Sunday, December 24, 2017

Dec 24, 2017 - God Become Love

You must all be ready for Christmas, right? I can tell by the way you’re all sitting there so calmly that you’re set. No more presents to buy, no more menus to plan, you’ve done everything you need to do, and you are good to go. You must feel so relaxed, so calm and peaceful. 

Myself, I could use another month. I mean, I’ve got (most) of the presents I’ve needed to get, the house is decorated and mostly clean. My mother is handling the food. My list is checked off (as soon this service is done). And yet, I actually feel kind of stressed. I’m worried that the presents won’t bring as much happiness as I hope. I’m worried that the kids will get into an argument (either the little kids or the adult kids), and that our Christmas gathering won’t be as calm as I want it to be. When it comes right down to it, I’m worried that the love that we’re all supposed to feel for one another, for friends and family and for strangers and the world at large, the love that is supposed to saturate this holiday and seep through every moment and give us all a magical glow... I’m worried that this Christmas love, which comes so easily in church right now, and which is the whole point of Christmas, will become, once again, so much harder when the day is over. And so, really, I don’t feel quite ready Christmas. I haven’t done everything that needs doing. It’s too hard.

Maybe you know what I’m talking about? Maybe you’ve experienced that this work of Christmas love is hard? We like to think it’s easy, especially when there’s good food, and presents, and beautiful music, and candlelight. But tomorrow, and in the days to come, when there are too many people in the house, and too many dishes to get on the table, when we’re wondering why we spent so much money on presents, when the kids are arguing because they’re tired and have had too much chocolate, we will experience that love is hard. 

Love is a hard thing to do at Christmas because it can’t be manufactured, or bought at the store, or ordered over Amazon. We like to think it’s easy––we sing all these Christmas carols about it, and sign our Christmas cards with “love,” we “love” all the cute holiday posts on social media. But real love––true, authentic, honest love––is not so easy. Loving a person, rather than a picture or a pithy saying, is harder. It requires compassion, and understanding, and vulnerability. It requires us to be honest about our own shortcomings and weaknesses so that we can accept the shortcomings and weaknesses of others. Love at Christmas means coming out from behind the trappings of the holiday and being who we are underneath it all and accepting others for who they are. Easy? No.

And so we’re in a bit of a conundrum. We know that love is the most important thing at Christmas. This is what we are here to celebrate, right? That out of love God came into the world as one of us? That God became love for the world? We’ve been told for the last month that we need to get ready for this love, to prepare for Christ to come. And yet love is the hardest thing to do. We aren’t really celebrating Christmas if we don’t have it. So what do we do? 

Well, first of all, take a minute and breathe. A nice big breath, all the way in through your nose, and out. Lower your shoulders, and breathe once more. Rest. 
You see, it’s already been done. What God did that first Christmas night was to do what we can’t always do: to become love for the world. This is why we are here tonight.

Becoming love means becoming flesh and living amongst us. Becoming love means taking on one of these frail, imperfect bodies, and becoming immersed in the challenges of being human. Becoming love means becoming all of those things that love requires - compassion, vulnerability, understanding. And so this is what God did by becoming flesh in Jesus Christ. God, who is love itself, became love in the flesh. At one of the darkest times in a people’s history, God became flesh out of compassion for those who were suffering from oppression. Rather than blaming the victims of the system for their weakness in allowing themselves to be dominated, rather than telling them that it was their fault, God became one of them. God could have taken flesh and been born as the Son of a Roman Emperor, so that all the wrongs could be righted from the top. God could have loved from on high, without becoming entangled in the lives of those all around. But instead, God came as just one more baby born under the tyranny of Emperor Augustus. And in doing so, God entangled the divine life with our own and became vulnerable. To being hated, to being overwhelmed, to being misunderstood.

Why? So that God could love us and with that love, transform us. So that God could take all of the hardest work of love on God’s self. So that God could love us the way we are supposed to love others. After all, we can’t truly love others unless we ourselves are truly loved. And that is what God, love in the flesh, has come to do. To love us when we are at our ugliest, our crankiest, our most impatient. God loves you when you are overwhelmed by too much to do, and when you are short with your kids or your parents. God loves you when the Christmas glow has faded, along with the warm and cozy feelings of this night. God loves you, accepts you, cherishes you, with the most perfect love there is, completely as you are underneath all of the trappings of Christmas.

So, breathe. The love that we are supposed to share at Christmas has already been shared by God with us. And while we celebrate what God has done on this one night a year, it turns out that God’s work of love is so complete that it extends past today, to tomorrow, and the day after that, and all the days to come. We can rest in this moment, and the next, and the one after that because God has come into the world, doing the hardest part of love for us. God has come into the world to love us two thousand years ago and now and forever. God has come into the world loving us and those around us even when we are at our most unloveable. God has done the hardest work––this is the gift of Christmas.

And so tomorrow, or even later tonight, when you’re gathered with those you’re supposed to love, and trying to love, and maybe not quite 100% managing to love, and feeling overwhelmed and impatient with yourself, remind yourself that it’s okay. The love of God has come into the world, for you and for those you love. The love we share with one another is, really, secondary to that. The presents, the food, the get-togethers are bonuses. We don’t need to get everything perfect, not even love. What we manage will be enough because God’s love is more than enough. Rest. Breathe. Everything is done. Love has come to live among us. Glory to God in the highest heaven. Amen.

Dec 24, 2017 - Advent 4 - Children Proclaiming the Gospel

This is the fourth Sunday since we began hearing the words from both Isaiah and John the Baptist proclaiming that a voice cries out in the wilderness. Depending on how you read the punctuation, these passages either tell us that there is a voice crying out that we are to make the paths straight for the coming of our LORD, or that the one crying out in the wilderness is making those paths straight. Either way, we have these prophets of God telling us to prepare for God’s presence, and for the last three weeks, we have been doing that.

And today we have the children proclaiming the Good News and preparing us for tonight.  Today, it is the children who are the voices crying out in the wilderness. The children are the ones telling us that Christ is coming.

You know, the children’s Christmas pageant is not just an exercise in cuteness. I mean, yes, they are clearly amazing and they tell us the Christmas story from a fresh perspective because it is still, in many ways, new to them. And yes, we love watching them up there - their shining faces bring us joy and their innocence touches us.

But we don’t encourage children to lead us in worship because we are sentimental, or because we want the children to feel important, or because we are hoping to create future leaders of the church, although these things are true. We encourage children to lead us in worship because we believe that God comes to us most clearly in those with the least power. When we proclaim that God became flesh in a tiny baby, we’re not doing it because babies look cute on Christmas cards. We’re doing it because a baby is the most powerless creature there is. While the Roman Empire proclaimed that a god’s power comes through the Emperor and through military might and physical strength, the first Jewish followers-of-Christ proclaimed the complete and total opposite: God’s power, true power, comes through those overpowered by the military and by physical strength. 

Two thousand years later, when we proclaim that our God came into the world as a newborn baby who simply cannot survive on its own without help, we continue to say something profound about our God. The central message of our Christmas story tells us that God has chosen to no longer work through the strong and the powerful, through the competent, or the adult. Rather, God has chosen to work in the world through the weak and the powerless. That is because it is the powerless who can most be trusted with God’s power, because it is the powerless who know, through experience, the damage that is caused when that power is misused. Among us, the weakest and the most powerless right now are our children.

And so, following Christ in this as in all things, we welcome them and we give them the greatest power––the power to proclaim the Gospel to us. It’s a dangerous thing we’re doing, actually. Proclaiming the Gospel, that God has come among us with grace and love, is a real act of power, because when we proclaim it, it happens. When I say, “God be with you,” God is with you. When I say, “God forgives your sins,” God forgives your sins. Not because of me, but because of the words themselves. There are no idle words in the proclamation of the Gospel. And here we are, giving this immense, profound, holy power to these children. We don’t trust them to drive a car, we don’t trust them to stay home alone over the weekend, we don’t trust them make decisions of any real significance. But we trust them to proclaim the Gospel to us.

Rather, I should say, we trust God. We trust and obey God who has told us that Christ comes to us in the powerless. And we seek them out so that we can hear what the Son of God has to say to us. We seek them out because when these children were baptized in the church, the Holy Spirit fell on them with “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence.” God has sent them to us, and so we encourage their participation and we listen to their proclamations about God as they prepare us for Christ to come again. Not because they are super-cute, although they are, but because they are God’s prophets, sent to tell us that Christ is near. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Dec 21, 2017 - Longest Night Christmas Service

Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 40:1-11; Matthew 11:28-30; John 1:1-5, 14

When I was child, I didn’t know that Christmas could be a tough time of year. For me, Christmas was all about the bright lights on the tree in the living room, and Hark! the Herald Angels Sing (although I was never quite sure how the angels were connected to the Calgary Herald newspaper), and my grandmother’s Christmas cookies, and of course lots of people at church. I remember Joy to the World! ringing out as the last hymn of the Christmas Eve service, with everyone singing with gusto. I remember getting lost amongst the legs of all the people in the narthex as I looked for my boots to change out of my nice church shoes when the service was over. I remember leaving the church and everyone calling out Merry Christmas across the parking lot, and riding home in the car feeling warm and cozy and excited to open presents.

I miss that. Or rather, I miss that feeling. I miss feeling the exuberant joy of Christmas. I miss enjoying the chaos of all the people and activities. To be honest, I’m envious of those who thrive on all excitement and frenetic energy this time of year. Because I’m not there. Not this year. This year I keep thinking about my grandmother, who loved Christmas, and especially the Christmas story. When I was little she sewed a little nativity doll set that we used to retell the Christmas story, and when she down-sized, she gave me her old German nativity scene, which I set up every year. She used to make special Christmas cookies that I would help her with, and her favourite hymn of all time was Lo, how a rose e’er blooming. She passed away a little less than a month ago. I saw her a few days before she died, and the kids and I sang Christmas carols to her while she lay in bed, but I’m not sure whether she knew we were there. We didn’t really get to say goodbye. And so this year, when it comes to the exuberance and excited celebrations of Christmas, I’m not quite there. It’s overwhelming. At times it feels burdensome––the heavy pressure to smile and to be happy to and revel in every minute of the holiday.

When we see the excitement and joy of others, but don’t feel the same way, it can be lonely. Isaiah describes it as living in a land of deep darkness, the Hebrew can even be translated as death-like shadow, something the Israelites experienced when they were in exile. And along with that feeling of loneliness or exile, we often feel guilty. We apologize to our friends and family, “I’m sorry, I’m just not feeling in the Christmas Spirit this year.” Or, “I’m sorry, I just don’t feel up to going to the children’s Christmas Pageant service this year.” We often excuse ourselves from participating in the more exuberant activities with an apology. As if we have done something wrong, or as if there is some failing in us. We can get down on ourselves for feeling overwhelmed by everything, we might feel bad that we can’t just “feel the love all around us” and “appreciate the season.” We see the joy and light on the faces of the children around us, and on others as they get wrapped up in the Christmas celebrations, and we know God is with them, in their excitement and love for the season. And we can wonder if God is with us, as we sit, not in joy and light, but in the darkness, in the shadow of death, feeling alone and inept. We may even wonder whether we will ever feel the joy and light of Christmas that we remember. Whether we will ever feel the presence of God the way we did before or the way others seem to.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness––on them light has shined.” These are Isaiah’s words to a people in exile, but they are also words for us. Whether your exile from the exuberance of Christmas is caused by circumstances beyond your control or self-imposed, whether your exile is new this year or an old, familiar place, these words are for you. These words, and those from the Gospel of John, “The light shines in the darkness,” are God’s gift to us at this time.

The comfort of these words is that they do not ask us to enter into a place of exuberance and excitement in order for God to be with us. God does not lay any guilt or accusations on us because we are still in the darkness. God does not put any expectations on us to join in the festivities. Instead of demanding that we travel to the place of light and joy, God comes to us, into the darkness, into the land covered by the shadow of death. God joins us in our exile.

This is the Christmas story, though, isn’t it? That God came to us in darkness, that the Son of God forsook his place next to the Father’s side and came down, exiled as it were, to be among us? That the Word of God let go of immortality and perfection and transcendence and eternity and infinity and all of that wonderful stuff and, instead, took on mortality, and imperfection, and being stuck in the here and now. The Word of God voluntarily came into our darkness, to this place in the shadow of death, and “lived among us.”

And this is the joy before us. Not the exuberance and excitement of children––it may well be that we will never feel that kind of joy again. But we are offered a different joy. A deeper one, if you will. Isaiah says that God has increased the joy of the nation in exile, and then goes on to say that God speaks tenderly to the people, and gathers up the lambs, and gently leads the mother sheep. This joy of God that is given to us in exile and darkness is a tender and gentle joy, if we can imagine such a thing. Rather than the blazing of stadium lights, it is the single, steady flame of a candle. If we are looking for the light as bright as the sun, we will miss it. But if our back is already to the sun, if our faces are already in shadow, it will shine before us, small but there. That subdued moment of joy, subdued but still present, is a sign to us that God is with us, that the darkness, no matter how deep, does not overcome the light.

After all, Jesus did not come in the middle of the day, with a hundred attendants, and trumpets proclaiming his birth. The heavens celebrated, to be sure, but no proclamation was issued from down here on earth. There were no gifts handed out to the masses, no feast day declared. The joy he brought with him was quiet, small to begin with, unassuming. It was only in retrospect that we came to recognize the greatness of his light and his joy. At the time, it was muted, covered, hidden from the Empire, even. And yet it shone.

This light shines for us, too, wherever we are. It shines in the candles we will light this evening. It shines in the friendly smiles of those who are gathered here tonight. It shines as we find a moment to sit quietly at home on Christmas Eve, and maybe listen to some beautiful music on the radio. And if there are tears, the light shines in those tears, too. God’s light is not lessened by our pain or our sorrow. God’s light shines in our darkness.

The light of Christ that we celebrate at Christmas, that is sent to bring us joy, is not meant to be overwhelming or a burden. Indeed, Christ says himself, “I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” God does not require you to be exuberantly joyful in your celebration of the birth of Christ––the light come into the world. Rather, God’s gift to you, this year and every year to come, is to come to you, to be the light in your darkness, so that you are not alone. The Word became flesh and lives among you, comfort, and even joy, for you on this day. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Advent 3 - Ridiculously Hopeful - Isaiah 55:1-13

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

“The mountains and hills shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” When I read this passage earlier this week, I have to admit that an image popped into my head of cartoon Rockies singing and animated pine trees lifting up their branches and waving them around, like some kind of wacky old-school Bugs Bunny cartoon. I had to laugh, because if you take this imagery literally, it’s pretty ridiculous. Singing mountains and clapping trees? It’s so absurd we have to smile.

The absurdity, or ridiculousness, of this passage begins even earlier, though, and in a more serious context. This part of Isaiah was written for God’s people in exile, who had been taken from their homes, and who were living in poverty and despair in a foreign land. And along comes Isaiah, saying to them, “you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money!” Isaiah tells people who are starving, both literally and spiritually, because they’ve been cut off from their Temple and from God, to come and buy what they need to be filled. Isaiah calls them to do what is impossible for them. His call to them is ridiculous.

Actually, it’s a bit obscene––encouraging starving people with no money to come and buy food. It’s a bit like opening a Lambourghini store in a city hit by a recession. Or like telling people who are addicted to drugs that they just need to have more self-discipline. Or like telling someone who’s been paralyzed by a car accident that they just need to get up and walk it off. It’s rubbing salt in the wound, so to speak. It’s cruel. And yet Isaiah is doing it. Isaiah tells the people to buy food. And more than that, even though they are in captivity in another country, and even though God’s home among them has been destroyed, he tells them that God has glorified them. In the midst of their utter humiliation, they are to delight. In the midst of their despair, they are to hope.

It’s ridiculous. Obscene. And yet they do. The people of Israel continue to delight in God, even though to the outside world they have nothing to delight in. They continue to hope, even though their situation is hopeless. They turn to God, even though to the world around them it looked as if God has abandoned or even betrayed them. Even today, despite everything that has happened to them, the Jewish people continue to celebrate the light of God in the world and God’s protection of them during this time of Chanukah.

But we do this too, don’t we? We, too, engage in this ridiculous behaviour of finding joy in the midst of tragedy. We, too, remain hopeful in the face of loss. We celebrate Christmas and the coming of Christ into the world in the midst of suffering and grief and a world on the brink of chaos. We look to new life after death.

It is ridiculous, and even obscene, to give thanks to God for this day when we are simply incapable of stopping loss and death, when we can do nothing to stop the day from coming to an end. It is ridiculous. Unless... unless... unless the cause of our joy and hope and celebrations lies outside of us. It is ridiculous for us to hope, unless our hope comes from God and not from ourselves.

This is what Isaiah is trying to tell us. Isaiah is trying to point out to his listeners that yes, it is ridiculous to buy food when we have no money, and to celebrate the glory of God when we are in humiliation. It is ridiculous because we can never do these things of our own accord. We cannot provide ourselves with food, and we cannot give ourselves glory. Rather, it is God who does these things for us. God, whose ways and thoughts are higher than ours, can bring into being a world that is more than we can even imagine. And it is God in whom we hope, and who gives us that very hope, and that is why it is not ridiculous, after all.

We can hope in God, because God’s word to us, God’s promises to us of new life, God’s promises to Israel that they would return from exile and be led back in peace, that they would never again be cut off from God, these promises are more than just words. God’s words to us are efficacious. They do what they say. Isaiah explains it by saying, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” 

Think about that for a minute––just as rain and snow become bread to eat, through the process of watering the soil and nourishing the kernel which becomes the plant which puts forth grain which is harvested and milled and baked into life-giving bread, so does the Word of God become life and joy for us, through the process of strengthening us and lifting our spirits and showing us the newness of all things. The Word of God calms our anxious minds, and brings peace to our hearts, and joy and hope in our sorrows. It is a mystery, to be sure, just as mysterious as why hydrogen and oxygen that make up water should be used by a plant’s DNA to ensure its growth into grain. But it is a reality. God’s word does what it proclaims. Just as in Genesis, when God said, “Light, be!” and Light was––so God says, Joy! Hope! Life! and there is joy, and hope, and life within us. It is ridiculous enough to make you smile.

And yet it is real. You all being here, after the loss of Gretchen, seeking comfort from God and worshiping and praising God for all things, is ridiculous, and yet real. The Christian proclamation that the world would be saved from oppression and healed and liberated through the birth of a tiny baby two thousand years ago is ridiculous, and yet real. Our belief that death is not the end of us, and that we continue to live in God is ridiculous, and yet real. Our hope that God will lead us in joy and peace, that the mountains will burst into song and that the trees will clap their hands, is ridiculous, and yet real.

To celebrate Christmas this year, in this place, with joy and with hopefulness is ridiculous. Yet, clearly, we find ourselves doing it. Not because we are delusional, or in denial, but because God moves us to. God’s speaks God’s Word and it comes to pass. God proclaims joy, and joy happens. God proclaims peace, and peace happens. God proclaims new life, and new life happens. It is ridiculous, and it is our hope. And so, today and in the days to come, may God’s Word spoken to you send you out in joy and lead you back in peace. May God’s Word strengthen you and fill you. May God’s Word be light in your darkness, and give you hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent 2 - Making a Home for Righteousness

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

So here we are in this season of Advent, waiting for God. Waiting for Christ to return, as he promised after his resurrection. Waiting for God’s kingdom to be here fully, where, as our Psalm says, steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss each other, and the glory of the LORD will dwell in our land. We are waiting for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven, for the world to be made new. 

We’ve been waiting for a while now though, don’t you think? Almost two thousand years, actually, and I’m getting impatient with all this waiting. We know that the day of the Lord will come with a big bang and that everything we know will go up in flames, and that all the secrets of the world will be exposed, but when I read the news, I can’t help but think, the sooner the better. Climate change, nuclear war, gender-based violence, religious persecution of all kinds, corruption everywhere. What is God waiting for? I am so ready for righteousness, which means justice by the way, to be fully present among us.

As it turns out, our impatience for God’s kingdom to be here is not new. Only one hundred years after Jesus died and was raised, we have the second letter of Peter, our second reading from this morning. And in this letter, it’s pretty clear that Jesus’ followers are already impatient and wondering when he’s going to return. They, too, were ready for everything to be overturned and for God’s justice and righteousness to prevail. They were probably wondering, like me, when God was going to sweep in and take over and use God’s almighty power to punish the evil and rescue the good and make it all better.

But the writer of 2 Peter offers a different perspective. He starts by saying, “do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” Time does not work the same for God as it does for us. God has a much bigger perspective of the world than we do. Humans, as the species we are now, have only been around for less than two hundred thousand years. The planet we live on has existed for more than 14 billion years. God waited billions of years from the beginning of Creation to bring Jesus into the world the first time, and we are complaining about less than two thousand years of waiting. God’s timing is a little bit different than ours.

But 2 Peter raises what is the more important issue: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” As it turns out, while we have been so busy waiting for God, it turns out that God has been waiting for us. God is waiting for us to prepare for what God is actually going to bring. God is waiting for us to be ready for Christ’s coming again.

Why? Because the world that we create while we are getting ready for God’s kingdom is the kingdom that will come. Let me repeat that: The world that we create while we are getting ready for God’s kingdom is the kingdom that will come. You see, 2 Peter says that our “leading lives of holiness and godliness,” leading lives of righteousness and justice, “waiting for” the coming of the day of God is actually “hastening the coming of the day of God.” In a remarkable upset, God has given us God’s own power, so that the ways in which we prepare during this season of Advent determine the world that will arrive. Our preparations determine the kingdom that will come. The home we create while we are waiting for God is the home God will give to us.

Now, God, clearly, is hoping for a place, as 2 Peter says, where “righteousness is at home.” So the question becomes: How do we create a home for righteousness? How do we live so that righteousness comes, the sooner the better?

The word “righteous” comes from the Hebrew Bible. It’s root, tzedeq, is connected to justice, and equality. It’s also connected to fairness and balance. For example, properly balanced weights that you might use in the market, are called “righteous.” Equitable division of food and resources so that everyone has what they need is righteous. Restoring the sick to wholeness, correcting injustice, redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor, ensuring that power is shared amongst all––these all fall under the category of righteousness.

Righteousness is not morality. Nor is it staying out of trouble. In the Bible, righteous living is active living. It is going out and striving for justice and balance. Sitting at home and passively waiting for justice to work itself out is not considered righteous living. The saying, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing,” reflects this concept. Martin Luther, when he was explaining the Ten Commandments in his Large Catechism, reinforced this idea that true righteousness is actively doing justice. In explaining the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder,” he wrote, “this commandment is violated not only when we do evil, but also when we have the opportunity to do good to our neighbours and to prevent, protect, and save them from suffering bodily harm or injury but fail to do so.” Luther says that those who do nothing in the face of need, who live passively while there is suffering in the world are guilty of murder. Righteous living is active living. Being at home with righteousness means being at home with justice––being at home with going out and actively dismantling structures of injustice.

But wow, is this hard! For one thing, this is a lot of work! Dismantling systems of injustice is no walk in the park! Our modern systems of equality took years and years of blood, sweat, and tears, literally. The abolishment of slavery by the British Commonwealth, the right for women to vote, labour laws that prevent child exploitation, universal health-care––any major change in culture that has resulted in greater equality and justice has taken years of toil and conflict. The reason that our Psalm says that when the Lord comes, righteousness and peace will kiss is because righteousness does not yet come peacefully. It comes through striving and, yes, conflict.

But there’s a second reason that righteousness is so hard. And that’s because it’s not something that can be imposed. We can’t force righteousness. We can’t force justice or equality. Coming in with sweeping powers and saying, “the world will now be fair and equal and just!” is the very opposite of the world actually being fair and equal and just. The command, “Share your power!” is kind of self-defeating. It is very difficult to make people feel at home with justice and righteousness by threatening or forcing them into it. It’s like demanding love. It doesn’t work.

Fortunately for us, God knows this. God knows that things like love, and righteousness, and justice can’t be forced. They can only be inspired. They can only be brought to fruition by people who have themselves experienced these things. If you have never experienced love, you will not know how to love. If you have never experienced justice, you won’t know how to be just. And so God models this for us. God acts towards us with righteousness and justice and love so that we will know what that looks like. So that we will be at home with it. So that we can recreate it and hasten the coming of God’s kingdom.

God does this by coming to us in weakness. Righteousness and justice are about lifting up the lowly and bringing down the powerful from their thrones, as Hannah and Mary sing in their canticles. God, whom we call almighty and omnipotent and the Creator of the universe and God above all, with unlimited power over life and death, God models the most righteous and just use of this power by surrendering that power. By coming as a baby, born to an enslaved people, under humiliating circumstances. God models the use of power by choosing to live a life of active servanthood and eventually dying for us. God did not come as yet another Emperor––the Emperor above all Emperors. God could have. But God didn’t. And God could bring about the end of the world right now, and impose justice and peace on the world. But God doesn’t. God chooses the path of righteousness, which means going out into the wilderness of others. It means going out and struggling with others. It means going out and actively working against injustice, giving our voice and our privilege to those who are suffering, and it means giving up everything for them. 

God models righteousness by refusing to force us to do what God wants, while at the same time tirelessly working with us to get there. God’s patience with us is a sign of that. God will not and will never force you to do God’s will, and anyone who tells you otherwise, who says that God demands submission or obedience is wrong. God’s relationship with us, which begins with a lowly birth in a manger, is one in which God always surrenders God’s own power to us, so that we can freely choose to follow the path of Christ. So that we can freely choose to surrender our own power to others. So that we can take the privileges we enjoy, and give them away. We become at home with righteousness by giving others the freedom and power that God is daily giving us.

There’s a cartoon by William DeBurgh, where Jesus is sitting on a park bench, next to a well-meaning, nicely-dressed person. And the person asks Jesus, “Why do you allow things like famine, and war, and homelessness to exist in our world?” And Jesus says, “Interesting you should bring that up––I was about to ask you the same thing.” 

We are waiting for Jesus to come again. We are waiting for God’s kingdom, the home of righteousness. And God is oh-so-patiently waiting for us. Let our waiting hasten the coming of the day of God, where righteousness is at home. May our acts of living say, Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Advent 1 - The Shifting of the World

Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

How do you handle change? I don’t mean things like changes in the weather, or your favourite cereal coming in a smaller box. I mean massive change. How do you handle your world shifting beneath you? How do you handle things while you’re waiting for everything to settle down?

Our Gospel passage for today, this first Sunday of Advent, invites us to think about these questions. When the author of the Gospel of Mark writes about the days of suffering, and the sun and moon being darkened, and the power in the heavens being shaken, he’s reflecting the situation in which the Jews found themselves during the fall of the Second Temple in the year 70. Their world had been shaken, in a most devastating way, and was still shaking, and they were waiting for things to settle down.

This experience is, sadly, nothing new. There have always been times in history, either world history, or the history of a congregation, or even in our own personal history, when our world is shaken in devastating ways and we’re waiting for things to settle down. It’s a common experience in our lives, even if it feels incredibly uncommon when it occurs. And so we have Jesus talking about the time of waiting, that period when we endure the shaking of our world, saying that this time is like servants waiting for the master of the house to return from a long journey but nobody knows when that will be. We have Jesus saying that the servants of the house will have to endure an unsettling period of waiting.

So how do you feel as you wait for your world to settle down? It seems to me that waiting for the world to stop shifting, waiting for the master to arrive, can provoke quite different reactions. On the one hand, we can be hopeful and excited. The change that we are encountering, the way in which our world is shifting, might be so awful in and of itself that we are grateful for an end to it. When I was a child, I remember how much I hated having a substitute teacher in the class. When the regular teacher was away, schedules were all upset, and rules weren’t followed, and no one behaved. The classroom was always chaos. I couldn’t wait for the regular teacher to get back and to restore order. But I liked my teachers. And that influenced how I felt about the unsettling period when the one in charge was away. When it comes to Jesus’ parable, if we have experienced the master of the house as good, and kind, and caring, and just, and a stabilizing influence, then we will be hopeful and excited about him returning, no matter what the time.

On the other hand, if we have experienced the master as judgmental, and unfair, and abusive, we will endure the time of waiting with anxiety and fear. For example, I can imagine that my reaction to a substitute teacher would have been much different if I had not liked my regular teacher. If my teachers had been unfair, and too strict, and belittled students who made mistakes, or if I had gone to school in a time where bad behaviour was punished by the strap or a ruler, I can see that I would spend the time waiting for the teacher to return with great anxiety. What would they say when they got back? Would they have some new punishment ready for all the infractions committed when they were away? Would they have some new rule nobody could follow? When it comes to Jesus’ parable, if we’ve experienced the master of the house as power-hungry, and harsh, and unjust, then it’s perfectly natural that we would be anxious and fearful about him returning, no matter what the time.

Today’s Advent message is that when the world is shifting underneath you, it’s a sign that the master is coming. And when we hear that, we can feel hopeful or anxious, or both, depending on our past experiences. But Jesus gives us a clue as to what kind of master to expect. He hints at whether we should be hopeful and excited, or anxious and fearful. Jesus says, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that [the Son of Man] is near.”

“Summer is near.” Surely this is something we can identify with as a symbol of good things to come. Jesus and the audience of the Gospel of Mark never knew winter like we do, with the cold temperatures and sometimes snow, and most importantly less than eight hours of sunshine every day. Jesus didn’t know the kind of giddy excitement for summer that we feel by the time March rolls around, but he did know that summer is the time when fruit is ripe and grain is ready for harvest. Summer is the time when food is plentiful and life is full.
And so when Jesus says that the Son of Man’s arrival, the master’s return to the house, is like the shifting of the world from winter to summer, we can understand that he means it is a good thing. The world shifting, as unsettling and painful as it might be, can be endured much like winter––with discomfort as the days get darker, yes, but also with hope and joy that summer is coming. The master, our good master, the master who gently guides us, and forgives our mistakes, and heals our pain––this master is the one who is returning. The master who brings peace to chaos, the master who brings strength to the weak, the master who brings God to us––this master is the one we’re waiting for.

This is why we have a church season called Advent. The purpose of Advent is not only to prepare us to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus, even though that’s how we predominantly spend it. Advent is also meant to help us wait for the return of the master to the house. It’s meant to open our eyes to the ways in which our world is shifting in preparation for the Son of Man to come again. It’s meant to help us handle change with hope, rather than anxiety, by reminding us that all change ends with the return of our good master.

It’s not lost on me that in this congregation called Advent, you have been going through your own Advent season for a while now. In many ways, this congregation’s world has shifted quite a bit beneath you, and I have no doubt that as you wait for it to settle there is both hope and anxiety. This is natural. But as we celebrate this liturgical season of Advent, may God give you the faith to trust in Jesus’ promise that this period of waiting, like all others, will end with summer and stability and new life, and may God’s Spirit give you hope that outweighs your anxiety. Yes, the world is shifting, but our good master is coming. And so we say, with hope and joy, in this place of Advent, in this season of Advent: Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Christ the King - 2017

Matthew 25:31-46

Well, are you a sheep or are you a goat? When Jesus, the great shepherd, the great King, comes to carefully study your life, will he decide that you belong on the right, with those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, and visited those in prison? Will you be one of the inheritors of the kingdom of heaven? Or will the Son of Man decide that you belong on the left, with those who didn’t? Will you be sent off into eternal punishment?

I ask because, according to the Gospel of Matthew, it’s not obvious. In the parable I just read, there is a lot of uncertainty about who will end up with the righteous, and who will end up with the unrighteous. You may be struck that those whom Jesus calls “accursed,” and sends off to the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” are shocked. They have no idea that they missed the boat: “When was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” I don’t think these are awful people. I think they probably think of themselves as pretty decent folk. Very few people actually intend to live a life of pure evil; even the harshest dictators like to think they’re doing what’s best. The unrighteous in Jesus’ parable don’t know they missed opportunities––their surprise is genuine.

Interestingly, those who do take care of those in need are also shocked. The ones who get welcomed in the kingdom of heaven also ask, “Lord, when was it” that we did all these things? Just as the unrighteous have no idea they missed the boat, the righteous have no idea that they were on it. They have no idea that they actually belong on the sheep side. They, too, go about living their lives the best way they can, and it is a complete surprise to them that Jesus says they are deserving of eternal life.

(And, just as an aside, because this isn’t where I’m going with my sermon today: I do think it’s interesting that when Jesus splits the people up into sheep and goats, he does it completely on the basis of the good they’ve done in the world and not at all on whether they call themselves followers of Jesus. This isn’t like the Gospel of John, where only those who follow Christ and recognize his voice are the ones who are saved by the Shepherd. With Matthew, we could go so far as to say that everyone who cares for the least among us will be welcomed by Jesus into the kingdom of heaven, even if they’re atheists, while those who call themselves Christian but walk by the poor or even abuse them will not be.)
In any case, having heard Matthew tell us that we have no idea whether we’re going to be sent to the sheep side or the goat side, I have to ask, how do you feel about that? How do you feel about not knowing if what you’re doing in the world is good enough to get you assigned to the sheep side?

It makes me feel anxious. I mean, I try to do the right thing. I tithe 10% of my income every month to the food bank, and the women’s shelter, and SOS Children’s Villages, and PFLAG. When there is some major crisis in the world, I give to that, too. I never have cash in my wallet because I keep giving it away to the increasing number of people standing at the stop lights needing money. But, I know it’s not enough. I eat dessert even though I know there are people starving in the world, I have more than one pair of winter boots even though I know there are children who have no shoes at all, I stay at home in the evening and watch TV even though I know the hospitals and prisons are full of people who are alone and in need of company. I live quite securely with all my clothes and books and belongings in my nice, warm house, even though I know that in Calgary, 10% of the population, including 10% of the children, live below the poverty line, and 1/3 of us worry about not having enough money for housing. I’m not out there feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting them. I’m not out there taking care of the least among us. What I am doing is not enough. And so I’m anxious that Jesus, the great Shepherd, my King and my Lord, has good reason to send me off to the eternal fire, to suffer the way those around me are suffering on earth right now.

So, I’m feeling kind of depressed now, and the children have been sitting here so nicely, so I am going to take a break and go talk to them for a minute. Children, can you come forward up here? 

[So I have here a picture of someone who looks like they would be a great king. He is tall, and strong, and powerful. And here is a picture of someone who doesn’t look very much like a king. He is old, and he doesn’t look very strong, and he looks like he doesn’t even have anywhere to rest his head and sleep at night. Which one do you choose to be the king? The powerful and strong one? But if you had done something bad, and you knew you had to go and tell the truth about the bad thing you did, which one would you choose? Our King, whom we call Jesus, was actually not very strong and powerful. He was not at all like the first king. Our King actually died. And when people went to him to tell him the bad things he had done, he forgave them. And I bet he gave them a hug too. Our King, Jesus, is much more like this second person than the first. That’s what makes him a very special King, not like any of the others, and that’s why we love him and follow him and try to do what he does. Because he died for us and he forgives us and he loves us, and we are so glad to belong to him. Let us pray: Dear God, thank you for loving us and forgiving us and dying for us. Thank you for being a different kind of King. Help us to be like you. Amen.]

Our King, the one who will come to judge the living and the dead, does not want us to end up on the side of the goats. Our shepherd has no desire for us to end up in eternal fire. Our king would rather take care of us, and nurture us. In our reading from the Old Testament this morning, from Ezekiel, God says, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed (the Hebrew says cast out), and I will bind up the injured; and I will strengthen the weak. ... I will feed them with justice.” In fact, just a bit earlier in Ezekiel, in the chapter before our reading, God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” Our shepherd-King, our God, is not all excited about sending anybody “away into eternal punishment.”

And so, our shepherd-King, our God, takes steps to ensure that that doesn’t happen. Rather than crushing us for mistakes we make out of weakness, God strengthens us. Not by threatening us, but by loving us. Rather than punishing us when we fall, God lifts us up and sets us back on our feet. Rather than thundering over us with proclamations that we are unjust, God feeds us with justice. Rather than putting us to death for our role in the deaths of others, as we so rightly deserve, God dies for us. 

Our King dies for us. And in his death, our efforts become enough. Because our King dies for us, rather than demanding we die for him, we are brought from the side of the goats over to the side of the sheep. We are carried from eternal punishment to eternal life. We are made righteous. In dying, our King sends us God’s own Spirit, so that we, too, might seek the lost, and bring back the cast out, and bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. We, too, might feed the least among us with justice. We, too, might die for others. And where our work is not enough, God’s Spirit strengthens it, and makes it enough.

When I hear our Gospel reading from Matthew, I tend to imagine in my head that Jesus ends up dividing the nations roughly in two, with half going to the righteous side and half going to the unrighteous. But you know, it doesn’t actually say that anywhere in the reading. It doesn’t say anywhere how many inherit the kingdom and how many go to the fire. And when I read Ezekiel, and when I think about what it means that Christ is our King-who-dies-for-us, I begin to think that maybe, just maybe, the kingdom of heaven is full and the place of eternal fire is empty. Maybe the answer to the question of whether you are a sheep or a goat is actually obvious after all. The shepherd-King of the nations died for the nations, so that all may have life, and have it abundantly, and that includes you. Keep on doing the best you can in feeding the hungry, and welcoming the stranger, and clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and those in prison. Through the Holy Spirit within you, the very Spirit of Jesus Christ the King, you will end up caring for the least, and you will end up caring for Jesus. And the King who cares enough for you to give up even his life to make you righteous will welcome you with open arms into his kingdom and into eternal life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Pentecost 23 - Entitled Bridesmaids

Amos 5:18-24; Matthew 25:1-13

So, I’m kind of the family organizer when we pack to take a trip somewhere. I make up a list of how many sets of clothes each kid needs, and me too, and I figure out what kinds of shoes we should bring, and how many hair elastics, and socks and shirts, and don’t forget your toothbrush. I write each child a list, and me too, and we all check them off as we pack. I hate it when we’re in the middle of a trip and it turns out that someone forgot their toothbrush and we have to detour to get one. I think it’s important to be prepared.

Except that, if you ask my husband, he will tell you that I never pack toothpaste. I don’t know why I don’t pack toothpaste. Actually, I do know why, and it’s because I assume that he will always pack toothpaste. Somewhere along the way, we just got into the habit, or rather I got into the habit, of using his toothpaste when we travel, and assuming that it was okay. Why shouldn’t it be? We use the same toothpaste at home. I know he’s going to bring some, so why should I bring my own? I’ve arranged everything else - I should be allowed to use his toothpaste. He should be happy to share!

And I think this is why I get kind of annoyed at the wise bridesmaids in our parable today. They couldn’t share their oil? Really? Not even a little bit? Isn’t that what Jesus is always saying? Share your cloak, go the second mile, give your food to the hungry, that kind of thing. At the very least, couldn’t they even let the bridegroom know that, hey–half the bridesmaids had to get some oil so hold the door for them? Or even remind the bridegroom that actually, yes, he does know those bridesmaids outside the door? Why is Jesus saying that the ones who don’t share are the ones who get into the kingdom of heaven? What’s going on here?

Well, like so many stories in the Bible, this is one of those passages when there is much more going on than meets the eye. You see, the Gospel of Matthew was written just a little bit after the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. In the year 70, the Roman Empire, who had occupied Palestine from before Jesus’ birth, completely leveled the city of Jerusalem. They destroyed everything, and they set fire to the Temple, the central place of worship for the Jewish people, including Jesus and his first followers. The fire was so intense that the stones that the Temple were built out of cracked and the gold in the Temple melted into rivers, and the Temple collapsed. And this was devastating for the Jewish people. They believed that God’s Spirit was present to them in the Temple and that when the Temple was gone, God’s Spirit had left them. Imagine going through not only the complete devastation of your city but then feeling completely bereft of God’s presence.

And to make matters worse, Rome then levied a religious tax on all Jews living in the Roman Empire, and only on Jews. And that tax was used to build and maintain the Temple to Jupiter that was in Rome. Rome destroyed the Jewish Temple, and then taxed the Jews to build a Temple to an idol. It was a deliberate maneuver by Rome to keep the Jewish people humiliated.

And if that wasn’t enough, the Roman Empire took control of who would be appointed the religious leaders of the Jewish people. The Empire had in fact started that before they destroyed the Temple - the Romans were the ones who appointed Herod to be King, and appointed Caiaphas and Annas and all the other priests in the Temple - and this Roman-controlled leadership continued even after it fell.

This is the background of the Gospel of Matthew, our gospel for today and in fact this whole past year. The Gospel was written by a Jew who followed Jesus Christ’s way of being Jewish. The Gospel was written by a Jew who had been the victim of Rome’s extreme abuse of power, and who was still expected to “share” his resources in order to build a foreign Temple.

And so we come to the ten bridesmaids. To the five wise ones who had brought oil, a religious symbol of righteousness, to the wedding feast, a religious symbol of worshipping God, and we come to the five foolish ones, who had no oil, or righteousness, of their own, and yet who still expect to be let in to the presence of God.

And the key here, at least for us this morning, lies in what the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil.” Give us. They’re not asking for oil. They’re not acknowledging that they failed to prepare. They are demanding oil. “Give us some of your oil.”

So, my husband will tell you, and has given me permission to tell you, that when we’re traveling and I don’t pack my own toothpaste, and I just assume I can use his, that he gets really annoyed. He does. And I don’t blame him. It’s annoying when someone acts entitled to what’s yours. There’s no question about that. In fact, it’s more than annoying. It’s unfair. It’s unjust. Moving beyond the issue of me feeling entitled to his toothpaste, we are, as a society, currently at the beginning of a long-overdue conversation about what it means to act out of entitlement and what it means to be the one on the receiving end of those acts. The Truth and Reconciliation movement, and the #metoo campaign are both lifting the veil on the ways in which people in power feel entitled to the property and to the bodies of those under their control. Our eyes are opening to the ways in which the “foolish” ones in power say, “Give us.”

And God is not okay with this. In our parable, we see that those who act out entitlement and demand things from others are not welcome in the kingdom of heaven. Even in our first reading from Amos, God is angry at those who try to enter God’s presence through offerings and songs and at the same time, as it says just before our reading from Amos, “push aside the needy at the gate [to the Temple],” “trample on the poor” and tax them to build their own majestic houses, and “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” God condemns those who assume that their positions of power make them entitled to neglect and abuse and exploit others. “Let justice roll down like waters,” says God. A flood to sweep away any culture of entitlement.

As someone who feels entitled to toothpaste, this makes me kind of uncomfortable. As someone who puts on this collar and will soon be installed as the pastor of this congregation, “entitled” to the rights and privileges therein, this makes me really uncomfortable. I admit that, because of my professional position, I sometimes act out of a sense of entitlement. I expect that when I stand up here and give a sermon, that I am entitled to speak without interruption. I expect that when I say something in Bible Study or Confirmation or even meetings or when I stand at the front of a seminary class to teach, that I am entitled to a quiet and attentive audience. And maybe you agree that I am. I hope so. But there are times when my entitlement leads me to talk over people, or to dismiss what others are saying, or to minimize their contribution. When I demand that people be quiet when I talk, I am acting like the foolish bridesmaids who say, “Give us some of your oil.”

And I think that if we are honest, we will all find that there are situations in our lives where we do the same. Whether it is as parents, or grandparents, or as bosses, or in any number of situations where we are accustomed to having a say, we can act out of entitlement. We might feel entitled to having the final word, to putting our arm around someone else, to deciding when the conversation is over, to using something that belongs to someone else without asking. And when we do, we need to remember that Jesus is watching us, to see if he needs to say that he doesn’t know us or to keep us away from others.

Luther said that the proclamation of the Gospel, the speaking of the Good News, should afflict the comfortable. And I think this parable afflicts us when we get too comfortable. But Luther also said that the Gospel should comfort the afflicted. And I think that just as much as we have all acted out of entitlement, we also have had those times when we ourselves have suffered from the entitlement of others. When people have talked over us, or felt entitled to what we have, or to our bodies. I’m sure that there have been times in your life, when people have said to you, “Give me...” Give me your undivided attention, give me your unqualified support, give me your immediate obedience, give me the use of your body. In my professional life, people have talked over me, silenced me, dismissed me. People have felt entitled to make comments about my body, I’ve hashtagged #metoo.

And in those situations, God’s words are a comfort. To know that God does not support or encourage entitled behaviour, to know that God will send justice to wipe away “Give me” behaviour, to know that God will establish a kingdom where power is used to protect and to provide, and not to exploit or abuse, to know that we can, like the wise bridesmaids, say “No!” and Jesus will invite us in and close the door behind us. This is a comfort. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is offering what is essentially a zero-tolerance policy towards entitlement and abuse, welcoming us in and keeping those who abuse their power out.

The Gospel of Matthew presents the world in a very black-and-white way. There are wise bridesmaids and foolish bridesmaids. You’re either one or the other; you’re either inside at the wedding banquet or you’re outside with the weeping and gnashing of teeth. But life is more complicated than that. Sometimes we’re wise and sometimes we’re foolish. But our hope lies not in our own wisdom, but in the wisdom of God, in Jesus Christ, who opens our eyes to our own entitled behaviors so we can leave it behind and take part in the feast that purifies us of our tendencies towards exploitation and entitlement and “give us” behaviours. Our hope comes from trusting that Christ will know us and welcome us as his own, whatever the day or hour. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

All Saints Sunday - When We Mourn Relationships

Revelation 7:9-17;
1 John 3:1-3;
Matthew 4:1-12

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Of all the beatitudes - blessings - we hear today, it’s this one that seems particular for All Saints’ Sunday. This day in the liturgical calendar has a mix of histories. It includes All Saint’s Day on November 1st, when the church celebrated the saints and martyrs of the church who have died. It also includes All Soul’s Day on November 2nd, when the church would pray for the souls of all the departed. In the last number of years, it has become a merging of the two in our current All Saint’s Day, when we remember and give thanks for the saints who have gone before us, by which we mean all baptized Christians. This morning, our readings direct us to honour All Saints’ Sunday by focusing on those who mourn.

This morning, the candles that we will light and the names that we will hear during our prayers point us to a particular church ritual that helps us to grieve for those who have died. Whether they died recently or a long time ago, the lighting of the candles and speaking their names is a sign that they are never truly gone, but live on in our memories of them. Even more, when we participate in Holy Communion on this Sunday, we hear reminders that when we gather around God’s table, we are gathering with the living and the dead: “With all the saints, with the choirs of angels and all the hosts of heaven, we praise [God’s] holy name.” And we ask God to “join our prayers with those of your servants of every time and every place.” We believe that in the sacred moment of Holy Communion, God transcends the limitations of time and space and brings us together with everyone who has ever, or will ever, participate in this feast, united in one single kairos moment, one single moment in holy time, so that around this table we are not separate from those have died.

But I’ve been wondering this week, what about those situations where it seems as if someone we love has died, but they actually haven’t? What about those people who we sometimes say are “dead to us,” but aren’t actually dead? Or those who might say about us that we’re “dead to them?” What about those situations where the person isn’t dead, but the relationship is? Because that’s a kind of death that we don’t really talk about in church. We don’t include the names of those with whom we’re estranged on our prayer list, or light candles for them.

But maybe we should. Because the loss of relationship with someone who’s still alive can be painful in ways that are similar to actually losing someone. In both cases, particularly if the end came suddenly, there’s a lack of closure, there are questions but no answers, hurt but no apologies, gestures of love but no one to receive them. When people leave our lives too suddenly, it grieves us, regardless of how it happened. We are familiar with the pain that happens when someone has died unexpectedly, and we didn’t get a chance to make amends, or to confess regrets, or to profess our love one last time. But there is also pain and grieving when the person is still alive but they’ve cut off contact, and again, those chances to say what needs to be said, or to bring closure to what is lingering, don’t happen. Even when we end the relationship, to protect ourselves or those we love, the lack of resolution haunts and pains us. And then there is the particular kind of grieving that happens when people leave our lives, slowly but surely, as they slip into physical illness or dementia––when they can no longer remember us, and they are no longer whom we remember. In all of these cases, and I am in sure in others that you have experienced, we experience the loss of these relationships as a kind of death. And we mourn. We mourn what was, we mourn what could have been.

The difference between mourning a person and a relationship, of course, is that when the person is still alive, we can always hope for reconciliation in our lifetime. There is always a chance for things to get better. Yet along with that hopes comes fear. A fear that maybe we will not reconcile in this life. A fear that they, or we, will actually die before that chance comes. This fear can be completely based in reality, and I don’t want to suggest that all we need to do is keep hoping. So how can we accept that we may never find closure or reconciliation in this life time? How can we accept that the relationships we long to renew might actually be truly dead?

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Our Scriptures for this morning are clear about two things. The first is simply that resolution may not come today, in this life. We may currently mourn, but the Bible speaks of comfort in the future tense. They “will be” comforted. God “will wipe” away every tear. Even the first letter from John is oriented towards the future. We will be like Christ, but we are not quite yet. So that’s the first thing, as difficult to accept as it may be. Resolution may not come in this life.

But the second thing is just as clear, and even just as simple. It will happen. Those who mourn will be comforted, God will wipe away ever tear, and Christ will guide us to the springs of the water of life. We will receive new life after death, and this includes new life for our relationships.

This is the compelling message of our faith. That God gives us new life. That death, though it always comes, is not the end. This is our Easter faith, what we celebrate every single Sunday of the church year, even when it’s not Easter. This is what we are saying when we profess, in the Apostle’s Creed, I believe in the resurrection of the body. We are saying that whatever it is that makes us who we are, and in the days the Apostles’ Creed was created, the focus was on the body, but today it includes our minds and our personalities, and our relationships. All of these things are resurrected––brought to new life after we die.

And this all happens in God, through Christ. Our new life occurs in God, whether that is new life for us personally, new life for those who have died, or new life to those relationships that feel dead. The one who is on the throne reunites us and shelters us. The Lord hears the cries of our poor souls and will comfort us with resurrection. Christ was raised from the dead and given new life, and that new life will be shared with all of us, the “life of the world to come,” in every arena in which we experience death and grief and mourning.

Today, as we light candles for those who have died, you are welcome also to light candles also for those relationships in your lives that you mourn, whether the person has actually died or not. When we have a moment of silence after listing the names of the dead in our prayers, you are also welcome to name in your hearts those people with whom you are estranged, those people who are dead to you or who consider you dead to them. Commend them, and your relationship with them, to God. Our God is the God of both the living and the dead, because our God brings life to what is dead. In God we receive new life and are reunited with all whom we have lost. This is what Christ has accomplished for us. Holding those relationships and people in your hearts, entrust them to the God of life, who will comfort you in all your loss, and who promises you new life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Our Faith is God's Faith - Reformation 500 - Oct 29, 2017

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. What does this mean? I believe that I cannot, by my own reason or understanding, believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to him. But instead, the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.

You may recognize this from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism - his explanation to what we call the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed. This is the heart of our Lutheran faith. Now, of course, in the Lutheran church we say that the heart of our faith is Luther’s emphasis that we are justified by faith. In our reading from Romans today, it says, “justified by faith in Jesus Christ,” but the Greek is a bit ambiguous, and the translation can also read, “justified by the faith of Jesus Christ.” And so as Lutherans, we say, “justified by faith, through grace.” Luther made clear for us that this justification, and the faith connected to it, come to us from God, through the grace of God. It is not our own doing. And so this is why I say that Luther’s explanation to the Third Article is the heart of our faith.
Faith is not our own doing. It is the work of God. Our faith is the work of God. Our faith does not come from us, from our own work, from our own efforts at belief, from our diligent reading of the bible, from our daily prayers, but from God, though the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes us holy and keeps us in the true faith. She, and Luther called the Spirit “she” in his Catechisms, gives us the faith that we need to believe that we are indeed justified––made righteous and holy––by God.

This means every good thing you do as a Christian is not because you’ve decided to do it, but because the Holy Spirit in you has decided you will do it. When you walked in the church doors this morning, it’s because the Holy Spirit brought you. When you come forward to receive Holy Communion, it’s because the Holy Spirit is bringing you forward. When you volunteer to be on a committee, it’s because the Holy Spirit has moved you to. When you help your neighbour across the street,when you donate to the food bank, or spend time with a friend who is feeling down, when you help someone find something in the store, or say something kind to someone, this is the the Holy Spirit working within you. All your good acts committed in the world are acts of the Holy Spirit, working to make the world a place that reflects God’s goodness and righteousness and care for all of God’s children––working to make the world holy.

And this is all well and good. We can all nod our heads and say, yes, of course, this is what we believe. God justifies us, God gives us faith, God makes us holy through the Holy Spirit, and not through anything that we ourselves do.

Except that deep down, we don’t always believe this. I say this because of how I often I hear, and how often I speak myself, of my faith or our faith. Things like “My faith wasn’t very strong at that time.” Or “our faith should be stronger.” Or even “their faith is strong,” or “their faith is weak.” The problem with saying this is that it’s not our faith to begin with. Our faith is not our own faith. My faith is not my faith. My faith is actually God’s faith. God is sharing it with me, through the Holy Spirit, but it is not my faith. So when I say, “my faith was really strong at that point in my life,” I really ought to be saying, “the faith God had given me was really strong at that point in my life.” Or when I say, “my faith isn’t as strong as I would like,” I really should be saying “the faith God has given me isn’t as strong as I would like.” Our faith is not our own faith. We don’t develop it in ourselves, we don’t strengthen it, we don’t weaken it. Our faith is God’s faith, given to us through the Holy Spirit. Luther himself says, “the Holy Spirit comes and preaches, that is, the Holy Spirit leads you to the Lord, who redeems you.” The faith that has carried this congregation through its years is not Advent’s faith. It is the faith of God given to Advent. The faith that has carried the Lutheran church through the last five hundred years is not the Lutheran faith. It is the faith of God given to those who call themselves Lutherans.

There are two implications here. The first is that we are no longer able to judge the faith of others. We can’t look at others and say, they don’t come to church, they don’t have faith, they don’t believe in God, and judge them for that. God gives faith through the Holy Spirit. For reasons we don’t understand, what the Holy Spirit has done and is doing in the hearts of those who don’t come to church is not evident to us, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. When we see people in the world doing good things, and they’re not Lutheran, or even Christian, we have to understand that God is still working in them through the Holy Spirit. All good and righteous things come from God, and therefore the good and righteous things we see in others come from God. We may not understand it or recognize it––Luther himself didn’t always understand or even recognize it––but our theology compels us to. Faith and righteousness and holiness are gifts that come solely from God. God makes holy the deeds of others, through the Holy Spirit. It is not our place to judge them. It is our place only to thank and praise God for accomplishing these things at all.

The second implication is that we are no longer able to judge our own faith. It is not up to us even to say that our faith is weak or strong, or that we need more faith. Who are we to judge the faith that God has given us? Who are we to judge God’s faith? God gives us the faith we need, in the moment that we need it, in the ways and to the degree that God alone deems sufficient. We cannot judge whether it is enough or not. There are times when it seems that God does not give us enough faith––when we waver in our trust of God, when we fear things we shouldn’t fear, when we betray the truths we hold to. There are times when we are paralyzed with fear, or anger, or doubt. There are times when we are simply exhausted, too tired to be God’s hands in the world, too burnt out to commit ourselves to making the world a better place. But to condemn ourselves for those inadequacies is not our place. In those moments when we feel at sea, it is not up to us to look at ourselves and say, “What a wretched person I am, what a terrible Christian, I should go to church more, I should pray more, I should read the Bible more, I should have a stronger faith.” The faith we have is the faith God has given us. In those moments, take a breath, and tell yourself that it’s okay. Not having a strong faith does not mean you are an awful Christian. Your status as a Christian is not up to you. Christ’s death and resurrection has made you holy, and it’s done, and there is nothing you can do––or not do––about it.
That being said, we can and indeed we should ask God for more faith if we need it. That is, we can certainly pray, “God, please give me more faith.” Or, as the father in the Gospel of Mark said to Jesus, “I do believe! Help thou my unbelief!” Because God will help. We can pray, “God, the faith you have given me is not enough to get me through. Please give me more.” And God will. God’s Holy Spirit, who already abides in you, who has been in you since your baptism, will strengthen God’s faith within you.

 This is the heart of our Reformation faith––this is the message we are celebrating five hundred years after Martin Luther shared it with the world, this is why we thank God so deeply and profoundly on this day. Because in the end, all the achievements and the advancements of the last five hundred years pale in comparison to this profound truth that sets us free: The Holy Spirit made you holy and keeps you in the true faith. The Holy Spirit gives you the faith of Jesus Christ. This is most certainly true. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sunday, October 15 - The Table in the Outer Darkness

Isaiah 25:1-9; 
Psalm 23; 
Matthew 22:1-14

“Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I’m not getting a lot of easy texts to start my time with you, am I? Last week we heard about giving thanks when we’re not feeling thankful, and this week it’s hell. Yes, this outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth is a reference to hell.

Now hell is actually something most of us are familiar with. Not in the fire-and-brimstone, pitchforks and the devil way, but in the original meaning of hell, which is that place where God is not. Hell is that place where God isn’t. That outer darkness, where there is no light, and no God, and no life. Hell is the place where we are alone when we desperately need a friend, where we can’t see the light and we feel swallowed up by darkness, where we feel overwhelmed by everything and see no way out.

I’ve been in hell, in that outer darkness, at least three times in my life. The first time was when I was doing hospital chaplaincy in my first year at seminary, and I was assigned to the Medical Respiratory Intensive Care Unit and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. In two short months, over twenty patients that I had been in contact with had died, from the elderly to babies. At the end of those two months, I felt like I was in the back of a very deep and very dark cave, and I couldn’t find my way out.

The second and third times were after the births of my two children. In both of those cases, it was when they were each about eight months and I was feeling beyond overwhelmed in caring for them. One time, I went for a walk in the woods and wondered on the way there if anyone would notice if I came back without the baby. Another time, I remember actually wanting to drive my car into a brick wall at top speed. Clearly, I did neither of those things, but I still remember the feeling of being in that hell, in that outer darkness. Feeling completely abandoned, bound hand and foot and thrown out there, in the dark, alone.

As it turns out, all three of those times were episodes of clinical depression. And during that third time, I went to the doctor and was diagnosed and was given medication that I will probably be on to one degree or another for the rest of my life. And I share this story whenever I can because this past Tuesday was World Mental Health Day, and this outer darkness of mental health is not something we talk about in the church very much. And I want you to know that if you have had times when you have felt bound and thrown into the darkness, or if you feel that way right now, you are not alone and we can talk about it.

Of course, depression is not the only time we can feel like we’ve been cast out into the outer darkness. Being rejected by a friend, facing a medical emergency, losing a job, losing a loved one––loss of any kind, actually, can throw us into that darkness, whether for just a moment or for years. The outer darkness, the valley of the shadow of death, the funeral shroud that covers the people––this is a common experience throughout history––the writer of Isaiah experienced it, the Psalmist who gave us Psalm 23 experienced it, the community of Matthew’s Gospel experienced it. 

There’s a line in the Apostles’ Creed that I find particularly comforting when I’m in that outer darkness. I know we turn more to the Lord’s Prayer than the Creed when we’re in need of comfort, but for me, that line is there in the Second Article, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” After talking about Jesus’ life and death, we then say, “he descended into hell.” The alternate line says, “descended to the dead,” but for me, “descended into hell” is particularly comforting. Jesus was in hell.

This is profound. It means that when that man at the king’s son’s wedding banquet was bound hand and foot and cast out to the outer darkness, he was cast in to the place where Jesus was. It means that when we are suffering through our own personal hells, whether it’s the result of our own actions or someone else’s, Jesus is there. There is nowhere we can go where God has not gone - that’s Psalm 139. You are not alone in that outer darkness, in that valley of the shadow of death. God is with you. Martin Luther himself strongly believed this, and preached that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fully human and fully divine, descended to hell, to be amongst the sinners and the lost and the abandoned and the rejected. 

Being with you means more than just Christ suffering with you in the darkness, sitting there in dark cave next to you. We have God’s promise, given to us over and over and over again, that God transforms darkness into light, death into life. Psalm 23 assures us that, in the presence of our enemies, God prepares a table for us. When death surrounds us, when we feel overwhelmed, when the odds are stacked against us, God sets up a feast. Isaiah says this too, in the reading that we often hear at funerals. In the midst of loss, God is setting up an overabundance of good things - an overflowing of all those things that nourish us and bring us life.

Because ultimately, as Isaiah says, God is swallowing up death. God is making death no more because God is feeding us with new life, life that overflows the boundaries of darkness, and wipes away every tear. Life that spreads into every corner, into the backs of the deepest caves, into the moments of blackest darkness. The table that God is preparing for us is constantly expanding to include more and more people, and the food that God provides never ends. 
We see it, actually, every time we come to this table. We come to this table with all of our darkness inside of us, we come to eat and drink of our Lord with all of our feelings of abandonment and rejection and loneliness, because this table was also set up in the outer darkness. Christ was abandoned and rejected by his followers, he died on the cross crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and he descended to hell, and this is his table. And on the third day he rose again. And in that rising, God swallowed up death, and wiped away every tear, and shed light into the darkest corners, and granted new life to all the dead. 

And God did it for us. For you. When you are at this table, when you hear, the body of Christ, given for you, and the blood of Christ, shed for you, know that in that for you are God’s words of life to you and for you. For you in your moments of light, and, more importantly, for you in your moments of darkness. Christ gives himself to you, to feast on and be filled, to carry inside of you even as you leave the table, to bring with you wherever you go, even into the darkness that is threatening to swallow you but never can.

“Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.” The God whom we worship is, ultimately, the God of light and life, revealed to us in Christ, who prepares a table for us in the midst of our enemies, in the midst of our hell. It is a table overflowing with new life, and you are welcome to it, over and over again, as many times as you need, because it is “for you.” Thanks be to God. Amen.