Sunday, May 28, 2017

May 28, 2017 - Easter 7 - Dayenu

Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

“Is it time yet?” “Is it now??” “How many more sleeps?” “How much longer?!?”

I am guessing you could all name a situation in which you’ve heard children wondering (I was going to say whining) about when something is going to happen. 

Now, to be fair, children often ask out loud what adults are thinking in their heads. We can probably all remember times when we have had to sit for what seems like an unbearably long time in one place, waiting for something to happen: Waiting for the gridlock in front of us to clear up, waiting on the tarmac for the crew to resolve mechanical issues so the plane can take off, waiting for a particularly long sermon to wrap up. Then there are the more intense periods of waiting, like waiting for the specialist to call back about test results, waiting for a loved one’s suffering to be over, waiting for our own feelings of grief and loss over something to pass. These are harder, because we don’t know when they’ll be over. We don’t even know when to expect these things to be resolved. We’re waiting, desperately, for the time to come, but we don’t know when that time is, or even what it will look like when it does arrive.

This was the situation the first Christians found themselves in. After Jesus had died, and been resurrected, the first Christians found themselves still waiting. They had been waiting for things to change, even though they didn’t quite know into what, and now they were still unsure. In our reading from Acts, they ask Jesus, “Is this the time?” And in our second reading, from 1 Peter, the recipients of that letter also seem to be wondering: Is this it? Is this the kingdom of God? When will our suffering be over? How much longer? I imagine that the families of the Coptic Christians who were killed on Friday are asking the same questions.

Unfortunately, the answers are not particularly helpful. In response to the disciples’ questions in Acts, Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times.” The writer of 1 Peter responds with, “In due time.” Our Scriptures are frustratingly vague about when all of these things that God has promised will happen. There are references to the time “to come,” and “in that day,” and “in the end times,” but this is like responding to a child who is wondering, “When will it happen?” with the answer, “Soon. It’ll happen soon.” How is that supposed to help?

In our Gospel reading, Jesus complicates the situation even further when he says, “The hour has come.” Now, he’s talking about his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane and his crucifixion. But he’s also talking about “the hour.” The time when God will restore everything, when we will finally be “there,” when we will not have to wait any longer for the world’s suffering to be over. Jesus is saying that that time “has come.” So why do things still look the same? 

The answers continue to be complicated. When the disciples ask him after his resurrection if the time is here now, he says, “It will come. You will receive power.” And in 1 Peter, the writer says, God “will restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” Time is all mixed up. It’s time, it’s not time, it will be time, the time has already come. How are we to understand all of this? More to the point, when we are suffering, because of a deep loss that has happened or a loss that we are expecting to happen, how are we to wait through all of this? We do not doubt that God will fulfill God’s promises, and wipe away every tear from every face, as it says in both Isaiah and the Book of Revelation, but how are we to wait? How are we to understand that the time has already come when we are still suffering? How do we get through this?

Well, it seems to me that there are two different ways to do this. The first comes from our second reading, which says, very clearly, “Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you.” Be steadfast, and resist despair. Get through the waiting by just waiting. God will make all things new. God will bring you through this period of suffering, and God will restore you.

Now, if that works for you, if that alone is enough to sustain you through all your suffering, then you are indeed blessed, and I envy you. Some people have indeed been blessed by the Holy Spirit so that they are able to endure all kinds of suffering, for truly extended periods of time, simply by waiting in hope. I am not one of those people, and I suspect I’m not alone.

So for those who are not able to just wait, God offers another way. It still involves waiting, but there’s more. This second way of waiting has a long tradition in the church, and in the Jewish tradition that precedes us. This second way of waiting is how Jesus waited for his suffering to be over, how Paul and the first disciples waited for their suffering to come to an end. Its effectiveness comes from remembering all of the times in the past when we had to endure suffering, and when God restored us then. It is looking at our history, and identifying those times when God blessed us and brought an end to the waiting of that moment.

In the Jewish celebration of Passover, which Jesus and Paul both celebrated, there is a point, after the story of the deliverance from Egypt has been told, when something called the Dayenu is recited. Dayenu means, “it would have been enough.” And the Passover Dayenu says, among other things, “If God had split the sea for us, and not led us through it on dry land, Dayenu.” It would have been enough. “If God had satisfied our needs in the desert for forty years, and not fed us the manna, Dayenu.” It would have been enough. “If God had fed us the manna, and not given us the Sabbath, Dayenu.” It would have been enough. “If God had given us the Sabbath, and not brought us to Mount Sinai, Dayenu. If God had brought us to Mount Sinai, and not given us the Torah, Dayenu. If God had given us the Torah, and not brought us into Israel, Dayenu.” Dayenu, dayenu, dayenu. It would have enough. In their exodus, even if God had done only that very first thing, it would have been enough. This kind of waiting encourages us to look at what God has already given us, so that even as we mourn what we have lost, we are grateful for what we have been given. 

As St. John comes to a close, many of us wonder how we will endure the suffering that comes with the loss of this congregation. God promises us that our feelings of grief will subside, and that we will one day be restored to one another, but we don’t know when. It is hard to imagine that that time will come. Some of us are able to cast all our anxieties on God and just wait. But for those of us who are not, I offer this Dayenu for St. John, this remembrance of what God has already given:

Had God sent Christ to redeem us, and not given us baptism, Dayenu. It would have been enough.

Had God given us baptism, and not given us Holy Communion to strengthen us, Dayenu.

Had God given us Holy Communion, and not given us the church of every time and every place, Dayenu.

Had God given us the church of every time and every place, and not founded this congregation, Dayenu.

Had God founded this congregation, and not built this building for us, Dayenu.

Had God built this building for us, and not sent singers and musicians to help us worship, Dayenu.

Had God sent singers and musicians to help us worship, and not given us children to nurture in Sunday School, Dayenu.

Had God given us children to nourish in Sunday School, and not enabled us to support organizations like CLWR and the Women’s Shelter, Dayenu.

Had God enabled us to support organizations like CLWR and the Women’s Shelter, and not sent us friends to cherish for so many years, Dayenu.

Had God sent us friends to cherish for so many years, and not brought us to this day, Dayenu. 

The last time my kids were waiting for a big event, they kept asking, “Is it time yet?” And, to their intense frustration, my husband and I just kept answering, “Yup.” In a way, this is how God answers our questions of “Is it time yet?” Yes, it is time. We do not wait for God to restore the things we have lost or to ease our suffering. God has done so and is doing so even now. God has given us Christ, and the Sacraments, and the church, and community. Had God given the people of St. John only one of these things, we would indeed have been given more than enough. Praise and thanksgiving and thanks to our God who has given us all these things and even more, from whom even these last few services together are an overabundance of blessings and gifts from God. It would have been enough, it is enough, it will be enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.

May 14, 2017 - Easter 5 - Praying that God is Seen in Us

John 14:1-14

If you are a parent, no doubt you’ve had that moment when you say something to your children, or react to them in some way, and all of a sudden it’s not you, but your mother who’s somehow speaking through you. In some moment of stress, you channel your parents and at the same time, watch yourself ,thinking, “Oh my goodness, I’ve become my mother!”

On the flip side, if you’re a parent, or a close uncle or aunt, or a regular caregiver of any kind, you may have also noticed the reverse: that there are moments when the children under your care all of a sudden repeat back to you the words that you yourself have said to them. And that is particularly disorienting. Children become mirrors of us. Their words and actions reflect our behaviour to them, and, this can be good or bad. Of course, most of the time, we only notice when they reflect our bad behaviours––impatience or annoyance, but there are the good things, too. Whatever you value, truly value, I mean, is what your children will often value as well, even if they don’t quite realize it.

It really comes down to that phrase we hear, and perhaps say, so often: Do as I say, not as I do. We repeat this phrase so often because, in fact, the reality is the opposite. Children don’t do what their parents say, they do what their parents do.
And this is where our Gospel reading comes in. Because this is essentially what Jesus is saying. He does what his Father does, his deeds reflect God. He says to Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” and says that all of the words he speaks and all of the things he does are not his own doing, but “the Father who dwells in” him. This is why Christians confess that when we see Jesus, we see God. For the same reason that we might look at someone’s child and say, “Oh, I see your mother in you.” Only with Jesus, this reflection, or this embodiment, is so much more intense that we say, in the end, that Jesus is God.
And so, from Jesus, we see that God is compassionate, merciful, forgiving, and wants to see us live in wholeness. Through Jesus, we see that God values justice for the poor, love for one’s enemies, and mending relationships. Through Jesus, we see that God searches out and shines in every darkness, and is willing to die for us. And, in this Easter season, through Jesus we see that God values life over death, and commits everything to that.

But Jesus is not the only one of God’s children. We are, too. And so Jesus’ words apply to us, as well. We also should think of ourselves that whoever sees us has seen God, and that the words we say and the deeds we do are not our own doing, but God who dwells in us. And indeed, Jesus says this, when he says, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” Jesus is saying that we, too, reflect and embody God in our actions. When people see us, they see God.

Which is, frankly, intimidating. But true. When we are public about being Christian, whether that means our neighbours know, or we have some kind of cross bumper sticker, then every action and every word that we do or say is seen as a reflection of God. When we are kind, that is how people think God must be. When we are forgiving, or generous, or gracious, the world sees this as a reflection of the God we worship. Which is as it should be-––children who are gracious and kind reflect the graciousness and kindness of their parents. But when we are cruel, or bossy, or pushy, or intolerant, or hypocritical, or entitled, that is also how people think God must be. It’s not necessarily fair, but that’s the way it is. Children who are bullies or unfair reflect the cruelty of their parents. And when it comes to Christians reflecting God, when we speak words of hate, when we are silent in the face of injustice, when we deny that we have done any wrong, the world sees us, and they think that the God we worship is hateful, does not care about the poor, and is cruel, fickle, and power-hungry. They see our actions, and they think they are seeing God. And we see the results of this, which is people turning away from God. It’s not because they are horrible people, but because, throughout history and even now, we have been horrible people, and those who see us think that means our God must be horrible, too. We may not like to hear it, but this is the truth. Our works and our actions are taken to be reflections of God––good and bad.

So at this point, there are two ways we can go with this. The first is to become despondent and despair because we are bound by the limitations of our human nature and we can’t fully reflect the goodness of God, and as a result, people will never get the truest picture of God. We can accept this, and we can give up.
But the other way, which Luther himself emphasized, is to note that before Jesus tells us that we, too, are reflections of God, he reminds us that he will bring us to God. In other words, Jesus reassures us that our reflections of God, our attempts to do as God does, are not entirely up to us. God is involved. God comes to dwell in us, moving us to greater good. The Holy Spirit comes to be with us, inspiring us every day to be truer reflections of God. And every time we pray in Jesus’ name, as he says, which is to say, any time we pray that our lives would reflect Jesus, and thus God, it is done. If there is one prayer that I am sure thatGod answers, it is the prayer that we become more like Jesus, and that we do as he would do.

And this is our comfort, both as Christians and as parents: that the Spirit of God working in us is more powerful than we, which means that God’s goodness and mercy and love shines brighter our own human failings. Do not let your hearts be troubled: God’s light shines even in the darkness we create, as a church and in our families, and God brings new life to the deaths that we inadvertently cause.

Jesus acted so that we might see God, and we act so that others might see Jesus. And so we ask, in Jesus’ name, that our deeds be such that one day people might look at us and say, “Oh, I see your God in you.” And Jesus will do it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

May 7, 2017 - When the Bible Conflicts

1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

Have you ever watched children, usually siblings, arguing about whether or not they are allowed to do something? “Mommy said I could have an ice cream!” “No, she didn’t, she said you couldn’t have an ice cream!” Each side is fully convinced that they’re right, and that Mommy said what they say she said, and if you’re the babysitter, or the well-intentioned grandparent watching the children who doesn’t want to upset either the grandchildren or Mommy, it can be a bit anxiety-provoking. Each side claims the authority of Mommy, and yet they’re arguing the complete opposite. What is a person to do? (I’m not going to tell you to give them the ice cream.)

More seriously, though, we encounter this same kind of problem in our Scripture readings today, and more generally, in the Bible as a whole. The problem is that the Christian testimonies in our Scriptures sometimes disagree about what God wants us to do, or not do. Today, this disagreement is about what to do in the face of undeserved suffering. Our second reading, the first letter attributed to Peter, says that when you are suffering, you should just put up with it, not try to fight it or resist it or escape it, and God will approve. The other reading, our Gospel reading, says that Jesus looks harshly on the thieves and bandits that try to steal the sheep and destroy them and kill them. Jesus says that the sheep should follow only him, and not the one who would abuse them. So here we have two very different passages, one saying to submit to undeserved suffering, which really means abuse, either personal or societal, and the other saying to escape it and follow Christ. The first says that God approves of us suffering, and the second says that God sends Christ to protect us from it. The first has been used by certain people in certain situations to keep victims from leaving their abusers, while the second condemns the ones inflicting the abuse.

The conflict between these two passages highlights something bigger than just the specific issue of abuse, though. The Bible, when taken in its entirety, contains deep conflict within it, and certain passages lend themselves to interpretations that create division. The Bible enables us to create lines of us versus them, or me versus you, or even our God versus their God. And we can’t just ignore it, or decide we’re done with this whole Bible thing and abandon it. Some people do, and I’m not here to bash them, because they are trying to act with integrity in the best way that they can. But we are here because we believe that the Bible is God’s word to us. We believe that it is the witness of individuals who have been touched by the presence of God. In its entirety. And so we have to take this conflict seriously, and we have to wrestle with it. And we have to accept that there may not be any easy or simple resolution.

Which is not nearly as funny as whether or not the kids get ice cream. When we encounter passages from the Bible that conflict with one another, we become anxious, and uncertain, and overwhelmed. We see what looks like two mutually-exclusive positions, and people claiming to be on one side or the other, and, more importantly, claiming that God is with their side and not with the other, and we, or at least I, wonder if that means that there is a possibility that God is on the other side, and not on mine. I think is actually what makes us uncomfortable and anxious when we see conflict in the Bible, or even in the church. It’s the thought that maybe God is not on my side. That if God is on the side of those who interpret the Bible differently than me, then God can’t be on my side, too. That if God loves them, then God can’t love me. And, of course, given the choice, I would rather God love me than them, and be on my side rather than theirs, but I don’t know for certain which side God is on.

In the midst of this uncertainty and anxiety over conflict in the Bible, we hear Jesus’ words to us in the Gospel reading, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Abundantly. In the Greek, that word translates to ‘over and above,’ ‘more,’ ‘great,’ ‘excessively.’ Jesus is saying that he comes to give us abundant liv\fe, over and above what we need, excessive in its giving, generous, so much more than we could use. So much life that it overflows our capacity for it, like a river overflowing its banks and spreading all over the fields to water them. So much life that it bursts out of the tomb, and knocks the stone down on its way out to us.

Really, the life Jesus has for God’s children is so abundant that it is available to all. When Jesus says that he has come that “they” may have life, we know he means the sheep. All the sheep. But might he not also mean the thieves and bandits, too? Are “they” not also in need of life? Moreso than the rest of us, one might even argue. Jesus is the Son of God, truly human and truly divine, surely Jesus has more than enough life for all of God’s sheep, and enough for those who would harm the sheep. He shared his body and blood with Judas, he asked God to forgive those who were crucifying him, he blessed Peter who had abandoned him. He died knowing that his death would provide redemption for even the most sinful. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Because the God whom we worship, and who raised Jesus, and who grants us Easter life, is so much deeper than we can imagine, and capable of encompassing conflicting sides in ways we can’t even understand. In God’s eyes, there is no us and them, no you and me, only God’s beloved children. We may not be able to understand how God inspired opposing Biblical passages, but maybe we can understand how God’s love for those who wrote those passages inspired them to write what they believed God wanted. And surely we can understand that Jesus came to bring those writers life, in all its abundance. And if we can understand that, then maybe we can come even some of the way to understanding that in this life, here and now, God loves those who have completely different beliefs about what God wants us to do in this life. God loves “them.” And us. Sheep and sheep thieves. Together. 

This claim that God’s acceptance and love of God for God’s children is so abundant that everyone is included is even more radical than what either “side” would claim for themselves about God. It is a challenge to accept, certainly. It is really difficult to hear that Jesus has come to give abundant life to those who perpetrate suffering on the innocent, and that they, too, are among his flock. At times, I admit that it seems insurmountable. But, on the other hand, in those times when I find myself on the wrong side, when it turns out that something I have done has caused suffering, I am so grateful to be included among God’s sheep, to receive that abundant life that turns my own around. What is Good News of forgiveness and God’s love for them is Good News for the rest of us, too. 

For the last two thousand years, Christians have been arguing about whether or not Mommy said Yes to the ice cream or No. And the arguments have more often than not escalated to each side screaming at the other, “Mommy loves me, and she doesn’t love you!” But Mommy always has and always will love all her children. Jesus came so that all may have life, and have it abundantly. Easter resurrection is for all of God’s Creation, and it is even better than ice cream. Thanks be to God. Amen.

April 30, 2017 - Compassion Shows us Christ

Luke 23:13-35

It’s easy to forget that for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, this was still only three days after Jesus had been crucified. They were still blinded by their grief; they had heard rumours of some kind of resurrection but didn’t know what it meant or what it looked like. They weren’t in a place where they could hear the Good News Jesus was trying to tell them, even though they desperately needed to hear it. We might think, “Oh, those foolish disciples, never understanding anything,” but who hasn’t been in a position like theirs? Our psalm for today echoes their need, “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” Who hasn’t been in a place of needing to hear the Good News, but not being able to hear it, or trust it? As good as resurrection sounds, it is too crazy to believe in, it makes no sense to our logical minds, and so it becomes harder to see and to experience.

Yet the story of Emmaus attracts us not because the disciples couldn’t see the resurrection, but because, in the end, they could. They did actually see the risen Christ, despite their doubt of the women’s story. So what changed? How did they move from blinding doubt to seeing and being moved by resurrection?
Well, the traditional interpretation of this story says that they recognized Jesus because he shared communion with them. That’s what it means when the Gospel says, “when he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” This is a reference to Holy Communion, and it is meant to reassure Christians who came after the disciples that we see Christ in Holy Communion, and that we experience resurrection and new life every time we receive his body and blood in the bread and wine. 

And we do experience this. There is something about Holy Communion that touches us deeply, in ways that we can’t explain logically or rationally. It gives us a strength and a comfort and a renewal of spirit that makes no sense to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Talking about the experience of taking Communion with someone who has never done it is like the women telling the rest of the disciples that they have seen the risen Christ. The explanation of new life is never as compelling as the experience of it. And yet it is there for us, in the bread, broken and blessed and shared.

Today, though, I want to draw our attention to something that happens before Jesus breaks bread with the disciples. And that is the verse that says that as Jesus was going to walk on ahead of them after they reached Emmaus, the disciples “urged him strongly” to stay with them. As they recollected later on, their hearts were burning within them, and so they were moved to invite him to stay. Something in their experience of being with this person was so deeply affecting that they invited him, strongly, to be with them so that they could continue this experience. 

Now, we could say that they were extending the famous Middle-East hospitality, but the writer of the Gospel is very clear in saying that this feeling that they had was more compelling than the usual custom. They felt “strongly,” with the hearts “burning” within them, and so they invited Jesus in. There is no rational or logical explanation for what they did, they didn’t even have any reasonable explanations for each other afterwards. And yet it is specifically mentioned in this particular story. So what is going on here, and why does the writer of Luke bring it up?

Well, what I want to suggest this morning is that the disciples on the road to Emmaus were moved by compassion for this stranger and that their decision to allow themselves to act on that compassion was one of the reasons they eventually recognized and experienced the resurrected Christ.
You see, it is not logic or good arguments, or even Jesus’ explanation of God’s shaping of the history of Israel that opened their eyes to seeing the resurrection. Rather, it was compassion. Their compassion for the stranger in inviting him in and sharing what they had with them and then Jesus’ compassion for them in sharing himself with them. The disciples’ compassion, not their reasoning or their logic, is what opened to them the opportunity for Christ to reveal himself to them and moved them from the distress and anguish of Good Friday to the hope and goodness of resurrection.

There is a famous story about Mr. Rogers, of the children’s TV show, and his response to seeing disaster. Mr. Rogers actually was a Presbyterian minister and he was friends with Mr. Dress-up. Anyway, Mr. Rogers shared that when he was a child, he would see scary things on the news, and his mother would say to him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” His mother helped him to see the Good News in the world, to see the power of life instead of death, by pointing him towards those who were moved by compassion to help the stranger.

But I think that what the story of Emmaus is telling us today is not just to look for those helpers, but to be those helpers. To be the ones moved by compassion, to be the ones whose hearts are burning within us, so that we might be the hands of Christ’s resurrection in this world, and so that our presence might help others to experience Christ. When someone on the street asks you for change, and that little voice in your head says, “Oh, they’re just going to waste it on alcohol or drugs,” or “If I give them money I’m just going to encourage that kind of behaviour,” listen to your heart instead. What does your heart say before the rational logic of your brain silences it? Allow yourself to be moved by compassion, just as the disciples were.

Because it is in compassion and giving of our time and all that we have, as the disciples did, that Christ reveals himself to us. The disciples could have reasonably reacted to the person walking with them by letting him go on his way, down the road, where he would surely have found somewhere to stay. Nobody would have blamed them. And I am sure that Christ would not have insisted on coming in. But they allowed their hearts to move them, and as a result, their eyes were opened and they recognized the resurrected Christ. They experienced the fullness of Easter Sunday. They saw and felt the Good News. The same experience is available to us. Jesus said, in the Gospel of Matthew, that when we feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and visit the sick - basically, when we have compassion for those who are in need - that we are doing it for Jesus himself. When we give new life to those around us, we are giving new life to Jesus, who in turns gives back to us the Good News of resurrection and new life of our own. Who shares himself with us.

Now all of this defies logical explanation. There is no reason it should be that way, nor even any measurable scientific proof that it happens. But when it does, and it does, our hearts burn within us, and we are moved, because we experience the new life that Christ shares with us so abundantly. We find ourselves, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, blessed with the presence of the risen Christ, lifted from death to Easter life. Thanks be to God. Amen.