Posts Tagged ‘challenge’

Our struggle towards joy.

June 26, 2016

Even Jesus hears them;  the slight hesitations – the excuses – the refusals.  We would prefer to remember differently – to talk about the crowds that gathered – the lives that were changed – the tremendous momentum generated by Jesus’ earthly ministry.  But every once in a while, the gospel reveals the struggle that is still part of the proclamation of the Gospel.

Maybe it’s because they were Samaritans; not historically sympathetic to Jewish ideals.  The tension between the two is clear win the request of James and John upon the refusal of the villagers to ‘receive Jesus’; “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come…and consume them?”  A little harsh by our standards, but then, the sons of Zebedee were completely committed to the cause.  And just as well that Jesus rebuked them, because the Samaritan snub was just the start.

Let me first…, I will, but…  And of course, when Jesus meets someone who IS eager  – “I will follow you wherever you go.” – Jesus isn’t exactly…encouraging; (Foxes have holes, etc.)   The message seems to be; ‘are you sure you want a part of this?  It’s going to be difficult and lonely.  This would not seem to be the best text for us today.  On a day that will see us welcome young Easton through the Sacrament of Baptism, it seems very strange indeed to encounter Jesus talking about how hard it is to choose a life that honours God.  And yet, that is the unsettling truth. God’s faithful – whether priest, prophet or the ordinary people of God – have had a hard time living faithfully when the world asks something else of them.

So what makes it so hard?  Love God; love neighbour – fairly straight forward stuff, isn’t it?  Do not murder, lie, cheat or covet – well sure, that’s a little bit harder, but because it’s easier to behave as one should in the company of people who are also behaving, we gather together in like-minded colonies, countries and congregations.  We have been pretty well served those habits – we can easily call ourselves faithful when we point to places like this with a rich history of worship and fellowship – places that remind us God is at work and present in a way that is solid and comforting.  And yet, it is impossible to pretend that things aren’t changing.

Nothing is as certain as we imagined it was.  No amount of “love thy neighbour” can hide the reality of massive cultural change; carelessness, selfishness, consumerism, unbridled capitalism – all these things run counter to the habits of humility, compassion mercy and grace that are the gospel prescription for ‘new birth’.  And lets consider what that “new birth” is like…over and over we are asked to see the world differently – to love those we once considered unloveable;(the vows we take in the Baptism service ask us to “turn away from sin, and all evil powers in the world which rebel against God, or oppose God’s rule of justice and love?”  That seems a pretty tall order for one person – or one family – until you realize that the whole congregation then promises “to guide and nurture (these people) by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to follow the way of Christ…”

These are, as someone told me recently, among the most terrifying moments in worship (for him) because as hard as it may be to promise to seek God’s rule in the world – it is much harder to promise to help someone keep that promise…because it presumes that you know how.

And the truth is, we’re not sure.  Love alone doesn’t seem enough.  The desire to do the right thing doesn’t make it any easier.  The institution that we depend on for guidance – the church that we assumed would always be the same – is no longer held in such high esteem by the ‘rest of the world’. It’s frightening, because we have done what we thought was needed.

We have kept our hands on the plow;  WE have answered the call and done our part; where is the promised reward?  Wasn’t the church supposed to change the world?  Isn’t the love of God, revealed in Jesus the answer to everything?

The good news is that the church of Jesus Christ HAS changed the world – the world, of course, resists such change.  In fact because the world changes faster than the church does, the church always seems ‘out of step’ with the patterns in the world – and that is just as it should be.  “in the world but not of the world” is how the apostle Paul describes a people who defy expectations; who do not conform – who turn from the things that would separate us from God – even when our turning is hesitant or half-hearted.  While we may not be willing (or able) to lunge head first into the fight against evil for the sake of God’s justice, we are, as the people of God, still fighting against the current.  The life that honours God – the struggle to see the world as Jesus sees it, that is the struggle we choose.  We continue to take this hour as sacred time – time to experience the call of God again; to frame the week ahead in terms of our call to serve (our baptismal vows) – time to be reminded that, though the challenge to follow Jesus is difficult, we are not alone on the journey.  Thanks be to God for the call that binds us together – for the Spirit, who lends us courage – for Christ, who makes us one.  Amen

Salt and Light

April 24, 2016

“You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world…”  Words that leave all who hear them with work to do.  On the earth; for the world.  These words, coming as they do within that great teaching moment – Jesus on the hillside; he’s laying out the framework for faith – building a platform on which the promised kingdom of God might rest.  “Blessed are they…blessed are they…”; Jesus urges his hearers to faithfulness, compassion, humility and the peaceful pursuit of justice.  And then this – Salt of the earth; light of the world.  This is the only mission statement the church needs, and we don’t really know what to make of it.

Oh, we know about mission, all right – mission is that thing that the church supports, isn’t it?  That overseas work that we entrust to missionaries and Presbyterian World Service & Development – and this is certainly one aspect of “mission”.  But THE MISSION of the church – the reason we gather, the reason we organize ourselves, the reason we exist is to be Salt and Light.

The knowledge of God to which Jesus calls us – the work of God in which we are welcome to participate – the promises of Scripture and our identification as a covenant people; all these things mark us as different, and Jesus description reminds us just how different.  We are to be salty – brilliant; we are called to be like those two elemental things which are most often noticeable by their absence.

On those Thursdays when we gather to make soup, our ‘chief taster’ (aka Gerald) will let us know when our offering of the day ‘needs salt!’  Most of us can tell pretty quickly when the salt shaker has been stowed away – it’s the first thing we reach for when at the dinner table.

Likewise, the first thing some of us do when entering a dark room, is…stub our toe.  THEN we turn on a light.

Salt gives flavour to things by enhancing the flavour of all the other things we cook with; it is versatile and plentiful – so valuable in the ancient world  that it supported the economy for empires – much as oil does now.  Light shows us things that would otherwise be hidden from our sight, and then helps us chart our path through even the most familiar spaces.  For many, light is the thing that quenches fear, and salt is the purifying element that lets healing begin – and in the work of the church; in every mission project taken on by the AMS, or PWS&D, where ever the people of God are gathered or sent, we too must be salt and light.

It is with this hope that every missionary journey begins – from John and Charlotte Geddie in the New Hebrides, to Donald Walker and Marion  in Ghana – each and every person called to overseas work is aware that the gift of the Gospel of Christ has the potential to reveal things that may have been hidden; to lift he veil of darkness and fear, and to bring cleansing and healing to those who have been broken by oppression and injustice.  And while our understanding for mission work may be the liberation of lives half a world away, it is clear that Jesus meant much more than that.

Jesus mission never took him beyond the borders of his own country.  His call to be ‘salt and light’ was local and immediate.  His teaching would have a global impact only after his followers accepted the challenge for their own lives, in their own communities.  And Jesus’ example gave them a pattern to follow.

You don’t think Jesus was ‘salty’?  (a term that has come to have negative implications, as in “his language is a little salty”)  You don’t think having Jesus in their midst didn’t spice up the ordinary lives of the people of Galilee?  Think again.

Calling God by name – using terms of endearment (Abba = Daddy); taking principled positions on current events and in religious debates that aligned him with God’s definitions of mercy and justice – positions that were often contrary to the prevailing civil and religious authority.  Jesus revealed the promised safety and certainty of those powerful people as a sham, and offered the promises of God for the healing of all.

Jesus shed light on those who had been thrust into the dark corners of his society – and that light revealed those outcasts and strangers as children of God.  He loved the loveless and touched the untouchable; Jesus reached out to those whom religion and culture had abandoned, and redefined the ‘kingdom of God’.

Through Scripture and the present, powerful work of the Spirit, Jesus still calls us; challenging all who would follow him to share in the task of revealing the things of God and reviving God’s broken world.

The call to be salt and light is a call to action.  Beyond worship, beyond an historical appreciation for “the role of the church in our lives”, beyond any sense of eternal security that comes with faith, we are called to live as Jesus lived.  To speak the truth to power; to ‘spice things up’ by offering friendship and courtesy where none was expected; to offer the light of hope – the hope of death defeated, and robbed of its power – to those caught in the deep gloom of hopelessness; and we are called to do that here, and now.  The opportunity to live out our calling – to engage in the mission of Christ – is always at hand.  The work of the church, even when it seems to have little effect, is indispensable.  It is, as salt and light, most noticeable when it is absent and the good news is that by the grace of God, we are still here.  Thanks be to God that we are – even now – living out that call to be salt and light, for Jesus’ sake – to God’s glory.  Amen

“Have you come to destroy us?” Fear in the church – then and now.

January 31, 2015

Capernaum – an ordinary sabbath, with Jesus in the centre of a teaching event at the synagogue. He is turning heads, for they have never heard anyone teach like he does – authority, they say – that’s the secret ingredient. He knows his business – everyone says so – so an interruption is not welcome. Mark’s gospel says the man had an unclean spirit. We assume he is mentally unbalanced; an unfortunate soul with no self control. But I don’t think that is the problem.
He was part of this learning and worshipping community. Synagogue is the word we use to describe the meeting place for Jewish worship (today). It comes from a greek word that means ‘a coming together’ or ‘a gathering’. Here all were ready to listen, and most were allowed to speak. And in the middle of Jesus’ exposition of the text for the day, a man shouts out; “What have you to do with US, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
His spirit is akatharthos ; that is the Greek for the word usually translated ‘unclean’, or sometimes ‘impure’. It’s root word is familiar to us – catharsis; used to describe an event that cleanses the soul, or rejuvenates us in some way.  This is not a cathartic moment for him, but the opposite – a-cathartic.
The anonymous man is really upset; He speaks of collective destruction, but claims personal insight into the person (and mission) of Jesus “I Know Who You Are…” Perhaps he thinks that he should speak aloud the fears of the congregation? Is he the voice of reason – does he have the word of God on this day – or does he imagine himself the conscience of the congregation? Is it his duty to call their attention to the way things are, and always have been? It is worth thinking about, for it offers us a modern parallel.
It seems that Jesus explanations (of the things of God) – while they carry the weight of authority, and set some minds at ease – have also unsettled others; and that is a difficult thing. The question of the faithful in every time and place is constant; “How do we know this is from God?” But the response of the man in Mark’s gospel presents us with a more useful question, in my opinion: “What do we do when it IS from God?”
We are not always ready (or willing) to ask the “what next” questions in the church. As we seek to discern the word and will of God – something that we acknowledge as very difficult, and fraught with questions of understanding and interpretation – we forget that there will eventually be a second step; how do we carry out that will or act according to God’s word? It is easier to argue about who is right than it is to decide how to act, or how to live – and while the Spirit of God continues to work, and the redemption of all creation continues according to God’s schedule, the people of God, and the Church of Christ, appear paralyzed. We fearfully protect what we think know and what we imagine is ours. Jesus stands with us in the present and calls us into the future, but we are not sure we can follow. The fear that we may be wrong in our interpretation of God’s word and will makes study and argument preferable to action. Let me offer a current example.
Once more the Presbyterian Church in Canada is bracing for a conversation on the place of homosexual people in the church – overtures urging the church to remove the barriers that exclude homosexual people from fuller activity within the PCC have been referred to various committees in anticipation of this summer’s General Assembly. Currently, ordination of homosexual persons is permitted, so long as they remain single and celibate. It goes without saying that there have also been overtures appealing for the status quo. The church has gone back and forth over this question since the early nineties, and the conversation has been stunted and stifled because, at nearly every opportunity, people have been frightened by the “what’s next” question. Lately, an increasing number of Presbyteries, Congregations, Ministers and members have come to believe that God is calling the church to move forward in love and acceptance, and when we think about what that looks like, tempers get short.
So Jesus comes to synagogue to propose something new, and one voice dares to speak for them all; “What have you do do with us… Have you come to destroy us…?” It may be that what Jesus says will undo all that his community held dear. Will the ‘authoritative’ teaching of Jesus be the end of human held power and authority in this place? Promises of a new covenant, a covenant of grace and love, will be the death of any kingdom held together by fear – and that idea – that fear – is what unsettles both this man’s spirit and the modern church. But the good news is that fear is the kind of demon that Jesus can cast aside with ease.
Be quiet – come out of him – leave him alone. In the presence of Jesus, fear is revealed as not only powerless but troublesome and divisive – and at a word from Jesus, the man is returned to his own mind with a great cry and convulsions – the division is healed and the congregation is left to marvel at Jesus’ wisdom and authority.
Jesus – who faced death without fear; who forgave his captors and agonized for his executioners – Jesus has every right to rearrange the attitudes of those who claim his saving grace.
Jesus, who would silence voices of suspicion and doubt – not because doubt is bad, but because too much doubt fosters a fear that is not consistent with the gospel – Jesus rightly challenges those who would preserve structures that do not reflect God’s kingdom virtues of grace and forgiveness.
Jesus – who is for us the Word made flesh; God with us – represents wholeness and contentment in the kingdom, and so would banish the unsettled (unclean/ἀκάθαρτος) spirits from our midst, and free us to act. It was good news that day in Capernaum, and it is good news for us today.

Risky business

November 16, 2014

There is no real justice in this parable. Those who have much are given more – those who have little wind up with nothing; not to mention the dismissal into the darkness “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”1, and too often, this parable is explained to us as an example of stewardship. Take the gifts you are given and use them to advantage (and to the glory of God, of course) – this is how the kingdom comes; this is what the king of kings wants. But there is no justice in that expanation, either – and God’s kingdom is not a kingdom without justice.

So what do you make of this story? Lots of good suggestions have come from the idea that we must be pro-active with the bounty entrusted to us; it is a reasonable way to live – even a faithful way to live – but is that enough?

If there is someone willing to trust us with a treasure, what would that mean? It says as much about the slaves as it does about the master. It suggests that the slave has earned the master’s trust. It suggests that the master is either exceedingly generous, or so wealthy that he is indifferent to great loss. There is an element of risk here that is not always our first way into the story, and it is the risk that makes it interesting.

We don’t often think of faith as a risky business. We advertise faith as the great comfort; religion has ben described as ‘the opiate of the people’, and whether or not you accept Marx’s premise, we understand religion as something that offers safety, security and some measure of certainty. Risk is for something else, not for faith – not for us…

The problem is that the things that we long for – the things that faith in Christ demand of us – these are not safe, comfortable things. We want peace – we wait for the peace that passes understanding – and we are called to work for that peace; loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. Risky business that, because it means speaking up when reason tells us that silence would be safer. Risk is for teenagers and rebels – for people who would test the boundaries of authority and possibility – and that is what Jesus does; eating with the outcast, marching on the spiritual capital and challenging the order of the day. The risk was incalculable; the punishment was execution…but the reward for his faithful risk-taking was resurrection – and a lasting legacy among those who call themselves faithful.

Put aside the notion that those who work hardest or those who are most obedient will receive greatest reward in the heavenly kingdom – and those who fail to “grow the kingdom” will be shunned – that is a misreading of this parable. Instead, consider the idea that those who were brave enough (or foolish enough) to risk what was not theirs are “welcomed into the joy of their master.” And the one who wanted only to keep what he had been given – taking no chances and treating the gift as a threat (or a curse) – that slave is shown the door. It’s not that the master expected a doubling of his investment – the rate of return is what we usually remember in this story. The master took a chance – putting power / wealth / his “fortune” (whatever it may be) in the hands of his slaves. Those who took the same risk as the master – the two who sent those gifts out (and as a result, multiplied them) – they were welcomed as equals; they joined the company as partners (to extend the metaphor). The risk brings the reward.

So when was the last time we took a risk in faith? I’ll be honest, my list is fairly long – having left one occupation to start on a new path – following the call into ordained ministry – risky business. But what does risk look like for you? For this congregation? For the People of God?

The slaves who earned praise from the master did not – could not – expect reward of any kind; certaily not to be welcomed into the master’s inner circle. Neither can we operate on the expectation of “doubling our investment” every time we take a chance. Failure is much more likely than success (that’s what makes it risky) but risk is what made us who we are; risk built the Church of Christ; risk is at the heart of grace, forgiveness and the mercy of God.

Can we live faithful lives without taking a chance? I, for one, can’t imagine how. There is no certainty in tradition; the lessons of history teach us that risk is essential to progress; our sense of security (as an institution crucial to the well being of society) has been taken hostage, and there is no negotiations that will restore our position. It’s time to take a chance with the gifts God has given us.

There are no guarantees; no way of calculating the ‘rate of return’ – there is only the promise that those who take a chance for their faith will be welcomed into the joy of our Master.

Amen

1Matthew 25: 30

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…and other clever ideas.

October 19, 2014

It has been a week I’d rather forget. Two round trips to Sackville; a funeral at the Kirk; a troubling surgery for Lea’s mother; an Anniversary service to plan…and then there’s Synod starting tomorrow. In the midst of it all there are the ordinary tasks, and a visit from family…did I mention a session meeting? Not that I’m complaining – all of this comes with the territory when you accept a call to ordained ministry. I’m quite happy (on most days) to serve where I am needed, and accept that there will be good days and bad days – just as in any other vocation – but this week was not one of my best. My best intentions were hijacked by circumstances that seemed beyond my control. No hospital visits this week, no office hours, or careful and prayerful moments for the selection of hymns and the consideration of Scripture.

I offer this to illustrate the obvious; most of the time, my “work” and my “life” are tightly woven together. On weeks like this, it is very difficult to keep one from affecting the other, and the gospel for the day taunted me all week, that clever punchline echoing in my head; “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God what is God’s.”

At first reading, it seems only that Jesus has escaped a legal trap by means of a clever twist of language and logic. Taxes were necessary then as now ( and the means of payment was with the coin of the realm. No one was exempt; if you participate in society, you are required to share in the costs – so religious or not; faithful or not; there are obligations on us that cross boundaries.  Jesus tells the crowd what they already knew – that the two sphere’s of life are often difficult to separate. So to pay ‘god’s tax’ with ‘Caesar’s coin’ seems ironic at best and unholy at worst , and Jesus’ answer does not solve the problem.

It is the influence of Greek thinkers that suggest some sort of separation between holy things and ordinary things. We inherit a system of thought that is ancient and seems to make sense; there are ‘ideals’, we say; things we should aspire towards – levels of excellence that drive us to do and be better. But we have unfortunately applied this to the Christian faith in a way that is not at all helpful.

There are ‘faith moments’ we say – times when our faith should influence us, or affect the way we behave; and they are distinct – there is a time for everything under heaven, says the teacher – so when we grieve, it is appropriate to talk about what our ‘faith’ means to us, but not necessarily when we are joyful. We in the church are no better at this, I’m afraid. Sunday morning is all well and good, but when budget time comes, we talk of practical necessities and grim truths about deficits as though they had nothing to do with the lives we lead in the service of Christ. I am grateful for the courage of those individuals who do see the connection, and who are willing to ask questions in terms of our faithfulness and our devotion to God, but most of the time, our discussions sound like the one Jesus was tricked into having with the leadership of the day; “Is it an act of faith to talk about such worldly things as money and budgets, or not?”

These discussions frighten us, because the reality is pretty plain – fewer faithful people = fewer gracious givers. The work of God is not stopped by a budget shortfall, but it is hard to offer joyful praise in a cold, dark sanctuary. So what should be our priority? How do we answer the question? Fundraising is not enough, because it doesn’t address the real problem, it only prolongs the inevitable. We need the money to do the work, we say – but when the purpose of the work is to find the money, have we not stopped being people of the Gospel? What do you say, Jesus? How do you answer the riddle…

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” That is still the answer, and a clever one, at that. For Jesus was surely remembering those ancient hymns that were the praise songs of his youth; “the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it; the world, and those who live in it.” 1. The soverignty of God is an ancient idea too, and suggests that there is nothing in this life or beyond this life that does not concern God, or falls outside the limits of our faithfuness. The catch in Jesus response is that Caesar only thinks that coin belongs to him. God’s dominion is not limited by our opinion. So we cannot pretend that our budget issues are merely practical issues. This is a crisis of faith, and we need to treat it as such.

We need to ask ourselves what we might do to further the gospel, of which we are both stewards and witnesses. We need to rediscover the purpose of these communities of faith – which were once vital and outward-looking, rather that maintenance minded and self-protective. We need to recognize that there are no neat and clear lines around “church stuff” and the rest of life – if our faith means anything at all to us, and if God is anything like we say, then all things fall under the umbrella of our faith work.

Our congregations and our churches should be comfortable places, full of helpful people doing good work in our communities. But to do that – do be those places – takes a constant and conserted effort on our part. It is up to us – all together – to identify what is important, what is necessary, and what will best serve the cause of Christ in this place. Then, we will have to roll up our sleeves and do it.

Is it right to be mixing the things of the world – common things – with the things of God? You’d better believe it is.

1 Psalm 24: 1

God’s gift of life.

April 21, 2013

It’s not just about life after death.

Our devotion to the power of God revealed in the resurrection of Jesus

is not just to provide us hope for the inevitable conclusion of our earthly life.

We are not “studying for our final exam’

as one gentleman observed while we talked over coffee this week.

Faith for some is a life or death matter,

but I have always understood that the teachings of Jesus

and the promise in his resurrection concerned real life; abundant life; THIS life!

So I am encouraged, rather than mystified, by this morning’s reading from Acts.

 

We are rather suddenly introduced to Dorcas/Tabitha – a disciple of Christ living in Joppa.

Joppa (now Jaffa, within Tel-Aviv) is a port city, some 70 kilometres from Jerusalem.

A fair distance to travel in the time of Jesus,

so it serves as a good indication of the level of influence

that Jesus’ life and teaching had on the population.

Dorcas has died, and her friends have gathered to mourn her.

There is weeping, and reminiscence, not unlike the rituals we have today.

Her work was celebrated, her goodness remembered –

but in the midst of this, someone puts out a call for Peter.

Peter has been in a neighbouring town, sharing the gospel of Jesus – both in word and deed –

and residents of the surrounding towns were “turning to the Lord” as a result of Peter’s witness.

 

What prompts the mourners to send for Peter, we will never know.

These were already believers.

They had Dorcas’ example of good works and charity – she is named a disciple –

The friends of Dorcas had everything necessary for real faith, and soon they would have a miracle.

It is possible that the miracle is not for them – it is for the rest of us.

Peter prays; Dorcas lives – and Peter goes on to the next town; just another day at the office.

 

As odd as this single story may seem,

it is no accident that God chooses resurrection as a reminder of the great promises of the covenant.

Not only Jesus, but also with Lazarus, the Widow’s son (from Nain in Luke 7)

and now Dorcas (aka Tabitha) –  To paraphrase Marshal McLuhen, the miracle is often the message.

And the message that is sent is always the same – live!

 

Now, and immediately – in the strength of this gracious Spirit that will not be dulled by death;

For the sake of every promise ever claimed by God’s people,

Live in love and grace to (and for) one another.

 

These miracles come as interruptions to our expectation of “the way things are” –

because our expectations are not high enough.

God would have us raise our expectations of this life (not just for some life-hereafter)

and so “our friend Lazarus is only sleeping” – and Jesus “is not here, he is risen”

and now Dorcas is presented as being very much alive,

all because God’s intention is that we too might live.

 

So how have we received this message?

 

For the most part, it has been relegated to the place of “future glory” –

Religion has become our armour against the ills of the world;

a passport to another country that is accessible only once this life is ended.

Many of our favourite hymns express this sentiment – though that’s not why they are our favourites.

Our hymns, our poetry, our popular theology,

All speak of troubles in this life that can only be endured because there’s glory in the next –

it is our cross to bear, we say, without conviction.

But the message of life persists.

Resurrection is the medium for God’s message of hope,

and we need to believe that through this miracle, God calls us to life.

 

What this new, abundant, resurrection life looks like depends on us.

 

For Peter, Dorcas, and the disciples of those early days, their new life was one of proclamation –

this was a story that must be shared, of God who urged us beyond the ordinary.

Death has lost its sting – the grave has no power – because God’s promises encourage life in us;

life that reaches out and rejoices; life that embraces the gift of the day, and reveals the glory of God.

That life begins today.  Once again we have been confronted by the message in a miracle.

The people of God, though bound for future glory, are offered the glorious hope of life.

 

It would be easier if we could simply accept the promise and wait.

Wait for Christ to return – wait for death to claim us so that we might “be with Jesus”

But Jesus is raised –among us, even now.   God has made a home among mortals.

The gift of God that we celebrate in the church is a gift of the present; offered for the here and now.

Our church buildings were not meant to be heaven’s waiting rooms;

this is the place where people hear the promises of God and celebrate those promises.

We are here to be encouraged in this new life that is defined by Resurrection

 

Our struggles continue – physical, emotional, financial –

that’s what makes God’s message so hard to accept.

Life renewed without problems resolved doesn’t seem like much of a gift.

But where once we struggled alone –

apart from the love of God,

ignorant of the peace that might be ours,

Now, in Christ, we have a companion –

one whose resurrection proves that the love of God has no limits.

The challenge for us, then, is not the church budget – nor the repairs needed to the steeple,

neither the insurance bill, nor the poor attendance, or apparent indifference of the general public –

these things need to be addressed, but they are not meant to consume us as they do.

the challenge and purpose of the gathered people of God – and for each one of us –

is to claim the gift that God has placed in our hands.

Life is ours; new life, abundant and full of promise.

Eternity is assured, but today is waiting to be lived.

Accept the gift.  Live in God’s grace.  Amen

The complications of having Jesus as a guest preacher – as revealed in John 2: 13-22

March 11, 2012

On a day when Scripture draws our attention to habits of faith,

as it certainly does in our reading from Exodus,

it is troubling that John invites us to see Jesus at his most  controversial.

 

This is one of those stories about Jesus that appear in all four gospels (a rarity).

It comes at different points in the story for Matthew, Mark and Luke than for John.

This is the first of Jesus’ three (recorded) visits to Jerusalem, at the Passover,

and look at the impression he makes!

 

Off to the temple – presumably to celebrate the holy festival –

only to begin by rearranging the furniture, and upsetting the order of things.

And imagine the distress Jesus causes

for  the traditionalists and the ordinary faithful who “just want to worship”…

 

Let’s put this in context:   a man of faith,

following a personal experience of the presence of God

(at his baptism and subsequent temptation,

arrives to engage in worship, according to the habit of the day,

and tears the place apart!

He scatters the props used in worship

He accuses the faithful – the ordinary and the ordained –

of corrupting the idea of worship, and ignoring the call of God.

He kicks over the table in the entryway – smashes a vase full of flowers –

Starts a stampede of animals and insists that we change our ways…

How would we react?

Would we be as sympathetic if someone we did not know

mounted the pulpit and proceeded to demand (with a not so subtle hint of violence)

that we alter our procedures (and our understanding of what is necessary in service of/to God…)?

 

What is needed for worship?  Where can it happen?

What should it look like?  Who is in charge?

To whom is worship due?

Without asking these questions, Jesus raises the ideas behind them.

This exchange doesn’t lead directly to his arrest (not in John’s version, at least)

but it does spark some conversation (after the fact)

about who is in control, and about the place of the temple,

and the order of things as God seems to understand them (according to Jesus…)

 

John gives us Jesus who is prophetic (and problematic), right from the start;

proclaiming a bold new order of things.

When asked for a sign of his authority to speak so boldly,

Jesus talks of destruction and rebuilding –

Of death and resurrection, says John from the editors desk –

And it isn’t until Jesus had risen that any of his disciples (or anyone else, for that matter)

really understood what  Jesus was talking about.

 

 

 

So -to review:

A stranger, posing as a person of faith, enters a worshipping community,

condemns their practices, upsets the day-to-day routine,

and then suggests that a complete rebuild is in order.

How do we respond?

 

In John’s account, the response is silent disbelief.

In fact, they seem to push the incident aside – forget about it.

But what do we make of this display of Jesus indignation

in a time when worship habits are changing (or disappearing),

and people of faith are struggling to understand  their place in a changing world?

Have we been fooled into thinking that worship is just another activity in an already busy calendar?

Have we collectively committed the sin of turning faith into a commodity;

one more thing to be offered at a price?

We say that the gift of God that we call salvation is free – (Christ picked up the tab) –

But our strongest impulse these days

is to convince (recruit) people willing to join us in our struggle to meet the budget.

 

Let’s be honest –although we would love for more people to join us on Sunday;

Though we are eager for our neighbours and friends to feel as good about God as we (say that we) do,

our rational minds have made the quick calculation: more bodies = more money.

It’s not wrong to say that this is part of what concerns us –

it is wrong when this is all that concerns us.

 

A marketplace, Jesus said –  the temple courts was still a place where God could be found,

but only by those who could pay the price.

The system of sacrifice had become tied to the economic necessities of those in charge –

and don’t think that I am not very nervous about the implications here… –

Because isn’t that just  what we have?

A place where the poor are mentioned in prayer, or as a mission field,

but are rarely present as part of the worshipping community.

A place where young people are dreamt of –

but it is so hard to know what to do with them when they come…

(in both instances, it is because they can’t pull their financial weight –

bottom line – we don’t know how to include people who can’t “help us foot the bill”)

 

What became of the faith community –

remember, those whom Jesus accused were not pagans – they  considered themselves called by God; and were being faithful to their understanding of God’s call on their lives –

People who sought God’s intervention in the world;

People who longed for God’s mercy and justice and peace –

What happened to them when Jesus, by his presence and his persistence

(and his unyielding  belief in the nearness of God),

confronted them with their failings, and pushed them to change?

They were transformed into a movement of compassion, curiosity, and community outreach.

The followers of Jesus took their  message of the coming kingdom,

and the promise (and hope) offered in Christ’s resurrection, to the streets –

to the poor – to the powerful –

and when they gathered for themselves,

it was to give thanks for the way this new understanding allowed them to see the world.

That is the opportunity that Jesus challenge offers us

For, rest assured, we too are convicted by Jesus’ accusations.

We have lost our way – the whispered call of God has been overwhelmed by the noise of”necessity”

But it is not too late – never too late

To reach out in faith; to offer help and hope to the poor

To proclaim by our witness that the peace and promise of God

Revealed in Jesus Christ, can help this broken world make sense of itself.

Now that Jesus has cleared away the clutter (with his outburst in the temple…)

We can return to God’s purpose for us.

Let us – together – rediscover the joy of serving our neighbour;

May we offer, with God’s help, a message of hope to everyone we meet.

Let the church take up the challenge – live for the promise – demonstrate hope –

that the world might be changed for God.

A test for Abraham…? (June 26, 2011)

July 6, 2011

 

If this is a test, then Abraham fails.

It is cruel to the point of absurdity

that God would require the sacrifice of a human being

in order to judge obedience and discover righteousness.

Abraham fails.

Never mind the narrator’s rationalizing –

“because you did not withhold your own son…”

the narrator is hoping that we will learn a lesson of faithfulness

but our attention is misdirected –

it is not Abraham’s faithfulness that should get our attention

The narrator wants us to let everyone off the hook:

God, for asking such a thing.

Abraham, for thinking such a thing.

.

 

This “test” sees Abraham think the unthinkable

(that God wants/needs Abraham to murder Isaac)

and it sees this murder nearly accomplished.

Isaac is led, bound and the knife is raised.

God is not rewarding Abraham for attempted murder –

God is saving Abraham from a fate worse than death.

 

Abraham goes too far – he asks no questions – he fails the test.

Did he really think that God would ask this of him?

 

The narrator is clear;

Abraham was convinced that he was following God’s instructions,

he has answered God’s call before – surely his judgement is sound –

surely he knows what is from God and what is not

 

 

A literal reading of this text is unacceptable to me.

My mind will not allow God to be this capricious – this spiteful –

though it is clear that life in any age is full of challenges,

I am not ready to describe God as the one

who imposes them without a thought for our well-being,

or with no regard to God’s own words of promise, protection and peace.

 

What, then, makes this such an important word from Scripture?

 

Forget about Abraham – and Isaac to, for that matter –

they are supporting characters at best in this drama

Characters who bear an uncanny resemblance to people like us

who do the wrong things for what we decide are the right reasons…

 

People who don’t (yet) understand that sometimes God’s call sounds like conscience

and sometimes it sounds like the voice of the people.

God may speak in the laughter of children, or the grumbling of grandparents

and sometimes, a thundering silence signals our contact with the almighty

but the God whose word brought light and life from nothingness

does not counsel cruelty – God’s call does not include murder.

 

This tale is told that we might see the frailty of our own kind,

and the gentleness of God, who would rescue us from our own foolishness

who would offer hope where none existed.

Though it is told as a story of beginnings – this, like all Scripture,

is given that we might see God more clearly,

The story reminds us that God’s presence knows no boundaries.

In our own darkness and distorted reality, God is there – ready to offer a path to freedom.

When we misunderstand, or even worse,

misrepresent our experience of God and our divine call

God is prepared to set the record straight.

 

A ram caught by its horns in a thicket is more than “fortunate timing”

as far as Isaac is concerned,

that ram was the gift of life.

For Abraham too, the place of this disaster

becomes the place of God’s providing –

“Jehovah Jireh” (The Lord sees/provides) offers future generations

a geographical reminder of the power of God.

 

We need no place names to keep our minds on the truth

We have Christ – Risen – ascended – ever ready to answer our call of distress

always ready to supply grace when our graceless nature reveals itself

God’s provision has for us taken flesh and stepped into our story.

Because of Christ, that story is forever changed. Amen