Sunday, October 29, 2006

Reformation Sunday - Year B

So, who was it? Who was it that told you that you weren’t good enough? Everyone has a story.

It begins early.

Maybe it was your brother who said that girls couldn’t play hockey.

Maybe it was a classmate who called you “dumb” because you couldn’t master your multiplication tables.

Maybe it was your parents who examined your straight “A” report card and asked why you didn’t get an A+.

Maybe it was a boss who said that folks like you were a dime a dozen and therefore weren’t worth a raise.

Maybe it was your spouse who called you “stupid” in order to feel superior.

Maybe it was a fire-breathing preacher who waved a condemning finger in your face for every little sin.

Maybe it was your God who threatened you with eternal hell-fire for having simple human weakness.

I know you’re not alone. Everyone has a story.

The father of our Lutheran faith, Martin Luther, told a similar tale. He lived in terror of God’s judgment. The church at his time placed impossible demands on people, and those who failed to meet those demands were threatened with the fires of Hell. And Luther was earnestly faithful enough to try to meet all the obligations that were placed on him.

But he feared for his soul.

The litany of requirements was relentless. Prayer every morning, noon, and night. Fifty laps around the rosary. Kiss the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Stare at some saint’s old bones. Hand over your paycheques to the church to spring Uncle Hans from purgatory. And maybe – just maybe – you could fend off the wrath of the Almighty.

But Luther couldn’t do it all. And if anyone had the gumption to pull all this off it was good ‘ol Martin Luther.

But try as he might, he failed, again and again and again. And every time he fell short, he looked to the heavens and his eyes filled with terror.

And he came to the point that he lashed out saying he HATED God. He hated God for placing impossible requirements on people then punishing them when they failed. How can God be just or fair or righteous when God seems to delight in condemning people for not living up to unattainable standards?

So Luther wondered if there could be a God he could love, and so he was directed to a foreign land, a domain where he was previously discouraged from journeying. His spiritual director took him in hand and guided him to the scriptures.

One thing you could say about Luther was that he never did anything half way. He immersed himself in the scriptures the same way he threw himself into racing after the church’s impossible demands. He learned ancient Greek and Hebrew. He memorized most the bible and earned a doctorate in what would now be called Old Testament studies.

He even read the scriptures while doing his morning business. As he closed the door to the outhouse he opened Paul’s letter to the Romans and met these words:

“But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law”

For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law. He let those words settle on his lips and absorb into his skin.

For we hold that we are loved and forgiven by God because of our faith, and not because of anything we have done or not done.

For we hold that neither church rituals nor religious requirements will bring us into a right relationship with God.

For we hold that insults, abusive relationships, or harsh obligations, have no power over us.

For we hold that three-car-garage houses in the ‘burbs, bloated bank accounts, and fancy degrees mean nothing.

For we hold that all that matters to God is our faith. And even our faith is a gift.

Martin dropped his book, finished what he was doing, and began the work of telling everyone about this magnificent truth that had been hidden in plain slight.

And we know that not everyone wanted to hear that message. The religious authorities went ballistic when they heard what Luther had to say. Because it’s easier to live under a comfortable judgment than to figure out how to live the chaos of freedom and forgiveness.

It’s easier to be told what to do rather than live out our salvation in joy and awe.

It’s easier to put up fences around religious life, enforcing rules and regulations rather than letting the Holy Spirit inspire us.

It’s easier to control others, to tell people how to think and how to live, rather than to trust that the bible can move them to deeper discipleship.

It’s easier to point out peoples’ faults rather than celebrate the gifts we have been given.

It’s easier to despair of the evil of this world rather than to look for hopeful signs of the kingdom that is blooming all around us.

I know how easy all this is because I see myself in its foul simplicity. But if we think that rules and regulations are hard to live by, then we need to take a closer look at faith. Faith means letting go of the need to control our lives and the lives of others.

Faith means seeing new life being born everyday, even while the evening news warns us of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions

Faith means believing the Holy Spirit is working among our young people, growing them into disciples of Jesus through their relationships with each other and the rest of us, through their service projects and their learning, becoming the leaders of their generation.

Faith is daring to see ourselves as God sees us, from Jesus’ view from the cross and not how anyone else does.

Faith trusts that there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God stop loving you. God sees you as someone worth dying for.

Faith hopes that when our eyes close in death, they will open again in the fullness of God’s presence.

See, I told you faith was hard. That’s why faith is something we’ve been given, and not something we can create on our own. That’s why faith is a gift.

So, who was it? Who told you that you weren’t good enough? It certainly wasn’t God. As loud as those voices are, it is God’s still, small voice that tells you the truth. The truth that you are loved. The truth that you are beautiful and precious. The truth that all the rules and regulations in the world won’t measure up to the love that God has for you and the whole world. The truth that Martin Luther reminds us of: that we are justified by faith and not by works of the law.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Pentecost 20 - Year B

If you’re like me and you watch TV preachers, you’ve probably encountered some of these guys who say that if you want to be rich and successful, then turn your life over to Jesus and receive God’s blessing. A blessing which, of course, takes the form of beachfront property or $2000 Armani suits.

Some folks call this prosperity gospel, where faith becomes a technique for getting what we want, where the object of our worship is not God for what God has done for us in Jesus, but in what we can get out of the relationship. Christianity is not about God, it’s about us. It’s baptized consumerism.

If these guys were around 2000 years ago (and they were) then Jesus’ disciples would have drank up their message like cheap Molson’s at Happy Hour. These preachers would have received a hearty “Amen!” from Jesus’ disciples. At least that would be your conclusion if you listen in on their argument in today’s gospel. James and John are fighting they way brothers often do. “Who’s going to sit at Jesus’ right hand, the seat of power, when the Kingdom of God comes in it fullness?”

“Who is going to be the Grand Pooh-bah in the presence of the Almighty?”

A little presumptuous, don’t you think? That’s how Jesus heard it. James and John hadn’t a clue what they were asking.

When the other disciples caught wind of what these two were up to they were understandably miffed. And given Jesus’ little sermon to them, I think they were angry because they were left out of the running. They wanted a piece of the action themselves. Why should James and John get all the good stuff?

It’s easy to look down at the disciples for being so obtuse.

You’d think that after following Jesus around and hanging on his every word, the disciples would have a clearer hint as to how Jesus wanted them to live. But it’s obvious from today’s bible reading that they hadn’t the foggiest notion of what Jesus wanted from them.

But at least they’re honest. They didn’t lower their eyes in feigned reverence, only to go off and do what they wanted when the teacher wasn’t looking. Part way through Mark’s gospel they’re like little kids who don’t want to kick up a fuss. Mark tells us that the disciples “didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, but were afraid to ask.”

Jesus’ inner circle, those who knew him best, were amazed and afraid of him. It makes sense. They never know what he’s going to say next, let alone what he’s going to do. First he’s hugging lepers, and then he’s telling folks to love those who hurt them. There’s no common sense with Jesus. Jesus can’t be accused of being a well-adjusted, participating member of society. No citizenship awards for him. It seems that Jesus goes out of his way to prove just how crazy he is. Forget about his cousin John. Jesus is the REAL Wildman.

And either the disciples don’t see or choose to ignore his quirkier moments, because they still lusted for worldly power and glory, even when Jesus warned them about the nails and the grave.

I remember when I was elected Dean of the Atlantic Conference (the dean is the bishop’s representative for a specific geographic area), I was elected on the FIRST BALLOT. The bishop’s assistant who was overseeing the election said she hadn’t ever seen that before. It often takes at least two ballots before someone is elected. Usually more.

“It will be an honour to serve God and church in this office,” I said as I accepted the position with all the solemn dignity appropriate for the occasion. But inside I was beaming. My innards transformed into one big smile. I was the Grand Pooh-Bah in my little domain.

I really enjoyed the job. I was able to connect with the wider church in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if I planted myself firmly within my own sphere of influence. It was a lot of work. And a lot of fun.

But if we take today’s gospel seriously, how I felt about the job wasn’t the point. The point is that I should be a slave. I should be willing to grab Jesus’ cup of death with two hands and start chugging. I should be willing to be dunked with Jesus in his baptism until water fills my lungs. Enjoyment? Significance? FUN? That’s all irrelevant. What’s important, the text seems to be saying, is dying to self for the sake of someone else.

“Don’t get sidetracked by your petty ambitions,” Jesus seems to be saying. “Don’t let your ego get in the way when the Kingdom of God starts rolling.”

At least that’s the way this passage has been traditionally interpreted.

But I wonder, if that’s the standard, then who can serve? We are all a muddle of mixed motivations. If Jesus is looking for purity of purpose, then he’s asking the wrong crowd. None of us comes unpolluted by the need for significance.

And I ask if that is such a bad thing. I know when I recruit Stephen Ministers, I look for folks who are willing to serve selflessly, but I also look for people who are looking to make their lives mean something, something more than the TV culture that keeps us amused and anesthetized rather than encountering something real and significant.

And those who have heard and answered the call to serve as Stephen Ministers, who make the two year commitment, who go through the 50 hours of training, do so for the privilege of sitting - one-on-one - with people who are going to through a difficult disease, a job loss, the death of a spouse, mental illness, or whatever else people struggle with. Yes, it’s hard work. Yes, it can be gut- wrenching. Yes, it can sometimes end in failure, and even in death.

But I think that if you ask the Stephen Ministers, they might tell you that the more they give of themselves, the more they find they have. When they drink the cup that Jesus drinks, they find sweet wine rather than bitter poison. That when they drown with Jesus in the waters of baptism, they rise with him to see the kingdom blossom in all it’s upside down glory.

And it’s not just the Stephen Ministers who give of themselves here at Good Shepherd. It’s not just the formalized ministries who drink from Jesus’ cup. It’s you, all of you, everyday. Every time we gather together in Jesus’ name, knowing that we cannot be who we are without one another other. We are invested, even adorned with each other.

What I don’t think Jesus is asking us to do is to give up ourselves, to be drowned in the water of his death, because Jesus knew he’d go to his death alone. I think Jesus is asking us to dig around to find where real life is buried. Because it’s not where we might think. Real life is hidden in the faces of those who suffer, who cry pails of tears, whose stomachs whimper with hunger; whose marriages are collapsing, whose faces bear the marks of a life badly lived, those whose eyes catch the frozen gaze of death.

And believe it or not, that’s where Jesus says we will find life. That’s where the kingdom is hidden.

Today, Duncan Hugh Macintyre is joining your ranks as a servant of God’s upside down kingdom, where he joins Jesus in his baptism. Where he puts on the garments of servanthood and takes up the yoke of a slave, toiling in the Lord’s vineyard of love and compassion.

It is my prayer that Duncan and all of us will be great in our slavery, will live lives that matter, will find significance and life in the faces of those who suffer, and discover the greatness of those who give of themselves, and who receive much more than they ever thought possible.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Pentecost 19 - Year B

Some folks have asked if I choose the bible readings for Sunday morning. To which I’m tempted to respond, “Why would I choose to make my life more difficult than it already is?”

Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus talk about cutting off body parts if they make us sin. Last week we got his rather uncompromising stance on divorce and re-marriage. This week, we are told to we need to sell everything and give it to the poor we have if we want to be his follower. Simply knowing the bible is not enough.

If it was up to me, I’d avoid these passages like the Ebola Virus.

But we follow the lectionary. Lectionary means “readings.” These lectionary readings are read in churches all around the world. They’ve been agreed upon by church leaders of many shapes and stripes. The lectionary makes sure that preachers like me don’t always preach on their pet passages. That we have no control over what readings we encounter each week. And I’m sure that the folks who put the lectionary together have some idea of why these difficult readings should run in succession, even if they make my life complicated.

Today’s reading seems to be the climax of chapter 10. This is where Mark ends a string of increasingly demanding and uncomfortable Jesus sayings. This bible reading, this text from Mark’s gospel, chafes and burns like sandpaper. It shows our discipleship as nothing but dirty rags.

“Turn the other cheek,” Jesus says somewhere else, and we remember the time when we angrily swore at the guy who stole our parking spot.

“Love your neighbour as yourself,” Jesus commands, and we remember when we crossed the street to avoid the homeless person coming our way.

“Go sell all you have and give it to the poor,” we overhear Jesus tell that rich, young, man. And we hope those words are meant only for him, because we don’t want Jesus to ask the same thing of us.

“It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Ouch! What was personal for the young man all of sudden became uncomfortably universal.

It is so uncomfortable that we soften the story. We talk about how the Greek words for “camel” and “rope” are very similar and that Jesus was making a bit of a pun. We come up with a myth about a gate in Jerusalem that was called the “eye of the needle” – that a camel could get through, only if it got down on its knees and crawled. And we all know how often camels crawl on their knees.

If Jesus was saying the same thing today he might say “It’s easier for Bill Gates to slide through the slot of the ATM machine than it is for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

But that doesn’t help us very much, does it?

It wasn’t as if this young man was a bad guy. He was your model Sunday school student. He knew the bible inside and out and he could recite the Ten Commandments backwards and forwards. He listened attentively in confirmation class, memorized the catechism, and turned in his worship notes ahead of time. He was the kid with all the right answers.

But Jesus cuts him no slack.

He was asking the question that was probably on everyone’s mind, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

That’s a great question, don’t you think? I’m guessing everyone has asked that question at one point in their life. But Jesus’ answer gives him no relief.

“If you want to inherit eternal life, you need to get rid of everything. Your house. Your car. Your job. Leave your wife and kids behind. Everything you believe to be true, everything you possess – even your relationships – leave it all behind and come follow me.”

That’s not quite what I had in mind, Jesus. Certainly, you mean you just want us to help out now and then at the soup kitchen; feeding those who can’t feed themselves.

“No, I want you.”

Jesus, of course you mean that you want me to give more money to the church. After all we have a building project we’re fundraising for.

“No, I want it all. Everything.”

C’mon Jesus, you mean to say that you want us to take our faith life more seriously, to read the bible more often, to pray more frequently, to attend church more regularly.

“No, I want your very life.”

Jesus, no one can do what you’re asking.

“Exactly. What you can’t do, God can.”

We soften the harsh sandpaper demand of Jesus, and in so doing, we refuse to let it do the job of filing us down. Of recognizing how far we’ve strayed from God’s path. It’s not that Jesus wants to lay a guilt trip on us; Jesus wants to set us free, to worship God the way God wants to be worshipped and live the way God lives in Jesus. Jesus wants us to see where we ignore the first three commandments in our lives – just like the rich young man did: after all, he started with the fourth commandment leaving out the first three about putting God first in our lives, when he answered Jesus’ question.

And I know that he’s not alone. I’m the same way. I haven’t done what Jesus asked the rich young man to do. And I’m up here speaking on God’s behalf. Which makes me a first class hypocrite, regardless of my robes, collar, and ordination certificate. Or maybe because of them.

But my hypocrisy doesn’t soften the sandpaper of this text. That is what Jesus says to us – to you and to me – and either the sandpaper does its work – rubs us raw – or we walk back into safety and security like the rich young man.

So, what is it that prevents us from following Jesus in the way he’s demanding? What once brought tears to my eyes was the realization that, in part, our very religion holds us back. We have structured our discipleship to soften the blow. We hide in beautiful buildings, sing lovely hymns, hear wonderful music, and enjoy astonishing art. We do this so the sandpaper won’t hurt us. So we’ll be comforted rather than challenged. So we’ll be soothed, rather than rubbed raw.

So what do we do? I am a preacher. I am called to interpret the word of God for this community. But in this case I’m called to preach a word that I haven’t been able to live up to myself.

But maybe it’s because I know that I can’t be a follower of Jesus all by myself. I need you to help me. And we need each other.

Maybe you have the greater vision here. Maybe you have greater courage. Maybe you have the greater call because you can’t hide behind church trappings. At least not most of the week. You have the greater task because you live your faith in the world, not just in the church, like us professional Christians.

Today, in the waters of Holy Baptism, Kayla Brooke Trechka joins your courageous company. Where, together, we learn how to be followers of Jesus. The Christian faith is something we’re all CALLED to, not a perfection we’re trying to ACHIEVE. It’s about realizing the dream that God sees when God looks out at the world and sees pain and death, and wants so desperately to see a world where love and joy and peace prosper, where God’s enterprise of new life flourishes and thrives, where our lives and our loyalties lie with the one who gave up everything so that we could have everything God has to offer.

It seems a tall order for any of us to accomplish on our own. But with God, all things are possible. Amen.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Pentecost 18 - Year B

NB: Had a wee bit 'o help from Willimon's Pulpit Resource.

Usually, Jesus seems to be the enemy of legalistic, literalistic interpretations of biblical law.

“The Sabbath was meant for people, not people for the Sabbath,” he corrects a group of cranky old clergy after getting in trouble when his followers pick grain for their Sabbath meal ON the Sabbath.

And he sometimes appears to be playing fast and loose with the strict laws on ritual purity. “Look! A glutton and a drunk. A friend of tax collectors and sinners! He puts his hands on those filthy lepers and heals and hugs those disgusting, diseased street people,” his critics charge.

So, it’s a bit surprising to hear Jesus take a hard-line when he’s asked a question on what was a hot topic that day: is it OK for a man who has divorced his wife to get remarried?”

Maybe this would have been a good time for him to say: Hey, what about the WOMEN? Shouldn’t they be allowed to get a divorce as well? Why do the men get to do what ever they want leaving the women to get hung out to dry?”

Or he could have paraphrased his earlier statement for a new situation: “Marriage is made for humanity, not humanity for marriage.” People first. Institution second. It would sound like vintage Jesus.

But no. His eyes squint and spits the question right back at them: “What does Moses say?”

“Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her,” they spit back.

“Yeah, he did that because you folks were so nasty to each other. But you know what God wants. Right from the beginning, the bible says that “God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. Period.”

Later, when they were alone the disciples asked, “Seriously, Jesus. What do you REALLY mean about divorce? You were just trying to stick it to a bunch of pompous pastors and religious snobs, right? You didn’t REALLY mean all that stuff, did you?”

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. End of story,” Jesus says.

Maybe there was too much starch in his shorts. Maybe he was reacting to the charges that he’s being too wishy-washy. Maybe he just needed a little more fibre in his diet. But there it is. He said what he said. No commentary needed.

I know what some of you might be thinking, because I’ve thought it too: What do you know about it, Jesus? You’re single. You never had to fight about who takes out the garbage or who picks the kids up at school, about who cuts the grass or who cooks the meals. You’ve never been ditched for a boys’ drunken night out, and you’ve never received the silent treatment during playoffs.

You’ve never found lipstick on the collar, or strange hotel receipts that fell out of her purse.

You’ve never looked across the dinner table and wondered who this stranger is you’ve been living with for too many years.

Jesus, all of us either are people who are divorced and remarried. Or know and love folks who are in their second or even third marriages. What about them? They’re trying to make their relationships work. Are you calling them adulterers?

Would you tell a woman who gets smacked around by her husband to stay where she is, to stay committed to her wedding vows, even if her husband has not? Or if she finds the courage to escape an abusive marriage, are you saying that she can’t find another relationship, another partner, one who will treat her with the dignity and respect she deserves? Are you condemning her to a life of loneliness because of the actions of her abusive husband?

If so, then that’s quite the statement, Jesus.

But Jesus says what he says. There’s no wiggle room. Jesus couldn’t be any plainer.

That’s when Jesus’ lowers his voice: “Don’t you get it? I’m TRYING to protect them. With all these easy divorces around, women and children are left to beg on the streets. They’re at the merciful whim of their husbands and fathers. I’ve seen guys walk away from their families because his wife put too much salt on the potatoes or burned the chicken. Without him, there’s no way for the woman to support her children. They have no land and no job. I’m trying to protect those who cannot protect themselves.”

At least that was the argument folks made 2000 years ago to explain why Jesus said what he did.

So what is this story saying to us today? Does Jesus’ blanket statement about strenuous fidelity to marriage vows still stand?

Maybe. Some folks say that it’s too easy to get a divorce these days. With the divorce rate floating back and forth between 45 and 50 percent, some suggest that we need tougher guidelines for folks trying to end their marriage.

But that makes me wonder, creating more hoops to jump through may slow the divorce rate, but will they make for stronger marriages? Or will they simply put legal barriers to situations where divorce will happen anyway?

But I think for us as Christians, the question is: Was Jesus making a once-and-for-all final word about divorce and remarriage, or was he dealing with a specific issue of society’s most vulnerable people being hurt by those who are supposed to protect them?

We can bat that question back and forth because I don’t have a definitive answer. I know what God’s ideal regarding marriage is because Jesus lays it all out in this passage. But I also know a how messy human relationships can be, how human relationships can be filled with joy, fraught with pain, or burdened with boredom.

And I have to admit, I prepared this sermon with much fear and trembling, because I know that many of you have been hurt by divorce, the breakdown of what was to be a lifetime commitment. Maybe you, your parents, your child, or someone close to you has seen a marriage fall to ruin, and the experience has scarred everyone within arm’s reach. Divorce causes very real and legitimate pain. And Jesus’ words sound needlessly harsh as they stand alone – outside of their history.

But I think what Jesus is talking about is not divorce per se, but commitment. Commitment to promises we make to each other, and commitment to protect the weakest, most vulnerable people around us.

That’s why, over the past few weeks, and for the next few weeks, when we gather our gifts as our offering to God, we include baskets of food for the Food Bank. It is a symbol of our commitment, as people of God, to protect those who cannot protect themselves from hunger. It’s a small thing. But it’s something. And in offering our food to the hungry, we renew our commitment to God as followers of Jesus Christ.

So, if today’s gospel makes us squirm then it’s doing its job. It’s what Jesus meant for it to do. We know that in God’s perfect world, people’s commitment and love last forever. But in our broken and fallen world, people get hurt and they hurt each other. Everyone is scarred in some way. No one is exempt.

Jesus was calling people to a greater vision of what the world can be, the way that God wants it to be, the way that God is busy making it into. It may have been a backhanded mode of preaching good news, but it is good news nonetheless, if we have ears to hear it. It was certainly good news for wives who lived in fear that her husband might leave her and the kids, leaving them poor and penniless. And it was good news for the children who never felt love and affection, let alone a blessing.

And its good news for us, because Jesus is saying that when God makes a commitment, God honours that commitment. And Jesus is asking us to do for each other what God has done for us: to be a people of commitment and blessing, knowing that there is forgiveness when we fail, and healing when we break.

And in return, we offer to God our thanksgiving.

May this be so among us. Amen.