Thursday, September 29, 2005
Which is, after all, the point of today - to celebrate your love and commitment - surrounded by your family and friends, and most importantly, to do so before God. As much as today is about the two of you, and your love for one another, the church ceremony part is also about God's love for the two of you, and God's commitment to you.
You see, God is at the root of your love for each other, whether you recognize it or not. You love because God first loved you. You are able to love intensely and passionately because that is how God loves you. You are able to stand here today before your family and friends and before God and make a life-long commitment to one another because God has already made that commitment to you. God brought the two of you together, and will stand by you as you go forward in marriage, strengthening and upholding your relationship, because of God's incredible love for you.
Which is a good thing because the love that you are called to in marriage, the love that you are committing to always having for one another, can be a challenge. Carlo read that "love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends." That's a lot! And although today I know you feel like it is a piece of cake, and you will have no problem promising to love each other that way forever, there will one day be a time when you'll be arguing over who does more housework, or where to spend the holidays, and this kind of love will seem far away. But, because God's love for you is the root of your love for each other, you will be able to overcome those differences and continue to fulfill your promises to each other.
You see, your love for each other is a reflection and conduit of God's love for you, and being open to each other's love opens you up to God's love for you, and vice versa. The best analogy I could come up with for how your love in marriage and God's love for you works together is to say that it is a positive feed-back loop. Now, forgive me if I get the feedback idea wrong, since I'm not the engineer here, but it's a little like this: the more open you are to God's love for you, the more you love each other. And the more you love each other, the more open you become to God's love for you. It is a cycle where the love between the two of you and God continues to increase and build each time around.
And in the end, what happens is that all of this love spills out into the world around you. A marriage blessed by God not only increases the love between the two of you, but it also increases the love you have for the rest of the world, for your family, your friends, your neighbours. And that's what counts, in the long run. Not how successful you are, how much money you make, or how great your jobs are, but how much you share your love with those around you. And that's how I know that God is already blessing you, because you're already doing this. The feedback loop has already started.
Sandro and Andrea, I know that I am only one of many who is thrilled and proud to be celebrating this day with you. Today you are committing to a life-long partnership of love, and you are receiving God's blessing on that partnership. You are already off to a great start. So I have just one wish for you, as you start your new life together: May your love in every way become more and more a reflection of God's love for you, passionate, committed, and without end. Amen.
Sunday, September 18, 2005
I once heard a story about a pastor who assigned a huge project for his confirmation students. It was based on the Small Catechism and the Bible, and it was the year-end project, and if the students didn’t get a passing grade on it, they wouldn’t be confirmed. So students, and their parents, drove themselves nuts trying to get it done, parents driving around town to get the appropriate materials and staying up until midnight with their kids just trying to get it finished. You know how it is when your kids have a huge school project. So the day came when they all had to hand in their projects, and they all gathered in the church confirmation room, and without even looking at the projects, the pastor said to the students, and to their listening parents, "That’s fine. You all get an A."
Can you imagine?!? Now this actually happened - this is a true story - but can you imagine? Some of the parents were actually quite angry - they were the ones who had driven their kids around town and stayed up half the night. Some of the students were quite relieved - the ones who hadn’t put much effort into it and didn’t care much about confirmation anyway.
But, really, can you blame the pastor? Was there any better way for him to convey the whole concept of justification and grace than by doing this? Was there any more concrete way of explaining the parable that we heard today than this?
Now, I have to be honest - as wonderful and gracious and oh-yay-isn’t-it-nice as today’s parable is, I’m not sure how much I would like it in real life. After all, I was one of those kids who used to hate group projects - it drove me nuts that everybody in the group got the same mark, but not everybody did the same amount of work. I was always the keener - the one who wanted the A, and so I was always the one who put in the most work, and picked up for people when they dropped the ball, and it just ticked me off that other people in the group, who did pretty much nothing, would get the same mark as me.
So really, when it comes down to it, I can identify with the grumbling workers who had slaved away all day only to be upstaged by the johnny-come-latelies. I know why they were upset that the others got paid the same amount as them when they had gotten up early to get ready for work and stayed out all day in the sun.
I can identify with Jonah, from our Old Testament reading, who was resentful that the violent, morally-challenged, atheist residents of Nineveh were about to be saved by God. I can understand why he took off in the opposite direction from Nineveh, boarded a boat, and then tried to drown himself rather than bring God’s mercy to such an undeserving bunch.
And I’m pretty darn sure that I’m not alone. Who of you hasn’t been annoyed, however much you might try to suppress it, when someone who put in fewer hours than you got the same Christmas bonus? Who hasn’t been annoyed when you’ve slaved away at some particular responsibility, cleaning the church on Arbour Day, for example, and someone who showed up at the last minute and barely lifted a finger ends up getting thanked in the same group as you? Who hasn’t been annoyed when your hand-crafted, thoughtfully made birthday present gets the same "aw, gee, thanks" as the predictable gift certificate? We’ve all been there, right next to Jonah and the grumbling vineyard workers, annoyed that those who didn’t deserve it got the same reward as us.
But my suspicion is that we’ve all also been at the other end of things. That is, we’ve also been in the place of the workers who weren’t hired until the end of the day and were extraordinarily grateful to get paid for a full day. We’ve had those times when we’ve made a huge mistake at work, one that deserves to get us fired, and the boss turns around and says, "That’s okay, I’m not going to dock your salary. And you’ll still get your bonus." And we’re so overwhelmed by her generosity because we need that bonus to pay off the bills so the interest doesn’t build up. And of course, who doesn’t remember a time when they were a kid, and they did something bad right before Christmas, but then, under the Christmas tree, lo and behold, there’s a present from Santa - and not the coal kind. Who hasn’t been in a situation where you’ve been so thankful for undeserved generosity?
Of course, we’ve also been in the place of the Ninevites who really didn’t deserve mercy, whom Jonah was right to try and avoid. We’ve had those times when we’ve hurt someone we love, and when we know we don’t deserve forgiveness from them, but they turn around and offer it anyway. We’ve been in those situations where we’ve shirked some responsibility that we know we’re supposed to do, and the person in charge said, "Oh, well, that’s okay," and everything went on as it was before. We know what it’s like to be desperately in need of mercy and understanding, and hopefully we know what it’s like to receive it.
It’s interesting - how we react to the story of the vineyard workers, or the story of Jonah and the Ninevites is directly influenced by who we see ourselves as in those stories. But here’s the thing. In God’s eyes, we are all like the labourers who showed up at the end of the day. You see, not one of us is an all-day worker in God’s vineyard, so to speak. Not one of us works flat-out, from morning to evening, at being good Christians - at loving our neighbour, welcoming strangers, practicing unconditional forgiveness. We may start out our day with the best of intentions, but along the way, we slip, we get tired, and by the end of the day we know that, if we’re lucky, we’ve only put in a couple of hours at being a good Christian, never mind a whole day. And so we don’t deserve the same pay, the same reward that those who’ve worked all day do. We don’t deserve God’s forgiveness. And yet, there you go - it’s yours. It doesn’t make sense. After all in God’s eyes, we’re all like the corrupt Ninevites who Jonah turned his back on. We sin, we hurt others, we turn our back on God. We don’t deserve mercy. And yet, there you go - it’s yours.
And that’s because God is, as Jonah says, "a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing." God is, according to Jesus’ description, generous to all, regardless of how hard you’ve worked for it. God did, after all, send Jesus to die for us, even though we could never be thankful enough for it. God does, after all, send the Holy Spirit to us in baptism, even though we could never hope to live up to what that means. And God will welcome us all into the presence of God when we die, even though none of us will come even close to deserving it.
So it turns out that I do like that pastor’s idea of giving an A to all the students no matter what. It turns out that I do like the idea of group projects where everybody gets the same mark. Now I don’t know what the world would look if we actually operated on the same principles as the landowner of the vineyard. I don’t know how things would work if we went out and practiced the same kind of overly generous mercy that God does. For one thing, it would probably be dreadfully chaotic. Some people might take advantage of the system. Certain things might not get done the way they should, that’s true. People would get more credit than they deserve, and other people might have to pick up the slack. But I know one thing for sure - it would look like the kingdom of heaven. And I can’t say that that’s something that would upset me. After all, when it come to God’s classroom, and God’s group project that we’re all a part of, we all deserve a failing grade. Thanks be to God, then, that we all get an A. Amen.
Monday, September 12, 2005
Oh, we're in trouble today... Paul, in his letter to the Romans, is cutting us no slack whatsoever today. His message, plain and simple, is: do not judge. "Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?" "Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God." Paul makes it crystal clear - we are not to judge others. After all, who are we to put ourselves in the position of judge? None of us are better than anybody else, none of us less sinful or more saintly; none of us commit sins that are any better or any worse than anybody else's, and none of us have a faith that is better or worse than anybody else's. And so we can't judge. Not only because of that, but also because, as the parable from the Gospel of Matthew tells us, all of us stand in judgement and dire need of mercy ourselves, so when we judge, we must be careful of how harsh we are with others. If we judge others to be less worthy than us, than we risk having that same judgement made of us. If we judge others to be more deserving of punishment than us, than we risk that same punishment. So we are not to judge.
And yet we do. Oh, yes, we all judge. You know we do. Actually, it's more like we accuse than just plain judge since when we judge others, it's never to judge them positively, it's always negatively. We look at other people and we judge them, accuse them, of being worse than us. We see a teenager on the bus with a baby and judge her, accuse her, of being a teenage mom. We see a guy in a mall with his arm around another guy and judge them, accuse them, of being gay. We see three young black men standing on the street corner and we judge them, accuse them, of being part of a gang. We see a poorly dressed person on the street asking for change and we judge them, accuse them, of being a bum. Even though we're not supposed to.
We judge other Christians, too, which is what Paul is specifically condemning in his letter. If we are liberal Christians, we judge conservative Christians as being fundamentalist and living under the Law, as unenlightened people who have no compassion. If we're conservative Christians, we judge the liberals as giving in to popular culture and throwing around cheap grace, as people who've progressed so far they've left their faith behind. And then of course, we judge the Christians in the middle for not taking a stand and living by their convictions.
It's so easy for us to judge. For one thing, it makes us feel better about ourselves. Judging others makes us feel like we've got our stuff together, like at least we're not making the mistakes they are. Pointing out where others have failed or gone wrong makes us feel like we've made it, like we're right, like we're better. And of course, judging others directs everyone's attention, including God's, to that other person, highlighting their flaws, so that nobody turns around and notices our own flaws. Yup, we're so quick to judge others because we are deathly afraid that they'll turn around and start judging us. And then, we'll never make it in those heavenly gates. After all, as I said in the beginning, we're all sinners, we all deserve judgement, and if God worked the way we do, if God was like the wicked slave, if God was like Joseph's brothers, we'd all be judged guilty and condemned and only the righteous would make it into heaven.
But thank God that God is not like the wicked slave or Joseph's brothers. Thank God that God is like the merciful king, who forgives the enormous debt of his slaves, thank God that God is like Joseph, who forgives his brothers for trying to murder him. Thank God that God is, as we said in the psalm today, "full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness... He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness... As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed ours sins from us." It is certainly true that we all stand before God in judgement, as Paul says in Romans, "Is it before their own lord that they stand or fall." But is equally true, even more true, that even though the judgement comes through as guilty, God commutes the sentence. "It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand."
You see, when it comes time for judgement, we have the best lawyer in town, appointed by the judge himself, interestingly enough, who is able to lighten and indeed get rid of our sentence. Since none of us has a faith that is strong enough to guarantee us salvation, since all of us have sins that are too big to be overlooked, since none of us live lives that are good enough to make us righteous, and since God wishes above all that we should not be punished, God has appointed Jesus Christ to stand in for us, to represent us before the court, to ensure that we get off scott-free. It doesn't sound fair, it doesn't sound impartial, but, as we prayed in the Prayer of the Day today, God, our great judge, "declares [God's] almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity."
And that mercy and pity is shown to all of us. To the teenage girl with the baby, to the man with his arm around another man, to the three young black men, to the poorly dressed person on the street, to the conservative Christian, to the liberal, to the moderate - God shows this mercy and pity to all of them. Even to those who judge - to us. Our parable from Matthew is a little misleading - and there are a number of biblical scholars who believe it was added by the editor of the Gospel and not said by Jesus himself - because it ends with the king torturing the unforgiving slave. You see, we know that everyone is forgiven and that God tortures no one, not even us unforgiving slaves. In fact, the good news for today - which is what the word "Gospel" means: good news - the Gospel for today actually comes from the Old Testament, from the story of Joseph and his brothers. That's where we hear the news of forgiveness and mercy that we know God promises us. When we fall before God in sorrow for what we've done, as the brothers fell before Joseph, we know that God is going to forgive us and reassure us, just as Joseph did to his brothers.
Which means that we don't have to leap to judge others in order to feel better about ourselves. We don't have to point out others' flaws so that nobody sees our own failings. We don't have to condemn others for their sins so that nobody notices ours. Who cares if people see that we're imperfect sinners? For one thing, it's not as if we're the only ones, but for another, we know that that's not going to stop God from loving us and forgiving us and welcoming us into God's kingdom. God doesn't demand perfection from us - that's not what that unconditional love and mercy means that we're always talking about. And that means that we don't need to demand, or even expect, perfection from others. So we don't need to judge.
I'm going to turn again to the Old Testament for the Gospel - the good news - to end. It's words from our psalm, and I want you, as I read them, to know that they are meant for you, specifically, no matter who you judge or don't judge, no matter how deserving of judgement you are yourself. So: "The Lord forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities. The Lord redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with mercy and lovingkindness." "The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting." [v. 17] Amen.
Sunday, September 04, 2005
So, Ezekiel, huh? What do you know about Ezekiel? Most of us don’t know anything about this prophet of 2600 years ago - I know I pretty much knew nothing until I started working on the sermon for today. I knew he was a prophet, and I knew he was the guy connected with the Valley of the Dry Bones, but that was pretty much it.
But Ezekiel, as it turns out, was a prophet who lived through a terribly traumatic time in the history of Israel, and he has a lot to say to us as we try and understand the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans.
So, in 609 BC, Israel was a wonderful country. Their beloved King Josiah was on the throne, a king who had brought them back to the ways of the Lord after years of idol-worshipping, squabbling kings who descended from Solomon. According to tradition, King Josiah had discovered the Book of Deuteronomy, giving the Israelites insight into what God wanted for them, and he had made the Temple in Jerusalem the holy site of Israel. People flocked from all over the country to worship the Lord in the Temple, and it was the spiritual heart of the people.
Things were going well, the people were prosperous, and then the unthinkable happened. The beloved, God-bless Josiah was suddenly killed in a battle against Egypt, and from that point on, things just went downhill. A couple of years later, Babylon invaded and took over the territory of Judah, the southern part of Israel. Then, in 597 BC, they attacked Jerusalem, the Holy City, the city where David had established the monarchy and where his son Solomon had built the Temple for God, and they exiled many of the inhabitants to Babylon. Ezekiel and many others who had been born and grew up in Jerusalem were forcibly removed and sent to live in another country. They were separated from their families; Ezekiel lost his wife.
And if that wasn’t enough, in 586 BC, 11 years later, when the Israelite leaders decided they had had enough and tried to revolt, the Bablyonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem, tore down the Temple, the home of God on earth, and exiled the people who remained.
To say that this was a national disaster is liking saying what happened in New Orleans was a flood. It goes beyond just a label. We can only imagine the devastation of Jerusalem, although some of you, I know, have had first-hand experience with war - the homes lost, the people killed, the lawlessness and panic that sweeps away all rational thinking. We can actually see for ourselves the devastation of New Orleans - again, the homes lost, the people killed, the lawlessness and panic that is sweeping the city. Even if we’ve never lived through it, each one of us knows human suffering.
Now one way of understanding disasters when it comes to God is to believe that the disaster is God’s punishment for one sin or another. That way of understanding calamity goes right back to Noah’s Ark, when God wiped out the world because people were too sinful. And the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple were considered, by Ezekiel, to be God’s punishment for the increasing idolatry of the Israelite people. Ezekiel believed that the people had broken the covenant with God, that they had gone to worship other gods, and that God was now punishing them by letting the Babylonians invade and take over. Ezekiel had warned the people, but they did not turn from their ways, and so now they were being punished.
But this way of looking at disaster is not just limited to the Bible. Even today, on the CNN website, and in the papers, you can read people writing that they believe that the flooding of New Orleans was God’s punishment for the moral recklessness of both New Orleans and the US at large. You can also read people’s opinions that the hurricane and flooding is punishment for humankind’s sinfulness in general, abusing the environment and not caring for God’s creation. Even if there are some of us here who have never lived through a national disaster, we all have those moments of personal crisis when we wonder if this is God’s punishment for something.
The thing is, this way of understanding disaster - that it is God’s punishment for sin - doesn’t hold up for very long. Ezekiel himself quotes God as saying, "As I live, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live." And Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, when confronted with the situation of Gentiles murdered as sacrifices and eighteen people killed when a tower fell on them, emphatically responded that No, disaster did not fall on these people because they were worse sinners than anyone else. [Luke 13:1-5]
You see, we know through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ that the God we worship is the God of life, not death, of mercy, not punishment. People in antiquity had no other way to explain disasters that happened to them than to say that God did it. They lived in a world of demons and angels, good spirits and bad spirits. But we, we live in a world of plate tectonics and shifting ocean currents cause tsunamis, where thunderstorms are caused by the rapid rising of moist warm air, which can then cause hurricanes. We live in a world where we understand that God is present in the midst of suffering, not the cause of it. Where Jesus has died in order to defeat death, where God weeps with the world and then moves to heal it.
Even Ezekiel knew that, to an extent. After all, we can’t forget that it was Ezekiel who gave us the beautiful vision of the valley of the dry bones. After all these terrible things had happened, Ezekiel wrote this story - I’ll read it to you.
The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord GOD, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.’
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there as a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and here were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:* Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath,* and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
In the midst of his despair, having lost the only country he knew, seeing his beloved wife die before him, watching the destruction of the Holy City and the devastation of God’s Temple, Ezekiel still believed that God was the God of life, that the people would be brought back to Israel, that the City and the Temple would be rebuilt.
Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely." Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.’
And that is our belief and our hope as well. Despite the disasters that continue to devastate the world, despite the crises that we encounter in our own lives, we know that we have a God who is determined to bring us new life and who has the power to make it so. We know that our God is a God, not of death and destruction, but of life and healing, and we know that God is bringing these things to the whole world.
I want to end by having us a sing a hymn together. It is one that most of you will know, and it is a beautiful proclamation of our hope in God despite the tragedies of the world that we face everyday. So please turn to hymn 320 in the LBW and join me in singing, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past."
O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home,
Under the shadow of your throne Your saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is your arm alone, And our defense is sure.
Before the hills in order stood Or earth received its frame,
From everlasting you are God, To endless years the same.
A thousand ages in your sight Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night Before the rising sun.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Soon bears us all away;
We fly forgotten, as a dream Dies at the op’ning day.
O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come,
Still be our guard while troubles last And our eternal home!