September 27, 2020, Scripture Readings and Sermon
Message from Rev. George Porter
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Hear my teaching, O my people; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will declare the mysteries of ancient times.
That which we have heard and known,
and what our forefathers have told us, we will not hide from their children.
We will recount to generations to come
the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, and the wonderful works he has done.
He worked marvels in the sight of their forefathers, in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.
He split open the sea and let them pass through; he made the waters stand up like walls.
He led them with a cloud by day, and all the night through with a glow of fire.
He split the hard rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink as from the great deep.
He brought streams out of the cliff, and the waters gushed out like rivers.
The Gospel- Matthew 21:23-32
When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
Sermon: George Porter
This Creation Season
People who know me well know that I don’t just dislike peanut butter; I despise peanut butter. Some friends in another country said that it is ‘la comida de los ratones’ – food of mice.
I feel pretty much the same way about clichés – maybe especially Christian clichés. The ‘WWJD?’ thing that was very popular some years ago drove me crazy. I had such a strong reaction to it, not because it is a bad thing to contemplate what Jesus would do. Indeed, it’s a perfectly valid and important question. (Part of the problem with dealing in clichés is that at some point there was likely some truth behind them.)
My reaction was, because of the way it was presented, mostly focused on what Jesus wouldn’t do and therefore what Christians shouldn’t do – on very individual and, in the bigger picture, usually insignificant things. It seems to me that the kinds of things Jesus really said anything about weren’t even part of the picture – things like when he applied the words of the Prophet Isaiah to himself: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor .... sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of God’s favour.’
The other thing with which I took issue was that when we think we know what Jesus would actually do, we could very well be wrong. Given the fact that he seemed mostly to have been doing and saying things people didn’t expect – behaving and talking in a very ‘un-Messiah-like’ way – I don’t doubt that the same would be true now. We have a way of projecting our expectations onto what and how and when God would do things. One of my favourite (perhaps somewhat irreverent) Facebook memes says that we need to remember, when asking what Jesus would do, turning over tables and making a whip are options.
Anyway, for a long time I reacted to the use of the words ‘bless’ and ‘blessed’ in this way. I would ask what people meant when they used that word. Usually they looked at me rather blankly, like I was asking something inane. We have a funny family story about when a young foster child we had was in the ‘why?’ phase and asked: ‘Why is this a couch?’
I think people generally assume that everyone just knows what it means, but it is used so frequently that it mostly doesn’t really mean much. That happens to words. It happens even to ‘religious’ words; they easily become sort of vacuous clichés.
All this is sort of a round about way of getting at what I have been trying to say in these weeks of Creationtide – only perhaps with more serious consequences than my trivial anecdotes might suggest. I have alluded to my belief that we have latched on to some misleading translations of the Genesis creation stories – translations that have lead to misunderstanding the vocation of human beings, particularly that vocation in relationship to non-human creation.
There is a set of four quite uncommon Hebrew words in the Genesis 1 account that describe the vocation given by the Creator to those ‘made in the image and likeness of God’. These four words have long been understood in light of a Western World view of ‘power’ or ‘authority’ – what it means to ‘rule’. It fails to take into account both the nuances of the original language and the context – as well as the overarching biblical narrative of how God ‘rules’ – that God is a sovereign God, yes, but one who exercises ‘sovereignty’ through the mode of service – just as the hymn in Philippians says that in Christ God took flesh as a servant, and just as Jesus washed the disciples feet in the role of a servant, and expressly told some followers who were arguing about who would have authority in the Kingdom of God that the one in authority would be the servant of all.
This is sort of caught in one of the Eucharistic prayers when we say: ‘From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill; you made us stewards of creation’ – or even more clearly in another: ‘You formed us in your own image, giving the whole world into our care, so that in obedience to you, our creator, we might rule and serve all your creatures.’ Being made ‘in the image and likeness of God’ is closely tied into the human vocation to care for, in relationship with God, the rest of creation.
This is what I mean when I say that we have it exactly backward when we say that non-human creation exists for our benefit. Biblically, it is the other way round: humans were created to care for this ‘first temple’ of God. Non-human creation wasn’t made for people; people were made for non-human creation.
This is undoubtedly what the Apostle Paul was getting at when he wrote that ‘the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together [same expression used of the children of Israel held captive in Egypt] in the pains of childbirth until now.’ Creation waiting for humans to be restored in Christ to their vocation as stewards – as care-givers and nurturers – of creation – working together with the Spirit to ‘renew that face of the earth’.
So even before the Torah – the covenant of God with Israel – humans were ‘blessed’ by God to be ‘a blessing’ for all creation. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures runs the story of God blessing humans to be a blessing. In the giving of the covenant with Israel – with the Hebrew people – God says to Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would be like the uncountable grains of sand and stars so that in them ‘all the nations of the earth shall be blessed’. Then again in the giving of the Torah and the setting of the people of Israel free from bondage, this ‘chosen people’ were chosen – were ‘blessed’ – precisely to be a ‘blessing’ beyond themselves.
Perhaps it’s not too simplistic to say that this is the history of God’s people – of humanity – that they are ‘blessed to be a blessing’, but the ‘blessed’ forget that they are blessed and/or forget that they are to ‘bless’ others. God’s ‘blessings’ are never meant to be hoarded away like some special treasure to be protected –guarded like the dragons of fantsy. The ‘blessing’ of God isn’t given as a possession to keep, but humans have either forgotten or misunderstood God’s ‘blessing’.
This is true of the history of the church, as well. God, says the writer to the Ephesian Christians, ‘has blessed us with the full spiritual blessing.’ It doesn’t take but a scan through church history to see that we’ve far too often carried on with the history of forgetting and misunderstanding God’s blessing – the salvation we have in Jesus – the reconciliation God brings about in Christ through the forgiveness of sins – all this isn’t so that we win some sort of ‘ticket to paradise’. It was given so that we would in turn become ‘ambassadors of reconciliation, God making appeal through us’.
This is what is involved in the whole business of the prophetic call ‘to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God’. Remember that ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ are the same word in the original language – a word that has to do with the ‘righting of relationships’ – the ‘rightness of relating’. Yes, it’s a call to right relationship with God in and through Jesus – in and through the cross and the resurrection and the abiding presence of God’s Spirit – and right relationship with other people, but it’s also a right relationship with the earth – with the land and the water and the air and the creatures that co-inhabit this universe with us.
I John says that no one can rightly claim to love God while not loving others. We think we can. We think we can love God – have a nice cozy relationship, ‘just the two of us, so happy together’. We can’t: ‘If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.’
Can we then imagine that we can be in a right relationship with God and despise or ignore the rest of creation? How can we if this ‘righting of relationship’ is restoring to us the marred ‘image and likeness of God’, and with it the divine vocation to be the stewards and caregivers of creation – of creation which has been waiting – groaning as if in childbirth – for God’s human creatures to be who we were meant to be? For those who God has ‘blessed with memory, reason, and skill’ – those appointed by God as ‘stewards of creation’ – to live out their calling? For those who pray ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ to become, through the grace of God and by the empowerment of the Spirit, the living answers to this prayer?
This Season of Creation is a time when we are called to ‘repent’ – to ‘think beyond’ – to remember that we are indeed ‘blessed’ by God to be a ‘blessing’, not only to God and to other people, but to the very creation itself. That seems to me to be the only way that we can live beyond religious clichés and a sentimental romanticism of nature – to live into the revealed reality of the children of God. It seems to me that it is only in remembering that we are blessed by the Creator that we can live into the baptismal promise ‘to safeguard the integrity of god’s creation, and respect, sustain and renew the face of the earth.’