Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Witness

November 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

To believe the impossible – 1 Corinthians 15.

August 24, 2014

It has been a bit of a lark – this dash through first Corinthians. Not that I consider this frivolous, but that I realize, here at the end of the ‘project’, I have not devoted nearly enough time to properly examine the intricacies of Paul’s arguments, and their significance to the church of our generation.

I’ve intentionally worked around the biggest problems in this letter; the supposed “silence” of women, Paul’s inclination to moralize his arguments; his absolute insistence that his words are to be considered genuine revelation (on his authority)…except in those places where he says “this is only my opinion”…

The most famous section of this letter – chapter 13 – I leave to the wedding liturgy; that’s where we want to hear it. It is about more than “love” as we understand it, of course; – love is the word we use in modern translations because we can’t think of a better way to translate the Greek word AGAPE. Paul was concerned that the believers, eager for recognition of their Spiritual Gifts (seen as indicators of their righteousness), had forgotten the principles that first bound the disciples to Jesus – and which Jesus encouraged in all who sought the promise and peace of the kingdom in their lives. Out of concern, Paul counsels love (agape) in, with and for one another as the lasting and most effective mode of being what we now call the church – what Paul called the body of Christ. So it is that at the end of his rant on the passing nature of spiritual gifts (and following a very Presbyterian sounding plea for things to be done “decently and in order”1 ) Paul returns to the basics of the gospel.

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received…”2 Paul is among those who have come to believe; not an eyewitness, but a committed convert to the revelation in Jesus. It is a fantastic story, and the magnitude of it still astounds him. He is still trying to affirm his authority with them; still working hard “harder than any of them…” and it is clear that he knows that this is only the beginning of much rhetoric, and dissension. The last section of the letter deals with his assertion of the impossible; resurrection from the dead.

The gospel is not just resurrection – but without resurrection, the story of Jesus is nothing more than just news; love the Lord your God; love your neighbour; judge not lest ye be judgedthese are all sound ideas upon which to build a just society, but the GOOD NEWS makes demands on our logic. The Gospel of Jesus Christ proposes certain impossible assertions. And it is the business of religion to affirm those impossible assertions. That has made religious groups the source of suspicion and ridicule in this thoroughly modern age. But it seems to me that the test of faith should not be “can you prove it?” Faith should provoke human imagination.

If, on the testimony of Paul, and Peter and others, we can imagine a world in which love can raise the dead – then faith has made the world a better place. If the story of Jesus comes to us with the conviction of faith, and with the support of a tradition of reverence and devotion, but without statistical support, is it any less true? Yet Paul makes claims, and tradition and the churches statements of faith support him, that not only is Christ raised from the dead (our Easter miracle), but so too will all the faithful, then, at the end, the Kingdom entire (all enemies having been defeated). In short, Our hope in in an incredible series of events and battles fought for, by and among the living AND the once dead.3 The real strength of Paul’s argument and ultimately, the power of the gospel of Christ, is that death will not just lose its power over us; it will be rendered completely irrelevant in the kingdom of God! That is more than a bold statement; it is something impossible to imagine.

Think of it – an existence without death, but more than that, without fear of death – without the pain of parting, without any of the misery that we associate with our mortality. THAT is good news, and that is what Paul has discovered in Jesus, and then been bold to share with everyone he meets. Whatever else you learn from Paul; whether you revere him or scratch you head at his logical brilliance, Paul, in his correspondence, has put the miraculous on centre stage. His encounter with the impossible has changed the way he sees the world, and he invites us all to be changed with him.

I’ll admit, it is a difficult thing to consider faith in new ways. We no longer live in a world of ‘mandatory’ church attendance. Parents prefer other entertainments for their children; Scripture is, for many, just another ancient book with no modern meaning; many who do still consider church an important part of their lives are hard pressed to remember why it means so much to them – the magic / the mystery is gone, or assumed, or so deeply buried in our history and tradition, they can no longer sense the excitement of it. But for Paul, the mystery remained fresh and amazing until the very end. Christ is risen, he says, and you can imagine him jumping for joy or punching the air with his fists in triumph – because this improbable statement changes everything for him, and for us. Listen again to his enthusiasm – his amazement – his faith…

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

Death has been swallowed up in victory.’

Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?’

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain. 4

Amen, and amen.

 

 

11 Cor 14: 40 (NRSV)

21 Cor 15: 3 (NRSV)

3Apostles Creed: “and then he shall come to judge the living (the quick) and the dead”

41 Cor 15:50-58 (NRSV)

…and on the Sunday morning after…

December 16, 2012

I have written and preached in the past

about the difficulty of having John the Baptist intrude on our Christmas preparations;

it is familiar ground for me.

I am sensitive to what seems like a distraction in the lectionary every year,

for I am driven (along with the rest of you) toward the more comforting,

more familiar territory of seasonal Scriptures.

The main event is looming –the nativity is set up-

this week I purchased the tree –

and yet, once more we are enduring John’s warm-up speech.

Given the events of the last three days, however –

dozens of children damaged or dead

at the hands of damaged individuals in China and Connecticut –

perhaps John’s intrusion is worth our time.

 

“Your heritage cannot save you” he says to the indignant children of Abraham;

“Your good intentions are no good to God…” –

for these had come to John in the wilderness seeking the safety of his baptism.

They were, instead, singed by the fire of his indignation.

John offers a troubling metaphor: “The garden of God faces a pruning…”

And suggests that it is time to consider what their so-called faith has produced.

 

I wasn’t instantly sure that being hollered at by John the Baptist

was a remedy for the pain and grief that has been inflicted on humanity in the last 72 hours.

A wild-eyed man from the desert may remind us too much of those unfortunate souls

who have fallen through the cracks in our mental health system,

and become (at best) annoying diversions in our normal routines,

and (at worst) the source of horrific headlines .

But John’s voice is the voice of truth and reason, in spite of his appearance.

John’s conviction that God is ready

to overwhelm us with the power of divine mercy, justice and liberation is too sincere to be ignored.  John confronts brutal truth with brutal truth – the dismal with the divine –

and offers a hope that cannot be denied.

 

John is just laying the ground work, but you cannot help but admire his style.

Blunt.  Unapologetic.  Careless of his own safety or reputation –

the more I reflect, the more I am convinced that John offers an instructive model

for ministry (and many other things) in the 21st century.

In his dangerously direct fashion,

John points directly to the revelation of God that comes in Jesus (the one who is to come).

Not worried about offending lesser sensibilities,

not slowing down for extended explanations,

or caring one iota about how the message makes his audience feel,

John is concerned with getting the message out.

 

A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is what John offers (according to Luke).

He appears in the wilderness, and offers this cleansing ritual against the coming kingdom.

He draws crowds on the strength of his unusual approach, his heavy-handed preaching

(and, no doubt, because of his unique appearance).

Luke jumps right to an encounter with some who have gathered in curiosity –

and we are treated to an instant lesson in the theology of John…

beginning with an insult, and followed by accusation and threat.

(who wouldn’t want that on a Sunday morning…)

 

 

 

 

But what does that mean, Baptism of repentance?

It means that you who call yourselves the people of God have lost sight of God in every possible way.

It means you care more about reputation and appearance

than the divine principles of mercy, justice, love and grace.

It means that your traditions cannot atone for your sins –

your buildings cannot grant you sanctuary –

your religion cannot place you in the presence of the living God.

 

This is hard news to us, but we are used to hearing hard news;

news that defines itself by body counts and broken promises.

The reporting of these events give rise to arguments about social policy and cultural expectations,

but no where do the pundits offer hope.

Hope does not feature in the news of the day,

because hope is a political trick, designed to earn votes, not trust –

so John’s news, delivered with threat and accusation,

should sound different to us;

it should sound wonderfully promising to us.

 

Open your eyes, says John.

Share from your abundance – do not play games with the wealth that is God’s gift to you.

Do not “work the system” to enhance your importance.

Do not imagine that God does not know you well enough

to be grieved by your petty offences against one another…

 

Jesus leads us in this direction too,

but when Jesus says it in the gospel versions of his speech,

it is tempered with love and understanding and the very mercy of God.

John simply tells it plain.

And it becomes GOOD NEWS!

 

There is hope, John promises, because God can see beyond our brokenness.

There is joy in God’s promise deliverance from our wretched despair.

There is mercy for those who suffer and those who cause suffering…

Once we recognize the truth that John has prepared us for.

It is both the truth of our failure, and the truth of God’s success –

And we meet these truths in Jesus;

born into poverty – nurtured in uncertainty –

persecuted in jealousy – killed in anger – raised in glory.

 

That’s not a Christmas message – it is the Christian message;

independent of season, sorrow, or sadness.

It is our Good News – even on this day.  Amen