Archive for May, 2017

“what’s wrong with the church?”

May 28, 2017

As General Assembly approaches – I find myself longing to say these things to a wider audience.

Reflections from here

Isaiah 42: 1-9  –  Matthew 5: 3-12

Preached at the meeting of Pictou Presbytery – Jan 17, 2017

I have had some interesting encounters this month.  A conference call to discuss the Justice Ministries Response to overtures on same sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons confirmed that there is real passion in the Presbyterian church for particular positions…A session meeting (last week) that revealed there are strong positions in the congregation around the nature and value of mission in the church.  Conversations with some of Heather’s friends (who just dropped in to visit the dog, apparently) about the purpose of the church.  And most significantly, I was the guest of the folks from the Pictou County centre for Sexual Health at a discussion group that they host for people who identify as LGBTQ and their allies.

It’s not a large group, but there too I found strongly held…

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A story among stories.

May 21, 2017

A changing audience – a deep hunger for hope – a lifetime of different , and often contradictory interpretative methods; when you bring all these things together, it creates a precarious environment for anyone who wants to share the hope of the gospel.  I  know this from personal experience, having entered my vocation in the church at a time when “organized religion” is falling out of favour (in Europe and North America, at least) even while spirituality is highly regarded, and faith based advocacy in political circles continues to blur the lines between God and Caesar.

We’d like to imagine that this is a modern problem, fuelled by things like Sunday shopping and families with too much access to too many activities.  It would be easier to blame the changes in society for the decline in religious observance (in general) and the slow, uncomfortable demise of our local congregations (in particular), but those changes are only part of the story.  Neither are the obstacles faced by the church today unique to our time.  There have always been those who chose a different path; who hold faithfully to different systems of belief; who scoff, express doubt or try to undermine the work of those dedicated to following Jesus.  And while our recent history has been uncomfortable (at best) and shameful (at its worst), the history of Christian witness can offer some hope for us.

The history of the church in North America is told in many different ways.  We prefer to tell it as the story of those who, in the beginning, fled the religious uncertainty of Great Britain and (later) Europe.  Or better still (from our perspective) we tell the story of the beginnings of the ‘global’ spread of Christianity, a task undertaken by diligent and faithful disciples of Jesus…but that is never the whole story.

Canada (in particular) has been on a journey of healing and reconciliation that brought a different story to light – a partnership between church and state that tells the story of cruelty and oppression.  This is the story of those who lived in harmony with creation until they were forced to sing another song – a Christian song.  The ‘christian conquest’ of what Europeans once called ‘the new world’ is the story of mission misappropriated and the gospel twisted to accomplish the goal of earthly powers.  So sure were we that the goal of Christian witness was to “make disciples of all nations”, that we never questioned the methods of disciple making.  Assimilation became the goal, but that is not what the gospel asks of us.

The example of Jesus – the lessons of the good news of God’s love, made known in Christ’s triumph over death – these are certainly meant to change lives.  Even now, my goal as a minister of the gospel is to invite people to consider their opinions – and so occasionally I must challenge prevailing opinions.  I do that with respect, but without apology, for one of the tasks of Christian ministry is to open people to the opportunities to live in the love of God, that we might express that love through our work, our compassion, our attitudes and our relationships.  But that change is best accomplished when it is discovered in grace – when it is accomplished as a result of mutual discovery and cooperative enterprise rather than shaming, coercion and other questionable methods.  And our lesson this morning from Acts helps us to see how that might be accomplished.

Paul is outside his comfort zone.  A new city in a foreign (to him) country.  He is on a journey of proclamation – urged by the Spirit of God to share the story of Jesus.  He begins by appealing to his co-religionists – expat, religious Jews like himself – to be careful, as his first impression of the city is that it is a dangerous place for those who profess faith in the one, ‘true’ God. He has spent time arguing in the synagogue, but the audience is wider than he imagines.  The locals who learn of his eloquence (or babbling, as some call it – see Acts 17:16-18) invite him to speak to the citizens in the public square.  He has noticed certain things about the city; temples, monuments, and shrines.  And of course, there are people.  Hundreds – thousands of people.  A seemingly endless audience for his message.  A city full of potential disciples.  So this invitation to speak must have seemed a gift from God to Paul – an opportunity to “set people straight” and win souls.  Where to start…?

Though the story begins with his general observation that these folks may be the original pattern for the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd, Paul goes on to tell the story of God’s love as it has been revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  He proclaims the gospel – offering the truth that his experience of Christ has revealed to him.  There is some scoffing, and some desire to continue the discussion (v. 32-34), but Paul, we are told, is content to leave it at that.  Some are convinced, and become disciples; others are left wondering.

Paul loses no sleep, and no time.  He moves on.  He does not insist – he doesn’t institute educational programs, or launch a school of theology to ensure that his ideas don’t die – for he knows that these are not his tasks (nor are they his ideas) – Paul isn’t ‘making’ disciples’  – that’s never Paul’s job, no matter how his later writings describe the results of his life of witness.  God does the work of disciple making through the power of the Spirit and the Risen Christ.  Paul’s job is to tell the story – to witness to the change in himself, and leave others to draw their own conclusions.

As part of the church in Canada today – this church, and hundreds just like it find themselves in an uncomfortable position.  Our witness has endured 150 years, give or take.  The story has been told, and heard, and trusted and believed…and doubted, questioned, quarrelled with and ignored.  The audience for God’s message of hope is renewed generation by generation – but while the need remains constant, the desire to hear (or the ability to hear?) is continually displaced.  The quest to find people who are willing to see the world through the eyes of God’s love is a constant struggle.  The history of the church works against us, as the failures of the church to honour the spirit of the gospel are laid bare to judgement.  But we are beginning to learn the lessons our history would teach us.

Our perspective should no longer be that of conquerors, but rather companions in a life journey, limited by our mortality, and threatened by our failure to recognize the frail nature of human relationships (with creation and with one another).  And companions don’t threaten. Neither should they engage in behaviour that doesn’t respect the humanity of those they encounter on the journey.

We are called to witness an ancient truth in modern times.  We recognize a wider variety of opinions in the global audience that is now ours, thanks to technology.  We are faced with the potential for much more resistance than Paul ever encountered – from those who are finding the courage to tell their  own story; those who have been damaged or ignored or dismissed or forgotten by those who claim to follow Christ.  This is our audience, and our former methods won’t earn us a hearing.  We must accept that the world has changed, and honour that change, even as we offer evidence of the grace of God that is at work in us.  We must honestly acknowledge the damage that has been done in the name of Jesus.  We must listen to the stories of those whose hurt is real.  And then we can tell our story.

For the gospel of Christ is the story of grace and hope that helps us see the world in a fresh light.  His is the story of limitless love that dares us to love one another even half as well as God loves us.  The story is ours to tell, but the work of transformation is out of our hands.  The Spirit is at work in the gospel shared – even in those places where the story has been told badly, or shared with wrong intentions – For the Spirit will work; revealing hurts and offering understanding, forgiveness and freedom.  The Spirit works to bring new perspectives to light.  The Spirit is adept at opening the eyes of the blind and setting the captive free, and that is good news indeed for all who dare to tell the story; who dare to share the love of God in Jesus.

“I AM…”

May 14, 2017

The end is surely coming.  And John’s gospel is unique in its description of Jesus’ preparation of his disciples.  He speaks about his death (12:27ff); he reminds them of his purpose (12:44 ff).  Jesus washes feet and makes predictions about the behaviour of both Judas and Peter (13).  He leaves a ‘new commandment.  John’s gospel offers a behind the scenes look at the confusion of disciples – the thorough nature of Jesus teaching – and lays the groundwork for the notion of Jesus unique standing in the history of God’s people.

Jesus is Lord.  One with God (the Father).  somehow and equal part of an eternal triangle of heavenly power with God and (the Holy) Spirit completing the formula.  John’s gospel – the last of the four to be written; the last to be chosen as part of the canon of Scripture – John’s gospel helped the church find the language to describe Jesus place in the puzzle.

It is language (in translation) that we continue to use.  Here we find images of great comfort and great challenge as we navigate a life of faith; assurance of an eternal home; the reminder that Jesus serves as the example for our earthly journey.  Heavenly mansions; resources to perform works of great power; an intimate experience of God, offered by Jesus, who answers Phillip’s request “Show us God”, by saying (effectively) “I’m right here.”  It is an astonishing development in the relationship between God and humanity – and it has been complicating matters for people of faith for centuries.

To claim knowledge of the mysteries of Heaven; to express spiritual awareness or mystic knowledge that is yours alone – these kinds of claims are not always well received.

Stephen, as the story is told, has already irritated the authorities by reminding them they have killed, not only an innocent man, but representative of the most high – THE RIGHTEOUS ONE – Jesus.  The authorities anger over being reminded of the “Jesus incident” explodes into murderous rage when  Stephen describes a vision of the Glory of God.  “Look’, he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’”  And that was enough for those students of the law – those steadfast men of God – to drag Stephen out of town and kill him.  Exclusive knowledge – especially knowledge of the things of God – can be a dangerous thing.

And yet the church has made similar mistakes, dragging cultures to the edge of ruin because their understanding of the mysteries of creation did not agree with ours.  Something about Jesus’ claims of exclusive partnership with God has given us permission to declare that we are right and no one else.  Such behaviour has been painful and continues to be a problem, especially in a world full of voices claiming exclusive rights, or particular knowledge.  To declare “no one comes to God except through [Jesus] makes it very difficult to understand Jesus ‘new commandment’ that “you should love one another…”

The church has spent centuries trying to hold the inclusive command “to love” in some sort of relationship with the notion that Jesus is the only way to access God’s love.  A complicated bit of business, and one that has always tied me up in knots.

“But it’s right there in John chapter 14”, you’ll tell me.  “…Jesus’ own words”Jesus – who in every other circumstance seems to pint to God rather than himself.  Jesus, the height of humility.  Jesus who knew that God cannot be divided; that God is ONE (Deuteronomy 6).  Could Jesus claim, not just equality with God, but unity with God?

It was shocking when he called God “father” – claiming an intimacy that seemed a little too bold.  Even in Jesus day, relationships between parents and children, while not always full of nurturing affection, were designed to impart knowledge and life-skills; tradition and history; such relationships gave purpose to the next generation.  So Jesus seemed to be saying “my purpose comes from God – and yours can too.”  No, as the troubles cloud the horizon, and his time to teach grows short, he emphasizes that important relationship – he speaks of a ‘heavenly homecoming’ and offers the most startling realization; His relationship with God is so close that his personality is indistinguishable from the mind and heart of God.

I was reminded, as I prepared for this morning, of a conversation I once had about the wording of the Lord’s Prayer.  Someone asked about the phrase “and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”  His question was “why would God lead us into temptation?”  We puzzled over this together for a moment, and then I invited him to consider that when we speak the prayer, we are prone to ignore punctuation.  (and that the greek of the gospels had no punctuation).  I then suggested  that it could be read “Lead us; not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  The comma – the hesitation – the emphasis is everything.

So too with Jesus statement “I am the way, and the truth and the life.” Jesus, the devout man of God.  Jesus, who knows his Scripture.  Jesus remembers the revelation of the divine name to Moses.  “Who shall I say sent me?  I AM.  Tell the people I AM has sent you”  What if…what if Jesus, so close – so devoted to the father that the two are inseparable – What if Jesus is still pointing to God?  would this not open the door to a different understanding of our relationships with other cultures, different understandings, unique points of view?

In the name of Jesus – exclusive and particular – we have been dismissive, deliberately and dangerously militant, and eager to be right.  In the name of Jesus, we have expelled those who think differently about God, we have made war instead of sought peace, and we have tried to make heaven a place for our own comfort.

The truth is elusive when we seek to define it in such narrow terms.  Many dwelling places, Scripture says – Many.  Not a single place where all are alike.  Many, suggesting diversity – suggesting something wonderful and multi-faceted in the character of God.  Something that Jesus claims as part of his character, and urges us to seek.  “How can we know the way?”  they ask (we ask..)  Jesus offers a simple summary.  I AM.  The way, the truth, the life.  Pointing to God – the great I AM – as he always has.  as he always will.  Jesus asks us (again) to consider the completeness in the character of God who is all things to all who dare put their trust – their hope – their faith in God.  And as Christians, we come to that realization through Jesus – by watching and following and striving to live as Jesus lived – he who lived in partnership with God – in close communion with the Creator – on a first name basis with the One “who IS.”

Seeking that kind of relationship – desiring that knowledge and understanding that comes as our relationship with God develops and changes – discovering the freedom that comes with faith; freedom to love, to live, to act, in the power of God – it is to this that Jesus invites us.  His is this faith, vast and promising, that we claim as our own.Thanks be to God for the promise of that faith, in our past, our present and our future.  Amen

Mission & Fishin’: a sermon for mission awareness Sunday, 2017

May 7, 2017

A meeting with Jesus on the beach; “this now being the third time that Jesus had appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead” (John 21:14). The third time…maybe the old wisdom holds some truth, about things always happening in threes.  But setting that aside, this is an unusual encounter.

The disciples are back in circulation.  No more locked doors, no more hiding in grief.  There’s life to be lived, and livings to be earned, and Peter announces, without much fanfare, “I’m going fishing!”.  Back to the sea; back to the familiar family business that, only a few short years ago they had (many of them) left behind at Jesus invitation.  “Come and fish for people”, Jesus had said, and they did – gladly – though it had not ended well…

So back to the boats, dreams of a heavenly revolution spectacularly crushed by Rome’s earthly might and the intention (or indifference) of the keepers of religious purity.  The mission now was as it always had been; survive and adjust; safety in silent determination to be just who they were.  Fishermen.]

Except that everything is NOT as it was.  Jesus is there.  He’s been showing up in the strangest places – locked rooms, country roads, on the grounds of a disrupted graveyard – they think, they hope that it’s Jesus; it MUST BE Jesus!  The narrator goes back and forth about their certainty – their fear (which never really goes away) – and Jesus offers them sympathy, understanding, and some angling advice.  “Cast your net to the right side of the boat…”

After a night – a season – of frustration, abundance!  There are many fish; TOO many.  There is careful recognition; TOO careful, after a week (or more) of uncertainty and stories and visions and hope.  And there is Jesus; pointing them, once again, to abundance, to forgiveness, and to a new and extremely challenging purpose.  Feed my sheep, he says.  A seemingly harmless request, except that John’s telling of Peter’s redemption ends in sinister terms for Peter:

“Some one will fasten your hands and take you

where you do not wish to go…”

Too often we reduce this encounter to a reminder of how Peter’s life comes to a close (the narrator says so, but remember this account is written at least 100 years after the resurrection…) – We prefer to see this as Jesus putting Peter back on the road to discipleship after his emphatic denials on the night of Jesus’ arrest, but there is also contained here an interesting (and risky) metaphor for the church and her mission.

Feeding sheep – tending lambs – spreading the gospel are all excellent things…necessary things, to be sure.  The work requires energy and enthusiasm, creativity and imagination – and when the work seems finished, or the energy and enthusiasm wanes (as must happen from time to time), what then?  When churches are established and rules have been framed and the world (as we know it) has been nicely ordered according to Christian principles (such was the dream) – when all this is accomplished, what then?

Emil Brunner, a renowned theologian of the early twentieth century, was famous for having said “The church exists by mission just as a flame exists by burning”.   His suggestion was that ‘mission’ and ‘church’ are inseparable terms; you can’t have one or the other – you must (by definition) have both or nothing at all.  So it is not enough to have the rules sorted and the buildings maintained in perpetuity.  It’s not enough to have generations of people claiming membership, or believing that they have founded a country on ‘Christian principles’.  The country (or institution, or family) that is christian ‘in name only’ is not Christian.  The church that ‘supports mission” elsewhere, but is not engaged in the needs, joys and endeavours of its neighbours, is missing something life-giving.

Such questions have been much on my mind these last couple of years.  As the situations in our local churches tends more and more toward ‘survival’, we lose sight of what it is we ought to be doing.  “What is our purpose?”  “Why is our survival important?”  “What is it that makes the church, THE CHURCH?”  We have heard (and asked) these questions often enough, and the shortage of easy answers frightens us.  It is easier to take the path that Peter took, in the hours leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion…”I swear I don’t know!”  Such an answer makes it easy to turn the responsibility over to someone else – anyone else – so long as it isn’t ‘my” problem.

And it is to us that Jesus returns; for this reason was Jesus raised.  There on the beach, when we imagine that the danger has passed, and we can go back to doing the familiar things – the things that play to our strengths (whether or not they represent a response to God’s call to us) – here in this time, when we would rather enjoy the fruits of our labours (or the results of our resolute ‘stay-the-course’ tactics, Jesus comes and gently reminds us that the mission of the church is the purpose of the church.  That the faithful (and the fallen) must still – always – be fed; that our failure to do so is always forgiven; and that in our maturity of faith – in the full exercise of that mission given by God, we might well be led in directions that don’t seem natural (or even safe) for us.

This is the season we celebrate our risen Saviour; surprising us by his presence, in rooms we considered safe – on roads travelled in fear – on beaches we’d rather were empty.  When Jesus meets us we are forced to consider that we might have failed, saving his presence.  For when Jesus meets us, our courage returns, our hearts are strangely warmed, our supposed failures find new interpretation – success simply by casting a net off ‘the other side of the boat’…

It seems too easy – that our acknowledging Jesus’ presence; our naming the Risen Saviour; our acceptance, both of God’s forgiveness, and God’s invitation, might lead to something wonderful and unexpected – a discovery that the mission of the church is found (and accomplished) in our engagement with our neighbour, our opposition to injustice, our admission that grace and goodness, righteousness and faith might look different that we have long imagined.