Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A God who can handle real life

Reading: Luke 24:36b-48 

When the Risen Jesus appeared to the disciples they thought he was a ghost. 

They thought that his spirit – released from his wounded, suffering, now-dead body, was now somehow hovering and appearing to them in some dis-incarnate way, before leaving for good to the realm they called Abraham’s Bosom – where the just are rewarded, those who suffer unfairly in this life are compensated, and all is put right by God in some kind of after-life world – a world other than this sad, ill-fated Earth.

Is that still how people see things?  That Jesus is kind of a ghost?  That his message and promise of heaven-on-Earth, and of the kingdom of God appearing in human affairs and already being among us isn’t really meant for real life?  That faith in God is a private and personal matter that really has more to do with the after-life than it should be allowed to have with how we expect life to be lived in the here-and-now?

Except … the disciples find that Jesus is not just a ghost.  He’s not just a private and personal memory.  He’s not a dis-embodied spirit who lives just in their hearts and in heaven.  Rather, he stands and lives and moves and breathes in the real world of the here-and-now as much as when they walked together through Galilee and saw the promise of heaven-on-Earth and the good will of God lived out in the midst of human affairs, come true.

But how does Jesus convince them of it – that it really is him?  That he really is still the same union of body and soul?  That heaven and Earth are still one in him and through him?  That the powers of this world, and the evil that has been done have not un-done the union of divine and human, of heaven and Earth, of promise and fulfilment that are revealed in him?

“Look at my hands,” he says.  “And look at my feet.”

He doesn’t say, “Look at my face, look me in the eye.  Don’t I look like me?”   Nor does he say, “Listen to my voice; don’t I sound like me?”  Nor does he pull out an ID card or a membership certificate with his name on it, or give them some secret handshake.   

He says, “Look at my hands and my feet.  They are flesh and bone.  My hands can handle what life brings.  I can reach out and touch others.  I can do what’s needed to make a real and practical difference.  And with my feet I am grounded in the day-by-day life of this world.  Instead of soaring above problems, or skating over and around life’s constant realities, I walk through this world with others.  Through my soles and in my soul I know the hardness of life.  And that’s why the wounds and the scars.  Just look at my hands and my feet.”

And isn’t that how the world still is able to believe in something other than a ghostly Jesus and an other-worldly God?  When they see believers who reach out to others?  People of faith who let themselves be led in a way of self-sacrificial giving?  Who open themselves to the sorrows and needs of others, and accept the risk of being hurt and wounded themselves?  Even when it hurts and asks more of them than they thought they could give?

It’s interesting that in raising Jesus from the dead, God does not bother to heal the wounds that Jesus suffered in his dying.  Does God forget?  Not care?  Not have time?  Or is woundedness actually one of the essential signs of the real presence of God in the world?

And not only woundedness but also, it seems, hunger and hospitality.  Because after chatting for a while and seeing the disciples still lost in their wonder and contemplations, Jesus says, “Um … you wouldn’t happen to have any food around here, would you?  A little piece of fish, maybe?” as he eyes the fish they have grilling on the fire.

At which point they kind of come to, and realize their obligation of hospitality.  “Oh my goodness, we have a guest!  We should be offering him something to eat!”

And this, too, is a sign of how bodily, how physical and how here-and-now-on-Earth the real presence of God is.  It consists of eating and drinking, of sharing what we have, and of making sure that others have what they need, too.  Especially of making sure others have what they need.

This too is probably something the world needs to see, and that we are happy to provide – a living witness to the real presence of God through a lifestyle of hospitality and generosity.  A way of seeing the kingdom of heaven appearing, and heaven-on-Earth being fulfilled as we and other believers hear the call and respond to the opportunities all around us, to share what we have and ensure others have what they need, too.

It’s not hard.  It’s not rocket-science.  It’s not something we’re told is done just on some test track by professional drivers, and that we shouldn’t try at home.  It is in fact, something we all are called to be part of, and that we’re also all good at in our own ways, in our lives apart from this place, and in what we do here together.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Thomas: not so much doubting, as testing for truth (sermon for April 8, 2018)

Readings:  John 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-37

Why do people like Mike Holmes?  You know, the TV home renovation guy.

He’s a good guy.  And he looks good.  He’s got the image – from the crew-cut, clean-cut physique to the overalls and workboots.  And he knows what he’s doing.  There’s no house so good he doesn’t find something that could be better; and no house so bad, he can’t see its potential.  And he does the work himself.  Makes it personal.  Gets his own hands dirty.  He commits all he has to what needs to be done, and suffers the injuries, scrapes and tired muscles that renovation requires.  He cares.

And it’s not just the homes of the well-heeled he cares about.  Beyond the bounds of his fairly affluent home-reno show, he also shows up in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to help out the poor and destitute who lost everything.  And in Africa to help create good homes and better lives for people there who have nothing.  He cares not only about his own; he cares about all the world – especially the world’s poorest and most needy. 

As silly as it may sound, he helps save the world one house and one home, one poor person and one destitute family at a time.  And that resonates with something inside us.  It nourishes hope within us all.

And why do people like Jimmy Carter?  You know, the peanut farmer who became a president.

He’s an honest man.  Open and openly compassionate.  Taught Sunday school in a Baptist church.  And rather than being holier-than-thou and impressed with his piety, he is open and honest about his humanity, and his capacity for sin. 

As president – whether true or not, it’s easy to imagine Jimmy Carter as a president who didn’t start any wars.  Instead of needing always to be strong, he was willing to risk his reputation and even choose a position of weakness and vulnerability for his country, if it would lead to a peaceful resolution of conflict, and a chance of peace for the world.

And he also gets personally involved.  He supports Habitat for Humanity, and a few years ago in Winnipeg he fainted and fell at a Habitat build while helping to construct a house for people who needed one.  It was a scorching hot summer day, and Carter, by then in his 80’s and hammering away, suffered heat exhaustion.  So he lay down and rehydrated and rested, and then the next day was back at work with the others.  Because really what else is there of any real value, than to spend your life – even give your life in love, for someone else’s good?

He’s another one whose hands are dirty – not from shady dealings in backroom or boardroom or back-seat scandal, but from honest hard work, making some part of the world good for others one step and one day at a time.  And we see something true, something truly human in him and through him – something that helps and inspires us to be better at being human ourselves.

In the Gospel reading this morning, when Thomas is told by the others that Jesus is risen and they have seen him, he is too wise and experienced to believe them straight out.  He knows there are tricksters in the world.  Phony messiahs and too-good-to-be-true wonder-workers.  Smooth-talking snake-oil salesmen ready and able to cash in on whatever people are hungry for at that moment, feeding off whatever self-serving need or self-centred fear they are feeling that day.  And he’s not about to sell his soul – or trade in the real and authentic Jesus for anyone like that, no matter how shiny and bright they may seem, and what wonderful promise they might be selling.

So he tells them what he needs to see, and what they should have been wise enough to look for themselves.  He needs to see Jesus’ hands – if they show the sign of the nails that pinned him to the pain of a cross that he bore for others.  And his side – whether he still carries the wound of love that he suffered for others.  Because the only one he is interested in following from now on is the Jesus they all came to know along the way – the Jesus who gets his hands dirty, lets himself be vulnerable and weak, and gives his all for the world and for God one poor and needy person at a time. 

And when it turns out, the very next time the disciples gather, that this is who it is, imagine the joy that Thomas and the others experience.  The deep peace that settles into his and the others’ hearts.  The renewed purpose they feel in their lives and their fellowship, as they let the continued and risen presence of Jesus sink in to their tired and fragile souls.

And how can it not change them?  Not change us?  Not change everything the world has ever taught us about the meaning and purpose of life? 

In their season of Easter the disciples come to believe once again and more firmly than ever in Jesus as true God and true man, true Blueprint of life and Future of the word; and to see the way of Jesus – the way of self-giving love, of openness and commitment to God and to neighbour, as the way of God in the world, the way the world is saved, and the only way really to live. 

And we see the kind of life and fellowship that follows from their seeing and being open to the risen Jesus.  The Book of Acts is story after story of how the disciples rise from the dead themselves.  How they find courage to come out from behind doors they have closed and locked, and out of their private, protected spaces.  How they re-enter the world with purpose and boldness, and turn the world upside down just by following the way of Jesus.

Through our season of Easter we’ll be reading some of these stories – like the story today of how the followers of Jesus begin to bring all they have and give it as an offering for the common good.  “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.  They gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.  There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

And why do they do this?

Is it because of their personality?  Are they just naturally generous people, inclined to share all they have with others?

Is it their politics?  Have they read Marx or Mao – or the first-century equivalent, and come to believe in some sort of socialist state?

Is it their religion?  Has residual guilt at not living the law of Moses and not giving more generously to God and to the poor for so many years finally caught up to them, and been able to redeem them?

Or is it their faith?  Is it because they have been in the presence of the risen Jesus, and been changed by the encounter?  Come to see what real human life looks like?  Come to know the way of God in the world?  Come to embrace deep down in their hearts the kind of love and kind of life that really does save the world one need, one chance of sharing, one way of opening yourself to the call of God at a time?

By living this way of Jesus together, the first disciples become the church, draw others to them, and change the world of their time.  Not because they are powerful or rich.  But because they give what they have for the common good.  Offer what they are and what they have to God and to the needs of others around them – one day, one month, one year, one life at a time.

And any time the church is strong, making a real difference for God in the world, this is part of the picture.
What we have is enough, and exactly what’s needed. The real and authentic tools of God for building the kingdom and making over the world we live in, are the time, talent and treasure we all offer together, and lay at God’s feet.

And it’s not a dream or vain hope.  Not a huckster’s claim to bilk us of what we have.  Not as long as it’s the real and authentic Jesus we follow, and let ourselves be inspired by.
And in the end, isn’t it this – the way we live the life of Christ in our life, and bear the marks of Jesus in our living, that makes us likeable?  That draws others to us?  That helps others believe?  And that helps us, like Jesus, over and over again to rise from the dead and bear witness to the power of God at work in the world in our time?

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Best Easter story ever (is the one you are involved in right now) -- sermon from Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018

Reading:  John 20:1-18 
(Mary Magdalene, Peter and another disciple have their worst and best day -- first, thinking that now even the dead body of Jesus has been stolen away from them; and then, as they make their way through their tears and fears, beginning to hear and see the promise and gift of resurrection and new life.) 

Best Easter ever?  What would be your story?

Four years ago while I was away from the church on medical leave for almost 5 months, I was also away from home for 14 weeks of that time – from mid-January to mid-April, getting help with some personal issues and disorders.  It was a hard time for Japhia and I, made only harder by how long and severe and snow-bound that whole time was.

I came home finally from the program I was in, on the Tuesday of Holy Week.  Two days later, on Maundy Thursday, Japhia and I headed out of town to spend Easter weekend at VanDuzer’s lakeside cottage, which they graciously made available and opened up for us.  When we got there, even though it was already mid-April there was still snow on the ground, the lake was still frozen over, and we wondered if winter would ever end.   Friday morning we found a little church in a nearby town with a Good Friday service.  The rest of that day and all of Holy Saturday we spent in the cottage, in front of the fireplace, seeking warmth and some sign of resurrection and hope.

Easter Sunday morning, as planned, we rose early – just a little after sunrise.  We bundled into parkas and boots and hats and gloves, and with a bottle of wine and a small loaf of bread, walked down to the lakeshore to share Easter morning communion.  Along the way it seemed something had changed.  And, when we got to the lakeshore, we knew what it was.

Overnight, a warm wind had come in from the east, and when we got to the lake we saw that the ice had melted.  It was dissolved into chunks of slush.  The slush was being blown off to the west end of the lake, into a little bay.  And fresh water was showing through all over.  Spring had come.  Overnight.  And in the creeping early dawn light, we shared bread and wine, and gave thanks.

Best Easter ever.

C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia builds an entire worldview around the passing of winter – with winter’s cold, its hardness of heart, and its frozen incapacity for love and real life as an image of the season and the reign of evil in the world, and the coming of spring – with its thawing of the heart, its risky bursts of new life emerging the snow, and its promise of warmth and new growth, as an image of the appearing of the Christ, the coming of the kingdom, and the beginning of the age of real humanity for all creation.

I believe that God [he says, in the resurrection of Jesus] really has dived down to the bottom of creation, and has come up bringing the whole redeemed nature on his shoulders.  The miracles that have already happened are, of course … the first fruits of that cosmic summer which is presently coming on.  Christ has risen, and so we shall rise… To be sure, it feels wintry enough still: but often in the very early spring it feels like that.  Two thousand years are only a day or two by this scale.  We really ought to say, ‘The resurrection happened two thousand years ago’ in the same spirit in which we say, ‘I saw a crocus yesterday.’”

The resurrection of Jesus is a single, one-time event – but also a wonderful and gracious moment in a larger, eternal movement and momentum of God in all the world.  It is a sign and a sealing of a larger, eternal promise.  It’s like a stone dropped one time into a pond, breaking the ice and sending out ripples that continue until the end of time.  It is one Act in the on-going dynamic of God at work in the life of the world, undoing the winters of our dis-eases and the world’s dis-orders, with spring after spring of new and true life for all. 

I shared this recently, however, with a friend who is a member of a spiritual growth group I get together with every few months.  His name is John and he lives on and still farms the old family farm near Woodstock that he inherited from his father.  And his response to my joy at the thought of spring emerging from winter from the landscape of life, was that he really hates spring. Because for him, it’s the beginning of nothing but work. 

Through the winter he can rest.  He has time to read.  To reflect, and to write.  He has time to grow and explore within himself.  Do what he wants to do.

In the spring, though, through the summer and into the fall, he has to work long and hard at things not always of his choosing, or at times of his choosing.  He is at the beck and call of uncontrollable weather, animals and their different needs, machinery and its cantankerous unreliability.

And we have to admit that Easter and new life are like that.  Easter doesn’t come from inside us.  The new life we most need, and in which God calls us to thrive and find real joy, usually isn’t defined by our desires and wants, or our own plans and interests. 

It comes from beyond us.  It rises up unbidden to surprise us.  It bursts in through doors we thought we had closed, to touch and stir something within us that maybe we didn’t even know was part of us, or that we would ever see as part of our life.  It comes as a personal call to believe in something new and hopeful through tears that we thought would never end. 

And it takes work and a willingness to commit time and talent and treasure to the needs of others around us – to let the ice of our isolation be broken, and let ourselves be caught up and carried along on the ripples of the kingdom in our time.

Like the March For Our Life in Washington, D.C. a week ago that was organized by students from Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut, and Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, and that attracted a quarter million people.

Like the Me Too Movement and the Times Up campaign.  Like Idle No More and Black Lives Matter.

Like Gord Downie at the end of his life and on his farewell tour feeling led to give voice to the story of Canada’s First Nations’ people, and then using his gifts and the time left to him to raise up the story of the tragic, secret path of Chanie Wenjack. 

Like Robyn Hunt and Elizabeth Wood interrupting their lives to make multiple trips to South America with Medical Ministries International, and Grant Durfey starting off his career as a paramedic with a mission trip to Haiti in July.

Like every new program down the street, every new initiative in our own community, every new bit of attention we feel inspired to give to existing programs all around us to feed the hungry, to raise up the poor, to nurture the faith of the young, to comfort the lonely and fearful.

Like every thawing of a single human heart – yours and mine.  Every single new movement of love between us, or from us to a neighbour.  Every shifting – either big or little, of our priorities and commitments in life that brings us more in tune with the on-going, eternal momentum of God’s kingdom breaking through the crust of Earth’s winter.

Easter comes to life on Earth one story, one life, and one new direction at a time.  And it’s this that’s been the heart-beat behind the good that has been done at this church over and over again.  It’s the holy power at the heart of what believe, and what we commit ourselves to in our own lives. 

So … best Easter – the best sign of God’s eternal Easter, for you? 

Where is the ice melting in your life, or in the life of the world around you?

Where do you feel the icy grip of winter being pushed back, and a new spring calling you to pick up and do some kingdom work? 

What ripple of ongoing resurrection are you riding – is lifting you up and carrying along, in your life right now?