Sunday, November 16, 2014

November 16

The parable of the talents. It's so inocuous. It sounds pretty straightforward, right up until the words of the third slave: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sew, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.”

It tells a story about the kingdom of heaven: it's a man, who is preparing for a long journey. What I often hear from commentators and preachers is that God – or the kingdom thereof – can't be like this Master.

But, ask the Canaanites, or the Gadites, or the Amalekites, or the Egyptians, what God is like, and they'll have a different opinion. God is harsh. Blood debts. Oppression of women and children. Things that are not understandable; what the Lutheran theological tradition refers to as opus alienum: the “alien work” of God, when God does not act as we imagine, or want, God to act. God does reap where God didn't sew, and gathers where God did not scatter seed.

Gentiles need to be thankful for that.

So that Master, going on a journey, gave money to each slave “according to his ability”. A talent, remember, is about 15 years' wages for a labourer. Two take unbelievably large risks. Huge risks, comparable to taking their money down to the dog track, and betting on the one they see doing its business before the race begins. These are not stable financial markets they're investing in. This is not something that should be done when your boss leaves you in charge of the books. Entrepeneurship is not always encouraged, but apparently, it is what the kingdom of heaven encourages.

So, the last slave did what may be 'traditionally' expected in his society: he buried his treasure. Farmers all over Europe and the middle East continually turn up old stashes of money – riches - hidden in odd places.

We are, after all, talking about substantial riches in a single source. One single talent was worth about $660 000. 15 years wages. But, these weren't labourers. They were slaves. Really, they were given responsibility that they didn't deserve; and weren't equipped for. A reward that they didn't earn. An amount so interstellar, it was impossible to comprehend.

So naturally, two of them gamble with it. The third does what you typically do with treasure: he protects it, for fear of losing it. Why? Maybe he didn't owe the Master 15 more years of labour. He took responsibility for the preservation of wealth; not its multiplication. But the others risked it. Perhaps they realized that, given the sheer immensity of the riches given to them, they had no way of ever paying out their debts, should they lose track of it.

And it turns out that the kingdom of heaven really likes risks.

What would our ministry look like, if we were to take risks like that? History is full of churchs which chose to bury their treasure, rather than risk it on transactions. Interactions. They are forgotten. Seven churches, written to in John's Revelation. None still exist.

We tend to double-down on our 'tradition' when we're unsure of what we should do: theologically, liturgically, or otherwise. But the gospels show us that is not an authentic witness to the kingdom of heaven. It is a strange, and alien economy, where sometimes senseless risks are rewarded more than good sense.

Remember: in the parable the Master increased his fortune reaping where he did not sew, and gathering where he did not scatter. His fortune was so immense that he regarded 8 talents as gifts. Perhaps, rather than doing as many do and criticising, or refusing to accept this vision of God's kingdom, may be spend time reflecting on how the kingdom may be increased by seeking out those risks, and perhaps finding that great reward.

May we find, then, our own risks to take, so that the treasures of the kingdom of heaven may bloom and increase here, in his place, among God's people.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lent 2 - Being Born Anew

Have you ever noticed that it’s far easier to say something, than it is to actually do it?  It’s very easy to state our intentions of something.  It’s something else to actually go ahead, and carry out what we want.  Best example: New Years’ resolutions.  I have a friend who works as a personal trainer; every January 02 he gets a flurry of calls and emails to book his services, people who’ve stated that the new year is their time to ‘get healthy’.  He said that half the people quit in the first two weeks; another half of those remaining in the first month; and by six weeks’ time he’s down to about 12% of those who made the original commitment.

It is, in fact, remarkably easy to say “I am a child of God” or “I am a Christian,” or even something as simple as “I believe in God,” but it’s something else entirely to live into that statement.   When I people new people and they find out what I do, it often becomes a a bit of a two-edged sword: either I get a theological lecture as to my own tradition’ or I have what I call the “I’m-a-good-person-I-haven’t-murdered-anyone" chat.  Truth is, I don’t care. 

But, when we sit back, look at our lives, and say “I’m a good Christian person, look at all the good works I do…God must really be pleased with me”….I call that the snakes-and-ladders approach to Lutheran theology. You are justified – made right with God – entirely by God’s grace and mercy, through Jesus Christ.  It’s not about you, at all.  If say it just comes down to being a good person, or doing good things, then what we’re really saying is that we don’t think God is part of the equation, at all.

If we start applauding ourselves for living our good lives and making God happy by doing good things – then we’re not really trusting God, are we?  We’re putting our trust in our own actions to make us righteous – holy – before God.  And if that is where your faith is – then you’re choosing to raise yourself above the rest of creation.  Then salvation becomes a competition, judged by legal standards to assess your worth.  But there’s some hard news about Christianity, beloved of God: it’s not the Olympics.  It’s not a competition; there are neither winners, nor losers.

You are worth as much to God when you are born – no matter how you are when you are born – as you are on the day you die.  Whether you have ten fingers and ten toes, or twelve, or fourteen, or even none at all, to God, you’re priceless.  Not because of what you’ve done, but solely because God loves you.  In fact, we heard today that God loves the world so much that God was willing to take on human flesh and die for it…

So…here’s Nicodemus.

I mean, he’s not just Nicodemus.  He’s the catalyst, the reason behind what is probably the most memorable line of Scripture in our society.  And in most languages, I suspect.  That’s John 3:16 – for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believed in him would not perish but have eternal life.  

You can’t escape it.  If you go to a hockey game – or in particular, see one televised from the States – you’ll see someone holding up a placard with John 3:16 on it.  At football games, there’s always the unfortunate individual with a belly like a water buffalo, only a few litres of body paint away from an indecent exposure charge.  What’s written on his chest?  John 3:16.

But this man comes to see Jesus, at night.  Again, ‘by night’ is one of those details that John includes for a number of reasons – for John, ‘night’ is a metaphor for spiritual darkness (the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it), but it’s also the time when the Rabbis said it was best to study the Torah, away from the distractions and heat of the day.  And indeed, Nicodemus does come to see Jesus.

That first exchange is interesting, though – Nicodemus doesn’t begin with a question, but instead flatters Jesus – “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  We’ll never know what Nicodemus actually wanted from Jesus, because Jesus cuts him off with one of the most ambiguous lines of Scripture in the entire Bible.

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  But that’s only one way of translating it.  You may be more familiar with “born again”, some translations have “born anew” and still others have “reborn” – and all are perfectly fine, and correct, translations of the Greek word.  And it stops poor Nicodemus dead.

And Jesus continues with his teaching, spirit of spirit, and flesh of flesh.  The heart of Jesus teaching is that, like the camel going through the eye of the needle, being born anew or again is not something we can do, but it is something that God can do for us.

But you do realize that Nicodemus still doesn’t get it, don’t you?  “How can these things be?”

For the conquerer of people, it seems, is only interesting in the things that he can do to be righteous before God.  It’s a foreign idea to Nicodemus that God would act out of mercy to reach out to people.  Yet Jesus says that is exactly what will happen – just like the bronze serpent in the wilderness, that when the Israelites looked at it and were healed – so in Jesus’ own death he will draw all people to himself.

Nicodemus knows he’s been born.  He’s a respected elder in his community.  But also realise that in Nicodemus’ culture children were prized possessions, not valued or even necessarily ‘loved’ as we would imagine it.  And Jesus is telling him that must become worthless again, to his society.

But to be worthless to others is to be priceless to God.

And maybe, it’s when we find ourselves worthless that we can understand what it means to be baptized, to be loved by God for the sheer life of it.

Martin Luther said of the Christian life, that it was “nothing less than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing every day after.” [Large Catechism].

Maybe that’s worth considering, beloved.  Baptism is – generally – a one-time event.  Some people are baptized more than once, for various reasons that are between them and God.  But the struggle with sin is so great that there is a need to return to the waters of baptism every day – just so that you remember that you are God’s own.  That it’s not about us, or what we do, that makes us loved.

Baptism signifies that the old person in us – with all its sin and evil desires, is to be drowned and die.  The old person will die through sorrow for sin and through repentance, and then you will discover what it means to be born anew, each and every day: that every day, a new person rises up before God.

We don’t much about what happens to Nicodemus; but he did certainly go and think on those things that Jesus said.  He’s one of the group who asks for Jesus’ body after his crucifixion.  I like to think that Nicodemus found what it was to be born again: to leave sin, and the fear of death, and the fear that he was not ‘doing’ enough, behind; and find what it was like to live in the freedom of the Messiah, when every night all the sins of failures of the day before die, and in the morning you rise again, born again, born anew, born from above, and loved all the more. 

And beloved of God, it’s my prayer that you will find that freedom, and be born again.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Humanity, and Human-ness (Lent 1)

What does it mean to you, that you are human? 

It means a few things, at least.  You’re male, or female.  You’re Aboriginal, Caucasian, European, African, or Asian.  It means that you were created. 

But what’s after that?   The Genesis account puts humans into the garden, dependent upon the grace and goodness of God to provide.  Remember Luther’s explanation of the first commandment in the Small Catechism – “we are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.”  The people are to ‘keep’ the garden, and God will ‘keep’ them.  The relationship seems simpler.  God withholds information about the Tree in the garden from the humans; in the military, we may call this need-to-know information.  It’s the mistrust that follows that is the root of the first sin.

It turns out that the serpent doesn’t actually force them to do anything – all it does is put the merest shadow of a question in their minds – do we really trust God? 

It is the temptation to be self-sufficient and self-determining that seduces the first humans, nothing else. Somehow, though they are part of God’s good creation, that willingness to turn from God is a part of who they are.  Instead of doing what they were created to do – to fear, love, and trust God above all else – they change their focus instead to wanting to be like God.

They turn inwards, caring more about who they are than about whose they are.  And that first, innermost sin spreads like a virus throughout history and all of humanity.  It comes to us in the pre-eminence of human agency in our society.

‘Human agency’ is probably the single most overemphasized concept in our society.  Because of it, we are led to believe that we can choose everything we want, and that lack of choice infringes on our ‘rights’ as human beings.  We can choose grocery stores, sales, music, lifestyles; choice is always presented as a guaranteed fact.

But really, we don’t want that agency to extend to the consequences of our choice.  We just want that agency to be total freedom of the consequences of our choices – really, we want to be how we so popularly conceive of God: absolute power; no responsibility.

And that is endemic through our society.  People smoke, and blame and seek monetary damages when they get lung cancer.  Alcohol is a bane in our society, yet is still used to excuse stupid behaviour.  Every day, people die in silly ways as a direct result of their own choices…yet the blame is spread around…and usually, it gets laid on God.

We don’t often realize that the agency we demand is the agency that God gives us – the freedom, not just to make choices, but the total freedom which includes the consequences of those choices.

Remember: the serpent simply asks Eve and Adam if they really, really trust God.  Everything else is their actions.  They don’t anticipate that their choice is going to result in putting themselves in direct opposition to God; they just want to be in control, to be “all that they can be.”

In the same way, St. Paul wrote to the church at Rome so many years later.  In the excerpt from the epistle lesson for today, he really just tells them: you want your agency?  You have it.  But here’s the bad news. That means everything is up to you.  And if your salvation is up to you, then you have no way out.  Even if you’ve never heard of Christ.  But, Paul points out, if sin spread through one person’s choice, then shouldn’t God’s choice remove it?

When we think about our ‘humanness’, isn’t it curious that we automatically start by trying to explain what makes us, in and of ourselves, human?  We try to define ‘who’ we are, and forget all about whose we are.

A crucial part of the Christian journey is honesty, both with ourselves and with God.  If we are not willing to be honest, to be vulnerable, then we will never find a relationship deeper than the most casual acquaintance.  St. Paul knew that – throughout most of his letter to the Romans he keeps asking questions of himself:
                   Why do I sin?
                   Why do I fall short?
And you know, those are the same questions we ask ourselves.  Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, “today, I’m going to make my friend feel miserable by gossiping about her.  I’m going to sin, and I’m going to enjoy it.”

Even like we do now, Paul found that there was nothing he could do to avoid sin.  And then, he realized that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are pardoned and forgiven.  If that is true – if, in fact, God acted in Jesus to pardon us without our permission – then our salvation rests not in who we are or what we do, but in whose we are.  We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.

So our spiritual journey then, does not become one of moving towards a goal that God has set for us in the future – as we often think – but rather in becoming more truly human, fully dependent upon God for all things.  That is the example that Jesus shows in the wilderness, that strength is found in relationship with God.

The story of Jesus in the wilderness is a familiar one.  Again, he’s in the desert for 40 days.  The Holy Spirit leads him there after his baptism.  And there, he meets the devil.

Beloved, the devil tempts himself with Jesus’ power.  The devil wants to see Jesus be independent – do it on his own, thereby committing the same mistake made in the Garden.

But Jesus refuses to establish his own worth and identity on his own terms, and remains in relationship with God.  In short, he knows who he is by first remembering whose he is.  He fulfills the first commandment, remembering to fear, love, and trust God above all things.

And that’s an interesting lesson.  Because then the gospel lesson – and Lent itself – becomes less about resisting temptation, defying the devil, and growing spiritually, and becomes more about becoming aware of how insufficient our agency really is.  That it is our belief that we can do things on our own that kills us – kills our relationships with others, and with God.

And now we think: C’mon…it’s not that bad.  I don’t pretend to be God.  But I can run my life without God.  God is for Sunday…for funerals…for weddings…

But aren’t you just pretending you can dictate to God when God is allowed in your life?  That, in fact, you are still trying to be God in God’s place?

The season of Lent reveals to us that Jesus did not come to show us how to be divine.  He didn’t come to show that we could defeat the devil by proof-texting him into oblivion.  Instead, Jesus came in weakness to show us what it means to be truly human; to accept that we are created to be in relationship with God and with each other. 

Through our baptism into Christ, God names and claims us as God’s own children, a gift that is given to us because God wants to give it – and we become the beloved of God.
Our human-ness may come from a realization that the Holy Spirit is always with us, and leads us to places that we may not like – that our agency is really only in our minds. 
In Mark’s version of this wilderness story, Mark writes that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, in the same way a swarm of bees can drive a herd of cattle into a thicket of brambles.  These forty days of Lent, then, teach us not that God can be found through fasting or prayer – but that we might find ourselves in those disciplines, and the courage to live out our own baptismal covenant that calls us to return from our high and lofty places, and be led by the Spirit into our own wildernesses.
Beloved, our human-ness and our connection to community comes with trusting the Spirit of God that leads us out of this place and into those wild places, bearing nothing but the promise of the gospel and the presence of Christ.  The same Spirit leads us to be witnesses for our faith in word and deed even when that witnessing exposes us to the shame and ridicule of Christ on the cross. 
It is in our realization of our dependence upon God – God on the cross, God in the tomb, God raised eternally -- that we become, truly, human: created, chosen, baptized, and redeemed.

Let the people of God say amen.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

March 2 - Transfiguration Sunday

“It is good, Lord, for us to be here,” Peter says to Jesus.

My wife, it seems to me occasionally, comes from a family of dawdlers.  Trying to keep a deadline with them has in the past nearly driven me to decidedly un-Lutheran language.  And, it’s inherited: I'll find our eldest son, in the midst of our flurry of activity to get out the door and to church on time, is re-tying his shoes, or trying to create some kind of folk art at the kitchen table, sans coat, shoes, or hat. 

There really are times, though, that I would love for the world to just have a ‘pause’ button, that we could use for a moment.  Our eldest daughter, nestled in the crook of my arm and smelling of strawberries and prettiness; or our younger son, sitting beside me and reading to me from the latest masterpiece his five-year-old imagination created.  Sitting in church, surrounded by my friends, looking at the pulpit that I have stepped into every week, but won’t again.  It is good, Lord, for us to be here.  Indeed.

It may truly be good to be where we are, at any given moment.  But there is also a need to be always prepared for what is to come.  When I joined the Canadian Forces, the least amount of adaptation I had to do came with adjusting to the ‘sense of urgency’ that our instructors at basic training worked to instil in us.  The idea that we would move quickly, without rushing, but with a sense of purpose to the task at hand – whatever that may be, from digging a hole, creating a shelter, to mending the sick, or tending the dying. 

That ‘sense of urgency’, though, is all through the gospel text this week, beloved of God.  Some disciples climb the mountain with Jesus.  I don’t see them dawdling.  They see Jesus transfigured before them, becoming as pure as light – and Peter asks that they stay there.   But that’s not all.  There’s clouds, and a voice from heaven repeating what had be spoken at Jesus’ baptism.  Peter stands, and offers to build three houses.  He’s probably sketched out a brief plan on the ground in front of him.  When you’re up to pleasing the Almighty, you don’t dillydally.

Peter’s sense of urgency is to keep that moment going.  It is good for them to be there – just them, Jesus, the mountain, and the memory of that tremendous experience of God.  They know they’ve just seen the stuff that writes pages of Scripture.  They’re into their own retelling of Exodus, when God appears on the mountain.  Peter wants to stay there – urgently.  The faster stuff can get written down and commemorated, the faster that they can get to writing these things down.

Jesus has his own sense of urgency, as well.  Jesus has lived in that moment – it’s occasionally maddening to me that Jesus, who knew full well how to read and write, just didn’t. – and we’ll never know how he felt.  But we do know that literally, from the top of that mountain, that it was all (metaphorically speaking) downhill from there.  To Jerusalem.  To the garden.  The betrayal.  The cross.  The tomb.  Maybe some small, quiet part of the Saviour wanted to stay there, too.  But instead, he offers different words to Peter: Be  not afraid.

Whether Jesus tells Peter simply not to be afraid of him, or of the Heavenly Father, or of what the people had just seen – he’s also telling Peter not to be afraid of what’s ahead of them.  Don’t be afraid of the road to the cross.  Don’t be afraid of the cross.  Don’t be afraid of suffering, of dying, of death.

You know those times in your lives, beloved of God, when you’ve wanted to stay there, on top of the mountain, on top of the world.  Maybe it was the moment you knew you loved your spouse.  I hope it was the moment you first realized you loved your Saviour, or that your Saviour loves you.  I’ve been there.  You don’t want to leave.  You feel like you shouldn’t have to.  Better to build a tent up there, and close up shop, rather than risk contaminating the purity of your experience with the harsh and dirty world.

You do have to come down.  But when you’re down from that mountain, you do travel with your Saviour.  You travel with the one at the centre of the story, who simply says, “be not afraid.”  And you needn’t be afraid.

Beloved, your world will change.  Your understanding of Scripture, of the Bible, of the Church will change – hopefully, it will deepen and strengthen, as you travel down from that mountaintop experience.  But it will change, deepen, strengthen, because the One and only source of that experience walks with you.  You walk with Jesus.  Jesus walks, with you.

And about that journey, beloved of God – it is good for you to be there, too.  It’s in the journey down from the mountain that faith is found, and nurtured, and grown.  Walk together.  Pray and praise together.  Build each other up.  Listen to the Holy Spirit speaking among you.  Feel the Saviour, walking with you.  Move with a sense of urgency – knowing that each moment you spend together is only a brief glimpse of God’s kingdom of earth.  Thy kingdom come, you should pray, so that it would be on earth, as it is heaven.

And there, beloved of God, is definitely a good place to be.   

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lent 4 - The Prodigal Son

Let’s talk about the difference between a parable and a fable, beloved of God. I think there’s a need to begin to distinguish between the two; in a great deal of my own reading and listening to the message out there, there is a serious deficiency in telling the difference between a parable and a fable.

There are lots of fables.  Fables are those pithy little moral stories popularized by Aesop with titles like “The Ant and the Grasshopper” or “The Tortoise and the Hare”; that end with lines like, “slow and steady wins the race,” or “a fool and his money are soon parted.”  There are a couple of others that people often think they’re in the bible, and almost sound like they should be: spare the rod and spoil the child; and God only helps those who help themselves, God never gives you more than you can handle - but they’re not.  But a fable isn’t a parable. 

You repeat a fable.  You tell it over again and again.  But you bear witness to a parable, because a parable is a story that forces you and those you share it with, to consider your own life and situation.  That’s been tuned by decades of preaching into an urging to place yourselves in the parable you’re hearing.  So, in today’s parable of the prodigal son, you’re encouraged to consider: am I the father? The younger son? The elder?

I think there’s a problem there – and I can’t speak for you, but I don’t know that I’ve lived as interesting a life as the younger son.  In fact, my like has been pretty tame so far, compared to “devouring” someone’s estate with prostitutes.   I think that, like any Christian, I can see bits and pieces of myself in the younger son – I know my own heart to know the nasty things that lurk in there – but, Jesus uses this HUGE example of the sons’ bad behaviour, and moves right on out of my category.  At the same time, I’m not the strongly judgement elder son who believes that he needs to work to earn the love and blessings of his Father.  And I’m definitely not the Father, forgiving and reconciling.    

But what if instead of looking closer at that parable of Jesus, I was take a step back and look at it from a wider angle.  What if we’re not one of the main players?   What if, in fact, we took the position of one of those people in the crowd to whom Jesus is telling the parable, or as one of the servants in the field who are watching all this unfold.  So the parable doesn’t become about us, but about something we’re witnessing.

It has to do with the power of the parable.  Why does Jesus tell the story?  How many characters are there?  Now, take a step back, and see the crowd to whom Jesus is telling the story.  They’re listening.  They’re onlookers.  They’re like the servants or slaves in the field: no immediate involvement, but with a glimpse into what life in the kingdom of God looks like.

That’s kind of like our own lives, isn’t it?  We don’t – we can’t – always play out the high drama of the picture Jesus paints for us.  But we are peripherally part of other people’s lives, moving in and out of their story as the time or season changes.  You all know people whom you see more at certain times of year than others, they move in and out of your life, just as you move in, and out, of theirs.

We’re in the season of Lent, and characteristic of this season in that the purpose of our actions (if we’re giving something up), and our very being, is to bear witness to the gospel.  In some Christian traditions, the idea is to show off one’s own piety.  Lutherans aren’t really like that; in a nutshell, if we do things we don’t do them to show off that we’re good; we do them to show off that God is good.  So, we have some members who head out to the Bissel Centre for this weekend.  Some do it monthly.  But ideally, it’s not supposed to be about us.  It’s to point at the kingdom of God – or, as Paul says to the Corinthians, to be ambassadors for Christ.

Ambassadors bear witness to the values and beliefs of their country and represent those abroad.  The movie ‘Argo’ that recently came out captures events that happened in Iran in the late 1970s, when 6 Americans took refuge at the residence of the Canadian ambassador to Tehran.  It’s a great movie, but it’s taken some criticism for the way that the Canadian ambassador is presented: stereotypically.  He’s polite, nervous, and brave because the situation calls for it.  In reality, he represented the values that he held dear in the face of great danger, uncertainty, and likely death if discovered.

So in there lies the reality of the parable: not that it’s there for us to be in, but as something to which we can bear witness.  When we bear witness of the stories in these parables we are bearing witness to Christ.  They are not just there as teachings for Christians: they teach people to be Christians. 

We can tell parables of our own, as well: stories of lives that have been changed.  Maybe they’re our own lives; but I think more often we see the lives of others change.  Those lives change as people see that there is nothing in the world that will separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. 

Is it easy to see those stories?  Not really.  Not at all.  It is never easy to bear witness to messy human drama: the younger son leaving.  The elder son storming off.  But you remain witnesses to the Father’s great love.

As Paul writes, you are witnesses; ambassadors for Christ.  Be that with honour.  There is not much beyond that which you are called to do; do so with honour, and you will see the Father welcoming home his children with open arms, because he watches for them all the time.  You do not labour in vain.

The prodigal son is one of the great stories of our faith, and I think it’s necessary because even in the early church I think the majority of believers did not have the grand narrative of conversion.  The parable of the prodigal son is a witness to the Father’s love when the witnesses need it. 

Christianity is flooded with stories of grand conversions and works of God.  Yet throughout my life and profession I honestly don’t see many of those; though I’ve met many who exaggerate.  Yet, the one thing we share in common is baptism: the gift of God’s grace, to us. I’ll leave you with a story of my own:

A few years ago, before I came to St. Matthew’s I was in a call process with another church, and it was really odd.  I was given a questionnaire to complete, and one of the first questions was, can you describe when, and under what circumstances you became a Christian.  I was at a loss.  I have no memory, no recollection of life outside of the church.  So, I filled in my baptismal date: October 4, 1981.

A few days later I got a response back from the chair of the call committee, with the comment, “are you making a joke when you say that you accepted Jesus into your life when you were a month old?”  Now, that’s an odd question for a Lutheran call committee to ask.  So I waited a bit and thought out my response:

No, sir.  But that’s when Jesus accepted me into his.

In all you do, be ambassadors for Christ.  Bear witness to the love of the Father for the child who is found – and also, witness to the love for the son who remained.  You have been welcomed into the family and the Father has rejoiced over you – all are welcomed into the kingdom with celebration.

Let the people of God say amen.   

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Day

I read a book a this past summer that conveyed a very simple message to the reader – that keeping a population in a constant state of fear makes it easier to be controlled.  Reading that book, then looking around at my world, I see how in fact we are encouraged to be in a constant state of fear, if not despair, at all times.

Newspaper headlines scream about the economic catastrophe.  Four days – four days!! – of  weather headlines proclaimed the arrival of a snowstorm and cold snap that is really neither unexpected nor surprising for our geographic location and climate.  If we don’t have snow tires, all wheel drive, four wheel drive, or traction control, we’re warned that we may not even make it out of our drive way without becoming buried in an avalanche of biblical proportions.

And for what?  Would this even have made headlines 60 years ago?  A generation ago, winter came and went with nary a peep.  I’ve read newspaper articles from 1929 and 1930 that do more to foster hope in these circumstances than the blithest financial commentator on CNN.

And that’s just local news, really.  Watch the international news and…well, if you can make it through the international news without strong medication you’re a better person than I.   Even human interest stories – the Duggar family, for example, who just welcomed their 20th or 21st child – are tempered by editorial and reader comments that spout off such gems as “don’t they know that many children is too many for the environment to support,” and “don’t they know they’re hurting their children by not allowing them the room to be individuals?”

And don’t even ask me to comment on the health and lifestyle news.

Fear. Fear that you’re not doing enough.  That you’re not doing something right.  That the world is coming to an end as a direct result of  you and your choices.  Fear that death from dubious circumstances lurks just beyond your sofa.

Even religion prospers from fear – throughout its history Christianity has certainly been guilty of promulgating conversion through the threat of fiery hell while at the same time condemning other religions that use the same tactics. In the Small Catechism Martin Luther begins every explanation with the statement “we are to fear and love God…”

Your Pastor would argue that most – if not all – of the problems of the world stem from 3 essential fears – the fear of sin (doing something wrong), the fear of sorrow, and the fear of death.  Because people fear doing something wrong they do nothing, because they fear sorrow as the inevitable consequence of love they seek superficiality in relationships and use others as they themselves are used; and the fear of death that leads people to focus solely on their own immortality – through money, wealth, fame – as the expense of others.

St John writes in his first letter, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, for fear has to do with punishment.”  The root problem of fear is that it is irrevocably tied with the idea of punishment or retribution for what we’ve done wrong.  Fear paralyzes us, leaving us unable to move outwards to engage in relationships and it freezes our attentions onto ourselves and we need to do.

And God comes into this world?  Into this world of fear the Eternal Word becomes flesh and comes to us?  Yes!  That is exactly what happens.  Into this world of fear and fright and terror comes a single solitary baby.  And this baby did not become God – indeed, God became flesh and dwelt among us so that fear would cease.  Rather than living as humans doing all those things that kept us from punishment we would instead become humans being in relationship with each other because that fear of punishment is lifted.

When the angels appeared to the shepherds who were in the fields, they brought with them a message that contained three instructions:

1.)  do not fear.

2.)  Look.

3.)  See.

Three simple messages.

Do not fear.  The shepherds were terrified, as would we be if the night sky over Spruce Grove was suddenly populated by a celestial chorus wreathed in blinding light.  But their fear also had to do with the fact that, by and large, the angels in Old Testament stories are not usually ‘nice’ – they wrestle with you, or are part of a ginormous army, or are there to test you somehow – they aren’t cute, round, cuddly cherubim that look like Morgan with fluffy wings.  They big, powerful, and carry with them the terrifying reality that God actually exists and in all probability is mad at you.

But that night, the message they brought was different.  Do not fear.  That’s a common message in Scripture; that combination of words – ‘do not fear’ occur some 400 times in the 66 books of our Bible.  But the angels brought something different.  Instead of “do not fear, because the Lord is with you,” they brought the message ‘do not fear, because to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ, the Lord.”  Instead of God being with them in spirit, in the form of those militant angels striding the field of battle God was with them in their humanity; in the great colossal theological mess that we label “the Incarnation” and let it be.

Do not fear, because you have a Saviour.

Look.  Go and look at where he is.  Your king is born, not in a palace or castle but in a stable, and laid in a manger.  Look not in the things or places of power in your world – where you are told the beautiful people are – but look in the everyday for the presence of God.  In the manger, in the pages of a holy Book you will find the Christ, for he is present with you.  You no longer need to seek out God’s face because that tiny, chubby face is looking right back at you.

And see.  See the glory of God and the presence of Christ in your lives.  Yes, there’s a choir of angels in the night sky forming a celestial combo that’s rocking the world.  But Christ is with you.  See him.  Because in becoming human, Christ was one of us so that we may find Christ in each of us.

One tiny baby.  “Call him Joshua,” Mary was told.  Yeshua, in Hebrew, meaning “Yahweh saves.”  The Greek conquerors of a few centuries earlier left their linguistic legacy with Jesus.  We call him the Christ – the Messiah, the saviour that was born that day – this day – in the city of David.

Not a delivered from oppression of an occupying army or the yoke of poverty – although these are indeed consequences when his message is taken and practiced and lived – but delivered from fear.  From the fear of sin, sorrow, and death.

We talk of death-defying acts in our culture as those extreme-sports junkies who ski down mountains or parachute with a shopping bag from 60 000 feet.  But those are death-inviting acts.  You are participating in death-defying acts every morning you wake up, because you wake up baptized.

To defy death is to love Jesus Christ, and to love Christ is to bear out the expression of that love in relationships with each other.  We maybe use different language, though – instead of death-defying, we call these things life-inviting.  

I’ve often told confirmation classes and youth that I believe there are three things that are needed to have abundant life – God, love, and community.  Those three things can exist separately, certainly, and even any two of them can coexist – but finding all three means finding everlasting life.

Do not fear.  For God is with you and among you.
Look.  For love is in you, and is a gift of God.
See.  Because you are surrounded by community.

You are a holy people; the redeemed of the Lord.  You have been sought out.  Go out and lift up your sign before all peoples: the message “Do not fear, for Christ is with you.”

Christmas Eve - Never Wake a Sleeping Baby

Most people who gather here tonight will be somewhat familiar with the Macintyre household.  Two adults, four kids, and three bedrooms makes for a very loud, very busy household.  Yet we manage with a minimum of fuss and bloodshed.  The kids play very loudly usually; there is probably more than the normal amount of yelling, screeching, music-making, and general mayhem.

But the household is governed by one simple rule. It is the source of order and sanity in our little home; it is inviolable and concrete; those who dare to break it must suffer the scorn and derision of the rest of the family, and be publically shamed.  That rule is very, very, simple (and no, it isn’t ‘daddy is always right’):

It’s never wake a sleeping baby.

That does not, in fact, mean that our house is as quiet as a mausoleum for 14 hours a day.  I’ll make fair wagers that our home is just as much, if not more, chaotic than some others.  But that one rule reigns in our home.  Never wake a sleeping baby.

For the most part, we can be as loud as we want; because there are many things a baby can sleep through.  The vacuum cleaner.  The washing machine.  General chaos.  But, it turns out, in fact, that the baby will not sleep through conflict of any kind.  Tears over a hogged toy: the baby wakes up.  A temper tantrum over permission not given: the baby wakes up.  If I speak sharply to my wife, or one of the other littles (and it does happen): the baby wakes up.  Even I am not allowed to transgress that one rule.

So when I think about, and reflect upon that first Christmas night, I confess that my images are coloured by that one simple rule; that rule has been in place since the birth of our first child.  This proves problematic when I consider some of the popular hymnody that we sing at this time of year.

For example, take that little drummer boy carol.  I haven’t looked it up; but I would be very surprised to find that it had been written by someone with children.  Especially the part when Jesus’ mother gives the little boy permission to play, and the assorted barnyard animals keep time.

If you played a drum near my newborn, God would have mercy on your soul, I guarantee it.  I rather imagine that Mary would have looked at someone coming into that stable with a drum with the best ‘mother’ look a young woman could manage – you know, the kind that leaves an imprint of your shadow on the wall behind – and that drummer would have beaten a hasty retreat.

Never wake a sleeping baby.

It extends beyond that, too.  Do you know why angels appeared to shepherds in their fields, way out in the countryside?  Because not even an angel is going to wake a sleeping baby and invite the wrath of his mother.  The angels appeared to shepherds in their fields singing their ‘glories’ because it was a safe enough distance away.  They had to sing; there were going to sing; they just knew better than to do it in that stable.  And then the shepherds, who would understand all about keeping silent so as to not spook their flocks, went to see the baby.  The shepherds could adore, and love, in silence.

We sang ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain.”  That’s a good idea.  If you want to shout about the birth of the Messiah, go and find a mountain.  Don’t wake the baby.

It’s funny, what living in a house governed by that rule will do.  The littles learn conflict resolution skills at a very young age.  My wife and I learn that there is very little worth raising our voices over.  We all learn, in fact, that the presence of that baby in our house brings a peace that passes all understanding: it doesn’t change the way we are; but it changes who we are. 

Maybe there’s a lesson there to be shared; a lesson learned from a baby born in a stable, and laid in manger.  That welcoming that baby into our lives won’t change the way we are, but that baby will change who we are.

There’s something about spending time with babies – any babies – that changes the way we look at the world.  It’s not that it seems any more peaceful; in fact, more often than not a baby will throw the violence and capriciousness of the world into sharp relief.  But a sleeping baby…well, a sleeping baby is a beautiful thing.

A beautiful thing.  And sometimes, a painful thing.  My family has experienced the loss of a baby born sleeping.  I know too many parents who have buried their babies – even babies well into their 30s or 40s.  Joy at Christmas is tempered by sorrow; or maybe it’s the other way around sometimes: that sorrow that Christmas reminds us of can be tempered with joy, or hope.  I know that because of that baby born in Bethlehem there is hope that we will see those babies again.  But instead of watching them sleep, we can watch them wake up. 

Because there’s a big difference between watching a baby wake up from sleep, and waking one up.  For starters, the noise level is decidedly different.  But to see a baby come to gradual awareness of their world…that’s an amazing thing.  I sometimes think that a sleeping baby is seeing a little bit of heaven; and that when they’re startled awake they cry because they see the world for the way it is: and know doesn’t work the way it should. 

Never wake a sleeping baby.

This Christmastime beloved, try not to wake the baby who is sleeping in the manger.  Turn down the lights; light your candles.  Sing your songs, and say your prayers.  Let out your little ‘glorias’, and find your joy to the world.  But be at peace with each other.  Forgive those who long for, or ask, for your forgiveness.  Love those who do not; for your love means more than your forgiveness.  Let that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds on Christ Jesus.  Try not to wake the baby.

Soon enough, that baby will wake up; will wake up to a world of hate, and fear, and hunger; a world of uncertainty and doubt.  That baby will soon enough be a Saviour; will find out all too well about suffering, and shame, and dying, for you.  For you, so that you can know the everlasting peace that a sleeping baby, in a manger brings.

God comes as a baby, to us, tonight.  There is hope, and peace, in believing.  There is hope, and peace, to know that those who have died rest in love, and everlasting joy; because that sleeping baby became a king who reigns forever in a place where there is no sorrow, where this are no tears; where all there is, is glory.

Don’t wake a sleeping baby; watch, and wait, and wonder, and worship, because that baby is going to be your Saviour.