Why Are We Here? A Winter’s Sermon

Preached at St. Paul’s United Church & Zion Calvin United Church on Sunday, February 17, 2019

The following sermon is based upon readings of 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 and Psalm 73

Towards the end of December, I awake at dawn and it is dark. I shower, brush my teeth, look out the window – and it is dark. I wander to the bedroom, get dressed and head downstairs for breakfast – and it is dark. I make myself coffee and it too, is dark (sorry). I put on my coat, boots, hat, gloves and head outside to work – and it is still dark. I do this daily.

Why do I do this? Why do I not simply say to myself – “today it is cold and dark and maybe it will continue to be cold and dark so I may as well just curl up in bed and never get out again.” I really want to do this…very often. Still, I get up and I trust it will become warm again. I trust it will become light again.

Why do I not assume winter’s cold will continue forever? Why do I trust it will become warm again?

As a child I was neither for nor against winter. I was indifferent. Summer was really my time, winter was cumbersome. You had to dress more to go outside in winter while in summer I would literally go outside in nothing but shorts. Sure, there were fun things to do in winter but in my experience you had to work harder to enjoy yourself. You spent time make snow people, throwing snowballs at friends, making snow forts, etc. But there was a time limit. It wasn’t long before you started getting cold. Your boots would start filling with snow which meant that soon your feet would become wet and gross, your socks would somehow have slid down to your toes and somehow get mashed up front, and your mitts would be a frozen mass.

No, winter has never been my favorite season…it’s a time to make the best of things such as they are. It is the great, deep breath before the wonderful, warm exhale of spring – summer’s herald.

Spring always comes. This is a lesson I learned before I could walk. It established a certain hope in me, that in the midst of the coldest and darkest of winters. Spring. Will. come. Why? Because Spring has come before.

Why do we believe certain things?

Why am I a Leafs fan? This is a question I ask myself every year (as do many others). Why do I put myself through this torture? Every Leafs fan’s year starts out with so much promise, then dives into a mid-season slump only to scratch its way back, nearly to the top by the end of the season and then fail…so close…yet so far.

Why? Because the legends of the elders passed down to us today speak of a time in the distant past when the Toronto Maple Leaf’s were one of the greatest teams in the NHL. Stories handed down to us through oral tradition tell of not just one Stanley Cup, not just two, not five, not even ten – but 13 Stanley Cup victories…second only to the evil Montreal Canadiens.

Why am I a fan of a team who has not won a single Stanley Cup in my entire life? Because history gives me hope. History tells me that this team will win again and so I hang onto this thread of faith through the long, dark, cold winter that is Leaf fandom.

Why are we here today? Why do you gather together week after week in this place? What point is there for us to be here or in any church? Some gather because this is where we socialize. Others because this is where we serve. Still others because someone they are with wants to be here or perhaps it is what we have always done…and still others of us have no idea why we are here but we come anyhow.

These are all very surface reasons…at the core, at the foundation, regardless of why we think we are here – there is one, inescapable and unavoidable fact – we are here because of Christ.

Whether you believe in him or not is irrelevant to this. Whether you are tired of sermons filled with religion and prefer your theology in stories and singing is irrelevant to this. Whether you cannot stand coming here but feel you must, is of no consequence to this one, deep and irrefutable truth – you are here in this place on this day, this structure is here in this city, only because of because of Christ.

Why do we do the things we do? Why do we rise each day? Why do we marry? Why go to school? Why work? Why live? For one reason – hope. We hope for something. It is hope that motivates us in all things – hope to earn a living; hope to stay alive; hope to meet a friend; hope to be loved; hope to get in shape; hope that the sun will rise again and again. Hope. Hope that what has been – will be again.

Paul asks this question of the Corinthians when he learns that some who are gathering do not believe that Christ rose from the dead. He asks – why do we bother with our faith? Why do we bother gathering together? Why? If we speak about Christ, gather because of Christ, create buildings as a result of Christ, with programs and ceremonies that testify to Christ – why do any of this if we fail to accept this one basic truth – that Christ died, and that Christ was raised from the dead – why are we doing any of it?

It’s an honest question and one without judgement or condemnation. He looks into the Corinthian congregation and says “I know some of you are here who do not believe in the resurrection…reports have come to me of this. Why are you here? He is honestly puzzled. There is no value to you or any of us in this if Christ did not do what we think he did.”

To put it another way imagine walking into a comedy club and then complaining about how the whole evening all the person at the mic did was tell jokes. What in the world did you think was going to happen? Why are you there?

C.S. Lewis asks the Corinthian question in a far more pointed way in his book Mere Christianity where he writes:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. . . . Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

Paul and Lewis are not condemning. They are simply making an observation. Why are you here? Why bother? Why are you a Leaf’s fan? Why did you come here this morning?

Hope. Hope rooted in something that has happened. Hope rooted in something that promises that it WILL happen again.

The middle of winter is a good time to talk about new life. The long, dark days are a good time to talk about light. About Hope.

Asaph found himself in the midst of a winter of sorts; a dark night of the soul. He put it to words in Psalm 73…my favorite Psalm. Asaph, a dedicated worship leader in Israel has an existential crisis as he wonders at the point of it all. I am a faithful servant of God, I am dedicated, I sacrifice, and I get nothing for it. The wealthy and the criminal are fat and healthy and go unpunished while I sit here day after day trying to figure out how to get these people to look at God.

Asaph goes on whining, moaning and groaning about his circumstances for a while and it is through this process of allowing himself to gripe that he drags himself to a safe shore and sees the point of it all.

As an aside – sometimes we need to whine and complain and weep out loud in pain and anger to get through a thing. Sometimes keeping our winter bottled up inside keeps us frozen (Disney has a great animated movie about this very lesson). Sometimes the act of releasing our dark, accepting the ensuing pain, can bring us to through it and to this place of clarity – which is where Asaph has arrived when he says in verses 16 and 17 –  “it was too painful for me; Until I went into the sanctuary of God

From this point Asaph is climbing from his dark valley to his sunlit mountain top where he proclaims in the final verse of the psalm “But it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord God, that I may declare all your works.”

What is the point?

This is the question that Paul and Asaph ask us and themselves? Why bother?

We understand this question most in the midst of pain both psychic and physical; we understand this question most in the aftermath of death…especially after the death of those we love. Why move forward? Why get up?

We find the strength and motivation to move forward not because of our current circumstances but because of the promise of the past made for our future. We suffer the winters for the sake of the springs to come because of the springs that have been.

As the great martyr, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote in his small book Life Together –

It is not that God’s help and presence must still be proved in our life; rather God’s presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ. It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel, in God’s Son Jesus Christ, than to discover what God intends for us today. The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I will die. And the fact that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, will be raised on the day of judgment

To put it another way – It is enough for me to know that the Leafs have won in order to know that they one day will win again…even though, in my own experience and life, they are sucking right now (although I really think this year is the year).

Sometimes in our various winters, our faith seems dead and dried out like some discarded avocado pit or seed. Look, in fact I have an avocado seed with me today. I literally fished it out of the garbage…our faith can be like this…a seemingly dead, cold, dried out thing we should dispose of…but in fact it is filled with the promise of spring and life…it simply needs to be placed in the dark embrace of the earth and nurtured that it might grow forth alive again.

This is Christ to us. Sometimes he feels dead and useless in our lives like a dried out avocado pit when in fact He is simply waiting to become Spring for us…a Spring that will inevitably come, a promised Spring that cannot be kept away. We are not afraid of the cold anymore, we are not afraid of the dark anymore, though we feel them…because though the sun sets, as Hemingway said “the sun also rises”.

In answer to the question Paul asks – why are we here – we simply respond that it is because of Christ, because of what Christ did and what Christ will do. Hold on to this. Keep this faith inside and remember the words of C.S. Lewis’s close friend J.R.R. Tolkien from the Lord of the Rings –

May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.

These are the words of a man who understood we do not live in a constant state of warm, happy, fluffy belief, but rather more often in a place where we need that spark of hope to light our way.

That is why we come here. Amen.

angel of death

angel of death came forth
and rained incendiary grace
as fire bombs upon our heads
that we might look up in awe
and be ripped toward heaven
from the arms of mother earth,
while we screamed –

JOY! JOY! HALLELUJAH! JOY!
THIS MESSENGER FROM THE LORD
TEARS OUR HOPEFUL LIVES IN TWAIN
WITH LOVE-EDGED, FORGIVING SWORD

’til none was left save the smoking ruins
of an empty chalice that held the world
now tipped upon its broken side
spilling out the compassion of god
dark and wet as blood upon the ground

A Pastor in the Pew

“That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

– Genesis 32:22-28

 

I should have called this an ex-pastor in the pew but this doesn’t have the same ring to it really.

Between church ministry, seminary and pastoring I spend almost 10 years in ministry leadership. Much of that time was spent as a pastor in Toronto and in Manitoba.

During that time I spent most of a Sunday morning leading ministries or preaching. I taught senior and junior youth, I led adult Sunday school classes, I assisted in planning upcoming services with the ministry team, I preached and attended to various other duties.

On occassion I sat dutifully in the pew with my family and the rest of the 300ish congregants listening to our senior pastor, one of my peer associate pastors or guest speakers consuming and ruminating on the Word as it was presented.

Almost ten years ago I left vocational ministry in a cloud of divorce and scandal, and, save for the odd funeral, wedding and guest ministry, have not really looked back.

In the span of time since I left ministry I can count on two hands the number of times I have been back in the pew as a congregant.

It is difficult to explain why this is such a struggle for me. When asked, I explain in various and roundabout ways why I am no longer a regular attendee. I tell people I am “in the desert” and I don’t know how long this will last. I explain that attending church in my small town simply makes people around me uncomfortable given the circumstances of my departure from ministry, etc. etc.

I have been back on occassion. I have sought out Anglican, Catholic, evangelical, United and other styles of worship service over the years and nothing sticks.

I am the worst type of person to have in the pew – a critic. I sit and I listen and I judge the entire time.

Why these songs? Why have they not updated the sanctuary to post 1970s decor? What was s/he thinking with that sermon illustration“, and on it goes. My worship is selfish and me-focused.

I miss being the centre of attention.

It is hard to admit these things. There was a deep and genuine effort to act as a conduit for the congregation to experience God when I was in ministry. My ministry was prayerful and as authentic as I could make it.

Now all I can think about in a church is how I would do it differently. In reality now, nothing distracts me more from God than being amidst a congregation in a church.

I was a person with a deep theology of community and now, I cannot find a way to connect to one in a meaningful, genuine fashion. What would Bonhoeffer say about this I wonder? He would probably admonish my selfishness and tell me to find service somehow. “Look for the work God is doing in and around you and stop looking at yourself so much“.

What do I miss? Do I miss the people? No not really – an introvert at heart, I would often avoid contact with people after services prefering to connect with people outside of the church walls…prefering the company of the unchurched, frankly.

I think the real challenge is that I used ministry as my way to worship God. I used it as my primary form of connection…I deisgned worship services I needed. I preached to a congregation of one – me. I quoted scripture necessary for my growth…and if others were lifted up in this so much the better.

I do not miss church. I chafed at the idea that God was there, in that place, at that time, in that way, with those people, on that particular day.

I struggled with being paid to do what felt necessary from a faith perspective, but that did not stop me from cashing my cheque. I hated that my office was also my ivory tower where I could hide from the world when necessary. I despised the hoops we would put the desparate through when they stopped into the church for money. We did it in the name of being responsible stewards and to avoid enabling…but we did it nonetheless.

Perhaps, in the end, I was never right for the role of pastor.

I am far, far more content now with faith and life then I ever was in ministry. I feel far freer to get dirty with my faith than when I was a pastor constrained by the image of what a pastor should be, how they should talk, and the height of the pedestal they should be on. I can have honest conversations about taboo subjects like homosexuality, abortion, the age of the earth and so on with out fear of an inquisition.

So this is where I am at now in the journey…not in the pack but somewhere off to the side, in the distance, following but not too closely. If this is a selfish faith I am ok with that. If I am grasping after cheap grace than that too will do.

I am who I am – the single most most unsatisfying response ever to the question put from the other whilest on the isolated and cold, wind-swept mountain top, but I like it. It makes me smile.

On Leadership: Light Switch or Filter?

Part of an ongoing and irregular series of articles on leadership.

As a leader are you a filter or a lightswitch?

By this I mean how does your decision making process work? Is it even a process at all? Are you a filter? Do you listen to suggestions from varying sources, weigh the options, collaborate and move forward with the decision – sometimes even decisions you may not agree with?

Or are you a binary decision maker? Yes. No. No. No. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. etc?

There are overlaps between these styles. Binary decision makes have filters and filter decision makers are often driven by circumstance to quick binary decicions – but we have tendancies toward one or the other.

Now I should say up front that context and circumstance contribute significantly to the decision making process a leader makes. A lieutenant in the midst of a combat firefight may not be able to take time to filter decisions through a complex matrix that involves collaboration with peers, seniors and those under her or his supervision – they may need to decide on instinct and hope for the best no matter which style they tend toward.

I am more of a collaborative filter decision maker. Sometimes I allow things to happen that I personally would not choose. As leaders we do this for various reasons not the least of which is always remembering we may be wrong. Other reasons could include the reality that the value of what can be learned by going a certain way outweighs the detriment of failure in the moment.

Regardless of your style you should know what it is. There are places where a binary yes/no approach does not work. Larger, team structured organizations for instance may not thrive under this form of leadership and thus the whole organization suffers.

Learn the styles, learn where you learn and most important;y, learn when you may need to use the other style and why it is valuable to do so from time to time.