April in Labour

Needless to say, I have not had much fuel in my tank this past week. When you’ve never been to a hockey game, but find yourself at an arena-turned-worship space; when you gather there daily, packed to the rafters, not with cheering fans but with a grieving community; when the clapping and chanting happens not because your team won, but because a player leaves the ice in a coffin,  something cracks in your spirit … and a painful thick layer of hoarfrost settles on your eyelids.

Fifteen, no sixteen, people dead in a senseless accident, just hours from our doorsteps. Add to that: more than 100 people killed in air strikes and a chemical attack (and now more air strikes).  Suicides and addictions in First Nations communities continuing to cause tragedy and trauma. A dead whale full of plastics. A friend’s relatives in a serious car accident with one dead and the other suffering life-threatening injuries. 23 children perished in India in a school bus crash. 257 dead in a plane crash in Algeria.

The valley of darkness, Pastor Sean called it last Sunday in the Vigil. The valley of darkness for too many, way too many …  Senseless death invades us like a famished monster. The sun rises; the light and warmth melts the ice. And then here comes another Alberta clipper! April is labouring hard toward spring,  just as the Church is labouring hard to nudge us along into Easter joy.

But death keeps blurring our vision. Answer us when we call, O God, defender of our cause! (Psalm 4)

I get it… I get why the disciples were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. I saw the risen Jesus this past week, and I was just as startled as the disciples were when Jesus appeared. I was involved in 19-year old Jacob Leicht’s funeral on Friday. Jacob’s parents Kurt and Celeste are grief-stricken along with all the others in Humboldt, in our province, in our country and the world. But Celeste and Kurt are people of deep faith; they LOVE their son (& 3 other children) and they LOVE God. * Less than two days following the crash, they already sensed that this tragedy will direct them to a higher purpose. Two days after the crash, Celeste was crying at her kitchen table, pleading with God, “God, you’d better give me a purpose here because I fear the darkness that lies ahead.” And she added, ‘Jacob, help me out.’ At that moment Celeste felt Jacob’s presence more strongly than she had ever felt while he was alive.

The Hockey News reported their story publicly already. These parents are filled with grief yes, but also with incredible peace, a peace the world cannot give. “I want to be part of something bigger,” Celeste says. “There is so much hurt in this province in so many ways, particularly with the First Nations community. There is so much tragedy and affliction in this world and they don’t get the attention they deserve sometimes. I have no idea what this is going to look like, but I want to start a movement of some sort. People are hurting in this province with the whole Colten Boushie trial and it’s time that people reach out. From hurt can come good…” These are the words from a mother whose son just died a horrible death …

Kurt and Celeste talk about signs telling them that their son is in a better place. The first came when an old friend of Kurt’s dropped by to offer condolences. Kurt grew up in a small town along with Scott Thomas, whose son Evan also died in the crash.  This friend of Kurt’s and Scott’s was on the road after the crash and noticed two bald eagles. “And he said, ‘That’s Evan and Jacob,’  ‘They’re just soaring.’ ”

Another came when Jacob’s girlfriend was called home from a trip abroad. Her father picked her up at the airport and drove her to Jacob’s home town. Jacob wore No. 11 with the Broncos.  About halfway, it was exactly 12:11 and the temperature gauge said -11. At that moment, they saw the most vibrant Northern Lights they had ever seen. It was solid green and looked like a bridge connecting Saskatoon to Humboldt. “He said that Jacob was carrying them to Humboldt,” Celeste said. “The First Nations are tied to the Northern Lights and I thought, ‘Our movement could be something like the Northern Lights Movement for Kids.’ It’s not going to be about Jacob, but Jacob is going to be instrumental in it. He will be our guide. We have to shelve this for now, but we’ll get to it at some point…”

Yes, I encountered the risen Jesus this week. Yes, like the disciples, I was startled by his appearance in grieving parents who hadn’t even buried their son yet. What the disciples didn’t realize, and what we often don’t realize, is that there’s a force in the loving that has the power to break the force of evil, the cold darkness of death and the barrier between earth and heaven. Why does loving have such power? Because God IS LOVE, and Jesus was God in the flesh. Peace be with you, he says, again and again.

Lorna Dueck wrote in the Globe & Mail this past week: The strong arms of Saskatchewan are tenacious. Take any agricultural metaphor for tenacity you’d like. I think you can find it in the people who have their roots in making life come out of dead, cold ground. There is a grittiness and practicality to making a living off the land, which is where all of Saskatchewan began. Grief is in the landscape, cycles of life and death in every harvest season.

We prairie people are resilient. We instinctively ban together in tragedy, much like the disciples did when their beloved Lord was taken from them. And many of us have forced our breath onto the frosted windows of life and written our names on life’s iced  window panes with frozen fingers. We dig deep into our spirits
to receive Jesus’ breath of peace …

Jesus speaks peace, the peace that comes from a God who is so near to the broken-hearted that he breathed his own final, tortured breath on the cross … and then … rolled away the stone, startling us all by the radiant sunrise following the darkness. When winter cold and hoar-frost obscure our vision, God is like the sun continuing to labour in April, stubbornly melting the ice, stubbornly breathing peace into grief until that peace reaches deep into the recesses of our spirits. In time, our vision becomes clear again and we can see the steps into life and beauty on the other side of the loss.

And so we hold the grieving space as holy ground. In a few minutes we will be offering our prayers. Some of these prayers were offered in the funeral service for Jacob on Friday. We will pray for the courage of countless families everywhere around the globe who are whispering goodbye this week with grief-stricken hearts. We will pray for the grieving to be wrapped in the light and warmth of the stubborn coming of spring and the care of surrounding  communities. We draw on our God who is grieving with us, the God who is with us on both sides of the losses. May we be filled with courage to whisper goodbye to what has been. And may the tears slowly clear our vision to see and receive the life that follows loss.

Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. (Luke 24:38-39)
There’s a force in the loving that has the power to break … the force of evil, the cold darkness of death and the barrier between earth and heaven. Why does loving have such power? Because God IS LOVE, and Jesus was God in the flesh. Peace be with you, he says, again and again.

The miracle of God is that, even in the face of that devouring monster called death, we can pray the words of the psalm and mean them:
You have put gladness in my heart,
more than when grain and wine and oil increase.
I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep;
for only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety.

Ah yes, I get it now … even in grief and despair Easter joy can indeed break through. Thanks be to God. AMEN

Homily preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2018
Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36B-48

  • Special thanks to Leah Perrault’s column Breathing Goodbye
  • Kurt and Celeste shared this story with me personally, and The Hockey News published it two days later.
  • The community grief and the funerals this past week were a heavy load. As stated above, I didn’t have much fuel in my tank, and was at a loss as to what to say in this Sunday’s homily. Then God provided simply in the events we are living here and now … joy and gratitude amidst pain and grief …

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Grieving in Community

In light of the tragedy that hit my prairie community on Friday evening, I rewrote the sermon I had prepared for this Second Sunday of Easter. Because hockey is such a bonding sport for both players and fans, our entire city – no, our entire province is affected. Because hockey is Canada’s national sport, our entire country is affected. Because the hockey players on that bus came from various parts of the prairie provinces loved ones near and far are drowning in grief.

As Heather Persson wrote in yesterday’s Star Phoenix, so many Saskatchewan kids spend countless hours on a bus headed to hockey games. So many moms and dads put their kids on the road and say a quiet prayer that they will stay safe while out of their care. So many know the pleasure and sense of community found at a Junior A hockey game.

It’s been a harrowing day and a half. The Easter joy we felt last Sunday has made way for shock, grief and disbelief once again, not unlike what the disciples felt when their hero, Jesus, was murdered in the most horrible way possible. And from every wailing heart spring that agonizing question: where is God in all this??

I feel a new bond with Thomas in today’s Gospel. Thomas loved his Lord. I’m realizing now more than before that it was most likely grief, heart-wrenching grief, that caused Thomas’ doubt. Don’t you find that in times like this, we want to scream: God where are you?! Why?!

Besides this painful doubt that springs from hurting hearts, there is no shortage of doubt on other levels of life: institutional doubt, personal doubt, political doubt, spiritual doubt. The world is afflicted with serious doubt and insecurity. Old certainties are melting away like snow in spring except here in SK – waiting for the spring thaw in April is trying, creating doubt about the reliability of the seasons!). Something new may be waiting in the wings, but that new thing can be real hard to spot at times.  Especially when losing so many young and promising lives through a freak accident, doubt can become a tsunami flooding our hearts and minds. And so as a culture and as a church, and now as a grieving hockey-nation, we truly live in doubt-filled, in-between times.

Now doubt in and of itself is not bad. And God does not consider doubting a serious offense. In fact, growing in faith often passes through doubt. And that is what Thomas illustrates well in today’s Gospel account from John. Each of us lives a delicate dance between faith and doubt. That is a normal part of maturing as people of God. Our Confirmation candidates have critical questions sometimes (right?) And that is a good thing, because without a curiosity to find answers  there can be no understanding, no insight, no wisdom.

As much as today’s Gospel features beloved Thomas, it also features, in concert with the other Scripture lessons, the role of the faith community. Answers to critical questions and doubts are powerfully shaped by our encounters, conversations and experiences with others, both inside and outside the church.
Sometimes we move away from faith communities because of the ways our questions and doubts are handled. Sometimes we are drawn into faith communities because of the ways our questions and doubts are handled. Our modern western culture regards religion as a highly individualized and private experience.

But Jesus’s culture was communal. Jesus addressed God as “our” father, our heavenly parent, when he prayed his favourite prayer. Jesus formed a community of disciples who shared all things in common with him. We are not saved in isolation, i.e. outside of a community; we are saved together. Today we are so shaped by western individualism that it can be really hard to fully understand the communal call of discipleship Jesus calls us to.

But rallying around the families who’ve lost loved ones in this horrible bus crash from last Friday is a powerful illustration of being “saved” as a community. This national and international rallying in compassion and love reminds me of how the disciples huddled together as a community to share their grief and fear. People flooded to the arena set up as a crisis centre just to “be together,” just to share the tension of waiting for news, just to hug and cry. There is powerful bonding in love that happens when we gather to share grief, fear and pain. There is powerful healing that can happen when we touch and kiss each other’s wounds with compassion and care: “Put your finger here and see my hands,” said Jesus to Thomas. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”

On both occasions that Jesus appeared (without and with Thomas)the first thing he did was to breathe … peace—he exuded peace. Jesus’ breathing of peace upon fearful hearts calmed the disciples. The grief and fear of the gathered disciples was transformed – the Easter effect. New life came in the encounter with the risen Christ.

Except for one – Thomas missed the whole experience. He stayed drowning in his grief, fear and doubt. Thomas clearly missed something very important! I think it rather odd, in fact, that Jesus waited a whole week to appear again. I mean, he knew Thomas was grieving and doubting. So why didn’t Jesus just appear to him privately to convince Thomas that his beloved Lord had risen? But he didn’t; Jesus waited until the community was gathered again.

From its very beginnings, Christian faith and discipleship was lived in community—like the church described in Acts today, a faith family sharing their possessions in common. There’s a standing joke that says living a Christian life would be easier were it not for other people! But the notion of a “solo Christian” is decidedly unbiblical. While a relationship with God is a personal decision, it is not private. God calls us into community with other believers in order to remain healthy, accountable and fruitful. This communal dimension is evident in the passage from Acts, but also in the First Letter from John which begins as follows:

WE declare what was from the beginning, what WE have heard, 
what WE have seen with OUR eyes,
what WE have looked at and touched with OUR hands,
concerning the word of life — this life was revealed,
and WE have seen it and testify to it.
WE declare to you what WE have seen and heard
so that you also may have fellowship with us;
We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

It is in relationship with others that the proverbial rubber hits the road. God works in us through the way we live together. And God often uses others, those charming and irritating others, to prune us and inspire us, to teach us and comfort us. Times of tragedy reveal crystal clear how much we need each other in both good times and in bad.

And when we are not present on Sunday, our primary gathering time in and around Jesus and with each other, we miss something very important. When we are not present at Sunday worship, there is a painful absence.  We need all of us present in body and spirit. We feel one another’s absence acutely especially in times like this, but we need each other all the time as we grow to share our lives in Christ.

Living in relationship with other Christians, greatly helps our own understandings and experiences of God in Jesus. Living with each other in Christian community also holds us together when life makes us fall apart. We are saved in Christ Jesus, yes, but we are saved as one Body. Together we hold each other accountable, and together we hold each other in grief.

For the sake of the integrity of the Gospel, for the sake of providing a safe place to ask questions and to share grief, doubts and fears, we have to reclaim our communal existence. Together therefore we are one body, brothers and sisters in Christ. As Christians, we belong to each other in a spiritual family. In Baptism we are given to one another, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health. Let us create space for doubt and for faith. Let us together shoulder burdens and share joys. Let us wrestle honestly with questions and seek answers. It is in community that Christian living can come into full bloom. And when that happens, especially in the midst of tragedies, such as the one we are living through right now, our Easter joy can truly be complete.

We pray, O risen Jesus, keep showing up in our lives through the compassion, love and support we give one another. We promise, O risen Jesus, that we will keep showing up in each other’s lives as your Body on earth, the Church. Amen

Homily preached for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018
Acts 4:32—35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1—2:2; John 20:19—31

News stories about the tragedy can be found on the CBC website.

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Jesus let loose

Christ is risen – ALLELUIA!

A good man he was, Charlie Smith. Always seeing the bright side of life, he was devoted to his family, his church and his town. Numerous organizations claimed his contributions as  outstanding. Couldn’t ask for a better family man, a Christian and community-minded person.

Charlie died and guess what? The devil snatched him into hell! Nobody expected that. Shockwaves rolled through the family, the church and the town. A meeting was called to brainstorm a plan to convince the devil to release Charlie. I mean com’on – this guy did nothing wrong!

They decided that the the mayor of the town should go and talk to the devil, so he did. The mayor brought a long impressive list of Charlie’s community involvements. But the devil said no chancy — Charlie’s staying right here with me.

Next the parish priest decided to go and get Charlie out of hell. She pointed out all the wonderful things Charlie did in his life, adding that he never missed church! She argues with the devil until she was blue in the face. But no luck — the devil, a wicked smile on his face, remained unconvinced.

Then, out of the blue, Charlie’s wife Helen spoke up: let me go and talk to the devil, she said. The townspeople and the priest hesitated; they really wanted to spare her more grief. But Helen insisted.

So Helen went and knocked on hell’s door, yelling: “Let me in!” Let me in?! The devil had never heard anybody ASKING to be let into hell! He laughed his head off – let you in??? “I don’t care that he’s in hell,” said Helen. “I just want to be there with him.” Of course, madam! the devil said. He swung open the door with a large gesture, come on in …!
**********
John was a volunteer teacher at a Summer Bible camp in a remote northern community. A rowdy group of children fell quiet as he told the story of the passion and death of Jesus. John explained how, after Jesus had died, his body had been taken down from the cross, wrapped in a linen cloth and laid in the tomb. Then John showed a beautiful picture of Easter Sunday morning, depicting the empty tomb with the stone rolled back and the women standing in shock in front of it (see above image).

John asked the students, “What do you think this means?” Ronny, sitting in the front row was quick to answer in Cree, “He is loose!” “But where is He?” I asked. “He’s free now,” Ronny replied. “He can go wherever he wants!”
*********
Yes, today we party because Jesus is loose. He is unbound, released, set free. Jesus died a horrific death, yes, But he showed us how to die while loving God, loving humanity, even loving enemies.

Do you know what happened once Helen stepped into hell to join her husband? As soon as Helen walked into hell, the place filled with …. LOVE … LOVE for her dear husband Charlie! The devil had not anticipated this at all. He panicked – he made a big mistake letting Helen in the door! Why? Because hell turned to heaven as soon as LOVE filled the place! And when LOVE rules, the devil loses power and control. When LOVE fills hell, the devil runs for cover!

In the creed we pray: he descended to the dead, or to hell. What did Jesus go to the dead/hell for? To fill the place with LOVE. That, my friends, is what Jesus did. Jesus filled hell with LOVE and MERCY. Jesus filled death with LOVE and MERCY. Jesus filled suffering with LOVE and MERCY. That is why his moment of death became his moment of glory.

Jesus is loose, free to show up in our lives anywhere and anytime,  in the most unexpected ways and places. as he did to those early disciples. He can come into our lives looking like a gardener, as he did for Mary Magdalene, or a stranger who joins us on the road of loss, as he did for the two disciples of Emmaus.

Jesus can come as our life partner willing to join us in hell for the sake of love. Jesus can show up as a cashier in the grocery store  who happens to have a bad/good day, the young man who changes the oil in our car, keeping us safe on the road, a co-worker at the office who needs a listening ear, a kid in our class who is being excluded, or a neighbour befriending the new immigrants next door.

Jesus is loose, showing up in friend and stranger. Jesus is loose, showing up in our parish family, as we grow and laugh and cry and work together, as we pray for and encourage and comfort each other. Jesus is loose! Be on the lookout for him — every day. You may even find him looking back at you in your bathroom mirror… that’s no April Fool’s joke!

At the end of every Easter service in the Orthodox tradition, the following words from St. John Chrysostom (4th c’try) are proclaimed with much joy and gusto:

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
for the Death of our Saviour has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He spoiled Hades when he descended thereto.
He vexed it even as it tasted of His flesh. …
It is vexed; for it is annihilated.
It is vexed; for it is now made captive.
Satan took a body, and it discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw and was overcome by what it did not see.
… Christ is risen, death died, and the tomb is empty!

Christ is risen — ALLELUIA!

Homily preached this Easter Sunday April 1, 2018
(Note: True. I could’ve/should’ve preached on the women who freaked out at the empty tomb (Mark 16:1-8). That will be for another year, as the combination of this year’s date and the Easter news tickled my funny bone. April Fool’s inspired the light-hearted tone; Easter inspired the immense joy. Both celebrate that, in the suffering and death of Christ, the devil/death got fooled the most!)

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