Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Last Enemy: A Sermon For Easter Sunday

Preached at Christ The King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB, 31 March, 2013. Readings for Easter Sunday (Year C): Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, I Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:26)

The obituaries put it politely: (Mr. Smith or Ms. Jones passed away after a gallant battle against cancer" or something similar. A tshirt I saw in hospital recently put it more vigorously, placing a well-known four letter word before the word cancer. Both the obituary and the t-shirt capture the idea of cancer and other horrible forms of death as enemies, as foes to be battled, but I like the inherent hostility and defiance in the tshirt. It is well that we are reminded, honestly, that death is the enemy, a vicious, implacable, contemptible foe, and we do well to be reminded of it.

When my children were little we saw the Disney film "The Lion King", which celebrates a vision of "the circle of life". Animals are born, they live and procreate, they eat other animals and they die, but all is encompassed within a grand, cyclical view of nature as a continuous process of death and rebirth. Or, as one critic unkindly but smartly put it, the film said that "it's ok to be prey". At Easter, which falls dramatically within the season's cyclical turn from the death of winter to the rebirth of spring, it can be tempting to buy into this idea that death is part of a natural cycle. That idea is wrong. Easter is the first victory over death, the first promise that this enemy of God and of humanity will e overthrown.

Our reading from 1 Corinthians comes as part of Paul's attempt in chapter fifteen to explain to the Corinthian church what the resurrection of Jesus means for those who follow him. Paul tells them that all their faith is built on several facts. Fact 1: Jesus was dead, dead as a doornail. Fact 2: god raised Jesus from the dead, just as Jesus said he would do. Fact 3: Jesus is the first to be resurrected, and is part of God's plan to save all who believe in him from death. Fact 3 explains why Paul calls Jesus the "first fruits"Paul's language about Jesus being the "first fruits" of God's victory over death. This is but the first victorious skirmish in God's larger rout and defeat of death.

Paul's strategy in preaching the resurrection is full of risk but it is honest. His risk is that if we choke on the sheer implausibility of the resurrection, if we don't buy the news that Jesus rose from the dead, then the whole project collapses. If, as Paul says, we believe in a guy that it is still dead, then we are pathetically wasting our time. It was ever thus. In Luke's gospel, we heard that when the women return to the disciples and tell of the empty tomb, their words are dismissed as "an idle tale". Go from this chapel and tell others of the resurrection and you will be dismissed by many. We only believe because we have some sense of the reality of the resurrected Jesus in our own encounters with him, and this leads me to my final point, that the reality of the resurrection also depends on us.

I said a moment ago that our second lesson is part of a sermon to the Corinthian church. Paul is challenging this church to live as if the resurrection was a life changing fact. Paul's comparison of Christ to Adam is the hinge on which this fact swings. Adam is humanity as we are, making bad choices, ignoring God, resigned to our fate and accepting death as a fact. Christ is God's new humanity, the first vision of what we might call Creation 2.0 where we are remade in the likeness of Christ, which is to say, we will be different.

Think about the reality of the world as you know it know. The world is full of death, because we choose to make death a reality. Adam, that is to say, humans, choose a world of stark and vast inequality, where some are stuffed with wealth and millions die of poverty and starvation. Adam (humans) sells billions of dollars in arms to perpetuate conflicts that need not occur. Adam arms child soldiers and sends them into battle. Adam feels the need to arm himself with weapons with hundred round magazines because Adam can't find a political solution to violence in society. Adam celebrates visions of death and violence in film, television, and gaming. Would that it were as simple as a world where death is merely a natural event, but in fact Adam (humanity) is an active participant with death.

The church is an alternative vision of the world where life is the reality. It is the place where believers say that we want to let go of Adam and step into our new identity with Christ. Easter is our call to step into this new reality. As Christians we can decide that we will live our lives in the reality of the resurrection, which means that we don't fear our own deaths, but also means more than that. Living in the resurrection means that we offer a new reality to the world, a way of living, an ethic that embraces what we might call resurrection values. Resurrection values include hope, persistence, and a refusal to accept things such as the ones I've just mentioned as the inevitable apparatus of death. Living by resurrection values means that we don't accept the world as it is, and we strive to show to others, iwho are defeated and oppressed by the reality of death, that their enemy is in fact defeated.

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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Seen On The Afternoon Run: Alberta Calvary

Trees on a hillside on a clear Good Friday evening reminded me of a green hill far away, outside a city wall.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Notable Quotable: Father Gene On Maundy Thursday And "Good Ritual"

From my good friend Gene Packwood's blog on the meaning of tonight for Christians:

Foot washing can be a challenge for those who are not used to it—all a bit too up close and a little creepy. Eleven years ago a woman wrote me the following note after Maundy Thursday worship and her first experience of foot washing:

Lent is one of the Church seasons when I quietly reflect on Jesus’ journey to the cross and his crucifixion. Maundy Thursday seems to me to be almost as sorrowful a day as Good Friday. The foot-washing ceremony is something I never took part in. This year as Maundy Thursday approached several of my friends told me what a powerful service they thought the foot-washing was. After a day and night of prayer and meditation, I realized that pride had kept me from the foot washing. Because of my hammer toes and rotten looking feet, I had never wanted anyone to see them. At the Maundy Thursday service, I was still ambivalent about having my feet washed. Images of Jesus washing his disciples feet flooded my thoughts and I said to myself, “Do it.” As my feet were being washed, a feeling of great humility came over me. As they were being dried, I felt a great desire to wash another’s feet. While doing so, I was filled with ecstasy and great emotion. I felt myself to be in a more spiritual realm. My soul was filled with wonderment and love. I was at the foot of the cross; a more fervent believer than ever before.

Why was this experience so powerfully moving for this dear saint? When words aren’t enough, we perform rituals. A good ritual says something more than mere words can say. That’s what rituals are for. So we take a tuna casserole over when someone has had a loved one die. We give an aching spouse a back-rub. And we wash feet. Not because the feet need cleaning, but because our souls do. And we go the altar to eat little wafers and take tiny sips of wine, not because our bodies need them for sustenance, but because our souls do.

Nonetheless—All may, none must, some should.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Military Picture Of The Week

A tip of the beret to Mad Padre's Man In Madrid for putting me on to this treasure trove of photos from the Vietnam War. The story of the photographer, Charlie Haughey, and how he had to wait 45 years to confront the work he did as a young soldier in Vietnam, is worth telling in itself. This photo captures the terrible vulnerability of soldiers at war, and the posture of the soldier hints at the axiom that there are no atheists in combat. Haughey describes this photo: "It was not uncommon to find anyone with a head bowed for a moment, more often when we were heading out than when we were coming back. Interesting that he has a flak jacket, he's taking precautions on both sides of the fence. M16, a steel pot, a flak jacket, and a prayer."

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Notable Quotable: Barney Frank On What's Considered Repugnant Today

US Congressman Barney Frank: “I think my continued sexual attraction to men is more politically acceptable than my attraction to government.”

This rather clever quotation is from a fascinating article in today's NYT documenting the sea change in US popular and political opinion on homosexuality and gay rights.

I'm seeing a lot of articles like this one in the run-up to some important hearings in the US Supreme Court on the definition of marriage. Last week it was widely reported that the American Academy of Pediatrics released a study "saying that allowing gay and lesbian parents to marry if they so choose is in the best interests of their children".

Reading between the lines of the NYT piece on the APA study suggests that the sample size is relatively small and that its findings do not represent a wider medical and sociological consensus. However, the mere fact that a professional association of pediatricians can argue that same-sex unions can be positive envionments for raising children poses theological questions that Christian opponents of same-sex marriage will have to answer. Specifically, the APA finding seems to challenge arguments which privilege male-female marriage for its unique capability to raise (if not conceive)children.

Taking away the procreative function for a moment, if marriage is defined as the place where healthy children are nurtured, then cannot both traditional as well as same-sex marriage meet this definition? I think of Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas (I read a lot his work when I was in seminary) who has argued that the fidelity of two people to the arduous task of remaining faithful and raising children is a sign of God's own commitment and fidelity to the world: for as long as there are people loving and working together, and bringing up children, there is a chance of new life. To take conscious hold on that life, to realize oneself at the heart of it, for others also, is a tremendously vitalizing spiritual experience”.

That quote is from a relatively old work (ca 1980) of Hauerwas on Christian character and community. I would be interested to know what Hauerwas, now in his seventies, is thinking about same-sex marriage in contemporary America, but I suspect he will let his body of work speak for him.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Liturgical Awesomeness From The Work Of The People

This post is a shout out for The Work Of The People (TWOP), a digital content provider for Christian worship. Taking it's name cleverly from a literal translation of the Greek words behind "liturgy", The Work of the People provides professionally produced, interesting, and theologically orthodox videos suitable for use in worship, in small groups, bible studies, and such. Here's a sample:

In some ways I am a lucky fellow to be a chapel worship leader in the Canadian Forces. In my soon-to-be three years at Christ the King Chapel at Suffield, I've asked for and received some amazing resources that a small parish could only dream of, including two large flat screen monitors and a computer to run content on them. In other ways it's frustrating asking for something other than hardware, such as a subscription to TWOP's content. The military is fussy about software, and wants to have security guarantees before it will install programs or allow for downloadable content. It took a while to convince the IT powers that be that my chapel uses a standalone computer, and that TWOP's worshop videos pose no threat to national security.

I do think, though, that their content poses a threat to complacency and boredome in the pew. If you are a pastor or a worship leader, I encourage you to look at their material. If you are a parishioner or a member of a congregation, talk to your pastor or worship leader and ask them to check it out. We're in the second week of using this material in the worship life of my small chapel, and people are excited. When I ordered all this hardware two years ago, I hoped that we might do something exciting with it, and, to quote from The A-Team, I love it when a plan finally comes together.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Restful Homily?

Thanks to Mad Padre's Man In Dublin for putting me on to this graphic from the Catholic Memes site.

My father, who was what in the old Anglican world was a "churchman", once told his seminarian son that, in his experience, the sermon or homily was a ten to fifteen minute chance to rest with one's eyelids lightly closed. My father spent much of his churchgoing life in the pews of small parishes where the homiletical bar was sometimes set low, but knew that the small church offered other compensations. My dad never lived to see the age of internet memes, and if he had he would have been scornful of me for trying to explain them to him, but I think he would have liked this one.

When I was a young and self-absorbed university lecturer, I would be driven to distraction by the sight of inattentive or sleeping faces in front of me. Twenty years later, as an older and, hopefully, wiser preacher, I don't take it so personally. I realize that there are those who struggle to church despite a busy morning of childcare, or shift work, or who wrestle, as my dad did, with the deafness, fatigue, and the other gifts of old age. They still come, and their worship is pleasing to God. However, I also realize that their faithfulness, combined with the urgent demands of proclamation of the good news of Christ's gospel, demands that the preacher gives of his or her best. I think of an Anglican colleague of mine who confided rather blithely that she composed her homily during the gradual hymn, and I wouldn't blame her parishioners for falling asleep during the sermon. I probably would too.

For preachers out there who haven't yet seen it, this video from the Working Preacher website from last week is worth four minutes of your time. Matt Skinner teaches New Testament at Luther Seminary and is one of the regulars on the Sermon Brainwave podcast. Skinner doesn't say anything here that you probably didn't (or should have) heard in your homiletics course, but it has some good advice for keeping your parishioners awake.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

What Was She Thinking? A Sermon For The Last Sunday Of Lent

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB, 17 March, 2013. Readings For The Fifth Sunday Of Lent, Year C: Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me." (John 12:1-8)

What was Mary thinking? Judas must have thought that as he sat that night in Bethany and watched the sister of Lazarus making a spectacle of herself at the feet of Jesus. The way John tells the story, dwelling on the fact that Judas is a thief preoccupied with money, we are led to think that Judas sees that Mary's action is a terrible waste. All that "costly" perfume, wasted in this one action. We aren't told what motives Judas might attribute to Mary for choosing to do this expensive act. Her motives don't seem to matter to him. It is as if Judas, already on the outside of the circle of disciples and looking in, simply can't understand why she would do such a thing, even for Jesus.

What was Mary thinking? Why would she do such a thing for Jesus? For friendship and love, certainly. and perhaps for gratitude. We know from earlier in John that Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, are friends with Jesus. After Lazarus dies, it is the sisters who send for Jesus, and John tells us that Jesus comes because he "loves" them. Perhaps Mary is thinking of her love for her friend, and of her gratitude to him for returning Lazarus to her and to Martha.

What was Mary thinking? Besides love and gratitude, perhaps she feels concern and even fear for her friend. After Jesus raises their brother from the dead, news of this action spreads quickly, so that the Jewish leaders were afraid of Jesus and plot to kill him. John tells us that Jesus could no longer travel in the open, but had gone to a place near the wilderness (Jn 11:54). Pretty soon all of Jerusalem is buzzing with speculation as to whether Jesus will dare show his face (Jn 11:55) and now here he is, in Mary's home, on his way to Jerusalem and danger, maybe even death. We can't tell if Mary understands why her friend Jesus feels he has to go to Jerusalem, but perhaps she understands enough to be annointing him as if he were already dead. Annointing a person's body is part of getting ready for a funeral, which is what Jesus seems to refer to when he says "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.".

What was Mary thinking? If she was thinking that her friend might die, was she also thinking of how he might enter Jerusalem, triumphantly, like a king? In the Jewish tradition, kings were annointed with oil to show that they were consecrated, set aside for certain tasks (see Exodus 40:15; 1 Samuel 16:12). It may be that by her action she recognizes that Jesus is indeed a king, a certainty that is in contrast with Pilate's mocking question later on, "so you are a king". And what sort of king will Jesus be? The fragrance which permeates the house with fragrance contrasts with the stench that filled the tomb of Lazarus where he had been for four days before Jesus arrived. and here is Lazarus, alive and healthy, sitting in the midst of that fragrance. It is as if Mary senses, somehow, that her action of annointing with this perfume as much to do with resurrection as it does with the funeral, and points to Jesus special role as the king who God sends to conquer death itself.. but more of that at Easter

And so to us, as we watch Mary at Jesus' feet. What are we thinking? Are we thinking of excess? If we saw it done today would we think it a waste, as Judas does? Would we cringe, finding Mary's actions too familar, too intimate, too over the top?

If, however, we think as Mary seems to have been thinking, then we may see something of our own call to discipleship in her action. We see the idea of selfless service to others, for Mary’s posture, washing Jesus feet, will be the same posture that Jesus will take a few days hence in John’s gospel, a posture often reenacted in worship on Maundy Thursday, when he wraps himself in a towel and kneels to wash his disciples’ feet.

If we see Mary’s action as a gift of love and concern for a dearly loved friend, then we see something of God’s love for us. The extravagance of Mary’s generosity, pouring out all that costly perfume, points us to the extravagance of God’s grace and love, just as we saw last Sunday in the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke. We are reminded that God’s love for us does not count costs, and we will see that extravagant love, most clearly and terribly, when we look to the cross on Good Friday.

If we see Mary's action not just as friendship but as worship, the outpouring of devotion for the son of God, then we may see a posture that we have resisted or not embraced fully in our own devotional lives. As we approach Easter, we have the opportunity to renew our devotion and love for Jesus, our compassion as we see him led to the cross, our gratitude to him as he hangs and dies there, and our wonder and joy as he returns to us - for really, what have we to offer, but these things?

What was Mary thinking? We can only guess by her actions. What are we called to think as we draw near to Holy Week? If this gospel story reminds us of our love and devotion to God and his son, if it reminds us of our call to service to others, and if it points us to the fragrant victory of life over death, then we are well prepared for the miracle of Easter.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Can You Judge A Book By It's Cover?

It looks that way. A tip of the beret to Sean McLachlan, indie author and blogger, for putting me onto the Lousy Book Covers website. Lots of (e)books here I would never pick up or put in the digital shopping cart based on their God-awful covers.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Time For Confession

A Sermon Preached At Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB, 10 March, 2013, The Fourth Sunday of Lent.

Readings For This Sunday, Lectionary Year C: Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord," and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Psalm 32:5

The last time I preached I said that I wanted to pay more attention to the psalms, and so my starting verse is from today's appointed psalm. Among other things, Psalm 32 is about confession, which is the naming of sin (those things we have done which trouble us, hurt others, and offend God), turning to God, and seeking his forgiveness.

The first two lines of the psalm speak of the benefits of confession: "happy are those whose transgression is forgiven". Lines 3-5 describe the process which leads one to confession: "While I kept silence my body wasted away through my groaning" (4). Line 6 describes the remedy for sin, calling on the faithful to turn in prayer to God who will save them "at a time of distress".

In our worship each Sunday, as in many churches, we practice confession together. We start by hearing scripture which reminds us of God's promises and faithfulness, and of his call to us to be his people. We are invited to co sider our sin, we confess it together, and then we hear the promise of God's forgiveness. In the last part of our worship, if it is a Eucharist, we are called to God's table as his dinner guests, receiving the bread and wine which we call communion, being united with God rather than being set apart from him.

The parable of the prodigal son from Luke, our gospel reading for today, works as an illustration of the psalm and of our own practice of worship. The younger son makes his decision to separate himself from the father, goes off, and then discovers, like the psalmist in lines 3-5, that he has made a bad decision and longs to return to the father. He goes back, makes his confession ("Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son" Lk 15:21) and finds forgiveness.

Confession as we practice it, with a short silence between the invitation to confession and the actual prayer of confession, is sometimes said to be too short, and can be perfunctory. Paul Myhere, a preacher and pastor, recalls one congregation he served where at least one person thought the act of confession was too short.

"In one of the many congregations I have served there was a practice for congregational members to lead most of the worship service. One particular layperson was fond of saying that the silent prayer of confession was usually too short. He claimed, “I have not even made it through Tuesday before they are announcing that I am forgiven.”

So when he led the worship service, the corporate prayer of confession -- including the silent prayer of confession -- would be longer than most people felt comfortable with experiencing. I think the discomfort in part was shared because the list of things for which any one person could confess is generally longer than an entire worship service might take."

If we prefer a short pause for confession, it may because we are indeed uncomfortable confronting the subject, because it frightens us. if we really think about what we have done, particularly those things that we are deeply troubled by or ashamed of, how can we be sure that we will find forgiveness from God, especially if we ourselves are unable to forgive ourselves?

If we prefer a short pause for confession, it may because we are indeed uncomfortable confronting the subject, because it frightens us. if we really think about what we have done, particularly those things that we are deeply troubled by or ashamed of, how can we be sure that we will find forgiveness from God, especially if we ourselves are unable to forgive ourselves?

If such is the case, the parable of the prodigal son reminds us that God's capacity to forgive is, fortunately for us, far greater than our own. It's been pointed out that by asking for his share of the inheritance, the son essentially says to his father, "I wish you were dead". And yet here is the father, scanning the horizon for his lost son, running to meet him on his return, and giving him an extravagant welcome. The whole point of the parable, like the ones that proceed it (the parable of the lost sheep and of the lost coin), is about the abundance of grace. As David Lose has observed, there is something almost pathetic in the father’s eagerness to forgive, something no one in Jesus’ lifetime would have done for such a grave offence. Lose writes: “Jesus is introducing people to the relational logic of the kingdom of God that runs contrary to and way beyond the legal logic of the world.”

On the other hand, it may be our short pause before the prayer of confession betrays a cavalier attitude toward the practice. One of the dangers of being reminded constantly of God’s grace, as we are Sunday by Sunday, is that we grow too comfortable with it. We assume that it will be automatically given to us, because after all, here we are in church. We must be the good guys, right? I think there are two traps in this attitude.

The first is a self-righteousness towards those who aren’t in church, and who aren’t seeking forgiveness, and if that is our inclination, then it’s helpful to remember that the occasion for this parable was to counter the grumbling of the Pharisees, who didn’t approve of the characters Jesus was hanging around with.

The second trap is an indifference to God’s grace. Marketers say that consumers attach no value to what is free, and therefore tend to disapprove of giveway promotions. As he was dying, a German poet was urged to confess his sins, and replied, “Of course God will forgive me,. that’s his job”. Why bother being Christian if we are automatically forgiven? Why come to church? Here it’s worth remembering that the opposite of indifference is gratitude. I think one definition of a Christian is a person who is surprised and delighted that God loves them so much. I think that idea is behind the Lutheran liturgy, which, before the absolution, has the pastor say “now humble your hearts to receive God’s blessing”.

There is probably not enough time in any Sunday morning for most of us to remain in silent reflection of our sins before hearing of God’s forgiveness. It’s fortunate for us that we don’t need this time. The Prodigal Son could have stammered out a lot of excuses and long apologies, but he didn’t have to. He was hurried off the road and brought into the banquet hall by his delighted and loving father. So it is with us. We bring our confession to God, hopefully with the sincerity and contrition that we owe to him, but instead of hearing words of judgement we hear “Welcome home, come to the table”.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Bible For A New Generation

Wow, Adam was not only in the buff, he was pretty buff! Who knew?

I'm not convinced that there has been a good television miniseries since Roots, but I am interested in a forthcoming ten-hour series, "The Bible", coming to The History Channel. This review, in today's New York Times, suggests that the producers have thought carefully about their subject, "the grand sweeping embrace, the love story that is the Bible.” I confess I'm also looking forward to seeing the martial arts angel.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

When A Nation Forgets To Read

Novelist David Toscana is talking here about his own country of Mexico, but I would say that his words could be applied to my own, or any other, country.

"When my daughter was 15, her literature teacher banished all fiction from her classroom. “We’re going to read history and biology textbooks,” she said, “because that way you’ll read and learn at the same time.” In our schools, children are being taught what is easy to teach rather than what they need to learn. It is for this reason that in Mexico — and many other countries — the humanities have been pushed aside.

"We have turned schools into factories that churn out employees. With no intellectual challenges, students can advance from one level to the next as long as they attend class and surrender to their teachers. In this light it is natural that in secondary school we are training chauffeurs, waiters and dishwashers.

"This is not just about better funding. Mexico spends more than 5 percent of its gross domestic product on education — about the same percentage as the United States. And it’s not about pedagogical theories and new techniques that look for shortcuts. The educational machine does not need fine-tuning; it needs a complete change of direction. It needs to make students read, read and read".

Read the whole essay here.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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