job to blindly do as someone else does without thinking about how it might affect other people. It is our job to ask questions of what we read in the Bible and try to better understand what’s happening.
So, let’s start by calling out what we hear in this passage that feels challenging. The Canaanite woman is shouting for Jesus to have mercy on her - loudly and without shame, and Jesus is ignoring her completely. Not only is Jesus ignoring her, but his disciples are urging him to send this woman away because, essentially, she’s annoying them.
To our ears, by today’s standards, this part of the interaction sounds pretty appalling. But Jesus is going by an old script for interactions such as this one - a script based on tradition and an us vs. them mentality that is deeply rooted in societal customs and tribal mores. They are in foreign territory, and everyone is a little more on edge being outside of the comfort of their typical community.
But to the faithful members of the Gospel writer, Matthew’s community, Jesus reacts to the woman’s request just as they would expect a rabbi to respond. This woman represents Israel’s ancient enemy - the Canaanites! Traditional religious practices and prejudices, which were designed to guide Israel’s relationship with “outsiders” and “enemies”, would support his dismissal of her desperate concern for her daughter.
Jesus initially replies not to the woman directly but to his disciples, telling them that he was not sent to work with anyone but the house of Israel, thus upholding these community prejudices. This woman is none of his concern and is not worth his time or energy because she is not a member of his flock. But, she persists. She kneels in front of him, begging him to help her. From here, it gets worse: Jesus insults her. She looks to him like a dog begging for crumbs under the table.
Jesus says: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, he was sent only to be a shepherd of a particular flock, and it isn’t fair for his skills and abilities, his healing powers and his gifts, to be used on people who are not a member of that flock. He also implies here that she is far beneath those he came to help - akin to a dog.
Jesus is participating in ritualized humiliation of this woman, and this makes us feel a bit uncomfortable. The woman responds by acknowledging that tradition does hold that his people - the Israelites - would see her as a dog. She doesn’t try to defend her status in his society. But then she seems to turn the conversation on its head by saying “but even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the table.”
We don’t hear if there is a pause, or even some laughter at this comment. We don’t get to know if Jesus smiles at her, chuckling because he realized she not only won the argument but she also changed his mind. It might have been nice to see that side of Jesus’ humanity, but Matthew doesn’t find it important to share this information with us.
This is one moment in Matthew’s Gospel when we see Jesus learning something new, and, as a result, he becomes someone different. His humanity is on full display in this passage, and it is not a lot different than the interactions we experience with people today.
I’ll share a quick story to highlight just one experience I had with a culture of “us vs. them” and with one group of people telling me how awful someone else was. I worked at a continuing care retirement facility when I was in college, as a receptionist on the second shift. There were, of course, second shift nurses and CNAs who I worked with regularly, and it was a tight-knit group of people.
They were the “in group,” if you will, and first shift workers - and in particular the maintenance supervisor - were the “out group”, or the “other.” I was told from my first day on the job how awful the maintenance supervisor was to work with, how no one on second shift liked him, and how they thought he was just biding his time until retirement.
He was lazy, unhelpful, and never answered when they called him. Their attitude was much like the disciples and even Jesus toward this Canaanite woman - he was akin to a dog who didn’t deserve their time or energy or kindness.
But, guess what? I never actually had a problem with the maintenance supervisor. Had I let my co-workers dictate my own opinion of him, I probably wouldn’t have liked him either. But, I found him to be quite a nice guy, he was always helpful to me, always answered when I called him, and we got along very well while I worked there.
We very often have similar experiences in our lives. We become part of the “in group” or the “us” from an early age with regard to lots of different situations. We are part of a family - the “us” that is set apart from everyone else. Family is often set above all others, and it can be very difficult to work against this, even if our family does not treat us the best.
It is possible to become the person in your family that feels like the outcast - the black sheep, the other.
We also see this happen in school when we become part of a friend group, but don’t belong to other friend groups. It happens in our careers - as demonstrated by my example of the maintenance supervisor.
And, believe it or not, it happens in churches. We like to think that church is the one place that should be welcoming to everyone. The one place that we should not feel an us vs. them, insider vs. outsider mentality. After all, Jesus told us to love our neighbours as ourselves. And yet, we see in today’s Gospel passage that at least in this instance, Jesus really didn’t mean neighbours outside of the Israelite community, at least not initially.
At least, that’s how it appears from this passage, and it’s what we know about the community that Matthew is concerned with in his Gospel. But we very clearly see Jesus change his mind, learn something new, and recognize that the flock he thought he was sent to was actually much larger than he originally thought.
We see him realize in this moment that even people outside of the flock of Israel are worthy of his gifts, of his love and care, and of his saving grace. This passage could have been left out - Matthew could have glossed over it or excluded it, but it’s an important one because it shows us Jesus’s humanity, and it gives us pause to look at our own lives and relationships.
It gives us pause as a church as well to ask ourselves if there are ways that our church maintains tradition and customs that create an us vs. them environment without even realizing it. In what ways does our church hold tight to ways of doing things that might exclude others who are different from us? Or, that might cause visitors or outsiders to feel unwelcome or uncomfortable.
The disciples could not empathize with this woman. They were too biased by tradition, societal customs and norms, and their own ways of doing things. They could not see her as anything other than a dog. This Canaanite woman does not even get to be named in this passage. Even Jesus took more than a moment to remove the veil from his eyes.
What might it take, then, for a church community to be able to see from an outsider’s perspective? To be able to look at the ways we might be treating people as “other” even when we don’t necessarily intend to do so? Are there ways we can approach our church and our community as outsiders to better understand how someone from outside the community might see us?
These are the questions that this passage invites us to ask about ourselves. And these questions can apply to situations outside of our church environment as well, of course. It is an example of Jesus’s humanity that calls to light our own humanity - our own prejudices. Our own family systems and societal norms that create a sense of meaning for us, but also a sense of belonging that may not apply to outsiders.
The Canaanite woman accepts that she is an outsider - she accepts that Jesus and people like him regarded Canaanites as wild dogs. She does not presume to be invited to the table, but she does wonder if she could at least gather the scraps that fall from the table.
Looking at it from her perspective, under what circumstances have we felt like we were treated as less than - as unworthy? It certainly is sad to know that this woman accepts that not only is she not welcome to the table, but she is no better than a dog that scavenges for scraps. Our sensibilities today look at this passage and feel simply awful for her.
No one should be treated like that. But here we see Jesus, of all people, treat her this way! And yet, how often do we treat others this way - perhaps more subtly - without even realizing it? We might not outright insult them, but in what ways do we make people feel like the “other” without knowing we make them feel that way?
These are questions worth asking ourselves as we leave here today. But, perhaps more importantly, we should remember that Jesus was able to remove the veil of tradition. Even he had an element of humanity that we experience ourselves. Through her persistence, the Canaanite woman was able to help Jesus recognize truth when he heard it.
He saw a gentile ready to be part of a flock much larger than the one he thought he was sent to. He realized in this moment that his flock was expanding before his eyes. So the good news from this challenging passage is that if even Jesus can have prejudices based on societal customs and norms, and if even Jesus can change his mind, learn something new, and grow and evolve, then so can we.
This may be a difficult passage to read and to preach, but I think seeing Jesus’ humanity is important for us. It helps us to be able to look at ourselves and our world differently. Through his example, we can see that perfection was never the goal. Being open to change, learning, and growth is the goal.
Moravian Bishop Chris Giesler, in his preaching message this week, reminds us that “at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says: ‘Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.’ This means everyone, not just those who look, speak, or act like you - all people.”
Bishop Giesler closes his message by saying, “in our world today of deepening division along racial, ethnic, political, and religious lines, today’s text should cause us to wake up. Jesus’ witness is vital as we seek to unite people. This is the very foundation of mission.” I would argue it is the very foundation of our faith. Amen.
Let us pray. God of mercy and grace, we offer our thanks for sending your son Jesus Christ to demonstrate for us the ways in which we can grow as people, evolve in our ways of thinking and seeing the world, and overcome learned biases toward anyone we were taught to consider as the “other.”
We pray today that you would help us to remove the veil from our eyes, expand our own minds, and open up our world to see the larger picture of unity and love that you would have us see. We ask that you would help us to see things we have been unable to see in ourselves and our world, and that you would walk with us when we struggle to lift the veil or when we unknowingly stick to traditions and customs that cause us to “other” another person or group of people.
May we see clearly, may we be grateful for Jesus’ example, and may we learn to grow in faith and acceptance of others. All of this we pray in your name. Amen.
One of the things that has amazed me since I’ve become a pastor is how conversations I have during the week often fit well into whatever the sermon message is for the week. It’s funny - my aunt gifted me a tumbler that says “Be careful, or you’ll end up in my sermon,” and while I don’t ever use specific people in my sermon without asking, I do often find conversations that lend themselves well to the theme for the week.
For those of you who have talked to me this week: don’t worry, I won’t throw you under the bus! But this week, I want to talk about doubt because I think it’s actually an incredibly common experience among Christians, and in general among anyone who has any kind of faith background at all. It is quite natural to find yourself experiencing doubt from time to time.
Life is complicated, and when things aren’t going the way we hoped, or when life goes in a direction we weren’t expecting or didn’t plan for, or when something bad happens to a good person, it can be easy to lose faith or begin to doubt in God’s presence or God’s power in our lives.
We see this happen in today’s Gospel reading, and Peter’s response to Jesus is reminiscent of the way many of us respond when facing something scary, or confusing, or difficult. I’ll share with you an example from my own life that I don’t believe I’ve shared in a sermon before because it’s a rather painful experience.
I’ll share it at a high level to help demonstrate this notion of doubt and how God responds to us in these times of struggle and pain.
When I was in college, I was involved in a very difficult, very painful, and very abusive relationship situation.
Unfortunately, I spent 4 and half out of the 5 years I was in college in this situation. I won’t share a lot of the details, but I will share a vivid memory I have that I will never forget. One night, late, I left the apartment I lived in on my bike. I had no idea where I was planning to go, I just knew I needed to get out, but I ended up on a lawn of one of our campus buildings.
I stopped biking and sat down on the lawn and I just cried and cried. I felt completely alone, completely worthless, I didn’t have any friends I could call because I had been discouraged from doing things with anyone other than my partner, and I couldn’t call my parents and admit to them my misery because I couldn’t listen to them say they told me so.
So I cried, feeling alone and scared.
I shared in last week’s sermon that when I was in college, I was not a particularly faithful person, so my concept of God at this point in time was minimal. I truly felt completely alone in that moment and I did not even try to call on God for help.
It was not until years later that I realized that I was not, in fact, alone that night on the lawn. It was the most alone I have ever felt, but looking back, I know I wasn’t truly alone. Jesus was reaching out to me, but I didn’t realize it, and I think what happened then was that because I wasn’t ready to take his hand, Jesus met me where I was and wrapped his arms around me and just held space for my sadness and my loneliness.
So when I read a passage like today’s and I see an example of a disciple - one who was there to witness Jesus’s work and his ministry and miracles - who begins to doubt when fear creeps in, I remember that it’s alright if I hold onto doubt and fear as well. If Jesus didn’t turn his back on Peter, who was demanding proof, then Jesus isn’t going to turn his back on me, or you, either.
What we see happening in this story is that Peter is suspicious of this person they see walking on the water toward them. In fact, they perceive him as a ghost, but Jesus tells them it is him and also tells them not to be afraid. Peter responds to Jesus not with faith or with trust, but with scepticism, and as is common with the disciples, he asks Jesus for proof.
Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus responds by simply saying “come” and Peter moves onto the water and starts walking toward Jesus. It was then that Peter noticed the wind - a symbol for the things that become distractions or that make us feel doubtful or alone.
In his doubt, Peter begins to sink into the water, which of course would cause anyone to become even more afraid or even to panic. In his fear and desperation and panic, Peter cries out “Lord, save me!”
Jesus responds immediately by reaching his hand out to Peter. Jesus wonders why Peter began to doubt.
But what is important to remember about this story is that even when Peter needed proof, even when he began to lose faith and trust and began to doubt himself and Jesus, Jesus reached his hand out to him. Peter chose to grab hold of Jesus’s hand, but I suspect that even if Peter had not reached out for Jesus, Jesus would have dove right into that water and met Peter where he landed.
When I was in my time of need - lonely, heartbroken, desperate, and doubtful about myself and the world, Jesus was reaching out. And when I didn’t grab hold, Jesus met me where I was at, held me close, and gave me space. It didn’t look like much - it was so subtle that I didn’t even notice or think about Jesus in the moment. But he was reaching for me nonetheless.
And I think it is important for us to remember that in the times when we feel most lost, most alone, and most desperate or hopeless, that is when Jesus carries us. We may not be ready to take his hand. We may feel we’ve lost our faith, we may doubt his love for us, we may wonder why our prayers were not answered or where God was in a particular situation.
But Jesus is always reaching for us. It may not be to give us the answer we hoped for, but the love Jesus has for us does not waver. Even if we find ourselves like Peter - full of doubt and feeling undeserving of his love, Jesus reaches for us. And when we can’t or don’t know how to reach back, Jesus comes to us in whatever way we need or can accept.
And that is a key part of today’s message - sometimes, we are not ready or able to accept Jesus’s hand. I was not ready or able to reach out for Jesus in my time of need. And yet, he reaches for us and is ready whenever we are ready to take his hand.
And the story we heard today - the knowledge that Jesus reaches for us even when we feel like our faith is lost - is the reason I was able to find him again. It is the reason I am a pastor today, and the reason I can confidently say that Jesus loves us no matter how we feel about him. Most of us have been like Peter at one point or another.
And Jesus remains our rock on which we stand. All other ground - doubt, fear, shame, and guilt - is sinking sand. If you ever feel like you are sinking, I hope you know that Jesus is there reaching out to you. And, if you heard nothing else from this message today, hear this: if you can’t grab on to Jesus in your moment of doubt or fear, he will not leave your side and his hand will always be ready to grab hold of you when you are ready to take it. Amen.
Let us pray: Jesus, today we cry out to you. We know that we often find ourselves full of doubt or uncertainty, and in those times, we are grateful that you are always reaching for us. Your hand is available to pull us to safety when we feel ourselves sinking. We offer our gratitude today, Jesus, that you are there with us even in those times when we are not sure that you are.
We pray that you would help us to look back on the times in our lives when we felt like we were sinking - when we felt lost, hopeless, or unsure - and that we could recognize your presence and the hope that you bring, even in difficult situations. Jesus, we know that sometimes it can be difficult to focus on your presence in times of stress, panic, frustration, or uncertainty.
We pray that you continue to reach out to us, to guide us, and to wrap us in your love, even if we are unable to reach for you. May your presence always be felt, and may you forgive our times of doubt as you forgave Peter and the other disciples who struggled with doubt as well. All of this we pray in your name. Amen.
Good morning Good Shepherd Church! What a wonderful welcome I have received over the last couple weeks as I have been getting settled in and meeting many of you!
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been nearly four months since I first came to Calgary to visit and do my call meeting with the Good Shepherd Board.
It’s an odd position to be in - serving one church while holding a call to another, working through the immigration process, preparing both mentally and physically to move to a new country, all while being excited to start a new journey with a new church and a new group of Christ followers.
And now, here we are together. My challenge, of course, is to figure out what I say to this brand-new group of people that I don’t know well yet, and who don’t yet know me well.
What words could I possibly share that would be helpful and meaningful without knowing you all yet?
Believe it or not I still don’t have an answer to that question, so bear with me, but I thought it might be helpful to start by sharing with all of you a little bit of my faith journey. Most people look at me and wonder “how did SHE become a pastor?” And that’s a valid question, so I’ll try to answer it, knowing that much of my journey has been guided by the Holy Spirit, and I didn’t necessarily have control over every twist and turn.
I grew up in a Catholic family. My grandparents on both sides of my family were Catholic, and they raised my parents Catholic as well. My Dad attended Catholic school where his experience caused him to lose some faith in the Catholic Church. When my parents decided to have kids, they also wanted us to have some faith formation opportunities.
So of course they sent us to Catholic Sunday School. I wouldn’t say my family attended church EVERY Sunday, and as we got older, our Sunday church attendance became less and less. My sister and I got busier with activities, and I think my parents were growing tired of the Church for a variety of reasons.
My parents continued to send us to Sunday school and enrolled us in Confirmation classes as well, but they gave us the choice as to whether or not we wanted to confirm into the Catholic church. Both of us chose not to confirm, and shortly after that, my family stopped going to church regularly at all, and mostly just went on Easter and Christmas.
However, religion has always fascinated me, even as a young person. Choosing not to confirm into the church didn’t mean I stopped believing in God, but it did begin a journey of faith exploration and education that I never would have gotten had I stayed in the Church I grew up in.
I explored a few different denominational and non-denominational churches while I was still in high school, but then I went off to college and my church exploration stopped, but my faith exploration did not. I had started to realize that church people seemed very hypocritical - they attended church on Sunday and claimed to believe in Jesus, but then walked out the doors and it was like they forgot who Jesus was.
I started to identify less as Christian in the typical sense, and more as “spiritual but not religious.” I was still pretty sure I believed in God or a higher power, but what that looked like I was less sure about. I am someone who seeks answers, proof, and I’m naturally a skeptic, so blind faith in the institution of church was difficult for me. The world seemed so much bigger than what I grew up knowing.
I attended a liberal arts university in Wisconsin, and I was that young adult who had no real idea what I wanted to do for a living. The advice my advisor gave me my freshman year was to take classes that interested me, so that’s what I did. And somehow, I ended up being at that school for 5 years, triple majoring in Communication Arts, Philosophy, and Religious Studies.
But, I should point out that my Communication Arts major focused on Rhetoric, and my Religious Studies major focused on Hinduism and Buddhism, so really, I have three different Philosophy degrees. My mom was frustrated with me because she said none of my majors were practical, but I found them all interesting and that’s what mattered to me at the time.
But, guess what? None of them led to an actual practical career path, at least not immediately. Don’t tell my mom that she was right.
I spent a few years working jobs that had health insurance, because in the US at the time, if you had any pre-existing conditions, you could not get health insurance on your own.
What I really wanted to do at that time was start my own business, but I knew that wasn’t an option for me so I worked a few administrative assistant jobs and other odd and end jobs. I met someone, and got married, all the while not thinking much about organized religion at all, but still exploring different faith traditions.
My first husband and I decided to move to Colorado so he could go to school there. And that’s where my slow journey back to religion started. Because of my very practical religious studies degree, I was able to get a job at a company called Patheos, which was a website aimed at “hosting the conversation on faith.”
I was hired partly because of my administrative skills and partly because of my religious studies background, but the amazing part about this job for the purposes of this story was this was the first time I was introduced to Christians that were not all Catholic or Lutheran.
At Patheos, I worked with bloggers from all kinds of different faith backgrounds: Catholics, Evangelicals, Progressive Christians, people of the Jewish and Muslim faith traditions, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Spiritual but not Religious people - almost any faith category you could think of was represented.
I was able to interact with people and learn about their lived faith experiences in ways I was never exposed to growing up in the church. And I know that sounds ironic because I’m a pastor now, but if all we are ever exposed to is one type of faith community, our frame of reference is quite limited.
At Patheos, I was also introduced to some amazing female pastors. I never knew women could be faith leaders before that experience. I worked with women like Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans - and Nadia was covered in tattoos! Seeing someone I resonated with as a successful female faith leader was unthinkable at that time.
Due to some unfortunate circumstances and my dad’s health, we had to move back to Wisconsin after my ex husband finished school, so I had to go back to administrative jobs for a while. But, the healthcare laws had changed by then, so I decided to start my own business as a dog trainer. I did that while working full time for a while.
Somewhere in here is when I divorced my first husband. Shortly after that, I met the man who would become my second husband. While my marriage to him ultimately did not work out long-term either, he is an important part of my faith journey because he re-introduced me to the church.
He attended a non-denominational church, and when I first met him, I was still rather anti-organized religion, so I groaned inside a little bit that he went to church. But, it was important to him, so I went along, and it turned out that I actually really loved that church. They had a contemporary worship service and it was different than what I was used to.
I began to realize how little I actually knew about Christianity, even though I had grown up in the Catholic church and attended Sunday school most weeks. I love learning, and I especially love learning about religion. At that time, I was also working part-time at a church, and the pastor there helped me and encouraged me to apply for a Master of Divinity program.
When I applied for that program, I had no intention of becoming a pastor. My goal was to learn about Christianity and explore a tradition that was my family’s tradition but that I did not feel I knew as much about as I would like. If you had told me when I applied to that program that I would become a pastor, I would have laughed at you!
I was accepted to the program, and only a few weeks after I was accepted to the program, I received word that the woman who owned the dog daycare facility that I was teaching training classes at passed away very suddenly. I began the process of buying that business from her estate. I successfully bought her business, so in April I got that business back up and running, and in August I started the MDiv program I was accepted to.
I am not actually sure how I survived that period in my life. I spent 4 years working toward my MDiv at Iliff School of Theology, and I somehow got a business through COVID and managed to pass my classes. And during that time, I quite literally stumbled onto the Moravian Church. After determining that it was not in fact a cult, I very quickly fell in love with the theology and found that it most closely aligned with my own personal theology.
Because this story is getting quite long, I’ll just say that once I stumbled into the Moravian Church, one thing led to another, I began the ordination process, and here I am 4 years later.
In all seriousness though, it has been a long journey and a long process of discernment. And of course there is more to this story that I am happy to share with you, especially as it relates to my journey toward ordination. My experiences outside of organized religion have helped to shape the way I see organized religion and the possibilities and challenges we face.
I hope this is a good thing as your new pastor. And I share this story with you today to get to the actual message I want to offer.
One of the things I told the Ordination Review Committee from the very beginning of this process was I would always be authentic in ministry.
In fact, I’m pretty sure I told them more than once that if they did not like my authentic self, then that would be a sign from God that this wasn’t the path I was meant to walk. And after every committee meeting, I reminded myself of this - there was nothing I could do if they didn’t like me and my authentic self.
I was not interested in going into ministry if I was expected to become someone I am not. I was clear from the beginning that I would not hide who I am because I cannot possibly lead a church toward authenticity in ministry if I was not being authentic myself.
And after every meeting, they reaffirmed my call to ministry.
Do you know who else modeled authenticity in ministry? Jesus did. In today’s scripture we heard the disciples tell Jesus to send people away so they could buy their own food, and Jesus says absolutely not - we will feed these people. The disciples were full of doubt about how many resources were available and you can feel their skepticism when Jesus says they will feed everyone.
The disciples often represent our own doubts and fears. They struggled, just like we often do, to trust fully in the work Jesus was doing. So if the disciples, who were witness to Jesus’s ministry and authenticity, often doubted him or struggled to trust fully, it is not surprising that those of us here 2000 years later would also struggle with doubt and fear.
Jesus modeled authenticity even though it went against customs and norms. He didn’t mind that people, including sometimes his disciples, questioned his methods or his compassion for people - especially his compassion for people that society tended to cast aside as unworthy. We heard pastor Cory talk about his experiences with society last week.
The promise I made to myself when I began my journey into ordained ministry was that I would also lead and guide with authenticity. So I cannot stand here today and promise you that I will be the perfect pastor. If I did promise you perfection, you should probably question your Board’s choice to hire me.
I can’t promise perfection - no one can. But I can promise to bring my full, authentic self, with all of my human flaws and failings. And, my hope is that you all will come into our ministry together with your full, authentic selves as well. We can’t promise perfection to one another. We can’t promise perfection because we are humans, and humans are imperfect.
But if we can promise authenticity, if we can promise to work together, to model authenticity as Jesus modeled it for us, we can begin our ministry journey together with passion, compassion, and understanding. I promise to bring my authentic self to our collaborative ministry, and I hope you can do the same.
I look forward to hearing your faith journey stories, and I’m so excited to work together in ministry with each of you. I hope we can take some time to get to know one another, and I hope that by sharing my story with you, it will prompt you all to share your stories of faith, of your connection to Good Shepherd, or of whatever other journey you have been on.
I invite you to share your stories with me, and to share them with each other. Sometimes, we’ve known people for so long that we forget to share our faith stories, or we forget to update them as we grow and evolve in our faith. So let’s share our stories with one another over the coming weeks and months.
May God bless this path we walk, may we welcome the Spirit into our ministry, and may we emulate the model that Jesus offered to us. Amen.
Let us pray: God of love and compassion, thank for sending your Son Jesus Christ to model authentic ministry for us. We pray as a congregation today that you would guide us in our new ministry relationship, that you would offer hope, love, and grace as we learn about one another and learn how to collaborate as we serve you in all we do.
We pray that through authentic ministry, we can take bold and brave action when necessary, and that we can set aside our fears and worries and live fully into your mission for us and our church community. May we accept your wisdom and guidance in all that we do together. All of this we pray in your name.