Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pentecost 19A (Farewell Sermon at Good Shepherd)

I have to admit, I’d been putting off writing this sermon. A part of me didn’t want this chapter of my story to end, and this sermon is my final pastoral act with and among you. In fact I waited until this morning to write this.

I can hardly believe today is here. It’s hard to comprehend that, in two Sundays from now, I’ll be standing in a pulpit in Tokyo, Japan, opening my mouth, and hoping - praying! - for the best; that my new congregation will be as receptive as you have been to my preaching.

Folks have been asking why I decided to take a new call. The short answer is this: It’s the best way I feel I can move on with my life. While R and I are on VERY good terms, I still see Lethbridge as a place WE are. And after two years of separation, and a divorce that will become final this coming week, I feel like I need a fresh start in a new city, somewhere I’d never been, to begin anew.

And I have never been to Japan. I’ve never been off the continent. I’ve never really had an adventure like this before. Call it a midlife crisis if you want, but I recently turned 42 and it feels like I need to spend the second half of my life exploring areas of myself, the world, and God’s place in it, in ways that I wouldn’t have dreamed of in the first half.

So, my move has nothing to do with you. You have been a WONDERFUL partner in ministry. And I thank you for eight AWESOME years together.

A lot has happened since that cold day in November 2003. I arrived with a wife and one kid. And now I leave with two kids and minus one wife. I was fit and trim when I moved here from Halifax. And now I’m...ummm....well....not.

And you’re not the same either. We’ve welcomed many new people, and have said good-bye to many faithful members. We’ve tried some new ministries. Some have succeeded, and some have not.

We have an elevator that changes both the look and the witness of our church. It tells visitors that we value EVERYONE; that EVERYONE can participate in every ministry of the church.

But I have seen this congregation change more in the last 3 months than in the last 8 years. And sadly, it hasn’t been a good change. The issues of gay marriage and the ordination of gays and lesbians have wreaked havoc on our community. These issues have created dividing lines where there hasn’t been previously.

Relationships are strained. Some families have left even though nothing has changed in either policy or practice. Some people are not talking to some other people.

One’s stance on these issues has become the litmus on test on how we, not only judge the other person’s faithfulness, but decide whether or not one can be friends - in the same church - with someone with whom we disagree. And that troubles me. That’s not the Christian way.

While the issue of how we can faithfully minister to our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers evokes strong emotions, I worry that sexuality will be the defining mark of our life together, rather than our faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The issue of sexuality has the power to tear our church family apart at the stitching.

But Good Shepherd is better than that. I know you’re better than that because I’ve seen you be better. You have worked too hard to build this church into the loving, caring, dynamic congregation that it has been through most of your history. You have prayed too many prayers together to allow this church to descend into division.

You have been to too many bedsides, visited too many shut-ins, attended too many funerals, danced at too many weddings, witnessed too many baptisms, sang too many hymns, ate at too many potlucks, and received too many eucharists, together to simply walk away from the life you have created, from the years of faithful service, from the love that has bound you together since the church began.

You are STRONGER and you are BETTER than anything that threatens to destroy what has been so carefully and lovingly built.

I know that you are stronger and better than your divisions because I have seen you at your best. I have seen this congregation respond to terrible tragedy with tremendous compassion. I have seen your arms wide open to anyone who walks through our doors. I have seen you laugh at each other’s jokes, and cry with each other’s losses.

In other words, I have seen you take seriously what in today’s gospel, Jesus called “The Greatest Commandment;” the command to love God and love neighbour.

I have seen you remember that being a Christian is about loving people, not simply being “right.” I have seen you sacrifice for each other and for folks you would never meet, but who need your help. I have seen you open your hearts to those desperate for a word of grace.

It is my deepest desire and most heartfelt prayer that you will continue on this path; the path that you have walked so faithfully for so many years.

It is my hope and my prayer that, when you confess each Sunday, that you “[believe] in the communion of saints” the principle that reminds us that we are bound together, not by belief, or morality, or even by doctrine, but we are joined together by faith in what God has done for us in Jesus, that you will live it out in all that you do together.

I pray that you will continue to see each other as sisters and brothers of the crucified and risen Jesus, not as opponents on opposite side of an issue that has nothing to do with salvation.

It is my hope and my prayer that love will continue to be your witness, that you will show the world how to love. That you will shine with the brightness of God’s love.

Your distinctive witness will be how you love each other, and how you are committed to each other, even when it’s hard. Even when you disagree. Even when you don’t want to. You love because God is love, and you are in God. You love because that’s who you are. That’s what you do.

And that love begins here, as you forgive each other for the wrongs you have done to each other. And I ask that you DO forgive each other for the hurts, words, dissensions, and divisions that have wounded your relationship with your sisters and brothers. I ask that forgiveness permeate this family of faith, that it soaks into the walls, and seeps into your skin, and that you grow in the love and joy that God has waiting for you.

And today I ask YOUR forgiveness as I move on to a new adventure. I ask your forgiveness for the mistakes in ministry I’ve made over the past eight years.

For the visits not made, for the words poorly chosen, for the prayers unsaid, and for the meetings that somehow didn’t make it into my DayPlanner.

For unreturned phone calls and unanswered emails. For my moments of unpastorly behaviour. For my messy office.

I ask your forgiveness for the moments of discouragement and resentment. For the days when I failed to model the Christian life. For the sacraments given out in haste. And for the times I preached the gospel with less than the fiery zeal it deserves and demands.

And in return I forgive YOU. I forgive you for those moments when you forgot that I was not just a pastor, but also a person. I forgive you for the occasional angry word, the gossip about my personal life, and unfounded accusations. I forgive you for the threats and ultimatums, and for the times when you questioned my motives, my competence, and my faithfulness.

In other words, I forgive you for being less than perfect, as I ask YOUR forgiveness for being less than perfect, and as we ask EACH OTHER’S forgiveness for being less than perfect.

As I begin a new journey, I’m grateful that we can part as friends and partners in the gospel. I’m glad that we can bless each other’s future in confidence that God is still working with and among us, that both our futures are as bright as a resurrection morning, that the living God, revealed in Jesus Christ, gives us courage to meet whatever challenges come our way.

So, I give thanks and praise to God for this time that we’ve shared, and I look forward to the great and promised future, where we will, one day, share in the feast which has no end.

May this be so among all of us. Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Pentecost 18A

You can almost feel the tension rising. The way Matthew tells the story is that time after time, Jesus encounters these religious leaders who were trying to trap him, condemn him, and reveal him as a fraud, and time after time Jesus humiliates them.

This morning’s reading was probably the encounter that broke the camel’s back for both of them.

The religious leaders probably thought they were going to trap him once and for all. They start by buttering him up, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you don’t show favouritism. Tell us then, what do you think, Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

But Jesus sees right through them. And uses some pretty strong language,” Why are you trying to trip me up, you hypocrites?”

Then he asks, “Who has one of those idolatrous coins on them, the ones that taxes are paid with?” One of the religious leaders fumbles in his pocket and pulls out a coin.

“Whose head is on this coin and what’s his title?” Jesus asks holding the coin to their noses and his eyes lazar-beamed into theirs.

“The emperor’s” they respond.

“The give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and the give to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus snipes, throwing the coin back at them.

On surface, Jesus seems to be giving a non-answer - a politician’s answer that doesn’t really answer the question - when backed into a corner.

But the subtext might not be totally clear, at least not to these religious leaders. They know they’ve been beat at their own game. But I’m not sure they get the insult lying underneath Jesus’ answer.

When Jesus asked for the idolatrous coin, the astute observer probably noticed that Jesus didn’t have one on him, but the religious leaders did.

You need to remember that Roman coins, adorned with Caesar’s likeness, wasn’t just as instrument of exchange, it was an object of worship. The Romans worshipped Caesar as a god. For good and faithful Jews, to carry a coin with a pagan god was to be in direct violation of the first and second commandments.

So, the shrewd observer who noticed that Jesus didn’t have a coin and the religious leaders did, probably said, “We know where your allegiances lie.”

It appears that Jesus is condemning these religious leaders for being too cozy with worldly power. It looks like to Jesus, and probably to those listening in, that these keepers of the faith owed too much to Caesar – their livelihoods, their social status, their wealth – that there was nothing left over to give to God.

They stormed off, angry that they’d been beat, insulted, and exposed. Now they knew their enemy. But they respected him the way you respect any worthy adversary. But this adversary needed to be crushed before more damage was done.

Matthew says that the religious leaders were “amazed” at Jesus. Amazed at what? That some nobody from the middle of nowhere could out argue these learned men of God?

For Jesus, this was the beginning of the end. He stepped over the line. He angered the wrong people.

That day, at that hour, Jesus’ fate was sealed. And so began the church’s uneasy relationship with worldly power.

The Roman Emperor Constantine’s baptism by Pope Sylvester in the year 326 inaugurated a new era for the church when the Christian religion came out of hiding to reside in the official palaces of empire.

Most theologians point to that event as the church’s One Big Mistake. By becoming too close to power Christians lost their voice; their dynamism; their passion for the good news of Jesus Christ. And we settled into a comfortablity that snuffed out the vitality of the early Christian movement; and in the twinkling of an eye, or a sprinkling of water, we became the Christian institution.

Some might say that, with Constantine's conversation, Christians moved from adolescence into adulthood. That we finally grew up and took our seat at the political grown-up’s table. Others might say that we gained the whole world, yet forfeited our soul.

And history tells us that church does its best work from the sidelines, far from the corridors of power, on the fringes.

In the late 1980's, it was the churches in East Germany that largely prevented the revolt against the Marxist-Leninist regimes from turning violent after the Berlin Wall fell. The churches were among the only people in the country who had the moral credibility to stop the crowds because the churches were NOT part of the establishment. Church had enough distance between them and the powerful rulers, that people could look to Christians for guidance and support without worrying that they might be betrayed into government hands.

And we can learn today from our sisters and brothers in other parts of the globe. The fastest growing churches in the world are in places where Christians are being persecuted. It’s been noted that, in China, a new church is being planted every seven minutes. In some places in Africa, someone comes to faith in Jesus every three minutes.

But here in southern Alberta, where Christians are culturally coddled, churches are suffering dwindling memberships and closing their doors.

I think that’s a powerful lesson for us. The closer we get to worldly power, the weaker is our proclamation. Christianity thrives when it is in the minority. Churches spiritually stagnate when we achieve institutional credibility.

Does this mean that there is no place for Christians in the public sphere? Not at all. We need Christians in public office. But not to protect our own interests, not to look out for ourselves; but to be the voice for the voiceless, to be the power for the powerless, to be the strength for the weak.

To be the servant people that God has called us to be. To bear witness to a different way of being in the world, where opposition and enemy become friend and neighbour, where the values of life, freedom, forgiveness, mercy, servanthood, and peace are the features of the public face of the church.

What I think this passage is about, is Jesus telling his followers to live in the world as beacons of light, as voices of justice, as living contradictions to the prevailing powers of Caesar that rules through might and force and conflict.

Jesus says to speak with another power; the the cross of Jesus and the power of his resurrection; the power of suffering, self-giving love for neighbour as well as enemy. The power of God’s promises of good news to the poor. The power of life and salvation for everything God has created.

This is the power that creates. This is power that gives life. This is the power that the Caesar’s of the world don’t understand, but a power that comes from God, so that every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

So give to Caesar the things are Caesars, because all he has will one day pass away. And give to God the things that are God’s, for everything that comes from God gives life and peace, and lasts forever.


Sunday, October 09, 2011

Pentecost 17A/Thanksgiving

I have a confession to make: I find preaching on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians really hard. It’s not that there no content to work with. Like all of Paul’s letters, this letter is overflowing with wisdom. And it’s not as if I have trouble understanding what Paul is trying to say, although, I do gain more insight his message every time I read it.

It’s just that Paul seems to be writing with a perpetual smile on his face. He seems abnormally happy. Which is particularly jarring given his circumstances. He’s sitting in jail knowing that, at any time, the cell door could open, and he’d be taken away to die an excruciating death.

But he sounds almost giddy in this letter. Which I find unsettling. I don’t know if I’d be in such a good mood where I in his position. I don’t know from where I’d summon the strength to get through the day, much less write a hope-filled letter to a struggling church that I just founded.

Of course, we can say that God has given him the strength. We can say that the Spirit of Jesus and the power of his resurrection was vibrantly within Paul, giving him courage to face an unspeakable horror. We can say that the mighty presence of God so filled his heart that he couldn’t help but burst out in joyful song. “Rejoice in the Lord, always! Again I say rejoice!”

And that would be true. But it would also be too easy. It would be only half the story.

I say that would be too easy because I often hear easy affirmations of faith in difficult circumstances. I sometimes hear people jump to quickly into the artificial God talk after something terrible has happened. I often hear pious slogans dismissing peoples’ real pain.

“She’s in a better place....” a husband says after his wife’s quick battle with cancer has ended.

“God doesn’t give us anymore than we can handle” she says at the bedside of a child whose been in a car accident.

“All things work together for good, for those who love Jesus,” is said after the last attempt to salvage the marriage fails.

You may have heard some of your own. You may have even said some of these. I know I have. These types of sayings often mask a fear. A fear that, if we don’t acknowledge God right away when something bad happens, then we’re not being good Christians. A fear that we’re losing faith. A fear that we’ve stopped believing in God in the presence of real, terrifying, pain.

A fear that, for all our talk about God being active in and among us, for all our prayers and proclamations about Jesus being raised from the dead, for all our pious declarations of the Holy Spirit’s power in our lives, we worry that, at the end, it’s all just vacant words. And so we hide behind empty God talk, hoping that we can convince ourselves into feeling better.

But then there’s the rest of the story. The part of the story that says, that after the empty, pious, slogans have stopped; that after the quick spiritual sayings have been put away; that after the book of easy answers has been closed; and you sit in the stark silent jail cell of your very real, very human pain, you remember the whole story.

You remember the story that tells you that you are not alone. You remember the story that tells you that God’s light is brighter than any darkness. You remember the story that tells you that life is stronger than death and that God has a hold on you with a grip that will pull you into eternity. You remember that you have a saviour who died and rose again so that the world - indeed the whole cosmos - might be saved.

And you don’t just remember the story. You feel it. It’s in your bones. It’s in every cell. It’s part of you. And you realize that your pain does not make you any less of a Christian. You realize that your doubts do not make you any less of a believer. You realize that your grief, your regrets, your broken relationships do not make you any less of a follower of Jesus.

In fact, it is your brokenness that gives you power. The husband who buried his wife knows how to talk to another person who just said good-bye to their spouse. The mom who knows what it’s like to sit at the bedside of a child in a coma can sit with other parents sitting by similar beds. The one whose marriage collapsed knows what to say, and what NOT to say to their friend who just found herself alone.

It’s then that you realize that YOU are part of God’s story, and that God cannot and will not tell that story without YOU, and you begin to understand what Paul was REALLY talking about.

That’s when you start to get a sense of how Paul could sing a song of rejoicing while sitting in a jail cell awaiting execution. You begin to see Paul with new eyes. And you begin to see yourself with renewed vision.

And you realize that you CAN rejoice, you CAN praise God. Not an empty or easy, sunny or smiling praise to an already blue sky. But a praise that emerges from the darkness, a praise that unlocks your jail cell, a praise that rises from the dirt and filth of your life, a praise that might bring as many tears as it does laughter.

It’s a praise of defiance. It’s praise of defiance against the powers of darkness that seek to overwhelm you and keep you trapped in your misery.

It’s a praise of defiance against pain and grief, it’s a praise defiance against all those things in your life that are trying to keep you down.

It’s a praise a defiance against all those things that are keeping you from becoming who God wants you to be.

It’s a praise of defiance that tells you pain, “You will not define me.” It’s a praise of defiance that tells your grief, “You will not take over my life.”

It’s a praise of defiance that tells the dirt and filth that surrounds you, “I am turning my gaze away from you. I will focus on whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is commendable. If there is any excellence, and if there is anything worthy of praise, I will think on these things. I will keep doing the things that I have learned and received and heard and seen, and the peace of God will be with me.”

I think we caught a glimpse of that defiance this morning. You have turned your gaze. Many of you have brought an item to church that represents something for which you are thankful. And all of these items represent something hopeful, something life-giving. These items came from your lives. Many of them were an answer to hopelessness.

They are the keys that may have let you out of your own personal jail cell. They acknowledge the fact that thanksgiving isn’t trite little ritual we engage in once a year, but something that comes from deep within us, that we carry with us everyday.

That’s why we can join Paul in his song, Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice!

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, October 02, 2011

Pentecost 16A

One of the things they tell us in preaching class is to NOT use ourselves as positive examples of gospel living. The preacher should never be the spiritual superstar in the sermon.

It’s arrogant. It assumes that the preacher is on a higher spiritual plane than the listener. It suggests that its the preacher’s behaviour the listener is supposed to model rather than Christ’s.

It puts the preacher in the centre of the sermon, rather than God. And the pulpit is not the place to show off the preacher’s spiritual prowess.

Paul would have failed that class. He wouldn’t have listened to instructions. He’s not afraid to plop himself down right in the middle of his proclamation. He inserts himself into a story that he did not create.

Just look at verses 4-6 in today’s second reading. That’s a killer resume Paul has, isn’t it? It’s sounds like back-handed bragging. If it were anyone else it would seem that Paul wanted the church in Philippi to know with cold clarity, just how awesome he was, and the cost he paid to be a Christian.

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh,” he says, “I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

In other words:

“Yes, I was amazing at everything I tried. I was born into the right family. I went to the right schools. I graduated at the top of my class. I reached the top of my profession. And when I was at the height of my powers, I met Jesus, and gave it all away. And now I count all my former success as losses because I have gained Christ. So, I hope you realize what I gave up to follow Jesus.”

Paul is clearly contrasting a “before” and “after” picture of his life. His “before” picture is his life as a religious leader, a protector of tradition, obedient to Jewish law, and a fully-fledged, card-carrying, enthusiastic member of the religious establishment.

His “after” picture was one of loss of status, prestige, authority, and wealth. He renounces everything about his former life, content to live out his days as a wandering preacher, planting churches where ever he found himself.

He says he’s gained everything since gaining Christ. His old life is past. He just wants to forget about who he once was. That’s why, as you may recall from the Book of Acts, he changed his name from “Saul” to “Paul” when he met Jesus, to mark the birth of the new person in Christ. Saul was dead. Paul was alive.

But I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I’m not convinced that Paul’s life is as clearly marked as he would like us to believe. Paul was still deeply invested in his past, no matter what he says.

It’s not that I’m saying that Paul was lying, or was a fraud, or was somehow being disingenuous about his testimony. I just see fingerprints of his old life all over this letter. And all over his other letters. I see his old life popping up everywhere in his new life. I see his old life underneath everything he writes.

Paul was DEEPLY schooled in greco-roman rhetoric. In other words, the literary forms he uses in his letters expose his educational past. He knew how to write in ways that educated, upper-class, Roman citizens could understand. His letters are masterpieces of an ancient literary tradition that he knew intimately.

For example, by using himself as an example of exemplary living he was employing an important device used in Roman persuasive arguments. That’s how people wrote, according to Roman literary tradition. He wasn’t being arrogant. He wasn’t inserting himself where he didn’t belong. He wasn’t putting himself at the centre of the sermon.

Paul was writing according to the tradition in which he was taught. In other words, without Saul, the zealous Pharisee, blameless under the law, there could be no Paul, the letter-writing evangelist, who suffering for Christ counted as gain.

No matter how hard he tried to run from his past, it was always there. In his mind there may have been a clear mark between his past life and his present vocation, but in his work, his past is always present, under the surface.

As Christians, we often have a difficult relationship with our pasts. We like the language of growth. We like to feel that we’re moving away from one thing (sin) toward another thing (righteousness before God).

We like to feel that we’re moving toward a spiritual goal, a deeper connection with God. A bolder proclamation of God in our lives. We want to know that our faith is growing, that we are somehow, getting better at following Jesus.

And those are worthy aspirations. Aristotle rightly noted that human beings are “teleological creatures” which means we humans are goal oriented, that we need a purpose to living, that we want to grab hold of something that is always in front of us.

And of course, Paul knew his Aristotle. That’s why Paul said that he “presses on toward the goal...” He needs something in front of him to keep himself going. He keeps looking for new challenges, new quests, new experiences. His feet never stay in one place for long, and his hands are always occupied. Paul is always running another lap in the race that has been set before him.

But if Paul’s running this race to escape his past, then that is race that he’ll never win. Nor should he. God used his past to make the great Christian thinker and preacher that he was. Without all those years in school, Paul wouldn’t have been able to share the gospel so effectively. Without persecuting Christians, Paul wouldn’t have learned the humility he needed to connect with other believers.

And God uses YOUR past to create YOur future in Christ. It doesn’t matter if your past is something to brag about or something to be ashamed of, God uses both the dirt and the gold to build the kingdom of God.

That’s why you CAN run the race that has been set before you. You can press on because Christ Jesus has made you his own.

But that race is fraught with fits and starts, success and failure, pains and losses. As well as gains and triumphs. We make our way up the mountain with skinned knees, calloused heels, and bloody fingers, only to find ourselves falling backwards and landing back on the spot where we started. And then we begin again, tired. But stronger.

Paul says to forget the past and push toward the future. And you may forget your past but your past does not forget you. Your past follows you, reminding you of who you were. It’s your past that so often pushes you backward down that mountain, because that’s where your eyes have been fixed.

But God redeems your past, and trains your eyes towards God’s future. Your past may have made you who are you, but your past will not make you into who you are becoming.

So you press on to what lies ahead, you press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. You press on because Christ has put you on the path that leads to God. You press on because God has given you the strength to meet the days ahead. You press on because that’s all you can do now that you have gained everything in Christ.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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