Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Day 2016 - A light in the flesh

The Gospel of John, you’ll notice, doesn’t bother with any kind of birth story for Jesus. It launches right into a kind of philosophical treatise on Jesus as the Word, and the light, come in the flesh. Now the Word has all kinds of connections to God’s word that spoke on the first day of Creation, as well as to the Greek philosophical tradition of the Logos, and to wisdom as the personification of God. But today - this whole winter, actually - I’ve been thinking about the light. The light that shines in the darkness. Because it’s been a particularly dark winter, metaphorically speaking, and it looks to be a particularly dark beginning to 2017. So the image I want to explore with you is that of the light coming into the world, that became flesh.

This coming in the flesh is key to the Christian faith. In particular, it’s important that the Light comes in the flesh. Because light is insubstantial. We can see it, but that’s it. We can’t hear it, or taste it, or touch it. And we humans, in fact all of God’s creation, are beings of touch. It’s our sense of touch that determines our world. We have to touch something to know whether it is hot or cold. When our vision is gone, we touch the thing we’re reaching for, or the face of the person in front of us, to know it’s shape. When we walk, it’s the touch of our feet on the ground that tell us how to step. And in this day of texting and video-calling, we know that an in-person hug with our family far better than a virtual one. (In fact, if you’ve ever had a cold and refrained from shaking hands during the sharing of the peace, you’ll know how unsatisfactory it feels to only smile at someone instead of feeling their hand in yours as you shake.)

And so the light became flesh. And lived among us. And Jesus’ family, and his disciples, experienced this light in the flesh. Those who were healed by him were, literally, touched by light as he laid hands on them. Those who were fed by him at the Last Supper were, literally fed by light as he gave them bread and wine, body and blood. And Doubting Thomas, who needed to put his hand in Jesus’ side, touched light, a light that could not be extinguished.

The pressing problem for us, though, is that we are two thousand years away from that flesh. The farther away we get from that moment in time - from that flesh in that person - the harder it gets to feel the light. It is so hard to believe in something that you can’t touch. (And in fact, I am never surprised that there are so few Christians these days. In fact, I consider it the profound work of God that there are Christians at all - it is only by the grace of God that we are able to believe in someone whom we can’t touch.)

And I know that we have the Sacraments - we have the physical things of Communion, that we can touch and taste, and we have the water of Baptism, that we can feel. These are profound gifts to us - these are what we can touch in the absence of a body. But they are also only a poor substitute for being able to feel Jesus’ hand on our arm, or feeling him hug us, or sit next to us. We need to touch the light of Christ. 

God does not leave us in the midst of this struggle. Instead, God sends us one another. You see, Christ is not the only light of God made flesh. Christ is the light, to be sure. The brightest, the most direct, the purest. But we are a light of God, insofar as we are brothers and sisters of Christ, and also children of God. We are a paler version of the light that is Christ, not quite so bright, but just as real. God, who desires that the darkness shall not overcome the light, has made us to be a thousand little lights, a million little lights, all in the flesh.
Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew that when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit those who are sick or in prison that we are feeding and clothing and visiting him. Jesus makes it clear that his incarnation is more than God coming into one man. It is God coming into flesh - it is God making flesh holy, making flesh a vehicle for God’s light. All flesh.

This means that each of us here is a light shining in the darkness. We are to be the light of Christ for others, in their darkness, and we are to receive the light of Christ in our encounter with others, when we are in darkness.
In these times of darkness, we really need to remember this. One of the reasons that things are so dark right now is because in the world in general we have stopped turning to one another as fellow creatures of light. Instead, we have started looking at one another as if the other is a creature of darkness. We look at strangers with suspicion. We doubt the intentions of those we’ve never met. We worry that immigrants and refugees are going to take what we think belongs to us.

This makes our world darker than it needs to be. If you’re in a dark room, with a lamp on the table in front of you, facing the light, things are not so dark. But if you turn around so that you are facing the opposite direction, if you turn your back to the light, as it were, things get darker. Because your own body blocks the light and casts a very big shadow, and that’s all you can see. The darkness of your own shadow caused by turning away from the light.
This is what is happening in our world right now. We are turning our backs on one another, on the strangers in our light, strangers whose flesh carries within it a light from God, and so all we can see is our own shadow looming large. All we see is a world getting darker and darker.

But God offers us a remedy. God invites us instead to turn towards one another. To turn towards the flesh that contains the light of Christ. When times get dark, we are not called to turn our backs on strangers. We are called to face them, and to let their light shine on us, and our light to shine on them. To be the hand on their arm, to hug them, to be the one sitting next to them.

In this way, God makes our flesh to be a light in the darkness. And the more people we face, the more light we receive and the more light we share, the more light there is in the darkness. Millions and millions of points of light in the world, light in the flesh, that the darkness can never overcome.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus prays to God that, “the glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me.” Just as the light of God became flesh in Jesus, the light of Jesus Christ becomes flesh in us. The miracle of Christmas is that the light of God became flesh in a tiny baby born two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. And it is also that the light of God became flesh, period. In becoming flesh in that particular baby, God made it possible for light to become flesh in any and every particular baby. In each one of us. And so, although the world does indeed look dark, God sends us as light in the flesh to one another, lights reflecting the light of Christ, light to shine the darkness. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Christmas Eve 2016 - Elephants in the Manger

Have you ever been knocked over by an angry elephant? I haven’t, but I imagine it’s a horrible experience. Like getting hit by a bus or something. That trunk, swinging wildly, hitting you in the back and just laying you flat on the ground. Even just to be near to an elephant charging past must be scary. The ground shaking as it goes pounding by, knowing that if the elephant decides to charge you, you’re done for.

I bring this up because of the elephant in the manger scene.

Oh, you didn’t know there was an elephant there? Well, maybe you didn’t notice it because your attention was focused on the beautiful holy family. But it’s there. There’s an elephant at most people’s Christmas gatherings, hiding somewhere in the nativity set up along with the tree. It’s surprisingly easy to overlook, with all of the other things going on at Christmas - the music, and the presents, and the food, and the laughing and conversation. But if you sit quietly for long enough, you’ll feel it as it moves around. Big thumping footsteps that shakes you up when it gets too close. You might hear things crashing down as it waves its trunk. You might even feel yourself knocked about if you’re unlucky.

The elephant in the nativity scene, the elephant in the room actually, is whatever is going on in our lives that we so desperately try to avoid thinking or talking about at Christmas. It’s that “thing” that so often lurks in the background of our gatherings that threatens to upset the pretty, sparkly, happy Christmas we work so hard to have. The elephant is the awkward, uncomfortable, sometimes downright ugly part of our lives that we try to hide underneath the mountains of presents and food and shiny decorations.

It’s the aunt who drinks too much at supper and then starts hurling insults at family members. It’s the married couple that had a big shouting match cut short by the doorbell ringing. It’s the bank account seriously overdrawn to pay for the food on the table and the presents under the tree. It’s the person who’s missing from the Christmas celebrations. It’s the swastika painted on the Sikh house of worship here in Calgary on Thursday morning that reminds us we do not love our neighbours the way we say we do. It’s the intergenerational damage wrought on our indigenous people by Christian residential schools that we did nothing to stop. It’s the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve died in the Syrian crisis, and in other wars around the world, and who are dying still this very night. The elephant is all of the human realities, individual and societal, caused by us and randomly occurring, that are a source of pain on this night that we would rather be nothing but joy. It’s the reality here, amongst us, that this may very well be our last Christmas Eve service together. The elephant is all the things that threaten to disrupt the peace and joy and light of Christmas; the things that cause us pain in this holy night that we would rather not talk about or acknowledge.

But there have always been elephants in the world. There have always been ugly moments and broken relationships and global systems that lift a few up and keep the rest down. There were even elephants at the birth of Jesus - that Joseph and Mary returned to their hometown and no family would welcome them and make room for them. Already there was the elephant that Jesus was conceived out of wedlock, and possibly was not even Joseph’s. There was the elephant that this chosen nation of God was being ruled by idol-worshipping Rome. There was the elephant that the people of Israel were, like people everywhere, not taking care of the poor in their midst. There are always elephants, breaking things, stepping on us, hurting us.

But elephants are the reason for Christmas. They are the reason God became incarnate in Jesus, and came to us as a human. Our reading from the letter to Titus says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” Last Sunday I said that the word ‘salvation’ is deeply connected to the word ‘healing,’ in its Greek roots. So really, what we have is the letter saying, “For the grace of God has appeared,” meaning Jesus Christ, “bringing healing to all.” This is why God came to us in Jesus. To heal us, and to show us how to heal one another. The reason for the first Christmas, and the reason we celebrate it every year, is that God has come to heal us when the elephants we’re trying to ignore hurt us.
Christ heals us. That’s what we sang in Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. “Light and life to all he brings, Ris’n with healing in his wings.” From the moment humankind left that perfect garden, with our hearts broken because we had somehow managed to mess everything up, God has been seeking a way to heal us. To make us whole in the midst of our pain. And God does it through love. God does it by coming down to be with us and to be with our elephants and to love us through it all. That’s why God became incarnate - why God became human. So that God might love us in the midst of all our ugliness. So that God in Jesus might actually stand in the presence of his own elephants and risk being crushed by them and, most importantly for us, make us whole.  

Jesus put his own fear of pain aside, and his own feelings of embarrassment and shame at having elephants, so that he might take on the pain of others. You see, when we love someone, it means that we make their wholeness a priority over our own. We give up trying to preserve our own serenity, we give up our own search for joy. Instead, we allow ourselves to be open to the pain and suffering of the other. And in taking on that pain and suffering, we ease it for them. And they can heal. 

This is what God did at Christmas. God became human, in order to know that struggle between protecting one’s self from one’s own elephant and voluntarily standing with another as their elephant charges. The human struggle has always been between saving ourselves - healing ourselves - and saving and healing others. And in Jesus, God demonstrated over and over and over again that God chooses to save and heal us. God chooses to love us more than God loves God’s own self. And so we are being healed. We are being made whole.

The healing seen in Christmas doesn’t mean things go back to the way they were, though, back to being perfect. Healing doesn’t restore things to the way they were before the elephant came through. Healing is not a return to the past, and healing is not easy. Healing is often difficult and painful. Healing might involve months of recovery - as we know from those who recover from major surgery. It might involve re-breaking something previously broken so that it can set properly. Healing might mean that the chemo that meant to rid us of cancer also damages the heart muscles that pump blood through the body. It might mean letting go of something we truly love so that it doesn’t crush the ones around us. It might mean letting go of our own ways of living in the world that hurt others.

But we are willing to endure all these things because healing also means love. And new life. Healing means wholeness. An emotional and spiritual health, even when physical or mental health is absent. Healing is reconnecting us to the selves God means for us to be and connecting us to one another. Healing is seeing ourselves and each other as the reason Christ became incarnate. Healing is God wanting desperately to be with us, elephants and all. It is the joy and beauty and peacefulness and light and life that we are so desperately seeking at Christmas.
But it comes with the elephants. Just to be clear, the healing that Christ brings doesn’t mean that our elephants disappear. They will always be with us - that is just part of the reality of living in this world. But in healing us, and teaching us how to heal one another, Christ also shows us how to live with our elephants. The important thing, of course, is to face them. To face the ugly things in our lives. Not to hide from them, or to try to hide them under forced smiles and meaningless conversation. No. Ignoring elephants is the best way to get hurt. And besides, it’s impossible to hide an elephant - no matter what we do, it’s going to come out anyway. So we turn, and we face it. We talk about the elephants in our live, about the pain others have caused us and about the pain we have caused others.

But we do so confident that, even though we might be hurt, God will heal us. God is always working to heal us. What we seek at Christmas is available to us every day. Christ is in the world - Christmas is today and tomorrow and all the days to come. Christ is God with us - one of us now. Loving us.

There’s an elephant in the manger scene. It is the pain and the hurt and all the things we think are irreconcilable with the joy and happiness and peace of this season. But without it, we wouldn’t have Christmas at all. The elephant is the reason we have Christmas, the reason God came down to take on our human existence. The reason that Christ came to save us, to heal us, so that we are more whole than we ever were before. And so my prayer for you this Christmas is that God gives you the strength to face whatever elephants are in your life, and that God gives you the faith to trust that God is with you, and healing you, today and in the year to come. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing healing to all.” Christ is here. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Advent 4 - Dec 18, 2016 - What We Want

Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25 

What do you think Joseph had planned for his life, prior to the angel coming to him in his dream? I can’t imagine that his life-plan involved, in the first place, discovering that his fiancee was pregnant by not-him. Who plans for that? I imagine that his original plan, right after he was engaged to Mary, was to prepare his family home for her, and after they were married to start their own family together. That sounds like what any reasonable fiance would want, right? But very quickly, that plan went out the window. Because Mary was pregnant. And so he had to readjust his plan. And so his new plan, before the angel appeared to him, was to quietly dissolve his engagement with Mary so that he could leave her with a clear conscience and find a new wife and begin again. He was a righteous man and didn’t want to embarrass her publicly, (and there was an idea in Judaism around that time that publicly disgracing someone would bar you from God’s kingdom, so that’s why his righteousness comes into play here), and so he was going to discreetly put her aside. Not really the way he wanted his life to turn out, but not as bad as it could be. Not as bad as marrying a woman and having to pretend that their firstborn child was his when it wasn’t. In the face of unexpected events, he came up with a new plan that would, if not perfect, would still work for him.

How do you make plans for the future? Do you go with what feels right? Or do you try to be more deliberate? Most of us make plans by thinking about what we want, and then calculating what’s possible, and then we consider what’s best for everyone else involved, and then we try to find some balance between all of these different things. Whether you’re planning for Christmas, or planning for the next five years of your life, whether you’re planning your funeral or whether you’re planning what the church should do in the coming years, we all go through this process of trying to balance between what we want, what’s possible, and what’s best for the larger group.

Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah is an example of this, actually. Now I’ll tell you right away that this portion of Isaiah is impossible to understand if you don’t know the political and military environment that it was written in. Basically, Ahaz, who was the king of Judah, the southern part of Israel that includes Jerusalem, was worried about the land being overtaken by his enemies, which at that time included the north part of Israel, and Syria. And so his plan was to protect the land of Judah by entering into an alliance with the Assyrians. Politically and militarily, it made sense, because Assyria was a strong military force. Ahaz was so convinced that his plan would work in fact, that, in the Bible verses just before our reading comes in, he decides against asking God if this was the plan he should be following. Like all political leaders, like all individuals, actually, Ahaz made his plan based on what he wanted, on what was possible, and on what the country needed. 

But our readings for today, and our experiences in life, tell us that we often have to abandon our plans, and let go of what we want. More specifically, the Bible tells us that God often calls us to sacrifice our plans, and sacrifice what we want, in order to participate in God’s plan for our future. Look at Joseph. He had a plan to marry Mary, and raise a family with her, but then God made her pregnant through the Holy Spirit. And so he re-adjusted. And his new plan, still based primarily on what he wanted, was to break his engagement with Mary and leave her and get on with his new life. But then, God gave him what was undoubtedly life-shattering news: that God’s plan for him was to stay with Mary, to be the father to a son who was not his own, to take on the responsibilities of raising this child who was not of his blood. What kind of plan was this? For the rest of his life, Joseph would be worried that people might find out that he was not Jesus’ father, because there’s no doubt that Mary’s family would have known that he wasn’t, and maybe even some neighbours would be able to put two and two together and figure it out, and he would suffer public shame for the rest of his life that his wife’s child was conceived through someone else and that he was a failure. Who in their right mind would want that? Who would choose to follow God’s plan when being considered a failure was part of the outcome?
But Joseph did. Joseph chose God’s plan. Because along with all of this risk of public shame and knowledge that his firstborn was not actually his was God’s promise that this plan would save all of God’s people. God’s plan was for the good of the entire world, even if it made Joseph’s own life more difficult. And so Joseph, who was righteous, let go of his own plans, and let go of what he wanted, and chose to follow God’s plan as his own. He was faced with a difficult choice, and he chose God.

We too are faced with this choice, constantly. Yes, I’m talking about this congregation’s future, but I’m also talking about life in general. We are constantly faced with having to make plans for our life, and with the choice that comes with it: Develop a plan that gets us what we want, and pursue that, or let go of what we want in order to participate in God’s plan for the world. And I’m not going to tell you that this is an easy or straightforward choice. Our own plans are usually much simpler and easier to follow than God’s plans are. Look at Joseph - God’s plan for him came to him in a dream - very hard to decide to follow a dream. And look at Ahaz and Isaiah - God’s plan for them required them to let go of their plan to trust in military forces and instead to trust in a baby that hadn’t even been born. Again - very hard to just go forward blindly without any proof that things will turn out right. But the hard truth of being one of God’s children is that God does call us - God doesn’t force us, but God does call us - to sacrifice what we want in order to do participate in God’s plan.
But here’s why we do it. Here’s why Joseph let go of his plan to raise his own family and raise God’s family instead. Here’s why we stop making plans based on “what we want.” Because God’s plan is a plan for the healing of the entire world.

I say “healing” because that’s what it means every time the New Testament says “saviour.” The Greek word for Saviour is soter, which means saviour, deliverer, protecter, healer, one who makes things whole. Salvation is about healing the entire person so that they are integrated. When we talk about Jesus saving the world from their sins, we are talking about Jesus healing the world - binding together the things and the people and the communities that are broken. Where sin has fractured and broken us, Jesus heals us from those sins. Jesus makes us whole again.

This is God’s plan for the world. That it would be healed. That the entire world, the whole global community, nature, our environment, the animals and all creatures, everything would be healed. Brought back together the way it was on the seventh day of Creation. This is why God sent Jesus. To save us - to heal us. This is God’s plan.

And this is why we set aside our own wants and plans. This is why Joseph set aside his wants and plans - to have his own children with Mary and raise them up himself. Because God’s plan, as vague as it was, is so much better than our plan. Joseph’s plan concerned only his small circle. Our plans so often concern only ourselves and those around us. But God’s plan is for the entire world. For absolutely everyone.

And so we can, indeed, let go of our own plans. As hard as it is, and as much as it hurts us, we do it because we know that we, too, will be healed. God’s plan for healing the world includes us, who have sacrificed what we want. That is what it means to participate in God’s plan - it means to both sacrifice in order to take part in it, and to receive the benefits of the goodness God intends for the world. 
When God calls us to give up our plans, and to give up what we want, we don’t always see right away what the value is in that. I don’t think Joseph saw any immediate rewards for giving up his plans for a stable life and a firstborn child of his own. I’m not sure he ever saw the rewards for what he did - there is no mention of him being around when Jesus died and was raised again. Sometimes we don’t get to see all of God’s plan for the world. But we participate anyway, because what else, as followers of Christ, as children of God, are we to do? Joseph did not see this future we are living, where millions of Christians have experienced the new life that Christ showed us. We cannot see the future from here, where our sacrifice for God’s plan will bring light and new life to others. Only God can see that, and so only God can plan for that, which is why only God’s plan is worth following.

The saying goes that it is the darkest before dawn. Joseph’s story is the dark moment before the dawning of Christmas. Our Advent journey makes its final stop with him, as he gives up his plans, and sacrifices his wants for the greater good God has planned. But the dawn is coming. Christmas is coming. God-in-Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us is coming. And so, we too let go of what we want, like Joseph before us, knowing what it will cost us and knowing what the world will gain, and we turn to God and we say, Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.

Advent 3 - Dec 11, 2016 - The Strength to be Idealists

What a vision the Magnificat presents us with. This beautiful hymn from Mary, that we sang for our Psalm reading today, gives us a vision of the world that God desires, where God establishes pure justice and equality. God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In this simple song, Mary rejoices in God’s righteousness, that God does away with exploitation and inequality and with oppression and poverty. And to those who are powerless and poor, who are constantly hungry and struggling to make ends meet, this is a powerful hymn of freedom. It calls us to open our arms to embrace a radically different world than the one we currently live in, where the powerful assume ever larger thrones and where the rich enjoy their ever-increasing good things. Mary’s hymn reminds us that the world we live in, which tells us it is better to be powerful and rich than lowly and hungry, is not the world God intends for us. For those of us who are social justice idealists, the Magnificat feeds our soul and inspires us in our efforts.

But for those of us who are realists, the Magnificat is, well, something we listen to in church but not something we bring home with us. Because life isn’t that simple, is it? The idea that the world can be divided so cleanly between those with power and those without, between those who are rich and those are hungry, it’s a bit ridiculous. Realists know that the world is much too complicated to let idealists run the show. Take the issue of environmental justice, for example, and the discussions around carbon taxes and oil pipelines, and all of that. Now idealists would say that we need to get rid of fossil fuels immediately, and shut down all the pipelines and refineries, because they are destroying the environment and our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be living in a toxic soup and we have to stop it now. Realists, on the other hand, would say, Don’t be ridiculous, you can’t eliminate all the jobs that come from the pipelines and refineries. Those workers need to feed their families. The country’s economy would tank if we did that. We need these industries simply to survive to the second or third generation - clean air is useless if there’s no second or third generation to enjoy it.

And so the debate rages between the idealists and the realists. And then, somewhere in the middle, lies the rest of us. Those of us who wish we could live by the lofty ideals that Christ has set before us, of justice and equality, but who can’t argue against the realists because we need to get by in life. We act like the “crowds” in the Gospel of Matthew that we heard today, who go out to hear the idealist John the Baptist, but who aren’t willing to follow him to imprisonment. Instead, we find a way to compromise on our ideals. We turn to practicality and tradition. We act like realists and we dream like idealists, and when the young people come to us, because the young are often the most excited about living up to their ideals, when they come to us and say, “But don’t you care? How can you be such hypocrites? How can you compromise like that?” we stifle that twinge in our conscience and think, “You’ll get used to it. You’ll get used to compromising in order to get by, and one day you’ll understand.” And we think to ourselves how complicated the system is, and how it’s not so black and white, and how the division between powerful and powerless, between rich and poor, is not so simply made. And we listen to Mary’s Magnificat and we wonder, “Am I the powerful about to be brought down? Or the lowly about to be lifted up? Do I need to be filled with good things, or do I need to be emptied?” We acknowledge the vision that God calls us to, but we see the realities of the world, and we despair of being able to make any real changes in the world and try to get used to the way things are.

And do we get used to things, and we do get by pretty comfortably, until along comes Jesus in our Gospel reading from Matthew. In our reading, Jesus turns to the crowds who have come to see John, and lectures them for getting too comfortable with the situation they’re in. Jesus points to John the Baptist as someone who didn’t compromise - John was not a “reed shaken by the wind,” that, in order to survive, bends down when confronted by a bigger force. John was not someone “dressed in soft robes,” who took a job with the big company, as it were, in order to make a living and have something nice to wear. No, John was a prophet, and “more than a prophet,” which means that John refused to compromise, John refused to sacrifice his ideals, John refused to give into the realist’s perspective. John remained an idealist until the day he died - it was the reason he died, actually - and yet Jesus tells the crowds, and us, that here is truly a great man. Here is who we should be imitating.

I have no doubt, though, that the crowds listened to Jesus and then thought, like we do, “But it’s not that easy! It’s not that easy to extricate ourselves from the system! Yes, I want to do what’s right and participate in justice, but I can’t get rid of my gas-burning car and rely only on public transportation. I can’t cash in all my RRSPs and give the money to the poor. I just don’t see how I can do this!” We thirst for righteousness, as the Beatitudes say; we want the world to be a just and equitable place. Whether we are idealists or realists or somewhere in-between, I know that we all want the lowly to be lifted up and the poor to be filled with good things. It’s just that it seems so impossible. God’s kingdom seems like a only a dream - never something that will be a reality.

In the midst of this darkness, our readings for today give us two messages of light and hope. The first comes from the letter of James. “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. ... Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. ... We call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” The letter of James calls us to endure, to be strong, to have patience. Not in the sense of getting used to things the way they are until God comes to fix them, but in the sense of holding to our ideals, and continuing the daily struggle to live as God’s children, strengthened by the knowledge that the Lord is going to make things right. The Lord is going to untangle this mess we find ourselves in, and restore justice in a compassionate and merciful manner. Cast us off our thrones where we are powerful, yes, but also lift us up in those areas where we are lowly, so that no one is too high or too low. The letter of James says to us that because God is going to do these things, we can stand firm in the face of opposition, like the oak tree in the river bed instead of the reed, resisting the call to give in to exploitative systems because we know they won’t last forever.

Our second message comes from Mary. One of the things that gets overlooked when we read the Magnificat is the tense of her words. That is, Mary is not speaking about what God will do. She is speaking about what God has done. God has brought the powerful down from their thrones. God has filled the hungry with good things. God has done great things for God’s people. This is not something we are waiting for, something we are hoping will one day happen, this is something God has done, and is continually doing! God, who is not confined by our linear timeline, has acted for justice, and is acting for justice, and will act for justice all at the same time. God has untangled us from the systems of oppression we find ourselves in, and is now untangling us, and will untangle us!
And so we can, indeed, engage in living as idealists rather than as realists. Because the world we envision will be brought about, and has been brought about, by God. If it was all up to us, then yes, we could revert to our realistic ways of living and get used to injustice. But it isn’t up to us. It’s up to God, and the power of God to restore the world to justice and life is beyond anything we know. As our reading from Isaiah says, God’s power causes flowers to bloom in the desert, causes weak bodies to become strong, causes the blind to see and deaf to hear. God’s power brings water to the thirsty and food to the hungry. God’s power becomes embodied in a tiny baby born two thousand years ago who goes on to love the world so dearly that he dies, and then is given new life, sharing it with all of us. God’s power ends the everlasting hold of death. God restores everlasting joy and peace to the world, bringing everyone into God’s circle of righteousness. We can endure this current darkness because God has already brought light into the world!

This is the meaning of Advent. This simultaneous looking backwards, and looking forwards, and acting in the present. We look back with joy to the moment that God upended the systems of power by incarnating in a human baby of no standing, born in a stable. We look forward with a patient hope to the moment that God will fulfill God’s upending of power by establishing a kingdom of justice and righteousness for all, filled with compassion and mercy. And we act in the present as if what we hope for has already come to pass, and as if what God has done in the past is our new reality. We refuse to get used to things the way they are and instead we proclaim, with the fervour of the idealist and the practicality of the realist, “Come, Lord Jesus, come!” Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent 1 - Snow Globes

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-15; Matthew 24:36-44

Snow globes. I love them - cute little scenes and you shake them and sparkly snow falls gently down. They’re very calming to watch, don’t you think? On Monday I was killing time in the airport in San Antonio, Texas and I saw a snow globe for the Alamo, the historic site of a fight for Texan independence from Mexico. The snow globe made me laugh, because the Alamo is as far south as Tampa, Florida. There is no snow there. Snow falling on the Alamo would be as apocalyptic an image as you could imagine. Although, for nineteen dollars and ninety-nine cents, someone clearly imagined it.

When I was a kid, I used to look at snow globes and imagine that there were teeny-tiny people living in them, who would hang on for dear life when I held the globe upside down and shook it really hard. I imagined that they would be screaming or waving their hands around or bracing themselves in their teeny-tiny doorways. Now that I’m older, though, I don’t find it as much fun to imagine that. Maybe because as an adult, I know what it’s like to have your world upended. I have a better sense of what it feels like when everything is turned upside down and shaken.

The first Sunday in Advent is always a time when our Bible readings talk about how upended and shaken our world is. Every year, as the days get shorter and the nights get longer, as it feels like we’re descending into darkness, we hear Scripture that tells us that yes, the world is as we feel it to be. It is getting darker. We hear about nation against nation, about floods and thieves in the night, and we can identify with the feelings that rose during those times - feelings of unrest and uncertainty. Feelings of fear. 

And then we look at our lives, and things seem the same way - dark and upended. Whether it’s on a personal level, or a community level, or even a global level, we can point to those things that make it feel like someone is holding our world upside down and shaking it. And we feel what those first Jewish Christians felt during the time when our Gospel reading was written. That everything was falling apart and that a flood was about to sweep everyone away, and that we had better be ready because something cataclysmic was happening.

Back to the snow globes. I remember once going into a store where there was a huge selection of snow globes. And I remember trying to turn each one of them over and shake them as fast as I could so that all of them had falling snow at the same time. Because that’s the point of snow globes, right? That they are the prettiest when the snow is falling. Without the falling snow, they’re just another plastic trinket. It’s the snow falling that makes them magical. Which means that we have to turn them upside down and shake them. It’s the upending and the shaking that transforms them from kitschy to beautiful.

This is, I think, what our reading from Matthew is trying to get at. That sometimes, in the process of making the world beautiful, it’s necessary for God to upend things. I know that I’ve always found this particular reading from Matthew to be somewhat fear-inducing. Floods! Thieves! But when I consider it more deeply, I remember that the flood was actually a good thing. Setting aside the whole issue of animals drowning, a part of the story that makes me wonder why we tell it so often to children, what we have here is the story of God wiping away all of the injustices and oppressions and evils of the world. If you’ll remember, the eating and drinking and marrying that Matthew talks about as happening before Noah and the flood was gluttony and drunkenness and the Nephilim marrying human women. As Genesis says, “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” God sent the flood to wipe away that evil. At its foundation, the coming of the flood was necessary. And indeed, today, if God were to come and wipe away corrupt governments, and the evils of poverty and racism and greed and exploitation, and all of the heart-break and loss and pain that they bring, we would be glad. We would welcome the Son of Man coming as a flood.

But what about the Son of Man as a thief breaking into the master’s house? Well, here we have to turn to historical criticism of the Bible and interpret it in light of what we know about when and why the Gospel of Matthew was written. And in the last few decades, it’s come to light that the Gospel of Matthew was written about four or five decades after Jesus’ death as a political Gospel, to resist the power of the Roman Empire. The Romans had destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, pillaged the city and murdered most of its inhabitants, and tried to obliterate the Jewish religion. And so the Gospel of Matthew was written to that first community of Jewish Christians that was struggling to live in this new Empire-controlled world, wondering where God was in the midst of all the chaos. And in our reading today, we can understand the house that was broken into to symbolize the power of the Roman Empire, with an Emperor who was asleep to what Jesus’ coming into the world meant, and that Jesus was the thief who was breaking into the Empire, overturning its oppression, upending it and shaking it, stealing its power and replacing it with his own. If the Empires we see today, political or economic, were to broken into and dismantled, we would be glad. We would welcome the Son of Man coming as a thief.

Of course it would be simplistic, and hurtful even, to say that every time our world is upended it is because God is shaking us in order to make our lives better. That just doesn’t fly when we’re going through personal crises - when we’ve been diagnosed with cancer, or just lost a loved one, or experienced some kind of personal tragedy. How God is involved in these moments is an issue of what theologians call “theodicy,” and there’s just not enough time this morning to get into all of the nuances of that, but I assure you that God’s desire for God’s children is not to cause suffering.

But what I am trying to say this morning, what the Good News of Advent is, is that these times of upending and shaking are not meant to make us afraid. They are not meant to keep us cowering in our beds, like when we hear a thump in the middle of the night. When our world is tipped upside down, we are not meant to scream and and wave our hands around and hang on for dear life in the doorways of our lives. Instead, as Paul says in our reading to the Romans, we are supposed to take heart, to turn to the light, and to trust that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” In other words, we are to live not as if our world were ending, but as if, in God, it is just beginning. As if dawn is approaching.

Which means we live as if we are children of hope. As if we have a reason to look forward. We live by putting aside fear. We live by choosing to go through this time as children of love. We support those whose lives have been upended by caring for them, by reassuring them, by comforting them with the promise that, in God, things will get better.

Because they are. This is the point of Advent. Things will get better because God is working in the world. Indeed, God has already come into the world, incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. And despite all of the upending and shaking, or maybe even because of it, God is turning this world into a place of beauty. Swords will be turned into ploughshares, and spears into pruning-hooks. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” The houses of those who exert their power in evil and oppressive ways will be emptied. Heart-break and pain and loss will be washed away in a flood. The world will be the right way ‘round again as the love of Christ falls gently down around all of us. And so we say, in this time of Advent, Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

November 13, 2016 - A Cold and Broken Hallelujah

Malachi 4:1-2a; Luke 21:5-19

On Monday when I read these texts, I figured I had the sermon figured out. It was going to be about how beautiful buildings dedicated to God, even commissioned by God, still come down. I was going to talk about the Temple and how it was God’s place, and the shock at it coming down, and how the followers of God, both Jews and Christians, eventually discovered that God had moved from buildings to people, and that our hope lies in God’s covenant with all of God’s people. And I was going to completely ignore the second half of this reading, and also most of the Old Testament reading.

And then the election on Tuesday night happened. And then, more to the point, Wednesday and Thursday and Friday happened, and I was inundated with stories about the aftermath of the election. About the hatred and violence that was now unleashed, and the second half of our Gospel reading came rushing back. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. ... You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.” And I knew that I couldn’t preach a regular sermon in these times.

Now if you’re not on social media - if you’re not heavily plugged into facebook or twitter or instagram - you won’t know what I’m talking about. Because our major news channels aren’t reporting certain events that are going on in the US right now. But I want to share these with you, because what’s going on right now south of the border, and is in fact spreading throughout the world, can be described in the same words as what we hear in our Gospel today - nation against nation, people against people, families at war with one another. And I’m sorry that some of the words you are about to hear are words that should never be uttered by a Christian, let alone from the pulpit, but if we are to be followers of Christ we must not hesitate to stare evil in the face, and stare it down.

These post-election events began on Tuesday evening. A friend of mine’s husband, who had been drinking as the election results came in, became increasingly excited about the results, and when she tried to get him to stop yelling about it, he started shouting, “White is right!” She took her kids and left him, and slept in a motel that night. On Wednesday, amidst reports of women being targeted by men with the words, “Your time is up, bitch!” and high school students showing up at school to see graffiti in washrooms that said, “Go home, niggers, this is Trump land!”, a friend of mine posted a note shared from a friend of his, who happens to be a priest, and gay. And that priest received a note on his car windshield that said, “So, father homo== How does it feel to have Trump as your president? At least he’s got a set of balls. They’ll put marriage back where God wants it and take yours away. America’s gonna take care of your faggity ass.”

On Thursday, a high school teacher in Los Angeles told his students that if they didn’t behave, he was going to have their parents deported, and a poster was circulated on a Texas university campus calling for “teachers of diversity” to be tarred and feathered. Tarring and feathering goes back to the days of the old South, when whites would round up a black man, immerse him in boiling tar, roll him in white chicken feathers, and then hang him from a tree. I have friends who “teach diversity” at Texas universities. By Friday, the Ku Klux Klan had announced that they were going to have a Trump Victory Parade in North Carolina on December 3rd. 

The level of hatred that has been unleashed this week is evil. And we can’t shake our heads and say, oh, it’s just the States. The leader of the extreme right wing party in France, who has proclaimed her support for immigration policies similar to Trump’s, celebrated that Trump’s win had finally “freed” America, and in Sweden, 600 Neo-Nazis staged a Trump rally, calling his election the beginning of a world revolution. And here in Canada, in Ottawa, a friend of mine was dropping his child off at school and was stunned to be greeted by another parent’s enthusiasm that Trump won. When he asked this parent why she was excited, she said, “Oh, well, you know, because he wants to keep the Muslims out.” This was heard in our nation’s capital.

Now my point in telling you all of this is not to paint one side as good and the other as bad, but to expose the reality that we are, once again, facing sickening levels of hatred and evil. This is not the first time in the history of the world that this has happened; many of you can tell your own stories of being confronted by someone who purely and truly hated you, and wished you dead. This hatred between members of the human family is not new, but I suspect we did not expect to see it again so soon and so close.

Because of the events of the past week, the question for us today is: what are we called to do in the face of all of this? What are we called to do in the face of people who hate us? Who want us dead? I know that the Gospel of Matthew says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” but I admit that I have spent the last three days being afraid. I am the Ku Klux Klan’s worst race-traitor - good German blood tainted by Japanese blood, with Jewish-Christian kids. My cousins are half-Jamaican. I teach about the importance and religious value of diversity. Before I became a US citizen, I was, indeed, an immigrant. But I am not afraid only for myself, I am afraid for my friends, and I am afraid for all vulnerable people living right now in the United States. I am afraid that my fellow Americans are going to kill other of my fellow Americans before this is all over. I am afraid that there is no way to stem the rising tide of hate and that we are all going to be swallowed by it. We have seen hatred of this kind rise before, not so very long ago, and it almost destroyed the world.

But our Gospel reading says that Jesus told his followers, “When you hear of wars and insurrection, do not be terrified.” And then Jesus says, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” In the face of hate, Jesus gives us words and a wisdom. And what is that? Well, at the very end of the Gospel of Luke, after Jesus himself has been overcome by hatred and evil and crucified, he is raised again, and he meets with his disciples, and his words to them are, “Peace be with you.” Peace be with you. And then he tells them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you ... that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [the Messiah’s] name to all nations.” The words and wisdom that Jesus gives are Peace be with you, and your sins are forgiven.

Jesus calls us to look squarely in the eyes of violence and hatred and evil and to speak words of peace, and words of forgiveness, and words of love. Because in the final battle, love wins. Peace wins. And there is healing for the people. I don’t know if you caught this in our Malachi reading, the verse, “for you, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” This might sound familiar to you if you remember the third verse of our Christmas hymn, Hark the Herald Angels Sing. “Hail! the heav'n-born Prince of peace! Hail! the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings.”  And in fact, our reading from Malachi carries on with this most profound promise, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah ... he will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.” So as hard as it is to look at the hatred in the world, as hard as it is to love these people, to persist in loving them no matter how awful the things they do, to persist in loving them when you know they would just as soon see you burn in hell and cheer as it happens, that is what we do, because that is what brings healing to the world. This, and only this, is what will defeat hate. We love with the love of Christ and we share the peace that Christ died to bring because we know God’s power to love is over all. 

I’ve been listening a lot to Leonard Cohen the last few days, and there is a verse in his song Hallelujah that pushed me into tears on Thursday, because of its truth. “I see your flag on the marble arch, but love is not a victory march. It’s a cold, and it’s a broken hallelujah. Hallelujah.” You see, when I wrote this sermon yesterday, I believed it. And when I say it to you this morning, I believe it. But I remember how I felt reading these stories on Thursday, and I know how I will feel when I read about more of them happening in the days to come. And I know that in those moments, I will not believe that love can win, or that peace will bring healing, just as you may not believe me right now. I struggle to put away my fear that if I love, I will be overcome, and to let go of my desire to hate in return. I have cried knowing that I have to forgive the people who said these horrible things and that I just can’t. Maybe you, too, have experienced that feeling of knowing you are supposed to forgive, and trying, but just not being able to. There have been times, and there will be times again, when I will not be able to grandly love my enemy or fervently proclaim forgiveness to those who hate. But as Cohen reminds us, love is not a victory march. The love of Christ does not always sweep us up triumphantly, conquering all hate and standing victorious in one fell swoop, Hallelujah, praise the Lord! Loving in the face of hate is hard, and brutal, and, because we are only human, it is often broken. The love we have for our enemies is often fickle. It is inconsistent, it is not pure and constant like the love we have for our family. It doesn’t flame brightly - it fizzles and sputters.  Glennon Doyle Melton, a wonderful Christian writers, says that “Love is not warm and fuzzy or sweet and sticky. Real love is as tough as nails. It’s having your heart ripped out, putting it back together, and the next day offering it back to the same world that just tore it up.” Love breaks us. And yet it is what Christ calls us to do. And even if we don’t believe that love wins, but we struggle to love anyway, the struggle itself is an act of love, a struggle that is blessed by God. A cold and broken love that is also a hallelujah to God.

Today, and in the days to come, this week, and next week, minute by minute, we are called to love. Christ calls us to love. Not just generally, with warm and fuzzy feelings for the world at large, but specifically. Christ calls us to love those who have hurt us, to speak words of peace to those who have it out for us. Christ calls us to love those who are broken, those who break us, and to love with a broken love, because that’s better than no love at all.

I want to end with one more Leonard Cohen quote, because it is in this truth that the power of God shines through everything we do. “So ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. That’s how the light gets in.” May the light of God shine in your life this week, through the cracks in your imperfect love for those who hate you, a hallelujah to God, who brings peace to the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

October 30, 2016 - The Story of Our Righteousness

Well today is the 499th anniversary of the Reformation. Which may come as a surprise to you. Because there has been a lot of news about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but I think we are all so excited about it that we’re just excited to get a head start. So tomorrow will be the first day of the year of commemoration leading up to the 500th anniversary. So, for instance, tomorrow in Lund, Sweden, the Lutheran World Federation, which represents 90% of the world’s Lutherans, 75 million of us, will be having the first service of Commemoration. And Pope Francis has been invited to participate. Which, you can imagine, is a big deal. And for those of you who are web-savvy, the service will be streaming online starting tomorrow morning at 7:30. You can Google Lutheran World Federation and you will be able to find the website.

Inviting the Pope to celebrate with us is a new step forward. Because the most common narrative we tell of the Reformation is that the Catholic church was running the whole show, Luther thought Catholics were teaching things about Christ and righteousness that were wrong, on October 31st 517 CE he nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, the Catholics excommunicated Luther, we went on to start the Lutheran church, yay us. For the past 500 years, Lutherans have been somewhat self-righteous in our excommunicated status. A bit of: well you don’t want us? Fine, we don’t need you - in fact, we’re better off without you! We are a bit triumphalist in the way we have been telling this story.

But Christians are not new to telling our history in this way. There is another story that we tell in the same way, and that is the relationship between Christians and Jews. The Gospel of John, in particular, likes to tell the story this way: Jews were running the show, Jesus came to tell them they were teaching things about God that were wrong, the Jews killed Jesus, Jesus was raised and the disciples went on to start the Christian church, yay us. For the past 2000 years, Christians have been somewhat self-righteous in our own way. You don’t think we’re part of Abraham’s covenant? Fine, we don’t need you - in fact, we’re better than you, and God loves us more than you, and God doesn’t even want you anymore. That has, in fact, been the way we’ve read most of Romans - and in fact the way Luther read Romans. That our new covenant with God through Jesus replaced the covenant God had established with the Jews.

And what has been the result of both of these ways of telling our history? Both the Lutherans win over Catholics, and the Christians win over the Jews stories? Nothing but hatred, violence, hostility, and even killings. I’ve told you of some of the more horrible instances of Christians killing Jews, and we know that Lutherans were killed for their beliefs. What you probably didn’t learn in Catechism class is that Lutherans in several countries hunted down and persecuted - tortured and killed - those who weren’t Lutheran - whether they were Catholics or other non-Lutheran Reformers, particularly the Anabaptists. In fact, the service tomorrow in Lund is specifically called a Commemoration service, and not a Celebration service, because an important theme of that service will be repentance and forgiveness. Lutheran repentance, actually. Repenting for what we have done to others in the past 500 years, and also repenting for how we have hated our “Christian enemies” and how we have spent so much time not forgiving Catholics for what they have done.

Because that is the point of being a Christian, right? That we forgive those who persecute us? That we love those who hate us? That we pray for our enemies? This is what Christ showed us. When he died, he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

By the grace of God, and this is certainly the work of God and not our own, we are forgiven. We are forgiven for killing and we are forgiven for not forgiving those who have killed us. And we have been given new eyes to the truth of God’s world. The truth that we are all God’s children, all of us made in the image of God from the first day of Creation. We are all children of God’s covenant, which cannot be revoked. The covenant we hear of in Jeremiah, the covenant written on the hearts of the people of Israel, the Jews, and through Jesus extended to non-Jews, that is to Christians - this is one covenant. 

It is the reason that I say, during Communion, that Jesus gave the wine to his disciples saying, “This cup is the covenant renewed in my blood.” You will remember that it has always been said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” But the Greek is not entirely clear. The Greek allows either way to be said. And our new interpretations of the writings of Paul, which we’ve come to through deep biblical study and conversations with Jews, lead us to understand that we did not properly understand what Paul was saying. He was not rejecting the Law, or Israel, or the old covenant. He was, in fact, expanding the already existing covenant so that it would now include those who were not Law-observers. That is to say, non-Jewish Christians. Paul never proposed a new covenant for Christians, let alone one that would replace and exclude the old covenant with the Jews. Paul was saying that God’s covenant now would include both Jews, God’s children since Abraham, and Christians, God’s children since Jesus. By the grace of God, we now know that God’s commitment to God’s children is even deeper than we imagined.

And we are now coming to realize this in light of Lutherans and Roman Catholics, too. In 1999, which I am a bit embarrassed to admit was almost twenty years ago, together we signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, in which we agreed we share “a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ.” That joint understanding is: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”

You see, what we came to realize is that we had spent a lot more time arguing with one another than truly trying to understand one another. And fault lies on both sides. We were both so insistent that we were right, and that God was one our side, that we never tried to explore how we could both be right, and how God could be with both us. Finally, 450 years later, we actually listened to the Holy Spirit’s promptings to us, and began to explore what one another truly meant, and to hear that, in fact, we did mean the same thing when it came to God’s justification.

We came to the truth that we have come to in our understanding of the Jewish faith, that God alone makes us righteous, through a variety of ways. God makes Jews righteous through the Laws of Moses, and God makes Christians righteous through Jesus Christ. We now see that we are all children of God, through different means. But those different means and ways should not separate us, because it is God who keeps us together. We all agree that God’s relationship with us is as we see from Jeremiah, “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” All - Jews, Lutherans, Roman Catholics. And so together, we can all turn to Psalm 46 and proclaim the words we find there that we already read this morning, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change. ... The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” So, while we enter this 500th anniversary of the commemoration of the Reformation, we remember our own failings that have presented us from reaching this point sooner, but we celebrate that, through God, all things are possible, that God’s love for us never ends, and that, as Christians, God restores our righteousness, not through our own efforts, but through Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Oct 23 - Criticizing Others is Criticizing God

Would you say you’re more like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, or like the tax collector? Be honest, because I’m not going to ask you to raise your hands, which one would you rather be like? Me, I’m more like the Pharisee. I am thankful that I’m not a thief or a rogue or an adulterer, and I’m thankful that I can be proud of the job that I have. I don’t fast twice a week, but I do give a tenth of my income to charity. I’m thankful that I have values and morals and ethics that make me a valuable member of society, and I’m glad that I come to church on Sunday morning. I have no desire to be like any of the people I see out there who are lost and struggling with their lives, who don’t know how to live, and who are trapped by the consequences of their own foolish decisions. I feel bad for them, and I’m glad I’m not one of them. I turn to my faith when I’m in trouble, rather than to any of the millions of others options out there.
And so I understand why the Pharisee is glad not to be like the tax collector sharing the Temple space wit him. The tax collector was employed by Rome. He would have been Jewish, which means he would have been a traitor to his own people, knocking on doors and seizing people’s property in order to give Rome, the foreign, pagan occupier, what it demanded. His job was not sanctioned by Torah, which advocated forgiveness of debts.
So why, then, does Jesus say that it is the tax collector, the one raised in his religion but turned his back on it and on his people, who is justified rather than the Pharisee? To be clear, Jesus is not bashing Pharisees here. He is not calling into doubt the authenticity of the Pharisee’s claims. The Pharisee really was a good man, and the tenth of his income that he gave to the Temple was undoubtedly used in helpful ways. There is no question that he truly was an upstanding member of society. But Jesus is implying that all that is besides the point. Why?
When we learn the grammar of a language, we’re taught to pay attention to what the subject of the sentence is, and what the object is. The subject is the person or thing doing something and the object is the person or thing that something is being done to. Take the sentence: the disciples ate the fish. The disciples are the subject - they are the ones doing something. The fish is the object - it is the thing that something is being done to.
If we look at the grammar of what the Pharisee and what the tax collector said, they give us the key to this story. The Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of my income.” The tax payer says, “God, be merciful to me!” When the Pharisee speaks, the subject of the sentence is himself. He is the one doing things. “I fast. I give.” God is pretty incidental to all of it. But when the tax payer speaks, the subject of the sentence is God. “God have mercy.” God is the one doing things. The tax payer is, in fact, the object. The one having something done to him; having mercy done to him.
The point Jesus is making is that when we come before God, whether it was in the Temple, or in church, or in daily prayer, we are to make God the subject of our speech. We may very well be good Christians, regular church-goers, give to charity, kind to friends and enemies. But that is not the point. The point is that God has made us good Christians, God has made us regular church-goers, God has given us charitable hearts and a kind nature. As Paul says, “this is not our own doing, so that none may boast.”
So we dare not look down on those who don’t aren’t Christian, who don’t go to church, who don’t give to charity. It’s true that God has not done the same thing for those people but God is doing something else. And if we criticize them, we are criticizing God. When we look down on people who spend Sunday mornings at home, and say, “Oh, people these days don’t go to church, it’s so appalling, no wonder our world is so awful,” we are criticizing God. As Lutherans, we believe that God sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts to give us faith. In the case of those people who don’t go to church, God has clearly given them a different path to follow in life. God has not called them in the same way God has called us. We are here because God called us here, not because we, in and of ourselves, are good people. We are as wretched and sinful as the tax collector, even if we don’t recognize it. But God, in great mercy, calls us to church every Sunday, gives us the hearts to be charitable, and kind. God, for reasons we will never know, has not done that for others. And who are we to judge the actions of God? (We can argue with them, like I said last week, but we cannot judge them.) When we judge the actions of others, we are judging God.
The point is not that Jesus is contrasting the behaviour of the Pharisee with the behaviour of the tax collector. He is not condemning the Pharisee for saying that he fasts and gives. Nor is he lifting up the tax collector for being so humble and self-abasing. If the tax collector had gone to Temple and said, “Oh God, I am so awful, I am so sinful, I am horrible, I will do better,” Jesus would have condemned that too. Because then the tax collector would have been making himself the subject of his prayers. The point is that Jesus is contrasting those prayers in which we make ourselves the actors and those in which we make God the actor.
Once the Holy Spirit moves within us to help us see this, while our actions may resemble those of the Pharisee, our speech ultimately ends up like that of the tax-collector. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Because who among us doesn’t judge the behaviour of others? I confess that I judge others - not by whether or not they go to church, but by whether they are kind, or whether they give to charity. And in that, I am a sinner. We are all sinners.

But we thank God that God is merciful. If God judged us half as harshly as we judge ourselves and we judge others, we would be in serious trouble. But God is merciful. God shows us mercy when we judge, and God puts mercy into our hearts. And in that mercy, God makes us righteous. At the end of the parable, Jesus says, “I tell you, this [tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other.” The tax collector was justified because he turned to God to justify him. The Pharisee was not, because he turned to himself. No matter how wretched and sinful our lives, when we turn to God to be the subject of our lives, when we ask God to make us righteous, God does. There is no having to wrestle with God over this one. When we pray that God would make us good and righteous and charitable and kind, God does. We all have those moments when we catch ourselves thinking or saying something that isn’t particularly kind, and, if we are honest with ourselves, we think, “Oh, I wish I were nicer.” But even that wish is one that makes us the subject. But if we find ourselves in these situations and we pray, “Oh, God please make me nicer,” or kinder, or more generous, or braver, or more understanding, God will do it. God will act in our lives. God will respond to these prayers. And in doing so, God will justify us, as well. And so we thank God, for God’s great mercy, for God’s past working our lives, and for the work that we know God will continue to do. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Oct 16, 2016 - Wrestling with God

Genesis 32:22-31; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

When was the last time you prayed? Well, a couple of minutes ago, I guess. What I mean is, when was the last you really, earnestly prayed? For some of you, it might have been last night when you went to bed, or this morning when you got up. Or maybe it was when you were driving to church this morning along the Deerfoot and someone tried to change lanes into you, and you sent up a quick, “Oh, God, don’t let him hit me!” (Who drives like that on Sunday morning??) For some of you, maybe it’s been years since you’ve really, truly prayed. And I’m not here to judge that, because I’ve been there, too.

My real question, though, is when was the last time you yelled at God? Or even argued with God? When was the last time your prayer was a striving, a wrestling, a struggling with God where you said, “You know, God, this is what I want. Not that. And you’re not making it happen, and I’m angry with you!” When was the last time you flat-out challenged God because you didn’t like the way things were changing, or not changing?

It may seem scandalous that I’m even suggesting this. The idea that we should argue with God is certainly not one that is dominant in our tradition. If I suggest to you that this is something we might consider doing, you may think I am contradicting our second reading from 2 Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed ... for the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth.” After all, doesn’t the church teach that we should be obedient to God, and faithful in all things, and not question the decisions of God or complain about what God has given us in life? If God has given us challenges in life, who are we to demand something different? We have been raised in the church to believe that being faithful means being obedient and submitting to God’s will. Obedience has been associated with righteousness, submission with salvation, and bowing our heads results in God blessing us. Disobedience has been associated with sinfulness, self-determination with turning our back on God, and of course, if we turn away from God, then God may very well turn away from us.

And yet. Just because something has been the tradition, doesn’t mean it’s the only way of doing things. Because when it comes to our relationship with God, the Bible actually tells us something different. That is, the Bible tells us more than one thing. Yes, it tells us to be obedient - we have Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane that not his will but God’s be done, and we have Abraham’s immediate obedience to God to leave the land of his ancestors and travel to Israel - but the Bible also gives us other stories. And these are the stories we hear today. 

First, we hear the story from Genesis of Jacob wrestling the “man.” Right off the bat, I need to tell you that the English translation we have is misleading. Our English translation says that Jacob wrestles with a “man” until daybreak. But the original Hebrew says ish. Ish is a word that doesn’t have a direct English translation - it is something like a being, and in the Bible, ish most often refers to some kind of divine being - a representative of God. The word that translates most directly to “man” is a’dam, which is what God created on the sixth day of Creation, and where we get the name Adam from. And Jacob is most definitely not wrestling an a’dam. He is not wrestling another human being like us, he is wrestling an ish. A divine being - something that is alternately an angel of God, a representative of God, and God’s own self. Which means that it is more accurate to say that Jacob is not wrestling with a man, Jacob is wrestling with God. And more to the point, Jacob is winning. The ish says, “Let me go,” and Jacob says, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Jacob wrestles with God until he receives God’s blessings. Just imagine that! Imagine the audacity of saying to God, I will not let you go, I will not stop wrestling with you, struggling with you, yelling at you until you bless me! We might expect God to strike Jacob dead, but instead, God blesses him. God blesses Jacob, and gives him the name Israel, so that everyone might know that this is the one who wrestled with God and prevailed. God makes public the reality that wrestling with God does not automatically result in death, but in blessing! This is a far cry from wrestling with God and being abandoned. Quite the opposite!

And then we have the parable that Jesus told his disciples, about the need to pray always and not lose heart. And Jesus, who in the Gospel of Luke is interested in social justice and overcoming systems of prejudice and lifting up those who have been treated badly by society, tells his listeners not that they should suffer in silence and just live with things the way they are, but to continue to petition and pray for and nag the one in charge. You see, judges in those days made the rules. There was no comprehensive, binding, explicit code of law like we have today. Instead, each judge was responsible for deciding the outcome of any given situation, based on their own opinion. The judge was the law, in a sense; the ultimate authority - which is why Jesus uses the metaphor of a judge to talk about God. And Jesus encourages us to cry out to and challenge and petition and pray to and nag the ultimate authority until things change. The judge does not lock up the persistent widow. Or ban her from his courtroom. He does not turn his back on her or even just shut his ears to her. Instead, he responds to her. He acts in her favour. He grants her the justice she seeks. Jesus is telling his listeners that God responds to us when we pray and beg and persist.

This is because God has made a commitment to us. God has committed to be our God, no matter what. And being our God means responding to us, being in relationship with us, keeping our “going out and our coming in from this time on and forevermore.” This is what we see in Jesus Christ - living evidence that no matter what we do, no matter whether we angrily drive God to the cross to die or just run away and abandon him, no matter whether we yell at God or turn our backs in silence - God will not abandon us. God’s love for us wins. It’s not our obedience or our submission or our passive acceptance or our silence that ensures that God stays with us. It’s God’s love that ensures that. And God’s love is as enduring as God, because God is love. Love for us. Love for the world. Love for you. It’s a love that endures challenges, that welcomes arguments, that responds to demands for change. Astounding as that might be, the Bible clearly tells us that when we go to God and wrestle for something, God sometimes actually gives us what we’re praying for.

So, knowing that, what do you think you might pray for? Really, truly pray for? What blessing might you wrestle from God? What injustice might you nag God with? What is worth your effort and time? Keep in mind - I’m not saying that God grants us every whim and half-articulated desire. Jacob had to wrestle, all night long, enduring an injury to his hip that made him limp for the rest of his life and no doubt caused him constant pain. We do not emerge from wrestling with God unscathed. And the widow had to be persistent, she to take significant amounts of time every time she went to the judge. She had to be brave and raise her voice to authority and risk her freedom. It is not easy, but even in this God gives us the strength to keep going and to not lose heart.

So what is your prayer? What blessing do you need to wrestle from God? What justice do you need to nag God to avenge? Each one of us will no doubt have something different in mind. Perhaps you are furious over the injustice of ill health as you age, or the injustice of dementia or mental illness. Perhaps you are wrestling with God over the blessing of this congregation continuing. Perhaps you are continually yelling at God over the desperate situation of war in our world that kills millions of innocent children and drives other into the horrific existence of refugees. I know that this week in particular I have been so, so angry with God about the way women have been ignored and dismissed and “handled” as if we are less than God’s creation, and so, so angry that God has allowed other Christians to encourage that misogyny by preaching that women should be silent in church and submit to their husbands and fathers. I wrestle with God that God has allowed to stand in Scripture Bible verses that support that injustice. What are you going to continue to go to God with, over and over and over, like the widow?

I know that those who hold to tradition, and to obedience as the marker of a faithful Christian, might tell us that when we wrestle and challenge and yell and nag that we have “itching ears,” and that we are “turn[ing] away from listening to the truth.” But the truth is that we are God’s children. God is our God. And God, who blessed Jacob, and who avenges injustice against widows, and whose relationship with us is defined by the love we see in Jesus Christ, our God sticks with us in our wrestling and our challenging and our nagging and our praying. So pray always and do not lose heart. Wrestle. Challenge. Nag. You have God’s ear. God is listening. God will not turn away. God may even address the injustice keeping you down, and bless you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

October 2, 2016 - How to Forgive

Luke 17:5-10

So, if you’re finding this to be a confusing reading and you’re sitting there thinking, “I have no idea what that means,” you’re not alone. This Gospel reading takes a lot of unpacking to figure out what Jesus is trying to say, and we’re going to try to do that this morning, and hopefully by the time I’m done it will make a little more sense.

The first thing to look at is Jesus’ bizarre response to the apostles’ request for faith. Actually, it’s not even “Jesus” who responds, it’s “the Lord.” The Gospel of Luke very rarely uses “the Lord” to describe Jesus, so right away we know that we’re supposed to pay attention. This is more than Jesus just talking to the people who happen to be gathered around, this is Luke’s message for Christians who already know who Jesus is, who are already determined to follow in his path, who want to live Christian lives.

And so we have this request for faith. The apostles ask Jesus to give them more faith, and he basically says to them, “What for? What good is more faith?” Jesus says to them, “Even if you had the smallest amount of faith, you would be able to command this large tree to plant itself in the sea, but what would be the point?” You see, trees can’t grow in the sea. If a tree was planted in the ocean, it would die from the saltwater. And both Jesus and the apostles know this. So Jesus is saying, “I could give you more faith, but what would you do with it? It wouldn’t be useful to you in the least.”

Which is a very weird thing for Jesus to say. Don’t we all want more faith? Wouldn’t we all benefit from having more faith? So that our days would be easier when we’re confronted with challenges? So that we could look at the future and feel peaceful and serene and sleep better at night? Why does Jesus dismiss the apostles’ request for more faith?

Well, it has to do with why the apostles want more faith. You see, right before verse 5, where our Gospel reading starts for today, we have Jesus saying to his disciples (not the Lord speaking to his apostles, as it says in verse 5), “If your brother or sister sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” And then the apostles say to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”” 

Jesus is telling the disciples that they must do something incredibly difficult - they must forgive someone who repents, no matter how many times they commit the same offense - and so the disciples, feeling the challenge of this, turn to the Lord and ask to be given the faith to do it.

Which sounds very Lutheran actually. We know that Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to give us more faith - that faith is not something we get or increase or strengthen by our own will or desire or prayer life. The famous Reformation bible verse from Ephesians (2:8) says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Faith comes solely from the Holy Spirit, so if we want more, we ask Jesus to give it. So then why does Jesus ridicule their request? And what does he mean by going on to talk about masters who tell their slaves to make supper and us calling ourselves worthless slaves?
I would suggest that what Jesus is actually trying to tell us is that forgiveness is not connected to faith. Or rather, it’s not connected to faith as we and the disciples understand it, where faith is the belief that Jesus is the Son of God, and that Jesus saves us - faith as something we have, like money or clothes or food - the more the better. This understanding of faith has nothing to do with whether or not we forgive someone who has offended us and who is now repenting.
You see, forgiveness as it was understood in Jesus’ time, and as I think he himself understood it, is about erasing what’s called “moral debt.” When someone does something against you, that hurts you either financially or physically or emotionally, they put themselves in moral debt to you. They owe you financial or physical or emotional compensation. Repentance is when that person comes to you and says, “I repent. I hurt you. I owe you.” Forgiveness is when you say to that person, “Yes, you hurt me, but I am canceling what you owe me.” In the Bible, repentance and forgiveness are transactions. Forgiveness, actually, implies that a debt is owed - that an offence did occur. We don’t forgive innocent people - we only forgive those who are guilty in the first place. So when you forgive someone, you say, You stole seven hundred dollars from me, but I’m telling you that you no longer owe me seven hundred dollars. You hit me seven times, but I’m not going to hit you seven times. You emotionally hurt me seven times, but I’m not going to hurt you seven times. I forgive you; I’m cancelling your debt.

Which sounds all well and good but, when it comes to physical or particularly emotional hurt, is extraordinarily difficult to do. It is very, very hard when someone hurts us emotionally to erase the debt and to let go of our need for compensation. There is nothing that stings quite as painfully as when someone hurts us that way - we never forget it, and in some cases, we never get over it. And yet Jesus tells us that if that person repents, we must forgive them. We must zero their debt to us. We must tell them that they no longer owe us. (Incidentally, I feel like I need a footnote here. I need to be clear that Jesus is talking particularly about forgiving those who repent. Jesus says nothing about forgiving those who don’t repent. If someone doesn’t repent, Jesus doesn’t tell us either way what we should do. I know that a lot of damage has been done by Christian demanding that we forgive those who haven’t even repented, and if that gives you peace, that’s great, but if doing that feels like denying the hurt you’ve gone through, then you can feel free not to forgive someone who hasn’t repented.) 
But if they do repent, Jesus tells us that, as his followers, we must forgive. No wonder the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. There are some pains in life that are so severe that it would take a lot of faith for us to dismiss what is owed us.

Except that what it seems Jesus is saying is that having more faith would be about as useful to us in forgiving others as seawater would be in helping a mulberry tree grow. Which is to say, not at all. More faith doesn’t replace the money owed to us, it doesn’t heal the bones that have been broken, it doesn’t take away the life-long crippling of emotional harm.

So, then, how do we forgive? If more faith isn’t the answer, if faith is not compensation for what is owed to us, how do we let go of what is owed? How do we say to the one who repents, “Your debts to me are forgiven?”

We do it by remembering that we ourselves are in debt to Christ. This is what Jesus is getting at when he starts talking about masters and slaves, which makes sense when we think of forgiveness as having to do with debt. Most of the slaves in Israel during Jesus’ time were slaves because of financial debt. They owed something to their masters that they couldn’t pay back, which is why they were now slaves. They had to work off what they owed. Jesus starts by putting the apostles (and by extension us) in the position of the master - someone who is owed something. And Jesus points out that masters typically don’t forgive the debts of their slaves. They don’t invite them to “take their place at the table.” They hold them to their debt and insure that their slaves carry out the labour that is owed to them. This is what it’s like when we don’t forgive someone who has repented. They come to us and acknowledge that they owe us, and then we say, “Fine, get to work paying it off.” Not forgiving is, in fact, perfectly reasonable.
But then Jesus flips everything. He points out that we are not the masters, as we like to think. We are, in fact, the slaves. With our own master. This is why Luke calls Jesus “Lord” in this passage. Because we are slaves to our Lord Jesus. We are in debt to this Lord, and in order to work off that debt, we must work for Christ. And the work that our Lord demands of us is to cancel the debts that others owe us. Forgiving those who come to us in repentance is how our master, our Lord, wants us to work off our debt to him. It has nothing to do with what we believe about Christ. More or less faith is not the issue here. Forgiveness, as an act of Christian servitude, is.

Being slaves of our Lord Jesus means two things. First, and most important, it means that when our master goes into the kingdom of heaven, we go, too. That’s how it worked back then - what happened to the master happened to his whole household, slaves included. So being a slave of Christ means that our entrance into God’s kingdom is guaranteed. How we perform as slaves has nothing do with our salvation. Whether we work or not, whether we forgive or not, has no impact on our status with God.

The second thing it means is that we have to do what Jesus tells us to do. Because we are voluntary slaves. We accept the price our Lord has paid to free us from sin and we have chosen to give up being our own masters and to make Jesus our Lord. Every day that we get up and say, “I am a Christian,” we make that choice. Which means we have chosen to do everything Christ tells us to do. When he tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves, we do it. It’s hard, but we do it. When he tells us to give to the poor, we do it. When he tells us to cancel the debts, to forgive those who owe us and come to us in repentance, we do it.
Mulberry trees planted in the sea are pointless. They don’t do any good for anybody. But forgiveness makes lives better. There is a point to forgiveness. When we forgive others, we free them from the cycle of debt, and make their lives better. That this is what our Lord commands us to do is actually a blessing to us and to the world, and so we say, Thanks be to God. Amen.