Sunday, April 29, 2007

Fourth Sunday of Easter

John 10
25Jesus answered, "I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father's name speak for me, 26but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. 29My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all[c]; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. 30I and the Father are one."

Psalm 23.1
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

My son’s job is to keep me honest. I can’t recall (or refuse to recall) the number of times my son has said, “is that a new cell phone?” Or, alternately, “did you need a new cell phone?” I try various ways to wiggle out of this situation: “Maybe not,” I might say, “but look at this—it’s so cool!” This seldom works, mostly because whatever feature I’m showing him has been in the pocket of one of his friends for months. In fact, I have recently learned that Isaac’s friends are a reliable source of information before my next cell phone purchase.

I do, however, keep an ace up my sleeve. “Isaac,” I will ask, “how many game systems do you have?” Even before he speaks I can smell victory. “And how many systems are on your current wish list?” Now he’s getting worried. It’s about this time he will concede, usually with words like “yeah, this phone’s cool.”

When my son is finished (or defeated) in his effort to save me from myself, the world usually conspires to find a way. The news from our big neighbour to the south is that sometime in 2009, millions of old televisions will become garbage. With the analog signal turned off, millions of sets will simply stop working and landfills will inundated with bulky and harmful plastics and metals.

Listening to a radio program on this coming crisis I was feeling a bit of relief know that I’ll manage to keep my old TV working even if Canada makes this change. Then the expert on the radio said this: “What’s equally harmful is the proliferation of cell phones in the world. People are constantly changing cell phones and landfills are filling up with discarded phones and their batteries.”

I must be in a confessional mood. Maybe I’m just making up for the fact that I didn’t get the chance to preach last week on Earth Day. Or maybe I’m feeling convicted by a bit of ancient poetry we heard this morning. You all know it, and it only takes the first line to hear the message:

The LORD is my shepherd…

“I shall not want.” We most often hear this poet at funerals, and it endures as one of the most comforting set of ideas ever set down. It powerfully conveys the comfort God provides in the face of loss, that even “in the valley of the shadow of death” God will be with us will tend to us. It is, however, more than a funeral psalm. It is an extended reflection on companionship, on the ways in which God remains at our side throughout life’s journey. It is about certainty in an uncertain life and finding rest: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

But it is more: it is also about how we meet the world and how we imagine our place in it. It is about claiming God as the shepherd of my life, and rejecting all the other shepherds that seek to lay claim to me. I do not belong to the marketplace. I do not belong to the latest guru who would point to some secret way to success or happiness. I have a whole other sermon planned on “The Secret” and so I won’t begin my rant quite yet: but imagine an author suggesting that the “law of attraction” that is supposed to govern the universe caused a tsunami because millions of people somehow attracted disaster through the way they were thinking. I do not belong to ideologies that suggest that the wealthy are somehow favoured by God.

The LORD is my shepherd…

The post-Earth Day message of “I shall not want” is about making our confession and somehow acting on it. Somehow lost in the message about CO2 and the warming of the planet is the old fashioned message about consumption. Our appetite for things is killing the planet, and yet we continue to live with the myth that consumer spending is good and critical to the success of our economy. We are driven to consume, and the message we receive is spend more, use more, and discover which products say “I’ve arrived.” In 1940 the average household enjoyed 400 square feet of living space per person. Today the average is 1000 square feet per person. Suddenly my shoebox makes me feel smug.

The LORD is my shepherd…

I shall not want is about letting go. Google “letting go” and you will discover a million ways that people have described a need for letting go. Imagine all the things in life that we cling to and remember the LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. We cling to our need to be right. We cling to our need to control things and others. We cling to the belief that somehow we are indispensable and without us things will go terribly wrong. We cling to our point-of-view. God invites us to say “I shall not want” and to let go.

The LORD is my shepherd…

I shall not want for other shepherds. I will turn to God alone in the face of difficult questions and situations, waiting for understanding to be revealed or just sitting with the silence to know that God cares. I will allow my shepherd to care for me through the work of others, understanding that the Risen Christ comes to us in very guise and form.

This is perhaps the most powerful want to all: the desire to look after ourselves, to be self-reliant, to show the world that we are autonomous. But the LORD is my shepherd. I cannot find my own way, and cannot fill the want of independence in any way that has meaning. Independence is a harmful myth when we need to be connected, one to another, and find what binds us rather than what keeps as separate. And over-all is God, acknowledged or unacknowledged, our Shepherd.

There have been countless attempts to sum up all that God is and all that God does for us. There have been countless attempts to better describe the comfort that God provides. There have been countless attempts to articulate an environmental ethic grounded in stewardship and care for the earth. There have been countless attempts to summarize our need to “let go” and allow God to live at the centre of our lives. All of these attempts have fallen short of the most profound and simplest articulation of all…

The LORD is my shepherd…

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter Sunday

Luke 24
1On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.' " 8Then they remembered his words.
9When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

Christ is Risen!

This morning we walk with the women to the tomb. Imagine their uncertainty, the despair that surrounded them as they prepared for a life without Jesus. For months and years he was their teacher, their companion, their friend. Now, early in the morning, they walked to the tomb.

The ritual of applying spices was an important part of grieving. Unlike today, the task of preparing the body fell to those closest to the one who died. The act of washing the body and applying spices was one more way to say ‘goodbye:’ one more way to begin the transition to a life without the one lost.

They walked to the tomb not knowing what to expect. Would they be able to manage the stone themselves? Would someone be nearby to help? How would they manage in the face of his broken body? Was this ritual sufficient for the one they came to regard as the very presence of God in their midst?

They react to the state of the tomb with wonder and confusion. This turns to fear, as men appear, soon followed by a question and a message: “Why seek the living among the dead?” they ask, and say: “he is risen.” Finally, a challenge: “Can you not remember all that he shared with you, the journey to Jerusalem, an inevitable death and then freedom on the third day?”

They remembered. They remembered and they shared a message that has been conveyed to us today, passed from believer to believer through time and in every imaginable circumstance to this place.

Christ is Risen!

Today is one of the rare times that we celebrate Easter on the same day as our Orthodox cousins. Aside from being a nice bit of Christian unity, it also means I get to celebrate with my Greek neighbours a week earlier than usual.

How it happened that Easter fell on the same day, and the calculation of the day itself, would require much of the afternoon to explain. I would also need the assistance of historians, theologians, astronomers and one or more mathematicians. The simplest calculation I could find involved 11 steps and more mathematics than a grade ten math graduate like me could manage.

The idea of a simplified date has been floated many times. We can pinpoint Mother’s Day without a calculator, much to the relief of flower and card vendors worldwide. Easter could be set in the same way, say the second Sunday in April—but something would be lost. The inscrutable calculation points to something different: timelessness, and a celebration that exists outside of time.

I’m certain the early church could see this. Just as every Sunday is a smaller version of Easter Sunday, a hard-to-find date for Easter suggests that this is not really a celebration that exists on a single day year by year. Even the exact date of the first Easter is easy enough to deduce (it was most likely April 3rd) but it’s not something that really matters. Even the word Easter is non-specific: Easter can mean either the first Easter long ago or refer to this morning, the same word applies to both.

Being timeless, and defined by the absence of a body, we find ourselves in the midst of Easter Sunday. We are so surrounded by resurrection (then as now) that the meaning is as vivid as the morning that began it all.


A collective of writers described resurrection this way:

Resurrection is always a mystery, always a miracle, but often we do not recognize resurrection when it comes to us. When all that separates and injures and destroys is overcome by what unites, heals and creates in the ordinary routine of our daily lives, resurrection has taken place (Resources, Year A, p. 130).

Again, with the timelessness. Resurrection is not an event, rather resurrection is a worldview: a frame-work for understanding the world. It is also a challenge: the challenge to see resurrection around us, and the ways in which despair and brokenness have been overcome.

We participate in resurrection whenever we care for those in need or speak a word of hope. We participate in resurrection whenever we look beyond our own needs to imagine the needs of others. We participate in resurrection whenever we find the best in the people around us and let them know. God surrounds us with resurrection and invites us to see it for ourselves. We choose whether to remain in the uncertainty of the tomb or embrace the light of new life.


My preferred date for baptism is Easter Sunday. Short of making more babies myself, I rely on you people to make them for me. All is not lost, however, because baptism, like Easter, is not really tied to time. When we speak of a “baptized and baptizing church” we are really speaking about the ongoing work of baptism. It is an invisible sign of God’s visible grace, and it is most visible in the work of the church and in the lives of baptized believers.

You each carry the sign of baptism, each of you is marked as belonging to Christ, each of you is a visible sign of resurrection hope. May God bless you this day, and help you as you live out your baptism. Amen.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday

Mark 15: 33 - 39
33At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
When some of those standing near heard this, they said, "Listen, he's calling Elijah."
One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. "Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to take him down," he said.
With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"

Who has the power?

Sometimes we imagine that we have the power. We make decisions—large and small—and congratulate ourselves on our ability to discern and the use the power we have. Most often, if asked the question, we would claim that we have the power.

Once and a while, we bump up against something or someone with more power. Cross a border or prepare your taxes and discover who has the power. Yet even in the face of bureaucratic power, or the power of the state we imagine that we have the power to live within the rules and render powerless those who choose not to.

Still later, we are confronted by the power of illness or some unforeseen event in our lives and we find all sorts of ways to reclaim our power—and failing that—to at least reclaim our dignity. Voices surround us insisting that we can fight whatever it is—and in fighting we can regain the power.

We imagine that we have power over nature. We confess that we made a myriad of mistakes in the past, and in the misuse of our power we created a crisis that seems larger than the world has ever known. But wait, we are told, we have the power to fix it, to arrest the warming, to change our destructive ways and (by extension) reassert our power.

Who has the power?

In our more candid moments, we can admit that we are often feel powerless. We feel powerless in the face of “the way of the world” and powerless in “unsolvable situations.” We rehearse a litany of things we cannot change, and carry on doing the things we do because we imagine we are powerless.

Like most Canadians, I oppose the war in Iraq, and feel rather powerless to do anything about it. I grieve for the Iraqi people and the chaos that was foisted on them, knowing full well that my opposition or the opposition of Canadians amounts to little in the minds of those who continue to pursue this terrible course.

So why do we participate? Why does one company in Quebec supply 300 to 500 million bullets a year to the U.S. military? Are we really powerless bystanders when we make the bullets that kill Iraqis? Manufacturing generates jobs and consumers and tax revenue and an entire web of ways in which one small company in Quebec makes me a participant in the Iraq war.

Who has the power?

To say we have a complex relationship with power would be a dramatic understatement. God gave us free will, which by definition means we have to power to choose. At the same moment, we seem largely powerless in the face of sin. I only need a moment to ponder those bullets destined for Iraq to feel pain and revulsion at my complicity and ignorance. Why did it take the creation of this sermon to prompt me to google the phrase “Canada supplies Iraq war” and find one example among many? The war has been happening for a while, but like many, I can only feel so bad for so long and then I turn off. Is it power or powerlessness?


Judas thought he had the power to end something, but didn’t.
Pilate thought he had the power to govern and control the events that unfolded around him but didn’t.
Peter insisted that he had the power to remain loyal to his friend but didn’t.
Ciaphas and the religious leaders thought they had the power to end a claim and kill some ideas but didn’t.

Who has the power?

Listen to an ancient hymn, recounted by St. Paul:

Christ Jesus,
being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Paul, the first and perhaps greatest theologian sets aside his own words to sing a hymn on the topic of power, a hymn about God’s decision to enter human experience. Christ did not cling to the power of heaven, but chose instead to become Word to us, to give up power to become as us.

Christ became a servant, fully human with the same ambiguous relationship with power that we all have. And he made choices:

He had the power to remain on high, but chose to walk among us.
He had the power to be a ruler of all people, but chose to be with the powerless.
He had the power to command armies and destroy the might of Rome but preached peace.
He had the power to rule nature and raise Lazarus but went to the cross.

Who has the power?

In Christ Jesus we find the mysterious power to defeat death. On the cross we are confronted by the one who would choose death over escape, suffering instead of the urge to save himself.

One name for this mystery is love. The power that defeats death, the real power that is not subject to the ways of this world is love. God’s love for us is so profound that God was willing to die at our hands and in doing so free us from death itself. It was and is our only glimpse of the only power to save us: the power of love revealed in the cross. Jesus’ answer to the power of the world was a willingness to die for the sake of the very people who misuse power, in other words, to die for all of us.

I conclude with another anonymous poet, describing the gift before us:

What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul,
to lay aside his crown for my soul.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Palm Sunday

Luke 19
28After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

I went as a pilgrim and came home a historian.

Okay, that is not entirely true. I also went as a historian, hoping however, to set that aside while I followed the footsteps of Jesus. Otherwise, why travel to Israel? We go to walk where he walked, the sit under the same sky, and to scan the same vistas.

There are disappointments, to be sure. 21st century street level is two or three metres higher that Jesus’ day, making it very difficult to retrace his steps. The walls of the city are Turkish, and rather late, and only the odd gate remains. However you experience Jerusalem, you are only getting an approximation of the authentic experience so many go to seek.

What I didn’t expect was the overwhelming presence of Rome wherever we went. The remarkable aqueduct near Caesarea Militaria, bringing fresh water from the mountains of Lebanon to the principal seaport of the Roman navy. Herod’s Winter Palace at Masada, with steambaths and mosaics that with a little renovation could still be in use. And the Roman roads. I took so many photos of the pavement at Bet Shean I’m sure people mistook me for a civil engineer.

Some of the most significant Roman structures are noteworthy, however, in their absence. Herod’s reconstruction of the Temple is gone, destroyed by Titus in the siege of 70 AD. This is also the moment when the walls are largely destroyed, aided by Roman knowledge that the largest stones, when heated to great temperature, would explode and bring down the surrounding structure.

Also destroyed in 70, the Antonia Fortress was leveled to make room for the tools needed to destroy the temple. Here the Roman forces destroy their own fortress to better destroy the religious symbol that was the inspiration for the resistance to Roman rule. The fortress itself was huge. Covering four acres, it contained the Praetorium where Jesus was tried and handed over to be crucified. It was the seat or Roman power in the region, and as such was the true centre of the city under the occupation.

Enter King Jesus.

Back in the 80’s when I went to school we were required to take the basics such as Bible and theology as well as a variety of classes under the heading “the practice of ministry.” These varied over time, and usually reflected the latest interest in theological education or trend in learning. Family systems theory was big, along with “active listening” and becoming “the wounded healer.” It was also political. I took half-course on the virtues of communist Cuba (including a class trip) an well as an innocently named class called “Social Action.” It included tips on how to write letters and press releases (“write it like you want it to appear – journalists are lazy and will reprint it without changes”). We talked about how to get arrested successfully and how to respond. The final assignment was to plan a large-scale protest and take the class through it step-by-step. Mine was a farm protest called “Pigs on Parliament.” I got an A.

We were introduced to local activists who could tell us their “war stories” and give us additional pointers from their experience. One of my favourite stories was from a man named Bob (later famously arrested for dressing as Santa and trashing the toy section at Zellers). Bob mounted a one-man protest against ARMEX, the big military equipment sale held in Ottawa each summer. Bob dressed in a blue shirt, took a clipboard and managed to redirect most of the traffic around the exhibition, causing hours of traffic chaos. It was an interesting time to be a theological student. Hearing these stories and understanding a little bit about royal symbols in the ancient period, I know a good protest when I see one.

Enter King Jesus.

The time for Passover had arrived. The people were busy preparing for a time rich with tradition and ancient symbols, sacred meals and ritual remembering. The oldest child was being prepared to ask the leading questions of the meal (“why is this night different from other nights?”) and the well-worn answers were present in the minds of the older ones as the food was prepared.

The Passover always seemed to exist outside of time, the kind of holy moment where people would say “a path was opened for us in the midst of the sea” and it had all the intonation of a first-person experience. Time collapsed as another generation recited the story and the ancient word of liberation and triumph over Pharaoh.

But this time there was more to the uncertain feeling of time, more ambiguity as the past seemed largely present once more. Caesar was the new Pharoah, Rome the new Egypt, the soldiers in the Antonia Fortress the new charioteers ready to maintain imperial power. Even the social conditions seemed similar: one had slaves struggling to make bricks without straw and the newer version had landless peasants entering the city each day, hungry, discontented, and looking for the one to overturn the existing order.

Enter King Jesus.

He came to the seat of power knowing full well what happened to prophets in Jerusalem.
He came to Jerusalem to mount a protest, to manage a symbolic action in the face of the greatest power the world had ever known.
He came as the new Moses, come to free his people (it was hoped) from the slavery of foreign occupation.

On the surface it wasn’t much. A few dozen followers maybe, a borrowed animal, royal symbols that could be quickly grabbed from shrubs on the way. This protest had everything: low cost, only a few people to organize, the appearance of spontaneity and popular interest, symbols to directly convey a message, and a leader who was willing to risk arrest to get his point across. Sympathetic people leant their support, and the whole event was timed to happen when the largest number of pilgrims would be in the Holy City to see.

Enter King Jesus.

Who was this symbolic king, riding on a donkey? Where were his legions, the ones to liberate the people? Why did the group shout “save us!” when there are so few resources for saving? Whether they saw it or not, they were present for a conversation between God and power that has been going under the surface since the beginning or time. In most times and places, it appeared that God blessed those in power. They ruled at God’s pleasure, and fell when the reverse was true. Until Moses, that is. Remember that God, through Moses, defeated God and the people were free. But Pharaoh remained. He did not fall, although certainly his economy was ruined. God only acted to free his people, the end their suffering and bring them home. Moses mounted a successful protest (it happened on a rather grand scale, but it was a protest nonetheless). It wasn’t a coup or a revolution, more of a protest followed by a successful rescue mission.

Enter King Jesus.

The conversation between God and power continued. Jesus confronted royal power that day not with guerrilla fighters or a campaign of misinformation but rather with symbols: kingship that should humbly serve the people, kingship that was based on biblical models of faithfulness and not the sword, kingship that was located in heaven rather than on earth. It was a protest and it was the beginning of a conversation. The conversation would continue in the temple as tables flew, in the Antonia Fortress when Jesus talked with Pilate and on the cross when death appeared to get the last word.

In Luke 9 it is said Jesus "set his face to Jerusalem," the very direction that informs the whole of his ministry. We was going to speak to power, going to send a message of liberation that we now know was liberation from the powers of death in this world and the power of death itself. This week we join the conversation. We have an opportunity to consider our own relationship with power, and the ways we can further the liberation God seeks. May God bless us in the coming days, ready to enter Jerusalem once more. Amen.