Thursday, May 25, 2017

I Chose to Be Kind

For those who know me, they know that the scripture Micah 6:8 is very meaningful for me. I quote it as my email signature and I have it tattooed on my left forearm. What does God require from you? To seek justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with God. And for most who know me for who I am, knows that my default setting is in and around the ‘seek justice’ part of this scripture. As the Chair of our Board recently commented, ‘Vicki, you are often consternated!’

I’m not totally sure that I walk humbly with God. Or if I even really know HOW to do that. I would say that when I start thinking I AM walking humbly with God, that is the exact moment I’m likely not doing it properly. At. All. So, I recognize that this walking humbly with God is a constant learning for me. As I would think is true of anyone truly trying to walk a faith-filled life.

Which brings me to loving kindness. I can truly say that I LOVE kindness a whole lot. But I have a feeling that is not the intent of Micah’s reply. I would hazard a guess that Micah had hoped that in the loving kindness, one would also BE kind. And that’s the more difficult action than simply loving the kindness, isn’t it? When one is often consternated, kindness can be forgotten or set aside more than one would like to admit. However, if you were to look at the images I save on social media, most refer directly to being kind. My favourite is: In a world where you can be anything, be kind. That’s it. Pretty straightforward instructions. Just BE kind.

Why is that so hard most days? Why do we always seem reminding to be kind? Cause we’re too busy? Too distracted. Too rushed? To put upon by the world? Why does it feel, on some days, like it’s WORK to be kind?

This past Sunday was a day that, if you knew my trials and tribulations, you would have expected me to be a bit grumpy, even downright irritable to anyone I encountered. I had spent the week on study leave at the Festival of Homiletics in San Antonio, TX. A delayed flight on Saturday caused a missed connection so my flight home from San Antonio was canceled until early Sunday. For a couple of reasons and having the option before me, I had my itinerary rerouted to Vancouver rather than Calgary. The plan was to arrive in Vancouver before noon and to hang out with my eldest son for the rest of the day and then we would both fly home to Calgary later in the evening.

On Sunday, my alarm woke me up at 4 am. Something about the day – maybe I wasn’t fully awake, maybe I was already worn out – made me decide to not be annoyed as I moved through my day of traveling—it wasn’t anyone’s fault at this point in the trip that I couldn’t leave the day before. This feeling of being intentionally kind (or, at the very least, intentionally avoiding being unkind) was reinforced at my first boarding gate. A fellow passenger was unnecessarily rude to another traveler despite that person doing nothing that warranted the level of unpleasantness. And I think it helped that when I sent out text messages asking for prayers, in somewhat joking way, a dear friend immediately texted back a loving prayer for me and Stephen included me in the prayers for the community during worship.

As weather caused one delay after another, as my flights became all scrambled up, as I dealt with customer service agents for two airlines (both in person and on the phone), the day got more and more complicated. I spent ALL DAY getting from San Antonio to Houston, via Dallas. For those of you who know Texas, you know that is sort of a ridiculous thing.

At one point, this guy in front of me in a line up for customer service, was pacing back and forth. He kept saying to his wife, ‘I just need to go get something done, I just need to get something done.” And I knew exactly what he meant. Standing in line for two hours without knowing what solution might finally be presented is a very difficult thing. Difficult to not get annoyed. Difficult not to raise your voice in frustration. Difficult not to cuss out loud a little bit. Being patient and waiting is hard work. But I did it. I was patient. I waited. And when I spoke, I spoke kindly.

I was kind even when the two children were behaving like orangutans at another customer service desk. I can say this because I have had direct knowledge of orangutans acting in such a manner as these two children who had an incredible amount of pent up energy. I was kind in that I concentrated VERY hard on remembering that they must be feeling as squirrely as I felt but they could get away with doing gymnastics on the seats. Right. Beside. The. Desk. I was kind when I overheard the flight attendants say a passenger wanted an aisle seat. I was in an aisle seat. I didn’t care if I had the aisle or not. So I offered to swap seats.

Delay after delay had many customer service agents helping me to the best of their ability. Between them all, my itinerary was changed another two times to get me home. After I explained my saga to one service agent and told him how proud I was of myself that I had not uttered even ONE cuss word yet that day, he walked around the counter and took me gently by the elbow. “Ma’am,” he said, “let me show you exactly where your next gate is.” He was not the only one. West Jet listened with sympathy to my tale of woe and fully refunded my flight once it was apparent I would miss the Vancouver-Calgary flight and I was rerouted to Calgary instead. I wasn’t charged for the beer I treated myself to on my last flight because I had offered up my aisle seat.

But the best part of the whole day (with the notable exception of walking through the doors at customs in Calgary to see my dear hubby, my third son AND my eldest son—who had flown home himself from Vancouver and, because HIS flight was delayed, had landed just before me) was listening to the little girl and her grandma having a ball in the last boarding lounge. The grandma had her granddaughter on her lap and they were doing something together that had the little girl giggling with abandon. I looked over to make eye contact with the grandma and gave her a huge grin because her little angel was absolutely delightful.

I spent the flight home thinking back over my very long, nearly 24-hour day and I realized that I had managed to be kind. Throughout the whole day. Like it was my default setting. I didn’t do it for any reward. I did it because I knew my day was already shot—I might as well make it more pleasant by not being angry or feeling victimized. I knew that the delayed flights were not human error—they were weather related. And everyone was fed up. Might as well choose to give everyone the benefit of the doubt rather than assume they were out to get me. In a world that I can be nearly anything, on this past glorious Sunday, I chose to be kind.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Knotty/Naughty Bible Story

Song of Songs 8:6-7

Okay, this first bit I’m about to say needs a bit of disclaimer. Remember a few weeks ago when I brought up the three subjects we’re taught to avoid if possible? Sex, religion and politics. Well, ready yourself because if you think the Bible’s biggest scandal is that God gets a bit judgey and condemns whole generations of people now and then in the Hebrew Scriptures, also known as the Old Testament, I’m about to reveal that the Bible can get much more intense than the fire and brimstone that God occasionally rains down upon various people and their families. And, in my defense, I’m not making any of this up—it’s all there, in our Holy Scriptures. We just have a tendency to ignore it most of the time. So, now you have been warned, here we go.

Stephen and I have done our planning for next year’s programming. One Bible study that we will run is called the Knotty/Naughty Stories of the Bible. The first ‘knotty’ is spelled, KNOTTY, as in the stories that a difficult and challenging—the ones that are hard to hear. They involve killing and mayhem—and woudn’t it, don’t those two often go hand in hand? Anyway, the other ‘naughty’ is the kind of naughty that we don’t often talk about in polite in company. The blushing kind of naughty. The ‘that’s what she said’ kind of naughty. We decided to create this Bible study because in the Bible studies and sessions this past year, I would sometimes refer to certain stories of the Bible that were unfamiliar to those gathered. We got to discussing about how some stories of the Bible just are never read or addressed in the sanctuary on Sundays. They are not included in the Lectionary and so if we only ever followed that three year schedule, you would never know those particular stories.  Unless, of course, you did the unthinkable—that is, read the Bible from cover to cover, word for word, on your own accord.

Now, I already have a good sense of which scriptures we will be looking at next fall for this Bible study—there’s the one in which Lot’s daughters get him drunk and take advantage of him in his altered state. It’s as bad as it sounds. There’s the one in which a father kills his daughter after promising God that if God would only just let him win the battle he was about to wage, then he would make a sacrifice to God. Somehow his daughter back at home gets mixup in the bargain. And then there’s two—not ONE but TWO—different stories of groups of men going to the home of someone hosting a traveller for the night and demanding that the host toss the visitor out so that they might “know” him and, in biblical terms, ‘knowing’ someone is to have carnal knowledge of that person. Instead of being a bad host and tossing out the guest, a woman of the house gets offered to the ravaging group instead. These stories are hard to hear, they are hard to explain and they seem to serve little purpose in furthering God’s love in the world. However, the fact of the matter is that these stories are in the Bible. It is good to acknowledge them now and then because, we have to remember there was a time in which the scriptures were the only written source of moral behaviour with models of how men and women were to behave in the world. And, from the relationships portrayed in the stories we can better understand the context of the societal structures that existed at the times each of the Books of the Bible were written.

The Book that our reading comes from today falls solidly within the blushing naughty category of scripture that the Lectionary has turned a blind eye towards. In fact, the book of the Song of Songs has been banned reading, over many centuries, by various church leaders. Popes, pastors, theologians have not known what to do with this notorious Book and so they have simply said that it is not suitable reading for anyone who is not already married. And even then, maybe it should be avoided. Which just makes you want to go home this afternoon and read it right? You should. It’s not that long, only eight chapters, four pages in my Bible. It is considered by certain denominations, still to this day, to basically be erotica. And how better to get every young person EVER to read the Bible than to ban a segment of it and declare that it is too sexually titillating to be read before marriage? I wonder how that would go over in Confirmation Class. We’d all be red.

Here, within the United Church of Canada, we don’t really know what to do with this Book ourselves. As I said, unless you break away from following the Lectionary, ministers would never use the Song of Songs as a basis for the sermon. But, we have a tendency to not really follow the Lectionary here at Symons Valley. Instead, we choose themes and select our scripture readings accordingly. Other than being quite explicit in some sections, one reason that Song of Songs is not in the scheduled readings of the Lectionary is because it is one of two Books of the Bible that neglects to mention God in the entire Book. The Book of Esther and Song of Songs are the odd ducks of the Bible in that the Divine is not named once. The Song of Songs is sometimes also called the Song of Solomon but the more accurate title is Song of Songs—which means, the best song of songs—just like we sometimes say king of kings. Its authorship is attributed to King Solomon because he was known to be a composer of songs but Solomon died before its composition.

Although it does not appear to have any overt religious teaching, it is thought that Song of Songs was included in the Bible because it might refer, through the passionate love that the two people express in its story, that deep, intense connection between the two lovers refers to the strong, enduring power of love that God had for the people of Israel. For the Jewish people, the Song of Songs is an account of love between God and Israel and so it is read at the beginning of Passover. The Song of Songs continues the story of the love for the Hebrew people that was expressed by God in the actions of the Exodus. The love story of Song of Songs is the love story between God and God’s people. Christians first built upon this metaphor and story of impassioned love to describe Christ’s love for the Church. Later, Christian theologians have used Song of Songs to speak about the passion that exists when our soul makes a spiritual union with God.

The short selection from Song of Songs that was read today could easily be speaking about one’s relationship with God—set me as a seal upon your heart, many waters cannot quench love. This is one of my favourite lines. Set me as a seal upon your heart. The seal refers to those metal stamps that once were created to represent a person’s signature. They would seal the letter with a wax impression so that the reader knew it was a legitmate piece of correspondence from the sender. People would often where their seal on a chain about their neck or as a ring upon their finger. I find that to be an endearing thougth—set me as a seal upon your heart. For those who have needed this to be more than a love poem, this might be God’s heart we’re talking about. But what if we looked at this as if it was written for love story that it is? What if we assume that if the Holy Spirit moved that day that the Canon was finally decided upon and the reason this Book was included in the Bible was because it so beautifully described the love that can exist between two people? What if the banning of this Book was completely at odds with the intent and purpose of this book—to show a healthy, loving relationship that is filled with sexual attraction—that our bodies are not shameful and to be hidden from one another but instead, to delighted upon by lovers taken to into our heart of hearts? That intimacy between two people who love each other is to celebrated and encouraged?

We humans seem to know inherently that we are move through the world as a member of a group. We are pack animals after all. We have this uncontrollable desire to find a partner to experience life with. Not everyone has that desire and not everyone finds someone worth spending life with but it can’t be denied that the instinct this there. We often have more than just one significant person in our life. We might have a lover but we usually also find a friend or two that sits within the safety zone we create deep within our hearts. We are told again and again that we have been made in the image of God. If we can imagine for a moment that being made in the image of God is not to mean that we physically look like God but rather that we are made to love and be loved as God loves us. If that is true, then maybe the lovers within the Song of Songs is a series of religious teaching after all. Maybe the desire and love that is expressed in this Song is God’s encouragement to each of us to keep our hearts open, to give what is precious and essential of ourselves to the ones who mean more to us above all others. That there is difference between simply having sexual intercourse and making love to one another. And in the giving of that love, in the making of that love, we love as God would love. And through that love, we find God’s love.

*Most of us will agree that the things we love are not as important to us as the people we love. We desire a myriad of things in life such as wealth, health, any number of material things, but in the midst of these, we will be quick to point out that our loved ones stand over and above them all. Those few individuals who bring life and light to the very depths of our being elicit the most profound and intense longings of our heart. By comparing love for our partner to those material things, we do them a profound injustice, failing to delve into their unique and transcendent place in our life. For our desire for those we love is not merely superior to all other desires, it is of a fundamentally different kind.

Imagine the most painful of experiences, the loss of our beloved: Most of us know what it is like to lose someone for whom we would gladly lose everything to save. We find that when we lose the one we love more than life itself, we do not simply lose something we desire, we begin to lose very ability to desire. When we lose our beloved, we find that the other things that once tempted us lose their seductive power. We discover that our beloved is not simply the object of our desire, but the very source of it. We find that the other is the one who invests our activities with meaning and significance. Any of our achievements, while once meaningful to us, now signify nothing. For more than being the mere objects of our deepest desire, those we love are the ones who birth and sustain our very ability to desire. It is not then our beloved’s mere existence that lights up our life with meaning; it is our beloved’s desire for us that his this luminous effect. And, if we feel they no longer love us, we experience profound pain and suffering. What we really desire is the desire of those we desire. Our pleasure is intimately interwoven with the pleasure or pain of those around us. The most sought after material in the universe is not some precious metal or limited resource but rather the attention of those whom we desire.

It is understandable then that we would find ourselves desiring someone who would love us unconditionally and absolutely. An individual who would never cease caring for us, who would never leave our side, never die, and never tire of our presence. It is only natural that we would desire the gaze of one who would forever cradle us and never forsake us. In learning how to give ourselves over the love of another, to be open and vulnerable in their presence, to offer them love and desire just as we crave love and desire from them, we open ourselves up to a love that is greater than all of us. To believe in something greater than anything more than we can possibly imagine is human. We call that one God. We could use other names—Creator, Beloved. The Anglicans have been known to call God, Lover. This is the love that is expressed in the Song of Songs. A love that is without end. A love that cherishes the other. A love that sustains and endures. God wants us to love one another. Fully and completely. Without reservation. To love one another with abandon. For humankind was made in the image of God and it was good. Very, very good. Thanks be to God.

*I owe these three paragraphs to Peter Rollins' book, Insurrection.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

God Shows Up With the Least of These

Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:31-46

Through the course of the year, the Church, like Creation, has seasons. We are in the season of Easter right now. The Season of Dinner Theatre is a secular season Symons Valley experiences, it’s not a church season, yet. Now Easter lasts until Pentecost which leads into what is called—without much imagination involved—Ordinary Time. With the exception of short break in September for the Season of Creation, Ordinary Time runs right until Advent. Advent marks the beginning of the new Church year and we begin all over again—after Advent there’s Christmas, some more Ordinary Time and then Lent and then we are back to where we are right now. Of course, Advent is all about anticipating the arrival of Baby Jesus. However, and this is where I’ve been trying to get to, the Sunday before Advent begins, which would be the last Sunday of the Church year, that Sunday is called Reign of Christ Sunday. That Sunday is the day that we are reminded that although Jesus came as a human into this world and did not have any military might, his power was so vast that he reigned above all other so-called gods and the tyrant rulers on earth—namely Caesar. And I’m telling you all of this because the scripture reading that Dennis read for us today is the scripture reading that is read once every three years on Reign of Christ Sunday in churches that follow the Lectionary schedule. This reading is a parable which Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man who will return as a king, ultimately determining whether people have or have not led righteous lives. Jesus being the king above all other kings is what we are to be remember in late November when, on the next Sunday, we speak of the coming saviour arriving as a helpless and vulnerable infant.

However, here at Symons Valley, we do not follow the Lectionary for most of the year, so it’s been awhile since we’ve heard this passage. I chose this reading for today because, in these Sundays following the celebration of Easter, I wanted to explore what the good news of the Resurrection means for us as Christians in this day and age when the oppression, greed and fear of Jesus’ day are still known in the nations of the world. This passage clearly speaks to each of us striving to make the world a better place—this might be the best case made in scripture for taking the Word and ensuring the work of God is accomplished. But the good news in this parable is not necessarily the checklist. Rather, the good news of this story is the reminder that God will continue to show up in those moment when we least expect. Just as God was not expected to show up as a helpless baby but did anyway, we cannot anticipate where God will be made known in our lives today. The Divine will always make itself known in and through our lives—and not just in the high holy moments, or when we are out hiking the majestic mountains, but also the moments of my everyday life, your life, and even the life of that person who can’t get their crap together. God is there in lives that are messy, broken and, even, pain-filled.

This scripture reading of the sheep and the goats takes place just before the Passion story begins. This is the last time Jesus sits with his disciples before he is annointed for burial by the woman in Bethany and just before Judas agrees to betray his friend. It is important to note here, that in Matthew’s Gospel, this is the final teaching he offers, the last instructions he gives other than the request to remember him each time they break bread and pour the cup. He tells them—feed others as you would have fed me if I was hungry, welcome strangers as if I were that stranger. Of course, Jesus, being Jesus, rarely says things straight out—his listeners are to sit and struggle a bit with what he’s getting at, to spend time contemplating what he means with his stories and how it pertains to each person’s situation and context. This why the teachings of Jesus resonant with us still today because his stories are about the human condition, not just about the specific ills of his time. And so, he tells the group after letting them know the Son of Man will return as the king, that because they fed him, clothed him, welcomed him in, they are the righteous ones. And, you can imagine that his disciples are starting to fret a little bit and looking around at themselves, eyebrows raised as they hear this story. They were probably thinking to themselves along with the righteous in the story, ‘ummm, when exactly was Jesus hungry or naked? “Truly I tell you, just as you fed, or clothed or welcomed one of the least of these,* you did it to me.” And then he goes after the less righteous in the story, stating that those of them who ignored him while he was thirsty or ill or in prison are the goats who will, forever sit at the left side of the king and not get to enjoy eternal life. And again, probably a few of his listeners looked at each other incredulously and thought, ‘SHOOT! Have we ever seen him thirsty, sick or in prison and did not take care of him? Did we somehow miss that?’ And, again, he says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

I wonder how long it was after they picked up and left for Bethany, if it was on the walk there or if it wasn’t until after he died and was raised did the disciples realize that this story is not so much about the instructions to feed, clothe and welcome so much as it is about Jesus being the Son of Man—A.K.A being the son of God? That Jesus was so much more than the person who was right in front of them as their teacher? And, even more shocking, that the one who was as divine as he was human, could be found not with the wealthy, the powerful and the strong but could be found, instead, with the least of these? That the king who is at the start of the tale, who has the ability and power to know who amongst humanity are the righteous and who are not, that that king can actually be found amongst the homeless, the ill, the starving, the thirsty, the stranger?

In the Resurrection, we, the people of God, bear witness that the ministry of Jesus did not end upon the cross. Love overcame hate and Jesus was raised to make known to the world that God’s love must be carried on by all who proclaim to believe in The Way, that the Kingdom can come, if only we carry on the work of God by following the example that Jesus, our Christ, lived out for us. In the Resurrection we have the understanding that Jesus continue to walk alongside us, even today. For some this means that Jesus is there but not there as in the Footprints poem—you know the one, a person dreaming of walking with Jesus sees their path as two sets of footprints on a beach. During the times the person recognizes as difficult periods of their life, there is only one set of footprints. Where were you then, the person asks Jesus. Jesus answers, I was carrying you. Jesus is with us, not visible to us but offers support, courage and strength as we move through our days. But this is not the image our scripture reading today gives us about the presence of Jesus in our lives each and every day. Our scripture today, along with the good news of the Resurrection is that God did not leave us when Jesus died upon the cross, God showed up again in the raising of Christ, this scripture tells us that the Divine, through Jesus, is still very much with us and that, in order to find Jesus, we need look no further than amongst those of us who hurt, who are a little broken, or maybe a lot broken, God is very much present right where you least expect God to be.

He is not the policy-maker, the CEO, the priest. He is the least amongst us. He is the fentanyl user in Vancouver, he is the young woman beaten to death while being filmed on Facebook. He lives with those Canadians who do not have access to safe drinking water in any one of the 150 Native communities that are under a water advisory on any given day. He is the teenager reeling from the suicide deaths of his friends in Attawapiskat First Nation. He the guy standing on Cash Corner downtown, hoping to God that he can get a day’s work this week. He’s the daughter of parents who attended Residential Schools and because they weren’t given examples of how to parent when they were growing up, she is left to fend for herself. He is the mentally ill person who has done something too horrible to talk about and is now in prison. He is that woman who is afraid of entering her house of prayer because of the hate spray-painted on its front doors. He is that guy talking to loudly to himself on the C-Train. He is that woman who walked out into traffic and when the vehicles stopped for her, she insisted that she could lift one up by pulling up, up, up on the bumper—she was so high on glue that the smell made me sick so I had to lie down for hours afterwards when I tried to protect her from oncoming traffic until the ambulance arrived.

The good news of the Resurrection is that Jesus has not left us. Jesus walks with us still today. The good news of the Resurrection is that God continues to show up. Even the messy. Even in the broken. Even in the pain-filled. Even in the ordinariness of the bread and the cup. God is there. God is here. The people in the parable realized that they did not know in their helping or ignoring those who were not well, who were struggling, who were unfortunate that they were helping or ignoring Jesus. They did not recognize that the Divine was right there, amongst them. The question for us today is, will we?  

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

CoSA is Hope

My dear friend and colleague, the Reverend Tracy Robertson, who serves St. Thomas United Church in the NW of Calgary, is someone who lives her whole life as Jesus has called us to do - she loves her neighbour as herself. Each and every day. Each and every person she meets. She used to make me a bit nervous, when we walked along the streets of Winnipeg, between our residence and our school when we were in ministry training together. If someone--anyone--asked her for change, she would stop and ask them how they were doing and then she would get out her wallet and give that person some change. Drunk. Stumbling. High. Stinky. Man. Woman. Didn't matter. She looked each of them in the eye and spoke to them. She has a heart of gold and she has no reservations with sharing it.

In our Social Ministry Year, we students were to find a social services program of some sort to volunteer at for the year. I went to Alpha House, a shelter and detox centre for those people on drugs or alcohol. Tracy went to the Mennonite Central Committee Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) and became trained to sit in circles with high-risk offenders (sexual offenders) who had served their jail time and now were living in the community.

As you can imagine, it takes a certain type of person who can sit in circle with these high-risk offenders and be a support to their journey after their jail time. In these Sundays following Easter, Symons Valley UC is exploring what social justice means - what the Bible says, what Jesus has to say about justice and how we can act justly in this world of ours. Realizing that Tracy has a unique perspective on criminal behaviour and the reintegration into society of someone who has serve their time but has committed a crime that can never be forgotten, I invited her to preach this last Sunday for SVUC. Because we are both in solo ministry, I offered to do a pulpit swap - which was loads of fun because St. Thomas UC is my home congregation and it was a like a big homecoming when I was there on Sunday.

Tracy's full sermon is below, but first, here are some words from a person that Tracy supports in Circle:
When we come into CoSA our lives are in the bottom of a barrel. In the years of dealing with these wonderful people that didn't know us from a hole in the ground. They sit and read about us from the numerous reports that have been gathered. For most of us they are very disturbing and should show them that they need to run away and find better people to visit with. But out of the goodness of their hearts they sit and talk to us. For me CoSA has been the most wonderful experience in my life. I've been pulled from the ashes to be resurrected into a new man. For me the only word I can use that sums up CoSA is "HOPE."

Scripture Reading: Hebrews 13:1-3
Sermon by the Reverend Tracy Robertson

Our scripture this morning can be read and interpreted as service well-pleasing to God. It’s a short scripture and it makes total sense, doesn’t it? “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” But do we really do that? We might think about those being tortured; especially the victims of criminals. That’s fairly easy to do, isn’t it? We can imagine what people go through when they’ve been offended against. We don’t particularly like going there or dwelling in that place, but walking in the shoes of the victims is something we often do. And it’s easy to pour out our love for humanity towards the victims of the most heinous crimes; we pray for them and we volunteer for organizations that help victims and their families work through the trauma with hope that they might one day live lives of completeness, safety, and happiness.

But do we imagine being in prison when we see someone sentenced after being found guilty for theft, abuse to animals, murder, or sexual offences? Do we really remember them? Those who are considered unlovable for what they’ve done to their victims. Those who harm the most vulnerable in our society. Those who literally destroy lives and trust. We might quickly include these individuals in our prayers but, let’s face it, it’s very tough to find real and true compassion for those who offend against others.

I’m here today to share with you some of my experiences with just these types of people. I’m here not to discount the horrific experiences that victims of crimes have experienced and suffered from. I’m definitely not here to say what the offenders have done is okay or should be forgotten. Absolutely not. But what I am here to have you consider is the undeniable fact that God’s love is unconditional. And it’s unconditional to everyone; no matter what they’ve done or who they’ve hurt.

We’re in the Easter season and as resurrection people, we Christians believe to our cores that new life can come out of death. We know that new life comes every spring after a very long winter where the earth seems dead. The Easter story – the resurrection story – reminds us that with God the impossible is, at best, a slight inconvenience. The impossible becomes possible. The brief time of Jesus’ death is a mere blip in the ongoing story of God bringing new life and hope into situations that seem well beyond it. Jesus can restore life when all hope, when all possibility, is gone. God can restore life when all hope, when all possibility, is gone. It’s simply grasping and accepting the basic truth of the Easter message: that God, not death, has the final word, and God’s word is a resounding “Yes!”

The Easter message reassures us all that we all have our own resurrection moments throughout our lives. Moments where the impossible becomes possible. Where our eyes are opened to a new way of looking at things.

For me, one of my biggest resurrection moments I had personally was when I started volunteering with a social justice group out of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) called Circles of Support and Accountability – or CoSA. This is a program that supports and holds accountable people (usually men) coming out of prison who have committed the most heinous of crimes – they’re sexual offenders. Now, I have to be clear – I didn’t start volunteering with CoSA because I wanted to specifically work with sexual offenders, nor did I have any plan to stay there longer than the 10 months that was required as part of my ministry training. But this is what resurrection stories are all about, right? The unexpected being born out of the most unsuspecting of places.

The offenders are interviewed up to a year before they’re released from jail to ensure they’re in the program for the right reasons because many will try to manipulate the system just to make themselves look good to the courts. Once they’re vetted and released, CoSA is there to pick them up from prison, help them with housing and finding a job, and above all, hold them accountable to their court-mandated conditions and strategies towards no more victims.

The guys meet with their circle and they become the core member of that circle. The circle is made up of a coordinator from CoSA and 2-4 volunteers who have been trained and educated on being a part of the core member’s support team. They meet with the guys right after their release and continue to meet with them weekly to offer support and hold them accountable to their past behaviour and strategies towards no more victims.

One of my resurrection moments came on my first day at MCC. I arrived and the very first thing the coordinator told me was that I was going to meet and interview one of the core members. All the coordinator told me was that I was going into the empty office down the hall with this man, alone, and that she wasn’t going to tell me anything about him except to say that I would be safe. He told me his story – in great detail – and the most remarkable thing took place. I found myself being able to separate this man from his offences. It was almost as if I was putting his crimes into a box and placing the box up high on a shelf and then turning my attention to him, as a human being in need, to pastorally care for him. I intentionally felt as though was I looking at him through God’s eyes; through God’s filter; experiencing God’s unconditional love and care towards this man. I was definitely not forgetting his horrendous offences, by any means. But I did feel what I imagine God feels towards all of us, even the worst criminals - and that is always unconditional love and hope. It was a remarkable experience that I can only describe as a resurrection or re-birth moment for me.

At the debrief with the coordinator after the interview, I was sharing that revelation with her. She said that not everyone can be a volunteer for CoSA because most people cannot separate the offence from the person. And I found that in my 10 months there, meeting a number of core members at circle meetings and social activities, as well as visiting prisoners in the Drumheller and Bowden institutions, I came to truly appreciate these at-risk people and felt as though I had been blessed with being resurrected into a whole new way of looking at all people through God’s eyes. It was a resurrection moment for me and it affected me so profoundly that I’m still volunteering with CoSA to this day.

As some of you know, my experience working with sexual offenders led me to my first Ministry Call which was Chaplain of the Calgary Young Offender Centre. I was there for 3 years. As you can perhaps imagine, there are many resurrection stories that are shared by individuals who have lost their way so much that they end up in jail. Now, the reality is that many criminals are what we call habitual criminals. They enjoy their criminal lifestyles and will continue to move in and out of jail their entire lives. But then there are those for whom jail is their rock bottom and they want to make a change but have no idea how to go about doing that. Their only connections outside of jail are gangs and other criminals. Many tell them to find new friends, get a job, learn a trade. Some even say to them that if they’d only find Jesus, they’d be fine. Well, it’s not that simple.

When your only family consists of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins in gangs, how do you leave? Where would you go? Who would support you during the transition time? Who’s going to help you find a place to live, buy groceries, or get a job? There are many of us today who continue to struggle to find employment and we’re not coming out of jail with literally nothing, wondering where we’re sleeping that night or how we’re going to get a bite to eat. How long will it be before someone who has nothing reverts back to stealing and other criminal behaviour to survive and cope?

There was a young man who I got to know at the young offender centre. He was a violent offender and had killed someone by stabbing them over 100 times. He’d very often come to the chapel to get some pastoral care from me and share with me his story. When he was 8 years old, he was told by his family that he’s now old enough to decide whether he will be a member of the crypt gang or the blood gang. It was a hard decision because he knew enough that if he chose crypt, all his friends who were bloods would instantly be his enemies – and visa versa. What a horrible position to put an 8 year-old in, right? He came to the chapel one day and showed me a picture his family sent him of him as a little boy proudly holding a fish he had caught. I asked him if he remembered that moment and he said yes because later that night, his family got him high and drunk for the first time. It was a sort of right of passage.

Another young person told me about her home life where her mom locked her little brother in the pantry because he was misbehaving. The mom totally forgot about the brother because she became altered on some kind of drug that night and, as a result, that little boy spent the entire night and part of the next day in that pantry.

Each time I hear people’s stories – anyone’s stories – I feel privileged. I’m honoured to be able to hold that story because I believe that through hearing people’s stories, I move closer to God and God’s unconditional love. I experience moments of resurrection and new life when I’m trusted and seen as safe. And when people share with me their resurrection stories; it’s a wondrous moment.

People ask me why I have such a passion for at-risk individuals, particularly criminals and those who have offended against the most vulnerable in our society. They wonder why I would ‘waste my time’ with such people – after all, those people should be locked up forever. The reasons why I have such a passion are because the reality is that, in Canada, most criminals will be released at some point whether we believe they’ve paid their debt to society or not. Quite simply, I’ve chosen to be a part of the solution to no more victims. That means hands-on support of the criminals so that they, first and foremost, have people who will hold them accountable and help them practice their strategies that will keep them stay out of jail and most importantly, keep the public safe, and secondly, it’s so they finally have someone in their lives that believe they’re able to do it. 80% of those in the CoSA program don’t re-offend. Without the program, the chance of re-offence is almost guaranteed.

My motivation is to be the face of God in these individual’s lives. I believe they need to know that they are loved unconditionally and by modelling that care and compassion, they, too, can begin to believe that they’re capable of care and compassion as well. Sexual offenders can never be cured but what they can do is have a resurrection moment where they come to the realization that what they’ve done was truly wrong. You see, almost all sexual offenders come from traumatized childhoods where they’ve been abused themselves and where they truly believe that the horrific environments they grew up in are normal; that everyone grows up that way. Everyone has an aunt who forces them to do unspeakable things. Everyone goes year after year without celebrating a birthday. Everyone belongs to a gang. Everyone thinks that killing someone is fair revenge for being wronged. Everyone thinks it’s appropriate to have someone under 10 as your girlfriend. These are all normal beliefs for many criminals and until they learn that the beliefs they have are, in fact, inappropriate and very wrong, nothing will change. I’ve chosen to help them with that so that perhaps the world can be a safer and better place.

You know, one guy that I’m on a circle for has been struggling with changing his ways for the better part of his life. He has been in and out of prison most of his life. When the guys are released and join CoSA, the first thing we do is have a circle meeting where a member of the High Risk Offender police join the meeting and all the core member’s conditions are read out loud. That helps us, as support people, keep the guys accountable and ensure they’re not taking part in any behaviours that will land them back in jail. This guy I’m supporting right now had many court-mandated conditions and has to keep a physical copy of those conditions on his person at all times and even when the paperwork has been reduced in size, it takes up most of his wallet when folded up – that’s how many conditions he has. When we started going through his conditions at that first meeting, he was angry. Angry that he was being so controlled and he couldn’t do what he wanted. Angry that he had to wear a monitoring bracelet on his ankle and check in with the police on a weekly basis. What we said to him at the time was that most of his conditions were things that those of us who were not sexual offenders lived by on a daily basis – the conditions literally described our lifestyles. Things like avoiding drugs and excessive alcohol, not visiting places of prostitution, avoiding pornographic sites on the internet; for some, specifically, child pornography. Some conditions were a bit harder because they have to, at all times, avoid children under 16 or 18 years of age, school yards, play grounds, daycares, parks, rec centres, movie theatres, etc. – anywhere where children may gather. The reason for that is because if they see something they like, they might start on a downward spiral towards re-offending. It’s tough work, but this particular guy slowly began to realize that these conditions were in place for his own good and eventually, he realized that they were in place for the good of society and any potential victims. I remember the day he had his resurrection moment when the light bulb went off in his head and he started to finally understand what he had done in the past and that what he had been doing to others was exactly what had been done to him as a child. He never wanted to be responsible for instilling the same trauma in other children as he had experienced, and when he realized that he had, it was a turning point for him.

That’s why I do the work I do. That’s why I have a passion for these folks. I believe in my heart, in my core, that everyone is worth saving. Everyone is worth it simply because they’re worth it in the eyes of God, and, of course, it’s worth it to stop the cycle of victimization.

That’s what it means to remember those in prison as if we were in prison with them. That’s what leads to the mutual love described in our scripture this morning. Now, I have absolutely no expectation that anyone will do the work that I’m doing or hang out with sexual offenders, but perhaps, there may be a bit more understanding for the support I’m offering these folks and perhaps there may be a bit more mutual love for all God’s children – even those we don’t believe should deserve God’s unconditional love, because the reality is that God’s gonna love ‘em despite us thinking God shouldn’t.

What God offers can be offered at any time, in any situation. In a world overpowered by racism, xenophobia, terrorism, and the like, it’s easy to give up hope. It’s precisely in the face of this that God challenges – almost dares – us to read the stories of new life and new hope like the many stories in the gospels. How can we give in when God is so loudly proclaiming life in the midst of chaos? Hope oozes from scripture passages like the one we read today; we can’t help but share it with others. It’s never too late. It’s simply grasping the basic truth of the Easter message: that God, not death, has the final word, and God’s word is a resounding “Yes!”

There are resurrection moments in all our lives when all of a sudden, we find ourselves “named” and called by Christ. It’s a moment filled with ‘a-ha’. A moment so mysterious that it can only be called a ‘God moment’. A moment that runs into that wondrous feeling that cannot be contained; it’s something we automatically want to share with others. As much as we sometimes don’t want to, or have the energy to, admit it, there is always hope and as resurrection people, we Christians must continue to believe that hope comes from God’s ‘Yes!’. May we have the courage to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, sharing the astonishing resurrection moments and messages we experience so that others, too, may find hope and new life.
Let us pray… God of resurrection joy, too often the world wants us to look at things dimly, pessimistically, as if there is no hope. There are so many reasons to give up, O God. Help us not to do that. Help us to know that in the midst of all the despair we encounter in daily newscasts, you are indeed present, daring to bring hope in the midst of it all. In the midst of it all, you come to us, and in acts such as raising Jesus from death, and calling us by name, you proclaim that your word is not “no” but is a never-ending and life affirming “Yes!” Thank you. Amen.