Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent 1 - Year B

We begin at the end. We jump into the story near its conclusion. Not Jesus' story, but the world's story. We begin at the world's end. We begin this new church year with a reading describing the end of days.

Advent opens our new church year. We just finished “Year A” or the Year of Matthew, the first of a three year cycle. This year we're beginning what is known as “Year B” or the Year of Mark. This means that most of our gospel readings will be from Mark's gospel, with a little bit from John thrown in because Mark is comparatively short. It's about half the length of Matthew, Luke, and John, the other three gospels. Next year, we'll be in “Year C,” the Year of Luke. John doesn't get his own year. Don't ask why.

And today's reading from Mark 14 dubbed “the Little Apocalypse” (as if any apocalypse can be little) brings us face-to-face with the strange contradiction of Advent.

In Advent we wait for Jesus' arrival. Both as a baby in Bethlehem AND in a fiery cloud descending from the sky. The hope of new birth AND the terror of judgment sharing the same crib, fighting over the blankets. In Advent we get both stories as if they mean the same thing.

In Halifax, Rebekah and I got an earful from a church member who didn't like the judgment bit of Advent. Especially after hearing an apocalyptic sermon.

“Advent is like waiting for a baby!” she said, “What's judgment got to do with being pregnant?”

As I reflect on that, I realize that judgment has everything to do with waiting for a baby to arrive. But not in the condemning sort of way. But in a reflective, worrying-about-the-world's-future sort.

Having gone through it twice I know how it feels to wonder what kind of world this incubating little person will meet, what kind of life will he or she have.

Will she have the opportunity to explore old age? Or will she succumb to an illness or accident way too early?

Will he have a chance to use his gifts, finding meaningful work that makes a contribution to peoples' lives? Or will he find himself trapped in a life controlled by other peoples' expectations and agendas? Will he wake up at 65 and realize he sold out his life for a big house and fat wallet?

Will he continue down our path toward overheating the planet, and fighting over water and oil? Or will he be part of a solution to community or global problems?

Will she have hope for the future? Or will she despair for a world consumed by its own greed and self-interest?

The judgment that meets a child's birth is not so much a judgment of the past, as a judgment on the future. This judgment does not condemn. This judgment merely asks questions. But these are questions of hope. After all, isn't that what a birth really means, having hope for the future? Isn't that really what we're waiting for? Isn't hope at the heart of Advent?

Today's gospel reading is a response to Jesus' warning that the world will see terrible suffering. He despairs for those who are pregnant because he sees terrible pain waiting for both mother and child.

He sees abject powerlessness for fathers who can't protect their families.

He sees cities crumbling and people dying. He sees false preachers offering false hope, a delusional escape out of the destruction. He sees the end of the world.

And he asks his followers to “keep alert.” Sleep with one eye open.

“But in those days,” Jesus says, “After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken...Then they will see the Son of Man – Humanity's Child – coming in clouds with power and great glory. Then he will send out the angels to gather his people from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

That's quite the scene, isn't it?

Of course, this isn't a newspaper account of the final chapter of the earth's history. But Jesus IS talking about great change The sun and moon darkened, stars falling – a terrifying thought in an ancient world of dark night skies and very little non-solar light. In an astrological culture such a sight would be powerfully significant.

The Son of Man coming on the clouds? That's taken directly from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. All of these were shorthand for signaling the world's transformation.

This may sound weird to us but it wouldn't have made first century folks bat an eyelash. The great change, though, is not so much the story's imagery.

It's instead that Jesus comes here. Bringing not condemnation, [contrast all the other apocalyptic literature of the time, as noted in Preaching in the New Creation: The Promise of New Testament Apocalyptic Texts, David Schnasa Jacobsen]– nothing is said of condemnation – but bringing mercy - transformation - to earth. And the Son of Man - Humanity's Child - stays here, transforming everything. Change is coming...and it's coming to a neighbourhood near you.

And your role? What are you supposed to do? You are to keep awake because change is coming, coming here, coming soon, and you're going to be ready to be part of it at the first sign. At the first inkling you're going to fling wide the door and get everything prepared for the big changes coming. You will be part of the change that's around the corner. You are part of God's change for the world.

We hear these stories and often we think of that its about Jesus rescuing us from a broken planet and lifting us up to the heavenly realm, an idea made popular by the “Left Behind” books. But we need to look closely at the text to see what Jesus is REALLY saying.

Jesus is saying he is coming down, not that we'll be lifted up. Jesus isn't saying that we'll be rescued FROM this world, but that we'll be change agents IN this world. Jesus isn't saying that he HATES this earthly realm, favouring it over the heavenly realm. He is saying that he LOVES this world so much that he's going to fix it.

And our job is to watch for him, to keep alert to what God is doing all around us. And when we do see God with sleeves rolled up and sweat on the brow, God asks that we join in, being part of the saving work that God is doing all around us.

And today, God is calling Brody into that work. Through the frigid waters of holy baptism, God is waking Brody, recruiting him to work alongside his sisters and brothers in Christ, being part of God's Big Solution for a broken world. Brody is being asked to live God's future today. Just as we all are called.

If we want to see what God has in mind for the world, just look at Brody, if we want to see God's future, watch him crawl, and see the possibilities resting in him, and witness the future that God has created in him.

So keep alert. Watch. Be part of the change that God is doing in the world. But always remember that it's God's mercy that transforms, God everlasting kindness that brings renewal.

May we all be part of God's Big Solution. Amen.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Christ the King - Year A

Have you every felt alone? I mean REALLY alone? I'm not talking about mere loneliness, but abject Aloneness.

Have you ever felt like you couldn't connect with a single person on this planet? That no one really knew the deepest part of you, nor did you know the deepest part of anyone? That everywhere you turned you didn't just see strangers, but aliens. People so foreign to your own experience as to be from outside your solar system.

Maybe it was something that happened to you. Abuse, rejection, failure. And you were too ashamed to connect with others for fear it might happen again.

Or was it a loss that left you breathless, a loss so deep and raw that you couldn't really share with it anyone, because you weren't sure anyone else knew what it was like?

Perhaps you felt abandoned by everyone you know, everyone who you thought loved you. Maybe you even felt abandoned by God in the midst of great suffering.

If you have, you're in good company. I think God feels alone. All the time. I think aloneness – not just loneliness - is something God constantly feels.

If I can give away the punch line at the beginning of the sermon, that's what I think today's gospel reading is all about. I think this story of the sheep and the goats is about God's aloneness. And I think our friend Martin Luther is a help here to figure out how.

To understand our Lutheran theological tradition you have to understand that Martin Luther should have been on medication. Medical historians disagree as to what condition Luther lived with was, but from analyzing his writings and reading accounts of his behaviour, many historians believe that Luther was bi-polar. And his illness influenced how he saw God. How could it not?

Luther talked about the Revealed God and the Hidden God (Deus revelatus/Deus absconditus, to invoke the Latin). The revealed God is what God chose to show us. But Luther also seemed to think that God hides on us, and that act of hiding, is in itself, an act of showing God's self to us. Being hidden and bring revealed were two sides of the same penny. But it was the hidden God that haunted him.

Luther believed that we can't know God fully. That God purposely hides from us. That what we think we know about God is just a minute fraction of who God really is. And what we do know is what God chooses to show us. We can't know God on our own. God is too different from us. God is too alone.

Luther also believed that, sometimes, God hides from us altogether. And when we feel that God is not among us, when we don’t feel God's presence, but we feel God's absence, we could be right. God might not be among us.

Luther didn't explain why God hides from us. It's not our sin that God hides from because Jesus came to embrace and save sinners. Nor is it a form of punishment because Jesus took on our punishment on the cross.

God just hides.

But often God hides in plain sight, where we don't think to look. We don't recognize God because we don't really know what to look for, even when God eyes are staring into ours.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison?”

Lord, were you hiding on us?

It's easy to miss God when you're looking in all the wrong places. But the scriptures are filled with examples of God's people missing what God is doing with and among them.

Through the prophet Amos, God railed against God's people who were more interested in sensual pleasures and elaborate worship than in helping the poor and needy, and called them back to a life of justice for the oppressed and compassion for the poor.

The prophet Micah preached that worshipping God without social justice was meaningless. Isaiah couldn't imagine God's people returning from exile without a strong sense of caring for the widows and orphans.

The prophets preached because the people had forgotten who God was and how God wanted them to live. They went looking for God in wealth and power, but God was found among the poor and forgotten. If you want to gaze into God's eyes, just gaze into the suffering eyes that surround you.

Luther knew how crazy all of this sounded. He said that the glory of God was hidden beneath its opposite. In other words, don’t look for God’s glory in the obvious places.

I often worry that we, too, forget this message. And why wouldn't we? It's easy to forget. It's easy to want to forget. Who wants to be around suffering people? Who wants to see God there?

Today is Christ the King Sunday and we like our kings on heavenly thrones, surrounded by splendor, adorned with power. We like our kings strong and wise. This is the Sunday that should end with a flourish, a triumphant song of victory, a hymn to the all-powerful God.

Instead we are asked to worship a king who hides among the poor, the lonely, the forgotten. We are asked to be servants of a suffering sovereign.

It's easy to turn this into a checklist, a salvation to-do list to cross off as each duty is completed. Gave money to a poor person? Check. Visited the sick? Check. Donated some clothes to the Salvation Army? Check.

But, of course, that's not what Jesus was talking about. It would almost be easier if it was, because Jesus is talking about something deeper than checking off items on a shopping list. Jesus was talking about a lifestyle of compassion and service. He was talking about simply living the life he lived.

If we're looking for a mandate, here it is. If we're trying to come up with a strategic plan, it's staring us in the face.

This doesn't mean it's easy. This life can be hard, messy, frustrating, and tiring. It costs. It takes a piece out of you.

But Jesus promised that if we want to meet our King, that's where we meet him. It's no wonder God feels alone. But it’s where God needs to be because that's where God is needed.

And I'm guessing that most of your know this. I'm guessing that you've caught God hiding behind a bowl at the soup kitchen on the last Thursday of each month.

I'm guessing you stole of glimpse of God when you looked into the hurting eyes of a care receiver on your Stephen Ministry caring visit.

And I'm guessing that you caught a hint of the divine king when you voted to put in an elevator, because you think that everyone should be included in the fellowship of the church, despite the cost.

You may not even know it was Christ our King you saw. But it was. And, one day you will ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hiding among the poor, the hungry, the stranger, the sick, or the naked?”

And our King will say, “What ever you did to the least of these brothers and sisters, you did for me. Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of my kingdom.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pentecost 27 - Year A

“Doesn’t the parable of the talents give you nightmares?” she asked. Apparently she was unhappy with the life she had chosen. Or had chosen her. If she was like most people, she probably looked at the standard menu of life options and ordered the item easiest to swallow.

She looked back at her 37 years and realized that she hadn’t flexed her artistic muscles. Her creativity lay on the couch watching TV and eating potato chips. There was so much potential dozing inside her, that, somehow, she failed to arouse. Despite brains and talent, she never became the person she dreamed she would be.

She’s not alone. I encounter a lot of people like that. People who know that there’s more inside them than what they express in their lives, their work, or their relationships. And when they reach a certain age, they worry they’ll die with the best still inside them.

A few months ago the Harvard Business Review Podcast had an interview with someone who wrote an article on “Why Gen Xers are Unhappy in the Workplace.” (For those light on the lingo, Generation X is the group born between roughly 1960 and 1980. Often called the “Slacker Generation”)

The author called this group the “Middle Children of the Workforce.” In front of them are the baby boomers who don’t want to get out of the way. Boomers are retiring later (if at all) and are clutching on to the big positions with two hands, refusing to let go.

Behind them is “Generation Y,” young upstarts who think that paying dues is for suckers and are demanding six figure salaries and corner offices right out of school. (My brother calls this the “Snowflake Syndrome” meaning that these kids have been told since birth that they are “beautiful and unique snowflakes” and everything they do is magic. These are the kids who show up on the first day and walk around like they own the place.)

The author noted that Gen Xers started their careers in the middle of a deep recession, and, although they’re among the most educated generation in the history of the world, they couldn’t find jobs to match their skills.

I remember that. I graduation with a bachelor degree in 1995, and most of my classmates couldn’t find jobs they were trained to do. No one was hiring. A friend who graduated from law school ended up working in a record store. A would-be teacher flipped burgers for minimum wage. An aspiring accountant sold shoes at the mall.

Then again, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s all good, honest, work. But certainly not what they signed up for. Not what was promised. And the student loan officer wouldn’t wait.
And now, older workers are frustrated with the so-called Generation X, we are told, because they (we) are not stepping up to the leadership plate. Even with their vocational false start, the generation behind them nipping at their heels, and despite the fact that this generation is responsible for creating the Internet, there’s wide spread speculation that this middle generation isn’t living up to the talent and ability that lives inside them (us).

In other words, they’re burying their talent in the ground, as today’s parable might say. They’re not using the gifts God gave them. Their potential is rotting away in behind a computer.

But it’s no wonder. They’ve learned the hard way that the master is tough, making money without rolling up his sleeves, demanding a government bailout when things get tough.

They’ve seen the heart attacks at 52; the triple espresso frappucino fueled deadlines; the baggy eyes and flabby middles.

They remember not seeing their dad at hockey games or school concerts, or even at dinner time. They remember the raised voices before bedtime and the loneliness in their parents’ eyes shortly before they found separate houses. They remember wondering where Christmas was going to be this year. They remember wishing they could put it all back together again.

They’d seen all this and said “No thanks. I want my life to be different. You can have your big salaries. I want to know my kids. I can have your fancy job title; I want at least a shot at making my marriage work. I want a life.”

I think we’ve got this parable all turned around. Or maybe it’s just me that has. Those of us who know this parable often hear it thinking that’s it’s a caution against squandering the talents God has given us, that God wants us to use the gifts that God has given us, even if we play it safe and look for a guaranteed return.

And this story IS about how God wants us to use our talents. But we assume we know what those talents are. We think that what WE believe our talents are is the same thing as what GOD believes they are.

What if the gifts and talents that God gave us are not just those things we are good at, but what if those gifts and talents were also each other – those gathered around us? What if those gifts and talents were not just skills and abilities, but also family and community?

To me, it seems that family and community are often those gifts we squander. Our talent to connect with others in deep and meaningful ways is what we often bury in the ground. We don’t invest in our life together as much as we invest in what we project to the world.

I know that’s a real temptation to me. In a real way I’ve bought into the notion that to be successful is to be busy, to be constantly doing new things, to be dreaming up schemes to build up the ministry of our church.

But lately, as I ponder what God wants for us as God’s people, I’m less and less convinced that God wants us to be busier in ministry, I’m becoming more and more convinced that God wants us to be more relational, connecting more deeply, coming together, not just on projects to accomplish, but as fellow followers of Jesus learning how to be faithful together.

I think of that woman and her nightmares, and I think now I would tell her, “Look around you. You’re surrounded by friends. You have someone to share your nightmares with. That’s a gift because not everyone has friends they can share so freely. This is not a gift to squander or a talent to bury. But the gift from which comes all other gifts.”

I don’t think this parable is about doing, but it’s a parable about relating. I don’t think Jesus was talking about us reaching our job potential as much as he was talking us reaching our life potential.

For us, Jesus isn’t asking us to build an institution. Jesus is asking us to build a people. That’s our unique gift. That’s our unique talent. May we invest heavily in it. Amen.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

All Saints

In 2003, St. Teresa of Lisieux’s bones were dragged to Halifax. The first stop in her cross country tour. Hundreds of people stood in line for hours to venerate the skeleton of a dead French peasant woman, known in Catholic circles as ‘The Little Flower.” She was very popular among maritime Catholics. A church was named in her honour.

I have to admit, I was tempted to stand in line with my catholic friends to share a moment with St. Teresa. A temptation I shared with our council president, who spit out his coffee when I told him.

“Y’know, there was a Reformation for a reason!” he snarked as he refilled his mug.

But I was more sociologically curious than spiritually compelled. I knew Teresa’s bones had no divine power, I knew it would be more like visiting an open grave rather than standing at a gateway to heaven. But I wanted to see why so many other Christians would stand in line for so long simply to gape at a pile of bones.

They are called “relics.” A relic could be a body part, a chunk of cloth from the Saint’s shirt, a book the saint kept on the bedside. Anything connected with the life of someone the church has identified as a “Saint” – capital S.

When some Saints died, their followers hid the body so that mobs wouldn’t snatch the remains, hack it into pieces, and run off either to sell for a sturdy sum, or keep for their own personal devotion. Relics were popular. And big business.

When Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, he didn’t do it on a whim. But neither was he trying to start a revolution. He just wanted to start a conversation.

He chose October 31st 1517 as the day to nail his ideas to the city bulletin board because he knew the church was going to be filled the next day – the Festival of All Saints. He knew that the Elector of Saxony, Fredrick the Wise, was going to pull out all his relics to display for worshippers to venerate. And he charged a heavy entrance fee to get through the church door.

This was nothing new. Fredrick did this every year. In fact, it was VERY popular. When you think about it, it was a win-win for everyone. The money collected at the door didn’t go to Fredrick or the local church. The money went to Rome to keep the ecclesiastical machine running smoothly.

And the church authorities promised that paying the fee and venerating the relics shaved off 127, 800 years off purgatory. Since the average Christian was terrified of ending up in Hell, or even purgatory, they gladly paid a hefty charge to gawk at St. Cyprian’s nose hair if it meant a better shot at entering eternal bliss the moment their eyes closed in death.

From a 500 year distance you can see why Luther was so angry. Salvation as a financial transaction. The desecration of a body. The worship of objects rather than God. Certainly, this wasn’t what God wanted for Christians.

I used to find the whole idea of relics creepy. But then I realized that we’re not so far off.

I was 10 years old or so when my parents took my brother and me to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. I ground to a halt when I saw, on display behind glass, Bobby Clarke’s well worn hockey stick. The stick he used to record his 119th point, establishing a team record for the Flyers.

Bobby Clarke was one of my favourite players and I remembered that game, even though I was five years old at the time. Standing there ogling, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I was staring at Bobby Clarke’s ACTUAL stick from THAT particular game!

I stared at that stick like a Wittenberg peasant venerating St. Jerome’s big toe. I ran my hand across the glass wishing it wasn’t there. I wanted to caress the wood, grab it with my two tiny hands, as if tactile experience would give me some divine hockey power, connecting me to Bobby Clarke’s greatness.

Of course, that’s silly. Bobby Clarke’s hockey stick has no more power than any other dead tree branch. But it had power to me - and over me. And I wonder almost 30 years later, that if Luther were living today, if he would nail his 95 theses to the door of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

If not the Hockey Hall of Fame, then maybe the movie theatre, or the Internet. Or anywhere celebrities are venerated. After all, Saints were really celebrities. If there were a National Enquirer 500 years ago, St. Dominic’s face would have been on the cover. E-Talk daily with Ben Mulroney would have interviewed St. Clare, probing her as to what was going on between her and St. Francis.

I think the council president at the church in Halifax bristled at my thinking of going to visit St. Teresa’s bones because he understood in HIS bones, that as Lutherans, we know that there is no such thing as a “capital S” Saint. As Lutherans, we confess that all Christians are made equal. As Lutherans, we know that we aren’t made holy by anything we’ve done, but we are made holy by what God has done for us in Jesus.

He knew that there are no first class Christians, and other Christians pining way in the back. He knew that any miracles Teresa might have performed were from God and not by the power of any human being. He knew that God worked through all people, not just a few select Christian superheroes.

This means that God can work through you. God not only can, God DOES work through you. Not because you have achieved some moral purity. Not because you have prayed or read the bible. And not because you have gone to church.

God works through you because God has chosen to work through you, whether you like it or not. God works through you because you are baptized, set free from the tyranny of sin and death and called to be God’s hands and voice in the world.

And it’s my job to help you see where God is working through you and in you. And God IS working among you, HARD.

It came up when we started batting names around for next year’s church council. And a lot of the names that popped out at us were of folks already doing something for the church, using their gifts, helping Christ’s church do its job.

Our growing Stephen Ministry and fledgling ChristCare Small Group Ministry require a lot of hard work. Sunday School and Ecumenical Campus Ministry, choir and Creative Fingers, worship and ELW, synod and conference committees, so many people are active in so many ways. And this doesn’t factor in all the ways you are using your gifts outside of the church.

And we do all this because we want to see Christ’s church thrive. But we also know, that while God has given us gifts and talents, it is really God who works in and among us, growing us from the inside out.

We know that its not our WORK that joins us to the great cloud of witnesses by our FAITH, our faith unites us to those who’ve gone before us, stewards of God’s mysteries who passed down God’s message of life and salvation through the centuries until we find it in our hands, passing it to the generations that are to come, in hope that, one day, all the world may, with all the saints of every time and every place, the baptized of every generation proclaim “Salvation Belongs to our God!”

May this be so among us. Amen.