Posts Tagged ‘decisions’

Advent 4 A – Out of the ordinary

December 18, 2010

This may be our favourite birth story.

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

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

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

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


as with any ‘good’ story, however,

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

And today, we consider Matthew’s version.


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

but not before the bloodlines are established –

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

“who’s your father?”

Matthew anticipates that question from us about Jesus

by taking us back through the history of the Jewish people

he hits all the highlights –

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

but we are left with a bit of a problem…


In the end, this Joseph fellow –

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

is too ordinary for this moment.


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

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

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

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

but here is a scandal of a different kind.


We might not understand the fill impact of divine grace

but we know plenty about ruined reputations,

and the uncomfortable questions of questionable parenthood.

What’s a husband to do?


He was her husband – no question about that.

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

is a macho disguise for real affection.

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

or the ridicule of her family and the larger community.

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

something below the surface of common conversation –

something that would disguise the truth and save them all.


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

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

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

but there is a problem …

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

imaginations will run wild –

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

the “ordinary” will be cast aside,

and we are not really ready for what that means.


If God is with us, as the prophet promised,

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

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

we will desire changes where none seem possible

and so, we have a decision to make.


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

quietly disown God who seeks us in love.

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

the truth of love without boundaries

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

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

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

and set out on an unknown road.

What’s a person to do?




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

to continue with our plans – not too ambitious,

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

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

and are properly suspicious of anything else.

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

when visions in the night speak of putting our fear aside

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

how can we walk away?


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

that comes to Joseph when he wakes.

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

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

towards the truth that would save us all.


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

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

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

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

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

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

we discover we can never again be ordinary.




Easter 6 C – Obstacles and opportunities

May 8, 2010

Paul and his small group of dedicated friends are not yet “The Church”

they have no institutional boundaries – no buildings – no prayer book – no trappings.

They are just a group of people whose lives have been touched by the miracle of Easter –

the life changing reality of Resurrection.

They are eager to share their good news,

but time and time again they seem to be denied the chance.

They were “forbidden to speak” by the Holy Spirit (v 6) in Galatia –

Jesus Spirit kept them from entering Bithynia.

The new horizons in Asia that they had sought have been undeniably closed to them.

Things are not going as well as they might have hoped.

Then their leader has a vision.

A rather ordinary vision, when you think about it.

A resident of Macedonia, calling for help.

No fiery chariots – no blinding lights. No burning bush – no startling signs or symbols.

And suddenly the whole group become

“convinced that God had called [them] to proclaim the good news [in Macedonia]”

There are two outcomes in this passage that demand our attention –

obstacles and opportunities.

They are very closely connected –

they may even be completely dependent on one another.

And if we are attentive, both can lead us to an experience of the Spirit of God.

We are not told what form the “forbidding” takes;

were they struck literally dumb? Voiceless? Inarticulate?

Were they unable to find an audience for their preaching – was their meeting place black-listed?

Whatever may have happened, this isn’t simply a case

of “God closing a door and opening a window”.

We’ve heard that often enough to think it might be some sort of universal truth,

but what happens here in Acts 16 is that Paul and his pals are learning discernment.

There was something at work beyond the regulation of their meetings –

civic authorities had ceased to be obstacles for Jesus followers –

they shared the good news under constant threat of imprisonment –

so there was something else; something Holy at work…

To make the move from disappointment to delight in their new destination

these fellows begin asking one of the fundamental questions of the Christian life;

“Is this from God, or not?”

This is the act of discernment for all of God’s people.

This is the kind of question these travellers ask,

not just because their plans were being thwarted

but because they were seeking something of and for God, rather than themselves.

When opportunities and obstacles collide,

this is the question that helps us make sense of them.

When the road to Asia looks dangerous –

when the words stick in your throat, though the audience seems harmless –

when doors are locked and travel plans disrupted, we have two choices:

we can curse our bad luck, or – in faith – ask “Is this from God, or not?”

We can only ask this question if we are eager to serve God –

the selfish entrepreneur stops for no obstacle –

the plan must be successful – the venture can not fail.

To those in the world, a challenge is simply a reason to try harder,

to aim higher, so that nothing (ultimately) can stand in their way.

Our choices – our faith – demands that we try a different approach.

Probably the most difficult thing about a life of faith

is learning to define failure as “not yet”.

The successful Christian is not necessarily the one who has completed the most projects

who has visited the most mission fields, or preached to the largest crowds

Success for the Christian is learning to apply that question – “is this from God?”

– to every project – every dream – and most importantly, every obstacle.

The freedom to stop and turn around – to accept rejection as merely temporary –

is liberation indeed if we are determined that our actions should reflect faithful living.

It is a freedom that lets us find opportunities

when obstacles turn us aside.

I’m convinced that it was this discerning question

that led to such eager acceptance of Paul’s vision as “the new plan”.

Ultimately, the obstacles that had kept them from Asia were removed

and the Gospel came to Galatia, and Asia, and circled the globe,

not in one seamless, co-ordinated move, but in fits and starts

from obstacle to opportunity – from Paul’s time to our time.

The journey continues today.

The constant appeal to the Spirit –

not standing idly by hoping for a divine nudge in the appropriate direction –

but a sincere questioning of the activities in our lives

is what marks us as people of faith.

The road that we have chosen is full of obstacles – we know that only too well.

But the solution is not more effort – more money – more people or even more faith.

The answer is a thoughtful question – “is this from God” –

and the opportunity is in our listening, eagerly, for God’s response.


Grace changes everything – Lent 4 C, Westville

March 13, 2010

You could be forgiven for shifting in your seats –

for here certainly comes another heart-tugging message

based on this well-worn parable from Luke’s gospel.

Prodigal Son – perplexing brother – proud and (puzzling) Papa.

There are stereotypes beyond counting and we always end up in the same place.

One foot in the welcome home party room, the other on the threshold,

sadly considering the headstrong elder brother who,

though his arguments have some merit,

simply doesn’t allow himself to understand the gravity of grace –

he cannot accept his father’s earnest plea –

and we are forced to watch as another brother wanders away,

and the cycle of selfish self-destruction begins again.

That is the typical pattern of preaching when this text comes ’round –

it’s sound – it’s thought provoking – and it seems to me to be missing something.

Jesus parables are carefully designed to change us – to shift our focus

and this parable is his best effort when we let it touch us.

A typical approach to this parable keeps the lessons at arm’s length;

observe the grace of God, we say. See how it worries,watch how it welcomes,

notice that it does not discriminate.

Wouldn’t it be nice, we say, if everyone could see the Father’s grace for what it is,

unlike his foolish sons…

As often as you’ve heard that sermon (and as often as I’ve preached the same)

I’m now convinced that treatment falls short of what Jesus intended.

Parables in Jesus hands are weapons of great change;

surgical implements, designed to extract harmful habits of thinking from our narrowed minds.

“This fellow welcomes sinners – and eats with them!” so say the parodied Pharisees –

self-righteous and assured.

In their world, value is assigned by ‘people like them’ who can observe and correct.

They are quick to nod in sympathy with the long-suffering father –

sure that the boys need only mind their place – to make amends for their selfish behaviour –

and all will once again be just as it was.

When we keep this story at arms-length, that is our hope too –

longing to return to the status quo.

But Jesus story suggests that because of grace nothing can ever be ‘as it was’…

Grace changes everything.

I read this week a father’s account of an afternoon in the mall with his wife and 11 year old son.

His son has a birthmark on his face called a ‘port-wine’ stain.

He reveals how his sons lack of response to public taunting

taught him about honesty and the developing character of his nearly adolescent son.

He doesn’t go so far, but I’m inclined to think that this eleven year old embodies grace.

He has a physical reminder that changes how he is perceived by others,

but he chooses instead to let this mark change how he sees the world.

His father reports that the boy is much more willing than most

to accept people just as they are – no strings attached –

no preconceived notions of goodness or badness.

Grace is exactly like that – and until we allow ourselves that change of perspective,

we fail to enjoy the full impact of this most divine gift.

The moment of grace in Jesus parable is not when the father rushes out to meet the son,

having perceived him from afar.

No, the moment of grace is that moment when,

in the midst of the slop and the pigs

the son realizes that his comfort has been fleeting,

and there is something more important than his own opinion – his own pride

In his greed and his ‘plenty’, he cared only how the world saw him –

his impact on the world was measured by what he had and where he was.

sitting in squalor he could see the world clearly.

“aren’t my father’s slaves better off – better fed – better, than I am”

he has recognized grace and been changed by it – his world view has a different centre.

We in the Christian Church treat grace like merchandise.

We package it, call it amazing, and offer it up to visitors like the jewel that it is.

We are, however, reluctant to let grace do its work on us.

We stand apart from this story – a story so full of grace –

we choose sides between the brothers and sympathize with the father;

but this is so much more than a morality play.

Jesus parable should help us to fully surrender to God’s grace.

If we have heard it clearly – we should not hesitate to cast ourselves in the role of the younger son

not because we are wicked and prone to selfishness (though we are) –

not because we crave forgiveness (though we surely do)

and not because we are overcome with emotion at the reception

but because at his best the son has seen the world clearly only because of grace.

He is able to notice the world, and admit that it no longer revolves around him.

He is able to encounter God in the world

because he no longer expects the world to make a god of him.

That is our path, if only we would choose – that is the lesson of this parable

and the lesson of Jesus life, death and resurrection

no small thing, this grace we are offered

and it will change everything.

Coming in from the desert

February 19, 2010

My Lenten journey began on Wednesday night

when in a very simple service,

we read and prayed (but no singing)

and a colleague marked my forehead with soot, and said

“remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

For many generations of Christians, these words have marked the beginning of the season of Lent

a season that can include reflection, self-examination, fasting and prayer.

All these things are considered an excellent prologue to the Easter event

the festival of the resurrection – and the church, predictably,

has turned these things (and this time) into a formalized and ritual observance,

and what that usually means

is that while we might remember to follow the pattern of the church –

with particular reading – a particular piety –

and attention to particular parts of the story of God’s people –

we have lost sight of the purpose of our activities and of our observation.

We’re convinced that it must start in the desert.

The desert seems to be a pretty popular starting point for God’s people;

the Israelites, after escaping Pharaoh, wandered for forty years, some say.

Jesus, having been blessed by his cousin John,

was lured into the wilderness by a hunger for holy things.

The desert in Scripture is often portrayed as a testing place –

a proving ground for a chosen people –

a test-track for an new theology/a new understanding of the One God –

and we have taken up the metaphor with some enthusiasm.

There is a problem, however; deserts are also dry and desolate –

places, in our understanding, of despair rather than hope.

We are inclined to think negatively on our desert experiences

to imply that in the desert, we are forsaken, abandoned,

and otherwise bereft of God’s grace.

Nothing could be further from the truth as Scripture records it…

While the story of the Exodus certainly has its low points –

the people, more than once, embrace fear, express doubt, and embody frustration –

in every instance they are reminded – often spectacularly –

of the constant, sustaining presence of God.

On the edge of the wilderness, years from their Egyptian captivity

our reading from Deuteronomy this morning (Deuteronomy 26: 1-11)

suggests that the people remember in ritual and worship

that God has journeyed with them, provided for them,

and will continue to provide in “the promised land”

the journey through the desert was a journey marked by profound and persistent hope.

Jesus – “ led by the Spirit in the wilderness” – does not meet despair in the wilderness

he meets temptation – a very different thing –

and if we are to begin our Lenten journey in the desert with him,

it pays to know the difference.

Jesus is tempted…and hungry; but he doesn’t let his hunger rule him.

He meets every temptation with hope, not despair

and the tempter is left discouraged, departing “until an opportune time.”

Jesus shows us how to face the desert;

knowing full well what the desert holds.

It holds hunger, loneliness and stark surroundings to be sure,

but that same desert presents the opportunity to see things as they really are.

There is nothing for temptation to hide behind,

no surprises on the horizon, because the horizon goes all the way to God.

Jesus no-nonsense encounter with temptation helps us remember

that though the choices may be limited,

God is always a choice that is available to us.

Every time I come home with a smudge on my forehead –

my wife is tempted to wipe it clean (until she remembers where I’ve been) and it remains untouched

an outward, personal reminder that I’m always in the desert;

Always facing difficult choices – “sin – no sin. God – no God” –

constantly among temptation – some greater, some minor –

that threaten my developing relationship with and unfolding experience of the holiness of God

Lent gives us an opportunity in the church

to recall the difficult travels of the people of God

to retrace our desert steps and see the hope that,

for too long, has been hidden by despair.

Though we meet Jesus in the wilderness, fresh from his holy visions,

he invites us – leads us – to an oasis of peace –

a place where we can encounter God “uncluttered” by our usual distractions.

It may be a desert – but it is not deserted.

Our Lenten path is strewn with chances to choose –

our wilderness experience will leave us wanting more –

we will be tempted, and we will pass the test,

not because we must, but because,

with God’s help in Christ,

we can. Amen

The truth, and nothing but the truth. (Christ the King, 2009)

November 21, 2009

The truth is an elusive object in any age –

and almost entirely dependent

on the point of view of the one who seeks truth,

as Pilate and Jesus both knew only too well.

Pilate and Jesus go back and forth like this every Easter season –

this is a necessary dialogue as Jesus approaches the cross –

so why are we dwelling on it today?

Shouldn’t we be getting our hearts and minds ready for Christmas (like everyone else…?)

wouldn’t it be better to hear a harmless story about the goodness of God

a wonderful miracle – a parable, perhaps…

anything to take our mind from the elusive, troublesome, terrifying truth.

You see, Pilate already had the facts of the case before him.

The stories had been shared – the rumours circulated – accusations made

and Pilate was having none of it.

The facts – the truth of the case of Jesus of Nazareth,

dragged to the governors residence by an angry mob

simply did not support the request for a death sentence.

Pilate knew a lynching when he saw one.

Whether or not Jesus is “a king”, he is no real threat to Pilate’s power.

That was the truth.

But there is another truth in the room –

a gut-level, centre of the soul, reality that begs to be explained –

the truth; capital T.

“my kingdom is not of this world”

my followers are not going to fight for my release (or for my throne) –

You can worry about kings if you want,

but I am a witness to the the truth…

This is not the way to the early release program as a prisoner of Imperial Rome,

but Jesus has finally caught Pilate’s attention

and he should have ours too.

A witness to the truth –

Jesus presents himself as one who has seen/experienced

a reality that will grab hold of us –

this is truth to which we can belong – truth to which we can be held responsible;

not just a collection of facts about the world as it is (or might someday be).

I have heard people argue that Pilate’s parting shot was uttered in disdain –

with a dismissive wave of his hand –

remember when this story is read at Easter, we need Pilate to be the bad guy.

But I believe that Pilate was searching to this truth too –

that he was trapped in a system that was destroying him, and he longed for a way out.

What is truth? Tell me – show me – teach me, Jesus!

So that I can experience that same calm confidence in the face of difficulties as you posses.

The truth is, Pilate’s power was a lie, and he knew it.

Power that depends on the accusation and conviction of the innocent is not power at all.

The truth is, there was a king in the room that day,

of a kind that the world had never seen.

The truth, and nothing but the truth –

is though we celebrate with rousing hymns and triumphant language,

Jesus is not that sort of king –

we still don’t understand the nature of his kingdom.

We come to this text at the end of our year because

we can’t get ready for Christmas until we face the truth – terrible and troublesome –

that God’s reality is beyond our imagination – that our king is ‘not from around here.”

We cannot sing our favourite hymns without admitting

that the truth of Christ’s Kingdom baffles us,

and recognizing that our understanding of God’s promised kingdom is woefully incomplete.

We talk and sing of justice, mercy, peace and love

for we have heard the kingdom will be build on these foundations

but we will not see these things in their true form

until we tune our ears to Jesus testimony of truth.

This Truth is for us both a Christmas truth – unto us a king is born – unto us a son is given.

and an Easter truth – He is not here, he is Risen.

Jesus testifies to life as we know it;

confronted by difficulty, jealousy, arrogance and hatred

and he testifies to life as God meant it to be:

confident, compassionate, and enduring, even in the face of evil

in the coming weeks, we will hear prophets who remind us

of God’s promised deliverance and peace

we will hear the witness of Jesus in story and song

as the calendar counts down towards Christmas

and if we are patient with ourselves and with God,

we will begin to discover the truth.

Then we might truly sing the praises of he who is our king.

Who will roll away the stone?

April 10, 2009

Often, our most difficult moments are reduced to the simplest of questions;

what will we do next?”

such simplicity flies in the face of our troubles – lives torn apart, future uncertain, hopes dashed

yet when those questions are too big – too overwhelming – we concentrate on the necessities,

the next breath – the next step.

Rather than trying to rebuild in the midst of the wreckage,

we look for the simplest way to clear the building site – but,

who will roll away the stone?

We are praised for our willingness to forge ahead,

whatever the obstacles.

We counsel one another to “keep on living – to get back to business”

as the best remedy for a multitude of tragic circumstances.

But to everyone there comes a time when the load is just too heavy.

There is no way around, over or through.

When that time comes, are we any more able

to hear words of grace, or to notice that the weight has just been lifted?

Who will roll away the stone?

That was the pressing question,

among the many questions of these friends of Jesus.

The stone was heavy, and given the circumstances surrounding Jesus death,

they had every right, as friends of a convicted trouble-maker,

to expect trouble with the authorities.

Their day was full of trouble, and the sun was barely risen.

Imagine the surprise – the terror –

on finding the tomb standing open…

their only fear replaced by the unspeakable;

what more could the authorities do than kill Jesus?

Who would have opened the grave?

An open tomb is not a comforting sight

when your mind is clouded with grief.

Mark’s gospel does not let those clouds disperse.

The women maintain their fear and amazement.

The spices are forgotten,

for the young man in white has given them new questions to ponder;

the gospel concludes in silence and fear – but that fear cannot last.

The open grave has become, in this moment, the entrance to life.

The miracle of Easter is not that the tomb is empty,

not that the women meet what must surely be an angel,

nor is the miracle simply that Jesus is risen.

The miracle of Easter is that our every question – our every difficulty

is met with a single response;

The stone has been rolled away.

It was a task we could not manage, and yet it has been accomplished.

God has lifted the weight from us – done all the heavy work

and left us to wonder what comes next.

We want to see Jesus – to find that proof which will settle our racing hearts

and clear our clouded minds – and we will,

but the miracle of Easter is in that freedom of spirit we find

when we discover that our most difficult and worrying obstacles

have been effortlessly shifted in the night

and that our way ahead is now clear.

What we could not imagine – the one thing that stood in our way

is no longer an issue.

Death itself has lost its power over us;

God has sent an unmistakeable message.

The tomb is open and empty;

our teacher – our saviour waits ahead for us.

He is not here, he is risen, just as he said.

Alleluia – Alleluia – Amen.