Sunday, May 29, 2005

Sun, May 29, 2005

So I had a sermon today, but apparently I don't have it in softcopy, so unless I retyped the whole thing, it won't be appearing here. I will also be away on holidays for the next two Sundays, so there will be nothing then, either. But if you're looking for interesting sermon stuff, check out the Text this Week for good stuff.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Sunday, May 22, 2005 - God, the Trinity

Genesis 1:1-2:3

Psalm 8

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Matthew 28:16-20

On Thursday I was with a bunch of other pastors and we were talking about this Sunday, and how this Sunday is Trinity Sunday. And every single one us admitted to having some anxiety about having to get up in the pulpit to talk about it. You see, today is the only Sunday in the church year that is dedicated to a doctrine instead of a Biblical text. Which means that in order to understand the doctrine, we can't rely on any specific Bible passage, instead we have to wade through more than 2000 years of theological history and church development. And that would be okay if we were talking about a doctrine like Creation, or Incarnation, or Redemption, but this particular doctrine - the doctrine of the Trinity - actually relies on all those other doctrines in order to make any sense. Which makes fitting all of this into a ten-minute sermon rather difficult.

Because most people don't think in theological terms like these. We're all too busy getting through the struggles and challenges of our days to spend a lot of time thinking about Creation and Incarnation and Redemption, let alone the Trinity. But the ideas behind the terms are still there. You might find yourself wondering, "how can God, who is supposed to be fair and just, and who is on the side of protecting the oppressed, have anything to do with forgiving those in my past who have betrayed and assaulted me? Mercy and compassion is all well and good, but what about the victims of those oppressors? "

Or, you might be having one of those days where your life seems completely out of your control and you wonder, "how can God, who is so powerful that the elements obey God, even remotely understand the powerlessness and frustration of what I'm going through? How can One who commands light into existence really get how demeaning it is to suffer and not be able to do anything about it?"

Or, you may find yourself bordering on burn-out, or maybe way beyond the border crossed all the way over, wondering if there isn't anything that can bring back the passion and spirit you used to feel? Yeah, we all heard the message of Jesus bringing new life on Easter Sunday, but really how is that going to make a real, concrete difference in my life?

These are all the kinds of questions with we struggle. And believe it or not, these are questions about the Trinity. Or rather, these are questions that seek to understand how God is active in our lives. It's the answers to these questions that are about the Trinity.

You see, before we ever had a doctrine of the Trinity, believers had different kinds of experiences with God. The Bible is their stories of those experiences, and in the Bible, we see a number of different, and sometimes seemingly contradictory things about God. One of the things we see is that one of our experiences of God is as being beyond, outside, of anything we might know. This experience is reflected in our Genesis story - the Almighty Creator God has power over the elements, creates life and takes it away. The Almighty God is before time, eternal, immortal, all-powerful. The Almighty God is immutable - meaning unchanging and never touched or moved by us. Part of this immutability means that the Almighty God is impartial, scrupulously fair, just and judging, punishing those who disobey and act unrighteously.

But this is not our only experience of God. If this was the only God we knew, our entires lives would be spent in fear, dreading the day of judgment, living each moment desperately trying to please this God and avoid punishment. But that's not the case.

At least, I hope not, because there are other experiences of God. And these experiences show us that God is Emmanuel - God-with us. These experiences reassure us that God is somehow with us in our suffering, that Emmanuel hears our prayers and changes in order to answer us. Emmanuel is compassionate and in love with us, with all the strengths and vulnerabilities that that brings. These experiences show us that God is merciful and unwilling to punish, that God seeks out those who are lost and walking down the wrong path. They show us that Emmanuel God even dies.

And then we have the often confusing experiences that show us that this Almighty God and this Emmanuel God are not, in fact, two different gods that we worship, like the Hindus or the Ancient Greeks and Romans, but that they are in fact one God. That the God who created the world is the same one who died for the world. That the God who demands justice and fairness is the same one who grants mercy and compassionate forgiveness. That the God who demands righteous living is the same God who seeks out the company of sinners. And the experience of that, that these seeming contradictory gods are one God, and most importantly that this God is working in our lives, is the experience of the Trinity. But how can we understand that Trinity?

One of the things that I learned in high school science class that has stuck with me ever since is that time is not an absolute. Sounds weird, I know, but it's not. You and I, and every person who has ever existed, experience time as flowing in a line from yesterday to today to tomorrow. For us, time is linear and flowing only in one direction. We can only ever see what is happening in the present and what has already happened in the past. We can never see what will happen in the future. We are like an ant walking backwards along a line suspended in mid-air. The ant can see where it's gone and it can look down and see its feet, but it can't turn around and look at what's coming up ahead. But what if we were a fly buzzing around the ant on the line? In other words, what if there was something that wasn't on this time-line? What I'm getting at it, is this: What if God was outside of our time-line? The buzzing fly can see not only where the ant has gone, but also what's coming up ahead. The fly can land on any point of the string in the ant's past or the ant's future. And it certainly fits with what we know of God to think of God outside of time, viewing every moment of our timeline, our past, our present, and our future. This is how the Almighty God can be said to exist before time, to have created the universe and everything in it, and to exist long after we are gone.

But the problem with God being outside of time is that God can never know what it's like to be living in time. The Almighty God can never know anxiety and hope over the unpredictable future, regrets over past actions, the miracle of birth as a person is born into this time-line and the fear of death that a person will one day ultimately have to leave this time-line - all the things that we have to go through. These are things that God outside of time can never know, which means that God can never know us.

And so we have God becoming incarnated in the man Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is a man, like us, walking the same string we do, knowing what has past, but never knowing what will come. Jesus knows the fragility of relationships over time, the anxieties over death that we have, the frustrations that we can't control, or even predict, the future. And Jesus, although he is the incarnated God, is also subject to the whims of time the same way we are - which means that Jesus, Emmanuel - God-with-us, can also die.

But how does God, who is outside time, relate to the incarnated God-in-time Jesus? And how does Jesus, who is in time, have access to the power over life and death that only the God outside of time has? Through God-the-Holy-Spirit, who communicates between God the Almighty and God the Son, and eventually between God and us.

The Holy Spirit is important because without it, the Jesus-in-time who died would have stayed dead. Only because Jesus-in-time was connected through the Holy Spirit to the Almighty- outside-time was there a resurrection. And only because the Almighty-outside-time is connected to the in-time event of Jesus' death and resurrection through the Holy Spirit can the power of that event, the saving effect of it, resonate through all of time, our past, our present, and our future. When we ask the question of how the death and resurrection of Jesus can possibly mean anything to our lives, here, 2000 years later, the answer is, through God the Holy Spirit.

But these three - Almighty, Emmanuel, and Holy Spirit - are all one God. When we want to know how God can preserve justice and still forgive the guilty, the answer is God, the Trinity - Almighty, Emmanuel, Living Spirit working to restore us. When we want to know how God who created the earth can identify with our daily struggles to get by, the answer is God, the Trinity - outside of time, living in our time, bringing the two together to be with us. And when we want to know how one weekend of death and new life 2000 years ago can still have meaning today, the answer is God, the Trinity, doing it for us.

Now, I don't expect this explanation, or any explanation of the Trinity, to satisfy you. The fact remains that God is a mystery, and how God does what God does is likewise. We will not, in this lifetime, ever know. But we do know that God - Almighty, Emmanuel, and Living Spirit - is oriented towards us - that, in a sense, Creation and Incarnation and Redemption were all for us, in order for God to bring us closer. And that is enough to allay any anxiety over what exactly the Trinity is and how it works. It is God, for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Sun, May 15, 2005 - God and Chaos

Acts 2:1-21

Psalm 104:25-35, 37

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

John 20:19-23

So, there's Peter and all the disciples, men and women, all gathered together in one room on the day of Pentecost. They're praying, and probably reading the Scriptures - the Old Testament, that is - and no doubt sharing their stories and recollections of this man Jesus, whom they followed, who had been killed, had been brought back to life again, and had now left them to go to God. There's probably a quiet murmur throughout the room - it's still morning and people are just getting ready for their day. Picture the morning sun streaming through the windows - kind of like today - as the men and women sit together and wonder when Jesus is going to come back to them.

And then, all of a sudden, there's a big whoosh, and the window shutters bang, and everyone's hair flies about their faces, and the dirt on the floor gets swirled about, and then - and then! - something that can only be described as fire rests on each person there. This something is alive, and flickering, and ready to consume them, and everywhere they look, there are little dancing lightenings hovering over everybody's head, and then - and then! - and then the noise! Up to this point, everybody would have been speaking in Aramaic, and everybody would have understood what every other person was saying, but now, Peter over here is speaking in Latin, and Andrew over there is speaking in Greek. Mary Magdalene is somehow speaking in Arabic, and Mary the mother of Jesus is speaking in Pehlevi - the language of the Parthians. Can you imagine the noise? You probably can, a little - especially if you've ever flipped through the TV channels on a Sunday afternoon - you can hear English, French, German, Mandarin, Cantonese, Italian, Portugese, Hindi, Farsi, Arabic - but imagine if you heard all those languages at once, imagine if every person in this congregation started speaking one of those languages - and they never knew it to begin with!

It must have been disconcerting, to say the least. The text tells us that people were amazed, bewildered, and astonished. I wouldn't be surprised if they freaked right out. You see, the last time a group of people started speaking in all different languages was at the Tower of Babel, when God was angry with everybody for trying to build a tower to the heavens. In that case, the spontaneous eruption of a whole bunch of different languages was the result of God punishing the people for being wicked, splitting them up to prevent them from doing worse. So it would be no surprise if the disciples' first reaction to the cacophony of noise was to wonder if they had made some critical error along the way - to wonder if God was seriously angry at them about something and trying to drive them all apart. How on earth could this chaos of language be something that came from God? Everybody knows that God is all about orderliness and peacefulness and tidiness. The auditory mess in Jerusalem was too chaotic, too diverse, too disorderly to be godly. Right?

I mean, we do have this idea, don't we, that God values order and unity and propriety? The earliest biblical image of God is from Genesis - and that's God separating the light from the darkness, ordering the days and nights, shaping the weeks, putting animals into their right categories. We think of God telling Noah to put the animals in the ark - two by two, making sure each species is represented. When God gives instructions for the Temple in Jerusalem to be built, there's all kinds of specific details about where the wood will come from, and how the priests will dress, and what they'll say. Order is key. And anybody who violates that order, anybody who disrupts the unity of the people, is cast out, cut off from God, if they were even with God in the first place. That's the prominent message that we get - God and chaos do not go together.

Except that we have this day of Pentecost, and this madness of languages, and this overflowing of diversity. And we know, if the disciples didn't, that in this case, the chaos is nota punishment from God. In fact, it's quite the opposite. This craziness and complete lack of order and decorum is from God - it's the result of the direct inspiration and intervention of the Holy Spirit. It's a sign that God is actually with the disciples, a sign that Jesus Christ has actually made good on his promise to send the Spirit to them. It is, actually, a direct reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel. You see, the result of this new babbling of Spirit-inspired voices is that people from all over the known world, instead of being driven apart by the many languages, are brought together under the name of Jesus. Three thousand people, we eventually learn, hear the good news of Jesus Christ in the languages of their hearts, and are baptized. The early church, in one chaotic morning, goes from 100 believers to 3,000 - from being a tiny group of followers to the beginnings of a world-wide religion. The jumble of languages, far from being a sign that God has abandoned them, is actually a sign that God is breathing new life into Jesus' followers. It is a sign that the resurrection of Christ is taking place among the followers of Christ. The diversity is a sign of new life.

And that, too, is represented in our Bible, although not nearly as prominently. The psalm we read this morning talks about the amazing range of things that God has created, from the great sea monster to the tiny fish. It talks about God's Spirit bringing life to a whole variety of creatures - so many that they cover the earth. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians - our second reading - talks about the varieties of activities that the Holy Spirit inspires in people - everybody with something different, all working in their own way as agents bringing Christ's new life to earth. In the Book of Revelation, there are images of all the nations on earth gathered before God singing praises. Yes, the Bible does present us with a picture of chaos and diversity, but in some cases it means that God is present, not absent, that God is giving new life, not punishing.

Now, the reason I bring all of this up - our idea that chaos and diversity are somehow indicative of the absence of God - and the day of Pentecost showing us the opposite - that actually, in certain cases, God is the inspirer of the chaos and uses it to bring new life is because this is something the church is facing right now. Specifically, I'm referring to the issue of blessing same-sex relationships. You see, as I've listened to people talk about the issue that's coming to our National Convention this summer, and as the Anglican Church of Canada has been in the news recently because of their decisions over same-sex blessings, I have heard over and over again the same words of anxiety over the differences that are arising in the church. And those words are, "This will split the church." I have heard, and even felt myself, sometimes, that all of the differences of opinions - all the different tongues being spoken - can't be good for the church or for its future existence. I have wondered if the varied and sometimes contradictory interpretations of the Bible that people have has meant that God is not with us in these discussions. After all, I've always thought that God values order and unity and agreement - that God was all about the status quo. So how can all these different voices, which clearly challenge order and unity and agreement, be of God? They're too chaotic, too diverse, too disorderly to be godly. Right?

Except that now, because of Pentecost, I'm not so sure. That time of seeming chaos and disorderliness, that time when everybody thought they were going back to the Tower of Babel, well, that wasn't God punishing the disciples. That was the Holy Spirit inspiring them and bringing the Easter resurrection of Christ to the early church. Without that diversity of voices, the Gospel wouldn't have reached as many people as it did. Without the unfamiliar and yes, frightening, cacophony in that upper room, the early church would not have spread to become the body that it is today. It wouldn't, in fact, have lasted longer than the lives of the first few early disciples. But the chaos of Pentecost did occur, and the church did not split. The opposite happened - it grew. And in fact, the Christian church has a long history of differences and various voices that, throughout its history, no doubt gave its members reasons for concern: the differences between the disciples later on when it came to Jews and Gentiles, the split between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Catholic churches, the division that led to the birth of the Protestant churches. Anybody looking at any one of these times of conflict in the church would have thought: this is going to split the church. And yes, various groups went their own way, but in doing so, the church was renewed - it grew bigger and spread to more people. Why? Because God was there, continuing to send the Holy Spirit to bring the resurrection of Christ into the midst of the church and its people.

On the day of Pentecost, the Easter resurrection was inaugurated by the Holy Spirit in one great, noisy mess of new life. It was chaotic. It was diverse. It was disorderly. But it was also godly. And it may be what is going on in our churches right now - chaos, diversity, disorderliness, and God. I'm not 100% sure of that, and I know it sounds odd to hear a pastor say that from the pulpit, but I'm not. The Bible does, after all, paint a pretty clear picture of God favouring order and uniformity. On the other hand, though, it is equally clear that in the past, God has been in the midst of chaos and that diversity has been a sign of new life, not death. It is clear that when the Holy Spirit blows, window shutters bang, people's hair flies about their faces, dirt gets swirled up, and people freak out. It is chaotic. It is diverse. It is disorderly. And it is also godly. Pentecost was God bringing new life to the church, and that is something that God never stops doing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Sun, May 8, 2005 - God Knows Their Name

Acts 1:6-14

Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

John 17:1-11

"When the apostles entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers."

On Friday night I saw a powerful play called Vacancy. It was about the 69 women - prostitutes - who went missing in Vancouver over the last 15 years - you know, the ones who police think were murdered by the Picton pig farmer. Well, towards the end of the play, there was this scene when we, the audience, had to say the refrain to a particular poem that one of the characters was reciting. The refrain was "What a shame, they didn't have a name." And when the character talked about these prostitutes - hookers - and the lives they lived, and how they were drug addicts and were abandoned on the streets, and how nobody wanted them in their neighbourhood, and how nobody cared that they had even gone missing, every so often, we had to say, "What a shame, they didn't have a name." By the end of the poem, you really got the sense that these missing people were one big group of nameless women - they all fit under the category of "Missing Sex-Trade Workers." They were just sort of there, all in one lump. Sure you felt sorry for them, but in a vague kind of way - after all, we didn't really know any of them, or know their names, or their stories, or where they came from, or even what they looked like. So it was easy to feel sorry for them in that generalized "isn't the world crummy" kind of way. And it was easy to not want to do anything about the situation - since it wasn't like we knew them or anything.

But then, just when the play was ending, and we were ready to leave, thinking "well, that was kind of depressing, but oh well, what can you do," the actors all came on stage and started reciting the names of the 69 missing women. And it was overwhelming. The names went on and on and it hit us all that these women weren't one big group of women, they were individuals - people like you and me. They all were once children, like you and me, they all had their likes and dislikes, the little things that they did when they first woke up, the particular way they liked their coffee. They had their friends and they had the co-workers they couldn't stand. They had jobs, and they liked and disliked their jobs the way you and I do. These women - this big group of "Missing Sex-Trade Workers" was not just one big homogenous group, they weren't just a group of statistics and numbers - they were sixty-nine individuals, sixty-nine human beings, who went missing and were murdered. And that made the whole thing very different. With the readings of the names of these women, the whole thing became very personal. And we - or at least, I - really started to care about what had happened to them. Of course, there really is nothing to be done now about that situation, but it made me wonder about all those other people in life whom we walk by and lump into one big homogenous group - all those other people whom we never see as individuals.

You see, it is all-too-easy in our society for us to depersonalize people. On a very regular basis, we lump people into categories as ways of making them easier to deal with, as ways to avoid having to think about them too much. When we walk by someone on the street who's asking for change, that's a bum, a beggar, a panhandler - that's not a person with a name, with a mother who loves him and wonders every day what happened to him. When we see a teenager on the bus with her toddler, that's a teenage mom, a kid who shouldn't have been having sex, an irresponsible youth- that's not a girl with a name, who worries about what the best food for her baby is. When somebody cuts in front of us on the road, that's a crazy driver, a jerk who shouldn't be on the road, a perpetrator of road-rage, that's not a person with a name, who worries about his parents and his children.

We lump people we don't agree with into categories - those soft-hearted liberals, those red-neck conservatives, those out-of-control kids, those out-of-it seniors, those bums on welfare, those fat-cat CEOs - we could create any number of categories to put people in, we could use any number of ways to avoid looking at people as individuals, as humans just like you and me. And I'm sure I don't need to tell you that this is not right. This is not the way we are meant to live in the world - this is definitely not loving our neighbour as ourselves. We know our names. We should know theirs, too.

"When the apostles entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers."

Jesus would certainly have known the names of the "certain women" who were gathered upstairs with Peter and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. And that's because Jesus saw people as individuals, as humans, as unique creations of God whom he was sent to love and heal and redeem. He knew the names of Mary Magdalene and of Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward, the first people to witness his resurrection. He knew the name of the woman he healed who had been crippled for eighteen years, although we don't. He knew the names of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, he knew the names of the twelve-year old girl he healed, and the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years, even though we don't. He knew the name of the woman who knelt in front of him and washed his feet with her hair, and he knew the name of Susanna, one of the women who went with him on his journeys. He knew the name of Simon Peter's mother, whom he healed, although we don't. And he knew all the names of these "certain women" because his Father knew them.

You see, God knows the names of all God's children. God knows your name, and my name. God knows the name of the guy asking for money, the name of the teenage mom, the name of the aggressive driver. God knows the names of each one of the soft-hearted liberals, the red-necked conservatives, the out-of-control kids, the out-of-it seniors, the bums on welfare, and the fat-cat CEOs. God knows each person's name, and more. "O Lord, you have searched me and known me," say the words of Psalm 139. "You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely." God knows each one of you intimately - your likes and your dislikes, your strengths and your weaknesses, your moments of compassion and your moments of prejudice. And God loves you. To God, you are none of you just part of a group. To God, you along with those you love and those you hate are individuals with names, called and loved and saved.

"When the apostles entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers."

"What a shame, they didn't have a name." But they did have names, and we are called, as God's named children, and as followers of Christ, to learn their names and the names of others. What I mean is, we are called to see those around us as humans, just like us, as individuals with hopes and dreams, and disappointments and frustrations. It's not always easy, and we don't always want to, but we are called to stop depersonalizing people, we are called to live counter to a culture that would just reduce people to categories.

Fortunately, we can do that because God has done it for us. God doesn't categorize us, but knows and loves each person as an individual. To God, each person is infinitely special and unique, and just as a mother knows the names of each of her children, the same is true of God. God knows the names of all the disciples, God knows the names of the "certain women," God knows the names of the missing sex-trade workers, and God knows your name, too. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Sun, May 1 - Do The Right Thing

Acts 17:22-31

Psalm 66:7-18

1 Peter 3:13-22

John 14:15-21

Well, if there's a theme to today's readings, it's gotta be "Do the right thing." In our Prayer of the Day, you heard me pray that the Spirit would inspire us to "think those things which are right, and by [God's] goodness help us to do them." In the reading from Acts, we heard Paul's warning to repent, to stop doing the wrong thing, because the day is coming when God will send Jesus to judge the world. The first letter of Peter, our second reading, is full of "do what is right, keep your conscience clear, do good" commands, and in our Gospel, Jesus says, "keep my commandments." (Which, by the way, is the commandment of Maundy Thursday - to love our neighbour as Jesus has loved us.) There isn't anyone who could look at these readings and think, oh well, I'll just do what I feel like, I'll just do what I want. Nope - the readings are pretty clear: do the right thing.

Now that would be all fine and dandy if doing the right thing was easy. But it isn't always. Sometimes it's incredibly difficult even to know what's the right and good thing to do. For instance, everybody knows that smoking is bad for you. And when you see a child smoking, it's easy to know what to do - you take the cigarettes away from them and make them stop. But what if the person smoking is an adult? On the one hand, the right thing to do is to get them to quit smoking. On the other hand, that person is an adult and capable of making their own decisions, and the right thing to do is to respect them and affirm their capacity for responsible decision-making by saying nothing. Which option is the "doing good" one?

Or what about giving money to people on the street? On the one hand, the right thing to do is to give them money so they can buy some food so that they don't starve. On the other hand, they might not buy food - in fact, they might buy alcohol or drugs, and it is definitely not right to help them do that. But then, back to the first hand, the right thing to do is to avoid stereotyping and risk giving them money in case they really do need it for food. Of course, back to the other hand... you can see that the arguments could go back and forth for quite some time. So which is the loving and good and right thing to do?

Or, my final example, what if you have a senior parent who is very ill and requires around-the-clock care, but you have your own children and a full-time job to look after? Do you put your parent in a nursing facility, where they're separated from their loving and caring family, but receive good medical care? Or do you take them into your home, where they will be among family, but where your children will receive less of your attention and your work will suffer because you're tired all the time? There's no easy answer - there's no automatic "here's the right thing to do, the thing that will show that you're a good Christian." There's plenty of room for doing the wrong thing.

And for most of us, this fear of doing the wrong thing provokes a tremendous amount of anxiety in us. How do I know what the right thing is? And what if I mistakenly do the wrong thing? What if I don't follow Jesus' commandments, and what if what I'm doing isn't loving my neighbour? What if I hurt somebody while I'm trying to do the right thing? What if God turns away from me because I didn't make the right decision?

Well, Peter and the writers of the Gospel of John offer us some reassurance by telling us that, in fact, we do not make these decisions on our own. That actually, we have a conscience which guides us to do what's right. Peter actually uses the word "conscience," but what Peter's getting at is what we call, in church-speak, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, otherwise known as the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Helper, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Lord - this Spirit, sent by God on account of Jesus, helps us to make the right decisions and to keep Jesus' commandments. It helps us to love our neighbour. And, it lets us know when we're not. It's the GPS unit that beeps at us when we're going off-track. It's the compass that shows us which way is north.

But sometimes, on occasions like in my first few examples, the Spirit seems hard to find and hard to hear. We don't always know what decision the Spirit would have us make because, let's face it, the days of direct revelation are pretty much over. Very few of us actually "hear" the voice of God telling us to do something - I know I've never literally "heard" a word from God. I've felt nudges here, and faint leanings there, but it's never clear. And in fact, we ought to be wary of those who claim to hear, in a pronounced and distinguishable fashion, the word of God for all people. The Holy Spirit doesn't generally inspire people that way. It gives us operating principles, such as killing is bad and love is good, but it doesn't usually get down to specifics.

Which is downright frustrating, if you ask me. How are we supposed to do the right thing if we can't hear the Holy Spirit speaking to us? What can we do to get the Holy Spirit to inspire us more clearly? Where can we go to find this Helper who will guide us? The answers aren't clear, but what does start happening when we ask these questions, when we don't hear the Spirit all that clearly, is that we think that the problem must be us. We're not listening hard enough, or we're not spiritually disciplined enough - that's why we don't know what the right thing to do is. And so we make the effort to listen harder, to pray more, to read the Bible as often as possible, to search out those deep and meaningful spiritual experiences and retreats. But, the thing is, those things just aren't likely to work. Not because those things are bad - they're not bad, if you don't do any of them, I encourage you to start. But when I say that they're not likely to work, it's because none of the things we do to get closer to God are going to help us.

Yup, you've guessed it by now - the desire to do the right thing, the striving to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, to become more spiritual - all these things can far too easily become works that we do, and not something that God does for us. When we struggle to do the right thing, and suffer and crucify ourselves trying to make the right decision, we are forgetting that no suffering or death of ourselves can replace the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. That doesn't mean we aren't to deny ourselves and put others first, but we aren't to carry it so far that our own self-denial overshadows what has been done through Christ. It's not our job to replace what Christ has already done. When we agonize over our choices, and God tells us to live and choose the easier path, which God sometimes does, we aren't to deny God's gift of life to us and instead choose the more difficult path. We aren't, to be blunt, to carry the fate of the world or our work or our family on our backs. That is God's responsibility.

So how do we get on the right track? How do we go about living a life of doing the right thing while allowing God to be in control of the whole affair? We go back to baptism. And in baptism, we are reminded that God does the most important things for us. In baptism, we are drowned in the water as a reminder that God sent Jesus to die so that our sins would be wiped out and we would be reconciled to God. And then we are raised out of that water just as God raised the dead Jesus and gave him new life so that we, too, could have new life and trust in the hope of life over death. "Baptism... now saves you," writes Peter in his letter, "as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." In baptism, God sends the Holy Spirit, your conscience, the Advocate and Helper, to be God's ongoing presence and love for you, among you, abiding in you. Notice how that works - we don't actually do any of the things in baptism that save us - God does them. You don't need to go out searching for the Spirit, or working to make your ears listen harder - God actually sends the Spirit to you, to live in you, to speak clearly to your inner voice.

So, to go back to the beginning, how do we do the right thing? How do we know how to love, do right and good when it's not obvious? We don't. Not for sure. But the Holy Spirit working in us does. And that means that when it come to tough decisions, we make the best decision that we can, and then we do two things. First, we trust that God is working in us through the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus Christ promised God would. In fact, our psalm for today spoke to that when we sung, "Bless our God, you peoples... who holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip." So that's the first thing we do - trust that God is actually working good through and in us. And the second thing we do is that when we've gotten off-track (an inevitability for us), we remember that we are still loved and forgiven because of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection.

We don't need to be fearful or anxious or afraid that we're not making the right choice. Peter says it outright, in fact, "Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated." God will not strike us down with lightening for being wrong. We do not have to fear. Instead, we are called simply to put our hope and trust in God, who loves us, and who accomplishes good and through us does the right thing. Amen.<