Believe … and Rise

It was all getting too much. The bitterly cold prairie winter became an apt illustration of the lifeless landscape taking shape in her spirit. Personal challenges grew. The list of family and friends living their own agony, needing prayers, was getting way too long. Strife and relational tensions in the workplace compromised efforts at dialogue and resolution. The weight of the world’s suffering – poverty, war, natural disasters – slowly eroded her capacity to hold onto a certain equanimity and strength. The horror of human evil inflicted on innocent people sank her heart like a boulder hurled into deep and dangerous water, intent to drown every ounce of hope and faith she had left. As if this wasn’t enough, Notre Dame de Paris, the soul of a nation, holding eight centuries of history, withstanding revolutions and wars, burnt down in a matter of hours on an ordinary day. The psalmist’s plea became her own: Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. (Ps. 69) No doubt, darkness—the big void—suffering—evil—death are all real, but is Easter real??

It’s tough to remain anchored in hope when tidal waves of despair wash over the globe and flood our own spirits, including prairie towns where quiet is the norm. The horrific scene of last year’s bus crash was a prairie version of 9/11 for way too many people. We just marked the one-year anniversary of that horrific tragedy that brought such unspeakable grief and unwanted loss. And we can’t help wonder: does God take breaks at the most inconvenient times? Does God sleep on the job, just when we need him the most? Life can sure feel this way, for far too many good people, including here in quiet prairie communities.

At the one-year Memorial Service a few weeks ago a video was shown that was simply called Believe. That title Believe has a unique Broncos flavour: Head coach and general manager Darcy Haugan used the word Believe to inspire his team. He was a broken record with only one word: Believe. “We’re not a fifth-place team. You’ve got to believe. Once you start believing, that’s when we’ll turn around. Start believing. Why not us? Why can’t we do this?” *

One day Haugan found an old, yellow piece of metal kickplate. He took it to his office and wrote “BELIEVE” across it. Every Bronco player signed it, a contract of sorts. Haugan bolted the kickplate to the wall above the Broncos’ dressing room door. It was the last thing the players saw on their way out to the ice. The Broncos then began to win 13 of their next 16 games. Haugan had special shirts made with “BELIEVE” printed on the front for the start of the playoffs.

That Broncos motto Believe took on an entirely different meaning in the wake of bus crash. Two days after the accident, Chris Beaudry, the assistant coach, was mulling around the dressing room trying to gather his thoughts when he saw the sign. “I have to take this to the hospital,” Beaudry thought. “That’s where this belongs. It’s staying there until the last boy comes home.’” Indeed, the BELIEVE kickplate stayed at the hospital until the last Bronco, Morgan Gobeil, finally left the hospital in March, 11 months after the crash. In those 11 months at the hospital, Believe became the rallying cry for the 13 boys recovering into a new beginning. The Broncos believed, and continue to believe against all odds.

And so we ask again: does God really take breaks when we need God the most? Or is there that of God in the Broncos motto Believe? In his little book A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart, Martin Marty claims that even our awareness of the absence of God in fact hides the promise … of the presence of God. “Even the cry from the depths is an affirmation: Why cry if there is no hint of hope of hearing?” We cannot miss something that we have never had, writes Marty, we cannot feel the pain of someone’s absence if we have never experienced their loving presence.

So … could it be that God is in fact never absent? Could it be that it is us who are absent Could it be that it is us who get cut off from the font life and love, getting robbed of the oxygen for our soul by letting darkness and pain swallow us whole, like the 40 below prairie winters that just don’t seem to end?!

On that cross Jesus died. And on that cross Jesus felt cut off when he cried out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? But was he … truly … cut off? No point crying out if there’s no hope of being heard … And there was a kickplate on that cross. King of the Jews it said. Behind that kickplate was an explosive promise: God’s promise of never-ending love destroying death, destroying death’s ugly power to kill us.

And like the Broncos, we signed onto that promise. We signed onto God’s promise in Christ Jesus through baptism. We have signed on to God’s resurrection promise through faith, through … believing. And we continue to sign onto that resurrection promise every Sunday … in the remembering, in the eating and drinking of Christ’s Body and Blood. At that same Memorial service for the Broncos Logan Boulet’s sister Mariko shared a poem by Margaret Mead that goes like this:
Remember Me: To the living, I am gone.
To the sorrowful, I will never return.
To the angry, I was cheated,
But to the happy, I am at peace,
And to the faithful, I have never left.
I cannot be seen, but I can be heard.
So as you stand upon a shore,
gazing at a beautiful sea – remember me.
As you look in awe at a mighty forest
and its grand majesty – remember me.
As you look upon a flower and admire its simplicity – remember me.
Remember me in your heart, your thoughts,
your memories of the times we loved,
the times we cried, the times we fought, the times we laughed.
For if you always think of me, I will never be gone.

God never promised that we would not suffer or despair or not find ourselves buried alive in sorrow. God only promised that we would not have to face such bitterly cold and death-dealing seasons alone, even when an eight-century old cathedral burns down. God fulfilled that promise in Jesus Christ, the Holy One who has gone before us in all things. In Jesus, God rolled the stone away from death, opening the way into redemption and freedom. In Jesus, God showed us how to hold onto Love in the face of death, and let that Love raise us from the grave. God’s favourite pastime, God’s primary job description, is to dig us out of the holes we dig for ourselves and to keep loving us back to life over and over. God did not rest until all enemies were trampled under foot. As St. Paul said to the Corinthians, that last enemy was death.

Is it really an idle tale, as the disciples thought when hearing the news from the women? No, it is not. We just need eyes and ears in our heart to see and hear. This Easter morning we claim with joy – Christ rose from the grave, trampling death by death. LOVE rose from the grave, never to die again. Notre Dame will rise again from its ashes, and will once again give glory to God in future generations.

Remember me, says our risen Lord Jesus, just as Margaret Mead’s poem urges. Believe, we say to one another, in the same way Darcy Haugen begged his Broncos to believe. Each Sunday God in Jesus Christ begs us to believe. Each Sunday we remember together – God dismantled forever the power of every darkness, every affliction, every death. God destroyed their power by infiltrating death … with LOVE. When love enters hell, the devil runs for cover.

The risen, glorified Jesus says to us today: believe, and remember me – in your heart, your thoughts, in the actions of this Holy Eucharist, in your actions of love and mercy for the least among you. For if you always think of me, I will never be gone …

So, my dear friends, whether our own heart is drenched in Easter joy, still in shock over the burning cathedral, or still shivering in winter/Lenten chills this morning, at least join us in … believing. Believe, like resilient prairie folk, that we too can make it past the winter of life. Believe, like the Broncos, that we can win the game of life with our God who keeps loving us back to life over and over again. Believe that there is no darkness God’s light cannot pierce. Believe that there is no winter so cold that God’s love cannot warm it. Believe that there is no pit so deep for God to reach down and lift us out of the cold and dark into the radiance of new life. Believe! It’s real, this resurrection stuff, more real that all the cold and dark seasons together. Freedom and mercy, salvation and joy over and over again in small and big measures. Believe …. and Rise. Alleluia, Christ is risen again, indeed.  AMEN

Homily preached on Easter morning April 21, 2019
Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12

  • With thanks to TSN for the Broncos story on Believe.

One of You will Betray Me

As I pondered the events of this Holy Night so long ago, I began to see something I’ve never really dared focus on. I tried to push it away. I wanted mostly to highlight the sacredness and the lavish gift of God in the Eucharist, the holy meal which Jesus gave us on the night he was betrayed, and in which we partake every Sunday.

But it hit me … on the night … he was betrayed … it hit me… This night we remember in an intense way the last meal Jesus shared with his friends. This night we re-enact the sacred actions of washing one another’s feet, symbol of our commitment to serve and love one another. This night we re-enact the sacred sharing of bread and wine, symbols of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus even in death.

But this night was one of profound betrayal. Not only by Judas, but also by Peter. Somehow Judas is remembered as the main villain. But Peter too denied/betrayed Jesus: I don’t know him! Not once but … I don’t know him, three times! How did Peter become the rock on which Jesus built his church? In any case, both Judas and Peter, the two betrayers, sat at table with their Lord. Both Judas and Peter had their feet washed by our Lord, despite Peter’s protest. Both Judas and Peter were given the bread to eat – my Body – and the wine to drink – my Blood.

The Gospels agree that Judas committed a terrible act of betrayal, setting in motion Jesus’ arrest and execution. In some Gospel reports, Judas is a man set on destruction, laying his trap and then following through to its devastating conclusion. In other accounts, Judas is caught in a web of preordained actions that Jesus greets with acceptance and without surprise. Judas is increasingly panicked and regretful, trying to repent, trying to begin again. Like Peter, Judas realized that he betrayed his teacher and friend. Unlike Peter, he gets no second chance to sort it out.

Scripture gives varying reasons for Judas’ death. In the Book of Acts Judas used the blood money to buy a field, where he ultimately fell headlong to his death. That field became known as the Field of Blood (1:18-19). In Matthew Judas is quickly horrified by his own actions. Matthew says that Judas repented and tried, unsuccessfully, to return the money to the chief priests. When he realized that there was no way to atone for his sins, he hung himself in a field, also known as the Field of Blood (27:8).

The preacher Nadia Bolz-Weber likes to say that while there may be significant differences between Judas and us, one thing is true for us all. She writes: “Judas carried with him into that field the burden of not experiencing God’s grace because he was removed from the community in which he could hear it.” Judas removed himself from a community that could have embraced him in mercy and grace. Judas’s ears and heart were closed, tormented over the evil he had committed.

Apart from a community of love, no one can manufacture God’s healing, radical grace that flows from the heart of God to us, us – God’s blessed and broken humanity. As human beings, we can create many things: entertainment, stories, pain, toothpaste, a cathedral, a spacecraft, maybe even positive self-talk. But we cannot free ourselves from the bondage of sin.

We need a Saviour, we need a Redeemer, one created and sent by God, not someone of our own making. And so God became human and walked among us. Christ Jesus offered his own flesh and blood for the sake of the world: take and eat, take and drink. Jesus did this knowing full well what scoundrels sat around that table on that “holy” night when he was betrayed.

It is hard to accept. It’s hard to accept that scoundrels and enemies receive the same forgiveness and grace and redemption as we do. Sometimes it’s even harder to accept not just that God welcomes everyone, but that God welcomes all of me, all of you, all of us.
God welcomes even the very things we’d rather hide: the cursing we did this week, or the drinking alone, or the lying, or the neglecting or hating our body; or the dark, scary nights of depression we cannot admit to, or the fear and greed that stifles our generosity, or the nursing of anger and resentment, or the shame over our sexuality or the cheating on taxes … all these parts of us we wish Jesus had the good sense to not … wash… or … welcome … at his holy table. You will never wash my feet, Lord …

And yet, Jesus insist on washing us, washing us in baptism, washing us in service, bathing us in God’s mercy. And we are invited to taste and see that the Lord is … good…. All of who we are is washed and welcomed. The gifts of God are free, and given for all, for all. The gifts of God for the people of God …

Who knows whether Judas walked a doomed, inevitable path. But when we hold him so far away from us, so other, so evil, such a monster, we can conveniently avoid confessing the brokenness that runs deep within every single one of us. It is our Christian responsibility to enter into all the broken places – his, hers, theirs, ours. It is our deep and collective responsibility to share the love of God, the enduring grace of God, with everyone who needs to hear it. It’s our responsibility – so important – to create safe spaces where stories can be shared, sins confessed, the dirt of wrongdoing washed off, and forgiveness extended, healing begun. That’s what church is supposed to be: to make sure no man, woman or child ever wanders alone into their Field of Blood, so lonely and afraid and ashamed that they do something they might regret forever.


We enter into every celebration of the Eucharist with sincere desire and intent.Yet woven into every Eucharistic celebration, ever since the Last Supper, are glimpses of human betrayal, glimpses of the mystery of evil even. “We are not mad,” wrote Leonard Cohen. “We are human. We want to love, and someone must forgive us for the paths we take, for the paths are many and dark, and we are ardent and cruel in our journey.”

Maybe there is a flicker of hope for us here today. Jesus did not offer a perfect, harmonious, beautiful memory of self-giving on that Holy Night so long ago. On that night in which he was betrayed, Jesus experienced a deeply troubled meal. But that deeply troubled last supper nevertheless spells life for the world, and for each of us. Who, after all, ever comes to the table of Holy Communion without having betrayed, if only in the smallest of ways, who God calls us to be?

This holy table and this basin of water are safe space, redeeming space, liberating space. Because here with this basin of water and at this table, we can bring our broken pieces without fear or shame.We can bring the most broken pieces of this world, bring the most broken pieces of ourselves, including the world’s tears over a fire-ravaged cathedral.

Here we can receive at no charge, without worthiness on our part, the equally broken body of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion, and in our sisters and brothers around us. We do not need to understand it or accept it. We do not need to put boundaries or fences around it. We need only to do it – wash each other with God’s love and partake of God’s meal of mercy. On this holy night, God invites us. God summons us to be Jesus’ love and mercy right in one another’s Field of Blood, pointing to God’s always expanding, always washing, always redeeming love.

So come, come with all of who you are and receive the loving and cleansing service of each other in the name of Christ. Receive the living bread come down from heaven. Receive life and forgiveness and salvation with all the other broken saints, lost souls, fearful doubters and devious sinners. For it is Christ, betrayed and denied, killed and glorified, who unites us in the love of a powerful God. Amen

Homily preached on Holy Thursday, April 18, 2019
Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31-35

Many thanks to Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rev. Tim Hughes whose sermons helped me tremendously to write mine.

Making Sense of the Senseless

It was all getting too much. The bitterly cold prairie winter had become an apt illustration of the lifeless landscape taking shape in my Lenten spirit. My personal challenges were growing. The list of parishioners living their own agony, needing prayers, was getting way too long. Strife and relational tensions at recent meetings were compromising efforts at dialogue and resolution. The weight of the world’s suffering through poverty and natural disasters were slowly eroding my capacity to hold onto a certain equanimity and strength. Then the horror of human evil inflicted on innocent good people at prayer “down under” and my heart began to sink like a boulder hurled into deep and dangerous water, intent on drowning every ounce of hope and faith I had left. The psalmist’s plea became mine: Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. (Ps. 69) No doubt, this Lenten business —darkness, the big void, suffering, evil, death — is real, as real as the shivers in the winter cold.

And then now, the one-year mark. One year and I am still bewildered. Why did it happen at all? We live in a quiet, rural province. Most people fly over us en route to more exciting places. We appreciate the quiet highways crossed by grid roads in a carefully surveyed square pattern, revealing a sense of order established by early settlers.

Jim and I moved to Humboldt some 14 years ago. Having grown accustomed to the beauty and peace of farm living for 25 years, this small prairie city has generously provided the right mix of some urban-style services with the country air our lungs and hearts inhale by the buckets. We have become part of the community through local church and social involvements. Because we have come to love this place and its people, the bus crash hit way too close to home, even for non-hockey fans like ourselves.

I am sitting here thinking: if I’m still bewildered over it all, I who have not lost a son/daughter in this tragedy, how in the world have the Broncos families been coping? I’m close to a couple of them, and I have seen-heard-tasted the pain and agony of living through all the firsts — family birthdays and weddings, Christmas, graduations, summer holidays, hockey games. As if this wasn’t hard enough, all of these firsts were laced with the public dynamics of media attention, tributes and fundraisers. Not to speak of the legal procedures that had to be endured. Taken together, it’s way more than any sane person can handle. And it’s of such magnitude that a sane person would truly go crazy without some type of inner anchor.

Recently I watched the movie The Shack again. And I totally get Mack’s rage: if you’re so damn good, God, then why were 16 lives lost and as many forever altered?! Does God take breaks at the most inconvenient times? In his little book A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart, Martin Marty claims that even our awareness of the absence of God hides the promise of the presence of God. We cannot miss something that we have never had, writes Marty, we cannot feel the pain of someone’s absence if we have never experienced that person’s loving presence.

Maybe God is never absent. God’s very nature is to lift us relentlessly out of the holes we dig for ourselves, to pull us out of the bitterly cold winter days of life. I am reminded of the reply God gave to Mack in the The Shack: “Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means that I caused it or that I needed it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you can find grace in many facets and colours.

It takes heroic efforts to remain anchored in hope when tidal waves of despair wash over the globe, flooding even our prairie city and our prairie spirits. It’s tough too as a pastoral leader whose job it is to help others maintain faith and hope in times of trial. One day I did find a smidgen of grace in the midst of the bitter cold of my Lenten spirit. I shared my despair with parishioners in our small prayer circle, adding that I was struggling how to speak God’s hope into their darkness when my own spirit was so despondent. In response, that little band of faithful disciples set about doing God’s rescue work: they took my struggling spirit and held it gently in the loving blanket of prayer, asking God to lift me from the grave I found myself sliding into. In that small but significant moment God’s communion of saints and sinners pulled me into resurrection, slowly but surely, making me new.

I think of Jaskirat Singh Sidhu. His life is forever scarred, crucified on the memory of an accident that didn’t need to happen. He may only serve eight years in prison, but he will be living a life sentence in his conscience: “Mr. Sidhu, I grieve for you as well. I am not sure I am yet ready to forgive the choice you made that fateful night of April 6, 2018, but I don’t hate you. When I look at you, I see a young man not much older than our son Mark. I grieve for the guilt you must carry for the rest of your days. I don’t know if you are married or have children, but I grieve for the loss your family will experience. I grieve for the loss of your freedom and future. No one will escape the horrors of this tragedy. In your future, I hope you make every effort to live a productive life doing good wherever you go. Make the world a better place just like our son Mark did.” ~Marilyn Cross, mother of assistant coach Mark Cross.

God never promised that we would not suffer or despair or not find ourselves buried alive in sorrow. God only promised that we would not have to face such bitterly cold and death-dealing seasons alone. God fulfilled that promise in Jesus Christ, the Holy One who has gone before us in all things. In Jesus, God opened the way into redemption and freedom, showing us how to hold onto Love in the face of death.

Morgan Gobeil holding the sign as he left the hospital after 11 months of recovery

I pray for Jaskirat Singh Sidhu. He needs resurrection, badly. He’s not a criminal, but a young inexperienced driver who made a fatal mistake at a quiet prairie intersection. Prison culture can be merciless and corrupt. He needs the Broncos banner BELIEVE over his prison bed, under his prison pillow. I pray hard that his life won’t be wasting away in the cell of his own remorse, guilt and shame. I pray hard that somehow, sometime, someone will wrap his tormented spirit in gentle and loving care, delivering the mercy of God, just as I tasted in my little prayer circle. I pray that he will drink deeply from that divine mercy, in order to build up the strength and courage to live once again in goodness and joy. It is the ones who rise again from the graves of sorrow, shame and death that can make the world a better place and give us all new hope.

Tonight’s Memorial Service can be viewed here.

Here’s an inspiring fruit that is rising from the death toll in the Broncos family.