Be On Guard

Lots of thoughts flying through my head early in the morning far too often, none of them worthy of waking up before 4:30 am and yet here I am, wide awake and distracted by the “dissipation and worries of life” (Luke 21:34).

It is so easy to find myself distracted and worried. In fact it seems to be my default position. When I am distracted by the worries of life, I avoid being drawn  into the life of God.

And so, this Advent I long to watch and wait…wait for those moments when God breaks in. I long to turn my eyes away from those distractions and turn to the joy that awaits in the midst of the burdens of life. I long to awake and greet the new morn where light shines dissipating those worries in the dawn of hope.

Photo Credit: “The First Sunday of Advent”, © 2013 Susanne Nilsson, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

Desolate Roads

There are more kilometres of roads per capita in Saskatchewan than in any other province. Our visitors who reside in urban Ontario when visiting are amazed by the lack of traffic on the roads.

But when you do the math, it makes sense that driving on highways in Saskatchewan can be a lonesome experience.

After having lived here for over 10 years, you’d think I’d be used to it by now. But one day earlier this year, I found myself  on a new highway heading out to visit a friend.

As the kilometres passed me by and the van still hadn’t travelled through a town nor had another car passed our way, I began to become unsure.

As we got further away from familiar territory I became a little anxious. Was I going in the right direction? Would I get to where I was going? Did I take the right turn?

With no sign posts in sight confirming that I was on the correct course, I continued to drive with hope that I would get to my destination.

Sure enough, it didn’t take much longer when I found my destination.

It was a great visit. I’m so glad that I didn’t give into my anxiety turning around in order to make sure that I was headed in the right direction. If I had given into the anxiety it would have limited the precious time I had to visit with my friend and I wouldn’t have known the joy in the visit.

The last few months, life has felt a bit like that journey that day as the road our family is travelling on lately, seems to be a bit more barren.

There are times when it feels like we have taken a wrong turn and that the roads are deserted while other travellers are staying home where it is safe and warm.

There are times when I would give anything to see sign posts from God that we are still located in the general vicinity of lighter days ahead.

But still we travel on.

We travel on, hoping that the scenery will become a little less barren. We travel on, hoping that this barrenness will give way to new life. We travel on, assured that God is in our midst.

The road might be a little more desolate these days but the hope never dims knowing that the journey isn’t the end of the story but only the beginning of abundant life in God.

Photo Credit: “Inner Journey”, © 2011 Hartwig HKD, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

Come and See: An All Saints Sunday Sermon

Gospel: John 11:32-44

32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”   38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

            Rachel Held Evans in the book Searching for Sundays,[1] talks about her biggest regret while going through a period of intense doubt within in her congregation at the time. She regretted that her inability to be honest and to trust the good people of the congregation with her doubts, her questions, and her disillusionment, and that she didn’t allow the church to be the church during that time of great turmoil in her life.

The one thing that kept her going during her struggle was a group of young couples that had come together through that church in a group formed to support newlyweds. She describes their time together as holy.

She says, “it was in these late hours that we formed some of the most important friendships of our lives, the kind that go beyond small talk and beyond theological discussions to raw, unedited truth telling. We confessed our deepest fears and greatest doubts. We speculated endlessly about our futures and shared in one another’s joys and disappointments…This was our communion, our confession…No one felt the need to correct or understand or approve. We just listened, and it was sacred.”[2]

She goes on in the next chapter to talk about the honesty that is found at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and quotes Heather Kopp a Christian and an AA member who said that it took her a long time “before [she] understood that people bond more deeply over shared brokenness than they do over shared beliefs.”[3]

Bill W., founder of AA, wasn’t a perfect person, but he was a person that knew that his very survival depended on others with whom he shared honesty.[4]

So it is days like today, All Saints Day, that give us an opportunity. An opportunity to bring all of who we are to this gathering of Christ’s body. An opportunity to bring our grief, our sorrow, and our loss. An opportunity to open up in honesty bringing it to the One who wept at the grave of Jesus and share it with one another as the body of Christ.

The gospel today tells of deep pain and sorrow in both the disciples of Jesus and in Jesus himself as they faced the death of someone they loved. This body clenching grief resonates with those of us who have faced our own losses.

At one level, we find Mary blaming Jesus for not having come sooner. And can you blame her? Remember, Jesus when told of Lazyrus’ illness, delayed going to him, saying, “this illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory”[5] leaving them with cold comfort while he stayed where he was for another two days.

Upon his arrival, the disciples invite Jesus to come and see just how desperate their pain and sorrow was at their friend’s death. Here we see that even knowing that God would turn death on its ear; knowing that death was not the end; knowing that life and its fullness was God’s deep intention; kowing all of that at yet Jesus himself “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”[6]

Together, they bonded over the loss, and together they moved forward into the hope of new life that is known in God.

Years ago, I went to school with a young woman from Zambia. She was a beautiful woman and I think of her often. While we were at school together, her sister in Zambia died and this young woman was inconsolable. I remember not knowing what to say but I do know that our community of faith prayed with her and felt with her and then moved on expecting her too as well.

The thing is, in Zambia, grief and mourning is much closer to the surface and this woman didn’t know how to deal with a culture that expected you to cry for one week and then go back to living life as if it had never happened.

In this world where we are expected to go on with our lives as if there is no hole in our lives when someone we love dearly is gone, it is hard to open ourselves up and to be vulnerable. But as we see at this graveside, Jesus is present and feels with us the pain at these losses that we face.

So as the disciples did on that day that Lazyrus died, this day allows us to ask Jesus to come and see…

Come and see the pain in which we live missing this one that we love.

Come and see our regrets with which we live.

Come and see the mess we are in as we try to move on living while our hearts are heavy.

Come and see the beauty of the lives of the people we love who have died and how it brought us closer each other and to you

Come and see, Jesus, come and see.

And in those moments of absolute pain, sorrow and aching loss, we find that Jesus comes, weeps with us and draws us to him, reminding us of the hope that is to come as God makes all things new in the resurrection.

We are reminded of that hope we hear in Revelation promising that “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”[7] Promising that there will be a feast of love of which our communion that we share today is only but a taste. For as Isaiah reminds us that, ‘on this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples;”[8] those who have gone before, those that gather here, and those that are to come; God makes for all people “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine.”[9]

Even as we share the sorrow of our losses on this day,

Even as we know the world is not quite the same as it was before,

Even as we feel our losses deeply,

We can rest here with Jesus, knowing that his death is not the end of the story.

So while we wait a while together today with each other and with Jesus, in the honesty of who we are, we rest in these promises. The promises that through Jesus, we can face death in the hope that death has no more sting. The promises that the grave will be swallowed up.

And together we sing. We sing with all the saints in glory. We sing in the vulnerability of who we are with all the saints gathered here today. We sing: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Amen.

Photo Credit: “Resurrection”, © 2006 fady habib, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

[1] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church. (Kindle Edition). Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2015.

[2] Ibid, Location 919.

[3] Ibid, Location 1070

[4] Ibid.

[5] John 11:4

[6] John 11:33

[7] Revelation 21:4.

[8] Isaiah 25:1

[9] Ibid.

We are “the rest of the story”

Holy Spirit dove window

The following is the text from the sermon I preached this past Pentecost Sunday. The texts for this past Sunday were Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:22-27 and John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15. Photo from https://flic.kr/p/LVbxw.

The incredulous story of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost can catch us up leaving us with thoughts that the signs of the Holy Spirit have to be similar to this fantastical event leaving us with no doubt of the Holy Spirit’s work. In light of those extraordinary events, we forget that the Holy Spirit turned those fearful, cowering group of ‘believers’ who were gathered behind locked doors into courageous proclaimers of the good news of Christ’s love.

Those disciples went from hiding from the powerful out of fear to speaking truth to power, knowing that though they might face prison and even death that the risen Christ had given them the Holy Spirit to face what may be ahead of them and to be able to make sense of the death of the One who had meant so much to them.

Kevin Vickers[1] in a speech to the graduating class of Mount Allison University told the story of how the Holy Spirit worked in his life. While he never said it in those words, I believe the reconciling work of the Holy Spirit is quite evident in what he says. He tells of the days following that fateful day in October 2014 when protecting the leaders of the government of Canada, Kevin Vickers shot and killed Michael Zehaf-Bibeau who had stormed the House of Commons.

He tells of his restless night after the shooting; his mother who persisted in calling him to come home, and the healing he found in his family gathered around him as they shared communion.

The morning after the shooting, he describes as the loneliest moment of his life when he awoke at 5:30 am, weeping. He goes on to tell us of his return home at the urging of his mother and shares where his thoughts turned in those moments surrounded by loved ones as they shared the Holy meal.

He said, “It kind of occurred to me that God, after he was crucified, the first person he let into the kingdom of heaven was the man crucified next to him — a convicted criminal and so with my grandchildren in my arms, I said a prayer for Michael. That point in time meant so much to me…I was ok now.”

The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, was beckoning Kevin Vickers home after a particularly difficult experience that meant he was the cause of someone else’s death. While most people would understand that there was justification for his act, coming to terms with the reality of inflicting violence on another person is another matter entirely.

However, understanding the Holy Spirit as just a comforter to us in our troubled times does not give us a full picture. There is more to the character of the Holy Spirit than that of a comforter. You might have heard the following expression: “the Holy Spirit comes to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

We see both these characteristics in the ‘actions of the Spirit’ that day at Pentecost. We see that there was an uproar as the speaking in tongues caused a great disturbance.

People sneered and accused them of being drunk. There was amazement butt there was also confusion and fear.

Sara Miles in her faith autobiography, “take this bread” tells of the Holy Spirit’s role in her life as she made the transition from atheist and became a member of the congregation at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Diego California.

As a natural skeptic, Sara was unsure as to why she walked into that worship service in the first place. All the while she was participating in the service, her inner logic cried out within her calling the gathering that she was a part of ridiculous. Yet there was something beckoning her to remain. When she remained, she was invited to take part in the holy meal and in that moment she declares that “something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.”[2]

And when Jesus happened to her, her life turned around and she continued to come back to be fed.

And when Jesus happened to Sara, the life of that congregation turned around as the winds of the Holy Spirit continued to blow into that place transforming them with her.

As a political activist, Sara was concerned with those in poverty and felt a call by the Holy Spirit to do something about it. She cajoled and disturbed the people in that congregation until she had convinced them, or in her own words, manipulated them, to host a food pantry in their church building to feed those very people that Christ called the church to serve.

The excuses were numerous. “Fundraising is difficult,”[3] said one overwhelmed woman. The staff of the congregation discussed the idea and wondered: “What if we became a magnet for hundreds of crazy, homeless, potentially dangerous street people?”[4] “What if thieves started coming back after the pantry to steal from us?”[5] “How would our nice neighbours react to crowds of hungry strangers…on St. Gregory’s steps?”[6]

Sara responded to the objections saying, “the first time I came to the Table at St. Gregory’s, I was a hungry stranger. Each week since then, I’ve shown up- undeserving and needy-and each week, someone’s hands have broken bread and brought me into communion. Because of how I’ve been welcomed and fed in the Eucharist, I see starting a food pantry at church not as an act of ‘outreach’ but one of gratitude. To feed others means acknowledging our own hunger and at the same time acknowledging God.”[7]

In the end, the congregation agreed to open up their sanctuary to a weekly food pantry.

The Holy Spirit working through Sara shook up that congregation but it also gave them the strength to go out and do the work of continuing the welcome of the Eucharist in tangible ways in people’s lives.

David Lose, President of Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, in his blog says, “…take note, as in the readings today, so also in our world: if we heed the word and work of the coming-along-side Holy Spirit, we will inevitably be pushed beyond what we imagine and end up stirring things up. We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as the answer to a problem, but what if the Spirit’s work is to create for us a new problem…

As far as I can tell, nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus command us to go out and build churches, take care of old buildings, and devote yourself to crumbling institutions. No, Jesus says “go and make disciples” and “when you care for the least of these you are caring for me” and “love one another as I have loved you.” And this kind of work is inherently disruptive, difficult, and at times even dangerous. And so Jesus sends the Paraclete, the one who comes along side us to encourage, equip, strengthen, provoke and, yes, at times to comfort us so that we can get out there and do it all again.”[8]

It’s easy to try to contain that powerful and somewhat fantastical story of the Holy Spirit to the history of the church but instead let’s begin to recognize that this story only tells of the beginning of the Holy Spirit’s work in the church’s midst.

The Holy Spirit is active here and now: provoking us to share God’s love in scary ways; demanding that we leave our comforts behind for the sake of the good news of Jesus Christ.

What is the Holy Spirit calling you to do?

What is the Holy Spirit calling us as the body of Christ to do?

Perhaps, just perhaps it’s that very idea that we’ve set aside with our own excuses, our own fears saying:

  • We don’t have enough money.
  • Who would do the work because it’s an immense job?
  • What if I offend my neighbour?
  • What if the church authorities feel like I’m stepping on their toes?
  • What if…

When the heels get dug in; the excuses become more prevalent and the worries get bigger and bigger…well maybe we are feeling the power of the Holy Spirit coming to do his work in reconciling us and the world to God.

Maybe, just maybe, those impossible things, are the things that the Holy Spirit will help us do. And when we have our worst moments like Kevin Vickers…in the midst of it, the Holy Spirit will strengthen us and we will be ok.

[1] http://www.cbc.ca/radio/popup/audio/player.html?autoPlay=true&clipIds=2666954118

[2] Sarah Miles, take this bread. New York: Ballantine Books, 2007, p. 58.

[3] p. 114

[4] Ibid

[5] p. 115

[6] Ibid

[7] p. 116

[8] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/05/pentecost-b-come-alongside-holy-spirit/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29

The Dawning of Hope – An Easter Sermon

9101400819_fecd977022_o (2)Over the past couple of weeks you might have come across a powerful series of photographs published by the New York Times showing the stories of reconciliation between some of the victims and perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html?_r=0)

The Rwandan genocide took place in 1994 after the death of the President. Hutus began targeting Tutsis and by the end of the turbulent 3 month period over 800 000 Tutsis were killed and 250 000 people, mostly Tutsi, fled the country as refugees.

20 years ago, in the aftermath of an ethnic blood letting, I’m sure it was hard to see the resurrection promise of new life as they surveyed death and destruction. As tears streamed from their eyes, I imagine that Christophe Karorero, Viviane Nyirama, Cansilde Kampundu and others featured in the photographs couldn’t see themselves reconciling with the ones who had brought them so much pain in the Good Friday of the Tutsi people.

It was only after years of working through the pain and sorrow were they able to see hope. One survivor, Mnganyinka said, “I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbours” (see link above).

When we’re in the pits of despair, we don’t always get to hope very quickly. It isn’t usually until we’ve had some time to think, some time to heal, some time to process that hope pierces the great sorrows of our hearts and allows us to see the risen Christ.

But this roller coaster ride that we take during Holy Week makes our heads spin as we go from crying Hosanna, “Lord save us” at our Palm Sunday service to “Crucify him” as we read the story of the Passion of Jesus. This weekend as we go from the despair of seeing God die on the cross to the hope of the resurrection, we can make the mistake of thinking that if sorrow lasts too long, there is something wrong with us.

When we are blinded by pain and sorrow, we are more than ready to get out of the darkness that engulfs us. We are ready: ready to grasp joyous victory of hope returning from the dead; ready for hope to turn the world upside down; ready to give birth to something new in our lives.

But sometimes even in the midst of a faith that holds tight to the promise of resurrection that hope is still elusive. Even as we raise our voices to sing, “Now all the vault of heaven resounds” we still yearn for the fulfillment of that hope in our every day world. As we raise our voices in Alleluia, we long for our sprits to ascend from the depths and find their home in the heart of God.

I think the gospel of John captures that perplexity about what was happening as the disciples went to the tomb and were confronted with an empty one.

I think the New Testament itself is a way of coming to grips with what that empty tomb meant to the disciples, to Israel and to the world.

As I read John’s account of the resurrection, I wondered if Mary felt much like we do in our own grief as she travelled to the tomb that day to connect with the One over whom she grieved. And I’m not surprised to find her confused and perplexed as she meets Jesus after finding the tomb empty that first Easter morning.

John describes her as being beside herself with grief because she had no idea where they took her Lord’s body. Her Easter surprise, her hope was standing right there in front of her and she couldn’t see it for the tears in her eyes and the clay in her feet. She was human and those feelings of grief consumed her so that she couldn’t see the hand of God. She was so wrapped up in her fear that she couldn’t see the dawn of a new day that would give new hope not just to her but to the whole world.

It makes me wonder just how many times we have our own Easter surprises staring us in the face and we can’t see how God is giving birth to new things until we’ve had some distance, until we look back at our own footprints in the sand and realize how God was with us during those tough times.

So when the joy of being an Easter people eludes us; when we desperately need the hope of the risen Christ we gather together with others who hope.

  • Together we tell each other the stories of our faith.
  • Together we hear the stories passed down through the centuries of new life.
  • Together, as we sing we begin to see the risen Jesus.
  • Together we rest in the promise that even if our eyes are clouded with tears and our hearts are weighted down with anxiety, we can live in hope.

For the next 50 days we celebrate Easter. It is a reminder to us that resurrection and the hope it brings takes time to see because of those tears cloud our eyes. But just as Jesus took time to visit with his disciples at the tomb, in the upper room and on the Road to Emmaus, so too will Jesus come to you.

Rwanda itself is only beginning to see the hope of the future as they share their stories and in their faces, we see that the hope of the Risen Christ can be ours too no matter how dark the present.

So if the grip of grief and death have you in its’ claws this joyous Eastertide; if the alleluias sometimes get stuck in your throat in the midst of the heavy burdens we carry, remember that you are not alone as you walk this Easter journey. Christ is standing nearby waiting for the moment when your eyes will catch a glimpse of the dawning of hope.

Before you know it, your own Easter surprise will and you will be able to shout alleluia with Mary, alleluia with Peter and alleluia with the disciple who loved him.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.
Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Amen.