Sunday, November 25, 2007

Reign of Christ Sunday

Colossians 1
11May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully
12giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

To mark the fourth anniversary of the congregation, I decided research was needed. Opening my trusty web browser, I googled the question “what are four year-olds like?” Here are a few things I found out:

Four year-olds take turns and share (most of the time), but may still be rather bossy; they are fearful of the dark and monsters; they throw tantrums over minor frustrations; they may have difficulty separating make-believe from reality; they like to shock others by using "forbidden" words.

I think you get the picture. Not satisfied, I found this:

Four-year-olds feel good about the things they can do, show self-confidence, and are willing to try new adventures.*

So, the development specialists have spoken, and all that is left is to congratulate you on four years of hard work, dedication, and a willingness to try new adventures.

Looking over the amalgamation checklist, the congregation has been busy: quickly integrating two congregations; developing a sense of common identity; ensuring that everyone makes sacrifices; developing a new mission focus; and renewing the physical space for accessibility and community use.

Recognizing that pride is one of the seven deadly sins, we will set that aside for a minute and feel proud that so much has happened in four short years. We give thanks for volunteers, and hundreds of hours spent reinventing this church. And we give thanks for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, encouraging us, leading us forward, and casting a vision for our life together.


Anniversaries, like birthdays and special events, are often met with cards and letters. Even in our new era of emails, ecards and evites, special moments bring special greetings and expressions of care. The desire to reach out is eternal, whether sent electronically, with a stamp, or on papyrus.

For St. Paul, the New Testament’s most prolific letter writer, the reasons for writing were similar to our own. He would write to congratulate people, to encourage them, or to register concern. He would write to mark an important moment in the life of a congregation, or highlight something he had heard.

The key difference between the letters we may have written in our lifetime and the letters of Paul, is that Paul’s became scripture. His letters, addressed to a specific congregations, were in turn circulated, becoming advice to all the churches. The letters became such valuable tools for teaching and inspiration, that eventually they became part of the bible.

Writing with his own hand, or with the help of a scribe, Paul wrote with precision, trying to convey the message each church needed to hear. In many ways, he is inventing the Christian church: drawing on his own sense of Jesus, his knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, and his years of human experience. He includes anecdotes, a little classical philosophy, and fragments of ancient hymns. We heard a one today:

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible.

We’ve lost the tune, meter and all the rhyming, but the poetic language remains.


Back to Paul’s theme of “advice to churches,” our little passage from Colossians is overflowing. If the task was to draw out the heart of this advice, I think it would fall into three parts.

The first advice is to be a community of forgiveness. Paul writes:

God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Soon, we will enter Advent, and we will hear from our friend John the Baptist, preaching a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. On one level, these ideas seem outmoded or overly focused on what is wrong rather than what is right. But Paul believed that forgiveness is foundational to every human relationship. Without forgiveness, Paul might well have remained Saul, unable to enter the church as a redeemed sinner, unable to leave his mark on all we do. His entry required forgiveness, and the openness of the early church to look beyond his past as a persecutor of the church and imagine him as a friend of the church. It took courage. Forgiveness is oxygen to any congregation that seeks to move forward together.

The second piece of advice concerns another word we don’t often hear anymore: headship. Paul writes:

[Christ Jesus] himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church.

Congregations must know who they are and to whom they belong. With Christ as the head of this church, we are relieved of the sense that we have to “get it right” or find our own way. To be a disciple means to follow, and to be a congregation means to live with Christ, the head of the church. A sense of “ownership” is a double-edged sword: a high sense of ownership can mean greater commitment, but it can also produce rival visions, as different “owners” clash on the direction of the church. Instead, we are told to accept Christ as the head of the church and learn together how to follow.

The final advice could be called “look for incarnation everywhere.” Paul writes:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

We are fast approaching a season of preparation, a season dedicated to coming incarnation, God’s desire to enter our world in a new way. Congregations participate in this by looking for signs: how is God seeking to enter our world once more? Where, or on whom can we see the face of Christ? We see the face of Christ in those who suffer, those who enter our door in great need. We care for them, we pray for them, we feed them. We see cross-shaped suffering in hunger, in illness, and in grief.

Yet God is waiting. Waiting to enter our world and speak to this need in person. To walk among us and feel all we feel, and to know first hand the joy and sorrow of being human. God speaks a word of hope, encourages us in prayer, gives us voice to speak to every situation.

May God speak to us this day, Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, working in us an others by the Spirit. Amen.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

33rd Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 21
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

It is the third holiest site in Islam. The Temple Mount is home to two mosques, the rather humble looking Al-Aqsa near the south wall and the Dome of the Rock in the centre. The latter is one of the world’s most iconic buildings, and our visit was going to be a highlight of the tour.

The routine was the same each time: We would arrive at a site, the guide would step off to make final arrangements, and the tour host would begin to describe the significance of the site. The guide would return, and we would exit the bus.

Inside Jerusalem, of course, everything is more complex. The city is divided, and each quarter of presents a varied degree of safety for western tourists. The closer you get to the Temple Mount, the more complex things get, since the site is sacred to three of the world’s major religions.

On this day in 1992, the situation was fairly calm. But as the wait on the bus increased, and one of our hosts joined the guide off the bus, we knew something was up. Everyday brings some new circumstance to the Temple area, so patience is required. We waited.

Finally, after a very long time, a very frustrated pair returned to the bus and described the situation. One of our hosts, a woman named Nualu (a former nun who had become a very evangelical Protestant) spoke first. “It’s okay,” she said, “we didn’t really want to visit that place anyway, it’s an abomination.” The few of us liberals, stuck at the back of the bus, were immediately on our feet. As the foolish self-appointed leader of the liberal minority, I made it to the front of the bus first. After lodging my objections to describing the third holiest site in Islam in such a terrible way, she just stared at me like I’d grown a third head. Our wacky little tour continued.

If you remember back to about the same time, Bill Clinton was running for president and took as his unofficial campaign slogan the self-reminder “it’s the economy, stupid.” Well, when reading a passage like Luke 21, I have to employ a similar self-reminder, to say to myself, “it’s the temple, stupid.” Everything points back to the temple, and the shadow it casts over scripture is a long one. The temple is also the key to understanding the problems in the Middle-East. Solve the religious issues, and peace may follow.

Jesus spoke about it so frequently because of its place at the centre of Jewish life. Imagine parliament, a cathedral and the Bank of Canada all rolled into one. And then add the abiding belief (still current among orthodox Jews) that there exists a “holy of holies” where God lives. Only then do you begin to get a picture of how the temple was viewed. It was pilgrimage site, national treasury and the place where religious (and therefore national) law was debated.

When one the disciples mentioned the beautiful stonework adorning the temple, Jesus had the opening he needed. Soon, he said, no one stone of this temple will remain standing. In fact, a time is coming when it will appear the world is ending. Just before that happens, however, you will be arrested and dragged into court. You may even find yourself face to face with governors or rulers, and you will get to speak. Don’t prepare for this moment, he said. Instead, trust that I will give you the words to speak, works the no one will be able to refute. Even the people closest to you will betray you, and hate you for mentioning my name. But not a hair on your head will be touched.

It’s hard to read this material without getting hung up on the end of the world. We tend to reject it, and believe instead that Jesus was more concerned with life on earth than the fiery end he describes from time to time. Yet even in rejecting the end of the world scenarios, it still makes it hard to read and understand the stuff that surrounds these ideas.

Looking ahead, to the words Luke wrote in his second book, the Acts of the Apostles, we begin to get a better sense of how we’re supposed to see this stuff. At the very beginning of Acts, the risen Christ speaks to his disciples:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The restoration, the coming calamity, is postponed. And if not postponed, at least arriving after a number of other things have happened first: receiving the Spirit’s power, witnessing to the gospel, and travelling to the ends of the earth. In other words, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to take time, because more than a few things have to happen first.

This takes me back to my Clintonesque self-reminder about the temple. In a matter of verses, the disciples are back, in the vicinity of the temple, doing their thing. This time Peter is preaching and healing and making trouble for the leading priests. They are warned off on the first day, but soon they return. Peter and company are quickly arrested and thrown in prison. An angel of the Lord comes in the middle of the night and releases them, and like moths to the flame they head back to the temple a third time.

By now they were becoming popular. Many of the newly baptized remained, along with people being added day by day. The authorities feared a mob if they arrested the disciples again, but something had to be done. A moderate voice appeared, and the decision was made to flog them and send them away. It’s here in Acts 5 we hear an amazing little verse that puts this story in perspective:

As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.


There are certain occupations that stop conversations. Someday, just for fun, introduce yourself to a group of strangers and tell them you are a funeral director. Nothing will clear the room faster. Just behind funeral director is minister. I call it “the great conversation killer,” a revelation that will scare off all but the most intrepid strangers. I never sure if church folks understand this, accustomed as you are will the strange creature called clergy.

Maybe you are familiar. I have heard stories where one of you will mention to a co-worker that you have a busy time booked at the church and somehow the co-worker has registered surprise. Perhaps you get the same silence, or the associative link where they say, “yeah, my sister-in-law goes to church.” The one I really like is the mini-review: “I went to church once: it really sucked.” At one time I would also hear, “really, you’re too young to be a minister.” And then one day no one said it anymore.

Sometimes it is just easier to omit the church thing. Maybe we’ve become comfortable as the half-of-one-percent of Scarborough in a United Church on Sunday. Maybe all the terrible things that happen in the name of religion and all the tension in places like Jerusalem gives us pause. Maybe the halting conversation and the embarrassed reactions add up to the point that I’ll make up some new career, tell them I’m an architect or an astronaut, and hope they don’t ask questions.

Then, in the back of my head is that little voice from Acts:

As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.

Then I feel all guilty, and suddenly I’m a minister again. The truth is I have the best job in the world: I get to surround myself with great people, think about my faith all day and spout off, uninterrupted, for 15 minutes every Sunday. And you pay me to do it. I am grateful that I am counted worthy to do this work and suffer (in a small way) for my faith.

In the schoolyard we seemed to learn that if you were too enthusiastic about anything we open ourselves up to ridicule. The world may not understand our passions, and we may get knocked down as a result. But I would encourage you to set aside your apprehension, just a little, and take a risk or two in sharing your faith. Tell people what this fellowship means to you, and the place your faith plays in your life. Don’t worry about what you will say, because finding the right words is the work of the Spirit. Someone you know would be enriched by finding this place: we only need to courage to speak, with God’s help, amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Second DMin Project Sermon

Psalm 46
1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
4There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
10“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
11The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

The memorial soars nearly 300 feet above the plain below. Her twin pylons, one representing France and the other Canada, sit atop a vast platform. Near the centre of the platform is the hooded figure of a woman, eyes downcast, with her head resting on her left hand. She looks down on the tomb below, a deeply grieved expression on her face.

The grieving figure is Canada, a young nation mourning her fallen children. She mourns the loss of 66,000 Canadians in the Great War, surrounded by the inscribed names of nearly 12,000 missing and presumed dead in France alone.

Fully restored and rededicated this past April, the Vimy Memorial holds a unique place in the history of war, as the first monument to ignore victory and instead lift up the dead. The conventions are set aside, no triumphant leaders on horseback, no arches or lists of battles won. The emphasis here is on grieving, and the very human cost of war. Call it a uniquely Canadian expression of remembrance: a tribute to the farmers, nurses, mechanics, shopkeepers, teachers and every sort of labourer who left home and family to serve.

Vimy is Walter Allward’s dream in stone, a dream where the dead surround the living and bring them comfort, continues to stand 90 years after the horror of Vimy Ridge. We mark this Remembrance Day and call to mind all who served and sacrificed for Canada, as well as those who continue to serve. We remember the work of our chaplains, bringing a word of hope, reciting the same words we heard today:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

What the poet describes is the very reverse of creation, a radical deconstruction of created order. And through all of this, God remains. Though the city and fortress of Jerusalem be tested, and the very hill of Zion shake, it will not be moved, because God is in the midst of the city.

Listen, then, to God’s own version of peacekeeping:

6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.

Imagine the appeal of such a poem in the midst of war: God will establish peace though the wholesale destruction of the very instruments of war. A warring world will melt away as peace returns to Zion, the city will be glad, and all will know that God is in the midst of the city.

The poem itself lives outside of time. The poetry of worship, recited some 2,500 years on, continues to speak to each generation. The power to apprehend our day is never exhausted. Just as Wordsworth sat on the banks of the Wye to describe Tintern Abbey, we visit the Holy City and lose time. Time dissolves, and we enter her gates.

God is in the midst of the city. Each Thursday we open our doors and the city enters. Our neighbours, needing food help, find us here in the midst of the city and allow us to serve them. Our partner in this work, the Daily Bread Food Bank, have adopted the phrase “fighting hunger,” using poetic language that the Psalmist would embrace. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and least of our sisters and brothers become for us the very face of Christ.

God is in the midst of the city. The life of the city unfolds and is ever-changing. The city is subject to a continuous cycle of building and rebuilding, the new built upon the old. Yet the new is never new for long, and soon it too is consumed in the march of time. At times it seems that change is our only constant, yet change is subsumed by the abiding presence of God, and that powerful presence “permits us to experience and embrace” (Brueggemann) the change and the disorder with confidence and grace. God cannot erase the loss we feel, but God speaks though the loss and brings healing.

Beneath the city “there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,” that flows with the healing waters. It is the water that flowed forth from a rock in the wilderness, and the water that filled the pool at Siloam. It is the baptismal water of the Jordan, the living water of Jacob’s well, and the water of Jesus’ own spittle. It is the water of the opening chapter of the first book and the final chapter of the last:

1Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3No longer will there be any curse.

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

God is in the midst of the city. A wise person said that we are writing new history here, in this place. “40 years from now,” she asked, “what do we want people to say about this place?” Not surprisingly the Spirit led her to say “40 years,” the number of wandering and seeking, a number that like the Psalms exists outside of time. I am tempted to turn the question on its head and ask the reverse. If we went back 40 years and asked the members of two small congregations what they hoped for 40 years on, what would they say? They would hope their fellowship continued, in some form. They would hope for renewal, for engaging mission and a continued connection to the needs of the community. They would hope for prayer and praise, and the abiding sense that God continues to bless them. And they would be pleased.

They would see a congregation that remains in the midst of the city. They would see the presence of children, they would see doors open to the community, and they would see meaningful reminders of the past. They would very likely see more than we can see, lost as we are in the moment, and not looking 40 years on. We may need some convincing, but I am certain they would be pleased.

From Zion’s holy hill, to Vimy Ridge, to our hope here atop the Bluffs, God remains. Long ago, and just outside recent memory, and down to today, God remains. With saints, ancient and modern, God remains. In everyone we meet, everyone we help, and everyone we allow to help us, we are reminded time and time again that God is in the midst of the city. We can embrace the trials and vicissitudes of life, abiding in our Precious Lord, at the river that flows from the very heart of God.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

30th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 19
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

As someone that spends far too much time in a darkened movie theatre, I have to fight off the temptation to mention movies from this pulpit. The dangers are legion: maybe you’ll feel left out, maybe I’ll inadvertently spoil the film, maybe you just won’t care. Whatever you feel about film references, today will be different: I have yet to see the movie.

The film in question is American Gangster, a biography of Frank Lucas, the notorious 1970’s crime boss who’s chief claim to fame is first African-American to head criminal organization. With a huge promotion budget, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, I guarantee you are going to hear a lot more about this film. The question, however, is why make a film like this at all?

First, the 70’s are in. Not just the clothes, but there are interesting parallels between this decade and the 70’s, with oil shocks and economic uncertainty, and even an unpopular war. Second, there is new interest in the social history or African-American’s, and while Frank Lucas is hardly a role-model, he does contradict the idea (widely held in the 60’s and 70’s) that African-Americans were not smart enough to run large organizations. Finally, Hollywood looks for success and creates copies: think Sopranos.

Personally, I don’t go in for Mafia stories. Yes, the Godfather is a remarkable film, but I don’t like the subject matter. The Sopranos, hailed by some as the greatest television show of all time (have they never heard of Lucy), is success that the business end of Hollywood is quick to replicate. Add to that the link between the success of certain video games and similar movies, and you will need to brace yourself for more films like American Gangster.

Interest in organized crime, of course, is not new. Every time you see the words “tax collector” in the gospels, you are being directed to the Bible’s own version of the Mafia. Zacchaeus, the “wee little man” of our gospel lesson, as chief tax collector, was the head of a vast criminal organization that operated throughout the city. We don’t usually think of tax collectors this way, but it is a bit like the difference between a pirate and a privateer, both plunder and destroy, one with a license and one without.

Rome gave these men a license to collect the appropriate amount of tax. Whatever else they could force from people was counted as their fee. Zacchaeus, as the chief tax collector sat atop this pyramid collecting his own fee, getting very rich off the people who were getting rich by coercing everyone else. So to suggest that Zaccheus was unpopular would be an understatement. As the head of the local crime family, he would use threats and intimidation to protect himself and his family. He was the Tony Soprano of Jericho, a wealthy city where trade routes met. He was a big man (and little at the same time).

So you can imagine the reaction when Jesus waves down Tony’s Cadillac and says “I’m coming to your house for tea.” It’s not just an odd choice for the man who ate with outcasts and sinners, it is deeply disturbing that Jesus would head to Jersey and enter the home of a prominent don. You are known by the company you keep, and by entering Zaccheus’ realm, Jesus has made a powerful statement: he is without shame.

So how is it that this shameless saviour can get away with such a provocative act? How can he call down Zaccheus, invite himself to dinner, and accept his repentance? How can he call him a “son of Abraham,” an honourific on par with giving Tony Soprano the Order of Canada? I wonder if we have become too familiar with the accusations brought against Jesus, that they have lost their power?

Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

The words appear again and again, and yet Jesus is quick to answer that only the sick are in need of a doctor, and that sinners need him more than the righteous. Wherever Jesus can find someone on the margins, he is quick to heal and forgive and make whole. Whenever broken people call to him, follow him or seek to touch him, he is quick to stop and do his work. People on the margins came first, in need of the medicine him promised.

So why call him a “son of Abraham?” How did Zaccheus come to receive such honour? First, there is the magnitude of his turnabout. He pledged half his wealth the poor, much more than the usual tenth that righteous people set aside for widows, orphans and aliens. He also pledged to return four-fold what he stole from others, beyond the usual one-fifth that the law demands. And since all his wealth was stolen, he was in fact pledging four times half of everything he already gave away. He ended with nothing, and more than nothing. He became a slave.

And like Abraham, he did this without the law. Abraham pledged his loyalty to God and lived righteously without the law, a law that was yet to be given. Zaccheus lived so far beyond the law it didn’t apply to him either. He was subject to Rome rather than Moses, but by finally meeting and exceeding the law, he is named “son of Abraham.” Like Abraham, Zaccheus believed the impossible (that he could be saved) and God more than met him halfway. God stood at the foot of the tree and shook him out.

Like Abraham, Zaccheus had only faith to guide him, only the assurance that the very act of seeking God would carry him home. I haven’t mentioned Habakkuk yet, but he holds the unique honour of uttering words that sit at the centre of our faith. “Look at the proud!” he said, “Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by faith.” Paul repeats these words, in his introduction to Romans and elsewhere. Martin Luther read these words in Romans and wrote a single word in the margin of his Bible: sola. By writing the Latin word “only” he defined the doctrine that would inform all his work: The righteous live by faith alone. John Wesley would hear Luther describe this insight, and his heart was strangely warmed.

From Abraham to Habakkuk to St. Paul to Luther to Wesley: faith in God and God’s ability to save is the only test of faith there is, the only force that can turn Zaccheus and knock Paul off his horse and crush Luther’s fear and warm a cold heart.

Soon, we will read a lengthy Great Thanksgiving and take bread together. We will toast to the memory of Jesus, in whose name we dine. But I could just as easily hold up broken bread and not-quite-wine and say “come and get your medicine.” Jesus came to save sinners, to cure the sin-sick soul, to offer grace to those who only know sadness and shame. The righteous are invited, and they will come. But the broken, the cast out, the people written in the margins of society, they are urged to come, sought after, and offered the head of the line.

There in the margins it says “sola,” for only God alone can save us, only God can offer the bread of heaven and the new wine of forgiveness. Only God can shake us from our tree and come to the table and offer himself for the sins of all. Only God can speak from the margins and say “come, for all things are now ready.”