25 February 2018

"Take Up Your Cross" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
February 25, 2018
Scripture Reading:  Mark 8:31-48

In the weeks leading up to Good Friday and Easter, our readings are focused on Jesus’ journey to the cross, and we are invited to journey along with Jesus until we reach the cross.

But have you ever paused to consider what a strange thing it is that the cross is the universally recognized symbol for Christianity?  If you think about it, the cross was a Roman tool of death, but not just death.  It was designed to cause the maximum amount of pain and suffering, and to prolong the process of dying in a very public way.

And this is the main symbol attached to the faith that we profess.  Our churches are adorned with crosses, both outside and inside.  Maps usually indicate the location of churches with a cross.  Many of us, myself included, choose to wear crosses as jewellery, to identify ourselves to others as followers of the crucified one, and to remind ourselves of the one whom we follow.  But when we choose to wear a cross, we are choosing to wear a brutal instrument of torture and death.  What would you think if you saw someone wearing a necklace that was a noose?  Or earrings that were shaped like machine guns?  But what is the difference between that and a cross?

The question becomes even more poignant when you look around at the violence in the world that we are living in.  A world where a teenager can walk into a school with a semi-automatic rifle and kill 17 people.  A world where the presidents of two countries threaten the existence of the whole planet with nuclear war.  A world where violence is repaid with violence.

Because this cycle of violence seems to be the way that our world functions.  A school shooting is met with the suggestion that teachers should be armed in order to fight back.  Someone says or does something hurtful to me, so I reply with something hurtful to get back at them.  They reply back with something hurtful, and the cycle continues.  American preacher Rob Bell compares this to the old video game, Pong.[1]  Remember that game that was a bit like table tennis or Ping-Pong, with a paddle on either side of the screen and a blip traveling back and forth.  I ping the blip to you, and you move your paddle to ping it back to me.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.  And so it is with violence – I do something to you, you do something to me.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.

Think about your favourite movies or books, or even cartoons.  The bad guy does something bad.  The good guys, claiming either self-defence or the common good do something bad back to the bad guys.  The bad guys retaliate with something even worse towards the good guys.  And so on, in a seemingly-endless loop until one or both are destroyed.

Last weekend, I was watching the movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, with my neighbours, and I was able to see this cycle in action.  Humans kept apes in cages at a research facility, tormenting them with experiments.  The apes escape and set up their own society, but when the humans show up, the apes start a war with the humans.  The humans fight back.  And the cycle continues.  At one point in the movie, I had some hope that the cycle might be broken – one of the apes leading the war was about to fall to his death, and an ape who was advocating for peace was in a position to save him.  I thought to myself, “maybe this is how the situation can be resolved – if he saves his fellow ape, maybe there can be reconciliation and a non-violent resolution to the situation.”  But if you have seen the movie, you will know that it doesn’t end this way.  Instead, the ape advocating for peace throws the war-leader to his death so that he can claim the leadership position.  Violence done for the greater good.  And the cycle of violence continues.

Getting back to our scripture reading, in today’s reading from Mark, Jesus begins to talk about his own death, and he tells the crowds who are following that they are to deny themselves and take up their cross.  They are to deny themselves and take up a brutal instrument of torture and death.

Unfortunately, this is a phrase and passage that has been used to keep people in harmful or violent situations, or to keep people from seeking help.  That’s just the cross you have to bear.  But I would suggest that maybe there is a different way that this could be read or interpreted – a way that has to do with breaking the cycle of violence that is so common in our world.

Remember that in just under five weeks, we are going to re-member the Good Friday story.  We are going to re-live the time when Jesus took up his own cross and went to his death.  Jesus was God-in-flesh, but in this moment he renounced all of his Godly powers.  He could have zapped those who were crucifying him.  He could have blasted that wooden cross into slivers.  He could have argued back to those who arrested him, and brought him to trial.  But instead, Jesus chose the power of silence.  He chose not to fight back.  He allowed himself to be tortured and he went to his death, without resisting.  God-in-Jesus broke the cycle of violence by not repaying violence with violence, but by embracing his cross.  And in doing so, the powers of violence were broken.

In this moment, the symbolism of the cross is turned upside down.  The Romans intended the cross to represent an instrument of pain and suffering and death; but Jesus has turned it in to a symbol of anti-violence.  He took up his cross, and the cross no longer had power over him, and death was defeated.

I mentioned movies and books earlier where we see the cycle of violence perpetuating, with the characters repaying violence with violence.  There is one example I found though, where this cycle of violence is broken by the hero taking up his metaphorical cross, and that is in the Harry Potter books, especially the seventh and final book in the series.

Spoiler alert, if you haven’t read the books yet or seen the movies – if you don’t want to know how they end, you might want to plug your ears or leave the room for the next couple of minutes.

So the overall story is an epic battle between good, represented by Harry and his friends; and evil, represented by Voldemort and his followers.  The series starts out perpetuating the cycle of violence, where Voldemort does something bad and Harry and his friends fight back.  The one point in the books that upset me the most the first time I read them was when Harry and his gang started using the so-called “Unforgivable Curses” – magic that was so bad that the use of these spells meant automatic imprisonment – they were unforgivable.  Up until this point, they had been used only by Voldemort and his followers, but in the last book, the so-called good guys start using these unforgivable curses.  The cycle of violence had escalated to the point where both sides were using worse and worse violence.

But then towards the end of the seventh and final book, Harry comes to a realization that Voldemort can’t be defeated using the violence that he is perpetuating.  In a scene that is dramatic for its lack of action and violence, Harry begins a long quiet walk to the Forbidden Forest to meet Voldemort.  He doesn’t want to go, but he knows that he needs to go in order to bring an end to the fighting.  And when he comes face-to-face with Voldemort, he doesn’t fight back.  He doesn’t resist.  He allows Voldemort to kill him, and in doing so, all of Voldemort’s powers of death and violence are finally broken and disappear.  The cycle of violence was broken because one of the participants refused to participate in it.

Now I’m really hoping that none of us here has to face execution by the Roman Empire; and I suspect that none of us will be called upon to defeat Lord Voldemort.  But each one of us is called to end cycles of violence and hurt in our own worlds.  You sometimes see this in families – one person says something about someone else, and the other person retaliates.  Families can be broken apart or family members can become estranged by this cycle.  You also see this in some workplaces – people stepping on each other in order to get to the top.

There’s a phrase, “crab bucket mentality” that seems to capture this phenomenon.  If you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket without a lid, even though they could escape, they won’t.  Any crab that reaches the lip of the bucket on the edge of freedom will get pulled down by the other crabs.  The cycle of doing violence to one another keeps them all captive or trapped.

And yet Jesus says, “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross.”  Jesus tells us that we aren’t to fight back.  We are to embrace our cross.  We are to break the cycle of violence by refusing to participate in it.

People who take up their cross in this way usually aren’t well respected by society.  Our society usually doesn’t reward people who don’t scramble for the top; who don’t defend themselves.  They are often seen as being weak or cowardly.

But Jesus tells us that we are to take up our crosses, in imitation of what Jesus himself would go through.  And from our perspective, 2000 years later, we know that this moment when Jesus embraced his cross isn’t the end of the story.  Jesus embraced his cross, and went to his death; but in doing so, the power of death was broken.  Death could not win, and two days later, the tomb was empty.

We are an Easter people; and even in this season of Lent as we journey towards the cross, we celebrate the resurrection.  So let us take up our crosses, knowing that the crosses may bring pain and suffering.  But even as we carry our crosses, we know that Jesus has walked this road before us.  And as we carry our crosses, we can be confident that the cycle of violence and death has been broken, and we no longer need to participate in them.  And as we carry our crosses, we know that the power of the cross, the power of silence and non-resistance, is stronger than the power of death.  May God give us all the courage to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Let us pray:
Holy God,
            you are the God of Good Friday,
            and you are the God of the resurrection.
Give us the courage
            to journey with Jesus to the cross.
Give us the faith
            to be your counter-cultural people
                        in the middle of a violent culture.
Give us the reassurance
            that even in the middle of pain and suffering,
                        Jesus has walked this road before us.
We pray this in the name of the crucified one,
            who is the resurrected one.

[1] https://robbell.podbean.com/e/episode-143-the-thing-in-the-air-part-5-the-lie-of-redemptive-violence/

 (Take up your cross, Harry!)

19 February 2018

"Proclaiming the Good News of God" - Annual Meeting Sermon

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
February 18, 2018
Scripture:  Mark 1:9-15

(Note:  We had our Annual Meeting today, and it was integrated in to the worship service.  This means that the sermon is shorter than usual, and is directed towards the Annual Meeting.)

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, and on the first Sunday of Lent, the readings usually focus on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness; but somehow that part of the gospel reading didn’t seem quite appropriate for the Annual Meeting.

So instead, I want to look at the beginning and the end of today’s reading from Mark – the part that comes before and after Jesus is tempted in the wilderness.

But first, let’s begin with the premise that we, as the church, are the body of Christ in our world.  We are called to be the hands and feet and eyes and ears and heart of Christ wherever we go.  We can’t do it alone – none of us is Jesus after all – but together, led by the Holy Spirit, we are constantly being transformed by the Holy Spirit into the image of Christ.

And what does this mean?  In the reading from Mark, when Jesus came out of the wilderness, he went about proclaiming the good news of God.

Now when we proclaim the good news of God, we may do that with words, but it doesn’t necessarily involve words.  Proclaiming the good news of God might look like the Care Team putting together and delivering Christmas baskets to the residents of Little Prairie Haven, Surerus Place, and the extended care wing at the hospital.  Proclaiming the good news of God might look like inviting a friend or neighbour who is struggling with the holidays to attend a Longest Night Service in the week leading up to Christmas.  Proclaiming the good news of God might look like a silent auction to support the local women’s shelter.  Proclaiming the good news of God might look like inviting a neighbour to attend bible study.  Proclaiming the good news of God might look like regularly attending Council meetings in order to make sure that the church continues to work as the body of Christ.  Proclaiming the good news of God might look like gathering faithfully to worship every Sunday morning even when it would be easier to sleep in; letting the world know that we trust an alternative narrative to the one that the world tells us – a narrative of hope.

And this is who and what we are called to be as the church.  We are called to be Christ’s presence in our world, proclaiming the good news of God in all of the different ways that we do.  This is the work or the mission that God has called us to – the little piece of God’s overall mission that Chetwynd Shared Ministry is called to live in to.

And part of the good news is that we don’t have to do it alone.  God is with us, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, in all that we do.  We are carrying out God’s mission, and it is the Holy Spirit who empowers and enables us to carry out this mission.  Just as the Holy Spirit was with Jesus in his baptism, with Jesus in the wilderness, and with Jesus when he was proclaiming the good news of God, the Holy Spirit is always with us.

As we reflect back on the year of 2017 as Chetwynd Shared Ministry, I invite you to consider how we have been led by the Holy Spirit over the past year.  Where can we see the work of our congregation fitting in to the overall mission of God?  What new adventures is the Holy Spirit going to lead us on in the year ahead?

And always remember God’s voice, reminding us that we are God’s beloved children; and that God is pleased with us simply because we are God’s children.  Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:
Holy God, who is love,
            we thank you for the past year.
We thank you for the opportunity
to be your people here in Chetwynd;
we thank you for your guidance in the past;
and we ask you for your presence in the year ahead.
Help us to discern who you are calling us to be,
            where you are calling us to go,
            and what you are calling us to do.
Strengthen our faith,
            so that we know that you are always with us,
                        even to the end of time.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            the one true head of your church.

(Though this is a picture of our building - before it was buried in snow! - I truly believe that the Church is the people, not the building.  At our annual meeting, we remember, celebrate, and plan for the work of the Church as we carry out our piece of God's mission.)

4 February 2018

"A Holy Paradox" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
February 4, 2018
Scripture:  Isaiah 40:21-31 (with brief reference to Mark 1:29-39)

Today’s reading from Isaiah reminds me of one of my favourite Calvin and Hobbes comic strips.  The first panel is all black except for Calvin and a bunch of pinprick stars; and Calvin is looking up at the night sky.  In the second panel, Calvin shouts up at the sky, “I’m significant!”  The third panel is back to Calvin looking up at the sky and the stars.  And then in the final panel, he says quietly to himself, “Screamed the dust speck.”

When we contemplate the “otherness” of God, or when we contemplate the immensity of God’s creation – the size, the variety, the ever-increasing universe – it is very easy to feel insignificant.

Isaiah captures this feeling well and he uses some very vivid images and language to describe it.  He describes God sitting above the earth and all of creation, and we are crawling across the surface of the earth like grasshoppers.  He describes God stretching out the heavens – that whole night sky that Calvin was looking up at – like it is nothing more than a curtain, or a tent that covers the earth.  And he describes a God who is so all-knowing that each one of the billions and billions of stars that Calvin was looking up at is known by name.

Next to all of this, we are pretty insignificant.

This middle part of the book of Isaiah was written for a people who felt as though they had been abandoned or forgotten by God.  We can hear their lament in verse 27 of today’s reading – right there in the middle.  They were complaining, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.”

These words were written for a people living in exile.  We are now several centuries after Moses had led them out of slavery and in to the land that God had promised to their ancestors.  The people had lived in the land for many generations, but they were a tiny nation surrounded by great empires.  First, the northern part of the land was taken over by the Assyrian empire, and later the whole land was taken over by the Babylonian empire.  The capital city, Jerusalem, had been destroyed; along with the temple, which was not only the place where they worshipped God, but it was also the place where God lived.  And when the city and the country were destroyed, all of the leaders and many of the people were carried away from the land that God had given to them, to exile in Babylon.

They truly felt abandoned by God.  They had lost their homes, they had lost their land.  God was so far gone from them that God no longer had a home among them.

But this is where Isaiah offers them a word of comfort, a word of hope.  Isaiah reminds the people that God is so much bigger, so much more powerful, so much more God-like, than they could ever imagine.  God is bigger than the home they had built for God in the temple.  God is bigger than Jerusalem or the land that they had been given.  God is bigger even than the night sky and all of the stars that fill it.  God is even bigger and more powerful than the Babylonian empire and army that had carried them away into exile.  God is bigger than all of their problems.

Which is all very well to say, but this can become a bit of an intellectual exercise when times are tough.  When we feel abandoned by God, it’s all very well to say, or to have someone else say to us, “God is bigger than all of our problems,” but that doesn’t really help with the feeling of being cut off or abandoned.

It is so easy to feel abandoned by God when we run into difficulties in our lives.  For me, the time when I felt this abandonment most acutely was in a time of grief – I felt abandoned by the person who had died, but at the same time I felt as though God had abandoned me too.

We talked last week about those voices that we carry around with us – the voices that tell us that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t smart enough, that we aren’t pretty enough.  Where is God when these voices seem to be controlling our lives?

Then there are fears and anxieties that we carry around with us every day.  I heard a story this week about a couple of 12-year-old boys whose biggest fear is that a nuclear war between the US and North Korea is going to destroy the rest of the planet.  Combine these nuclear fears with climate change and economic instability, and there is an atmosphere of fear that seems to be pervading our daily lives.  Where is God in all of this mess that we’ve made of the world?  I really wouldn’t blame God for abandoning us for the mess that we’ve made of things.

But the good news is that the reading doesn’t begin and end with the enormousness and otherness and power of God.  The tone shifts towards the end, and Isaiah reminds his listeners that not only is God the holy creator of the universe, of everything that we can see and everything that we can’t see; but God is also very present with us.  As Isaiah says, God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless, so that those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

We are to wait for God, but this waiting is not passively sitting back, doing nothing, and waiting for God to zap the circumstances that are troubling us with a lightning bolt.  Instead, this is to be active waiting.  The prophet Jeremiah told the people, as they were heading into exile in Babylon that they weren’t to sit back and wallow in their despair.  Instead they were to build lives for themselves in exile, they were to figure out how to worship God in a foreign land, and they were to prepare for the time when they would return home.

The thing about God’s timing is that it isn’t our timing.  When we are waiting for God’s timing, maybe the waiting will be so fast that we will have to hold on to our hats, on the scale of God creating the whole universe in seven days; but maybe the waiting will be long, like the people waiting for more than a full generation in exile before they could return home.  And as we wait for God, we are to prepare ourselves for what God is going to do next.  But whatever happens, we know that God is with us, and whatever God has planned is worth waiting for!

A paradox is where two things that seem to be opposite of each other can both be true at the same time, and with God we have a holy paradox.  God is totally holy, totally other, totally powerful, the creator of the universe.  And at the same time, God is fully present with us, and cares for each one of us.  Not only are the billions of stars numbered and known by name, but each one of the billions of people on earth are known to God and known by name.  It’s not an either-or question – God is either all-powerful or ever-present; instead it’s a both-and situation – God is both all-powerful and ever-present.

We see this in the gospel reading from Mark too.  God cares so much for us, even in our insignificance compared to God, even though we are like grasshoppers crawling along the earth compared to God – God cares so much for us, that God became human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  God became a grasshopper too!

And in the person of Jesus, God demonstrates love and concern and caring for each person that he met.  In our reading from Mark, Jesus heals the crowds of people who were brought to him – Mark doesn’t tell us how many people were healed that evening, only that he cured many who were sick with various diseases.  And Jesus also healed Simon’s mother-in-law.  One person who had been in bed with a fever.  We don’t know how long she had been sick.  Maybe she too felt as though God had abandoned her.  But Jesus shows care for her.  He doesn’t heal her from the next room or from outside of the house – instead he comes to her bedside, he touches her, he helps her up, and all of a sudden the fever is gone.  I can only assume that Jesus showed the same level of care and concern for each and every person who was brought to him.

And so here is that wonderful, joyful, amazing, ridiculous paradox.  That the God who is so far away and remote, powerful beyond anything that we can imagine, cares for each one of us, knows us, and calls us by name.  And so even though we might feel that God is far away, God will not, can not ever abandon us, but is closer to us than our very breath.

In a few minutes, we are going to be moving towards the communion table to celebrate the Eucharist.  Each time when we gather at the table, we give thanks to God, remembering that God has been faithful in every generation; and therefore we can trust God to be faithful in every generation to come.

So even when we feel no bigger than a speck of dust, like Calvin felt staring up at the night sky; even when we feel as though God is so far away, so remote, so “other”; remember this holy paradox, this both-and.  The God who created the heavens and the earth knows you by name, is always with you, and will never leave you.

Let us pray:
Holy God,
            we thank you because you are you.
We thank you for your goodness and your power,
            for all of your creation;
and we thank you for being always with us,
            closer to us than our very breath.
Help us to have the confidence to know
            that you will never leave us
            and that you are always with us.
Surround us with your love,
            and strengthen our faith,
                        so that we can wait for you.
We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            the embodiment of your love.