Posts Tagged ‘love’

Love…that is all

July 31, 2016

Hosea is a book of wild extremes.  As a prophet of the most High God, Hosea, son of Beeri, receives a message from God that is both redemptive and, for the prophet, personally alarming.  “Go, take a wanton [woman] for your wife, and get children of her wantonness;” (Hosea 1: 2 New English Bible)  Wow.

So God calls and Hosea answers – and in faithfulness to the call of God, Hosea and his wife (Gomer) name their daughters Lo-ruhamah (which means not loved), and Loammi (which means not my people)…and their son, they call Jezreel – God-sows.  The complicated message is carried throughout the book which bears his name; Hosea and his family (two families, actually, but that’s another story…) serve as living examples of the state of the relationship between the two kingdoms and the Most High God.

Israel and Judah have enjoyed a brief historical renaissance – life is good in the two kingdoms – and as a result, the people have turned from their first love.  God has become secondary to national pride.  The metaphors used by the prophet are adultery and  prostitution.  The first ten chapters outline God’s case against the people; they have trusted in their own might – they have offered their worship to foreign gods.  Their devotion to the One who redeemed them from slavery has faltered.   But what is also at work throughout the prophetic poetry of Hosea is the undeniable love that God maintains for this wayward, stubborn, complicated people.

It can be hard to imagine, in any generation, that God could love us at all. We have just finished a six-week study that concentrated on a single verse of Scripture, John chapter 3, verse 16.  We spent six weeks wondering what it meant that “God so loved the world…” – during a time in history that has seen fear ‘trump’ love in almost every imaginable way; mass shootings, the horror in Nice, France, a priest killed as he said Mass – not to mention the political shenanigans south of the border; look where you will, love seems in short supply, and yet…

“When Israel was a child, I loved him…but the more I called, the further they ran from me.” So begins the eleventh chapter of Hosea.  God has called the prophet to act out the nation’s unfaithfulness – the shameful, ugly, all-to-human pattern of national pride is on display in Hosea’s personal relationships and in the names of his children.  God’s prophet has brought to light behaviours and attitudes best left in the shadows, and still God cannot ‘un-love’ the people.

If you read carelessly – if you imagine that God acts according to some binary sense of right and wrong – and if you imagine that the poet/prophet possessed an absolute sense of God’s “right” and our “wrong”, then you will hear in most prophetic works what sounds like the “promise” of wrath.  It is easy to hear “…They shall return to Egypt…The sword rages in their cities” – as God promise of revenge, but it is more likely a prediction, based on experience.  The Lord knows (as does the prophet) that Israel’s past pride has led to a kind of lawlessness.  History reminds us that when humanity claims salvation by our own hand, and when we seek prosperity for the sake of prosperity, trouble is soon to follow.

Massive egos are revealed; political processes are left behind; ’might makes right’ becomes the compelling slogan; and the resulting ‘competition’, to be right or to exercise power brings with it horrible consequences, especially for those without power, or those who are labelled “wrong”.

The failure of society to acknowledge it’s inherent brokenness – the inability of the human race to consider that there are things at work in Creation that defy our understanding or control – these are components of what the church calls ‘SIN’; these are the failures that lead to destruction, not because God wills it – not because God is vengeful – but because God (and God’s prophets) have a sense of history that eludes the majority of us.  SIN may well be the thing that consumes our interest and drives much of our thinking about God, but SIN is not God’s main preoccupation – not now; not then; not ever.

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, Israel?”  This is not the plea of One who is bent on retribution, or obsessed with obedience.  The word of God here addresses a people whose failures are beyond counting – and they (we) are addressed, not in anger or with an ultimatum, but in an attitude of desperate devotion – of true love.

It is tempting to take the easy way out – the way of proud, pious certainty – and declare that God wants’ righteousness first, so we must be obedient, flawlessly faithful; endlessly observant to the multitude of ‘conditions’ that spring up as a result of our fallen condition.  The history of church-led persecution – campaigns against those condemned as heretics; crusades against Muslims; witch trials; the oppression of women; support of slavery; residential schools; vilification of the LGBTQ community – ours is a history fed by the desire to satisfy a flawed understanding of God’s righteousness.  Each of these efforts has drawn the church into questionable, and decidedly un-Christian behaviour.  And every time, in every generation, God’s heart-felt cry through the prophet Hosea breaks through the noise of our efforts to excuse or explain ourselves.  The deep devotion of God – God’s endless, boundless love – has been our salvation.

Life is complicated; a life of faith, even more so.  Jesus seems to set a pretty high standard for us, but God is not looking for perfection – God, it seems, is always ready to love us.  No matter that we turn our backs; even when, in Jesus’ case, we would kill the messenger of love, God continues to love us.  That remains our hope in hopeless times.  That love continues to be our true salvation.  Thanks be to God.  Amen

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Love. Actually.

March 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faithful witness

October 31, 2015

What does it mean to “love God and glorify God forever”?  To attend worship services and become ‘involved’ with the life of a congregation is only part of the challenge.  Yes, worship and Christian service in the world are made possible (and “easier”) if we are working together toward a common goal or purpose, but as we know, gathering together is easier if you have a building; and buildings are expensive to maintain; and money is increasingly hard to come by when the number of givers (or their economic circumstances) change.  In these times, it doesn’t take long before our energy is directed to worries about maintenance, and finances and the search for “willing workers” becomes a quest for “warm bodies” – and the church becomes just another organization with its hand out, rather than a place where people can be encouraged and nourished and discover the gift of God’s love in Jesus.

If you don’t believe me, ask yourself when was the last time you talked to someone about something that excites you; chances are it was the Blue Jays, or the recent election.  Do any of us get excited about what we do together as the people of God?  Do we brag up the soup lunch (sometimes), or cradle roll (we should)… or do we rave about how a worship service challenged or changed us…?  I didn’t think so.

It’s not that we’re not faithful – and I’m not doubting that your lives have been affected by your encounter with God and your faith in the Risen Christ.  Your willingness to return to this sanctuary, week after week – year in and year out – tells me that there is something here that you need – something that feeds you – something that you cannot resist.  I know that it isn’t me – I hope that it’s not me – because it is my task to point you to the source of all joy; The hope is that we might all encounter the majesty of God in Christ – and I pray that such an encounter changes each of us.  Because the church that we say we want – a church brimming with life and love and the activity of the faithful – is only possible because of what others see in us (or hear from us).

The witness of the faithful in every season can have enormous consequences in the community of the curious; and we are surrounded by curious people who have little or no understanding of the church except that the church is always raising money for something.  What might those consequences be?  Let us consider our Scripture lessons from a moment ago

First, there is Jesus’ encounter with a scribe of the law (Mk 12: 38-44)  The scribe ‘tests’ Jesus understanding of the law of Moses: “What commandment is the greatest?”, he asks, and Jesus offers good, solid orthodox teaching.  The scribe praises the teacher and affirms his statement – a solid case of one persons witness affecting another part of the community.  They have discovered a point of unity between them.  But when Jesus returns praise to the scribe, who repeats Jesus answer and expands on it slightly, Jesus’ praise goes beyond mere back-slapping.  “You are not far from the Kingdom of God…” he says.  What a witness – what generous praise – what a way to open the door to a stranger!  The further results of this conversation are not recorded – but can you imagine; two potential adversaries (the scribes were always nervous of “new” teachers and their potential for upsetting the faith community) discover that they are allies!  the community is strengthened; the call to consider these two (equally) great commandments can now be shared by what were two formerly separate communities of the Jewish faith – bound together by a desire to love God and neighbour.

And in case you are still sceptical – after all, it’s easy to talk about faith with other people of the same faith (Jesus and the scribe are both Jewish, after all…) – consider the story of Naomi and her daughter in law Ruth.

A woman of faith – Naomi – far from home and in desperate need following the death of her husband and both of her sons – Naomi is still living what I will call a ‘life of attractive faith’.  Her daughter’s-in-law are doing their best to stand by her in her distress.  Ruth is so taken by the example set by Naomi that she renounces her home, her family and the religion of her childhood to accompany Naomi back to Bethlehem.  Naomi’s must have been a powerful witness for God even in deep distress and misfortune, for Ruth’s life to be so radically changed. “Your people will be my people; your God will be my God.”  There is no evidence that Naomi compelled her son’s wives to follow in the family religion – there was something about the way Naomi faced her troubles that helped Ruth choose such a risky path.

The church today faces a risky path forward, and it is hard not to lose our way in despair.  But the beauty of the Christian faithis that risk and struggle should not be offered as excuses for failure – indeed, it is in our struggles that our faith should be MOST EVIDENT!  The church is not struggling because of the culture – and the ‘death of Christian culture” should hold no fear for us.

We are disciples of the risen Christ – we believe that death is not to be feared – furthermore, our faith insists that death is a necessary step on the journey toward life abundant; life in the Kingdom of God.  Physical death is only one way to achieve the promised gift of God – but Jesus teaches that the death of certain ideas also propel us toward the Kingdom; and so Jesus praises an approach to the law that focuses on God’s love and our emulation of that love – and Ruth follows her faith-filled mother-in-law into foreign territory; and throws herself on the mercy of a man who follows the principles of love laid down in the law; and we can take a lesson from these Scriptural examples.

Instead of striving for survival at any cost, or wringing our hands in despair at the signs of decline in our churches, perhaps we should embrace the death of things that do not satisfy, do not glorify, and do not nurture faith in our risen Saviour.

That sounds like a terrifying thing as I write it – (I’m not sure I’ll have the courage to say it out loud) – but the truth of the matter is that faith is an eternal gift (not to mention a sign of God’s presence) and the community of faith is a large, unwieldy and fluid thing, but the idea of “church” as a stable, permanent, constant fixture in the culture is dead, dead, dead.

If that troubles you, it shouldn’t, because the signs of that death have been with us for years.  And the death of “Christendom” (the cultural prerogative of Christian people to make the rules and set the standards) is, for many people, something to celebrate.  A culture that neither understands Christianity nor defers to it, is a place that frees people of faith to start from scratch – to tell people about Jesus (rather than explain what WE are all about as ‘the church’…) – and I think that is a thrilling place to be.

It has always been hard to “be the people of God”, no matter what we tell ourselves. But in those times when the challenges seem most severe, we are given ample opportunity to express that faith – to acknowledge that not even human indifference can (destroy) the Church of Christ.  For Christ’s church is not the work of human hands; it is a work of the love and majesty of God. Thanks be to God, we are not responsible for the survival of this venerable institution. The “future of the church” is entirely in God’s safekeeping.   The challenge that we CAN accept is to share the good news; to tell the story. The future of our faithful witness rests in our willingness to be challenged and changed by the truth of Christ’s victory over death.

Mission, with a shepherd’s touch

June 2, 2015

“The Lord is MY shepherd, I shall not want…”

These words spring to our lips without effort because we believe them to be good and right and absolutely true.  We have no reason to doubt that God will guide us to green pastures and still waters.  We have felt the calm, comforting presence of God in the valley of the shadow.  These images are so familiar to us that we can’t imagine anyone would be willing to argue the truth of them.  The idea of a divine, benevolent Shepherd is so nearly universal that when the hospital authority in Sarnia (Ontario) considered an image for their new, non-denominational, multi-faith worship space, the runaway choice was that of a shepherd tending his sheep.  Evocative across cultures and faith traditions, it was deemed the only safe choice.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that these are the images that we are asked to consider on this Mission Awareness Sunday.  Safe choices.  Comforting images.  something on which everyone can agree.  Wouldn’t that be nice.

But nothing could be further from the truth, where Mission (always a capital M) is concerned.

Once upon a time, it was easy.  We held certain things to be absolutely true, and it was our job as Christians to see that everyone else believed them too.  The way forward was pretty clear: Proclaim the gospel – teach the words – assure ourselves that we had “converted the heathen” and all would be well.  Except for our inability to agree with fellow believers on what was important – what was vital.  Except for our violent disagreements that resulted in the seemingly constant division of the church into denominations.  Except for the increasing difficulty of dealing with people whose expressions of faith looked nothing like ours…

Our awareness of mission these days is limited to updates from our overseas partners – PWS&D newsletters and appeals for funds – and the work of groups like the AMS who pray and study and send letters and money and people into places that we would rather not go ourselves; Malawi, Afghanistan, Haiti, Romania.  WE are just as certain as ever, where our faith is concerned.  Certain global events convince us that it is essential for the Gospel to take root in these foreign places – surely the answers to problems of terror, poverty, greed and corruption (among others) can be found in the principles of our Christian faith

But that is the problem, isn’t it – when our faith encounters other models of faith, the problems seem to multiply.  Terrorism is almost always the response of those who have been pushed aside by our efforts to bring “our particular brand” of peace, faith and good order to various parts of the world.  Terrorism seems to be the price we pay for being too sure of ourselves, and not considering that there are different ways to understand faith, devotion, God and the whole created order.  I’m sorry to say  that some of this conflict and misery is a result of our historical mission work, and today our claim of certainty where our faith is concerned keeps us ignorant of some pretty important things.

First: The “mission” of the church of Jesus Christ begins with the worship of God in a community of those acknowledge that God IS.  From the days and weeks following the resurrection of Jesus, those people who gathered, scared and confused, knew only one thing to be certain; there was a power in the world greater than death, and that truth required reverence.  There were no tests – no membership requirement other than the recognition of the love of God as a real force in the world.  Understanding was secondary – celebration in worship was then and is now, the most important thing.

Second:  The notion that someday we would be ‘one flock with one shepherd’ does not mean that absolute unity of though and action was the goal.  Yes, the divisions in the church are distressing, and yes “we all seek to serve one God”, but it is the overwhelming love of God that unites us, not our subjection to one set of doctrines, or our acceptance of a single model for faithful living.  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold…” Jesus says – and it is to his voice they respond, not ours.  And the attraction is not our worship style, or our outreach programs; our disaster relief or our dazzling proclamation.  The attraction of the shepherd’s voice is that Jesus speaks love and compassion and hope to the hopeless.

Third:  that love and compassion that Jesus proclaims is nothing new – it is part of God’s program from the beginning.  Recognized by David as a comforting guide for every stage of life; trusted by those in exile as the enduring glory revealed in the desert wilderness; recognized by Peter as a power greater than any other power – Mission IS the key to a renewal of faith and to new life for the church of Christ, but we don’t need to ‘reinvent the wheel’.  Jesus’ call to “make disciples” does not come at the expense of hearing and celebrating the gospel for themselves.   Mission is many things, but it begins here, with us.  Nurtured by the gospel, encouraged by the spirit of God, and able to say, with joyful conviction, “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

A life of dedicated Christian faith may not seem like the safe choice these days – it is certain that it is not our only choice – but here we are; living proof that the mission of God, particularly expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, still calls to people who are willing to admit they are not the most important thing in the universe.  Our mission is not to correct every mistake that may have been made in the name of God; our mission begins with worship and wonder, and continues as we share that wonder with those around us.  It really can be that simple.  The hard work has already been done – the love of God has already accomplished the impossible; Jesus is risen – death has no power over us.  God’s love has not put an end to evil, or resolve every conflict; it does not put an end to the horrific power of earthquake or typhoon, nor does it stop our grief in times of suffering and death.  But the Gospel of Christ is our life-line; his is the story we get to tell.  That is our mission, and if it doesn’t seem change the world (or convert the heathen) it should certainly change us – indeed, it is the only thing that can.

Love, and other words.

May 3, 2015

We are people of the WORD.  Reformed, protestant churches in general, and Presbyterians in particular, are committed to exploring and proclaiming the Word as revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and revealed in the writings that we call Scripture.  Worship, preaching and teaching are key components of our life in the world.  I spend most of my time thinking about words – what to say and when to say it; wondering how will my words affect certain people; considering (only as a last step) whether my words match my actions.

Much of what I worry about, you might laugh at; my tone, my gestures, my body language – all these things help convey the message I carry.  “Don’t worry about it”, you say.  “Speak up”, you say.  and maybe, in the context of weekly worship, you’re right.  But there is more than Sunday at stake here.

Before we can be changed by an idea or energized for a project, we have to be attracted to what we hear.  So language matters; style matters; tone of voice and mannerisms matter.  The wrong tone, or a sweet-voiced announcement of impending disaster causes strange reactions in us.  I listened to an interview with a woman who presented information on the decline of songbirds around the world, and while I was interested in the information, I was distracted by…her voice.  It was sweet, and gentle and far too calm for the disastrous news she was trying to convey.  The words were right, but the weight of them was lost (on me).

That can become a problem in the church too.  We know what we are about – we are people of the Resurrection, disciples of the risen, reigning Son of God.  We understand that this means we should, among other things, “Love God and our neighbours as ourselves…”  We are urged by Jesus in the gospels to “abide in love”. We are assured by the Psalmist that, in time, “all the ends of the earth shall remember, and turn to the Lord…”  and from these sorts of statements come the vision of how to be the church in the world, as we wait patiently for the world that will be.  So how do we convey those words to others?  How do we tell the story?  What do we sound like to those who don’t yet know, or who have not yet heard…?

We might sound like John, the author of at least three letters – all of which lean heavily on the notion that we should love one another.  In this morning’s reading, the word love (or beloved,) appears 29 times…in a mere 320 words!  Do you think our author has a point to make?  but does he make it?

From the very beginning of the Christian community, love was clearly important – but the word is not enough; the language does not convey the attitude.

“Those who say ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers and sisters are lying!”  Pretty strong words from a guy who chirps on and on about love.  John’s tone belies his intention.  He sounds gentle and pacific, but he means business, and we have a hard time with the difficulties involved in living a life of love.

The very word evokes hearts and flowers – sweetness and light – but we have twisted the love of God to our purposes, and though we speak with tongues of angels, we (the corporate church, the historical people of God) are nothing more than clanging gongs and noisy cymbals…

Several of us had a chance to learn the truth about this yesterday, as we gathered for something called the Blanket exercise.

We all thought we know the history of the “discovery of North America” – we have long imagined that an organization such as the Christian Church, following the example of our King and Head, Jesus of Nazareth – Wonderful counsellor, Prince of Peace (etc), MUST be working for the good of those that come into her orbit.  The Church has worked with what seem like good intentions; the truth is that those good intentions often pave a dangerous road.

In the name of the King of love, Europeans exploited land and resources.

In the name of love, Europeans – Our ancestors – declared that they would ‘save the indian from [himself]’ , and civilize them through religion and education.

It was disciples of the Good Shepherd who ran residential schools, where children were starved, isolated from their families and their culture, beaten and sexually abused…

It was James who wrote to warn us of the dangers of faith without action:  “If a sister or brother is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them”go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill”, and yet you do not supply their needs, what is the good of that?”  Faith without works is dead, says James – Words, though we be people of the word and disciples of the Living Word – are not enough.  Attitude matters; style, tone of voice, mannerisms matter.  Our actions must follow our words, and they should match.  We do not show love with a closed fist; we should not speak peace through clenched teeth; and we cannot share the hope for the redemption of all Creation, until we recognize that we are not creations overlords.

John’s letter urges us to share the love that Christ had for us – love that has it’s source in God.  We are urged to share that love with all we meet by Jesus who “showed no partiality” – who loved us in our lovelessness – and my experience yesterday served to emphasize the depths of our lovelessness.  We seem determined to treat those who are different from us – different colour, different culture, different faith, different philosophy – with either contempt or confusion.  In this we have succumbed to our fear, forgetting that the greatest gift of love is that it casts out all fear.

The good news is that love is still working on us – still reaching out to us – God’s great love still defeats our great fear.  In the strangest places; in just the right moments.  When love lets us hear the stories of those we fear because of our differences, that fear is banished.  When love becomes more than just a word to us – when it softens our hearts and opens our minds – then the will of God may be done, and the reign of Christ comes closer to us.

Mission, with a shepherd’s heart

April 26, 2015

“The Lord is MY shepherd, I shall not want…”

These words spring to our lips without effort because we believe them to be good and right and absolutely true.  We have no reason to doubt that God will guide us to green pastures and still waters.  We have felt the calm, comforting presence of God in the valley of the shadow.  These images are so familiar to us that we can’t imagine anyone would be willing to argue the truth of them.  The idea of a divine, benevolent Shepherd is so nearly universal that when the hospital authority in Sarnia (Ontario) considered an image for their new, non-denominational, multi-faith worship space, the runaway choice was that of a shepherd tending his sheep.  Evocative across cultures and faith traditions, it was deemed the only safe choice.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that these are the images that we are asked to consider on this Mission Awareness Sunday.  Safe choices.  Comforting images.  something on which everyone can agree.  Wouldn’t that be nice.

But nothing could be further from the truth, where Mission (always a capital M) is concerned.

Once upon a time, it was easy.  We held certain things to be absolutely true, and it was our job as Christians to see that everyone else believed them too.  The way forward was pretty clear: Proclaim the gospel – teach the words – assure ourselves that we had “converted the heathen” and all would be well.  Except for our inability to agree with fellow believers on what was important – what was vital.  Except for our violent disagreements that resulted in the seemingly constant division of the church into denominations.  Except for the increasing difficulty of dealing with people whose expressions of faith looked nothing like ours…

Our awareness of mission these days is limited to updates from our overseas partners – PWS&D newsletters and appeals for funds – and the work of groups like the AMS who pray and study and send letters and money and people into places that we would rather not go ourselves; Malawi, Afghanistan, Haiti, Romania.  WE are just as certain ever where our faith is concerned.  Certain global events convince us that it is essential for the Gospel to take root in these foreign places – surely the answers to problems of terror, poverty, greed and corruption (among others) can be found in the principles of our Christian faith

But that is the problem, isn’t it – when our faith encounters other models of faith, the problems seem to multiply.  Terrorism is almost always the response of those who have been pushed aside by our efforts to bring “our particular brand” of peace, faith and good order to various parts of the world.  Terrorism seems to be the price we pay for being too sure of ourselves, and not considering that there are different ways to understand faith, devotion, God and the whole created order.  I’m sorry to say  that some of this conflict and misery is a result of our historical mission work, and today our claim of certainty where our faith is concerned keeps us ignorant of some pretty important things.

First: The “mission” of the church of Jesus Christ begins with the worship of God in a community of those acknowledge that God IS.  From the days and weeks following the resurrection of Jesus, those people who gathered, scared and confused, knew only one thing to be certain; there was a power in the world greater than death, and that truth required reverence.  There were no tests – no membership requirement other than the recognition of the love of God as a real force in the world.  Understanding was secondary – celebration in worship was then and is now, the most important thing.

Second:  The notion that someday we would be ‘one flock with one shepherd’ does not mean that absolute unity of though and action was the goal.  Yes, the divisions in the church are distressing, and yes “we all seek to serve one God”, but it is the overwhelming love of God that unites us, not our subjection to one set of doctrines, or our acceptance of a single model for faithful living.  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold…” Jesus says – and it is to his voice they respond, not ours.  And the attraction is not our worship style, or our outreach programs; our disaster relief or our dazzling proclamation.  The attraction of the shepherd’s voice is that Jesus speaks love and compassion and hope to the hopeless.

Third:  that love and compassion that Jesus proclaims is nothing new – it is part of God’s program from the beginning.  Recognized by David as a comforting guide for every stage of life; trusted by those in exile as the enduring glory revealed in the desert wilderness; recognized by Peter as a power greater than any other power – Mission IS the key to a renewal of faith and to new life for the church of Christ, but we don’t need to ‘reinvent the wheel’.  Jesus’ call to “make disciples” does not come at the expense of hearing and celebrating the gospel for themselves.   Mission is many things, but it begins here, with us.  Nurtured by the gospel, encouraged by the spirit of God, and able to say, with joyful conviction, “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

A life of dedicated Christian faith may not seem like the safe choice these days – it is certain that it is not our only choice – but here we are; living proof that the mission of God, particularly expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, still calls to people who are willing to admit they are not the most important thing in the universe.  Our mission is not to correct every mistake that may have been made in the name of God; our mission begins with worship and wonder, and continues as we share that wonder with those around us.  It really can be that simple.  The hard work has already been done – the love of God has already accomplished the impossible; Jesus is risen – death has no power over us.  God’s love has not put an end to evil, or resolve every conflict; it does not put an end to the horrific power of earthquake or typhoon, nor does it stop our grief in times of suffering and death.  But the Gospel of Christ is our life-line; his is the story we get to tell.  That is our mission, and if it doesn’t seem change the world (or convert the heathen) it should certainly change us – indeed, it is the only thing that can.

To those who are tired of waiting on the Lord…

February 8, 2015

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

Mission awareness Sunday

April 28, 2013

Mission is an interesting word.  It carries overtones of intrigue,

for any of us who grew up with spy thrillers and war movies.

In such circumstances, The Mission was always the thing that drove the plot,

that motivated the characters, and provided the action scenes

which led to all sorts of daring antics, harm for the villain,

and in the end, the hero getting his reward

(sorry, but I’m old enough that the hero was always ‘he’)

Some of us can be excused for having difficulty

adapting to the churches use of the word.

Though perhaps the church can bear some of the blame.

Mission, in the eyes of the church has often had a thrilling and dangerous reputation – intrepid souls called to far-flung places for the sake of the Gospel.

There were obstacles to overcome, objectives to achieve,

and frequently, there was the promise of real harm.

The church considered Jesus’ injunction to ‘make disciples of all nations’ very seriously, and it was something that motivated all sorts of exploration, and discovery –

and it led to conquest and oppression;

too much of the ‘mission’ of the church caused real harm to real people.

We argued that all this activity was for a greater good –

that the knowledge we gleaned from the gospel

required us to civilize the wild and untamed regions of the world –

and to be sure, we owe a great debt to the courage, ingenuity

and willingness of those souls who faced the unknown

with nothing but their faith and their wits.

We have recently begun to imagine

that the purpose of our mission as followers of Christ

is not to recreate our experience in the lives of those we do not understand –

their strangeness should no longer provoke our fear  –

our mission is best described by Jesus in this mornings gospel lesson from John 13.

Keep in mind, the disciples are gathered in that famous upper room –

they have shared what will be their last meal,

Jesus has washed their feet –

an act of service meant to give them an example of their coming mission –

and Judas has been overcome by that evil notion that will lead to Jesus arrest.

The next act in this curious passion is Jesus offering a new commandment;

‘love one another’.

This is the mandate of the church, whatever else we may say.

All of our activity must proceed

from Jesus’ urging his frightened disciples to love one another.

One of their number has just left to betray the cause –

the authorities will soon descend –

and their plans for a revolution of ideas will come to an inglorious end.

Love one another, Jesus says, and the mission of the church is decided.

With these words in mind,

the devoted servants of Jesus went out after the Resurrection

and announced that love had prevailed over death.

The love of God became the message of salvation, and so it should be.

The church grew and thrived in those early days

because those who felt abandoned (or lost in the terrible oppression of empire)

heard from these eager disciples that even when no one else showed them love,

God had – and most importantly, the messengers of Christ showed that love to them;

“there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; all are one in Christ” –

so said Paul –  who himself was moved to a mission grounded in love –

preaching a message of acceptance and invitation.

What that mission became in the darker days of church history is something else again.

Crusades, the Inquisition, a variety of ‘Holy’ wars and cultural assaults

that haunt the people of God to this day –

but our commitment to mission need not suffer because of the mistakes we have made;

we are still under order to love one another,

and that commandment has once more become the motivation for mission.

The work of PWS&D, supported by congregations all over Canada,

– states that their primary motivation is

to ‘…gladly serve women and men, young and old,

according to their need and regardless of their faith.’

No more the notion that we must make disciples ‘by compulsion’,

we reach out in love; no strings attached, just as God has done in Jesus.

The other danger, of course, is to imagine that mission

is something that happens somewhere else.

Mission was about Christians reaching out to ‘the lost’,

and how could the lost be among us?

We now know that there are people in our communities

who are hungry for love and acceptance,

for whom Jesus is a mystery and God an interesting abstraction.

Our mission is not to ensure that they are educated in the details of the Christian faith –

our mission, according to Jesus, is to love them.

The challenge for today’s church,

in a time of instant communication and expanding knowledge of other cultures,

is to understand the part played by the Spirit of God in this mission.

Love doesn’t lead to instant understanding.  Occasionally love is met with resistance.

But  Jesus command to love does not depend on that love being returned.

Our mission is to show the love of Christ with no expectation for ourselves.

We are, in the words of Living Faith, ‘…showing the hungry where bread may be found.’

That love is ours to share –

we need not travel the globe to follow the guidance of Jesus.

Our neighbours need understanding and compassion.

Our communities will benefit when we reach out in love,

– our mission begins here, alongside friends,

and among those whom we don’t always understand;

to love as Christ loves –

even at the expense of our need to be accepted by the people around us –

with no expectation of reward,

content to know that we will have offered an explanation for the hope that is in us.

The church without mission does not exists, some have said – and this is our only task

To love one another, in the shops, on the streets –

wherever people gather, whatever they believe, our task is to love them –

to be open to real relationship, to offer compassion, and service –

this is gospel proclamation, for which there is no language barrier –

it is the mission of all of us who would call ourselves the church.

…in light of Paul’s passionate prose…

January 18, 2009

Paul can be a shocking figure, when he puts his mind to it.
He writes to the churches in and around what is now Greece and Turkey
to help them settle their grievances –
or at least to bring their attention to the futility of them…

Paul as a writer is intriguing –
as a preacher – intimidating –
but most often Paul’s work is used
in tiring and terrifying ways
to enforce morality of one kind or another,
and it is the mis-representation and misapprehension of Paul’s ideas
that give me the most trouble.

Paul writes of the dangers
of taking license with the gift of God that is our sexual selves
– and indeed, there is a good bit of sense in that –
but he writes too of the (greater danger?)
Of taking our freedom in Christ as liberty to ignore
the responsibility that come with our redemption.

To call ourselves “freed by Christ” is, of course, perfectly accurate,
but we are neither singly nor separately saved.
God’s great act of Salvation made known in Jesus Christ is offered for all people, for all time.
We accept this freedom as a work in progress,
acknowledging that there will be some rough patches yet
before we realize our full potential as children of God.

We recognize (some of the time) that this work has been fulfilled in some,
and remains unrealized in others: in short,
we have no real claim on the fullness of freedom.

“all things are lawful for me, but not all are beneficial” Paul writes
– this has the sound of an ancient proverb
that reminds us that we are not saved in isolation.
As personal as our faith may be, Salvation is a communal act.
We are freed, through Christ, by our individual decision,
but truly freed in the mutual action and interaction
that springs from that individual decision –
Paul reminds his flock that they (and of course, we too)
need always be aware that our interactions, one with another,
can (and should) be expressions of that freedom we know in Christ.

What of our freedom, then?
Our choices – our rights as citizens of the world
are remarkably wide open when you think of it –
we can do any amount of harm to ourselves as suits us,
without fear of reprimand.
Paul has noticed this too, and calls the faithful to
“drive out the wicked person from among you.” (1 Cor 5:13)
He points to those who have mistaken forgiveness of sin for freedom from responsibility –
idolaters, adulterers, prostitutes, thieves, the greedy, revilers and robbers, among many,
who have not changed their attitudes or their habits as a result of their decision.

Paul’s zeal for this seems contrary to the Spirit of love that we find in Christ,
but for all his bluster, Paul’s message has that love at its very core.

Our freedom – our redemption – is, after all, the supreme gift of love.
A gift that heals relationship between Creator and Creation.
Our nature as relational beings is part of that gift –
we need one another for companionship, correction, praise and pity.
This is reflected in the response to the first question in the newest Catechism of the Church:
What is God’s purpose for our lives…?
“We have been made for joy; joy in knowing, loving and serving God – joy in knowing, loving and serving one another; joy in the wonder of all God’s works.”
That purpose covers a lot of ground – social, sexual and sacred –
and still we misunderstand the scope of the freedom granted us by grace.

Having been ‘made right with God through Christ’s living, dying and rising’,
we are still held responsible for our stewardship of that gift.
And in the end, the test is not “what does Paul say is right or wrong?”,
but rather “what use of our freedom honours the spirit of the gift, and the glory of the giver?”
Now, I’m no prude, but I wonder;
does the trend towards sexualization and objectification in society
– think of any advertisement you have seen in the last 10 days; beautiful people doing beautiful things – buying stocks, or socks –
does this use of our ‘freedom’ benefit anyone?
Does it honour the spirit of the gift, or give glory to God?

Suddenly we see the passion behind Paul’s fiery speech.
Life/living need not always be about sex and money –
and when it is, Paul would see us abandon the useless pursuit of those things.

Being made for joy, we may certainly be led to joy in our relationships –
if they are founded in love, respect and the knowledge
that they are ours to savour, not squander.
That joy, which we find revealed in its fullness in Christ,
is ours to share –
in the loving, respectful, God-honouring treatment
of ourselves and of one another –
treatment that should not abide greed, idolatry, robbery,
or any attitudes that make objects out of individuals –
or turn compassion into a commodity.

God so loved the world – that Jesus came – that sin is forgiven –
that joy is made complete.
It is in the spirit of that love we are called to live
– to act as though we were loved –
to love our neighbours and our selves, in ways that are fitting, and right,
and which honour God’s loving act.

That is the platform that Paul fights from
whatever else folks say about him.