Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Third Commandment - June 24, 2018

Lev 25:1-12; 18-21; Psalm 19:7-14; 2 Cor 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

The Third Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. 
What does this mean? We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God's word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it.

So, have you been feeling a little swamped lately? Like you’re in a boat just trying to get across the water to the other side, but the waves keep splashing over the side of the boat, and with each wave you’re getting wetter and the water in the bottom of the boat is getting deeper, and it just seems like there’s no end in sight, and you’re never going to reach the other side and instead the water’s just going to keep coming and coming until you sink to the bottom in the boat with the water closing in over your head?

Sorry. Do I sound a little overwhelmed?

It’s been a tough year, actually, with unexpected demands. Not at home, thankfully. Things at home are surprisingly undemanding, touch wood. But here at Advent there have been unexpected demands that have touched all of us: the retirement of Terrie, and then Carol, and now Rachel, in addition to others who have had to step back from volunteering in certain positions, or at least severely cut back on their commitments. We, like many other groups, Christian and otherwise, are feeling the strain of trying to more with less. So that’s tough, and asks a lot of us.

And then of course there’s the demands of the world right now, particularly around issues of injustice and poverty and oppression. It is impossible to watch the news right now without feeling swamped. A tweet from Tim Grierson sums up this past year the best: “Being angry all the time is exhausting and corrosive. Not being angry feels morally irresponsible.” As Christians, we feel Christ pulling and calling us to do something and every time we see a new injustice, it’s like one more wave swamping the boat. It’s overwhelming.

And our reading from 2 Corinthians today doesn’t seem to help. We read Paul, and we think, well if he could do it, so can we. He faced imprisonment and torture and the threat of death, and that didn’t stop him, he still proclaimed the Gospel, so what are we complaining about? Who needs rest? We gotta keep going!

Except that deep down, we’re exhausted. Physically, mentally, emotionally, we’re exhausted from trying to do all the things we know we’re supposed to do, in our lives, in the world, and in the church. We’re exhausted, and when we push ourselves too far, we burn out. And you know, burn-out looks different for different people. For some people, burn out is as simple as just giving up. Just quitting everything and retreating, and of course feeling guilty about it. But for others, burn out looks like anger, at ourselves for not doing enough, or at others, for not pulling their weight. If you feel constantly angry or annoyed with those around you, I encourage you to just check in with yourself and see if maybe you’re actually burn out and overwhelmed. I mean, this is what we see the disciples doing, after all. They’re in the boat, feeling overwhelmed, and they get angry at Jesus. “Don’t you care??” they say. “Don’t you care that we’re overwhelmed?” There he is, their leader, and he is literally napping on the job, doing nothing, and they’re annoyed. They’re exhausted from struggling with the storm, burnt out from trying unsuccessfully to row against the waves, and they’re mad because Jesus is taking a break.

Jesus is taking a break. Huh. In the midst of all the demands on him, in the midst of all the needs that only he can fulfill, Jesus is having a nap. 

It seems ridiculous. Having a nap in the middle of a storm-tossed ocean. Taking a break, some me-time, when there is so much need. It’s just as ridiculous as letting all the agricultural land in Israel go fallow every seven years, as our reading from Leviticus says. In Leviticus, God tells Moses to tell the people of Israel that every seven years, they are to have a sabbath for the land, where they are not to plant anything, or do anything that will encourage a second crop, for that whole year. And keep in the mind, this isn’t a rotating thing - it’s not about letting some land lie fallow while the others are planted, in a rotating seven-year cycle. It’s the entire country. It’s as if all of Canada decided that every seven years, the entire country would take a break. Can you imagine? And, as if that wasn’t ridiculous enough, every 49 years, the land would be in a sabbath for two years in a row. What would we do if all the farmers and orchard-people in Canada did nothing for two years in a row? Literally nothing? It’s ridiculous.

And yet, napping in the boat, taking a sabbath rest, “Remembering the sabbath day and keeping it holy” are things that God is calling us to do. Jesus in the boat implies that not napping is a sign of no faith. Leviticus says that resting the land in the fiftieth year, in the jubilee year, is holy. That to do that is to be faithful. And Luther’s explanation of the Third Commandment, which in his Large Catechism reads, “You are to make holy the day of rest,” tells us that stepping back from the demands of our lives and from the needs of the world is how we “fear and love God.” In other words, taking time to rest and recharge is holy. For individuals, for communities, and dare I say, even for congregations as a whole, taking time to rest and recharge is holy. And commanded by God.

About a year ago, I got an iPad. And what’s really new for me about the iPad is the way I’m supposed to charge it. I’m used to those old Ni-Cad batteries, where you’re supposed to let them run down almost completely before you charge them up. But these new-fangled smartphones and iPads have lithium-ion batteries, which, it turns out, are very different. You’re very definitely not supposed to let them run all the way down regularly. You’re supposed to plug them in every night, and keep them topped up. Letting them run down all the way too often wrecks the battery, and then you have to get new one, which generally means getting a new iPad. Letting them burn out is a very bad thing and so is overcharging them. You have to use the right charger, which delivers the right amount of current, and then shuts off when the battery is full, or, again, you’ll wreck the battery. These lithium-ion batteries are actually quite particular - if you want the batteries to keep working for a long time, they need regular recharging, with the right charger. You can’t let them drain and you can’t let them overcharge.

You can guess where I’m going with this. We are lithium-ion batteries, and I read something online about this that made me laugh, “Lithium-ion batteries become unstable when they are too empty or overcharged.” Just like us. And this is what the Third Commandment, and Luther’s explanation to it, is about. The Commandment to “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy,” and Luther’s explanation that “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it,” is God telling us to recharge ourselves properly.

First, God tells us that we need recharging. As individuals and as congregations, we need recharging. We cannot keep serving God without rest. We will, and we do, burn out. And when we are burnt out, we are useless. We can’t help, we can’t serve, we can’t participate in the work God is calling us to do. And so God commands us to rest regularly. To nap. To constantly top up our batteries.

But, like lithium-ion batteries, we need to use the right charger. And this is what we often overlook, and where we aren’t always effective in our efforts to rest. Sometimes, we use the wrong charger. Sometimes, we try to recharge in ways that don’t work. Right now, self-care is a big thing we’re all supposed to do, right? And we often interpret self-care to mean self-indulgence, but that’s not actually what it means. Sitting at home and eating chocolate all day while binging on Netflix is, sadly, not self-care. It’s self-indulgence. Self-care is getting to bed on time, eating a healthy diet, making those doctors and dentist appointments we’ve been putting off. It’s taking care of ourselves, which is sometimes not very fun. 

It’s the same with sabbath rest, and recharging our batteries. Recharging our batteries by sitting at home all day is not going to work. It’s the wrong kind of charge. What Luther tells us is that the right charge, the proper way to rest, comes from hearing and learning the word of God. Now this does not necessarily mean coming to church every Sunday morning, although I sure would like to tell you it does. Rather, it means immersing one’s self in the presence of God, however you feel that presence, on a regular basis. Whether that’s coming to church, or praying, or going on a hike in God’s Creation, or serving God’s people by handing out water at a marathon, or spending time with family, or sleeping, or whatever it is that helps you to encounter God’s Word of love and healing, that’s what you should be doing regularly as your way of recharging.

Because the Word of God, however it comes to you, tells you that you are enough, no matter how much you do or don’t get done. The Word of God is the word of grace, telling you that you are loved simply because you are, simply because Christ has given everything for you. The Word of God tells you that you are righteous, not because you do righteous things, but because you have been made righteous through the Holy Spirit. The Word of God tells you that in your very existence you are God’s blessing to the world, and that it is okay to rest.

In the church, we often get overwhelmed by the call to serve. We want to create a culture of service that can make the world a better place, and this is our Christian calling: to holy service. At the same time, God also calls us to create a culture of sabbath. Where we remember that we can only serve when God recharges us for that service, and when we encourage and support one another in that recharging. This is also our Christian calling: to holy rest. God does not call you to burn-out, to suffer with being overwhelmed. Rather, God, who loves you and cares for you, and wants you to rejoice in your living, calls you not to be afraid that you aren’t doing enough, but to nap, like Jesus in the boat. To engage in the blessed work of holy rest, which is our Third Commandment, “To remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Second Commandment - June 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The First Commandment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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