Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Gift of Each Member - Congregations, Too!

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

“Indeed the body does not consist of one member but of many.” [Children’s message with what that means: The different parts of our body are necessary to help our body - we can’t do very well without each part. Each part has its own function - we can’t eat with our eyes, we can’t sing with our feet. What would happen if we tried? ––––– God calls the church a body, what do you think that means? Each person in the church has their own role and “gift.” We need each person to help this body. We can’t do without anybody here. What do you think some of those gifts are? Some people help read, some people help with powerpoint, some people help by sitting and worshipping. (How do you think that is necessary?) Some people help by praying, some help by teaching, some help by organizing. Nobody is called to do everything, but everyone is called to do something. What do you think would happen if someone refused to do what they were good at and insisted they do something they weren’t good at? (Like if I insisted I was really good at handling the budget, even though I am very bad at math? Or if our pianist decided she was really good at preaching? Or if our little lion decided he was really good at changing the sign outside?) God gives each of us a special gift to help the church. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what that is, and sometimes we need others to help us figure that out, but each of you has a special gift from God, one that’s just yours. What do you think that is?]

When Paul was writing this letter to the church in Corinth, he was writing to a small group of people. Historians estimate that the total number of Christians altogether at that time was somewhere less than a thousand, compared to the over 2 billion Christians in the world now. So when Paul was writing, he had no idea how his idea of us being all members of one body might translate to the 21st century. Today, the Christian body not only has 2 billion members, but there are are somewhere between 30- and 40- thousand denominations, with the number of congregations in each denomination ranging from just a handful to tens of thousands in the case of the Catholic Church. This morning, in North America, there are over 50,000 congregations gathering to worship, all part of the one body of Christ.

And I know that sometimes we are envious of other congregations, or other denominations. We might visit one of these 50,000 congregations and feel that little prick of dissatisfaction when we return to our own church. We might visit a church that has a beautiful building, with stunning architecture, and amazing stained glass. And we might think wow, I wish our building was like that, or I wish Advent had gorgeous stained glass windows. Or we might visit a church that is packed every Sunday morning - with hundreds if not thousands gathering there. And we might think wow, I wish Advent was that thriving, I wish we had the pews filled every Sunday and the place was buzzing. Or we might hear about a church that has wonderful social ministry programs - that serves hundreds out of its doors or inspires its community to change for the better. We might think, geez, I wish Advent could do that kind of thing, and be that kind of model of Christian service. We might wonder in our heads how we might become like those other churches, we might wonder what programs or ministries we might take on that would help us develop into one of those fabulous congregations that we hear so much about.

But we are not called to be envious of other congregations. They are who and what they are because of the gifts God has given them. And Advent is who it is because of the gifts God has given the people here.You see, I think we can take Paul’s image of each person or member having its own gifts and function for the church and apply that to the bigger picture of each congregation. 

Each congregation, like each member, is called to its own role in the larger body. Each congregation has a vocation, if you will, that is different from that of its neighbours, that is meant to work for the common good. We can’t all be doing the same things, and we can’t all be doing all things. Even in the ELCIC, in our own denomination, each congregation has a unique role to play, one given to it by God. Some congregations are called to social witness, yes, but not every one. Some congregations are called to the gift of music, and have wonderful choirs, but not every one. Some congregations are called to serve youth, or to serve the elderly, but not every one. As we heard last week, “there are varieties of gifts ... and varieties of services, but the same Lord.” Some are called to wisdom, some to healing, some to truth-speaking, some to faith in times of trouble. But not each called to all things, so that there might be a variety of gifts to make up the whole body. 

Each congregation’s gifts and callings come through the unique constellation of members that it has in any given time and place. Each of you here comes with your own gifts, which together make up the unique role of Advent. And this role is constantly changing, as people come and people go. There is no going back to the past, when Advent had a particular role to play in this part of Calgary, since the precise combination of people and gifts who were here forty years ago aren’t here anymore. And there is no predicting the future, since there is no way to know what people and gifts will be here even five years from now. There is only today, to seeing whom God has sent into our midst today, and what gifts they bring for today. That tells us who Advent is called to be today, and what the role of Advent is in the larger church and in the world today.

Now I am not going to stand up here and say, “Here’s who Advent is and here’s the gifts you are called to use in the world!” Sorry, it’s not that easy. That is a gift that everyone discerns together, by looking around, by seeing for ourselves who is among us and what gifts each person brings. But it is easier to see when we take a moment and appreciate what we have in front of us, and give up envying others and imagining how we could be like them. I can clearly see that there are gifts for teaching and learning in this congregation, from childhood education on up to adult education. I can also clearly see that there are people here who have been given the gifts of the arts––visual art, the written word, music. How these, and other gifts, might come together within the congregation of Advent today is not quite clear, but that is not something to worry about. As Luther said in the Small Catechism, who we are in the faith is a gift that comes from the Holy Spirit. God calls each person to be here, and calls each congregation to be here, and therefore who we are right now is a gift from God. Do not be envious or impatient with who Advent is––it is who God intends and calls it to be in this moment.

To be clear, I am not saying that we give up striving or aspiring to be more. But what I am suggesting is that we give up striving to be what we are not. The best way for a congregation to contribute to the body of Christ is for each individual to live fully into the gifts God has given you, and for each congregation to do likewise. Whatever your gifts are––and don’t think that you don’t have any because God gives abundantly to everyone––whatever your gifts are, God has brought you to this place so that you might use them. You are here because God sees that your gifts are a good fit with everyone else’s here, in this time and in this place. You might think you are here because you were born into this congregation, as it were, or because it’s the closest one to where you live, you might think that the reasons you are here are completely practical, but you are here because God wants you here, to be part of Christ’s body here. 

It is exciting work, the call to live as a member of the body of Christ. Not because of who we might be, but because of who God asks us to be now––people of God, in all our rich variations, the body of Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

No Thanks Needed - Epiphany 2

Psalm 36:5-10; John 2:1-11

One of the first social behaviours we’re taught as children is to say, “Thank you.” A baby hands us their cup, and we say, “Thank you,” as a model of behaviour. When we were children, and a friend would come over, we would be expected to walk them to the door and say, “Thank you for coming,” when they left, and they, in turn, were taught to say, “Thank you for having me.” We learn to acknowledge both the gift and the giver with thanks, whether the gift is a new car or a single flower, whether it is someone moving their car out of the way for us or just holding the door. Even if we don’t particularly like the gift, we’re still taught to say thank you. My mother-in-law, a teacher, used to teach her students how to write thank-you notes for things they didn’t actually want. “Dear Grandma, thank you for the red, wool birthday pajamas. That was very thoughtful. I will add them to the collection that I started with your first pair five years ago. Thanks again.” We hear a lot about cultivating an “attitude of gratitude,” and as we say in our Communion liturgy, it is indeed right, our duty and our joy, in all times and in all places, to offer thanks. That’s why we call it the Great Thanksgiving. Our lives are enriched when we say, “Thank you.”

There are a lot of things going on in our Gospel reading today: the metaphor of weddings and the church, the role of wine in our lives, the lesson that you should always listen to your mother, but thanks is definitely not one of them. As the story goes, Jesus saves a wedding party about to go sideways and ... nothing. He changes 180 gallons of water, approximately six fish tanks worth, into really good wine, and ... nothing. The steward comments on how good the wine is, and the bridegroom just takes it all in stride, but neither of them seem at all interested in finding the person who did it so that they can thank them. As a well-brought-up Canadian, I’m a little appalled at their lack of manners!

They don’t even take the effort to find out who made this all happen. They don’t seem moved to thank anybody, and I’m guessing they happily received the “thanks for inviting me, it was a great party,” comments misdirected to them. The only ones who seem to know that Jesus is responsible for this 180 gallons of wedding feast joy are Mary, who told him to do it, and the disciples. Everyone else seems happy to just take advantage of the wine, enjoy it, and carry on.

What’s interesting, though, is that this doesn’t seem to bother Jesus. He doesn’t announce that this miracle comes from God, he doesn’t demand any recognition or thanks, and later, he goes back to Cana to perform another sign from God. In fact, very seldom does anyone in any of the Gospels thank Jesus for the miracles he performs for them, whether that’s providing food or drink for a multitude, or healing someone of an illness. The Gospels relate the miracles, and in the next “scene,” as it were, people go on with their lives. No thanks or even acknowledgement of the great things God has done in their midst. And it keeps happening, over and over and over again. Gifts from God, received without thanks.

And yet God through Christ keeps giving them. I admit to threatening my children that if they don’t write thank-you notes to grandparents that they might not get anything on their next birthday. I know that I have contemplated not giving any more presents to people who haven’t thanked me for the first ones. I get tired of giving without thanks or even acknowledgment. But God doesn’t. One of the messages of our story this morning is that God blesses us, abundantly, without any need or expectation that we give thanks or that we even know who the giver is. Neither Jesus nor Mary corrected the steward, or even let on that it was Jesus who did it. They didn’t chastise the hosts for bad planning or for accepting thanks that wasn’t their due. They just wanted the people to have a good time and for the wedding feast to be a success.

This is what God’s grace looks like. Grace is God’s fundamental orientation towards us that comes from God’s desire that we are blessed. That we find our lives to be a joy and a renewal. That we receive the goodness of God’s creation without feeling that we owe anything in return for it. Grace is the unearned, unmerited good will of God towards us. We know that part - there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love, God just gives it. But there’s also the other half, that God expects nothing in return for it. If we live our entire lives enjoying the goodness of God’s blessings, and we never say thank you or we never even recognize or acknowledge that the good things in our lives come from God, I don’t think that bothers God. God is not in it to be thanked. Jesus didn’t change the water into wine in order to be thanked. He did it because he was able to provide something that they needed and didn’t have. As we like to say, giving was its own reward. God gifts us, graces us, because that’s who God is. Sorry to tell you, it has nothing to do with us. God doesn’t bless us because we’ve earned it, because we deserve it, or because we are super thankful for it. God’s grace isn’t about us. It’s about God being who God is––grace and love.

Of course, it also has everything to do with us. God graces us and blesses us because we need it, and because God loves us, and because God wants our lives to be a joy. Our Psalm for today proclaims this, “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” This is grace! God provides all people with the blessings of God and invites everyone to feast and to delight, even when they have no idea where those blessings are coming from, even when they take it for granted.

Jesus blessed the community of Cana with wine, simply so that they might enjoy their time together. There was no expectation or unspoken rule that they thank God or somehow contribute in return. And it works the same way today. If you have come to church because you need to receive God’s blessing this morning, because you need some joy or light, but you’re feeling guilty because you’re one of “those people” who just comes to church but doesn’t contribute enough or at all, let go of that guilt. If you feel like you’re getting more than you’re giving, if you feel like you’re doing a bad job of saying thanks to God for all the blessings in your life you’ve received, or that what you’re doing is not enough, if you feel like sometimes you’re just taking God’s goodness for granted, let go of those feelings. Just take a breath, and let them go. 

God does not demand or expect your thanks. God is going to keep on blessing you whether or not you have that “attitude of gratitude.” God is going to keep on sending moments of joy––even when we’re undeserving, even when we’re ungrateful, and, I would add, especially when we’re feeling those things because, as we know, it’s when we’re feeling undeserving and ungrateful that we need God’s grace the most. Regardless of whether or not you say thank you, God’s love for you is steadfast, God’s desire is that all people, including you, enjoy the feast of life.

This abundant, joy-filled gift of God, this grace––unmerited––is the glory of God, given to us through Jesus Christ, whether or not we say, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Epiphany 2019 - The Strangeness of God's Light

Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-2; Matthew 2:1-12

Welcome to the Sunday of Light! That’s what today is, that’s what Epiphany is––the day of a particular revelation of God’s light to the world. It’s a shame that we only celebrate Epiphany specifically on January 6th, because that day so rarely falls on a Sunday. Usually, we have to either mash Epiphany together with the Baptism of our Lord, or skip over it entirely. But Epiphany is such a special day, such a special message, that I wish it was connected to a Sunday, rather than a date on the calendar.

Epiphany is special because its primary message is that God’s light comes to all different kinds of peoples, and that strangers are often the ones who will point out God’s light to us. And this is especially important for us, in our context of religious diversity, where we know so many people who are, religiously speaking, strangers to us. More and more, the people we love, the people we live with or next to, do not belong to the same religious community as we; they are religious strangers. They might be Christians but go to a different church. They might be, as in my family, from a different religion. Or they might be altogether nonreligious - either self-identified agnostics or atheists. They might be “spiritual but not religious.” They might identify as practicing more than one religion––Buddhist Christians, or Muslim Hindus, or many of our First Nations’ neighbours who are both Christian and practice indigenous rituals. These religious strangers are people that we know, and people that we love. Given that, at our 5pm Christmas Eve service, there were over 300 people here, they are also people who have come to worship with us. For those of us who practice one religion, in one way, in primarily one community, these other ways of religious being are different. They are strange. Those who live these different ways are, religiously speaking, strangers.

Strangers, but maybe not so strange. You see, it is rare, even for us, to feel always at home in church. The truth is that, for many reasons, sometimes church doesn’t feel like home; sometimes we might feel like maybe we don’t really belong here. Maybe a hymn is sung that we just don’t like, but everyone else is singing along. Maybe some Scripture is read that we just can’t agree with, and when we have to respond, “Thanks be to God,” we can’t quite get it out because we’re not thankful for what we just heard, even though everyone else is saying it. Sometimes the sermon makes no sense, or doesn’t seem to apply to our lives in any way. Sometimes we come forward for Communion and we know we’re just going through the motions. Or we say the Creed, or the prayers, but we feel kind of fake because we don’t really believe what we’re saying, but apparently everyone else does. And I’m not saying this happens all the time, but I want to be honest that it does happen. It might be for a brief few minutes in a service, or it might be a feeling that goes on for years, but it’s important to be honest that sometimes we feel like strangers in the church, like we don’t belong. We hear the Good News that God is sending divine light to God’s beloved people and we question whether that people includes us. We question whether we, too, get to receive that light.

If you have ever had questioned that, if you have ever felt like a stranger in the Christian community, then today is for you.

Because today, the day of Epiphany, is a proclamation that God has a special heart for strangers. God specifically seeks out you when you feel yourself to be outside the community, and sends you the divine light and then invites you to bear that light to the world. Most Sundays, too many maybe, we talk about God revealing God’s light and working within the community. But this Sunday is about God revealing God’s light outside the community. We see it in our reading from Isaiah, that the glory of the Lord, the light that shines in the deep darkness is meant for all the nations, not just for the people of Israel. It will shine amongst people who have never heard of the Temple, or the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph. Amongst people strange to Israel.

We see it, of course, in Matthew’s story of the Magi, who come from distant lands, who are very definitely outside of God’s covenant with the descendants of Abraham. Here, especially, we see that “strangers” are the ones who point out the divine light to people who ought to have seen it first. King Herod, the official king of the Jews, should have been the first to notice the star and the first to fall before Jesus and offer him the wealth of his treasury. Instead, it was these wise strangers who came, pointed out the light, and then left again. The story of the Magi tells us that, at critical moments, God chooses to shine the light before strangers.

And we see it in Ephesians, and in the story of Paul. Paul, a Jew, a member of God’s covenant community of Abraham and Moses, was given a revelation––an epiphany––that God was using Jesus Christ to shine God’s divine light into the lives of Gentiles, non-Jews, religious strangers. We, Christians, cannot forget that, from our beginnings, we were the strangers whom God chose to include.

And God was doing this “so that through the church [by which Paul means in addition to the synagogues] the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known.” [Ephesians 3:1-12] This verse might actually be the heart of Epiphany, rather than the story of the Magi: “so that the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known.” The wisdom of God in its rich variety.  In other words, the fullness of God––the light of God––is shown to us through diversity. Through difference. Through strangeness. Through strangers.

So I’m not a scientist––I’m basically a stranger in the science realm––but I find science fascinating because of what it tells us about the world. For instance, the science of light. So “light” is what scientists call electromagnetic radiation, and there is a huge spectrum of light. You probably know about ultraviolet light, and infrared light, but there are also gamma rays and microwave rays and FM and AM waves (radio) that make up the light spectrum. Our perception of light, what we call visible light, is only a teeny, tiny part of that spectrum. It’s also, apparently, not super helpful for scientific research. Visible light just doesn’t tell us very much about the world. What we can see is only a very small portion of what there actually is. That’s why so much of scientific research includes taking pictures in ultraviolet and infrared, and why our space telescopes look at the universe as it emits gamma radiation and microwaves. These ways of looking tell us so much more. We need these different––strange––ways of looking at light to see the fullness of the world around us.

And so it is with God. We need different, strange ways and we need strangers to show us the fullness of God’s light. God gives a special light to those who are different from us, and sends them to us, and it’s up to us to welcome them and bask in the light they bring, and share our light with them in turn, so that we can all receive a wider spectrum of God’s light. Strangers, like the Magi, point out to us that God’s light is shining in places we never thought to look, in places that are only darkness to us, in places we consider too strange or different for God’s light to be.

So, if there are times when you feel like a stranger in this community, if there are times when you see the divine light differently than others here do, please don’t feel like you need to dim your light to be here. We need it. The world needs it. You might feel like the light that you have is different than the light we so often talk about here. You might feel like the light that God has given you to share is different than the light God has given to your neighbour, but please keep shining it. God actually does show each of us a different part of the divine spectrum of light, so that together, everyone might see the “wisdom of God in its rich variety.” So that everyone can see light in their darkness.

Whether you sometimes feel like a stranger here, or whether you feel completely at home, “Let your light so shine before others.” The day of Epiphany, the day of a particular revelation of God’s light to the world, is not just on January 6th, but every day. The light of God, shining most brightly for us in Jesus Christ, is sent to all and to you, through all and through you, for all and for you. Thanks be to God, Amen.