Monday, 27 November 2017

Christ in disguise



This is a challenging passage of Scripture. I think everyone who cares about being a disciple of Jesus hears these words and feels a little twinge of fear wondering if we are doing all we can.

Jesus is going to judge all of humanity, and what is the basis on which he going to judge humanity? He is going to judge humanity on the basis of how they treated him when he came to them in a kind of disguise. He is disguised as the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.

There are a couple of ways we can interpret this passage. To the original hearers they would have probably heard Jesus speaking about his disciples going out to the nations. Jesus speaks about the “least of these my brothers and sisters”, which would most likely refer to his disciples. You might remember that when Jesus sends out his disciples in Luke chapter 10 he gives them directions saying, 
“Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, … Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ … And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide” (Luke 10:4, 5, 7). 
The disciples were very much reliant on the hospitality of those they met. What this passage is saying is that how his disciples were received or not received is experienced by Jesus very personally. It’s as if Jesus was in the clothes of his disciple experiencing being accepted or rejected.

Think about Paul before his conversion while he was still persecuting Christians and then Jesus appears to him on the road to Damascus. Paul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” And Jesus says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). Jesus says that what Paul was doing to his followers, he was actually doing to him. Jesus didn’t say “you are persecuting my people” he says that Paul was persecuting him.

As his disciples go out to the peoples of the world to share the gospel they will be treated hospitably or not. So at the end of the age all the peoples of the world will be gathered together and they will be judged on the basis of how they received the followers of Christ. … if you are a follower of Christ and someone has mistreated you because you are his follower it is taken personally by Jesus. He takes it so personally that what has been done to you he considers it done to him personally.

This is both good news and quite challenging for us. It is good news in that it means that Jesus has our back. As we try to follow him and minister to those around us- as we try to be Christians in the world for the sake of others- Jesus sees himself as right there with us. For those who receive us, Jesus sees them as receiving him. For those who reject us, Jesus sees them as rejecting him. … Jesus is with you in a powerfully intimate way. It shows the deep identification Jesus has with us.

This is also challenging for us though. It means that how we treat our fellow Christians is how Jesus sees us treating him. If we gossip against a fellow Christian we are gossiping against him. If we quarrel with a fellow Christian, we are quarreling with Christ. If we ignore a Christian teenager, or get upset that a child in church is a bit noisy- Jesus sees us as doing that to him. This goes across denominational lines as well. How do we feel about Roman Catholics, or Baptists, or Pentecostals? If we look down on other kinds of Christians because of their style of worship, for example, Jesus sees us as looking down on him. If Christians in other parts of the world are being persecuted, as they have been under ISIS, and we ignore their cry, then we have ignored the cry of Christ.

On the other hand, when we serve fellow Christians across the world, especially when they are in trouble, Jesus sees us as serving him. When we bless and love our Christian brothers and sisters in other denominations, then Jesus receives that love as being directed to him. When we treat our brothers and sisters in our own church with honour, love, and respect, then Jesus sees that as being directed to him. … So in this interpretation of the “least of these” as the disciples of Jesus we can feel both the good news and the strong challenge.

The second way we can interpret this passage is to see the “least of these my brothers and sisters” as the suffering of humanity. This is the way Mother Teresa has interpreted this passage. She often called poverty the “distressing disguise” of Jesus. The Rule of St. Benedict directs the monks to welcome every stranger as if they are welcoming Christ (Chapter 53). While the first reading would be a more accurate reading historically, reading “the least” as being the poor in general is also in line with the call of Jesus, and in line with the thrust of the Scriptures in general.

Often throughout the Old Testament the prophets call judgement on the people for the way they have treated the vulnerable. In Isaiah 58 we read, 
“Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, … if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday” (Is 58:5-7,10).
 Psalm 68 says that God is the “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows” (Ps 68:5). Exodus explicitly commands, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child” (Ex 22:22). Deuteronomy 10 says, God “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (Deut 10:18). God rescues a group of slaves and makes them the people of God. We could go on, but I think we can see from a few examples that God has a particular care for the vulnerable. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t care for the rich and powerful, but there is particular attention given to the poor and vulnerable that live on the margins of society.

Jesus too was particularly concerned with those on the margins who fell through the cracks- those who had been rejected or written off. Women were often not treated well in the ancient world, but Jesus’ treatment of women was incredibly generous in comparison to the societal norm of his day. Children were often ignored and treated as a nuisance. When Jesus finds out that his disciples are trying to keep the children from bothering their master he tells them to let them come to him. In Matthew 18 Jesus, 
“calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, 'Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:2-6).
 Jesus often directs people to help the poor and even commands us to do good even to our enemies. So clearly a second way of interpreting the “least of these my brothers and sisters” as being the vulnerable and needy of humanity is not out of line with Jesus and his teachings. It has actually been an ancient way for Christians to interpret this passage.

What is Jesus saying with this teaching? He is saying that he comes to us in need but somehow disguised and we help him or we don’t and we will be judged on that basis. It is about how we treat Jesus in the other person. I suspect Jesus is concerned with our character and how willing we are to love the other. If we didn’t know Jesus how would we receive Jesus on the basis of our character. Have we developed into the kind of people who would receive Jesus and help him if he came to us and we didn’t know him? If we lived in ancient Palestine when Jesus was roaming around the countryside preaching, how would we receive him. Would we bring food out to him and his disciples, or would we see him as a nuisance and a distraction from our work? Paul doesn’t seem to have ever met Jesus, but he definitely persecuted the disciples of Jesus, and in that action Paul exposes himself as the kind of person who would have also persecuted Jesus.

We could interpret this passage to say Jesus has a mystical connection with his followers or the poor and vulnerable, but I suspect what Jesus is really getting at is what kind of a person is being exposed when we encounter those in need. Is a loving, hospitable heart exposed? Is it the kind of heart that would receive and serve Christ if he were to come to us? His words to those who gather will be “come… inherit the kingdom” or “depart from me”. Those who welcomed the presence of Christ will receive more intimacy with Christ in his kingdom. And those who rejected the presence of Christ will get more of what they wanted- they will depart from the presence of Christ who is the source of all good things.



So may we recognize Christ in each other. May we recognize him in the stranger. In the refugee. May we see Jesus in the teenager at church who is always there but we have never had a conversation with. May we serve Christ in the shut in. May we love Christ in the poor and rejected. May we receive the stranger as if it is Christ himself walking through our doors because it just might be him- in his distressing disguise.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

What do you do with what God has given you?




We find our parable today surrounded by teachings having to do with Jesus’ second coming and how we are to live in the meantime.

The parable before today’s reading is about the ten bridesmaids. Five were wise and were prepared with enough oil to last through the night, but five were not wise and their oil ran out. While they were out buying more oil the groom arrived and the wedding began without them. The lesson is to be prepared for his arrival. The second coming of Jesus is the groom’s arrival.

Next week our Gospel lesson is about Jesus separating the sheep and the goats depending on what they have done for Jesus in the guise of those who were in need- the hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, those in need of clothing, or a stranger. The lesson here is that Jesus has so identified with those in need that whatever we do for those in need it is as if we have done it for Jesus himself. And, as much as we haven’t served those in need we haven’t served Jesus either.

The parable about the talents finds itself tucked between these two lessons about being prepared for Jesus’ coming and serving those in need.

Our present parable is about a man who goes on a journey and entrusts his wealth to three of his servants. He doesn’t distribute the wealth equally, one receives 5 talents, the next 2, and the third gets 1 talent. The master probably had a sense of what his servants could handle and he distributes his wealth accordingly. The master didn’t owe them this money. It was entrusted to them while their master was away.

This was not pocket change either. A talent was worth 15-20 years wages for a day laborer. In modern money it would be almost a million dollars. So, they are entrusted with a lot of money. Even the servant who was only given 1 talent was still given a lot of money.

 The talents have been seen not only as wealth, but also as particular abilities like artistic abilities, or construction, or organization, or numbers, or teaching. 
One commentator said that our English word “talent”, which refers to a gift or ability, actually came from this parable.The early Church Father Chrysostom says these talents could represent something as simple as our senses, or our ability to speak, our hands and feet, the strength of our body, the understanding of our mind, or our listening ears. … If your back was broken and you couldn’t walk how much would you be willing to pay if someone could make you walk again? We often take these things for granted until we lose them. So each of these abilities is an incredible gift to us.

We do have different abilities, and we deal with different life circumstances, and perhaps that tells us something about the 5 talents, the 2 talents and the one talent. Some are given incredible abilities. I went to seminary with a guy who could pick up any instrument and start playing it. He couldn’t read music, but he could play anything. He was given great talent in the area of music. Someone like Bill Gates was given great intelligence which has also led to him being granted great wealth. We might think of people like them as being given 5 talents.

Sometimes we are given what we have the ability to handle. We might not all have the ability to be responsible with vast amounts of wealth. That takes a very strong character. We might not have the 5 talents. We might have 2. Two is still absolutely significant and valuable. Even one is significant and valuable. 

The significance of the talents is to say that we have been entrusted with great wealth- our own lives, material wealth, and spiritual wealth (The Gospel, The kingdom of God, The gifts of the Spirit, forgiveness of sin). It has all been entrusted to us to be used for God’s purposes in the world.

The master leaves to go on a trip. (If we see Jesus as being the master then his leaving is probably his Ascension to the Father after he is resurrected.) The servants are given complete freedom regarding how to deal with their master’s money. The master doesn’t micromanage. Eventually the master returns and he calls his servants before him (That is Jesus’ return at the second coming).

The one who has 5 talents invested it and turned it into 10. The master replies, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (That’s what we hope to hear when we meet Jesus, isn’t it?- “well done”).

The servant who was given 2 talents also invested it and turned it into 4. The master says the exact same thing to that servant- “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” More power and responsibility are offered to the first two servants and they are invited into the “joy” of their master. The word for “joy” can also be translated as “feast”. What is probably being referred to is the heavenly banquet. Even though they were given different amounts, the master rewards them both the same way. What matters isn’t so much how much you are given, but how faithful you are in putting to work the grace you are given.

The master comes to the third servant who was given one talent and it is revealed that the servant didn’t make the talent fruitful at all. He actually buried it, which was considered a good way to keep valuables safe at the time. Not only did he not make the talent fruitful, but he also attacks his master’s character saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” The servant didn’t lose the money. He didn’t waste the money selfishly. He was safe. He was careful. … What he wasted was the opportunity. He was driven by fear and he was not willing to take a risk. His sin is the sin of omission. In the confession we say, “we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” The sin of the third servant is in what was left undone.

The sin of omission could also be called the sin of sloth. Sloth isn’t just laziness. Sloth is not using what God has entrusted into your care. It is to not use your abilities, or resources, or time for God’s purposes.  Sloth is refusing to use what God has given you. 
Sometimes we are most slothful when we make ourselves so busy that we are distracted from what God wants us to do. Sloth is putting your lamp under a bushel basket (Matt 5:15). We sometimes bury too much kindness, time, treasure, and talent. The third servant was punished for his inactivity, not because he did something wrong, but because he didn’t really do anything. 

I read an interesting article on tithing once. They give some American statistics that mention that 10-25 percent of a normal congregation tithes. They state that at the time the article was written Christians were only giving 2.5% per capita, while during the Great Depression they gave at a 3.3% percent rate. Then in the article they imagine the impact on the world if American Christians tithed 10%. They estimate there would be an additional $165 billion for churches to use and distribute. Assuming the churches were good stewards with those funds they imagine the global impact: $25 billion could relieve global hunger, starvation and deaths from preventable diseases in five years. $12 billion could eliminate illiteracy in five years. $15 billion could solve the world’s water and sanitation issues, specifically at places in the world where 1 billion people live on less than $1 per day. $1 billion could fully fund all overseas mission work. $100 – $110 billion would still be left over for additional ministry expansion.[1] Could this be the overall effect of what happens when we bury our talent? … I don’t think the world’s problems are all solved by throwing money at them. And I don’t think Jesus is wagging his finger at Christians as much as he is seeing the wasted opportunity.

What this parable teaches us is that there is no such thing as sitting on the sidelines. We are all in the game. There are no bleachers, and there are no fans, we are all in the game. There are consequences to our actions, even if our action is choicing to do nothing. To follow Jesus means to invest in his way of life deeply. That comes with certain risk. …. But… not investing and not playing has risk as well. We might think that we don’t have a lot to offer. We don’t have the wealth of Bill Gates. We might not have artistic talent. We might not have organizational ability…. But, we all have been given some grace- a talent. And every talent is like a million dollars. Every one of us have been given something valuable. I think it was Mother Theresa who said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love”. God isn’t looking for quantity. God is looking for what you have done with what you have given. … We have been given a tremendous opportunity. God has entrusted us with grace. We are invited to put that grace to work in the world and by doing so we are invited to cooperate with the kingdom Of God and in the end to hear the words of our master- “well done good and faithful servant”.



[1] Read more at http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/what-would-happen-if-church-tithed#t3McC3gdXlJc2E3z.99

Monday, 13 November 2017

Remembrance Sunday



Before I begin, I just want to say that not everyone is going to agree with what I'm about to say, but I hope that leads us to deeper conversation and thought.

I find Remembrance Day to be a difficult day, which is probably how it should be. I would like to share a bit of that struggle with you this morning. I think it is important to remember the suffering endured in times of war. It is important to remember how fragile peace can be. It is important to remember the sacrifices of those who tried to do something to bring peace because to sit back and do nothing was a worse evil. It is also a day to remember Jesus' words to us about violence and enemies.

When I think of Remembrance Day I primarily think of my grandparents telling me about their time in Holland. My Opa spoke about being dragged out of bed at gunpoint in the middle of the night and being robbed by Nazi soldiers. My Oma tells me about her brothers playing in the wreckage of an aircraft that had crashed into their fields, and how she would sleep with her pillow over her head to muffle the sounds of bombs exploding near their house. I think of my wife’s grandfather who was a rifleman that helped liberate a concentration camp and would only speak about the war late at night until tears filled his eyes and he would suddenly go to bed. … My last name is “Roth”, which is German. My ancestors had immigrated to Canada, but I wonder about any Roths that remained in Germany and what they endured in the war. I also think about my Jewish great grandmother whose maiden name was “Goldstein” and had slipped through the Nazi’s nets probably because of a peculiar Dutch spelling of her last name.

On Remembrance Day I also consider what it means to be a Christian when faced with war. What was happening in Germany was horrible and something had to be done about it. A decision had to be made to help those who were suffering. And the action that was decided on was not the easy option. Those who went to fight risked their lives trying to do something about what was going on.

War has always been a difficult thing for Christians to participate in. For the early Church killing was not something Christians were permitted to participate in, which made being a Christian in the Roman Army a controversial thing.

The question of Christians participating in war became more difficult after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity in 380. Before this Christians lived in the empire, but they really didn't have any power. An empire uses violence for things like maintaining order, defending its borders, and defending its citizens. Suddenly, there was a need for an understanding as to how a Christian empire can use violence.

Here is where St. Augustine put his mind to work. He came to the conclusion that we could separate outward actions from inward motivations. In defense of an innocent person I may actually use violence against an attacker, even kill them, but I did not sin if inwardly my motivation was to protect the innocent person being attacked. I did not want to kill the attacker. It was a kind of accident that occurred as I was defending the person. For St. Augustine, we can participate in a “just” war. What makes it “just” is that our internal motivations are correct. I won’t spell out all the details of Just War Theory, but basically if I am motivated by a desire to protect the innocent rather than out of violent anger and revenge, then I am justified in participating in violence against an enemy.

On top of this, St. Augustine believed that the social order we exist in is part of the natural order ordained by God to give us stable and peaceful lives. God meant society to be organized under rulers. God meant for there to be empires and kingdoms. Jesus’ words to us as individual Christians about how we treat our enemies are perhaps not applicable to the ruler of a country when considering defending their people against an aggressive military force (see Romans 13:1,4; and 1 Peter 2:14).

This does not mean that St. Augustine was bloodthirsty. Augustine clearly saw it as a last resort to be used only when all other means have failed and when the other nation compels a defensive response. War is always seen as the lesser of two evils. The suffering and evil of allowing the enemy to destroy at will with no opposition is seen as too great an evil to endure. Entering into war amounts to less evil overall.

The Just War Theory is a compelling argument that Augustine put together. It should be said that to go against this theory is to go against the vast majority of Christians throughout history (as CS Lewis’ essay Why I Am Not a Pacifist explains). But, there are problems with it. I will give two examples. First, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas once said, "I just want to know when the Just War theory has led Christians to say 'no' to a war?" Just War theory often provides a way of justifying wars, but doesn't really ever seem to have the power to prevent a nation from entering into war. In fact, the ethicist Robert Brimlow, in his book What about Hitler? shows how Hitler might have even used the Just War Theory to justify the actions of the Nazis.

A second problem with the theory is that it separates our motivations from our actions. Jesus taught that our actions flow from our inward dispositions. The act of adultery begins through the lust in our heart. Murder begins through the anger in our heart. If we love our enemy our actions will flow from that disposition. Our actions will not contradict our inward disposition. Loving our enemy is turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate us. It seems strange to see an act of inward love expressed through a balled fist swung at an enemy's nose.

Jesus' words about our enemies are pretty plain. Jesus says in Matthew ch 5, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." (Matt 5:38-44).

We have to ask, "did Jesus really mean what he said?" Is there any way that we can follow Jesus’ teachings to love our enemy and then punch our enemy in the nose?

For most of us, asking the question about what we would do if war was at our doorstep is fairly hypothetical. But, we should remember that there were many events that led up to the Second World War. The ethicist Robert Brimlow says, "If the question is asking how a pacifist church should have responded to the horrors of the Holocaust, the answer surely lies in being a peacemaking church long before the holocaust ever began. The church should have preached and lived a love of the Jews for many centuries before the twentieth; the church should have formed Christians into the kind of people who do not kill Jews, or homosexuals, or gypsies, or communists, or other Christians, or Nazis, or whoever else was victimized by the war. The church should have lived and taught in such a way that the First World War would have been incomprehensible in a largely Christian Europe and, failing that, should have railed against the Versailles Treaty and the vengeance it embodied in favour of forgiveness and reconciliation. The failure of the church and of Christians to be peacemakers in 1942 is horrible precisely because it is a result and culmination of centuries of failure."

Brimlow is telling us that the next World War might be prevented by our serious and intense discipleship to Christ right now. The sacrifice we expect of our soldiers, we have to be willing to make for the Gospel. The seriousness and vigor with which we try to live as people of the kingdom right now is precisely what the world needs to prevent future wars.

We don't know what lies in the future, but if human history is any indication of the future we can expect that war will continue to be a part of human reality. … But we have choices to make now. We are called to live Jesus' way right now and to deal with the seeds of war that sit inside us. And we have to deal with those seeds with the same diligence and sacrifice a soldier gives to participating in war. If we don’t ferociously deal with those seeds of war within us, we make war inevitable for our children and grandchildren and all those that come after us.

The seeds of war sit in each of us. We see them when we hold grudges against others. We see them when we are unwilling to deal with our anger and contempt towards others. We deal with these seeds when someone offends us and we use the opportunity to practice peace and reconciliation by not shooting hurtful words back. We deal with them when we see someone being hurt by someone else and we use the opportunity to be a peacemaker. We deal with the seeds of war when we are tempted to push others around to get our own way and we use the opportunity to practice self-sacrificial love. We deal with those seeds when we are cut off in traffic and we learn to deal with our anger and bless the other driver, rather than curse them. We are called to deal with the seeds of war within us, and instead to plant the seeds of peace.

We are not to look down on the decisions of those who have gone before us. They had hard decisions to make. We have no clue how difficult those decisions were. They should be remembered for not taking the easy way out, and for being willing to die to do something about the suffering they saw. …. However, as Christians, we also need to notice the contradiction of the belief that war leads to peace.

The peaceful world the prophet Micah speaks of, where the people of the world "will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; [and] Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they train for war" - That world will come about as God works through us. When the Sin that infects us and causes war is fully healed by the blood of Jesus and we are transformed into people who see each other as bearers of the image of God, then war will truly end.



I find some comfort in reminding myself that Jesus is not surprised by war or the complexity of the world. Jesus has given us his teaching precisely in order to live in this world, not some imagined utopia. Jesus said, "These things I have spoken to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (Jn 16:33). May we remember the effort of those who have fallen by making a courageous effort towards peace. And may those who come after us know effort, and love, and courage, but not war. Amen.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Who is St. Leonard?






I have to admit that I didn’t know anything about St. Leonard before coming to serve here with you. November 6th is believed to be the day of his death and that is the day he is remembered. So today is the eve of his feast day.

During the Middle Ages one of the most widely read books was called The Golden Legend. It is a collection of stories about the saints that was written around 1260AD.

The Golden Legend tells us that St. Leonard was born around the year 500AD and died around 570AD. Leonard came to be so highly thought of by the king of France that any prisoners Leonard visited were released from prison. The King tried to make Leonard a bishop, but he refused the offer, preferring solitude for prayer. He lived at a number of places from central to South Western France (especially Orleans, Aquitaine, Limoges). It is said that many miracles happened through him. The Golden Legend also shares a few specific stories.

One day, Leonard was walking through the forest when he heard a woman crying in pain. Moved with compassion, Leonard went to see if he could help. He found that it was the queen giving birth in the king’s hunting lodge. The birth was not going well and the queen’s life was in danger. The King invited him in to pray for the queen and child and both got through the birth safely. … This story might be why Leonard is sometimes connected to pregnant mothers.

The king was so thankful that he offered Leonard a lot of money, which he refused telling him to give it to the poor. Leonard told the king that he didn’t need money and that all he really needed was to live in the forest and serve Christ. The king then offered to give Leonard the whole forest. Leonard said he didn’t need the whole forest, but he asked for as much as he could ride around on his donkey in one night. It was there that his monastery was built, and Leonard lived there with two other monks.

Primarily, Leonard is connected to prisoners, especially prisoners who are wrongfully held.  It was said that prisoners who invoked Leonard’s name saw their chains unlocked and were able to walk away free without anyone trying to stop them. These people would then bring their chains to Leonard, and many ended up staying with him. After his death miracles continued to occur and many people would visit his tomb. Former prisoners would continue to leave their chains at Leonard’s tomb.

One story is told that a certain nobleman created a very heavy and uncomfortable chain that was mounted to a beam that jutted out from a tower. It would be fastened around the neck and the person was left uncomfortably exposed to the elements and eventually died. The extravagance of the chain was supposed to strike fear into the heart of any would-be criminal. One man had the chain fastened around his neck, but had done nothing wrong. Before he was about to breath his last breath, Leonard appeared, and the chain fell off. Leonard then told the man to pick up the chain and follow him to his church. The large impressive chain was then laid at the saint’s tomb. … You can hear echoes of Peter’s story in Acts where he was released from prison by the angel.

Leonard had such a reputation for freeing prisoners that one tyrant made special plans to thwart him. The man said, “That Leonard frees everybody, and the strength of iron melts before him like wax in front of a fire. If I put my man in chains, Leonard will be on hand at once and will set him free. If, on the other hand, I manage to keep the fellow, I will get a thousand pounds’ ransom for him.” So the man dug a deep pit under the tower and he chained the prisoner in it so that even if his chains were removed he still wouldn’t be able to get out of the pit. The tyrant was proud of himself for having outsmarted the saint. … But, one night Leonard arrived and broke the chains and carried the man in his arms out of his prison. Once out, they walked and chatted like friends on the way to Leonard’s monastery.

Now these stories are fun and interesting, but we don’t know how much of this is historical. I tend to be a bit of a romantic, so I tend to believe that these kinds of things can happen. … I should say that you can be a perfectly fine Christian without believing these stories.

The historical nature of the stories aren’t primarily what I’m interested in. I’m interested in how the Gospel shines through the stories. I’m interested in how these stories inspire me to be more like Jesus. … The theme of captives being set free is a strong theme throughout the Bible.

The central story for the identity of the Jewish people in the Old Testament is the Exodus story- The story of an oppressed group of slaves who cried out to God for justice. God then sent Moses and worked miracles to free the Hebrew slaves from the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Once free from Egypt, though, there is still another freedom needed. While they are physically free, in that the slave master’s whip was no longer at their back, they still had to deal with an internal slavery. … When Moses was on the mountain they made a golden idol to worship. They were still enslaved to the idols and worship of Egypt. … They still longed for the food they had as slaves, rather than relying on the provision of God in the wilderness. … Even when on the threshold of the Promised Land they trusted in their own lack of ability rather than trust in God’s direction and power. … They may have left Egypt, but they were still enslaved to the mindset of Egypt. The rest of the Bible could be seen as God’s mission to liberate his people and the world from slavery.

For the first thousand years the major way to view the cross was to see it as Christ rescuing humanity from slavery to sin and the devil. It was seen as a liberation from bondage. The cross was God trading Himself as Jesus to the devil in exchange for humanity who became enslaved to the devil when the first couple trusted the serpent’s voice rather than God’s and ate the forbidden fruit. … Jesus couldn’t be contained, however, and broke the chains of death in the power of resurrection. … A very old story called the Gospel of Nicodemus tells about Jesus breaking the gates of Hell and freeing Adam and Eve from their prison and leading them to paradise. It was doing theology through story. … So this freedom from bondage is a very persistent theme throughout both Christian and Jewish tradition.

Baptism can be seen as a kind of liberation from slavery. In baptism we reject three kinds of slavery- the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The “Devil” is to say that there is evil that comes from an unseen reality that doesn’t have anything to do with human beings. There is an unseen evil power that seeks to do harm to God’s creatures. It means that if you add up all the personal evil that every person on the planet does, there is still an unaccounted for evil. In our tradition this usually manifests as destructive and lying thoughts whispered into our souls. That doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of generating our own negative thoughts, but the traditional place of these evil creatures is to tempt us in our thoughts. … When we are baptized, we reject that power and declare it to be an enemy.

The “world” is not the fish and the trees and the sky and the mountains. The “world” is human systems that try to organize themselves apart from God. It is human systemic oppression. The “world” is what caused the systemic oppression of people in the southern United States. The “world” is what created economies that relied on the literal slavery of human beings. The “world” is what causes apartheid in South Africa, and the damage of Residential Schools. The “world” is the way we organize ourselves as a society that results in us not treating human beings as creatures bearing the image of God, and not treating creation as the masterpiece of the Creator. … Part of being a Christian means fighting against this power that destroys people and creation. When we are baptized we vow to step out from under that power and to make it an enemy. … (Liberation Theology has a strong focus here in trying to side with the poor against oppressive governments and corporations.)

We also reject the “flesh”. This isn’t our physical bodies. The “flesh” is our internal desires that drive us away from God. Our desires are broken. We want things that will harm us. Our loves are disordered. We recognize that not only is there systemic human evil out there in the world. There is also brokenness right inside of me. These desires are often summed up in the Seven Deadly Sins- pride, lust, gluttony, greed, envy, wrath, and sloth. … I also believe lies about myself- that I’m worthless, and good for nothing- That God rejects me because I’m not good enough- That if people knew every dark corner of my life, they would reject me. … So when I reject the flesh, I reject all those desires and lies that try to drive me away from God. Not only to I reject them from my own life, but I make them an enemy so that I work to become a force for good to help others fight against those desires and lies that enslave people.

So when I think of St. Leonard, I think about where I need to be liberated. What imprisons me? Are there habitual sins I need to be freed from? Are there repetitive negative and destructive thoughts that need to be broken? Are there lies I believe about myself and others that need to be confronted with the truth? We can live in many different kinds of prisons.

When I think about what it means to be a church bearing St. Leonard’s name. I think about how we can be a force for liberation for those around us. How can we become known as the ones who help people find freedom in Christ? What prisons do we see around us? Addiction is a prison? Poverty is a prison? Loneliness can be a prison? Fear can be a prison? Trauma? Un-forgiveness?

As Christians we can be saved, but if we don’t allow Jesus to do that deeper spiritual work in us we can still be enslaved. We might not live in slavery in Egypt anymore, but our minds might be still trapped in Egypt. We might be saved by Jesus on the cross, but we might not be living in the kind of freedom Jesus wants for us. God is your liberator.

This is one of the main purposes behind the spiritual disciplines, and practices like spiritual direction. God desires for us to be free. God wants us to be freed from the lies and habits that imprison us, so that we can live lives under the dominion of God. God wants us to live victorious, liberated lives, so that we can be a force of liberation in the lives of others.
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