Sunday, March 31, 2013

Paths of humility

Texts: Philippians 2  1-11 (humbled for a season); Luke 24 1-12 (the empty tomb)

"Why do you look for the living among the dead? Jesus is not here; he has risen!" With these words, our journey of 40 days and nights in Lent ends. We have arrived at Jesus' empty tomb amid Easter hope and with the Risen Christ.

Today, we celebrate the resurrection of both Jesus and of our ourselves. We are new people, blessed members of the Body of Christ.

Easter offers us two different paths, I believe. One I call the path of glory. It is represented in hymns like "Thine is the Glory" and "Jesus Christ is Risen Today."

The other one, I call the path of humility. Jesus -- who was humbled to the point of death, even death on a cross -- walks with us on this difficult but life-giving path.

To reveal which path best captures the hope of Easter for me, I first look at the accounts of Holy Week we heard from the Gospel of Luke in our services this week.

Most of the events of Holy Week happen in public. Jesus' is hailed by multitudes as he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He spends the next four days among throngs of people at the Temple. There, Jesus argues with the Pharisees, thrills the crowds with his teachings, and angers religious leaders when he overturns the tables of the money changers. On Friday, he is tried by the Roman Governor in front of a mob who shout "crucify him!" Later that day, he is crucified before another large group.

Easter morning is different from this. Only Mary Magdalene and a few other women see the empty tomb and hear two angels proclaim that Jesus has risen. Peter alone of the male disciples then visits the empty tomb and wonders what has happened.

Later that first Easter, as we will hear in worship next Sunday, Jesus appears to two of his followers as they walk from Jerusalem to their hometown of Emmaus. They are upset both by the events of the week and by the story of the empty tomb. They spend hours talking with him, but do not recognize that he is Jesus until he breaks bread at supper, at which point he disappears.

The first Easter Sunday, according to Luke, then ends after these two men run back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples that they have seen the risen Christ. At that point, Jesus then briefly appears to this small group.

And that is it! The first Easter involves a handful of women in the morning, two discouraged men in the afternoon, and the 11 remaining disciples in the evening. During Holy Week, Jesus was present at large public events, some of which gave hope and some despair. But Easter itself is a quiet affair.

Easter unfolds with mystery, wonder, and no fanfare. There are no crowds and no public events worthy of a newspaper headline.

The resurrection represents God's victory over death, Jesus' victory over the Romans, and love's victory over hatred. But it is not the type of victory wished for by Jesus' followers.

Last Sunday, we looked at the hopes of the crowds on Palm Sunday. They believed that Jesus would lead them to military victory over the Romans. On Thursday night, we contrasted God's violent deeds associated with the Hebrew Exodus out of Egypt, which is celebrated at Passover, with the sacrament of communion given by Jesus at a Passover meal. Then at worship on Good Friday, we saw the hopes of Jesus' followers for military victory and divine intervention brought to nothing by the arrest and execution of Jesus.

Victory does come on Easter morning, but it is a strange one that leaves the Romans still in power and the poor still poor. At first, it is a victory only experienced by a handful of Jesus' closest friends; and for the next 50 days until Pentecost, they do little to build a movement based upon the news of Easter morning and the few appearances of the Risen Christ.

Easter's victory comes at great cost. Hopes are dashed. Illusions in God's power are exposed. Jesus is executed and buried. The disciples lose most of their followers and are thrown back upon themselves in pain and confusion. And even though the empty tomb gives new hope to the disciples, at first it is not clear what they can now hope for.

Perhaps it is similar for us today. This Lent, we have again followed Jesus and his friends on the hard road to Jerusalem. In their hopes for military victory and divine miracles, we may have seen a reflection of our own hopes for a world made right. We have felt the disciples pain and fear as Jesus is betrayed, arrested, beaten and crucified. In their distress, we may have seen a reflection of our own dashed hopes amid bitter losses.

Now it is Easter Sunday, and we gather in joy even though our numbers are not large. We hear of an empty tomb and the news that Jesus has risen. But we might not see Jesus just yet. We might not be able to fully trust the angels' proclamation or believe the Love has conquered death.

Palm Sunday's dreams of military victory and Passover's dreams of God's Mighty Deeds seem to die hard. This was especially the case for the church between the years 1500 and 1900 when European empires conquered the world and the church flourished as the key supporter of those conquests.

Surely here was the glory and power that the crowds lusted after on Palm Sunday. Surely here was God's Mighty Hand defeating the church's enemies and leading us to God's Promised Land.

But this era glory for the church is over, and for that I am glad. Today we are like Jesus' friends on the first Easter, a small group who meet to experience the hope found in an empty tomb.

St. Paul shows us this better way, I believe. In today's reading, he urges us to imitate Christ on a path that is obedient even to death. It involves emptying ourselves of our illusions and ambitions. The hopes of Palm Sunday and Passover are understandable but not realistic. New life in Christ, which is symbolized by an empty tomb, is the love that remains after our illusions are shattered and gone.

In the midst of loss, violence, and defeat, love survives. We may not always find glory in our dark nights, but we can always can rely on love to spring up within and between us no matter how bitter our defeats. This is the path of humility, which is the path that life often offers to us and the path on which Jesus walks beside us.

Both paths -- that of glory and that of humility -- run throughout the Bible, the Christian tradition, human history, and our own lives. Both paths are found in our reading from Paul today. And the hymn, "At the Name of Jesus," which is based on this reading from Philippians and which will be our hymn of response, ends with the phrase "King of Glory."  Both paths can lead us to God in Christ, I believe.

But in my life and in today's modest church, I find that the path of humility best models how love works.
And so this Easter Sunday, I yearn both to raise my voice in a joyful Hallelujah, and to also stop at the empty tomb and experience the silence of a strange and wondrous new day.

The pain and despair of Good Friday are gone. The waiting of Holy Saturday is over.

Today, I pause to notice "how silently, how silently a wondrous gift is given."  This may be Easter, but I find myself turning to the Christmas Eve Hymn "O Little Town of Bethlehem." It affirms that "God imparts to human hearts / the blessed gift of heaven. / No ear may hear his coming; / but in this world of sin,  / where meek souls will receive him, still / the dear Christ enters in."

Can you hear it? Christ is Risen. Risen Indeed.

Amen.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The still point of the year

Text: Luke 22 and 23 (denials, trials, crucifixion and burial)

"When it was about noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon . . . And the curtain of the Temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.' When he had said this, he breathed his last."

We have arrived at the still point of the year. We have journeyed to Jerusalem and to the cross. We have retold the story of Christ's passion, death and burial. And now we wait . . . we wait through the rest of Good Friday and Holy Saturday until dawn on Easter morning. At that time, we will gather again to hear the good news of the empty tomb, the good news that God has raised Jesus to new life.

This is our story, this is our tradition, and this is our faith. Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and God's anointed Christ, has died on a cross. It is also our story, our tradition and our faith that Jesus will be raised as God's Christ on Easter morning. We celebrate the mystery of this story not only during Lent, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We celebrate it every Sunday at worship; and the story forms us in the very core of our hearts and minds.

So as we wait today and tomorrow, a few thoughts about death and new life  . . .

Good Friday may bring to our hearts and minds the pain of other losses -- the death of a spouse, the death of friends and neighbours, perhaps the searing pain of the death of a child. And so we may identify with the people who weep as Jesus climbs the hill to his death.

Luke, unlike Mark whom he otherwise copies, does not focus on Jesus' agony. In Luke alone, Jesus says, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children." In Luke alone, Jesus at the end does not cry out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me." Instead in Luke, Jesus says, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." So perhaps when we read from Luke on Good Friday, the focus should be mostly on our pain and loss.

While Christianity does not shy away from the pain of loss or death, it proclaims that new life arises it. This includes our sure hope that each of us has come from Love and returns to Love at the end of life. It also includes our hope for new life in any moment.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which we heard and discussed a few Sundays ago, provides an example of the latter. In the Parable, the Father twice says of his youngest son, "he was dead and is now alive; he was lost and now is found." Death is used here as a metaphor for sin. Repentance of sin leads to new life.

It seems so easy to lose our way in life. Every wish or desire we have can also become a trap. We want security and money but then devote ourselves to career at the expense of our family. We rail against injustice and oppression but then find ourselves caught up in various kinds of dead-end politics. We want companionship and belonging but then find ourselves sacrificing our self-respect in distorted relationships. In the midst of all these traps, how do we find the way home?

For me, Good Friday has been key. Twelve years ago, I surprised myself by joining a local United Church. Although I liked the minister, the music, and the spirit of that congregation, I joined it mostly as a place in which to ride out the pain of a disintegrating marriage. The moment when my commitment to God became serious was during the first Good Friday service I attended at Kingston Road United Church in Toronto in 2002.

I don't believe there was a sermon at that service. Instead, there were rituals and music during which I felt my heart being broken open. The focus on suffering and death seemed achingly authentic. Afterwards, I told the minister that the beauty of the service seemed enough to break an old atheist's heart.

When a religious path looks deeply at death -- the death of illusions, the death of loved ones, indeed, the death of God -- it seems like a true path to me. On that Good Friday, amid tears for broken relationships and dashed dreams, I saw a glimmer of Love on the horizon. God had died. But if this was a god of illusion, or of imperial power or of personal ambition, then why shouldn't this god die? The good news is that a god who dies can also become the True God who is raised to a new and purer form -- Love refined of its imperfections.

Gods die, and so the One God who is Love shines clearer in our hearts and minds. Much dies in our lives, and each individual life ends in death. But out of these many deaths, Love continually arises. On Good Friday, we weep in sorrow that Jesus is dead. On Easter, we proclaim that the God who is Love is alive in a new form, both now and always.

Joyous moments of new life in Christ this side of the grave do not mean that we are now free from any future sin. The prodigal son may stumble again. We will surely stumble again.

Resurrected moments motivate us to keep walking the Way of the Cross with Jesus, year after year, Lent after Lent, Good Friday after Good Friday.

Jesus dies in pain, as do many of our foolish illusions and distractions. Jesus dies, as will all human individuals. Jesus is raised to new life on Easter, as was the prodigal son in the Parable and as we all will be.

As so on a Friday many years ago, darkness came over the land at noon, and three hours later, Jesus breathed his last and died.

And now we wait. We wait for our fallen Saviour who lived and died in solidarity with all the best and worst of our human lives. We wait even as we mourn. And we wait in the sure hope for new life.
Our journey to Jerusalem and the cross has ended. Our time of waiting continues just a little longer.

This is the still point of our year. Into the stillness, let us say once again . . . "Come, Lord Jesus, come."

Amen.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

When darkness reigns

Text: Luke 22 7-53 (the Last Supper; Jesus' arrest)

"When Darkness reigns." These are Jesus' words after his arrest and before the trials and crucifixion of Good Friday.

It is in the darkness of Holy Thursday that Jesus gives us the sacrament of communion. He gives us his very body and blood, broken and poured out for us. Jesus shows us that within the very heart of darkness, God in Christ is with us. Christ serves us, supports us, and dies with and for us.

Setting the Last Supper at Passover creates a sharp contrast between the kind of God whom the disciples were expecting in Jesus and the God in Christ whom they received.

Passover is a time each spring when Jews remember their liberation from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. In the Exodus, God's Mighty Hand gives the Hebrew Slaves victory over the Pharaoh. God visits 10 plagues on the Egyptians including the murder of the first born of every family, except in those households where the blood of a sacrificial lamb has been dabbed on the doorpost, which it passes over. God's Hand parts the water of the Red Sea to let the Hebrews pass. It drowns the Egyptian army in those same waters. It leads the Hebrews for 40 years in the desert providing manna from heaven.

Jesus' friends believed that he was a leader who would similarly use his divine powers in a violent way against their enemy in Palestine, the Romans. They also thought he would be a king like David who lead them to military victory.

But Jesus is not a violent king or God. Jesus shows us a path to freedom in communion. Unlike Passover, communion is a sacrament that remembers self-sacrifice and not the slaughter of one's enemies. It reveals God not as a violent military ruler, but as a suffering servant who leads us by example to new life beyond death . . .

One of the things I enjoy this time of the year are TV documentaries on the life of Jesus. I saw one this week that raised a familiar theme, that the death of Jesus on a cross was a stumbling block and scandal for the first disciples. As the narrator said, killing God on a cross is not how one would choose to found a world religion.

However, I think this point is overstated. Clearly a world religion -- the largest one for the past 500 years -- was founded on stories of the death of God. The God of Passover -- a god who slaughters our enemies -- has one kind of appeal. But I don't think that it fits with our experiences. Looking over history and our own lives, we usually don't see miraculous wish fulfilment. We don't see many Davids beating a Goliath, or slaves being freed from their masters by magic and violent acts.

The Exodus story, which we remember at Passover, is much loved, of course. It portrays the power of God, but not in a realistic way. I view it as a strange and scary dream or painting that Jews and Christians retell in worship as a way to evoke awe and reverence. But to hope in 2013 that God's Mighty Hand will provide manna from heaven or violently destroy our enemies is not credible.

Holy Week is different. In the darkness, betrayal, pain, and death of Holy Thursday and Good Friday I see my own life and our own times. We often live in darkness. We often experience pain. We sometimes betray our deepest values. We all fear death.

The joy and love revealed in Holy Week is found in the quiet of an empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning and the appearance of the Risen Christ to a handful of his followers in the days that follow. Freedom is available for all us. But it is not freedom won in violent conflict. It is freedom found in a quiet dawn after a dark night. It is found in our sure hope for loved ones who have died. It is found in the light of God in Christ we burns within each of us.

Holy Week is a time when darkness reigns. It is also a time in which Jesus prepares the purest light that any of us will ever experience. This is the paradox of Easter, the paradox of Christianity, and the paradox of God.

Many of us here today have lived this paradox. In long lives, we may have experienced happiness and joy, but also times of loss or sadness. We may be in pain today, and so we can identify with Jesus as he approaches the cross on Good Friday.

We have also experienced how new life arises after a harsh winter and how love blossoms again between friends and families after heartbreak or loss. This is the promise of Easter, and it is here for us in any gracious moment as well as at the end of all of life's struggles.

During Holy Week, God's realm might sometimes looks like a Kingdom of Darkness. But Easter morning shows us that it is a Kingdom of New Life, now and always.

Holy Week, with all its triumph and tragedy, reminds us of the pain, joy and promise of life. So as this Holy Week continues, may we all live it fully and feel it deeply.

We have come with Jesus all the long way to Jerusalem. By following him this Lent to the end, even to the foot of the cross, may we confront our fears, and then move past them with Christ to Easter morning.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Paths of glory

Text: Luke 19 28-44 (Jesus enters Jerusalem)

When I was a child, I had trouble distinguishing between Palm Sunday and Easter. Both were happy occasions in which we raised our voices in praise. On Palm Sunday we sang Hosanna (which means God saves) and on Easter Sunday we sang Hallelujah (which means praise the Lord). In between -- and for reasons that often puzzled me -- we marked the pain and sadness of Jesus' Last Supper, his arrest, and his crucifixion.

It is true that in certain outward respects, the two Sundays are similar. But in other ways, they are quite different. Palm Sunday's hosannas express dreams of national redemption and glory while Easter Sunday's hallelujahs express a Love that is beyond nation or glory.

When I named this sermon "Paths of glory," I was thinking of a 1958 Hollywood movie of that name. It is an anti-war movie, which stars Kirk Douglas as a French Colonel in World War One. He tries to save the men under this command, first from a hopeless attack against the Germans and then from the execution of survivors of that deadly attack when they are tried for cowardice.

In reading about this great film, I learned that its title "Paths of Glory" is taken from the 1750 poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." Written by Thomas Grey to commemorate the death of a friend, the poem includes the following lines:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour
The paths of glory lead but to the grave."

Palm Sunday is an attempt by the crowds who idolize Jesus to turn his journey to Jerusalem into a path of glory. But as Jesus knows and as they will soon find out, his so-called path of glory leads but to the grave of Good Friday. It is only when the hopes of glory expressed on Palm Sunday are proven false on Good Friday that the mysterious but sure hope of the empty tomb of Easter is revealed.

We can't seem to live without idols. As children, we idolize our parents. As teenagers, we idolize pop stars and sports heroes. As adults, we idolize political or religious leaders. The good news is that travelling on a spiritual path in a community of faith can help us understand why we are drawn to various idols and then turn from them towards the God who is Love.

The people who sang hosanna to Jesus in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday were hoping for a new king. They were poor people, cruelly oppressed by the Romans. In Jesus, they saw a Christ or King whom they hoped would be a warrior like King David and who would channel God's mighty hand into miraculous feats of liberation.

The idolized Jesus because of their needs. But as an idol, Jesus could not meet these needs. The Romans would not be overcome by the efforts of a warrior king. Instead, in a mysterious and wonderful way, Jesus' death and resurrection showed his followers that each of us carries Jesus in our heart in the form of an inner Christ. The inner Christ is a king not just for the Jews. He is for all people who seek to live in the light of God's eternal love.

New life in Christ does not in itself overthrow oppression or solve our social problems. It shows us that beyond idolatry there is something more desirable than national glory. This is God's Love, within, between and all around us.

In the World War One movie, "Paths of Glory," both the French and German soldiers on opposite sides of the trenches are fighting for national idols. The Germans have their Kaiser and Empire. The French have their beloved Republic. Both sides are told by the church, the rich, and the powerful that they should submit to the authority of their military commanders and sacrifice their lives for the glory of the nation.

The movie shows that the French high command is corrupt and cruel. When a group of French soldiers abandon a hopeless military assault on the Germans after suffering terrible casualties, and when other French soldiers refuse to fire on these same troops who have abandoned this crazy assault, they start to break free of their idolization of the nation.

Jesus' supporters on Palm Sunday also have delusions of national grandeur. Jesus, however, does not share these delusions. He enters Jerusalem on a humble donkey and weeps for the city. His supporters believe that Jesus has come to liberate the Jews. Jesus knows that his sacrifice is for all people.

Jesus shows that God's Christ does not engage in violence to lead one nation to defeat another. Instead, Christ fearlessly speaks truth to religious and imperial power regardless of the cost to himself. The religious elite and the empire kill Jesus, which marks an end to Jesus' role as a national idol. But the joyous news of Easter is that God's love in Christ lives on after Good Friday. Jesus rises to new life in the awakened and loving hearts of all who follow him. This new life is not for one nation, but for all peoples.

So too in "Paths of Glory." The Colonel played by Kirk Douglas defends his men whey they are charged with treason. In the end, he fails and the so-called traitors are executed. Like millions of others in that terrible war, they die, but not for the illusion of national pride or in an attempt to kill their German brothers. They die for the values of sanity and love.

Clearly, abandoning our idols does not mean that we won't die. Jesus is executed by the Romans. The French soldiers in "Paths of Glory" are executed by their own army. But when we stand for values deeper than those given to us by national rulers, we have accepted God's grace to live within the light of Love.

Our idols give us clues as to the sacred values that might lie beyond them. When we idolize our nation, we are attempting in a distorted way to love our neighbours. When we idolize a pop star or an athlete, we are attempting in a distorted way to show our love for beauty and human accomplishment. When we idolize our parents, we are attempting in a distorted way to grow up. Seen in this way, the worship of idols can become a way station on the path to God. In just this way, Palm Sunday is a way station to the cross and beyond.

By following Jesus into Jerusalem and through the pain of Holy Week, we help strip ourselves of the illusions of Palm Sunday and prepare ourselves for the quiet but wondrous news of Easter. Easter assures us that although our idol has been killed, God's love lives on within and between us.

Palm Sunday is a loud celebration that involves multitudes of people. Easter Sunday is a quiet affair experienced by only a handful of Jesus' friends. Palm Sunday is a time of hope for national salvation. Easter Sunday is a time of mystery, confusion and wonder. Palm Sunday heralds a king who is expected to be a warrior like King David. Easter Sunday reveals a king who lives within each beating heart . . .

The worship of idols seems inevitable. But so does our disappointment in them. Idols are continually being exposed as distorted reflections of what we most value and want from life. By walking with Jesus into Jerusalem, by sharing the bread and cup with him on Thursday evening, and by kneeling at the foot of his cross in sadness and pain on Friday morning, we prepare ourselves for a love that is brighter and stronger than any idol. We prepare ourselves for the good news of Easter. 

Christ has died. Christ has Risen. Christ will come again.

Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Good news on the road to the cross

Texts: Philippians 3 4-14 (press on towards the goal); John 12 1-8 (anointed for burial)

What does the phrase "the gospel" mean? What is "the good news" that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, proclaim in our worship, our service and our lives?

I thought of this question this week as I watched news coverage of the election of Pope Francis in Rome. On Monday, CBC's The National reported on the state of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America's biggest country, Brazil.

Like many others in the media, the CBC was rightly guessing that for the first time, a cardinal from the Americas might be chosen as the new Pope, although like many others, it wrongly guessed he might come from the country with the largest number of Catholics in the world, Portuguese-speaking Brazil. The eventual winner, Pope Francis, is from Spanish-speaking Argentina just south of Brazil, a country of about 40 million people.

The CBC report noted that as late as 1980, 90% of Brazil's nearly 200 million people called themselves Roman Catholic. Today, it is only 60%. Many of Brazil's former Catholics have joined Pentecostal churches while others now profess no religion.

The report stated that many of the new Protestant churches in Brazil preach a different gospel from that of the Roman Catholic Church. Called The Prosperity Gospel, it says that individuals who profess faith in Jesus, lead moral lives, and make donations to the church will become wealthy. In a country like Brazil with a youthful and growing middle class, the reporter suggested that The Prosperity Gospel has greater appeal than the supposedly more difficult gospel of Catholicism, which is seen as one of suffering and sacrifice. But is either one the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Suffering and sacrifice are central in today's reading from St. Paul. He writes: "Whatever gains I had, I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ . . . I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead."

That doesn't sound like a prosperity gospel to me. Nor does today's reading from John. In that passage, Mary anoints Jesus with perfume on the eve of his entry into Jerusalem. While such an anointing is associated with the crowning of kings and is very costly, Jesus states that the perfume is for his burial, which he knows will come later in the week. As such, this reading seems to also aligns more with a gospel of suffering and sacrifice than it does with a prosperity gospel.

But how can suffering and sacrifice be considered good news?

Traditional church teachings about suffering and sacrifice have often fall short of the mark, in my opinion. Sometimes, the church has preached that the poor and oppressed should accept their poverty and oppression rather than organize for justice. It has sometimes preached that accepting the established order is how we can follow Jesus.

Argentina, the home country of Pope  Francis, provides an example from the 1970s. In the first part of that decade, vigorous movements for social change and justice developed among students, trade unionists, and women. When some of these activists adopted violent tactics, the Argentine military staged a coup and began a seven year-long dictatorship marked by torture and mass murder.

Some in the Argentine Church criticized the social movements that had organized for justice in Argentina because they didn't show proper respect for authority. Some in the church supported the military regime, even though the dictatorship eventually murdered 30,000 people.

If a so-called gospel teaches that women should submit to men, that workers should accept exploitation by their bosses, and that authoritarian governments should be respected even when they abuse their own citizens, I could understand why we would reject it.

I can also understand the appeal of The Prosperity Gospel given how central money is to our lives and how it figures in our hopes and fears. I do believe, though, that it mistakes the Idol of money for the God who is Love.

I wondered about spirit and money on Wednesday as I spent time with the financial manager of Western Hyundai in Moose Jaw while she worked out the financing for my new car.  She mentioned that the conversations she has with customers are sometimes difficult. In the context of a large purchase, they talk about taboo topics such as credit ratings and income. They also talk about death and disability benefits, which can really make people anxious. And so, I suggested to her that her role was a spiritual one and that her office might feel like a crucible for many of us.

I declined the insurance that would have covered my car payments if I were disabled and unable to work. I mentioned that I had death and disability benefits with my employer, the United Church of Canada. I also noted that there are a large number of ministers on long-term disability in the church at present. For some, this is because of physical sickness. But many others of us are on disability because of psychological distress.

Ministry can feel stressful, perhaps because of the life and death issues we often deal with. On the other hand, I told her that I hoped ministry could be its own cure. Much of the distress felt by ministers takes the form of a crisis of faith. I hope that if I ever feel burnt out or depressed, I might be able to preach my way out of it.

The good news that I try to preach involves an awareness of mortality and suffering. This awareness can free us from idols such as consumerism and allow us to work for our most sacred values of faith, hope and love. At the same time, an awareness of mortality and suffering need have nothing to do with accepting injustice.

Life on the road to the cross can be joyful. On the road to the cross, we have accepted God's help to face our fears and move beyond them. We accept that death is inevitable, and so we are freed to find new life in Christ. This new life is not about material success or power. It is about relying upon God. It is about learning that our individuality is an illusion; that we are dependent on God's Spirit in family and community; that we are dependent on God's Love, which is the ground of life; and  that we are dependent on God in Christ, which is an undying flame within each one of us.

We often experience joy on the road to the cross, even if it is different from the happiness preached in The Prosperity Gospel. It is a joy that arises from putting aside our egos and their desires. But it is not a joy that bows down to arbitrary authority. It is a joy we feel in the collective struggle to love one another and to work for abundant life for all. It is a joy that comes when we rise, even if only for a moment, above the idols of authority and of personal wealth.

Government and church authority are human and always prone to corruption. Personal wealth and power are fleeting and don't give us the spiritual food that fuels the deep joy of life in Christ.

This is the good news that I try to preach to myself and to others. Of course, a person can only proclaim what has grasped him or her. Personally, I reject a gospel that preaches obedience to oppressive authority just as I reject one that tries to substitute wealth or pleasure for the God who is Love.

I try to find good news in the midst of lives of pain or fear. I look for moments in worship or everyday life in which we rise above fear and touch God's eternal life that is available to us on the road to the cross and beyond. I also try not to condemn too strongly those who know a different gospel than the one I have so far found.

I am glad that Pope Francis has a gospel that focuses on the poor. On Friday, he said his wants the Catholic Church be "a poor church for the world's poor." I am pleased that for the first time the Roman Catholic Church is led by a person born in the Americas. I am cheered that the former Cardinal Bergoglio has named himself after the humble Catholic saint, Francis of Assisi. St. Francis lived a simple life of poverty in the Middle Ages and worked for church reform and for the poor.

My first impression of Pope Francis is also favourable. So, despite his conservative views on issues like birth control and women and despite the controversies about his role as a church leader during the terrible years of military dictatorship in Argentina after 1976, I feel hopeful about the leadership of Pope Francis.

In the poverty of St. Francis; in the poverty of Jesus and his friends as they enter Jerusalem, and in the poverty of our own lives -- touched as they are by sickness, injustice and mental anguish -- may we all live into the good news of abundant life. This good news says that the death of both Jesus and of our own ambitions lead to Easter hope for a new life that is beyond the reach of injustice and personal ambition. It is a communal life of deep joy within the eternal Love of God.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Parable, A Pope, and a Conclave of Pharisees

Text: Luke 15 (parable of the prodigal son)

Christianity sometimes seems like an odd religion to me. It is based upon the gospel accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In those accounts, Jesus consistently clashes with the religious leaders of his day. One might therefore expect Christians to be anti-religious and our churches to be humble gatherings of so-called sinners with no elites or hierarchies.

I experience some irony in saying this while wearing a Roman alb on a raised pulpit, two things that are designed to set me apart. As a minister, I am sensitive to Gospel readings in which Jesus provides a devastating response to the religious leaders of his time, as he does in today's famous Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Jesus tells the parable when he is criticized by Pharisees and other leaders. They are scandalized that Jesus welcomes and eats with sinners. In response, Jesus tells a tale about two brothers.

In the parable the prodigal son could take the role of the so-called sinners who are despised by the Pharisees; the Father clould take the role of God in Christ who welcomes them; and the obedient older brother could take the role of the Pharisees.

In years past, I thought the central point of the parable was the repentance of the younger brother and his gracious acceptance by the Father. But now I find myself focusing more on the older brother.

Like the Pharisees, the older brother is quick to judge others as sinners. Like them, he thinks sinners should not be welcomed with gifts and parties. And like them, the older brother is angry at forgiveness and grace.

The younger brother gets into trouble because of his riotous living and his resulting poverty. But the older brother is in just as much trouble because of his moralism. In fact, since the older brother has yet to repent, he might actually be in a worse position than the prodigal.

Viewed this way, I see the parable as sharp attack on religion and its leaders. Jesus had nothing but contempt for the self-righteous moralists, law-givers, and law-abiders who infested his community in Palestine. This same religious elite were the driving force behind Jesus' arrest, trial, and execution.

So how did it happen that a church made up of followers of Jesus became one in which high and mighty rulers stringently policed the morality of the sinners in the pews and condemned those who didn't follow its narrow rules?

The role of Christian leadership will be front and centre in the news this week with the Conclave of Roman Catholic Cardinals who gather in Rome on Tuesday to elect a Pope to succeed Benedict XVI.

The media loves the spectacle of the election of a new Pope. Approximately 1 billion people -- 50% of all Christians -- are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. The next Pope will be elected by 115 elderly cardinals wearing red robes beneath the splendour of Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel. The cardinals are all celibate, unmarried men, although the huge majority of people who attend Catholic mass are married women. Most of the cardinals are from Europe, although less than 25% of Catholics now live in Europe.

The cardinals all agree with the Catholic moral doctrines that have caused controversy for the church over the last 50 years: opposition to sex outside marriage, opposition to artificial birth control, opposition to abortion, opposition to homosexuality, and opposition to equality between men and women in the church.

None of the above positions would have raised eyebrows in 1958 when the cardinals elected Pope John XXIII. Back then, women were absent from the leadership of almost all institutions. Back then, homosexuality was rarely talked about and was illegal everywhere. And in 1958, artificial birth control was not available in many parts of the world.

But today, women hold leading roles in government, business, and many religious denominations. Today, homosexuality is legal in most democratic countries. Today, artificial birth control is the norm among almost all heterosexual couples, including the vast majority of Roman Catholic women.

The Catholic Church has declined in membership and influence in rich countries during these years. At the same time, the Catholic Church has grown in poor countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. But as these latter countries undergo economic and social development -- which will inevitably lead to legal equality between men and women, human rights for gay people, and greater democracy -- it seems likely to me that the Church will decline there as well.

A church that only thrives in countries where women and gay people are violently oppressed and where democracy and the rule of law are absent is a church in big trouble, in my opinion.

I don't make these harsh criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church to steer us back to old-style Protestant attacks on the Pope. I am in favour of greater inter-church cooperation. I enjoy working with the Catholic parish and Father Andrew, and he is an important role model for me in how he has integrated into our communities.

I deliver this sermon because I believe that the prominence of the Roman Catholic Church in the media this week poses problems for all Christians. In Canada where the big majority of people no longer attend worship services, I fear that the publicity given to the election of the Pope this week will solidify the image of Christians as a bunch of modern-day Pharisees who are obsessed with sex, opposed to equality, and stuck with outdated doctrines.

Now if, by some miracle, the next Pope is a modernizer in the mold of Pope John XXIII, I will be thrilled. If the new Pope opens the door to female, gay and married priests, endorses artificial birth control as a moral and sensible choice, and democratizes the church, the world will be a better place.

If, as seems more likely, the new Pope continues the policies of Pope Benedict, then Christians who try to follow the path of welcoming so-called sinners will have a more difficult time getting a hearing from those beyond our doors, I believe.

Is there a route forward -- both for the younger and older brother in the parable and for prideful church leaders like the cardinals, or like me?

The parable shows God in the person of the Father offering radical grace to both brothers. However, it does not show us if either one accepts that grace. Both would need to overcome their judgement that the younger brother is a sinner in order to do so, I believe.

Repentance does not involve self-condemnation. It involves turning towards home, and the light of God's Love. The younger brother says "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." The Father, however, does not agree. Not only does he still consider the prodigal to be his son; he celebrates his return with a great feast.

Jesus doesn't tell us the reaction of the younger brother, but what if his shame prevents him from accepting this welcome? What if he continues to feel unworthy because of his rebellion? If so, he would remain lost instead of found. He would remain dead instead of alive.

All of us rebel against our elders in one way or another. It is a normal part of life to leave home and head to the lights of the big city where we try to follow our desires and develop our lives and careers. This path is called sinful -- by the Pharisees, by the older brother, and eventually by the younger brother. But the Father does not do so. He has the wisdom to understand that in difficult lives, we all will engage in at least a little riotous living in order to discover our place in this crazy world.

If the younger son can accept the Father's welcome home, it might amplify the pain of his repentance; but it will also lead him to accept himself regardless of his past life and any future mistakes he might make. It will allow him to enter into a born-again life within God's Spirit.

The older brother remains obedient to social rules and to his father, but in doing so he succumbs to pride. From this prideful place, he then judges and condemns his prodigal brother.

Despite this pride, the Father also offers him radical love and acceptance. But can the son accepts this grace? To do so, he would have to climb off his high horse and agree that his obedience has not given him the right to judge his younger brother.

Not that any of us can avoid obedience either. Conforming to society is just as much a part of growing up as is rebelling. We may hate consumerism and the workings of the economy. But in order to make a living and raise families, we are all forced to make compromises and to live within a society of inequality and injustice. We can work to change those realities -- and I think we should -- but we have to get on with our lives as we do so.

When we conform, we might succumb to the trap of pride like the older brother. The grace offered to us by the Father leads us away from this pride. It allows us to look gently on both rebellion and conformity, just as the Father does. The Father welcomes both his sons with understanding, but without judgement.

So how can we stop judging? We seem to be always judging ourselves and others. For instance, the connection I have drawn today between the Catholic cardinals and the Pharisees is a judgement. Some here might not see or appreciate this connection, which would be OK by me, of course. My understanding of the Parable and my criticism of Catholic leaders is questionable, as is true of any judgement.

The good news is that God in Christ continues to offer us his welcome and his feast. With God's help, sometimes we soften our harsh judgements of self and others and so are able to rise into new life in Christ.

As the Cardinals gather in Rome on Tuesday, I pray that they will do so in a spirit of humility. I pray that the new Pope will help steer his Church away from self-righteousness and towards acceptance of all us so-called sinners who fall outside of its moral teachings. I pray that the new Pope will model the welcoming Father of today's parable and not the moralistic older brother.

As we move further in Lent, may we too soften our harsh judgements of ourselves and others. God calls us to turn away from human judgements and towards God's light. It shines strongest from beyond the darkness of the cross in which all of our human judgements are laid low.

The beauty and the brightness of God's light gives us the courage to throw off both moralism and self-indulgence. It allows us to return home to God in Christ. And it leads us all to the Father's great feast of welcome at Easter.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Repent or perish! Or is it crash and burn?

Texts: 1 Corinthians 10 1-13 (tested by God); Luke 13 1-9 (Repent or perish)

When "bad things" happen to people we judge to be evil, do these events reflect God's judgement? If so, why do bad things also happen to good people? These are two questions that leapt out for me from today's readings from Paul and Luke.

Paul writes about God's wrath towards the Hebrew slaves during their 40-year-long Exodus from Egypt in the desert. Despite having been led out of Egypt by Moses, the former slaves often behave in ways that anger God. In response, the Bible says that God kills thousands of them.

Jesus, however, seems to see things differently. When he discusses the execution of Galileans who have come to worship in Jerusalem and the death of others who were crushed by a falling tower, he states that these deaths did not result from the sins of the victims. Jesus does not believe that God uses the Roman state or a falling tower to strike people down for their sins.

Jesus' viewpoint seems more modern to me than Paul's. Today, we assume that all events have natural causes. We don't believe that God is either saving us or punishing us in life's ups and downs. Or do we?

As most of you know, my own "bad thing" happened last Sunday.  While driving from Coronach to Fife Lake, I lost control of my car on a snow-covered section of Highway 18, slid into a field, and rolled the car twice before landing on my wheels. I was shaken up by this crash and I felt sad that my car was destroyed.  But I was also relieved and surprised that I emerged almost completely unscathed. Other than a short-lived bump on my head and a sore wrist, I was fine physically. For the first few mornings afterwards, I awoke expecting stiff muscles or a headache, but they never materialized.

Several people told me that they thought it was not just luck or the design of the car that had spared me any physical repercussions from this crash. They believed that God had protected me. But while I appreciate the sentiment, I disagree with the theology contained in this idea.

To say that God intervenes in a moment like my accident to change natural consequences that would otherwise have left me injured or killed does not describe the God whom I seek to know. For one, if God worked this way, could he not have intervened earlier and prevented the snow from blowing onto the road in the first place? Or could he not have allowed me to regain control of the car before I slid into the field? Further, why would God have not intervened in millions of other such incidents where people were injured or killed? Why would he save me and not them? Personally, I cannot accept such notions.

Or if we view my car crash in the light of St. Paul's words about the Hebrew people during the Exodus, one might wonder if it was God's judgement against my driving ability. Or, perhaps God just didn't like last week's sermon and used the accident to prevent me from preaching it a second and third time! Perhaps. But I also find such notions of God incredible and untenable.

We live in fragile and mortal bodies that are prone to pain and injury. We try to trust life despite the fact that violence can disrupt our day-to-day routine at any moment.

My accident shocked me with its swift violence, but it is hardly unusual. How many millions of people alive today have survived serious car crashes? How many millions of us mourn the injury or loss of loved ones because of such crashes?

Untold numbers of other people have had their faith tested by an earthquake, a hurricane or a tornado. This week, the news media told us of a Florida man killed in his sleep when a huge sinkhole opened up beneath his bedroom. How can we find a trusting faith when such arbitrary violence can disrupt our lives at any moment?

Unfortunately, this is the human condition. We search for faith in lives that are punctuated by disease, natural disasters, or war.

This past autumn, I saw a documentary on CBC TV about Yellowstone Park in Montana. Scientists have ascertained that the park rests on a dormant super-volcano that erupts every 400,000 years or so. When it does erupt, the force is so great that it destroys a vast area and changes the world's climate for hundreds of years afterwards.

One expert said that we should all have emergency plans in place before the next eruption, which is now overdue. In Borderlands, we don't need to worry since we would all be killed within the first hour no matter what preparations we made. But he urged people further afield in Chicago, Toronto or Vancouver to be prepared to live in their basements for months afterwards as the ash settled and the climate started to stabilize.

Really? My thought was quite opposite to his. My emergency preparedness plan is quite simple. It consists of being ready and willing to die at any moment! I know that this attitude is probably easier for me to adopt than a person with young children. But it is still the truth that death is coming for us eventually. Also, the path of Christ is one towards death and the new life that lies beyond it.

Jesus consciously turns towards death when he takes the road to Jerusalem and the cross, and he calls us to follow him. Answering this call does not mean we must be foolhardy. From now on, I will take winter road conditions more seriously than I did before my accident. I will still keep a winter emergency kit in my trunk. And I will still say my prayers, despite not believing that God either intervenes to punish or save me when any particular incident is unfolding.

One might  wonder, though, why we should pray if God does not punish us if we fail to repent or save us if we do. My answer is this: I pray to remind myself of what I most value: family, friends, and neighbours; life itself; and above all, the spiritual virtues of faith, hope, and love.

When I pray for someone who is sick, it is not in the hope that this will change the natural course of the disease. I pray to remind myself of my love for that person and to reassure myself that the sick person, like all of us, is enfolded in God's mercy; that God is with them no matter how the illness proceeds; and that they are safe regardless of the outcome.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says that unless we repent, we will perish. What might this mean, I wonder? Does repentance mean changing behaviour; asking for forgiveness; feeling bad? As for "perish," does it simply mean to die? But what would be the point in warning us about that? All individuals die.

For me, repentance means turning away from distractions and addictions and towards the light of reality – symbolized for Christians by the cross – despite its sometimes fearful nature. Repentance becomes possible when we accept God's help to face our fears and so rise to new life. Sometimes when we do so, we can trust in life and love despite disease, natural disasters, and death.

This is one reason why I appreciate the discipline of Lent. While I am sure that those who don't consciously turn towards the cross are still accepted by God's Love, I appreciate Jesus' explicit call to repent. Hearing his call each year helps me to find and trust Christ's companionship sooner rather than later.

In the light of the cross, our attempts to cling to life are shown to be vain. In the light of the cross, our pride in family, church, or nation dissolve into nothingness. In the light of the cross, our addictions to alcohol, TV or money are revealed as empty and meaningless. In the light of cross, we are freed to turn from our fears and addictions and rise to new life within the Spirit and Love of God.

In a few moments we will celebrate the sacrament of holy communion. It is a ritual in which we remember the ministry, death, and resurrection of the Christ. It is a ritual that makes plain that God lives in us and that we live in God. And it is a ritual that assures us that we are enfolded in God's mercy and love no matter what troubles beset us or how long or short a lifespan we have.

All are welcome at the Lord's table; sinners and saints alike. To partake of the bread of life and the cup of blessing, we don't have to believe anything; do anything; or achieve anything. We just have to be ourselves -- beloved children of God. Even if we have not repented, God will not strike us down or turn us away.

The message of God's Grace as remembered at the Lord's Table is the one we receive from the Bible as a whole, from the stories of Jesus as a whole, and from the best of our troubled and wonderful Christian tradition.

Repent or perish? God's love shines so brightly and with such beauty that, despite the violence of this world and the fragility of life, I am confident that everyone eventually turns towards His love.

All will turn. None will perish.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.