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If we were gathering for worship today in person at St. Peter’s, I am not sure it would be safe for us to do so. There have been trucks outside the church all week; the other day a fist fight broke out between a group of men in the laneway while we were trying to have a Worship and Music Committee meeting. This is not about the headache of noise from all the honking. We have heard more and more stories: a rock thrown at an ambulance, people desecrating our most famous war memorial, demonstrators building permanent structures on Federal property, people who can’t get to work, others who right now have no jobs to go to, the harassment of shelter staff, women at a local shelter – especially racialized women – who are afraid to go outside. The flying of Swastikas and Confederate flags, symbols of hate and bigotry. Yes, maybe it is a few people: but a few people flying swastikas, a few people harassing regular citizens with masks on, a few people urinating on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the front yard of the church, a few people barging into stores unmasked, a few people smashing windows at a coffee shop with a rainbow banner. Those few people add up to many people. Whose freedom comes first? We might think we have the answer; but it is not always easy to find the solution. When do my rights trump your rights is a classic question of the gospel. If the Ten Commandments tell us not to kill, what of the soldier on the battlefield? If we are to honour our mothers and fathers, what of those parents who are abusive? The world is not a place of simple answers. Luckily for us, the gospel is not designed for a fictional world. It is meant to inform the real world we live in. A place where even when the answers are obvious, the solutions may not be easy. For starters, protests are part of the DNA of our faith as Lutherans. Our church is built on the foundation of protest, with Martin Luther challenging the status quo at great personal risk. The gospel is about a protestor – Jesus – who also called to account the leaders of the day and challenged the assumptions about the way society needed to run. Protest is an important part of a democracy. It is how regular people speak out against injustice and force leaders to pay attention to their voices. As a country that values free expression, we must, as a collective, protect the right to protest. Martin Luther spoke up for what he believed in and hoped that people would listen. He worked hard to get his message across with writing and speeches and conversations in taverns. He protested by trying to educate people, including translating the Bible so they could read it for themselves. And Jesus protested by inviting people to sit with him, by healing strangers and showing kindness to the vulnerable; Jesus protested by setting an example. It’s true: sometimes, we need to shout; but we should use that tool carefully, always mindful to make sure that what we are shouting about merits our raised voices. One test is asking if it is about us and our own personal reward, or if it is about others and a greater good. We might also ask: if we achieved our goal, would the world be better and safer and more just? Does the current protest pass that test? Last week, our gospel set a standard of love that was aspirational, perfect in its acceptance, free of judgement, ever patient. And this week, we hear the story of Jesus’s calling to the disciples to put down their nets and come with him to catch people. And as we know, the people they were called to catch, were diverse, with many different stories. They were not vetted beforehand. Many of them would surely have been called “deplorables” by those around them. The only qualification required was that they came to hear what Jesus had to say and decide for themselves. Jesus set the example of his first commandment: love one another as you are loved. But here is the thing we should not forget: that commandment may be at the top, but it does not erase the other ten, which serve as norms that keep a society together. The protest this week has pointed to the weakness of democracy – when those norms are not followed, an easy remedy is hard to find; a weakness in the wall can crack open. But it has also shown a strength: restraint. While many are angry and frustrated, we have also been patient; we have held to the norms that we hold dear. But I know many of you are angry. Angry at the protesters holding this city hostage and saying it is about freedom. Or angry at how long this pandemic has gone on with no end, and at the rules and restrictions required of us. It is okay to be angry. So long as we know that our anger is a symptom. It represents our frustration, our exhaustion, our disappointment. Spend too much time dwelling in anger, and this is where we remain. I can’t say what will happen; how long this will go on, and what will finally end it. But if I turn to the gospel; if I consider the words of Jesus this morning to the disciples to set aside their own lives and become catchers of people, I know some things very clearly. The story of the disciples is about a group of people who thought they had their priorities all figured out; and then realized that they wanted something more; that the priorities and values they truly believed in required them to be different, to make a different choice. Is our priority at this time anger, and being right? Or might we also invest in a different choice? Ultimately, we have Luther, who protested by education. We can be voices of reason and insight with our friends and families, and try to keep the conversation going, however hard that may be. And we can be like Jesus, the protestor, by example. If we want to change, we must pay attention to what is distracting us, and see what we are missing. In this case, we are distracted by the constant honking and the blocked-up roadways and the trucks. But we can make a difference: we can look to the vulnerable people who have been most affected and try to help. We can be kind and calm with strangers. We can donate to the local shelters who have been disrupted. We can choose, when this is over, to visit the stores forced to close and express our remorse. We don’t have to be people solely distracted by the noisy gong. We can be people who deliberately look in the opposite direction. In this way, we answer Jesus’s call to the disciples: to be catchers of people. The act of catching someone, after all, prevents them from falling. And that is the task that is placed before us, this day and every day, to look where others are not, and reach out to the one who is falling. And to be that Christlike presence for the sake of others, whoever they may be.

Our second lesson this morning will be familiar to many of us. I couldn’t count how many times I have heard it read at weddings. In fact, my mother-in-law read it at my own wedding 25 years ago. We can understand why it captures the idealism and joy of a couple newly-wedded. It is beautifully written, with the cadence of a poem. It is a description of perfect love: a love that is patient and kind, that isn’t selfish or envious. A love that doesn’t anger easily. A love that keeps no record of wrongs. That is a kind of love we all aspire to: both to give and to receive in our lives. And yet, since none of us is perfect; we do not achieve it. At least not all of it, all of the time. And I imagine it might be for you, as it is for me, that the qualities of love that evade in the moment, are the very ones I need most. When we most need patience, we are impatient. When we most need to be selfless, we are selfish. When we most need to be kind, we are neglectful. And it is perhaps no coincidence that the story of the gospel is one where Jesus returns home to preach and finds his most doubtful critics – his own community. For it is among those who know us best and claim to love us most, that this perfection so falters. And yet this does not mean we do not love. It only means that we are not God, who loves us perfectly in this way. We are human, loving as best we can. While these verses in Corinthians are often read at weddings, to describe romantic and family love, they are equally powerful for friendship, and for the love we might show complete strangers. This week, I was sent an essay written by a woman describing how hard it was to maintain her friendships after she lost her baby and was struggling with infertility. It was hard because her friends had what she most wanted and seeing them, she was constantly reminded. It was impossible for her to love them without envy. It was hard because her friends, uncomfortable with her grief, wanting to keep with other happy mothers, also drifted away. It was impossible for them to love with patience. And yet the piece was written gently, without judgement, seeking to understand, and to navigate this difficult space. It was about losing friendships; but it was also about the imperfection of human love. If we were at church today, across the street we would see the truck convoy protest against vaccine mandates. And I imagine many of us would not feel love toward those people; we would easily anger. Their positions, as far as the gospel are concerned, are untenable; some trucks even arrived showcasing the Confederate flag, a symbol of slavery and oppression. They claim to speak for truckers, now mandated to be vaccinated to cross the US-Canada border both ways, and yet at least 85 per cent of truckers are vaccinated. The other 15 per cent refuse to take the vaccine that would protect others and help us to end this pandemic, which is taking such a toll on our mental health. Why do they deserve our love – we might ask? Their love is selfish, angry, judgmental, and unkind. Here is one adjective that the verses in Corinthians do not use to describe love: Love is not a push over. Love may not keep score of wrongs, but it also does not roll over in the face of them; indeed, Love craves justice. Love is a stance, a line in the sand. And so with both these examples, we see a way forward. We do not need to accept the position of the protestors to love them; we can be loving in the way we respond to them. If they are angry, we can be patient. But also, sometimes, we focus our love in the wrong direction; when we are looking at the loudest voices, who are we not seeing? We can turn our loving attention in another direction. If we see actions that are harmful – if we are a witness to bigotry and hate – we may look to those who are feeling that hardest of all and be a loving presence for them. In this way, we may also turn hate into love. Indeed, while Jesus cast the net wide and loved both friend and enemy – he spent more time extending love to the vulnerable and the disadvantaged, than he did to the rich and powerful. To the former, he offered love; to the latter, he often tried to be an example of love and in this way, show them how to love as well. I hope, then, that while the noise and rabble of protest may distract, we will devote more of ourselves to the quiet need for our loving attention. I imagine we all have friends who have drifted away during this pandemic; may we be loving to them when they return. We have people who have been challenging for us during the pandemic; may we be patient with them. And perhaps we have disappointed ourselves and feel guilt and shame; the love described in our second lesson is also for us, perhaps most important for us. When we are kind and patient with ourselves; when we don’t keep score of our own failings – we find it is much easier to share love. Perhaps, it is also no accident that patience is the first descriptor of love in our second lesson. Surely we need it now: patience to let love happen. To be open to opportunities to receive it from others with joy and without guilt. And to look for every chance to share it. The one thing love does not expect is perfection. Jesus sends us out knowing that we will love imperfectly. And yet, this will be more than enough.

Who has the right to flourish? As Jesus announces his mission in Nazareth, this question is put to us in our second lesson. In modern society, we often play the zero-sum game – someone must lose for another to win. For the rich to get wealthier, the poor must get poorer. For one worker to get promoted, another must be diminished. For one to gain, someone else must give up. Life in the zero-sum game is an exhausting competition. We adopt this stance often in our families, to our great unhappiness, competing for the love of our parents, as if that love were finite; so a sister’s achievements are a threat to our standing, not something to be elevated. We see it in the world, to our detriment: by stockpiling vaccines, we appeared to be winning. Instead we lost: a new variant emerged in Africa, where vaccines are scarce. Our second lesson challenges us to think differently, approaching it in the way we can best understand, referring to the community of faith as one body. Can our eyes say to our hands: I don’t need you? Or our head to our feet? On the contrary, even if we care more about how our heads look, we certainly give equal value to our feet. In fact, our second lesson says, God “has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.” God, in fact, has cancelled the zero-sum game. The body cannot function optimally if all its parts don’t have value; the body cannot succeed if all parts don’t see that they benefit from the success of the others. How can the body flourish if all parts do not flourish? Flourishing is very different from living – it is a higher bar. In health care, it means not just curing disease, but considering how well the patient thrives. Flourishing doesn’t mean just feeling well; it means experiencing joy. Yet we often decide who gets to flourish by the systems we create, the judgement we pass, the competitions we join. In the zero-sum game, after all, for someone to flourish, someone else must flounder. But yet again, our lessons this week and last week, challenges this idea for us. Indeed, the gospel releases us from it; we are no longer enslaved, we are set free. Our flourishing depends on ourselves and on God – it is not at the expense of another, because God does not elevate one part of the body above another; rather, God lifts up the weaker parts, so they are on a level with the stronger parts. Anyone who says they never needed that lift is only fooling themselves; the open secret of the gospel is that we are all at one time or another in need of the lift. Only hubris makes us think otherwise. But then, as the psalmist writes, “ Who can detect one’s own defenses?” We often fall into the zero-sum games because we are blind to them. We don’t see when we are being selfish, or petty, or vain. Indeed, these are often the most difficult faults to see, because they make us feel good in the moment. And yet, the psalmist pleads with God: “Cleanse me from my secret faults.” And of the sins of which I am aware,” the psalmist says, “do not let them get dominion over me.” For sometimes, in life and in society, we know exactly when we are treading on another, and we don’t get caught; those sins are terrible indeed. How does God answer the Psalmist? God answers with the gospel, and in that gospel with Jesus. For what is the mission of Jesus, laid out so clearly for us? “To bring good news to the poor; to bring sight to the blind, to free the oppressed.” We may understand that literally: in a calling to help those with less than us, to heal those who are sick, and to fight for justice for those who are wronged. But it also speaks to each of us personally. To each of us Jesus says, when you feel poor – in life, in love, in luck – I am here for you; when you have lost your way and cannot see, I will lead you; when you feel trapped, I will free you to something better. Nothing must be traded in return; no price must be paid, beyond what we choose to give out of gratitude for what we have received. This is how to live not playing the zero-sum game, Jesus says. Here is new set of directions; follow them and flourish. To each one of us, that same set of directions is given. Freed from competing, we are meant to see the truth – the key to a flourishing society. When one member suffers, we all suffer. When one member succeeds, we all rejoice in that success. This is not easy: we are trained to compete, to care about scores, to be obsessed with rank; indeed, modern life primes us to behave that way. If we are not competitive enough, we are weak. But God says strength is standing on the side to let someone else win when a victory matters so much more to them. Strength is being able to rejoice in another’s accomplishment. Strength means making room for someone else to flourish. This is how a community thrives; this is how the whole body achieves true happiness. These lessons in our gospel this month are so important; they challenge not only how we walk in the world as individuals, but also call us to question what we need to change in the world as people. What do we replace with the zero-sum game if we choose not play? We choose to strive for the greater good. Amen

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