April 21, 2019

“You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48).

We certainly are. Thanks for the reminder, Jesus.

Because we need reminders of the resurrection -- and often. Left to our own devices, left to the way in which life returns to normal after Easter, it’s all too easy to forget the resurrection.

As a result, resurrection has the tendency to be a less than present reality, more likely a claim about a past event or a future assurance. Why is the presence of resurrection often overlooked? Understated? Even denied? Why do we seem to be more comfortable keeping resurrection in the past or postponing its promises for the future? Why is it so difficult? What are we afraid of?

Why is life, here and now, so hard to see?

I recall a series of pastoral visits with a young professional woman who worked around the clock. She had little time for a social life, her work moved her every three years and she was lonely for partnership, life-long partnership to be specific. She joined some of the online dating services you likely have heard of, Lavalife, Plenty of Fish, etc… To see this young woman was to see someone our culture would name as conventionally attractive and I say that only to underscore that this kind-hearted, well-adjusted, clever and attractive woman had no difficulty meeting potential partners. But she was restless, she felt she was missing out on Mr. Right and she had a checklist to ensure she would know him when she set eyes upon him.

This woman shared with me the list, none of the items were surprising, all qualities most of us might look for in a potential partner. But she was adamant this Mr. Right had to check off all these boxes or it just wouldn’t work out. Needless to say when men went on the website and saw her photo and read her profile she had no shortage of dates. Some nights she went on three dates, one after the other. At the end of week this woman would write me a short email to let me know how the search was going. She wanted me to keep her and her search in my prayers. I did.

Years went by, this ambitious woman was promoted many times and she moved to two new cities. I would hear from her periodically. Then out of the blue she wrote to say she was in town, here, and wanted me to meet someone. We three met at a local coffee shop and I met her Mr. Right, they were engaged, wanted me to perform the wedding. When he went to the washroom she leaned over and asked me what I thought of her new man. I told her he made an excellent impression, he seemed interesting, bright, thoughtful and funny. I liked him. As I continued I got caught trying to find the right words…she interrupted and said, “I know what you want to say, he is none of the seven items on my checklist. I can’t explain it, when I met him I just knew, my heart saw something my eyes did not.

New Testament Lutheran scholar Karoline Lewis believes that our doubts and lack of vision have more to do with our cultural assumptions. We live with the myth of meritocracy, the belief that if you work hard and play by the rules everything will work out for you. So we assume that those we are looking for will come in the guise of the kind of success we see on TV, facebook, in advertising. If we are looking for a sign that sign will come in the form of worldly success; looks, money, things, popularity, being conventional at all costs. That is what we think we are looking for, “one day our prince will come…on a white horse…to rescue us…to take us away from all this…to a mansion somewhere in the clouds.”

“The women in Luke’s Gospel return from the tomb, go to the disciples and testify to what they themselves heard and witnessed, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again” (Luke 24:5-7). And how do the disciples respond? They conclude that what the woman have to say is “an idle tale,” which, as many of you know, is the G-rated version of the Greek word better translated as “crap, garbage” or, yes, you guessed it, “bull… ”. Why? Because disbelief and doubt surround notions of sacrifice for a higher cause, humility makes no sense when might equals right and mystery is no match for cold hard reality. Resurrection? Are you kidding me? If the resurrection really is true, well then, there goes life as we knew it. In the words of Anna Carter Florence, “if dead people don’t even stay dead, what is there to count on?””

Life, here and now, is very hard to see. In the end, I think being resurrection people takes some effort, in fact, a lot of effort. And some weeks will demand more effort than others. Jesus knows this reality, our reality. And knows that we need a reminder. In fact, we probably need a lot of them, daily perhaps. Notice the tense of Jesus’ assertion -- not “you were,” not “you will be,” but “you are.” I have a feeling Jesus takes that seriously. You are witnesses, here and now, in this moment. In this life. In your daily life. For the sake of life. Jesus reminds us of who we really are -- resurrection people, resurrection witnesses.

While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him…The disciples spoke to this stranger and told him, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel, it is now the third day since these things took place. Some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive…When the stranger was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him as Jesus.

When I was reading over the materials provided to me as a candidate for the Minister position at Bethany in 2015 I read the section where you were asked to describe the church you wanted to become. It was a litany words and images associated with some of the churches here in Halifax that have achieved numerical success, clearly a goal shared by many who participated in that visioning day. When I read the document I could hear echoes of the Rock Church, Bedford United and St. Benedict Parish. Now you might say there three churches have very little in common, and you would be right! But what they all share is a large congregation. It was clear to me the vision was less about how and more about what a successful church should look like.

In these last few years I believe we have been “witnesses of these things”, that our eyes have been open and we have seen the resurrection in our midst. I have! There are so many examples it would take another sermon to itemize them. But one small example is the ISANS Conversation Circle, a collective of new and familiar faces at Bethany who have participated in a dialogue with our newest Canadians, many who come from far away countries, who practice other faiths than ours. I have looked in the rooms of Bethany and seen you Mavis and Karen and Zenora and Pat and Mary and Pam and Shirley and Yvonne and other Mary and Donna and Nancy. I have seen the look on your faces, and the eyes being open. I know you have seen resurrection. So have I!

Those who followed Jesus expected to amass an army and overthrow the Roman Empire, King David style. Further, if he did die and come back to life he would return on a white horse with sword in his hand. Instead Jesus appeared as a stranger, in a simple meal, walking along-side their journey. Only when they broke bread together did their eyes open and their hearts burn.

God is doing something here and we cannot control it, thanks be to God! It is a gift and it is coming to life in ways we might never have predicted or even wanted. But the resurrection is here and it is full of new life. We are witnesses to this. You and me, together. Let us rejoice at what God is doing and see with new eyes the community we are meant to be. Amen.

April 19, 2019

He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah”

 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.”

Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”

Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.”

As many of you know I love to read and talk about philosophy and sports. It’s rare I find an article that weaves these two topics together. George Will has a fascinating column on why he loves professional baseball. He reminds his readers that of all the professional sports only baseball will pay an athlete millions of dollars and call him a superstar if he hits safely one third of the time. That means two thirds of the time this “superstar” fails.

When it comes to opportunities to make a difference, to do right, to screw up the courage and meet the moment, we are not content with a .300 average are we? I know I lose sleep and consider myself a moral failure when a moment arrives out of the blue and I am asked to respond like Jesus did and rather than rise to the occasion I fail like Peter. We live with those failures, all of us. We always have, we always will.

And yet we now have new and convenient ways to hide that shame, to bury that guilt, to fool even ourselves into some moral satisfaction. With the advent of social media and celebrity culture and knowing each and every failure that someone chronicles and we as voyeurs consume we now have a means of putting our own failures in context, or so we tell ourselves. How many times have we been participating in a live conversation or online doing the same and the topic is a moral failing, someone who had the chance to put themselves at risk and possibly save another from pain and suffering and s/he simply took a pass, walked by, looked the other way? How many times have we participated in that conversation and each of us takes turns getting on our moral high horse and proclaimed, “can you imagine, someone who did nothing, why if that were me…”

We make a public showing of our fidelity to justice. We shame others who have failed and puff ourselves up that we would have done better. But deep down we are not sure. Deep down we remember. The times we wanted a job and the boss made a terribly racist statement about one of the candidates. We said nothing, hoping he would pick us. Or when we heard the church down the street had called a new Minister and she would be the first woman to stand in the pulpit. The women we were with had some unkind words about that. We said nothing. Or your grandson has recently changed his gender, he is now she. That was hard for you. But you got there, you wanted her to be happy. She told you “God made me this way, I am a woman.” But at the coffee shop your friends are mocking transgendered persons. You don’t want to cause a fuss. You say nothing.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was aggrieved. Jesus had just asked him for the third time if he loved him. Peter had already wholeheartedly answered yes twice. What else was he supposed to say? Had he lost Jesus’ trust?

“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

It wasn’t that Jesus doubted Peter’s love. Instead, he had allowed Peter to affirm his love for Jesus for each denial he had made on that terrible night. The love and the denial were part of the relationship, as they are part of every relationship. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t.

Peter’s failure had been humiliating. He had proclaimed his loyalty to Jesus in front of everyone during the Passover meal: “I will lay down my life for you.” He really thought he would. When Jesus replied, “The rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times,” Peter couldn’t imagine it. Jesus could. We all fail. All of us.

Peter had no idea how weak he really was, how vulnerable to the temptation of acceptance and personal security. The memory of the servant girl was the most painful. “You also are not one of this man’s disciples are you?” He completely caved. “I am not.”

I am not. Those haunting words had kept Peter awake at night. Some rock he turned out to be. “Who am I? What am I?” he wondered. The Peter of Upper Room proclamations? The Peter who lopped off Malchus’ ear in the garden? Or the Peter who cowered before a servant girl?

In truth, the real Peter was all of those things: loyal, loving, bold, quick-tongued, and very weak in his sin. That night Peter discovered how much he depended on Jesus for strength. He was not strong. He was not superior to the others. He was not above denying the One he loved most in front of a servant girl.

Peter’s failure did not define him. It was a horrible, humbling stumble along the path of following Jesus. He was not Peter “The Denier” but Peter “The Forgiven.”

One of Peter’s good friends later wrote, “For we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). This is very true. When Jesus chose us to be his disciples, he knew our future failures as sure as he knew Peter’s. We may be surprised by our own frailty, but Jesus isn’t. We may be tempted to say, “That’s not the real me.” But it is. Facing and admitting our failures is one way Jesus teaches us what the gospel is. Our failures show us what we really are: sinners and saints.

The church of Jesus Christ is a fellowship of forgiven failures. And in Peter Jesus shows us how he can transform a failure into a rock of strength for his church. Empowered by the Spirit of his beloved Lord, Peter became a humble, encouraging, suffering, and persevering disciple of Jesus. And he became a bold ambassador of the gospel of forgiveness to the most miserable failures.

Good Friday carries with it many messages. No doubt you have heard them. Jesus died for our sins. Jesus took all our collective sins and made a pure and total sacrifice on our behalf. The price is paid. All we must do is accept this sacrifice, accept Jesus as THE Saviour and move forward, forgiven, saved, waiting for heaven. Peter’s relationship seems more complex than that, less “once and for all”, less relying on what Jesus did and content with the rest of his life to witness to same.

Hear John’s last conversation between Peter and Jesus.

Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. …After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Feed, tend, feed, in essence look after those in your midst. And in doing so those moments that test our character, our faith, our moral strength and resolve, will come and come and come. We will all have those moments come to us. And like Peter we will fail. And like Peter we will be forgiven. And like Peter we will get another chance, another opportunity to feed, to tend, to feed those who need our solidarity, here, there, around the world, if necessary.

sacrifice.jpg

My friends, we have loved, we have failed and we are loved. Amen.

April 14, 2019

Two weeks ago we said goodbye to our friends Grace and Les. This week I was referred to two families, one grieving the loss of a mother, the other living through the loss of a father. The referrals came as a result of family members being present at a funeral where I offered some leadership. Sometimes you just show up at the right time to walk on rocky ground with people who are hurting. At funerals, and in life, when you walk on the rocky ground it helps to be moving in the right direction, moving in an accessible manner, opening ourselves up to the healing power of our loving God.

We walk on rocky ground together. That is how it was meant to be.

One of my favorite singer songwriters is Bruce Springsteen. Apparently he is an amazing live performer. Recently Springsteen penned and sang a spiritual called Rocky Ground.

You raise your children and you teach 'them to walk straight and sure

You pray that hard times, hard times, come no more

You try to sleep, you toss and turn, the bottom's dropping out

Where you once had faith now there's only doubt

You pray for guidance, only silence now meets your prayers

The morning breaks, you awake but no one's there

We've been traveling over rocky ground, rocky ground

“Rocky Ground” by Bruce Springsteen

We’ve all been there haven’t we? We walk straight and sure, we pray that hard times come no more, we pray for faith and there is only doubt, we pray for guidance and no one is there. But here’s the thing, sometimes, when we allow ourselves to walk on the rocky ground, when we show up, when we make ourselves accessible, when we open ourselves up in a humble manner, ready to receive the healing power, it comes. I have seen it, I have experienced it, I believe in it.

Let’s talk about the rocky ground Jesus walked with his disciples, specifically the rocky ground to Jerusalem. I want you to have some context, so you understand why that road was so rocky, so fraught with danger and anticipation. Author and scholar Marcus Borg paints this picture as clearly as anyone I have read. He writes:

As the week of Passover begins, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and people cheer him, shouting "Hosanna - blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." Less well-known is the historical fact that a Roman imperial procession was also entering Jerusalem for Passover from the other side of the city. It happened every year: the Roman governor of Judea, whose residence was in Caesarea on the coast, rode up to Jerusalem in order to be present in the city in case there were riots at Passover, the most politically volatile of the annual Jewish festivals. With him came soldiers and cavalry to reinforce the imperial garrison in Jerusalem.

It is clear what Pilate's procession was about. By proclaiming the pomp and power of empire, its purpose was to intimidate. But what about Jesus's procession, his entry into the city? Jesus came at the right time, Jesus was accessible to everyone and Jesus came in humility, on a donkey, ready to heal, ready to touch, ready to connect each and every person to the abundant love of our Creator God.

There is something about Jean Vanier. I have heard him talk many times. He is unlike any other speaker I have ever seen. He arrives at an event with a gentleness and openness I have never seen before or since. There is a vulnerability about him, people want to touch him, his smile changes the room. And yet his words are prophetic and hardly sentimental, he challenges us to see each other less in competition and more in vulnerable affection. Vanier begins all of his talks with his own brokenness, how he only realized how broken he was when he met people who were broken and could not hide it. Vanier says when you speak to someone who cannot speak, when you stand in front of someone who lives in a chair, when you look deep into the eyes of a person who cannot hide their brokenness what do you say, what do you do, how do you share what is deep inside you with the other?

The answer is that you use your body, your eyes, your touch, to convey connection and recognition of each other as sisters and brothers.

When Jesus walked on the rocky ground those hurting souls walking beside him cried out and sang Hosanna. The Pharisees charged through the crowd to Jesus and tell him to contain and rebuke his disciples. Jesus reply is matter of fact, it is bold and truthful, and it is a revelation of a greater kingdom. In short, it is nothing less than captivating. He says to them: “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (verse 40).

Stones are a frequently used Biblical metaphor. Jesus is considered to be the cornerstone of the church. Peter is considered to be a rock on which the church is built. Building on the rock indicates a solid foundation. Stones make up the solid foundation from which the church rises.

When I was in Ireland with Kim the one piece of landscape that captured my imagination was the stone walls. Everywhere we went stones were gathered in all shapes and sizes and layered one on top of the other. The walls were never neat and tidy, something you would expect to see in North America. There is something inherently rough and unfinished about those stone walls. Whenever I saw the walls I thought of the way God fashions strength when broken pieces are linked together.

Symbols of strength and power do intimate and rarely do they heal or lift people to wholeness. Symbols of humility and openness, symbols of accessibility and connection, these open us to a reality we might otherwise overlook.

I don’t know about you but I would far prefer to walk on rocky ground beside a Jesus on a donkey than on smooth surfaces beside a powerful King riding on a royal steed. I would rather walk beside others who do not hide their brokenness than amidst an army of threats and intimidation.

Bethany offered its first ever Blue Christmas service this past December. It’s a gathering many faith communities have offered for years. I have led such services myself. On those occasions persons who had suffered loss came forward and lit a candle. It was quietly effective, a reminder of a light that flicked on in a loved one’s heart. But our Dana had a better idea. She suggested everyone carrying the weight of hurt and grief and pain take a stone and place it on another’s stone and together we build a strong foundation of care and support. For those who were living with the pain of injustice the stones would also be a foundation to build something new, something better.

On that night Janet passed out stones she had picked up on her journeys. Every one of us chose a stone that was different, some jagged, some cracked, some large, some small. At the solemn moment when we acknowledged our pain we came forward and places our stones into a wall, a foundation, a sturdy symbol of a new beginning.

We were all in the right place that night, we were accessible to one another, we walked in humility and together we formed a wall, a foundation that reminds us who and whose we are. We walked the rocky ground, together, and we walked to Jerusalem. Suffering would not be spared but fear would no longer we the last word.

I leave the last words to Springsteen…

Rise up shepherd, rise up

Your flock has roamed far from the hills

The stars have faded, the sky is still

The angels are shouting, Glory Hallelujah

Amen.

April 7, 2019

Many of you remember a golden time for the church. Many of you remember a time when everyone you knew went to church. The church then was the centre of a community’s life; young people accessed recreation programs, older people put on plays and sang in musical groups, Sunday Schools were huge, they had to be managed like a School Board...

March 31, 2019

My all-time favorite Bible study method is one I learned in Washington DC from a very intense Biblical scholar. Ched had a room full of clergy and roles for all of us, each one of us was to be a character in a Gospel story. As Ched read the text we would act out our part, the emotions on our faces, our body movements, how we interacted with each other, this is how we brought the story to life...

March 17, 2019

Mohandas Gandhi once remarked, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Even within the church some of us may find ourselves agreeing with this statement because human beings so often disappoint us. When someone points to the mishaps of a professed Christian as a reason not to embrace the faith...

March 10, 2019

Jesus ate nothing during those days, and when the time was up he was hungry. The Devil, playing on his hunger, gave him a test: “Since you’re God’s Son, command this stone to turn into a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered by quoting scripture: “It takes more than bread to really live...

March 3, 2019

Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of this mountaintop encounter, what we commonly call “the Transfiguration Sunday”. Over the years most of the sermons I have read, heard or preached on the Transfiguration have taken one of two tacks. One has been a focus on the glorification of Jesus as he becomes dazzlingly radiant before Peter, James and John...

February 17, 2019

I have been very blessed. I have enjoyed good health, good relationships with family and friends, had secure employment for close to 30 years, been supported by a wife and daughter who love me and suffered very few setbacks, failures and losses in my life. Yet in the close to 30 years I have served as an ordained minister...

February 10, 2019

Professor Adam Copeland teaches Pastoral Leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He knows a thing or two about how to motivate people to make a change. February is African History Month and it would appropriate to lift up one of lessons Copeland offers his students when it comes to liberation. I don’t need to tell you that music can affect us deeply...

February 3, 2019

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing...

January 27, 2019

Around this time of year my mind usually wanders to Bangor Maine. Why? In the mid and late 1990’s I came to know two retired United Church Ministers, one lived in the valley and the other lived in New Brunswick. I discovered that every late January they would drive from Saint John to Bangor and attend a series of lectures by distinguished preachers and scholars in the United States...

January 20, 2019

An old friend of mine is a lifelong Episcopalian, active in his church, faithful to God, eager to share his gifts for the common good. My friend is a university professor, has written several books and has had the ear of a few Presidents. My friend has, what we sometimes refer to as “influence”. My friend’s academic research focuses on evaluating government programs designed to assist the poorest of the poor...

January 13, 2019

I want to share a story with you, you may have heard it before. A family is riding home from church on Sunday. Their four-year-old son in the back seat of the car was baptized that morning. Suddenly, midway home, he bursts into tears. When his parents ask what on earth is wrong, he sniffles out the answer...

January 6, 2019

I’ve mentioned this comparison before but I want to repeat it, given the Epiphany Sunday we celebrate today. A wise friend of mine once compared how people from the eastern part of our world think/imagine and how people on the western part of our globe think/imagine. Most of us here today are creatures of western thought...

December 30, 2018

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey...

December 24, 2018

Of course this is a very beautiful and cherished reading. It is the story of the birth of Jesus filled with joy and hope. But sometimes the impact of its message is lost on us because it is too familiar. Thus I think we often overlook that the opening of the story is designed to set up a comparison between Jesus, who too would become a King, and Caesar...

December 16, 2018

Placing the focus in Advent on joy in the middle of December is an interesting move by lectionary planners. In the beginning of Advent we remind Christians that we are to wait, anticipate, expect, this Advent of hope and peace into our lives. To get there we have to discipline ourselves that something is in fact going to come...