Sunday, February 25, 2007

Lent 1 - Year C

It was clear, Jesus had options. And Satan knew it. So did Jesus. Jesus could have popped open the celestial oven and grab some bread. He could have snapped his fingers and solved world hunger. He could have flown in the air and attracted a big crowd.

But with options come choices.

Testing God or trusting God. Power or weakness. Leading by force or by the slow and often painful and failure ridden work of leading by the weakness of love.

Jesus chose truth, trust, weakness. I guess the implication is that Jesus wants us to live by those same values.

Which is all very well and good, inspiring even. And I get moved to live and serve that way when I hear these stories, or when I sing hymns such as “Go to dark Gethsemane” or “beneath the Cross of Jesus.” Those wonderful Lent and Good Friday hymns that speak of God’s upside down power.

But then I wipe the dew from my eyes and face the real world. Weakness. Failure. Even love. These are not the ways I want to change the world. This not the vision I have in my head when I’m confronted with hunger or violence, grief or despair. Where God’s is like an absentee-deity when confronted with a world bent on destroying itself.

Often, when I think of God I ask, “Why do you allow this?” or “why are you hiding?” or even “How long, O Lord, must we wait?” Sometimes I ask no question at all. I just say “Get ‘em, God!” making God my own personal agent of revenge.

I think our most primal temptation are like Jesus’ temptations. And God asks us to refuse them the same way that Jesus does: relying on the Spirit who is in us all, turning to the Word of God to teach us wisdom, and searching out – and confessing – the truth about ourselves and each other.

But there is one temptation here that we have not acknowledged. It’s hidden here in plain sight, and that is the temptation to believe that God is NOT like the bible says God is.

In the past, Christians have said that in this story, Jesus is fully human just like us, can by fully tempted like us, yadda, yadda, yadda, but often nothing is said about how God, who is in Jesus, is fully tempted here.

It’s one thing to say that temptation is our human lot, that we are to rely on the power of truth, trust, and the weakness of love – but it’s another thing to say that this is God’s lot too.

Do we really believe in a God like that? Do we WANT to believe in a God like that? A God who relies on truth transforming us? A God who thinks that love can change the world? A God who wants mercy to mend broken hearts?

No offense, God, but truth is too slow a process and we’ve got too many liars on the planet. A God who asks us to trust – no offense God, but you are often silent when we most need you to speak. A God who acts in love – LOVE – when we face the onslaught of basic human greed destroying the planet, the threat of violence that puts human life in danger, the hatred between peoples born of pride and the lust for power – no offense, God, what’s the point of being God if you can’t throw YOUR power around?

Also, I live in the real world. This love and trust mumbo-jumbo may sound nice on Sunday morning at church, but when I step out the front doors, people are trying to get me. They’re gonna try to take what’s rightfully mine, everything I’ve worked hard to accumulate. No offense, God, but you’re looking pretty weak.

If you listen hard, that’s exactly what the devil was whispering in Jesus’ ear: IF you are the Son of God…” the devil says, mockingly. “Are you really sure you are who you think your are? Are you really sure God is who you think God is? What does it mean to be God, Jesus? After all, what if everything you say you believe is wrong?”

I have to admit, that’s my biggest temptation. Often – like several times a day – I find myself asking God, “Why do you allow this? Children to be chocked to death by power windows in SUVs. Cancer rates rising. Wars that threaten to escalate, putting all life on earth in serious jeopardy. Seems like a dumb way to run the world. What’s the point of being God if you act to quietly? Or even, angrily, that nasty little prayer for revenge “Get ‘em God!”

I’m guessing that you, sometimes, give into that temptation, too. We do have an odd God – a God who is not always easy to follow, or even agree with in how God has arranged the world.

But the good news is that God we are not asked to be God. We are asked to be human. Sometimes I don’t know how God can stand it, looking at all the trauma of the world and still believing that trust, truth, and love is the way for us to live. But God still has faith in us and the world.

We see that in the way Jesus responded to Satan. It can’t be easy, being God – and the devil does tempt God with other, easier paths. But Jesus follows that path today, and even when that path lead to a horrible death – refusing to turn stones to bread or call down the heavenly hosts to protect him, refusing to jump down from the temple, he refused to jump down off the cross.

And by this, we know that our giving into temptation – our choosing lies, deal-making, and power – will not have the final say. Where we give in, God does not give in.

And who has the final say? To all appearances, it often seems like the devil does. But look closely at the gospel. It is Jesus who has the final word here, and even on the cross, God has the final say. And it is God who has the final say with us, too. And God has faith in us.

And that’s the promise that God has for Benjamin today. Through the waters of baptism God is saying that God trusts Benjamin to be an agent of healing in the world. God has faith that Benjamin will shine with mercy and glow with love. And that in all his temptations and failures, God will walk with him every step of the way, lifting him when he falls, loving him in his weakness, and gently guiding him home when he is lost.

And may this be so among us. Amen.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ash Wednesday

It took me a while to realize what I was doing, but I noticed that after I preside over a funeral, I write something on my blog about it. And also, if it’s warm, I sometimes take Sophie to the cemetery afterwards and “introduce” her to the person I just buried.

I don’t know what it is about funerals that make me more reflective. It might be the obvious. I’m face to face with someone who had died.

And it’s hard to proclaim a message of life and salvation at a funeral service without some peoples’ tears landing on you, bringing out tears of your own.

Maybe it’s because death causes me to face my own doubts. When you’re standing at the foot of an occupied casket, with family members quietly wiping their eyes, it’s hard to keep the bible’s promises of resurrection as abstract theory or weighty theological principles. It’s hard to pontificate when people are weeping. It’s difficult to spout soft religious platitudes in the midst of life and death questions

Maybe that’s why I get reflective. I find funerals to be an uncomfortable reminder that one day I will lie in that coffin, and I don’t like that scenario. I don’t like being confronted with the fact that, yes, I have come from dust, and to dust I will return.

Two years ago, I was almost killed on the Granum highway. Twice. Within the space of two minutes. It was snowing and I took the turn off Highway 2 too fast, hit some black ice and my car spun into on-coming traffic before sliding toward a ditch.

A minute later – after retrieving my heart from my throat - I went east on an unpaved side road. An 18-wheeler came barreling down the westbound lane. A gust of wind pushed me into the lane in front the truck. At the very last moment my tires clenched some gravel and I was able to pull the car back into the eastbound lane.

Seconds. Milliseconds later. I'd be maggot feed.

This is the closest I've ever come to dying. At least that I know of.

When I got to my office an hour later I was still shaking inside. I kept running the events over and over in my head, constructing little scenarios about what people would do in the event of my demise. Where would the funeral be? Who would preside? Who would attend?

I thought about how my two little girls would grow up without a dad. Rebekah would bury her husband. I would only be a memory. A few pictures in a box. Some posts on a blog.

I used to think that I was prepared for death. This is not because I have super duper, unshakable confidence in the resurrection to eternal life.

No. I have HOPE in the resurrection, not certainty. I have NO IDEA for sure what happens to us when we die. The bible makes promises, tells stories and poems, and tries it’s darndest to relieve us hapless souls of our existential anxiety. But alas, the bible does not offer certainty.

I used to believe that I was prepared for death for one simple reason: I’ve outlived many friends. I’m 37 and I know my fair share of dead people.

When I was in grade 3, a classmate died from bone cancer. In high school, a basketball player keeled over and died during practice. My dad passed away when I was 20. In university, it seemed that a summer break couldn’t go by without the news of someone dying while away from school. Seven years ago, a classmate and colleague, who was a year younger than me, died suddenly from meningitis 2 days before Christmas.

And I outlived them all. So whatever life I have now, I consider gravy. I used to tell myself that I have to live the life that these people were robbed of.

At least that was the theory. It sounded good. It FELT good. But after that’s day’s near misses I feel like I need to confront my own mortality – for real. I don’t know what that looks like or how it will make me behave differently. Some moments it makes me afraid to leave the house. Other moments I need to be out in the world doing something, making a difference, leaving my mark, “participating in God’s reconciling love for the world” as our church’s purpose statement puts it.

But today it simply means rubbing ashes on my head.

It is a cliché that after a near miss, life seems better, fuller, your senses sharpen; food tastes better, flowers smell better. But like most clichés, it contains an emptied husk of truth.

Near misses remind me that, one day, I will say good bye to those whom I love. When I snuggle with my daughter before she falls asleep I know that, one day, we will part. Either she will die or I will. The same goes for my wife. And everyone else in my life. I call that the underside of intimacy. With great love there is also great loss.

When I remind myself that one day I will say good-bye, I also remind myself that that day is not today. Today I will love and be grateful. Let tomorrow take care of itself. I think I read that somewhere.

But even if I had 100% scientific proof that my dust will not be the end of my story, I will probably still harbour deep anxiety about death. I think death, and with it, resurrection, is one of those things you need to experience in order to really understand it. I wonder if that’s one of the reasons Jesus died, so that the divine could experience human fragility and limitations. In other words, in Jesus God knows what it’s like to die.

And I suppose that God gave us the gift of fasting to remind us that we are fragile and limited, and why Jesus put boundaries around our fasting, because he knew that, like everything else we do as human beings, we do the rituals and forget about their meanings. He knew that we’d make fasting about US, and how super-spiritual we are. We sometimes think that merely doing our rituals is enough.

But rubbing ashes on our heads reminds us that we are going to die some day. That, for me, is a hard ritual, maybe even harder than giving up fatty foods for Lent.

So, maybe that’s why God asks me to fast, and maybe you as well. It’s hard to arrogantly flow through life, seemingly invincible, when you’ve got a reminder of your mortality stuck to your forehead.

Even after we sponge it off, it never completely washes clean. It stays with us whether we can see it or not. Only though the waters of life given to us in baptism is the stain of death removed.

In the meantime, I think keep mine on, and maybe you should too. After all, it’s not just a reminder that I’m going to die some day; it’s also the promise of new and everlasting life that is found in Jesus.

May these ashes never rub off until we see Jesus face to face. Amen.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Epiphany 6 - Year C

I guess it depends on where you’re sitting as to whether you hear good news in today’s gospel reading.

If you were there that day then you might think, wow, this Jesus guy has a huge heart. He’s everything you want in a preacher: he’s kind, he’s gentle, he understands the depths of human suffering and his soft words soothe the anxious soul and grieving heart.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”

Then he gets to part two, and Jesus’ eyes squint, his teeth clench, and his words harden, and he slips into attack mode. Blessings turn to curses. Love turns to anger. Sermon erupts into rant.

“You rich folks, you were good at working the kingdoms of this world to your advantage. Now in God’s reign you will be cursed.

“For those of you who are full, stuffed with all that can be consumed in this culture, having found so many ways to satisfy your hunger, what more can God do for you? In God’s coming reign you shall be damned to emptiness.

“Wipe that smirk off your face, you self-satisfied ones. There’s a new saviour in town. Time for tears.” (Willimon)

I don’t know if folks were surprised by the vehemence of Jesus’ sermon. If they were they shouldn’t have been. After all, Mary warns us in her opening song in Luke that a Messiah was coming who would cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly; the poor are fed and the rich sent away empty. It’s clear from her little ditty that God takes sides, that if we want to find who God is, we shouldn’t be looking to the heavens; we should be looking down underneath us, and all around us.

It’s hard to think of God taking sides. After all, doesn’t God love EVERYONE? Didn’t Jesus die for the WHOLE WORLD?

I know how uncomfortable that sounds. I hesitated before writing it. But how else would you describe what Mary was saying in her song?

If that wasn’t enough, think of two weeks ago when we heard Jesus’ inaugural address where he said that he was fulfilling what the prophet Isaiah said:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

So, if Jesus’ sandpaper sermon came as a surprise to his disciples, then they weren’t paying attention. Or they simply chose not to hear him.

But they were awake now. No one was snoozing through this sermon. There were grumblings from the front row, but cheering was erupting from the cheap seats.

This was different from the way Matthew tells the story. He only has part one of Jesus’ sermon. He includes the blessings but leaves out the curses. He points to heaven as a reward for putting up with a small, pitiful, human existence, and the rich get off scott-free.

But Luke seems to glory in Jesus’ sayings about poor people being lifted up and rich folks getting run over by the divine steamroller. Theologians have picked up on this and even made up a term for it; they call it: God’s preferential option for the poor.

I don’t know about you, but that rubs me the wrong way. It tells me that I’m not at the top of God’s priority list; that God’s preference is for someone else. I may not be living high off the hog, but to many folks around the world and even to some here in Lethbridge, I’m living large.

It tells me that because I won the cosmic lottery and was born into a part of the world where I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to sleep or what I was going to eat, and that because I had access to a good education, and a good doctor was a quick phone call away, that somehow, I get penalized for it.

It tells me that I’m cursed for working in a decent paying job and for having a good looking resume. It tells me that all my hard work means nothing.

And when I look to the scriptures for an explanation, trying to figure out what God is up to, I’m left with these cold hard words: blessed you who are POOR, for YOURS is the kingdom of God.

But there’s no wiggling out of it. Try as I might, I need to take the bible seriously, and the bible tells me that Jesus spent most of his time with people who were dirt poor; folks who were pushed to the edges of their world. He had little time for people who wanted everyone to think they had it all together. In fact, Jesus said “beware when people speak well of you.”

He certainly doesn’t make it easy to be a Christian, does he?

So, okay, Jesus, just so we’re clear. Are you saying that my master’s degree and all the toil and effort that went into becoming a pastor mean nothing?


Are you saying that working hard to put a roof over my kids’ heads and food in their mouths is sheer silliness in God’s eyes?


Are you saying that all the time and effort I put into building relationships and nurturing community count for nothing in the kingdom of God?

You’re missing the point, Jesus would say. Why would God want to show up where God isn’t needed? Why would God bother with those who already have all they want? Why would the Great Physician go where no one needs healing?

If you want to see where God is, Jesus seems to be saying, look in the eyes of a teenager dying from cancer. Look at the swelled belly of a starving child in Africa. Look at the clenched fist of the man who just buried his wife.

Then look in your own heart, run your hand along the cracks, cracks that you tried to tell yourself weren’t there.

Then – maybe – God’s curses turn to blessings. The greedy become generous. The grieving sing songs of gladness. The hungry eat until they’re about to burst. The dying leap from their beds, restored and renewed.

Maybe it’s like how Paul puts it in today’s second reading, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who died.”

In other words, we are not the source of our own hope. As much as we like to think of ourselves as self-reliant, hard working people, Jesus seems to be saying that God is more interested in our wounds than our victories. He seems to be saying that God cares more for our grief and sorrow than our achievements and successes.

I think Jesus wants us to remember that he accepts us and wants us when we are broken, limited, sinful, and struggling, long before we receive or want him.

Where we would put ourselves and each other down, Jesus bends down to lift us up.

Where we heap judgment and blame upon each other and ourselves, Jesus tenderly forgives and accepts us.

Where we are filled with despair or overwhelming sorrow, Jesus loves us with a love which renews us.

And maybe then he'll call us “blessed.” May this be so among us. Amen