Sunday, May 27, 2007

Pentecost, May 27, 2007

It is the current trend that pastors write new sermons every time they preach. In fact, it's somewhat frowned upon when pastors preach something that has been preached before, either by them or by someone else. However, this hasn't always been the case. Even into the twentieth century, preachers (and some famous ones at that) would use the same sermon over and over again, and sometimes even read the sermons of other famous preachers. (With due credit given, of course.) Luther himself encouraged pastors to reuse their own sermons or borrow someone else's if they didn't have a good one handy. (Meaning, of course, one that preached first the Law and then the Gospel.)

All of this is to say that my sermon today is not new, but is a sermon from Pentecost 2005. You can read it at and scroll down to May 15th. I believe that it is still timely and an appropriate message for today.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

May 20, 2007 - Prison

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Rev 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

A little while ago, I got the chance to visit the famous prison of Alcatraz. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Alcatraz used to be a maximum security military prison in the Bay of San Francisco that held a few of the most hardened criminals in the United States. The prison was literally a fortress, built on an island, which was surrounded by currents so strong and so cold that escape was impossible. The prison of Alcatraz was the home to criminals like the infamous Al Capone, "Whitey" Bulger - one of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted, and Alvin Karpis, an official "Public Enemy." Alcatraz is where the government sent prisoners who deserved the hardest and most isolating punishment.
It was an awful place for a prisoner to be. The Island itself was made of rock, with hardly any plants or greenery growing on it, and the prison, of course, was a prison. Each cell, of course, was a cell - tiny and cramped and facing more cells, while the ones that faced towards the outside of the building faced only exterior wall. There were tiny windows up near the top that let through fresh air and some light, but you couldn't see out of them. There was an outdoor courtyard where prisoners could walk about, but there was only one tiny square window, about one square foot, that you could look out of. Prisoners used to say that the worst part about the whole prison experience there was being able to hear the noise and bustle and liveliness of San Francisco across the Bay but not being able to see it, and worse, knowing how cut off from it they were.
And then, of course, there was solitary confinement. This was a cell about 5 feet x 7 feet,, and when the door was closed, it was absolutely pitch black inside. One of the prisoners told of how when he was restricted to solitary, he would go inside, and the door would close behind him, and in complete darkness, he would pull off a button, throw it up in the air, listen for where it had fallen on the ground, scrabble around until he had found it with his hands, and then repeat the process all over again just to pass the time. Another prisoner described how the intense blackness caused him to start hallucinating, seeing flashing lights where there were none. I got a chance to go in one of these cells, and even with the door open, it was claustrophobic. I can only imagine what it would have been like with the door closed - terrifying, is my guess. Alcatraz was designed to punish criminals by cutting them off entirely from the rest of the world, while simultaneously making them aware of the freedom that was experienced by everyone but denied to them. Like all prisons, it was a terrible place to be.

Most people have experienced imprisonment, and the terrifying loss of freedom that comes with it. Sometimes it comes from a literal prison, but more often, it's figurative. Illness, for instance, can become a prison. People who have become severely ill and restricted to their beds can feel like they are in a jail cell, cut off from everything and unable to go out. Friends, and even family, stop visiting. The outside world still exists, but it is completely out of reach. Like the prisoners of Alcatraz, those who are sick are usually alone, and since it is not by choice, it also means being terribly lonely.
Depression, too, without or without sickness, is also imprisoning. If you've ever been depressed, you know how confining and isolating it is. You feel as if you are trapped in your mind, you can hear the world's happiness, you can even maybe see it, but it's as if there are walls between you and it that can't be breached. And, again, you are alone - people may come to see you, but they can't share in your depression, or enter your mind, so, once again, there is intense loneliness. Martin Luther experienced depression, and described it as being curved in on one's self. He saw it as a prison, constructed by the devil, and he knew that it was awfully difficult to break out of.

But not impossible. Well, literally breaking out of prison is, of course, but it is possible to gain freedom from the emotional and mental prisons that hold us. The first step comes from realizing that these kinds of prison come from the devil. Sickness and depression aren't things that we bring on ourselves. They don't come from something we've done or not done, they come from outside of us, through the natural frailties of our bodies. And the mental anguish and loneliness that accompany them most often come from the devil, who takes advantage of our weakened state to try and separate us from God. It's my belief that when we are on the right path, doing something that will bring God's love to the world, it's then that the devil likes to step in and imprison us in loneliness and self-doubt and despair. It's when we are being Christ for others that the devil likes to lock us up in Alcatraz and throw away the keys.
So how can we be freed from the devil's isolating prison? Well, Paul and Silas, when they were thrown in jail for freeing the slave girl from her demon, prayed and sang hymns to God. Prayer and song are powerful gifts from God, given to us so that we can feel God's holy presence, and those first disciples used them to free their minds from the fear and loneliness that must have come from their imprisonment. Just as young David in the Old Testament used songs to calm King Saul when he was tormented, we, too, are encouraged to use music to escape our loneliness. Luther said that when we feel sadness and the devil about to overwhelm us, we should sing to the Lord and the devil will flee. "When we sing," he proclaimed, "we pray twice."

So what do we sing? Anything, really. Sing along to whatever's on the radio. Think of your favourite song as a teenager and sing it as loudly as you can. Hymns, especially, are a good choice for singing, because they speak of Christ and remind us of God's love. Paul and Silas, when they were in jail, might have sung some psalms. Or they might have sung a hymn from the early church like this one, called the Litany of the Deacon:
Litany of the Deacon - - Early Church Hymns translated by John Brownlie
God of all grace, Thy mercy send;
Let Thy protecting arm defend;
Save us, and keep us to the end:
Have mercy, Lord.
And through the coming hours of night,
Fill us, we pray, with holy light;
Keep us all sinless in Thy sight:
Grant this, O Lord.
May some bright messenger abide
For ever by Thy servants' side,
A faithful guardian and our guide:
Grant this, O Lord.
From every sin in mercy free,
Let heart and conscience stainless be,
That we may live henceforth for Thee:
Grant this, O Lord.
We would not be by care opprest,
But in Thy love and wisdom rest--
Give what Thou seest to be best:
Grant this, O Lord.
While we of every sin repent,
Let our remaining years be spent
In holiness and sweet content:
Grant this, O Lord.
And when the end of life is near,
May we, unshamed and void of fear,
Wait for the Judgment to appear:
Grant this, O Lord.

This hymn, sung by the early church, reminds us of God's faithful presence, guarding us from the dark and guiding us to the light. Now, obviously, we don't know the tune for it, which makes it kind of hard to sing when we're depressed, but there are other hymns. Luther wrote several, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, is the most famous, but another excellent one is Out of the Depths, I Cry to You. It's LBW 295, if you would please turn to it. I want us to sing it together, and as you do, see if you can sense God easing the bonds of whatever might be imprisoning you.
Out of the depths I cry to you; O Father, hear me calling.
Incline your ear to my distress In spite of my rebelling.
Do not regard my sinful deeds. Send me the grace my spirit needs;
Without it I am nothing.
All things you send are full of grace; You crown our lives with favour.
All our good works are done in vain Without our Lord and Saviour.
We praise the God who gives us faith And saves us from the grip of death;
Our lives are in his keeping.
It is in God that we shall hope, And not in our own merit.
We rest our fears in God's good Word And trust God's Holy Spirit.
God's promise keeps us strong and sure; We trust the holy signature
Inscribed upon our forehead.
My soul is waiting for the Lord As one who longs for morning;
No watcher waits with greater hope Than I for his returning.
I hope as Israel in the Lord; God sends redemption through the Word.
We praise God for God's mercy.

Alcatraz prison was shut down in 1963, and in 1972 became a US National Park. The doors to the prison have been flung open, and no one is kept in isolation there anymore. But prisons still exist around the world, especially those caused by sickness and depression. Happily, God has given the gift of hymns and singing to us, as keys that we can use to open whatever prisons we might be in. While these gifts might not change the actual situation that you are in, they can help you to feel the grace of God with you, breaking down the walls around you, and helping you to feel that you are not alone. So the next time you feel as if the walls are closing in on you, may you feel the presence of the Lord and the freedom God brings to you, in prayer and singing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sun, May 13, 2006 - Easter 6

Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelations 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29

There is a show on TV right now called Heroes, and in last week's episode, one of the characters, Sylar, discovers that he is about to do something terrible, something that will result in the obliteration of half of New York City. Although he's already caused the deaths of a number of other people, the sheer magnitude and wastefulness of killing millions horrifies him and causes him to question his very existence. In his anguish, he seeks out his mother, with the hopes that she will reassure him that he is actually a good person, capable of doing good and avoiding the horrendous evil that he is about to commit. Sylar tracks down his mother hoping that once she affirms the goodness within him, he will be able to turn away from the dark path he seems doomed to follow. They meet, and there is a touching moment between mother and son as he seeks her approval.
Well, it may be just a TV cliche, but it does seem to be that in times of extreme stress, it's their mothers that people turn to for guidance. This seems to be particularly the case when we're faced with a situation that makes us question who we are. Of course, very few people are asked to decide the fate of millions of people, but there are occasions in our life when it seems as if the decision we need to make will affect the very moral balance of the universe. And at those times, when we are caught with having to decide whether we are people who have the potential to contribute to goodness in the world, or to evil, at those times when we question whether we are really sinners or saints, we turn to the people who brought us into the world, who have known us from day one - our mothers. We look to them, hoping that they will tell us that yes, we are really good, decent people, who have the potential to do good things and bring life, not death, to the world.

Of course, I must acknowledge that not everyone relates to their mother that way or can trust their mothers to tell them that. Some of us no longer have our mothers with us, and ache to hear their voices telling us how good we are. Some of us have mothers who are abusive, pointing out every character flaw that they see, real or imagined. And some mothers, well all mothers, actually, are just plain human, and can't always be there for us in the way we need. Their own insecurities and fears overwhelm them and they can't say the things to us that we need to hear. Sylar's mother, in the end, rejected him, focussing solely on his potential for evil, with the result that he felt he had no option but to commit the horror he had been trying to avoid. She was human, trapped in her own frailties, and unable to affirm her son as he needed. It was tragic and led to devastation, and in the real world, not uncommon.
Which leads me to ask - if we can't depend on our mothers, since it turns out that they are only human, who can we turn to when we need affirmation that we are capable of doing good in the world?

The first disciples of Jesus wondered the same thing. Well, they weren't looking for their mothers, but they were seeking reassurance and affirmation of their potential to do good as they faced the new task ahead of them. Specifically, they were being asked to be perfect followers of Christ - to love others as he had loved them, and to follow the commandments set before them by God. "Love me," and "Keep my word," were the two simple, but by no means easy, things Jesus asked them to do. And he was asking them to do these things on their own, without him by their side to help them. So, naturally, they were feeling overwhelmed. They knew how easy it would be to fall into sin, witness Judas' betrayal of Jesus, and so they needed help to stay on the right path. The Gospels don't say as much, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were asking Jesus things like, "Are you sure we can do this? Are you sure we're really the ones to carry on your words of love? How do you know we can be as good as you think?" Like the rest of us, they must have been full of self-doubt, wondering if they could really live up to the image Jesus seemed to have of them.
And, like a good mother, Jesus reassured them. He told them that he was going to ask God to send the Holy Spirit, who would "teach [them] everything, and remind [them] of all that [Jesus] had said to [them.]" The Holy Spirit, like a mother caring for her children, would teach them, guide them, love them, forgive them, and most importantly, remind them of their potential as children of God and disciples of Christ. That reminder is what would keep them close to Christ, it would hold up before them that they were brothers and sisters of Christ, and meant to share in his inheritance of God's love and forgiveness.
You see, we turn to our mothers to help us when we are seeking our way because, as their children, we know that some of what they are is in us, too. Parents and children, over the years, come to reflect each other, families have certain characteristics that identify them. So when we look at our family - mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers - we hope to see good in them, so that we can be reassured of that good in ourselves.
And so when the winds of Pentecost blew, the Holy Spirit descended on them and nurtured those early followers just as Jesus had promised. The Holy Spirit reminded the first disciples that they were children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ, they knew, then, that they shared some of the characteristics of God and Jesus. The disciples were reassured that they could love the world, that they did have the courage to reach out to others, that they could forgive sins, just as the rest of their family could. The self-doubting, insecure group of followers became the leaders of the early Church, fearlessly preaching God's forgiveness in the marketplaces, touching and healing those who were untouchable, believing themselves to be capable of bringing God's love to the world. Whatever their past, and some of them had one heck of a past, the presence of the Holy Spirit meant that their previous status as sinners and betrayers of Christ would not be able to stop them from doing great good.

That same Holy Spirit is here for us, too. When our mothers fail us, as they will do, no matter how hard they try, we can count on the Holy Spirit to step in and offer us the affirmation that they weren't able to. When we question what good we can do in the world, when we wonder if we should even bother trying to love our enemies, or put in the effort of trying to avoid sin, when we begin to believe that maybe we are just so hopelessly evil we might as well give in, as Sylar did, then the Holy Spirit comes forward. The mothering Spirit says to us, "I created you to be good, just as I created your brother, Jesus Christ. I have made my home in you, I live in your heart, and for that reason, you are capable of great good. Because of me, you have it within you to love your enemies, to avoid sin, to keep God's commandments, to follow your brother. I have known you since you were in the womb, and I know that, with my help, you will do good and not evil all the days of your life."

God created us to be people of love, people who could share ourselves and everything we have with the world without reservation. Jesus is the perfect example of that. But years of living have exposed us to our failings and to that devil's voice that tells us that we will never amount to anything, that we are doomed to evil from the beginning, that we might as well give up trying. But the Holy Spirit, our heavenly mother, if you will, looks at us as her children, seeing everything we do as wonderful, seeing every good path that lays before us, and reminds us of that. The Holy Spirit affirms what Christ has already told us, that Holiness has come to live within us, and so we are able to follow Christ, loving all and doing good. So on this day and all days, may God's mothering Spirit be with you and all who mother, reminding you that you are loved and loving, capable of great good, and a child of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Sun, May 6, 2007 - Easter 5

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelations 21:2-6
John 13:31-35

Well, I'm going to jump right in. This past year hasn't been the easiest for this congregation financially speaking, has it? Specifically, it seems like this church has taken a big hit when it comes to offerings. So big, in fact, that you are being forced to consider less-than- halftime ministry. Now, I don't know what happened - I haven't had time to look at the figures - but I can guess that things are pretty serious. Churches don't make decisions to cut their ministry lightly. It is always done as a last resort, as a way just to stay alive. I can also guess that you're all feeling pretty bad about it, too. My guess is that, among other things, you might be feeling anxious, fearful, and maybe even guilty.

After all, it does seem like, at the very least, a successful congregation should be able to pay its pastor full-time, right? Theoretically, if a church is doing things right, the pews should be full, the Sunday School should be packed, the youth should be running around everywhere, and the offering plates should be overflowing. That's what we see on TV and hear about in the news, right? The Crystal Cathedral, the Vineyard churches, the mega-churches in the U.S. Bible Belt, even a few churches here in Toronto - they're all packed to overflowing, with lots of money and more than one full-time pastor - clearly they're successful churches, clearly they're easily identifiable as being good disciples of Christ. Isn't that right? That you can tell how successful a church is by the number of people attending, the number of bible studies being offered, the number of outreach programs being offered, the number of pastors on staff? The higher those numbers, the more successful the church. The more successful the church, the better Christians they must be.

Of course, if that's true, then it would seem like the opposite is true, too. That the lower the numbers, the less successful a church is. When we hear of a church where attendance is dropping, Sunday School classes are closing, programs are being cut, giving is down, well, then, we start thinking that maybe that church is doing something wrong. We wonder about the dedication of its members, about the competency of its staff. We suspect that that church is failing, that it is - dare we say it? - dying. We wonder what kind of discipleship its members are practicing if they can't even keep the church afloat.

Which brings us back to our situation. I have to ask - is it perhaps the case that maybe, deep in your heart, you're wondering the same things about this congregation? That you're wondering if this church is failing? If it's in trouble? If we're really being the group of Christian followers that we should be? I know I do. And as the pastor of this congregation, that's not an easy thing to admit. Naturally, all pastors can't help but think that they are somewhat personally responsible for the success or failure of a congregation. As the pastor, I wonder, should I have pushed evangelism to increase membership? Should I have preached more about stewardship and giving to increase offerings? Should I have encouraged more members to come regularly to strengthen their commitment? What could I be doing to make this church more successful? To make it obvious to everyone that we are thriving as disciples of Christ? I feel anxiety over the future of this congregation and guilt that I should have done more.

Jesus said, "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

So what's the connection? Well, it's true that Jesus isn't talking about congregations, but he does seem to be setting a general standard of behaviour for those who want to be called his disciples. And that standard is that they show the same love that Jesus showed. Jesus' standard for judging the success of Christians isn't about attendance numbers, or fiscal solvency, or having the money to pay a full-time pastor. Jesus' standard for discipleship isn't based on how much offering is given, or how many programs are offered, or how many people attend Council meetings. Jesus' standard is about love. It's about showing love to each other and to the world.

That's what, above everything else, Jesus' disciples are supposed to be known for. That's how you can tell that they're followers of Christ - that they're Christian. Not by the material success of their congregation, but by the love they show to one another and to the world. The first disciples of Christ weren't members of mega-churches. They didn't have full-time pastors, they didn't have Sunday School, or full pews on Sundays. But what they did have was love for one another. They supported one another in their ministries, they helped each other out when they needed it. Early on in Acts, we hear that the equivalent of a daily food bank was set up to help starving widows. More often, though, the disciples simply went around proclaiming Christ's forgiveness to anyone who would listen. They spread the gospel, the good news, the message of God's love for the world as far as they could. And that's how people knew that they were followers of Christ - because of the love they had for one another.

It wasn't that the early disciples were exceptional people who were just all-round great guys full of love. They were actually pretty ordinary people like you and me, who worried about their work, and their families, and didn't get enough sleep, and got stressed when money got tight. They had their differences, and they got into arguments. But they did have the Holy Spirit helping them out, and that's what kept them going. You see, it's not as if Jesus set up an impossible standard for being his disciple. Or rather, it's not that he set up an impossible standard and then left us to fend for ourselves. Yes, he did say, "Here's what you need to do to be one of my followers - love the world," a tall order, but then he sent the Holy Spirit to help us to do that. The Spirit of Christ, that moved him to love his disciples and wash their feet, that moved him to love his betrayers and ask for their forgiveness, that Spirit was sent to us in our baptism and is renewed at every Communion. That Spirit is what enables us to care for the people in our midst that we don't always agree with, to see them as human beings and not just as debaters on the opposite side. The Holy Spirit enables us to care for people who are different from us, who come from different backgrounds and hold different values. The Holy Spirit enables us to care for people that we don't even know, to welcome the stranger into our community, to give our spare change and our extra food to those in need.

That same Holy Spirit is at work in this congregation, helping you to show God's love to others. And that's why you shouldn't be feeling anxious, or fearful, or guilty. Yes, the financial situation is tough here. But raking in the money is not what a church is supposed to be known for - congregations aren't businesses. Instead, a church is supposed to be known for the love present among its members, and I can honestly say that that love is shown here in spades. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, you have the most important thing down pat, and that means that the rest of it is, well, it's just not as important. That's not to say that it's irrelevant, but finances and budgets just aren't as important as showing love to one another.

So, major cuts to the budget of this congregation shouldn't leave you feeling like it's the end of the world. The glory of God is not shown in church budgets, but in the love of Christ shown to the world. Thanks be to God that the Holy Spirit continues to bless us with that love, as we seek to be recognized as Christ's disciples. Amen.