Sunday, October 14, 2018

God's Radical Welcome of the Rich Into Heaven

Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Aren’t there three topics that you’re never supposed to discuss in public? Religion, politics, and money. Guess what we’re going to talk about today? Money. And more specifically, people who have lots of money.

Now, typically in church, a sermon on this passage would go something like: being very rich is very bad, therefore if you are very rich, you are very bad, so repent, and take care of the poor, and give away all your  money, and God will forgive you. We really connect issues of money with issues of morality, and so most of us in the church distance ourselves from people with piles of money, those in the 1% as it were, because we suspect they’re using that money to gain access to power and to give themselves advantages that the rest of us can’t afford.

It’s not surprising that we think this. In society, money really does do these things, and for those of us who value equality, it seems immoral to use money for our own good, especially at the cost of others. An example of this that pops to my mind is a recent option at the Calgary Stampede, the Midway Express wristband, where you can pay an extra $25 to get to the front of the line for all the rides, thereby skipping the 30 minute wait in line to get on the Crazy Mouse. (Why anybody would want to wait thirty minutes to get on a ride that is essentially a roller coaster where the car spins around and goes down the slide backwards is beyond me, but clearly I’m in the minority.) Anyway, to me, that $25 Express Pass is a prime example of money getting you advantages and access that come at the cost of others. For every person in the express line, the people in the regular line have to wait an extra five minutes. That $25 pass increases the gap between those who are first in line and those who are last––because of money, the distance between the rich and the poor becomes even farther apart.

And I don’t think that’s fair. Partly because my kids can’t afford to buy that pass (there’s my bias), but mostly because it violates the rule that we should all wait the same amount of time for the same amount of fun. It emphasizes inequality, and it privileges a few over the rest, and it does so on the basis of money, not merit. I would be happy if the Stampede did away with it altogether.

Now the Stampede Pass is a somewhat superficial example of the inequality caused by money or the lack of it, and I know we can come up with others that are more serious and would require more nuanced conversation, like two-tier health-care, or progressive income-tax, or paying an extra $25 so you can pick your seat on an airplane. And I’m sure we could have very vigorous conversation about these things. But I think it’s safe to say that in the church, generally speaking, we listen to Jesus say, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” and “the first will be last and the last will be first” and we think, yeah! After all, we can all think of people who are richer than we are that we would, just once, like to get ahead of. We can imagine standing on the inside of the pearly gates, all fancy and wrought-iron, kind of like a really nice English country club, and saying, “Nyah nyah!” to the rich in their Lamborghinis and private jets having to stay on the outside because they aren’t poor enough. God is here for us!

Except that that’s not quite what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not actually saying that the rich won’t be welcome in the kingdom of heaven. If you look really closely, you’ll see that Jesus is actually making room for them. Yes, the first will be last and the last will be first, but the last still get in. The poor get to go to the front of the line, and the rich have to go to the back, but the line doesn’t cut off. Heaven doesn’t have an occupancy limit, the gates don’t actually ever close. God is not about to run out of grace. Yes, the rich might have to wait longer than the poor, but they’re still getting in.

You see, Jesus is trying to disrupt the system of the rich getting ahead and the poor falling behind but not by reversing it. Simply turning the system on its head, so that the poor get ahead and the rich fall behind doesn’t abolish the system, it just recreates it in a new way. There’s still injustice and unfairness and inequality. Instead, Jesus shows us how God breaks apart the system, by stepping completely outside of it, by making all things possible.

This is what the kingdom of heaven is about––creating a totally new system of inclusion that is entirely free of merit or conditions or worth. This is why God’s grace and mercy and love are so mind-blowing. What God is doing is radical: welcoming in absolutely everyone––especially those whom we think least deserve it, either because they’re too rich or because they’re too poor. It tells us that in God’s eyes, all the measures of worth that we hold, whether those are measures of financial net worth, or Instagram likes, or good intentions, or selfless living are meaningless. We might as well measure our worth by our shoe size, or our bone density, or the month we were born for all the good it would do. Because God abandons measurements altogether. How we compare to other people, where we stand in line, becomes completely irrelevant. Everybody gets in.

Which is both bad news and good news. It’s bad news if we’ve spent our lives trying to accumulate wealth, and using it to get to the front of the line (which, btw, is all of us when you look at how even the poorest among us are still richer than 70% of the world). It means we’ve spent our lives on nothing, and, like the man who came before Jesus, we will be much grieved when Jesus tells us that what we have is worthless. We’ve spent all our time and energy getting nowhere and when we die, the moths and rust will consume the worth we’ve stored up on earth.

It’s bad news if we’re hoping for the great reversal at the end of time, when everybody’s going to get what’s coming to them, and those Stampede Express Pass holders aren’t even going to be allowed in the gates. It’s bad news if we’re secretly hoping for a little schadenfreude and just desserts on the Day of Judgement. Yes, the first shall be last and the last shall be first, but everyone’s still getting in.
At the same time, God’s radical welcome is good news if we’ve spent our lives trying to accumulate wealth and still ending up at the back of the line, (which, again, is all of us when you look at how 1% of the world owns 50% of it). It means we can stop spending the rest of our lives in the pursuit of wealth as a means to feeling better about ourselves. It disconnects money from morality, and frees us from thinking that if we have money, we’re doing something right, and if we don’t, we’re doing something wrong, or vice versa. It’s good news if we turn around and realize we were at the front of the line the whole time and didn’t mean to be. It’s good news if we have no hope of even making it to the line, never mind being one of the last who get to be first.  

As much as we might wish it were so, Jesus is not taking the idea that was prevalent at the time––that money gets you into heaven––and flipping it on its head to suggest that money keeps you out of heaven. God does not measure our worth by money at all. God measures our worth by the amount of grace and mercy and love that God makes available to us, which is an infinite amount. God’s grace towards you is infinite, which makes you infinitely worthy to be in God’s kingdom, no matter how much money you have or don’t have. God’s mercy towards you is infinite, which makes you infinitely bold to come before God, no matter how righteous or unrighteous you are. God’s love for you is infinite, which makes you infinitely welcome into God’s presence, no matter where in line you stand. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Thanksgiving For ALL Relationships

Genesis 2:18-24; Mark 10:2-16

What does it mean that one of the core beliefs of the Lutheran church is that we believe that the Bible is the Word of God? In the Constitution of the ELCIC, it says that we believe that the Scriptures are “the inspired Word of God, through which God still speaks.” Every Sunday, we come together to hear this Word of God, and to try to hear what God is saying to us today through this Word. And every Sunday, what God says to us is both the same, and different, from what God said the week before, or the year before, or even the century before. Which is both comforting and unsettling. On the one hand, we yearn for things to stay the same, to be predictable from day to day. We need to know that the God who loved us in the past still loves us today and will continue to love us tomorrow. To imagine that God is going to say something different to us next week makes us anxious––how can we live our lives according to God’s will if there’s a chance that will is going to change?

On the other hand, especially in times like these, we are desperate for things to change. The things that we’ve been told God said in the past, like women come from the ribs of men and are therefore relegated to the position of only helpers of men, or divorce is a sin on par with adultery (the punishment for which is stoning), these interpretations continue to shape our lives today in profound and traumatic ways, and we are yearning for a new Word from God to wash away all of the pain. Our world is different in so many ways from the world of Jesus, from the world three thousand years ago when our Genesis stories were written down and we need to hear the Good News that God is speaking to us today, in these circumstances, even if it will be different next month, and next year, and in the next century.

This morning’s Scripture readings are a prime example of this tension between the Bible being comforting and unsettling. In the past, and even today, they were comforting to those who heard them––our Scripture from Genesis tells us something meaningful about the human need for companionship: it is “not good” for us to be alone. We were not created to live in isolation, but to live in relationship with others, and our yearning for connection is not a sign of weakness or sin. God blesses our search for meaningful relationships and encourages us to find them. And our Gospel reading tells us that God does not desire that we go through the pain of a relationship coming part. Jesus emphasizes that intimate relationships should not be disrupted easily, either by the ones in them or by others from the outside. He also emphasizes the role of God in our relationships, and reminds us that when God is the center and goal of our interactions with those around us we are all blessed. These things are a comfort.

But in the past, and still today, these passages have also been unsettling, if not downright painful. They have been used to argue that marriage is for heterosexual couples only, they’ve been used to relegate women to second place behind their husbands. Jesus’ words have been used to label divorce a sin worse than many others, and to imprison victims in abusive marriages. They were written at a time when marriage was very different from what we today in Canada understand it to be––when marriage was essentially an economic arrangement, the movement of human property from one man to another. And though times have changed, these passages have profoundly shaped our culture’s––our church’s––attitudes towards relationships, in sometimes destructive ways. They have led us to unthinkingly privilege marriage as the most desirable and fulfilling relationship God intends for us, thereby painfully excluding those who are not called to be married, those who want to be married but haven’t found anyone, those who were married but aren’t anymore, because of divorce or death. I mean, think about it for just a minute, how often do we in the church celebrate marriage as the primary relationship in our lives, or hold events that are focused on families? In our church membership database, when you enter the names of two people who live in the same household, the default setting is that the primary contact is Mr. So-and-so, while the secondary contact is Mrs. So-and-so, same last name. If the people are sisters, or roommates, or have different last names, or are the same gender, the database doesn’t automatically recognize that.

By the same token, how often do we in the church bless––truly bless, not just acknowledge––friendship? In my entire life in the church, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone put flowers on the altar in honour of a ten-year anniversary of their Best Friends Forever friendship. I’ve seen those anniversary markers on Facebook, but not in church. What are we teaching our children and young people about God’s presence in their relationships with their friends? What are we teaching them about fulfilling God’s calling to them in life if they choose other priorities in life than getting married? Or if they choose not to get married at all? Believing that today’s Scripture passages are the inspired Word of God, through which God is still speaking to us, what is the blessing God intends for us to hear today? What is the new life God is speaking to us this morning? 

Well, one of the blessings of the passage from Genesis comes from its emphasis that God intends for the relationships in our lives to be ones that give life––to us, and to others. In the translation that we heard this morning, God creates a “helper” for Adam. We’ve seen the problems that word has caused in relegating women to “helping” positions, but the Hebrew is more nuanced than that. The Hebrew actually translates more accurately as “helpful counterpart,” which is a term found in Psalms that call on God for help. In other words, God is one of our helpful counterparts. Definitely not a secondary position. And so we can see that those interpretations that tell us that the woman is to be a helper and servant to the man are not right. Instead, what God is telling us today is that God blesses and nurtures relationships––all relationships––that are based on a radical equality of helpful counterparts, where the stronger helps and serves the weaker, not the other way around, so that no one struggles alone and so that both are lifted up by one another’s companionship.

When it comes to what God wants for us in our relationships, our Gospel reading tells us that God desires that in our relationships with others we act in such a way that the other person finds it easier, because of us, to draw closer to Christ. The writer of the Gospel of Mark follows Jesus’ words about divorce with the incident of Jesus and the children because it’s Jesus’ words about the children that show us what God wants in relationships. “‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.’ ... And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” In other words, do not disrupt someone’s direct relationship with Christ. The life-giving relationships God intends for everyone are the ones in which each person feels blessed by God through the other, whether that other is a spouse, or a sibling, or a child, or a friend.
God does not restrict the blessings of relationships only to marriage. Marriage is one of only many different ways in which God gives us life through our relationships with others. While Jesus’ words about divorce might lead us to believe that he thought marriage was the height of what God is calling us to, his actual life tells us otherwise. Jesus’ most meaningful relationships did not come in marriage, but in his friendships with his disciples and those around him, including men, women, and children. His relationships were built on serving his friends, and also in being helped by them. 

For the church, the inspired Word of God through which God still speaks to us today both challenges and comforts. Today, it comforts us by reminding us that we are born into community, and that God’s plan for us is that we should all be nurtured by relationships that are a blessing, whether that be through marriage or family or friends. And it challenges us to reflect on how we, in our practice, keep people away from Christ when we insist that the only relationships God blesses are the ones found in marriage. It also both comforts and challenges us by reminding us that this very community, this particular incarnation of the Body of Christ, is called to be a place where people can come to find life-giving relationships. It’s a place where we are called into life-giving relationships with one another, as sisters and brothers through Christ, where we are called to make it easier for others to feel Christ’s blessing on them, where we are called to be “helpful counterparts” to one another, maybe for a lifetime or maybe just once.

In all of this, in the comfort and the challenge, in the things that stay the same and the things that change, the Word of God comes to us and God still speaks to us, telling us that God is with us always and that God desires blessing and new life for us here and now, in a diversity of relationships. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Faithful and Righteous Prayers?

James 5:13-20

“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, ... The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” [James 5:14-15, 16]

If you have ever prayed for something and it happened, raise your hand.

If you have ever prayed for something and it didn’t happen, raise your hand.

Confusing, eh?

This is a really difficult text. It raises all kinds of questions about the nature of prayer, and more importantly, about the nature of God. Does God really favour the prayers of those who are righteous and faithful over those who aren’t? What exactly is a “prayer of faith”? Who exactly are the “righteous” whose prayers are powerful and effective? If our prayers aren’t answered, does that mean we are not righteous? Or that our prayer is not one of faith? I could say, like Garth Brooks, that “some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers,” but that really doesn’t help when you’re praying for a loved one not to die. I could say that this is one of the great mysteries of God, and then my sermon would be done, but––sorry––I’m a “faith seeking understanding” kind of person. So let’s wade, faithfully and righteously, into the complexity of praying for God to intercede.

I say complexity because it’s complicated praying for God to intervene in our lives, not the least because we don’t live in isolation. The effects of what we ask for in our prayers extend far beyond ourselves, sometimes even around the globe. 

Take, for example, the thousands if not millions of prayers that went up during a national election in Germany in 1919. Faithful, well-meaning, and yes, righteous people of all political affiliations prayed fervently and earnestly that their candidate for the Weimar Republic’s National Assembly would win. These people truly believed that their candidate would be best for the country, and that God would bless the world through their candidate, and so they prayed for them to win. I really believe that those prayers, from all sides, were rooted in a deeply held faith and that those who prayed them really were honestly wanting God’s will to take place.

But if there were ever more far-reaching and devastating consequences than the ones that resulted from those elections and those prayers, I do not know what they would be.The chain of events after that election resulted in the eventual appointment of Adolph Hitler as the Chancellor of the Nazi Party and the subsequent establishment of death camps that killed more than six million Jews, along with gays and lesbians, Roma, and political dissidents. The world was plunged into World War II, and it ended only with the horrific atomic bombings in Japan that vaporized children in the streets.
So, shall we say that God answered the prayers of these faithful people, most of them Lutheran, on that fateful day almost 100 years ago? What are the implications of the prayers we pray today?

Take our simple prayers that God send rain, or sun, or whatever weather would be desirable for us. Even without getting into the complication that our climate system is globally connected and that rain in one place can mean drought in another, there is the simple reality that even in Alberta, weather that is good for some people is destructive for others. I might pray something so simple as rain to settle the dust and relieve my allergies, but that rain is devastating for farmers trying to harvest their grain. So should my prayer be powerful and effective? I’m pretty faithful and righteous. Some of those farmers don’t even go to church. And yet...

I could go on with lots more examples of prayer - the prayer for an organ transplant for a loved one who is dying is, at heart, a prayer for the death of the one who will donate that organ. The prayer for an ambulance to rush to the door is a prayer for it not to go to someone else’s. Our prayers for God to intervene in the events of the world are always prayers that have implications for others. Just imagine if the disciples’ truly faithful and truly righteous prayers that Jesus not be crucified had been answered. Sadly, when we pray for God to intervene in our favour, we are often unwittingly asking God to play favourites––to consider our prayers more faithful and righteous than someone else’s. Which really isn’t righteous at all.

So then how are we to pray? Because I know it’s not our intention to pray against others, or wish ill-fortune on others, or wish God to bring evil upon others. And we do believe that God hears our prayers and does respond to them. I’m certainly not advocating that we stop praying, or that we stop asking God to intercede in our lives. So how can we pray prayers that are righteous?

For me, the most faithful and righteous prayers are not the ones in which we ask God to change our circumstances so we can endure them, but ones in which we ask God to change us to endure our circumstances. I want to suggest to you that the most faithful prayers we can raise are ones in which we ask God to work in us, not in the world. Where we ask God for strength and patience and resilience and tenacity and whatever else we need to get us through the things we are facing. That righteous prayers are not ones where we ask God to act in the world, but where we ask God to act in us.

This hit home for me in June, when I as at our Synod Assembly. And this isn’t a very awe-inspiring story, and it won’t send chills up your spine or goose-bumps on your arm, but here it is. So, at the Synod Convention, I was asked to be the Parliamentarian, which means to be the person who knows all the rules of order for speaking on the floor and voting and all the Constitutional requirements for how to get things done at Synod Assembly. And on the Saturday, we were scheduled to have a big discussion and vote on the new Synod Constitution and the By-laws and all the things about how delegates get elected to National Convention. We were expecting there to be a lot of heated debate about it, and my job was to keep things fair and proper so that “good order” would prevail. In the midst of what could potentially be a vigorous family argument, I was going to have to be the mom.
And about half an hour before we were to start that section of the meeting, I got a terrible migraine. I felt it coming, and it was there before I knew it. And I was in a panic. How was I going to be fair and impartial with this stabbing pain through the top of my head. So, in a state of panic, I found my way over to the other side of the hall, to Dr. Faith Nostbaaken, a Diaconal Minister who is called to be a rostered minister of Spiritual Direction in this Synod. If there is anyone who is an elder in this church and a powerful channel for effective prayer, it’s her. And so I told her the situation, and I asked her please, Would she pray for me, right now? And of course, she led me to the side of the hall, and she put her hands on my head, and she prayed. And here’s what she prayed. She prayed that God would be with me. Check. She prayed that I would have strength for the rest of the morning. Check. And she prayed that my fear over not being able to fulfill my responsibilities would disappear. She prayed that I would put my trust in God, knowing that God was with me. She never, not once, prayed for God to take my headache away. But her prayer was powerful and effective. It worked. My anxiety evaporated, my heart unclenched, and I went up on the stage, headache still there, and God gave me focus and strength and resilience. I did my job.

I have no doubt that if Dr. Nostbaaken had prayed God to get rid of my headache, it would have worked. She has a gift of prayer. But my headaches are driven by pressure changes that are the result of weather shifts, and praying for my headache to be gone would have meant either praying for my body to rewire itself or praying for the weather to change, which would have impacted hundreds of thousands of people in that part of Alberta. Instead, what Dr. Nostbaaken prayed for was for God to change me. To change my heart, and my mind, not to change the weather system. To get me through my migraine. And her prayer was a prayer of faith, and the Lord raised me up.

Shifting from asking God to change our circumstances to asking God to change us is hard. I still pray, God, please don’t let that car hit me on the road. I still pray, God, please keep my children safe on the way to school. And I am sure you have your own prayers asking God to intercede in the circumstances of our life. The prayers that we pray on Sunday morning, written by people in the larger church for our use are frequently these kinds of payers. These are still faithful prayers - any time we turn to God, we are turning in faith, and in hope. And sometimes things happen that seem to be answer to these prayers, and sometimes things don’t. But I would offer to you this morning that the prayers that God always and unequivocally and unreservedly answers are those prayers inviting God to work in us, to get us through. God always comes when we invite God into our hearts, and God always gets us through the worst of our circumstances, even if they’re as serious as death. Sometimes it seems like God works in the world, and sometimes it seems like God doesn’t. But always we know that God works in our hearts, raising us up, and getting us through. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Going Out of Business

Mark 8:27-38

So, later in the service we’re going to officially welcome twenty-five new members. Some of them have been here for a long time and are just now officially transferring their membership, and some have been here for almost a year and have decided that it’s time to make Advent their church home. And so, to all of you, I say, welcome!

It’s very exciting when a congregation gets to welcome new members. It’s a sign that this is a welcoming and affirming place to be, it’s a visual reminder that God’s love is present here and drawing people in, it’s a reassurance that there is life in this place. Through new members, God brings new gifts and new energy and new life to a congregation, and so we celebrate that we’re doing great things and that we’re growing and that we’re successful.

Except that we’re not. Successful, that is. We, by which I mean Advent and the Lutheran church as it exists in Calgary, and Alberta, and all of Canada, are not successful. It might seem impolite to say this on a day when we’re celebrating new members, but it’s the truth. Churches are shrinking. Congregations are closing. Budgets are stagnating, if we’re lucky. The church-at-large is short-staffed, there’s not enough people making church ministry a career, and there’s no growth in our industry. The church is, in short, going out of business. So... welcome?

It should come as no surprise, though, that we’re dying, since the church is not a business, and we’re not supposed to be functioning like one. Growth, increase, expansion––all of these are business words, and they don’t actually have a place in our church vocabulary. And yet we are sorely tempted to use them to judge the success, or failure, of our work in the church.

This was Peter’s problem, in our Gospel reading for this morning, trying to judge the work of Jesus by the standards of the world. You see, Peter wanted Jesus to be the Messiah, by which he meant a royal son of David, a king, a mighty warrior who would come and sweep away the Romans and restore the people of Israel to the glory days when they conquered everyone on their land, and Jewish worship at the Temple in Jerusalem was the only kind of worship there was. Peter wanted Jesus to lead a movement of people who would become strong, and grow in numbers, and be respected by other countries, and be successful again.

Which is why Peter got so upset when Jesus started telling everyone that he was going to undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed. What kind of a business model is that? You can’t grow and get investors if you tell everyone the business model is to fail. Who wants to be part of that? And so Peter, naturally, tried to warn Jesus not to talk that way.

And Jesus warned him right back. “Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’” 

This is the model Jesus wants the church to follow, as unsuccessful as it is. When Peter started initially talking about Jesus being the Messiah, Jesus warned him and the rest of the disciples. (The Greek word for ‘sternly ordered’ is the same as the one for ‘rebuked’ and it also means warned.) And it seems to me that what he was warning them about was to stop talking about him being the Messiah, because he didn’t want anyone getting the wrong ideas about what he was there to do. Because he wasn’t there to lead the people to glory and success and growth. And he wasn’t calling them to that either.

This is really hard for us in the church to accept. I mean, I know we all get it, and we try to live out the whole “deny yourselves and take up your cross and follow me” on an individual basis, but as a group, as a congregation, this is really hard to follow. We are constantly tempted to  operate the same way the world does, by the business model, which is to focus on growing and expanding. We are constantly tempted to spend our time and our energies and our resources on programs that will bring people in, that will keep people here, that will get people involved so they stay. We see the church dying and we want to save it. We call on one another to give everything in order to save the church. We try our best not to die. We try our best to get ahead.

Peter and the disciples wanted to get ahead, and Jesus stopped them, warned them that they were heading down the wrong road. They needed to get behind him, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” They, and we, need to stop spending our energy on trying to get ahead, we need to stop following those who tell us that they will make the church successful, we need to stop investing in programs or visions or ministries that promise to save us. “For those who want to save their life will lose it.” If we, as a church, follow these leaders and these programs, we will lose ourselves. We will lose our time and our energy and our resources to making ourselves successful and to making the church get ahead, and we will lose who we are.

Because this is not what Jesus is calling us to do. Jesus is calling us to lose ourselves for the sake of Christ, not for the sake of the congregation. Jesus is calling us forget about getting ahead. Instead, Jesus is calling us to get behind. To get behind others, to get behind those who are struggling in the world, to get behind those who need help. Jesus is calling us to support others, not ourselves, even if it means our death.

For the church, this means welcoming and nurturing those who have nothing to offer us. This is why we take such pains, actually, to include children. This is why Jesus welcomed children. Not because they’re the future, not because they will grow and keep the church going, but because they actually have nothing to offer. Children take. God bless them, but they do. Children require a lot from us, as parents but more importantly as a church community, and they are not in a position to give back. And that’s why we welcome them. Because they need someone to get behind them and support them and that’s what Jesus calls us to do.

That’s why we welcome new members without asking them to make any commitments. We don’t have membership dues. We don’t require new members to join committees. We're tempted to, but we don't. We don’t make existing members go out and sign up new members every year. Because we are not in the business of getting ahead. We are in the business of getting behind, of helping those in need, even if it means losing our lives in the process. Even if it means giving up getting ahead.

But I think you know this, and I think this is why all of you keep coming to church. You’re not here because this place is the height of coolness. Sorry. You don’t come to Advent because it’s prestigious, because it’s going to get you a job, or earn you the respect of your friends or colleagues. You don’t come here to be seen, or to brag to the world that you’re a member of this ultra-successful club called the Lutheran church, or to say that you belong to a congregation that’s really getting ahead.

I suspect you come because, at its best, the church is a place where you experience what it is to get behind. To fall behind, even. At its best, the church community is the place where we put aside worldly notions of success, where––even just for a few hours once a week––we can stop spending all our time and energy and resources––our lives––on growth and success and achievement, where we can just be who we are and know that we are welcomed and loved and cherished by God, no matter what. At its best, the church is the place where we get behind others, and know that they’re behind us, and that together, we give life to others and receive life in return. It’s where we value kindness, and helpfulness, even at the cost of our own success.

At its best, the church is where we give our lives for the sake of the Gospel, even if it means our death, because we’ve experienced that giving one’s life for another means new life for all. This is what we see in Jesus, this is the gospel, the good news. Jesus gave his life for others, gave his life until there was no more to give, and the result was new life for everyone, including him. Jesus showed us that when we give our life so that others can live, we all receive new life. This is why he calls us to get behind him, to follow him, so that we might experience this for ourselves.

And so, the church, if it follows Jesus, will never get ahead. And that should never be our goal for it. Instead, our goal for the church should be that it is a place where we receive life, and where we are inspired to go out and create more places like the church in our day-to-day lives. To create more spaces in the world of kindness and helpfulness and falling behind so that others can get ahead. In essence, to create little models of the church in every corner of the world so that there is no more need for Sunday morning congregations. To put the church out of business because we’ve made the whole world a place where getting ahead no longer makes sense, where growth is not what defines us or our success, where losing our lives for the sake of others is the “normal business model.” This is what it is for the church to follow Jesus. This is why we are here.

So, welcome to you, new members! We’re going to do great things! We’re going to get behind, and we’re going to lose our lives, and we’re going to go out of business! Join us! And receive new life. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

The Test of the Syrophoenician Woman

Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

I feel like our Gospel reading is burying the lead this morning. We’ve got this great set of stories telling us about how Jesus heals a woman’s daughter from afar, and then heals a man who is deaf and mute so that he can hear and speak again. These are wondrous things, that evoke feelings of awe at the power of God working in Jesus. But they bury the lead.

“Jesus said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’”

I need to let that stand for a minute, because this is the lead: Jesus just called this woman and her daughter dogs.

Last week, Jesus said that the prophet Isaiah condemns the Pharisees and scribes for their hypocrisy because they say they worship God but don’t take care of people in need. This week he tells this woman that it’s not her daughter’s turn to be healed. Last week, Jesus told his disciples that it’s what’s in our hearts that make us good or evil. Today, he insults the non-Jewish, non-Israelite, non-male (that’s what it means when the Gospel of Mark identifies her as a Gentile, Syrophoenician woman) by reducing her to the position of a non-human. After proclaiming from the beginning of his ministry that the kingdom of heaven has come near, after sharing the good news that God’s kingdom is one of healing and new life, after healing everyone who comes to him, Jesus shuts this woman out.

I wonder what the author of our second reading, the Letter of James, would have said about that. “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” If you say “to the one who is poor, ‘Stand there,’ or ‘sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” “What good is it ... if you say you have faith but do not have works? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” I mean, I know that we Lutherans are not huge fans of James, and that Luther himself wished it wasn’t even in the Bible, but at the same time, James has a point. As people of faith, we can’t say that we believe God loves everyone but then act to keep some people out. The religious hypocrisy is too much.
Which brings us back to Jesus. I think that what bothers us so much about this story about Jesus is the hypocrisy. It’s really hard to take. We’re bothered by the hypocrisy of Jesus––the incarnation of God’s love, the prophet who reminds his listeners that God is on the side of the marginalized––calling this worried-out-of-her-mind mother a dog.

Now some scholars have said that Jesus is actually using a diminutive that was common at the time, calling her daughter a puppy, and that it’s not as bad as it seems. Puppies are pretty cute. But a puppy is still not the same as a child, and Jesus would still be using a metaphor that makes the children of Israel more important in God’s eyes than the non-Jew, non-Israelite. 
Other scholars say that this is evidence that Jesus was truly human. That he was shaped by his upbringing, which was negative towards Gentiles and Syrophoenicians, and that he did actually change his mind after she challenged him. And I like this argument, I’ve used it myself, but I’m not sure we can excuse Jesus so quickly, since he himself just earlier points out and condemns the ingrained hatred of others. Jesus is pretty woke.

So what’s going on? I don’t think we who are appalled by Jesus’ response are crazy or over-reacting or blowing things out of proportion. And yet I also don’t think Jesus is capable of degrading someone so horribly. I simply don’t believe that Jesus can say one thing and do another. I don’t believe that his faith and his works are at such odds with one another.

So here’s a question: what if Jesus’ words are not meant to tell us something about Jesus, but are meant to tell us something about ourselves? Jesus is no dummy. He spent the last however-many days telling everyone around him, including the disciples, that God cares passionately for the sick and marginalized and those in need, and that God gets upset when we don’t do the same. Jesus knows his Scripture, he knows his prophets, he knows this to be true about God. He deeply believes it. He stakes his life on it.

But does his audience? Do his disciples? Do all the people who have been listening to him and following him around for the past however-many days believe it? Do they stake their life on it? The Gentile, Syrophoenician woman does. She believes what Jesus has said, so deeply, that when he says something that contradicts that, when he says something that implies that God does not care about the sick and the marginalized, she challenges him. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In other words, God’s love and God’s healing and God’s mercy are so abundant that there is more than enough for everyone, there is so much of it that it spills off the table so that everyone gets what they need. There are no restrictions to God’s love. Nobody has to wait for their turn because there might not be enough. There’s more than enough. And because this woman believes what Jesus has said earlier about God, she calls out the dissonance––the hypocrisy––of Jesus’ words.
But she’s the only one who does. His disciples, who’ve been hearing Jesus from day one, say nothing, and indeed, in the Gospel of Matthew where this story is also found, they try to get Jesus to send her away. Those whose house Jesus is in say nothing. We, the twenty-first century audience, say nothing.

You see, I think, as do a small number of biblical scholars, that what Jesus says to the woman is a test: Jesus wants to know if people are really listening to what he’s saying. He wants to know if people really believe the radical nature of what he’s saying about God, what the prophets like Isaiah have been saying for centuries––that God is on the side of the oppressed, and that God calls us to look out for the marginalized and include them, that God’s kingdom is made of up those who are sick and poor and unworthy and on the outside. Jesus wants to know if people are paying attention to what he’s actually doing––which is healing and feeding and welcoming and including everyone. And so he slips in this test. He wants to see if people are going to object to what he says. He wants to know if they themselves can see the hypocrisy of saying God welcomes everyone and then turning someone away.

And I’m sorry to say that I think the disciples failed the test. At least on this occasion. But the woman passed. And so did the writer of the Gospel of Mark, who includes this story. (The writer of Luke failed, this story doesn’t appear at all in the Gospel of Luke.) And I think we pass. At least, I hope we do.

If we do pass, though, it’s because God has opened our eyes and our ears to be sensitive to religious hypocrisy and because God has strengthened us to believe that God is who Jesus and the prophets and the psalmists say––that God executes justice for the oppressed, sets the prisoners free, watches over the strangers, upholds the orphan and the widow. And God strengthens us to stand up in defense of that. You see this isn’t a sermon about judging those who don’t see the hypocrisy and it’s not about looking down on those who say one thing and do another. This is about proclaiming that God is indeed who we proclaim God to be, and that therefore God is the one who points out hypocrisy to us, and that God is the one who strengthens us to say, as James does, that faith without works is dead, and as James says later in a verse that for some reason we don’t read, “I by my works will show you my faith.” God is the one who puts that little voice inside of us that makes us uncomfortable when religious people say one thing and do another. God is the one who strengthens us to speak out when we see hypocrisy and who empowers us to engage in the hard work of making our works align with our faith. God strengthened and empowered the Gentile Syrophoenician woman to approach Jesus and then to challenge his words, and God does the same for us. God opens the ears of those of us who are deaf to hear the words of injustice and God frees the voices of those of us who are mute to speak out about God’s love. God frees us from our hesitations, from holding back, and helps us to stand boldly in defense of God’s love.

I’m still uncomfortable with this Gospel reading, because I don’t know for sure if my interpretation is right. We never know these things for sure. But I do know that our discomfort in the face of hypocrisy is right. That agitation that we feel––either just in the back of our minds or roaring out of our hearts––when we see people being denied God’s love, in the name of God, is right. Because it is God’s agitation. It is God moving in our hearts, propelling us forward as people of faith to follow with integrity in the way of Christ. It is God empowering us to do what Jesus does, which is to offer words and actions of love and healing in the name of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

7th, 9th, and 10th Commandments

So, if you turn to page 1161 in the back of the red hymnal, you’ll see the Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Commandments. The Seventh: You shall not steal. We are to fear and love God, so that we neither take our neighbour’s money nor property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise nor crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income. And the Ninth: You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. We are to fear and love God, so that we do not try to trick our neighbours out of their inheritance or property or try to get it for ourselves by claiming to have a legal right to it and the like, but instead be of help and service to them in keeping what is theirs. And the Tenth: You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. We are to fear and love God, so that we do not entice, force, or steal away from our neighbours their spouses, household workers, or livestock, but instead urge them to stay and fulfill their responsibilities to our neighbours.

So, in other words, these last few Commandments we are looking at are all about don’t take what’s not yours. But instead, as Luther always says, go out of your way to help the people around you keep what’s theirs.

Of all of the Commandments, these are the ones that we’re actually the worst at keeping.  Our entire economy is structured around “getting the best deal,” while simultaneously obscuring the fact that our best deal comes at the cost of someone else’s worst deal. Our cheap goods come at the cost of underpaid labour somewhere else. You just need to watch documentaries like “Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price,” to see that those cheap shirts are made overseas by people who aren’t paid enough to live and are sold to you by people who aren’t making a living wage. Or google “bottled water documentaries” to see how water companies are bottling water at the source, paying only pennies to the municipalities in which they are, in order to sell that water back to us and to those who live right next to what was previously a free source of water. Our profits are someone else’s loss. A largely unregulated market means that people can set whatever price for goods, resources, and services that they want. If you can afford it, great; if you can’t, too bad, and along with all of that, it’s “buyer beware.” We have grown up in this economy, along with the idea that we need to look out for ourselves first, and so we think it’s normal, and therefore acceptable, but Luther certainly didn’t. He criticized those who “sell their goods as high as they please.” He was angered by those who sold products for more than they were worth, he had no tolerance for people who saw their neighbour being cheated and did nothing about it. When homeowners raise the selling price on their houses just because they can, or because the market can handle it, thereby pricing regular people out of the market, that’s breaking the spirit of these commandments. Luther would not have been impressed.

I could go on and on with examples of how we fail to follow these Commandments. We just simply, as individuals and as a country, do not go out of our way to “be of help and service in helping our neighbours keep what is theirs.” For goodness’ sake, we are sitting on treaty land that was gained through legal trickery and relied on the First Nations’ peoples not understanding the implications of what they were getting into, and we still are not fulfilling our part of the treaties. We are so deep into breaking these commandments across the board, that there is no getting out, whether it is buying a house on treaty land, drinking bottled water, or benefitting from a pension that invests in the stock market. We are deeply imbedded in a devastating economic system that relies on these Commandments being broken at every step.

But I know that we don’t want to be. Look, I am not here to make you feel bad. I know that you already do. We are here because we want to do better. We want to be better. The Ten Commandments as a whole are fundamentally about right relationships with God and with our neighbours - they are about living in the world so that the words and deeds of our lives bring life to those around us. And we know that there are so many times when we fail to do that. With the best of intentions, we go out into the world, we leave church and go back to our families, or our work, and we try our best, and we fall into old habits. We do things or say things that disrupt our relationships. We sin. We fail to bring life, and instead we bring death.

But we don’t want to. As Jesus said to the disciples, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41b) And as the apostle Paul said, “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my body another law at war with the law of my mind.” “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:22-23, 19) None of you come here on Sunday morning to say, yeah, I totally got one over on somebody this week! None of you rejoice when you have hurt another, none of you is here to brag about the way you’ve broken one of the Commandments. You are here because you want to “be of help and service to our neighbours” both locally and globally. You are looking for ways to make your life better, and to make the lives of others betters. 

So, on the one hand, I have to say, Sorry, that will never happen. You can’t. We are too enmeshed in the systems of sin, we are slaves to sin, and we will always do things that disrupt our relationships, we will always bring death, we will always break all of the Commandments, one way or another. But, on the other hand, I say to you that life never came from you to begin with. The source of life, of our lives, of all lives, is not us. The source of life comes from outside of us, from Christ. This is grace and this is why we call Christ our salvation. Because it is Christ who brings life to the world, and to us. Christ in you, and through you, brings new life to the world.

And here’s the thing - Christ coming to be in you, Christ bringing you new life, Christ using you to bring new life, has absolutely nothing to do with you. To be sure, it’s somewhat humbling, humiliating even, to think that what we do or don’t do has absolutely nothing to do with Christ choosing to live in us. On our good days, when we’re feeling pretty successful at these Ten Commandments, we like to think, Yeah, I’m awesome, of course Christ lives in me, of course Christ is using me to bring life to the world. But, sorry to say, your success has nothing to do with it. At the same time, what a relief that is! Since we have more bad days than good days when it comes to following the Commandments, it is such a relief to know that Christ is living in us and using us to bring new life even when we ourselves are doing awfully at it.

All of this is to say that Christ makes happen what you really want to happen, which is to bring life to the world, to follow the Ten Commandments, to fear and love God and build up those around us and bring life and restore relationships. Christ does this. Christ abides in us to make this happen. Week after week, Christ freely offers himself to us in the bread and wine, and lives in us, so that we might bring life to others. The Ten Commandments tell us how to bring life, Luther’s “But instead” tells us how to nurture the lives of others, but it is Christ in us who enables us to actually do it. Week after week, the Gospel is freely proclaimed in this place, through hymns, through Scripture, through the sermon (hopefully), so that you might receive the Word of life. Week after week, the body and blood of Christ is freely given, no matter what you have done in the week, so that you might take into your very bodies that same life, and in receiving new life be transformed to offer that life, the life of Christ, to others.

The Ten Commandments are a gift to us, meant to tell us what true life looks like and how we might contribute to that life in others. Christ is the one who brings that life to us so that we might not just see, but also experience, what that life is, and gives us the power to share it with others. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Eighth Commandment - Bear Witness

Here we are, at the Eighth Commandment. (And if you’re wondering if you missed a Sunday because the last sermon from me that you remember was the Sixth Commandment, on not committing adultery, no, you didn’t miss anything. I skipped over the Seventh, do not steal, in order to talk about it next week with the Ninth and Tenth Commandments on do not covet. You’re remembering right.) Okay, the Eight Commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. And Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism as to what this means: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbours, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”

So, at first glance, this Commandment seems pretty straightforward and easy to understand. Don’t tell lies about people or spread rumours or say anything that makes them look bad. And the But Instead part that Luther adds has always been something I strive to do, “interpret everything people do in the best possible light.” In other words, talk about people with compassion and understanding, know that even when people do something mean or awful, they are struggling with demons that we know nothing about. Assume that everyone is doing the best they possible can, given their own personal circumstances. Someone cuts me off on Crowchild, my first reaction is, “Ugh, what a ____.” My second reaction is, “Maybe they really need to get to a bathroom.” Or “maybe they need to get to the hospital.” One day, I hope that my second reaction will really truly be my first reaction. The world needs more compassion and understanding.

It always has, actually. You see, Luther understood what it meant to be falsely accused of something. The whole Reformation started because he was trying to do his best to get the Catholic church back on track and instead he was accused of heresy, excommunicated from the church, and was a fugitive who would be executed if he was caught. He knew what it was to be falsely accused of something and have his reputation destroyed, to be betrayed by those he trusted, and slandered by those who called themselves men of God. He knew how untrue the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is. Words do hurt. Words can kill us.

Because words are powerful. And words spoken by those appointed by God are even more so. “Now I have put my words in your mouth,” God says to the prophet Jeremiah, from our first reading, “over nations and over kingdoms ... to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Words have power. Our reading from Ephesians says that only words useful for building should be spoken, and in our Gospel, Jesus rebukes the Judeans for complaining “among themselves.” We call Jesus the Word of God, and we also call him the Bread of life. Words feed us. The words we read, the words we hear, the words we speak––they all feed us and shape us and create the world around us. In the end, they are meant to give us life. That’s what’s meant by “Do not bear false witness against your neighbour.” Do not speak words that bring death to your neighbour.
And so, in the church especially, we keep quiet. We don’t repeat rumours, we don’t talk about people behind their backs, we quash accusations for which there is no evidence, or we play down the things we do see. We stay silent. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” We don’t want our words to bring death.

But silence also brings death. Keeping secrets can make us physically ill. As much as I agree with Luther’s explanation to this Commandment, there is a dark side to it. And we plunge into that darkness when we use this Commandment to silence the truth.

You might know about the mega-church, Willow Creek, in Chicago. It rose to fame in the 80s under its superstar pastor, Bill Hybels, because it has over 75,000 people attending its three church services every weekend, and has expanded to seven other sites. Pastor Hybels has given seminars and speeches on church growth and evangelism, and leaders from other congregations have visited Willow Creek to see what makes it work and to see if they can replicate its success at home. I don’t know about Advent, but I do know that other council members at other Lutheran churches here in Calgary have taken trips to Willow Creek to see how they do it.

This past week, both of Willow Creek’s current pastors along with the entire church elder board resigned. It turns out that Pastor Bill Hybels is a sexual predator. Several years ago, a number of women who worked for him came forward and accused of him of unwanted sexual advances and sexual contact that had been occurring since the 80s. But guess what? They were told to be silent. They had no proof, and so they were told that it would be bad for the church if they spoke up, so they should be quiet. In other words, Do not destroy the reputation of the church or the pastor. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. The then-pastors and elders of the church came to Bill Hybel’s defense, spoke well of him, and interpreted his actions in the best possible light. And so these women, who were the victims of egregious sexual and spiritual violations, stayed silent because their pastors and their elders told them to. They did their best to follow the Eighth Commandment.

Until last Sunday, when the New York Times told the story of one of the women, in a #metoo article about the evangelical church. The journalist who wrote the article did what the pastors and the elders should have done. She spoke the truth, and the silence was broken, and light shone on the darkness. And there was public repentance and acknowledgement of wrong-doing by the current pastors and the board of elders, and they announced their resignation.

The Commandment is “Do not bear false witness.” The key word here is false. It does not say, “Do not bear witness.” In fact, Luther himself, after condemning lies about people, goes on to say in his Large Catechism that we are required to speak the truth. Christians are required to report wrong-doing and abuse to the authorities in order to “reprove evil.” And those in authority–-by which he means judges, and pastors, and parents (remember our Fourth Commandment on honour your parents?)––are “commanded” to publicly judge. He actually uses the word “commanded.” And, he goes on to say that when pastors and judges and those in authority and positions of leadership do not publicly speak out on what they see, when they stay silent, when they can’t say anything nice and so they don’t say anything at all, then they are breaking the Eighth Commandment.

Wow. On the one hand, Luther is passionate that no one be falsely accused. On the other hand, he is equally passionate that evil does not run amok under the cover of silence. The flip side of “do not bear false witness” is not stay silent. The flip side of “do not bear false witness” is “bear witness.” “Speak the truth,” Ephesians says. (It also says, “Be angry.”) God tells Jeremiah, “You shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them.” Jeremiah was sent to criticize the religious leadership of his time. His words, given to him by God, spoke to the destruction of that leadership. And then God gave him words of rebuilding.

If you have ever tried to tell the truth about something or someone, and someone in the church has told you to be silent, I am sorry. On behalf of all of us who call ourselves pastors and leaders in the church, I confess that we often use this Commandment to protect ourselves and our reputations, at the cost of the truth and at the cost of the truth-sayers’ well-being. From pulpits around the world, including in this congregation, this Commandment has been weaponized and used to silence those who have tried to speak the truth. This abuse of this Commandment was not, and never will be, what God wants. 

The Eighth Commandment is about speaking words that nourish and build up God’s children who are hurting most. What God wants is for you to be fed and nourished by the Word. God wants the truth to be freedom for you, God wants words to give you life. God wants words to be spoken that will give life to all. And God wants you to feed and nourish others with the Word, with words of truth that give freedom and life. “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy,’” or “only a girl” or “only a congregation member.” God has chosen you and given you God’s words to speak. Do not fear others and what they might say or do, fear and love only God. Do not bear false witness, but do bear witness when you see or experience injustice and abuse of power. Because it is Christ within you who bears witness, Christ within you who gives you the words to speak out the truth, Christ within you who feeds you so that you are built up to share that food with others. Christ did not come to silence us, but to be our Word, our truth, and our life. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Sixth Commandment - Do not Commit Adultery

2 Samuel 11:2-17

Adultery. For today’s commandment, I need to lean on the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the American equivalent of the ELCIC. Bishop Eaton gives the best explanation of this commandment that I have ever heard, and so we’re going to hear what she has to say.

Bishop Eaton says that adultery in a relationship, any relationship, is “about using someone for our owns ends or needs.” Isn’t that perfect? It’s clearly what’s happening in the story of David and Bathsheba. David used Bathsheba for his own needs, not considering her well-being at all, thereby committing adultery. But, as Bishop Eaton makes clear, adultery is not just about sex. It’s about polluting relationships, which can happen in lots of different ways. And so we see that David also adulterated his relationship with Uriah, his soldier, using him to try to cover his own sin, and he adulterated his relationship with his commander, Joab, by commanding him to deceitfully kill Uriah. When we use someone for our own purposes, according to Bishop Eaton, we are polluting the relationship, and as we see from the story of David, once we begin adulterating our relationships with others, it’s hard to stop.

We adulterate our relationships “when we are not giving our full selves to another.” On the flip side, the Bishop said, “if we are true to those whom we relate ... that would be an unadulterated relationship.” Pure relationships, which this Commandment is trying to get us to have, are those that are based in truth. Relationships where we present ourselves authentically, with both our strengths and our weaknesses, where we are honest about our hurts and our vulnerabilities, where we know who we are and what we value and we are open about that––these are the kinds of relationships God encourages us to pursue. But relationships where we try to be who we are not––whether that’s in romantic relationships or family relationships, or friendships or even work or church relationships, where we betray our principles because we want others to accept us, where we exaggerate our accomplishments or where we hide our failures because we want others to admire us, these relationships are adulterous ones. They are betrayals, not just of the trust of the other person with whom we are in relationship, but of ourselves.

The key here is that to be true to others, we need to be true to ourselves. “To thine own self be true,” as Shakespeare said. To be in unadulterated relationships with others, we need to start with ourselves, to be honest with ourselves, and from there to be honest with others. If we cannot be honest even with ourselves, if there are things we hide even from our own hearts, we have no hope of being honest with others. But when we are able to do that, when we are able to acknowledge who we are, and more importantly when we are able to accept who we are, to forgive our failures, to have compassion for our flaws, to be authentic in our whole person, when we can do that, then we can be honest and pure and true in our relationships with others. 

No problem, right? If only. The reality of our lives is that we live in a fallen world, which means that we live in a world where our relationships with one another are constantly disrupted, and we risk constant hurt. We are trapped in a nasty cycle in which the hurts we have received from others cause us to close ourselves off in order to prevent further hurt, thereby hurting others in the process. When we are in a relationship with someone, and we offer our true and fullest selves, and then we are betrayed, we learn to hide our true selves in order not to be hurt. And then we put up a front and wear a mask in subsequent relationships, which then leads to further pollutions, and more hurt, and more masks, until we can’t be who we are with anyone at all. Until all of our relationships are adulterous.

With one important exception. And that is our relationship with God. It is simply impossible to have an adulterous relationship with God because we can never deceive God about who we are. God knows who we are. God sees us in our totality, even more clearly than we see ourselves. We may be able to hide from others, or from ourselves, but we cannot hide from God.

But this is grace for us. Because God knows us and God loves us. Psalm 139 tells us that even in our mother’s womb, God knew us, and that we are never beyond God’s care for us. When you come forward to this rail, your hearts are utterly exposed before your Creator, and yet God claims you as God’s own and Christ shares his very own body and blood with you. Christ gives himself and becomes one with you, in the purest, most unadulterated, most true relationship there is.

When we are true to ourselves, then we are true to others, and when we are false to ourselves, then we are false to others. To follow this Commandment then, to gather up the courage we need to risk being vulnerable to others, we begin by remembering who we are, which is, first and foremost, children of God, reconciled to God through the cross. We are, as our reading from Ephesians says, “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God ... a holy temple in the Lord.” We are people who have been redeemed by Christ, made whole in Christ, and in whom the Holy Spirit has chosen to live. We are people who, by the grace of God, are blessed to live lives of integrity and love. We are people who have been strengthened by the Spirit to know that we are acceptable in the eyes of God no matter what, and to reach out in love to accept others. Whatever the world might tell you, whatever your family or your friends or your acquaintances might tell you about who you are or who you should be, know that first and foremost, God tells you that you are someone who is deeply loved by God, so loved that the Spirit of God has chosen to live in you. Do not commit adultery. Fear and love God, which is to say, remember that God loves you, so that we might live pure and decent lives in word and deed, loving and honouring one another with unadulterated relationships, as God does with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Fifth Commandment - July 15, 2018

Genesis 4:1-17; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

It certainly seems appropriate with our Gospel reading for this morning that the Commandment we are on today is the Fifth Commandment, You shall not murder. What Herod did, what Cain in our Genesis reading did, was bad. Don’t kill other people. And, since we’re not kings and therefore not tempted by unlimited power with no consequences, this is a pretty easy commandment for us to follow. Probably the easiest of the Ten.

Except that, in the Small Catechism, Luther explains that this Commandment means, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbours, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” Well, that’s quite a leap, don’t you think? From not killing to not endangering or harming the lives of our neighbours? Just in the first half of that sentence, Luther goes from something pretty straightforward and easy, “You shall not murder your neighbour,” which is something I can safely say I have never done, to “you shall not endanger or harm the lives of your neighbours.” And I want to protest, like Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In fact, this past week, my kids and I have had a running debate about our inflatable swimming pool, and whether or not it should be set up in the garage, where it’s cold, but where we can close the door at night, or whether it should be on the lawn, where it warms up in the sun, but where there is no fence and a neighbourhood child might be tempted to swim in it and accidentally drown. On the one hand, we have Cain’s question of to what extent are we our brother’s, or sister’s, keeper. On the other hand, we have Luther and “We shall not endanger the lives of our neighbours.” I thought I was having an easy week with not killing people, but it turns out I have more to think about than I thought.

And then there’s the second half of Luther’s explanation, the “but instead” that is starting to trip us up. “But instead [we are to] help and support them in all life’s needs.” Well, now, come on, that’s going a bit far, don’t you think? In other words, if I don’t help and support my neighbour in all of life’s need––if I fail to ensure that they have food and water and shelter and medical care––whether I do this deliberately or out of simple ignorance, then I am breaking the Fifth Commandment? Isn’t that a bit much? Especially when you consider that our community of neighbours has expanded from a couple of thousand to a global community of almost eight billion. Essentially, Luther is saying that if we don’t, for whatever reason, help and support these eight billion other humans in all their life’s needs, then we are breaking the Fifth Commandment. It’s quite a stretch, wouldn’t you say?
Except that I think Luther is trying to stretch us. Luther is trying to get us to see our neighbours as God does, he’s trying to get us to love God, the foundation of all the Commandments, by seeing our neighbours as one with us in Creation. He’s trying to get us to see, through the “but instead” of each of his explanations to the Ten Commandments, that God has placed us all in relationship with one another. That we are a community––of individuals, to be sure, but a community nevertheless––that lives and thrives together.

And so this Commandment not to murder is actually a commandment not to kill what God has already put into place. Not to kill the community that God has established to give us life, not to kill the relationships that God has given us with our brothers and sisters for the well-being of the world. And so when Cain, or we, ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is a resounding Yes! We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. And they are ours. We are to hold their lives as precious as our own. We are to hold their well-being as precious as our own.

Which, let’s be honest, we don’t. The heart of the world’s problems is that we don’t see and hold the lives and well-being of others in the world as precious as we do our own. From something as small as tailgating the person in front of us to get them to get out of our lane so we can go faster, to letting hateful things be said about others (or thinking them ourselves), to defending stand-your-ground laws or somebody taking another person’s life in order to protect their own property––all of these, like it or not, do them or not, kill our relationships with others in the world. They are violations of the Commandment, You shall not murder. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty convicted right now, to borrow a word from our evangelical sisters and brothers. I’m feeling convicted and crushed, that as much as I try to be a good person, I am breaking this Commandment. We don’t orient our lives around the well-being of those billions of people in the world whose lives are worse than ours. We just don’t. Our day-to-day lives, even for the poorest among us, are still far better than the living conditions of billions of our sisters and brothers. The richness of our own lives lulls us into a complacency that, to be honest, we enjoy. We don’t really want to give up the comfort of our own lives. Like King Herod, with his lavish feasts for his guests, we rather prefer things the way they are. We don’t want to risk losing them by standing up for the lives of others. And so, either literally like Herod or figuratively as Luther points out, we murder. We kill the lives and well-being of others in order to protect our own.

Except that it doesn’t work. Because we’re all in this together. God created us to be in community, to be in relationship with one another. When my neighbour––my brother or sister––is doing well, I am doing well. When their well-being is in jeopardy, mine is in jeopardy. We do not live our lives in isolation, we are all connected through webs of life, whether that’s the web of the global economy, the web of our shared environment, or even the web of our shared commitment to life. What affects one person in the world affects all of us. What affects us, affects those around the world. And what brings death to one, brings death to all. And this is the heart of this Commandment––that when we murder another, whether directly or through neglect, we murder ourselves. The death of Abel meant the death of Cain. The death of John the Baptist meant, eventually, the death of Herod. We are our brothers’ and sister’s keepers, and they are ours. When they suffer, we suffer. When they die, we die.
And so here we are, dead, one way or another, because our brothers and sisters are dead.

Right after our Gospel reading for today, in the reading for next week, we have the story of Jesus feeding the thousands. In contrast to today’s Gospel, with King Herod holding a lavish birthday banquet at his very fancy palace and inviting all of the political elite, we have this nobody from Nazareth, in a deserted place, with thousands of unimportant village folk and nobody has anything to eat. And following the king’s feast that descends into chaos and ends with the death of John the Baptist, we have the King of king’s feast where everyone sits down in an orderly manner and “all ate and were filled,” and new life is bestowed on everyone there. Jesus follows chaos with peace. Jesus follows death with new life.

*This* is our hope in the midst of death. That God follows our acts of murder with acts of new life. In Genesis, the death of Abel and the figurative death of Cain, as the farmer is banned from the land, is followed by life for Cain and the establishment of God’s people. In the Gospel of Mark, the death of John the Baptist is followed by the life of thousands. And at the heart of our Christian story, the death of Jesus is followed by new life for him and for all of humankind. God is the “but instead” of the Commandment, “helping and supporting us in all life’s needs.” God follows death with new life. God restores what we kill, and brings healing to those we injure. 

Most importantly, most graciously, new life is for those who die and for those who cause death and end up contributing to their own. If murder is the killing of our relationships with one another and ourselves, God’s new life in Christ is the restoration of those relationships. God’s new life is the restoration of the entire community to well-being, a work this Commandment calls us to participate in. We are called to join God in the work of helping and supporting new life, for our neighbours and for us. Resurrection is not for one, it is for all. Resurrection of the individual means resurrection of the community––this is what we see in Jesus. New life after death is for me and for you. For all of us together.

The Fifth Commandment: You shall not murder. You shall not murder the lives and well-being of your brothers and sisters and by extension of yourself. You shall not murder the relationships that constitute the lives of the communities to which you belong.

And the Fifth grace, as it were: God follows our breaking of this Commandment with new life through Christ. Through Christ, God bestows new life on those of us who are killed, and new life on those of us who kill, because it’s impossible to have new life for one without new life for all. The resurrection of Christ is for all, for you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

The Fourth Commandment - July 8, 2018

Our Fourth Commandment this morning: Honour your father and mother. 
What does this mean? We are to fear and love God so that we neither despise nor anger our parents and others in authority, but instead, honour, serve, obey, love, and respect them.

Now, if I were to ask who amongst us has broken this commandment, I would expect every single person to raise their hand. I would bet with 100% certainty that every single one of us here has, at some point in our life, angered our parents. Even Luther angered his parents, particularly his father, when his family spent considerable expense to send him to law school and Luther partied too hard and then decided to drop out and become a priest, which in no way was going to support his parents when they got old. Luther was a deep disappointment to his parents, he failed to honour, serve, obey, love, or respect them.

And Luther knew it, and came to deeply regret his behaviour towards his father, which is the context behind his explanation to this Commandment. You see, Luther is very harsh about what this commandment means. He believed, as many in his time did, that parents and masters (or employers) and civil authorities––including mayors and princes, and religious authorities––including pastors and bishops, were all part of a God-given hierarchy. In that world-view, God set up a hierarchy of power that allowed the world to be stable. Each person had a boss or master over them, who had one over them, all the way up to the princes and kings, whose boss was God. Upsetting that hierarchy would lead to an upset of God’s order, and chaos and cosmic disruption would take place and evil would reign. So, high stakes for Luther.

Now, to be fair to Luther, he actually believed that the top of the pyramid was not the Pope, or the princes, but parents. He believed that God gave divine authority to parents, much as Christ gave authority to his disciples, and that all other authority developed out of the authority of parents. Parents then subsequently gave authority to others on their behalf ––to teachers, to teach their children what parents couldn’t, to government––to rule their children when they couldn’t, and to pastors––to preach the Gospel to their children when parents couldn’t. And it’s important to remember that putting the authority of God with the parents, rather than with the princes, or with the pope, was a huge deal. In this respect, Luther was pretty radical.

In other respects, though, Luther was not. I know that we all have this image of Luther rebelling against authority, and defying the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, but he could actually be quite conformist. He was clear that obeying parents, and teachers, and pastors, and government, was a Commandment. He said that we are obligated to obey these authorities, “even if they go too far,” because God had put them there. He said that even terrible parents are still given to us by God, and that we need to honour and obey and even love them. He said that pastors, our “spiritual parents” should be given double honour. He wrote that servants should obey their masters at all times, that the peasants should stop resisting unfair working conditions, and that the princes had divine authority to suppress any uprising.

And this is a struggle for me. Because there have been too many times in the history of the world, in the history of the church, and in the history of families when this commandment, Honour your father and mother, has been weaponized, and used to justify abuse and violence. In WWII, Hitler used Luther’s explanation to this Commandment to argue that the churches must obey the F├╝hrer, and to merge faith and patriotism in order to wipe out certain peoples, much as Jeff Sessions did recently. In congregations, pastors have used this Commandment to argue that their decisions are ultimate and their actions never to be questioned, and that those who do so are to be cast out of the church. And, of course, there are families where parents have used these words to abuse their children, who subsequently go on to abuse their own children when they get older. Of all the Commandments, this one is the most dangerous, because it can lead those of us with any authority at all, whether as bosses or teachers or parents or leaders of any kind, to believe that we are entitled to power, entitled to obedience, and entitled to the fear and love that belongs to God alone.

So what are we to do with this? While there are certain laws from the Hebrew Scriptures that we feel comfortable ignoring, like not eating pork or not wearing clothes made from mixed fibres, we hold a special place for the Ten Commandments. We do follow these laws––they make up the fabric of our western legal code, they undergird our social morality. Can we reconcile the constant and still ongoing abuse of this Commandment with the Commandment itself?

Well, standing next to Luther’s belief that God gives God’s own authority to rulers on earth, we have Psalm 146, that we read today: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” The Psalm tells us that God is the only one who truly cares for the needy, who “executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry.” God is the only one who truly cares for those in need and punishes those who do ill. God is the only one we should fear, love, and trust––in essence, the only one we should turn to and honour, serve, obey, love, and respect.

Which, it turns out, is not so far from Luther as we might expect. Have you noticed yet that Luther begins every explanation to the Commandments with, “We are to fear and love God?” He does this on purpose. Luther believed that the Commandments were actually given to us in order of importance. The First Commandment is the most important––You are to have no other gods, which means we are to fear, love, and trust God above all things. And this is the foundation for all the rest. When we fear, love, or trust something or someone else above God, then the remaining Commandments will trip us up. When we fear, love, and trust God above all things––or all people––we will automatically obey the rest of the Commandments. 

And the same is true for the Fourth Commandment. And this is where Luther offers some comfort in our struggle. Luther commands obedience to those in authority over us, “provided that [their will and word] are subordinated to God and not set in opposition to the preceding commandments.” In other words, if those given power over us, whether parents or teachers or pastors or governments, are themselves clearly breaking the First Commandment, or even the Second Commandment, or if they direct us to do something that breaks those Commandments, then we need not obey them. We may even disobey them, or actively work against them, so long as we are doing so from a place of fear, love, and trust of God above all things.

Now isn’t that interesting... embedded within the Commandment to Honour your father and mother, and by extension all authority, is the commandment to disobey them if their actions or words are leading us away from loving and trusting God.

We are in dangerous territory now, I think. God commands us to obey those God has placed in power, and God commands us to disobey those who use that power wrongly. But how are we to know?
Well, our Scripture readings for this morning offer us guidance for what God’s power looks like, and how we can tell if someone is wielding their own power, or God’s, and whether we should willingly obey or dissent. 

You see, God’s power is the power to create, to give life, to change the world for the better. God’s power, as Paul says in our reading from 2 Corinthians, is the power to be humble, to not think of ourselves more highly than others. It’s the power to see that the success of those we lead, or parents, or teach, or employ, is more important than our own. God’s power is the power to be weak. It’s the power to give away one’s strength to others, in order to build them up, and not ourselves. Imagine a world in which parents and teachers and governments and police and all those with authority were so strong in their power that they were humble and weak. Okay, I know it’s hard to imagine––Make America Humble Again is not a slogan that wins votes. But just imagine what that would look like! It’s the same in our Gospel reading for today. The disciples are given the authority of Christ, but not to rule. They are given the authority to serve, and to heal. To put themselves in service to others for the well-being of their people, not to demand praise and accolades wherever they went. This is what God’s power looks like. This is the kind of power God gives us. 

God gives power and authority to parents and others so that the world might experience God’s power first-hand as it comes to us in humbleness and weakness and service and healing. And, because we might otherwise think that those who are weak and humble and put others first are not the ones we should be following or imitating, God commands us to obey them. And so in this Commandment, too, is grace and love for us: that God desires that we be cared for, and care for others, by those who use their power to grant grace, to be merciful, to forgive, to give life, just as God in Christ does for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.