Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent 4B Series: "From Humbug to Hallelujah!"

How do you want to be remembered?

I’m going to tell you what you already know. You WILL die one day. There’s no escaping that fact. One day you WILL be put into the ground and dirt WILL be thrown on your face. There WILL be a day when tomorrow won’t come.

And when they put you in the grave, what will people then say about you? How will those you love describe your life? What words will the community use to describe your contribution? What will the obituary in the paper include? What stories will be told?

Will your life be a story of inspiration or a cautionary tale? Will the preacher lift you up as an example to follow or as a warning to heed?

As a pastor, I’ve presided over hundreds of funerals. And, to be honest, funerals are one of the most rewarding parts of my job. People are often surprised when I say that. But it’s true.

I find funerals rewarding because they remind me what a gift life is. Funerals are the only time when we stop and reflect on our mortality. My guess is that 99.99% of the people attending a funeral, at one point in the service, picture themselves in the casket.

I consider it an honour and a privilege to preside over burials, to facilitate sacred good-byes, to preach good news to hurting people, and to lead the congregation in prayers of thanksgiving for the person’s life. 

Who else but the preacher is allowed to be present at life’s most important moment, where a lifetime of memories and experiences are gathered together in a moment of grief and celebration. Where else, but at a funeral, does the rubber of life hit death’s road?

Funerals are a confrontation with our own finitude, where we come face to face with the fact that one day we will close our eyes and never open them again. Which is why I’m glad to preside at them. No other question is greater in peoples’ minds than the one of death. What happens after our bodies shut down? What will happen to ME when the inevitable arrives?

Those of us who call ourselves Christians trust that we will - somehow - live on after we’ve died.

Others believe that this is the only chance we get at existing, and that after our heart stops and brain functions shut down, we’re done. Finished. We’re maggot feed.

But whether you have faith that there is a life after this one, or if you believe that this life is the only one we have, death marks an end, a period after a sentence. After which people will begin to add up your life.

Funerals help us reflect on what happens after we die. And more importantly, funerals help us explore what happens BEFORE we die.

What did you do on this planet while you had the chance? What did you build? Whom did you love? Who loved you? Did you contribute something or did you simply take up space? How is this world different because you walked on it?

Those were the questions Scrooge found himself asking as the spirit of the Christmases yet to come showed him how he will be remembered after he died, if he continued on his path of cruelty and selfishness.

No good word was said about him. Servants stealing from him as he lay dead without a thought to the dignity of his body. Joyous relief at being liberated from his financial stranglehold. No one shed the smallest tear at this man’s passing.

And when Scrooge found himself face-to-face with his death, he saw his life through other people’s eyes. He saw the futility of a life ruled by the ledger. He saw the waste of relationships left to disintegrate due to his selfishness. He saw the missed opportunities to love. He saw that the way he protected his wealth only made everyone else hate him. He could see that his life was a devastating failure.

Let’s watch....


It was at that moment of rock bottom futility and failure, that his past, present, and future converged, challenging his life of frivolous wealth acquisition, that he sees clearly that his life could be so much more, and so he cries out in panic,

“Spirit! Hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this [visitation]. Why show me this if I am past hope? ...Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”

An “altered” life. 

In Christian term we’d call that “repentance.” “Repentance” isn’t just turning away from sin. It’s a chance to re-write the story of your life if you don’t like where the story is headed. It’s God speaking into your life when some wholesale revisions need to be made.

What is God saying to you? How is your story being written? What ending are you headed towards? What needs to be re-written? If you could write your own ending what would it be? What can we learn from your life?

The good news of Christmas is that God does change the ending. God re-writes our story. When the story we’ve written on our own takes a turn away from the ending that God wants, God takes out a pen and re-writes it. 

When the characters take over and create an ending we don’t expect, God steps in and and moves the story back to where God intends. When your story gets stuck in a humbug, God turns that humbug into a hallelujah!

When your humbugs of loss and defeat leave you flat on your back, God lifts you up with the hallelujah of healing and triumph!

When the humbugs of loneliness and grief keep you spinning in a cycle of despair, God breaks the circle of heartbreak with a hallelujah of friendship and comfort!

When the humbugs of lostness keep you disoriented, and you don’t know which way to turn and you find yourself alone in the dark, God finds you and leads you back to the hallelujah of home!

When the humbugs of fear and insecurity keep you from being your best self and living your most authentic life, God gives you an hallelujah of courage so you can face with confidence anything that life throws at you!

When the humbug of death hovers over you, and you worry about what comes next, God declares the hallelujah of resurrection!

Your story is still being written, but not just by you, but by the Author of LIfe. God’s Living Word is speaking your destiny into being, God’s Word is being made flesh in YOU and YOUR life, since you bear God’s name. 

You are God’s child! You are a follower of the King of kings! You are a citizen of heaven!  You are becoming the the person God has created you to be because God is doing a great work in you! God is telling a story of healing and redemption in YOUR life!

And the ending of that story is always the beginning of another. Another chance to start again. Another fresh start. Another entry way into a new life. Another opportunity to revive what was sleeping. The grace of an altered life.

The Christmas story isn’t just the tale of a miraculous birth of a divine king to an innocent young woman, but the Christmas story is a reminder that you have the power - God’s power - to transform your humbug story to a triumphant tale of Hallelujah! 

The Christmas story tells us that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has shared our brokenness, so that we can share God’s strength. 

The Christmas story declares that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has immersed himself into deepest human defeat, and rose victorious over the powers that would destroy us.

And you have that same power. In baptism, when you were joined to Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, God has give YOU that renewing power. YOU have the power over anything that seeks to destroy you.

You have the power to live the life that God wants for you.

You have the power to reverse any defeat.

You have the power to reach out in kindness.

You have the power to be generous with your care.

You have the power to live your best self, rising when you fall, healing when you break, transforming your wounds into wins, loving the way God loves. 

Forgiving those who hurt you. Comforting those who grieve. Converting hurts into compassion.

Using the gifts, skills, and talents that God has given you, getting your hands dirty in service to Christ’s church and for the good of others, so that you can bless the world with your unique brilliance!

You have the power to live Jesus’ risen life!

So that all the groaning humbugs of our lives and the world will be transformed into a triumphant song of Hallelujah!

May this be so among us! Amen!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Ten Years On!

On Tuesday I had a birthday, of sorts. This little blog turned 10! I can't believe it's been a whole decade since I started it! While I haven't been updating it (I'm actually working on a new one), I'm keeping this one around for old time's sake. I'll update it from time-to-time to keep it somewhat fresh. Here's my first post from September 9, 2004. Enjoy!

Inaugural Post

Hi Folks,

This is my first attempt at a blog. I thought I'd use this as a forum for sharing my sermons, but I am especially interested in discussing where faith, culture, and politics collide, to gain a greater understanding of where the church is heading and how the message of the gospel is impacting the world.

But to begin with, here is a sermon I preached a few weeks ago. Enjoy!

Pentecost 13 - Year C

“Bill” was a mentally ill resident of a homemade shelter that sat on the north corner of the parking lot at Brunswick Street United Church in downtown Halifax. Everyday, “Bill” would wake up and head to the church for a donut and a coffee from the mission inside. Every so often Bill would wander into the pastor’s office and slip him a couple dollars. “Condo Fees” Bill would call it. “Just wanting to pay my due,” he would say.

No one really knew Bill very well. He kept to himself and didn’t talk very much. He would just sit alone at his table sipping his coffee and eating his donut, muttering quietly to himself as he dusted chocolate sprinkles from his long grey beard with his cigarette stained fingers. That was Bill’s life.

One morning Bill didn’t show up at the church for his morning coffee and donut. This was odd since he’d been there everyday for years. But no one gave it too much thought.

The next morning, still, no Bill. So someone from the church went outside to Bill’s shack to see if everything was alright. The 4 X 8 spruce board Bill used as a door was slightly off centre and there were various boot and shoeprints in the snow coming in and out of the shack. When she took the board out of the way and looked in, there was Bill, hanging from a pole in the middle of the shack, with his hands and feet tied together behind his back

The police were immediately called. After a brief investigation the police concluded that Bill’s death was suicide. But as a retired officer in the congregation pointed out, “It is not impossible to tie your hands and feet together then hang yourself in a structure held together with chunks of old cardboard, pieces of wood, and discarded lead pipes, but it is very difficult and highly improbable.”

But of course, the police were busy people. They had other crimes to investigate. A dead homeless man in a violence and drug infested neighbourhood didn’t rank very high on their priority list. This was a suicide, they said. Case closed.

Maybe we like to tell ourselves that the universe has been flattened, that in Canada, each person, equal under the law, is protected with rights and freedoms and that we treat our people with a dignity unparalleled when compared with other parts of the world. Maybe we like to think that as long as folks work hard, play by the rules, and keep their hands clean, opportunities will naturally unfold. Maybe we like to think of ourselves as good hearted people who see only the best in others.

But I’ve heard good hearted people make excuses for what happened to Bill. “He must have been involved with some pretty shady dealings for that to happen to him.” One person suggested to me. “Was he an addict?” another asked “He must have been mixed up with the drug trade downtown.” “He wasn’t a friendly character; maybe he picked a fight with the wrong person.” Some folks tried to pin the blame on Bill when no one really knew what happened in that shack. If Bill had been a business owner from the south end or a lawyer from Bedford there would have been public outrage. There wouldn’t have been questions about the victim’s culpability in his own murder, there wouldn’t have been suggestions that he deserved what he got, and there wouldn’t have been speculation as to his personal character. But like it or not, even within our liberal democracy there is a pecking order that determines who receives justice and who is denied justice. Where wealth is equated with virtue, poverty is deemed a moral failing. Where status is linked with merit, homelessness is tied to laziness. Where power is connected with value, mental illness is felt to be shameful.

Jesus heard the same stuff were he was, and he was sick of it. Jesus was invited to Simon’s house, and to his surprise he found himself sitting down to dinner with a bunch of Pharisees. Jesus, for the most part, had a good relationship with many of the religious leaders. He could see the good work that they were doing: trying to keep the faith from being completely compromised by the ruling Roman authorities.

The Pharisees weren’t hurting for money. They were paid very well for what they did. And they were perched pretty high in the pecking order of 1st century Palestine. They simply assumed that they were to take the places of privilege in corridors of power and in the streets. They expected people to defer to their authority on matters great and small. Some Pharisees, like Nicodemus, took this responsibility very seriously and sought to enrich their understanding of God’s promises by asking important questions and seeking deeper wisdom, no matter where it came from. Others, like ones we meet in today’s gospel, were more concerned with strict obedience to the law and with maintaining their high status in society, at the cost of sharing the vibrant and living faith, of which they were chief custodians, with a people hurting and hungry for God.

“Those who humble themselves will be exulted; those who exult themselves will be humbled.” Jesus says, and the Pharisees rolled their eyes and the disciples gasped with embarrassment.

Gee-whiz, Jesus, if you’re trying to launch a popular movement, these are not the sorts of things you want to be saying. How about Unlimited Power, Personal Empowerment, Possibility Thinking? That’s what people want. People don’t want to hear any talk of sacrifice; they want to feel powerful. People don’t want to be challenged; they want to be affirmed. People don’t want to be taught, they want to be entertained.

Even the disciples don’t get it. They love it when Jesus gets in the Pharisees’ face, but look what happens when Jesus turns it around on them. James and John fight over who gets prime digs in Heaven. Peter is horrified when Jesus asks to wash his feet. And they all scatter like cowards when Jesus finally gets caught and crucified.

For me I can sympathize with the Pharisees and with the disciples. They had great hopes for the Messiah. They were hoping the Messiah would be a great military leader who would cast off the shackles of Roman oppression and usher in the new golden era of Jerusalem rule not seen since the glorious reign of the mighty King David. Who wouldn't want to regain former glory? So the Pharisees were thinking conquest. Jesus talked about suffering. The people were thirsting for freedom. Jesus talked about rejection. The disciples where anticipating glory for themselves and for all Jewish people. Jesus talked about dying a horrible death. C’mon Jesus, this isn’t how this Messiah thing is supposed to work.

This is not the god we expect either. This is not the god that our society and culture demands. What kind of self-respecting “god’ would allow himself to be betrayed then arrested? What sort of self-respecting “god” would allow himself to be tried and convicted of false charges? What sort of self-respecting “god” would allow himself to be ridiculed, tortured, and executed? Certainly not the god of our culture, for the “god” of our culture, the god of wealth, power, status, and success abandoned Jesus on the cross, turning his face away in disgust from Jesus’ humiliating defeat.

But that’s not the way the God of the bible does things. According to the god of our culture, the God of the bible does some really nutty stuff. The God of bible would be crazy enough to ask you to sit in silence holding the hand of 90 year old woman who can’t speak, hear, or see, and probably doesn’t know who you are, but is grateful for the gentle human contact she feels as her wrinkled hand is being lightly stroked. The God of the bible would be stupid enough to ask you to spend your Thursday mornings once a month, chopping vegetables for the soup that feeds hungry people downtown – the same hungry people, day after day, month after month, year after year, seeing no discernable change in their lives other than the fact that these same hungry people have a full belly on the last Thursday of the month only because you were there to help fill it. The God of the bible is naive enough to ask you to believe that someone like Bill was a person of worth and value, even though he doesn’t offer a thing to enhance the world.

It may not be pretty. It may not be glamorous. But it’s just your normal, everyday miracle working that Jesus expects from us each and everyday. I don’t know why the God of the bible works this way but this God does. This God asks us to do some pretty strange stuff when you think about it.

“Those who humble themselves will be exulted, those who exult themselves will be humbled.”

Strange stuff, but life-giving.

May this be so among us. Amen.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lamentations for Holy Saturday

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of
your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so
may we await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to
newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Sermon: Epiphany 7A

So this isn’t just some hippy-dippy, airy-fairy, idea that sounds good on paper, and preaches well in a sermon. 

But these tools have been used in real-world, flesh-and-blood, life-and death situations, and have brought freedom to oppressed people.

While Jesus doesn’t provide a solution to every oppressive encounter, he’s pretty clear about what it means to be different.

When the world lashes out in anger, you respond in love. When others demean you, you have creative solutions to maintain your dignity.

You will not let other peoples’ destructive behaviour turn you into your enemies. You will not become who THEY are.

Your behaviour will be different because you ARE different. You are God’s holy temple, whose foundation is God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

You are a people of mercy and love. You are a people of peace and justice. You are a people of forgiveness and freedom.

You are a people chosen to be set apart to be a light to the world. Your lives bear witness to the love God has for the everyone and everything.

You are a resurrection people whose eyes are fixed on God’s new horizon, where all sorrow, pain, and suffering is transformed into abundant life for all.

You are perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Or to perhaps the best translation is, you are...(complete post here)