A Sermon on WX 2015: How Jesus uses Stumbling Blocks and Useless Salt

Mark 9:38-50

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me…

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

It seems like the disciples may have finally pushed Jesus over the edge this week.

Peter was rebuking Jesus a couple weeks ago, which caused Jesus to answer by calling Peter Satan and telling him to start getting with the program or else. Last week, Jesus found the disciples arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest, and Jesus’ annoyance was clear.

But this week, John, the beloved disciple, comes to Jesus with a dubious complaint. He says, “Someone was casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because we not following us.”

Wow, John… Is this grade 3 where we tattle to the teacher?

Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that Jesus said, “if you want to become my followers, deny yourselves…”

John has clearly not been paying attention.

And we know that Jesus in Mark’s gospel can be harsh. He called the Syrophoenician woman a dog a few weeks back.

But Jesus’ response to John is more than harsh. Jesus really rips into John and other disciples for failing to get it.

“If would be better to be tossed into the ocean with a millstone around your neck, than to be a stumbling block to one of these littles ones.” Jesus begins.

“Cut off your hand if it is the problem. Cut off your foot if it is getting in your way. Tear out your eye if necessary.”

If throwing people into the ocean to die, or cutting off body parts sounds extreme it’s because it is extreme. But this is not an instructional manual on how to deal with sin.

Jesus is trying once again to make the disciples get it. To make the disciples understand just how much they are getting in their own way. He is trying to express just how frustrating it is to have a bunch of followers who are so focused on themselves and how he doesn’t have time for John’s self-centred non-sense.

It goes without saying that we might be uncomfortable with this frustrated Jesus. And not just because Jesus is supposed to be gentle and nice, but because John’s actions are familiar to us. We too struggle with wanting to be clear with who is in and who is out when it comes to our families, friends, neighbours and churches. We don’t have to look much farther than the niqab and citizenship ceremony debate to be reminded.

Last weekend, I attended the Why Christian? Conference in Minneapolis. There, I was reminded of just how much like John we can be.

The conference was organized as a response to the vast majority of other conferences for Christians that exist. Most conferences feature white, male, middle aged and older speakers who are brought in as experts to lecture attendees. If women or people of colour are asked to speak, it is usually tokenism. One women out of 20 men. One person of colour out of 20 white speakers. And women speak to women’s issues. People of colour speak to issues facing ethnic minorities. They are never asked to experts on the real stuff.

Why Christian? was not a women’s conference. But the two organizers were women. A Lutheran Pastor from Denver and a Christian Author and Blogger from Tennessee. And all 11 of the keynote speakers were women. Straight women, gay women, women of colour, young women, transgender women. And all of them pastors, authors, writers, professors and leaders in Churches throughout the United States. All of them have been and still are being told that they shouldn’t be allowed to do their work, to lead people of faith because of their gender, the colour of their skin, because of who they love, because of their age, because of their tattoos or their voices or the clothes they wear or any number of arbitrary reasons.

It makes us wonder… what would have John the disciple said to Jesus about them?

John would have objected and tattled on them too.

But here is the thing about John.

Jesus called John out of a fishing boat and John has forgotten that. Jesus called him even though the people in power, proper upstanding appropriate people would have objected to Jesus calling a lowly fisherman to be the disciple of an important rabbi, to a position of status and privilege.

Or maybe John hasn’t forgotten… and maybe that is why he is tattling on this person who is out doing Jesus’ work in the world despite not being part of the club. John is worried that Jesus might replace him. John and the other disciples had just failed at casting out demons… Jesus might be on the lookout for new and improved disciples who can get the job done.

John should know better than to tattle on the outsider, because he has been one too. John as been both an outsider and an insider. Both one who has been deemed unworthy and now one worthy of privilege.

And whatever the reason John is tattling to Jesus, whether he has forgotten where he comes from or whether he is afraid… maybe Jesus’s extreme frustration with John has less to do with the fact of John being a stumbling block and more to do with that thing inside of John, the source of that forgetfulness and fear that is keeping John from realizing just who gets to gate-keep the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is frustrated because John’s sinful self is making him forget that Jesus decides who is in and who is out. Not John, not us.

As I listened last weekend to speakers who almost certainly wouldn’t have been given the chance to speak at any other Christian Conference, it was incredible to hear these women tell their stories, and as the name of the conference, Why Christian? suggests, answer the question of Why Christian? Why continue in a religion, tradition and institution that so often seeks to silence their voices in the very name of these women follow.

It was incredible to hear these women speak because even as they all had stories where some well intentioned but misguided disciples like John had told them that they weren’t worthy of doing God’s work because of their gender, their skin colour, their sexual orientation, their impropriety… even as they all their stories of being shut down and pushed to outside by John…

They also had stories of being welcomed and brought back in by Jesus.

They told the 1000 of us who gathered in beautiful and appropriately named St. Mark’s cathedral about the ways in which Jesus continually draws them back to Christianity. How Jesus draws them in by being outraged along with them at the injustice they experience. How Jesus draws them in by declaring that they are beloved and that they belong. How Jesus draws them in through the grace and mercy filled word of God, draws them in through the cleansing water of baptism, draws them in through bread that gets faith under our fingernails in the Lord’s Supper, draws them in through the community that swirls around in the cup of wine.

They told us how Jesus continually draws them back and offers them a place in the Kingdom.

And the stories those women told about Why Christian? tell us something about us.

We are all like John.

We have all been both the ones on the inside and on the outside. We have been told we aren’t good enough to do God’s work and we have told others the same. And we have done so because of our forgetfulness and our fear.

We have done so because of our sin.

And just when Jesus is enraged by the fact that we don’t get it. Just when he seems to be annoyed to the extreme with John and us.

Jesus pulls it back together and Jesus talks about salt.

Salt that acted as currency, food preservative, and fertilizer. Ancient impure salt that had the habit of going bad and becoming useless. Salt that once it became flavourless white powder had no purpose.

No purpose but one.

To be thrown on the roads where it helped keep the roads flat and walkable.

Kind of opposite to stumbling blocks.

Even though like John, we get in the way of our brothers and sisters, even though we have a habit of making things messy and complicated. Even though our sinful selves prevent us from seeing what Jesus is up to… Jesus has a use for flavourless salt.

Jesus has a use for people on the inside who are afraid of losing their place. And Jesus has a use for people on the outside who are excluded because of their gender, their skin colour, their sexual orientation, their voices and tattoos, their lowly jobs and lack of social standing.

Jesus has a use for us.

Because we are both. We are insiders and outsiders. We are tattling on each other and the ones being tattled on. We have been the ones trying to be gate-keepers, and we have all been told we aren’t good enough.

And for Jesus… none of that matters.

Because Jesus decides who gets to be part of the club, who gets to be disciples, who gets to speak, and teach, and serve on his behalf.

And Jesus decides that his kingdom will be full of stumbling blocks AND useless salt. Jesus decides that is Kingdom will be full of people just like you and just like me.

Insiders and outsiders

All beloved by God.

Amen. 

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Why Christian? – The difficulty of having a Progressive Faith in a Conservative Tradition

I consider myself an orthodox Christian.

Not Eastern, but orthodox in the sense that I adhere to the essential core doctrines of Christianity, like the Trinity, Original Sin, two natures of Christ, the real resurrection, etc…

I also belong a Lutheran denomination (ELCIC) that allows same-sex marriage, ordains women and LGBT people, teaches its pastors historical-critical methods of biblical scholarship, and does any number of other things that many Christians consider heretical.

There is an inherent difficulty in operating in an orthodox and small “c” conservative faith tradition while adopting socially progressive ethics and post-modern scholarship. This difficulty has been churning in the back of my mind for months, and this week it is about to come to the forefront.

My wife and I are headed to the Why Christian? Conference hosted by Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans. In preparation for the conference, Rachel Held Evans asked the question on her Facebook page “why christian?

And the question was asked in light of recent events in news: The hype around Kim Davis’ stand for “Christian values” in refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples contrasted by the photos of a dead three-year-old Syrian refugee washing up on a Turkish beach.

When fellow Christians are rallying behind someone trying to use the government to impose her beliefs on others in the name of religious freedom, how does one stick with this Christianity business?

When ‘Christian nations’ seem so passive about doing anything about the plight of refugees escaping violence because they are muslims, how do you continue to call yourself Christian?

By definition, Christianity is a conservative faith. No, not conservative in the political sense. Christianity is conservative in the practical sense. Christianity seeks to maintain, protect, promote and conserve the teaching, preaching and good news of God in Jesus Christ. Christianity is trying to bring the past forward – a conservative way of being. And yet, along the way Christianity has also conserved things like patriarchy, sexism, systems of power and abuse, bigotry and racism, judgementalism and close-mindedness.

Christianity has a lot of baggage to contend with, and our baggage is frequently getting in our own way. Our baggage is often the thing Christians mistakenly hold up and shout loudly to the world that this is what God – not just Christianity – is all about.

A common refrain among those who struggle with the conservative baggage has been to drop the Christian label in favour of “following Jesus.” And who can blame them? Considering the Christianity that is so frequently presented in the media and practiced so widely, or when Kim Davis or Donald Trump or Fox News is our spokesperson, we should want to say, “I am not with them.”

The Kingdom of God is Near - the Lion of St. Mark
The Kingdom of God is Near – the Lion of St. Mark

Ten days ago, I got a tattoo (insert joke – “a pastor walks into a tattoo shop…”). Getting a tattoo is a very intimate experience. For four hours I had to lay still as someone literally did artwork on my body. And yet, during those four hours I had an extremely familiar experience. My tattoo artist and I talked for hours about all the ways that Christians are judgemental, agenda-filled and often put off and offend unchurched people like her. Yet she didn’t find me that way.

My tattoo artist told me that I was not like any pastor she has ever met (well, not quite, as my wife spent an afternoon with her a couple of  weeks before me). I get told that a lot. When I meet with unchurched couples coming to get married, when unchurched families come to have a child baptized, or when unchurched families come for funerals they often tell me that I am not what they expected. Most unchurched people that I get to spend some time with tell me I don’t sound like the Christians on TV, or like their one friend who can’t stop talking about their megachurch pastor, or like their grandma who looks down on them for having tattoos, piercings, not going to church, living in sin or whatever else. I don’t sound like those other Christians because I am cool with questions, even encouraging of them, I share my doubts, and I even share my own frustrations about the judgemental behaviour of many fellow Christians.

Maybe this should make me wonder if I got Christianity wrong along the way? Is the way I practice it so uncommon?

It isn’t.

I have spent far too long studying history and theology in university and at seminary to not know that the way I practice Christianity is fairly consistent with the way it has been practiced throughout history. And most of the Christians I know approach faith the way I do.

Yet, despite the baggage that Christianity carries these days, despite the undignified death that Christendom is undergoing, despite the pop-culture caricature that Christians have become, I can’t walk away from the religion.

I am a Christian, even if Kim Davis gets to speak for me, or Fox News or even… heaven forbid… Donald Trump. 

And I am Christian because following Jesus means being a Christian. It means hanging out with sinners and other people who struggle with the baggage. With people who want to hold on to the baggage at all costs, or people who have been trying to toss it from the bandwagon since before they can remember.

Because believing in Jesus just doesn’t work outside of community. Because taking up our cross and following means we don’t get to avoid all the crosses in the world, but instead Jesus’ ministry happens right where the crosses are. The crosses of hypocrisy, judgmentalism, abuse, control and power.

Dumping Christianity to follow Jesus doesn’t jive with the God who put our baggage on, who literally became our baggage, who used our baggage as his flesh in order to come and meet us in the incarnation.

And of course our baggage, our flesh, made things much more difficult for Jesus, but that was the only way to reach us.

As much as I shake my head this week every time I see a Kim Davis news story scroll by on Facebook. As much as I get enraged when I read that Christians are rallying behind Donald Trump, or rallying behind Stephen Harper here in Canada. As frustrating as it is that the Christianity that is represented in the media is one I neither recognize nor practice.

But I know that this is not the whole story.

I know that the church I grew up in is full of people just like Kim Davis, and they have sponsored 3 refugee families over the past 15 years. In fact, churches are some of the most frequent sponsors of refugees. I know that the grandmothers who guilt their grandkids into bringing their babies to be baptized also knit quilts for Canada’s northern communities and brought sweaters by the truck-load so that Canadian Lutheran World Relief could send 70,000 sweaters to Syrian Refugees last winter. I know that church people who struggle with how fast world is changing and who long for the golden age of Christendom are also regularly volunteering at the soup kitchen, filling the food bank, visiting people in hospitals and old folks homes and are caring for the world in their own small ways.

But most importantly, I know that Christianity is at its best when it is practiced by sinners. Even when those sinners like to tell everyone outside the church that they are the sinners. Christianity is still for sinners.

Christianity, the religion with all this baggage, is also the means by which God meets our broken world and speaks words of promise, grace, and mercy. The baggage filled traditions of Christianity are the means by which God washes and claims us as God’s own, the means by which God feeds us with God’s very Body.

Christianity is the community where God transforms us from broken and flawed people into forgiven and whole. 

And as filled with baggage as Christianity is these days, I need it. We all need it.

Because we need God

and those promises

and that washing

and that food.

I can’t believe in Jesus alone, I need all these messed up people – Christians – to do it with me.


 

Why are you still a Christian? What are your frustrations with Christianity? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Alan Kurdi, the Syrophoenician Woman and Breaking Jesus’ Prejudice

Mark 7:24-37

Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  (Read the whole passage)

Sermon*

Most of us had a moment this week when we first saw the image of little Alan Kurdi lying face down on a beach in Turkey. The scene seemed unreal: childlike innocence contrasted with devastating tragedy. It seemed to jar the world out of our summer sleepiness and into a deeper awareness of the reality of the humanitarian and refugee crisis happening out of Syria.

It’s not that there haven’t been news reports, articles written, and videos posted showing the thousands of migrants clashing against police, migrants struggling to cross borders or telling us of migrants dying trying to make their way to a better life.

It’s also not that we haven’t responded to the crisis, which has been going on for 5 years: CLWR asked our national church for 10,000 sweaters and we responded with 70,000. We’ve given with financial support, we have hosted fundraisers, and we have even had ongoing conversations in our congregation about how we can support refugees.

And yet, the reality of this crisis has always seemed far away. Something distant and removed from us. That is until this week when one photo scooped us up from our living room couches, plucked us away from computer screens, and transported us around the world.

Unlike the news reports, the articles and videos of migrants, one photo of a Turkish beach made us feel like we were standing just a few feet away from little Alan Kurdi and demanded that we come near and truly see this humanitarian crisis.

Perhaps it is serendipity or perhaps the Holy Spirit is up to something, because Jesus has his own close encounter with a foreign woman this week. A parent doing anything she can to provide a better life for her child.

And it is this desperate parent who seeks Jesus out, hoping that he will help her and her demon possessed daughter.

As seems to be usual in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is tired and cranky. He is seeking refuge from the demanding crowds, and so when this woman comes into the house where he is staying, Jesus is well… very un-Christ-like with her.

She begs for his help, and Jesus puts her off. In fact Jesus tells her off. Jesus compares her to a dog. And not the beloved family pets many of us have at home, but a pest and nuisance. The word he uses is more akin to that pejorative name for a female dog.

Mark the gospel writer, doesn’t usually provide details unless they are important, so the fact that he mentions that this woman is Syrophoenician should not escape our notice. Syrophoenicians were mixed race gentiles living in the border lands of Tyre and Sidon, just beyond Galilee. Syrophoenicians were half Phoenician and half Syrian (the coincidence here should not be lost on us).

The Israelites of Jesus’ day saw these particular gentiles living just beyond their borders as lesser peoples. People unworthy of Jewish attention or compassion.

As the Syrian-Phoenician  woman comes to Jesus, she humbles herself at his feet, and she begs for his compassion on her daughter’s behalf. And she crosses the boundaries of proper social behaviour, by being a woman who speaks to a man in public, by being a gentile who approaches a Jew, by being a beggar hounding a respected teacher and authority. And Jesus responds to this woman’s bold yet desperate plea by expressing a common Jewish prejudice of his day in the way he deals with this desperate mother. He is willing to put her off, because her needs, her tragedy, her desperation are not worth his immediate action. Jesus makes it clear that she, and others like her, will only get help once the people the world has deemed more worthy have their needs met.

Jesus sounds a lot like our political leaders have sounded this week… and that should not sit well with us. In fact, it should make us squirm in our seats. This is not the Jesus who eats with tax collectors and sinners, the Jesus who is forgiving prostitutes, the Jesus who is welcoming the unworthy.

Jesus today sounds too much like world leaders who can’t be bothered with people who are just too different from them. Jesus sounds like those who blame others for the problems facing the poor and marginalized, passing the buck. Jesus sounds a little bit too much like us.

It is uncomfortable to watch Jesus succumb to the same prejudice that we fall victim to. It is disturbing to see him place walls and barriers in front of suffering people just like we do. It is strange to think that Jesus would deny anyone compassion just because they are different from him, just as we are often guilty of doing.

Our prejudice often affords us the excuse to remain passive in the face of human suffering. This week it was a photo of Alan Kurdi that reminded us of this fact. Last year, it was the story of Tina Fontaine. The year before, it was the case of Brian Sinclair… and the list goes on from there. Maybe it goes all the way back to the Syrian-Phoenician woman.

“Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”

Just when we expect the Syrian-Phoenician woman to reject Jesus’ prejudice and bigoted words, she does the opposite. She holds them up as a mirror to Jesus’ prejudice and accepts the dog epithet. She is still begging for compassion, she is still asking Jesus for help. But instead of asking for help person to person, she is willing to lower herself… she is already on her hands and knees at Jesus’ feet… to the place of a dog. She is asking for the least that Jesus could do.

And in that moment, Jesus is faced with either turning her away and abandoning not only her humanity, but his own, or dropping his prejudice in order to show compassion.

Ephphatha. Be opened. 

It is not just the deaf man who is opened up today, but he instead re-iterates the opening up that Jesus experiences just before. When Jesus unplugs the ears and loosens the tongue of the deaf man, he makes a connection to a person who had no voice, who was on the margins and excluded from normal community. The deaf man can now speak because Jesus is listening.

It is a connection that Jesus first learns through the Syrian-Phoenician woman who presses him to show compassion. Jesus learns something about giving up his own prejudice, Jesus learns what it is like to have his own walls and barriers broken down. By holding Jesus’ prejudice up before him, by making her need for compassion heard, Jesus breaks open God’s compassion into the world. Compassion and mercy given to more than just the children of Israel, compassion now for Jew and gentile alike, compassion for all creation.

What starts as a tired and cranky Jesus refusing to help a person whom he thought was too other, too different, too unworthy becomes the means for God’s transforming compassion and mercy to enter the world. As Jesus is opened, God’s compassion meets a Syrian-Phoenician woman and a deaf man. As God is opened, the world is opened.

And it is the same thing that happened to the world and to us, this week. A single photo of a young Alan Kurdi, holds up a mirror to our prejudice, to the walls and barriers we build between ourselves and people who are different from us. When faced with tragedy like this, we are left with the option of going on with life as usual, where people like Alan don’t matter, or having our prejudice broken down and our compassion broken open by the realities of the Syrian migrant crisis through the heartbreaking photograph of a three-year old boy lying dead on a beach.

Still, even as the world now calls for compassion, even as we have been sending sweaters, praying, giving what we can, and discerning how to do more, even if our country opens our doors to as many refugees as we can take… we know that it is not enough. We know that our compassion has not and will not save the world. The power of the human spirit cannot do it alone, if at all.

Today, we are reminded, even as the Syrian-Phoenician woman pushes Jesus for compassion, that God is doing the work of breaking us open. God is speaking to us Ephphatha – Be open. 

There is no human cry for compassion, no human grief that will save Alan. There are just some walls of prejudice, some walls of indifference that we cannot break down.

And so like the Syrian-Phoenician woman, like the deaf man, and now like Alan Kurdi, we turn to God.

God alone who can meet our prejudice and open us up. 

God alone who can meet the walls and barriers we place in front of the suffering of our brothers and sisters.

God alone who can meet death,

God who knows what it is like for a son to slip from his arms and die on a cross. God who knows what it is like to die in the borderlands of a foreign and oppressing empire.

God alone who on the third day walked out of the tomb, breaking open death once and for all.

Today, we turn to God who speaks to us in the midst of prejudice and tragedy –

Ephphatha – Be Open. 

Amen

*This sermon was co-written between my wife, Courtenay @ReedmanParker and I. We haven’t done this before, but as we talked about our own reaction to the photo of Alan Kurdi this week, we decided to come together and write one sermon. It is something we will definitely do again. 

When our words are weak – A Lament for Alan, Ghalib and Rehanna Kurdi

Yesterday, I was scrolling through my social media feeds and a vivid photo of a beach passed by. I scrolled back to see a very young boy in shorts and a t-shirt laying in the sand.

It took me a moment to piece together that this wasn’t a child playing on the beach, but instead a wordless and unimaginable tragedy. It was Alan Kurdi.

 I have a son. A little boy that has often been dressed in shorts and t-shirts this summer. Those hands and feet, those legs and arms, that little body is one I see everyday.

It was heartbreaking to see the same arms, legs and body as my little boy lying lifeless on a turkish beach. It was guilt inducing and gut wrenching to be grateful that there was dark hair and not my son’s reddish blonde.

I have regularly prayed for Syrian refugees in my church. I have just slipped in a few words for them along with prayers for rain in spring and sunshine in harvest, prayers for world leaders and peace, prayers for church ministries and programs, prayers for sick and dying people. It was the very least I could do.

I have regularly forgotten to pray for Syria when all those other things took all my attention.

I have have encouraged my congregation to collect sweaters for displaced Syrian refugees, to give money to our denominational aid organization working in the refugee camps, to be open minded about our muslim neighbours.

I haven’t pressed them as hard as I could have.

A few months ago as I sat in my office, a muslim refugee family came to me to ask for help. A father and mother just like Abdullah and Rehanna, 6 children just like Ghalib and Alan. A family just like Alan’s sat in my office and I hemmed and hawed about how much help I could provide, secretly wondering about how much effort I would need to put in helping them.

As a pastor, I have had grieving mothers cling to me. I have had to offer failing words and inadequate comfort to those who are grieving the death of a child – young and old.

My job is to point to hope, even when no one else can. My vocation is to be the one who declares “Life” when everyone else declares “death.” My calling is to give words to the grieving.

Words for Alan, Rehanna and Ghalib. Words to Abdullah.

Words that somehow make sense of death.

I wish I could say there is some purpose in this tragedy, but there isn’t. I hope that Alan’s  photo becomes as significant as the naked Vietnamse girl’s is, but it would better that neither needed to be taken. I wish that Alan’s death had some greater meaning, but would you volunteer your child’s life to be the one that moved the world to action?

I hope that Alan reminds us that the words ‘Syrian’, ‘Migrant’, ‘Refugee’ are synonymous with ‘person.’ I hope that we remember that Syrians, migrants and refugees are human beings, not numbers, not news headlines, not problems to pass off, or expenses we don’t want to incur.

The world – 5 years too late – cries out for Alan and for Syria.

Finally. 

Yet, world leaders, NGOs, military campaigns, and good intentions will not solve this crisis. At best, they will mitigate it, they will make things slightly less tragic.

That is where my job to speak words for Alan, Ghalib and Rehanna comes in…  to speak words that somehow spark hope in the midst of tragedy and death.

Words that are not mine… words that belong to and are given by God. 

Because when are confronted with images of tragedy that make us cry out,

Because when we know that our leaders don’t have the will to respond, nor could they adequately respond if they did will it,

Because our good intentions have never solved our problems.

Because the human spirit, as noble as it might be, will not save us.

Because when we cannot redeem senseless death, God can. 

God makes sense of that which we cannot. 

God turns our tragedy into something better – into mercy and resurrection.

God does have the answer, God has life and love for a little boy laying on a beach.

God has life and love for our broken world.


Featured photo courtesy of Leadnow.ca