Saturday, April 11, 2015

Easter 2, 2015 - Doubting Thomas and Mother Teresa

Doubting Thomas. We don’t talk very much about him in church, do we? There’s no church named after him - no Doubting Thomas congregation. It would be a weird name, wouldn’t it? Lutheran Church of the Doubters? Poor Thomas the Twin doesn’t get another mention in the Bible after this one story about him, and we only hear about him every three years, since the Gospel of John is the only one that has this particular story. So we don’t get to talk about Thomas and his doubt - or his very weak faith - very often.
Which is probably fine with us. We don’t like to talk much in church about when our faith isn’t as strong as we think it should be. We don’t bring up Thomas very often as a role model for Christians, and very few people would call him their favourite disciple. We don’t like to talk about when our faith is dying - or even dead. We don’t like to talk about our doubts, we don’t like to admit that sometimes, we’re just going through the motions and deep down, we’re not sure what - if anything - we believe. Talking about a weak faith seems to be the last taboo in the church.

And yet, listen to this quote, written by a Christian to her priest, a Christian known around the world for her acts of charity: “Where is my faith? Even deep down ... there is nothing but emptiness and darkness ... If there be God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul ... How painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith. Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal, ... What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.” 
These are the words of Mother Teresa. Everybody knows about her self-sacrifice in the slums of Calcutta, and her years of caring for all those abandoned by the world, in the name of Christ. But what is less well-known is that Mother Teresa spent decades - somewhere in the range of fifty years - struggling with her faith. No matter how much she prayed, no matter how many good deeds she did, she did not feel the presence of God in her life. Isn’t that astounding? This woman, whom we might call the greatest Christian of the twentieth century, felt “emptiness and darkness” when she turned her thoughts towards God. When she thought of heaven, and tried to believe, she felt so dead inside that the emptiness stabbed at her. “No faith, no love, no zeal.”

For those who have never felt like Mother Teresa, or for those who have felt like her but are afraid of what it might mean, her words can be deeply upsetting. In fact, the Catholic church was reluctant to allow her letters to be published, because they were afraid of what this would do to Christians. 

But for Christians who have struggled with a lack of faith, for Christians who find themselves drawn to Doubting Thomas, for Christians who have also felt days, if not years or even decades, of mind-numbing doubt, her words come as a relief. The reality is that not all Christians are burning with faith, not even those Christians who have dedicated their entire lives to Christ, who go to church every Sunday, who were baptized, confirmed, married, and will be buried in the church. Some Christians go to church and still feel empty, even though they sing the hymns, say the prayers, go up to Communion, and even serve the sick and volunteer for everything. They don’t feel that spark of faith, and they go to church hiding that. If you asked them if they believed, they would probably say yes, and would mean it, in a way, but still not feel it deep inside the way they’ve heard other Christians do. They don’t have the strength of Thomas to admit, “Until I see, I will not believe.” They just sit in their pews, feeling alone and hypocritical, hard on themselves, frustrated, depressed, and ashamed.

So to hear that even Mother Teresa felt like this for years and years is something of a relief. And it should be. You see, somewhere along the way we all fall into the trap of thinking that our faith is something that we are in charge of. That a strong or a weak faith is something that we can do something about. We all fall into the trap of thinking that if our faith is weak, we should be able to do something to strengthen it - pray more, read the Bible more, go to church more, help others more. We think that if we only try harder, we would get there. We would be like Peter, who walked on water to get to Jesus, instead of poor, doubting Thomas.

But do not think this way. Do not fall into this trap of guilt and shame. This is not how faith works. For those of us who feel this way, and I suspect many of us have at one point in our life or another, if we aren’t feeling bad about our faith at this very moment, and for all Christians, really, there is one absolutely critical sentence in our Scriptures that we need to write out and tape to our fridge. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – and not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” [Ephesians 2:8-9] It’s so important I’m going to say it again: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – and not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” By the grace of God - because of God’s own mercy and lovingkindness towards you - you have been saved. You are already saved. Not you “will” be saved, or you “are being” saved, but you “have” been saved. Past tense. You have been saved through faith, which comes as a a gift from God. Your faith comes from God - it is not your own doing, it is not your own work, it is not something that you can work at to make stronger, or neglect to make weaker. 

Your faith comes from God. 

If it is a strong faith, thank God for blessing you with that. If it is a weak faith, trust that God has good reasons for not giving you a stronger faith. But always remember that your faith - weak or strong - comes from God. It is not your doing.

This understanding that faith is a gift of God was central for Martin Luther. He had his own struggles with faith and doubt, and in the Small Catechism, his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” he wrote: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him --  

by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him  

-- but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith.” Our faith in Christ does not come through our own doing, but through the Holy Spirit. If our faith is weak, it’s not because we aren’t doing enough. It’s because the Holy Spirit is up to something. Luther was so adamant about this that he repeats it in the Large Catechism: “Neither you nor I could ever know anything of Christ, or believe in him and take him as our Lord, unless these were first offered to us and bestowed on our hearts through the preaching of the Gospel by the Holy Spirit.” Faith comes from God.

This is so important! I wish that we said this more often in the liturgy. I wish that we made confirmands memorize this as their confirmation verse. Our faith does not come from us. It is a gift from God. A strong faith is a gift from God. A weak faith is a gift from God! This is what we never talk about! That a weak faith is as equally a gift from God as a strong faith!

So what does that mean for us? It means, in a weird, paradoxical kind of way, that when we are having doubts about our faith, we should stop having doubts about our faith. It means that when we are struggling to believe, we should just ... let those struggles happen. Don’t judge yourself, don’t get down on yourself, don’t think of yourself as a bad Christian. It is not your doing. Your faith comes from God.

Don’t stop going to church. Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop coming to Communion. Don’t give up acting like a Christian even if you don’t feel like a Christian. Doubting Thomas didn’t stay away from the disciples just because he didn’t believe that Jesus had actually risen. Mother Teresa didn’t stop serving the poor just because she no longer felt the presence of God. Come to church, even if you feel you don’t belong anymore. Say the words, even if you don’t mean them right now. The fact that you are sitting here right now is a sign that God is working in you. God has, after all, brought you here, strong faith or weak faith.

There are many more Christians, whom we lift up as saints and models of godly living, who struggled with their faith, and secretly questioned and doubted whether God was really there. Yet God worked through them. There are so many more doubting Thomases in the church than we tend to admit. But God has given to each of us the faith that we have, “so that no one may boast,” and so that, in all things, we rely on the grace of God and not on our own doing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Easter Sunday 2015

It’s Easter! We’ve been waiting a long time - forty days - to finally be able to say, “Alleluia!” and to greet each other with Happy Easter and to put Lent behind us. Do you see Easter? Do you see the new life God has brought? Isaiah saw it - “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food. And he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces!” Do you see it? Do you see this new life?

We have talked about Jesus being abandoned by his friends, and about him dying alone on the cross. We have talked about repentance during Lent, and about the ways in which we have caused or brought death to others. But now it is Easter. Now it is time to proclaim that Christ has risen and that God brings new life after death, and that God will continue to bring new life. It is time to echo the psalmist from earlier, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” It is finally the day to be like the “other disciple” in the Gospel reading this morning, who looked into the tomb of Jesus and saw no body, saw no Jesus, but saw only empty burial clothes. It is the day to proclaim that death is empty - that as much pain and suffering as it brings, it does not have the final word. That word belongs to God, who raised Jesus from the dead. No matter where death has been, we are given new life. It is Easter - do you see it?!?

The Easter lilies, the brightly-coloured clothes, the chocolate you may or may not have eaten this morning, the hot-cross buns, the presence of friends and family, the white paraments on the altar, the joyful hymns - these things tell us that it’s Easter. (We’ll pretend that it’s sunny outside and there’s no snow, too.) When we left the church on Good Friday, it was empty and quiet and dim. Now it’s full, and buzzing, and bright. God has given the world new life. Do you see it?

You may have started to wonder why I keep asking whether you’ve seen Easter. I’m asking because, actually, it’s not always easy to see Easter, even on Easter morning. Sometimes, even with all of the celebration and joy around us on this day, it can still be hard to really feel the joy or new life that we keep proclaiming. Maybe things aren’t going very well in your life right now. Maybe things at home are tense and your family isn’t as close as you wish you could be, like the band of disciples who found themselves scattered on Sunday morning, wondering how come they had abandoned Jesus a few days earlier and how things had got to this point. Maybe you’re preoccupied with your health - struggling with physical or mental pain that makes it impossible for you to see or feel anything truly good or lasting this morning. 

Maybe you’re too overwhelmed with grief to feel or see Easter. Maybe you’ve lost someone you love this year, and this is the first Easter without them. It can be hard to see new life when there’s a body missing next to you in the pew. It can be hard to participate fully in the celebration and meals when one of the chairs at the table is empty. Peter, and the disciple whom Jesus loved, and Mary felt like this, I think. Their grief at losing Jesus stopped them from seeing new life. Mary couldn’t stop weeping.

Maybe you’re looking around and remembering when the church was packed completely full on Easter Sunday, when there were tens of children in their Sunday best, smiling from ear-to-ear, when communion went on forever because of all the people. Maybe the friendly faces that you remember seeing every Easter for years are getting fewer and fewer. And so maybe it’s hard to see Easter and the promise of new life in this place, on this morning.

I don’t want to pretend that just because the calendar says that today is Easter Sunday that we automatically feel that death has no more power over us and that we and the world are filled with new life. It doesn’t always work that way. In fact, it seldom works that way. The disciples didn’t see it right away. Mary didn’t see it right away. We don’t see it right away.

This is normal. And it happens because new life is - well - new. It’s not like anything we’ve seen before. We have a hard time recognizing when God is doing something new, because we’re looking for something that we know, something familiar, something that brought us joy in the past. But what we know is not new. It’s old, and it’s dying, if it’s not already dead. Resurrection life, the new life that we see in Christ - we wouldn’t recognize it unless someone pointed it out to us. We’re not conditioned to see Easter without help. We’re not able to see new life without God.

On Maundy Thursday, I said that Jesus knew this would happen. Jesus knew that we wouldn’t be able to recognize new life when we saw it, so Jesus gave us signs. Jesus showed us that wherever we see acts of service-in-love, we are seeing the kingdom of God coming into the world. He washed his disciples’ feet, and on Maundy Thursday we washed one another’s hands, and that act of service was a sign of God’s new life in the world. Whenever we see people helping one another, out of love and not out of self-interest, we are seeing Jesus’ new life in the world. We are seeing Easter.

And Jesus showed us that when we are forgiven and when we forgive others, that too is new life. Here in the church, we see that new life in baptism and in our weekly communion. In the body and blood of Christ, we are given new life because God forgives us. No matter what we have done in the week, no matter how dark our hearts, we come to communion and hear the words, “The body of Christ given for you.” “The blood of Christ shed for you.” Forgiveness. For you. Easter - for you.

But God, whose love for the world is greater than we can possibly imagine, isn’t content to let new life remain contained in the church. These signs of new life in the world are everywhere, although not in forms we would immediately recognize. God is bringing new life to new places and to new people. For instance, today’s 15-to-22 year olds have the highest rate of volunteering in the past fifty years. They do more volunteer work than their parents, and they have been described as the new “We” generation, turning things around from the previous “Me” generation. This is the same group of kids who wear outrageous clothes, are always on their phones, and who seem to have no shame when it comes to the company they keep, the music they listen to, or the people they love. They do not look like what we would expect good, church-going Christian youth to look like. But that’s because they’re not. They don’t go to church, a lot of them don’t know what being Christian means, and yet they are living out what Jesus tells us will bring the kingdom. They are serving in love. They give up their time for others. They stand up for those who are bullied. If we can get past their unconventional looks, we will see that they are God’s signs of new life. They are signs of Easter.

Israel and Palestine - definitely not two countries we would normally associate with signs of new life. If I were to tell you that there are powerful signs of forgiveness in a land that is the site of intense persecution and intense suffering, committed and endured by both Palestinians and Israelis, would you believe me? And yet there is an organization in Israel, called The Parents’ Circle, made up of Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children in the conflict, who come together regularly to offer support to one another in their grieving and to provide forums for dialogue. Israeli parents who have lost their sons and daughters to Palestinian militants, and Palestinian parents who have lost their sons and daughters to Israeli soldiers. Neither group has reason to forgive the other, and yet rather than clinging to bitterness and hatred towards someone who has caused the death of their children, they are forgiving one another and embracing each other and sharing in mutual pain. The Parents Circle hosts camps every summer for fifty Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, and they hold dialogue workshops in schools that touch 25,000 students a year. We would obviously not call this group Christian, and yet can we even match them for forgiveness? When God brings new life, it is often unrecognizable to us. But here is God bringing new life to the world. Here is Easter.

Have you helped anyone today for no other reason than that they needed a hand? Have you forgiven anyone recently, whether for something large or small? Have you been kind to a stranger, or showed them hospitality? Have you received forgiveness for something you’ve done? Have you been helped by someone when you were in need? These moments are signs of new life from God. They are signs that Easter is here. Not completely, not entirely. It’s not the case that every single moment of our days are made of this kind of life - of service and forgiveness and love. Not even the majority of our days look like this. Most of the time our lives do not look very much like Easter at all, which is why we have a hard time recognizing it when it comes. We’re not used to looking for it - we’ve become accustomed to the world as we know it, a world that died on Good Friday. But I see Easter. I see Easter in those of you who are sitting here this morning, who have prepared a wonderful breakfast for us, who have come because it would make someone else happy, who are here even though it is painful to be here without loved ones, who are here to experience forgiveness in Holy Communion. I see Easter in a world where teenagers give up their time to serve at food banks, where the parents of children killed by soldiers forgive those soldiers and offer support to their enemies. I see Easter in the two Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door on Saturday morning while I was working on this sermon, who wanted to share the message of Christ’s sacrifice with me, and whose theology I deeply disagree with. Yet they were serving in love. They were, despite our theological disagreements, bringing signs of God’s new life. I see Easter and new life in all the big and small acts of kindness and charity and forgiveness and love around the world. This is what Christ has shown us, this is what God has given to us. I see it. Easter is here. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Good Friday 2015

How easy it is to respond to one’s own fear of dying by bringing death to others instead. The Temple priests during Jesus’ time had an uneasy relationship with Herod, the Rome-sanctioned ruler of Jerusalem, and Jesus’ followers were unsettling the balance. They were proclaiming Jesus as a new king, and if they didn’t stop, the Roman authorities were likely to come in, replace the Temple leaders, and start executing Jews like they did the last time the Jews took issue with being under occupation. The Temple priests were, as we all are, afraid of death - for themselves and for their people - and so the High Priest, Caiaphas, advised that it was better for one person to die than for a whole people to be slaughtered. He responded to the threat of his own death by bringing death to someone else, instead.
Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judea, also enjoyed a comfortable relationship with Rome, but only so long as he was able to keep the Jewish people in line. Pilate was put in charge of military order at the pleasure of the Emperor, and the Emperor would not be pleased if the Jewish people tried to revolt and throw off their Roman oppressors. And when the Emperor was not pleased, people died. So, fearing a similar fate, Pilate responded to the threat of death by letting a falsely accused individual die.

Peter, the disciple Peter, responded to the threat of death by denying that he knew Jesus, committing his own kind of murder against Jesus. He didn’t stand by Jesus, or throw in his lot with Jesus. Peter, fearing death, pretended that Jesus was already, in a sense, dead to him. He didn’t know Jesus. He killed Jesus by denying his relationship with him.

The early community of Christians who took the name of John, who put together the Gospel from which we heard the passion story today - they, too, were afraid of death. They were being persecuted by the Roman government, and they were afraid of portraying the Roman Empire in any way that would make them angry - and kill them - and so they did everything they could to avoid negative attention. They wrote the Passion story in such a way that it was the Jews  - only the Jews and all of the Jews - who were responsible for Jesus’ death while the Romans got away guilt-free. In order to avoid their own death, they composed the Passion story so that the Jews were sneaky and deceptive and guilty, while Pilate, historically known to be a vindictive and brutal ruler, is described as being accommodating - he goes out to meet the demanding priests so that they do not defile themselves - and as merciful - he would rather not kill Jesus but asks the Jews to pick someone else - and as just - he finds no case against Jesus and so wants to excuse him. The Gospel portrays Pilate as wanting to release Jesus but bowing to the pressure of the threatening Jewish priests. The writers of the Gospel were afraid of dying at the hands of the Romans, and so, through their own portrayal of the story, they brought death to the Jews instead.

The threat of death does strange things to us. It causes us to panic - to try to make deals and to offer others in our place, to throw strangers under the bus, to avoid the consequences of our actions and scapegoat others, to deny that we deserve the very death we face. The threat of death prevents us from standing up for others, from demanding justice for the marginalized, from speaking up when others receive abuse. The threat of death causes us, directly or indirectly, to bring death to others.

But Christ calls us to die. Christ calls us to trust him, and follow him, even though the path leads to death. 

He does this because he knows, and has proclaimed, and has experienced, that death is not the end. We do not, actually, follow Christ to death, but through death. Because it is only by making our way through death - not around it, or away from it - that we receive the new life promised to us by God and shared with us on Easter. It is only by facing our own death, and accepting it, that we can die and receive new life. Now this is not to say that being a Christian means having a death-wish, or being nihilistic. Christ does not call us to actively seek out death. But death is inevitable, and Christ calls us to accept it as a part of our life, rather than trying to force others to take our place.

He does this because we can only receive the new life promised by God after we die. Die to sin, die to selfishness, die literally - however you want to understand that death - we must go through it and die before we can receive new life. God cannot fill a pitcher that is already full. God cannot give us new life when we are clinging to the old one. You have to dump out the stale water if you want fresh water instead. 

It is the inevitability of death - the fact that we all must go through it rather than around it to get to Easter Sunday - that makes this day both solemn and Good. Jesus died rather than bring anyone else to death. He did not offer up the lives of the other disciples in exchange for his own. He did not offer to stop healing the sick or preaching good news to the poor in order to escape his own death. He was surely afraid to die - but he also knew that death was the only way forward to new life, life which God would share with the whole world. In this way, he is both our model and our salvation, comforting us when we fear our own death and transforming those deaths into something more meaningful.

Easter is coming - but we will only get there when we accept the reality of Good Friday, that we too often respond to our own fear of dying by bringing death to others - either intentionally or unintentionally. Let us then accept our own death and our own death-bringing, and prepare ourselves to move through it, so that we might truly receive the new life of Easter that is promised.

Maundy Thursday, 2015

On Palm Sunday, I drew some parallels between Jesus’ journey during Holy Week from celebration to cemetery and our own journey as a Western religion and as a congregation. And I talked about how I see the church and this congregation as being in its own Maundy Thursday - in that time when we see everyone abandoning us and when we know we are only a short time away from dying, and when we are afraid of what will happen next. This evening, I want to talk about what it’s like to be in this Maundy Thursday moment - to know that the end is approaching - and about how we’re going to get through it.
For me, the moment that most captures the significance of Maundy Thursday comes at the end of the service, when we strip the altar. We take away all of the things that demonstrate the life of the church - the paraments that tells us the church season, the candles that highlight the altar as the focus of our worship, the communion vessels and elements that are our very reason for existence, and all of the things that make this church different from just a building. Without an altar and the communion vessels, the church ceases to be a church. It becomes an empty space. The reason to be here is gone - until Easter morning, the life of the church as we know it comes to an end.

We do this to remember what happened on Maundy Thursday. The things that brought Jesus and the disciples together - his ministry of caring for the sick and proclaiming God’s forgiveness - were stripped away when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, and the life together as they all knew it came to an end, in a very painful and literal way. The fellowship they had with one another, the kingdom that they were working to bring about, these things were about to die.

And yet Jesus promised, despite the apparent finality of what was going to happen, despite the loss and the suffering and death, despite the almost complete falling apart of the community of disciples, that new and better things were coming. He knew they wouldn’t be able to understand at the moment, and yet he told them anyway. It’s often that way when we’re facing some impending loss. Our fear over the coming loss and pain overwhelms us and we can’t understand what people are saying to us. If you’ve ever had a loved one in the hospital and listened to the doctor explaining what the problem is, you know that it can sometimes take two or three explanations before you really understand what’s happening. So Jesus explained to his disciples, several times, what was going to come after life as they knew it came to an end. 

He also knew that once they understood what he was saying, they wouldn’t believe him. That’s another truth about loss - how impossible it is to believe that things will get better. The disciples had spent the last week with Jesus, cheering with the crowds on Palm Sunday, celebrating Passover with him, and now enjoying this intimate dinner with him, expressing their care for one another. It was a good week, probably the best they’d had so far. And when things are really good - when your life is full of love and joy - and when you lose that - it becomes incredibly difficult to believe that things will be even better than what you’ve already experienced. Give up your house and your family and your friends and your life, and you will receive something better? How would we even know what this new and better life looks like? If Jesus promised us a better church once we’ve lost this one, how would we recognize it? If Jesus promised a new life when the life we know is gone, how would we know it when we see it? What is there to give us hope?

Knowing the reality of this, Jesus told his disciples what to look for. He described for them the signs of new life so they would recognize it, and then he modeled these signs, so that they would see it in action. This evening, we too see and model Jesus’ actions, so that we might recognize when Jesus’ promises of new life have appeared.

The first sign of new life that Jesus promises us is acts of service-in-love. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and told them to love one another as he loves them. Washing another’s feet was a sign of hospitality in a time when people wore sandals, if that, and walked all over dusty and dirty roads that were frequently covered in waste and garbage. Feet were germy and dirty, and so hosts would have their servants wash the feet of someone coming to their house, as a way of making the visitors feel welcome. Jesus did this himself, to demonstrate that his hospitality and service was rooted in love, no matter what their sin and no matter what betrayal they would commit. In fact, if we follow the chronology of the Gospel of John’s account of the evening, Jesus even washed the feet of Judas, knowing what he was about to do. So this is a sign of the new life Jesus has promised us - service-in-love. When we see somebody serving another in love, we are seeing the kingdom of God approaching, we are seeing new life after death. Even if this service isn’t happening in the church, or even among Christians, even if this service doesn’t look like anything we’re used to seeing, or like anything of the life we know, it is a sign of God’s new life in the world. So, this evening, we will wash one another’s hands. Not our feet, because those are no longer the dirtiest things - we are all privileged enough to have socks and shoes and boots to keep our feet clean. Our hands are the things that touch the world, that act out sin, that carry out God’s will, that pick up germs and that need God’s water. And so, because Jesus loved us as sinners and God’s children, we will love one another and serve each other, and we will see that God is present with us even as we die, and that God’s world is better than what we have experienced so far.

The second sign that Jesus promises, that shows us new life after death, is forgiveness. The ability to forgive comes from God, and is new life to the one who is forgiven. If someone has ever hurt you, you know what it’s like to be unable to forgive that person. They become, essentially, dead to you. Sure, they might walk around and exist, but in your mind, they are dead. And the same is true when we ourselves need forgiveness from someone. We can sense that we are dead to that person - that we are cut off from a relationship that used to give life. When we are in need of forgiveness, we experience a kind of living death. But forgiveness brings new life. When we forgive someone else, we are giving their life back to them, but better than it was before. We are telling them that they are alive once again to us, in a new and more meaningful way. And God gives us that ability to forgive, by forgiving us first. We’ve already seen it during this service in the proclamation of forgiveness at the beginning, and we will see it again in Communion–in the body and blood of Jesus given and shed for us and “for all people, for the forgiveness of sin.” This body and blood is a gift of new life. Whenever we receive communion, we receive forgiveness, and when we go out and forgive others, we see the signs of God’s new life amidst the death of the world. When we see others forgive us, we see God at work in them, moving them to grant us new life in our death.

Service-in-love and forgiveness from God are signs of God’s kingdom present in the world, bringing new life after death. They are promised to us in fullness after our death, and they are given to us today to comfort us as we let go of the life we have here. Life as we know it will soon be gone. It is the way of this world. Here, death has the final word. But we have Jesus’ promise that new life is coming, and that God has better things in store for us. So, trusting in that promise, we lean on God to give us strength to strip away life as we know it, and we draw comfort as we move through Maundy Thursday and turn to face our own death and Good Friday.

Palm Sunday, 2015

“A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of Jesus and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’”
“At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

From Palm Sunday to the cross. We are in for quite a ride this week, as we move from the celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the height of his ministry to his last moments with his disciples on Maundy Thursday to his betrayal and arrest and crucifixion on Good Friday. We move from reenacting the crowds who welcomed him today to embodying the last few disciples who were with him the night before his arrest to recalling our own actions that betray and abandon Jesus as he dies on a cross. This is going to be a difficult week. Moving from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the crucifixion and tomb of Good Friday is an intense journey to experience, even when we know how it all ends.

But then again isn’t all of life like that? From celebration to cemetery, that’s how our lives go. From crowds who throng around us during our moments of greatest achievement to the small handful that accompany us on our last day of life (if that) to our lonely grave in which we lie completely alone, this is the story of existence, from the individual scale to the global scale. Whether we are talking about a single life or the life of an institution or even the life of a nation, life always moves from celebration to cemetery, from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. 
This year, I have been particularly struck by this move as it is happening in Western Christianity, and in this congregation. Right now, the church - both the larger religious institution in Europe and North America and this local congregation - is experiencing a kind of Holy Week of its own. It is moving from celebration to cemetery, from its own Palm Sunday to its own Good Friday. If we were to trace the development of the Western Church, we would see it move from its early roots of persecution to a gradual tolerance and then acceptance by the Roman powers, to Constantine taking up Christianity as a tool for imperial success, growing to become the required religion of Europe in the Middle Ages, and even through the fracturing of the Reformation, the Church still grew, growing to a peak in the last few centuries. At the height of Christianity, the churches were packed, everybody was a Christian, nobody did any work on Sundays, and Easter and Christmas were celebrations of the highest magnitude. Everyone was a Christian, and those who weren’t lived by the rules of those who were. Christianity was the celebrated religion, and entire cities sang praises and hosannas. It is a story that mirrors Jesus’ own rise from a nobody in Galilee to being followed by crowds.

This is the story not only of the larger church, but of this congregation, too. Who here doesn’t remember a time when these pews were packed? On the Palm Sunday of this congregation’s life, you had to come to church early to get a seat, there were several choirs, the Sunday school rooms were bursting at the seams, and the crowds’ praise and Hosannas were deafening. 

And then our Palm Sunday was over. The church’s time of celebration came to an end. People started questioning the legitimacy of the church (rightly so, in many cases), and stopped coming, and turned away. The crowds thinned out and only a few disciples were left. Christianity  today looks almost nothing like it did during its heyday. And here we are now, on what I would call the Maundy Thursday of this congregation’s life. The crowds are gone, and only the few, most dedicated disciples are left. We are facing our own Good Friday and our own imminent death. Our life as a Christian community appears to mirror the story of Jesus that we follow this week. We, as a larger Church and as a particular congregation, are moving from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. From celebration to cemetery.

The challenge of this isn’t so much that it’s happening at all - death is the inevitable conclusion to life. All of creation dies - people, institutions, congregations. Even Jesus died. The only thing that never dies is God, and God only promises new life to us after we’ve died, not before. So that we die is not the tough part to accept. It’s how we die - how we move from celebration to cemetery that is hard. Specifically, what’s hard is the way we feel abandoned as it happens. The move from crowds to a small group to being alone - from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday to the cry on Good Friday - this is what’s hard to accept. The move from packed pews to only a few filled pews to empty pews - this is what upsets us. The verses from Psalm 31 that we just read say it all: “I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbours, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead.” 

The hardest part of dying is feeling like we’ve been completely abandoned in that death. The hardest part of facing death is the prospect that we will go through it alone. It wasn’t until Jesus was on the cross, abandoned by his disciples, no crowd in sight, that he felt his most human and his most alone and cried out the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is completely human to feel entirely forsaken at our moment of death - by friends, by family, and by God. At the moment when the celebration dies and we face entry into the cemetery, even Jesus wondered if God was there.

Yet despite Jesus’ cry, God does not, in fact, abandon us. We are never completely alone. God is always with us. Jesus knew this. Psalm 22 that he quoted ends with the proclamation that even the dead shall find themselves in the presence of God, and that God shall act amongst the generations to come, being present even to those who are as yet unborn. The Psalm says, “When they cry out, the Lord hears them.” God heard Jesus cry out on the cross - Jesus was not forsaken, no matter what he felt. Luther talks about the hidden God, God who is present precisely in those moments when God seems completely absent. God who is there when the celebration is over. God who is there, acting in the cemetery. God’s presence is the reason we call Good Friday good - the reason this week ends in Easter Sunday. Without God, we would be stuck in Good Friday forever, and it would no longer be good. But without Good Friday, we would never know that the promise of God of new life on Easter Sunday actually comes true. We can’t experience new life without death. We must move from celebration to cemetery in order to move beyond, but God is with us as we do, so that we can.

This week, this year, and in this century, we are moving from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, from celebration to cemetery, through the story of Jesus–as individuals, as a big-C Church, and as a congregation. Jesus’ story is our story. The crowds are thinning out, the disciples are turning away, and we are left on our own. But we are not alone. God is with us, just as God was with Jesus on the cross. God accompanies us through this painful time, through the last night of Maundy Thursday and through our death on Good Friday. This what we cling to this week, following Jesus, and relying on God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Lent 4, 2015 - The Confession of the Church

God brings life to death. God forgives. I need to start by proclaiming these things, as obvious as they might be, because if we don’t cling to these truths, we are not going to make it through the next ten minutes of this sermon. God brings life to death, and God forgives. Remember this.

So, we’re moving towards Easter, and towards the proclamation of new life in the face of death and to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection that demonstrates the power of God’s forgiveness and light in the face of darkness. But this proclamation and celebration is meaningless if we do not first acknowledge the death and darkness that cause us to yearn for this life and light in the first place. And so in Lent, we spend time reflecting on these things, although of course we’d rather not. Lent is a time when we are particularly called to be honest and to be brave and to face the reality of this world, so that we might recognize the glory of Easter and the coming of God’s kingdom.

Today we are called to face the reality of the death and darkness in the world that is caused by us. By Christians. By followers of God. And I’ll be honest that I would rather not talk about this. I know that sometimes you come to church to get away from all of the darkness in the world, and to receive comfort, and the last thing you want to hear is a depressing sermon. And I’ve been looking for a way all week to avoid talking about this. But last week’s Gospel lesson, and this week’s reading from John and the readings that are coming for Holy Week, combined with President Obama’s statement a couple of weeks ago at the National Prayer Breakfast about the atrocities committed in the name of the Christian religion–all these things have come together and have been weighing on me–given me a guilty conscience, actually, and so here we are.

So here’s what we as Christians have to face. On the one hand, we have the Christian proclamation, “For God so loved the world.” We have this thorough conviction that God loves the world, and that Jesus loves the world, and that we are called to follow Christ by loving the world. Jesus tells us in Matthew to love our enemy, and to pray for those who persecute us. Jesus tells us that if our enemy is hungry, we should feed them. The letters in the New Testament tell us that we should not repay evil with evil, but with blessing. Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, to walk the second mile, to lay down our lives as he did, not just for our friends but for our enemies. We can all agree that Jesus responded to violence with peace, that he responded to hate with love, and that he would rather give his life than take another. And he calls his followers - Christians - to do the same.

So there’s that. And then there’s our history. There’s the passage from last week, where Jesus goes into the Temple with a whip and violence, overturning tables, shouting at people, and being very un-peaceful. Now, to be fair, even the very earliest Christian fathers - those who founded the Christian church - thought that this story couldn’t be true, because Jesus couldn’t possibly have acted that way. But even if we set aside this story, we have today’s reading from John. It starts out okay - “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son .... in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already.” Whoa - what just happened here? All of a sudden, the reading gets very harsh. Hostile, even. The Gospel of John divides the world into those who believe in Jesus, who are saved, who are children of the light, and good, and those who do not believe in Jesus, who are condemned, who are children of the darkness, and evil. The world becomes stripped down into black-and-white, good guys and bad guys, and if you’re not with us, you’re against us. As the writer of the Gospel interprets Christian history, and remember that this Gospel was not an eyewitness account, but written well after Jesus’ actual crucifixion and resurrection - in John’s history, the Jews killed Jesus by calling for his crucifixion (nevermind that all of Jesus’ disciples were actually Jewish), and that the “bad ones” in the story are always “the Jews.” The writer of the Gospel of John only uses “Jews” to talk about bad guys. Those who follow Jesus are never described that way, even though they were - they were described as truth-follower. Children of the light. The Gospel of John is extremely hostile to those who don’t follow Jesus, and to the Jews in particular, and we will hear it over and over again as we listen to the texts approaching Easter.

And here’s the thing. Here’s the part that I really would rather not preach about, and the part that I’m sure you would really rather not hear about, and the reason I made sure my kids weren’t in church today. These texts of hostility - this division between us-and-them (didn’t we talk about this last week?) - these texts - which are not just in John but throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testament - they have had a profound influence on the actions of Christians in the world. This idea that Christians are children of the light sent out to conquer children of the darkness, the idea that we are good and others are evil, the idea that it is our job as Christians to confront and overcome those who do not follow Christ - this violence is one of the legacies of the Christian church on earth. These texts from John were used on Good Friday, to preach that Christians should go out and kill Jews. In Toulouse, France, during the middle ages it was the custom to find a Jew on Easter, drag him to the front steps of the cathedral, and strike a blow to his head. Sometimes this blow was so severe as to kill him. “But he killed Jesus! He’s a child of the darkness. He’s evil!” During the First Crusades, a Christian war to rid the world of evil infidels, Christians in German cities by the Rhine killed 12,000 Jews in a three-month span in the year 1096. In those same Crusades, Christian soldiers beseiged Jerusalem, and despite offers by the Fatamid Muslims to share the Holy City, the Crusaders slaughtered 50,000 Jews and Muslims. A document from that time by a Crusader says the soldiers were in blood up to their ankles. “But they are not followers of Christ! They reject Christ! They’re evil!” From the 14th to the 18th century, Christians killed between 40,000 and 75,000 women on accusations of being witches. John Calvin had an opponent burned at the stake for heresy. In the early 16th century, in Germany, the Christian aristocracy killed between 100,000 and 300,000 peasants, inspired by words of  Martin Luther. In the late 17th century, an American Puritan pastor, a pastor rejoiced when he found out that 600 Native Americans had been burned alive. Our Christian history is an appalling almost two thousand year long legacy of Christians killing their enemies. Not praying for them. Not turning the other cheek. Not loving them. Killing them.

“But that wasn’t us,” you might be thinking. “That wasn’t me.” “I can’t be held accountable for what they did in the past!” “I wouldn’t do that!” Or “We didn’t start it - we were persecuted first!” You know, these are the excuses my children make when they get caught doing something wrong. Let’s be adults here. This is Lent, and this is a time of repentance. Lent is a time not just for individual repentance, but for corporate repentance. There’s a reason we say confession together at the beginning of the service. There are some sins that are so huge they involve everybody, and some sins so staggering that we must repent of them for generations. And we should be ashamed of trying to wriggle out of these accusations. As Christians who follow Jesus, who told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us - not punish them, pray for them - as Christians who are about to celebrate that Jesus gave his life and asked for forgiveness for those who had clearly wronged him - as Christians who claim that the faith we confess is 2,000 years old, and who claim God’s blessing has extended to us through the generations, we need to also confess that we, as a Church, as a community of Christ-followers, have done terrible, violent, murderous things. We, who are supposed to love, have killed. We, who are children of the light, have brought darkness. We, who are supposed to be good, have committed evil. And, lest we think that this is all in the past, I only need to say: the former Yugoslavia - 1990 - 100,000 people, mostly Bosnian Muslims and Croatians, were killed, and women raped, by Serbian soldiers who operated under the explicit blessing of the Serbian Orthodox Church; Rwanda - 1994 - almost 1 million Rwandans were killed - in April of that year, a priest offered shelter in his church to over 4,000 Rwandans, and then this “priest” removed the communion elements and ordered a bulldozer to take down the building with the people inside and then invited militia in to finish the job. This wasn’t the only time this happened in Rwanda and we knew about this. The western media knew about this. But what did we, as Christians, do? Did we publicly condemn these atrocities committed by people of our faith? Did we as Christians denounce those other Christians who were killing their enemies? Did we remind them that Jesus told us to love our enemies? And in case this still isn’t current enough - the Central African Republic - 2014 - Christian militia beheaded a Muslim man despite the presence of peacekeepers in the region. Who are the children of the light and who are the children of the dark? Who are the ones who love good and who are the ones who love evil? “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” Who exactly is Jesus talking about here?

Do you remember what I said at the beginning of this sermon? God brings life to death, and God forgives. All of this history I have just recounted is too much, it is too overwhelming, and it should crush us under our own guilt if we do not remember that God brings life to death. The guilt of Christian violence, if we acknowledge and confess it, should and does kill us. But we are on a path towards Easter. And in Easter, death has met its match. Death has been overcome. Not by confrontation or hatred or violence. Death has been overcome by love, and by forgiveness, and by the grace of God in Christ. The Easter message that we so desperately need to hear at this moment is that God brings new life wherever there is death. God brings new life wherever we bring death. 
Easter means that those whom we have killed, God has gathered up into God’s embrace and given new life. Easter means that God’s kingdom is packed full of our enemies, those whom we did not love and those for whom we did not pray. Easter means what the Gospel of John actually manages to get right - that the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. God does not allow ours sins to win. God overcomes our evil and our darkness with God’s own good and God’s own light. God overcomes our hatred with the love of Jesus. God overcomes our killing with the new life we see in the resurrected Christ.

And, although we do not deserve it, God shares Easter with us, too. We heard it earlier, from Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. Chapter 2, verse 4. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” The result of Christian works has too often been violence and death. But God gives the gift of new life and forgiveness, and grace through Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Lent 3, 2015 - Ich-Du

I have two magnets on my fridge that I particularly like. One says, "Because I'm the mother ... that's why." and the other is from Alcatraz Island, the site of the infamous maximum security prison, and it says, "Regulation #5. You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege." I like these magnets because when I look at them, they make me feel tough and in-charge, and like I'm the boss of the house. They make me think that I'm right to want the kids to have chores, and that I'm right when I want to be stricter with them and impose consequences for every misdemeanour, and that I'm perfectly justified in demanding that they listen to me without question, and do what I say, and obey me at every turn. When I look at these magnets, I feel strong and powerful, and authoritative. These magnets are, in a sense, commandments. They are the rules of our house. You shall obey your mother. You shall be grateful for what you get. You shall work for the things that are extras.

But you know, I struggle sometimes with being this kind of rules person. You see, one of the things that’s come up in the last few months of visiting and talking with people in their 80s and 90s is that there is a distinct difference in quality in the interactions between families where the children grew up in a rules-based house and families where the children grew up in a relationship-based house. Now, I'll explain what I mean by relationship-based house in a minute, but in a rules-based house, children were taught that following the rules was the most important thing. Whether they were house rules or Bible commandments, the rules - well, they ruled. Don't question your parents, don't cause trouble, finish your food, sit up straight at the table, go to church every Sunday, sit up straight in church. We would call these families very strict, and there's no doubt that, in many cases, this way of living was a mode of survival. I know that when families are trying to get through a crisis, and just struggling to survive, that they often have to turn to the reliability and dependability of rules. When things are in chaos, we need stability and predictability. And rules offer that.

But when rules are the only things that a family, or a community, knows, that's when things can get tricky. Because when we rely only on rules, we end up treating those who are supposed to follow the rules, not as people, but as objects. As things. As things which are supposed to follow the rules, but probably aren't. A famous German Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, called this way of relating to someone as being in an I-It interaction with them. In his original German, he called it Ich-Es. This kind of interaction with people is built solely on rule-following. We don't see the other person as an individual, or as a person like us. We see them as a rule-follower, as an "It." We don't recognize their God-given uniquenesses, we don't have compassion for their frailties, we don't think of the love that they have to share with us, we don’t overlook or forgive their infractions. We think of us, and we think of them. Buber called it an I-It interaction, but we might call it an Us-Them interaction. When we live with only rule-following as the foundation of our live, we divide the world into those who follow the rules - presumably "us" - and those who don't - "them." When my husband and I set down some rule in the house, and the kids break it, my husband and I become "us" and the kids become "them." A divide grows between us adults and them children. We're the parents, they're the kids. And we see this divide in families where the children have long been grown up and living on their own. The gap between the parents and the children that was created by a strict emphasis on rules is evident throughout the life of those families, even though they are now all adults. The parents and the children have strained relationships - everyone is still trying to live by the rules, and still treating each other as "Its" - still living with Us-Them interactions. 

So, like I said, I struggle with this rules thing. Because rules clearly have their place - they establish stability, they even - when interpreted correctly - protect society. They protect the weak and vulnerable. The Ten Commandments are great examples of that - “You shall not murder” protects those who are too weak to physically protect themselves. “You shall not commit adultery,” in Israelite times, protected women who would otherwise be cast out by their husbands and made homeless. Today we might say, You shall not abuse women. “You shall not steal” protects those who have to work to support their family. “You shall not bear false witness” protects those who would otherwise be vulnerable to lies about them. “You shall not covet” protects those who can't protect their belongings without help. We can't have no rules at all - anarchy is great for the powerful and hell for the vulnerable. We need rules. But, we can't relate to people through rules alone. We can't create community or family on I-It or Us-Them, rules-based interactions alone.

But I don't think we're supposed to. I just said that the Ten Commandments protect the weak and vulnerable, but more than that, they protect relationships. At the foundation of these commandments is the idea that the reason we don't hurt people is because they are people. They are God's creation, just like we are. We don't bear false witness and lie about others because doing so is destroying the reputation of another person, not a thing, not an It. We don't steal because it would be stealing from another person, like us. We're not stealing from Its, or from things, or from "them." We're stealing from others like us, we're disrupting the relationship. Buber had a name for this relationship, too. Standing against the I-It, Ich-Es, Us-Them interaction is the I-Thou, or I-You, or, in German, the Ich-Du relationship. The I-Thou relationship is built on seeing the other as ourselves. It comes from building on relationship, actually, instead of rules. It take the gap between us and them and turns it into a "we."

This I-Thou, or "we" is the foundation of the relationship-based families that I mentioned earlier. In these families, where the children grew up where relationships were the priority, rather than rules - not that rules were abandoned - but where the love between family members was the guiding principle, these families live as "we." There is no division between the adult children and their parents - there is only love and care. They are kind to one another, and respectful of one another, and compassionate, and merciful, and forgiving. All the things that God calls us to be, when you think about it. I've seen this with my own children, actually. Those moments when I come down with the rules, when I override their feelings and their thoughts by demanding that they submit, those are the moments when I feel that they are the farthest from me. They don't see me as a person, or even as their mother who loves them - they see only a law-giver who doesn't care about them. But those moments when I approach them on the basis of our relationship - out of love and compassion, and an understanding that we all have bad days that make it hard for us to do what we're supposed to do, and with forgiveness and grace - those are the moments when we reach one another and when we live as "we" and when they can see the relationships under the rules and, interestingly, find it easier to follow those very rules.

So how do we move from I-It, Us-Them rules-based interactions to I-Thou, We, relationship-based interactions? How do we change those intrenched behaviours that may have gone on for decades? Well, we don’t. But God does. God gives us rules and commandments in order to provide stability and protect our relationships with one another. But above all, God gives us love. "For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments." I preached on this verse a couple of months ago, and it's important enough to repeat again. God's relationship with us, God's everlasting covenant with God's people, is based most importantly on steadfast love. God is determined to have an I-Thou relationship with us. Yes, God establishes rules, but God forgives. Through Christ, God forgives us all of our rule-demanding and our rule-breaking, God forgives us when we break the commandments and when we break relationships. And God loves us, and in loving us, transforms I-It, Us-Them interactions into I-Thou relationships, where each person is a dearly loved child of God. When we trust that God’s love outlasts God’s punishments, when we allow ourselves to fall into the I-Thou relationship with God that God already has with us, the power of the love in that relationship spills over into all of our other relationships. When we feel that God loves us as persons, as individuals and not as things or Its, we can love others in the same way. Because we are God’s “Thous” - we can see others as “Thous” and God can work to transform our I-It interactions into I-Thou relationships.

So I have these two magnets on my fridge. “Because I’m the mother ... that’s why.” And “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.” And they’re kind of funny, and they make me feel powerful and in-charge, but they don’t make me love my children more or make my children love me. So on our fridge I also have pictures of the children, and my husband, and our friends. Pictures of people whom God has put into our lives as living reminders of the I-Thou, I-You relationships, signs of God’s gracious love. Rules and commandments are important, but they only take us so far. Underneath them lies God’s I-Thou relationship with creation, a relationship God is calling us to and that God already shares with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Lent 2, March 2, 2015

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  But what is our cross? Some people have interpreted this literally, to mean that we should seek out the path of martyrdom and live lives of asceticism and deliberate suffering. In some cultures, on Good Friday, Christians whip themselves and have themselves nailed to a cross as a way of taking up their cross. But Christ does not say, “take up my cross and follow me.” He tells his follower to take up their cross. Christ’s cross was a literal one, that was preceded by suffering and ended in death. Our cross simply means our own suffering and death. We are called, as followers of Christ who confess our faith in God’s power of life over death, to take up our own suffering and death. We are called to live with our own death, which will probably not happen as Jesus did, but will happen all the same. You will die. *I* will die. (Which, I confess, is a strange thing to announce on one’s birthday.) I. Will. Die.

To take up our cross also means taking up the reality that the things and the people we love will die. Our cherished memories of the past and our hopes and dreams for the future will die. The relationships in our lives will die. And sometimes, this is harder to face than the thought that we ourselves will die. I’m actually okay with the thought of dying. But the thought of my children dying, or of my childhood home being destroyed with all of those dear memories, or the thought that my family might never be able to go back to visit our friends in California, the community that helped us raise our children - these things are much harder to accept.

And yet our lives are filled with death. Or course, it doesn’t always come at us that directly. More often, it comes at us sideways, in the form of loss. Is there anything in your life that you are facing losing this year? A job? Your house? Mobility? Your driver’s license? Independence? When we lose something, we are upset because it has, in effect, died to us. The thing, or the person, or the relationship that we lose is no longer present in our lives - we have lost it - it is dead. And, in many cases, we fear this. Look at Jesus’ disciple Peter - he was desperately afraid of losing his leader, and so when Jesus talked about dying, Peter rebuked him. Told him to stop talking. How often do we do that? Refuse to really talk about losing something or someone we love dearly? When I asked you if there was anything you are facing losing this year, did you really think about it? Or did you think about it briefly and then think about what you need to get at the grocery store this week? There are many reactions to thinking about loss. Sometimes we obsess about it, but other times, we fear talking about letting go of something because we are afraid that will make it a reality. Have you ever talked to your children about your funeral plans? Or about living wills or medical intervention at the end of your life? Did they jump right into the conversation or did they raise some objections at first? We want to escape talking about loss and death, but the truth is that letting go and losing something and watching it die is already part of our reality.

But we still struggle with it. Even knowing that, we can’t let go that easily. We want to save our life, to keep holding onto those things, and those memories, and those hopes, and those relationships. We don’t want to let them go, we don’t want to let them die. Even Jesus, the night before his trial and crucifixion, prayed in the garden of Gethsemane that his death would not come. He begged God that, if it were possible, the coming suffering and death might be passed over. Jesus did not welcome death - he was not eager to lose his relationship with his disciples, or to lose the life he had.

Nevertheless, “not my will but yours be done.” Jesus did not embrace death, but neither did he refuse it. Even though we might avoid talking about loss and death, and even though it hurts to think about dying and letting go of what we have known, God empowers us to follow Jesus. Christ is clear, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” And right after that, “for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

So how do we let go of the things we hold so dear? How do we let go of memories, or hopes, or relationships? How do we lose our lives and let these things die to us? 

Have you ever tried to take something from a toddler that they don’t want to give? When my oldest son was four, he still had a pacifier that he carried around. (And just so you know, I asked him if I could tell this story and he said it was okay.) And we had tried everything to get him to give that pacifier up, but he just wouldn’t let it go. So one day, I told him that the local toy store - one of those old-fashioned toy stores that has the train tracks running inside that the kids can play with - not like ToysRUs - the store was collecting pacifiers to send to babies in need in poor countries. (Yes, we lied to our children. He doesn’t know we made this story up.) So, the store was collecting pacifiers for babies in need, and now that he was a big boy, could he help out and give them his pacifier? No. Well, the store was also promising that any child that brought in their pacifier would get a toy in return. Well... that store happened to have some Thomas the Train items that Akira *really* wanted. So, off to the store we went, and he marched right up to the counter, slapped down his pacifier and walked out happily clutching his Thomas the Train engine. He wasn’t quite ready to give up his pacifier for nothing. He really needed to get something in return.

And the same is true for us. We haven’t changed much from when we were children - we don’t like to let go of something and stand with empty hands. Fortunately, God does not ask us to do that. You see, God is not asking to let of our lives for nothing. God is not calling us to lose the things we love for nothing. God is offering us something in return, something that we can grasp only if our hands are empty, but something far better than what we are currently holding on to. Christ says, “those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” God is offering us, in the place of those things that die in the end anyway, new life. God is offering us an everlasting relationship, through Christ, that will continue forever. We hear this promise first given to Abraham. God promises Abraham that when his life here on earth is done, he will live on in the multitude of generations to come, and that God will maintain an everlasting covenant with them. And, in fact, for thousands of years, Abraham’s name has lived on in Judaism, which proclaims faith in “the God of Abraham, and Jacob, and Isaac.” If having your name recited by millions of people for thousands of years as part of daily prayer isn’t living forever, I don’t know what is. So in Abraham, we see the beginnings of God’s offer of something new and wonderful and far better than what we are currently holding on to.

We are given God’s promise at the beginning of our scriptures, and also at the end. In the book of Revelation, the prophet presents a vision of God bringing down a new heaven and a new earth, to replace the current earth. We hear, ‘“I heard a loud voice speaking from the throne: Now God’s home is among mortals. God will dwell with them and they will be God’s people, and God will be with them. God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the old things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”’ God is offering a new earth, new things, new memories, new hopes, and new relationships, that are infinitely better than what we have now, so that we might let go of what we have now in order to embrace the fullness of what God offers.

These new things are better because what God is offering us most clearly, what God is holding before us to empower us to let go of our own lives, is the death of death itself. The poet John Donne wrote a poem about death that you may be familiar with - it starts, “Death be not proud,” and it ends, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more; death thou shalt die.” Imagine - lives with no suffering or death, relationships that do not end but only ever grow deeper in love, memories that are not consigned to the past but live in the present. No more death. In Christ, we see that promise renewed. On Easter, we see death die.

Christ calls us to take up our cross. To take up our own death. Christ calls us to lose our life for his sake - to let go of those things that keep us trapped in our fear of death, to let go of those things that silence us and prevent us from talking. Christ calls us to let go of our fear of losing what we love, to let go of our fear of dying, our fear of losing cherished memories, our fear of losing long-standing relationships, even to let go of our fear of losing our hopes and dreams. Not because these things are bad in themselves, but because God is holding out to us even more wonderful things - new life in Christ, which does not die or fade or hurt or disappoint.  When Christ calls us to take up our cross - to take up our death - Christ is calling us to live fully every day in anticipation of embracing the gift of new life that God promises us. We no longer fear death, for death is overcome in new life in Christ. To live in this world, to live this life carrying our cross and losing our life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, means living every day first acknowledging that we and all things eventually die, and then carrying on secure in God’s promise of an everlasting covenant with us, and secure in the reality that Easter has come and that death has died and that we have new life in Christ. We are freed to talk about those things we will lose, to talk about our own death and the death of that which we love. Even though we die and all things we love come to an end, God does not allow that end to be forever. We receive these things again, in abundance and eternally, when we stand in the presence of God.

Think again of whatever it is that you face losing this year. The reality of our world is that you will lose it - if not this year, then the next, or the year after, or the year after that. The things of this world die and become lost to us. But, so that we may let go of it, God offers us Easter, and invites us to grasp the promise of resurrection and new life fully, with both hands. Let go of the things of this world, and receive, in fullness, the new life that Christ brings you. You will die. You will live. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Lent 1, 2015

Have you ever felt like you’re living in the wilderness? Have you ever had a time in your life - maybe now - when you feel as if you’re living in a place of chaos and instability, when you feel like stability and order are as far from your life as you could possibly imagine? Maybe you’ve suffered through events in your life that leave you feeling alone and tossed about, moments when everything you believe about God and the world and yourself is being tested. These are wilderness moments - times when we feel like we’ve been thrust into the great wilds of life. These wilderness moments might be caused by a medical diagnosis, or an unexpected reduction in income, or by the loss of someone whom we love dearly. Wilderness moments might be caused by depression, or by a change in living arrangements, or by watching some terrible event in the news. Our times in the wilderness might be only momentary, or they can feel like eternity. 

In the Bible, the wilderness is always full of wild beasts. The Bible doesn’t give us any detail, but we’re familiar with those things in our own wilderness that seem ready to pounce on us and devour us, those things that are ready to kick us when we’re down, that pour acid on the wound, as it were. Sometimes these beasts are disguised as friends or family who let us down or turn on us in our moment of need. Sometimes the beasts come in the form of crippling pain that drives us into bed and pins us there. Sometimes the wild beasts in the wilderness come in the form of thoughts that suck all hope and faith from us and make it impossible for us to see anything good. In the wilderness, it can feel like we’re facing opposition and predators at every turn, and that our patience, and our strength, and our resolve are being put to the test by even the smallest thing. When we’re in the wilderness, wild beasts can come in the form of doubt and despair that leave us feeling alone and wondering where God is, and even doubting that God is anywhere at all. 

The worst part of the wilderness is the feeling that we’re totally alone out there with the wild beasts. Struggling with illness, or financial insecurity, or a major change is hard enough to do alone, but struggling with the doubts and worries and a weakened faith that come with those events is even harder. When thoughts of depression and despair and failure assail us, they are impossible to get through alone. The wilderness, along with its wild beasts, is a strong and powerful place, and it’s a normal human experience to struggle and wonder if God is even out there at all. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed. It’s normal to feel completely overwhelmed, and totally swamped - flooded even - by forces beyond our control.

In the church season of Lent, we focus on wilderness experiences. Noah was in a watery wilderness for forty days, stuck with the animals on the ark. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness of Sinai for forty years. Jesus was sent into the wilderness for forty days after his baptism. The wilderness functions as a powerful metaphor for the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual events that leave us feeling alone and overwhelmed.

But the Bible also tells us that we are not abandoned in the wilderness. God acts in the wilderness. God, in fact, creates life in the midst of the wilderness. God acts in Noah’s watery wilderness to wash away the chaos and instability that comes from unchecked evil, and to create a new world where life is protected. God floods the wilderness and cleanses it in order to reassert that humans are made in God’s image, to ensure that humans and animals will live in harmony, and to reestablish God’s unbreakable relationship with all of God’s creation. God acts in the wilderness of the Israelites, giving them the life-giving law, and acting, once again, to renew God’s unbreakable relationship with them.

Most importantly for us as Christians, God acts in our wilderness by sending Jesus to experience the wilderness for himself. This story of Mark that we just heard is critical to helping us make it through our own wilderness experiences. It’s a short story - much shorter than the versions that appear in Matthew and Luke - but it’s the story of Jesus, who is fully human and fully divine, experiencing the same trials that we do. As a human, Jesus’ wilderness experience is caused by forces beyond his control: In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus doesn’t choose to go into the wilderness, he’s driven there. He is forced out there, just as we are forced into our own wildernesses by things beyond our control. And, as a human, Jesus is tested in that wilderness. The translation we just heard says “tempted” but the original Greek really means more like tested, or examined, to see if he really was God’s Son. The writer of Mark doesn’t tell us what happens to test Jesus, other than that Satan is at work, but even that short phrase is enough to tell us that Jesus was faced with the same doubts and despair and questions about God’s plan for our lives, and even God’s existence, that we face. In the wilderness, Jesus was put to the test - his commitment to God and his strength and resolve to be obedient to God was tested, just as ours is.  In that wilderness, because Jesus was truly human and not just pretending to be, Jesus experienced all of the things we experience in the wilderness: the chaos, the despair, and the pain of being alone. He, too, was with the wild beasts.

There is a difference, though, between us and Jesus. Jesus, in addition to being human, was also divine. Jesus was God’s beloved Son, and so the writer of Mark tells us that Jesus wasn’t in the wilderness with just the wild beasts, but also with God’s angels. Because of Jesus’ divine connection with God, at the end of his test, Jesus was surrounded by God’s angels. The wild beasts did not overwhelm and devour Jesus, and Jesus did not give in to his wilderness experience.
Of course, we are not Jesus. We are not divine. We are only humans, struggling with our own wilderness experiences. How can Jesus’ wilderness experience help us in our own moments of despair? If we do not have a divine nature to keep us going, what hope do we have of making it through?

I said earlier that God acts in our wilderness by sending Jesus to experience the wilderness for himself. But more than that, God sends Jesus into our wilderness. God sends Jesus to be our companion amongst the wild beasts, to share with us the experience of being overwhelmed, to live with us in the instability and chaos of our lives, to walk alongside us in our doubts and despair. When you are suffering through those wilderness moments, and wondering where God is, know that Jesus is with you, by your side, having experienced those same moments and those same questions. You are not alone with those wild beasts - Jesus has faced those same beasts and is with you in your wilderness. Jesus, in fact, sends those same angels that kept him company in the desert - God, through Jesus, sends angels in the form of friends, and even strangers, who ask you how you are and who are willing to face the beasts with you. 

Although it may not always feel like it, you are not alone in the wilderness. Through Jesus, God is in that wilderness with you. In the midst of your pain and your doubt and your feelings of being completely overwhelmed, God is working to bring you new life. The forty days of wilderness - a number that symbolizes totality and completeness - these forty days of wilderness and drowning and Lent are when God is acting and working towards resurrection and new life and Easter. No matter how eternal your wilderness might feel, cling to the promise that Easter is coming. New life in Christ is coming, and is already here. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Ash Wednesday - Feb 18, 2015 - St. John, Calgary

Joel 2; Psalm 51; 2 Cor 5-6; Matt 6

I commend you for being here this evening. Ash Wednesday is an extraordinarily challenging day for Christians. On Ash Wednesday, we are confronted with the reality of ourselves. We are confronted with our own mortality, with our own death. We come face-to-face with the reality that, without God, we are absolutely nothing. Without God, we are dust. And we are reminded that when we lose sight of that, we lose sight of God.

This is what Ash Wednesday is about. It is an acknowledgement, or a reminder, that we, as God’s people, have lost sight of God. On Ash Wednesday we allow ourselves to feel most fully what we feel a little bit on Sunday, although we allow ourselves to gloss it over pretty quickly–that we are estranged from God. We allow ourselves to feel the great gap that exists between us and God–the doubts, the uncertainties, the question that plagued the prophet Joel– “Where is our God?” We have lost sight of God–we are in need of reconciliation with God, as Paul so rightly points out in our second reading. Today we look at ourselves, and, if we are honest and brave, we allow ourselves to become aware that we, as individuals and as a people together, have strayed from the path of God and now feel distant and disconnected and alone.  

How did this happen? Should we go back to the garden of Eden and blame all of this disconnection on Eve and Adam? Should we excuse our own actions and avoid taking personal responsibility by talking about original sin? No, I think we are beyond that. I think we, as a church, have finally achieved a spiritual maturity where we do not have to blame our disconnected relationship with God on a mythical couple that is meant for child-like intellects.

So what happened then? Why do we still come here on Ash Wednesday? Why do we still reflect on this feeling that we need to be reconciled with God? How did we, as a people in this place on this night, come to lose sight of God? Well, God is where God has always been, but we–we’ve been looking in the wrong places. We are here tonight, having lost sight of God, because we are searching for God not where God is, but where we want God to be. We come to this Ash Wednesday service–we have a need to acknowledge and be reminded that we are nothing without God–we feel disconnected and in need of reconciliation with God because we–we–as God’s very own children, as one of the peoples for whom God created the world–we are selfish and self-involved and obsessed with fulfilling our own wants and needs. We are here because we have lost sight of God, and we have tried to make something of ourselves without God, and because we are searching to find God within ourselves.

I have been struggling for a few weeks about whether and how to say what I am about to say to you. I do not believe that pastors should preach about sins in such a way that the congregation is singled out while the pastor remains aloof and distant from the sin. When I have preached on sin and human failings, it’s always been from the perspective that we are all in this together, because we are not called to judge one another, but to forgive. But there is an uncomfortable truth that needs to spoken–on Ash Wednesday–about this congregation’s having lost sight of God because we search for God where we want God to be, and not where God actually is.

This truth is made visible in one of the questions I asked this congregation during the annual meeting: “given St. John’s limited resources of time and money, should it be spent caring for the members of the congregation or for those in need in the community?” I asked you where we should focus our energy. On St. John or on the wider world? Internally or externally? On ourselves or on others? And the answer was overwhelmingly–80%–that we should spend our energy on St. John, on the members here, on ourselves. The people of this congregation want to find God in ourselves. We want to believe that when we serve ourselves, we are serving God. We know that we’ve lost sight of God, and this people desperately wants to find God again, but what I’m seeing here is that you, like many other well-intentioned Christians, want to find God by looking within these walls, within these relationships, and within this community. But this is not where God tells us to look. (Although if it is any comfort to hear, I’ll tell you that you are not alone in this self-serving belief. The mistaken belief that we will find God when we serve our own community has tempted Christianity since Emperor Constantine. North American Christianity fell whole-heartedly into this belief in the twentieth century–the peak of the “golden age” of church-going was built on this idea. And today, many churches that are struggling continue to believe that they will find God within their church walls, if only they look hard enough.)

But we will not find God here. We will not be reconciled to God in this way. We cannot hope to find God by turning inwards, as Luther says, by curving in on ourselves. We cannot hope to gain new life in Christ or to rise from our own dust by turning to ourselves. When we live to ourselves, we die to Christ.
We will not find God by looking inwards because God is out there. God is present with those who are suffering, God is with those who are in need, God is out there, in the world, beyond church walls, amongst those whom we think are farthest from Christ. We catch sight of God in the hungry and the thirsty, when we feed them and give them something to drink. We catch sight of God in the stranger and the naked and the prisoner, when we welcome them and clothe them and visit them. As Jesus says, “truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-40) It is when you look outside of this place that you find God. It is when you serve others that you see God. It is, actually, when you pour out yourselves as alms for the suffering of others that you find God. When you pray for others, you find God. When you fast–for others–you find God.

And in these acts, God raises you from the dust. In these acts of pouring out yourselves for those who are suffering, in meeting the needs of others with a broken and contrite heart, in dying so that others may live, in becoming poor so that others may be rich, in taking nothing so that others may have everything–in these acts God seeks you out and finds you, and brings you through the dust of Ash Wednesday and into new life in Christ.

So how can we bear this knowledge for the next fifty days of Lent? How can we carry the condemnation of Ash Wednesday through until Easter? Well, what I never struggle to say, and what we must cling to in order to make it through our own sin, is that while we may have turned away from God in seeking to serve ourselves, God has not turned away from us. While we may be looking for God in the wrong places, God is not hiding from us. Because of Easter, because of Christ, we know that God is reconciling us to God’s self. You see, there is a cross of water, given to you in baptism, underneath the cross of ashes you are about to receive, that is God’s promise that God is creating in you a clean heart, and a right spirit. Our own Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reminded us that “baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life.” “Now is the day” that God is restoring to you the joy of your salvation. And God is sustaining in you a willing spirit so that you will, like Christ, take this path of the next fifty days until Easter, in service to those most in need, fasting to bring God’s new life to their dust and their ashes, and seeking and being found by God by dying to yourselves and being brought to new life in Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.