Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Second Commandment - June 17, 2018

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.
What does this mean?
Answer: We are to fear and love God, so that we do not curse, swear, practice magic, lie, or deceive using God's name, but instead use that very name in every time of need to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God. [Luther's Small Catechism]

So I had this great sermon on the Second Commandment all planned out, on how Luther’s explanation to the Second Commandment means we should all act as if the word Christian was hanging in big neon letter above our heads at every moment, so that we would be super clear that every move we make and every word we say is a direct reflection on the name of Christ. And I was going to talk about what’s going on with Christian fundamentalists and how male pastors are using their positions to condone the assault of women, in the name of Christ, and how pastors abusing people is a violation of the Second Commandment. And then I was going to ask, what if we all had to wear this collar that I wear on Sundays, knowing that every encounter we had with our neighbour or at the grocery store or with the stranger we pass on the sidewalk would shape people’s opinions, for good or ill, about God, the great I AM. I was going to talk about how for Christians, every action we make can only be either a misuse or the proper use of God’s name. And, since it’s Father’s Day, I was going to talk about the relationship between fathers and their children as a reflection on the relationship between God and us. It was a great sermon, at least in my head.

And then on Thursday, the United States Attorney General, who is the head of the Department of Justice, (Justice!), Jeff Sessions, a proud Christian who is not ashamed to say that he serves God first, said something absolutely outrageous. You see, there is a new immigration policy in the United States that says that if you are a family fleeing to the United States because your lives are in danger, if you are a father who has had to choose between home and the total unknown of another country and have decided that leaving home is the safer option––if you arrive on the doorstep of the United States as a refugee seeking asylum for yourself and your children and you cross the physical border between Mexico and the United States without going through a border check-point because you are desperate and terrified that if you talk to a border agent you will sent right back into the lions’ den again, then American policy dictates that the minute you are caught by Immigration Control for entering the country illegally, you will be put in detention. And because parents who are arrested for breaking the law and end up in detention are not fit to take care of their children, those children, even though they are babies still breast-feeding or are toddlers who aren’t yet potty-trained, even though they have slept every single night up to then in the protective embrace of their parents who have risked everything for them, the new immigration policy dictates that those children should be separated from their parents and detained elsewhere. And since this policy has gone into effect, there has been a small but growing outcry.

Which brings us back to Thursday and U.S. Attorney General, Christian par excellence, Jeff Sessions. Who, last week, had spoken at the annual Southern Baptist Convention as a guest because of his Christian values. Who then, on Thursday, in response to challenges to the new immigration policy, used the name of God to defend this ungodly policy. That is, Jeff Sessions referred directly to Romans 13 to tell Americans that God has instituted government, with the implication that God has therefore instituted this policy, and to disobey the policy or to protest the policy was therefore to disobey and protest God.

And I’m sorry to be so blunt about this––I was at Synod Convention the last three days and I only wrote this sermon this morning, which I’ve never done before, so it’s not very nuanced––but Jeff Sessions, in the moment he invoked the name of God, broke the Second Commandment: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God. Jeff Sessions, in invoking the name of God to justify this obscene immigration policy, to justify the separation of 2,000 children in 6 weeks from their parents, to justify that these children are still separated from their parents, in saying that the word of God tells us to obey this law use the God’s name to curse those children and their parents.

I don’t know how to make this any clearer. When we use God’s name, or we use our standing as Christians, to defend actions that hurt others, we are breaking the Second Commandment. Because, as Christians, everything we do reflects on God. And when people know that we are Christians, they see everything we do through as a reflection of God. And while they really should judge us by God’s actions, they end up judging God by our actions. If we curse someone, we give the impression that God curses them. If we separate children from their parents, we give the impression that God separates them. And again, I’m going to blunt: if we, as Christians, who bear the name of Christ and the cross of Christ on our foreheads, stay silent in the face of this injustice––or any injustice––we give the impression that God, too, is silent. And we, too, become guilty of misusing the name of God, and of breaking the Second Commandment.

Luther says that the way to obey the Second Commandment is to give thanks to God. You may have noticed by now that every sermon I give ends with Thanks be to God. Every sermon needs to end up so that I can honestly say thanks be to God. And on Friday morning, after hearing what Jeff Sessions had said, I could not see any way to say thanks be to God. But by Saturday, there was hope. Because between Thursday and Saturday, the Holy Spirit of God, who comes to us sometimes as the spirit of disruption, actually, that Spirit had swept through the body of Christ in the United States, and the leaders of churches across that country stood up. From Southern Baptists to Roman Catholics to even the Orthodox churches, they spoke out. And this is what they said.

We live once again in challenging times, when God’s name is under assault. Not from without this time, but from within. And again, please forgive me for not being as nuanced as I ought to be and for being so blunt in saying that we are living in a time when people are using the name of God to justify sin. But here is where we can say, Thanks be to God. Thanks be to God that the Holy Spirit is moving our leaders to speak out. Thanks be to God that we have the opportunity to act in ways that honour God’s name. Thanks be to God that even us, up here in Canada, are still free to speak and to act in ways that defend God’s children, in God’s name. Thanks be to God that, in the midst of the evil around us, that we do in every time of need call on God’s name. We can, and by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us, we do follow the Second Commandment. Thanks be to God, thanks be to God, thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The First Commandment

Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

So, as Jesus says, a house divided cannot stand. You can’t build a house on a foundation made of two uneven materials. Things get tippy, and first gaps appear in the foundation, and then the walls start to come apart at the corners, and develop cracks and start leaning over, and then the roof starts crumbling and the whole thing falls down. In order for the house to stay standing, the foundations have to be uniform and consistent. It has to be one whole. In the Lutheran church, as our confirmation students have been diligently learning this past year, our foundation includes the Bible and the Book of Concord (or, more particularly, the Small Catechism). And so this year, they’ve been building on this Lutheran foundation. They’ve been studying and thinking about and memorizing the contents of the Small Catechism: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Now we could probably all say the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer by heart, if our powerpoint projector suddenly failed. We might be a bit hesitant or say it quietly under our breath, but we’d get there. But how many of us could recite the Ten Commandments by heart? In order? They don’t come as quickly to mind. But Luther himself said, and I quote: “those who know the Ten Commandments perfectly know the entire Scriptures and in all affairs and circumstances are able to counsel, help, comfort, judge, and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters. They are qualified to be a judge over all doctrines, walks of life, spirit, legal matters, and everything else in the world.” [Large Catechism, Preface] 

These are your confirmation students. They know the Ten Commandments, and so they are able and qualified to counsel you, to comfort you, and to judge you. Their voices are worth listening to, both their criticisms and their compliments. Their voices are, in fact, necessary.

Of course, it’s hardly fair to put the burden of the church’s decision-making and community-formation on these few alone. It is up to all of us to constantly revisit our Lutheran foundations, to make sure they’re in good shape with no cracks. It is up to each of us to contribute to the work of being one house, by reading our Bible, studying our Catechism, and remembering the Ten Commandments. 

Which is why, this summer, my sermons are going to be on the Ten Commandments, as we find them in Luther’s Catechism, as this year’s confirmation students have learned them. Luther believed that the Commandments are a gift from God, something to rejoice in because they show us the path to a better life here and now. The Commandments help us to recenter this world around justice, and equality, and life for everyone. Luther also saw them as a blessing not only for us, but for generations to come. Our Bible passage from Exodus says, “a blessing of steadfast love to the thousandth generation.” When we live by the Ten Commandments, they become a blessing to our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren, all the way to those descendants thirty thousand years into the future who may not even know about Christianity.

So, The First Commandment - You shall have no other gods. And in the Small Catechism, Luther always asks: What does this mean? And then he responds: We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.

Sounds simple enough, right? We would probably all say that we fear, love, and trust God above all things. Except that we don’t. There are many things that we fear and trust above God. We fear economic insecurity - either now or when we retire, and so we trust in a job, or a pipeline, or our retirement funds to keep us safe. We fear being sick, and so we trust in exercise, and proper eating, and good sleep to keep us healthy and give us long life. We fear people looking down on us, and so we trust in our behaviour and the behaviour of our family to keep us in good standing in our community. We fear being excluded, and so we trust in keeping our opinions to ourselves and going along with the majority and being nice to give us belonging. We fear dying, as individuals and as a church, and so we trust in new discoveries, new programs, new people to keep us alive.

In the Large Catechism, Luther said that a god is “that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in all need.” There are so many things in this world that we look to for all good, and so many things that we turn to when we’re feeling overwhelmed and in need-money, health, reputation, community. It is actually very difficult to fear, love, and trust God above all things. The reality is that none of us are capable of doing it on our own.

And so what are we to do? We’ve barely even begun to look at the Ten Commandments, and we’re already failing the first, and most important one. Things are looking pretty unsteady for the church if we can’t even do this one thing.

But here’s the thing. The church’s foundation is not built on our adherence to the Ten Commandments. The church does not stand or fall because we succeed or fail to fear, love, and trust God above all things. It sounds like a paradox, but neither the church’s success nor the church’s failure can be attributed to us. Our worship services, our committees, our programs, our membership numbers do not strengthen the foundation of the church. I’m sorry to say it, but you can’t ensure that a church continues to stand by finding the right staff, or the right outreach programs, or the right liturgy. As much as I encourage us to know the Bible and the Catechism, our knowledge is not the foundation. The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord.

Jesus Christ our Lord, the incarnation of God on earth, who sends us the Holy Spirit to empower us to fear, love, and trust God above all things. He is the foundation of our house, of our lives as Christians, of our church. And I want to be really clear here: our foundation is not that we fear, love, and trust God above all things. Our foundation is Jesus Christ, who sends the Holy Spirit to empower us to fear, love, and trust God above all things. We do not build the foundation. We do not strengthen the foundation. God, come to us in Jesus Christ, working in us through the Holy Spirit, is the foundation. We do not strengthen God, God strengthens us. We do not build up God, God builds us up.

And this is what today is about - this day that we have traditionally called Confirmation, but which we are learning to call Affirmation of Baptism. Today is not about three individuals coming forward to commit their lives to God and to renew the promises their parents made in baptism. That would be them attempting to follow the First Commandment through their own efforts. That would be them attempting to be their own foundation. Today is about recognizing that these three individuals were brought to baptism by the Holy Spirit, are brought to church by the Holy Spirit, are brought to the Lord’s Table and brought even to confirmation and to this very day by the Holy Spirit. Today is about them, and us, saying that God has brought us here, and God is our foundation that will never crumble, and yes, God will give us the strength and wisdom to live as God wants us to. Thank God!

“The First Commandment: You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? You are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” Of all the commandments, this is the most important to follow, because, as we will learn over the summer, it is the foundation for all the rest. And of all the commandments, this is the hardest to follow, because it demands the most from us. It demands that we tear down everything in our lives until we get to the foundations and God can build us up again.

It is also the Commandment that God enables us to fulfill, through the power of the Holy Spirit, a power working in each of you since baptism. In this way, it becomes a blessing to us, a gift from a gracious God, something we are honoured to be told to follow. That you are all here this morning, putting this worship of God above all the other demands in your life at the moment, fulfilling this Commandment, resting on the foundation of Christ, is evidence of the work the Holy Spirit is doing in you, so that you may be a blessing to the generations to come. As Luther would say, “This is most certainly true.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Trinity Sunday - Welcoming Strangers Into Relationship

In the name of the Trinitarian God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I welcome you. You are welcome, with all of the things that make you uniquely you, with all the things that make you different from me, with the events and the influences in your life that have shaped you to be the person you are in this moment. You are welcome, just as you are, especially as you are, into the divine community that is rooted in and encircled by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, a community that is built on mutual relationship, that renews us every day.

Today is Trinity Sunday, where we focus on this God of ours whom we call Three-in-One and One-in-Three and has been the subject of much theological debate for almost two thousand years. So we’re not going to cover everything in the next ten-plus minutes. But if there is something about today that I do hope you remember, it’s that “welcoming strangers into relationship” is probably the most important thing about the Trinity that you need to know. “Welcoming strangers into relationship.” This is what the Trinity is about, and it’s how we are meant to experience God.
So, first and foremost, God is relationship. We say God is love, and so we can also say that God is relationship. God is the relationship of our Creator, whom we traditionally call the Father, with the Son, whom we know as Jesus Christ, and with the Holy Spirit. Got that? God is the relationship that exists between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You can’t separate one of them from the other two, and call that single one God, because if God is relationship there’s no relationship with just one person. There must be others. One-in-Three.

At the same time, you can’t have a relationship where the others are the same as you. The Father is not the same as the Son, and the Son is not the same as the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the same as the Father. Each in their own way is unique from the others, different or strange to the others. And that’s why we say that God is Three-in-One - because the one relationship is made up of three, kind of like one braid is made up of three strands. A strand by itself isn’t a braid, and a braid isn’t a braid with only two strands. The one braid itself is made up of three strands, but it’s one braid. One-in-Three and Three-in-One.

But of course we’re talking about the living God, and not about an object like a braid. And that’s really important because the living God is communal relationship, relationships as it exists in community, which means that it’s dynamic and always-changing and always-growing. God is a relationship that is built on each person––Father, Son, and Spirit––being different from one another––strange to one another––but always equal and always open. And this difference, or strangeness, together with this equality and this openness is what makes this divine relationship so life-giving. New life only comes into being when something or someone allows itself to be changed by coming into contact with that which is strange. There is no new life if there is no strangeness and no openness. There is no new life if there is no change.

The early church Elders described this three-in-one, life-renewing divine relationship with the word perichoresis, which means dancing around. They envisioned the Trinity as a three-person dance, with each weaving in and around the other, creating a beautiful circular dance that goes on forever. But the problem with this idea of perichoresis or even just this idea of God as three-in-one relationship is that it seems kind of independent from us. What does the Trinitarian God have to do with us? It’s not that we’re selfish, it’s just that it’s hard to care about the Trinity when it seems completely self-sufficient without us. The Trinitarian God seems to have its dance partners - what does it need us for? And why should we care about its dance?

Well, there’s a reason that I began by welcoming you to the divine community that is rooted in and encircled by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that’s because in the middle of this perichoretic dance of the Trinity––in the circling and interweaving of divine relationship––is a space. There’s always a space in the middle of a circle dance, and this space is divinely purposed. That is, God has deliberately left a space in the heart of the dance, in order to welcome in those who are different. Just as God comes to live in our hearts, God welcomes us to live in the heart of the Trinitarian relationship.

And this is profound for two reasons. The first is that this welcome is extended to us because we are different from God. We are not divine. We are human. We are as strange to God as God is to us. But God wants our strangeness. God chooses us for our strangeness. God invites us into the heart of God because we are different, not in spite of it. God welcomes all of our different differences because, through all of these combined differences, God creates new life. 

And, in God’s welcoming of us into God’s heart, God becomes open to us. We often think that it’s us becoming open to God, but it’s so much more than that. The relationship of openness that exists in the Trinity is extended to us. We become open to God and God becomes open to us. God welcomes us to experience renewal in God and, dare I say, to renew God. This is what it means to say that our God is communal relationship. Our Bible has many examples of God being moved––changed––by the experiences of God’s people. That is what is to be in relationship–to be open to and to be changed by the ones with whom we’re in relationship. This is what God welcomes us to when God welcomes us to live in the heart of the Trinitarian relationship.

When we live in the heart of this Trinitarian God––in this relationship built on welcoming difference and being open to those who are strange to us––we are renewed. We receive new life, and we experience the glory of God. In our our first reading, we heard the words from Isaiah that we repeat in our Communion liturgy, “Holy, holy, holy Lord ... the whole earth is full of [your] glory.” (adapted from Isaiah 6:3). Did you notice that it’s the earth that is full of God’s glory? God’s glory is down here, amongst us, in our relationships with one another, as we live our day-to-day lives in the heart of God. Down here is where the Trinitarian relationship, the essence of God, is felt most fully. In our relationships, as we echo and repeat what God has done for us, as we welcome strangers into our hearts, and we open ourselves to them, to be changed by them, and to be renewed through them. In these things down here on earth, we experience God’s glory most fully.

In the church, this happens in Holy Communion and in Baptism. In Baptism, and today in the baptism of this dear one, we stand alongside God in welcoming new strangers into the heart of God and into our midst. Babies in particular are strangers to us, even if we know their parents, because babies are their own people, but we don’t know who they are yet. And so we welcome them as strangers––as God welcomed us––knowing that as they join us in the heart of the Trinitarian dance, that we are open to them and they are open to us. We rejoice as the Holy Spirit ushers strangers into our midst in Baptism because we know that in their joining us, and in us joining them, in the heart of God, we are all renewed.

So what does this all mean? I said that the most important thing to remember today about the Trinity is “welcoming strangers into relationship.” To live as a Christian, to experience the fullness of God’s glory, today, and every Sunday, and indeed every day, we are called to welcome strangers into relationship with us. As the Trinitarian God has sought us out to draw us in and be changed by us, we are called to seek out those who are strange to us––whether they’re strange because they look different from us, or dress different, or have had a different upbringing, or have different ideas or even different beliefs. We are called to seek out strangers and to welcome them into our lives––into our hearts. To be open to them and their strangeness, to see our strangeness through their eyes, and to allow ourselves to be changed by them. To receive new life through them. We are called to say to strangers what I said to you at the beginning: In the name of the Trinitarian God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I welcome you. You are welcome, with all of the things that make you uniquely you, with all the things that make you different from me, with the events and the influences in your life that have shaped you to be the person you are in this moment. You are welcome, just as you are, especially as you are, into the divine community that is rooted in and encircled by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, a community that is built on mutual relationship, that renews us every day. 

As God welcomes you, may you welcome others, until we are all together in relationship in the heart of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Pentecost 2018 - The Disruptive Spirit of God

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Ah, the Spirit of Truth. I think we are dearly wishing for this Spirit these days. Certainly in our secular world, as we are bombarded by accusations of Fake News, as we hear conflicting accounts of current affairs, as we watch events unfold before our eyes and wonder how much of it is engineered and manipulated to elicit certain beliefs. There are times when we yearn for Jesus to send that Spirit of Truth to blow through the world and blow away everything that is fake. We yearn for the Spirit to speak truth to power.

And not just in the world. In the church, too. We don’t talk about it as much, but we’re short on truth in the church, as well. We are not as forthcoming and honest about our history as we like to think we are, particularly when it involves the institution-sanctioned persecution of others. We hide or overlook the messy stories of our past, particularly when they involve clergy abuse. We have a tendency to silence those whom God sends to be truth-speakers in our midst, particularly when their words point out our inconsistencies or hypocrisies and call us to change.

And yet, in the church, too, we yearn for Jesus to send the Holy Spirit. We cry out for renewal, for freedom from bondage, for new life. Despite our fears and misgivings about what might happen, we do, deep down in our souls, crave this Spirit of Truth, who is also the Spirit of renewal, and freedom, and new life. We know, as Jesus says in John, chapter 8, that “the truth will set [us] free.” The Holy Spirit, the bringer of truth, will set the body of Christ free. And so we cry out, “Come, Holy Spirit!”

Actually, it’s more like we whisper, “Come, Holy Spirit.” For one thing, European or Scandinavian-descended Lutherans aren’t really a shouting-in-church kind of people. For another, the Holy Spirit coming is, well, overwhelming. Although we talk about the Spirit of Gentleness, and the Spirit of Tenderness, and the Spirit of Peace and Serenity, just as often when the Holy Spirit comes, it comes as the Spirit of Disruption. The Spirit of Unsettledness. The Spirit of Change. Because these are the things that Truth does. Truth disrupts the hold that the Fake has over us. Truth unsettles the systems of power that keep some down and lift others up, and it unsettles those who are caught in those systems. Truth brings about change––to us, and to the world.

We see this disrupting Spirit in our Pentecost Story. The story in Acts is full of disruption. It begins with a “violent wind.” This is not a light, refreshing, Mediterranean breeze. This is a blast of wind, that rushes in, whips the dust off the floor into our eyes, scatters our neatly arranged piles of paper out the window, slams the doors, blows our carefully tidied hair, and expectations, into tangles and disarray! The Holy Spirit begins the Pentecost story with the kind of wind that starts tornados, and hurricanes––ready to disrupt!

And then, this Holy Spirit comes to rest, as a tongue or flicker of fire, on each person in the room. Now don’t be fooled––the disruptive movement of the Spirit has not calmed down. We might look at the candle flame on the altar and think, oh, that’s not so bad. I mean yeah, it’s fire, but what’s one little flame? Well, in the Roman Empire, the coins, like they do now, had a picture of the ruler on them––the Roman Emperor. And the Roman Emperor claimed for himself the status of divinity. The Roman Imperial Cult established that the Emperor was, literally, a god. And to symbolize that divinity, the coins showed a flame over his head. The flame over his head was a marker of his divinely-ordained, never-to-be-challenged, never-to-be-disrupted authority. The claim that the apostles had flames over each of their heads was no whisper, no calm, flickering single flame. It was, to Jews back then, a clear shout of truth to power––a powerful protest against the Roman Imperial Cult that demanded worship of the Emperor and that was, in effect, a cult of death. The Holy Spirit was there to disrupt the religious institution. Not of Jerusalem, but of Rome. Not to shine on it with a gentle glow but, with all those combined tongues of fire, to burn it down.

And then there’s the disruption of Spirit-blessed diversity. That’s what it is when the Holy Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak in other languages, so that in the immense, international crowd gathered for the Temple festival, “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” Spirit-blessed diversity. To the outside ear, it sounded like chaos, cacophony, unintelligible babble. (It was, actually, the very reversal of Babel.) But to God, and to those blessed by the Spirit, it was the Spirit’s disruption of sameness, sounding a loud and lively harmony of voices. 

Now this disruption is all well and good when it happens somewhere else, some time very long ago. From our comfortable present, we admire those disruptive moments in history that have brought us to today, because we have benefitted from the disruption of Pentecost. We have benefitted when God has sent and empowered truth-speakers in our midst in the past. The church word for them is “prophets,” and if we like the truth they spoke, and if we’ve benefitted from their holy disruption, we’ll use that word. Luther was a prophet. He spoke the truth of God’s grace to the power of the exploitative church. He spoke the truth of our equality in baptism to the power of the hierarchy. Martin Luther King Jr., named after that first Luther, was another prophet. Blessed by the Holy Spirit, he spoke truth to the powers of racism and white supremacy. 

But if we don’t like the disruption these Spirit-empowered people are bringing, ah, then we call them something else. If we don’t benefit from the changes they’re calling for, if we find that we are the ones who are being brought down, that we are the ones who are being unsettled, then we use other words for them––“heretics,” or, prominent in the news these days, “protestors,” or “activists,” and if we really don’t like the truth they’re speaking, “troublemakers.” Only the word we use isn’t so polite. Martin Luther was a prophet to us Lutherans who like what he said. He was a heretic to those who didn’t. To those whose positions were disrupted, and unsettled, and changed, to those who were enjoying the systems of fake power, he was a “troublemaker.” Martin Luther King, Jr., was a prophet to those of us who believe in racial justice. He was also labelled a possible traitor to the country by those who didn’t like his message. Again, to those who were enjoying the systems of fake power, he was a “troublemaker.” 

But we know that these two prophets, along with others in our past, were empowered by the Holy Spirit. The changes that they brought were disruptive, but they were avenues for new life. God used them to bring our dry bones to life. And so even now, when the church has found itself too often on the wrong side of power and we find ourselves calling more and more prophets “troublemakers,” we still yearn, deep in our hearts, for God to act. And so we begin, albeit in whispers, to call the Spirit.

Ah, and God hears our whispers. And God sends the Holy Spirit. Indeed, God has never stopped sending the Spirit to us. As Luther says in the Small Catechism, in his explanation to the Third Article of the Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit” means that “the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.” The Holy Spirit is daily at work in our midst, keeping us in the true faith. Through the Holy Spirit, God keeps the church in truth. As disruptive as that might be for us, God does it because it brings us new life. God does it through our sons and our daughters. God does it through our young people, and our old people. God does it through those who are slaves to the systems and yearning to break free. God gives them voices to speak the truth that God loves all without exception, that diversity is a gift from God for our benefit. To speak the truth that power is meant to make us all equal, to be used to overcome inequity and poverty and oppression. To speak the truth that we are created to give life to the whole earth, not just to a privileged few. That when one suffers, we all suffer, and when one lives, we all live. To speak the truth that God is the one who brings the dry bones to life, and that God empowers us to do the same.

And this truth is disruptive. When the Holy Spirit speaks through these people, through these prophets, it seems as if the heavens are splitting apart and the earth is coming to pieces. It seems as if the light has darkened and the mood has turned red. It seems as if chaos and disruption are all around us. And only after that, only after these things, only after Truth has spoken to power and put power in its place does God’s great and glorious day come to pass.

The liturgical colour for Pentecost is red. It’s the colour of fire, the colour of blood, it’s often considered the colour of anger. It’s a peculiar choice––it’s definitely not a softly affirming colour, like pink, or light blue. It’s not gentle on the eyes, or calming. It’s a strong colour. A disruptive colour. It’s perfect for this way that the Holy Spirit––the Spirit of Truth––is present among us. This red is a reminder to us of the way that God calls us, as individuals and as the church, to be in the world––as disruptive truth-speakers. God calls us, and God empowers us, through the Holy Spirit––the Lord, the Giver of Life, the Spirit of Truth. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[N.B. I am deeply grateful to the June 2016 students of Introduction to Spirit and Community at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary who developed this idea of the Holy Spirit as disruptive.]

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Easter 7, 2018 - God and Mothers

Well, today is Mother’s Day, and no doubt you’ve seen the cards thanking mothers for all the sacrifices they’ve made, for their boundless love, for the hugs and kisses they’ve shared, for all the work they’ve done for their families. You’ve probably seen the commercials on TV and heard them on the radio - “This Mother’s Day, show her you care, buy her...” whatever they’re selling - jewelry, a camera, a drill from Home Depot (that’s my favourite) - the list is endless. And of course, you’ve noticed the flowers and balloons in the store, covered with hearts, saying Happy Mother’s Day.
Even the church takes part in this celebration of mothers, although it’s not a specifically Christian holiday. Churches proclaim mothers to be God’s angels and saints - the epitome of selflessness, role models of self-sacrifice. Luther himself called motherhood the highest vocation and calling for women - a proclamation that was revolutionary at that time because, in his time, motherhood was seen as a punishment for Eve’s transgression in the garden of Eden and nowhere near as valued as any of the “actual” vocations that men fulfilled. Since then, in the church, Mother’s Day has been a time to talk about the holiness of all mothers––about Mary, Jesus’ mother, who bravely answered God’s call to carry the Saviour in her womb and then to give him up to die; about Sarah, the wife of Abraham and the mother of Isaac, who carried Isaac in her old age and fulfilled God’s promise of making Abraham the father of generations of the covenant. We hear about Leah and Rachel, about Hannah who wept in the Temple because she couldn’t have a child, about the two mothers in King Solomon’s court––one who couldn’t cope with the loss of her baby and the other who would rather give hers up than watch it die. We heard Jesus’ words last Sunday, words that God has given us, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I loved you,” and it seems a natural step to connect this to mothers. Who else but a mother could love this way? A mother’s love is the closest many of us get to God’s love for us.

I’ll tell you a secret about mothers and Mother’s Day, though. And maybe this changes the longer you’ve been a mother, and maybe not all mothers feel this way, but this has been my experience. Mother’s Day, as lovely as it is to get cards and flowers and a break from cooking and to hear about other mothers in the Bible, also makes mothers feel a little bit... guilty. Or inadequate. Or maybe a bit ashamed. You see, mothers never feel that we’re doing as good a job as others seem to think we are. Mothers tend to walk around with this pervasive sense of guilt that we are not the mothers we wish we were. We hear about how wonderful other moms are, and we hear God’s commandment to love our children as God loves us, and we know that we don’t. The most common feeling that mothers share is guilt––over things done and left undone––and the burden of the consequences of that. For example: 
  • We’re too hard on our children and they’re going to rebel against us.
  • We’re too soft on our children and they’re going to think they’re entitled to everything.
  • We don’t protect our children enough and they’re going to be hurt by someone or something.
  • We’re overprotective of our children and they’re not going to know how to handle the world.
  • We don’t give them enough independence and they’re not going to be able to handle real responsibility.
  • We try to make them too independent and they won’t be able to form close relationships with anyone.
  • We treat them in ways they don’t deserve.
  • We don’t treat them the way they do deserve.
  • We don’t spend enough time with our children. 
  • We don’t spend enough time for ourselves. 
  • We don’t give them enough. 
  • We give them too much. 
  • We don’t do enough of this. 
  • We do too much of that..

The list goes on, and so does the guilt

Working mothers, stay-at-home mothers, student mothers, single mothers, married mothers––we come to this day with mixed feelings because we know that we have never been able to love and mother our children the way we wish we could: perfectly, as Jesus loves us, as God commands us. All mothers, no matter how well-intentioned (and, truthfully, there are some mothers who have not been well-intentioned), no matter how many sacrifices we have made (and there are always sacrifices), know that we fall short, and on Mother’s Day, this feeling lurks persistently at the back of our minds. We are never always and fully the mothers the cards say we are. We all have had our periods of anger, and impatience, and annoyance, and negligence. We have all fallen short of the perfect love God commands from us.

Well, today is Mother’s Day, and so I say specifically to those of you who mother, “As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.” Now, we may smile a bit, but I am serious. Mothers do not hear very often that we are forgiven for falling short as mothers. And so I proclaim to you who mother that the forgiveness that is granted to all Christians through Christ is also granted to you. To you mothers specifically. You are forgiven for all of the mistakes you have made as you mother. You are forgiven for the things that you have done and left undone. You are forgiven for not loving your children as yourselves. You are forgiven for being too strict and for not being strict enough. You are forgiven for not protecting your children from harm and for being overprotective. You are forgiven for not giving them enough and for giving them too much. God forgives you.

God forgives you and God loves you. Even more than we find ways to forgive and love our own children, despite their failings and mistakes, despite the hurt they have caused us, God forgives and loves us, despite our failings and mistakes and the hurt we have caused. It isn’t that God doesn’t see the ways we have failed - it is that God has seen them, and God, who loves our children even more than we do, forgives us and loves us, too, because we are also God’s children.

I have one last good word to share with you today. As mothers, we always hope that our children will not be hurt by the mistakes we have made. We hope that our children will be able to move past the ways in which our mothering has held them back. The last good word that I want to share with you is that God makes this happen. We have heard over the last few weeks of this Easter season, that God makes the branches bear more fruit, and causes fruit to grow that will last. God gives to those who mother the responsibility of watering and feeding and caring for the seeds that we have been given, and more often than not, we don’t get it right. Mothers are human. But God works through and beyond our own efforts, or lack thereof, and loves them in ways that we can’t, sending the Holy Spirit where we have fallen short, and being more committed to them than we possibly could. As mothers, this is our salvation - that God takes better care of our children than we do, and that despite our mistakes, despite our inability to live up to the Hallmark cards’ description of us and despite our failure to love our children as God loves us, God loves our children, God loves us, and God forgives us. Thanks be to God. Happy Mother’s Day. Amen. 

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Easter 5 - Grace for Those Just Passing Through

Acts 8:26-40

This morning I want to go back to our first reading, and the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch and a spontaneous baptism. Because this is a weird story. It pops up out of nowhere, and it ends abruptly, and no one ever talks about it again. It’s not particularly flashy, like the tongues of fire resting on the disciples’ heads that we’ll hear about in a few weeks for Pentecost, and there’s no miraculous healing like we hear Peter doing in Acts, Chapter Three. Yes, it’s a bit unusual that Philip is directed by an angel of the Lord to go down to that wilderness road south of Jerusalem, and it’s definitely odd that he is suddenly whisked away from the scene at the end of the story, but other than that, it’s one of the tamer stories in Acts. So what are we supposed to learn from it?

In every congregation I’ve ever been a part of, either as a pastor or a regular worshipping person, the most frequent complaints I hear are about “those people” who come to church but don’t help out and “those people” who show up just to have their children baptized or confirmed and then never come back. I understand why this is a concern. It takes a lot to keep a congregation going - there’s a lot of work that happens behind the scenes, as it were, both on Sunday morning and during the rest of the week. People organize the church events that happen, people give their time and energy to planning and running Sunday School, and hosting coffee hour, and setting up for Communion and cleaning up afterwards. People are involved in preparing for a child’s baptism, and in helping with Confirmation. And especially when it comes to baptisms and confirmation, churches don’t charge for those things, and so it almost seems like some families are taking advantage of these opportunities for their children without making any kind of reciprocal commitment in return. They show up, get what they need, and disappear. They’re just passing through. And we worry that it turns the church into a kind of spectator sport. We think that if people are going to take advantage of the benefits of the Christian community, they should be a part of the community.

And along comes our reading from Acts and, in the eunuch from Ethiopia, we see that we are, to put it bluntly, wrong.

To put it quite simply, for the Christian community beginning to develop in Acts, the Ethiopian eunuch was a temporary person. He was just passing through. Just like the story itself seems to pass through the book of Acts without leaving any impact, the same is true of the Ethiopian. First, he was from Ethiopia. The kingdom of Ethiopia during the time Acts was written covered the area that we now know as modern-day Sudan and parts of Egypt and Libya. It was essentially the southernmost edge of the “known world.” It was as far from Jerusalem as one could possibly get. It is highly unlikely that the eunuch was coming to Jerusalem to worship on a regular basis. It’s possible this was a once-a-year trip, but even more likely that this was a once-in-a-lifetime journey. He definitely wasn’t coming to Jerusalem every week to worship. There is absolutely no way that he was a contributing member of either the Jewish community or the Jewish community of Christ-followers, and he certainly was never going to be. He was, geographically speaking, just passing through.
Second, he was a eunuch. He was a not-quite-male, at a time when you were either part of the male community or part of the female community. Biologically speaking, he was never going to be a contributing member of either of those communities either. While born a male, he was, again, just passing through that community.

None of which seems to concern God in the least. Rather the opposite. God directed Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, to leave Jerusalem and walk down the road that travelled through the wilderness from Jerusalem to Gaza, about the distance from here to just past Nanton. Philip had to chase down someone travelling away from Jerusalem in a chariot. And for what? For a spur-of-the-moment baptism. And then Philip was whisked off and the Ethiopian continued on his way. And that’s it. That’s the end of the story. In a nutshell, Philip baptizes someone who has not committed to being part of the religious community, who is probably never going to come back, and who has had virtually no baptismal preparation. And God is apparently cool with this.

But isn’t that the epitome of God’s grace? That God offers us grace, as a gift, without any expectation that we do anything in return? God’s grace is a gift. It’s right there in the Bible, in the letter to the Ephesians, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ––by grace you have been saved––and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus... For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God––not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Baptism, which is the marker of God’s grace that makes us members of the Christian community, is a gift. There is nothing we need to do beforehand to earn it, and nothing we need to do afterward to pay it back. Baptism has no expiry date. There are no membership fees for belonging to the Christian community, no service hours, no attendance requirements. 

Which, on the one hand, is somewhat annoying for those of us who are committed to the Christian community, and spend a lot of our time and energy serving it. I can imagine some of the disciples chastising Philip for spending the better part of a day down on that road baptizing just one person, who was never going to come back to Jerusalem anyway. The Ethiopian eunuch, who never even shared his name with Philip, was definitely not going to be spending his time helping the disciples gather funds for the widows and orphans of Jerusalem, or travel around healing the sick, or sharing the good news of Christ with others in Israel. Philip had just spent his time welcoming someone into the Christian community who was never going to give back to it. It’s frustrating; these people who are just passing through take a lot from us and they don’t give back.

On the other hand, though, as someone who has been also been on the taking-and-not-giving end of belonging to a Christian community, I am immensely grateful for all of that grace. My children were baptized in congregations where I was not a member. We came on a Sunday and then we left again. When we were living in California, and my kids were very little, and I was studying full-time, I was one of those people who made it to church once or twice a month, took advantage of Sunday School, stayed for coffee after, but never joined a committee, never served on Council, never helped out with extra events. We were there for about two years, just passing through. And of course I felt guilty about it, but I simply couldn’t be there more. But every time we showed up, the people there were sincere in their hellos, they welcomed my kids without reservation, they never once made me feel bad that I couldn’t be more committed or more involved in their community. They cherished us because we were just passing through. They embodied the grace of God as a gift. 

The story of Philip and the nameless Ethiopian eunuch invites us to remember that God’s welcome of us is truly a gift. The Holy Spirit sought you out and brought you into this community, on this morning, as a pure unmerited and undeserved gift to you, so that you might be filled with new life and go out rejoicing. You didn’t need to prepare in any way to be here, and you don’t owe anything when you leave.

The Christian community, whether that means denominations, or congregations, or small groups, and its emphasis on grace is unique. To be welcomed and included and served without any obligation is not the way our world typically works. In every other organization, we are expected to pay for the privilege of belonging, whether with money or with service or even with our regular attendance. We are expected to give back. But baptism, and the community that it gives us, and especially the new life that it brings us, is pure gift. It’s almost as if God means it to be for people who are just passing through, for people who, for whatever reason, can’t make any commitments or help out in the community in any way, for people who can never pay back what they have been given, for people whose names we might never know.

God invites the church to be this embodiment of grace, to welcome the stranger, to share the good news with all, without any expectations. But first God invites you to receive that grace, to know that you are welcome in God’s eyes just as you are, that you are granted forgiveness and healing for as long as you need, because you, too, are just passing through. And so, like the Ethiopian eunuch, rejoice––all of this is Christ’s gift to you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Easter 4 - God has a Dad's Heart

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

I admit to some confusion over Jesus’ words this morning. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” I’m not entirely clear on what he means. Who are these other sheep? How can they listen to his voice but not already belong to this fold? This passage makes me think of another one in John, where Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” (John 14:2). And earlier, where he says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) All of these passages together seem to say that Jesus is looking beyond the circle of Jews in Israel, and possibly even beyond the community of Christians for whom the Gospel of John was written. These passages together seem to say that God intends to bring all people, including non-Christian-believers, into God’s presence. Universal salvation.

Except... except that in the same Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And in the verses right before our reading for today, Jesus says that he is the gate to the sheepfold and that “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” (John 10:7,1) And in Acts, we just heard Peter say, filled with the Holy Spirit, “There is salvation in no one else [but Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given by mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) All of these passages together seem to say the opposite, that Jesus is concerned only with Christian believers, and that those who do not profess Jesus as their Saviour are judged and condemned and either cast out or left behind when the time comes. Not-so-universal salvation.

Now, for a long time in the church, the contradiction didn’t really bother too many people. Before globalization was a word, in places where everyone was Christian except for a small minority that everybody ignored anyway, people didn’t give much thought to “heathens,” as they called them. A few good-hearted people worried about the souls of those in faraway countries but, by-and-large, Christians could live their entire lives without meeting anyone of a different religion. Martin Luther, for instance, never met a Muslim (or Turk, as he called them), even though he had quite a number of opinions about them. He certainly wasn’t in any distress about the possibility that God might not welcome them into God’s presence when they die.

This is not the case anymore. At least not for us, who live in Calgary. The reality is that many of us care deeply about people who are not Christian: family members, dear friends, good neighbours, co-workers. We love people who may have once been Christian but no longer consider themselves such, or are avowed atheists, or practicing agnostics, or active members of other faiths. These people who do not belong to our fold, or to any fold at all, are people we hold close in our hearts, and so it can cause deep distress to think that when they die, God will keep them out. In fact, just on Thursday, I saw a newsclip on CNN of a little six-year-old named Emanuele who had a chance to ask Pope Francis a question, and Emanuele’s father was an atheist and had just recently died, and Emanuele, with deep concern, asked the Pope if his father was in heaven with God. 

This question of what happens to non-Christians can no longer be dismissed as irrelevant. It is something we as Christians must struggle with, because the struggle tells us not only who we are as a human family, but also who this God is whom we worship. It forces us to examine what we really believe about this God whom we say is love and this Christ whom we say brings life. It pushes us to ask ourselves if we really do trust this God in whose name we gather.

The church-at-large. around the world and through history, has three different responses to this question. I cant tell you which one is “right.” It is not given to us to know in this lifetime anything for certain––as Paul says, we see through a glass darkly. But as we look at these three responses, I encourage you to ask yourselves, “Which one makes me feel closer to God? Which one makes me trust God more? Which one makes me feel God’s love for me more?” These are the questions that always guide us, because they direct us to the heart of faith.

So, the first response, which has been the church’s historical response, is that all people must accept Jesus Christ as Lord in order to receive life. Essentially, only the baptized get to be with God after they die. This understanding is at the heart of missionary efforts, as Christians go out into the world to introduce Jesus to non-Christians. And I don’t want to be cynical about missionaries, even though in the past, they have too often worked hand-in-hand with governments to support colonialism. I believe that missionaries are truly motivated by concern and love for non-Christians. They do really want these “sheep that do not belong to this fold,” to be found and restored to the one flock under Jesus Christ. In the end, though, they firmly believe that only Christians are saved. If you love someone who is not Christian, you need to work at converting them, otherwise you will be separated forever when you die.

The second response, much more common today, is the extreme opposite, and it is that God saves everyone, without question. God made everyone, God loves everyone, and so God saves everyone. And I like this––I like that it emphasizes God’s love for the world. I want this to be true, except it’s not. At least it’s not for Christians. Our Christian belief states, without doubt or compromise, that God loves us through Jesus Christ. Christ is essential to God’s love for us. Christ’s death and resurrection are an indispensable part of God’s relationship with us. If not, if God is able to save us all without Christ, then everything about us as Christians is pointless. It’s great for those we love who aren’t Christians––not so good for us.

The third response is not particularly new, it’s just not particularly wide-spread. And that is that God saves everyone through Christ––that Christ is indeed the way, the truth, and the life––but that each individual’s acceptance, or even awareness, of that truth is irrelevant. Essentially, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fully divine and fully human, was a once-and-for-all cosmic event that affected all of time from the Big Bang to whatever happens at the end, and redeems all of existence from every single person on our tiny earth to whatever alien life might be present on the very borders of our universe. And that this salvation that God has accomplished through Christ is so final and so ultimate that not even our ignorance of it or doubts about it or refusal to believe in it or our belief in something else entirely can change the reality that it has happened. Out of deepest love for all of Creation, God has saved us through Christ, and those we love who aren’t Christian. It’s done. Nothing can change what God has already done through Christ.

So how do we know which of these three understanding is the “right” one? As I said earlier, which is the one that leads you to trust God more? This is not a rhetorical question––the right one is whichever one draws you closer in love and trust to God. Which is the one that allows you to entrust those you love to God’s care? That reassures you of God’s love for you through Christ? We know that God’s basic orientation towards all of Creation is one of goodness and love and abiding care. Scripture tells us this over and over again. God wishes us all to be saved. God wishes us all to be cared for by a shepherd who would lay down his life for us. God wishes us all to have light and life in the midst of darkness and death. God delivers us all from evil. All of these truths can be asserted without doubt. And so all we can do is trust in God’s love for us, and in God’s love for those we love. And this is the truest act of faith and the worship of Christ––to trust completely in the God who sent him, the God who saves through him, and to commend those we love to God’s care.

So, Emanuele, the little six-year-old who asked Pope Francis if his father, an atheist, was in heaven now? When Pope Francis heard his question, he called him forward and hugged him close, and then said to everyone there, “Do you think that God could leave him far from him? Do you think this?” And then he said, “God has a dad’s heart.” God has a dad’s heart. We know that our hearts are full of love for those in our lives who aren’t Christian; God’s heart even more so. God loves the ones we love even more than we do, for God made them, and Christ died for them. And so we can trust Jesus when he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” and when Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, says, “There is salvation in no other name but Jesus.”  Both can be true, through the grace and love of God through Christ that passes all understanding. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Easter 3 - Shame and Peace

Acts 3:12-19; Luke 24:36b-48

So here we are, in the middle of the Easter season, which, by the way, is seven Sundays long, so that it is a full week of Easter. And Jesus comes to the disciples and says, “Peace be with you.” But to be honest, after hearing our reading from Acts, I’m not feeling very peaceful.

As you’ve seen, I get pretty uncomfortable with texts in our New Testament that bash “the Jews,” seeing as how Jesus was one of them, along with Paul and Peter and all the first disciples and founders of the church. We heard a number of them in the Gospel of John during Lent and Holy Week, leading up to Easter, and now we have another one in Acts, which particularly troubles me: We have the apostle Peter, seemingly out of nowhere, launching into an aggressive accusation against those who are at the Temple the same day as he: “But you [meaning the Jews standing there] rejected the Holy and Righteous One, ... and you killed the Author of life.” And it’s not the first time he says this. Just one chapter earlier, he says to the Jews, talking about Jesus, “this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.” Peter lashes out at them, accusing them not just of killing Jesus, but of using Roman hands––unclean hands––to get away with it. He accuses them not just of murder, but of being complete hypocrites as they do so.

Now this is all bad enough, particularly because it oversimplifies what happened, and because it has led to Christian pogroms against the Jews throughout history. But what really bothers me about it is that this is Peter making these accusations. Peter, Jesus’ lead disciple, who took out a sword and cut off a soldier’s ear in the Garden of Gethsemane, who denied Jesus three times after Jesus was arrested in order to save his own skin, who didn’t believe that Jesus was risen when the women told him that they had seen the risen Christ. Peter was no saint, so to speak. He was violently impulsive, he abandoned his leader in a crisis, and he was so full of himself that he wouldn’t take anyone else’s word until he saw it himself. (Hey, isn’t there another disciple like that?) If there’s anyone who should be judged for the way they acted towards Jesus, it really ought to be Peter. It’s one thing to act that way towards your enemy, but towards your friend? And this after Jesus tells them to love their neighbour as themselves.

But maybe that’s what’s going on here. Maybe Peter doesn’t love himself. Maybe Peter is quite aware of what he’s done. Maybe Peter lies awake at night agonizing over his abandonment of Jesus, replaying in his mind that whole evening and the next day, imagining that if he had it to do all over again how he would have declared his loyalty to Jesus over Rome and been up there on that cross instead of Jesus. Maybe Peter is so consumed with his own guilt and hypocrisy that he is unable to forgive himself and so he lashes out at others for theirs.

It’s not that I want to psychologize Peter, it’s just that it’s a fairly common experience in life that we tend to accuse people of what we ourselves feel guilt or shame over. This is especially true for things we’ve done that we’re ashamed of––the whole nature of shame is that it affects us so deeply that we can’t even directly explore the things that cause us to feel shame. Guilt is feeling bad about what we’ve done, while shame is feeling bad about who we are. Internalized guilt becomes shame, and that’s when we stop being able to think about it. We become unable to think about the terrible things we’ve done because they seem to us proof of the terrible person we are. But shame persists, and it surfaces in our criticisms of others. We deal with our shame by focusing it on someone else. We judge others the way we are secretly judging ourselves. We handle our disappointment and judgment and hatred of ourselves by moving it to a disappointment with and judgement and hatred of others. 

Which I think is what Peter is doing. His deeds of denial and abandonment were awful and he seems to have felt that deeply. We know that after the resurrection, Jesus had to tell Peter three times to take care of Jesus’ sheep, because Peter seemed unable to believe that Jesus would want him to do such a thing. And so this, combined with Peter’s lashing out in our readings from Acts, makes me wonder if Peter was unable to forgive himself for his denial and betrayal of Jesus, if he felt a deep and abiding sense of shame over his behaviour. And it makes sense to me that if he was unable to forgive himself, and was ashamed of betraying Jesus, that he would externalize that and be unable to forgive anyone else, either. That he would transfer his own shame to other Jews around him, and accuse them of rejecting the Holy and Righteous One and killing the Author of life when indeed, it was he himself he was really accusing. In one context or another, we all do this.

But Jesus offers us an alternative to this interplay of shame of one’s self and accusation of another. In place of the spiritual and emotional and psychological death that feeling shame brings to us, Jesus offers us new life that is rooted not in ourselves, or in our actions or inactions, but in Christ. Specifically, in Christ’s death and resurrection for our sake. Because of Christ, we are forgiven and healed. Because of Christ, guilt and shame no longer determine who we are. Instead, the righteousness and holiness and goodness of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, determine who we are, and determine that we are children of God.

And this disrupts shame and accusation because once we accept that we ourselves are forgiven, we can forgive others. Once we consider ourselves loved and accepted, instead of guilty and shameful, we can then move onto to loving and accepting others, even with all their guilt. When Jesus says that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves, it is very clear that this is rooted in loving ourselves. This is not a call to become selfish, but rather a call to accept what God in Christ has done for us. To believe, actually, in Easter. To build our entire lives and our entire self-image and all of our relationships on the central claim of our faith, that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God forgives us all our sins and redeems us and that there is nothing we can do that is stronger than that forgiveness and redemption. To refuse to forgive ourselves, to be ashamed of ourselves, to fail to love ourselves becomes, then, a denial of what Christ as accomplished in Easter. It is putting the power of our sinfulness above the power of God. 

  But God’s power, shown to us in Easter, is the true power. And God’s power removes our guilt and our shame and forgives us and makes us God’s beloved children. And this is the peace that Jesus brings. This is why Jesus appears to the disciples in our Gospel reading, which, remember, is still taking place on the same day that the tomb was discovered empty. This is less than three days after the disciples of Jesus all fled and left him to die, and the shame of their actions would no doubt have been incredibly high. And Jesus appears amongst them and the first thing he says is, “Peace be with you.” Be at peace. The disciples are not to be troubled by what they have done or left undone. They are not to be troubled, or feel ashamed, by who they have been up to this point. Be at peace.
Jesus says the same thing to you. “Peace be with you.” Jesus wishes you to be at peace, to experience the peace of being forgiven and of believing that, because of the cross, you truly no longer have anything to be ashamed of. Jesus Christ is not ashamed of you. He does not wish you to live in the anxiety and trouble of guilt and shame. He wishes you to live in peace, believing that he has forgiven you and died for you.

Now Matthew 5:24 tells us that before we “leave [our] gift at the altar,” we need to first be reconciled with our brothers and sisters. It leaves us with the impression that we must forgive and be forgiven by those around us, to be at peace with them, before we can come forward and receive God’s forgiveness. This Bible Verse is the reason we share the peace of Christ with one another before the offering. (See, all of our liturgy is actually rooted in Scripture.)

But there’s an important thing that happens right before you all share the peace with one another. And that’s that I share Christ’s peace with you. I tell you first, in person, that Christ has come to you and forgives you and wishes peace for you, so that you can then do the same for your neighbour. You are reminded that you are forgiven, and in the peace of that forgiveness can then extend forgiveness and peace to one another. You are freed from self-accusation so that you can be freed from accusing others. You are reconciled with God through Christ first, and then to one another. 

I wonder what the church’s relationship with others would have been like if Peter had truly forgiven himself for what he had done. If he had been able to offer compassion and forgiveness to others instead of accusations. But more than that, I wonder what our relationship with others might be like if we truly forgive ourselves for what we have done in our own lives. If we accept that Christ really means for us to be at peace with ourselves and if, out of that, we then extend that peace to others. I suspect it would be Easter resurrection for the entire world. And so my prayer for you, today and always, is that you truly feel that, through Christ, you are forgiven, and that the peace of Christ be with you, always. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Easter April Fools - God's Delight

Mark 16:1-8

So this Gospel ends a little surprisingly, eh? There’s no resurrection appearance, just a “young man,” telling the women Jesus isn’t here. There’s no celebration by the women––they flee from the tomb in terror. And there’s no sharing of the Good News! The young man told Mary Magdalene and Mary the of James and Salome to tell Jesus’ disciples that he was risen, but, as the Gospel ends, “they said nothing to anyone.” While every good story has some kind of a surprise, it’s not usually like this. This is not a good way to end any story, never mind the Gospel story. It’s almost as if the writer of Mark is playing an April Fool’s trick on us.

Then again, the whole premise of today, of Easter Sunday, is basically that of a surprise ending. We would expect that when someone dies, and their body is laid in a tomb, that, on the third day, they would still be dead. That is the way it works in the world. That death is the end of the story. Even the biographies of the great heroes of the world all end this way. But, actually, that’s not what happened. Last night, a friend of mine asked her two-year-old, “And what happened when Jesus came out of the tomb?” And her two-year-old said, “He said, SURPRISE!”

This delightful surprise of new life is a deeply-embedded part of our Easter celebration. Do you know why we paint eggs for Easter? Eggs are a sign of new birth, from the celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year that begins on the Spring equinox and has been celebrated for more than three thousand years, and the joyful colours and the Easter symbols on the eggs were used by Christians to reclaim this symbol as a sign of new life in Christ. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the hard shell of the egg represents the tomb in which Christ was laid, sealed in by the stone, and when you crack the shell, it’s like Christ being resurrected and leaving the tomb. The hard-boiled egg looks like a stone, but surprise, it’s something to eat!

Easter is about the surprise of new life, a surprise that God oversees and delights in. I love that today is April Fool’s Day because Easter really is the biggest April Fool’s trick that could ever be played. Jesus of Nazareth, reputed to be the Son of God and the Messiah who would end Israel’s slavery under Rome, ended up on a cross, nailed up there like a common criminal. He didn’t deliver himself by the power of angels, or cause Pilate to fall to his knees, or escape in a flash of light and a clap of thunder. Instead, he died, proving just how human he was. His disciples fled, afraid, and, I suspect, disillusioned. At face value, Jesus’ story ends ironically, with this promised Saviour dead. Rome, the empire of Death, is still in power, and nothing has changed.

But then, at the lowest point of the story, as Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome go to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body, “SURPRISE! APRIL FOOLS!”

But really, could anything have been more surprising? Could God have arranged anything more unbelievable? Death has actually been overpowered, by the very life it thought it had itself defeated. You can kill Jesus, but that isn’t the end of him! God made it so that even death lost its hold on the world––there was nothing anymore that could frighten people into obeying the cult of death and fear, no threat that could stop them from proclaiming God’s love. After all, what’s worse than death? And now Christ had emerged from the tomb, living proof that God had destroyed even the power of death. Christ is God’s trick on the world: in the moment of most dire weakness, the overwhelming power of God-given life sprang forth. Surprise! It would appear that God delights in a good punch-line.
I wonder, actually, if the ending of the Gospel of Mark is actually the Gospel writer playing a joke. The Gospel ends with the women running away from the tomb in fear, and of course, we can laugh at them a bit because if they knew what we know, they wouldn’t be running away and keeping silent. 

But I wonder if the joke is actually that the women didn’t realize that Christ was alive in them, and in the disciples, and that there is actually no running away from Christ. Maybe the abrupt ending of Mark is meant for those who already know the surprise ending, for us, to shake us up with a new surprise––Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, is not only ahead of you, Jesus Christ is alive in you! That’s how some biblical scholars interpret the ending of the Gospel of Mark: when the young man sends those who wish to see the risen Christ back to Galilee, the Gospel writer is sending the reader to see the risen Christ in all the things that Jesus did there––healing the sick, feeding the hungry, forgiving sins. Mark is telling the Christian community––you want to see the risen Jesus? It’s easy! Heal the sick, feed the hungry, forgive sins, and there you will see the the new life of Christ, there in front of you! Surprise!

It does seem like God loves a good joke, and delights in our laughter. Martin Luther used to say that his strongest weapon against the devil was to laugh at him. When he felt that the devil was trying to crush him, by confronting him with all his sins and reminding him what a wretched soul he was, Luther would laugh and say, “Aha, No, for I have been baptized!” Luther, like some of us, had a tendency to take himself too seriously, and think that his wrongdoings and failures really were enough to condemn him to eternal death. But to think that way would have been to deny the power of the resurrection, the very power of Easter! And so Luther would laugh, at himself and at the devil, for thinking that one so insignificant as he could thwart God’s resurrection power.

It’s the same with us. In baptism, God rewrites the stories of our lives so that they end, not with death, but with the punchline of resurrection. In the face of new life, even death itself becomes a joke, something we no longer need to take seriously or give any power to. Whatever is going on in your life right now that has you running away in terror, whatever it is that seems deadly serious to you, let God hold on to it for the next hour. Let God remind you that “the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.” Let God share with you the cosmic surprise that this life is not all there is; that the one who suffered and died was raised from the dead and given new life, and that you are part of that glorious, delightful punchline. Let God bring a smile to your face, and joyous laughter into your heart.

Our reading from Isaiah this morning ends with, “This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” Let us be glad and rejoice. God delights in our delight, especially today, and God rejoices to give us new life.

Now, do you really want to know why we paint Easter eggs? 

Because it’s too hard to wallpaper them.

Do you know where the Easter bunny gets her Easter eggs?

From eggplants.

This is the last one:

What is the Easter bunny’s favourite kind of dancing?


On this Easter Day, may you delight in the joy of this day and in the risen Christ as much as God delights in you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday 2018 - Why Do We Call Today Good?

John 18:1-19:42

Now we are in darkness. We began our journey yesterday, with God forgiving us, washing us, serving us, and feeding us. We were reminded that God knows the darkness we are walking into, and that God will bring us into the light. But today, we are face-to-face with Christ’s death, confronted with the implication that we, too, have participated in the dark deeds that have brought us all to this moment. In the prayers we will soon utter, and in the solemn reproaches, we will hear the myriad of ways in which we have not followed Jesus’ command to love one another, we have not taken up our cross, and we have not given our lives for others. And we will hear that because of things we have done and left undone, we “have prepared a cross for our Savior.” We will be like this sanctuary, and like Jesus on the cross––stripped bare before our God, with nothing to hide behind. We stare our own death in the face.

But today is not the end of our journey. We do not end in tragedy. Today, as final as it feels, as final as death feels, is only the middle. The end is still to come, and we do not pretend we don’t know what it is. We do know. And because of the end that is coming, we call this day Good.

We call Christ’s death, and all death, good because in death, in the darkness caused by us, we see that God’s power to create new life is stronger than our power to bring about death. The story of Creation itself is a story that moves from life and celebration to death and tragedy and onwards, by the power of God, to new life and new celebration. And we call today Good because God is present now, too. In the “now”of the disobedience in the Garden of Eden, in the “now” of Golgotha two thousand years ago, and in the “now” of 2018, God is not overcome by the death we bring. Rather, God takes it, and transforms death itself into new life, and uses it to bring about goodness and light.
In the English language, “Good” used to be synonymous with “God,” although they don’t actually have the same root. Good-bye is the shortened version of “God-be-with-ye.” Today, Good Friday, is God’s Friday. It is not our Friday, though we have brought it about. It belongs to God, and so we turn to God in the midst of it. We call Christ’s death good because God is in the midst of it, and is present in it, and shows God’s power in it. 

Because this day is good, because it is God’s, we, too, can be present in it, in Christ’s death and our own, in the darkness of this day and in the darkness in our lives. We can be present in suffering, because God’s presence is healing. We can be present in guilt, because God’s power is forgiveness. We can be present in grief, because God’s power is the new life of Christ, shared with us. We lean on God to bring us through this good day, and all the days to come. We entrust ourselves, our lives, and those we love to the goodness of God, until God brings us to Easter.

And so we call today Good. We call today God’s. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Maundy Thursday - How We Begin

I noted in my sermon on Sunday that in the Palm Sunday service, in less than twenty minutes, we moved from the celebration of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem to the tragedy of his betrayal and crucifixion and death. This evening and tomorrow morning, we walk through the story of how it happened that way and we see how it all went wrong. 

Already we have begun our journey through the same shifts that the twelve disciples went through in their last night and day with Jesus, starting with forgiveness and then to being served and being called to serve in return to being united over a meal to betrayal and flight. Today and tomorrow force us to witness how the twelve, who so fervently loved Jesus, who obeyed him, who called him Lord, participated in the darkness in which his life ended. Today and tomorrow force us to reflect on the ways in which we, who also love Jesus, do not love others as our Lord commands, turn away from serving those in need, and participate in darkness. At the end of tonight’s service, after we celebrate Holy Communion together, after we remember that we are one body in the one body of Christ, we will then strip away everything that matters from this space. We will, through the actions of removing the Communion vessels, the paraments, the light of Christ in the Paschal Candle, and through our silence in the face of approaching death, re-enact the flight of the disciples after Jesus’ arrest, not as if we are play-acting the events of Jesus’ Last Supper, but as a reminder to ourselves that every time we fail to love another, every time we betray someone we love, every time we are silent in the face of someone else’s persecution, every time we run away from someone else’s pain, we are doing all these things to Christ, as well.

As I said, we participate in darkness. Which is a nice way of saying that we participate in death. At every moment, we, as the human species, as a country, as a community, as a congregation, are culpable in the death of others, which means we are culpable in the death of Christ. It was because of us and our actions and inactions––because we did not love, because we did not serve, because we did not give up what we have for others––that Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine, ended up on the cross. It is because of us that darkness came into the world as he died. We are how it all went wrong. This is where we will end this evening, and what we will face again tomorrow morning.

This is where we end, but this is not where we begin. And while I said on Sunday that where we ultimately end is of critical importance, where we begin is, too.

We begin with God’s forgiveness. This evening begins with forgiveness. The very first thing we did this evening was to confess our sins and to hear that God forgives us. You heard that you, even though you have sinned through what you have done and what you have left undone, even though you have not loved your neighbours as yourselves, even though you have participated in the darkness that brings death, you receive the forgiveness of all your sins. And, if you came forward, the sign of the cross that represents your forgiveness was inscribed on your forehead, right over the cross of ashes that you received on Ash Wednesday that represented death, which itself was inscribed over the cross that you received in baptism.

Which means that this evening actually begins with our baptism. Which in turn means that all of the darkness we have participated in, and will participate in, has already been washed away and forgiven. Because it is not just we who begin in baptism, but God who begins with baptism. God sees you only through the lens of your baptism, which is why God forgives you for all of your sins. That is not to say that God does not see what you have done and left undone, but to say that God, knowing exactly what betrayals and darknesses you have perpetrated and will perpetrate, made an unbreakable commitment to you from the very beginning to always be there for you and to always welcome you into the light.

It is this relationship that God has with us in Christ that is at the heart of every ritual we participate in this evening, and that gets us through the coming darkness. This relationship in which God reaches out to us first; God does for us first what we then are called to do for others. God models for us what we are to do, so that we might be strengthened to do likewise. God doesn’t ask us to face our darkness and to acknowledge our wrongs and to love and serve one another without first equipping us. Without first forgiving us and serving us and loving us.

And so, this evening, when we wash one another’s hands, you will first be washed so that you can wash others in return. The hands that we have turned into fists, that have grabbed, that have withheld, that have been used to send words that hurt––these hands will be washed in the waters of our baptismal font, so that they can become hands that touch gently, that offer to others, that share, that are open in love, that serve. Jesus begins the commandment that we should serve one another by serving us first.

And then we will be fed. We will come to the table with all of our cares and sorrows, weighed down by what we have done and what we are about to do, knowing that the darkness approaches, and Christ will offer us his life, just as he offered his life to Peter who denied him, Judas who betrayed him, and all the other disciples who abandoned him. You will be given food for the journey, to sustain you so that you can endure what is coming.

So come. Be served, be fed, and know that God pours love and forgiveness into us this night so that we can acknowledge our own guilt in the darkness that approaches. And so that we can begin, once again, to move towards the light. Thanks be to God. Amen.