Posts Tagged ‘certainty’


October 23, 2016

“God, be merciful to me…a sinner.”

A parable, remember; a story of extremes.  No Pharisee was ever so self-aggrandizing; no tax collector so self-aware.  The real challenge in this parable is that the Pharisee singles out this particular tax collector.  He notices a reluctance in his approach to the holy space; perhaps he sees, in that reluctance, acknowledgement of guilt – and so the Pharisee imagines his disdain is justified…and there is that difficult word – one that traps and trips us even to this day.

A warning against pride, certainly; an encouragement to further humility, without a doubt… but was the Pharisee exultant?  Was the tax collector truly humble?  Since God knows every heart, is this – perhaps – a lesson in God’s level of tolerance?

Two went to the sanctuary to pray.  One was a regular – familiar with the ritual, confident in the results.  “Thank you Lord that I have my religious ducks in a row; I’ve never missed a meeting; I go to all the church suppers; I know all the good hymns and remember all the right words…and I pay my way – not like that person over there…”

That person “over there” keeps to herself, head down; not a stranger, but not part of the congregation either.  An occasional guest; not sure she should have come, but unable to stay away.  Silently praying – simply hoping (against hope) that this time, she might encounter mercy.  This time, she might find that glimmer of grace that would let her lay down the burden she carried.

This is what churches all over the world look like.  Sunday after Sunday, faithful people of every degree – those who are dangerously confident, and those who are courageously timid – take their places (and their chances) in God’s presence.  The confident sing loudly and pray with certainty; “Thanks you God for all we have.”  The rest sing loudly and pray fearfully; “God, I need but one thing.”  That there are so many different kinds of people in worship is not the problem.  That we imagine that the goal is that all should be equally confident – equally comfortable – equally JUSTIFIED – THAT is the problem.

In a culture that recognized, not only many different religious traditions, but innumerable ways to practice those religions, Jesus tells a parable against religion as an instrument of judgement.  God, as judge, does not need our assistance; God, who knows the contours of each heart, can certainly tell one intention from another far better than us.  So too in our time – a time of many different religious traditions and emerging expressions of religious feeling – Jesus parable warns against the smug certainty of the “saved”, turning our expectations (once again) upside down.

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled…all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  A lesson we fail to learn, especially when we imagine that our “way of life” (so called) is threatened by changes in the cultural fabric.  Whether the issue is governance, or labour relations; immigration or questions of equality; the world has changed while the church – citing the eternal nature of God – has changed more slowly.  And we (the church universal) take positions that sound  much like the Pharisee’s prayer: “we have been faithful – we have lived by the rules and maintained our opinions…not like those people…”

While the rest – “those people” – whether in ignorance of our position, or fearful of our opinion, simply seek mercy.

This is, I’ll admit, a gross simplification – but so is any parable.  The mystery of a parable is the gift of continual insight as you tell it, and hear it in new situations, under different conditions.  And as I hear this parable (Luke 18: 9-14) in the fall of 2016, in the middle of a terrifying American election cycle, with religious intolerance and racial unrest growing larger in our awareness every day, I am afraid for the church.  I’m afraid because it would be easy to cling to our ‘convictions’ – to stand on the certainty of our creeds and our doctrine.  “Jesus is the answer”, we could say, “no matter what the question.”  The cautionary tale that is the current presidential election has shown us that, for some folks, truth becomes those things that are said loudly and often.  We have professed our faith, as a matter of course, week in and week out.  We are certain of our salvation.  To us, the path is obvious.

But ours is not the only path.  The awkward prayers of the quiet, confused, hesitant, and occasionally faithful are equally valid.  The voice of the stranger, the need of the alien in your midst – the ‘orphan’ (in terms of religious affiliation?) – these too merit God’s attention and God’s action.  Our faithfulness may be evident by our personal piety – and we may feel very strongly about displaying that faithfulness in very meaningful ways – but that personal piety is not how God will judge us.

The beautiful thing about the two individuals in this parable, is that they are each searching for the same thing – God’s mercy.  The Pharisee is afraid he won’t receive it – the tax collector is afraid he doesn’t deserve it – and both of them have got it wrong.

God’s pleasure is to show mercy.  God’s preference is to act in grace.  God’s delight is in the redemption of all creation – rain falling on the just and the unjust – and no clearer sign of that intention was ever given than at an empty tomb where the misery of the cross was wiped clean by the gift of new life.

Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord – and God will raise you up;  so goes a song I learned at camp.  Good advice too, in a world where the loudest voice seems too often to get the largest reward.  If the church wants to be a unique voice in the culture, then perhaps humility is the way to go.


Uncertainly certain

April 9, 2016

A breakfast on the beach – after an unsuccessful night of ‘fishing’.  This is what it’s like.  They are trying to ‘get on with life’.  They start by going back to what they know, and Peter, for one, knows fishing.  Whatever they expected to find – whatever they wanted to happen – this wasn’t it.  No fish, and a slightly familiar stranger offering advice from the beach.  The disciples are cautious (except Peter – Peter is never cautious) when it comes to this encounter; the text tells us that “…none of the disciples dared to ask him ‘who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.”  Who else could it be?  How uncomfortable was this meeting?  It is an interesting situation; they are uncertainly certain.

And it seems that this is what it will be like to follow the risen Jesus; always sure of the one thing that will consistently bring doubt on every other thing.  They are sure that it is Jesus, which means their ideas about such fundamental things life and death – the very bedrock of knowledge that has sustained human culture since the beginning of culture – is now nothing more than sand.

So it is with Saul, who is so sure he is right, until he is struck blind.  He can see (and see clearly) until he can’t see anything.  This is what it’s like.

Sure that you know whom God has chosen, are you?  That’s great, until God chooses someone else.  Sure that you can share in the sufferings of your teacher and friend, are you Peter?  Except your nerve failed you, and you denied that you knew him.

But everything will be okay.  Saul will be transformed by his encounter – entirely reliant on the goodwill of those he once hunted down like criminals; he will become the apostle to the outsiders – the gentiles – to us.

And Peter is given his personal moment of redemption.  There on the beach, Jesus offers some fishing tips, prepares food for his hungry companions, and then walks Peter through his absolution, resulting in an admission of love for each vehement denial of that horrible, dark day.  This is what it’s like.


We soak up the gospel accounts of the disciples’ early days – the bold steps taken and the miraculous results of their proclamation.  We are encouraged (some of us) by their initial hesitation, because it looks so familiar to us.  We are in awe of their commitment and their seemingly unquestioning devotion to ‘The Way’, but the truth is, questions abound!  Who is that on the beach…really?  Why do you doubt that I love you, Lord?  What is this vision that strikes me blind?  Why would God ask us to go to the aid of our persecutor?

Who are these faithful folk; these ancient witnesses who are so sure about the work of God in Jesus, and still cautiously curious about everything else?  These are not just asking First Century, ‘let’s get started’ questions – they are modelling for us the curiosity that is necessary for a lively faith in a living God.  This is what it’s like.

Questions.  Conversations.  Discussion and debate.  In the Reformed tradition especially, we are encouraged to pursue – together – an understanding of what the Spirit might accomplish in us, with us and through us.  As people of Word and Sacrament, we are encouraged to keep both tradition and our contemporary experience in in gentle tension as we worship, study and engage the world after Jesus’ example.  We are to possess the humility of those who are ‘uncertainly certain’ – an attitude described in Living Faith (9.2.1) which reads:

We should not address others in a spirit of arrogance,                                                          implying that we are better than they.
But rather, in the spirit of humility,
as beggars telling others where food is to be found, we point to life in Christ.

While it is true that this quote refers to our approach to those who belong to different religious traditions, it is worth hearing anew, as within our own denomination (the Presbyterian Church in Canada) we once again consider our stand on same-sex marriage, and the ordination of faithful folks who are found within the LGBTQ+ community…

Because this is what it’s like:

It’s like people taking irreversible positions and daring others to challenge them.  It’s groups of fearful, yet otherwise faithful people loudly demanding that, not only is change unacceptable, but the conversation about change must be avoided.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter to you – maybe there are bigger worries where the life of the faithful is concerned.  It’s quite likely that you’d rather hear that the denomination was more concerned with the current cultural attitude toward the church in general – but the culture’s attitude to the church is directly connected to the conversations we have (or refuse to have) about the constant collision between (theology) and the world.


Peter and his pals could not separate their personal histories from the life-changing experience with (of) Jesus.  When they tried to ‘shake it off’ – to get back to life before (without) Jesus, there was Jesus on the beach – familiar; frustrating in his knowledge of their area of expertise; gently urging them to enter the struggle to reconcile life in the world and a hunger for the things of God.  Saul (who becomes Paul) will never be free of his personal history:

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” (Philippians 3: 4-7)

So Peter find’s pardon, and Saul loses his sight but is granted a vision – neither of these men would have gone much further on the journey without a willingness to consider the options and engage in conversations – sure of only one thing: Jesus is risen, and that puts every other thing – everything they had ever known – up for debate.  Our challenge as followers of Christ and children of the living God, is to face these challenging discussions with the right combination of courage and humility.

We have plenty to offer – nothing less than life in Christ; but it is a gift that spoils under the weight of certainty; one which must be delivered with the humility of those for whom the will of God is utter mystery; in whom there is nothing certain beyond the love of God, made known on the beach – on the road – in the world – in the midst of our questions and quarrels.  Amen.

The arrogance of certainty

June 1, 2013

The Christian Church is fast becoming

just another option for those who wish to explore what faith means.

Not that any of the other options are new,

but the Christian Church has been (rightly, I think)

stripped of its position of privilege,

where spiritual matters are concerned.


Does this trouble you?


It need not – for the purpose of faith

is not to enforce our ideas on those who are different;

the purpose of faith is to guide us in understanding our place in the cosmic order.


Faith points to a power greater than our own –

faith longs for a sense of order, and justice, and mercy –

things that are constantly stymied

by human decisions and human greed, and human nature.


We who proclaim faith in Christ

propose to seek that order, justice and mercy

in a particular way;

it is only greed and ignorance that lead us to proclaim our way as the only way.


That has never been more apparent to me than during these last several days.


Upon hearing of the death (on Wednesday) of Dr. Henry Morgentaler,

My attention was drawn to some incredibly hurtful on-line comments.

While National papers eulogized Dr. Morgentaler as a divisive, but courageous figure,

A minister of the church, and a casual acquaintance of mine,

offered a statement suggesting his satisfaction at hearing of Morgentaler’s death.

My acquaintance takes his stand as a result of his personal experience and his Christian faith,

Yet his position (and other like it) left me increasingly uncomfortable and, eventually, angry.


I am appalled by the approach we take toward opinions within the church.

I myself am constantly learning how to “agree to disagree” on all sorts of topics –

But when we claim positions of absolute certainty,

and bend the rules of logic and compassion to justify our position,

I begin to understand why the church is in such a miserable state.


Who would join us in our worship,

when we cannot be publically civil in our debate;

Who would willingly join a group

that first insisted you put aside your own opinion, or abandon reason,

before you were deemed capable of full participation in the life of the congregation?


The church, in the name of “preservation”

is in danger, in some quarters, of becoming dangerously narrow-minded

and suspicious of new ideas, or anything that sounds secular (or worldly).

This kind of behaviour is death for an organization

that is called to engage the world

by “doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly” with (its) God.


We walk a troubling and difficult path.


Between the proclamation of the truth we hold dear,

and the presence of those who would tell their own story,

we cannot seem to express ourselves intelligently.


Some have profited from the language of certainty

at the expense of those who have legitimate questions

about the relationship between Humanity and the Divine.


I am tired of certainty – I find no profit in it –

and today’s Scripture lessons should provoke questions

about the way we proclaim our devotion to God


(brief précis of Elijah story) Elijah has been on the run –

he is reported to be the last of God’s own prophets,

and he is summoned by the king (and encouraged by God) to a showdown.

350 prophets of Baal v. God’s own prophet – winner take all.


Since this is Hebrew Scripture, there should be no doubt of the outcome –

God answers Elijah’s prayers – the offering is consumed –

but let us not ignore the brutal coda to this story

(omitted by the editors of the lectionary, but included by yours truly)

Elijah adjourns to the wilderness with the 350 prophets of Baal,

and presides over their murder.


Once upon a time, we believed that all enemies “of the one true God” should suffer this same fate:

If your practice of faith fails the test – you must die.

From such attitudes came the crusades,

conquest (in the name of God) of new lands and new peoples with strange attitudes toward the divine,

and all manner of atrocities.


We are slightly more civilized in this century –

our missionary efforts were determined only to wipe out competing ideas,

not necessarily individuals –

the results have been just as hurtful –

the Residential School experiment is but one example.


Following close on the heels of these attitudes,

comes a missive from our brother Paul.


Once an avid persecutor of “that which is different”,

Paul has been met on the road and won over by the Risen Christ.

His intolerance of alternate opinion has been maintained, however:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!  (Galatians 1: 8-9)


His argument is simplicity itself: I have received this message from God –

no other opinion (even another claiming revelation from God!)

is to be trusted, tolerated, or accepted.

My opinion is better than your opinion, because I said so.


Is this the Church we want?

The church we love?

The church we need?


Speaking for myself, the answer is no.


The tonic for all this, comes in the person of Jesus.

The centre of controversy, in life, death and beyond,

Jesus has lent his name to our efforts, and his Spirit to the “Christian” movement.

But we neglect his example, to our shame.


In Luke 7, Jesus is met with a request from the strangest of places –

a centurion, who it seems has become a friend of the community – seeks a favour of Jesus;

But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed…(Luke 7:7)


There is no reason for these two men to meet.

There are few similarities in their culture or their belief systems.

The authority figure does not typically beg a favour of the subject people.

Their meeting place is one man’s need,

and his belief that the other has the knowledge, wisdom, and power to grant his request.


Jesus does not seek to convert –

rather he commends the centurion’s faith –

and the deed is done, the servant, healed.


The question that remains after my week of struggle –

And the question I believe is raised by this contrasting collection of Scripture – is this:

when our faith presents itself in speech or action, is it commendable?


Are we mercenaries for an ancient creed –

ready to lay waste to the rich diversity of opinion that our society has become?

Or are we ready to share knowledge and encounter the power of God in unlikely places?

Are we open to the changing voice of revelation and proclamation

in a world no longer ruled by Christian certainty?


For the sake of the gospel, I pray that we are.

Never trust your home-town prophet…

February 2, 2013

Believe it or not, Jesus brought this on himself.

His presence in worship – reading scripture – offering opinions on the interpretation –

none of this caused any problems.

“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

For the moment, it seems as though Jesus will be given the heroes welcome –

but he insists on guiding the conversation.

He anticipates their request

“do for us what we hear you have done elsewhere – Physician, heal thyself!”

and astounds them with the reminder that,

though they may claim to be “God’s chosen people”

God has regularly chosen to honour the unworthy with moments of grace.

Jesus did not harbour a grudge against these folks –

some of them may well have been his oldest friends.

The truth of the matter is that Jesus described himself

As being called to correct the expectations of people who were loved by God,

but had wandered off script just a little.

Exclusive claims are easy to make (and easy to maintain) but eventually,

someone will offer an alternative that cannot be ignored.

Any group that declares (with rigorous certainty) “WE are God’s people”

will eventually find themselves up against some who say “wait…WE are God’s people…”

any and all who would make this claim need to remember

that from the beginning, the whole creation was called good –

and now (as then) the whole of creation stands in need of redemption.

So Jesus reminder – Jesus insightful treatment of the Scripture that day –

was a tough pill for the home-town crowd to swallow.

When you praise the local hero – you expect that praise returned –

(we’ll tell you that we’re very proud of you  – you tell us how deserving we are)

and Jesus doesn’t do that.

He calls their attention to their error –

he catches them in a real (and dangerous) misunderstanding of their shared tradition,

and their response to this insight is to run him out of town.  The gospel according to Luke.

I’ve sat with this text on my desk for most of the week –

trying to decide what this means for the church – for you and I –

and some of the thoughts that I’ve entertained are frightening.

The notion that even Jesus had trouble getting his message across is not a comfort to me.

The reaction of the congregation is – to say the least – unsettling.

I’m never sure which side of the story best describes me –

am I offering a message that no one wants to hear,

or am I eager to dismiss the truth that people present to me

because it doesn’t match my dream for the kingdom of God according to Jeff.

This is the problem of the church –

a problem for all of us and each of us –

appointed messengers of the gospel and witnesses to the grace of God.

The challenge that is before us is always “are we on script?”

Is the message we proclaim, and the witness we offer consistent with the promises of God?

Do we really offer folks a chance to see

that the kingdom of peace and love that God proclaims in Jesus Christ

is for them, and not just for a chosen few?

Oh, I know – there are arguments for a very exclusive kingdom; but they are complete hogwash.

God erases boundaries, and overcomes obstacles

and we need to stop creating hurdles for God to demolish.

What we really need to do

is find a place for ourselves in a “kingdom” defined by love, justice, grace and peace –

I assure you that we won’t be surprised by the cultural / social / theological make-up of this kingdom because it will not matter.

The love, justice, grace and peace will have made every other definition meaningless.

This is borne out in Luke’s gospel too – but we usually miss it.

I nearly missed it.

Remember I said that Jesus brought this on himself?

By pushing their buttons – by reminding the crowd that the things of God often come first to those ;outside the fold” Jesus was stepping dangerously close to the line all preachers walk.

Comfort the afflicted – afflict the comfortable.  This is the preachers code

(it is no secret that it is how I approach my ministry).

Jesus took a chance, and his neighbours pushed back – all the way to the actual edge of town.

But at the very end of the story, the light dawns – the people relent – and Jesus makes his way from the edge of disaster to the next town on his itinerary;  “… he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

Angry mobs don’t routinely change their mind about murderous rage.  I think that the truth dawned, and they relented – each of them – and discovered the truth of what Jesus had told them.

The Kingdom of God was revealed to them as larger than their confusion, safer than their tradition, more comforting than their certainty, and they stopped, and parted, and let Jesus go.

That is the good news moment in this gospel reading, and it is a long time coming.

It is a truth that tells itself in the gentlest of ways –

and it is reflected in our experience with one another even now.

Our certainty will not protect us.

Our tradition, our name, our self-declaration as a Christian people, our unshakable sense of call

None of these guarantee a meaningful experience of the new life promised by God in Jesus Christ.

We have been wrong before – we will make mistakes as our journey continues.

And the truths that we tell one another along the way will not always simple to hear;

but God willing, the light will dawn.

And we will abandon our foolish insistence on our own way,

and find the way that God has made for us.  Amen