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.