Tag Archives: covid-19

A Voice Like Thunder and the Trouble with Crowds

GOSPEL: Mark 1:4-11
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

In the familiar rhythm and pattern of the liturgical calendar, as we conclude the 12 days of the seasons of Christmas, observe the day of Epiphany by telling the story of magi coming to visit the Christ child, while chalking and blessing our homes for the new year, we come to the Baptism of Our Lord. While it moves us from hearing about the stories about Mary and Joseph, mangers and magi, it does bring us back to where we began in Advent – with John the Baptist. And the baptism is a story that begins the story of Jesus as much as any Christmas narrative.

This story stands out for many reasons: the wild hermit preacher John wearing his camel hair clothes, the voice from heaven that speaks like thunder, and a vision of the spirit descending from above. 

But of all the elements of the story that might be hard to imagine in this re-telling of the story, it might be the crowds. 

It is especially hard to imagine standing in a crowd, packed shoulder to shoulder, gathered to share in an experience together. 

We have had an especially complicated relationship with crowds in the past 10 or so months. From their near absence in our lives, to their new existence in the form of the crowded “Brady Bunch” view on our zoom calls, to the crowds we watched on TV gathering at the political rallies of a certain politician, to the masked crowds that couldn’t help but gather in cities around the globe in response to the murder of George Floyd, to the crowds of that other kind protesting pandemic restrictions whether at legislatures or too often churches (even in our own neighbourhood), to the crowds and gatherings of the rich and powerful as the flout public health orders. 

And of course, there was the crowd that we all witnessed on TV this week, the one that stormed the US capitol building, the violent group of MAGA hatted, QAnon believing, white supremacy espousing insurrectionists who were trying to overturn the results of a fair and legal election. As the overmatched police essentially let the crowd in, the violence resulted the death of 5 people, yet still showed the overwhelming restraint that authorities displayed towards a crowd of white folks compared the overwhelmingly violent response shown to crowds of people of colour. 

So yeah, after 2020 and now the first 10 days of 2021, imagining a crowd standing on the banks of river Jordan brings up mixed and complicated feelings. 

So why are these crowds there? What have they gone out to hear from John the Baptist?

In some many ways they are not much different than the crowds we have been seeing on our device screens lately. They aren’t violent insurrectionists or peaceful protesters, but they are people looking for something more in their lives. 

They are people looking for connection. 

Connection to something bigger than they are. Something to give them hope, something that will address injustice, something of the divine that will meet their mundane struggles, something that will relieve their disconnection of their everyday, very human lives.

The crowds on banks of the river were mostly made of folks living under oppression. Oppression from Roman occupation and from their own religious authorities who sought to maintain the power imbalance of the status quo. People whose lived experience probably felt disconnected from the stories that they knew by heart. People who knew the promises of God, the promise of Messiah found in the prophets, the covenant promise found in the stories of their ancestors. 

People who knew God’s promise, yet longed to know God’s presence. And so they went to hear John, to hear the voice of one speaking on God’s behalf, one who might connect those promises they knew by heart to the world they lived in. The hoped that this wilderness preacher, John, would be able to show them how the story of the divine, how God’s promises fit into their lives, into their suffering and oppression, into their longing for something different, into their longing for salvation. 

It is a feeling we get these days. We look at the crowds we see on TV that show us our suffering world. We look around at the homes we are stuck in and that feel like prisons. We look at the phones and computers, the social media accounts that are now our only connection to so many of the people that we care about, but remind us constantly of our separation from those same people….

And we long for connection. For our lives-made-small to feel connected once again to something bigger and larger than we are. Connected to the divine story, connected to the promised Messiah. Connected to the God made flesh. 

And then Jesus just walks into the water with John and gets baptized. 

He just shows up. 

Right in front of the crowds longing for the Messiah, longing for connection to the divine. Jesus, the Christ come in flesh that the Angels sang about, the one whom the Magi came to visit. 

Then once he comes up and out of the water, the heavens open up to the spirit of God. And the the voice of God rings out and in their ears. 

“You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

God in flesh, God in sight, God’s voice ringing through creation. 

And if the crowds and if we didn’t make the connection to the sound of God’s voice thundering over creation, we heard from Genesis 1 when God spoke light into darkness to remind us.

And God speaks lights into darkness once again. 

The connection that the crowds so desperately sought is revealed in the promised Messiah, the Christ in flesh, the spirit of God come near. 

God re-connects God’s people to God’s story. God brings the lives of everyday, average people, people living under oppression, suffering under the powerful… God brings their living into the life and story of God. And God’s story in the waters becomes the story of all creation. 

Because God and creation are now one in the flesh of the Christ. The declaration of belovedness doesn’t belong just to Jesus, but to all who bear the flesh of creation. As Jesus comes up and out of the water, up and out the same water that sustains us, that washes and nourishes us, that grows our food and rains our land… the meeting of water and flesh and the Word of God spoken from heaven becomes the intersection and connection of creation’s story and God’s story. 

And so, as we too, with the all the crowds of this year, the crowds who bring their stories and lives and suffering and oppression seeking connection and reconciliation to the divine…

As we too come to this day of the Baptism of our Lord… 

We are reminded that as the water washes and nourishes our bodies, as the waters meets our flesh and the Word of God is spoken and heard in our midst… that even apart, that even crowd -less…. God declares to us too what the voice said to Jesus. 

You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased. 

You are who are longing for connection. 

You who feel trapped in your homes

You who are disconnected from family and friend and loves ones

You who are grieved by the violence and division that overwhelms us. 

You who cannot bear another zoom visit with family, rather than hugging a loved one. 

You who are alone fearful of the other and risk that gathering brings. 

You who care for the sick, teach the young, provide for the masses.

You who work and parent and recreate but rarely rest all at home.

You who are caught in deep darkness with seemingly so little light. 

You are God’s beloved. 

You are what pleases God. 

You are God’s child. 

And you and your mundane, earthy, messy life… are connected in the water, and in the flesh and in the word… to the life and story of God. 

Connected to spirit of God that descended from the heavens. 

Connected to the flesh that was reborn in the waters.

Connected to the voice that spoke light and life into being…

 God has made that moment our story… first on the banks of the river Jordan and again today. 

Amen.

A Pandemic Christmas Day

John 1:1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God… (Read the whole passage)

“Mom, the camera isn’t on”

“But I can see you.”

“Yes, you can see me, but I can’s see you”

Marlena was again waving her arms at her computer screen, trying to look as though she was pointing down at the camera button on the other end of the screen. 

It was Christmas Day, and she was “zooming” with her elderly parents. They had been zooming regularly for a few months by now. It had taken herculean effort in patience just to get her mom to find the gallery or “Brady Bunch” view. But she still had trouble turning on her camera and microphone every week. 

2020 had been that kind of year. 

Marlena, her husband Jim, and their kids David and Lizzie, were no strangers to extraordinary Christmases. A few years ago, they had been travelling to see her parents and got caught in a snow storm on the way. They spent Christmas Eve with a bunch of strangers snowed in a roadside motel. They even cooked their own potluck Christmas dinner in the restaurant. 

On another Christmas Eve, they had welcomed new refugees from Syria for their first Christmas in their new home. 

And another year, as their family helped serve at the local soup kitchen, they heard that some youth from their church, St. David’s, had been with been on patrol with a local social worker for the homeless community when they helped a homeless woman give birth in the alley beside the church! 

But as appropriately Christmassy as these experiences had been… a global pandemic had changed everything and made for a completely new and unusual Christmas.

Last night they had their COVID Christmas Eve all planned: they would go and pack take out meals at the soup kitchen, then go for a drive through of Candy Cane Lane all before online church for Christmas Eve. 

But Father Angelo, their priest from St. David’s, had called and asked to make a last minute meal package delivery. When they went to make the delivery, they had a surprise meeting with old friends. 

The delivery was to same couple that they had met a few Christmases earlier when they had been snowed in a the roadside motel on Christmas Eve. Jesse and Miriam. Miriam had gone into labour and given birth to Christopher. Marlena remembered how badly she wanted that Christmas to be perfect, yet in the weeks leading up to Christmas things she just couldn’t keep juggling it all. 

But in meeting Jesse and Miriam she was reminded how imperfect the first Christmas was. How plans were derailed and people just had to make do. 

Last night when the two long lost families went for a Christmas Eve walk, all the memories and feelings came flooding back. Watching her kids play with little Christopher. Watching Jim and Jesse laugh about work and fatherhood. Walking with Miriam had put Christmas back into perspective again for Marlena… it was the perfect Christmas Eve miracle for the year 2020. 

But Christmas Day was a little more back to the reality of the world. 

“Okay, I can see you now.” Marlena told her mom. 

Marlena’s mom began her usual recounting of the week. 

“I was talking to my friend Gladys over coffee the other day.”

“Not in-person I hope” interrupted Marlena. 

“Don’t you worry, we washed our hands and wore masks.”

“How did you drink the coffee mom?

“Well… we took off the masks for coffee!”

Marlena felt like she was in the movie Ground Hog day every time she talked to her parents… even on Christmas Day. 

“David, Lizzie, time to open presents with grandma and grandpa on zoom!” Marlena called to her family.

Opening gifts was kind of normal. There were the usual gasps and squeals of delight of Christmas morning. The kids did have to take each toy and hold it up to the computer so Grandma and Grandpa could inspect them. But they were together with the normal Christmas morning crowd none the less. 

When the gifts were all opened and the zoom ended, the family sat down to brunch. Marlena saw that she had cooked way more food than they needed. Old Christmas habits… she figured.

After brunch, Marlena sat and stared out the window. The kids were off playing with new toys. Jim was setting up his new iPad. But Marlena was longing for something else. Last night, after seeing Jesse and Miriam, Christopher and his new sister Lilly, Marlena had felt something for the first time in a long while. This little family that they had taken under their wing, up against the world, with barely anyone in their corner… somehow managed embody hope for the future. Looking into baby Lilly’s eyes she felt the same things that she felt when she looked in baby Christophers’s went he had been born at the motel. As she looked into this child’s eyes she could see herself, she could see everyone that she loved, she could see the whole world. In this little helpless child, Marlena could see the divine, she could see a great passion for all creation, she could see God in flesh — Emmanuel. Looking at Jesse and Miriam, Marlena could saw Mary and Joseph, looking at Christopher and Lilly, she could see the Christ child. The whole world became different than it was. A world with God in it.

“Mom” Lizzie’s voice interrupted Marlena’s thoughts. “Could we take the extra brunch leftovers to Jesse and Miriam? I want to see Christopher again” 

“Yeah, mom and dad! Please!?!” Echoed David. 

Jim shrugged, “I don’t see why not.”

“Can we wrap some gifts for Christopher?” David asked. 

And soon the family was busy changing out of their Christmas PJs, packing up brunch and putting some well loved toys that David and Lizzie had grown out of into boxes to be wrapped.

It wasn’t long before Marlena Jim, David and Lizzie were standing Jesse and Miriam’s front yard. Lizzie ran up and knocked. 

Jesse and Christopher opened the door. 

“We come bearing gifts!” Jim said. 

Soon the two families were standing in the front yard. Christopher was opening his gifts with glee, David and Lizzie were clapping excitedly. 

“I don’t know what to say” Jesse said. “You didn’t have to do this.” 

“We know” said Jim. “We wanted to”

“It was the kid’s idea really. And that makes it a gift to us” added Marlena. 

“But we can’t repay you.” Miriam said.  

“Well, now.” Jim interrupted. “There is one thing you can do, you specifically Jesse. What are you doing on December 27th?”

Jesse shrugged.

“I need a warehouse foreman. Business has been too much for me to handle on my own. You are a contractor, so I know you have managed people before. That’s the hardest part, I can teach you the rest.”

“I don’t know what to say” Jesse was floored, Miriam was smiling so wide. 

“Just be ready for work at 6:45am. I will pick you up.” Jim tried to sound stern, but he couldn’t keep from grinning. 

The two families visited – socially distant and outdoors, of course – for a little longer and then said their goodbyes. 

As Jim loaded the kids into the car, Miriam and Marlena lingered. 

“I still can’t believe you saved us, and on Christmas again.” Miriam said. 

“Oh, you were the ones who saved us… again.” Marlena replied. “But this year, nothing surprises me anymore. And now that we have found each other again, there is no getting rid of us. You are family now” Marlena said. “Besides, you will have to peel our kids away from your family.

“Remember what the old priest read to us at the hotel during that chaotic but amazing Christmas dinner?” Asked Marlena.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Miriam recited. 

“The word has come to us, and we are each other’s flesh. We belong to each other for good now. Just the way God intended on that first Christmas.”

Miriam nodded to that, 

Amen.”

Part 1 of this Story is found here: A Pandemic Christmas Eve

St. David’s Christmas Eve at the Motel
St. David’s Christmas Day the Motel
St. David’s Advent 4 Refugees
St. David’s Christmas Eve Refugees
St. David’s Christmas Day Refugees

Manitoba’s Code Red Tweaks allowing drive-ins and a follow-up to the open letter to churches flouting restrictions

I am a pastor serving a congregation in Winnipeg. I am also a blogger, having blogged here since 2013. This blog is full of commentary on issues of the day as they relate to the Church and people of faith. 

Yesterday, (December 8th, 2020) the province announced some changes to public health orders. And as of this week, drive-in worship will be allowed again (for now). 

To be clear, the initial public letter was not about the relative safety of drive-in worship during a pandemic. I am not a public health expert, it is not my place to debate the application of restrictions.

I am also extremely sympathetic to the strain and difficulties that the restrictions on gatherings have added to our lives and communities. During these stressful times when everyone’s inclination is to gather, it is really hard to have to stay apart. So many of us have been apart from family, friends and community for a long time.

Rather, the issue I hopefully articulated, and that others signed onto in the letter, was the flouting of public health orders. It is about faith leaders and faith communities signalling that public orders are okay only as long as they aren’t too inconvenient. And if they are inconvenient it is okay to break them (be fined for it) and fight them in court. 

There is no debate that some faith communities have deliberately defied public health orders and that fines were issued for doing so. 

As the public health orders were “tweaked” yesterday, it might *seem* like a victory for those upset about the brief suspension of drive-in services. 

I think this is the wrong lens through which to view this issue. This is not about winners or losers. The only way to win during this pandemic is to save lives and to care for one another as much as possible. 

If the province changed the rules because of the complaints regarding drive-in gatherings that is problematic. It means that rules are being changed for small interest groups instead of for the health and protection of the public and the health-care system. 

But if, as Dr. Roussin says, public health orders are only in place for the shortest amount of time they are needed and they are being lifted because it is safe for our province to do so, then that is acceptable. 

And knowing that, I have to wonder what on earth was all the protest about?

Just as promised, the restrictions were temporary in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. They were not part of grand government design to stamp out Christian faith. 

Yesterday’s tweaks to the orders don’t reveal who won or lost in some perceived debate, instead they reveal some important questions about the past couple of weeks:

What did it serve to break the orders?

What was the point of incurring the fines? 

What was the point of the expensive legal battle? 

And why send the message that our inconveniences as churches and faith communities come before the greater good? 

(Unless the actual issue is that some don’t believe that this pandemic is real and dangerous). 

In my eye, the change in public health orders today only reveals how unnecessary all of this standing up for personal rights and freedoms really has been. 

If there comes a day when the government legitimately tries to stifle the practice of faith, I will be the first to stand up in protest. Today, and any day during this pandemic, is not that day. 

Follow up to the Open Letter

In regards to the Open Letter to Pastor Leon Fontaine and Springs Church regrading their objections to public health restrictions in our province, so far, 79 Clergy from across Manitoba have added their names. Leaders from many different denominations. 47 more clergy from a cross Canada and even the United States have also added their names. 

I have received many, many responses to the letter. Many comments on Facebook and Twitter, over 100 comments on my blog, and almost 200 emails. The majority are positive and supportive, but also many have been negative. 

I have received such gracious support from so many colleagues in ministry. There have been many messages from church folks glad that their faith leaders said something in response to the actions of the churches going against public health orders. And many messages from non-church folks grateful for the witness of the letter. 

The responses that hit me the hardest were from front-line healthcare workers angry and frustrated by the actions of churches fighting against public health orders. The letter and signatories were a welcome response. They helped to calm hurt feelings and anger. 

On the other side, I have also received many comments, posts, emails and voicemails from those who did not appreciate or agree with the letter. Many from folks who support the churches going against orders, and some non-Christians who are frustrated with public health restrictions.

Some have been polite, most have not. Most have accused me (and the other signatories) of acting in poor faith, being attention seeking, being un-Christian, being a poor pastor, not being a real pastor, clinging to a dying church. Some have even compared me and the other signers to the German church that collaborated with the Nazis. Some have tried to go around me and contact my congregation directly insisting that I be fired, along with any other church staff. And some comments I won’t share here at all. (Many of the comments are publicly viewable on my blog and Facebook page.)

Many have asked if I have been in touch with Pastor Leon from Springs. I posted to Spring’s Facebook page after the initial plans to proceed with their services, despite public health orders, were first announced. I also tried to find some direct ways to contact Pastor Leon through the church website, but there is no email or phone number that provides direct access to him. Most contact is initiated through contact forms, which are a way for businesses and organizations to obtain contact information like names, addresses, emails and phone numbers. Eventually, I found a generic church email address that let me email the church directly (without using a website contact form) and have emailed the church inviting conversation. I have not heard back. 

But just as importantly, the office of pastor is a public office. This means that the things one says and does while occupying that office are public. The instructions on resolving conflict in Matthew 18 correspond to conflict between siblings in faith. Yet, when Pastor Leon issued his press releases he was providing a public narrative that purported to speak for all Christians and communities of faith. This narrative needed to be addressed – publicly. 

John the Baptist preached publicly about his concerns with other faith leaders. Peter addressed other faith leaders publicly in the book of Acts. The Apostle Paul wrote public letters (which we have included in scripture!) addressing faith leaders and communities. Jesus often had public conversations with the faith leaders of Israel. 

Pastors are called, by virtue of our office, to speak publicly for our communities and that sometimes involves addressing other faith leaders in public.

Some Biblical Foundations

Some responses have claimed that the open letter was not biblical. So let me clearly address some biblical foundations. 

First off, the issue of personal rights is not a biblical one. Rather, as this excellent blog post by Dr. Brian Cooper explains, personal rights are a modern political concept. When the Apostle Paul addresses the issue of personal rights he talks about setting them aside for the sake of the gospel. 

Secondly, one approximate analogy to the suspension of in-person (or drive-in) gatherings in scripture is when Jesus heals the man with the withered hand in Mark 3. The Pharisees were trying to entrap Jesus into breaking the law on the sabbath day by doing “work” and healing the man. Jesus responds by saying, 

“Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”

The laws of the sabbath governed the way the people of Israel observed their day of worship. Yet, Jesus insisted on setting aside the rules in order to heal and care for people. He did not insist on setting aside the rules for his personal rights and freedoms. But always for the sake of the other. Always for the sake of caring for the most vulnerable in his community. 

Certainly, given Jesus’ consistent example in the gospels of transgressing boundaries and rules for the sake others, particularly the most vulnerable, Jesus would have been the first to forego in-person gatherings for a short time, in order to save lives. 

Thirdly, the Apostle Paul  also addresses the way a community worships in 1 Corinthians 11. The Corinthian church was struggling to discern its own membership and community. Some were eating their fill together before coming to worship at the Lord’s table while leaving other members of the church to go hungry. Paul admonishes this behaviour. He writes explicitly that the obligation is for the Corinthians to make sure that needs and well being of the whole community is looked after before gathering to worship. 

Paul writes that those who fail to discern the body – fail to understand just who is a part of their community and needs to be cared for – do so to their own condemnation. I don’t think this is prescriptive but rather descriptive. 

When we struggle and fail to discern who in our community needs to be cared for and put our own needs first, we are poorer for it as people of faith. 

Over the past 8 months, we have been asked over and over again by our community – by the leaders of the our province – to do our part to care for our community, even when that comes with personal sacrifice. 

As Christians and as people of faith, we should recognize this call as biblical and central to how we live out our faith during this pandemic. 

COCO and the God who Remembers All The Saints

Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
(Read the whole passage)

Reformation Day, Halloween, All Saints. These are the signposts of the end. They are way stations on our journey towards the end of the Church year. Soon it will be Advent again, and soon we will be singing of the coming birth of Christ. All Saints Sunday is one of those yearly celebrations that remind us of the cyclical nature of the church, of how we tell and retell the story of God in Christ.

All Saints Sunday also speaks to a different kind of end and different kind of waiting. It is a reminder of the big ending, of Christ coming again to gather up all the faithful, to make all creation new. All Saints is also a very specific reminder and opportunity to remember loved ones who have died. Those who have been drowned and brought to new life in the waters of baptism, and those who have taken their last breaths here on earth. And in a way, we are waiting on this day too. Waiting for that moment when all the saints will be together, in Christ, robed in white before the Lamb. We wait with hope and anticipation of God’s fulfillment of the resurrection promise.

The opportunity of All Saints is also the problem. To remember loved ones, is to revisit our grief and our suffering. It is to remember that we are lonelier without them, and that no matter how long their lives were, they left us too soon. 

This year All Saints is intensely local and personal and intimate as we remember those who have died in our community, those whom we have been unable to gather to remember and mourn and celebrate as we normally would. 

All Saints is also intensely global as we grieve and mourn those who have died here in our province: 62 people, 42 just in October. And 10,000 across Canada. And almost 1.2 million people around the world who have died during this global pandemic. And among the dead are our most vulnerable: the elderly, the poor, minorities and those on the margins.

Yet no matter whether All Saints Sunday comes on a year when we can be grateful there are only a few to remember or whether it comes when there is too much remembering to bear… our task is the same. To pray and to remember. To give thanks for saints and to entrust them again into God’s care. To trust and hope in the promise of God given to all the saints. 

And as we take up this task, we hear two stories about crowds. The first crowd is a crowd gathered around Jesus to hear the sermon on the mount. 

A sermon that forces us to deal with the tensions of grief and hope. Jesus proclaims blessing for things that really aren’t blessing. Things that we might assume we should strive for in order to be holy… poverty of spirit, meekness, righteousness, to be merciful, to be persecuted. Yet Jesus is not reciting a formula on how to be blessed or prescribing new life style choices. Rather, Jesus is making a radical statement, an outrageous reversal of how we understand the world. Jesus is describing a God, whose world is upside down from ours. Jesus tells us that God sees the poor, the suffering, the hungry, the thirsty, the mourning and the persecuted…. God see us… and declares that we are blessed.

The second crowd is the great multitude gathered before the throne of God at the end of time. A great crowd robed in white, clothed in Christ, and worshipping the lamb of God. A great crowd joined to the heavenly worship of the Kingdom of God. The great multitude of the saints who have gone before us in faith, who remind us just how big this body of Christ is, to which we belong in faith. 

Two crowds, one living and one dead. Yet forever connected to one another in the Body of Christ. 

(Pause)

For the past few years, our family has had the tradition of watching an All Saints movie together. Pixar’s movie Coco. Coco tells the story of Miguel. A young boy in Mexico who loves music but whose family has banned music for generations since his great-grandfather left his wife and daughter to pursue a career music. This point of  family conflict comes into tension right around Dia de Meurtos, the day of the dead or All Saints. 

In search of information about his grand-father, Miguel goes to the tomb of Mexico’s favourite singer, where he is magically transported to the world the dead, which is bridged to the mortal world on Dia de Meurtos. 

Along the way Miguel encounters Hector, a kind, musical grifter, who helps him.

The hinge point of the story comes because the people living in the land of the dead only continue to exist when they still remembered by the living, and Hector is in danger of being forgotten and fading away in what is called the last death. Hector’s daughter, his last living relative that knows him, is forgetting in her old age. 

Eventually Miguel, with Hector’s help, manages to reconcile with his family in both the land of the dead and the living world – with a few plot twists along the way. 

Coco is ultimately a story about the power of memory and love of family – important lessons at any time. But Coco is strongly connected to a thread that ties the movie and its story to the root of faith that Christians claim on All Saints. 

Memory. 

Being Remembered. 

Miguel’s family encouraged him to learn the stories of his ancestors, to keep vigil for them at the family ‘Ofrenda’ or offering – an altar with photos of loved ones used for Dia de Meurtos.

And we gather today with candles and photos to remember our loved ones. 

The root of All Saints in found in memory. 

And while we remember today, it is not our memory that is the most important. 

All Saints is ultimately about God’s memory. 

About God re-membering the two great crowds that we hear about day. 

The crowd listening to Jesus’ sermon on the mount and the crowd gathered before the throne at the end of time. 

Two crowds, one from the living world and one from the land of the dead. 

Made one Christ. One Body in Christ. 

A living crowd whose upside down blessings, whose world is up-ended and signal the coming Kingdom of God. 

And crowd at the end time, a crowd of the gathered faithful, crow of the poor and rich, the joyful and mourning, the hungry and the full, the merciful and merciless. 

Sinners AND Saints. 

Brought finally the throne of that same Kingdom of God that Jesus witnessed to. 

A crowd born in the memory of God. 

God who remembers us from before creation was spoken into being.

God who remembers us from before we were in our mother’s womb. 

God who remembers us throughout our lives, in our poverty, in our mourning, in our meekness, our hunger and thirst, in our need of mercy. 

God who re-members us by making us members of the body of Christ  

God whose memory puts us back to together, builds us up and assures us that we are known. 

God who re-members us, to the great multitude robed in white, unforgotten at the end of time, gathered before the throne, worshipping the lamb. 

All Saints is a promise that we are not forgotten, but that the God of life remembers us. 

And so as we gather to remember the saints, as we are joined here on this signpost day pointing to the end of the year, we are reminded that whether we remember or whether we forget, we are known.

That whether it is is year to remember just a few who have died, or like this year to remember and pray for too many – God always remembers us. 

That God remembers all the saints to the New Life that is found in Christ, to New Life promised to each one of us in the waters of baptism and New life that wraps us in the white and pure robes of Christ. 

New Life for those in the world of the living and those Brough to new life in the land of dead. 

Today, God Remembers us all – as saints belonging to the body of Christ. 

Amen. 

[James Baldwin, who was an African American writer and civil rights activist wrote, in his book Go Tell it on the Mountain powerful words that paint us a picture of what God’s promise of New life will look like: 

Then John saw the river, and the multitude was there. And a sweetness filled John as he heard the sound of singing: the singing was for him. . . . No power could hold this army back, no water disperse them, no fire consume them. They wandered in the valley forever; and they smote the rock, forever; and the waters sprang, perpetually, in the perpetual desert. They cried unto the Lord forever, they were cast down forever, and lifted up their eyes forever. No, the fire could not hurt them, and yes, the lions’ jaws were stopped; the serpent was not their master, the grave was not their resting-place, the earth was not their home. Job bore them witness, and Abraham was their father, Moses had elected to suffer with them rather than glory in sin for a season. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had gone before them into the fire, their grief had been sung by David, and Jeremiah had wept for them. Ezekiel had prophesied upon them, these scattered bones, these slain, and, in the fullness to time, the prophet, John, had come out of the wilderness, crying that the promise was for them. They were encompassed with a very cloud of witnesses: Judas, who had betrayed the Lord; Thomas, who had doubted Him; Peter, who had trembled at the crowing of a cock; Stephen, who had been stoned; Paul, who had been bound; the blind man crying in the dusty road, the dead man rising from the grave. And they looked unto Jesus, the author and the finisher of their faith, running with patience the race He had set before them; they endured the cross, and they despised the shame, and waited to join Him, one day, in glory, at the right hand of the Father.]

Bubonic Reformation & COVID-19 Reformation

John 8:31–36
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 (Read the whole passage)

A sure sign for Lutherans that the end of the church year is just around the corner, is the Sunday when we break out A Mighty Fortress, put out the red paraments and vestments, and remind ourselves from whence we came – Reformation Sunday. 

And here in 2020, we are 503 years on from the commemoration of the day when Martin Luther went to the church in Wittenberg where he nailed to the door his 95 Theses regarding the sale of indulges and the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. While some might argue the Reformation was already on its way, this moment is often remembered as the spark that began the period of great change in the way Christians around the world would gather, worship and ultimately understand salvation and faith. 

And interestingly enough, the reformation also took place during a plague. The bubonic plague had been cropping up around Europe for decades and in 1527 it came to Wittenberg. Martin Luther wrote to a friend with some advice about how to minister and care for his people during that time. He said, 

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

So it seems that Reformation and pandemic go hand in hand. And with all that we as the church have endured and adapted to during the past months of the COVID-19 Pandemic,  one might wonder if we too are experiencing a reformation of sorts, a transformation in the way we gather, worship and ultimately understand salvation and faith. 

As we sort out just what is going in our world and in our community faith, it is perhaps appropriate that today we contemplate the Reformation. On this day, we remember Martin Luther standing up against the injustices of the pope and the church – the selling of salvation, the abuses by church leaders, the exploitation of the faithful. We remember that our faith and our beliefs are important. Important enough to die for, important enough to defend. 

But on Reformation Sunday we also remember the division that change caused. We remember those who died as a result of the the protests of the Reformers. We remember that between 125,000 to 250,000 people died in the peasants war that was inspired by Luther’s writings. We remember that after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door the church in Wittenberg, Christianity was split from 2 denominations (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) into as many as 25,000 today. And these divisions have caused violence, chaos, oppression, abuse, suffering and death for 500 years.

Reformation Sunday is day of two realities. Of promise, hope and freedom, contrasted by division, conflict and oppression.

Today, as you notice the red paraments that adorn the chancel you may know that red is one of the 5 liturgical colours, but only used a handful of Sundays each year. Red is the colour we use to symbolize the Holy Spirit. The changing, transforming, reforming work of the holy spirit among us. Red is used on Pentecost when we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples, red is used for the spirits call names in the ordination of clergy and today Red is for spirit moving in the reformation Reformation. 

And Red is also used to remember martyrs in the church. 

The red reminds us of this mixed experience of Reformation. A moment of change and hope and renewal. A moment of struggle, suffering and death. 

Our observance of Reformation speaks to our time. It speaks to great change we are undergoing from how we worship, gather and build community as a church, to our understanding and attitudes of race, racism and oppression, to the re-working of our social safety nets, to how we will care for a suffering climate. 

And it speaks to the suffering and struggle that is still ongoing. To those who are sick and dying during this pandemic, those who giving every ounce of strength to care for strangers and their community, in hospitals, schools, grocery stores and so many more places. To how this moment has exposed the vulnerability of poor who are both most affected by the virus and who are forced to work the front lines our society in order to make ends meet. 

Fittingly, Reformation Sunday is about all of these things and more. About the conflicting experiences of division, conflict and war that accompanied the Reformation, as well as the striving for justice, the proclamation of grace and mercy, the hope we have in God’s promises. 

God’s promises like we hear Jesus utter today, promises like, 

“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

And if there is anything to remember today it is that. 

Even as Canada and the world struggles with this pandemic while considering the opportunity for radical change. Even as Reformation Sunday demands that we recall hope and the struggle: the gospel proclamation of Martin Luther and the reformers, the bold declaration of grace through faith alone, that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love and that this belief is important enough to stand up for contrasted with the division, conflict, violence and suffering caused by the reformation. Even as these realities of both 2020 and 1517 sit with us, they are ultimately still the second most important things today. 

Because even Reformation Sunday it is still about what each Sunday is about for Christians. 

Today is firstly about Christ. 

Today is about God and God’s mighty deeds among God’s people. Today is a reminder we simply cannot save ourselves on our own. 

Just as in today’s Gospel readings the Jews said that as descendants of Abraham they were slaves to no one (even though they had been slaves to the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and now Romans). Just as Martin Luther declared that he and we we were not slaves to law and freed by God’s grace (even though he was threatened by the Pope and others). Just as we try to declare ourselves slaves to no virus or pandemic restrictions (even though cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise)…

We are still slaves to all of those things. We still must mask and social distance. We are still declared unrighteous by the law. We are slaves to fear, fear for our safety, fear of losing more, fear for being forgotten by God. 

No matter what our leaders declare, no matter the bravery we display, the sacrifices we make, the peace we try to uphold. We simply cannot save ourselves. We simply cannot free ourselves. 

We are slaves to sin, slaves to suffering, slaves to death, and there is nothing we can do about it. 

But that is why today is ultimately about Christ. 

Today is about the promise that God gives to slaves. To those enslaved by sin, those enslaved by suffering, to those enslaved by death. Today, is about the promise that God gives to us. The promise that despite our condition, despite our slavery, that God is showing us mercy, God is giving us grace, God is making us free. Free in the son. 

And this promise of freedom comes to us first in baptism. In baptism where we drown and die to sin, and where we rise to new life in Christ. 

So it is fitting today, that of all the things that Reformation might have us consider, the good and that bad, the hopeful and depressing… that the most important truth is God’s promise given to us first in the waters of baptism. The promise we belong to God, and that God’ names and claims us as God’s children. That no matter what befalls us, plague or war, violence or hate, suffering or tribulation, that God’s promise for us will hold: 

That God is our Mighty Fortress
That God is our Refuge and Strength
That God is redemption from sin
That God is freedom found in Christ
That God is our God and we are God’s people. 

And this promise is a powerful act of defiance against fear and violence, against oppression and powerlessness for us to proclaim this gospel truth today. That this gospel proclamation, that this reminder of what is central in our chaotic world, that our worshiping together in faith is an act of hope. That God is passing on through us, through the Body of Christ, this hope and this promise of grace to the world. 

Even while we are slaves to sin, to suffering and most of all to death, we pass on our hope for the future. A future promised by God in the midst of slavery. A future given by grace and mercy, even though we are dead. A future found with New Life in Christ.