Sunday, May 17, 2009

Easter 6 - Year B

I wasn’t going to answer the door. I should have ignored it.

My sermon is usually put to bed by Saturday night, but this particular week I was lazy, so I was in my office banging away on the computer when I should have been watching Hockey Night in Canada.

Maybe I was being punished for my sloth.

I answered the door.

“We want to talk about God,” they said. Two young men. One dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. The other in what I can only describe as a long, dress-like, shirt with matching beige coloured pants and sandals.

“Boy, the fish are jumping right in the boat,” I thought to myself.

I invited them to my office and they sat down. They got right to the point.

“What do you believe about God?” one of them asked, demandingly.

I was taken aback. I stammered a bit. How does one sum up Christianity in a few sentences?

“We believe that God, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, died on the cross and rose again three days later. And that we are joined to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection through what we call ‘Holy Baptism.’ And because of this we our sins have been forgiven, and God has promised us new and everlasting life.”

A quick answer. They were unimpressed.

“You also believe in the Holy Spirit?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “We believe the Holy Spirit is the power of the Risen Jesus alive in us and in the world.”

I mentally patted myself on the back for such a succinct answer. But it was clear that they weren’t buying it.

“So, you believe in three gods?” he asked.

“No, we believe in One God, three Persons.”

“What’s the difference?” he asked, his voice rising.

“Think of H20, it is liquid, steam, and ice. Three different expressions of the same substance,” I said, knowing how oversimplified my answer was.

He rose from his chair and yelled with his index finger pointing heavenward, “There is not three gods, there is only one God, and his name is Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. The Koran is God’s Holy revelation to mankind!”

Whoa! You guys didn’t tell me you were Muslims (although I suspected as much).

“You do not have the authority to forgive sins!,” he blasted, “You do not need priests to mediate between God and man…!”

“How about between God and women?” I thought to myself, “And who said anything about priests? This is a LUTHERAN church. Do your homework, buddy, if you’re going to come in here and start accusing me of things.”

“You don’t need phony rituals like baptism and communion! All you need is to get down on your knees and BEG Allah for forgiveness and turn your life towards him!”

Phony rituals? Baptism and communion? He obviously came with a prepared speech.

His sidekick chimed in. He had a softer tone, clearly the good cop to his friend’s bad cop. “It’s not that we’re trying to convert you,” he said, “We just want to have a conversation.”


“This 'conversation' is over,” I said ushering them to the door. And as they were leaving, the loud one turned to me and said, “You’ve been given Allah’s message from not ONE, but TWO Muslims. You need to turn your life over to the true God NOW, before it’s too late. You could die tonight on the way home, and if you don't repent, you will find yourself in damnation.”

Was that a threat?

“Please leave,” I said.


This happened a few years ago when I was in Halifax. I tell you this not to beat up on Muslims, but because it showed me how religion can be abusive, uncaring – the very opposite of what its scriptures teach.

My encounter with these Muslims haunted me. I’ve tried to pin-point what made me so troubled. And I think it was because, despite their warnings, they actually didn’t care about me. Ultimately, they didn’t care if Kevin George Powell husband to Rebekah, dad to Sophie and Naomi, became a muslim. I wasn’t a person to them. I was an object. They wanted to hammer away at my beliefs; they were angry with me for not sharing their beliefs.

They wanted another covert. Another notch on their belt. Another conquest.

They wanted to be superior.

It breaks my heart when I see Christians doing the same thing, Christians who threaten non-Christians with damnation, and call it “good news,” Christians who believe they’re arbiters of God’s judgment. Churches who adopt a hostile stance toward so-called "non-believers."

For example, A church here in Lethbridge once displayed a sign that said, “Jesus is coming back whether it is politically correct or not.”

I went I saw that sign I thought, “Why the confrontation? Why pick a fight like that? What was that message supposed to accomplish except to alienate people?”

But the bible tells us that we are simple messengers. We have been asked to bring good news where there is bad news. Healing where there is pain. Comfort where there is grief. We are to announce that the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of justice, peace, compassion, and life has broken into our world. That God’s New Creation is blossoming all around us.

We are asked to love as God loves.

It’s been my experience that when people strike out at Christians, it is because they’ve been hurt by Christians.

When non-Christians lash out at us it’s usually because we demand that they adopt our agenda without first receiving our saviour.

When secular people oppose us it’s often because we insist on a privileged position in society, rather than taking our rightful place as servants.

What people do NOT need is dogmatic absolutism. Folks aren’t swayed by hostile arguments or rigid “propositional truth” demands. People need love. They need forgiveness. They need to know that there’s nothing they can do to make God love them more than God already does and there’s nothing they can do to make God love them less than God already does.

Let me say that I know how hard it is to love. I work with people, after all. People can be petty, angry, mean, self-absorbed, and self-righteous.

But people can also be kind, generous, warm, and compassionate.

Often in the same person.

But Jesus never said it would be easy to love. But that’s the challenge, isn’t it? In fact, Jesus said that people will know we are God’s people by how much we love.

Loving people can be risky. It can hurt. It costs something.

Just ask Jesus. He knows something about the price of love.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Easter 5 - Year B

“I don’t need to go to church,” I was told. “I just worship God in my own way.” Another way I hear this is “I don’t believe in organized religion.”

To that I always want to reply, “Organized religion? Have you SEEN my desk lately? There’s nothing ‘organized’ about it!”

You’ve probably heard that sort of thing before. I hear it all the time. And it used to irk me when I heard it. It doesn't anymore.

I had all sorts of ready-made answers for folks who would say that sort of thing. Good biblical and theological answers as to why you need to go to church to worship God and not just do your own thing.

I would point to the book of Acts where the Holy Spirit gathered all sorts of people together in an intimate community, and say “There! There’s where it says that you need to go to church.”

I would suggest that the early churches assembled in each other’s houses because that’s the way God wanted them to worship. If God didn’t want people to be in church then why does the New Testament spend so much time in helping churches get along with each other?

I would tell them that people need each other in order to grow, that left on our own we’d simply repeat the same old patterns of thought and wouldn’t be challenged in any way. Learning and growth happen best when in conversation with other people.

Then I’d get all theological and say that our God is a church - the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, communing with each other in an intimacy so deep that we confess them to be One God. Three persons, co-equal, co-eternal, circle dancing through the cosmos, calling all who are baptized in that name to join in their everlasting ballet.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? At least I think it does. But my arguments always met glazed eyes because I think people could see behind them. They could see that what I was really doing was pushing my own church agenda - after all I have vested interest in people coming to church - instead of pushing God’s agenda. And God’s agenda doesn’t always include Church.

That may sound like an odd statement, especially from someone who makes a living in church. But you have to see what I mean by the word “church.” I mean “Church” capital C, institutional. Where Church becomes a place of rules and obligations, power structures and hard expectations. I think that’s what people hear when someone like me says that word “Church.” It’s no wonder they want to worship God in their own way.

Pat answers to challenging questions say more about the answerer than the questioner. It’s theological finger wagging, making people feel guilty about what they do or don’t do.

You may remember last fall when I got some stomach bug one Saturday night and Rebekah had to fill in for me. While you folks were here listening to one of Rebekah’s whiz-bang sermons, I had a very different morning that day.

Figuring it wasn’t the H1N1 virus and wasn’t going to give anyone Swine Flu, I went for a walk to the gas station to buy a coffee (mmmm...Gas station coffee...). I put my iPod on and listened to a podcast (I can’t remember what) while I walked.

From the gas station I wandered over to a park, sat on a bench, and watched some leaves blow around in the breeze. It was a cool, autumn day. A little cloudy, with a slight wind coming from the west. My heart tapped the breaks. My breathing quieted.

“So, this is what God meant when God told Moses to ‘Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”

For me, it was a true Sabbath moment. It was the first time I felt relaxed in a long time. Even more relaxed than lying on a Mexican beach like I did last June.

Those who know me know that I find it hard to relax. I don’t sleep well and I have trouble turning my brain off. My favorite day of the week is Monday, I’ve only just started taking a day off, mainly for family reasons, and I get stressed out planning holidays.

It’s not that I’m wildly productive, or so madly in love with my work that it becomes the “other woman” in my life, or that I have a workaholic macho streak.

It’s just that I have trouble sitting still. I like to keep moving. Maybe it’s adult onset ADD but I’m never happy unless my brain is engaged.

But that day, I was able to calm myself. Having no other agenda that day other than to get healthy, I was to settle down, put my mental feet up, turn off the light switch in my brain, cool the engines for a while. At least for an hour.

I was surprised to find myself, at that park, listening to some unmemorable podcast, that I was able to worship. To be silent. To pray. To connect with God. Outside of the church.

“So, this is what people are doing when not in church on Sunday,” I muttered to myself. “I could get used to this.”

Was this worshipping God in my own way? Maybe. Probably.

But as I wandered back home I watched the cars go by, many of them driven by people wearing ties or nice dresses - church clothes. Families on their way home from worship. I began to wonder if THEY were able to connect with God that morning. And I began to wonder if YOU were able to connect with God while in worship. If YOU were having as worshipful a morning as I was.

Good, proper theology says that the only reason we find ourselves at church on Sunday is because God puts us there. That God’s pulls us by our spiritual ears and plops us down in the pew. And there’s some truth to that.

But I also think people - you, we, - find ourselves here on Sundays because this is where we know we’ll find Jesus, or where Jesus finds us. Jesus is in God’s Word as it is spoken, in the sacraments as they’re distributed.

But, perhaps most importantly, Jesus is in the face of each one of us here. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” We are all connected to each other through Jesus. When one branch is missing, we are diminished. Something is missing. SomeONE is missing.

We are the branches because that’s where the fruit is. We are the ones who bear God’s fruit. And while we little branches extend far beyond the the doors of the church (to mix my metaphors), we are still connected to the one source of nourishment- Jesus, the vine. Jesus in water and word, bread and wine. Jesus in fellowship with other believers. Jesus connecting us to each other, helping us to bear fruit that lasts into eternity.

For most of you, I would guess, worship isn’t something you HAVE to go to. Worship is something you GET to go to. That’s what I realized that day as I was scurrying home (also after realizing that coffee and stomach bugs are a deadly combination).

I realized that church is a gift. That I need you to help me grow. We need each other. There’s no fancy theology behind why church is important for believers, or soon-to-be-believers, or trying-to-believe believers. I think we’re here because we know , deep within our bone-marrow, that this is where God wants us, just for a while, to connect and grow with the encouragement of other, into the fullness of who God wants us to be.

I see our ChristCare small group ministry helping in our call to grow as followers of Jesus. As many of you know, ChristCare is “circles of care with Christ in the center.” ChristCare is built on four pillars: 1. Prayer and Worship, 2. Care and Community, 3. Biblical Equipping (we did a little of this during our Wednesday Lenten services. I call this “bible study you can use.”) 4. Missional Service.

As our ChristCare ministry grows I encourage you to participate in one of our groups, to help you grow in your faith and connect with others. Through these groups, it is my prayer, that you will bear fruit, as you connect to the vine.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Easter 4 - Year B

How long do you think a sermon should be? How long is too long? How short is too short?

Most Sunday mornings, I know I’ve gone on too long when Neil Horvey holds up his watch and starts pointing at it. Or when the yawns from the youth in the back row begin to drown out my mountain top wisdom.

But its funny. I’ve never been told a sermon is too short. I never hear, “I’m sorry pastor, but you were just getting revved up when you hit the breaks.” I’m sure you’re just being polite.

Some preaching wag once muttered “sermonettes create Christianettes.” As of long sermons in themselves produce strong followers of Jesus. And short-sermoned preachers are being lax or lazy in their efforts.

But when I’m preparing each week, I’m challenged by some of the great words of history and our faith, words that we still remember.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was only 272 words and it helped shape a country on the brink of falling apart.

Shakespeare’s St. Crispin Day speech from his play Henry V, one of the most riveting ever written, is only 407 words.

The Ten Commandments has roughly 313 words (depending of which version you read. Some version have as little 170 words), and created a body of law that continues to nurture faithful people 5000 years after it was written.

So, do I think too highly of myself with a 1183 word sermon, like this one?

The cynical part of me thinks that some preachers just like to hear themselves talk. They luxuriate in the sound of their own voices. They love the power of pontificating in front of a captive audience.

The less cynical part of me thinks that, when some preachers sit down to prepare and stand up to preach, they - we, or I - don’t know when to stop because the story never seems finished. There’s always more to say. An abrupt turn in the direction of the narrative, a stray word that takes the flow of the message in a wholly different direction. A surprising phrase that adds yet another layer on to the point you’re trying to make.

There’s never a good place to stop because the gospel doesn’t stop. God doesn’t stop. God keeps moving so there’s always something more to say about God. Long sermons are a preacher’s occupational hazard. And long sermons are a Christian’s cross to bear.

I think the Jesus in John’s gospel had this problem. He talked a lot. And I mean, A LOT. Those of you who have a so-called “red letter” edition of the bible where Jesus’ words are highlighted in red probably have figured out that Jesus says a lot more in John’s gospel than any other. In Mark, Jesus wanders from town to town doing stuff. His actions are his words. In John, he doesn’t stop talking. There’s fewer miracles and more preaching.

If any of you have seen the movie from a few years ago called “The Gospel of John” you might have heard Jesus talk and talk and and talk....and talk. He doesn’t know when to wind it down, wrap it up, to take a breather. It’s like he has so much to say that he needs to get it ALL out so that none of it will be lost. He doesn’t want to misplace a single WORD. He sprays God’s message on the crowd and soaks everyone within earshot with his bizarre message about who God is and what God wants from them. A message they wouldn’t hear anywhere else.

“I am the Good Shepherd,” he tells the crowd. An odd image. Shepherd’s weren’t exactly models of success. They weren’t models of ANYTHING, except what NOT to be when you grew up. They were loners. Roughnecks. Working at night when everyone else was snug and warm in bed. They’d go for months with no one but sheep for company. That’s the way they liked it.

And his followers probably didn’t quite care for being called “sheep.” Sheep were dumb. Smelly. A commodity. Things to be bought and sold. If Jesus was trying to keep a crowd, he might have wanted to try a different tactic.

It’s as if he told you, I am the rancher and you are the cow. Your are pig and I am the farmer. Not exactly endearing, is it? Maybe this would have been a good time for him to wind this sermon down, bring it to a close, lest he loose his listeners in the metaphor.

But he doesn’t. He doesn’t gather his papers and sit down. He steamrolls right over their objections. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep....I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father....For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again”

I know this is supposed to be good news, and that’s how John meant for it to sound. But I wonder if Jesus’ listeners were more confused than comforted. I think Jesus’ listeners might have been offended by this sermon, tempted to pick up some rocks and let Jesus know what they thought about him calling them smelly, old, sheep.

They wanted to hear how wonderful they were, how gifted, how full of potential. how to make their dreams come true in 6 easy steps.

But Jesus called them sheep. And he was their shepherd.

Again, that probably didn’t sound like good news. They knew they weren’t dumb or smelly. But they did need to connect with God. They didn’t know who God was, even if they knew some of the bible stories.

They may have been smart in the ways of the world, but they did wander off, away from the God who loved them, and from where their true value lay hidden.

Jesus knew that behind their practiced exteriors were children longing to be loved, people longing to be valued. He knew that they were sheep when it came to God, not dumb and smelly, but people needing guidance and tender compassion.

He knew that they couldn’t find God by themselves, they couldn’t learn what it meant to loved on their own, they couldn’t determine God’s plan for them and the world if all they had to follow was their own inner voices.

And they’re not alone. You are sheep. We are sheep. Not dumb, stinky, animals. But creatures who can’t find our way home without a shepherd, a Good Shepherd, who loves the sheep enough to lay down his life, to leave the 99 sheep to find the one lost sheep - to find YOU - when YOU are lost and frightened, when YOU are feeling unloved and unwanted.

The shepherd wants to find YOU, and wrap YOU in his arms, and carry you home. And maybe then, the story will finish. The words will end. And together, we’ll sit down and rest our weary voices.

May this be so among us. Amen.