Sunday, May 25, 2014

Easter 6A

According to sociologist Peter C. Emberley, Canada is a nation of seekers. Religious seekers in particular. For those paying attention this will not be new, but he provides some fascinating data showing us just how religiously and spiritually diverse we Canadians are.

But while he offers particulars, he isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been noted before. Throughout history, human beings have been known to be worshipping creatures. We want to bow down to something.

We want to believe that there is something out there that is bigger than ourselves, and that we are not alone, flapping through the universe without any meaning beyond our fingertips.

A recent trip to the movie theatre or glancing through Netflix’s selection will give show you just how hard we seek the divine.

The popularity of the Noah movie, the line-ups at Heaven Is For Real, the Twilight series, or re-runs of Ghost Hunters and the various other media offerings of the supernatural and the divine, show us just how much we search for something larger than our initial comprehension.

Standing at the Spirituality and Religion section at Chapters, and reading the accounts of seeking Canadians, I feel like Paul standing at the Areopagus, as he did in today’s first reading, looking out at the vast panorama of religions and spiritualities, and feeling, suddenly, very small.

For Paul, it was one thing to preach in the villages. Sure, they had opposition. But Paul and his friends saw great crowds drop to their knees and receive the message that they preached: salvation in Jesus.

But Athens was different story. As Paul entered the city he probably asked himself if the gospel could hold its own in the sophisticated intellectual environment of the university town. He might have wondered how his message would be received in the city of Pericles and Plato. Athens was the hub of intellectual achievement and the height of philosophical and religious inquiry.

If Paul was nervous he didn’t show it. He stood up and boldly addressed this vast, religious marketplace.

“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”

A curious beginning. Was he making fun of them? Being sarcastic? Priming the pump? Or was he sincere?

“For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘to an unknown god.’”

Smart move by these Athenians. I guess they were hedging their bets with this “to an unknown god” stuff. They wanted to make sure they acknowledged ALL the gods, lest they suffer the wrath of a snubbed deity.

Paul must have known what he was walking into. But whether it was holy arrogance or sacred inspiration, Paul spoke the unspeakable: that a grossly unnatural act took place and revealed who God is; Jesus was raised from the dead. 

There was no precedent for this in their philosophy books. This couldn’t be explained by natural law.

But Paul spoke, not with the eloquence of the philosopher or the arguments of the scholar, though he was both. He spoke the simple truth of God: that it is Jesus who saves, and all the time, effort, energy, and resources that went into building these temples and shrines were a colossal waste.

Paul doesn’t hold back. He hits them straight on. Salvation comes from the God who brought a dead man back to life. Period.

Of course, this message sounded unbearably exclusive at Athenian sensibilities. And his message wasn’t met with anymore enthusiasm then as it does today. And for the same reasons. 

Many folks today want religion or “spirituality” on their own terms. They want to create their own faith. They want to search after God according to their own instincts and needs, their own pre-determined ideology and agenda, without the heavy hand of the institution bearing down on them.

And TOTALLY I get why they do. 

Many people have had bad experiences with church. Some have been abused, spiritually, sexually, emotionally, or in various other ways. Church was a place to sit up straight, mind your manners, and do what you’re told. It wasn’t, for them, a place of honest searching or for asking hard but important questions.

Others feel that religious boundaries restrict true expressions of faith, and want to re-draw the lines on their own terms, free from outside authority.

Still others have seen too many cheesy TV evangelists who fly around the world in private planes, milking old ladies’ out of their pension cheques to pay for air conditioned dog houses.

And others have seen churches use their authority to judge others, to bring down the hammer, to make people feel badly about simply being human, to curtail human rights, rather than set people free in Jesus’ name.

It no wonder why people stopped looking at church as the vehicle from which to search after God.

But self-styled religion, and or DIY spirituality doesn’t come without its dangers. 

When does handmade religion or “spirituality” or “faith,” become an accessory, rather a rigorous engagement with the truth or an honest search for God? 

When does a homemade spirituality merely re-affirm what people already believe, rather than transform people through the study of a tradition that others have lived and died for over generations, and how can a person grow through the challenge and support of a committed community, and offer that challenge and support to others?

Just as many folks today aren’t burdened by such probing questions, neither were the Athenians that Paul was preaching to.

“When they heard of the resurrection of the dead,” verse 32 says, “some scoffed; but others seemed mildly interested and said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. 

Some sneered. Others said they wanted to hear more about Jesus, but not now. Maybe later. No sense of urgency. Even Paul didn’t push the issue. He just gave his message, and left.

I wonder if that’s how we hear Paul’s message about Jesus. Sometimes we scoff. Sometimes we want to hear more but life gets in the way. And maybe Paul knew something most of us don’t; that sometimes the Spirit works instantly and other times the Spirit takes a lifetime. That faith is a process of fits and starts, peaks and valleys, and ups and downs. It grows and shrinks. Expands and contracts. Faith never stands still.

Paul knew how messy life and faith could be. He trusted people’s journeys. But he never compromised the message of the faith. He knew that Jesus really did die and he really did rise from the dead, and these events took Christianity out of the realm of philosophical speculation and dropped it into flesh and blood human experience. He knew that the God who raised Jesus from the dead was the God of history. The God of life.

That why Christianity can never be simply a set of good ideas; a mere philosophical backdrop to our lives; or just a moral framework from which to relate to others. 

And more than that, Christianity can never be the end result of our seeking after God, because our searching never ends. There is always more to learn. There is always more to understand. The more we learn the more find that we don’t know. The further we travel, the longer the road extends.The higher we climb the more our feet seem grounded to the earth.

That’s because it’s the height of human arrogance to say that we have the definitive word of who God is. It’s God who has that word, and God has named that word “Jesus.” 

But do we really understand that word? Does God translate that word into something we can understand?

Sometimes. Sometimes not. That’s why we keep searching, growing, climbing, falling, scrapping our knees, hitting the ground with our noses, and rising from our graves.

Our faith can so often be of seeking, finding, and then losing again. 

But more importantly, God never stops searching after us. Indeed, God finds us. Our faith is the end result of God searching after us, and grabbing us with a love that will never be let go. When we were baptized, we were named and claimed as God own children, joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, chosen to be God’s people TODAY and into eternity. 

That’s what we celebrate this morning as Breanna is received into the household of faith through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. This isn’t just a one day event, but the beginning of her eternal life.

This isn’t just one moment in her years, this is the moment that gives meaning to ALL her moments. 

This isn’t just the initiation rite into an institutional church, but a celebration of what God is doing in her life, and a commissioning, where her gifts will be used for the good of the church and the healing of the world. 

That God has a claim on her, and we have an obligation to support her so that she can live her life as a witness to the God of love who called her by name, and given her a future of immense possibility.

Just like each one of you here. You who have sought after God, who have asked important questions, who have wondered about the God who is known and the God who is unknown, but still carry with you the trust that, somehow, in some way, we are not alone. And that we are loved. 

And from that love you want to do wonderful things for others, and serve the world joyfully.

That when your journey is over, you want to look at your hands, calloused and bloodied from building upon what God has already started, participating in God’s ongoing creation of a loving and just world, and celebrating the gift of life that we’ve all received.

Maybe that’s what Paul was trying to tell the Athenians; that faith doesn’t come from a life time of philosophy, but from the God who relentlessly seeks after us. And a life of us seeking after God.

Perhaps Paul would tell our world that he sees just how religious we are; but Jesus was raised from the dead not to give us “religion” or “spirituality.” But to give us life, and breath and freedom and salvation.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Easter 5A

“Show us who God is,” Phillip impatiently demands of Jesus.

But he’s not alone. Phillip speaks for all of us. If you could sum up all human longing in one sentence, I think that would be it. “Show us who God is.”

There’s a lot packed into that one request, isn’t there?

I would guess that’s why most of you are here at church today– especially on this holiday weekend – is to see who God is. It’s not as if you didn’t have other options on this beautifully sunny morning.

You come hungry or merely curious, with great need or simply out of habit, or both. But the unspoken words on your lips as you gather here for worship are “Show us who God is.”

And we all have our own expectations of what that looks like.

“What are you drawing?” a teacher leans over and asks a little girl who was drawing a picture in school one day.

“I’m drawing God,” the little girl responds.

The teacher laughed and said, “No one knows what God looks like.”

“They will when I get finished with this drawing,” said the little girl.

Everyone has their vision of what God is like.

So what do you think God looks like? If you could draw a picture of what God, what would that picture be?

Would you draw a person? An old man? A bearded octogenarian with ripped abs scowling on a cloud, lightening bolt in hand?

Would you draw a woman giving birth? Since God is the God of creation, giving life to the universe, bringing into being to all that exists?

Would you draw a nature scene, with radiant sunbeams shining luminously through soaring trees, with just the right mixture of light and dark to signify presence and absence, intimacy and mystery?

Would you draw a self-portrait, believing that since we are all created in God’s image, God looks just like each one of us?

Would you draw a group scene, since you believe that God is found in each other, in community?

Would you draw Jesus? Or at least what you think Jesus would look like?

If you listen to today’s gospel reading closely, that’s just what you might do. That’s the picture Jesus paints for Phillip, as an answer to his questions.

“Show us who God is,” Phillip demands. 

“Show us the grandeur and majesty of divine love. Show us God Almighty in splendor and magnificence. Show us ultimate cosmic power. Show us God’s brilliant light in a dark and sinful world.”

“Show us what the life and existence are all about. Show us that our mortal lives are connected somehow to Eternal Life.”

“Show us God’s vision of the future, where justice and peace, mercy and love reign over all of us, so the world today won’t seem so scary.”

“Show us that God really cares about us. Show us that God is somehow active in the world and does something in our lives.”

“Show us goodness in world overrun with evil. Show us life everlasting in world consumed by death.”

“Show us wisdom in a world overflowing with mere information. Show us compassion in a world overwhelmed with self-centredness.”

‘Show us wealth in a world weighed down by mere riches. Show us something more than what we see in our daily lives.”

Isn’t that really what Phillip was asking? Isn’t that maybe what you came here asking from Jesus? 

“Show us who God is.”

But Jesus can’t believe his ears.

“Are you really asking me that?” Jesus asks.

“You’ve been with me all this time and you STILL haven’t figured this out? If you want to know who God is, just look at me. If you’re wondering what God is all about, look at what I do. If you’re trying to hear God’s voice, just listen to what I say. God is in me and I am in God.”

But Phillip wasn’t asking anything from Jesus that everyone else wasn’t wondering about, back then and even now. It was his voice that was speaking but it was our words coming out of Philip’s mouth.

And Jesus’ answer seems more like the beginning of a reply instead of a definite answer.

God is in Jesus and Jesus is in God. Christians believe that in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have seen God. That’s the grand claim of today’s gospel.

But that doesn’t fully satisfy, does it? It doesn’t totally answer the question.

We were told that we have a God who loved us too much to remain distant and unapproachable. So, Philip, says, if that’s true show us who God is.”

“If you want to know who God is,” Jesus responds, “just look at me. I am the way, the truth, and the life. If you want to get to God, you get to God through me.”

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.”

To some, this passage sounds hopelessly exclusive, that he’s drawing new boundaries, and creating needless divisions. At least that’s the way this passage has traditionally been read.

But for Jesus’ listeners, he was being anything but exclusive. In fact, he was doing just the opposite. He was drawing people in, enlarging the circle, reaching out to those who felt abandoned by God because they had no access to official religion.

They were searching for a love they could grasp from a God who seemed like a stranger. Because everywhere they turned they hit a religious roadblock when they went seeking God. It was like the game was rigged to keep them as far away from God as possible.

Sacrifices they couldn’t afford. Religious teachings that were irrelevant - or even dangerous - to their daily lives. The feeling that they were there for the institution, rather than the institution being there for them.

Prayers that went nowhere, cries for help that evaporated once they left their mouths, worship that dried up in the desert sun when they were longing for water to refresh their scorched spirits, teachings that left them more lost than when they began, preaching that made them feel worse about themselves than when they walked in.

The more they sought God, the further away God seemed.

And then along came Jesus who said, 

“If you are feeling lost, like every road leads nowhere, where street signs keep pointing you in the wrong direction, where the highway takes you further and further away from where you need to be, and God seems like just a distant memory, then follow me, I am The Way.”

“If you are looking for truth in this muddled world, where nothing seems fixed, where there’s so much competing information demanding your attention, where the world’s noise is drowning out the voices that speak words of love, where self-interested media are trying to influence your daily decision-making for their own gain by massaging the facts to fit their pre-determined agenda, just look to me, I am the Truth.”

“If you are looking for life when there’s SO MUCH death around you, if you are looking for abundance amidst so much scarcity, if you’re looking for signs of vitality emerging from the chaos that humanity has caused; if you are looking for a fresh start, a new direction, a clean break; if you are looking to explore new worlds that you didn’t know existed and opportunities that you didn’t know were available to you, then follow me. I am the Life.”

“I will take you to God.”

But what they didn’t know, but perhaps suspected, was that Jesus was using words differently than what they were used to.

The Way that Jesus talked about, is the cross, the Way of sacrifice born from love. 

The Truth that Jesus proclaimed is the God who walks among us, spreading seeds of wisdom, whose presence demands that we see ourselves and our place in the world with eyes of mercy.

And the Life that Jesus shows us is by wrapping a towel around his waist and kneeling down to wash the disciples’ feet.

That’s “the way, the truth, and the life.” Three different ways of saying the same thing.

So, if you want to see God, just look around and see where Jesus is and what God is doing. 

God is at the hospital bed holding someone’s hand and saying a gentle prayer.

God is with the confirmand and faith mentor sharing each other’s lives, growing in faith – together.

God is at the funeral home, wiping away tears.

God is in the voice of protest against injustice. The words of forgiveness that bring people back together. The hand that reaches out in friendship.

God is downstairs teaching Sunday school helping our children grow in faith. God is setting up coffee in our foyer to enhance our fellowship. God is making layettes for the Bissell Centre. 

God is in that caring phone call. The visit to the nursing home. The boxes of sweaters for Syria. The canned goods for the food bank.

God is where life and love are given away freely. God is where mercy and grace are received with gladness. God is where new possibilities emerge from discouragement. God is where promises of a new and better tomorrow are met with hope and trust.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus says, “I will take you to God.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Easter 4A

My phone rang. I recognized the number, so I answered it, thinking one of you were having some sort of medical emergency, since it was the number at the nurse’s station at the Stony Plain hospital that appeared on the screen.

“Pastor Kevin, we’re sorry to bother you,” said the nurse on the other end of the line.

“It’s no bother,” I said.

“We have a gentleman here who was brought in this afternoon who probably won’t last the night. The family has gathered, but we can’t get a hold of their pastor. The church doesn’t have an answering machine, and we don’t have the pastor’s cell number. The family would like someone to come and pray with them, and since we can’t reach the family’s pastor, can you come in?”

“You mean to tell me that this person’s church doesn’t have voicemail or an answering machine?”

“Yes, we tried and there was no answer.”

“And no voicemail or answering machine?”


“In 2014?”

“Apparently so.”

“What kind of church doesn’t have voicemail, or even have an answering machine, with all the pertinent info on it: worship time, office hours, and emergency contact? Isn’t that common practice? This is nuts! This can’t be the first time they encountered this problem!”

I didn’t say that out loud. But that’s what I was thinking. It wasn’t the nurse’s fault that this particular church hasn’t kept up with the technology of the 1980s. The medical staff were just doing their jobs, which was much more than I could say about that church.

And what was worse, I thought, what kind of witness is that? It felt like this gave further evidence to the culture that church is outdated and irrelevant.

If their church couldn’t be there for them at their time of greatest need, then why bother with the whole religious enterprise at all? 

If this family couldn’t be wrapped in the arms of their faith community at their moment of grief and loss, surrounded by their sisters and brothers in Christ to hold them up when they are weak, then what’s the point of having a church? 

Doesn’t this just trumpet to others to stay away? That church is only in it for themselves? That church, ultimately doesn’t care about anything other than passing the plate for its institutional self-preservation?

Perhaps I was overreacting. After all, churches are made up of people, and people make dumb mistakes and poor decisions. I’ve certainly made my fair share of blunders. It could be that I was placing too much importance on the ministry value of an answering machine.

But, again, none of this was the nurse’s fault or concern. All she cared about was a dying patient, and a family who was about to lose a loved one.

“I can be there in 20 minutes,” I said.

However, if I was honest with myself, I would have to admit that I wasn’t just annoyed that I was called in to deal with someone else’s problem. I was miffed because, when the nurse called, I was just about to leave the house to go and watch football (I know...priorities, right?).

But I still thought my frustration with the church and the pastor being unreachable in a time like this was justified. Human or not, we have obligations to our people because that’s who we are together, under God’s covenant of love and community.

I arrived at the nurse’s station, and was then shown to the room. I had my tools of the trade: a prayer book with the appropriate liturgy, and a small vial of oil for anointing. 

However, I was in NO mood to be doing this. I was fully aware that my frustration with my colleague and my colleague’s church was getting the better of me. But I didn’t want to show it to the family. It had nothing to do with them, and they had their own stuff to deal with. 

So, I took a couple of VERY deep breathes, not because I was nervous, but to try to release all my negative energy so I could be completely present for the family.

It didn’t work. But I pushed the door open and went in anyways.

The scene was one I’d been in many times before. A large family gathered around the bed listening to grandpa’s laboured breathing, wondering which one will be his last.

“Good evening, I’m Kevin Powell, I’m the pastor at St. John Lutheran Church of Golden Spike,” I announced softly.

I looked around the room to figure out who was who, and I identified who I assumed was the man’s wife.

“Do you mind if I pray for ‘George’?” (not his real name) I asked her.

“Yes. Please.” she responded, not looking up at me.

I then remembered that these folks weren’t Lutheran. And I had NO idea what their tradition did a time like this. I didn’t want to guess, and then improvise. But then I figured they probably didn’t know what happened in these situations either. So this fellow was getting a Lutheran send off.

I read some scripture, prayed the Lutheran Commendation of the Dying liturgy, anointed the man with oil, gathered the group to say the Lord’s Prayer together, gave a blessing for the man and for the family, and told them to call me again if they needed me. Then left. In and out in just under five minutes.

And as I left the room, I was disappointed with myself. I was disappointed because, even though I did my job according to my job description, even though I read appropriate bible passages, even though I prayed the appropriate prayers, and even though I said the appropriate things, I felt like I phoned it in. That my mind was in a different universe than that hospital room. That I already had one foot out the door once I walked through it. I didn’t even take my jacket off. I wasn’t present for the family. I was lost in my own negative emotions that had NOTHING to do with them, but I felt like they paid the price for my frustration.

I was disappointed with myself because I didn’t know what was worse, their church not being there for them, or my being there but only in a half-hearted way. 

I have to admit, I was ashamed of myself by allowing my negative feelings to get in the way of doing my job the way it really needs to be done, or of just being a normal, caring, human being to people who are going through a terrible loss.

So, after checking back in with the nurse to tell her I was done, I went and watched football, but don’t really remember anything of the game. And I don’t even remember who was playing. I couldn’t focus on anything but what had happened in that room. I still was angry with myself and with my colleague for having let that family down. For not being the agent of grace that they needed. For failing to speak and be good news when they were going through some pretty awful news.

On the one hand it’s easy to say that all people make mistakes, that no one is perfect, and that churches are human, and that this was just one visit among hundreds were I WAS able to minister effectively to people in need. 

But on the other hand, ministry isn’t about stats. Love isn’t about percentages. Grace isn’t about numbers. It’s about bringing people and God together. And I felt like, for that family, at that moment, I missed that connection.

A week later I was in Superstore and I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and there was a couple I didn’t recognize.

“Are you Kevin?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” I responded trying to locate the face.

“I don’t know if you remember us, but you came to the hospital last Sunday to pray with dad.”

Uh Oh...

“Oh, yes, I remember,” I said.

“We just want to thank you for being there for us. You gave us just what we needed. Your words were so meaningful, and we just wanted to tell you that. When we saw you over by the produce aisle, I had my husband run after you so you wouldn’t get away before we could talk to you. So, thank you for being there for our family.”

“I was glad to help,” I said.

She gave me a hug, and then her husband shook my hand. And they left.

I was stunned. Breathless. Unable to fully process what had happened.

I tell you this story, not to show you how awesome I am, but to show you how ministry can happen when I am decidedly NOT awesome. How God’s love and care can happen when the church is anything but awesome.

It’s those unexpected moments that remind us that God is faithful when we are not. And God is faithful when we are. That God will not be bound by our attitudes or actions. God is free to dispense love and grace wherever God wants.

Like the apostles in today’s first reading, in their brokenness and inadequacy, gathered under Christ’s canopy, sharing their lives, held together by God’s Spirit and their own mutual care, offering grace to each other when they fail to live up to expectations, adding not just numbers to those being saved, but beating hearts, generously participating in each others times of love and sorrow.

Our life with each other as a family of faith is about connecting, from one heart to another heart, bringing two hands together, so that life and healing may emerge from our collective longings, no matter what that looks like, and being surprised by what God is doing. 

Because God has drawn us together as a people joined to Jesus’ cross and empty tomb, that we can jump face first into our moments of defeat and ineptitude, trusting that something new and beautiful will rise within and among us, speaking words of abundant life in the valley of the shadow of death, expecting that goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and knowing that we - all of us together - will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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