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.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Pentecost 18 - Thanksgiving

Isaiah 5:1-7; Phil 3:4b-14; Matt 21:33-46

So, Happy Thanksgiving! It’s a bit odd to say that right after the readings for today, don’t you think? As a whole, our readings are not ones that inspire us with a great deal of thanks. Given the awful event in Vegas last week, the violence of our readings hits home, making it really difficult to truly give thanks. We know that giving thanks is our “duty,” as we hear at the beginning of Holy Communion, and yet it can sometimes feel impossible to give thanks “at all times and in all places,” as we also hear.

This particularly can be the case when we have difficult and painful memories of things that have happened in our own past. For some of us, there are times in the past––short or long––that are intensely painful and continue to wound us even today. We can’t possibly feel thankful for that because those events or the lives we’ve lived in the past are so painful to us that we want a complete break from them, and we reject them completely. We might feel sadness, or bitterness, or even outright anger. But not thankful.

Those painful pasts are behind our readings for today. Isaiah was written during a time of intense political upheaval: there were military invasions by neighbouring countries, the king at the time, Hezekiah, had turned away from following God’s will, and the people were taking advantage of one another and not living as God’s community. Isaiah appears to be trying to understand God’s presence in what was a very oppressive time in Israel and Judah’s past. 

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew was trying to figure out the same thing, although in a different context. In Matthew, the Christian community was struggling to understand why their own leaders, the priests in the Temple, didn’t protect one of their own - Jesus. They felt betrayed by the very ones who were supposed to take care of them––in Matthew’s parable, the murderous tenants refer specifically to the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem, and not to all the people of Israel. The priests were supposed to take care of the people - not sell them out to Rome. The community of Christians that the Gospel of Matthew was written for were living about 50 years after the death of Jesus and only a few decades after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Their recent past was incredibly painful for them, and they lay responsibility for that at the feet of their leaders. They were hurt and angry. They were not thankful.

And, of course, there’s Paul, and his letter to the Philippians. Paul, too, has his own painful past to wrestle with, and he has no one to blame but himself. His pain comes from realizing that he was responsible for the persecution of Christians. From realizing that the zealousness of his own faith caused so much pain to those whom he came to love in Christ. We often think that Paul hated his past because he was Jewish, but that’s not the case. Paul hates his past because at that time in his Jewish life he was violent towards Christ’s brothers and sisters. He is thankful for his Jewish righteousness, but in no way is he thankful for the way in which he lived out that righteousness by persecuting Christians. In that respect, he wants to completely break with his past.

I’m guessing that most of us here can identify with at least one of these situations, whether it is the deep regret over our country’s past, and even present, treatment of its own people, or the feelings of betrayal and confusion over a previous leader’s actions. Or maybe we can identify with Paul’s awareness that in our own lives we have caused deep pain to someone we love. And when we’re faced with these things, it is a challenge to honestly and authentically give thanks “at all times and in all places”––to say “Happy Thanksgiving!” and really, truly, fully mean it.

So what do we do? We’re supposed to give thanks, but our past makes that thanks imperfect. Inauthentic. We could say, “Well, that was in the past, and it’s time to move on, and today’s a new day, and let’s focus on the good things happening now, and give thanks for that.” And that is a perfectly legitimate response. Sometimes, that’s what we need to do to keep moving forward. But other times, that’s not enough. Other times, the pain from the past is too deep or too fresh to allow us to move on, and the dissonance between the past and the present has us feeling inauthentic in our thanksgiving. And so, again, we ask, what do we do? How do we give thanks, as is our duty, without erasing the past from our memory or feeling like we’re somehow being dishonest in our thanks?

It so happens that the apostle Paul, actually, offers us a way forward. In our reading, Paul acknowledges his past of persecution as a loss. A total write-off. Nothing redeeming about it. But he adds that he is pressing on “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” There is something about being in Christ that allows Paul both to face the pain of his past and to give thanks for his life today. And if we look at the letter to the Ephesians, attributed to Paul, we read that Christ “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Paul means Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Eph 2:16) Paul and the new Christian community experience that, in Christ, the pains of the past persecution are gathered up in the new love that they share for one another. Paul looks to reconciliation in Christ to move forward. Paul finds the source of reconciliation, and the reason he can give thanks, not in himself, but in Christ.

It’s important to note that the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t get to that point. We know now that Jesus actually shared a lot in common with the Pharisees - a belief in resurrection after death, a recognition that the heart of Torah or the law is love for one’s neighbour, and a willingness to adapt religious observances for the times. But the community of Matthew’s Gospel wasn’t able to get to a place of being thankful for the Pharisees and priests who let Jesus die. Maybe it was too fresh for them. Maybe they hadn’t yet read Paul’s words to the churches. They weren’t able to find reconciliation and give full and perfect thanks to Christ.

All of this is where we sit in our lives. Maybe you’ve been able to give your past to God and experience Christ’s reconciliation as Paul does. Maybe you see that your past has led you to today, and that you’ve grown in reflecting on those events and commending them to God, and so you’re able to fully and sincerely give thanks. But maybe not. Maybe you identify with Matthew’s community, and feel the pain of a tremendous loss and betrayed relationships and carry that forever. Maybe your thanks is only partial, with resentment or bitterness or anger or pain or even a desire for violent retribution lying underneath. Maybe, like me, you alternate between Paul and Matthew, finding thanks easy at one moment and difficult at another.

But what Paul says to the church in Ephesians, and he says it again in his letter to the Colossians, is our Good News. The truth is that ultimately it is not us who reconciles our past and our present, but God through Christ. God does not expect that our thanksgiving will be perfect. Rather, God perfects our thanksgivings. And this is how we are able to give thanks, at all times and in all places, in the middle of every situation in which we find ourselves. Not because we somehow miraculously transcend the disappointments and betrayals of our live, but because even that partial thanks, that 10% thanks, is made perfect as God receives it. This may be why God actually asks us to give thanks even when we feel least thankful. So that we will experience that it is not that we must be perfectly thankful when we come before God, but that God makes us perfect as we do so. And this is something to be thankful for. This is how we can say “Thanks be to God,” and “Happy Thanksgiving,” even when we don’t fully and truly mean it. Because, in Christ, God reconciles our imperfect thanks, making them, and us, perfect. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, October 02, 2017

October 1, 2017 - Advent Lutheran Church - Pentecost 17

 Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” This is the apostle Paul’s call to the church in Philippi. It is a call, actually, to each of God’s communities, wherever they find themselves, based on Jesus’ call to love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour as yourself. As followers of Christ, we are called simply to love.

Easy, right? We just need to figure out what “love” means, and we’re good to go. Except, of course, that love is not simple. It has different meanings for each person, sometimes several meanings at once. And when you group those individuals into a community, as Paul does, love becomes even more complex. What do you mean by love, we might ask Paul. Or Jesus. When it comes to congregations, what is that love supposed to look like? As I begin my time here with you, I am struck that this question is a good place for us to begin our journey together: considering what love means in a Christian community - in a church.

Well, Paul begins by saying that in the context of a group, love is being “of one mind, looking to the interest of others.” And it’s so interesting that he uses the word look. Look to one another. Because to look to one another, we have to turn toward them. We don’t have eyes in the back of our head, unlike what I tell my children, and so to look at someone, we need to turn around so we can see them. We need to turn towards them.

There is a connection between love and turning towards someone. It is no coincidence that alongside our reading from Philippians we also have our first reading from Ezekiel. In our first reading, we hear the prophet Ezekiel reminding the community of Israel that God calls them to turn away from their transgression and turn toward God. In fact, the Hebrew word for repent means turning away from one’s previous actions and turning towards a new path. And so Ezekiel tells the people that God’s word to them is that they turn––away from their unrighteousness and toward God. They look to God to get a new heart and a new spirit. They turn towards God and live. They turn towards God and love.
We see this again in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew.  The word “turn” isn’t explicitly mentioned, nor the word “love,” but they are there, underneath the text. Jesus draws the parallel between the son who eventually changes his mind and does the will of his father, who turns toward his father, and the prophet John the Baptist and his followers, who also turn towards God. Who love God.

A french Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, talked about this connection between love and turning towards someone. And I promise that I do not usually include french Jewish philosophers in my sermons, but Levinas, who lived through WWII as a French Jew, has some really profound things to say about love. For Levinas, the essence of love is turning towards the Other, so that each person is, as he says, “face-to-face.” This face-to-face is vitally important, because in looking at the Other’s face, in looking to their interest, as Paul would say, we see in the face of the Other, God. We come face-to-face with the One who is both completely different from us, wholly Other, as mysterious as the divine is to the human, and yet who is also completely familiar to us. One of us. One with us.

Of course, this should not be new to us––Jesus says that when we do something for the least of God’s people, we are doing it for him. We believe that every child who is baptized is blessed with the Holy Spirit, who lives in them and brings them to faith. But this idea that we are face-to-face with God every time we look to another’s interest, every time we turn to face another––there is something incredibly personal and transformative in this understanding.

You see, every time we turn towards someone so that we are face-to-face, so that we are able to look so fully at the other so that we are able to see the face of God in their face, they are brought more fully into being. When you are loved in this way, when someone looks you in the face and sees who you really are and stays, you become more the person you are meant to be. Being seen affirms our existence. It affirms our value and self-worth. When someone turns to us and looks at us, and sees us with all of the potential and goodness we are capable of, we grow. You might have had that experience, of being loved by someone, maybe a child or a teacher, who looks at you, and sees you as if all the good you are capable of is actually there as a reality, and not just a possibility, and you start becoming the person they see.

Now, having said all this, and gone off on this grand exposition of love, it may strike you that we’re not usually very good at loving this way. Particularly as a community. We have trouble, especially when we’re in groups, of turning towards those around us, so that we are truly face-to-face. There is always some part of ourselves that we hold in reserve, that we hold back, that hides its face from the Other. This is normal - I think we sometimes rightly fear the judgement of groups if we show them ourselves. Churches can be places where those who show their true face are rejected. We’re not as good at love as we want to be. If we were, Paul wouldn’t have to be telling the church members in Philippi how to love each another.

And this is troubling for us. Because we like to believe that the community of Christians is a place where we can truly love one another, where we can look to the interests of others, where our love for others transforms them to be truly themselves. We know that God calls us to do this, and we know that we want to do this, and yet we find that somehow we fail. We turn to our own interests. We hide our faces. We refuse to see God in the Other’s face. Or we miss seeing it completely. We insist that others become who we want them to be, rather than who they truly are. And in doing so, we turn away from the Other, from our neighbour, and, of course, from God.

Yet we keep trying. We keep trying to become who God wants us to be, to love the way God wants us to love. Day after day, month after month, we turn away from ourselves and towards God, knowing that we will turn back to ourselves but continuing our efforts anyway.

And here’s the thing. Here’s the hope in what can otherwise be a very discouraging situation. Every single time you engage in that turning, every single time you try to look at the face of another, to look to their interest, to look to God in love, even though you might fail, you will discover that God is already facing you. Even while you were still looking to yourself, God had already turned to look to your interest, to see God’s self in you. God has always, is now, and will always show God’s face to you in love. God opens up God’s self to you, turns to you even before you turn to God, and loves you.
And as God loves you, you become more fully who you are called to be, who you were created to be. God is “at work in you,” as Paul says. God’s love, seen in God taking on flesh in Jesus Christ so that God might really, truly be face-to-face with you, calls you into becoming.

As a congregation I know that you have always striven to turn towards God. As we walk together for this next while, my hope is that you will find comfort and rest in experiencing that God has already turned towards you and therefore you are already becoming even more fully who God has created you to be––a community of love, looking to the interests of others. God’s face is turned to you, and God loves you, as individuals and as this community of Advent. Thanks be to God. Amen.