Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sunday, October 15 - The Table in the Outer Darkness

Isaiah 25:1-9; 
Psalm 23; 
Matthew 22:1-14

“Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I’m not getting a lot of easy texts to start my time with you, am I? Last week we heard about giving thanks when we’re not feeling thankful, and this week it’s hell. Yes, this outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth is a reference to hell.

Now hell is actually something most of us are familiar with. Not in the fire-and-brimstone, pitchforks and the devil way, but in the original meaning of hell, which is that place where God is not. Hell is that place where God isn’t. That outer darkness, where there is no light, and no God, and no life. Hell is the place where we are alone when we desperately need a friend, where we can’t see the light and we feel swallowed up by darkness, where we feel overwhelmed by everything and see no way out.

I’ve been in hell, in that outer darkness, at least three times in my life. The first time was when I was doing hospital chaplaincy in my first year at seminary, and I was assigned to the Medical Respiratory Intensive Care Unit and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. In two short months, over twenty patients that I had been in contact with had died, from the elderly to babies. At the end of those two months, I felt like I was in the back of a very deep and very dark cave, and I couldn’t find my way out.

The second and third times were after the births of my two children. In both of those cases, it was when they were each about eight months and I was feeling beyond overwhelmed in caring for them. One time, I went for a walk in the woods and wondered on the way there if anyone would notice if I came back without the baby. Another time, I remember actually wanting to drive my car into a brick wall at top speed. Clearly, I did neither of those things, but I still remember the feeling of being in that hell, in that outer darkness. Feeling completely abandoned, bound hand and foot and thrown out there, in the dark, alone.

As it turns out, all three of those times were episodes of clinical depression. And during that third time, I went to the doctor and was diagnosed and was given medication that I will probably be on to one degree or another for the rest of my life. And I share this story whenever I can because this past Tuesday was World Mental Health Day, and this outer darkness of mental health is not something we talk about in the church very much. And I want you to know that if you have had times when you have felt bound and thrown into the darkness, or if you feel that way right now, you are not alone and we can talk about it.

Of course, depression is not the only time we can feel like we’ve been cast out into the outer darkness. Being rejected by a friend, facing a medical emergency, losing a job, losing a loved one––loss of any kind, actually, can throw us into that darkness, whether for just a moment or for years. The outer darkness, the valley of the shadow of death, the funeral shroud that covers the people––this is a common experience throughout history––the writer of Isaiah experienced it, the Psalmist who gave us Psalm 23 experienced it, the community of Matthew’s Gospel experienced it. 

There’s a line in the Apostles’ Creed that I find particularly comforting when I’m in that outer darkness. I know we turn more to the Lord’s Prayer than the Creed when we’re in need of comfort, but for me, that line is there in the Second Article, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” After talking about Jesus’ life and death, we then say, “he descended into hell.” The alternate line says, “descended to the dead,” but for me, “descended into hell” is particularly comforting. Jesus was in hell.

This is profound. It means that when that man at the king’s son’s wedding banquet was bound hand and foot and cast out to the outer darkness, he was cast in to the place where Jesus was. It means that when we are suffering through our own personal hells, whether it’s the result of our own actions or someone else’s, Jesus is there. There is nowhere we can go where God has not gone - that’s Psalm 139. You are not alone in that outer darkness, in that valley of the shadow of death. God is with you. Martin Luther himself strongly believed this, and preached that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fully human and fully divine, descended to hell, to be amongst the sinners and the lost and the abandoned and the rejected. 

Being with you means more than just Christ suffering with you in the darkness, sitting there in dark cave next to you. We have God’s promise, given to us over and over and over again, that God transforms darkness into light, death into life. Psalm 23 assures us that, in the presence of our enemies, God prepares a table for us. When death surrounds us, when we feel overwhelmed, when the odds are stacked against us, God sets up a feast. Isaiah says this too, in the reading that we often hear at funerals. In the midst of loss, God is setting up an overabundance of good things - an overflowing of all those things that nourish us and bring us life.

Because ultimately, as Isaiah says, God is swallowing up death. God is making death no more because God is feeding us with new life, life that overflows the boundaries of darkness, and wipes away every tear. Life that spreads into every corner, into the backs of the deepest caves, into the moments of blackest darkness. The table that God is preparing for us is constantly expanding to include more and more people, and the food that God provides never ends. 
We see it, actually, every time we come to this table. We come to this table with all of our darkness inside of us, we come to eat and drink of our Lord with all of our feelings of abandonment and rejection and loneliness, because this table was also set up in the outer darkness. Christ was abandoned and rejected by his followers, he died on the cross crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and he descended to hell, and this is his table. And on the third day he rose again. And in that rising, God swallowed up death, and wiped away every tear, and shed light into the darkest corners, and granted new life to all the dead. 

And God did it for us. For you. When you are at this table, when you hear, the body of Christ, given for you, and the blood of Christ, shed for you, know that in that for you are God’s words of life to you and for you. For you in your moments of light, and, more importantly, for you in your moments of darkness. Christ gives himself to you, to feast on and be filled, to carry inside of you even as you leave the table, to bring with you wherever you go, even into the darkness that is threatening to swallow you but never can.

“Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.” The God whom we worship is, ultimately, the God of light and life, revealed to us in Christ, who prepares a table for us in the midst of our enemies, in the midst of our hell. It is a table overflowing with new life, and you are welcome to it, over and over again, as many times as you need, because it is “for you.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Pentecost 18 - Thanksgiving

Isaiah 5:1-7; Phil 3:4b-14; Matt 21:33-46

So, Happy Thanksgiving! It’s a bit odd to say that right after the readings for today, don’t you think? As a whole, our readings are not ones that inspire us with a great deal of thanks. Given the awful event in Vegas last week, the violence of our readings hits home, making it really difficult to truly give thanks. We know that giving thanks is our “duty,” as we hear at the beginning of Holy Communion, and yet it can sometimes feel impossible to give thanks “at all times and in all places,” as we also hear.

This particularly can be the case when we have difficult and painful memories of things that have happened in our own past. For some of us, there are times in the past––short or long––that are intensely painful and continue to wound us even today. We can’t possibly feel thankful for that because those events or the lives we’ve lived in the past are so painful to us that we want a complete break from them, and we reject them completely. We might feel sadness, or bitterness, or even outright anger. But not thankful.

Those painful pasts are behind our readings for today. Isaiah was written during a time of intense political upheaval: there were military invasions by neighbouring countries, the king at the time, Hezekiah, had turned away from following God’s will, and the people were taking advantage of one another and not living as God’s community. Isaiah appears to be trying to understand God’s presence in what was a very oppressive time in Israel and Judah’s past. 

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew was trying to figure out the same thing, although in a different context. In Matthew, the Christian community was struggling to understand why their own leaders, the priests in the Temple, didn’t protect one of their own - Jesus. They felt betrayed by the very ones who were supposed to take care of them––in Matthew’s parable, the murderous tenants refer specifically to the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem, and not to all the people of Israel. The priests were supposed to take care of the people - not sell them out to Rome. The community of Christians that the Gospel of Matthew was written for were living about 50 years after the death of Jesus and only a few decades after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Their recent past was incredibly painful for them, and they lay responsibility for that at the feet of their leaders. They were hurt and angry. They were not thankful.

And, of course, there’s Paul, and his letter to the Philippians. Paul, too, has his own painful past to wrestle with, and he has no one to blame but himself. His pain comes from realizing that he was responsible for the persecution of Christians. From realizing that the zealousness of his own faith caused so much pain to those whom he came to love in Christ. We often think that Paul hated his past because he was Jewish, but that’s not the case. Paul hates his past because at that time in his Jewish life he was violent towards Christ’s brothers and sisters. He is thankful for his Jewish righteousness, but in no way is he thankful for the way in which he lived out that righteousness by persecuting Christians. In that respect, he wants to completely break with his past.

I’m guessing that most of us here can identify with at least one of these situations, whether it is the deep regret over our country’s past, and even present, treatment of its own people, or the feelings of betrayal and confusion over a previous leader’s actions. Or maybe we can identify with Paul’s awareness that in our own lives we have caused deep pain to someone we love. And when we’re faced with these things, it is a challenge to honestly and authentically give thanks “at all times and in all places”––to say “Happy Thanksgiving!” and really, truly, fully mean it.

So what do we do? We’re supposed to give thanks, but our past makes that thanks imperfect. Inauthentic. We could say, “Well, that was in the past, and it’s time to move on, and today’s a new day, and let’s focus on the good things happening now, and give thanks for that.” And that is a perfectly legitimate response. Sometimes, that’s what we need to do to keep moving forward. But other times, that’s not enough. Other times, the pain from the past is too deep or too fresh to allow us to move on, and the dissonance between the past and the present has us feeling inauthentic in our thanksgiving. And so, again, we ask, what do we do? How do we give thanks, as is our duty, without erasing the past from our memory or feeling like we’re somehow being dishonest in our thanks?

It so happens that the apostle Paul, actually, offers us a way forward. In our reading, Paul acknowledges his past of persecution as a loss. A total write-off. Nothing redeeming about it. But he adds that he is pressing on “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” There is something about being in Christ that allows Paul both to face the pain of his past and to give thanks for his life today. And if we look at the letter to the Ephesians, attributed to Paul, we read that Christ “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Paul means Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Eph 2:16) Paul and the new Christian community experience that, in Christ, the pains of the past persecution are gathered up in the new love that they share for one another. Paul looks to reconciliation in Christ to move forward. Paul finds the source of reconciliation, and the reason he can give thanks, not in himself, but in Christ.

It’s important to note that the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t get to that point. We know now that Jesus actually shared a lot in common with the Pharisees - a belief in resurrection after death, a recognition that the heart of Torah or the law is love for one’s neighbour, and a willingness to adapt religious observances for the times. But the community of Matthew’s Gospel wasn’t able to get to a place of being thankful for the Pharisees and priests who let Jesus die. Maybe it was too fresh for them. Maybe they hadn’t yet read Paul’s words to the churches. They weren’t able to find reconciliation and give full and perfect thanks to Christ.

All of this is where we sit in our lives. Maybe you’ve been able to give your past to God and experience Christ’s reconciliation as Paul does. Maybe you see that your past has led you to today, and that you’ve grown in reflecting on those events and commending them to God, and so you’re able to fully and sincerely give thanks. But maybe not. Maybe you identify with Matthew’s community, and feel the pain of a tremendous loss and betrayed relationships and carry that forever. Maybe your thanks is only partial, with resentment or bitterness or anger or pain or even a desire for violent retribution lying underneath. Maybe, like me, you alternate between Paul and Matthew, finding thanks easy at one moment and difficult at another.

But what Paul says to the church in Ephesians, and he says it again in his letter to the Colossians, is our Good News. The truth is that ultimately it is not us who reconciles our past and our present, but God through Christ. God does not expect that our thanksgiving will be perfect. Rather, God perfects our thanksgivings. And this is how we are able to give thanks, at all times and in all places, in the middle of every situation in which we find ourselves. Not because we somehow miraculously transcend the disappointments and betrayals of our live, but because even that partial thanks, that 10% thanks, is made perfect as God receives it. This may be why God actually asks us to give thanks even when we feel least thankful. So that we will experience that it is not that we must be perfectly thankful when we come before God, but that God makes us perfect as we do so. And this is something to be thankful for. This is how we can say “Thanks be to God,” and “Happy Thanksgiving,” even when we don’t fully and truly mean it. Because, in Christ, God reconciles our imperfect thanks, making them, and us, perfect. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, October 02, 2017

October 1, 2017 - Advent Lutheran Church - Pentecost 17

 Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” This is the apostle Paul’s call to the church in Philippi. It is a call, actually, to each of God’s communities, wherever they find themselves, based on Jesus’ call to love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour as yourself. As followers of Christ, we are called simply to love.

Easy, right? We just need to figure out what “love” means, and we’re good to go. Except, of course, that love is not simple. It has different meanings for each person, sometimes several meanings at once. And when you group those individuals into a community, as Paul does, love becomes even more complex. What do you mean by love, we might ask Paul. Or Jesus. When it comes to congregations, what is that love supposed to look like? As I begin my time here with you, I am struck that this question is a good place for us to begin our journey together: considering what love means in a Christian community - in a church.

Well, Paul begins by saying that in the context of a group, love is being “of one mind, looking to the interest of others.” And it’s so interesting that he uses the word look. Look to one another. Because to look to one another, we have to turn toward them. We don’t have eyes in the back of our head, unlike what I tell my children, and so to look at someone, we need to turn around so we can see them. We need to turn towards them.

There is a connection between love and turning towards someone. It is no coincidence that alongside our reading from Philippians we also have our first reading from Ezekiel. In our first reading, we hear the prophet Ezekiel reminding the community of Israel that God calls them to turn away from their transgression and turn toward God. In fact, the Hebrew word for repent means turning away from one’s previous actions and turning towards a new path. And so Ezekiel tells the people that God’s word to them is that they turn––away from their unrighteousness and toward God. They look to God to get a new heart and a new spirit. They turn towards God and live. They turn towards God and love.
We see this again in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew.  The word “turn” isn’t explicitly mentioned, nor the word “love,” but they are there, underneath the text. Jesus draws the parallel between the son who eventually changes his mind and does the will of his father, who turns toward his father, and the prophet John the Baptist and his followers, who also turn towards God. Who love God.

A french Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, talked about this connection between love and turning towards someone. And I promise that I do not usually include french Jewish philosophers in my sermons, but Levinas, who lived through WWII as a French Jew, has some really profound things to say about love. For Levinas, the essence of love is turning towards the Other, so that each person is, as he says, “face-to-face.” This face-to-face is vitally important, because in looking at the Other’s face, in looking to their interest, as Paul would say, we see in the face of the Other, God. We come face-to-face with the One who is both completely different from us, wholly Other, as mysterious as the divine is to the human, and yet who is also completely familiar to us. One of us. One with us.

Of course, this should not be new to us––Jesus says that when we do something for the least of God’s people, we are doing it for him. We believe that every child who is baptized is blessed with the Holy Spirit, who lives in them and brings them to faith. But this idea that we are face-to-face with God every time we look to another’s interest, every time we turn to face another––there is something incredibly personal and transformative in this understanding.

You see, every time we turn towards someone so that we are face-to-face, so that we are able to look so fully at the other so that we are able to see the face of God in their face, they are brought more fully into being. When you are loved in this way, when someone looks you in the face and sees who you really are and stays, you become more the person you are meant to be. Being seen affirms our existence. It affirms our value and self-worth. When someone turns to us and looks at us, and sees us with all of the potential and goodness we are capable of, we grow. You might have had that experience, of being loved by someone, maybe a child or a teacher, who looks at you, and sees you as if all the good you are capable of is actually there as a reality, and not just a possibility, and you start becoming the person they see.

Now, having said all this, and gone off on this grand exposition of love, it may strike you that we’re not usually very good at loving this way. Particularly as a community. We have trouble, especially when we’re in groups, of turning towards those around us, so that we are truly face-to-face. There is always some part of ourselves that we hold in reserve, that we hold back, that hides its face from the Other. This is normal - I think we sometimes rightly fear the judgement of groups if we show them ourselves. Churches can be places where those who show their true face are rejected. We’re not as good at love as we want to be. If we were, Paul wouldn’t have to be telling the church members in Philippi how to love each another.

And this is troubling for us. Because we like to believe that the community of Christians is a place where we can truly love one another, where we can look to the interests of others, where our love for others transforms them to be truly themselves. We know that God calls us to do this, and we know that we want to do this, and yet we find that somehow we fail. We turn to our own interests. We hide our faces. We refuse to see God in the Other’s face. Or we miss seeing it completely. We insist that others become who we want them to be, rather than who they truly are. And in doing so, we turn away from the Other, from our neighbour, and, of course, from God.

Yet we keep trying. We keep trying to become who God wants us to be, to love the way God wants us to love. Day after day, month after month, we turn away from ourselves and towards God, knowing that we will turn back to ourselves but continuing our efforts anyway.

And here’s the thing. Here’s the hope in what can otherwise be a very discouraging situation. Every single time you engage in that turning, every single time you try to look at the face of another, to look to their interest, to look to God in love, even though you might fail, you will discover that God is already facing you. Even while you were still looking to yourself, God had already turned to look to your interest, to see God’s self in you. God has always, is now, and will always show God’s face to you in love. God opens up God’s self to you, turns to you even before you turn to God, and loves you.
And as God loves you, you become more fully who you are called to be, who you were created to be. God is “at work in you,” as Paul says. God’s love, seen in God taking on flesh in Jesus Christ so that God might really, truly be face-to-face with you, calls you into becoming.

As a congregation I know that you have always striven to turn towards God. As we walk together for this next while, my hope is that you will find comfort and rest in experiencing that God has already turned towards you and therefore you are already becoming even more fully who God has created you to be––a community of love, looking to the interests of others. God’s face is turned to you, and God loves you, as individuals and as this community of Advent. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

St John's Closing - God is our Life, Life is not our God

Isaiah 43:1-7; 66:1-2; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 10:24-39

God is our life; Life is not our God

Dearly beloved in Christ, we are gathered here today for what is essentially the funeral service for St. John. Our Gospel reading for today is the assigned lectionary text for this Sunday, but the other readings were chosen specifically for this day, and you may have noticed that our reading from Romans is one that is often read at funerals––a fervent proclamation that death is not the end, because the God whom we worship raises us to new life.

This is the point of funeral services, indeed, of all worship services: to proclaim that our God is the God of life. In the midst of the sadness and grief we experience, we simultaneously cling to the truths of our faith: that God created the world full of life, to be a place of joy and fulfillment for all of Creation. That, when death entered and threatened us with despair, God renewed God’s commitment to life, walking with us through the waters that drown and the fires that burn, as the prophet Isaiah says. When it seemed that the community of God’s people was scattered, when the places of worship were crumbling and falling to pieces, when death appeared as a finality, our God promised to gather the people from every corner of the earth, to restore them to one another, and to give them new life. And, through Christ, God walked into death, and then through it to the other side, so that, as Paul says, all those who follow Christ into death will also be brought through to the other side, and to newness of life. This is our God, whom we worship even as we die. Our God is the God of life. Indeed, God is our life. We are nothing without God, and we can do nothing without God. It is God who gives life to communities, and builds up churches, and ensures that the body of Christ endures. God, not us, is the reason this congregation of St. John was built and endured for more than a hundred years. We praise God for every day of life that we have been given because God is our life.

It’s easy, though, to get God and life mixed up. In the beginning, when God gives us life, we embrace God and that life together. We see signs of growth as a sign of God’s presence with us. Because God is our life, we know that when we are healthy and thriving, it is because God is with us. In a church, baptisms, Sunday School, confirmations, weddings, a new building––these are all signs of life, and thus signs of God’s commitment to our life together. We celebrate these achievements, and praise God for them. Over time, though, the signs of life begin to overwhelm God’s presence with us. We spend more time looking at the signs and end up becoming more focused on what we have been given, and the one who gives is moved into the background. We begin to take credit for our own longevity, to think that our previous successes in life had something to do with us. We forget that it is God, and not ourselves or our actions, who gives us life. And when life fades, as it does, we begin to spend more and more of our energy on staying alive. We tighten our grip on those things that gave us life in the past as if they might continue to give us life in the future. We make decisions where the goal is to cling to life, rather than to God. We go from God being our life to life becoming our God.

But life is not our God; God is our life. And in our Gospel reading, we hear Jesus calling us, quite strongly, to remember that. Jesus calls us to remember that the focus of our lives is not life itself, but God. And Jesus reminds us that sometimes, God offers us a life that requires us first to walk through death. “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Jesus is very clear here––to follow Christ we must be willing to take up that instrument of death and walk all the way to Good Friday. Like Christ, we must hold our life loosely, ready to set it down and pick up the cross if God is calling us to do that––if letting go of our life is the means by which God will bring new life to others.

This is the sword that divides households. And congregations: That we are called to love Christ more than anything or anyone else, and that that love means taking up our cross and following him, and that following means giving up our own life and enduring our own Good Friday if it will benefit others. This decision, to die in the name of Christ so that others may have life, this decision can set son against father, daughter against mother, friend against friend. The proclamation that we do not exist simply for ourselves––that the purpose of a congregation is not simply to exist, but to exist only insofar as it gives new life to others––this is a sword. It cuts into our hearts; it is the reason we grieve today.

And yet, we know what happens after Good Friday. We know that the story of Christ, and thus our story, does not end with death. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” And, as the letter to the Romans says, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” Life is not our God, which is Good News for us. Because it means that we can hold life loosely, and we need not fear letting go of it. As odd as it sounds, life is not the source of our life. Life does not give us life. God gives us life. We hold tightly to God, not to life. And so we are brought back to the beginning, and the proclamation that God walks with us through all of our suffering and pain and grief, God walks with us through our dying even, all the way to the other side. As God was with Christ on the cross and in the tomb, God is with us. And as God raised Christ from the dead and brought him out of the tomb into new life, God raises us to new life. As we let go of those things that are so precious to us, God places in our empty hands the life of Christ, which endures for ever. As we turn away from life as our God, God becomes more truly our life.

Even this turning away from life in order to walk the path of Christ is God’s own doing. That we are able to lose our life for the sake of Christ is God’s work, and not our own. It is the Holy Spirit working in our hearts, giving us the strength to endure the fear and pain of letting go, filling us with hope that new life is waiting, moving us to worship and give thanks to God for the opportunity to live out our Christian calling and die for others.

And indeed it is God’s own doing that the death of this congregation, of St. John, has brought and will bring new life to so many others: the congregation of Calvary Grace that will grow in this space, the Palestinian seniors who will be cared for at Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem, the residents of the Bethany Care homes who will receive pastoral care and Holy Communion from these communion vessels and be strengthened in their own baptismal journeys at this font, the students on the university campuses who will encounter the unconditional grace and love of Christ through Campus Ministry, all those who will receive life-renewing care and support through the Mustard Seed, and the Women’s Shelter, and all of the various ministries to which St. John has given. I am not listing them to brag, but to help you to see that hundreds, if not thousands, of people will be touched by the new life of Christ made possible through this death. Because you have allowed God to be your life, and not your life to be your God, God will be their life, too.

And so, as we come to this end, we loosen our hold on life and tighten our hold on God. Through our tears, we offer praise and worship to the One who gave us life, and gives it to us and to the world anew. And, for having the opportunity to see today and in the days to come, that though we lose our life for Christ’s sake, we will find it again in the cross and in the promise of resurrection through our Lord Jesus Christ, we say, as we always do, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Pentecost - June 4, 2017 - Water from a Rock

Acts 2:1-21
John 7:37-39

You can’t squeeze water from a rock. Do you know that saying? There are variations on it in several languages, and it’s easy to see why. No matter how hard you try, you will never manage to get a drop of water out of it, and it’s pointless to even try. Have you ever felt that way? Had a day, or a week, or maybe even a month or year, when you just have nothing left to give? It happens in life, that we expend all our energy trying to meet the demands of life––of work and church and family––until there is absolutely nothing left. Yes, even in the church this happens. We give it our all, and then find at the end, that we are done. Finished. Nothing left in the tank. No water left in the rock.

It’s frustrating to feel that way. To feel that you have finally reached your limit, and to see that there is work still to be done. We all want to live meaningful lives, and to contribute, and to make the world a better place. We want to be people who give water to the world, actually. Jesus’ words touch us today because we strongly desire to offer living water to others. We want to help others grow. We want to be there for the people in our lives. We yearn for it, actually. We thirst for it. To see those around us grow––grow up, grow into themselves––because of our presence in their lives, because of our watering, if you will, this is what makes our lives meaningful.

One of the challenges of life, though, is that we often don’t realize this until it seems like it’s too late. It’s usually only at the end that we realize that what makes our lives worth reflecting on, what makes our death bed more comfortable, is that we have helped others in their need. That we have given them water when they were thirsty. But what happens when you look back at your life and with you had done more? When you want to help the thirsty but you have nothing left? No time, no energy. You can’t squeeze water from a rock.
There is a rock hidden in our readings from today. It lies behind the words we hear from Jesus this morning. Our Gospel reading for today takes place during the Feast of Tabernacles, which is a time when the Jews celebrate the harvest, in the fall. They also commemorate the time when they were wandering in the desert, and they were thirsting for water, and God provided them water from a rock. Maybe you remember the story––they complained to Moses that they were dying of thirst, and Moses complained to God, and God told Moses to strike the rock at Horeb, and when he did, water flowed from the rock and the people were saved, which, clearly, was a miracle. So, as part of the festival, the Jews would bring water from the pool of Siloam in a grand procession to the Temple, where they would pour it into a bowl on one side of the altar, and pour wine on the other side, and two channels would carry the water and the wine down to the base of the altar, as a reminder that God provides the people with the most important thing in life––water. Indeed, the Jews believed that when the heavenly Temple came, in the end times, the water flowing from the altar would be so full of life that it would bring dead fish back to life.

So this rock that sends rivers of water at Horeb is behind Jesus’ words that whoever is thirsty should come to him and drink, and that from the believer’s heart will flow living waters. Jesus is saying that he is the rock in the desert which will give people life, and that we, in turn, will become a channel of life for others. Even if we are rocks.

Which brings us to Pentecost. Pentecost in the Christian tradition is about the Holy Spirit coming upon the people. Being “being poured out” on them, to be more precise. And while we often think of fire as the element of the Holy Spirit, the image of water is here, too. The Holy Spirit is poured out, it flows from Christ, onto the believers gathered there, so that they, in turn, can pour it out on the world. 

They will prophesy––which means to tell the truth about God––so that the world might have life. In fact, early on in the Gospel of Luke, the prequel to the book of Acts, we hear exactly what the prophesying is. The priest Zechariah proclaims it, after the birth of his son, John whom we know as the baptist. The prophet of God will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people for the forgiveness of their sins. Those who prophesy will speak and act on the words of God, so that the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, so that the rich are sent away empty and the hungry are filled with good things. The Holy Spirit flows from Christ onto the disciples at Pentecost, and onto all the people gathered there, so that they can speak and live out these words that bring life, that flow like rivers to water a thirsty world.

No matter who they are. This is the radical claim of Pentecost, that the Holy Spirit is poured upon, and then pours from, men and women, old and young, slaves and free. From children to seniors, from those who do not yet understand what it is to live a meaningful life to those who think they are out of time to do so. From little shoots just springing out of the ground to those who feel like fossils––plants that have ossified and turned into rock. 

The claim of Pentecost is that Christ’s living water will flow from all of Christ’s believers, even those who feel they have nothing left to give. Especially those who feel they have nothing left to give. Pentecost is that day when we celebrate that God continues to bring Christ’s new life to the world, even though Jesus no longer walks among us. Pentecost is when we realize that the work of Christ has been given to us, and more importantly, that the life that Christ shared with us has been given to us to share with others. So that they may have life. So that just as people went to Christ in their thirst for love and meaning, and he gave them life-giving water to drink, so we can, too. Pentecost is when we celebrate that though we may be rocks, Christ’s waters flow through us to give life to the world.

This water may be a spring, bubbling quietly from the ground. It may be a steady reliable stream. It may be a rushing river that floods the delta with new soil and then recedes again. The ways in which you share Christ’s life with others may be through quiet prayer on their behalf, or through steady help on a weekly basis, or it may be a flood of giving that brings new life to hundreds and then subsides. But I tell you, on this day of Pentecost, that you are not a rock from which no more water can be squeezed. You are not finished. Your work is not yet complete. Your life is not yet over. 

This is the last time that I will speak to you as just you, the people of St. John. Our final service will have more people than just you, possibly even more guests than members. So I want to take a moment just to tell you how thankful I am to God that you have allowed your hearts to be open to the Holy Spirit in these last few years. I believe that God has called you down this path, and it is never easy to follow where God calls. You have been courageous, and humble, and truly disciples of Christ. From your hearts have flowed rivers of living water, and it has given new life to many, and also to me. Pentecost is not something that happened two thousand years ago. It has been happening here, in this church, over the last few years. God’s Spirit has been poured out upon you, and you have seen visions and dreamed dreams of the possibilities of Christ’s new life for you and for those who are thirsty around you. As you go out from here to new places, just as the disciples went from Jerusalem to the world, the gifts the Holy Spirit has given you will continue to go with you, and God will provide opportunities for you to use them. You will find new life, and more importantly, be new life in the communities you will join. You are needed, each of you, as bearers of Christ’s Holy Spirit, to quench the thirst of the world. You have been and you will be a rock from which flow rivers of the living water of Christ, and so I say, without reservation, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

May 28, 2017 - Easter 7 - Dayenu

Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

“Is it time yet?” “Is it now??” “How many more sleeps?” “How much longer?!?”

I am guessing you could all name a situation in which you’ve heard children wondering (I was going to say whining) about when something is going to happen. 

Now, to be fair, children often ask out loud what adults are thinking in their heads. We can probably all remember times when we have had to sit for what seems like an unbearably long time in one place, waiting for something to happen: Waiting for the gridlock in front of us to clear up, waiting on the tarmac for the crew to resolve mechanical issues so the plane can take off, waiting for a particularly long sermon to wrap up. Then there are the more intense periods of waiting, like waiting for the specialist to call back about test results, waiting for a loved one’s suffering to be over, waiting for our own feelings of grief and loss over something to pass. These are harder, because we don’t know when they’ll be over. We don’t even know when to expect these things to be resolved. We’re waiting, desperately, for the time to come, but we don’t know when that time is, or even what it will look like when it does arrive.

This was the situation the first Christians found themselves in. After Jesus had died, and been resurrected, the first Christians found themselves still waiting. They had been waiting for things to change, even though they didn’t quite know into what, and now they were still unsure. In our reading from Acts, they ask Jesus, “Is this the time?” And in our second reading, from 1 Peter, the recipients of that letter also seem to be wondering: Is this it? Is this the kingdom of God? When will our suffering be over? How much longer? I imagine that the families of the Coptic Christians who were killed on Friday are asking the same questions.

Unfortunately, the answers are not particularly helpful. In response to the disciples’ questions in Acts, Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times.” The writer of 1 Peter responds with, “In due time.” Our Scriptures are frustratingly vague about when all of these things that God has promised will happen. There are references to the time “to come,” and “in that day,” and “in the end times,” but this is like responding to a child who is wondering, “When will it happen?” with the answer, “Soon. It’ll happen soon.” How is that supposed to help?

In our Gospel reading, Jesus complicates the situation even further when he says, “The hour has come.” Now, he’s talking about his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane and his crucifixion. But he’s also talking about “the hour.” The time when God will restore everything, when we will finally be “there,” when we will not have to wait any longer for the world’s suffering to be over. Jesus is saying that that time “has come.” So why do things still look the same? 

The answers continue to be complicated. When the disciples ask him after his resurrection if the time is here now, he says, “It will come. You will receive power.” And in 1 Peter, the writer says, God “will restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” Time is all mixed up. It’s time, it’s not time, it will be time, the time has already come. How are we to understand all of this? More to the point, when we are suffering, because of a deep loss that has happened or a loss that we are expecting to happen, how are we to wait through all of this? We do not doubt that God will fulfill God’s promises, and wipe away every tear from every face, as it says in both Isaiah and the Book of Revelation, but how are we to wait? How are we to understand that the time has already come when we are still suffering? How do we get through this?

Well, it seems to me that there are two different ways to do this. The first comes from our second reading, which says, very clearly, “Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you.” Be steadfast, and resist despair. Get through the waiting by just waiting. God will make all things new. God will bring you through this period of suffering, and God will restore you.

Now, if that works for you, if that alone is enough to sustain you through all your suffering, then you are indeed blessed, and I envy you. Some people have indeed been blessed by the Holy Spirit so that they are able to endure all kinds of suffering, for truly extended periods of time, simply by waiting in hope. I am not one of those people, and I suspect I’m not alone.

So for those who are not able to just wait, God offers another way. It still involves waiting, but there’s more. This second way of waiting has a long tradition in the church, and in the Jewish tradition that precedes us. This second way of waiting is how Jesus waited for his suffering to be over, how Paul and the first disciples waited for their suffering to come to an end. Its effectiveness comes from remembering all of the times in the past when we had to endure suffering, and when God restored us then. It is looking at our history, and identifying those times when God blessed us and brought an end to the waiting of that moment.

In the Jewish celebration of Passover, which Jesus and Paul both celebrated, there is a point, after the story of the deliverance from Egypt has been told, when something called the Dayenu is recited. Dayenu means, “it would have been enough.” And the Passover Dayenu says, among other things, “If God had split the sea for us, and not led us through it on dry land, Dayenu.” It would have been enough. “If God had satisfied our needs in the desert for forty years, and not fed us the manna, Dayenu.” It would have been enough. “If God had fed us the manna, and not given us the Sabbath, Dayenu.” It would have been enough. “If God had given us the Sabbath, and not brought us to Mount Sinai, Dayenu. If God had brought us to Mount Sinai, and not given us the Torah, Dayenu. If God had given us the Torah, and not brought us into Israel, Dayenu.” Dayenu, dayenu, dayenu. It would have enough. In their exodus, even if God had done only that very first thing, it would have been enough. This kind of waiting encourages us to look at what God has already given us, so that even as we mourn what we have lost, we are grateful for what we have been given. 

As St. John comes to a close, many of us wonder how we will endure the suffering that comes with the loss of this congregation. God promises us that our feelings of grief will subside, and that we will one day be restored to one another, but we don’t know when. It is hard to imagine that that time will come. Some of us are able to cast all our anxieties on God and just wait. But for those of us who are not, I offer this Dayenu for St. John, this remembrance of what God has already given:

Had God sent Christ to redeem us, and not given us baptism, Dayenu. It would have been enough.

Had God given us baptism, and not given us Holy Communion to strengthen us, Dayenu.

Had God given us Holy Communion, and not given us the church of every time and every place, Dayenu.

Had God given us the church of every time and every place, and not founded this congregation, Dayenu.

Had God founded this congregation, and not built this building for us, Dayenu.

Had God built this building for us, and not sent singers and musicians to help us worship, Dayenu.

Had God sent singers and musicians to help us worship, and not given us children to nurture in Sunday School, Dayenu.

Had God given us children to nourish in Sunday School, and not enabled us to support organizations like CLWR and the Women’s Shelter, Dayenu.

Had God enabled us to support organizations like CLWR and the Women’s Shelter, and not sent us friends to cherish for so many years, Dayenu.

Had God sent us friends to cherish for so many years, and not brought us to this day, Dayenu. 

The last time my kids were waiting for a big event, they kept asking, “Is it time yet?” And, to their intense frustration, my husband and I just kept answering, “Yup.” In a way, this is how God answers our questions of “Is it time yet?” Yes, it is time. We do not wait for God to restore the things we have lost or to ease our suffering. God has done so and is doing so even now. God has given us Christ, and the Sacraments, and the church, and community. Had God given the people of St. John only one of these things, we would indeed have been given more than enough. Praise and thanksgiving and thanks to our God who has given us all these things and even more, from whom even these last few services together are an overabundance of blessings and gifts from God. It would have been enough, it is enough, it will be enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.

May 14, 2017 - Easter 5 - Praying that God is Seen in Us

John 14:1-14

If you are a parent, no doubt you’ve had that moment when you say something to your children, or react to them in some way, and all of a sudden it’s not you, but your mother who’s somehow speaking through you. In some moment of stress, you channel your parents and at the same time, watch yourself ,thinking, “Oh my goodness, I’ve become my mother!”

On the flip side, if you’re a parent, or a close uncle or aunt, or a regular caregiver of any kind, you may have also noticed the reverse: that there are moments when the children under your care all of a sudden repeat back to you the words that you yourself have said to them. And that is particularly disorienting. Children become mirrors of us. Their words and actions reflect our behaviour to them, and, this can be good or bad. Of course, most of the time, we only notice when they reflect our bad behaviours––impatience or annoyance, but there are the good things, too. Whatever you value, truly value, I mean, is what your children will often value as well, even if they don’t quite realize it.

It really comes down to that phrase we hear, and perhaps say, so often: Do as I say, not as I do. We repeat this phrase so often because, in fact, the reality is the opposite. Children don’t do what their parents say, they do what their parents do.
And this is where our Gospel reading comes in. Because this is essentially what Jesus is saying. He does what his Father does, his deeds reflect God. He says to Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” and says that all of the words he speaks and all of the things he does are not his own doing, but “the Father who dwells in” him. This is why Christians confess that when we see Jesus, we see God. For the same reason that we might look at someone’s child and say, “Oh, I see your mother in you.” Only with Jesus, this reflection, or this embodiment, is so much more intense that we say, in the end, that Jesus is God.
And so, from Jesus, we see that God is compassionate, merciful, forgiving, and wants to see us live in wholeness. Through Jesus, we see that God values justice for the poor, love for one’s enemies, and mending relationships. Through Jesus, we see that God searches out and shines in every darkness, and is willing to die for us. And, in this Easter season, through Jesus we see that God values life over death, and commits everything to that.

But Jesus is not the only one of God’s children. We are, too. And so Jesus’ words apply to us, as well. We also should think of ourselves that whoever sees us has seen God, and that the words we say and the deeds we do are not our own doing, but God who dwells in us. And indeed, Jesus says this, when he says, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” Jesus is saying that we, too, reflect and embody God in our actions. When people see us, they see God.

Which is, frankly, intimidating. But true. When we are public about being Christian, whether that means our neighbours know, or we have some kind of cross bumper sticker, then every action and every word that we do or say is seen as a reflection of God. When we are kind, that is how people think God must be. When we are forgiving, or generous, or gracious, the world sees this as a reflection of the God we worship. Which is as it should be-––children who are gracious and kind reflect the graciousness and kindness of their parents. But when we are cruel, or bossy, or pushy, or intolerant, or hypocritical, or entitled, that is also how people think God must be. It’s not necessarily fair, but that’s the way it is. Children who are bullies or unfair reflect the cruelty of their parents. And when it comes to Christians reflecting God, when we speak words of hate, when we are silent in the face of injustice, when we deny that we have done any wrong, the world sees us, and they think that the God we worship is hateful, does not care about the poor, and is cruel, fickle, and power-hungry. They see our actions, and they think they are seeing God. And we see the results of this, which is people turning away from God. It’s not because they are horrible people, but because, throughout history and even now, we have been horrible people, and those who see us think that means our God must be horrible, too. We may not like to hear it, but this is the truth. Our works and our actions are taken to be reflections of God––good and bad.

So at this point, there are two ways we can go with this. The first is to become despondent and despair because we are bound by the limitations of our human nature and we can’t fully reflect the goodness of God, and as a result, people will never get the truest picture of God. We can accept this, and we can give up.
But the other way, which Luther himself emphasized, is to note that before Jesus tells us that we, too, are reflections of God, he reminds us that he will bring us to God. In other words, Jesus reassures us that our reflections of God, our attempts to do as God does, are not entirely up to us. God is involved. God comes to dwell in us, moving us to greater good. The Holy Spirit comes to be with us, inspiring us every day to be truer reflections of God. And every time we pray in Jesus’ name, as he says, which is to say, any time we pray that our lives would reflect Jesus, and thus God, it is done. If there is one prayer that I am sure thatGod answers, it is the prayer that we become more like Jesus, and that we do as he would do.

And this is our comfort, both as Christians and as parents: that the Spirit of God working in us is more powerful than we, which means that God’s goodness and mercy and love shines brighter our own human failings. Do not let your hearts be troubled: God’s light shines even in the darkness we create, as a church and in our families, and God brings new life to the deaths that we inadvertently cause.

Jesus acted so that we might see God, and we act so that others might see Jesus. And so we ask, in Jesus’ name, that our deeds be such that one day people might look at us and say, “Oh, I see your God in you.” And Jesus will do it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

May 7, 2017 - When the Bible Conflicts

1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

Have you ever watched children, usually siblings, arguing about whether or not they are allowed to do something? “Mommy said I could have an ice cream!” “No, she didn’t, she said you couldn’t have an ice cream!” Each side is fully convinced that they’re right, and that Mommy said what they say she said, and if you’re the babysitter, or the well-intentioned grandparent watching the children who doesn’t want to upset either the grandchildren or Mommy, it can be a bit anxiety-provoking. Each side claims the authority of Mommy, and yet they’re arguing the complete opposite. What is a person to do? (I’m not going to tell you to give them the ice cream.)

More seriously, though, we encounter this same kind of problem in our Scripture readings today, and more generally, in the Bible as a whole. The problem is that the Christian testimonies in our Scriptures sometimes disagree about what God wants us to do, or not do. Today, this disagreement is about what to do in the face of undeserved suffering. Our second reading, the first letter attributed to Peter, says that when you are suffering, you should just put up with it, not try to fight it or resist it or escape it, and God will approve. The other reading, our Gospel reading, says that Jesus looks harshly on the thieves and bandits that try to steal the sheep and destroy them and kill them. Jesus says that the sheep should follow only him, and not the one who would abuse them. So here we have two very different passages, one saying to submit to undeserved suffering, which really means abuse, either personal or societal, and the other saying to escape it and follow Christ. The first says that God approves of us suffering, and the second says that God sends Christ to protect us from it. The first has been used by certain people in certain situations to keep victims from leaving their abusers, while the second condemns the ones inflicting the abuse.

The conflict between these two passages highlights something bigger than just the specific issue of abuse, though. The Bible, when taken in its entirety, contains deep conflict within it, and certain passages lend themselves to interpretations that create division. The Bible enables us to create lines of us versus them, or me versus you, or even our God versus their God. And we can’t just ignore it, or decide we’re done with this whole Bible thing and abandon it. Some people do, and I’m not here to bash them, because they are trying to act with integrity in the best way that they can. But we are here because we believe that the Bible is God’s word to us. We believe that it is the witness of individuals who have been touched by the presence of God. In its entirety. And so we have to take this conflict seriously, and we have to wrestle with it. And we have to accept that there may not be any easy or simple resolution.

Which is not nearly as funny as whether or not the kids get ice cream. When we encounter passages from the Bible that conflict with one another, we become anxious, and uncertain, and overwhelmed. We see what looks like two mutually-exclusive positions, and people claiming to be on one side or the other, and, more importantly, claiming that God is with their side and not with the other, and we, or at least I, wonder if that means that there is a possibility that God is on the other side, and not on mine. I think is actually what makes us uncomfortable and anxious when we see conflict in the Bible, or even in the church. It’s the thought that maybe God is not on my side. That if God is on the side of those who interpret the Bible differently than me, then God can’t be on my side, too. That if God loves them, then God can’t love me. And, of course, given the choice, I would rather God love me than them, and be on my side rather than theirs, but I don’t know for certain which side God is on.

In the midst of this uncertainty and anxiety over conflict in the Bible, we hear Jesus’ words to us in the Gospel reading, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Abundantly. In the Greek, that word translates to ‘over and above,’ ‘more,’ ‘great,’ ‘excessively.’ Jesus is saying that he comes to give us abundant liv\fe, over and above what we need, excessive in its giving, generous, so much more than we could use. So much life that it overflows our capacity for it, like a river overflowing its banks and spreading all over the fields to water them. So much life that it bursts out of the tomb, and knocks the stone down on its way out to us.

Really, the life Jesus has for God’s children is so abundant that it is available to all. When Jesus says that he has come that “they” may have life, we know he means the sheep. All the sheep. But might he not also mean the thieves and bandits, too? Are “they” not also in need of life? Moreso than the rest of us, one might even argue. Jesus is the Son of God, truly human and truly divine, surely Jesus has more than enough life for all of God’s sheep, and enough for those who would harm the sheep. He shared his body and blood with Judas, he asked God to forgive those who were crucifying him, he blessed Peter who had abandoned him. He died knowing that his death would provide redemption for even the most sinful. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Because the God whom we worship, and who raised Jesus, and who grants us Easter life, is so much deeper than we can imagine, and capable of encompassing conflicting sides in ways we can’t even understand. In God’s eyes, there is no us and them, no you and me, only God’s beloved children. We may not be able to understand how God inspired opposing Biblical passages, but maybe we can understand how God’s love for those who wrote those passages inspired them to write what they believed God wanted. And surely we can understand that Jesus came to bring those writers life, in all its abundance. And if we can understand that, then maybe we can come even some of the way to understanding that in this life, here and now, God loves those who have completely different beliefs about what God wants us to do in this life. God loves “them.” And us. Sheep and sheep thieves. Together. 

This claim that God’s acceptance and love of God for God’s children is so abundant that everyone is included is even more radical than what either “side” would claim for themselves about God. It is a challenge to accept, certainly. It is really difficult to hear that Jesus has come to give abundant life to those who perpetrate suffering on the innocent, and that they, too, are among his flock. At times, I admit that it seems insurmountable. But, on the other hand, in those times when I find myself on the wrong side, when it turns out that something I have done has caused suffering, I am so grateful to be included among God’s sheep, to receive that abundant life that turns my own around. What is Good News of forgiveness and God’s love for them is Good News for the rest of us, too. 

For the last two thousand years, Christians have been arguing about whether or not Mommy said Yes to the ice cream or No. And the arguments have more often than not escalated to each side screaming at the other, “Mommy loves me, and she doesn’t love you!” But Mommy always has and always will love all her children. Jesus came so that all may have life, and have it abundantly. Easter resurrection is for all of God’s Creation, and it is even better than ice cream. Thanks be to God. Amen.

April 30, 2017 - Compassion Shows us Christ

Luke 23:13-35

It’s easy to forget that for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, this was still only three days after Jesus had been crucified. They were still blinded by their grief; they had heard rumours of some kind of resurrection but didn’t know what it meant or what it looked like. They weren’t in a place where they could hear the Good News Jesus was trying to tell them, even though they desperately needed to hear it. We might think, “Oh, those foolish disciples, never understanding anything,” but who hasn’t been in a position like theirs? Our psalm for today echoes their need, “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” Who hasn’t been in a place of needing to hear the Good News, but not being able to hear it, or trust it? As good as resurrection sounds, it is too crazy to believe in, it makes no sense to our logical minds, and so it becomes harder to see and to experience.

Yet the story of Emmaus attracts us not because the disciples couldn’t see the resurrection, but because, in the end, they could. They did actually see the risen Christ, despite their doubt of the women’s story. So what changed? How did they move from blinding doubt to seeing and being moved by resurrection?
Well, the traditional interpretation of this story says that they recognized Jesus because he shared communion with them. That’s what it means when the Gospel says, “when he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” This is a reference to Holy Communion, and it is meant to reassure Christians who came after the disciples that we see Christ in Holy Communion, and that we experience resurrection and new life every time we receive his body and blood in the bread and wine. 

And we do experience this. There is something about Holy Communion that touches us deeply, in ways that we can’t explain logically or rationally. It gives us a strength and a comfort and a renewal of spirit that makes no sense to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Talking about the experience of taking Communion with someone who has never done it is like the women telling the rest of the disciples that they have seen the risen Christ. The explanation of new life is never as compelling as the experience of it. And yet it is there for us, in the bread, broken and blessed and shared.

Today, though, I want to draw our attention to something that happens before Jesus breaks bread with the disciples. And that is the verse that says that as Jesus was going to walk on ahead of them after they reached Emmaus, the disciples “urged him strongly” to stay with them. As they recollected later on, their hearts were burning within them, and so they were moved to invite him to stay. Something in their experience of being with this person was so deeply affecting that they invited him, strongly, to be with them so that they could continue this experience. 

Now, we could say that they were extending the famous Middle-East hospitality, but the writer of the Gospel is very clear in saying that this feeling that they had was more compelling than the usual custom. They felt “strongly,” with the hearts “burning” within them, and so they invited Jesus in. There is no rational or logical explanation for what they did, they didn’t even have any reasonable explanations for each other afterwards. And yet it is specifically mentioned in this particular story. So what is going on here, and why does the writer of Luke bring it up?

Well, what I want to suggest this morning is that the disciples on the road to Emmaus were moved by compassion for this stranger and that their decision to allow themselves to act on that compassion was one of the reasons they eventually recognized and experienced the resurrected Christ.
You see, it is not logic or good arguments, or even Jesus’ explanation of God’s shaping of the history of Israel that opened their eyes to seeing the resurrection. Rather, it was compassion. Their compassion for the stranger in inviting him in and sharing what they had with them and then Jesus’ compassion for them in sharing himself with them. The disciples’ compassion, not their reasoning or their logic, is what opened to them the opportunity for Christ to reveal himself to them and moved them from the distress and anguish of Good Friday to the hope and goodness of resurrection.

There is a famous story about Mr. Rogers, of the children’s TV show, and his response to seeing disaster. Mr. Rogers actually was a Presbyterian minister and he was friends with Mr. Dress-up. Anyway, Mr. Rogers shared that when he was a child, he would see scary things on the news, and his mother would say to him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” His mother helped him to see the Good News in the world, to see the power of life instead of death, by pointing him towards those who were moved by compassion to help the stranger.

But I think that what the story of Emmaus is telling us today is not just to look for those helpers, but to be those helpers. To be the ones moved by compassion, to be the ones whose hearts are burning within us, so that we might be the hands of Christ’s resurrection in this world, and so that our presence might help others to experience Christ. When someone on the street asks you for change, and that little voice in your head says, “Oh, they’re just going to waste it on alcohol or drugs,” or “If I give them money I’m just going to encourage that kind of behaviour,” listen to your heart instead. What does your heart say before the rational logic of your brain silences it? Allow yourself to be moved by compassion, just as the disciples were.

Because it is in compassion and giving of our time and all that we have, as the disciples did, that Christ reveals himself to us. The disciples could have reasonably reacted to the person walking with them by letting him go on his way, down the road, where he would surely have found somewhere to stay. Nobody would have blamed them. And I am sure that Christ would not have insisted on coming in. But they allowed their hearts to move them, and as a result, their eyes were opened and they recognized the resurrected Christ. They experienced the fullness of Easter Sunday. They saw and felt the Good News. The same experience is available to us. Jesus said, in the Gospel of Matthew, that when we feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and visit the sick - basically, when we have compassion for those who are in need - that we are doing it for Jesus himself. When we give new life to those around us, we are giving new life to Jesus, who in turns gives back to us the Good News of resurrection and new life of our own. Who shares himself with us.

Now all of this defies logical explanation. There is no reason it should be that way, nor even any measurable scientific proof that it happens. But when it does, and it does, our hearts burn within us, and we are moved, because we experience the new life that Christ shares with us so abundantly. We find ourselves, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, blessed with the presence of the risen Christ, lifted from death to Easter life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Sunday 2017 - The Life We See After Death

Matthew 28:1-10

Out of all the people in Jesus’ life, it was the women who got to see the risen Christ first. Not Peter, who surely must have been immersed in guilt over his denial of Jesus two days before. Not Andrew, or Zebedee’s sons, James and John, the first disciples to be called by Jesus, who “immediately left the boat and their father, and followed him.” Not Matthew, the tax collector, whom the Gospel is named after. Not any of those whom Jesus had healed. Not any of the twelve, who were given the power of God to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Out of all of the people who had followed Jesus as he travelled throughout Galilee and healed the sick and proclaimed God’s forgiveness and love, it was two women, virtually unknown until this point in the story, who saw the risen Christ first.

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph were the first to see that the dark tomb was empty. They were the first to see the angel of light and hear the words, “He is not here; for he has been raised.” They were the first to be met by Jesus, (whose first word to them was the very anti-climactic, “Greetings!” Imagine, being greeted by someone you thought was dead and they say, “Hey!”) Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were the first to experience the “great joy” that came from seeing that the darkness did not overcome the light, that death did not have the last word, that the God of life and light and creation prevails over all things!

What a privilege, to be the first to witness Easter! It’s no wonder they fell down before him, and grabbed his feet so as to prevent him from leaving them, and worshipped. The awe and the joy! Their minds wiped clean of any lingering doubts, their hearts rescued from despair and lifted and filled with love and rejoicing! God brings new life!

But let’s not forget that these women were also the ones to see Jesus die. Out of all the people who followed Jesus, they were the ones who kept watch and saw his last breath. What strength that must have taken. And they stayed, as his body was taken down from the cross and put in the dark tomb. They stayed, in that place of darkness, when everyone else had fled. The joy and celebration they experienced at Jesus’ resurrection cannot be separated from the deep pain and grief they felt at his death.

Easter cannot be separated from Good Friday. Resurrection to new life cannot be separated from death. A few days ago, in the car, my kids asked the classic question, “Why is it called Good Friday? What was so good about it?” What is good about death? Even if it is done for the sake of others? We ask ourselves the same question, but the answer is simple: There is no glorious resurrection from the dead without death. Easter cannot be separated from Good Friday.

But maybe that’s why the women were the first to witness Easter––because they were the ones who had witnessed Jesus’ death. Their need to see him alive was the deepest. Their sacrifice was the greatest––because let’s not kid ourselves, it is a sacrifice of the self to sit beside a loved one who is dying and watch them go. And so maybe that’s why they were the first to experience the resurrection of Jesus, and, in a way, the resurrection of themselves, to a new life of hope and the finality of death. Maybe, because they were willing to sit through the darkness, God granted that they were the first ones to see that the light was not overcome.

There is no such thing as an Easter resurrection without Good Friday. There is no way for us to truly celebrate this day without also carrying the experience of death. Even here, as we celebrate and sing our hearts out with these glorious Easter hymns, as we smile and laugh and enjoy one another’s presence, as we take pride in our Easter clothes, it must be acknowledged that this is our last Easter as the congregation of St. John in this place. And the choice is before us: will we be like the disciples who fled, like Peter who denied Jesus, like the crowd who just walked away back to their regular lives? Or will we be like the women, who stayed and kept watch, and then were the first to see the resurrection?

Because inasmuch as this is our last Easter here, our death is the beginning of new life! Rather than hiding here in this building, using money from the sale of the building to keep going, so that we can continue to gather, dragging out our own inevitable end, we are going to take that more-than-a-million dollars and give it away. No matter where that money goes, it will bring new life to so many more people than are gathered here today. As we have followed Christ to our own death for the sake of others, those others will experience the resurrection life that Christ brings, and God privileges us, like the women, with being a part of that. This last of St John’s Easter Sunday service becomes the first of St. John’s true Easter life. Because we are willing to sit and endure the darkness of the tomb, the light of Christ will blaze forth in many more Easters to come! 

Our joy in Easter does not mean we must deny the presence of death in the world, and this year there seem to be so many ways in which we feel that presence. Our joy in Easter comes because we know that life returns. Every year there is a Good Friday, but every year there is also an Easter Sunday. Inasmuch as we say that there can be no Easter without Good Friday, the reverse is also just as true––there can be no Good Friday without Easter! This is the source of our joy––that the truest, deepest, most lasting presence is that of the God of Easter life!

Easter is, if I might borrow from Leonard Cohen, a broken hallelujah, but that is what makes it so profound. As we see new life, we carry with us death. BUT as we see death, we carry with us new life. Easter tells us that God has ordained that new life that has the last word. The world may be broken, but hallelujah is the last word. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, and will not, overcome it. The dark tomb is emptied. The resurrection blazes forth. Christ lives, and therefore so will we. Christ is risen! Thanks be to God, Amen!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Maundy Thursday 2017 - The Last Last Supper

What shall we say tonight, when we remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, in the awareness that this is our own last “Last Supper” as the congregation of St. John?

There are many resonances between this most important of Christian stories and our own, which is perhaps as it should be when we define ourselves as ones who follow Christ. The feelings we have in our own situation are amplified by the feelings evoked by the events of that night so long ago. In return, the lessons of Maundy Thursday are more deeply felt.

First, in recollecting this Last Supper, there is a feeling of betrayal. The disciples felt betrayed by Judas––he was one of them, he journeyed with them, ate with them, saw Jesus’ miracles with them. Up to that point, he was a disciple as surely as the rest of them. But, for some reason, he betrayed Jesus, and by extension, everyone else. Why couldn’t he hang in there with them? Why did he have to take it upon himself to end this entire movement? If he had been silent, the disciples would still have Jesus with them.

This feeling of betrayal exists when a church closes, too. Where is everyone else? Why didn’t they stick with us? How can this end while I’m still here? We may accuse someone, or a group of people, of betraying the ideals of the church and leading it to its demise, forgetting that, at least in the story of Jesus and his disciples, this betrayal brought them all to Easter resurrection.

There is also the feeling of denial. Peter’s “Not I, Lord,” is a denial that he would, in any way, participate in the abandonment of Jesus. He could not believe that he himself would leave Jesus. And yet we know he did. The disciples themselves seem to have been in denial that Jesus would die. True, no journey lasts forever––everyone knows that––but there is no sign that they accept that this is truly the last supper they will have with him. Like all of us, when faced with the death of someone we love, we cannot quite comprehend that it is happening now. We know that we will all die–all things come to an end––but now? It can’t possibly be now. One day, of course, but not today.

And there is, of course, the feeling of confusion. Peter doesn’t understand why Jesus is serving them by washing their feet. Later on, Thomas says he doesn’t understand where Jesus is going or how they are to follow him, and Philip asks for further proof that Jesus is from the Father because he just can’t quite believe any of it. They hear Jesus say that he is going to die, and they hear him say that his death will be a revelation of the glory of God, and they hear him say that will be raised again, but none of it makes any sense. How can death reveal God’s glory? How can death lead to new life? How can this be God’s plan? How can anybody be expected to go along with all of this dying business?

The Gospel of John opens with the words, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And yet to the disciples, it must have felt as if the dark was creeping in from all sides. Judas, the religious leaders intent on holding on to their power, the Roman occupiers who would have peace at all costs––all of this darkness was threatening to extinguish their light––to extinguish Jesus.

And in the middle of all of this, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” This was his mandate––the “maundy” in Maundy Thursday comes from the latin word mandatum - mandate––that those who follow Jesus would love one another. In the midst of this ending, with its feelings of betrayal, denial, confusion, overwhelming darkness, Jesus commands his followers to “love.” To love the betrayer, to love the one who denied Jesus, to love those who have somehow allowed the darkness in. And, so, to show them that it was possible, Jesus did it first. He loved them. All of them. The betrayer, the denier, the corrupt clergy, even the soldiers of the political empire. His entire ministry was built on serving them, healing them and washing their feet, and he fed them, with his very life, and, at the end, he forgave them.

This love is too much. Of course we will do it––there’s no question of that. We will follow Jesus’ mandate to love. Or at least, we will try. We will try to love the betrayers. We will try to love the deniers. We will try to love those who usher in the dark. We will try to love those who bring death, and have brought about this “last” moment.

I cannot tell you how we will do it, though. I do not know how. There is no magical formula for making this kind of love appear. It helps that we know how this night will end, in the blaze of light that will shine forth on Easter morning, but I could not tell you how the disciples did it. And I cannot tell you how we do it now, when this story is made real in our time, when we cannot yet see the Easter of our own lives. That is, though, one of the mysteries of this night and of tomorrow: that God enables us to do as Jesus mandates––that God filled Jesus with such love for us that somehow it spills over into us, so that we might love one another with the love of Jesus, even as we end. Like all of God’s mysteries, to try to put it into simple words is impossible. We must let it be what it is. We must let God do what God does.

Darkness is falling. We stumble forward into tomorrow blindly. This is our Last Supper. At the end of this service, the sanctuary and the table will be stripped bare, like our hearts, like our Lord. And yet, even with all of these feelings, amplified in the darkness, you are here. I am here. And, most importantly––perhaps the only important thing at all––the love of Jesus is here. For the world. For you. Forever.