Posts Tagged ‘the church’

Reliance

June 17, 2017

Exodus is lesson after lesson that teaches the wisdom of reliance on God.  Yes, this is an ancient document – and yes, the cultural references and religious expressions described in the early books of the Old Testament often seem nonsensical to us.  But they are very much a part of our own history, because they help us to understand Jesus.  These are the stories Jesus knew – these are the tribes that populate Jesus family tree;  The ancient Hebrew people are our relations too, and their lessons are for our benefit.

The back-story to this morning’s old testament lesson is the stuff of Hollywood legend.  CB deMille has left his mark on our theology, and most of us can remember being spell-bound by Charlton Heston acting as God’s agent in Egypt – proclaiming Egypt’s doom and displaying the power of God.  The first nine plagues speed by in cinematic splendour.  The tenth plague, the death of the first born of Egypt, is the pivotal point of the film.  High drama, resulting in the Hebrew’s release in triumph.  An anticlimactic chase scene, resulting in more humiliation for Yul Brenner…er, Rameses the second, and the people of God have prevailed.  Or have they?

The story continues, of course.  I’ve never managed to watch the movie to it’s happy conclusion, but I have read the book.  En route to the land of the promise, there are disputes and delays – the people cry out at the supposed injustice of being led from slavery into a different kind of suffering.  And in due course (and spectacular fashion) God provides.  Bitter water is made sweet.  Bread in the morning – quails in the evening.  Over and over again, the people cry out and God answers them.  Then at the foot of Sinai – on the verge of revealing the law – God directs Moses to remind the people, one more time, how they have been guided, fed, and wholly redeemed from their bondage.  Listen again – Exodus 19: 3-6:

3Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.

The people need reminding – stiff-necked people that they are, and prone to forget that their time in Egypt was not exactly ‘the good old days’.  And when reminded, of course they pledge faithfulness: “Everything that the LORD has spoken, we will do.” … and they never really get there.

Obedience is a tough promise to keep.  Scriptures are filled with evidence that the people would not (or could not) keep faith with the God who delivered them – though the evidence is equally clear that God continued to keep God’s part of the bargain.  God treasures the people – God loves the people, even in their disobedience – God sticks with this covenant promise… and so the story goes.  Generation after generation; in and out of exile; in and out of favour with God, but never lost to God’s watchfulness, and never – NEVER – does God fall out of love with God’s troublesome, reluctant, imperfectly faithful people.  Thank God.

Deliverance is the continual (and continuing) work of God.  From Moses to Messiah; in the harsh reality of the wilderness and in the imagined safety of empire, God reveals a penchant for grace – a soft spot for those who dare to call on God’s name.  Our call to God is often answered by an irresistible summons – the voice of God saying “I am.  Follow me.  Act.  Speak.  Declare the dawn of a new age.”  Judges and kings; priests and prophets; each and every one translating the presence of God – the promise of God – into the language of their contemporaries. This is what has happened in Jesus.  Jesus reminds his fellow citizens that they are part of the continuing journey towards the promises of God.  The call to obey and keep covenant still echoes down through history, and Jesus directs his chosen friends to put the promise of faith into action.  He sends them to the “lost sheep of Israel” – he directs them to demonstrate the power, glory and love of God; to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons.  A tall order – a near impossible task – given that these were otherwise ordinary citizens, randomly chosen and unremarkable in every way but one; they answered the call – the resolve of their ancient ancestors is shared by the twelve.  They will go on to live out the glorious boast of their ancestors – “Everything that the LORD has spoken, we will do.”  Lives will be changed; the sick made whole, the hungry fed, the dead will be raised.  And everyone will wonder “how can this be?”  The disciples and those who follow can offer only one answer: It is the power of God, made known in the Risen Christ.

Their faith will be tested, of course.  They will falter, and fail often enough to remind us that they have much in common with Moses’ crowd.  Not every enterprise will succeed; not every opportunity to witness will be taken, and in this, we find a common bond.  Our humanity unites us, as much as our shared passion, curiosity and reverence for the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob.  Like the twelve, we have been intrigued by Jesus call.  We are encouraged by Jesus example.  We are empowered by Jesus death and resurrection.  We long to do “all the LORD has spoken”, and in our longing, we come full circle – for we need the lessons on reliance that are relevant in every generation.  Our desire to follow Jesus is admirable, but our desire is never enough.  Without God’s eager devotion – without God’s determined desire to love us and deliver us, our efforts can only fall short.  The “enterprise” that is the church on earth has little to do with us and everything to do with God.

As we contemplate the best way to ‘translate the faith of our ancestors’ to our current language, we would be wise to remember that our efforts, our witness, our proclamation – even our obedience to “all the LORD has spoken” – none of these are sufficient (nor even necessary) to redeem the world – for in love, while we were still sinners, God has seen us safe.  Jesus risen from the grave is our proof.  Christ risen and ascended; the Spirit let loose upon the earth; the word of grace lived out by generations of fallible, faithful people just like us; by these signs and wonders we know that God’s work of deliverance continues, that God provides all that is necessary, and that is Good News indeed.

“what’s wrong with the church?”

May 28, 2017

As General Assembly approaches – I find myself longing to say these things to a wider audience.

Reflections from here

Isaiah 42: 1-9  –  Matthew 5: 3-12

Preached at the meeting of Pictou Presbytery – Jan 17, 2017

I have had some interesting encounters this month.  A conference call to discuss the Justice Ministries Response to overtures on same sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons confirmed that there is real passion in the Presbyterian church for particular positions…A session meeting (last week) that revealed there are strong positions in the congregation around the nature and value of mission in the church.  Conversations with some of Heather’s friends (who just dropped in to visit the dog, apparently) about the purpose of the church.  And most significantly, I was the guest of the folks from the Pictou County centre for Sexual Health at a discussion group that they host for people who identify as LGBTQ and their allies.

It’s not a large group, but there too I found strongly held…

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The sin of Jonah

September 21, 2014

God’s mind is changed – and Jonah is beside himself.

Jonah is our kind of guy – he knows what he knows –

and he knows that God is capable of great mercy.

But he also knows that the citizens of Nineveh are past all mercy and grace.

They are exceedingly wicked – they don’t deserve the promise of God;

they are not worthy of God’s grace.

Yes, Jonah is our kind of guy – or more accurately, we are guilty of Jonah’s mistake –

we know what we know; about God, about our friends,

and more importantly, about our “enemies”.

We know – or we imagine that we know – how the promises of God

and the gospel of Christ are arranged:

the word is offered and accepted – then the hearer is changed and,

God be praised, the kingdom is brought closer.

So we appoint people to preach the word,

and we arranged an institution to instruct God’s people

in the principles of goodness and grace (we call it The Church) –

and then we set the price of admission just high enough

that only the right sort of people will come…

it didn’t begin that way, but that’s what we have become –

or more properly, that’s how we are perceived.

I don’t mean that there is an actual price of admission –

though we are delighted by the generosity of our members

(how else would we keep the lights on and pay the preacher?)

No, the price of admission is more complex;

you must believe what we believe – and recognize our traditions –

and understand our structures –

and please, please, please don’t question the image of God that we have constructed

it’s one we understand and we’d rather not change our minds

about who God is or how God acts…)

The Church (the whole church) sounds alarm bells when attendance drops off,

and when we meet resistance in the public square about our ideas,

or our expressions of faith. We (the church – the whole church) circle the wagons

and call on our friends to support us in this “war against unbelief”

or whatever we might call it – there are calls for renewal and reformation

and rededication to “holy principles”, and all the while,

God goes on loving and saving and showing mercy through any means available –

to people we recognize as good and to those we think have fallen off the wagon.

The recent General Assembly is a case in point – we argued for hours

over a description of the mission of the Presbyterian Church in Canada –

fighting over wording and grammar

because these are the things that help us express who we are and what we are about –

but none of our efforts did anything to expand the notion of who God is

or how God might act apart from this small, stubborn band of Presbyterians.

Our arguments made new excuses and new enemies for us to blame for our problems –

and God simply smiled and went on being gracious.

That’s the way God works.

Yes, we are guilty of the sin of Jonah, because God is not our puppet –

and God will not be bribed, or tricked when it comes to deciding who receives mercy,

or whose repentence is genuine, or who might be considered a child of God.

It’s not because God doesn’t want us to work for justice and peace –

that is what we are called to do as disciples of Jesus –

but we try to make God our puppet when we bend the gospel to our own purposes,

and create closed communities of people unwilling to push boundaries or ask questions.

God’s Kingdom will come whether we participate or not –

whether we proclaim the gospel, or not –

whether we are willing, eager participants, or not.

(that is the lesson Jonah doesn’t learn)

Our own communities are full of people who feel

that their questions about God

(or their complaints about the church)

have excluded them from the mercy that we claim as our own.

Our future is in danger because we can’t imagine

how those people who dare to ask such questions

could help us shape the kingdom of God –

but God doesn’t need us to define God’s kingdom,

rather, God works to ensure that their is a place

for all who choose to participate in the building up of the kingdom.

Our doors are open – the invitation of the gospel is generous and clear .

Scripture reminds us, time and time again,

that we are no judge of who is fit for the kingdom.

We must open our hearts to welcome those we once called enemies –

those we thought beyond all help – for God’s mind has been changed before,

and God’s mercy is wider than we can possibly imagine.

Thanks be to God. Amen

What cost, grace? Luke 14: 15-24

June 22, 2014

Grace – especially God’s grace – is a strange concept. No one deserves it; everyone has a different definition for it; and when God offers grace, the world is turned upside down. Disadvantage becomes desirable.

Jesus offers this insight while observing guests and their host interact over dinner. Entertaining, then and now, is a complicated business. Some guests are more important than others. Egos must be soothed, seating arrangements need to be carefully planned – and Jesus calls attention to the ridiculous, petty nature of it all. Don’t make a fuss, Jesus says – don’t claim importance for yourself – humility and hospitality are two sides of the same coin, and you host can only show you true hospitality if you are truly humble. When someone seems to suggest that those who share a table in the Kingdom of God will somehow be different, Jesus launches into his parable.

The first thing that strikes me about this ‘parable’ is the weak excuses offered by those who are first invited. I’ve got to see some new property; I’ve just been married; – I’m dying to try out my new oxen…Seriously? You have been invited – well in advance. You know the host is saving a place for you. Indifference is at work here, and that is what makes this parable so hard to hear this morning – for we know all about indifference.

(look around – you see real evidence of indifference – empty seats.)

But don’t mistake me – this is not a story about the importance of having a full church, nor is it all about dragging people to the party who don’t want to be at the party (Matthew tells the story differently, with consequences for those who come to the party ‘unprepared’) – no, Jesus tells this story at a dinner party (where grace is in short supply) to remind us that there is nothing in our experience that compares to God’s grace.

When we think about this parable and what it means for us as the church, too often, we see it as a sign of our failure. We have not kept the table full. We have failed to follow the instructions of the host, whom we serve We have heard excuses and believed them – we have not been so enthusiastic about the idea that the poor, the halt and the lame should be next on the guest list, because we have come to believe that the only good guest is one who can help us pick up the tab when the party is over. But this is not the parable of the full church – this is a parable of the kingdom of God – and the church is not always a good example of the Kingdom.

When offering his insight on the dinner party, Jesus lets the secret of this parable slip; Entertain those who can’t entertain you (Luke 14: 12-14) – don’t look to those who can repay you with an invitation, but try another way. “None of those invited will taste my dinner”, says the host of the parable – none who were considered ‘good enough’ will ever really know what hospitality is; none who think themselves righteous know what righteousness is; no one this thinks they are worthy of God’s grace will ever know what grace is, and this parable is all about grace.

The church is in a strange and dangerous position. We who call ourselves the body of Christ have met the grace of God in the gospel of Jesus; we say the right things, we worship and baptize and reach out to a broken world, but we do not always show signs of the grace that has touched us. We judge; we exclude; we offer (and accept) excuses for our behaviour that sound very much weaker than “I have got me a wife; I have bought me a cow”. We imagine that because we have commitments that cost us a pretty sum, that we are the hosts of this party, and somehow liable for its success – but we are not. We are urged to take advice from one who knows a thing or two about grace – Entertain those who can’t reciprocate, Jesus says – accept around your tables people who don’t appear to deserve an invitation – make your best efforts towards the least able in your communities and neighbourhoods. For the church, I think this means we must stop worrying about the supporters whom we have lost, and start to pay attention to those who desperately need our support. If it is grace we are asked to show, then lets reach out in faith without seeking reward, or reciprocation, or someone to share the cost with us.

(It is in that spirit that session in Thorburn has decided to organize (beginning in September) a monthly hot lunch, not as a fund raising enterprise, but as outreach. We do this, not so we can survive, but because we are the body of Christ, eager to show others what the Kingdom may be like. It is like a place where everyone gets what they don’t deserve – where invitations are offered and re-offered, not because the table (or the building) must be full, but because the Grace of God is not defeated by lame excuses or rampant indifference, or reluctant acceptance. God is generous beyond all imagination, and that generous grace is the example we are called to follow.

The urgency of now.

June 29, 2013

Our house has been full of giddy graduates this week.

And in the way of all young people,

there has been the usual amounts of dreaming and planning

(that is to say – lots of dreaming, very little planning).

 

Since these gatherings are always co-ed,

there have also been plenty of those casual displays meant to impress;

smiling and jesting and indifference that hides real affection.

 

In the midst of one of these,

I was moved by some memory to demonstrate

that even the young at heart are eager to impress –

I tell myself it was to “impart knowledge” –

so as certain young men, acting as young men do when in the company of young women,

offered up competing examples of personal strength

(who else can you lift with just one hand?) –

I stepped in to show them that, impressive as it was, it was really an illusion –

a clever trick, all in the legs; leverage is everything –

I’d like to think they were amazed (I was quite please with myself…)

but the real lesson was lost to them.

 

The real lesson is one  that experience teaches –

there are lots of ways to  make easy things look difficult (and thus, impressive);

 but the difficult things are harder to fake;  they remain difficult,

 and no amount of trickery (or flattery) can alter that fact.

 

Jesus is trying to tell his disciples this same thing.

 

He has ‘set his face towards Jerusalem’ –

which causes some concern in Samaria (they will not receive him) –

but he will not let his disciples anger divert them from the task at hand;

it is easy to give in to righteous anger, much harder to just walk on by…

 

“Teacher, I would follow you anywhere” –

a gratifying statement, to be sure,

but Jesus reply suggests that he will be going in a direction that no one expects;

Jesus is leading us toward and uncomfortable conflict –

a clash of culture that means the unravelling of expectations.

“the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”,  he says;

a metaphor for the current relationship between the church and the wider world –

and it occurs to me that the promise to follow Jesus

must be made in the context of the certainty of challenge that our choice will present .

The way of God that led Jesus to the cross was not the easy path.

The work of God that Jesus promotes in the cause of the kingdom Jesus represents

requires determination, patience, and a willingness to forego the easy choices,

thus we are lastly encouraged to “keep our hand to the plough”

and avoid the over-the-shoulder admiration of what has been.

 

What is, is far more important in Jesus’ eyes than what was, or what may someday be…

 

We are drawn to spectacular solutions that are made to look easy

by the self-help guru and the secular celebrities  who sell their success stories

as prescriptions for all our troubles.

The things that seem to make us strong, or brave, or good

are in fact nothing more than sleight of hand;

a flick of the wrist, leverage exerted in a favourable way.

 

Jesus offers no tricks, no leverage – just the Kingdom, hidden in plain sight –

and we are invited to seek and find and proclaim and discover along with him –

and he says that there are some difficult choices to be made along the way…

 

So does this mean we must abandon all hope?

For although the idea of Christian culture has long been abandoned,

we cannot escape the imprint of our past,

nor can we ignore the hopeful promises that speak of a glorious future.

 

Jesus was too compassionate

to suggest that our past is unimportant,

Or that our dead don’t deserve our tears –

And he longed for a time when the people of God might recognize their divinely endowed potential.

So what do we do with this tough talk from the one we are pledged to follow?

 

I will suggest that present experience is teaching us the truth:

The hocus pocus of new programs or alternative approaches to worship

have become our current distraction.

 

New music and new ways of ‘doing church’

offer an impressive display, but little in the way of substance –

and while there are changes that will come to us naturally

and new approaches that we might welcome,

none of these things address the problem whose symptom is numerical decline.

The problem is that the Kingdom of God is not bound by the charisma of the leader,

or the effectiveness of the program, nor the style of the music.

 

The activity of the church – of all the people of God, gathered and separate –

Must spring from the encounter of God in the ordinary moments

of lives that have been touched by mystery and majesty in worship together.

 

The problem cannot be solved by a wistful return to our imagined past,

nor by a headlong rush into an idealized future –

the answer waits in the mystery of the moment;

In the prayers and petitions of this day –

in the work that presents itself

in the current needs of our friends, our neighbours, our family and community.

 

Jesus sees the present with God’s own eyes, and invites us to do the same.

He warns that the vision will disturb and unsettle us, but that is no reason to turn aside.

God’s grace to us in the moment is sufficient (so Scripture says)

And Jesus acts according to that conviction.

 

No tricks are necessary –

just the belief that God acts in the present tense,

That the kingdom is being revealed in our moments of searching

That our risen and present Saviour is neither a slave of the past nor an blind idealist,

But as a companion in this day – at this moment.
His offer to us is straightforward enough

Follow me, he says, and be prepared to be overwhelmed

by the potency of God and the urgent needs of all God’s people,

or turn aside and continue to make socially safe, and seemingly simple choices

that amount to nothing more than religious sleight-of-hand.

 

The pattern of Christian history suggests to me

that the challenging path is the better choice.

On that path we have discovered both growth and strength;

tears that heal, and work that fulfills.

In times of challenge, we have been aided by the Spirit of God;

We have encountered the Risen Christ in stranger and fellow sufferer,

And the choice is presented fresh to us every day.

 

The Kingdom of God awaits; which choice will we make?