Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Lent 3B: Series: #MakingFaithMatter

NB: You can listen to the sermon by clicking here.

Familiar words from Jesus, eh? Those of us who’ve been around the church long enough have probably forgotten the punch that this passage packs. It’s become for many of us, perhaps, too familiar. They’ve lost their edge. We’ve house-trained these bible verses spoken by a house-trained Jesus. At least that’s what we’ve tried to do with him because what he asks us to do makes no sense when we stop and think about it.

Some of these phrases have become so commonplace that they’ve made their way into our everyday language and they threaten to morph into cliche.

“Turn the other cheek.”

“Go the extra mile.”

Or even...“Love your enemy.”

Easily recognizable words spoken by a Jesus with whom we’ve become far too comfortable. 

But if we step back and see Jesus from a distance once again, and take Jesus’ commands seriously, we might see things a little differently. But then again, when we re-hear Jesus’ words as if they were first spoken, I’d worry that we might become a first class doormat.

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also...”

Hmmm....not sure about that one. If someone punches me in the face, I’d hit them right back. I wouldn’t point to the other side of my face and say, “missed a spot.”  

“If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well

Not entirely sure I know what he’s talking about here. If someone sues me, they better have a good lawyer because I’m going to protect what is mine. 

“ ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...”

Really? I have enemies for a reason. Loving them is not one of them. Especially since they don’t have my best interest in mind.

And then comes the command that puts all the others in their place:

“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

That’s were we REALLY run into trouble. Perfection, especially for us Lutherans, is not a spiritual value. Perfection is a burden. Grace is a gift.

This doesn’t sound like good news to me. It actually sounds kind of dangerous. We know we aren’t perfect. We know we have flaws. We know that we struggle along trying to do our best with what we have where we are. After all, isn’t that why Jesus came to earth, so that God could share our limiting imperfections?

So what’s happening here?

Well, if we dig a little deeper into the language, we see that the word  for “perfection” would be better translated as “holy.”  “Be HOLY, as your heavenly Father is holy.”

Does that help us any? “Be holy” may not sound much better than “be perfect.” When we think of “holy people” what do we think of? I don’t know about you but I often think of super spiritual people who walk just a couple inches off of the ground, people who live a life of prayer, who exude serenity and luminate with peace. And most of us know we are not that person.

But, “holiness” in scripture wasn’t reserved for those super spiritual Godly men and women who appear translucently semi-divine. In fact, in the bible no such person exists.

Holiness” according to the bible is simpler than that. Holiness means being set apart. It means being different, unique, distinct.

So, you could translate this passage as “Be unique, just as your heavenly Father is unique.” Or be set apart, separate, just as your heavenly Father is set apart and separate.”

As Christians, we are called to be different than others, we are made and re-made in God’s image, not the world’s. We are re-created to be alternate visions to the world God loves, but needs repair and restoration. We are called to be different.

And that’s not always easy.

One of the charges some of our evangelical friends have laid on us mainline churches is that we are “too close” to the culture, that there’s nothing unique about us to distinguish us from the rest of society, that we’re no different than the Rotary Club, except that we meet at a more inconvenient time.

I hear this all the time. That Lutherans and other mainline Christians, such as Anglicans, Presbyterians, and United Churches, have compromised their moral standards to ingratiate themselves to a secular world, and have watered down our theology to make it palatable for mass consumption.

Those charges are usually laid by Christians who seem to delight in stirring up trouble, often operating out of a robust persecution complex. If they’re not being passing moral judgment on others to the point of being hated, then they’re not doing their jobs as Christians. And since we’re not hated like they are (or perceived that they are), then we’re clearly not as Christian as they are.

They’re not completely wrong. But it’s not that we’ve sold out to culture, we’ve just been part of it for so long that we’ve forgotten how to be a minority. And we take from the culture and use it for gospel purposes.

Lutherans, and other historic state churches, had become cozy with the culture. By definition, that’s what a state church is and does. A state church blesses national ambitions.

And we’ve carried that tradition across the pond to Canada. While this is changing, clergy still are called upon to bless whatever the culture deems “good.”

And, Lutheran and other mainline clergy, including myself, are schooled in secular counseling theory, which carries with it, certain moral assumptions about human behaviour.

Even the language we use about being an “inclusive” church comes from the social sciences and not from the bible (which is one of the reasons I don’t use that word).

Our organizational structure is borrowed from a model frequently used in the 1970’s and 80’s by non-profit organizations. We’re deeply invested in the surrounding culture.

But Evangelicals and other Christians who criticize us for being too close to the culture need to relieve themselves of the logs in their own eyes before pointing out the speck in ours. Many of these churches are expert marketers, using secular business models to draw a crowd. They preach while waving iPads rather than bibles, and use latest technology to create multi-media worship experiences. They the culture’s tools to get peoples’ attention. The tools then become the message.

At best, these churches that could be mistaken for shopping malls tells the visitor, “Don’t worry, there’s nothing new for you here. Being a Christian is just like every other part of your life.”

At worst, these churches bless peoples’ consumer impulses, turning faith into a consumer choice, pulling people further away from the poor man from Nazareth. These churches may take strong moral stands, but their message gets lost in their medium.

My intent isn’t to trash these churches. That would make me a first rate hypocrite. (but what else is new?) My aim is to point out that ALL churches cozy up to the culture - or at least the part they’re comfortable with. No church is exempt.

I think our inability to disengage from culture shows us how hard it is to be a Christian. It reveals just how difficult it is to be different, just as our heavenly Father is different. It’s tough to be separate, set apart, just as our heavenly Father is separate, it might be impossible to be set apart as our heavenly Father is set apart.

But that’s what we’re called to be. But what does that look like? And how do we get there?

I think the answer lies hidden in the text.

It’s obvious. Of course, people aren’t going to offer the other side of their face to be smacked. Of course people aren’t going to give more than asked of them. Of course, people aren’t going to go the extra mile for someone who is oppressing them. Of course, people aren’t going to love their enemies.

But Jesus did. And he gave his listeners tools to live set apart from others.

Back then, if someone hit you on the right cheek, they had to use the back of their hand, which was usually a punishment for slaves. But to hit you on your left, they’d have to use an open hand, which was considered low class behaviour. To hit you on your left would lead to public embarrassment.

And people would usually have only two garments. If they gave their enemy both of them, you’d be naked. And your enemy would be shamed for requiring you to go without clothes.

And Roman soldiers were only allowed to require people to carry their packs for one mile. If someone carried the solider’s pack an extra mile, that person would embarrass the soldier and probably get him into trouble.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Jesus was giving his listeners tools for resisting those who were oppressing them. He was providing a different way of dealing with their enemies. He gave peaceful solutions to conflict. He was teaching them how to be set apart. He was showing them how to make their faith matter.

Jesus wasn’t asking people to become doormats. Just the opposite. Jesus was giving people back their power. He was providing non-violent forms of resistance against oppressive authority. He was equipping a beaten down people with the tools to defy the forces that made them feel less than human.

He was giving them back their dignity, helping them regain their sense of personhood, lifting them up, empowering them, so they could live out their lives with a renewed feeling of self-worth, after so many defeats. He was given them back their self-respect after so many years of finding their noses in the dirt. He was endowing them with nobility, reminding them that they were God’s people, servants of the Most Hight God, created in the image of the one through whom everything came into being, in the face of an empire that stripped them of everything they had.

He was making their faith matter.

While Jesus doesn’t provide a solution to every oppressive encounter, he’s pretty clear about what it means to be different.

This is how Jesus calls us to make faith matter:

When the someone lashes out in anger, you respond in love. When others demean you, you have creative solutions to maintain your dignity.

You will not let other peoples’ destructive behaviour turn you into your enemies. Your enemies will not dictate your actions or let them define you. You will not become who they are.

You will not let setbacks, shattered dreams, injustice, or abuse define you. You are more than that. You will not let circumstances tell you who you are. You will not let those who hurt you rob you of your dignity. You will not let those who do not have your best interest in mind tell you who are. You will not let your past decide your future. You will not let the principalities and powers destroy the love that is within you. You will not let the power of death steal your joy.

You are more than what people have done to you. You are more than the sadness and pain that has been thrown at you. You are more than your broken past. You are more than your stolen dreams. 

When life treats you as little more than a chew toy, you have the power to stand up and say, “Enough!” 

When life punches you in the face, you turn your head sideways and say, “I dare you.”You won’t be like everyone else. You will be different.

You will be different because you ARE different. You are God’s holy house, you are a living sanctuary, you are a dwelling place of the Lord. 

You are God’s people. You are a light to the nations. You are a people of mercy and love. You are a people of peace and justice. You are a people of forgiveness and freedom.

You are a chosen people, set apart to be a beacon of the divine. Your life bears witness to the love God has for the world and everyone and everything in it.

You are a resurrection people whose eyes are fixed on God’s new horizon, where all sorrow, pain, and suffering is transformed into an abundant future for all.

You have welcomed with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

You may not know this about yourself. You may not see this in yourself. But you are tomorrow’s people because that’s who God has made you. That is who you are becoming.

You are God’s holy temple, where the Lord, the giver of Life dwells. You shine with the light of God’s glory, where the spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus radiates love in a world so often devoid of hope.

You are all these things because that’s who Christ is. And you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

That is who you are. That is how you are making faith matter.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Monday, February 23, 2015

Lent 1B Series: #MakingFaithMatter

NB: Click here to listen to the audio.

“Be doers of the word and not merely hearers…”

The one question I always ask myself when preparing a sermon is, “So what?” meaning, “What does this have to do with anything?” 

All this study and thought might be fun, in a nerdy sort of what way, interesting to dig into the layers of meaning of scripture, and apply fine points of doctrine to come up with a unique interpretation of the bible passage.

Yes, Paul is quoting Isaiah out of context. Interesting.

Yes, John is channeling Genesis at the beginning of his gospel. Sure that helps provide deeper insight.

Yes, Mary’s song is a ripped off from Hanna’s song. Curious.

But there comes a point when I have to wake up from out of my intellectual stupor, and ask where the passage hits people in their lives. I ask, “So what?”

I’m guessing that you do to. Most people wonder what faith actually looks like, what it actually does, what impact it has on people’s lives and the world.

That’s probably why you’re here. You sing songs. You pray prayers. You greet one another. You listen politely to what comes from this pulpit. And I’m guessing that in the back of your mind, you’re asking, “So what? How does this apply to me? How does this impact my life? What does this mean for me?”

Those are fair questions. Questions that Lutherans have been shy to ask, until recently. And that shyness, that hesitation, come from a fight that Martin Luther, our father in the faith from whom we get name “Lutheran,” had with this scripture passage.

“Be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.”

 Many Lutherans hate the letter of James. In fact, Martin Luther once said that the letter of James was made out of straw, only good to help light his fire.

Inflammatory language about scripture, don’t you think? Wanting to rip out a whole book from the bible to use for kindling doesn’t quite have the reverence we attach to the reading and study – let alone, the application - of scripture.

As one who has been trained in the Lutheran theological method, I always need to reach for the Tums when I see passages from James coming up in our Sunday readings.

“Be doers of the word and not merely hearers, lest you be deceived,” James sneers at us, waving his finger in our faces.

Those words stung Luther’s ears. He spent most of his formative years hunting after a God who loved him because all he heard at church was how much God demanded of him – and how God was furious with him for his failings.

All he heard, day after day, was how he wasn’t good enough, how he wasn’t doing enough, how much God was disappointed in his shabby attempts to be the good Christian he thought God wanted him to be.

But while studying Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther read these words, “…all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an atonement by his blood effective through faith.”

In other words, “stop trying so hard to get God to love you. Stop trying to work your way into heaven. God loves you and gave you Jesus. Jesus is your way into heaven.”

Luther was never the same after reading that. And neither was the church.

When Luther had to preach James’ letter where the apostle thunders at him “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers, lest you be deceived!” - Luther felt like he was back to square one. James assumed that Luther wasn’t doing enough for God. That all his studying and praying, teaching and preaching were not enough, and that he had to work even harder to prove he was the Christian he claimed to be. At least that’s the way that Luther heard it. No wonder he wanted to use the letter for kindling!

And that’s the way that many commentators and preachers hear it as well. I talked once with a pastor who said he loved this letter because to preach on it was his chance to “give it” to his congregation, and not in a good way. “To make sure they got off their butts and did something for Jesus.” I worried for his listeners.

I worried because I remember when I was in university and enduring a “get up off your butt and do something for Jesus” sermon based on this text, and thinking to myself, “I have six courses this term. I’m writing music for campus ministry, I lead a bible study, and I serve on the nominating committee for Laurier Christian Fellowship, what exactly am I not doing that you want me to do?”

And I think you might respond the same way: “I work 50 hours a week, one kid has swimming lessons while the other has piano. I’m a Stephen Minister, and I coach my kid’s soccer team. I usher at church and sometimes run the sound board. There are only so many hours in the week. What exactly am I not doing that Jesus want me to do?”

But I don’t think that’s what James was getting at. The church that James was writing to was really good at the “worship and study” piece of church life. They gathered in their holy huddles to pray and sing and study the bible. These are good things. But they didn’t know how to make the jump from worship and study to living and acting out what they learned.

James wanted them to bridge the gap between Sunday morning and Monday morning.

And I don’t hear James the way Luther did. I don’t hear James haranguing his church, because right there in the passage he says, “…anger does not produce righteousness.” I think he was trying to be gentle with this group of young believers, giving them a soft nudge out of the nest.

He knew the danger of religious people secluding themselves away from the rest of the world because he was probably standing 5 feet away from Jesus when some of the religious leaders were hassling Jesus because his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating.

The Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.

The religious leaders weren’t worried about the “ick” factor of not washing their hands before eating. They were upset because Jesus’ disciples – this supposedly great rabbi from Galilee – ignored basic Jewish traditions.

Then Jesus reminds them and the crowd standing there that silly little traditions aren’t important, but how we live out the faith that’s inside of us. That’s what’s important. Losing sight of how God wants us to live is a consequence of being too removed from the world around us.

James was worried because he could see the same thing happening at his church. The congregation wasn’t able to see that living out the faith is just as important – perhaps even more important – than spending all their time praying and worshipping.

James was placing practical love for neighbour and care for others at the centre of their life together, because they already knew how to worship. He just wanted them to take the next step. He was asking his people for their faith to find its feet, because their faith was already strong in their hearts. He was telling his followers that faith is something you DO, not just something you believe or something you feel.

But for those who might have gotten the wrong idea, and jumped off the other end and made good works a requirement for faith, James also reminds them that everything, every act of giving, every gift received, is from God, offered freely. That’s why you do good works, because God loves you. Not get God to love you.

You do good works BECAUSE you have faith, not to receive faith. You care for others because that’s who you are. You help hurting people because that’s what you faith tells you to do.

That’s why you’ll never get a “get off your butt and do something for Jesus” sermon from me. Because it’s bad theology, and it’s not what James is saying. I think Luther was wrong in his assessment of James. I think Luther couldn’t break out of his anger over the medieval church’s judgmental demands, demands which he read into James’ letter.

While Luther confronted abuses within the church, and offered a much needed corrective against church leaders who were more interested in power and control rather than love and forgiveness, the legacy he left was that good works were looked upon with suspicion, and the full content of our faith was personal piety; prayer, bible reading, and going to church.

But we have a saviour who healed the sick and raised the dead. We follow a messiah who confronted abusive powers. We bear the name of the one who was deeply immersed in human suffering and had the temerity to believe that he could do something about it.

He did all this because he had to. He had no choice. He had no choice but to reach out to those who were in pain. He had not choice but to love those who were abandoned by the rest of the world. He had no choice but to bring life to a world that was dying.

He had no choice because that’s who is was. And that’s who we are because we have his name stamped on our foreheads, that’s who we are because we have our names written in his book of life, that’s who we are because we have been joined to his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

And because we bear the name “Christian” we have been given an opportunity, we have been given an opportunity to change the world in Jesus’ name by living out what we have been freely given.

We have been given an opportunity to be a ray of sun to those struggling in the darkness.

We have been given an opportunity to be a healing presence in our community, known for our care, and not for the financial challenges of another church body.

We have been given an opportunity to tell a different story from the story we usually hear; a story of life and abundance, a story mercy and justice, a story of peace and reconciliation, a story of love and care.

And I think we’ve taken that challenge seriously.

We are, as James puts it, keeping our religion “pure and undefiled before God,” not by cloistering ourselves away so the stain of the world leaves no blemish. But by caring for others, by growing in love, by deepening our compassion.

That’s why we’ve made a change here at First Lutheran. We’ve changed First Lutheran Church’s slogan from “Living Jesus Inside Out” to “Making Faith Matter.”

This change is to signify a renewed emphasis on the practical side of the faith, our ambition to make our presence felt more deeply in our community, to show others that the business we do in here, makes an impact in what you do out there.

So, for my time with and among you, I want us to focus on the DOING of the faith. 

I want us to get our hands dirty by having a stronger presence in the community. I want us to be known by our love as we live our faith in the workplace. I want us to be ambassadors for Christ in how we care for those who need our help. I want us to be beacons of light and agents hope at home.

I want us to be known for Making Faith Matter, in our lives and in our community.

And we’re off to an excellent start. We already have important ministries that impact others in Jesus’ name. I want us to build on the solid foundation that has been established by your hard work.

Stephen Ministry is being revived, with four people beginning their training. Stephen Ministry being the one-on-one caring ministry that helps people through challenges and crises, by being a listening ear and caring heart.

Inn From the Cold provides food and shelter for those who have no home.

Ladies’ Time Out offers women a chance to fellowship with each other.

Confirmation Class has service project requirements to put feet on the faith that the students will be confirming.

Small groups have a missional component to their gatherings, where they engage in some action that benefits others.

Youth group, which is being re-imagined, will have a strong faith-action connection, to reinforce the notion that faith is to be LIVED.

And we will be building on the strength of what we’re already doing. We will be making faith matter.

Also, those of you on social media, I want us to take over the hashtag #MakingFaithMatter, I want that hashtag to be connected with us, to celebrate the ways we are impacting our world in Jesus’ name, and to invite others into the conversation, and into our life together as we live out our faith in practical ways.

So be doers of the word and not merely hearers. Keep doing what you’re doing, and even more so. Be generous. Be compassionate. 

Let’s celebrate our successes. Let’s build on the good things that are happening. Let First Lutheran Church be known in our community for #MakingFaithMatter.

May this be so among us. Amen

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Epiphany 3B

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Repentance. What do you hear when someone speaks that word? What springs to mind?

I think the Christian proclamation has twisted this word into so many knots that it would be unrecognizable to Jesus’ first listeners. And now that the mere utterance of it evokes strong, feelings of shame. At least it does for me.

“Repent!” we hear preachers say. And what they usually mean is “Stop sinning! Change those parts of your life that is putting you in conflict with God. Cut out those impure thoughts and actions and turn to the purity of God’s will. If you want to be close to God then you have to remove anything that gets in the way with your relationship with God.”

Have you ever heard that? I have. And I’ve always asked, Where’s the good news in that?

But sadly that’s what I’ve heard a lot of preachers say. Maybe you have too. It’s hardly anything resembling what we call “gospel.”

That’s not what Simon and Andrew, and James and John heard when Jesus told them to drop everything, bail on the family business, and leave their lives behind to follow him. They would have known the code. They knew that Jesus wasn’t telling them to stop sinning. They knew that he asking something much harder.

But that word, “repentance” evolved down the centuries and lost its potency. And has created more confusion for people than it meant to, leaving some to needlessly worry about their relationship with God. 

For me, when I hear that, or even just hearing the word “repent” I always wonder if I have repented enough. I always worry that there’s something that I’ve missed, that there might be a spiritual blind spot that is keeping me from growing spiritually. I wonder if I’ve done enough to maintain my relationship with God.

Thankfully, in an old prayer of confession in the traditional Lutheran liturgy, there’s an escape clause. The prayer confesses those sins “known and unknown.”

While we may be forgiven of those sins with a linguistic sleight-of-hand, practically, we are no better off because we cannot change that which we do not know that we SHOULD change. Also, if being close to God and greeting the kingdom when it arrives is dependent on something that I do, then I’m not sure that really sounds like good news. If managing my sins is a requirement to receive the fullness of God’s love, then I wonder what Jesus was doing on that cross.

And I’m not sure that this was Jesus’ point. We’ve put words in Jesus’ mouth as a way of controlling each other. We’ve emphasized sin rather than freedom. And we’ve reduced sin to individual moral failings rather than the result of human brokenness and creation’s fallenness. A celebrity in a bikini on the front page of Cosmo creates more outrage than a child dying of hunger or preventable disease.

A lot of Christians are worried about moral confusion than they are about God’s love. They hate sin more than they love grace. They somehow believe that they’re under attack and lash out at an unbelieving world rather trust God with the final victory.

And Christians then become known for what we oppose rather than what we proclaim. We aren’t always know for our love. Care and compassion aren’t the first words that comes to many people’s minds when they hear the word “Christian.” Forgiveness isn’t even an afterthought.

Sadly, when many people hear the word Christian they think of judgment. Anger. Entitlement. Condemnation.

That could be because as Christians, we tend to focus our faith on the sin/forgiveness transaction. We reduce our faith to us sinning and God forgiving. And we repeat that over and over and over again, as if that is the full content of our faith.

This nothing new. Traditional Lutheranism has the sin/forgiveness transaction built into it, and it’s hard to tinker with it without damaging the whole. The Lutheran insistence on “grace” was a much needed corrective to the abuses of the institutional church. When Martin Luther recovered the word “grace” from religious bullies he set free all those who were trapped in guilt and shame by telling them that God loved them, and Jesus died for them.

They didn’t have to do anything to earn that love. No amount of proper prayer. No church obligations. No morally correct behaviour was going to bring them closer to God. God’s saving love was given to them as a free gift.

They received “grace;” which means “undeserved favour.” Or in other words, grace is God’s love for us even though we don’t deserve it.

But think about that for a minute. While I affirm God’s grace wholeheartedly or I wouldn’t still be a Lutheran preacher, I think we’ve created another trap for ourselves by such a puny understanding of it.

Lutherans throw that word “grace” around so easily that it’s become a buzzword. And keeps us self-identifying as people who are forgiven of sin, which is good. But it also reinforces our identity as people who are undeserving. Which isn’t the point of receiving grace. The point of receiving grace is feel loved.Also, grace doesn’t let us take the next step. It doesn’t ask the question “Now what?” The Christian faith becomes a matter of sinning and forgiving, and nothing more.

But our Christian faith is SO much more than that. Receiving forgiveness of sins is just the beginning of our faith. It’s not the whole of our faith.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

There’s more here than meets the ear. Jesus’ first listeners might have gasped at the boldness of such a proclamation. Not because of it’s religious expressions, but for it’s political overtones. Such talk was a good way for a guy to get himself killed.

That’s because Caesar wasn’t interested in sharing his kingdom. And Jesus’ listeners had seen plenty of loved ones fixed on crosses so Caesar could keep his real estate.

So Jesus set up “The Kingdom of God” in direct competition to Caesar and the kingdoms of the world. And that’s the Kingdom call that Andrew and Simon, James and John responded to.

They knew that “Kingdom of God” that Jesus recruited them into isn’t a disembodied existence in the heavenly realm. 

But the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about is God’s presence in this world. The Kingdom of God is God’s vision of life, of peace, of forgiveness, of justice, of mercy, alive and running loose in our world.

Repentance was the code word. It means to “turn in a different direction.” So when Jesus says “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” what they’re hearing is:

“Turn away from the kingdoms of this world, and turn to God’s kingdom. Where the Caesar and kingdoms of this world protects its power through force and oppression, God’s Kingdom brings peace and justice.

“Where Caesar and the kingdoms of this world seek revenge against those who hurt them, God’s kingdom brings mercy and forgiveness, and blesses their enemies. 

“Where Caesar and the kingdoms of this world seek to grow their wealth by stealing from others, God’s kingdom feeds the poor and sets the captives free.

So don’t align yourself with Caesar and the kingdoms of the world. Be part of God’s kingdom. For it is here. The kingdom of God arrived!

Be an agent of healing, work for justice, seek peace, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive one another. That’s the kingdom that I have brought to the world.”

That’s the Kingdom that you’ve been called into. That’s the life that God has prepared for you. That’s the Kingdom that calls you beloved, and knows what you’re capable of. That’s the Kingdom that wants you to thrive in your gifts.

So, maybe, instead of confessing our sins and receiving God’s forgiveness, maybe we could celebrate our Kingdom Accomplishments.

Instead of always talking about where we have failed, we can share about those times we have succeeded!
Instead of always admitting our guilt, we can proclaim our successes in Jesus’ name.
Instead of pointing to our shortcomings, we can share our victories for God’s kingdom.

You can talk about where you have seen God working the world.
You can tell stories of how God is working in your life.
You can share about how you have participated in God’s kingdom work.
You can talk about the forgiveness you offered and received.
You can talk about the justice you worked for.
You can talk about how you fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the sick. You can talk about how you were that caring ear, that comforting touch, or that encouraging word.

You can talk about how you fished for people by letting them know about a God who loves them.

You can share all of this, not to brag about how spiritually awesome you are. But because this is evidence of the kingdom of God at work in the world and in your life.

You can share these stories to bear witness to the God who promised to make all things new.

You can tell these stories not to point to you, but to point to the one who called you, who chose you, who tapped you on the shoulder and said, “Follow me.”

You can do this to remind yourself and each other, that God has not given up on us or the world, but that God still creating and re-creating everything. Just as Paul tells us that the present world is passing away just as the new world is arriving in Jesus.

You can do this because you are a citizen of Kingdom of God, named and claimed as God’s own because Jesus has called you to new life. You are part of God’s salvation movement. You are changing the world’s direction.

And that’s what we’re going to do. Over here on the wall is a banner for you to write down your God sightings. Where you have seen God do something in your life and in the world. And next to it, under “Kingdom Accomplishments” you are invited to list those times in your life when you have been faithful. When you have impacted the world for Jesus. When you have touched another with God’s love. When you have used your gifts, skills, and talents, to further God’s Kingdom on earth.

This will be left up for the next few weeks. So over the course of your daily lives, keep your eyes open for what God is doing. And celebrate those moments when you have been faithful.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Now Go! Be the kingdom people that God made you to be!

May this be so among us. Amen!

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, January 19, 2015

Epiphany 2B

“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? 19Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6: 9-15a, 19-20)

That word just kind of jumps out of you, doesn’t it? You know which one I’m talking about. It’s starts with an “f.” That “f” word evokes images of forbidden sensuality and carnal escapades that we only dream about in our most savage imaginations.

It’s right smack dab in verse 13, staring at us. And the “f” word I’m talking about, of course, is...”food.”

Why? What did you think I meant?

Well, I suppose the “other” “f-word” will make my point just as easily, if more colourfully. Because as I’ve been reflecting on the theme of “stewardship” I feel that we often neglect to include our most valuable resource - our bodies - as something we need to “steward”. How we treat our bodies can be just as important to our stewardship mandate as how we sustain the land, clean the oceans, capture carbon, or manage our finances.

As you can see I’m not exactly a poster boy for healthy eating. If anything I’m a cautionary tale of how poor nutritional habits and a sedentary lifestyle can wreak havoc on one’s life.

I’m a stress eater. And let’s just say that the last few years have been VERY stressful. And my habits thus far have not helped me in dealing with the stresses of the last half decade. If anything my late-night encounters with the drive thru and Monday Night Football cans of beer have made my stress levels worsen. And by extension, the quality of my life.

And it’s not as if I hadn’t been warned. Information on diet and exercise, the stuff of a healthy lifestyle, isn’t exactly scarce. I fact it’s always in your face, waving a condemning finger, giving you the stink eye.

I knew that 30 minutes on the elliptical is just as effective at battling anxiety and depression as prozac. I knew that getting 5-10 servings of fruits and veggies a day is just as useful at elevating my mood and giving me energy as any high octane caffeine explosion I can get at Starbucks. I knew that the two of them together would help me put my life back on track better than many counsellors or life coaches.

But I chose other, easier, options. And it wasn’t until I had a recent health scare that I realized what I was doing, not only to my body, but to my life. And to those around me.

I began to realize why Paul asks us to honour our bodies. I realized that what I was doing to my body and to myself, was keeping me from living in the faithfulness that God wants from me. What I was doing to my physical self wasn’t allowing me to assert my best self. It’s like Paul looked me up and down, grabbed me by the shoulders, shook me, and said,

“Are you kidding me? Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

When I read that it was like Paul smacked me across the back of the head. And I knew something had to change. Status quo was not an option.

So, I’ve started making changes in my diet and exercise routine. I’m eating lots more veggies then ever, and I’ve been giving my Fitbit a good run for the money. And right away I’ve noticed my energy levels increase, my mood brighten, and my thinking become clearer. I’ve lost 20 pounds since arriving in Calgary.

And yesterday, I was given a terrible reminder of the consequences of poor lifestyle choices when my mom called to tell me that my sister’s husband’s brother, age 55, died yesterday of a heart attack while out for a walk.

Yes, choices have consequences.

So, eating healthily and exercising is becoming, for me, as important a spiritual discipline as prayer. It’s becoming clear to me that, as I shed unhealthy weight, I grow more fully into who God wants me to be.

“...do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

But this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows their way around the bible. Bible stories tell us a lot more about life here on earth than it does about an eternity in heaven.

Right from page one, God creates a physical earth out of nothing, and God calls that physical earth “good.” And at Christmas, we celebrate a God who came to join us in our physicalness, as God came to meet us human beings as a human being in Jesus.

Somewhere down the line we forgot the point. And we decided that “spirit” was good and “flesh” was bad. And that has led us to mistrust what God has so lovingly created. We were born physical creatures to glorify God in our bodies. But we decided that we’d rather be “spiritual” without reflecting on what that might mean.

Having just finished a course on Spirituality and Music for my doctoral degree, I’ve become keenly aware how hard it is to define “spirituality” in a way that honours the biblical story by keeping it’s feet firmly planted on planet earth.

The temptation to think of “spirituality” as an escape from creaturely being is very real. Placing “spirituality” in the other worldly column may have started with the ancient Greek philosophers, but we Christians have taken up their cause and made it our own.

We sing more about heaven than we do about earth. Our songs are often for a longing for a disembodied future than they are about life with a God who is known through other people. We praise a God who is “high and lifted up” more than we join our voices with the God who became flesh in Jesus and shared our fragile limitations.

And not just in the church. It’s taken over our lives. We’re trying to escape out bodies.

Technology is created so we don’t have to use our bodies as much as we normally would. So-called “labour saving devices” reduce the amount of physical activity as much as they reduce the amount of time spent doing those chores.

While I’m delighted that I have a washer and dryer in my apartment, and I did a happy dance when I saw that my kitchen had a dishwasher, I also know that they are reminders for me, backward reminders of my physicality. Signs to remember to move my body because that’s what it’s there for.

And our newest technologies keep us better connected, I’m not denying the good. I am a text messaging fiend. While not nearly as much as my 13-year-old daughter, I text with friends all over the world.

I have maintained cherished friendships through words. It’s all that we have because we live so far apart. We keep up with each other’s daily lives in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before cell phones.

And apps like Skype, Facetime, and Snapchat can help bridge the distance, but as I’m sure you well know, an image on a screen is a barely adequate replacement for someone’s personal presence.

Technology is a constant reminder that we aren’t together physically, but it’s a connection nonetheless. And the danger is that words and images can’t be fully felt on the screen. Words can describe and express the moment, but they have limitations. And those limitations are deeply felt.

When we finally do meet in person, the words stop, or at least step aside for a moment, even when we’re speaking. It’s not the words that are communicating. But the physical presence. The energy we exude to each other. The facial expressions that enhance the meaning of our words. The tonality of voice. The movement of the body. The eye contact that says more than any word every could.

And in that moment of physical presence, we glorify God in our bodies even if we do not touch. We glorify God in our bodies because we are not alone. We are honouring each other by being fully present, knowing that this presence is a gift. And the longing for physical presence is God’s way of saying “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”

You are a temple of the Holy Spirit, you are a sacred space, you are a holy sanctuary, where God lives with you and in you, so that you can best live with others, in that same kind of intimacy.

Spirituality isn’t meant to be an escape from the world, but a deeper engagement with it. To connect with the Spirit is to connect with the God who is redeeming the world, not destroying it. Spirituality is knowing that there is more to life that we can sense with our bodies, but also knowing deep within our flesh and our bones, that through the Spirit those lives merge. Heaven enters earth.

We glorify God in our bodies through exercise and healthy eating so that we can assert our best selves to others, and offer our gifts to enhance the world.

We glorify God in our bodies when our sexuality is primal, honest, intimate, life-giving in the best and broadest sense of the word, where two people unite to lose themselves in order to find themselves.

We glorify God in our bodies when we respect the earth’s fragile abundance, which God says that we honour and care for, taking from it that which need to live and thrive, but ensuring that the cycle continues for the generations to come.

We glorify God in our bodies by creating and maintaining strong relationships, because we were not meant to be alone, we have been created to connect, to share, to offer, to receive, to be together.

We glorify God in our bodies when together, as the Body of Christ, we love others and we care for the world God made, being God’s hands, feet, and heart in a world that needs God’s healing power and presence.

“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? 19Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

I didn’t know that before. But I know that now. I know that good news isn’t just spiritual, but it’s also physical. In fact, the two can’t be separated. Heaven came to earth in Jesus. And we are his living body in the world.

In a moment we will receive Christ in the physical expression of bread and wine, Christ’s own body and blood, so that, as we receive him, our body joins with his. And we are nourished in order to feed others in our body.

It all starts with ourselves, and the Spirit who takes up residence inside of us, making our bodies Holy, the very dwelling place of God. The temple out of which God changes everything.

Congregation repeat after me:

“My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.”

“I have been bought with a price.”

“I will glorify God in my body.”

May this be so among us.


Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Baptism of Jesus

The folks who chose this passage about John the Baptist left out the juicy bits. They took their scissors to the parts where John’s venom is most poisonous. John had a few choice words for King Herod and his wife.

John didn’t like the fact that Herod married his brother’s wife. In fact, it was against Jewish law. And if Herod didn’t like John’s well-aimed preaching he should have taken it up God, not John. John was just doing his job.

It might have been that electrically honest preaching that drew Jesus to John that morning at the Jordan River. John was refreshing. Unique. Different from other preachers who either told people what they wanted to hear, or lined their pockets with the pennies of little old ladies. John wasn’t warm and fuzzy. But you knew that he’d give you the straight goods when it came to the things of God.

That day, in the river of freedom, where thousands of years earlier, God’s people left Egypt and crossed from slavery into the promised land, was where Jesus joined himself to that saving story, where his mandate as God’s Son was given to him. Where the affirmation of the Almighty wrapped around him like sun-soaked blanket.

“You are my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased...” Who wouldn’t want to hear that from God? Or from any parent for that matter.

But lying underneath this divine affirmation was a summons. A calling that might have made Jesus’ blood turn to ice. If Jesus was God’s Son - Israel’s Messiah - the one to save people from their sins and create a world of justice and mercy, then that didn’t mean that he could simply bask in the warm embrace of heavenly approval. He couldn’t walk around town all Messiahy cashing in on his sacred status.

Being God’s Son meant he had to go and do things that the messiah was supposed to do. It wasn’t just a state of divine being. It was a job description. A letter of conscription from the only one in the world who won’t take “no” for an answer.

Although, I’m sure saying “no” crossed his mind. And so, I wonder if before he dipped his toe in the water for his heavenly bath he was tempted to take another walk around the block. Or hop on the next bus out of town.

Maybe Jesus’ temptation didn’t begin or end, like we assume, in the desert to where he ran after being dunked by John. I wonder if his temptation anxiety started well before he found himself in the Jordan River. I wonder if he was tempted to run away from his calling. From his task as God’s Son. I wonder if he was tempted to escape and hide from who he was.

If he was tempted to stay in Nazareth and take over the carpentry business from Joseph, maybe settle down, get married, and crank out a few kids, I don’t think anyone would have blamed him. After all, it wasn’t a bad life. The work was steady. He was close to family. And there were no crosses following him around wherever he went.

I’m sure he had all that in the back of his mind when he followed John into the water. I’m sure he knew that, once he was dipped in the muddy river, his life was over. Everything he was and everything he did was gone. He knew the weight that was being placed on his shoulders.

It was a new beginning for Jesus. A call into God’s vision of the world that he had to follow. A path that led to the Kingdom of God - the kingdom that dwelled within his very being.

“You are my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased...” The next, unspoken, sentence was “Now get to work.”

Work on healing the sick and raising the dead.
Work on preaching good news to the poor and setting the captives free.
Work on giving sight to blind and mending broken hearts.

Work on showing God’s Kingdom love to a world in pain. Work on forgiving people’s sins.
Work on being a steward of hope.
Work on setting the world straight through mercy and justice.

That’s quite the job description, isn’t it?

I’m glad that’s his job and not mine. I wouldn’t want to be saddled with such a burden. Would you?

But then again, who were all those people who being baptized with Jesus? What did God want for them?

It turns out that God was calling them into the same life that God was calling Jesus into. They found out the hard way that baptism isn’t just a ritual that we perform as an entry way into the church family. And baptism isn’t just a one-off salvation ticket.

Baptism is about being recruited, conscripted into a movement. In baptism, we are joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, so we can live resurrection lives in a world so often obsessed with death.

Baptism is about God’s light shining in a dark world - through US. It’s about US binding the world’s wounds. It’s about being part of a movement that is bigger than ourselves, God’s movement of renewing everything about the world, where God wipes away every tear, where crying and pain are extinguished, where the hungry are satisfied, and the dead rise breathing new life.

That’s the life into which God has called YOU. YOU who have been washed in the river of freedom. YOU who have been nailed to the cross with Jesus and risen victorious from his grave. You who have been cleansed with the water that comes from God alone.

That’s the task that God has placed in front of YOU. Not to earn special favour, gain some sort of heavenly reward, or attain special spiritual status.

But that your job because that’s who God is and that’s what God does, and you are in Jesus, and Jesus is in God.

You have been joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection. 
You have been drafted into Christ’s mission. 
You have been named and claimed as God’s own child through your baptism into Christ so that you walk the earth as a healing presence.

It’s not always an easy life. But it is God’s life. Baptism is God’s way of repairing everything that is broken. Baptism is God’s way of refreshing everything that has become tired. Baptism is God’s way of loving a dead world back into life.

Jamie and Zoe, you have been received into this life. In the river of freedom and forgiveness, you have been called to join God’s salvation movement. In the waters of mercy you have been summoned to be agents of peace. In the baptismal spring you have been gathered to be arbiters of hope. In the waves of God’s enduring love you have been charged to use the gifts that God has given you to work with God in creating something new and beautiful.

It’s because God looked upon you, and all of us together, and saw everything you’ve done, looked over your pains, saw your weaknesses, held your regrets in loving arms, and embraced your failures pointing you to a new tomorrow, and said, “You are my beloved child.”

Now, you have a job to do. Let’s get at it.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Christmas 2B

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

I understand why we read this passage from John’s gospel every Christmas season, but, I’m not always happy about it. To me, it sounds bloodless, the abstract ruminations of a cloistered philosopher who comprehends the mysteries of the divine, and grasps truths that leave the rest of us confounded, but who can’t find the eggs in the grocery store.

Maybe I’m missing something but John’s message of the Word made Flesh doesn’t quite make it down to earth. His words to describe The Word betray his message.

After all, we’re here this morning not to theologize about the nature of the incarnation or to speculate about the inner-relationship of the Trinity.

We’re here to greet a baby. A tiny creature who cries all night and fills his diapers. We sing songs about mangers and barns, shepherds and angels, sheep and donkeys.

On Christmas Eve we heard stories so earthy that they have dirt on them and made our clothes smell. Today’s reading only leaves us lost in our thoughts.

John’s Jesus worries me. I worry that he can’t relate to me. Or to any of us. Or to anyone with a pulse and who bleeds red.

I worry that he might come across as human in name only, that he doesn’t understand the limitations of a mortal life. 

I worry that he’s comfortably theoretical, afraid to touch our skin, uninterested in changing our lives or the world, except for maybe writing about it in a journal article. I worry that he came just to have a really interesting conversation.

Just listen to the opening of John’s gospel. He tells, he doesn’t show. He explains, but he doesn’t persuade. He teaches, but he doesn’t illustrate.

“In the beginning...was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word WAS God. The Word was with God in the beginning. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being.”

In the beginning....It’s that phrase that John uses a few times...hmmm....sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Upon reading this again, I wonder if John might be up to something here. And I’m not sure what. But it appears that he’s asking us to open up our bibles and turn to page one.

So, what’s going on? The bible begins with these words:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

“And God said...”

There were six more times “God SAID...”

Starting his gospel by saying “In the beginning...” might have been the first clue. But I missed it so many times.

Why is John asking us to re-read the creation story? What is John trying to tell us?

Is he somehow connecting Jesus to the creation story? Is he re-telling the creation story with Jesus at the centre? And if so, why?

It could be that John is telling a “New Creation” story or a story of a “New Creation”, with the word that spoke the first creation into being in the beginning is now speaking something new into existence. Is “In the beginning...” now “In a NEW beginning...”?

A new beginning...through a Word. A creative Word. A life-giving Word. A Word that God speaks.

It could be that John is reminding us that words have tremendous creative power, that words create a world, words shape us, words build a life. The words we use tell us who we are. Words fashion a people and form a community.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss John. Maybe John was on to something and I just didn’t see it. He knew the power of the Word to create. He knew the power of the Word to speak salvation into our lives. He knew the power of the Word to forge a new future.

If I was worried about John’s Jesus I had no reason to be. John knew that the Word made flesh did more than just think lofty thoughts.

John was saying that the Word of God, the Word that spoke something out of nothing, the Word that spoke order from chaos, the Word that spoke creation into being, speaks into our lives TODAY, shaping them, re-molding them, tearing them down and building them up again, John was saying that Jesus - the Word made flesh through whom all things were made, speaks us into salvation. 

This is a Word we could not speak for ourselves, but speaks on our behalf. This Word is not our word, but God’s.

This is why I’m a little hesitant to make Christianity intelligible to non-believers. This is were I part ways with the so-called “seeker-sensitive” approach to evangelism, or so-called “emerging church” leaders. They say that it’s our job as Christians is to make it easy for visiting non-believers to our church to understand the message. That they shouldn’t have to make an intellectual or cultural commute1 in stepping into our churches and experiencing our worship.

They say that we have to use the language of the culture for people to hear our message. That we have to penetrate the cacophony of competing voices to make OUR voice heard. Some suggest that it’s an act radical INhospitality to make non-Christians intellectually or culturally uncomfortable during worship.

And while, yes, we welcome all people to our church the way people welcome guests into our homes. We make sure they have a place to sit, we ask them their name.

And here at First Lutheran Church we make an effort to make sure that our faith isn’t buried in churchy language that’s lost on most people. And we try to make worship meaningful, applicable to every day living. And that’s an important goal. And I think we do a good job translating our faith to those who don’t speak the language of church

But there comes a time when there will be a disconnect between where the non-believer is and where we are. There will be a gulf, a distance, between what we say and how a non-believer will experience it.

And that’s okay. It’s meant to be like that. After all we preach a message that does not belong to the world. Jesus may be God’s Word made flesh but even his own people didn’t recognize him, so what makes us think that people today would be any different?

The distance between us and the non-believer is where Jesus does his best work. It’s a holy discomfort where we realize that Jesus’ message of new and everlasting life isn’t something that we create on our own, but it comes from far beyond us, yet also has taken up residence deep within us.

I’ve heard it said that becoming a Christian is like learning a new language. There’s a lot of truth in that. When you learn a new language you are given a fresh lens in which to see the world. You’re given a whole new vocabulary to describe what you see. 

And the words you are given have shapes and nuances that can’t be translated back to your native language. They describe life and existence in ways you couldn’t express previously.

And that’s what faith does. It give us eyes to see our world differently, and new words to describe what we see.

As we journey toward the end of Christmas, the Festival of the Incarnation, the celebration of the Word made Flesh, we remind ourselves that this season is about God speaking a new world into being through Jesus. It’s about God giving us a whole new language, a fresh set of eyes through which to see the world.

No longer do we see the world through the darkness of sin and death, but because of Jesus, God’s Word, God has given us eyes to witness to the light of mercy and peace of new and everlasting life.

No longer do we despair over the world as a people without hope, but we place our hope in Jesus - God’s Word, through whom God is healing the world.

No longer do we give in to vindictive and vengeful spite, but through God’s Word, God is speaking us into being a people of forgiveness.

And the Word never stops speaking. The Word never stops becoming flesh. In us, as the Body of Christ, the Word speaks it’s message of life and salvation, so we can speak that Word. That Word is on OUR lips. That Word speaks through US. As the Christ’s living body, we are God’s Word speaking today.

In the love we give to others, in the joy we have in receiving God’s mercy, in the tears we wipe dry, and in the compassion we show to the hurting, the Word becomes flesh and lives through US.

In the kind words that WE speak. In the whispers of concern. In the private caring conversations and public proclamations of forgiveness. In those words of challenge that make us grow. In the words of a story that shapes us.

In the spirited words that guide us confidently down unfamiliar paths. In the encouraging words that support us as we trek out into unknown adventures. In the inspiring words that propel us to go further and higher in life than we ever thought possible.

In the healing words that WE receive, in the Words that speak truth to our self-created delusions, in the words of grace that lift us when we are at our lowest, in the fiery words that trouble our consciences, in the soothing words that hush our anxiety, in the consoling words that calm our sorrowing hearts.

In the sympathetic words that support us when we fail. In the reassuring words when we are afraid.

In the compassionate words when we grieve. In the resurrection words when we are dying.

These are God’s words. These are the words that give flesh to the Word - God’s Word that lives among us, full of grace and truth.

These are the words that create, the words that join our story with God’s story. These are the words that God speaks through us - God speaks through YOU, because God is always speaking words of hope, peace, joy, and love into a world through the words you speak, God is always speaking words of mercy, forgiveness, and healing, through the life you live.

You are God’s creative Word become flesh. You are God’s living Word speaking life and salvation. You are God’s eternal Word dwelling in YOUR world, wherever you are, and wherever you go.

And at the end, we know that God - in Jesus - has the final Word. And that final word is “Life.” New life. Abundant life. Everlasting life.

May this Word be always on our lips. May this Word always become flesh and live among us. May this Word always fill us with grace and truth. Amen.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas 1B

I rang the doorbell and a young woman answered.

“Hello I’m Pastor Kevin,” I said.

She let me in and we sat down on the couch. The baby was asleep in the crib by the window.

“So, why a baptism?” I asked.

“Well, I think it’s important to have God in my child’s life,” she said.

“What’s the baby’s name?” I asked looking over to the crib.

She muttered something I didn’t recognize.

“That’s an interesting name. Is there story behind that name? Is it a family name?” I asked because I hadn’t heard that name before.

“No, it’s not a family name,” she answered.

“Do you know what it means?” I asked.

“No, it doesn’t have any meaning. It’s just a word I made up. I just like the way it sounds.”

I have to admit, and maybe I’m being a little judgmental,  but was I taken a bit off guard, because I’ve always heard people offer fuller, more thoughtful, explanations on why they chose a name that will be with their child their whole lives - and beyond, other than a made-up sound that was easy on the ears. 

It wasn’t always this way, and she is an extreme case. Most people know what their names mean, or why they were given their name by their parents. I thought this was a missed opportunity for this mom and her child.

What does your name mean? Most of us have names that mean something. Perhaps they reflect the hopes and dreams that parents have for their children. Or they’re carrying a family tradition. Or they name them after a celebrity or important public figure.

Bible names all mean something. In fact, if you don’t know the meaning of the many of the names you could miss the point of the story. And my former spouse and I took that into consideration when we named our children.

Our oldest daughter is named “Sophia” because means “wisdom” (but she likes “Sophie”). Her mom and I chose that name to honour Lady Wisdom found in the book of Proverbs. Sophia in Proverbs is a feminine expression of God, and her mom and I wanted to recognize aspects of the divine that are sometimes overlooked. However, we didn’t do our homework. It wasn’t as unique a name as we figured it would be. We had no idea that there would be so many Sophias in her school. And Sophie was not at all impressed when I baptized another “Sophia.”

Sophia’s sister is named “Naomi” to remember the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi and the message of faith and commitment that it inspires. It’s a powerful story of integrity and sacrifice for others. We gave her the name “Naomi” because her mother and I hoped that our child would embody those virtues as she grew.

When my parents named me, I know they struggled for days to find just the right word to describe who they saw when they peered into my future. They wanted to place upon me the mantle of my destiny, hoping that I would be a force for good in the world, that I would lead others into a new tomorrow. And so they reached out to the heavens, grabbed with two hands and pulled down the name “Kevin” which means...”handsome.” Or more accurately, “handsome birth.”

And every time I look in the mirror I’m absolutely shocked by how prophetic my parents were!

Mary and Joseph did what they were told and named their son, “Jesus” which they knew meant “God rescues” or “God saves.” They were glad to give him this name because they had laid all their hope on him, as one who would save God’s people from their sins, and rescue them from the hands of their enemies.

And so, as required by law, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to Jerusalem to offer the usual sacrifice as a thanksgiving to God.

And they meet Simeon, the old man who’d been around the temple forever, whose eyes may have given out, but he could see well enough to recognize God’s promises being fulfilled in this infant.

And Anna then wants to hold the baby, because she wants to feel in her arms the very power of God.

Both of them may have had more years behind them than in front of them, but they could see God’s bright future being born among them. They could see that everything old was passing away. And that God was doing something new.

It was like there was a flip of the calendar in this baby, and a new age had begun. And they were glad that they could see it before they closed their earthly eyes, and entered their own futures.

And this week, at this flip of the calendar we also can look to the future that God has given us in Jesus. While self-reflection is a yearly exercise for me, this new year seems different than most.

This is the first new years where it actually feels like a NEW year. It could be because I’m in a very different place physically, emotionally, and spiritually than I’ve been in a while. 

Being in this new environment, and carving out a new life, has forced me to think about what I REALLY want from my days, how I spend my 24 hours that add up to a lifetime. What I REALLY want my time on earth to be about. How I think God REALLY wants me to use my gifts. 

On a practical level, I figure that if I’m going to be away from my daughters’ day-to-day lives then I want this time to mean something. I want it to count. I want 2015 to be worthy of my - and their - physical absence.

So, this flip of the calendar is an important opportunity for me.

What about you? How do you meet 2015? What’s important to you?

Is it just another year, just like the last one, where you go about your day-to-day activities, not really challenging, but not inspiring either.

Or do you see 2015 as a time pregnant with possibility, and you feel that anything is possible, and you just can’t wait to get in the game, grab the ball, and run to the end zone?

Or are you anxious about 2015, not knowing what’s around the corner, since 2014 has provided unexpected challenges, especially given the price of oil and the damage it threatens to do to our economy?

Or did you face personal challenges in 2014, and are hoping that 2015 might be a year of healing, and maybe, of reinvention?

Or are you hopeful that this will finally be the year when you get your life together? When the challenges of the past are left behind and a new you will emerge.

Or are you all of the above? A muddle of mixed motivations? A patchwork quilt of expectations?

What about for us here at First Lutheran Church? What do you hope for our congregation in 2015? What are your dreams and ambitions for our family of faith? What would you like to see happen here at church?

A growth in membership?

Fresh programming to meet new spiritual needs?

A deeper sense of connection to one another?

Stronger outreach?

Longer sermons?

All of the above? None of the above?

In my job as interim pastor, I have the luxury of both immersing myself in the life of the congregation, and standing back to observe from a distance. And what I’ve seen so far is that this congregation is still in a period of transition. You’re looking for stability in order to try to figure out the future that God has prepared for you, because the ground under your feet has been shaky over the past while.

But also, thankfully, I don’t sense any real anxiety about the future either. I don’t feel as if there is an urgency born from fear, among the congregation or leadership, as you transition.

What I do sense is that the church, you and I together, are willing to take a step back and let things unfold a bit, to let our life speak, to hear the message that God is saying through the opportunities that present themselves to us instead of trying to move too quickly in one direction or another.

As Simeon and Anna knew, the kingdom of God is still in its infancy, it’s just been named “Jesus.” It’s still learning about its future, even though it is the fulfillment of that future.

And we’re still learning too. Even though First Lutheran has been around longer than many Lutheran churches in Alberta, we’re still beginning new each day, as God’s kingdom is being born again, and again, and again, and again within and among us.

One of the gifts that First Lutheran has been given is a forward looking perspective. Not all churches can look ahead as well as this congregation. First isn’t afraid to try new things. To think differently. To explore territory unsullied by human cynicism. 

So far I haven’t heard the dreaded phrase “We haven’t done it that way before” and I hope I never hear that phrase here, because it’s a phrase that shuts down innovation before it can begin.

For me, such openness to new ideas in this congregation means I can flex my creative muscles, to see just what I’m capable of as a church leader. 

And for us, it means that we can explore fresh ways to advance our mission, to grow and become strong, filled with wisdom; with the favour of God upon us. And that’s exciting!

After all, our name is “First Lutheran” and we have been challenged to live up to that name. With our name comes a responsibility. The First to test new ideas.The First to take holy risks. The First to step out in faith to show others that God is faithful even when we break out of beloved conventions and long-held traditions. God is doing a new thing in Lutheranism, and we have been saddled with the responsibility to be “First” among that new thing.

Simeon and Anna waited their whole lives to see the kingdom of God in their midst. We don’t have to wait that long. The kingdom of God is already within and among us. 

And the kingdom - the Spirit of God in Jesus is present within you, guiding you, speaking to you through your life, and leading you in the words of others.

No matter where you are in your life. No matter the challenges or opportunities, dreams or disappointments, troubles or delights, problems or possibilities, we trust in a God who was born in the middle of all of this bewildering and beloved mess, a God who has blessed you in your confusion and your hopes, so that you can rise to meet God’s future with open hands.

What Simeon saw in the baby, God also sees in you. What Anna held in her arms God also bestows on you, because you have been joined to Jesus. You are Christ’s living body. You have God’s promises knitted to your very being.

Your own eyes have seen the salvation that God has prepared for you and for everyone. You are a light to every nation. You are a candle in the dark. You are God’s answer to prayer. You are the first ray of sun appearing after a long, cold, sleepless night.

As we enter 2015, enter knowing that you are God’s beating heart, enter knowing that you are growing, enter knowing that you have become strong; enter knowing that you have been filled with wisdom, because God has found favour with you. 

And when we flip the calendar at this time next year to 2016, we will look back with amazement at what God has done.

May this be so among us. Amen!

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,