Sunday, November 30, 2014

November 30, 2014 - Advent 1 - Ambivalent Waiting

Generally speaking, I love Advent. I love getting the house decorated for Christmas, I love thinking about the presents I'm going to get for my family, I love planning for when I'm going to bake Christmas cookies. I like playing Advent and Christmas music, and putting up Christmas lights - although not a on a weekend like this - and taking the kids out to special events that only happen this time of year. I love Advent because I know that it's leading to Christmas Eve. Which I also love. The candles on Christmas Eve, getting together with family for a Christmas meal, watching the children open their presents from Santa - there is no time quite as special as Christmas. And so I love Advent. I love to just immerse myself in the waiting and the preparation and the anticipation, knowing that Christmas is coming at the end.

But Advent is not that easy. Advent - at least as it’s developed in the church over the past two thousand years - is not as simple as waiting for Christmas. Advent is also about waiting for Christ to come again - by which we mean the last day, the Day of Judgement, the day of the Lord, 'the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory,' the end of everything as we know it. During the season of Advent, we Christians live with two timeframes. We have the immediate timeframe of the calendar year that starts in January and ends in Christmas. But we also live with God's timeframe, that starts in Creation and ends in ... what? Well, we don't quite know what God's Creation ends with, and that’s what makes the Godly timeframe of Advent so hard. It's difficult for us to imagine Creation ending, partly because it's something so large we can't grasp it in our heads, and partly because we can't really imagine what might possibly exist if there is no more existence as we know it.

And the texts today are not particularly helpful. The readings, like Advent itself, are ambivalent. I love that word - ambivalent. I used to think that it meant not caring - like, I'm ambivalent about which side of the bed I sleep on - I don't really care. But then I found out that ambivalent means two (ambi) powers (valent), and that it really means feeling powerfully attracted to and repelled by something at the same time. Being ambivalent about which side of the bed I sleep on doesn't mean I don't care, it means I have very powerful reactions towards both sides. (Which probably wouldn't be good for my husband.) And our Advent readings for today are ambivalent. They elicit two very different and very powerful reactions when we think of "the end." They make Advent, and all periods of waiting, very complicated.


This weekend I was at a conference in San Diego for the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature. This conference happens every year, where 11,000 scholars who study religion and the Bible meet and present their current research. So it's a conference where 11,000 people get together who view the world through a religious lens - mostly Christians, but also Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, and the list goes on. And, as you might expect amongst all of these people who study religion, pretty much all of them are concerned with ethics. We are concerned with the ways we live in the world, and with issues of justice, and with how humans can make (or fail to make) the world a better place for everyone.

And at this conference, there were two issues that came up that seem to me to be directly related to Advent - to this ambivalent time of waiting for God. And these are both quite fresh in my mind, and I haven't had time yet to really work out what these two things mean for the church, so I hope you’ll forgive me if what I say doesn't quite come out clearly. I want to talk about the first issue today, and hopefully get to the second one next week.

The first issue that presented itself came through the President of the American Academy of Religion, Laurie Zoloft. Dr. Zoloft talked about climate change. Specifically, she talked about how climate change is a non-negotiable, and how it is happening right now, and how regardless of what we do right now, the future of this planet has been irreversibly changed by human consumption. There is no longer any hope that we can reverse or eliminate climate change. There is only hope that we can minimize some of its worst consequences. Dr. Zoloft quoted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's words, "Time is not on our side," and talked about the devastating effects of climate change that are already taking place, particularly in poorer countries and amongst more vulnerable populations. And Dr. Zoloft warned us that living the way we are currently doing will not only increase changes in the literal world as we know it, but is an unethical and immoral way of living. Living the way we are right now increases the suffering of people living today and increases the suffering of the generations to come - of our children and their children and their children. The world my grandchildren will live in - the world your great-great grandchildren will live in - will look nothing like the world we remember. When it comes to climate change, the end is coming. The end is very near, actually, if it is not already upon us.

So on the one hand, we have God’s promise to be with us always, we have the promise that the kingdom of heaven will come down to earth, and that God will redeem us and all of creation through Jesus Christ. And on the other hand, we have the scientific evidence that the climate is already changing, that global food production is threatened and will likely collapse entirely, that homes are being wiped out, and that our energy consumption is going to kill us. This makes us somewhat ambivalent about the end. (And we can’t preach that God will work a miracle and magically change the climate and everything will go back to the way it was - God has never worked that way.) So we look towards a future of life and a future of death simultaneously. We wait in ambivalence.

But what do we do? You see, the question is not so much which future we believe in, but rather what we ought to do in this time of waiting. The challenge of being a Christian, facing the irrefutable science of climate change, while living during this time of Advent - Christ has come, Christ will come again - is that of waiting. In light of this particular issue, and in light of all times of waiting where we know life will end, and where we yet are not ready to immediately lay down and die, how do we live in this ambivalent period of waiting? Well, Dr. Zoloft suggested that, first of all, we don't give up. That is, we don't ignore the warnings and continue to live as if everything is okay, or, on the flip side, as if nothing we do matters. What we do matters. Even if we can't change the outcome for the planet, what we do matters. Because how we live in this moment prepares us, and prepares those around us, to meet the end. How we live in the moment says something about us and about how we understand our relationship with the world and our relationship with God. And so Dr. Zoloft recommended that we act *as if* we make a difference. That we change our habits, that we look at our own practices, and that we start thinking outwardly. And what I understand Dr. Zoloft to be saying is that although we can't change the future - although we’ve missed the opportunity to stop climate change - we can change the present. We can change how we live now, and how we interact with our environment right now. We can, by changing our habits and looking towards our community and future generations, make a difference not only in the degree of climate change, but equally importantly, in our level of concern for one another and for those to come. 

Because it does matter. How you live right now matters. How you show that God loves the world, and that God loves those in the world, matters. How you live now shouldn't change depending on whether the end is tomorrow, or next year, or not for another five generations. God is not waiting to love the world in the future, God is not waiting to love us only at the end. God sent Jesus Christ to us because God loves the world now. In the present. And so it’s only today that confronts us. It's today where God comes to meet us, and it's today where we embody God's love for one another. We care for one another, and for whoever is to come, by curbing our consumption, reducing our waste, and caring for God’s creation, in whatever small or large ways we can. Today. 

Because we are a people living in Advent. Which means that we are looking to the future of both death and life, and that such a forward focus shapes how we act today. It shapes how we wait. And we wait securely in the promise that Jesus Christ was born as the embodiment of God on earth, and that we therefore live as if God’s presence in the world means something today, and that we are the new embodiments of God’s presence. We live as if what we do matters, not because we will change the timing of the master returning, but because we trust that God’s love is at work in the world, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

November 16, 2014 - Death, the church, and New Life

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90: 1-12
1 Thess 5:1-11
Matt 25:14-30

So this is a confusing parable, just like last week’s was, so I’m going to clarify something right off the bat and say that this is not a parable about money. It is not about trusting in the banking system, or about how to make wise financial investments. Jesus talks about giving five talents to a person, and what is important to know is that a talent was an extraordinary amount of money. It was the equivalent of two or three year’s worth of wages. So when the master gives his slave five talents, he is giving him ten or fifteen years worth of wages. The exaggeration and hyperbole in this parable is intentional, and is the clue that tells us not to take this parable literally. This story may be about investing, but it is not about money.

It is about what it means to be disciples who are entrusted with the message of Christ. The point of this parable is that God has entrusted us with something of great value, and expects us to do something with it. This thing of great value, these talents, these wages, is the kingdom of heaven. God entrusts us with the kingdom of heaven, which means that God is expecting us to proclaim the message of the Gospel. The message that - out of great love for us - our sins are forgiven and God continues to hold us in close relationship. The kingdom of heaven, the talents that God has given us, the message that we are supposed to tell people about, and that we are supposed to live out every day, is that God loves the people God has created. That God, through Christ, does not allow our sins to get in the way of God’s love and care for us.

But somewhere along the way, we got confused about this. Somewhere in the past two thousand years, Christians have gotten confused about what it is that God has given us. Christians have become the third slave, and we have come to believe that God is harsh and to be feared, and that we will have to account for ourselves when God comes again. Of course, it doesn’t help that we hear passages like our first reading in Zephaniah, which does indeed talk about God as a fearsome warrior who will bring wrath and devastation and distress. This passage of Zephaniah was written as Israel was under siege by occupying forces, and at a period when it looked like absolutely everything would be lost. Zephaniah and his people feared death - they lost sight of the goodness of God, and so all they could think about was their own fear. I know that you’ve all had times like that - times when you were so afraid that you couldn’t possibly imagine that God would bring new life to the situation. And if you had written down something at that point in your life, it would have sounded like this first reading. But what we forget when we hear this passage is that it does not represent the whole story. The book of Zephaniah actually ends with what we know to be true about God - that God does not actually leave God’s people in ruin and destruction. The end of the book says, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!  ... The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; ... says the Lord.”

But, in our fear, we forget this message. And right now, we’re afraid. The church is afraid. There is a lot of talk right now about declining membership in churches, and about the declining numbers of clergy, and about congregations dying and closing. Churches, like this one, that were once filled from front pew to back, with Sunday school rooms packed with noisy children, where grandparents, parents, and children all went to church together, these churches are disappearing. And when we look around and see empty pews, and no Sunday school, and aging members, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who don’t go to church on Sunday morning, we get afraid. We become afraid that God will hold us accountable for what has happened to the church - to these talents that God has given us - and that God is going to be unhappy. We become afraid that we are going to die and end up in the outer darkness.

And so what do we do? How do we act in this fear? Because it’s not a groundless fear. That is, the numbers don’t lie. I’m not going to give you stories about the amazing new programs that churches are doing elsewhere, or tell you about congregations that are buying up property to build new churches. These stories do exist, but the truth is that by and large, the numbers of people attending church are dropping. These amazing stories are the exception, not the rule. The religious landscape has shifted significantly in the past thirty years, not just for Christians, but for all religious institutions.

So what do we do in the face of this? How do we act? Historically, when people are afraid of dying, they hunker down. And that’s what’s happening these days. Congregations are struggling to save themselves, and we have done it by battening down the hatches, tightening our belts, and staying the course. Congregations who are afraid of dying typically tighten the budget, hold onto what they have, and hope to make it through alright. Yes, there are the occasional attempts to introduce new programs, or to bring in a new pastor who will (hopefully) attract a younger crowd, but these are small risks. These are still conservative moves in the broad scheme of things. These actions are still aimed at protecting the congregation as we know it. We do not, like the first and second slaves, take everything we have and trade it - gamble it, actually - in the hopes of getting even more back. As we all know, it is foolish to take everything you have and gamble it away in the hopes of getting more back. That is just too risky, and we won’t risk gambling away the life of the congregation. Instead, we act conservatively and try to protect what we have. We dig a hole in the the ground and hide to keep things safe.

There are two problems with this, though. And please know that I am not talking just about what is happening here at St. John. What is going on here is what is going on in hundreds, if not thousands, of other congregations - in the Lutheran church and in other denominations - throughout Canada and the United States. Congregations everywhere are struggling to survive and are fearful in the face of death. So please don’t think that you are alone in what is happening here. The two problems with this congregation’s approach, and with all of these other congregation’s approaches, speak to a bigger problem within the Christian church in general.

The first problem is that we Christians have somehow managed to confuse what it is that God has actually given us. I started by talking about the message that we have been given to proclaim - that God has entrusted us with sharing the gospel of God’s love for us. But just now, I was talking about the survival of the congregations and the church. You see, somewhere along the way, Christians started mixing up God’s message with the institution of the church. Particularly in the twentieth century, and now in the twenty-first century, we have come to think that the church - by which I mean the collection of congregations - is what we have been entrusted with. We have confused the buildings with the gospel. We have confused the excitement and energy of people gathered on Sunday morning to worship with the gospel. You see, the talent  - the thing of great worth that God has given us - is not this building, or this property, or the Lutheran Church, or what we would call the institutional church. The thing we have been entrusted with is the message, not the building. God has given us the gospel that God loves us. God did not give us the building, or the congregation, or the Lutheran church. And yet we have spent inordinate amounts of time and energy and resources trying to protect buildings and organizations. Yes, these buildings and organizations have helped us to share God’s message with others, but they are not the message itself. We are called to protect the message, not the buildings.

The second problem is that in our confusion over what God has actually given us, we have become afraid to risk anything. The point of today’s Gospel parable is that God is calling us to risk what God has given us. God is calling us to risk proclaiming the love of God to everyone we can - to trade it out in public. And risk sounds awfully scary and like a good way to lose what we have been given. The thing is, though, that because God is calling us to do this, it is not actually a risk. We are not actually gambling, because we are certain of the outcome. God has fixed the game, as it were. When we risk proclaiming the gospel - the true treasure we have been given, God has promised to give us a return on our investment. The first slave risked five talents, and got back double that. When we risk proclaiming God’s love, that love is received and returned double. Forgiveness and God’s love is proclaimed, and returned double. The master in the parable was angry because the last slave was worried about getting in trouble. He didn’t trust his master and so he buried what he had been given. We, too, have lost trust in God and started burying what we have been given. Mistaking the message for the buildings, and believing that God is calling us to protect and bury what we have been given, we have ended up burying the proclamation of God within the walls of the congregations.

You know, I struggle with the last verse of our gospel reading for today. “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I struggle with what kind of God would do this, because it is so contrary to what we know of God’s love. But one of the things that I can’t help thinking is that we are already in this outer darkness. I can’t help thinking that we, in what we call the mainline Protestant churches, are already sitting in the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing our teeth because we have lost everything. The congregations are dying and Christianity as an organized religion is, too. We buried the gospel when we tried to avoid risk and when we protected the church as we know it. And so we are here, weeping and gnashing our teeth.

But I will tell you something else. I also know that Jesus is in this outer darkness, and that Jesus died in this outer darkness. Jesus is out here with us, as we weep and gnash our teeth over the survival of the church and the loss of the gospel. Jesus died out here with us, and - more importantly - Jesus was raised to new life from out of this darkness.

I know this because this is also part of the message that God has entrusted to us. That, because God loves us, God brings us new life and raises us out of the darkness. This is why we do not need to be afraid, and this is why we can risk everything to proclaim the gospel, and this is why we can stop struggling to hold onto congregations or even denominations. Because even if we die, or rather, even when we die, we know that God brings new life. When we risk everything and die, then we are fully proclaiming the message that God has given us - love in the face of fear, light in the darkness and new life in death. When we risk everything and face the possibility of death, it is then that we are investing God’s treasure as we are meant to, and it is then that we see new life. Not the new life of a congregation, and maybe not even the new life of an institutional church, but the new life of the message that Christ proclaims to us, the words of our second reading from Paul, “For God has destined [you] not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who dies for us, so that whether [you] are awake or asleep [you] may live with him.” Thanks be to God. Amen. 

All Saints Sunday, November 2, 2014 - Communion as the Reward of the Saints

Revelation 7.9-17
Psalm 34. 1-10, 22
1 John 3.1-3
Matthew 5. 1-12

Walter Mosimann, Kay Stuckart, Douglas Campbell, Rosalie Mutschall, Kay Barnes, Martha Lee, Wilma Olson, and Philip Sorg. These are the saints of this congregation who went to be with the Lord this year, and whom we remember today particularly in our prayers. 

If you were at the funeral services of any of them, you would have heard many details about their saintly lives, and about how they were committed Christians who always did good and never harmed a soul. You would have heard about all of their wonderful characteristics, and about the struggles that these saints had overcome, and about the great things they did in their life, and about how they are now experiencing their reward and rest in heaven, saints before the heavenly throne. And although I never met any of these saints, I’m certain that all of it is true. 

I’m also certain that’s not all there was to their lives. Because funeral sermons so rarely give us the whole truth. At funerals, we don’t hear about the big mistakes that the saints have made, or their biggest regrets. We don’t hear about who they hurt along the way, or about any of their failures or shortcomings. As the saying goes, we don’t speak ill of the dead.

And so what happens at funerals, and then what happens on days like today, All Saints’ Day, is that we hear about these wonderful, saintly lives, and then we leave feeling somewhat inadequate. We think about our own lives, and about how unsaintly they are. We think about our own mistakes, we mull over our own regrets, we think about our failures and shortcomings, and about the people we know (or suspect) we’ve hurt along the way. We often feel like we should be doing something, living more full Christian lives, helping the church more, the way these saints did. We feel guilty that we aren’t doing more to be better Christians, as these saints so clearly were. And the longer we live, the more funerals we attend, and the more we reflect on whether we have done enough with our lives. Whether our lives are equal to those of the saints, and whether we ought to have done more. There’s some irony there, actually. The older you get, the more funerals you attend, and the more you feel that you should be doing something as a good Christian, which all starts happening at the same time that you find yourself less and less able to do all of these things. Paul said that he had “run the good race,” but, unlike a typical race, which speeds up as you get closer to the end, in the race of life, we all find ourselves slowing down as the finish line draws closer and closer. And so, when we go to these funerals of the saints, and hear about their lives and about the saintly reward they have now earned, we wonder about whether we, too, have done enough, and are doing enough, to receive this reward.

Well, one of the most important Christian traditions at funerals is to reflect on baptism. We don’t do this because it offers some nice symmetry - at the end of life we return to the beginning. We do it because baptism is at the heart of the Christian life. In our first reading, from the Book of Revelation, we heard that the multitude gathered before the throne “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” And as much as I’d love to get into that powerful imagery that washing in red blood makes us white, the point of this verse for today is that this multitude are washed. They are washed in the blood of the Lamb, and what the writer of Revelation is saying, is that they have been baptized. This is a reference to baptism. The saints are gathered before the throne of God because they have been baptized.

Which is really important. Because as our second reading, the first letter from John, emphasizes, baptism is a once and for all thing that is not our thing to do, but God’s. The first letter from John says, “we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. ... Beloved, we are God’s children.” What we proclaim in baptism is that becoming a saint is not about what we do, it’s about who we are. And the particularly wonderful thing about Lutheran baptism, is that it happens to most of us when we are babies. We have absolutely no choice in the matter, and  so it is very clear that baptism is not something we have done - most of us just probably flailed around and maybe cried a bit, since babies don’t do much else. Infant baptism is a tangible reminder to us that our Christian lives as saints do not begin with doing. We are baptized. We are. There isn’t any doing in “are.” Our saintly lives begin with be-ing. We are. We be.

And when our saintly lives and reward depend on who we are, and not on what we do, the kind of lives we live become irrelevant. The things we have done, or not done, come to no account. Whatever big mistakes we have made, or regrets we have (because we all have them), whatever failures we have amassed, whatever injuries we have caused to others (because we have all done that), these are part of our saintly life. Because we are baptized (I don’t like to say that we “have been” baptized - it sounds like something that happened only in the past and has no relevance for today), because we are baptized we live in that state of baptism every day, and every day that we live is as one of the saints.

So where, then, is our reward? Do we really have to wait until we die? Is it not enough to have lived through the “great ordeal” of life - which, by the way, when Revelation mentions the “great ordeal” they are talking about life and about the tragedies and deaths of everyday life that we experience. So, where is our reward? 

One of the biggest misunderstandings about the Book of Revelation, and there are a lot of them, but one of them is that this book is talking about something that is going to happen in the future. But it’s actually talking about what is happening right now. Now, I’m not talking about any kind of apocalyptic conspiracy theory, “these are the times” that this magic book is talking about. No. The book of Revelation is speaking to people now, in that it is speaking to every reader through the ages, and through the centuries. Particularly, the book of Revelation is a book of comfort that tells us that no matter what you are going through now, no matter what ordeal you are going through now, your reward is also now. We see this particularly at the very end of Revelation, when the writer talks about the city of God with its heavenly temple coming down to earth to create the New Jerusalem. This is not something that is going to happen in the future. This is happening now. This is the writer’s proclamation that, in the midst of whatever grief or hunger or thirst for righteousness, or whatever persecution or ordeal you are experiencing, the Lamb of God is bringing the kingdom of heaven and its saintly reward down to you right now. There is more symmetry here - as we proclaim Christ lifted up on the cross and then ascending into heaven, we also proclaim the kingdom of heaven coming down to earth. The reward of the saints - your reward - is now.

So what, exactly, is this reward? 1 John says that our reward is that we will be like God. Matthew says that the reward is the relief of the things that oppress us, of the things that make our lives an ordeal. The reward is comfort in the midst of mourning, the gift of the earth to those who are meek, being filled with righteousness to those who have had to hunger and thirst for it. The reward is mercy to those who are merciful, and visions of God to those who are pure in heart. The reward is peace to those who are children of God. (And notice, please, how these are all things that people are and not things that they do.) Revelation says that the reward of the saints is that they will be sheltered from oppression, and, most importantly, that their reward is to stand in the city of God and to worship in the heavenly temple.

And what is this worship, exactly? Look to the front of the church. What do you see? Closest to you is the baptismal font, the heart of our faith, a reminder that you are a saint because of who you are and not because of what you do. Then you see the altar. You see the elements of communion, the place where you hear the grace of God through Christ proclaimed. If baptism is at the heart of our faith, communion is at the heart of our worship. Every Sunday when you come to worship, we celebrate communion - the Word of God in the bread and wine, the foretaste of the feast to come. Communion is the kingdom of heaven come down to earth for a brief few minutes. Communion is where all the saints are gathered, and where we are united with every Christian across time and space. If you could step outside of time and see every communion ever celebrated, past, present, and future, you would see “the multitude before the throne of the Lamb, praising God.”

Your reward, then, for being a saint, for being baptized, is to experience the comfort and fulfillment and mercy and peace of communion. Your reward is that you are freed from having to do anything at all but to come forward and receive. You do not have to do anything, just be. In the bread and wine, God gives you comfort and fulfillment and mercy and peace. Because communion is where you leave behind all of the things you have to do, and where you just be. 
And as you be, God grants you the forgiveness that God has granted all the saints and that God has granted to all of the saints of the congregation whose names I read earlier. Your comfort is here, righteousness is here, mercy is here, peace is here, Christ is here. For all the saints. For you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sun, October 26, 2014 - Reformation Sunday - Freed to Relate to God

Jeremiah 31.31-34; Romans 3.19-28; John 8.31-36

In the book of Jeremiah from our first reading, we hear Jeremiah proclaiming that God is going to put a new covenant in the hearts of people, so that they can develop a relationship with God that comes from within each person, rather than from some rules developed by someone else. Jeremiah was reacting to the pressure of the priests of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. In Israel during Jeremiah’s time, there was a tendency towards exclusivity when it came to worshipping God. Israelites were being told that the only legitimate place to worship God was in the Temple in Jerusalem. Even though there was a Temple in Samaria, and one in Elephantine in Egypt, and even though the Israelites had their own thriving religious practice in their homes, the priests of Israel insisted that the only way to worship God - the only way to have a relationship with God - was by worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem. If you didn’t live in Jerusalem, too bad - you would have to make your way there at least once a year. That the priests demanding religious conformity of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem were working at the Temple in Jerusalem was not lost on Jeremiah, or on many of the prophets. But that didn’t stop the priests. They insisted there was only one way to worship God. Only one way to develop a relationship with God.
This attempt at what I call religious conformity is behind Paul’s writing in Romans, too. I mentioned last week that the early Christian communities were struggling with the mix of Christians who were Jewish and Christians who were Gentiles - non-Jewish. And this comes out in this letter - the Jewish Christians thought that the Gentile Christians should conform to the religious practice of Judaism - namely, circumcision - in order to be Christian. The Jewish-Christians were arguing that followers of Christ could obtain righteousness only by developing a Jewish relationship with God, Father and Son. They insisted that there was only one way to develop a relationship with God. They insisted on religious conformity - conforming to a single religious practice.
Today is Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate our Lutheran history as a denomination that protests this very thing. Our readings for today emphasize the problems that come when we try to force people to practice their religion in one uniform way. As we hear so often in the Lutheran church, early on in Luther’s life, the Roman Catholic priesthood were insisting that church services be in Latin, and that the Bible be translated only into Latin. Their insistence on this was how they controlled access to God - after all, only priests could read Latin. Regular people couldn’t read or understand it, and so they relied on the priests to tell them what the Bible said and they went to church so that the priests could perform the proper rituals - in Latin - that would guarantee forgiveness of sins and establish their relationship with God. Prior to Luther’s reformation, priests in the medieval Roman Catholic church insisted that there was only one way to develop a relationship with God.

But, thanks be to God, we celebrate on Reformation Sunday that God does not actually demand religious conformity. God does not insist on only one way of developing a relationship with God. In fact, we see God resisting these ideas. In our first reading, we hear Jeremiah proclaiming that God, in fact, is putting God’s covenant in the hearts of the Israelites, so that they no longer are bound by the rules of the priests in the Temple. God’s very own actions speak against the demand for exclusive worship at the Temple, and God resists the demand for only one way of relating to God.
And in the letter to the Romans, Paul is very clear to emphasize that the Christians in Rome are free to worship as they wish - the Gentile Christians are not bound to worship as the Jewish Christians do. Gentile Christians can have a relationship with God that is not based on Jewish requirements - their relationship is “apart from the law,” as Paul says. Their relationship with God is determined by God, and not by human interpretations of God’s words to another people.
And Luther, dear Luther, reformed the church when he proclaimed that God did not need the priesthood in order to develop relationships with Christians. Luther insisted that the Bible and the services be in local languages, so that people could interpret the Bible for themselves, and participate in worship on their own, and develop relationships with God that weren’t mediated by someone else. Luther’s insistence that individuals are free to develop relationships with God completely apart from the priesthood is at the core of our Reformation celebrations, and something that we Lutherans continue to hold dear. God resists, and we protest, any attempt to force religious conformity and any argument that says that there is only one way in which people can have a relationship with God. Go, Luther.

But. But before we launch into a rousing version of The Church’s One Foundation, it’s important to take a minute and see if we really are living out this message of religious freedom that we are so quick to claim. Because Christians, like everyone else, sometimes (often) have a gap between what we say and what we do, and when we don’t recognize that, we fall into it. Paul, for instance, despite his insistence that Christians are freed from Jewish practice to develop their own relationship with God, nevertheless was pretty clear that the only way to a relationship with God was through Christ. And Paul was insistent that everyone becomes followers of Jesus. Those who didn’t would live lives of ruin and misery. (That’s from verse 16, right before our reading starts.) But Paul is ignoring his own words that it is God who develops relationships with people - God is the one who brings people to God, in God’s own way. We are not supposed to judge another’s relationship to God, and we are definitely not supposed to judge the path they take to get there. In fact, we all know individuals who live incredible lives of good deeds and selflessness and who are deeply spiritual, but who aren’t Lutheran. Or even Christian. These people have deep relationships with God that exist outside of the church. Do we judge them? Do we insist that they must relate to God in the boundaries of the church, do we insist on religious conformity and that there is only one way to have a relationship with God?
Again, we have to look at that gap between what we proclaim - religious freedom - and what we do. The writer of the Gospel of John frequently fell into that gap when it came to the Jews. John was constantly bashing Jews, and constantly arguing that they should repent of their ways and follow Jesus. He frequently implies that Jews should worship God through Jesus - that they should convert to Christianity - ignoring that Jews actually already have their very own solid relationship with God. John insisted that the only way to a relationship with God was through Jesus, completely ignoring that Jesus himself related to God as the Jewish God - the God of Abraham and Isaac, and that Jesus himself never called his followers to abandon their Jewish faith.
Even this very Sunday - Reformation Sunday - can be a time when we fall into that gap between proclaiming freedom from religious conformity and pushing for it. All too often, Reformation Sunday, in the Lutheran church, become a day of Catholic-bashing. We can get a little too carried away proclaiming how awful those Roman Catholics were, and continue to be, with their priests and their Latin and their strict rules about baptism and communion. And we forget what we proclaim - that everyone is free to worship God in their own way - that they are free to develop their own relationship with God - even if that way is Roman Catholic. The truth is that God frees us to practice our religion in whatever way brings us closer to God, whether that way is Lutheran, Roman Catholic, or something else.
This truth of the Reformation needs to be celebrated more often than just once a year. Because we so easily forget it. We start insisting that there is only one way to worship, or only one way to have a service. We insist that only members can come to Communion, or that only Christian families can baptize their babies. We insist that Communion can only be celebrated one way, or that only pastors can preach. Even pastors forget this. We insist that only certain people can be leaders in the church, or we insist that parishioners agree with us on every theological issue. We demand religious conformity, and we establish requirements about what kinds of relationships with God are acceptable.

But that’s not how God works. Jeremiah and Paul and Luther and Jesus himself remind us that we are free. We are free to develop our own relationship with God, in the manner that is most meaningful for us. Why? Because, as Luther reminded us, God is the one at work in these relationships. God, not us, is the one developing the relationship with you. This is not the work of Paul, or John, or even Luther. Jeremiah was right - God is the one who put God’s covenant in your heart, God is the one who sent the Holy Spirit to you in baptism. God is the one who calls you to God, and God is the one who moves you to worship. Your relationship is the work of God, not of humans.
As it turns out, John was right, too - the Truth will make you free - Jesus proclaims that you are free to develop your own relationship with God, just as Jesus did, either inside or outside the institution. Paul was right - you are free to develop your own religious practices because you are made righteous through God’s work, and not your own. And Luther was right - you are free to worship God without going through the pastor, or through the congregation, or through the denomination. (Of course, the congregation of believers is a really great place to be supported in that relationship, but you don’t have to go to church to have a relationship with God.)

What we celebrate today is that God has freed you to develop your own relationship with God, however you want - either in the church or out of it, through traditional means or contemporary ones. You are free to relate to God as a Father or as a Mother, free to be Catholic or Lutheran or something else entirely. You are free to agree with your pastor or to disagree. What we celebrate today is that you are freed from the need to conform, through the work of Jesus Christ. Your relationship with God is as unique as you are, and it is called into being and nurtured by God, who calls all people to love and freedom. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sun, October 19, 2014 - When Relationships Come to an End

Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

About a year ago, the pastor of the church in California where my children and I attended retired. Pastor Sara had been with the congregation about ten years, and we had been there for the last five, and she left to move to Arizona to spend more time with her grandchildren. It was a big moment in the life of that congregation. Ten years is a long time to spend in a parish, and Pastor Sara was an integral part of that church’s identity. The congregation was glad that she was able to spend more time with her grandchildren, and she had certainly worked hard and earned her retirement, but her leaving was still a huge adjustment for everyone.
It was a huge adjustment for me, personally. Pastor Sara was my children’s first pastor. She was their first conduit to a Christian relationship with God, and she was their first church-ly embodiment of the grace of Christ. Through Pastor Sara, my children learned that church - the body of Christ - is a safe and welcoming place, and that God loves them without any judgement or conditions. I myself really liked Pastor Sara, and even though I was a pastor myself and studying a PhD in theology, I learned so much from her about grace. She was my pastor. But primarily, she was my children’s pastor, and her leaving was hard on me because of my kids. I still talk about us “losing” her. Of course, she didn’t die. We didn’t lose her. 
  But isn’t it interesting that when a pastor leaves a congregation, when there is a major transition of this kind, that we sometimes we think of it kind of like a death. After all, there is actual loss. First off, there is the loss of the relationship between the pastor and the congregation. When a pastor leaves, that relationship comes to an end. It’s no longer alive - it’s not a day-to-day thing anymore. This is a big thing to have to get used to. In California, the congregation’s formal relationship with Pastor Sara came to an end. We lost that relationship. Just like when a great-grandparent in a family dies, the relationship of that person to the family-at-large ends. It’s significant.
And on top of the rather large loss of the relationship of the pastor and the congregation, there is also the smaller losses of all the individual relationships that the pastor had with individuals in the congregation. Because of course, each member of the congregation has their own relationship with the pastor. Each of my children had their own relationship with Pastor Sara, just as she and I had our own relationship. Each member in a family has their own particular relationship with the grandparent or great-grandparent who died. And each of these relationships comes to an end when the pastor moves on. The loss of one’s individual relationship with a pastor isn’t on the scale of losing the relationship between the congregation and the pastor, but that doesn’t mean it feels any smaller. Sometimes, an individual’s relationship with their pastor is much deeper than the congregation’s, and the loss can be felt more deeply, too. So, in a way, a pastor leaving a congregation is a bit similar to an important family member passing away. A particular set of relationships comes to an end, and a process of adjusting to a new way of living begins. 

So what does this process of adjustment look like? Well, you may have heard of the five stages of grief that people go through when someone dies, and I think these are more widely applicable to the feelings that people experience during any kind of loss. From things as trivial as losing your glove in the parking lot to as major as losing someone you love. The feelings are: depression and anxiety - where we acknowledge that we will never be the same without that person, and where we wonder, and sometimes worry, about how we will carry on without them. This feeling can be particularly intense for congregations who had a very strong pastor and who feel like their identity was really dependent on that pastor. If a congregation is struggling, they might worry whether losing their pastor will cause them to decline even further. 
Then there’s the feeling of bargaining: wondering if maybe we did something that caused the person to leave and promising not to do it again. Some congregations wonder whether they weren’t supportive enough of their pastor, or if certain individuals drove the pastor away.
Then, there’s feelings of anger: sometimes when we lose someone, we feel angry. Either angry at them - how could they leave us like this? Or angry at other people - how could they have let this pastor go? Or even angry at themselves - why didn’t I do more to keep them here?
The process of adjusting to a pastor leaving can also involve feelings of denial: we’ll be fine! We’ll just get through this interim period and find a new pastor and everything will go back to the way it was! Let’s just get past all these other feelings and get on with it!
And, of course, there are also feelings of acceptance and sometimes even relief: it was the pastor’s time to go, and we’re thankful for the relationship we had with them when they were here, and now we’re going to move on to new things.
Now, these aren’t “stages” of adjusting to loss that we travel through one at a time. That’s often what’s put out there, but it’s not true. All of these feelings come and go, back and forth, at different times. Sometimes some of the feelings are stronger and last longer than others - for me, feelings of depression and anxiety were the strongest when our pastor left - how will my children ever find a new pastor who means so much to them? They’ll never find another church community like that one and they’ll leave the church forever. Sometimes some of the feelings are short and hardly felt at all - I never really had any feelings of bargaining when Pastor Sara retired. Of course, in a congregation where there are so many relationships that come to an end when a pastor leaves, there will also be many feelings, all at the same time. Some people might feel angry while others might feel acceptance while others might feel denial. My children never felt anger about their pastor leaving, or denial, although other people did. Even a single person can experience several of these feelings at the same time.

But these feelings are a normal part of adjusting to the loss of a relationship. Some of these feelings actually figure very strongly into the background of our readings from today. In both the first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures and the gospel reading from Matthew, the writers are struggling intensely with a significant lost relationship. In Isaiah, the land of Israel was invaded by Babylon, and the Israelites were forcibly removed from the land and relocated to Babylon. The first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and with it, their primary means of relating to God. The people of Israel were struggling with that loss, and feelings of depression and bargaining were huge at that time, and profoundly shape the book of Isaiah. In the Gospel of Matthew, the Christians of Matthew’s community were struggling with the loss of their relationship with their Jewish brothers and sisters. At the place and time of the writing of Matthew, Jews were excluding non-Jewish Christians from worship. Matthew’s community felt that loss very deeply, and the feelings that the writer of Matthew felt were primarily those of anger. Accusing the Pharisees of plotting, calling them malicious, and hypocrites, that’s Matthew reacting out of feelings of deep anger. What he writes isn’t particularly Christian, but his feelings are normal reactions to loss.

So how do we, as Christians, live with all these feelings and engage - constructively - in this process of adjustment? Well, obviously that’s going to be something that - in this congregation - we will work through together over the coming months. But, as Christians, the most important thing to remember now and down the road is that God is with us in these times of loss and transition, and that God promises, as God always has, to bring new life. God is present in the midst of all the feelings being processed, God is part of this experience of transition. Amidst the feelings of depression and anxiety, God sends hope. When the Israelites felt abandoned in Babylon, God sent King Cyrus to lead them back to Israel. Amidst the feelings of bargaining and repentance, God promises forgiveness. Amidst the feelings of anger, God is present and promises peaceful resolution. When the writer of Matthew felt intense anger, God was present in those feelings and sent the Holy Spirit to bring reconciliation between Christians and Jews today. And amidst the feelings of denial, God is present in the wish to return to the way things were and then sends the Holy Spirit to reassure us that we are a Pentecost church and that change is a sign of new life. 
My children and I will always be in the process of adjusting to life without Pastor Sara. We developed new relationships with the pastor who came after her, as did the congregation, and there will be further feelings of loss and adjustments when she, too, goes. The same is true of this congregation, as well, and of every congregation whose pastor has ever left. 
The Christian life is founded on the experience of loss. As Christians, we don’t deny that death - of people or of relationships - is a reality. We accept that all things come to an end. We are a people of Good Friday. But just as importantly, the Christian life is founded on the experience of resurrection and new life. Endings are a necessary part of the process of new beginnings, and as previous relationships die, new ones develop. We are equally a people of Easter Sunday. God’s gift to us is in the bringing together of these two things - Good Friday and Easter Sunday. As we remember and celebrate in the Sunday Feast, Christ has died. Christ is risen, and Christ comes again. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

October 5, 2014 - The Joy of the Law

Exodus 20:1-21 - Lutheran Church of the Cross, Calgary

In less than two weeks from now, people from the Jewish faith will celebrate the religious holiday of Simchat Torah. There’s not really any comparable holiday in the Christian faith. It celebrates God giving the Torah - the first five books of the Bible, including - in particular - the Ten Commandments - to Moses on Mount Sinai. On Simchat Torah, Jews gather together, joyfully and with excitement, to dance around the Torah scrolls, because in Judaism, Torah - the Law - is considered one of the blessings of God.
Now, those of us raised solidly in the Lutheran tradition might understandably find this a bit odd. Most of us were taught that the Law of God, including these rather intimidating Ten Commandments, are not really something that we would celebrate. They are the LAW, they are the things that demonstrate how far we fall short of what God wants us to be doing. Those of us who went through Lutheran confirmation class might remember Luther’s Small Catechism. Luther took the Ten Commandments and expanded on what they meant, attaching to each “You shall not” a “You shall do.” For instance, “You shall not murder” becomes “You shall help your neighbour in every bodily need,” so that if your neighbour goes hungry or doesn’t have mitts when it snows, you are murdering her if you do not help. “You shall not steal” becomes, for Luther, a rule that you must “help your neighbour to protect and improve their property and business.” If you see someone breaking into their car and don’t scare the burglar away, and the contents of the car are stolen, according to Luther, you have broken the commandment to not steal. The Ten Commandments are strict guidelines that we must not break. If we do, we can expect to experience God’s full punishment. The idea of celebrating these commandments just seems... odd.
As Lutherans, and as Christians in general, we tend to look down on those who make too much of the law. Legalists, we call them. We bring up stories of Jesus and the Pharisees, and talk about how Jesus came to set aside the Law, which made the Pharisees - who were Jewish - mad. Even Paul in our first reading says it, “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” We make the transition very easily from Law to legalism to Pharisees to death. The passage in the reading that I read that really resonates with this type of thinking says it clearly, “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of the parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.” If I break one of God’s laws, not only will I be punished, but my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, and even my great-great-grandchildren, too.

Did you know that Luther suffered from depression and anxiety? He truly believed that awful things were going to be happen at any moment, and that the devil was really hunting him down. Not symbolically, but really. If you’ve ever suffered from clinical depression or anxiety - and I have - then Luther’s theology and what we believe in the Lutheran church will feel very familiar. The sense that no matter how hard you try, you will never be as good as you should be. The sense that something terrible is lurking around the corner. The panic when something you do goes wrong and everything feels as if it’s about to fall apart. Combine this with the Ten Commandments, and for some people it’s overwhelming. I didn’t give food to the food bank this month, and now underprivileged children in Calgary will go hungry, and I am breaking the commandment not to kill. I found someone’s credit card on the ground in the CTrain parking lot and I didn’t pick it up and report it to the police, and I just broke the commandment to not steal.
Thinking of the Law as punishment and as an indicator of all our failings is exhausting. It makes us harder on ourselves than we need to be - I am not responsible for feeding all of the children in Calgary, and I actually tucked the credit card into the side of the door next to the car where I found it. But I still feel like I didn’t do enough. We become afraid to really truly believe in God’s grace - we have a hard time telling ourselves that it’s okay, or that our actions are good enough. We think of God’s punishment on the third and fourth generations and we want to hide - to deny our sins, like children do when caught in a lie. Because, of course, we seldom like to confess publicly how awful we think we are, and then we do what psychologists call “projecting,” and we project our failures onto others. We become harder on others. We judge others in order to make ourselves feel better. We accuse others of not caring enough, or of not trying hard enough. We blame others for setting up standards that we can’t reach. For instance, we judge the Jews and Pharisees as legalists. We feel resentful towards God’s law.

Well, Luther was able, by the grace of God, to treat his depression and anxiety by turning to the grace given in Christ. He didn’t have medication available to him, like we do now, and towards the end of his life his anxiety turned into paranoia and anti-Semitism, but he still proclaimed grace as the balance to God’s overwhelming and punishing Law.
Which is wonderful. The more grace the better! But Luther wasn’t quite right in his understanding of the Law. (I know! Did I just say that?!?) Luther, coming to the Law through Paul, thought that the Law was oppressive. But that is not how Jews in Jesus’ time, or even today, saw it. That is now how Jesus himself understood God’s law. For one thing, we have the Gospel of Matthew saying that Jesus said, “I come not to abolish the law but to uphold it.” Jesus was Jewish, and like the Jews of his time, he was formed by the Law - by Torah - and by Jewish attitudes towards the Law. And these attitudes are that Torah and the Ten Commandments are a sign of God’s enduring covenant with God’s people. To contrast with the verse that says God will punish the third and fourth generations, we have what immediately follows, “I the Lord your God am ... showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Forget punishment for my great-great-grandchildren if I break a commandment, the thousandth generation after me will receive God’s love if I keep just one! A thousand generations covers about twenty thousand years. That means that if any of your ancestors - grandparents, great-grandparents, anybody in your family going back twenty thousand years - ever loved God and kept the commandments - and there’s got to be at least one person in your family - then you are assured of God’s love for you today. The Ten Commandments are a sign of God’s everlasting commitment - nothing will ever prevent God from staying in relationship with God’s people. Torah and the Ten Commandments are signs of what we Christians like to call grace - God’s promise to never abandon us. Like I said, the more grace, the better!
So, what do we do about Paul, then? I don’t want you to think I’ve forgotten about him. Paul... well, Paul is a challenge for Christians. And in the last twenty years the Christian understanding of Paul has undergone some pretty drastic revisions, due in large part to the input of Jewish scholars teaching us about the Jewish relationship to the Law. And so our understanding of Paul has gone from thinking of him as Luther did - a Jew who rejected the Law and converted to Christianity to proclaim Christ - to thinking of him a little more complexly, as a Jew who continued for his entire life to love the law and who believed that Jews would always be the chosen people of God, but who proclaimed Christ to non-Jews. Gentile Christians - what the first Christians called those who followed Christ but didn’t start out as Jewish (because most of them did) - didn’t think of themselves as being part of the Jewish people, or of being part of God’s covenant with Abraham and Moses, and so they didn’t consider themselves to be part of the community of God’s love. So Paul proclaimed to them that they were loved through Christ. The Jews get God’s grace through Torah - Christians get God’s grace through Jesus. The more grace the better!
But that doesn’t mean that for Christians, the Law is oppressive. For Jews, and for Jesus, and since we call ourselves followers of Jesus, for us, too, the Torah - the Law and the Ten Commandments - are a source of comfort and joy and grace. They are something to celebrate, because they tell us how to respond to God’s great gift of love. God loves us, and to say thanks, we do what we can to follow the law. We celebrate God’s grace by doing what God asks us to: God loves you. To say thank you, don’t kill anyone. 
In fact, contrary to what Luther feared, it is not that difficult to keep the Ten Commandments. Taken at face value, we don’t actually worship false idols, we generally don’t murder, or steal, or bear false witness (lie about other people in court.) All of you here in church are keeping the Sabbath day holy. Some of the commandments we could use some work on, but by and large we are doing what God has asked us to do. Actually, as Jesus pointed out, and I’ll call Paul back in again, to fulfill the commandments, we have only to love. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “‘You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” Paul takes this from Leviticus, from Torah, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” And he continues, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” So. God loves us, and in return, we love others. This is something we can do. We can love. Not the least because Christ loves us, and not the least because God’s Holy Spirit comes to us empowering us to love. 

The Ten Commandments are, as they are for our Jewish brothers and sisters, and as they were for Jesus Christ in whose path we follow, a sign of God’s love for you and a sure promise of God’s everlasting commitment to you. You are here. You already worship the Lord our God. God has already blessed you, and is showing steadfast love to you, to your children, to your grandchildren, and to the thousandth generation that will come after you. God’s grace and love comes to us in so many ways, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sun, August 31, 2014 - Hate What is Evil

I want to talk about the second reading this morning, because I think it talks about a problem that we are dealing a lot with in the world today, and that is the problem of evil. Paul tells the church in Rome to “hate what is evil” and “do not repay anyone evil for evil,” and to be good to those who do evil to you in your life.
But what is evil? How do we identify those who are evil? Initially, I think it seems pretty simple. Evil people are those who commit violence. Those who murder, those who deliberately cause pain and suffering to others, those who attack first. Evil people are those who attack innocents - who abuse children, who attempt to wipe out entire ethnic communities. Evil people torture animals, traffic women, use forced child labour. Evil people cause the death of others who have done nothing wrong. 
In our Gospel, for instance, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew clearly thinks that the Jews were evil - that the elders and chief priests and scribes were evil for causing Jesus to undergo great suffering and be killed. What can be more evil than causing the death of God’s Son? In fact, for centuries, the Christian church has considered Jews to be evil - in the Middle Ages, priests would encourage Christians to hunt down Jews on Good Friday, burn down their houses, and kill them on Easter, sometimes by stoning them. Up until the middle of the twentieth century, it was perfectly acceptable for Christians to say that the Jews killed Jesus and that’s why the Jews in turn deserved to be run out of every country they ever tried to live. They were evil and we are to hate evil.
But I have questions about whether it is really that simple to answer the question of who is evil. Because while Christians thought the Jews were evil, Jews have thought that Christians were the evil ones. And can you blame them? If it is evil to kill innocent people, and to burn down their houses, and if it is evil to evict entire populations of people from your town, and to take over their businesses and steal their money, then Christians have, through the centuries, committed evil against Jews. Hate what is evil? We should be hating ourselves...
But again, it is not that simple. When Christians were first starting out as a community, we were persecuted by everybody - by Jews, by Romans, by pagans. Christians were the ones being killed, and were the ones having evil done to them. The Christian martyrs were thrown to the lions for their faith - adults and children alike. So how shall we identify who is evil?

There was a really interesting study on mice that was published earlier this year. The study took a group of newborn mice, and exposed them to trauma. Basically, the newborn mice were dunked in ice cold water, and then not allowed to cuddle with their mothers afterwards. So, as was expected, these mice grew up exhibiting what we would call symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Depression, heightened aggression, anxiety, poor stress management. That is not the interesting part. The interesting part is that they took the sperm of the traumatized male mice, implanted it in mice that were raised in good conditions, and the mice that resulted from that breeding also exhibited depression, anxiety, and poor stress management. And when *those* mice bred, their offspring showed these same PTSD symptoms. The trauma visited on the original mice - the evil done to them - passed down through three generations. The aggression level of these mice was higher for three generations. Trauma and evil became encoded in the genetic material and passed down.
So how do we identify evil? How do we know who is evil? When a child’s parents are killed in a bombing, that child’s genetic material becomes encoded with evil. And that child grows up to be an adult and passes that genetic material on to his children. Who, because they are now victims of trauma, visit evil on those around them. Who pass it on to their children. Who grow and visit evil on others. When you think about the evil that is perpetrated on a national and individual scale, when you think about how that evil gets encoded in the genetic material passed on through the generations, how can we know who is evil? All of us have this genetic predisposition towards evil because all of us, at some point in our past, have parents or grandparents or great grandparents who have had evil done to them. We are trapped inside this system of evil. Are we to hate ourselves?
The reality is that evil encourages evil in response. Those who have evil done to them, revisit that evil on others in turn. How can we expect anything else? Survivors of child abuse go on to perpetuate that abuse on children once they themselves become adults. Hutu and Tutsi tribes kill each other because, well, they each killed the other first. Israel takes over Palestinian land and Palestine bombs Israel and Israel bombs them back and Palestine bombs them again. It is like talking to children who are fighting and trying to figure out who started it. Evil engenders further evil. The question is not who or what is evil. The question is how can we stop it?

Paul gives some good advice to the Romans. The first important thing is “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Given how encoded evil is in us, it is so important to ask for blessing first. Given that the persecutors include us, blessing is far more powerful than cursing. Shall we curse ourselves because we persecute others? Shall we curse others because they were first persecuted and that’s all they know to do? Only blessing can upend the cycle of evil and persecution. And when we understand that the evil people perpetuate comes from evil done to them, we are so much more inclined to ask for blessing for them than curses. When the football coach abuses his players because he was the victim of abuse as a child, can we say that evil started with him? Or do we see that evil was done to him and he is living out that evil in a new way? Should we curse him, or ask for blessing for him to release him from that cycle so he can step outside of the evil done to him, and outside of the evil he has done to others? When we see young Palestinians putting on bomber vests to attack Israeli buses, shall we curse them? When we see Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinian children, shall we curse them? Will cursing make things better? Or will it only perpetuate the violence and trauma and visit evil on yet another generation, to be passed on to their children and their children? Only blessing can cut short the transmission of evil.
The second thing Paul says is, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Now Paul says that you should do these nice things because doing nice things to evil people “heaps burning coals on their heads” - it just rubs in how nice you are. But I think there is a better reason for feeding your hungry enemies. Because they are hungry. Because they have no food. Because somewhere, at some point in time, somebody took their food. We are to give something to drink to those who are thirsty. Why? Because they are thirsty. Because somewhere, at some point in time, somebody took their water. So shall we continue to visit evil on them, by reinforcing the trauma done to them in withholding food and water? Shall we continue to curse them, and in doing so curse their children and their grandchildren? Or shall we act against our genetic inheritance, and bless those who are as much victims of evil as we are? 

Evil is a tricky thing. Knowing why people do evil things is tricky. Knowing who is evil so that I can hate them, knowing who deserves to be cursed instead of blessed, is not easy. I no longer feel competent or qualified to make that call. The more I learn about people’s situations, the less certainty I have. Who started the evil first? Who suffers the most from it? We can’t be certain of this. But I am certain that God calls us to be people who refuse to inflict evil on others. I am certain that when Jesus was on the cross, he prayed that God would forgive the individuals who put him there. And I am certain, as Paul is, that God calls us to bless, not curse, and that God will overcome evil with good. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sunday, August 17, 2014 - Love First

Advent Lutheran Church, Calgary

Last year, I was a lunchroom and playground monitor at my son’s elementary school. If ever there was a situation that tested one’s abilities in conflict management, it would have to be the Grade Two lunch table and playground. Second graders are sticklers for justice and following the rules, and making sure everybody gets the same as everyone else, and making sure that everyone else apologizes when they’ve done something wrong (everyone *else* being the key term here). Second graders know what good behaviour looks like, and so I spent every recess listening to “he was supposed to share but he didn’t,” and “it was my turn but she took it instead,” and “I hit him because he was going to throw those wood chips at me.” And I tried, I really tried, to get these children to understand exactly what our gospel passage is telling us today. That if you want someone to be nice to you, or do good things for you, or share with you, then you have to make the first move. You have to be nice first, and do good things first, and share first. I tried to teach them that the behaviour you show to your friends, the measure you give, would be the behaviour you get back, the measure you get back from them. In other words, be the one to do good things first, to love first, and good things and love would come back to you.

And, as I am sure you are not at all surprised to hear, my inspiring words achieved nothing. My persistent efforts fell flat. Because it’s hard. It’s hard to be the one to love first. It’s hard to risk yourself and get out there and be accepting, and forgive the other, and give your time or your money or yourself without first having gotten some proof that your vulnerability and kindness will be reciprocated. And despite assurances and promises that the good you offer is the good you will have returned to you, it is a promise that seems just too good to be true. It’s too easy. It’s too neat and tidy, and we live in an age of skepticism and cynicism. We’ve learned that things go on behind the scenes, and that people have hidden motives for what they do, and that you can’t really trust someone’s word. As adults, we’ve been let down or even betrayed by the very people who were supposed to act first - by our parents, by the church, by the government. And while it’s sad that second graders already have this level of skepticism and suspicion, we can sympathize with them. Why be the first to act when you may be the only one acting? Why trust that the good you put out there will be returned to you?  

We call this way of looking at the world a hermeneutic of suspicion - an interpretation of doubt. We listen to someone’s story about something with an eye to what is really going on. Using a hermeneutic of suspicion, we read the story of Ruth from this morning with a skeptical eye. What was Naomi up to? Why is she sending Ruth into a field of reapers without warning her to be careful of the men? Why does she leave it up to Boaz to notice and protect the very vulnerable Ruth? What kind of family member tells a young woman to dress up nicely and go alone and at night to the man with the most power and do what he tells her? And why is Boaz being so nice to Ruth? What does he want from her? I am, I must admit, very suspicious of Naomi’s behavior and of the way she treated Ruth, and at this point in the story, Boaz’s actions seems questionable, too. Boaz seems too good to be true, and if I were Ruth, I would not be the first to act.

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to be suspicious, and to look out for who has the most to gain in a particular situation, or to pay attention to the ways in which power gets used, or abused, and people get manipulated. It’s not a bad thing to be worried about being taken advantage of, and holding back on the first move. Our intuition that people might be trying to get the upper hand is one that stems from thousands of years of survival instinct, and so we can’t really knock it.

Except that, as hard as it is, we still have this gospel passage of Jesus telling us to take that first step. To be the ones who love first. The grammatical arrangement of the sentences are pretty clear: be merciful, and then.... do not condemn, and then... forgive, and then ... give, and then .... Our actions are supposed to come first. We are supposed to love first. But given our hermeneutic of suspicion, how are we to trust this? How can we trust that good will be returned for good? Lutherans in particular spend a lot of time talking about our perpetual failure to do what we’re supposed to do, so where does all of this goodness and love come from?

To work this out, we have to go back to the beginning. To the very beginning. To “In the beginning, God made heaven and earth.” And we learn that in the beginning, God created humankind in the image of God. Imago Dei the theologians say. We are made in the image of God. But what does that mean? Well, Genesis tells us two things about God. The first is that God acts first. God is the prime mover, the original cause, God is the one who acts first, who creates first, who loves first. And we are made in that image. We are made in the image of the one who is the first to act and create and love. We are copies of this one who loves first. So when Jesus tells us to be the first to be merciful, and the first to forgive, and the first to give, he is not asking us to do anything that is contrary to our nature. He is, in fact, asking us to act precisely in the way we have been made. He is reminding us to act like our originals - to love first, the way God does.

We are made in the image of God, and we are good copies. We are faithful copies. We know this because the second thing that Genesis tells us is that the things that God makes are good, and the humans that God makes in God’s image are very good. We are very good copies of the image of God. We are like digital copies, lossless copies that aren’t corrupted. We aren’t analog copies, that lose the sharpness of the original image. So when we love first, and do good deeds, while we might be skeptical and cynical and question our own motives, or question whether our good deeds will really result in good in return, Genesis reassures us that our good deeds are copies of the goodness of the Creator, and despite our own misgivings, our reaching out to forgive and give and our acting in love comes from being made in the image of God, and as such, will be like the deeds of God - truly good and truly loving. There is no hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to the goodness of God. 

Those who are made in the image of God are thus made to act first in love, and their good deeds are truly good. Incidentally, when I say “those” who are made in the image of God, I mean everyone. I know that sometimes we Christians like to think that we have the monopoly on goodness, and that we are the only ones who do truly good things, and that we are the first to love as Jesus has loved, but I also know that we all know people who are not Christians who are nevertheless merciful and gracious and forgiving and generous, often times even more so than ourselves. Gandhi, for instance - not Christian. Malala Yousafzai, the girl who championed the education of girls under the Taliban and was shot and still carried on - not Christian. Boaz - who acted first in goodness to help the stranger Ruth - not Christian. Christians do not have a monopoly on being made in the image of God. All of humankind, every individual, is made in God’s image and so every individual is graced with God’s ability to act in love first, and to carry the goodness of God in their good deeds.

Which means that when we do good, we can trust that we will receive good in return. Because the good we do, the goodness of God, speaks to God’s goodness in others. The love of God that we exhibit to others calls forth the image of God within them. When we, in the image of God, act first to forgive another, they, also in the image of God, act to forgive us as well. Maybe not immediately, maybe not in the ways we expect, but the love of God does not return empty-handed. The image of God is a very good one.

The gospel passage for today calls us to put aside our fear that things are too good to be true. Jesus calls us to put aside our suspicion that if we love first we will be taken advantage of, and he asks us instead to be the first to share, the first to reach out to the stranger, the first to act in the love of God. We may have that little second-grader inside of us, telling us that the other person should share first, and insisting that we see proof of the behaviour we want before we step out in love, but we can respond to that voice inside of us with the reminder that we are made in the image of God. The other is made in the image of God. And we are much better at good deeds than we think, and our good deeds will be more effective than we think. When we forgive, in the image of God, the other will forgive, because they are also in the image of God. When we give - ourselves, our time, and our possessions - because we are in the image of God, others will give, because their goodness also comes from God. The goodness of God in us evokes the goodness of 

God in others. God has made us to do good. God made you to do good - to love first, and to be merciful, to forgive and to give first. Mercy will call forth more mercy. Forgiveness will call forth more forgiveness. Giving will call forth more giving. Because this is the kind of people God has made, in God’s own image, and what God has made is, indeed, very good. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sun, August 10, 2014 - Poor in Spirit

Psalm 87:8-13
Ruth 1
Matthew 5:3-9
Advent Lutheran, Calgary

Isn’t it nice to hear Jesus’ words in the Gospel today? After weeks of truly terrible news–war between Gaza and Israel, and Russia and the Ukraine, planes getting shot out of the sky, the Ebola virus in Africa, even the hailstorm in Airdrie on Thursday–it’s nice to hear something positive, isn’t it? The Beatitudes, these “blessings” that we hear so often, describe a world that stands in stark contrast to the world we’re living in right now. They describe a world that we hope for, but that we don’t often see, in which the misfortunes that people experience are overturned and reversed. We have those who mourn, who are suffering from loss, whether a family member has died, or a relationship has gone sour, or they have lost a job, or a pet, or anything meaningful to them. For those who mourn, Jesus utters God’s promise of comfort. Those who mourn will be blessed as their grief and loss is overturned into God’s comfort. And then we have those who are meek, which means those who are powerless. Meek here doesn’t mean those who hold their tongue, or who refrain from saying nasty things. Meek here means those who are truly powerless - children who are prevented from standing up for themselves, seniors who don’t have the strength to care for themselves, families who can’t stop rockets dropping on their houses, workers whose shifts are entirely at the whims of their bosses. Those who are meek will be blessed by inheriting the earth - receiving the earth as a gift. The meek will not have to earn justice or deserve justice or work for justice - they will receive it as a gift. And then there are those who are ‘poor in spirit.’ It’s such an interesting phrase - poor in spirit. A lot of times it’s interpreted to mean humble, or lacking in pride, or literally poor, but what it really means is depressed. The poor in spirit are those who have no reason to hope in this world. They may be literally poor, but they may also be emotionally impoverished because of depression or anxiety, they may be spiritually poor because the church has alienated them. The poor in spirit are people who are lonely and depressed and who have no hope. But, again, Jesus proclaims that the poor in spirit will receive the blessing of the kingdom of heaven. That is, the blessing of a place of hope: where mercy reigns, where God is present, where peace is the rule. The poor in spirit, and the meek, and those who mourn, and those who need righteousness and justice, all of these people - the whole world, in fact - will be blessed because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them - justice and mercy and peace belong to them. To us.

What Jesus is talking about is truly wonderful. But... it doesn’t always seem like the world really works that way, does it? Where is the gift of the earth for those meek and oppressed whose houses have been destroyed by rockets? Where is the gift of the earth for those meek and powerless who suffer under the hand of abusers? Where is the comfort for those who mourn because they have lost family members to a violent murder? Where is the comfort for those who mourn who have had to leave behind friends to move to a new land? Where is the kingdom of heaven for those poor in spirit who are living in refugee camps in South Sudan? Where is the kingdom of heaven for those poor in spirit who are in the deepest clutches of clinical depression and mental illness? 

As lovely as these Beatitudes are, when we really stop to think about them, they can cause some cognitive despair. When we really think, we realize that there is actually a huge gap between the world that we hear promised in the Bible and the world that we see around us. And the tough part is that it seems as if there is nothing to be done about it. As much as we hear the promises, it seems hard to believe in them when the world is such a mess - when people are starving, dying from war, watching their land and water being taken away, suffering from untreated illness, being abused by the people charged to take care of them - and nothing seems to change. 

There is a huge gap between our ideal and reality, and for me, at least, what seems to be the worst is that there is no way to change it. In many ways, it seems as if we are too insignificant to make any difference on any scale that matters.  We have no control over the price of gas or the decisions of policy makers, we have no influence in the peace negotiations among world leaders and we can’t change where the hailstorms might deliver their next rounds. Even in our own lives, it often seems as if we live at the hands of fate. We can’t control whether or not we will get cancer, we don’t have a say in how long we live or how we die. Even if we try, it seems as if there are factors outside of our control that change everything. Take Naomi, from our reading from Ruth. Her husband, Elimelech, whose name means God is my King, tried to take control of the life of his family by moving them from Bethlehem, which was experiencing a devastating famine, to Moab. He thought he was making his family’s life better, but in fact, he died, and ten years later his sons died, and his wife was left alone. He could not stop death from coming. So, try as we might, no matter how we try to move the reality of our world to the ideal of the kingdom of justice and mercy and safety, it doesn’t seem to work.

So what ought we to do when there is this promised kingdom of heaven on one hand, and this dismal reality on the other? How are we to live in this gap without giving in to despair? It seems to me that there are three responses. The first, the one advocated the most often in the history of the church, is to be patient and, as we hear so often, trust in the Lord. The first response is to do nothing, as it were. To live, like Job, trusting in God despite all the hardships and to just accept what comes and to hope that God will make a way out of no way, that God will make all things for good. To acknowledge that taking our lives into our own hands is a move of foolishness, given how little we really know about how our lives will turn out and how small we are against the entire history of the world. To trust God and to do nothing, as it were.

The second response, less encouraged by churches but more popularly heard in the world in general, is to take charge. To stop leaving our lives up to fate and to get out there and actually make a difference. To get involved, to act, to believe that we can make a difference and to engage in positive thinking and goal visioning, and to make things better. To acknowledge that leaving our lives up to fate is a different kind of foolishness, given how ingrained people are to taking advantage of others and how everyone tends to grab as much power as they can. To put our faith only into our own actions and do something, as it were.
The third is a combination of both of these - to trust in the Lord and to do something. To bring the kingdom of heaven to earth by making it. To trust the Lord when it comes to the big things like life and death, but to do something and act when it comes to the small things, like making the lives of others easier. To bring the kingdom of heaven to those individuals around us who are poor in spirit, rather than waiting it for to appear somewhere on the horizon. To comfort those near us who mourn, rather than waiting for time to heal all wounds. To bring power and the earth to those we meet who are meek, rather than waiting for the great circle of life to right all wrongs. This third response is one of trusting that God’s promise is true - that there is actually a kingdom of heaven, and then working to make it happen. We see this third kind of response in the book of Ruth, actually. In Ruth, which we only heard the beginning of, we see Naomi both trusting that the Lord will take care of God’s people and returning to Bethlehem, but then advising Ruth to take action and attract Boaz’s attention so that he marries her and provides security for Ruth and Naomi. And we see Ruth also trusting in the Lord, but then taking steps to put herself in Boaz’s path so that she can change her and Naomi’s life for the better. Rather than lamenting the famine, or trying to fight the patriarchal system that makes widows vulnerable, she works as an individual to make a difference in the lives of those around her. 

This third response - trust in God but act in the world -  is, I believe, the one that God is calling us to take in this day and age. You see, one of the facts of this world, and I think this is an intentional design feature on God’s part, is that we live in this world with others. Both the story of Ruth and the Gospel of Matthew tell us this, although they do it in subtle ways. Ruth refuses to leave Naomi, and this turns out to be the comfort for Naomi’s mourning and the blessing of her loss, as Ruth bears a son, Obed, who Naomi adopts as her own. It is a story of the comfort that comes from acting within relationships, and from acting on a small, individual scale. In the gospel Beatitudes, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus describes is built on mercy, and peace, and justice - things that only come when individuals act to bring them to other individuals.

I do think that God uses those moments of cognitive despair, those gaps between our ideals and our reality, to prompt us to action and to this third response. I believe that when we feel these things, it is God’s Spirit at work in us. We are supposed to despair that the world is not what we have been told it should be. We are supposed to be concerned that the promised kingdom of heaven is so far from being real for so many people around the world. But then we are supposed to do something about it. We are supposed to look around us, and to see those small, individual instances of disjunct in the people around us, and to step into that gap. To be merciful, to make peace, to show the love of God. It is not that we are taking over God’s work, and that we are attempting to bring about our own version of the kingdom of heaven. Rather, it is that we are enacting God’s work. That we are bringing about the kingdom of heaven on God’s behalf. That we are allowing God’s Spirit to use us to fulfill God’s promises for peace, and justice, and mercy.

This God-given ability to act is, I think, where we find blessing and hope. God does not condemn us to watch the world fall apart and to believe that we are just along for a doomed ride. God does not open our eyes to suffering in the world and to the gap between the ideal and reality and then leave us powerless to do anything about it. The blessing of God is that God gives us the power to make changes. God blesses us to bring the kingdom of heaven to those around us. God empowers us to carry out those small acts of peace and justice and mercy, so that person by person, the kingdom of heaven comes to earth. Jesus’ proclamation of the blessing of the kingdom of heaven is, after all, fulfilled for us. We will receive it, and so will those around us, as we act to make it real, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the name of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God, Amen.