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New Life

Lord Jesus Christ,
our living Lord,
you have entrusted us with
a great and precious treasure:
the message that you have power
to create and to give new life.
Your Spirit moves among us
shaking up what has become settled and shut down;
stirring new life in the midst of our dying;
making a new creation in places where we have given up.

We yearn for your presence,
but we’re not sure we want your new creation.
Your newness sets us off balance.

It is awkward, unnerving
to step into your future
without knowing
without being sure
without seeming more than the next step in front of us.

The only assurance you give is that your Spirit will breath new life,
that you are the Way we are to take
that your steadfast love and faithfulness,
your mercy and your grace
will meet us in every step.

You promise that that will be enough.
So, here, now,
we dare to trust you to make all things new,
including us.
Teach us to sing your song
in this time,
in this place,
for your sake and to your glory.

Amen.

2 Corinthians 4: 7-17
John 3: 1-10

Why do you participate in the life and mission of your church? There are lots of other things you could do with your time and energy. It is a difficult time to be the church. You could be giving your time and energy to something easier, something that looks more successful, something more popular. Yet, you show up; you give what you feel you can. Why do you do that?

When I have asked that question, the most common response I get is that people participate in their church because of the friendships they have there. The relationships keep them coming.

Those relationships are very precious gifts. We live in a time when many people are profoundly lonely. They are thirsty to feel welcomed in a community. They are looking for some place where they are treated with dignity and kindness. They want to believe that they matter to somebody.

Some of you have found those things among the friendships you have developed in your church community. Those friends have seen you through some of the worst times in your life. You have shared some of the best times together. You speak readily about how grateful you are.  “Why do you participate in the life and mission of your church?” Many of you answer, “Because of the friends I have here.”

Yet, as true as that answer may be, something more needs to be said. The Church is not just a social club. As William Willimon is fond of saying, “The Church is not just the Rotary Club meeting at an inconvenient time.” We gather in Christian communities not just for the friends we have. Lots of people have good friends without the trouble of being part of the Church.

We gather in Christian communities because something more in happening in and through your relationships with each other. Often God meets you through these other people. Someone says something at just the right time that helps you find your way forward and you discern that it is the Spirit of God working through that person. You are on the receiving end of some undeserved kindness or generosity and you realize that you are catching a glimpse of the grace of God that permeates all our days. Someone sits with you when you are going through a dark time and you feel God’s steadfast love and faithfulness flowing through him or her into your life.There is more to the church than just friendships with each other. Our friends become channels, conduits, through which the living God reaches out to you.

As great a treasure as all of that is, there is something beyond even that going on. Jesus promises, “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20).  It is not just that other people are channels of God’s grace. It is that, when we gather together, the risen Christ is here. He shows up. He joins the gathering.

Often we do not recognize that he is present. Seldom do we acknowledge his presence. Yet, he is here, with us, beyond our ordinary human sight.

When the apostle Paul tried to describe this, he said, “In Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17)  In Christ, there is a new world: a new dimension to this world. Now that God has raised Jesus from the dead, there are two worlds that exist in the same continuum. It is like two notes playing at the same time. The one world is the visible world that we are used to seeing and touching and hearing — the everyday world. There is another world as well. It is invisible to our ordinary senses but it is still real and it has its effect on us.

A new creation came into being when God raised Jesus from the dead. This new creation is teeming with God’s mercy and God’s grace and God’s resurrection power. Because it is not visible, many people tend to overlook it or dismiss it. That would be a mistake. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “It is the invisible that moves the visible” (John 3: 5-6).

Much of living by faith is a matter of developing eyes to see and ears to hear God’s work. There is more going on here than what we are in our own selves and in our relationships with each other. There is the risen Christ saving and healing and bringing us into the power of the resurrection that is at work in our world. The risen Christ is bringing new life in places and situations that we have given up on as dead, as hopeless.

That is why in our lives and in our churches, we always need to remain open to surprise. We need to be supple, ready to change direction, ready to consider new possibilities. Our resurrecting God keeps showing up.

Often, when the risen Christ show up, he breaks open things that we had nailed down tightly. There are things in our lives that we have tried to keep so tightly controlled that all the life in them has been shut down. Jesus shows up and breaks them open so that there’s room for the Holy Spirit to blow through our lives again and bring new energy and new life.

That can be a very painful process. We like things the way they are. We have organized them that way. They work for us that way. At least, they did. Even when they no longer do, we hold on to them because they are familiar. There is a certain comfort in that.

God will not let us settle for comfort. God has something far better in mind for us. God wants to give us life, real life, abundant life. God want that abundant life not just for us but for our children and grandchildren and for the children of this neighbourhood and this city and the whole of God’s beloved creation. God’s Spirit moves against structures that stand in the way of God’s good purposes. The Spirit is in the process of dismantling them, of letting them die and disappear.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “When God’s Spirit shows up, it’s like the wind that blows where it will. You don’t know where it is coming from or where it is headed next.” The Spirit is a wild and powerful presence. Sometimes the Spirit-wind is like a hurricane that clears out the present order and makes room for something new to come. Sometimes the Spirit-wind is the kind of wind that catches the sails of a sailboat and takes us on new adventures.

Much of the New Testament was written to small Christian communities that we hanging on by their finger tips. Yet, Paul writes to them with amazing hope:
Since God has so generously let us in on what he is doing, we’re not about to throw up our hands and walk off the job just because we run into occasional hard times. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we are not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we are not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The thing we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever” (2 Corinthians 4: 7-17, The Message).

We are not on our own. Our life together draws its energy and vitality from the greatness of God’s power. So, the church lives on tiptoe. The church is a community that is open to the impossible becoming possible. It is determined to live in the impossible possibility of the reign of God in our midst.

Why do you keep showing up? Thomas Long tells of being part of a spiritual formation class in a church where the question was asked, “Why have you stayed as part of the Church?” One man replied, “I’ll tell you what keeps me coming. it’s strange, I know, but I get the feeling here, like nowhere else, that something is about to happen” (Something is About to Happen, p. 9)  That, my friends, is a great gift. Thanks be to God.

Scripture: John 11: 1-7, 17-25

For a few years, Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. On the morning of September 11, 2001, he was leading a spiritual retreat at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York, a few blocks away from the World Trade Centre. After the attacks on the towers, the staff of the church provided a place of refuge, safety and comfort for the terrified people who came into the building that day and for the rescue workers in the days afterwards. Archbishop Williams wrote a small book reflecting on the events of that day and the days that followed: Writing in the Dust.

In the introduction to the book, he asks, “After the 11th, what are we prepared to learn?” Ten years later, that question remains. “Can anything grow through that terrible, terrifying event?” Williams states that he hopes that the answer is “Yes.”

The morning after 9/11, Williams was stopped in the street by a young man who was a pilot and an active Catholic. That young man asked the question that many people ask when confronted with unspeakable evil: “What was God doing when the planes hit the towers?” Williams mumbled something about human freedom. God creates us with free will and does not intervene. God does not just override the choices we make. Living in faith does not mean we escape evil. It means we are given resources to confront it. Through faith, we find a way to suffer, take it forward and then, in God’s own time, to have it healed by the grace and mercy of the living God.

Williams knew that whatever he said would be inadequate. Ultimately, he said, this man did not want a theological discussion about free will. This man was a lifelong Christian, committed to a loving and saving God. However, now, for the first time, it had come home to him that he might be committed to a God who could seem useless in a crisis.

Have you been there? If you have not yet, be assured that, the further you go in faith, the more honest you are about life, you will come to a place where God does not do what you want or expect God to do.

That was the hard truth both Martha and Mary faced in this morning’s gospel story. Their brother Lazarus was ill. They sent for their good friend, Jesus, to come to help. But Jesus did not come. “Lazarus” means “God helps”, except God did not help this family when they needed God the most. The writer of the story makes a point of saying that they “dwelt in Bethany”, the “house of affliction”. Their affliction was not just that Lazarus was ill. Their affliction was that the one to whom they looked for help was absent. By the time Jesus showed up, Lazarus had died. In fact, he had been dead four days.

First Martha, and then Mary, confronted Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” The same accusation was in the question that the young Catholic man asked: “Where was God when the planes flew into the towers?” We ask it ourselves: Where is God when children die of starvation in Africa? Where is God when someone we love suffers? Surely, if God is good, God should be there to help. God should fix things.

Much of living in faith is a matter of coming to terms with a God who does not meet our expectations. This God does not show up when we really need God to show up. All of us have some burden of suffering which we bear. There is some deep sorrow that hovers in the background of our days. There is some wound that we carry in our hearts that is in varying stages of being healing or refusing to be healed. Hopes and dreams have been shattered. We worry over our children. You can add to the list.

As Christians we know the promises of our Lord. Just before Jesus died, he promised, “I will not leave you orphaned; i will come to you. I will ask the Father and he will give you a Comforter to be with forever.” The psalms are full of such promises: “God is our refuge and our strength; a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place . . . he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways . . . I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble” (Psalm 91).

Martha knew the promises. She knew the promises that the power of God is stronger than death itself. When Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again, she can recite them back to him. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

We know the promises but there are times when the promises seem all to lie in the future. They are some future hope we cling to in spite of all the evidence in the present that defies them.

Or, maybe they all lie in the past. They exist as memories of experiences where we did feel the presence of God, bearing us up as on eagles’ wings, holding us in the palm of God’s hands.

We can find ourselves living between those memories and that hope and all we really know of God is the emptiness of God’s absence.

This is a difficult place to be. We want to move through it quickly. We want to have confident faith renewed. We want to move beyond the questions and the doubts and the uncertainties; to move into the promised joy and peace; to get on with being productive again. Instead, we are stuck in that in-between place and we cannot move past it.

The Bible knows a lot about such a space. It calls it by many names: wilderness, exile, the Pit. It is “Holy Saturday”, that time between the agony of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. Nothing is happening. Life seems suspended.

Rowan Williams calls this empty place, this void, a “breathing space”. He says that what you need to do in such a breathing space is breathe. You are not to get on with some action as you try to persuade yourself that you really are in control of the situation. You are to breathe. You acknowledge your hurt and disappointment and rage and sense of powerlessness. You let go of the expectations that you had of God. You come to terms with this God who has given you this emptiness, this breathing space. As painful as it is, it is a gift that is filled with God’s grace.

“Your brother will rise again,” said Jesus to Martha. Martha replies, “I know the promises. On the last day, in God’s promised future, my brother will be raised up in the resurrection.” Jesus tells her, “I am the Resurrection. I am the Life. Now. Here. Already.”

Jesus brings resurrection and life into the midst of the emptiness. In the midst of suffering; in the midst of brokenness; in all the little deaths you die throughout your life, God meets us with resurrection power. In Jesus, God enters into the emptiness and makes it part of God’s holy purpose for your life.

Even the emptiness.

You are baptized with suffering. You go down into the waters of suffering. God raises you to new life. What emerges from the waters of such a baptism is not the old self you had before. You can never go back. You may carry the scars for the rest of your life. But a new self is given by God. You are made new.

It takes courage to enter into such a time. it takes courage to give voice to all that is in your heart. That’s why I keep urging you to learn to pray the Psalms. They are written by people, by a community, that has practiced breathing its faith in the void and the emptiness.

The Psalms teach a language that helps you give voice to your anger and your fears, your hurt and your hopes. They lead you through the evil that you suffer with persistence and honesty. They teach you to yield your life to God. They open you to the healing work of God. Ultimately, they teach to you to praise God again.

They teach you to praise God again in a new song. That new song will carry the sorrow you have known but it will now be gathered into God’s good and holy purposes for you and for the world.

I want you to learn to pray the psalms because they are such a great gift for your spiritual journey. I want you to learn to pray the psalms because we live our faith in a world full of suffering: not just the global suffering we hear on the news but also the suffering in the lives of people you meet day by day. You may not be able to do much to turn the tide, but your vocation as a follower of Jesus Christ is to be with people in the places of their brokenness. Hear their laments. Help them give voice to them. Pray with them to God because, in the end, it is God with whom we all must deal.

Stand with them as a member of a community of people who, from the days of our baptisms, have practised dying and being raised to new life in Christ. We are learning to let Christ take us, bless us, break our lives open, and give us life anew. Having trusted Christ to do that in our lives, we give our lives into his good hands over and over again.

You can help others hear God say to them in their suffering, “Do not be afraid. Nothing in life or in death — not even this terrible thing you are going through — nothing can stop my loving purpose for you.”

That will be a great gift. That will be a good and holy work. For such holy work, God has claimed you as Christ’s own.

A sermon based on: Jeremiah 17: 5-10 and John 15: 1-17

Christian faith is earthy, concrete. It is not about universal, timeless truth or generalized moral principles. It is about God invading time and place: being born in Bethlehem, growing up as a carpenter’s son in the village of Nazareth, walking the dusty roads of Galilee. It is about Jesus healing sick people, feeding hungry people, confronting greedy people, and dying on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem.

Christian faith is trusting that God deals with us in the same way: God invades our  time and our place. It is trusting that the Holy Spirit is involved in the actual circumstances of our ordinary lives. The Spirit’s work changes the way we spend our time and our money, the way we treat our families and friends, the way we conduct ourselves at work. The Spirit pushes us to offer radical hospitality to strangers and enemies. God is at work, training us to live cross-shaped lives in the midst of this world.

It is unhealthy for communities of faith when activities like stewardship and mission get reduced merely to give money away. A healthy congregation needs some hands-on work for people to do. It needs to provide tangible ways for people to experience the blessings of serving others. The Iona Community in Scotland was founded by people who believed that part of what was wrong with the modern way of life was that our brains and our hands got separated too often. People who live there and those who visit spend time not only in creative thought and worship. Part of their day is also given to physical labour. Christian faith is earthy.

However, in the midst of our doing, we can forget that God is trying to do something in us. It is easy to forget that the things we do in serving God are the overflow and outward expression of the work God is doing in us. We love because God first loves us We serve because Jesus serves and saves us. We forgive because the Holy Spirit works God’s forgiveness and mercy and grace into our lives. We welcome the stranger because God has welcomed us. What we do flows out of God’s work in us.

What we do is also the means by which God continues God’s work in us. You show up to serve at the Inn of the Good Shepherd and God is forming you as much as you are feeding the hungry. You take a trip to Haiti and the service you render the poor pales in comparison to the way God is shaping your character, your priorities, and your heart.

That work of God is going on all the time. It is the easiest thing in the world to ignore it. There is always plenty to do. There are always lots of distractions. There is always enough resistance within ourselves that we shove the signs of God’s work to the edge of our consciousness. We do not attend to what God is doing. Worse, we do not respond to it. Eventually, we drift away from the source of our energy and our life.

Sometimes, when that happens, we say that we are suffering from ‘burn out’. It is a term that is borrowed from rocketry. A rocket, soaring upwards, runs out of fuel and falls back to earth. The problem with the metaphor is that it is too mechanical. It implies that there is something external to us that is missing: the problem is that there is not enough fuel; the solution is to add more fuel. Problem fixed. The rocket remains essentially unchanged. It nurtures in us the illusion that, if we could just find the right thing to change about our lives, we would manage well. We look for something external to fix what is wrong: we cut back on our commitments; we find a new time-management tool; we start a new physical fitness routine; we take more vitamins; we learn a new spiritual exercise that will restore our energy.

All those strategies may be helpful in appropriate circumstances. However, when God is at work, God does not merely change what is happening outside of us or what is happening to us. In fact, the external circumstances may not change at all. God’s Spirit works within us, changing our spirits. God’s Spirit forms us, shapes us, and creates within us the capacity to receive God’s life.

That is why the Bible uses organic images when it talks about the spiritual life. Jeremiah says that there are two kinds of people. There are the kind of people who depend on human resources to see them through. They might use God as a background or adjunct to their project, but the dominant context in which they operate is human knowledge, human skills, human resources. Such people, he says, are like those little shrubs you see in the desert: small, easily blown around, brown and dry. They are surviving but just barely, meagrely.

The world is teeming with the energies of God. We live in the midst of God’s extravagant, lavish creativity and redemption. Human resources makes up such a minuscule  portion of that richly alive world. If you only count on human resources, if human capacities shape the limits of what you attend to, you end up with a life that is shallow and thin. When the lean times come, you lack the support you need to survive.

Other people, says Jeremiah, live strenuously. They are like a tree by a river: large, green, abundantly watered, deep-rooted and fruitful. They are the ones who attend to what God is up to. They are developing minds and hearts and spirits that are capable of receiving God’s extravagant grace and life. Even when the lean times come, they keep growing and bearing fruit.

God is always at work in your life. The Holy Spirit is always trying to shape your spirit so that you love with an eternal love and live with the energies of eternity. There is no circumstance that God cannot use to accomplish that work in you. God is at work, whether you are soaring like an eagle or trudging through each day, barely getting the hours in.

God is at hand. Sometimes God is affirming you, strengthening and supporting you. Sometimes God is making you face up to a truth you have been trying to ignore — a truth you need to face if you are going to be set free. Sometimes God is pulling you away from some habit that is becoming destructive. Sometimes God is refining your character to make it stronger, cutting away idolatry, or selfishness, or laziness. There is much in us that distorts God’s image in our lives. Always, God’s aim is to fill us with true and abundant life and to fit us to spend eternity in God’s presence. God wants to bless us and fill us with joy and make our lives fruitful.

It is not always pleasant to be God’s work. You can help God or you can hinder God. If you do not spend some time intentionally attending to what God is doing in your life, you will probably miss it. Says Jeremiah, “The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt.” Given free reign, we will probably going to misunderstand what is going on.  Our hearts and our spirits need training and development so that we become capable of receiving God’s work in us and then capable of responding to it well.

“Abide in me,” said Jesus, “and you will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing. You will become like a withered up old branch that gets thrown into the fire and burned.”

Whatever is taking up your energy, keep your eyes and heart and spirit open to the ways God is at work, teaching you to love more deeply. Let Christ’s great love permeate deeper and deeper into your life. Abide, make yourself at home in the love of the One who says, “I have called you by name. You are mine. I have cared for you from the time you were born. I am your God and will take care of you until you are old and your hair is gray.” (Isaiah 43: 1;  Isaiah 46:4)

Abide, makes yourself at home in the love of the One who knows all about you — your good moments and your bad ones; the times of glory and the times of which you are ashamed; the ways you try to live faithfully and the ways you have failed. God knows all that and loves you still.

Abide in the love of Jesus who left the glories of heaven and went to hell and back to prove that nothing in all creation could ever separate you from God’s love. Abide in Jesus’ love. “You will be like a tree, replanted in Eden, bearing fresh fruit every month. Never dropping a leaf, always in blossom.” (Psalm 1, The Message)

 Love divine, all loves excelling,

love that creates us in your image,

love that meets us in our brokenness,

love that pulls us out of deadly traps

and sets us in the wide expanses of your salvation:

You we worship;

You we praise;

You we love.

You know the ways we wander from your love:

the fears that drive us to make our world small and manageable;

the selfishness that shuts down our hearts;

the arrogance that limits our reach toward the ones you love.

Immerse us again and again in your lavish grace.

Bathe us one more in the cleansing stream of your truth.

Send you Spirit flowing through the dried-up, worn-out places.

Bring life — your life

your wondrous, abundant life,

for we pray in the name of Jesus, 

the Way, the Truth, the Life, 

your Word made flesh,

your Love.  Amen.

Many people in post-mainline churches have trouble talking about their faith in public. There are many reasons for this, but I began wondering about one of them the other day.

For many years, ‘faith’ was framed as something that was ‘private’. If it is ‘private’, then speaking about it to others involves risk — allowing oneself to be vulnerable. So, I wonder if one of the reasons people are reluctant to talk about faith is that they are afraid of being shamed.

For some people, the fear of being shamed comes because they do not believe all the things that they think they are supposed to believe. They have trouble with doctrines like the ‘virgin birth’ or the ‘resurrection of the dead’. They cannot believe that the miracles in the Bible really happened. Lots of people who follow Jesus also have trouble with some of the church’s doctrines. More accurately, lots of people have trouble subscribing to the popular conceptions about what those doctrines are saying. However, I have been surprised by the number of people who confess to me that they ‘don’t believe all those things’ as if such an admission might make me think less of them and their faithfulness. When I am looking at church websites I am amused by the study groups that have named themselves as ‘rebels’ and ‘revolutionaries’, when the focus of their group is nothing more daring than reading books that question some beliefs that are supposedly commonly held. Obviously, in some segments of the Church, there is still a mindset that considers being truthful about your doubts a risky thing. Some people are ‘rebellious’ enough to gather with others, admit their questions, and enter into conversation about them. Others keep their doubts to themselves and so do not talk about their faith in public.

On the other hand, I wonder if some people are reluctant to talk about their faith in public because they DO believe certain things and they are afraid that, in a culture of skepticism, others will make fun of them for that or will think less of them. Will they be mocked because they do believe that miracles happen? Will they be considered foolish if they admit that they have had an experience of Christ’s presence? ? Will people dismiss their answers to their prayers as a misinterpretation of the facts?

Churches could go a long way in helping people to speak about their faith publicly by cultivating an environment where respectful, open and honest conversations happen. In such an atmosphere, it would be all right to question. It would also be all right to believe. People wouldn’t be labelled as either foolish or rebellious. People would not be mocked for either belief or doubt.

Then, perhaps, churches could move the conversation about faith away from ‘belief’ to ‘trust’ — which holds even more risk because it moves the conversation from the head to the heart and will and body.

A sermon based on 1 Kings 19: 1-18

Dr. Andrew Stirling is the Senior Minister of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto. He lived and studied in South Africa during a time when apartheid was still in force. During the 1970s, he was a student minister to a small congregation in one of the black townships. While he was there, he took a stand against apartheid. He engaged in some activities in which he ended up protecting some black youths from the white police. In 1980, he was exiled from South Africa and came to Canada.

At one point, he was the minister at Parkdale United Church in Ottawa. He was serving there at the time when apartheid was abolished and Nelson Mandela was being installed as the Prime Minister of the new South Africa. In honour of that occasion, the Canadian government held a reception from some ambassadors and members of the diplomatic corps. Somebody in the government knew of Dr. Stirling’s involvement in the struggle for freedom and justice in South Africa and arranged from him to receive an invitation to the reception as well.

He arrived wearing his clerical collar and a suit jacket. Very quickly, he felt out of place as the only clergy person in the midst of government officials, diplomats and ambassadors. He spent some time standing around awkwardly until, at one point in the evening, three ambassadors — from Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana — came up to him and introduced themselves. They asked him, “Do you represent anyone in particular?”

“Not really,” he replied.

“Then, what are you doing here?”

“I am beginning to wonder that myself.”

He told them about living and working in South Africa, about his role in the anti-apartheid movement and about the incident with the young boys, and how all of that had led to his being expelled and exiled from the country.

When he had finished, the three ambassadors put their arms around him and said to him, “Never underestimate the importance of the one whom you represent.”

“Never underestimate the importance of the one whom you represent.”  Like Dr. Stirling, we are prone to doing just that. Many voices these days tell us that what the church is and what the church does is unimportant to the real business of the world. These voices are pervasive and they are persistent.

An eighty-five year old woman does nothing more important than buy two winning lottery tickets and she makes headline news. A small group of women, mostly 60 to 90 years old, meet every month for years, quietly raising money in a variety of ways so that some young girl in a distant country will get an education and some shoes to wear. They donate some of their funds to the local food bank so that the working poor, persons with disabilities, and single moms trying to feed and clothe their children can get some pasta and soup to see them through to the end of the month. They do it because they believe that, by doing so, they are serving Jesus their Lord. They will never once make headline news but what they do has a far greater impact than any of us will ever know.

Jennifer Aniston breaks up with her latest boyfriend and her picture gets plastered on the front page of magazines as if this were world-shaking news. Yet, I know people who go about their everyday lives, trying to live with decency and integrity and faithfulness and courage wherever they work and play and serve their communities. They keep at it even though they will never receive the acclaim, money or notoriety that celebrities do in our culture. They do it because they understand that this is what it means to live out of the truth that Jesus is Lord. The witness of their lives will impact their communities in a depth far exceeding what any Hollywood star could accomplish.

Apple announces a new technological toy and stock holders rush to adjust their portfolios. Yet, week in and week out, small groups of Christians gather to worship God and to create communities where children are taught to pray and to live with compassion. Together, they learn the difficult art of loving one another and forgiving one another and loving again after the hurt and the pain. They are carried into an unknown future by hope in the living Christ. They do it because they have been baptized into a life of dying to self and being raised by God into a new creation. They seek to make and keep life human — caring, compassionate, and truthful. They just keep doing living this way even though most of their neighbours do not think that it matters whether or not their little churches survive. Those neighbours will only realize what the community has lost long after the building is closed and gone; yet, those congregations do more to effect the quality of life in that community than all the stock portfolios in the world.

“Never underestimate the importance of the one you represent.”

Many Christian churches are now in the position of being missionary outposts of the kingdom of heaven. We do not receive the support, encouragement or recognition from the culture around us that we once enjoyed. Because of that, we are constantly in danger of underestimating the importance of whom it is we represent. It is easy to get discouraged and disoriented. We can lose our way. When the people of Israel were in danger of forgetting those things, somebody told them again the story of Elijah.

Elijah was a prophet of the Lord God Almighty but, as can happen to God’s people, he was broken down, discouraged, worn out and used up. He wanted to do nothing more than crawl away and hide somewhere. He headed out to the desert. However, Yahweh would not let him settle for that. Yahweh sought him out in the wilderness and sent an angel to feed and nourish him. The angel told him that there was still a journey ahead of him that he needed to take. The journey would take him even deeper into the wilderness.

Elijah got up and, for forty days and forty nights, made his way to Mount Horeb — to the place where God had invited Moses and the people of Israel to live in covenant partnership. Elijah was being sent back to the roots of the people of God.

When Elijah got there, God asked him the kind of question that made him focus on the basics of his life again:  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah could not get past his disappointment, discouragement and sense of isolation. “I’ve been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts. I, only I, am left.”

It’s not a very good answer. It is filled with self-pity. It’s all about him, but it’s all he has left.

God does not really respond to what Elijah says. God does not try to comfort him or encourage him. God does not promise that things will work out for the best. Yahweh just tells Elijah to stand on the mountain because the Lord is about to pass by.

Elijah cannot manage to do even that.

Nevertheless, there is a great wind, an earthquake and a fire. The Lord is not in any of those. Then, there is the sound of sheer silence.  Somehow, it was that silence, that sense of utmost awe and majesty that accompanies the presence of God, that drew Elijah out of the cave and onto the mountain before God.

God asks Elijah the same question God has asked before: “What are you doing here?”

Elijah gives the same answer: “I’ve worked so hard for you, God. It doesn’t seem to have made any difference. I’m the only one left who really cares.”

Again, God does not spend any time on Elijah’s fears and laments. He re-commissions Elijah. There’s still work to be done. He is not alone as he thinks: there are seven thousand who are still faithful and upon whom Elijah can count, even as Yahweh counts on them.

He is to anoint Elisha as his successor. God’s work is so big that it will continue long after Elijah is gone. It will continue: God is already preparing the next generation and it is up to Elijah to disciple them.

He is to anoint Hazael as ruler of Israel and Jehu as ruler of Judah. God is still at work in the world, even directing the future those who hold power. Elijah gets to get in on that world-shaping work.

Elijah gets up and starts again.

The question God is asking us in such a time as this is the same one God asked Elijah, “What are you doing here?” If Elijah’s story is any indication, the chances are that the first answer we give to that question will not be adequate. Probably, the second answer won’t be either. When we are feeling threatened or discouraged, we are prone to focus on ourselves and on what we have done and how we are feeling about all of that.

Nevertheless, God persists. “Why are you here?” Why is there a church in this place?

Even after we get past our initial self-focussed answers, we may make the mistake of looking for the presence of God in something big, spectacular, glamourous. We want an answer that hits us like a great wind or an earthquake or a fire. Yet, that is not the way of Jesus. When Jesus spoke about the church, he used modest metaphors. We are yeast, salt, a light in the darkness. We are a ‘little flock’.

The story tells us to listen for God’s answer to the question in the sound of sheer silence — in moments of awe and majesty when we know ourselves to be in the presence of a holy God. We cannot manufacture those moments. God reveals Godself when God wills. However, we can be ready to respond to them when they come.

That’s why we show up, Sunday by Sunday. We worship God who has claimed our lives and our hearts. We praise the one who rules the cosmos. We sit under the authority of these stories. We wrestle with them. Then we wait and we pray and we offer ourselves to live in obedience to God.

It does not seem like much. Most of the time, it is not glamourous or spectacular in the way the world measures such things. Then again, it is not all about us and what we manage to do. It is all about God — a holy God who takes our fears and transforms them into courage. It’s about our God who meets our brokenness with resurrecting power and impels us into a new sense of mission in the world that God loves. Our work is never to forget the importance of the one whom we represent.

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett on John 20: 1-18

On the evening before Jesus died, Jesus gathered his disciples together and made them a promise. He said, “In a little while, I am going to leave you, but I will not leave you desolate. I will not leave you orphaned. I will ask the Father to send you the Holy Spirit to be with you in my name. So, don’t let your hearts be troubled. Don’t let them be afraid.” (John 14)

Though the centuries, in joy, in sorrow, in the midst of trouble, Jesus’ followers have counted on that promise. If I were to ask you, “What is the gospel? What is the faith that comforts you and sustains you and carries you when you suffer?”, I expect that many of you would answer, “God is with you. We do not journey alone. We do not suffer alone. ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For Thou are with me. Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me’ (Psalm 23)”.

A New Creed of the United Church of Canada proclaims, ‘We are not alone. We live in God’s world. . . . In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. Thanks be to God.” At Christmas, we heard Jesus named Emmanuel — God-with-us. As we headed into Holy Week, Jesus promised, “I will not leave you desolate.”

We count on it. We hold onto it. Time and time again people have told me that they have felt its truth in their lives.

And yet, there have also been times when counting on that promise has been more a matter of faith than of certainty. You can go through stretches — sometimes long stretches— when you do not experience God present with you. You can come to a place where you have to choose to trust that God is with you. You choose to trust the promise even thought there is so much evidence to the contrary. You lean into the promise rather than resting in it. There may be times when you cannot manage even that.

This morning’s gospel story tells us that that is where Easter begins. Did you catch it? “Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” “While it was still dark”, because on Friday, Jesus, the Light of the World, had died on a Roman cross and his disciples’ hope had died with him. “While it was still dark” — in those times when nothing you can do will fix what has gone wrong and you cannot make it right no matter how hard you try. “While it was still dark” — in those times when the disciples of Jesus, the community of faith, is scattered, and fragmented and frightened and not at all sure what the future holds.

In that dark place, where hope cannot be found, and you are full of questions and doubts and uncertainties and you may not even be able to pray, God is at work. Even there the promise hold.

Very often, God’s resurrection work in your life is going to be hidden from your eyes. That does not mean that nothing is happening. By the time any of us gets to Easter morning, God has already entered into the depths of our lives, overcome the power of death and brought the dead to life and begun a new creation, a new world.

The chances are that you are going to see the evidence of God’s resurrection, God’s saving work in your life, only well after Easter has already begun. More than that, the chances are that it won’t look anything like you thought it would.

Mary comes to Jesus’ tomb, expecting to sit for a while in her grief and her pain and her loss. She sees that the stone that had been rolled in front of the tomb on Friday now had been removed from the tomb. She does not immediately thing, “Oh, look — resurrection! God has raised Jesus from the dead. Everything is okay now.” No. She sees the emptiness and the absence and says, “Someone has taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.” She thinks that the grave has been robbed. It wasn’t enough that the powers-that-be had killed Jesus. Now, they had added hurt upon hurt, sorrow upon sorrow and had stolen him away from her as well.

She runs to the church — to Peter and the beloved disciple. They are not too sure what to make of the empty tomb either. They both see signs of God’s resurrection power at work — the stone moved away, the missing body, the folded grave cloths —but only one of them ‘believed’ and they both just went back home. They went back to the way things already were, as if nothing had happened. Mary stays, weeping outside the tomb. She turns around and sees someone standing there and she thinks it is the gardener.

The God who comes to us in Jesus is a God who creates new life where there is only death; a God who takes our dead ends and opens up new possibilities; a God who makes new and heals and saves. Yet, this new resurrection life does not come easily. None of us receives it easily.

You can get stuck in your expectations of what God is supposed to do, or what God’s work is supposed to look like, or what God’s promised presence is supposed to feel like. You are going to have difficulty recognizing the risen Christ in your life. Nadia Bolz-Weber has said, “A God of resurrection means that the story is seldom over when we think it is . . . Being a person of faith doesn’t mean you get to be certain. It means you get to be surprised.”

Our God is a living God, a God of surprises. “I will not leave you desolate,” promises Jesus, but the only way to live into Jesus’ promise is to “live expectantly but without expectations”. All we know is this: God’s love is a firm, determined love that will not let you go. There is no situation so lost that God cannot find you in it and bring you home. There is no wreckage so total that God cannot redeem it and use it for good and holy purposes. God works way beyond your expectations. Resurrection is larger, deeper, more wondrous than any of us expects.

A Risen Saviour is on the loose. Nothing in all creation can stop him. And he knows your name. Thanks be to God.

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