Graveside Journey

When death confronts us suddenly, unexpectedly, it’s as if the breath has been sucked from our lungs. For the last place you would ever have imagined being, a short week ago today, would be right here by the graveside of your loved one.

Such tragedy drives us far down into ourselves, for the pain of loss strikes deep in your heart. Some describe grief as if a piece of your heart has been wrenched away. It is not a journey we naturally, nor easily, take at the best of times. Sometimes the harsh reality of the sudden death of a loved one pulls us into the depths, and we have no choice but to face it.

The tears of pain sometimes surface. Those tears are outward signs of an inner anguish of the soul. But when we can take that journey, honestly, and surrender ourselves to those deep feelings, we may perhaps find something else in our hearts as well. Indeed we find in our hearts the very core of all that we are — the good and the bad.

The courage we show when we allow ourselves the tears of despair, renders a great gift. They say, tears of grief are reflections of the deep love you hold for your loved one. Pain and Love, sharing the same space within us. For, in the depths of our being, our heart, we not only grieve deeply, we also discover the gift of faith, hope and love.

We gather this day to remember your loved one, right here, right now — at his graveside. We celebrate and give thanks for the gift of his life. We remember and hold his memory close. As difficult and challenging as it is to do so today, alongside the deep feelings of grief and pain resonate also the longing and yearning for something more, something good beyond the bad, something hopeful beyond the endings.

From that well-spring deep within our hearts emerges the faith for us to say this day that your loved one now is free from his physical limitations. Your loved one is now free, as a bird in flight. It lifts my soul to hear how much he loved bird-watching. As he lived he was already internally practicing his spirituality, lifting as with the birds his soul towards the heavens. He also loved the natural beauty — the sanctuaries — of cottage living. So, we can say in faith and conviction that he enjoys today the fullness of life beyond the grave, without inhibition, totally free.

“But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). A popular hymn based on this passage suggests that the eagles’ wings will bear you up into the freedom, the love, the grace that is God’s kingdom forever. This is the promise. This is the reality faith accepts for your loved one today.

We are reminded again by this sudden death that the veil between life and death is indeed thin. We walk daily a breath away from the gate of death. So this reality confronts us and yes, maybe even frightens us.

But our faith announces that death has not the last word over us. Because of the resurrection of Christ, we also walk with the seed of faith deep within our hearts — as did your loved one — that eventually unity will overcome division, hope will vanquish despair, and joy will conquer sorrow; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

So, I encourage you to make that journey within yourself daily, both to embrace the grieving process as a path to healing and wholeness, but also to discover therein the gift of faith. Be courageous to do so. It isn’t easy always. But I believe that journey undertaken in good faith will bear good fruit in your lives.

Trinity Sunday – The End of Days?

Matthew 28:20 “…. I will be with you to the end of the age ….”

We come now to the end of things.

It’s the end of a school year. It’s the end of many church programs. On this Trinity Sunday we read the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the last words of Jesus. You may remember recently some zealous Christians, among them Harold Camping, were touting May 21, 2011 as the end of days. And others still look to next December 2012 as the end of time.

We are a people consumed with thoughts of things coming to an end — even to catastrophic proportions.

Why is that? Perhaps a simple answer is: Understandably, as we age we cannot deny the reality of our mortality. We begin in earnest to reflect on and come to terms with the end of ourselves.

But do our thoughts of “end times” simmer over the cauldron of fear? I suspect our curiosity about the end is often tied to a fear of the unknown, fear of suffering, fear of something going horribly wrong, out of our control. Fear of something.

And, I suspect the cloak of fear surrounds the popular theology about most religious speculations concerning the end of days. Some call it the Rapture. Some call it Judgement Day. Most Christians call it the Second Coming of Christ.

This theology of the Rapture began with a British preacher in the 19th century, John Nelson Darby. Darby used what Lutheran New Testament professor at the Chicago School of Theology, Barbara Rossing, calls “pick-and-choose literalism”; that is, taking a verse from 1 Thessalonians about us flying up into the air to meet Jesus, and a verse from Matthew where two people are working in the field, and one is taken, another left behind, and a verse from Daniel 9 coupled with some violent imagery from Revelation — put those together and you have this belief that Christ doesn’t just return once at his second coming– there are actually two second comings divided by a seven-year period of tribulation inbetween. And you are either a pre-tribulation believer, or a post-tribulation believer — and fundamentalist churches are divided over this rapture belief — you are either pre-trib, post-trib, or as some joke: pan-trib — believing it’ll all pan out in the end!

And then, we become pre-occupied by that question in our lives: What happens next? About death — what happens after we die? At the end of it … what happens next?

If fear is the dominant emotion attributed to our beliefs — whatever they are — let me suggest we need to put that belief under the microcope and examine its validity and truth. Why? Because if the underlying and constant state of the heart is fearful — then there is no room for faith, for trust, for hope, and for love. And if our lives don’t demonstrate these higher spiritual qualities, but only fear — then what does that say about our faith?

I agree with Barbara Rossing who debunks the popular notion of the “Rapture” — a term not even mentioned in the Bible. She relates a story of some children raised with this belief who when they come home from school are overcome with fear upon finding their parents absent. They are worried that their parents have been “raptured” and taken up to heaven. And, they are traumatized that they have now been left behind.

The danger of Darby’s rapture theology, for one thing, is that it prescribes certain world events must take place for Christ to return. It prescribes what is necessary, what is requisite, in order for Jesus to come back to earth — such as the third temple being built in Jerusalem, and agreements between world leaders in Israel, Russia, and America. Consequently it encourages some radical Christians to take action to precipitate these contrived world events so Jesus can come back. And to top it all — these scenarios are incredibly violent in nature.

Does this theology accurately describe what God wants for our future? Does God want for us to live in perpetual fear? Does God want for us to live out our lives on earth under a tyranny of anxiety and trepidation looking to violent solutions to God’s will? Certainly, fear plays a role in our development and maturity as people of faith. And yes, there is biblical truth pointing us to the second coming of Jesus. Absolutely.

But essentially God is not a fear-mongering God, but a God of love. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” we are reminded by the author of 1 John 4:18.

The word “trinity”, like “rapture”, is another word not found in the bible. But the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a foundational doctrine for the church of all ages. I would encourage us to reflect more on this doctrine, rather than the rapture, when we consider the end of days.

What does the doctrine of the Holy Trinity tell us about the God we worship today? Many good things. But, fundamentally, it teaches us that God is a relational God — one God in three persons. And so, we understood God, not a solitary entity unto Godself — detached, autonomous and individualistic in expression. Rather, God is a God of mutual relationship.

And so it shouldn’t surprise us to hear Jesus’ last words in Matthew’s Gospel suggesting an ongoing, loving relationship with his disciples to the end of time, even if the future remains somewhat clouded to us. The point is not to figure it out to the last detail how it will all pan out — that is not the goal of biblical study.

Because even persons of faith can’t know exactly how things will pan out in the end. Saint Paul said himself in 1 Cor 13:12 — “Now, we see as in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face ….” when we are united with God in heaven. On earth, we cannot know such things. Imbedded throughout that famous apocalyptic text from Matthew 24 are those words we need to affirm time and time again: “But about that day and hour no one knows …”(v.36), ” … for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming (v.42)” and “… the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (v.44).

So, what does happen next? I believe the biblical writers were inspired by God for a reason to do what they did. Because the bible is not a closed canon. The bible is not just stories about what happened a long time ago. The bible is not just a history book, or a legal textbook that we study to satisfy some intellectual pursuits or to make propositional statements about God. The bible is not a code book to decipher, as many pop-fiction books today suggest.

The bible is a living text — a living Word — that invites us in. All the books in the world cannot contain all that can be said about the ongoing relationship between God and people (John 20:30; 21:25). The story of faith, in other words, continues. What happens next?

WE happen next. GOD-with-us happens next, no matter what.

The teachings of Jesus are not the last word. The last word is that there is never a last word with God. In the original Greek, it does not literally say “Remember I am with you to the end of the age” — as the NRSV suggests. Jesus is not to be a memory only.

“Behold!” would be a better translation beginning the last verse of the Gospel of Matthew (Meda A. A. Stamper, Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 3, eds David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p.49). Behold! “I am with you.” The one who is named Immanuel, “God is with us,” before his birth will be with his followers all their days until the close of the age.

Therefore we can be true to the biblical call for us to “remain awake” and “be ready” for the coming Saviour; that is, we can live in trust and hope that even in the most scary, horrific of circumstances, we will not be alone. Even should the heavens crumble and the earth shake and the tempest of life unerve us, we are infinitely lovable and infinitely loved in relationship with God, with creation and with one another.

Martin Luther had one of the best responses to the question about the end of days: He said that if he knew for sure the end of the world was coming tomorrow, he would still go outside and plant an apple tree today. This is a statement that reflects abiding hope and abiding truth: Facing the direst of situations, we are called to act, as we are able, in promoting hope, promoting good, promoting love, promoting life, promoting relationships guided by the good news of salvation in Christ Jesus. Now this is what a life of faith, hope and love is all about.

What endures is not fear, but love. Therefore, may we live our end of days as ambassadors of God’s grace, God’s light, in a darkened world hell-bent on violence, destruction and hatred. Let us go forward in faithful, loving, and trusting relationship with the Triune God. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Confirmation Sunday — the Adventure Continues

John 7: 37-39 ” … out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water ….

The image of water brings it, again, all back to Baptism. Confirmation is about affirming — saying “yes!” — to your baptism. The waters of our little font seem placid and calm enough. But we all know that faith and life can be at times turbulent and stormy. The text from John for today suggests the living water is the Spirit of God, given to you! What does that say about how the Spirit behaves? Because “living” does not mean dead and unmoving.

I normally associate water with adventure — because I love to play at the beach, paddle in my canoe or kayak, or simply sit by or walk along a waterfront. The summer time invites this anticipation and excitement for being by, on, or in the water.

At very least, life with God is an Adventure! And one of the major characteristics of an adventure is: you don’t always get what you expect; an adventure takes you places you never thought you’d go; things are always changing; there’s always more than you expected. Remember, Jesus told his disciples that they would do even greater things than he himself accomplished (John 14:12).

Like confirmation.

Confirmation is more than you think! Did you ever learn this camp song? “There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea …. there’s a log in the hole in the bottom of the sea …. there’s a bump on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea …. there’s a frog on the bump on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea … there’s a wart on the frog on the bump on the log in hole in the bottom of the sea … there’s a fly on the wart on the frog on the bump on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea … there’s a flea on the fly on the wart on the frog on the bump on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea …”

Did you every learn this silly campfire song? At first glance, it looks like a simple, straightforward hole. But as soon as you dive into the waters towards that one hole in the bottom of the sea, all of a sudden you discover so much more there! More questions, more possibilities, more perspectives … more adventure!

We often think questions at Confirmation are directed solely to the confirmands; but I have a question today for the adults in the room: What is the first thing that comes to your mind when I say the word, “Confirmation”? You may think back to your Confirmation: what first comes to mind?

Now, to the Confirmands: Let’s reflect over the past two years and recall some of the things we did in Confirmation learning: a visit to the funeral home; a visit to the Pentecostal Tabernacle on a Sunday morning; serving at the local soup kitchen; a visit to Holy Trinity Anglican Church for worship; cleaning up the cemetery; reading your favourite bible stories to the class and parents from the pulpit; ushering, acolyting, reading bible lessons in mid-week Lenten services; serving food during mid-week Lenten services and Oktoberfest supper; going on a scavenger hunt for bible messages hidden throughout this whole building; writing tests while sitting quietly in the pews of this sanctuary before Christmas; sitting in silence and prayer around the lighted paschal candle, listening to Christian music; classes together with parents/grandparents in Parish Hall …..

Confirmation is not something that happens merely in a classroom downstairs. It’s much more than that. You probably didn’t expect confirmation to turn out the way it did when you started a couple of years ago, eh? Welcome to the Adventure of Life!

An adventure is about the journey, not the destination.

The process of learning is multi-faceted and ongoing. Confirmation is not so much about the destination, it’s about the journey. There’s Jethro Gibbs, NCIS team leader, the “boss”, building his boat in his basement. Do you watch NCIS on TV? He builds at least three boats over the course of the series. Everyone always asks him how he gets a finished boat out of the basement — because the boats are large and take up most of the room in the relatively small basement room where he works. But we never really know how he gets those boats out; he never really gives anyone a straight answer. We just always see him building that boat.

Confirmation is not just about today — the destination — as important as it is. It’s more about the journey that brought you here, and will continue beyond today.

The church, like confirmation, is more than we think. A financial institution I do my banking at has a slogan printed on it’s bank machines: “You’re richer than you think!” It’s a statement of faith, isn’t it? Funny how the world of business and banking encourages us to a way of thinking that moves us beyond what is immediately apparent. The church has been preaching this from the beginning. Church is a lot bigger than what you see on the outside.

Did you ever watch Dr. Who on TV, and his telephone booth time-travelling space-craft? On the outside it looks like any other-sized telephone booth — small! Large enough for only one person to stand in it. But when you step inside it, it is a huge building complete with control centre and living quarters. On the outside the church looks like a building — fancy at that. But the church is much bigger than that. It is a people called out to think big, to do great things for God, to let God’s light shine through us to enlighten the whole world. We let God’s light shine through us by being who we are, each of us unique, precious, beloved.

The last module of learning in Confirmation focused on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Fascinating to see how differently we approach this complex and often dumbfounding concept of one God in three persons. God the Father — his job is to create us; God the Son (Jesus) — his job is to save us; God the Holy Spirit — her job is to empower us. One God in three persons. We looked through several magazines and clipped out pictures to demonstrate what each of us felt related to the function of each of the three persons of God.

And the various photos we chose represent our individual interpretations of the work of the Triune God. These expressions and interpretations are as diverse as each of us are. “Now, there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varities of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12).  Indeed, we are richer than we think!

God has gifted each one of you in a unique and special way for God’s good purposes and for the common good. Because all of these interpretations, and various services and activities when taken together, as a whole, brings us closer to the truth. Not one, but all of the diverse expressions of faith that we are, together, reflects God’s will and God’s truth.

All of who you will be someday, grown up, you already have within you. God has given you a great gift, planted within your heart, the seed of faith and the Holy Spirit. We need only to learn to be open to that gift, and to experience God’s love first hand. That is our task in life.

And when the waters get too turbulent for us to handle and we feel our boat will sink, don’t forget: Jesus stands at the shore watching us; and when we need him, he won’t just stand at a distance; he will jump right in there, swim to us, and hold us through the storm. Life is an adventure; the life of faith is always moving us like that river to reach out to all the world in the love of Jesus.

A Royal Wedding

Colossians 3:12-17 ” … above all clothe yourselves with love …. ”

Over this past spring and summer, Canadians especially have been enamored by both the royal wedding and royal visit to Canada by Prince William and Kate Middleton. They have become an iconic couple and are changing the perception of the Monarchy especially for younger generations.

Their wedding was royal, to be sure — what with all the pomp and circumstance and world-wide media attention.

If you can imagine with me the various media images of the couple you have seen, would you not agree that what they are wearing bears significantly on their royal identity? Of who they are? After all, who but royalty would don a wedding dress designed by Sarah Burton costing half a million dollars?

Well, just for the record, you two look beautiful, and everything about today — what you are wearing and what is happening here makes you a Prince and Princess in the Kingdom of God. Maybe in the eyes of the world — at least according to the tradition surrounding the Monarchy — you are not a Royal Couple. But, make no mistake about it, in God’s eyes — you are precious, you are beloved, and you are blessed.

On their wedding, Kate and William officially became the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge; on this day, you arrived here as if crowns have already been placed upon your heads.

The Holy Scriptures call us to put on clothing befitting the people of God. What we wear, so to speak, how we behave, what people notice about us – these are all born from an inner source. Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (chapter 4) calls us to be strengthened in our “inner being”.

None of us gathered here may be able to afford a Sarah Burton wedding dress for people to take notice. But when we clothe ourselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience .. and above all love … bearing with one another … and forgiving others”, people will also take notice. When we clothe our lives with these qualities, well, then, we are the royalty of God in the world, the royal priesthood.

Despite all the foofaraw surrounding the wedding of Kate and William, many observers did not fail to notice the most significant moment in the exchange of vows between them. At that moment, what people noticed were the authentic, simple, heart-felt, quiet and mutual expressions of love between the two of them.

“Above all clothe yourself with love.” Love knows no hierarchy. The capacity to love is a gift we all hold in our hearts. The capability to love is the only qualification for royalty in God’s eyes. And this gift will give you a much greater resource than an expensive wedding dress, to deal with all the challenges that married life brings.

It is the love and grace of God born in your hearts that will help you navigate together through the challenges, disappointments, failures, joys and sorrows that life brings to us all. When things don’t go our way, or when things aren’t perfect in the world’s eyes, the gift of grace will help you see things for what they are, and see other people for who they are — God’s precious creation, God’s beloved people.

Today, you present this truth in your coming together to affirm that it is indeed the gift of God’s love that binds you to one another. It is the gift of God’s grace that ultimately defines your marriage. It is the gift of God’s love that will ultimately transform our lives for the better, and through us, the world.

Thanks be to God.

Mutuality in Leadership

T. S. Eliot wrote a prayer: “Teach us to care and not to care.” I appreciate such candid, honest and real words to describe effective public service leadership. Applying to teachers, care-givers in medical institutions, spiritual guides, pastors and priests, service providers, etc. –to affirm the necessity for some degree of detachment from the service relationship is, quite frankly, refreshing and liberating. We get in trouble when we try to do too much, when we overextend, overfunction, and play God.

We, especially in the church, are burdened by a culture of intervention and control. We over-state our responsibility in “saving” the person from their undesirable, unfortunate situation, whatever it is. We thus create co-dependencies in our caregiving: The pastor has a need to be needed and is even unaware of this need, except feeling very smug and satisfied, taking all the acclaim for successfully intervening and making it better for the one “in need”; on the other hand, the one coming for help relinquishes most if not all responsbility for their own healing: “I felt healthy until the doctor told me I was sick.” (The doctor isn’t the source of your illness!)

In order for any relationship to work, including marriage, mutuality is the key. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Heard that before? What you want from another, you need to give to the other.

I notice that in healthy pastor-congregation relationships, where there is positive growth, where there is evidence of health and joy — usually both parties (pastor AND congregant) have taken some responsbility in building and maintaining that relationship. This is not a one-way street when it comes to positive care-giving. Henri Nouwen famously penned the term “the wounded healer” to describe the healing that occurs mutually between the one supposedly giving and the one supposedly receiving the care.

An important question I pursue in assessing and following through on any situation where some kind of service is requested, is :”What measure of responsibility is the seeker/client willing to give both into the process of their own health and into relationship with the one providing the care (i.e. the leader)?” By addressing the seeker’s willingness to engage personally and claim some degree of resposibility for the relationship of care-giving, I am able to determine often the overall effectiveness that work.

Because in care-giving, the outcome of any work is beyond the control, direction and intervention of any one individual. If anything, healing and
satisfaction come when all parties concerned do their part in the process.

Easter 7A – We Belong

In the so-called farewell discourse occupying the mid-teen chapters of the Gospel of John, Jesus gives his disciples, shall we say, his “famous last words” to them. I would take these instructions to be of particular importance. These words must be received as we would from a coach giving players a pep talk prior to a championship game, or the speech of a politician to the nation on the eve of war, or the erudition of a military general prior to leading his troops into battle, or even the words spoken at the death-bed of a loved one.

Perhaps more so the latter because Jesus knew he was leaving them shortly. Following his death, resurrection and ascension, he will no longer be present in the same way with those on earth. A significant shift is about to take place in the manner with which Jesus will relate to his disciples for the rest of time — no longer in bodily, physical form but through the Holy Spirit and in the Sacrament of the Holy Meal.

A certain urgency therefore accompanies a reading of John 17, known as the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus; and hence we need to pay particular attention to these words. What Jesus prays here drives straight to the heart of his essential teaching and message.

Jesus knows that his impending departure runs the risk of dividing the on-earth communion of believers — or at least setting a divisive tone in the community of faith. Therefore Jesus prays for their unity, “that they may be one”. This is decidedly a corporate blessing; Jesus prays for the community to be united. A significant point.

Jesus, as well as his successing leaders of the church on earth, address their words not to individuals but to a community.

When the Holy Spirit came to the disciples in Jerusalem, the text from Acts 2:1 is clear to state that they were “gathered” when the flames of fire descended and the wind rushed in. While certainly God can inspire us through the Holy Spirit when we are by ourselves (God can doing anything God wants!), Jesus’ prayer binds us into community. The Holy Spirit that proceeds from the Son (Nicene Creed) brings us together in the love of Jesus. While inspiration from God may come to us when we are alone, that gift is expressed, validated and empowered for the sake of God’s mission only in the community of faith. Remember, the letters of Saint Paul — the vast majority of them — are a word to a community, not to individuals (eg. in Corinth, Rome, Ephesus, Thessaloniki, Colossae, Philippi, etc.). Even Peter connects faith in Jesus as being expressed within community: He refers not to a chosen human leader, but a chosen race; not to a royal priest, but a royal priesthood; not to a holy city, but a holy nation; not to one person who belongs, but God’s own people. (1 Peter 2)

We still belong, even though tempted from time to time to leave the community and strike out “on our own”. We still belong, even though at times disillusioned and disappointed with the church, needing a “time out” for a while. But let us never forget that any individual decision we make in good faith will also affect the community. We are never an island unto ourselves; we are affected by, and affect the church with all our decisions to leave or to stay. In other words, it’s not about us, individually. It’s about something much greater than the sum of individual parts — much greater than the sum of individual opinions. We are after all a church without walls, a church not defined by building but by bodies — living bodies. A church is people, defined by relationships of love in Christ Jesus.

An important question of faith, I believe, is to ask: Where do I belong? Where is my faith demonstrated in acts of grace, love, kindness, and compassion according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ — with and to others? Where do I belong?

The message inbedded and relevant to us today from John 17 is precisely that in the prayer of Jesus — we all belong. Despite our differing opinions. Despite our diverse ways of interpreting Scripture. Despite all our differences — we belong to the church, the Body of Christ. Our unity for which Christ prays does not depend on us but on the blessing of God which we have already received.

What is the basis of our belonging? Many of you got up very early in the morning last month to watch live the wedding of the royal couple, Kate and William. The pomp, expense and vast, public exposure of the event did not subdue, I believe, what many observed in the quiet exchange of vows between them. Despite the excessiveness of their clothing, the scrutiny and destraction of the media, and caricature nature of the event, what people commented on afterward was the authentic, common, heartfelt mutual expressions of love between the two of them.

Love knows no hierarchy nor division. Everyone has the capacity to love, everyone. And this is the only qualification for priesthood in the church. We are all priests. Martin Luther first coined that phrase that has come to be a doctrinal hallmark of the Reformation: we are in Christ a “priesthood of all believers”. We have all received grace and hold in our hearts the capacity to love. We can love one another, each and everyone of us. That is how and why we belong. This is the basis of our unity.

Let us take seriously the “famous last words” of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Let us remain united because we already belong, and because we are a chosen race, a royal preisthood, a holy nation, God’s own people!