Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lent 4A

“He put some mud on my eyes. I washed. And now I can see.”

Simple. To the point.

But, apparently, that wasn’t enough. They wanted a fuller explanation. The religious types couldn’t accept his version of the story. There had to be more to it.

Jesus meets this man who has been blind from birth. With some spit and dust Jesus heals him. Praise be to God! A man who was blind can now see! Isn’t that awesome?!

But not so fast. A controversy breaks out. Was this man really healed? How was he healed? If Jesus healed him, what does that say about Jesus? What does that say about God?

Fortunately, a bunch of pastors appear on the scene to help sort things out, religiously speaking.

“Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind?” they ask. 

A terrible question, isn’t it? Like lots of religious folks, they want to find fault and place blame. They want to point out sin instead of offering forgiveness. They want to beat this guy with a religious stick.

The man’s neighbours can’t believe what they’d seen happen to the man. Isn’t this the same guy who begs on the corner? And wasn’t he blind?

After interrogating this man for the sin of being healed, and being unsatisfied with the man’s answers, the pastors alert the bishop who refers this matter to the disciplinary committee to investigate.

“All I know,” the man tells the committee, “is that this man put mud on my eyes and now I can see.”

Although the man is standing right in front of them, the committee can’t reach a conclusion. So they subpoena the man’s parents.

“Is this your son?” they demand.

“It looks like our son, but we don’t want to get into any trouble. We have no idea how he got his sight back. If you want to know what happened, ask HIM, he’s a big boy,” his parents reply.

They call Jesus back in and say, “Jesus, you don’t have a medical license. You’re not on the clergy roster. You shouldn’t be messing around with things you know nothing about.”

The bewildered and annoyed formerly blind man says, “Look, I don’t know a lot about all that big theological stuff. I don’t have a lot of fancy words. The only thing I know is that a few days ago I was blind and now I can see. 

The committee shares some silent glances.

“He put some mud on my eyes. I washed. And now I can see.” 

That was his testimony.

Simple. To the point.

Sometimes, I think we make it harder than it needs to be. I have, on my bookshelf, a whole section on church growth and personal evangelism. After all, don’t we all want to see our church numbers increase?

There are tons of programs available to help us grow the church. In fact, it’s become a small cottage industry. In some ways, they read like business books, assuming that all the church needs is a marketing plan, simple in theory, complex in execution, to entice people through the doors. Which would help reverse the decline many churches are seeing.

But over the years, I’ve become less and less convinced of their value. While many of these programs have their use, I worry that we place too much emphasis on method, and not enough trust in what God is ACTUALLY doing in our lives.

We make it harder than it needs to be.

But then again, it’s not as easy as it looks. Telling people about what God has done in our lives is a challenge because not everyone welcomes conversations from church folks.

I think the problem isn’t God or Jesus. It’s been my experience that, despite the protests of some high profile atheists and their disciples, most people are NOT turned off by God talk. In fact, most people WANT to talk about God. They simply don’t want to talk about the church. And in some people’s minds the two can be one in the same.

Given the church’s spotty historical record I don’t blame them. When non-church people ask me what I do for a living I’m often hesitant to tell them. I’d often say that I sell fire insurance (which isn’t a lie). I say that not because I’m ashamed of God or the church. I’m proud of what I do, and I’m proud of who YOU are. So neither my job nor the people I serve are the problem.

I’m hesitant to tell people what I do for a living because I know that an onslaught of hostility is probably coming my way, once they find out how I pay my bills. It’s happened more times than not, so I’ve come to expect it.

People often unload on me about the Sunday School teacher who yelled at them. Or the pastor who told them their uncle was going to Hell because their uncle was gay. Or how they’re sickened by the sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups by the Catholic Church. Or how they’re disgusted by the appalling treatment of native children at residential church schools.

And they’re not wrong to be horrified by the Church’s past behaviour. While Christians have been the source so much good in the world, we still have a past (and a present) we can’t escape. 

To ignore, or gloss over, the suffering that the Church has caused over the years and centuries is to do a disservice to our present proclamation. Unless we first acknowledge past sins and heal historic pains, our message of life and salvation in Jesus will always be met with a “Yes, but...”

We can proclaim great gusto, “The Kingdom of God is here among you with love and grace!”

And we might hear in response, “Yes, but...what about that Sunday school teacher who yelled at me for asking the wrong question? That wasn’t very loving."

We may pronounce that “God has made you a unique child, and we celebrate your special, God-given gifts, through which God will do great things in your life!” 

And then we may hear, “Yes, but...then why did Christians try to destroy native culture in those residential schools? That doesn’t sound like celebrating people’s unique gifts.”

We may announce that “Jesus calls all children to God, setting them free from sin, to live as God’s beloved, now and into eternity!”

And in return people might ask, “Yes, but...what about what the priests have done to all those children, then moving the priests around once they were caught, hoping the problem will go away? How were those childen treated as God’s beloved?”

We may boldly declare that “God welcomes you! Jesus loves you, and Jesus died and rose again so that you and all people may have life eternal and life abundant!”

And then we could hear, “Yes, but...what about that preacher who made my uncle feel like God hated him? He didn’t feel particularly welcome at church, among God’s people.”
When people unload on me, I RARELY, if EVER, hear someone say, “I have a real problem with God intruding on my life, so I try to stay away from church.” 

And I NEVER hear someone say, “I have real difficulty with Jesus’ message of peace and forgiveness.”

People’s problems are rarely with God or Jesus. People LOVE talking about God. Peoples’ problems are usually with the Church. 

Rightly or wrongly, they see the Church like the those religious folks in today’s gospel reading who are shocked and angered by Jesus’ act of healing and mercy, blind to what God was doing because... 

...they were too busy protecting the religious institution,

...they were too entrenched in their own religious understanding,

...they clung too tightly to religious tradition that they couldn’t see that Jesus was re-writing the religious rules, to draw more people into God’s circle, to gain more followers for God’s kingdom.

In some ways, I don’t blame them for what they did. Look at their situation. The Pharisees, or religious leaders, were just doing their jobs as protectors of the sacred traditions. Their objection to Jesus healing on the sabbath was a legitimate one, since this type of healing was reserved for the other six days of the week.

And the people couldn’t wrap their heads around what they had just seen because no one had seen that before. They were reacting the same way as we would have if we had seen that happen.

The problem wasn’t their surprise. The problem was that they couldn’t get past their own discomfort at seeing something they couldn’t understand, to see the fresh move of God that was happening right before their eyes.

And God is always doing a new thing. God is always creating a new future.

But God can’t change the past and neither can we. Those are the burdens we carry into the coming years. And I’m sure that we’ll create new burdens along the way.

So what I try to do when confronted with the sins of our collective past, is to hear the pain behind their questions and their stories. And all I can do in response is to honour their concerns by listening with empathy and with sympathy, and tell them what I know about God, and what Jesus has done in my life.

Like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gatherings that happened this week in Edmonton, where Canadian Church leaders of all stripes, including our ELCIC bishops, came together with First Nations leaders to bring healing to historic wrongs, and to forge a new future built on reconciled relationships, and sacred partnerships. And in doing so, bear witness to the God in Jesus, who reconciled the world to God’s very self.

And for those of us on ground level, our call is much simpler.

I can’t apologize for other peoples’ sins, but I can tell about the grace that I’ve received. 

I can’t erase history, but I can tell about the God I know and who loves me, and who loves them.

I can’t change the past.

All I can do is tell the story that gives me life, a story that has shaped who I am. A story of renewal and rebirth, a story of forgiveness and peace, a story of healing and of second chances.

All I can do is tell them about the love I’ve received from this community of believers called “the Church.”

All I can do is tell them about the care I seen from this faithful family of God who so generously give of their time, labour, and resources, so that God’s mission of nursing a hurting world can continue.

All I can do is tell them the story of Jesus, whose body called “Christians” is living out his message of life and salvation, in their own small, limited, yet powerful way.

All I can do is say “He put some mud on my eyes. I washed. And now I can see.”

Our future as a church will be shaped by simple testimonies rather than large programs. The church of the future will be sustained by our stories of God in our lives rather than by relying our institutional history and cultural memory. Our life together in the coming years will be forged by sharing with each other and the world what God is doing with and among us.

I’ve always believed that the church of the future will look more like an AA meeting than a Broadway musical. An assembly of the broken, who share common defeats, who wear their bruised and battered hearts with pride, yet who gather to remember the story that is re-shaping and renewing them, so that - together as the body of Christ, with the dust and spit of our lives - healing will emerge. 

The church of the future will have one simple message:

“He put some mud on my eyes. I washed. And now I can see.”

Simple. To the point.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lent 3A

Last week, Jesus encountered Nicodemus. This week, he meets the woman at the well. And the two interactions couldn’t be more different.

Nicodemus is a man. She’s a woman. Nicodemus arrives at midnight. Jesus meets the woman at noon. 

Nicodemus is a highly educated, and greatly respected moral and religious leader.

The woman is an outcast and outsider, forced to retrieve her water from the well under the hot sun, instead of during the cool morning breeze, with the rest of the women.

He’s received honours throughout his life. She’s been rejected by most people who knew her.

The two couldn’t be any less alike.

But I know who I’m closer to. If I’m honest with myself I know that I’m more like Nicodemus than I am like the woman at the well. I think most of us here are, too. We may have our fair share of rejection in our lives, we may have gone through tough times, we may have had terrible challenges and almost insurmountable obstacles put on our life’s paths, but we’ve mostly managed to get through them with the help of friends, family, fellow church members, and government safety nets.

She didn’t have those options. She was alone, fending for herself. 

She lived in a culture that placed woman in the same category as livestock. She observed a religion on the fringiest of fringes of her world.

She was a member of a race that was met with hostility by everyone else around them. Her family was held together by the flimsiest of strings. She bounced from one bed to another, just to secure food and shelter for another night for herself and her children.

We know his name. We don’t know hers.

Like I said, I have no idea who this woman is. I can’t imagine what her life is like.

Despite the pain I’ve experienced in my years, I can’t measure it against her suffering. I can’t put myself in her dusty sandals. I don’t see my face in hers. She’s a stranger to me.

I’m guessing it’s the same is most for most of you. It was certainly the same for Jesus. Jesus was more like Nicodemus than he was like the woman.

Even though Jesus was a poor, wandering, homeless, preacher, he still had the respect of his friends (for the moment), crowds gathered to hear him speak, he’s ego was well stoked. He saw the gratitude in peoples’ eyes as they were healed. His life was pretty good - for now.

And Jesus could have easily walked past the woman at the well. He’d seen hundreds like her. He could have walked past her as he walked past the thousands of beggars in back alleys who didn’t come to hear him preach, or the lepers who stayed at a safe distance so not get to into trouble by being so close to others, or the other women who knew that religion at that time was supposed to be a man’s business so they stayed home with the kids.

But something must have caught Jesus’ attention that day. It was probably his parched throat, since they’d been walking for hours. He was thirsty. She had water.

In what must have sounded like a reverse pick-up line, Jesus asked HER for a drink. And she probably thought that this strange man wanted more than a cup of water from her. 

It turned out that Jesus knew everything about her. The men. The rejection. The loneliness. His knowledge may have come from God but it wasn’t hard for him to guess what her life was like. Her story wasn’t unique.

Of course she bounced from bed to bed, she had no other option. She traded her body for a flimsy security. 

Of course, she had to get water from the well in the worst heat of the day because the “respectable” women would push her away if she showed up at a more convenient time.

She was just trying to get through her life and provide for her children the best and only way she knew how. While she had been the victim of her circumstance, she was also a survivor.

She was strong. But she felt weak. She was resilient. But she felt like she would pass out from exhaustion at any moment. She was tough. But she longed to just let herself collapse into someone’s arms, someone who didn’t want anything from her, and rest.

And here was this Jewish preacher, who, by definition, should be her enemy. This man who preached the ancient faith and worshipped in the REAL temple. This man who exuded life and strength. This man, who by all accounts should hate her, looked at her with a love she hadn’t seen in a long time - if ever.

He told her all about her life. And he didn’t forgive her of her sins, as if survival was something to forgive. He just drank from HER cup. He accepted HER gift of water. And that was enough.

Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what to say. They just watched this scene unfold with their mouths hanging open, until one of them had to put a stop to it.

Pulling Jesus aside he asked with a voice everyone could hear, “Don’t you know who this woman is? Why are you talking to her?”

That’s when she bolted. She didn’t want to be reminded of her past, she didn’t want the men thrown in her face, she didn’t want to be judged for what she had to do to survive,  because, all of a sudden, she could see a different future for herself - God’s future for her life. And NO ONE was going to take that from her. She wouldn’t let them. And neither would God.

This Samaritan woman who bounced from bed to bed, who worshipped in a sham temple, who was hated and judged by everyone, became the first gentile evangelist, spreading the good news to those beyond Israel’s borders, making true John’s announcement that “God so loved the WORLD that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

On that day, God’s saving work spilled into the world, from a broken woman, simply trying to survive.

“Come and see!” she says, “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?”

Not exactly the proud, confident, proclamation of the disciples. But a proclamation nonetheless. People probably never looked at her the same way ever again. Her new life was a witness that could not be denied.

I don’t know why that is, but that’s the way God works. God has a way of using your brokenness for God’s purposes. God has a way using your weakness to show God’s strength. God has a way of using your pain to reveal God’s glory.

God seems to be attracted to pain and weakness. That could be because that’s where God’s greatest work is done.

I’ve noticed that’s true in my life and ministry. When I meet people as “Pastor Kevin” or “Rev. Powell” I encounter a shield where people protect themselves against me, afraid of what I may say about their lives.

But when I drop the titles and formalities, when I take off my collar and minister to people as one who’s gone through his own personal challenges; the death of a parent at a young age, a divorce that almost killed me, and depression that never fully goes away; professional setbacks and personal bombshells; when my scars show themselves, often despite my best effort to keep them hidden, that’s when people drop their guards, and I can minister as one human being to another, trusting that God will bring healing in the midst of common pain. In fact, it’s in that shared experience, that God’s healing work begins. For both of us.

It’s your scars, not your strengths that make you effective in your ministry, whatever ministry that may be. It’s your wounds, not your wins, that shine with God’s love and mercy. It’s the battles fought and lost, the victories denied, those moments of lostness and grief that give you the wisdom out of which God offers healing to others.

So, the woman at the well was the perfect first evangelist. She couldn’t look down her nose at anyone. She was no one’s judge. All she could do was point to Jesus and say, “Come and see the man who told me everything about myself...and made me a new person, and gave me a new future.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lent 2A

“Ask me what I know,” he told me, “don’t ask me what I believe.”

This was from a well-known bible scholar, who, in a moment personal honesty, confessed that what he knew intellectually after a lifetime of dissecting ancient texts, was different than what he believed personally.

It wasn’t that he believed the Christian faith to be false, or that what he learned from studying the bible all those years turned out to be a fabrication or a delusion. He had no malicious intent.

“Ask me what I know. Don’t ask me what I believe....Because,” he said, “I don’t know what I believe. I’m still searching.”

I appreciated his openness. It couldn’t have been easy for him to share his personal faith crisis with some young punk of a pastor who had more answers than there were questions.

Sharing his doubts was his way of saying that a lifetime of searching doesn’t necessarily mean a lifetime of finding.

Just ask Nicodemus.

Nicodemus spent his life in study and prayer. He knew the bible backwards and forwards and inside and out. He read the philosophical masters. He spent years absorbing the wisdom of the centuries. He understood profound truths.

But he couldn’t quite understand Jesus. His curiosity must have gotten the better of him because at the expense of his personal safety, he goes to great lengths to find out more about Jesus.

To find Jesus, Nicodemus has to slink around at night so no one will see him. He wants to learn something. He knows that Jesus has come from God, but also knows that Jesus’ divine origin is a little controversial in the halls of the learned. He just wants to get a handle on Jesus, and how Jesus can be from God. He just doesn’t want to get caught doing so.

But when he finds Jesus and unloads all of his questions, Jesus seems to be more interested in riddles than answers.

 “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born - again - from above.”

“What on earth does THAT mean?” he asks. “What am I supposed to do, climb back and in and make my way out again?”

Looks like Nicodemus is taking Jesus WAY too literally. But I encounter this all the time. When talking to a pastor A LOT of people revert back to their childhoods where they take the bible, and stuff preachers say, with childish simplicity.

For example, I was trying to explain to someone the difference between Catholic and Lutheran understandings of grace - of how we are forgiven by God. And I used an example of a broken window.

“Say you threw a ball and accidentally broke your neighbour’s window,” I said.

“What!? Is breaking a window a sin?” this person snapped. “Why would God punish me for accidentally damaging someone’s property? Would God actually send me to Hell for an accident? Doesn’t God have more important things to do than worrying about a broken window?”

*eye-rolling sigh*

Maybe Jesus had a little more patience with Nicodemus that than I had with that person who couldn’t get past their childish religious understanding. Despite all his years of school, and his skills in critical thinking, Nicodemus reverted back to a time when truth was literal and black-and-white. No imagery or metaphor. Imagination not needed. Creativity not required.

Jesus calls him on his lazy thinking, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

I think Jesus said this with a twinkle in his eye followed by a wink. Jesus wasn’t trying to shame Nicodemus. He was saying, “C’mon, Nick, you know better than that.”

Jesus doesn’t then spell out what he means. He doesn’t take the time to connect the dots for Nicodemus. Jesus gets even more metaphorical, and paints even weirder pictures. 

He talks about Moses and the serpent, heavenly truths and earthly facts colliding. He talks about the Son of Man - Humanity’s Child - being lifted up. He’s throwing all sorts of bible stories against the wall and seeing which one sticks.

Then he sums up this whole passage, and indeed, his entire message and mission, with these familiar words:

“God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

We don’t know whether or not Nicodemus was any closer to understanding Jesus than when he began. But my guess is that he was still had as many questions when he left as when he came in. If not more.

Nicodemus disappeared back into the darkness, but he never really disappeared from the story. We don’t hear from him again until chapter seven when he’s consulted about a fine point in the law, and again, after Jesus died, when he assisted Joseph of Aramethia in preparing Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus is not a major player in this story. But he’s a player nonetheless.

And he IS one of us, those of us who are asking questions and continue to ask questions, those of us searching for God in Jesus, wondering if anything good can come from Nazareth, those of us who are trying to put the puzzle of God together without knowing what the picture is supposed to look like.

I don’t know if Nicodemus really understood what Jesus was saying. But, I’m not sure that was the point. If Nicodemus came to faith it wasn’t because Jesus argued him into it. Jesus didn’t even try to reason with him or answer his questions. But it was through Jesus himself, an encounter with the God within him - that Nicodemus came to a deeper understanding of who Jesus was. And through Jesus, he saw the God who loved him.

He may not have fully understood who Jesus was, but then again, how much do any of us really know about him? For most of us Jesus is a mystery; a puzzle to piece together, a spiritual knot to unravel, a fuzzy picture we can’t quite bring into focus.

But what is more important than KNOWING Jesus, is to be KNOWN by Jesus. And that we can be sure of.

In the waters of baptism, where we have been born again from above, we are joined to his life, his death, and his resurrection. In baptism we are joined to his mission. In baptism we are received as citizens of God’s kingdom. In baptism, we are KNOWN by Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but, for me, this is a HUGE relief. It means that I’m freed from thinking I have to understand what God is all about before I can call myself a “Christian.” It means that I have enough faith in Jesus to follow him, because God has given me that faith. It means that, no matter how hard I try, I will never know Jesus well enough or fully understand his role in God’s saving story. But I know that I play a part in that story because God put me in that story.

This isn’t to say that we don’t keep exploring who God is and what God wants for us. Nicodemus certainly never put his feet up in comfort or threw up his hands in confused resignation. He still questioned. he still investigated, he still searched.

But he also lived his faith as part of the searching, following Jesus in his own way, playing his part in God’s saving story.

And so do YOU. You play your own part in God’s ongoing, unfolding, story, because God has put YOU in that story. God has inserted YOU into the ongoing saga that God is telling the world, where YOU play an important role. 

Not only by knowledge, or by stories and dogma, or by ideas and doctrines about God that you may or may not remember from Confirmation Class. 

But also by faith, by trust, by hope. You tell God’s story with your lives. Being not just a source of knowledge about God, but by being a blessing to people you meet.

And YOU also live YOUR faith as part of the searching, following Jesus in YOUR own way, playing YOUR part in God’s saving story.

And, together, as a church, we study and we pray. We discuss and we discern. We search and we proclaim. We live God’s story together. We follow Jesus as a family, believing that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, March 09, 2014

Lent 1A

(NB: With a wee bit ‘o inspiration from Douglas John Hall and Maryetta Anshutz in Feasting on the Word.)

How would you know the Devil’s voice if you heard it? What does the voice of evil sound like? How would you know evil if it was sitting across the table from you?

On the surface, the answer may sound obvious. Just listen for the sound of the guttural voice, growling under your bed at night.

Or look for the goateed fellow in the red pajamas and pitch fork standing on your shoulder, whispering naughty suggestions in your ear.

Or the guy with horns sprouting from his forehead, laughing at you while you try to follow the bible life instructions.

Is that what you hear when you listen for the voice of evil?

Or maybe you’re not so fanciful. You know that there’s evil in the world and it bears no resemblance to a cartoon character. You’ve seen it. Heard it. You’ve felt it.

Maybe for you, the voice of evil is the one justifying child poverty in our communities as a unavoidable result of economic changes.

Maybe it’s the voice of dictators oppressing their people as they try to hang on to power.

Maybe it’s the voices of church leaders who covered up decades of sexual abuse.

Maybe it’s the smack across the face from someone who is supposed to love you.

Maybe it’s the boss who won’t pay you what you are owed.

You can say that the voice of evil is everywhere, shouting in our ears.

And that would be true. But I would say that the voice of evil doesn’t only shout, but also whispers.

The voice of evil sends us subliminal messages, until evil’s message makes its way into our lives, and before we know it, we stop recognizing it as evil.

Hiding money from the Tax Man, or even your spouse, because you have to protect what’s yours, don’t you? You've earned it.

Fudging the facts on your resume. After all, everyone does it, right? It’s almost expected these days.

Ignoring the phone call from someone who needs your help, because, y’know, boundaries.

These are small examples. But it shows how easily evil can burrow into our lives.

I think that’s the evil that Jesus was fighting in the desert. After all, there wasn’t anything in the devil’s temptation list that we don’t affirm as good. Yet Jesus rejects as evil. Or at least outside of his mission and God’s plan for him.

Look at the first temptation. The devil knows he’s hungry. After all, Jesus hasn’t eaten in weeks. I’m sure he was getting the tummy rumbles.

So the devil says, “Hey, Jesus, just turn these stones into bread. You’re starving. People will understand. Plus it would be a really cool trick.”

“One does not live by bread alone,” Jesus replied. “But by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Okay, Jesus. Be that way. But we both know what you really want to do.

The devil then takes him to the roof of the temple.

“Jesus, if you just jumped from here, the angels will swoop in and carry you to the ground. Can you imagine what would happen if people saw that? Don’t you think that such a display of faith would bring people to their knees in worship? Isn’t that what you want for people?”

“The bible says, ‘Don’t test God.’”

Okay, Jesus. But this is a lost opportunity. 

Then the devil shows Jesus the kingdoms of the world. “Think of it Jesus, think of all the good you could do if YOU were in charge and not these small, petty, selfish, mental dwarfs and moral midgets who call themselves kings. You could REALLY set the world straight - on YOUR OWN terms. You wouldn’t have to sit back and watch people kill each other for no good reason. You wouldn’t have to stand by while countries are destroyed, while families are broken up, while people drown in selfishness, while disease steals people away from those they love. You could usher in a new era of peace and prosperity that the world has yet to see. You could re-work the EVERYTHING to be EXACTLY how you want it. Isn’t that what you want? Isn’t that why you were born? All you have to do is bow to me just once.”

Jesus sits back. Closes his eyes. And ponders this opportunity.

And after a minute or two, Jesus whispers through clenched teeth,

“The bible says, 'worship the Lord your God, and only him.'”

“Okay, Jesus, leave the world to these small-minded, petty, selfish children. Let’s see how THAT works out.”

Then the devil disappeared and the angels nursed Jesus back to health.

But the test wasn’t over. The devil was just getting started.

These temptations popped up all through Jesus ministry. Jesus had to be on his guard against the forces of evil trying to end his mission, trying to pull him away from God’s purpose for him.

It may seem like the devil tempted Jesus with three different temptations, but I think there was one temptation running through each of them, and through Jesus’ entire earthly mission: the temptation to power.

The power to bend the world to feed personal desire; the spiritual power over the heavenly realms to draw attention to himself rather than to God’s message; and political power over earthly governments.

The devil tried to get Jesus to abandon his mission of changing the world through love, by tempting him to change the world by force. Force is easier than love.

And since the devil failed to tempt Jesus, he turned his guns on to a more susceptible group: the body of Christ, the Church. Christians. Us. I think we’re being tempted everyday by the very things that Jesus was tempted by.

When our churches aspire to be religious corporations rather than servants to the poor and hurting, we are being tempted by the devil to abandon Jesus’ mission.

When we demand that Christians be given preferential treatment from government and culture, and seek to change the world by force or by legislation rather than by love, the devil wins a victory.

When we worry more about correct doctrine, about believing the right things in the right ways, than about sharing and being good news to broken people in a sin-stained world, we succumb to evil’s temptation.

And, of course, we DO fail the devil’s test, just as we fail God’s test. The devil knows the standard by which we will be judged, and knows the evil that lives within us. The devil knows what buttons to push.

The devil knows that we aspire to transcend our humanity, that we have a will to dominate, that our selfish impulses often overwhelm our desires to do good. Or even that our good works are sometimes motivated by our egos.

The devil knows that we are capable of terrible evil and incredible good. The devil knows that we are muddle of mixed motivations, and the harder we try to deny the darkness within us, the more our darkness comes out of us.

We will be tempted. And will fail. We ARE tempted. We DO fail.

But Jesus, finally, did not.

It wasn’t in the wilderness that Jesus passed the test. He passed the tests along the way as he healed the sick and raised the dead. He passed the test when he preached the good news of the Kingdom of God. He passed the test by dying on the cross rather than crown himself as king. He conquered his enemies by suffering a horrible defeat. He won the war by losing the battle.

On the cross, love won over force. Servanthood was victorious over power. Mercy triumphed over evil.

On the cross Jesus overcame our darkness with God’s light. A light that glows with a cleansing fire. A light that purifies. A light that shines in our hidden places. A light that fills the whole world with God’s loving grace.

On the cross and in the grave, Jesus defeated the powers of darkness and death, Jesus overcame the forces of sin and evil. Jesus conquered those who would destroy rather than create.

And in rising from the dead Jesus established a new day, a new day of love, a new day of mercy, a new day of forgiveness. That day when the tomb was found empty, God had started a new creation, where people love one another rather than fight with one another.

A creation where people live in joy and freedom, and the temptations of the world - the temptations to fulfill our basest appetites, the temptations to rule over others, and the temptations to glorify ourselves rather than God - are swept away, and we are clothed in love, mercy, forgiveness, and peace.

It was your temptations that Jesus endured, and won where you failed. It was those moments of weakness when you succumbed to those things that pull you away from God, and hurt others, that Jesus took upon himself in the wilderness, and led him to the cross.

Jesus knows our temptations. He felt them within his own body. He knows how hard it is to follow in God’s path. He knows that how often we get in our own way when we try to live the life that God wants.

And that’s why Jesus went to the desert. And that’s why Jesus went to the cross. That he would share our temptation and die our death, so he could rise to a new world which God is creating from the ashes of our failure. 

In the waters of baptism, where we are joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, that is the new world we are re-born into - God world, where God reigns in love, and we live in the freedom of knowing that we are forgiven, and then living that freedom we have received from Christ, believing that guilt and shame and regret have gone to the grave with Jesus, and with him we share in his resurrection life.

We will be tempted and we will fail. But Jesus has passed the test for us. And that’s all we need.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Ash Wednesday

I heard a radio interview recently with a scientist, an expert in quantum mechanics, who said that we, everyone and everything, are made up of dust. Ancient dust. Dust from stars that have long ago disappeared. From planets long since destroyed. Dust from people whose names gave been forgotten. And that our dust is and will be the building blocks of future creations.

I found that idea fascinating, if also a little humbling. I like to think of myself as unique, special, a specific, individual creature. I was created out of the woman who bore me, and am a contemporary creation. I look forward, not backward. My flesh and blood is a lively blast of chemical reactions. My value to the world comes from what I do, what I contribute. Not from the raw material that isn’t unique to me, or that I have little control over.

As much as I would like the opposite to be true, maybe the scientist is right. I know the bible would agree with her. I am dust, and to dust I will return. The same goes for you.

I don’t know about you but my dustiness is not something that I like to dwell on. But I find that I have to. In my job I’m always getting peoples’ dust on me. Sometimes the air is so thick with dust that my lungs can’t expand and contract like they’re supposed to.

Death - dustiness - is a big part of my job. And it’s not only physical death, but the death of relationships, the death of personal dreams. The living death of abuse, failure, rejection. The death of loneliness and depression.

But, of course, it’s in Death - capital D - where my clothes get caked with peoples’ dust.

When a life has been stolen from us, a person gone, a presence lost, we work hard to make sense of it, and we SHOULD try to make sense of it, to create meaning so that we have some semblance of resolution, that death will mean something, that life will not be forgotten, that the gifts shared with the world will not disappear with our physical presence. So, we look for hope, something to hold on to so that the memory and presence will still live in and among us.

Or when we’re staring down the barrel of our own death, we worry about what we’ve done, if we’ve loved well enough, if we’ve worked hard enough, if we contributed enough and used our gifts to their fullest, if we’ve left a legacy we can be proud of.

We worry that when we close our eyes at the last, it will be final. No one will be there to greet us. We don’t want to be dust. We want to be more than dust. We want to float free from our physical bodies and soar, bird-like into heaven.

But the bible asks us to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

Not a terribly comforting message, is it? It doesn’t soothe our anxious souls or mend our sorrowing hearts. It tells us that everything we’ve done, everything we are, is only a momentary trickle of water into the vast ocean that is eternity. It confronts us with the painful truth that life is brittle, short, and often painful. It tells us that we are not in charge of our destinies but that our hope for eternity lies outside of ourselves.

We are asked to remember that we are dust and to dust we will return.

Some might see our primal dustiness and think that life is cheap, that we are mere specks, insignificant. That our little lives end up meaning nothing. If we are dust and will return to dust, what’s the point of life?. All that we have, all that we are, will simply scatter into nothing. Even those who remember us will become dust themselves, and with them, the knowledge that we ever, even existed.

But this is where God would interrupt our protests saying, “Yes, you are dust. You will become dust again. But what marvelous dust – fine dust; dust that is precious, beautiful, and rare. Dust that isn’t swept up and disposed of - forgotten - but dust that scatters and blows to all ends of the earth, and interweaves with the dust of every time and place.

‘Without your dust, there would be no creation, no life, no joy, no love. Without your dust there would be no sun, no moon, no stars. Without your dust, there would be no people, no fish, no moose, no eagles. There would be no Rocky Mountains, no Pacific Islands, no deserts. No boreal forests, no northern lights, no forests of evergreens. The whole cosmos would cease to exist. Everything that exists needs your dust. Without your dust there would be nothing.”

St. Paul tells it a different way: he says that we are treasure in clay jars. He tells us that we are fragile, weak, limited; but also that we are cherished, unique, and lovely; that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves and that we are not alone – even in death. And when we receive that gift of connectedness with awe and humility and hope, we become connected more deeply to each other and to God, even when, or perhaps. especially when our physical bodies have passed into dust.

From dust we came, to dust we are returning, blowing with the dust of the ages, the dust that God gathers from every time and every place, from everyone and everything that came into being. 

The dust of suns long since burned out and the dust of galaxies just being born. God is molding these dusty fragments together, sprinkling in the water of life, making whole that which is broken, reshaping, remodeling, renewing the cosmos into a place where there will be no more tears, no more death, no more good-byes. Only hellos to a new universe to which God is always giving birth.

So remember that you are dust. And to dust you will return. May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, March 02, 2014

Transfiguration Year A

NB: With a bit of help from a variety of sources.

The ancient Celtic Christians liked to talk about what they called “thin places.” Places where heaven and earth intersect, where time and eternity, life and death, God and the world converge.

Or at least that’s what it feels like. Thin places are where the boundary between flesh and spirit vanish, where the veil of death lifts, even if momentary, and we behold our God, experiencing the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

For some people, thin places were - and still are - actual places. For Celtic Christians, the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland was such a place. But for others, the traditional destinations of pilgrimage: Rome, Santiago de Compostella, Lourdes, and of course, the holy land - Jerusalem, still attract millions of people each year, souls looking for a deeper, more direct experience of God.

Others find nature to be a thin place, where God is revealed untouched by human involvement. Or in music, experiencing that which cannot be expressed by words. Or in books with stories that tell us more about life than life itself.

A thin place is where our hearts are exposed to God’s presence, God’s glory, God’s holiness, God’s profound otherness. It’s as if a window to eternity has been opened and we breathe the fresh air of divine love. Where grace and beauty, joy and peace, overwhelm the pain and hurt, the tedium and the routine that too often finds a home in ours.

And in response, we worship. Not because God demands it. But because beauty does.

We get our word “worship” from the old Anglo-Saxon word “worth-ship.” To worship means to see and respond to the true worth of something, to recognize and adore the value of another.

The bible talks about worshiping “God in the beauty of God’s holiness.” Beauty has a way of reaching out to us, seizing us, demanding our adoration. 

I’m guessing that’s why, in today’s gospel reading, Peter, James, and John wanted to set up camp and stay on that mountain. They wanted to bask in God’s beauty because human life is not always beautiful. 

They wanted to stay up there because that’s where they knew they could find God, because God does not always feel so close. They wanted to stay up there because they didn’t want to lose the fire, the passion, the overwhelming holiness that stole their breath right from their bodies.

Maybe that’s why some of you come to worship. You come looking for something you don’t see “out there.” You come hoping to see and touch something of God. 

You come to this hour wondering if there is anything beyond or above the life that makes up the rest of your hours. 

You know how easy it is to become accustomed to an anesthetizing routine, how easy it is to have your vision dulled by the reassuring ordinariness of everyday life. And you ask if there’s anything more than what you see day after day after day.

A job that drains your energy and your conscience. Relationships that are comfortable, but not exciting and intimate, at least not the way they used to be. Dreams that were swallowed whole by family obligations. There has to be more than this.

So you come to this gathering place, into this house of prayer and praise hoping that the veil between life and death, eternity and time, heaven and earth, might be lifted, even just a little, so you can see a glimmer of the beam that lit up the night on that mountain. Maybe that will give you enough strength to make it through the week, and perhaps beyond. At least that’s the hope.

I know that’s why I come to church. Other than because I get paid to. I come seeking that shining light, to see the veil lifted from between this life and the next.

Some may dismiss this as mere daydream, a fanciful diversion from life’s troubles; a distraction from the realities that confront us. A self-imposed delusion.

And they may be right.

Or it could be training for the soul, coaching us, preparing us for those times when pain and loneliness and hunger ambush us. Remembering God’s beauty when the world can often seem so ugly. Fortifying our compassion to help us to respond to those in need when our own resources are stretched.

And I know the constant gravitational pull of the mountain. I often pull out the blueprints for the house I want to build there.

I spent March 1996 in a monastery - St. Augustine’s House in Oxford, Michigan. I was seriously thinking about becoming a monk. Going to St. Augustine’s House was the culmination of three years of discernment; reading, thinking, praying, worshipping, wondering, and dreaming. I loved chanting psalms. I loved silence. I loved worship.

I loved the rhythm of the monks’ life together, pulsating between work and prayer, song and silence. When I arrived at St. Augustine’s House, I felt like I had arrived home.

I stood in the middle of the church sanctuary and drank in its simple beauty, the aroma of the lingering incense, the mystical elegance of the statuary and stained glass, the deep, full-bodied silence that soaked into the walls and the floor. Like the disciples on that mountain, I thought to myself, “It’s good that I be here.”

I almost stayed and joined the monks. I really wanted to. But I also wanted to finish my semester. So I packed up my stuff and left, believing I’d return.

When I arrived home, I hopped on a bus to the Station Hotel, in downtown Kitchener, Ontario, where my friends and I were doing “mission work” for our church history class. The Station Hotel was the dingiest, most notorious bar in town, infamous for its bikers, prostitutes, and really cheap beer.

My friends and I would show up at the hotel bar on Friday afternoons wearing our clerical collars, which made quite the impression on the patrons, of which there were many, even at that time of the day. Our work clothes opened some doors, and closed others.

We usually just chatted with folks. Everyone had a story. Some were more believable than others. One of my friends heard a guy’s confession in the bathroom while doing their business. Others invited us to play pool while we talked.

But when I showed up that day after arriving home from St. Augustine’s House, I sat with a fellow who said he once a professional hockey player. Now he was a professional drinker. We talked, he shared his life story with me, and then he asked me to pray. So I did. Right there in the middle of the bar. He didn’t care who saw and neither did I. 

For a moment, I saw a light shine in his eyes that looked like a recognition that something new was stirring within him, that he was seeing something beyond the alcohol, loneliness, and regret that was his life.

It must have been a glimpse into what Peter, James, and John saw when Jesus shone on that mountain.

And I as I prayed with that fellow in the middle of that pub, and saw that light in his eyes, I thought to myself, “I was wrong. I was wrong the same way the disciples were wrong. God didn’t want me cloistered away in a monastery living a peaceful life of prayer. No. It WASN’T good that I be THERE. It’s good that I be HERE. This - here - is where God wants me. This - here - is where I meet the God shown to us in Jesus.”

On the mountain, it is said that Jesus was “transfigured,” that his garments gleamed white, and a light shone from him brighter than the light of the sun. 

So, the disciples, who had walked dusty highways with him, fell to their knees when they saw Jesus shine, and were overwhelmed with wonder. A voice from heaven reminded them who Jesus was. And so they worshipped.

But that worship, that mountain-top experience, prepared the disciples for what was waiting for them down the road. That moment on the mountain gave them strength for the death waiting for Jesus just a little time later.

Mountain-top experiences prepare US for the plains and valleys, the pains, worries, and tediums of life in this broken and many times un-beautiful world. Meeting God in the beauty of worship helps us meet God on the cross of our own suffering, and in the suffering of others.

It’s those moments when the veil is lifted, when we visit those thin places, when we “worship in the beauty of God’s holiness” that we then find our way back into living the life God wants us to live.

Where the beauty of God intersects with pain of our lives is where faith begins. Where the serious business that we do here, in this place, finds its feet, and runs out into the world proclaiming life in Jesus’ name.

And there’s no more serious business for us in the Church, than holy baptism, the entry way into the faith, where God, today, takes Asher up the mountain, blesses him, declares him part of God’s family, and sends him into his life as a healing presence, using his years as a light of God’s love, no matter where he finds himself.

Just like each one of you here. As we gather in Jesus’ name, we worship the one who called us up the mountain,  lit the fire, and removed the veil, taking you to the thin places, so that you can make your way back to meet the God of the suffering, crucified Jesus, in a broken and hurting world, with a message of new life for everyone, and - together - we sing with one voice, it is good that we be THERE.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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