Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve - God is with you

There is something truly sacred about Christmas Eve - something set apart and special and holy about gathering together in this space to praise God for sending Jesus into our world. Something about the lights and the music, about going to church in the dark, about everybody being especially nice to one another, that makes it seem like God truly is here in our midst. Christmas Eve is the one night when it is easier to believe that God is with us than all the other nights.

Because it isn’t always easy. It’s not always easy to *feel* that God is with us. Frequently, the pain and loss in our lives can make it seem as if God is very far away indeed. When we or a loved one are experiencing chronic pain that makes every day exhausting, when we are experiencing the dull nothingness of depression, or the chest-tightening grip of anxiety, God can seem like a stranger. When we are experiencing the loss of someone we love, whether through death or just estrangement, when it’s hard to wake up and hard to go to sleep because that person is no longer with us, God can seem very far away. What does the great, almighty, transcendent God have to do with our mundane and yet overwhelming everyday pain? What does the quiet beauty of this evening have to do with the ugliness of our everyday lives? When family gatherings mean arguments and too much drinking and ugly behaviour and even violence, how on earth can we feel God’s holy presence in the midst of such unholy relationships? Here in this quiet space, with the candles and the flowers and the smiling faces, it might be a bit easier to believe that the God who created the world, who caused the mountains to rise and the vast starry sky to spread above us, who caused carbon to become the building block for all life on earth and mitochondria smaller than a speck of dust to power our bodies, that this God is somehow with us in our lives. Here it is a bit easier to believe that God is with us.

Because tonight is the night that we proclaim most clearly that our great and mighty God is also a weak and powerless God. As Christians, we believe that God became Incarnate - in-carn (which means flesh, like carnivore)-ate. God became fleshy, meaty, human. God took on a human body. For those of us for whom our bodies are a source of pain and weakness, this seems preposterous. Our God voluntarily took on this meat-encased set of bones that is the source of both sleeplessness and fatigue, that gets sick and is humbled by the common cold or a stomach bug? Our God took on this hormone-driven body whose brain chemicals determine its moods and whose DNA passes on damage from one generation to the next? Why? If the mechanism of God becoming incarnate seems hard to believe, that God would *want* to do such a thing seems even harder.

But the truth is that God loves us. God loves the creation that God has made - all of it, always. And, as happens when you love someone, God desires to be with us at all times, and most intensely when we are in pain and when we are suffering. Our God is not a dispassionate God sitting on a throne far away watching as we bumble about here on earth. Our God is love, and love means getting down in the dirt with us and sitting with us as we experience joy and sorrow, beauty and ugliness, life and death. God’s love means being with us no matter what we are going through or what we have done, so that we would not be alone. God’s love means being present with us so that we might feel that we mean something to somebody. A far away God can’t do that. A disembodied God can’t feel these things. An un-human God can’t experience what it is to be human and be truly with us.

And so, Christmas Eve. The Incarnation. God become flesh. Immanuel - God-with-us. The Christmas story is the story of God choosing to take on our human existence so that God might truly experience what it is to be human, and so that God might walk with us and have compassion for us, and by truly knowing what it is that we’re going through, both the good and the bad, both the beautiful and the ugly, give us the strength to get through it. God became incarnate and we came to know him as Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem.

Except, of course, that Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, isn’t really very much like us at all. Yes, he was human, but when it comes to the details of our lives, he was very, very different. For one thing, Jesus never got old. He never married. Never had kids. Jesus never drove a car, wore sneakers, or checked his email. He never even heard of a phone. He didn’t know there were countries on the other side of the world from Israel, that there were planets in our solar system, or even that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa. Jesus didn’t know what it was like to get cancer, to go through a divorce, to lose a child. Jesus never voted in an election. He never celebrated Christmas or Easter, actually. He wasn’t even Christian. There is really nothing about his life that we know about that was in any way similar to our lives today. So how could God becoming human in Jesus help God to understand us in our own particular situations?

Well, Jesus, like each of us, was unique. He was formed by his own particular situation and historical context, and he had his own unique set of relationships that helped shape who he was. His life, like ours, was singular and unrepeatable. And that means that his foundational experience was that of being alone. What I mean is that, because nobody could ever have exactly the same experiences and relationships as him, nobody could ever completely understand him. That’s what it is to be human. To be so individual and unique that nobody can ever completely understand us. Of course we try to understand one another, and sometimes we even have flashes when someone truly “gets us,” but complete and total understanding is impossible. Humans just aren’t wired that way. We are, each of us, ultimately alone.

And *this* is the experience that God had in Jesus that allows God to enter into our own lives and to have compassion with us. In the Incarnation, God came to know what it is to be alone. God came to know what it is to be unique and in relationship with others and yet still be an individual. And God, who knows what it is to be isolated like this, also knows what we need in those moments when we are feeling most disconnected from the world. And so God, who has experienced the isolation and loneliness that we all do, comes to be with us. In those moments when you feel ugliest, and most unlovable, and most ashamed, and most alone, God sits with you and walks with you and loves you. God knows how hard real and meaningful connections are, and so God connects with you.

And in this connection, God makes our lives sacred. God makes your life sacred. When God became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, God made all of human life worthy of being in the presence of the divine, including yours. All human life, because God has taken it on, is now holy. Not only does God walk with you in your pain and loneliness and ugliness, but God’s very presence with you makes your life holy. And that is why, when we gather in church this evening, we sense something sacred. It is because our encounters with one another are encounters with the God who has chosen to be among us. No matter what you did yesterday or today or will do tomorrow, God has chosen to be with you, and with your neighbour, and with everyone around you, with every single human being on earth, so that no one might be alone anymore. Immanuel - God-with-us. Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth. Peace to all. Amen.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

God's Justice is Here - Advent 4, Dec 20, 2015

Mary’s Canticle, what we sang during our psalm today, might be familiar to those of you who have ever worshipped at evening prayer, like during Lent. It is a song of justice - Mary, a young woman living under the oppression of the Roman Empire, is given the honour of bearing the Son of God - a title reserved for the Roman Emperor. Mary is the central figure in what we might call a religious Cinderella story - a poor girl lifted out of her meagre surroundings to become high royalty - and she recognizes it. And so she sings this beautiful hymn about God’s commitment to justice. God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry and sends the rich away because they’ve already had their fill. For God, justice is about equality - justice is about everybody having the same. The same access to power, the same amount of food, even the same access to God. The priest Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father from a few weeks ago, has access to God in the Temple, while Elizabeth, a woman and therefore never *ever* allowed to become a priest, is filled with the Holy Spirit. Did you notice that? Before Saint Paul gives us the problematic verses that women shouldn’t speak up in church, God fills Elizabeth with the Holy Spirit and makes this woman the first human to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ coming into the world. God’s justice is about equality - God’s justice is about everyone being treated as all equally God’s children - in God’s eyes, we are each equally precious.
This justice is what we’re waiting for all throughout Advent. We look forward to the day when Christ will come again, and when the Kingdom of God will reign on earth. We say, “Come, Lord Jesus,” and we long for justice. Because the injustice in our world is staggering. The ways in which people are treated as unequal to one another, the ways in which people are categorized and sorted into different levels of acceptance is overwhelming. People are treated differently based on the colour of their skin or what country they’re from, on their gender, on their sexual orientation, on their religion, on their income, on their level of education, on their age. The world is not a place of justice, and so we wait, praying that Christ will come again and that we will one day see God’s justice on earth.
But here’s an interesting thing. Did you catch the tense of Mary’s Canticle? It’s entirely past tense. God has done great things, God has scattered the proud, God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly, God has filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty, God has helped Israel. We often speak of God’s justice as something that will happen in the future, something we are waiting for, but Mary here is speaking of God’s justice as something that has already happened. And indeed, we celebrate Christmas because something marvelous did happen - Jesus Christ was born, and he did die, and he was raised. And in his life, death, and resurrection, he opened to us the way of everlasting life, as we say in Communion. God has already changed the world for us, God has already established justice. Our New Testament reading from Hebrews says it quite clearly, “it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” We are sitting around waiting for God’s justice to come, when it turns out God’s justice is already here. We are all already equal - we are all already created in the image of God, we are all already recipients of God’s mercy and forgiveness, we are all already equally worthy in God’s eyes here on earth.
But, clearly, there’s a problem. We certainly don’t act like God’s justice is already here. We wait and wait for someone to make things right, rather than living as if things are right. We see injustice in the world and we sigh and we lament and we pray for God to make things better, but we don’t step up and proclaim that people being treated differently from other people is against what God wants, we don’t act to reclaim God’s kingdom of justice. We just wait. Why?
I think that one of the biggest reasons we are still waiting for justice rather than living as if it is already here is because we see ourselves as those in need of justice rather than those stopping it from coming. We see ourselves as victims of injustice rather than perpetrators of it. When we hear Mary’s canticle, and when we hear of the different ways in which the lowly and the hungry and the poor have been oppressed, or the ways that different people have been deemed less deserving than others, we nod our heads and say, “Oh, yes, I’ve felt that too.” And that’s fine, because most of us have been treated worse than those around us from time to time. But how often do we hear Mary’s canticle and hear about the proud and the rich and those who are full, and think, “Oh yes, that’s me?” How often do we hear about people being treated unequally and say, “Oh, I’m usually treated better than others?” While it is true that we have all experienced discrimination at some point in our lives, it is also true that we have all experienced what I would call “privilege” as well. There have been times when we have been treated better than others because of our skin colour, or gender, or our religion, or level of education, or age. And at those times when we have been treated better, how often did we reach down and help those below us?
One of the reasons that there is such a gap between the justice that God has already brought, which Mary sang about, and what we see in the world is that we spend so much time waiting for God’s kingdom to arrive that we neglect to act as if it were already here. We are so busy looking at the ways in which we are discriminated against that we are blind to the ways in which we discriminate against others. Because we do - we open our doors to certain people, but not to others. We welcome some people into our homes, and our hearts, and our churches, but not others. We help some groups of people but not others. We have compassion for the misfortune of some people, but not others. We are happy to act for justice for some people, but not for others. God has already acted for justice for the entire world, and we’re here dragging our feet, making excuses for why some people are worthy of our help but not others. We’re waiting for God to bring justice, and God is waiting for us to catch up to what God has already done. 

But God does catch us up. God does open our eyes to see the justice that God has introduced to the world and shows us how we might participate in it. We’ve been reading from the letter of Hebrews for our second reading lately, and these readings talk about the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ making the world holy. Most often, the body of Jesus Christ has been interpreted to mean his literal body. That his death on the cross makes the world holy. But there is another interpretation - that the body of Jesus Christ means the body and blood that we receive in Holy Communion. That it is Holy Communion that makes the world holy. Communion is the great moment of justice in our world - it is the moment when God opens our eyes most fully to see that God’s kingdom is already here, that God has already done great things, and that we do not need to continue waiting for Christ to come, because Christ is here. Communion is God’s perfect justice: all are welcome forward and no one is turned away. Everyone receives the blessing of God’s grace - old, young, rich, poor, healthy, sick, men, women, gay, straight, proud, humble, saint, sinner, oppressed, oppressors, all colours and languages and education levels and capabilities. When we come forward to Holy Communion, we are each one of us welcomed by God to this moment, and we each receive the same full blessing and forgiveness and grace as the person next to us. God does not give some people more forgiveness than others, or some less blessing than others, and so when we come forward to this rail, and receive the body and blood of Christ given “for you,” we are participating in God’s kingdom, we are receiving the justice that we are meant to embody in the world. God calls us forward to receive Christ and then sends us out into the world to treat others in exactly the same way. To welcome them and to give them our lives, whether they are old or young, rich or poor, healthy or sick, men or women, gay or straight, no matter their skin colour or their language or their income or their education. When you have received the taste of God’s kingdom at the rail, and you stand up and turn around, you face the doors at the back of the church, doors that lead us out into the world, and when we walk out those doors we carry within us the body and blood of Christ, and so we carry God’s justice out into the world with us. We no longer wait for Christ to come to make the world better, we no longer cry out for God’s justice, we allow Christ to work within us to make the world better now, we allow Christ to use our voices to demand justice and to enact justice wherever we are.

In Advent we have been praying, “Come, Lord Jesus,” and Jesus is now saying, “Come on, I’m already here!” So as we celebrate this last Sunday in Advent, with our eyes to Christmas Eve on Thursday, let us come forward with eagerness and thanksgiving to experience God’s justice in Communion, and say with Mary, “my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour!” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

God is in your wilderness - Advent 2, 2015

Today we are in the wilderness, listening to John the Baptist crying out. What does that make you think of? I’m guessing that for most of us, the wilderness might be kind of nice. We Canadians have a fondness for the wild - the vast spaces away from the city, where nature is at its finest, where we can go for hikes, or picnics, or get some time alone. The wilderness is untamed and beautiful - awe-inspiring, but also calming. New research says that if you get outside into nature every day, your immune system improves. When I think of the wilderness, I think of Kananaskis, and Canmore, the Kootenays. I’d love to be with John the Baptist out there in the wilderness, away from the noise and chaos and complications of the city.

But of course, that’s a bit of a fantasy, isn’t it? That the wilderness is a place to get away from it all - that cities are bad and wilderness is good. In biblical times, it was exactly the opposite. The wilderness was a place of chaos, and the city was a place of safety. Nobody lived outside of the city if they could help it. The wilderness had wild animals that would eat you (it still does), and lawless thugs who would attack you. There’s no buildings or any shelter in the wilderness, you’re completely at the mercy of the elements - if a thunderstorm comes up suddenly, or a violent windstorm, or in our case a freak blizzard or tornado, there’s nowhere to hide for protection in the wilderness. There’s no easy access to food - no stores or even gardens, and no access to clean drinking water. There are no street lights to light your way when it gets dark. There are also no people in the wilderness. While this might be nice for a time, if you’re trying to get away, people also offer companionship and can watch your back, as it were. But there’s none of that in the wilderness. The city is a place of security, the wilderness is a place of vulnerability. In the wilderness we are exposed, unprotected, defenseless, vulnerable.

Most of us today choose to live in the city, and not the wilderness. But we still encounter the wilderness in our lives. What I mean is that we still encounter those times when we feel defenseless and vulnerable. There are many times in our lives when we feel as though things are completely beyond us, and that we are completely exposed - stripped bare to the world, without any defenses and completely unprotected and alone, sitting in the wild dark without any lights. 
    • For instance, you might find the doctor’s office to be a wilderness. Nothing leaves us feeling quite so vulnerable and exposed and alone as sitting in a doctor’s office waiting to hear the results of a critical test we’ve had done. 
    • Christmas gatherings, or the lack thereof, might be your wilderness. For some people, family get-togethers are wildernesses. Chaos.  When siblings fight, or adult children argue with their parents, when people drink too much and say or do ugly things, when all of the past hurts and failures are exposed - then we can feel stripped bare and vulnerable to those with the power to hurt us most. 
    • For other people, Christmas can be the wilderness of complete loneliness, with no loved ones, or maybe loved ones who’ve died and are no longer there. Either way, the result can be darkness and loneliness and vulnerability. 
    • Physical pain, too, can create a wilderness - unrelenting, ongoing, day-by-day, month-by-month pain. This, too, can leave us feeling defenseless, at the mercy of something that threatens to eat us up, alone, vulnerable, exposed. 
    • The wilderness is everywhere. Zechariah and Elizabeth, in the Gospel of Luke, lived in the wilderness of being unable to have children, before John the Baptist was born. The people in the reading from Malachi, our Old Testament prophet, lived in the wilderness of having corrupt religious leadership and therefore no access to God in the Temple. John the Baptist lived in a literal wilderness, at the mercy of the wild animals, no access to proper goods like clothes, and no proper source of food. 
Our lives tend to be one wilderness after another, even if our physical address is in a city. Most of us tend to live from one vulnerability to another, from one darkness to another, feeling completely exposed and alone.

But as Zechariah, a Temple priest, tells us, in the words for our Psalmody today, “by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Our Scriptures remind us, over and over again, that God comes to us in the wilderness, to shine light on our darkness, and to be with us in our vulnerability. The Gospel of Luke actually says it outright. After listing all the great regions and their rulers, places where the cities were supposed to be marvelous places of security, the writer of Luke says, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Not in the city, not in Jerusalem, not in the Temple, not in the places where we expect to find protection and security and God’s presence. In the wilderness. In the place of wild animals and exposure and chaos and vulnerability. God comes to John in the wilderness, just like God came to the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai, like God came to the prophet Elijah in the wilderness, like God came to Jesus in the desert - Israel’s wilderness. God comes into the wilderness to be with us, to walk by our side, to stand with us against the wild animals, to shine the light of the sun. I will not say that God transforms our wildernesses into cities, because cities of course have their own problems. But Scripture is unequivocal that God comes to us when we are in the wilderness, when we are feeling alone and exposed and vulnerable. God embraces our pain and our fear and our darkness - God does not abandon us in our moments of greatest need - God stays with us and we are no longer alone.
It can be hard to see this, I realize. We don’t always notice the dawn until it’s pretty bright outside. We don’t always feel that God is with us when we’re overcome by pain and vulnerability. It’s not that we don’t have faith, it’s just that it’s easy to get swamped or overrun or even worn down by how alone we are in these times. 

This week, while I was working on this sermon and the message that God is in our wilderness, I had to sit with my youngest child while he had a test for kidney function. I may have told some of you that he was born with kidney problems - they didn’t get the chance to fully form when he was born. And so we’ve never known for sure whether or not his kidneys work properly. Of course, you’ve seen him, he doesn’t show any sign of kidney impairment or anything like that - he’s happy and “active.” But after we moved to Canada, his doctor suggested that we have his kidneys tested to see how well they’re actually working. So, this week, they injected him with a radioactive dye - which he thought was the coolest thing ever - and used a special camera to watch his kidneys filter the dye, to see if they worked. And so he and I sat in a room while he watched Tarzan on the TV set up for him, and a camera recorded the dye moving into his kidneys and then filtering out again to his bladder. And as I was sitting there, watching his kidneys lighting up on the camera display like glow-in-the-dark balloons as the dye entered them, thinking about today’s message and God in the wilderness, I noticed that one of his kidneys was getting darker, because it was filtering out the radioactive dye into the bladder, while the other wasn’t. And as the minutes ticked by, or maybe it was seconds, because who can tell when you’re in the wilderness, one of his kidneys cleared the dye out completely, and the other kidney didn’t. It stayed all lit up. And I know the room didn’t get darker, but it sure felt like it. As I realized what this meant - that of his kidneys is not working the way it’s supposed to - I felt more and more in the wilderness. If you’ve ever received bad news - that you have cancer, or that someone you love has died - you know how the world around you kind of dissolves and you can’t quite grasp what’s going on but you’re still weirdly focused. You’re alone in that moment - completely alone in the universe - completely vulnerable and exposed in the wilderness. And so I’m sitting there, in the nuclear imaging room, with proof that my child’s kidneys aren’t properly doing what they’re supposed to, with a sermon that God is in the wilderness running through my head at the same time, wondering where God’s light was at that moment.

And I looked over at my child, and he was watching the Disney jungle animals singing and dancing and making music with pots and pans and doing all kinds of goofy things, and he was just smiling and completely captivated by the fun and the joy on the screen. And seeing his joy, that was a tiny, barely noticeable glimpse of dawn. And the now-dark, clearly functioning one kidney, that was another glimmer of dawn. And the Children’s Hospital, with their pediatric specialists, that’s another glimmer of dawn. And the nurses who were with us in the exam room, they were another glimmer of dawn, they were God’s hands with me in that wilderness. And my friends and family who listened to me process all of this were also hints of dawn and signs of God’s presence with us in the wilderness. All of these very small things, not nearly as noticeable as a glow-in-the-dark kidney on a computer screen, all of these things are tiny rays of light that reassure me that God’s light shines in the darkness. They are hard to see, but they are there.

“The dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” We all still live in the wilderness, but the dawn from on high shines upon us. We’re not yet living in the full daylight - that will happen when Jesus Christ comes again. But the dawn is here. The little bits and pieces of God’s kingdom are here now. They’re hard to notice when we’re overcome by exposure and vulnerability, but they are here. Blue sky, a friendly smile, a gentle touch, a warm blanket, a hot meal, a beautiful painting, an exquisite piece of music, a listening ear, the body and blood of Christ on Sunday morning, God opens our eyes to these moments to proclaim to us that dawn is here. In Advent, we proclaim that Christ is coming, but we also proclaim that Christ has come, and that Christ is with us now. God is with you in your wilderness. The Word of God comes to you in your wilderness. You are not alone. The sun is rising. Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.