Sunday, May 25, 2008

Love on God's Arms

Isaiah 49:8-16a; Matthew 6:24-34 - University Lutheran Chapel

So, I have the word “Love” written on my arm this morning, as some of you may have noticed. As far as I know, there are over 250,000, if not more, people running around Canada and the U.S. this week who will have “Love” written on their arms. The people have passed the word around amongst themselves, through online social-networking, and by word-of-mouth, and they’re all taking a big fat pen and writing this tiny little four-letter word on their arms.

The reason is to draw attention to the problem of teen suicide. And so that’s what I’m going to do very briefly this morning. Now, I need to begin by being very clear that I am not a professional when it comes to this issue. I have no professional training, I am only someone who cares deeply for teenagers and what they go through. I house-sat for a woman whose teenage daughter was on anti-depressants and tried to kill herself. I had a co-worker whose step-son killed himself at the age of twenty, and I remember as a young teenager one particular time when I wanted to die (although, you can’t go to heaven if you kill yourself, or so I believed, and so I never did anything), but - again - I have no professional experience with this. I hesitate to even talk about it this morning, because it is probably something that has deeply touched various individuals in this congregation, and I feel a bit as if I’m bumbling around, but I think it’s better to risk saying something than to risk saying nothing at all.

Because the risks of teen suicide are too great. Just to give you some brief fact: It is the third-highest cause of death among young people. Suicides are higher among teenage boys than girls, although girls attempt it three times as often. Native American teenagers have a depressingly high rate of suicide, as do African-Americans and Hispanic teenagers. I’m sure most of you are aware that teens who identify as bi- or homosexual are at a higher risk for suicide than those who identify as hetero. Teens who talk about killing themselves are, contrary to popular understanding, very likely to attempt it, and a significant number of them are the victims of some kind of abuse. They may be popular, smart, athletic, and seem happy-go-lucky, but they may also be the complete opposite.. In 2004, the latest year I could find numbers for, 1,700 American teenagers killed themselves. Factor in to that the fact that one out of five teenagers actually thinks about killing themselves, and we are faced with a heart-wrenching picture of this country’s youth, youth who carry so much despair in their hearts that the only thing they can think about is ending it by ending their life.

So why do I bring up such a depressing topic this morning? I could have chosen to talk about not serving two masters at once, or what happens when you love wealth, or how we shouldn’t worry because God takes cares of birds and flower. But the thing is that, as Christians, we are called to enter into the pain and suffering of those around us. We are called to stand with those who are marginalized in our society, and - don’t let popular culture fool you - teenagers are marginalized today. Teen pregnancies, teen drug use, teen sex parties, teen vandalism and theft - teenagers get blamed for all of society’s moral failings and never receive any praise. They stand to inherit a seriously messed-up world and don’t get any credit for being able to handle that responsibility. They are discriminated against en masse - have you ever noticed those “No more than three students at a time” signs in stores? They are marginalized and powerless and so, as Christians, we are called to side with them. We are called to enter into real conversation with the teenagers we meet, to listen uncritically to their complaints, to listen without judgement (that’s Paul from this morning), without judgement to their stories, and to listen without flinching to their pain. It isn’t always easy, I’ll grant you, because sometimes their complaints are about us, and their stories paint us in a bad light, and their pain, we come to realize, is caused by us, but nevertheless, the Holy Spirit is calling us to be there for this country’s teenagers, and to lighten their loads in whatever way we can, even if it means more pain for us.

We can do it because Christ has done it for us. Christ, in becoming human, came to understand what it means to suffer, doing so voluntarily in order to ease our pain. He entered into this world, and through that move, has entered into our lives, into your lives, taking into himself the pain and suffering that you have experienced throughout your life time. Christ didn’t flinch from doing it, or hold back because things were too intense. He walked alongside of those who were in pain, those who were dying, those who were marginalized. He has walked alongside of you in those moments when you have wondered what there is worth living for. He walked until he reached the cross, and Christ walked all the way to the place of the dead, not so that we would follow him to that ultimate point, but so that we wouldn’t have to.

And he did it, not because he had to, not because it was the “right” thing to do, although it was, but because of this word on my arm - because of love. Christ loves those teenagers. Christ loves you. No matter how unloved you feel, no matter how unloveable, no matter what you have done in life, or what has been done to you, Christ loves you. Even at the very bottom of the bottom, when we think about ending life, Christ’s love is there, too. Your pain doesn’t stop Christ from loving you, your suffering doesn’t stop his love, nothing can.

Even before Jesus, God has loved you. We hear it this morning, in the reading from Isaiah, when God says, “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” Now the writing on my arm will fade, but inscribing in Isaiah’s time was something far more permanent. Inscribing was how you got words into stone, not just writing with ink, but hacking and chiseling away at it. Ink rubs off very quickly from the palms of the hands. Tattoos, even, don’t last very long there at all - usually only a couple of days. But inscribing, that will last a good long time. And so God has marked you permanently on the palms of God’s hands, as a sign of love, to be constantly with God, involved in all the works of God’s hand. So you do not fade from God’s hands. And teenagers, with all of their imperfections and annoyances - yes, teenagers can be annoying, just like two-year-old toddlers and eighty-year-old seniors can all be annoying in their own way - but with all of that, teenagers, especially are written, inscribed, carved into the palms of God’s hands.

Love is written on God’s palms. Love is written on Christ’s arms, those arms stretched out on the cross at Calvary. To tell you that you matter to God, to reassure you that you are loved by God. And maybe, if you should happen to cross paths with some young soul who is immersed in pain and despair, you might pass that message of love on. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Letter to Bishop Pryse

This letter to the bishop was prompted by the letters that can be found here: Eastern Synod Website

May 14, 2008

Dear Bishop Pryse,

Peace to you and the blessing of the Holy Spirit in this week following Pentecost!

I am writing to you concerning the letter that I and those on the roster of the Eastern Synod received this past week. The Eastern Synod continues to be my official home, and I continue to think of you as my bishop, so matters that occur there, although kilometers away, affect me deeply.

As someone who has a deep respect for the policies and due process of the church and as someone who has argued strongly for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the ELCIC, I appreciate the difficulty and sensitivity with which you are approaching Holy Cross, Newmarket’s call to Lionel Ketola. Your argument that the policies of the constitution cannot be ignored for risk of the unity of the church is well-made and demonstrates the responsibilities which you, as bishop, must honour.

Nevertheless, I must extend my full support for the congregation of Holy Cross and for my colleagues who will be vesting for and participating in Lionel’s ordination. Were it not for financial and family constraints, I would be in attendance myself, for two reasons.

The first is that civil disobedience, or “faithful disobedience” as the people of Holy Cross understand it, is an important part of our growth and theological development as a church. It is historically demonstrated in the precedent set by Peter, when he baptized Gentiles into the Christian faith in Caesarea. (Acts 10) Faithful disobedience was also practiced by Martin Luther, when he proclaimed while still a Roman Catholic that all baptized believers were priests before God. (To The Christian Nobility, 1520) History has proven these two moments of disobedience to be acts of blessings for the millions of faithful who followed. These two saints-of-saints, while disobedient to the policies of their religious institutions, were nonetheless faithful to the call of the Gospel, a call I believe is being issued to and by Holy Cross.

The second reason I wish myself able to attend is that I do not believe that the unity of the church is either as fragile or as essential as many seem to think. The privileging of unity above all other concerns has troubled me since the issue was raised at the Eastern Synod Assembly in 2004 for many reasons, not the least of which is that the “unity of the church” does not mean the unity of the ELCIC, or the Eastern Synod, or even the Toronto Conference. History has shown that the unity of the larger church of Christ can tolerate a vast range of opinions on a variety of issues, and that the Holy Spirit continues to hold us together in the one body of Christ, working through and even blessing that diversity. Should the “irregular” ordination of Lionel disrupt the unity of the ELCIC, we must rest assured that it will not fracture the unity of the larger church, an impossibility since those first days of Pentecost.

That being said, my further concern is that the call to be faithful to “unity” not replace the call to be faithful to the Gospel. Luther exhorts us, in his explanation to the First Commandment, to have no other God but God. His interpretation is that “we are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” I must question whether those who value unity so highly might not be violating Luther’s understanding of God’s first command to us. I acknowledge that Holy Cross’s actions may leave some people feeling without a spiritual church home - a heart-wrenching feeling, certainly - but the call to be faithful to the gospel, and to love and trust God above all things, must take precedence. Unity is not our God.

Bishop Pryse, I believe that you were called for leadership in the Eastern Synod and that you have been given gifts to fulfill your vocation. I consider it a privilege to call you my bishop. In this spirit, I respectfully urge you, as you seek to fulfill your administrative responsibilities faithfully, to continue to give heed to the Holy Spirit as you consider the disciplinary options before you. I exhort you to extend as much grace in the actions you take as God has extended to you and to all sinners, trusting in God above all things.

The steadfast promise of God’s will towards us, the new life granted to us through Jesus Christ, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit be with you.

In Christ,
Kayko Driedger Hesslein

cc: Holy Cross, Newmarket
ELCIC National Bishop

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pentecost 2008 - University Lutheran Chapel

So, here we are, in the last days, with the Spirit of Pentecost being poured out upon all flesh. Our sons and daughters are prophesying, our young are seeing visions and our old are dreaming dreams. And in this congregation, in this city, and even in this Synod, what they are prophesying about, visioning and dreaming about, is justice. Whether it’s justice for LGBT people, justice for refugees and immigrants, justice for the victims of war, or justice for the poor and marginalized, the Holy Spirit is certainly stirring in this day and age, moving us to make God’s reign a reality.

I know it doesn’t always seem like it. It’s very easy to take in all of the things that are going on in the world and to get depressed by it all. LGBT people are not able to expect the same rights and respect as heterosexuals, being denied marriage in this country, even being denied the right to live in others. Refugees and immigrants around the world are in no country treated in a just manner, being viewed instead as some kind of plague and drain on a country’s resources, and treated accordingly. War, well war continues to create and foster all kinds of injustice on both the winners and the losers, and the war machine seems as if it’s too large and complex to even begin to stop. The poor and marginalized are subjected to injustices every day, not the least of which is a denial of their rights and a removal of the power to decide the course of their own lives. The systems of injustice in which we live are so complex that any attempt to rectify things seems not only hopelessly complicated, but hopelessly fruitless as well.

Especially for the individual. Justice work can be incredibly exhausting for people, for individuals, and eventually that annoying, frustrating, but ultimately understandable question arises: But what can one person really do? It’s a valid question - one person really can’t do very much in the larger scheme of things. Yes, there are those heroes, like Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi, and others whose personal commitment actually changed the course of history and brought justice to hundreds of thousands. But those people are exceptions. Most of us actually find ourselves legitimately unable to change what seems like a never-ending fight for the rights of others. The hours are long, the obstacles keep popping up one after another - it might be okay if we were dealing with other individuals, but when we’re dealing with a system, it can often feel like we are bashing our heads against brick walls trying to move anything forward. It’s exhausting and it’s lonely.

But it is not meant to be. That is, we are not meant to struggle individually and alone in our work of realizing God’s reign, and doing so might even by a drawback. Now, I realize that sounds a bit contradictory to American ears that are used to hearing constant messages relating to the empowerment of the individual. Self-help books, do-it-yourself websites - these are popular ways of strengthening one’s individual capabilities. Privatized health insurance, 401Ks to supplement Social Security - these are other ways that this country shows its value for the individual over the group. But even putting aside the secular world, as Lutherans we are at the forefront of valuing the individual over the group. Lutherans are the ones who first made the point that God’s relationship is with us as individuals. Luther’s Small Catechism makes it clear that Jesus has redeemed me, that the Holy Spirit gives faith to me. Even the Apostle’s Creed is about what I believe. It isn’t until we get to the Nicene Creed that we hear the corporate we. There is a definite sense of the individual in our religious and secular cultures - and I would go so far as to say that it is hindering the work the Holy Spirit is trying to do in the world.

And I say this because what I see in our Scripture readings for this morning is an emphasis on the larger group. In 1 Corinthians we heard that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” God gives God’s gifts for the good of all people. Not so that we can go out and be Christian heros, so that we can single-handedly save the Church, or transform society or fix the world. In fact, the way God sends those gifts, it’s not even possible for one person to go out and do those things on their own. It takes all of the gifts of God combined to start bringing the reign of God to reality, because not a single one of us gets every single one of those gifts. Some of us get one, others get another, others get something completely different. Paul used the image of a body, with some being eyes, and some ears, and some even being the “clothed members.” Only by working together, with the eyes and the legs and all the parts each doing their bit, can the body actually make something happen. So it is only with all these various gifts actually working together that we can actually make something happen.

We see this particularly in our first reading, too, in the Pentecost story. Now, I don’t know how familiar you are with the scholarly treatment of this passage, but there are some scholars who see the Pentecost story as a literary reversal of the Tower of Babel story. You remember Babel, right, in Genesis 11? A bunch of people decide to build a tower so high that they can reach the heavens, and they’re almost at the top when God says, “Oops, that’s high enough!” and changes their common language into a bunch of different ones so that they can’t understand each other and can’t continue on with their common goal. They’re forced to work alone, and so they can’t accomplish anything. Well, some scholars believe that in the Pentecost story, we see God reversing the effects of Babel. God takes a bunch of people who can’t understand one another, and who are at odds in their mission to serve the world, and unites them in the one common language of the Spirit, whereupon they are finally able to come together and begin serving the poor and carrying out the mission that Christ has sent them to do. So what we have here, like we had in 1 Corinthians, is a clear indication that when God sends the Spirit, it’s to a group of people. It’s not to individuals, so they can go off and do their own thing, it’s to the group of people, so that they can work together for God’s reign.

And this is a blessing, this Holy Spirit’s privileging of the group over the individual. It is a blessing because, while God doesn’t remove responsibility for the way we use our own individual gifts, God does remove from each of us the crushing responsibility of the bigger picture. The burden of trying to bring about justice at every turn, of carrying the pain of the world on our own, only human shoulders, is claimed by God, so that rather than being overwhelmed to the point of paralysis by the work that has to be done, we can stand with one another and take the necessary steps together, blessed by what the Holy Spirit has given to us as a group. Some are given the gift of helping us to worship. Some are given the gift of teaching. Some are given the usually-considered-unglamourous gift of administration. Some are even given the gift, like Thomas at the end of John, of skepticism. Every Christian is given a gift of the Spirit, every one here has something particular to contribute to enabling the reign of God to come about, even if that gift is to just show up faithfully Sunday after Sunday and worship with everyone else. Every gift works with every other one, and the Holy Spirit blesses the results.

Now I want to end by saying that I’m not forgetting that for this particular congregation, it just so happens to be a sabbatical year. So what is this church, this gathered group with all its individuals and various gifts, supposed to do? Ah, well, that’s the question that I don’t quite have the answer to. But if I had to, I would hazard a guess that for this congregation, which is particularly gifted with the passion and strength for justice work, with bringing about the reign of God for all people, for this congregation it might be important to actively pursue that sabbath rest. For one, it allows other congregations to exercise what gifts they might have in this area, gifts that they might have overlooked because someone else was taking care of things. But for another, this deliberate movement towards doing nothing is a good way to make sure that we are not, in fact, acting as an individual congregation, believing that the future of justice lies in our individual work. It is a good way to step back and to trust that in the group, in the larger body of the Church of Christ, the Spirit is continuing to move and continuing to ensure that God’s mission is being carried through. Then, when the year is done, we can return, refreshed for God’s work, using our gifts so that others may rest. This is also the work of the body of Christ - this is the way we, by the help of the Holy Spirit, brings God’s reign of justice to life. This, too, is Pentecost. Amen.