Sunday, December 02, 2018

Advent 1 - Hopelessness

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 21:25-36

Well, don’t you feel cheery now? I always find the first Sunday in Advent to be a bit of a slap in the face. A harsh hit of reality at a time when I’d rather be thinking about Christmas and presents and lights and chocolate. It’s already depressing out there, with the sun not coming up until 8:00 and going down already by 4:00. The world out there is doing its best to fight off the mid-winter blues with Christmas carols in the stores, and glitter, and lights in the the yards, and here we are, just beginning the season of Advent with “distress among nations,” people fainting “from fear and foreboding,” and warnings to “be on guard” for the unexpected shaking of the world. We’ve got quite the dissonance going on.

Except that I’m not so sure there is dissonance. That is, I’m not so sure that Advent is out of sync with the rest of the world. Because, honestly, the world is not in a good place right now. Listen to any young person these days, from those in junior high up to those who’ve graduated from university, and you will hear about the desperate situation that the world is in. Sure, this desperation is masked with a bravado, covered over in conversations about Instagram, and Fortnite, and the latest Youtube videos, but underneath it is a deep concern, a hopelessness bordering on helplessness, about climate change, gun violence, sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia. Our young people feel hopeless, and they have reason to feel that way. It’s easy to dismiss their concerns as naive, or idealistic, or dramatic, but their feelings are legitimate. We promised them that world would be better, we told them that the world was a better place than it used to be, but in many ways, it isn’t. Jesus was right, there is “distress among nations,” and the powers of the heavens are being shaken.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t actually talking about now, the year 2018. He was talking about his own time, or rather, the writer of the Gospel of Luke was talking about his time. (I assume it was a man who wrote the Gospel.) Our best guess is that the Gospel of Luke was written after the destruction of the Second Temple, which means after the year 70, when the Roman Empire crushed the entire people of Israel, after a small group of them rose up to fight the Empire. A few verses before our reading for today, the Gospel says, “you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends,” and Jerusalem will be “surrounded by armies ... [and] there will be great distress on the earth [and] Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles.” [21:16-24] This is what happened before the Gospel was written down. There was fighting between Jews about whether to rise up against Rome, and Rome, the Gentile Empire, responded by devastating the entire country. For the Jewish people, it was a time of incredible hopelessness. The entire people faced extinction and they were helpless to do anything about it. They felt the same way our young people, and some of us older folks, do today.

Now we might say, well, look, it turned out alright for them, and things will turn out alright for us, too. God saved them, and God will save us, too. Christmas is coming, the return of Christ is coming, so we just need to hang in there until things get better. Don’t despair, don’t lose hope, God will make everything okay.

If this proclamation, that Christ is coming, gives you hope, and makes you feel better, I envy you. I am glad for you, but I envy you. It doesn’t really make me feel better. I’ve seen too many times in history where these proclamations of hope led people to disengage with the world, to sit back and do nothing, to settle in for a nap, as it were, and wait for God to act, while in the meantime things got worse and worse. I’ve seen these proclamations of hope lead to a kind of learned helplessness, which in the end, made the situations worse, not better. While we’re waiting for things to get better, I see refugee children tear-gassed at the border, I see climate change wiping out coastal villages in India and the Pacific and the Arctic, I see mass shooting after mass shooting, and I see people––Christians––doing nothing. I wonder what difference the proclamation that the kingdom of God is near makes to people whose lives are hell here.

Martin Luther is famously quoted as saying, “Even if I knew tomorrow that the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Luther did, in fact, believe that his world was going to pieces. He lived through plagues, through civil uprising, through religious persecution (both of him and by him). He really thought his world was ending. And my point in saying this is not so to say, “oh, look how wrong he was, and so therefore look how wrong we are.” I don’t think our scientists and our social theorists and our young people are wrong. The human species is in jeopardy. Our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren are going to experience devastation on a scale we cannot imagine. My point is to say that Christians are called to act when faced with hopelessness. To accept the reality of the signs of “the sun, the moon, and the stars,” and then to act.

Jesus himself says this to us, “now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads. ... Be alert at all times.” In other words, don’t curl up into a ball, don’t give up, don’t lie down and pull the cover over your heads. Neither are we to carry on as usual, partying in “dissipation and drunkenness,” being reckless with our resources, being silent in the face of hatred, passively hoping that God will be fix everything in the end. Instead, we are to stand up and pay attention. We are to act, to engage in behaviours that bring about justice and righteousness. We are to prepare ourselves for the coming of the kingdom by preparing the world. We are to plant apples trees, we are to work for equity, we are to protest unfair conditions, we are to hold our governments to account, we are to get up every single day, get out of bed, and act as if the world is going to be a better place because God is with us and working through us. We are to act in hope, even while we feel hopeless. 

We act, not because we don’t trust God’s promises, but because we do. The season of Advent is not a season where we focus on the birth of Emmanuel, God-with-us, to the exclusion of all else. We focus on the birth of Emmanuel, Jesus Christ, and on the reality of the world into which Christ comes because it is into this reality that Christ comes. Both Advent and Christmas are the central times of the year in which we affirm that God does not abandon us in this reality, but actually comes into this reality. Christ comes into the world to be at the border being tear-gassed. Christ comes into the world to be at the mercy of climate change. Christ comes into the world to be among those who have been shot. Christ comes into the world to be with the hopeless in our world. And where Christ is, we go to be also. We go to be with the refugees being turned away. We go to be with the victims of climate change. We go to be with the victims of gun violence and sexism and racism and transphobia and religious intolerance. And we stand up and raise our heads and then we act in hope. We live in hope.
Living in hope means acting as if things are going to get better. Not because they will eventually get better on their own, or because God will swoop down and fix things, but because in our acting, we are shaping the world to come. Our actions determine the future that is going to become the present. We act because we live in the hope that what we do actually matters.

Living in hope means acting so that our day-to-day actions reflect that God in Christ is with us now, here. It means acting with kindness towards those who need it because God is acting with kindness towards us. Living in hope means acting with compassion to those who are all out because Christ is showing compassion to us. Living in hope means acting with generosity towards those who have less than we do because God is strengthening us to live with less. Living in hope means standing up against abuse and bullying and injustice because God is standing up with us.

Living in hope means acting as though, in the midst of our hopelessness about the future, God in Christ is with us now. God who takes on the human condition empowers us to act so that life is “worth living in the present,”* not just for us, but for everyone. It means acting as if the kingdom is not just drawing near, it is not just coming soon, but it is here now. 

In this season of Advent, with the realities of the world as they are, you may feel hopeless, but you are not helpless. God is with you. God is with all of us, and does indeed strengthen us to act. Christ is coming, Christ is here, Christ is raising us up to live in hope. The world is ending, the world is beginning. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.



*I am indebted to the work of Miguel A. de la Torre, in Embracing Hopelessness (Fortress Press, 2017) for this new perspective on hopelessness and hope.

Publications Update

My book, first published in hardcover, is now available in paperback:

Dual Citizenship: Two-Nature Christologies and the Jewish Jesus


My most recent publication, a chapter entitled "Multiplicity and Ultimate Concern(s)," is now available in hardcover:

The Body and Ultimate Concern: Reflections on an Embodied Theology of Paul Tillich

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Remembrance Day - Reconciling Justice and Peace

Micah 4:1-4; Psalm 46; 1 Cor 15:50-56; Matthew 5:1-14

I don’t know how to feel today. I never know how to feel on Remembrance Day maybe because I feel so much. I feel gratitude for the Allied soldiers who went to Germany and fought and killed enemy soldiers, so that my children, who have a Jewish father, are free to go to synagogue, and are even able to live. I feel pride that my husband’s Jewish grandfather was an American pilot who flew troops back and forth between the States and Europe. I feel indebted to all of the young soldiers, teenagers really, who signed up to protect Canada against the Germans in both WWI and WWII, who gave their lives to end those wars and ensured that we could be worshipping here this morning, in a truly free and democratic country.

I also feel sorrow for all of the young soldiers who died, on both sides, including my grandfather’s brother in the German army. I feel distraught that the women on both sides of my family feared being violently raped by their enemies––our allies––at the end of WWII. I feel horror that my mother’s sister died at the age of fifteen when she was hit by a bomb dropped on Japan by the Americans. I feel outrage that Japan, the country of my mother viciously attacked other countries in the Pacific, including the United States, and I feel devastated that they had atomic bombs dropped on them, wiping out two entire cities.

I feel all of these things, and underneath them all, I feel a deep sense of guilt and lamentation that war is the result of our failure as a human race to find a way to achieve both justice and peace.
Whether it is because we are unwilling or unable, I don’t know, but I do know that as humans, we struggle to reconcile justice and peace. There have been times in our world’s history––we are again in a time in our world history––where we have felt called to fight for justice. To rise up to protect the vulnerable from those who would harm them, to stand up against bullies and dictators and draw the line and say, no more. We know that without those justice fighters of the past, without the soldiers of so many of our wars, past and recent, many of us would not be here today. We would not be able to freely worship God in church, in a democratic country where we truly value people of all races and religions. We give thanks for the courage and self-sacrifice of those who died, and killed, to defeat the enemy in order to create a world that is just. Jesus said, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and so we say, blessed are those who fight for justice, for what is right, to protect what is good, to overcome evil.

But Jesus also said, “Blessed are the meek.” And there have been times in our world’s history––we are again in a time in our world history––where we have felt called to turn the other cheek. To pray for our enemy, to see them as our neighbours, to have compassion for their circumstances and for how awful it must be to live with hearts full of hate. We know that without the peacemakers of the past, without those willing to lay down their arms, without those who committed their lives and died for nonviolence, many of us would not be here today. We give thanks for those who work tirelessly for nonviolent ends to peace, and who die for it, and who end hate through acts of love. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and so we also say, blessed are those who refuse to bear arms and kill others, who seek peaceful means to protect what is good, to overcome evil.

And so we sit today in this tension. And I am unable to resolve it. Because as much as we give thanks for those who fight for justice and for those who work for peace, we know that there is a cost to all of this, a cost that we ourselves rarely pay. We know that our attempts at both justice and peace depend on the deaths of others.

Many of those deaths are those of our enemies. Those who die in war are often those who would just as quickly wish us dead, and who would, if not killed, kill those whom we love. And yet we are realistic enough, and compassionate enough, to know that those enemy dead were once someone’s baby, beloved toddler, gawky teenager. Their parents grieved their loss as much as we do our own. They, too, were made in the image of God as we are, and God wept at their deaths. 
We know that the trauma of war becomes genetically encoded and passed down through subsequent generations, resulting in heightened anxiety and aggression in children and grandchildren who never experienced the original war, but nevertheless leading them into new ones. 

We know that those whom we ask to kill for us, our soldiers, come back from deployment with deeply wounded souls. A Marine captain in Iraq and Afghanistan, Timothy Kudo, wrote that: “War makes us killers. We must confront this horror directly if we’re honest about the true costs of war …. I’m no longer the ‘good’ person I once thought I was. There’s nothing that can change that; it’s impossible to forget what happened, and the only people who can forgive me are dead.” [http://www.laurakkerr.com/2017/01/12/responding-to-moral-injury/] One of the costs of war is that in defense of us, in the name of justice, our soldiers have witnessed or committed acts that violate the ideals of justice, and they return to us with fractures in their souls that we simply don’t understand, fractures that sometimes lead them to end their own lives. In our attempts to establish justice and peace, yes, the guilty are punished and suffer, but so does everyone else. There is no reconciliation here.

And yet. “In the days to come ... [the Lord] shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
The prophet Micah knew, and we know it too, deep in our hearts, that true justice and complete peace are possible, but only in the hands of God. Call it intergenerational PTSD, call it national trauma, call it original sin––we humans are far too entangled in the consequences of war to be able to truly reconcile the tension between justice and peace. But God can. God does. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” God brings about justice and peace together, for the innocent and guilty alike, for those who have killed and for those who have refused to kill. God establishes justice, and gives us a peace that we can’t achieve on our own. I don’t know how. I only know that God calls us all to God’s mountain, God invites us all to God’s table, side-by-side with our enemies, to receive it.

During WWII, the great-grandparents of my children were fighting for countries that were fighting each other. Japanese, German, Jewish American––for all I know, theirs paths may have actually crossed during the war. My children’s great-grandparents have been at war.
But let me put it another way. My children’s warring great-grandparents today are one family. Despite their history, God worked in their hearts and called them to peace. God is constantly calling us to participate in true justice and peace and God is constantly at work, in all of our hearts, to achieve this. We see this in Germany’s deep commitment to combatting the rise of neo-Nazi ideologies. We see it in the people that live side-by-side in the former Yugoslavia. We see it in the resolution of apartheid in South Africa, where both justice and peace prevailed. We see it in Israeli and Palestinian mothers supporting each other in the mutual loss of their children. We see it here, in Canada, where the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of former warring countries have come together to live in peace, and to love their neighbours as themselves. This is God’s work, and God calls us into it.


Today is a day to remember, but in the church it is also a day to hope. One day, it may be that our grandchildren and the grandchildren of our enemies, whomever they might be, might come together in one family. God does indeed bring justice and peace together. God brings all nations into one, and God gives new life to all. Today, as much as we remember that we are all implicated in the costs of war, we remember that we are all also invited to participate in God’s work of justice and peace. It is not our work to start, or to finish, but it is our work to join. And so, as we remember, let us also honour today by reaching out to someone who is different from us. As we pray for justice for the aggrieved, may we also pray for our enemies to receive as much grace and love and compassion as we wish for ourselves. As we pray for peace, may we engage in reconciliation, not revenge. May we lament, acknowledge our collective guilt, and then take a new step into the light. And may our God, who, as the Creator bringing light into the darkness, as the Redeemer healing us with new life, and as the Sanctifier making us whole, continue to lead us forward. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Lord, If You Had Been Here - All Saints Sunday 2018

Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Both Mary and Martha uttered these words to Jesus, words that perhaps we’ve found ourselves thinking in times of grief and loss. “Lord, if you had been here....” my brother would not have died, my child would not have died, the cancer would not have come back, I would not have lost my job, the country would not have descended into chaos, the church would not have strayed. Lord, if you had been here, we would not have suffered the loss of people, or relationships, or dreams, or hope. 

Of all the things that are awful about loss, one of the big ones is the feeling of being completely alone in our grief. Even if we’re grieving with others, our experience is uniquely our own. We might find comfort in the company of someone else who has suffered a similar loss, but in the end, they simply can’t feel what we’re feeling. Each of us enters our own land of grief. Each one of us will experience loss and grief in our lifetime, more than once, and each of us will feel as Mary and Martha did, even if only for a moment, “Lord, if you had been here,” my brother, my mother, my father, my child would not have died. We will feel alone, abandoned, lost at sea.

Have you ever been at sea? In a boat in the middle of the ocean with a giant circle of water all around that ends only where it meets the sky, far off at the horizon? It’s both expansive and overwhelming, and it makes us feel very, very small. It’s similar, actually to standing in the middle of the prairies, with the land stretching off into the distance. With a horizon out there, a place that logically you know you will cross if you keep travelling in one direction, but which, at the same time, seems uncrossable because we can never see past it. This is what grief can be like––expansive and overwhelming, with a horizon we can’t see past, leaving us feeling insignificant and powerless and alone.

Except that we are not alone. In this respect, death and grief lie to us. The truth is that we are not alone in our grief. We say, “Lord, if you had been here,” as if the Lord was not. But the Lord is. The Lord does not abandon us, not ever, not even for a second. I was reminded of this on Tuesday night, at the vigil for the victims of Pittsburgh’s synagogue murders, when Reverend John Pentland, from Hillhurst United Church here in Calgary, said that in the very moment when those eleven people died, “God was the first to weep.” At the moment of our loss, even before we realize what has just happened, God is there. God is the first to weep. Like a mother in the face of her child’s pain, God weeps for our loss, God weeps for us, God weeps for the grief we are about to endure.

We hear this in the story of Lazarus, “When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. ... Jesus began to weep.” Jesus weeps with us in our loss, Jesus sits with us in the darkness, Jesus is there. Jesus is here. We are not alone in our grief.

More importantly, the One who keeps us company is one who has been through what we are going through. All the way through. This is the difference between Jesus Christ and the rest of us. While we might keep one another company in grief, not one of us has been all the way through this grief. We have not crossed the horizon. None of us has actually seen past death into new life. But Jesus has. This is our Easter proclamation, this is our baptismal story, that Jesus lived the life we have lived, and then Jesus died, crossing over that horizon, passing through death to new life. And then Jesus returned to walk with us as we move towards that horizon ourselves.

This is the promise we are given in Scripture. Throughout the Bible, from beginning to end, God promises that there is new life beyond the horizon. More than that, God promises to bring that new life over the horizon to us. Both Isaiah and the Book of Revelation tell us this––that God, after weeping with us, will reach out that divine hand and tenderly wipe our tears away. And they will be gone for good, never to return, because death and mourning will be no more.

Because God is bringing that new life from beyond the horizon into our midst. Did you notice that in our reading from Revelation? The holy city comes down out of heaven, down to us, and the home of God is among mortals. Because God knows that in this life, we will always be chasing that horizon and never actually crossing it, which you’ll know if you’ve ever driven on an endless prairie highway. And so God brings that new life to us. God sends God’s son, Jesus Christ, the Alpha and, more importantly, the Omega, the beginning and the end that is new life, to be with us. To bring new life to where we are. Into our midst.


“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The Lord is here, and yes, death will still happen, but death is not the end. The sun/Son rises over the horizon and shines on us in our loss and our grief. This is, actually, one of the reasons we will light candles later this morning, in remembrance of our losses, as a gesture that we are trusting in the fuller light to come. We will light candles as a reminder that we are not alone in our grief because the Lord weeps with us. We will light candles as a defiant proclamation that Jesus Christ, the light that shines in the darkness, is here with us, no matter how dark things might feel. And we will light candles in thanks, for all of these things, and in gratitude to the one who brings to us the new life to come. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Special Welcome to Worship, October 28, 2018

We begin our worship this morning, however, with the events at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh hanging over us, and the loss of eleven lives. The person in custody identifies as a Christian and used the Gospel of John, a Gospel we will be reading from this morning, as justification for his acts. Given this day and that fact, instead of our order of confession, I would like to read from the ELCA Document called Guidelines for Lutheran Jewish Relations.

”In the spirit of that truth-telling, we who bear [Luther’s] name and heritage must with pain acknowledge also Luther's anti-Judaic diatribes and the violent recommendations of his later writings against the Jews. As did many of Luther's own companions in the sixteenth century, we reject this violent invective, and yet more do we express our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effects on subsequent generations. In concert with the Lutheran World Federation, we particularly deplore the appropriation of Luther's words by modern anti-Semites for the teaching of hatred toward Judaism or toward the Jewish people in our day.


Grieving the complicity of our own tradition within this history of hatred, moreover, we express our urgent desire to live out our faith in Jesus Christ with love and respect for the Jewish people. We recognize in anti-Semitism a contradiction and an affront to the Gospel, a violation of our hope and calling, and we pledge this church to oppose the deadly working of such bigotry, both within our own circles and in the society around us.”

Let us pray:
God, whom our Lord Jesus Christ worshipped as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph: 


Forgive us when our words are used to kill your children in the name of Christ. Strengthen us to stand between your chosen people and hate. Comfort those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death and bring us all to your shalom. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Minimum and Maximum Inclusion - Reformation Sunday 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

I don’t think it’s an over-generalization to say that as long as there has been religion, there have been well-meaning religious people arguing about who gets to be in the community and who doesn’t. Every religion has its version of minimalist inclusivity and maximalist inclusivity. That is, in every religion there will be people who make the conditions for being in the religion so restrictive––so minimally inclusive––that only the most dedicated can belong. At the same time, there will be people who want to reduce as many conditions as they can––who aim for maximum inclusivity––so that the entire world can be included in that religion’s understanding of community. And, just to be clear, each side, if you will, is doing their best to act with integrity. The minimalists truly want to protect the holy and sacred nature of their religion. The maximalists truly want to reflect the love and spiritual generosity that they believe their religion embodies. Both sides are trying to be as faithful as they can––they just understand the embodiment of that faithfulness in different ways.

And so we come to our Scripture readings for today, and our celebration of today as Reformation Sunday. And we find, lurking underneath our reading from Jeremiah and our readings from the Letter to the Romans and the Gospel according to John, and indeed in the very history of this denomination, this tension between the minimalists and the maximalists.

The prophet of our Old Testament reading, Jeremiah, seems to be a maximalist. He lived at a time when Israel had been pummeled by other countries’ militaries, when its national and religious existence was threatened, and several prophets blamed it on Israel’s lack of religious commitment to God. These prophets said that the Israelites had abandoned the covenant God made with them, and so God had abandoned them, and the only way back was to strictly reinforce the law. But Jeremiah’s message is that God was reinstating the covenant. And God, who was not interested in a minimalist approach to inclusion, was going to put the covenant––what they called the law–––into the people’s heart, where it could never broken. The result would be that “they shall all know me, from the last of them to the greatest, ... for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” They shall all know me. That’s pretty inclusive, maximally so, we might say.

Unfortunately, it seems that over time, the people forgot, as we all do. By-and-large, by the time of Jesus and Paul, the minimally inclusive branch of the Jewish religion was again in charge. Now I’m not criticizing them. Israel was under extreme religious stress, with the Roman Empire setting up idols in the Temple in Jerusalem and demanding that Jews either worship the idols or pay a tax. 
Those responsible for the well-being of the Jewish religion and the people were deeply concerned that their religion was being contaminated, and that they would no longer be holy enough for God to be in their midst. They instituted strict boundaries around holiness and righteousness and religious inclusion in order to protect their relationship with God, just as we find often ourselves doing.

For example, in the Gospel of John, which is truly minimalist. As beautifully as the Gospel opens, and as much we might love the imagery of the light shining in the darkness (which I do), the honest truth about this Gospel is that it is extremely restrictive about who gets in and who’s kept out. This Gospel is adamant that those who do not follow Jesus, especially the Jews, are excluded from God’s community (and yesterday we saw the horrifying legacy of that argument). In the case of the original Christians who wrote it, they were struggling to defend their relationship with God in the face of those who didn’t accept them, and so they retreated into theologically walled-off strongholds and erected strictly defined boundaries. They allowed only the few, only the completely trustworthy, into the Christian community. The minimum possible.

At the same time, though, we have Paul and his letters to the Romans. Poor Paul takes a lot of unpacking, and sad to say, for most of the past two thousand years we have read him completely wrong. We used to read him as someone who grew up a Jew and then met Christ and converted to being a Christian and rejected all Jews––a minimalist––but now we know, thanks to rigorous biblical scholarship, that this story about Paul isn’t accurate. Instead, what we know is that Paul turns out to have been a maximalist. He worked really hard to find out how to make God’s religious community as inclusive as possible. He recognized that the Jews are in an unbreakable covenant with God, that they are saved by the law (which, by the way, the Jews are able to fulfill, in Paul’s eyes.) But he also recognized that non-Jewish Christians are not in that same covenant. We are not Jewish, and so we are not in the covenant of the law, and so we are not saved. But how could this be? How could the people who follow the Jewish messiah not be saved? Paul’s answer was that God’s grace and mercy and righteousness was so complete and so concerned for all of God’s children that God sent Christ to die for us, so that we––non-Jewish Christians––would be saved apart from the law. Because––sorry, Christians––we aren’t blessed to be able to obey it. Paul wanted the maximum number possible to be included in God’s community––the Jews through the law and the non-Jews through Christ.

Of course, this tension between minimum and maximum inclusion continues throughout history. It’s the reason we celebrate Reformation Day today, in commemoration of Luther helping us to understand that it is God’s grace, which is infinite and eternal, that saves us, and not our finite and limited works. According to Luther, the Holy Spirit works where the Spirit will, and gives people faith, and draws us to church, and moves us to be baptized. Any participation in the Christian community comes from the Holy Spirit, not us, and the Spirit is radically inclusive. Luther wanted as many people as possible to feel included in God’s community, unlike the Catholic church of his time who were trying to restrict membership, or manipulate it.

Even today, within the Christian church we continue to experience both the minimalist and maximalist versions of inclusion. On the one hand, we have those who would argue that entrance into the Christian community should only be through a baptism where the one being baptized has consciously made the decision to come forward. We have those who would argue that participation in the Lord’s Supper should be restricted to those who’ve been baptized, lest Communion be treated frivolously and made less holy. We have those who, with the best of intentions and wanting to protect the holiness of God’s relationship with us, impose certain prerequisites for inclusion and participation in the Christian community. These are our Christian minimalists.

On the other hand, we have those who would argue that infants who are incapable of rational thought should be baptized, so that the decision is entirely up to God. We have those who would argue that the Lord’s Supper is open to all whom God brings forward, regardless of whether or not they’ve been baptized. We have those, with the best of their intentions, wanting to fling open the doors and shower everyone and anyone with the love and grace of God that they experience through Christ. They want to get rid of all prerequisites, so that everyone can be part of God’s community. These are our Christian maximalists.

So which direction ought we to pursue? It’s tempting, as we feel the pressures of the secular world and increasing religious diversity, to isolate ourselves in our mighty fortress, to double-down on protecting God’s holiness, and to follow the path of minimalism. There’s a security that comes from retreating to traditional ways, battening down the hatches, raising the drawbridge. We feel safer when we can pre-approve those who come into our midst. When we don’t have to fear that we’re diluting God’s presence among us.

But I am not convinced that this is the direction God is calling us. The history of our relationship with God, starting with the Old Testament and continuing through thousands of years and through the Reformation, tells us that God is constantly calling us to radically new inclusivity. God does not seem to be as concerned with protecting God’s holiness as we are, (probably because God knows that humans can’t possibly corrupt God). Through Paul, through Luther, through the courage of those who challenge our preconceived ideas of what religious commitment looks like, God calls us to constantly reform the restrictions we set in place. God calls us to new understandings of inclusion.
Now we still affirm that both the Gospel of John and the letters from Paul are the Word of God. Both the minimalists and the maximalists are inspired by their relationship with God. The tension between the two will not be resolved in our lifetime, or possibly at all on this earth. In the end, we can never fully know God’s mind, or who God welcomes in. All we can do is move forward in the faith given to us by the Holy Spirit, trusting in the grace and mercy of God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ.



And I’ll leave you with this. Over this past year, several states in Germany have proclaimed Reformation Day a public holiday. But not for the reason you might think. It’s very explicitly not a “Martin Luther commemoration day.” Rather, according to German Lutheran Bishop Ralf Meister, “The Day of Reformation is a day on which we will seek to promote tolerant relations among religions, confessions, and worldviews, based on dialogue.” [http://www.lutheranworld.org/news/reformation-day-new-public-holiday-germany] 
Relations among religions, confessions, and worldviews as the focus of Reformation Day in Germany. That sounds pretty maximalist to me. May God bless us as we move forward in that Spirit as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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.