Posts Tagged ‘change’

Change

December 4, 2016

John the baptist always makes me a little uncomfortable.  The stories of his birth suggest that he will be someone special.  His sudden appearance as an adult – scruffy and strange and screeching repentance to the crowds – that’s unnerving.  And of course, there’s his famous address to the religiously secure, recorded for us in Matthew chapter 3.

“But when he saw many Pharisees and Saducees coming for baptism…” he called them names – he lost his cool – he made accusations that put powerful people in very uncomfortable positions; a dangerous strategy, no matter where you live.  Especially dangerous if you have no social standing.

We know how it ends for John.  He manages to avoid punishment long enough to baptize Jesus – but eventually his accusations affect someone at the peak of power, and he pays for his truth-telling with his head.  But lets think for a moment about the truths that John told.

He Speaks about the failure of these religious “experts” to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  They are guilty of going through the motions of faithfulness, in other words; a quick splash in the Jordan River isn’t going to change their habits or save their souls.  He speaks of one who is coming – superior to John in righteousness and discernment.  One who will see through the religious facade people are inclined to build for social effect.  One who will see with the very eyes of God – straight to the heart of us all.

He is speaking of Jesus, sure enough – the one in whom our cultural, religious and spiritual boundaries meet.  And it is Jesus who helps us make sense of John’s dangerous words.

John should make us all uncomfortable, because his accusations are not just for the religious ‘experts’ of his day – he convicts any who presume to call themselves faithful – all who gather in community and dare to imagine that they are ‘saved’.

For most of us have come to faith as a habit – and a good one, to be sure.    These are the churches of our ancestors – our parents, grandparents and great grandparents.  “This is my church” we say with pride – claiming some ownership – some sense of responsibility for the preservation and maintenance of the structures of religious life.  And John speaks to us – Jesus comes with ‘unquenchable fire” for us.

Those whose faith is in their heritage – Presbyterian all the way back, as my father once told me – are told, quite bluntly – that isn’t good enough.  God can raise ‘children of Abraham’ from the very dust.  It is not enough to wear the badge of honour, signifying your faith, such as the Pharisees and Saducees did.  The trappings of faith aren’t good enough for John.  Don’t just claim faith; be faithful.  Bear fruit, be attentive, show me that your faith has changed you…

That’s the sort of talk that get’s John killed.  Jesus too, if you’ll remember.  Dangerous talk indeed.

As it was then, so it is today.  We stand shaking, on the verge of serious change in the world – politically, religiously, in terms of climate and culture – change is in the air; and in such times, hard questions abound.  The divide between religious and spiritual; between emergent church and traditional church; between progressive and conservative – none of these meant anything to John (and they mean less to Jesus, unless I’m mistaken) – these to share this conviction in common:

God does not need our historical faith, or our doctrinal perfection.  God wants our lives transformed by an encounter with the Holy; God seeks an admission from us that “God IS”; we are asked to show evidence of such an encounter in our attitudes to one another, toward the poor and oppressed, toward those in need, toward creation and Creator.

Religious ritual such as baptism, communion, worship and prayer can lead to acts of faith – and acts of faith do draw us to religious ritual.  But the arrival of the one whom John proclaims – the one who comes as judge and Saviour – as servant and Master – signals the greatest change of all.

Our Saviour has come – a child of poverty; a friend of sinners; a judge of righteousness; an encourager to those who would seek God in all things.  and Jesus invites us to live into our faith in ways that ‘bear fruit’.

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The least of these…

June 19, 2016

He had demons, this guy – naked, homeless (living in the tombs, in fact, which is worse than homeless), and introduced to the narrative as a raving thing – shouting at the top of his voice “What have you to do with me, Jesus – son of the most high God?  I beg you, do not torment me…”

Let’s consider this strange scene for a moment.

Jesus has come some distance – to a strange place (one where he is not known, one supposes). Jesus suggested this trip – during which the boat meets a storm and the disciples are terrified etc – (none of this has much affect on Jesus)  – and oddly, the minute he steps ashore, some lunatic identifies him – recognizes his holy mission and purpose – and then begs not to be tormented

I smell a trap, and it’s a trap set by the author of the gospel.

Luke’s account brings Jesus across the lake into gentile territory, where he soon meets someone who makes everyone uncomfortable.

Information about the cultural prejudices of Jesus day can be found in a multitude of ancient sources – but most of our information comes from Scripture, which does it’s best to remind us that Jesus is doing everything he can to undo, ignore, or otherwise subvert those prejudices.  Jesus does this by seeking out those people that have been isolated, ignored or evicted from the public eye.  So a trip to the tombs is on the agenda – to maximize the possibility that he and his entourage will encounter someone or something that his contemporaries hold in great disdain.  The poor – the disturbed – the deranged.  Never mind that they are also in the presence of hog farmers, a reminder that this province is full of outsiders (ie. those who are not Jewish).  Information about the usual treatment of the outcast of the time is found in the plea of the demon-posessed man; “…I beg you, do not torment me…”

Was it so common for the righteous to take a ‘slum tour’ – to mock the unfortunate inhabitants of the region, so that they might feel better about themselves?  I wonder.

Many of the assumptions we make about the life and times of the folks who lived in Roman controlled Palestine have the uncomfortable sound of truth – even those that we cannot confirm.  The Jewish population had reached an uneasy equilibrium with their Roman conquerors.  They were allowed their religious institutions, for the most part – so long as their devotion didn’t get in the way of their subservience to Rome.  Occasionally, someone would try to incite the citizens with wild ideas of God’s deliverance.  These kinds of rebellions were swiftly dealt with – no one messes, militarily, with Rome.  But in Jesus we are shown a different kind of uprising.  It’s not military, and it doesn’t seem overtly political – Jesus claims no power for himself, and even pays lip-service to the reality of civil authority – give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s, and all that.  No, what Jesus is promoting is a rebellion of personhood.  He visits the outer precincts, honours the outsider, the cripple, the lunatic fringe.  There is no power here (or so it would seem) to counter the power of Empire.

In truth, Jesus seems a joke in the political sense, because no one takes these people seriously…except Jesus.

“I beg you, do not mock me.”  And Jesus honours that request.  He asks the man his name.  He treats him as no one else has done for a very long time; Jesus honours his individuality.  Not ignoring his affliction, but refusing to let the man’s condition define him.  The result is a man transformed; clothed and “in his right mind” – and the ordinary citizens are terrified.

Why are they afraid?  He is no longer a threat – he is quiet, he is eager to honour  Jesus by becoming his disciple.  well, they are afraid of Jesus.

He has presented them with a way of relating, one to another, which is life changing – a radical shift in their well-established way of seeing the world, and it terrifies them.

So what does it mean for us?

In the church, we make it a habit to say that we are about love, justice and the way of peace.  We gather to honour God who is all these things and more.  But when our boundaries are challenged, and crisis threatens the comfort of our long-held ideas about ourselves as the collective voice of reason, moral authority and the way things ought to be, we are quick to revert to much older habits.  The church, which began in a community led by Jesus, a welcoming community that shared what it had, welcomed all comers, and challenged the right of the powerful to define justice, has always struggled with the all-too human tendency toward limit and control.

Some of the early moves to define the faith and ensure that all in the community were committed to the same cause came from a very real fear of violence and death.  The stories of martyrs for the faith confirm that, although some were willing to die for the cause of Christ, most preferred the opportunity to spread the gospel by their living witness.  While there are still places where the proclamation of the gospel brings the threat of persecution and death, the real fear is still among those who hear (and see) that the power of God is the power to change lives – to change relationships – to change (ultimately) the way we see and engage the world.

If this miracle – this story of a mad man freed of his madness – doesn’t terrify you, then I’m not sure what to say.  It is easy to be thrilled by stories of Jesus making people well – we are given hope that the power of God might serve us in our time of need, and that is part of the beauty of Holy Scripture.  But when I notice that the people whom Jesus makes well – the poor, the wild; the wicked and the rest – I am reminded that these are the inhabitants of the kingdom of God, and I have done my best to set myself apart from them – and that is a problem.

This is the legacy of a church that wants its own way – a church that sets rules and has standards – a church afraid of losing its way, and so keeps the expectational bar – for membership, for attendance – for involvement – set precariously high.  It becomes, without meaning to, an place that people don’t feel ‘good enough’ to belong.  and that should frighten us too.

He had demons.  A frightful, raving, naked menace – until Jesus dared to treat him like a child of God.  It may seem too much to ask of a people scared for the future – scared of failure – scared of somehow disappointing God – but such interest and compassion toward those whom society has abandoned – those who have been denied justice – the least of these – is the only thing that Jesus asks of us.

“…he does not know how.” (Mark 4:27)

June 15, 2015

The church is prone to thinking big.

“The world for Christ” is a pretty ambitious motto –

and an admirable one, I suppose;

one that gets us thinking and dreaming on a grand scale.

Not just globally, but nationally and locally –

we are driven to think big as God’s people,

sure that, if there are enough of us, all leaning in the same direction,

we can affect positive change in society at large.

What’s more, we believe that we can return to those

“thrilling days of yesteryear” – a time when the church meant something –

when our opinion was heard and considered valuable,

and “our” way of thinking, doing and being was embraced by all.

The simple fact is that even when the church ‘meant something’

to a larger segment of society, the church was the biggest game in town

because it was the ONLY game in town.

Those thrilling days of yesteryear were thrilling because our orbit was smaller –

our communities were central to us,

and everyone in them followed a similar path.

We worked and worshipped side by side – we kept to ourselves,

and believed that ours was a model for every other community to follow;

indeed, within Canada, that was the case.

We were assured, once upon a time,

that our collection of small, often isolated bodies of believers

would grow and expand – such was our goodness, and the rightness of our cause – until we had, in our own way, one community at a time,

conquered the world for Christ.

Thinking big is an admirable past time,

but it leads to frustration and disappointment on an equally grand scale.

The church is not now what we imagined it might be.

The mighty dream of doubling church membership in the 70’s was abandoned –

such initiatives were tried by a variety of denominations – and fell flat.

We know of churches, south of the border or well beyond our borders,

who seem to have solved the ‘numbers’ problem.

Stories of ‘congregations’ numbering in the tens of thousands –

four services on Sunday; multiple staff; overflowing youth programs;

huge, well appointed ‘sanctuaries’ that resemble concert halls…

Surely these are signs of success, we say…

But they represent particular solutions for churches in very specific environments.

This is not the norm – nor is this a pattern we can expect to follow.

Yes, Jesus preached to crowds and ministered to the multitudes –

but these events were not the primary models for his ministry.

“[it] is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. “

There is a ‘planting’ and a ‘harvest’ –

the harvest often in disproportion to the planting;

(a little is planted – much is harvested)

and the means of growth is not really understood.

A mystery, I tell you – and what’s more, a mystery of divine origin.

Jesus is not talking about the church as we know it – 

only we would dare to take something as grand as the kingdom of God 

and reduce it to something as ordinary as the church –

Jesus is not talking about the church but about our lives in faith –

in the company of other faithful people –

in the knowledge of the promised presence of the living God –

And it starts small.

It’s like a handful of seeds thrown into the dirt with a muttered blessing

it’s like a single, insignificant seed

that grows to become a massive, extraordinary, life-sustaining shrub.

No one makes big plans if they have started with such an insignificant offering

but faith demands that we take full advantage of the weather, the soil, the water

and those small moments, to plant and pray.

Planning and dreaming and speculating on the results is not evil,

but it is not always helpful.

General assembly has just ended,

and once again, hundreds of faithful, hopeful Presbyterians

have spent time together in Vancouver planning, worshipping,

and dreaming together about what they think the church should be (or could be)

only to return to what the church is –

a tiny, weary and often frightened collection of people seeking God together.

The planning is put to one side when the questions of existence are faced;

how shall we continue to tell our story, and God’s story,

in light of our circumstances (what ever they may be)…

Big doesn’t cut it – the grand landscape is not comfortable for us –

we are tired, we are weak, we are small.

And Jesus’ counsel fits us perfectly: remember the mustard seed –

there’s nothing to it; no one would predict the size of the plant

from the size of the seed – but there it is, larger than life.

Our own efforts may seem small and insignificant

when compared to the ‘wider work of the church’

but they are all part of the wider work of the church.

As congregations we support Presbyterians Sharing and the work of PWS&D.  Individually, we are moved (in faith) to support the work of charities and humanitarian efforts that follow Christ’s injunction to “love our neighbour as ourselves”.

In all these things and more, we are sowing mustard seed.

We meet – over soup and biscuits

to offer conversation and companionship to folks from the community.

We meet – in the stores and in the streets

to share the highs and lows of our lives.

We meet – in worship

to celebrate the victories of our lives, and to celebrate Jesus victory over death –

and maybe, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t seem like much.

But Jesus never promised we would be the biggest game in town –

he promised that if we told the story and stuck to our guns,

we would, in fact, be abandoned, scorned, ridiculed and persecuted.

What Jesus did promise is that in all that,

we would not be forsaken by the One who’s story this is.

What he did promise is that if we planted our seed, the Kingdom would come

and that it’s coming would be like nothing we could imagine.

Week after week, we gather, a small group offering those things

that mark us as the beloved children of the Living God –

we offer worship – we celebrate the Sacraments – we dance at weddings

and cry at funerals, and in all these we are moved by the gift of the Spirit

to rejoice in the goodness and mercy of God,

revealed in Christ Jesus.

Small things, maybe, to us and to everyone else.  So be it.

We leave the big things – the mystery of it all –

to the Master of Mystery, whose promised kingdom comes even now.

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.

Peace, perfect peace. (Advent 2B)

December 7, 2014

The second Sunday of advent is traditionally devoted to peace. Waiting, as we are, for the coming of the Prince of Peace, it seems only right that some time should be devoted to something we say we all want, but have never really achieved. We are quick to pray for peace and to reward leaders who bring conflicts to an end. We imagine that the true definition of peace is ‘whatever happens when the shooting stops’, but peace as God intends is more than just the absence of conflict. The peace of God ‘passes all understanding’, and brings to mind deep contentment and true freedom – two things that are too often missing from the inventory of our “must-have” lists. Among the prophets, Isaiah brings our notions of peace and power under harsh review, and places beside them a vision of God’s power and peace that we must consider.
We are encouraged to think of the times between armed conflicts as “times of peace’, but the sort of struggles that the world has known in the last hundred years or so never really end. Peace treaties are marked by the vengeance of the victors and the impoverishment of the losers (in both the First and Second World Wars); Our pride in Canada’s role as principal peace keeper was well earned through the 60’s and 70’s, but it meant only that our soldiers (in Cypress and Crete and some places in the middle East) carried weapons that they could not fire, and found themselves placed between adversaries whom they could neither punish or assist. Their presence was not just symbolic, but the habit of trying to stop the fighting by a different show of force is a symptom of humanity’s larger problem – we don’t know what real peace looks like.
A survey of human history will show you that we have never really understood peace – always describing n terms of what we gained (or what others had taken from us). So the ancient instruction of Isaiah is understandable. People in Isaiah’s time saw their defeat at the hands of an enemy as a punishment from God. The ‘peace’ had been shattered by something they had done (or not done) that brought God’s wrath – when the truth was that they found themselves living between powerful and greedy neighbours. Israel had dared to claim the finest real estate in in the neighbourhood; trouble was bound to find them, and peace would always be elusive. To this nation, once more over-run, Isaiah brings the promise of real peace. Enough suffering; prepare the way of the Lord – make a highway in the desert look to your salvation – so runs the words of the prophet, but it runs against the wisdom of the day. A highway in the desert would only invite the invader; the easier it is to move from place to place, the more likely you are to see trouble coming down the road – but Isaiah promises comfort. Good tidings, rather than more grief. It is an unlikely promise, but that is because we don’t know what real peace – what the Salvation of the Lord – looks like.
We think we know peace – and in our arrogance, from our comfortable ‘First-World’ churches, we presume to understand Salvation. But the truth is we have insulated ourselves from the promises of God. Our prosperity, a stable and (mostly) reliable political system, the abundance we enjoy – all these things have given us a sense of security that is only momentary. So the peace that Isaiah preaches – the comfort God offers a people in exile – and the powerful peacemaker who will follow John the Baptizer into the chaos that is First century Palestine; all these should seem as wonderful and new to us as they did to their original audiences.
The promise of God is not just an absence of conflict – though that is certainly part of the expectation. God does not ‘enforce’ peace by virtue of superior power – this is peace bred by peaceful means; this is the power of a mothers embrace; the power of the world has no reply because we have even come to believe that love is something that can be manipulated and turned to our ‘advantage’. It can, of course, but the true power of love is conveyed in that image of God leading the people like a shepherd. Those who follow will enjoy a new perspective – God’s perspective. This is peace of a deep and personal nature that cannot help but change the way we conduct ourselves, our relationships; our politics; everything becomes marked by this promise of peace.

Ultimately the one whom John proclaimed will take up this peaceful cause, and he will be questioned and mocked, and finally killed for his devotion to such a profound redefinition of peace. It is Jesus’ cause that moves us to shake off our misunderstanding and embrace a new approach. This promise of peace has the capacity to save us – not just for eternity, but in the present as well. God’s deep, perfect peace has come to us – is coming to us – in Jesus Christ, and it has – it can – it will change the world. Thanks be to God. Amen

The problem with privilege

October 5, 2014

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone [the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone] will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They [the chief priests and Pharisees] wanted to arrest him [Jesus], but they[the chief priests and Pharisees] feared the crowds, because they [the crowds] regarded him as a prophet.”1

This is quite a problem. Jesus has directly accused the shepherds of Israel – the keepers of religious truth – of failing in their duty and abandoning their sacred call to serve. The parable accuses them of trying to ‘take over the farm’, and the judgement on them is expected to be harsh. These are God’s chosen, after all – they stand in the legacy of heroes who have been appointed by God to guide a chosen people on right paths. And Jesus stands to tell them that their failure will not be tolerated – that their places in the kingdom to come are no longer secure; others will have the pleasure and privilege of that particular promise. Not good news.

This is when we assure ourselves that the bible was written a long time ago, and that this particular parable of Jesus has already been played out in real life – a new movement sprung up from the wreckage of the old, and that the promise has been given to us anew, in Jesus…except that is not true. This is not an ‘us against them’ parable with Jesus followers as the “good guys’ and the religious authority of the day as the villains. This parable accuses all of God’s beloved – anyone who has, at any time, considered themselves a child of God, is warned by Jesus’ story here. Not good news.

Jesus has called on the memory of our text from Isaiah2 and made it real for the crowd of his day, but the metaphor of the vineyard – God’s pleasant planting – remains dear to us, and we also need to take notice. Jesus is speaking to people who believe that the system favours them, but he is also surrounded by (and is an encouragement to) people whom the religious system has utterly rejected. Over generations the religious system has come to resemble the world powers which it was intended to oppose. Leaders become comfortable; followers believe that they are privilaged. If you know the rites and observe them, you are somehow exempt from the ordinary courtesies that are at the foundation of the Mosaic commandments – summed up in the love of God and neighbour. Jesus recognizes a problem in his time, but the problem of privilege is a constant trap for those whom God has called.

Both Isaiah and Jesus would remind God’s people that the biggest danger to the fellowship of faith comes from within. Our complacency, our belief that we have done all that is necessary to please God – these are the things that bring the walls tumbling down. And every generation, someone sees the danger, and calls the church to take notice. The language changes, of course, but From Isaiah to Jesus to this very moment, we need to be reminded that the work we do is (first of all) at God’s request and for God’s glory, and (second) not the thing that will save us.

Our rituals and traditions feel eternal – they are supposed to remind us of the constancy of God’s promise and presence – but nothing we do is forever, and no particular tradition or ritual can protect us from our mortality or save us from our sin. The mystery of faith is this; what we cannot do, God has already done in Jesus Christ – not so we could stop working or praying or offering worship or seeking justice, rather, we are invited to use our efforts to help reveal the glory of what God has done. The point of the parable is that when our efforts fail to reflect God’s mighty acts of grace to the world, then our efforts will fail, and our labour will be in vain – we will find frustration and hopelessness, rather than freedom and joy.

The good news – the truly spectacular news – is that even when we find frustration; even when our efforts fail to reveal the goodness of God – when churches struggle and congregations despair – even when God seems to be tearing down walls and opening the vineyard to strangers – even then, in love God offers us the chance to start from scratch. The wild grapes are uprooted, the old vines pruned and burned so that new growth might come. That is the mystery and majesty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As we come together in this most ancient and mysterious sacrament of the church – gathered around this table, may we remember that the planting continues – the vineyard is constantly being renewed in love, by faith. And thanks be to God, we have Good News to share.

Amen.

1Matthew 21: 43-46 (NRSV)

2Isaiah 5: 1-7

Plus ca change…(Pentecost, 2014)

June 8, 2014

Pentecost Sunday: Everything has changed.

One week ago I was in Waterloo, Ontario, attending the 140th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The weather was beautiful, the company was encouraging, the discussions were engaging, and all seemed right with the world; but all was not well. I had already been told of two tragedies at home – I knew even then that things would never again be just as they were when I left for Ontario. On our return, we were met with the news of more job losses in the county, and the horrifying events in Moncton that resulted in the death of three RCMP officers – Everything had changed.

Now, the conversations around the tragedy in Moncton got me thinking; the language of radical change is in everyone’s speech. We are led to believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg; that measures must be taken; that all this is a sign of our decline as a civilized nation. And I find that I cannot agree.

Our access to events of this nature is easier; we are ‘tuned in’, through our computers and cell phones, to the instant and constant flow of information from the scene. Murder and the resulting machinery of justice have become spectator sports. That has certainly changed. Seventy years ago (today) when the largest battle group ever assembled began an assault on the beaches of the Norman coast, our access to information was restricted by both necessity and the lack of invention. We were not eye-witnesses to the D-day invasion; the general public became experts only after the fact, and our sense of fear or our notions of change were (are) influenced by carefully crafted descriptions of courage and carnage. Such purposefully moderated reports changed the way an entire generation viewed war, duty, sacrifice and honour. We have learned much since then, and not all to our credit.

Change is an unavoidable consequence of the beating of hearts and the drawing of breath. And catastrophic change is a regularly recurring feature of the human experience. What changes most, however, is our response to such violent and heart-rending episodes of change. The changes wrought by war continue to affect politics and economic realities in every corner of the globe. In some places, the battle continues unabated, the reasons renewed by successive generations of combatants. There is no beginning, and seemingly no end to the manner and methods of our distress, but the Christian church has encountered, in every generation of her existence, a radical response to such things.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” so begins the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles – a book which describes the reaction of the (mostly) faithful friends of Jesus to a series of horrific and life-altering events. Things had gone from bad to unbearable with Jesus arrest and execution. Then, an empty tomb, and the appearance of Jesus alive and among them. And fifty days later, the unkindest cut – Jesus is once again taken from them; in glory and light, this time, but taken, nonetheless. And on the day of Pentecost, the festival of celebration of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, there comes a rushing wind, and something like fire from heaven, and the Spirit of God speaks comfort and hope into the situation – and not for the last time, everything is changed.

This spirit still speaks, if we would hear it. It blows into our lives, past the wreckage and the clutter, and draws our attention to the truth in our situation. The Spirit of God is not deterred by tragedy or misery – in fact, it brings new light into such dark places as we have visited in recent days. Pentecost, as described in Acts was not a once and only thing, but a reminder that as long as God’s people face challenge and fear, the Spirit will rattle the doors and shake the foundations and bring our attention to the activity of God in those moments of uncertainty.

The Spirit moves even now to change our focus, to alert us to alternatives. It comes, not in tongues of fire but in that imperceptible nudge that suggests a new path, or that brave idea that you can’t keep to yourself. The spirit was present at the Assembly in the noisy debate and the quiet times of reflection and reconnection among the commissioners. And most important, the Spirit presides over this changing church, here in this changeable world.

Following their encounter with this holy wind, The friends of Jesus could do nothing but praise – they could see nothing but promise. Their situation was no different than it had been the day before, but their eyes had been opened to the power of God – their perspective changed – their behaviour changed.

So our situation seems grim – the world is going to hell in a hand-cart; changes beyond our control are threatening all that we hold dear – yet this is familiar ground for God’s people. We who wait longingly for signs of grace, and are called to live as citizens of the peaceable kingdom should, by now, recognize this pattern. For it is into this pattern of chaos and hopelessness that God’s Spirit is speaking comfort and hope. We know what to look for; we know the power of this gift from God – and not for the first time, we will see everything changed. Thanks be to God! Amen.

An isolated incident…?

September 9, 2012

An isolated incident…?

So it would seem, as Mark’s gospel describes Jesus comings and goings

between Tyre and the region around the sea of Galilee.

He has healed the sick – walked on water – argued with the elders,

and generally made known his feelings concerning the wisdom /folly of his family of faith.

He is constantly asking those whose lives he has changed to tell no one –

his secret (it seems) must be kept for a while…

But there is no hiding the grace of God when it walks abroad in the light of day.

Jesus fame races ahead of him to Tyre –

even the gentiles have decided to take a chance

on this strange and wonderful man of God from Nazareth.

So we come to this seemingly “isolated incident” –

a foreign woman (that is, NOT one of the chosen people of God)

comes and throws herself at Jesus feet,

and begs healing for her daughter  (who has an unclean spirit).

So far so good – a familiar story

–          except that she is not a Jew…

…and we think we know what to expect.

As usual, we are mistaken.

Jesus – kind and gentle –

full of mercy and the love and wisdom of the One God –

tells this woman that she and her daughter are not worth his time –

nothing more than dogs!

The Jesus WE know would not act like that!

The Saviour we trust is not so harsh…right?

We are presented with a pretty puzzle in the Gospel of Mark –

first with Jesus continual admonition to silence –

and then, of course, with this encounter, that is unusual in every possible way.

A woman dares to approach – to speak – to make a request!

Uncalled for (in Jesus culture)

A gentile presumes to ask a favour of God!

Preposterous!

Everyone knows that God has made a choice,

and that choice is limited.

And most remarkable of all –

having been once denied, this woman persists,

and Jesus grants her request.

It seems Jesus’ mind can be changed – Jesus convictions are still being shaped.

Jesus sees the injustice in his original position and repents!

And the child is healed, and the woman is satisfied…

And we are left to consider what it means for us.

For our minds have been made up long ago, where Jesus is concerned.

God is God –  the same yesterday, today and forever.

And if God is unchangeable, so too must God’s people remain firm in their convictions –

Christ’s Church must maintain her traditions and standards and principles,

Ferociously; to the end – AMEN.

And yet – is God not swayed (throughout Scripture) by calls for mercy –

both from the chosen and the forsaken?

Don’t our perceptions of perfection in Jesus take a hit

when we examine his encounter in Tyre with this nameless, “godless” woman?

The story of redemption is fixed in print, thanks to Herr Gutenberg,

but does that mean the ways of God are static and staid,

unable to adapt to the changing state of humanity?

Jesus choice in this particular incident suggests that God can and will err on the side of Grace, every time.

Even when the prejudice is deeply seated, and the convictions – Jesus convictions, in this case – are ancient and immovable – Grace is the way God leans – help is offered, even to those who are “beyond help”

And what does that mean for us?

It means that even our most sacred traditions, our deepest fears, and our most stubborn habits,

are subject to change when exposed to the graceful light of the gospel.

There is no idea so firmly fixed that cannot be changed by the love of God.

No habit so deeply engrained that we cannot – at Christ’s urging – do a different thing.

The last shall be first, the weak – strong; and the story of salvation will be told, in spite of our reluctance.

The mission of the church is not simply to baptise and preach – to tell the story until all have heard it

No, the mission of the people of God is to be changed by the story we tell

To put ourselves in the path of grace;

and allow our path to be changed as a result.

So Jesus changes his mind – an unprecedented act in Scripture;

But the plan of God was not in any way changed by this encounter with a foreign woman.

The love of God – so large that it can embrace the world – has come in this story to the unloved,

And we are called to pay attention.

To turn our eyes to our own situation – to examine the ways that we have frustrated the grace of God

And to err, every time, on the side of the love

that moved Jesus to take back his harsh words

and offer this woman the peace that she longed for.

For we too shall find our peace –

Though not in our own achievements, nor in the success of our endeavours as a congregation.

Our peace is to be found in the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ;,

who see us as we are,  and invites us (often in unlikely ways)

to grow into our place in the family of God.

…I once was lost…

January 14, 2012

Sometimes we lose are way –

that is the understanding at the outset of Samuel’s story. Eli has lost his way

The people of God cannot be far behind, for Eli is their Spiritual guide.

Eli’s eyes are dim, his apprentice did not yet know the Lord –

in fact, the word of the Lord was rare in those days.

God’s people had lost their way.

So what does it take to get back on track?

An act of God would do nicely, thank you – a little smoke and fire –

a well placed plague or two (just like the good old days)

and everyone will jump right back on board…

And of course, God chooses something completely different.

This call to Samuel is a study in new direction –

calling one with no experience – calling one with no bad habits – calling the young to judge the old –

all these are things we would reject as impractical, or hurtful,

or disrespectful of the legacy of our ancestors…

but these are the things of God, and all is not always as we think it should be.

But Eli knows how it must be.

Eli has lost his touch, and his connection to the almighty.

He is not bitter, or even surprised when God’s word proposes a new (and difficult) direction –

one that does not include Eli or his sons.

The word given to Samuel soon comes to pass.

Eli’s sons go with the ark into battle – the sons are killed and the ark is captured.

The news of this causes Eli to fall in fright and he too is killed (1 Samuel 4: 5-18)

The arrogance of the sons of Eli results in their death and in Israel’s shame.

There clearly needs to be a new direction,

and the continuing story of Eli and his family suggests

that there is no room for arrogance in this new God-thing…

Samuel is one of many new starts that God makes with Israel

as they struggle to find their place in the promised land.

There are some false starts – some total flops – but always there is God seeking new life and new ideas from the wreckage of our arrogance and pride. Eli sums up the reality for us:

“It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him…”

Samuel’s solution was not perfect – the pride of an entire people is difficult to overcome.

More change is necessary, kings will come and go –

the strength of Israel will fade and grow and fade again

before Jesus comes and offers a similarly disturbing word from God.

Jesus offers a truly remarkable vision of the way of God among God’s people –

not just a prophet – not merely gifted with divine insight

(you saw me under the fig tree??? You must be the son of God, the King of Israel!) –

Jesus promises greater things than this mysterious identification of Nathaniel.

You will see heaven opened, and angels coming and going.

In short, Jesus promises that the boundaries between the holy and the earthly will be blurred –

the boundary lines of the kingdom of God,

once drawn very rigidly, will become permeable.

Nothing will be as we imagined – it is the Lord, after all –

so are we willing to say with Eli “Let God do as seems good to God?”

we are not ready for that – let’s face it.

We are not able to grasp the importance of the time we live in –

our eyes are dimmed and the word of God is not so common,

yet we are not ready to hear from new voices, nor to see with clear eyes.

Everything has changed but the church –

and the church is going to be left behind.

–we have been living in an incredible misunderstanding,

imagining that unchangeable somehow meant stationary.

The thing is, God doesn’t often remain still.

God may occasionally slow down – but most often, God races ahead –

planting visions and offering glimpses of glory –

all designed to fuel the curiosity of people longing for liberation.

Jesus promise of heaven on earth – the angels ascending and descending – J

and Jesus claims of the immanence of the reign of God – the justice of God – the peace of God –

are meant to urge us forward into a new reality –

that we have chosen to settle into a holding pattern is unfortunate –

and we will pay the price for it.

Not in such spectacular fashion as Eli and his family, perhaps –

but we will lose sight of the promise, and that is spiritual death.

All is not lost however – all is never lost –

it is the Lord, after all; doing what seems good –

and in Christ, we discover that what seems good to God is to extend grace –

to once more inspire in us the curiosity that welcomes change –

to bless us with vision that sees opportunities for faith – that hope is still mine in my vocation

it is still our hope as a community of faith – as followers of Christ.

Our challenge is to accept the gift that God has placed before us –

to open ourselves to that life-changing notion

that God would work with us, in us and through us to bring God’s kingdom to light.

Christ is calling – God is moving – the kingdom is just around the corner.

Are you ready?

 

Advent 4 A – Out of the ordinary

December 18, 2010

This may be our favourite birth story.

Favourite because we can’t tell stories about our own children

without making them uncomfortable (at least, I can’t…yet)

but also since it is the most significant birth story in our experience,

because of the character (and purpose) of the child who is at the centre of it.

 

as with any ‘good’ story, however,

there are a variety of opinions concerning the details of the thing.

And today, we consider Matthew’s version.

 

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”

but not before the bloodlines are established –

Matthew would be sympathetic to that most basic of questions in this part of the country –

“who’s your father?”

Matthew anticipates that question from us about Jesus

by taking us back through the history of the Jewish people

he hits all the highlights –

every famous father (and several ‘infamous’ fathers) in all of Scripture –

but we are left with a bit of a problem…

 

In the end, this Joseph fellow –

no matter his pedigree, in spite of his apparently rugged righteousness –

is too ordinary for this moment.

 

And it is Joseph alone who is faced with the raw truth of the moment;

his betrothed is with child – he knows that it is not his.

Usually when people talk about the “scandal of the gospel”

they are referring to the grace offered through Christ “while we were yet sinners”

but here is a scandal of a different kind.

 

We might not understand the fill impact of divine grace

but we know plenty about ruined reputations,

and the uncomfortable questions of questionable parenthood.

What’s a husband to do?

 

He was her husband – no question about that.

And it seems that he truly loved her – this talk about his righteousness

is a macho disguise for real affection.

Joseph did not want Mary exposed to the full penalty of the law

or the ridicule of her family and the larger community.

So he believed that his only option, in light of his concern for Mary, was a quiet divorce –

something below the surface of common conversation –

something that would disguise the truth and save them all.

 

Joseph’s decision is familiar – ordinary – and one that we might choose.

Keep the truth at arms length – keeping reputations safe, and imaginations in check –

that’s the safe way; it is comfortable behaviour, that asks little of us and changes nothing,

but there is a problem …

If God has laid claim to us, then there are some things that must change;

imaginations will run wild –

because we have all heard fantastical stories about how God works –

the “ordinary” will be cast aside,

and we are not really ready for what that means.

 

If God is with us, as the prophet promised,

then our approach to life – our acceptance of the “same-old same old” –

is no longer acceptable – we will have much asked of us –

we will desire changes where none seem possible

and so, we have a decision to make.

 

We can deny that we have been grafted into God’s family tree

quietly disown God who seeks us in love.

We can secretly slip away from the truth that threatens to undo us

the truth of love without boundaries

the truth of birth (genesis in the Greek) – literally a beginning –

that is offered by God who seeks us in scandalous ways,

or we can wake from our dream of self-sufficient safety

and set out on an unknown road.

What’s a person to do?

 

 

 

Ordinary people like Joseph – like you and I – want nothing more than to avoid the scandal

to continue with our plans – not too ambitious,

not too far outside the well established patterns of our lives.

We treasure our reputations as quiet, hard-working, respectable people – as Joseph did –

and are properly suspicious of anything else.

But when the promise of God comes suddenly and very personally;

when visions in the night speak of putting our fear aside

and taking our place in the ageless and continuing story of God’s redemption,

how can we walk away?

 

Matthew’s gospel doesn’t really do justice to the enormous decision

that comes to Joseph when he wakes.

“He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him…”

it seems an anti-climax, but it was the first and greatest step

towards the truth that would save us all.

 

This birth story is our favourite, and endures as a story of great promise.

It is proof of God breaking into our carefully tended lives.

It is proof that our options are no longer limited by fear for our reputations.

God’s decision to take a place among us in Jesus

has forever marked us as brothers and sisters of the one who knows no fear.

In one, shining moment of grace – by the gift of this Holy child –

we discover we can never again be ordinary.