Monday, December 3, 2018

A Blessing Not Used

This past summer I wrote a blessing for an event which ended up not getting used. I share it here for the beginning of Advent, a season of hope.

May God's healing touch reach out to you,
and through you,
that you may be beacons of hope
in a world so in need of that gift.
May the love of God
soak your soul to overflowing,
that the light of God
shine through your life –
this day, and all days to come.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

A New Verse for an Old Hymn

In the end of summer every three years we hit a spot in the Lectionary where the Gospel readings for five weeks are from the 6th chapter of John - all centered around Jesus as the Bread of Life theme. I thought the hymn "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say" fit well with my message this week, but it didn't have a verse specifically centered on Jesus as the Bread of Life. So I thought I would write one. This is what I came up with:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
"I am the Living Bread;
all who receive me never die.
Come to the feast, be fed!"
I came to Jesus, and I ate
this nourishment of grace,
and strengthened by this mystic meal
the road ahead I face.

This verse references not only the 6th chapter of John, but also the first reading for this week from 1 Kings 19:4-8 (the story of Elijah being fed in the desert by an angel). I see this new verse coming between the current verses 2 and 3. We'll see how it sings tomorrow.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

So This is What Normalization Looks Like

My wife and I just came back from a brief vacation in Florida. We were there on February 14th when the worst high school shooting in the United States took place, claiming more lives than even the infamous Columbine High School massacre. Parkland, where the shooting took place, was across the state from where we were staying, but even so it was only a three and a half hour drive away (close by prairie standards). Here's the weird thing, had we not seen our Facebook feed that week we might not have known this tragic event had even taken place.

On the beach and in the bars and restaurants there was no talking in hushed tones, no sad or serious faces, no conversations (that I overheard at least) that centered on this most recent and senseless shooting. The televisions in public places were all tuned to the Olympics, none were showing any news feeds. I only saw one flag at half mast, and that was at a fire station. It seemed like things were just fine, life was going on as normal. I thought to myself "So this is what normalization looks like." American residents are so used to these horrific news stories that not even the massacre of 17 students at a high school in their very own state seemed to have much impact.

Meanwhile on Facebook the (sadly) typical stories and commentary unfolded, the same arguments yelled at each other - maybe just a little louder this time. After every mass shooting we wonder if things will change this time, and sadly instead of positive change something more insidious is happening - we are simply getting used to this new normal.

Slowly, bit by bit, the people of Germany became used to their new normal under the leadership of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party. By the end of it all many of those folks had participated in some of the worst atrocities ever inflicted by one group of humans on another. It didn't start that way, rather bit by bit such evil behavior, such twisted thinking that allowed this behavior, grew and grew, becoming their 'normal' until the end of the war - then it was called something different, it was labeled 'war crimes and crimes against humanity.'

What will the future think of our current generation? How will thoughtful people account for the inaction by officials and the general public in the face of this growing crisis. And it is growing, according to hard data the frequency and number of mass shootings has been climbing over the past decade. What will the future call this normalization of minimally regulated gun ownership in the face of escalating violence against innocents? Societal Stupidity? Mass Mental Illness?

I, for one, don't want to accept this new normal. I don't want to get used to hearing these news stories. I don't want to be numbed to the human suffering spit out from the muzzle of an AR-15 where one person with one weapon can impact the lives of so many. I don't want this to be accepted as normal - not now, not ever.

Martin Luther, in his explanation to the fifth commandment says: We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life's needs.

Inaction on the part of policy makers, gun manufactures and retailers, and quite simply the voting citizenry – is endangering the lives of our neighbors. It's time for a new normal, based on the new commandment Jesus gave his followers - "that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." (John 13:34)  It's time those words became concrete actions - thoughts and prayers are not enough, it's time for some tough love. It's time to recognize and halt the normalization of something that should never, ever be acceptable as normal.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Canaanite Lives Matter!

This post is based on a sermon I preached on August 20, 2017. It is based on Matthew 15:21-28.

According to Biblical commentators, the passage in Matthew 15:21-28 is one of the most difficult to understand. Traveling to the traditionally pagan region of Tyre and Sidon (modern day Lebanon), the farthest north Jesus would travel during his earthly ministry, he is accosted by a Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter.  Shockingly Jesus acts dismissive and even mean to this Canaanite woman.  We find ourselves asking “Is this the same Jesus?  How come he is acting like this?”
It certainly seems that Jesus is acting in a negative, even a racist manner towards this non-Jewish woman. There have been many attempts by theologians to understand what is happening in this text. Here are some of the explanations:
  1. The story shows an inner struggle of Jesus when he is confronted with the request to extend his mission beyond the Jewish limits in which he had begun it. At first he is reluctant to make the shift in his ministry focus, but upon seeing the faith of the Canaanite woman he grows in his understanding of his mission and changes his attitude.
  2. The Gospel has Jesus playfully using the diminutive word for dogs (i.e. doggies or puppies) rather than the usual term, thus indicating that Jesus did not really despise foreigners as many other Jews did.
  3. Jesus is trying to teach his followers a lesson, by mirroring what would have been their attitude towards non-Jewish people, then in a sudden shift showing the disciples how Gentiles should be treated (by responding to the request positively, healing the daughter in an act of love and compassion).
  4. Jesus is testing the sincerity of the Canaanite woman’s humility and faith by seemingly rejecting her request at first.
  5. The story was adapted by the Gospel writer from another source not related to Jesus, in order to address the struggle within the early church as to whether the message and powers of the kingdom of God were open to Gentiles as well as Jesus.
If we simply consider what are Jesus’ words and actions in this story then he seems to be reflecting a prejudice against this woman because of her ethnic identity. Jesus is acting in a manner that could almost be considered ‘racist’ towards Canaanites. Even though she addresses him as “Son of David” – a distinctly Jewish understanding - Jesus disregards her at first, ignoring her pleas for help. But she won’t stop asking and the disciples beg Jesus to do something to get rid of the woman. So Jesus speaks to the woman, but in a manner that seems to be negative and dismissive – her problems are none of his concern seems to be Jesus’ initial approach. But none of Jesus’ negative responses deters this woman, and she persists until Jesus changes his tone and approach completely.

Is it possible that we are glimpsing some of Jesus’ human nature here? One shaped by the culture and community he was raised in? We know through other historical documents that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day had strong negative opinions about people of other ethnic groups and religions: they did not like the Romans, or the Samaritans, or the Greeks, or the Canaanites. They called non-Jewish people “dogs” and they avoided interaction with them as much as possible. If that is what is happening in this story, it would not have been anything unusual as far as a Jewish audience was concerned. This attitude was normal in the culture Jesus grew up in.

We are all shaped by the community and culture in which we were raised. When I think back to my childhood I remember plenty of derogatory jokes and comments made about “other people” – that would include people of Polish or Ukrainian descent, people who came to Canada from India or Pakistan, Asians were all grouped together in our minds and negative stereotypes were repeated over and over. Most significantly Indigenous peoples were targeted for particularly harsh scorn and derision. Not only were people of different ethnic backgrounds treated with suspicion, disregard or outright hatred, so to were people of different religions or different sexual orientations. I can clearly remember using all kinds of slurs and put-downs for people who I considered different from me. And nothing seemed wrong with such behavior, because everyone was doing so, or so it seemed.

These past few weeks we have been watching expressions of hatred towards people of other religions or ethnic heritage on the news. We have seen the neo-nazi and white supremacists marching with torches and hate filled chants in Charlottesville, Virginia. We have seen people targeted and run over by a van in Barcelona because of religious intolerance and hatred, the terrorists believing that their version of religion is the only legitimate one and all others should be exterminated. Such extreme displays of hating others is upsetting to us, and, personally, I found myself deeply disturbed by all this.

When traveling in Europe this summer we came across other disturbing reminders of our intolerance and unacceptance of others who are perceived to be different. Our group visited Dachau, the site of the first concentration camp established by the Nazis, where political dissidents, religious opponents, homosexuals, and multitudes of Jewish people, were held captive and ultimately executed – for no
other reason that they were deemed “not like us.”

Visiting a museum in Munich, Beth and I learned how the National Socialist Movement (or the Nazis) started, how the movement grew and took hold of power. Munich was the heart of fascism in Germany and where Hilter began his quest for power. In this museum I came across one of the most dis-heartening artifacts from the Nazi era – this red stole, worn by clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, during the reign of Hitler.

From reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer I know that there were many clergy, theologians and academics who embraced Nazi-ism with open arms, who welcomed Hilter’s movement as a good thing, and shaped their worship services to reflect this admiration. I wondered “How could pastors and priests not see this was a bad thing?”

This was not the only example of racism from historical Europe we encountered. In Wittenberg, the town that is at the heart of the Reformation, the place where Martin Luther preached and taught for most of his life, in this town, on the Stadtkirche (Town Church), we saw this 13th century sandstone sculpture.

It portrays a rabbi who looks under the sow's tail, and other Jews drinking from the pig’s teats. A plaque at the church told us "In the late 13th century, a relief mocking the Jewish religion was installed on the south-east corner of St. Mary’s Church (also known as Town Church). Offensive reliefs of this kind were widespread in the German Empire at that time and were intended to discourage Jews from settling nearby."

A holocaust memorial below the stone relief was unveiled in November 1988, 50 years after the start of the Jewish pogroms in Nazi Germany. The bronze panel created by sculptor Wieland Schmiedel shows four floor slabs meant to conceal something underneath. This “something” however, cannot be suppressed. It emerges from the joints and stands out in relief, forming a cross. The suffering of those trampled underfoot is replicated in the sufferings of Christ. The text by writer Jurgen Rennert around the monument refers to the inscription on the relief high above on the church building. It reads: "God’s original name, the maligned Shem Ha Mphoras, which the Jews held holy before the Christians, died in the six million Jews under the sign of the cross." Added in Hebrew letters in the beginning of Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”

The “Jewish Sow” high on the church wall at Wittenberg was a stark reminder of the racist attitudes towards the Jewish people that existed throughout Europe, for centuries before the Nazis came to power.

In every museum display talking about Martin Luther and the Reformation that we saw this summer, there was an acknowledgement of Luther’s antisemitism. Sadly, this amazing man of God also had a very negative side to his personality and work. Early in his career as a theologian and pastor Luther supported and defended the Jewish people, however by the end of his life he had come to see the Jewish people only in a negative and hostile light. Some of his final writings were anti-Semitic books
and pamphlets. The most infamous one being his book “On the Jews and Their Lies”, written the final year of Luther’s life. Adolf Hitler used Luther’s book to give support to his own antisemitism.

Why Luther changed his attitude towards the Jewish people has been cause for much speculation, and no clear answer. I also discovered in my reading these past months that Martin Luther was not the only reformer to publish antisemitic works, others such as John Calvin and Erasmus of Rotterdam also wrote or spoke against the Jewish people. Thus even those who knew well the command of Christ to love others as we love ourselves exhibited racist attitudes. It seems as if cultural biases took precedence over Biblical imperatives.

We are all shaped by the cultures and communities we have been raised in, and we are all susceptible to unconscious biases, or to put it another way, we are all to some degree racist.

When we hear the word “racist” certain images come to mind – but racism goes beyond the stereotypical image of the guy with a shaved head and “White Pride” tattooed across his shoulders, the one who drives around with a Confederate flag bumper sticker on his jacked-up truck, and
tosses empty beer cans out of the window. Then we think "We’re not like that, we don’t blatantly hate any groups of people."  Thus we conclude that we’re not tainted with racism. However, once and a while we get a glimpse of our unconscious biases, our prejudices, and if we’re honest we need to admit that we find it easiest to paint a group of people with the same brush.

Tieja Thomas of the Someone Project said in a recent interview on CBC radio:
"Everyone makes judgements based on race. So [by] saying that everyone is a racist, I'm trying to make light of the negative impacts of hateful forms of racism, but I think we all make judgements. We're all innately judgmental beings."
To be fair, this impulse to judge others based on some identifiable characteristic – their ethnic group, their sexual orientation, their social status, their education level, and so forth – to categorize and characterize others makes it easier to navigate our way in the world. This is why it is such an easy thing to fall into. The world can be an overwhelming place, and anything that simplifies our understanding of how people function in this world is something we would naturally gravitate towards. But just because it is easier doesn’t make it right.

I try hard not to harbor any racist attitudes I sometimes catch myself thinking or even speaking a negative stereotype of another ethnic group. In my interactions with indigenous people I have found myself being patronizing, or over-simplifying their problems, or worse, simply disregarding them. I am not proud of this behavior, but I need to acknowledge that I can also slip back into racist attitudes I learned from my community and culture as a child.

Scientific research has shown that it takes time and effort to overcome our unconscious biases, our racist attitudes, our judgmental behavior. But it can be done. It begins with becoming aware, making unconscious biases conscious. It takes serious reflection, it takes honesty and humility. I believe it also takes prayer. And finally it takes practice, meaning we need to be intentional in getting to know those who we identify as “others.”

This means listening to indigenous people share their stories. It means getting to know a Muslim neighbor. It means participating in ecumenical dialogs, such as the one we hope to have this fall between the Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans of our area.

Let us return to the Gospel reading, moving past the initial behavior and words of Jesus to the conclusion of the story. Here we find Jesus suddenly proclaiming the worth and value of the Canaanite woman. This un-named Gentile woman is the only person in the Gospel of Matthew said to have “great faith” (in contrast to the disciples’ “little faith”).

In this way, this story is similar to that of the Roman centurion in Matthew chapter 8, both stories of Jesus’ interactions with non-Jewish people prepare us for the universal mission charge with which the Gospel of Matthew concludes (28:19-20). "Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you."

The other day I came across a Statement of Lutheran Clergy Rejecting White Supremacy, Terrorism, and Violence. It begins by quoting from Revelation 7:9-10: After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!
Then it continues:
We the undersigned, as Lutheran pastors and leaders who believe that God’s grace is for “all tribes and peoples and languages,” publicly condemn white supremacy as well as terrorism of every kind.

I applaud the people who put that statement, but if we only paid attention to the obvious forms of racism and hatred we will miss the call of the Holy Spirit to look deep into our own hearts, and to begin the transformation to a world of peace by starting with ourselves.

One final image to share with you.

Here we see hands of many different hues placed on top of the cross. This specific cross is on the Norwegian flag. When you think of Norwegians I’m sure you imagine blond haired, blue eyed, white skinned people. One time my Dad was in a store and overhead people speaking fluent Norwegian. He rounded the corner and saw two black men engaged in conversation using perfectly pronounced Norwegian. Had he not heard them first I’m sure my Dad never would have thought they were from Norway, the world is filled with surprises like that. Surprises such as a Canaanite woman who shows more faith than even Jesus’ disciples. May you be open to the surprising people that God will give you opportunity to get to know.

As we strive to accept and love all people, truly and fully from the depths of our hearts; as we seek to allow the love of Jesus to transform us, and to change any lingering sinful attitudes into fruits of the Spirit; then we will be united as in the vision in Isaiah 56, united as the whole people of God, a family created by the love and grace of God.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Epiphany Needs its own Colour

When I was a child the same colour was used in the church to designate the seasons of Advent and Lent – both were assigned the colour purple, a colour of royalty, passion and penitence. For some reason this began to change sometime in the 70’s and thus in many churches the colour blue became the colour of Advent.

We currently have a similar situation with the Season of Epiphany and the Season after Pentecost (both of which are designated as Ordinary Time). I cannot think of Epiphany as ‘ordinary’, this season of revelation - of light and insight - it has its own distinct tone, its own unique emphasis, its own personality. I think it needs its own colour.

Epiphany begins with the light of a star leading Magi to the Christ child, and continues with the divine identity of Jesus being revealed in various ways to the waiting world. A voice is heard at Jesus’ baptism proclaiming “This is my beloved son”; water is turned to wine at a wedding feast leading one to say “You have saved the best wine until now.”; prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures which speak of light dawning on a people in darkness get referenced by Jesus, or by the Gospel writers about Jesus. When artists of earlier centuries sought to reveal Jesus’ divine nature they painting a golden yellow halo around his head. Golden yellow, the colour of a dancing flame atop a candle standing on the altar (or a lamp on a lampstand), such a colour seems like a perfect choice to mark a season of revelation.

Baptismal Font and Epiphany Paraments

When I look at Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night” I see the shimmering golden yellow marking the vibrance of the stars in the night sky, and I think of the light of the world, and the message of the heavenly host swirling through the heavens “Glory to God in the highest!”  When I see the sun rise in the east, changing the deep blues of twilight into the golden hues of sun rise I think of the rising of the Son of God. When I see the golden yellow of pure silk fabric I imagine the magi from the east bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Golden yellow is the colour I most easily associate with the Season of Epiphany.

A few years ago there was a clearance sale on stoles which came from MESH (Maximizing Employment to Serve the Handicapped), a non-profit organization in India founded to provide opportunities for disabled people and their dependents. I noticed that there were some golden yellow stoles no one was picking up, and since the price was right I picked one up (as did my ministry partner Pastor Lynn Robertson). I figured these stoles were intended to be used at Easter (which instead of white can use gold as a liturgically appropriate colour). But these stoles were more yellow than gold. That’s when the thought hit me “These stoles could be used for the Season of Epiphany”.

Pastor Lynn Robertson and I wearing our MESH golden yellow stoles.

It always seemed odd to me, being that I live in the northern hemisphere, that green would show up in the paraments at a time in the year when the only things that were green were either plastic plants or leftovers growing mold in the back of the fridge. There was no green on the Canadian prairies in the middle of winter, but sunlight – bright golden sunlight – that we had plenty of.

I don’t know who first had the idea for using the colour blue for Advent, but somebody, somewhere did – and it caught on. So I decided that if I thought the Season of Epiphany should have its own colour, then I should simply start the ball rolling. At first we could only wear our MESH stoles, but then this year Karen Schultz, a talented fabric artist from our congregation, created some paraments from beautiful golden yellow silk fabric that she had found. Besides the paraments hanging on the pulpit, lectern and altar, she also created two long side banners, and most lovely of all, a new Epiphany stole!

So now our sanctuary is resplendent in its golden yellow paraments, and the season of Epiphany is being marked with its own colour. I encourage other congregations and clergy to consider doing the same, explaining the significance of light as a symbol of Epiphany, and golden yellow as an appropriate colour to remind us of the revealing of the Christ. Jesus born of Mary and acknowledged by the magi, Jesus the light of the world who brings hope to a world trapped in darkness, sight to people who are blind (both physically and spiritually), and the warmth of God’s love to shine upon us.

New Epiphany paraments and stole created by Karen Schultz.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Violent Death Hits Home

On Thursday December 1st a young man was shot in New Orleans. Normally I would only take brief note of such a news story - but this time it was different. I knew this man, not personally, but I was sitting in the stands at Mosaic Stadium when Joe McKnight's play for the Saskatchewan Roughriders made me notice this mid-season addition to the team. I remember thinking that there was some hope for the future at the running back spot because of Joe's ability to hit the holes in the line and with a burst of speed gain a first down or more.

Now a burst of gunfire has ended his life, at only 28 years of age - the same age as my eldest son. All because of a road rage incident if the news reports are accurate. Rage and violence, too often the solution used to right a supposed wrong. What kind of traffic offense was so terrible that it warranted such a response? My head can't even begin to make sense of this. I find myself shaken deeply - the same age as my son, violently torn from his family and friends. It's a nightmare.

I am saddened, not only because Joe McKnight's death has hurt a team, has left a hole in a family, has brought unexpected grief into the lives of many - I am saddened that we are living in a world in which such a tragic event can even take place. The tension in the United States has only gotten worse in recent months, and when something is wound up so tight, when it lets go damage is inevitable. I have no idea if this specific event is related to the increasing fear and polarization happening in the United States, but I'm not sure how else to make any sense of this, how such a thing could happen.

Violence as a solution is all around us - in television, movies and books; in the encouragement of competition rather than cooperation; in playground intimidation and courtroom litigation (not all violence is of the physical sort). Violence as a solution is also inside us - in the primal response to hurt as we've been hurt; in the quest to dominate and get our own way; in what I would simply call our 'sinful nature'. At its least destructive feelings are hurt, at its worst someone lays bleeding to death on a city street.

There is another way to live, a path set forth 2000 years ago, when another innocent young man was subjected to undeserved violence and death. In the face of aggression and anger he refused to use force and violence in return - instead forgiveness and mercy were offered. The only power Jesus used on others was the power of love. May the tragedy of Joe McKnight's shooting compel us to seek the path of peace and justice with greater energy and intention. May we seek to love our neighbours, all our neighbours, with the same love that Christ showed us. It is not enough to feel sad about such an unnecessary death - it is time to repent, to change the way we think and act, and to walk in the light of the Prince of Peace.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

We Are the Lord's

This past week we celebrated All Saints Sunday at Christ Lutheran where I am a pastor. When looking for a hymn to go with the theme I was preaching on I came across a hymn with suitable words in the Lutheran Book of Worship (the old green hymnal as many know it). The text was very fitting, but I didn't like the melody very much, so I decided to look for another melody to use with this hymn. The only hymn tune I found that matched the meter of the words really well was the much loved How Great Thou Art.  The only problem is that How Great Thou Art has a refrain and the hymn We Are the Lord's did not. So rather than throw this idea out I decided to write a refrain to go with the verses to this hymn. This adapted hymn was very well received on Sunday, and people have asked me for the words - so here they are.

Words by Karl J.P. Spitta, translated by Charles T.Astley
Words for the added Refrain by Dennis D. Hendricksen
Sung to the tune "How Great Thou Art"

1.  We are the Lord's. His all-sufficient merit,
     Sealed on the cross, to us this grace accords.
     We are the Lord's and all things shall inherit;
     Whether we live or die, we are the Lord's. 
Added Refrain:
     We sing our praise, because we are the Lord's.
     By grace we're saints forevermore.
     We sing our praise, because we are the Lord's.
     Alleluia! Alleluia!

2.   We are the Lord's. Then let us gladly tender
     Our souls to him in deeds, not empty words.
     Let heart and tongue and life combine to render
     No doutful witness that we are the Lord's. 
Added Refrain

3.   We are the Lord's. No darkness brooding o'er us
     Can make us tremble while this start affords
     A steady light along the path before us –
     Faith's full assurance that we are the Lord's. 
Added Refrain

4.   We are the Lord's. No evil can befall us
     In the dread hour of life's fast loos'ning cords;
     No pangs of death shall even then appal us.
     Death shall be vanquished, for we are the Lord's. 
Added Refrain:
     We sing our praise, because we are the Lord's.
     By grace we're saints forevermore.
     We sing our praise, because we are the Lord's.
     Alleluia! Alleluia!