Sunday, April 29, 2007

Easter 4 - Year C

(With help from Willimon’s Pulpit resource)

People are calling it, “The Bible Wars.” Which is another way of saying that Christians are fighting again.

Of course, this is nothing new. Since Peter and Paul went slugging it out in Jerusalem, Christians have taken sides against each other, while the world stood on the sidelines either shaking its heads or egging us on. Kind of like the neighbours next door who yell so loudly at each other that your fancy china rattles in the cupboards.

Some say that the bible speaks plainly, that it says what it means and means what it says.

And yes, that’s true. For me there are some parts that, on first reading, are clear as fresh water, plain as an Amish dinner, a theological “Run, Spot, Run.”

The gospel of John isn’t one of those parts. John delights in throwing mud in clear theological water. The Jesus in his gospel seems to walk two centimeters off the ground offering philosophical insights to deep spiritual questions. He rarely tells stories and he speaks in bizarre metaphor. John is like your university roommate who switches his major from business to philosophy, adopts a European affectation and starts sporting a beret. When I am looking for a plain word from God, John gives us a $1000 word when a $10 word will do.

The disciples in today’s gospel must have found John’s Jesus exasperating. He sidesteps the disciples’ simple questions. He’s evasive, ambiguous, and maddeningly mysterious. He says things like “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Or “I am bread of life.” Or, “I am the good shepherd.”

What’s all this supposed to mean? This parade of metaphors may tickle the ears of the brie and chardonnay set down at the Book Review section of the Globe and Mail, but around here we need some plain talk. After many attempts at deciphering the Jesus code, the disciples implore him, “Tell us plainly who you are.”

But Jesus is probably equally frustrated with them. He’s been talking to them for so long, about who he is and about how God wants them to live, that he’d been popping throat lozenges like popcorn. But they’re as dull as algebra. Why don’t they just get it? How hard is this stuff anyway?

In the novel, The Brothers K author David James Duncan tells the story of the Chance family, a family of four boys, two girls, an agnostic father, and a mother of a fervent fundamentalist faith. They all have passionate, but very different ideas about God, Jesus, and the Bible. A major theme in the book is the question, “Who is Jesus?” Each child attempts to make sense of the mysteries of their parents’ struggles with religion.

As, Kincaid, one of the boys puts its:

It’s strange the way everyone has their own pet notion about Jesus, and nobody’s pet notion seems to agree with anyone else’s. Grandawma, for instance, says He’s ‘just a defunct social reformer.’ Then there’s Papa, who once said that He’s God’s Son alright, and that he survived the crucifixion just fine, but after the 2000-year-old funeral service his cockeyed followers called Christians probably made him sorry He did. Meanwhile, there’s Freddy, who’s six now, and who told me she saw Christ hiding under her bed one night…And Bet, who spent a whole day making a Christmas card for uncle Marv and Aunt Mary Jane last year, then got so proud of the card that she refused to mail it to anyone but herself…Then we looked to see what she was so proud of, and it turned out to be this whole army of crayon angels, in these gold sort of football helmets, charging into Bethlehem while in the sky above them huge red and green letters copied from Christmas carol book Bet couldn’t yet read proclaimed: Joy to the World! The Savior Reigns!”

And elsewhere in the novel one of the children says:

Personally, I’m not sure just who or what Christ is. I still pray to Him in a pinch, but I talk to myself in a pinch too – and I’m getting less and less sure there’s a difference…Mamma tried to clear up all the confusion by saying that Christ is exactly what the bible says He is. But what does the Bible say He is? On one page He’s a Word, on the next a Bridegroom, and then He’s a boy, then a scapegoat, then a thief in the night; read on and on and then he’s the Messiah, then oops. He’s a rabbi, and then a fraction – a third of the Trinity – then a fisherman, then a broken loaf of bread. I guess even God, when he’s human, has trouble deciding just what he is. (David James Duncan, The Brothers K, Bantom Books, 1966, pp.58, 61, quoted in Willimon, Pulpit Resource)

I’m cataloging the books I’m reading this year, and to my astonishment, there has been only one specifically theological book on that list: A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren. And even that book isn’t hardcore, mindnumbing, theologizing. It is history, autobiography, and theology all mingled together.

For me, this is a change. Since before I stepped foot on the campus of Waterloo Seminary, I’d been smitten by theological discourse. When I was an intern, I read three volumes of theology by Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall in my spare time, each volume thicker and with smaller type than the previous. And those volumes utterly changed my life.

But recently I tried reading a new system of theology and all I could think of while flipping through it was “blah blah blah. Who cares?”
This isn’t because I woke up one afternoon and suddenly realized that theology was as useless as Paris Hilton on a debating team. But I began to wonder that, after all the pieces were put together, after the system had been polished, after all Jesus’ metaphors had been processed and anatomized, if it was actually Jesus whom I was hearing. I began to ask if Jesus was more than the words that had been strung together, more than our fancy phrases and reflective faith statements.
I realized that I was like the disciples in today’s reading, exasperated with Jesus, wondering who he was and what on earth he was talking about. Too many images were flying at me at once. It was like crossing the Deerfoot at 3:00 in the afternoon, trying not to get run down.
But I could grab on to an image here and there, images that brought me to a clearer understand of who God is. I think God relates to each of us differently. That’s why there’s not one image or picture or word that we can use to describe who Jesus is or who God is. But God has drawn me in to worship and faith in ways that make sense to me, that both comfort me and stretch open my mind to newer possibilities of who God and how God wants me to live as Jesus’ follower.
My guess is that you’re the same way. It probably wasn’t a good argument that brought you here to worship. It probably wasn’t a well reasoned proposition that drew you here among God’s people. You may not know much the bible or maybe you do. Theology may be an alien science to you or it may be a life-long passion, but you came because there was something about Jesus that brought you in.

You may be a lifelong Christian or you might be checking out to see what this Christianity thing is all about.

“My sheep know my voice,” says Jesus. Or if wasn’t the voice of the Good Shepherd, maybe it was the vine that pulled you in, or the smell of bread, or maybe you simply saw an open gate and wandered through to run in God’s green pastures.

That’s the good news behind this exasperating episode; that we don’t all have to fit in the same box. What someone finds confusing another might find exhilarating. The gate is open, the bread is broken, the vine is wrapping its way along the branches, and Jesus is still reaching out to us, searching for us; gathering us in to God’s family.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Easter 3 - Year C

“How can we evaluate worship? What criteria would you use? Worship is too intangible to measure,” I protested.

“Just watch me,” said my professor.

Being not at all pleased with that answer but also recognizing that I had no other choice, I joined my assigned group to plan worship for one week, one month after starting seminary. On the Friday, the group would gather in a professor’s office to evaluate the weekly worship events.

They called that one week in Hades “Rota.” I don’t know why, but every time I heard the word I couldn’t help but imagine thumb screws and hungry lions waiting in packed arenas; the sacred Roman Rota being an ecclesiastical tribunal, a final court of appeal.

Kind of a bizarre name for worship planning, don’t you think?

“Maybe the name was supposed to warn us about something,” I thought.

It didn’t help that the senior students would approach the week with much fear and trembling. It was their job to organize the group, set meeting times, and make sure you showed up each day of that week.

Lisa approached me with hesitant eyes and shuffling feet. I thought she was going to tell me she backed over my cat. But instead she said with a wisp of apologetic resignation, “You’re on for Rota the week after next.”

She made it sound like a noose was waiting for me. Rota. The Tribunal was gathering.

Lisa said that I was in charge of planning Tuesday worship. “Whew,” I whispered to myself, “Nobody comes to worship on Tuesdays. At least it doesn’t have the packed house as the Wednesday Eucharist.”

“Oh, by the way. You’re also in charge of planning and assisting at Wednesday Eucharist.”


This was not good. Especially since the professor didn’t think we needed to practice or even talk over the service.

“You’ll do fine,” he assured me.

For Tuesday worship I thought I’d be creative and do a little post-modern mingling of traditions.

I invited Paul, an old roommate who was now a worship leader and songwriter at the Kitchener Vineyard Fellowship to lead us through some of his worship songs. And I wrote a “Remembering Your Baptism” liturgy around the tunes he had written.

“It won’t be what they’re used to. But these are really good songs,” I told him.

I’d seen Paul lead worship at his church and knew just how masterly he could lead people into God’s presence by pointing beyond himself to the One we were worshipping. I’d seen him help re-create people to be in joyous gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus. Paul was talented, passionate, and humble.

But even Paul couldn’t get these people to sing.

Then came the “Remembering Your Baptism” part. I said a prayer over the water. Then I said, “I invite whoever would like to, to come up and receive the sign of the cross on your forehead and a blessing.”

Apparently, no one wanted to remember their baptism or receive a blessing. They just sat, as if superglue was stuck to their pants and flashlights blasted at their retinas.

You need to remember that these people weren’t a group of stoic Norwegians or grumpy German farmers. They were seminarians and professors. Professional church folks. Folks dedicating their lives to the proclamation of the gospel.

I invited Paul to sing one more song then I gave the dismissal.

“Just wait until Friday,” my professor’s eyes said as she frowned at me on the way out of the chapel.

My heart plummeted into my shoes. I looked out the window. It had started to rain.

As I was putting on my big white dress for Wednesday Eucharist I noticed that there was no bread in the vestry. Usually, there are a few stale pieces of flavourless cardboard leftover, but surely someone was responsible for re-filling what they used.

Apparently, that was my job. Oops. No one told me.

After stealing a loaf from the Lutheran Student House across the street I blew into the sanctuary wet from the rain and breathless from dodging cars.

I was ready for worship. Sort of.

After the opening hymn a professor, who was presiding over communion, looked at me as if I was supposed to do something – but what?

He pointed to the page. It was the Kyrie. I looked at him quizzically. Then it dawned on me: he wanted me to SING!

I’m not sure if you know this, but here at Good Shepherd, the sound techs are under STRICT instructions to turn my microphone off during the hymns, lest I blaspheme anyone’s ears with my horrific caterwauling. If you’ve heard a skunk with its tail stuck in a garberator, you’ll get a hint of what my obscene yowling sounds like.

So I screeched my way through the Kyrie. And set the tone for the rest of worship.

I stopped at Tim Horton’s on the way to the Friday evaluation. I needed a comforting shot of caffeine.

With the Tribunal assembled I took my place as one standing accused.

“I hated the music your friend sang,” my liturgy prof said. “And that liturgy you wrote didn’t bring me into worship.”

“You made so many mistakes during the Eucharist I thought of telling you to sit down and grabbing someone else to help me,” the other professor scolded.

I tried to defend myself saying that this was my first experience with worship planning and worship leading. I tried to be creative, break out of the box a little.

Then I received the worst piece of advice ever bestowed on a luckless seminarian, “Do not risk anything new in worship, unless you know 100% that it will work. Failure in worship is not an option.”

Wow. That was a different tale from the one I heard in the music faculty. Across campus, innovation and creativity were esteemed as moral virtues. The weirder the better. “If you’re gonna slam into a wall I want you to hit it at full speed!” my composition professors would proclaim with evangelical zeal. “Just make sure you learn and grow from your mistakes.”

After detailing everything I did wrong that week, the liturgy professor summed up by saying, “After you led worship, I didn’t feel fed.”

“I don’t care if you weren’t feeling fed. I’m not responsible for your feelings!” was what I wished I said. Instead, I just sat slumped in the chair, wondering if I made a life-altering mistake by signing up with the seminary.

It looked like there was more grace in the music department than with God’s people.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Jesus asks a confused Simon Peter.

“Of course, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus says.

H’uh. Easier said than done. Especially when you don’t know what the lambs are hungry for. But then again Peter wasn’t one to look before diving snout first where saner mortals fear to stumble.

However, Jesus did just feed him fresh fish at that picnic on the beach, so Peter was well nourished. Even when Peter and his buddies didn’t, for whatever reason, recognize Jesus until he gave them some food, Jesus revealed himself to them because it was only through God-coloured goggles that we can see Jesus for who he is. It was only when they broke bread with him in fellowship did their eyes open to see him, hiding in plain sight.

I wonder if we’re all Peter, we’re all shepherd and we’re all sheep – together - feeding each other and being fed. I realized that I wasn’t the only one responsible for making worship “work.” We all needed each other to see Jesus in our fellowship.

I think of the shooter at Virginia Tech last week and how he saw the world as his enemy – an enemy that needed to be destroyed. I think of how isolation and loneliness brings darkness and bitterness.

But I also think of Liviu Librescu, the professor, the Holocaust survivor, who barricaded the classroom door to save his students, but losing his life in the process. And I think that sheep are still being fed by a Good Shepherd who still lays down his life for the sheep. The world may fixate on the shooter, but God fixates on those who give of themselves, who feed others, who allow themselves to be fed, who give life to the world, even at the cost of themselves.

About a week-and-a-half after the Tribunal, the professor whom I assisted at Holy Communion that Wednesday, left me a note in my mailbox. He said that he was sorry for his behaviour and that he regretted that our relationship had begun on such a sour note. He asked for my forgiveness. And that I come see him.

He was sitting at his desk when I arrived at his office. I knocked. He beckoned me in. He told me again how sorry he was and, again, asked for my forgiveness.

We sat and talked for about an hour. He said he wanted to get to know me better. Who I was. What I did before coming to seminary. Why I wanted to be a pastor.

And he told me about his life. The church he grew up in that was like a second family. His ministry as a mission developer. He told me about his troubled marriage. And about his leukemia.

“It’s important that we learn about each other, I mean REALLY learn,” he said. “Because, we need each other to live more faithfully to the gospel. We need to lean on each other as a family. We’re all in this together.”

That day, in that office, the rumble in my belly calmed.


Monday, April 09, 2007

Easter Day - Year C

Recently, a book about atheism has topped the best-seller lists: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. In it he comes up with reason after reason why one does not have to believe in God.

In his case, he thinks science has the answers as to how we got here, why we human beings are sometimes so awful and sometimes so wonderful. And those scientific answers, he figures, should be enough, both to satisfy any spiritual desire we might have and to debunk religion entirely.

But as a reviewer of his work notes, Dawkins doesn't understand the impulse to faith at all. Faith comes not from a search for answers of process, but answers of meaning. “How?” is not the most important question to religion; science is very good at answering that one. The most important question to religion is “why?” and science hardly touches on that one.

“Faith in the modern era...comes from...the need to see the world and our place in it as substantive, as meaningful, from the point of view of the universe.” (George Steiner; Walrus review, April '07)

Atheism generally fails to provide answers as to our purpose in the world. Atheists don’t believe in God, but what do they believe in?

If Dawkins really wants to displace religion, he needs to provide the purpose, the rituals, the character formation that faith does. He needs to provide hope for a hurting world, and comfort for anxious souls. Without that, he’s just shouting into the wind.

Where Dawkins has it right is noting religion's failure to always provide answers with depth to them. This has happened with a sometimes superficial teaching of the resurrection. Like Jesus' disciples hearing the women's story of the empty tomb and abandoned grave clothes, it “seems to us an idle tale.” Pie in the sky when we die, as it were.

Too often the resurrection has been a way to deny the value of this life. So sometimes it has been taught this life might as well be rotten, because, after all, there'll be another one after, and that's the only one that really counts. If we expect to have another life and another world, then why make this world any better?

The extreme of that can be seen in Canadian author Miriam Toews work. She grew up in a devout Mennonite community in southern Manitoba, and when her dad became depressed, he had to live that out in what she calls “that freaky, austere place where this world isn't good enough and admission into the next one, the perfect one, means everything, where every word and deed gets you closer to or farther away from eternal life” (Dropped Threads, p. 195).

This was also evident in the Cold War when some people argued, why try to prevent a nuclear war, since that would just bring the end of the world closer, and, presumably, God's new world as well. They had the arrogance to believe they could force God's hand, by abandoning this world that God created and loved. And they would destroy this world, to what end? Pie in the sky, yet again.

We all see it the way some Christians oppose the environmental movement, saying the earth is deposable, something we can destroy then throw away, because, they say, our REAL home is in heaven, as if God had made the earth as a temporary play toy.

But that is not what the resurrection is supposed to mean. Resurrection is a new form of life, a new creation, not a return to Eden, and not leaving this world for a heavenly one. After all, what does it say in Isaiah but that God is about to create new heavens and a new earth (v.17). Resurrection does not mean our heavenly souls are freed from our earthly bodies to begin a spiritual existence – that's greek philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, not biblical faith.

Resurrection is not about returning to that first moment, standing there out of newly made dirt, pure and sinless, to start life again.

But resurrection is when God's spirit comes alive in us in even deeper ways than we can presently imagine. The breath of God stirs within us, so that not even death can hold us down.

Some of you may have seen the movie Groundhog Day. Bill Murray plays a weather forecaster trying to claw his way up to the top, whose only purpose in life is more: money, sex, fun, fame. He is required to go report on Groundhog Day in Puxatawny, Pennsylvania, when he hates everything about it: small town life, creepy little animals, and silly celebrations.

Yet when a blizzard hits, he wakes up the next day, only to find it is...Groundhog Day yet again. And he is forced to live through the same day over and over again. Nothing he does makes any difference. It is always, eternally, groundhog day. After initially freaking out, he decides to take advantage of this seeming eternal life: he eats fatty foods, gets drunk, sleeps with anyone he can, robs a bank to buy whatever he wants.

Yet all of these activities eventually grow empty, and he hates his life. So he tries to kill himself, and after dying a horrific death, he wakes up the next day... to Groundhog Day, yet again. For Bill Murray's character, eternal life is another boring day in Puxatawny.

That is NOT what Resurrection is.

Yet eventually resurrection does begin for this character. He realizes that there is nothing he really loves about life; although he finds some folks amusing or pretty or both, he lacks the capacity to love another. And so he begins to learn to love: to love music, for a start. And maybe to love helping others. And maybe to love another human being, too. Even though everyday there is no opportunity for him to be able to receive love from another, he learns there is value in loving others. When that happens, the curse magically lifts, and he can start the rest of his life.

That's the resurrection, or at least a taste of it: to have God's spirit come alive in us, in ways we cannot fathom, and, eventually, in a way that not even death can hold us down. It is not just to become alive again, but alive in Christ, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Corinthians.

Life after death isn't a bonus, or a reward, or the only life that really counts: life after death is a continuation in bolder and broader strokes of the Spirit of God that breathes within us even now.

Not pie in the sky when we die, but the love of pies, and pie-making, and pie-sharing, that inspires us even now to plant an apple tree, to learn to make a good pie crust, and to drop off a pie for a new neighbour or an old enemy or a grieving friend or the families at the shelter.

That's why the early Christians saw resurrection all around them: in baptism they were raised with Christ. Christ's resurrected body is the bread of Holy Communion. And if you want to see the body of Christ moving and speaking and living, you don't go searching for some first-century tomb; you go to church on Sunday, where people are trying to live out the resurrection the only ways they know how. where the body of Christ is alive. (based on Gail Ramshaw, Treasures Old and New). That's the resurrection.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed.


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Maundy Thursday - Year C

“If this church starts having weekly communion I’m leaving and taking my tithe with me,” he blasted at me, one rainy, Nova Scotia, morning.

“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” I muttered to myself.

“Well, you do what you have to do,” I said, minutes before our congregation was going to vote on whether we were going to have weekly communion.

His was the only dissenting vote.

He didn’t storm out like he was threatening to. He still attended worship each week and still contributed his tithe. It turned out his bluster was a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. I didn’t know whether I was relieved or disappointed he didn’t follow through on his threat to leave.

But, as if to make a point, or to remain consistent with his conscience, when communion time came on those aberrant Sundays, he simply stayed glued to his seat when he felt he didn’t “need” the sacrament.

I still found it odd that a congregation had to vote on whether or not they were going to do what Jesus said that he wanted us to do – receive him in bread and wine, body and blood.

But I got thinking about what the sacrament was all about. Sometimes, when I offer the sacrament it feels like I’m reading from a script someone has prepared for me. I say the words without really feeling their impact.

I suppose it’s an occupational hazard. When you deal with holy things day-in-and-day-out, the holy becomes commonplace.

But maybe the words can do their work without me getting in the way. Maybe that’s the point.


I was surprised by how deeply moved she was when I gave her holy communion. Leah was living under house arrest for stealing a car. Or as she put it, “Taking a trip to the store.”

Her mom asked that I pick up Leah’s medication for her, since she didn’t have a car, and Leah lived way out on the outskirts of the city, where rent was cheap, and where the buses didn’t run.

I met with her each week for about six months. When we visited we talked about what she wanted out of life. Surely, dabbling in drugs and taking cars without asking hadn’t been her childhood dream.

“I think I want to be a hairstylist,” she said looking in the mirror, primping her hair. “I think I’d be really good at it.”

One day, as I was leaving one of our visits, she hesitated, and then asked, “Next time you come, can you bring Communion?”

I could have smacked myself for not thinking of it sooner. After all, that’s part of my job, isn’t it? To bring communion to those who can’t come to it?

The next week, I brought my communion kit and laid it out on her kitchen table. I apologized in advance for the stale wafers and cold red wine that had been left in my car over night.

Then, I look the bread in my hand and reminded her that:

In the night he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took break, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying ‘Take and eat, this is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’

And after supper he took the cup, gave thanks and gave it to all to drink saying, ‘This cup is the New Covenant which is shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in remembrance of me.”

I handed her the bread and gave her God’s promise: This is the body of Christ, given for you.

Leah burst out crying. She grabbed a Kleenex and dabbed her eyes. “For ME?” she asked.

“For you,” I said.

She received the bread in her hand and put it in her mouth.

I took the cup and said, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Leah brushed the hair from her face, dabbed her eyes again, took the cup, and put it to her mouth.

I was surprised that she, then took a wafer from the jar, and said, “The body of Christ, given for you, pastor.”

And handed me the bread.

Then she took the cup and placed it to my lips saying, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

I took her hand and said, “May the body of blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen us and keep us in his grace. Amen.”

“Amen,” she said.

To the casual observer, this encounter looked like just another pastoral visit, two people doing what church folks are supposed to do.

But to God, to me, and to Leah, this was the biblical story jumping out from the pages.

This may not have had the drama of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, but it was a holy act of sharing. Leah received God’s forgiveness and wanted me to experience the same love.

I wish I could say that Leah’s life turned around, that she went to school and became a hairstylist. But after her sentence was completed she dropped off the face of the earth. I had heard from some folks downtown that she was working the streets to support her drug habit. Her mom said they hadn’t talked in months.

I tried to track her down, but she seemed to have just evaporated. But I still think about her and those visits. She received and experienced God’s love and mercy, and I wonder still if she prays, and seeks God out. Because I know that God has not stopped seeking her out.

Even though the bread was stale and the wine too cold, we shared communion not because of fancy church words or because one of us was wearing a dog collar, or even because we ate bread and drank wine, but because God was present, .

We shared communion because God made it so. God turned our eating and drinking into a feast of shared humanity; broken, frail, and in need of healing and forgiveness. That day, in her little apartment, I had the opportunity and privilege to see her as God sees her – as a beloved child.

And when we gather around the table as a family, I receive that same privilege. I have the opportunity to see you through God-coloured eyes. And I get to see you live out your communion in your lives – in the ministries here at Good Shepherd and in your jobs and relationships. I see how you put towels around your waist and wash your neighbours’ feet. And I get to see how you are a blessing to others.

Or I like how internet sage, RLP puts it, “If the wafers are going stale for you, be the bread yourself. Break yourself open and nourish the world.

“If the communion table seems cheap and tacky, become a table yourself. Be a resting place for the weary.

“If you feel there are no more angels, pick up the phone and spread your own [glad] tidings.

“Gather your bread. Set your table. Shout your good news.

“Do these things in remembrance of HIM.”

May this be so among us. Amen.