Sunday, November 24, 2013

When Jesus comes into his kingdom

Text: Luke 23:33-43 (the crucifixion)

Today is "Reign of Christ" or "Christ the King" Sunday, and the Gospel reading is about Jesus' crucifixion. In this sermon, I reflect on how Jesus as our crucified King exposes human kingdoms.

Monarchy and religion have always been closely linked. In Jesus' time, most people were ruled by a king or emperor, and monarchs were worshipped as gods.

Today, however, most people no longer have a monarch. Since the United States broke free of Britain and its kings in 1776, many other countries have become republics, including the most populous ones.

Japan is the only country of more than 100 million people that is still a monarchy. It is also the last country -- as late as 1946 -- that considered its emperor to be divine. Canada, of course, is also a constitutional monarchy.

Kingdoms may be disappearing, but monarchs still get a lot of attention. Americans in particular seem to be fascinated with the British Royal Family. And despite the fact that the U.S. is a republic, Americans treat their powerful political families -- such as the Kennedy's, Bush's and Clinton's -- like royalty.

This past Friday, as the world marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, we were reminded that JFK's administration was called "Camelot" after the mythical realm of King Arthur. Following JFK's death, both of his brothers ran for President.

The impulse towards creating a family dynasty is strong. In North Korea, dictatorship has been handed from father to son for three generations. In Cuba, when President Fidel Castro became incapacitated in 2008, power passed to his younger brother, Raul. In Canada, Justin Trudeau's main claim to legitimacy as a potential Prime Minister is his status as the son of Pierre Trudeau. Then there is Rob and Doug Ford and their wealthy father, who was also a politician. But enough has probably been said about the Fords lately . . .

One of the first republics -- the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell in Britain in the 1650s -- failed in part because Cromwell passed political power to his son. Cromwell led England's Puritan Parliament against King Charles I in the 1640s, which ended with Charles' execution in 1649. Then in 1652, Cromwell disbanded parliament and named himself dictator; and when Cromwell died in 1658, his son took over. This imitation of royalty probably helped persuade the British to reinstate the old royal family. King Charles' son replaced the younger Cromwell in 1660.

The republican government of the Puritans and Presbyterians in England and Scotland from 1649 to 1660 was unprecedented. Before that time, religion and royalty had always been each other's biggest supporters.

When Jesus began his ministry, he was hailed as a new King David -- the Messiah or Christ -- who would defeat the Romans and re-establish a monarchy in Jerusalem. But as our Gospel reading reminds us, the Romans executed Jesus while mocking him as the King of the Jews.

God raised Jesus to new life on Easter, and St. Paul preached that Christ now lived within us. He denied that sovereignty lay with a king in Jerusalem or an emperor in Rome. Instead, sovereignty lay with ordinary people. Each person was part of the Body of Christ, and so was also part of the throne of both God and King.

The church abandoned this democratic vision in the Fourth Century when the Roman empire made Christianity its state religion. For the next 1500 years, the bond between monarchy and church was central again. The church preached that kings ruled by divine right. Archbishops crowned European monarchs in ceremonies that mimicked those of ancient Israel. Loyalty to Christ was identified with loyalty to one's monarch no matter how terrible that monarch might be.

The Puritans and Presbyterians of the 1600s had tried to break the link between church and king. But though they held power for less than 20 years, their republican experiment was a sign of what was to follow.

In many countries, monarchy was destroyed in World War One. In Russia, after several million Russians had been killed in the first two and half years of war with Germany, workers and soldiers rose up to overthrew the Czar in March 1917. The Russian Orthodox church survived, but its centuries of support for brutal and incompetent Czars left it weakened.

The Germans followed in October 1918. With defeat looming, German sailors rebelled against their superiors and overthrew the Kaiser. The churches that had supported the Kaiser survived, but they became a shadow of their former selves.

The crisis affecting church in Canada today is also an echo of World War One. The British monarchy survived the disaster of the Great War, but it became ever-more distant from real power.

Governments no longer rely on monarchy. Instead, they look to nationalism, consumerism, and the mass media for support.

Today's Grey Cup gives us an example. Saskatchewan is much more focused on the Roughriders than it is on the monarchy or on church. We are a football province more than a royal province, even if our capital is named after Queen Victoria. And the spirit in Mosaic Stadium this afternoon will be stronger than anything ever seen in our churches.

I don't say this to belittle support for the Roughriders, but to underline how things have changed since Saskatchewan was founded in 1905. As monarchy has withered away and been replaced by other cultural forces, the church that supported the monarchy has withered away along with it.

For 1500 years, the church told us that Europe's monarchs ruled by divine right. But given that Jesus was a humble peasant who was crucified by empire, this support for oppressive kingdoms betrayed the church's ideals.

In our Gospel reading today, the thief who is dying beside Jesus sees his royal power even on the cross. He knows that Jesus will come into his kingdom, and he wants to be part of it.

Jesus says that the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21). When we commit to the Way of Jesus, we are already living in God's kingdom. No matter how poor we may be, sovereignty lies within us.

Jesus' vision of divine democracy is the church's oldest tradition. And now that governments have abandoned monarchy, we can better reclaim our democratic and popular heritage. Doing so is hardly easy, though.

Here in Borderlands, several meetings last week discussed our future. On Tuesday, the Central Board decided to suspend Sunday worship in January and February following my departure for Edmonton.

Then on Wednesday, six of us went to a meeting in Assiniboia to discuss how United churches in eight towns across our region might collaborate. The 40 people there made no decisions. But retired and active ministers in the region said they are willing to provide pulpit coverage here. Perhaps by next summer after more discussion, a new "normal" for our churches will emerge. I felt hopeful after the meeting.

While the "glory days" for both kings and their churches are gone, the spirit of Christ continues to burn in our hearts. It guides us deeper into God's kingdom both in our living and in our dying.

Governments today try to capture hearts and minds through nationalism and consumerism. Jesus shows us another way. No matter which republic or monarch claims sovereignty over us, the only true sovereign we need recognize is the crucified and Risen Christ who lives within us, now and forever.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

As seasons come and go

Texts: Isaiah 65 17-25 (new heaven and earth); Luke 21 5-19 (signs of the end)

The baptism of a child is always a time for joy, thanksgiving and hope. As we celebrate Jason's baptism today and look forward to his life, we might also think back to the baptisms of others and confront the wonder of all the changes we have experienced so far in life. Today, I use our two Bible readings to help us in this work of looking forward and back.

Today feels special for me. This will be the last baptism I will be part of here in Borderlands before I leave for Mill Woods United Church in Edmonton. It also has echoes of my first summer here 2.5 years ago when, in August 2011, I presided at my first ever wedding, which was that of Jason's aunt and uncle, Amanda and Jerrod, and who are here this morning.

In between the joys of weddings and baptism, I have been changed and deepened by weekly worship, by walking with grieving families, and by becoming involved in the life of our communities. I will leave at the end of December with both sadness and gratitude. Ministry here has changed me.

But viewed in conventional terms, my ministry might not be considered a success. The same small numbers come to Sunday worship today as in 2011. There have been more funerals than baptisms. No new group of lay leaders has appeared to take over from the few who have been the sparkplugs of the life and work of the churches for the last 30 years. The future of our congregations is in question, as we will discuss at three meetings this week.

Today's Gospel reading points to massive changes in religious life during the time of Jesus. Jesus is confronted with the beauty and majesty of the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been the focus of Jewish worship and community life since it was rebuilt 600 years earlier. But Jesus says that it will be thrown down.

His prediction is confirmed 40 years later when a three-year long rebellion of the people of Jerusalem against the Roman occupiers is defeated. The Romans enter Jerusalem, slaughter thousands of people, burn the Holy City to the ground, and utterly destroy its beautiful Temple.

Out of this trauma, Jewish leaders find new ways to worship God in synagogues all around the Mediterranean. Others who follow Christ write the gospel narratives of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and use their new Scriptures to found what becomes the Christian Church.

Jesus' brief remarks point to a terrible trauma, but they also contain a seed of hope that will lead to new ways of revealing the God who is Love and new ways of worshipping and serving our most sacred values.

The decline of our churches may seem mild compared to the bloody tragedy of the destruction of Jerusalem more than 1900 years ago. However, I see some parallels. What we face here and in churches all across the former European empires is a faint echo of the disaster of World War One, I believe. I will speak more on this next week when we celebrate the end of the Church Year on Reign of Christ Sunday.

Today, suffice it to say that changed social conditions have left our churches searching for a new thing, which might be as different as the worship of the early church was from Temple Sacrifice in Jerusalem before the year 70.

After the destruction of Jerusalem, the followers of the resurrected Christ must have been disoriented and scared. So many people had been killed. So many hopes of the years of the rebellion had been crushed. So much tradition lay in ruins amid the rubble of the formerly great City.

And yet, it was in these dire circumstances that new life in Christ was discovered by more people. Because of this new life of Love, they must have been grateful for sacraments such as baptism that formed their worship life.

I don't imagine that their gratitude meant that they looked down upon the previous generations who had sustained Temple worship in Jerusalem or who had rebelled against the hated Romans.

In retrospect, we can see that the Temple priests who collaborated with Rome during more than 200 years of occupation comprised their religious ideals. At the same time, I can sympathize with their choices -- they tried to maintain ancient rituals and learnings amid harsh conditions.

In retrospect, we can see that the young zealots in Jerusalem who broke off from their elders to rise in armed rebellion against the Romans compromised their ethics. Still, I can sympathize with those who chose a path of armed resistance. Like Jesus, they were trying to build a society freed from foreign military domination. They failed, but don't most such noble efforts fail?

When we look back, we can usually find something to criticize in previous generations. As Jason grows up, he will break free of his parents by finding things he doesn't like about their traditions and rituals. Our prayer is that he will do so for the same shared sacred values that guide his parents: faith, hope and love.

Each generation tries to find a trusting faith, tries to experience hope amid all of life's ups and downs, and tries to give and receive love. They do so in conditions that are different that those of their parents. As newer generations look back in the future, I expect that they will realize that we tried to keep the faith, live out of a sense of hope, and express love as best we could in difficult conditions.

We also confident that all are travelling to the same destination. Amid Jesus' dire warnings today, he also assures us that "not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls."

In the reading from Isaiah, the Prophet paints an idyllic picture of a new heaven and earth where "they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain." It was to this vision that the Christian prophet John of Patmos turned as he wrote the last chapter of his apocalyptic book Revelation.

Each generation builds upon the efforts of its predecessors, and also criticizes and changes some of what it receives. Each generation is fated to search again for a trusting faith amid all that we fear; to live with hope despite not knowing what lies just around the corner for our communities or families; and to give and receive love despite the violence that sometimes clouds our minds and disturbs our world.

Today, by being baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Jason has joined the Body of Christ. The form and function of that Body is changing as is the society in which it exists. But we are certain that the promise of his baptism will be fulfilled in Jason's life again and again. It will find him dwelling in a new heaven and earth in which his faith is secure, his hope is realized, and love is his watchword, both now and always.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Remembrance and resurrection

Text: Luke 20 27-38 (a question about resurrection)

In early November, we often spend time thinking of our ancestors. The calendar directs us to confront mortality and to remember the hope that sustains us in the face of the death of loved ones.

It starts on Halloween when we playfully confront our fears of death by dressing up as ghosts or zombies. All Hallows Eve is followed by All Hallows Day on November 1 when we remember the saints among our ancestors. The next day, November 2, is All Souls Day when we give thanks for everyone else who has come before us.

This time of reflection reaches its climax on November 11, Remembrance Day. King George V set aside November 11 in the British Empire in 1919. It marks the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, which ended the horrors of World War I. Remembrance Day is a time to honour the sacrifice of the victims of the wars.

On this, the day before Remembrance Day, Jesus' remarks about resurrection in today's Gospel reading might help us as we mourn loved ones and ancestors, express thanks for their sacrifices, and look forward in hope.

Jesus is asked a question about a childless woman who had married seven brothers one after the other. The Sadducees ask which of the seven brothers will be her husband in resurrection. They do so to ridicule the idea of resurrection.

Jesus replies that there is no marriage in resurrection. Instead, he says we will be like angels, who presumably do not engage in carnal love, marriage, or family life.

His answer runs counter to some common hopes for resurrection. When a loved one dies, we yearn to share time with them again. If resurrection does not reunite us with our loved ones, then what is meant by resurrection?

I remember the reaction of my seven-year old nephew to my father's death six years ago. He drew a picture of my Dad in heaven gardening and painting -- two of my father's favourite activities. My nephew seemed to imagine that what follows death is pretty much the same as this life, except with fewer difficulties.

I quite understand this idea, although I no longer hold it. For instance, it is one thing to enjoy seeding, weeding, and harvesting for decades. It is another to contemplate thousands, or millions, or trillions of seasons of this. Even if there were no insects, endless seasons of gardening do not seem like a vision of paradise to me. So as with marriage, I don't imagine that there is gardening in heaven.

Of course, no one can say with certainty what happens after death. In our tradition, I see two different approaches. One argues that resurrection preserves one's sense of self forever. The other sees resurrection both as brief moments of relief from egotism in this life and selfless and eternal reunion with God's Love after death.

Today's remarks by Jesus fit with the latter understanding, I believe. Death is not a door through which life continues relatively unchanged. Death completes our liberation from the anxieties and attachments of our egos, which, with grace, we sometimes experience this side of the grave.

This approach lines up with my favourite quote from St. Paul. When describing his conversion to the Way of Jesus, Paul writes, "I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2). I also think it lines up with the Parable of the Prodigal Son in which the father twice says that his son was dead but now is now alive.

There are other passages in Scripture that suggest other ideas for what might happen to our sense of self at death. But today I leave those aside, and talk about some of the implications of Jesus' statement on marriage and resurrection.

The joys, pains, and entanglements of our egos are for this life. The ego is the site of our thoughts, memories, and willpower. Sometimes, with grace, our ego dissolves -- perhaps when reconciling with a friend; in the joy of the birth of a child; or when letting go of an addiction. In moments of grace, we sometimes rise above our ego and feel connected to all of life.

In my experience, such moments of healing are fleeting. But they give me a taste of what might happen at death. In this vision, death is a permanent liberation from the small self. It extends those moments of salvation experienced in this life into an eternal return to the Love that is God.

This is not to say that I don't cherish life. I adore the struggle to fulfill our desires and learn about this crazy world. Our instincts and emotions move us to care for our families and fight for justice. At the end, we are confident that we all return to Love.

When a young person dies -- as is so often the case in war -- the pain felt by survivors can be unbearable. However, none of this pain need be felt on behalf of the dead. They have entered into an eternal now in God's complete reality. For them, separation and pain are over and healing is complete.

The grief and pain is felt by those of us who survive. And some of the deepest pain must be felt by those who have had to kill in war.

My mother's father was a veteran of the First World War. After growing up on a farm near the shores of Lake Ontario, he moved to Vancouver to work for the YMCA. When Britain declared war on the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires in 1914, he signed up immediately and was wounded in France in 1915. He spent a year recovering in a hospital in England and did clerical work for the British Army during the last years of the War.

Like so many people, my grandfather had been filled with optimism in the years leading up to 1914. This summer, my mother showed me a photocopy of an essay he had written in Vancouver in 1911. In it, he looked back 50 years to before Confederation and forward 50 years to his hopes for the growth of Western Canada. The essay betrayed none of the darkness that would soon overwhelm the world in the trenches of Europe.

In the 1920s, my grandfather returned to Ontario, bought a farm, married and raised four children. But my mother said he never spoke of his time in France. Like so many others, he had seen the worst that life had to offer in the War and struggled to recover both physically and spiritually.

My grandfather, Mackenzie Rutherford, is one of those whom I remember each November 11th. I am sad that he had to suffer pain and disillusionment in the Great War. If he killed any enemy soldiers, I hope he was not wracked with guilt. I am happy that he found love and created a family. I am sure that he experienced many moments of healing in his life -- maybe even on the battlefield as he lay wounded. I am confident that, like his comrades and foes who died far too young in France, he found salvation when he died as an old man. Like all of our ancestors, I believe that he was relieved of the burdens of his ego when he returned to God.

Jesus says that in resurrection, there is no marriage. My interpretation of this saying is only one of many. But regardless of our notions, we have all experienced moments in which we rise above our small selves and are reminded of our connection to the Great Self of God.

Having faith that we are released from our attachments at death liberates me to try to live life to the fullest. In this life we won't avoid pain or disappointment. But many times we encounter the grace of God in Christ, which helps us see above our limited horizon to the cosmic whole. For me, it is these moments that point to the eternal life that is selfless Love.

Tomorrow as we remember the horror of war and the sacrifices of millions in Canada and around the world, may we be assured that the honoured dead are safe in the arms of God. With faith that all of us headed to that same salvation, let us fight fearlessly for a world of justice in which political differences will  no longer settled by war.

Thanks be to God.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

1913: on the edge of the abyss

Remarks I made at Rockglen School on November 6, 2013 at a community Remembrance Service

Thank you very much for asking me to speak today on this important occasion.

Today, I look both backward and forward -- backward to what Saskatchewan was like 100 years ago in 1913, and forward to the next six years.

The next six Remembrance Days will be special ones, I believe. In 2014, the world will mark a sad centennial, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I in August 1914. Two years from now in 2015, Canada will mark the centennial of that powerful poem, "In Flanders Fields." In 2016, we will remember the horror of the Battle of the Somme.

In 2017, Canada will not only celebrate 150 years since Confederation, but also the centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which many consider to be as important as Confederation in marking Canada's independence from Britain. In 2018, we will celebrate the centennial of the Armistice of November 11, 1918, which brought the horrors of the First World War to an end.

And finally, six years from now, we will celebrate the centennial of the First Remembrance Day on November 11, 1919. Since King George V called that first one, it has been one of the most solemn and sacred days on the Canadian calendar.

In remembering the sacrifices of our ancestors, and in our work to create a future without war, the next six years of remembrance could be important.

More than 15 million people died in Europe in the First World War of 1914 to 1918. If we cast our minds back 100 years to what Canada and the world were like just before war began, we might get a sense of why that terrible War is considered to the beginning of the modern era.

100 years ago, in 1913, this part of Saskatchewan along the border with Montana was just being settled. Rockglen didn't even exist in 1913. That didn't happen until 1927 when a spur line of the Canadian Pacific Railway was built.

When I moved here two and half years ago, I was surprised at how young this border area is. I wonder if this might be the last agricultural region of Canada to be settled by non-native people.

Saskatchewan was an exciting place 100 years ago. While we have boomed over the last decade, today is nothing compared to the years before World War I. The population of Saskatchewan went from under 100,000 people in 1900 to more than 600,000 in 1914. How did the province ever handle this massive influx of people?

The settlers of this area came from many different countries -- Norway, Germany, Sweden, Romania, the Ukraine. People of Scottish, English and French origin came from Eastern Canada. It was sort of a mini-European Union.

For centuries, Europe had been divided into small kingdoms, and it had endured many wars. Here in Borderlands, people from all over Europe settled and built the first schools, post offices, and churches. Everyone learned English, and lived in peace. Despite the hardships of settlement, it must have seemed like a dream as well.

1913 was an optimistic time. Trade, technology, and knowledge were all exploding. There hadn't been a war in Europe since 1871. Britain, France, Holland, Germany and Russia had colonized most of the world. There was a sense that life would continue to get better and better.

But then one year later in August 1914, the European powers divided into two sides and began the bloodiest war ever. On one side were Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Turkey and their colonies. The other side included Britain, France, Holland, and Russia and their colonies.

The key leaders on our side were King George V of Britain, the great-great-great grandfather of Prince George who was born to William and Kate this summer, and Czar Nicholas II of Russia. The key leader on the other side was the Kaiser of  Germany, Wilhelm II. Strangely, these three leaders -- the Kaiser, the Czar and the King -- were all first cousins! Each empire had a state church that supported the war effort despite the fact that the soldiers on all sides were mostly Christians.

The war was a bloody stalemate until the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1917. At the war's start, the U.S. was reluctant to get involved because Russia, which was perhaps the most brutal and oppressive of all of the European empires, was one of the Allies. Only when the war-weary people of Russia overthrew the Czar in March 1917 did the United States feel it could enter the war on our side. The arrival of the Americans, allowed the Allies to finally defeat the Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians the next year.

The War must have discouraged people here in southern Saskatchewan. The settlers had left Europe and its conflicts behind. Here people of many backgrounds and languages were building a province of peace and friendship.

There was overwhelming pressure on young Canadian young men to return to Europe to fight. The same was true in all countries. Each King, Czar, or Kaiser along with church and political leaders said it was the patriotic and Christian thing to go to the trenches to kill and be killed.

When I was a student, we were told that the question "What caused World War I" had no good answer. It was an insane horror that seemed to happen by accident and which no one could stop.

World War II is different. The racism and aggression of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 are so outrageous that it is easy to understand why we had to go to war. But World War I seems different to me.

I hope that you who are still in school today will learn a lot about World War I during the centennials that will be marked in the next six years.

65,000 Canadian soldiers were killed in the Great War at a time when Canada had only 8 million people. The impact of 65,000 young men killed in such a small population is truly hard for me to imagine.

Despite war in their former home countries, the settlers here in Borderlands continued to build our communities. No matter where we were from, we all became Canadians. Together we have enjoyed the peace and prosperity that followed the end of the two world wars.

Today, as I think back to 1913, and forward into the future, I pray that we will learn the lessons of Europe's bloody past. May the peace that has largely reigned there since 1945 spread to the whole world.

May all countries learn to settle disputes without war. May we focus instead on mending the wounds of our world in a spirit of peace and harmony.

99 years ago European leaders showed us how not to settle disputes, and many of our young men paid a terrible price. At the same time, the settlers here from Europe were learning to live together.

The first generations of Saskatchewan people have now thrown us the torch of peace. May we hold it high to light our way into a future of peace and freedom for everyone.

Thank you

Sunday, November 3, 2013

From acceptance to repentance

Text: Luke 19:1-10 (Jesus dines with Zacchaeus)

How does God's love for us change how we behave? I raise this question in response to today's Gospel reading about Zacchaeus.

Like the sinner who prayed for mercy in last week's Gospel reading, Zacchaeus is a rich tax collector. He is hated by his neighbours because he collaborates with Rome and defrauds them.

Jesus reaches out to Zacchaeus without asking him to change. Nevertheless, Zacchaeus does change his ways after receiving Jesus into his house. He says that he will sell half of his possessions and repay anyone he has cheated.

The crowd grumbles when Jesus reaches out to Zacchaeus. But other than that, the story is sunny and upbeat. A hated sinner searches for Jesus. Jesus accepts him. The sinner changes. And Jesus declares the episode to be an example of salvation.

The story of Zacchaeus reminds me of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Like Zacchaeus, the prodigal was lost and then found. However, the parable is much darker than today's story. The Prodigal Son wastes his inheritance in a faraway country, he repents, and he returns to the gracious love of his father. But before he repents, he hits bottom as a penniless and hungry labourer who works with pigs, which are taboo to Jews. The prodigal returns home in shame.

Such pain is absent in Zacchaeus' story. While I like the sunny nature of the story, I would find it more realistic if it also portrayed pain such as that shown by the tax collector praying for mercy in last week's reading or the shame of the Prodigal Son.

Accepting the love of God often involves pain. In many cases, individuals or communities have to hit rock bottom before we can acknowledge our helplessness in the face of our problems and call upon God's love to help us find the hard road to repentance and changed behaviour.

On Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, our Bible Study groups had trouble coming up with a figure in Saskatchewan who might provide a good analogy to Zacchaeus -- a rich and powerful person who was also despised.

But then came news reports on Thursday of the latest scandal involving Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford, who seems to provide us with a contemporary analogy. If Jesus came to Toronto this week and invited himself to Ford's house for supper, I imagine that some might grumble as the crowds do in today's reading.

Unfortunately, unlike Zacchaeus, Rob Ford does not seem to be looking for help. He refuses to resign even though a video is now in the hands of the police that shows him in front of a crack house with a gang of criminals where he makes racist and anti-gay remarks and smokes from a crack pipe.

Ford is addicted to alcohol, food, and illegal drugs. He lashes out at critics with verbal and physical abuse. He is closely involved with a friend who is now charged with trying to violently extort the crack video on Ford's behalf. And yet he refuses to resign. If Ford hasn't hit rock bottom yet, I have trouble imagining how things could get worse.

The good news is that God accepts us just as we are, and God's acceptance opens us to self-acceptance. Unfortunately, the latter involves accepting both the things we like AND dislike about ourselves. For any of us, this might mean acknowledging that we are mortal, that there are things we have done we now regret, and things we wished that we had done but did not do.

I empathize with Ford's reluctance to face up to reality given how painful it would be for him. So despite virtually everyone demanding that he resign, Ford continues on and says he has done nothing wrong.

For Rob Ford's sake and for the sake of the city he governs, we can only pray that he does repent despite the pain of the shame he would then feel.

There is more good news. The grief and pain that come from self-acceptance are also accompanied by joy. There is joy in knowing that God loves us just as we are, warts and all. There is joy in being freed from the energy we waste in denial. There is joy in being in touch with reality, even if we don't like all aspects of it. God's grace seems to be found in the very nature of reality, which is the best news one could ever hear.

Accepting God's love for us and the resulting acceptance of self is liberation. I can understand our reluctance to feel the pain involved. But the new life that follows is more than worth it.

Another step often follows repentance. Following the grief and joy of being accepted by God, we are freed to act in ways that better fit with our values of faith, hope and love. Zacchaeus provides an example when he pledges to give away half of his belonging and to make amends to the people he has cheated.

For any of us, new life might involve having more hope and peace in the face of illness or loss, giving up addictions, or showing greater empathy and respect for the people in our lives.

At Bible study last week, we read a sermon on Zacchaeus that included the following saying on the power of acceptance: "Jesus loves you just the way you are -- but way too much to leave you that way!"

I like the saying. It captures the paradox of accepting things just as they are, and also being freed by God's grace to become the person we were meant to be.

In a moment, we will celebrate the sacrament of communion. Usually we begin by saying that Jesus invites us to his table. To fit better with the Zacchaeus story, perhaps today we could imagine that Jesus invites himself to our table.

At the communion table, we are confident that Jesus will accept us just as we are, warts and all. In the pain of the story retold at communion, we might experience the joy and pain we feel when we accept ourselves in all our difficult reality. And as we leave the table, we might feel changed, if only a little.

Jesus welcomes everyone to the table just as we are. But he loves us too much to leave us this way.

Thanks be to God.