Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve - God is with you

There is something truly sacred about Christmas Eve - something set apart and special and holy about gathering together in this space to praise God for sending Jesus into our world. Something about the lights and the music, about going to church in the dark, about everybody being especially nice to one another, that makes it seem like God truly is here in our midst. Christmas Eve is the one night when it is easier to believe that God is with us than all the other nights.

Because it isn’t always easy. It’s not always easy to *feel* that God is with us. Frequently, the pain and loss in our lives can make it seem as if God is very far away indeed. When we or a loved one are experiencing chronic pain that makes every day exhausting, when we are experiencing the dull nothingness of depression, or the chest-tightening grip of anxiety, God can seem like a stranger. When we are experiencing the loss of someone we love, whether through death or just estrangement, when it’s hard to wake up and hard to go to sleep because that person is no longer with us, God can seem very far away. What does the great, almighty, transcendent God have to do with our mundane and yet overwhelming everyday pain? What does the quiet beauty of this evening have to do with the ugliness of our everyday lives? When family gatherings mean arguments and too much drinking and ugly behaviour and even violence, how on earth can we feel God’s holy presence in the midst of such unholy relationships? Here in this quiet space, with the candles and the flowers and the smiling faces, it might be a bit easier to believe that the God who created the world, who caused the mountains to rise and the vast starry sky to spread above us, who caused carbon to become the building block for all life on earth and mitochondria smaller than a speck of dust to power our bodies, that this God is somehow with us in our lives. Here it is a bit easier to believe that God is with us.

Because tonight is the night that we proclaim most clearly that our great and mighty God is also a weak and powerless God. As Christians, we believe that God became Incarnate - in-carn (which means flesh, like carnivore)-ate. God became fleshy, meaty, human. God took on a human body. For those of us for whom our bodies are a source of pain and weakness, this seems preposterous. Our God voluntarily took on this meat-encased set of bones that is the source of both sleeplessness and fatigue, that gets sick and is humbled by the common cold or a stomach bug? Our God took on this hormone-driven body whose brain chemicals determine its moods and whose DNA passes on damage from one generation to the next? Why? If the mechanism of God becoming incarnate seems hard to believe, that God would *want* to do such a thing seems even harder.

But the truth is that God loves us. God loves the creation that God has made - all of it, always. And, as happens when you love someone, God desires to be with us at all times, and most intensely when we are in pain and when we are suffering. Our God is not a dispassionate God sitting on a throne far away watching as we bumble about here on earth. Our God is love, and love means getting down in the dirt with us and sitting with us as we experience joy and sorrow, beauty and ugliness, life and death. God’s love means being with us no matter what we are going through or what we have done, so that we would not be alone. God’s love means being present with us so that we might feel that we mean something to somebody. A far away God can’t do that. A disembodied God can’t feel these things. An un-human God can’t experience what it is to be human and be truly with us.

And so, Christmas Eve. The Incarnation. God become flesh. Immanuel - God-with-us. The Christmas story is the story of God choosing to take on our human existence so that God might truly experience what it is to be human, and so that God might walk with us and have compassion for us, and by truly knowing what it is that we’re going through, both the good and the bad, both the beautiful and the ugly, give us the strength to get through it. God became incarnate and we came to know him as Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem.

Except, of course, that Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, isn’t really very much like us at all. Yes, he was human, but when it comes to the details of our lives, he was very, very different. For one thing, Jesus never got old. He never married. Never had kids. Jesus never drove a car, wore sneakers, or checked his email. He never even heard of a phone. He didn’t know there were countries on the other side of the world from Israel, that there were planets in our solar system, or even that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa. Jesus didn’t know what it was like to get cancer, to go through a divorce, to lose a child. Jesus never voted in an election. He never celebrated Christmas or Easter, actually. He wasn’t even Christian. There is really nothing about his life that we know about that was in any way similar to our lives today. So how could God becoming human in Jesus help God to understand us in our own particular situations?

Well, Jesus, like each of us, was unique. He was formed by his own particular situation and historical context, and he had his own unique set of relationships that helped shape who he was. His life, like ours, was singular and unrepeatable. And that means that his foundational experience was that of being alone. What I mean is that, because nobody could ever have exactly the same experiences and relationships as him, nobody could ever completely understand him. That’s what it is to be human. To be so individual and unique that nobody can ever completely understand us. Of course we try to understand one another, and sometimes we even have flashes when someone truly “gets us,” but complete and total understanding is impossible. Humans just aren’t wired that way. We are, each of us, ultimately alone.

And *this* is the experience that God had in Jesus that allows God to enter into our own lives and to have compassion with us. In the Incarnation, God came to know what it is to be alone. God came to know what it is to be unique and in relationship with others and yet still be an individual. And God, who knows what it is to be isolated like this, also knows what we need in those moments when we are feeling most disconnected from the world. And so God, who has experienced the isolation and loneliness that we all do, comes to be with us. In those moments when you feel ugliest, and most unlovable, and most ashamed, and most alone, God sits with you and walks with you and loves you. God knows how hard real and meaningful connections are, and so God connects with you.

And in this connection, God makes our lives sacred. God makes your life sacred. When God became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, God made all of human life worthy of being in the presence of the divine, including yours. All human life, because God has taken it on, is now holy. Not only does God walk with you in your pain and loneliness and ugliness, but God’s very presence with you makes your life holy. And that is why, when we gather in church this evening, we sense something sacred. It is because our encounters with one another are encounters with the God who has chosen to be among us. No matter what you did yesterday or today or will do tomorrow, God has chosen to be with you, and with your neighbour, and with everyone around you, with every single human being on earth, so that no one might be alone anymore. Immanuel - God-with-us. Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth. Peace to all. Amen.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

God's Justice is Here - Advent 4, Dec 20, 2015

Mary’s Canticle, what we sang during our psalm today, might be familiar to those of you who have ever worshipped at evening prayer, like during Lent. It is a song of justice - Mary, a young woman living under the oppression of the Roman Empire, is given the honour of bearing the Son of God - a title reserved for the Roman Emperor. Mary is the central figure in what we might call a religious Cinderella story - a poor girl lifted out of her meagre surroundings to become high royalty - and she recognizes it. And so she sings this beautiful hymn about God’s commitment to justice. God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry and sends the rich away because they’ve already had their fill. For God, justice is about equality - justice is about everybody having the same. The same access to power, the same amount of food, even the same access to God. The priest Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father from a few weeks ago, has access to God in the Temple, while Elizabeth, a woman and therefore never *ever* allowed to become a priest, is filled with the Holy Spirit. Did you notice that? Before Saint Paul gives us the problematic verses that women shouldn’t speak up in church, God fills Elizabeth with the Holy Spirit and makes this woman the first human to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ coming into the world. God’s justice is about equality - God’s justice is about everyone being treated as all equally God’s children - in God’s eyes, we are each equally precious.
This justice is what we’re waiting for all throughout Advent. We look forward to the day when Christ will come again, and when the Kingdom of God will reign on earth. We say, “Come, Lord Jesus,” and we long for justice. Because the injustice in our world is staggering. The ways in which people are treated as unequal to one another, the ways in which people are categorized and sorted into different levels of acceptance is overwhelming. People are treated differently based on the colour of their skin or what country they’re from, on their gender, on their sexual orientation, on their religion, on their income, on their level of education, on their age. The world is not a place of justice, and so we wait, praying that Christ will come again and that we will one day see God’s justice on earth.
But here’s an interesting thing. Did you catch the tense of Mary’s Canticle? It’s entirely past tense. God has done great things, God has scattered the proud, God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly, God has filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty, God has helped Israel. We often speak of God’s justice as something that will happen in the future, something we are waiting for, but Mary here is speaking of God’s justice as something that has already happened. And indeed, we celebrate Christmas because something marvelous did happen - Jesus Christ was born, and he did die, and he was raised. And in his life, death, and resurrection, he opened to us the way of everlasting life, as we say in Communion. God has already changed the world for us, God has already established justice. Our New Testament reading from Hebrews says it quite clearly, “it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” We are sitting around waiting for God’s justice to come, when it turns out God’s justice is already here. We are all already equal - we are all already created in the image of God, we are all already recipients of God’s mercy and forgiveness, we are all already equally worthy in God’s eyes here on earth.
But, clearly, there’s a problem. We certainly don’t act like God’s justice is already here. We wait and wait for someone to make things right, rather than living as if things are right. We see injustice in the world and we sigh and we lament and we pray for God to make things better, but we don’t step up and proclaim that people being treated differently from other people is against what God wants, we don’t act to reclaim God’s kingdom of justice. We just wait. Why?
I think that one of the biggest reasons we are still waiting for justice rather than living as if it is already here is because we see ourselves as those in need of justice rather than those stopping it from coming. We see ourselves as victims of injustice rather than perpetrators of it. When we hear Mary’s canticle, and when we hear of the different ways in which the lowly and the hungry and the poor have been oppressed, or the ways that different people have been deemed less deserving than others, we nod our heads and say, “Oh, yes, I’ve felt that too.” And that’s fine, because most of us have been treated worse than those around us from time to time. But how often do we hear Mary’s canticle and hear about the proud and the rich and those who are full, and think, “Oh yes, that’s me?” How often do we hear about people being treated unequally and say, “Oh, I’m usually treated better than others?” While it is true that we have all experienced discrimination at some point in our lives, it is also true that we have all experienced what I would call “privilege” as well. There have been times when we have been treated better than others because of our skin colour, or gender, or our religion, or level of education, or age. And at those times when we have been treated better, how often did we reach down and help those below us?
One of the reasons that there is such a gap between the justice that God has already brought, which Mary sang about, and what we see in the world is that we spend so much time waiting for God’s kingdom to arrive that we neglect to act as if it were already here. We are so busy looking at the ways in which we are discriminated against that we are blind to the ways in which we discriminate against others. Because we do - we open our doors to certain people, but not to others. We welcome some people into our homes, and our hearts, and our churches, but not others. We help some groups of people but not others. We have compassion for the misfortune of some people, but not others. We are happy to act for justice for some people, but not for others. God has already acted for justice for the entire world, and we’re here dragging our feet, making excuses for why some people are worthy of our help but not others. We’re waiting for God to bring justice, and God is waiting for us to catch up to what God has already done. 

But God does catch us up. God does open our eyes to see the justice that God has introduced to the world and shows us how we might participate in it. We’ve been reading from the letter of Hebrews for our second reading lately, and these readings talk about the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ making the world holy. Most often, the body of Jesus Christ has been interpreted to mean his literal body. That his death on the cross makes the world holy. But there is another interpretation - that the body of Jesus Christ means the body and blood that we receive in Holy Communion. That it is Holy Communion that makes the world holy. Communion is the great moment of justice in our world - it is the moment when God opens our eyes most fully to see that God’s kingdom is already here, that God has already done great things, and that we do not need to continue waiting for Christ to come, because Christ is here. Communion is God’s perfect justice: all are welcome forward and no one is turned away. Everyone receives the blessing of God’s grace - old, young, rich, poor, healthy, sick, men, women, gay, straight, proud, humble, saint, sinner, oppressed, oppressors, all colours and languages and education levels and capabilities. When we come forward to Holy Communion, we are each one of us welcomed by God to this moment, and we each receive the same full blessing and forgiveness and grace as the person next to us. God does not give some people more forgiveness than others, or some less blessing than others, and so when we come forward to this rail, and receive the body and blood of Christ given “for you,” we are participating in God’s kingdom, we are receiving the justice that we are meant to embody in the world. God calls us forward to receive Christ and then sends us out into the world to treat others in exactly the same way. To welcome them and to give them our lives, whether they are old or young, rich or poor, healthy or sick, men or women, gay or straight, no matter their skin colour or their language or their income or their education. When you have received the taste of God’s kingdom at the rail, and you stand up and turn around, you face the doors at the back of the church, doors that lead us out into the world, and when we walk out those doors we carry within us the body and blood of Christ, and so we carry God’s justice out into the world with us. We no longer wait for Christ to come to make the world better, we no longer cry out for God’s justice, we allow Christ to work within us to make the world better now, we allow Christ to use our voices to demand justice and to enact justice wherever we are.

In Advent we have been praying, “Come, Lord Jesus,” and Jesus is now saying, “Come on, I’m already here!” So as we celebrate this last Sunday in Advent, with our eyes to Christmas Eve on Thursday, let us come forward with eagerness and thanksgiving to experience God’s justice in Communion, and say with Mary, “my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour!” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

God is in your wilderness - Advent 2, 2015

Today we are in the wilderness, listening to John the Baptist crying out. What does that make you think of? I’m guessing that for most of us, the wilderness might be kind of nice. We Canadians have a fondness for the wild - the vast spaces away from the city, where nature is at its finest, where we can go for hikes, or picnics, or get some time alone. The wilderness is untamed and beautiful - awe-inspiring, but also calming. New research says that if you get outside into nature every day, your immune system improves. When I think of the wilderness, I think of Kananaskis, and Canmore, the Kootenays. I’d love to be with John the Baptist out there in the wilderness, away from the noise and chaos and complications of the city.

But of course, that’s a bit of a fantasy, isn’t it? That the wilderness is a place to get away from it all - that cities are bad and wilderness is good. In biblical times, it was exactly the opposite. The wilderness was a place of chaos, and the city was a place of safety. Nobody lived outside of the city if they could help it. The wilderness had wild animals that would eat you (it still does), and lawless thugs who would attack you. There’s no buildings or any shelter in the wilderness, you’re completely at the mercy of the elements - if a thunderstorm comes up suddenly, or a violent windstorm, or in our case a freak blizzard or tornado, there’s nowhere to hide for protection in the wilderness. There’s no easy access to food - no stores or even gardens, and no access to clean drinking water. There are no street lights to light your way when it gets dark. There are also no people in the wilderness. While this might be nice for a time, if you’re trying to get away, people also offer companionship and can watch your back, as it were. But there’s none of that in the wilderness. The city is a place of security, the wilderness is a place of vulnerability. In the wilderness we are exposed, unprotected, defenseless, vulnerable.

Most of us today choose to live in the city, and not the wilderness. But we still encounter the wilderness in our lives. What I mean is that we still encounter those times when we feel defenseless and vulnerable. There are many times in our lives when we feel as though things are completely beyond us, and that we are completely exposed - stripped bare to the world, without any defenses and completely unprotected and alone, sitting in the wild dark without any lights. 
    • For instance, you might find the doctor’s office to be a wilderness. Nothing leaves us feeling quite so vulnerable and exposed and alone as sitting in a doctor’s office waiting to hear the results of a critical test we’ve had done. 
    • Christmas gatherings, or the lack thereof, might be your wilderness. For some people, family get-togethers are wildernesses. Chaos.  When siblings fight, or adult children argue with their parents, when people drink too much and say or do ugly things, when all of the past hurts and failures are exposed - then we can feel stripped bare and vulnerable to those with the power to hurt us most. 
    • For other people, Christmas can be the wilderness of complete loneliness, with no loved ones, or maybe loved ones who’ve died and are no longer there. Either way, the result can be darkness and loneliness and vulnerability. 
    • Physical pain, too, can create a wilderness - unrelenting, ongoing, day-by-day, month-by-month pain. This, too, can leave us feeling defenseless, at the mercy of something that threatens to eat us up, alone, vulnerable, exposed. 
    • The wilderness is everywhere. Zechariah and Elizabeth, in the Gospel of Luke, lived in the wilderness of being unable to have children, before John the Baptist was born. The people in the reading from Malachi, our Old Testament prophet, lived in the wilderness of having corrupt religious leadership and therefore no access to God in the Temple. John the Baptist lived in a literal wilderness, at the mercy of the wild animals, no access to proper goods like clothes, and no proper source of food. 
Our lives tend to be one wilderness after another, even if our physical address is in a city. Most of us tend to live from one vulnerability to another, from one darkness to another, feeling completely exposed and alone.

But as Zechariah, a Temple priest, tells us, in the words for our Psalmody today, “by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Our Scriptures remind us, over and over again, that God comes to us in the wilderness, to shine light on our darkness, and to be with us in our vulnerability. The Gospel of Luke actually says it outright. After listing all the great regions and their rulers, places where the cities were supposed to be marvelous places of security, the writer of Luke says, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Not in the city, not in Jerusalem, not in the Temple, not in the places where we expect to find protection and security and God’s presence. In the wilderness. In the place of wild animals and exposure and chaos and vulnerability. God comes to John in the wilderness, just like God came to the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai, like God came to the prophet Elijah in the wilderness, like God came to Jesus in the desert - Israel’s wilderness. God comes into the wilderness to be with us, to walk by our side, to stand with us against the wild animals, to shine the light of the sun. I will not say that God transforms our wildernesses into cities, because cities of course have their own problems. But Scripture is unequivocal that God comes to us when we are in the wilderness, when we are feeling alone and exposed and vulnerable. God embraces our pain and our fear and our darkness - God does not abandon us in our moments of greatest need - God stays with us and we are no longer alone.
It can be hard to see this, I realize. We don’t always notice the dawn until it’s pretty bright outside. We don’t always feel that God is with us when we’re overcome by pain and vulnerability. It’s not that we don’t have faith, it’s just that it’s easy to get swamped or overrun or even worn down by how alone we are in these times. 

This week, while I was working on this sermon and the message that God is in our wilderness, I had to sit with my youngest child while he had a test for kidney function. I may have told some of you that he was born with kidney problems - they didn’t get the chance to fully form when he was born. And so we’ve never known for sure whether or not his kidneys work properly. Of course, you’ve seen him, he doesn’t show any sign of kidney impairment or anything like that - he’s happy and “active.” But after we moved to Canada, his doctor suggested that we have his kidneys tested to see how well they’re actually working. So, this week, they injected him with a radioactive dye - which he thought was the coolest thing ever - and used a special camera to watch his kidneys filter the dye, to see if they worked. And so he and I sat in a room while he watched Tarzan on the TV set up for him, and a camera recorded the dye moving into his kidneys and then filtering out again to his bladder. And as I was sitting there, watching his kidneys lighting up on the camera display like glow-in-the-dark balloons as the dye entered them, thinking about today’s message and God in the wilderness, I noticed that one of his kidneys was getting darker, because it was filtering out the radioactive dye into the bladder, while the other wasn’t. And as the minutes ticked by, or maybe it was seconds, because who can tell when you’re in the wilderness, one of his kidneys cleared the dye out completely, and the other kidney didn’t. It stayed all lit up. And I know the room didn’t get darker, but it sure felt like it. As I realized what this meant - that of his kidneys is not working the way it’s supposed to - I felt more and more in the wilderness. If you’ve ever received bad news - that you have cancer, or that someone you love has died - you know how the world around you kind of dissolves and you can’t quite grasp what’s going on but you’re still weirdly focused. You’re alone in that moment - completely alone in the universe - completely vulnerable and exposed in the wilderness. And so I’m sitting there, in the nuclear imaging room, with proof that my child’s kidneys aren’t properly doing what they’re supposed to, with a sermon that God is in the wilderness running through my head at the same time, wondering where God’s light was at that moment.

And I looked over at my child, and he was watching the Disney jungle animals singing and dancing and making music with pots and pans and doing all kinds of goofy things, and he was just smiling and completely captivated by the fun and the joy on the screen. And seeing his joy, that was a tiny, barely noticeable glimpse of dawn. And the now-dark, clearly functioning one kidney, that was another glimmer of dawn. And the Children’s Hospital, with their pediatric specialists, that’s another glimmer of dawn. And the nurses who were with us in the exam room, they were another glimmer of dawn, they were God’s hands with me in that wilderness. And my friends and family who listened to me process all of this were also hints of dawn and signs of God’s presence with us in the wilderness. All of these very small things, not nearly as noticeable as a glow-in-the-dark kidney on a computer screen, all of these things are tiny rays of light that reassure me that God’s light shines in the darkness. They are hard to see, but they are there.

“The dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” We all still live in the wilderness, but the dawn from on high shines upon us. We’re not yet living in the full daylight - that will happen when Jesus Christ comes again. But the dawn is here. The little bits and pieces of God’s kingdom are here now. They’re hard to notice when we’re overcome by exposure and vulnerability, but they are here. Blue sky, a friendly smile, a gentle touch, a warm blanket, a hot meal, a beautiful painting, an exquisite piece of music, a listening ear, the body and blood of Christ on Sunday morning, God opens our eyes to these moments to proclaim to us that dawn is here. In Advent, we proclaim that Christ is coming, but we also proclaim that Christ has come, and that Christ is with us now. God is with you in your wilderness. The Word of God comes to you in your wilderness. You are not alone. The sun is rising. Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Our Redemption is Drawing Near

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
Luke 21:25-36

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations. ... People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”

I know that I tend to see the world more dismally than some people, maybe because I get depressed by the fewer hours of daylight in winter, but it does seem like these days there really is distress among nations, and that we are right to have fear and foreboding about what is coming upon the world. I know that we continue to be preoccupied by the events in Paris a few weeks ago, with heightened security in major Western cities. But even before that tragic event, things in the world were really not good. People have been dying due to violent conflict in staggering numbers even before Paris. For instance, the number of people killed yearly by small arms, which means any weapon that can be carried by an individual - guns, landmines, cluster bombs, small missile launchers - these are all small arms - the number of people killed yearly by small arms is 500,000. Let me break that down for you. Half a million people a year is equal to 9,800 people a week, which is 1,400 people a day. Every day, 1,400 adults and children are killed by small arms. Breaking that number down even further, 500,000 people a year is equal to 58 people an hour. In the hour in which we are here in church worshipping, 58 people will have died due to either being shot, blown up, stepping up on a landmine, or from a cluster bomb.

Incidentally, do you know what a cluster bomb is? It’s a small bomb that is dropped from an aircraft, that carries smaller bomblets inside of it, that are meant to cover an area roughly the size of this church. Some of them explode when they hit something or someone, and some of them are designed with a time delay to explode later. Like landmines, not all of them work properly, and so some of them can lie on the ground unexploded until they get picked up. Because they are brightly coloured, they are often picked up by children, and you can imagine the consequences. Cluster bombs were used in the Vietnam war, and in the Yugoslavian conflict, and in those countries, they still claim lives. And, cluster bombs are still being used by countries at war around the world. Not by Canada, thankfully, but by our military allies including the United States. So - just picture that by the time we are done with this service, more people will be killed than are sitting here, by things like cluster bombs.

But Jesus says to us, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” In other words, don’t be down-hearted, don’t hang your head, don’t hide in a hole in despair and fear. Stand up. Raise your head. Things are going to get better. The prophet Jeremiah proclaims that “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, [when] I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up .. and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Despite the rather scary tone of our Gospel reading today, our Scripture readings tell us very clearly that these terrible times will one day come to an end, and that God will bring justice and righteousness to the world. Rather than living in fear, our Scriptures tell us to be comforted. God is going to make things better.

  This is what we proclaim in Advent, actually. Advent is both a looking back at the birth of Christ, but more importantly a looking forward to when Christ will come again. Because we have seen proof of God’s commitment to peace in the birth of Christ, we look forward to Christ’s coming again. We celebrate what God has done in anticipation of what God will do. In Advent, we proclaim with hope and reassurance that the time is coming when people will no longer be the victims of war and violence - the Lord will reign and those who have brought about such horrors and violence and death will face justice.

Are you waiting for the other shoe to drop? Because here it is. When the Lord comes to judge those who have perpetrated injustice and violence and death, we are going to be on that list. And I don’t mean we in the general sense of humankind. I mean we - us, here, in this congregation, as Canadians. It’s easy for us to point the finger at arms manufacturers, for instance, at those people who make and deliver the guns and missile launchers and landmines and cluster bombs, and say, “Them - they are the ones who deserve God’s judgement. They are the ones who should be condemned, they are the ones who will face God’s wrath, who will be laid low when they see “‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

But did you know that the major world banks, including Canadian ones, invest in arms manufacturing? Making small arms is apparently a very lucrative business opportunity, which I suppose really shouldn’t surprise us. Banks around the world, including the Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, and major financial investors like Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase, and CitiBank all invest in arms manufacturing companies. In Canada, RBC, BMO-Bank of Montreal, HSBC, and Scotia Bank also invest in small arms. If you have savings or checking accounts with any of these banks, and I do, your money is being invested in small arms production - in weapons that kill 58 people an hour. 

But maybe you don’t have money with any of these banks. Maybe you already knew about the connection between big banks and small arms. But did you know that our Canada Pension Plan has holdings in arms manufacturing companies? I don’t know about our Old Age Pension, but there’s no reason to believe it is invested completely separately from our CPP. Our Canada Pension Plan has holdings worth 65 million dollars in 36 weapons manufacturing companies around the world. This includes 75 million dollars in the nuclear-weapons industry, and 310 million dollars in cluster-bomb manufacturers. The Canada Pension Plan. Canada doesn’t itself use cluster-bombs, but apparently we are all funding their development and manufacturing. So, when we proclaim that God is coming to judge the unrighteous, that’s us.

Of course we might claim ignorance, and say that we didn’t know. I was ignorant of our CPP’s involvement in this until just a few days ago, but the harsh reality is that the bullet from a gun carried by a child soldier in Syria that pierces the heart of a fellow Syrian child’s father doesn’t care whether or not we know that our money - our money - is funding the making of the bullet or paying for the research that develops a gun that is more powerful than other guns and yet light enough to be held by a child. Because yes, that is the research that arms manufacturers are doing. That is the research our money is funding - How to make cluster bombs brightly coloured so they will be picked up by people, how to make guns light enough and small enough to be used by children. I got to fire a semi-automatic machine gun at a firing range in the States once, and I was horrified by how light it was - like a toy.

We might claim ignorance, but those who make and deliver the cluster bombs don’t care whether or not their investors are aware of what they are doing. We might rise up and say, “That’s not right,” but are you going to refuse your pension cheque? And so we stand under judgement. The coming of the Day of the Lord, the proclamation we make in Advent that justice and righteousness are coming - five minutes ago this filled us with comfort. Now, it fills us with terror. Our fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world now comes as we realize how deeply implicated we are in the violent deaths of this world. 58 people an hour die because of small arms. Our Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Pension actively fund those deaths.

Our Old Testament psalm speaks to and for us this morning. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. ... Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!”

The psalm reminds us that the coming reign of God, the very thing we look forward to in Advent, will be based on justice, but one that is rooted in love. This is our ultimate comfort. God’s justice is not like our justice, which demands a bullet for a bullet, a death for a death, and bombs dropped on the enemy because they drop bombs on us. Our idea of justice motivates the weapons industry because we believe only death can wipe out our enemies’ transgressions. Our idea of justice is what makes small arms manufacturers such appealing investment opportunities. Our idea of justice condemns us. But God’s justice is deeper than anything we can imagine. God’s justice is inseparable from God’s steadfast love, which means it is a justice where the ruler of the world is a baby born in a feeding trough. God’s justice with love resurrects those who would die rather than fight for themselves, and forgives those who killed them. God’s justice with love brings the victims of violence and the perpetrators of violence to the same table, so that we all might be redeemed and reconciled. God’s justice with love is the reason we can stand up and raise our heads and look to our redemption drawing near, even though we are complicit in arms manufacturing and death, because we have God’s steadfast promise that Christ will bring true righteousness to the earth, a righteousness that is founded on love and mercy and forgiveness.  

We celebrate Advent because we have seen in the past that God’s kingdom establishes our redemption - that it turns sinners into saints and that it makes the unrighteous righteous - and because we trust God to do it again in the future. We pray during these next four weeks that the days will come, that the Lord will fulfill the promise of justice and righteousness, and that the ‘Son of Man’ will come in a cloud with power and great glory, because we trust God’s promise to us. 

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations. ... People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. ... Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And so we say, Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Nov 8, 2015 - Belief in Physical Miracles is not a Requirement

Elijah and the starving widow. That’s quite a story isn’t it? This woman and her son are so poverty-stricken that she is prepared to make one last meal for herself and her son before they starve to death, but Elijah promises her that God is going to work a miracle that will feed her and her son, and Elijah, until there is enough food again. And it happens! The story tells us that God indeed does this, that “the jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that was spoken by Elijah.”

Our Scriptures are full of these kinds of stories - about God acting in the world through these physical miracles. Whether God provides an ever-full jar of meal to the widow, or raises up the oceans to drown the Egyptian soldiers and save the fleeing Hebrews in Exodus, or raises the dead like in the story of Lazarus last week, or multiplies the loaves and fishes so that thousands are fed, or creates an earthquake that breaks down the prison walls of Paul, our Scriptures testify that God acts in our lives by changing the physical properties of the world - by providing food, changing the seas, or interrupting biological processes.
Even in the world today, people testify to the presence of God’s miracles. We can be cynical, and say that even insurance companies recognize “Acts of God” when it comes to floods and tornadoes and freak snowstorms. But people also testify to miraculous physical interventions by God: the person who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and had only three months to live but is still here and enjoying life six years later; the car that went into the ditch but missed the light pole, thus saving the life of the driver; the tornado that ripped apart a town but spared the elementary school with all the children inside - lots of people give credit for these miracles to God. All around us, God acts in our lives; the great Christian writings of our church forebears, the apostolic witness, Scriptures – they all point to God’s actions in our physical world.

But, if we are to be honest with one another – and church is the one place where we should feel safe and loved enough to be completely honest – this can be incredibly difficult for some people to believe. At least, it is for me, and I know I’m not the only one. I stand with a significant portion of Christians who find it almost impossible to understand the Biblical stories of physical interventions as literal history, and who just aren’t able to believe that God chooses to control the physical world through miracles. 

This doubt comes from two places. The first is the reality that we don’t see these physical miracles as often as we’d like. Or, if we do see something, there are also scientific explanations for what happened. The person who doesn’t immediately die from cancer - some might see this as God acting through biology while others, like me, might see this simply as proof that even oncologists’ knowledge about cancer is limited. The tornado that misses the elementary school - some see this as God changing the path of the tornado, while others see this as a result of the formation of the tornado and the minuscule changes in the land’s hills and valleys that guided the tornado one way and not another. Some Christians interpret the bright star at Jesus’ birth as God changing the heavens, while other Christians look to astronomy to tell us about meteorites and comets and other natural, if unpredictable, phenomena. Some Christians interpret the sky going dark at Jesus’ death as God pointing to his control over creation, while other Christians interpret it as a solar eclipse. We no longer believe that earthquakes are signs of God’s wrath (well, some Christians like Pat Robertson do). We explain them instead through geological language of plate tectonics. For myself, and for many other Christians, science explains the events that our Christian brothers and sisters attribute to God.

The second reason, though, that I think many of us shy away from making God responsible for natural or biological disasters – from describing these things as Acts of God – is that giving God credit for all of the good things - the diseases healed, the disasters escaped – forces us to wonder if the opposite is also true: if God is responsible for these physical miracles, does that mean that the negative consequences or the lack of miracles are also Acts of God? In other words, if the seas parting in Exodus was a miracle of God, was the drowning of all those Egyptian soldiers, who had no choice but to obey orders, also a miracle? Was it God’s miracle that people die? Or was it God’s miracle that the tsunami in the Pacific several years ago drowned thousands, even as other escaped? Was it God’s miracle that the earthquake in Nepal killed so many but left others alive? Why does God intervene to save some but not others? Why does God heal some from cancer but not others? If God rescues some from natural disaster but not others, if God saves some from diseases but not others, why isn’t God saving or rescuing us?

This last question is really the heart of the matter. If we believe that God acts in physical ways in the world, then eventually some of us hit a point where we ask why is God not saving us from the physical, biological, or natural catastrophes in our own lives? How can God break the rules of nature sometimes but not others?
Well, one way that Christians answer this question is by saying that we should just keep believing. Believe harder. Have a stronger faith. Be patient, endure, God will turn things around; God has worked miracles in the past, surely God will do it again. The Gospel of Matthew gives us the words of Jesus that anyone with enough faith can move mountains and heal the sick. So maybe we just need more faith. We do know that sometimes enduring is all it takes. Sometimes, things do get better. But then again, the Gospel of Luke gives us the words of Jesus that people do not die from a tower falling on them because they are less faithful than those who survived. These things just happen - some survive and some don’t. And we know that things do not always get better. Sometimes we endure suffering or disaster, and we die from cancer, or we never return to our home, or we crash our car and don’t walk away from it, and the strength of our faith has nothing to do with it. Believing harder or longer doesn’t always change things. Even the most faithful Christians do not get the miracles they desperately pray for.

It might sound like I’m saying that God does not act in the world and that there is no such things as miracles. But no. I am not for a minute saying that God is completely removed from the world and we just run around here without God’s presence anywhere to be found. I believe quite the opposite. God is present everywhere, and God is acting everywhere; God is just doing it differently than we might expect. The key, at least for me, is that rather than changing things, God is changing and acting in people. The miracles that happen in our world are the changes that happen in the hearts of people. And we have a lot of Scripture to tell us that God acts in the hearts of God’s children: The miracle of the feedings of the thousands is that God acted in the heart of the boy who shared his fish and loaves. The miracle of Saul encountering Christ on the road to Damascus is that God acted in the heart of Paul so that he stopped persecuting Christians and welcomed them into God’s community instead. The miracle of Pentecost is that God acted in the hearts of the very first Christians so that they embraced everyone as brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of their cultural practices. And today, the miracles in our world are that God acts in our hearts to dissolve our anger, to give us forgiveness to share with others. God acts in our hearts to see new life wherever we go, to be present with those who are dying. God acts in our hearts so that we weep when we see children suffering, so that we get angry when we see mothers going hungry. Through the Holy Spirit, God acts in this world and brings about miracles even more astounding than breaking the laws of nature: miracles of forgiveness, and love, and renewed hearts, and right relationships. You are sitting here this morning because God acted in your heart to bring you here. God may not act in the world through physical healings or narrowly-escaped disasters, but God most definitely does act through our hearts. I don’t believe that God changes the course of a flooding river or directs a tornado to hit one place and not another, but I do believe that, through the Holy Spirit, God acts more powerfully to change our hearts so that when the river floods or the tornado hits, our hearts open and we welcome in the newly homeless and grieve with those whose loved ones died and we help them rebuild. 

So how then do we understand our first reading today, and the miracle of the never-ending food for Elijah and the widow? How come God doesn’t do this today? If God is working physical miracles of feeding, why are there more and more street people asking for money at our city’s intersections? If I look at physical acts as proof that God is acting the world, I find nothing. But perhaps the miracle of the Elijah story is really that this widow, despite her extreme poverty, was still willing to share the last of what she had with Elijah because somehow God moved in her heart to have compassion for Elijah. Perhaps the miracle today is that God works in our hearts, that God moves me to empty my wallet for the hungry man at my car window or give away my mittens to the poor woman at the intersection whose hands are red from the cold. Perhaps the miracle is that God acts through us to do things like donate to food banks, so that, like the widow, there will always be food for the hungry.

The most important thing I hope you remember today is that it is okay if you don’t believe that God works physical miracles in the world. You are still a Christian if you believe that God does not counteract the processes of biology or geology or physics or astronomy. And of course you are a Christian if you do believe, and we thank the Holy Spirit for giving you that faith, but you are also a Christian if you don’t. Your identity as Christians does not rest on whether or not you believe in physical miracles. Your identity as Christians rests solely on the new life given to you through the death and resurrection of Christ by the Holy Spirit, who moves in your hearts so that you might be agents of God’s miracles in the world. As long as there are people in this world, God will continue to act. Christians have always and will always believe differently about how God acts in our world, but we all believe that God does indeed act. God acts because, as Luther reminds us in the Small Catechism, God truly is good and merciful and gracious to all of God’s creation, both sinners and saints, the faithful and the unfaithful, and God acts by moving us to serve that very creation and love it, as God serves and loves us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Oct 25, 2015 - You are not old and useless

So I’m just going to jump right in and say that if there’s one fear that all people over a certain age share, it’s the fear of ending up in a hospital or a nursing home, powerless and alone. This doesn’t have anything to do with our readings for today, but it’s been on my mind and my heart quite persistently this week. This past year I have visited a lot of people who are finding themselves in this situation - having fallen or suffered a stroke or a serious episode of dementia - and, having been admitted to the hospital, are no longer allowed to return to their home. Usually this situation comes along with issues of not being able to drive anymore, having to sell your home, and not being able to make medical decisions any longer, or not understanding what the medical situation actually is. And what strikes me most in these cases is the feeling of complete powerlessness and total uselessness, and how hard it is to adjust to that after living productive and independent lives. And, of course, the doubt that God is with them in this hell, actually, which is how some describe it. Because where on earth is God to be found amongst people who have to wait for someone to help them go to the bathroom, who need their shirts buttoned up for them, who can’t properly follow a conversation anymore without getting confused, who have, for all intents and purposes, regressed back to the point of being a toddler? It is emotionally devastating to lie in a hospital bed or sit in a wheelchair in a nursing home and reflect on one’s life of hard work, caring for a home, raising a family, going to church, making decisions, being responsible for one’s self and others, and to know that all of that is now gone. We all pray to die suddenly at home, without pain, without illness, working at something we love. We fear that moment when we end up in the hospital or in a full-care facility; we dread that unproductive and useless life. What on earth would we do with ourselves when we got there? How can God still love us when we’re like this?

Almost five hundred years ago, Martin Luther took issue with the idea that Christians had to be productive and useful and hard workers in order to be holy and worthwhile in God’s eyes. We celebrate the Reformation because Luther proclaimed to us in a new way that God’s grace is a freely given gift from God to us - not something that we earn or work for or deserve. And one of the ways that Luther emphasized that God’s grace makes us holy apart from what we do was by talking about Christians as a royal priesthood. Luther reminded us what we already knew from 1 Peter, Chapter 2, that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” When we were baptized, we were made one with Christ. Luther emphasizes this union over and over again - we were made one with Christ, which means that Christ’s holiness and righteousness and worthwhile-ness become ours. Because we were baptized, we are now on the same level of worthiness as Christ, we are made royal priests just like Christ. And that means that, as Luther said, we “may be confident that whatever we do in the presence of God is pleasing and acceptable to God.” Working hard is pleasing and acceptable. Caring for your family is pleasing and acceptable. Living independently is pleasing and acceptable. But even more than that, you may be confident that lying in a hospital bed unable to get up on your own is pleasing and acceptable to God. Being helpless as medical decision are made about you and without your input is pleasing and acceptable to God. And I don’t mean that God is pleased with or accepts the fact that you are powerless. I mean that God does not use what you can or cannot do as the basis for which God accepts you and God is pleased with you. God accepts you and is pleased with you because you are one of the royal priesthood, because you are one of Christ’s brothers or sisters, because you are baptized and redeemed by Christ, not because you are capable of taking care of yourself, or because you are independent, or because you are of sound mind. God sees your worth and your holiness and finds pleasure in being with you because you are God’s child of grace, because God has already made you holy in Christ.

And because we are royal priests, God entrusts us with a particular responsibility. Now it might strike you as strange that I am telling you that when we are in the hospital or when we are in the nursing home, or when we are shut-in at home, that God has given us a particular task to do. But God has. And I want you to remember this, because when that day comes, when you find yourself alone and in the hospital and struggling with what is going on, with hours of time on your hands, awake in the middle of the night, I want you to remember that God is giving you a responsibility as one God’s royal priests: the responsibility to pray.

As Luther says, this is the duty of a priest, to pray for others. And this is your duty, too, and I would add, your privilege. But note this carefully - our duty as priests is not to pray for ourselves, although we should always do that. Our duty is to pray for others. You see, not enough people pray in the world. We are too busy living our lives - working at our jobs, raising our families, taking care of our homes, going to church, driving our cars, doing all of the things we can’t do in the hospital. And we end up too busy to pray. But God needs more people to pray - prayer is what brings the world together, because prayer is love. Prayer is one of God’s most holy callings, because when we pray, the Holy Spirit moves and brings new life and brings us together into a community of God’s love. God needs us to pray so that God might act in the world.

So when you find yourself one day in a hospital or a nursing home, you will find yourself finally with time to pray. You will find yourself with time to focus exclusively on being one of God’s royal priests - released from all responsibilities but that of praying for the world. That hospital tray is your altar and that wheelchair is your throne and you are a royal priest. So pray for the person in the bed next to you. Pray for their family. Pray for the nurse who comes to give you your medicine. Pray for the hospital staff who brings you your lunch tray. Pray for the pharmacist working in the hospital pharmacy to calculate your medicine. Pray for the technician who examines your lab work. Pray for the doctor who reviews your case. Pray for the cooks who make the food. Pray for the ones who are sick, that they are healed. Pray for the caretakers, that they find rest. Pray for the medical community, that they have wisdom. But also just pray for them as people - pray for their families, for their friends, pray that they find meaning in their work, that their loved ones are happy, that they get enough rest. When you don’t know what to do with yourself, pray. They don’t have to be fancy prayers, with long sentence and flowery words. Just pray from your heart. When you hear the ambulance siren, pray for the paramedics and their passengers. When you hear the Code Blue announcement over the intercom, pray for the doctors and for the child of God who is hovering between life and death. Pray for this church, pray for your friends, pray for your pastor and her family. Pray for the Bishop and his family. Pray for your great-grandchildren and their teachers and classmates. Pray. Don’t for a minute think that you are useless and forgotten and that you have lost all control or independence. You are doing God’s work - you are fighting for God’s kingdom, praying against death, and evil, and all of the forces that would convince us that the world is and always will be darkness. You are bringing God’s light to the place you are in. You are a royal priest, you are sanctified and set aside, your prayers are holy and God’s work. So pray.

One of the great revelations of the Reformation was Luther’s reminder to us that all of the work we do as Christians is God’s work. Whether it is changing diapers or cleaning up garbage or calculating someone’s taxes or walking someone’s dog, it is all God’s work, and we are all holy because of it. But there comes a time when we can no longer “work,” as it were; when we can’t “do” any of the things we are used to doing. Even then, though, God continues to bless us and to make us holy in all that we do. God continues to be with us no matter where we are, even in a place that seems so lowly and so abandoned as a hospital bed among so many other hospital beds. God continues to esteem us as one of God’s royal priests. And so we pray, because it is all that is left that we can do, but also because God needs us to, and because the world needs us to, and because it is what we are all called to do. I suppose it is too much to ask that we look forward to the time when we are confined to a hospital bed or a nursing home room; it is too much to suggest that we greet it with open arms when it happens, but I pray that you remember that when you find ourselves in this situation, that you remember that you are neither useless nor abandoned. In hospital beds, in wheelchairs, you continue to be sanctified, set aside, and made holy, and given the indispensable task of praying for God’s people and for the world; for you are now and will always be one of this “royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Oct 18, 2015 - Serving ALL (not just Christians)

The Gospel of Mark sure is hard on Jesus’ disciples. In this Gospel, the disciples are constantly misunderstanding Jesus, or angling for favours, or flailing about in panic because they don’t trust him. Because of the way the writer of Mark describes the disciples, when it comes to this particular reading, we take a very dim view of James and John and their request of Jesus. Most preachers will take today’s reading and talk about how James and John just want power and how they don’t really understand what it means to follow Jesus, and will point to these poor guys as examples of the way we all try to get more power. And of course, they would be right, because we do constantly angle for more and more control of our lives, even to the point where we try to control others so that our lives are better. 

But this morning I’m feeling more compassionate than judgmental, and so today, I want to take James and John at face value. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, and when they say they want to be on Jesus’ right and left hand when he is in his glory, I am going to believe that they actually do know what that means. You see, right before this passage, Jesus tells his disciples, for a third time, that he will be tortured and killed, and then rise again. And James and John, unlike Peter, don’t argue with him. They don’t tell him he’s wrong, they don’t tell him this shouldn’t happen, they don’t walk away in disbelief. What they do is they say, “when you’re in your glory, when all of this that you say has come to pass, when you have the power that comes with being resurrected as the Son of Man, then we want something.” Hidden in their request is actually a proclamation of belief. They believe that what Jesus is proclaiming is really going to happen. They believe Jesus.

And they want to be a part of that. And who can blame them? This is what we, as Christians, want. We want to be part of Jesus’ work. And I refuse to be cynical this morning, and say that we want to be part of Jesus’ work because we want glory and power and all that. I think that followers of Jesus, like the disciples and like you sitting here, I think that we genuinely and earnestly desire to do what Jesus asks of us. We really truly want to be holy and righteous. We want to follow Jesus, and while we don’t do that great a job of actually following him and actually living in holy and righteous ways, we want to. This morning, I believe that James and John really honestly wanted to be righteous in Jesus’ eyes.

And so Jesus tells them how. Jesus responds to them with the same earnestness that they approach him. Jesus doesn’t mock them, or belittle them, or tell them that they just want power. That’s what the Gentiles want - the codeword for the Romans in power, but not the disciples. Jesus accepts the intention behind James and John’s request, and tells them how they might be great in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus accepts that we really want to be righteous and holy and glorious in God’s eyes, and so Jesus tells us: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all.” 
Now this is not the first time Jesus has said something like this. We’ve heard several variations on this theme over the last number of weeks. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is intent on reversing social hierarchies and disrupting the status quo in favour of the underdog. And so, of course, I’ve said a lot about that.

But one word catches me today. “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all.” That little word - all - keeps tripping me up. Because I think that we as Christians do a great job of serving one another - we’re very welcoming to those who are like us, particularly if they’re also Christian. We are happy to help out the Syrian Christians who have suffered persecution, and we donate to Christian non-profits like Canadian Lutheran World Relief, or World Vision, or the Salvation Army. But you know what? Jesus isn’t telling us here to be slave to only Christians, or just to those who are like us. Jesus is telling us to be slave here to all. That means serving those who are not like us. That means helping out Muslim refugees, serving our Sikh neighbours, giving to Jewish non-profits. Serving all means helping those in need who have no religious affiliation whatsoever - agnostics and atheists, even those who are militantly anti-Christian. We don’t get to pick and choose who we will serve - we don’t get to say we will help this Christian wearing her nice dress but not that Muslim wearing her niqab. We don’t even get to say that we will serve Christians first and everyone else with what we have left over. Jesus is very clear, to follow him, to be righteous and holy and do good in the way that we earnestly desire, we “must be slave to all.”

This is what Jesus did, after all. Jesus drank the cup in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus was baptized with the baptism of death on the cross in order that all might be saved. Jesus didn’t die only for Christians. Jesus didn’t die only for those who believed in him at that moment (which was a very very small number, actually). Jesus died for all. For the whole world. For Christians, yes, and for Jews. But Jesus also died in service to Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Wiccans and pagans and atheists. Jesus died for the world. “For God so loved the world, that God sent the Only Son.” God loves the world, Jesus died for the world, and we are called to serve the world.

And wow, is this hard! This is not something we’re very good at doing. Or maybe I should say, this isn’t something I’m very good at doing. I’m not very good at serving those who are different from me. Even though I want to believe I can do all these things, and serve the whole world, I don’t know that I actually can. I just don’t think I’m able. Jesus says to serve all, but there are people I’m just not sure I could serve. We all have our own particular groups of people that we just can’t bring ourselves to serve, for whatever reason. I know that the German side of my family has a very hard time serving those with a Cossack background. I know that my Israeli friends have a very hard time serving those with Palestinian connections. I know that I don’t do a very good job of serving those Christians who think women should not be pastors. We all have groups of people that we just avoid serving. We all have prejudices and biases that we simply can’t push past. While I want to do what Jesus asks of me, because I truly want to be righteous in God’s eyes, I find myself simply unable to truly be slave to all. So much for being great or first with Jesus in glory.

But the Christian life isn’t about what we can do on our own. As Lutherans we believe that we are categorically unable to actually do anything righteous at all;  Luther was adamant on this point - we cannot do a single holy or good thing on our own - as humans, we simply do not have that innate ability.
But God does. God, of course, is righteous and holy and good. But more to the point, God shares that with us. God enables us - makes us able - to be righteous and holy and good as Jesus Christ is. This cup and this baptism that Jesus mentions? The writer of Mark brings these things up because these are the central elements of our Christian life. The cup of Holy Communion and the baptism in water that we are brought to as part of our Christian life, these are the elements that God uses to make us able to live the Christian life we desire - these are the elements that enable us to be a slave to all. Somewhere along the way we got mixed up into thinking that we had to be righteous and holy and good before we come to drink the cup of Jesus Christ, but it is actually the opposite. We will never be holy enough to drink this cup, and we will never be holy enough to receive baptism. And so God has reversed the order of things. God uses the cup and God uses the water to make us holy and good and righteous. We come forward to drink from the cup of Christ because we aren’t able to do what Jesus asks, and so that God might make us able, through the presence of the Holy Spirit in Communion. Jesus leaves us with no doubts about this - “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Through Jesus’ sacrifice and through the gift of the Holy Spirit that God grant us, you will be able to live righteous and holy lives, and you will be able to serve all.

This means that we do not yearn in vain. You are not hopeless in your desire to live as a righteous Christians. You are not doomed to live an unfulfilled and inglorious life. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” God enables you to be the Christian you long to be, and brings you to participate in the glory of Jesus when his kingdom comes to earth. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was killed for daring to proclaim that serving all included serving people of every skin colour, said to his congregation in his very last sermon before his assassination, “Everybody can be great .... because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Through the presence of God’s own Holy Spirit in the gifts of baptism and Holy Communion, in water and the cup, God fills your heart with grace and generates your soul with love. By the grace of God, you are able to be great as you are able to be slave to all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sept 20, 2015 - Mark 9:30-37 - Jesus Welcomes the Least

Let’s get right to it today. Why children? Why does Jesus say that whoever welcomes a child in Jesus’ name welcomes him? In a few weeks, we will hear him say that unless we become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven, but why children?

Well let me put to bed right away any idea that it’s because children are naive and innocent and full of hope. While all of those things may be true, that’s certainly not how children were viewed in Jesus’ time. Quite the opposite, in fact. In Jesus’ time, in the Jewish-Palestinian culture and in the Hellenistic Greek culture and in the Roman culture, children were not precious. In those days, people believed that humans were born with two instincts warring within them - an instinct for good and an instinct for evil. And for the most part, people believed that children had to be trained to choose the good, because otherwise they would naturally choose the evil. Kind of what we believe, actually. And what people saw in children was this tendency to evil, which is, actually, if we are being realistic, what we see in children. They saw that children broke things and lied and stole things. Toddlers would snatch from each other, and hit when they’re angry. If you’ve been a parent, while time may dull the memory, you will remember that children are always not the little cherubs and angels we imagine them to be. Children are noisy, and disruptive, and chaotic, and loud, and often smelly. They are unpredictable, undisciplined, and troublesome.

In Jesus’ time, throughout all of Mediterranean culture, actually, children were also workers. Most people at that time, and particularly in the parts that Jesus travelled, were subsistence farmers. They farmed in order to eat and in order to pay rent, and buy what they needed. And those of you with farm experience will know that on a farm, everybody works. No exceptions. That was even more true in Jesus’ time. Beginning as young as three years of age, children worked. And yes, as we know from the appalling state of child labour that exists even today, three-year olds can work. And I’m not talking about chores, I’m talking about actual work. Children worked menial and back-breaking jobs in order to free up the adults to do the more complex work. In families, children were a means of livelihood, and they served.

And so here’s Jesus, pulling one of these smelly, dirty, undisciplined, misbehaving little servants into his lap, saying “Welcome this child in my name, and you welcome me, and not only me, but God.” Welcome this child. Welcoming, and any form of hospitality, was and still is a serious business in the Middle East. Hospitality is commanded by God - the Old Testament is full of commandments by God to welcome the stranger and full of stories of people going all out to welcome guests. When a guest showed up, you would give the best - the absolute best - of everything you had - you would kill your best goat to eat, you would give your best bed - usually your own - you would even give him your daughters if that’s what he wanted. Hospitality was absolutely everything. 
And here is Jesus, saying give the best of everything you have to this child who is the lowest of the low and almost, although not quite, a slave. Show hospitality to this little kid - a worker who will probably not reach the age of eight - Jewish and Roman childhood mortality rates were so high that children had no legal standing before the age of eight, and didn’t receive a formal name until then. Take this random child, who is truly at the bottom of society, who is a consumer but not a producer - who eats more food than he can grow himself, and wears clothes that he can’t make for himself - children are, even today, a significant economic burden on a family and don’t bring an equivalent return on investment - take this random child and treat it as a king. Make yourself a servant to this child, put this child above yourself, in my name, and then - only then - will you be the greatest.

So who are the children among us? Who in our society is seen as disruptive, and unpredictable, and chaotic? Who in our society do we treat as more trouble than they’re worth, and do we consider to be consumers rather than producers? Who in our society do we think of as never managing to do anything good and just “prone to evil as the sparks fly upward”?

Sadly, there’s a lot people we could think of. I could talk about our attitude towards illegal immigrants and refugees, and how we talk about how they use up our social services and are a burden on the system. I could talk about our attitude towards panhandlers and the homeless on the street. Today is Campus Ministry Sunday, and I could talk about our attitude towards “kids these days.” Those teenagers and young adults in university - who laze around and party all the time and are always spending money on smartphones and clothes and living in our basements and don’t take their future seriously. “Kids these days” are most definitely noisy and disruptive and undisciplined and chaotic and burdensome.

Or, I could talk about us. Us as individuals. You and me. Each one of us. Because this attitude the people had in Jesus’ time towards children? We also have this attitude towards ourselves. We all have days, when deep down inside, we feel like we’re the lowest on the totem pole and wonder whether we’re really worth it. Some days, often when we’re sick and in bed and feeling crummy and miserable, we think that maybe we’re more trouble than we’re worth. That we’re disrupting other people’s lives - particularly the lives of those who care for us. Some days we worry that we will become a burden to others - that we will end up one of those people who consume more than we produce - that we will take up other people’s time and energy and finances and that we won’t be able to offer anything in return. Some days, and sometimes these days can on for weeks, we see in ourselves only our own tendency towards evil - we see our own selfishness, and our own impatience, and our own pettiness - and we beat ourselves up about it, just as parents used to beat their children in Jesus’ time (and still do today), and we if had to make up a list of people who should receive good things in life, we would put ourselves last.

“Then Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”
On those days when you feel yourself to be last, when you feel as if you are one of those worthless, kicked-about rug-rats, remember that Jesus took the children into his arms. And Jesus welcomed them. 

Jesus takes you into his arms. As worthless as you might feel, as disappointed as you might be in yourself, as much as you don’t live up to your own expectations, Jesus takes you, and Jesus welcomes you. Jesus gives you the best he has - his own life, on the cross, and his own Holy Spirit, in baptism and communion - and Jesus serves you. Jesus doesn’t do this because you deserve it, or because you’ve earned it or worked for it. Jesus welcomes you because Jesus is God’s own Son, and God loves you. Just like we love children who are nevertheless troublesome and burdensome. God welcomes you and loves you, and gives you the best that God has - God’s own self in the body and blood of Jesus Christ. You may feel that you have nothing to offer in return, and indeed what can we offer God in return? But, all the same, Jesus takes you in his arms and welcomes you to the best of everything he has to offer. You are, after all, God’s child. In your eyes you may be the least, but in Jesus' arms you are great. Thanks be to God. Amen.

September 13, 2015 - Lose Your Life for the Sake of the Gospel

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Well, here we are. One of these famous Bible passages that we’ve all heard so often, and yet one that we hide away in the back of the closet underneath the winter clothes because we don’t want to look at it. This is the passage that causes us to look down into our laps and pretend that our fingernails have all of a sudden become very interesting and hope that nobody notices us. Imagine sitting in a room with a bunch of people and someone from Revenue Canada comes in and asks, “Who wants to be the first to have their taxes audited?” or a nurse comes in and asks, “Who wants to be the first to get their flu shot?” Nobody puts their hand up. Jesus comes along and says, “Who wants to deny themselves and take up their cross and lose their life?” We all sort of close in on ourselves and hope that he doesn’t pick us.

And yet, this is what Jesus is asking. Or rather, not even asking. Telling. Jesus is telling us, flat out, that if we want to be Christians - and that is, after all, what we say we are - if we want to follow Christ, then we have to deny ourselves and lose our lives for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the Gospel. And there is no way to get out from under the seriousness of this command. There is no way to interpret this passage so that we can wiggle out from the extremes that it puts before us. I talked last time about how historical backgrounds and contexts shape our interpretation of the Bible, but I’m sorry to say - the historical background and context of this text don’t change what Jesus is saying. Jesus is very clearly telling us that our job as Christians is to lose ourselves in following Jesus. 

And Jesus calls us to follow him in serving others - healing the sick, feeding the hungry, standing up for the oppressed. Jesus’ life was a life of service, and that is how we are to follow him. We are to serve Jesus by serving others, even if it means dying. We are to serve, not survive. Jesus is telling us that we’re to stop asking, “How can I keep living? How can we keep living?” Instead, Jesus is telling us to ask ourselves, “How can I die for others? How can we die for others?” For those who want to keep living, those who want to survive, those who want to save their lives, will lose them. And those who want to die for others, those who want to serve, those who want to lose their lives for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the gospel - the message that God loves the world - will save them.

But this isn’t easy. This is, in fact, probably the most difficult thing that Jesus tells us to do. Because it’s simply not in our nature to think this way. Biologically, we are geared to survival, and every structure in our society, from family set-up, to social mores, to financial systems, to the business world - they all operate on the belief that we’re supposed to live, and that we’re supposed to grow. And so we spend all of our time and energy, encouraged by those around us, on figuring out how we can keep going. How can we prolong our lives? How can we stay in our homes as long as possible? What medical care will keep us breathing? What will keep us in our church? How can we keep the congregation running?

And we make choices that ensure that we are the ones who survive. It is a very utilitarian, and a very self-centred, and as Luther points out, a very sinful and selfish, way of living in the world. Just think about your own lives, and the choices you have made about what jobs you will take and which you will refuse, and about whom you will marry, and about how many kids you will have, and where you will live. I’m not trying to get down on the choices that everybody makes in life. This is what we do. This is certainly what I have done. We make choices that put ourselves and our survival first, and we call these choices practical, and realistic, and pragmatic. We make choices that give us good careers, and successful families, and prospering churches.

And we are rewarded - at least in this world - for these choices. We get accolades, we get thanks, we get praise. This is also what Jesus received. When he performed all the miracles leading up to this point in our story in Mark, he was praised and lauded and even glorified. He healed the sick, he fed thousands, and the disciples called him the Messiah - the anointed one of the Lord. He was on a path to glory, and his disciples were happy to follow him. It’s a good path - healing the sick and feeding the hungry and receiving the gratefulness of the crowds. Peter, like us, was perfectly happy to follow Jesus along it. Peter, like us, was not at all keen to give that path up. And when Jesus said that it was time to follow him along the next section of that path - a section that would involve shame, and suffering, and death, Peter stopped. Peter did not want to die - he wanted to keep living, just as we do. Peter, and I have great compassion for Peter, did not want shame - he wanted glory. Peter, just like us, did not want to serve - he wanted to survive.

But ultimately, Peter did follow Jesus. Peter did actually give up his life for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel. He focused on serving, instead of surviving, and on dying for others instead of living for himself. He brought the gospel to thousands of people and was one of the founders of the Christian church. And yes, he died, as Jesus did, crucified by Emperor Nero. He took Jesus’ challenge and he became a follower of Jesus, and he gave up his life for the sake of the Gospel, and he saved it.

But how? How did Peter manage to change from the man who stood in Jesus’ way to the disciple who truly followed him to the cross? More to the point, how can we change from being people who make the most practical decision, and who focus on survival, to being people who follow Jesus and make decisions to serve those in need and to die so that others may live?

Well, to be honest, it did take Peter some time. He didn’t experience a miraculous epiphany. Even after Jesus’ moving speech, Peter still tried to kill the centurion who came to arrest Jesus, and Peter still denied him in the courtyard of Pontius Pilate’s house. Peter, at that point, was still trying to survive, not to serve. But what Peter came to realize later, what he realized only after Jesus had died and was raised again, was that Jesus’ words were actually true. They were impractical, and radical, and totally unrealistic, and true. You see, Jesus Christ gave his life for us. For Peter, too. He chose to serve, instead of survive. He chose to give his life for the sake of the Gospel, so that we might live. He chose death so that we might have life. And what Peter realized, and what we as Christians come to realize, is that we have this new life now. We live, because Jesus has already served us. We have the life of the risen Christ, given to us in baptism and Holy Communion, a life that frees us from worrying about survival because it has nothing to do with survival. We have already been given a new life that is not threatened by death, a new life that is not threatened by service. We have been given the life of Christ, a life that enables us to serve, and to die, and to put others before ourselves. As individuals, and as a congregation, and in our families at home, and in our church family, we have been given this new life that proves to us that the life truly worth living, the life that brings actual life, is the one that serves instead of survives. That chooses to die instead of live. The new, resurrected, God-given life of Jesus Christ. God is already walking with us as we follow Christ along this path.

Of course, we are easily distracted. And it is very very easy to fall back into the old way of living, where we opt for self-preservation instead of selflessness. Every day we are faced with decisions about which path to follow - every day we are confronted with the choice between serving those in need or ensuring our own survival, whether it’s in our own lives or in the church’s life. For example, as a congregation, we are currently facing the question of this church’s future. And we ask ourselves frequently, “Are we going to survive? How can we keep going? What can we do to keep this church alive?” But, because we are Christians, Jesus’ words remind us to ask ourselves different questions. To ask, “Is this decision about surviving or about serving?” “Are we focused on living for ourselves, or are we focused on dying for others?” For example, as we consider finances and survival, I want to offer you an alternative vision of life, and I want to frame it in the context of the current refugee crisis we are witnessing in the world right now, because if there is anyone who is in desperate need right, now, it’s these women and children. So. If we look at the life of this congregation, the yearly cost for physically maintaining this building is equivalent to the cost of sponsoring four or five refugees a year. The yearly cost of my salary and benefits is equivalent to sponsoring seven or eight refugees - or three families - every year. The total yearly cost for this congregation to survive - building costs and salaries - equals sponsoring fifteen refugees. The amount of money that it takes for this congregation to survive every year would bring in six families a year. Over the next five years, the money spent on this congregation’s survival would sponsor thirty refugee families, or seventy-five individuals. Over the next ten years, the money spent on survival would sponsor 150 refugees, or 60 families. And not to focus on St John alone, but if every Lutheran congregation in Calgary closed except for one - if we all amalgamated into one Lutheran congregation in the city of Calgary, we could sponsor over 1500 individual refugees over the next ten years. Instead of surviving as eleven separate congregations, we could serve over 600 refugee families. Instead of saving the lives of eleven Lutheran congregations, we could lose those lives, and in doing so give life to more than 2,000 women and children who would otherwise starve, or drown, or be bombed, or shot, or suffer the trauma of war. Experiences that many of the first members of this church were themselves escaping when they came to Canada seeking new life. And I know that what I’m saying is impractical, and unrealistic, and that you may want to take me aside and rebuke me. (And if you do, I promise I won’t call you Satan.) But, nevertheless, Jesus calls me to say it. Do with it what you will.

And if even entertaining the suggestion that God might be calling us to lose our life so that others may life is making you anxious, remember - God has already given you new life - and does so constantly, in every moment. God, through Christ, gives you the life that comes with service, not survival. This life brings joy, and happiness, and love to others, and to you. It is a life that God has already given you, in bits and pieces, here and there. I know you’ve felt it, because you’re here today. You’ve received this new life of God when others have served you, and prayed for you, and offered their time and energy to you. Some of you experienced this new life when you yourselves came over to this country as refugees, as my father and my grandparents did. Others of you have experienced this new life in other ways. But these moments have filled you up in ways that the struggle for survival has not. So you know that the path Christ calls us to follow is real, and can be done, and does bring new life. And you know that as hard as it is to follow Jesus along this path, that ultimately, this is the new life that God has already given us and invites us to share with others; and that we can, like Jesus, like Peter, like the Christians who have gone before us, follow Christ and lose our lives for his sake, and gain new life in return. Thanks be to God. Amen.