Posts Tagged ‘expectation’

Puzzling parables

July 29, 2017

Biblical heroes are broken people.  When we tell their stories – stories of wisdom and beauty and earnest failure, we often forget that it is their brokenness that makes them special.  All the greats are included; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – Moses, David and Solomon, whom we meet briefly this morning.  We explain away their failures and remember their successes, but make no mistake, their stories are incomplete if we don’t consider their flaws.

Even Jesus – whom we hold as the sole example of human perfection – is found doing and saying things that cast doubts on our assessment.  He eats and drinks with “tax collectors and sinners”; “he has a demon!”  His very notable public activity leads to his arrest and execution as a blasphemer, and a revolutionary – enemy of both church and state – and in Jesus resurrection we see the pattern continued; the pattern of God’s glory revealed in brokenness.  This defies the logic of the world, and suggests something wonderful and refreshing about the kingdom of heaven.  It is coming as a new and entirely different entity, and the people of God are called to participate in this kingdom – to urge it into being – in ways that we cannot imagine possible for us.

All this is a prelude to hearing these puzzling parables in a new way.

Typically, we have read these as simple and straightforward; Small things have great effects; true value is measured by quality, not quantity; and the “kingdom” is the place where all this will be sorted out.  But consider them again, remembering God’s tendency to ‘re-purpose’ broken people, and imagine how Jesus might be playing with our perception here.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…wait, isn’t mustard a weed?  Certainly it has been cultivated and used as an important spice for centuries, but trust me, if you have a cash crop other than mustard, you do not want evidence of mustard in your fields.  Tough, invasive and prolific (small seeds means MANY seeds) mustard may not be the biggest shrub on the block, but it can become the biggest problem.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, worked into a large measure of flour…but leavened flour has only limited use, and nearly all of the other references to yeast in the new testament consider yeast as something small that spoils the thing to which the yeast is added. We hear about the ‘yeast of the Pharisees” as a warning not to be infected by their ideas (for example).  Consider too that bread made without yeast is culturally (and religiously) very important to the Jewish people.

And what of the idea that the kingdom is something that should be bought “at any price”…and kept.  Does that seem like a good thing?   Aren’t we supposed to be making disciples “of all nations”?   And doesn’t the tone of this parable suggest something other than ownership?  What about the commandment against coveting…?

That the kingdom may be like a net that catches everyone – such an idea sounds strangely comforting – but in the end, only some will be kept.  We’d like to imagine that there is an easy way to distinguish the good from the bad – and we have tried very hard to make those distinctions for ourselves – but the real problem is we just don’t know which is which.  This is a parable of the kingdom, after all; and this kingdom is like nothing we have yet imagined.

I challenge our conventional readings of these parables this morning  -with some prompting from Dr. David Lose, whose columns I receive regularly -because I think that we sell Jesus short by accepting easy interpretations.

If we come quickly (and easily) to the conclusion that “good things come in small packages” (as in mustard seeds and yeast), I think we miss a chance to be challenged.  It would be easy to use these parables to justify our small (but never insignificant) contributions in a small-ish, part of the church – in a denomination that shrinks every generation (you see my point…) I think that while “small may be mighty”, we are called to be more than just a ‘small package’ in the kingdom of God.

Yeast affects every bit of flour that it contacts – in fact it changes the character of the flour completely.  Mustard seeds are powerful because they can be pervasive and difficult to control.  When ground as a spice, it can be prepared in ways that change the character of the dish that it seasons.  Parables about value and desirability – pearls, hidden treasures and good or bad fish – raise questions about how we assign value to things, and how God may assign value to those same things – and ultimately, to us.

Jesus is not trying to make things harder for us – often enough, that’s the preacher’s job – but Jesus is certainly trying to wrench us from our easy acceptance of the status quo.  Only then can he point us to a time and place where nothing will be as it is, and everything will be as God wishes it to be.  That kingdom comes to us as a result of struggle; struggle with our effectiveness, our worth; our desirability.  The kingdom comes as a result of God’s deliberate intent, and not of our own wishing and willing.  Being small, or mighty, or particularly good or valuable is NOT what brings the kingdom close.  Only God can do that.  And thanks be to God, that kingdom is coming nearer every day.

With each small act of compassion; with every word of grace and love that comes unexpectedly to us.  Every offering of worship, which is, for us, a celebration of Christ’s resurrection, brings us in contact with the kingdom. From the wreckage of the cross – from the deep brokenness of our societal systems, God calls us to something different; something radically new; something better than we can imagine.

These parables are not offered so we can be satisfied with what we have – they are revolutionary speech, undermining what we know and calling us to look beyond our own knowledge, abilities and values to imagine how God is redeeming them and us in Christ.  May we, in faith, live into that redemption, with the confidence of the apostle Paul; that God, who began this good work among us, will bring it to completion in God’s own good time.

(I owe great thanks to Dr. David Lose and his blog post for this weekend.  You can find this at )



What do you expect?

July 8, 2017

John’s representatives have come asking their questions of Jesus, and now Jesus has some questions of his own for the crowds that gathered around him.  John’s disciples wanted to know if Jesus was the real deal, and Jesus had responded with an interesting list:  “Tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them…”  This certainly sounds like a work of God, and John’s disciples go back to their master seemingly satisfied.  And then Jesus quizzes the people about John.

What did you go to see?  What did you expect, where John was concerned?  The rumours were of a wild man, appearing from nowhere, calling people to repentance.  Strangely dressed, and with stranger habits, John stood as an interesting alternative to the religious views of the day.  The priests demanded repentance and sacrifice, but saw those things as obligations in the midst of life rather than a gateway to a life transformed.  The religious establishment prefers order and ritual – obedience and compliance – but John claims an unpredictable space between sin and salvation.  ‘Repent for the kingdom is coming…’; ‘prepare for the one who is coming…’; ‘I am his messenger, but not fit to tie his sandals…’

“What did you go out to see…?” asks Jesus.  A prophet?  A freak-show?  A confrontation between the establishment and some radical preacher?  Whatever you thought you might see, you got more than you bargained for (says Jesus), because John stripped away all pretence about religion – about how God might speak and to whom God might speak.  John is both the greatest AND the least in the kingdom of God; yet another paradox placed as an hopeful example in the midst of God’s people.

The questions around John and Jesus – the discussion between and among their disciples focuses on a problem common to people of faith in every age; as our understanding of God changes – as our experience with the Holy grows in the telling – we are torn between good choices.  This was good, but this other seems better.  One calls us back to the path, but the other brings us to a major intersection, and asks us to choose.  What Matthew’s gospel (ch 11) suggests is that if John is legit, then so is Jesus, and if this is true, how do we choose?  Jesus confirms that one must follow another – echoes of John’s statement “he must increase and I must decrease”  So Jesus is presented as the logical ‘next step’ on the journey toward the coming kingdom of God – but Jesus is not content just to offer his evidence.  Jesus dares to ask about our expectations.  “What did you go out to see?”

He knows what is being said.  John came ‘fasting and praying’, and the people said he was possessed.  Jesus comes feasting and praising, and the people proclaim him ‘glutton and drunkard’.  Jesus’ assessment reminds us of the obvious; God is constantly being revealed to us – easy to see, but hard to accept.

It is a truth that continues to challenge us.  God is present – Christ is Risen – the Spirit of the Living God guides, protects, encourages and strengthens us – but we are unable or unwilling to recognize God-with-us.  The thriving Christian church of the ’50’s and early ’60’s is remembered as an institutional triumph first – a work of God made real by the effort of ‘we, the people’.  In ‘our’ triumph, we ignored societies needs; we imagined that the church thrived because society needed us – the war had taken all the good out of the world; the church brought the good back.  Now, as the church withers and struggles, we blame society for not caring enough about us.  What did we expect might happen?  That the church would replace all that was bad in the world with God’s perfect goodness?

Jesus’ take on John’s ministry suggests that our expectations are constantly challenged by the reality of God.  We are right to ask “Where is God in (all) this?” – but we must remember that in John, God was in the sparse food and edgy kingdom talk just as God was in the warm welcome of Jesus compassionate plea to ‘sin no more’.  Such comparisons dare me to ask if we have ever been willing (or able) to notice God at work?  Is it really so difficult to see God, in the challenging, the mundane, the ordinary, the outlandish things that are constantly unfolding before our eyes?

With John in prison, and Jesus taking up John’s teaching, and the religious sub-culture that John and Jesus represented holding their collective breath, waiting for a sign, Jesus points first to John and says “There is was!  God at work among you; God’s kingdom coming close to you…and you missed it.”  You couldn’t see the forest for the trees – and now you wonder about me.

Maybe the poets and prophets of our past have tricked us.  They went to such elaborate lengths to describe God – The presence of God was (rightly) imagined to be so overwhelming; so monumental, that we thought it mustn’t be real.  Poet and prophet dress up the work of God so it seems worthy of God – but God does not depend on glory and grandeur.  God does not wait for the perfect opportunity to impress.  At the just the right time – while we, in our sins imagine what the work of God MUST be like – while we wait for God to be perfect, God acts.

God acts in the likes of John the baptist; scruffy and marginalized; in the voice of Zechariah, gloomy and certain that only God cared; in the presence of Peter, Paul, Timothy and Titus – and many other ‘perfectly flawed people.  And in the person of Jesus; ‘glutton and drunkard’ they called him because they were too pious to see that God grinned at their accusations and blessed them in spite of themselves, daring them to get involved in the kingdom work.

What do you expect to see?  What do you imagine it is like?  Wisdom vindicated by her deeds looks very much like thousands of tiny, troubled churches – tilting at windmills, and disagreeing about nothing – all desperate to make a difference in their communities.  People can’t see God in what we do because everyone expects more of God than we can possibly offer.  They don’t see God in us because we can’t see God in one another.  They want the extraordinary God of the poets and prophets because we, in preaching on those texts and pandering to that expectation, have lost sight of God’s constant, ordinary activity among us.

We have come to expect that, if ‘God were with us’, glory, extravagance  (and therefore, success) would attend our every effort but that is a twisted expectation.  We have forgotten that God’s promise in Jesus means that our every breath is drawn in the presence of God; by the grace of God; to the glory of God.

With John in prison, awaiting his death, and Jesus well on the way to an inglorious end in Jerusalem, it seems hard to imagine that anyone travelling with them could see God at work.  But the lesson of John’s witness – the lesson of Jesus life, death and resurrection is a lesson in God’s constant presence.  God ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ is involved; at work; and constantly revealing the kingdom’s glory in our inglorious midst.  Thanks be to God that our every effort does not have to result in show-stopping, earth-shaking evidence of God.  We only need to be willing to see God in the ordinary things; in our worship and our witness; in our families, in our neighbours, and yes, even in our enemies – and that will be proof enough that God is.  Amen.

Easter 2016

March 26, 2016

What did they expect to find, I wonder?  A body, certainly – Jesus body, in fact – bloodied and broken.  That is the situation for which they have prepared. Their task was one of affection; to anoint their friend for burial.  But the continuing cruelty of Jesus death is that it occurred on the eve of Shabbat – and in the midst of Passover. No work, of any kind, was permitted to the observant at such a sacred time; not even the necessities of grief.

Adding to their confusion are these dazzling strangers, absolutely out of place.  “remember how he told you…” they begin – but Galilee was so long ago, and so much had happened since.  But yes, they remember, and slowly hope spreads; first through the gathered women, and then, more slowly, among the remaining disciples…The women are ready to believe.  The others, less so.  Peter must see for himself, but no confirmation waits for him except the scraps of cloth that had been used to hurriedly wrap Jesus body.  Peter’s amazement is incomplete.  All he knows for sure is that Jesus is not in the tomb.

What do any of us expect to find on Easter morning, I wonder?

Saviour of the world rides into town on a giant rabbit to offer chocolate and forgiveness…of course not, but what DO you expect?

Gifts arrayed and food prepared; family gathered and good times shared; Churches (mostly) full and malls (mostly) empty.

Two thousand years of preparation have given us some clarity, I think, and Christians generally agree on the facts of the matter:

Jesus, who was dead, has been raised.  Hallelujah!  It’s when we try to make sense of this glorious event – when we look for meaning in things like crucifixion and resurrection – that things get…complicated.

To some, it is GOSPEL – Good News, and that can mean only one thing; sinners saved and promises kept, and particular freedom meant for those who “accept Jesus into their hearts”; death undone by righteous blood, that’s the majority opinion.  Others find it an idle tale and cannot credit it; that God somehow required this murderous miracle to “make things right” seems a dangerous representation of Divine love and justice.  Still others within the Christian family find it comforting that God knows the pain of loss and even death, having experienced both at the hands of those ‘…created in God’s own image…’

And there are those who would dispute that God could live or die according to mere human terms…

Luke’s gospel doesn’t care about such things – not yet.  There is no attempt to turn this new state of affairs into a theological treatise.  The author’s job is to drive home the mysterious reality that met the women and then Peter: “He is not here!”

The women are challenged by a simple question; “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  Had they not been left speechless, they might have answered ‘we didn’t know he would be raised’ – except Jesus had told them (more than once, according to Luke’s account); the Son of Man betrayed, dead, then in three days, risen!  The truth is, they didn’t believe – they couldn’t believe – that Jesus might be raised from the dead.  They had seen it all – the brutality, the finality, the terrible truth of the tomb cut from stone.

True, some of them had been present for Lazarus’ miracle; but Jesus had come to Lazarus’ rescue, and so far as they knew, there was no one who could return the favour fro Jesus.  There was nothing in their lives that prepared them for new life.

What did you expect to find this morning?  Good news, to be sure – especially in light of the story that has unfolded in our worship over the last three days.  Good news, considering the horror and terror that has been the only word from Belgium and Iraq and countless other places.  Good news for lives touched by sadness and fear and no shortage of doubt.  Good news is not a whitewash of certainty – all negatives somehow transformed instantly and magically into positives – rather it is the promise that God is intimately acquainted with the worst this world has to offer, and still, God prevails.

You want certainty?  What I know for certain is that Jesus is not in the tomb.  As the morning grows into afternoon, Jesus friends will find him; along the road, behind closed doors, at the head of the table, breaking bread. This is the true mystery of resurrection; that Jesus will find us; that we will meet him where he is least expected; and the truth of his empty tomb stands as a permanent and constant reminder of the power of God’s love to overcome our deepest fears and our darkest days.  Thanks be to God, Jesus is not where we expect him to be – not among the dead, but among the living.  He is risen; he is risen indeed.

Alleluia!  Amen.

Baptism of Jesus (from a different angle)

January 10, 2016

All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.  Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom 6: 3-5)

So Jesus – the one who John says will baptize “…with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” first must be baptized himself.  Fair enough.  It’s a little strange, I’ll admit, but there is an argument that says you cannot offer something that you do not have – so; Jesus is baptized, and while he prays, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in physical form – and if you need help imagining what that moment looks like, the gospel writers ask you to picture a dove landing on Jesus…

Have you ever seen a bird land on a person?  Parrots on shoulders, Falcons on leather gloves – there’s always a great deal of commotion; feather’s flying and the human target trying to stay upright – the goal is to provide a stable platform – because if the human target is not ready…or nervous…or moving about, it can be disastrous.

A similar disaster is suggested by a church sign that a friend in Halifax told me about this week.  She reports seeing a sign that, in addition to announcing the service times, stated quite boldly “You will be baptized by the Spirit”.  We agreed that this didn’t sound like a comfortable process – or much of a gracious invitation; more like an expectation or a requirement.  A close reading of Scripture suggests something less…rigorous.

Luke’s gospel makes the baptism of Jesus something of a non-event.  Sure, there are a great many people crowding the riverbank, but John seems to be the focal point – albeit against his will.    Luke gives us a lot about John, talking about how he’s not Messiah, but this is what Messiah will be like.   Then our attention is drawn to Jesus, one of many who have been gathered by the call of John, now sitting apart from the crowd; newly baptized and praying.  There is a heavenly voice – meant only for Jesus, but duly reported by Luke – that identifies Jesus as a much loved son.

And for the Baptism, that’s it – except that Luke then makes another connection for us.  For all who failed to hear the voice – to any who doubt the connection that Jesus has with the almighty, Luke offers (post-baptism) Jesus family tree. (see Luke 3: 23-38)

It is a little one sided; son of…, son of…, son of…, but the point is to link Jesus to God in the most intimate (and culturally legitimate) way possible.  So while his baptism places Jesus among the ordinary seekers of forgiveness and righteousness that have flocked to John’s call, because it is an act of humility his baptism also provides a “stable platform” for the Holy Spirit – setting the stage for that spectacular revelation (You are my beloved Son…) which is how Luke reminds us that there is nothing at all ordinary about him.

So what, you might ask; Jesus is extraordinary – everyone knows that!  Jesus has this effect on the people around him – he makes others more aware of the presence of God – more attentive to the voice of God – more easily able to discern the Spirit of God – and here, in his adulthood, is where those particular traits of Jesus make themselves known.  And because everyone doesn’t know it – the task of the church is to continue to tell this incredible story; that into a time and place where all seemed bleak; to a people who imagined that God may have passed them by – from the midst of them, in fact – God works in and through the particular person of Jesus, and offers a new connection – a stable platform for the landing (and launching) of an incredible work of the Holy Spirit.

In the end, it doesn’t matter who heard the voice – or who might have seen this incredible moment of transformation.  What matters is that Jesus lets us see how God can work.  Although this is the One who created with a word – who brought order from chaos – whose voice can shake the wilderness – God’s Spirit comes gently, to those who are ready and willing to receive the gift.  The Spirit is often unexpected, but never unwelcome.  Jesus’ example suggests to me that humility is the attitude most likely to encourage the arrival of the Spirit, and it is in that same humility that we are invited to offer this remarkable Gospel.  Though it may be tempting to expect everyone who hears Jesus’ story to be instantly transformed, we should remember that even in Jesus’ time, it didn’t happen like that.  The Spirit settled on one person that day – one who was patient, praying, and who presented the Spirit with a safe and stable landing place.  And from that moment came the start of something wonderful and new.

A new way to encounter the power of God – a new attitude toward the coming Kingdom of God – new hope, new life; all this comes thanks to the humble and willing witness of Jesus.  May his example become our habit, that the Holy Spirit might find, in us, a welcome place to land.  Amen

What you see is (not always) what you get…

March 15, 2015

What you see is what you get.  That seems to be the highest kind of praise when people are describing one another.  It is the sort of thing that is supposed to put us at ease when we meet new people – instil confidence and    pave the way to trust.  The problem is, what you see is rarely what you get.  Our eyes play tricks on us – our expectations cannot be met by friends, never mind strangers – yet this doesn’t stop us from forming instant opinions in all kinds of situations, about all sorts of people…

We do this in our approach to faith.  Most “church” folk can give you a sketch of Jesus that will hit all the highlights: Saviour – Son of God – without sin – born in the winter, died in the spring; we tend to agree on the broad strokes.  But Jesus is full of surprises – the people who bring us his story all agree on the basics, but the details are something else again.

We’d prefer it if Jesus was transparent.  In him it should certainly be true that what you see is what you get – an honest, easy to understand guy who dealt openly with everyone he met.  But what I read in the gospels tells another story; Jesus talked in riddles – he challenged people’s expectations (and occasionally disappointed them).  Nicodemus comes ‘at night’; hoping to ask questions not fit for daylight (and, likely as not, hoping not to be seen…).  Nicodemus assumes that because Jesus shares a religious background with him, and because he seems knowledgable in the habits of faithful people, that Jesus and he share a common understanding…he couldn’t be further from the truth.

With Jesus, what you see is not what you get.  You are faced with someone who trusts God implicitly – who believes in justice and mercy especially for those who have been discarded by religious people who know the rules of their faith, but don’t understand the principles behind those rules.  Jesus is going to unravel their certainties and place doubt in their minds, just as he does with Nicodemus, and nothing will ever be the same for those whose beliefs were once unshakable.

What we see in the story from Numbers (21: 4-9) – a serpent; bronzed and on a pole – is a dangerous thing made perfectly safe.  The symbol concocted by Moses for a people plagued by misery and death assures them that here is a cure for their misery.  Held aloft, the serpent becomes the antidote for their greatest fear; the fear of death.

What we see in Jesus is a safe thing made dangerous; a man, but so much more than a man – called by God; one with God; sharing God-likeness in a way that no one ever imagined possible.

Dangerous, because he insists that we may join him in this intimate relationship with the one he calls Father.  Dangerous, because he asks us to set aside the things we think are true about the world around us, and demands that we examine our relationships with God and with one another.  Dangerous, because he wants to liberate us from all that holds us back, and keeps us from becoming the people God intended.

That liberation is perfectly frightening, and very hard to imagine.  John’s gospel suggests that Jesus is like the serpent on Moses’ staff –  destined to be ‘lifted up (ie. crucified).  When that happens, if we have the courage to look – the courage to see what is actually happening – we will discover that Jesus – the crucified God – is the antidote for our greatest fear; the cure for the misery of humanity.

I am reminded of something that happens to folks (like me) the first time they have a chance to look at the universe through a decent telescope.  If you’ve seen even one issue of National Geographic that contained full colour pictures from the Hubble telescope, your expectations will be very high.  You might even imagine that you can see that sort of detail – the brain works that way; you will see (occasionally) exactly what you EXPECT to see.  But if you look again, you’ll likely see what’s actually there.  Not much colour (that needs long-term exposure); details dependent on the quality of the equipment (and of course, even a clear night doesn’t always produce what astronomers call ‘good seeing’ – humidity, temperature and pollution all create problems).  What you will see, rather than the delicate detail of a professionally rendered magazine image, is the enormous, interconnected potential of it all.  Depth and contrast and the promise of infinity – that is what will emerge in the lens.

When you stand in the dark and look at those distant lights, it takes “good seeing”  (and no small amount of patience) to find what is actually there instead of seeing what you expect to see.  To discern the finer details, to see patterns, to notice the seasonal differences in the vastness of the night sky requires dedication, patience and a willingness to admit that you don’t really know everything about what is ‘up there’.

So it is with the things of God – we are called to patient and persistent examination of the things we think we know.  Jesus invites us to imagine that there is more to the kingdom of God than an indifferent judge who keeps a running tally of our activities – (John 3:16-17) – to really see the magnificent grace that God offers.    The path that Jesus will take – a path that leads to crucifixion – is one that exposes the dark deeds of humanity.  The decisions that make for misery and pain; the things that separate us from the love of God; the plain truth about the way we are – these are the things we’ve come to expect.  But Jesus draws our attention to what is really there; in a place of intense hardship and suffering, Jesus reveals grace and gentleness – signs of God in godless places (like the cross) – Jesus brings the light of God to those dark and desperate times, and that light continues to shine for us.

Worship works

January 3, 2015

Each of the four gospels offer a different perspective of important moments in Jesus’ life. Together they help us paint a more comprehensive picture of who Jesus was and why his story is so important. Luke spends more time than the others on Jesus childhood. In this gospel, we have two examples – found no where else- that point to Jesus as a very remarkable young person. One is the familiar story of a return to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve – separated from his parents, only to be discovered “in his father’s house”, where he confounded, not only his parents, but the teachers and leaders in the temple. The other instance greets us this morning – Jesus presented (according to the tradition of Moses) as the first male child of the marriage; dedicated to God, redeemed with the proper sacrifice. This otherwise ordinary occurrence draws the attention of two separate but similar people.
Simeon and Anna are related only by their devotion to God. Luke’s gospel presents them as elderly, expectant, and faithful to a fault. Anna has spent the majority of her considerable widowhood in an attitude of ‘fasting and prayer’, and Simeon is described as “righteous and devout”, a man guided by the Spirit of God. Together they represent all that is good and hopeful and positive about the long-suffering people of God. For all they are advanced in years, their hope is fresh, their devotion is honest, and their hearts are open to the mystery that is God’s intervention. So their chance encounter with Jesus, Mary and Joseph leaves quite an impression.
It is a chance encounter – it would not have been unusual for couples to present their male children in this manner, according to the law. There may have been a particular day or time for such a sacrifice – and as habitual worshippers, Simeon and Anna would have seen countless infants come and go. What is it about Jesus that stirs Simeon to speak? What changes that Anna cannot contain her praise? The Spirit led them, says the gospel, and we are left to consider what that might mean, both for them and especially for us.
It is significant that these particular moments of revelation are given to people whose lives were dedicated to one thing. Worship is the activity that unites Simeon and Anna; Worship is what allows them to discern the power of God in a powerless child. Worship is the path to an encounter with God, no matter what your friends may tell you.  You know the ones I mean – those ‘spiritual but not religious’ folks who choose to worship on the golf course or at the beach (etc, etc). these voices are no longer in the minority. their opinions have influenced our approach to things that used to seem simple (and unassailable). Even as the Christmas season fades from view, it is difficult to dismiss the feeling that there are still some conflicted opinions regarding how we might capture (or how to best describe) “the true meaning of Christmas”…
A season of peace and goodwill? Certainly! An opportunity to remember the love of God made flesh? Absolutely! And how best might we honour that meaning, and avail ourselves of that love? here is where the opinions differ. Convinced as we are by the “spiritual but not religious” argument, we hang our hopes on family gatherings with extravagant meals and lavish gifts. We try to make new traditions meaningful, and look for ways to tell the Christmas story in new ways. Worship becomes an afterthought.
Yes, I know – we had a wide range of ‘services’ between December 21st and Dec 31st. People attended church (for a wide variety of reasons, to be sure) but is there worship in all of this? I am, I confess, chastised by this morning’s gospel lesson. The example of Anna and Simeon – two people who worship in the firm belief that they will see God at work; that they will be guided by the spirit to see remarkable things. Their hope is unquenchable
It is always my intent to provide an atmosphere that encourages that sort of hope. I fail more often than I succeed, – and at Christmas, most often – for at Christmas, our collective expectation defeats our best intentions. But now we find ourselves in a new liturgical season, and so I claim a fresh start. Epiphany is a time for the redemption of our expectations and the rebirth of our hope. For in this season, the secret of God’s great gift is left loose upon the wider world. Wise men, and prophet women and patient, old holy men – all these are given a gift that they did not expect. Simeon and Anna (and the magi, in their turn) teach us the wisdom of persistent, expectant worship. Those who long to see God will see God. Those who look forward to the consolation of Israel (indeed, of all God’s people) will not be disappointed. Not because their worship makes them worthy, or somehow more deserving, but because worship (as a habit) prepares the senses to recognize a work of God when he happens along in his mothers arms.
It is this spirit, I think, that gave the authors of the Westminster Catechism the justification for their first (and greatest) question; What is our chief and highest purpose?  The answer, of course, is to glorify God, and enjoy God forever. And it is through our worship that we pursue this purpose – in season and out – that one day we too might catch a glimpse of God who is constantly revealing new hope to us and new life for us. Thanks be to God, that as we celebrate God’s revelation to the world in Jesus, our hope is renewed and the promise of new life is once again made fresh and real for us. Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.

“…it’s a miracle…! Really!”

July 22, 2012

Jesus greets his friends who have just returned from their first mission trip.

He declares that they need to get away from the curious crowds

for some rest (and reflection, no doubt).

So it’s everybody into the boat and off across the lake…

where they are met by a curious crowd.

Jesus, in his compassion, begins to teach them and then…

the folks who put the reading together take a page out of Film editing 101:

smash cut to another boat ride; another part of the waterfront;

another crowd eager to experience Jesus’ charisma, Jesus’ power…

Never a hint of the drama that comes between these two very different crowd scenes.

Nothing to suggest the generous grace that fed 5000 men

(and who knows how many women and children).

No hint of the disciples’ horror as they struggled against the wind on a storm-tossed sea

(not to mention the sight of their teacher and friend coming across the water’s surface like a ghost…)

These are the kinds of things that allow us to imagine the terrific and terrible glory of God,

but in this mornings reading, we are detoured from these things

things we would likely consider to be the heart of the story.

We are, instead, swept along with the crowds –

caught up in the excitement of “this newest prophet and miracle worker”.

This is the ancient middle eastern version of Beatle-mania / Truedeau-mania / (dare I say Beiber-mania?)

and the lectionary treatment of the gospel asks us to consider what it means.

Treating the gospel in this manner is unfair.

Understanding these stories of Jesus is hard enough without leaving parts out –

and today we have left out the miraculous!

What is left, if you ignore the miracles?

What happens to Jesus  (more importantly, what happens to us)

when there is nothing left but expectant crowds and a weary (but compassionate) teacher and his friends…?

What does it mean to us, to hear only the buzz of the crowd after the fact?

We make our own sense of the missing pieces –

tell ourselves that Jesus himself was (and is) simply irresistible – he could not help but draw a crowd –

but the truth is lurking in the missing miracles.

God at work (in through and all around) – that’s what draws a crowd.

The sense that, at any moment, something amazing will happen.

That is what draws us still.

Even those who dismiss the idea of a miracle still yearn to be amazed,

and our faith assures us that God is still capable of taking our breath away.


the reality of this is illustrated by a story that Richard Lischer tells in his book “Open Secrets”:

A young lady in his first congregation (Amy) with a debilitating disease comes to her minister –

she wants to visit a traveling faith healer -she’s looking for a miracle.

Lischer tries to prepare her for what he considers will be the inevitable disappointment.

She is not deterred.

Amy returns from the crusade,  still wheelchair bound – no healing.

But Lischer soon discovers that no healing doesn’t mean no miracle.

His young friend has been changed –

she encourages a committee to build a wheelchair ramp into the church.

She makes plans to become a physiotherapist –she begins to live life in spite of her illness –

Amy found her life’s purpose while looking for a cure –

and Lischer rediscovered the miraculous.

Our lives are lived in denial of the miraculous.

We have explained away the miracles of Jesus as being “for that time and place”

and we rob them of their power.

We have become content with “ordinary miracles” like life and the beauty of nature

(neither of which are ordinary at all…) – and have stopped expecting extraordinary things.

But what made Jesus special (among many things)

was his absolute certainty that God was, not only capable of the extraordinary, but constantly revealing it –

offering humanity the chance to experience and participate in the miraculous.

Jesus instills in us a fresh sense of wonder at what is possible if we submit to God’s sovereignty –

Jesus invites us, not just to believe in miracles, but to expect them.

It is that expectation that changes us –

that anticipation of something amazing at the hand of God is what fuels Faith –

and enables us, like Lischer’s wheelchair-bound friend – to find purpose in our lives.

We have lived so long in denial, it will be hard to regain that sense of wonder that Jesus offers.

Hard, but not impossible.

The day to day work of sustaining our faith – supporting the work of the church – spreading the good news

these things seem an exercise in futility in the current climate.

But that is because we presume the work is entirely on our shoulders.

We forget that God is working alongside – ready to show us something amazing –

if only we believed in miracles…

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.