Sunday, June 29, 2014

Pentecost 3A

Where was Sarah? That’s what I want to know. Where was Isaac’s mom when Abraham took their son up the mountain?

Did Abraham even consult his wife before taking their son - their miracle child - to Mount Moriah, to stab him until he bled to death, before throwing his body into the fire to be roasted and then eaten. After all, that’s what a sacrifice was; a holy barbecue where the sacrificial victim was served as dinner.

Did Sarah even know what Abraham was up to?

Many people, including some of the biblical writers say that God was testing Abraham’s obedience. And some say that Abraham passed the test.

He was willing to destroy the person he loved the most on this planet to show his loyalty to God. He was willing to kill, burn, and eat his own son because he believed that’s what God wanted him to do; an act which apparently showed God that Abraham was the right choice to father a nation.

But I’m not entirely convinced that’s what happened, because I’m not convinced that was God’s test. And I don’t know if Abraham passed the test or failed it. 

If killing, burning, and eating your own child was a test of obedience to God, then I’m not sure that such a test was God’s intention.

Was God trying to see how far Abraham could be pushed? Was God trying to show Abraham something about Abraham himself? Was God showing Abraham something about God’s OWN self?

When make this story all about Abraham and turn him into a hero for his willingness to commit such an unspeakable act, we forget about the collateral damage, namely Isaac and Sarah. We applaud Abraham’s obedience, but ignore the innocent victims. Abraham’s obedience would have devastated others.

It makes me wonder if we need to reflect on the cost OUR obedience has on others. Does our obedience hurt others, or help them?

Is the desire to be in obedience to God and God’s Word bringing life to the world, or causing pain to innocent bystanders?

Does our desire to be obedient to biblical teaching inflict unholy suffering on someone? And if so, then is that what God even wants from us?

When we impose Christian values on those who do not share our faith. When we try to control other peoples’ behaviour because it doesn’t line up with how we interpret the bible. When the content of our proclamation is more more the hammer than it is the cup of cold water on a hot day, are we being obedient, sacrificing others to maintain our own understanding of faithfulness?

Are we willing to sacrifice others on the altar of our obedience? And does obedience even equal faithfulness? Can we be strictly obedient to God and God’s Word, yet still be unfaithful?

One of the great orchestra conductors of our time is a 33-year-old Venezuelan kid named Gustavo Dudamel aka “The Dude.” He conducts around the world but his main gig is music director of the LA Philharmonic, and was given that job at the annoying age of 26.

I downloaded a bunch of his recordings from iTunes because he wakes up tired old classics. In his hands Beethoven breathes new life, and Mozart is made alive again.

I also watch to a lot of his concerts on YouTube. He’s a delight to observe. He’s a very emotional conductor but he also has flawless technique. He evokes both a devoted following and a chorus of critics.

On the YouTube version of the final movement of Mahler’s ninth symphony, someone posted a comment about Dudamel’s conducting technique, a comment that I found astonishing. And as we all know, YouTube comments are ALWAYS a source of edification and inspiration.

This person said, “He’s too young, too emotional to understand such a profound piece. It’s as if he’s forgotten the notes and is simply conducting the music. He’s doesn’t seem to see that music is made up of notes, not just emotional sounds.”

“It’s as if he’s forgotten the notes and is simply conducting the music.” 


Having spent the first half of my life as a musician I can say that the best conductors and finest performers play the music not merely the notes. They know that the notes are a gateway to sound, not the end.

The best conductors and performers I’ve seen and worked with are the ones who seem to get lost in the music, who appear to embody what they’re playing, it’s as if their very selves disappear in the sounds that they’re making. It’s as if they become the music, it’s as if they are the music made flesh.

And, by contrast, the most boring ones are those who are technically competent, but emotionally absent. They play the notes, but not the music. It’s as if they believe that playing the notes perfectly is all that matters and the aesthetic and emotional experience of the listener is secondary if at all important.

Often I worry that we as Christians worry too much about playing the notes of the bible, the notes of obedience, that we neglect to play the music of the gospel.

We spend too much time and energy worrying about the words of scripture, the intricacies of the law’s demands, the individual moral admonitions, the details of personal codes of behaviour.

In other words, we get bogged down in the “Do’s and Don’ts.” We act as if we believe that faith is about doing all the right things and staying away from doing the wrong things. We equate “faith” with “obedience.”

So I wonder that if by being obedient to the notes of the bible, we can be unfaithful to the music of the gospel; the deep strains of freedom, the flowing melodies of peace, the harmonizing chords of forgiveness, the colourful orchestrations of joy, the counterpoint of justice, and the triumphant fanfare of eternity. 

That’s the music of the gospel. And when we make the scribblings on the page the focus of our Christian life together, we miss the music that God is singing through those notes.

When we make decisions for our congregation or for our synod or our national church, when we discern together the direction the Holy Spirit is leading us, when we ask our leaders where they are taking us, when we look to the future of our faith community, the important question to ask is “Are we playing the notes of obedience, or are we singing the music of the gospel?”

I wonder if that’s a lesson Abraham learned the hard way.  Who knows what went through his head as he and Isaac climbed the mountain? Who can say what Abraham was thinking as he wrestled his squirming son, tying him down on the altar? 

We can only guess Abraham’s thoughts as he raised his knife, and began to thrust it in the direction of his son’s heart.

What did Abraham think about his own obedience? What did he think about a God who would ask him to commit such a horrific act? Did he wonder what got him at this place where he would kill his child to prove something to God?

If he had questioning thoughts they didn’t affect his actions. Abraham was obedient. A loyal foot soldier of the Lord. A steadfast servant.

When Isaac asked where the sacrificial lamb was, we think that probably Abraham lied to his son. “God will provide one,” he said. But Abraham’s eyes weren’t open for a lost baby sheep, ambling up the mountain. Abraham had every intention of murdering his son as a radical, and horrific act of obedience to God.

But when Abraham felt the angel’s hand on the knife in mid thrust, then saw the ram that God provided for him, something probably clicked, a light turned on inside him, and he realized that, yes, he was obedient, but was he faithful?

And when Abraham saw the ram caught in the thicket by its horns, he knew that he both passed the test and failed it. He played the notes of obedience, but missed the music of God.

That’s when the clouds parted and the stars lit up the mountain, and God reminded Abraham of the promise God made to him and his wife Sarah; the promise that they would give birth to a mighty nation. The promise that their family would be too numerous to count. The promise that their offspring would light up the world with God’s love.

Now Abraham was ready to receive that promise. Now Abraham’s eyes were open to God’s vast vision for the world. Now Abraham could grasp what God was doing.

God showed Abraham who God is, by showing him who God is not.

Abraham finally understood that God did not demand a fearful fealty, slavishly attending to the notes of obedience, but God desired a total immersion in the music of God’s kingdom.

By sacrificing his son on the altar of his obedience, Abraham discovered that he could be obedient yet still unfaithful. Abraham learned that what he understood as an act of personal submission to God, could cause pain and death to others. Abraham realized that he could play the notes of obedience perfectly, yet miss the music of God.

It was at that moment that Abraham finally knew and understood this God we serve.

It was at that moment that he finally knew and understood that we don’t serve a god of destructive obedience. We serve a God of faithful freedom.

It was at that moment that Abraham finally knew and understood that we serve a God of LIFE, NOT a god of DEATH. We serve a God who creates, not a god who destroys.

We serve a God who raises a son from the dead, not a god who sends him to his grave. We serve a God who makes all things new, who builds a human family, whose people number among the stars lighting up the dark night sky.

Abraham finally knew and understood that his job was not to cower in compliant subservience to the presence of divine power. 

His job was to shine. His job was to light up the universe with God’s love. His job was to be a beacon of God’s kindness and of God’s creative power.

With his wife Sarah, Abraham’s job was to give birth to a new people, a new reality, a new way of living. 

Together, God empowered Abraham and Sarah to create a nation, a nation that would be God’s light to ALL nations, where God’s vision of love, forgiveness, peace, mercy, justice, and grace, intertwined in a melody of freedom for the whole world.

Their job was to sing the music of God’s glorious realm.

And our job is to continue the song that we learned from our Father Abraham and Mother Sarah.

Our job is to shine. Our job is to light up the dark places of the world with God’s love. Our job is to sing God’s gospel song, a song not of our own composing, but a song placed on our lips.

It’s God who opens our mouths to sing God’s music of forgiveness. It’s God who gives us strength to sing God’s song of freedom. It’s God who teaches us to sing God’s song of justice. It’s God who gives us tongues to sing God’s song of mercy. It’s God who moves us to sing God’s song of peace.

So now we look out at the night sky and see our future, which is God’s future for us, where the stars - too numerous to count - shine with the brightness of God’s love, as we, and with the generations that are to come, continue to sing God’s song of life.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Trinity A

I’m guessing that the folks who put the lectionary together chose the first reading from Genesis for this Trinity Sunday because of a certain word. At least that might be part of the reason.

You probably read this creation story from Genesis so often that you might have passed right over it. I know I did the first 1000 times I read this passage. But some in this past week’s bible study caught a hold of it pretty quickly.

So now, when I read this passage with Trinitarian eyes, I can’t help but lock in on the fact that God speaks of God’s self in first person plural.

“Let US make humankind in OUR image...” God says. And this is not a typo. It’s in the original Hebrew. It’s like the lectionary folks wanted to remind us that God is a tiny community - and always has been, right from the beginning, if God can ever be said to have a beginning.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this Genesis passage, but that’s what it says to me. God may be “One” but we don’t know how God self-identifies that “Oneness.” Especially when God is a relational God. God is never alone because God can’t be. That’s not who God is.

And since we’re created in God’s image, we can’t run from the fact we TOO are relational creatures. We are made to engage and interact. Our very being demands that we remain connected to others, that the path of faith and life is not supposed to be a lonely walk or solitary exercise, that we can’t be who we are without each other. No matter how much we try.

“I’d like you to baptize my baby,” the voice said on the other end of the phone.

“I’d be glad to,” I replied.

“What’s involved?” she asked

“Well, I’d like to meet with you and we can talk about it. When can you meet?” I asked

“How’s Sunday at 1:00?” she said.

“How about you come to church then we’ll meet in my office after worship,” I suggested.

“, I don’t think so,” she responded. “How about you come to my place at 1:00.”

“Okay,” I responded.

I arrived at her house armed with a hymnal marked to the baptism service, as well as a copy of Baptized We Live, a sort of comic book version of what we believe as Lutherans.

“So, why a baptism?” I asked her. I ask this question to most if not all parents I meet for the first time who present their child for baptism, not to jam parents into a corner, because I’m NOT looking for a “correct” answer. But because I’m genuinely interested in what parents believe about baptism.

“Well, I got done, my parents got done, and I want to have my baby done,” she said. Her answer was pretty typical from what I get from parents. At least she was honest.

I opened the hymnal and turned to the liturgy for Holy Baptism, and I pointed out the section where she would be making some pretty heavy duty promises on behalf of her child:

“As you bring your child to receive the gift of baptism, you are entrusted with responsibilities:

to live with her among God’s faithful people,
bring her to the Word of God and the Holy Supper
teach her the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments,
place in her hands the holy scriptures,
nurture her in faith and prayer,
so that your child may learn to trust God,
proclaim Christ through word and deed,
care for others and the world God made,
and work for justice and peace.

Do you promise to help your child grow in the Christian faith and life?”

I couldn’t get through the rest of my spiel because she burst out crying.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t want to do any of that,” she said.

“I don’t understand, what’s your concern?” I asked.

“I don’t want to force any religion on my baby. I’m not going to bring her to church because I want her to make her own choice when she grows up. I don’t believe in church. I don’t believe you have to go to a building to worship God,” she said.

“It’s not the building that’s important, it’s where God’s people gather to worship,” I replied.

“I don’t care!” she said, and stormed out of the room.

I always find it interesting that some parents see faith and spirituality as areas where they can raise their children with little or no guidance, yet still assume their children will make good choices about these things when they grow up.

And I often wonder if she told her friends about the mean ol’ pastor who wouldn’t baptize her baby. But then I realized it wasn’t me who said “No” to her child’s baptism, it was her.

At an earlier point in my ministry I would have been furious at this encounter. I would have thought “How dare she treat the sacrament of Holy Baptism with such cavalier consumerism, as if I’m in the religious service industry! This is God’s activity in her child’s life, not the Sears portrait studio!”

But after a few years into this job I realize that she’s just doing what the culture taught her to do, to define life and faith on her own terms, rather than seek the wisdom of a community who lived and breathed their faith for thousands of years.

Like so many others, she was making it up as she went along, dogmatically asserting the infallibility of personal choice and the inerrancy of individual spiritual preferences. She’s so deeply immersed in the waters of consumerism, that she believes that she is swimming upstream, against the religious current, that she can’t see that most other people are floating in the same direction.

She is not as unique and radical as she probably believes herself to be.

She was probably worried that I was trying to jam her into a religious box that was not of her own making, where she would gasp for air, rather than seeing that God was providing a doorway into the new and abundant life that God wants for her and her child, offering her and her daughter an opportunity for participate in the world’s salvation.

And she was right about one thing. You don’t have to go to a building to worship God. But you can’t be a Christian without others. We need the support, encouragement, fellowship, challenge, and prayers of others to grow into our faith. There cannot be any individual Christians, because there is no individual God.

God is a community. A family. An intimate connection. Three-in-one and one-in-three. As you know we call this the “Trinity.” Don’t ask me how this all works because I haven’t a clue. No one really knows.

But what I do know is that God is profoundly relational. God-is-with-us because that’s who God is with God and with everything that God has created in God’s image. And that’s who God wants us to be. We can’t be Christians without each other.

Some say that such a perspective coming from a guy like me, doing what I do, is just the theological justification for keeping my job, and it’s the religious rationale for propping up the church institution.

I won’t deny that you folks coming to church helps pay my bills and puts shoes on my kids’ feet. After all, a guy’s gotta eat. And I really like my job.

But there are easier ways to make money than being a pastor. And more of it.

So when we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we baptize into a community - God’s community - where we are never alone.

As I thought about what that mom said I realized that at least she had the integrity to NOT go through with a ritual that she realized she didn’t believe in. And it could be said that her saying “No” to her child’s baptism respected the church and what we believe as Christians.

But still, I never say “No” to a baptism because God never says No. Even when the parents clearly have no desire to follow through on the promises they make on behalf of their child at baptism, I still do the baptism, because God DOES follow through on God’s promises made at these waters.

And God keeps the promises God made TODAY as JACK is received into the community called “Trinity” and the community called “church.” Today we are fulfilling Jesus’ commission to baptize, and to teach everything he taught the disciples; that the kingdom of God, the kingdom of peace, of justice, of forgiveness, of mercy, of grace, and of life is reigning in Jack’s life, and will guide him through his years and lead him into eternity when the time comes. Jack is now a participant in the world’s salvation, as he walks through his years, giving the world his gifts, building on what God is already doing.

And it won’t be easy for Jack because it’s not easy for us. Our challenge - as a church - is learning how to live our promises in world that doesn’t believe in them, among those who try to make up faith and spirituality as it goes along, in a culture that’s - rightly or wrongly - suspicious of formalized faith.

But whether we live up to that challenge or if we fail, God who is Trinity will remain faithful to us and to the world, because that’s who God is. That’s what God does. The Three-in-One and One-in-Three has received us into the intimate community called “God.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, June 01, 2014

Easter 7A

I don’t know about you, but for me, Jesus’ prayer in the garden is more of a challenge then perhaps I should admit. Especially the part where he prays that his followers “made be one as he and God are one.”

Yes, Christian unity is important. Being unified in the gospel is a tremendous witness to God’s love in action in a constantly fragmented world.

But I get tired just thinking about it. For me, Christians getting together is like the family reunion that you dread, where old wounds reappear, and once-thought-resolved fights are re-fought.

Christian unity, to me, is a lot like that. When Christians get together I know what most of the conversation will be.

From the United Church, I’ll be asked to defend Martin Luther’s involvement in the Peasants’ Rebellion of 1524, as if their hands are clean of historic wrongs.

From the Anglicans I’ll be teased about our “fixation” on Martin Luther and how he must have missed the Letter of James, as if we never covered that theological divide.

The Roman Catholics will try to make pleasant, yet awkward conversation amidst the 500-year-old elephant in the thee room.

And the evangelicals will natter on with a curious mixture of superiority and inferiority.

At least that’s how I experience it.

Then there are the voices that are NOT there. Other Lutherans who don’t want to talk with us. And if we’re honest, we may appreciate their silence.

And the recent split among some of our Lutheran congregations, may have provided comfort to those who supported their moral stand, but it hurt our witness as Christians since it gave the message that, once again, Christians aren’t getting along.

But so often, Christian unity, or to use the fancy church word: ecumenism, tends to be about creating wonderful documents affirming common areas of interest, emphasizing theological congruities, and celebrating historic similarities, with high level denominational officials meeting, often with the greatest of ambitions and the highest of hopes – organic union; a merger, an organizational return to one world-wide church of Jesus Christ.

And every once in a while, someone writes a book about how God is tearing down denominations, bringing believers together, boundaries will be erased, structures will fall and God’s one universal church is rising from the rubble, and Christians will, at last, be unified in the gospel.

Maybe I’m just too cynical. But I always roll my eyes at self-proclaimed prophets declaring a mystical union of Christian churches. Perhaps it’s not just cynicism. It could be muddy-booted pragmatism.

If all Christians are going to be the same, how will we worship? Whose liturgy will we use? Will we use a liturgy at all? Christians can’t even agree on what DAY to worship let alone HOW to worship.

What bible translation will we use? Which confession of faith will undergird our church life and doctrine? Can you imagine the nightmare of working all this out?

Is that even what Jesus meant when he prayed for his followers to be “one” as he is “one” with God?

After all, I LIKE being a Lutheran. It’s where God has called me to serve. I feel nurtured and fed by our rich theological tradition. And I think our tradition is a gift to the rest of the Christian community. It’s something we lose at our own peril, and to the diminishment of the worldwide church.

But maintaining our unique contribution while forging partnerships with other churches is not easy, even when the relationships have been close, historically, and liturgically.

And despite our best efforts and purest of intentions, our traditions clash when we’re actually asked to work together.

I was at a Deans’ meeting in Mississauga, Ontario in 2002 and Eastern Synod Bishop Mike Pryse was telling us Deans (I was Conference Dean in Atlantic Canada) about what was happening with the Full Communion agreement between the Lutherans and Anglicans that was signed the year before.

“We have some kinks to work out,” he said.

And I knew what he was talking about. In Halifax our church had an evening service, and on one of these Sunday evenings we recognized “Take Back the Night” sponsored by the Women’s Centre at Dalhousie University, and we invited members of the community who worked in the social service sectors, especially those who worked with abused women and children to attend and be recognized for what they did. We wanted to pray for them and thank them for all their hard and often thankless work on behalf of hurting and often neglected people.

I invited a female Anglican priest from the area to preside over Holy Communion, since Rebekah (my wife at the time, also a Lutheran pastor) was on maternity leave. I wanted a woman clergyperson at the table because many of the people attending said they’d never experienced communion offered by a woman before. And since “Take Back the Night” was about women asserting their safety, I thought it was a powerful symbol of a woman in a position of authority. 
However, this priest said that she needed permission from her bishop to preside at communion at another church.

Ummm. Okay. So she received conditional permission from her bishop. “He just needs a copy of the liturgy before he gives is final ‘okay’” she said.

Ummm. Fine. So I emailed the bishop a copy of the liturgy we were using that night, which included a communion prayer written by Janet Morley, an Anglican poet.

A couple weeks passed and I hadn’t heard anything from the bishop so I assumed everything was good to go. But then I received a message on the church answering machine the day before the service. It was from the Anglican bishop. He was informing me that the Eucharistic prayer was not one of the “approved” prayers of the Anglican Church and therefore he was not giving his permission to have this priest preside at Holy Communion at the service.

My Lutheran blood boiled. “I beg your pardon Lord Bishop, but did I just hear you say the words, ‘approved prayer’? How dare some bishop decide what prayer can and cannot be said in this church! How dare he stick his nose into my congregation! How dare he act like…like…an ANGLICAN!” 

Rebekah talked me down from sending the Anglican bishop a nasty, un-Christian email.

So, our Lutheran bishop Pryse was right. There were “kinks” to be worked out.

“The Waterloo Declaration [the agreement between Lutherans and Anglicans] was like a marriage ceremony,” Bishop Pryse said. “Everything was fun and romantic when we got together and signed the papers. And then you have a wonderful honeymoon. It’s only after you’ve started living together that you run into problems and discover that the other person isn’t as perfect as you’d like them to be.”

True enough. But where does that leave us?

Bishop’s Mike’s assistant then noted that there weren’t any other Full Communion talks with other churches on the horizon.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Not enough money,” she responded. “Too expensive.”

“Too expensive for what?”

“For the meetings, the papers to be written and presented, the agreements to be circulated. These things all cost money,” she said.

“But how much does it cost put on a pot coffee and chat?” I thought to myself. Isn’t that really how it should begin?

But I wonder if her response was more a convenient bureaucratic smoke-screen than an honest answer. I think she knew that the experience with working with the Anglicans was proving harder than anyone thought it would be. And they simply didn’t have the energy to start the process with anyone else. I think we all learned that Christian unity IS hard once you get past the platitudes.

But that’s the challenge, isn’t it? That’s the goal that scripture lays out for us.

In 2007 I preached at the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service at McKillop United Church in Lethbridge. In my sermon, I noted that Paul doesn’t see Christian unity as one option among many, but that God has MADE us ONE body, despite what anyone might have thought.

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul scolds those Christians who were creating division in the church, those believers who believed they were better than others because of what they believed and how they worshiped.

But Paul was having none of it, “Whether you like or not,” Paul more or less says, “you are a church family. You are Christ’s body. For all your faults, for all your disagreements, for all your mistakes, you are the only visible form the risen Christ has in the world. So start acting like it.”

That’s quite the rebuke, don’t you think? But a rebuke and a promise. It tells us that no matter what we do to each other, no matter how much we fight and disagree, no matter how far we stray off the beaten theological path, how far we’ve wandered from each other, we can’t escape each other. We’re Christians. We’re stuck with each other, like it or not.

“Does that sound like good news to you?” I asked the congregation of about five different denominations.

Then I paused. And I noticed that NOT ONE PERSON was nodding their head “yes.” People couldn’t decide whether Paul’s version of Christian unity sounded like good news or bad news.

So, I let the question just hang there like a wet sock. Then people started to giggle – uncomfortably. Then I said, “You had to think about it for awhile didn’t you?”

People knew that, behind and beyond the platitudes and good intentions, Christians aren’t comfortable with each other. We know that we are entrenched in our own traditions, for good and for bad. We know that unity may ask us to make compromises, compromises that threaten our very identity.

We know that Christians don’t have a very good history of getting along. We know that, despite all the papers written and all the official statements, all the joint worship celebrations and social proclamations, Christians still fight with each other. And we want to be honest about our disagreements.

But Paul’s rebuke does sound like good news to me. But I had to dig around for it. If Christian unity were easy, then Jesus wouldn’t have had to pray for it. If Christian unity were easy then we wouldn’t need God to bring us together.

We can only be unified when the Holy Spirit makes us so, not when we come up with authorized agreements and institutional declarations. We are unified when God says we are.

We ARE unified BECAUSE God says that we are. 

We ARE unified because of the Jesus we share.

We ARE unified because the Spirit gathers us into one.

And, by God’s grace we will live into that unity. We will be guided into oneness, we will see the worldwide church summoned by the Spirit, crowded together in our messy humanness, celebrating the diversity of the Christian community, assembled around the throne proclaiming in various languages, songs, hymns, and stories, a joyful noise of praise that Jesus Christ is Lord!

May this be so among us. Amen!

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