Sunday, February 18, 2018

Lent 1 - God Knows Who You Are

Gen 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Here we are once again in Lent, the liturgical season when we spend a lot of time thinking about what we have done, or have not done, that has grieved God and brought about destruction of life in one way or another. Those of you who were able to be here for Ash Wednesday participated in a longer version of our Confession and Forgiveness, in which we acknowledged that we have not loved God with our whole heart, mind, and strength, nor our neighbours as ourselves. We confessed to over-consumerism, and to exploiting both people and resources. We confessed to neglecting those in need, to acting indifferent in the face of injustice, and to ignoring the needs of future generations in order to secure our own present. In short, we confessed that we have sinned by “what we have done and by what we have left undone.”

And so, many Christians, in response to these confessions, take up a Lenten practice. Most take up some kind of Lenten fast, and refrain from some particular thing or another, putting their energy into addressing “what we have done.” Giving up chocolate is pretty common. Or fast food. Some of my friends give up social media for the forty days. For several years in a row, I gave up complaining for Lent. Some congregations give up meetings, or any kind of party-type thing. And, of course, we all give up saying that liturgical word that starts with A that means praise of God, that I can’t say now because it’s Lent.

Other Christians, instead of giving up something for Lent, take on something. They look at “what we have left undone,” and focus their energy there. Their Lenten discipline might include more prayer-time, or giving the money they would have spent on Tim Horton’s coffee to a charity, or doing extra volunteering. Most congregations take on more worship services, with a mid-week evening service, or an extra weekly Bible study.

And these Lenten disciplines can be wonderful. There are lots of Scripture passages that recommend self-discipline as a path for discipleship and becoming closer to God. I have benefitted greatly from my own Lenten fasts from complaining. 

But I don’t think I need to convince you of the importance of a Lenten practice. Instead, this morning, I want to offer a caution about the way in which our emphasis on what “we have done and left undone,” and our subsequent Lenten practices, can run counter to what God has already accomplished in us in baptism. It can be the case that our Lenten practices become a pathway to self-justification through our doing, rather than leading us to a deeper trust in God’s actions on our behalf.

Essentially, when we focus on Lenten disciplines, we focus on what we do (or don’t do), to the detriment of who we are. It’s an important distinction. What we do is not the same as who we are. We often confuse this in our culture of doing––one of the first things we ask someone we’ve met is “what do you do for a living?” or “what do you do for fun?” We define ourselves by our jobs, or our hobbies, or our interests, all things that we do.

And the trouble with that is that what we start thinking that what we do is who we are. We start saying things like, I am a pastor. Or I am an electrician. Or I am an engineer. Rather than, I am someone who pastors, or I am someone who works as an electrician. This is a real problem for people who don’t work––who are retired, or unemployed. If you define yourself by what you do, and you don’t do anything, you have no identity anymore.

When it comes to sin, the result of mixing up what we do with who we are is that we begin to confuse our sinful deeds with ourselves. We begin to believe that the terrible things we do are who we are; we begin to believe that we are terrible people. After we confess the things we have done, we begin to believe that we need to confess who we are––that deep inside, we are horrible, ungrateful, sinners who just suck. And this defining belief about ourselves then goes one of two ways. If we are convinced we are terrible people, we either sit in a total paralysis unable to do anything because we are convinced that whatever we do will turn to dust. We do nothing, because we know we’ll fail. Or, on the other hand, we continue doing all kinds of terrible things because there’s no point to stopping, since we’re rotten through and through. Kids do this, especially if they’ve been told they’re liars: they’ll just keep lying because that’s who everyone thinks they are. Elementary-school teachers will tell you that they can pick out those children who aren’t supported at home by their behaviour in the classroom. They behave like “bad children” because they’ve been told they are bad children. And I know this is a simplistic portrayal, but I think it’s true. You act according to who people say you are. You act according to who you believe you are.

But what we do is not who we are. It does not define us. Rather, who we are shapes what we do. And who we are as Christians is profound, because we are baptized children of God. I think this is why we start Lent with a Gospel reading talking about Jesus being baptized. It’s not like we haven’t heard this story already this year. We celebrated the Baptism of Our Lord only six weeks ago. Most preachers treat Jesus’ baptism as an intro to his forty days in the wilderness, and use it to talk about what we should do during Lent, but it’s important not to rush past the baptism. Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his ministry, not his time in the desert. Jesus is God’s Beloved, and so Jesus does great deeds. God calling Jesus God’s own Beloved Son fundamentally shapes everything that Jesus does after, including resisting the temptation in the wilderness. Jesus’ baptism is not a prologue to the temptation. The temptation is an epilogue to the Baptism. 

And so this baptism, and God’s deliverance of Noah and the Ark through the waters, and 1 Peter’s reminder that Baptism is what saves us, are told us at the beginning of Lent because it is who we are as baptized children of God that defines our Lent, not what we do or don’t do in these next forty days. Because we are baptized children of God, which is why we’re called saints. Now, Luther called us both saints and sinners, and I want to argue with him a bit about that. I don’t think we are both saints and sinners. I think that we are saints who sin. We are saints, baptized and redeemed children of God, who do sinful things, yes, but those sinful things were taken by Jesus and put to death on the cross. For that reason, what we do can never have more power over us than who we are. To believe otherwise would deny the power of God in the event of the cross and resurrection.

This is our Gospel, our Good News, and this is the focus of Lent: because of Christ, in the eyes of God, who we are is far more important than what we do. Above and beyond all of things you do or don’t do during Lent, or any other time, you are baptized children of God. And notice that I don’t say you have been baptized. I say that you are baptized. That is who you are. In baptism, God fundamentally changed who you are, and made you new in your very essence from that day forward.

There’s a movie that my kids love, and I confess I love it too: Moana. TIt’s about a girl, Moana, who has to save her people from an evil volcano-demon called Te Ka. Te Ka appeared after the goddess of life, Te Fiti, had her heart stolen, and Te Ka kills all life by burning it into ash. Moana’s job is to defeat Te Ka by restoring Te Fiti’s heart to her. And there’s all kinds of adventures, and things happen, and a weird side-kick chicken, and at the climax of the movie, Moana finally comes face-to-face with Te Ka, all volcanic fire and destruction, who stands between Moana and the spot where she needs to restore Te Fiti’s heart, in a scene that embodies what I have been trying to say this morning. And I really tried to find a way to describe the scene to you, but I can’t do it justice, and so we’re going to watch it on the screen.

In Lent, we focus on what we have done and left undone. But these things do not define us. They are not who we are. Our baptism is who we are, and through it, God sees you the way Moana saw Te Ka. Not as what you do, but as who you are. God knows who you are. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Epiphany 5 - Growing the Church is Not Our Work

Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11, 1 Cor 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

So, I don’t think Jesus ever attended any workshops or seminars on church growth. Here he is, in the city of Capernaum, a major economic focus for the Sea of Galilee area, and everyone is coming to see him, “the whole city,” as the Gospel says. He’s healing people, he’s getting his message out, he’s drawing in the crowds, and they’re telling their friends, but the next morning, when Simon Peter comes to get him, to return to the city and continue the excitement of the night before, Jesus says, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns.” Essentially, “Let’s get out of here, and go somewhere smaller, where there are fewer people, who don’t know me.” With all due respect to Jesus, I’m pretty sure that’s is not the way to build a movement. When you’ve got all of Calgary at your doorstep, you don’t leave for Vulcan. Jesus wants to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near, and he told Simon Peter and Andrew that he was going to make them fish for people, but I have to wonder about his methods. I’m not sure he gets this whole growth thing.

Simon Peter and Andrew, on the other hand, do. Their response to his middle-of-the-night absence is to say to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” I can just imagine it, the whole city of people, searching down every alley and in every house, not even waiting for the sun to come up to be with him again. Now that’s popularity! From Simon’s perspective, that’s like the fish jumping right into the boat! When everyone is actually looking for Jesus, growing the kingdom of God is like shooting fish in a barrel. No work necessary! If you’re looking to turn all of Israel back to God––which is what “repent” means––then it makes total sense for Jesus to go back to the people of Capernaum. Simon Peter seems to get this whole church growth thing. He knows the mission, he’s following the program––get more people in, proclaim the message, grow the kingdom.

So why doesn’t Jesus get with the program? Why does he keep heading away from the crowds and into the places with fewer people? Is he an introvert? Does he have social anxiety? As someone who is both an introvert and gets social anxiety sometimes, I totally get that. But this is Jesus. There must be something else going on.

There are a few particular verses in our readings for today that may offer us some insight. The first comes from our psalm. The Lord’s “delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner.” And the second comes from the first letter to the Corinthians, when Paul says that his reward is to proclaim “the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.” The first verse tells us that God doesn’t care about strength or speed as much as we do; God is not interested in the same markers of success that we are. The second verse tells us that Paul does not proclaim the Gospel for personal gain or success. 

Taken together, these verses tell us that God doesn’t see growing the kingdom the same way we do. We tend to focus on numbers. We celebrate that a church has reached its 50th anniversary, or its 100th, or that a denomination has reached 500 years. We celebrate when church attendance has reached two hundred, or wonder, with envy, about those congregations that have a thousand members. We send people off to church-growth seminars, and follow the latest trend in “programs that reach people,” or set up ministries with the hope that they’ll bring people into the pews. We’re ashamed when attendance drops or a church closes. 
But God seems profoundly uninterested in these things. God doesn’t care about strength or speed, and God doesn’t seem to care about numbers or being popular. God doesn’t care whether the proclamation of the Gospel, the sharing of the Good News, the testimony of God’s love for the world brings in the crowds. God doesn’t care whether Jesus is proclaiming to the biggest crowds, or whether churches are growing in attendance. The numbers we value are of no significance to God.

What God does care about is that people know how much God loves them. Our reading from Isaiah tells us that God, who is so vast that we are grasshoppers in comparison, who is so powerful that princes and rulers wither like grass in a drought, who is everlasting and infinite, pays attention to those who are weak, and tired, and powerless. This God notices when we are struggling and gives us strength to carry on. This God sees you when your heart is broken and sends you healing. This God lifts up the downtrodden, and takes care of the animals and the birds. God cares about those who are most in need, and God moves to help them. 

God is the one who grows the kingdom, through healing and love; not us, through our programs or metrics. It’s really that simple. It is God who gives us wings to fly, God who brings the crowds to seek Jesus, and God who makes Simon Peter and Andrew fish for people. It is God, through Jesus Christ, who makes Paul’s proclamation successful, which is why he claims no reward of his own for it. 

God does it by endowing proclamations of love with the power of the Holy Spirit. Remember, Luther’s Small Catechism, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength, I cannot believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with her gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as she calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian Church.” We might as well say, “I believe that by our own programs or efforts, we cannot grow the Kingdom of God, but instead the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, and enlightens people to hear the Good News.” You, yourself, are here this morning because the Holy Spirit has brought you so that you might hear words of God’s love for you. God doesn’t require big cities, or large crowds, or popular, charismatic preachers in order to be effective in reaching people, nor are those things evidence of God’s work in the world.

The growth of the kingdom of God is not about measurable gains or successes, but about people experiencing God’s care for them. And that means that when people are touched by God’s words of love, it has very little to do with our efforts to be successful; when people are drawn to seek Jesus, it’s not because he provides good child-care, or has a family-friendly program, but because God sees that they need healing and draws them in. The growth of Christians under Paul’s guidance had nothing to do with having contemporary music or a traditional liturgy, or keeping the youth involved, or starting small groups, but with God using Paul to proclaim that Christ brings new life. Not that these programs are bad things, but they will never replace the healing power of God’s love for us.

The success of God’s kingdom is not up to us, and it is not due to us. Our task is not to make it grow, which, frankly, is a burden that none of us are strong enough to bear, nor do we even know what “success” looks like. Instead, our task, if we can even call it that, is to hear God’s love for us and to live in that love. To trust in that love. Our psalm says, “the Lord takes pleasure ... in those who trust in God’s steadfast love.” That’s all we do. And if, out of love, we are moved to praise the Lord and to proclaim to others the miraculous, wonderful gift of love that we’ve received, so that others might also experience this healing love, great! Share the good news! Not as a burden, though, nor with any self-assigned expectation of success; none of us are the Holy Spirit. That power rests with God alone, and so we are free to let go of our own efforts at success and trust that God will handle the growth business as God sees fit, just as God always has. “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power,” the One who brings about all good things. Thanks be to God. Amen.