August 16, 2017

Keep Your eye on Jesus.

A few years ago, I was struggling with my faith. I went and talked to a friend who was a chaplain and asked him if it was silly to have faith in these ancient stories that seem far too much like fairy tales to be helpful in this modern scientific world.  He said to me very seriously and straight-faced that there are no atheists in foxholes.  Despite all our technology and know-how, when it gets scary and dangerous, everyone he knew, even tough guys who were prepared for violent stuff in the name of keeping us safe, turned to prayer in hopes that someone or something would hear them.

Joseph was in a foxhole of his own making.  His father Jacob was passing on the family history of bad choices, of playing favorites, and of the twelve brothers, he was the favorite.  It didn’t help that he had three step moms who had all competed for their husband’s affections, and that competition had been passed on to the sons.  If you read the whole story of Jacob and his children, even the boys’ names were reflective of the squabbles and fights between the women.  Sterility was a real issue of faith for Jacob’s wives, like Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca.  Having a baby was a sign of God’s favor so the children were named things like “surely my husband will love me now”, or “God comforts me because I am hated” or “I have wrestled with my sister and have won”.  Can you imagine growing up in such a family?  Talk about ugly dynamics!

So, Joseph, which by the way means either “God has taken away my shame” or “May God give me another son” has grown up in a family of competitiveness and anger.  It must have been ugly and embarrassing .  His mother died giving birth to his full brother, so he had no mother to take care of him.  And Jacob, not remembering, or maybe not thinking of the damage done by his father and mother’s playing favorites with him and Esau, plays favorites again.

How many times do we fall into the unhealthy patterns of our families, saying things that we swore we would never say, hearing ourselves talking like the people who parented us.  Children copy what they see their parents doing.  We know that people who grew up in addicted or violent homes or who are bounced through the foster care system have a much higher chance of being addicted or in jail because of the childhood trauma of a toxic family experience. 

Dr. Gabor Mate, when he gave his talk at the Nancy Applebee theatre last fall, talked about being born during the Second World War to a Jewish mother.  Even though neither of them ended up in a concentration camp, the trauma of having a mother living in a constant state of fear caused Mate to live with a high degree of anxiety that led to some strongly addictive behaviours that while they didn’t revolve around drugs, affected his professionalism and his finances.  Childhood stress like Joseph and his brothers experienced led them into angry confrontations.

Joseph was a bragger and a tattle tale.  He paraded around in his long robe and would tell them of his dreams of glory when the older ones would no longer have the power to bully him.  The brothers had no ‘shalom’ for him and so decided that murder was a perfect solution to the arrogant brat.  That’s chilling to say the least.  They sold him off to become a slave in Egypt.  I wonder what he was thinking when he realized that his spying and tattling had made them that hostile to him.  There’s no record of him being repentant or afraid or ashamed or anything.  But he is in a foxhole and there is no one who will help rescue him from going into slavery in a foreign land.

Peter, in his way, is also in a foxhole.  The sea of Galilee is not terribly wide, but it is chaotic.  Storms come up without warning, and back then there was no such thing as a swimming lesson at the pool in the summer.  Drowning for all the disciples is a real possibility. 

I remember someone in the Maritimes telling me that some sailors deliberately decided not to learn to swim so that if they did get caught in a storm, they would drown more quickly and peacefully.  Fishing was a dreadful job, and water was the most chaotic and dangerous place to be.  This story points to Jesus as the one who can still the chaos and make it possible to get through the most difficult things.  But when Peter takes his eyes off Jesus, he begins to drown.

I meet a lot of people who are in foxholes.  Some of those foxholes are of their own making, some are full of the family toxic stories and experiences that they had witnessed as children.  What is interesting are the folks who are climbing out of the foxholes.  I am starting to see patterns that suggest the ones who will make it out, and the ones who will stay stuck or get even deeper into their foxholes.

The number one factor is humbleness.  Peter doesn’t say, “If you can walk on water, I can too just watch me”.  There’s also a level of trust, “If you tell me to walk to you, I will do what you tell me.” And when he keeps his eyes on Jesus, he can make it.  He needs to remember to trust and watch Jesus.  When tragedy strikes, how many of us think we will go it alone, tough it out, pull ourselves out by our own bootstraps? But again and again, we find that its when we reach out for help, asking Jesus to be present in the midst of our foxholes, that we find new hope, new beginnings and a more godly, more shalom-filled way of life that fills, sustains and supports us on this journey we call life.

August 04, 2017

Patience of a Saint

Ever hear the phrase, ‘you must have the patience of a saint’?  I often hear it when I knit in public.  Now I confess, I like knitting in public.  One never knows when I might get to teach a child how to knit or crochet, or encourage a mom or dad to learn something new.  Yesterday, I had a great chat with some people who wanted to learn, some who used to knit, or who stated out loud that they were too stupid to learn.  Or even saying, “it must take so much patience in order to knit.”

There are times when knitting takes patience.  When dealing with a new pattern or learning a new technique, when using super fine or super slippery yarn, when on the last few rows of a big prayer shawl that is almost done, but the worst is when there is a knot.  There are the simple knots, but then there are the big huge tangled knots that look like they’ve been in the bottom of a drawer too long and gotten stubbornly convoluted out of sheer stubbornness.  If you don’t knit or sew, just imagine a pile of coathangers that have been in a box and travelled from one province to another.  Or fishing line that has come unwound.  Or remember cassette tapes when they got eaten by the tape player and you had to fish them out and you wondered if this was the last straw for that Oakridge Boys or Boney M tape?  That last one really dates us, doesn’t it?

We want things neat and tidy, we want to have a tangle-free life.  But all too often, we get knotted up and feel like we don’t know why the rest of the world is so messy.  Or we get tangled up in a pile of mistakes or even lies that leave us in an emotional mess.

That’s what happened to Jacob.  He was a dreadful con artist, the worst kind.  Last week we heard the story of how he cheated his older brother out of his brother’s potential inheritance.  Jacob didn’t stop at that. 

He stooped so low that he conned and cheated his own father as the poor man lay dying.  Now I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty disgusting.  It’s one thing to phone up total strangers like what’s been happening frequently at my house and being told that I’m going to go to jail for not paying Canada Revenue Agency enough taxes.  Or pretending to be a boyfriend who always needs money but never has any to help me out, or any of the numerous other scams that are out there.  But cheating your dad on the last day you will ever see him alive, that’s pretty low.  That’s nasty and mean and downright despicable. 

And so he runs for his life to get away from his brother who is more than a little steamed at him.  And when we least expect it, and certainly when Jacob least expects it, Jacob has a dream of God’s ladder and hears a promise for the future not just for him, but for his children and his children’s children.  Why Jacob?  Why not his father Isaac or his older brother Esau?  There’s no explaining God’s choice.

I think it’s a perfect counterpoint to the wheat and the weeds parable that Jesus told.  For those of us who grew up on the King James bible, this was the wheat and the tares.  And ‘tares’ is an old name for the bearded darnel that looks very much like wheat.  It’s a nasty weed.  Its roots will surround the roots of real wheat, stealing their moisture and nutrients.  Its seeds even look like wheat too, but can cause hallucinations and even death.  It’s one poisonous plant.

So Jesus told a story of why there are evil, nasty and cheating people like Jacob in the world.  But then he throws a caution into the story.  While the servants see the weeds and want to pull them to prevent them from ruining thecrop, the landowner, in this case God, says to be patient and wait until everything is ready to harvest.  That’s when the sorting will take place.

Not by the servants, but by the harvest experts, the angels going up and down the ladder who see humans from above, from a bigger perspective than we do.

It’s very tempting and human to decide which people are the weeds and which aren’t, to sort people into the bad guys and the good guys.  There’s something very primeval and satisfactory in doing so.  All we have to do is look at the debate around Omar Kadr, or the fear-mongering about Syrian refugees.  People wave the ‘terrorist’ label around and they feel good that they aren’t the bad guys, not like those blankety blank people who are different.  And yet, God doesn’t work that way.

God doesn’t jump to conclusions.  God has patience, the patience even stronger than that of a saint.  God can see the goodness in a con man who cheats his dying father, who lies to his brother and sides with his mother who seems determined to treat her own husband with terrible disrespect, and doesn’t care how hurtful or destructive this will be to the whole family.

God picks this man to inherit Abraham’s promise?  Not the eldest who has been cheated and stolen from?  God has patience, and sees from up high what we can’t see.  God sees the potential in human hearts that we can’t see ourselves.  God is ready to work miracles that we can’t imagine, and God is willing to be patient enough to unravel our twisted, complex knotty lives until we see how God has been with us even when we thought we were all alone in our tangled mess.  Thanks be to God for that wonderful love and grace that has such patience!

July 22, 2017

Flip Flop Flip Flop

Sharon and Bram sang a song called “Ham and Eggs” when they were in Athabasca last week, and when I was struggling with my usual, “What am I going to preach on” pre-sermon writing session, I prayerfully asked God for help, and I got their song stuck in my head.

It’s a pretty straightforward song, “Ham and Eggs, Ham and Eggs, I like mine nice and brown, you like yours upside down, ham and eggs, ham and eggs, flip flop flip flop ham and eggs.”

Now when a song like that gets stuck in my head, and I have a lot of songs I have heard over the years that can get stuck in my head, I usually wonder, why that song and not something like Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way” or even some hymn like “Amazing Grace”.  Especially a hymn, when I’m trying to come up with a sermon.  But no, I get ‘flip flop flip flop’ instead.  Hardly gratifying or useful.

Except that Jesus is talking about flip-flopping and so is Paul.  The flip-flopping of folks who want to hear God’s word as all fun and games or as all serious business.  The flip-flopping of souls who want to do what is right and follow all the rules that they think are important.  Even the flip-flopping of what we think God wants compared to what God actually wants.

We want easy answers that we can stick to and follow through on that are efficient, effective, simple and straightforward.  We want quick results.  We want a recipe that will help us connect with God that won’t require any painful work or change on our parts.  We want all this and when it is a convenient time for us.  “Not right now, God, can you come back later when I’m not so busy?”  Or “we don’t want to be bothered with this whole God stuff at all, too hard, too complicated, too much like work, I’m just a simple person, and I don’t want to deal with anything too intellectual.”

Paul got that.  He knew what it was like to search for the secret recipe, and he thought he had it down pat.  Follow the law, obey the commandments, do the sacrifices, listen to the temple authorities, and you will be in God’s good books.  He was part of the system that Jesus criticized.  Paul was a Pharisee, one of the children, in Jesus’ words, that was flip flopping about Jesus and John.  He would have been focussed on following all the purity laws to be holy, to be reconciled to God.  Follow the rules, be a good boy, and God will look after the rest.

His writing today then is about his attempt to lead that perfect life, and how inadequate it is to try to live by such rules.  He even went as far as to challenge the system, he says that the law is impossible to follow, it keeps tripping him up.  And it’s easy for the law to become more important than God.  I think that when he had his conversion experience, Paul experienced God in a powerful, personal and private moment that made his search, his striving for perfection unnecessary.  He figured out that he had been aiming the wrong way.  He had been aiming at the Law, not at God.  It goes back to the idea of scripture being a pointer to God, but if we get fixated on the pointer instead of what it is pointing to, we have lost the whole point of the scripture in the first place.

The Pharisees thought it was more about criticizing other people’s failures and scolding them than it was about God.  They got caught up in the shame and blame game, dismissing John, Paul and Jesus’ message.  They were more interested in looking smug and perfect than in letting God transform their lives.  They were more concerned about appearances than about transformations.

Not too different than today, when you think about it.  We live in a small town where everyone knows everybody.  Where people like to tell stories of their neighbors and make judgements about them.  Where we like to know who we can trust and who we can avoid.  We see each other behaving in all kinds of different places.  I know how my neighbor treats the waitress in the Green Spot, or how the store clerk treats new employees.  We know how the town council treats each other and how the teen center is going.  We like to feel like we’re better than the church up the hill or down the road or across the river.  We like to feel better than others and compare ourselves to those who are struggling to deal with issues of marital conflict or addictions or employability.  We like to feel that we have power and influence over others.  But Paul and Jesus would caution us.

It’s not about feeling superior to others, having better recycling practises or healthier lifestyles or fatter bank accounts.  It’s about whether we’re open to God’s grace in our lives.  About letting go of the tiring flip flop between feeling superior or feeling inferior to others as we compare ourselves to them.  Why do we do that?  Jesus says that such judgementalness gets in the way of the simple truth that God loves us all.  Paul reminds us that Jesus makes all things possible, even the healing of my contradictory, flip-flopping willpower.

It’s so simple that even a child can figure it out.  Rest and relax from the burden of being judged and judgemental, of attempting perfection and demanding it of others.  Instead, ask humbly for God to deal with the things that wear us down.  When we do that, we do find that the burden is light for we carry it with the love, the grace and the strength that God gives us when we humbly ask for the gentle sustaining help that Jesus has promised us.  Thanks be that God never flip flops but loves us, supports us, encourages us, and grows us as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus and Paul.

July 05, 2017

What are you thirsting for?

Yesterday we had a great, world-wide celebration of this little land of ours that some call Canada.  Or maybe more accurately, a celebration of the political system that has been in place for 150 years, because as we are all aware, there were people here far before John A. Macdonald ever came up with the idea to create our system of territories, provinces, power and legislation.

I sat in the basement yesterday and was approached by Lorna who asked the most important question of the day.  Tea or Coffee?  In other words, what are you thirsty for?

I also noticed that there was water and juice available for the folks who wanted a caffeine free alternative.  That’s hospitality and welcome.  And of course, there was the beer garden down at the river front, and peach smoothies, and there were all kinds of pop and soda available.  For those who wanted something else, Buylow was open as well as the tavern and various liquor stores.  We know how to quench our thirst.

But Jesus isn’t giving us a lesson on how to be a good server or bar tender.  Jesus is talking about a different thirst.  The thirst of the soul.  The thirst for something that we may not even be able to put into words. The thirst for ‘living water’.

Nursing homes talk about the three plagues of aging: loneliness, helplessness and hopelessness.  Those three are confined to the elderly.  We all struggle with them and that struggle can lead us into trouble.

Loneliness is easy to fix, right?  Just hang out with a crowd.  Go down to the riverside and watch the fireworks explode and hear Doug and the Slugs sing “Day by Day” and “Making it work”.  Look around and see who else is singing along, and you have a friend for life, right? 

Not so much.  There are times when the loneliest place to be is in a crowd.  Imagine a new immigrant to Athabasca who doesn’t speak the language, know the music or understand the references to people like Stompin’ Tom.  Who wonder why everyone is jumping up and down singing, “It’s a Heave Ho coming down the plains, stealing wheat and barley and all the other grains”.

Or someone who is caught in depression, or fearing the family bully that they will see at the evening barbecue.  Loneliness is difficult one to fix because when we try too hard, when we collect people like they are beads on a necklace or notches on a gun, we alienate them.  We also find people who can be manipulative despite our best efforts, who can be abusive, controlling or just having the wrong opinion because they are the only folks in the world who believe blackberries are better than apples or vice versa.

Helplessness is vicious.  We grew up with toxic family systems, we got used to being bullied, abused, or controlled by people or culture or politics.  We feel like we have no power.  Often our response is to grab on to it as hard as we can, which can also become toxic.  We try to get on every board in town, we control every inch of our house, we organize the cans on our shelves like soldiers, we still have hospital corners on our beds, we tell our children and friends how to behave where and when.  This can be fine, but it can also get out of control and the next thing we discover our adult children challenge us on our own attempts to control and fix them.  How many stories have we heard of countries who rise up to defeat a political system like apartheid or communism, only to hear that chaos is still erupting as people scramble to replace them with something just as ruthless?

Then there’s hopelessness.  We ask, “is that all there is?” and think that if we keep dancing, we can ignore the hole we feel at that thought. 

We give up on life and don’t try anything new.  Or we put our hope in money or stuff or politics or our autograph collection or our house or our stocks and bonds.  I read about Eldon Foote on CBC yesterday.  He was born and raised in Hanna Alberta, and went to the University of Alberta.  He also became a multimillionaire, and on his death gave most of his money to charities, and only a token amount to his third wife or his numerous children.  Money doesn’t quench our thirst for hope.

These three plagues, loneliness, helplessness and hopelessness are rampant and we search for a new Garden of Eden to cure them.  Canada is not the Garden of Eden.  Hopefully it is evolving in that general direction, by such historic events as the Truth and Reconciliation commission and future opportunities to listen to each other.  But even the most naïve optimists will never claim that Canada is a Garden of Eden.  We can get angry at that, and there are times when we must stand on guard for that, but I think we miss an important opportunity.

We are called to be in reconciliation not just with each other, but with the very heart of creation, the giant mystery that we put a tiny label on, God.  When we work to reconcile ourselves with God, we find our thirst finally quenched.  We find real community.  We find a shared voice that speaks loudly and strongly for equality.  We find the ability to practise radical hospitality. And we find an amazing picture of hope for the future, one that we build together with others who share in our thirst to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly in this beautiful land the Creator has given us.  When we serve living water to our thirsty neighbors, through our kind looks, our careful listening and our willingness to support them in our journey, we are making a great legacy, on earth as it is in heaven. May it be so.

June 17, 2017

Inspiring Winds

Pentecost is here again.  It doesn’t seem so long ago that we celebrated it.  Last year I remember that we had so many folks here from Fort MacMurray that we decided to not use flame and fire for our service.  We did some serious rethinking and scrambling to come up with wind images, and the folks who had fled the fire were most appreciative.

But this year, I don’t know what to do.  Wednesday the wind was spectacular and fierce.  On this block, trees were blown over, rain barrels knocked over and the screen door to the church office was pulled right off its hinges.  The only thing that kept it from heading to the river was the chain and metal piston that attached it at the top of the door jam.  I looked outside my window and it was like a grey fog there was so much dust and dirt blowing down the street.  I honestly wondered if it was a tornado, and if I would be heading to Kansas on a rocking chair!

Wind is dangerous, and unpredictable.  It is noisy and flighty.  No wonder the people in Acts came running to see what was happening.  Luke, the writer, combined the two most dangerous and unpredictable forces of nature, fire and wind, to describe the workings of the Spirit amid that confused gathering of disciples.

It was also transformative.  The disciples were meeting yet again behind closed and locked doors, afraid of going outside their safe place.  Going out into the dangerous world of deceitful politicians, violent foreigners, and religious spokesmen who were more interested in power than in justice.  And yet despite all that, they burst out into the open with joy and enthusiasm, full of the Spirit and unwilling, no, unable to keep their story a secret any longer.  That the one they had followed as a friend turned out to be so much more than they had first thought, and his teachings so different than the other rabbis, that they could not explain it in any other way than that he was the true Emperor.

Augustus Christos? No way! From that moment on, Jesus Christos was their ruler, their guide, and the one they pledged allegiance to, making them traitors to the very empire they lived in.  Even torture and death would not, did not stop them.  They forgot that they were ignorant peasants, they forgot that they were poverty-stricken, they forgot that they had no education or fancy clothes or rich bank accounts or clever leadership training in public speaking.

They were inspired to go and make a difference in the world. A world that doesn’t look too much different than today.  Or does it?  We now understand the importance of human rights, something that was unheard of in Roman Society.  We have a dislike of slavery, something seen as commonplace back then.  We have public schooling, we have much better healthcare and a democratic system that the Romans would have envied.

But we too live in unsettling times where we don’t trust politicians, authority figures and those we think we should depend on to guide us through the challenges we face.  With attacks in London, confusing definitions of freedom of speech, elected officials getting into physical altercations with reporters, and the fearmongering that is being spread, when we are hearing about bullying and discrimination in the RCMP and bank tellers being pressured to sell, sell, sell, it’s hard to know who to trust or how to care about what happens to our neighbors.

We need a support person, a cheer leader to get, as my teenagers used to say, ‘our mojo going’.  We do that by remembering that, in the words of 1 Corinthians, we are many parts of the one body, we are all given different gifts through the Spirit.  Our gifts won’t make a difference if we use them as individuals for our own benefit, but as part of a community, watch out world!

We are all part of a community for an important reason.  We share our gifts together and we become more than the sum of our parts.  Peter didn’t start the church by himself. 

Jesus gathered a community and trained them to work together.  Paul, as soon as he came into a new town, made friends of folks before he taught them what he knew.  We gather in community because we are stronger that way.  We get inspiration from one another and from gathering together.

Inspiration.  What is the root of that word?  ‘Spiri’ – the latin root for breath or wind.  In spire means breath in that keeps us going.  Spiri, the root of the word Spirit.  For those of you who speak ancient Greek or Hebrew, the same word for Spirit also meant breath.  Breathe on me breath of God.  But where do we turn for that inspiration?

I met someone very inspiring to me at Olds, a neighbor from Lister hall at University.  I hadn’t seen her in over 35 years, and I was astonished that she was United Church.  I asked her when she became United, and she said she grew up in the church.  How come I didn’t know that, I asked her.  Because you were a very cynical, angry atheist!  She was more surprised than I was to see me there.  And her example of courage and kindness that inspired me when I was young was the Spirit blowing me back into church community. 

The Spirit moves to inspire us in unexpected ways.  All that wind on Wednesday didn’t touch my empty plastic flowerpots sitting in the front yard.  It is a mystery I can’t comprehend.  The Spirit blows fiercely and with fire and energy when we least expect it, but also gently and lovingly at other times.  The Spirit is not a tame lion, and will inspire us not to play it safe but to convert and support wild-eyed bitter atheists like myself in ways we can’t imagine.  The Spirit is not done with you yet, or us yet, or even the world yet.  God so loved the world, and God is not stopping.  Thanks be to God!

June 03, 2017

Eager to do Good?

Are we eager to do good?  What a question! And even though it is a short question, it is complicated.  How do we know what good even is?  As history shows, there are lots of times when decent Christian folks thought that they were doing good, but in the end, it was not the case.  The residential school system comes immediately to mind.

The simple answer to that is what we do should follow Jesus’ commandments to love God and love Neighbor and love self.  Loving our neighbors without judging them could have reduced and prevented some of Christianity’s greatest sources of embarrassment and shame, like the crusades or witch hunts.

I wonder, though, if we have let those historic failures become a reason to avoid doing good.  We don’t want to make such a colossal blunder again, so we don’t do anything.  We become suspicious of eagerness, and we worry about what the neighbors think.  We fear slander, lies, gossip, maligning our characters, being labeled a religious fanatic by family and friends if we do.  Yet we are not to fear that.  “Do not fear what the world fears, and do not be intimidated.”

We are called to be Easter people, people who have heard the good news that there is nothing the world can throw at us that will stop the message of God’s love.  We are called to be eager, to share our hope when we are asked, with gentleness and respect.  We are called to be lights of the world, to speak out against the evils that we see, and be eager to do something about it.

I remember being on a Habitat for Humanity build one year with my church.  It wasn’t a fund raiser, it was a team project to help out families who struggled to find affordable homes.  We had one fellow who also was on the build because he was court ordered to do community service.  As we cheerfully worked away with hammers and saws and many jokes and laughs, he grumbled and swore. 

When he grumpily asked how much time we had to serve, we told him we were volunteers.  Why the * would we do that, he asked.  Because that’s what Christians do.  He thought we were crazy, but that was his problem not ours.

Generosity, love, kindness, gentleness, these are what we are called to be as Easter people.  But we’re not called to be nice.  We are called to make bold statements, to be a shining light in this troubled world.  If we are just nice, then we aren’t really Christians.  No, because we are to be prepared to suffer for doing good.  We are to be brave and strong for what is right.

But that brings us back to what is good?  It needs, first of all, a lot of prayer to make sure that what we think is good is indeed a loving thing and not just an ego trip.  And second, it needs to ask the question, ‘will people be angry if we do this?’

When the United Church protested Japanese Internment camps, people got angry at them.  When the United Church decided to ordain women, people left the church.  When the United Church married divorced people, they were scorned as not Christian enough.  When the United Church said it was okay to ordain the GLTBQ community as long as they had gone through the same process as everyone else, they were heaped with ridicule, hate and anger.  When they apologized for their involvement in residential schools and for the Port Alberni abuses, there was scorn from Canadians about that too. What will cause scorn and anger today?

One way is by lighting a candle.  We light our Christ Candle this Easter season not because it’s a nice thing to do, like putting birthday candles on a cake, but because it is to remind us of who we are and whose we are.  It is a powerful act of protest against the anger and hatred and greed in the world.

There is a Methodist church in South Africa who started buying candles made in a poor neighborhood during Apartheid. Each Sunday they would light their candle and name the folks who had gone missing, who had been beaten up, or who had been arrested.  Even teenagers were being scooped up and locked up.  The church sold the candles to other congregations to help this little neighborhood, and it spread like wildfire.  We heard about it even in Canada, as we also have Methodist roots.  The candles were being sold around the world. 

The South African government did not like this.  They did not like the prayer, and they passed a law making it illegal to light these candles in church.  Can you imagine, police would charge into Sunday Worship to stop it?  They smashed doors and broke windows.  The congregations suffered.  They suffered, people, but their eagerness to do good did not stop them!  It still does not stop them.  Even today they gather to pray and to testify that government corruption is not what God intends for this world.

What would we be eager to do good for?  Who is it that needs our gentle loving support?  Who would we light this candle for even though it might mean scorn and scandal?  Homeless people in Athabasca who sleep in the Gazebo or in the pottery studio across the street?  Families torn apart by the Fentanyl crisis?  People who have lost family members to random acts of destruction by disturbed people using cars or guns in public spaces?  People who struggle with mental illness and are afraid to admit that they need help?

Are we brave enough to light this candle? 

Let us pray:  Oh God, you sent your son Jesus to be the light of the world.  The world was afraid and reacted with violence and scorn to silence his light.  But You would not let that be the end of his story.  The world did not understand your light-bringer, but they also did not destroy him.  Help us to have the courage to be eager to do good in wise and loving ways. Amen.

April 19, 2017

Easter Earthquakes anyone?

How many of you have experienced an earthquake?  I was surprised to learn that in some places where earthquakes happen frequently, people put rubber bands on their cupboard doors to keep the dishes from falling out and smashing.  I am very grateful to live in Alberta which rarely experiences an earthquake.

I’ll never forget one earthquake, the main earthquake that shook up my life.  One night when I was ten, a few weeks before Christmas, my parents woke me and my brother and told us that my baby sister had died in their arms.  My strong, wise, invincible parents couldn’t stop crying and the world was suddenly filled with danger, injustice and cruelty.

Earthquakes are like that.  They turn our worlds upside down.  A doctor sends you for more tests, a police officer knocks on the door, the phone rings in the middle of the night.

Earthquakes leave us paralyzed with fear, unable to move.  They destroy our innocence, our assumptions and beliefs about the world we live in.

The cross is an earthquake, an ugly tool of shame and cruelty.  In the Roman Empire, it was used never used on citizens and the wealthy, only on slaves and traitors.  It could take days to die.  In some cultures, if you could survive for three days, you would be granted your freedom.  When the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem some forty years after Jesus’ death, they recorded crucifying hundreds of Jewish rebels as a warning to others – conform, obey or else!  this practise continues today – it’s cheap, easy and a public way to send a message of fear to the people that are targeted for intimidation.

We turn the cross into a piece of pretty jewelry, trying to sentimentalize it.  We pretty it up, cover it up, tattoo it, ignore it, and even say that it does not deserve a place in our churches. It’s old-fashioned and barbaric.  We know at some level, it is a symbol that we should be squeamish about.  It is an earthquake that changes the way we look at life.  It is stark and bare and rough.

It sits on the earth and reaches for the sky, a reminder of our human yearning for better things.  It is a symbol of justice run amok and state control that needs to be constantly checked.  It inspires the social justice movement to speak truth to power.  So, for some, the cross is a visual reminder to keep political. 

For others, the cross has wide arms that reach out to embrace the world.  Jesus died for me, a sinner, and I am unworthy.  Jesus suffered so that I will not, Jesus was punished so I will be pardoned.  And so, the arms of the cross embrace me.

For others, the cross is two pieces of wood with nails in it.  It is something they can see and touch, but that is all it is.  There is no magic to it.  It is a symbol of religion gone mad – what kind of loving father God would torture his son to death? God is an abusive, insensitive parent not worth believing in.

For some it is the ultimate exploitation of an innocent victim, the innocent lamb.  I have difficulty with that one.  Jesus deliberately went out of his way to insult and challenge the religious leaders of the day.  He knocked over the tables in the temple, he took a bullwhip to temple workers, he ridiculed the Pharisees and scribes for their beliefs, he showed them up in public, and he rode a donkey into town as a piece of political satire that would be worthy of Rick Mercer or Stephen Colbert.  Hardly lamblike behavior.  He provoked the authorities and they responded.  His own disciples, according to all the gospels, were worried and asked him to either tone it down, not talk about dying in Jerusalem, or even avoid the town altogether.  Jesus saw the cross as a challenge that he would not avoid.

Paul said it best, the cross is foolish to the logical philosophers and a stumbling block to religious hierarchies.

Unless it is intended to be an earthquake that turns everything upside down, that says, ‘stop looking for easy answers.’  not either or, but both and.  That says, look at the intersections, not the extremes.

Is it about the individual? Yes. Is it about the political? Yes.  Is it about personal salvation? Yes. Is it about challenging societal norms? You betcha.  Does it encourage us to think? Definitely. Is it wanting us to empathize? Of course! Is it wanting to give us easy answers? No, because there is no end in our understanding of this day.

The empty cross points to a new way of looking at ourselves and our neighbors.  It is a new way of looking at Jesus and even at God.  It invites us to look both outward at our world and inward at our souls.  It transforms the way we look at Jesus. 

If this big old, ugly, bloodthirsty, cruel, embarrassing cross couldn’t stop Jesus, if it couldn’t shut up the Marys, if it renergized Peter the liar, the disciples who abandoned Jesus, the Pharisees like Nicodemus who loved him, the persecutors like Paul, the countless martyrs and saints who took the cross and Jesus seriously, and encouraged modern saints like Martin Luther King and Canadians like Douglas John Hall or Paul Walfell or Stan McKay or Lois Wilson to act boldly, why should it stop us? 

Why should it not inspire us to remember the earthquake message, ‘Don’t be afraid’.  Let this cross be an earthquake moment that transforms us into bold witnesses like Peter and Paul.  Let us proclaim Jesus risen, triumphant and glorified beyond fear and oppression.  Let us be filled with courage and hope, for this is what the Cross stands for, the mystery at the heart of our gospels and our traditions.  Halleluiah!