Posts Tagged ‘salvation’

Salvation

October 30, 2016

“…He was trying to see who Jesus was…”  This is not how we imagine this story for our children.  No, we sing a catchy tune about a ‘wee little man…’ – one that has always appealed to me, oddly enough – and that is that.  Zacchaeus answers Jesus’ summons; changes his life; repents of his crooked business practices, and all is well.  Moral of the story?  the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost…but was Zacchaeus lost?

He was trying to see who Jesus was.  His antics (tree climbing, most significant among them) got him noticed.  His desire to check this Jesus out drew Zacchaeus into the centre of the story.  Up until then, I pretty sure that Zacchaeus knew exactly who he was and where he was headed – up the ladder of success; top of the tax collector pyramid – but he wanted to find out about Jesus.   The result is a life completely changed; a ‘sinner’ saved, if you want to think in those terms.  See what happens when you get curious?

If this is a salvation story, as the text itself declares, then we have to reconsider what salvation means – and what better day for that than Reformation Sunday; the day that we recall how the church has spent nearly its entire history trying to figure out how to live into the salvation promised by God in Christ.  So, let’s give it a shot.

Salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house – Jesus says so.  A change of life that follows a change of mind, and a change of habit.  Whether or not Zacchaeus was lost, something about Jesus caught his attention.  They shouldn’t have been interested in one another – a student of Torah ought to have known that this was a fallen fellow; a chief tax collector, being rich and powerful, had no reason to think that he might need ‘saving’ –  so the first lesson in salvation is that it comes to those who neither expect it nor “deserve” it.  And that presents a challenge.

Here in the early days of the twenty-first century, we don’t imagine that there is anything else we can learn about salvation.  The message has shifted and changed over time, and God’s people have faced new challenges and fresh conflict.  The threat to the faithful has been as obvious as the overwhelming military strength of the Roman empire, and as subtle as the church working with the state to “re-educate” first nations children in residential schools.  To be saved from the oppressive weight of foreign occupation is an admirable goal.  To imagine that conformity is necessary to save those who are not like us is anything but admirable.  So when we’re pressed, Christians imagine salvation is an otherworldly thing.  For this, we can blame Calvin and his ideas about who may or may not be saved.  We talk of a place ‘reserved in heaven” for those who are saved; what’s more, we imagine that Jesus is the one who prints our ticket, carries our bags, and sets the table for our arrival feast.  But listen to Jesus’ declaration: “Today, salvation has COME TO THIS HOUSE…”

On what evidence?  Nothing more than the promise of repentance and restoration that comes from the mouth of ‘the accused’ – Zacchaeus intention to right his own wrongs prompts Jesus to declare salvation, today – present tense – in that place, for that ‘wee little man’.  The ‘prize’ we call salvation isn’t waiting at the end of the journey, it is realized in the midst of life – again and again, if need be — in moments of reformation.

One of the things that the church reformers in the 16th century are famous for (in Protestant circles, at least) is their desire to put an end to the “selling of salvation”.  Corrupt church officials had discovered that an easy and reliable way to raise money – for the church and for themselves – was to sell indulgences and holy relics.  Those relics included the bones of saints, or items associated with Jesus.  Indulgences were the eternal equivalent of a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card, designed to assure the buyer that their time in purgatory would be shortened – especially if you didn’t have the time (or patience) for real repentance.  Offered in this fashion, salvation as a commodity relieves the believer of any responsibility of real change in this life.  In addition, the Kingdom of God becomes imagined as a place (and in a time) beyond the present reality.  Except that Jesus continues to insist that change in this life is the goal; that “the Kingdom of God is very near to you”.

Jesus isn’t making this up – his ideas about the nature of salvation are rooted in the ancient promises of God to be with God’s people; Jesus call for change echoes the prophet’s cry to “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, (and) plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1: 17).  Jesus may indeed wait for us at the heavenly throne, but he asks us to engage our salvation in the here and now – just as Zacchaeus did.

He was trying to see who Jesus was; was he worth the bother?  Was he really so special?  Could he be the one whose approach to faith – whose ideas about God – might give you the courage to make a radical change?  Zacchaeus’ curiosity cost him his fortune – likely his career – but it gained him a new life; not such a  risk after all.

The same old sin, and a lesson in grace.

February 28, 2016

How often have you heard people complain about the differences between the Old and New Testaments…complain that the Old Testament is full of stories of God’s vengeance and wrath, while the New Testament reveals that God is love.  It’s not true, of course – God is God, and our efforts to describe God – to capture the essence of God in mere words – always fall hopelessly short of the mark.

We are made aware, through the history of the Hebrew people (as it is told in the Old Testament) that they understood their hardship and suffering in terms of God’s punishment or God’s absence.  They had some justification for this, I suppose, as their suffering was extreme, and their difficulties were numerous.  As a result, their descriptions of ‘God’s vengeance’ were vivid, and they lived with the constant expectation that God was both willing and able to punish them for their mistakes.

That expectation becomes a cultural ‘fact’; their history is full of fine examples of what they understood as God ‘acting out’ – surely, God knows the difference between punishment and prosperity – and so it is easy to develop a worldview that places punishment entirely in God’s hands, meaning the avoidance of punishment is our task, every time.

This week, however, the Lectionary readings offer us an alternative: joy and plenty from the hand of God, offered by a prophet who works among people in exile; people who believe their exile is part of God’s plan to punish them – and the prophet tells a story of providence instead.

It boggles the mind that God, whose task (in the Old Testament) is imagined to be limited to judgement and punishment, instead offers comfort, nourishment – even GLORY – to those whose lives have fallen apart.  True, this is a call to repentance – but repentance is always necessary in a world where

“…my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”  This is also a reminder that God’s measure of who is and is not worthy defies our understanding.

This seems to be the point Jesus would make – not that Jesus has suddenly reverted to an ‘old testament’ understanding – to promoting a two-faced god.  “Are they (who died so horribly) worse sinners than all the rest?”  There is a temptation to make Jesus sound morally superior, but the parable that follows suggests that Jesus is mocking those who imagine that any one particular sin is worse than another in God’s eyes.

I take this approach to this morning’s lessons at a time in the life of the national church when our energies are directed toward these sorts of ‘preferential judgements.’  A flurry of Overtures to last year’s General Assembly brought Homosexuality and same-sex marriages back into the spotlight.  To be clear, the Presbyterian Church in Canada has already said that homosexuality is not a sin, but that marriage is defined as between one man and one woman.    Nonetheless, following the discussions on Overtures to last  year’s General Assembly, the church at large is taking time to consider what it means to be ‘fit to minister’ in the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

There are those who argue for fuller inclusion; calling the church to recognize this as an act of social justice.  Others prefer the current approach, that allows homosexual individuals to be ordained and seek a call, so long as they remain celibate.  Still others believe that the recognition of homosexual people as among those fit to serve the church is nothing more than a dangerous concession to society.

It’s likely that we’re all wrong.

”For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways” – so says the prophet on behalf of the Lord (Isaiah 55: 8) – words not meant to discourage us, but to remind us that we are still part of an ordered Creation that we do not fully understand, over which we cannot gain full control.  Our hiding behind rules, modern and ancient, and our various appeals to ‘tradition’ or ‘progress’ are simply further outbreaks of the same old sin.  We are consumed by the pride which suggests that “we alone” can know the mind of God.  This is the sin that makes Jesus weep for Jerusalem – the sin that drives him to these careful comparisons – “…are these any worse sinners than those…?”

It is possible to imagine that there is only one sin – and that, being human, we have managed to express that one sin in an infinite number of creative ways.  Therefore, among sinners, God does not play favourites (if that were the right word) – indeed “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, and yet…and yet…God’s favourites are those who recognize that their sin keeps them from right relationship with God.  Repentance is always necessary, for everyone – constantly – not because certain sins are occasionally ‘favoured’ as more harmful, but because we continually re-invent new ways to express our sin.

And so, in this season of preparation and, yes, anticipation, let us hear for ourselves Jesus’ call to repentance “…or else you will perish as they did.”  This is not an empty threat – there are two choices within a life of faith – acceptance that “God is God and we are not” – a position of humility and worship and service guided by the promise of God’s providence, or a futile pursuit of “certain righteousness” based on a proud (but baseless) assumption that our minds have somehow unravelled the mystery of God’s plan for Creation.  No matter which path we pursue, we shall perish – that is certain.  But will we have lived lives of humble service, or lives of willful belligerence?

Even the tree that have not produced fruit are nurtured and encouraged; there are many “last chances” in the vast fabric of God’s grace – many times many, it seems – and it is only our foolish pride that runs us out of chances.  To those who believe that the churches future hangs on our ability to make the “right choice” – relax; remember that God is predisposed to Grace.  If Resurrection teaches us anything, it is that we should humble ourselves before the One who has overcome even death.  Let us abandon the pride that must be right – the pride that must be certain – and accept God’s offer of mercy which is deep and wide and absolutely without favourites.

Amen

What you see is (not always) what you get…

March 15, 2015

What you see is what you get.  That seems to be the highest kind of praise when people are describing one another.  It is the sort of thing that is supposed to put us at ease when we meet new people – instil confidence and    pave the way to trust.  The problem is, what you see is rarely what you get.  Our eyes play tricks on us – our expectations cannot be met by friends, never mind strangers – yet this doesn’t stop us from forming instant opinions in all kinds of situations, about all sorts of people…

We do this in our approach to faith.  Most “church” folk can give you a sketch of Jesus that will hit all the highlights: Saviour – Son of God – without sin – born in the winter, died in the spring; we tend to agree on the broad strokes.  But Jesus is full of surprises – the people who bring us his story all agree on the basics, but the details are something else again.

We’d prefer it if Jesus was transparent.  In him it should certainly be true that what you see is what you get – an honest, easy to understand guy who dealt openly with everyone he met.  But what I read in the gospels tells another story; Jesus talked in riddles – he challenged people’s expectations (and occasionally disappointed them).  Nicodemus comes ‘at night’; hoping to ask questions not fit for daylight (and, likely as not, hoping not to be seen…).  Nicodemus assumes that because Jesus shares a religious background with him, and because he seems knowledgable in the habits of faithful people, that Jesus and he share a common understanding…he couldn’t be further from the truth.

With Jesus, what you see is not what you get.  You are faced with someone who trusts God implicitly – who believes in justice and mercy especially for those who have been discarded by religious people who know the rules of their faith, but don’t understand the principles behind those rules.  Jesus is going to unravel their certainties and place doubt in their minds, just as he does with Nicodemus, and nothing will ever be the same for those whose beliefs were once unshakable.

What we see in the story from Numbers (21: 4-9) – a serpent; bronzed and on a pole – is a dangerous thing made perfectly safe.  The symbol concocted by Moses for a people plagued by misery and death assures them that here is a cure for their misery.  Held aloft, the serpent becomes the antidote for their greatest fear; the fear of death.

What we see in Jesus is a safe thing made dangerous; a man, but so much more than a man – called by God; one with God; sharing God-likeness in a way that no one ever imagined possible.

Dangerous, because he insists that we may join him in this intimate relationship with the one he calls Father.  Dangerous, because he asks us to set aside the things we think are true about the world around us, and demands that we examine our relationships with God and with one another.  Dangerous, because he wants to liberate us from all that holds us back, and keeps us from becoming the people God intended.

That liberation is perfectly frightening, and very hard to imagine.  John’s gospel suggests that Jesus is like the serpent on Moses’ staff –  destined to be ‘lifted up (ie. crucified).  When that happens, if we have the courage to look – the courage to see what is actually happening – we will discover that Jesus – the crucified God – is the antidote for our greatest fear; the cure for the misery of humanity.

I am reminded of something that happens to folks (like me) the first time they have a chance to look at the universe through a decent telescope.  If you’ve seen even one issue of National Geographic that contained full colour pictures from the Hubble telescope, your expectations will be very high.  You might even imagine that you can see that sort of detail – the brain works that way; you will see (occasionally) exactly what you EXPECT to see.  But if you look again, you’ll likely see what’s actually there.  Not much colour (that needs long-term exposure); details dependent on the quality of the equipment (and of course, even a clear night doesn’t always produce what astronomers call ‘good seeing’ – humidity, temperature and pollution all create problems).  What you will see, rather than the delicate detail of a professionally rendered magazine image, is the enormous, interconnected potential of it all.  Depth and contrast and the promise of infinity – that is what will emerge in the lens.

When you stand in the dark and look at those distant lights, it takes “good seeing”  (and no small amount of patience) to find what is actually there instead of seeing what you expect to see.  To discern the finer details, to see patterns, to notice the seasonal differences in the vastness of the night sky requires dedication, patience and a willingness to admit that you don’t really know everything about what is ‘up there’.

So it is with the things of God – we are called to patient and persistent examination of the things we think we know.  Jesus invites us to imagine that there is more to the kingdom of God than an indifferent judge who keeps a running tally of our activities – (John 3:16-17) – to really see the magnificent grace that God offers.    The path that Jesus will take – a path that leads to crucifixion – is one that exposes the dark deeds of humanity.  The decisions that make for misery and pain; the things that separate us from the love of God; the plain truth about the way we are – these are the things we’ve come to expect.  But Jesus draws our attention to what is really there; in a place of intense hardship and suffering, Jesus reveals grace and gentleness – signs of God in godless places (like the cross) – Jesus brings the light of God to those dark and desperate times, and that light continues to shine for us.

The Nineveh Effect

January 24, 2015

John’s gospel introduces Phillip and Nathaniel. Mark brings us James and John. The order of their calling doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that no one needs convincing. Jesus calls, and they follow. The words are different – the settings too – but we are asked to believe that otherwise successful fishermen, or established (working) adults simply abandoned their plans and went along with Jesus. This is what makes Scripture so fascinating – there are ideas here that are outrageous, by our standards: “Get up, take your mat and walk!” to a man crippled for decades. “Get up, little girl!” to a child on the verge of death (or already dead). God-with-us moves among regular people, and extraordinary things happen. Follow me, Jesus says – and they do, Not just twelve men, but an unknown number of others – women, beggars, and various hangers-on; all eager to see what God might do.

It’s one thing to see people who are interested (the disciples, for example) drop everything and come running; they have seen something (or heard something) in (or about) Jesus that makes this a risk worth taking. They may already identify themselves as ‘children of God’ by virtue of their heritage, or their own religious experiences. It’s quite another thing to see strangers – or enemies – turn and follow; and this is the amazing thing about Jonah’s story.

Go to Nineveh – that great city – and speak my word to them. An altogether outrageous idea, for Jonah, at least. Here was a city whose chief trait is “wickedness” – and God has taken notice.
All kinds of questions come to mind; why would God care? Isn’t this the Old Testament – all that smiting and judgement – plagues and so forth…isn’t there a precedent for God’s course of action? Yes there is – God first sends a representative to call the city (the nation – the person) back to the “right path” or to ‘plead their case before God’ (Abraham in Sodom, for example…),  Nineveh is no different, except that Jonah doesn’t want the job.
You know this story – Jonah runs; God intervenes; Jonah reluctantly takes up the challenge and then, so sure he is that the people will not listen, he retires to a hilltop to watch the destruction…which never comes. And we are as surprised as Jonah was.

The turning point in this extended parable – for that is what it is – is found in the third chapter, verse five: “And the people of Nineveh believed God.” What a fantastic – an unimaginable thing! Repentance – devotion – worship and praise suddenly happens in the most unlikely of places; downtown Nineveh! And Jonah’s problem? The people believed GOD!
Jonah’s opinion of them – his preconceptions of what ‘these people’ were like, or what they might be willing to believe, are totally wrong. They listen to Jonah, but they hear God. This is crucial.

Too often, when we take this section of Jonah’s story aside for study, we come to the conclusion that we must be faithful and speak truth to our ‘enemies’ – We have been told that unless we take a risk, and ‘cry out against their wickedness’, God will pursue us until we take the risk; moreover, it is only through our speaking out that the wicked will turn to the truth. Fair enough. Think about our first objection in this story (Jonah’s first objection, really): They are not like us – they will never change, or (more despicably) they don’t deserve the chance that God is offering.

Jonah learned something from ‘the pagan city’ – he discovered that they were not really pagans – they just had never been invited to the party.  Yes, Nineveh is an Assyrian stronghold, and yes, the Assyrians were historically (and sadly, continue to be) enemies of Israel. Does that make them unworthy of God’s attention, God’s mercy, or God’s grace?

Jonah thought “yes”, but God proved otherwise. In the current world order, where we are so adept at identifying the wicked and eager to count ourselves among ‘the righteous’ there is a lesson for us here – and a note of caution, too.

Our opinions do not always reflect God’s desires. What we call hopeless, God will redeem – with or without our help, I might add. And dare I suggest that the voice of ‘the other’ – the stranger, the fallen, the enemy – might have something of God’s wisdom for us, if we thought to listen (or if we cared to hear?)

I have wondered aloud in the past about how we can discern the voice of God; who speaks for God, what does that sound like; how can we KNOW…and Jonah’s tale does not give me any real answers. The best I can do is consider this; not only does the voice of God take us by surprise, so too does the audience. As soon as we decide that we are God’s representatives in this world, and responsible for ‘getting the word out’, we have already forgotten that first, we must be the audience.

We must receive the word of judgement, or correction, for (and on) ourselves, and WE must decide to believe God. Without that remarkable turn; without a reluctant audience who defy logic and believe that God wants good for them, there can be no grace – no hope – no life.

We say that in Jesus, God has acted once and for all. We recognize the cross and the empty tomb as bookmarks around a remarkable, single event in the history of God’s people. We speak of those who are “born again”; changed (as the apostle Paul was changed) or called (as the gospel’s describe the call of the disciples) after one remarkable encounter. This is the faith that we profess, and the heritage that we share. But it is not enough to claim redemption, by virtue of our heritage or our week to week devotion, as a fait accompli. All these things can do is make us ready to believe. The believing – in which we discover our salvation – happens every day; over and over again – and is the most promising sign of God’s willingness to engage us, to reach out to us, to save us.
Thanks be to God for that persistent call; that consistent desire to offer grace; and for the continual revelation of God’s desire to do us good. Amen

Searched and known is better than ‘lost and found’.

January 18, 2015

Scripture offers us a variety of evidence of the mysterious persistence of God; bushes that burn but don’t burn up; visitors (to Abraham & Sarah’s tent) who make wild promises of new beginnings; visitations in dreams and visions, and here, a voice calling young Samuel from sleep to sudden wakefulness. Last Sunday was a reminder that God has a voice. this week, we discover that God (voice and all) is on a mission.
There are several ways to describe this mission – the most common being the theory of “God’s lost and found” – made famous in song and parable (see the Prodigal Son in Luke 15: 11-32). The suggestion in this “lost but now we’re found” attitude is that it’s all about us.; we know better, but we choose not to do better. We are willful and (sometimes) awful where devotion and obedience is concerned. And since we (humans) cannot be relied upon to be solid citizens, God occasionally rummages through the rubbish heaps and dark places and ‘reclaims us’. This may be true, but it doesn’t tell the full story. It presumes that God only looks when we have made a complete hash of our lives, or completely turned from our true purpose. In other words, God waits for us to fail, so God can rescue us. I’m not saying that doesn’t seem to happen, but it paints a slightly cynical picture of God as a redeemer, doesn’t it? (Think – “Amazing Grace’ lyrics) – Does God really sit and wait? wait to be called (in distress) wait until it’s almost too late, and then arrive in triumph (or judgement) to save the day?
In a word – NO.
Yes, we are encouraged to call on God in our distress, and to seek God when we are lost (though we don’t always do that, do we…) – but it’s not because God is waiting for us to act. God’s action is preventative – premeditated and entirely proactive. We are not God’s ‘lost and found’; we have been searched and known.
Samuel is drawn from innocent service to divine spokesman; why? because God reached out in the night, whispering his name and describing the judgement on Eli’s family that would hand Samuel the ‘top job’. Nathaniel is astounded that Jesus ‘saw him under the tree before Philip called him’. Is Jesus just more observant that most people (probably), or is this another suggestion of the desire of God to seek and know even those who don’t give much thought to the things of God…
But it is this morning’s Psalm that make the best case for what I’m suggesting – that God is constantly seeking us out; constantly reaching out to enlighten us and encourage us to acknowledge our own need of God’s presence etc. It has long been among my favourite sections of Scripture – full of images that resonate with my own search for the meaning of all this. The message of the Psalm is simple and elegant; you can’t run – you can’t hide – God is bigger (and smarter) that our desire to escape observation; there is nothing we do that God does not notice (uh-oh), and there is (ultimately) no reason for us to try to give God the slip. Embrace the notion that God want’s us more than we want God. No escape – deal with it.
Now, when I first came to this conclusion, I was terrified; who wouldn’t be afraid – The idea of ‘no escape’ from a being who seemed fierce about the rules of behaviour is not comforting if you spent any time at all on the wrong side of the rules (and there were so many rules) …
but our terror is unfounded – God’s purpose is not to possess us or intimidate us, or even to ‘keep us on the straight and narrow’. God desires relationship. God’s devotion to this relationship is inexplicable; Nothing the Psalmist has tried puts God off his trail. Why? Because the Creator knows his work intimately and completely; nothing we do that surprises God; and the only habit that can damage our relationship is our habit of trying to escape God’s notice.
Why do we think we can outsmart the King of Creation? Why does it seem like a reasonable idea to eliminate God from our thinking (except on Sunday morning during worship, when we feel we must think about God?) It is true, that one of the tasks of the church is to consider better ways to share the good news – but mostly, we talk about why people won’t come to us to hear what we have to say. When you leave this place, do you take the message with you, or do you return to a game of ‘hide and seek’ with God?
I know that people expect me to be ready willing and able to think about, talk about and care about the things of God all the time (You’re a minister, after all) – and I suspect that there are some who can’t believe that I actually enjoy it – but it is the task of all of God’s people (and we are all God’s people) to share the joy, the love and the wonder that we have discovered in our worship together. And it helps me to know that it is not my (our) job to ‘seek the lost’; God has been doing that all along – Our job is to recognize that God wants to find us.
If God knows us – and is actively seeking us – are we ever really lost? That is the good news, friends – a word of hope in hopeless times. It means that desire or ability) to change our ways (aka repentance) is not a condition of our God loving us or desiring a relationship with us (aka salvation)
Our desire to change – to turn from evil and seek God’s righteousness and peace – is a reaction to God’s great love for us in Jesus.
Lost? probably. Found? Eventually; but only because we are so deeply loved and so intimately known by God who will not – who cannot – give up the search for us.
Thanks be to God. Amen

Peace, perfect peace. (Advent 2B)

December 7, 2014

The second Sunday of advent is traditionally devoted to peace. Waiting, as we are, for the coming of the Prince of Peace, it seems only right that some time should be devoted to something we say we all want, but have never really achieved. We are quick to pray for peace and to reward leaders who bring conflicts to an end. We imagine that the true definition of peace is ‘whatever happens when the shooting stops’, but peace as God intends is more than just the absence of conflict. The peace of God ‘passes all understanding’, and brings to mind deep contentment and true freedom – two things that are too often missing from the inventory of our “must-have” lists. Among the prophets, Isaiah brings our notions of peace and power under harsh review, and places beside them a vision of God’s power and peace that we must consider.
We are encouraged to think of the times between armed conflicts as “times of peace’, but the sort of struggles that the world has known in the last hundred years or so never really end. Peace treaties are marked by the vengeance of the victors and the impoverishment of the losers (in both the First and Second World Wars); Our pride in Canada’s role as principal peace keeper was well earned through the 60’s and 70’s, but it meant only that our soldiers (in Cypress and Crete and some places in the middle East) carried weapons that they could not fire, and found themselves placed between adversaries whom they could neither punish or assist. Their presence was not just symbolic, but the habit of trying to stop the fighting by a different show of force is a symptom of humanity’s larger problem – we don’t know what real peace looks like.
A survey of human history will show you that we have never really understood peace – always describing n terms of what we gained (or what others had taken from us). So the ancient instruction of Isaiah is understandable. People in Isaiah’s time saw their defeat at the hands of an enemy as a punishment from God. The ‘peace’ had been shattered by something they had done (or not done) that brought God’s wrath – when the truth was that they found themselves living between powerful and greedy neighbours. Israel had dared to claim the finest real estate in in the neighbourhood; trouble was bound to find them, and peace would always be elusive. To this nation, once more over-run, Isaiah brings the promise of real peace. Enough suffering; prepare the way of the Lord – make a highway in the desert look to your salvation – so runs the words of the prophet, but it runs against the wisdom of the day. A highway in the desert would only invite the invader; the easier it is to move from place to place, the more likely you are to see trouble coming down the road – but Isaiah promises comfort. Good tidings, rather than more grief. It is an unlikely promise, but that is because we don’t know what real peace – what the Salvation of the Lord – looks like.
We think we know peace – and in our arrogance, from our comfortable ‘First-World’ churches, we presume to understand Salvation. But the truth is we have insulated ourselves from the promises of God. Our prosperity, a stable and (mostly) reliable political system, the abundance we enjoy – all these things have given us a sense of security that is only momentary. So the peace that Isaiah preaches – the comfort God offers a people in exile – and the powerful peacemaker who will follow John the Baptizer into the chaos that is First century Palestine; all these should seem as wonderful and new to us as they did to their original audiences.
The promise of God is not just an absence of conflict – though that is certainly part of the expectation. God does not ‘enforce’ peace by virtue of superior power – this is peace bred by peaceful means; this is the power of a mothers embrace; the power of the world has no reply because we have even come to believe that love is something that can be manipulated and turned to our ‘advantage’. It can, of course, but the true power of love is conveyed in that image of God leading the people like a shepherd. Those who follow will enjoy a new perspective – God’s perspective. This is peace of a deep and personal nature that cannot help but change the way we conduct ourselves, our relationships; our politics; everything becomes marked by this promise of peace.

Ultimately the one whom John proclaimed will take up this peaceful cause, and he will be questioned and mocked, and finally killed for his devotion to such a profound redefinition of peace. It is Jesus’ cause that moves us to shake off our misunderstanding and embrace a new approach. This promise of peace has the capacity to save us – not just for eternity, but in the present as well. God’s deep, perfect peace has come to us – is coming to us – in Jesus Christ, and it has – it can – it will change the world. Thanks be to God. Amen

“Who’s your people?”

November 24, 2013

When you want to convince someone in Pictou County

that you have authority, or that you mean business,

the simplest way is to tell them who you’re from.

Even if you come from away,

the story of your family history may include a Nova Scotia connection,

and that may earn you some credit.

The question “who’s your people?” is more than just idle curiosity;

it is an important step in gaining (and giving)

trust and credibility to the rest of your story.

In terms of the story of God’s people,

the gospels carry out a similar function.

In these accounts – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John –

we are told of a turning point in the relationship between God and humanity.

In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus,

we encounter a power at work like no other;

the power of God’s love for creation – a love that overcomes even treachery and death.

An amazing and riveting story, one that gives us our identity as God’s people –

the body of Christ – in the twenty-first century.

So to tell that story, the authors of the gospels need to give their audience context –

some reason to read further; some reason to trust the authenticity of the tale.

Mark’s gospel, the earliest of the four, opens with Jesus fully formed –

baptized by John, and entering into his vocation as a travelling teacher,

and teller of difficult truths.

John’s gospel, the last one written,

begins with a hymn to Jesus’ transcendence – a beautiful and moving piece of poetry,

but here again we meet Jesus in adulthood, ready to do battle, as it were.

Only in Matthew and Luke

do we find what Paul Harvey would describe as “the rest of the story…”

We have come to treasure the story of Jesus birth.

We have developed rituals and traditions around Christmas

that are unrivalled by our rather subdued recognition

of the real miracle of Jesus Resurrection.

And we owe the gospels of Matthew and Luke

a debt of reluctant thanks for some of those rituals and traditions.

 

Both gospels were trying to tell the good news to a new people.

Each hoped to convince their wider audience of the new Christian community’s claim

that Jesus’ message was an offer open to “all nations” –

it was going to be a tough sell, so both Matthew and Luke opted for a similar approach;

they would start at “the beginning”;

they would tie Jesus firmly to the centuries old story of redemption as told by his ancestors.

So Jesus is born a Jew, but not just any Jew;

a particularly well connected member of the Jewish community.

Descended from Kings and Prophets; part of the story that was already being told –

a story of prevailing and promises kept.

 

That the lists of names are wildly different, seems not to matter.

Oh, it would mater to us,

because who you are is only understood once we know who you came from,

but it doesn’t matter in the same way

to those of us who claim the Scriptures as a source of truth.

These names serve a different purpose –

they tie different communities to the same promises –

and they help us find our place in God’s family too.

 

The particular names don’t matter –

Luke and Matthew don’t even agree on the simplest, most accessible details –

(who was Joseph’s father ?)

No, what matters is that each of these names would have told a particular part of the story.

Each name connects one more family, one more community, one more generation,

to the story that the gospel writers actually want to tell –

the story of Jesus path to the cross,

and of God’s glorious act of grace that is his resurrection.

Soon, we will begin again at the beginning.

We have asked the question – and Matthew and Luke have tried to tell us

how this child fits the puzzle that is the history of redemption at the hands of God

In time, we will stand in silent wonder at the cradle of this new born king

And we will find ourselves part of the history of Salvation.

Know that this is our story – these are our people –

and it is God who stands at the centre of this story of grace and hope.

Thanks be to God.  Amen

A misfit in the family…?

November 9, 2013

          Family history is not really my thing.  In general, I know who’s who, and recognize names from my parents’ past, but I don’t delve too deeply into the stories that are beyond my living memory.  My father specializes in the more distant past; tracing the Lackies, Brocks, Coulters’ and the like, back to their arrival in Canada.  They are, for the most part, ordinary stories of farming and working, and marrying and burying – stories that every family can tell in abundance.  If there are any Isaacs or Jacobs in my past, they are well disguised.

          Our family stories may contain on or two ‘difficult cases’; black sheep, or misunderstood trailblazers – but most of the family history is concerned with self-improvement; stories of grand success.  So I know that my uncle  had a hard war, but on his return, he managed to overcome those challenges and rebuild his life.  I understand that my grandparent’s origins were shrouded in difficulty and still they managed to make things better for their children.  These are the stories we want to tell – stories that are easy, even fun to tell.  But our shared history – the history of our call to be God’s people – is filled with misfits and ne’er do wells.  Those stories we share only reluctantly.

          Abraham’s Grandson – the youngest of Isaac’s twin boys – is a special case.  From the moment of his birth, he shows himself to be a grasping, opportunistic, pain in the rear.  He ‘strives with his brother’ while in the womb.  He cooks up a lunch that cost his brother a birthright (though Esau was never going to win any prizes for integrity).  Jacob and his mother plot together to ensure Isaac’s dying blessing falls to the younger brother (to Isaac’s dismay and Esau’s rage)

          This is like many a family story that no one wants to tell – but it is central to the story of our faith.  Jacob, in his youth, is nothing but trouble.  He cheats his brother (twice), his father, his uncle – all in the name of self- preservation and self-promotion.  Even so, God is very real to him.  God’s presence breaks in to his dreams.  God grabs him and struggles with him and, in frustration wounds him.  This is not how it is supposed to be!  If God is a righteous judge, shouldn’t there be some sort of righteous judgement?  Instead, Jacob has become a respectable success, marked by God as the father of a nation – named by God as “one who struggles with God” (for that is what Isra-el means) – Jacob becomes the father of us all in the family of faith.

          It is something to consider in our current time – when our heroes are only heroes until we find their flaws.  Whether actors or athletes; politicians or parents (remember when we had political heroes???), the life-span of a hero these days can be in moments.  And when the fall comes, there is no return to grace; we search wildly for someone to fill the void, and start the cycle again. Heroes of the faith – these larger than life characters from Scripture – offer us something else.  They confirm our frailty.  We recognize in them a little of our own larceny, and then God steps into the story and uses these broken, beaten and badly motivated people for God’s own glory.  It’s never pretty.  It’s often confusing.  And when we see the depths to which God will sink to offer grace and peace to the fallen hero, we should be overcome with relief.  We are, in fact, saved by this particular impulse of God.

          Our ambitions are seldom realized.  We are less than perfect specimens, guided by a tradition of faith that has had its share of difficult moments.  God’s people have weathered every storm that our obstinate, devious minds have created.  And God continues to meet us where we are.  God’s gift to us in Christ was not to make us into perfectly manageable creatures of heaven; the gift is that God sees our wounded-ness, and accepts it – blesses it – renames it for God’s own reason and purpose.

          So Jacob, limping toward his homecoming, is not just humbled by his contest with God, he is prevented from running away from reunion with his brother – and that is good news.  And our imperfections vanish when viewed in the shadow of the cross – and that is good news.       The family stories that are hardest to tell often make the most lasting impression.  It is a point in our favour, that the Scriptures portray such a motley crew of imperfect souls as the bedrock layer in a long history of faithful witness.  Perhaps someday, our children’s children will be able to say the same of us.

 Amen.

…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.