Sunday, March 18, 2018

Lent 5 - To See Jesus in Death

John 12:20-33

I imagine that the Greeks who came to Jesus’ disciple, Philip, and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” were somewhat baffled by Jesus’ response to them. They had heard of all his miracles, and his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem would have been the talk of the city, and his raising of Lazarus from death was a undeniable display of God’s power, and so they wanted to see Jesus for themselves. Who was this person whom God was working through, who seemed to be a channel for the glory of God? Would Jesus perform some of these miracles for them? Would they get a chance to see God’s glory firsthand? They were clearly already awed, and didn’t dare address Jesus directly, yet they wanted to see him.

And Jesus’ response was, as I said, baffling. In essence, Jesus responded by saying, “If you want to see how glorious God is, and how glorified God will make me, if you want to see the power of God over life and death, if you want to be with me and follow me to God... you need to watch me die. No more miracles, no more healings, no more water into wine, no more making the crippled walk, no more feeding the five thousand or walking on water, no more raising the dead. Just death itself. That is the final act of power, the final show of glory. You want to see what God is like? See me die.” Jesus completely rejected any expectations that God’s glory would ultimately be shown in acts of triumph and victory. 

But we shouldn’t be too hard on those Greeks, because we do the same thing. We don’t necessarily look for miracles of water turning into wine, but we do equate success and power and victory with God’s glory. We say we are “blessed” when church membership grows or church giving exceeds the budget. We say, “God sure is with us,” when we pay off a church mortgage, or see the Sunday school outgrowing its capacity, or when visitors to church come more than one week in a row. We like to go to churches that are filled with people on Sunday morning, where it looks like a lot is going on, and the church is thriving. We seek out these places because we expect that we will see and experience God’s glory and Christ’s presence in these lively encounters. We look to these things because we, too, wish to see Jesus.

But this morning I want to share with you a story of when I saw Jesus, and experienced the glory of God, exactly where Jesus said we would––in the humiliation of death. It’s the story of St. John, the Lutheran congregation here in Calgary that closed nine months ago. And I admit that I debated with myself whether to talk about this, because it’s considered bad form to talk about a congregation one has served previously, kind of like talking about a former girlfriend or boyfriend when dating someone new, but I do believe that this story shows us that Jesus is truly seen in those who fall into the earth and die, and that God’s glory is experienced among those who lose their life for others.

So. St. John was, during its heyday, a congregation that we lift up as the epitome of what a church should look like. Sunday mornings, the worship space that holds 300 was packed without any empty seats, for multiple services. The Sunday school, also with hundreds of children, was overflowing. People walked to church, it was a significant presence in the community, there were programs every night, several choirs, and confirmation classes graduated at least 50 students a year. Easter Sunday was everything Easter should be - full of glory - choirs and packed seats and everyone in their absolute Sunday best. When the congregation sang the Easter hymn, the voices fairly lifted the roof right off the building and you could almost touch heaven. The glory of God, the presence of Christ, were there - impossible to miss.

Decades later, that glory had faded. By 2014, the hundreds had reduced to tens, the Sunday school had evaporated, along with the confirmation class. There were no evening programs, no neighbourhood presence, 40 people on a Sunday morning was a good turn-out, and the budget wasn’t being met. To the outside eye, it was clear that this was a church that was dying.

And it was. St. John was dying. The once great church had come to the end of its life. There really was no more energy to start new programs or to engage with the community. There truly was no more money to keep going. After more than 115 years, it was all coming to an end.

It was an awful time, to be honest. Nobody likes to think that they’re dying, least of all a congregation. The people of St. John felt ashamed, they felt that they had somehow failed but didn’t even know how, they certainly wondered where God was in the midst of all this. Sunday mornings were subdued, Council meetings were a chore, annual meetings were depressing. It was a time when it was very, very difficult to see the presence of Christ. They could see where Jesus had been with them in the past, but they couldn’t see where Jesus was with them in this.

But then a ray of hope began to shine. No, they weren’t gifted with a million dollars in someone’s will. Nor were they blessed with a pastor with a fool-proof outreach plan that drew in visitors by the hundreds. There were no miracles. There were no resurrections from the dead. Instead, there was the simple acknowledgement that all things die. This was the ray of hope - that all things die. It is part of the order of our world that nothing created by God lives forever. (It is, incidentally, the reason that in the Nicene Creed we say that the Son of God is begotten, not made. Nothing made lives forever, but the Son of God does, therefore he can’t be made, only begotten.) Humans die. Animals die. Relationships die. Congregations die. Even denominations die. Certainly something or someone may die before we are ready for it, and that death may come in ways far more painful than we would wish for, but, in the end, death comes to all. At St. John, their death was not a sign of failure, it was not a sign of God’s absence, it was not a punishment. It was, in its own way, as natural as life. As natural as seeds dropping from plants in the fall, right before the plant itself dies. 

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This was the hope, that in their own natural death, the people of St. John might bear glorious witness to Christ. And so they began asking, How might others, and particularly the church-at-large, receive new life from St John’s death?

It was in this acceptance of death and the questions that arose that the glory of God began to shine, and the presence of Jesus was so powerfully felt. Moved by the Holy Spirit to trust in God’s promise of life after death, the people of St. John made two momentous decisions. The first was to sell their building. Under their care, the building itself was dying. It needed major repairs, and even the minor repairs, like changing lightbulbs, were beyond their capacity. So they decided to sell it. Not for the most money they could get, which would have meant selling to a developer for upwards of $2.5 million. Instead, they decided to sell to another congregation. To a congregation that could in no way afford to buy or build a church in downtown Calgary, on prime land. Which meant selling for much less. But which also meant enabling a new group of Christians to build up their own congregation, so that their children and grandchildren and one-day great-grandchildren could come to love Christ in that space. The glory of God would continue to be shown in that space, albeit no longer amongst the people of St. John.

The second decision was that they would close. They would not take the money from the sale of the building and use it to keep going indefinitely. They would not use it to put death off for another 10 or 20 years. They would accept that their death was happening now, and they would embrace that death as the means to give new life to others. And so they gave all that money away. They gave it to CLWR, to the Seminary, to Campus Ministry, to the Mustard Seed, to Meals on Wheels, to you. They gave it to groups that would directly benefit from their death, around the world, within the Synod, and here in the city.

And God’s glory shone, and the people saw Jesus. You would think that after such decisions as these, that Sundays would be even grimmer, and the people even sadder. But that’s not what happened. In fact, it was the opposite. Sunday mornings became joyous, heart-felt experiences of thanking God for all the life they had been given, and the life they were giving in return. Council meetings were a blast - how often do you get to talk about how to get rid of money instead of how to get it? The recipients of the money came every week in the Easter season to share the ways in which the money they were receiving was bringing new life - providing job opportunities, spreading the healing message of God’s love to new people, giving new life to programs. The fruit borne from the single grain of St. John’s death was tremendous, and the people of St. John were blessed to see the growth of that new life. The glory of God was shown in their willingness to die so that others might have new life, and they saw Jesus. 

Tellingly, though, when the people of St. John would talk to others about their decision, those others, including other Christians, would make that sad, I’m-so-sorry face that we all make when we hear someone is dying. And they expected St. John’s people to be sad too. Even in the church, we have a hard time truly relying on Christ’s promise of new life after death, or seeing God’s glory and Christ’s presence in the cross. But those who came to worship at St. John in those last days, they saw Jesus and they experienced God, and they understood. One of the things that astounded me was that there were at least two people who started attending just a few months before St. John was scheduled to close. They knew the church was dying, and yet, for some reason, they kept coming. Sunday after Sunday until the very end. And I can only explain it by saying that they must have experienced the glory of God in this death, and they must have seen Jesus. I have no other explanation, and I don’t look for any other explanation, because I experienced that glory and I saw Jesus in those last days as well. As the congregation made their choices about who to give money to, and as they sang their favourite hymns for the last time, as they celebrated Easter together for the last time as a congregation, Christ was there, in a powerful way I have not experienced anywhere else. As odd as it sounds, I wish that every Christian could have the experience of being in a congregation that handles its death so faithfully, so that every Christian could see Christ in death.

The Greeks came saying, “We wish to see Jesus,” and Jesus responded with, “And what should I say––‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” Jesus knew that the new life his death would bring would cause others to see and glorify God far more than his continued life would. He would truly be seen in that death. It seems baffling to think that a congregation exists in order to one day die and give new life, and that this is what most clearly shows the Son of God to the world, and yet this is the story of St. John. Whoever serves Jesus must follow him, to the cross, and to death, and, in return, he is with them. Jesus was with the congregation of St. John as they followed him, and through the story of their death, we see Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Lent 4 - The Dark Deeds of Christianity

John 3:16-21

God brings life to death. I need to start by proclaiming this, as obvious as it might be, because if we don’t cling to this truth, the next ten minutes of this sermon are going to crush us. God brings life to death. Hold on to this.
So, Lent is a time when we are particularly called to be honest and brave in facing the reality of the world we have created, so that we might truly understand the glory of what God has shown us in Easter. And today our Gospel prompts us to face the reality of the death and darkness in the world that is caused by us. By Christians. By followers of God. And I wish that I didn’t have to preach about this. I know that sometimes you come to church to get away from all of the darkness in the world, and to receive comfort, and the last thing you want to hear is a depressing sermon. But last week’s Gospel lesson, and this week’s reading from John and the readings that are coming for Holy Week––readings that we hear every three years––weigh on me. They give me a guilty conscience, actually, and I feel called to drag them into the light.

So here’s the reality we as Christians have to face. On the one hand, we have the Christian proclamation, “For God so loved the world.” We have this thorough conviction that God loves the world, and that Jesus loves the world, and that we are called to follow Christ by loving the world: To love our enemy, and pray for those who persecute us, not to repay evil with evil, but with blessing. Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, to walk the second mile, to lay down our lives as he did, not just for our friends but for our enemies. We believe that Jesus responded to violence with peace, that he responded to hate with love, and that he would rather give his life than take another. And that he calls his followers - Christians - to do the same.

So there’s that. And then there’s today’s reading from John. It starts out okay - “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son .... in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already.” Whoa - what just happened here? All of a sudden, the reading gets very harsh. Hostile, even. And yet, if you read the Gospel of John, you’ll find this logic is pretty typical. In John, the world is divided between those who believe in Jesus, who are saved, who are children of the light, and good, and those who do not believe in Jesus, who are condemned, who are children of the darkness, and evil. This Gospel reduces the world to black and white, good guys and bad guys, and if you’re not with us, you’re against us. 

And here’s the thing. Here’s the part that I really would rather not preach about, and the part that I’m sure you would really rather not hear about, and the reason I’m glad the little kids are in Sunday School right now. These texts of division between us and them have had a profound influence on the actions of Christians in the world. This idea that Christians are children of the light sent out to conquer children of the darkness, the idea that we are good and others are evil, the idea that it is our job as Christians to confront and overcome those who do not follow Christ is what we need to repent of in this season of Lent because of its devastating––its truly dark––consequences. 

For example, in the Gospel of John, the bad guys, the children of darkness and evil whom God condemns, are always called “the Jews.” The writer of the Gospel of John only uses the phrase “the Jews” when he wants to talk about bad guys. As we will hear in the readings during Holy Week, “the Jews” killed Jesus by calling for his crucifixion (never mind that all of Jesus’ disciples were actually Jewish), the ones who doubt and challenge Jesus are always “the Jews.”  Those who follow Jesus are never described that way, even though they were Jews. Instead, because they follow Jesus, the Gospel describes them as truth-followers. Children of the light. The Gospel of John is extremely hostile to those who don’t follow Jesus, and to the Jews in particular, and we will hear it over and over again this year as we listen to the texts approaching Easter. And this idea became formative for Christian living, with incredibly violent results. In Toulouse, France, during the middle ages, it was the custom on Easter to find a Jew, drag him to the front steps of the cathedral, and strike a blow to his head. Sometimes this blow was so severe as to kill him. But nobody got upset, because Christians are children of light, and Jews are children of darkness. During the First Crusades, a Christian war to rid the world of evil infidels, in the year 1096, Christians in German cities by the Rhine killed 12,000 Jews in a three-month period. In those same Crusades, Christian soldiers besieged Jerusalem, and despite offers by the Fatamid Muslims to share the Holy City, the Crusaders slaughtered 50,000 Jews and Muslims. A document from that time by a Crusader says the soldiers were standing in blood up to their ankles. 

And the darkness expands. Using the Gospel of John’s logic that God condemns those who do not follow Christ, and that somehow we should too, from the 14th to the 18th century, Christians killed between 40,000 and 75,000 women because they were accused of being witches. John Calvin had an opponent burned at the stake for heresy. In the early 16th century, in Germany, the Christian aristocracy killed between 100,000 and 300,000 peasants, inspired by words from Martin Luther. In the late 17th century, an American Puritan pastor, a pastor rejoiced when he found out that 600 Native Americans had been burned alive. Our Christian history is an appalling two thousand-year-long legacy of Christians condemning and killing our enemies. Not praying for them. Not turning the other cheek. Not loving them. Killing them. Participating in evil deeds that we hide in the darkness.

“But that wasn’t us,” you might be thinking. “That wasn’t me.” “I can’t be held accountable for what happened in the past!” “I wouldn’t do that!” Or “We didn’t start it - we were persecuted first!” You know, these are the excuses my children make when they get caught doing something wrong. Let’s be adults here. This is Lent, and this is a time of repentance. Lent is a time not just for individual repentance, but for corporate repentance. There’s a reason we say confession together at the beginning of the service. There are some sins that are so huge they involve everybody, and some sins so staggering that we must repent of them for generations. And we should be ashamed of trying to wriggle out of these accusations. As Christians who follow Jesus, who told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us - not punish them, pray for them - as Christians who are about to celebrate that Jesus gave his life to bring light into the world - as Christians who claim that God exposes the evil done in darkness, we need to confess that we, as a Church, as a community of Christ-followers, have done terrible, violent, murderous things. We, who are supposed to love, have killed. We, who call ourselves children of the light, have pushed others into darkness. We, who call ourselves good, have committed evil. And, lest we think that this is all in the past, I only need to say: in 1990, in the former Yugoslavia - 100,000 people, mostly Bosnian Muslims and Croatians, were killed, and women raped, by Serbian soldiers who operated under the explicit blessing of the Serbian Orthodox Church; in 1994 in Rwanda - almost 1 million Rwandans were killed - in April of that year, a priest offered shelter in his church to over 4,000 Rwandans, and then this “priest” removed the communion elements and ordered a bulldozer to take down the building with the people inside and then invited militia in to finish the job. This wasn’t the only time this happened in Rwanda and we knew about this. The western media knew about this. But what did we, as Christians, do? Did we publicly condemn these atrocities committed by people of our faith? Did we as Christians denounce our fellow Christians who were killing their enemies? Did we remind them that Jesus told us to love our enemies?  Who are the children of the light and who are the children of the dark? Who are the ones who love good and who are the ones who love evil? “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” Who exactly is Jesus talking about here?

Do you remember what I said at the beginning of this sermon? God brings life to death. All of this history I have just recounted is too much, it is too overwhelming, and it should crush us under our own guilt if we do not remember that God brings life to death. The guilt of Christian violence, if we acknowledge and confess it, should and does kill us. But we are on a path towards Easter. And in Easter, death has met its match. Death has been overcome. Not by confrontation or hatred or violence. Death has been overcome by love, and by light, and by the grace of God in Christ. The Easter message that we so desperately need to hear at this moment is that God brings new life wherever there is death. God brings new life wherever we bring death. 

Easter means that those whom we have killed, God has gathered up into God’s embrace and given new life. Easter means that God’s kingdom is packed full of our enemies, those whom we did not love and those for whom we did not pray. Easter means what the Gospel of John actually does to get right - that the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. God does not allow ours sins to win. God overcomes our evil and our darkness with God’s own good and God’s own light. God overcomes our hatred with the love of Jesus. God overcomes our killing with the new life we see in the resurrected Christ.

And, although we do not deserve it, God shares Easter with us, too. Indeed, God calls us to recognize that we are standing in darkness and invites us to step forward into the light and to claim that new life. We heard it earlier, from Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. Chapter 2, verse 4. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” This is what God does for us, through Lent and to Easter, and beyond. For God so loved the world that God raises us up out of our darkness and turns us into children of light. And God calls us to expose deeds of evil, ours and others, not so that we might execute judgement, but so that God might shine that light that brings healing and new life. This is the great love shown to us in Christ. This is the great love that saves the world. This is the great love that brings life to death. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Lent 1 - God Knows Who You Are

Gen 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Here we are once again in Lent, the liturgical season when we spend a lot of time thinking about what we have done, or have not done, that has grieved God and brought about destruction of life in one way or another. Those of you who were able to be here for Ash Wednesday participated in a longer version of our Confession and Forgiveness, in which we acknowledged that we have not loved God with our whole heart, mind, and strength, nor our neighbours as ourselves. We confessed to over-consumerism, and to exploiting both people and resources. We confessed to neglecting those in need, to acting indifferent in the face of injustice, and to ignoring the needs of future generations in order to secure our own present. In short, we confessed that we have sinned by “what we have done and by what we have left undone.”

And so, many Christians, in response to these confessions, take up a Lenten practice. Most take up some kind of Lenten fast, and refrain from some particular thing or another, putting their energy into addressing “what we have done.” Giving up chocolate is pretty common. Or fast food. Some of my friends give up social media for the forty days. For several years in a row, I gave up complaining for Lent. Some congregations give up meetings, or any kind of party-type thing. And, of course, we all give up saying that liturgical word that starts with A that means praise of God, that I can’t say now because it’s Lent.

Other Christians, instead of giving up something for Lent, take on something. They look at “what we have left undone,” and focus their energy there. Their Lenten discipline might include more prayer-time, or giving the money they would have spent on Tim Horton’s coffee to a charity, or doing extra volunteering. Most congregations take on more worship services, with a mid-week evening service, or an extra weekly Bible study.

And these Lenten disciplines can be wonderful. There are lots of Scripture passages that recommend self-discipline as a path for discipleship and becoming closer to God. I have benefitted greatly from my own Lenten fasts from complaining. 

But I don’t think I need to convince you of the importance of a Lenten practice. Instead, this morning, I want to offer a caution about the way in which our emphasis on what “we have done and left undone,” and our subsequent Lenten practices, can run counter to what God has already accomplished in us in baptism. It can be the case that our Lenten practices become a pathway to self-justification through our doing, rather than leading us to a deeper trust in God’s actions on our behalf.

Essentially, when we focus on Lenten disciplines, we focus on what we do (or don’t do), to the detriment of who we are. It’s an important distinction. What we do is not the same as who we are. We often confuse this in our culture of doing––one of the first things we ask someone we’ve met is “what do you do for a living?” or “what do you do for fun?” We define ourselves by our jobs, or our hobbies, or our interests, all things that we do.

And the trouble with that is that what we start thinking that what we do is who we are. We start saying things like, I am a pastor. Or I am an electrician. Or I am an engineer. Rather than, I am someone who pastors, or I am someone who works as an electrician. This is a real problem for people who don’t work––who are retired, or unemployed. If you define yourself by what you do, and you don’t do anything, you have no identity anymore.

When it comes to sin, the result of mixing up what we do with who we are is that we begin to confuse our sinful deeds with ourselves. We begin to believe that the terrible things we do are who we are; we begin to believe that we are terrible people. After we confess the things we have done, we begin to believe that we need to confess who we are––that deep inside, we are horrible, ungrateful, sinners who just suck. And this defining belief about ourselves then goes one of two ways. If we are convinced we are terrible people, we either sit in a total paralysis unable to do anything because we are convinced that whatever we do will turn to dust. We do nothing, because we know we’ll fail. Or, on the other hand, we continue doing all kinds of terrible things because there’s no point to stopping, since we’re rotten through and through. Kids do this, especially if they’ve been told they’re liars: they’ll just keep lying because that’s who everyone thinks they are. Elementary-school teachers will tell you that they can pick out those children who aren’t supported at home by their behaviour in the classroom. They behave like “bad children” because they’ve been told they are bad children. And I know this is a simplistic portrayal, but I think it’s true. You act according to who people say you are. You act according to who you believe you are.

But what we do is not who we are. It does not define us. Rather, who we are shapes what we do. And who we are as Christians is profound, because we are baptized children of God. I think this is why we start Lent with a Gospel reading talking about Jesus being baptized. It’s not like we haven’t heard this story already this year. We celebrated the Baptism of Our Lord only six weeks ago. Most preachers treat Jesus’ baptism as an intro to his forty days in the wilderness, and use it to talk about what we should do during Lent, but it’s important not to rush past the baptism. Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his ministry, not his time in the desert. Jesus is God’s Beloved, and so Jesus does great deeds. God calling Jesus God’s own Beloved Son fundamentally shapes everything that Jesus does after, including resisting the temptation in the wilderness. Jesus’ baptism is not a prologue to the temptation. The temptation is an epilogue to the Baptism. 

And so this baptism, and God’s deliverance of Noah and the Ark through the waters, and 1 Peter’s reminder that Baptism is what saves us, are told us at the beginning of Lent because it is who we are as baptized children of God that defines our Lent, not what we do or don’t do in these next forty days. Because we are baptized children of God, which is why we’re called saints. Now, Luther called us both saints and sinners, and I want to argue with him a bit about that. I don’t think we are both saints and sinners. I think that we are saints who sin. We are saints, baptized and redeemed children of God, who do sinful things, yes, but those sinful things were taken by Jesus and put to death on the cross. For that reason, what we do can never have more power over us than who we are. To believe otherwise would deny the power of God in the event of the cross and resurrection.

This is our Gospel, our Good News, and this is the focus of Lent: because of Christ, in the eyes of God, who we are is far more important than what we do. Above and beyond all of things you do or don’t do during Lent, or any other time, you are baptized children of God. And notice that I don’t say you have been baptized. I say that you are baptized. That is who you are. In baptism, God fundamentally changed who you are, and made you new in your very essence from that day forward.

There’s a movie that my kids love, and I confess I love it too: Moana. TIt’s about a girl, Moana, who has to save her people from an evil volcano-demon called Te Ka. Te Ka appeared after the goddess of life, Te Fiti, had her heart stolen, and Te Ka kills all life by burning it into ash. Moana’s job is to defeat Te Ka by restoring Te Fiti’s heart to her. And there’s all kinds of adventures, and things happen, and a weird side-kick chicken, and at the climax of the movie, Moana finally comes face-to-face with Te Ka, all volcanic fire and destruction, who stands between Moana and the spot where she needs to restore Te Fiti’s heart, in a scene that embodies what I have been trying to say this morning. And I really tried to find a way to describe the scene to you, but I can’t do it justice, and so we’re going to watch it on the screen.

In Lent, we focus on what we have done and left undone. But these things do not define us. They are not who we are. Our baptism is who we are, and through it, God sees you the way Moana saw Te Ka. Not as what you do, but as who you are. God knows who you are. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Epiphany 5 - Growing the Church is Not Our Work

Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11, 1 Cor 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

So, I don’t think Jesus ever attended any workshops or seminars on church growth. Here he is, in the city of Capernaum, a major economic focus for the Sea of Galilee area, and everyone is coming to see him, “the whole city,” as the Gospel says. He’s healing people, he’s getting his message out, he’s drawing in the crowds, and they’re telling their friends, but the next morning, when Simon Peter comes to get him, to return to the city and continue the excitement of the night before, Jesus says, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns.” Essentially, “Let’s get out of here, and go somewhere smaller, where there are fewer people, who don’t know me.” With all due respect to Jesus, I’m pretty sure that’s is not the way to build a movement. When you’ve got all of Calgary at your doorstep, you don’t leave for Vulcan. Jesus wants to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near, and he told Simon Peter and Andrew that he was going to make them fish for people, but I have to wonder about his methods. I’m not sure he gets this whole growth thing.

Simon Peter and Andrew, on the other hand, do. Their response to his middle-of-the-night absence is to say to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” I can just imagine it, the whole city of people, searching down every alley and in every house, not even waiting for the sun to come up to be with him again. Now that’s popularity! From Simon’s perspective, that’s like the fish jumping right into the boat! When everyone is actually looking for Jesus, growing the kingdom of God is like shooting fish in a barrel. No work necessary! If you’re looking to turn all of Israel back to God––which is what “repent” means––then it makes total sense for Jesus to go back to the people of Capernaum. Simon Peter seems to get this whole church growth thing. He knows the mission, he’s following the program––get more people in, proclaim the message, grow the kingdom.

So why doesn’t Jesus get with the program? Why does he keep heading away from the crowds and into the places with fewer people? Is he an introvert? Does he have social anxiety? As someone who is both an introvert and gets social anxiety sometimes, I totally get that. But this is Jesus. There must be something else going on.

There are a few particular verses in our readings for today that may offer us some insight. The first comes from our psalm. The Lord’s “delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner.” And the second comes from the first letter to the Corinthians, when Paul says that his reward is to proclaim “the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.” The first verse tells us that God doesn’t care about strength or speed as much as we do; God is not interested in the same markers of success that we are. The second verse tells us that Paul does not proclaim the Gospel for personal gain or success. 

Taken together, these verses tell us that God doesn’t see growing the kingdom the same way we do. We tend to focus on numbers. We celebrate that a church has reached its 50th anniversary, or its 100th, or that a denomination has reached 500 years. We celebrate when church attendance has reached two hundred, or wonder, with envy, about those congregations that have a thousand members. We send people off to church-growth seminars, and follow the latest trend in “programs that reach people,” or set up ministries with the hope that they’ll bring people into the pews. We’re ashamed when attendance drops or a church closes. 
But God seems profoundly uninterested in these things. God doesn’t care about strength or speed, and God doesn’t seem to care about numbers or being popular. God doesn’t care whether the proclamation of the Gospel, the sharing of the Good News, the testimony of God’s love for the world brings in the crowds. God doesn’t care whether Jesus is proclaiming to the biggest crowds, or whether churches are growing in attendance. The numbers we value are of no significance to God.

What God does care about is that people know how much God loves them. Our reading from Isaiah tells us that God, who is so vast that we are grasshoppers in comparison, who is so powerful that princes and rulers wither like grass in a drought, who is everlasting and infinite, pays attention to those who are weak, and tired, and powerless. This God notices when we are struggling and gives us strength to carry on. This God sees you when your heart is broken and sends you healing. This God lifts up the downtrodden, and takes care of the animals and the birds. God cares about those who are most in need, and God moves to help them. 

God is the one who grows the kingdom, through healing and love; not us, through our programs or metrics. It’s really that simple. It is God who gives us wings to fly, God who brings the crowds to seek Jesus, and God who makes Simon Peter and Andrew fish for people. It is God, through Jesus Christ, who makes Paul’s proclamation successful, which is why he claims no reward of his own for it. 

God does it by endowing proclamations of love with the power of the Holy Spirit. Remember, Luther’s Small Catechism, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength, I cannot believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with her gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as she calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian Church.” We might as well say, “I believe that by our own programs or efforts, we cannot grow the Kingdom of God, but instead the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, and enlightens people to hear the Good News.” You, yourself, are here this morning because the Holy Spirit has brought you so that you might hear words of God’s love for you. God doesn’t require big cities, or large crowds, or popular, charismatic preachers in order to be effective in reaching people, nor are those things evidence of God’s work in the world.

The growth of the kingdom of God is not about measurable gains or successes, but about people experiencing God’s care for them. And that means that when people are touched by God’s words of love, it has very little to do with our efforts to be successful; when people are drawn to seek Jesus, it’s not because he provides good child-care, or has a family-friendly program, but because God sees that they need healing and draws them in. The growth of Christians under Paul’s guidance had nothing to do with having contemporary music or a traditional liturgy, or keeping the youth involved, or starting small groups, but with God using Paul to proclaim that Christ brings new life. Not that these programs are bad things, but they will never replace the healing power of God’s love for us.

The success of God’s kingdom is not up to us, and it is not due to us. Our task is not to make it grow, which, frankly, is a burden that none of us are strong enough to bear, nor do we even know what “success” looks like. Instead, our task, if we can even call it that, is to hear God’s love for us and to live in that love. To trust in that love. Our psalm says, “the Lord takes pleasure ... in those who trust in God’s steadfast love.” That’s all we do. And if, out of love, we are moved to praise the Lord and to proclaim to others the miraculous, wonderful gift of love that we’ve received, so that others might also experience this healing love, great! Share the good news! Not as a burden, though, nor with any self-assigned expectation of success; none of us are the Holy Spirit. That power rests with God alone, and so we are free to let go of our own efforts at success and trust that God will handle the growth business as God sees fit, just as God always has. “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power,” the One who brings about all good things. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Discerning God's Word Amongst Various Voices

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

“Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak––that prophet shall die.” (Deut 18:19-20) That’s quite a way to start a sermon, don’t you think? Either I’m speaking the word of God and if you don’t listen, you’re in trouble, or I’m not speaking the word of God, and I’m in trouble. There’s a lot of pressure here!

But seriously, this passage points out to us a real challenge that we have when we are trying to discern whether what we hear is truly God’s Word. Last week, I said that the church of Christ includes churches of different, and even opposing, viewpoints about what is the right way to live as God’s people. And I said that individual Christians can make completely opposite decisions about which path to take to follow Christ, and that they are nevertheless united in the one Body of Christ. But I didn’t say how we make those decisions. I didn’t say how we know whether our path is truly putting Christ first or whether it’s putting ourselves at the center. Each prophet, each church, each pastor will claim that they have the authority of God to speak and that every word out of their mouth is the word of God. Out of all the voices claiming to speak the Word of God, how do we discern which ones actually are? 

I ask this because this is a very real and very serious issue. Claiming the authority of God and then speaking in God’s name is incredibly powerful. Done truly and it brings life and light and healing and helps us to feel God in our midst. In one of the older versions of the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness, the pastor says, “As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I proclaim to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” That is powerful! That is life and light and healing! But claiming the authority of God and then speaking falsely in God’s name is also powerful. Except instead of life and light and healing, it brings darkness, and death, and trauma. It drives us away from God. It fractures the security we have in God’s love for us. There’s a reason that our Third Commandment is, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” There’s a reason that God says that false prophets will die. 
And it’s not like it’s always easy to know whether the word we hear is God’s Word or not. Often, we hear what we want to hear, especially when the stakes are high. And, just as often, we don’t realize we’re even doing that. Sometimes we make decisions and choices about what path to walk, and only realize later that we actually weren’t listening to God’s Word. Instead, we were listing to worries, anxieties, unspoken fears over worst-case scenarios––sometimes our own, and sometimes someone else’s.

And the fall-out of all of those things is intense. When we realize our past decisions were not what God wanted we can feel incredibly guilty. We can then doubt our ability to hear God, and become anxious thinking about decisions that need to be made in the future. If someone in a position of spiritual or religious authority proclaims words that are not God’s words, it can be hurtful at best, and damaging or even traumatic at worst. Again, we can start doubting our own ability to hear God, and become anxious about God’s relationship with us.

But this is not God’s will for us. God does not will that we should doubt our relationship with God, or become so anxious about which path to walk that we do nothing. And so God, who is “ever mindful” of the covenant made with us, helps us with this. In our Scripture readings for today, we can see three guidelines in particular that God has given us to to help us with this whole “discernment” thing.

The first comes from our Psalm today. “The fear of the LORD––(actually, awe might be a better word here)––awe of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” (Psalm 111:10) We start listening, and speaking, and making decisions from a stance of awe, and particularly awe that God alone has the power to give life. Anybody can kill, anybody can speak words and bring about someone else’s death, either literally or metaphorically. But only God’s words have the power to bring true life. And so we begin with the recognition of the power of God and of our own insignificance in the face of that. Which means that we begin with humility. How can we feel anything other than humility before God? I can tell you at least from my own experience, that when I am preaching a sermon that I truly believe is God’s word and not just my own personal insights, I am terrified. Completely terrified. Who am I to deliver this word? What if I’m wrong that it’s God’s Word? Who am I to be a prophet, claiming that I have the authority of Christ? Even this sermon––terrifying. But in any case, this terror, or humility, or awe is the beginning of wisdom. It is the beginning of discernment.

The second guideline comes to us from 1 Corinthians. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Our test for knowing whether we are hearing or speaking God’s Word, and for knowing whether our decisions are rooted in Christ, is simple: Does it build others up or does it tear them down? God’s very first act in our world was to create life. This is the first thing we know of God. And so we ask ourselves, do our words or our actions create or affirm the lives of those around us? Or do they destroy it? The path of Christ and the Word of God build us up through love, and more specifically, through God’s love for the world that we see through Christ. Do our words and actions, or do the words and actions directed at us, center on that love, or do they build walls between God and God’s children? Paul remind us, “Love builds up.”

[Speaking of children and love, I’m going to pause right here and ask the children to come forward so I can talk to them for a bit. [interlude for Children’s Message]]

So, our two guidelines for discerning God’s Word and will so far are awe and love that builds up. The last guideline comes to us from the Gospel of Mark. In the Gospel, we have people of faith asking the same question we are: are this person’s words from God or from somewhere else? Not knowing who Jesus really is, they want to know whether he is a true prophet or a false one. And, of course, they come to find out that he is a prophet, because his actions reflect our first two guidelines. That is, Jesus’ words and actions build up the man suffering from an “unclean spirit,” and the people around him are amazed––in awe of––the power of God that works through Jesus. Jesus’ action––his casting out of the unclean spirit–gives us our third guideline: God’s Word leaves us feeling clean and whole. Healed. At one with ourselves. With a clear conscience. We see in the Gospel that when Jesus speaks to others, and when he heals and does things for others, that the result is typically healing and cleansing, so to speak. People are granted new life, either in body or in spirit. The love that builds up leaves them feeling whole, what might be called “integrated.” When it comes to discerning what is from God, even though there might be a great wrenching, a convulsing and crying out even, as we let go of those things that are actually destroying us, in the end, if God’s will and God’s word are at work, there will be a calmness and healing and new life.

Now I don’t want to give the impression that any of this discernment is easy, or that following these guidelines is a fool-proof method for identifying God’s word or deciding on the right course of action. I said that the second guideline is that God’s words and actions build up, and create life, rather than destroying it, but even that’s complicated. Sometimes we have to tear things down in order to build them anew, sometimes one way of life must end in order for another to begin, and we don’t always know which is which. We can never see all of the consequences of our actions, nor understand the scope of how our decisions and words affect others. So it’s inevitable that we will, even in following these guidelines, even in earnestly desiring to do right, hurt people. We will make the wrong decisions. We will make a decision that we are convinced is focused on God and others, only to look back later and realize we were actually acting in our own interests. We are human, finite and limited in both our knowledge and our efforts. In the end, even following these guidelines will not make us righteous or justify us.

God alone, revealed to us in Christ, is the source of our righteousness and justification. God is the only one whose words and decisions always build up and always bring life. And so God alone retains ultimate authority and alone is worthy of worship. Nevertheless, God does desire that we, too, should be able to participate in God’s love and life-giving towards others and receive that for ourselves. God wants us to experience the joy that comes from walking the path of wisdom, and from hearing God’s Word and sharing it with others. And so God has given us these guidelines to help us discern whether God’s Word is being spoken: do they begin with awe, do they love and build up, and do they bring calm and healing and new life? If so, they are the Words of God, and we say, Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Epiphany 3 - Christ's Unity Encompasses Diversity

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; Mark 1:14-20

So today we are about halfway through something called the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. A century ago, a few Catholic Friars proposed that the week beginning with the Feast Day for Saint Peter and ending with the Feast Day for Saint Paul would be a week when the Catholic Church should pray for the unity of the church. After all, Christians believe that the church is the body of Christ, and that it is one body, although with different parts. The divisions between us can sometimes make it look like we are acting as separate bodies, which is a bad witness to Christ. About fifty years after the Catholic Church began praying during this week, the  major Protestant churches joined in, and now this week is recognized around the world as a time when the various denominations can engage in deepening their relationships with one another, and acknowledging that each church is doing its best to follow Christ.

On the one hand, this is huge. Our Christian history is full of arguments and excommunications and even wars as we each have tried to defend our own understanding of what it means to be a Christian. We have done such horrible things to one another, all in the name of Christ, that it’s surprising that anybody even wants to be a Christian. That we have finally come to a point where we can, at least in theory, accept one another as belonging to the body of Christ is tremendous. It is, truly, a testament to the peace that can be found when we focus our eyes on Christ, and Christ alone.

At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if God is seeing this and thinking, “What took them so long??” Our Scriptures give us lots of stories of people responding to God’s call albeit in very different ways. Take our Gospel reading for this morning. We often focus on Simon and Andrew and James and John leaving everything and following Jesus. At the same time, Zebedee, the father of James and John, is sitting there quietly in his boat, mending the nets. We hold up the ones who left their nets as our models for responding to Jesus’ call, but there is absolutely nothing in the text that tells us that. Indeed, Zebedee, whose name means God has bestowed, is responding to Jesus’ call in his own way, which is to stay behind and take care of the family, and continue providing for those around him. We don’t give Zebedee, or any of those who respond to God’s call by staying behind, enough credit. And yet Luther tells us that those who stay at home, and wash the baby’s diapers are living out their Christian vocation just as much as those who leave everything to follow Christ. There are many different ways of responding to God’s call.

Our first reading, from the book of Jonah, tells us the same thing. Jonah, born and raised as one of God’s chosen people, responds to God’s call, albeit reluctantly and under duress, by doing what God tells him to do and going to Nineveh and telling them that God wants them to repent. The people of Nineveh, who are essentially non-believers, respond immediately, without any reluctance whatsoever, to the call of this God who is completely new to them. In the end, both the one from the chosen people and the ones who are non-believers respond to God. They just do it in different ways. This idea that there is only one way to walk as God wants us to is not held up by these Scriptures, nor by our own experiences as members in the body of Christ.

And yet... trying to understand how God can be so inclusive is challenging. What about those churches that support the ordination of women and those churches that outright forbid it? How can both of these denominations be right? When we talk about the unity of the Church, can a church that believes in infant baptism and one that does not think of themselves as both following Christ? On a more personal level, does God really recognize that those Christians who advocate for abortion as a woman’s right to choose and those Christians who believe abortion is murder and protest abortion clinics are both following God? Are those who use the Bible to defend capital punishment and those who use the Bible to argue against it both responding to Christ’s call to follow him? What about forgiving abusers? The Bible says to forgive, and the Bible also calls us to fight for justice? Which is the right path for following Christ?

“God alone is my rock and my salvation; ... Trust in God at all times, O people; ... Power belongs to God, and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.” This is our psalm for today. God alone is the one we trust and love. Or, as Luther says in his Small Catechism, “We are to fear, love, and trust only God.” This is the heart of what it is to follow Christ––our single guiding principle: to fear, love, and trust only God. It’s simple, actually, although that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It does mean, though, that the right path for any Christian to follow is the one that comes from fearing only God, and not anyone or anything else, from trusting only God, and not ourselves or own good intentions, and from loving only God, and not ourselves or our honour or our life. It is not the particulars of the path itself that makes it right, because each person walks their own path. It is right because it is done out of fearing, loving, and trusting only God.

Peter and Andrew and James and John trusted God’s Son to take care of them on the road, and so they followed him. Zebedee trusted God to take care of him in his boat, and so he stayed. Job (eventually) feared only God, and so he went to Nineveh. The people of Nineveh both feared and then trusted only God, and so they repented. Those churches who ordain women and those who don’t both are trying to fear, trust, and love God the way they think is best for them, and so they are united in their desire to follow Christ. One person can trust God so much that they are willing to die to prevent an abortion, while another person can trust God so much that they are confident that their pregnancy is not what God wants for them at that point. When both make their decisions rooted in a deep trust in God, then, as contradictory as it sounds to us, they are united in following Christ.

One way in which I have come to see that this is particularly true is in the debates and decisions around medically-assisted dying. I have sat at the bedside of a Christian whose trust in God was so profound that they chose not to take advantage of medically-assisted death, believing that God would take them when the time was right. This person’s decision not to take advantage of a medically-assisted death was rooted in fearing, loving, and trusting God. I have also sat at the bedside of a Christian whose trust in God was so profound that they were not afraid to die, and they asked for that death to be hastened so their family would not suffer and so that they could be with God as soon as possible. This person’s decision to take advantage of a medically-assisted death was just as rooted in fearing, loving, and trusting God. Two completely different paths, united in one faith in the goodness of God that they had experienced through Christ.

Just because we come to different decisions about which is the best path to follow Christ for us, it does not mean we lack unity. We are united in our love for Christ, and in us all being recipients of the grace and forgiveness bestowed on us through Christ. Our diversity does not threaten that but points, rather, to the depth of God’s inclusion and love for everyone, far beyond what we can even understand. It points to how glorious Christ is that so many diverse members make up his body. A God in whom unity is made up of diversity is far more worthy of praise than a unity where everyone is the same. We are truly blessed that God has finally brought us to a point in time when we’re able to see this, and where we are able to confess that all who seek the Lord are welcomed into the kingdom of heaven. This is the Good News, thanks be to God. Amen. 

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Baptized in Trinitarian Love: A Sermon on the Trinity

Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
The Sunday of the Baptism of Our Lord

Happy New Year! I know that our church year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, but I love that our calendar year begins in January, just as the days start getting longer again, and as our part of the earth begins its journey closer to the sun. A few days ago, I received a seed catalogue in the mail, and I thought about how lovely it is to look forward to spring, to seeds sprouting and leaves budding and all of the signs of new life.

Our readings this morning, carefully chosen to honour today as the Baptism of Our Lord, are full of new life. Which is, after all, the central claim of Christians––that our God is the God of new life. In Creation, in baptism, in the presence of the Holy Spirit, the new life of God saturates the Christian life, from birth to death, and, most importantly, past death. In baptism, God draws us into a new way of living, where death is just one step along the eternal journey of life.
What sometimes gets lost, though, is our understanding of the way in which this new life is centered and grounded in Trinitarian love. The love that is encompassed in the Trinity, that is generated by the Trinity, that overflows from the Trinity to us, is what gives us new life. Trinitarian love determines and shapes the kind of new life we receive. Christians baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit because we have come to an awareness that the Trinity is central to our faith.

Now if you are sitting there thinking to yourself, “I’m probably the only person here who still has no idea what the Trinity is,” you are not alone. I guarantee it. Most of us can define the Trinity as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but that’s about it. We might even go so far as to say the Father created the world, the Son redeemed the world, and the Holy Spirit sanctifies the world, like it says in our Apostles’ and Nicene Creed. And yet, the Trinity doesn’t appear explicitly in our Bible, Jesus never talks about it using the words we use, and as you can see clearly from our readings for this morning, baptisms in the Bible didn’t use the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit formula that we do today. In fact, the Trinity is a distinctly Christian belief that emerged only within the first century after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The understanding of God as a Trinity developed as Christians tried to make sense of the relationship between the God of Abraham and Moses and Isaac, who created the world and delivered Israel from slavery, and Jesus, the beloved Son of God who was given new life after death, and the Holy Spirit, who was present at Creation and inspired the prophets and came to the disciples at Pentecost. If we are confused about the Trinity, it may be because it’s a part of our faith that is less than two thousand years old. 

And yet the Trinity, or rather the relationship that defines the Trinity, and the new life that is generated from that relationship, is the ground of our baptism. Without the Trinity, Christian baptism is empty and meaningless. So what, exactly, is that Trinitarian relationship, and what kind of new life does it give us?

Love. Inclusive, life-generating love. The relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is defined by inclusive and life-generating love. When we say that God is love, that’s actually shorthand for saying that God is the love of the Father for the Son, the love of the Son for the Father, and the Holy Spirit that is the manifestation of that love in our world. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in the fourth century, whose theology was foundational for our own understandings, said that the Trinity could be understood as the lover, the beloved, and the love between the two of them. The Trinity is a circle of ever-flowing love between Father and Son and Holy Spirit. God the Father’s first words to God the Son were, “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The first words were words of love. There are some theologians who have said that the love of God in the Trinity is so abundant and over-flowing that God created life in order for love to flourish even more. We are created so that we might be included, and include others, in that love.

And through baptism, we are drawn into the center of this Trinitarian love. Imagine that! When you were baptized, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, you were baptized into that ever-flowing circle of love. On that day, God drew you into the midst of God, so that perfect, divine, holy love might fully surround you and engage you and give you new life. On that day, you become God’s beloved child, with whom God––Father, Son, and Holy Spirit––is well-pleased. 

The Trinitarian love into which you were baptized is a life-generating love. Out of that love, God created the world, and the Spirit of God moved on the waters and light emerged, and all life on earth. Out of that love, God took on the body of a human and lived among us and suffered with us and died rather than kill, so that we might be healed. Out of that love, God comes to us in the Holy Spirit and gives us hope and the strength to do what is right and life-giving for others––in essence, to be holy. That is the power of our baptism, actually, the power that gives us and others new life: The power of the Trinity to create, and to heal, and to live holy lives for the sake of others.

Through baptism, we are drawn into the center of the Trinity, into the center of Trinitarian love. At the same time, that love is placed into us. It becomes our center. And every time we remember our baptism, whether it is once a year, or every time we come to church, or every morning, we recenter ourselves in that Trinitarian love. We recenter ourselves in the love that creates, and heals, and shares new life with others. We remind ourselves that we are grounded in and encircled by the inclusive and life-generating love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

And the effects of this baptism, and of this reminder to ourselves of our baptism, the effects of being placed in the center of Trinitarian love and having that love as our own center, are astounding. Because as we are drawn into that perfect love of God for God and God for us, we are transformed to love in that same way. And our love, as a manifestation of God’s love, creates new life, and heals, and is holy. It is astounding. As astounding as watching the snow-covered ground around us turn into beautiful green grass and flowers in the spring, as astounding as watching the leafless trees sprout buds and unfurl bright green leaves. As astounding as new life after death.

As we enter this New Year, I want to invite you to share a New Year’s Resolution with me. I invite you to resolve that every morning when you get up, the first time you look in the mirror as you are washing your face or brushing your teeth, that you will make the sign of the cross on your forehead and say to yourself, “I have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I am baptized into Trinitarian love.” And remember that that love has created you, and heals you, and makes you holy, and that you are empowered to do likewise for others. Whether you say it aloud or just in your head, I invite you to do this every morning, from now until Trinity Sunday, which is at the end of May, and we will see what new life emerges, whether it is the creation of something new, or the healing of some old wound, or a deepened capacity to share new life with others. And we will say then, as we do every day, Thanks be to God. Amen.