Sunday, January 22, 2017

January 22, 2017 - The Best Bait to Fish for People

And Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

I don’t fish, although I suspect that’s true for many people who grew up on the Prairies. But I do know that successful fishing requires the right kind of bait, and that different fish are attracted to different bait. Trout, apparently, are attracted to cheese. But salmon are really attracted to live bait, like shrimp. If you use the wrong bait, you are unlikely to catch any fish at all. So, when it comes to Jesus and Peter and Andrew, I wonder, what kind of bait did Jesus use? How did Jesus attract his “fish,” so to speak? How did he get people to follow him? More to the point, what are we supposed to use when we fish for people, as Jesus calls us to do?

Well, to start with, the bait has to be something that people want. Something that will draw them out. And I know that sounds obvious, but for too long, the Christian church has tried to fish for people and make disciples through threats and forced conversions. The centuries at the beginning of the Middle Ages were times when Christian armies would advance into foreign countries, and threaten the people with death if they didn’t convert to Christianity. And not so much later, even Lutherans would threaten other Christians with death if they didn’t convert to our way of following Christ. We tortured and killed the followers of Menno Simons, whom we know today as Mennonites, when they wouldn’t convert to Lutheranism. But, as any fisherman will tell you, threats and torture do not attract fish. You can’t yell into the water, “Hey, fish, get onto my hook or I’ll come down there and kill you!” And so we, likewise, can’t threaten people, no matter how gently, with threats of hell in order to get them to follow Jesus. That bait doesn’t work. The fish just swim away and the nets are empty.

So we have to look to see what Jesus did, which our Gospel reading from this morning tells us was to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and cure every disease and sickness among the people. And the good news that Jesus proclaimed? Ah... the good news is found in what we call the Beatitudes, which is the first thing that Jesus taught his followers after he told them to fish for people. The good news is that the poor in spirit have the kingdom of heaven, that those who mourn will be comforted, that the meek and humble will inherit the entire world. The good news is that those who yearn for righteousness will receive it; that those who are merciful will receive mercy. The good news is that those who are pure in heart will see God, and that the peacemakers will be called children of God. This is how Jesus lured people to himself, this is the bait we are to use to fish for people, the good news: that the humble and mistreated and oppressed of the world are the most valued by God, that the principles to be cherished and sought after are those that lift up those who are the most unfortunate, that those without love are the ones God loves the most.

This is the good news and the healing that Christ sends the disciples out to proclaim. Later on in the gospel of Matthew, you may remember that Jesus summoned his twelve disciples, and sent them out to heal and proclaim the good news, and tell the people that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Now the Gospel of Matthew is meant to be understood as an instruction manual for Christians, rather than a historical biography of Jesus’ life, and so when it says that he sent the disciples out, it means that Jesus sends any who follow Christ out to do the same thing that the disciples did. And so the good news that Jesus sent the disciples out to proclaim, he also sends us out to proclaim. We are sent out to share the good news, that God’s love does not exclude the poor, the lonely, the suffering, the marginalized, but rather that God’s love is specifically for those who are oppressed, who are unsuccessful by this world’s standards, who are victims of injustice and prejudice and hatred. This is the irresistible bait that attracts people to Christ, that all Christ’s followers are called to proclaim.
But the proclamation of God’s love for the world requires the disciples, which means us, to go out. Jesus’ instructions to the twelve, and his final words to the disciples after his resurrection, begin with the word, “go.” To tell people about the grace and mercy of God, to heal them as the disciples did, to see the kingdom of heaven come near, we have to go. Just like Simon Peter and Andrew from our Gospel reading, and James and John, we have to leave our own nets and our own boats and our own “fathers,” so to speak, and go. We have to go “out there.” Because there are people out there who are dying to hear that they are loved by the one who made them. There are people out there who desperately need to hear that someone cares about their will-being, that someone greater than them is looking out for them. There are people out there whose lives would be completely turned around if they knew that they were not worthless, but the very children of God, that their pain will not last forever, that their cry for justice will be answered. But they won’t hear it if we, who have experienced and know all of this to be true, stay here and don’t go out.

Yesterday five million people participated in the Women’s Marches happening around the world. (And believe me, I double-checked those numbers because that number is just unbelievable.)  And listening to the speeches on TV from the march in Washington, I heard the good news being proclaim. I heard them say, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” I heard them talk about lifting up the lowly. I heard declarations that the bodies of women and illegal immigrants and Muslims and those who have disabilities are worthy of respect and love. I heard them using the words that Jesus used, words of love and mercy and peace. I heard a Catholic nun tell the people gathered that the oppressed were children of God, and that there, where 500,000 were gathered in this fight to raise up one another and all those who were being pushed down, she saw the Holy Spirit moving and blowing like it did at Pentecost. And here in Calgary, where four thousand women and men, and children and grandparents, gathered, I saw the same thing. With all those people in front of the Municipal building, I heard the Good News that brings comfort: that love is the path we choose and the path we are called to walk, that when our neighbour is hurting we reach out to comfort, that all are equal and all are welcome. This was the Good News that was proclaimed at every march around the world yesterday.

But here’s the thing: these things weren’t spoken in a church. They were spoken by people who had gone out. Christians who followed Christ’s instructions to “go,” to share the Good News, that healing and love and mercy and worthiness are, by the grace of God, here for those who need it. And yes, there were Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and humanists and atheists proclaiming love and peace as well, but the Christians that I know who marched in Washington, and New York, and Los Angeles, and St. Paul, Minnesota, and Indiana,  and even Austin, Texas, were there because they are Christians who are following Christ, going out, preaching the Good News, and acting for healing.
I spent some time in rural South Carolina once, and one day for lunch, the people I was staying with served shrimp that they had fished right off the dock at the back of the property. It was the best shrimp I ever had, and they didn’t have to go anywhere to get it. Just walked a few steps from the kitchen and voilĂ , shrimp. We can’t do that in Calgary. We can’t just walk out of our kitchen and start fishing. We have to go out of our house, and probably out of our neighbourhood, and sometimes even out of the city, in order to fish.

Jesus calls us to leave where we are, and to go out and fish for people, not with threats, but luring them to God by proclaiming Good News and healing their hurts. We have to go out, and leave behind the things that bring us comfort, but when we do, we are really only following Christ and the millions who have gone before us, sharing the good news that we ourselves have received, and seeing the kingdom of heaven come near. Thanks be to God. Amen.

January 15, 2017 - The Glory of God Appears in the Weak

Last week I said that Jesus Christ did everything for the glory of God, and not for his own glory, and I said that we, as Christians, are always called to do the same. But God’s glory is not always easy to see, is it? We may spend our whole lives living so that others see the glory of God, but so many times it can feel like those efforts are invisible. We know what the glory of the things of this world look like - successful businesses, tall corporate towers, career achievements. We could even add children, grown up with good jobs and happy marriages, or churches that are growing and overflowing with children. The glories of this world are about growth and money and achievement.

But the glory of God is harder to see. Because the glory of God doesn’t appear in buildings, or in financial success, or in the longevity of a business. The glory of God appears in people - in those moments when people transcend themselves, when they exceed what they thought they were capable of. Not in moments of athletic achievement, or anything like that, but when they exceed their own capacity for compassion, or forgiveness, or empathy. The glory of God appears in people when, in the midst of the pain and the failures of life, they demonstrate love and grace, rather than bitterness.

This is what Paul is saying in his First letter to the Corinthians. At first hearing, it sounds like Paul is giving thanks to God for the church in Corinth. Which would be odd because the church in Corinth had their problems, as every church does. They had divisions among themselves, they behaved immorally, they didn’t always take care of one another, they argued over Communion practice. They were, according to the world’s standards of glory, pretty abysmal. And, what’s more, they weren’t a church that lasted very long. The church in Corinth actually no longer exists in any way that Paul would recognize, as the original city fell to earthquakes and invasions fifteen centuries ago. So clearly, the glory of God can’t be seen in the congregation of Corinth continuing to this day.

  And yet, Paul gives thanks to God for the church in Corinth. Actually, Paul gives thanks for what God did in the church in Corinth. For the glory of God that was shown in those individuals. He says, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace that has been given you ... for ... you have been enriched, ... Christ has been strengthened among you, [and that] He will also strengthen you.” Paul is thanking God not for the people themselves, who are argumentative and weak, but for using those people to demonstrate God’s glory in the world. The people did not achieve grace for themselves, or enrich themselves, or strengthen themselves in faith. God did it for them. Because of God’s work in those people, those very human Christians surpassed their own limitations in following Christ. Not to their own glory, not so that people could look at them and say, “What great Christians those Corinthians are,” but so that people would look at them and say, “Wow, look what God has done with that sorry lot of people. What an amazing God to have brought about such powerful things from such a weak source. What faith God gave to such faithless people!” Paul recognizes that the glory of God is only seen in those who are not glorious in the eyes of the world. And so Paul thanks God for condescending to use such wretched people to demonstrate God’s glory.

Which is a really good thing for us. Because according to the world’s standards, most of us are weak, we are incompetent, and we are failures. You might remember way back in 1999, when former-wrestler Jesse Ventura, who then became Minnesota’s Governor (and incidentally was raised Lutheran), said that “religion is for the weak-minded,” and he called it a crutch. And a lot of Christians were deeply offended by what he said. But he was right. Religion, more specifically God, is for the weak. It is for those of us who don’t have the inner strength to be the kind of people we are supposed to be. We *know* humans are broken and can’t walk without a crutch. And so we are profoundly grateful that there is someone outside of ourselves to help us to have patience when we’re impatient, to help us to be forgiving when we’re hurt, to help us to be peaceful when we’re angry, to give us strength when we’re afraid, to help us let go of worldly things and cling only to what is true and right and holy. Because we know we can’t do these things on our own.

God’s glory shines in the darkest of situations and the weakest of people. We can, of course, suppress God’s glory. When we allow our desire for our own personal glory, or our family’s glory, or our community’s glory to come first, we choose a path of worldly glory, where God’s glory does not shine. When we turn to ourselves for strength, there is no room for God’s strength. And when we turn to ourselves as the source of our own faith, the Holy Spirit will not act. It is possible to thwart God’s presence in the world because God does not force God’s way among us. God comes humbly, shining through the weak, and moving among us only when invited; offering to be our crutch but not forcing it on us. And so even well-meaning Christians can obscure the glory of God, when they mistake worldly success as proof of God’s presence, and when they pursue that glory instead of the path of weakness and humility where God actually is.

But just as Paul was thankful for for the glory of God that he saw in the people in Corinth, I am thankful for the glory of God that is seen in you, the people of St. John. Not that I’m saying you’re as wretched as the Corinthians. But, let’s be honest, by the standards of the world, this congregation is a failure. Aging, shrinking, on the verge of dying. And yet, you come, faithfully, every week. To support one another, to make painful but necessary decisions. Your faith is tremendously deep. To be clear, I do not thank God for you. Because your capacity to be here in this time, the most difficult time in the life of this congregation, is not a testament to you, or to your own inner strength, or to your commitment to one another. It is a testament to God, and to God’s working within you to give you strength and commitment, and to what God achieves in weakness. God’s glory is seen in your ability to be with one another through this pain. God’s glory is not seen in the fact that this congregation has continued for over 115 years, or in the beautiful building that was built by you. No. God’s glory was not seen in the days when the pews were filled with people and the Sunday School rooms bursting with children. God’s glory is not seen in those human measures of success. God’s glory is seen in the faith of people when all those successes have gone. A faith, let me remind you, that comes from God, and not from us ourselves. God’s glory is seen in the brave and faithful way in which you face and accept the death of this congregation, because it is God who is giving you the strength and faithfulness to do so. I have seen congregations argue and become divided over far less important issues than selling a church or discussing its closure, and the way in which this congregation has been so united in its decision-making, and so compassionate towards one another in your disagreements is so rare that I have to conclude that God is at work here in profound ways––that God is the reason you are so faithful and so compassionate. And so I do give constant thanks to “God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.”

Paul ends his words to the church in Corinth by telling them to continue trusting in the Lord, “because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.” By the grace of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the Lord through all our labours, even if it appears that we’re labouring towards failure and not towards success. Because we know that in our failures, God’s glory shines through most clearly, and we trust in that. Not in what makes us look good, but in what makes God look good. In God. Because our God is good––gracious, and merciful, promising new life to those who die, strengthening our faith, and bringing us “into the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

January 8, 2017 - Baptized for the Wilderness

So today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, and by extension our own baptism. In a nutshell, baptism is that act in which we pour water on someone’s head, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and thus invite God to claim the baptized person as God’s own child, beloved, as Jesus is. Baptism is not our act, but God’s act. It is not even our decision, but the decision of the Holy Spirit moving within us, bringing us to want baptism, either for ourselves or for our children. And it is God who is the primary actor in baptism. Anyone can pour water on someone’s head, and anyone can say those words, (and by anyone, I truly mean anyone. Each of you here has the power and authority to baptize someone in an emergency, and it will be a valid baptism), and God will enter into that moment and make it holy. God will establish an unbreakable covenant with the one who is being baptized - that God will always and forever watch over the baptized, that God will always and forever love and forgive the baptized, and that God will always and forever consider the baptized to be God’s beloved child. Without question. Irrevocably. Done, and done. Above all else, our baptism is our assurance and our comfort that no matter what we do, and no matter what is done to us, we are God’s children, and brothers and sisters of Christ, brought into both his death and his resurrection, and we will be reunited with God in the end and with one another, come what may.

I could go on about the the benefits and blessings of baptism for hours, actually. But, as mature Christians––and I mean that in reference to you all having been in the church for so long, and not in reference to your age––as mature Christians, we cannot overlook that the baptism of our Lord, in the Gospel of Matthew at least, was immediately followed by his time in the wilderness. The very next verse says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” And if you’ll remember, he was first tempted to make himself bread, because he was dying of hunger, and then tempted to use his divine power to save his own life, and then tempted to worship the devil and rule the world. And Jesus refused all of these temptations with the reply that it is God who feeds us, God who saves us, and God who rules us. And the devil left. 
Now we don’t know what the connection is between baptism and these temptations in the wilderness - whether they are the result of being baptized, or whether everyone experiences them whether or not they’re baptized, but there is one. Baptism, and then the wilderness. We don’t know whether God sent Jesus, or whether God sends us into the wilderness, or we find our way there on our own, or the world just thrusts us there through random events. The Gospels themselves present different viewpoints, and theologians since then have argued strongly about which one it is. What we do know, though, is that baptism is, for Jesus and thus for us, both the entrance into the wilderness and our protection in that wilderness.

The wilderness is, of course, all of those times and places where we are tempted––with self-preservation. Where we are tempted to protect ourselves, to survive, to ensure that we make it through. Jesus was famished, and was tempted with bread. He was at the mercy of wild animals in the wilderness, and was tempted with power. He was a vulnerable human, and was tempted with the Devil’s power to be strong. We, too, are tempted with these things. We are tempted to put our own bodily survival ahead of others, we are tempted to use power and authority and influence to make things go our way. We are tempted to align ourselves with others who are more powerful, so they can protect us.
And, to be clear, these are not inherently bad things. Wanting to feed ourselves, and wanting to help others, and wanting to be protected, these are not bad. It’s just that self-preservation is not actually the goal of the Christian life. The goal of the Christian life is to follow God, which by extension means following Christ. The goal of the Christian life is to act so that God, not us, receives the glory for all the successes in our lives.

But the devil likes to tempt us away from God and to ourselves, “curved in on ourselves,” as Luther liked to say, and so we are most often tempted by those things that we think we would be particularly good at. Jesus would have been great at feeding the world with bread. He would have been fantastic at ruling the world, and at establishing justice and fairness with a wave of his hand. But Jesus knew that that was not God’s plan for the world. And so Jesus put aside his own capabilities in order that God would be the one doing all this, so that God would receive the glory, and not Jesus. And this is what we are called to do as well, in times when we are asked to do what we are best at, to consider whether we are doing these things for our own self-preservation and our own glory, or for the benefit of the world and the glory of God. Because usually, since we have been baptized and we are now in the wilderness, we act for our own self-preservation and glory.

But it is so, so important to remember that, in the end, Jesus turned away from these temptations. Jesus chose *not* to use his power, so that God’s power might shine more clearly. Jesus chose to abandon all of his power, actually. Jesus chose the completely powerless path that led to his own death. So that God’s power might shine forth most brightly in Jesus’ resurrection. Although the wilderness story in the Gospel of Matthew lasted only forty days and forty nights, in a real sense, Jesus’ wilderness experience lasted all the way to the cross. Every day of his ministry, he was tempted with the power to choose to live, rather than to submit to death. Until that very moment when he breathed his last, he was in a wilderness where he was tempted to choose self-preservation, just as we are. 

But he didn’t give in to that temptation. And neither do we. Because he, and we, are children of a covenant with God. Jesus, actually, was a child of the covenant through Torah and his Jewish circumcision, as all Jews are. Jesus was covenanted with God before his baptism. But we, who are not Jewish and so not beholden to Torah and the law, are covenanted through water and the Word - through our Christian baptism. Which means that Jesus, and we, do not need to strive for self-preservation. We do not need to give in to the temptation to save ourselves because God is going to do it for us. God has a better plan in mind for us than simply existing. God’s plan for us involves something new. A new life that we cannot possibly imagine, one that exists for us and for others. God’s plan for Jesus, and for us, is that even though we die, we live. God’s plan is to involve us in a demonstration of God’s glory that extends far beyond simply our existence, but into something truly better, something glorious, the fulfillment of our baptism.

We are always tempted with decisions in our wildernesses––we will, in a few weeks, as a congregation, be tempted with a decision in this particular wilderness of survival. On an individual level, we are all tempted with our own personal wildernesses, ones that are always, at their heart, about self-preservation and survival. But God has already prepared us to resist these temptations by baptizing us. God has already claimed us as God’s own beloved children, and thus assures us that we are “preserved” no matter what happens to us. God has already chosen us, and taken us by the hand, and kept us, as our reading from Isaiah says. Despite the temptations we face in the wilderness, we cannot be harmed. The devil, you’ll notice, was not able to harm Jesus during his time with him. And the devil cannot harm us. Death is not harmful to us. By virtue of our baptism, because we are in an unbreakable covenant with God, not even death will harm us, because God will watch over us. We may die, to be sure, and we will all die eventually, but God keeps us and brings us to new life.

Just before I was ordained, I got a tattoo of a cross. I got it as a permanent reminder to myself that I am baptized, and that no matter what, my baptism, and God’s love that goes with it, can never be removed. It’s on my back, because I was too chicken to get it on my forehead, which is actually where it should be. Each one of us who is baptized has a cross, made with water, permanently “tattooed” on our foreheads. Each time we look in the mirror, each time we look at one another, we should see that cross there. Each time we wonder what decision we should make about something, we should look in the mirror, and look at one another, and see that cross and remember that our lives, and the lives of those we love who are baptized, are protected by God. Preserved, not through our own actions, but through God’s. So we can face the wildernesses we are in, and we can and will make the right choices, because of that cross. Because we are baptized, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, claimed and kept by God. Thanks be to God. Amen.