Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent 1B Series: "From Humbug to Hallelujah!

Do you have any Christmas Day traditions? When I was growing up, Christmas Day was often church, then opening gifts, then my mom’s bacon and egg casserole. 

And by noon, after the gifts were unpacked, and the wrapping paper disposed of, and the shine of Christmas morning was beginning to fade into afternoon. In the evening we’d settle in together and watch “A Christmas Carol” usually the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim, since that was the one that ABC out of Buffalo would show every Christmas Day starting at 7:00.

So, the family would get together to watch this movie over and over again. And it never lost it’s freshness. It was a regular reminder of the possibility of personal transformation. 

After all, isn’t that Jesus’ ultimate message? That the world is being transformed, renewed, and put back together in a vision of wholeness and reconciliation?

And while A Christmas Carol doesn’t specifically mention God or Jesus, it is a story of salvation, salvation from the greed and selfishness that weigh us down, salvation from relationships that have gone sour, salvation from living a story that isn’t ours, salvation from those things in our lives that keep us from living in the fulness of the life that God wants for us.

Salvation from the “humbugs” as we shout “hallelujah!”

And it all began when Scrooge returned home from work one Christmas Eve and was frightened to see the face of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley, staring back at him from the door knocker. Shaken, Scrooge hurries to his bedroom. That’s when Marley’s ghost appears, and confronts the terrified Scrooge:

Let’s watch.


Hear Marley’s words again, He says, “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard. I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. It its pattern strange to YOU?”

At least Marley was self-aware enough in death to see the harm he caused others, and the chains he wore were from from a life of selfish ambition and strained relationships. He learned the hard way that financial success brought him personal ruin. And the chains he know wore were the regret of a live poorly lived.

What are YOUR chains? What links are YOU forging? What’s weighing YOU down? What’s keeping you back from fully living the life that God wants YOU to live?

We all have chains. Even if we have all the outward indictors of success, we all have chains that we forge, or chains that are thrust upon us.

The chain of a job that pays well but is sucking the life right out of you.

The chain marriage that is being held together by duct tape.

The chain of financial worry and stress as wages stagnate while the price of everything rises.

The chain of loneliness when you go home to an empty house.

Or perhaps the heavies chain of all, the chain of the past, that keeps you weighed down, unable to fully live the life that God wants for you.

I hear lots of stories about people’s pasts. And when I hear those stories, it’s not the painful acts or traumatic events themselves that strike me. But what strikes me is how those injustices follow people throughout their lives. They’re like shadows hovering over people’s relationships, people’s choices, people’s vision of themselves, even people’s physical health.

It’s something we ALL struggle with. We all struggle with past trauma. We all hear voices of earlier loss or rejection or pain. We call carry within us, the burden of bearing someone else’s painful past. So that their story becomes our story, which we then - unknowingly - pass on to others.

No matter how much you try to hide it, no matter how much to try to tell yourself it’s behind you, no matter how much you ignore it, your chains of the past are there.

The chains of your past are there in the way you misconstrue a simple comment made by friend.

The chains of your past are there in how you overreact to bad news.

The chains of your past are there in your tears after someone criticizes you.

The chains of your past are there when you ignore wonderful opportunities lying at your feet.

The chains of your past are there you meet accomplishment and success with guilt and shame rather than with joy and celebration.

The chains of your past are there when you look in the mirror, and all you can see is someone else’s negative opinion of you.

The chains of you past are there when the power of the previous years veil the possibilities you might see for the future.

And the chains get heavier and heavier as the years tick by.

That’s what Scrooge learned. As Marley’s business partner, co-conspirator, and fellow chain forger, Scrooge didn’t see what he was becoming. Because he wasn’t always like how we just saw him. As a young man he cared deeply for others.  He frolicked with friends. He fell in love.

But something happened. Whether it was from losing his beloved sister. Or from his eyes darkening to the evil of the world. Or from the temptation to the allure of wealth. He changed. He forgot how to connect with others. He forgot how to be human. He forgot how to love.

He forgot that human beings were created for each other. He turned inward, caring only for himself. He decided to TAKE from the world rather than GIVE. He pushed people away. He became locked in his past. He forgot his story.

And as a result, he became a lonely, bitter, angry, frustrated old man.

This first Sunday of Advent, we begin to re-tell the story that shapes us. The story that gives us life. The story that God has put us in. The story that begins by reminding us why we need a saviour to begin with. 

A story that reminds us that there are moments when we need healing. 

A story that reminds us that we sometimes need to be put back together again. 

A story that reminds us that we have hurt one another, and ourselves. And that there needs to be some repair in our lives and relationships.

That’s why we begin the new church year by starting BEFORE Jesus arrives. Advent means “coming” and usually refers to Jesus’ impending arrival, both as a baby in Bethlehem, and his return at the fulfillment of creation, to judge the living and the dead. 

So we usually have two types of readings in Advent, the story of John the Baptist calling us to repentance, and the story of Mary’s impossible pregnancy. And those fit the Advent mood appropriately.

But I think that’s only half the story. I think the other part of the story is the arrival of the new YOU, who YOU are becoming, who God is making YOU. With the arrival of Jesus comes the dawning of a new day for EVERYONE, a fresh start, a more hopeful tomorrow, the trust of an abundant life NOW and the promise of eternity.

And today God knows your past. God knows what has been done to you. God knows the pain, the injustice, the abuse, the grief, the rejection, and the loss.

God knows anger, the resentment, the fear, and the loneliness.

And today God is saying that this is NOT the end of your story. You will NOT be weighed down by the chains of the past. Your past does NOT control your future. God is saying that the story of your painful yesterday is not the story of your healthy tomorrow. God is telling a different story in your life. God is telling a story of hope, of healing, of forgiveness, of peace, and of joy.

Your future is before you. And it’s not just your future. It’s God’s future. Your story isn’t finished. The pain of your past does NOT have power over your future. Your future belongs to God.

Someone else’s opinion of you is NOT your reality. God decides who you are, and God has declared you to be a beloved, forgiven, beautiful, and free child of God.

Your future will not be perfect. Your future will not be without pain or illness or grief. But God has given you power over anything that life throws at you. God has given you power over any betrayal, over any injustice, and over any loss. God has given you power over any rejection, over any conflict, and over any abuse.

God has given you this power because you belong to God, and God is breaking your chains. God is writing the story of your life. And God’s great and glorious future rests inside of you, as you wait this Advent season, to see the love of Jesus fully alive with in you.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ the King - Year A

As I begin my ministry with and among you I’m quickly discovering, or shall I say recovering my sense of how to work with a team. My most recent congregation, St. John Lutheran Church of Golden Spike, about twenty minutes west of Edmonton, is a little country church where I was the sole employee, and my office was in my house. The staff meetings were pretty short, but I enjoyed the company.

I’ve been delighted by the positive energy I’ve seen from Liz, Kelly, Pete, and Wayne as I began my ministry here last week. And I appreciated the thoughtfulness and encouragement of church council when we met last Tuesday. So, apart from a myriad of technical difficulties, It feels like we’re off to a good start.

While at St. John’s I had time - perhaps TOO much time - to reflect. Spending all those hours with just myself for company got me thinking about what how God wants us to live as a community gathered in Jesus’ name, and what the message is that we give off to others. And especially, the relationship that God wants for us.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned that this world suffers from, is being alone. Cut off. Disconnected. Unable to fully engage other human beings. Not really knowing who we are.

Have you ever felt alone? I mean REALLY alone? I'm not talking about mere loneliness, but abject Aloneness.

Have you ever felt like you couldn't connect with a single person on this planet? That no one really knew the deepest part of you, but neither did you know the deepest part of anyone else? That everywhere you turned you didn't just see strangers, but aliens. People so foreign to your own experience as to be from outside your solar system.

Maybe it was something that happened to you. Abuse, rejection, failure. And you were wouldn’t connect with others for fear it might happen again.

Or was it a loss that left you scrambling for air, a loss so deep and raw that you couldn't really share with it anyone, because words weren’t enough?

Perhaps you felt abandoned by someone who you thought loved you, and were knocked on your back when they walked away.

Or it could be the distance between you and someone else is so deep, and the chasm is too wide to cross, even though they’re sitting across the table from you.

Maybe you even felt like you’ve been abandoned by God right when you needed God the most.

If you have, you're in good company. In my job people share their aloneness with me. It’s a common malady. It catches up to everyone. No one escapes.

Even God feels alone. A lot. I think aloneness – not just loneliness - is something God feels deeply.

If I can give away the punch line at the beginning of the sermon, that's what I think today's gospel reading is all about. I think this story of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25 is about God's aloneness. And I think our friend Martin Luther can help us to figure out how.

To understand our Lutheran theological tradition you have to understand Lutheranism was born in the darkness. Martin Luther should have been on medication. Medical historians disagree as to what condition Luther lived with was, but from analyzing his writings and examining accounts of his behaviour, many scholars believe that Luther was bi-polar. And his condition influenced how he saw God. How could it not?

Luther talked about the Revealed God and the Hidden God (Deus revelatus/Deus absconditus to use Luther’s fancy Latin).

The revealed God is what God chooses to show us. The vibrant proclamation of forgiveness. The unexpected mercies. The bold promises of eternity. The exciting and intimate sense that God is alive in our world.

But then the darkness creeps in, and we reach out our hands into what we can’t see. Luther also said that God hides on us, and that act of hiding, is in itself, an act of showing God's self to us. Being hidden and being revealed were two sides of the same penny. But it was the hidden God that haunted him.

Luther believed that we can't know God fully. That what we think we know about God is just a minute fraction of who God really is. A fading shadow of the fulness of the divine. And what we do know is what God chooses to show us. We can't know God on our own. God is too different from us. God is too alone.

Luther believed that, sometimes, God hides from us altogether. And when we feel that God is not among us, when we don’t feel God's presence, but we feel God's stark and smouldering absence, we could be right.

Luther didn't explain why God hides from us. It's not our sin that God hides from because God in Jesus came to seek out and save sinners. 

Nor is it a form of punishment because God in Jesus took on our punishment on the cross. 

Nor is it us pushing God away, because God always pursues us first.
God just hides.

But often God hides in plain sight, where we don't think to look. We don't recognise God because we don't really know what we’re searching for, even when God’s eyes are staring into ours. And that’s when God feels most alone.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison?”

Lord, were you hiding on us?

It's easy to miss God when you're looking in the wrong places. But the scriptures are filled with examples of God's people missing what God is doing with and among them.

Through the prophet Amos, God railed against God's people who were more interested in sensual pleasures and elaborate worship than in helping the poor and needy. So Amos called them back to a life of justice for the oppressed and compassion for the poor.

The prophet Micah preached that worshipping God without working for social justice was empty and meaningless.

Isaiah couldn't imagine God's people returning from exile without a strong sense of caring for the widows and orphans.

Jeremiah wept for a people who had neglected their obligation of protecting the weak and the suffering, which was a responsibility for those who were called to be a light to the nations.

The prophets preached because the people had forgotten who God was and how God wanted them to live. 

People went looking for God in wealth and power. They chased after God in the palaces of royalty and the boardrooms of the rich. 

They hunted after God in the celebrity culture that judges people’s value on their appearance rather than what’s in their hearts. 

They pursued God in material riches, which they mistook for God’s blessing.

But God was no where near them. At least not in the ways they were looking for.

Instead, God was found among the forgotten. God was sitting with the stranger. God was hiding among the poor. God was mingling among the imprisoned. God was surrounded by the sick. God was communing with the hungry and seated among the thirsty.

It took God’s people a long to learn this, but they finally figured out that if you want to gaze into God's eyes, just gaze into the suffering eyes of those around you.

Luther knew how crazy all of this sounded. But he also knew that it was true. He said that the glory of God was “hidden beneath its opposite.” 

In other words, don’t look for God in the obvious places. Look for God where you don’t expect. Look for God where you don’t even WANT to find God.

I often worry that we, too, as Christians, forget this message. And why wouldn't we? It's easy to forget. It's easy to WANT to forget. Who wants to be around suffering people? Who wants to see God there?

Today is Christ the King Sunday and we like our kings on heavenly thrones, surrounded by angelic splendor, adorned with power and arrayed with might. We like our kings thundering over creation. This is the Sunday that should end with a flourish, a triumphant song of victory, a hymn to the all-powerful God, high above the heavens, and ruling over the universe with a strong hand.

Instead we are asked to celebrate a king who hides among the poor, who lives among lonely, who’s occupied with the forgotten. We are asked to be servants of a suffering sovereign.

It's easy to turn this into a checklist, a salvation to-do list to cross off as each duty is completed. Gave money to a poor person? Check. Visited the sick? Check. Dropped off some clothes at the Salvation Army? Check.

Of course, that's not what Jesus was talking about. It would almost be easier if it was, because Jesus is talking about something deeper than checking off items on a shopping list.

Jesus was talking about a lifestyle of compassion and service. He was talking about simply living the life that he lived. Because we bear his name. His initials are scratched on our foreheads, and he’s written our names in his Book of Life. We have no choice in the matter.

So, if we're looking for a mandate, here it is. If we're trying to come up with a strategic plan, it's staring us in the face. If we want to discover why God put us here together, just read this story again. 

Then look around at each other’s smiling faces and broken hearts. Notice the limp, and spot the empty chair at your neighbour’s table. Listen for the weeping as much as the laughter. Hear the sighing underneath the singing.

Together we are becoming a healing church. I’ve already seen how this congregation is living out Jesus’ gospel message. I’ve experienced the welcome of a people who know what good news feels like because you’ve also felt the bad news of woundedness.

I’ve heard about the healing work you have done with each other. As I’ve been learning about the history of your life together and the ministries that you’ve been involved in, it’s clear that you don’t have to be told where God is found. You know from where Christ our King rules. And I look forward to having a front row seat as God continues to build on what has been so lovingly made.

And what you will get from me is a joyfully grateful response to the renewing love that I’ve received.
What you’ll get from me is encouragement to walk the path of compassion that Jesus has put you on.

What you’ll get from me is hope-filled hard work.

What you’ll get from me is a partnership joined together by God’s healing mercy and forgiving love, as a fellow servant of Christ who is our King, who rules over us with peace.

We have 104 weeks together. Let’s see what we can do with them. Let’s see what happens when God presents Jesus to us in the suffering eyes of those around us and asks us to do something about it.

Jesus promised that if we want to meet him as our King, we would meet him there.

Let’s find him there together. Let’s learn together. Let’s succeed together. Let’s fail together. Let’s rise together.

And at the end, we may not even know it was Christ our King we saw. And so, one day we will ask,

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hiding among the poor, the hungry, the stranger, the imprisoned, the sick, or the naked?”

And our King will say, “Whatever you did to the least of these brothers and sisters, you did for me.

So, well done, good and faithful servants. Enter into the joy of my kingdom.”

May this be the promise that moves us forward. 

May this be so among us. Amen.

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