Monday, November 21, 2005

Christ the King

This past a week a fellow came to visit me needing some help getting to Regina. He needed his tank filled and a couple dollars for food along the way.

When he walked into my office I knew exactly what he was going to ask for. And I was right.

I know its part of my job and part of our church’s mandate to help those in need. Today’s gospel makes that abundantly clear. Jesus promises that whatever we do for the least of these we do for him. That sounds great…in theory.

I say “in theory” because the “least of these” often show up at the door with their odour preceding them. They often don’t look you in the eye when they tell you their story and you wonder if they’re telling the truth. They often slur their words in a booze induced haze.

“Why can’t they just get it together?” we might ask. “Helping them will only hurt them.”

At least that’s what I often think.

It’s easy for me, from my privileged perch, to pass judgment on folks who come knocking on our door looking for help. My attitude might be different if the tables were turned and I came knocking on someone’s door, hat in hand, asking for a couple to dollars.

But, as I read today’s gospel, I can’t but think that Jesus couldn’t care less how I felt about these folks knocking on the door. He’d say “just help ‘em out and send ‘em on their way.”

Jesus also couldn’t care less if whether or not they were deserving of our help. Jesus seems to be placing no conditions on us lending a hand to folks who need help. Jesus would say, “Of course its folks who smell, who drink to much, who probably do drugs and gamble away their rent, who come knocking on your door. And I expect YOU to receive THEM as you would receive ME. I expect YOU to treat THEM like ROYALTY – like Christ the king – the guy you sing about.”

I don’t know about you but I find that hard to swallow. But let’s say for a moment, that it’s true, that Jesus wants us to receive hungry people like we’d receive him. It’s like Jesus is setting us up to fail. How do we get up in the morning knowing that each pair of pleading eyes, eyes asking us for food, for something to drink, for clothes on their backs, all Christ himself? And how we respond to those pleading eyes knowing our limited resources, our limited energy, our limited abilities, and recognize that our response will have direct implications for our eternal destiny?

That’s the question, isn’t it? At least that’s MY question. Unfortunately the bible isn’t the sort of book with all the answers in the back. Maybe Jesus meant to be completely unsettling. Maybe he wanted us to be so completely uncomfortable with this passage that we stop and think about how our lives impact the lives of others.

But one thing we CAN be sure of is that Jesus is not giving us a recipe for salvation, a scavenger hunt whose prize is the doorway to heaven. “Visited a prisoner? Check. Delivered food to the food bank? Check. Gave some clothes to the Salvation Army? Check.”

No. What is Jesus is offering us is a way of knowing who he is and how we can connect with him in the world. It’s as if Jesus is telling that super-spiritual experiences are a sham if we don’t see Jesus present in peoples’ suffering.

But I think you already know that. I think you already know that when you look into the eyes of someone who is hurting and vulnerable, you often see your own inabilities and helplessness. If we feed someone today, they’re still going to be hungry tomorrow.

But still, you keeping plugging away.

When I arrived here, I stopped telling stories in my sermons about the superheroes of the faith. You won’t get any stories from me about Martin Luther King Jr, St. Francis of Assisi, or Mother Teresa. People seemingly so holy as to be made out of marble.

No, I’d rather tell stories of no-name Christians. People with dirt under their finger nails, mud on their shoes, and wine on their breath. People just like you.

People who don’t know they’re doing God’s work until someone tells them. Even then they’re not sure. “When did we see you, Jesus?” they ask.

“Certainly there must be more to this God thing then delivering a casserole dish to the old guy next door whose wife died six years ago and he still can’t figure out the microwave,” they might say.

“Certainly, Jesus wants more from us than sitting in the corner with a new kid in Sunday school because she doesn’t know anyone in her class and is too shy to participate,” another might protest.

“Certainly, there’s more to this church thing than chopping vegetables at the soup kitchen on the last Thursday of the month, month after month, year after year, for the SAME people,” says yet other, shaking his head.

What about Paul and Silas turning the world upside down? What about the early Christians who were martyred for the faith? What about the saints of old whose lives breathed the message of Jesus?

God says, “Surprise!” Virtuoso Christians aren’t the point. In fact, super-duper faithful Christians often end up drawing attention to themselves rather than to the one they proclaim.

God wants US - frail, limited, petty, small, human beings - to do God’s work. God doesn’t want heroics. God wants simple faithfulness and gentle love for neighbour.

Anonymous Christians (to misuse theologian Karl Rahner’s excellent phrase) do God’s work without worrying how it will look. Their toil is its own reward. Their love – God’s love shining through them – is their message.

They’re often hard to spot because, on the surface, it doesn’t look like they’re doing anything special.

But if you look underneath you’ll see that it’s just your normal, everyday, healing the sick and raising the dead sort of stuff that happens all the time in the church.

For them, salvation is almost an after thought because they’re too busy doin’ stuff. But it’s on that last day and they close they’re eyes, they open them again in the full presence of Jesus, with his arms wide open, and he says, “Welcome, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Pentecost 26 - Year A

Did you know that if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, it DOESN’T make a noise?

Yes, that’s true. The tree’s fall will send out a sound wave. And it remains only a wave until it comes in contact with an ear which processes it as sound.

At least that’s the theory. Proving it is something else altogether.

Today’s gospel asks a similar question: If you have gifts and talents and you bury them under ground so no one can see them, how do you live the life that God intended for you?

You don’t.   They remain but potential until they come in contact with other’s lives, which then allow them to bloom and grow.  

At least that seems to be the message that today’s parable is getting across.  Proving it is something else altogether.

In one sense, this parable is easy for us to understand. For any of us who have investments, be it an RRSP, RESP, a stock portfolio, or whatever, this parable sings our tune. Investments. High yields. The value of risk and reward. Tough bosses.

But then the parable turns in on itself. Jesus’ listeners, while cheering on the high performing slaves, probably waited with baited breath to the find out what was going to happen to the one slave who plays it safe.

They could relate. The crowd was used to getting beaten up. They knew what was coming. If you’re on society’s bottom rung, you get used to the feel of people’s shoes on the back of your neck.

“I know you are a harsh man,” the slave says in his defense. “Reaping where you did not sow, taking from where you did not invest. You’re a hard-nosed business man. Nortel has nothing on you.”

The owner stands back and folds his arms against his chest.

“Really.” he says. “I gave you a substantial sum to play with. You could’ve done whatever you wanted with it. You could have been a creative as you wanted. The least you could have done is put the money in a GIC or a savings account. You could’ve done SOMETHING. But no, you weren’t just safe. You were cowardly”

The third slave, for whatever reason, was terrified of his master. It’s amazing what fear will do to us.

BBT points out:

“Fear is a small cell with no air in it and no light. It is suffocating inside and dark. There is no room to turn around inside it. You can only face in one direction, but it hardly matters since you cannot see anyhow. There is no future in the dark. Everything is over. Everything is past. When you are locked up like that, tomorrow is as far away as the moon.”

I’m guessing that’s what the slave felt: a paralyzing fear that stripped him of any initiative. He couldn’t help but see his boss as a tyrant, even when the boss was giving him a tremendous opportunity.

I wonder if that’s how many people see God. They expect God to be a judgmental tyrant and they can’t see the kindness that God offers them. Cultural religion is rife with a judgmental God. How can God be God if he isn’t smiting evil-doers, flooding the earth, or being the ultimate authority figure?

People expect God to be a punishing tyrant because that’s how they experience many Christians. Unfortunately, some of the loudest voices the Christian church has to offer are also the most shrill and condemning.

Flipping through the channels and stumbling across religious TV you see many tele-preachers with their well-moussed hair-dos and beads of angry sweat dribbling down their scrunched faces, haranguing to vast crowds hanging their every word.

While most Christians have little to no resemblance to these folks, we tend to get all lumped together. We can talk until our voices are hoarse saying God is loving and kind, when someone will point to the end of today’s reading as proof that God is looking for reasons to punish sinners rather than save them.

The ending to today’s parable, if taken at face value, would strike terror in the heart of any innocent by-stander, perhaps hearing from Jesus for the first time. It only confirms the rumour they heard about God being harsh and judgmental. And it only confirms what the slave thought of his boss:

“As for this worthless slave,” the boss thunders, “throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Wow. Is that a veiled threat?

It’s like Jesus is saying, “Either accept God’s kindness and generosity or you better get used to warm places.”

If I were one of Jesus’ disciples I’d say, “I don’t know if that’s the best tactic, Jesus.” If you’re trying to push folks to get off the couch and use what God has given them, then – maybe – you’ll want to use softer language, offer incentives, encourage rather than bully.

But those listening to Jesus, might have known that Jesus was in full rhetorical flourish. He wanted to hammer his point home; that God has lavished upon us so many more gifts than we can ever begin to use.

Our Bishop Steve Kristiansen, at last week’s Conference convention, said that if every Lutheran in the synod jumped all that the same time, we would create a tremor that the whole world could feel. Think of the untapped potential, latent among us!  We have talents among us that we haven’t even begun to delve into, let alone employ.

That’s what this parable is about. It tells us that God desires for us that joy of serving something larger than ourselves. God desires for us that sense of being caught up in something so HUGE that all we can do is take a deep breath and jump in head first.

George Bernard Shaw once said that:

“This is the true joy in life: the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown out in the scrapheap, the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish, little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

That’s what Jesus is talking about – to be a weasel, a selfish, little clod of ailments and grievances – the third slave – or to be part of a larger purpose, to give yourself, to give ALL yourself, ALL the living you have, to throw yourself into something bigger than you are.

God has created a world that is packed full of holiness – of beauty and wonder, of love and opportunities to love, of great joy – and gives it to US, to enjoy for a time – to see what WE can do with it. And God is tremendously excited to see what we might do with this wonderful gift.

I think that’s how God is asking us to think about our building programme, not as a solution to our building woes, but to use the new building as an offering to world, to use all our gifts to minister to those around us.

In other words: Trust the master. Take a risk. God has given us the gift of a lifetime! Maybe even longer!

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

All Saints - Year A

The condo-development where my mom lives backs on to a local cemetery. In fact, this cemetery has the distinction of being one of the only cemeteries in Canada that has a highway running through it.

Two weeks ago, after feeling a little cooped up in my mom’s house, Rebekah and I took the kids for a walk through the cemetery.

“What are those rocks sticking out of the ground?” Sophie asked.

“Those are headstones,” I replied, “They tell us who is buried there and when they lived.”

Sophie is still trying to figure out the whole death/dying thing. She knows that my dad is in heaven, as is our dog Zooey. But she can’t figure out how people can be buried, yet still be alive in heaven.

But I wonder if any of us have that really figured out.

As we walked through the cemetery, we noticed how some graves were immaculately kept. The grass around the headstone was neatly trimmed, even if weeds on the pathway covered our shoes.

Some graves looked abandoned. Or forgotten. Someone whose memory has been left to whither.

Others were decorated with mementoes. Things that meant something to the deceased. Or told a story about what he or she loved to do. A nine iron. A construction helmet. And in one sad instance, a Teddy Bear. Relics of a life lived well or not so well; or maybe just simply lived.

I’ve been told that it’s morbid to walk through cemeteries. That it’s better to live life than to brood about death.

So maybe I’ve got a bigger morbid streak running through me than most people. From the time I was five and my grandmother passed away, I’ve always had a certain fascination with cemeteries. I read the names and the dates. I wonder who they are. What they loved. What they despised. What contribution that made to the world – if any. If they enjoyed their lives or simply muddled through them.

I wonder if that’s what we’re doing on All Saint’s Day: taking a walk through a cemetery. For some, the names that we hear read out loud during the prayers are like the names we see on headstones; strangers, but with a story to tell that teaches us something about life.

For others, these names are of people whom we know intimately. People who shaped our lives, for good and for ill; whose legacy is still lingering around years after they’ve been gone.

All Saint’s day is like a family reunion, like pulling out our old photographs and remembering where we came from.

We remember those who angered us and those who inspired us. Those who raged against the dying of the light and those who went quietly their rest.  But we know, whether we acknowledge it or not, that we are – somehow- linked together. All Saints Day makes the bold claim that all our stories matter, that are lives are somehow webbed together with God’s Big Story of life and salvation.

St. Benedict said that an important spiritual discipline is to constantly remember that you are not the centre of the universe, but to use Benedict’s words, “Keep death daily before your eyes.”

I think that’s wise counsel. Death tells us a lot about life.

I’m old enough to remember the sirens blasting away from a tower just a block away from our school, and the teacher telling us to hide under our desks.

These types of drills, a practice for the end of time, while out of vogue in most of the rest of Canada, still happened on occasion in my hometown well into the ‘70’s.

“It’s because of Niagara Falls,” the teachers would say. “Niagara Falls is a nuclear target.”

So from the earliest of ages, my classmates and I learned that all life as we know it could be wiped out at faster than a well aimed spitball.

That is what we live with as children of the Nuclear Age. Now when hostilities between India and Pakistan heat up we all hide under our beds. Or when North Korea gets snippy, we all wonder if the world is going to end before the next commercial break. Or when we hear that Islamic terrorists may have gotten their hands on old Soviet-era bombs, we turn on the hockey game and hope for the best.

We wonder - or at least I wonder, – that when it is all said and done - if or when the Big One comes, if our lives and the stories they tell, will amount to a hill of radioactive beans.

Many people remark to me that they wonder the same thing, nuclear threat, terrorism, or not. They wonder if the headstone that marks their burial place will be the only monument left by which people will remember them; they wonder if their story will be lost, their name forgotten.

They wonder if when they close their eyes, they will never open them again.

So they come to the cemetery looking for some kind of guarantee. What clues to eternity are hidden amidst all this death? Are our loved ones really in heaven? Will we join them when we die? How will we know them? What really happens to us when we die?

Maybe that’s when God’s Big Story captures our attention, a story about the one who has been there and back again: Jesus the faithful bearer of God’s story. The story that tells us that our life is in God and God does not die.

When I make my occasional pilgrimages to the cemetery, I don’t just see death. I see promises yet to be fulfilled. I see possibilities hiding underneath each headstone. I see stories, some known to all the world and some known to God alone.

A funeral director once said that when our loved ones die and we remember them, when we tell their stories, we begin to be close to them. We come to know them in a new way – more like the way we will know them in heaven. (Beckmann p. 77)

I did a funeral once for a woman who took her own life. She was about to be charged with a crime and couldn’t live with the shame she felt she brought to her family. The son came to see me and asked that if any reporters came poking around that I should deny any knowledge of the service. He didn’t want any reporters crashing the funeral.

It turns out this woman’s story made it to the paper. And she would be forever known as for the crime she is said to have committed.

Her daughter shared some stories with me of this woman’s life. But stories mostly about how good she was with the grandchildren. How these small babies would stop crying when grandma picked them up and sang them a gentle lullaby. How she spent a month caring for the little ones when their mom was suffering from post-partum depression. How she worked hard to raise her children as a single mom. Her daughter wanted me to know that her mother’s story was more than the story people heard about in the newspapers.

Then others started sharing other stories with each other about this woman’s life. People seemed to remember that she was more than what the newspapers said she was. She impacted those around her in ways she probably didn’t know.

I couldn’t help but think that these are the stories that God remembers. These are the stories that God tells to the angels. These are the stories that tie us to God’s Great Story, where we are linked with that great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne crying out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God…”

So what is your story? How will you be measured among the saints? How does your story connect with the stories of others, or with God’s Big Story?

But we know that, no matter what stories our lives tell, we will tell them to the shepherd who guides us to the springs of the waters of life, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. On that day, there will be no more sorrow, no more pain, no more good-byes.

May this be so among us. Amen.