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.

Palm Sunday 2017 - Looking to the Interests of Others

Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 27:11-54

When we think about this coming week as a whole - Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday - the verse that seems to stand out above all, that represents everything that has happened and that we will remember and do our best to follow, is the one from Paul in the letter to the Philippians, “In humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, with the crowds lauding him and waving palms - welcoming him as a conquering hero, really - he remained humble. He did not seize power, like the Romans had done when they came in. He rode in on a donkey. A donkey! That’s hardly very king-like. Most kings don’t ride in on donkeys, they ride in on horses, or in chariots, or carried in a litter. Kings come in with trumpets and peacock-feather fans waving before them, not branches cut from the nearby trees. Kings have flowers cast on the road before them - our modern-day red carpets - not other people’s coats. But not Jesus. 

And throughout that week, he continued to be humble. He was given several opportunities to proclaim that he was anointed and sent by God, that he was indeed the Son of God, and he didn’t. He could have elevated himself, he could have claimed all things, he could have stood before the people of Jerusalem as the true ruler of the world, but he didn’t. Instead, in the time between riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and being taken before Pilate, he tells the people to give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, he refuses to claim that he has the authority of God, he condemns the elite for their hypocrisy and using their power for their own benefit, he shares a last meal with the one he knows is going to betray him, and, in the garden of Gethsemane, he voluntarily gives up his power and submits to the arrest that will lead to his death, and even rebukes the disciples who draws out a sword to defend him.

And finally we come to his trial before Pilate, who asks him, are you the King of the Jews? And Jesus does not claim that he is, nor make any attempt to defend his actions or exonerate himself. When he is crucified with two thieves, he makes no objection to being in their company, even though they, too, make fun of him. And he dies for them.

“In humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

So how do we follow this today? It’s tricky, because generally speaking, we tend to think we already do this. At least, we like to think of ourselves as people who do this. We like to think of ourselves as humble, and we like to think of ourselves as putting others first. But do we really? Do we really do it to the extent that Jesus did? 

I would hazard a guess and say that we don’t, not as a society, and not as individuals. As white Canadians who have lived here for years and years and years, we think we are better than those who have only recently showed up and expect access to the same health care and unemployment and retirement benefits as we do. As Christians, we certainly think of ourselves as better, religiously speaking, than those who aren’t Christian. We consider ourselves to be living better lives than those who have never gone to church.

As individuals, we don’t follow Jesus like we should. When we vote, we think about what’s good for us, not about what’s good for minorities, or those who have been historically oppressed in this country, like First Nations peoples. When we buy a car, we buy one that suits our needs and that we can afford, rather than one that is good for the environment and for the air that others breathe. When we buy electronics or clothes, we buy the things that suit us best and that make our wallet happy. We don’t make our choices based on what is good for the labourer in China or India who makes these products under appalling working conditions.
And we make our excuses for that. It’s not practical. It’s not realistic. It’s expecting too much for us to live like Jesus did, and die like he did. He was the Son of God, and we’re just mere humans.

But it’s not humanly impossible. It is not true to say that only Jesus was able to sacrifice to that extent. Throughout history, there have been individuals who have given their lives, metaphorically and, more importantly, literally, for the interests of others. Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance. He knew that continuing on the path of demanding equal rights for blacks would kill him - he had already received several death threats before he was assassinated. He had a wife and children whom he loved, he pastored a church that he loved deeply. But he knew that his message and his work - that God loves all of God’s children equally and that God demands we treat one another that way - was for the better and greater good. And so he continued, putting aside his own interests. And he died as a result.

And there’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who is commemorated today in the church calendar, as a saint of the church. He grew up in a privileged, well-to-do family, he had a teaching position in the States, he did not need to move back to Germany and engage in the resistance against Hitler. But he did. He put the interests of others above his own. He considered the lives of others to worth more than his own. And he, too, died as a result.

And so we are stuck in this position, of being told to regard others as better than ourselves, and being told to put others interests above our own, and of seeing both the Son of God and mere humans manage to do it, and somehow we find ourselves making excuses. Rationalizing and justifying our decisions to protect ourselves even though we know it is the wrong decision.

I know that my house is on Treaty 7 land and should be returned to the Treaty 7 peoples, and yet I can give you many reasons that I haven’t done so. My kids need somewhere to live, I paid for the house, if we all gave Treaty 7 land back the city would be in ruins and lives would be destroyed, and I’m sure you can even come up with reasons of your own to justify my lack of action.
For the first time in my life, we actually have some money in our savings account. And I know that we should be giving that money away - to the Red Cross, to Syrian refugees, to all of these amazing groups that are on the list that St. John will be giving money to. But, we need that money in case of an emergency. My kids will need that money for university. I already give 10% of my income to charity. The excuses go on. I am able, with all kinds of logic and solid reasoning, to find ways to put my interests before the interests of others. And I’m sure you all would find ways to excuse me, too.

But there is no excuse. Not for any of us. We are just like the crowds on Palm Sunday who praised Jesus and then so quickly turned on him. They welcomed him because they thought he was coming to reestablish the throne of David and overturn the Roman occupiers - they thought he would make their lives better. And when he didn’t, they chose themselves over him. They distanced themselves from him. “Crucify him,” which really meant, Crucify him, not us. Punish him, not us. Take his life, not ours. And this is what we do. Jesus himself said that he is the one who is hungry, the one who is thirsty, the one who is sick, the one who is a stranger, the one who is in jail. And “Just as you did not do it for the least of these, you did not do it for me.” Just as we do not consider the least of these better than ourselves, we do not consider Jesus better than ourselves. 

So what are we to do? This day that began in joy and parades has turned into one of gilt and condemnation. And it will get worse, because this week will progress to the betrayal of Jesus and to his death - our betrayal of Jesus and us nailing him to the cross. But, if we hang in there, and I know we can because we’ve done it before, we will arrive at Easter. We will arrive at forgiveness and resurrection and new life. But let’s not rush it, to get it over with. Let us, instead, take our time to walk this road with Jesus, to put his story above our own, to regard his suffering as more important than our own discomfort. Because Jesus himself did not look to his own interests, but to the interests of others, and that has made all the difference. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Lent 5 - March 26, 2017

One of the complaints people have about Council meetings is the way the meetings tend to spend more time on finances than on anything else. If you’ve ever been to a Council meeting, or even an annual meeting, which runs very much the same, you’ll notice that if you were to compare the amount of time spent talking about the theological or biblical or faith reasons for making a decision to the financial reasons for making a decision, like starting a new program, or cutting down on spending in some area, the time spent talking about whether or not the church can afford it would take up the most amount of time by far. Which is frustrating, when you consider that the whole point of a church is to follow Christ, who talks about sharing the Gospel, and comforting the afflicted, and fighting for justice for the oppressed. Church meetings, synod conference, national church-wide assemblies––all of these gatherings tend to make decisions based on the amount of money that’s available, and not on following Christ.
And, typically, these meetings all end with people walking away feeling kind of depressed because there’s never enough money. Often, there’s barely enough money just to keep going, and once we’ve allocated that money for our survival, there’s not really anything left for anything else - none for the afflicted or the oppressed. And deep in our hearts, we all know that this isn’t right, but we don’t see any other option. We have to keep going, and yet that doesn’t leave us feeling very good.

I bring this up because of something I’ve noticed here at St. John in the last month. It particularly hit me at our last Council meeting, two weeks ago. Now, Council meetings here have been difficult for the last few years. Don’t get me wrong - this is a great Council, and I am impressed that Council meetings are focused and people listen to one another, and everybody is on task. But they have also been sad and stressful as those on Council have been struggling with what to do about the dwindling finances, and the lack of people to help out or take part in activities, and the number of funerals we are having, and the burden of taking care of the building. Council is deeply committed to this congregation, but every time we had to talk about money, I would see everyone’s face fall, and everyone would take a big breath, and we’d hear how much money we had to spend, and how much less money came in.

Until the most recent meeting. Instead, when we were told that giving is down, everyone kind of shrugged, and went, “Yup,” and we went on to the next thing. Everyone was relaxed, and the little worry lines that everyone has had were gone. And I didn’t even quite realize it at the time until I got home, and Josh asked me how the meeting went, and I stopped and realized that we had left the meeting feeling refreshed. We even laughed at that Council meeting, and I don’t mean to say that Council is full of very serious people who can’t take a joke, but honestly there hasn’t been much to laugh about in the last year. But there was laughter at this last meeting.

And when I brought this up at the latest pastors’ meeting (all the Lutheran pastors in Calgary try to get together once a month), and mentioned how amazing it is to be at a Council meeting where we aren’t worrying about money, and how relaxed everyone was, Pastor Margaret, who was here two Sundays ago, said, “Oh! Yes, I noticed that when I was at your church! Everyone was so relaxed they were almost giddy!”

So there is something going on here. There is a noticeable absence of stress. There is, in its place, something I would describe as joy. It’s a bit odd, because you would think that we would all be feeling grief and loss. And we are, to be sure. We are all in a period of mourning, some just a little and others more intense. But there is also a joy here. In meetings, in worship, in the day-to-day activities that happen here throughout the week, as Calvary Grace takes on the responsibilities and the excitement of owning the building, and as we began the process of figuring out where to give money. At the last meeting we had of the disbursement committee, when we realized what it would look like to give money to the various organizations that you chose, it was so exciting to realize that we could help! St. John is in a position it has never been in before, where instead of having to decide whether or not we can help those who come to us, and figuring out how to help, we can just help. There is a feeling of rejoicing over this that I’m not sure has been felt here in decades.

Why is this? Where is this new joy and new peace coming from? We have decided to close, to die really, and there is a lot of sadness over that, so how is it that we are now experiencing also this joy?

In our reading from Romans today, Paul says, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” And then he says, “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. ... If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

It’s interesting what Paul says in that last verse––that God will give life to our mortal bodies through the Holy Spirit. We often think that the new life that is awaiting us will come in the next life, not this one. Like Mary in our Gospel story, we know that the Messiah will give us new life on the last day. We know that when we are dry bones in the valley, like in Ezekiel’s vision, that God will bring us back to life. But Paul is saying that this new life happens now. And Jesus tells Mary that she doesn’t have to wait for the last day, that he is the resurrection and the life now. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

This is what we are experiencing right now, here. Back in January, this congregation was faced with a choice: to keep struggling to live, which would have used up all of our resources on ourselves and nothing else, or to choose death in Christ, which would allow us to focus our time and our money and ourselves on others. And you all, in a profound act of trust in God, chose death in Christ. And I said at the time, and I say it again, that was a holy moment. That was the Holy Spirit working within you, and you all letting the Holy Spirit work.
You stopped striving for the “fleshly” life that Paul condemns, which means that you stopped trying to simply exist, you stopped focusing on material or worldly signs of success, you stopped trying to delay the inevitable simply for your own sake. Instead, you chose to die so that Christ might work new life. You chose to live (which means accepting the reality of death) instead of simply existing. You chose spiritual depth and the Christian marker of success, which is to follow where Christ leads, even to the cross. You chose to accept your own mortality and to accept death, so that others, not even yourselves, would experience the new life that would arise. The Spirit of Christ, which has been with each one of you since the day of your baptism, gave you the strength to set your mind not on the flesh, the physical continuation of this congregation, but on the spirit.
And the result has been life and peace, as Paul said it would be. The result has been that even though we are sad about this death, we are also experiencing new life and joy and peace now, not just on the last day. As I said, there will continue to be sadness, but in the remaining months and weeks, there will also be more joy and more life, as we choose who to give money to, and how to bless others with our death.

This Sunday is the last Sunday in Lent, but here at church we have been walking through Lent for the past year. And just as we know in Lent that we are moving towards Easter, and indeed that Easter has already happened, the same is true for this congregation. What we are going through now we see through the lens of the resurrection of Christ. We will die, but it will be an Easter death, just as Christ experienced. And that means it will end in resurrection and new life. Not in a way we will necessarily recognize, but it will happen nonetheless. Like Ezekiel, like Mary and Martha, like Paul, we see small glimpses of it in the here and now, in joy and peace and relief, and one day we will see it fully. Easter is coming. New life in Christ is coming, and is already here. Thanks be to God. Amen.