Sunday, June 24, 2007

Sunday, June 24, 2007

There is no sermon today, as the National Bishop forwarded a sermon that he preached at the close of National Convention in Winnipeg today.

To read the sermon, go to:

Sunday, June 17, 2007

June 17, 2007 - God Abolishes Death

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10. 13-15

Psalm 32

Well, as interesting as today's Gospel story is, today I'm going to be focusing on the Old Testament, and the story of David, Bathsheba, and their son. So let's review what's been going on with King David here before our reading for today.

So David is this great king, appointed by God to lead the people, anointed by Nathan, all- round respectable guy. He defeats all of Israel's enemies, and he brings the Ark of the Covenant, the dwelling place of God, to Jerusalem so everyone can worship God there.

But then things start to go wrong. Aside from staying home in Jerusalem and napping while his army is out fighting the enemy - something no king in that day did, David commits his first major sin. He abuses his power as king by taking a woman he knows to be married and having a one night stand with her. Now, David can't plead ignorance here. The text clearly tells us that David saw Bathsheba, inquired about her, was told that she was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, but that he went ahead and sent messengers to get her. "He lay with her," the text says, and "then she returned to her house." He didn't ask her if she wanted to come over, he didn't make small talk and find out if the feeling was mutual, he sent messengers to get her and he lay with her. David not only slept with a married woman, but since he was the all-powerful king, one could surmise that it wasn't what we would call consensual.

But let's not stop there! Of course, Bathsheba gets pregnant, and so David, in his righteousness, decides that the best thing to do would be to call home her husband from the front and trick him into sleeping with his wife. Now, this might not seem so bad, but it was customary that when officers were out fighting, they abstained from sex so as to be God's holy vessels while they fought. David himself followed this practice, and yet here he is, encouraging his officer to make himself unholy - to profane himself - so that David could get himself out of his pickle.

Of course, Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, being an honourable soldier, declines to carry out such a deed, despite David getting him drunk, and what choice does David have? Well, it's clear that he has to arrange for Uriah to be killed on the front - David's second major sin in this story. The pregnant Bathsheba's husband is killed on the front, she is taken into David's house after her period of mourning is over, and that's where our reading from today begins.

And through it all, David remains unrepentant. The spiritual leader of the nation, the king appointed by God, doesn't repent when he stays home from the fighting, doesn't repent when he sleeps with a married woman, doesn't repent when he tries to get her husband to dishonour himself, doesn't even repent when he has the man killed.

The punishment for his sins ought to be death. Leviticus chapter 20 says that any man who lives with the wife of another man should be put to death. And of course, any man who is responsible for the death of another man should be put to death. In the culture of ancient Israel, the only way they knew how to deal with wrong-doing, the only way they knew of to prevent adultery and murder from taking over a community was to get rid of the person who was doing it. It was to make the punishment so severe that no one would dare try such a thing. There are no exceptions, and David admits as much when he says that the rich man in Nathan's story ought to die for stealing the poor man's lamb. So when Nathan says, "You are the man," David knows what's coming next. David knows that he is facing death for his sins, doubly so because not only has he sinned, but as God's anointed king, his behaviour dishonours the God who made him king in the first place.

But there's a problem. David can't die. David doesn't know it, but he has to live so that he can father Solomon, who will become David's heir, and more importantly, build the Temple in Jerusalem for God. So David can't die for his sins. But somebody has to. What about Bathsheba? Well, she should die as well, but she can't either because she's the one who has to give birth to Solomon. So who does that leave? God's rule states that somebody must die for the sins that have been committed. And all that's left is the baby. For David's sin of adultery and murder, the firstborn son of Bathsheba will die.

And this is where I get stuck. This story is horrifying. That the punishment for sin is death, and that the death in this case is of an innocent baby is absolutely appalling. Yes, it's true that the baby was probably better off not having to grow up in David's dysfunctional family, where his son Amnon rapes his sister Tamar, and is then killed by his brother Absalom, who stages a revolt against his father David, and is then killed by David's army. And it's true that babies weren't really seen as people, they were only extensions of the father, basically the equivalent of property, but that doesn't make thinking about this firstborn son's death any easier. I have a firstborn son. I know people who have lost their firstborn son. The story is almost too awful to think about, and I have to wonder what God was about here. And I really have to wonder: does this story mean that God punishes our sin with death, or worse, does this story mean that God punishes our sin with the death of someone we love?

Well, by the time of the writing of the book of Deuteronomy and the writing of the book of Ezekiel, God no longer permits what I call proxy deaths. Deuteronomy 24:16 says, "Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death." And Ezekiel 18:20 say, "A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own. The culture of Israel had changed, and God was able to be more merciful in punishing sin, forbidding the death of innocents. But death at this point is still a reality - people still die for their sins.

Until Jesus Christ. With the death of Jesus, as we all know, God's practice of requiring death to atone for sin comes to an end. I guess at this point, God decided not to wait for the culture anymore. Instead, God moved forward with radical grace, and Jesus' death, the death of the Son of Man, became the very last death to result from sin. From this point on, people no longer need to fear that their sins would result in death, or think that someone else's death is punishment for their sin, because in Christ that death has died.

Which, believe me, I'm very grateful for. But I can't help questioning how effective this is at stopping people from sinning - abolishing the death penalty, as it were. I mean, the threat of death is a pretty good way to stop people from doing what you don't want them to do. At least, that's the theory. But it doesn't seem to work so well in practice, and I think that's because while the threat of death may be able to stop a person from actually carrying out the sin, it doesn't stop them from thinking about it. And if they're already thinking about it, it's only a short step to actually doing it - threat of death or not. That certainly seems to be what happened to David. So what's to stop us from sinning or even just thinking about sinning?

There's only one thing. Only one thing can stop us from thinking sinful things, and that's gratitude at God's gift of forgiveness to us. You see, only thoughts of gratitude can take the place of thoughts of sin in our mind. Try it - if you ever find yourself thinking something that you know to be sinful - coveting something, coveting someone, thinking of ways to get rid of someone - think of God's proclamation of forgiveness to you, think of how Jesus Christ died for you when you don't deserve it, think of the Holy Spirit putting aside all your wrongdoings and taking up residence in your heart, and see where those sinful thoughts go. They disappear - something else has taken their place, and that something else is God's grace.

God's grace, not God's punishment, is what changes lives and prevents sin. David, who didn't know what God would do through Jesus Christ, nevertheless received God's gracious forgiveness, and was so thankful that he never went on to repeat these particular sins. He never again slept with married woman, or arranged for one of his soldiers to be killed to cover up his mistakes. Instead, he wrote the psalm that we sang this morning, Psalm 32, and proclaimed God's forgiveness, mercy, and steadfast love.

I'm still troubled that it was an innocent baby who paid the price for David's sin. There are so many questions I have surrounding that story that I know I'll probably never get answers to. But the Good News, the grace that we know to be God's defining characteristic, comes in the proclamation that whatever your sin, whatever terrible thing you have done, whatever evil you have done that dishonours your Creator, God will not take any more lives because of it. Death is no longer the punishment for sin. Instead, as Jesus said to the woman in our Gospel reading today, knowing that his death would be for her, "Your sins are forgiven." That is God's response to sin now, not death. "Your sins are forgiven." So thanks be to God who brings us sinners life. Amen.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

June 10, 2007 - God's New Math

Time after Pentecost - Lectionary 10
1 Kings 17:17-24

Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17

I distinctly remember the day in Grade Eight when my class's math teacher, Mr. Mason, taught us how to multiply integers, and how to remember what combination of positives and negatives ended in what. He started with two plus signs on the board ( + x + = ?) and said, "When something good happens to a good person, we're happy." ( + x + = + ) Then he wrote two minus signs on the board ( - x - = ? ) and said, "When something bad happens to a bad person, we're happy." ( - x - = + ) Then he wrote a plus and a minus ( + x - = ?) and said, "When something good happens to a bad person, we're sad." ( + x - = - ) And lastly he wrote a minus sign and then a plus sign ( - x + = ?) and said, "When something bad happens to a good person, we're sad." ( - x + = -) Although to be honest, I've never found multiplying integers to be particularly helpful in my line of work, I've certainly never forgotten his lesson.

I think the reason his lesson was so memorable is because of the way it echoes how we think the world operates. When something good happens to someone who's generally known to be a good person, the usual response is, "Oh, how nice, I'm sure they deserved it." And when something bad happens to someone who's kind of a jerk to everyone, we tend to gleefully think, "I guess they had it coming." That is to say, we tend to think that good things rightfully happen to people who are good, and bad things rightfully happen to people who are bad.

Well, today in our readings we hear about two widows, and the first widow, from the Old Testament, who was from Zarephath, certainly seemed to think that's the way the world operated. When her son became deathly ill, she thought that God was punishing her for something, for some sin or another that she had committed. "You have come to bring my sin to remembrance," she cried to Elijah, "and to cause the death of my son" It's pretty certain that she already felt as if she had done something wrong since she was a widow, and people tended to believe that widowhood was the result of some sin or another, so it's no surprise that she thought her son's illness was God's crowning punishment for whatever it was she had done - in her case, she probably thought it was due to her not worshipping God. She wasn't an Israelite, after all, so of course God wouldn't hesitate to afflict her son with illness and take him away from her. She was a bad person, she thought, and thus deserving of bad things.

We all tend to believe this - that something good happens because of something good we've done, and that something bad happens because of something bad we've done. Karma, we call it, in the pop cultural sense. But why? Why do we believe that this is the way things work?

Well, part of the reason is because there are so many stories in our Bible where that seems to be the case. Just before our reading today, Elijah meets the widow of Zarephath for the first time. Because he asks, she gives him the what was to be her and her son's last meal, and is rewarded with a neverending supply of flour and oil that she and her son live on for the next few years. So clearly, the widow has experienced, and we have seen, that in this case God does reward good deeds with more good fortune. There are other Bible stories of God rewarding good and punishing bad. The Bible tells us that God saved Noah because he was righteous, and wiped out everyone else because they were wicked. The Bible tells us that God saved the Israelites from foreign invasions while they remained faithful worshippers, but allowed them to be invaded when the Israelites turned away from their faith. With stories like these, it's no wonder that what we think God makes the same connections between good things and good people, and bad things and bad people that we do.

And then, of course, there's our experience in the real world. Maybe it's because we get it from others, but even we tend to conform to the good deserves good, bad deserves bad model. It's well-known that people tend to help out individuals that already seem to have everything together and that we treat poorly people whom we think deserve it. I know that, for instance, when I'm driving on the road, and I see someone speed up the right-hand lane on the 401 and bully their way past other cars, I don't let them into the space in front of me or give them room to pass me. And, if I'm being a good driver, and obeying the speed limit, and allowing people in front of me, and showing my signal to change lanes, then I expect that people will let me into their lane if I need it, and I get mad when they don't. I act and expect others to act under the same mathematical principles that good goes with good and bad goes with bad. And I don't think I'm alone in my expectations - we all tend to work that way.

So it's no surprise that when it comes to how God acts in the world, we tend to think God works by the same principle: that God will cause good things to happen to good people, and bad things to happen to bad people. "Good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell," sums up what we generally believe about how God works. And so we work as hard as we can at being good, with the hope that that good will be returned to us. We do our best to ensure that when God checks our balance sheets, we will be solidly in the positive column, with positive things waiting to happen to us in order to complete the equation.

Now, I'm going to explain why this way of thinking is incorrect in a moment, but first I have to say that this way of thinking is a sin. There's one simple reason for this. If we think that our good behaviour causes God to reward us with good things, or that our bad behaviour causes God to punish us with bad things, who are we making the subject of our thought? That is, whose behaviour is controlling whose? In this scenario, our behaviour ends up controlling God. If we think that doing good causes God to reward us with good things, then that means that we think that our good behaviour is the centre, is the focus of everything, is the deciding factor for God's actions. Likewise, if we think that doing bad causes God to punish us with bad things, then we're still thinking that our behaviour, bad in this case, influences God's behaviour towards us. And this is a sin. To think that our behaviour governs God's actions, to put our activities and intentions at the centre of God's world is a sin. "You shall have no other gods before me," says the First Commandment. "You are to fear, love, and trust only God," is how Luther explains it in the Small Catechism. Meaning we are not to make our own actions God - we are not to trust in or fear that our good or bad actions will change the way God relates to us. Only God can change the way God relates to us, only God can decide whether or not our actions are deserving of reward or punishment, only God can decide whether or not to bestow good or bad on us.

Fortunately for us, God bestows good. Which brings me to why our previous way of thinking about good and bad is not only a sin, but it's just incorrect. "Give us this day our daily bread," we pray in the Lord's Prayer. "God does this without our prayer to good and evil alike," is how Luther explains it in the Small Catechism. God gives good things, bestows good gifts, on people who are good, on people who are bad, on people who are indifferent. God does this because of the steadfast, neverending love that God has for God's people. For us. For you. God healed the widow of Zarephath's son, despite the fact that she was not one of God's followers. Jesus resurrected the widow of Nain's son, without knowing whether or not she believed in him. God gives you sunshine and rain, gave life to your bodies, forgives your sins, even when you commit the sin of thinking that your actions determine God's, all regardless of whether you are good or bad,.

That's not to say that we should stop doing good things for people. Even though God might not operate under the same math as us, other people do, and doing good makes the world a better place. It does nothing for how God sees us, but we interact with hundreds of people in our lifetime, in addition to God, so good behaviour naturally goes a long way here on earth. It's just that we shouldn't fool ourselves into believing that our behaviour, good or bad, affects how God treats us, that it affects God's orientation of steadfast, neverending love towards us.

In the end, despite how memorable my math teacher's lesson was, God's math is different from ours. In God's math, when good things happen, to good or bad people, God is happy. And when bad things happen, to good or bad people, God is sad. Karma isn't a Christian concept. Jesus Christ died for us "while we were yet sinners," is what we confess. This wonderful good thing happened to us while we were bad, and it made God happy. So, this coming week, and through the summer, may God continue to bless you with all good things, whether you have been good or bad. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

June 2, 2007 - Trinity Sunday

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Psalm 8

Romans 5:1-5

John 16:12-15

"God has a plan." That's a phrase we hear a lot among religious people, isn't it? "God has a plan." This phrase is most often uttered during high stress situations, when someone (not always the speaker), when someone's world is falling apart and everything is upside down. We hear that God has a plan when someone's grandparent dies, when a baby is born too early and doesn't make it, when an unexpected diagnosis of cancer is made. When our life is not going the way we thought it would, when in fact it's going the way we prayed it wouldn't, there is always someone who will tell us that God is out there, working behind the scenes, and that everything is meant to happen for a reason.

Sometimes this is reassuring. Sometimes it helps to hear that the One who created this world, the One who, as our first reading from Proverbs tells us, established the heavens, drew a circle on the face of the deep, made firm the skies above, established the fountains of the deep, assigned to the sea its limits, marked out the foundations of the earth, it helps to hear that this One is still there, still active. It can be a comfort to be told that the One who established the moon and the stars isn't finished with the universe yet, that God is working all things towards a greater good, and that every single thing that happens was meant to be.

This way of looking at the world sees God outside of time, as it were, unrestrained by the relentless plod towards death that we experience. God, the One who created time, isn't bound by things like the past, or the future. When God is outside of time, God sees not just the whole of the universe, from before it was created until after it disappears, but also every single moment within it. God, the great Creator, can bring someone into being, watch them die, and see them receive new life all in the same instant. This eternal, omniscient, unfathomable God looks at our yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows, although not necessarily in that order, and arranges things to achieve perfection.

As I said, sometimes during times of despair and crisis, knowing that God is outside of time, pulling the strings and putting the master plan into place can be comforting. When things are overwhelming, this God-outside-time can be turned to, with the faith that everything is under control and everything will be okay. It can be good to hear that God has a plan.

But not always.

Sometimes, for some people, hearing, "God has a plan," can be a knife-twist in their heart. Sometimes, to hear that God is out there, directing things the way God wants, pulling strings and arranging plans, is too impersonal. Well, more than that. A God who is unaffected by the flow of time, to whom yesterday, today, and tomorrow make no difference, to some people this God is harsh and cold. A God who hasn't come into the world the way we have, or feared leaving it the way we do, is inaccessible. This One who creates the world but isn't a part of it is foreign to us, and in times of deep pain and confusion, is completely beyond our reach.

For these people, for me at times, God Incarnate is who we need to hear about. We need to hear, "God has been through it." It can be a comfort to hear about the One who was born, lived, and died as a human. To know that God peed on his mom and dad, threw up his food all over the floor, to know that God felt left out by his friends as a teenager, to know that God lost his temper, ached to kiss a girl, got headaches, to know that God got hungry, needed to sleep, got sore feet, to know that God's heart broke when his friend Lazarus died, that it warmed when he held a little child, to know these things about God can make a difference when things are tough. To know that God cared for his mother, to know that God wept and pleaded not to die, to know that there were times when God felt that things were beyond his control, to know these things can make hardships easier to bear. When it's a struggle to see the big picture, when it's hard to believe that things are going to be okay, then it can help to know that God has also gone through anguish and uncertainty and doubt.

Seeing God as incarnate, as a human, means seeing God inside time, as opposed to outside of it. God inside time experienced things the way we do, with yesterday, today, and tomorrow flowing from one to the next. The One who was inside time knew only what had happened, and what was happening, but not what was about to happen. (Just to be clear, he had faith about what was going to happen, but he didn't know, not the way God outside time does.) In any case, he went through life just as we do, contained in a one-way timeline.

So hearing about God-inside-time, that God the human has been through it, can also be a great comfort when times are difficult, when we're confronted by human mortality, when we're face-to-face with death.

But not always.

Sometimes neither God-outside-time nor God-inside-time is enough. God-outside-time isn't touched by the human experience, and God-inside-time, well, being restricted by his human limitations, God-inside-time wasn't able to experience everything a human can experience. For one thing, God-inside-time was male. He didn't have the experience that women have. For me, personally, I struggled a great deal to relate to the idea of both God-outside-time and God-inside- time when I was pregnant and after our baby was just born. Neither of these ways of looking at God helped me to feel that God was present during pregnancy, or labour, or nursing. In fact, the entire parenthood experience is beyond what God-inside-time personally lived through, as is marriage, or the difficulties of getting old, or the challenges of dealing with addictions. For some people, it does not help to hear that God-outside-time has a plan, or that God-inside-time has been through it.

What is needed at these times, at specific, personal, in-this-moment times, is to hear about God-throughout-time. God-throughout-time was there at the moment of creation, God- throughout-time lived and died in Israel two thousand years ago, God-throughout-time was with King David when he danced in front of the Ark, God-throughout-time was with the first disciples gathered on Pentecost. God-throughout-time was with Martin Luther when he struggled against his own church, God-throughout-time was with Mother Teresa when she wept for the dying in Calcutta. God-throughout-time is here, now, with the teen parent struggling to care for a baby alone, with the homeless person despairing in the streets, with the child fighting leukemia, with the senior who can no longer walk. God-throughout-time is not only with these people, but inside them, experiencing all of the things they experience, all of the things we experience; hurting when we hurt, rejoicing when we rejoice, hoping when we hope.

This One was with every believer from the beginning of time, is with every believer alive right now on earth, and will be with every believer until the dominion of God comes down to us. This One can help us when our lives seem too complicated to bear. This One can be with us when we are alone. When our pain seems unique to us, hearing that God-throughout-time is experiencing our pain, and living through our particular situation can bring comfort.

But not always.

Sometimes it can be too much to handle to think of God going through what we're going through, to think that God is trapped in us, trapped by the same circumstances that have bound us. Sometimes it doesn't help to think that God is as out of control as we are. Sometimes we need to know that God is outside of our situation and has a plan. Which brings us back to the beginning. Which brings me to today.

God-outside-time, God-inside-time, and God-throughout-time - none of these ways of looking at God are enough, on their own, to comfort us in every time and at every place. Sometimes we need to know that God has a plan. Sometimes that's the last thing we want to hear. Sometimes we need to know that God has been through it. Sometimes that's not enough. Sometimes we need to know that God is with us right now. Sometimes that doesn't do us any good at all.

But here's the thing: God-outside-time, God-inside-time, and God-throughout-time are one and the same God. We are not talking about three different gods, we are talking about the Three-in-One, the One-in-Three, the God we know most fully as the Holy Trinity. Yes, it's all a great mystery as to how the Trinity can be, how God can be outside time, inside time, and moving through time all at the same time, and yes, it's annoying for those of us who like neat and tidy explanations for everything to just leave it at that, but that's another sermon for another day. God is what God is, and what God is is the Trinity. When you need to hear that there is larger meaning to your life, I tell you, God, who is called the Father, has a plan. When you who need to hear that someone has been through what you're going through, I tell you, God, who is called the Son, has been through it. When you who need to hear that you are not alone in your particular situation, I tell you, God, who is called the Holy Spirit, is with you.

So, as we celebrate and proclaim this good news, may the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, comfort you now and always. Amen.