Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sunday, October 15 - The Table in the Outer Darkness

Isaiah 25:1-9; 
Psalm 23; 
Matthew 22:1-14

“Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I’m not getting a lot of easy texts to start my time with you, am I? Last week we heard about giving thanks when we’re not feeling thankful, and this week it’s hell. Yes, this outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth is a reference to hell.

Now hell is actually something most of us are familiar with. Not in the fire-and-brimstone, pitchforks and the devil way, but in the original meaning of hell, which is that place where God is not. Hell is that place where God isn’t. That outer darkness, where there is no light, and no God, and no life. Hell is the place where we are alone when we desperately need a friend, where we can’t see the light and we feel swallowed up by darkness, where we feel overwhelmed by everything and see no way out.

I’ve been in hell, in that outer darkness, at least three times in my life. The first time was when I was doing hospital chaplaincy in my first year at seminary, and I was assigned to the Medical Respiratory Intensive Care Unit and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. In two short months, over twenty patients that I had been in contact with had died, from the elderly to babies. At the end of those two months, I felt like I was in the back of a very deep and very dark cave, and I couldn’t find my way out.

The second and third times were after the births of my two children. In both of those cases, it was when they were each about eight months and I was feeling beyond overwhelmed in caring for them. One time, I went for a walk in the woods and wondered on the way there if anyone would notice if I came back without the baby. Another time, I remember actually wanting to drive my car into a brick wall at top speed. Clearly, I did neither of those things, but I still remember the feeling of being in that hell, in that outer darkness. Feeling completely abandoned, bound hand and foot and thrown out there, in the dark, alone.

As it turns out, all three of those times were episodes of clinical depression. And during that third time, I went to the doctor and was diagnosed and was given medication that I will probably be on to one degree or another for the rest of my life. And I share this story whenever I can because this past Tuesday was World Mental Health Day, and this outer darkness of mental health is not something we talk about in the church very much. And I want you to know that if you have had times when you have felt bound and thrown into the darkness, or if you feel that way right now, you are not alone and we can talk about it.

Of course, depression is not the only time we can feel like we’ve been cast out into the outer darkness. Being rejected by a friend, facing a medical emergency, losing a job, losing a loved one––loss of any kind, actually, can throw us into that darkness, whether for just a moment or for years. The outer darkness, the valley of the shadow of death, the funeral shroud that covers the people––this is a common experience throughout history––the writer of Isaiah experienced it, the Psalmist who gave us Psalm 23 experienced it, the community of Matthew’s Gospel experienced it. 

There’s a line in the Apostles’ Creed that I find particularly comforting when I’m in that outer darkness. I know we turn more to the Lord’s Prayer than the Creed when we’re in need of comfort, but for me, that line is there in the Second Article, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” After talking about Jesus’ life and death, we then say, “he descended into hell.” The alternate line says, “descended to the dead,” but for me, “descended into hell” is particularly comforting. Jesus was in hell.

This is profound. It means that when that man at the king’s son’s wedding banquet was bound hand and foot and cast out to the outer darkness, he was cast in to the place where Jesus was. It means that when we are suffering through our own personal hells, whether it’s the result of our own actions or someone else’s, Jesus is there. There is nowhere we can go where God has not gone - that’s Psalm 139. You are not alone in that outer darkness, in that valley of the shadow of death. God is with you. Martin Luther himself strongly believed this, and preached that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fully human and fully divine, descended to hell, to be amongst the sinners and the lost and the abandoned and the rejected. 

Being with you means more than just Christ suffering with you in the darkness, sitting there in dark cave next to you. We have God’s promise, given to us over and over and over again, that God transforms darkness into light, death into life. Psalm 23 assures us that, in the presence of our enemies, God prepares a table for us. When death surrounds us, when we feel overwhelmed, when the odds are stacked against us, God sets up a feast. Isaiah says this too, in the reading that we often hear at funerals. In the midst of loss, God is setting up an overabundance of good things - an overflowing of all those things that nourish us and bring us life.

Because ultimately, as Isaiah says, God is swallowing up death. God is making death no more because God is feeding us with new life, life that overflows the boundaries of darkness, and wipes away every tear. Life that spreads into every corner, into the backs of the deepest caves, into the moments of blackest darkness. The table that God is preparing for us is constantly expanding to include more and more people, and the food that God provides never ends. 
We see it, actually, every time we come to this table. We come to this table with all of our darkness inside of us, we come to eat and drink of our Lord with all of our feelings of abandonment and rejection and loneliness, because this table was also set up in the outer darkness. Christ was abandoned and rejected by his followers, he died on the cross crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and he descended to hell, and this is his table. And on the third day he rose again. And in that rising, God swallowed up death, and wiped away every tear, and shed light into the darkest corners, and granted new life to all the dead. 

And God did it for us. For you. When you are at this table, when you hear, the body of Christ, given for you, and the blood of Christ, shed for you, know that in that for you are God’s words of life to you and for you. For you in your moments of light, and, more importantly, for you in your moments of darkness. Christ gives himself to you, to feast on and be filled, to carry inside of you even as you leave the table, to bring with you wherever you go, even into the darkness that is threatening to swallow you but never can.

“Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.” The God whom we worship is, ultimately, the God of light and life, revealed to us in Christ, who prepares a table for us in the midst of our enemies, in the midst of our hell. It is a table overflowing with new life, and you are welcome to it, over and over again, as many times as you need, because it is “for you.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Pentecost 18 - Thanksgiving

Isaiah 5:1-7; Phil 3:4b-14; Matt 21:33-46

So, Happy Thanksgiving! It’s a bit odd to say that right after the readings for today, don’t you think? As a whole, our readings are not ones that inspire us with a great deal of thanks. Given the awful event in Vegas last week, the violence of our readings hits home, making it really difficult to truly give thanks. We know that giving thanks is our “duty,” as we hear at the beginning of Holy Communion, and yet it can sometimes feel impossible to give thanks “at all times and in all places,” as we also hear.

This particularly can be the case when we have difficult and painful memories of things that have happened in our own past. For some of us, there are times in the past––short or long––that are intensely painful and continue to wound us even today. We can’t possibly feel thankful for that because those events or the lives we’ve lived in the past are so painful to us that we want a complete break from them, and we reject them completely. We might feel sadness, or bitterness, or even outright anger. But not thankful.

Those painful pasts are behind our readings for today. Isaiah was written during a time of intense political upheaval: there were military invasions by neighbouring countries, the king at the time, Hezekiah, had turned away from following God’s will, and the people were taking advantage of one another and not living as God’s community. Isaiah appears to be trying to understand God’s presence in what was a very oppressive time in Israel and Judah’s past. 

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew was trying to figure out the same thing, although in a different context. In Matthew, the Christian community was struggling to understand why their own leaders, the priests in the Temple, didn’t protect one of their own - Jesus. They felt betrayed by the very ones who were supposed to take care of them––in Matthew’s parable, the murderous tenants refer specifically to the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem, and not to all the people of Israel. The priests were supposed to take care of the people - not sell them out to Rome. The community of Christians that the Gospel of Matthew was written for were living about 50 years after the death of Jesus and only a few decades after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Their recent past was incredibly painful for them, and they lay responsibility for that at the feet of their leaders. They were hurt and angry. They were not thankful.

And, of course, there’s Paul, and his letter to the Philippians. Paul, too, has his own painful past to wrestle with, and he has no one to blame but himself. His pain comes from realizing that he was responsible for the persecution of Christians. From realizing that the zealousness of his own faith caused so much pain to those whom he came to love in Christ. We often think that Paul hated his past because he was Jewish, but that’s not the case. Paul hates his past because at that time in his Jewish life he was violent towards Christ’s brothers and sisters. He is thankful for his Jewish righteousness, but in no way is he thankful for the way in which he lived out that righteousness by persecuting Christians. In that respect, he wants to completely break with his past.

I’m guessing that most of us here can identify with at least one of these situations, whether it is the deep regret over our country’s past, and even present, treatment of its own people, or the feelings of betrayal and confusion over a previous leader’s actions. Or maybe we can identify with Paul’s awareness that in our own lives we have caused deep pain to someone we love. And when we’re faced with these things, it is a challenge to honestly and authentically give thanks “at all times and in all places”––to say “Happy Thanksgiving!” and really, truly, fully mean it.

So what do we do? We’re supposed to give thanks, but our past makes that thanks imperfect. Inauthentic. We could say, “Well, that was in the past, and it’s time to move on, and today’s a new day, and let’s focus on the good things happening now, and give thanks for that.” And that is a perfectly legitimate response. Sometimes, that’s what we need to do to keep moving forward. But other times, that’s not enough. Other times, the pain from the past is too deep or too fresh to allow us to move on, and the dissonance between the past and the present has us feeling inauthentic in our thanksgiving. And so, again, we ask, what do we do? How do we give thanks, as is our duty, without erasing the past from our memory or feeling like we’re somehow being dishonest in our thanks?

It so happens that the apostle Paul, actually, offers us a way forward. In our reading, Paul acknowledges his past of persecution as a loss. A total write-off. Nothing redeeming about it. But he adds that he is pressing on “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” There is something about being in Christ that allows Paul both to face the pain of his past and to give thanks for his life today. And if we look at the letter to the Ephesians, attributed to Paul, we read that Christ “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Paul means Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Eph 2:16) Paul and the new Christian community experience that, in Christ, the pains of the past persecution are gathered up in the new love that they share for one another. Paul looks to reconciliation in Christ to move forward. Paul finds the source of reconciliation, and the reason he can give thanks, not in himself, but in Christ.

It’s important to note that the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t get to that point. We know now that Jesus actually shared a lot in common with the Pharisees - a belief in resurrection after death, a recognition that the heart of Torah or the law is love for one’s neighbour, and a willingness to adapt religious observances for the times. But the community of Matthew’s Gospel wasn’t able to get to a place of being thankful for the Pharisees and priests who let Jesus die. Maybe it was too fresh for them. Maybe they hadn’t yet read Paul’s words to the churches. They weren’t able to find reconciliation and give full and perfect thanks to Christ.

All of this is where we sit in our lives. Maybe you’ve been able to give your past to God and experience Christ’s reconciliation as Paul does. Maybe you see that your past has led you to today, and that you’ve grown in reflecting on those events and commending them to God, and so you’re able to fully and sincerely give thanks. But maybe not. Maybe you identify with Matthew’s community, and feel the pain of a tremendous loss and betrayed relationships and carry that forever. Maybe your thanks is only partial, with resentment or bitterness or anger or pain or even a desire for violent retribution lying underneath. Maybe, like me, you alternate between Paul and Matthew, finding thanks easy at one moment and difficult at another.

But what Paul says to the church in Ephesians, and he says it again in his letter to the Colossians, is our Good News. The truth is that ultimately it is not us who reconciles our past and our present, but God through Christ. God does not expect that our thanksgiving will be perfect. Rather, God perfects our thanksgivings. And this is how we are able to give thanks, at all times and in all places, in the middle of every situation in which we find ourselves. Not because we somehow miraculously transcend the disappointments and betrayals of our live, but because even that partial thanks, that 10% thanks, is made perfect as God receives it. This may be why God actually asks us to give thanks even when we feel least thankful. So that we will experience that it is not that we must be perfectly thankful when we come before God, but that God makes us perfect as we do so. And this is something to be thankful for. This is how we can say “Thanks be to God,” and “Happy Thanksgiving,” even when we don’t fully and truly mean it. Because, in Christ, God reconciles our imperfect thanks, making them, and us, perfect. Thanks be to God. Amen.