Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Maternity Leave

You'll notice there have been no new sermons since Easter Sunday. I am on maternity leave until May, 2007, at which point I will once again post my sermons.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Sun, April 16, 2006 - Easter Sunday

Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118
1 Cor 15:1-11
John 20:1-18

You know, when I hear John's account of what happened on that first Easter morning, I wonder at the different reactions that people had to the empty tomb. Particularly, I wonder why it was that Peter and the disciple "whom Jesus loved" were so quick to head back home after seeing the empty tomb. Mary's reaction I understand - even though she thought Jesus was still dead, she wanted to go out and find the body so that she could provide it with the dignity and respect that it deserved. But I can't really understand why Peter and the other disciple went home. It's not as if they believed that Jesus was resurrected - they didn't go home and start telling people that Jesus was risen. In fact, they must have thought that he was still dead or they wouldn't have locked themselves in a room with the other disciples a week later. So I don't understand why they just left Mary and went home - why they didn't continue looking with her to find Jesus' body.

Unless, maybe just maybe, they didn't go looking because they were afraid of what they would find. You see Peter and the other disciple and in fact all the rest of the disciples weren't coming into Sunday looking too good. On Thursday night and moving into Friday morning, they had all abandoned Jesus to his arrest, they had failed to put their bodies in place of his, Peter had denied Jesus three times, and not one of them hung around to take him down from the cross and put him in the tomb. If I were a disciple, I might actually be a little worried that Jesus wasn't in fact dead, that he might in fact be walking around looking to find me. Because who knows what would happen when he did?

I guess Jesus' followers reaction to his body's disappearance from the tomb was connected to whether or not they thought his return would be a good thing. For the disciples whose consciences were wracked with guilt, they would have been a little apprehensive of the whole thing. For the women who followed Jesus, including Mary Magdalene, the discovery of Jesus would be the most amazing thing in the world. They had nothing to worry about, no fear of reprisals, they, of all the disciples, had been the only ones whose loyalty to Jesus had passed the test. So it was natural that they would be out looking. Where the disciples were operating out of fear, the women were looking for a reason to hope.

We are here today, most of us, I would guess because we are like the women looking for some reason to hope. What I mean is, we are here looking for something more than just the knowledge that Jesus was crucified on Good Friday. We all have our different reasons for looking - but I would hazard a guess that most likely you are here because you're hoping that there is no body. You're hoping that the tomb is empty, not because somebody stole the body, but for a much better reason. Like all Christians gathered in church this morning, you're hoping that our ultimate disloyalty to Christ - abandoning and betraying him - will have a positive outcome. You're hoping, like I am, that our disloyalty hasn't ruined everything, that it won't lead to payback, that it won't lead to our deaths in exchange. We're all desperate to hear that this story has a happy ending, that our wish for forgiveness will be fulfilled, that our hope for a better future will come true. And so we're here, looking into the tomb, like Mary and Peter and that anonymous beloved disciple, looking for Jesus.

But the tomb is empty. There is no one there. But not because his body has been stolen or moved somewhere else. In one of those great, Godly twists it turns out that Jesus is not in the tomb because Jesus is out looking for those who are looking for him. Jesus goes looking for Mary Magdalene in the garden, and then, in the verses that follow ours today, which you'll hear over the next couple of weeks, Jesus goes looking for the disciples, who have locked themselves behind closed doors. A week later, Jesus returns, looking for Thomas, the disciple who doubted his resurrection, and after that, he returns, looking specifically for Peter, the one who denied him.

Does he go looking for them to get some kind of payback? To repay them for their complete lack of loyalty to him in his hour of need? That's what we would do - we're all about revenge and retribution, after all. But not Jesus. In fact, he never even once brings up the past, or reminds them of their guilt. Instead, Jesus' words to his followers are words of peace and blessing and forgiveness. "Peace be with you," he says to the disciples barricaded in the upper room. "Receive the Holy Spirit," he says. "Tend my sheep," he says to the runaway Peter. The one who was abandoned and betrayed and denied by his friends seeks them out to bring them forgiveness, and to give them new life, and to prove that his loyalty to them can never be swayed.

Which is wonderful, glorious, blessed Good News for us. Because Jesus' unshakeable loyalty to his disciples - his disloyal disciples - is the incarnation of God's loyalty to us. After all that we've done and will do - after all the times that we don't believe that Christ is bringing new life to the world, after all the times that we don't even bother to go to the tomb to look for him, after all the times that we call for those proclaiming the love of Christ to all to be silenced - after all of that, God, through Christ, continues to seek us out. Not for revenge, not to bring up our past against us, but to proclaim forgiveness to us and to make us new.

And as it turns out, this newness is what we're actually here looking for. We're looking for something that goes beyond the betrayal and disloyalty and death that we're all too familiar with. We need a reason to get up in the morning, to move past the morning news that talks only about disaster and violence and ends only in death. We know that story, and we're searching for there to be more.

So hallelujah - praise be to God - that we don't have to go far to find it. Hallelujah that God brings that newness that we're seeking right into our lives, restoring our relationship with Christ, overcoming the damage and death that we've caused, not just to Jesus, but to all the people in our lives. You see, Christ's resurrection is not about one man who was brought back to life and that's it. That kind of story makes the evening news, but it doesn't change the world. No, Christ's resurrection is about one man who was brought back to life but then went out to seek others to offer them forgiveness for killing him, to bring them new life that God knows they didn't deserve. It's about Christ's loyalty to God's people extending so far that not even death could stop him from loving us.

And that is the enduring significance of Easter: that not only were the deadly consequences of disloyalty to Christ overcome in his resurrection to new life, but that, despite our own constantly disloyal behaviour, both to him and to those around us, he shares that new life with us. It is not something we have to go out looking for, in a tomb or otherwise, because it's something that Christ brings to us, seeking us out to give us this tremendous gift, not just today on Easter Sunday, but every day. It is this that we celebrate, this we ponder as a wonderful mystery, and this that prompts us to give thanks and praise to God this Easter morning. Hallelujah! Amen.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Fri, April 14, 2006 - Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25
John 18:1- 19:42

Well, yesterday we reflected on how Jesus showed loyalty to his disciples despite the fact that they were unable to remain loyal to him. Even though he knew everything that was going to happen to him today, how Peter would deny him, Judas would betray him, and almost all of the disciples abandon him, he still washed their feet last night, and fed them with his own life, cementing their forgiveness and showing that his loyalty to them could not be broken.
Today we see just how far Jesus's loyalty takes him, and we see especially that it is not just the disciples who were disloyal and faded away, but us as well.

So Judas has betrayed Jesus with a kiss. The disciples have abandoned Jesus except for Peter and another disciple, which isn't saying much for Peter, since he denied his relationship with Jesus three times. The people who shouted Hosanna for Jesus when he entered Jerusalem have called for his execution. At the moment of his crucifixion, only five of the mass of his followers were there, including only one disciple, and when it came time to bury Jesus, the only one who stepped forward was a secret follower. Jesus' close circle of friends, whom he had fed and forgiven the night before, were nowhere to be found.

It's easy for us to stand in judgment on the disciples. It's easy for us to identify with Jesus, to think of the times when friends of ours have betrayed us, or been disloyal, or just plain run away. But what's not so easy for us is to acknowledge that, in fact, we are those disloyal disciples. That we are the ones who stand in judgment, who have betrayed him, who have run away.

You see, today - Good Friday - isn't about how awful the disciples were who abandoned Jesus, or how awful the Jews were who betrayed him, or how awful the Romans were who crucified him. It's about how awful we are, for failing to recognize that we abandon and betray and crucify Jesus on a daily basis. The truth is that we pay only lip service to Christ's teachings. We say we're his followers, we go to church on Sunday and on the holidays, but when it comes right down to it - when we're asked to give all we have, to give our heart, to give our life, to give our possessions, we back away. We walk by people in need all the time because it's too embarrassing to look at them. We turn away from people who ask for our money because we're too afraid to give it up. We shut people out of God's circle of love and forgiveness because we don't want to be contaminated by sinners. We point out other people's faults so nobody notices our own. And in doing all these things, we are guilty of the same things Jesus' disciple-friends are - of abandoning and betraying the one we claim to follow. We are the ones deserving of judgement.

And we all know what Jesus' response to this ought to be. It's what we would do in his place - we would cut these so-called friends out of our life, we would turn our back on them. If we were in Jesus' place, we would probably get them dragged in to face the authorities and even onto the cross with us. But we also know that that was not, and is not, Jesus' response to betrayal and disloyalty. Jesus' response last night was to wash the feet of those whom he knew would walk - run - away from him. His response was to offer forgiveness through his body and blood to those whom he knew would not stand up and protect that same body. And today, Jesus' response is to die for those whom he knows would not die for him. To die for his disciples, to die for the world, to die for us. Jesus shows us that when it comes to loyalty, there is nothing that will break the ties he has made with us, that there is no betrayal so great that he would ever stop loving us or being there for us. Jesus shows us, as the Son of God, that his loyalty to us, to God's people, is forever. And he dies to prove it.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us at the foot of the cross, quite astonished that someone would actually give up their life for us. Now, we know what happens three days later - we know what happens on Easter, and maybe Jesus did, too. We can't be sure. But that doesn't change the fact that we have betrayed him and that he has responded to our betrayal with a loyalty that extends to death. And so we wait, to see if that loyalty will extend even further, to see if there is a way for us to give thanks for what we've been given so far, to see and hear that the forgiveness Christ brought is complete and everlasting.

Thurs, April 13, 2006 - Maundy Thursday

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116:10-17
1 Cor 11:23-26
John 13:1-35

What kind of friends do you have? Close friends? Acquaintances? Friends is sort of a catch-all phrase that we use to describe our relationship to non-related people who are more than just passers-by. But even within that designation, there is a wide range of types of friends. There are the friends who we talk to only once in a while, and when we do talk, it's only about little stuff. There are the friends who only call us when they're in need of something. There are the friends we've had for years and years who know all the stupid things we did as children. And there are the friends who are closer than family - the ones who, through thick and thin, are there for us no matter what, and would drop everything to give us a hand. Those are the friends we treasure, and those friends are very, very rare. If someone asked us to describe people who are loyal, their names would be the first on our lips.

Jesus had a group of close friends. The Bible describes them as disciples, which means that they were students of a teacher, but I imagine that they were also friends. After all, Jesus and this group had spent the last three years together, day in and day out, had gone hungry together, had looked for shelter together, had walked all over Israel together - so I imagine that friendship had developed. I imagine that the disciples considered themselves to be loyal to Jesus, and thought of themselves as his circle of friends.

Now if you've ever had a circle of friends, that is, friends who are all friends with each other and with you, you know how nice that can be. You all stick up for one another, you spend all your time together, you worry about each other, you enjoy the group dynamic and the security of knowing that you have a band of people who are loyal to you and always there.

But sometimes it happens that you and that group start growing apart, and you realize that you're not walking down the same path anymore. Maybe it's because your friends don't understand why you've decided to live your life a particular way. Maybe they don't agree with a decision you've made. And what happens is that things start to get a little cold - you can't talk about things the way you used to, your friends stop telling you everything they're thinking, you still spend time together, but it's just not the same. It gets tough and you realize that you can't depend on your group of friends the way you did before. The tightness, the loyalty, that was there before starts to fade.

Well, that kind of thing was going on the last night that Jesus spent with his disciples, with his close friends. There was a gap, a distance, between Jesus and those he was with. Although they'd spent the last three years with him, they didn't seem to understand what he was doing or where he was going - they certainly didn't understand why he would kneel down and wash their feet. They didn't understand the strange vibe between him and Judas. And for sure they didn't understand that when Jesus was referring to being glorified he was talking about going to his death. It's most likely that Jesus' disciple-friends thought he was going to lead them to some kind of military victory over the Romans, or to some kind of religious reformation. Even though he had told them over and over again that dying was a necessary part of God's plan for him, they still didn't seem to get it. And so there they sat on that last night, confused, in denial of what Jesus was saying, and probably wondering just what Jesus was getting them into. They were trying to be loyal, but they just couldn't manage it. It must have been difficult for Jesus.

So what do you do when you and your friends grow apart; when they stop really getting who you are, when they stop being as loyal as they once were? I would guess that most of us let the relationship dissolve. We might make one last effort to stay together, maybe go out for some get-together and try and rekindle the old relationships, but after that, most of us stop trying. We might slowly stop returning calls, or we might abruptly cut these former friends out of our life. Either way, though, we don't stick it out - we tend to put into a relationship what we get out of it, and when our friends are no longer as close and as loyal as they once were, we find ourselves behaving the same way towards them, too. Generally speaking, the amount of loyalty we've been shown is the amount we show in return.

So is that what Jesus did when his friends began to turn away from him - and in one case even turn on him? Did Jesus slowly but surely distance himself from them, did he respond to their waning loyalty by becoming less loyal himself? Well, since this is Jesus, we know that the answer is no. In fact, since this is Jesus, we can expect that he went even farther than just refusing to let the relationship with his friends go - that he actually took steps to strengthen it.

"Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." It's interesting - according to the Gospel of John, Jesus knew everything that was about to happen to him. He knew that his friends were about abandon him and deny him, he knew that Judas would betray him, he knew that he was going to die - and yet knowing all of this, Jesus did several things.

First, he performed for his disciple-friends a significant act of care. He washed their feet. Now this is not such a big deal, in and of itself. Foot-washing was something that was regularly done in Israel during a time when people walked around dirty roads in open-toe sandals. Yes, it was unusual and shocking to the disciples that Jesus would wash their feet when it should be the other way around, but really, they should have been used to Jesus doing that kind of thing by this point. But for Jesus, the foot-washing was about more than just hygiene. In the Gospel of John, the foot-washing was meant as a symbol of forgiveness. It is meant to draw out for us images of baptism, and of God's covenant with us through water. So when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, his friends who would soon abandon him, even the feet of Judas who was about to betray him, Jesus was forgiving them their sins. He was making the point that even though they couldn't remain loyal to him, he was not going to abandon them. He was not going to turn his back on them and return their lack of loyalty with his own lack. He washed their feet, he cared for them, and he forgave them.

And then Jesus went even farther than that. Although the Gospel of John doesn't refer to it directly, the other gospels and Paul's letter to the Corinthians that we heard refer to Jesus instituting the Lord's Supper on his last night with the disciples. And as we know, the Lord's Supper, along with baptism, is the ultimate agent of God's forgiveness of sins. Even now, almost two thousand years later, when we celebrate Communion, as we will tonight, we continue to experience the forgiveness that the Son of God brought to us. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to that first communion, the last supper Jesus had with his increasingly less loyal friends.

Again, knowing everything that his disciples were about to do, or were about to fail to do, knowing that their loyalty would be put to the test and that they would not pass, Jesus gave them his own body and blood - that is, he gave them his life as forgiveness for these things. He fed them, nurtured them, forgave them, because he wanted them to remember, when everything was over and they were consumed with guilt over how they had treated him, that his loyalty to them was not about to become any less simply because they let their own loyalty lapse. That his love for them was not based on their love for him.

And that is where we are left this evening, on the night of Jesus' betrayal. The group of disciple-friends is fracturing - they are about to abandon him, one of them is already betraying him - and yet Jesus continues to remain loyal. He washes them clean, he feeds them with his own life, he forgives them in advance for how loyal they are about not to be. Reflecting on all of this, we move towards tomorrow where we will discover just how far our own disloyalty runs, and just how far Jesus' loyalty will carry.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Lent 5 - Sun, April 2, 2006 - A Royal Priesthood

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

So, Jesus Christ, " a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek." I have to say, that's one of the more obscure references in our Bible, and not one we spend a lot of time thinking about. Melchizedek, it turns out, was the King of Salem in the Old Testament, and he offered some hospitality and a blessing to Abram and Sarai as they travelled on their way to the land that God was going to give them. Melchizedek gets about three verses in the entire Bible, not counting the reference made to him here in our second reading for this morning.

But it's not really Melchizedek that the writer of Hebrews is trying to get us to think about - it's the concept of Christ as our high priest. Now, again, we have a concept that's a little hard to understand. We Lutherans don't spend a lot of time talking about priests, much less high priests. Our church leaders are called pastors, not priests like in the Anglican or Catholic traditions. And even they don't have high priests. So what are we to make of this imagery of Christ as our high priest?

Well, the priestly concept has its biblical roots in the Old Testament. In the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, we hear about the priestly class, and how they're supposed to perform their duties, and what they should wear, and how they're supposed to behave and keep themselves pure. Historically speaking, the priests were the ones who ran the Temple in Jerusalem after it was built, which wasn't until the time of King Solomon. Then, after the Temple was destroyed for a second time at the end of the first century A.D., priests ceased to exist. There was no Temple for them to perform their duties in, so they were all laid-off, so to speak.

But the need for priests still existed. You see, underneath all the religious rituals that the priests performed, and underneath the funny clothes that they wore while they were doing them, there was something fundamental going on. The priest had a unique function in the religious world, in the world of the faithful believers, and that was this: the priest was a representative. Now, if you're thinking that I mean the priest represented God to the people, you would be right. The priest stood up in the Temple and became a living image of God for the people gathered there. The priest was a flawed image, to be sure, being human and not divine, but in the moment of performing his duties, the priest was taken as the representation of God - the words he spoke were God's words, whether they were words of condemnation and judgement, or words of forgiveness and mercy. The curses he uttered were God's curses, the blessings were God's blessings.

But the priest was more than just a representative of God. The priest was also a representative of the people. The priest would stand before God during the service, and be the image of the people to God. His words of confession were the people's words of confession. His pleas for mercy were their pleas for mercy. His thanksgivings for forgiveness were their thanksgiving. And so just as the priest was a representation of God to the people, he was also the representation of the people to God.

And so we have the writer of Hebrews calling Christ our high priest. Which makes perfect sense. No, Christ never performed rituals in the Temple, but he was the living image of God to us, and he was the living image of humanity to God. His crying out to God for mercy, his suffering under Pontius Pilate, and even his death on the cross were all carried out by Christ as the representative of humanity. His cries for mercy were and are our cries. His suffering is the suffering we ought to be going through. His death is the death we ought to be going through. But he represented us, so that we wouldn't have to go through all that.

Likewise, just as Christ did all these things representing us, he also did things representing God to us. His healing of the sick and suffering was God's healing. His ministry and love of those around him was God's love. His proclamation of forgiveness and inclusion was God's proclamation. God, being incorporeal and having no body, couldn't do these things - couldn't touch, couldn't hug, couldn't speak words of forgiveness that we could hear, so Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the incarnation and bodily representation of God did it instead. Christ brings us before God, and God before us - the ultimate high priest.

But while Christ is the ultimate high priest, he is not the last priest. Maybe you've heard the phrase, "the priesthood of all believers?" It was a phrase that Martin Luther was fond of, and it comes from the first letter of Peter. "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light." Here, Peter and Luther are talking about the same kind of priest that the writer of Hebrews was - someone who represents God to the people and represents the people to God. Someone who cries out to God for forgiveness and then turns around and proclaims God's forgiveness to everyone there.

Now, this "you" that the writer of Peter's Letter is talking about, this "you" that Luther is thinking about is you. You, the person sitting there in the pew listening to these words. Peter and Luther aren't thinking about ordained clergy, per se, or about diaconal ministers especially, or even about particularly dedicated and educated lay people. They are thinking about you - the regular Jill Christian sitting in the pews. You are part of a royal priesthood - you are a priest.

So at this point, you might be thinking, "Whoa, not me. I'm not a priest. I'm not called to be a pastor. I'm not knowledgeable enough, or skilled enough to be a priest. I'm not a perfect Christian - how can I possible represent God to people and people to God?" And in a sense, you would be right. None of us is knowledgeable or skilled enough, or even perfect enough as Christians to be God's priests. None of us are worthy enough to stand up and say, "Here is God's Word to you - you are forgiven, go in peace." But that's not how we're called to this royal priesthood. As it turns out, the call to be a member of the priesthood of all believers comes not from how worthy we are, but from baptism. When you were baptized, each one of you, the Holy Spirit came into you, bringing God's Law and forgiveness into your hearts, making you worthy to speak on God's behalf. It sounds scary, I know, but every baptized Christian becomes authorized, and even called, to be one of Christ's priests - to proclaim forgiveness to all who need it. In fact, during the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness at the beginning of the service, when I say, "As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins..." that's a bit misleading. I don't have the authority of Christ to declare forgiveness because I'm ordained. I have the authority to do it because I'm baptized. And you have that same authority. You, just like me, are a priest of God.

So, given that we are all part of this royal priesthood, given that our baptism calls us to live as priests of Christ - representing the people to God and God to the people - how do we do that? Well, one way is to come to church on Sunday. You see, as a priest of Christ, when you come to church on Sunday, and say the words of confession, and hear the proclamation of forgiveness, when you hear the Bible readings and come forward to receive Communion, you are not just doing it as yourself. As a priest representing the people to God, when you come to church on Sunday, you are bringing with you all the people in your life who aren't there in that pew. You represent those family members who can't make it, those friends who don't like church, those co-workers who think you're a little odd for going to church. And when you confess your sins, you're confessing their sins, too. When you hear forgiveness, you're hearing their forgiveness. When you pray, you're praying their prayers. When you come forward to receive Communion, you are carrying in your heart all those people that you know. When you come to church on Sunday, you are representing these people before God.

But that's only half of what priests do. The other half you do when you leave the church doors and go back out into the world for the rest of the week. That's when you represent God to those people. The patience you show with others, that's God's patience. The love you show, that's God's love. The forgiveness you offer, that's God's forgiveness. Just as you represent the people to God on Sunday, you represent God to the people the rest of the time. By the power of the Holy Spirit given to you in baptism, you are one of God's priests out there in the real world.

Francis of Assisi wrote a prayer that is very famous now. He said, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy." He may not have intended it as such, but it is the prayer of a priest - to follow Christ in his steps as high priest - to bring the world before God and to bring God to the world. As we come to the end of Lent and look to the Easter resurrection, may this prayer also be our prayer, and may God help us to carry out our baptismal priestly call. Amen.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Sun, March 12, 2006 - Death and Life

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:22-30
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31- 38

The week before last was a rare one in the life of this congregation. Within this community, we had a birth and a funeral in the same week. It's interesting whenever that kind of juxtaposition happens - having life and death so close together forces us to look closely at our own existence and at life in general. And when we do, we discover that our feelings around birth and death are drastically different. When an impending birth is announced, there are congratulations, baby showers, well-wishes, prayers of thanks. But when an impending death is announced - well, we don't have any of those things. No congratulations, no showers - there are prayers, but they are usually not ones of thanks but of supplication. Birth is seen as a wonderful, blessed event. Death is most often seen as the complete opposite.

It's something we avoid, something we prefer not to think about at all. Like the disciple Peter, we protest when anybody we love talks about dying. We are afraid to think that the people we care about might leave us, and so we avoid the conversation altogether, hoping that we're actually avoiding death by doing so. It might be because in our culture of success, we see death as a failure. When we die, we have failed to keep living. Some people even see death as punishment for a badly lived life. We all know the first part of the Bible verse, "the wages of sin is death." Death is almost never seen as a success, or as a reward.

And we certainly don't look at it as a gift from God, like we do with birth. When somebody dies, particularly if they are young, or if there is an accident involved, we tend to look at the whole thing as unnatural - as outside of the way God has created the world. Death is such an inconceivable concept for us that we have a hard time grasping that it's just as necessary to life as birth.

But that is what we find if we look at the Bible - that death is a necessary part of life. Last week in our Bible study, we looked up passages that dealt with life and death, and even I was surprised at what we found.

To start with, God's approach to life and death begins with Creation. The very first thing God did was to create light and dark - to cause Night and Day to begin their cycle. Now, we know that this means that the earth revolved on its axis as it made its way around the sun, but the ancients believe that light and dark were times of life and death. Daytime brought warmth, security, food, life. Nighttime brought cold, fear, wild animals, and death. For them, light equaled life and dark equaled death. And so they understood that from the beginning, God designed life and death in a cycle. One led inevitably to the other. Just as light led to dark and back to light, life led to death and back to life. From their point of view, death was not unnatural, but a part of the created world that God has made especially for us.

This idea that death is an intentional part of God's plan for us continues in the story of the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve at the forbidden fruit, they did it because the serpent told them that if they did, they would be like God and never die. So they ate, but it turns out that it was a sin to want to be like God, to want to never die, and God punished them by giving them what was already coming - their inevitable human death. Death, it seems, was an integral part of the package all along.

God has made death unavoidable for us, it turns out. The person who wrote Ecclesiastes tells us what we already know - that there is a time to be born, and a time to die, just like there is a time to plant and a time to uproot. We don't know when those times will be, or how much time will be in between the two events, but the Bible very clearly tells us that there is a time for both. We can't avoid either one. Just as God gives us the time to be born, God also gives us the time to die. Can we really say that one is better than the other - that there is a disparity in what God gives us?

In all of this, it turns out that death is part of God's intention for creation, that it is unavoidable, and that to try and avoid it is a sin. But it turns out that death is more than just that. I say that because of what Jesus says about death. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." For Jesus, death is not just inevitable, but necessary. He never once tried to avoid his own death, or to pretend that it wasn't coming. Instead, he saw it as something to move towards and something to be open about. That's why he told Peter and the disciples so clearly that he would be killed. He didn't do it to garner sympathy from them, but to be honest about the way life, and his life, is. And the truth is, all life ends in death.

But it doesn't stop there. Jesus didn't tell the disciples that he would be killed and then stop. He continued by telling them that he would rise again after three days. No doubt they thought he was completely crazy, but we know that that's what actually happened. We know that even though Jesus died, that wasn't the end of him. He was raised to new life, a life where death wasn't part of the package. But that couldn't have happened if Jesus hadn't died in the first place. There would have been no resurrection for him if there hadn't first been his death. Nor would there be for us. It ends up that Jesus' death was important not only for him, but for us, as well.

And that's because, as Paul says in his letter to the Romans, "if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his." Jesus, the single grain of wheat, had to die so that the fruit he bore might give us new life. A new life, I might add, that we would never experience if we, in our turn, didn't also die.
So it turns out that the death we fear, that we try so hard to avoid, is the only way to get to the kind of life where there is no more death. We can't get around it, we can't ignore it, we can't protest it, we can only go through it, just as God planned, and just as Jesus did to that place where we receive eternal life.

So what does that mean in the here and now? Well, for one thing it means that we don't have to be so fearful when it comes to death, or be hesitant to talk about dying. One of the truly sad things that I have to deal with in my job comes when I'm speaking to someone whose family doesn't want to hear them talk about dying. Usually these people are elderly seniors, whose health isn't well. They want to talk about dying, they tell me that they think it's time to go, and that they would happily die - but when they try and have these conversations with their children and grandchildren, the people who mean the most to them, the children and grandchildren stop the conversation. They don't want to hear about it. Their own fear of death prevents them from hearing. But why should it? When we know that death is a natural, God-given part of life, when we know that it is part of the plan God has intended for us from Creation, when we know that it is the only entree to eternal life, why should we be afraid to talk about death? Or to listen to people we love talk about it? Knowing all these things, we can take heart and listen to what others are trying to tell us.

And when the people we love do die? Well, of course we mourn, and of course we're sad about all the things we will miss about them. We will most likely not rejoice. But we can be thankful that they have now attained eternal life with God through Christ. Death is not the end of the line for them, or for us, just as it wasn't for Jesus Christ. Death does indeed become a gift from God, given in God's own time, as precious as birth, because it is our rebirth.

And that is the point of Lent. To lead us through death - not around it - but through it, through the harsh reality of Good Friday, through the death of Jesus, until we arrive at Easter Sunday and its proclamation of new life. Going around death won't get us where we need to go, and neither will hanging back. Only those who lose their life, only those who die, will in the end save it and receive the true life that God has planned for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Wed, March 1, 2006 - Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Well, Jesus has set the bar pretty high for us, hasn't he? You'll notice in the Gospel I just read that Jesus doesn't say "if" you give alms do it in secret, "if" you pray do it in secret, or "if" you fast do it in secret, he's saying "when." When you give alms, pray, and fast, do it without others being aware of it. I think it's that "when" that gives us a lot of trouble. Because, let's be honest, very few of us make these things a habit. A dedicated few might make praying a regular habit, and fewer make giving alms a matter of course, and I know that I myself have never fasted. So already, we have failed to live up to the expectations Jesus has set before us. The gap between what we are and what we ought to be is insurmountable. The distance between who we are and the reality God envisions for us is infinitely vast.

It's no wonder then that we are constantly being called to "return to the Lord our God." You see, we are actually the ones responsible for the distance between us and God. It is our fault that we are estranged from the One who made us. How can we expect to be close to God when we spend so much of our lives thinking about ourselves - our goals, our successes, our failures, our survival? No relationship can survive when one person is constantly thinking about themself, and the same is true of our relationship with the divine. When, and notice I say "when" not "if", when we spend so much time on ourselves and so little time nurturing our relationship with God through almsgiving, praying, and fasting - to name a few examples - then we can expect to feel estranged from God, just as we feel estranged from friends and family if we don't take the time to call them, or visit with them.

The result of this estrangement from God is similar to our estrangement from any other person. We feel guilty, knowing we should do more but just not doing it. We feel resentful towards the other, trying to rationalize our behaviour by saying that the other person is asking too much from us. And when it comes to God, we also feel afraid, fearing that God will punish us for failing to live the way we know we should. All in all, our alienation from God leaves us feeling unsatisfied with life, and yet fearing death.

And so along comes this cross of ashes that we get imposed on our foreheads during the Ash Wednesday service. It's probably one of the most powerful rituals of the church year, coming forward, kneeling before the pastor to hear the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," and feeling ashes get smushed onto our foreheads. There is no other ritual in the world that reminds us so concretely that our estrangement from God ultimately results in death. There is nothing else in our culture that reminds us so forcefully that we are as far from the divine as we can possibly get, that all of our self-involvement is getting us killed. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust." That's what we get.

But that's not all we get. In one of those holy paradoxes. the cross of ashes also becomes a symbol of reconciliation. Although it's made of ashes, the cross on our foreheads is a symbol of what it takes to be restored to the relationship we've abandoned. And what it takes is action by God. I implied earlier that the distance between us and God is uncrossable. And it is. For us, anyway. But not for God. Only God can bridge the gap between us, and only God can bring about reconciliation. That's why Paul, in our second reading, says "be reconciled to God." He doesn't say, "Reconcile yourself to God," which would require action on our part, which would be impossible. He says, "be reconciled." Let God do the reconciling, allow God to bring you back to the Lord. That is, after all, what God wants. That is why in Joel, God calls us to return with promises of grace and mercy, and steadfast love. God is not trying to threaten or bully us back into relationship - God moves towards us in love first so that we might turn from ourselves and face God and freely return that love. God is the one who takes the initiative and keeps things going.

Of course we know that God accomplishes all of this, reconciles us to God's self, through the cross. By becoming incarnate as Jesus Christ and dying on the cross for us, God makes our reconciliation complete; God absorbs all of our failures and self-obsessed behaviour in the greatest act of love ever. This is what Lent is about - not about berating ourselves for how sinful we are, even though we are, but about watching as God moves us ever closer to the sublime moment of reconciliation, as God completes our atonement - our at-one-ment - with God, and ends our estrangement forever. Lent - with its ashes of estrangement and its cross of reconciliation - is about the path God leads us on that ends in Easter.

That isn't to say that we do nothing during Lent. We can't do anything to bring about our reconciliation with God, but that doesn't mean we sit back as passive vegetables. There is a role for us to play, and it is the one Jesus has laid out for us. To give alms, to pray, and to fast. But rather than these becoming obligations and conditions necessary to be restored to God, they become instead responses to God already having restored us. They become signs that we believe that we are reconciled, they become offerings of thanksgiving for what God has done, they become preparations for the celebrations of Easter Sunday.

So as you prepare yourself to receive the Ash Wednesday cross upon your forehead, reflect on the distance that you have created between yourself and God, give thanks that God has bridged and continues to bridge that distance, and allow God to lead you through the next forty days to Easter. Amen.

Sun, Feb 26, 2006 - Light in the Darkness

2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Cor 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

Wouldn't you love to know what the future holds for you? Don't you want to know where life is taking you? How your story will end? I sure do. At the very least, I wouldn't mind knowing the exact date and time this baby is going to be born. I'd like to know what kind of life he'll have. If my grandparents in Japan will ever see him. I'd like to know what will happen to my career after taking a year of maternity leave. There's so many things about the future that I want to know.

I think we all, to some degree or another, want to know about the future. I think that's why horoscopes and psychics are so popular. As much as we might laugh at them, who here hasn't been tempted to check out their horoscope for the day to see if it will be good or bad? We want to know what's going to happen. We spend so much of our lives walking around in blindness, so to speak, without a clue as to what's going to happen next, that we all crave a little bit of reassurance that things will be all right.

After all, our lives are pretty unpredictable. We never know for certain whether the choices we make in life are the right ones, or where they will lead us. When I decided to attend university in Montreal to study opera, I never imagined that it would lead to meeting my husband, moving to Philadelphia, going to seminary, and bring me, eleven years later, to today - an ordained pastor of a parish in Toronto. Who could have guessed that such things would happen? It's turned out well for me, but not all of the choices we make end up so happily. And we have no way of knowing when they will and when they won't.

Which can be difficult when the situations we find ourselves in are not going well. We never know when something terrible might happen - when we might suddenly lose our job, when someone we love might be involved in a tragic accident, when we might be struck down by an illness, (when we might be shut out of the men's gold medal hockey game.) But seriously, truly terrible things do happen without warning, and in those situations, when we talk about the future, we use words like "darkness" and "hidden." "The future is hidden from us." "The way forward is covered in darkness." And we want to know what is going to happen.

That was the situation for the disciples who were following Jesus. Although we have spent the last eight weeks of Epiphany listening to stories of Jesus healing people and performing miracles, and although the disciples who saw these things were no doubt quite confident and excited about the future, immediately before our gospel reading for today, Jesus sits the disciples down and tells them that the future is not going to be as bright and happy as they think. He tells them that "the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed." So much for being the great hero that saves all of Israel and brings heaven to earth. This is a story with a tragic surprise ending. And then Jesus tells the shocked disciples that anyone who wants to follow him on his path to greatness must be prepared to do the same - to lose their lives. They must deny themselves, and take up their crosses. These disciples aren't following the next Palestinian Idol, destined for autographs and record deals. They're following the biggest loser of all times, and they're going to suffer in the process. And there's no way they saw that coming. There's no way they were able to predict this future. So before Peter, James, and John even go up the mountain and witness the bizarre and confusing transfiguration event, they are already left reeling in shock. The bright, victorious future they had envisioned for their leader and for themselves has been taken away, and replaced with suffering and death. Who knows how they are to forward from this? Who knows how they are supposed to carry on with their lives?

"Our gospel is veiled," says Paul in his letter to the Corinthians that we just heard. And indeed it seem, not just the gospel, but our future. But Paul concludes by saying that, "it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." In other words, although we can't see very far, if at all, into the future, even though it seems that all is darkness, we know that God is there, causing the light of Christ to shine on us.

And that is what the disciples discovered when they went up the mountain with Jesus. They discovered that in the midst of all their confusion about what the future held for them and Jesus, confusion which, admittedly, didn't get any less when they were up there, but in the midst of all of that uncertainty they discovered that God was there. God was there - yes, hidden in a cloud - but there, proclaiming that Jesus was God's Beloved Son, transfiguring Jesus to be full of a light so bright none of them could even look at him. The disciples' confusion wasn't any less, but now they were reassured that this suffering and death was part of God's plan, and that despite the uncertainty of the future, God was a part of what was going to happen. They could go forward, still blind, but knowing that God was holding their hand and guiding them as they took each step. Jesus' transfiguration on the mountain was a sign that although times may be dark, they were not without hope, and they were not without the promise of light.

We don't have the same blinding transfiguration moments in our times of darkness. At least, we don't have them in such striking ways as the disciples did. But we have more than they did at that moment in time. We have the reassurance that not only is God a part of our future that's going to happen, but that God has light and life waiting for us at the end of it. We know that Jesus' path, although confusing to the disciples, led to new life and resurrection and greater glory than anyone could have imagined. We know that three days after Jesus died, he was raised again. We know that Good Friday always leads to Easter Sunday, that the darkness of life leads to God's light. And we know that the same holds true for us. Whatever dark times our lives bring us through, whatever suffering and confusion we experience, whatever the unpredictable outcomes of our choices, God's presence is with us, too, bringing us the light and life of Christ in ways we could never imagine. That doesn't mean that things will go smoothly or painlessly - they certainly didn't go that way for the disciples - but it does mean that we can count on things ending the way God, our Creator and Sustainer, wants them to - in life for all.

We have come to the end of the season of Epiphany, when we proclaim that Christ's light is growing in the world, and when we can easily see all of the miracles and greatness of the Son of God. On Wednesday, we will enter the season of Lent, when the light and miracle and greatness are more difficult to see, when the world seems to get a little darker. It may seem discouraging, but rest assured that even the darkest of days ends in Easter, that death does indeed end in life, and that we can continue to move forward, knowing that God is with us, bringing us ever closer to Christ at the end. God did say, "Let light shine out of the darkness," and we know that it was so and will continue to be that way today and evermore. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Sun, February 12, 2006 - Exclusion and Inclusion in God's Name

2 Kings 5:-14
Psalm 30
1 Cor 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

When it comes to religion, humankind has, for the most part, used it well. We have allowed religion to support us through difficult times, to spur us to great acts of love and sacrifice, to give us meaning and hope in times of despair. I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe in the value that religion can bring to the world.

But that's not what I want to talk about this morning. That's not the premise of our Bible passages for this morning. In fact, it's pretty much the opposite. Today we are confronted with the shameful truth that oftentimes humankind has used religion badly. We have used religion to support and encourage racism and all kinds of bigotry and prejudice, we have used it to stir up hatred against others, to make some people's lives worth less so that ours are worth more.

It starts, sadly, with our own Bible. Although these days we highlight Bible passages that talk about God's grace being available to all, and about Jesus touching the untouchables, the truth is that there is a strain in the Bible that is not so inclusive. We see it in the Old Testament, beginning with the exclusion of non-Israelites. Certain stories are written to give us the impression that God does not show mercy or favour or grace to anyone outside of God's chosen people. When the Hebrews leave Egypt, their successful escape is attributed to God sending plagues to torture and kill the Egyptians and using the waters of the Reed Sea to wipe them out and finish the job. As the people of ancient Israel move into Canaan, their victory and complete slaughter of the Canaanites is attributed to God being on their side, and not on the side of the pagans. As the Israelites reel from the destruction of their temple and exile into Babylon, the book of the prophet Ezra attributes it to God's punishment of them for getting involved in mixed marriages and contaminating their "holy seed" with the blood of non-believers.

Using God as an excuse to practice discrimination about who is in God's circle is a definite strain in the New Testament as well. The authors of the Gospel of John filled its pages with holy condemnation for those who aren't Christian - namely, the Jews, and did it in the name of Christ. Paul insults and even vilifies pagans because they don't follow Jesus, and encourages his readers to separate themselves from those whom he thinks fall outside of God's favour. It never occurs to Paul to question the fact that the people he doesn't like and the people God doesn't like always seem to be the same people.

So, we acknowledge that our Bible has exclusionary tendencies and that sometimes people used God as an excuse for their own prejudices and hatred. That's not the problem. They are a part of our religious history, we take them for what they are, and we seek the good in them. The problem comes when we take these mistakes of our past and bring them into the future, into our present. The problem comes when we continue, in this modern age, to use religion to keep people out of God's circle, to justify our turning our backs on them when they need help, to reinforce our subtle biases against those aren't the same as us.

There are a number of examples I could give of Christians, in particular, using the Bible and religion as an excuse to practice hatred. Women have historically, and even today, been told that God has no use for them. Blacks have been kept out of white churches and white families on the premise that God wants it that way. The assault and even murder of gays and lesbians today is tolerated because some people seem them as undeserving of God's grace and even, it would seem, God's gift of life. But the example that's most on my mind these days is the shameful treatment, by people who call themselves Christians, of Muslims.

It's on my mind, of course, because of the recent troubles over insulting cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. While the violence of the last few weeks can never be condoned, what I find particularly appalling is the way Christians have either done nothing or inflamed the situation by reprinting cartoons that offend the faith of others. The fact that all of the countries who have reprinted the cartoons, with the exception of Jordan, are traditionally considered "Christian" countries is telling. And what it tells me is that as Christians, we do not consider Muslims to be either worth our attention and support, or even worse, worth respecting when it comes to matters of religion. What it tells me is that when it comes to Muslims, we believe that God is on our side, and therefore God is not on their side. Like the situation of the Hebrews and the Egyptians, or the Israelites and the Canaanites, or Paul's Christians and the Roman pagans, we seem to have put a religious spin on our own biases and prejudices. We seem to have decided that God is for us, which means God is against them. And so we have acted as all people do who think that God is on their side alone, and we have said, either directly or indirectly, that God is against the Muslims. We use religion to malign them and separate ourselves from them, we rejoice when they suffer, we proclaim that God is favouring us when we achieve victory over them. And we find justification in our religious writings, in our Bible, for doing so.

If we look closely, though, we will find condemnation for our behaviour in the Bible, too. Because as I mentioned in the beginning, our Bible does contain stories and the message that God is a god of grace and inclusion. Two of our readings for today are stories of God acting in ways that are so gracious and inclusive that they were offensive, and even blasphemous, to the people of the time. The first is the story of Na'aman, the commander of the king of Aram. Aram, as I found out when researching this passage, is now known as Syria. And like today, Aram and Israel were not friends, to put it mildly. They were enemies. Which makes the story of Na'aman without parallel. For one thing, the story starts by saying that because of Na'aman, "the Lord had given victory to Aram." Now, if you think about it, that's a really subtle way of saying that Na'aman was victorious in battle against Aram's enemies. And who would those enemies be? Yup, Israel. So the story is set up that a non-Israelites, an anti-Israelite, if you will, falls sick and the only cure is to go and see a prophet of God, a member of the Israelite nation. And God, through the prophet Elisha, heals him. Can you imagine how offensive that would have been to the Isrealites? To hear that God had chosen to heal one of their mortal enemies, a man who was committed to wiping them out, someone who didn't even worship the right god? It's almost unbelievable that God would show favour to one whose life was so outside the circle of whom the Israelites considered acceptable. And yet God did.

And God did it again through Jesus in our Gospel reading. We hear the stories of Jesus touching and healing the lepers so often that it seems completely commonplace, but again, this is another instance of religious blasphemy. Lepers were outside the circle of religiously acceptable company. To touch them was to defile yourself, to make yourself contaminated and unholy. It was a religious offense to come into physical contact with a leper and not to religiously purify yourself. And yet here is Jesus, the Son of God, the most holy of all people in Israel, transgressing those boundaries, stepping outside the acceptable circle, and including in his generous love a man who was completely unworthy of being there.

God has transgressed the boundaries we've set up in God's name again and again throughout history. When we used the Bible to say that women were not holy enough to be included in the circle of God's ordained ministers, God showed us we were wrong, that God's circle was big enough. When we used the Bible to say that blacks weren't holy enough to be included in the circle of God's worshippers, God showed us we were wrong, that God's circle was big enough. So I have to ask: Is it going too far, is it too offensive to say that when we use the Bible to say that Muslims and other non-Christians aren't holy enough to be included in the circle of those whom God favours, that God will show us that we are wrong? That God's circle is more than big enough for them, too?

I don't think so. I don't think it's going too far to say that Muslims, too, are included in the circle of those whom God loves. Because the truth that we proclaim is that there are no limits to God's favour, no boundaries on God's grace. God welcomes everyone into the circle, Christ died for all people. Our Lord welcomes in those who are excluded, and thank God, even welcomes in those who do the excluding. There's no need for us to use the Bible to draw artificial lines between us and them, to say that we are marked for God's grace while they are not. For goodness' sake, it's not like God doesn't have enough grace to go around.

But more than that, there's no need for us to stay silent when others use religion to try and close the circle off, to keep people away from God's mercy. In fact, the Gospel, which proclaims that we - as people who are both excluded and who exclude - are welcomed and loved by God, compels us to speak out when we see this happening. We are compelled to reach out, as Jesus did, to those who have been shunned in the name of religion, to reach out, as Elisha did, to those whom are considered God's enemies. We are compelled, as forgiven and welcomed sinners ourselves, to proclaim that forgiveness and welcome to others, without discrimination or prejudice. And that is how we will finally use religion, in particular Christianity, well - as a way to demonstrating great acts of love and compassion, as the means to achieving justice and peace, as a the way to bring God's love to the world. Amen.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Revisiting To be Right or To be Silent

It seems to me that the issue around the "Mohammed cartoons" is about being right or being silent. Yes, freedom of the press is an important freedom, and people should never be afraid to publish what they think. On the other hand, in this particular case, wouldn't it have been better for those newspapers who chose to reprint the cartoons in support of that freedom to be silent? Their proclamation of their "rightness" has offended the faith of Muslims, and while it's true that Paul was only thinking of his Christian brothers and sisters, surely we take a wider view of the world than he did? We who are "strong" should show more compassion to those who are "weak."

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Sun, February 5, 2006 - Healing and the Kingdom of God

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

I spent a lot of time in medical facilities this week - visiting a congregation member in the hospital, waiting in a doctor's office, visiting a physiotherapist - and as I did, it struck me just how much sickness is a part of our lives. I would guess that everybody sitting here knows at least one person right now who isn't well - a friend or a family member, or even you yourself, someone who is physically ill, or mentally or emotionally, or even spiritually ill. I don't even have to guess to know that every one of us here has, at some point in our lives, been sick - whether from something minor like a cold or the flu, or from something major like cancer or a heart condition.

In any case, while I was noticing all this sickness that touches our lives, I got to thinking about what it would take for disease and illness to be completely eradicated from our world. It's pretty astonishing, really, what would have to change for sickness to become a thing of the past, mostly because you'd have to address the root causes of illness. To get rid of all the things that make people unwell, we'd have to get rid of malnutrition - a major cause of all kinds of disease. We'd have to do away with poverty and homelessness, two more major factors that contribute to people getting and staying sick. We'd obviously have to take environmental factors into consideration - polluted air and water cause all kinds of diseases. Naturally we'd have to end wars and all kinds of abuse - things that can lead to mental and emotional diseases, not to mention the physical consequences of violent conflict. In short, for people to be well and whole their whole lives, the world would have to become a place where everybody was cared for, fed, protected, and at peace. The world would have to become, well, heaven. Or, as our Gospel writer would say, the world would have to become the kingdom of God.

Now, it might be a bit of a leap for me to say that getting rid of sickness - healing the world - is connected to the kingdom of God. But in our Gospel stories for the past two weeks, taken from the Gospel of Mark, we see that those two things - healing and God's kingdom - are intimately connected. In Mark, Jesus bursts onto the scene in Galilee with the proclamation, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near." And then, immediately after that, after calling some disciples, Jesus begins to demonstrate just how near the kingdom has come by healing people. First he casts out the demon of a man with an unclean spirit, and then, as we heard today, he heals Simon Peter's mother-in-law of a fever, and then that same evening he cures "many who were sick with various diseases." And the next morning, Jesus and his disciples go off to neighbouring towns "proclaiming the message... and casting out demons." In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus' proclamation that the kingdom of God has come near is always closely followed by his healing one person or another. Throughout his ministry, Jesus is healing sick women, casting out demons, and eliminating sickness as often as he can, bringing God's kingdom to as many people as he can.

But it's not just in the Gospels that we see that God's presence among us results in healing. In a general, cosmic sense, God has been healing the world from the beginning, bringing God's creative and life-giving Spirit wherever there is sickness and illness. In our reading from Isaiah, we hear about how great and cosmic God is, having spread the stars throughout the sky, encompassing the whole world in a glance, being "great in strength and mighty in power," while at the same time we hear that God is concerned with the weak and "gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless." We have so many psalms that speak of God's healing of the world and of individuals, and today, we read [past tense] Psalm 147, where we proclaimed that God "heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds" and that "the Lord lifts up the downtrodden." From the beginning of creation, through the prophets, into the time of Jesus and even beyond into the Acts of the Apostles, we see that God brings healing to the world, and in doing so, brings God's kingdom ever closer to the world.

But my bet is that when it comes to sickness and healing, most of you aren't all that concerned with the general, cosmic overview of God's healing. My bet is that when it comes to sickness and healing, you want to talk in specifics - about specific people and about specific illnesses. In fact, my bet is that the question you're asking - because it's something I ask, too - is what about God's healing in my particular situation? Whether that situation concerns an illness that we're going through ourselves, or whether we're thinking about someone else that we care about very much who is sick, we want to know - what is God going to do in this case? Simon Peter saw Jesus heal the man in the synagogue and no doubt thought immediately of his own particular situation - of his sick mother-in-law. The people of Capernaum heard about the man in the synagogue and thought not of how the world was changing for the better with this one healing, but of how Jesus could heal their family members and neighbours. They wanted specifics, not generalities. When we think of sickness and healing and God's presence in the midst of that, we want to know when will God heal, how will God heal, and sometimes even, why hasn't God healed yet? We read books on how prayer can heal and watch healing ministry shows on television hoping for some clue that will tell us when God is going to address our own problem. We wouldn't usually put it this way, but we want to know: when is the kingdom of God going to come to me, personally?

Well, having raised those questions, I'm not sure I have a very good answer for you. Because the truth is that we have no way of knowing when or why God moves from generalities to specifics. We don't know why Jesus chose to heal the man in the synagogue, or Simon Peter's mother-in-law. We don't know why he didn't go around healing every single sick person in Israel. We don't know why some people who pray for healing get better, while others do not. We don't know why it seems like the kingdom of God seems to come sooner for some, but not for others. And the tough pill to swallow is that when it comes to these questions, we will never know.

Which sucks, I know. Things are bad enough when we or someone we love is sick - not only is the pain tough to deal with, but so is the uncertainty over the future - when recovery will happen, if it's even possible, what will happen if it's not. But then to hear on top of that that even God's involvement in the healing process is uncertain - well, that can seem like too much.

But before you tune out and wonder why I brought all this up in the first place if I haven't got an answer for you, let me tell you that there is a difference between being uncertain and falling into despair - being without any hope whatsoever. Because although we may be uncertain when it comes to God's actions, we are not without hope. We may not know how or when God is going to act, when the kingdom of God is going to come to us, but that doesn't mean that it's not coming at all. That doesn't mean that healing is an impossibility, it doesn't mean that continued sickness is permanent. In fact, what we do know, and what we base our hope on, is that as Isaiah says, the Lord, the everlasting God, "does not faint or grow weary" in the task of healing either the world or individuals. From the beginning of creation - and that's a long time ago no matter how you figure it - God has been healing on both a macro- and a micro- scale - counting the stars in the heavens and feeding the small birds in the skies.

We also know that when it comes to bringing about that world where sickness doesn't exist - when it comes to bringing to fulfilment the kingdom of God - that although we are far from certain about when that might happen, we are given every reason to hope, by Jesus Christ himself, that it will happen, and is happening even as we speak. "The kingdom of God has come near," Jesus said often and in various ways, and demonstrated it over and over again in healings and feedings of thousands and indeed, proving it definitively when he was raised from the dead. And indeed, those rare moments of healing that we do experience, those brief instances when everything seems to be going perfectly in the world, when heaven touches earth, those moments are given to encourage us to keep up our hope, as signs that the kingdom of God has come and is coming near.

I cannot say when God will bring healing and the kingdom of God to your particular situation. But I can say, without hesitation, that you and all those who need healing are a vital part of the vast cosmos that God is committed to healing. To paraphrase Isaiah, do not say that your way is hidden from the Lord, and your right is disregarded by your God. "Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.. . . Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." The kingdom of God has come near to the world. When it will be fully here, I couldn't say, but it continues to come and you will be a part of that and all will experience the healing of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Sun, January 29, 2006 - To Be Right or To Be Silent

Deut 18:15-20
1 Cor 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

So the early church in Corinth had a problem. They were a group of Christians whose members were at different stages in their faith journey, like all Christian communities. Some of the Corinthian Christians were very knowledgeable about their faith, presumably they'd been Christians for a while, they were strong in their faith, and nothing could sway them from that. Others of the Corinthian Christians were newer, they didn't have as sophisticated a level of interpretation when it came to the Scriptures, and their faith just wasn't as strong as their sisters and brothers.

But the church in Corinth ran into a dilemma. There were, at that time in the Roman Empire, a number of different religious cults that practiced animal sacrifice. Worshippers would buy some meat, take it to their religious leader to be sacrificed, and after the ritual was over, the priest would return some of the meat so it could be eaten, or even sell it back on the market. Now, if you were a worshipper in one of these cults, eating that meat didn't pose any kind of a problem. But what if you didn't worship in that cult? What if you were, say, a Christian? Was it right to eat that meat or not?

Well, the church in Corinth was divided. Those who were knowledgeable and strong in their faith said, "Well, we know that there's only one God, so even though the meat was used for idol-worship, those idols don't exist, so it's still just plain meat, no matter what ritual it was put through." And they would buy and eat the meat, and have no qualms about it. But other Christians, those whose understanding wasn't as sophisticated or who didn't want to take those kinds of risks, didn't see it that way. For them, eating that meat was the same thing as participating in the idol-worship - it was the same thing as worshipping other gods. And when they saw some of their Christian brothers and sisters, whom they admired as knowledgeable in the faith, taking part in those rituals, their faith wavered. They questioned the leadership of their church. It would be safe to guess that some of them even stopped coming around on Sunday mornings to worship because the matter troubled them so much.

So what was the church in Corinth to do? On the one hand, the more knowledgeable Christians were right - there was no harm in eating meat offered to gods who didn't exist. It was foolish of people to get worked up and lose faith over something that didn't matter. But on the other hand, their less knowledgeable sisters and brothers just couldn't go that far in their faith, and were so troubled by it that they were turning away. So the church asked Paul - which was better? To be knowledgeable, and to act on that knowledge, dismissing the ignorant concerns of those new to the faith? Or to give in to the weak consciences of those who didn't understand things the way they did and put aside what they knew to be right about the faith? In other words, which was better - to be right or to be silent?

We don't have quite the same dilemma in our own lives these days. That is, we don't worry about whether the food we eat has been offered to idols or been part of some kind of religious sacrifice. But we do still face the dilemma of whether it is better to be right or to be silent. Inside the church or outside of it, we are most of us in positions of some kind of authority. Whether as parents, or teachers, or supervisors at work, we all have moments when people look to us to know what they should do. And most of the time, it's easy to know what to do. When we know more than somebody else, there's usually no problem with telling them what we know. We see someone hooking up their jumper cables to their battery wrong, and we say, "Hey, don't do that." We see someone standing in line for something they don't need to, and we say, "Hey, you can skip the line and just go ahead." We're in the car with a new driver and they're going only 90 on the 401 and the traffic is piling up behind them and we might say, "Hey, it's okay to go 100."

But sometimes the situation isn't so black-and-white as that. Sometimes things are a little greyer. Sometimes, even though our knowledge might be right and true, that isn't the point. Take the driving example, for instance. In Alberta, where I learned to drive, the speed on divided highways is 110. So I know from experience that a car can safely travel at 110 on the highway, and nobody's going to get hurt. Those of us who have been driving for many years know that that's a reasonable speed for the highway. But does that automatically mean that if I'm in the car with a new driver, I can just say to them, "Hey, it's okay to go 110, don't worry about the speed limit, it's really old and outdated?" I don't think so. This hypothetical new driver might think I'm encouraging them to break all of the speed limits and end up completely disrespectful of any and all traffic laws. So what do I do? Is it better to be right or to be silent? We all find ourselves in situations where we have to ask, is it better for us to share what we know, to be right, or would doing so hurt the other person? Is it better to just keep our mouths shut? How do we solve the dilemma?

Well, Paul had a straightforward answer to the Corinthians' problem. "Knowledge puffs up," he said, "but love builds up." When it came to the question of meat offered to idols, Paul essentially said, "Yes, you strong Christians, you are right. You know the truth, that the meat is harmless. In your knowledge, you are free to eat whatever you want. But you are not alone in this church. You are in a community, and there are others who are watching you, and who are troubled by your actions and by how you interpret the rules. And they are losing faith. So for their sake, for love of them, and so as not to destroy their love for God, be silent. Don't eat the meat, even though there's nothing wrong with it. Be silent - suppress the desire to show off how sophisticated a Christian you are - constrain yourselves simply for the sake of those around you." For Paul, it was all a matter of love and building up the faith of others. If being and saying what was right led the other person closer to the love of God, well that's great. But if it meant that the other no longer felt close to God, well then for God's sake, literally, keep quiet no matter how much you know. For Paul, there were definitely times when it was better to be silent than to be right, and love let him know when those times were.

We can use the same principle in our dilemmas. When we are struggling with whether or not to speak, we can ask ourselves which option will lead the other person to see that God loves them, and which option will drive them away. I don't think I need to elaborate on the Christians out there who say things that are biblically correct but drive others away from God because all they speak about is judgement. According to Paul, it would be better for those guys to bite their tongue, no matter how wrong they think the other people are. And sometimes the same is true for us. Sometimes no matter how right we know ourselves to be, we just have to zip our mouths shut so that we don't weaken other people's faith in God or send them running away from God altogether.

The best example of this that I can think of comes from Les Miserables, the book by Victor Hugo that later became a musical. In the early stages of the story, there is a character named Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, who was sent to jail for stealing a loaf of bread. Within four days of his release, he ends up at the house of a bishop, starving and without any money at all. The bishop invites him in, feeds him, and gives him a place to sleep for the night. Well, at some point in the middle of the night, Jean Valjean wakes up and decides to leave, taking with him - stealing, actually - the very expensive silver-ware plates that the bishop has in the house so that he can trade them for money to start a new life. And he is gone.

Later that morning, though, some police show up at the bishop's door with Jean Valjean and the stolen silver plates. The bishop comes to the door and what does he say? Does he say, "Oh thank you, messieurs les gendarmes, for arresting this man and returning my plates?" That would have been the right thing to say - it would have been true. But it would also have destroyed Jean Valjean. And so the bishop, out of love, and hoping to bring Jean Valjean to God's love says, "I am glad to see you. But why didn't you take the two candlesticks that I gave you along with the silver plates?" And he explains to the police, quite falsely, hiding the truth, staying silent about what is right, that he gave the silverware to Jean Valjean to start a new life. The bishop, doing what Paul would have done, stays silent about what is right so that Valjean can know that the love of God means building others up, not tearing them down.

It's not easy in our culture to do as Paul suggests - to be silent. We prize knowledge so highly, and we're so insistent on having the last word, that being silent can be difficult. It means hiding what we know, it means appearing less knowledgeable than we are, it means stifling our pride at "knowing the right answer." But those are all small prices to pay to demonstrate the love of God to others so that they, in turn, come to love God. And after all, isn't that what we're called to do in the world? Not to show off how much we know, or how right we are, but to spread the good news of God's love to others, the love that we have received ourselves, through Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sun, January 22, 2006 - Repent and Believe

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:6-14
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

"Never apologize and never explain - it's a sign of weakness." So said the great John Wayne, in his movie She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. It's a sentiment that some of us might agree with - in this day and age, apologizing for something we've done isn't really the cool thing to do. A lot of parents find it hard to apologize to their children, you'll almost never hear politicians apologizing in public, and when was the last time your boss said sorry for something and really meant it? Sure, we all mutter "sorry" under our breath when we bump into somebody, but we rarely truthfully and honestly apologize for the real mistakes that we've made. Probably for that exact reason - we don't want people to think we've actually made a mistake. We don't want people to think that we're less than perfect, that we have failed to do something or done it incorrectly. We don't want people to think, like John Wayne does, that we're weak.

Well, today's readings from the Old Testament and the Gospel are about repentance. Now, repentance is a lot like apologizing - it involves acknowledging that you've made a mistake, that you've been less than perfect, that you are not as superior as you like people to think you are. But repentance is about more than just apologizing - it's about more than just feeling bad and saying sorry. Repentance is also about action - specifically, about action that rectifies the mistake you've made. The Greek word for "repent," which Jesus used when he said, "repent, and believe in the good news" is "metaneo," which means to turn, and particularly to turn one's self right around from what one was doing. It is a word that is connected to actions, not to feelings or to speaking words, but to actually doing something.

That sense of turning, of action as a part of repentance, is felt throughout our Bible, both Old and New Testaments. In today's reading from Jonah, God sent Jonah to Nineveh to get the people to repent, to turn from their wicked ways. And when the people of Nineveh heard Jonah's message, they didn't just feel bad and hang their heads and say, "Oh, sorry, God, for our gluttony and vanity and generally wicked behaviour." No, they moved into action - they fasted, a sign of feeling sorry but also a 180 degree turn from being gluttonous, and they put on sackcloth - goat- hair shirts - another sign of repentance but also a 180 turn from wearing fine, expensive clothing. Their repentance included action.

In our Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus called people to "repent, and believe in the good news," and Simon and Andrew and James and John "immediately" leapt into action. We don't know what they were repenting of - there's nothing wrong with being a fisherman, but nevertheless, after hearing Jesus' call to repentance they turned away from their lives as fishermen and turned to new lives of being Jesus' disciples. In the Bible, the call to repentance is answered by action.

It ought to be that way today, too. God does, after all, call us to repentance in this day and age as well. The situation Nineveh found itself in that led it to require repentance is similar to the situation we find ourselves in. Nineveh was reputed to be a city of excess and greed, where every sin imaginable was committed - sort of the Las Vegas of Biblical times. Can we honestly say that we're any different? That we don't need to repent of these same things? Jesus' call to the disciples and the people of Galilee, to repent and believe in the good news - that's a call to us, too, issued every Sunday in the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness. We even hear God calling us to repentance in the words from 1 Corinthians - in Paul's words to turn away from the obsessions of the world and return to a focus on Christ. And remember, God is calling us to do more than just feel bad and say sorry, God is calling us to actually turn, to take action.

Now there are a lot of things we need to repent of, but there's one in particular I want to focus on today, and that is our overwhelming insistence on putting ourselves first. We live in an age of individualism, where what is good for me is more important than what is good for the community. We are told that I come first, that I have to take care of myself above all, that my needs take priority. Now, I'm not saying that self-care is bad, or that we need to sacrifice ourselves completely for the common good - but if you think of it as a pendulum, with one side being nothing but the community and the other side being nothing but the individual, well we've swung a little too far towards the individual side and need to return more towards the middle. If you'll forgive me for once again dragging politics into the pulpit, when politicians try to swing votes by promising personal tax cuts at the cost of community well-being and social structures, that is catering to the individual. When somebody asks for our help and our first thought is, "I don't have the time," - or the money, depending on what they're asking for - rather than "I'll give you whatever you need," that is putting our individual selves above the good of the other. Sister Joan Chittester asked a rhetorical question that highlights the seriousness of our problem. She said, "The real social question of the age is: How many ads can a person possibly watch on TV and stay more committed to the enlightenment of the self than to the aggrandizement of the self?" We are, each one of us - there are no exceptions here - dedicated to the aggrandizement of the self - to making ourselves more important, more valuable - in short, to doing everything possible so that the world revolves around us.

And it's wrong. Do I need to say that? Is it obvious to you why God would call us to repent of this self-centred individualism? For one thing, like I said, it's wrong. Living this way requires others to sacrifice themselves for us, and if everybody did it, we could very well end up ourselves as the victims of someone else's self-importance. Any action we can take to rectify that situation and turn it around is a good thing. God will forgive us, it's true, but that forgiveness won't fix the mistakes we've made or put right our wrongs. The responsibility for that belongs to us. But that's not the only reason God calls us to repentance - for this and for all the other things we do wrong.

God calls us to turn from acting this way because it's only in turning, in taking action and repenting, that we can turn away from ourselves and back to God. Simply feeling bad and saying sorry won't do a darn thing if we continue to act in self-centred ways. Unless we actually turn ourselves around, we will continue to walk the path of " me first" and we will discover that we are moving farther and farther away from God.

So that's the bad news. What's the good news? Well, the good news is that God isn't just telling you to turn away from your sins, and that's it. Instead, God is actually giving you something to turn towards. In other words, God isn't out there saying, "Repent or die" - threatening you until you act. Rather, God is saying "Repent and live." God is, essentially, trying to bribe you into action. You could call it positive reinforcement. When Jesus said, "Repent and believe in the good news," he wasn't saying, "Repent and believe... or else." He was saying, "Repent and believe because the good news is for you." And the good news is that God is merciful, and accepts your repentance, and is full of steadfast love towards you no matter what. The good news is that when you turn to God, God gives you new life, and helps you to complete your turning, and brings you into the kingdom of God.

The good news is also that repentance isn't a sign of weakness. Interestingly enough, even God repents. Even God turns from one thing to follow another path. After Noah and the flood, God repented of wiping out the earth and swore a covenant never to do it again. God took a new path. And when it came to the people of Nineveh, God changed God's mind about punishing them, God repented and turned to forgiving them instead. Repentance, it turns out, is a sign of strength, something to be followed, something that gives us new life and joy.

Yes, it's hard to truly repent. Muttering sorrys is a lot easier than taking action and turning around. But God has such a wonderful gift awaiting us when we do, that it's worth it. God isn't asking us to repent so that we'll be miserable, but so that we can truly enjoy life and be right with God. The Ninevites repented and were no longer sickened by their over-indulgent lifestyles. The disciples repented and although their lives were more difficult, I daresay that they found more fulfilment and satisfaction following Christ than being fishermen. God's call to repentance, it turns out, is a blessing in disguise. Although we might be reluctant to turn from our sin, it turns out that that's how we end up facing, and receiving, the good news. That's how we know that God is truly merciful and welcomes us and loves us no matter what. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Sun, Jan 8, 2006 - Happy New Year

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

So, the new year has begun, and it's an awful lot like the old year, isn't it? I know we're only a week into it, but it seems like 2006 is looking a lot like 2005, don't you think? Other than new pictures on the calendar, and the new date in the chequebook, everything seems pretty much the same. The things that were piling up at work before the new year are still piling up, the chores around the house that needed to be done still need to be done, the frenzied pace of our lives is still frenzied.

It's kind of disappointing. I mean, the whole idea of the New Year makes us think that the year will be, well, new. That it will be different - the slate wiped clean to start over, wrongs magically erased. The new year would be great if we woke up on January 1st and saw that while we were asleep, our lives had been tidied up and made new again, the things we had put off were completed, the new year's resolutions that we had made were already accomplished. Heck, I'd be happy if the new year meant that the Christmas tree in my living room had been magically taken down and put away already. That's the way to start the new year. With things actually being new.

It would be nice, wouldn't it? After all, we all have a desire - some more than others - for things to be orderly, to be tidied up. We all have a desire for our lives to be tidied up - for our mistakes to disappear, for a chance to start over again - at work, in our relationships, with God. But as it turns out, things are the same old mess they were last year. The mistakes we made in 2005 haven't disappeared with the change in the calendar. The chaos that we've managed to create in our lives hasn't magically resolved into orderliness at the stroke of midnight. The darkness and hurt that we've brought to the world through our wrongdoings haven't just vanished because it's a new year. As much as we might wish it were otherwise, all of that mess is still there, even if it is now 2006.

It was the mess of life and the desire for newness that drove people to John the Baptizer, out in the wilderness. They wanted to repent of their mistakes, their sins, and John promised them that doing that, and being baptized, would wipe the slate clean. Their sins would be forgiven, washed away by the river Jordan. They would have their own personal spiritual new year the minute they came up out of the waters - they could clean up their lives with one pious immersion. It's an appealing idea, so naturally, a lot of people went down to see John - the whole countryside, according to Mark. And one of those people was Jesus.

Now this is where things get a bit confusing. First of all, what is Jesus doing down there being baptized? We have the story of Jesus' baptism in all four gospels, and nowhere does it get explained why Jesus is being baptized. It's not like he needs his sins forgiven - according to tradition, Jesus was sinless. Nothing to be forgiven for, nothing to repent of. He doesn't need a new year like we do - he doesn't have to clean up his act, or make resolutions to be a better person. So what's Jesus doing down in that mess of humanity, getting all mixed up in other people's sins and mistakes and chaos? That's all mixed up - he's not supposed to come down into our messy world and get baptized and cleansed of sins he didn't even commit and hang around with us in our muckiness. It's supposed to be the other way around. We're supposed to get baptized and cleansed and leave our messiness and go to be with him in his cleanliness and pureness and orderliness, right? Why would he come down to be in our old year when we're so desperately trying to get into his new year?

Well, it turns out that the thing about Jesus is that he's not interested in waiting around for us to get our lives cleaned up before coming to him. He'd rather come to us and help us get the cleaning done right where we are. The point of Christmas a few weeks ago is that God came into the midst of humanity as the baby Jesus to change the world, and the point of Jesus' baptism is that God's Beloved came into the midst of our particularly sinful humanity to change ourworld. You see, God doesn't step aside and watch passively as we struggle, and fail, to make our lives new again, to bring order out of our chaos, to erase the mistakes we've made. God gets down in the mess, in the chaos and darkness and sinfulness of our lives and works at it with us.

It's been God's habit from the beginning. "In the beginning," God did not wait for light to emerge by itself from the dark, or for the chaotic void to take shape on its own. That would never have happened. Instead, God spoke, God acted, and through the Spirit - the wind, as our translation says, although it also means spirit - God called forth the light out of the darkness, and made order out of the chaos. God brought about a new thing because that new thing could not happen on its own. Only God's Spirit can bring life. Only God's Spirit can make things new. And that is what happened. In a sense, the first day of Creation was the first new year, and God made it happen.

This is what God was making happen in the baptism of Jesus. God was making a new thing happen in the waters of the Jordan, because the old thing wasn't enough. The baptism with water that John practiced - it was well and good, it helped people repent of their mistakes, but it didn't change them. It didn't actually make them able to carry out the new things in their life. As the story in Acts tells us, it's because there was no Holy Spirit in John's kind of baptism. There was water, which washed away the old dirt, but there was nothing to bring about the new. Until Jesus.

With the baptism of Jesus, God did not wait for sinfulness to resolve itself into holiness, or for us to magically fix ourselves. With the baptism of Jesus, God repeated the same miracle God had performed at Creation - God got down into our mess, into the chaos and darkness, and God, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, made something new. Through Jesus' baptism, God brought holiness into the midst of the sinfulness that was down there at the Jordan. Through Jesus' baptism, God began a new year.

It is a new year, a new beginning, that we all share when we're baptized. When you were baptized, it was with water, but it was also in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And that made it a new beginning for you. Your mistakes were forgiven, your relationships were set right. God set about cleaning things up, restoring order, and bringing light into your life. This isn't just a once-in-a-lifetime thing, either. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, brought to you in your baptism, God is doing these things on an ongoing basis, continually giving you the help you need to continue in that newness.

And the effect of God's help, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the baptism you share with Jesus, is - as a canticle from the LBW service tells us - "a clean heart, and a renewed right spirit" within you. It means that, although you may look the same on the outside as you did before, spiritually, in your heart, God is constantly making you new - God is continually bringing you a real new year, one that really is different from the year before. God is not only erasing your old sins, but helping you to avoid making new ones. God is making you a new creation.

Now, that doesn't mean that everything is magically fixed in the blink of an eye - that you no longer have to clean up after yourself, so to speak, or that you will automatically succeed at your new year's resolutions, or that you won't have to work to fix mistakes you've made. But it does mean that you are no longer the same person you were, that you are not compelled to repeat the same mistakes, or make the same mess, or commit the same sins. I could say that you'll make all new ones, but that's not what I mean when I say that God has made you new. Just like in Creation, and in the baptism of Jesus, God is working a miracle in you, bringing light into your darkness, holiness into your sinfulness, and giving you a true new year. So, may the grace and light of God, given to you in baptism, growing in you through the Holy Spirit, make your new year truly blessed. Amen.