Posts Tagged ‘Psalm 23’

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.

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Thanksgiving under pressure

October 12, 2014

There is never a bad time to give thanks. This sounds trite, but it is the way many of us were taught – it is the sort of behaviour you expect from people who have seen for themselves that good times and bad times are given in endless rotation – if not in equal parts – to everyone. So cheer up! Be thankful! We say. – things could be worse, is what we often mean, and who would know better than us – and we develop a habit of giving thanks that, quite frankly, could use some tinkering.

Ours is a reluctant gratitude, born of a life of relative ease (when compared to much of the world) and sharpened by the memory that life events and circumstances are subject to rapid (and occasionally unwelcome) changes. It is in that knowledge that I approached the texts for this morning; not the usual thanksgiving fare, but instructive, nonetheless. Each informs the other, and all point to a pattern that is expected of God’s faithful in any age.

Isaiah is not the place you’d expect to start, but here we are. In the early chapters, a book of warning and promise – and by Ch 25, we seem to be witnessing the complete collapse of the dream that was the Jewish kingdoms. Yes, the nation was divided – with each still independent of their much larger neighbours…for the moment. The writing is on the wall, however and Babylon will conquer both Israel (in the north) and finally Judah in the south. All sense of security will be shattered – the leaders led out in shame and humiliation, the people who are left behind reduced to second-class citizens, at best. And through this misery and confusion comes the voice of the prophet. Yes, occasionally that voice cries “I told you so”, with the odd “it serves you right” thrown in for good measure – but the prophet’s task is not to taunt the nation in defeat; the prophet – every prophet – also brings the words of propise back to the people.

Promises are hard to hear when your dreams have been crushed, and your culture taken captive – Israel was never the strongest nation in the enighbourhood, and when their best is overwhelmed with the might of Babylon, it is truly disheartening. It is also a terrible blow to the image of God that has been promoted in this formerly stable kingdom. So Isaiah starts in the strangest of places – calling for thanksgiving and praise in the midst of destruction: listen again very closely

 For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;  cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.                                                                                                                                                                             
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,                                                                                                                                                                    the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;                                                                                                                       the song of the ruthless was stilled.  (Isaiah 25: 2-5)

God’s people are called to witness to a different kind of strength – and it is neither the power that built the walls nor the power that brought them down – it is the power that nurtured the poor, and quieted the “noise of the ruthless”; it is the power of God that is to be praise, according to the prophet. The suggestion of Isaiah is that only in exile are the people able to identify this particular strength – real strength. It is in our uncertainty and despair; in the shambles of our current situation; it is from the rubble of our delusions that God calls and says “Here I am: champion of the poor and weak. Let my strength encourage you – accept from me the power of the weak, the quiet, the humble and the greiving.”

Does this sound right to you? Does it sound like I might be arguing for decline and destruction, so we might get a glimpse of who God really is? I will not suggest that we must suffer to be faithful, but I will always argue that our failures and our sufferings can help us find our way back to what matters – back to the power (so called) of God.

Psalm 23 takes us further down that path – a product of a different time; a more productive, more peacable time in the history of Israel, the author knew the fickle nature of good fortune. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” nothing is eternal except the peacful, purposeful presence of God. This is a poem of utter dependence – something that is often confused with a lack of responsibility, though nothing could be further from the truth. The ‘sheep’ still need to move intentionally toward the good things that the shepherd’s wisdom reveal. And there is strength in that dependence – the kind of strength that can only inspire gratitude.

What then, does that look like for us? Our personal encounters with the grace of God are one thing – in moments of difficulty, the sudden, overpowering feeling that it will be okay; that you are not alone – these are the stories that keep us going. But what of the community? How do the gathered people of God – the church – this congregation – how do we bring those moments into focus? Where do we look to find evidence that all is not lost…?

We look to the host, who invites us in and calls us by name and blesses us with the Holy presence. God draws us together around Jesus – and though each of us alone has a story to tell about the good God has done for us, together in worship we tell a story of hope for the future. The church as it is, or as it may become, is a living breathing offering of thanks reminding even the reluctant in our communities that God has not abandon creation.

So I say let the walls crumble – so long as we can still gather. Let the outward signs of our power and strength be taken from us – so long as we can still sing praises. Let the rest of the world ridicule us and declare our efforts irrelevant – we know better, and that is what matters.

Give thanks to God for the faitth that has found us, and forms us, and frees us to live hopeful, joyful lives. Amen

Reluctant apostles. (that’s YOU)

February 9, 2014

Disciples or apostles – which best describes us?  They are very different descriptions, sometimes used interchangeably, but the difference should be noted.  Disciple means follower; learner; student.  A disciple could be anyone who chose to fashion their life according to the principles of a certain teacher – Moses had disciples – Elijah – many of the prophets.  We still think of people who have influenced our thought in more recent times as having disciples; Gandhi, MLK Jr, Karl Marx, etc…

An apostle is sent as a messenger “to convey the substance of things taught…” 

Luke (and Mark) use the word translated “apostle” for those twelve commonly named men (they are always and only men) who share Jesus final meal, and later become the focus of his several sightings in Jerusalem after the tomb has been found empty – and Matthew tells us that Jesus the sent out these twelve to “proclaim the good news” (Mt 10:7) which helps widen the gap between “the followers” and “those who proclaim”

If we had our way, disciples would be our choice.  To follow is hard enough – to be expected to share – we’d rather not, thanks.  But something about the way of Christ – something in our system of faith – has the effect of turning every disciple into an apostle.

I began my life in the church as neither a disciple nor apostle.  I was eager and curious, but I wasn’t yet ready to pattern my life after the example of Jesus; I had too many questions.  So I got involved; I listened, I sang, I served in the kitchen and on the board of managers.  I threw myself into the community of faith hoping for some answers.  Along the way, I learned the importance of questions in the life of a disciple – the answers were not always forthcoming.

Eventually, I decided that I could call myself a disciple; I made a public profession of faith, and accepted that from that point on, my journey would be changed by my decision – I’m not sure I was ready for the extent of that change, nor could I have imagined that it would be a never-ending cycle of changes.

Somewhere on the way to becoming a disciple of Jesus, something happened to me.

I began reading Scripture more intentionally – I reacted to current events in different ways – my long established ideas about the world started to seem inadequate;

I was forced (by my newly developing world view) to change my mind about things that had once seemed iron-clad.  I could no longer keep silent in the face of injustice.  I felt a desperate need to tell others about the wonderful possibilities of a life of discipleship – my encounter with the Christian community helped make a disciple of me, but my exploration of the gospel (and all that I discover there) turned me into an apostle – a messenger.

This change is still happening in me.  For I came to the church thinking faith was a personal moral exercise – a way of defining right and wrong; but I learned that faith is not just about me; it offers a new way to see the world / and a new way to respond to the world.

The first disciples discovered this before Jesus was arrested – it was confirmed when he was raised.  This teacher of theirs asked them to reinterpret everything!  Relationships to God and their fellow citizens – their approach to justice – even their attitude toward their Roman conquerors.

This is “following” that is much more than getting the steps right; following Jesus opens us up to a new reality.  It is dangerous business, seeking light in darkness; questioning ‘the way things are’  It puts us in the minority, and it sets us against powerful opposition, but the community that draws us in, and the gospel that guides us – these things are no less powerful.  Scripture tells a story that invites questions and begs to be explored.  This particular account of God’s revelation to humanity has endured, not because we can confirm every detail, but because it demands a response once we have heard it.

You may think that you are able to hear, trust and obey, and carefully, anonymously follow in the way of peace described by Jesus.  But once you have encountered the news of his resurrection, it is nearly impossible to refrain from sharing the story / telling the tale.  We are all made messengers (apostles) by the magnificence of the story.

It is quite likely that, if you are here and listening, you already know this.  You have lived lives made full by your response to the gospel of Christ; well done, good and faithful servants, but the job is far from finished.  Our task as the church is to always find ways to turn “following” into “proclamation” – to make disciples, and help them become apostles.

You see, we are the ‘other’ secret to the endurance of the gospel.  The Christian church, with all its failings, for all its humanity, has made room for the creation of disciples, and their transformation into apostles;

by allowing people to seek God, and encouraging those who would follow, we proclaim the truth revealed in Jesus; of a world made better by the love of God embodied and shared and proclaimed…

Reluctant apostles, perhaps – but apostles you are.  Accept the challenge – bear the gift – praise God.  Amen