Sunday, April 17, 2011

How to Vote: Sermon, Palm Sunday, April 17, 2011

Matthew 21:1-11

Giving all glory and honour to God.

My family on my father’s side has always been quite political. One of ancestors sat in the first New Brunswick Legislature in the 1780s. My grandmother’s family, the Hatfields, were all Liberals until my great-uncle Heber became a Conservative. That was youthful rebellion at the start of the 20th century, you defied your parents by being a Tory. The Liberal riding association would meet in the Hatfield general store, and Heber could hear everything through the stove pipe, and he would tell the Tories all the Liberal plans. He went on to be elected as a Member of Parliament, and his son Richard was Premier of New Brunswick. The family was still divided. In his first election Richard was the Conservative candidate and his brother-in-law was the Liberal. Richard’s sister Rheta never said whom she voted for in that election, her brother or her husband.

I’m thinking about this as last year on Palm Sunday I preached that 20 centuries ago there would in fact have been two parades. One stars Jesus, and today we have had our own version of this parade, people waving palm branches and laying their cloaks on the road and shouting Hosanna. The other parade stars the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. For before the festivals he and his troops would march from the coast, to beef up the garrison in the fortress so that the pilgrims can be monitored and the power of the Roman empire displayed.

These two parades are such a contrast. The kingdom of God and the empire of this world. Jesus is indeed a king, but a completely different kind of king than anyone expects, the Son of God, a king who comes to bring a realm of love and peace and justice. Pilate represents the Roman emperor, who is also called the Son of God, and claims to rule with peace and justice, but with the world’s ways with armies and navies and legislation and taxes.

Today, long after and far away from Jerusalem in the year 30 or so, these two parades continue. And we participate in both at the same time. That’s right, we try to walk with Jesus on his way, where our duty is to love God and each other and seek justice and resist evil. And we live in civil society, in a country that has a military and taxes and laws just like the Roman Empire, and we are citizens here with duties and responsibilities. Just as in the time of Jesus, we have to live faithfully in empire.

We have a responsibility which didn’t exist in the time of Jesus, to elect our representatives in elections for the federal Parliament, the provincial Parliament, and the township council. We had municipal elections last year, in the fall we will vote provincially, and right now we’re in the middle of a federal election campaign. And we see lawn signs and media stories for the election in our riding, Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry, and we’re deciding which candidate we will support on May 2nd. So today’s sermon is called How to Vote.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to say who to vote for. My family has an allergy to being told in church which party to elect, as my mother grew up in Quebec during the period when you were told in church that you must vote for the Union Nationale government of Premier Maurice Duplessis. This has horrified us ever since. And, as I said, my father’s family was split between two political loyalties, but he saw that the relatives who voted for one party were no better Christians, or no worse, than ones who voted for the other. I’m saying that a follower of Jesus can in good conscience support any party and any candidate in this election, and it will be a legitimate choice. There have been times and places where believers in Jesus could not in good faith vote for a certain party, but we are fortunate to live in Canada today where it’s not unchristian to vote a certain way.

So I don’t think, and the United Church of Canada doesn’t think, that the church should be a partisan cheerleader for a political party or candidate. As Canadian Christians we can vote for whomever we wish. But as people of faith, our beliefs impact on every aspect of our lives, including our political choices. Our faith does have something to say about voting. Our vote is an act of faith, for it is a witness to what we believe, a chance to make a difference for the common good. So this sermon is about how to vote – how to choose.

God calls us to be engaged in the world, to play a role in shaping society, to be witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ all the time, including during elections. We have a right and a responsibility as citizens of Canada to participate in elections, and we have a responsibility as citizens of heaven to bring our values to the ballot box (with us as we go behind that cardboard screen and make our mark on the ballot paper). So here are some suggestions for how to vote.

The first thing is to vote. When my great uncle was elected in 1940, 70% of eligible Canadians voted. In 2008 it was only 59%, and among younger people it’s very low. And, with our duty to love and serve others, if we are going to vote, we need to check if our neighbours need help getting to the polls.

We have to educate ourselves about where the parties and candidates stand. Our values as followers of Jesus include pursuing the common good, overcoming poverty and injustice, and caring for the Earth, and these are benchmarks for us as we look over the party platforms. We have to evaluate the promises made during the campaign, asking about each promise if it is just, and inclusive of everyone. And we can ask questions informed by our faith as we engage in debate, at all candidates meetings and at our door and in letters and online, asking where the candidates stand on issues like criminal justice, democracy, peace, agriculture, debt and taxes, immigration, health care, poverty, justice for aboriginal peoples, the environment, and others. The United Church has an election kit that discusses these issues, and there is information in the bulletin.

And we can pray, for the party leaders, candidates, election workers, and for us as voters. The Book of Common Prayer has a prayer before an election, and as we prepare ourselves to bring our faith to how we vote, let’s pray it.

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom: Guide and direct, we humbly ask you, the minds of all of us who are called at this time to elect fit persons to serve in the House of Commons. Grant that in the exercise of our choice we may promote your glory, and the welfare of this country, And this we beg for the sake of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Quotations From the Chairman

I have a little book I got at a garage sale, published in 1969, Quotations from Chairman Jesus. Its title was meant to be a play on the ubiquitous Red Book of Chairman Mao's quotations, always being brandished by Red Guards in photos from China during the Cultural Revolution. We're a lot less sentimental about the Cultural Revolution and its human toll than people were 40 years ago.

The book itself is a collection of quotes by and about Jesus from the New Testament and some other early church writings, but I have always been moved by the poetic foreword by Daniel Berrigan, whose name was prominent in Christian circles during the 1960s. Here is the first part of his poem, written for a different time of cultural unrest and war in Vietnam (and language that wasn't inclusive), but speaking with fresh words to our time of war in Libya and Afghanistan:

The gospel of Jesus is spoken in a world
intoxicated with death
mesmerized by death
convinced of the necessary rule of death
skilfully conniving with death
technologizing death
acceding to the omnipresence of death

And Jesus says No
to this omnivorous power
So his word makes the slight
all but imperceptible difference
(which is finally the only difference).
A good man, himself powerless,
stands at the side of powerless men
and says to death No
for them for himself

Can any of you
place before you a single child, smiling
squirming in your arms; and say
The death of this child is a fact of modern war; I accede
to that death. I regret it of course
but what can one do? We have to destroy
in order to save; villages, women, children.
The system traps us all...

The system; horrible word! Can the system
trap the conscience of a free man? Traps are for
animals; freedom is for men. I cannot speak
for you but I will not wait upon Caesar
to instruct me in God's word. I am a man. I can read;

If a man will save his life, let him lose it.
I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.
Whatever you do to the least of these my brothers,
you do to me.
Blessed are you who suffer persecution for justice's sake...

Jesus had nothing to say to "systems", except to deny
their power over him.
He said in effect, violence stops here (pointing to his body)
He said in effect, it is better to die for others
than to live (live?) in a trap.

Be concrete be immediate! Imagine the world!
If you embrace a child, can you consent
to the death of a child? each human face
leads you (follow!) to every human face.

I can only tell you what I believe. I believe
I cannot be saved by foreign policies
I cannot be saved by sexual revolutions
I cannot be saved by the gross national product
I cannot be saved by nuclear deterrents
I cannot be saved by aldermen, priests, artists,
plumbers, city planners, social engineers,
nor by the Vatican, nor by the World Buddhist Association,
nor by Hitler nor by Joan of Arc
nor by angels nor archangels nor by powers and dominations

I can be saved only by Jesus Christ.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Resurrection and Life: Sermon, April 10, 2011

John 11:1-45

Giving all glory and honour to God.

Lazarus is dead. Our story today is about death. In our society we try not to think too much about death, even though death is our constant companion. We see hundreds of people die fake deaths in TV crime shows and mysteries, and real deaths in the news from Libya and the Ivory Coast and Japan. All of us have experienced in some way the death of a loved one or friend, and probably quite a few deaths. We may have planned for our own death, for all of us are walking around with an expiry date on us, a date we don’t know, but at some point many of us try to get ready through wills and estate planning and funeral pre-arrangement. But death isn’t a topic we like to talk about. It’s unpleasant. It makes us uncomfortable. It scares us.

But this story allows us to reflect on death which will come to us all, and how we react to death among us. Lazarus is a close friend of Jesus, the brother of Mary and Martha, and Jesus likes to stop in at his friends’ home and rest and be entertained. And Jesus gets word that Lazarus is sick. We can all relate to this, hearing that a friend is ill. And in this conversation his followers don’t understand what Jesus means. Jesus says, ‘Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going to wake him up.’ And they say, well, if he’s only sleeping, he will get well. Once again, the words of Jesus are taken too literally – at that time, sleep was a less harsh term for death, just as we avoid the word dead and say that someone has passed away or has been called home. But then Jesus is direct; he says, ‘Lazarus is dead.’ This sounds hard. Some of us prefer less direct ways of saying this, and avoid saying ‘dead,’ referring instead to someone passing. But sometimes we need to hear plainly. Your friend is dead. Your spouse is dead. The truth may be painful and catastrophic, but hearing it is the first step in healing.

So when Jesus and his group arrive, Lazarus has been dead and buried for four days. And Martha says to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.’ Mary tells Jesus too, if you had been here Lazarus wouldn’t have died. What human, honest words. We try to detect the tone of voice behind these words, and the sisters seem angry. That is one of the stages we go through in our grief when a loved one has died. The sisters can’t keep back their feelings. But they can’t escape from their faith in Jesus either, and I hear this very human mixture of anger and belief when I talk with people in sorrow. The sisters know that Jesus has a unique relationship with God. Martha confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the one promised by God.

Mary and Martha are just like us, for we say too, in hurt and in resentment, if only God had been here, if only God had healed my parent or spouse or sibling or child, if only God had prevented this happening, I would not be going through this pain.

Yet Jesus goes through pain himself, for next in the story it says, ‘When Jesus saw Mary crying and the people who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled.’ Next is the answer to many trivia questions, what is the shortest sentence in the Bible? John 11:35 – ‘Jesus wept.’ It is indeed the shortest sentence in the Bible, and one of the most moving, and astonishing. Jesus, the Word of God made human, God’s child, knows weeping, knows deep grief, knows being moved by the sorrow and hurt of his friends. The word translated as ‘deeply disturbed’ is really more powerful. In Greek it could also be used to describe a horse snorting – it’s trying to convey that such strong emotions seize Jesus that he groans involuntarily.

Here Jesus, who shows us God, is indeed showing us what God is like. Jesus doesn’t show us a passionless and compassionless God who ignores our suffering. Jesus shows us God afflicted with grief as we are, God caring so much that God’s heart is racked by anguish at the agony of God’s people, God sharing our tears. Jesus wept. God weeps.

And if Jesus weeps, God weeps, we can weep too. So often we are told, stay strong, don’t give in to tears. Boys in particular are instructed, men don’t cry. And we express admiration for family and friends who don’t cry at the funeral home or the funeral service, saying, look how composed they are – when in our grief we should act as Jesus does, we should let out our tears and our anger and our upheaval rather than keep them bottled up inside.

Every death is tremendously upsetting to the family and friends of the deceased, even if it has been expected for a long time, whether it’s the only death that day or part of a natural disaster that kills thousands of people. So far this story seems to be about just another death, no matter how much sorrow Mary and Martha and Jesus experience. But now it takes a turn. Jesus is very emotional as he comes to the tomb, with its entrance covered by a large stone, and says, ‘Remove the stone.’ And Martha tells him, ‘The smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.’ In the King James Bible, she says, ‘He stinketh.’ But resurrections happen where things are messy and smelly, not in clean, perfect surroundings. They do move the stone, Jesus prays and then shouts ‘Lazarus, come out!’ And the dead man does come out, still wrapped in the burial cloths used in those days, and Jesus says, ‘Untie him and let him go.’

Well, that’s amazing. Jesus raises Lazarus from death, after four days. Scholars argue about how much of this story is historical and how much is mythical. No one knows if things took place in the way this story is written. But it doesn’t really matter whether or not Jesus literally raised a dead man to life on a certain date in history. For John, writing this story, Lazarus being restored to physical life isn’t what matters most. What does matter, what matters a lot, is what the story tells us, that God in Jesus loves so much that tears flow and emotions become overwhelming. And it matters the most what Jesus tells Martha: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die.’ That is the whole point of this story.

We often hear these words at funerals. This has been called the greatest of the ‘I am’ statements Jesus makes in John’s Gospel, perhaps the greatest saying in the whole Bible. I am the resurrection and the life. We have probably heard these words many times, but we can only grasp at their meaning. For when Jesus refers in John’s Gospel to life, or eternal life, or living forever, he doesn’t necessarily mean what we hear.

Jesus means life in this life. Resurrection and life for him mean resurrection right now, not from physical death, but from living as if we are dead, dead to sin, lost to all that is worth calling life. We may live selfishly, as if we are dead to the needs of others. We may live with insensitivity, as if we are dead to the feelings of others. We may live with hopelessness, spiritually dead. And Jesus calls us from these deaths within life, unbinds us from selfishness and insensitivity and greed and despair, and sets us free to live true lives here and now. As he said, I have come that they may have life, and more abundant life.

And that is good news. Jesus calls to us as he called to Lazarus, and frees us from spiritual death in the lives we live now. But is that all, wonderful as that is? Does this story have anything for us as we contemplate physical death? Yes, it does, and Martha realizes this as she talks about the resurrection at the last day. Jesus is the resurrection and the life in this world, and the next. In him we are certain that death is not the end. William Barclay writes in his commentary on John, in Jesus we know that we are on the way, not to the sunset, but to the sunrise, that death is a gate into a new kind of life.

When we trust in Jesus, when we accept his gift of new life, we enter into a new relationship with God, and into a new life in which life has a new beauty, a new strength, and is free from the fear and futility of life without faith in God. This life in Christ is so rich and beautiful that it cannot end in death. When we believe that God is as Jesus shows God to be, infinitely loving and forgiving and accepting, then we need not fear death, for death at the end of our lives here means going into the eternal joy of God’s loving presence. The Apostle Paul tells the Thessalonians, don’t grieve in the same way as others who have no hope, for since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so we also believe that God will raise those who have died. And Paul says, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us, for I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor things nor things to come, can separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord. Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Death may still be disturbing to us, may still frighten us no matter how much we trust God, but we have the hope that in death we do not perish, for Jesus has defeated death and has taken away its sting. He is the resurrection and the life.

And that is what we take away from this story. That is the truth behind the questions about what may have happened in history. There is another story, about a troop ship returning across the Pacific Ocean at the end of the Second World War. And an army chaplain led a Bible study on this story of Lazarus, and after they studied it an American Marine came to him and said, “Everything in that chapter is pointing at me.” He said that he had been living in hell, the hell of war and of trouble he had been in, so that he felt that his life was ruined. He felt dead. But he told the chaplain, “After reading this I have come alive again. I know that this resurrection Jesus is talking about is real here and now, for he has raised me from death to life.” In his sin and guilt that Marine came to know Jesus as the resurrection and the life, true and abundant life in the present, and true and abundant life that death cannot bring to an end. He knew, and so can we. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Acts of God: Sermon, April 3, 2011

I was greatly inspired by Brian McLaren's response to John Piper on theodicy in the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Brian's article struck a chord with me, that is certainly reflected in this sermon.

Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Giving all glory and honour to God.

Jesus heals a man who was born blind. Our reading is referred to in the hymn Amazing Grace, which quotes the blind man in the story, “I was blind but now I see.” This could also be the story Hank Williams mentions in his song I Saw the Light: “Just like the blind man who God gave back his sight, praise the Lord, I saw the light.”

And the followers of Jesus ask him, “Who sinned so that this man was born blind, him or his parents?” At that time people believed that illness was the result of sin; if you were blind or deaf or had a physical deformity, it wasn’t because of bacteria or genetics or some environmental cause, but was a punishment for something you had done wrong or your parents had done wrong. And Jesus breaks this link between sin and sickness; he says that neither this man nor his parents sinned to cause his blindness, and heals him.

In the story the Pharisees keep saying that the man was blind because of his sin. Even the followers of Jesus ask who sinned to make the man blind, him or his parents. They are trying to figure out why bad things happen to people, and their answer is that the people must be bad. And we still struggle with this. We may not think that sin causes disease or disability. But we look around the world and see natural disasters, floods and earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanoes and hurricanes. In just the last year or so we have watched flooding in Pakistan, and quakes that have devastated Haiti, and New Zealand, and Japan, and places we hear less about in China and Burma, and we are still hearing about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, and the Indian Ocean tsunami. And we ask for answers, just as the Pharisees and followers of Jesus did, 20 centuries ago. It’s an age-old question: why do the innocent suffer? It’s easier to come up with answers in the case of war and poverty, where sin does play a role – but it’s the reverse of the attitudes on display in this story, for it isn’t the sin of the victims causing their suffering, but the collective sin of societies and empires that perpetuates violence and injustice.

But it’s different in the case of natural disasters, because they are, after all, natural. Society doesn’t cause the earth to shake or winds to blow or volcanoes to erupt, although humanity’s impact on the earth’s climate may play a role in hurricanes and flooding. But the earthquake and tsunami that devastated part of Japan and killed 10,000 people – that was completely natural, the result of two giant plates in the planet’s crust grinding together.

So did someone sin to cause this? Some Christians have said yes, the disaster in Japan was brought about by the country’s sins in the Japanese aggression that led to World War II in the Pacific, 70 years ago. Others have laid the blame on all of us, saying that God is punishing humanity as a whole for wandering from the right path. But many Christians, the majority according to opinion polls, do not believe this.

We call these natural disasters acts of God. If you read your home insurance policy, or travelers’ insurance if you’re going anywhere, it refers to acts of God.

So there is even bigger and more difficult question for us, if human sin doesn’t cause these catastrophes. Are these truly acts of God? Did God make the earth heave in Japan and a tidal wave wash over towns and people, killing thousands and leaving millions more suffering in their grief and homelessness and under threat of nuclear radiation? Well, some pretty respected Christians say yes. A prominent theologian named John Piper points out that in the Bible earthquakes are attributed to God, because God is Lord of heaven and earth. Nature does not have a will of its own. God controls everything. Nothing is random. So, somehow, God has a good and wise purpose for this tragedy, as God has hundreds of thousands of purposes, which remain hidden to us until they are finally revealed at the end of time.

So there’s an answer. God took thousands of lives, as one step toward achieving an unknown purpose in God’s plan for good. We have probably heard this before, about deaths and cancer and all kinds of events we don’t understand: It’s God’s will. It’s God’s plan. This is a simple answer, clear cut, and it solves all our problems about why there is suffering and where God is in tragedies.

I think this is trying to get at the truth, as God’s purposes are indeed unknown, but I’m not sure this is a complete, or satisfying, or helpful, answer. I’m not sure that the explanation of evil and suffering in the world is this simple. And I’m not sure that this does solve our problems, as what seems simple can just get more complicated as we ponder whether this makes God seem, well, less loving than heartless and uncaring. We may wonder if this answer is really spiritually blind, blind to who God is.

We know that the Bible says that God is love. We know that the Bible says that Jesus came to show us what God is like. So what do we see Jesus doing, in this story and the other stories we read? Another prominent Christian thinker, Brian McLaren, and I like his work a lot, says that the scandal of God becoming human in Jesus is how Jesus acts. Jesus doesn’t take control. He doesn’t micro manage. He doesn’t eliminate all suffering and evil, yet he doesn’t cause any additional suffering and evil either. He doesn’t give in to the temptation offered to him, to take power over all the nations of the world and become an earthly ruler.

Instead, look at what Jesus is doing at the beginning of today’s story. He’s walking along. He’s on his way from one place to another. Brian McLaren points out that that’s what Jesus does, goes quietly from town to town, confronting suffering and evil, urging people to turn away from their sins that inflict suffering and evil on others, and healing and liberating people from suffering and evil so they can see spiritually, people like the man born blind. Jesus doesn’t force this healing on anyone; he allows them in faith to accept it, and to become, as the letter to the Ephesians says, children of the light. And then, at the end of this season of Lent, we will hear again how God ultimately deals with suffering and evil, in Jesus on the cross: in pain and tears, taking all of the suffering of the world into the heart of God and healing it, no through vengeance, but through forgiveness and love. Martin Luther talked about how God is made known to us, not in glory, not in control, but in the suffering of Jesus on the cross. God’s power and God’s kingdom appear in weakness.

So, if we look at our universe with spiritual eyes, eyes of faith, maybe God is not a dictator. The realm of God, the kingdom of God, is not totalitarian. Instead, perhaps God allows the universe to evolve on its own. So possibly the way God rules is not through absolute control, but through absolute commitment to be with us whatever happens, working to bring healing from suffering, good from evil, hope from despair. This is how we see God appear to us in Jesus, the king who is born as a tiny, vulnerable baby, the king who washes his friends’ feet, the king whose power is not through conquering and violence but through suffering and dying, and rising again. God is not waving an almighty hand and sweeping away homes and lives; God is wrapping us in loving arms and holding us close. God is present with us in suffering, feeling our agony, crying with us, sharing our loss, bearing our hurt, moving in the Spirit to give us courage and to empower us to offer empathy and aid to victims of catastrophe, in huge disasters like Japan, and the personal disasters we experience of sickness and fire and death.

This may not be a complete answer. But, you know, the best answers to the problem of suffering and evil in the world work better in a classroom or from a church pulpit than in a hospital room, or beneath a pile of rubble from an earthquake. When we are in pain, or see pain in our world, an intellectual answer is of little comfort. We can’t always, or ever, understand what is happening when tragedies strike and lives and land are devastated. But we can know this – when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us.