Posts Tagged ‘humility’

Authority reimagined

September 10, 2017

We would really like this to be about conflict.  Because we have a good understanding of conflict – we keep track of those who sin against us, and long for a way to ‘put them in their place…” –  we are inclined to pay attention when Jesus says: “When a member sins against you…”.  So it may be disappointing to discover that Jesus’ counsel is so simple; keep communicating – don’t let ‘sin’ tarnish relationships within the community of faith.  Talk to one another; listen to one another; take chances that depend on grace.  And when none of that works, we are advised to treat the offender “as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

But before you start planning to wash your hands of anyone who wrongs you, I’d invite you to remember how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors…He ate with them – listened to them – treated them like family, generally, because they had been ruled outsiders by the religious lawyers and otherwise righteous ‘keepers of the faith’.  In spite of all that, this text isn’t primarily about such ordinary arguments as we are used to having amongst ourselves – whose job is it, or whose opinions will shape worship.  Such petty matters are certainly within the scope of Jesus’ advice, but in this mornings reading, the stakes are much higher than wounded feelings.

At this point in Matthew’s gospel, we are on the stretch run towards Jerusalem.  Time is growing short, and Jesus is doing his best to prepare for a confrontation that he and his small groups of disciples cannot win in the conventional manner.  This is not a struggle for political favour, military control or even for basic human rights (as we might imagine them) – this confrontation is about authority.

Who gets to say what about God – that is what this boils down to.  Jesus has been proposing some very challenging ideas about God’s relationship – to Creation – to empire – to the economy –  and, of course, to human beings.  Jesus speaks boldly against the existing order of things.  He has offered new and liberating interpretations of the laws around purity.  He speaks very frankly about ritual sacrifice.  He pushes us to think about the way we offer our goods (and our service) to God.  He has just declared that only those who become like children will be “greatest” in the kingdom of heaven – causing us to ask questions of our definition of greatness. And all of these questions call attention to authority as we understand it.

Jesus dares to say again what he once told Peter: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  While there are many questions about what that looks like and how it might work, it is certain that this binding and loosing suggests that our responsibilities as God’s humble children grant us a special kind of authority…and that can be a problem.

As the church has evolved across the centuries, so too have our ideas about the authority that comes from faith.  Authority is usually vested in the leaders; those who bear responsibility for telling the stories and solving the conflicts.  The disciples, the desert fathers – later the clergy, who developed a special hierarchy.  Along the way, the church lost the right to exercise civil authority, and we gave roles to kings, presidents, parliaments and legislative bodies that dealt with “worldly things”, while the church still claimed authority over heavenly things.  Until even that came into question.

Recent events (say in the last 60 years or so) in the Western world, suggest that the ability to question authority has grown into a requirement.  We want to be self-assured, self-identified, and self-regulating.  “You’re not the boss of me” became the motto of a generation, and this affects the way we express our spiritual hunger.  We are told that folks will no longer tolerate a powerful, authoritarian divinity.  Some would turn Jesus into the ultimate companion; gentle, meek and mild – one who challenged the system and (ultimately) won, but with no reference to the authority responsible for his victory.  And when it comes to matters of faith – when we talk about crucifixion, death and resurrection – there can be no victory without authority.  What we hear in Jesus’ statement about binding and loosing suggests that, when we claim the faith of Christ, we are granted some measure of the authority that makes resurrection possible.

That is an astonishing claim, and it’s one that we rarely take seriously enough. It is not to say we are granted magical powers to suspend or otherwise subvert the laws of nature.  Too often we would imagine that simple agreement among believers (if 2 or 3 of you agree on earth ABOUT ANYTHING YOU ASK…) will result in our being above to halt hurricanes, reverse the result of an election, or stop the spread of cancer.  That is clearly not how it works.

The power and authority we are granted – loosing and binding in the physical (earth) and spiritual (heaven) realms – is the power to change the way we see things, and so to change the way we respond to events, to people, to “the way it’s always been”.

In that power to change and be changed – a power demonstrated by Jesus, fuelled by the Holy Spirit, and granted us by faith at our baptism – lies the authority of the church, and by extension, every member of the church.  It is not vested solely in the clergy, nor in the appointed officials at 50 Wynford.  Such authority has nothing to do with education, experience, or position and everything to do with our willingness to “change and become like children”.  It is authority that comes, not from an institution, or the ritual of ordination, nor the approval of a congregational meeting – the authority we claim is the authority of God, who led Israel to freedom against all odds – in spite of the authority claimed by Pharaoh.  It is a powerful and humbling gift – one that opens our eyes to the needs of others and urges us to speak out against injustice and reach out in love to those who are held captive to ‘the way the world works’.

Abuse of this gift – exercising authority for personal satisfaction or public honour – is not an option; Jesus new rules about greatness still apply.  Our challenge and our privilege is to speak, to act, to live and love in the name of God, whose gift this is.

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Humility

October 23, 2016

“God, be merciful to me…a sinner.”

A parable, remember; a story of extremes.  No Pharisee was ever so self-aggrandizing; no tax collector so self-aware.  The real challenge in this parable is that the Pharisee singles out this particular tax collector.  He notices a reluctance in his approach to the holy space; perhaps he sees, in that reluctance, acknowledgement of guilt – and so the Pharisee imagines his disdain is justified…and there is that difficult word – one that traps and trips us even to this day.

A warning against pride, certainly; an encouragement to further humility, without a doubt… but was the Pharisee exultant?  Was the tax collector truly humble?  Since God knows every heart, is this – perhaps – a lesson in God’s level of tolerance?

Two went to the sanctuary to pray.  One was a regular – familiar with the ritual, confident in the results.  “Thank you Lord that I have my religious ducks in a row; I’ve never missed a meeting; I go to all the church suppers; I know all the good hymns and remember all the right words…and I pay my way – not like that person over there…”

That person “over there” keeps to herself, head down; not a stranger, but not part of the congregation either.  An occasional guest; not sure she should have come, but unable to stay away.  Silently praying – simply hoping (against hope) that this time, she might encounter mercy.  This time, she might find that glimmer of grace that would let her lay down the burden she carried.

This is what churches all over the world look like.  Sunday after Sunday, faithful people of every degree – those who are dangerously confident, and those who are courageously timid – take their places (and their chances) in God’s presence.  The confident sing loudly and pray with certainty; “Thanks you God for all we have.”  The rest sing loudly and pray fearfully; “God, I need but one thing.”  That there are so many different kinds of people in worship is not the problem.  That we imagine that the goal is that all should be equally confident – equally comfortable – equally JUSTIFIED – THAT is the problem.

In a culture that recognized, not only many different religious traditions, but innumerable ways to practice those religions, Jesus tells a parable against religion as an instrument of judgement.  God, as judge, does not need our assistance; God, who knows the contours of each heart, can certainly tell one intention from another far better than us.  So too in our time – a time of many different religious traditions and emerging expressions of religious feeling – Jesus parable warns against the smug certainty of the “saved”, turning our expectations (once again) upside down.

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled…all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  A lesson we fail to learn, especially when we imagine that our “way of life” (so called) is threatened by changes in the cultural fabric.  Whether the issue is governance, or labour relations; immigration or questions of equality; the world has changed while the church – citing the eternal nature of God – has changed more slowly.  And we (the church universal) take positions that sound  much like the Pharisee’s prayer: “we have been faithful – we have lived by the rules and maintained our opinions…not like those people…”

While the rest – “those people” – whether in ignorance of our position, or fearful of our opinion, simply seek mercy.

This is, I’ll admit, a gross simplification – but so is any parable.  The mystery of a parable is the gift of continual insight as you tell it, and hear it in new situations, under different conditions.  And as I hear this parable (Luke 18: 9-14) in the fall of 2016, in the middle of a terrifying American election cycle, with religious intolerance and racial unrest growing larger in our awareness every day, I am afraid for the church.  I’m afraid because it would be easy to cling to our ‘convictions’ – to stand on the certainty of our creeds and our doctrine.  “Jesus is the answer”, we could say, “no matter what the question.”  The cautionary tale that is the current presidential election has shown us that, for some folks, truth becomes those things that are said loudly and often.  We have professed our faith, as a matter of course, week in and week out.  We are certain of our salvation.  To us, the path is obvious.

But ours is not the only path.  The awkward prayers of the quiet, confused, hesitant, and occasionally faithful are equally valid.  The voice of the stranger, the need of the alien in your midst – the ‘orphan’ (in terms of religious affiliation?) – these too merit God’s attention and God’s action.  Our faithfulness may be evident by our personal piety – and we may feel very strongly about displaying that faithfulness in very meaningful ways – but that personal piety is not how God will judge us.

The beautiful thing about the two individuals in this parable, is that they are each searching for the same thing – God’s mercy.  The Pharisee is afraid he won’t receive it – the tax collector is afraid he doesn’t deserve it – and both of them have got it wrong.

God’s pleasure is to show mercy.  God’s preference is to act in grace.  God’s delight is in the redemption of all creation – rain falling on the just and the unjust – and no clearer sign of that intention was ever given than at an empty tomb where the misery of the cross was wiped clean by the gift of new life.

Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord – and God will raise you up;  so goes a song I learned at camp.  Good advice too, in a world where the loudest voice seems too often to get the largest reward.  If the church wants to be a unique voice in the culture, then perhaps humility is the way to go.

Humility

August 28, 2016

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ (Luke 14: 7-14)

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What I know about humility, I learned first as an eldest son – eventually, I discovered I needed humility as a parent too.   The lessons are different; as a teenager, I was reminded that “I didn’t know everything yet”, and it seemed no time at all until, as a parent, I was putting my children’s needs before my own.  Of course as a parent, I am constantly reminded that I don’t know anything about what those needs are – for they are constantly changing.  As a parent (and a son) I’ve long accepted this as the state of things.  I don’t mean to brag about my humility (that would be ironic) – but I’ve recognized these traits in others and compared their stories to my own journey, and in the cycle of these ordinary family relationships, I see opportunities to apply the lessons Jesus gives us in this morning’s gospel.

When Jesus talks about humility in Luke’s gospel, he suggests that there is a cycle of humility that might just be contagious – a ripple that turns the tide of self-interest and self-importance that can keep us from being the people God calls us to be.

Now, the problem with humility is that it sounds too much like humiliation; and while the two words come from the same latin root, they describe very different conditions in our day.  Humiliation is not something we go looking for – it finds us.  It’s usually public, it’s always awkward, and the memory lingers.  It can be as innocent as a messed up presentation at work or in school; it can come from a joke gone wrong.  Humiliation leaves us with stories we can tell about why we hate public speaking, or why we don’t feel like dancing, or why we never sing in public.  But humility is something we are encouraged to pursue.

“‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour…”  This is a choice we must make, fully aware of the setting.  We need to know ‘who’s who’, and should assume that someone else’s needs are more important than ours.  Make the wrong choice, Jesus says, and you may be humiliated – asked to make way for more important guests.  Give the host a chance to ‘move you up’ to the head of the table – don’t honour yourself, let others honour you.

Now – if the parable were all we had, we would be resigned to a passive life; a life of waiting to be seated well – a life of dependence on the generosity of others – and maybe that is a good metaphor for a life of faith; totally dependant on the provision of God; waiting to be “moved up the table” at the invitation of our Host.  But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He knows that this life involves guest and host duties – humility is needed on both sides of the equation.  Passive humility is too often misunderstood – seen as weakness or cowardice.  The host needs to reach out in the right way, and Jesus shows him how: “ when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you…”

Humble yourself when you are the guest – and humble yourself by exalting your guests.  Express humility from both sides of the table – in all of life’s situations.  This parable offers us a glimpse into the kind of relationship that God desires with us, both personally and collectively as Christ’s church.

It would be easy to offer examples of the lack of humility; we’ve all encountered those, and having learned lessons of humility as a parent and son, I’m now relearning those lessons as your minister – but I’m learning them in terms of this parable, and the question for all of us is this; What does the church look like when it lives out this parable?

It would be a church that does not serve itself.  A church that accepted the notion that 20% of the people do 80% of the work because that is what good hosts do – devote themselves to the needs of others.  It would be a church that concentrated on those who ‘could not repay’ (or help pay) for the work that needs to be done.  It would be less concerned with ‘bottom line’ things, and entirely concerned with front line questions like poverty and injustice; compassion and generosity.  The church that lives out this parable would give us a first hand look at the kingdom of God, where the weak are strong, and the foolish are wise.  It is an honourable pursuit – and it requires that we walk the fine line between humility and humiliation – for there are some who imagine such service as failure or folly.  But this is what brings us close to the heart of God – to heal the broken-hearted; to lift up the fallen; to honour humble poor, and so give God glory by our humble service.

Trinity Sunday, 2016

May 22, 2016

Wisdom and Truth – two very desirable things – today are placed before us for consideration by our lessons.

Here, in poetic prose, ‘the teacher’ gives wisdom a voice and an ancient claim on all Divine activity.  Here, in the wake of “THE SPIRIT” settling on those formerly frightened disciples, the lesson from John’s gospel offers us a brief trip back in time; an ‘I-told-you-so’ moment that comes courtesy of the Revised Common Lectionary, on the Liturgical feast of the Trinity.

Jesus – himself a stand-up member of our Holy Trio – offers some startling words of preparation prior to his arrest: “I still have any things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now…” (John 16: 12, – NRSV)

Presumably they cannot bear to hear them because there is so much happening – so much about to happen – that the disciples senses can’t be trusted.  Fair enough; but if Jesus can’t get through to them – live and in person – what hope is there?

There is the hope offered in the form of the ‘spirit of truth’ -This Spirit will reveal those things – slowly and deliberately – that would be too much to take if the knowledge came all at once.  This is a Spirit that, surprisingly, does not speak for itself.  It reveals only what is has been told, and the purpose of these revelations is to glorify Jesus, whose purpose is to glorify God – and so we catch a glimpse of the divine circle of support.

And from a much older tradition, Proverbs presents us with the poetic reflections of wisdom personified – a description that suggests that while God may have created “from nothing” all that is, God did not work alone.

Much of what we did not read describes wisdom as a virtue – something to which all should aspire – but the real news here is that even God had a helper.

It is through texts like these that the church developed the image of God as Trinity – three “things” that are distinct yet united – to help us understand the scope of God’s presence, purpose and power.  We baptize in the ‘name of the Trinity’ – I offer my sermon each week “In the name of God; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” – Trinitarian language is found in all the common Christian creeds.  It is a mark of the Christian Church, this mysterious amalgamation of “Three-in-one” and whether or not we understand how it works, most of us have agreed that “Trinity” is an acceptable description of God.  But based on this morning’s lessons, I’ll suggest that our notion of the Trinity has more to do with us than with God.

Back to those two desirable traits – Wisdom and Truth – for a moment.  As elements of God’s character, they offer us assurance that God is both an able and willing covenant partner.  But when these two traits are offered as prizes – if we imagine that they are goals to be reached on our journey to understanding, they soon become problematic.  Our desire for the truth – our pursuit of wisdom have led us down some challenging paths.  We are occasionally guilty of taking, out of turn, that which “we cannot bear”.  Wisdom and Truth, like Faith, are gifts of God – offered at the right time, for God’s own reasons.

We confuse certainty with truth, and we confuse knowledge with wisdom. When we embrace certainty and call it truth, we assume power that is not ours to wield, and when we gather knowledge and call it wisdom, we rob the word of its virtue.

Jesus describes a ‘spirit of truth’ as a guide, not a state of mind.  This spirit will “guide you into all the truth” – one step at a time.  The truth is shared, little by little, and so the character of God, the kingdom of God, the way of God is revealed; slowly, deliberately, to the point of frustration, truth is uncovered.  Not because God is slow or deliberately frustrating, but because there are things that we still ‘cannot bear right now’.

And wisdom, rather than being the pinnacle of a life’s work, or the result of our live experience is described as an integral part of ‘all that is’ – not simply present at Creation, but “like a master worker…”.  So so it is that wisdom might be discovered; gradually revealed by our exploration of and engagement with God’s vast and glorious creation.

Trinity has everything to do with our need to bring some measure of clarity to something that is complex and mysterious, and that is understandable.  But if we could really accept that the promised helper was guiding us (gently and deliberately) into all truth; and that wisdom’s work was everywhere, waiting to be discovered, then perhaps we might begin to understand that God is not a prized to be claimed, nor an idea to be defended, but a present, purposeful power to be experienced.

Jesus points us in the right direction; what we need to know cannot come to us all at once – we could not bear it.  Wisdom, truth and every other good gift will find those who are humble and patient before the eternal mystery of God.  That was Jesus example to us, even as he faced persecution, arrest, and certain death.  Our path, wherever it leads, has been illuminated by his great light.  We would do well to follow him.  Amen

Uncertainly certain

April 9, 2016

A breakfast on the beach – after an unsuccessful night of ‘fishing’.  This is what it’s like.  They are trying to ‘get on with life’.  They start by going back to what they know, and Peter, for one, knows fishing.  Whatever they expected to find – whatever they wanted to happen – this wasn’t it.  No fish, and a slightly familiar stranger offering advice from the beach.  The disciples are cautious (except Peter – Peter is never cautious) when it comes to this encounter; the text tells us that “…none of the disciples dared to ask him ‘who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.”  Who else could it be?  How uncomfortable was this meeting?  It is an interesting situation; they are uncertainly certain.

And it seems that this is what it will be like to follow the risen Jesus; always sure of the one thing that will consistently bring doubt on every other thing.  They are sure that it is Jesus, which means their ideas about such fundamental things life and death – the very bedrock of knowledge that has sustained human culture since the beginning of culture – is now nothing more than sand.

So it is with Saul, who is so sure he is right, until he is struck blind.  He can see (and see clearly) until he can’t see anything.  This is what it’s like.

Sure that you know whom God has chosen, are you?  That’s great, until God chooses someone else.  Sure that you can share in the sufferings of your teacher and friend, are you Peter?  Except your nerve failed you, and you denied that you knew him.

But everything will be okay.  Saul will be transformed by his encounter – entirely reliant on the goodwill of those he once hunted down like criminals; he will become the apostle to the outsiders – the gentiles – to us.

And Peter is given his personal moment of redemption.  There on the beach, Jesus offers some fishing tips, prepares food for his hungry companions, and then walks Peter through his absolution, resulting in an admission of love for each vehement denial of that horrible, dark day.  This is what it’s like.

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We soak up the gospel accounts of the disciples’ early days – the bold steps taken and the miraculous results of their proclamation.  We are encouraged (some of us) by their initial hesitation, because it looks so familiar to us.  We are in awe of their commitment and their seemingly unquestioning devotion to ‘The Way’, but the truth is, questions abound!  Who is that on the beach…really?  Why do you doubt that I love you, Lord?  What is this vision that strikes me blind?  Why would God ask us to go to the aid of our persecutor?

Who are these faithful folk; these ancient witnesses who are so sure about the work of God in Jesus, and still cautiously curious about everything else?  These are not just asking First Century, ‘let’s get started’ questions – they are modelling for us the curiosity that is necessary for a lively faith in a living God.  This is what it’s like.

Questions.  Conversations.  Discussion and debate.  In the Reformed tradition especially, we are encouraged to pursue – together – an understanding of what the Spirit might accomplish in us, with us and through us.  As people of Word and Sacrament, we are encouraged to keep both tradition and our contemporary experience in in gentle tension as we worship, study and engage the world after Jesus’ example.  We are to possess the humility of those who are ‘uncertainly certain’ – an attitude described in Living Faith (9.2.1) which reads:

We should not address others in a spirit of arrogance,                                                          implying that we are better than they.
But rather, in the spirit of humility,
as beggars telling others where food is to be found, we point to life in Christ.

While it is true that this quote refers to our approach to those who belong to different religious traditions, it is worth hearing anew, as within our own denomination (the Presbyterian Church in Canada) we once again consider our stand on same-sex marriage, and the ordination of faithful folks who are found within the LGBTQ+ community…

Because this is what it’s like:

It’s like people taking irreversible positions and daring others to challenge them.  It’s groups of fearful, yet otherwise faithful people loudly demanding that, not only is change unacceptable, but the conversation about change must be avoided.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter to you – maybe there are bigger worries where the life of the faithful is concerned.  It’s quite likely that you’d rather hear that the denomination was more concerned with the current cultural attitude toward the church in general – but the culture’s attitude to the church is directly connected to the conversations we have (or refuse to have) about the constant collision between (theology) and the world.

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Peter and his pals could not separate their personal histories from the life-changing experience with (of) Jesus.  When they tried to ‘shake it off’ – to get back to life before (without) Jesus, there was Jesus on the beach – familiar; frustrating in his knowledge of their area of expertise; gently urging them to enter the struggle to reconcile life in the world and a hunger for the things of God.  Saul (who becomes Paul) will never be free of his personal history:

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” (Philippians 3: 4-7)

So Peter find’s pardon, and Saul loses his sight but is granted a vision – neither of these men would have gone much further on the journey without a willingness to consider the options and engage in conversations – sure of only one thing: Jesus is risen, and that puts every other thing – everything they had ever known – up for debate.  Our challenge as followers of Christ and children of the living God, is to face these challenging discussions with the right combination of courage and humility.

We have plenty to offer – nothing less than life in Christ; but it is a gift that spoils under the weight of certainty; one which must be delivered with the humility of those for whom the will of God is utter mystery; in whom there is nothing certain beyond the love of God, made known on the beach – on the road – in the world – in the midst of our questions and quarrels.  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

A lesson from the Garden

June 7, 2015

The reading from Genesis this morning brings with it memories of flannel-graphs and Sunday school art of a man and woman hiding behind shrubbery, a half-eaten apple discarded in haste, and a snake lurking in the branches of a tree.  There it is, we say; the FIRST SIN!

That is the set up, at least, for the text that we read this morning (Genesis 3: 8-15).  For we are quick to point out the moment that “sin entered the world”, but we don’t like to linger on the consequences.

Among the consequences of sin is that, eventually, every sinner is held accountable.  Not always quickly  – (theologically, not even death can keep us from judgement) – but somewhere out there, someone is ready to ask “why did you do that?”

This morning, it is God, out for a morning stroll – enjoying the fruits of all that creative labour; eager to commune with the best parts of Creation…but the man and woman are hiding.  Afraid (he says).  Ashamed at having been tricked (she says).  Naked and exposed by their actions, which they knew to be wrong.  They try to avoid their responsibility, but nothing doing; actions have consequences – that’s part of the pattern of the Created world – and God purposely sends them out into the wide, wide world.

This morning, we stop with the punishment of the serpent. But that is not the last act of judgement, just the most telling, because for all the misery we attach to the disobedience of the first couple, the serpent modelled original sin quite well – and the punishment reflects that.

Scripture reveals that even in our exile from paradise, humanity has found favour, and ultimately forgiveness from God – the serpent, not so much.

Still eating “dust” – still going about on its belly – because it is a serious mistake to mis-represent the mind of God.

Maybe you’ve never thought of the Genesis story in that way – maybe it’s always been about OUR sin and the road back to paradise, but the text does not ignore the role of the serpent, nor does it diminish the serious nature of  the serpent’s suggestion that it knew better than God what God intended for humanity (read Genesis 3: 4-5).

It is that idea – that particular sin (the “knowing better than God”) – that is at the heart of this morning’s gospel lesson.  Jesus is followed by huge crowds; some eager for miracles, others, curious at his motivation.  His family tries to rescue him, thinking that he’s lost his marbles, and that suggestion provokes a speech that is difficult for us to understand:

‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

An unforgivable sin?  Really?  What about the enduring love of God?  What about the ‘power of forgiveness’?  What about God “who sent the Son, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved…”?

But here is a link to that first story, that first couple, and the first sin.  A sin “against the Holy Spirit” – a slander on the character of God, that suggests that the sinner knows more about God’s mind than God does.

Consider the crowds – the “Doctors of the Law”, who offer their judgement on the source of Jesus’ power; “he has a demon.  He drives out demons by the power of the chief demon (Beelzebub).”  These folks, who appear faithful, see miracles and decide they are mischief.  Can’t you hear the voice of the serpent?  “That’s not what God wants…that’s not how God acts…trust us, we know God; in fact, we know better…”

It may be a sin to deny God (a classic definition of sin is separation from God, so any act, thought or declaration that separates us from God – including denial, fits the definition); but such sin can be remedied and forgiven.  So much greater the sin to assume the mind of God, or presume to know completely the will of God.  This ‘sin against the spirit’ has no remedy, says Jesus, and that’s not surprising; for those who believe themselves godly have no need of God’s liberating Spirit.  To know the all-knowing with complete certainty defies simple logic, but it’s the pride behind the idea that contains the sin.

Don’t believe in an all knowing power?  That’s fine – just make sure you’re not acting like one.  And rest assured that those of us who do claim faith in the Almighty are not immune to these ‘godly delusions’.  Church people with all the answers; those ‘fundamentalists’, who offer absolutes in their interpretation of Scriptures, and unswerving belief that theirs is the right way of thinking about God / faith / life…as though God were whispering in their ears.  Those who reach out in faith to new cultures or different religions with the confidence that what they offer (in terms of religion and culture) are superior to all others.  Plans that hinge on the notion that “God is with us” (a position maintained by both sides during World War II).

Such dangerous positions as these have desperate and predictable consequences – no matter what faith tradition is the starting point.  So much suffering is brought about when we take the role of the all-knowing power for ourselves.

The good news is that we need not stay “…on our bellies, licking at the dust”.  The good news is that God has given us discerning minds and hearts that can be moved to change.  The division in the body of Christ between Roman Catholic and Protestant churches has not disappeared, but humility has allowed us to live in relative peace with one another for the last several generations.  Wounds are still being healed between the church and the First Nations, but our certainty has given way to what I hope is a genuine desire to learn more about one another, and learn from one another.  Ecumenical movements continue to recognize and celebrate similarities between and among a wide variety of denominations in the Christian Church, allowing faithful people of widely different traditions to band together in our service to the wider world.

We are learning to disagree in faith, and that is no small thing.  It is, in fact , a sign that we are beginning to learn the lesson of the Garden; that God’s wisdom is greater than ours, more mysterious, more full of grace; and that no amount of certainty in us can replace the gentle, loving nurture of the Spirit of the Living God.

Jesus opened the family of God to those “who [do] the will of God…”  To do the will of God, we must be open, and humble, and ready for the Spirit to move us “like the wind”.  Thanks be to God, that Spirit moves among us still.  Praise God, for the gift of humble service that is for us, and for all, modelled by our brother – our Saviour – our Lord, Jesus Christ.  Amen.