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wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse

Second Sunday of Advent

December 10, 2023

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13;

2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8 (Blue)

With God, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.

On Wednesday, this country remembered a tragedy, now 34 years old, a cold and terrible night in Montreal, when a gunman stormed into Ecole Polytechnique. Fourteen students died that night. They died not because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They died because they were women, and it was that simple. On that night, we became a country in which things like that can happen.

This week was a time to take a measure, to run a line from that night in Montreal and see where we are today. For many women, that measure was not great, it was not so different, it was a mix of tepid optimism and heavy-weighted disappointment. We are still having many of the same old conversations – about consent; about how to handle violence against women, both in society and in the courts; about stereotypes we are trying to reset as parents for our sons and daughters. Some of those conversations are happening in new places. The internet is a place of thoughtful debate, idea-sharing, and support that did not exist in 1989. But you don’t have to travel very deep into cyberspace to find where the shadows hide the same virulent attitudes that led Marc Lepine into the school on December 6th.

It was a thousand years ago. It was a day ago.

I have spent a good part of my adult life in hospitals, caring for the sick and comforting the bereaved. I have watched and listened to families of loved ones get another dismal update about the conditions their loved ones are fighting, or trying to manage as if it were some intruders banging at the front door.  Time shifts and settles and sends people into yet another new reality.

They go from anger to grief to disbelief. And then to resolve and to focus. And the one being faced with their mortality is thrown from wall to wall emotionally, trying not to waste the time they have left.  And the people surrounding them are also in an emotional ball of confusion, trying to process what is happening without adding to their loved one’s suffering, and being equally careful not to waste time.  For those of you who have been in that space with a loved one, you know.

And it feels as if it happened a thousand years ago. And it feels as if it were a day ago.

In the gospel of Mark, God sends a messenger to prepare the way. John the Baptist is one of my favourite characters in the Bible, perhaps because he is so well drawn. He is the wild presence, the guy living on the edge, the one dumped at the front of the line and ordered to charge into a doubting world with unrelenting conviction.

He’s a bit eccentric, but who wouldn’t be? But for a wild man who ate locusts and honey, there is something so convincing and forceful about his belief – he drags you in beside him. He offers purpose and hope, while discomforting you. And people, as we hear in the gospel, were called to that. Because life is that way – when it’s most uncomfortable, most unreliable, and you need someone solid, someone with sure faith, to hold on to. Someone to offer hope.

And someone to offer comfort. That is the promise of the first lesson of Isaiah. It is easy to say hold on to your faith and everything will be fine. But it is true. For as long as we don’t lose ourselves – the core of who we are, and what we hold as our truths – no matter what happens, it will be fine. We will find a way to move past a massacre to a better society, no matter how many days and years that takes. We will find a way to accept a death and treasure life without becoming a paralyzed mess of what ifs, and if onlys, and never agains.

Faith, by its very nature, is aspirational, – it informs the world we hope to see someday, the people whom we strive to become, the relationship with God we continue to build.

In the second lesson, God reminds us that sometimes we run like wild deer, and time loses its meaning for us. God breaks through our uncertain moments and reminds us how to treasure the time we have been given.  God is patient with us. Out of the uncertainty of our lives, God comes to give direction and comfort. We are not the conduit for God.  We don’t have to go looking for God. We are the incarnation of God.

With God, a thousand years are like a day. Faith teaches us that as much as time has passed, as many anniversaries as we have seen, we do not give up. We keep working in all the little ways we can – teaching our children the stories that will shape their views later, making different choices ourselves. Our faith should invigorate us to keep going, to get up each morning, however many tries it takes.

For with God, a day is like a thousand years. We know that too well. When we live most closely to the tenets of the faith taught to us by Jesus – when we stop to speak to the metaphorical women at the well, or to aid the bereft on the side of the road, when we speak with love and kindness and are 1gift4good, when we talk to God, a day becomes an eternity -- a collection of hours sharp in details and sounds and alive with faces.

To not lose hope—a thousand years are still alive with the possibility of a single day. To give and receive comfort—a single day with all the life of a thousand years. That is the timeline our faith aspires to achieve. That is the responsibility it places upon us -- especially, when we are called to remember the names of those who no longer have the chance, here on earth, to make one day last for a thousand years. Amen.

wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse

First Sunday of Advent

Sunday December 3, 2023

Gospel ~ Mark 13:24-37

We tend not to be the best sleepers, in this modern age. We live in a world where the lights never turn off. We go to sleep with our phones. We wake in the middle of the night to worries that seem large and overwhelming. We now have apps to teach us how to sleep – which really comes as natural as breathing – and podcasts to lull us to close our eyes. The use of sleeping medications is on the rise. This pattern hardly improves as the holidays approach, and the demands on our time grow, our anxiety about family rises, and the expectations we put on ourselves seem heavy. And so, in the gospel this morning, when Jesus urges us to “Stay awake,” we can be forgiven for thinking wearily: it is just one more thing to add to the list. Maybe we will stay awake next year.

And yet, we know what happens when we sleep through life. When we go through the motions. There are the big picture societal mistakes, when we fail to see evil as it is happening, or injustice when it occurs, and because of this, because we are all dozing at the wheel, evil creeps to power while our eyes are closed. These mistakes are real, especially now, in a world of distractions, polarization, and argument.

But today, I want to talk about what it means for us to stay awake as individuals guided by the gospel, especially as we take our first steps into Advent, and the daily countdown to Christmas, and all the potential joy and the real stress that it can bring.

We are all creatures of habit. Habits form from the time we are children, from interactions with our parents and siblings, the friends we have, the teachers we get. Those habits form who we are, and how we engage with one another. Over time, they become more entrenched.

Some of these habits – resilience in the face of hardship, for instance – are gifts. Others are clearly burdens we carry, both for ourselves and for those around us. And these are the ones we need to stay awake to. These are the ones that make it hard for the gospel to act through us.

It is not easy. Some days we feel it is, frankly, impossible. In fact, our behaviour and attitudes are extremely hard to change. Workplaces have been trying to do so by offering diversity training to CEOs and managers. By teaching them about unconscious bias – the ways they might exclude or fail to promote women or those from diverse backgrounds without even realizing they are doing so. In the same way, campuses are trying to teach bystander-training so that people will intervene when they see harassment or sexual assault.

And yet, what the research shows is that while these programs are effective as education, the changes they make in attitudes don’t often seem to last – and they have had even less success in changing actual behaviour. That is, people eventually go back to thinking the same way they always did. Our attitudes and behaviours are hard to change.

In other words, we constantly need to be hearing the lesson of the gospel. Jesus is a great teacher. It’s as if he understood cognitive science long before scientists could actually study the brain. He teaches us the same lessons – kindness, generosity, tolerance -- over and over again, with his parables and with accounts of his life in a way that tries to keep our brain interested. He is trying all sorts of ways to get through to us, so that we can try to truly incarnate the gospel.

In other words, he is trying to keep us awake.

So, what should we be especially awake to? This Advent, perhaps we could all think about the bad habits we have fallen into – thinking the worst of people, trying to control others, losing our temper. We need to stay awake to those moments – and have a plan to stop them when they happen. We also need to be careful of the expectations we have for what is to come, and of the narratives we write before they happen: the ones that say people will always behave a certain way, or this family gathering won’t go well. These are the kinds of moments we need to stay awake to.

Perhaps, we’ll want to say a prayer, or recall a parable that we have heard over the last few months. Maybe there is some other reminder we can put in place. I know someone who wears an elastic band that she snaps when she finds herself spiraling into negative thoughts.

When I was a young boy, my parents started an Advent practice where on first Advent we gathered as a family and chose a name out of a bowl. The name on the paper was known only to the recipient. That name became our Advent Secret Friend. And we spent the Season of Advent doing random acts of kindness for that person without their knowledge that we were doing them. At the end of the season, we would reveal who our secret friend was. The interesting thing about this exercise was that the true revelation was received in both directions. The giver of good deeds was awakened to the joy of giving as much as the receiver. The Season of Advent helped our family to wake up out of the sleepiness of our routines and habits.

Stay awake. For this, as our gospel says, is when and how we will see Jesus. Not only in those around us. But also, in ourselves. Amen.

wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse

Reign of Christ Sunday

Sunday November 26, 2023

Gospel ~ Mathew 25:31-46

The gospel this morning is as clear as it can be: it lays out for us what we have to do to get on God’s good side. Welcome the stranger, care for the prisoners, feed the hungry. The sheep gets a gold star; the goat gets left behind.

Are you feeling a little nervous? Cause I am. I suspect that was what Jesus intended with his sorting metaphor. How better to spur people to action than to make a little competition, a fear of failure in the mix: Am I a sheep or a goat? Which one are you? I, for one, would like to be a sheep – the good people who get to the good place – but I worry I might actually be a goat, when the final score is tallied.

In fact, the whole situation is really problematic. I mean, why pick on the goats? Do we really want to be sheep – passively trotting along, lacking independence, maybe just a bit dumb? Goats may be willful, and stubborn, but they also have personality. They have their own ideas of what’s what. The sheep sticks with the pack. The goat is a rebel – and in these modern times, that’s what gets celebrated: work hard, play hard, climb the ladder, collect a pile of toys.

And hey, if we are sorting people, we should do it right. Really keep score. At least I am still a better sheep than that goat over there. That guy has way more goat in him than I do.

You see where all this earthly sorting gets us? First, we get nervous about not measuring up. Then we get defensive rather than insightful about our mistakes and how we can do better. Finally, we take the easy way out – and throw judgement around to distract from our failings. Judging other people has gotten humanity in a lot of trouble for more than 2,000 years. And yet, we cannot help ourselves - we can’t seem to resist, whether we are deciding pass and fail by gender, or birthplace, or skin colour, or how you practice your faith, or your choice in the person you love. We even like to judge whether a person’s good deeds are truly good enough.

But guess who actually decides the goat and sheep question? The individual and God. The gospel makes this clear: it’s not about the other person. It’s about our own actions.

We know this because, while we live in a finite word, God is infinite. Too often, we act as though there is only so much space in heaven, which is just another way of thinking that there is only so much love. But you’ll notice the gospel doesn’t say there is room only for a set number of sheep; there are only two groups – sheep, and goats. We are to understand that every sheep has a place, and every sheep is loved. Once we think of it that way, we can stop worrying about who is in and who is out, and then start figuring out who we are.

That is the real question of the gospel. The hard challenge is to look inside and decide: who will we be? I will go first: I’d say I am not a terrible sheep, some of the time. But I am also a pretty good goat, too much of the time. It really depends on the day. I don’t always measure up to that long list of good works that Jesus offers us this morning. In fact, I rarely do. That is a very high bar. What we really need to know is how many sheep deeds we need to do, to avoid being a goat?

This is always the problem, as I have said before, with reading the gospel as if it were a collection of short stories, not a novel. In that novel, the character of the human– that is, you and me – is complex in our imperfections: we care for one another, we betray one another; we are greedy, we are charitable; we follow Jesus, we torture Jesus. The whole of the gospel doesn’t judge us, it embraces us. At the end of it all, neither Jesus, nor God is focused on shame for the days when we were goats. The gospel is about pride for the times when we were sheep.

And to Jesus, that means one thing: Go forth and get to work. Don’t worry about goats and sheep, look for those in need. Feed those who hunger, soothe those who are in pain. Every time you help one of those people, it is as if you are helping me. When you don’t help them, it’s as if you have passed me by.

Because, in the end, we have the sheep all wrong, anyway. They aren’t passive, and they aren’t dull. What does that flock that Jesus calls us to join actually do in the world? They break all the rules. They reject being ambitious for the sake of ambition. They focus on relationships and charity and all the qualities that drive good in the world. The sheep are lucky: when they have a goat-kind of day, they are forgiven because they have created a world where kindness is infinite.

That’s the message in our gospel for Reign of Christ Sunday. Never mind counting the sheep and the goats. Invest your energy in justice, not judgement. Get to work doing good. And let God be God. Amen.

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