Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

Witness

November 13, 2016

“Not one stone will be left upon another…when you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified…nation will rise against nation…there will be dreadful portents…but before this, they will arrest (and ) persecute you.”

Odds are, these are the things that jump out at you when Luke 21: 5-19 was read a moment ago; nothing but the promise of destruction, disaster, hatred and betrayal – what a combination!  And it’s possible that they would have drawn your attention even if the past week hadn’t featured an American election which marked the conclusion of a campaign that made it easy to imagine that the end – of something – was  near.

The news services, and our various social networks (both the electronic and the flesh-and-blood kind) have not been shy about their assessment of recent events.  Liberals, conservatives and everything in between, have offered opinions and presumed motives and dared to prophesy; all with very little regard for fact.  “Now we’ll see some real change!’, says one.  “Not my President!” says another.  I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that both voices are wrong.

What we always fail to hear when the voices of culture cry doom is the voice of Jesus – who reminds us (in Luke’s gospel this morning and elsewhere) that troubling times bring an abundance of voices, strong with certainty, designed to carry over the din of our desperation:  “the time is near! – I am HE!”

Remember what Jesus said about those voices?  “Beware that you are not led astray…Do not go after them.”

We can convince ourselves not to follow those who make outrageous claims; The ragged street-corner preachers, or the nay-sayer who writes ten letters a week to the local paper no longer get our sympathy.  We have grown discerning in the twenty-first century.  It takes information to sway us – THIS is the information age, after all.  We are now drawn to slick media campaigns; we are ‘engaged’ (and I use that term very carefully) by public ideas that invade private spaces in a way that Walter Cronkite could never have imagined.

Some would have us think that this is progress.  We can inject our opinions into any debate we choose, and we do.  It is easy to ‘play along’, because governments, businesses, even religious organizations have discovered that the evening news is not enough; they must establish a presence across a variety of social media platforms to ensure that their ’message’ is conveyed, considered and properly controlled.  And that message?  “the time is near!”  “the enemy is everywhere!”  “we have the solution!”

Sound familiar?

It can be unsettling when the lessons chosen for a particular Sunday resonate so strongly with current events – people of otherwise good sense loose their faithful minds when this happens.  Suggestions and theories about the nearness of the end of days are trotted out for consideration.  But times like this can be instructive, if we would remember something very important: although Jesus has something to say to us, his message is not exclusive to the state of affairs in November 2016.

These moments of situational harmony (fairly frequent occurrences, if I’m honest) between ancient Scripture and modern life are signals to us that human social problems are unaffected by the passage of time – we are inclined to make the same mistakes, over and over again.  And from the perspective of those who would follow Jesus, those mistakes quite often have large social and political consequences.  And from across the ages, Jesus’ message is the same; “Don’t fall for the trap!”  “Don’t be led astray!”

That is all well and good, Jesus, but what we really want is a strategy for response to those voices of doom – those smooth-talking sources of our anxiety.  What should we DO?  How do we respond?

The answer is not what we expect.  Jesus claims that times like these – times of upheaval and uncertainty – will provide a chance for the faithful to testify to the sovereignty of God, but…don’t think about what you will say.  Don’t prepare in advance.  What kind of advice is this?  We are inundated with information; we have our opinions; surely a carefully crafted response – an impassioned speech, or a well written article – is just what is required here…

“Don’t play the game”, is what Jesus seems to be saying.  Not “preparing words” is not the same as not being prepared.  Jesus has been preparing his disciples from the beginning of their time together, not to excel in the debate, but to live according to the principles of God’s reign.  Jesus has instructed us in compassion, humility, justice and grace, and often enough, those things require our presence.  Words are what got us in to this mess.

Words that categorize and divide and injure or insult.  And when there are so many words that none can be properly heard, Jesus calls us to be present.  To stand before the barrage of words, ideas, and policies; to stand with those most affected by these frightening situations, and simply witness to the glory of God that is found in the weak and the weary – the outcast and oppressed.  “You will be hated by all because of my name”, Jesus says, but you will not be harmed; “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

This goes against the grain, doesn’t it…but it is the same strategy that Jesus will use when faced with the power of a state whose policies made prisoners of citizens – whose power was widely acknowledged – whose leaders acknowledged no rivals for their adoration.  Jesus’ witness to the power of God, the reign of God and his love for the people of God, attracted the wrath of all manner of earthly powers.  The death sentence pronounced by those whose voices seemed loudest was not the final word.  The noise of the crowds is silenced, every time, by the quiet power of the love of God; whose love promises life, abundant and eternal, in every generation.

The disciples heard the voices of doom and wanted to know; “when will this happen, Jesus?” –  but they were asking the wrong question.  It has happened – is happening – will happen.  Such is the human condition.  And in every generation – to every situation, Jesus offers the same advice;  Stand firm – be patient in faith – and do not be afraid.  God’s love will not – has not – cannot fail.

Rule maker, or rule breaker? Why not both.

June 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Why Jesus?

March 28, 2015

Jesus is the centre and soul of our worship, and the rock upon which our faith must stand, but why Jesus?  It might have been anyone, really; there were plenty of faithful servants of God who might have been the focus for a movement to ‘change the world’ – to ‘usher in the promised Kingdom of God’…Prophets & kings lived and learned and passed away.  Judges held power and made policy – rabbis nurtured the faithful and yearned for a better day – why was Jesus’ influence so great?  what was different about him?

This was the main talking point as the Christian Church began to describe and defend itself.  Scholars and students, religious experts and ordinary citizens all wanted to know; what did Jesus do that we should follow him?  What does Jesus offer that cannot be found in the faith of our ancestors?  It was a question that not even Jesus’ disciples could answer as they approached Jerusalem for the passover celebrations.

They were following a friend – someone who seemed able to speak their dreams into reality.  People were finding healing and wholeness in Jesus’ presence.  Hungry people were being fed; those whom religious rules had long ignored (or disdained) were offered a place in the conversation, and heard – for the first time – that they were among those whom God loved. The were, in fact, revealed (by Jesus) to be the ones God loved the most.

Those who developed the theology of liberation, with the notion of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” were affirming this teaching of Jesus – suggesting that God does play favourites; but not in the way we may have imagined…

We have had many generations to try and understand this – in some places in the church, it is the only way to describe the reign of God – but in the beginning, the disciples had no words for what they saw happening.  It was different; it was exciting; and in the end it would get them all killed.

All of this is still so new to Jesus followers and friends, that as they enter Jerusalem, most of them are taken aback by the tension in the city.  The Romans are on edge, as they would be – occupiers are never comfortable when the people they oppress gather for festivals / celebrations.  The Jewish authorities are buzzing about this new teacher – who is gathering support; saying radical things; making a statement with his entry to the city (on a donkey – a mockery of a parade; a joke, really – what does he mean by that?  who is he insulting?  How can we stop his dangerous talk?)  Jesus  has suggested that the temple will be “thrown down” (Mark 13:1-2), and he has told his disciples that there is trouble coming (Mark 13:8ff)

For all that the disciples of Jesus have seen during their time together, and for all that they will see and experience in the next seven days, it is Jesus absolute determination to trust God that affects them the most; his summary of the commandments (Mark 12:28-31); his urging that they keep watch for the signs of God’s deliverance in the midst of the trouble that is coming their way, and the way he redefined the passover meal for them (Mark14:12-25); all these things reveal Jesus’ complete trust in God’s ability to redeem, to rescue, and to make good on the promise of ‘something new’.

This morning, we begin again the journey from Passion to Resurrection.  Jesus has confirmed his confidence in God’s providence in his brief but poignant prayer in Gethsemane.  His disciples have proven that they don’t appreciate what is really at stake; Peter brags that he will not be driven away  – none of them are able to keep their eyes open while Jesus prays.   Judas has chosen to profit from the act of turning Jesus over for ‘questioning’  because Jesus’ convictions have left he authorities no choice; this radical compassion is not welcome in a society that is devoted to security and control, and so the threat that Jesus represents must be removed.  If he will not ‘toe the line’, he must be punished – Jesus has to die.

What does not die – what cannot be killed –  is the principles that guided Jesus throughout his life.  His devotion to God; his absolute belief in justice, mercy and grace for all people; his assertion that God desired a relationship with us that was not ‘arms length’, but intimate and real; as close as that of a parent and child.  These are the things that attract us to Jesus.  These are the truths that will not be denied.  No hardship, no disaster, not even death can overwhelm God’s desire to see justice done – to show love to us and promote love among us – and the proof of this meets us three days after Jesus meets his doom on the cross.

A compelling story, some say; others say it is only an enduring myth, or a cruel trick to play on a people searching desperately for hope.  But we dare to say it is true.  Jesus, a kind and caring teacher – a humble man of God – endured ridicule, pain and death only to be raised from the grave by the power of God; a sign of hope for us and a confirmation of all that Jesus himself proclaimed about the lasting, living God.  We gather in worship to celebrate Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  We form communities that seek to share the love of God with one another, and with those who are harder to love.  We honour traditions of service and occasionally we reach out in new and dangerous ways.  We treasure our buildings as holy places, and recognize that the gift of faith makes all of creation holy again.

This is hard to explain to people who don’t know the story.  it seems like foolishness to those who choose to find satisfaction in the temporary delights that surround us in these days.  But we are given the task of living in a way that honours the gift of Jesus’ life and work.  We are called to give an account of the hope that is in us.  We are privileged to have this fantastic story to tell at a time when hope is very much needed, and faith seems a forgotten thing.  Let us take to the task with joy – let us live our faith as Jesus did – let us, this Holy Week, rediscover the truth of God’s undying love, made clear -at last- in Jesus.

Fear, itself.

June 23, 2013

Jesus has (according to Luke’s gospel) just brought his friends

safely across the “the lake” (Luke 8: 22) through a fierce storm.

 Their fear has been conquered by Jesus presence,

and his “command of the wind and the waves”.

The last thing they need is trouble on land, but that is what they find.

Jesus steps ashore to a different kind of storm.

 He is accosted by a madman:

naked; raving; a danger to himself and others

(according to the hurried biography Luke’s gospel gives us).

This fellow has been banished to the edge of town.

 Because of his condition, he is perpetually unclean.

He is forced to make do for himself among the tombs;

on the boundary between the living and the dead.

He is neither.

 There is no medical, social, or personal response to this man

except bondage and the watchfulness of those set to guard him

(more likely to keep him “where he belongs”).  Luke’s gospel does not recall his name.

Yet for all the energy spent to keep him apart,

he has broken his bonds, evaded his captors,

and like steel to a magnet he is drawn to Jesus.

From this distance, we are convinced that this is as it should be;

Jesus, whose mission it is to heal the sick and bring good news to the poor,

 has already amazed us with his “way with the suffering”.

From our Resurrection perspective,

we accept that Jesus purpose was that we might be free of all that binds us –

so this story would seem to hold no surprises for us.

Jesus confronts the demon – demons, actually –

bargains with them and casts them out of our unfortunate friend

at the expense of a herd of swine –

(no great loss, and great ritual significance to a Jewish audience,

but a crushing blow to the innocent swineherds)

and there you have it:

another triumph for this gracious and generous man of God.

But this is not a triumphant moment in Luke’s gospel –

 there is no heroes welcome – no joyful retelling of this miracle of liberation.

This is all about fear.

The key to this text comes when the people discover what Jesus has done.

The swineherds complain about the sudden loss of income, disguised as a miracle,

and when the crowds come to investigate,

they find the village villain “clothed and in his right mind.

And they were AFRAID!

Fear bound this man and kept him nameless.

Fear chased him to the tombs to live among the dead.

Fear kept his jailers from getting to know him, or from daring to consider him human.

Fear made an animal out of him, and kept him at bay.

Such are the demons that Jesus meets and casts out;

demons that have been assigned to one person;

 projected on his condition/behaviour by a community gripped by fear.

That same community strips him of his humanity, and declares their fears banished,

But they are hiding behind their cruelty – they have committed the worst kind of crime.

Fear is at the heart of this.

 Their fear generates the companion sins of ignorance and oppression.

Fear of something different led to an imprisonment.

Fear of a life now changed – radically changed –

and thus unpredictable and uncontrollable,

brings their attention to the man who upset the applecart…

and so they turn their fear on Jesus next;

 the fear of one who refused to bow to the cultural expectation

and treat this man as less than human –

this fear brings them to show Jesus the quickest way out of town.

This is a common reaction in human beings –

the impulse to ignore the obviously odd, and shun those whom we do not understand.

The dividing line is easily moved –

be it race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation –

there is no end to the things that generate uncertainty in us,

and uncertainty too quickly turns to fear.

So the fear returns and Jesus leaves, and we are left with this remarkable story,

and an un-named evangelist, now set loose on the community that once imprisoned him

to tell of the things God has done for him.

The miracle in this story is left for us to discover.

           Can we not imagine ourselves bound by this same kind of fear?

Fear of the strange or the unknown –

fear of the “madman in our midst”,

whom we are quick to identify, but reluctant to call by name…

Are not we guilty of letting our fear bind the weak and strange among us?

Does our fear keep us from recognizing the work of God even in this “enlightened age”?

Those who talk, or look or think differently

do not fit easily into our tightly controlled communities of faith.

We test and we judge, and in the process we lose sight of the possibility

that these strangers may have had something to tell us/show us

of the grace, mercy and love of God.

We don’t even think to learn their names –

they are different, thus dangerous,

and we think ourselves well rid of them.

But the lesson – the miracle – that Luke’s gospel offers us

Is not that Jesus “cured” a madman,

but that the cure is so simple, and so easily within our abilities.

To offer compassion – to face the stranger and call them friend –

to touch the untouchable and offer the hand of friendship to the outcast;

Jesus does all these things, and invites those who would follow him to do the same.

To recognize the human being in the one being shunned, or persecuted –

that is what Jesus does in the name of God,

and we who are part of God’s covenant family must do the same.

This seems simple, but experience tells us it is hard; hard to face our fear –

hard to imagine that “they” are just like us.

Jesus saw only the man – Jesus is drawn, not to his madness, but by his humanity.

Jesus is quick to recognize the child of God in everyone he meets;

This attitude is central to his teaching, and affects his every action.

Our exiled man “at the tombs” discovered this to be true,

And his new knowledge turned him into an ambassador of God’s Kingdom of grace.

No name – no home – but a new sense of himself;

A miracle has changed him;

and all because Jesus recognized him as one of God’s own.

Think of what might be accomplished –

in the church; in the world – for the kingdom of God,

if we were to turn our hand to that kind of miracle.