Distilling A Lifetime of Faith
This is one of the hardest sermons I have ever had to write. This is a time of both joy and sorrow.
I have written 1434 different sermons during my 38 years of ministry. I have preached almost 1600 sermons … which means I repeated a few, but most of the sermons I offered were new, written for different times and different celebrations and different contexts.
This is my last “regular” sermon. I may preach again occasionally as a guest, but I suspect those times will be few.
Before COVID–19 hit, I was beginning to think about what I would say in my last sermon. I had started to make some plans … and then everything changed. We haven’t been able to worship together since March 8. I have kept writing sermons to help nourish us in this time, but it hasn’t been quite the same.
My greatest sorrow is that we should have been able to walk through this time together. We should have been able to celebrate this ending of our time together. But we can’t, so we make the best of this situation and time. It breaks my heart not to be able to share this moment with you, and we will have to wait until we can say our goodbyes properly.
In my preaching and ministry among you and with you, I have tried to tell the truth and to tell it in love. (I’ll say a little more about that at the end of this sermon). I have also tried diligently to live out my words. More often than I would like to think, I have failed to do so because I am a fallible human being. But I got up and tried again.
The heart of what I believe, what I have tried to proclaim, what I have tried to live is found in these ten thoughts:
1. God lives. I believe profoundly in the presence of the living God whose deepest desire is to fill us with abundant life.
2. God loves us and all creatures deeply and passionately. As I learned from an early mentor, “Nothing we can do will make God love us any more. Nothing we can do will make God love us any less.” We are God’s beloved people, and the earth teems with the creatures with whom God has fallen in love.
3. God cares. God is not some remote being who set the world running and then promptly forgot about it. God is not some distant force. but is as near as our next breath. God is involved in our lives, and longs fiercely for us to be involved with equal passion in the life of God.
4. God calls. God entrusts us with the message of love and invites us to live it out in the world. God calls us to a vocation of compassion and passion for the gospel, that we be a people for whom love is the highest value. That vocation is encapsulated in the Great Commandment: love God with all that you are and love your neighbour as yourself. Be people of love, and reach out to all others in as many creative ways as we can in everything we do.
5. God empowers us. We do not live out our vocation by our own strength. God is at work in us and with us and among us and around us. God strengthens us to be people of love, grace, compassion, joy, and hope.
6. God needs us. St. Teresa of Avila (15th century Spanish mystic) wrote, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands,
yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” God simply cannot fill this world with love and compassion without us.
7. God leads. Which means that we follow. God always takes the initiative, and we respond. If you’re a grammar nerd like me, the gospel always begins with the indicative, and only then does it move to the imperative. The gospel begins, “I am God, I am with you, you are Mine, I love you.” Then God says, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news of life.” The Ten Commandments is a wonderful example of this. Exodus 20 begins, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This is what I have done; how, here is how my people can live together in peace and grace.
8. For Christians, Christ is the very image of God. We claim that we see the purposes of God most clearly in Christ. This doesn’t mean that Christ is the only image of God. Other religions speak of God in different ways, and we can, and must, treat those other religions with respect and love. While it is not true for all, for us who follow Jesus, we claim that he is the one who shows us God most clearly.
9. We are, in Christ, the very image of God. As we follow and respond to God, as we seek to walk in the Way of Jesus, we bear within us the image of God. Like Mary, we are Theotokos, “God–bearers”. Each day we give birth to God.
10. The Bible is not a manual for life. Rather, the Bible tells the stories of God’s people who throughout history have tried to live in relationship with God. The Bible is not a rule book or a set of commandments or God’s little instruction book. The Bible’s stories can inspire the stories of our lives, so that as we learn from our ancestors in faith, we can seek to live in the same faith as we add our little bits to the grand story as we live in very different contexts in the 21st century.
These ten thoughts are the basis of my faith, my trust, my relationship with God. Of course, there is much more to be said about each of these, but people have told me that brevity is the soul of wit. It’s a good way to end …
… but I can’t end without at least a comment about one of the readings for today. It’s my Presbyterian heritage coming through, I suppose.
The alternative Old Testament reading today comes from the prophet Jeremiah. It’s the story of two prophets in conflict at a time just after the people of Israel had been taken into Exile. The Babylonian armies had overrun Jerusalem, destroyed and looted the Temple, and took all the leaders and many of the people to Babylon. It was a crisis of unimaginable proportions.
Along comes a prophet named Hananiah. Please remember that a prophet is not someone who predicts the future. A prophet is similar to what we mean when we say “preacher”. (Now you can see why this reading seems appropriate to me on this last Sunday as a preacher, and why I couldn’t resist commenting on it.)
He claims to speak in the name of God. “When you get to Babylon, don’t bother to unpack. I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon; you will be back home within two years. All the treasures of the temple will come back with you, and your leaders as well. God has promised a quick and easy deliverance.”
You can see why the people would love a preacher like this. This difficult time won’t last. It will come to an end soon. Hang in there, God is with you, God is on your side, all you need to do is believe, and you will find prosperity and deliverance.
It almost sounds as if Hananiah could have written Robert Schuller’s book Tough Times Never Last, but Tough People Do. Well I’m sorry, Robert. “If it doesn’t kill you it will make you
stronger” may be a nice slogan, but sometimes tough times do last. And sometimes vulnerable people are hurt and killed. They don’t become stronger.
On the other side stands Jeremiah. In chapter 27, he fashioned a yoke which he put on his shoulders as a visible prophetic act that the people were under the yoke of Babylon. In response to Hananiah, Jeremiah says, “Amen, brother! How I wish you were right! But you’re not. You’re wrong. Dead wrong. This is going to last for a long time.” Jeremiah dares to tell his people the truth, hard and holy truths.
Then in chapter 29, Jeremiah writes a letter to the exiles in Babylon. “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat the produce. Marry. Give your children in marriage. Multiply in Babylon, and do not decrease. Above all, seek the welfare of the city where I sent you, for in its welfare you will find your own welfare.”
This is going to last for a while. Even in exile, be God’s faithful and loving people; pray for the enemies who took you into exile.
Jeremiah told a hard and holy truth.
That’s how I have tried to live in my vocation as priest. I don’t claim to have always done it right. I don’t claim to have always succeeded. I don’t claim to be the only one who can hear God’s voice.
But I have tried to tell the truth as I have discerned it—hard truths like:
- • we need to listen to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and act towards reconciliation with indigenous brothers and sisters;
- • we need to serve our city and region as a way of loving our neighbours, and to take care of the poorest and most vulnerable among us;
- • we need to embody God’s love in all we do and say;
- • we need to be wildly and joyously inclusive of all people;
- • we need to shine like a flickering candle in the darkness of the world.
As we do that, we are responding to God’s passionate love for us. We are walking in this world as God’s beloved children. We are precious, chosen, called, and empowered.
We can live as the church.
We can live as God’s people.
Finally, a small gift. I have known a story “The Parable of the Lighthouse” for many years. A 4–minute video tells the parable beautifully. You can find it at:
Thank you for your love and grace in this time of ministry we have shared for 16 years. I am deeply, deeply grateful.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
June 28, 2020 (4th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13)
Jeremiah 28: 1–11
Matthew 10: 40–42
Romans 6: 12–23
In the Beginning, God …
(the opening of this sermon was inspired by a sermon I heard some time ago,
but I’ve forgotten the preacher and the details)
In the beginning, God began to create the world. In the beginning, God began to draw order out of chaos. In the beginning, God breathed life into every living creature. In the beginning, God began to craft and make a world which would reflect God’s love and God’s passion.
And then, God looked at it all and said, “Oh, this is good. This is very good. Mmm mmm mmm, it is good.”
In the beginning …
And then God rested.
And then God gave it into our care.
And some days we look out at our world and wonder if it’s really true. Sometimes it seems as if we want to lead the world back into chaos. Sometimes it seems as if we are trying to recreate the world in our distorted image so that it only serves a select few, the ones with money and power. Sometimes it seems as if we are so driven that we don’t want to rest so that we can grow the economy, grow our wealth, grow our production, grow our portfolios, all at the cost of the poorest among us, all at the cost of creation itself. Sometimes it seems as if we are driven to dismantle the world and let chaos have its way again.
Sometimes it seems as if we are determined to create a world of death and loss instead of one which ravishes us with beauty and the miracle of life and breath and goodness and the flourishing of all living things:
- • the spectre of military might, deployed in war and now in peace time;
- • the threat of climate change, and the exploitation of our natural resources because we treat the stuff of creation as a commodity for our profit;
- • the threat of a pandemic which affects us all but harms the poorest among us most deeply;
- • the increasing threat of a different kind of pandemic, based on the colour of our skin, and the violence which erupts in society because of the deep systemic inequality bred by racism and poverty;
- • some leaders among us who seek to deepen the divisions among us for their own political purposes.
Let me say it again … “In the beginning, God …”
The very first words of our sacred text—a text which is sacred because it tells the stories of how God is among us—remind us that when we are talking about matters of theology and faith, we’re not talking about ourselves. First and foremost, we are talking about God. Only secondarily are we talking about our faith, our trust, our life of discipleship. We respond to God, and response, by definition, always comes second.
In the beginning, God …
The wonder of Christian faith is that God hungers to be in community with us. The very heart of God is relational. We see that in this delightful creation story, when at the very end God says, “Let us make humankind in our image …” The rest of creation wasn’t enough. God finishes creation by making creatures who are in the image of God, with whom God can be in relationship.
The human being is the crown of creation, says Psalm 8, for we are made to reflect the very nature of God. If God hungers for relationship, then that longing for relationship is built into our DNA as well.
We are catching a sense of that during this time of self–isolation. We are learning in a whole new way how difficult it is to maintain physical distance from one another. We miss the interaction. We miss the hugs. We miss just being together. We are discovering once again that even though we must be physically distant, it is so important to maintain some kind of social connection.
And so we reach out to one another … by phone and by email and by lawn parties where we keep our physical distance but we can be together, by helping one another with ordinary daily tasks, but making sure that we’re all keeping well and keeping safe.
We long to be with each other … and our longing is a reflection of God’s passion to be with us.
At the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel, the angel tells Joseph in a dream that the child to be born will be named Emmanuel, which means God with us. The heart of God to be in communion with us is captured in this child’s name. We live in a world which is saturated with divine presence. This is the God “in whom we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
God with us. Emmanuel.
Matthew’ gospel ends with the same promise. In the very last thing he does on earth after resurrection in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus encounters the disciples one last time. He gives them a ministry—we call it the Great Commission—“go and make disciples of all nations; baptize them; teach them.”
Just as God gave creation into our care, now Jesus gives the gospel of love and God’s ministry to the church. “Tell the world about God’s love,” Says Jesus. “Live as people who embody God’s love; be disciples; mentor other disciples.” As I’ve said before, God doesn’t call us to be church members. God calls us to be disciples. To be people who follow Jesus. To be people who walk in the way of Jesus. To live as Jesus lived. To love as Jesus loved.
This is the work of healing and transformation. Jesus invites us to join in the work of transforming our failed ways so that we and all of creation may be healed. Jesus invites us to partner with God in the word of transformation and reconciliation.
And then at the very end of the gospel, Jesus’ very last words are, “Remember … I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
That’s the promise that sustains and energizes us. I am with you.
Holy Spirit is that intimate, life–giving presence of God in our midst. God continues to breathe life into the church and into the world so that we may all be able to breathe. God invites us to breathe hope and goodness and beauty and joy and love into the world. We can breathe, so that all may be enabled to breathe with God’s grace and compassion.
God is with us in every experience. God is with us in every action and word. God is with us as we reach out in love. God is with us as we proclaim with all our strength that every single person is wondrous and valued and loved.
This good news strengthens God’s people of all faiths to stand together and proclaim that every single life matters. We stand against the blasphemy of Donald Trump, proclaiming boldly that there are no scum, there are no losers, there are no people who are beneath our notice. All are valuable. All are dear in the heart of God. All are loved beyond measure.
And God hungers to be in relationship with all of us and each of us.
We see it throughout the whole Bible. This story in our sacred text is not just a story of God’s people learning about God. It’s a story of God’s people encountering God in our lives. God comes close to us. God refuses to remain far off. God longs to be with us and God invites us to rest in the embrace of love our whole lives long.
God embraces all of us. Not just a few of us. Not just some of us. God invites “all nations” to come together in peace, to breathe together the goodness of life. Every single person. Every single community. We are made in the image of God, and therefore we have so much more in common than what divides us. Any person, any leader, who seeks to divide us is working against the purposes of God.
God is with us. Christ calls to each of us from the face and experience of the other. When we say “God is with us”, we are saying that we see God in the lives of the other, that God calls to us from the one who is different than us, that God reaches out to us with the hands of those who are not like us.
In the beginning, God …
I think this—all this—is what “Trinity” is trying to describe … this dynamic, creative, relational God who always seeks to be with us and among us and within us. God is always creating, and God is always relating with creation, and God is always transforming creation. Read that last sentence again.
God is always creating, and God is always relating with creation, and God is always transforming creation. God is always at work bringing order out of chaos, always breathing life into every moment, always raising up a people who seek to work in partnership with God.
In the beginning, God …
And in response, we …
As God’s people, we stand in solidarity with one another. We reach across all geographic and political and racial and religious divides. We join hands with one another, standing firm and rooted in the gospel of love against anyone and any force which seeks to divide us.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
June 7, 2020 (Pentecost 1, Trinity Sunday)
Matthew 28: 16–20
2 Corinthians 13:11–13
The Miracle of Pentecost
We’ve talked a lot about the Holy Spirit in the last couple of weeks. Last week, we heard Jesus promise that God’s holy Spirit would come. Today, we celebrate the gift of God’s holy Spirit in the church. The promise of Jesus is fulfilled. That’s what Pentecost Sunday is for. We wear red on this day, which is the colour of holy Spirit.
Which raises the question, “Who or what is the Holy Spirit?”
To quote one of the wise preachers of the last generation, Fred Craddock, “I cannot describe the Holy Spirit. I cannot explain the Spirit of God. Jesus said it is like a mystery, like the wind. You don’t see the wind, and yet you know when it comes and when it goes.” That kind of modesty is appropriate when trying to talk about God or Jesus or holy Spirit. We are dealing with mystery which is greater than we can fully understand.
But even if we can’t explain holy Spirit, we can describe her and discern her effects in the lives of people.
The Bible describes God’s holy Spirit in different ways. Acts 2 pictures a dramatic scene which describes holy Spirit as “a sound like the rush of a violent wind … and something like tongues of fire.” The gospel reading from John 20 doesn’t describe holy Spirit but compares it with breath—the disciples receive holy Spirit as Jesus breathes on the them.
This points to an important connection. In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “spirit” is the same as the word for “wind” or “breath”. Both Acts and John use the language of wind and breath in trying to describe holy Spirit.
Indeed, Genesis begins with holy Spirit. “In the beginning … a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The King James version makes the connection obvious by translating it, “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”. God’s Spirit. A wind from God, hovering over the chaos in the beginning.
And what does holy Spirit do? In every instance, God’s holy Spirit brings life. She empowers God’s people. Like breath, she infuses us with life. Like wind, she blows us into action. Like fire, she sets us alight with God’s purposes. God’s holy Spirit gives God’s people life and energy, movement and passion.
In Acts, holy Spirit blows into that upper room where those early followers of Jesus were gathered together (and wouldn’t we all love to be doing that these days?) and sends them into the street to tell the good news of all that God has done. They speak in the languages of all the people who are in Jerusalem for the festival so that all can understand. This powerfully inclusive Spirit seeks to welcome all the world into the good news of God’s love. Holy Spirit fills us with life to proclaim good news.
In the second reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul points to the work of holy Spirit in empowering and unifying the church in God’s mission in the world. Through God’s Spirit, we are able to say, “Jesus is Lord”. That same spirit gives varieties of gifts and leads to varieties of service, but always pointing to the one God who is the source of our life.
The critical element is that God’s Spirit is given “for the common good”. I cannot overstate the importance of that phrase. Paul wrote this to a church in Corinth which was badly divided. Paul reminds them over and over again that the church is not a collection of isolated individuals but is primarily a body which is united in Christ through God’s holy Spirit.
But let’s broaden Paul’s understanding of the Spirit’s movement. We’ve learned some things since Paul’s time. We’ve done some things wrong and we’ve done some things right. 20
centuries later, we live in a different time, with a different understanding, and a different view of what we need to do to make the world a place of greater inclusion and greater love.
For me, God’s holy Spirit infuses not just the church with life. God’s spirit infuses the whole world with life. God’s holy Spirit inspires all people of good will. God is wildly inclusive and draws the world into a common work of seeking peace and justice and wholeness.
Our world grows more and more tribal each day. Nations, cities, and even faith communities are turning against each other out of suspicion and selfishness. This pandemic is showing some of the racism in our world more clearly, and we need to oppose it wherever we see it. We are seeing this tribalism at work as cities erupt in pain and anger at another killing of an unarmed black man by the police.
So let me ask some questions as we seek to broaden our understanding.
Even as we need to physically separate from people around us, might it be that God is pouring out holy Spirit on us all so that we might learn new and life–giving ways of being love incarnate in this frightened and imperiled world?
Might it be that God is pouring holy Spirit on us so that we might reach across racial and religious divides to welcome one another as people seeking to live with justice and hope and peace in this world?
Might it be that we are being called to speak the different languages in this world? Not just physical languages like English and Dutch and Swahili, but all the different ways in which groups speak about themselves? Might it be that we are being called to turn away from the tribalism which says that our way is right, and another is wrong? That we are being called to reach out to those who practice other ways and speak other languages and come out of other cultures? That we are being called to reach across racial divides and political divides and cultural divides and religious divides?
Is this where God’s holy Spirit might be leading us in these days of pandemic? In which we do not look just at the outer aspect of others, but in which we look deeper and see the God inside each of us?
Paul lists some of the gifts which God’s spirit gives for the common good—gifts of speaking wisdom and preaching, gifts of faith and healing. In Galatians 5, Paul adds to the list and reminds us all that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Just as God began to create through holy Spirit “in the beginning”, God is also at work recreating life in the 21st century through holy Spirit. These gifts of God’s Spirit are urgently needed in a world which has grown ever more hostile and afraid. These gifts of the Spirit are nothing less than God acting in our world.
Whenever we love … God shines through us, and the miracle of Pentecost is being recreated.
Whenever we show joy, God shines through us, and the miracle of Pentecost is being recreated.
Whenever we live in peace, God shines through us, and the miracle of Pentecost is being recreated.
Whenever we are patient or kind or gentle, God shines through us, and the miracle of Pentecost is being recreated.
We see God’s holy Spirit at work in us and in the world as we live in gentle, faithful, life–giving, and loving ways. God’s holy Spirit is at work in us—leading, urging, luring us with bountiful gifts and powerful challenges to be more than we can be when we are left to our own limited devices.
One final word. We talk so often about the mission of the church.
But it’s not the church which has a mission. The One who has a mission is God—and God invites the church to be part of that mission. God invites us to live God’s mission. God invites us to love and protect our neighbours in the same way as we would love and protect our families and ourselves. Our calling has never been more urgently needed than it is in this time of distancing and fear and fragmentation.
We are the mission of God, and whenever we live through the faithfulness of God at work in us, God shines through us, and the miracle of Pentecost is recreated.
It may not be the kind of dramatic scene pictured in Acts where we spill out into the streets. We can’t do that these days. But we can certainly, as those early disciples did when Jesus breathed on them, “receive the Holy Spirit” and live as the people of God’s own heart.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
May 31, 2020 (Pentecost Sunday)
1 Corinthians 12: 3b–13
Acts 2: 1–21
John 20: 19–23
Waiting in Hope
Today is Ascension Sunday. Yayyyyy! I can hear you all cheering at that announcement.
It’s what? What’s Ascension Sunday?
The joke on facebook this week is that the Ascension is the day when Jesus started to work from home. I like to think of it sometimes as part of the Star Trek series—when Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the away team have finished their work on a planet, they would be teleported back to the Enterprise: “Beam me up, Scotty”.
The Ascension of our Lord is one of the principal feasts of the church. It comes 40 days after Easter, which means it always falls on a Thursday. For that reason, the feast is often transferred to the following Sunday.
On this day, we celebrate Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The risen Jesus returns to the heart of God.
20th century theologian Karl Barth called this time of Ascension a “significant pause” in the life of the church. With the Ascension, we mark a time of waiting. The community of the faithful—aka the church—“lives in this time between” … between the time when Jesus was present on earth, and the time when God’s holy Spirit flows over and into and through the people of God (which we celebrate next week at Pentecost).
It’s a time of waiting.
This year, more than any other, I’ve realized again how difficult that first Easter was for the early followers of Jesus. Resurrection was a time of confusion and fear and doubt. Jesus had been arrested and executed, and in a moment, their world was irrevocably changed
As we live through this pandemic, we share in that confusion and fear. We wonder when, or if, this will end. We’ve learned something about what it means to wait without any certainty. During this time, what does the word of life really mean?
It takes the disciples some time to figure out what’s going on. The church traditionally celebrates the Ascension 40 days after Easter. That kind of timeline makes good psychological sense to me. We need a whole season to be able to understand the good news that death doesn’t have the last word. Indeed, we need a lifetime to grasp this good news.
And what we do in this in–between time, this time between resurrection and the gift of God’s holy Spirit … what we do is wait and pray and reflect. Our waiting time is not and idle or pointless waiting. In this time of waiting, we seek to listen for what God is trying to say. We seek to hear the word of life, and we reflect on how God’s life permeates our lives.
We listen to the Scriptures. We listen for the promise of God that God will be with us even in the darkest times. We listen for the promise that God’s empowering love will flow into our lives. We listen for the good news of life and mission and hope.
Waiting is always a difficult thing to do. We are discovering that during this pandemic. At first, we hoped it would last a few weeks. Then it became months. And now … well, who knows?
This has become a long time of waiting, a long time of staying away, a long time of holding off, a long time of isolating and caring for each other. It’s hard for many of us. It’s frustrating. It’s painful. We feel the loss keenly. I know I do.
So I can resonate with the disciples when they ask Jesus in Acts 1, “Is this the time? Will everything we had hoped for come to pass now?” Wouldn’t you just love it if we could have a
clear answer to that question? Is this the time when we can come out of our homes and into our churches and shopping malls and parks? Now? Please?
Patiently and compassionately, Jesus responds that we can’t know the time. The times are always held in God’s hand.
But here’s the thing, says Jesus. We will not be left alone. That’s the promise of God. Holy Spirit will come over you. “You will be empowered …” says Jesus, and then he is lifted from their sight. As the disciples stand there watching, two men in white appear and ask, “What are you doing here, looking into the sky?” It’s as if they’re telling us, “Don’t stand around guessing or speculating. Get out there and show God’s love in your lives.”
As we hear the promise of Jesus, we glimpse a way forward. It is not a way out of how we have to live during this time. God doesn’t magically erase the pandemic. Rather, during this time, during every time, God promises to be with us, and entrusts us with the work of living out the good news of God’s love.
We tell the story of God’s dream. We participate in God’s dream of a world which embodies justice and peace and wholeness for all people. God entrusts us with the work of mission and ministry.
We may not be able to come together as the church for worship and praise these days, but we can live in the world as the church. I listened to a recent online mini–sermon, in which the preacher said that “we have been learning about the difference between ‘going to church’ and ‘being the church’”. We can’t go to church. But we are still being called and invited and charged to be the church in the world.
A few days ago, Dr. Bonnie Henry (St. Bonnie), British Columbia’s Chief Medical Officer, said, “Let’s make this our summer of care and consideration for our families, our communities and our province.” It touches my soul to hear those words. I would dearly love nothing more than to gather together for worship, for singing and prayer, for eating and drinking. But St. Bonnie points to a way in which we can actually be the church in this time of waiting.
And as we wait, as we live as the church, we learn to trust Jesus’ promise more deeply. As he ascends into the heart of God, he promises that we are not being abandoned. Rather, God’s holy Spirit empowers us. God comes into our midst to strengthen, encourage, and motivate us to reach out in love, to live in love, to act in love, to speak in love. God’s holy Spirit infuses us with life. God revives our lives and making us more than we could ever be on our own. God’s life courses through our veins so that we can share the good news of God’s powerful love and loving power with the world.
We can live the dream of God, even in this time, because we trust that God is up to something good and life–giving in us and in our world.
As Jesus ascends, we wait. This story of the Ascension of our Lord is a transition story, an interlude. The church is waiting. The early disciples don’t know how long they will have to wait. Neither do we know how long we will have to wait. A time of waiting is a time of uncertainty, and it requires trust and hope as we live through it.
We wait in hope, trusting deeply that God is preparing something new. God’s dream is being born.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
May 28, 2017 (7th Sunday of Easter, Ascension Sunday)
Acts 1: 6–14
Luke 24: 44–53
God is With Us
Last week, we sat with the disciples as they heard the news that Jesus would soon be gone. This week, we continue with that story. The lectionary may have ended at John 14:14 … but Jesus didn’t stop talking. As the story continues, it moves from the fear and confusion and lament of the disciples to the promise of Jesus.
Let me recap the story. In John 13, at the Last Supper, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. “I have set an example for you,” says Jesus. “You must do as I have done. You must serve others in love as I have served you in love. So I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
This is the heart of our Christian life and faith. The other three gospels call this the Great Commandment. John calls it “a new commandment.” Love one another, and as we do so, we are also loving God. Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA, is fond of saying, “If it doesn’t look like love, if it doesn’t look like Jesus of Nazareth, it is not Christian.”
If it’s not about love, it’s not about God. You can’t find a better shorthand way of talking about the faith we hold.
After giving the new commandment, Jesus says, “I am going away soon. I’m only here a little while longer. You’ll look for me, but you can’t come where I am going.”
Imagine the shock of those words. It feels like a gut punch for those early followers of Jesus. Imagine the questions swirling in their minds — Now what? What does the future hold for us now? What will we do? Will life ever be normal again?
Jesus doesn’t answer those questions. Indeed, there are no answers which would be satisfying. Life is a journey—the Way—and we can only discover what life holds as we walk in that Way, who is Jesus.
What Jesus does instead is to give them comfort and courage to undertake their pilgrimage through life. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” I like the way Eugene Peterson translates this in The Message — “Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home.”
Jesus invites those early disciples in the midst of their confusion to trust. Trust God. Trust Jesus. Trust what they have learned as they journeyed with Jesus.
We also hear the same invitation as we live through the confusion and heartache of this pandemic. Trust God. Trust Jesus. Trust what you have learned as you have journeyed in faith with Jesus.
How can we do that? How can we trust when everything is so confused, so life–changingly different?
I think it begins with remembering.
Jesus invites the disciples to remember — remember all you have learned as you journeyed on the way with Jesus; remember that God is trustworthy; remember that God is present in every circumstance of life.
And as they remember, Jesus invites them to trust.
It’s a helpful word for us as well in this time of COVID–19. We remember:
- • we remember God who has been with us to support us and encourage us in every circumstance of life;
- • we remember previous times of difficulty when we were comforted;
- • we remember times when we were hugged and held;
- • we remember how we felt when times were good;
- • we remember times of laughter and closeness;
- • we remember times of profound worship;
- • we remember times when we felt especially close to God;
- • we remember gathering for bread and wine;
- • we remember our baptism;
- • we remember our friends;
- • we remember people who have taught us something about walking in the way of Jesus;
- • we remember the hymns we love to sing … we can still find those hymns online and sing right along.
We remember … and we develop a closer intimacy with God as we are drawn into the roomy heart of God.
That’s the first part of the story. We thought together about it last week. It begins with confusion and lament. It ends with an invitation to trust.
The story continues this week. Jesus promised the disciples that God will send “another Advocate to be with you forever.”
The word for Advocate is paracletos (παράκλητος)—Paraclete. It’s a word that is only used by John. Literally, Paraclete means “one who comes along side you”. It has been translated many different ways in English—Comforter, Helper, Counsellor, Encourager, Advocate.
“Paraclete” has something of all those meanings. This is the advocate who pleads our case, the comforter who takes our side, the counsellor who intercedes for us, the helper who stands up for us.
“I am not leaving you orphaned,” says Jesus. You will receive the Spirit of truth … who abides with you, who abides in you. The Spirit continues to walk with us through our lives. The Spirit embodies the very presence of Jesus in us and with us and through us. The Spirit helps us trust and live in confidence in the midst of all this uncertainty.
The promise of Jesus is that in our relationship with God, there will be a deeper intimacy as we grow in that relationship.
That intimacy is born in us over and over again as we keep Jesus’ new commandment … to love. As we reach out in love to one another, we are loving God. As we reach out in love to the vulnerable in our world in this pandemic, we are loving God. As we self–isolate to keep others safe, we are loving our neighbours and we are loving God. As we take care of each other, we are loving God.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust God. Trust me. Love one another. And God will send you another Paraclete, another Advocate, another Helper.”
As we remember … we renew our trust.
As we trust more deeply … we love.
As we love, the Paraclete comes alongside us to guide us, help us, comfort us, advocate for us. The Paraclete fills our lives and our souls with the presence of God.
That’s the promise. When it feels as if we have been abandoned, we remember the promise and hold on to it. When it feels as if God is absent, we remember the promise and let it grip our hearts and souls. When it feels as if we are all alone, we remember the promise that the helper is with us, the God’s Spirit is given to us.
We remember … and we breathe. (Remember again that the word “Spirit” in Greek is the same as the word for “breath”.)
We breathe in the life–giving fullness of God’s Spirit, and we breathe out our fear and insecurity.
We breathe in the Spirit of peace, and we breathe out our anxiety.
We breathe in the Spirit of joy, and we breathe out our unhappiness.
Paul says something similar in his sermon to the people of Athens in Acts 17. In the middle of that sermon, he says that “in God we live and move and have our being.”
God is not remote. God is not up there or out there somewhere. God doesn’t just drop in now and then for an occasional visit. Neither does God live in special sacred spaces.
Rather, God is here. Right here. In us. Around us. With us. Always. In all places. At all times. In all conditions.
We can put it the other way as well. God is in us. We are in God. God lives in us. We live in God. We move in God … and speak … and act in God. In God we have our being. In every moment of every day, in every circumstance, we abide in God and God abides in us.
In this time of pandemic, when everything seems to be up in the air, we hear the promise of Jesus. Don’t be troubled. Trust.
Don’t forget. Remember.
Keep walking in the way I taught you, for I am that way.
And above all, love one another as I have loved you. For God’s sake, love one another. For your sake, love one another.
God is with you in the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Companion, the Helper. God’s own Spirit will envelope you, and you will walk in my way, and you will know my truth, and you will be filled to overflowing with my life.
We abide in God, in whom we live and move and have our being.
It’s a radical new closeness, a radical new intimacy with God. Indeed, we will find that even as we are challenged by this COVID–19, we are also living and moving and being in God.
God is present to us. Today we are being invited to be present to God.
God’s Spirit is within us. We experience God as our deepest reality. We remember, and we trust. We trust, and we abide in God as God abides in us.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
May 17, 2020 (6th Sunday of Easter)
John 14: 15–21
Acts 17: 22–31
1 Peter 3: 13–22
Words to Live By
Clarence Jordan, a Southern US Bible scholar, once wrote, “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit–filled fellowship; not a rolled–away stone, but a carried–away church.”
“A spirit–filled fellowship, a carried–away church.” Jordan is talking about abundant life. This is the good news of Easter, the good news of the gospel. God’s life is being born in the world and it fills our lives to overflowing.
But it’s hard to think about our lives these days as abundant. It’s a tall order not to be discouraged and disappointed. As I’ve said before, we live today in a similar kind of situation to that of the original disciples. They couldn’t believe the good news of resurrection and life … “the story seemed to them like an idle tale” (Luke 24:11). It’s also hard for us to trust the good news of abundant life when it feels like life has been diminished.
In a time like that, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” This is what Jesus says to the disciples just after he’s told them, “I am with you only a little longer” and “Where I am going, you cannot come.” (John 13:33)
The disciples are stunned. Jesus is leaving? 20th century preacher Fred Craddock pictures “the disciples like children playing with their toys on the floor when suddenly they look up to discover that Mom and Dad are putting on their coats and hats. The kids ask, ‘Where are you going?’
“I’m going to my Father and your Father.
“Can we go?”
“Where I am going, you cannot go now. You can go later.
“Well, who will stay with us?
“I will ask the Father who will send the Spirit, and the Spirit will be with you always.”
Put yourself in their place. Jesus’ answer hardly makes any sense.
Our place is not so different from the place of these early followers of Jesus. We’re living in a time when we don’t have many answers about COVID–19. We don’t know what the future will look like. We don’t know when we can get back to our fuller lives. We don’t know what will happen or when it will happen or even if it will happen. We are disappointed because we can’t even do the simple things, like gathering together for worship, or a meal, or even a simple cup of coffee (or a glass of good scotch or wine).
Abundant life? It’s tough to grasp that these days. It’s tough to believe Jesus’ promise of life in all its abundance.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
How can we not be troubled?
And Jesus says simply, “Trust God. Trust me.” Even though your hearts may be troubled, don’t give up hope. Keep trusting.
Now, most translations read, “Believe in God. Believe also in me.” But the Greek word has more to do with trust. It’s not about believing something. It’s about having a relationship with God, a relationship with Jesus.
Trust God. Trust me. The relationship doesn’t end, even in such tough times. Yes, I know there is no certainty in your life right now. That’s why faith becomes such an important thing. Trust God. Even when it feels as if God is absent, trust God. Especially when it feels as if God is absent, trust more deeply.
The disciples aren’t so sure about that. Thomas says plainly, “We don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” You gotta love Thomas—he dares to ask the question we’re all thinking. How can we know? How can we trust?
And Jesus answers with nothing but love. “You do know where I’m going, Thomas. You know me, so you won’t get lost. You can’t get lost. You know me, and our relationship will never end, Thomas.
I am the way. I am truth. I am life. You know me and I am the Road so you can’t get lost. And if you know me, you know the Father.”
That’s the thing about relationships. A relationship is a journey in which we change as we travel on. Long–married couples know the truth of this. You don’t end up where you started. You change over time on the journey.
The same is true of our relationship with God. We grow. We change. We are constantly on the way in this journey. My relationship with God now is so much different than it was when I was younger. It has changed with all the changes and experiences of my life, both the joys and the sorrows.
We are always a people who are on the way. We walk in the way of Jesus, journeying together to live lives of service, compassion, grace, love and humility. Every act of service changes us. Every time we receive compassion and love, we are changed. Every time we reach out in grace, we are changed. And we grow.
And this … well, this is the way of abundance. “I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life.” Walk in my way, and you will find a life worth living, a life lived out in all its fullness. Walk in the light of truth, and the truth will set you free. Receive the gift of life and live life in all its fullness.
This is an offer of comfort in the midst of every difficult time. It’s an offer of joy in every amazing moment. It’s an offer of grace which makes our lives whole and rich and abundant.
Trust God. Trust me. Words to live by.
To make the point even clearer, Jesus continues, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” What he means with this is that God is roomy. God is generous. God is hospitable. God can handle your doubts, your fears, and your questions. And God’s offer of belonging extends far beyond the confines of this mortal life. “I go and prepare a place for you,” Jesus says as he stands in the shadow of his own cross. You have a place with me. You have a place with God. You have a place.
God does not abandon us. God welcomes us into the divine heart and invites us to explore this world as we learn to see with the eyes of God and discern the abundance which God gives endlessly as sheer gift.
In your laughter, know that God laughs with you. In your pain, know that God embraces you. In your vulnerability, know that God’s life is being born in you.
These are words to live by, in times of joy and in times of sorrow.
When life is good, we remember that our lives are filled with grace. We live in gratitude and compassion so that we can be a blessing for the world.
And when life is not so good, we remember that our lives are filled with grace, that the God who has accompanied us thus far continues to journey with us.
Jesus says quietly and lovingly and calmly, “Trust me. Let your hearts rest easy.”
I am the way. I am the Road. It’s a word of encouragement to continue on our journey with God. Keep walking in the way I showed you. Keep doing what I’ve been doing. Keep loving God. Keep loving your neighbours. Keep showing compassion. Keep being gentle with each
other. Keep being tender with creation and all earth’s creatures. Keep being soft with yourself. Walk in this Way, and the Way will lead you home.
It’s a good word to live by in these days. Even though we walk through this dark and shadowed valley, God accompanies us. As today’s Psalm puts it, “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge. Incline your ear to me. Be a rock of refuge for me.”
We live in trust. We live with compassion and love. As we do so, we are part of the Jesus movement in the world. We live without fear. We live with a deep trust that we have seen God. We live in the profound trust that God’s love permeates our lives and flows into the world. We live in an intimate relationship with God, trusting deeply that God hears us and cares for us.
When we walk the Jesus way, we walk in harmony with all of creation, caring for all God’s beloved creatures, embracing those who are walking the way of compassion, grace and love with us.
When we live the Jesus truth, we don’t just hear the truth, but we live it out day by day. We are caught up by the way of life that he embodied. We live the vision of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
When we share the abundant Jesus life, we reach out in grace so that all the world may know the life and love of God.
And then we become that “spirit–filled fellowship and carried–away church” of which Clarence Jordan speaks.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
May 10, 2020 (5th Sunday of Easter)
John 14: 1–14
Psalm 31: 1–5
Acts 7: 55–60
1 Peter 2: 2–10
Pursued by Grace
I have preached quite a few sermons on Psalm 23. It’s a good psalm for a time like this, so I looked back over my files.
Number 3 isn’t so bad. It focussed on “green pastures and still waters”, an image for the peace which God brings in life. Beyond pain and sorrow, there is peace. Beneath the concrete and pavement, there is the good earth. God renews us as God renews the good earth.
Sermon number 5 was also pretty good. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Imagine Jesus gathering us around a table as he did for a final Passover meal in the gospels. A storm is brewing in his life, for he’s about to be betrayed by someone at that table. After dinner, he will be condemned and crucified by the world he loves—yet he prepares a table right there in the middle of it all.
I use sermon number 2 for funerals. We walk together “through the valley of the shadow of death”. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this before, but at this point in the psalm, we shift from talking about God (“The Lord is my shepherd”) to talking with God (“You are with me”). At the moment of the valley of the shadow of death, it’s no longer enough to talk theology. We must start talking in terms of relationship.
And we know that God doesn’t wipe away the pain of life, but walks with us, holding us, loving us. We have an intimate relationship with the one whom we name as our shepherd. That’s a good word for this time.
I really like sermon 4, which reflects on God’s generosity. God prepares an abundant banquet before us, blessing us with a cup that overflows. We know that when God is our shepherd, we shall not be in want, for we lack nothing. God doesn’t measure out goodness in teaspoons.
I also like sermon 4, because it ties in with the gospel reading. Jesus promises, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Abundant life is not about the stuff we have. Abundance has to do with our intimate relationship with God. Abundant life is life lived to the full, a life brimming with vitality and hope, with peace and joy, with purpose and meaning and love.
This is the gift which God longs to give to us all, that we might live with that kind of fullness and exuberance, that kind of life in which God’s love brims over to embrace us all.
And then there’s sermon number 6: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” It’s not bad … but it goes on for quite a while. The sermon itself almost seems like a lifetime.
I was reflecting on all this and wondering if any of these themes might work for this time in which we find ourselves. Of course, the notion of God walking with us through this “valley of the shadow of death” seems obvious. I could make some homiletical hay with that.
And the notion that God showers us with the abundant life which Jesus promises is fruitful as well. We need a word of hope and promise in this time.
But then my attention was drawn to verse 6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
The word “follow” is a translation of the Hebrew word “radaph”. And it turns out that “follow” is a lazy translation. It is far too passive. A better translation is the word “pursue.” God’s goodness shall pursue us. God’s mercy shall chase after us.
Imagine that. Imagine a God who is so in love with us that God will pursue us. It’s an unusual image.
Usually, we think of being pursued or chased as something dangerous. In the movies, the bad guys chase after the good guys. Being chased raises our adrenaline level. Normally a chase is not a good thing, as we find in Exodus 14:9 where the same word (radaph) is used, “The Egyptians pursued the Israelites, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army.” (Exodus 14:9) It’s not a good thing to be chased like that.
Yet the Psalmist sings that God’s goodness and mercy chase after us.
Do you think that is true? Do you see God’s compassion chasing us during this time of pandemic?
When I was much younger, a friend and I would spend days playing together. Of course, every once in a while we would butt heads when we disagreed about one thing or another.
His mother always stepped in. She would break up the fight in a way that created a way for us to be reconciled. She pulled out two chairs so that they faced each other. She directed each one of us to sit in a chair, and stare at one another. We were not allowed to smile or laugh. “Glare at each other until I tell you to stop.”
It seemed like it might be the worst punishment in the world, but it only lasted about ninety seconds. My friend’s smile would crack my frown. I giggled and he chortled. A voice from the kitchen said, “I told you not to laugh!” Well, that did it. The laughter of love released us from our chairs.
It was a good way to help us get along. Demand mercy! Insist on forgiveness. Require people to live with goodness and mercy. If we don’t show goodness and mercy, what’s the point of being a human being?
This is how we live the Christian life.
Psalm 34:14 invites us to “Depart from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it.” There’s that same verb — radaph.
The Psalmist knows that God loves us with a passionate love which will not let us go. As Jim Cruickshank used to say it, it’s as if God is saying to us, “Nothing you can do will make me love you any more. Nothing you can do will make me love you any less.”
God’s love is such a powerful force in our lives and our world that we cannot outrun it. God’s goodness will pursue us until it captures our hearts, until we are healed by the power of love, until we are made whole in grace.
God is a persistent lover, chasing us with grace, pursuing us with love. No matter how difficult life may be, God holds us in love. No matter how painful our circumstances, God will not let us go.
One of my favourite spiritual writers, Anne Lamott, tells the story of her Christian conversion. Her life was a chaotic mess. She couldn’t straighten herself out. Small advances could be made, but it wasn’t going well. Sometimes she went to a Sunday morning flea market in her town, and she would hear gospel music coming from a small ramshackle church across the street. She tried to escape it, but the music was so compelling that she would wander over to stand in the doorway and listen.
One night, she found herself sobbing in the shadows, and suddenly aware that someone was with her. Beyond any doubt she knew it was Jesus, the risen Lord. That appalled her. What would her brilliant, hilarious, progressive friends think? What would they think if she ever became a Christian? She shrugged it off. But she couldn’t escape the feeling that he was watching her with patience and love.
The experience spooked her. Everywhere she went, it felt like a little kitten was following her, wanting her to reach down and pick it up. But she resisted. You let a cat in once, give it a little milk, and it will stay forever. No way.
Not long after that, she went to the church. This time she stayed for the sermon, but it did nothing for her. But then the singing started, and it was so deep and raw and pure that she couldn’t escape. They were singing between the notes, she said. It was like she was rocked in the bosom of the music, held like a scared child, and it cleansed her.
She started to cry, so she got up to escape. As she headed toward home, it was like that little cat was running along at her heels. She got to the door, stopped for a moment, hung her head and said, “I quit.” After a long breath, she said out loud, “All right. You can come in.” That was the moment of her conversion. (Travelling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith).
Goodness follows us. Mercy nips at our heels. Do you know what that’s like? It means that God loves each one of us so much that God is going to chase after us with goodness and mercy until we are found, forgiven, welcomed, and won over.
That’s what it means to have the Lord as our shepherd.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
May 3, 2020 (4th Sunday of Easter)
John 10: 1–10
Acts 2: 42–47
1 Peter 2: 19–25
This is one of my favourite stories in the gospels. We move from John’s way of telling the resurrection story to Luke.
The women come to the tomb that first Easter, with spices to prepare the body of their friend for burial. Although it’s been three weeks for us since Easter, our gospel readings keep us on that first day of resurrection. But as I’ve said before, that very first day of resurrection was a day of pain and heartache and confusion.
The women arrive at the tomb and see that the stone has been rolled away. Two men dressed in light seem to be surprised that they’re there. “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery? He’s not here. He’s been raised. Remember how he told you about this?”
And the women do remember. They run back to tell the others about it, but no one believed them. “These words seemed like an idle tale to them, and they did not believe the women.”
That same day, a couple of disciples are leaving Jerusalem to return home to Emmaus. It’s a two–hour journey (about 7 miles), but I imagine it felt like it took forever.
One of them is Cleopas. This is the first time we meet him in the gospel. The other is not named. Most artists paint the scene with two men, but I’m inclined to think that it’s probably Cleopas and his wife.
Regardless, here is one of the great surprises in Luke’s way of telling the story. Jesus appears … but not to Peter. Not to any of the other disciples. Not to the women who travelled with Jesus during his life.
Jesus appears for the first time to a couple of disciples we’ve never met before, journeying with them to some two–bit village which no one remembers any more.
Isn’t this the same way his birth was announced? Not to princes and the powerful, but to a few anonymous shepherds up in the hill country.
I think that Luke wants to say that the good news of God’s love and God’s life comes not to insiders, but to ordinary folk in forgotten, out–of–the–way places. People like you and me. In small towns in south–eastern BC. Far away from the centres of commerce and culture.
Jesus comes to people who are tired and disheartened. Their whole lives have been turned upside down, and all they want to do now is go home.
In our world also, the good news of resurrection surprises and astonishes a world in which everything seems lost. The word of life is spoken in the midst of death and confusion and dashed hopes.
So I wonder if this unnamed disciple stands in for us. Maybe it’s you going home with a heavy heart, wondering about this idle tale we heard from the women. Maybe it’s me, wondering if the news of resurrection is just too good to be true.
Maybe we are the ones on this journey with such heavy hearts, finding it hard to proclaim resurrection faith in a world which is still living with the cross. Maybe it’s us for whom this news is almost more than we can believe.
Maybe it’s us.
When Jesus first shows up, they don’t recognize him. He asks, “What are you talking about?”
And through their tears they tell him about their pain. They talk about their dynamic friend Jesus. But now, he’s been betrayed. He was sentenced to death. He was executed.
And we are confused.
And then come three words which break my heart: “We had hoped …”
We had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel. We had hoped he was the One.
We had hoped …
Haven’t we all uttered those words?
We hoped that the diagnosis would be different. We hoped our child would recover. We hoped we could fix our marriage. We hoped to travel in our retirement. We hoped that the cancer would go into remission. We hoped our church would grow. We hoped that the depression would lift. We hoped this job would last. We hoped this pandemic wouldn’t last so long or be so difficult and so costly.
We had hoped…
We all know the pain of dashed hopes.
I remember when I was diagnosed with diabetes. I came home from the doctor’s office, fell into a chair at our dining table and started to weep. My life no longer made sense. It felt like a death sentence. But what I remember most about that day was my 5–year–old daughter Yvonne climbing into my lap, wrapping her short arms around my neck and holding me. After a while, she just said very quietly and simply, “It’s going to be all right Daddy.”
In that moment, Yvonne was Jesus for me. She spoke a word of life to me.
In 2020, we can also say, “We had hoped.” But we are living in a time when everything has been changed. Our whole lives are different these days, and we are learning new ways of being together even while we keep our physical distance.
We are living in a time when we are being called to trust the word of life in a world still living with the Cross. We are being called to trust the word of resurrection when we know that it is not the normal way things work. The good news of life comes in the midst of pain, grief, loss, and death.
Jesus listens to these early disciples as they pour out their pain. And when they’re finished, he tells the story of their faith in such a way that it enlarges their vision. Jesus seems to say, “Here’s what you’re leaving out. Here’s what you’re missing.”
Jesus points them to the grand and loving purposes of God in the whole sweep of the story. Jesus helps them hear and see the whole story of God in their lives and in their world, and the story of God’s love is so much larger and more loving than anything they could have imagined.
And they catch a vision of God’s love for the world. They see something of God’s purposes of a world made whole. And they are invited to join God in creating new possibilities in the world.
Their hearts began to burn within them. Their whole being is suffused with grace and light and life. They hear a word of God’s life, and their lives are made new.
They reach Emmaus and invite this stranger to stay with them for the evening meal. The guest becomes the host. He takes the bread. He blesses it. He breaks it. He shares it with them.
That’s the moment in which they recognize him.
The language of taking … blessing … breaking … sharing is the language of Eucharist. But it’s interesting to note that Luke uses exactly the same language in Luke 9 in the story of the feeding of the 5,000.
It leads me to think that even though we cannot gather together for the Eucharist, every meal which we celebrate may be a sacramental moment in which we experience the grace and presence of God.
Whenever we share a meal together, whether it be at church or at home, we recognize that Jesus is present with us. In bread and wine, in blessing and fruitfulness, we know God is here.
In my training for ministry, Jim Cruickshank (the last bishop in the Diocese of the Cariboo) used to remind us that when we hallow the food on the altar, at the same time we hallow the food
on all the tables around which we gather. Theologian Paul Tillich said the same thing—“When we share in communion, every meal becomes a communion meal. Every meal becomes a place where we encounter Jesus. Every person around the table becomes an angel.”
We are all sheltering in place these days. At the same time, we are discovering that God is present with us in all circumstances, and that every moment and place is a revelation of God. We eat and drink at home and give thanks that Jesus is with us, and feeds us with gifts of grace and nourishment.
As with these two early disciples, our eyes are opened, and our lives are being made new.
In this time of pandemic, it’s easy for us to focus on the restrictions and limitations of this time. They are very real, and many of us long for them to be lifted.
But there are gifts in this time as well. We see God’s presence all around us:
Creation is being healed.
We are reaching out to one another in new ways.
We will never again take some of the simple things in life for granted — a hug; a walk in the park; coffee with our friends; a meal with extended family; sabbath time to rest and be renewed.
As I list some of those things, my heart burns within me for a new way of being, a new way of living, in which connections with people become so much more important.
We are being given an opportunity to hope for a new way of living together which is marked not by profit but by sharing; not by consuming but by connection; not by striving but by reaching out to others; not by getting ahead but by belonging and finding ways to be in communion with one another.
As we recognize that God is in our midst, our hope is being renewed.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
April 26, 2020 (3rd Sunday of Easter)
Luke 24: 13–35
1 Peter 1: 17–23
Acts 2: 36–41
This year, it seems harder to make the transition from Lent to Easter. Death seems closer than life in this time. So many people are suffering physically and psychologically and emotionally and/or financially.
Self–isolation is hard. Physical distancing is hard. To hear the news of people dying alone in seniors’ care homes, in hospitals, and at home, is hard. The staggering number of people affected by COVID–19 numbs us. These questions of death and life are hard to face.
As a result, we wonder how we can talk about resurrection when death seems to be in charge.
The truth is that we’re hardly the first people to ask these kinds of questions. Generations before us have asked the same questions. Our ancestors faced similar situations—plagues, the Spanish flu, wars, and all kinds of painful situations in which they were tempted to give up hope.
How do we speak of a faith which is based in resurrection at a time like this?
The early disciples—our ancestors in the Christian faith—asked the same question that first Easter. Today’s gospel lesson is one which returns every year.
Last week, early in the darkness of the morning, Mary was stumbling around in the garden, her vision blurred by her tears. Someone had stolen the body of her friend. She sees someone … perhaps the gardener? Then Jesus calls her name … and in that moment she recognizes him.
It was the first day of a new creation. With excitement and joy bubbling in her soul, she runs back to tell the others. A couple go running to the tomb, but they don’t understand and return to their homes.
That evening, the disciples are huddled together behind locked doors, not sure what to believe, not sure what’s happening. And Jesus simply shows up. “Peace,” he says, and the disciples begin to catch a glimpse of the joy of resurrection. They begin to sense that something new in the life of the world is happening.
But Thomas wasn’t with them. When they told him, he couldn’t believe their words. And he dares to say what many would have thought — “Unless I can see Jesus for myself, I can’t believe, I won’t believe.”
“Doubting Thomas” we call him.
And he has good reason to doubt, to ask the tough question. It is so hard to believe the possibility of resurrection. That’s not the way the world works, is it?
We are living in a time in which we are called to proclaim resurrection faith in a world which is still living with the cross.
That phrase comes from a wonderful sermon I heard last Sunday. I tried to participate in our Diocesan Easter worship last week, but I couldn’t connect. I was frustrated, and after about 10 minutes of struggling (and a little bit of cursing), I decided that that wasn’t what Easter should be.
So I gave up, and watched worship from Trinity Wall Street, a large Episcopal Church in New York City, in the epicenter of the pandemic in the USA. The preacher, Phil Jackson, began by talking about a conversation with his brother, a doctor working on the frontlines of the crisis in New York.
The preacher said, “I’m not sure I know what to say this year about the resurrection.”
There was a long pause, and then his brother replied, “It sounds to me like you have to preach resurrection faith in a world which is still living with the cross.”
Resurrection may not be the way the world works … but we trust and proclaim that resurrection is the way God works.
As the people of God, we are called to proclaim and live out resurrection faith in a world which is still living with the cross.
One of the things I love most about this story is that Jesus shows up with a body that is still scarred and wounded and broken. He doesn’t hide the suffering, the sorrow, the brokenness. His body proclaims resurrection while showing the marks of the cross. The wounds are still so raw that the disciples can see them, can touch them.
And what this says to me is that resurrection is always proclaimed in the midst of real pain, real sorrow, real suffering.
We call Jesus “Emmanuel”, which means “God with us.” This story is about God with us in the truest sense of that name Emmanuel. I am with you where it hurts. I am with you in the midst of your suffering. I do not float thousands of sanitized feet above your reality. I am with you through it all.
This Easter, we are called to proclaim resurrection faith in a world which is still living with the cross. It is an astonishing word, but resurrection is the way God works.
So it’s ok for us to say, as Thomas does, “I need to see signs of the life of God in this time. I’m having trouble with this right now.”
It’s ok to doubt, to ask questions, to wonder.
It’s ok to say, as the father of the boy with seizures in Mark 9, to say, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
It’s ok to want more of Jesus.
It’s ok to hold the joy of resurrection life in tension with the ache of the cross which the world is experiencing.
It’s ok to experience the joy of Easter as we live through the pain of pandemic.
Jesus comes to us bearing the wounds of the world. And Jesus says, “I understand. I understand your need to see and touch me in order to believe. Therefore, I am giving myself to you.”
But he doesn’t stop there. Jesus continues to speak a word of blessing to those of us who can no longer touch … or see … or hear. “You are blessed,” says Jesus, “if you find it within you to trust, even if you can’t see.”
Jesus doesn’t criticize. Jesus doesn’t scold. Rather, Jesus recognizes how difficult faith can be sometimes. Jesus says to us as he said to Thomas, “There’s a deeper form of trust, a deeper form of faith, that doesn’t depend on seeing. This deeper form of faith has the ability to discern my presence in all that is happening. You can discern my presence within you, among you, throughout all creation.
“I commission you to that deeper faith. I give you my Holy Spirit and send you out into the world to proclaim resurrection faith in a world which is still living with the cross. I breathe my holy spirit into you, so that you might be inspired and renewed by the gift of God’s life.”
Jesus invites us to see hope in the everyday acts of love and grace which people are performing, and to know that God is at work.
Jesus leads his people into a faith which can flourish even when everything around us is dispiriting.
Jesus opens our eyes to see God’s life, even in this time of pandemic.
Jesus tells us that faith sees beyond the surface of things, and invites us to light a single fragile, flickering candle in the darkness, to sing a song of hope in the valley of the shadow of death.
Yes, it’s an astonishing invitation, to see beyond death to life, to proclaim resurrection faith in a world living with the cross. But as the theologian Karl Barth reminded us, the resurrection is meant to astonish us. Resurrection is not an ordinary event. It calls us to question our assumptions, to look deeper into life, and to see God where we never expected God to be.
We see life in the grave.
We proclaim resurrection faith in a world which is still living with the cross.
That’s the Easter trust to which Jesus calls us. 1 Peter 2 echoes Jesus’ invitation, “We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.”
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
April 19, 2020 (2nd Sunday of Easter)
John 20: 19–31
Acts 2: 22–32
1 Peter 2: 2–10
Don’t Be Afraid
Easter is so very different this year.
For a while, at the beginning of this pandemic, I had thought that we would celebrate Easter on our first Sunday back together. There’s still a part of me that wonders about the possibility of doing that. Our first service back will surely be a joyful gathering.
But for the most part, I’ve changed my mind.
Because Easter comes, no matter the circumstances of our lives. God’s new life is born in every condition of our lives. Easter comes. Christ is risen. Alleluia.
We celebrate the empty tomb in empty buildings this year. But even though the building is closed, the church remains open. The church lives in the world as signs and symbols of the good news that God loves us with an undying passion, and that God’s last word is always a word of life. Today we proclaim our profound trust and undying hope that God’s life fills us.
There won’t be any trumpet fanfares. There won’t be collections of Easter lilies. There won’t be triumphant hymns or celebratory “Alleluias” this year. Our church buildings will not be festooned with decorations.
And we are way beyond our comfort zones this year. We miss the familiar rituals. We miss gathering with our church family. We are feeling a keen sense of loss.
But Christ is risen. Life is made whole by God’s powerful love. Love wins.
I have been struck by the notion that Easter 2020 is so very much like that first Easter. In a post on Facebook, Casey Kerins wrote, “Maybe, for once, we celebrate Easter differently. Maybe, we celebrate the resurrection just as the disciples did: alone, in the silence, hoping the faith outweighs the fear.”
As we read the stories of that first Easter in the gospels, the good news of resurrection comes in the midst of fear and tears, of confusion and anxiety and doubt.
There are differences in the way each gospel tells the story.
Mark tells us about the women who came to the tomb to prepare the body of their friend for burial. They came to say goodbye. They came with the necessary spices, but they found an empty tomb. A young man in a white robe greeted them and said, “Don’t be afraid. He is not here. He has been raised. Now go, tell his disciples …”
But they don’t tell anyone. Mark ends this way, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
They were afraid. They were confused. They didn’t know what was happening. It’s so eerily similar to our situation in this pandemic.
Mark’s point in ending his gospel this way is to tell us that the good news of God’s life is made real as we live it out in all the generations since the women went to the tomb. Even in the midst of fear and anxiety and confusion, we are called to live in love, to live in hope, to cling to God’s grace and become grace–full.
Luke tells the same story about the women—except Luke says that the women did return to tell the others, “but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Then Luke tells that wonderful story of Cleopas and his companion (probably his wife) returning home to Emmaus. On the way they talk about their pain and their disappointment. A stranger joins them on the road, and he helps them learn to see anew, so that when they break the bread, their eyes are opened.
In Matthew’s gospel, the women also come to the tomb. They meet the angel in the empty tomb, who also says, “Don’t be afraid…”. As they run to tell the others, Jesus greets them on the way: they fall down and Jesus repeats the greeting, ‘Don’t be afraid.”
And John tells the touching story of Mary stumbling around the garden near the tomb in the darkness, weeping because she thinks the body has been taken away.
That first Easter was a time of fear and confusion and anxiety. In all four stories, the common thread is “Do not be afraid.”
As we read further in the stories, we discover that Easter morning is only the beginning. There is a growing awareness in those early disciples. There is a growing confidence in them that God is at work in the world. There is a growing assurance that Easter is the beginning of the new life which God births in the world. A new era has begun, and in the end, love and justice, shalom and joy will have the final word.
That comes to me this year as profoundly good news. Our celebrations are muted this year, but don’t be afraid. God is still speaking a word of life into the world. God is still inspiring the people of God to live in the power of love. God is still cradling us with grace and holding us in compassion.
The good news of the gospel for me this year is that death is not the last word. In the midst of this pandemic, with all its pain and anxiety, “don’t be afraid.” Easter means that God ultimately is victorious over the power of death, which gives me the hope I need to continue living faithfully.
The good news of the gospel for me this year is that for those who feel isolated and lonely, “don’t be afraid.” Easter means we are all together in the risen Body of Christ, even if we are physically unable to be together.
The good news of the gospel for me this year is that for those who feel despair in the midst of pain or anguish, “don’t be afraid.” Take heart. Easter means that we are not alone. God is with us, and God speaks a word of life.
The good news of the gospel for me this year is that during this pandemic, “don’t be afraid.” Easter means that God is unleashing a pandemic of love in the world as people reach out to be with and serve one another.
The good news of the gospel for me this year is that the fear of those early followers of Jesus was changed into bold faith and trust. They experienced God’s love within themselves so that they were able to go out into the world with that good news which the world so desperately needs to hear, both then and now.
In a nutshell, the good news of Easter for me this year more poignantly than ever before is that God has taken one of the worst things in the world (the Roman cross) and remade it into one of the best (the Tree of Life). And if God is able to recreate the worst, then God is also able to remake the whole creation.
It is a great, divine mystery, but the rising sun of God’s love dispels all the shadows of pain and death.
And so, even in the midst of this muted celebration, I will still sing “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!” It may be a broken hallelujah, but it is an alleluia based in the trust that God’s word of life is true and holds us within its embrace.
Yes, Easter is different this year. But even now, angels accompany us in the darkness and whisper to us, “Don’t be afraid.” Faith remains possible. Understanding will come. The voice of the risen Jesus calls us by name, and the God who destroyed death is ever able to turn our tears into joy. All is not lost.
Like Mary, we still can announce the good news, “I have seen the Lord.”
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
April 12, 2020 (Easter Sunday)
John 20: 1–18
Jeremiah 31: 1–6
Colossians 3: 1–4