Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pentecost 18B

(NB: You listen to the sermon by clicking here)

It’s the kind of headline that boils your blood. Perhaps you saw it. “Parents Get Probation for the Negligent Homicide Death of the Their Son.”

According to the Huffington Post.

“An Oregon couple whose teenaged son died from a burst appendix because they don't believe in modern medicine accepted a plea deal to avoid jail.

“Last December, Austin Sprout became sick with flu-like symptoms. Instead of taking the 16 year old to a doctor, his mother and stepfather chose to pray for his recovery.

“In exchange to pleading guilty on Tuesday to negligent homicide, ‘faith healers’ Russel and Brandi Bellew will be on probation for five years...”

While we rightly look aghast at such abusive parenting, they might turn around and ask us if we believe the promises of scripture, or do we not? After all, they believed that they were following the bible’s guidance.

And the passage that they were following happens to be our second reading for this morning in the Letter of James:

“...are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

Sounds good doesn’t it? And it is a passage we take seriously because we pray for the sick and the suffering every time we gather. And when I visit people in the hospital, it’s not uncommon for me to take a little jar of olive oil with me so I can anoint the poor soul in the bed. It’s an ancient ritual that began with the people of Israel and adopted by the early church. Olive oil was seen as the lifeblood of society, and therefore a symbol of God’s blessing, and the promise that God will provide all our needs.

But, of course, the fact that I am praying in the hospital - the very heart of modern medicine - puts me at odds with those who would deny the value of doctors and nurses in peoples’ healing.

You’re probably wondering why I’m bringing this up. After all, we’re not a church that denies the power of modern medicine in favour of prayer. I think I’m safe in saying that all of you take your family members to the hospital should they break a bone, come down with a nasty fever, or burst their appendix. At least I HOPE that would be the case...

But I bring this up because this awful story makes me ask: What IS our expectation when we pray? Especially when we pray for tangible things, such as healing for loved ones? What do we expect God to DO?

In our prayers of the people, we get start off and ask God for the big ticket items: world peace, an end to poverty and hunger, the healing of the planet, etc.

Then we get a little more specific and we pray for healing of those on the prayer list. And it’s been my experience that most of the names that make their way on to the church prayer list tend to stay there for a long time.

And faithfully, as pray each week, perhaps never asking why God is taking so long to answer our prayers.

That’s a question that gets asked A LOT in among many thoughtful believers, and also among those who wouldn’t caught in the same city block as church; those especially who think that prayer is, at best, foolishness, that we’re talking to our imaginary friend like little children who can’t breakout of juvenile superstition, and at worst, dangerous, prayer is like that couple who chose prayer over medical help for their son.

Others fire back and defend the validity of prayer, pointing to scientific studies that demonstrate that sick people who are prayed for get better more quickly than those who are not prayed for, even if they don’t know they are being prayed for.

But the next scientific question would be, “Can those results be replicated?” And they answer is, the jury is out of on that one. And they will probably always be out. Because if prayer is meant to be our way of manipulating God, then we are in trouble because God will NOT be manipulated. God is free. We can’t control God with our words. We can only ask.

And sometimes God answers prayer in ways that go deeper than what we ask for.

In my first congregation, on my first day of ministry - literally MY FIRST day on the job as a pastor - I was called into the hospital because a council member’s father-in-law was in the final stages of cancer, and they wanted me to visit with him.
I arrived at the hospital and found the man’s room. Members of the family had already gathered. I read some scripture, then I prayed for the man. I don’t remember what I prayed for, whether it was for his comfort or his healing, I don’t know, but he seemed happy with whatever words I came up with.

The next day I received a phone call from the funeral director asking me if I could do the funeral. Of course, I said “yes.”

And while I was visiting the family to plan the funeral, I found out that this man was actually a member of another church. He’d only found himself in a pew at that church for weddings and funerals, Christmas and Easter, but, still, he was a member of another church.

“Why am I presiding at the funeral when he already has a pastor?” I asked the family.

“He asked for you,” his daughter replied.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because of all the ministers that came to visit him, including his own, you were the only one who prayed for him. And that touched him deeply. After you left, he was finally about to relax, and we saw him with peace in his heart.”

I don’t tell you this story to show you what a great pastor I am (although that IS a fringe benefit of telling you this story...), but because I learned something that day, in my first week on the job, about the tools I have - that WE have - as Christians. And while we may not always - or often see tangible results of our prayers, I’ve come to learn that prayer does SOMETHING that we can’t quite define.

Whenever I feel like giving up on prayer, especially when I feel like God is either absent or has abandoned us to our suffering, I remember that man. I remember that God did something in him over which I had no control. I only had words, words that I can’t even remember. But God used them in those moment, to bring a dying man some peace.
Do you pray?

 If so, what has been your experience of prayer? When you pray, what do you expected to happen? God to do? Have you seen God answer prayer?

If you DON’T pray, why not? That’s not an accusation, its merely a question. Because I guessing that either you haven’t been taught how to pray, or, somehow, you were given the notion prayer doesn’t do anything. And maybe you feel like you’re talking to your imaginary invisible friend.

And if that’s you, then you’re not alone. I think most believers have that experience. But we keep praying even if it makes us look and feel silly. We keep praying doubting anything will come of it. We keep praying even if we aren’t sure that anyone is listening.

We - as a church - as a family of believers, keep praying because that’s what God has asked us to do. We keep praying because prayer means trusting - not knowing - that someone is listening. We keep praying because there have been those moments when prayer has done something so unexpected, that it makes all those other times of silence worth every empty moment.

So, today, when we pray together, think about what you expect God to do. And then, as we pray, think about what God wants YOU to do.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Pentecost 17B

Click here to listen to the sermon

“Don’t worry about the young people, pastor,” he told me, “After they have kids they’ll return to church to have their children baptized. They always do. It’s the cycle of life.”

That’s the common wisdom. And I hear that a lot.

While that may be true this morning as we welcome Chase into our family of faith through the sacrament of holy baptism, it is becoming less and less the case overall. And that presents us with a challenge as we look ahead into our future and try to discern God’s vision for us as a church.

I’ve been a pastor for 13 years and over that time I have seen the declining numbers accelerate. And while there are blips of growth here and there, the overall trend is downward. We fear for our future. And we look around and we wonder where all the young people have gone. We ask why they don’t come to church like people once did.

And so we dig in our heels, get angry and resentful about an insecure future. We blame the media for what we think is bias against people of faith. We blame the government for an increasingly secular culture. I’ve even heard some pastors blame immigrants for bringing their “foreign religion” to our so-called “Christian country.”

So we ask, why is this happening? Why are we in this place? How did we get here?

Even in our darkest moments, we look at our own children and other members of our families, and see how they’ve abandoned church, and we ask, “What did we do wrong? What could I have done better in the past so that my family would still attend church today?”

Here’s the answer to those questions. You have done nothing wrong. You were working with the tools that you were given.

I have the opportunity to talk to lots of people about faith and church, and about how they believe or how they don’t believe. And most people who have wandered away from the church point to a time or a place where they’ve been hurt by church folks.

The point out the long, tedious, pointless sermons that wasted their time and insulted their intelligence. They tell me about the mean Sunday school teacher who yelled at them for asking hard questions. They tell me about the nasty aunt who lectured them about the bible, and how they didn’t measure up to God’s standards. They’d tell me about the loud mouthed preacher who demanded that they vote the same way he did. I’d hear about the pastor who wouldn’t baptize their baby because the child was born out of wedlock.

I could go on but you get the idea.

And after hearing those stories, I think two things:

If I were in their place, I wouldn’t want anything to do with church either.
The church that has loved and nurtured me throughout my life, was nothing like what they described. If I were I wouldn’t be here. I’d be like them, watching football on Sunday morning rather than getting up at an inconvenient hour to sings old songs and read ancient stories.

The church at its best, hears what Jesus says in today’s gospel reading with deadly seriousness.

“Then they came to Capernaum; and when Jesus was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But the disciples were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest...”

They argued about who was the greatest.

It’s when we argue, as a church, about “who is the greatest,” we hurt people. We hurt them with our ambitions. We hurt them with our demands that people live and believe exactly the same way we do. We hurt them when we shoehorn our way into their lives, passing moral judgment, making us feel big by making others feel small. We want to be the greatest among each other. But in doing so, we often push people away from church. And even away from God.

Some may push back on me and say, “Pastor, we need to have standards! It’s our boundaries that define us. We can just adopt a ‘live-and-let-live’ attitude, then we’ll be just like everyone else! Doesn’t the bible tell us that we’re supposed to live differently?”

To all of this I say: Yes! And Jesus sets those standards in the rest of that reading, he shows us what it means to live differently:

“Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all...”

Boy, that’s hard isn’t it? Especially when you really ponder its implications. Jesus isn’t making it any easier to grow the church if he keeps saying stuff like that.

And maybe that was his point.

I’ve been thinking about confirmation class recently. Mainly because we have our orientation meeting on Wednesday at 7:00 pm for both students and parents. I’ve been thinking about what we want to accomplish in confirmation class, and of course there are some basics.

Learn bible stories
Learn church history
Learn Lutheran doctrine
Learn Christian spiritual practices, etc.

But as I got thinking about all those traditional areas of confirmation study, they seemed to me, only part of the goal. Confirmation class is about our young people preparing to confirm the promises that were made for them when they were baptized. And we heard those promises this morning when I asked those speaking on behalf of Chase, “Do you promise to help your child grow in the Christian faith and life?” and the answer was “I do.”

But what is the Christian faith and life? The baptism liturgy sums it up this way: “To proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.”

This is just another way of saying what Jesus did: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all...”

This is God’s upside down kingdom. We will be teaching our young people to be citizens in that upside down kingdom. We will be training them to agents of justice and peace wherever they find themselves. They will learn how to be God’s healing presence in the world. They will learn that the greatest among us are those who serve.

That’s a lesson on which we all could use a refresher. Because that learning never stops. It’s a daily remembering that who we are and whose we are. And what it means to live in Christ.

Today Chase began that life. This morning Chase has been received into full citizenship of the kingdom of God. He has been named and claimed as God own child through his baptism into Christ. And because of that Chase has been given a job to do:  To proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.”

Just like each one of us here who have been washed in these waters. You are a child of God, empowered for great things in God’s eyes. As you have been adopted into the royal family as sisters and brothers of Christ, you are a people of peace. You are a people of justice. You are a caring healing presence.

And you will grow more fully into who God wants you to be.

So what does this mean for the future of the church? It’s hard to say for sure. But I do know that it means this:

It means that where peace and justice is honoured and lived, there is the church. Where mercy and forgiveness flourish, there is the church. Where care for others and all of creation are offered with open hands, there is church. Where promises of life abundant for all people is believed and received, there is church. Where greatness is defined by what we give rather than what we get, there is church.

And it all starts with a little bit of water.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Pentecost 16B

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples. And Peter, the one who can never keep his mouth shut, speaks without realizing what he’s saying.

“You are the Messiah,” Peter bursts without thinking, wondering why Jesus would ask a pretty basic question.

But I think Jesus was trying to take their temperature. He probably heard the gossip about who people thought he was, and he wanted to shut down any misinformation before it got out of hand.

“Who do people say that I am? What are they saying about me? What’s in the papers, what are the bloggers blogging about? Who is tweeting about me and what are they tweeting? What’s happening on Facebook? I’m curious. Because I haven’t been totally direct with people, and I want what’s going on out there.”

It’s interesting that Jesus thinks his disciples have their ears to the ground. After all, they haven’t really left his sight since they began their preaching tour. They may have been milling about in the crowds, eavesdropping on peoples’ conversations, getting a sense of who people think this wandering preacher is, and why they think that.

But people only have their own experience to draw from. Some say that Jesus is “Elijah” because they see Jesus’ ministry of speaking God’s Word. Others say Moses because they see him as a great leader. Some say “one of the prophets” because his preaching has cut through their hearts like a surgeon’s scalpel. But no two people agree as to who they think Jesus is.

There’s no consensus until Jesus asks his followers.

“Okay, that’s who THEY, OUT THERE say that I am. But who do YOU say that I am? What do YOU tell people about me?”

It’s a pretty direct question, isn’t it? Is Jesus testing them? Or is even more curious about his friends’ answers then those on the street.

“You’re the Messiah,” Peter says impulsively. Probably impressed with himself.

Did Peter answer Jesus correctly? Yes. But did he know what the correct answer was? No.

Peter may have given Jesus the “correct” answer but he had no idea what he was saying. He didn’t really have a clue what the word “Messiah” meant. But he knew that Jesus was it. And Peter showed Jesus that he was completely ignorant of the divine plan - or even of basic Hebrew Sunday school. That’s why Peter rebuked Jesus for saying that the Messiah needs to be killed and raised on the third day. Peter couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of a murdered king.

“Jesus, what are you talking about? That makes no sense! You gotta stop with this whole dying and rising thing or we’ll start losing people. That’s no way for a messiah to talk. That’s not what people want from a king,” Peter might have said.

And that really ticked Jesus off, and he lays into Peter with the strongest language in his arsenal.

“Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on divine things. But on earthly things.”

Then Jesus totally loses it, and goes off on a rant directed at Peter, but also aimed at anyone within earshot.

“Hey folks, listen up! If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Stunned silence. Jesus’ listeners were probably taken aback by his vehemence.

“What’s his problem?” people probably muttered to each other. He’s been awesome up until now. He’s got this whole healing the sick and raising the dead thing down pat. Why’s he so touchy?

It all started with that simple question, “Who do YOU say that I am?” And Peter’s answer showed that even Jesus’ closest friends hadn’t a clue who he really was or what he was supposed to do. They knew his name, and they knew his divine job title, but after all that time together, they didn’t really know HIM, and why he came among them.

Sometimes I worry that, as Christians, we’re more like Peter in this scenario than we like to realize. We often speak in Jesus’ name without first defining our terms. We assume we know what we mean when we use words like “Messiah” or even “God’s Word” “salvation” “grace” or “faith.” We think that we are all in agreement as to what these words mean.

We’re like Peter in the way that we think we know what God is up to in our lives and in the world. Peter probably believed, like many others did, that the Messiah would be a mighty political warrior, restoring Israel to the golden age of when King David sat on the throne. And he couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that Jesus’ greatest accomplishment would be to die a cruel death as a common criminal.

Peter wanted Jesus to affirm his sense of power. He wanted a front row seat when the Israel’s glory finally returned. He liked his proximity to the almighty. He liked the social affirmation that came from being associated with someone who held divine power in his hands.

Through our history, we’ve longed for that power as well, and I often hear people long for the days when Christians held the reigns of authority over our culture and demand a special place at the table.

Every December I hear about some phony “War on Christmas” as if what the culture celebrates as “Christmas” resembles, in any way, the birth of a saviour born in a barn, or if our society has any responsibility to announce Jesus’ birth for us.

I hear about how we’ve taken God and the bible out of the schools, as if it the job of the public school teachers to do our job as churches for us.

I hear about how stores are open on Sundays, despite the objections of the churches, as if the Christians should dictate when people can and cannot operate their business when folk can do their shopping.

We complain that people don’t naturally gravitate to church on Sunday mornings, without reflecting on why Christians have lost influence in society.

We mourn for what we’ve lost. We long for the times when we flourished and took our place at the head of the table.

We’re more like Peter then we think. We want a God of power. Not a God of the cross.

One of the reasons I went to Japan was to see how Christians lived their faith without the culture propping them up. Japan is a secular society with some religious rituals imbedded into the culture, but they are not an overtly religious people.

I find the history of Christianity in Japan fascinating. Especially because Christians flourished in that country without the help of Japanese society. Some may say, despite the challenges Japanese culture put in front of the Japanese Christians.

Christianity in Japan never really broke the 3-5 percent range of the population. And today, Christians are less than one percent of the population.

But Christians, despite their small numbers, have had an IMMENSE impact on Japanese life. Especially in health care and education. Christian universities are thought of as being among the finest in Japan. Christian hospitals have an excellent reputation for providing exceptional health care. Christian relief agencies provide aid for people in Japan and beyond in numbers that would make us well-fed Canadian Christians blush.

They are wonderfully effective in their witness in a naturally hostile culture because they came to Japan to serve rather than be served. They didn’t complain when the culture wouldn’t officially recognize them. They simply rolled up their sleeves and did the work of the kingdom. They knew the God of the cross, rather than the God of power.

That’s one lesson we can learn from our Japanese sisters and brothers as we try to see our future in an increasingly multi-religious Canada. We can learn that we don’t need society and culture to help us to our job as Christians. We don’t need schools to teach our faith or for politicians to vote the way we demand that they do.

Instead of mourning what we’ve lost, we can celebrate what we’ve gained. I think we’ve been given a gift. Our loss of official influence is an opportunity to re-claim our message. We can be a unique presence in our community without worrying about how we might look.

We can be a light shining in the darkness instead of being lost in the light pollution that simply covers the darkness. We can be that city on the hill that Jesus said we are. We can move ahead into a renewed future where the church may be smaller, but it will be stronger than it was.

We have all that we need. God has put each one of you here to do God’s kingdom work. And God will send more people to help. God isn’t finished with this church. Not by a long shot.

So when Jesus asks, “Who do YOU say that I am” we can answer proudly “you are the Messiah” and we’ll know exactly what that means, because we are living it every day.

May this be so among us. Amen.