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.