Sunday, April 28, 2019

Second Sunday of Easter

Revelations 1
John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia:
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits[a] before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,”[b]
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”[c]
So shall it be! Amen.
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

When in doubt, you should prepare an elevator speech.

You can picture the moment: the doors close and you discover yourself stand beside someone important to your work: client, boss, supervisor and so on. You now have the duration of the elevator ride to describe something important. So you prepare an elevator speech.

This was the basic advice that Carmen received as she embarked on her advanced degree: have a summary statement prepared that describes your research, and what you hope to prove through your dissertation. It’s sort of one-part selling yourself and one-part being clear in your own mind. If someone is going to ask, you need to rehearse what you’re going to say. Apparently “oh, not much,” or “you know, this and that” won’t cut it.

So it may be time, then, for a little thought experiment. Imagine the every-persuasive Joan has you delivering an Easter lily, and you step on the elevator, flower-in-hand, and the person standing beside you says “what’s the occasion?” In this thought experiment you are not allowed to say “oh, not much,” or “you know, this and that.” You need to declare that you are delivering a flower to a member of your church, and you wait for the next question.

And since this is my thought experiment, I’m going to steer the hypothetical conversation to something like, “United Church huh, what do you folks believe?” This is the moment you think ‘elevator speech, elevator speech—I knew I should have followed that advice and prepared an elevator speech.’ And then you speak.

I’m not going to put words in your hypothetical mouths, instead, I’m going to share a bit of work from the late Michael Martin, who taught religion at Boston University. When I say “taught religion” I should clarify, since his most important book is called The Case Against Christianity. It’s ironic on a few levels, but we won’t get distracted by that. Nevertheless, he does us a big favour by beginning his book with a really good definition (set of definitions?) of what Christians believe.

He begins by defining a basic Christian.

[You are] a basic Christian if and only if [you believe] that a theistic God exists, that Jesus lived at the time of Pilate, that Jesus is the incarnation of God, that one is saved through faith in Jesus, and that Jesus is the model of ethical behaviour.

In other words, you believe there is a God, that Jesus came from God, lived and died, saves people, and teaches us how to live. That’s a basic Christian. Then he biggie sizes his definition by adding another layer, the Orthodox Christian: You’re orthodox if you are a basic Christian but you also believe in the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, the Resurrection and the Second Coming. I hope it’s a long elevator ride, maybe the CN Tower.

Again, in other words, you take the basics and add a layer of belief that the church in its history has declared as important. These ideas begin in scripture, to be sure, but they come to full flower though councils, creeds and the work of important thinkers. So we have the basic Christian and the orthodox believer. So what else?

Michael Martin’s not done, because he adds another layer to the story. He adds two types of liberal Christians, the first that believes in God, and believes that Jesus lived and taught some important ethical lessons. And then the final one, what Martin calls the extreme form of liberal Christianity: following Jesus as an ethical teacher, and stripping away everything else. And then he adds a little side note: that many Christians wouldn’t consider liberal Christians to be Christians at all. That sounds like my Pentecostal cousins, who give me that sad look because they seem to know I’m going to hell, but that’s another story.

Basically, you need to stop the elevator. And you might need a chart, or a list, or maybe a tattoo, upside down so you can read it. Or maybe you just know that there are the things you cling to, and there are the things you can set aside (or you’re just not sure about). And that’s okay. In the United Church we talk about the “big tent,” the spectrum of belief that makes up the diversity of our denomination, and the extent to which we put service in the name of Christ ahead of doctrinal differences. There seems to be some minimal standards of belief for ministers, but that’s a conversation that is far beyond the scope of this sermon.

I share all this today because I’ve had a couple of days at a learning event and I’m thinking the diversity of the church as it was described by the various speakers, and also because Revelations opens the same topic, and seems to find a way to help us summarize who we are and what we believe. So what is this book we seldom read and rarely hear preached? What can we say about the Book of Revelations?

The first answer would be “it depends who you ask.” Before we ask, however, here is the nutshell summary: seven letters to seven churches, some prophetic visions for us to ponder, and a description of the second coming of Jesus, or the culmination of human history, a new heaven and a new earth. After the nutshell, things start to get messy.

Some scholars think it’s a creative retelling of recent history, some a forecast of coming events, and some an elaborate allegory, layers of symbolic meaning for us to unpack. We would need the afternoon to debate and decide, so instead I might have us look at the letters, and what they say about the church in that day.

All seven churches were doing something right, and the author makes careful note of what they upheld and what they resisted, the good news in a good news/bad news summary. Then the bad news: in Smyrna they’re too fearful, in Pergamum they flirt with strange ideas, in Thyatira they need to take the personal boundaries seminar again, and in Laodicea they are lukewarm, not too hot and not too cold.

In other words, just like churches today. Churches that seem afraid of the streets that surround them, churches that get strange ideas or have no ideas at all, churches with too many huggers or not enough huggers, churches that are too hot or too cold, or poor old Laodicea, forever not-too-hot-and-not-too cold.

St. Paul adds another set of churches, from the “foolish Galatians” to the church at Corinth, a church that makes Game of Thrones look like a church picnic. Yet all of these churches are in the fold, trying to find their way in a world that is at least indifferent and in some cases hostile. They are doing their best to follow the Way of Jesus in a confusing mess of half-expressed belief and human failure that seems to define any attempt at being the church in the world.

So back to Revelations, we get a gift from John of Patmos, visionary and supervising minister, shepherd to these seven churches. He begins his letter and sets out his own definition of the basic Christian:

Follow Jesus, a faithful witness to the ways of God, the first to die and live again, the king of kings. He loves us, and he died that we might live, and be free from sin. He made the church into a sign of God’s Kingdom, to serve God and give God the glory forever more. Jesus will return on the clouds one day, and appear to everyone, even those who turned away. “I am the Alpha and the Omega” says God in Jesus, the first and the last, “who is, and who was, and who is to come.”

It’s an awesome elevator speech, and an amazing summary of the Christian hope. Jesus prayed “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” which distills our passage even further. Wait for the Kingdom of God to appear, wait for the time when earth and heaven are one, wait for the moment when God’s dream for the earth is fulfilled. Theological arguments will fall away, the foolish and the wise will stand together, and all will dwell in the completeness of God. Alpha and Omega will define us, Jesus the first and the last, setting aside all that divides us and confounds us and then drawing us together.

In the meantime, in the time before the promised time, think about your elevator speech. Think about the words that might be new life to someone else, or at least cause them to lean in as you describe this community of believers: diverse, but bound together; far-from-perfect, but made the semblance of God; and ever-patient, convinced that the coming Kingdom will renew the earth and all her people. Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter 2019

Acts 10
39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

You obviously don’t need to be church person to be upset by a cathedral on fire.

I guess I was a little surprized by the extent to which Monday’s fire at Notre Dame in Paris dominated the news. Of course it was a big story, but the networks gave it hours and hours of coverage. Secular media, in a secular society, tend to acknowledge church stories rather than drag them to the front page and leave them there.

My leading theory is the unique place Notre Dame plays in people’s lives. I’m guessing that for many tourists, this is the only cathedral they have ever visited. I’m surprized when someone tells me they went to London and missed St. Paul’s— but I’ve never heard of someone visiting Paris and skipping Notre Dame.

By all accounts, the cathedral can be restored. The stone walls and the vaulted ceiling are designed to withstand such a calamity, assuming the fire can be extinguished in time. It turns out that ability to recover from a fire such as this is a design feature, and thank goodness for that.

As I followed the story throughout the week, I was also surprized to learn that Notre Dame is the property of the French government, and that over the course of its history, the cathedral has been seized by the government on two occasions. The first time was during the French Revolution: all church property was claimed by the state, and priests had to pledge loyalty to the revolution under threat of exile or death.

The cathedral itself was rededicated to the official Cult of Reason, and then turned to a warehouse. Most of the artwork was destroyed, including twenty-eight statues of biblical kings that the revolutionaries mistook for French kings. Eventually, Napoleon restored the cathedral to the church, but the damage was done. The last renovation (following the publication The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831) created the cathedral that we remember. Fast-forward to 1905 and another radical government seized all church property in France. Churches could use their buildings, but did not own them. In time, we may learn if this ownership arrangement had a role in the fire.

For me, however, this is a resurrection story: that for all the trouble—revolution, destruction, misuse, neglect—the cathedral remained. Every calamity was met with resolve—and faithful people understood that the cathedral’s original purpose would eventually be restored.

There are many ways to define resurrection: new life, hope restored, the end of death, Jesus triumph over the grave. We mark events of renewal and hope and we frequently label them resurrections, lives turned around, second chances taken, restoration after a time of trouble. It’s a handy metaphor, a way to express an abundance of meaning in a single word.

But when we’re marking the day of resurrection, it’s seems important to return to the source, those who first described the resurrection in the hearing of others. The women at the tomb, first heralds of the resurrection, share the good news: an empty tomb, angel visitors, and Christ’s own instruction to tell the others that he will visit them back in the Galilee. The others struggle to believe them, but Christ will soon correct the slow to believe.

And them there is Simon Peter. After the resurrection, he is slow to believe, but by Day of Pentecost he has found his voice:

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

Peter the fisherman points to the tangible and the practical (“God raised him for the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen”). Poor Thomas gets the most grief for wanting proof, but Peter’s sermon at Pentecost says ‘here is my proof, and I know he was raised because I have seen him.’ He even points to other witnesses—few in number—but selected to eat and drink with the Risen One in the days that follow that fateful day.

So that’s Peter, but what about Paul? It’s hard to beat the drama of Resurrection Day, but Paul is close. Unhorsed by Jesus, challenged by Jesus, redeemed by Jesus, Paul joins the fellowship and claims his place among the apostles. He too is a witness to the resurrection, with specific instruction to carry out. As Paul testifies to his faith, he reports what Jesus told him: “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me.”

The Bible, then, is the primary source material for understanding the resurrection. “He is not here, he is risen. God raised him on the third day and caused him to be seen. He commanded us to preach to the people and testify.” Like the movement itself, the good news of Jesus begins in a small circle a ripples outward. The movement is from recognition to witness, understanding that he lives and then telling others.

Yet even that simple path can be interrupted, but a determined God will find a way to make the message heard. One of best examples of this involves St. Paul, newly filled with a desire to make Christ known, but finding a slammed door instead. Luke picks up the story at the end of Acts 9:

26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.

In some ways, the disciples never seem to learn. Fear seems to be their first response to something new, like an empty tomb or a life transformed. But no matter, because Barnabas becomes a witness to the witness, seeing something the others can not. He is witness to Paul’s resurrection, and the transforming power of a life in Christ.

So we witness to the resurrection, but the resurrection also witnesses to us. We remind ourselves every time we come together as the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is his resurrected body, taking the shape of this congregation. We remind ourselves when the bread and the wine are transformed into his body and blood, bread of heaven and cup of blessing. We remind ourselves when we say “they shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, the sun shall not strike them nor any scorching heat, for the lamb in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd, and guide them to springs of living water.” The resurrected lamb witnesses to us and calls us home.

The resurrection witnesses to us. Beneath our feet is one of those places that witnesses to the resurrection each day. Yes, there are wonderful stories of lives transformed, but for many who make the drop-in part of their lives, there is a more everyday-kind of resurrection, where people find each other and form a community, where friendship is extended, and love expressed. This is a the power of resurrection: challenged, but not alone; distressed, but held by others; hungry, and frequently fed.

You don’t need a disastrous fire to see the power of resurrection. You just need to look around. Who has finally decided to make a change after years of trying? Who has rededicated themselves to some higher purpose? Who has recognized something in another person that no one else can see? These are resurrections, a gift from God, which we can witness if we have eyes to see. You simply need to look around you. Christ is risen! Amen.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Friday 2019

Psalm 22.11
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

Picture Jesus in your mind’s eye, and what is he doing?

If you were contemplating Jesus last night, you might picture him at table, sharing the bread of heaven and the cup of blessing. Perhaps you see him washing the feet of his friends, servant and master all at once, humble and exalted all at once.

Or maybe it’s five thousand you see him feeding—loaves, fishes, and the power of God. Or another hillside, proclaimed “blessed” the least and the last. Maybe you see him healing, the mud and spittle on his fingers, restoring and healing, always making whole.

Or maybe you see Jesus in the context of worship: praying quietly, singing a psalm with his disciples, reading in the house of prayer, teaching the twelve to pray—to hallow God’s name, to seek the Kingdom, to always resist temptation.

What a remarkable blessing that we can read the Bible Jesus read, recite the Psalms he loved, pray his words and share them with others, and seek the same intimacy with God he felt each time he slipped away to spend time in prayer.

It should not surprize us then that his last hours mirror a life given to prayer and scripture. Many of the words of the psalmist can be placed on his lips, springing from the very heart of God.

Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint, my heart is like wax, it is melted in my breast…

When trouble comes, when we feel lost or alone, when we feel scorned or encircled or poured out or dried up—we know that this road has been traveled before, that Jesus has walked this way and will walk beside us. When his suffering meets our suffering, we can pray the same prayer: ‘Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is not one to help, except you Lord.’

Naturally, in his final moments, Jesus prayed. Father forgive them, they know not what they do. Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit. Forgiveness and trust, forgiveness and trust, what more can he give? Even as he breathed his last, the truth remains, even in his last moments on earth, his work continues:

He cares for me.
He prays for me.
He dies for me. Amen.