Posts Tagged ‘grace’

SIN: Still a tricky topic

June 12, 2016

With David, everything has to be ‘an event’.  That is part of what it is to be the king, I suppose – see what you want, take what you want.  Consequences are for other people…ordinary people.  But we are told quite plainly “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord…” – and no wonder!

Uriah’s wife is “summoned” by the king.  There is every kind of problem with this rendezvous, but the biggest problem is this; Bathsheba is another man’s wife.

Uriah is called home to try and lend legitimacy to the child that will be the result of David’s indiscretion – I’m treading gently on Bathsheba’s role in all this, for it is difficult to refuse the king – especially difficult for a woman of the day.   I am quite content to follow the leading of the text here and paint David as the villain.

The punishment is severe – though Nathan assures the king that “the Lord has put away your sin…” still, the child shall die.

It is texts such as these that convince people that God must have a personality disorder – so many harsh judgements ‘back in the day’, set against the love and grace that Jesus points to as being God’s primary position.  How can we reconcile the two stories that the lectionary puts before us this morning?  I’m not sure I can…

A woman – a sinful woman – makes a fuss and disrupts an otherwise polite gathering of responsible men – no question who is at fault here, according to the customs of the day.  In a segregated, man-power society, this woman has got it ALL wrong.

Public affection…offered to a stranger (an important stranger – the guest at the dinner was Jesus – thus he was to be honoured AS GUEST, no matter who he was as a man)…and the whole room ‘knows’ that she is a sinner.

A word about that – the text does not really suggest what her sin might be – usually we assume that, because she is willing to offer such an intimate display, that her sin must have been physical (ie. sexual) in nature, but the greek word is used to describe someone who has “missed the mark” in terms of God’s favour or righteousness, so it could be any number of things that cause this designation

The incredible thing about this ‘new testament’ forgiveness party is that soon after, (Luke chapter 8: 1-3), we are told that a number of women have significant roles to play in the ministry of Jesus – these are supporters, providers, and those who have been healed.  Grateful people; influential people. The three opening verses of chapter eight say something remarkable about the path that Jesus ‘ministry’ takes  – against the prejudice of the day (against the pattern of the ancient near east) – a path blazed (in part) by the women whom had been shown mercy – revealed as fully human – by the love of God in Jesus.   So rather than ask ourselves “what does it mean to sin?” – a question that too often has been the preoccupation of the church – we might better consider “What does it mean to be forgiven?” – a question that is only rarely asked.

Sin is easier to talk about, because it seems easier to define.  There are lists, after all, of things that ‘are abominations before the Lord…”; things that we have been told separate us from God; things that we don’t understand and fear might ‘taint’ us; things that diminish us as human beings.  If we’re honest, we claim to know quite a lot about sin

But forgiveness is harder because it defies logic.  It comes without expectation; it is often offered against expectation, in fact.  Forgiveness does not limit all the damage (see David’s example) but it opens the door to further relationship – to further exploration, and yes, to repeated offences in most cases.  If our notions of sin are clearly defined (though constantly disputed), then our understanding of forgiveness is totally fuzzy, and that needs to change.

Faith isn’t founded on sin – but forgiveness.  That’s the simplest way to put it.

That’s the message of the gospel lesson – a woman who weeps and attends to Jesus in this extravagant manner has (in Jesus words) expressed faith like no other.  Faith that understands the scope of forgiveness is more resilient, gentler and more likely to attract than faith that is defined by the limits of sin.

The Christian church has a complicated relationship with both sin and forgiveness.  History convicts our exclusive, Imperialist tactics.  Encountering strange cultures as the new world was opened, we condemned what we didn’t understand, and calmly announced that our way was the best way.  It took nearly 500 years to recognize that our treatment of First Nations people, ‘in the name of Christianity’, was sin.  Our slowly changing relationship with First Nations has lead to relationships that enhance our understanding of the Divine.

We have had similar experiences around other long-held questions of sin.  Women in leadership?  The status of those who are divorced?  The physical and intellectual challenges faced by some folks were also once barriers to full inclusion in the body of Christ – not because Jesus doesn’t treasure people, but because his followers reject what they don’t understand; what they fear.

Now, in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the questions swirl around those whose sexuality is differently defined.  It’s sin, some say – as though that settles everything; but a church defined by sin is not the church of Christ.  To be sure, we are challenged by our encounter with the Risen Jesus to live changed lives – lives that honour the love God shows us; lives that recognize the delicate balance between good and evil, seeking good as we are able.  And the truth that allows us to live in that precarious balance is that God’s forgiveness is there waiting for us.

The cost of that forgiveness may be nothing more than a single tear – or simply won with a moments hesitation, or a sober second thought.  That forgiveness is liberating and life-giving; it allows relationships to form and to heal.  Forgiveness recognizes our humanity, and celebrates it.

The forgiveness Jesus offered this anonymous woman was hers before she entered the room; “Your faith has saved you…”, he says “go in peace.”  This is the faith rooted in grace – not limited by the constant reality of our sin – faith sure to save even the most unlikely among us.  Amen.

Love. Actually.

March 13, 2016

Because we have been reading Luke through the early days of Lent, some background is necessary as we switch suddenly (and briefly) to John’s point of view.  Lazarus dies, and is raised by Jesus.  Not before Jesus demonstrates his humanity, by weeping at his friend’s grave.  Jesus prayer; Jesus presence; Jesus command; something has freed Lazarus from the bonds of death, and whatever it is has people talking, but fear drives these conversation.   Fear of the unknown; fear of the real power of God; fear that their assumptions – their comfortable certainties –  are now rendered useless because of the activities of this one, insistent seeker from Nazareth.  We call Jesus our prophet, priest and king, but to those whose religious views he challenged, Jesus was trouble, with a capital “T”.  So as the Passover festival approaches, Jesus opponents begin actively searching for a way to find him, and have him arrested.  This is the setting for this morning’s lesson from the Gospel according to John.

John, whose account of Jesus ministry brings him continually to the Holy Capital, Jerusalem.  John, whose focus on the miraculous begins with water turned to wine, and ends here, with Lazarus once again among the living.  That may well have been the reason behind the dinner; Martha served, Lazarus was “at table”; the stage was set for a great celebration – the kind that still precedes many of our own significant events.  Consider this the ‘rehearsal party’ (the ‘next-to-last-supper’) – all the major players gathered for one last hurrah before the main event…except the main event is nothing so celebratory as a wedding; they are preparing for a confrontation – a showdown – and the party ends in confusion.

Mary – John doesn’t say which Mary, and there are several to choose from – Mary falls at Jesus’ feet and covers them with perfume. Foot-washing was ordinarily an act of hospitality shown to a traveller by the host, an act that is meant to refresh a weary traveller – meant to sooth tired feet at the end of a hot, dusty road.  It is a restorative gesture, and appropriately intimate, being the sort of thing that happens regularly in decent households.  But not this time.  In Mary’s case, it is also extravagant, and her decision to dry Jesus’ feet with her hair makes it intimate in a way that many would consider inappropriate.  And then there’s the cost!  Three hundred denarii – a princely sum – at least that’s what Judas thinks it’s worth.  John is already counting Judas among the damned, with that little aside about Judas’ criminal tendencies, though as it happens, there must have been some questions about this ‘over-the-top’ welcome that Mary offered.

Aren’t you curious?  don’t you wonder why an common courtesy was turned into a statement about charity and mortality?  “You always have the poor…but you do not always have me.”  John’s gospel here brings us to the very heart of the matter.  Six days before Passover – the beginning of the end for this strange band of travellers – John’s gospel is about to unveil Jesus’ plan.  For the next five chapters, John records Jesus’ thoughts, prayers and plans for his disciples.  John has Jesus ‘lay it out’; betrayal; denial; death and reunion.

Through it all winds the gift of the Holy Spirit – the wind of God that will blow fresh life into these weary wanderers.  And to set the stage, Mary bathes Jesus’ feet in fragrance, and turns this cultural ritual into an act of worship; an act of love.

Jesus gets it – right away.  He does not resist this gift, for he recognizes that Mary is making a statement in grand style.  It’s the sort of thing Jesus himself would do – prophetic, and upsetting, and offered without apology.  Jesus is quick to defend Mary to Judas, particularly, but his words sting our ears too.  We have judged this ‘woman’ and her offering; we have imagined better uses for costly things; we have been unsettled by excessive displays of affection, and Jesus speaks also to our judgements.

Do we misunderstand one another’s good intentions?  Are we suspicious of those who seem extravagant in their love of God?  Is it possible that we are so unnerved by acts of grace and love that we can’t really appreciate them…?  That seems to be true of Judas, whatever other problems he may have had.  And if it is true of us – if we are immune to prophetic actions, and embarrassed by Mary’s gesture of gratitude – then we will be appalled by what happens next.  For everything that happens in Jesus’ life; every step he takes on the road to Jerusalem; each act of defiance (or foolishness) that marks his way to the cross is an intentional act of love.  Even as friends honour him for the miracle of Lazarus’ revival, Jesus would have them see the bigger picture.

The purpose of his work – his life – is to bring glory to God.  For that he is prepared to die – and so to have Mary anoint him for burial; a gruesome and glorious truth,  all in the name of love.

For the love of God, Jesus insists that ritual cannot replace relationship.  For the love of God, Jesus resists authority when that authority is oppressive or arrogant.  For the love of God, Jesus accepts a gift so rare – so precious – that it is meant to be used only once.  And when he is reminded of the cost, or when his views on compassion are misrepresented, Jesus reminds us that such acts of love will cost him his life.

The lesson is not “that God so loved the world” – not yet.  The lesson is that the world can yet love God following Jesus’ example – without reservation; without counting the cost; without a thought for personal glory.  Jesus lesson doesn’t make our journey easier; there are hard days ahead, no matter how diligently we follow his example.  But our faith assures us that such love as we offer is always overwhelmed by the love that God offers us.  That is the lesson that awaits us; an empty tomb, the boldest expression of that gracious, life-giving love.

The same old sin, and a lesson in grace.

February 28, 2016

How often have you heard people complain about the differences between the Old and New Testaments…complain that the Old Testament is full of stories of God’s vengeance and wrath, while the New Testament reveals that God is love.  It’s not true, of course – God is God, and our efforts to describe God – to capture the essence of God in mere words – always fall hopelessly short of the mark.

We are made aware, through the history of the Hebrew people (as it is told in the Old Testament) that they understood their hardship and suffering in terms of God’s punishment or God’s absence.  They had some justification for this, I suppose, as their suffering was extreme, and their difficulties were numerous.  As a result, their descriptions of ‘God’s vengeance’ were vivid, and they lived with the constant expectation that God was both willing and able to punish them for their mistakes.

That expectation becomes a cultural ‘fact’; their history is full of fine examples of what they understood as God ‘acting out’ – surely, God knows the difference between punishment and prosperity – and so it is easy to develop a worldview that places punishment entirely in God’s hands, meaning the avoidance of punishment is our task, every time.

This week, however, the Lectionary readings offer us an alternative: joy and plenty from the hand of God, offered by a prophet who works among people in exile; people who believe their exile is part of God’s plan to punish them – and the prophet tells a story of providence instead.

It boggles the mind that God, whose task (in the Old Testament) is imagined to be limited to judgement and punishment, instead offers comfort, nourishment – even GLORY – to those whose lives have fallen apart.  True, this is a call to repentance – but repentance is always necessary in a world where

“…my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”  This is also a reminder that God’s measure of who is and is not worthy defies our understanding.

This seems to be the point Jesus would make – not that Jesus has suddenly reverted to an ‘old testament’ understanding – to promoting a two-faced god.  “Are they (who died so horribly) worse sinners than all the rest?”  There is a temptation to make Jesus sound morally superior, but the parable that follows suggests that Jesus is mocking those who imagine that any one particular sin is worse than another in God’s eyes.

I take this approach to this morning’s lessons at a time in the life of the national church when our energies are directed toward these sorts of ‘preferential judgements.’  A flurry of Overtures to last year’s General Assembly brought Homosexuality and same-sex marriages back into the spotlight.  To be clear, the Presbyterian Church in Canada has already said that homosexuality is not a sin, but that marriage is defined as between one man and one woman.    Nonetheless, following the discussions on Overtures to last  year’s General Assembly, the church at large is taking time to consider what it means to be ‘fit to minister’ in the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

There are those who argue for fuller inclusion; calling the church to recognize this as an act of social justice.  Others prefer the current approach, that allows homosexual individuals to be ordained and seek a call, so long as they remain celibate.  Still others believe that the recognition of homosexual people as among those fit to serve the church is nothing more than a dangerous concession to society.

It’s likely that we’re all wrong.

”For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways” – so says the prophet on behalf of the Lord (Isaiah 55: 8) – words not meant to discourage us, but to remind us that we are still part of an ordered Creation that we do not fully understand, over which we cannot gain full control.  Our hiding behind rules, modern and ancient, and our various appeals to ‘tradition’ or ‘progress’ are simply further outbreaks of the same old sin.  We are consumed by the pride which suggests that “we alone” can know the mind of God.  This is the sin that makes Jesus weep for Jerusalem – the sin that drives him to these careful comparisons – “…are these any worse sinners than those…?”

It is possible to imagine that there is only one sin – and that, being human, we have managed to express that one sin in an infinite number of creative ways.  Therefore, among sinners, God does not play favourites (if that were the right word) – indeed “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, and yet…and yet…God’s favourites are those who recognize that their sin keeps them from right relationship with God.  Repentance is always necessary, for everyone – constantly – not because certain sins are occasionally ‘favoured’ as more harmful, but because we continually re-invent new ways to express our sin.

And so, in this season of preparation and, yes, anticipation, let us hear for ourselves Jesus’ call to repentance “…or else you will perish as they did.”  This is not an empty threat – there are two choices within a life of faith – acceptance that “God is God and we are not” – a position of humility and worship and service guided by the promise of God’s providence, or a futile pursuit of “certain righteousness” based on a proud (but baseless) assumption that our minds have somehow unravelled the mystery of God’s plan for Creation.  No matter which path we pursue, we shall perish – that is certain.  But will we have lived lives of humble service, or lives of willful belligerence?

Even the tree that have not produced fruit are nurtured and encouraged; there are many “last chances” in the vast fabric of God’s grace – many times many, it seems – and it is only our foolish pride that runs us out of chances.  To those who believe that the churches future hangs on our ability to make the “right choice” – relax; remember that God is predisposed to Grace.  If Resurrection teaches us anything, it is that we should humble ourselves before the One who has overcome even death.  Let us abandon the pride that must be right – the pride that must be certain – and accept God’s offer of mercy which is deep and wide and absolutely without favourites.

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

I’m no prophet…

July 12, 2015

Amos was neither a prophet, nor a prophet’s son; just a shepherd and part-time tree farmer.  He would not ordinarily draw the attention of the powerful…except that he insists on speaking out.  He can’t help himself.  Amos is more than just another concerned citizen – he is an interested, engaged person who takes seriously God’s invitation to be in relationship… and who finds himself compelled to challenge the way things are in his time.

Trouble is coming – and Amos thinks he knows why.  God’s people and their neighbours have neglected justice and mercy for their own reasons.  These are empires built as testimony to human triumph – God’s part in all this has been disguised by human pride, and God will have no more of it; so says Amos, whose every speech ends with “says the Lord”(‘amar ‘adonai)

On six of Israel’s nearest neighbours, Amos pronounces doom (in the name of the Lord, of course).  Exile – disaster – destruction – fire (especially fire); the wrath of God will be unleashed (for these are wicked people, beyond God’s covenant protection).  And since Amos is a subject of Israel’s king, there was expected to be an omen against Judah as well – so that Israel might finally say; “See, I told you we were the favourite.”

Sure enough, Judah is treated like all the others – and so God will send fire, to devour the strongholds – Israel must have rejoiced…but only briefly.  The worst, it seems is saved for them.  It will be like escaping a lion and running into a bear, Amos says – try as they might, there is no escaping what will come.

Chapters 2 through 6 outline Israel’s failures – – the nation has  claimed God’s gifts as their own creation; they have acted as though the Lord depended on them, rather than the other way around.  They have ignored what the writer and Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman calls “the perfect freedom of God”  –

freedom to act (or not act) in an infinite variety of ways towards an infinite variety of people.  There is trouble coming, for Israel; for her leaders; for her people.

When we encounter Amos in this morning’s reading, he is at the point of bargaining on behalf of this wayward people.  Once again, he can’t help himself.  No one who is interested in the way the world works and who, like Amos, desires to honour God by their living and their engagement with current events, can stand apart from the consequences of judgement.  Amos’ plea for change, (or repentance in this case) is moved by his sense of justice – and his hope that God is also just – so Amos is a compassionate prophet.  Having experienced the visions God gives him, Amos responds in horror, and out of love for his people, begs God to forgive.  Twice, God relents.  The third time, however, seems to be the end of God’s mercy.

‘See, I am setting a plumb-line

in the midst of my people Israel;

I will never again pass them by;

9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,

and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,

and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’

Desolation and exile is their lot, and the king (along with his whole house) shall die.

Now this is not an unusual path for a prophet to take; indeed, this is the prophets meat and drink – but Amos doesn’t want the job (doesn’t that sound familiar…).  Instead, he claims that he had no choice but to condemn (in the name of the Lord); he can connect the dots – he has seen the powerful take their power to dangerous extremes. And as a person of integrity, as one of God’s covenant people, he cannot remain silent when confronted by the events of the day.  Amos is assured that God cares enough to warn – and to threaten – those whom God claims under the covenant.

This is a much different picture of a prophet.  Too often, we equate prophecy with wild-eyed pessimism, or violent fanaticism – though neither of these is an accurate description of the prophets we know from Scripture.

Sure, some of them carried on a little – Jeremiah was prone to dramatic public demonstrations (lying half naked at the city gates – smashing pottery); Isaiah and Ezekiel recorded graphic hallucinations (that we charitably call ‘visions’); in later years there was John the Baptizer – eating bugs, dressed in rags, preaching repentance and goading the powerful (that cost him his head…).  But we need a more broad-minded picture, for we are called – even now – to call the world’s attention to the justice and mercy and yes, even judgement of God.

In a world that is flying apart – over developed in the name of commerce, and under-achieving where equity and justice are concerned, God’s people cannot help but notice; God’s people are compelled to speak out and speak up; those who claim to follow Christ must plead and warn and beg and weep for this world ravaged by the work of our own hands.  God has promised good to all – abundant life is at the core of the gospel.  yet we have taken a world that has the ability to feed and house every person, and created a place of such inequality (economically, socially) that justice has become a foreign idea.  We must, without fear for ourselves, speak the truth to those in power.  We must speak – though we are neither prophets nor the children of prophets – because God is free to act, and God has acted in grace through Jesus – and we recognize that there are consequences to this great act of grace.

Ours should be a call to repent, but not just because we believe that ‘we are right and they are wrong’.  Amos had no training, no credentials, no standing in the circles of influence – he had only his faith, which told him that God was being ignored (or mocked, or made subservient to human desires) and his faith compelled him to speak.  The doom he proclaimed was no more than the logical outcome of having broken covenant with God.

The conclusion of Amos indicates that God is determined to maintain covenant.  Israel will be restored, but not before the whole world recognizes God is free, both to tear down AND to build up.  That promise of restoration must be part of our message if we are going to be true to the gospel of Christ.

Yes, the world is free to ignore us – and yes, a little freedom goes a long way in this day and age.  But praise God that even in times of great distress and danger, the word of truth – the spirit of God’s righteous judgement – the gospel that is entrusted to us – will always be a word of grace and peace.  Amen

Sixth Sunday of Easter. “Who can withhold…”

May 10, 2015

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. (Acts 10: 44-48)

In the name of God – Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer – Amen

This portion of Acts is pretty exciting.  Saul, aka Paul, has just begun to  provoke the Jewish community by his sudden conversion and his passionate arguments for Jesus as Messiah (Acts 9)  Peter meanwhile is preaching and healing – even raising the dead.  The church was “living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit” being built up, and enjoying a time of peace.  So far, so good; everything is going according to plan – disciples are being made, the community is growing, and people are being welcomed into the body of Christ.  But only a certain people.  Only Jewish people.

It was through the God of “Abraham Isaac and Jacob” that deliverance would be revealed; to God’s ‘chosen’ that the promise had been made.  To Peter – “The Rock” – (Mr. “I would rather die than deny you, Lord…”) comes a disturbing vision.  Three times, while fasting and praying, Peter encounters a vision that suggests to him that everything is about to change.  There are people coming to him who represent a different direction for this new community of faith.  They have been sent by Cornelius, a Centurion who fears God and is well thought of in the Jewish community, to bring Peter to share the Gospel with Cornelius’ household.  This is astonishing news.  It’s not allowed; it’s contrary to Jewish law and against generations of tradition.  God’s good news was for God’s people; it was that simple.

Peter knows it.  Cornelius knows it.  Everybody knows it, but Peter comes, on the strength of a vision, and Peter preaches in the strength of the Spirit.  And something incredible happens.

This sort of openness is rare among religious folk.  People tend to guard their beliefs quite closely – to build fences around their habits and their traditions to ensure that only those who truly believe can have access to the benefits of faith.  There are rules associated with membership, and strangers are only admitted after they have learned the rules and promised to respect and uphold the traditions.  First you must learn the stories.  Then you can help us tell them – that is how it goes.

But here are gentiles – outsiders – the centurion and his household, overcome by the Spirit of God by the mere mention of the story of Jesus.  Incredible!  Nothing like this has happened since…well, there is no precedent for this.  But Peter knows what must be done.  Peter has a word from God:

“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

This is about more than ancient dietary restrictions.  God is inviting Peter to reach across old barriers and reunite the human family through the gift of the gospel.

We can’t really appreciate how alarming it must have been to see the Spirit take hold of these enemies of God.  They were “speaking in tongues and extolling God” – gifts that had been given to people who knew the promises of God and who then had encountered the Gospel of Jesus.and Peter (of all people) invites them into the fold.  Until now, the act of Baptizing is the thing that unlocked the gifts of the spirit.  This time, the Spirit has changed the rules.

Now, I want to be careful here, because it would be easy to infer that all our rules were useless, and that we should abandon ourselves to the wild unpredictability of the Spirit.  The Spirit has long proven that order, not chaos, is her modus operandi,  This episode is not unexpected, following as it does the vision Peter is given on the roof.  The gift of the Spirit to the unbaptized is an affirmation that the church (as it was) needed to open it’s doors to the wider community; to look past the ordinary and expected.

These folks are not drilled on the catechism and tested on doctrine before their names are added to the communion roster.  They are suddenly seen in the light of God’s love, and welcomed into the fellowship.  “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people…?”  Peter knows this is the right thing to do and the right time to do it.  The so-called ‘enemies of God’ are not so different than the ‘chosen people’.  It was true on that day for Peter and his friends, and it remains true for us today.

The history of the church is full of examples of our supposed superiority.  We know , certainly here in Canada, the kind of damage that caused among First Nations.  We never seem to run out of targets for these kinds of attitudes, though we do change our methods to make our prejudice seem acceptable or reasonable.  We still harbour an inordinate fear of those whose religious and cultural expression are different from ours, but they are easy to categorize as “THEM”.  More concerning are people of different sexual identity, for they are – in every other way – just like us.  Canadians, Christians, neighbours, employers; people who speak our language and hold our beliefs.  Some believe that the answers are simple – that the rules are clear and these people are outside the bounds of God’s love.  As I understand the love of God, nothing could be further from the truth.

It is to a people bound by such narrow vision that the Psalmist speaks.  God’s victory is defined by righteous judgement and equity.  The ends of the earth have see God’s victory – all of creation roar and sing for joy at God’s presence.  The urge to offer praise is inescapable, and cannot be controlled by our limited understanding.  The same spirit that brooded over Creation and called the elements to order, gathers us in our confusion, and our uniqueness to a single purpose.

Worship, in the wisdom of God, takes many forms and comes from often unexpected sources.  It is the privilege of the broken, and the first language of all God’s children.  It can be formal or spontaneous; serious or celebratory; it follows traditional patterns that can be suddenly abandoned.  The purpose is always praise and the benefit is always ours.

The church is facing interesting times.  Society is asking questions of us and we have trouble with the answers.  We are reexamining old definitions of friend and foe – We must face the truth that ours is not the prevailing religious opinion on the planet – We must still be true to God’s call.  And I wonder if the answer doesn’t lie in the discovery that Peter made that day on the roof.  The gift of life that God offers in Christ is a gift without borders; a gift without limits.  perhaps our barriers aren’t that important after all.  Amen

Fear and amazement, then and now.

April 4, 2015

The week begins as the Friday story ended – in fear.

The women have come to the tomb at first light of a new day; a new week;

ready to return to something familiar.

Their unbelievable experience with Jesus –

the roller-coaster ride

under the guidance of this radical teacher, their compassionate friend,

has come to an end with his death at the hands of the authorities.

It is not to be forgotten.  Their time spent with Jesus was incredible –

a time of hope and promise; a time of new ideas and fresh energy.

They watched as over and over again the impossible became common-place:

Broken people were made whole; the outcast were made welcome;

the promises of the God of Abraham

were lifted off the page and brought to life in spectacular fashion by Jesus.

They could almost imagine that the righteous kingdom had arrived…

The events in Jerusalem brought all that crashing down.

Human reality has pushed aside Divine possibility.

Jesus was dead, thanks to the combined efforts of civic and religious authorities.

The revolution of compassion and real righteousness

has been ruthlessly laid to rest.

So the women, in the early light of dawn, return to what they know.

Gathering spices, they go to honour the body of their friend and teacher.

They go to mourn in the custom of their community,

hoping that attention to the rituals of death might put them back on familiar ground.  They can’t forget their experiences with Jesus,

but they long to find safety and stability again –

to ‘go back’ to patterns and habits that had been their refuge.

But they have met, in Jesus, something unique – something ‘other’ – 

and there is no going back.

For starters, the stone has been moved; the grave is already open.

Alarmingly, a young man meets them in the tomb;

radiant and confident, the essence of life and hope.

The women are met with astonishing news:

“Don’t be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.

HE HAS BEEN RAISED; HE IS NOT HERE.”

Consider this, for a moment.

These courageous women,

looking only to honour their dead friend and express their deep grief,

are expecting something normal –

some hint that the world hasn’t gone completely mad.

They already know what we know:  everything that lives will die.

They know that the powerful will stop at nothing to maintain their power.

The status quo is not always what we want, but it is familiar;

we prefer (as a species) known chaos to unknown chaos.

What they find at Jesus’ tomb is the announcement of the death of ‘status quo’.

The bright stranger who surprises them at the tomb

tries to take the edge off their surprise.

He reminds them that Jesus told them this was coming.

All his kingdom-talk – this compassionate revolution

with a thirst for the things of God,

was going to change the way of the world and upset the status quo.

But they had not understood this while Jesus lived,

and their fear makes it impossible for them to hear it now, in this place.

The fear that the gospel captures is understandable.

New things are frightening things –

especially when they defy our expectations as an empty tomb does.

It’s not hard to imagine that terror might be a typical reaction to resurrection,

but fear and amazement is, in fact, an appropriate response

to a radical departure from our expectations.

And our expectations are what keep us from understanding

the significance of this day.

Two thousand years of celebration have taken the edge off of Easter.

The resurrection of Jesus no longer inspires fear and amazement as it should, because we have reduced it to just another sign of spring

– a festival of new life –

without a real appreciation for what this new life might be.

Easter is the reminder of God’s desire for grace and life,

set against the things we have settled for –

the things that we assume are normal and ordinary,

and which cannot (in our imaginations) ever be changed.

The world spins on, and humanity follows a destructive path.

We are content to be consumers of creation

and our competition for those things that God called good

lead us to evil choices.

In such a world as ours,

where dangerous radical thinkers wreak havoc on ordinary citizens,

it seems as though we can only watch and mourn.

In a world based on our expectations, we are left to conclude that our only hope

is to grasp a little glory for ourselves –

to leave our mark and hope we are remembered well.

This is only part of our modern reality,

because we also inhabit a world

that has witnessed the real power of God in the resurrection of Jesus,

and that means we cannot be complacent, and we are no longer powerless;

in the face of great evil, or in anything else.

Our Easter celebrations should arouse the fear in us;

fear that comes when we recognize that he world is not always as we imagine it.

Our response to the news that Jesus is risen should move us to amazement,

for the empty tomb is proof that God is still at work

seeking peace and showing mercy and offering grace.

Our status quo has been torn apart, and today is our annual reminder

that although new things are difficult, and often dangerous,

God is still at work, renewing and refreshing all things

through this one mighty act of defiance.

Easter is nothing less than God’s defiance of our expectations;

The empty tomb is God’s answer to our certainty that nothing can be changed, because in the moment when grief and (acceptance) turns to fear and amazement,

anything is possible – joy is possible – life is possible.

Thanks be to God that Jesus is Risen – he is risen indeed!

Hallelujah!  Amen!

The marketing of faith…and why it is futile.

February 15, 2015

I have been known to complain about our culture of consumerism – though I complain as one who benefits from and (secretly) enjoys the pursuit of stuff. My desk and office are littered with the detritus of my gadget habit; cables and cameras, an exercise bike (broken), three old lap top computers, several cell phone chargers, a CD player and an electric pencil sharpener – not to mention the stuff that still works. Consumers is what we are (or what we have become) and that impulse includes things we cannot touch, taste or operate with rechargeable batteries. We have an insatiable hunger for ideas, opinions and philosophies. We include religion in that list, at our peril.
But these are perilous times, and there is a troubling trend in the church – in North America, at least, to ‘market’ the church as just another ‘product’. Thus, our worship must also ‘entertain’. Our programs must be capable of drawing attention away from countless exciting and entertaining things. I tossed out a pamphlet for a VBS program this week that spent more time describing the “optional equipment’ that was available for purchase than it did on the program; these included puppets and props, and incentive items for the kids – to make the event more memorable (ie. entertaining) Backpacks and coveralls designed to look like space suits – this is how you promote a VBS???
So we struggle to make faith real to a new generation – as we always have – but surely we must know by now that devotion and commitment cannot be bought? Surely we realize that faith is a gift offered out of the grace of God, and no marketing scheme can accomplish more than having one person, overwhelmed by their encounter with this marvellous grace, share their story with a friend. It’s tempting to go for the big splash – to draw the crowds with bells and whistles, and overwhelm them with flashy technology and a charismatic presentation – but the church has, for generations, thrived on much more ordinary effort; much plainer profession.
The body of Christ is called to engage friends and strangers – neighbours and sceptics – through the story of our encounter with the love and grace of God.. I suggest this morning that when ever we are tempted to go the marketing route – to find a way to sell our product or fall into the trap of trying too hard to satisfy people’s need to be entertained (aka satisfied) – we might remember the story of Naaman.
Naaman’s story proves my point from the wrong way round. Naaman tries to impress the prophet with his ability to pay for the privilege of being healed – he is the ultimate ’consumer’ of his day. He comes bearing gifts, claiming the right of being tended to by the prophet himself, and is disgusted when the word of grace is delivered by a servant. “I thought that, for ME, he would surely come out and call upon the name of the Lord his God and wave his hand over the spot, and cure [me]”
Naaman wants a show – he is sure that is the only way to healing; the only way to get what he wants. He is prepared to pay – and pay handsomely – but for his trouble, he wants the full treatment. He will be healed, but first, he is disappointed – then, he is humbled – only then can he receive what God has offered through Elisha.
Do you recognize the danger here? Do you see the challenge to us? To this ‘get your money’s worth’ culture, Naaman’s story offers a real wake-up call. Grace is free, but it is not cheap. First, you must put aside your pride – your belief that you can acquire all you need by merit (or money). Naaman’s leprosy was only a symptom – his real disease was pride, and that is the first thing that must be cured. His servants help him see the truth; “…if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?”
Those who know the value of grace – those who don’t have the ability to buy (or take) whatever they want must teach their master humility – then, and only then, is the ‘miracle’ revealed.
Compare this to the real humility of the gospel encounter. “Rabbi, if you choose, you can make me clean.” The leper has nothing to offer – no bargaining chip – he knows that the power to grant this request belongs entirely to Jesus – whose ability comes entirely from God. “I do choose…”, Jesus says, and the man is made whole. This grace – the gift of God in its countless forms – is not a prize to be won by the most worthy competitor, or the highest bidder. And the man, once cured, is unable to keep that grace to himself. Jesus forbids him speak; “go show yourself to the priests…as testimony to them.” but silence is not an option; the story must be shared; grace must be celebrated. Naaman is likewise compelled to share – in his case, he begs permission to (wait for it) worship Elisha’s God when he returns to Aram.
Our experience of faith is not a marketable thing. A vacation bible school should be fun – sure – but it must first be a place where the story of God’s love and grace is shared and celebrated, and it seems to me that incentives (backpacks and spacesuits) are not the best way to tel the story of Jesus. The controlled and reverent response that is our worship is not an exciting opportunity for church growth. It is, instead, a place of joyful sharing in the truth, and thanksgiving for the mighty acts of God that have changed us for the better . We must tell the story – and we must share our experiences of grace; that is the only model for growth that the church has ever needed.
We cannot buy God’s love, and our attempts to ‘sell’ God’s grace – to make it attractive and marketable – are bound to fail. We cannot earn the gift of wholeness and peace, and we cannot turn our response into something designed to attract -Grace is attractive on its own; God’s love expressed in our lives is more attractive than any carefully planned program. The gospel of Christ is an irresistible force that needs only our voices; singing, praying, sharing the news that God has chosen to make us whole.

Thanksgiving under pressure

October 12, 2014

There is never a bad time to give thanks. This sounds trite, but it is the way many of us were taught – it is the sort of behaviour you expect from people who have seen for themselves that good times and bad times are given in endless rotation – if not in equal parts – to everyone. So cheer up! Be thankful! We say. – things could be worse, is what we often mean, and who would know better than us – and we develop a habit of giving thanks that, quite frankly, could use some tinkering.

Ours is a reluctant gratitude, born of a life of relative ease (when compared to much of the world) and sharpened by the memory that life events and circumstances are subject to rapid (and occasionally unwelcome) changes. It is in that knowledge that I approached the texts for this morning; not the usual thanksgiving fare, but instructive, nonetheless. Each informs the other, and all point to a pattern that is expected of God’s faithful in any age.

Isaiah is not the place you’d expect to start, but here we are. In the early chapters, a book of warning and promise – and by Ch 25, we seem to be witnessing the complete collapse of the dream that was the Jewish kingdoms. Yes, the nation was divided – with each still independent of their much larger neighbours…for the moment. The writing is on the wall, however and Babylon will conquer both Israel (in the north) and finally Judah in the south. All sense of security will be shattered – the leaders led out in shame and humiliation, the people who are left behind reduced to second-class citizens, at best. And through this misery and confusion comes the voice of the prophet. Yes, occasionally that voice cries “I told you so”, with the odd “it serves you right” thrown in for good measure – but the prophet’s task is not to taunt the nation in defeat; the prophet – every prophet – also brings the words of propise back to the people.

Promises are hard to hear when your dreams have been crushed, and your culture taken captive – Israel was never the strongest nation in the enighbourhood, and when their best is overwhelmed with the might of Babylon, it is truly disheartening. It is also a terrible blow to the image of God that has been promoted in this formerly stable kingdom. So Isaiah starts in the strangest of places – calling for thanksgiving and praise in the midst of destruction: listen again very closely

 For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;  cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.                                                                                                                                                                             
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,                                                                                                                                                                    the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;                                                                                                                       the song of the ruthless was stilled.  (Isaiah 25: 2-5)

God’s people are called to witness to a different kind of strength – and it is neither the power that built the walls nor the power that brought them down – it is the power that nurtured the poor, and quieted the “noise of the ruthless”; it is the power of God that is to be praise, according to the prophet. The suggestion of Isaiah is that only in exile are the people able to identify this particular strength – real strength. It is in our uncertainty and despair; in the shambles of our current situation; it is from the rubble of our delusions that God calls and says “Here I am: champion of the poor and weak. Let my strength encourage you – accept from me the power of the weak, the quiet, the humble and the greiving.”

Does this sound right to you? Does it sound like I might be arguing for decline and destruction, so we might get a glimpse of who God really is? I will not suggest that we must suffer to be faithful, but I will always argue that our failures and our sufferings can help us find our way back to what matters – back to the power (so called) of God.

Psalm 23 takes us further down that path – a product of a different time; a more productive, more peacable time in the history of Israel, the author knew the fickle nature of good fortune. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” nothing is eternal except the peacful, purposeful presence of God. This is a poem of utter dependence – something that is often confused with a lack of responsibility, though nothing could be further from the truth. The ‘sheep’ still need to move intentionally toward the good things that the shepherd’s wisdom reveal. And there is strength in that dependence – the kind of strength that can only inspire gratitude.

What then, does that look like for us? Our personal encounters with the grace of God are one thing – in moments of difficulty, the sudden, overpowering feeling that it will be okay; that you are not alone – these are the stories that keep us going. But what of the community? How do the gathered people of God – the church – this congregation – how do we bring those moments into focus? Where do we look to find evidence that all is not lost…?

We look to the host, who invites us in and calls us by name and blesses us with the Holy presence. God draws us together around Jesus – and though each of us alone has a story to tell about the good God has done for us, together in worship we tell a story of hope for the future. The church as it is, or as it may become, is a living breathing offering of thanks reminding even the reluctant in our communities that God has not abandon creation.

So I say let the walls crumble – so long as we can still gather. Let the outward signs of our power and strength be taken from us – so long as we can still sing praises. Let the rest of the world ridicule us and declare our efforts irrelevant – we know better, and that is what matters.

Give thanks to God for the faitth that has found us, and forms us, and frees us to live hopeful, joyful lives. Amen

What cost, grace? Luke 14: 15-24

June 22, 2014

Grace – especially God’s grace – is a strange concept. No one deserves it; everyone has a different definition for it; and when God offers grace, the world is turned upside down. Disadvantage becomes desirable.

Jesus offers this insight while observing guests and their host interact over dinner. Entertaining, then and now, is a complicated business. Some guests are more important than others. Egos must be soothed, seating arrangements need to be carefully planned – and Jesus calls attention to the ridiculous, petty nature of it all. Don’t make a fuss, Jesus says – don’t claim importance for yourself – humility and hospitality are two sides of the same coin, and you host can only show you true hospitality if you are truly humble. When someone seems to suggest that those who share a table in the Kingdom of God will somehow be different, Jesus launches into his parable.

The first thing that strikes me about this ‘parable’ is the weak excuses offered by those who are first invited. I’ve got to see some new property; I’ve just been married; – I’m dying to try out my new oxen…Seriously? You have been invited – well in advance. You know the host is saving a place for you. Indifference is at work here, and that is what makes this parable so hard to hear this morning – for we know all about indifference.

(look around – you see real evidence of indifference – empty seats.)

But don’t mistake me – this is not a story about the importance of having a full church, nor is it all about dragging people to the party who don’t want to be at the party (Matthew tells the story differently, with consequences for those who come to the party ‘unprepared’) – no, Jesus tells this story at a dinner party (where grace is in short supply) to remind us that there is nothing in our experience that compares to God’s grace.

When we think about this parable and what it means for us as the church, too often, we see it as a sign of our failure. We have not kept the table full. We have failed to follow the instructions of the host, whom we serve We have heard excuses and believed them – we have not been so enthusiastic about the idea that the poor, the halt and the lame should be next on the guest list, because we have come to believe that the only good guest is one who can help us pick up the tab when the party is over. But this is not the parable of the full church – this is a parable of the kingdom of God – and the church is not always a good example of the Kingdom.

When offering his insight on the dinner party, Jesus lets the secret of this parable slip; Entertain those who can’t entertain you (Luke 14: 12-14) – don’t look to those who can repay you with an invitation, but try another way. “None of those invited will taste my dinner”, says the host of the parable – none who were considered ‘good enough’ will ever really know what hospitality is; none who think themselves righteous know what righteousness is; no one this thinks they are worthy of God’s grace will ever know what grace is, and this parable is all about grace.

The church is in a strange and dangerous position. We who call ourselves the body of Christ have met the grace of God in the gospel of Jesus; we say the right things, we worship and baptize and reach out to a broken world, but we do not always show signs of the grace that has touched us. We judge; we exclude; we offer (and accept) excuses for our behaviour that sound very much weaker than “I have got me a wife; I have bought me a cow”. We imagine that because we have commitments that cost us a pretty sum, that we are the hosts of this party, and somehow liable for its success – but we are not. We are urged to take advice from one who knows a thing or two about grace – Entertain those who can’t reciprocate, Jesus says – accept around your tables people who don’t appear to deserve an invitation – make your best efforts towards the least able in your communities and neighbourhoods. For the church, I think this means we must stop worrying about the supporters whom we have lost, and start to pay attention to those who desperately need our support. If it is grace we are asked to show, then lets reach out in faith without seeking reward, or reciprocation, or someone to share the cost with us.

(It is in that spirit that session in Thorburn has decided to organize (beginning in September) a monthly hot lunch, not as a fund raising enterprise, but as outreach. We do this, not so we can survive, but because we are the body of Christ, eager to show others what the Kingdom may be like. It is like a place where everyone gets what they don’t deserve – where invitations are offered and re-offered, not because the table (or the building) must be full, but because the Grace of God is not defeated by lame excuses or rampant indifference, or reluctant acceptance. God is generous beyond all imagination, and that generous grace is the example we are called to follow.