28 January 2018

"The One Who Loves Us Best of All" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
January 28, 2018
Scripture:  Mark 1:21-28

If I am being completely honest, I have to confess that stories about unclean spirits and demons are pretty close to the top of my list of bible stories that I’m not comfortable talking about.  In our post-Enlightenment, scientific worldview, it’s difficult to read stories like the one we read today from Mark’s gospel and not start wondering what might have been going on in the man’s life, wonder what might have been possessing him.  Did he have some sort of mental illness or addiction?

But if we start equating mental illness with demon possession that needs to be exorcised, rather than seeing mental illness as a biological condition that requires medical care just like physical illnesses do, then we risk doing great harm to many people.

And I don’t know about you, but when I think about possession by unclean spirits, my brain jumps to images from the movies, with heads spinning and bodies floating in the air, and computer-altered voices speaking.

And all of these thought spinning around my brain this week didn’t help me at all to prepare a sermon on the reading from today.  I was stuck for most of the week figuring out what I could possibly have to say about a man with an unclean spirit crying out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” and Jesus responding by telling the unclean spirit to be silent and to leave the man.

It was only when I came across a quote from well-known preacher Fred Craddock that I finally had a way to see in to this story with my 21st Century worldview.  Craddock wrote that “not believing in demons has hardly eradicated evil in our world.”[1]  It is probably safe to say that many of us don’t believe in the existence of demons of the type that we come across in books and movies; but there is still a problem of evil in the world.

This is something that we talked about last week in both bible study groups.  On Monday morning, we found in the first 5 verses of the book of Ruth, a family that became refugees because of a famine, the death of the husband and sons of the family, and a widow who was left all alone.  So much tragedy compressed into a short space.  And then on Wednesday evening, we looked at the opening chapters of the book of Genesis and saw how quickly the perfection of God’s creation was spoiled by humans making bad choices.  And it really didn’t take very much temptation for the humans to choose to disobey God.  The snake said to them, “eat the fruit and you will be like God,” and the humans said, “OK.”

Even though we may not believe in demons, there is still so much evil in our world.  There is evil that results from the choices that we humans make – wars and climate change and people who have been given power and authorized to have control over a button that could deploy nuclear weapons that would destroy the world that God created.  The thing that I struggle with the most with this sort of evil is that the people who making the choices for evil are often not the people who are most affected by the decisions.

And then there is evil in the world that just happens – that isn’t a result of human choice.  A young woman who never smoked develops lung cancer.  A young man is killed in an avalanche leaving behind a young widow and a 2-year-old without a father.  An earthquake triggers a tsunami and thousands of people drown.  Even if we don’t believe in demons, evil is still a reality in our world.

Have you ever had someone say to you, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Everything happens according to God’s will”?  The thing is, I don’t believe that God’s will includes illness and suffering; I don’t believe that God’s will is for us to destroy one another and all of creation with wars; I don’t believe that it is God’s will for people to die of drug overdoses.  So I’m not able believe that everything in this world happens according to the will of God who is love.  Evil is real.

I wonder how the story from Mark’s gospel might read if it were told from the perspective of the man with an unclean spirit.  We aren’t told what kind of spirit he has – only that it is unclean.  It isn’t of God.  It is a spirit that controls him that isn’t the Holy Spirit.  There is some force or spirit that has power over this man, that is controlling this man, that doesn’t come from God.

I wonder how long this spirit had been controlling the man?  I wonder what sorts of things this spirit had been making the man think or do?  We know that the spirit was able to make him say things that he wouldn’t have said without the spirit.  I wonder how much pain the man felt because of the impure spirit, how much loneliness and isolation?

I also can’t help but think of what some of the unclean spirits in our world are – the things that have power over us that are not of God.  It is easy to name things like addiction as things that can control us that aren’t from God.  But what about emotions like anger and fear.  Have you ever done something out of anger that you regretted later on?  Could that anger then be seen as an unclean spirit?  And fear is a big one too – if we are afraid, we let the fear drive our decisions, and we are then in the power of that fear.  Fear of change, fear of insecurity, fear of that which is different than us – all of these can be unclean spirits, things that control us that don’t come from God.

And then there are urges that we are subject to – the desire for power or for revenge.  These can take over our lives to and control our words and our actions.

We are also living in a media-saturated culture.  What do we absorb from TV or Netflix or Facebook or Twitter?  How does the media have power over us and control us?  Is the media acting like a spirit that doesn’t come from God?

And then, I think that maybe the least recognized unclean spirits are the voices that we carry around in our heads.  The voices that tell us that we aren’t good enough, aren’t smart enough, aren’t pretty enough.  This is one that I have struggled with personally.  When I went back to school a couple of years ago after being away from school for 15 years, for my first semester and a half, every time I handed in a paper, there was a voice in the back of my head that said to me, “This is the paper that is going to prove that you are an academic fraud, that you don’t really belong here.”  If you listen to these voices long enough, you come to believe them, and you begin to forget that you are a beloved child of God just because you are you.

So even though I can’t believe in Hollywood-style demons, I do have to admit that there are lots of unclean spirits in the world – things that have power over us that don’t come from God.  Not everything in the world happens according to God’s will.

But the good news of the story is still the good news of today.  God doesn’t want us to be controlled by these unclean spirits.  When Jesus saw that the man was being controlled by an unclean spirit, he didn’t tell him, “I gave you that spirit so that you will learn to respect me.”  No, Jesus saw that this man wasn’t able to be who God had called him to be, that he wasn’t living in to the fullness of life that God desires for each of us.  Jesus tells the spirit to stop talking and to leave the man.  And that is what happens.  God’s power is greater than the power of the other spirits in the world.

The core of Jesus’ teaching all through Mark’s gospel, right from the very first words that he says, is that the kingdom of God has come near – it’s right at hand.  It is so close that any of the powers or spirits other than God’s Holy Spirit no longer need to have the final word in our lives.  The Holy Spirit is stronger than any of these.

The God who is love is not a god who sends out punishment or a god who likes to see us suffer for doing wrong or making bad choices.  The God who is love is a God who is always reaching out to us in love, who is always calling us home, who is always calling us to fullness of life.

And so whatever unclean spirits might have control over our lives, I invite us to remind these spirits that God’s Spirit is stronger.  That God’s love is the force that has ultimate control over our lives.  I invite you to rest in God’s love until you can’t imagine any other way of being.

I want to finish by reading a story.  It is the story of Max, a young boy who allows the forces of a wild rumpus control his actions, until love and a hot meal call him home again.  Some of you might be familiar with it – it is called Where the Wild Things Are, and it is written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.[2]

(read Where the Wild Things Are)

God is love, and God is always calling us home from wherever we have wandered – home to the one who loves us best of all and a hot supper.  Thanks be to God!

 (This is a picture that says "home" to me - warmth and trust and love) 

[1] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year B: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993), 92.
[2] Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (New York: Harper Collins, 1963).

7 January 2018

"Matter Matters" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
January 7, 2017 - The Baptism of Our Lord
Scripture:  Mark 1:4-11 (with a brief reference to Genesis 1:1-5)

I invite you to think of some of the more memorable meals that you’ve had.  Maybe you’re thinking of a holiday meal like Christmas or Thanksgiving with your family gathered around a large table, celebrating together.  Or maybe you’re thinking of a dinner party where the atmosphere and the guests just clicked and the meal became more than it would have been otherwise.  Or maybe you’re thinking about a restaurant meal where the food and the service and the atmosphere were something extra special.

I’m thinking of a dinner at my apartment in Nova Scotia in January, 3 years ago.  I’d just finished my first semester at school and I invited 5 classmates over to share a roast chicken.  We didn’t know each other very well yet, but as the meal progressed, the stories that we shared became deeper and the laughter became louder.  When we finally left the table at midnight, our friendship was cemented, and when I think back to that meal, there is a warm glow that hovers in my dining room.

Now I want you to take a moment and imagine what your special meal would have been like without the food.  No smell of roasting turkey wafting through the house.  Empty glasses raised in a toast.  Empty dishes being passed around the table.  Cutlery clattering on empty plates.  No food changes this memorable meal into something memorable but for very different reasons.  Food is important.  Food changes things.

We are not purely spiritual beings – we have physical bodies as well, and our physical selves need food and water to survive and thrive.  And that’s OK.  This morning we read the start of the first chapter of Genesis where God created the physical world, and God saw that the physical world was good.  God made matter, so matter matters.

Most churches around the world, including all four of our denominations, recognize two sacraments that were instituted by Jesus – baptism and communion.  I am drawn to St. Augustine’s definition of a sacrament.  What he wrote 1600 years ago still resonates with me today.  Augustine wrote that a sacrament is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace.  A visible sign of God’s invisible grace.

God’s grace, God’s love is invisible.  We can’t see it, we can’t reach out and touch it, but it is always there.  But since we are physical beings, made of matter, of cells and molecules and atoms, God has given us physical, material ways to experience God’s love.  Ways that we can see and touch and taste and smell and hear God’s love.

The water of baptism, and the bread and wine of communion – they don’t replace God’s love, but instead they are signs – they point us towards God’s love.  Just as a stop sign doesn’t directly stop our car, but directs us to stop, the sacraments direct us towards experiencing the always-present, never-ending love of God.

When a person is baptized, either as a baby or as an adult, we don’t baptize just with words, it isn’t just a spiritual baptism where we know that the Holy Spirit has descended on this person.  Instead, there is water as well as words – water that we can hear being poured, water that we can see, water that we can touch.

When we gather around the table, we gather with words, but we also gather to share the bread and the wine – bread and wine that we can smell, taste, and see.

God made matter, so matter matters; but God also became matter in the person of Jesus Christ.  We’ve just finished the season of Christmas when we celebrated the time when God didn’t just put on humanity like a coat, but God actually became human.  God loves us so much that God became one of us.  God not only made matter, but God became matter, so matter really matters.

And we are given these sacraments so that our material selves – our flesh and blood – has something material to touch and taste so that the love of God can be made real to us.

Today’s gospel reading is from the beginning of Mark’s gospel.  Now Mark doesn’t give us any birth stories like Matthew and Luke do.  Mark’s gospel begins with John the baptizer appearing in the wilderness, and the first appearance of Jesus is when he comes to John and is baptized by John in the Jordan River.

Again, this isn’t a purely spiritual baptism – there is physical water present.  Jesus waded into the river, went under the surface of the water, and came back up out of the water again.  And then Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and he saw the Spirit descending like a dove, and a voice from heaven said to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

If we were to flip to the very end of Mark’s gospel, we would see a parallel event happening.  Here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the heavens are torn apart, God is no longer contained or separated from God’s creation, and God’s voice says to Jesus, “You are my Son.”

At the end of Mark’s gospel, at the moment when Jesus dies, the curtain of the temple is torn apart.  Now the curtain of the temple separated the Holy of Holies, the place where God lived, from the rest of the temple.  Again, when this separating curtain is torn, God is no longer confined to one space, no longer separated from the rest of creation.  And at that moment, a Roman Centurion who witnessed and likely participated in the crucifixion of Jesus announced to the world, “Truly this man was God’s son.”

We’ve gone from the tearing of the heavens and a voice telling Jesus that he was God’s son, to the tearing of the curtain of the temple and a voice telling the world that Jesus was God’s son.  The beginning of Jesus’ ministry; and the beginning of the ministry of the church, the whole body of Christ.

In that moment of Jesus’ baptism, the whole Trinity is present.  The heavens are torn apart, and God descends like a dove and rests upon God, and the voice of God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved.”  And when we baptize in our church today, we baptize in the name of this same Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Our sacraments then, are this fabulous place where the physical and spiritual meet.  In the physical elements of the water, bread, and wine, we encounter God.  Because the heavens were torn apart, because the curtain of the temple was torn apart, because Jesus Christ was fully human and fully God, God is fully present in our world.  One of my favourite theologians, Richard Rohr, writes, “God is always present in the bread.  We just need to bring our hunger.”

In baptism, we make a covenant with God.  God is always present, and God’s love is always with us, but it is formalized in baptism.  We, or our parents, make promises, and we hear that we are a beloved child of God.  The Holy Spirit hovers over the waters of our baptism, just as the Holy Spirit hovered over Jesus at his baptism.  And as a sign of God’s love, and as a sign of the promises that are made, water is sprinkled or poured or we are fully immersed in it.

And in the meal of Holy Communion, we are reminded of God’s love for us.  We are reminded of God’s faithfulness in all generations, and we are strengthened in our faith.  The Holy Spirit hovers over the bread and the wine, and hovers over all of us when we gather at the table, closer to us than our very breath.  And we eat and we drink together, uniting us in that overwhelming love of God.  This isn’t a meal without food – empty glasses and bare plates.  This is a meal where God is present through the Holy Spirit in real bread and real wine.

God is fully present in the world – nothing can separate us from God and from God’s love.  Our sacraments are physical, tangible signs that point us to that love.  God made physical matter; God became physical matter, and so matter matters.  We are not just spiritual beings, but we are physical beings as well, and through the sacraments, God cares for us, and nourishes us, both physically and spiritually.

Let us pray:
Holy God,
            you are closer to us than our very breath.
When we forget you,
            remind us of your love,
            remind us that we are your beloved children,
            and remind us that you will never leave us.
Strengthen us through the water and bread and wine,
            so that we might know you more clearly,
            love you more dearly,
            and follow you more nearly,
                        day, by day, by day.

(Remembering our Baptism)

1 January 2018

Favourite Books of 2017

New Year's Day - time to compile a list of my favourite reads of 2017.  Same rules as in previous years:  it doesn't matter what year the book was published, I have to have read it for the first time in 2017, and all genres count.  I've linked to the books that I've reviewed.

So in no particular order, here is the list:

The Break (Katherena Vermette) - This is a beautiful, heartbreaking book that has stayed with me in the months since I read it.  It took me a long time to finish, because I cared so much about the characters and didn't want any more terrible things to happen to them, but the book ended with a note of hope.  I had a strong sense of place reading this book - when I was in Winnipeg recently, I kept looking around for places and characters from The Break.

Small Mechanics (Lorna Crozier) - In the words of my review, "this was a quiet, gentle, and occasionally delightful collection."  It is a collection of short poems that I read over the course of a couple of months last winter.  The one that I quote in the review, A New Religion, I've shared with many people in the past months.

Bone and Bread (Saleema Nawaz) - I read (or inhaled) this book last winter after it had been a contender in the previous year's Canada Reads competition.  This was another book where I really cared for the characters.

Still Life (Louise Penny) - I've finally jumped on to the Louise Penny bandwagon (I'm currently on book 4 in the series).  I really enjoyed the first two books in the series (Still Life and Dead Cold), but didn't like the third one (The Cruelest Month) as much (because of the plot, not the writing).  They really are delightful books - very Canadian, three-dimensional characters, and unique plots.

The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion) - My cousin loaned me this book last Christmas break, and I read it on the train in January when I was heading from Ontario back to Halifax.  It was perfect train reading - engaging, not too heavy, and with delightful characters.  I haven't picked up the sequel - the reviews that I've seen say that it doesn't live up to the promise of this book, and I'm happy to leave the characters where they were at the end of The Rosie Project.

Dietland (Sarai Walker) - I hesitated to put this book on the list as I just finished it a couple of days ago.  A friend and I decided to adopt the Icelandic custom of Jolabokaflod even though neither of us is Icelandic, and exchange books to be opened after the last of our Christmas services was over.  This is the book that she sent me, and it was one that I wouldn't have picked up on my own.  I can't begin to describe it - I've never read anything like it before.  It was dark, it was compelling reading, and the main character grew and developed throughout.  I haven't finished processing it yet, but I think that it will live up to list-status.

This list was more difficult that usual to put together, since most of my books are in storage right now - normally I put together the list by browsing my bookcases.  I have probably missed some great books, but this is what I could come up with from memory!

(My reading corner)