Sunday, May 10, 2015

Easter 6, 2015 - Happy Mother's Day

Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

Well, today is Mother’s Day, and no doubt you’ve seen the cards thanking mothers for all the sacrifices they’ve made, for their boundless love, for the hugs and kisses they’ve shared, for all the work they’ve done for their families. You’ve probably seen the commercials on TV and heard them on the radio - “This Mother’s Day, show her you care, buy her...” whatever they’re selling - jewelry, a camera, a drill from Home Depot (that’s my favourite) - the list is endless. And of course, you’ve noticed the flowers and balloons in the store, covered with hearts, saying Happy Mother’s Day.

Even the church takes part in this celebration of mothers, even though it wasn’t started as a Christian holiday. Churches proclaim mothers to be God’s angels and saints - the epitome of selflessness, the very role model of self-sacrifice. Luther himself called motherhood the highest vocation and calling for women - a proclamation that was revolutionary because until that time, motherhood was often seen as a punishment for Eve’s transgression in the garden of Eden and nowhere near as valued as any of the actual vocations that men fulfilled. In the church, Mother’s Day has been a time to talk about the holiness of all mothers - of Mary, Jesus’ mother, who bravely answered God’s call to carry the Saviour in her womb and then to give him up to die, of Sarah, the wife of Abraham and the mother of Isaac, who carried Isaac in her old age and fulfilled God’s promise of making Abraham the father of generations of the covenant. We hear about Leah and Rachel, about Hannah who wept in the Temple for a child, about the two mothers in Solomon’s court - one who couldn’t handle the loss of her baby and the other who would rather give hers up than watch it die. We hear Jesus’ words for today, words that God has given us, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I loved you,” and it seems a natural step to connect this to mothers. Who else but a mother could love this way? A mother’s love is the closest we get to God’s love for us.

I’ll tell you a secret about mothers and Mother’s Day, though. And maybe this changes the longer you’ve been a mother, and maybe not all mothers feel this way, but this is my experience. Mother’s Day, as lovely as it is to get cards and flowers and a break from cooking and to hear about other mothers in the Bible, also makes mothers feel a little bit... guilty. Or inadequate. Or maybe a bit ashamed. You see, mothers never feel that we’re doing as good a job as others seem to think we are. Mothers tend to walk around with this pervasive sense of guilt that we are not the mothers we wish we were. We hear about how wonderful mothers are, and we hear God’s commandment to love our children as God loves us, and we know that we don’t. The most common feeling that mothers share is guilt - over things done and left undone. 

  • We were too hard on our children and they’ve rebelled against us.
  • We were too soft on our children and they’ve come to think they’re entitled to everything.
  • We didn’t protect our children and they were hurt by someone or something.
  • We were overprotective of our children and they don’t know how to handle the world.
  • We didn’t give them enough independence and now they can’t handle real responsibility.
  • We tried to make them independent and now they can’t form close relationships with anyone.
  • We treated them in ways they didn’t deserve.
  • We didn’t treat them the way they did deserve.
  • We didn’t spend enough time with our children. We didn’t spend enough time for ourselves. We didn’t give them enough. We gave them too much. We didn’t do enough of this. We did too much of that. The list goes on, and so does the guilt.

Working mothers, stay-at-home mothers, student mothers, single mothers, married mothers - we come to this day with mixed feelings because we know that we have never been able to love and mother our children the way we wish we could: perfectly, as Jesus loves us, as God commands us. All mothers, no matter how well-intentioned (and, truthfully, there are some mothers who have not been well-intentioned), no matter how many sacrifices we have made (and there are always sacrifices), know that we fall short of what we and God expect of us, and on Mother’s Day, this feeling lurks persistently at the back of our minds. We are never always and fully the mothers the cards say we are. We all have had our periods of anger, and impatience, and annoyance, and negligence. We have all fallen short of the perfect love God commands from us.

Well, today is Mother’s Day, and so I say specifically to those of you who are mothers, “As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.” Now, we may smile a bit, but I am serious. Mothers do not hear very often that we are forgiven for falling short as mothers. And so I proclaim to you mothers that the forgiveness that is granted to all Christians through Christ is also granted to you. To you mothers specifically. You are forgiven for all of the mistakes you have made as mothers. You are forgiven for the things as mothers that you have done and left undone. You are forgiven for not loving your children as yourselves. You are forgiven for being too strict and for not being strict enough. You are forgiven for not protecting your children from harm and for being overprotective. You are forgiven for not giving them enough and for giving them too much. God forgives you.

God forgives you and God loves you. Even more than we find ways to forgive and love our own children, despite their failings and mistakes, despite the hurt they have caused us, God forgives and loves us, despite our failings and mistakes and the hurt we have caused. It isn’t that God doesn’t see the ways we have failed - it is that God has seen them, and God, who loves our children even more than we do, forgives us and loves us, too, because we are also God’s children.

I have one last good word that I want to share with you today. As mothers, we always hope that our children will not be hurt by the mistakes we have made. We hope that our children will be able to move past the ways in which our mothering has held them back. The last good word that I want to share with you is that God makes this happen. We heard last week, and this week, that God makes the branches bear more fruit, and causes fruit to grow that will last. God gives mothers the responsibility of watering and feeding and caring for the seeds that we have been given, and more often than not, we don’t get it right. Mothers are human. But God works through and beyond our own efforts, or lack thereof, and loves them in ways that we can’t, sending the Holy Spirit where we have fallen short, and being more committed to them than we possibly could. As mothers, this is our salvation - that God takes better care of our children than we do, and that despite our mistakes, despite our inability to live up to the Hallmark cards’ description of us and despite our failure to love our children as God loves us, God loves our children, God loves us, and God forgives us. Thanks be to God. Happy Mother’s Day. Amen. 

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Easter 5, 2015 - Pruning

Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Jesus is calling us. The good shepherd is calling is his sheep. We want to follow his voice, and we want to walk on the path he has laid out for us. We want to live in Jesus as he lives in us. We want to love others with the perfect love that casts our fear, we want to love those sisters and brothers in need, we want to bear fruit. We want to be the Christian disciples that we know God means us to be. We want to do these things, and God wants us to do these things, and everyone wants us to do these things. But how? 

We know that God tells us to love one another, and when we do, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. That’s in the First Letter from John, one that we’ve been hearing for a few weeks now. We know that the new life we are promised comes in the resurrection of Easter Sunday, a resurrection that we receive when we die to ourselves and live for others, as Jesus did. We know all these things, and yet somehow, we don’t quite manage to live them out as we’d like. We have this deep desire to be true Christian disciples and witnesses, to live lives that point people to the love of God, and yet when we look at our lives, we’re not. Not quite. We’re always falling short of God tells us we can be. We’re stuck halfway between Easter and Pentecost - we’ve witnessed the resurrection, we believe the Good News, but we’re not quite living as that early group of Christians - we’re not healing everyone who comes to us, we’re not seeing the joy of new life in everyone around us, we haven’t given up everything we owned and shared it with the poor. Why?

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” The uncomfortable truth about the Christian life is that living as Christ calls us to requires sacrifices. Living lives of Christian love and service to the world requires giving certain things up. We can’t have our cake and eat it, too. We can’t serve two masters. These cliches are used so often because they have truth in them. As Christians, we can’t commit ourselves fully to following Christ and to living with perfect loves towards those around us as long as we are busy spending our time and energy on other things. Just like plants that need to be pruned to produce fruit, we also need to be pruned. Certain blossoms need to be plucked off in order for others to grow into fruit. Certain seedlings need to be uprooted in order for others to grow bigger and become full-fledged plants. Certain branches need to be cut back in order for the main stem to get bigger. (I’ve already started my gardening for the year, so there’s a lot of plant metaphors.)

But it’s hard for us to do this ourselves. It takes a gardener to decide which blossom or seedling or branch shows the most promise. And it takes a gardener to do the actual pruning. Our heavenly Father, our God in heaven, is our gardener. God can see what in our lives needs to be cut back or removed entirely, and, if we let God take these things from us, we will bear more and better fruit than we can imagine. 

But what is it that God wants to prune from us specifically? What are the things that are getting in the way of us following Jesus and loving others?

There are two things in particular that I think maybe God wants to prune from us - two things that might be sapping our time and energy in unproductive ways. The first is the tendency we have of making the past our primary reference point. To put it probably too simply, we think too much about the past. Now thinking about the past and indulging in some fond memories of times gone by is not itself a bad thing. We need these memories and we need to remember this past in order to know where we come from. As Christians, we are constantly looking to our history as a people of God and to the Easter Sunday that happened two thousand years ago in order to move forward. The danger comes, though, when we spend so much time looking backwards that we never move forwards; when we spend so much time tending and watering the memories of the past that we end up starving the branches of the present and the future. We never want to forget the past, but we don’t want to become preoccupied with it either. If we do, we run the risk of becoming a vine whose branches of history are full and flourishing but whose branches of today and tomorrow are withering and dying off. When we cling to life in the past, we are taking life from others in the present. When all of our energies are spent reflecting on all of the wonderful relationships we used to have, we have no more energy to develop new relationships with the people who are in need now - today. Jesus’ first disciples would never have created the church if they had spent all their time hanging about Jerusalem and thinking about the good memories of Palm Sunday. They wouldn’t have moved forward and healed others and proclaimed the good news and started the church. They had to live in the present and think towards the future in order to truly love people as Christ called them to do. Spending too much of our energy thinking about the past gets in the way of us following Jesus today and loving those in need today and tomorrow.

The other thing that I think God wants to prune from us is our tendency to prioritize things over people. As much as we deny it, the truth is that we - and by we I mean our culture, not just this congregation - value property over people. Take the protests that have been going on in the past year in Ferguson and now in Baltimore. These protests are occurring because people are dying at the hands of the police. People are dying. But what do we hear about in the news? What do people get upset about? The property damage. We see pictures of looted stores, but we don’t see pictures of Freddie Gray’s body in the morgue. We get outraged by the property damage, but we get far less outraged by the bodily damage being inflicted on people. We watch the news and are more judgmental of those who break pharmacy windows than of those who break a young man’s spine. If there is anything that God would love to prune more than anything else, it has to be this - our attachment to property over people, the time and energy and money we pour in to physical buildings rather than into God’s own children. Christ calls us to love people, not property.

Yet, on the other hand, buildings can be extensions of God’s love. We need shelter. We need a place to gather and to receive God’s love so that we can go out and share it. We need pharmacies. We need our history and we need our past. So how do we know when God is trying to prune something from us, or when God is telling us to use it to follow Christ? There is a simple question that helps us figure this out, although the answer isn’t always simple. The question is:
Is this thing, or behaviour, or preoccupation, helping us to love and heal others today?

Are our memories helping us to love and heal others today? Are our buildings or houses or churches helping us to love and heal others today? I know that some of you have been talking about how the building of St. John is sucking up a lot of time and energy and money, while at the same time it has been such a comfort and joy in the past. The question is, does the building of St. John help us to love others, or get in our way? Sometimes it’s one, but sometimes it’s the other. So, the question becomes, if we hold onto the building, who could we love more? If we get rid of it, who could we love more? Is God asking us to prune our building? Prune our looking back at the past? Which branches need cultivating and which need cutting back?

What I am suggesting it not an easy thing to hear. I understand that. We are often afraid of God’s pruning, and that’s understandable. We don’t want to lose our connections to the past, or lose our memories of so many special times. We don’t want to lose the relationships that come from this shared past. We don’t want the sacrifices we made in the past to become meaningless, and we don’t want to lose our connections to that which has made us who we are today. Our past got us here today, and this building has been a home - where generations have been spiritually nurtured and have received God’s love themselves. Even now, things aren’t so bad. We may have a tendency to look back a lot, and we may have a tendency to spend too much time and energy and money on the building, but that’s not all we are doing. We’re doing other things as well - sharing the building with others, finding meaning in worship today. So I understand if it is hard to hear that maybe God wants to prune these things from us, and to let God do it. Unlike plants, we are given agency and control over our own lives - to a certain extent - and God allows us to say yes or no to God’s plan for us. We can stop God from pruning - we can hold on to the branches and the flowers that prevent us from growing. We can live in fear. But if we do, we will find it impossible to grow in love and service to those around us. We will find it impossible to follow Christ as the disciples we want to be and that Jesus calls us to be.

You probably noticed when you came in this morning that the tree in the corner of the plaza is gone. It was a beautiful tree, and I’m sure a lot of you remember springs when it was in full bloom, with a really lovely scent. But this spring, it was only half in bloom. Half of the branches were full of tiny white flowers but the other half was dead. Done in by the storm in September. There’s no way it was going to survive, even though half of the tree was blooming away. If we focused on only the flowering half of the tree, we would say there’s no need to cut it down. But when we look at the whole tree, it’s clear that it had to go. So, George Binder got his saw and his axe and took it down. And it was sad, you know. I’m a prairie girl and I hate seeing trees cut down. But, lo and behold, when it was down, we found two tulips growing at the base, tulips that could finally get some sunshine and be seen and bloom away. Tulips that we would never have noticed and that probably would have faded and then died without the proper sunlight.

God prunes us, even if we’re showing signs of life, in order for new life to bloom. There are tulips in our lives that God wants to see grow, but the tree has to be cut down to see them. Yet here is the good news - life after pruning is so much better than life before. This is the promise of Easter, and we are still in Easter after all. You see, when we are pruned, and freed to love others more, we build new memories and new relationships in the present, new moments that add depth to our old memories and relationships. When God frees us to love others more today, when we are finally able to spend all of our time and energy and money on loving and healing others today, on following Jesus today, we become more who God created us to be as Christians. We create meaning for today and not from yesterday’s sacrifices - we find new things that make us who we are, new ways to love and offer Christ’s healing to others. We are freed to follow our shepherd, and to walk the path that Christ has laid out for us. We live in Christ, and he in us, and God’s love is made perfect in us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Blindly Following the Shepherd - April 26, 2015

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23:1-6; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

A couple of months ago, there was a two-week period when my youngest son would walk through the house with his eyes closed. He’d hold his hands out in front of him, and then walk through the room to see if he could avoid bumping into anything. At first, he would move slowly and hesitate, but the farther he got into the room, the more confident he would be and the faster he would go, until he got to me and then he’d open his eyes and smile, with a mixture of triumph and relief. Triumph because he’d actually managed to get through the room without losing his way, and relief because it’s actually a bit scary to walk around blind. Who knows what you could bump into, or if you might end up falling down the stairs?

Generally speaking, we like to see where we’re going and we start to get nervous when we can’t. When things get dark, either literally or metaphorically, we start to get anxious. Darkness and blindness are some of the oldest visuals we have for describing times when we’re unhappy because we don’t know what’s going on or what’s going to happen. Our psalm for today - one we could probably recite by heart - talks about walking through the valley of darkness. It brings up thoughts of stumbling about in the dark, unable to see anything at all, tripping on rocks, banging into boulders, falling into holes, taking the wrong path and getting lost. Unless we’re feeling pretty safe and secure, we don’t like to walk in darkness. We don’t like to go forward blindly.

But life forces us to, doesn’t it? Human life is one moment after another of walking in blindness, never being able to see what’s ahead of us. We are always, in a way, living in darkness, without any way to know what is coming. And that can make us anxious and stressed. I know that many of you worry about what’s to come as you get older - about when your bodies will start letting you down, about when you will have to give up your car or move out of where you are now, about how long you will be able to take care of yourself. Life is so unpredictable, and when we try to see the future, to prepare for what’s coming, everything is dark. I know that many of you worry about your grandchildren and about what the future has in store for them. Even I worry about what things will be like for my grandchildren and I don’t have any yet! But we don’t know what things will be like - we can’t see whether the economy will get stronger or weaker, or whether climate change will drastically change the world, or whether life will become a struggle for survival. We can’t see their path, and we know that they will have to move forward blindly, just as we do, and so we worry.
But this is life, isn’t it? This is the story of human existence. It’s the story of the church’s existence. And the story of this congregation’s existence. We are always moving forward blindly, and it’s always unsettling. We know that Jesus is calling us forward, but we can’t see which way to go, and, like sheep and all of God’s creatures who are afraid of the dark, we get frightened.

People tend to do one of three things when frightened and anxious. When we’re forced to move forward but can’t see where we’re going, we move into flight-or-fight mode. Actually, it’s flight-or-fight-or-freeze mode, as psychologists say now. When faced with a scary and unknown future, sometimes we take flight - like the frightened hired hand in our Gospel reading, who’s faced with wolves and takes flight - we run away from where we’re at - we run away from commitments, or from getting involved, or from getting into things. It takes a strong person to face our fear, and most of us aren’t that strong. Look at poor Peter in the courtyard after Jesus was arrested, running away from his relationship with Jesus. Look at the poor disciples, fleeing Jerusalem after Jesus was crucified - escaping to Emmaus, hiding in rooms with locked doors. We try to flee, but the problem is that sometimes we end up flying away from Jesus, and getting lost as a result.

Sometimes, if we don’t take flight, we fight. When the way forward is dark and frightening, we deal with it by trying to take control of every single thing in our lives, trying to plan out every possible option, making plan after plan after plan, in an attempt to see in the dark and predict every possible outcome. It’s not a bad thing to make plans, but when we use these plans to try to fight the uncertainty of the future, we inevitably encounter something we hadn’t even thought of, and everything falls apart. Fighting the darkness is about as effective as trying to run away from it, especially when it turns out that, in our blindness, we’ve somehow mistakenly ended up fighting Jesus and the path he wants us to follow.
And, sometimes, we freeze. When the darkness surrounds us, we hide our heads under the pillow and try to pretend that everything is normal and that nothing has changed and that nothing ever will. We engage in wishful thinking that stalls us where we are, and even if we hear Jesus calling us, we’re too petrified to follow the sound of his voice and so we never get to him. 

But, even knowing this, as I said, unless we’re feeling safe and secure, we don’t like to walk in darkness and we don’t like to go forward blindly. Safety and security don’t come from us, though. No matter what we do, we’ll never be able to make ourselves feel completely safe and secure, because we can’t. Humans don’t have that capacity. We simply can’t see in the dark on our own. We simply can’t see when we’re blind. It’s not possible. We need help.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of darkness, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Jesus is the one who leads us through the dark. Jesus leads us along right paths for his name’s sake. Jesus is our shepherd, whose voice we recognize, who calls us to him and whom we can reach even when we’re blind. Jesus is our safety and our security when we can’t see our way. You know - when my son would get lost walking with his eyes closed, he would stop and hesitate, and if I called to him, he would immediately turn to me and walk straight towards me. He knew my voice, and he knew I was a safe place. And Jesus is this for us, and more. Jesus calls us, calls us to come toward him, and even though our path is dark, we know that when we turn to him and move forward, we will make it to him in safety. His voice is our guide, and he protects us from getting lost or injured on our way.
Our safety and security comes from the reality that because Jesus is our shepherd, we will end up where we are supposed to be, even though we can’t see it ahead of us. This is the promise given to us through Christ - as Christian individuals and as a Christian community. It means that we can move forward blindly, trusting that God, who has fulfilled God’s promises to our ancestors, has sent us a shepherd to keep us safe and bring us to green pastures and to still waters.

We can trust this to be true because God has already done it. In those first few days after Jesus’ death, the newly forming community of Christians was just as blind as we are now. They were making their way forward from the miracle of the resurrection, but with no idea of where they were going. A few weeks ago we heard about Jesus walking with the disciples along the road to Emmaus, and about how they were unable to “see” him for who he was. They were blind when it came to the future of the Christian community. And yet Jesus led them to break bread together, a sign of the Christian church. Jesus shepherded them to become a fellowship for whom communion was a sign of Christ’s presence among them. Today’s reading tells us the story of the very early church struggling to find their way through what we now call Pentecost. They didn’t know where they were going or what Jesus wanted them to do, other than to heal the sick. They probably thought they were all going to be crucified by the Romans, just like he was. Yet they continued to move forward. And because they moved forward blindly, because Jesus called them towards him, we are here today. Jesus called that community to move forward, and through the centuries has called every Christian community to move forward, through the generations and through the years, until today, and here we are. The congregation of St. John. The disciples in the Book of Acts could never in their wildest dreams have imagined us sitting here today, and yet Jesus called them to act in love and move forward despite the darkness of their future, so that you could be here today and take communion and receive the grace and love of God. Who could see such a future?

Hiro doesn’t walk through the house with his eyes closed anymore. I think the novelty of not being able to see wore off quickly, and he prefers to know where he’s going, just like we all do. But ultimately we cannot see everything, or really even anything, that is to come. Nor is it our job. We are not shepherds. We are not charged with the responsibility of deciding where Jesus will call us or of seeing our destination before we arrive. This is not even the job of pastors, even though we pastors have often adopted the image of shepherd as our model for leadership. Only Jesus is our shepherd. Only Jesus escorts us through the darkest valley. Only Jesus protects us so well that we can sit down - with enemies all around us - and enjoy a wonderful feast. Only Jesus calls us along safe paths when we cannot see the way in front of us. Of course, we can try to stop ourselves from following him - and next week I’m going to talk about how we do that - and sometimes we have a hard time recognizing Jesus’ voice - which I’m going to talk about two weeks from now - but Jesus’ call is both irresistible and empowering, and Jesus as our shepherd escorts us to where we need to be. Jesus has done it, he is doing it, and he will do it. We may be blind, but we are not lost. Jesus is with us, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Now and forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.