Sunday, April 28, 2013

Easter 5C

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

My sermon is usually put to bed well before Saturday night, but this particular week I guess I was lazy, because I was in my office banging away on the computer when I should have been at home in front of the TV watching Hockey Night in Canada.

Maybe I was being punished for my sloth.

I answered the door.

“We want to talk about God,” one of them said. They were two young men. One was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. The other was dressed 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, but more like an accusation than a question.

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 believe 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.

Again, they looked unimpressed.

The fellow in the long shirt then rose from his chair and with his index finger pointing heavenward, he yelled, “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 while pointing at me, “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 about 10 years ago when I living and serving in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I tell you this not to bash Muslims (Lord knows there’s enough of that going around these days, and Muslims are as varied a group as Christians), but because I experienced first-hand how abusive and uncaring religion can be– the very opposite of what most scriptures teach.

My encounter with these Muslims haunted me. I’ve tried to pin-point why it bothered me so much. 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 (at the time) to Rebekah, dad to Sophie (and Naomi on the way), became a Muslim. I wasn’t a person to them. I was an object. They weren’t motivated by love. They were interested in power. They wanted to hammer away at my faith; 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.

They’re not the only ones who do this. It breaks my heart when I see Christians doing the same thing, Christians who threaten non-Christians with the eternal fires of Hell 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" and call it “proclamation.”

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

When I first 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 and make members of that church feel superior to others?”

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 called 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 often 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 are longing to be loved. They need forgiveness. They’re longing to know that their broken lives can be put back together, and that there is healing for their hurts.

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. That God’s wild and passionate love for them never changes.

It’s love that transforms lives. Not anger. Not confrontation.

It’s love that brings healing. Not threats. Not finger-pointing or shaming.

Jesus makes this abundantly clear in today’s gospel. He even shows us how to “do” love. He wraps a towel around his waist and washed his disciples feet. He takes the form of a servant - a slave - showing his followers what it means to love as he loves.

Notice one thing. For Jesus, “love” isn’t warm feelings toward someone else. He’s not telling us to feel a certain emotion for others. Love isn’t mere words.

For Jesus, love is action. Love is a verb. Love has dirt under its fingernails and mud on its boots. Love gets its hands dirty, because love means dealing people, and get into the messiness of their lives.

People can be petty, angry, mean, self-absorbed, obnoxious, short-sighted, 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 would know we are God’s people by how much we love. People would know we are Christians by our loving actions.

That’s the new heaven and new earth that John talked about in our second lesson, where the world will be healed, where mourning and crying and pain will be no more, where everything will be made new.

John in Revelation is talking about a world - God’s world - where the consequences of our petty and self-centred ways - the ways of sin - are washed away, and only God’s way of love remains.

John is showing us a vision of God’s world where humans live in harmony with each other and the earth, where justice and peace reign over our lives, where life blossoms and grows all around us.

John is showing us God’s resurrection life for the world, where all the destructive forces that defy God’s loving purposes are drowned,  the new heaven and new earth unite, and all creation rejoices in God’s saving work.

And we see glimpses of that world when we find a towel wrapped around our waists, and we wash each others’ feet, when we wash the world’s feet, with no other agenda other than to love, to wipe clean, and to care for others and the world God made.

We see glimpses of that world when our self-centred ways are pushed aside and we see others - even our enemies - as God sees them, as beloved children who are loved beyond our ability to comprehend.

But, again, this is not easy, but it is God working through us. Loving people can be risky. It can hurt. It costs something.

Just ask Jesus. He knows something about the price of love. And he also know its worth.


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Sunday, April 07, 2013

Easter 2C

"The door was locked for fear of the Jews," John says in today’s gospel.

Maybe. But I’m sure there was more to it than that. But John couldn’t just come out and say it.

Yes, Jesus' disciples were probably afraid that their fellow Jews might have wanted to see them on the business end of a cross. But that's probably not the only reason the door was locked. They might have been afraid of something - or someone - else. And they wanted to keep that person as far away as possible from them.

The announcement of Jesus' resurrection might not have been good news for the disciples. They knew what they had done. They knew that they scattered like scared rats when Jesus was arrested. Peter knew that he denied knowing Jesus while Jesus was being questioned and tortured by the police.

They knew that, while Jesus was hanging in torment waiting for death to take him, the only comforting eyes he saw were the women - and John.

Everyone else had disappeared when things started getting real.

They probably knew that their abandonment was just as painful to Jesus as the nails in his hands and feet. John says that the door was locked for fear of the Jews. But I wonder if the door was locked because there was one specific Jewish rabbi they were trying to keep out out.

They had heard that Jesus was back. And now they were in trouble.

Was Jesus angry? What was he going to say when he caught up with his disciples? What was he going to say to those who betrayed and abandoned him - the disciples who were all talk and zero action?

To those who, by their behaviour, showed Jesus that they didn't really believe a single word that he said, what would he say?

What would YOU say?

"Where were you when I needed you?"

"You said you'd follow me anywhere, even to death. What happened with that?"

"I made you a leader, but you turned out to be a coward."

"With friends like you...I don't need these nasty Romans."

They were sweating because they might have remembered Jesus saying, ‘Everyone...who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven." (Matt 10:23-33)

It gets worse. Jesus also said, "Those 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." (Mark 8:38)

Harsh words that I'm sure were swimming in the disciples' ears. So they knew what to expect when Jesus caught up with them.

That's what I'd expect if I were them because that's probably what I would say if I were in Jesus' position.

Was all that talk about following Jesus wherever he went mere bluster and bravado? Tough talk? Stuff that guys tell each other to prove something?

Or maybe they really believed it about themselves. Maybe they really thought they had what it took to follow Jesus wherever he led them.

And when the crunch time came, and Jesus was arrested, they learned something about themselves. They learned that they were afraid - afraid of pain, afraid prison, afraid of death. Afraid to actually trust God.

It was easy to get all pumped up when things were easy and they were among friends. There was a romance about their movement. They were going to change the world for God, even if it killed them.

But when the time came to put their lives where their mouths were, they abandoned everything they said they said they believed in.

They failed Jesus. They failed God. They failed each other. They failed themselves.

It makes me think that news of Jesus' resurrection was met with as much fear and trembling as joy and celebration. I wonder if they were in that locked room for a closed-door meeting to get their stories straight.

What were they going to tell Jesus when he finally confronted them? What COULD they say? This behaviour is hard to put a good face on. Try as they might, even the best spin doctor the world couldn’t present betraying and abandoning the one they confessed as Lord cannot be presented as being a good thing. They were stuck.

All they could do was wait for Jesus to show up and suffer the consequences.

As they soon discovered, the locked door wasn't enough to keep Jesus out any more than a grave could keep him down. He simply appears right in front of them. And before anyone could say something, before they could offer up whatever lame excuse they came up with for their actions, before they could even say "sorry" it's Jesus who speaks first.

"Peace be with you."

That's it. That's the first words Jesus says to those who took off when things got tough. That's the first thing that Jesus says to those who said they didn't know him because it might have gotten them into trouble. That's the first thing he says to those whose familiar faces he was looking for as he hung dying in excruciating pain.

"Peace be with you."

No anger. No judgment. No harsh words. Just forgiveness.

Were the disciples surprised? Probably. I know I would have been. I would have expected a verbal trip to the woodshed. Or worse.

But nothing. Not a word about what the disciples had done. Not a peep about the abandonment and betrayal. Not a sound about the cowardice and lack of faithfulness.

Just "peace be with you."

It turns out Jesus knew something about the disciples that they themselves didn't know. Jesus knew what they they were capable of, he knew that they were capable of great faithfulness and courage. He knew that they could perform works that would astonish them.

He knew that they were able to do what they said they could do,
he knew that their words could re-create the world,
he knew that their hands could heal those in pain,
he knew that their songs of praise could open graves,
he knew that they could follow him into death - and beyond.

Or at least they will be able to. Jesus knew what they were, and Jesus knew what they were going to become. He knew that God wasn't finished with them quite yet.

I know God wasn’t finished with them because Jesus didn't just forgive them. He gave them a job. And not just any job. He gave them a job usually saved for God alone:

"As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'"

Forgiving sins. Retaining sins. That's quite the authority to have, don't you think? That's quite the power to give to someone who treated you so badly.

But that's how God works, isn't it? That's what God does. God forgives. God renews.

Jesus wasn't the only one resurrected that day. His disciples were made new as well. They learned something new about God along the way. They learned that God can work with ANYONE to accomplish God's mission. They learned that their limitations will not stop God’s future from arriving. They learned that even though though they turned their back on Jesus, Jesus never turned his back on them. They learned that not even their worst deeds can stop God from bringing out their best.

But that’s not always easy to believe. Especially when we think about ourselves, and think about how God wants to use us for God’s kingdom accomplishments. The voices inside our heads often remind us of our limitations rather than our possibilities, and we wonder if their is anything left in us that God can work with.

I’m too old.

I’m too young.

I’m not smart enough

I don’t have the right education

I don’t have the right background

Do you often hear yourself say things like that? I think everyone, at one point, does.

But God has a different message for us. God has a different message for YOU

It’s God who says, I can use you just the way you are. And I will use the gifts that I have given you.

It’s Jesus who says, “You may not be good enough for others, but you’re good enough for God.

“You may not be smart enough for those who think you’re dumb, but you’re smart enough for God.”

“You may not have the right kind of letters after your name, but you bear GOD’S name.”

“You may have a past that follows you wherever you go, but God has a future for you that no one can take away.

“You may feel like the biggest sinner on the planet, but Jesus died and rose again so that you can be free from your past misdeeds.”

“You may think you’re the world’s biggest loser, but because you’ve been join to Jesus’ death and resurrection, God made you a winner.”

“You may not have the talents that others want you to have, but you’re talented enough for God.”

“People may tell you that you haven’t come from the right background, but you are part of God’s family.”

“You may have reached your golden years and wonder if what you can do for the kingdom, but you have Abraham and Sarah to remind you that you’re not done yet.”

“You may think that you’re too fresh from the baptismal waters and lack the knowledge and insight of more mature believers to do any good in Jesus’ name, but you have Samuel and David to show you that youth can change the world when God jumps into your life.”

Just like all of us who've been named and claimed as God's own children, YOU are part of God's resurrection mission. God has given you a job that was once saved for God alone. YOU are part of God’s great adventure of bringing forgiveness, peace, mercy, justice, healing, and grace to the world. YOU are conscripted and commissioned to do good in Jesus’ name, because he has broken into your life, and filled you with the power of his resurrection.

Neither sin nor betrayal, nor abandonment nor locked doors, can keep Jesus out of you life. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and nothing can prevent God from recruiting us for God’s mission to the world.

We are God’s. No one can keep us from becoming who God wants us to be. Nothing can stop us from living the resurrection life that God has for us!

Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen, indeed! Alleluia! Amen.