Posts Tagged ‘future’

Faithful witness

October 31, 2015

What does it mean to “love God and glorify God forever”?  To attend worship services and become ‘involved’ with the life of a congregation is only part of the challenge.  Yes, worship and Christian service in the world are made possible (and “easier”) if we are working together toward a common goal or purpose, but as we know, gathering together is easier if you have a building; and buildings are expensive to maintain; and money is increasingly hard to come by when the number of givers (or their economic circumstances) change.  In these times, it doesn’t take long before our energy is directed to worries about maintenance, and finances and the search for “willing workers” becomes a quest for “warm bodies” – and the church becomes just another organization with its hand out, rather than a place where people can be encouraged and nourished and discover the gift of God’s love in Jesus.

If you don’t believe me, ask yourself when was the last time you talked to someone about something that excites you; chances are it was the Blue Jays, or the recent election.  Do any of us get excited about what we do together as the people of God?  Do we brag up the soup lunch (sometimes), or cradle roll (we should)… or do we rave about how a worship service challenged or changed us…?  I didn’t think so.

It’s not that we’re not faithful – and I’m not doubting that your lives have been affected by your encounter with God and your faith in the Risen Christ.  Your willingness to return to this sanctuary, week after week – year in and year out – tells me that there is something here that you need – something that feeds you – something that you cannot resist.  I know that it isn’t me – I hope that it’s not me – because it is my task to point you to the source of all joy; The hope is that we might all encounter the majesty of God in Christ – and I pray that such an encounter changes each of us.  Because the church that we say we want – a church brimming with life and love and the activity of the faithful – is only possible because of what others see in us (or hear from us).

The witness of the faithful in every season can have enormous consequences in the community of the curious; and we are surrounded by curious people who have little or no understanding of the church except that the church is always raising money for something.  What might those consequences be?  Let us consider our Scripture lessons from a moment ago

First, there is Jesus’ encounter with a scribe of the law (Mk 12: 38-44)  The scribe ‘tests’ Jesus understanding of the law of Moses: “What commandment is the greatest?”, he asks, and Jesus offers good, solid orthodox teaching.  The scribe praises the teacher and affirms his statement – a solid case of one persons witness affecting another part of the community.  They have discovered a point of unity between them.  But when Jesus returns praise to the scribe, who repeats Jesus answer and expands on it slightly, Jesus’ praise goes beyond mere back-slapping.  “You are not far from the Kingdom of God…” he says.  What a witness – what generous praise – what a way to open the door to a stranger!  The further results of this conversation are not recorded – but can you imagine; two potential adversaries (the scribes were always nervous of “new” teachers and their potential for upsetting the faith community) discover that they are allies!  the community is strengthened; the call to consider these two (equally) great commandments can now be shared by what were two formerly separate communities of the Jewish faith – bound together by a desire to love God and neighbour.

And in case you are still sceptical – after all, it’s easy to talk about faith with other people of the same faith (Jesus and the scribe are both Jewish, after all…) – consider the story of Naomi and her daughter in law Ruth.

A woman of faith – Naomi – far from home and in desperate need following the death of her husband and both of her sons – Naomi is still living what I will call a ‘life of attractive faith’.  Her daughter’s-in-law are doing their best to stand by her in her distress.  Ruth is so taken by the example set by Naomi that she renounces her home, her family and the religion of her childhood to accompany Naomi back to Bethlehem.  Naomi’s must have been a powerful witness for God even in deep distress and misfortune, for Ruth’s life to be so radically changed. “Your people will be my people; your God will be my God.”  There is no evidence that Naomi compelled her son’s wives to follow in the family religion – there was something about the way Naomi faced her troubles that helped Ruth choose such a risky path.

The church today faces a risky path forward, and it is hard not to lose our way in despair.  But the beauty of the Christian faithis that risk and struggle should not be offered as excuses for failure – indeed, it is in our struggles that our faith should be MOST EVIDENT!  The church is not struggling because of the culture – and the ‘death of Christian culture” should hold no fear for us.

We are disciples of the risen Christ – we believe that death is not to be feared – furthermore, our faith insists that death is a necessary step on the journey toward life abundant; life in the Kingdom of God.  Physical death is only one way to achieve the promised gift of God – but Jesus teaches that the death of certain ideas also propel us toward the Kingdom; and so Jesus praises an approach to the law that focuses on God’s love and our emulation of that love – and Ruth follows her faith-filled mother-in-law into foreign territory; and throws herself on the mercy of a man who follows the principles of love laid down in the law; and we can take a lesson from these Scriptural examples.

Instead of striving for survival at any cost, or wringing our hands in despair at the signs of decline in our churches, perhaps we should embrace the death of things that do not satisfy, do not glorify, and do not nurture faith in our risen Saviour.

That sounds like a terrifying thing as I write it – (I’m not sure I’ll have the courage to say it out loud) – but the truth of the matter is that faith is an eternal gift (not to mention a sign of God’s presence) and the community of faith is a large, unwieldy and fluid thing, but the idea of “church” as a stable, permanent, constant fixture in the culture is dead, dead, dead.

If that troubles you, it shouldn’t, because the signs of that death have been with us for years.  And the death of “Christendom” (the cultural prerogative of Christian people to make the rules and set the standards) is, for many people, something to celebrate.  A culture that neither understands Christianity nor defers to it, is a place that frees people of faith to start from scratch – to tell people about Jesus (rather than explain what WE are all about as ‘the church’…) – and I think that is a thrilling place to be.

It has always been hard to “be the people of God”, no matter what we tell ourselves. But in those times when the challenges seem most severe, we are given ample opportunity to express that faith – to acknowledge that not even human indifference can (destroy) the Church of Christ.  For Christ’s church is not the work of human hands; it is a work of the love and majesty of God. Thanks be to God, we are not responsible for the survival of this venerable institution. The “future of the church” is entirely in God’s safekeeping.   The challenge that we CAN accept is to share the good news; to tell the story. The future of our faithful witness rests in our willingness to be challenged and changed by the truth of Christ’s victory over death.

Rule maker, or rule breaker? Why not both.

June 27, 2015

My questions of the Gospel this morning – after a week of history-making, heart-breaking, mind-altering news from south of the border – concern the church of Christ and our relationship with controversial rules.  Events in the USA this week – from the grace-filled response of those most deeply affected by the Charleston shooting, to the decision of the Supreme Court making same-sex marriage possible in every state – have covered a wide range of uncomfortable topics: racism, sexism, oppression, (etc).  Many of these barriers were enshrined in our culture by the attitudes of well-meaning Christian leaders.  We (because this is our heritage) knew what was best; we made the rules because we were only following the rules that God had laid down (that was our defence).  As culture changes and grows, influenced by new discoveries and fresh understanding, our expressions of faith have also changed – and Jesus, rather than freeze faith and practice into a single, unalterable model, demonstrates that, even in his time, change is not only possible but necessary (and desirable…).  For example;

Jairus was leader of the local Synagogue; as a man of privilege and power; a man whose wisdom and knowledge of religious tradition and practice was essential to the spiritual health of the community, he comes to see Jesus.  This might have been a natural curiosity – or it could have been a pre-emptive visit, to establish his rights as the Spiritual power in the neighbourhood – but it becomes something else.  In a heart-breaking display of grief and need, this faithful, powerful person throws himself at Jesus’ feet and begs for his help.

In many ways, that’s the whole story – the biggest news of the day.  What happens after that is no more that we’ve come to expect in the presence of Jesus; people are healed; restored to wholeness and abundant life.  But the gospel is always multi-layered, and there is much to learn from Jesus response to Jairus’ humility.  This moment in Mark’s Gospel shows us the changing landscape around religious orthodoxy and cultural norms.

Here at the beginning of Christian history we are reminded that our interpretation of the ‘will of God’ is never complete; never perfect.

In two separate incidents, Jesus demonstrates his penchant for controversy and his disdain for those things that his community had declared ‘stigma’.  A dying child; a woman with a flow of blood.  Each of these accounted as ‘lost causes’ – less than people – religiously unclean.  And in each case, Jesus responds; to a cry from the heart (in Jairus’ case) to a desperate act of faith (in the case of the nameless woman).  Jesus embraces the (so called) stigma, upending the rules that created the stigma.  In the place of grief and shame; death and disease, Jesus touch brings wholeness, peace; assurance, and joy.

In the end it is physical contact that makes the miracle – touching what was untouchable – but it is  just as important to note that Jesus does not hesitate to go where his tradition & religion said “do not go!”  Jesus touches those who are out of bounds.  His (apparently) alarmed response to being touched – to the power going out from him – has more to do with his desire to acknowledge this woman – to lift her from her isolation and anonymity.  The constant refrain in Mark’s gospel to “tell no one” does not keep Jesus from dealing with individuals, face to face, over and over again in an effort to draw them into the family of God, one small group at a time.

We have our own experience with these sorts of changes in Canada – never with the same spectacular coverage as our American cousins – in areas of equal rights (for women – for people of colour – for people of different sexual orientation); not just as a society, but as communities of faith.  In every case the Church must examine the foundation of our position, and then decide how any cultural changes might be folded into our search for faithfulness.

This does not come easily – it is far simpler to imagine that patterns of righteousness are laid out in black and white – but that is not how Scripture works; that is not how the Holy Spirit works, and it is certainly not how Jesus rolls.

Sometimes the church leads culture into a change – and sometimes, the church finds itself chasing change; that’s okay, as long as we accept that the race is not yet over – nor are we the winners by virtue of our having chosen to follow Christian rules.  For it was Jesus who claims to have come to “complete the law” – a phrase that suggests we must always examine our past positions through Jesus’ eyes as we move through the present.  And so, just as we have reconsidered our stance on the ordination of women, or our role in the Government’s policies on First Nations education and assimilation, we are  being invited (by the General Assembly) to to carefully and prayerfully study, as sessions, Presbyteries and Synods, the position of the Presbyterian Church in Canada on issues of human sexuality.

Big questions, you say – too right they are – but no less important than Jesus decision to turn aside and face those women stigmatized by religious righteousness and cultural expectations of his day.

And just in case you think Jesus lesson covers only the large cultural questions, or the ‘highlight-reel’ events, consider this; congregations in every corner of this county – our own included – are trying to work their way into the future using rules established in the past.  Rules that decided the shape of our worship services, and the size (and location) of our buildings.  Rules that formed expectations of ministry – the who, the how and the when – established by one hundred year old cultural norms; rules imported from ‘the old country’; rules concerning membership and involvement; rules that have defined our faith communities which are no longer valid – and we must, with Jesus help, decide what to do about those rules.

Must we continue to meet in buildings designed for a future that never came?  Always at 9:30 (or 11:00)?  Who can have communion?  who may be baptized?  Married?  Buried?  Some of these questions are easier to answer than others (and some have been answered for us) but I promise you one thing;

If we find ourselves tied to old habits for any reason, the Spirit of Christ is never bound with us.  The kingdom will come, not because of our devotion to the rules, but in spite of our foolish declarations concerning right or wrong.  People we don’t consider worthy will be healed by the touch of Christian love – made whole and offered joy, hope, and health – because we dared to follow Jesus, rather than the rules about Christ.

It promises to be a difficult road.  There will be controversy; outrage; and, I hope, careful, prayerful discussion about how to proceed.  But Jesus desire has always been to lead us forward, rather than hold us back.  Pray that we might accept His offer, and meet the challenge with him in faith.

Amen.

Risky business

November 16, 2014

There is no real justice in this parable. Those who have much are given more – those who have little wind up with nothing; not to mention the dismissal into the darkness “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”1, and too often, this parable is explained to us as an example of stewardship. Take the gifts you are given and use them to advantage (and to the glory of God, of course) – this is how the kingdom comes; this is what the king of kings wants. But there is no justice in that expanation, either – and God’s kingdom is not a kingdom without justice.

So what do you make of this story? Lots of good suggestions have come from the idea that we must be pro-active with the bounty entrusted to us; it is a reasonable way to live – even a faithful way to live – but is that enough?

If there is someone willing to trust us with a treasure, what would that mean? It says as much about the slaves as it does about the master. It suggests that the slave has earned the master’s trust. It suggests that the master is either exceedingly generous, or so wealthy that he is indifferent to great loss. There is an element of risk here that is not always our first way into the story, and it is the risk that makes it interesting.

We don’t often think of faith as a risky business. We advertise faith as the great comfort; religion has ben described as ‘the opiate of the people’, and whether or not you accept Marx’s premise, we understand religion as something that offers safety, security and some measure of certainty. Risk is for something else, not for faith – not for us…

The problem is that the things that we long for – the things that faith in Christ demand of us – these are not safe, comfortable things. We want peace – we wait for the peace that passes understanding – and we are called to work for that peace; loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. Risky business that, because it means speaking up when reason tells us that silence would be safer. Risk is for teenagers and rebels – for people who would test the boundaries of authority and possibility – and that is what Jesus does; eating with the outcast, marching on the spiritual capital and challenging the order of the day. The risk was incalculable; the punishment was execution…but the reward for his faithful risk-taking was resurrection – and a lasting legacy among those who call themselves faithful.

Put aside the notion that those who work hardest or those who are most obedient will receive greatest reward in the heavenly kingdom – and those who fail to “grow the kingdom” will be shunned – that is a misreading of this parable. Instead, consider the idea that those who were brave enough (or foolish enough) to risk what was not theirs are “welcomed into the joy of their master.” And the one who wanted only to keep what he had been given – taking no chances and treating the gift as a threat (or a curse) – that slave is shown the door. It’s not that the master expected a doubling of his investment – the rate of return is what we usually remember in this story. The master took a chance – putting power / wealth / his “fortune” (whatever it may be) in the hands of his slaves. Those who took the same risk as the master – the two who sent those gifts out (and as a result, multiplied them) – they were welcomed as equals; they joined the company as partners (to extend the metaphor). The risk brings the reward.

So when was the last time we took a risk in faith? I’ll be honest, my list is fairly long – having left one occupation to start on a new path – following the call into ordained ministry – risky business. But what does risk look like for you? For this congregation? For the People of God?

The slaves who earned praise from the master did not – could not – expect reward of any kind; certaily not to be welcomed into the master’s inner circle. Neither can we operate on the expectation of “doubling our investment” every time we take a chance. Failure is much more likely than success (that’s what makes it risky) but risk is what made us who we are; risk built the Church of Christ; risk is at the heart of grace, forgiveness and the mercy of God.

Can we live faithful lives without taking a chance? I, for one, can’t imagine how. There is no certainty in tradition; the lessons of history teach us that risk is essential to progress; our sense of security (as an institution crucial to the well being of society) has been taken hostage, and there is no negotiations that will restore our position. It’s time to take a chance with the gifts God has given us.

There are no guarantees; no way of calculating the ‘rate of return’ – there is only the promise that those who take a chance for their faith will be welcomed into the joy of our Master.

Amen

1Matthew 25: 30

Fear and Amazement – and the foundation of faith

April 7, 2012

Nothing is going according to “the plan”

Not that it didn’t start out well –

  • Arrive in time for Passover: check
  • Seder dinner with best friends: check

but after that, it all went south…

Dinner ends with an argument about who will be faithful.

Jesus is troubled (worried) to death, so he retires to the hills for some quiet time –

his friends seem indifferent.

One of those ‘friends’ turned Jesus in as a revolutionary,

and arrives after dark with a lynch mob.

He was rapidly tried,

convicted of blasphemy, treason and causing a general nuisance,

denied amnesty, and sent to be executed.

Nothing had gone as planned.

It’s no wonder that the women are distraught – not thinking clearly.

Sure – Jesus spoke of an alternative – a kingdom of divine justice and mercy

Love one another – and love God with your whole heart,

but look at where that got Jesus…

The plan is in tatters, and these women hope to salvage some respect

for the memory of their teacher and friend by ministering to his remains at the tomb.

What meets them there, in the early hours of this brand new day makes no sense.

An open grave – occupied by a surprisingly lively young man dressed in white.

The messenger brings distressing words –

He is not here – then reminds them of Jesus promise to see them down the road in Galilee.

It’s no wonder they fled.

Terror and amazement – hand in hand – because neither one on its own is adequate –

our Christian Faith is founded on such primal emotions as these.

But for all the fear and amazement found in this morning’s gospel,

this act of discovery is not the most important piece of the puzzle.

Though it is the last act in the oldest versions of the gospel of Mark –

it is not the final word;

the empty tomb is not the definitive moment for the few who happened upon it.

Do I have your attention now?

On the day that the Christian community throughout the western world

breathe a collective sigh of relief,

and celebrate of the Resurrection of Jesus as the most significant event in the history of creation,

I am telling you that the discovery of the empty tomb is not really that important.

The stone is moved – the body is gone – the disciples are terrified…

and the most important thing is what happens next.

In fear and amazement, the women left.

They went home – trembling; terrified.  They wondered what it meant –

they considered that an empty grave might change the way they looked at the world.

What happened next is they lived with the consequences of Jesus empty tomb.

Only then did they see him.

Only then was the living, Risen Christ revealed to their eyes.

The gift of faith was a direct result of their fleeing in fear –

their amazement  is answered in the real world, on the streets of the city –

in their homes, on the beach…

The life of faith follows the path of fear and amazement;

each in equal measure responsible for our openness to the mystery and majesty of the living God.

Our fear of abandonment draws us into relationship and community.

Our amazement as we glimpse God’s glory in creation invites us to offer praise in worship.

Just as the first disciples came together

to (reluctantly) share their stories (and their sadness),

only to discover that something wonderful beyond their imaginations was happening.

The tomb is empty, and Jesus is among us –

and the most important thing is what happens next.

We gather today to remember the start of something wonderful –

and the most important thing, is what happens next…

God’s glory is loose in the world – God’s messenger has been raised –

death, it seems, is no barrier to the promise of God,

so what are you going to do about it?

We will continue to worship – in churches, in homes, in hospitals, in parks.

We will gather together around the Sacraments –

we will be both frightened and freed

by the promises offered at Baptism and by the hope expressed at the Lord’s Table.

We will reach out to our neighbours and our enemies,

because the love we’ve discovered knows no boundaries.

Will you join us?

Our gathering today is significant – full of faces -full of joy – full of life

But for many who gather today, tomorrow will be ‘just another Monday’,

But the tomb is empty – Jesus, it seems, has Risen –

and that means our former reality has been altered.

The powerful can still take a life, and snuff out rebellion, and demand obedience

But God has been revealed as more powerful than they.

The cross is now a sign, not of torture and submission,

but of the failure of human authority.

The grave is no longer the finish line – but our new starting point.

And the most important part of the story is in our hands – with God’s help.

What happens next is up to you and I.

In the ongoing story of God’s work among us, we represent the newest chapter –

our lives and our stories will be the foundation for another generation of fearful, faithful people.

All because he is not where they laid him;

He is risen.  Risen indeed.

Hallelujah!  Amen.

Pentecost C 2010 – Taking the easy way…

May 22, 2010

There is within our DNA, an irresistible temptation to take the easy way.

It marks our path through history –

it accuses us in the midst of our journey –

it beckons us into an uncertain future.

It says “do what you know; ask only the essential questions; work to your strengths.”

No doubt those early wanderers described in Genesis 11 were lured by such voices.

There is promise here – promise of something new and wonderful.

This story is offered after the flood in what scholars call biblical pre-history in Genesis.

Humanity has been given a fresh start – and yet,

our tendency is to do what we’ve always done.

Settle – build – make a name for ourselves.

It’s easy. It’s what we know.

And in no time there is a tower built of sun-baked brick;

scraping the sky – dominating the landscape.

And then God wanders by. Not your average job-site supervisor.

Even then, it seems, the Lord had a plan for this people

but it did not involve simplicity, sameness, or a lasting human legacy:

And so Genesis tells us how the people were scattered, and confused,

and we can presume – for the Scriptural narrative is full of examples –

that the search for simplicity begins again,

in dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of separate locations.

These lessons from the history of faith remind us

that the easy way is not always the best way.

The path of least resistance in us, often meets the most resistance in God.

How much different would our history have been, if those wandering ancestors of ours,

instead of settling down to a project that suited their particular skills,

had stopped to ask the question; “what would God have us do here?”

A vast, open plain. A new and glorious chance to serve – to worship –

to experience the things of God.

And we chose to gather and build and exert ourselves on the situation.

Not easy, perhaps, but easier than seeking out God’s plan –

easier than pausing and wondering aloud

what good God might have in store for us.

Surely we have learned our lesson by the time of Christ.

After His resurrection and his ascension to glory

Jesus friends and followers gather to wait

and wonder what else God might have in store for them.

Jesus promised them a helper, but that help comes in a most unsettling form:

Wind and fire and an overwhelming urge to give praise to God.

In the midst of it all, language barriers are blasted away –

and from the outside it looks like pure chaos…

The easy thing to do is assume that you are witnessing a fools gathering.

Such outrageous public displays of faith

are not the sort of thing that people accept as good behaviour –

it’s too hard to explain – too difficult to control.

There are segments of the Christian church (Canadian Presbyterians among them)

that harbour a secret fear of such an outpouring of the Spirit that is described in Acts chapter 2

because it may cause us to do and say things

that are quite beyond our control and outside of our understanding.

It is that fear of the unknown – that illusion of lost control –

that prompts us to take up our trade and build bricks

when there are finer and fiercer tasks to be done.

And it is our fears that Jesus addresses when, with those fearful disciples,

we wonder what we will do without him.

We need a ‘resurrection reminder’ – something to inspire us –

to lift us from our fear and dread –

and on this day we remember that God’s wisdom has provided us with just that.

The Spirit is a poorly understood concept

outside the hand-waving, ecstasies of ‘some other’ denominations

but the Spirit that has come to us

is more than just a source of curiosity and occasional ridicule.

God’s Spirit powers our ideas, and inhabits our imaginations,

allowing us to continue in faith where our path is confused

and when public opinion seems to run against us.

The Spirit provides courage in difficult decisions and wisdom for delicate conversations.

Without the Spirit’s help, there would be no worship, no music, no point in our sacraments.

This helper – our promised Advocate – is part of what motivates us to follow the way of Jesus – to seek communion with God.

There is nothing easy about this.

In choosing the path of faith we have, in truth, abandoned what we know –

what is safe and within our control – and set out on an unfamiliar road.

But Jesus has walked that road before us –

and with the Spirit’s help, we will discover new gifts, gain new strength,

and welcome the challenges we encounter

as God calls us forward. Amen