Posts Tagged ‘community’

You have heard it said…

February 12, 2017

Let me remind you of the situation that Matthew is describing:  Jesus, recently baptized by John has taken a spiritual pilgrimage in the  wilderness – fasting and praying and ‘being tested’.  On his return, he learns that John – his mentor and teacher – has been arrested.  Jesus graduation day, if you will.  He begins himself to proclaim the message about the kingdom that John himself proclaimed.

He gathers people to his message – selects certain individuals as his disciples – his ‘inner circle’, and takes them away, to a lonely hillside, to lay out the strategy for their time together, and to give them a crash course in the philosophy that they will be asked to live by.  In these several chapters, the author of Matthew’s gospel presents this time as an education for those who would be disciples – and what an education!  “Blessed are the poor…”; a lesson in how the social structures had devalued the wrong sorts of people.  “you are the salt of the earth…the light of the world…”; placing a personal responsibility on each of them to carry the values of the kingdom with them.  And then, Jesus does something that must have confused and astonished all who heard it. “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets…”; He seems to call his friends to perfect righteousness – he appears to describe the law as something that needs to be perfected, not dismissed – and then he dares to take on Moses…Moses of all people – in a very deliberate re-stating of the law.

“You have heard it said…”; each of these statements echoes mosaic law – the holiest of orders, the most ancient rules of life for the God fearing Jew.  The disciples (and Jesus too) had known these laws as statements of divine fact!  Moses was revered as the one who had seen God – spoke to God – received guidance from God and brokered a covenant between God and God’s people.  “You have heard it said…” must have come with just a hint of a smile – no one could mistake the source of these instructions.  But then Jesus changes the game – he dares to suggest a new interpretation.  “But I say to you…”

I’m not sure we have any way to know how radical – how dangerous – this might have been.  This is like the office intern suggesting that Bill Gates needs a new marketing strategy.  It’s like the new minister suggesting a change in the order of service.  It just isn’t done.  You need experience – you need the confidence of the people – you need some time in the old system before you suggest that the old system might be flawed, or that maybe, just maybe, the old ways have been misunderstood.

If you are angry, that’s as bad as murder.  If you “lust in your heart”, you’ve committed adultery; if you divorce your wife – except for specific reasons – if you do what the law allows, you cause the law to be broken.  This is a reflection on the near impossibility of having righteousness “that exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees…”    The kingdom of heaven is open to no one if keeping the rules is the key to admittance; Righteousness is more complicated than an ancient list of rules would suggest.

And so we come to the heart of the matter – and the point at which Jesus treatment of “the rules” takes a turn.  He will continue to refine and redefine old practices – love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you as an example (but that’s next week) – but at the end of today’s reading, he makes the complicated simple again; “Let your word be “Yes, Yes”, or “No, No”.  Wild promises of faithfulness are not promises at all.  It seems that there can be no judgement in simple answers – in sticking to the truth.  Either something is or is not possible for you.

True, such honesty would make for dull politics, and empty editorial pages, but anything else “comes from the evil one” – even arguments on the finer points of law, theology and philosophy…

Okay, so Jesus is either proposing a brand new set of rules – here concerned with morality and integrity – OR Jesus is pointing to the flaws in such moralizing on behalf of God – and while I’m no expert, I suspect it’s the latter.  Irony is hard to see on the printed page – it needs context and tone of voice and a lot of other things that Matthew can’t give us.  But if these are the ‘new laws’ that must be kept perfectly in order to enter the kingdom, then I suspect all of us can go home right now.  Anger has been ours, each in our own time – and I’ll leave you and your conscience to consider the rest – but the truth to which Jesus points is that the law, whether understood simply or parsed to within an inch of its life, convicts everyone; none are exempt from its accusations; no one can live without crossing the boundary between innocent and guilty.  “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” says Paul, and Jesus seems to be saying the same thing in a much more vivid way.

You have heard it said that righteousness could be achieved – that obedience and faithfulness were measurable qualities.  You have heard it said that the list of offences was finite and could be applied to every conceivable situation.  You have heard it said that your only concern was your own righteousness.  But I say to you, think again.

Your every action affects someone else – righteousness is a relational concern; “No man is an island…” said the English poet John Donne – and this may have been what he was talking about.  The honest humility that is required to “let your words be “yes”, or “No” – this is the attitude of people who are concerned for one another – whose joy is found in company – who sincerely desire good for all.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to do the impossible.  Perfection was never his intent.   But mutual respect – corporate concern – compassion in community, these represent the foundation of the movement that begins with his baptism and will be fully formed by his resurrection.  These are the tenets of the ‘new faithfulness’ that will spring from an ancient belief system.  This is the life to which all are called who would follow Jesus.  This call is what leads us forward; not to perfection, but to a life of love, perfected by the promises of God.

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

The miracle of hospitality (Mark 6: 30-44)

July 26, 2015

The crowd should not have been there.  They had been out among the people – it had bee a busy and exciting time.  The disciples had returned from their mission and they were eager to tell Jesus “all they had done and taught.”  Mark’s gospel introduces King Herod  to us, by way of that horrifying story of the execution of John the Baptist, as an intermission between the sending out of the disciples (as described in Mark 6: 6-13) and their return – but this mornings reading sees them safely back and ready to talk about what it all means.

Jesus has not been idle.  People continue to seek him – there is much coming and going – this happy reunion of the teacher and his pupils in chaotic; they can’t even find time to eat.  So Jesus suggests a brief retreat.  They go away to a deserted place, for Jesus knows the value of time apart, and surely they will need to process what has been happening since the day that Jesus sent them out with “authority over unclean spirits…”.  They went out with nothing but the shoes on their feet, and a staff in their hands and the power of God in their lives.  There are going to be stories to share.

But this deserted place is too easy to find.  The crowd sees them go and follows and the gospel  tells us that Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus sees a need in this persistent crowd, and does what he does best; teaches them many things.

Interesting, isn’t it; that while the quiet get-away was Jesus’ idea, he is the first to break the silence – he is the one who suggests that the disciples engage the crowd.  Jesus knows the difference between work and rest.  He knows the value of  ‘a time apart’ for the restoration of body and soul.  He hasn’t played a trick on his disciples, but he does have a lesson for them…for us.

Much of what we treasure about this particular incident from the life of Jesus  is the ‘miraculous’ multiplication of food.  Clearly this is the work of the power of God – clearly this is evidence of Jesus divine nature; so go the arguments.  But this is also a lesson in compassion.  Often, when we consider this miracle story, we forget the terms of engagement – Jesus recognized the people’s need – for guidance; for comfort; for sustenance.  He had compassion for them, and compassion is the catalyst for the miraculous.

“It’s getting late, Jesus.”  “We’re a long way from town, and there’s not much food here.”  “We’d really like some time to ourselves, teacher; can’t you send them away?”  Without answering any of their objections, Jesus sets a challenge before his students: “You give them something to eat.”  He knows they have food enough for themselves.  The crowd is to large to consider calling the local take-out place.  Jesus had previously sent the disciples out dependent on the hospitality of strangers “take no food, no bag, no money…”  Now, he asks them to show hospitality to strangers.  They are baffled.

So Jesus shows them how.  ‘Sit them down…’ ‘Give thanks…’  ‘Share what you have…’ and not only is there enough, there is much more than enough.  5000 men (and who knows how many women and children…)  twelve baskets full of left-overs!  It’s an astonishing thing…but the real lesson is not easily understood.

Later in the gospel (while caught in a storm on the lake) we are told that the disciples don’t get it.  They are “astounded” folks who “did not understand about the loaves [because] their hearts were hardened.”  You might wonder; “what’s not to understand?  Hungry people were fed with a trifling amount of food!”   But who among us really understands something so wonderful?  Even if we try to imagine clever solutions to “explain” the mystery of the excessive generosity of God, we miss the point.  The miracle isn’t in the food; and the parallel isn’t found at every church supper or funeral lunch where there always seems to be ‘just enough’.  The primary need for these ‘sheep without a shepherd’ was not food – it was fellowship.

Yes, we meet for meals because we need to eat.  Even in this place of abundance we recognize that food is essential to life.  But when we meet for meals – whether a wedding feast or a funeral reception, it is more than the egg salad sandwiches that satisfy.  Significant events in our lives are marked by meals – some simple, others more elaborate – where we offer and receive hospitality; where we share sorrow and joy; where we encounter the same miraculous power that “fed” five thousand men that day.

The disciples are baffled – not because everyone is fed (though that is a puzzler…) – but because so many were welcomed.  When we make room at the table for one another, we are meeting in sacred space.  When we share even a n ordinary meal, we are likely to learn something about one another.  We build community, we learn patience, we share experiences, we offer support and encouragement – these are miracles too.

So it is important that so many miracles of Jesus seem to revolve around food.  And it is not a accident that such small provision as two fish and five loaves is somehow more than enough.  God’s hospitality is like that.  The Kingdom of God is like that.  The act of breaking bread together – in small groups – in multitudes – is a miraculous, sacred act.  We honour that in the celebration of communion, and at picnics.  We make the same miracle at funeral lunches and wedding suppers.  In our gathering at table, it is the gathering that feeds us – we need the companionship, the support, and the conversation; the food, often enough, goes cold on the plate.

“Where two or three are gathered” Jesus promised to be present.  That is the miracle, every time.  Praise God for that joyful, sustaining presence, that meets us here, that welcomes us to the Lord’s table, that shows us what hospitality is.  Amen.

Let’s get this party started: Party tricks from the Gospel of John.

January 19, 2013

John’s gospel offers nothing accidentally.

The famous prologue draws heavily on images from Genesis – tying Jesus beginnings to the opening notes of Creation.  The first chapter then moves rapidly through a series of encounters between Jesus and disciples of John the Baptizer, who, through these encounters, become the earliest disciples of Jesus.  John’s gospel rushes through these meetings: “the next day…the next day…the next day…,” one after the other the disciples are gathered.  And just like that we come to chapter two. “On the third day…” begins the narrator, and we are suddenly and significantly connected to the Easter story – this is no accident.

John wants his audience to know that everything that happens hinges on the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus.  The purpose and mission of Christ is not a secret, like in Mark – there is no mystery to unravel except the mystery of God’s faithfulness in the face of human indifference and sin.  The wine from water trick, if you will, is easily understood once you understand the glorious power of God being revealed in the Christ.  But there are those in the story who don’t notice this – the main characters are ignorant of the real significance of Jesus supposed party trick.

John’s gospel pretends Jesus is indifferent; “what business is it of ours?” he asks his mother.  But this is John’s point to make, and he’ll do it his way.  The guests (and the host, for that matter) are only aware of an impending shortage.  “They have no wine…” is a prelude to a scandalous breach of hospitality, one that would surely stain the reputation of any respectable person – who throws a party and then fails to provide the “basic necessities” for the celebration? – the absence  of a thing was likely to be the front page news ; the wine deficit their primary concern.  Until a mother insisted that her son might be of assistance.

Notice that the focus for most of the people – the wine steward, the bridegroom, and eventually the guests – is the fact that the party has been saved.  New wine.  Good wine.  The best wine, in fact, has been brought out in the moment of need.  The day has been saved, and no one seems to know (or care) how it happened.

The servants know.  The disciples know.  And that seems to be John’s point.   There is a very limited audience for the real miracle – the revelation of glory of God in the person of Jesus.  What John’s gospel calls “this first of his signs” is an event that has no real meaning in and of itself; it points to something else.  Jesus could have done anything – turned sawdust into sourdough, or sewage into sweet water.  It really doesn’t matter – because the stories John tells about transformation are  to only told to remind us of the power and glory of God.

So on a day when the lessons remind us of our giftedness, and our unity in those gifts, it is no accident that we are given John’s account of Jesus first ‘revelation’ to consider.  For what are we (on most days) but guests at a fantastic banquet, gathered together once a week to remind ourselves how privileged we are, except we are keenly aware that the wine is running out, and we don’t know what to do. We talk, when pressed, as though we want (and NEED), a miracle; a sign; a reminder of just how privileged and gifted we are, but would we recognize it?  Would we find that we are just like the majority of the guests at this Canaanite wedding – relieved that the party can continue for a while longer, and ignorant of the real reason?

The Scriptures offer other “banquet” metaphors, which cast us as the invited guests, but I am reminded by this morning’s gospel lesson that if we understand our call correctly, we take a different role first.  We stand with the servants and the early disciples, and watch as, with a word, Jesus calls wine from water jars, and offers us the chance to believe that God’s power and glory has come close to us.

If we are merely guests at this party, then the news that the celebration might end prematurely is of no consequence; we can always find another party.  But we are not guests – we are disciples of Christ.  We have witnessed the glory of God come close.  We have been touched by the miracle of resurrection; tasted the new wine of the covenant, and as a result, we can’t just wait for the “wine” to come round again – we are the stewards, offering the gifts we have been given so that others can experience what we have experienced; God with us.  Love made manifest.  The word made flesh.

The lesson for us in the water made wine is one of intentionality.  God’s gift to us transforms the ordinary and opens us to the extraordinary.  It is a sign for us, who have forgotten how eager God is to reach out to us.  It is a challenge to us, who have too long taken our places at the party for granted.

The celebration continues, and we know the reason;  the holy one – Jesus the Christ – was crucified, died and is risen that we might never be parted from God’s presence.  What we do with that knowledge will determine our path, as individuals, as congregations, denominations, as the whole body of Christ.  The gift has been given – the wine will not run out – what will your reaction be to this work of generous grace?  Amen.

All you need is love – Epiphany 4 C –

January 30, 2010

In the midst of an extended plea for his friends in Corinth to recognize –

and at the same time, stop squabbling over –

the variety of gifts that seemed to them to be particular evidence of God’s favour,

Paul drops what my friend L D calls (in this month’s Presbyterian Record), “The Love Bomb.”

“…but I will show you a more excellent way.”, says Paul

worn out by their stubborn resistance to his long winded logic.

And what follows are some of the most treasured words in Scripture.

It’s simple, really – in spite of how difficult we try to make it.

Painfully simple.

Love God – serve one another in love – amen. Go home.

Paul knows a thousand different ways to say that – so do I, for that matter –

but Paul chooses this beautiful piece of prose…

which too often arrives without context (at a wedding) –

and serves no purpose other than to comfort the presider that,

in this slice of Scripture, in the midst of wedding chaos, God has arrived for a moment.

But it’s more than a moment with God for Paul.

With Paul, it’s always God – all the time God –

in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow,

in this life and in new life

it’s all about God.

Simple, really.

This morning, we have the words of Paul in their intended context

addressed to the gathered faithful, seeking God – following Christ.

But we are hampered by a reality that is not simple at all.

Our reality includes a knowledge of God,

and is filled with hope in God’s promises,

but it is complicated by unequal relationships

and rules we don’t understand,

and the mysterious presence of the Spirit,

whose gifts are strange and changeable.

In this complicated reality of ours,

love is frilly and fabulous –

love is hearts and flowers and quiet time spent in luxury.

Love is private (or secret) – love comes at great cost –

love is the most costly emotion, the most likely to let us down – love can’t be trusted.

We have taken the power from Paul’s words by our careless use of the word Love.

Paul is not often careless with words

and he had many choices do describe this most excellent way –

philia, arising from shared interest and duty–

storgé, that binds parent and child and draws kin together

eros – (yes, that’s exactly what it means) –

but Paul uses agapé, which is not without passion, but implies a burning drive for the good of others.

The KJV translates agape as charity, and moves us closer to the point,

but since we’ve also given charity a new place in our language, I say we reclaim Love.

A powerful thing, love – the most excellent way, according to Paul,

to organize ourselves as people of faith, and God knows we’re trying

but for Paul, Agape is not just about ignoring one another’s idiosyncrasies for the sake of our faith

Agape is a much more basic fact of life in Christ.

Love is…patient, kind, gracious, humble and polite;

love rejoices in success, love is always glad of the truth,

love is endlessly hopeful, endlessly enduring

Love is forever (and that’s a long time)

and Paul offers this, not as just another list of rules to follow to keep in someone’s good graces –

– that’s how we hear it at weddings –

but as a character sketch;

first, of God – then, of all who would call themselves God’s people –

and suddenly the words have their power again –

and Paul looks like a genius, because it can be that simple

in spite of how difficult we try to make it. Beautifully simple.

We know this love of which Paul speaks – we are surrounded – encouraged

guided – redeemed by God’s Agape in Christ.

That is our challenging, wonderful reality – even on the verge of another annual meeting

even as we wait for the wisdom to call a minister to our midst

even as the complications of life unfold around us,

God’s expectations are that simple -Christ’s example is simple

Love God – serve one another in love.

Amen.

(St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church – Westville, NS)

Ancient awe made new – Epiphany 3 C 2010

January 23, 2010

When Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of the ancient capital – there was, in the ruins, a treasure trove.

The scrolls of the law – long thought lost – were recovered intact.

It had been years – perhaps an entire generation –

since the people had heard the words directly from the page.

They had heard about the law – they had been encouraged by the memory of the law –

but no one could read them the words;

they couldn’t experience the law.

Their experience of the law becomes a festival of celebration – it became worship.

Ezra reads from a platform in the midst of the people.

Everyone who is old enough to understand is present – and they are stunned by what they hear.

Many are moved to tears.

Can you remember the last time Scripture moved you to tears?

Has there ever been a time when worship overwhelmed you –

that a full day of worship wasn’t enough?

It’s just the Bible, isn’t it.

It’s only worship (and please, can we be done by (10:30/noon)

we enjoy one another’s company – we like the music – the chance to pause and pray

(or at least listen to prayer) – but we always keep one eye on the clock.

Every one of us has somewhere else we need to be –

by Tuesday this is all a fairly distant (and mostly pleasant) memory.

For the people under Nehemiah’s care, the chance to re-connect with God’s promises to them was one that they couldn’t take for granted –

what precisely has happened to our experience of God…?

For starters, we have declared our experience of God to be intensely personal;

I can worship in my own way, after my own fashion – we say.

We are reluctant to admit how much worship means to us – how deeply Scripture affects us –

we’re too practical for that…

And the Bible is such a difficult text – so ancient – so awkward – so full of the unknown

and no two people (clergy or otherwise)

seem to be able to agree on what it means, or how it’s principles might apply to our lives.

So we talk about the Bible – we debate its history and hope against hope that some day we might unravel its “true meaning”…

And as far as worship is concerned, well it’s all right

but the old music is falling out of favour with the clergy

and the new music is difficult for the congregation to learn

and the choir just wants to sing…

Prayer is necessary, of course, but does it have to take so long?

And those rituals that we have, we don’t really understand.

Is this what God needs to reveal God’s self to us?

We are not far from the thinking of those faithful few gathered on that Sabbath in Nazareth, really.

Sure that God was somewhere in the muddled mess of what worship had become,

they had gathered yet again as a vaguely familiar figure stood and took the scroll to read…(Luke 4: 16)

Jesus had been making the rounds – teaching to high praise in the surrounding countryside –

but here at home (Nazareth) we witness a change.

He stopped explaining the lesson and became the lesson. (Luke 4: 21)

He claimed more than the promises of God – he claimed to be the promise.

This was an altogether different experience of God –

an experience that filled the people with fear and dread.

Next week we will read how they treated Jesus

as he confronted them with this God experience

but know that it was traumatic.

And that, dear friends, is where we are.

No one who visited us could question our faith – our long years of constant witness do not go unnoticed.

And I pray that no one would doubt that we are hopeful in our gathering, in our worship,

that God might be revealed – might break in to our lives and confirm our faith

in spectacular and tangible ways…

but it’s not happening, is it.

Here we wait – for God to work – for the earth to move –

for the kingdom to be made plain to our eager eyes –

but it’s only words – It’s only worship.

It just doesn’t make sense to us.

But our world is changing – the church is changing –

and that moment of wonder may be closer than we think.

We will not be able to have that “Jesus” experience –

the one where he literally brings the text to life as he did that day in Nazareth

but we are invited to take the Word into us –

to give life to the text by our changed lives.

Every week comes the chance to be moved to tears by the majesty of God’s being –

to stand in awe of God’s lasting promises, revealed in Scripture –

to linger over the worship that it is our privilege to offer.

We have that opportunity, because we follow the one who stood and said

today, this word has come true in your hearing – this is the year of the Lord’s favour.

Today, the Word stands among us – risen and perfected –

today, we have heard again the promise of God’s kingdom –

relief from oppression, freedom from bondage.

Today we have another chance to experience the God of our salvation –

stand in awe of the revelation of God and Rejoice

for that ancient treasure is ours today

by grace, through Christ, who still demands our attention and claims our hearts.

Amen.

No favourites here

October 17, 2009

It’s not enough to say – “everyone is equal before God”

not enough because we have gone to great lengths to prove that statement false.

Easier to say, perhaps, that “some are more equal than others” – this, we can verify.

We are not ready to see one another equally – in spite of some excellent progress –

because we always seem ready to play favourites – always ready to add a feather to our own cap.

Don’t get me wrong – most of the time, we get along just fine.

We appreciate one another’s strengths – support one another in weakness –

there is such a great need for skills and service within our communities and our organizations

that we can always find a task to suit someone’s particular gift – to make them feel included, needed – like they belong.

But we stop short at real equality.

We are caught up in priority – in “who should be first”

because we need people who can lead, and having found them, we ascribe to them

status that is beyond their station – power and influence that does not always reflect their gifts.

We see this in athletics – in business – in politics – and of course, in the church.

I say of course because the church is made up of people –

people who, while they should know better – should act differently –

often don’t.

How could we be any different that those first disciples?

James and John – they weren’t called the ‘sons of thunder” for nothing

bold – opinionated – eager for the kingdom – and eager, it seems,

to rise to the top of this new, exciting movement of God’s people.

Too eager, perhaps…

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

that question does not bother Jesus, nor should it bother us.

These are Jesus’ friends, and friends should be willing to do anything for one another –

so ask you question, Jesus says.

“Put us on your left and right when you come in glory.”

there is the request that rankles…

James and John assume that God’s kingdom will look like any other kingdom – that there will be a need for someone to “take charge”…

To James and John, Jesus says simply – that’s not my decision.

But when hurt feelings start to show, and the other disciples start to grumble

Jesus goes back to his real message – the last shall be first; they have heard that before –

what Jesus has been trying to tell them – to show them – is that there are no favourites in God’s plan.

So what does a kingdom of equals look like?

How does a community choose leaders without making favourites?

If we’re must live among systems that routinely place one over another,

how can we make room in those systems for the things of God?

Jesus answer is service.

Each serves the other – and the greatest will be the slave of all.

Quite a proposal, but it is one that we are called to accept, as disciples of Christ.

In the Presbyterian Church in Canada,

following this model means our courts- except session –

are composed of equal numbers of teaching elders (ministers) and ruling elders.

The leaders of those courts are called moderators –

they cannot vote, they can only moderate the discussion.

People don’t seek these positions as signs of their success,

they are called to them, after a period of discernment,

by a process that considers their gifts and the needs of the court (or congregation).

in St Andrew’s church, Westville – following Christ’s model of service

has lead you to open your doors to various community groups;

This idea of service has challenged you to minister to families who grieve.

Christ’s call to serve has enabled you to come together for work parties –

to engage in a new and exciting Sunday School curriculum,

to show hospitality to one another at the meet & greet through the long winter months,

and to undertake the search for a new minister.

The goal in all this is service –

our collected wisdom serves the gathered people of God and seeks always God’s glory.

Our gathered gifts fund ministries here and across the globe that fill desperate needs.

The strong support the weak – the gifts of all are shared for the good of all –

and through these several, unselfish acts of service, the kingdom of God comes here among you.

That is the community we shall always seek to be –

equal in our sharing, equal in our curiosity, equal in our wonder before God

if we truly want to see that kingdom come,

we will keep finding way to honour others above ourselves.

We will keep searching for projects that invite –

for opportunities to practice hospitality –

for the joy that comes in sharing those strengths that make us who we are,

in ways that honour our neighbours needs .

To do this is to serve Christ – who came only seeking to serve us.

May our service bring us joy – and may our joy bring God glory, honour and praise – amen.

Keeping up appearances…

September 5, 2009

British television shows are some of my favourite diversions.

They are usually smart, funny, and (at least to my North American eyes), original.

They produce some memorable, lovable and quite sympathetic characters too –

not the Coronation St kind of characters, all serious and street-wise –

I’m talking about Father Ted,

that odd couple in the nursing home (Waiting for God)

the residents of Dibley village,

and my on-again-off-again favourite, Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “Bouquet”)

Hyacinth’s struggle in life is to rise above her station –

to be, to her friends and neighbours, something she is not.

The comedy comes from her affected airs – her attention to appearances –

in spite of her bumbling family, her ordinary neighbours,

and her husband who simply wants to live their lives without pretence,

honouring who they really are.

It is funny because it hits so close to the bone –

We recognize, in Hyacinth, behaviour that makes us uncomfortable,

both because we have witnessed it, and because we have been guilty of it –

of judging according to the standards of the moment.

This is difficult behaviour to avoid – standards being as changeable as they are –

and it is certainly not new to this generations trend-driven behaviour.

“judge not lest ye be judged” says the ancient warning,

that James tries here to give new life.

Are you truly glorifying our Saviour?”, he asks –

by your catering to those whose appearance is attractive?

What sort of precedent were these early believers setting – the best seats for the best-dressed

what happened to “the last shall be first”? Had they forgotten so soon?

James comments are a harsh judgement on what the church was becoming –

a place to honour those who honoured themselves – who found themselves worthy…

and the church encouraged that attitude,

by recognizing the well-dressed as honoured guests,

and shunning those who most needed acts of charity, compassion and justice.

The church seems to have learned some of those lessons,

and certainly (in most places) is much less conscious of physical appearances:

the homeless are welcomed into many of our urban congregations,

we are learning to worship side by side

with people of different cultures, intellectual capacities, and sexual orientations –

it continues to be hard work – it will always be important work –

But I don’t think the problem is ever far from us.

When we dig our heels in

about the things we believe are necessary in the life of the congregation –

whether that is a particular style of worship, or a specific time (or place) for worship;

when we get hung up on music, or ritual, or leadership styles;

when we pay more attention to how many there are,

than to the needs of those who are with us;

Whenever we ask ourselves (or explain for someone else)

what we think the church is, or does,

we flirt with the same sins that James accused his readers of committing.

We favour those who think like us – whose fashions (or actions, or attitudes) keep us comfortable.

New ideas (and new people) frighten us – they are unknowns –

their fashions and customs seem strange to us –

and we have to keep up appearances!

The church must be familiar – comfortable – respectable – influential.

In our struggle to ‘maintain’ the church, we are in danger of forgetting the principles Jesus lived and died for – we abandon the life Jesus offers us at his rising.

The only appearance we need to keep, is that of loving one another.

In love should all justice be administered.

In love should God’s people gather – in love, be fed –

and while love is easily demonstrated to those who share our sympathies,

the test of love is in how we receive those whom we do not understand.

James’ question becomes our test –

does our activity reveal the glory of Jesus the Christ ? –

this is the only true test of our love.

This simple question should be the measure of all our actions as God’s faithful people –

regardless of the model of worship that we follow, the kind of music we sing,

or the way we wear our hair when we meet…

Is our task important? I certainly believe that it is.

Should we take seriously the way we worship, what we sing, where we gather and how we order ourselves? Absolutely!

But I believe James’ warning gives us a reason

– or perhaps permission is a better word –

to loosen our grip on the familiar and comfortable fixtures in our congregational culture that keep us from basking in (and sharing) the glory that we find in Christ.

Let us be, for Christ’s sake, who we are –rather than who we think we ought to be,

and let the world praise God because of what they see in us.

Holistic stewardship (2 Corinthians 8:7-15)

June 27, 2009

Paul is talking about a very specific act of generosity in this letter to the church in Corinth.

Paul almost always has something very specific in mind when he writes,

but his writing finds a way to implicate us, in this time and place,

such is the nature of this holy book of ours.

Paul writes about a special collection, taken up among the believers of the ancient near east,

for the support and relief of the church in Jerusalem.

Just in case we were curious,

the people of God were called upon to address financial crises even then –

and according to Paul, this project has been underway for at least a year.

And while this is an excellent text to encourage

faithful attention to the needs of the church and her mission,

it says much more to us than, simply, “the Lord loves a cheerful (and faithful) giver.”

Although Paul is writing to address a specific concern,

his statement of faith – his theology –

speak to us of the nature of faith and the character of God –

centuries after the specific need has been met.

Such is the nature of this holy book of ours.

“…so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”

So here is our call to be involved in something beyond ourselves;

to participate in generosity – and not just participate in it, but excel at it.

But there is more to Paul’s request that just a physical need in another country

Generosity drives Paul’s understanding of God –

generosity of spirit – of forgiveness – of grace and salvation.

And a call to live this way – to express our faith first from generosity –

comes to us no matter our social status, our cultural context, or our tax bracket.

Paul’s argument goes like this:

God is the ultimate generous giver – how can you withhold anything?

So, our voices – our hands – our brains – our labours –

all we have is ours by grace – we are made in the image of a generous God.

How can we be stingy?

Too often we hear a call to give, and reach for our wallets…reluctantly, perhaps,

as though our money was all God needed to set things right.

But this call – this invitation to share – makes demands on every part of our being…

small wonder we are reluctant.

And sensing our reluctance, Paul offers us his prime example – our prime example:

“For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ,

that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor,

so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

As we seem to have forgotten God’s generous nature, Jesus shows us how it ought to be.

Among us – living for others, in spite of himself –

Jesus’ life models for us how all-inclusive our generosity might be:

no one excluded. No one spurned. None are untouchable, all are invited.

Women, the sick, the dying and the dead.

No one is outside Jesus circle, except those who choose to be.

And those who believe themselves unworthy –

who feel like they must ‘steal some grace’ (as in our gospel lesson Mk 5:21-43) –

even they are welcomed in; such is God’s generosity in Christ.

Even so, we are sure that we know how this might work.

An outpouring of goodness from us will leave us empty;

we’ve seen it happen – our reserves are not limitless – we are not God…

…and Paul continues, that we might have no further objections:

“I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you,

but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need,

so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”

How foolish we are, to think that God measures by our standards.

How foolish, to think that some must suffer while others enjoy plenty.

That kind of ‘either/or’ world – that division of goods and graces

is not a result of God’s generosity, but our greed and short-sightedness.

Balance is part of the created order – there is enough for all, to fill every need.

And so, Paul urges generosity, not that we might suffer some severity

but that no one might go without.

None without love- none without joy –

none without friendship – none without hope.

Those are gifts that cost us nothing.

Gifts made for sharing – gifts without limit.

And while it is true that Paul’s collection for the saints continues still –

through various ministries of every denomination on the planet –

and while it is true that this is an excellent text

for encouraging the faithful to continue supporting those various forms of ministry,

our generosity is not limited to that wonderful, spirit-led work.

Our living – our relationships – our work and our play

are daily drawn under the scrutiny of grace –

and we are urged to fully embrace this generous undertaking;

this risen life in all its complicated splendour –

for the sake of Christ and the Glory of God

such is the nature of this holy book of ours.