Posts Tagged ‘truth’

Perfect freedom

June 25, 2017

You will be persecuted.  Count on it.  Objections will come from unexpected sources.  Those who you think should be your allies will cry out against you.  That is the price Jesus’ disciples will pay – in every age.

But it’s not fair, you say.  We’re the good news brigade; we are the messengers of God’s love; who could object to that?

Well, as it turns out, there are plenty of people who object to love as a public policy.  There’s no profit in love – nothing to be gained. Love’s power is not accumulated but shared.  And we are a species that covets power for ourselves.  Love overlooks differences, and we are a species that find some comfort in differences; they give us ways to measure ourselves – and those measurements let us feel superior, or unique …

It is to these realities that Jesus speaks through Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus, the prince of peace, comes “not to bring peace to the earth, but a sword…”

Matthew wants this made perfectly clear; the ‘good news’ that Jesus represents  is so radical, families will be divided; the very fabric of society will be torn apart.

Remember that Matthew is writing to a community of faith that is in the difficult process of self-identification.  Jesus resurrection is two generations in their history.  The message of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed; the notion that Jesus was more than just a talented teacher; the spirit-led lives of those first disciples; all these have left their mark on the countryside.  The proclamation and witness of those who knew Jesus personally has begun to separate their devotion from the religious practices of the children of Israel.  Their differences are tearing families apart, and maybe Jesus’ words can help soften the blow.

But this talk of difficulty and division is also part of  Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ sending the twelve out to learn their trade.  They are sent out “like sheep among the wolves” (v. 16) and it is certain that not everyone will be overjoyed by their presence, or convinced by their teaching.   Again, Matthew’s experience speaks to us; Jesus message does not meet the expectations of the religious establishment of the day.  Love, and justice, and new, abundant life are not always compatible with the steady, solid, “normal” understandings of ‘the way God works’.

God’s people have often struggled with ‘the way God works’ – our brief glimpse into the life of the prophet Jeremiah is a good example.  Jeremiah has been called to speak the truth to a nation which has lost its way – Jeremiah warns of the judgement of God, even as he offers hope in and beyond exile…but the truly religious – the priest Pashhur, for example -will not hear it.  The priest strikes Jeremiah and places him in the stocks, but Jeremiah continues his mission.  He complains about it – in this morning’s reading – he recognizes that his proclamation has made him a laughing stock; he has tried to keep silent, but the call from God is irresistible.  He must  ‘explain God’ to his fellow citizens because he is convinced of God’s ultimate goodness, to be revealed in God’s own time.

What seems to bind these episodes from this morning’s readings together is the notion of God’s freedom.  Freedom to act (or not act).  Freedom to speak or be silent.  God’s freedom is something we don’t give much consideration because we are usually concerned with our own freedom.

In our freedom, we have formed ideas and created rules.  Our freedom lets us judge one another and honour one another.  We can think for ourselves, thank God – and often that is what causes us the most trouble.

Jesus sends his friends out among those who have, in their freedom, made up their minds where God is concerned.  They are not interested in giving the poor or the weak any special consideration.  They have constructed social boundaries and made rules for social systems; boundaries and rules that God, in freedom, choses to ignore.  Jeremiah is sent into the presence of the powerful to tell them that their time in power is over – that God, in God’s freedom, is about to ‘do a new thing’ among them (and with them and to them).  It won’t be pleasant, but it will – ultimately – be beneficial.  This kind of proclamation – speaking the truth to those who believe they understand the truth – is costly and disruptive; it is peace at the point of a sword.  And it is the business of the church of Jesus Christ.

When we encounter God in perfect freedom – when we see, in Jesus life, death and resurrection, God’s freedom at work healing and forgiving and overcoming even the darkness of death – our ‘personal freedom’ seems pathetic by comparison.  The rules we make and defend, in our societies and around our religious ‘truths’, offer no hope when compared to the hope revealed in Jesus.  And it is God’s freedom that liberates us to offer the gospel – to live in equity with the poor and the oppressed – to speak a peace that brings no peace to those who believe they have all the answers.

Often enough, our response to this challenge will sound like Jeremiah’s lament, or like the pleading of the Psalmist to “rescue me from sinking in the mire…”  We might complain that our faith ought not to change our lives too radically – we want familiarity and freedom. But the truth of the gospel will not be tamed.  God’s freedom is perilous and thrilling.  The truth of the resurrection is that none of the boundaries that we use to create our ‘freedom’ are left standing, and God will work in ways that make us uncomfortable.  And that continues to be good news, because only in freedom – free from our expectations, free from our rules and regulations, free from our fears and limitations – in perfect freedom God is redeeming us all.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Trinity Sunday, 2016

May 22, 2016

Wisdom and Truth – two very desirable things – today are placed before us for consideration by our lessons.

Here, in poetic prose, ‘the teacher’ gives wisdom a voice and an ancient claim on all Divine activity.  Here, in the wake of “THE SPIRIT” settling on those formerly frightened disciples, the lesson from John’s gospel offers us a brief trip back in time; an ‘I-told-you-so’ moment that comes courtesy of the Revised Common Lectionary, on the Liturgical feast of the Trinity.

Jesus – himself a stand-up member of our Holy Trio – offers some startling words of preparation prior to his arrest: “I still have any things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now…” (John 16: 12, – NRSV)

Presumably they cannot bear to hear them because there is so much happening – so much about to happen – that the disciples senses can’t be trusted.  Fair enough; but if Jesus can’t get through to them – live and in person – what hope is there?

There is the hope offered in the form of the ‘spirit of truth’ -This Spirit will reveal those things – slowly and deliberately – that would be too much to take if the knowledge came all at once.  This is a Spirit that, surprisingly, does not speak for itself.  It reveals only what is has been told, and the purpose of these revelations is to glorify Jesus, whose purpose is to glorify God – and so we catch a glimpse of the divine circle of support.

And from a much older tradition, Proverbs presents us with the poetic reflections of wisdom personified – a description that suggests that while God may have created “from nothing” all that is, God did not work alone.

Much of what we did not read describes wisdom as a virtue – something to which all should aspire – but the real news here is that even God had a helper.

It is through texts like these that the church developed the image of God as Trinity – three “things” that are distinct yet united – to help us understand the scope of God’s presence, purpose and power.  We baptize in the ‘name of the Trinity’ – I offer my sermon each week “In the name of God; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” – Trinitarian language is found in all the common Christian creeds.  It is a mark of the Christian Church, this mysterious amalgamation of “Three-in-one” and whether or not we understand how it works, most of us have agreed that “Trinity” is an acceptable description of God.  But based on this morning’s lessons, I’ll suggest that our notion of the Trinity has more to do with us than with God.

Back to those two desirable traits – Wisdom and Truth – for a moment.  As elements of God’s character, they offer us assurance that God is both an able and willing covenant partner.  But when these two traits are offered as prizes – if we imagine that they are goals to be reached on our journey to understanding, they soon become problematic.  Our desire for the truth – our pursuit of wisdom have led us down some challenging paths.  We are occasionally guilty of taking, out of turn, that which “we cannot bear”.  Wisdom and Truth, like Faith, are gifts of God – offered at the right time, for God’s own reasons.

We confuse certainty with truth, and we confuse knowledge with wisdom. When we embrace certainty and call it truth, we assume power that is not ours to wield, and when we gather knowledge and call it wisdom, we rob the word of its virtue.

Jesus describes a ‘spirit of truth’ as a guide, not a state of mind.  This spirit will “guide you into all the truth” – one step at a time.  The truth is shared, little by little, and so the character of God, the kingdom of God, the way of God is revealed; slowly, deliberately, to the point of frustration, truth is uncovered.  Not because God is slow or deliberately frustrating, but because there are things that we still ‘cannot bear right now’.

And wisdom, rather than being the pinnacle of a life’s work, or the result of our live experience is described as an integral part of ‘all that is’ – not simply present at Creation, but “like a master worker…”.  So so it is that wisdom might be discovered; gradually revealed by our exploration of and engagement with God’s vast and glorious creation.

Trinity has everything to do with our need to bring some measure of clarity to something that is complex and mysterious, and that is understandable.  But if we could really accept that the promised helper was guiding us (gently and deliberately) into all truth; and that wisdom’s work was everywhere, waiting to be discovered, then perhaps we might begin to understand that God is not a prized to be claimed, nor an idea to be defended, but a present, purposeful power to be experienced.

Jesus points us in the right direction; what we need to know cannot come to us all at once – we could not bear it.  Wisdom, truth and every other good gift will find those who are humble and patient before the eternal mystery of God.  That was Jesus example to us, even as he faced persecution, arrest, and certain death.  Our path, wherever it leads, has been illuminated by his great light.  We would do well to follow him.  Amen

Easter 2016

March 26, 2016

What did they expect to find, I wonder?  A body, certainly – Jesus body, in fact – bloodied and broken.  That is the situation for which they have prepared. Their task was one of affection; to anoint their friend for burial.  But the continuing cruelty of Jesus death is that it occurred on the eve of Shabbat – and in the midst of Passover. No work, of any kind, was permitted to the observant at such a sacred time; not even the necessities of grief.

Adding to their confusion are these dazzling strangers, absolutely out of place.  “remember how he told you…” they begin – but Galilee was so long ago, and so much had happened since.  But yes, they remember, and slowly hope spreads; first through the gathered women, and then, more slowly, among the remaining disciples…The women are ready to believe.  The others, less so.  Peter must see for himself, but no confirmation waits for him except the scraps of cloth that had been used to hurriedly wrap Jesus body.  Peter’s amazement is incomplete.  All he knows for sure is that Jesus is not in the tomb.

What do any of us expect to find on Easter morning, I wonder?

Saviour of the world rides into town on a giant rabbit to offer chocolate and forgiveness…of course not, but what DO you expect?

Gifts arrayed and food prepared; family gathered and good times shared; Churches (mostly) full and malls (mostly) empty.

Two thousand years of preparation have given us some clarity, I think, and Christians generally agree on the facts of the matter:

Jesus, who was dead, has been raised.  Hallelujah!  It’s when we try to make sense of this glorious event – when we look for meaning in things like crucifixion and resurrection – that things get…complicated.

To some, it is GOSPEL – Good News, and that can mean only one thing; sinners saved and promises kept, and particular freedom meant for those who “accept Jesus into their hearts”; death undone by righteous blood, that’s the majority opinion.  Others find it an idle tale and cannot credit it; that God somehow required this murderous miracle to “make things right” seems a dangerous representation of Divine love and justice.  Still others within the Christian family find it comforting that God knows the pain of loss and even death, having experienced both at the hands of those ‘…created in God’s own image…’

And there are those who would dispute that God could live or die according to mere human terms…

Luke’s gospel doesn’t care about such things – not yet.  There is no attempt to turn this new state of affairs into a theological treatise.  The author’s job is to drive home the mysterious reality that met the women and then Peter: “He is not here!”

The women are challenged by a simple question; “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  Had they not been left speechless, they might have answered ‘we didn’t know he would be raised’ – except Jesus had told them (more than once, according to Luke’s account); the Son of Man betrayed, dead, then in three days, risen!  The truth is, they didn’t believe – they couldn’t believe – that Jesus might be raised from the dead.  They had seen it all – the brutality, the finality, the terrible truth of the tomb cut from stone.

True, some of them had been present for Lazarus’ miracle; but Jesus had come to Lazarus’ rescue, and so far as they knew, there was no one who could return the favour fro Jesus.  There was nothing in their lives that prepared them for new life.

What did you expect to find this morning?  Good news, to be sure – especially in light of the story that has unfolded in our worship over the last three days.  Good news, considering the horror and terror that has been the only word from Belgium and Iraq and countless other places.  Good news for lives touched by sadness and fear and no shortage of doubt.  Good news is not a whitewash of certainty – all negatives somehow transformed instantly and magically into positives – rather it is the promise that God is intimately acquainted with the worst this world has to offer, and still, God prevails.

You want certainty?  What I know for certain is that Jesus is not in the tomb.  As the morning grows into afternoon, Jesus friends will find him; along the road, behind closed doors, at the head of the table, breaking bread. This is the true mystery of resurrection; that Jesus will find us; that we will meet him where he is least expected; and the truth of his empty tomb stands as a permanent and constant reminder of the power of God’s love to overcome our deepest fears and our darkest days.  Thanks be to God, Jesus is not where we expect him to be – not among the dead, but among the living.  He is risen; he is risen indeed.

Alleluia!  Amen.

Who’s afraid of a metaphor?

August 23, 2015

Most of the authors of Scripture use images that suit their own time, but not ours – not if we’re honest; Paul being the prime example.  Protective clothing, whether it’s for work or for war, looks different now.  Armour of the sort Paul mentions is something found in a museum.  War – physical combat – is a universal constant; no historical period has known real peace; yet the followers of Jesus – even so soon after his resurrection – were trying to follow a peaceful path.  So Paul is quick to point out that this conflict is a spiritual one – no enemies of flesh and blood should concern us – thus opening the door for us to understand what follows in a different light

Both of our readings this morning are heavy with metaphor, and each has encouraged faithful people to take positions that defend these passages as literally, (rather than figuratively) true.

Metaphor can be a dirty word in some Christian circles.  If you use it carelessly, or too frequently, you will be accused of not “believing in the Bible”  – and that is fine, because I don’t believe in “the Bible”, I believe in God – Father-Son-Spirit – as revealed in the Scriptures, traditions, Doctrine, and polity of the Church.  Faith in Scriptures is an imperfect arrangement, since much of what comes to us in our holy book comes in the form of idiom, figures of speech, parable and metaphor, not to mention prophetic visions and theologically constructed stories about the origins of faith, ritual and the pursuit of righteousness.  And yes, some of it also traces an arc of history.  But metaphor is what Paul is offering – and Jesus too, for that matter.

Jesus was not condoning cannibalism when he speaks to the crowds in this morning’s reading from John’s gospel (John 6: 48-59)   The gathered ‘experts’ missed the allusion to metaphor (so did we – he sets it up much earlier in the chapter) – and Jesus, to be fair, exploits their misunderstanding.  They have taken Jesus literally “I am the bread that comes down from heaven” and Jesus uses their confusion to extend the metaphor:

“ unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. “ (Jn 6: 53-55)

Jesus goes on to tell them that he is a gift from God quite unlike the food their ancestors received (no manna from heaven here). This is about real sustenance; the needs of the body are not just food and drink – but since food and drink are what you understand, “eat and drink of me (the Son of Man) and LIVE!

We are not ignorant of this kind of talk – we “drink in the scenery” (with our eyes no less!) – we find ourselves “hungry for company” after long absences from family or friends.  More and more often we reserve such expressions for clever writers or poor poets, and that way of speaking has fallen from common use.  But we are not foolish enough to think that company – of any kind – could possibly fill our bellies, nor can the most beautiful view on the planet satisfy our thirst.

The authorities (in John’s gospel) – desperate for a charge to bring against Jesus, would take a provocative approach, but  Jesus is giving us another way – a more visceral way – to understand the Gift of God that stands before us in the flesh.

Of course, we hear the Communion liturgy when Jesus talks about body and blood – but even at the table Jesus is inviting us to extend the metaphor; remember your whole selves need feeding; do not neglect your spiritual selves; do not shun the mystery that brings you in contact with God.  Bread and wine, taken internally,  do not transform us (nor, in our understanding, are they transformed). We recognize the symbolic significance in the Sacrament, and in Communion we are given a different set of senses with which to encounter/discover God.  And Jesus is the guide – the host – the catalyst for this mysterious, miraculous exchange.

So if Jesus’ metaphors can endure, let us not cast Paul’s aside too swiftly.  We are indeed “armed for battle” – faith vs. faithlessness; doubt vs. certainty; spiritual powers vs. our frail, mortal selves.  And the protection we are offered, through Christ, is head-to-toe; complete and nearly impenetrable.  That does not mean that we are beyond harm, it means that we should not be afraid.

Communion’s scant provision ( scrap of bread – sip of wine) will not keep us from starvation, but it will remind us that there is good even in the meagre or the small.  If Paul’s ‘armour’ gives us confidence to proclaim Christ in a world that worships gods of our own design, then it is a good metaphor.  The ‘battle’ is (just as often) within ourselves, or among ourselves – so that the real enemy cannot be ‘beaten back’ except by a better metaphor.

So the Prince of peace is revealed among the down-trodden and destitute, and stands unarmed against the might of the Empire – and it is the peaceful idea that endures.  And the Son of God dares to sit at table with criminals and outcasts (tax collectors and sinners) and talk politics and power as though it were theres to wield.  A teacher offers parable and story – demonstrating new ways of seeing old ideas, and always he points, not to himself but to God as the source of all wonder and power.  And in the end the very power of God is reduced to a miserable wreck of a man who is subject to execution on a cross, and the result is victory!  Life!  Freedom!  where none should have been found.  And that victory comes, not through brute force – not by martial power – not by superior weaponry  or slavish devotion to ritual – but perhaps because of a better metaphor which plants the seed of an idea, that gives us a glimpse of the power of God.

The marketing of faith…and why it is futile.

February 15, 2015

I have been known to complain about our culture of consumerism – though I complain as one who benefits from and (secretly) enjoys the pursuit of stuff. My desk and office are littered with the detritus of my gadget habit; cables and cameras, an exercise bike (broken), three old lap top computers, several cell phone chargers, a CD player and an electric pencil sharpener – not to mention the stuff that still works. Consumers is what we are (or what we have become) and that impulse includes things we cannot touch, taste or operate with rechargeable batteries. We have an insatiable hunger for ideas, opinions and philosophies. We include religion in that list, at our peril.
But these are perilous times, and there is a troubling trend in the church – in North America, at least, to ‘market’ the church as just another ‘product’. Thus, our worship must also ‘entertain’. Our programs must be capable of drawing attention away from countless exciting and entertaining things. I tossed out a pamphlet for a VBS program this week that spent more time describing the “optional equipment’ that was available for purchase than it did on the program; these included puppets and props, and incentive items for the kids – to make the event more memorable (ie. entertaining) Backpacks and coveralls designed to look like space suits – this is how you promote a VBS???
So we struggle to make faith real to a new generation – as we always have – but surely we must know by now that devotion and commitment cannot be bought? Surely we realize that faith is a gift offered out of the grace of God, and no marketing scheme can accomplish more than having one person, overwhelmed by their encounter with this marvellous grace, share their story with a friend. It’s tempting to go for the big splash – to draw the crowds with bells and whistles, and overwhelm them with flashy technology and a charismatic presentation – but the church has, for generations, thrived on much more ordinary effort; much plainer profession.
The body of Christ is called to engage friends and strangers – neighbours and sceptics – through the story of our encounter with the love and grace of God.. I suggest this morning that when ever we are tempted to go the marketing route – to find a way to sell our product or fall into the trap of trying too hard to satisfy people’s need to be entertained (aka satisfied) – we might remember the story of Naaman.
Naaman’s story proves my point from the wrong way round. Naaman tries to impress the prophet with his ability to pay for the privilege of being healed – he is the ultimate ’consumer’ of his day. He comes bearing gifts, claiming the right of being tended to by the prophet himself, and is disgusted when the word of grace is delivered by a servant. “I thought that, for ME, he would surely come out and call upon the name of the Lord his God and wave his hand over the spot, and cure [me]”
Naaman wants a show – he is sure that is the only way to healing; the only way to get what he wants. He is prepared to pay – and pay handsomely – but for his trouble, he wants the full treatment. He will be healed, but first, he is disappointed – then, he is humbled – only then can he receive what God has offered through Elisha.
Do you recognize the danger here? Do you see the challenge to us? To this ‘get your money’s worth’ culture, Naaman’s story offers a real wake-up call. Grace is free, but it is not cheap. First, you must put aside your pride – your belief that you can acquire all you need by merit (or money). Naaman’s leprosy was only a symptom – his real disease was pride, and that is the first thing that must be cured. His servants help him see the truth; “…if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?”
Those who know the value of grace – those who don’t have the ability to buy (or take) whatever they want must teach their master humility – then, and only then, is the ‘miracle’ revealed.
Compare this to the real humility of the gospel encounter. “Rabbi, if you choose, you can make me clean.” The leper has nothing to offer – no bargaining chip – he knows that the power to grant this request belongs entirely to Jesus – whose ability comes entirely from God. “I do choose…”, Jesus says, and the man is made whole. This grace – the gift of God in its countless forms – is not a prize to be won by the most worthy competitor, or the highest bidder. And the man, once cured, is unable to keep that grace to himself. Jesus forbids him speak; “go show yourself to the priests…as testimony to them.” but silence is not an option; the story must be shared; grace must be celebrated. Naaman is likewise compelled to share – in his case, he begs permission to (wait for it) worship Elisha’s God when he returns to Aram.
Our experience of faith is not a marketable thing. A vacation bible school should be fun – sure – but it must first be a place where the story of God’s love and grace is shared and celebrated, and it seems to me that incentives (backpacks and spacesuits) are not the best way to tel the story of Jesus. The controlled and reverent response that is our worship is not an exciting opportunity for church growth. It is, instead, a place of joyful sharing in the truth, and thanksgiving for the mighty acts of God that have changed us for the better . We must tell the story – and we must share our experiences of grace; that is the only model for growth that the church has ever needed.
We cannot buy God’s love, and our attempts to ‘sell’ God’s grace – to make it attractive and marketable – are bound to fail. We cannot earn the gift of wholeness and peace, and we cannot turn our response into something designed to attract -Grace is attractive on its own; God’s love expressed in our lives is more attractive than any carefully planned program. The gospel of Christ is an irresistible force that needs only our voices; singing, praying, sharing the news that God has chosen to make us whole.