Sunday, September 25, 2005

Pentecost 19 Year A

“Do intentional mission” was the class project.

I and a couple of my classmates Steve and Dwight decided to collaborate on this project but we couldn’t decide what we wanted to do.

“What do you mean by ‘mission’?” we asked our professor, Dr. Oz Cole-Arnal?

“Whatever YOU think mission means,” he replied. Not terribly helpful.

So, over the weekend, the three of us separately pondered the assignment.

On Monday we met to discuss what we were going to do. Either it was a HUGE coincidence or the work of the Holy Spirit, but we all had the SAME idea. We were going to minister to the folks at the most infamous, the dingiest, most dangerous bar in town – the Station Hotel. “That would be really cool,” we thought.

So, on Friday afternoon, we strapped on clerical collars, and the three of us, young, shiny, seminarians, wandered into the Station Hotel.

At 2:00 on a Friday afternoon, the place was remarkably full. The music was blaring over an already loud hockey game, and folks, under the influence of probably too many beers that should be drank that early in the day – or ANY part of the day - were shouting over the music and the game.

But once we came through the door – silence – I think even the music shut down. People stopped and stared at these young guys dressed up - for all they knew - as priests.

We sat down. Ordered from the waiter. And then we said to each other, “Okay, now what do we do?” Not being the planning types, we hadn’t thought that far ahead.

“Maybe we should talk to people,” Dwight suggested.

“I don’t know about that,” said Steve. “They might think we’re trying to ram religion down their throats,”

“Well, what ARE we trying to do here?” I asked.

Silence again.

“Oz might call this a ‘ministry of presence’” Steve offered.

“Ministry of presence?” I asked. “You mean to say that we are so super spiritual that we just have to sit here and we will glow with Holy Spirit so much that these folks will fall on their knees in repentance?”

“So, if we aren’t going to talk to people, and we aren’t just going to sit here, what exactly are we going to do? What will be our ministry?” Dwight asked.

Good question.

Just then the waiter came over with three mugs,

“These are from the guys over by the window,” he announced.

We looked over. They waved. We waved back.

“Now what do we do?” I asked.

“Let’s go over and thank them,” Dwight said.

So we did. And so our ministry began.

These guys were regulars. They asked us who we were and what we were up to. They introduced us to people who came in. They seemed to know EVERYONE. And chatting with folks for a few hours.

We ended up doing ministry there despite ourselves.  Folks were brutally honest with us. Many weren’t shy in telling us what they thought of church. Steve heard a man’s confession in the bathroom. I prayed with an alcoholic who said he hadn’t seen his kids in twenty years. Dwight got to know a fellow who said he’s a former professional hockey player, but now lives in the hotel upstairs, the victim of his own addictions and mental illness..

We chatted, listened, prayed, and listened some more.

We learned a lot those Friday afternoons. Stuff they definitely didn’t teach in seminary.

Bill Huras, who was bishop of the Eastern Synod at the time, somehow learned of our Friday afternoon activities. While Bishop Huras didn’t haul us into his office demanding an explanation, our Friday afternoon bar ministry became a topic of scrutiny for Steve’s yearly interview with the Committee for Theological Education and Leadership or CTEL, the pastoral candidate screening committee.

“”Y’know, the bishop could take legal action against you and your friends because of this ministry?”

“What!?” asked Steve, with a sweat bead dripping from his brow.

“If you are telling these people at the Station Hotel that you are rostered clergy, such an admission would constitute fraud. And the synod would have to protect its interests, since you and the others are seminarians, not pastors.”

In other words, they were asking, “Who said you could do this? Who gave you the authority to doing these things?” They wanted to make sure that boundaries weren’t crossed, that protocol wasn’t transgressed.

Steve assured the committee that “Yes”, we told people at the bar we were seminarians and “No” we were not ordained pastors.

The three of us met for lunch to digest Steve’s experience with the committee. We had a good laugh over it. But I think our laughing was a mask for our frustration. We couldn’t wrap our heads around the fact that the church hierarchy thought that the drunks at the Station Hotel gave a rip whether we were rostered or not.

Patting ourselves on our backs, feeling really good about ourselves, kind of like OT Prophets – giving it to the establishment, we invoked this morning’s gospel reading, where Jesus enters the temple and some of his leading critics, learned bible scholars and religious leaders confront him.

You could almost taste the venom in their words.

“By what authority are you doing these things?”

In other words, “Who told you that you could do this?  Where did you go to school? Who’s sponsoring you? Who on earth do you think you are!?”

But Jesus turns the question around on them. “You remember my cousin John, don’t you? Part wild man, part TV preacher. Ate bugs. Baptized people. Hugely popular among a whole whack of people. Said some harsh things about your boss and his wife. When he baptized folks, did God smile or did Satan?”

They were caught. They loathed John almost as much as they loathed Jesus. But regular folks, folks outside the official religion LOVED John. These leaders and scholars knew that if they said anything bad about John then they were going down – people wouldn’t tolerate bad talk against one of their favourite holy men.

But if they said that John baptized with God’s blessing, then Jesus would ask why they stood by idly by while John lost his head to Herod’s brainless promise. He would ask them why they didn’t protect someone who, by their own admission, was God’s messenger.

They were trapped. And they knew it.

“We have no idea,” they said.

“If you’re not going to answer my question I’m not going to answer yours,” Jesus replied.

Jesus could have stopped there, walked away, and still called it a win. But he had to take it a step further. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he had too much caffeine for breakfast. Maybe he just had his fill of these narrow, small minded, little people, who couldn’t see God’s plan for the world if it bit them in the….

So Jesus tells a story about two brothers. Fairly innocuous. One brother tells his dad that he won’t go work in the field, then goes anyway. The other brother tells his dad that he’s on his way to work, then heads out and has fun instead.

But the punch line comes out of nowhere. “Y’know what?” Jesus says, “Traitors and thieves and prostitutes are going ahead of you in God’s kingdom - yes I said prostitutes -. John came to tell you what God is all about, but those who REALLY needed to hear him understood what he was saying. You didn’t. Even after you saw peoples’ lives being changed after hearing God’s message, all you could think about was yourselves, how to protect your interests, your livelihoods, your jobs.”

Tough words. Maybe they deserved it. Maybe they didn’t. But I kinda feel for the religious leaders. They were only doing their job – protecting their Jewish faith and heritage against pagan Roman beliefs. They had seen hundreds, if not thousands of people they thought were just like him – self-proclaimed saviours looking for money, or power, or fame. These religious leaders were just protecting what they believed to be true.

I don’t want to be come down too hard on Bishop Huras. I really don’t mean to insinuate that he’s a Pharisee. He’s a good man and a devoted servant of God. He led the church through some pretty rough waters. And CTEL was only doing their job as well. As highly as we thought of ourselves, Steve, Dwight and I - we weren’t and aren't Jesus. And yes were well within our rights to wear our clerical collars to minister to the good people at the Station Hotel.  

We wore clerical collars to say that, yes; we had some authority to do what we were doing. But maybe we were a little confused over what authority that was. The authority we had is the same authority that you have. John’s authority is that God called him by name and gave him a job. Jesus’ authority came from a voice from heaven that called him beloved. Your authority comes from the same place. You have the authority to love, to share good news, to offer comfort to hurting people, to pray, to offer praise, all in Jesus’ name. You who have died with Jesus in the waters in baptism were raised with him to new and everlasting life. That’s where you get your authority.

And that authority doesn’t come from human origin. It comes from God.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Pentecost 17 Year A

Peter was in one of his moods. This was no mere intellectual puzzle that Peter presented to Jesus. This was no theological conundrum. Bare-knuckled human relationships were at stake.

“How many times do I have to forgive those who’ve hurt me?” he asked Jesus. “How much garbage do I have to put up with before I can get back at folks?

Seven seemed to be a good, reasonable number, Peter thought. Even generous. It showed people that, yes, as a follower of Jesus, he was a forgiving person, but not letting himself become a full fledged doormat.

But Jesus offers no comfort. “Not seven,” he says, “But seventy-times-seven.” In other words: “always forgive.”

Of course, this fits in well with the rest of his message. His call to forgive and love our enemies was the cornerstone of his preaching. Salvation was about forgiveness; bringing people back to God, giving them a second chance, whether or not the deserved it.

But I have to be honest; Jesus’ call to love our enemies, to forgive those who have purposely hurt us, and even go a second mile for those who do not have our best interest in mind, is for me, the hardest of Jesus’ teachings. It makes absolutely no sense. It goes against human nature. It runs counter to everything we’ve learned about making our way in the world.

It must have sounded equally crazy to his listeners. These people knew hurt. They knew oppression. Their enemy surrounded them daily, controlling every aspect of their lives. Their home was occupied by the repressive Roman regime. They were being taxed beyond their ability to make a living. The Romans brutally executed thousands of their young men and raped even more of their young women.

To make matters worse, some of their religious leaders got into bed with their Roman occupiers, growing fat and rich off of the blood of their fellow Jews.

Jesus’ audience knew their enemy. To love and forgive them was out of the question. There was too much pain, too much anger, and too little hope.

How the crowd reacted to Jesus’ teaching we have no idea. To some, Jesus must have sounded like a traitor or a coward, selling out his people for some hippy-dippy religious nonsense.

To others, he probably sounded terribly romantic but purely impractical. “That all sounds well and good, Jesus, but let’s get real. Peace, love, and flower power won’t stop the Romans from killing our people. We need some real answers.”

But to others, Jesus’ words must have been liberating. They understood the power that Jesus was giving them. They had spent their whole lives as victims. They didn’t know any other way to see themselves. Their whole identity was in response to the pain and oppression the Romans caused in their lives. Jesus was telling them that they were more than victims; they were more than an oppressed people; that the enemy does not have to control how they saw themselves.

Jesus gave them the tools of resistance. Jesus was telling them, “You don’t have to be a victim. Why are you allowing the Romans to tell you who you are? Yes, you have pain. Yes, you are oppressed. You are not your scars. You are not your grief. Your wounds, your sorrow, your poverty, are part of you, but they don’t make up the whole of you.”

Jesus wasn’t dismissing the injustice and abuse they received, he was just challenging them to look beyond their pain.

“It is freeing to become aware that we don’t have to be victims of our past, “wrote RC author, Henri Nouwen, “ and can learn new ways of responding. But there is a step beyond this recognition…It is the step of forgiveness. Forgiveness is love practiced among people who love poorly. It sets us free without wanting anything in return.”

When Marietta Jaegar’ seven-year-old daughter Susie was kidnapped from her tent during a camping trip in Montana, her initial reaction was, understandably, one of rage:

“I was seething with hate, ravaged with a desire for revenge,” she confessed. “Even if Susie was brought back alive and well this minute, I could kill that man for what he has done to my family…I meant it with every fiber of my being.”

An understandable reaction, to be sure. But Marietta says she soon realized that no amount of anger could bring her daughter back. Not that she was ready to forgive her daughter’s kidnapper: she told herself that to do that would be to betray her daughter.

She wrestled with God. Finally, she surrendered: deep down inside she sensed that forgiving him was the only way she could ever cope with her loss.

As she prayed for the kidnapper over the weeks and months that followed, her prayers became easier and more earnest. She simply had to find the person who had taken away her beloved daughter. And she even felt an uncanny desire to talk with him face to face.

Then one night, a year to the minute after her daughter was kidnapped, Marietta received a phone call. It was the kidnapper. Marietta was afraid – the voice was smug and taunting – but she was also surprised at her strange feeling of compassion for the man at the other end of the line. And she noticed that, as she calmed down, he did too. They talked for an hour.

Luckily, Marietta was able to record their conversation. Even so, it was months before the FBI finally tracked him down and arrested him. And it was only then that she learned her daughter would never come home.

State law offered the death penalty, but Marietta was not out for revenge. She writes: “By then, I had finally come to learn that God’s idea of justice is not punishment, but restoration…Jesus did not come to hurt or punish, but to rehabilitate and reconcile.”

Later, she requested that her child’s killer be given an alternate sentence of life imprisonment with psychiatric counseling. The tormented young man soon committed suicide, but she never regretted her decision to offer him help.

Her efforts at reconciliation didn’t end there. Today, she is part of a group that works for reconciliation between murderers and their victim’s families (from Johann Christoph Arnold, Seventy Times Seven: The Power of Forgiveness).

I’m not sure that I could be a gracious and forgiving as Marietta; but that’s the challenge, isn’t it?

Evangelical theologian J.I. Packer wrote, “Readiness to forgive, Jesus taught his disciples, is the acid test of our moral and spiritual stature…As personal experience shows, nothing withers the soul like an unforgiving spirit – the poisonous product of pain and pride that craves revenge under the guise of justice.”

Forgiveness is power. Forgiveness is freedom. Today, we mark the 4th anniversary of the horrific and brutal terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. Many church leaders, especially in the United States, are wondering out loud what forgiveness looks like in the face of such evil. They wonder if they CAN forgive the terrorists and those who support them. They wonder if they SHOULD forgive.

In New Orleans, people are asking who is to blame for the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For many, they want to unleash their anger at someone, to get even for their pain. They want someone to pay for what’s happened.

But others point out that Jesus never told us forgiveness would be easy. MLK reminds us that forgiveness is not a one time deal, but a way of life. When we forgive, we not only pardon a failing or sin, but we embrace the sinner and seek to restore a relationship. Once we reach out, we begin to cleanse ourselves of resentment. We may remain deeply wounded like Marietta Jaeger, but we will not use our hurt to inflict pain on others.

What resentments are you holding on to? What abuses have you endured that keeps you from living the freedom and power that God wants you to have? What resentment is gnawing away at your soul? God wants you to bring it to the cross, and move toward the reconciliation that restores and brings life. Forgiveness is discipleship; it echoes God’s grace, and sings the song of salvation.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Pentecost 16 - Year A

NB: Sections of this sermon are based on sermons by William Willimon and George Everett Ross

A reading from the letter of Paul to the people of New Orleans,

To all in New Orleans who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

I have heard of your troubles. Your city has drowned. The fury unleashed by Hurricane Katrina has made plunged your city into chaos. Many of you have been asking what you did to have God’s wrath visited upon you. You ask, what did you do to anger the Almighty?

I implore you to remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said that God rains down upon the just as well as the unjust. Rain happens. Rain has the power to save life and take life; to cleanse and to destroy; to heal and to hurt.

Just as the waters of baptism drown our old sinful self, and we rise to new life with our Lord Jesus, the waters of Hurricane Katrina remind us that we are not creatures of our own destiny. Life is fragile. That’s what makes it so precious.

I have heard of the deserted dead decaying under the hot Louisiana sun, corpses floating down the flooded streets, the sick and elderly abandoned to die hungry and alone.

I have heard of your babies dying from hunger, medicine being denied to the sick, water contaminated by the disease ridden corpses and the backed up sewers.

I have heard of snipers shooting at Aid workers, looters pillaging through the wreckage of peoples’ lives, sexual assaults in wide open spaces.

I have heard your cries of despair.

You ask how this could happen in the United States of America. You ask how such chaos could erupt in the richest country in the world. You ask how the strongest power in the history of the planet could fail to protect its own citizens.

As you look out at a sorrowing city, I’m guessing that you now understand the difference between anarchy and freedom. You’ve learned that the freedom we have in Christ is not a lawlessness that leads to destruction, but a way of love that brings life to the world.

“Owe no one anything,” I told the Christians in Rome, “except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

You know The Law; Judaism’s gift from God. When Moses came down the mountain after freeing the people of God from slavery in Egypt, he held in his hands the tablets upon which God had written the Ten Commandments. Later, more laws, by-laws, policy directives, and values statements crept along side of these original Ten. And they all held the same weight.

But I say that we are freed from the Law. Obeying the Law won’t save us. There aren’t any works good enough to earn our way into heaven. When Jesus died and rose again, he gave us another path to God; a path where God takes us by the hand and leads us into the promised Kingdom. So we are free.

Freedom. It’s a great word. But freedom from what? Freedom for what?  There’s a lot of talk about freedom today. Freedom of choice. Freedom of movement. Freedom of religion.

Freedom, and its cousin, known as “rights,” are the cornerstone of your society and culture. But do you really know what freedom is? And just because you call it “freedom” does it make it so? And would God agree with what you call “freedom?”

You are free. But how will you use your freedom? The looters are free. But their freedom is selfish. The snipers are free. But their freedom takes life.

But of course, there is a difference between a freedom that makes us joyful and a freedom that makes us selfish. Freedom is not simply the right not to take whatever you want, when you want, or to shoot at people who are trying to help others.

God’s Freedom means speaking out passionately against injustice in our neighbourhood and around the world. God’s Freedom means crying out in frustration when violence, greed, and brutality appear to prevail over the weakest and most helpless. Freedom means living a life that matters both to God and the world.

God’s Freedom means seeing something beyond the world we’ve been given so we can live with the hope that the destructive forces around us will not triumph.

God’s Freedom, means “Loving your neighbour as yourself.” Take those words of Jesus to heart, love yourselves sincerely, joyfully, robustly, and then when you offer that self to others, you will offer a beautiful and precious gift. The first mark of those who love deeply is that they are themselves free the way God wants them to be free, and have placed the experience of freedom above all other values in their lives.

But there will be times when, like the looters and snipers, you might be overcome by the demons of selfishness and violence, greed and gluttony; or are tempted to throw away your gift of freedom to follow the siren call of safety and security.

But that’s when we need each other to be witnesses to the freedom that God wants for all of us. The mark of the cross on your foreheads will remind you of your own baptisms and I hope you will be steered back to the hard but joyful path of Jesus.

Remember, God has embraced you and made you God’s own beloved child. Through the waters of salvation you have put on the garments of resurrection and God has declared you to the universe as a child of heaven. Maybe this is part of what God wants to teach you: to learn to live the freedom that God wants for you.

It is my prayer that through this ordeal, you will be a people who, by God’s grace, will be free and will become more and more aware of the glory of being fully alive in God’s world; even when the forces of darkness have closed in around you; even when death is hidden behind each red painted door; even when unimaginable sorrow makes a home in your midst, cling to the good news that Jesus has overcome the world; that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Through the next couple of weeks, months, and even throughout your lives, I pray that you will be a gift of God’s grace to all who need Jesus’ healing, compassion, and mercy. In short, I pray that you will be an instrument of resurrection in these troubled times.

So, be strong. Trust. Work hard to re-build your lives and the lives of others. Open your eyes to the places and people through whom God is most powerfully alive. God is with you.

My love to all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen.