Posts Tagged ‘compassion’

…I’m gonna let it shine.

February 4, 2017

Everyone I know is dying.  It’s one of the most disturbing facts of life that a person ever learns.  It’s true for me, and it’s true for everyone.  Not a complaint – not an exaggeration; just a fact.

Forget what you hear from insurance companies and health food devotees – forget the modern obsession with living long and well – the growing number of people living into their eighties and nineties notwithstanding – none of us, as the saying goes, will make it out alive.

This has been true since the beginning of time, and it is such an alarming thing that humanity has always been searching for something to offer comfort – to combat the certainty of our mortality.  We have, as a result, developed some very captivating ways to imagine what happens once we die.  Religious thought (in every form) is concerned with how the world works; what does it mean to live and to die?  What happened to bring us into being?  What happens when we cease to be?

The idea that there must be something that existed before us – that will exist after us – something to which we aspire; someone to whom we finally go – these are the driving forces behind ancient and modern religious thought.  A higher power; a supreme being; an eternal consciousness; a guiding principal – it’s God, to us, with a capital G.  A figure with a name so holy that our Jewish brethren don’t pronounce it – a word that some refuse to spell in English (printing instead G-d) out of respect and devotion.  God is the source of our existence.  God is our final destination.  And since death wins every battle, it is no surprise that religious folk conclude that- paradise / heaven / the eternal city / the highest heaven – their would-be reward is the focus of all faithful enterprise.

So every religion has a theory – and ours has developed into a comforting description of endless light and pearly gates and everywhere – EVERYWHERE – the glittering goodness of God’s love.  Constant worship; no thought of suffering or pain (that is reserved for our enemies and those who dismiss our holy ideals); nothing but glory awaits us, thanks to the love of Jesus and the great theological minds who have tried to helps us understand ‘what it all means’.

The problem, of course – other than the truth about our mortality – is that paradise sounds so much better than this present existence…so of course we are more likely to wait with certain longing for the trumpet to sound and the roll to be called up yonder.  Most of the hymns of the Reformed tradition – much of what we call prophecy – and a big chunk of the New Testament assure us that dead in faith is better than alive in any condition – and our traditions and habits develop accordingly.  When faith becomes just a path to glory – when salvation is only a ticket to heaven – one could easily presume redemption is an action reserved for God’s distant future.  But this morning we are blessed with Scripture that suggest otherwise, thank God.

Isaiah, presuming to speak with God’s authority, calls the people to account.  Their sins are limitless, yet they continue to act-out the rituals of faith.  They bow their heads and say their prayers.  They observes feats and fasts in their proper times.  But the nature of their devotion is self-serving.  The “delight to draw near to God” (Isaiah 58 end of v. 2) but do so only that they may be recognized as ‘faithful’.  They bow down and dress down – they do all the right things but for all the wrong reasons – and the prophet reminds them that the right things have less to do with assuring a place in the promise of God for themselves, and EVERYTHING to do with opening the promise to those who are burdened and oppressed.

“Is this not the fast I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them

and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7 NRSV)

The work of faith is very much concerned with the here and now – with politics and relationships and understanding and compassion.  It’s not enough to wish for a better world, God’s people are called to work for it – to act it into being.  Salt of the earth, Jesus calls us – not ornaments of heaven.  Light of the world, he says – bearers of the light that promises eternal joy to those whose joy is spent.  These are hard words because they force us to confront the world as it has become and live in it – love in it – seek change and growth in it “…that [others] may see your good works and give glory to your Father…”

In the midst of the horrific news this week around the senseless killings at the Centre Culturel Islamique in Quebec – we have also seen the best of those who are determined to act their faith into being.  In the gracious words of the Imam who named the shooter as a victim of the pressures of society.  In the actions of people from many faith backgrounds (and some who would claim no faith) who gathered and listened, and prayed together in the wake of the news of the shootings.  In the numerous acts of love that saw citizens surround Muslim worship centres, as they did in Halifax, as symbols of support and protection – signalling that they would not stand for anything but respect for the rights and beliefs of their neighbours.  “Do not put your light under a bushel…”, Jesus says – and these people have not – they refuse to hide.

Do not imagine that the completion of the catechism as a teenager was the completion of your faith journey.  We cannot, even for a moment, be content with a faith that assures only us of eternal comfort while the world presents one challenge after another to all and sundry.  Our ‘status’ as members of the Christian faith is meaningless if it represents nothing more than a seat at the ‘heavenly banquet’.  There are many who are hungry – waiting t be fed; many who are suffering, longing to be freed; millions who need an advocate, and we are called to be – to do – all those things IN THIS WORLD; in Christ’s name – for God’s glory.

The opportunities are all around us.  The tools to accomplish the job are built into us – part of our humanity.  What are we waiting for?

Samaritan 2.0

July 10, 2016

There is no one who can remain unaffected by recent world events.  Mass murder, on an industrial scale; special interest groups fighting among themselves – each cause desperate for front-page status; law-enforcement overstepping bounds, and lawless individuals fighting back.  Not to mention the atrocities in Iraq and Saudi Arabia – more bombing and terror in a region that has seen too much terror – and all at the close of Ramadan.  We don’t hear or see much of those stories – we are too absorbed in our own fear and misery.

It is all too much to take.

We inhabit a world in chaos – and it is chaos of our own making.  Our collective greed and inclinations to leap to conclusions have helped us divide the world into “us” and “them”over and over and over again.  Colour, sexual orientation, religious expression, nationality – you name it, we’ll fight about it… to the death.

It is a world whose physical laws suggest that things like motion and gravity and all that (remember Sir Isaac Newton?) are predictable and precise – yet the actions and reactions of people these days can neither be predicted nor controlled.  It is horrifying and frustrating – it suggests that we have been reckoning, for far too long, without an important part of the equation.

In Physics, (the basic kind that I studied, at least) it has long been understood  – if you know enough you can soon know it all: speed, angle, force, mass – put enough information together and you can predict (or at least, understand) how a physical system works.

We’ve tried the same approach with social systems – cultures, nations, economies and so on – but we don’t have a clue.  Because we make our calculations without considering the part played by God.

What must I do to “inherit eternal life?”  a question that we want to believe is about safety in heaven…but is it?  For the lawyer, perhaps that’s all it is, until Jesus turns it into a question about living in the here and now.  The story Jesus tells – about a victim of violence and the response to his victimhood – does not end with a happy, heavenly welcome.  It ends with an urgent request to live in an attitude of mercy (compassion).

Our quest for “eternal life” is too often an escape mechanism – our hope against hope that we might leave misery, violence and all earthly uncertainty behind as a reward for good behaviour.  Jesus ignores that plea for an escape clause, and suggests that the ‘here and now’ can (and should) have an eternal character.  Jesus message throughout the gospels is consistent in this.  What we often imagine heaven will be like (a joyous place of reunion), can be found and experienced long before we draw our final breath.  After a week of news such as we have had – tensions driven by fear and power leading to the deaths of too many people – it may be hard to accept that statement; but that is what Jesus’ parable offers.

“Go and do likewise” he tells the man who wanted the easy way out – the fast-track to heaven.  Go and be among those whose condition frightens you; be with those whom you do not understand; offer mercy to those who may not (in your opinion) deserve mercy.  Reach out to the one in the ditch – to the stranger, the enemy – as though there was no difference between you.  Let mercy (compassion) guide your actions and reactions, and then watch what the universe does.

It seems a simple solution – and it has been one of our choices since the beginning of time.  “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God” – Micah urged the people of God toward the path of compassion (mercy).  And not just in some far distant paradise, either;  “It is not in heaven [that promised prosperity awaits]…No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth, and in your heart to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30: 12-14).

Our actions towards one another can have a domino effect, to be sure, but lately we have seen behaviour that we do not want affecting us.  And no one can point to the moment in recent history that saw compassion pushed out by fear; but that is what has happened.  In a world that has seen some horrible deeds done ‘in the name of God’, we have tried to act apart from divine influence, without any notion of the grace of God – the compassion of God – and Fear has become our guiding principle.  And just like my intro to Physics class, when you use incomplete (or incorrect) information in the equation, you get the wrong answer.

The lawyer – the guy who wants to do the end run around misery and confusion – he has performed his calculations using all the ‘heavenly’ components.  He quotes the law (and keeps it) while trying to avoid the messy reality of human interaction.  We, who seem fully engaged in a world of messy human interactions, are often guilty of trying to find our way through without letting God into our calculations.

In Jesus, God has demonstrated that the Holy, ‘heavenly’ realm that we desire is very much concerned with the everyday interactions between and among such ordinary folks as us.  Eternal life is not a promise that we will never again be troubled by those who are different than us – it is a promise that those differences will cease to matter, because we have been connected by something in the character of God – something pure and positive and universal.  The mercy we offer – the compassion we have – is what connects us to the work of God that began with creation and has never stopped; work that is driven by a desire for good, for peace, for unity.  Collectively, we can frustrate that work by acting in fear, or ignorance, or selfishness.  But if we acknowledge that love and compassion are available to us, then we will begin to see that ‘eternal life’ is for the living too.

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.

Widow’s sons

June 4, 2016

Widows and miracles – so often in Scripture, the two go together.

Perhaps it is because those who have suffered great loss are better suited to recognize mercy and grace…

Elijah encounters a woman at the end of her resources;

Jesus meets a procession of profound grief;

And in both cases, the widows in question have their stability and support miraculously returned to them in the form of their respective sons.

The dead are raised, and the fortunes of these women are changed for the better, for a widow (in the ancient world especially) was a person without hope, without ally, without position or prospect.

Scripture of this sort – miracle cures and signs of God’s power performed –

are the refuge of the hopeless even in our time.  But we are right to ask why such signs seem to have been withheld in our experience… Where do we get our sense of wonder?  Where are our miracles? How are we to find hope, if not from miraculous cures, and signs of wonder offered by those chosen by God?  Our widows need help; our sorrow is just as real – our situations just as heart-wrenching.  What do these singular stories of death and resurrection mean to us?  Why must we be taunted by them?

Too often I have heard people refer to the miracles recorded in Scripture with despair, rather than delight:

“Why does God not heal me?  Why did my daughter / father / husband have to die?  Where’s MY miracle…?

If indeed these Biblical miracles are a sign of God’s favour, and the presence of God’s servants, does their absence mean God’s promise has deserted us?

It would be easy to come to that conclusion – to decide that somehow our faith is deficient, and our waiting is in vain. Too often, when our questions go unanswered and our opportunities for grace seem to have come to an end, we are told “Have faith!”, yet those words ring hollow when you are down to your last meal, or you have just buried your child.

As followers of Christ, we are often called upon (in fact, Scripture says we must be always ready) to give account of the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15).  And that hope is not dependent on signs and miracles.

What these Scriptures offer us is a faithful way to respond  to the kind of tragedy that is all too common among us.

This idea was suggested to me in an online article by a Mennonite pastor named Lia Scholl (http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/lect10cgospel/)  Her reflection (on the notion and nature of healing in the Luke 7: 11-17 passage) identifies four steps in Jesus’ response that I believe could serve us well.  What Jesus does, Scholl says, is notice, care, respond, and believe.  I believe that this pattern of behaviour – while it quite often points to what we now call “a miracle” – never fails to reveal the grace of God at work among the people Jesus has engaged.

We are easily able to do any of these things –notice, care, respond, and believe; occasionally we may even do several of them in succession –

Jesus secret is that these are constant features of his behaviour.

——-

Jesus notices the funeral procession.

It would be easier to ignore it; to step aside, or go around –

but Jesus mingles with the mourners and takes deliberate interest in the lives of these strangers.  Can we say the same?

Once noticed, he seems to be deeply interested.  The process of Jesus’ involvement runs a rapid race.  Jesus responds to the need that he recognizes – he speaks – he touches – he dares to call the dead to life

This is not a normal, passing interest; in Scholl’s words “Jesus gives a crap” – words she has intentionally chosen to shock us into realizing that, too often, we don’t (give a crap).   The phrase “He had compassion for her” has its roots deep within the body; the Greek understanding of emotion was tied to the physical location of a person’s “guts/bowels” – so, he felt this in his guts – deeply – with all that was in him.  While our language has altered, we still “feel deeply” – and are moved to the depths of our being –about a good many things; but how often are we moved this way by the plight of our neighbours?

But it is Jesus profound belief in the presence and power of God that makes the difference.  He takes each of these steps in absolute confidence that it is not just the outcome, but the whole situation that is inhabited by the presence of God.

A firm belief that the dead will rise and the sick will be made well  is not enough to make it happen – that we know too well.

The witness of Jesus in these miracles of faith helps to point to the less obvious truth – that God was on the scene all along.  That God walks alongside the funeral bier; and with the hopeless widow.  That even at the height of our uncertainty, God promises a new beginning; a fresh start.

Our decision to model Jesus behaviour will make a difference in the lives of the lonely and desperate and anxious and grieving.  Our willingness to care – to show real compassion and act on that compassion –

while it may not raise the dead, will certainly bring new life to the situation.

For the act of engaging the suffering (as Jesus did) is what helps us recognize (and celebrate) the presence of God alongside those who suffer.

And that is always good news;

Even as we bury our dead; Even though the sick still suffer –

The interest and compassion and action of the faithful

brings the hope of God to the midst of the hopeless –

And that is what miracles are made of.

Mission, with a shepherd’s touch

June 2, 2015

“The Lord is MY shepherd, I shall not want…”

These words spring to our lips without effort because we believe them to be good and right and absolutely true.  We have no reason to doubt that God will guide us to green pastures and still waters.  We have felt the calm, comforting presence of God in the valley of the shadow.  These images are so familiar to us that we can’t imagine anyone would be willing to argue the truth of them.  The idea of a divine, benevolent Shepherd is so nearly universal that when the hospital authority in Sarnia (Ontario) considered an image for their new, non-denominational, multi-faith worship space, the runaway choice was that of a shepherd tending his sheep.  Evocative across cultures and faith traditions, it was deemed the only safe choice.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that these are the images that we are asked to consider on this Mission Awareness Sunday.  Safe choices.  Comforting images.  something on which everyone can agree.  Wouldn’t that be nice.

But nothing could be further from the truth, where Mission (always a capital M) is concerned.

Once upon a time, it was easy.  We held certain things to be absolutely true, and it was our job as Christians to see that everyone else believed them too.  The way forward was pretty clear: Proclaim the gospel – teach the words – assure ourselves that we had “converted the heathen” and all would be well.  Except for our inability to agree with fellow believers on what was important – what was vital.  Except for our violent disagreements that resulted in the seemingly constant division of the church into denominations.  Except for the increasing difficulty of dealing with people whose expressions of faith looked nothing like ours…

Our awareness of mission these days is limited to updates from our overseas partners – PWS&D newsletters and appeals for funds – and the work of groups like the AMS who pray and study and send letters and money and people into places that we would rather not go ourselves; Malawi, Afghanistan, Haiti, Romania.  WE are just as certain as ever, where our faith is concerned.  Certain global events convince us that it is essential for the Gospel to take root in these foreign places – surely the answers to problems of terror, poverty, greed and corruption (among others) can be found in the principles of our Christian faith

But that is the problem, isn’t it – when our faith encounters other models of faith, the problems seem to multiply.  Terrorism is almost always the response of those who have been pushed aside by our efforts to bring “our particular brand” of peace, faith and good order to various parts of the world.  Terrorism seems to be the price we pay for being too sure of ourselves, and not considering that there are different ways to understand faith, devotion, God and the whole created order.  I’m sorry to say  that some of this conflict and misery is a result of our historical mission work, and today our claim of certainty where our faith is concerned keeps us ignorant of some pretty important things.

First: The “mission” of the church of Jesus Christ begins with the worship of God in a community of those acknowledge that God IS.  From the days and weeks following the resurrection of Jesus, those people who gathered, scared and confused, knew only one thing to be certain; there was a power in the world greater than death, and that truth required reverence.  There were no tests – no membership requirement other than the recognition of the love of God as a real force in the world.  Understanding was secondary – celebration in worship was then and is now, the most important thing.

Second:  The notion that someday we would be ‘one flock with one shepherd’ does not mean that absolute unity of though and action was the goal.  Yes, the divisions in the church are distressing, and yes “we all seek to serve one God”, but it is the overwhelming love of God that unites us, not our subjection to one set of doctrines, or our acceptance of a single model for faithful living.  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold…” Jesus says – and it is to his voice they respond, not ours.  And the attraction is not our worship style, or our outreach programs; our disaster relief or our dazzling proclamation.  The attraction of the shepherd’s voice is that Jesus speaks love and compassion and hope to the hopeless.

Third:  that love and compassion that Jesus proclaims is nothing new – it is part of God’s program from the beginning.  Recognized by David as a comforting guide for every stage of life; trusted by those in exile as the enduring glory revealed in the desert wilderness; recognized by Peter as a power greater than any other power – Mission IS the key to a renewal of faith and to new life for the church of Christ, but we don’t need to ‘reinvent the wheel’.  Jesus’ call to “make disciples” does not come at the expense of hearing and celebrating the gospel for themselves.   Mission is many things, but it begins here, with us.  Nurtured by the gospel, encouraged by the spirit of God, and able to say, with joyful conviction, “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

A life of dedicated Christian faith may not seem like the safe choice these days – it is certain that it is not our only choice – but here we are; living proof that the mission of God, particularly expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, still calls to people who are willing to admit they are not the most important thing in the universe.  Our mission is not to correct every mistake that may have been made in the name of God; our mission begins with worship and wonder, and continues as we share that wonder with those around us.  It really can be that simple.  The hard work has already been done – the love of God has already accomplished the impossible; Jesus is risen – death has no power over us.  God’s love has not put an end to evil, or resolve every conflict; it does not put an end to the horrific power of earthquake or typhoon, nor does it stop our grief in times of suffering and death.  But the Gospel of Christ is our life-line; his is the story we get to tell.  That is our mission, and if it doesn’t seem change the world (or convert the heathen) it should certainly change us – indeed, it is the only thing that can.

The sin of Jonah

September 21, 2014

God’s mind is changed – and Jonah is beside himself.

Jonah is our kind of guy – he knows what he knows –

and he knows that God is capable of great mercy.

But he also knows that the citizens of Nineveh are past all mercy and grace.

They are exceedingly wicked – they don’t deserve the promise of God;

they are not worthy of God’s grace.

Yes, Jonah is our kind of guy – or more accurately, we are guilty of Jonah’s mistake –

we know what we know; about God, about our friends,

and more importantly, about our “enemies”.

We know – or we imagine that we know – how the promises of God

and the gospel of Christ are arranged:

the word is offered and accepted – then the hearer is changed and,

God be praised, the kingdom is brought closer.

So we appoint people to preach the word,

and we arranged an institution to instruct God’s people

in the principles of goodness and grace (we call it The Church) –

and then we set the price of admission just high enough

that only the right sort of people will come…

it didn’t begin that way, but that’s what we have become –

or more properly, that’s how we are perceived.

I don’t mean that there is an actual price of admission –

though we are delighted by the generosity of our members

(how else would we keep the lights on and pay the preacher?)

No, the price of admission is more complex;

you must believe what we believe – and recognize our traditions –

and understand our structures –

and please, please, please don’t question the image of God that we have constructed

it’s one we understand and we’d rather not change our minds

about who God is or how God acts…)

The Church (the whole church) sounds alarm bells when attendance drops off,

and when we meet resistance in the public square about our ideas,

or our expressions of faith. We (the church – the whole church) circle the wagons

and call on our friends to support us in this “war against unbelief”

or whatever we might call it – there are calls for renewal and reformation

and rededication to “holy principles”, and all the while,

God goes on loving and saving and showing mercy through any means available –

to people we recognize as good and to those we think have fallen off the wagon.

The recent General Assembly is a case in point – we argued for hours

over a description of the mission of the Presbyterian Church in Canada –

fighting over wording and grammar

because these are the things that help us express who we are and what we are about –

but none of our efforts did anything to expand the notion of who God is

or how God might act apart from this small, stubborn band of Presbyterians.

Our arguments made new excuses and new enemies for us to blame for our problems –

and God simply smiled and went on being gracious.

That’s the way God works.

Yes, we are guilty of the sin of Jonah, because God is not our puppet –

and God will not be bribed, or tricked when it comes to deciding who receives mercy,

or whose repentence is genuine, or who might be considered a child of God.

It’s not because God doesn’t want us to work for justice and peace –

that is what we are called to do as disciples of Jesus –

but we try to make God our puppet when we bend the gospel to our own purposes,

and create closed communities of people unwilling to push boundaries or ask questions.

God’s Kingdom will come whether we participate or not –

whether we proclaim the gospel, or not –

whether we are willing, eager participants, or not.

(that is the lesson Jonah doesn’t learn)

Our own communities are full of people who feel

that their questions about God

(or their complaints about the church)

have excluded them from the mercy that we claim as our own.

Our future is in danger because we can’t imagine

how those people who dare to ask such questions

could help us shape the kingdom of God –

but God doesn’t need us to define God’s kingdom,

rather, God works to ensure that their is a place

for all who choose to participate in the building up of the kingdom.

Our doors are open – the invitation of the gospel is generous and clear .

Scripture reminds us, time and time again,

that we are no judge of who is fit for the kingdom.

We must open our hearts to welcome those we once called enemies –

those we thought beyond all help – for God’s mind has been changed before,

and God’s mercy is wider than we can possibly imagine.

Thanks be to God. Amen

Fear, itself.

June 23, 2013

Jesus has (according to Luke’s gospel) just brought his friends

safely across the “the lake” (Luke 8: 22) through a fierce storm.

 Their fear has been conquered by Jesus presence,

and his “command of the wind and the waves”.

The last thing they need is trouble on land, but that is what they find.

Jesus steps ashore to a different kind of storm.

 He is accosted by a madman:

naked; raving; a danger to himself and others

(according to the hurried biography Luke’s gospel gives us).

This fellow has been banished to the edge of town.

 Because of his condition, he is perpetually unclean.

He is forced to make do for himself among the tombs;

on the boundary between the living and the dead.

He is neither.

 There is no medical, social, or personal response to this man

except bondage and the watchfulness of those set to guard him

(more likely to keep him “where he belongs”).  Luke’s gospel does not recall his name.

Yet for all the energy spent to keep him apart,

he has broken his bonds, evaded his captors,

and like steel to a magnet he is drawn to Jesus.

From this distance, we are convinced that this is as it should be;

Jesus, whose mission it is to heal the sick and bring good news to the poor,

 has already amazed us with his “way with the suffering”.

From our Resurrection perspective,

we accept that Jesus purpose was that we might be free of all that binds us –

so this story would seem to hold no surprises for us.

Jesus confronts the demon – demons, actually –

bargains with them and casts them out of our unfortunate friend

at the expense of a herd of swine –

(no great loss, and great ritual significance to a Jewish audience,

but a crushing blow to the innocent swineherds)

and there you have it:

another triumph for this gracious and generous man of God.

But this is not a triumphant moment in Luke’s gospel –

 there is no heroes welcome – no joyful retelling of this miracle of liberation.

This is all about fear.

The key to this text comes when the people discover what Jesus has done.

The swineherds complain about the sudden loss of income, disguised as a miracle,

and when the crowds come to investigate,

they find the village villain “clothed and in his right mind.

And they were AFRAID!

Fear bound this man and kept him nameless.

Fear chased him to the tombs to live among the dead.

Fear kept his jailers from getting to know him, or from daring to consider him human.

Fear made an animal out of him, and kept him at bay.

Such are the demons that Jesus meets and casts out;

demons that have been assigned to one person;

 projected on his condition/behaviour by a community gripped by fear.

That same community strips him of his humanity, and declares their fears banished,

But they are hiding behind their cruelty – they have committed the worst kind of crime.

Fear is at the heart of this.

 Their fear generates the companion sins of ignorance and oppression.

Fear of something different led to an imprisonment.

Fear of a life now changed – radically changed –

and thus unpredictable and uncontrollable,

brings their attention to the man who upset the applecart…

and so they turn their fear on Jesus next;

 the fear of one who refused to bow to the cultural expectation

and treat this man as less than human –

this fear brings them to show Jesus the quickest way out of town.

This is a common reaction in human beings –

the impulse to ignore the obviously odd, and shun those whom we do not understand.

The dividing line is easily moved –

be it race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation –

there is no end to the things that generate uncertainty in us,

and uncertainty too quickly turns to fear.

So the fear returns and Jesus leaves, and we are left with this remarkable story,

and an un-named evangelist, now set loose on the community that once imprisoned him

to tell of the things God has done for him.

The miracle in this story is left for us to discover.

           Can we not imagine ourselves bound by this same kind of fear?

Fear of the strange or the unknown –

fear of the “madman in our midst”,

whom we are quick to identify, but reluctant to call by name…

Are not we guilty of letting our fear bind the weak and strange among us?

Does our fear keep us from recognizing the work of God even in this “enlightened age”?

Those who talk, or look or think differently

do not fit easily into our tightly controlled communities of faith.

We test and we judge, and in the process we lose sight of the possibility

that these strangers may have had something to tell us/show us

of the grace, mercy and love of God.

We don’t even think to learn their names –

they are different, thus dangerous,

and we think ourselves well rid of them.

But the lesson – the miracle – that Luke’s gospel offers us

Is not that Jesus “cured” a madman,

but that the cure is so simple, and so easily within our abilities.

To offer compassion – to face the stranger and call them friend –

to touch the untouchable and offer the hand of friendship to the outcast;

Jesus does all these things, and invites those who would follow him to do the same.

To recognize the human being in the one being shunned, or persecuted –

that is what Jesus does in the name of God,

and we who are part of God’s covenant family must do the same.

This seems simple, but experience tells us it is hard; hard to face our fear –

hard to imagine that “they” are just like us.

Jesus saw only the man – Jesus is drawn, not to his madness, but by his humanity.

Jesus is quick to recognize the child of God in everyone he meets;

This attitude is central to his teaching, and affects his every action.

Our exiled man “at the tombs” discovered this to be true,

And his new knowledge turned him into an ambassador of God’s Kingdom of grace.

No name – no home – but a new sense of himself;

A miracle has changed him;

and all because Jesus recognized him as one of God’s own.

Think of what might be accomplished –

in the church; in the world – for the kingdom of God,

if we were to turn our hand to that kind of miracle.

The arrogance of certainty

June 1, 2013

The Christian Church is fast becoming

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

Not that any of the other options are new,

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

stripped of its position of privilege,

where spiritual matters are concerned.

 

Does this trouble you?

 

It need not – for the purpose of faith

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

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

 

Faith points to a power greater than our own –

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

things that are constantly stymied

by human decisions and human greed, and human nature.

 

We who proclaim faith in Christ

propose to seek that order, justice and mercy

in a particular way;

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

But when we claim positions of absolute certainty,

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

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

 

Who would join us in our worship,

when we cannot be publically civil in our debate;

Who would willingly join a group

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

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

 

The church, in the name of “preservation”

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

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

This kind of behaviour is death for an organization

that is called to engage the world

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

 

We walk a troubling and difficult path.

 

Between the proclamation of the truth we hold dear,

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

we cannot seem to express ourselves intelligently.

 

Some have profited from the language of certainty

at the expense of those who have legitimate questions

about the relationship between Humanity and the Divine.

 

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

and today’s Scripture lessons should provoke questions

about the way we proclaim our devotion to God

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

but let us not ignore the brutal coda to this story

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

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

and presides over their murder.

 

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

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

From such attitudes came the crusades,

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

and all manner of atrocities.

 

We are slightly more civilized in this century –

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

not necessarily individuals –

the results have been just as hurtful –

the Residential School experiment is but one example.

 

Following close on the heels of these attitudes,

comes a missive from our brother Paul.

 

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

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

His intolerance of alternate opinion has been maintained, however:

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

 

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

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

is to be trusted, tolerated, or accepted.

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

 

Is this the Church we want?

The church we love?

The church we need?

 

Speaking for myself, the answer is no.

 

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

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

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

But we neglect his example, to our shame.

 

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

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

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

 

There is no reason for these two men to meet.

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

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

Their meeting place is one man’s need,

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

 

Jesus does not seek to convert –

rather he commends the centurion’s faith –

and the deed is done, the servant, healed.

 

The question that remains after my week of struggle –

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

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

 

Are we mercenaries for an ancient creed –

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

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

Are we open to the changing voice of revelation and proclamation

in a world no longer ruled by Christian certainty?

 

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