Monday, March 31, 2008

Easter 2 - Year A

Easter 2 – Year A
Series: Living the Resurrection: Fruit of the Spirit: PEACE

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says. Of course, what else could he have said? The disciples were huddled together in a locked room, afraid that they might be next. There’s prices on their heads.

I can imagine them snipping at each other. Bickering back and forth. I’m sure Mary Magdalene did her job like Jesus asked, she told the others that he had risen from the dead, and they didn’t know if she was lying or just being delusional. There was no joy in the house. Only fear. Even though they had the testimony of a witness to Jesus’ resurrection.

In other words, they were being like everyone in this room. Insufferably human. Unbearably fearful. Just like everyone else.

Isn’t that the way we usually respond to traumatic events? I know I do. Some of us handle stressful, tragic events more calmly then others. But I think there always comes a breaking point, no matter how evenly centred you can be; no matter how serene a face you can show the world. At one point, everyone freaks out when the pressure multiplies.

And that what the disciples did. They weren’t known for their serenity.

The doors were locked because the disciples knew that they could be next. They saw the cost of following Jesus and there was NO WAY they were going to pay it.

This whole religion thing was supposed to help them with their daily lives, it was supposed to give them stillness in their souls, it was supposed to give them meaning for their lives and a little moral instruction for their kids. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. Only cults run by megalomaniacal leaders ask their followers to die. If cups of Kool-Aid were being served none of them would have drunk it.

Aren’t we the same way? Many of us come to church to find a sense of spirituality, filling our spiritual gas tanks before heading back to a tough job and even tougher marriage. We come to get our God-shot before jumping back into the chaotic fray that is our lives. We come to be centred, to find balance, to hear good news for our lives and families. We come to find “peace.”

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Jesus does promise peace, doesn’t he? But I wonder if that’s only the first page of the story.

“Isn’t this whole peace thing just some left-wing nonsense?” one of my colleagues blasted at the presenter, a Mennonite theologian talking about the biblical understanding of peace.

“It seems that every time I hear someone talk about peace, it’s coming from some anti-American left wing hippie who hates rich people, who has doesn’t understand how the world actually works.”

I have to admit, I was both angry at his comments and embarrassed by his rudeness. But at the same time, isn’t that the cartoon the media presents in the news? Peace is a youthful ideal, but not terribly realistic. Especially in this age of global terror.

And so, we change the meaning of peace, At least the way we say the bible talks about it. When we think about the way peace is used in the bible we often think that peace means “peacefulness of heart” or “peace in our relationship with God.”

And while that’s true, that’s only half the story.

On November 26, 2005 Christian Peacemaker Team members Norman Kember, Harmeet Sooden, Jim Loney, and Tom Fox were taken hostage by a group calling themselves “The Swords of Righteousness Brigade.”

On November 29, radio-show host Rush Limbaugh, commenting on the hostage taking said, I quote: "part of me likes this…here's why I like it. I like any time a bunch of leftist feel-good hand-wringers are shown reality…any time a bunch of people walk around with the head in the sand practicing a bunch of irresponsible, idiotic theory confront reality, I'm kind of happy about it, because I'm eager for people to see reality, change their minds, if necessary, and have things sized up." (

I’m guessing the “irresponsible, idiotic theory” that Limbaugh was referring to comes a little known wandering sage named Jesus of Nazareth, who said:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Of course, we know that this is the same Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified on a hill outside of Jerusalem, who rose again three days later, and who slipped through a locked door to bring a message of peace to his beleaguered followers.

Rush Limbaugh’s histrionics aside, I noticed that it was other Christians who reacted most negatively to what the Christian Peacemaker Teams were doing. As if taking Jesus’ message of peace seriously was an offense to the faith. Christians were calling these peace-maker team members frauds, accused them of self-righteousness of puffing themselves up, some even accused them of betraying the faith.

Never mind this left wing nonsense. Can’t we just turn the subject back to sex, please? Sex is less threatening.

But any of us who know anything about Christian history know that so-called “Peace Churches” have a rich and varied history. I remember preaching at a Mennonite church about 13 years ago, when at the end the service the pastor called up a group of teenagers who were going on a mission trip with Mennonite Central Committee.

I figured they were going to teach VBS, build a house or school, do personal evangelism, help out with the local church, or something like that.

Not these kids. These kids were going to a country in South America to escort people to and from a legal centre where they would receive legal help in dealing with corrupt landowners. In some of those countries, wealthy landowners wouldn’t blink at shooting someone starting trouble, demanding their “rights.” And the government was on the side of the money.

So, the Mennonites opened a free legal centre for folks to bring complaints. But people were too scared to make use of their services because they feared retribution.

But when these blonde-haired, blue eyed, young Christians walked with them, people were left alone.

I asked the pastor what the parents thought of these young kids doing such dangerous work.

“Dangerous?” he said. “We’ve never lost anyone yet, now that I think about it. It’s just what we do. We’re trying to be light in dark places. That’s why their parents and our church offer a blessing. It’s part of our tradition.”

I could hear Jesus’ words to his disciples, “Peace be with you. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

In other words, for this situation, “Peace be with you. Bring my message of peace and life with you. Life differently now that you know that I’ve risen from the death. Live my resurrection. Be a resurrection people.”

For these folks, being a Christian is believing that God is doing something new in the world. It’s actually believing that Jesus rose from the dead and started a New Creation that first day of the week when the power of death was defeated.

Contrary to what my friend and colleague says, this peace thing is not a left wing thing. It’s not a right wing thing. It’s a Jesus thing.

Peace is at the heart of who God is. Part of our Guiding Principles as a congregation is that we “participate in God’s reconciling love for the world.”

I think that’s a great way of putting it. Another way we can talk about “participating in God’s reconciling love for the world” is by using another biblical word, and many of you already know what the word is. It’s the way Sherry signs her emails. The word is “shalom.”

Badly translated, “shalom” means “peace.” But it means much more that that. It means “peace, prosperity, integrity for all people. Where forgiveness is at the heart of every relationship because it’s at the heart of our relationship with God.” It’s a vision of God’s promised future reaching back and touching us TODAY.

That’s Jesus’ challenge for us today. It’s Jesus’ resurrection challenge for his followers.

The challenge: that in all that we do as a church, God’s word of Shalom will be first on our lips.

That in how we talk to and about one another, we first say “Shalom.” In the decisions we make about what to do with our money, the first word is “Shalom.”

When we differ in our discussions surrounding our new building, the first word we say to each other is “Shalom.”

When we disagree with the direction the church is heading, the ministries we’re initiating, the music we sing, or the liturgies we pray, the first word is “Shalom.”

When the church is mired in controversy and we see no way out, the first word is “Shalom.”

Whenever we're afraid and hiding out, all locked up,
Jesus slips through those doors and meets us in the midst of our fear saying, shalom. Peace be with you'
Whatever doubts churn in our minds,
whatever sins trouble our consciences,
whatever pain and worry bind us up,
whatever walls we have constructed or doors we have locked securely,
Jesus squeezes through and says, 'Peace be with you.'" (paraphrased from S.A.M.U.E.L.

When our world is coming apart at the stitching,
Whenever homes are broken up
Whenever relationships shatter
Whenever friendships are destroyed
Jesus breaks into our lives and says, “Shalom! Peace be with you.”


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Sunday

Series: Living the Resurrection: Fruit of the Spirit: JOY

The women went to the tomb while it was still dark. That threatening time when Jesus performed his most notorious wonders. They’re in the dark, both literally and figuratively. We the listener might know what’s about to happen, but all they know is that they saw their friend and Lord horribly murdered. And they were simply going to take care of the body.

But you know the story. They found the tomb empty. Jesus stood alive in front of them.

Fear turned to joy. Grief softened to amazement. Terror melted into gladness. That’s what happened one Sunday morning.

They definitely did not see it coming. They had watched Jesus die. They put him in his grave. They said their good-byes and cried their tears, probably wondering if this guy had swindled them, conned them into thinking he was something he wasn’t.

But that morning, while it was still dark, they learned something new about God.

They learned that God can’t be contained. Not by a grave. Not by locked doors. There is nothing that can keep God from doing what God wants. There is no security system that can keep us safe from Christ’s invasions on our lives.

He came to his first disciples and he promises to keep coming back, intruding on us, pressing in upon us, opening the doors we thought were tightly locked. The locked doors of our hardened hearts. The locked doors of our grief. The locked doors of our anger and pain. The locked doors of our fear and doubt. Even the locked doors of our deaths.

Jesus keeps slithering into our lives despite our best efforts to lock him out. And he’ll keep coming back to us, breathing on us. Giving us life.

And this is what our faith is based on.Our faith is based on this Easter miracle. Our relationship to God - thank God - is not based on what we can feel or believe or think. Our faith is based on the fact that Jesus has risen from the dead, and has come to you, slipped through whatever locked door you were hiding behind, breathed his life-giving Spirit upon you, and raised you up toward God. (Willimon)

That’s what Easter is all about.

Today we’re beginning our worship series called Living the Resurrection: The Fruit of the Spirit, based on Galatians 5 that we heard earlier this morning. We’re taking the “fruit” out of order and starting today with “Joy,” which I think is appropriate for Easter Day.

I’m told that Mother Teresa had a rule for the women in her order, a rule which she wouldn’t budge from. The rule was: be joyful. Be joyful. (“C’mon! Be joyful! Dammit!”)

If a sister in her order wasn’t smiling, brimming with celestial joy then the sister would be benched until she could find the joy she was told to have.

I don’t want to take anything away from Mother Teresa’s ministry, but I don’t think joy works that way. How can joy be demanded of someone? How can you turn joy into a rule, something you MUST do? Isn’t that kind of missing the point?

I think Joy is something that comes to us. It flows spontaneously from being encountered by a circumstance, or something or someone so loving and so life-giving that we can’t help but respond with a welling of the heart.

And that’s what happened at the empty tomb early one Sunday morning. Something so strange and life-affirming happened – death was defeated. And all the women could do was run home and joyfully proclaim to their friends that they “have seen the Lord.”

St. John Chrysostom’s (aka “the Golden Mouth”) Easter sermon, which I’m going to read for you in a minute, is a great outpouring of joy for what God has done for us in Jesus. Chrysostom found words that I couldn’t, even when they were right in front of my face, snatching stories from the bible and kicking them into life.

Chrysostom is one of history’s great preachers. He, apparently, would preach for six hours and the congregation would freak out when he stopped. They flick their lighters, like at a Bruce Springsteen concert, demanding an encore. Then he’d get back behind the pulpit and go at it for another hour or so.

So, settle in and get comfortable, (ushers, lock the back doors) I’m going to read his Easter sermon.

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let them with gratitude join in the Feast!
And any who arrived after the sixth hour,
let them not doubt; for they too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let them not hesitate; but let them come too.
And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let them not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.

The Lord gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour,
as well as to those who toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the attempt.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!

Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of Christ’s goodness!

Let no one grieve at her poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn because you have fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.

He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Christ be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Maundy Thursday

Tonight, I would like to tell you a story. You may remember it from three years ago. It’s adapted from a novel by Graham Greene by Rebekah and myself.

It’s a Lenten story – a Maundy Thursday story. A story set in violent, war-weary Spain of 60 years ago, a story of a Roman Catholic priest and his atheist friend.

It happened this way (p.15). Father Quixote had told his housekeeper he should soon have lunch, and then left in his tiny car to go to the local cooperative to buy wine for his lunch. Like most Spaniards, he enjoyed a glass or two of red wine with almost every meal. And the wine from the local cooperative was of particularly fine quality.

Driving along the dried dirt-packed roads, he considered the travels Spain, too, had gone through. General Franco was dead, but the bloody civil war between the Fascists and Republicans had been brutal. Any time of strife is hard, but Franco had been particularly harsh. The disappearances, the armed guards, the secret police, the informants, the murders, and then – the war.

Father Quixote was so wrapped in his thoughts that he didn’t notice the black Mercedes outside his home, and only after emerging from his car with his bottle of wine, and hearing a shout, “Hello!” did he notice the Roman collar…

“Oh dear,” he thought to himself, another priest has come to the tiny Spanish villa. What could he possibly be in trouble for now?

Hat in hand, he said, “I am Father Quixote. Can I be of any service?”

“You certainly can, my friend. I have come to deliver this letter from Rome to the local priest – meaning yourself, I presume. And now I must be going. Good day to you, Father.”

With trembling fingers, Father Quixote opened the envelope. The letter informed him he was promoted. No longer a parish priest, he was to become a monsignor.

Father Quixote was horrified. Why would he want to be a monsignor? He liked being a simple parish priest. But nevertheless, a monsignor he would become. He could no longer say mass in the local parish, he could no longer her confessions from his beloved parishioners, he could no longer visit the sick and the dying. He would no longer be a priest to the people he loved.

In shock, Father Quixote went to see his friend, the now ex-Mayor of their little villa. He had been mayor for over 20 years, but in the last election, for some reason, he lost. He hinted it had something to do with a certain deal between the garagist, the butcher, and the owner of a second-rate restaurant. He was a communist, and therefore an avowed atheist. But he was also the only other person in the villa who read papers or books with any regularity. Father Quixote began by extending his condolences.

“I am deeply sorry for your loss, my friend. You have been let down by your party.”

“Ahhh,” said the mayor, “it’s not a question of my party. There are traitors in every party, and THEY have let me down. In your party too, there was Judas…”

“Every party has its traitors,” said Father Quixote.

“What is your opinion of Judas?” asked the mayor, “He’s a saint in the Ethiopian Church…” (p.31)

“One may be a traitor and still a saint, but one is not necessarily a saint because one is a traitor.”

“True enough,” grumbled the mayor, “That fascist Franco was no saint.”

“God rest his soul,” Father Quixote added, involuntarily.

The mayor raised his eyebrows. “He had no soul. If such a thing exists.” (p.41).

But the mayor decided it was time to change the subject away from religion. What about a rest? A little holiday? Father Quixote had never taken a holiday in his life. It seemed to decadent, too loose living, when the people of his little villa could need him at any time. What if someone took ill? Had a fatal car accident? But perhaps when he returned home he might find himself demoted back to a simple parish priest. And so…a holiday it was.

Arriving in Madrid, the Mayor decided it was his turn to treat Father Quixote to a meal - at an expensive restaurant, no less – unheard of for a parish priest of a small villa. “You must have the suckling pig while you are here, Father. This restaurant was popular with the secret police in the days of Franco.”

“God rest his soul,” Father Quixote said quickly.

“I wish I believed in damnation,” the mayor replied, “for I certainly put him, as I’m sure any theologian would, in the lowest depths of Hell.”

“I suspect human judgment, even theologians,” said Father Quixote, “is not the same of the judgment of God.” (p.54)

“So you would make him a saint?”

“I never said that,” said Father Quixote. “I pray to God to rest his soul, that is all.”

“Franco’s tomb is not far from here, did you know that? We could go and visit the grave. Even though the grave is an enormous hollow cavern carved out of the side of the mountain. There your friend Franco like a pharaoh planned to be buried.”

“O yes, I remember,” said Father Quixote, “and they were given their liberty in return.”

“For hundreds it was the liberty of death. Would you say a prayer there Father?”

“Of course, why not? Even if it were the tomb of Judas – or Franco – I would say a prayer” (p.78)

“What of the grave of a Communist friend of mine? Would you pray there?”

“Of course.”

“The same prayer you’d say for Franco?”

“There’s only on prayer we need to say for anyone dead.”

“So you’d say it for Hitler?”

Father Quixote sighed. “There are degrees of evil, Mayor – and of good. We can try to discriminate between the living, but with the dead we cannot discriminate. They all have the same need of our prayer.” (p.100). He stopped. The mayor looked uneasy. He stared intently at Father Quixote. Father Quixote began to fidget, and gazed past the mayor out the window.

“What are you thinking?” barked the mayor.

“I…I was praying. For you. For me. And…and…the waiter.”

Again the mayor stared. Abruptly he stood up. “We must be going. Cheque, please.”

They continued on their travels. They visited Franco’s tomb – and Father Quixote prayed. They visited the grave of the mayor’s Communist friend – and Father Quixote prayed. They visited a movie theatre. And yes, Father Quixote prayed. Under the sun, under the moon, in rain, while driving, arising, settling down, Father Quixote prayed.

“You seem to have room only for faith,” the mayor exploded.

“Only faith? No…sometimes I doubt. And then I read – I hide myself in my books. In them I can find the faith of better people than myself, and when I find that my belief is growing weak with age, like my body, then I tell myself I must be wrong. My faith tells me I must be wrong – or is it the faith of those I read that tell me I must be wrong? (p.180). Is faith something I do, or is it a gift? A gift from the whole community to me, too you…”

“Ah, not to me Father.”

“To everyone.” Father Quixote said firmly. “If it were not so then perhaps I could have burnt my books and lived really alone, knowing that all was true (p.181). But I could not. I have needed my books; I have needed the community.”

“Did you know that I almost left you at the restaurant in Madrid? You, praying for Franco! But then, you said you praying for the waiter – the waiter, Father! And I realized you were a better communist than I.”

“That is why you did not leave?”

“No – but because your voice stumbled as you said it. You were not sure of me – and yet you told me. You were praying, and you told me, an atheist. You trusted me.”

“That seems an insufficient reason.”

“It was sufficient for me.” (p.183)

They continued, again, on their travels.

And so the mayor dozed off – only to be jolted awake but a violent crash. Father Quixote had fallen asleep and run the car into a wall. The mayor felt a river of pain run down his arm, but noticed blood trickling from Father Quixote’s forehead. Struggling to open the door, a figure in long white robes suddenly stood by and wrenched the door open. “Am I dreaming? Do I suddenly have faith? Am I in heaven?”

Panicking, the mayor said out loud, wondering if he’d be heard, “No, I am alive, but my friend, my friend…” and the long robed figure pried open the door and pulled out Father Quixote, then the mayor, and laid them on the grass…still breathing.

“I’m not dead. This is not heaven,” thought the mayor.

Reality turned to the moment. “Go to the monastery and get help,” said the figure, now recognizable as a monk.

Fitfully dozing with Father Quixote in the monastery infirmary, the mayor overhead the monks say that his friend had sustained a terrible head injury and could not speak coherently. The mayor woke to see a robed figure padding out the door in the moonlight. Was it a monk? No, it was Father Quixote, going who knows where? The mayor called out but Father Quixote did not answer. He could hear Father Quixote speaking softly. What was it? A prayer. “God preserve me from such a faith,” whispered the mayor.

Father Quixote found his way to the monastery chapel, the mayor following behind. He mounted the steps toward the altar. Uneasily balanced at the table, his hands caught something, held something.

Mesmerized, the mayor heard him speak the words, “In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread…” Father Quixote was saying Mass.

“In the same manner also he took the cup…”

He might never speak to the mayor again, but he was saying the Eucharist.

“Do this in remembrance of me…”

Father Quixote concluded, then turned and stumbled, and the Mayor put his arms out to catch him. But Father Quixote righted himself, and the mayor saw his friend’s two fingers come toward him, as though they were holding the host.

“Take, eat, friend.”

“I am not a believer,” thought the mayor, “but anything to give him peace. Anything at all.” (p.217)

The fingers came closer.

“The body of Christ, given for you…”

The mayor opened his mouth and felt his friend’s fingers, like bread, on his tongue, and then his friend’s legs gave way. The mayor had only just time to catch him and ease him to the ground.

“Friend,” the mayor repeated the word. “Friend.” and he felt over and over again without success for the beat of Father Quixote’s heart. (p.217)

After the funeral, the mayor couldn’t decide if he had received communion or not. After all, it was only Father Quixote’s fingers, and he was an atheist, so he could not have…but why then had he opened his mouth? He remembered the conversation they’d had about Judas, the traitor. Judas received communion, that Passover night, had he not? And Peter, the betrayer, and the other disciples who deserted, their feet were washed by Christ. A traitor received communion. A betrayer. Deserters. So, maybe now, an atheist. But was he an atheist? Why did he find himself, above all else, missing the whispered prayers of his friend? Why is it, he wondered, that the hate of someone – even one like Franco, like Hitler – dies their death, and yet love, the love which he had begun to feel for Father Quixote, seemed now to live and grow in spite of the final separation and the final silence?

Then words he had long ago rejected came to his mind, “By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”