Posts Tagged ‘thanksgiving’

Privilege, price, and the season of Thanksgiving

October 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

An old man and a rainbow

October 13, 2013

Genesis 8 & 9 – An old man and a rainbow

For all that we call this the story of Noah’s Ark, this is not a story about Noah.  There are no detailed accounts of his time aboard the ark; no life lessons learned from the enormous task of caring for so much livestock in such a (relatively) small space.  That’s how it is with our favourite stories – they take on many meanings and sometimes we lose track of their original purpose.  This is not a story about Noah.

We would expect to know more about him if her were the principle character, but all we know is that God ‘chose’ him as one righteous person in an evil time.  Noah has a wife and three sons.  He is, according to the text, 600 years old.  He is a man of faith who “walks with God”.  That is all we know about Noah – not the central character.

Forget the animals, forget the rain, forget the enormous construction project and the inevitable conflict that comes from eight people of the same family living in such close quarters (with so many animals) for the better part of a year.  This is not a story about any of that.  This is all about God, and our relationship to God.

We have turned this into a morality play – “the wicked are destroyed and the righteous survive and prosper” – but that does injustice to Scripture, and that is not ultimate lesson.  For this righteous man (Noah) falls into bad habits almost as soon as the rainbow fades from the sky.  What we learn about God is worth exploring.

God calls a family to perform an enormous task.  God prepares them for the hardship, and “shuts them in the ark” when construction is complete.  God accompanies them on this perilous journey, and provides hope for the future, not only in the selection of animals for sacrifice (and food), but in the promise that is symbolized by the rainbow – a promise for the ages.

God is everywhere in this story, and the only time Noah deserves the credit he receives is when he finally leaves the ark.  His first act on dry land is an act of thanksgiving.  Noah seems to have recognized that the central character in his recent struggles deserves an act of worship – an offering of praise.

We don’t often recognize the flood story as a thanksgiving story because we have hidden the real purpose with all that other stuff.  And we are guilty of this in the stories we tell of our own lives as well.  We spin wonderful tales, we create heroes and villains, we give weight to insignificant events, and all the while, we ignore the central premise.  In the varied and changing stories of our lives, there is one common thread; there is God and our relationship with God.

There is sin, yes and evil (as evidenced by recent events); there are a cast of characters that would make Cecil B DeMille blush, but in the end the story is about our relationship with God.  This is at the heart of the story of church decline, and community decay; it is the central theme in our debates on politics and climate change; and those who say they don’t believe are not immune, for their profession of unbelief points directly to God (real or not) as the central concern.

So on a weekend that we are reminded to give thanks – at a time when we would be tempted to name a long list of ‘supporting cast’ who have been important to us (and rightly so) let us not forget the central figure in our thanksgiving, as those who profess a Christian faith, is and always shall be God.

For promises kept.  For vigilance in dark times, and for freedom to enjoy times of plenty.  For the act of grace that brings us through every trial, we praise and thank our God.  That is the lesson for us in this story.  And it is a lesson that can be applied without effort to our current circumstances.  Where the people of God struggle to proclaim God’s love – where the church struggles to survive, and the voice of her witness is lost in the general shouting of a world gone mad – in all those places and more, we can be sure that God still attends us, that the Spirit still moves us, and that the promise of new life in Christ is still offered us.

That promise – that starts with a rainbow and extends to an empty tomb, will always be worthy of our thanks.

Persistent Thanksgiving

October 10, 2009

We in North America are quite good at giving thanks.

We are thankful for our standard of living –

because we are constantly reminded that others in the global community

do not share our prosperity.

We are thankful for friends we have –

because all around us we can see people who are lonely and desperate and afraid,

who do not know the confidence that comes with companionship.

We are thankful – sometimes- for the gift of the church –

because we cannot imagine a world

without the faith and fellowship that has been nurtured in these places of worship.

We are quite aware that not everyone finds it possible to be thankful –

and so we conclude that thanksgiving comes only after we have had our burdens lifted.

“How hard it will be,” Jesus proclaims “for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

and secretly, we recoil –

for we have been giving thanks for those things that Jesus then condemns…

the church in prosperous places would prefer this gospel not reach the ears of the public,

because it condemns our work towards the Kingdom as futile!

This text makes a mockery of thanksgiving as it is usually celebrated.

And yet, we cannot stop giving thanks

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

Our memories may favour the kind of thanksgiving that comes only in joy, abundance and beauty.

but our experience should remind us of a more persistent kind of thanksgiving…

scripture certainly reminds us –

of praise poured out from the midst of persecution (as in this morning’s Psalm).

The people of God are not always in a place of abundance, perfection and grace,

and we are called first to the ancient habit of giving thanks in our distress –

in the manner of many Psalms.

We are encouraged to always remember that goodness of God that is ours –

no matter what our circumstances.

This is the habit we lose when prosperity finds us.

The habit of constant thankfulness – constant awareness of the goodness of God –

our treasures push God aside with surprising ease. We don’t mean it to happen, but as our comfort increases, our need for God diminishes.

The people of God, persecuted and struggling are universally stronger, more persistent, more deliberate in worship, prayer and praise.

When the persecution stops, the people of God relax.

When success and safety come our way, there’s no need of God’s protection and grace

for -it would seem – we have “made it”.

“Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for someone rich to enter the kingdom.”

because that reliance on wealth is reliance on the wrong thing.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

someone rich, Jesus says – wanting to make it very personal.

And what is true of large groups of people (the persecuted church v the powerful church)

is therefore true for you and I.

Those things in our lives that cause us to struggle – those times when we are hard pressed –

that is when we find our greatest strength – our greatest joy –

and offer, looking back, our loudest thanks.

This ‘rich young man’ came to Jesus on the run

eager – joyful – lets say grateful –

for the success his hard work had earned him.

He knelt at Jesus feet, and having satisfied himself in this life,

asked Jesus for the secret to eternal life.

Jesus heard his story – saw his devotion – and loved him for it,

but still Jesus asked something that this man could not do.

His wealth had the better of him – his gratitude was earthbound,

though his good fortune may have been heaven sent –

and he went away disappointed.

He had forgotten what it was to struggle –

to be wholly dependent on a gracious God –

and the thought of such dependence is horrifying for him,

as it is for us.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

The good news is that God is capable –

God desires our dependence, our gratitude, our praise –

not as payment for services rendered – but as an integral part of our daily living.

Our persistent Thanksgiving

– our constant rejoicing whatever our lot –

in the very fact of God

is what grants us access to the kingdom.

Our world changes when our every act is one of thanks;

Our priorities change, our moods change, our outlook will change.

Our bills will still need to be paid

and our work still must get done,

but the focus will not be on the getting, or the having;

our focus will be on the gift of being God’s people.

And that gift has made us rich beyond all imagining – thanks be to God.

Holistic stewardship (2 Corinthians 8:7-15)

June 27, 2009

Paul is talking about a very specific act of generosity in this letter to the church in Corinth.

Paul almost always has something very specific in mind when he writes,

but his writing finds a way to implicate us, in this time and place,

such is the nature of this holy book of ours.

Paul writes about a special collection, taken up among the believers of the ancient near east,

for the support and relief of the church in Jerusalem.

Just in case we were curious,

the people of God were called upon to address financial crises even then –

and according to Paul, this project has been underway for at least a year.

And while this is an excellent text to encourage

faithful attention to the needs of the church and her mission,

it says much more to us than, simply, “the Lord loves a cheerful (and faithful) giver.”

Although Paul is writing to address a specific concern,

his statement of faith – his theology –

speak to us of the nature of faith and the character of God –

centuries after the specific need has been met.

Such is the nature of this holy book of ours.

“…so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”

So here is our call to be involved in something beyond ourselves;

to participate in generosity – and not just participate in it, but excel at it.

But there is more to Paul’s request that just a physical need in another country

Generosity drives Paul’s understanding of God –

generosity of spirit – of forgiveness – of grace and salvation.

And a call to live this way – to express our faith first from generosity –

comes to us no matter our social status, our cultural context, or our tax bracket.

Paul’s argument goes like this:

God is the ultimate generous giver – how can you withhold anything?

So, our voices – our hands – our brains – our labours –

all we have is ours by grace – we are made in the image of a generous God.

How can we be stingy?

Too often we hear a call to give, and reach for our wallets…reluctantly, perhaps,

as though our money was all God needed to set things right.

But this call – this invitation to share – makes demands on every part of our being…

small wonder we are reluctant.

And sensing our reluctance, Paul offers us his prime example – our prime example:

“For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ,

that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor,

so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

As we seem to have forgotten God’s generous nature, Jesus shows us how it ought to be.

Among us – living for others, in spite of himself –

Jesus’ life models for us how all-inclusive our generosity might be:

no one excluded. No one spurned. None are untouchable, all are invited.

Women, the sick, the dying and the dead.

No one is outside Jesus circle, except those who choose to be.

And those who believe themselves unworthy –

who feel like they must ‘steal some grace’ (as in our gospel lesson Mk 5:21-43) –

even they are welcomed in; such is God’s generosity in Christ.

Even so, we are sure that we know how this might work.

An outpouring of goodness from us will leave us empty;

we’ve seen it happen – our reserves are not limitless – we are not God…

…and Paul continues, that we might have no further objections:

“I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you,

but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need,

so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”

How foolish we are, to think that God measures by our standards.

How foolish, to think that some must suffer while others enjoy plenty.

That kind of ‘either/or’ world – that division of goods and graces

is not a result of God’s generosity, but our greed and short-sightedness.

Balance is part of the created order – there is enough for all, to fill every need.

And so, Paul urges generosity, not that we might suffer some severity

but that no one might go without.

None without love- none without joy –

none without friendship – none without hope.

Those are gifts that cost us nothing.

Gifts made for sharing – gifts without limit.

And while it is true that Paul’s collection for the saints continues still –

through various ministries of every denomination on the planet –

and while it is true that this is an excellent text

for encouraging the faithful to continue supporting those various forms of ministry,

our generosity is not limited to that wonderful, spirit-led work.

Our living – our relationships – our work and our play

are daily drawn under the scrutiny of grace –

and we are urged to fully embrace this generous undertaking;

this risen life in all its complicated splendour –

for the sake of Christ and the Glory of God

such is the nature of this holy book of ours.