Sunday, July 31, 2005

Sun, July 31, 2005 - In Mission For Others

Isaiah 55:1-5

Romans 9:1-5

Matthew 14:13-21

We don’t usually read the Psalm in the summer, but today’s psalm (Psalm 145:8-9, 15-22) is such a lovely proclamation of the Gospel that I think we should. So why don’t you all get out your bulletin inserts and read the psalm together with me:

The Lord is gracious and full of compassion,
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The Lord is loving to everyone
and his compassion is over all his works.
The Lord upholds all those who fall;
he lifts up those who are bowed down.
The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open wide your hand
and satisfy the needs of every living creature.

Now isn’t that lovely? The Lord is gracious, full of great kindness, slow to anger, loving to everyone, compassionate, and satisfying the needs of every living creature. That is such a proclamation of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, even though it came before him, that I could end this sermon right now.

But I can’t. You see, there’s a problem. And that problem comes when we receive this wonderful proclamation of the Gospel, when we hear how loved we are by God, and we do nothing. Now, let me say right now, before there’s any confusion - God’s love and grace come to us completely apart from whether we do something with it or not. God justifies us solely by God’s grace, and not on the basis of our response to the Gospel. So when I say that there’s a problem, I don’t mean that there’s a problem that’s going to prevent God from bestowing grace and forgiveness on us. Nothing can prevent God from doing that. But what I am saying is that when we receive that grace and do absolutely nothing with it, we’re causing problems.

You see, one of the reasons God shares all this grace with us is so that we can share it with others, and in doing so, spread it to the whole world. "For God so loved the world..." But when we sit back and do nothing with that grace, we’re hindering the whole process from happening. You see, Jesus Christ came to the people of Israel to embody the love and mercy of God in a physical way - through healing and feeding and forgiving. But Jesus isn’t walking around anymore. And so he’s left us to embody that love and mercy for others - through our physical actions, our words, our proclamation of God’s mercy and our claiming of that mercy for others. But if we don’t embody that Gospel for others, if we sit back and do nothing, God’s goal of proclaiming love and mercy to the whole world stops short with us.

Sadly, we let that happen all too often. In our Gospel story, we see the disciples very clearly sitting back and doing nothing about the amazing Gospel gift that Jesus has given them. Jesus has called the disciples, enriched and blessed their lives, healed their family, fed them, prayed for them, and when it comes time for them to embody that love for others, what do they do? They say to Jesus, "send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." For goodness’ sake - have they learned nothing from being with Jesus? Send them away? Let them get their own food? What happened to serving others, to loving others, to living your life for others? The disciples received the good news from Christ, there’s no doubt that they did - they were following him, after all. But they definitely stopped short of sharing that good news with other people.

And that’s always our temptation with the Gospel. To let it stop with us and not to share it with others. We become more interested in claiming the Gospel for ourselves and advancing our own righteousness than in proclaiming the Gospel and righteousness of God for and on behalf of others.

This happened at the National Convention last week in Winnipeg. Even though the convention theme was "In Mission For Others," we failed to act for others. Instead, as a convention, we pretty much acted in our own self-interest, seeking to uphold our own views of righteousness rather than claiming and proclaiming God’s righteousness for others. Now, you might think I’m referring to the whole vote on the issue of allowing each congregation to make their own decision about blessing committed same-sex relationships. And, in one sense, I am. The convention voted 54% against letting that happen, and only 45% in favour of letting that happen, and in my opinion, it was a clear case of the convention claiming God’s gospel for ourselves, who consider ourselves already righteous, and failing to embody that Gospel for others by denying God’s love and blessing to gays and lesbians because they are "unrighteous."

But that’s not the only thing I’m talking about. I’m also talking about the Convention not allowing the 12-delegate Youth Assembly to have a vote at the Convention. You see, at the beginning of each Convention, the youth assembly must be granted unanimous permission from the convention to have a vote at that particular gathering. And at this convention, a small number of people decided that the youth should not have a vote. Why? I’m not sure, although I suspect it may because they were afraid that the youth might be too radical in proclaiming the inclusiveness of the Gospel. In any case, rather than being living examples of the Gospel of Christ by extending full participation to the youth delegates, the Convention kept that Gospel to themselves. We did not act for others, but for ourselves.

But that’s not what Jesus taught us. Jesus didn’t teach us to be in mission for ourselves. Jesus didn’t embody the good news of love and forgiveness for us so that we could keep it for ourselves. Jesus did it so that we could share that message and its implications with the world. That’s why, when the disciples said to Jesus that the crowds should go find their own dinner, Jesus said, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." We aren’t to send people elsewhere to experience the Gospel - we’re to do it here, where we are. And when the disciples complained that they didn’t have enough to share, Jesus gave them enough - more than enough. Jesus gave them so much that there were twelve full baskets left over - enough to fill the twelve tribes of Israel, and from there, the world.

Paul knew this, too - that the good news of Jesus Christ was for sharing, not for keeping to himself. Why else do you think he was in such anguish over his fellow Jews? Paul knew that he, the worst of sinners, was radically forgiven by the grace of God. He could have said, "Well, I’m saved, so who cares about anybody else? Why should I bother to stick my neck out for anyone else?" But he didn’t. He knew that God’s grace was meant for sharing, that it was meant for the salvation of the whole world, and so, at great risk to his life, he claimed the covenant of God for his Jewish brothers and sisters. And we’re to do the same, in our own context.

Now, I must say, that there were moments at the Convention when we did see this Gospel embodiment taking place. Like I said, the theme of the Convention, and the National Church’s theme for the next two years, is "In Mission for Others." And when the convention floor was challenged by the non-voting youth delegates to raise money for their youth project, Habitat for Humanity - Mission Possible, over $3000 was raised on the spot. And, later, a motion was made and pretty well overwhelmingly carried that "our church’s leaders, congregations and pastors... [reject] all words and actions hostile to gays and lesbians... and [take] steps to create a more welcoming place in this church for gays, lesbians, and their families." So, by the grace of God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we are taking a few small steps towards being in mission for others and not ourselves. We are beginning to realize that the loaves and fishes Jesus gave us are meant for those around us, too, and we are learning how to share them.

The grace and forgiveness of God is not meant for just a small, select group of people. God means for it to be shared with the whole world, and like the disciples who were directed to share the food with the crowds, God means for us to be the ones to go out and share it, not just at National Convention, but in Synods, and in our congregations, and in the lives of those around each one of us. This sharing is about more than just telling people about what God has done through Christ; it’s about living the life of Christ for others so that they can see God through us. This is what the Son of God came to earth to do for us, embodying God’s love for us, not so that we would remain in mission for ourselves, but so that we would go out in mission for others.
One of my absolute favourite hymns is "We All Are One In Mission." And I want to end by singing the first two verses for you because I think it has a something to say about our mission for others. It’s #755 in the blue hymnal if you want to read along:

We all are one in mission; we all are one in call,
our varied gifts united by Christ, the Lord of all.
A single great commission compels us from above
to plan and work together that all may know Christ’s love.
We all are called to service, to witness in God’s name.
Our ministries are diff’rent; our purpose is the same:
to touch the lives of others with God’s surprising grace,
so ev’ry folk and nation may feel God’s warm embrace.

May God grant us the power to be in mission for others. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Sun, Jul 17, 2005 - Saviour of the World

Isaiah 44:6-8

Romans 8:12-25

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

One of the overarching themes of this summer’s Bible readings seems to be that of religious exclusivity - trying to determine who is in and who is out when it comes to God’s kingdom. Let me read you a few of the passages to give you a sense of what I mean. Last week, in Romans, we heard that "Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him." And from our Gospel we heard that - "When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart."

From this week, from Isaiah, "Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god." And again from Matthew, "The field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fires, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Next week, the Gospel follows that up with, "the angels will come out and separate the vil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire." And by the time we’re in August, we hear from 1 Kings the story of God sending Elijah the prophet to arrange for all the Baal-worshippers to be killed, and in Romans it says, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?"

And finally, by mid-August, the Gospel - still Matthew - tells us that "every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted." Like I said, there’s a theme here of religious exclusivity, and it seems to be telling us that if you’re a Christian, if you believe in Christ and the God who sent him, then you have nothing to worry about. But if you don’t, well, you’re in trouble, to say the least.

Which is fine, because we’re all Christians here. We’re all baptized children of God who can trust in God’s promise that we will be with God. But what about those who aren’t? How are we to understand Christ’s claim to being the exclusive way to God and salvation within our current context? Now, this is not an idle theological question. In our context, living in the city we do and at the time we do, the question of whether or not people who are not self-professed Christians can be welcomed by God is of pressing importance. Obviously, I come at the whole thing from a very personal angle. Only one quarter of my extended family is Christian - the rest is Jewish and Buddhist, and many of my close friends aren’t Christian. But I know that many of you are in the same situation, with family members and friends who are Hindu or Muslim. Don’t you wonder, sometimes, what will happen to them when they die? This message of religious Christian exclusivity hits close to home - it even hits within our home, we might say. But even if it doesn’t, even if all our family and friends are Christian, this question of Christian exclusivity is still with us. After all, we live in a country, and a city, where the person who drives the bus is just as likely not to be Christian, nor are the doctors and dentists and nurses who care for us, or the police who protect us, or the people we work with, or just about anybody who helps us to get through our days.

So I have to ask? Is it really true that all these non-Christian people, even the ones we love, especially the ones we love, will have no place in God’s kingdom when the time comes? Is it true that they will be separated from us, burned like weeds, uprooted and slaughtered? Is it possible that we are saved while our friends and family are not? What about the mercy of God?

These questions are raised in an article by Mark Thomsen, from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago [Christ Crucified: Lutheran Missiological Themes for a Post-Christian Century, Currents in Theology and Mission, 30:2]. In Mark’s article, he says, "It is difficult to fathom why Christian and Lutheran theology have attempted to limit the breadth and cosmic scope of God’s suffering love embodied in Jesus crucified. Why would one limit the saving effects of this love to those who have the possibility of hearing a proclamation of Jesus? Is God’s life-giving embrace to be limited by the time and place of one’s birth?" In other words, Mark is pointing out that people have no choice about where and when they are born, and I might even add about the culture in which they are raised. That being the case, are they to be excluded from the life and love that God gives because they are not predisposed or conditioned to be receptive to the story of Christ? In fact, doesn’t requiring people to believe in Jesus Christ in order to saved - to put it simply - put a condition on a grace and love that we proclaim is unconditional?

You can see the problem we are in. Aside from the personal concerns about the people we love, we have the theological paradox that we proclaim a God who is unreservedly generous to those who don’t deserve it, who is full of unconditional grace and mercy towards those who would reject it. We say that God "so loves the world that He sent his only Son," and in the next breath say that "those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already." So how are we to resolve this tension?

Interestingly enough, this tension already exists in the Bible - the tension between believing that salvation only comes to those inside the fold of believers and believing that God shows favour and salvation to whomever God wills, regardless of what that person believes. One of the most important Old Testament examples of God doing the latter is when, after Israel has been invaded by Babylon and Assyria and sent into foreign lands, God uses Cyrus, the King of Persia - not a believer - to rescue Israel and bring them out of exile. The salvation of God’s chosen people comes at the hands of someone who was most likely Zoroastrian. Traditionally, Zoroastrians had no place among God’s chosen people, and yet here is God making one a saviour of Israel. There is an unresolved paradox here.

In the Gospels, in the Gospel of Matthew, even - a few chapters before today’s story - Jesus makes a point of telling his disciples that those who thought they were in will be out and those who thought they were out will find themselves in. "I tell you," he says, "many will come from east and west (meaning non-believers) and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." It’s true that he was talking to the Pharisees at the time, but the point he is making applies to us as well. We should not be quite so quick to assume that those who don’t profess to follow Jesus will find themselves shut out of the kingdom.

And then, of course, we have our parable for today, which clearly highlights that we humans aren’t meant to be doing that sort of separating out of people in the first place. We can’t really look at a person and say, "because you’re Christian, you’re in." We likewise can’t look at a person and say, "because you’re not a Christian, you’re out." Because, frankly, as the parable tells us, just as the harvesters couldn’t separate out the weeds and the wheat without damaging the good seed, we don’t have the knowledge or the skill to even do that kind of separating. That’s left for God and the angels to sort out at the end of time. That’s not our job.

Now, I have most likely not given you any satisfactory answer to the question of religious exclusivity. But that’s because I don’t have one. But neither does anybody else. Only God knows what will happen at the end of time. But that doesn’t mean that we are left wondering where we are, personally, in this whole thing. We are baptized Christians, and as such, God has made particular promises to us. As God’s own adopted children, we have the promise of salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ.

But in the meantime, when it comes to those around us who are not Christian, we can hold fast to the mercy of God shown in that same Jesus Christ. We can trust, as we proclaim, that the Lord is indeed "gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love," and that, as the Bible tells us, that grace, mercy, and steadfast love is meant for the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Sun, July 10, 2005 - Seeds that Grow

Isaiah 55:10-13

Romans 8:1-11

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Well, our parable this morning doesn't seem to be the most encouraging parable, does it? In fact, if you look at it closely, it can start to seem downright discouraging. A farmer goes out to sow some seed and some of it lands on the path, where it immediately gets gobbled up by birds. Some of it lands on the rocks, where some seeds manage to find there way between the cracks in the rocks and put forth leaves, but then there's no more soil so they die. Some of the seed lands among the weeds, where it starts growing but the weeds grow faster and block out the sunlight and the rain, and the seedlings die. And only a very small portion of the seed it seems like, only about 1/4 of the seed actually lands where it can actually grow and take root, and then, yay, it brings forth a good yield. I mean, think about it for a second, how much of the seed that the farmer sows actually makes it? The seed on the path doesn't, the seed on the rocks doesn't, the seed among the weeds doesn't. Only the seed on the soil does. The odds aren't good for this farmer that she's going to get a lot of bang for her buck.

Now, if we were just talking about a farmer and her seed, this wouldn't be so worrying. After all, farmers can always sow more seeds, or clear out the weeds, or remove the rocks. But this is a parable, and since it's a parable, we know that Jesus isn't really talking about farmers, he's talking about the bigger life and death, good and evil issues of the world. The seed is the word of the kingdom, the good news of God's grace and mercy and justice, the promise that God is committed to the world becoming the place of peace and equality that it was meant to be. And the path and the rocky ground and the weedy soil and even, yes, the good soil are all the world - the people of the world - where this word is supposed to be growing.

And that's where it starts to get discouraging. Because when you look around you, and you listen to the news, and you when you go through your day-to-day living, it can all too often seem as if the word of God's kingdom isn't having any effect at all. Now, just to be clear, I'm not talking about the number of Christians, or how many people go to church, or anything like that. When I say that we don't seem to see the effect of the word of God's kingdom, I mean that it seems as if everywhere we look, the moments of good are being constantly overwhelmed by the moments of evil. Shootings in Toronto happen so often now that they're no longer a surprise but almost expected. Last week at the Live 8 concerts we heard about the enormous number of starving and impoverished people living in Africa. And of course, there were the horrific London bombings this week that killed dozens of people.

And we don't even need to look at that mass scale to see the presence of evil and injustice in our world. The usage of food banks in Toronto is up again this year, with the Daily Bread Food Bank having to do a summer food drive in order to meet their need, something unprecedented in their history. Housing is at a critical shortage in cities all across Canada, not just Toronto, with the waiting list in this city for subsidized housing being ten-years long. Even the little things, like the politeness of drivers on the road or people waiting in line has gone way down, with some people being downright mean to others. With all of these things happening, it really does seem as if pretty much none of the seed in the world is actually landing on the good soil. The path and the rocks and the weeds seem to be everywhere.

So why try and do good? What's the use? Where's the hope?

Well, hope comes from one line in our parable, a line that makes sense if you know about farming, but needs to be explained if you don't, like me. The line is: other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Now, what I'm told is the normal yield for grain is seven times. That is, one seed will put forth seven of itself. So, you plant one seed, you get seven. You plant one hundred, which is more likely, you get seven hundred. That's what's normal. But here is Jesus saying in this parable that when the farmer sows one seed, she gets between thirty and a hundred back. And when she plants one hundred, she gets between three thousand and ten thousand back. Now there's a big difference between seven hundred and ten thousand. And when you think about it, getting a hundred seeds back from one tiny seed is pretty amazing. That completely makes up for 3/4 of the seed landing on crummy soil and not growing. That more than makes up for it, in fact.

And, like I said, since this is a parable, this also has bearing on the larger issues of life and death and good and evil. Despite it seeming like evil is taking over the world, what is happening is that the seeds of good that God is sowing, although they may look like few, are taking root and will bring forth results one hundred times bigger than themselves. They will grow to make the goodness of God a real presence in the world.

Now I saw this happening yesterday. Yesterday, a small number of people from the church went out to Malvern to the Habitat for Humanity building site. And when we got to the site, we saw four row-houses of three units each, in varying stages of being built. Now there were not even ten of us from the church, and ten people can't do much in the face of all that work. But we tried our best and put up drywall and installed locks and painted baseboards. Now I have to tell you, putting up drywall is finicky business, especially when there are angles and funny lengths involved. And in fact, by the end of the day, we really hadn't put that much drywall up. We certainly hadn't put up enough drywall for an entire house.

But here's the thing. Our group put up a little bit of drywall. And another group next week will put up another little bit of drywall. And another group will paint window frames. And another group will install baseboards. All little things, but by the time it's done, twelve families will have new houses. Twelve families will no longer have to worry about not having enough money to pay the rent, they won't have to worry about ending up on the street or in a shelter. And then those twelve families will go on to make the world a better place in their schools and at work and even in their neighbourhoods by building more Habitat housing. Our little group of ten's small efforts will in fact yield major results in the world.

And it's all because of God. You see, in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, God says, "For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it." With God looking after things, even the small amount of seed that goes out brings forth a great abundance. With God running things, even the smallest efforts of ours makes a huge difference in the world.

So do not be discouraged. Have hope in the face of the evil that threatens to overwhelm your lives. The tiny little good things that you do, that we all do, do in fact make a difference in the larger scheme of things. It may seem like you're trying to sow on rocky ground, it may seem like the weeds are going to choke your good deeds out, but that is not the case. God is taking the seeds of love and mercy and justice that you sow and turning them into fields full of goodness. The good things done in the world shall not return empty. They shall accomplish that which God purposes and succeed in the things for which God has sent them. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Mon, July 4, 2005 - Memorial Sermon

Job 19:23-27a

Romans 8:31-35, 37-39

John 14:1-6a

Well, I have never met Bessie, but I can tell from the words that have been spoken this morning that she was a lovely person. With her hats and her love of singing, she sounds like she was quite unique. In a way, I miss her, even though I’ve never known her.

That feeling of missing somebody who has died is familiar to all of you, I’m sure. For some of you, enough time has passed that you miss Bessie fondly, with nostalgia, remembering all the good times you spent together. But for others of you, particularly close family and friends, the pain of missing Bessie is likely to still be strong. You may find yourself still struggling to deal with the reality of it, having to catch yourself when something happens and you think, "Oh, I must tell her this - she’ll want to know." And this is perfectly normal. Thinking that you caught a glimpse of a loved one who has died when you are out shopping, or thinking that you hear their voice in a crowd is a normal part of the grieving process. Even six months later, this is still an expected part of it. Whether you have reached the end of your mourning or are still fully immersed in it, you may be missing not only the times you have spent with Bessie, but you will also be missing the times that you looked forward to spending with her but that will now no longer take place.

One of the saddest things to adjust to in a time of death is realizing that we will never again in this lifetime see the person we love. We will not laugh or cry with them again. But we do have a certain hope that the earthly separation between us and them is not an eternal separation. It is not forever. You see, we are knit together as a community by God. All of us here today, and all of the people we love from the past, too, including Bessie, are gathered by God into one great community of love through Jesus Christ. In the reading I just read, we heard Jesus say, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. . . In my Father’s house there are many dwelling place... I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." I’ve been told that Bessie was a frequent visitor at the Manor, taking part in all of the events, but every night she had to go home again. But in God’s house, Bessie is not just a visitor, she is a welcome resident, with a place prepared specifically for her. And there are places for each one of us, specially prepared, built so that we can be together. You see, we have Jesus’ promise that God has arranged for us all to be gathered into God’s presence when we die, and what’s more, that Jesus Christ himself lovingly brings each one of us there, to be with God and to be with one another. We will, in fact, you and I, not miss Bessie forever, but one day in the arms of God, laugh and cry with her, and with all the people we love.

And there is nothing that can stop that from happening. In the reading from Romans the author Paul says that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." There is absolutely nothing that can stop Bessie from being gathered by Jesus into the loving presence of God, and there is absolutely nothing that can stop us from being gathered into God’s presence, where we will be reunited with Bessie and all the people we love. And that is because the power of God’s love, shown to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is strong enough to overcome pain and sickness and yes, even death. The power of God’s love is the strongest power that exists; it brings new life out of the darkness of death, it reunites families and friends, it brings us together with God, and there is absolutely nothing that can get in its way. You will one day be with Bessie again, in the presence of God.

"I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him, with my own eyes - I, and not another." This confession of Job’s is our confession and Bessie’s as well. Despite death, we will see God, and so will Bessie, not because we have any power over life and death but because God does. And God has promised, through Jesus, that death is not the end for us. Rather, there is a place, a home, waiting for us and for Bessie, where laughter and joy and singing are constant, where sickness and death are not permitted, and where we will meet with all our loved ones, gathered in by the welcoming arms of God. It is true that you will continue to miss Bessie until that time, and to mourn that she is no longer with us, but you can trust God that you will not be separated forever, and that joy will one day return. And so may the peace of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with you now and forever. Amen.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Sunday, July 3, 2005 - Piety

Zechariah 9:9-12

Romans 7:15-25a

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Piety. Now there’s a word you don’t hear every day. If we use the word "piety" at all, it’s almost always connected with religion, and it tends to reflect an Old World, old-fashioned way of thinking. But piety is neither Old World, nor old-fashioned. It means, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, "dutifulness in religion." In other words, piety means a person’s devotion to their religion. Piety is how a person lives out their faith. A pious person is someone who is very devoted to living out their faith. In religious circles, we sometimes use the word to describe how a group of people operates in a religious manner - we might talk about Norwegian piety, or Puritan piety, or Baptist piety.

Now, you may not think to use the word piety when you’re talking about religious life, but I’ll bet the concept is there. Each one of us has some kind of picture in our head about how we’re supposed to live as good Christians. For just about all Christians, their most basic piety includes going to church at Christmas and on Easter. Some Christians’ piety requires them to go to church at least once a month. Or even every Sunday. Some Christians’ piety includes reading the Bible every day, saying grace at every meal, or blessing their homes when they move in.
But there are other Christians whose piety isn’t quite like that. For some Christians, their piety doesn’t require them to go to church every Sunday, but it does require them to give change to homeless people. And for some Christians, their piety doesn’t require them to do anything at all. They live out their faith by just living.

Well, our Gospel reading today makes references to two different practices of piety by referring to John the Baptist and to Jesus.

Some would describe John the Baptist as very pious. He lived out in the desert wilderness of Israel, shunning any and all kinds of comforts, including the comforts of comfortable clothes. Instead, he wore nothing but camel hair skin wrapped around him and tied with a leather belt. Not very comfortable, but that wasn’t the point. He ate grasshoppers and honey, and that was it. No lamb, like everybody else, or bread, or anything like that. John the Baptist was what we call an ascetic. He was highly self-disciplined, he overcame any weakness of his body like hunger or cold and hot. His piety, his way of living out his faith, was to focus solely on God and to ignore everything else, including himself. John’s piety also included preaching about the wrath of God. His way of being devoted was to remind people about how far they had fallen from God’s eyes and to warn them to shape up or face the axe. Like prophets from the Old Testament, John’s piety was severe and unforgiving - he shunned and even verbally abused the Pharisees. In Jesus’ parable, John belonged to the children sitting in the marketplace who wailed and invited people to mourn.

And then there was Jesus’ piety. And Jesus’ piety, his way of living out his faith, was almost exactly the opposite. Jesus didn’t live in the desert - instead, he travelled from town to town. He feasted with all kinds of people, from prostitutes to those whose piety was pretty much nonexistent, wining and dining to the extent that he earned the reputation of being a "glutton and a drunkard." Jesus’ piety required him to preach healing and love to people, rather than warnings like John. In his parable, he belonged to the children in the marketplace who played the flute in the hopes that people would dance.

Now the thing about having different types of pieties is that, like with all things, we tend to start comparing them. We compare the piety of the older generation - who go to church every Sunday, dressed in their nice clothes, with the piety of the younger generation - who go to church less often, dressed in their jeans. We compare the piety of the conservative Baptists - who don’t allow drinking or dancing - with the piety of the Anglicans - who enjoy a nice bit of scotch when they get together. We compare the piety of those church members who sit on church committees and diligently attend every church event with the piety of those who just show up for Sunday and slip away right after.

And in that comparing, we usually put ourselves in one of the two camps, and then the judging begins. We either judge those whose piety is different from ours, wondering why they don’t live up to our standards of faith-life. For instance some of you, I’m guessing, are wondering where everybody is this morning, and frowning over how people just don’t come to church in the summer. We judge the piety of those Christian MPs in Parliament who voted in favour of the same-sex marriage legislation and we judge the piety of those who voted against it. Or we even judge ourselves, wondering if maybe we should be more serious about our faith, judging whether our piety matches up to what’s expected.

Now, it’s a common reaction - the Pharisees did it to both John and Jesus, saying that John’s piety was so severe and restricted that he must have been possessed and saying that Jesus’ piety was so lax and easygoing that he was a no-good partier. And even John the Baptist and his followers did it a little bit when, after a particular feast, Jesus was asked why he didn’t fast like they did. And when John was imprisoned for his faith, after hearing news of Jesus’ goings-on, he sent a message to Jesus asking him if he really could be the Messiah. After all, what kind of Messiah lived out his devotion to God by eating and drinking? We are constantly comparing the piety of ourselves and others, wondering who’s measuring up to the right standards.

So who is? What is the best way to live out our faith life? Which piety has the recommendation of God, so to speak? Well, interestingly enough, none of them. What I mean is that none of our pieties, none of the ways of living out our faith, are explicitly advocated by God. Not the going to church every Sunday nor the staying home and having brunch with family. Not the asceticism of John nor the feasting of Jesus. And that’s because, according to Paul, we are all of us sinners and that means that all of our pieties are insufficient. None of them are good enough. We may try and try and try to live the proper life of devotion, but ultimately, we will fail. We do things that we know we shouldn’t; we don’t do the things we know we should. And so Paul asks the critical question, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?"

His answer? "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Our rescue comes from above. In other words, thanks be to God that our salvation and our forgiveness aren’t based on our pieties, but on Jesus Christ dying and being raised for us. God doesn’t forgive you based on how you live out your faith life, but solely on Jesus Christ having died on the cross and wiped out your sins. God doesn’t grant you new life based on how often you attend church or read the Bible, but solely on Jesus Christ being raised from the dead with new life for all.

And that means that we are free to practice whatever piety we like. We can be as disciplined as John if we like, if we are strong enough, which not all of us are. Or we can take on the piety of Jesus, who encouraged us, actually, to take his path, saying that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Because Jesus’ death and resurrection frees us from having to worry about our own salvation, we are freed to choose that piety that fits who we are personally. Whether that means dressing up for church or wearing jeans, whether that means worshipping God at the cottage or in church, whether that means showing our devotion to our faith by living a strictly disciplined lifestyle like John or by relaxing and hanging out with friends like Jesus, we can freely choose, since through Jesus God is no longer using our piety as a guideline for acceptance.

Every Christian has one kind of piety or another. That is, every Christian lives out their faith life one way or another. Whether we are conscious of it or not, our piety affects how we dress, what we do with our spare time, what kind of people we spend time with, what kind of car we drive - every aspect of our life, actually. And if God judged our piety the way we judge others’, you can be sure that all of our pieties would fall short. But, as you’ve heard, because of the cross, that’s no longer what God does - instead God accepts us, and the way we live out our faith life, without reservation. So - however you choose to practice your piety this summer, do so freely with a clear conscience, trusting that by the grace of God it is sufficient. "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord." Amen.