Posts Tagged ‘church’


October 23, 2016

“God, be merciful to me…a sinner.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nothing and Everything – Pentecost (2015)

May 24, 2015

This is the ‘Sunday of the Spirit’ – Pentecost –
a word that means nothing and everything to us.

Nothing, because Pentecost is too often associated (in popular culture particularly)
with a style of Christian worship that has become a stereotype;
hand-waving, tongue-speaking, hallelujah-ing worship.
‘Pentecostal’ conjures images of charismatic preachers
and congregations of enthusiastic ‘born-again’ folk.
Some of us are curious about this phenomenon,
and others are frightened by it –
but mostly, we recognize that as a ‘preference’ in worship style,
and leave it at that.

But Pentecost also means everything to us,
for we are a Christian church,
and we collectively remember one particular celebration of this Jewish festival
as a turning point in our early development.
We may be (as I’ll continue to insist) an Easter people,
but the church of Christ is also an institution of the Holy Spirit,
without whom we are just another social club.
And since we are Presbyterians –
ordered and deliberate; reasonable and rooted in Scripture –
we need this annual reminder of the gift that keeps on giving;
the Spirit of the Most High.
As a moment in time it is significant – certainly memorable.
A good starting point for this new adventure
that puts the life and work, the death and resurrection, of Jesus Christ at its centre.

But if we are to be, in this time and place, a church fully ‘in the Spirit’,
what should that look like?

We don’t typically speak in other languages –
though I occasionally make reference to Greek or Hebrew.
There has been no rushing wind to sweep us off our collective feet;
no spectacular moments of conviction where
(as happen towards the end of Acts chapter 2)
“…some three thousand were added to their number [in one day!]”

Where is the Spirit working among us?
Where are the signs?
How can we tell that we are still covered by Jesus’ promise of this comforter –
this Advocate – who will support us in our witness to the truth?
Jesus extended farewell speech (in John’s gospel)
makes some points about the Spirit’s task among us.
The Spirit only comes because Jesus made room (by leaving):
“if I do not go, your Advocate will not come,
whereas if I go, I will send him to you”
That suggests that the Spirit can be crowded out by people (or things)
that would otherwise seem good for us.
Jesus departure was a troubling issue for the disciples,
yet the promise is that in this trouble,
they will find help that they would not otherwise receive.
So our search for the Spirit must include the quiet places:
those times of trouble when all seems lost;
the dark night of the soul that helps us imagine we are alone;
in these times and places, empty of all but our fears,
there is ample room for the Spirit to work.

Jesus is also confident that the Spirit (Advocate as John’s gospel names it)
will be a powerfully persuasive force in and of itself.
The power of God’s Spirit alone will convince the world of right and wrong,
where Jesus is concerned.
Only the conviction of faith (a fruit of the Spirit)
can move a person to accept the claims made by Jesus about God and the Kingdom
(and, as time goes by, claims made by Jesus’ friends about Jesus)
And while the history of the church is filled
with wonderfully powerful and persuasive speakers
none of them are any use unless the Spirit brings their words to life.
The disciples were only making noise enough to draw a crowd,
it was the Spirit’s gift of free and instant translation
that helped the crowds hear the great things God has done
uttered in their native tongues.
I have been preaching in various places now for nearly 18 years
and I can tell you, that while my presentation has improved
and my approach to the text has changed since I first stepped into a pulpit, what I say doesn’t matter unless you can hear it.
There are plenty of barriers to hearing –
your mood; my mood; circumstances in our lives; distractions in the sanctuary –
but the Spirit can overwhelm them all, whenever it chooses.

So it happens that, from time to time,
individuals in the same congregation
hear different things from the same sermon.
One hears encouragement – another hears blame.
In all likelihood, I intended neither,
but the Spirit gets the final word in every circumstance
and that is something that still catches me by surprise.

Jesus finally pronounces the Spirit as a guide to all truth,
and this may seem the hardest to believe –
for there have been more battles within and among the faithful over “truth”
than anything else in the history of the church.
It would first appear that, as a guide, the Spirit is an abject failure,
for the surest way to argument even now
is to propose something as “True” for the purposes of religious observance.

Scholars have sought the “historical Jesus”;
others have lobbied for forms of worship
that were “true”to the earliest practice of the followers of Jesus.
There is a perpetual search for true meaning in Scripture
that only seems to be satisfied by those who are relentlessly extremist
in their understanding of what Scripture is and of who God must be.

But the truth is more resilient that that (and more deliberately elusive)
and I believe that the Spirit is still the most trustworthy guide
through the minefield of fact, myth, tradition and experience
that we call life.

It could only be the gentle company of God’s Spirit that brought the churches,
one by one, to the point of recognizing the need
to offer apology to First Nations peoples (in Canada)
for the horror that was the Residential School system.

It was only in the company of the Spirit that churches,
some more reluctantly than others,
came to value the gifts of women for Ordained Ministry in the church.

It is the Spirit whose gentle prompting moved,
not one, but twenty-three overtures (many identical)
to this year’s General Assembly, each asking questions
about the churches policies with regard to ordination and sexuality.
We pray that the Spirit’s presence guides those conversations –
not with rushing wind, or exuberant, multi-lingual displays,
but in a respectful sharing of stories
and a genuine desire to be led; to hear and be heard.

Yes, the signs of the Spirit are there to be seen –
and they are not always alarming, or spectacular –
but it is the Spirit that brings us from hopelessness to hope.
It is by the Spirit’s hand we are drawn together, week after week,
to offer praise and to be encouraged in worship.
It is the Spirit of God – still in the act of urging creation towards completion –
that brings life to us and breath to us.

Come Holy Spirit, is the ancient prayer,
but we need not call the Spirit out of hiding –
we need only open our eyes to a power that is always present –
waiting to be re-discovered.

I love a parade. (part two)

November 2, 2014

Is this really a good time for Jesus to start a parade into town? He has been putting the powerful in their place at every opportunity; reframing their questions and suggesting that the answers only point to a strange kind of revolution – one where the least shall be great, and the weak are the most powerful. Jesus is the one that eeryone is talking about – the headline news in certain circles: “have you head about how he treated the Pharisees?” – “ a different teaching – with authority!” – “I was blind, but now I see…” – in a time before instant messages or constant news, the rumour mill was the height of technology, and you cna be sure that Jesus’ exploits have been shared (and possibly ‘liked’) by a large percentage of the population.

So is this good marketing, or a singularly bad idea:

Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.”

Because we are used to reading this text in Holy Week, we know that there will be a price to pay for this sort of cheek; Mocking the powerful and accepting the people’s praise is going to get you the wrong kind of attention. There is more than one ancient prophecy about to be brought to life, and it is an important feature in the drama leading up to Jesus crucifixion, but what is the point of this kind of behaviour? It is more than just the opening act of Jesus passion – a ‘king’ on a donkey; a passionate preacher trashing the furniture at the entrance to the temple – what’s the real story here?

Jesus has asked his followers for something different; he has challenged their understanding of the law of Moses; he urges them to reconsider their ideas about who God is and how God can be approached. He is trying to redifine righteousness, touching the untouchable, eating with the unclean, ignoring the habits of faith that separated the “chosen” from the forgotten. In a region ruled by Roman might – among a people with long memories (for the liberating promises of God) but little experience (beyond opression and captivity of their own generation) – the ideas of Jesus (who is only too happy to practice what he preaches) are not just religious nonsense – they are political propaganda.

So when you act out of your convictions, you draw attention (and potentially harm) to yourself and your ideas. When you question the religious practice of long standing (selling ‘perfect/acceptable’ offerings [at a profit] is a method of controlling both the style and substance of worship) the frozen chosen are not likely going to rush to your defence when the authorities come calling. Jesus is working under the shadow of destruction long before the cross is laid on his sholders – and that, I think, is the REAL story.

As the passion story meets us in the long season before Advent, Matthew’s gospel reminds us that everyone who chooses to follow this (comical) king who longs to see holiness represented in the temple – everyone who is attracted by a kingdom founded on love where even the poor and the outcast have a place – all of us who take Jesus as our model are working under the shadow of the cross. Destruction is assured; the establishment will not be mocked; power does not easily lose its attraction for those who hold it. We are pledged to what seems like a losing cause.

Consider the discussions we have – the dreams we have for the church as a voice of reason, and a place of influence. We are told that this is how it used to be, but a church in “power” is not what Jesus called into being. Jesus started a movement that spoke truth to power, and suffered for it. The “main-stream” is not where we were meant to swim, and we need to accept that.

Jesus is not given a heroes welcome on that day in Jerusalem – this is a parody of a parade. His real business is revealed in his actions at the temple; rearranging, not just the furniture, but the focal point of God’s worshipping people. “a house of prayer, not a den of robbers”. This is not a blow to the Sunday shopping crowd, but a wake up call for those whose defence is “we’ve always done it that way”

So we are not the hottest ticket in town. Crowds don’t rush to our services (just our dinners). Our strength – indeed, our only purpose as the gathered people of God is prayer – worship – praise. And we must find a way to continue to do those things – in spite of the burden of our buildings, and the burden of our expectations of ‘success’. Our buildings are too big, and too costly to maintain – let’s find smaller buildings. There are too many churches for such a small population (some say) – Let’s unite with our neighbours in faith. Let’s put aside the notion that worship can only happen on certain days, at certain times – ideas that mean we are routinely excluding folks who work weekends, or rotating shifts. Jesus saw that the faithful had fallen into a trap – the safety and security of something familiar, which had strayed from its original purpose – and he challenged them to return to that purpose. We are drawn into that same challenge.

The church still has work to do – the gospel of Christ still has the ability to change lives and offer hope. Our community needs what we can offer, hospitality; compassion; celebration; and of course, an opportunity to seek the Holy One in all those activities. We must keep Jesus’ challenge before us – we must approach questions of sustainability and existence from positions of prayer and praise. Our work in worship must inform our work in the world. When it does – when faith is revealed in all its power and majesty – that will be reason enough for a parade.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Amen

Mission awareness Sunday

April 28, 2013

Mission is an interesting word.  It carries overtones of intrigue,

for any of us who grew up with spy thrillers and war movies.

In such circumstances, The Mission was always the thing that drove the plot,

that motivated the characters, and provided the action scenes

which led to all sorts of daring antics, harm for the villain,

and in the end, the hero getting his reward

(sorry, but I’m old enough that the hero was always ‘he’)

Some of us can be excused for having difficulty

adapting to the churches use of the word.

Though perhaps the church can bear some of the blame.

Mission, in the eyes of the church has often had a thrilling and dangerous reputation – intrepid souls called to far-flung places for the sake of the Gospel.

There were obstacles to overcome, objectives to achieve,

and frequently, there was the promise of real harm.

The church considered Jesus’ injunction to ‘make disciples of all nations’ very seriously, and it was something that motivated all sorts of exploration, and discovery –

and it led to conquest and oppression;

too much of the ‘mission’ of the church caused real harm to real people.

We argued that all this activity was for a greater good –

that the knowledge we gleaned from the gospel

required us to civilize the wild and untamed regions of the world –

and to be sure, we owe a great debt to the courage, ingenuity

and willingness of those souls who faced the unknown

with nothing but their faith and their wits.

We have recently begun to imagine

that the purpose of our mission as followers of Christ

is not to recreate our experience in the lives of those we do not understand –

their strangeness should no longer provoke our fear  –

our mission is best described by Jesus in this mornings gospel lesson from John 13.

Keep in mind, the disciples are gathered in that famous upper room –

they have shared what will be their last meal,

Jesus has washed their feet –

an act of service meant to give them an example of their coming mission –

and Judas has been overcome by that evil notion that will lead to Jesus arrest.

The next act in this curious passion is Jesus offering a new commandment;

‘love one another’.

This is the mandate of the church, whatever else we may say.

All of our activity must proceed

from Jesus’ urging his frightened disciples to love one another.

One of their number has just left to betray the cause –

the authorities will soon descend –

and their plans for a revolution of ideas will come to an inglorious end.

Love one another, Jesus says, and the mission of the church is decided.

With these words in mind,

the devoted servants of Jesus went out after the Resurrection

and announced that love had prevailed over death.

The love of God became the message of salvation, and so it should be.

The church grew and thrived in those early days

because those who felt abandoned (or lost in the terrible oppression of empire)

heard from these eager disciples that even when no one else showed them love,

God had – and most importantly, the messengers of Christ showed that love to them;

“there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; all are one in Christ” –

so said Paul –  who himself was moved to a mission grounded in love –

preaching a message of acceptance and invitation.

What that mission became in the darker days of church history is something else again.

Crusades, the Inquisition, a variety of ‘Holy’ wars and cultural assaults

that haunt the people of God to this day –

but our commitment to mission need not suffer because of the mistakes we have made;

we are still under order to love one another,

and that commandment has once more become the motivation for mission.

The work of PWS&D, supported by congregations all over Canada,

– states that their primary motivation is

to ‘…gladly serve women and men, young and old,

according to their need and regardless of their faith.’

No more the notion that we must make disciples ‘by compulsion’,

we reach out in love; no strings attached, just as God has done in Jesus.

The other danger, of course, is to imagine that mission

is something that happens somewhere else.

Mission was about Christians reaching out to ‘the lost’,

and how could the lost be among us?

We now know that there are people in our communities

who are hungry for love and acceptance,

for whom Jesus is a mystery and God an interesting abstraction.

Our mission is not to ensure that they are educated in the details of the Christian faith –

our mission, according to Jesus, is to love them.

The challenge for today’s church,

in a time of instant communication and expanding knowledge of other cultures,

is to understand the part played by the Spirit of God in this mission.

Love doesn’t lead to instant understanding.  Occasionally love is met with resistance.

But  Jesus command to love does not depend on that love being returned.

Our mission is to show the love of Christ with no expectation for ourselves.

We are, in the words of Living Faith, ‘…showing the hungry where bread may be found.’

That love is ours to share –

we need not travel the globe to follow the guidance of Jesus.

Our neighbours need understanding and compassion.

Our communities will benefit when we reach out in love,

– our mission begins here, alongside friends,

and among those whom we don’t always understand;

to love as Christ loves –

even at the expense of our need to be accepted by the people around us –

with no expectation of reward,

content to know that we will have offered an explanation for the hope that is in us.

The church without mission does not exists, some have said – and this is our only task

To love one another, in the shops, on the streets –

wherever people gather, whatever they believe, our task is to love them –

to be open to real relationship, to offer compassion, and service –

this is gospel proclamation, for which there is no language barrier –

it is the mission of all of us who would call ourselves the church.