Sunday, May 29, 2016

Pentecost 2 - Luke 7:1-10

Have you ever come to Jesus feeling like the centurion in our story today? Knowing that you need what Jesus has to offer, but not feeling able to fully commit to the life of discipleship Jesus models? In our Gospel story this morning, the centurion was a supporter of the Jews, but not Jewish himself, which was rare although not completely unknown in Jesus’ day. He built a synagogue for the Jews of his community, so that they could worship God, but he didn’t convert to Judaism. He knew of Jesus’ ability to heal, but he didn’t leave everything and follow Jesus himself. He clearly loved God, but that didn’t compel him to change his life completely. And so when he turned to Jesus for help, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was unsure whether he would get what he asked for. The centurion was righteous, but not that righteous. He was drawn to the God of Israel and Jesus, but he didn’t let it change his life. And he knew it. When Jesus did come to help him, the centurion professed himself unworthy of Jesus’ direct presence. He wanted Jesus’ help, but he wasn’t ready for Jesus to come right into his house. “Help me, but no need to come all the way in.” That might be too much of a commitment. Allowing Jesus to come all the way into his home might make the centurion one of Jesus’ followers, which would mean some serious upheavals in his life. The centurion wanted Jesus’ help in this little matter of his slave’s health, but he wasn’t interested in going the whole hog, as it were.
So, have you ever felt like the centurion? Turning to Jesus for help, for love and for healing, but not wanting to go all in? It’s true that we’re pretty much all Christians here. We’re not quite like the centurion in that respect––we both recognize who Jesus is and we’re committed to following him. But we are like the centurion in the sense that we could be much more committed than we are. We could all stand to be better Christian disciples, and I know that, at least for me, there’s a hesitancy to allow Jesus to come all the way in and truly transform my life (again) because, generally speaking, I like my life the way it is right now. So, I’m like the centurion, asking for Jesus to fix a few things here and there, but from a distance, without making any serious, life-altering changes.
And yet, as much as this is the story of the uncommitted centurion, it’s also the story of Jesus saying Yes to him. Yes, I’m committed to you, even though you don’t feel the same. Yes, I will help you. Through Jesus’ actions, he even says, Yes, I love you. And if you notice, Jesus doesn’t ask the centurion to convert, or question the centurion’s commitment to God. Jesus doesn’t push to come into the centurion’s home. Jesus simply does what Jesus alway does. He heals––loves––without asking why the centurion doesn’t commit more. He responds to the centurion without asking for anything in return.

The centurion isn’t the only one in this story, however, and his isn’t the only experience of Jesus. Maybe you don’t resonate with the centurion this morning. Maybe your experience is more similar to the Jewish elders. They already know that they’re God’s beloved children, and that they’re fully committed to God. They already live with God fully immersed in their lives. The story of the Jewish elders in our Gospel reading is the story of people who are confident that they’re part of God’s people, but who aren’t so confident that God is there for those outside of their group. They’re sure of their own status in God’s eyes, rightly so, but they’re not sure about those who aren’t Jewish. They know that Jesus has been sent by God to help them, but they don’t know if Jesus is there to help the non-Jews, too. That’s why they come to plead their centurion friend’s case to Jesus, and why they seem somewhat defensive when they do it. “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” In other words, we know he’s not part of God’s established community, and we know that he might be seen as your enemy, but please do this for us, because we care about him. Just like we wonder if God comes to those outside of the church, the Jewish elders wondered if God would come to those outside the people of Israel. We know he’s not one of your flock, but won’t you please help anyway? Their care for their neighbour, who’s not quite like them, does them credit.  
So, have you ever felt like the Jewish elders? Maybe you’ve prayed that Jesus would look with kindness on someone you love, even though that person doesn’t go to church or isn’t a Christian. Maybe you want Jesus to love your friend or family member as much as you do, but you’re a little worried that he won’t. And so you go to him, asking on their behalf, hoping that it’s enough. This experience is a common one for us, especially as our families grow bigger and more multicultural and inter-religious. 
And, once again, in the story of the Gospel reading, Jesus says Yes. Jesus says yes to the Jewish elders. Yes, I will help this person whom you love. Yes, I am here for those outside of the flock. Jesus doesn’t criticize them because they love this non-believer. Jesus doesn’t tell them he cares only for fellow Jews. Instead, Jesus says yes to the Jewish elders and goes to the centurion. Jesus loves those they love, and heals those they want healed. 

Of course, there’s another person in this story, whose experience might be common to your own. And that’s the slave. The experience of the slave in this story is surely the most unusual. One day he’s sick, and the next day he’s better. From his perspective, he probably has no idea what’s going on. After all, who explains things to slaves? The slave was highly valued by the centurion, but that’s an economic term, not a relational one. He was a slave, not a servant. His life was restricted to his master’s house and he lived exclusively according to his duties there. So what would he have known of what was going on? All the slave knows is that his life was a dismal and dim experience, that he was sick and ailing (and no one has use for a sick slave), and all of a sudden, for no reason that he could see, the sun was shining, life was beautiful, his body and mind felt whole and clear again, he felt loved.
Maybe this has been your experience. That you lived for a while in darkness, and then for no reason that you could see, there was light and love and healing. If it has not been your experience, because you are even now living in darkness, then have hope––your story may very well end the way the slave’s did. With a light and life that comes from Jesus. 
Because Jesus is, of course, in the slave’s story, as well. Jesus healed the slave, without even knowing who he was. Jesus sent wholeness to the slave knowing that the slave would probably never know where that healing came from. That slave would probably never know about Jesus, or even care about the God of Israel. And yet Jesus loved him and healed him anyway. Jesus said yes to him, when the slave didn’t even know he was asking a question. Jesus healed the slave, even though the slave was completely oblivious to the source of his healing. Jesus said yes to the slave without any expectation that the slave would, in any way, say yes to Jesus in return. Jesus’ love for all of God’s creation was so great, his desire to heal our hurts so deep, that he did so without any expectation of commitment or love or even thanks. 
The story of the slave is actually the story of all of us. Jesus died on the cross and was raised to new life, so that we, too, would experience new life. And Jesus did this before we were even born, before we became aware of him, while we were as ignorant as the slave. Two thousand years ago, Jesus said yes to the world––to us––before we even knew what was happening, without any expectation of thanks or even acknowledgement in return.

Jesus in the Gospel is the Jesus we know today. Jesus says yes, and Jesus loves. Jesus loves those who don’t fully commit to him. Jesus loves those who are loved by us. Jesus loves those who don’t even know he loves them. Jesus goes to them to share the healing power of God’s presence, and doesn’t ask for anything in return. Jesus comes to you, is committed to you, heals and loves you, and doesn’t ask you for anything in return. This is the gift of God’s love for us, offered without expectations of any kind. This is the Gospel we proclaim––the Good News that Paul is so eager we cling to in the letter to the Galatians we heard earlier. This is grace. And so, even though there are no expectations from us, we freely and abundantly respond, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Pentecost - God is with Those on the Margins

One of the keys to understanding the story of Pentecost, and the whole book of Acts, actually, is to understand the context in which it was written down. While the story of Pentecost takes place fairly soon after Easter, it wasn’t actually written down for another fifty or sixty years, possibly even later. We know this because the Gospel of Luke, which was written before the book of Acts, but by the same person, makes reference to the Temple in Jerusalem being destroyed, and that happened in the year 70, so we know that the book of Acts, and the story of Pentecost, were written down after the year 70.

Which is critical for us to understand Pentecost. You see, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans it was a big deal. In the year 70 CE, the Romans burnt the Temple to the ground and sacked the city of Jerusalem. The fire in the Temple was so intense that it melted all the gold inside, and everything around the Temple walls––the houses and shops that had been built up against the outside wall––was incinerated. It was like the Ft. McMurray fire. Only imagine that, instead of the orderly evacuation we saw in Ft. Mac, the people of Jerusalem, as they were fleeing, were being hacked to bits by the swords of the Roman soldiers. It must have seemed like the end of the world to the people of Jerusalem. The last days, as the prophet Joel wrote, with “blood, and fire, and smoky mist,” the sun “turned to darkness and the moon to blood.”

And when it was over, Jews all over the Mediterranean had to come to grips with what it meant for Judaism that the Temple in Jerusalem was gone and the Holy City devastated. The Temple was where the Spirit of God resided. It was the holiest place on all the earth, it was where every Jew could go and know they would be in the presence of God. The Temple was the life of Judaism and of the Jewish community. Just like we go to church on Christmas and Easter, faithful Jews, like Jesus and his disciples, would travel to the Temple for every major holiday and participate in the same rituals and worship that their parents had, and their grandparents, and that they thought one day their children and grandchildren would do. When they came together to worship at the Temple, they felt what it was to come together as the people of God, knowing that God was in their midst.

And then it was gone. Destroyed, with no hope of it being rebuilt because the Romans still had control of Jerusalem. This is the context in which the book of Acts was written down, and the Gospel of Luke, and likely all of the Gospels. Most of the Christian Scriptures were written by Jews who were struggling to understand: if God’s Spirit is in the Temple, and the Temple has been destroyed, where is God’s Spirit now? Is God still even with us? Has God abandoned us? How are we, as God’s children, going to continue?

These are questions that Christians in North America are now beginning to ask, particularly those in what we call the mainline denominations - Lutheran, Anglican, United. We, too, feel like the centre of our worship, where we have so deeply experienced God––the church, instead of the Temple––is being destroyed. It’s not happening in the same radical fashion––ours is a slow destruction rather than a quick one, but the effects are the same. People don’t go to church anymore, congregations are closing, you can’t assume that the person you’re talking to is a church-goer, fewer and fewer people celebrate Christmas and Easter in a religious way. The places where we worshipped, and our parents, and our grandparents; we can no longer assume that our children will worship in the same places, or that our grandchildren will, or our great-grandchildren. And so we ask the same questions as the Jews of the first century: If God’s Spirit is with us in the church, and the church is being destroyed, where is God’s Spirit now? Is God still even with us? Has God abandoned us? How are we going to continue?

And so we come to the story of Pentecost. In Jesus’ time, Pentecost was one of the major Jewish holidays, when all the Jews went to the Temple bearing the first fruits of the harvest. Remember, they’re in the Mediterranean, where harvest starts in spring, not in fall, like it does in Canada, where it snows in May. So on Pentecost, Jews from all over the known world would come to the Temple to worship God and be in the presence of God’s Spirit, asking for God to bless the rest of the harvest. And so, the writer of the book of Acts, who’s living in a time when there is no more Temple, must try to make sense of its destruction and still proclaim that God is blessing God’s people. He couldn’t accept that God had abandoned them, and so he was trying to find where God might be now. And he found it, in Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit wherever they were, and in the words of the prophet Joel. God was not restricted to the Temple, because God was amongst the people. God’s Spirit would now be found wherever the Jewish people gathered, whether they were inside Jerusalem or outside of it––especially if they were outside of it. In the story of Pentecost, the writer of Acts was proclaiming that God was still with the Jews, and more than that, God was doing wonderful new things out of the ashes of the old. God was sending God’s Spirit not to a building, but to people. To “all flesh.” The people of Israel, the children of God, no longer needed to mourn that the Temple was destroyed and that they could no longer worship in Jerusalem. They no longer needed to mourn the devastation of the centre of their faith because God was now among them. God had moved the centre of God’s presence from a building and an institution to people and to communities. God’s Spirit would now be present wherever God’s children were, which is to say, everywhere.

The story of Pentecost is a story for us, too. As we face the loss of the church and as denominations wither and die, as the places that we have come to associate with the presence of God disappear, we, too, are offered the story of Pentecost, and the reminder that God is not found in places, in buildings, or in denominations. God is found in people. God’s Spirit is found in individuals who bring new life to others. Peter proclaimed, “This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” God’s Spirit is poured out on our sons and our daughters, on our grandchildren and our grandchildren, no matter where they are. God’s Spirit is poured out on the young and the old. The church is dying, but God’s Spirit is flourishing in new and different ways.

If you want to see what this flourishing looks like, there’s no better place to look than in those areas the church calls chaplaincy. Hospital chaplains, campus chaplains, prison chaplains, nursing home chaplains, military chaplains. Chaplaincy operates on what we consider to be the margins of the church. Chaplains do all their work on the ground––they have no church buildings, they have no official congregations, they have no membership, no committees or church councils, they have no Sunday morning worship. But God’s Spirit is poured out on them and on those they minister to. In prisons, chaplains work with inmates using models of restorative justice. They help inmates work through restoring their relationships with those they’ve hurt, focusing on the love and restoration that God gives to us every day. There are no churches in prison, but the need to hear that God’s life is for all is so desperate there, and God’s Spirit is at work in a powerful and life-giving way on these margins. In hospitals and nursing homes, chaplains sit by the side of those who are ill or ailing. They help patients find God in the midst of the tubes and tests, and they proclaim that God’s Spirit is with the patient and their family, as they make difficult decisions about treatment. There are no churches in hospitals, but God’s Spirit is at work there. On the fields of war, military chaplains work with soldiers to help them reclaim their souls and believe that they are still children of God after all they’ve done. There are no churches on the battlefield, but God’s Spirit is burning brightly among people whom we would not recognize as God’s children, but whom God claims nevertheless.

The Christian church today is in a Pentecost moment. The centre of our worship experience is disappearing, but God is working hard on the margins of what we would consider religion. If you want to see and feel the fire of the Holy Spirit burning most brightly, look to the edges. Look to the edges, and past, of what the church considers “church.” Go to prisoners, to students, go to soldiers, go to the groups of people gathered together whom we would consider the least Christian. Go to the homeless, to addicts, to prostitutes, to atheists. Go to people who stay home on Sunday morning, to people who take their kids to soccer instead of church. We can sneer, and accuse these people of being “filled with new wine,” but there is where the Holy Spirit is working. There is where God is pouring out God’s Spirit. Not in the centre anymore. Not in the Temple. Not in the Church. If we pay attention to the story of Babel, it may even be that God tears down our very centres before they become our idols. We can hover over the ruins, and lament that the Temple has been destroyed. We can lament that the Church is dying. Or, we can move on to the places where we least expect God to be, where God is actually sending us, and look, and find that the Holy Spirit is most active and most alive there, and that outside of the Temple walls, and outside of the church walls, God is building a new community of children and prophets. New life is springing up out there, Christ’s resurrection is taking root out there, and there the Holy Spirit is burning brightly. Let us go and see! Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Easter 7, 2106 - Mothering Those In Need

So on Monday morning, I was reading these texts, and thinking about the slave-girl in Philippi and about how she was being used by her owners exclusively for economic reasons - for monetary gain, and about how Paul freed her from that life when he got rid of the spirit inspiring her fortune-telling. And I was noticing that Paul didn’t get in trouble in Philippi until he started to impact the market; the people didn’t get upset over what he was doing until he started doing things that affected people’s income.
And so I spent Monday thinking about how everything we do revolves around how we spend money on ourselves, and then on Tuesday morning I got an email from a Nigerian prince who wants to give the church $1.5 million. Of course it wasn’t true, but I got to thinking about what St. John could do with $1.5 million, and what kinds of needs we could fill, and how the money might make everything better for us. We could fix the building, and maybe buy the property next door for parking, and upgrade the carpet, and redo the kitchen downstairs, and do all kinds of awesome things that would ensure that the community of Christians here keeps going. I know that the thought of losing this congregation is really hard for many of you. $1.5 million dollars could make sure that you would worship in this space for years to come.
So I spent Tuesday morning dreaming of all the things we could do with that money, and then on Tuesday afternoon I turned on the TV and saw what was happening in Fort McMurray. I lived in Fort McMurray for a little while when I was 12, and I have many wonderful memories of it. It’s not easy to move in the middle of Grade 7, and the other students in my class were so welcoming of this new kid, which is totally unexpected when you’re in junior high, and I’ll always remember that. I have memories of going to church there - one of the Lutheran churches is a mission congregation that was just starting when I moved there, and I remember the pastor and many of the church members. I remember spring break-up on the Athabasca River, I remember walking through the forest at midnight during the summer solstice which is amazing when you’re that far north. So many good memories, and then the fire. And it has been devastating watching it all burn. Seeing the videos and pictures on the news. Looking at the satellite maps and seeing that the townhouse where I lived and have such happy memories is gone. Completely gone. Burnt all the way down to the concrete foundation. And I think that if I’m so gut-wrenched over losing the place of my memories, how much more so must be the people who still live there? I can’t even imagine their loss. I can’t imagine what the mothers there must have been going through driving their kids out through those flames, knowing everything behind them was burning. So much loss. And so when I compare St. John losing its church to all the people who’ve lost absolutely everything, I’m sorry, but the loss of this building pales in comparison. If I had $1.5 million dollars, I’d give it people in Ft. McMurray. 
And so this is what I was thinking on Wednesday night when I was watching the news, and I’m sitting there and the news fades from an image of people sitting in an evacuation centre in Ft. MacKay and transitions to Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, and to the video of a little 5-yr-old boy lying in a make-shift ambulance, covered in blood. And it was such a shock, to go from the devastation of Ft. McMurray to the devastation in Syria. Because Syria is so much worse. Nobody died in the actual fire in Ft. McMurray. Yes, people have lost their homes and everything they own, and probably their jobs, and their future in the city, but they’re still alive. But in Syria, over 470,000 people have lost their lives. More than 10,000 children have died, killed by bombs or shells. Their mothers will never hold them again. And so when I compare the loss of property and memories in Ft. McMurray to the loss of lives––of children––in Syria, Ft. McMurray pales in comparison. If I had $1.5 million dollars, I’d give it to people in Syria, or anybody fleeing war and the death of their children.
But, we don’t need to compare needs, and figure out where things are the worst. The reality of our world is that it’s full of suffering. In our Gospel reading, Jesus says that he will give the world the glory of God so that we may be one. But the cynic in me says that we are already one. We are one in suffering. If you so choose, you can see suffering wherever you look, and when you look again, you can find someone else whose suffering is even greater, whose needs are so much deeper. But of course, that’s not the “one” that Jesus means. But it’s not that far off. You see, when you look at what else Jesus is saying when he talks about being one in glory, you’ll notice that he’s really talking about love. He wants the world to “become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Jesus centres the one-ness of the world on love, which is how God’s glory is made real in the world. We are one in love. God loves us, the Father loves the Son, the Son loves us, we love one another––the love goes around and back-and-forth and here and there, and it ties us all together. I am one with you and with the people in Ft. McMurray and with the people in Syria because we are all one in love. We are one in suffering because we are one in love.
And love means taking responsibility for the needs of another. Now today is Mother’s Day. And without getting too mushy about it, I don’t think I really knew what love was until I became a mother because that’s when I became responsible for someone other than myself. That’s when I learned what it’s like to want to respond to someone else’s needs before I respond to my own. We have this word in the English language, “mothering,” which is unfortunately not always used in a positive way, but which expresses very well this kind of love that takes responsibility for the needs of someone else. Moms are very good at mothering, but anyone can mother, and many people who aren’t biological mothers, mother others. Aunts mother, grandmas mother, but also uncles mother, and grandpas mother, teachers mother, even friends mother. Mothering is taking responsibility for someone else’s need. As we’ve seen from the response to Ft. McMurray, even businesses mother. Hotels that are offering free rooms to evacuees are mothering them. Restaurants that are offering free food are mothering. Westjet, who has flown evacuees and even pets out of the northern camps, is mothering. They are taking responsibility for others, and putting those people’s needs above their own. They are putting people’s need for safety above their own need for economic success. In our reading from Acts this morning, even Paul was mothering, taking responsibility for the well-being of the slave-girl and freeing her from her economic slavery. We mother when we send We Care kits to CLWR. We mother when we donate to the Red Cross. One of the stories that keeps setting me off crying is the one about the Syrian refugees who arrived in Alberta in March and are so touched by people’s losses in Ft. McMurray that they’re gathering their own limited resources to create care kits for the evacuees. Canada mothered them when we took them in as refugees, and they now want to mother others. We mother when our hearts weep at every instance of suffering we see––big or small, and we yearn to do something about it.
This mothering comes from God. It is God working in us. When we call God, Creator of the world, we are calling God, Mother of the world. Responding to our needs out of love, providing us with food and shelter and companionship. Mothering is one of the ways God loves us, and so of course it’s one of the ways we love one another. God inspires us to feel responsible for one another, and God fills us with dreams of how we might help. When I said that a Nigerian prince wants to give us $1.5 million dollars, I’m sure that ideas sprang into your head of how we might use that money. Just Imagine, as Lotto 6/49 tells us; what would you do if you had that much money? God has created us to mother, to love those in need. God shows God’s glory, as the Gospel of John says, by filling us with love, so that the mothering love with which the Father has loved Jesus might be in us, and Jesus in us, and us in one another. One, in a community of love.
But God doesn’t stop with just inspiring us to help. God also empowers us to do something about it. God gives us the will, and then God gives us a way. God empowered Paul to cast out the spirit from the slave-girl, God empowered the thousands of generous Canadians who’ve given over $10 million to the Red Cross, God empowers all those who work for peace and to house and clothe the Syrian refugees. I’ve been talking about this mythical Nigerian prince with all this money he wants to give us, and of course it isn’t true. But St. John does have $1.5 million dollars to give away. Or at least, we will when this building sells. We don’t need a Nigerian prince. We have God, and who knows whether or not God has brought us to this day for this very reason, that we would be in a place where we could imagine how we might give $1.5 million to those who are in need, and then have the means to do it?
There is so much need in the world, and God has blessed us with hearts for mothering those in need, and God has blessed us in particular with the means to help. You’ll notice when you came in this morning, that there’s a beautiful board in the narthex that says, “Who would you give $1.5 million dollars to?” Wendy came up with the beautiful design, and my request is that over the next several months, we dream and we listen and we look and we imagine what we might do with the $1.5 million dollars that’s coming, not from the Nigerian prince, but from the sale of this building, which means, really, from God. Look around you in the weeks to come, and every Sunday, bring an idea to put on the board. Who would you give $1.5 million dollars to? Where do you see the greatest need? There’s need all around, but God touches our hearts with particular needs that call to us. My monthly tithing goes to the Calgary Food Bank, the Calgary Women’s Shelter, SOS Children’s Villages, and PFLAG––these are areas God has called me to mother. These are my “children.” But you will have different concerns. Maybe your “children” are the elephants being poached in South Africa. Maybe you are touched by the intense need among the indigenous tribes in Guatemala fighting for access to local water, or maybe you see the needs of families living in poverty here in Canada, or maybe your “children” are the victims of child slavery and trafficking. Who would you give $1.5 million dollars to? What is your dream? Who has God put in your hearts to mother?

$1.5 million isn’t enough to respond to every need in the world, but that’s not the point. The point is that God has given us hearts to look for those who are in need in the world, called us as Christian disciples to be responsible for them, and given us the means to help, even if only in small ways. God calls us to mother those who are abandoned, and draws us together in one community of love, so that in that love, we might point to God as the source of our glory. We see the loss of this building as a loss, but God is blessing us with the means to be mothers to God’s children, using us to respond to the suffering and needs of others. What a gift, and what a glorious God we have. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Monday, May 02, 2016

Easter 6, 2016 - Living the Liminal Life

Today’s readings seem to all connect to something that scholars call “liminality.” Liminality is a word that describes the funny in-between spaces or times that are neither here nor there. When you’re standing in the customs line at the airport or at the border, you’re standing in a liminal space. Not quite Canada, not quite the United States. When someone’s been over to visit you, and they’ve said their goodbyes but they haven’t actually walked out the door yet, that’s a liminal space. Not really here, but not really gone.

Our readings today look at these liminal experiences - these in-between times and spaces. In the Gospel, Jesus and the disciples are in that liminal time between the last supper and Jesus’ crucifixion. He’s told them that he’s going away, but he hasn’t actually left yet. He’s told them that he’s going to die, but it hasn’t happened. The disciples are confused, clearly, or he wouldn’t have to keep repeating himself, which is often the case when we’re in liminality––in that in-between-ness. We sort of have an idea of what is going on, but not really. The past is clearly passed, but the future is hard to see. We live in uncertainty.

This liminality exists in our reading from Acts, too. Just before today’s reading, we hear about Paul wandering all over what we now call the Middle East - Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey - always in-between one place and the next. Paul’s whole life, in fact, is an experience of in-between-ness, in-between the Jewish and the Gentile Christian communities, in-between one country and another. And in our reading from Acts, Paul meets Lydia at an in-between space, outside of the city gates, which means outside of any official holy spaces, but not quite outside because its still a place where people are gathering to pray. Lydia is a ‘worshipper of God,’ which means she is a non-Jewish person who worships the Jewish God––one kind of in-between, and she’s also interested in hearing about Jesus Christ and wants to be baptized–– another kind of in-between. There’s all kinds of liminality going on here.

Even the writing of the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John, and even the Book of Revelation, reflect liminality. They were written in times of in-between-ness. Jesus had ascended to heaven, but he hadn’t come back yet. When John was written, the first Christians were still struggling to understand what it meant that Jesus said, “I am coming to you,” but hadn’t actually come, as far as they could see. The Book of Acts was written by Christians who had seen Pentecost but hadn’t yet seen Jesus coming in glory. The Book of Revelation was written by Christians who’d seen the troubled times that Jesus had warned them of, but still didn’t see any hope of their deliverance. We might look at the entire New Testament as one long struggle of Christians trying to find certainty in the in-between times.

It continues today. We continue to find ourselves in these liminal experiences, living in these in-between moments. In-between the past and the future. In-between death and new life. The glory days of Christianity are over and passed, but we haven’t yet arrived in the new life of what Christian fellowship will look like. The good old days of a church on every corner, filled to capacity, are gone, but we don’t know yet what’s coming in its place. We’re like the disciples, who witnessed the miracles of Jesus, and who’ve been told that those days are now gone, but we’re confused about what Jesus means when he says he’s going to come again.

Even in our daily living, we’re forced into these liminal times and spaces, and this is where the uncertainty of liminality really drags us down. Sliding from one existence to another without any firm ground underneath is frequently overwhelming, in part because we have no idea of what to expect in this in-between time or when it will be over. One of the in-between experiences that I’ve encountered with increasing frequency is that of watching someone go through the onset of cognitive decline. Experiencing someone else’s slide into dementia is hard. That in-between time of not quite in full mental loss but definitely no longer having full mental capacity. That experience of never knowing what the next moment is going to be, of being in-between clarity and complete confusion, of being unable to tell whether the story the person has just told is true or stitched together from bits and pieces of things picked up along the way. This liminal experience is disorienting. It shifts the ground beneath us and leaves us uncertain. 

We experience this liminality in other way. For instance, in cases of rapid physical decline, of ourselves or of someone we love, or when we’re waiting for some kind of medical diagnoses. That liminal time between officially healthy and officially sick. It’s so uncertain. That in-between space and time, where the health that existed before is definitely gone, but we don’t know what will be next Everything seems off-kilter, tilted to the side––the center doesn’t hold, the ground is mushy. It is, to use the words from our Gospel, troubling. In liminal experiences, our hearts are troubled and afraid and we are very seldom at peace.

And yet our readings tell us what to do and how to live in these in-between times. We start with the Gospel, where Jesus tell his disciples two things. The first is that they are to keep his word. The disciples will make it through the liminal time after Jesus has left but before he comes back by keeping his word. And what is this word that the disciples, and presumably us, are to keep? Jesus says it in the chapter before this one, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus tells his disciples to spend this in-between time by loving one another. Love is what gets us through. Love is the ground we stand on. The love of God for us, and our love for one another, is what makes these in-between times and spaces steadier. 

And we see from Saint Paul exactly what this love for one another looks like. Paul, the embodiment of liminality, goes out to find those who are struggling in the uncertainty of the in-between, who need the reassurance of hearing that they are loved. Paul, after receiving a vision in a dream––another liminal time, dream-time––did not hang around Jerusalem, the city he knew, waiting for those who needed to hear the good news to come to him. He went out to find people in their own liminal places––to the river outside the gates of the city––and he told them there of Jesus’ love for them. When we are muddling through the in-between times, Jesus tells us, as Paul shows us, to reach out, either physically or emotionally, to those who are also struggling in their own liminal places. We make it through our liminal experiences by going to others in their in-between experiences, and offering them the certainty of love.

We can do this because of the second thing that Jesus tells his disciples, which is that he and the Father and the Holy Spirit will come to them to make their home in them. To live in their hearts. To bring them peace. And this is the word that I think is meant for us today. You see, when we’re troubled, when we’re living in uncertainty and liminality and in-between this and that, in-between past and future, we often close in on ourselves. We close up our hearts, to protect them from further hurt. We cling to the familiar––to the things that we know, to the people that we know, to the places and experiences that we know, even if they’re gone. But when we do that, when we hold only to what we know, which is only to the past, then we’re really only living in what’s dead. We’re stuck in the in-between and we can’t make it to the new life and the future. But Jesus tells us that our certainty and our security and our peace don’t come from the past, from what was, but from God. They come from Christ making a home in our hearts, which is with us wherever we go and whatever we do. We live through these in-between times by knowing that God’s love is filling us up, taking up residence inside us. The ground beneath our feet might be shifting, but the ground that’s in our hearts, the ground that is God’s love for us, never moves.

And so Jesus tells us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Jesus tells us that we have a choice about it––we can let the in-between experiences of life make us afraid, we can let them make us close in on ourselves in self-protection. Or, we can let these liminal experiences transform us so that we are open, not closed. We can let Jesus and the Father and the Holy Spirit do their work in our hearts, opening our hearts, filling us with a love so abundant that we seek out those who are in need so that we can spill some of that love into their lives. We can allow God to transform the uncertainty of our in-between experiences into a certain knowledge that God loves us and is always with us. A certainty that God is indeed bringing new life––new experiences, new homes, new relationships, new friendships. We can allow the in-between experiences to be times of love, rather than fear.

That’s not to say that these liminalities all of a sudden become easy. We don’t open our hearts to love and then one day wake up excited to greet the uncertainty of the day. To open our hearts in love is to risk being hurt, to risk our love not being returned, to risk being rejected. But when we open our hearts to love, and go out to find those who need that love, these in-between times become worthwhile. Love enables us to find ways to live with meaning during these times of not knowing. In the in-between time, opening our hearts to love is what turns it from wasted time to worthwhile time. It’s what allows us to get through the loss of the past without yet having something clear to hold onto. It’s what allows us to be certain, even in times of uncertainty, that what Jesus is true, that he is going away, that he is coming again, and that he and the Father make their home with us. “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Peace be with you, and thanks be to God. Amen.

Easter 4, 2016 - God Answers Our Prayers With Something Better - Let Go and Grab It

So we’re in the fourth week of Easter and we’ve heard some remarkable stories about the miracles that happened after Jesus was resurrected. He appears in a locked room, twice, to reassure the disciples that his resurrection really did happen. He meets Peter and the other disciples fishing and they drag in 153 fish to shore (a number, by the way, that in Greek represented all of the fish known to humankind) without breaking the net. And today, we see Peter, following Christ’s miracle with Lazarus, appearing to give new life to Tabitha after she had died. All of these wonderful miracles testify to the truth that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and that his resurrection paved the way for our own resurrection from death to new life.
At the same time, though, they raise questions. The biggest question they raise, which we don’t particularly like to ask out loud, is: Why doesn’t this happen now? Why don’t we see these miracles of new life now? It’s not like we’re not praying for it. We pray earnestly and sincerely for new life. When we’re faced with some kind of loss or death, we pray that it won’t actually happen, that death won’t come our way. We pray that life would go on, that the things we fear won’t happen. We pray, and we pray, and we pray, and nothing. We don’t get what we’re asking for. And so we wonder, secretly most of the time, Why did God allow this particular loss or death? Didn’t God hear me? Why didn’t God answer my prayer?

There’s a church sign that I drive by every time I leave the house, and a few weeks ago it said, God answers prayer in three ways: 1) Yes, 2) Not Yet, and 3) Wait, I Have Something Better. And I like that third one. It reminds me of the country song by Garth Brooks, Unanswered Prayers. In the song, he talks about how he ran into a woman that he used to know, and he remembers that in high school he used to pray to God that he would marry her and was heartbroken when it didn’t happen, but as it turned out, he married someone else and he loves his wife so much more than he ever loved his high-school sweetheart. And the chorus goes, “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Remember when you’re talking to the man upstairs, that even though he may not answer, it doesn’t mean he don’t care. Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” 
You see, God always hears our prayers. And I know sometimes it doesn’t seem that way - I’ve spent my own sleepless nights wondering if I was just praying into a void - but God does. God always hears us - how could God not? We say that God is our shepherd, who does not lose a single sheep. Of course God hears our prayers. It’s just that sometimes, many times actually, God doesn’t answer our prayers with the Yes we’re hoping for, but instead answers our prayers the third way. With “Wait, I have something better.” 

Which is really the story of Easter, isn’t it? That when Jesus prayed that this cup might be passed from him, and when the disciples no doubt prayed that nobody would end up nailed to a cross, that God responded with something better? If you’ve seen the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, you’ll remember that when Jesus is on the cross, he has a hallucination that in fact, God rescued him from the cross and that he continued to live his life with Mary and Martha and have children and grow old and never die by crucifixion. But since he doesn’t die, the disciples who followed him take up arms against Rome, and Jerusalem descends into war, and what would have been the beginnings of the Christian church instead dies in a blood bath. In the movie, because God said yes to Jesus’ prayers not to die, there was no Easter resurrection, no peaceful early church, and in the end, no Christian church at all. And Jesus realizes that for all of these things to happen, which are far better than what he thought he wanted, he has to die on the cross after all. And the hallucination ends, and he takes last breath, and he dies, and then we have Easter.

The hard truth of the Easter story is that the “something better” that God is offering us doesn’t come as soon as we like, or even as soon as we think we need. As much as we love Easter, the hard truth of it is that ‘the something better’ God has for us often doesn’t come until after whatever it is we’ve prayed for dies.

And, oh, do we struggle with this. We really don’t want to accept that we have to die before we can have the life God has for us. But there’s no way around it––we have to let go of the old life in order to grab hold of the new. One of my professors at seminary used to say that it’s like being stuck on the roof of a house in a flood, with the waters rising higher and higher. And along comes a helicopter, with a ladder dangling down, ready to rescue you from that roof. But what rescue workers have so often seen, and I’ve seen it too in other crisis situations, is that people will generally refuse to grab onto the ladder and be rescued, because it means letting go of the thing they’re currently holding onto, even though it’s far more dangerous than what they’re being offered. There’s something about human nature in crisis where we grab onto the first thing we see, and then we just can’t let go, even if there is something better. And my professor, who was giving us this example in relation to baptism and Luther’s belief that the old self has to drown in the waters of baptism––be killed––in order to receive the new life that Christ offers, said that we have to die before we can receive new life. (And what made this so powerful is that his wife was dying of cancer as he was teaching this class, so he wasn’t just saying things. He really meant it.) He said that it’s impossible to hold onto the life we have and to grab onto the new life that God is offering. We can’t hold both things at the same time. We have to let go of the old, no matter how much we love it, in order to receive the something better God has for us. We have to die before we can have new life.

So how do we do that? How do we let go and trust that God really has something better? Well, rescue workers are able to coax people off of their roofs by constantly reassuring the stranded people that they will be safe, that it will be okay, telling them about all of the things that are waiting for them - food, warm clothes, their other friends and family, safety. And this is what God does for us. God gives us glimpses of the new life that God has waiting for us. New life looks a bit like what we heard from the book of Revelation this morning - a great multitude of people from every nation. New life looks like an immense gathering of people, all different from one another––different races, different ages, different opinions––all together as a family, where no one is alone. Revelation talks about angels and elders and four living creatures singing before God. New life looks like singing and joy and light. Revelation talks about those whose robes are washed in the blood of Christ and made white. New life looks like forgiveness for every mistake and reconciliation and the restoration of all relationships. And Revelation talks about shelter. No more hunger, no more thirst, no more suffering from the elements. And so we know that new life looks like a rest from all our worries, a rest from our struggles to keep going, a blessed relief from trying to keep ourselves alive.

Of course, what this new life looks like exactly in the here and now is impossible to say. We can’t ever know exactly what God’s something better is going to look like. Probably because we don’t have eyes to see––because we think ‘something better’ is just more of what we already have. But God’s something better is radically different from what we know. It’s not the same old life extended––it is new life. Something beyond what we can imagine and beyond even what we would ever pray for.

But we have to let go first. We have to let go of what we think would be the best for us, let go of our desire that God would stop death from coming. In fact, some of the most faithful prayers I’ve heard, coming from people who have been Christian their whole life, are those prayers to die. The prayer to die is one of the most Christian prayers I know, because underneath that prayer is the deepest and most enduring trust that God does indeed have something better waiting. Underneath the prayer to die is the most faithful belief that God will bring new life, and that it is better than anything we know. I am humbled every time I pray one of these prayers with someone, and I am in awe that God has given them the faith to be prepared to let go of this life at any moment in order to embrace the new life God has waiting for them.

The Christian life, the path we are called to follow from baptism, is a constant cycle of dying and receiving new life, of letting go of the old in order to grab hold of God’s new, so that on our last day, we will have had so much practice and experience with it that we can literally let go of this life in order to embrace new life in Christ. This is the Easter path and the Easter promise, that new life comes after death. That whatever we pray for, God always has something better. So, whatever it is that you might be praying for these days, a loss that you might be hoping never to endure, may God grant you a glimpse of the new life and the something better that God has waiting for you and all of God’s children, and give you the strength to let go and embrace the promise of Easter. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Easter 3, 2016 - Walking in the Darkness

Have you ever had a time when you had to be out and about during a night-time power outage? It’s unsettling. The dining room chair becomes a piece of wood out to whack your shins, your cozy slippers left on the floor become fuzzy little objects of evil trying to trip you on your way to the stairs, the table seems to move itself just an inch to the left so that it can attack your hip. We’d rather just stay in bed until the lights come back on––walking about is too dangerous. 
In 1998, when the big ice storm hit the East Coast and took out all the power in Quebec and part of Ontario for several days, I was living in downtown Montreal. And I remember having to go into my apartment in the dark, at night, up three flights of stairs that had no windows. I particularly remember that as I was going up the stairs I had gone up hundreds of times before, a voice came out of the darkness. It wasn’t the voice of God - that’s not where I’m going with this story - it was just someone else coming down the stairs as I was going up. But I remember that we started talking to each other in the darkness, asking each other how it was going. We were complete strangers to each other––if we had met on any other regular day, we probably would have said hi and that’s it–but here, in the total darkness, we expressed our concern for each other, reminded each other to go slowly and carefully, and made sure that we each got up and down the stairs safely. Something about both us being in the darkness during this state of emergency made us reach out to each other to help and support each other, even though we’d never met before and so instead of being a scary experience, it was quite a comforting one. I’ve never had that experience before or since, but I will always remember: in a darkness so complete it’s as if we were blind, connecting with a complete stranger to make sure we were both okay made the darkness seem fun instead of frightening.

Our stories today of Saul and Ananias, and of Jesus and the disciples, are stories of what it’s like to walk in the dark, and of how God calls us to help others who are also struggling in the dark. Most obviously, there’s Saul, blinded on the road to Damascus by a light so bright it makes his world completely dark. As Acts says, “for three days he was without sight.” We’re very familiar with this story. We often call it the conversion of Paul, even though there’s no evidence that he stopped being Jewish when he started being Christian, and in fact there’s a great deal of evidence from his writing that even though he became a Christian he continued to think of himself as a Jew. But this story is about more than just Saul. It’s also a story about Ananias, a disciple of Jesus, who is sent to heal Saul. Ananias is also in darkness. He’s not literally blind, but when the Lord calls him to go and meet with someone who would just as soon kill him for his beliefs, he is going into the situation blind, as we say. Ananias has no idea how he is going to be received by Saul––no idea whether he will be spit upon, cursed, rejected. When it comes to Ananias going into the house where Saul is staying, he is just as in the dark about what is going to happen as Saul is.

And then there’s our story of Jesus and the disciples on the shore. The disciples, who are initially in the dark about the identity of this man telling them where to fish, and then Simon Peter, completely clueless about what Jesus was saying when he said, “when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you want to go.” Peter, who would become the leader of the Church, would die a martyr, according to legend, crucified by the Roman Emperor Nero, with his hands stretched out, fastened to the cross. But Peter didn’t know that. And yet he must have known that when Jesus asked him to take care of his sheep, Jesus was asking him to follow the path that Jesus took, to be the shepherd that Jesus was. Peter, too, was being asked to trust in the Lord and to agree to follow a path that he couldn’t see. Peter, like Saul and like Ananias and like the disciples and like us, was in a situation where he couldn’t see the way, where he was blind to what lay ahead, and yet where he was nevertheless being asked to move about in his darkness and help someone else. Jesus’ disciples, and that includes us, were being asked to endure their times of darkness and, for the sake of others, to walk by faith and not by sight.

I think there are two messages here for us today. The first is that even though everyone in these stories is in the dark, unable to see where they’re going, they’re still going. They are walking in the dark, not sitting in the dark. Saul, after he was struck blind, didn’t stop in the middle of the road to Damascus and refuse to take another step until he could see again. He kept going, trusting God and trusting those who were leading him by the hand, putting one foot after another, never knowing where his foot was going to land but still taking each step as it came. He couldn’t see where he was going, but he kept walking.
And Ananias. He, too, got moving even though he was in the dark about what might happen. He could have stayed home, he could have said, “Lord, I have a family to support and take care of and if I go see Saul he might kill me, so since I don’t know what’s going to happen, I’m just going to stay here at home.” But he didn’t. Instead, he left the safety of his home and his family, and went to Saul, the one who, as far as Ananias knew, wanted to arrest every Christian he could find. Ananias, in the dark, got moving.

The same is true of the disciples, who had been sitting in their boat all night without any fish, at a loss as to where to put their nets in next––floating blindly on the Sea of Galilee. When this stranger came along and told them where to fish, they didn’t just sit there. They moved. They lowered the nets. They took action, despite their own inability to see.

And there’s Peter, who was told by Jesus that he was about to set down a road where something not good would happen at the end, even though he didn’t know what it was going to be. Peter, like all of us, was unable to see what path his life would take, whether it would end as a success or a failure, and yet Peter continued on. He kept going, he left his home in Galilee, he even left Israel altogether. He didn’t have to. He could have sat down and refused to move. But he kept going even though his path was dark, saying goodbye to everything that he knew, saying goodbye to a life of sitting quietly with the friends and family of his hometown of Bethsaida, taking steps that brought him eventually to Rome and to death.

So that’s one thing that the stories today tell us. That even though we can’t see, even though we’re blind, we’re not supposed to sit in the darkness being afraid to move. We’re supposed to continue moving. We’re supposed to continue walking, step by step, even if we don’t know where we’re going. God calls us to walk by faith, not by sight. God calls us to leave our home and our family and our safety even though we don’t know what will happen. God calls us to trust.

The other important thing is that these people weren’t just walking in the dark, they were walking towards each other, in order to find each other and offer help. Ananias, who walked blind into his encounter with Saul, called Saul “brother.” Ananias took a truly bold step and claimed Saul as one of his family. That’s what we do when we’re in the dark with a bunch of other people who don’t know what’s going on––we help them like they’re family. Peter went walking into the darkness of his future in order to find and help Jesus’ lost sheep, in order to proclaim the light of Christ to others who were struggling in the darkness so that they could keep going. When we are sitting in darkness, God encourages us to continue to get up and get going so that we can find others who are in darkness. Yes, we’ll stumble, and likely stub our toe, or hit the corner of a table, maybe even run really hard into a doorway. We’ll be startled by strangers, and worry that they might want to hurt us, and we’ll be afraid of what is around the very dark corner. But when these things happen, God encourages us to keep going, to keep trusting that things are where they are supposed to be. God lets us sit with the lights out so that even though we’re afraid, we will have faith and reach out to one another. So that we might act in faith. When we can’t see what’s next, God encourages us to walk by faith, and not by sight, as we sang last week, all for the purpose of connecting with others who are in the dark. Because until we spend time walking in the darkness––walking, not just sitting––we will not actually be walking in faith. We will not be walking like Saul whom we call Paul, or Ananias, or even Peter. 

What’s more, and here is the brilliance of Easter––when we start walking and then finding and connecting with one another, when we reach out and hold each other up in the darkness, that’s when the darkness is transformed into light. If times are dark for me, and I sit in the dark doing nothing but feeling sorry for myself, isolating myself, I will never see the light. Helping one another, what we would call serving one another, going out and finding people to help that is what changes the darkness into light. It was when Ananias reached out to Saul that all of a sudden Saul’s darkness was lifted. It was when Saul reached out to the disciples in Damascus that all of a sudden their darkness of being persecuted was lifted. The disciples recognized Christ when he helped them. Their darkness was lifted when he served them. Like me and the other person coming down the stairs in Montreal, reaching out to connect with each other turned the darkness into a moment of light.

When you are sitting in your own darkness, when you feel yourself lost and blind and when you’d rather just sit still until someone finds you, remember that there are others out there just like you. There are others who are also sitting still, too afraid to take even one step. Help them. Take your step for them. Be like Ananias, who must surely have been terrified about reaching out to Saul, but who did it because he had faith and knew Saul was in darkness. Because if we call to each other, if we each just take one small step towards each other, if we walk by faith and not by sight, we will find that when we are standing with one another, all of a sudden we are standing in the light. When you take that first step, trusting that God is with you, you will find that the risen Christ is with you, turning darkness into light. Thanks be to God. Amen.