Posts Tagged ‘hope’

Here we go again…

January 22, 2017

Nothing should surprise us.  That is the conclusion I reach after re-reading Isaiah 8 and 9 in a week leading up to the inauguration of America’s new TV-star President.  I have had to turn down the sound on my television, and avoid reading the paper at breakfast; between the content of the coverage and the manner that news outlets choose to cover the start of this presidency, it has been an unsettling time.  But that should not surprise us.

We should not be surprised for at least two reasons; first, the new president has been a very public person.  There has been plenty of chances for the world to see (and hear) his bluster and his nonsense.  He has been very transparent about who he is as a public figure; blunt, outspoken; prone to overstatement and always seeking the spotlight.  He is who he seems to be.

But the real reason we should not be surprised by what is happening suggested itself to me while I studied Isaiah in preparation for this morning.  History repeats itself – with alarming and often fatal regularity – because humans have been fairly consistent in their desire for power, and wealth.  we exercise those desires against other individuals, tribes and nations in predictable patterns of conquest.  We are who we are, and Isaiah is good at reminding us of that.

Isaiah covers a wide swath of the history of the Israelites – so wide that scholars have identified three different individuals writing as Isaiah – and in each section of this magnificent book, the prophet(s) point to the pattern of invasion – exile – and redemption as ‘just the way it is”.  That God desires something better for the people s undeniable.  That God’s promised peace is ‘just over the horizon’ is part of what makes Isaiah so attractive to us, generations after the fact.  But the truth contained in these ancient words is that nothing should surprise us about the way things are.

As I thought about “how things are” at he moment – as I tried to imagine why the words of Isaiah, both the challenging and the comforting, still felt so real, I had a vision – and I think it might have merit.

Imagine a large spring; coiled, flexible and full of potential energy – like the spring that pulls your screen door shut – only bigger.  This spring, in it’s natural, resting state is no harm at all – doing it’s job quite nicely, holding the door closed against the summer insects and neighbourhood cats.

When you pull that spring – apply force to it, it’s only reaction is to ‘snap back’ – to get to it’s resting state again.  You can force it open – put a chair in front of the door and sit in it, and keep the spring pulled open, but the minute you move that chair, the door snaps shut.

If you’re not careful, you can get your fingers pinched in that spring.  If the hook comes off the door, the spring jumps wildly back, and that can do some damage too…because springs are carriers of energy – springs transfer power – springs suffer manipulation, but they’re wonderfully resilient.

Imagine Creation is like a spring – resilient, full of potential.  The human influence on Creation is described for us in Scripture with a particular prejudice.  God grants humans responsibility over the health of all created things (Genesis 1 & 2) – but we don’t follow instructions very well.  Instead of being content with the Creation at rest – in it’s “natural state”, we can’t help but pull and stretch things  – sometimes from necessity, other times, out of curiosity.  Nations rise up against nations – the “spring is stretched and snapped” – generations are scarred and scattered by the expression of energy that is found in the cycle of war and peace and war again.  The powerful see Creation as a plaything,  and when they are through playing, the healing process might slowly begin, because history is delighted to repeat itself, and we should not be surprised.

The assyrians have taken hold of the spring in Isaiah’s time – trouble comes in the form of another angry neighbouring army – this from Isaiah chapter 8 – but the prophet knows the cycle cannot be sustained; “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish…the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…” (Isaiah 9: 1-2)   The truth about Creation is that it is no ordinary spring – in danger of finally snapping under repeated stress – the promise of God is that there will be a return to rest.  The natural state of Creation is redemption.  So too, when Jesus combs the beach looking for people to follow him, he comes at a time when the Romans are stretching creation to its limits, and Jesus says come with me – I’ll change your focus – we’ll seek the Creation at rest – in redemption…

So if it’s not the imperial colonizers, or the nationalists, or the communists stretching creation to the limits it’s the capitalists and the egotists and the misogynists looking for leverage – and Isaiah’s words still hold true.  Jesus still calls us to stand away from the stretched ends of Creation – away from the deadly potential that is so destructive, both when the pressure is on and when the pressure is finally released, and the “spring” snaps suddenly back to rest.

The deadly nature of this metaphor caught Jesus in the crosshairs – pressure building through his arrest and trial – exploding in his execution.  But on the third day, when the pressure was off, redemption was recognized in his risen, wounded self.  The cycle complete, our hope restored, creation could breathe again.

Identifying such a cycle as I’m describing doesn’t give us permission to be complacent.  I’m still terribly unsettled by the powers that seem to be at work, to bring unnatural pressure to bear on the fabric of Creation – on the relationship between and among God’s creatures; Our fear and our faith requires that we proclaim the gospel – that we call attention to those pressures that put people at risk.  But know too that we’ve been here, as a species, before.  God’s preference – God’s privilege, is to see things “made new” and set at rest again.  And that should not surprise us either.

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Restoration; an impossible dream?

September 6, 2015

This morning, in three different readings – from three different historical moments in the life of God’s people, we are offered the promise of the restoration of something that has been lost.  The eyes of the blind shall be opened – the ears of the deaf unstopped, says Isaiah, dreaming about the “terrible recompense” of the God – our God – who comes to save us.  The Psalmist offers similar hope – though in the form of a hymn of praise to God “who executes justice for the oppressed [and] gives food to the hungry.”  Then Mark brings Jesus back from his visit to foreign territory to the home of a deaf man, whose friends beg Jesus to “lay his hand on him.”

Now, restoration may not be on your minds this week – I expect that refugees and politics and improbable solutions to seemingly impossible problems are on your minds.  The news of the week has certainly been focused on the plight of those who are so determined to leave the hell that their own country has become, they willingly take grave chances with their safety.  They travel the open ocean on rafts; they submit themselves to unscrupulous mariners whose only goal is profit.  They abandon all they know and love because the unknown is a better risk – though a risk that is still quite capable of killing them – and the horrifying thing is that this is not a new habit; we have seen this play dozens of times – the country of origin may be different, but the results are always the same.

So if I push you to think about restoration you may decide it means “put everyone back where they belong…” or perhaps “just stop all this ridiculous fighting…”  Maybe you’d prefer more military action to ‘put an end to the terrorists’, or tighter border controls to deter the refugees.  But I must be honest with you; I’m sick of our solutions – in fact, I no longer believe that we can bring restoration on our own – we’ve lost the ability – we no longer understand that the language of peace cannot be spoken across the sound of gunfire or the rhetoric of politicians who want to “keep us safe”.

It took thousands of deaths in the current crisis to produce the one death that got our attention.  To name that boy this morning would dishonour all the others whose names have never been publicly attached to the conflict in and around Syria.  And our ‘action’ against the hateful group that has brought such unrest to the area has only made the refugee problem more urgent, so doing more in the form of swifter, stronger, more decisive ways (a.k.a. an expanded military response) is not the answer .

But restoration is on my mind today, and I find myself dreaming with Isaiah; desperate to sing with the Psalmist.  I want the restorative justice of the Almighty to roll down like thunder – to give legs to the lame and voice to the silent  – to restore, with “terrible recompense” the balance that was, in the beginning, God’s plan for creation – a balance that we have undone by our willful, sinful, selfish nature.

If faith is to play a meaningful part in finding a solution, then we need to consider what Isaiah imagined God’s justice might look like.  For he stood in this tortured region (tortured even in Isaiah’s day) and boldly proclaimed “Here is your God!”  He said this to a people without a country; to families driven from their homes by tyrants and economics; to the faithful and the doubter alike, Isaiah said that restoration will come as a result of our recognition of the glory and majesty of God

Isaiah speaks to a people who long for the end to the constant conflict in their lives.  He speaks as one who has promised the utter devastation of the land, and complete annihilation of the enemy.  But the hope he offers is Divine Hope – and the justice that is promised is, in the end, real justice.  All that has been broken will be made better than new.  All that has been laid waste will be restored to full usefulness.   All will be well, the prophet says; and means it.  Here is your God, and your God will save you.

Now if this sounds like another lesson in ‘pie in the sky’, think again.  Those who recognize the glory and majesty of God are already dealing differently with refugees than the rest of the world.  They are loading them on buses and getting them safely to the next border crossing (Hungary); they are crying with them at their loss; they are feeding them (in Germany) and welcoming them without reservation in spite of their government’s insistence that help would be limited (Iceland).  These are people of faith (and of no faith) who recognize the human need and respond with human compassion.  These people say with the same boldness “here is your God”, for they are acting (knowingly or not) out of the same generous, all-encompassing goodness that God brings to the table.  They are ‘laying  hands’ on the afflicted, not with force, but with gentle compassion.  This is part of that ‘terrible recompense’ – a phrase which is familiar to us only from Scripture, but which carries the sense of “doing a favour in response to a loss”.  It is “terrible” only because such a response ought never to have been necessary.

But thanks to our fallen nature, it is necessary.  Yet all is not lost!  Thanks be to God, we have the power to act.  We were been placed on the road to redemption at our Baptism.  That redemption is assured by Christ’s “obedience unto death” on the cross, and God’s incredible act of love that raised Christ from the dead.  Our actions can be simple; one person cannot solve a problem of this scale.  But as citizens in Europe has shown us, simple, heartfelt actions have a way of gathering strength – gaining momentum – and soon enough, minds and hearts are changed.

”Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; and the tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy.”

May it be so with us.  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!

To those who are tired of waiting on the Lord…

February 8, 2015

Do you believe that God is able to keep a promise? Are you willing to dismiss the power of the one who makes and keeps covenant with creation? Perhaps you aren’t used to thinking like this. Maybe you are so sure that God is faithful, that the idea of God’s absence has never occurred to you – but not everyone is so confident.
Faith is not just the absence of doubt, but the constant challenges that were offered to the Hebrew people in the ancient near east was proving to be too much for their faith. Over generations they have been pushed from doubt to despair; the Kingdom of David has disintegrated; they have been threatened by enemies from both directions, and their own leadership (by the time of the prophet Isaiah) is either absent or incompetent. In a situation like this, it is hard to remember that you serve God who cares. Whom does God care about? What is the point of our attempts at faithfulness. devotion, or obedience? And it is into this sort of despair that the words of the prophet Isaiah are spoken/written.
It seems as though Isaiah has no doubts. In this conversational bit of poetry, the prophet reminds us of the many remarkable deeds of history that can only (in his mind) be credited to God. Isaiah’s message is simple; nothing you see – nothing you know – nothing in our entire experience is unaffected by the power and promises of God.
Now – to be fair – the faithful of Isaiah’s day considered that this meant God brought evil to them (when they strayed / disobeyed) as well as redemption and relief (when they called out in repentance). Disaster was a as much a part of God’s mysterious plan as was salvation – and of course salvation was only for the ‘truly righteous’ – and the whole of life was a game designed to put you on the merciful side of God’s ledger book. To the ancient mind, there was no such thing as an undeserved disaster. The wrong side was winning the battle for God’s favour –
or so it appeared – and we know all too well what that feels like.
Sometimes God appears to show mercy to ‘our enemies’. Occasionally we appear to suffer punishment without cause. The divine balance sheet is a complete mess – there is no logic, no justice (as we imagine justice). God appears to have either forgotten the rules, or simply re-written them. It’s enough to make us abandon the notion of faithful living. We play back and forth with the idea that ‘the church is being dismissed’ as a legitimate voice in our society. The notion that God might not ‘choose sides’ in a way that would satisfy us is unsettling. And that is a result of our attempt to claim either God’s (unique) favour, or a position of absolute certainty about our own righteousness. We forget – every time – that God’s ways aren’t our ways; neither are we able to claim perfect understanding of what it means to be God’s people. When the world looks different than we imagine it should – or when the mystery of God’s grace seems to have given us a wide berth, it is too easy to become discouraged.
Isaiah’s history lesson – this short primer on the wonderful and mysterious nature of God’s behaviour – is not meant to discourage us, nor is it supposed to make us feel less worthy. The prophet reminds us of the inexplicable twists and turns of history to prove his larger point: God is not ours to be ‘understood’ – God is to be revered precisely because God is so…complicated. Bad things happen to good people (and good things happen to bad people), and none of this makes any sense to people who are trying to be faithful. Isaiah offers an unusual tonic for our confusion. Reminders of God’s awesome power (and our inherent frailty) are everywhere in chapter 40. But neither the power of God, the complexity of God’s relationship with Creation , nor the broad reminder of the sudden and limited nature of our existence are intended as a threat; Isaiah presents them as fact. And with that fact comes this truth: The universe is behaving just as it ought.
All created things have a beginning and an end, and in between there is an opportunity for glory (or disgrace) – and God knows all this.
God knows our strengths and our limits – our weakness and our potential, and God will never ‘grow weary’ of offering help, support, encouragement, correction or strength. No matter our situation or circumstance; in spite of what we would now call ‘bad luck’, or what the ancients described as ‘God’s judgement’, God’s inclination toward us is always love. And that is good news.
Good news because even when we don’t fully understand what is happening around us, God is offering us a chance to live according to an ancient covenant of grace. Good news because we are not responsible for ‘dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s’ to ensure our salvation – no matter how desperate our situation may seem. Good news because once we acknowledge our mortality – we can recognize the hope offered by God’s eternal vigilance and care. And we don’t have to take Isaiah’s word for it.
Jesus entered a world torn by conflict – spoke to a people full of doubt – and lived and died by the conviction that God’s promises were absolutely true. And while his crucifixion seems to prove our hopelessness, His resurrection cleans the slate, and gives us hope and breath and life again. In case we still weren’t sure, God sends this message in Jesus: I know that in this world you face problems of great complexity you will encounter wickedness in one another and occasionally in yourselves— you will face all this and more, but take courage; I have conquered all this.
Do you believe that God is able to keep a promise? Are you willing to dismiss the power of the one who makes and keeps covenant with creation? Can you imagine a world without hope? Thanks be to God, we don’t have to – for the Risen Christ assures us of God’s ability to bring us from despair to hope every time.

The Nineveh Effect

January 24, 2015

John’s gospel introduces Phillip and Nathaniel. Mark brings us James and John. The order of their calling doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that no one needs convincing. Jesus calls, and they follow. The words are different – the settings too – but we are asked to believe that otherwise successful fishermen, or established (working) adults simply abandoned their plans and went along with Jesus. This is what makes Scripture so fascinating – there are ideas here that are outrageous, by our standards: “Get up, take your mat and walk!” to a man crippled for decades. “Get up, little girl!” to a child on the verge of death (or already dead). God-with-us moves among regular people, and extraordinary things happen. Follow me, Jesus says – and they do, Not just twelve men, but an unknown number of others – women, beggars, and various hangers-on; all eager to see what God might do.

It’s one thing to see people who are interested (the disciples, for example) drop everything and come running; they have seen something (or heard something) in (or about) Jesus that makes this a risk worth taking. They may already identify themselves as ‘children of God’ by virtue of their heritage, or their own religious experiences. It’s quite another thing to see strangers – or enemies – turn and follow; and this is the amazing thing about Jonah’s story.

Go to Nineveh – that great city – and speak my word to them. An altogether outrageous idea, for Jonah, at least. Here was a city whose chief trait is “wickedness” – and God has taken notice.
All kinds of questions come to mind; why would God care? Isn’t this the Old Testament – all that smiting and judgement – plagues and so forth…isn’t there a precedent for God’s course of action? Yes there is – God first sends a representative to call the city (the nation – the person) back to the “right path” or to ‘plead their case before God’ (Abraham in Sodom, for example…),  Nineveh is no different, except that Jonah doesn’t want the job.
You know this story – Jonah runs; God intervenes; Jonah reluctantly takes up the challenge and then, so sure he is that the people will not listen, he retires to a hilltop to watch the destruction…which never comes. And we are as surprised as Jonah was.

The turning point in this extended parable – for that is what it is – is found in the third chapter, verse five: “And the people of Nineveh believed God.” What a fantastic – an unimaginable thing! Repentance – devotion – worship and praise suddenly happens in the most unlikely of places; downtown Nineveh! And Jonah’s problem? The people believed GOD!
Jonah’s opinion of them – his preconceptions of what ‘these people’ were like, or what they might be willing to believe, are totally wrong. They listen to Jonah, but they hear God. This is crucial.

Too often, when we take this section of Jonah’s story aside for study, we come to the conclusion that we must be faithful and speak truth to our ‘enemies’ – We have been told that unless we take a risk, and ‘cry out against their wickedness’, God will pursue us until we take the risk; moreover, it is only through our speaking out that the wicked will turn to the truth. Fair enough. Think about our first objection in this story (Jonah’s first objection, really): They are not like us – they will never change, or (more despicably) they don’t deserve the chance that God is offering.

Jonah learned something from ‘the pagan city’ – he discovered that they were not really pagans – they just had never been invited to the party.  Yes, Nineveh is an Assyrian stronghold, and yes, the Assyrians were historically (and sadly, continue to be) enemies of Israel. Does that make them unworthy of God’s attention, God’s mercy, or God’s grace?

Jonah thought “yes”, but God proved otherwise. In the current world order, where we are so adept at identifying the wicked and eager to count ourselves among ‘the righteous’ there is a lesson for us here – and a note of caution, too.

Our opinions do not always reflect God’s desires. What we call hopeless, God will redeem – with or without our help, I might add. And dare I suggest that the voice of ‘the other’ – the stranger, the fallen, the enemy – might have something of God’s wisdom for us, if we thought to listen (or if we cared to hear?)

I have wondered aloud in the past about how we can discern the voice of God; who speaks for God, what does that sound like; how can we KNOW…and Jonah’s tale does not give me any real answers. The best I can do is consider this; not only does the voice of God take us by surprise, so too does the audience. As soon as we decide that we are God’s representatives in this world, and responsible for ‘getting the word out’, we have already forgotten that first, we must be the audience.

We must receive the word of judgement, or correction, for (and on) ourselves, and WE must decide to believe God. Without that remarkable turn; without a reluctant audience who defy logic and believe that God wants good for them, there can be no grace – no hope – no life.

We say that in Jesus, God has acted once and for all. We recognize the cross and the empty tomb as bookmarks around a remarkable, single event in the history of God’s people. We speak of those who are “born again”; changed (as the apostle Paul was changed) or called (as the gospel’s describe the call of the disciples) after one remarkable encounter. This is the faith that we profess, and the heritage that we share. But it is not enough to claim redemption, by virtue of our heritage or our week to week devotion, as a fait accompli. All these things can do is make us ready to believe. The believing – in which we discover our salvation – happens every day; over and over again – and is the most promising sign of God’s willingness to engage us, to reach out to us, to save us.
Thanks be to God for that persistent call; that consistent desire to offer grace; and for the continual revelation of God’s desire to do us good. Amen

Worship works

January 3, 2015

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

I’m not the Messiah…

December 14, 2014

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. This is the news that John the baptizer is presumed to bring. And John’s Gospel weaves the story of the Word – the Light – the Son of God, together with this messenger – this puzzling preacher – this ‘other’ John in a very deliberate way. Yet John the baptist is not the figure we want to hear from. Ten days remain; the desperation is starting to creep in to our preparations. There’s not enough time left for the baking and the decorating – some shopping remains undone, and some of us have yet to mail our Christmas cards…John the Baptist does not fill us with ‘tidings of comfort and joy’, but his is a voice we really must hear. The baptizer will ensure that we are fully prepared for Christmas, so when he appears in the midst of our annual rush I, for one, am relieved.
Jesus’ story cannot be separated from this strange, insistent figure in the wilderness. Luke’s gospel suggests that there is an actual kinship between the two men – their mother’s are related by blood – but whether or not they are related, where John is, Jesus soon follows; it’s only natural, then, that when he is questioned, John the Baptizer takes Isaiah’s words and apply them to himself:
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’

John isn’t found wandering about shouting these words like one who has lost touch with reality. In John’s gospel, the Baptizer appears rational, sensible and fully aware of his surroundings. It is the questions posed by the religious authorities that draws this prophetic description from our hero.
The people have seen John at work, and it is their appeal to the religious experts – the priests and Levites – to discover if this is a man sent by God. These are not evil, authoritarians; they are interested in this new voice, and hopeful that it might represent the one they have been waiting for.

John’s gospel takes us right to the heart of their discussion. “Who are you?” they want to know; John’s response is, at first, baffling;

“I’m not the Messiah. I’m not Elijah. I’m not ‘the prophet’ ” This is not ordinarily how you answer authority. If a lawyer, or a police officer asks you your name, would you say “I’m not Stephen Harper.”? (perhaps you would if you were interested in a free ride and a night’s lodging…) – but John wants to be clear; he knows that there is more to their question than just a request for basic information. He shares their heritage, and he shares their desperate longing for the salvation of God – he is not going to manipulate their expectations, or feed them a story designed to elevate his own activities (quite the opposite, in fact). John (the baptizer) knows his role, and he wants to be sure everyone is clear about what he is doing, and (more importantly) what God is already doing.
I’m not the Messiah. I know that’s what you want, but we’re not there yet. In your haste to examine me, you betray your anxiety – your impatience – but God’s ways require infinite patience and the utmost endurance. All must first be prepared; your patience will be continually tested; your flaws will be examined and your excuses exhausted, until you are open and eager for the new way that the one coming after me will pursue.
This is the reminder that we need – here in the middle of December; with our patience exhausted, and our preparations in chaos – John speaks truth to our delusions, and we should listen.
John is more than just an echo of the ancient promise. He is that voice of preparation – the reminder that every generation needs, calling for an awareness of God’s presence in our chaotic reality. Our current preparations – the buzz that starts as early as mid-November for some – are geared toward what we call ‘the holiest of nights’; and we have turned it into something else. We don’t know what we’re waiting for, and we don’t know what to expect when this long-promised redeemer finally appears in our midst. John called those he baptized to repentance, and he calls us in our anxious waiting to remember what it is God promised.
God’s people are still caught in systems of oppression who, as a result, are exiled from the peaceful presence of God. God would have us back, but on God’s terms, not ours. Seek justice, do mercy, walk humbly, says the voice of ancient wisdom – yet this is not what we have been preparing for. Our preparations exalt ourselves – satisfy our cravings – justify our personal sense of power and authority. Yet the one who is to come – who has come – who is coming – is more powerful than any and all of us; Messiah has the power to reconcile us to God.
I’m not Messiah. I am a messenger – as are all who dare to call themselves God’s people – witnesses to the slowly unfolding promise of God that always finds us unprepared, yet nonetheless urges us to recognize the beauty, the gravity and the remarkable freedom that promise holds. The joy of this blessed season is in our hope of discovering the truth about the One John proclaimed, for in Christ we meet the promise of redemption – a word which here means we are welcomed as full partners into God’s continuing works of justice, mercy and peace. These surely are tidings of great joy, for all people.
Thanks be to God. Amen

The problem with privilege

October 5, 2014

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone [the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone] will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They [the chief priests and Pharisees] wanted to arrest him [Jesus], but they[the chief priests and Pharisees] feared the crowds, because they [the crowds] regarded him as a prophet.”1

This is quite a problem. Jesus has directly accused the shepherds of Israel – the keepers of religious truth – of failing in their duty and abandoning their sacred call to serve. The parable accuses them of trying to ‘take over the farm’, and the judgement on them is expected to be harsh. These are God’s chosen, after all – they stand in the legacy of heroes who have been appointed by God to guide a chosen people on right paths. And Jesus stands to tell them that their failure will not be tolerated – that their places in the kingdom to come are no longer secure; others will have the pleasure and privilege of that particular promise. Not good news.

This is when we assure ourselves that the bible was written a long time ago, and that this particular parable of Jesus has already been played out in real life – a new movement sprung up from the wreckage of the old, and that the promise has been given to us anew, in Jesus…except that is not true. This is not an ‘us against them’ parable with Jesus followers as the “good guys’ and the religious authority of the day as the villains. This parable accuses all of God’s beloved – anyone who has, at any time, considered themselves a child of God, is warned by Jesus’ story here. Not good news.

Jesus has called on the memory of our text from Isaiah2 and made it real for the crowd of his day, but the metaphor of the vineyard – God’s pleasant planting – remains dear to us, and we also need to take notice. Jesus is speaking to people who believe that the system favours them, but he is also surrounded by (and is an encouragement to) people whom the religious system has utterly rejected. Over generations the religious system has come to resemble the world powers which it was intended to oppose. Leaders become comfortable; followers believe that they are privilaged. If you know the rites and observe them, you are somehow exempt from the ordinary courtesies that are at the foundation of the Mosaic commandments – summed up in the love of God and neighbour. Jesus recognizes a problem in his time, but the problem of privilege is a constant trap for those whom God has called.

Both Isaiah and Jesus would remind God’s people that the biggest danger to the fellowship of faith comes from within. Our complacency, our belief that we have done all that is necessary to please God – these are the things that bring the walls tumbling down. And every generation, someone sees the danger, and calls the church to take notice. The language changes, of course, but From Isaiah to Jesus to this very moment, we need to be reminded that the work we do is (first of all) at God’s request and for God’s glory, and (second) not the thing that will save us.

Our rituals and traditions feel eternal – they are supposed to remind us of the constancy of God’s promise and presence – but nothing we do is forever, and no particular tradition or ritual can protect us from our mortality or save us from our sin. The mystery of faith is this; what we cannot do, God has already done in Jesus Christ – not so we could stop working or praying or offering worship or seeking justice, rather, we are invited to use our efforts to help reveal the glory of what God has done. The point of the parable is that when our efforts fail to reflect God’s mighty acts of grace to the world, then our efforts will fail, and our labour will be in vain – we will find frustration and hopelessness, rather than freedom and joy.

The good news – the truly spectacular news – is that even when we find frustration; even when our efforts fail to reveal the goodness of God – when churches struggle and congregations despair – even when God seems to be tearing down walls and opening the vineyard to strangers – even then, in love God offers us the chance to start from scratch. The wild grapes are uprooted, the old vines pruned and burned so that new growth might come. That is the mystery and majesty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As we come together in this most ancient and mysterious sacrament of the church – gathered around this table, may we remember that the planting continues – the vineyard is constantly being renewed in love, by faith. And thanks be to God, we have Good News to share.

Amen.

1Matthew 21: 43-46 (NRSV)

2Isaiah 5: 1-7

“Where’s MY miracle…?”

June 8, 2013

Widows and miracles – so often in Scripture, the two go together.

Perhaps it is because those who have suffered great loss are better suited to recognize mercy and grace…

Elijah encounters a woman at the end of her resources;

                   Jesus meets a procession of profound grief;

And in both cases, the fortunes of the widows in question are quickly and happily reversed.

The dead are raised – and the fortunes of these women are changed for the better –

for a widow was a person without hope, without ally, without position or prospect.

Scripture of this sort – miracle cures and signs of God’s power performed –

are the refuge of the hopeless even in our time.

But we are right to ask why such signs seem to have been withheld in our experience…

 Where do we get our sense of wonder?  Where are our miracles?>

How are we to find hope, if not from miraculous cures,

and signs of wonder offered by those chosen by God?

Our widows need help; our sorrow is just as real – our situations just as heart-wrenching;

What do these singular stories of death and resurrection mean to us?

 Why must we be taunted by them?

Too often I have heard people refer to the miracles recorded in Scripture with despair, rather than delight:

“Why does God not heal me?  Why did my daughter / father / husband have to die?  Where’s MY miracle…?

If indeed these Biblical miracles are a sign of God’s favour, and the presence of God’s servants,

Does their absence mean God’s promise has deserted us?

It would be easy to come to that conclusion –

to decide that somehow our faith is deficient, and our waiting is in vain.

Too often, when our questions go unanswered

and our opportunities for grace seem to have come to an end, we are told “Have faith!”

yet those words ring hollow when you are down to your last meal,

or you have just buried your child.

As followers of Christ, we are often called upon (in fact, Scripture says we must be always ready)

to give account of the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15).

And that hope is not dependent on signs and miracles.

What these Scriptures offer us is a faithful way to respond  to the kind of tragedy that is all too common among us.

This idea was suggested to me in an online article by a Mennonite pastor named Lia Scholl (http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/lect10cgospel/)

Her reflection (on the notion and nature of healing in the Luke 7: 11-17 passage)

identifies four steps in Jesus’ response that I believe could serve us well.

What Jesus does, Scholl says, is notice, care, respond, and believe;

 I believe that this pattern of behaviour – while it quite often points to what we now call “a miracle” –

never fails to reveal the grace of God at work among the people Jesus has engaged.

We are easily able to do any of these things –notice, care, respond, and believe.

occasionally we may even do several of them in succession –

Jesus secret is that these are  constant features of his behaviour.

——-

Jesus notices the funeral procession.

 It would be easier to ignore it; to step aside, or go around –

but Jesus mingles with the mourners and takes deliberate interest in the lives of these strangers.

                              Can we say the same?

Once noticed, he seems to be deeply interested.  The process of Jesus involvement runs a rapid race.

Jesus responds to the need that he recognizes – he speaks – he touches – he dares to call the dead to life

This is not a normal, passing interest; in Scholl’s words “Jesus gives a crap” –

Words she has intentionally chosen to shock us into realizing that, too often, we don’t (give a crap)

(the phrase “He had compassion for her” has its roots deep within the body;

 the Greek understanding of emotion was tied to the physical location of a person’s “guts/bowels” –

so, he felt this in his guts – deeply – with all that was in him.

While our language has altered,

we still “feel deeply” – and are moved to the depths of our being –about a good many things;

but how often are we moved this way by the plight of our neighbours?)

But it is Jesus profound belief in the presence and power of God that makes the difference.

He takes each of these steps in absolute confidence that it is not just the outcome,

but the whole situation that is inhabited by the presence of God.

 A firm belief that the dead will rise and the sick will be made well  is not enough to make it happen –

that we know too well.

The witness of Jesus in these miracles of faith helps to point to the less obvious truth –

 that God was on the scene all along.

That God walked by the funeral bier; and with the hopeless widow

That even at the height of our uncertainty, God promises a new beginning; a fresh start.

Our decision to model Jesus behaviour will make a difference

in the lives of the lonely and desperate and anxious and grieving.

Our willingness to care – to show real compassion and act on that compassion –

while it may not raise the dead, will certainly bring new life to the situation.

 For the act of engaging the suffering (as Jesus did)

is what helps us recognize (and celebrate) the presence of God alongside those who suffer.

And that is always good news;

Even as we bury our dead; Even though the sick still suffer –

The interest and compassion and action of the faithful

 brings the hope of God to the midst of the hopeless –

And that is what miracles are made of.

Hope from the back of the book. (Revelation 21-22)

May 5, 2013

The promises of God come in many forms; but you are tired of promises.

The people of God can only go so far on the strength of a promise, no matter who makes it.  This is the universal problem of a life of faith – from earliest history to this very day;

promises are all well and good, but we want action!

You know it.  I know it.  God knows it.

This desire for action (as we discovered last Sunday)

expresses itself in a variety of ways as “mission”.

This action makes us feel useful –

it fulfils part of our mandate as the children of God; as disciples of Jesus –

but there is still the matter of these promises of God.

What do we make of them, especially when they come in such fantastic form?

 

The Revelation to John is a hotbed of divine promises,

wrapped in fantastic visions, sprinkled with political intrigue and a dash of creative license.

As a work of theological literature, it gives us a lot to deal with.

It is addressed to a particular audience, and it deals with very particular circumstances,

but because it has been included in our Holy Writings,

we also believe that it offers something of the truth of God to us,

in this radically different time and place.

The twenty chapters preceding this morning’s reading

Speak of God’s irresistible desire to redeem all of creation.

It will be messy, according to John’s vision – and occasionally frightening

But the reminder must be vivid,

for the people of God are growing tired of waiting on the promises of God

 

 

Though Christ is Risen, and the Spirit has settled upon them,

the expected reign of God has been replaced by a reign of terror.

The tensions between the Roman authorities and those who would give allegiance to God

were always brewing – and a division within the Jewish community

that saw many follow the teachings of Jesus made matters worse.

 

 

Into this world comes an author called John –

isolated by necessity on the Island of Patmos –

and John has had a vision…a series of visions, as it happens, all designed to bring hope

to a people who are tired of waiting for God’s promises to be revealed.

Much of what John describes is horrifying to our ears, but dreams can be like that.

He writes of challenges faced, he speaks in riddles to the seven churches –

and then he relates what the Spirit has shown him;

the slow but steady heavenly war on earthly decadence.

 

Plagues – trials and tribulation – death and disaster;

all part of this cosmic struggle, which is mirrored in reality.

John’s writing suggests an earthly war is also raging,

and he offers his visions as confirmation of God’s promised victory, of an eventual peace.

 

The church has spent centuries struggling with what these visions mean

in light of “our current struggles” – but there is one vision about which there is little doubt.

 

(Rev 21: 10) 10And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

What follows has become the model for Heaven as a real place.

Measurements, vivid descriptions, the stuff that hymn-writers dreams are made of…

here, it seems, we have finally been given what we need to maintain our faith.

Here the promise springs to life in John’s graphic description.

The city itself springs from the clouds and descends ‘as a bride’ –

in a remarkable turn of phrase, John brings the promise of God right down to earth.

 

Our problem is that with progress come problems.

We have replaced this heavenly, jewel encrusted, many gated vision of reality

with a much weaker metaphor.  John was speaking in metaphor too,

but once we discovered “only” the vacuum of space beyond the dome of the sky,

we turned this heavenly city into mere illusion.

 

But the promises of God are not illusions.

These visions can still be ours, and we can take from them real hope,

if we release them from centuries of speculation (and fear).

 

The promises of God, John would have us know, are a priceless treasure;

These promises are worth our patience – they are a gift beyond counting –

like a city bathed in light, crowned by precious stones,

and filed with the sounds of joyful praise.

 

That should describe, not just “heaven” but any place that becomes home for the faithful.

The promises of God are not idle, if the people of God can celebrate with praise –

wherever the faithful remember and rejoice, the reign of God comes close to earth.

John’s revelation is meant to encourage those who have given up on the promises –

encourage them to see the world in a different way, to imagine the promise

bursting over the horizon and spilling into their present, harsh reality.

 

We might benefit from this, if we dare.

We might begin to see these visions as a filter for the way we see the world.

We might, with the Spirit’s help, discover the reality of the promise in our midst.

God’s promises are real enough.  God’s action is evident.

All that is needed is our response.

 

John’s vision of this heavenly city draws our attention away from the world as we know it,

and points to a world that has real value for us –

a world defined by God’s glory, and filled with the sounds of joyous praise.

It can become the world we live in –

we need only share the joy we have discovered in Christ.