Monday, December 03, 2012

"Waiting" Advent 1C (December 2, 2012)

Jeremiah 33:14-16
The days are surely coming, says the Holy One, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; who shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “God is our righteousness.”

Luke 21:25-36
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Human One coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the realm of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Human One.”

Will you pray with me? Holy One, you make all things new. You bring about glad surprises and fulfill joyful hopes. Give us grace to recognise the signs of your presence among us, today, at Christmas, and always. In all your names, amen.

One of the most common complaints about Christmas that I hear is that the shopping season starts too early! It is out of hand, I think, when the stores have Halloween decorations and Christmas stockings up at the same time! When I go into DollaRama and see the stockings, even though my thoughts are more on pumpkins and candy corn, I know that Christmas is right around the corner. Those stockings (and candy, and trees and wrapping paper and ribbons and cards and…) are a sign of the coming of Christmas, as surely as the leaves on the fig tree are a sign of the coming of God’s realm.

There’s a difference, however. We know exactly when Christmas will come. Christmas Eve is December 24 and Christmas Day is the 25th. Some people celebrate more on the 24th and some on the 25th, but those are the two days when we can count on it being Christmas.

Some things that we wait for are much less certain, although we know they will eventually arrive, like the next bus or the server with our dinner. Sometimes we don’t know if the things we are waiting for will ever show up—but we wait with hope--the partner we will spend the rest of our lives with, a cure and vaccine for HIV/AIDS.  

Waiting. It’s probably the hardest thing for me to do. I am not really a patient person. I want to do things now, and have results immediately. I have probably seen too many movies, with their editing of time so that it seems to take just ten minutes to bake a cake and two hours for a child to grow up. One of the books I am currently reading is about patience…how to cultivate it, how to cherish the moment that is, and have the faith and confidence that events will unfold exactly as they are meant to.

This is the task of Advent—waiting, with faithfulness, hope, love, and joy for the arrival of Emmanuel—God with us. It’s harder, in some ways, than the waiting of Lent, even though Advent is shorter. Advent mostly takes place in growing darkness—the days are getting shorter, until just before Christmas, so it is gloomy. Lent is in the spring, as the days grow longer and lighter, trees begin to bud and leaf out, tulips and daffodils begin to push up from the ground—it’s easy to see the hope and anticipate the joy.

It’s not as simple in December, is it? Besides the darkness and gloom, there’s the pressure modern culture has created around the holidays—Christmas and New Year’s. Everyone is supposed to have parties and go to parties, to dress nicely, to bake and cook (even if they usually don’t), to give the perfect gift to everyone, to get along with family they would prefer not to ever see, to generally live a perfect life for a couple weeks.

I enjoy parties as much as most people, I love Christmas cooking—as you can tell—I like to give people gifts they can enjoy and use…but somehow, I remember a difference when I was young, and certainly the holidays are described differently in the books of one and two hundred years ago.  I don’t mean only Dickens and his Christmas Carol, when Christmas was a family gathering, a big dinner, and games after—sort of like our Thanksgiving, with the addition of a church service. But when you read Jane Austen, for example, or the diaries of Samuel Pepys, or the laws regulating Christmas—there’s much more about food and drink and gatherings of family and friends, and very little about gifts or clothing. It seems people cooked a special meal—but not one beyond their means; and maybe added a new dress, or spruced up an old one; and rather than two weeks of parties and feasting, were considered lucky to have Christmas Day itself off.

I’m not saying we should go back to those days—those were also the days of no unions, of child labour, of no income support, of poor health for most people. But perhaps the attitude is one we could regain. Rather than a huge feast of things we aren’t sure we want to eat, with people we aren’t sure we want to be with, giving them things we aren’t sure they will like—perhaps we could gather with the ones we love, sharing a feast of simple good food, and gifts of meaning. And we wouldn’t have to change a thing, except our attitude.

Patience is a virtue, we are told. Perhaps if we could be more patient, allow each day to have its own message, we would find more in those days. If a day simply becomes one more to check off on the calendar in the rush to Christmas, we lose something—the grace and space of that day. Take each day on its own terms, including Christmas, knowing it will come in its time and offer its gifts. Take the time to immerse yourself in that day, to drink in its message and sense and feeling, before you move on to the next day.

An Advent calendar works that way. Each day, one window or door is opened; each day, one chocolate is revealed, or one small toy, or one picture or one Bible verse. You don’t get all the chocolates at once; you don’t get the whole story all at once. Bit by bit, over time, it is revealed.

That is, ideally, how to live this time of Advent. We know Christmas is coming. We can see the signs, like leaves on a fig tree. But we will wait for it patiently, knowing it will come in the fullness of time.

But Advent is also about preparation. Yes, we prepare our homes, we shop for gifts, we read the stories of John the Baptist and Mary and Joseph, we bake and cook…but we also prepare our hearts. When it comes down to it, we are preparing our hearts for that one day, for Christmas Day—when Christ was born, when our God came to earth and was born as one of us. As we wait, we prepare. We do not simply sit—we wait actively through our preparation. And it’s about more than the decorations, lovely as they are; it’s about more than the food, good as it is; it’s about more than the gifts, as touching or needed as they may be.

Think of Mary—she waits, and yet she is preparing, mentally and spiritually and physically, for this birth.

What are we waiting for in our lives, in the world? Some things are obvious—world peace, an end to hunger. Today, World AIDS Sunday, we lift up the wait for and the work towards a cure for HIV/AIDS.  We wait, but we do not sit idly while we wait. We support organisations that are working on vaccines and cure and treatments; we remember the ones we have lost—too many! We teach prevention and safer sex practices, we offer resources to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS. We do not simply wait for the answers to be handed to us on a platter.

Waiting. It’s difficult—few of us are as patient as we should be—but wait we must. But we can also act as we wait—prepare our hearts, our world, as we wait—for peace, for a cure for HIV/AIDS, for an end to hunger and poverty—for Christmas and the coming of the Christ child.  In all God’s names, amen.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Life!" All Saints, November 4, 2012

Romans 6:1-11
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Eternal One, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

John 6:35-51
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that God gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the One who sent me. And this is the will of the One who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that God has given me, but raise it up on the last day.  This is indeed the will of God, that all who see the Human One and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” Then the religious leaders began to complain about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the One who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Holy One comes to me. Not that anyone has seen God except the one who is from God; he has seen the Eternal One. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”


Will you pray with me? God of all times and all places, we turn to you in our grief, seeking comfort and peace. We long for the presence of those we loved, even though we know they were in pain or distress. Their wisdom, their love, their laughter are missed; there are so many things we wish we had said, or done, or been, and now we cannot do any of those things. Today we remember you are the author of life and that in spite of that, you experienced death too—the loss of friends, your earthly father, and others. Give us the wisdom to remember our loved ones with love and peace, to fold them into our hearts and face the future with courage; keeping their examples of love, humour, encouragement, and strength always in front of us. In all your many names, amen.

Today we are observing All Saints Day. Technically this falls on November 1, but we remember it today, as the Sunday closest to the 1st. All Saints is the occasion to remember the saints in our lives—the friends and family members and mentors and heroes—who have died. “Saints,” not in the sense of officially recognised for miracles performed, but saints in that they lived lives of love and grace, they made a difference in our lives and in the lives of others. All Saints is an opportunity to remember those who have gone before, to give thanks for their lives, and then to rededicate ourselves to all that they worked for and represent.

I remember two people in particular: my stepfather, Ken, and a mentor, Dan. Ken married my mother when my sisters and I were grown—he had no part in actually raising us. There were more grandchildren than children at their wedding! And yet he treated the five of us—my four sisters and myself—as if we were his own children. Whether it was a family event, or Christmas gifts, or celebrating good news, or offering support—Ken saw no difference between us and his biological children. He loved Mom, he loved her daughters—he was proud of our achievements and supported us when life was difficult. Ken was not perfect—he was still mired in the 1950s in some ways, expecting Mom to do things for him that he could have done himself, or helped her with, such as housework and cooking. Their life tended to revolve around his plans and wishes. But he also offered Mom love and care and emotional support in many other ways; and he was kind and generous. Ken taught me a great deal about love.

Dan—Dan was a member of the congregation where I trained. He lived with a couple of chronic illnesses, but it took me a long time to realise that—he didn’t mention them. Dan was dedicated to the denomination, and especially to that congregation. He felt he owed the church a great deal, and was determined to support the church in any way possible. One of those ways that was dear to his heart was the encouragement and lifting up of leadership. I think it is safe to say that most if not all the pastors trained there while he was alive were affected by his guidance, suggestions, support and encouragement. He was no plaster saint either, however—he did not hesitate to call things as he saw him, and would stand up to the church hierarchy without hesitation. When Dan believed in you, he was your champion to the death. It was my honour that he believed in me. Dan did not know me when I first was associated with the training church.  A friend who had been through the ordination process there suggested I ask Dan to be on my advisory committee. The first time I preached there, I was approached after the service by a smiling gentleman with an unusual walking stick and told, “I was impressed by that sermon. I would like to be on your advisory committee.” It was Dan, of course—and my friend was right. Dan and I clicked and were friends immediately and for the rest of his too-short life—another five years. From Dan, I learned the power of standing up to even those you love and support when you feel they are wrong and of supporting those who are new but have potential—the power of mentoring.

And so I remember them—their love, their support, and the lessons they taught me about generosity, mentoring, courage, and caring.

I know all of us have had saints in our lives—not in the sense of perfect or near-perfect people, but in the sense of friends and family whom we loved, who taught us, or guided us, or simply loved us. And that is what today is about—the memories.

I don’t want us to be in the depths of grief. That is exactly what today is not about. It is not a time of continued grief, but of happy memories of those who have gone before—remembering my sister teaching me to read, my niece’s love of animals, my stepfather’s delight in my son—his grandson—and Dan’s wisdom and laughter.

Those are the memories to have—not to cling to, but to hold lightly. They are what makes us smile at a found photograph or try again when we think we can’t—the example of those we loved gives us the courage and hope and strength to try again.

The poet Henry Scott Holland said it well when he spoke of death as being like another room.

He said:

“Death is nothing at all,
I have only slipped away
into the next room.
I am I,
and you are you;
whatever we were to each other,
that, we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name,
speak to me in the easy way
which you always used,
put no difference in your tone,
wear no forced air
of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we shared together.
Let my name ever be
the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect,
without the trace of a shadow on it.
Life means all
that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was.
There is unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you,
for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just around the corner.
All is well.”

Death as a room. Death, according to some people, is a new existence, a new way of being that we cannot comprehend, as a caterpillar cannot comprehend the life of a butterfly. Some will tell you death is the end; that death is nothingness. That I cannot believe—because we are more than our bodies, we are more than our skin and bones and breath. We humans are spirit and mind as well, and while the body may be gone, the spirit is not; the love and wisdom and courage are not gone. They are still here, in our memories.
Christians believe that the spirit does not die—that there is another life, another kind of life, beyond what we call death. There is more than this life we see and know—and it was Jesus who showed us the way. Because he lived and lives beyond death, we can too. 

I can’t describe that to you. Anything I might say about pearly gates and meadows of flowers—or of clouds or crystal fountains or circles of angels—would be equally false, Because no matter how excellent my imagination—or anyone else’s—we simply cannot begin to know what that new life is like.
Because we cannot know, it seems to me that we should focus on this life that we do know, rather than a new life that we will know nothing about until we enter it. We can and should be making this life the best life that we can, following the example of our saints. Did they have causes they believed in and worked for? Take up that cause or another one dear to your heart. Were they strong and courageous? Take heart and inspiration from their example. Were they loving and supportive? Remember that love and carry it forward to those you love. 

That is eternal life—to be remembered as someone who loved and cared and worked for the good of the world, through whatever means were available, whose example led you and others to be like them. 

So now you know, my friends, that you too can be saints. Your example of love and support and courage—or teaching someone to read or speaking out for truth and justice or just holding someone’s hand when they need it—can be that cherished memory for someone else. You may not think what you do makes much difference, but it does. People sometimes say to me, “The sermon on Easter (or Pride or three months ago) really spoke to me,” or “I was moved by the prayer at the flag raising,” or, “Your remarks at X event were really good.” I don’t necessarily remember what I said, and I usually don’t know why—unless the person tells me—why they were moved or touched by what I said. And I rarely hear it right afterwards—sometimes things take a while to sink in. But it did make a difference to someone, and so do the things that you do. You might not hear about it right away, but know that you do make a difference—people know when you are good to them, when you are working for change in the world, when you are a saint. 

Remember your saints—and go be a saint. In all God’s names, amen.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"44 Years Later" October 14, 2012

Note: This is the Sunday we celebrate the founding of our denomination. This sermon is heavy on denominational history, although it is grounded in the readings.
Hebrews 4:12-16
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Child of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Mark 10:17-31
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’”
The man said to Jesus, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the realm of God!”
And the disciples were perplexed at these words.
But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the realm of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the realm of God.”
They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Will you pray with me? Holy One, you guide us through the needle’s eyes of life, those times when we must declare your truth even though our voice shakes, lead us through to your throne of grace. Be present with us as we seek to understand your good news. Teach us not to see and hear what others want us to see and hear, but your truth alone. May all that we speak and hear be acceptable to you, our teacher, our redeemer, our friend. Amen.

44 years ago, in a small living room in Los Angeles, 12 people gathered together for a worship service. They had come after seeing an ad in the local gay paper The Advocate, inviting all who wished to come to a worship service. Led by a former Pentecostal pastor, Troy Perry, they worshipped, they sang, they read Scripture, they took Communion.  They were Caucasian and black and Latino, all genders, many spiritual backgrounds, all sexual orientations. The next week, they returned; some brought friends. The next week, more still. Over the weeks and months and years, that congregation grew—sometimes slowly, sometimes faster—and spread across the US and around the world. Together those worshippers formed the basis of what we know today as the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.

Rev. Troy Perry had begun his ministry as a young boy of nine, when he preached his first sermon on the street. Growing up, he confessed his attraction to men to his pastor, who told him it was merely a passing phase and that he should marry as soon as possible. Three children and several years of heterosexual marriage later, Troy could not deny his true nature. He was outed and expelled from the denomination where he had successfully pastored for many years. He found secular work and tried to forget his ministry. But he could not reconcile his sexuality and what he had been taught by his church, and so, wracked by his church’s judgement that he was condemned by God already, he attempted suicide. Troy’s roommate found him and summoned help. Lying on a stretcher in a hospital corridor, he was told, “God is not done with you yet. You have work to do.” His mother came to visit him, and as only a mother can do, said, “Troy, you are loved by God. You want a church where gay people know they are loved, well, go start one.” And he did.

MCCs have been in the forefront of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people for 44 years. Troy fasted several times in an attempt to force the California legislature to legalise same-gender marriage. He worked on campaigns to defeat discriminatory proposals, such as those that would deny teaching jobs to lesbians and gay men. MCC has testified for hate crime statutes, for equal marriage, and for anti-discrimination laws at all levels of government. Canada’s Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes, of MCC Toronto, was made a member of the Order of Canada for his work on human rights issues. We have protested discrimination, we have worked for the protection of families with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered members—children, parents, siblings, grandparents.

Around the world, we also work for women’s rights—to education, to protection under the law, to healthy care, to equal pay. We are also currently working in South Asia—Pakistan, India, Indonesia—for equal rights for transgendered men and women there. In South Africa, MCC was the place where a person living with HIV/AIDS could go and be accepted and a part of the community. Wherever a group is marginalised, we work to bring them justice and equality and protection.

We are known in many places as the human rights church. Our guiding call is that of the prophet Micah in the First Testament—“What does our God require of you but to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God?”

Seeking justice—that is human rights work.  It’s standing with people who are marginalised on the basis of who they love, or the colour of their skin, or where they or their parents were born, or how they worship God. It’s standing with people who have no health insurance. It’s standing with people who are not paid a fair wage for the work they do. It’s standing with people forced to work in dangerous conditions.  It’s standing with people who are denied education because of their gender, or race or location in society.

All those things and more are what MCC does around the world. But we aren’t doing it for political reasons, for publicity or because other people are doing it. We know our call—to do justice, love mercy, and walk with God—and that is what we do.

The reading from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews clarifies this for us. God’s truth is sharp and sometimes difficult to speak; it can divide countries, communities, families. But we have the example of Christ, who also spoke truth, spoke truth to power. It can be done—it may be frightening and we don’t always know what the consequences might be, but it must be done. Troy and Brent and others have fasted, been arrested, had threats against their lives and against their churches. Even I, with the little I have done here in River City, have received a few nasty calls and comments on articles in the paper or stories on TV.

Jesus is talking about this very thing when he says that those who follow him may lose everything. The truth, especially the truth about who we really are, can divide us from our friends, our families, our work, our homes, even, as in the case of Matthew Shepard and many others, our lives. When I came out, I had to leave behind everything except a few possessions, my son, a few friends, my family, and my call to ministry. And at that, I was lucky—I was not harassed, I was not barred from my son, I was not physically harmed or thrown onto the street. Some of you have experienced those things, or know people who have.

And yet we know our truth, the truth of who we are as God made us, and that sword of truth requires us to speak, to stand, to work—to be all of who we are, and to spread the good news of God’s love for all people. It is just what we do.

But there is a word of warning for us here too—those who think they will be first will be last and the last will be first. We cannot assume that we are free of mistakes—indeed, being human, we can’t help but make mistakes. Simply because we are marginalised in some ways, we are not then perfect in other ways. Being a woman does not mean a person doesn’t have to be caring, to share what she has with others.  Being a gay man doesn’t mean a person can be racist. We don’t get a bye on our errors because of the wrongs done to us. We can’t think that because we are, in some way or ways, marginalised, we automatically go to the head of the line. Marginalisation doesn’t make people saints.

The decision about who is first and who is last is not ours to make; either for ourselves or for others. We cannot know the actions and motives and needs of other people—the person who steals because she is hungry, or the person who lies on a job application because he is desperate for work, or the person who has never had a healthy relationship who deceives and coerces her partner. God’s calculus of salvation and promise is beyond our understanding; our own errors and mistakes are more than enough for us to work on.

And we know, with gratitude and thanksgiving, that there is grace enough for us. Christ’s love for us, for each one of us as individuals, provides us with grace and the promise of mercy. Because he too was human, Jesus understands what it is to be human—the promises we make because we want to keep them, but cannot; the fears and hopes that lead to half-truths; the insecurity that drives us to actions we don’t even want to make. He knows all these and so is able to bring us that grace and forgiveness, because he understands. Jesus knows the struggle to remain faithful to our call, to squeeze our way through the eye of the needle to right actions. When we fall short of our intentions, when we don’t speak that truth we know we should, when we can’t seem to find the courage to stand—Christ is with us in that moment, leading us through that narrow way.

MCCs have come through some hard times. There have been days and months when it was uncertain whether the denomination would survive; there have been times when this local church faced the possibility of closure. But we have come through, my friends—we have survived and thrived, because we heard the voice of Christ leading us through that narrow way. We have stood with the marginalised, we have taken our place in the world and spoken truth to power. That is who we are—as UFMCC, as this local congregation. We will continue to stand beside those viewed as “less-than” in any way—age, income, gender, ability, sexuality, race, ethnicity, country of origin. This is our call, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk with our God every day.

Take up that call, church. Do justice, love mercy, and walk with your God, today and everyday.

In all God’s names, amen.

Clarence Darrow--Beyond Scopes and Leopold & Loeb

Personalities fascinate me--people do. One way I try to understand history and places is through people--which is why I love good histor...