Sunday, October 25, 2015

Oct 25, 2015 - You are not old and useless

So I’m just going to jump right in and say that if there’s one fear that all people over a certain age share, it’s the fear of ending up in a hospital or a nursing home, powerless and alone. This doesn’t have anything to do with our readings for today, but it’s been on my mind and my heart quite persistently this week. This past year I have visited a lot of people who are finding themselves in this situation - having fallen or suffered a stroke or a serious episode of dementia - and, having been admitted to the hospital, are no longer allowed to return to their home. Usually this situation comes along with issues of not being able to drive anymore, having to sell your home, and not being able to make medical decisions any longer, or not understanding what the medical situation actually is. And what strikes me most in these cases is the feeling of complete powerlessness and total uselessness, and how hard it is to adjust to that after living productive and independent lives. And, of course, the doubt that God is with them in this hell, actually, which is how some describe it. Because where on earth is God to be found amongst people who have to wait for someone to help them go to the bathroom, who need their shirts buttoned up for them, who can’t properly follow a conversation anymore without getting confused, who have, for all intents and purposes, regressed back to the point of being a toddler? It is emotionally devastating to lie in a hospital bed or sit in a wheelchair in a nursing home and reflect on one’s life of hard work, caring for a home, raising a family, going to church, making decisions, being responsible for one’s self and others, and to know that all of that is now gone. We all pray to die suddenly at home, without pain, without illness, working at something we love. We fear that moment when we end up in the hospital or in a full-care facility; we dread that unproductive and useless life. What on earth would we do with ourselves when we got there? How can God still love us when we’re like this?

Almost five hundred years ago, Martin Luther took issue with the idea that Christians had to be productive and useful and hard workers in order to be holy and worthwhile in God’s eyes. We celebrate the Reformation because Luther proclaimed to us in a new way that God’s grace is a freely given gift from God to us - not something that we earn or work for or deserve. And one of the ways that Luther emphasized that God’s grace makes us holy apart from what we do was by talking about Christians as a royal priesthood. Luther reminded us what we already knew from 1 Peter, Chapter 2, that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” When we were baptized, we were made one with Christ. Luther emphasizes this union over and over again - we were made one with Christ, which means that Christ’s holiness and righteousness and worthwhile-ness become ours. Because we were baptized, we are now on the same level of worthiness as Christ, we are made royal priests just like Christ. And that means that, as Luther said, we “may be confident that whatever we do in the presence of God is pleasing and acceptable to God.” Working hard is pleasing and acceptable. Caring for your family is pleasing and acceptable. Living independently is pleasing and acceptable. But even more than that, you may be confident that lying in a hospital bed unable to get up on your own is pleasing and acceptable to God. Being helpless as medical decision are made about you and without your input is pleasing and acceptable to God. And I don’t mean that God is pleased with or accepts the fact that you are powerless. I mean that God does not use what you can or cannot do as the basis for which God accepts you and God is pleased with you. God accepts you and is pleased with you because you are one of the royal priesthood, because you are one of Christ’s brothers or sisters, because you are baptized and redeemed by Christ, not because you are capable of taking care of yourself, or because you are independent, or because you are of sound mind. God sees your worth and your holiness and finds pleasure in being with you because you are God’s child of grace, because God has already made you holy in Christ.

And because we are royal priests, God entrusts us with a particular responsibility. Now it might strike you as strange that I am telling you that when we are in the hospital or when we are in the nursing home, or when we are shut-in at home, that God has given us a particular task to do. But God has. And I want you to remember this, because when that day comes, when you find yourself alone and in the hospital and struggling with what is going on, with hours of time on your hands, awake in the middle of the night, I want you to remember that God is giving you a responsibility as one God’s royal priests: the responsibility to pray.

As Luther says, this is the duty of a priest, to pray for others. And this is your duty, too, and I would add, your privilege. But note this carefully - our duty as priests is not to pray for ourselves, although we should always do that. Our duty is to pray for others. You see, not enough people pray in the world. We are too busy living our lives - working at our jobs, raising our families, taking care of our homes, going to church, driving our cars, doing all of the things we can’t do in the hospital. And we end up too busy to pray. But God needs more people to pray - prayer is what brings the world together, because prayer is love. Prayer is one of God’s most holy callings, because when we pray, the Holy Spirit moves and brings new life and brings us together into a community of God’s love. God needs us to pray so that God might act in the world.

So when you find yourself one day in a hospital or a nursing home, you will find yourself finally with time to pray. You will find yourself with time to focus exclusively on being one of God’s royal priests - released from all responsibilities but that of praying for the world. That hospital tray is your altar and that wheelchair is your throne and you are a royal priest. So pray for the person in the bed next to you. Pray for their family. Pray for the nurse who comes to give you your medicine. Pray for the hospital staff who brings you your lunch tray. Pray for the pharmacist working in the hospital pharmacy to calculate your medicine. Pray for the technician who examines your lab work. Pray for the doctor who reviews your case. Pray for the cooks who make the food. Pray for the ones who are sick, that they are healed. Pray for the caretakers, that they find rest. Pray for the medical community, that they have wisdom. But also just pray for them as people - pray for their families, for their friends, pray that they find meaning in their work, that their loved ones are happy, that they get enough rest. When you don’t know what to do with yourself, pray. They don’t have to be fancy prayers, with long sentence and flowery words. Just pray from your heart. When you hear the ambulance siren, pray for the paramedics and their passengers. When you hear the Code Blue announcement over the intercom, pray for the doctors and for the child of God who is hovering between life and death. Pray for this church, pray for your friends, pray for your pastor and her family. Pray for the Bishop and his family. Pray for your great-grandchildren and their teachers and classmates. Pray. Don’t for a minute think that you are useless and forgotten and that you have lost all control or independence. You are doing God’s work - you are fighting for God’s kingdom, praying against death, and evil, and all of the forces that would convince us that the world is and always will be darkness. You are bringing God’s light to the place you are in. You are a royal priest, you are sanctified and set aside, your prayers are holy and God’s work. So pray.

One of the great revelations of the Reformation was Luther’s reminder to us that all of the work we do as Christians is God’s work. Whether it is changing diapers or cleaning up garbage or calculating someone’s taxes or walking someone’s dog, it is all God’s work, and we are all holy because of it. But there comes a time when we can no longer “work,” as it were; when we can’t “do” any of the things we are used to doing. Even then, though, God continues to bless us and to make us holy in all that we do. God continues to be with us no matter where we are, even in a place that seems so lowly and so abandoned as a hospital bed among so many other hospital beds. God continues to esteem us as one of God’s royal priests. And so we pray, because it is all that is left that we can do, but also because God needs us to, and because the world needs us to, and because it is what we are all called to do. I suppose it is too much to ask that we look forward to the time when we are confined to a hospital bed or a nursing home room; it is too much to suggest that we greet it with open arms when it happens, but I pray that you remember that when you find ourselves in this situation, that you remember that you are neither useless nor abandoned. In hospital beds, in wheelchairs, you continue to be sanctified, set aside, and made holy, and given the indispensable task of praying for God’s people and for the world; for you are now and will always be one of this “royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Oct 18, 2015 - Serving ALL (not just Christians)

The Gospel of Mark sure is hard on Jesus’ disciples. In this Gospel, the disciples are constantly misunderstanding Jesus, or angling for favours, or flailing about in panic because they don’t trust him. Because of the way the writer of Mark describes the disciples, when it comes to this particular reading, we take a very dim view of James and John and their request of Jesus. Most preachers will take today’s reading and talk about how James and John just want power and how they don’t really understand what it means to follow Jesus, and will point to these poor guys as examples of the way we all try to get more power. And of course, they would be right, because we do constantly angle for more and more control of our lives, even to the point where we try to control others so that our lives are better. 

But this morning I’m feeling more compassionate than judgmental, and so today, I want to take James and John at face value. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, and when they say they want to be on Jesus’ right and left hand when he is in his glory, I am going to believe that they actually do know what that means. You see, right before this passage, Jesus tells his disciples, for a third time, that he will be tortured and killed, and then rise again. And James and John, unlike Peter, don’t argue with him. They don’t tell him he’s wrong, they don’t tell him this shouldn’t happen, they don’t walk away in disbelief. What they do is they say, “when you’re in your glory, when all of this that you say has come to pass, when you have the power that comes with being resurrected as the Son of Man, then we want something.” Hidden in their request is actually a proclamation of belief. They believe that what Jesus is proclaiming is really going to happen. They believe Jesus.

And they want to be a part of that. And who can blame them? This is what we, as Christians, want. We want to be part of Jesus’ work. And I refuse to be cynical this morning, and say that we want to be part of Jesus’ work because we want glory and power and all that. I think that followers of Jesus, like the disciples and like you sitting here, I think that we genuinely and earnestly desire to do what Jesus asks of us. We really truly want to be holy and righteous. We want to follow Jesus, and while we don’t do that great a job of actually following him and actually living in holy and righteous ways, we want to. This morning, I believe that James and John really honestly wanted to be righteous in Jesus’ eyes.

And so Jesus tells them how. Jesus responds to them with the same earnestness that they approach him. Jesus doesn’t mock them, or belittle them, or tell them that they just want power. That’s what the Gentiles want - the codeword for the Romans in power, but not the disciples. Jesus accepts the intention behind James and John’s request, and tells them how they might be great in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus accepts that we really want to be righteous and holy and glorious in God’s eyes, and so Jesus tells us: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all.” 
Now this is not the first time Jesus has said something like this. We’ve heard several variations on this theme over the last number of weeks. “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.” “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is intent on reversing social hierarchies and disrupting the status quo in favour of the underdog. And so, of course, I’ve said a lot about that.

But one word catches me today. “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all.” That little word - all - keeps tripping me up. Because I think that we as Christians do a great job of serving one another - we’re very welcoming to those who are like us, particularly if they’re also Christian. We are happy to help out the Syrian Christians who have suffered persecution, and we donate to Christian non-profits like Canadian Lutheran World Relief, or World Vision, or the Salvation Army. But you know what? Jesus isn’t telling us here to be slave to only Christians, or just to those who are like us. Jesus is telling us to be slave here to all. That means serving those who are not like us. That means helping out Muslim refugees, serving our Sikh neighbours, giving to Jewish non-profits. Serving all means helping those in need who have no religious affiliation whatsoever - agnostics and atheists, even those who are militantly anti-Christian. We don’t get to pick and choose who we will serve - we don’t get to say we will help this Christian wearing her nice dress but not that Muslim wearing her niqab. We don’t even get to say that we will serve Christians first and everyone else with what we have left over. Jesus is very clear, to follow him, to be righteous and holy and do good in the way that we earnestly desire, we “must be slave to all.”

This is what Jesus did, after all. Jesus drank the cup in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus was baptized with the baptism of death on the cross in order that all might be saved. Jesus didn’t die only for Christians. Jesus didn’t die only for those who believed in him at that moment (which was a very very small number, actually). Jesus died for all. For the whole world. For Christians, yes, and for Jews. But Jesus also died in service to Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Wiccans and pagans and atheists. Jesus died for the world. “For God so loved the world, that God sent the Only Son.” God loves the world, Jesus died for the world, and we are called to serve the world.

And wow, is this hard! This is not something we’re very good at doing. Or maybe I should say, this isn’t something I’m very good at doing. I’m not very good at serving those who are different from me. Even though I want to believe I can do all these things, and serve the whole world, I don’t know that I actually can. I just don’t think I’m able. Jesus says to serve all, but there are people I’m just not sure I could serve. We all have our own particular groups of people that we just can’t bring ourselves to serve, for whatever reason. I know that the German side of my family has a very hard time serving those with a Cossack background. I know that my Israeli friends have a very hard time serving those with Palestinian connections. I know that I don’t do a very good job of serving those Christians who think women should not be pastors. We all have groups of people that we just avoid serving. We all have prejudices and biases that we simply can’t push past. While I want to do what Jesus asks of me, because I truly want to be righteous in God’s eyes, I find myself simply unable to truly be slave to all. So much for being great or first with Jesus in glory.

But the Christian life isn’t about what we can do on our own. As Lutherans we believe that we are categorically unable to actually do anything righteous at all;  Luther was adamant on this point - we cannot do a single holy or good thing on our own - as humans, we simply do not have that innate ability.
But God does. God, of course, is righteous and holy and good. But more to the point, God shares that with us. God enables us - makes us able - to be righteous and holy and good as Jesus Christ is. This cup and this baptism that Jesus mentions? The writer of Mark brings these things up because these are the central elements of our Christian life. The cup of Holy Communion and the baptism in water that we are brought to as part of our Christian life, these are the elements that God uses to make us able to live the Christian life we desire - these are the elements that enable us to be a slave to all. Somewhere along the way we got mixed up into thinking that we had to be righteous and holy and good before we come to drink the cup of Jesus Christ, but it is actually the opposite. We will never be holy enough to drink this cup, and we will never be holy enough to receive baptism. And so God has reversed the order of things. God uses the cup and God uses the water to make us holy and good and righteous. We come forward to drink from the cup of Christ because we aren’t able to do what Jesus asks, and so that God might make us able, through the presence of the Holy Spirit in Communion. Jesus leaves us with no doubts about this - “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Through Jesus’ sacrifice and through the gift of the Holy Spirit that God grant us, you will be able to live righteous and holy lives, and you will be able to serve all.

This means that we do not yearn in vain. You are not hopeless in your desire to live as a righteous Christians. You are not doomed to live an unfulfilled and inglorious life. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” God enables you to be the Christian you long to be, and brings you to participate in the glory of Jesus when his kingdom comes to earth. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was killed for daring to proclaim that serving all included serving people of every skin colour, said to his congregation in his very last sermon before his assassination, “Everybody can be great .... because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Through the presence of God’s own Holy Spirit in the gifts of baptism and Holy Communion, in water and the cup, God fills your heart with grace and generates your soul with love. By the grace of God, you are able to be great as you are able to be slave to all. Thanks be to God. Amen.