Posts Tagged ‘faith’

Sink or swim

August 13, 2017

Sink or swim; what will you do?  In Peter’s case (of course), both.  In a show of false bravado, he demands that Jesus “command me to come to you…”  And out into the waves he goes – successful at first.

Isn’t it wonderful to think that Jesus’ presence can provoke such acts of faith – such a show of the miraculous…except that all too soon we discover that not even Jesus presence can keep Peter from sinking.  And all Jesus can do (once all are safe and dry) is sadly shake his head; “…why did you doubt?”

And as I told the session (in Thorburn) on Tuesday night, THAT is the question.  Why – with our storied history and rich tradition and our tenacious ability to be the church in this place – why do we doubt?  Because we do; we can’t help it.  We’re full of doubt – overwhelmed by it – up to our necks in it – and for no good reason.

Sure, times are tough for churches,  and all organizations that depend on public generosity.  Yes, it is frightening to read the news of nuclear powered nit-wits…(umm) leaders acting irresponsibly.  It would be the easiest, and most sensible course of action to doubt the presence of a caring, merciful, all knowing/seeing God when things seem to be spiralling out of control, so some personal (and collective) doubt is perhaps predictable (and maybe even understandable).  But current global events continue to demonstrate that the product of our doubt is also predictable…and not understandable in the least.

We sink.  We hide.  We lash out.  We blame.  We rally ‘round old habits, and despicable behaviours.  Some have, in recent days, disguised bigotry as “white advocacy” – in the name of security, safety and self-protection –

with the ridiculously dangerous argument that every group except ‘plain white people’ have demanded some kind of special privilege.

None of these are Christian behaviours.  All of it brings me to the point of despair…except for one thing.  Jesus.

Jesus – calm in the centre of the storm – calls us to remember what is on offer (and what is at stake!).  Jesus defies the odds and meets us in the midst of our terror.  Though he is the embodiment of peace and purpose, his presence first prompts more fear (it is a ghost!).  His response is meant to overturn our objections:“Take heart – it is I; Don’t be afraid.”

That is how it begins.  He names the problem – fear.  Fear of the unknown; fear of the “other”, and ultimately, fear of the remarkable difference that Jesus represents.  Jesus calls us to join him on the water and we may eventually go, but we’re not convinced that we can take him seriously.

But we’re Christians, you say – we’re charged with “making disciples”, “spreading the gospel”; “keeping the faith”.  Except making disciples doesn’t mean getting people to think and act like we do, but to follow (think and act) like Jesus.  We don’t keep the faith; we use faith to keep the world at a safe distance.  Too many have claimed a faith (that they call Christian) that looks only to some heavenly reward, and cares nothing for the troubles of this present world – the world to which Jesus said the kingdom was surely coming.  Faith comes to us as a way to navigate the troubled waters that confront us.  The difference is explored in this morning’s gospel.

What we fail to notice about Jesus is that he too is in the midsts of the mayhem – the storm is no less severe where he is standing.  We imagine that Jesus will ‘fix it for us’, but he doesn’t.  He asks us to join him before it looks safe to do so.

Peter asks Jesus to command him – nothing less than a direct order will get him out of the boat because the situation is unsettled; Peter can’t imagine it ending well.  Likewise, when we wade into any of the current debates on offer in coffee shops or on-line forums, we are right to go cautiously – and to enter into these environments without Jesus is to invite disaster – but we are invited by Jesus to engage these difficult and often dangerous questions.  The light of the world stands steady in the darkness and gives us the courage to speak against the insanity that assaults us from the front pages and the news shows…yet we continue to sink, because our fear continues to master us.

Fear is winning because we have eliminated something crucial to Jesus’ message.  If the sixties era ‘hippie-Christians’ were guilty of ignoring judgement to claim love, there are those in our own time who would go too far in the other direction.  The so-called ‘christian response of those who give assent to the fanatical nationalism that is becoming so common in otherwise ‘civilized countries’ (USA and Canada) profanes the name and cause of Christ.  White supremacists and those who met them in violent opposition in Virginia – each twisting their minds to a different religious rationale – have chosen judgement over love of any kind, and it is fear that throws them together.  We can’t imagine listening in love (or listening at all) because, out of fear, we must not let our minds be changed or our hearts be moved.    The way forward is hurtful and hateful if we forget who (and why) we have been called ‘out of the boat.’

God is at work here – standing in the waves in the person of Jesus – and God will not be fooled, nor will God be faithless.  In Christ, God dares us to imagine something else; something different – something impossible – a storm that cannot overwhelm us; a world that honours love, faith and hope, all three in equal measure.  By his presence in the streets of Charlottesville – speaking peace to those deafened by their fear.   By his presence in the carefully considered conversations around immigration and economics and the global balance of power, Jesus would put our fears to rest – not because the crisis is over, but because his presence, his life, death and resurrection, have changed the terms of engagement.  It means that something new must emerge from the chaos.  You can be sure Peter was never the same after his near drowning, and remember, even his failure did not keep Jesus from trusting Peter with the job of engaging his culture in faith.

So yes, the times are dangerous.  And yes, we are liable to lose our nerve, sinking beneath the waves of worry and fear.  And certainly It is easier to fear than it is to learn; it is easier to sink (then pray for help), than it is to learn to swim, And Jesus shakes his head, wondering why we would continue to doubt. because I think that  Jesus is offering us life, eternal and abundant; gifts for the future and the present.  What could be better in times such as these, with the water already up to our necks, than swimming lessons – on the arm of the one who walks on water!

“Who sinned…?”

March 26, 2017

It’s not about the cure.  Yes, this man “born blind” can now see perfectly well.  And yes, this miracle was produced on the Sabbath – a day to refrain from ordinary work, and to be honest, this “miracle” seems rather ordinary.  Spit and mud and a dip in the pool by the town gate.  No grand words.  God’s name was not shouted loud – there was none of the fuss and bother that is often associated with the miraculous.  Jesus refers (privately?) to the work of God that must be done while the sun shines.  and then Jesus drops out of the story for a while.  This is NOT about the cure.

Neither is it a question of work done on the sabbath – that questions fades quickly enough, though it gives the “authorities” a starting point for their indignation.  This is an episode that asks the question “what does faith look like?”

“Who sinned…that this man was born blind?”  A question of necessity, in those days.  You must know who sinned to know who should offer the sacrifice of atonement – and what that sacrifice might be.  Who sinned, so that we can avoid that person – so as not to be stained by their error, or drawn in to their misery.  Jesus says from the start; it’s not about sin, it’s about the work of God revealed.  Not because God delights in human suffering, but because Jesus is calling people to be aware of the divine possibilities rather than the human limitations that exist in every age, every culture, and every single human.

The argument looks like being about blindness – about “who sinned, and how…”, but the authorities give the game away when the interview with the newly sighted man continues in verse 24.  “Give glory to God.  We know this man is a sinner.”  The miracle has occurred outside their influence – No sacrifice; no proper forms have been observed.  Jesus has challenged the traditional understanding of how (and when, and why) God works, and ‘God’s representatives” are at a loss to explain the result.

When the man offers a logical, reasonable suggestion – “If this man (Jesus) were not from God, he could do nothing.”, the officials excommunicate him.  That is how power reacts to those who challenge power – with rigid and absolute decrees.  With ‘orthodoxy’.  With fear.

We can see this sort of action/reaction happening in our own time.  In government, as parties try to formulate responses to horrible and irrational acts of violence conducted by groups, individuals and even sovereign nations.  Our efforts to ‘define the bad guys’, in an era when bad and good are almost entirely subjective, are fraught with complications.  Are these acts (and their actors) defined by religious sensibilities?  Economic pressures?  Political ideals?  All of the above???  What are the things that can help us identify “Canadian values”?  Can we compel people to think and act as we do?  will that keep us safe?

The short answer is “NO” – because the values we hold include the ability to think and reason and hold different views on multiple subjects.  Safety and unity are complicated things.  Religion does not simplify things (and why would it) – This encounter in John’s gospel confirms that the search for ‘religious truth’ is a constant source of conflict.  The dominant view is not necessarily the correct view.  Religious traditions – Christian, Muslim, Jewish included – can’t even agree within themselves what constitutes “right thinking” – how can we measure behaviour according to a single, unifying religious principle?

Christians aspire to an ideal of unity – we follow Jesus whose every word and act pointed to God.  But even now, centuries after the fact, we are convicted by his suggestion that we may yet be blind where his purpose (and ours) is concerned.  “If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

They who presumed to tell this once blind man that his faith was mis-placed, and his new condition was, essentially, illegitimate – the ‘experts’ who had faith figured out – they are condemned in this encounter.  And we must ask if that condemnation catches us.

Are we so sure – so confident – that God speaks, acts, and responds according to a pattern that only we understand?  Can there be no other insight; no revelation beyond our own tradition, or our own experience?  Is God defined by our weaknesses and our limitations – by our blindness – or is it possible that God has no limits?  A cure where no such cure existed.  An action unlike any other, that brings undeniably miraculous results.  Signs of the presence of the spirit of God where we imagine God should not be present.  Should we be afraid of such things, or should we not rejoice?

I’ll suggest to you that lately our faith has been less concerned with rejoicing in the things of God, and controlled by a certain kind of fear.  A fear that we may have failed.  Fear that the path we’ve chosen, and the traditions we try to honour have lost touch with the world in which we live and serve.  And even during Jesus’ brief earthly ministry, fear and confusion managed to overpower his call to joy.  Joy was only possible when it was clear that the life of faith – a life devoted to the things of God – could endure even the cruelty of the cross, and the darkness of death.  Resurrection is the triumph of joy over despair – resurrection is the ultimate cure for blindness of the type that ails us.  For by raising Jesus, we discover that God cannot be controlled or contained by human limits, human failures, human definitions, or human fears.

Refuse to be drawn into the battle for definitions where God is concerned.  Resist the urge to be fearful when the work of God takes on new forms and comes from new places.  Rejoice in the limitless power of God to act, to heal, and to change us.  And may such an ordinary act of faith free us to see God as Jesus did.

Lech-Lecha (Go for yourself)

March 12, 2017

So Abram is our shining example of righteous faith – according to St Paul.  Abram (soon to be Abraham) stands first for Paul in the list of those who have trusted God.  Interesting that Abram is first because of what he will become in time – an icon of Jewishness; first ancestor of a people destined to wander; a patriarch of patriarchs; THE ONE who answered God’s call without argument, without condition, and without questions…or so we are told in Genesis chapter 12.

This first call (there will be several) comes out of nowhere.  We find it in a part of scripture that serves to give the history of God’s people a very particular context.  Following the safe arrival of Noah and his family, following the “total destruction” that comes as a result of human wickedness, the world must be re-populated, re-oriented and Genesis tells the story of all that.  From one family comes every nation known to ancient scholars – every potential ally and enemy of Israel springs from the sons of Noah.  The genealogy in chapters ten and eleven of Genesis read like a geography text of the ancient world, and Abram walks out of that geography into God’s story with very little to recommend him as a hero.

In the beginning he’s not a hero – he’s not much of anything, really.  For all that Abram hears and “acts” (packing up his family and heading out into the unknown), he is the most passive character in the text.  God points and reveals and proclaims; Abram gathers and travels and observes and accepts.  No challenges (not yet) and no questions (though they will eventually come) and more importantly for us, no doubts at all!

What moves Abram to accept this sacred invitation?

God’s habit (thus far) has been occasional (but very direct) intervention, according to the text.  Abram’s immediate family has no history of visions or visitations, which means there are some obvious questions we might ask of the text.  First -Why did God choose this particular person?  Perhaps the thought of questioning God’s motives seems a little unnerving, so we’ll lay that aside and concentrate on the second question; Why would Abram follow the leading of this divine stranger?

“Now the Lord said to Abram…’go for yourself’…”  The Hebrew – Lech-lecha is emphatic – urgent.  But Hebrew traditions suggests that this is the first time since Noah that God has spoken…so how did Abram know to obey?  It is a common enough jest in our time to suggest that if a person speaks to God, they are praying, but if a person hears God, they must be mad.  That is a modern misunderstanding and too easily dismisses the sort of sacred visionaries that are so common in Scripture, and among indigenous peoples all over the world, even today.

Abram is captured by his curiosity – surrounded as he was by the vast and constantly changing beauty of the earth – the sky – the weather – the changing seasons; Abram’s experience of the universe becomes an encounter with the Holy.  Set against the magnificent backdrop of creation – countless stars and limitless grains of sand – poor Abram was helpless to resist the urge to respond.  The scope of Creation invites him to explore; the call becomes audible and the first moral of the story of our first patriarch is that mere mortals are powerless against the enormous pull of the Creator’s work.  In Abram we find someone for whom God is an obvious, if entirely mysterious, fact of life.

The certainty of Paul in his praise of Abram makes me uneasy; I know that I can’t recreate that level of faithfulness – that level of pure obedience that Abram seems to demonstrate.  I am much more likely to sound like Nicodemus.  “How can these things be?”  He may have been a teacher of Israel, but the world has changed.  God’s people have more experience – greater expectations – there have been disappointments.  When the majesty of Creation is overshadowed by daily activities and national hopes, God’s nature is (perhaps) not so obvious.  When the concerns of the moment replace the reality of God, the simple obedience of Abram gives way to rule-minding and gate-keeping.  I think that Nicodemus comes to Jesus because Jesus reminds him of the mysterious nature of God – something that has always been present.  Nicodemus is starting to hear God through the noise of the rules; the call to order, righteousness and purity that religious traditions so often cling too, is competing in Nicodemus with the call from God.

Jesus will continue to have this effect on the people he meets.  For Nicodemus, Jesus represents a challenge to his system of thought from within – a Jewish thinker and teacher with new ideas, new energy; this was a meeting of like minds, for the most part.  But while debating the law and its interpretation, Jesus manages to keep the focus on the glorious possibilities represented by the God who called Abram.  Bigger than the situation at hand – bigger than the majestic structure of the law – an unmeasurable presence that cannot be explained; that compels curiosity and urges people to reevaluate themselves.

“Very truly I tell you that no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit.”  Jesus continues to answer questions that Nicodemus didn’t ask; sure that he is looking for something more than mere explanation.  Nicodemus has come looking for a mystery – the same mystery Abram sought on his desert odyssey – the mystery each of us yearns for in some part of our selves.  We want assurance that the vast, inexplicable universe has some order to it.  We want to know, whatever happens, that everything will eventually be okay.  We can satisfy ourselves with theories from the sciences, with the archeological record, with religious rules for living that quantify our behaviour and qualify our devotion – but none of these things satisfies the need for mystery; only God can do that.

Not god cast in an image and raised up for our devotion.  Neither god as defined by rules of behaviour and engagement that reveal our prejudice.  Only God – revealed in the breathless wonder that makes the heart beat faster and moves the soul to sing.  Only God – revealed in love that lifts up the powerless and gives sight to the blind.  Only God – whose children are moved to great sacrifice; to abandon kin and country; to defy the status quo; to live lives guided by curiosity, compassion and love.

It took Nicodemus some time to recognize that, in Jesus, he had seen that mystery – discovered God afresh.  Abram’s story suggests that he too took some time to truly appreciate the power that moved him and shaped him.  And we, who imagine ourselves so far removed from such moments of wonder and awe – we too have a chance to look beyond the “rules” of our religion; beyond the strange notion that God speaks only in certain ways and only to certain people.  Lent offers us a chance to reflect on the majesty of God – the deliberate devotion of Jesus – the distractions that keep us from faith.  Not that our faith needs be perfect; only that all faith might find God, faith’s true object.

Prepare

November 27, 2016

All these promises – the hopeful legacies of the prophets; the residue of Mosaic Law; the covenant that led Abraham from his home to meet this singular God under the desert stars – every single promise that comes to us through our heritage in Jesus presents a challenge.  The promise was peace and prosperity to those wearied by war in the time if Isaiah, but history tells us that peace, when it came, was fleeting.  That promise is repeated – through various degrees of exile and outrage.  God’s people are led forward and backward across the fertile crescent of the middle east; they gather in faith, they rebuild in triumph; they resist the lure foreign gods and pagan societies until, you guessed it – someone stronger comes along.  Egypt – Babylon – Persia – Rome; a seeming endless parade of near victories that result in a sub-culture within the Jewish nation of Jesus’ time of those who have learned to ‘go along to get along’; and so it is within any conquered culture.

The faithful cling to the promises, of course – that’s what it means to be faithful.  The rituals and the forms of religious life need to be obeyed if there is any hope of seeing the hope of God delivered, and so religion flourishes under oppressive regimes – for modern equivalents, think of south and central America, Communist China – countless places in Africa – so it was in Jesus day.  The promises of God become a powerful force in the hands and minds of those who believe.  Some are militant; some are gently persuasive – all are convinced that the misery of the people is a sign that there will soon be a change in the order of things; that God will come to the rescue.

Under Roman occupation – held as a strategic outpost on the edge of a vast empire – Palestine was not worthy of the best Roman culture had to offer.  The oppression of the most hopeful strains of the Jewish religion – the branch of thinking that longed for a renewed, restored kingdom under God – caused a renaissance of it.  Strong voices; charismatic personalities; with messages that ranged from invitation to openly hostile to the ruling Romans and their local helpers.  There were others, of that we can be sure, but the two most significant examples were John the baptizer, and Jesus of Nazareth.   John the Baptist paid for his ‘radical preaching’ – repent and prepare always sounds like an accusation to those exploiting a nation – with his head.  Jesus had taken up where John left off.

Jesus spoke like a revivalist; he hinted at a ‘new Kingdom”; he described this kingdom as clearly opposed to the rule of Rome – a kingdom of justice and peace.  He urges his followers to live differently – to behave differently – and differences get noticed in situation like this.  Oppressive governments prefer compliance and uniformity.  Questions are discouraged; options are limited; and people who talk like Jesus talked are considered dangerous.

In Matthew’s gospel – chapter 24 – it’s already too late for Jesus.  He’s been noticed.  The plan to have him arrested is taking shape; the powers that be cannot ignore the crowds who gather, nor the kinds of questions they ask.  “Tell us when this will be?  What will be the sign that this new age is about to begin?”

The listening crowds, and even some of Jesus’ closest friends, are eager for a change – rebellion is what they imagine, and the language of chapter 24 confirms it, but Jesus is not counselling rebellion, nor does he consider the overthrow of a sitting government to be a desirable thing.

The Son of Man is coming, he says – at an unknown time, without any real warning – coming when you least expect.  The Son of Man will make sisters and brothers of all of us – he will be the singular point of all our relations, and under his dominion, God will recognize all of us as children – but the timing is not to be known.  This is the one promise that holds all other divine promises in reserve – the universal mystery that has baffled every generation of those who would call on God in their distress.  “But about that day and hour, no one knows…”

We don’t like the unknown.  We prefer solid information and rational explanations.  We tie things to the clock and calendar so that we can be prepared – so our ‘ducks are all in a row’…yet even today, as the calendar of the church tells us we are in a brand new season – and the calendar of the culture reminds us that the year is drawing to a close, there is plenty of mystery left for us.  Advent it our opportunity to explore that mystery – to get acquainted with the art of ‘not knowing’.  For the promises of God – the promise of peace; of a new and glorious age of justice and mercy; the promise of the end of suffering and the triumph of God’s grace – all these still wait to be fulfilled for us.

They are coming, that is certain; and the birth of Jesus is to us the signal that the reign of God has already begun to touch the earth with beauty and glory…but there is so much yet to be revealed.  And that is what Advent is for.

During these seasons of preparation, we are drawn deeper into the search for the signs of God at work.  We are urged to look through the fog of war for any glimmer of hope.  We are reminded that the best God has to offer was placed in the midst of the poverty, oppression, violence and cruelty of Roman occupied Palestine.  We are promised that the work of God is a continuous, creative mystery which will catch us unaware and draw us closer to grace, if we are ready – if we will let it.  And being ready doesn’t mean knowing everything; being ready means being aware that God works in mysterious ways – that God comes in the fragile form of an infant boy; that God comes close in quiet comfort when things are at their most chaotic and confusing.

True, the calendar can tell us that Advent has begun, and that Christmas is coming – but only our hearts, open to wonder and ready for anything, will recognize the nearness of God – the advent of the kingdom of peace – the promise of God made good in our lives.

Be ready – the promise is coming.  The time is near.

Justice

October 16, 2016

What does justice look like?  Some would answer “fairness” – others “equality”; still others will tell you that justice is blind, and by that they mean, not always fair, or equal.  If you listen to some conversations about justice, you might come to the conclusion that justice means (for certain individuals, organizations or nations) “getting what I want”…real justice is all of those things AND none of those thing.

A parable: A judge who fears neither God nor had any respect for people meets a widow demanding justice, and the stage is set for a mammoth battle of wills.  The widow is persistent, perhaps she is entitled, but the evidence is scarce; the judge is stubborn – haughty, even – yet his word has the effect of law.

As the story goes, the widow prevails because of her persistence.  She wears down this fearless, egotistical manipulator of the justice.  The problem is, his ruling in the widow’s favour is a miscarriage of justice, even as justice was understood in the day.

Listen to what the unjust judge says:

“Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, because this woman is bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by coming continually to me.”

And we make the mistake of equating God’s justice with the pattern revealed in this parable.

We know a little bit about injustice – we share stories / anecdotes about “the way the system works” – and so we approach justice of all kinds with a siege mentality.  Persistence pays.  The plaintiff is warned that time and patience will be rewarded, but the problem with patient persistence is that justice is not always served by such an approach – the playing field becomes tilted towards the loud, the powerful, and the persistent, and occasionally we are directed to this ‘biblical example’ – but Jesus parable is, according to Luke, about the need to pray and NOT LOSE HEART…something is missing between our hearing and our application of this lesson.

This lesson in persistence comes at a critical point in Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus is answering questions about the coming Kingdom – people are frightened and eager for the oppression of the present to be replaced by God’s kingdom of justice and peace.  And without revealing anything about a timeline, Jesus counsels patience, warns of suffering still to be endured, and then suggests that the kingdom will come swiftly, without fanfare.  Those who point to the signs of its coming are trying to deceive you (Luke 17: 23).  When justice comes – when the kingdom comes – the speed of God’s acting will be instant; that’s how God is…

So this suggestion that we must be persistent in prayer, and ever hopeful in our anticipation of the promised reign of God is an indictment of our attitudes; our calculating approach to justice, and all things of value, is called into question by this parable.

In our culture, persistence is usually valued.  We are often encouraged to solve our problems and satisfy our needs by simply “sticking with it” – when given the choice between “good things come to those who wait”, and “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”, it turns out we prefer grease to delayed gratification.

This appears to be the case in so many popular protest movements – all operating in a manner designed to overwhelm the target group, and bring about the desired change…as quickly as possible.  This may be an effective management/marketing strategy, but it rarely results in justice.  In many cases – as in our example from the gospel – the rights (so called) of the persistent are exchanged for the rights of the passive; the result is still out of balance.

We are guilty of imagining this imbalance in God’s justice, and so we rail at God for our case to be heard, and conclude that we are not nearly persistent enough when our prayers are not granted.  We make bargains with God, and are surprised when that strategy fails to bring us what we want.  We imagine that God can be ‘worn down’ by our efforts – that a marathon of petitioning prayer will somehow, suddenly undo centuries of our persistent inhumanity, and when it doesn’t, we accuse God of indifference or (worse), injustice.  When we use this particular parable as an excuse for our approach, we fall short of the mark – we do injustice to the Gospel.

Jesus parable is a parable of “negative comparison”.  The “unjust judge” does one thing, but God will surely grant justice to those who seek it – and, indeed justice is always part of God’s operational plan.  Divine justice is not in the satisfying humiliation of a particular enemy, but found in the love and compassion that is inherent in the way Jesus calls us to treat one another.  God’s justice is not satisfied by our grudging assent to a list of “thou shalt not” conditions but it blossoms when the commandments are observed out of love for God, neighbour and ourselves.

We need be persistent, not because God will grow weary of listening, and grant justice for God’s own convenience…rather, our persistence should come from our desire to seek God in all things.  God’s preference is to grant justice, and justice will quickly come – our persistence is easily outdistanced by the speed of God’s acting.

Our persistence should be a function of faith – we desire God’s mercy/justice because we believe in it!  The widow wants only to overwhelm the wicked judge, not for the sake of justice, but because it could be ‘negotiated’.  God’s attitudes toward justice are more gracious; more generous by far, and Jesus – in every circumstance – points us to those gracious features in the character of God.  Unlike that wicked judge, God requires neither manipulation, nor persuasion.   God is revealed by Jesus to be ready to serve – ready to usher in justice and do mercy – where ever faith may be found.

Faith

October 2, 2016

Since humans began to measure things – once we learned to count and realized that there was a strategic difference between ‘more’ and ‘less’ – since that fateful day, we’ve decided that more is better.  That decision has led to plenty of heartache; conflict driven by greed continues to cripple us even in the twenty-first century.  But who wouldn’t want more of a good thing?  This is the argument we use to explain away our behaviour – and of course, when it comes to love, compassion, mercy and ice cream, there’s no such thing as too much.(well, maybe there is a limit on ice cream…)

That is why Jesus reaction startles us this morning.  “Lord, increase our faith”, is the cry – and isn’t faith a good thing?  Shouldn’t that be the sort of thing we ought to be eager to have in abundance?  The conversation in Luke 17 has centred on forgiveness.  To whom and how often is forgiveness extended, are the questions, and the answers are challenging; to all who repent – as often as they ask.  This news seems to prompt the disciples’ plea for more.

They might have asked for more patience, or more compassion – qualities that seem to be helpful when dealing with repentance and forgiveness – instead they ask for the one thing they don’t need more of – for more faith – and Jesus frustration is evident.

Faith is not like other human activities – something that can be generated or measured by our actions – compassion, mercy, love (and their opposites – indifference, ignorance and selfishness) are recognizable as human qualities with human consequences.  Faith is (according to the apostle Paul) a spiritual gift – a gift of God.  Where faith is concerned, while there are recognizable qualities and consequences where faith is present – they are certainly not of our making.

“Faith can move mountains” – or so we are fond of saying, and according to Jesus, the smallest measure of faith can accomplish the impossible (trees uprooted and relocated, for example).  Why do you think that is so?  Is it possible that faith, as a gift of God, is something of God’s own glory and power, offered directly to us?  Just as with God there is no ‘more’ or ‘less’, there is just God, so it is with faith.  Jesus is not questioning the disciples’ faith, he is aligning their vision towards God, the source of faith.

The master defines the relationship with his slaves – the master has all the power, the slaves accomplish their work enabled by that power.  It’s a crude metaphor to our ears, as we are eager to imagine that such inequity in relationships is beneath us (or behind us) but the imagery serves a purpose here.  God is the power behind the gift (of faith) – for the faithful to do “only what we ought to have done” is to act in the power of that gift; the power of God.  There is no need to talk in terms of less or more; there is only faith, as there is only God, and that is enough.

So we might want more religion – or more who believe as we do; we could do with more worship and more grace.  Some will argue that the world needs more churches, and those churches need more people.  We can (and we will) continue to measure and analyze our acts of faith, but let us never imagine that faith is like a commodity to be gathered and grown and traded and claimed as a prize.  Faith is that gift of God that offers us access to the power and glory of God, There will always be enough, so long as we recognize, acknowledge and celebrate the author and source of the gift.

It is a gift that has achieved the impossible – more spectacular than mountains moved or trees replanted in the sea.  This gift of faith has given us life – new life – eternal life – snatched from the jaws of death.  That is the test of it for all who follow Jesus – that faith has conquered death completely.  No comparisons required; no difference between ‘more’ or ‘less’.  The gift is given; may God be praised.

Lost

September 11, 2016

Loss is a constant feature of life on this planet – or so it seems.  We lose battles and games; we lose stuff, we lose our way.  We talk of lost love, lost innocence, lost enthusiasm and lost purpose.  We fear the loss of life and lost relationships, and religion has been vital to us (as humans – over history) in our efforts to make sense of it all.

Ancient Hebrew stories of redemption – liberation from bondage in Egypt, or restoration from exile in Persia – these are ‘lost and found’ stories on a large scale.  John Newton, author of the words to ‘amazing Grace’, personalizes the lost and found motif from a Christian perspective, and that is how we think of our faith journey most often; as a personal revelation of our ‘lost-ness’ blossoming into being ‘found’ in Christ – a powerful metaphor for salvation.  Good news, to be sure  – but what if there’s more to be learned?

Jesus makes it personal with these two short parables in Luke 15.  We know what it is to lose something of value – the ache of losing can be replaced by the joy of finding – but when Jesus offers his theological tagline: “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents…” – he takes this parable into new territory for us.  If Jesus is talking to the “found”, then the parable isn’t personal any longer; he has stopped talking about us.  We are instead being asked to consider those who are outside the fold, who are (it seems) equally precious in God’s eyes.

And so, this parable is a useful model for mission; and ‘seek the lost’ becomes “the world for Christ” and the word is taught and preached in all corners of the globe, in cities and towns and villages with great faithfulness and that is the way it should be.  But loss continues to be a feature of life on this planet – our religious fervour notwithstanding – and I wonder what this metaphor says to those who lose but never find.

Because that happens doesn’t it.  Each of us knows someone who has lost a spouse, or parent or friend as a result of their death.  Many of us have  experience with those whose sense of self seems to be slipping away because of dementia.  In tough economic times, many face the loss of work, which results in lost confidence – and there are days when the restoration of those things seems so far into the future that we can only despair; we know those, and sometimes we are those, who know only loss.

Where is the good news for us in this metaphor?

Being urged to persistence in the search is no help.  Neither is being invited to the party when someone else has been successful – these only underline our sense of having failed.  And when our losses cannot be recovered -when death or degenerative diseases are the cause – there’s nothing to search for but memories, and they are hard to find and harder still to hold.

Today’s memorial moments are the exception, I suppose – but the events of 11 September, 2001 serve to prove my point.  In addition to the loss of life, North Americans lost a sense of privilege that day.  We had been blessedly insulated from such large scale acts of barbarism – acts of war usually involved the people and property in Europe, Africa and Asia – we were actors on someone else’s stage.  And since that day, fifteen years ago, the powers that be have claimed to be searching for something – revenge; security; a return to ‘what was’ – and it simply can’t be found.  So I ask again; where is the good news?

Jesus theological reflection – repeated for emphasis – holds the clue.  Yes, he speaks of joy in the repentance of one who is lost, but consider what that says about the attitude of God.  Because we count ourselves among the ‘found’ – because we call on the name of God, and make much of God who is in our midst as we worship and work – we are inclined to forget that God is not ‘one-dimensional’  God may be gathered with us as we celebrate our redemption, but God also waits with those who are waiting for a word of hope.   The good news for all who wander lost, is that they do not wander alone; the good news for all who suffer loss, is that we never search alone. We need not endure the pain of loss alone, for if God stands ready to rejoice in the finding, surely that means God has been present in the searching.  Yes, there is redemption in finding and being found; yes, there is joy in repentance and recovery of that which is precious.  But what I am learning – and what Jesus words here suggest – is that the act of losing; the struggle to make sense of death, disease or the stunning state of world affairs – all these things can be redeemed when we recognize that God is with us; anxious for us – sharing our tears – bringing an unquenchable light into the darkest corners of our lives.  That light doesn’t right all the wrongs, nor can it turn back the clock on our pain, but it serves as a reminder.

For God too has suffered loss.  The work once described as ‘very good’ has taken innumerable twists and turns – and the purpose of faith – the mission of the church -what one writer (Marcus Borg) calls “the dream of God” – is the redemption of all that is lost.  And that dream of God has come to us in Jesus, who was a friend to those who were lost – people who had no hope, no influence, no dream of their own – and to those (and to us) he offers a chance to find something new.  New life; fresh hope; a glimmer of light – a memory redeemed.  Thanks be to God, this is what the gospel of Christ offers, not just to those who find, but to all who search.

Expectations

August 14, 2016

Expectations are funny things.

It is my expectation, every time I get behind the wheel of a car, that everyone else on the road will be following the same set of rules – speed limits, directional signs, no parking, and so on.  Expectations like these are met more often than not, because they can be enforced; fail in these expectations, and you’re apt to get a ticket.

There is another type of expectation; unenforceable, but emotionally powerful.  Every time the world’s athletes gather for an Olympic games, we heap expectations on those who ‘represent us’ in competition; and hearts are broken – surprises emerge – and over and over again, coaches, officials, and countless ‘on-screen experts’ ask us to consider the power and problem of expectations.

For true fans of any sport, the expectation is victory; for glory, for national pride; for the sheer joy of the celebrations, many of us have high expectations.  The athletes expect much of themselves too, which is what makes the games exciting.  And their hope that all will play by the rules – that the only difference between them will be the intensity of their training and the depth of their desire – has many of them searching for a spiritual edge, either from personal devotion or general superstition.  Religion is not a banned substance, and expectations are funny things.

Jesus help is often sought in sport, especially when the stakes are high.  Athlete’s bless themselves before and after their events – the Fijian Rugby team celebrated their gold medal by singing (in harmony) a praise song – there is often intense religious sentiment among elite competitors, and having endured a fairly regular diet of this since the games began, I wonder if this morning’s gospel might be slightly adapted…

“Do you think that I have come to bring you victory…?”  This might be stretching the point a bit, but it has me wondering if Jesus lives up to our expectations.  In Luke’s telling, the answer would be a resounding NO.

“I come to bring fire to the earth…”

– what’s that Jesus?

“I wish it were kindled…” –

hang on, Jesus, what about the peaceable kingdom –

the nation restored in glory…

“Do you think that I have come to bring Peace to the earth?” –

well, yes – yes we did.

“Not peace , but division!”  Not victory, but challenge.  Not ease or prosperity, but empathy and compassion.  Our expectations of Jesus take a serious hit when we read and consider passages like this.  Gone are our memories of the Christ child – the Prince of Peace shouldn’t talk like this, should he?

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Jesus found himself among a people with soaring expectations.  They longed for liberation from the Romans; for the restoration of the monarchy and their national pride.  Some expected Jesus himself to lead the revolution; so when Jesus talks of a fire to be kindled, and a Baptism for which he is impatient, it would be easy to imagine that he has accepted the mantle of revolutionary – that the warrior king had finally come.  But the peace that the people hunger for is not the absence of war, but the humiliation of their enemies; eye for an eye diplomacy.

Jesus scolds the people for not being able to ‘read the signs’ – is it possible that he recognizes that Rome will not be conquered my internal rebellion?  Their expectations of success are delusions; the empire is too powerful.  Division is the result of Jesus insistence on a different kind of peace – a peace that ‘loves your enemies and prays for those who persecute you…”

Some who hear this passage would speak of sacrifices that must be made for faith; families torn apart over the choice to follow in the way of Jesus.  Some would consider this kind of sacrifice – the division of families – as the cross that must be borne in order to call yourself a Christian.  Now I happen to believe that God does not ask us to choose between faith and family, but God regularly challenge the expectations that we hold out for our faith – and that is how I hear Jesus words this morning.

Surrounded by sayings that call us to trust God; challenged by passages that encourage the faithful to be well prepared, because God operates without regard to our schedules – our expectations; this talk of division is prediction rather than requirement.  Jesus knows our every weakness, says the old hymn – he knows that our expectations can be the ruin of us – setting us up for disappointment and disaster; so those who read the signs differently – the three who see retribution coming by God’s hand – will certainly be at odds with the two who imagine that God comes in mercy rather than vengeance.  In his own time the people were divided about what Jesus’ teaching meant for the future of God’s people – the poor were set against the powerful; the righteous against the sinner – each side sure that they had found ‘the truth’ – no wonder Jesus was impatient; no wonder we have such trouble getting to the root of the gospel message.  No wonder the church is constantly trying to ‘re-invent’ itself; our expectations are killing us.

“You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky,” says Jesus, “but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”  These words challenge our expectations of faith.  The changing times require an almost constant re-evaluation of Jesus words and actions so we might apply them to life in the 21st Century.  The trust that faith brings – trust that says “it will be alright in the end’ – is a wonderful comfort, but faith also invites us to agonize over the choices that are part of our every waking moment.  Faith comes with responsibility; salvation is not the gold medal at the end of the game, but discovered day by day; moment by moment.  Jesus promise of eternal peace is secured by God’s raising him from death, but the grand prize is the ‘peace that passes understanding’ – a peace that comes when our goal is not conquest but compassion; not vengeance but justice; not prosperity but joy.  These things are ours in Christ, if only we would alter our focus – consider our expectations.  Amen.

Presence

August 7, 2016

That God is concerned for us – that God may be invested in our future joy, or in establishing a legacy of faith through us  may seem hard to imagine, but our traditions, and the stories of our faith, tell us this is so.  From the very beginning of our Scriptures, through the gospels and the epistles, the message is clear.  God has taken an interest in humanity.  God wants us to claim hope and joy in these covenant promises, made not only to Abram, but through Jesus – Crucified and Risen.  Scripture is about God’s pursuit of us and also God’s urging us to take action rooted in faith.

The stories of this urging – the examples from Scripture that are most compelling – all have similar features.  And Abram – soon to be ‘renamed’ Abraham – features in more than his share of these encounters with God.

It is interesting to consider these encounters; especially in a generation whose image of God has been seriously challenged.  From a position of privilege; in an age of knowledge; the notion of God  /  our “need” of God seems to be easily pushed aside.  God seems further from us, though the only thing that ever changes is our attitude towards God.  God has made a habit of covenant – of reaching out, and making plans; of calling and comforting; God is committed to ‘being there’ for us, and that will never change.

This episode of Abram’s ‘deal-making’ with God, serves as a reminder to Abram (and all of us) that God will stand by God’s promise.  Abram has left his home,  and made his way – first to Egypt, and then on to the Negeb.  Abram even has some initial success overcoming the inhabitants of the land that God has promised to him.  Abram is praised by the famous Malchizedek, who offers him riches and glory.  Abram politely declines.  (Gen 14: 13-24).  And at what appears to be a turning point – a place of choosing – God appears and restates the promise; reaffirms the covenant.  “Your descendants shall be numerous …” says God after a significant and heart felt discussion…there follows a vision (slightly terrifying) in which God assures Abram that this grand venture will succeed.

 But the key to this, and every encounter, is the nearness of God – the presence of God – the voice, the action, the unmistakable reality of God.

There can be no covenant without presence – promises require multiple voices; one who offers and one who will receive.  And there is no covenant that does not require action; God is constantly calling us to prepare (Noah); to move, to trust, to believe (Abram, Joseph, Moses).  And none of this matters unless the people being called are convinced that this is more than just a dream.  “And [Abram] believed, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” – this famous conclusion is repeated as a mantra in Hebrews, chapter eleven – that great hymn to faithfulness which outlines a long history of human assurance of the Divine reality.  The faith that Abram finds is faith generated by the presence of God.  The righteousness credited to him is another way to describe Abram’s confidence that God is committed to this enterprise.  We look on these encounters with awe – as we should – but imagine that their time has come and gone.  In that, we are mistaken

God constantly offers these moments of ‘covenant renewal’; God’s presence runs through the whole history of the people of Israel – either as a sustaining presence, honoured by temple worship, or as the presence leading the people into exile (see Ezekiel).  God’s presence was unmistakable in the life and work of Jesus.  Jesus sought to remind everyone that theirs was no distant, brooding figure.  God treasures God’s children, wanting to give good things – “The Kingdom”, in fact – to all who identify as children of God.  This is the family promised to Abram – large and diverse – more numerous than the stars; and that promise is still valid, thanks to the consistently persistent presence of God.

And that presence – that covenant – God’s promise and call remain vital and valid for us.  While we have become suspicious of visions, and sceptical of those claiming to hear the voice of God, God’s presence has not deserted the people.  The promise is restated in worship and ritual; acted out especially in our sacraments, which are first and foremost, reminders of PRESENCE; water on foreheads; bread in the hand, wine on the tongue – there is no denying the reality of these things, and in them we are invited to discover God – standing with us; leading us; comforting and healing us.  Making us fit for the journey of faith, and assuring us that not even one step of that journey is taken in solitude.

God is here – with us.   This is a statement of faith that comes from a deep heritage, running back to the recorded beginnings of those who would call themselves children of God.  It was true for Abram – it was true in Jesus – it remains our true and shining hope.  Amen

 

Love…that is all

July 31, 2016

Hosea is a book of wild extremes.  As a prophet of the most High God, Hosea, son of Beeri, receives a message from God that is both redemptive and, for the prophet, personally alarming.  “Go, take a wanton [woman] for your wife, and get children of her wantonness;” (Hosea 1: 2 New English Bible)  Wow.

So God calls and Hosea answers – and in faithfulness to the call of God, Hosea and his wife (Gomer) name their daughters Lo-ruhamah (which means not loved), and Loammi (which means not my people)…and their son, they call Jezreel – God-sows.  The complicated message is carried throughout the book which bears his name; Hosea and his family (two families, actually, but that’s another story…) serve as living examples of the state of the relationship between the two kingdoms and the Most High God.

Israel and Judah have enjoyed a brief historical renaissance – life is good in the two kingdoms – and as a result, the people have turned from their first love.  God has become secondary to national pride.  The metaphors used by the prophet are adultery and  prostitution.  The first ten chapters outline God’s case against the people; they have trusted in their own might – they have offered their worship to foreign gods.  Their devotion to the One who redeemed them from slavery has faltered.   But what is also at work throughout the prophetic poetry of Hosea is the undeniable love that God maintains for this wayward, stubborn, complicated people.

It can be hard to imagine, in any generation, that God could love us at all. We have just finished a six-week study that concentrated on a single verse of Scripture, John chapter 3, verse 16.  We spent six weeks wondering what it meant that “God so loved the world…” – during a time in history that has seen fear ‘trump’ love in almost every imaginable way; mass shootings, the horror in Nice, France, a priest killed as he said Mass – not to mention the political shenanigans south of the border; look where you will, love seems in short supply, and yet…

“When Israel was a child, I loved him…but the more I called, the further they ran from me.” So begins the eleventh chapter of Hosea.  God has called the prophet to act out the nation’s unfaithfulness – the shameful, ugly, all-to-human pattern of national pride is on display in Hosea’s personal relationships and in the names of his children.  God’s prophet has brought to light behaviours and attitudes best left in the shadows, and still God cannot ‘un-love’ the people.

If you read carelessly – if you imagine that God acts according to some binary sense of right and wrong – and if you imagine that the poet/prophet possessed an absolute sense of God’s “right” and our “wrong”, then you will hear in most prophetic works what sounds like the “promise” of wrath.  It is easy to hear “…They shall return to Egypt…The sword rages in their cities” – as God promise of revenge, but it is more likely a prediction, based on experience.  The Lord knows (as does the prophet) that Israel’s past pride has led to a kind of lawlessness.  History reminds us that when humanity claims salvation by our own hand, and when we seek prosperity for the sake of prosperity, trouble is soon to follow.

Massive egos are revealed; political processes are left behind; ’might makes right’ becomes the compelling slogan; and the resulting ‘competition’, to be right or to exercise power brings with it horrible consequences, especially for those without power, or those who are labelled “wrong”.

The failure of society to acknowledge it’s inherent brokenness – the inability of the human race to consider that there are things at work in Creation that defy our understanding or control – these are components of what the church calls ‘SIN’; these are the failures that lead to destruction, not because God wills it – not because God is vengeful – but because God (and God’s prophets) have a sense of history that eludes the majority of us.  SIN may well be the thing that consumes our interest and drives much of our thinking about God, but SIN is not God’s main preoccupation – not now; not then; not ever.

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, Israel?”  This is not the plea of One who is bent on retribution, or obsessed with obedience.  The word of God here addresses a people whose failures are beyond counting – and they (we) are addressed, not in anger or with an ultimatum, but in an attitude of desperate devotion – of true love.

It is tempting to take the easy way out – the way of proud, pious certainty – and declare that God wants’ righteousness first, so we must be obedient, flawlessly faithful; endlessly observant to the multitude of ‘conditions’ that spring up as a result of our fallen condition.  The history of church-led persecution – campaigns against those condemned as heretics; crusades against Muslims; witch trials; the oppression of women; support of slavery; residential schools; vilification of the LGBTQ community – ours is a history fed by the desire to satisfy a flawed understanding of God’s righteousness.  Each of these efforts has drawn the church into questionable, and decidedly un-Christian behaviour.  And every time, in every generation, God’s heart-felt cry through the prophet Hosea breaks through the noise of our efforts to excuse or explain ourselves.  The deep devotion of God – God’s endless, boundless love – has been our salvation.

Life is complicated; a life of faith, even more so.  Jesus seems to set a pretty high standard for us, but God is not looking for perfection – God, it seems, is always ready to love us.  No matter that we turn our backs; even when, in Jesus’ case, we would kill the messenger of love, God continues to love us.  That remains our hope in hopeless times.  That love continues to be our true salvation.  Thanks be to God.  Amen