Posts Tagged ‘kingdom of God’

Prepare

November 27, 2016

All these promises – the hopeful legacies of the prophets; the residue of Mosaic Law; the covenant that led Abraham from his home to meet this singular God under the desert stars – every single promise that comes to us through our heritage in Jesus presents a challenge.  The promise was peace and prosperity to those wearied by war in the time if Isaiah, but history tells us that peace, when it came, was fleeting.  That promise is repeated – through various degrees of exile and outrage.  God’s people are led forward and backward across the fertile crescent of the middle east; they gather in faith, they rebuild in triumph; they resist the lure foreign gods and pagan societies until, you guessed it – someone stronger comes along.  Egypt – Babylon – Persia – Rome; a seeming endless parade of near victories that result in a sub-culture within the Jewish nation of Jesus’ time of those who have learned to ‘go along to get along’; and so it is within any conquered culture.

The faithful cling to the promises, of course – that’s what it means to be faithful.  The rituals and the forms of religious life need to be obeyed if there is any hope of seeing the hope of God delivered, and so religion flourishes under oppressive regimes – for modern equivalents, think of south and central America, Communist China – countless places in Africa – so it was in Jesus day.  The promises of God become a powerful force in the hands and minds of those who believe.  Some are militant; some are gently persuasive – all are convinced that the misery of the people is a sign that there will soon be a change in the order of things; that God will come to the rescue.

Under Roman occupation – held as a strategic outpost on the edge of a vast empire – Palestine was not worthy of the best Roman culture had to offer.  The oppression of the most hopeful strains of the Jewish religion – the branch of thinking that longed for a renewed, restored kingdom under God – caused a renaissance of it.  Strong voices; charismatic personalities; with messages that ranged from invitation to openly hostile to the ruling Romans and their local helpers.  There were others, of that we can be sure, but the two most significant examples were John the baptizer, and Jesus of Nazareth.   John the Baptist paid for his ‘radical preaching’ – repent and prepare always sounds like an accusation to those exploiting a nation – with his head.  Jesus had taken up where John left off.

Jesus spoke like a revivalist; he hinted at a ‘new Kingdom”; he described this kingdom as clearly opposed to the rule of Rome – a kingdom of justice and peace.  He urges his followers to live differently – to behave differently – and differences get noticed in situation like this.  Oppressive governments prefer compliance and uniformity.  Questions are discouraged; options are limited; and people who talk like Jesus talked are considered dangerous.

In Matthew’s gospel – chapter 24 – it’s already too late for Jesus.  He’s been noticed.  The plan to have him arrested is taking shape; the powers that be cannot ignore the crowds who gather, nor the kinds of questions they ask.  “Tell us when this will be?  What will be the sign that this new age is about to begin?”

The listening crowds, and even some of Jesus’ closest friends, are eager for a change – rebellion is what they imagine, and the language of chapter 24 confirms it, but Jesus is not counselling rebellion, nor does he consider the overthrow of a sitting government to be a desirable thing.

The Son of Man is coming, he says – at an unknown time, without any real warning – coming when you least expect.  The Son of Man will make sisters and brothers of all of us – he will be the singular point of all our relations, and under his dominion, God will recognize all of us as children – but the timing is not to be known.  This is the one promise that holds all other divine promises in reserve – the universal mystery that has baffled every generation of those who would call on God in their distress.  “But about that day and hour, no one knows…”

We don’t like the unknown.  We prefer solid information and rational explanations.  We tie things to the clock and calendar so that we can be prepared – so our ‘ducks are all in a row’…yet even today, as the calendar of the church tells us we are in a brand new season – and the calendar of the culture reminds us that the year is drawing to a close, there is plenty of mystery left for us.  Advent it our opportunity to explore that mystery – to get acquainted with the art of ‘not knowing’.  For the promises of God – the promise of peace; of a new and glorious age of justice and mercy; the promise of the end of suffering and the triumph of God’s grace – all these still wait to be fulfilled for us.

They are coming, that is certain; and the birth of Jesus is to us the signal that the reign of God has already begun to touch the earth with beauty and glory…but there is so much yet to be revealed.  And that is what Advent is for.

During these seasons of preparation, we are drawn deeper into the search for the signs of God at work.  We are urged to look through the fog of war for any glimmer of hope.  We are reminded that the best God has to offer was placed in the midst of the poverty, oppression, violence and cruelty of Roman occupied Palestine.  We are promised that the work of God is a continuous, creative mystery which will catch us unaware and draw us closer to grace, if we are ready – if we will let it.  And being ready doesn’t mean knowing everything; being ready means being aware that God works in mysterious ways – that God comes in the fragile form of an infant boy; that God comes close in quiet comfort when things are at their most chaotic and confusing.

True, the calendar can tell us that Advent has begun, and that Christmas is coming – but only our hearts, open to wonder and ready for anything, will recognize the nearness of God – the advent of the kingdom of peace – the promise of God made good in our lives.

Be ready – the promise is coming.  The time is near.

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Master

September 18, 2016

A man learns that he will lose his job for ‘squandering his master’s property’.  Knowing he has few options, he embarks on a campaign of deceit – cheating his master and earning favour with his master’s customers; deals are made, discounts appear out of nothing, and lo and behold, the master praises the servant for ‘acting shrewdly’…Faithful can mean many things, you see – and if you are faithful to a pattern of shady business practices, that is apparently praiseworthy (in certain circles).  The ‘moral of the story’ can be confusing – “…if then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches…” – until finally, Jesus cuts through the confusion with the bumper-sticker statement of the day: You cannot serve God and wealth.

Simple, right?  Yet this is not a call to poverty, either.  Jesus didn’t want to drive us all into the desert, where we would not be tempted by the flash and dazzle of successful people.  He walked among the rich and poor – his vision included all God’s people – and he could see how difficult it is to choose between economic success and the security offered by God’s covenant promise.  Even in his day, the lines were blurred.

Because cash is king.  Nothing happens without money changing hands – that is how the world has worked for thousands of years.  And the result of this otherwise simple economic reality is the so-called ‘golden rule’:  The one who has the gold, makes the rules.  So the crooked manager is playing according to the rules that he knows – following the most effective pattern to success…and Jesus offers an alternative.

Jesus’ mission is to bring another reality to light – the reality of God’s mercy, grace and love; the “Kingdom” of God.  Not an ‘end of time’ alternative, but something that we might experience here and now with a change in attitude, a different focus, and a proper reverence for the wonder and mystery of both Creation and the Creator.

So to the crowds and his disciples, Jesus offers many examples – in parable form – of how our focus has been shifted away from the things of God.  And the message is clear; you cannot serve God and wealth.  You can’t have your cake and eat it too.  You don’t get to worship worldly success and the Creator of the universe.  And yet, here we are, in a time of unprecedented wealth – unbridled capitalism – and unimaginable opportunity.  In North America, at least, the church has been the beneficiary of the ‘success’ of capitalism…and also its primary victim; because enough is never enough, is it.

When times were promising, and possibilities endless, churches grew without counting the cost.  congregations seemed to flourish, and that gave us an appetite for more.  We wanted (and thought God wanted) a church on every corner – and in some places that dream became a reality.  But what God wants is devotion in every heart, and that comes with a different price tag.  We thought our buildings and our programs were the key to success, and we pour money into both.  Now we do need places to gather, and it is wise to have plans in place once we have gathered; to teach, to encourage, to praise and to pray – but it is too easy to slip off the edge; to forget whom we serve.  The building or the program – the status as a “happening place” – can quickly become our master.  The world approves – the world understands success that can be seen and measured in buildings or bank balances – but that is not the pattern we were called to follow.

Money cannot become the thing that defines success for God’s people – for Christ’s church!  It threatens to do just that, because cash is still king, and the bills must be paid.  But I say this as one who has turned my passion for God into my vocation – my livelihood; the money doesn’t matter.  Mercy, mission, grace and generosity – the marks of the church and the habits of those who would follow Jesus – these are the signs of true wealth, independent of our seemingly constant concerns about money.  The call of Jesus to follow him was a call, not to poverty, but a different kind of treasure.

We have been invited to share the treasure of God’s love – and to do that with our worldly wealth or in spite of it.  Jesus life – spent trusting in the goodness of God and the hospitality of his fellow travellers – might have ended in failure by the measure of the world; a short trial, a grisly death and an unmarked grave.  But the fullness of the story includes resurrection – the gift of new life, new hope, new possibilities – things that money cannot buy.

Because we are ‘in the world’ we will always struggle to find our way.  but we must remember that because of that resurrection mystery – because we are not ‘of the world’ – because of the love of God in Jesus Christ, we need not be held captive to our fear of ‘failure’, nor should we confuse our priorities:  We serve God; our resources serve us.  The moral of Jesus’ parable restated – though it doesn’t look as good on a bumper sticker – stands as our invitation to imagine a way forward; a vision for those who long for the vision of God.

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.

Palm-less Sunday (as reported in Luke 19: 28-40)

March 20, 2016

This doesn’t have to happen.  There is no reason for Jesus to make such a fuss.  Go to Jerusalem; celebrate the festival; lose yourself in the crowds; honour God with the worship that is required, then get the heck out of town.  That option was always open – that’s how everyone else dealt with the horrifying political reality in this once proud capital city; the city that symbolized all that was great about this nation of God’s chosen people…  though any illusion of being special in the eyes of God has faded for this generation.

But Jesus has spent most of his adult life reminding people of God’s claim on them.  He declares that a kingdom is coming; his intriguing use of parables relates God’s ancient covenant promise in new ways; he is bold to suggest that the promised kingdom may be almost upon them.  Peace, justice, compassion, and above all, a new understanding of power and order – these things sound too good to be true to a people whose earliest memories are of Roman occupation and foreign rule.  The Promised Land seemed void of promise…until Jesus started talking.

Still, for all his attractive ideas, this decision to steal a donkey – well okay, borrow, but it’s a near thing – and tumble in to town along one of the main roads…that’s just crazy!  If you are representing a power other than Roman power, and claiming a heritage that suggests you have historic rights to a land that is (once again) under foreign occupation, then someone is going to notice; questions will be asked, and if you’re not careful, somebody could get hurt

And that’s what happens, of course – predictable as the tide, here come the authorities; fellow citizens and co-religionists who do not want to make waves.  They covet their positions; they seek the safety offered by Roman indifference.  “Teacher, control your students!  Keep them quiet!”  No one want’s attention drawn to the promise of God’s redemption, especially when that redemption looks like self-rule.  This is no time for ‘kingdom’ talk.  Jesus has his answer ready: “If these were quiet, the stones would shout out.”  This promise of redemption is not limited to any one nation.  God has promised nothing less than the liberation of the earth itself.  How will Rome react to that?  We’ll know soon enough.

The troubling thing is that Rome’s reaction will be aided by those who are afraid of real freedom.  Jesus will be betrayed by a friend, denied by one who was like a brother to him, rejected by fellow scholars and religious experts – all these were (are) threatened by the suggestion that God is on the verge of offering something different.  Those who call for silence are the ones who cannot face the truth.

Jesus is not a guide to a new kind of morality – there is nothing new about a morality guided by love of God and neighbour – Jesus destroys our ideas about power and success; Jesus puts God at the heart of his every action, and dares his opponents to find fault – and of course they do, because the Divine power Jesus honours had been gradually assumed by human agents, religious and political.  They fear the loss of their authority – an authority that was never properly theirs.

Human vanity has, from the very beginning of the biblical record, led us to presume to act as gods.  We take liberties, we make pronouncements, we establish kingdoms that satisfy our own need for recognition; our own thirst for glory.  The problem we have with Jesus is consistent with the reaction of those who opposed him in Judea.  He asks us to imagine a different structure and to acknowledge a different power. To illustrate, he consorts with societies forgotten souls; he touches the untouchable, he treats the unfortunate poor as his equal and he dares to address God in personal (and occasionally intimate) terms.  His “triumphal entry” (so it is named in most of our memories) is very little triumph, unless you see progress in the mocking of the powerful.  That’s what it is to ride a donkey, covered in peasant cloaks and welcomed by a rough voiced choir singing the praises, not of the man on the mule, but rather praising God for all the deeds of power they had seen.

The king they bless that day was not Jesus – though we are bold to name him king.  They bless the King of Heaven; and that, of course, is trouble.  The powers that be will set this right – they cannot help themselves.  Jesus will pay for this defiant illustration.  But he will not deviate from his convictions.  He will remain obedient to the power of God to the end.  A power that will not lay waste to the opposition; a power that responds to violence with love and forgiveness; a power that will, in love, see us liberated from our deadly pride, once and for all.

Fight terror with…truth.

November 22, 2015

Power reveals itself in very particular ways in this world of ours.  There are well established patterns for powerful people to follow; politics, and economics offer chances for ambitious people to make names for themselves – to build up their kingdoms.  We watch them with interest, we  offer them support (and sometimes our trust).  We leave them to manage the day to day affairs of the state.  Their products shape our culture and their ideas infect our minds until, viola – a way of life – a country – a kingdom develops which we want to share, or we are asked to justify and protect because “our way” is  somehow beneficial or superior or (heaven help us…) blessed by the god of our choosing.  These kingdoms are sometimes stable enough to last one lifetime – but not always.  There are times when multiple generations struggle to find a way of peace, or find themselves fighting for the wrong cause.

When I was choosing the lessons from the Lectionary for today, I wasn’t thinking about these things. Paris was just another European capital that I wanted to visit; Beirut was still a war-torn wonder that seemed dusty and backward; Syria had been in the news for so long that It was becoming dangerously easy to ignore.  The parade of misery in the last couple of weeks has (for me) changed that.  Our continued mis-use and misunderstanding  of our own power – power to make kingdoms of our own design; power to influence thought and action; power to control those who threaten or frighten us – every application of human power in the pursuit of human satisfaction was once again making headlines. I couldn’t help thinking kingdom thoughts.  I could not ignore the evidence that suggested we were arguing about (and fighting for) the wrong things, and  I could no longer ignore the conversation between Jesus and Pilate – from John’s gospel (Jn 18: 28-37).

This moment, coming as it does in the final hours of Jesus’ life, brings the confusion between ‘a Kingdom FOR God’ and ‘the Kingdom OF God’ into sharp focus.  It’s not magic – it’s barely even a mystery – but in a world saturated with violence done in the name of “right” or “faith” or “democracy” or “freedom”. this is a comparison to which we should pay attention.

This is the meeting of two very different kinds of power.  Pilate, representing ‘might makes right’, is the power that we all understand.  His is the power we are asked to support with our hard earned dollars and with our democratic privilege.  His is the power projected by our armed forces, and vested in our governments.  All officially sanctioned – all perfectly ‘normal’ as far as we are concerned.  And Jesus is brought before this power as a prisoner condemned.

Pilate doesn’t want the job – he had suggested that this was an internal, Jewish matter.  But Jesus is a threat to Jewish religious power, and that threat must be removed to protect the kingdom that the leadership is protecting – their kingdom.  Pilate has heard the stories, though – “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Powerful people understand the attraction of power – surely the oppressed must have a champion – a king of their own…

Jesus doesn’t really help his own cause – “My kingdom is not from [of?] this world…” – he claims the title that Pilate first gives him – and on this evidence, along with a multitude of other Scripture, we claim Jesus as “Our King” – and we long to call ourselves citizens of the kingdom of God – but what do we think that means?  Because Jesus is not making a statement about location – He is not offering directions to a kingdom in heaven (at some mystical future time); His is a statement of content and context.  My kingdom is NOT like your (human) kingdoms…

Jesus does not propose to make (or keep safe) a kingdom for God; he represents – and encourages us to seek – a different kind of kingdom – God’s own kingdom – which is ordered around the ideals of perfect love and true justice.  This is not a kingdom we are required to fight for or justify; we need not fret about who belongs, or wonder about a sudden regime change because Jesus has declared the boundaries open to all “who seek the truth”.  This kingdom is established by One who has no beginning and no end (see Revelation, chapter 1) – a kind of ‘kingdom’ completely outside our experience.

God’s kingdom does not ask us to take up arms, or argue about the process of kingdom-making.  We are invited to listen to Jesus, who dares us to believe him: “I have come…to testify to the truth.” – truth that says God has more to offer than power – more to share than territory or prestige.  In this kingdom of truth,  there is no need to fear, for this is a kingdom founded on the love of God, which drives out fear.  This is the kind of place we should want to call home, and Jesus has already hinted that this kingdom – this peace – this truth – is “very near…”

It may not seem possible, given recent events, but the Kingdom of God is always open to those who”’do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.”  This must be how we choose to respond to acts of terror or calls for revenge – we must follow the example of our King, who resisted evil without resorting to violence.  Even his encounter with Pilate shows us Jesus offering this powerful man a chance to do justice – to seek truth.  Pilate only knew enough about Jesus to be afraid of this new thing that Jesus offered – imagine, this powerful ruler afraid of a poor travelling rabbi – and Pilate’s fear forced him to act according to the pattern of power in the world; with violent suppression.

Jesus’ humble insistence that there was an option – that peace and truth and love would win – was proven three days later.  Thanks be to God, the power of peace prevailed against even the dismal certainty of death, and the Risen Christ still calls to all who seek a better way.  Amen

Privilege, price, and the season of Thanksgiving

October 11, 2015

Our brief tour through the book of Job is not enough to do it justice; it is a very complex story, plenty of twists and turns.  The gist of Job’s story is that a man who is completely righteous before God must come to terms with a sudden and horrifying loss of his family, his fortune and his health.  It is a sore test of faith for Job, who has never had reason to doubt that God smiled on him.  He doubts it now.

We are brought to Job by the Lectionary to remind us that he issue of privilege is a constant theme in Scripture.  God’s favour is the mark of high privilege in much of Scripture – God chooses to bless Abraham & Sarah – to bring the Israelites out of slavery – God speaks through certain people – prophets – and God’s power is made manifest in certain, unmistakable ways throughout history.  Job’s problem is seemingly one of privilege revoked.

Job’s story has an interesting counterpart in the gospel of Mark.  The man that Jesus meets is righteous – by his own description.  He has kept the commandments – and certainly Jesus believes this to be true; or at least, Jesus admires his earnest description of his faithfulness to the law, for Jesus “looks at him and loves him.”  And then, Jesus changes the game:  “You lack one thing – go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.”  Job’s fortune is taken from him; Jesus asks this man to walk away willingly.  So what does it mean to have privilege?  What does God’s favour look like?  How are we moved by Jesus challenge?

Now, this is our Thanksgiving weekend; a time when most of Canada remembers to stop and think about how fortunate we have been.  We are encouraged to give thanks for the things that make us happy – that make our life comfortable – for the people that bring us joy.  We celebrate by gathering together and eating, mostly – though some travel, and some rest, and still others go about their regular tasks with a sharper awareness that we do indeed have it pretty good – and there’s nothing wrong with any of that.  But there are those who don’t celebrate – too many who cannot give thanks; some in our own communities. I imagine an almost ironic cheer coming from those members of the family of God when they hear Jesus say “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”  Finally, some justice from the Almighty!  Finally, an area of life that does not favour those who already have everything they could ever want or need.  And it is tempting to leave the gospel there – to send the rich away empty, and to fill the needy with good things and let all give thanks that God can be just – but that is not the last word.

Yes, the first shall be last and the last  will be first; an upsetting of the usual order of things is a hallmark of the kingdom of God.  But Jesus uses one mans grief to keep us from making the rich man’s mistake, not to separate us along economic lines.

It is hard to enter the kingdom of God.  Hard for the rich, for the poor, for everyone in between – but not because of what we do or do not have; it is hard because we don’t long for the things of God in the way we long for the things of this world.

That’s not difficult to understand – after all, the Kingdom of God is a high ideal – our imaginations have been trying to describe this kingdom for thousands of years.  Peace, praise and pearly gates is about the best we can do – but there is so much more.  Loving neighbour, loving God – the kind of harmony described by Jesus as being “very near” has been an elusive dream, because power and wealth – the trappings of success – are there for the taking.  Those things are real and delightful and available, and so we distract ourselves in their pursuit.  In this, we are caught – just as the man in Mark 10 is caught.

We know the commandments; we’ve kept (most) of them to the best of our ability.  We live good lives, seeking mostly good things.  And still it is hard: hard to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly.  It is hard because we are only human.  We like our own accomplishments – our toys – our self-made, hard won privileges.  It is hard to enter God’s kingdom, not because the ‘price of entry’ is high, but because God’s favour cannot be bought, or won, or gained by our effort.  Go, sell all you have and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven…”; this is not about price; Jesus is telling us something about value.

We are all guilty, here in the middle of October, of giving thanks for things that have cost us something – we are not always aware that some of these have no value to us.  Jesus invites us to consider the way things change us – are we living in a way that glorifies the world as it is, or do our lives offer a glimpse of the world as it should be?  And while it is, in Jesus’ words, impossible for us to embody the kingdom of God, we are assured that God stands ready to help us live into that ideal.

With the Spirit’s help, following Jesus path, we can live lives of value – lives that redefine privilege; lives that honour God and neighbour and selves.  The promise of the gospel – a promise of new life and real hope – is that God’s favour is ours for the asking.

Give thanks today for all the things that bring you joy.  For your families, your safety, for the good fortune (or good planning) that brought you to a land of peace and plenty.  But give thanks too for the grace of God that finds us all, rich, poor and in between.

“…he does not know how.” (Mark 4:27)

June 15, 2015

The church is prone to thinking big.

“The world for Christ” is a pretty ambitious motto –

and an admirable one, I suppose;

one that gets us thinking and dreaming on a grand scale.

Not just globally, but nationally and locally –

we are driven to think big as God’s people,

sure that, if there are enough of us, all leaning in the same direction,

we can affect positive change in society at large.

What’s more, we believe that we can return to those

“thrilling days of yesteryear” – a time when the church meant something –

when our opinion was heard and considered valuable,

and “our” way of thinking, doing and being was embraced by all.

The simple fact is that even when the church ‘meant something’

to a larger segment of society, the church was the biggest game in town

because it was the ONLY game in town.

Those thrilling days of yesteryear were thrilling because our orbit was smaller –

our communities were central to us,

and everyone in them followed a similar path.

We worked and worshipped side by side – we kept to ourselves,

and believed that ours was a model for every other community to follow;

indeed, within Canada, that was the case.

We were assured, once upon a time,

that our collection of small, often isolated bodies of believers

would grow and expand – such was our goodness, and the rightness of our cause – until we had, in our own way, one community at a time,

conquered the world for Christ.

Thinking big is an admirable past time,

but it leads to frustration and disappointment on an equally grand scale.

The church is not now what we imagined it might be.

The mighty dream of doubling church membership in the 70’s was abandoned –

such initiatives were tried by a variety of denominations – and fell flat.

We know of churches, south of the border or well beyond our borders,

who seem to have solved the ‘numbers’ problem.

Stories of ‘congregations’ numbering in the tens of thousands –

four services on Sunday; multiple staff; overflowing youth programs;

huge, well appointed ‘sanctuaries’ that resemble concert halls…

Surely these are signs of success, we say…

But they represent particular solutions for churches in very specific environments.

This is not the norm – nor is this a pattern we can expect to follow.

Yes, Jesus preached to crowds and ministered to the multitudes –

but these events were not the primary models for his ministry.

“[it] is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. “

There is a ‘planting’ and a ‘harvest’ –

the harvest often in disproportion to the planting;

(a little is planted – much is harvested)

and the means of growth is not really understood.

A mystery, I tell you – and what’s more, a mystery of divine origin.

Jesus is not talking about the church as we know it – 

only we would dare to take something as grand as the kingdom of God 

and reduce it to something as ordinary as the church –

Jesus is not talking about the church but about our lives in faith –

in the company of other faithful people –

in the knowledge of the promised presence of the living God –

And it starts small.

It’s like a handful of seeds thrown into the dirt with a muttered blessing

it’s like a single, insignificant seed

that grows to become a massive, extraordinary, life-sustaining shrub.

No one makes big plans if they have started with such an insignificant offering

but faith demands that we take full advantage of the weather, the soil, the water

and those small moments, to plant and pray.

Planning and dreaming and speculating on the results is not evil,

but it is not always helpful.

General assembly has just ended,

and once again, hundreds of faithful, hopeful Presbyterians

have spent time together in Vancouver planning, worshipping,

and dreaming together about what they think the church should be (or could be)

only to return to what the church is –

a tiny, weary and often frightened collection of people seeking God together.

The planning is put to one side when the questions of existence are faced;

how shall we continue to tell our story, and God’s story,

in light of our circumstances (what ever they may be)…

Big doesn’t cut it – the grand landscape is not comfortable for us –

we are tired, we are weak, we are small.

And Jesus’ counsel fits us perfectly: remember the mustard seed –

there’s nothing to it; no one would predict the size of the plant

from the size of the seed – but there it is, larger than life.

Our own efforts may seem small and insignificant

when compared to the ‘wider work of the church’

but they are all part of the wider work of the church.

As congregations we support Presbyterians Sharing and the work of PWS&D.  Individually, we are moved (in faith) to support the work of charities and humanitarian efforts that follow Christ’s injunction to “love our neighbour as ourselves”.

In all these things and more, we are sowing mustard seed.

We meet – over soup and biscuits

to offer conversation and companionship to folks from the community.

We meet – in the stores and in the streets

to share the highs and lows of our lives.

We meet – in worship

to celebrate the victories of our lives, and to celebrate Jesus victory over death –

and maybe, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t seem like much.

But Jesus never promised we would be the biggest game in town –

he promised that if we told the story and stuck to our guns,

we would, in fact, be abandoned, scorned, ridiculed and persecuted.

What Jesus did promise is that in all that,

we would not be forsaken by the One who’s story this is.

What he did promise is that if we planted our seed, the Kingdom would come

and that it’s coming would be like nothing we could imagine.

Week after week, we gather, a small group offering those things

that mark us as the beloved children of the Living God –

we offer worship – we celebrate the Sacraments – we dance at weddings

and cry at funerals, and in all these we are moved by the gift of the Spirit

to rejoice in the goodness and mercy of God,

revealed in Christ Jesus.

Small things, maybe, to us and to everyone else.  So be it.

We leave the big things – the mystery of it all –

to the Master of Mystery, whose promised kingdom comes even now.

Amen.

The waiting game – Matthew 25: 1-13

November 9, 2014

The women in this parable are waiting – and we know what that can be like. Waiting is never a comfortable time, and we seem to always be waiting for something; news, opportunity; relief; redemption. The church has been waiting for Jesus to return for 2000 years. The people of God have been waiting for God to intervene in their various circumstances since forever! And the kingdom of heaven is like…10 women waiting. What a surprise!

This particular parable comes in the middle of some pretty hard news; Matthew’s gospel is preparing readers for the end – not of Jesus earthly ministry; that’s old news by the time Matthew puts pen to paper – no, the end Matthew anticipates is the end of the old order; the end of the world as he knew it. That would also mean the beginning of the promised reign of God, so you better know whose side you were on – this prompts parables about faithful and unfaithful slaves / bridesmaids who are not fully prepared / and the parable of the talents (that’s next week..) The point? well, it seems that there is some question about the timing of all this ‘Kingdom coming’ stuff, so you just better be ready…so back to our bridesmaids.

This is a difficult image to begin with, for our culture doesn’t expect this sort of thing from bridesmaids. Typically, it is the bridesmaids that keep weddings from running on time! But times (and habits) were different then, and Jesus point was not about punctuality – it was about preparedness…among other things.

Over and over again, Matthew’s Jesus says things like ‘…but about the day or the hour, no one knows…only the Father…’ So the image of people waiting; lamps trimmed and oil at hand – this seems like a reasonable picture to paint…except that the groom is late – delayed – perhaps he is caught in traffic, or maybe he has had a change of heart; whatever might have happened, these otherwise sensible ladies are willing to wait him out. When the call comes, five have enough oil, and five are caught short, and the punishment for this minor transgression is…wait for it…COMPLETE REJECTION! is this really what the kingdom of heaven will be like?

Yes, says one school of thought. Heaven is a perfect place, and there is no room in it for error – especially our error. This sort of thinking is common enough, but it ignores the great gift of grace that God offered in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; the church has always taught that the whole point of Jesus death was to offer a “remedy for our sin” as the old hymn says; the notion that somehow the gates of the kingdom would be slammed shut in the face of those who made this error in timing (in judgement?) doesn’t work for me.

This is what the kingdom of heaven will be like; but why are lamps necessary – isn’t this the light of the world that these women are waiting for? What good are oil lamps in the presence of God? It makes me wonder if these women represent the plans we make about the kingdom we expect – but when the door is opened, our expectations will be left behind, won’t they? We wait in what we hope is perfect readiness, for something that even our wildest imaginations can’t conceive – and then (as Paul says) “when completeness comes” 1 all our plans (and all incompleteness) are quickly forgotten.

This idea started to take shape for me as I listened to a classical pianist was describing his concert preparations – “If the music is hard, well, that’s my problem” he says – what the audience sees is effortless playing; only the ‘perfection’ of the music matters – and I wonder if we have adopted a “performance art” approach to our faith. We must do all the hard work in preparation for our “perfect performance” – if it is hard, that is our problem. But when the moment comes; when God calls us home, or the Son returns in glory or whatever else may happen to usher in the kingdom of God – is it our perfection in the faith that will make the difference? Isn’t this supposed to be about the perfection of God? The golden streets and the jeweled walls are not the result of our achievement, or our preparation; this is God’s party, after all – any of our efforts will be lost in the splendour of who God is and what God is doing. Right?

There is a lesson in this parable, and I don’t think it has anything to do with our patient perfection. This is about the cost – the perils – of waiting. When Matthew’s gospel was written and distributed, the faithful had already been waiting for a lifetime. Nearly 100 years had passed since Jesus time on earth, and still, no Kingdom – no glorious return – no reward for faithful preparedness; what could that mean? Matthew remembers Jesus telling stories about the kingdom, and offers them all – and each of them say the same thing; you must wait. The timing is not to be known – you will fall weary, you will be challenged, you will likely be surprised – but you must wait.

The message is the same for us. The waiting continues, and while we wait, we consider all that Jesus did and said and asked of us. We try our best to apply his teaching to the world we live in – yes, we hope that our actions might “usher in the kingdom”, but really we want to make the most of our waiting. So we live as Jesus called us to live.

We offer love even to those who hate us; we seek justice and do mercy and walk humbly toward the day of God – we wait, not as hearers of the word, but doers2 – and trust that the mercy of God that has been shown to us in the love of Jesus will not leave us standing in the dark when the time comes.

Waiting is hard – and so is a life of faith. And since the reward is in God’s hands, we can be sure that even our faltering, (and often insufficient) preparations will be enough. “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not your harm, to give you a future of hope.”3 We live on into that same future, assured by faith that our waiting is not in vain. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1 1 Cor 13: 10

2 See James 1:23

3Jeremiah 29:11

Never trust your home-town prophet…

February 2, 2013

Believe it or not, Jesus brought this on himself.

His presence in worship – reading scripture – offering opinions on the interpretation –

none of this caused any problems.

“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

For the moment, it seems as though Jesus will be given the heroes welcome –

but he insists on guiding the conversation.

He anticipates their request

“do for us what we hear you have done elsewhere – Physician, heal thyself!”

and astounds them with the reminder that,

though they may claim to be “God’s chosen people”

God has regularly chosen to honour the unworthy with moments of grace.

Jesus did not harbour a grudge against these folks –

some of them may well have been his oldest friends.

The truth of the matter is that Jesus described himself

As being called to correct the expectations of people who were loved by God,

but had wandered off script just a little.

Exclusive claims are easy to make (and easy to maintain) but eventually,

someone will offer an alternative that cannot be ignored.

Any group that declares (with rigorous certainty) “WE are God’s people”

will eventually find themselves up against some who say “wait…WE are God’s people…”

any and all who would make this claim need to remember

that from the beginning, the whole creation was called good –

and now (as then) the whole of creation stands in need of redemption.

So Jesus reminder – Jesus insightful treatment of the Scripture that day –

was a tough pill for the home-town crowd to swallow.

When you praise the local hero – you expect that praise returned –

(we’ll tell you that we’re very proud of you  – you tell us how deserving we are)

and Jesus doesn’t do that.

He calls their attention to their error –

he catches them in a real (and dangerous) misunderstanding of their shared tradition,

and their response to this insight is to run him out of town.  The gospel according to Luke.

I’ve sat with this text on my desk for most of the week –

trying to decide what this means for the church – for you and I –

and some of the thoughts that I’ve entertained are frightening.

The notion that even Jesus had trouble getting his message across is not a comfort to me.

The reaction of the congregation is – to say the least – unsettling.

I’m never sure which side of the story best describes me –

am I offering a message that no one wants to hear,

or am I eager to dismiss the truth that people present to me

because it doesn’t match my dream for the kingdom of God according to Jeff.

This is the problem of the church –

a problem for all of us and each of us –

appointed messengers of the gospel and witnesses to the grace of God.

The challenge that is before us is always “are we on script?”

Is the message we proclaim, and the witness we offer consistent with the promises of God?

Do we really offer folks a chance to see

that the kingdom of peace and love that God proclaims in Jesus Christ

is for them, and not just for a chosen few?

Oh, I know – there are arguments for a very exclusive kingdom; but they are complete hogwash.

God erases boundaries, and overcomes obstacles

and we need to stop creating hurdles for God to demolish.

What we really need to do

is find a place for ourselves in a “kingdom” defined by love, justice, grace and peace –

I assure you that we won’t be surprised by the cultural / social / theological make-up of this kingdom because it will not matter.

The love, justice, grace and peace will have made every other definition meaningless.

This is borne out in Luke’s gospel too – but we usually miss it.

I nearly missed it.

Remember I said that Jesus brought this on himself?

By pushing their buttons – by reminding the crowd that the things of God often come first to those ;outside the fold” Jesus was stepping dangerously close to the line all preachers walk.

Comfort the afflicted – afflict the comfortable.  This is the preachers code

(it is no secret that it is how I approach my ministry).

Jesus took a chance, and his neighbours pushed back – all the way to the actual edge of town.

But at the very end of the story, the light dawns – the people relent – and Jesus makes his way from the edge of disaster to the next town on his itinerary;  “… he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

Angry mobs don’t routinely change their mind about murderous rage.  I think that the truth dawned, and they relented – each of them – and discovered the truth of what Jesus had told them.

The Kingdom of God was revealed to them as larger than their confusion, safer than their tradition, more comforting than their certainty, and they stopped, and parted, and let Jesus go.

That is the good news moment in this gospel reading, and it is a long time coming.

It is a truth that tells itself in the gentlest of ways –

and it is reflected in our experience with one another even now.

Our certainty will not protect us.

Our tradition, our name, our self-declaration as a Christian people, our unshakable sense of call

None of these guarantee a meaningful experience of the new life promised by God in Jesus Christ.

We have been wrong before – we will make mistakes as our journey continues.

And the truths that we tell one another along the way will not always simple to hear;

but God willing, the light will dawn.

And we will abandon our foolish insistence on our own way,

and find the way that God has made for us.  Amen