Category Archives: Sermon

A Story for Christmas – Part 2

John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Hall Xmas crop_0_0Marlena thought about how she had wound up here. She, her husband Jim,  and her kids, David and Lizzie, were waking up in a road-side motor inn. They had been snowed in the day before when a storm had hit. They had been driving across the wintery prairies, towards her parent’s house in the next province over. Her parents were getting older and no longer able to make the trip to them for Christmas, so Marlena decided to bring Christmas to her parents. This had caused undue stress. She had been working furiously hard ahead of time. Buying presents, baking goodies, she even had the groceries for Christmas dinner in the middle seat of the van, between her and the kids. Marlena was full of anxiety this Christmas. She wanted everything to be perfect, she wanted everyone to have a wonderful time. So far there had been more grumpy moods and fights than wonderful times.

Last night they had experienced something incredible. The hotel was full of stranded travellers, and Jim and Marlena invited a young couple, Jesse and Miriam, to share their room with them because there were no vacancy. Miriam had been very pregnant and went into labour. She gave birth in the middle of night, to a baby boy, Christopher. The EMTs, led by John Shepherd, had finally made it to the hotel, but baby and mom were fine and recovering well, so they stayed at the hotel instead of braving the snowy roads to the hospital. That had been last night.

By mid-morning, David and Lizzie, Marlena and Jim’s kids, were up and as restless as ever. They were fighting again, Jim was disengaged like he had been all month. The wonder and joy of last night, had faded only to be replaced by the frazzled feeling Marlena had been experiencing all month. She was snapping at her kids ageing they misbehaved, and she had threatened to take away Christmas 3 times this morning, because it was the only thing that got them to behave.

Marlena, Jim, David and Lizzie moped around the hotel all morning, and by lunch they found themselves in the dining rooms, grumpily waiting for the storm to end. As the other hotel guests waited out the storm, they began to congregate in the dinning room too. However, the kitchen staff had long gone home to spend Christmas with their families. There were several tired and hungry travellers munching on chocolate bars and soup crackers from the vending machine. Many kids were running around wild, while parents sat impatiently looking out the window, hoping the storm would let up.

It was when Marlena’s stomach began to growl, that she remembered she had brought groceries for their Christmas trip with her! Before she had really thought it through, she stood up and announced to the whole dinning room,

“I have groceries going to waste in my room. I am going to cook Christmas dinner, you are welcome to eat with us”.

Marlena was shocked with herself. The whole room had gone silent and all she was getting in return was shocked looks from the sullen crowd… after what felt like hours, but was only a few awkward seconds, a voice from the back of the room said, “I will help, I have some food with me too”. And then all of a sudden 8 more people volunteered and off they went to front desk to get permission to use the kitchen. The hotel clerk wasn’t sure about the idea at first, but realizing that he may have a riot of hungry snowed in travellers on his hands, he agreed to allow them use of the kitchen.

The group cooked and baked all afternoon, the hotel’s stranded guests changed from being a group of weary people, to a group with purpose. They were going to make something of this day now, and they were going to do it together.

In a few hours, the dinning room had been transformed into a grand dinning hall. All the tables had been moved into one big table with over 100 chairs. There was homemade wreaths on the walls, and even one of the front lobby shrubs had been made into a Christmas tree, complete with toilet roll angel on top.

The hotel guests were all gathered around the table. David and Lizzie were sitting with Jesse, Miriam and baby Christopher. They were mesmerized by the new born, and they hovered around Miriam wanting to get a closer peak, or to let the newborn baby grab at their fingers.  Jim was floating around the room with a huge grin on his face, he had taken on the role of head waiter and was directing his group of volunteers as to where to place each dish that came out of the kitchen. All around the table, people were laughing, some were singing Christmas carols, others were telling stories of Christmases past. Even the front desk clerk had joined the table and was right in to the celebration.

Finally when the table was covered in food and everyone was ready to eat, Marlena stood up to commence the meal. She thought about praying, but she wasn’t sure if everyone would appreciate that, so instead she made a short speech.

“You never know what to expect from life, all your plans for the holidays can be thrown out the window by a little snow. But at least we won’t starve tonight and at least we won’t be kept from celebrating Christmas. So without further ado, let us..”

“Excuse me” said a voice from somewhere in the crowd. “But where I come from, its customary to read from the Christmas Gospel on Christmas Eve, so if you would permit me”. It was a little old man, and he was wearing a black shirt with a little white square at the front of the collar. Marlena nodded absently and sat down.

It was an old priest who had spoken and he pulled a bible out of his coat pocket and began to read.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.

As Marlena listened to the poetic words of the Christmas story as told by John, she looked around the room. As she looked at unfamiliar faces, young and old, singles, couples and families, the familiar words took on new meaning. This Christmas was far from perfect. There was a feast on the table, but it was hardly the traditional Christmas meal. It had almost every kind of food you could imagine from turkey to pizza to curry. Gathered around the table was a group of complete strangers, not the usual family. But there was a Christmas miracle baby, and his parents, there was an inn with no more rooms. There had been guardian angels protecting the travellers, and even an Shepherd come to see the new baby. Marlena could sense that this rag tag group, was together for something bigger than they could imagine. All of them were stuck in a hotel on the side of the road during the holidays. This Christmas was far from perfect, yet it had become something special.

As Marlena saw her kids happy for the first time in weeks, her husband smiling and engaging the world around him, she felt at peace. No… this Christmas was not the perfect one she had imagined and worked so hard for, but neither were they the perfect family, perfect people needed to make Christmas perfect. Christmas was about God becoming flesh and joining with the imperfect. As she scanned the intent faces also listening to the Christmas Gospel, she realized that it was for these imperfect people and it was for imperfect her, that Christ the Lord was born in a manger. And Christ was here in the flesh, in the faces of those sitting around the table with her, family, friends, but mostly strangers, young and old.

The old priest read the last verse of the Gospel reading,

14And the Word became flesh and lived among us”.

When he finished, Marlena, along with many others around the table couldn’t help but say:

Amen.

For Part 1, see here: A Story For Christmas – Part 1

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A Story for Christmas – Part 1

Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

snowed-inMarlena heard shouts from behind her. She looked in her rearview mirror to asses the situation. Her oldest, David, was reaching across the back seat to his sister Lizzie, threatening to wipe his snot in her hair. David was grinning devilishly while Lizzie screamed in terror. Marlena’s husband Jim was playing with the radio. It was Christmas Eve, and the family was on their was across provinces to Marlena’s parents for Christmas. Marlena had been prepping for weeks, wanting to bring the perfect Christmas to her parents, who could no longer come to them.

“Jim, can you get them to stop it?” snapped Marlena.

“Stop fighting you guys” said a disinterested Jim without looking up.

“Whatever” sighed Marlena to Jim.

“David, Lizzie if you don’t stop fighting right now, there will be no presents for Christmas”.

Marlena hated making that threat, but lately it seemed to be the only thing that got her kids to stop.

“But mom!!!! David…”

“Enough!” shouted Marlena. “If I hear another word, I will turn this car around and we will go back home with NO CHRISTMAS!”.

The kids were instantly silent.

Jim muttered under his breath, “Sounds good to me”.

All this work for the perfect Christmas, had made the family irritable, Marlena most of all. She wanted so much to have a good time with family, but December had been full of fights and stress. As the family continued to drive in silence, the storm came upon Marlena’s family very suddenly. The dull morning sky had all of a sudden turned white with falling snow. Marlena’s anxiety shifted from being about her fighting children, to simply making it to the next town.

At noon, they pulled in at a roadside hotel, there were already many cars there and the minivan barely made it through the snow to one of few remaining parking spots. They trudged into the lobby and waited to get a room. Jim did the booking while Marlena phoned her parents.

“We won’t make it for Christmas” Marlena nearly sobbed into the phone.

But her parents didn’t seem too upset. They had been invited to the neighbours and they wouldn’t be alone on Christmas Eve. Marlena was devastated… she had worked so hard and now none of that work mattered, Christmas was ruined for everyone.

Jim had managed to book the final room in the hotel… actually it was the executive suite, but he had gotten it for the same price as the other rooms. The hotel clerk was feeling in the Christmas spirit.

When they got to their room, the kids squealed with delight as they leapt onto the beds and started jumping. Jim and Marlena dropped their bags and went to unpack the rest of the van. As they made their way through the hotel lobby, their could hear the clerk telling someone that there were no more rooms. It was a young couple and they looked defeated… “Maybe you can make it to the next town” the clerk offered, trying to be helpful. Marlena knew they wouldn’t make it out of the parking lot. She approached the couple and offered to share their room. There were two beds and a pullout couch in the executive suite, it would be crowded but they could all fit. Jim was looking skeptical, but eventually he shrugged and went back out to the minivan. Marlena showed the couple to the room, and offered them a bed. They introduced themselves as Jesse and Miriam, They were so grateful and polite, while Marlena was embarrassed by her kids who hadn’t stopped jumping on the bed. The couple offered to pay for half the room, but Marlena refused their money.

“The hotel gave us the room for the price of a regular one”, she said. “Let this be our present to you”.

As Marlena, helped them with their things, Miriam took off her heavy parka to reveal that she was pregnant. Very pregnant.

“How far along are you?” Marlena asked.

“I am due next week,” Miriam answered.

The two families spent the afternoon settling into their room.

As the group scrounged for supper at the vending machines, since the hotel kitchen was closed, they sat in the lobby and chatted about their lives, while the kids bounced off the walls. Jesse was a contractor building houses, they had been living away from home, but they were on their way back to have the baby.

The snow had not let up, and the cars in the lot were covered in snow. Afternoon turned into Christmas Evening. Marlena was staring out the window thinking about the Christmas they should be having, when Miriam grabbed her large belly. Jesse looked over and said, “Must be those false labour contractions, no need to worry”.

But the contractions were real.

A few hours later, Miriam was in bed and in full labour, with Jesse at her side. Jim was on the phone with Emergency services who said they couldn’t get an ambulance out in the storm. Marlena was helping the couple as best she could. Eventually it became clear that the ambulance was not coming, and Miriam was going to have a baby in this hotel. They readied themselves as much as they could, then it was time.

“The Baby is going to come now”. Marlena said “One more push.”

Miriam gritted her teeth and Marlena got into position. With the last push, into Malena’s hands slithered a slimy and wailing bundle of legs and arms, hands and feet. Marlena gave the baby to Miriam, who was exhausted but so happy. Jesse looked stunned. Marlena brought some water and towels to clean and then swaddle the newborn.

“Christopher” Miriam said. “His name is Christopher”. Soon mother and baby were sleeping quietly in the bed.

Jim and Jesse waited in the lobby late into the night, David and Lizzie slept on the couches. Jesse couldn’t believe he was now a father. It was Jim who spied the headlights appearing in the white out. Three big 4x4s rolled up to the front door, trucks with skulls, and flames and hunting gear. Several men poured out of the trucks, they were loud and boisterous. They looked like bikers or hunters, wearing balaclavas and carrying tools. They came to streaming into lobby, they looked like a gang out for mischief.

Jesse moved to the door, Jim could see his body tense. Jim followed, worried there would be a brawl. But the group of men quieted down. One stepped froward,

“I am an EMT the volunteer fire department, we are here for the pregnant woman. My name is John Shepherd.”

Miriam was waiting at the door of her room with the baby, she was grateful for the EMTs and firefighters to check her and the baby over. When John Shepherd and his team did their work and left, Jesse came to Jim and Marlena,

“You have been like guardian angels to us. Thank you, you saved us”. He went to sit with Miriam, the two gazed at their Christmas baby.

Jim and Marlena stood nearby watching the young couple. Jim looked at his wife,

“A full motor inn, a baby born on Christmas, an EMT named Shepherd… this has been and incredible night. This is a special baby.”

Marlena looked at her husband, and she couldn’t help but think of Mary and Joseph. And angel who announced a pregnancy to an unmarried virgin and her fiancee. The promise of a baby who would change the world. A baby just like this one, who could not lift his own head, who could not survive unless his mother kept him warm with her body heat, who could not be fed unless it was his parents who gave him food, who could not be alive unless this unlikely couple worked to keep him so. The story of angels and shepherds had never seemed so real as it did tonight.

“Look at that beautiful child” Marlena whispered as she wrapped her arms around Jim.

And together as they looked at this little child, so new to world, wiggling and gurgling like newborns do, they saw skin and hair, ears, eyes and a nose. And yet as they looked longer, they saw something more, something so much more. As they looked into this child’s eyes they could see themselves, they could see everyone that they loved, they could see the whole world. In this little helpless child, they could see the divine, they could see a great passion for all creation, they could see God in flesh — Emmanuel. Looking at Jesse and Miriam, they could see Mary and Joseph, looking at Christopher, they could see Jesus. They saw the whole world differently than it was just a moment before. A world with God in it.

As the first wisps of light began to breach the horizon with the sunrise, the two families  watched this new light come into the world. As starlight and sunlight danced across the sky, they could almost hear voices singing in the sky,

“”Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours!”

Amen. 

For Part 2, see here: A Story for Christmas – Part 2

Joseph and Mary shouldn’t have been parents

angel_appears_to_josephMatthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Sermon

It is the last Sunday of Advent, and we still have the blues of the season up, the Advent wreath still has one candle unlit. But the signs are showing up that Christmas is close. The trees are up. The church has been adorned with wreaths and lights. And, after weeks of hearing bible readings about the end of the world, or about John the Baptist, we get to finally hear about some central Christmas figures.

The experience of Christmas seems to come, with more and more pressure, each year. Often, many of us spend a month or more preparing for just a few hours of gift giving, a few meals with family and friends, a few days that are supposed to fill us with enough joy to last an entire year. We work very hard to make the Christmas experience perfect.

And so when we hear Joseph’s story today, the contrast he and Mary present does not match the ubiquitous manger scenes we see this time of year.

In fact, Joseph’s story is much more like all the other parts of life that we pretend don’t exist at Christmas time. The parts we don’t like or that we struggle with. The parts that are hard and frustrating, that are disappointing and painful.

Joseph isn’t the first boyfriend to find out that his girlfriend is having a baby, and Mary isn’t the first woman to find out that she is pregnant when she has no plans to be. And they will not be the last unmarried couple that will have to deal with this problem. This story is much more like real life than it is one of those Christmas movies. In fact, this story really is inconvenient for our Christmas image. Christmas should be about the cutest couple you have ever seen giving birth to most beautiful baby in the most suitable of barn stalls. It is not about poor unwed mothers, and potentially adulterous unplanned pregnancies.

And only to add to the disconnect between what we imagine Christmas to be and what Joseph’s story actually says, when Joseph finds out that Mary was pregnant, his options included stoning his wife, because she was like damaged property which must be destroyed. Another option to stay with Mary was not possible either. Joseph would either be known as the guy who got his wife pregnant before they married, or the guy whose son is not really his.

But Joseph did not choose to go that route, instead choose a more humane option. He would dismiss her quietly, which probably meant that Mary would be returned to her father, and hopefully he could get the father of Mary’s baby to pay her dowry and marry her if possible. If not, than Mary’s father would have the option to stoning Mary himself, selling her into slavery, selling her baby into slavery or if he was rich enough –which he probably wasn’t — pay for her upkeep for the rest of her life.

Not the sweet Christmas story we remember.

(Pause)

Nelly had volunteered to direct the Christmas pageant at St. David’s, or rather she was the only one who hadn’t immediately said no when asked by Father Angelo. Nelly was busy enough this Christmas, but she decided that if she was going to do it, she would do the pageant right and put forward her best effort.

On the day of the first practice, she only had half the number of people she hoped for. But she decided to make due.

To the men she gave the roles of shepherds and magi. The women would be the angels. The little kids would be the animals. But for Mary and Joseph she only had one option for each. There was gangly teenage boy named Josh who simply didn’t seem like a magi or shepherd and quiet teenage girl named Grace who was dressed like an emo goth punk. The two could not look more out of place and uncomfortable in a church.

“This will not do at all” Nelly told herself. “Maybe I can find a better looking Mary and Joseph before next week”. For that first day however, Nelly dressed up these two out of place teens, and put them next to the manger. Josh could hardly see his lines because his hair was in his eyes, and Grace’s black eyeliner was so distracting, that the angels and shepherds giggled and whispered with each other every time she spoke.

At the end of the practice, Nelly was determined that she was not going to let these unsuitable kids ruin her pageant.

(Pause)

In many ways, the story of Joseph that we hear today, unravels and upsets our vision of the Christmas story. We don’t want Christmas to be like real life, it supposed to something different, or least that is what we are told to buy each December. All the commercials and ads promise the perfect Christmas, and each year, the world opens up their wallets in the hopes that if we buy enough and work enough, this Christmas will be perfect.

But our version of Christmas is NOT God’s.

God is telling a different story at this time of year. God is telling a real story, about real people. About people who have big problems, and no easy way out. It is about poverty, about unmarried parents, about unwanted babies, about judgment and the threat of death.

(Pause)

After four weeks of practices, and lots of begging and hoping and nagging, Nelly just couldn’t get anyone else to be Mary and Joseph. Josh and Grace were going to have to be it.

The night of the pageant came, and all the cast was gathered together after the dress rehearsal. The pageant was as polished as it was going to get. The little kids were running around pretending to be the animals they were dressed as. The shepherds and Angels were drinking coffee. Josh and Grace were standing by themselves, looking a little lonely… lost even. Nelly was still frustrated about them, they read their lines woodenly, and never loud enough. And Grace refused to off her black eye liner, and Josh’s hair still covered his eyes.

It was soon showtime. Nelly announced that there was five minutes until curtain up. As Nelly stood up to go and check on the crowd, she glanced over at Josh and Grace. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Josh reached down and grabbed Grace’s hand just for a moment, he squeezed it once and let it go. Grace looked at him and smiled. They were in this together. Josh and Grace against the world.

Nelly almost dropped her stage notes. She began to realize, that Josh and Grace were just like the real Mary and Joseph. All they had was each other, they weren’t perfect, or well suited for the role they were to play in God’s mission in the world, but they were all that God needed to work miracles.

(Pause)

Our perfect version of Christmas has never existed. As we stress and worry and prepare for the perfect Christmas, God is sending divine messengers to unmarried teens living in poverty. While we try to create perfect memories with seemingly perfect families, God is discarding the rules about pregnancy before marriage in order to send us a messiah.

God does not wait for the perfect moment to begin the work of the incarnation, the work of taking on our flesh and becoming like us. God starts in the most unexpected of places, with the most unexpected of people. With Mary and Joseph, with Josh and Grace, with you and me.

The story of Joseph shoves aside our idyllic nativity scenes, and our perfect Christmas pageant visions, in favour of a real story about real people. A story about shame, and danger and betrayal. But also a story about mercy, and compassion and grace.

For when Mary and Joseph get past the shame of pregnancy before marriage, when they get past the possibility of death for adultery, they become guardians of God’s promise.

God’s promise that cannot be re-created no matter how much shopping or baking or decorating or cheesy Christmas movie watching we do. It is God’s promise given to imperfect people, to imperfect us.

A promise whose name is God with us — Emmanuel. A promise whose name is God Saves — Jesus.

Amen.

Is Jesus really the Messiah?

prison_responseMatthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

`See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way before you.’

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Sermon

Each year, sometime in the week before the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Father Angelo would call Bill with the same question. “Are we on for this Sunday?” he would ask. Bill always said yes. Every 3rd Sunday of Advent, Bill and Father Angelo would go together after worship to visit the grave of Bill’s wife Harriet. Then the two would go and have a meal at her favourite Restaurant. Father Angelo had asked a few years ago if Bill wanted to meet on the actual date of Harriet’s death, but Bill insisted that Harriet would have rather marked time by the church calendar, and so the 3rd Sunday in Advent – Joy Sunday – the day Harriet died became their day to remember her.

(Pause)

Today, we are officially past the half way mark of Advent, we are soon done 3 Sundays, with only 1 to go. We call this Sunday Guadete Sunday, Latin for Joy, as reminder of the hastening coming of Jesus, both at Christmas and in the second coming. Joy Sunday can almost be seen as a mixture of Advent and Christmas. In some churches, the colour of vestments and paraments are changed to pink or rose. A colour halfway between blue or purple and white. You could almost say that our little taste of Christmas today was an appropriate glimpse ahead,  even in the middle of our Advent waiting and watching.

Yet, despite the “Joy” of the day, the story of John the Baptist is not exactly joyful. We are brought back down to Advent reality of watching and wating. John the Baptist is languishing in prison… the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to see the show last week as John preached in the wilderness, along with King Herod, have decided that John is too much of a threat to their power.

John sends word through his followers to Jesus. He wants to know if it was worth it. The mighty prophet is losing his faith. This really is an Advent bummer.

“Are you the one? Or are we to wait for another?” John asks Jesus.

We heard John’s bold and dramatic preaching last week. The fiery prophet was foretelling the coming of a mighty Messiah. A Messiah who was going to come and burn some chaff, to lay an ax to the roots of oppression. John’s Messiah was coming to upend the powerful and lift up the weak. John has high expectations for Messiah. John has a certain vision of what Messiah should look like and what Messiah should do.

Jesus is not what he expected.

A wandering preacher healing a few sick, helping a few poor people, preaching to the hungry crowds and generally staying away from Jerusalem where all the power is – this is not what John was hoping for.

(Pause)

Shortly after Father Angelo started at St. David’s, Harriet got sick. Father Angelo took over from a retired Father Gabe who had spent 35 years – his whole career – at St. David’s. Gabe informed Angelo, that while he was retiring, that he would continue to visit Harriet in the hospital. A few months later, Angelo was sitting in his office late Sunday afternoon, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, when the phone rang. It was a nurse from the hospital asking for Father Gabe… Angelo knew that Gabe was spending Christmas with family in another province. Angelo offered to come, and the nurse sounded grateful.

When Father Angelo came to Harriet’s room, Bill met him at the door. “Where is Father Gabe?” he demanded.

“He is away” said Angelo. “But I am here”.

“Well, we don’t want you” Bill said blocking the doorway. “Father Gabe said he would be here until the end” Bill declared. “He has been our priest for 35 years, and we don’t want a knew one.”

“Are you sure?” said Father Angelo. “The nurse called the church”

“Father Gabe knows what we want, and what we expect in this time. He is the one who should be coming. Thank you, but we don’t need you to stay” Bill was getting agitated.

So Father Angelo turned to leave.

(Pause)

Like John the Baptist, we can carry with us expectations of what Messiah is supposed to be. We want Jesus to be a sweet little baby in December. A conqueror at Easter. A non-intrusive presence a lot of the time. We want a God who will show up when we need help and stay out of the way the rest of the time. We want a Jesus who will fight our battles and be on our side and act when we want him to act.

We imagine things going a certain way, and we can begin to lose hope when they don’t. When we find ourselves in prisons of suffering, isolation, crisis, brokenness… we can begin to question the Messiah, just like John does. We thought Jesus was going to do and be what we expected… but Jesus rarely measures up.

We want a powerful voice to silence our enemies, but Jesus makes the deaf hear.

We want a Jesus to see how good we are, but Jesus gives sight to the blind.

We want a Jesus who will carry our burdens and troubles, but Jesus makes the lame to walk.

We want to never experience suffering, or pain, or discomfort, to never be touched by disease or illness but Jesus cleanses the most diseased of all, the lepers.

We want to rich and blessed, but Jesus bring good news to the poor.

Jesus receives John’s doubt with mercy. Jesus doesn’t scold the prophet for his questions, nor rebukes him for his uncertainty. Jesus praises him instead. John is the prophet who has prepared the way, who has announced the coming of Messiah. Even if it isn’t the Messiah John imagined, it is still Messiah.

And just as Jesus does for John, Jesus receives our lofty expectations for God with grace too. Jesus doesn’t scold us for not getting it. Jesus gathers us into his Body, Jesus prepares a place for us at the table, even when we have imagined something completely different. We are still made to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, bringing about God’s kingdom.

(Pause)

Father Angelo took a few steps and then turned back to Bill.

“I am not who you want, I am not Father Gabe” he said to Bill. “But I have come to bring the one who you need and that is Christ. Father Gabe, nor I, can prevent the end from coming, but we both come in the name of the one who will meet us there.”

Bill didn’t answer, but he stepped aside and let Father Angelo enter the room. Having been at death beds before, Angelo could tell that Harriet was near the end of her life.

Before Angelo could say anything, Harriet looked up to him and said, “Father, you came.”

“Of course” Father Angelo replied.

“Read to me what they heard in church this morning” Harriet asked.

And so Father Angelo read to her the story of John the Baptist, asking if Jesus was the one. When he had finished, Harriet smiled.

“Read the last part again Father” she said. “The part about the messenger”.

Angelo nodded.

“`See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’”

After that the three sat together until the end.

And every year afterwards,  on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Bill and Father Angelo met to go to grave, and for lunch. And Father Angelo would read the story of John the Baptist, wondering if Jesus was the Messiah.

(Pause)

Like John the Baptist, we wonder if Jesus really is the one. We lose hope, when our expectations are not met. Yet thankfully, Jesus has not come to be what we want, to live up to our expectations for Messiah. Jesus doesn’t conquer our enemies, nor protect us from all harm, nor bless us with riches.

Jesus has come to give us what need. Sight for the blind, hearing for the deaf, the lame to walk, the lepers to be cleansed, good news for the poor.

Jesus is the Messiah who is meeting where we are, who is coming into lives that we live, not the lives we hope for. We want a Messiah who will take us away and give us a new world, but Jesus comes here and now, to show us mercy.

“Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” It is a question we all ask.

And Jesus, meets our doubts with grace. “I have sent my messenger to you. The Good News has been announced to you. Your way has been prepared. I am the One, who is coming to you, the Messiah.”

Amen.

Two Reluctant Prophets: John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela

Nelson and JohnMatthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Sermon

Messiah is coming.

This was the promise that our Advent waiting began with. Each year, as we begin a new church year, we begin with waiting. As the world explodes Christmas everywhere, with sales and music, concerts and tv specials, we wait. We wait and sing hymns about preparing and getting ready. We pray for God to stir us up, for God move us as the Body of Christ. To move us with compassion and love for a world desperately in need of a saviour, desperately crying out for healing. As green and red colours dominate the  colour scape of our world, we decorate here with a defiant blue. Blue that symbolizes patient waiting and hopeful anticipation.

Today is the second week of Advent. Advent can feel at times like finishing your vegetables before getting dessert. It can seem like a punishment pastors force on congregations for having too much Christmas cheer in December. Advent is not really a  favourite of seasons for most of us. The stories in Advent are jarring. Advent always starts with apocalypse. John the Baptist’s crazy rantings mark the middle. The uncomfortable news of an unexpected pregnancy for an unmarried couple finishes Advent off. Advent is not the sweet picture of a mother and newborn in a cozy stable. Advent is very much about discomfort. We wait, we watch. We repeat the promise:

Messiah is Coming.

We acknowledge that we aren’t there yet.

Last year, the middle of Advent was marked by a mass shooting in an elementary school in New Town, Connecticut. This year, our Advent waiting will be marked by global grieving, remembering and celebrating Nelson Mandela. How very inconvenient and how very appropriate. Advent is about discomfort, and what could make us white, North Americans more uncomfortable than dealing with the legacy of a figure who challenged our position of privilege, a man who was jailed for 27 years because of the colour of his skin, and someone who then became an icon of forgiveness and reconciliation.

It is hard to not to think of Nelson Mandela as we hear John the Baptist preach this morning. John is standing on the banks of the river Jordan, out in the wilderness of Judea. He is a figure who is outside of the political systems of his day. He is not a priest preaching in the temple of Jerusalem. He is not a rabbi teaching in the synagogues. He is a prophet, a truth teller, preaching in the wilderness. And John’s message does not uphold the traditions. He is not hoping to help people learn or grow in their faith. He is pointing to the problems and injustices of the world. His message is a warning – the world, and us along with it, is going to be transformed.

We might expect that John’s warnings would be dismissed as crazy, the announcement of the change to come sounds impossible. He should have been all by himself preaching to the sand and locusts. But everyone has gone out to hear him. Those who are oppressed and suffering, the ones looking for hope, and those who are in power, the ones looking to maintain control. And his message is the same for all. Bear fruit worthy of repentance, do not rely on your position in the world. Messiah is coming and Messiah is going to turn it all upside down.

John’s message would have sounded unbelievable to his hearers. The rich were rich, the blessed were blessed, the clean were clean, the righteous were righteous. The people thought God wanted things that way, that God had chosen the powerful to be powerful. And the poor were poor, the cursed were cursed, the unclean were unclean, the sinners were sinful. The people thought that God wanted things that way too, that God had chosen those on the bottom to be on the bottom.

Apartheid in South Africa was based on the same ideology. White Afrikaners believed that God had chosen them, chosen white, rich, privileged people to rule over the black, poor, marginalized people of the continent. And many believed that this system was immutable and unchangeable. It is not just in South Africa that people have believe in a system of privilege like this. In the United States many felt white people had the right to own black slaves. Here in Canada, many felt that white Christians had the right to civilize indigenous peoples in residential schools.

And even still, we too, get caught up in believing that our world is as it should be. That the poor deserve to be poor, that the rich deserve to be rich. It is easy for us to unthinkingly assume that privilege belongs to a certain few. That we are owed something because of our gender, our skin colour, our economic status, our religion. Just like the scribes and Pharisees, we protest, “But we have Abraham as our Father.” as if we have earned our place in the world, earned our place in the eyes of God. Just like the crowds, we long for justice, but don’t believe it possible.

But today John the Baptist declares a new reality. Who your parents are, how much money you make, the colour of your skin, your ability to keep religious laws, the number of times you attend church in a year… none of those things matter to God. God is sending Messiah who will turn the whole world upside down. God is sending a Messiah who will repent us, who will transform us, who will burn our chaff away, our selfishness, our sinfulness, our sense of privilege and position. God is sending a messiah who will gather our wheat, who will gather our transformed, forgiven, renewed selves into God. God is not interested in maintaining our systems of power and privilege.

John declared that the system of power and privilege for a few were coming to an end. John threatened those in power, and gave hope to the marginalized crowds.

In the same way Nelson Mandela stood outside the systems of privilege and power, of white against black, of rich against poor. He was released from prison and began to show his people, and the world, hope. Hope in something new and different. Hope by showing us a new vision for the world, a new vision where all are treated the same and all are equally loved. Nelson preached the transformation of forgiveness and reconciliation.

John and Nelson preached a new reality, a transformed world. They preached the world of Messiah. John with stern warnings of axes and fire. Nelson with defiant humility and unwavering mercy. But neither John the Baptist, nor Nelson Mandela claimed to be the one who would bring about the transformations they imagined. They only pointed to the hope. They were prophets, prophets who pointed to the current reality and imagined a new one. They pointed to Messiah.

To the Messiah who is coming with the axes and fires of transformation. To the Messiah who is coming with forgiveness and reconciliation. To the Messiah who is coming to gather God’s poeple. Messiah who will name, claim and gather God’s people, rich or poor, black or white, powerful or powerless, clean or unclean, righteous or unrighteous. Messiah is who is coming into the world of the people standing on the banks of the river Jordan, Messiah who is coming to the people of South Africa and the world, Messiah who is coming here to us today. John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela pointed to the Messiah’s world.

For weeks now, we have been getting ready for Christmas, the songs, the decorations, the colours have been out for weeks. We have been looking forward to the big show at Christmas. But these preparations are only a small piece of Advent.

John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela get at the bigger task of Advent. The naming of reality. The prophetic word about the unjust systems that exist in our world. Systems like the temple of Jerusalem that withheld God’s love from the people. Systems like slavery, residential schools, Apartheid. Systems that perpetuate the economic, racial, gender and religious inequality of our present day. We name those things today, and then we declare, with John and Nelson, that Messiah is coming. Messiah is coming to throw out the old systems, to transform us into something new.

Today, as our Advent waiting continues. Today, as we hear anew the voice of John the Baptist. Today as we mourn the death and celebrate the legacy of Nelson Mandela, we are shown a vision of the Messiah. We made uncomfortable as our systems of power and privilege are threatened. We are given hope for a world that is changeable and that will not remain unjust and unfair. Today, we are declare the Advent promise anew.

Messiah is coming.

Amen.

A Sermon for the riff raff and huddled masses of the Saints

m.5111_all-saints-dayLuke 6:20-31

Sermon

Each year on November 1st, All Saints Day, St. David’s would hold a short service in the cemetery for those who had died. Father Angelo would meet, usually, a dozen members at the gate and they would sing, pray and share in the Lord’s supper in the cemetery as a reminder that we are always connected in worship to the whole Body of Christ, alive and dead.

This year, the new young assistant priest, Father Michael, decided he would hold a youth event the night before. An All Saints Eve or Halloween Vigil. The youth and young adults would gather in the cemetery to play games, eat candy, sing songs, and keep vigil through the Eve of All Saints Day. They wold pitch tents, camp out and join with All Saints worship in the morning.

As the Halloween Vigil was announced in the weeks prior, many members came to Father Angelo, voicing their concern that such and event would be ‘disrespectful’. And Father Angelo always encouraged them to be patient and see how things would go.

(Pause)

All Saints Day is an important day for Christians throughout the centuries. It has been a day of prayer to remember the saints and pray for those who have died. All Saints Day is even transferred to Sunday when it is on another day of the week so that we can all observe the occasion.

All Saints Sunday is a herald of the closing year and the coming of Advent. In only two weeks, comes Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of this church year. And so in this regard, All Saints takes us to places of beginnings and ends, birth and old age, life and death.

So perhaps it is worth asking, what exactly is a saint?

A saint is someone who is holy and blessed right?

Well that has something to do with the sermon that Jesus is preaching today. It is the familiar sermon on the plain or Beatitudes. However, not to be confused with Matthew’s more spiritual version of the sermon on the mount. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, where as today in Luke, Jesus simply says, Blessed are the poor”.

As Jesus announces blessings, he names conditions that don’t seem like blessings. Poverty, hunger, weeping, hatred. We can try to feel poor, and hope that in a room full of middle class Canadians we are poor enough to be blessed. But imagine if we were at the soup kitchen or mental hospital. Could we really hope that we are poor enough, hungry enough, weeping enough, hated enough to receive the blessing?

Normally we think of blessings as good things. Wealth and health mostly. But Jesus blesses the opposite. And Jesus curses conditions we consider blessings. Being rich, being full, laughter, being well liked.

As Lutherans we say we are sinners and saints, but Jesus is pretty clear. Maybe we are more sinner and less saint.

(Pause)

On All Saints morning, members of the congregation gathered at the front gate of the cemetery. They could see the youth and young adults scurrying about, getting cleaned up and ready for worship. Father Angelo arrived. He sensed the discomfort among the members gathered. Many who came for All Saints worship had loved ones buried in the cemetery. Husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. People were whispering to each other and pointing into the cemetery. They seemed agitated. Father Angelo was suddenly worried, maybe the Halloween Vigil wasn’t a good idea after all. It was time to begin, so he led the procession to where the youth and young adults were waiting.

(Pause)

It is easy for us to get wrapped up in who is blessed and who is cursed, who is a saint and who is a sinner. We like these neat categories, they allow us to define and control the world around us. We can justify ourselves and pass judgement others.

 

But Jesus is not interested in our categories. Jesus wants to muddy the waters. Jesus wants to upset and overturn our nice and neat boxes.

 

Blessed are the poor

Cursed are the rich

Blessed are the hungry

Cursed are the full

Blessed are those who weep

Cursed are those who laugh

Blessed are the hated

Cursed are the well liked.

 

And if today were just about the beatitudes, it would be enough to say that Jesus redefines blessings and curses. But today is All Saints day and we are forced look at the mortality, the death of loved ones and our own death. And so we expand these blessings and curses to include life and death.

 

On All Saints we might add another set of blessings and curses to the sermon on the plain.

 

Cursed are the living, for they will face death head on.

Blessed are the dead, for they will be given New Life.

 

We add this set of blessings and curses because that is what All Saints day is about. The Messiness of death and the messiness of life. Today, we are reminded that God likes to mess with the categories, and where we can only see the clear distinctions of life or death, of being dead or alive, Jesus sees both. Jesus says we are both. Sinners and Saints. Both dead and alive.

 

(Pause)

 

As Father Angelo led the group of worshippers through the cemetery, they began to notice just what the youth had been up to. There was a small candle on every headstone, flickering in the early morning sun. And some headstones, there were notes. Notes that said things like, “Thanks for taking care of our church. Or thanks for letting us stay the night. Or thanks for sharing your faith with us”. Some had art work, others had flowers. The worshippers looked all around as they made their way to the place of worship.

 

The youth had set out folding chairs and prepared a table for communion. They were waiting with blankets and hymnals. As the group finally met the youth, Father Angelo was worried the worshippers would be upset. He held his breath.

 

One woman, whose husband had died just six months before marched straight up to the nearest youth she saw. Father Angelo could see a conflict about to erupt. Instead the woman wrapped her arms around the unsuspecting girl and said,

 

“That was the first night my husband hasn’t been alone since he died. Thank you. Will you stay with me one night when I am gone”.

 

The girl didn’t know what to say, but Father Angelo simply smiled to himself.

 

(Pause)

 

Jesus’ sermon about blessings and curses do more than overturn our categories. On All Saints Sunday the sermon reminds us what the Kingdom of God, what the company of saints truly look like. It is not an uniform group of holy and blessed people. But rather a diverse, rag tag, group of misfits and sinners. A group of people who wouldn’t otherwise be lumped together.

 

Today we remember those who had died, and Jesus turns that category on its head too. God proclaims that we, the living, are dead from the moment we come into this world. We are on our way to death, and in the waters of baptism we are drowned to sin. But in Christ, who is the first of the resurrection, God declares that the dead will be raised to new life. God declares that we, even though dead, are alive.

 

And on this All Saints Sunday, as the categories of blessed and curse, of sinner and saint, of dead and alive are muddied and confused, Jesus makes clear that we are all a part of the One Body of Christ, which is not limited by time or space, and nor by life or death. And so today, we may remember the saints in prayer, but it is God who gathers us together with them into the worship of the heavenly hosts. And as it happens each Sunday, the veil between us and them, between earth and heaven, between creation and God, is a little thinner.

 

This is what the radical sermon on the plain is all about, and this is why we hear it today on All Saints day. As we are faced with the categories of sinner and saint, of dead and alive, God is breaking down those barriers. God is reminding us that the difference between cursed and blessed is not as vast as we think. That life and death are not the great chasm we imagine. That sinners and saints don’t go to opposite places, but rather we are made one in Christ. Christ who brings us all into the One Body. Into One Body that worships together, prays together and cares for each other across boundaries that seem unbreakable to us, but are easily set aside by God.

Amen

A Sermon for the Last of the Millennials

Luke 18:1-8

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Sermon

Confirmands, today you have done something bold and courageous. Something that, in fact most, people on the street would consider crazy. Something that, many people here today would not do, even for money. You have stood before us and pointed to God, and specially to the things that God is doing in your life.

 

Next week I have to talk about the Reformation, something that happened 500 years ago, and Baptism and Affirmation of Baptism, things that Christians have been doing for 2000 years. So today I am going to talk about you, and about what you shared, your faith. And of course about God, and what God has to say about you and your faith.

 

Let me begin by saying that I am you.

 

Or rather you and I are a part of the same generation. Most of the adults in the room probably don’t know this. And you guys might not really get what a generation is. But we are Millennials. Millennials, our generation, have been in the news a fair bit lately. Our parents, the Baby Boomers have been calling us lazy, they have been telling us to get jobs, they have been complaining that we grew up in a world where everyone gets a soccer trophy, and every game ends in a tie, and the thing that we have all been taught growing up is that we are special and deserve special treatment.

 

That doesn’t sound very good does it?

 

So what really makes us Millennials? I am 30 years old, and I was born in the second last week of 1982. Which means that I was born in the 20th century, but I didn’t become an adult until the 21st century. I am among the oldest of our generation, and you, confirmands, are the youngest. Most of you were probably born in 1998 or 1999? Right? So you were also born before the year 2000 but you won’t be adults until 2016 or 2107, the 21st century. But it isn’t our just our birth year that makes us millennials. Important events of history have also shaped our lives. You might not remember it, but September 11th, 2001 changed our world forever. You were in diapers, and I was in my 2nd week of university. The world was all of a sudden at war with terrorists. Five years ago in 2008, Banks started failing and the world economy entered a recession that was last experienced by our great-grandparents. And just recently, we have been praying about this government shutdown in the US. This too is now part of the history that defines us.

 

But we are also the first generation to have computers the whole way through grade school. We are the first to grow up with internet, with cell phones, smart phones and with texting, with facebook, twitter, youtube.

 

This is a world very different than that of your parents and grandparents. And having faith today, is very different from the way your grandparents and parents had faith.

 

When your grandparents and parents were born, most people went to church. Most of their family, their friends, their neighbours were church goers.  Being born in Canada usually meant you were born a Christian. The weird people were the ones who DIDN’T go to church.

 

But for us, most people don’t go to church. Most of our friends, family and neighbours stay home on Sundays. Being born in Canada today means you can be a Christian, or a Jew, or Hindu, or Buddhist or Muslim, or Atheist, or Agnostic, or a Jedi, or nothing. And weird people are the ones who DO go to church.

 

When your parents and grandparents were born, being a Canadian, and going to church because everyone else did was a good enough reason to be a Christian.

 

But today for us, we need more reasons than that. And your parents and grandparents need more reason than that these days too.

 

You have all just shared your faith with us, and so I want to tell you why Jesus is important in my life too.

 

Remember the bible reading that I started with? The story of Unjust judge who doesn’t  care about anyone, not even God. And the widow who bothers him so much that he finally gives in and gives her what she wants? Well, most people these days think God is kind of like that unjust judge. That God is up in heaven deciding who is good and who is bad. And some people say that if God is like that, they don’t want anything to do with God, or the Church or Christians. And other people say that if God is like that judge, we better be really good Christians and have lots of faith or we are all going to hell.

 

Now for me, if I thought that God was an unjust judge I would never be at church. But even if God was a kind and friendly judge who was deciding to let most people into heaven, even if you didn’t have try very hard for God to choose to let us in. I would not be a pastor, I would not be a Christian, I would never come to church.

 

So then why I still am a Christian, why I am a pastor? Because I was lucky enough to have a family, to have a church, to go to and work at Bible camps, to go to university and have teachers and professors, to have pastors in my life, and confirmation teachers and youth leaders like yours who taught me something different.

 

They told me about Jesus who is not like the judge at all. They told me about Jesus who is much more like the widow.

 

Jesus is the one who keeps coming, and bothering, and annoying and interrupting and trying to be a part of my life. Jesus is the one who will keep trying to find me and who keeps loving me no matter what.

 

Church is not a place for perfect Christians or good people. In fact, if any of us were perfect Christians or truly good people, we wouldn’t need to be here. Instead, Church is a place for weird people. For widows, for broken people, for sinners, for sick, depressed, lonely, losers like you and me. Church is a place for people who need to be loved and cared for. For people who need justice like the widow in the story today.

 

As you grow up and go out into the world, there are going to be a lot of people who will tell you that God needs you to be a better person and that God needs you to be a good Christian with lots of faith. And there are also going to be other people who tell you that God is evil and bad, and that God probably doesn’t exist at all.

 

They are ALL wrong. Don’t believe any of them.

 

Remember the widow… the one who just keeps coming until she gets what she wants. That is who Jesus is like. Jesus will just keep coming for you, bothering you, annoying you, interrupting you until realize that God loves you unconditionally. Church is not for better people and good Christians with lots of faith. God’s church is for broken and sinful people, people like us who need healing and forgiveness. God’s church is for people with weak faith or no faith, people like us who need good news. God’ church is even for people who aren’t sure if God exists, people like us who God believes in and who God has known since before time. Jesus always has a place for you here. A place at church, and a place at his table. A place here with all these other broken and sinful people, here with God’s people.

 

Confirmands, today, you have told all of us about how Jesus is important in your life. And we have been honoured to hear it. You have done something bold and daring. But there is something else you need to hear. Something that overshadows Jesus being important in your life. Something that is a good enough reason for Millennials, like you and me to go to church. And that reason is that you are important to Jesus. You are the ones that Jesus will keep coming for and Jesus will never stop until he gets what he wants, until Jesus gets a hold of you, and you know that you are important to God and that you belong here.

 

Amen.