A collection of sermon texts

Selected sermons given by Victor C. Gavino at The Kensington Presbyterian Church, 6225 Godfrey Avenue, NDG, Montreal. 2016 July 17 – “Moving Forward in Faith ” – Matthew 25:14-30. Last Sunday we saw how radical, how controversial, how challenging the words of Jesus were to his listeners.

Selected sermons given by Victor C. Gavino at The Kensington Presbyterian Church, 6225 Godfrey Avenue, NDG, Montreal.

2016 July 17 – “Moving Forward in Faith ” – Matthew 25:14-30

Last Sunday we saw how radical, how controversial, how challenging the words of Jesus were to his listeners. We considered the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story which we have in our day reduced into merely a heart-warming feel-good tale of a do-gooder. Instead, we say that it was a complex social and cultural commentary that remains intensely relevant in our day, in these times of increasing violence.

Today we consider another parable of Christ, the parable of the talents, another story that we have reduced to pleasantly paltry platitudes on productivity, hiding the critique that it truly was on the religious conventions of the time.

We begin by situating the parable.

It begins in Matthew chapter 21. Jesus had entered Jerusalem for the last time, on the way to the cross. The religious leaders immediately confronted him with trick questions, to try and discredit his ministry. His detractors were left astounded at the authority, wisdom and power in the way Jesus taught the word of God. In turn, Jesus had the harshest of words against them: Six times in chapter 23 he called them hypocrites, as well as snakes and children of deadly poisonous vipers. He then predicted the destruction of Jerusalem: “not one stone will be left here on another stone that will not be thrown down!” he said, a statement that would later be used against him at the trial before Pilate.

The disciples, probably perplexed and disturbed by the apocalyptic words of their master, began to ask: “when will these things happen, and how will we know it is about to happen?” In answer, Jesus enumerates at least 8 portents of the destruction of Jerusalem, the end of their world as they knew it. Then he followed it up with the parable of the fig tree, the comparison with the times of Noah and the ark, the difference between the faithful and unfaithful servant. And lastly, he desribed the coming of the kingdom of God in 3 illustrations back to back: the parable of the 10 bridesmaids wise and foolish, the parable of the talents, and the separation of the sheep from the goats.

Let us now consider the parable of the talents.

I will not be surprised if from the time we were all in Sunday School, we imagined this parable as being the contrast between two industrious and productive servants versus the third lazy servant. This morning, I ask you to forget temporarily what we have may always imagined this parable was about. I ask you to set these traditions aside and look at the story anew, as if you were hearing it for the first time.

Talents: what are they? A talent was a unit of money. A talent was usually in silver in those days, and it would weigh up to 80 pounds. To know the value of a talent in today’s economy, we have to calculate the equivalent in labour costs, in manpower. One talent = 6,000 denarii. A common labourer in those days might get paid 1 denarius per day. For that ancient labourer, one talent was about 20 years’ worth of work. Today in Canada, if you were earning minimum wage full time working 8 hrs/day, 5 days/week, 48 weeks/yr, 20 years of work will be around half a million dollars, gross income. Therefore a talent today will be worth about $500,000 in manpower. To the first servant, the master entrusted 2 ½ million dollars in today’s money; to the second, a million dollars; to the third, half a million. Think about it.

Then the master goes away on a long journey. His return was the day of reckoning.

When we were young and taught this parable in Sunday School, we probably applauded the first two servants — they both doubled their investments and they were both commended by the master. “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” Perhaps we all sadly shook our heads when the master scolded the third servant for being lazy and burying the treasure instead of doing something with it. And then we might have been taught that talents represented our skills, our abilities, and we ought to use them, not sit on them.

Now that we all here have grown up and more experienced in the workplace, I ask you to consider what happened next: The master pronounced judgment: “Take the $500,000 from him and give it to him who now has 5 million dollars. Everyone who has, more will be given. The one who doesn’t have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” Wouldn’t you admit that that was adding insult to injury? Now that we have graduated from Sunday School, now that we are no longer children and know something about how the world operates, are we now perhaps just slightly bothered by this, that it seems that the Bible is teaching that it is alright that the rich should get richer and the poor, poorer?

Many commentators through the history of Bible interpretation have tried to tone down the severity of this judgment by saying that the parable is merely symbolic, that the talents do not really mean money or treasure, but that the talents represent our skills and abilities, such us the ability to play a musical instrument, or to craft works of art, or to prepare fantastic meals, even bake a cake. Today, when we say someone has talent, we don’t really mean he has 80 pounds of silver hidden away under his bed.

But consider this: even if a talent is supposed to represent a skill or an ability, not real money, don’t you sometimes think that the punishment of taking away the one talent would be rather harsh? Imagine a person with only one talent, one ability, say the ability to speak. If that one ability is taken away leaving the poor unfortunate person not able to talk, will you not have pity?

I now ask you to imagine yourself transported to AD33, listening to this story for the first time. You might have been a peasant, an outcast, probably poor, at best, ordinary. As the poor, we really would not have liked the rich, those who take advantage of us: the dishonest tax-collectors, the landowners, the nobility. All we are, are servants at best, scratching a living because the master happens to like us. We hear about the 5 talents, the two talents and the one talent. As a poor slave, farmer or peasant, I can’t even imagine being given a talent of money to keep in trust and protect — it will take me 20 years to earn this amount. If it got lost, if someone robs the talent from me, how can I ever expect to pay it back? I can’t pay it back with my wages, not in my lifetime. My family would have been sold to slavery – that’s what happens to people who can’t repay debts.

In those days, the rabbis taught that money can only be protected and made safe by burying it in the earth. Furthermore, if it happens that a thief finds and steals the buried treasure, the person who buried it will not be guilty of the loss, will not be liable, will not be required to pay it back. Burying treasure in those days was considered a responsible act. You will understand therefore that the third servant must have thought he did the responsible thing: keep his master’s money safe as the rabbis taught.

Those listening to this story would have sympathized with the third servant and understood exactly why he buried the talent. He wanted to be “responsible” by protecting the treasure for his master. It is like as if I had a billionaire employer who asks me to take care of his new Porsche 918 Spyder hybrid that goes from zero to 100 km/hr in 2 seconds. You know how much this car costs? US$850,000 — a car I will never ever be able to buy, nor would want to.

Now, because I have the car even temporarily, should I drive it around downtown Montreal pretending this $850,000 car is mine in order to impress my friends? Perhaps give a good impression to generate business? Or because my billionaire employer entrusted this car to me to keep it safe, should I keep it locked in a secure garage so it doesn’t get dinked or scratched or stolen if driven around and kept outside? What would you do? So you can just imagine the confusion for the first-time listeners when they heard what the master did when he returned. Say what?

The third servant’s last words were: “Here — you have what is yours.” Or, I give you back intact what you had asked me to keep for you. Perhaps he might have explained: I did what the rabbis teach — bury your treasure in the earth to keep it safe.

Let’s go back to the first words of the third servant, words that we should understand as very troubling. He told the master: “You are a hard man; you take for yourself that which others have worked to produce.” The master’s answer must have resonated with the listeners in that the rich were not friends of the poor. The master admitted, angrily at that, that he takes for himself what he did not work for. And then the master commands that that one talent, that treasure kept safe, be taken away from the poor third servant and given to the one who now had ten. And injury upon injury, the master fired him — threw him out. The already-rich became richer, and the poor third servant became even poorer.

If you were hearing this parable for the first time in the days of Christ and the Apostles, and you were poor, a slave, a servant, someone abused by the rich landowners, who will you side with? Where will your sympathies be? Will you not feel sorry for the third servant and hate the master?

Where is the lesson in this story? Where is the truth? Whom is the listener to trust — the third servant or the master? Was the master right? Was the third servant right? Was the master mean, selfish and cruel? Was the third servant being responsible as the rabbis would have said, or was he plain lazy and wicked the way the master accused him? Exploring and trying to answer these questions will bring us to understand and learn the lesson of this parable, and a greater understanding and appreciation of the kingdom of God. Let’s step back for a moment and try to understand the culture of the time.

Do you know what the people of God, Israel held as their joy, their treasure? The Torah. The Torah was given to the Israelites at the mountain of God as they traveled from Egypt to the promised land. The Torah is a declaration of who God is, what God is like, what God does and will do, how the people of God should respond to God. The Torah, in effect, is Israel’s very life and soul. The Torah is what sets Israel apart from all the rest. Without the Torah, Israel would have been just like one of the warring nations in that ancient land.

We therefore sympathize and understand that the response of Israel to the Torah — is to protect it, to guard it, to preserve it, and to return it to God upon death, uncontaminated, unimpaired, pure, nothing more, nothing less. The behaviour of the third servant was exactly that. The one single talent was both a treasure to protect, but also a burden to keep safe from thieves, in order that it be given back to the master upon his return, pure, nothing added, nothing taken away.

The controversial lesson for those who heard this parable the first time, one that must have been difficult for the religious leaders to take in, was that the price of protecting and preserving the Torah was: no future. The servant who thought he was protecting the master’s treasure was fired, cast outside. Because of his safe strategy, he now had no future.

Can you imagine the implications? The religious leaders in the time of Jesus saw as their life mission, the preservation of the Torah. Applied to these religious leaders, the lesson of the parable was they had no future. Jerusalem was going to be destroyed. The Romans did it in AD70.

For us today, the message of the parable is this:

  • The price of trying to protect and keep to ourselves the wonderful treasure that is Christ is: no future.
  • The price of playing it safe is: no future.
  • The price for the church that keeps the word of God unused and at bay is: no future.

The parable of the talents teaches us how to meet, engage and claim the future which is now. The parable teaches freedom; it teaches moving forward in faith trusting that God always provides the resources to move us into spheres we might otherwise think we could never do.

  • The church thrives, flourishes, when the people of God practice and proclaim the treasures of Christ.
  • The church thrives, flourishes, when the people of God analyze, sift, internalize and externalize God’s timeless inexhaustible treasures that are found in Scripture.
  • The church thrives, flourishes, when the people of God place their trust in God and walk in faith that with God, nothing is impossible.

Here at Kensington Presbyterian, you begin every worship service with lighting the candle at the communion table, declaring Jesus is the light of the world. I now say to you: do not hide that greatest of treasures that is in you – the light of Christ our Saviour. Instead, ponder His words: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew chapter 5 verse 16).

To God be all the glory.

2016 July 07 – “My enemy, my friend” – Luke 10:25-37

Sometimes when we know a Bible verse so well, when we know a passage of Scripture so well, when we know a parable of Jesus so well we can repeat it even when hardly awake, we become locked into only one way of understanding it. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one such passage of Scripture which is so familiar, that we might have always understood to be nothing more beyond a lesson in being a good neighbour. A total stranger extending a helping hand to one in need. This is probably the way most of today’s world understand Jesus’ parable of the man who fell to thieves.

Everyone wants to identify with the Good Samaritan. We have numerous Good Samaritan Hospitals, or Good Samaritan Medical Centres. We have the Samaritan’s Purse, the Good Samaritan Society, Sisters of the Good Samaritan, Good Samaritan School for the Deaf, The Good Samaritan Trust Fund. There is even a school in Mississauga named “The Good Samaritan School for Exceptional Students.” The school self-describes as: “The Good Samaritan School offers exceptional services to students who are falling below grade level and require remedial support in an individualized environment.” It seems they understand the half-dead victim in Jesus’ parable as a metaphor for below-average students.

Even governments recognize the message of neighbourly good in Jesus’ parable. They have incorporated the Good Samaritan concept into their nations’ laws – the “Good Samaritan Law.” For example, in most of Canada, when an individual voluntarily helps a person in need, that helpful individual understood to be a Good Samaritan, would not be held liable for damages when something goes wrong.

Everyone would rather be known as a Good Samaritan than something else. To my knowledge, there is no hospital with a name like: “The Priest-who-cannot-be-bothered Hospital.” Or, “The Man Who was Robbed and Left for Dead Trust Fund.”

Most people know about the Good Samaritan, most people understand the point of the story of the Good Samaritan, and most people would like to think that they will be Good Samaritans when the need arises. Is there anything else special to learn from this parable?

The story begins when an expert in Jewish Law asked Jesus a question. The man was a lawyer who already knew the answer to his own question.

“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus answered the question with a question — as a rabbi would do.

“What does the law say, and how do you understand it?”

The lawyer then answered his own question, no surprise there. He gave the standard answer found in Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and, Love your neighbour as yourself.”

“You have answered correctly” Jesus agreed.

And this is precisely the point where the lawyer who had intended to trip Jesus became the one who ended up under the magnifying glass.

Jesus continued: “Do this and you will live.”

Now lawyers live and die on the precision and exactness of language. So it is not a surprise that he would ask: “Who is my neighbour?” The lawyer was asking: “where do I draw the line between friend and enemy?” It is a question that plagues us as individuals, communities, political parties, governments, nations, tribes, ethnic groups. Never a day goes by it seems that there isn’t a conflict somewhere in the world, where lines are drawn. You’re an enemy — or you are a friend. If you are not with me, you are with my enemy. And so it leads to horrific violence: Paris, Orlando, Baghdad, Bangladesh, Dallas; none are exempt.

There is something else that has to do with the Hebrew language and which remains enigmatic. Let me explain: ancient Hebrew script was consonantal, that is, vowels are not present. How then did anyone know how to pronounce words made up of only consonants, we can legitimately ask.

It is not that difficult.

We know how to properly read these consonants because our brains know the English language so well we can supply the vowels rather accurately. This was the same for ancient readers of ancient Hebrew. It was only in 600AD that scribes began to mark written Hebrew words with symbols as aids to pronunciation.

It is perhaps significant that in Hebrew, both the word “neighbour” and “enemy” have the same consonants. If the lawyer were to play with the same consonants of the ancient Hebrew, he might have just as well asked the question “Who is my enemy?” and the expected answer would have been the same. The lawyer was looking for the boundary line that separates friend from enemy.

This is the point where Jesus began the parable.

A man was traveling north to Jericho from Jerusalem. Along the way he was attacked by robbers, stole even his very clothes, beat him up and then left him to die. A priest came by. As soon as the priest saw the bloodied victim, he crossed to the other side of the road and went on his way without stopping. Next, a Levite came by. He too, upon spotting the unfortunate half-dead victim, crossed to the other side of the road and went on his way without stopping.

We now arrive at the rule of three, or, as we say today: “the third time’s the charm.” You hear this rule of three in stale jokes, like: There was an American, a Canadian and a Filipino in a restaurant. Then the usual: The first two will say something generic, and the third will always have the brilliant punch line.

What might have those listening to Jesus expected? Who was going the be the “third time’s the charm” hero?

Ever since the exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel usually thought of themselves belonging to one of 3 classes of people:

  • First the priestly class, the highest class.
  • Second, the Levites, sort of the middle class.
  • And all the rest belonged to the third class, the ordinary Israelites.

There was a priest, a Levite and a… Who was going to be the brilliant punch line? The third time’s a charm hero?

The listeners, all ordinary people, Jews, would have expected that the brilliant third would be a lowly Israelite, the helpful one. What a way to poke fun at the priests and the Levites. But surprise surprise, the third one was a Samaritan. And today, we say: “so what?” We moderns and post-moderns don’t necessarily understand the terrible implications of this plot twist, a totally unexpected turn in the storyline. Let me explain.

Those listening to Jesus would have been Jews. To them, the Samaritans were enemies.

2 Chronicles 28 recounts the massacre, perpetrated in a single day against the Jews by the Samaritans of the Northern Kingdom. A hundred-twenty thousand Jewish soldiers were killed. More than that, during that skirmish, the Samaritans kidnapped two hundred thousand Jewish women and children to bring them to Samaria and to make them slaves. This was in the time of king Ahaz of Judah and King Pekah of Israel, in the mid-700s BC. It took a prophet of God named Oded to stand against the ruthless Samaritan army and convince them to relent and release the captives.

So place yourself among the Jewish people listening to Jesus, anticipating that after the priest and the Levite, an ordinary Jew was going to be the “third is the charm” man who will do the right thing. But behold, it was not an ordinary Jew… it was a Samaritan! Today, it’s like saying that the first man to ignore the victim was the St. Andy’s Presbyterian in Sometown Canada; the second man to ignore the victim was an elder of the same St. Andy’s Presbyterian in Sometown Canada. You might have hoped that the “third time’s the charm” hero to come, stop and help would be an ordinary member or even adherent of St. Andy’s Presbyterian in Sometown Canada. But behold, he turns out to be an Abu Sayaf man from the Philippines, machete in hand. Or, a masked ISIL Jihadist with knife in hand. Just as the thought of a masked jihadist coming upon a wounded helpless Christian or Yazidi would have struck fear in your heart, the audience listening to Jesus must have all stopped breathing at the audacity of his story: a Samaritan! The Samaritan is a villain! He would finish off the half-dead man!

But then, the Samaritan did something the listeners did not expect: the Samaritan took pity on the half-dead man. He dressed the victim’s wounds, brought him to an inn, instructed the innkeeper to look after the man and promised to return and pay for all costs incurred.

Just like the lawyer who had asked Jesus the question “Who is my neighbour?”, it is our nature to draw enclosing circles around us to include our friends and shut out the rest.

In ancient China, at around 500 BC, a man named Sun Zi wrote “The Art of War”, a text on military strategy and remains today a required reading for CIA officers. It is also listed among the US Marine Corps Professional Reading Program. It’s most famous dictum is: “Know your enemy.” A famous Sanskrit proverb which also appeared around 500BC teaches: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Even the body of believers tend to be like this. We draw circles around us as Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, Presbyterians, traditionals, progressives — and so on, thinking we are keeping ourselves pure and keeping the impure outside. The human civilization, great and small, insists on drawing lines between friend and foe, between neighbour and enemy. Friends are those who help us; enemies are those who harm us.

Jesus overturns all of this flawed human wisdom. The Samaritan whom the listeners expected to be the enemy, was the friend who helped. When those whom we think to be our enemies begin to do acts of kindness, it shatters our way of thinking and acting. When we face that enemy and see in him a fellow human being who can be a friend, that is when we will have learned the lesson of this parable.

With the title “the Good Samaritan” which never really was part of Luke’s writing, we have actually confined this parable to merely extending help to a person in need. We have placed so much emphasis on the goodness of the Good Samaritan. We have imagined the poor unfortunate victim to be people belonging to the oppressed: the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the outcasts, etc. We have never really considered placing ourselves in the role of this poor unfortunate battered victim who looked up and faced a traditional enemy, sure that this Samaritan villain was going to finish him off.

The real lesson in this parable is loving your enemies, doing good to them who hate you, what Jesus was teaching way back in Luke chapter 6. It goes both ways: we can be the helper coming to the aid of a needy person regardless of whether he is friend or enemy; we can be the needy person accepting help from someone regardless of whether he is friend or enemy. If only the descendants of those who were listening to Jesus understood and obeyed, would there not be peace in the Middle East? If only nations found ways to co-exist instead of to conquer, kill and exterminate, would there be world wars? If only we in our diversity learned to see the imprint of God in each of us, would there still be discrimination and tribal hostilities? If only we didn’t see ourselves as black, white, yellow or red would there still be the horror of mass killing in Dallas, or Iraq, or Bangladesh? If only we in our churches learned more to unite in one voice proclaiming and living out the good news of Jesus, Lord and Saviour, then wouldn’t we be bringing the kingdom of God into the world he so loves? Then will not Isaiah’s prophecy come to pass, that the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and a little child shall lead them?

At the conclusion of the story, Jesus asked the lawyer: “Which one was a friend and neighbour?” The lawyer answered: “The one who showed him mercy.” The enemy turned out to be the friend and neighbour. And Jesus said: “Go and do likewise.”

And I say to all of us: “Let us go and do likewise.”

To God be all the glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

2016 June 12 – “Thrust Outside the Box” – Acts 11:1-18

I first read JRR Tolkien’s trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings,” in 1977. I read it again just before the release of the first of Peter Jackson’s movie version in 2001. I am, and ever will be, a fan. Lord of the Rings is an allegory against industrialization, the brutality of the world wars and the power-hungry despots who instigated these massive bloody conflicts. Reference to the expansionist Nazi regime is thinly veiled, the men of the East whose evil was spreading inexorably to the west, that is, towards Tolkien’s England.

The good simple life, pre-industrial, innocent, is exemplified by the Hobbits who lived in the Shire. The Shire, where no one moved away, no new person moved in. The Shire, where everything was the same generation after generation, taken for granted as peace, stability, constancy, security.

But the threat spreading from the East needed to be stopped. Frodo and his loyal friend Sam were commissioned to go and destroy the source of this evil. It was a “mission that was impossible” that sapped them of their strength and threatened to claim their lives at every turn. Frodo and Sam, they derive courage and strength from the thought of going back to the Shire – to the way things were, are and forever will be. The Shire was the “box” for Frodo and Sam. It represented the way things were, the way things are, and the way things ought to be. But the quest itself was relentless in thrusting both Frodo and Sam outside of the safety of their box, which was fast becoming just a memory. In the end, peace won the day, but everything changed. The whole world was thrust outside its old box and ushered into the new.

The story of the conversion of Cornelius is one that surely fits the model of being thrown out of the box and into a much larger world. Our reading today, Acts 11, is Peter retelling the story to the religious authorities of the Jerusalem church, defending himself against accusations of having breached the norms of Jewish Christian behaviour.

To have an idea of the complicated political-religious-social mix in the world of the book of Acts, we go back to the stoning of Stephen. Stephen went against the religious power-brokers, what my generation in our youth in the 1960s would call the big bad “Establishment.” For this, Stephen was eliminated, executed. It didn’t stop there: the established religious power then proceeded to so persecute the Jewish converts to the way of Christ, that the new Jewish Christians were dispersed abroad, with the exception of the apostles who somehow were permitted to remain in Jerusalem.

The apostles established the Jerusalem Church, tolerated by the Jewish religious authorities. One can imagine the uneasy truce between them, the Jewish Christians not wanting to offend the Jewish establishment so as not to suffer the fate of so many of their brothers and sisters. Therefore, the Jewish Christians were very careful to observe and to cause the Church to observe Jewish customs and traditions, front and foremost of which is not to be stained through contact with the Gentiles, or non-Jews. We can perhaps understand their concern – consternation might be a better word – that one of the apostles, Peter himself, “consorted” with Cornelius, a Gentile, and a Roman centurion at that. Therefore, upon his return to Jerusalem, Peter was called on the carpet so to speak, to give account of his actions, to face his antagonists who accused him: “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them. What they were really saying is that Peter, in setting aside his Jewish ethic, has placed the Jerusalem church in danger with the Jewish nation. They feared that the uneasy truce would be broken, and a wave of persecution ignited once more.

But God cannot and never will be contained by the traditions of men. God is God overall of creation and humanity, not just God over the Jerusalem church, really only the small nucleus of God’s plan for the whole world.

What about Cornelius? Who was he?

From 82 BC and on, Cornelius became a very popular Roman name, a sort of the generic “John Doe” of our day. “Cornelius” was the name adopted by around 10,000 slaves who were given their freedom by the Roman general and dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla. It is highly possible that the Cornelius of our story was descended from one of those freed slaves.

Our Cornelius was a Roman centurion, equivalent to a captain in our day. A centurion would have under his command from 300 to 600 soldiers. Cornelius was stationed in Caesarea, about 130 km north of northwest of Jerusalem. It was a port city upgraded to world class standards in the days of Herod the Great. Fresh water was piped in by a brick aqueduct, much of it still standing today. The city needed military protection which was why Cornelius and his men were stationed there.

We are told that Cornelius was a devout man: he and his household as well as some of his soldiers. We are told that he feared God, prayed regularly and did works of charity. Here is a picture of a man, a centurion but still an ordinary “John Doe” by virtue of his name “Cornelius”, touched by God to turn from polytheistic and pagan traditions to a monotheistic faith. For reasons we are not told, the text in Acts implies that Cornelius was a near-convert to the Jewish monotheistic faith.

Cornelius is an archetype of an ordinary human being with a very ordinary name, doing what he was employed to do, outside of the Jewish box – in fact probably despised by the Jewish nation, and called by God. He reminds me of that oft-repeated well-loved passage in Jeremiah addressing the Jewish exiles which begins with “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.”

We believe that God comes close and touches the lives of people, from the first to the last, from the mighty to the most ordinary, this when anyone seeks him with all sincerity, with all of one’s being, one’s soul. All our welcome. With God, no matter one’s ethnicity or race, no matter our social status, no matter our gender – we are all invited, we are all welcome to fellowship with the Lord. This is what Peter needed to learn, not that he already had an idea of the comprehensive welcome of the Christian faith: he was staying with Simon the tanner, a profession intensely disliked by the Jewish community. Accepting the hospitality of the tanner, Peter already had a sense that God was thrusting him outside of the box he had known since birth, outside the safety of his traditions and outside into the wild and unpredictable world for which God cares so deeply. And Peter as an example to all of us, trusted the leading of the Holy Spirit and went to visit and accept the hospitality of Cornelius the Roman Gentile, breaking all the rules of his box tradition, and thus being enriched and blessed for it himself. He broke new ground!

For ourselves, do we trust God enough to willingly be led outside the safety of our boxes? What happens if God thrusts us outside our boxes?

It makes all the difference, whether we would recognize and intentionally follow the surprising twists and turns of the movement of the Spirit of God, or whether we will choose to remain within the security of boxes we make for ourselves.

The history and fate of the original Jerusalem church is instructive. Let us recap:

  • Christ-followers or later, Christians, established and began the Jerusalem church.
  • The Jerusalem church was governed first by the apostles, and then eventually elders under the leadership of James, the brother of Jesus.
  • It was composed of 2 factions: the landed Jews, or those who lived in Jerusalem, and the Hellenist or Greek Jews who came in from outside.
  • After the martyrdom of Stephen, a Hellenist Jew, persecution broke out so severely and so specifically against the Hellenists that they were driven out of the Jerusalem church, and dispersed all over. Antioch became the new centre of Christianity among the Gentiles.
  • The Jerusalem church became very Hebrew, with converts from among the Pharisees (Acts 6:7) who unlike Paul tried to maintain Jewish law among the believers.

This explains why the Jerusalem church was so concerned with Gentiles becoming Christians – the uncircumcised – so much so that it sent emissaries to check up on mission work in Gentile territory. Paul called them false apostles.

The Jerusalem church escaped to the Decapolis shortly before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD70. They sort of faded away and disappeared completely in the 7th century, always rejected as apostates by their fellow Hebrews, and as heretics by the Orthodox Christians – such an inglorious end for the church that had such an earth-shaking beginning.

We observe the following:

  • The Jerusalem church flourished when it comprised both Hebrews and Hellenists. It wilted when it lost the Hellenists and withdrew into its culturally uniform box.
  • The Jerusalem church saw itself as the religious police, reinforcing the walls of its box with the good intention of making sure that all those who make it inside are genuine believers.

What about today?

Too long, many have seen the church as the instrument by which the new people are made to conform to Christianity as we see it. “Let them be like us” is the refrain. It is true and it is right that we proclaim and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who come our way. But we have tended to forget that the new people among us bring with them a unique richness, a diversity, a fresh outlook that may seem foreign at first but may then prove to be the work of the Spirit.

The Spirit of God is forever extending us, challenging us, thrusting us outside of the boxes we make for ourselves. It is a bad idea to stand in the way of the movement of the Spirit. Rather, it will be a great blessing and privilege to move in the direction of the Spirit, whatever direction that might be.

Let me end with a retelling of the climax of Peter Jackson’s rereading of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:

At the moment of truth, Frodo discovered that he himself was not strong enough to resist the temptation of descending to evil. At the moment of truth, the task that Frodo had set out to do had to be done for him by another. At this, at the moment when all was to be changed, Frodo wanted to give up, fall into the abyss and die. Sam, his faithful and loyal friend, pleaded with him with tears as one who loves: “Mr. Frodo – don’t give up.”

So permit me to repeat what you already know and sense here at Kensington Presbyterian:

You have as a congregation already faced many challenges to move outside the box. And you have done so in many ways. Even now, you face a great challenge: you are in transition, waiting on God to bring to you the persons of God’s choosing, a minister. Even now, the community you serve is ever changing in so many ways.

In all of these, you must believe and have confidence that it is the Spirit of God who ever leads his people to bigger and wider circles, leading you outside of your box and into a new place of ministry, of mission to the community. In this I pray that you will never, ever give up. Enter into God’s blessing!

All blessing and honour be to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

2016 May 01 – “The In-Between” – Acts 1:1-11

The little boy experience

In his mid-30s, my dad, in the prime of his engineering career, began travelling back and forth from Manila to Tokyo on business trips. It was the late 1950s. I was a young boy still clad in short pants. I remember having tagged along with my mom to the airport to see my dad off, my first visit to the new international airport. The so-called “international runway” had just been built and inaugurated in 1953, the year of my birth. There was an open-air observation deck upon which well-wishers flocked to wave goodbye to friends and relatives boarding the airplanes. I remember going up there with my mom, both of us, to try and catch a glimpse of my dad walking along the tarmac to the mobile stairway and into the airplane. I remember cries of triumph and excitement on the part of those claiming to have spotted the one passenger they were seeing off, peering out of those tiny little windows from inside the plane that would soon be in the air. My three sisters must have been along as well, but I don’t remember them being there at all for all the excitement a little boy had on his first outing to see a plane lift off and into the sky. The airplane was a Lockheed Constellation, with its distinctive triple-tail design. That shape remains imprinted in my brain. I remember being impressed with the loud sound of the four propeller-engines as each one began to come to life. As the flying machine started to head for the runway, I remember the rush of wind and the smell of aviation fuel exhaust hitting my face, the plane turning in such a way that its rear end became oriented in direct line with all the people on the observation deck. For a little boy who at that point began to love and still loves flying machines, it was pure joy. And then at the far end of the runway, the engine sound that had gradually faded away with distance suddenly became louder again, more urgent. And there it was, the sleek flying machine racing faster and faster, whizzing by the observation deck, until it lifted off, leaving in its wake, four distinct trails of brown exhaust issuing from each of its four engines. I remember staying there transfixed, the plane getting smaller and smaller as it sloped upwards into the sky, its smoke trail hanging in the air. I remember straining so as not to lose my line of sight, until the shiny speck disappeared from sight.

I was a little boy and knew nothing of poor aviation safety records in those days. I had no fear, no doubt, that in a few short weeks my dad would come back the same way he left. Back at home, I remember making a sketch depicting the airplane lifting off from the runway. It was celebration time for me. In school, I bragged of the experience to others who could only imagine what it was like. I even bragged about it to my cousins who lived next door in the biggest 3-storey house in our street. They were very wealthy, we were not. But none of them have ever flown before at the time, and I felt a special delight retelling the airport experience, feeling privileged even though I knew my family were of very modest means.

I remember trekking with my mom to the airport once more, on the day my father was to return from Japan. I knew nothing of airline schedules then. All I remember was waiting at the observation deck, straining my eyes in the direction from where I was told the airplane would come. I don’t remember how long we waited, but I recall the collective excitement of the crowd as word spread that someone spotted a speck on the horizon that could be the airplane. So I strained my eyes once more, trying to locate the said speck, and watching it grow in size, until I could see the quadruple brown smoke streaks that trailed it. And then there it was, touching down, whizzing past the observation deck. My dad was back.

I suppose I can say it was a simple life of boy who had no doubt that when his dad went up in a flying machine, that he would be back just as he promised. No concept of the myriad of things that could go wrong. All that there was, was pure anticipation of a sure and certain thing, that my dad was going to walk that tarmac once more, this time from the plane to the arrival area where we would be waiting for him.

And then I began to grow up.

I attended a sectarian Christian school that emphasized the apocalyptic, the return of Christ and the resurrection of the faithful who have passed on. I was in high school when it happened. The father of a schoolmate died suddenly. The funeral was held at the high school chapel. You must understand that in my culture, as in most Asian cultures, grieving for the dead tends to be demonstrative and full of overt emotion. At the end of the service, the widow came up to the casket, embraced it face down and in between heartbroken sobs, wailed: “How long, Lord, how long?” All those present understood. I suppose I, like everyone else, was shaken. Once more the scene imprinted itself in my consciousness so much so that to this day I can still relive the whole incident that happened 50 years ago. I suppose this contributed to the erosion of faith that I thought I had. A promise to return made 2,000 years ago, a promise still to be kept. Indeed, “how long Lord, before you make good on a promise?” Or, is it all a farce? Slowly, I drifted away from the faith.

I grew up and became wise in my own eyes. And then I got older.

One doesn’t have to look too far to see that many are in need of help, many are in search of community, many are looking for the meaning of existence. The question I wrestled with was: in my desire to be helpful, to have significance, to get a glimpse of the purpose of existence, to be in community, there is open to each of us, a faith-based as well as a non-faith-based approach. Of the faith-based approach, it is obvious that there is a multiplicity of faith-based claims: different gods, different religions, different traditions. Through an interesting path that perhaps at some other time I can relate to you, I came once more into the Christian faith, a faith that the Rev. Dr. Clyde Ervine describes as both inclusive and exclusive. It is inclusive because all are invited into Christ. It is exclusive because as much as it may make some of us uncomfortable in this pluralistic age, Christ did claim that he is the only way to God. Either all that Christ said was true, or that only some of it is true. And if only some of it were true, then the falsehood part makes Christianity no better than any of the rest. Why then adhere to Christianity and not any other else? I wrestled with this thought. And what about that promise of Christ’s return? Will that every come to pass?

The very first verse of the reading in Acts sets out four fundamentals of the Christian faith and practice: (1) Christ ascended to heaven after rising from the dead; (2) Christ instructed his followers in the way of the believer; (3) Christ empowers his followers through the Holy Spirit; (4) Christ chose the apostles to whom he handed the fundamentals of the faith, and who in turn passed these truths on from one generation to the next.

The characteristic of hospitality and care are inseparable from the Christian faith. In this, Christ is inclusive because we are instructed to welcome and to care for others, particularly those the world tends to cast aside and reject. But one would say, how is this different from the ethics of a different faith tradition, or even of benevolent non-faith traditions? And the question returns; why adhere to the Christian faith, specifically?

There is the resurrection and ascension. And these two form the basis of the truth of the claims of Christ. It is said that when a court of law today receives and considers both circumstantial and eyewitness evidence for the resurrection and ascension, that it would be judged true without any reasonable doubt. These accounts circulated at a time when witnesses would have still been alive. If untrue, the gospels would have been immediately dismissed as fake. As for some who argue that the victors record history and that therefore triumphant Christianity favourably wrote its own history, we simply point to the fact that the gospels circulated at a time when identification with Christ could have meant death at the hands of the Romans. No, the account of the resurrection and ascension were not written by biased, lying, triumphant Christians, they were written under the shadow of the pain of death.

From these truth claims springs hope that is eternal. God did indeed send to us the Holy Spirit, to empower us to live the Christian ethic: truly welcoming and caring for those whom God sends our way, regardless of provenance, social status, rich or poor, healthy or ill. Christ will indeed return, our trusting confidence buttressed by the accounts of the apostles concerning the uniqueness of Christ, no matter how far removed they are in history.

My experience as young one straining to see the plane my dad was in, permits me to sense in a small way the manner by which the apostles fixed their gaze on Jesus as he ascended to heaven. What now during the in-between time, the waiting period after the ascension and the return? What does one do? Two angels had to remind the apostles that there was work to do: life goes on but now in a different way. The first thing the apostles did? They returned to Jerusalem, and in one heart and mind, one voice, prayed. And the result of their prayer? The Christian faith did extend to all Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and then to the whole world.

Would God deny the advance of the kingdom of God? No.

Would God deny the flourishing of Christ’s church? No.

Would God deny us the power of the Holy Spirit through each of us here? No.

Will God increase our faith? Yes.

Will God grant us strength to live the way of Christ? Yes.

Will Christ return? A resounding yes.

Let us therefore live as if Christ were already here, so as to show a taste of heaven to those who do not know: That the true Christian church is indeed a haven of hope, of hospitality, of care – where Christ is at the centre of all that is.

Yes, Lord, come quickly. Maranatha!

2015 September 05 – “Table fellowship with Christ” – 1Corinthians 10:1-17

When I was a young boy, my parents enrolled me one summer to boys camp ran by the YMCA. I remember a Sunday when the camp took us to a worship service at a church close by. It happened to be Holy Communion. The practice in that church was for the congregation to come up row by row to the rail and kneel to receive Communion. I knew all about this part of the worship service: I spent my childhood attending a Methodist church with my parents, and I even as a boy was allowed to receive Communion.

You can guess what happened when a group of camp kids ages 8 and 9 when up to kneel at the rail: It’s somehow related to herd mentality. We got it into our minds that it was chow time, and made sure everyone in the congregation knew what we thought, boisterous as we were. I suspect that we boys collectively decided how funny it was that the Lord’s Table, advertised as rich in blessing, offered no more but little 1-cm cubes of white bread neatly cut, one small piece per child we were told. Nothing like the more substantial chow we would have morning, noon and evening back at the camp.

What is wrong with this picture? What exactly, is Holy Communion, also known as the Lord’s Table or the Lord’s Supper? What does it mean? Is it really supposed to be a meal? Why do we even bother with it? I imagine that most of us who have been going to church for quite some time will say: Communion is when we remember Christ’s sacrifice, his death on the cross. Yes. But is there more to it?

If there was anything that Jesus did early in his ministry that truly annoyed the religious establishment, it was Jesus’ habit of having meals with those they considered undesirables – the riffraff.

You remember the story of Zacchaeus in Luke chapter 19? He was the hated tax collector who, because he was short, had to climb a sycamore tree to get a glimpse of Jesus passing by. Stopping underneath the tree where Zacchaeus had perched himself, Jesus invited himself to this tax collector’s home. That meant a meal. And all who saw/heard it began to grumble: “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Precisely. Jesus shared meals with those he came to save.

You remember Levi also known as Matthew, another hated tax collector, whose story is recorded in Mark chapter 2? When Jesus was having a meal chez Levi, the guest list included many other hated tax collectors and sinners. Sure enough, the religiously pure complained: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

And do you remember the woman of ill repute in Luke chapter 7 who gate-crashed a meal in order to wash the feet of Jesus with her own tears? The host of the party, a religiously pure man, snickered at Jesus and said to himself: If he only knew what kind of woman was touching him… Precisely. Jesus came to save those who needed saving: the lost, not the righteous.

Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is also about food. In this instance, Paul brings out the dark side of shared meals. He was answering a question from the Corinthians, whether it was alright to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. Paul’s advice begins in chapter 8. Paul begins by reminding them who they are in Christ. Like Israel of old who were led by the pillar of cloud through the wilderness, the Corinthians were, as we are, under God’s protection. Like Israel of old who passed through the parted waters of the Red Sea, the Corinthians have, as we have, passed from death to life. Like Israel of old who was baptized into Moses, the Corinthians were, as we have been, baptized into Christ. And like Israel of old who ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink, the Corinthians did as we now do, enter into table fellowship with the Lord himself in Holy Communion.

What was the problem with the Corinthian Christians? What was wrong with eating with the pagans in their temples? Didn’t Jesus intentionally eat with sinners?

The key to this question is in verse 16: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?”

Paul reminded the Corinthians of the foolishness of Israel of old. In verse 7, he quotes Exodus chapter 32, when the ancient Israelites grew impatient with Moses and demanded that Aaron make them a golden calf – an idol they can see and thus worship. So Aaron made them an idol, and the people sat down to eat and drink and they rose up to play. They were using the meal celebration to spit at the face of God. Paul made a parallel to the practice of the Corinthians: that the meal celebration intended as a sign of the people accepting the invitation of Christ, the Corinthians turned into an occasion to spite the very One who saved them from sin. In verse 20 and 21, Paul wrote: “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”

Heavy stuff, all this demon talk. Applied to our modern sensibilities, it can be understood like this: we cannot claim to be in Christ and continually place God way down in our priorities. There is something curiously wrong with claiming to love God, and at the same time, being just like everyone else who reject God. We in Christ are in this world, but no longer of this world.

When Christ invites us to table fellowship at Communion, we not only remember his sacrifice, we are also swept up by the Holy Spirit to dine with him and to be united with him according to his grace, mercy and love for us. I know that this spiritual union with Christ may sound irrational to the logical mind, but when is logic ever a pre-condition to faith? If it is indeed a spiritual union with Christ, then we will see ever more clearly those who need Christ so we, like Christ, would be moved to invite them into God’s presence. If it is indeed a spiritual union with Christ, then how can we who claim to be in Christ not crave to be always with Christ?

Perhaps the boisterous boys of my memorable YMCA summer camp had wisdom to offer to the stodgy parishioners who frowned on us that day: instead of starvation rations of tiny little neat cubes of sterile white bread guaranteed to be hygienic and safe, perhaps we should think of the Lord’s Table as a figurative chow-down, one big family at a family-style meal accepting the invitation of Christ to be swept to and united with him in the Spirit in pure gratitude and joy.

To God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

2015 August 16 – “Crossing the Bar – with apologies to Alfred Lord Tennyson” – John 6:17-21

The Victorian age – the 19th century. In the Victorian era people delighted themselves in natural history – the sciences – and in the arts, as we do today. But the Victorian era is special I think, because it is the last period in world history when people really believed and wanted to believe that everything about nature made sense because God created it. A fine example of a Canadian Victorian gentleman is Sir J. William Dawson – the “Dawson” in Dawson college, principal of McGill during the last half of the 19th century, a man of God first – a Presbyterian – and also a man of science second, a noted geologist in his time.

Alfred Lord Tennyson was also a true Victorian gentleman at heart – a poet – a man of the arts. Keenly aware of the new trends in science in his time, trends that seemed to turn away from God, his later poetry centred on his firm belief that the universe is subject to the laws of the Eternal God. Perhaps his most remembered poem, a poem that I memorized in 6th grade in the Philippines, “Crossing the Bar,” speaks of the hope of meeting God face to face after death. For Tennyson, death is like putting out to sea, letting the tide carry you out – in the firm conviction that God awaits at the other shore.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Today’s Scripture text is also about putting out to sea. But instead of an image of death as in Tennyson’s poem, this is a story about life, a story about not giving up.

Jesus had just fed a multitude of people, miraculously multiplying 5 loaves of barley bread and 2 fish into more than enough for 5,000 men not counting the women and children. After all were satisfied, there was enough food left over to fill 12 baskets. The people were so excited they wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king – a political messiah who would liberate the people from Rome. Jesus would have none of this. He was not going to allow himself to be manipulated into a political problem. He left the crowd and alone went up the mountain to pray.

As evening came, his disciples got into a boat and put out to sea towards Capernaum. The English translations do not capture fully the image given by the original language in John 6:17. The English version simply says “set off” or “started across the sea.” But, the original language says something more. I will read to you two sentences. Hear and sense the difference in their meanings. The first sentence: “I started to lose weight.” The second sentence: “I tried so very hard to lose weight but I can’t seem to shed any pounds.” Do you sense the frustration in the second sentence? Another example. First: “I started to learn to play the guitar” Second, “I tried so hard to learn the guitar but my fingers wouldn’t obey what I wanted them to do!” It is not for lack of trying – it is just that try as we might, it doesn’t lead us anywhere. Similarly, the tense of that verb in verse 17 packs greater meaning in the original language than in the English translation. It means that the disciples started to row towards Capernaum, but try as hard as they could, and for as long as they had strength, they couldn’t get there. In fact, they had only gone 3 or 4 miles into sea. If the size of the Sea of Galilee then were the same size as it is today, around 7 or 8 miles wide, the disciples would have been right in the middle caught in a contrary wind. They set out in the evening, and now it was early morning according to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, and they’re still in the middle of the sea!

Note, neither Matthew, Mark nor John said that the disciples were afraid. Yes the boat was being battered by the waves, yes the wind was against them and they were not getting anywhere near their destination; but these were fishermen, experienced at sea, and I am sure, not easily terrified by rough water. It was in another story when the Scriptures said they were afraid of the storm at sea – in that instance, Jesus was in the boat with them, sleeping. In this particular incident, these men did not seem to be unnerved by the rough sea – they just couldn’t get to where they wanted to go.

Then they saw it… They thought it was a ghost. Can you blame them for thinking it was a ghost? How many people have you seen walking on water? None. Who can walk on water? Must be a weightless spirit floating in air, therefore a ghost. Otherwise, if the apparition had any weight at all like a normal human being, it would have sunk. And there it is – it’s coming closer! The disciples, grown-up men that they were, unafraid of rough seas, were terrified!

I don’t think in our time here and now that we could still truly understand the terror of the disciples. We are so conditioned by yearly fake Halloween ghosts, goblins, witches and the like, that we probably wouldn’t even blink an eye if there was a real one that appeared. In contrast, in many third world countries like the Philippines where I was born, apparitions are taken seriously and feared. I remember as a young child growing up that people actually avoided using a certain street in Manila during the night because of its reputation for resident ghosts. In another part of Manila, there was a government-owned building that no one wants to buy, rent, much less use because former occupants truly believe the building is inhabited by angry spirits. It is not important whether ghosts truly exist – in that part of the world, people who think they have seen a ghost are almost always terrified beyond reason. I imagine the disciples were so afraid – so terrified – that they didn’t – couldn’t – recognize Jesus as he came near their boat. You think they would have, having spent so much time with him. Then Jesus tells them: “It is I; do not be afraid.”

“It is I.” In the original language, that sentence reads “I Am,” the same way God named Himself when he appeared to Moses in the burning bush on Mount Sinai. Jesus claimed divinity – one with the Father – to his disciples. And he proved it in at least 2 ways within less than 24 hours. First, he miraculously fed 5,000 people, just like God fed miraculous manna to his people travelling through the wilderness. Second, he showed by walking on water that he was master of nature, master of the creation, just as God showed that even the Red Sea obeyed his command as the people crossed it on foot. Furthermore, we must not miss the Hebrew understanding of the rough sea as a symbol of the primeval chaos that God tamed as He created the world. In fact, in Hebrew belief, the sea is inhabited by demons. In Matthew chapter 8 when Jesus cast out the demons from 2 men, the demons went into a herd of pigs which then rushed down a steep bank and into the sea. As Job chapter 9 declares: “God who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea” so did Jesus trample the waves of the rough Galilean sea.

Hearing the “I Am – do not be afraid” the disciples wanted to take him into the boat. The Gospel of John doesn’t mention if Jesus actually got in the boat – we assumed he did, particularly from the accounts of Mark and Matthew. What we do know from John is that as soon as the disciples just as so much change from terror to wanting Jesus to get into the boat, they arrived at their destination – immediately! From the middle of the rough Galilean Sea, to the shore – instantly!

What are the lessons for us?

Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Crossing the Bar” is about a peaceful departure from this earth and into the embrace of God. John 6:16-21, on the other hand, is not about a final farewell and peaceful setting out to sea. Instead, it is about life and all its challenges. Just like the disciples trying to cross the sea in a boat with oars, we live the business of life hanging on to some faith object – something that we think will carry us through. It could be family, money, social position, education, employment – you can name your own list.

But life can be rough. Just as the disciples began to be battered by the wind and the waves – just as they tried with all their might to get where they wanted to go but could get nowhere, so life is not always so smooth and we don’t necessarily accomplish all that we set out to do. I can name a number of instances in my own life when I wished things unfolded differently, or when I would have preferred that certain other things never happened at all. I can remember times when I cried out to God “Why did you let this happen?” or “Why are you not here when I need you to tell me it is alright?” I recall moments when hope seemed like a far distant ghost – so thin, so ethereal – so unreal. I will be so bold as to say that each one of you here would also remember similar times of difficulty.

The miracle of the Good News is that it is precisely in those times when Jesus comes alongside and repeats to us those comforting words – those words that empower us, that make us alive: “It is I, don’t be afraid.” When the disciples heard these words, they immediately wanted to take Jesus into the boat. And immediately, they landed on shore – a miracle. In times of difficulty when we hear the same words of Jesus in our hearts and souls, our response would be to want to cling to God – to Jesus, and he will carry us to shore – to where we are going. Deep down, we believe that this is true – and which is why we are here this morning, why we come back every Sunday to worship our God, gathered as a community of faith.

Permit me now to play with Tennyson’s poem – with apologies to this great Victorian poet:

Dark and troubled sky
Cold wind assaulting me
And will even God not heed my cry
Of terror out at sea.

The water, chaos, massive, deep
Heaving, breaking, foaming beast
Snatches hope away to keep
And on my soul begin to feast.

A shimmer on rough water
A ghost to raise deathly fear!
He draws ever so closer
Then whispers gently in my ear.

“’Tis I” says He
“Afraid, you do not have to be!”
Then bore me to safety through rough water,
My Friend, my Pilot, and my Master!

To God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Leave a Reply