Sunday, April 29, 2012

What's in a name?

Texts: Psalm 23 (The Lord's my shepherd); Acts 4:5-12 (saved by Jesus' name); 1 John 3:16-24 (love in word and deed); John 10:11-18 (Jesus as the good shepherd)

"There is no other name than Jesus Christ by which we must be saved." So says Peter in our reading today from Acts. Salvation, of course, is the chief work of God in Christ. But how does the name Jesus Christ help save us? We hear a similar comment about Jesus' name in our reading from 1st John. The author urges us to "believe in the name Jesus Christ." Belief in Christ is central for Christians, of course. But why does the author urge us to believe in the name Jesus Christ instead of the person?

Names do carry a lot of power. A good example, I think, is found on Easter Sunday morning. Mary Magdalene talks with a man outside of the empty tomb, but it is only when he says her name, "Mary," that she realizes the man to whom she has been speaking is not a gardener, but is the Risen Jesus.

Names are especially important when they refer to God. The ancient Hebrews had many names for God: El Shaddai, Adonai, Elohim, Shekinah, and so on. But the most important of the Hebrew words for God was so sacred that it was spoken aloud only once a year, and then only by the High Priest in the Holy Temple on the Day of Atonement. In the Hebrew Bible it appears as the four letters YHWH, and it is translated into English as Yahweh, Jehovah, or the Lord God.

Yahweh is the name for God used in Psalm 23, which we sang a few minutes ago. In English, the first line of the Psalm is, "The Lord is my Shepherd." But the original Hebrew could also be translated into English as "Yahweh is my shepherd," or "The Holy-Name-One-Must-Never-Say is my shepherd."

Today's scene from Acts occurs a few weeks after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Peter is under arrest in Jerusalem for healing a lame man whom he encountered outside of the Temple. At his trial, Peter says "it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth . . . that this [lame] man stands before you healed . . . Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved."

For many Christians, Peter's statement stands alongside that of Jesus in John 14:16 -- "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Together, they are said to prove that only believing Christians can be healed in this life and saved in the next. But is this what Peter means by the phrase "no other name," and is this what we should preach?

One of the first things that can to my mind in thinking of this question was the phrase "What's in a name" from William Shakespeare’s play "Romeo and Juliet." The phrase is found in a speech delivered by Juliet from her balcony after she learns that Romeo, in whom she has fallen in love, is a member of the Montague family. The problem is that Juliet is a Capulet, and the Capulet and Montague families are sworn enemies. So here, now, is her famous balcony speech:

O Romeo, deny thy father, and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy; Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name
would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title.
Romeo, doff thy name, and for that name which is no part of thee
take all myself.

In her love for Romeo, Juliet is willing to overlook his family name, and audiences usually applaud her decision. But given how important and powerful names are, should we ever disregard names, especially the names we use for Jesus?

This question leads me to another one: "Just what is Jesus' name?" It turns out that answering this second question not an easy task.

When I was a child, I assumed that Christ was Jesus' surname -- that his parents were called Joseph and Mary Christ of Nazareth.

Later, I learned that Christ is a royal title given to kings in Jerusalem. To be more precise, it is the Greek form of the Hebrew royal title Messiah. English forms of Messiah include Chosen One, Anointed One, and King. Jesus' surname would have been Ben Josef -- "son of Joseph" -- and not Christ.

Then there is Jesus' given name. Like Christ, Jesus is Greek even though Jesus and his family did not speak Greek. During his lifetime, Jesus would have been called Yeshua or Joshua, which are the Aramaic and Hebrew forms of Jesus.

Jesus spoke Aramaic while the gospels were written many years later in Greek. English translations of the gospels usually translate personal names from Greek into English. For example, Petros becomes Peter and Paulus becomes Paul. But English translators do not translate the Greek name, Jesus, into an English name like Joshua or Josh.

Perhaps translators shy away from translating "Jesus Christ" into English because of the importance given to the name and title by the authors of Acts and First John. Still, it only takes a moment's reflection to realize that Peter would not have uttered the words "Jesus Christ" in his trial before religious authorities in Jerusalem. Like Jesus, Peter spoke Aramaic, and so he would have said something like this: "There is no other name than Yeshua the Messiah by which we must be saved." The puzzle remains, at least for me.

Finally, there is the meaning of the name Jesus/Joshua/Yeshua. The first part of the name refers to the sacred name of the God of Israel, Yahweh. The second part of the name means "rescue" or "save." Together they give us another possible translation of Jesus into English: Yahweh the Salvation.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus uses the metaphor of Good Shepherd to refer to himself. In doing so, he connects himself to his namesake, Yahweh, who is called the Good Shepherd in Psalm 23. The metaphor can be seen as another indication that Jesus truly is Yahweh the Salvation.

Jesus then goes on to say that "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also . . . so there will be one flock, one shepherd." Jesus' mission is a universal one that extends beyond Israel, even if this mission is carried out under the particular holy name and title of Jesus the Christ, or Yahweh the King.

Given passages like today's from Acts and First John, I can understand why many Christians are anxious to use the right forms of Jesus' name in prayer and worship. However, anxiety about getting things "right" is sometimes a sign of idolatry.

We talked a lot about idols and idolatry in the confirmation class here in Coronach on Thursday. I suggested that from one perspective, no one is truly an atheist, for all of us worship something or other. The trouble comes when we worship false gods instead of the one true God who is Love. False gods come in many guises: sports teams, nations, celebrities, addictive substances like alcohol, desire for wealth or fame, and so many others. Even aspects of our religion can become idols, as when Christians seem to worship the Bible more than the God to whom the Bible is supposed to point.

I don't believe we should be too hard on ourselves when we realize that we have worshipped a false god. Idolatry seems to be an unavoidable sin for most of us most of the time. Perhaps the best we can hope for in life is that each succeeding idol we worship take us father away from anxiety and closer to the God of Love revealed for Christians most clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The passages from Acts and First John we heard today remind us of the importance of sacred names, as do the 10 commandments and the Lord's Prayer. Nevertheless, I hope that the points I have raised about the origins of our names for God and Jesus might help us feel less anxious about using sacred names.

Perhaps the best translation of the holy and powerful name of God in Christ might sometimes just be the word "Love." Every language has a word that refers to that elusive but central concept we call Love. Since God in Christ is best known in acts of love, why not carry out out the mission of Jesus under the sacred name of Love?

Further, how we speak of love is not as important as how we act in love. The author of First John reminds us of this today when he writes, "Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." As the 1960s hymn puts it, "They will know we are Christians by our love."

Actions speak louder than words, and loving action fulfils the mission of Jesus regardless of the name we use to describe the God who is Love. This is another good reason, I believe, to not be too anxious about how we name God as known in Christ.

What's in a name? A great deal, I think, and also not much. Love heals us at Easter, as at any time, regardless of the name we use for it.

For Christians, the strong name of Jesus is the sweetest name for love we know. We respect the name and try to use it properly in prayer, worship and mission.

We are also confident that Love remains the source, calling and destiny for all people. This is true regardless of the names we use for God and regardless of the idols we falsely worship along life's road. At the end, we know that this road surely leads us back to the God who is Love.

Thanks be to God,


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The spiritual life in a soulful age

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-7 (the Suffering Servant); Romans 8:1-414 (children of God)

Sermon preached at the end of covenant service for student intern/supply minister Pamela Scott at Vanguard, SK, April 23, 2012

Let me start by saying how pleased I am that Pamela asked me to be here tonight as she ends her eight-month internship in New Ventures Pastoral Charge. I feel honoured to have this chance to reflect with you tonight on church, ministry and the call of God's Spirit.

I met Pamela in September at the church's Calling Lakes Centre in Fort Qu'Appelle at a Newcomer's Event. Those three days and nights were designed for people in ministry in the United Church who were new to Saskatchewan. I had moved to Saskatchewan in July of last summer as a newly ordained minister in Borderlands Pastoral Charge (Coronach, Fife Lake and Rockglen). Pamela, as you know, moved here to New Ventures in September for an eight-month internship to complete her requirements to become a United Church minister.

Pamela and I saw each other a few other times at Presbytery meetings and at United Church ministerial meetings in Assiniboia. And although we don't know each other well, Pamela and I seem to have a lot in common.

We are both beginning a second career in ministry during mid-life; me after years as a librarian, Pamela after years as a nurse and dental hygienist. We both come from big cities, me from Toronto in the East and Pamela from Vancouver in the West. And we both have now enjoyed an enlivening experience as ministers in three-point charges in rural Saskatchewan.

As Pamela leaves Saskatchewan and awaits news of a call or appointment that will mark the first stage of her new life as an ordained United Church minister, I am drawn to talk of the call of God's Spirit.

Our reading from Isaiah tonight reminds us that God gives "breath to the people upon the earth and spirit to those who walk in it." And our reading from St. Paul reminds us that "all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God."

As you have experienced here in New Ventures for these past eight months, Pamela is someone who has been led by the Spirit of God to offer her life in ministry in Christ's Church.

Church, ministry and God's call to new life in Christ are all very spirited endeavours, of course. But how do we square this fact with the reality that church in Canada today is often marked by a lack of spirit? Today, we do the work of ministry in an increasingly secular society, and in a church that is ageing and shrinking.

Like most people of my generation, I turned my back on church when I was a teenager. When I returned to church 11 years ago, I was surprised that the United Church hadn't completely withered away in the intervening decades. But I was grateful that the church still existed and that it had changed in ways that surprised and pleased me. I was looking for a community of faith in which to heal some personal wounds and in which to find a new basis upon which to found my life. And I seemed to find exactly what I needed in my local United Church congregation.

But even though a faithful remnant had kept the United Church alive, it was a lot smaller than when I had walked away from it in the 1970s. Nor is it just our denomination that has declined in Canada, of course.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me when I moved to Coronach last summer was the fact  that I was the only paid clergy person in our town of 800 people. The Alliance and Lutheran churches have both been without a pastor for several years now. The Roman Catholic parish does have a priest. But he lives in the other town, Rockglen. The Anglican church closed years ago.

In the 1940s, when Coronach had only 300 people, it had six paid ministers. In the 21st Century, it now struggles to afford even one.

One of the reasons that churches struggle in my area is that the population is shrinking again despite the coal mine and coal-fired generating plant in Coronach.

Many of the residents of Coronach and Rockglen are farmers who have retired off of surrounding farms. But since farms continue to balloon in size, today there are fewer farmers who might move to town in the next years. Also, with the improvement in roads and vehicles and the lack of doctors along the Border, more people now shop in, or retire to Assiniboia, Moose Jaw, or Regina than the formerly busy centres of Coronach or Rockglen. I am sure that you here in New Ventures are quite familiar with this syndrome as well.

In towns that are slowly shrinking in size, the decline of church-going in Canada perhaps becomes even more apparent than in the cities.

Most congregations are also now quite elderly. I looked at the United Church Statistical Yearbook recently, and I noted that in 1960, our church confirmed about 40,000 teenagers a year. By 2010, that yearly figure was down to 4,000. That is a 90% drop in just two generations.

There are some positives in this decline, I think. Church in Canada is no longer a social obligation. Those of us who come to church today, do so because we want to worship the God who is Love and to serve our communities out of gratitude for the grace we receive in our lives. We may be fewer in numbers than in generations past, but perhaps church now exhibits more faith, hope and love than it once did.

I also find it useful to look not only at life in the spirit but also at the aspect of life described by the word "soul." I used to think that soul and spirit referred to the same thing. But then I read the 1992 best-selling book "Care of the Soul" by Thomas Moore. Moore makes a distinction between the two. Spirit, he writes, is connected to consciousness, idealism, and activism and looks to the future. Soul on the other hand is connected to the body, feelings and tradition and looks to the past.

Despite these differences, soul and spirit complement each other. Both can be seen as a kind of fire. Spirit is like an out-of-control flame that signals action and change. Soul is like the glowing embers in a hearth fire; a fire that has burned down, become tame, and which we can rely upon for warmth and comfort.

Spirit without soul can be ungrounded and dangerous. Soul without spirit can be lifeless. But when they work together -- when with Grace, our spirit is grounded in soul and our soul is enlivened by spirit -- then life flourishes.

Isaiah's portrait of the Suffering Servant, which we heard tonight, illustrates both spirit and soul. The Servant is one who moves with gentleness. "He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;  a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice."

Though filled with the fire of God's breath, the Servant will patiently guard a sputtering wick until it safely ignites. He will tend a bruised reed for as long it takes to heal and grow.

The Servant's focus is on justice: to be "a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon."  But this Servant knows human suffering and  gently tends to all of us who are broken and fearful.

Christians often link Isaiah's portrait of the Servant with Jesus; and the life of Jesus  illustrates both spirit and soul as well. Jesus begins his ministry when he is anointed by the Holy Spirit at baptism; and he ends his ministry by promising the disciples that God will send his Holy Spirit to guide and teach them.

In between, he models for his friends a humble and soulful path that grounds God's Spirit in human reality. Jesus is God-with-us, God in the flesh. He experiences all of the joys and pains of human existence. His path is one of humility and suffering -- the way of the Cross; and it this gracious and difficult way that we are called to follow, and which we do follow through God's grace.

In Christ's church we have idealism and spirit, which are represented by soaring  steeples, challenging Scriptures and ambitious missions to work for the reign of God. In the church, we also have the comfort and grounding of soul, which is represented by the communion table and the baptismal font. At the Lord's Table we remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in a simple meal of bread and wine. And at the font, we are initiated into the Way of the Cross using that most common and essential element, water.

Water, bread and wine: the soulful elements of a humble and embodied life in Christ. Steeple, cross, and Bible: the spiritual elements of an idealistic and ambitious life in Christ. We have both sides in the church. And because we have both sides, worship and mission can be moved by the power of God's Spirit while remaining grounded and balanced.

Today, many United Church congregations are in a more soulful phase than a spiritual one, I believe. We are ageing. We are often inwardly focused. Many of us love tradition. We provide comfort and hope to one another in lives that often seem difficult. And what is not to love about this aspect of church?

On the other hand, life in Christ can quickly change gears. At a Christmas cantata, a rural community can raise its voice in song and in doing so, fan the flames of love of God as high as it ever burned. In a large community funeral, the spirit of a loved one can burn brighter in the hearts and minds of those who have assembled to mourn, celebrate and comfort one another than at any other time in the life of the family. In a joyous wedding, the spirit of God's love can burst through the hearts of everyone gathered there as we celebrate the love of a young couple.

In the same way, the enthusiasm of a new minister can merge with the glowing embers of a small church whose congregants are seeking hope amid doubt, trust amid fear, and joy amid the day-to-day problems of life. In the church, we could try to remember that glowing embers may burst into the bright flame of Spirit at any moment, just as we realize that quiet and contemplative gatherings are often what will work best in the moment.

None of us know what is ahead for us as individuals, as a congregation, as a church or as a society. All we know that is we can be assured of the presence of God as Holy Spirit within us and as a soulful companion in Jesus at our side every step of the way.

Tonight we give thanks for the ministry of Pamela Scott here in New Ventures. And we wish her well in her new life as an ordained minister. We know that, like us, she goes filled with the fire of God's Spirit, which strains after justice. She also goes with a humble companion on God's path of faith, hope and love. He is the Suffering Servant, Jesus the Christ who keeps us grounded in simple sacraments of water, bread and wine.

Thanks be to God . . . Amen.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Canada's pride and shame: 95 years after Vimy Ridge

Text: Luke 24: 36-48 (Jesus suddenly appears)

April has been filled with commemorations. In the church, of course, we have celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. And since this is the third Sunday in the season of Easter, we continue this celebration today.

The media this month have also marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and the 30th anniversary of the patriation of the Canadian Constitution.

The Titanic anniversary reminds us of a time when human optimism and confidence were shaken by the sinking of a supposedly unsinkable ship.

The Vimy Ridge anniversary reminds us of the growth of Canadian nationalism in the fires of World War One. In early April, 5,000 Canadian teenagers accompanied Governor-General David Johnston to France. They honoured the nearly 4,000 Canadian young men who were killed in taking Vimy Ridge from the Germans in April 1917. Johnston echoed many commentators before him when he said that this Battle 95 years ago marked "the birth of our nation."

The patriation of Canada's constitution in 1982 reminds us of a final milestone in Canada's independence from Great Britain. It stands at the end of a process that includes Confederation in 1867, Vimy Ridge in 1917, and the Statute of Westminster in 1932. The latter ended Canada's status as a colony of Britain.

Today, I use these commemorations to contrast national pride with the humble path to the realm of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

World War One is a central turning point not only in the history of the world, but also in the history of the Christian church.

The decades leading up to the 1914-1918 War were ones of growth and optimism in Europe and its settler colonies like Canada. By 1914, almost every part of the planet had been colonized by European empires. Free trade was the norm. Huge waves of immigrants from central and eastern Europe moved to less populated areas of the world, including here in southern Saskatchewan. So even as the world anticipates the 100th anniversary of World War One, century farm celebrations are occurring all along the Saskatchewan/Montana border.

In the years before the Great War, new technologies like the telephone and the automobile revolutionized society. Economic growth, scientific advances, and the spread of church missions gave the decades leading up to 1914 an optimistic feel.

There were hints of trouble, though. In 1912, the sinking of the Titanic was a harbinger of a disillusionment that would sweep the world with the coming of the Great War two years later. There is no denying the daring represented by the Titanic. At that time, it was the largest and most luxurious ship yet built. But the fact that this supposedly unsinkable ship did not survive even one cross-Atlantic voyage caused many people to stop and wonder about the limits of progress. Perhaps there were flaws in the prideful plans of European civilization.

Then two years later in 1914 came the disaster of the War. All the European empires -- Britain, Russia, and France on one side, and Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Turkey on the other -- ended their peaceful coexistence and attacked one another. On every side, the churches supported their own king, czar or kaiser. And as the slaughter unfolded, many ordinary people became disillusioned in their empires and in the churches that supported this disaster.

All the predecessors of the United Church of Canada supported the war with a few individual exceptions such as Methodist minister and first leader of the CCF party, J.S. Woodsworth. Our churches argued that the War was a holy crusade for democracy, decency and freedom. They did so despite the fact that one of Britain's main allies was Russia, a fearsome state that crushed all demands for democracy and human rights and that imprisoned scores of nations, including Poland, the Ukraine, Finland, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Nor was Britain innocent. From its start in the conquest of Ireland in the 1500s, the British Empire had become the largest empire in history. It conquered and exploited much of Africa, the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean. In all of these colonies, Britain stood against self-determination, democracy, and human rights.

Nevertheless, God was on our side in the War, declared the churches in Canada and Britain. Meanwhile, the churches in Germany, Hungary, and Austria declared that God was on their side. In reality, both sides in the War were characterized by imperial greed, violations of national and human rights, and terrible crimes of violence. On both sides, young men were slaughtered in their millions with the encouragement of church leaders ringing in their ears.

Although some historians disagree, I believe that neither side in World War One deserved support. If ever the church should have opposed a war, World War One was it, I believe. And yet to our shame, the opposite was the case.

The consequences of the War were many -- 15 million people killed, the fall of the Czar in Russia and the Kaiser in Germany, the break up of the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires, and the beginning of the end of Christianity as tool of empire. After the war, many countries in Europe cut official ties between church and state and became more secular.

Our United Church was a partial exception to this trend, at least in our first 40 years. Because Canada and Britain were winners in the War, disillusionment with king, empire and church were not as severe here as in countries that lost the war.

At first, the United Church benefited from the rise of English Canadian nationalism in WWI, which had its key moment in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. This battle 95 years ago was the first one in which Canadian troops fought as Canadians.

Almost 4,000 Canadians were killed in the Battle even as they killed thousands of young Germans. Despite the Canadian victory, the two-month Battle of Arras, of which Vimy Ridge was just the opening, ended in a stalemate. The death of thousands on both sides changed nothing -- except to give Canadians something in which we were supposed to be proud.

In the United Church history that I read while on study leave in March, the prideful attitude of the Canada's churches towards Canada in the War was noted. The author wrote, "Canada's epic victory over the Germans at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 demonstrated to supporters of [the creation of the United Church] Canada's virility in a righteous cause ." (C.T. McIntire, p. 23).

Even today, our Government says we should feel pride when we remember this slaughter. However, the more I know about Vimy Ridge, the less likely I am to feel anything positive about it.

As Christians, our mission is to pray and work for peace. But in World War One, the churches supported earthly empires and their kaisers and kings instead of God's realm and its king, Jesus the Christ . . .

Nearly 2,000 years ago, when Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday, his followers expected that he would lead them to military victory over the Romans. Instead, of course, the Romans arrested and executed Jesus.

At first, Jesus' disciples were dismayed and terrified. But as we heard in our reading from Luke today, Jesus appeared to them soon after his death in a new way. His first words to them were "Peace be with you." Jesus then gave them a mission to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations.

Jesus is a king who does not rule from a throne. Instead, he reigns in the hearts of  his followers. His kingdom is not like the Roman, British or German ones. It is a kingdom for all peoples, one that rejects violence and one built on love and service.

Since 2006, the United Church of Canada has adopted the goal to become an intercultural church. We hope that in time our membership will better reflect the diversity of today's Canada. If we are to succeed in this goal, I think we would do well to move beyond our British imperial roots and show remorse for the role that the church played in key moments like World War One.

Nearly 100 years ago, young men in Canada were urged by their political and church leaders to kill and die for a senseless cause. No shame should fall on those who answered this call. The shame, I think, belongs to the political and church leaders who argued that killing Germans was a holy cause. The same holds for the other side. No shame should fall on the young Germans who responded to the arguments of their  government and church that killing Canadians and our allies was a holy cause.

World War One helped break the church's hold on many people in Europe, for which we can only give thanks, I believe. A church that supports blood-drenched empires instead of the realm of God is a church that deserves to decline, in my opinion.

Today as we in the United Church try to relate to a diverse Canada that is no longer British, we can be sure that the resurrected Christ will appear to us in unexpected places. As with his disciples, he will wish us peace and show us glimpses of a humble way forward to repentance and forgiveness for all peoples.

Perhaps five years from now when the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge is marked, our church will use the occasion to denounce the idea that we should feel pride that Canada sent young men to kill and to die for "God and Empire."

Jesus' life, death and resurrection shows us another way. It is a way of humility, a way of non-violent resistance to empire, and a way of sharing and love among people of all nations. Through the power of God's grace, he makes this path available to us in this as in any moment

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

"They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid."

Text: Mark 16 (the empty tomb)

"Jesus of Nazareth . . . has been raised . . . Tell his disciples that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." With these words of a young man in white robe in an otherwise empty tomb, our journey of 40 days and nights in Lent is over. We have landed where we had hoped: amid Easter sunshine and with the Risen Christ.

At Easter, we celebrate the resurrection of both Jesus and of our ourselves. We are new people today -- no longer just ordinary citizens, but also blessed members of the Body of Christ. So it is every Easter and every Sunday. So it is with us today.

Except . . . we have also just heard of the reaction of the women -- Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome -- to whom this good news was first told. Mark ends our reading today by noting that: "they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." This is the final sentence in the whole of Mark's Gospel. It is a surprising way to end, would you not agree?

Today, I talk about the surprise ending of the Gospel According to Mark and how it connects us both to the fear felt by the three women and to Easter hope and joy.

In Holy Week, we read a lot of Scripture. At the Thursday evening communion service, we read most of Mark 14 -- about 1200 words -- that told us of Jesus' anointment by an unnamed woman at Bethany, his Last Supper in an Upper Room, and his prayers and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.

On Good Friday, we read the rest of Mark 14 and all of Mark 15-- about 1400 words -- that told us of Jesus' trials, his crucifixion, and his burial.

Now today, we have heard the last chapter of Mark -- all eight verses of Mark 16 -- that in a mere 200 words tell us the story of Easter morning. Mark uses 2600 words to tell the story of Holy Tuesday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and only 200 words to tell the story of Easter morning.

This week, I came across a Facebook thread started by a United Church minister. She asked the following question, "Do you believe that Jesus was physically raised from the dead?" I didn't join the discussion, but if I had, I probably would have said that I believe in the literal truth of all the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the first Gospel to be written, the Gospel of Mark.

My answer, of course, would have been a dodge because there are no resurrection appearances in Mark. There is simply an announcement by an anonymous young man in a white robe in Jesus' tomb that he has been raised and will meet the disciples in Galilee.

Not all Bibles have Mark end at verse 8 of chapter 16. Some of them have one extra verse that says the risen Jesus later tells the disciples to spread the good news. Other Bibles have another 12 verses that include a synopsis of the resurrection appearances of Jesus from the other gospels. But these endings are always bracketed and come with a footnote that says these alternate endings were not written by Mark. They were later additions by scribes who perhaps were disturbed that Mark ended his gospel so abruptly and in such a downbeat way. The Lectionary never uses these later endings. Scholars are clear that Mark does not include even one resurrection appearance by Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew is a copy of Mark that has some changes and additions. Matthew's additions include two brief resurrection appearances, first to the scared women on Easter morning and then to the disciples in Galilee where Jesus commissions them to preach to all nations.

The Gospel of Luke is also a copy of Mark with even more changes and additions. Luke's additions include a resurrection appearance by Jesus to two disciples as they walk home from Jerusalem, another in the Upper Room where he shows his wounds to the disciples, and finally an ascension scene in Bethany.

The Gospel of John is not a copy of Mark. It is a later account of the life of Jesus. John includes resurrection appearances to Mary Magdalene in the garden outside of the tomb, to the rest of the disciples on Sunday evening, to doubting Thomas a week later, and finally to the disciples as they fish in Galilee.

These comprise all the resurrection appearances in the four Gospels. Because none of them are found in Mark, the Lectionary sets Mark aside for the rest of the eight Sundays in the season of Easter even though we are in Year B of the Lectionary, which is the year that focuses on the Gospel of Mark,

Despite the lack of resurrection appearances in Mark and its downbeat ending, I appreciate its Easter account. The directive of the young man in a white robe to return to Galilee gives the Gospel of Mark a circular character since Galilee is where Mark's narrative begins.

In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus starts his ministry in Galilee after he is baptized in the Jordan River by John. Jesus teaches, preaches, and heals there for perhaps a year. At the end of his time in Galilee, Jesus admits to Peter that he is the Christ, but a Christ who will be betrayed, killed, and then raised on the third day. This admission comes as Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem. At the end of that journey in an empty tomb, the disciples are directed to return to Galilee where they will see the risen Christ.

The end of Mark's Gospel directs us back to its beginning. This arc also describes ministry for any of us, I believe. First comes baptism, then love and service, then a journey to confront authority that involves the cross, then new life at Easter, and finally a return to where we began to start the process all over again . . .

I said earlier that there are no resurrection appearances of Jesus in Mark, but perhaps that statement is wrong. Perhaps every appearance of Jesus after his baptism in the Jordan in chapter 1 of Mark is a post-resurrection appearance.

According to St. Paul, we are baptized into Christ's death and raised into new life in Christ. It is the same with Jesus. He is baptized by John where he is also anointed by a dove and hears a voice telling him that he is God's beloved. After the baptism, he spends 40 days in the desert praying and being tempted by Satan.  When Jesus returns from the desert, he has accepted his baptism. His old life has died in the Jordan River. He is now living a new life as God's Christ.

Jesus begins his ministry in full awareness of his coming death. He has taken up his cross. He urges us to do the same. And he demonstrates for us what a resurrected life in the shadow of the cross looks like. In every meal he shares with friends and sinners, in every healing, and in every parable he tells about the kingdom of God, Jesus shows us what resurrection looks like. Jesus has been raised from death by God in his baptism, just as he is raised on Easter after his death on Good Friday.

To know what resurrection looks like, we don't need to wait for the later gospel writers to write their accounts of resurrection appearances. We only need to read the Gospel of Mark again, to puzzle at the parables, to marvel at the healings, to be inspired by Jesus' courage, and to follow him to the cross despite having the same fears and doubts that beset his first disciples.

Christ has been raised, declares the young man in white. Now go back to where you began, to Galilee, and continue ministry there in the Spirit of the Risen Christ.

The same words apply to us today, 2,000 years later. Like the three beautiful children who were baptized here in Coronach this morning, we too have been baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. We have all been marked by the sign of the cross. Our old life is dead, and we are living an Easter life that is beyond ego and individuality. It is a life within the enfolding Spirit of God's Love, a life in touch with the eternity of God's Kingdom, now and always.

Do we always live out our baptismal vows? Of course not. Even Jesus sometimes expresses fear and despair, as we heard this week in Mark's accounts of Jesus' prayers in Gethsemane and his cry of anguish on the cross.

Sometimes we may be like the women in the empty tomb on Easter morning. Sometimes we may respond with terror and amazement to the good news that we have been baptized into a resurrected life in Christ.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome show great courage in going to Jesus' tomb to anoint his body. But when Jesus' predictions that he would be raised are confirmed by a young man dressed in a white robe, they don't shout for joy. Instead, they flee in terror.

The women must have assumed that their exhilarating ride with Jesus had ended with his death. Though grief-stricken, they might also have felt relief. Jesus' crazy dream of God's Kingdom on earth had been dashed. Jesus' puzzling preaching was at an end. There would be no more confrontations with the authorities. They could now return to their humble lives as fishers and farmers.

Instead, when they hear that Jesus has been raised and are told to return to Galilee, they are afraid. Perhaps they feel burdened by this good news. Jesus has been killed, but God's Christ still lives. With the help of God's Spirit, they are called to continue Christ's ministry despite the crucifixion.

It is not the same with us? As a minister, I may feel burdened by the need to write a sermon that proclaims the good news every week.  (And thanks to Arlene for agreeing to preside and preach next week while I enjoy a "spiritual Sunday," April being one of those blessed months in 2012 that contains five Sundays instead of four.) We may feel burdened at the thought of attending church every week. We may  have visited the sick in the hospital last week. Do we have to go again? We just sang Hallelujah last Easter. Do we have to do it again?

And of course, the answer to all these questions is "no." God's grace means that we don't have to do anything to be healed.

But then, from time to time, we glimpse what post-baptismal life in Christ is like. We look into the eyes of our child. We spend time with our beloved. We listen to a friend in distress. For a moment, our egos and anxieties dissolve in acts of love and service. We touch God's Spirit that was first symbolized at our baptism. We feel the burdens of life dissolving away. So we preach again. We celebrate again. We sing hallelujah again. We reach out to family, friends, neighbours in love again.

On Good Friday, the Romans tried to kill Love. The good news proclaimed by a young man in a white robe on Easter morning is that God has raised Love to new life, and so ministry continues back in Galilee . . . or in Borderlands.

I love the various stories of Jesus' resurrection appearances in Matthew, Luke and John. They contain an entire universe of the truth of God's love. But so, I believe, does the simple, stark, and realistic ending of Mark's Gospel.

In his ending, Mark directs us back to our baptism and to life and ministry in our home community. It is here that we will encounter the resurrected Jesus. He is the Christ into whom were baptized. He is the Christ we see in every person we meet and love. He is the Christ who draws us out of the empty tomb each Easter morning where, despite our amazement and fear, we say again, Hallelujah! Christ is risen!

Thanks be to God.


Friday, April 6, 2012

Darkness at noon

Text: Mark 15 (trial before Pilate, the crucifixion, the burial)

"When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" . . . Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom."

We have arrived at the still point of the year. We have journeyed to Jerusalem and to the cross. We have retold the story of Christ's passion, death and burial. And now we wait . . . we wait through the rest of Good Friday, through Holy Saturday, through Saturday night, until dawn on Easter morning. At that time, we will gather again to hear the good news of the empty tomb, the good news that God has raised Jesus to new life.

This is our story, this is our tradition, and this is our faith. Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and God's anointed Christ, has died on a cross. It is also our story, our tradition and our faith that Jesus will be raised as God's Christ on Easter Sunday morning. We celebrate the mystery of this story not only during Lent, Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We celebrate it every Sunday at worship; and the story forms us in the very core of our hearts and minds.

So as we wait today and tomorrow, a few thoughts about the Passion story . . .

For me, the main thing about the Passion is not what we learn from it or doctrines that we craft from it. I am not too concerned about putting into words what the story means, or what actions it moves us to take. To me, the main thing is the journey and its path -- the way of the Cross.

As told in the Book of Acts, the earliest followers of Jesus called themselves the People of the Way. The Way they followed was a path of faith, hope and love; and it was the Way of the Cross.

As is clear from the pain in the Scripture readings we have heard today, this Way is not an easy one. But the difficulties in the story, I believe, are also why it might speak to us. Life, despite all that we love about it and all the joys and wonders we experience, is often not easy. Because the Christian Way does not flinch from showing how painful the path to new life can be, it speaks truth to us in a way that a more sugar-coated path might not.

As a child, I thought our religion was nothing but sweetness and light. You needed only to be pure and good and do the right things, and God would make life come out right for you or your community. But when I returned to church as an adult, the pain of Good Friday showed me that the Christian Way was not an escape from life. Instead the Way of the Christ goes right to the heart of life, moves onto death, and then beyond death to new life.

I am not sure if new life always has to involve pain, even pain unto death. But based on my own experience, I am also not sure that it doesn't. Human individuals and institutions seem to have an in-built capacity to armour ourselves with illusions. We cloak ourselves in distractions and addictions of many kinds as we build our egos and create careers and families. Behind these distractions or addictions, we can deny much of the fear we might otherwise feel in the midst of fragile lives and in a fallen or violent society.

Breaking out of these distractions and addictions, if only for a moment, often comes from loss and pain. Touching reality more directly can bring great joy -- the joy of greater love and of union with God's Spirit. But in my life, these moments have also involved the pain of grief as I mourn life's losses or the difficulties of finding love in this society. New life is always worth this pain, I believe. It is a taste of the eternity that awaits us beyond our distractions and beyond ego. But pain has always been a part of it, at least for me.

It is often the case that the longer we live and the more that we love, the more loss and failure we also experience. Our losses flow from many sources: from the broken and fallen world into which we have born; from the human condition of birth, growth, maturity, and ageing; and from the inevitable mistakes and sins we commit.

New life comes from loss and death. This is part of the pain that is contained in the good news of the Way of the Cross. Pain is abundant in our lives, but Grace is even more abundant.

We do often feel joy on the path of faith, hope and love. Nevertheless, it is not an unrealistic path. The Way of the Cross reveals terrible truths about life; and so it is a Way that we can trust and love.

Jesus as the Son of God undergoes a terrible Passion. This is a key reason why we trust that God will be with us through wars and disease, through economic and environmental upheavals, and through lives filled with loss and suffering.

The Passion of the Christ shows that what we most value in life -- the God who is Love -- is present with us even on the worst days  And most mysterious and wonderful of all, it shows that this God of Love leads us to new life in the midst of pain and loss.

As so on a Friday many years ago, darkness came over the land at noon, and three hours later, Jesus breathed his last and died.

And now we wait. We wait with our fallen Saviour who lived and died in solidarity with all the best and worst of our human lives. We wait even as we mourn. And we wait in the sure hope for new life.

Our journey to Jerusalem and the cross has ended. Our time of waiting continues just a little longer.

This is the still point of our year. Into the stillness let us say once again . . . Come, Lord Jesus, come.


Table talk: fear, doubt and faith

Text: Mark 14 (anointed at Bethany, the Last Supper, in Gethsemane)

The sacrament of Holy Communion has been a central part of the worship life of Christians for almost 2,000 years now. Tonight we will again share communion around this sacred table of friends after having just heard the story of the Last Supper from the Gospel of Mark.

Mark is the earliest written of the Gospels. Scholars think it was produced in the fateful year 70 as Jerusalem lay burning, or 40 years after the death of Jesus. But Mark's account of the Last Supper is not the earliest one we have of that night. That honour goes to St. Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth. Scholars estimate that Paul's letter was written sometime in the 50s, or 20-25 years after the life of Jesus.

In his letters, Paul tells us virtually nothing about Jesus. He mentions no healings, no parables, no details about Jesus' life or ministry in Galilee or Jerusalem and so on. The only biographical details about Jesus contained in Paul's letters are the fact that he was crucified and then raised on the third day; and that on the night before his death he ate a meal with his friends.

Paul's depiction of this Last Supper, found in First Corinthians 11, is very close to Mark's account. But what Mark's account provides that St. Paul's does not is the context of that Last Supper in an Upper Room. This context includes the high hopes and joy of Palm Sunday, Jesus' anger as he cleansed the Temple on Monday, the anointing of Jesus at Bethany by an unnamed woman on Tuesday, and Jesus' prediction of his own betrayal by one of his disciples on Thursday during the meal. These are some of the details that precede the Last Supper.

Immediately after the Last Supper come Jesus' prayers of anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, the unfaithfulness of his friends who cannot stay awake and pray with him, his betrayal by Judas, and Jesus' arrest, trials and execution on the Friday following this Last Supper.

The Last Supper is important, or we would not be celebrating it on a regular basis as faithful followers of Jesus nearly 2,000 years later. But the context surrounding it is a difficult one, would you not agree?

One of Jesus' followers betrays him to his death. His other friends misunderstand Jesus, ignore his pleas, flee from him when the authorities arrive and then deny their friendship when challenged about it the next day.

It is not just Jesus' followers who are shown to be fearful and doubtful. That distinction also characterizes Jesus, at least for a time in the middle of the night as he prays in anguish in Gethsemane. Mark shows Jesus distressed and agitated, even deeply grieved to death. Jesus prays in Gethsemane to be relieved of his ministry.

The fact that we remember this Last Supper as often as we can shows in a stark way the passionate and difficult nature of being a Christian.

Jesus is an image of God in human form. He experiences the full range of human emotions, including anger, fear, and despair. If Jesus can feel these feelings, then who are we to criticize ourselves when we succumb to these same feelings?

Mark shows Jesus' disciples to be uncomprehending and fearful right to the bitter end. And yet, these are the people who found the Church, with the help of the Spirit of Christ that touches them at Pentecost.

If this poor human material creates the early church and leads it through its most difficult hours, then who are would we be to complain that we are not fit to carry out Christ's ministry here in Borderlands or anywhere else today?

Christianity is a passionate endeavour. It involves all of our feelings: our desire for justice, healing, and prosperity; our anger and hatred towards violence, poverty, and unfairness; and our love for life and one another, broken though we may be. Christianity involves our fears of pain and death and our hopes for new life despite the human condition and the fallen world we have been fated to live within.

In the Last Supper, Jesus shows us the promise of God, given in his body and blood. This promise of life and love comes to us in the full flood of our humanity and in spite of our ignorance, sin and failures.

Like Jesus' earliest followers, we may not always understand God's promise, or the Way of Cross. Like them, we may often be unwilling or unable to take up our cross and follow Jesus on the difficult path of faith, hope and love. Like them, and even like Jesus, we may often be burdened by doubt or fear.

Regardless, God invites us again and again to Christ's table. There we celebrate our connection to the Body of Christ in body and soul. There we receive nourishment and grace despite our fears and doubts. There were stare down the pain and horror of the cross because beyond it and glimmering like the first light of dawn lies the hope of Easter and new life.

Holy Week presents a wild collection of clashing stories and emotions. As such, it is a difficult time for many of us. But Jesus continues to journey with us, in all of our feelings, both the feelings we love and those we despise. He offers us the hope and nourishment we need to continue. He keeps giving and giving, which is part of the Grace laid bare in the story of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Tonight, we come to the Lord's Table again just as we are -- ignorant, doubtful, fearful, and prone to sin and failure. We come to the Lord's Table, to hear again the old story; and to receive the food and drink that connects us to Jesus. The grace revealed at this table is the grace of our baptism -- our death and burial with Jesus on Good Friday and our rising with him to new life within God's Spirit on Easter Sunday.

Our Table tonight is the passionate and flawed table of human life and of God With Us. This is the Lord's Table. This is the Last Supper. This is the promise of God, living within and between us, just as it was 2,000 years ago, and just as it will always be.

This is our salvation.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

King for a day

Text: Mark 11 1-11 (Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem)

Love is the difficult and puzzling word we use to represent our deepest calling as individuals and as a people of faith. Love, of course, has different phases: infatuation, falling in love, maturing in love, extending ourselves for the benefit of others, love of God as expressed in care of neighbour, and so on.

Today is Palm Sunday, and so we hear again of the love shown to Jesus as he enters Jerusalem after the long journey of Lent. Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week, a week in which every day contains key moments of Jesus' final activities: on Monday, his cleansing of the Temple, on Tuesday, his anointment with perfume by a woman at Bethany, on Thursday, a Last Supper with his friends, his trial and execution on Good Friday, and the vigil of Holy Saturday.

There are many ways for Christians to travel to Easter through this difficult week. Today, I use our journey in Holy Week to discuss some of the phases of love in our lives and how they transform into each other.

In one commentary on our Gospel reading that I read this week, the author discusses how the adulation shown to Jesus upon his entry into Jerusalem is a sign that Jesus' followers have fallen in love with him. That comment in turn brought to my mind the 1970s rock opera, "Jesus Christ Superstar"

"Jesus Christ Superstar" has been back in the news lately. A Canadian production from the Stratford Festival in Ontario last summer recently opened on Broadway in New York City. And as you may have heard, this production has a Saskatchewan connection. The actor who plays the role of Jesus is Paul Nolan, a young man who grew up on a farm near the town of Rouleau.

In Superstar, the act of falling in love with Jesus is best illustrated by a ballad sung by Mary Magdalene. It is titled, "I don't know how to love him." Considered by many to be the highlight of the musical, it is also one of its most controversial moments because the attraction for Jesus that Mary shows in it is romantic and erotic.

When "Jesus Christ Superstar" first appeared 40 years ago, it was so controversial that the BBC would not play it on the radio. They considered the music to be sacrilegious. In contrast, an article in last month's United Church Observer notes that today Superstar [quote] "seems to have lost its edge, turning into the kind of show you could take your grandmother to see at a Sunday matinee." This is yet another marker, I suppose, of the increasing secularization of our culture.

When I was confirmed in the 1970s, we listened to music from "Jesus Christ Superstar" at a retreat. It was an attempt, I suppose, to spark discussion among us and to make church seem more relevant to us as teenagers. I don't plan on using Superstar in our confirmation classes in Coronach, which begin on April 12. But I think the creators of Superstar, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, were on to something when they wrote the song "I don't know how to love him."

In the biblical commentary I mentioned earlier, the author contrasted the process of falling in love -- exciting but perhaps superficial -- with deeper and more costly forms of love that develop over a lifetime. The latter would include love between spouses, the love of parents for children, and the love of God and neighbour, which represents the highest calling of our tradition.

The move from falling in love to deeper kinds of love is, I believe, a picture of the road laid out for us each Holy Week as we move from Palm Sunday to Easter.

Falling in love involves projecting our wishes for ourselves onto another person. We see what we most value in a distorted and idealized vision of another person. This is, of course, a wonderful and necessary part of life. But if we never moved beyond the stage of falling in love, life would probably disappoint us.

The inevitable ups and downs of life help to mature love. In that process, we slowly take projections off of our beloved. The hope is that we will see our loved one for who they truly are, and realize that our projections point to what we most value in life and the qualities that we want to develop within ourselves.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus possesses star power. The crowds lay down their cloaks for him. They shout Hosanna, or "Save us." They hail Jesus as the new king, who like David, will lead Jerusalem to freedom from a foreign power. However, their hopes are soon crushed. Just five days after Palm Sunday, Jesus is betrayed, arrested and executed.

On Palm Sunday, the crowds are star-struck by the charisma and power of Jesus. On Monday, they see him act in anger at the Temple. On Thursday, at the Garden of Gethsemane, they see Jesus torn by doubt and fear. On Good Friday, they see him mocked, beaten and abused. Then they see him die in agony with a cry of despair on his lips. Finally on Easter Sunday, they are told by a mysterious man in an empty tomb that God has raised Jesus to new life. Jesus' followers first reaction to this news is fear. Their fear, I believe, shows the difficulties involved in moving to a new stage of love beyond the traumas of Holy Week.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus' followers project onto him their wish for a liberating king and for a closer relationship with God. Then comes the crucifixion and resurrection. When God raises Jesus, he raises him within our hearts. As St. Paul writes in Galatians, "Christ now lives in me." The grace of this goods news is that we are free to continue to love what Jesus represents -- sovereignty and divinity -- even as we realize that these qualities lie not only in Jesus, but also within and between ourselves.

After the resurrection, followers of Jesus stop looking for a king to rule from a throne in Jerusalem. They now recognize that the king or Christ lives in each person.

After the resurrection, followers of Jesus stop thinking that God lives in a glorious Temple. They now recognize that God's love flickers within and between each person.

During his ministry and journey to Jerusalem, Jesus' followers fall in love with him. This is probably an inevitable stage of projection and idealization. After the resurrection, the sovereign power and divinity that dazzled them in the person of Jesus are no longer projected solely onto that singular hero. After the resurrection, sovereignty and divinity are also seen within each one of us, broken though we may be.

The tough news is that transforming our infatuation with Jesus into something more mature involves crucifixion. This fact shows, I believe, how difficult and painful the process of growing in love can be. Waking up to the gracious reality that God's Love lives within us as the Risen Christ is facilitated by humility; and what could be more humbling than the pain of the cross?

For much of our lives as both individuals and as a church, we may be stuck at the exciting but superficial stage of Palm Sunday. But then reality inevitably intrudes. Our loved ones disappoint us. Church life becomes consumed with conflict. Our children rebel and make the inevitable mistakes of any life. Our own fragility and mortality is revealed in sickness and pain.

One possible outcome of these disappointments is cynicism and and end to love altogether. The message of Holy Week is that love can survive even the most terrible of life's tragedies. The coming of Jesus as a new messiah or king does not mean the end of such tragedies. It does not mean that Jesus leads his people to victory over the Romans. It does not mean an end to all injustice or pain. It means that we are shown how God helps us to accept ourselves even though our own roads leads us to suffering and loss just as the road to Jerusalem did for Jesus.

During Holy Week in Jerusalem, Jesus enjoys a short reign as the King of the Jews. He has a few days of triumph before the forces of religious authority and imperial rule arrest him and execute him.

Then the strange reversal of Easter morning occurs. God raises Jesus to new life as the Christ in our hearts. Jesus never gets to sit on David's throne. Instead, he gets to reign as the inner Christ in the hearts of broken and humble sinners everywhere and forever.

In "Jesus Christ Superstar," Mary Magdalene wonders how she can love Jesus. Palm Sunday shows one way that is exciting but perhaps superficial. The events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday test this love in the most painful ways. Finally, Easter Sunday shows us a new and assured way to love Jesus, by loving the Christ within each broken sinner who travels with us on the wonder- and pain-filled road to our own cross.

Palm Sunday marks just one day of Jesus' triumph. God in Christ reigns and triumphs within us all every day and forever.

Thanks be to God.