Monday, April 25, 2005

Mon, April 25, 2005

There was no sermon for yesterday because I took the whole week off as a study week. To read the product of my week's study, please visit and scroll down to my name.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Sun, April 17, 2005 - The Generosity of God

Acts 2:42-47

Psalm 23

1 Peter 2:19-25

John 10:1-10

Well, tax time has come upon us, and if you’re anything like me, you’re not that thrilled about it. I don’t know anybody who particularly relishes the idea of sitting down with their T4s or T4As and calculating just how much money goes to the government. And I especially don’t know anybody who, when they’ve come to the end of their calculations and realize that they owe money to the government, is happy about it. I know I’m not. My partner is unemployed, I have a Student Loan to pay back, and now the government wants some of my money. It’s not that I begrudge them what I owe - I know that my taxes pay for things like roads and healthcare and schools for the children. It’s just that the thought of having less money than I did before makes me - well, it makes me anxious. I’m not sure that I have enough.

The other thing that makes me anxious when it comes to money is having to say "no" to all the people who are looking for some. Whether it’s homeless people on the street or charities who show up at the front door or organizations who call asking me to send poor kids to the next Raptors’ game, every time I get a request to give money to some cause or some person, I get anxious. I would love to give everybody money - if I could make being a philanthropist a career, that would be great. But I can’t - I’m not sure that I have enough.

And so, having said all of that, we come to today’s first reading from Acts. In it, Luke describes the earliest group of Christians in the following way: "all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." Well, I gotta tell you - anybody who lives in North America in the 21st century, and who takes the Bible seriously, is going to have problems with this text. Which may be why we tend to just gloss over it or ignore it altogether. Because in this text we are confronted with the way we are supposed to live as Christians, and we are forced to examine our relationship with money and possessions. And oh, the guilt that comes with doing that.

Because we don’t live anything like the early church did. I mean, sure, we try and give what we can, but we don’t check off the little box on our taxes that asks us if we would like to give more to help reduce the debt load - even though doing so would mean more money for schools and hospitals and public programs. And we definitely don’t go so far as to sell the things in our homes - all the things in our homes - and give the proceeds to charity. In fact, I doubt that any of us would even seriously consider doing such a thing. Would you sell anything that you owned to help somebody in need? Have you? When I think about what I own, and then about what I could sell, I start getting anxious. I mean, yeah, sure, I could probably sell some of my clothes, or my CDs, or maybe even my DVDs or books if I absolutely had to. But what about selling my car? Or my computer? Or my furniture? I don’t know about you, but I can’t possibly imagine selling those things in order to raise money to give to somebody else. I don’t know how I would manage without them. Can you?

I think that’s the problem, though - that we can’t imagine living without those things. I don’t think that people are hesitant to give because they’re mean or misanthropic. I think that we aren’t generous because we’re worried that there’s not enough to share. We don’t give because we don’t want to run out. We don’t help the needy because we don’t want to end up needy ourselves. We’ve heard too many times: first come, first served. Supplies are limited. Get yours before they’re all gone. With messages like those, it’s hard for us to see how it is that we have enough to answer our own needs and share with all the people who are in need. After all, there are a lot of people in need - is it really possible that there’s enough in the world for everybody?

Well, at the risk of sounding naive, impractical, and idealistic, I’m going to say, Yes, there is. There is enough for everybody because our God is a generous God, who shares an overabundance of gifts and life with us so that we can share with others. For instance, we just said the words of the 23rd Psalm. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters." Yes, this is poetry, but the psalmist is saying that because God is our shepherd, because God is the creator of this earth, because we confess that God is the baker of our daily bread, we can not possibly be in want because our God is so generous with us. I mean, just listen, "God makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters." It’s not enough for God to bring the sheep to a place with abundant, nourishing, flourishing green grass, but God actually makes them stay there and eat it. And this isn’t some vague, feel-good, God-provides-for-all platitude. This is concrete. In the Small Catechism, Luther explains the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread," by saying that bread means "everything our body needs such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, fields, livestock, money, property, un upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honour, good friends, faithful neighbours, and the like." When we say that God makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters and gives us daily bread, we’re actually talking about concrete things.

And God gives us these things, Luther says, "out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all!" In other words, God gives us these things, not because we deserve it, not on the condition that we’ll share it, but simply because God is generous. These gifts are given to everybody - good and evil alike - to those who share and to those who don’t. The simple concrete things God gives us to live are gifts of pure grace.
And these things that God gives us means that there is enough. There is more than enough. There’s a traditional prayer at the Jewish Passover called Dayenu, which means "it would have been enough." It goes like this:

How many levels of favours has the Omnipresent One bestowed upon us:
If He had brought us out from Egypt, and had not carried out judgments against them, it would have been enough!
If He had carried out judgments against them, and not against their idols, it would have been enough!
If He had destroyed their idols, and had not smitten their first-born, it would have been enough!
If He had smitten their first-born, and had not given us their wealth, it would have been enough!
If He had given us their wealth, and had not split the sea for us, it would have been enough!
If He had split the sea for us, and had not taken us through it on dry land, it would have been enough!
If He had taken us through the sea on dry land, and had not drowned our oppressors in it , it would have been enough!
If He had drowned our oppressors in it, and had not supplied our needs in the desert for forty years, it would have been enough!
If He had supplied our needs in the desert for forty years, and had not fed us the manna, it would have been enough!
If He had fed us the manna, and had not given us the Shabbat, it would have been enough!
If He had given us the Shabbat, and had not brought us before Mount Sinai, it would have been enough!
If He had brought us before Mount Sinai, and had not given us the Torah, it would have been enough!
If He had given us the Torah, and had not brought us into the land of Israel, it would have been enough!
If He had brought us into the land of Israel, and had not built for us the Temple, it would have been enough!
Thus how much more so should we be grateful to the Omnipresent One for the doubled and redoubled goodness that He has bestowed upon us; for He has brought us out of Egypt, and carried out judgments against them, and against their idols, and smote their first-born, and gave us their wealth, and split the sea for us, and took us through it on dry land, and drowned our oppressors in it, and supplied our needs in the desert for forty years, and fed us the manna, and gave us the Shabbat, and brought us before Mount Sinai, and gave us the Torah, and brought us into the land of Israel and built for us the Temple to atone for all our sins.

This is a prayer for us! If God had just given us life, it would have been enough. If God has just given us air to breathe, it would have been enough. If God had given us only bread to eat, it would have been enough. If God had given us only water to drink, it would have been enough. If God had given us only shelter, it would have been enough. If God had given us only forgiveness, it would have been enough. But thanks and praise to God who has given us life, and breath, and bread, and water, and shelter, and forgiveness, and of course the list goes on. God has given us more than enough. God has given us ourselves, and our time, and our possessions, all signs of a gracious God.

So what does all of this mean? It means that I can pay my taxes, I can give to people in need, I can even sell things that I own to share the proceeds with others. And I can be happy about it, because I have enough. Even if I had less, I would still have enough. I would still have life and breath and bread and water and shelter and forgiveness. And so would you.

Now, the model of the early church still stands before us, challenging us with its example. But I no longer feel anxious about it. We are not being challenged with the impossible, we are not being asked to reduce ourselves to nothing. In fact, I am hopeful that something can actually be done, and thankful that there is enough to go around. And when you look closely at the text, you’ll see that that’s the key to the early disciples’ behaviour. It’s the line that says, "they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God." Generosity and giving come from thankfulness and praise, from an awareness, brought by the Holy Spirit, of how generous and giving God has been towards us.

I want to end with a poem, this time by Sister Mary Jo Leddy. Mary Jo lives here in Toronto, and has, in fact, shared absolutely everything she has with refugees at a place called Romero House. This poem comes from her latest book, called "Radical Gratitude" and I suppose it’s actually more of a prayer than a poem.
We give You Thanks
for You sustain us
with real food
and real drink.
You nourish us
with friends as real as food
with joy as clear as water
with love as good as this meal.
This is enough.
We do not ask for more.
This is more than enough
reason to bless Your name
Make us always mindful of those
who do not have enough
food and friendship
water and love and joy.
Give them enough
that they too may be thankful.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Sun, April 10, 2005 - The Road To Emmaus

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17

1 Peter 1:17-23

Luke 24:13-35

The road to Emmaus - one of the classic Easter appearance stories. It’s kind of funny that we only hear this story maybe once a year, and yet it’s a story that’s familiar to all of us. Maybe it’s because the "road" story fits so well with our own lives. We often talk of being on a journey, or following a path, of arriving at a certain place in our life, or having to move on, and so we listen intently to "road" stories like these, hoping that they can help us travel along our own paths.

So, imagine, if you will, the setting for our Gospel story. Start with Jerusalem - with its white buildings and David’s great wall surrounding it. There’s no golden dome - it’s too early for that, but there would have been the Temple. We don’t know really what it looked like, but it would have dominated the city. It was the focal point of everything that went on, and it made Jerusalem the city it was - bustling, the centre of activity, the place where everything happened. Israelites and Romans filled the place, rich and poor, men and women. At this point in time, it would have been the day after Passover, so the streets would have been filled with families taking their leave of one another, ready to go back home after the holidays. So, can you see the city? Can you see all the people? Now, picture a road leading out of one of the city gates - like any of the roads during that day, it would have been dusty, probably had rocks along the side of it. The countryside wasn’t a desert - there would have been some trees, and some shrubbery, but mostly rocks, and a plain old dirt road. And on the road, the two disciples.

Now, we don’t know much about these two particular disciples. We know that one was named Cleopas, and that the other doesn’t have a name. The lack of a name has led some scholars to surmise that this other disciple was a woman, and since there’s no reason to believe otherwise, let’s imagine she was. And so this man and this woman are walking along the dirty road, leaving Jerusalem to go to Emmaus. And they are sad. The text tells us that much, but we can imagine that they were walking slowly, eyes cast down, shoulders slouched over, not really picking up their feet. They didn’t really want to be in Jerusalem, it was a dangerous place for them to be, and a reminder of what they had lost, but they didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get home either. There, they would have to face up to what had happened to their leader, about why they were returning home, about why they didn’t stay in Jerusalem.

Now, the text doesn’t tell us exactly what they were talking about, or even what they were feeling, but we can imagine that, too. For one thing, they would certainly have been talking about Jesus, their Lord, and about how he met his end. How they had seen his miracles, and been overwhelmed and put their hopes in him. How they had felt stirrings in their heart when they saw him, and how he allowed them to hope for a future that they had never dared even dream about before. And then, they would have talked about how it all came to nothing. How this great and powerful leader had been so humiliatingly put to death like a common bandit. How he hadn’t led them to rise up, how he hadn’t promised to protect them from the Roman Empire, how he hadn’t miraculously willed himself off the cross. And then, depending on how close the disciples were to each other, they might have talked about how they felt about these things. About their fear that they would be killed next, about their shame that they hadn’t stood up for their leader, maybe even about how stupid they felt that they had fallen for this guy in the first place. After all, how were they going to answer all those questions when they got home about where they’d been? How could they justify giving up everything and following some guy who ended up dead? And of course, they would have shared their grief that their beloved Jesus was dead, and their confusion and maybe even resentment towards the women who had come claiming that he was alive again.

The road to Emmaus is one we’ve all travelled - you may even be struggling along it right now. It’s the road that takes us away from places or times of disappointment, or betrayal. We travel the road because we want to leave behind a humiliating experience, or because we want to forget how foolish we were to put our hope in some particular thing. We walk along it with our hopes dashed, feeling like failures, maybe even ashamed to admit that we weren’t brave enough to stay in Jerusalem or to do what needed to be done or to stand up for what we believe. When we walk the road to Emmaus, our feet are heavy, our hearts feel numb, our minds keep replaying the awful situation over and over again. We don’t see what’s going on around us, we only want to move on from where we’ve been, even though we don’t particularly want to get to the next place.

So, imagine yourself there with the disciples who are leaving Jerusalem. They’ve abandoned the rest of the followers, they haven’t stuck around to see if Mary’s preposterous claims of new life are true, and they’re probably feeling pretty crummy about it all. About the crucifixion, about the loss of their leader, and about their reaction to the whole thing. And along comes this stranger. Now, you and I know that he’s Jesus, but we’re outside the story. It’s never easy to get a clear picture of what’s going on when you’re right in the middle of it, and so the disciples didn’t recognize him. Nevertheless, this stranger walks with them, and talks with them, and although, yes, he does call them foolish and slow of heart, he does encourage them by quoting from Scripture and by helping them to see that what had happened in Jerusalem was not a disgrace or a failure or a disappointment. And when the disciples invite him to dinner, ah, then the road to Emmaus becomes something different. Because the disciples invite this stranger to dinner, and instead of them being his host, he becomes their host. Rather than them sharing bread with him, he turns around, takes the bread, blesses it, and breaks it. And then he shares the bread, and in that moment himself, with them. It doesn’t matter that they were fleeing Jerusalem in fear, it doesn’t matter that they felt ashamed that they hadn’t stood up for what they believed in, that they hadn’t stuck by the person they loved, that they doubted the resurrection. None of that really seems to matter, because here is the person they hadn’t stood up for, here is the person they had abandoned, here is the person they had thought to be dead - here, in front of them, sharing bread with them as he had done so many times before, not angry with them, not blaming them or accusing them, or even asking them why they’re walking away, simply sharing the bread and his presence, with them.

So, do you still see yourself in that picture? Because you should. Just as we’ve all walked the road to Emmaus, we’re also all there at the end of the story, when the road becomes something new, when the stranger meets us along the way and offers us comfort and shares bread with us. You see, those moments of failure, and deep shame, of disbelief and fear and running away don’t stop Christ from coming to be with you. On the contrary, Jesus joins up with you on your path, walking alongside of you, not blaming or accusing or condemning, only sharing with you bread and himself. It happens during Communion, when there are no preconditions or requirements or levels of worthiness needed for you to receive Christ’s body and blood. It happens outside of church, when you are encouraged and comforted by strangers, or by family or friends. Christ comes to you in those moments when you feel most unworthy of his company. "For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him."

Now, the disciples didn’t recognize Christ until he was gone. But they knew that he had been with them because, looking back, they saw signs of new life growing inside themselves, and from Emmaus they went back to Jerusalem, back to the other disciples, and back to believing in the resurrection and being proud of it. And the same is true for us - we, too, might not recognize Christ when he’s walking alongside us. But that doesn’t stop him from coming, and that doesn’t stop him from bringing us new life and enabling us to go back to Jerusalem.

I want to end with a poem that I’m sure is familiar to most of you, and probably loved by you, too. It’s a great reminder to us that when we walk the road to Emmaus, we are never alone, and in fact, it’s especially there that we are blessed with the presence of our risen Lord, come to us in the bread and the company of others. The poem is called "Footprints in the Sand" and it’s by Mary Stevenson.

One night a man had a dream.
He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Across the sky flashed scenes from his life.
For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand:
one belonging to him, and the other to the Lord.
When the last scene of his life flashed before him,
he looked back at the footprints in the sand.
He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints.
He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life.
This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it.
"Lord, You said that once I decided to follow you, You'd walk with me all the way.
But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life,
there is only one set of footprints.
I don't understand why when I needed you most you would leave me."
The Lord replied, "My [own], My precious child, I love you and I would never leave you.
During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints,
it was then that I Carried You."

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Sun, April 3, 2005 - Resurrection

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Psalm 16

1 Peter 1:3-9

John 20:19-31

Well, it’s still Easter day in our Gospel reading, and even though Mary has run to the disciples and told them that she has seen the risen Lord, they are, nevertheless, huddled behind locked doors for fear of their lives. Their leader has been killed, they don’t seem to believe in his resurrection, and even if they did, they don’t seem all that eager to be put to death as his followers. Which is a natural reaction. None of us want to die, particularly in as brutal a fashion as being crucified. We can sympathize with those poor, death-fearing disciples.

We, after all, spend a lot of our time avoiding and hiding from death. We don’t usually do it behind locked doors; more often we hide from death behind our vitamin pills and mineral supplements and low-fat diets and moderate exercise. We avoid being reminded that our lives will end by not talking about sickness in any personal way. Those of us who aren’t medical professionals try to visit the hospital as little as possible and when we do, we want to get it over with as quickly as we can. And when the death of a loved one seems inevitable, many of us go into denial. It’s natural; we’re expected to go into denial as a way of dealing with the shock, but we’re not supposed to stay there, which is, unfortunately, what some people do. I’ve seen people who have, up until the last moment, insisted that their family member dying on the hospital bed is going to get up and walk around tomorrow, by the grace of God. And they cling to this belief because they cannot accept death - either of the person they love or their own.

Of course, there is no more current example of this than the Terri Schiavo case. Now, Terri died on Thursday morning, but she was the centre of a seven-year battle between her husband and her parents over whether or not she should be allowed to die. After fifteen years in a vegetative state, her husband wanted to withdraw her feeding tube and let her die and her parents didn’t. It was described by people as a fight over the right-to-die, and also as the right-to-live. Theologically interpreted, though, it was a fight over the Easter resurrection. And here’s the tough thing that I have to say about Terri’s parents, about Rev. Jesse Jackson, about U.S. President George Bush, and about all the Christians who rallied to prevent her from dying : they showed a shocking lack of trust in God’s promise of new life. Now I know that’s harsh, and I’m fully aware that Terri’s parents, at least, lost somebody whom they loved dearly, and I know that there are people within this congregation who have had to struggle with the issue of whether or not to let a family member die. It is a terribly painful, grief-filled time that nobody should take lightly. Nevertheless, what I said remains true: that Christians who seek to indefinitely and artificially prolong the lives of others who are otherwise going to die are not living out their Easter faith.

You see, our Easter faith is all about Christ who, as our Creed says, was crucified, died, and was buried. In our Acts reading, Peter reminds his listeners that Jesus, indeed, was crucified and killed. But our faith doesn’t stop there. The heart of our faith is that this Jesus of Nazareth who died, and was dead for three days, was also raised by God to new life. "God raised him up," continues Peter, "having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power." And in the first letter attributed to him, Peter says, that by God’s great mercy, Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead. Our Easter faith, which the disciples later came to share, is that Christ who died was raised and given new life.

And the new life of Christ means new life for us as well. Because in raising Jesus from being dead, God has broken the power of death. Once upon a time, death had a permanent hold on us. Once you died, that was it, nothing after that. But God has broken that power and, while it is true that we still die, has promised that death does not mean the end of us. There is, God promises, something for us after death. Peter talks about it as an "inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you." Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, says to them, "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died." Paul tells us that when somebody dies, we’re not supposed to cry as if that’s it for them, as if this life is all they had. And we are not supposed to behave as if we will never see them again. Not only is death not the end of us, but in what happens after death, we are reunited with those who have died before us. Certainly, having someone we love die brings a most painful separation that nothing can completely erase, and we do cry and grieve, but we also have God’s promise that that separation is not forever, because death is not forever. "Christ has been raised from the dead," says Paul in 1 Corinthians, "the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ."

That is the whole of our Easter faith - that Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, died and then was raised to new life, and because of that, we will, too. And what that means is that we do not have to struggle so hard to prolong a sort of half-life. We do not need to avoid death at all costs. To do so is to doubt God’s power and to make an idol out of life. To withdraw support from somebody in a state like Terri’s is not, as the Vatican says, a "violation of the sacred nature of life." Instead, it is the fullest possible confession that God will indeed care for us after death and bring us new life. "So we do not lose heart," Paul again, "Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure. . . For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. . . So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord - for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord." Because God promises us new life, because we confess that God will indeed raise us, just as God has raised Christ, we can be in the presence of death without fear. We can allow those we love to die with dignity, we can stop our frantic, anxiety-driven efforts to prolong life at all costs. We can even be so bold as to thank God when people like Terri Schiavo and other terminally ill people and even the pope do die, because then they are fully with God and that much closer to God’s promise of new life.

The disciples were wrong to hide away behind locked doors. I’m sorry to say it, but Terri’s parents were wrong to want to keep their daughter on life-support indefinitely. But even within their wrongness, Christ still comes to meet them to offer them new life. The disciples’ fear didn’t stop Christ from appearing to them, proclaiming his new life to them and breathing his comforting Spirit into them. No matter what we have done in the past, no matter what fear over death we have had or will have, we can still rely on the words of today’s psalmist, "My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope. For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the pit. You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures forevermore." Fearful or not, hiding from death or facing it head-on, we have the promise that God will take care of us and give us new life. We may die, but it is not the end of us. It wasn’t the end of Jesus Christ, and it’s not the end of us. So, we say with Paul, and Isaiah whom he quotes, and the Corinthians to whom he wrote, and all the Christians around the world who celebrate their Easter faith, "Death has been swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?. . . Thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." Amen.