Sunday, August 28, 2005

Sun, August 28, 2005 - Overcome Evil with Good

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

"Do not repay anyone evil for evil... but overcome evil with good."

I’m sure you’ve all heard about Pat Robertson and his infamous comments this week. For those of you who haven’t, Pat Robertson is the founder of the Christian Coalition of America - he’s a heavyweight among the conservative Christians in the States. And, on Monday, this prominent Christian directly advocated for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Later he said that he was misunderstood by the press and then he apologized, but Robertson actually did say that since the US was being accused of plotting to assassinate Chavez, they might as well go ahead and do it. Now, I don’t know what Robertson’s reasons were for saying this - but I do know that his comments fly in the face of everything that Paul is trying to teach us today, and they are downright unChristian. They are, however, in sync with today’s culture of retribution and revenge, where we turn to violence in an attempt to suppress the evil in the world.

This culture is something that we’re experiencing in Toronto, with devastating shootings and murders on pretty much a daily basis. People somehow seem to think that the best way to avenge a hurt or wrong done to them is to go out and shoot the person who hurt them. Shootings pile up on top of shootings, violence upon violence, revenge upon revenge, until we are left with a city that is hurt and bleeding.

But we shouldn’t be surprised that that’s how people today are solving their problems. After all, what examples do we have for confronting evil? - We have the eminent role model of the President of the United States who is determined to wipe out the evil of terrorism by violent means. We have television shows that lift up violent confrontation as the way to solve evil - shows like Jerry Springer - you may laugh, but there are other shows, too. Can you recall the last time you saw a show where the conflict was solved by talking? Where the evil was overcome by good?

And it’s not only the television that gives us these ideas, but there’s video games, too. Now, the majority of us here don’t play violent video games, but I bet you know people who do - either your kids or your grandkids. And we may turn a blind eye to those games, and think they’re harmless, but games that perpetrate violence - where you can kill your enemies with handguns or machine guns or grenades or by beating them over the head with a bat - those games are evil, even when the so-called enemies are bad guys. And the evil and violence of these games comes out in real life. The American Psychological Association just released a report that clearly links playing violent video games to aggressive thoughts, behaviours, and angry feelings among youth. The reports says that "Showing violent acts without consequences teaches youth that violence is an effective means of resolving conflict."

But before we get up on our high horse about gangs and youth culture and violent media, we must a look at the moments of evil in our own lives. We all have those moments that we succumb to, moments that don’t necessarily seem evil, but certainly aren’t good. Moments when people make us mad and we swear at them - I’m particularly thinking of driving on the highway here - or moments when someone cuts in front of us in line and we mutter things under our breath at them that aren’t very nice, to put it mildly. Moments when, if someone has been especially hurtful, we badmouth them to our friends and acquaintances. All of us have moments when we nurse a fervent hope that the people who’ve hurt us get what’s coming to them.

But the Bible teaches us, very clearly, that it is not up to us to exact retribution and revenge. That’s left to God. All three of our readings are quite emphatic about that. In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Jeremiah, who has been attacked and betrayed by his own people, even his own family, prays that God would "remember me and visit me, and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors." He doesn’t take it on himself to pay them back, but waits for God to do it. And then there’s Paul in the letter to the Romans. "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord"." Again - we aren’t to make an assault on evil ourselves - we’re supposed to wait for God to do it. And lastly, of course, there’s Jesus himself, who reassures his disciples that "the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done." So we know that, whatever evil and wrong we see in the world, that has been done to us or to others, God is going to take care of it. God is going to come in wrath and vengeance and repay and overcome the evil and violence of the world.

So what is this day of judgement going to look like? Well, books like the Left Behind series would have you believe that it’s full of smoke and blood and even more violence. Writers like Dante would have you believe that God’s wrath takes the form of sending evil people off to the fiery pits of hell where they experience exactly the agony they inflicted on their victims, but a thousand times more painful. But is that what’s really going to happen?

Ah, well, the funny thing about God is that God never works the way we think God should. And this is no exception. We get a hint that God might be doing something different in the payback department when Paul says to the Romans, "bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.... "If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink."
And then we have Jesus’ quote from Matthew, "he will repay everyone for what has been done." There’s another place in the Bible where we hear that verse, and it comes from Psalm 62:12. The psalmist, talking to God says, "for you repay all according to their work." But just before that, we read, "Steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord."

In fact, as it turns out, God’s method of payback, of ultimate retribution, of overcoming evil is the way of steadfast love. In God’s ultimate bid to overcome evil, God doesn’t drop the theological bomb on us, dooming us all to hell. That would never work - we know, we see daily, that violence and force can never truly take away evil. The cycle never stops. Genocides lead to more genocides, murder to more murder, hatred to more hatred. So instead, God takes the opposite path. God takes on the frail and vulnerable body of a human in the person of Jesus Christ, and even then he doesn’t go around leading military coups and hunting down bad guys and punishing them like a vigilante. No, he gets up on the cross and he dies. Motivated by love and a desire to save the world - the whole world, including all the evil, violent people - he overcomes evil with good. That’s how God gives people what’s coming to them, that’s how God overcame the cycle of violence - by committing the ultimate act of good - by loving us to death. After all, how do you pay someone back for loving you? How do you exact revenge on someone who died for you? There’s not way to do it - the cycle is broken.

We are called to follow this same path of overcoming evil with good. As Jesus said to his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." But, just in case you think that only Jesus is capable of doing something like this - of responding to evil with good, I want to tell you two stories about regular people who were, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, able to do this.
The first story is very recent, it only just happened last week. Last Wednesday, in the Taize community, an inter-denominational community in France, the community’s leader, Brother Roger, was stabbed and killed by a woman in the middle of the service. You can imagine how shocking and appalling that must have been for the community, and how they must have felt towards the woman who murdered Brother Roger, but at his funeral, the words came forward, "With Christ on the cross we say to you, Father, forgive her, she does not know what she did." Their beloved leader was killed before their eyes, but they did not avenge his death, nor did they curse the woman who killed him. Instead, they prayed for her forgiveness - they blessed and did not curse. They sought to overcome evil with good.

The second story is similar, although a couple of years older. This, too, was a case of murder, but instead of a 90-year old man who was murdered, it was a 17-yr old, Jason Lang, who was shot and killed by his 14-yr old classmate at school in Taber, Alberta. It got a lot of coverage, and that coverage was renewed recently when the classmate ran away from a Toronto half-way house. But what has not received as much coverage, but which is most important for us today, is the response of Jason’s father, Dale Lang. At the memorial service for his son, Rev. Lang - yes, he is an Anglican priest - but nevertheless, at the memorial service less than a week after he lost his soon, he prayed and "asked God to bless the family of the 14-yr-old boy accused of the shooting, and for the boy himself." And, he and his wife have continued to pray regularly for the murderer of their son since the shooting. They, too, have chosen not to avenge their son’s death, nor to curse the one who persecuted them. Instead, they have chosen to bless him, and they have chosen to overcome evil with good.

Which means that there is hope when it comes to ending the presence of evil in the world. When we choose to overcome evil with good, instead of evil, we are doing the same work that Jesus did on the cross. When we bless people under our breath instead of cursing them, when we speak well of them to others, when we feed our enemies and give them something to drink, and most importantly, when we pray that they get what’s coming to them - that is, the grace and forgiveness of God, when we do all these things, we are invoking the same power that defeated the power of evil, that broke the cycle of violence, that proclaimed that in the end, life has the victory. No, that doesn’t bring back the people who’ve died, or make right the wrongs that have been done to you, but it does, over time, change the world so that one day there will be no more reason for payback or revenge. And when the Son of Man comes and repays everyone for what has been done, grace and forgiveness will be everyone’s reward, and peace will abound forevermore. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Sun, August 21, 2005 - The Work of the Church

Isaiah 51:1-6
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

So. "On this rock I will build my church." What is this church that Jesus is building? "We, who are many, are one body in Christ." What does it mean that we are one body? What, in short, is the meaning and purpose of the Christ’s church?

Well, Jesus gives the church a purpose straight off the bat - "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven," he says to Peter, "and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." These are odd words - binding and loosing but what Jesus is saying, essentially, is that he is giving the church the authority to decide what is to be forbidden and what is to be permitted - what is to be bound and what is to be loosed - on earth, and he is saying that whatever decision that church makes here on earth will be respected and followed in heaven. That is terrifying, overwhelming power, don’t you think? That the church should have the power to make decisions that, up until now, have only been made by God? No wonder Paul prays in Romans that the church "may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect."

But this work of forbidding and permitting that the church is to do doesn’t have as its goal the condemnation of the world - the upholding of the law. Rather, its goal is to proclaim the love of God in Christ Jesus in word and deed. You see, in the verse immediately following our New Testament reading for today, Paul says, "let love be genuine... love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour." The goal of the church in forbidding and permitting things on earth, the work that the church is to discern from the will of God, is the work of love. The work of showing God’s love to the world.

And Paul lays out that the church is to do this in several ways, according to the gifts given to its members. The work of the church is to be carried out in prophecy - that is, in speaking out when we see evil in the world, and speaking words of hope when we encounter despair. The work of the church is to be carried out in ministering - that is in serving others in need, in their poverty, their sickness, their isolation. The work of the church is to be carried out in teaching - something that needs no explanation, and in exhortation - in unceasing encouragement of the disheartened and disillusioned based on the resurrection of Christ. The work of the church, the work of love, is to be carried out in giving - in being generous with money, resources, goods, time, in leading - equipping people with the tools they need to do what is right and guiding them in that work, and finally in being compassionate - in showing God’s mercy to all people, especially when they fail.

Now that’s a tremendous amount of work for the church to do. This work of love that God calls the church to is no simple task. But it is the task that the church is set to do, and we are each one of us called to take part in that work. Yup, this is not some task for "the church " out there to carry through, but a task for each one of us here today, for each one of us who have been baptized into the body of Christ that we call the church. "So we, who are many, are one body in Christ," says Paul, "and individually we are members of one another." "For just as the body is one and has many members," he repeats again in 1 Corinthians, "all the members of the body, though many, are one body." Any call extended to the church is a call that is personally extended to each one of us.

And this isn’t a call we can just ignore, because it comes to us individually in baptism, when we receive the Holy Spirit and become a member of the family of God. And, lest we forget, every Sunday we are reminded of this call when the assisting minister exhorts - encourages and calls - us to "Go in peace, serve the Lord." We are called, over and over again, to take part in the work of the church, both inside these walls and outside of them, everywhere we go, proclaiming the love of God for all people.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I frequently find that call overwhelming. There is so much work for the church to do, and it can be such hard work, that I don’t always respond the way I should. More often than not, my response is one of reluctance, or fear, or sometimes both. I know, though, that I’m not the only one who responds this way. I have good company in people like Peter. Peter, the rock, to whom the call was first extended was at first reluctant - when Jesus told him that his work would lead him to the cross, Peter’s reluctance was so strong that he actually tried to forbid Jesus from his path. And when Jesus showed that he meant to follow through on his plan, to die for the world, Peter got frightened, ran away and refused to take part in what was happening.

We have similar reactions when we’re invited to participate in the work of the church. When someone calls us to this work, we’re reluctant, "Well, I’m kind of busy. I don’t really have the time." We don’t want to take on anything new because we’re afraid that if we do one small thing, we’ll end up having to do everything. We’re reluctant and we’re afraid. "I can’t do this work, what if people find out I’m incompetent? What if people find out that I’m a bad Christian? That I have no gifts? What if I screw it up and the church blames me for failing? Surely there must be somebody better than me to do that." We’re afraid that we’ll be exposed as being unqualified not only for the work, but unqualified even to be a member of the body of Christ. Our reluctance and fear get in the way of us not only saying yes to the work of love that the church is called to do, but also in the way of us being joyful and enthusiastic when we do say yes.

But God has a response to our reluctance and fear. And that is to remind us of the gifts that God has given us to accomplish this work. You see, God doesn’t call God’s people without equipping them to answer that call. And so in our baptism, in addition to receiving the call to love, we are also given gifts, or tools if you will, to carry out that work. And everybody gets their own specific tool. "To each are given the manifestation of the Spirit," says Paul. To each. Each one of you has been given the Spirit, manifested in a particular way, so that each one of you can help. The tools are all different, nobody gets exactly the same one - but Paul helpfully lays out a list for us of what some of them are - the gift of prophecy, of faith, of ministering, of teaching, of exhortation, of generosity, of diligence, of cheerfulness, and of course, there are others, too. But every single one of you has one of these gifts.

And that is great news for us as a group. For one thing, it means that, none of us is alone in carrying out the work of the church, but for another thing, it means that none of us has to be good at everything. At Shepherd Lodge, where one of our shut-ins is, there’s a sign posted outside of the elevators on the main floor, and every time I get off the elevator I read: "Noone can do everything, but everyone can do something." You see, we are none of us called to carry out the work of the church all by ourselves. We are all given different gifts so that we can work together, each person helping with a different part. Even pastors and leaders of the church aren’t given all the gifts at the same time. Not even we can carry out the work of the church by ourself. "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit," says Paul, and then he adds, "for the common good." We aren’t given gifts so that we can go off and do our own little thing, but so that we can work together to help one another and to be helped by one another in the work of the church.

You see, God designed the church so that each one of us needs and is needed by each other in order to answer God’s call. Paul likens the church to a body. "Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many," he says. "If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body." The gift that God has given you, even though you might think it small and not worth much, is vitally important to the church’s work. "If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members of the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? . . . The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable." Every single one of us is necessary and vital to this work of love that we are called to carry out, and fortunately, none of us is called to do this work alone.

Not even Peter. You see, a little while after Jesus gives such great authority and privilege to Peter, he then goes on to say the same thing to the disciples. "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Peter isn’t meant to do the work of the church alone, to discern by himself the best way to loose God’s love on the world. The rest of the disciples are commissioned and given gifts along with him, so that together they can give each other aid and encouragement, and use their varied gifts to carry out the work of the church. And, guess what, God does the same with us.
God has extended a tremendous call to the church to proclaim God’s love in the world, but God does not call us to the work of the church without first equipping us, and God does not call us to carry out this work alone.

I want to encourage you now to sit for a minute and think of what gift God has given you for this important work. What has God given you to help the church in proclaiming Christ’s redeeming work of love for the world? Maybe it is the gift of hospitality - of making people feel at home among the people of God. Maybe it is the gift of construction - of building and repairing the physical structures that shelter the church. It might be as specific as being able to perfectly balance a chequebook on the first try, or as general as being good with children. What is the gift that God has specifically given you? I’ll give you a minute to think about it, and please don’t feel you need to be humble. [pause] And now, I’m going to ask you to write down that gift on a scrap of paper, maybe the back of the bulletin - I think there are pencils in the back of the pew in front of you - and if you are feeling bold, you might even write down your name. I’ll wait while you write it down. [pause] And then, when the time comes for the offering and the plate comes around, I’m going to ask you to put that paper in the plate as a way to offer your gift back to God, as something the church can use in carrying out the work it’s called to do. And finally, I encourage you, knowing that when it comes to the work of the church you are both called and equipped, both valued and vital, to seek out opportunities where you can use that gift - not waiting to be asked, not reluctant or afraid, not hoping that somebody else will do it instead of you, but joyfully, trusting that the Spirit is working through you to carry out this work of love, here, within this congregation, and beyond these walls in the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Sun, August 14, 2005 - Actions/Faith

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Matthew 15:10-28

Oh, dear, this gospel reading doesn’t paint the most flattering picture of Jesus, does it? It starts out well - Jesus tells the disciples that, essentially, you can’t judge a book by its cover. He tells them that a person isn’t defined by their outward behaviour, but by the intentions of their hearts. Just before our reading for today, Jesus gets down on the Pharisees for being so strict about what they and others eat, but not caring in their hearts about the well-being of the elderly. He wants them, and the disciples, and us, to understand that there is no room for that kind of hypocrisy in the life of a believer - that we can’t pick on others for their outward behaviour when, although our outward actions may be perfect, we harbour ill-will and evil towards others. It’s a good message from Jesus, one that is important for us to hear.

But then what does Jesus go and do? After telling people that it’s their inside and not their outside that counts? Well, Jesus first ignores and then downright insults a Canaanite woman who comes to him seeking God’s healing. Now, this is a very hard story, and its difficult for us to face what is going on here - we’d rather get to the end where Jesus heals the woman’s daughter - but the ugly truth of this story is that, initially, Jesus is being a hypocrite. He’s just finished condemning the Pharisees for their behaviour and then he goes and does the same thing. He judges a Canaanite woman - judges her to be unworthy of receiving a blessing from God - simply because she was born in Canaan and not in Israel. It’s true, Canaanites aren’t considered followers of God according to the Jews; thousands of years of tradition and Scriptural interpretation back Jesus up when he calls this woman a dog and tells her she’s second-class, or even third-class, to the Israelites. Jesus is well within the accepted bounds of behaviour to refuse to share God’s healing with her. But Jesus has, up to this point, made it very clear that the accepted bounds of behaviour are not acceptable to God. Jesus has made it clear that refusing God’s grace to people because they are "unworthy" is actually unacceptable. And then he goes and does it himself. It is, frankly, appalling.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus was fully divine, but he was also fully human, and we humans are really good at being hypocritical. Especially as Christians. We claim to follow a God of justice and grace, who teaches us that even the unworthy are worthy of God’s love, and then we act in ways that deny that justice and that exclude people from that grace. We claim that God has made us stewards of creation, and then we drive gas-guzzling SUVs and turn up the air-conditioning in our homes, poisoning the air that God has given us to share. We claim that Christ is in the poor and hungry who are before us, and then we throw food away and walk by the beggars on the street. We claim that God loves all peoples on earth and commands us to work for equality, and then we turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the racism in our own backyards. We claim to follow the way of peace, and then we speak words of payback, getting even, retaliation, and we make excuses for our actions on the basis of tradition, Scripture, and accepted bounds of behaviour. But let’s be clear: we do not live out our faith-life with integrity - all too often, our actions contradict our professed faith.

So what does God do with all of our hypocrisy? Well, thanks be to God, God sends the Holy Spirit, who confronts us when our actions contradict our faith, who points out very clearly when we fail to we live out our faith with integrity and grace towards others, and who then moves us to change.

We see the Spirit doing all this when the Canaanite woman confronts Jesus. Not only once, not even twice, but three times the woman considered unworthy to receive the blessing of God petitions Jesus. She calls to him, she follows him, and then she kneels before him, and after he rejects her for a third time, reminds him that God is so generous and provides God’s people with so much that there is more than enough to share with others. "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table." And that does it for Jesus. The Holy Spirit has somehow prompted this unworthy woman to proclaim the Gospel to the Son of God himself, and then the Holy Spirit moves Jesus to hear the truth of her words. And so Jesus says, "Woman, great is your faith!" and he instantly heals her daughter. By the power of the Holy Spirit, this woman’s faith is so great - greater than Peter’s faith last week, greater than Jesus’ faith a few minutes earlier, greater than even our own faith - it is so great that Jesus is inspired by it and, in response, spreads God’s grace farther than apparently even he thought it could go.

So who are the Spirit-inspired people that God sends our way? Who are the "unworthy" who confront us when we don’t live out our faith the way we should? Well, having just come from the Synod Youth Gathering, I can tell you that the young people today are definitely some of those whom the Spirit is using. Yes, they’re young, and inexperienced, and naive, and idealistic, and occasionally even badly behaved. Yes, they speak without thinking and are sometimes disrespectful. Yes, thousands of years of tradition and even Scripture tells us that they don’t deserve a real voice in the community until they’re adults, but even so... Even so, the Holy Spirit is using these kids to confront us with our hypocrisy. They’re confronting us on issues of racism, sexism, classism. They’re asking how we as a church, who claim to follow Jesus Christ, can allow poverty to continue, how we can discriminate against sexual minorities, how we can be so lacking in integrity in our faith lives. They notice all the ways our actions contradict our faith, and they challenge us on it. They’re doing it directly, by telling us what they think, but they’re also doing it indirectly, protesting our actions by leaving the church. We might ignore them, or reject them, or even insult them as Jesus did to the Canaanite woman, but that won’t shut them up. Nothing can shut Spirit-inspired people up. And in the end, just as the Canaanite woman prompted Jesus to bring his actions back into harmony with his faith, they will do the same to us.

Because just as the Holy Spirit is working among the youth, opening their eyes and giving them prophetic voices, the Holy Spirit is also at work among us, among you. The Spirit is at work, radically reintegrating your faith and your actions so that you are as true to your proclamation of the gospel as Jesus ended up being. The Holy Spirit is reshaping your heart to notice those moments when your actions contradict your faith, and is moving you to act with integrity and love. The Spirit is opening your eyes to see injustice, and moving you to correct it. Daily, the Spirit is placing in your path people - like the Canaanite woman - who desperately need a word of grace, and the Spirit is moving you to proclaim it to them. The Holy Spirit is teaching you how to live out your faith, and helping you to do it.

Now, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, but it’s always good to have a reminder: God isn’t doing this so that we’ll be nice people whom everybody will love. We are not the point of the Holy Spirit doing all this work in the world. God is doing this so that, as Isaiah tells us in the first reading, God’s "salvation will come, and [God’s] deliverance be revealed." God is sending the Holy Spirit to confront us when our faith-based actions are hypocritical, and God is working with the Holy Spirit to change us because God has promised God would. This radical reintegration of our actions and our faith, brought about by the Holy Spirit, is the beginning of the salvation and deliverance that God promised so long ago. And even though our outward actions show we don’t deserve it, and even though our inward inclinations show we’re not worthy of it, God, through the Holy Spirit, is bringing us to the righteous living that God has demanded and promised, and God is using us to make real the kingdom of heaven here on earth. So may God send us people like the Canaanite woman to challenge our hypocrisy, and may God then direct our responses to be as grace-filled as Jesus’, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.