Posts Tagged ‘unity’

Mission, with a shepherd’s touch

June 2, 2015

“The Lord is MY shepherd, I shall not want…”

These words spring to our lips without effort because we believe them to be good and right and absolutely true.  We have no reason to doubt that God will guide us to green pastures and still waters.  We have felt the calm, comforting presence of God in the valley of the shadow.  These images are so familiar to us that we can’t imagine anyone would be willing to argue the truth of them.  The idea of a divine, benevolent Shepherd is so nearly universal that when the hospital authority in Sarnia (Ontario) considered an image for their new, non-denominational, multi-faith worship space, the runaway choice was that of a shepherd tending his sheep.  Evocative across cultures and faith traditions, it was deemed the only safe choice.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that these are the images that we are asked to consider on this Mission Awareness Sunday.  Safe choices.  Comforting images.  something on which everyone can agree.  Wouldn’t that be nice.

But nothing could be further from the truth, where Mission (always a capital M) is concerned.

Once upon a time, it was easy.  We held certain things to be absolutely true, and it was our job as Christians to see that everyone else believed them too.  The way forward was pretty clear: Proclaim the gospel – teach the words – assure ourselves that we had “converted the heathen” and all would be well.  Except for our inability to agree with fellow believers on what was important – what was vital.  Except for our violent disagreements that resulted in the seemingly constant division of the church into denominations.  Except for the increasing difficulty of dealing with people whose expressions of faith looked nothing like ours…

Our awareness of mission these days is limited to updates from our overseas partners – PWS&D newsletters and appeals for funds – and the work of groups like the AMS who pray and study and send letters and money and people into places that we would rather not go ourselves; Malawi, Afghanistan, Haiti, Romania.  WE are just as certain as ever, where our faith is concerned.  Certain global events convince us that it is essential for the Gospel to take root in these foreign places – surely the answers to problems of terror, poverty, greed and corruption (among others) can be found in the principles of our Christian faith

But that is the problem, isn’t it – when our faith encounters other models of faith, the problems seem to multiply.  Terrorism is almost always the response of those who have been pushed aside by our efforts to bring “our particular brand” of peace, faith and good order to various parts of the world.  Terrorism seems to be the price we pay for being too sure of ourselves, and not considering that there are different ways to understand faith, devotion, God and the whole created order.  I’m sorry to say  that some of this conflict and misery is a result of our historical mission work, and today our claim of certainty where our faith is concerned keeps us ignorant of some pretty important things.

First: The “mission” of the church of Jesus Christ begins with the worship of God in a community of those acknowledge that God IS.  From the days and weeks following the resurrection of Jesus, those people who gathered, scared and confused, knew only one thing to be certain; there was a power in the world greater than death, and that truth required reverence.  There were no tests – no membership requirement other than the recognition of the love of God as a real force in the world.  Understanding was secondary – celebration in worship was then and is now, the most important thing.

Second:  The notion that someday we would be ‘one flock with one shepherd’ does not mean that absolute unity of though and action was the goal.  Yes, the divisions in the church are distressing, and yes “we all seek to serve one God”, but it is the overwhelming love of God that unites us, not our subjection to one set of doctrines, or our acceptance of a single model for faithful living.  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold…” Jesus says – and it is to his voice they respond, not ours.  And the attraction is not our worship style, or our outreach programs; our disaster relief or our dazzling proclamation.  The attraction of the shepherd’s voice is that Jesus speaks love and compassion and hope to the hopeless.

Third:  that love and compassion that Jesus proclaims is nothing new – it is part of God’s program from the beginning.  Recognized by David as a comforting guide for every stage of life; trusted by those in exile as the enduring glory revealed in the desert wilderness; recognized by Peter as a power greater than any other power – Mission IS the key to a renewal of faith and to new life for the church of Christ, but we don’t need to ‘reinvent the wheel’.  Jesus’ call to “make disciples” does not come at the expense of hearing and celebrating the gospel for themselves.   Mission is many things, but it begins here, with us.  Nurtured by the gospel, encouraged by the spirit of God, and able to say, with joyful conviction, “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

A life of dedicated Christian faith may not seem like the safe choice these days – it is certain that it is not our only choice – but here we are; living proof that the mission of God, particularly expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, still calls to people who are willing to admit they are not the most important thing in the universe.  Our mission is not to correct every mistake that may have been made in the name of God; our mission begins with worship and wonder, and continues as we share that wonder with those around us.  It really can be that simple.  The hard work has already been done – the love of God has already accomplished the impossible; Jesus is risen – death has no power over us.  God’s love has not put an end to evil, or resolve every conflict; it does not put an end to the horrific power of earthquake or typhoon, nor does it stop our grief in times of suffering and death.  But the Gospel of Christ is our life-line; his is the story we get to tell.  That is our mission, and if it doesn’t seem change the world (or convert the heathen) it should certainly change us – indeed, it is the only thing that can.

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Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect…

February 19, 2011

There are certain words – phrases too – that are capable of drowning out all else.

In the gospel this morning I have encountered one of those phrases.

Jesus, you see, is offering up some of his best stuff here – really helpful direction for a pattern of life that will lead us toward that promised kingdom –

the one that he says is so close to us; coming very near and all that –

this is advice we might even be willing to try, though it sounds difficult –

love your enemy – pray for those who persecute you.

The bit about turning the other cheek and going the extra mile

even have a revolutionary feel to them…

So after stressing about the law, and being told we need to be salt and light

finally we are getting some concrete advice – and then, for me, that dreadful phrase;

“be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect”

in an instant, all that good advice fades to background noise

and my only thought is how this has become impossible.

Perfection is not for me – not for us – haven’t we proven that?

Father in heaven – perfect – that we can allow,

but can we aspire to perfection? Should we?

I wallowed in the notion of impossible perfection for a good long while this week.

I wondered about the expectations that come with a life of faith,

and how we never seem able to live up to them.

I considered the distance between what we desire as the people of God

and what we achieve – and I suspected that this innocent phrase

has had something to do with our continual frustration – our high expectations –

and our inability to see the beautiful truth.

What truth, you ask?

Well, lets back up for a moment.

Remember, Jesus is still trying to draw us into the beauty and simplicity of the law;

a law that comes from the compassionate, merciful, loving heart of God.

No murder – no anger – no coveting – no wrangling – those were last week’s lessons.

But know we are called to put that behaviour to the test

in a way that will challenge our ideas of how the world should work.

Friends and neighbours are one thing – it’s easy to like those who are like us – but Jesus says that the law asks more of us than that

GOD asks more of us than that.

This treatment is for enemies – for those who do us violence – for those who…wait for it…

don’t share our values – our faith – our understanding of the universe.

This was earthshaking then – and,

although we claim to be enlightened, compassionate, fair thinking people, it is still a radical suggestion.

Our prejudice runs deep. Old wounds leave heavy scars

we are not naturally able to act in a way that is just and fair

when we have not been treated fairly, or have had justice denied us.

Jesus knows this as a natural fact.

God knows it as One who created us capable of exerting our own will.

And yet, we are urged to divine perfection…it might pay to ask here,

how is our father in heaven perfect

with regard to justice and mercy and exercise of will?

Well, as it happens, God is perfectly neutral – treating friend and enemy alike

causing the rain to fall on the just and the unjust,

accepting praise and prayer – providing comfort and strength –

regardless of colour, creed, language race, gender, sexuality,

denomination, age, ability, hair colour…well, you get the idea.

Jesus came to fulfil the law – Matthew has already reminded us of that

but fulfill doesn’t mean narrow the field.

And I don’t for a moment believe “perfect” means (identical to me in every way)

We are here called by Jesus to remember that God’s call to us is to unity in God through Christ.

That our differences – the ones we build up and fight over – the things that drive us to sin and to the edge of destruction – in God’s eyes (and in God’s kingdom) those differences do not exist.

God’s perfection can be ours, if we can learn to erase those distinctions

to see past differences and celebrate our connection in God’s creative act.

Be perfect, not in our keeping of the law, but in our imitation of the spirit of the law.

A spirit that calls enemies brothers – that does not dwell on past hurts and imagined distinctions.

That is the perfection we should desperately seek –

a harmony that is within our grasp,

if only we let God’s spirit of gentleness and peace lead us.

It is the perfection we seek in this sacrament –

a perfection we find at the bitter cross; at the empty tomb.

So come, let us lay our differences aside and seek the perfect peace of God that is God’s free gift to us at this table.

Amen

No favourites here

October 17, 2009

It’s not enough to say – “everyone is equal before God”

not enough because we have gone to great lengths to prove that statement false.

Easier to say, perhaps, that “some are more equal than others” – this, we can verify.

We are not ready to see one another equally – in spite of some excellent progress –

because we always seem ready to play favourites – always ready to add a feather to our own cap.

Don’t get me wrong – most of the time, we get along just fine.

We appreciate one another’s strengths – support one another in weakness –

there is such a great need for skills and service within our communities and our organizations

that we can always find a task to suit someone’s particular gift – to make them feel included, needed – like they belong.

But we stop short at real equality.

We are caught up in priority – in “who should be first”

because we need people who can lead, and having found them, we ascribe to them

status that is beyond their station – power and influence that does not always reflect their gifts.

We see this in athletics – in business – in politics – and of course, in the church.

I say of course because the church is made up of people –

people who, while they should know better – should act differently –

often don’t.

How could we be any different that those first disciples?

James and John – they weren’t called the ‘sons of thunder” for nothing

bold – opinionated – eager for the kingdom – and eager, it seems,

to rise to the top of this new, exciting movement of God’s people.

Too eager, perhaps…

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

that question does not bother Jesus, nor should it bother us.

These are Jesus’ friends, and friends should be willing to do anything for one another –

so ask you question, Jesus says.

“Put us on your left and right when you come in glory.”

there is the request that rankles…

James and John assume that God’s kingdom will look like any other kingdom – that there will be a need for someone to “take charge”…

To James and John, Jesus says simply – that’s not my decision.

But when hurt feelings start to show, and the other disciples start to grumble

Jesus goes back to his real message – the last shall be first; they have heard that before –

what Jesus has been trying to tell them – to show them – is that there are no favourites in God’s plan.

So what does a kingdom of equals look like?

How does a community choose leaders without making favourites?

If we’re must live among systems that routinely place one over another,

how can we make room in those systems for the things of God?

Jesus answer is service.

Each serves the other – and the greatest will be the slave of all.

Quite a proposal, but it is one that we are called to accept, as disciples of Christ.

In the Presbyterian Church in Canada,

following this model means our courts- except session –

are composed of equal numbers of teaching elders (ministers) and ruling elders.

The leaders of those courts are called moderators –

they cannot vote, they can only moderate the discussion.

People don’t seek these positions as signs of their success,

they are called to them, after a period of discernment,

by a process that considers their gifts and the needs of the court (or congregation).

in St Andrew’s church, Westville – following Christ’s model of service

has lead you to open your doors to various community groups;

This idea of service has challenged you to minister to families who grieve.

Christ’s call to serve has enabled you to come together for work parties –

to engage in a new and exciting Sunday School curriculum,

to show hospitality to one another at the meet & greet through the long winter months,

and to undertake the search for a new minister.

The goal in all this is service –

our collected wisdom serves the gathered people of God and seeks always God’s glory.

Our gathered gifts fund ministries here and across the globe that fill desperate needs.

The strong support the weak – the gifts of all are shared for the good of all –

and through these several, unselfish acts of service, the kingdom of God comes here among you.

That is the community we shall always seek to be –

equal in our sharing, equal in our curiosity, equal in our wonder before God

if we truly want to see that kingdom come,

we will keep finding way to honour others above ourselves.

We will keep searching for projects that invite –

for opportunities to practice hospitality –

for the joy that comes in sharing those strengths that make us who we are,

in ways that honour our neighbours needs .

To do this is to serve Christ – who came only seeking to serve us.

May our service bring us joy – and may our joy bring God glory, honour and praise – amen.

“…Because of the hardness of your hearts…”

October 3, 2009

Thus far in my life, within my family of birth and the family that I married into

I have had no direct experience with the difficulties that divorce brings.

I have witnessed, at a distance, the pain, the shame

and the emotional distress that comes with divorce,

but it has never touched me.

That fact of my life – for which I am certainly thankful – has not blinded me to the reality

that the gospel reading chosen for this morning seems especially harsh and hurtful

to anyone who has had to make the difficult decision to end a marriage.

Life is about relationships –

good relationships; broken relationships; and those that are repaired and restored.

We have each seen enough of every kind to know the difficulties and the joys that come –

and our faith declares that God not only created us for relationship,

but intends for all those to be, in the words of the first chapter of Genesis – “very good”.

This is the context for Jesus showdown with the teachers of the Law in Mark’s gospel.

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”they ask,

driving right to the heart of societal relationships – family bedrock; husband and wife –

how do you understand the law, Jesus? What does God say about this foundational relationship?

The Law, of course, says yes – divorce is an acceptable legal option for the people of God.

The Pharisees know it. Jesus knows it too.

But the law was for your weakness, Jesus says – “because of your hardness of heart” –

he implies that God had something else in mind,

not just for marriage, but for all human relationships –

he quotes Genesis as his authority – “the two shall be one flesh” –

and that, as they say, should be that.

The Pharisees fade into the background.

The friends of Jesus, however, cannot let the subject die.

This is where the text gets testy – this is where people begin to squirm in their seats –

this is where some preachers might launch into a family values rampage

about the sanctity of marriage and the evils of divorce.

But I don’t believe the text supports a message like that.

I believe in the sanctity of marriage – but I also understand that some marriages aren’t at all sacred,

that there are hurts that cannot be mended – relationships that should not be maintained

for the good and safety of all concerned.

Jesus stand – seeming so fierce and unwavering – is painting a bigger picture –

for clearly our idea of what works is not at all as God intended –

and the text seeks to open our eyes as it moves along.

For there is a sudden change of tone here –

from the seemingly judgmental statement equating divorce and adultery –

to announce that there were people bringing children to be blessed.

They could be two separate days in the life of Jesus and his disciples

but Mark’s author places them side by side – the topic is still relationship.

The disciples hearts are hardened toward the needs of these children.

Those who bring them are chastised –

the disciples contend that Jesus has more important things to deal with.

Some relationships must be more important – others, not worth pursuing.

But Jesus is having none of their nonsense.

Let the children come – know that the Kingdom is theirs –

And he blessed them.

Our intention for most of our relationships are good – honourable.

We don’t intend for them to fail, but fail they do.

Jesus draws our attention to these children – to ideas of innocence, trust,

and a time when we are willing and able to believe the best about everyone (and everything).

Come to God’s kingdom like this, Jesus says, and you will find the doors open to you.

Come to one another in simplicity and honesty,

and your relationships will succeed more often than they fail.

Come to God – without agenda or condition –

come expecting to be amazed, to be welcomed,

to be comforted, to be fed, to experience wonder – and you will never be disappointed.

God has not made us for brokenness, but for wholeness

not for sadness, but for joy.

Not for solitude, but for community –

and so we are invited by the Spirit of God – by the words of Jesus –

to open ourselves to a relationship that is honest, pure, and filled with wonder –

a relationship with God – with one another – revealed to us by Jesus

who invites us today to approach his table with wonder and joy.

Keeping up appearances…

September 5, 2009

British television shows are some of my favourite diversions.

They are usually smart, funny, and (at least to my North American eyes), original.

They produce some memorable, lovable and quite sympathetic characters too –

not the Coronation St kind of characters, all serious and street-wise –

I’m talking about Father Ted,

that odd couple in the nursing home (Waiting for God)

the residents of Dibley village,

and my on-again-off-again favourite, Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “Bouquet”)

Hyacinth’s struggle in life is to rise above her station –

to be, to her friends and neighbours, something she is not.

The comedy comes from her affected airs – her attention to appearances –

in spite of her bumbling family, her ordinary neighbours,

and her husband who simply wants to live their lives without pretence,

honouring who they really are.

It is funny because it hits so close to the bone –

We recognize, in Hyacinth, behaviour that makes us uncomfortable,

both because we have witnessed it, and because we have been guilty of it –

of judging according to the standards of the moment.

This is difficult behaviour to avoid – standards being as changeable as they are –

and it is certainly not new to this generations trend-driven behaviour.

“judge not lest ye be judged” says the ancient warning,

that James tries here to give new life.

Are you truly glorifying our Saviour?”, he asks –

by your catering to those whose appearance is attractive?

What sort of precedent were these early believers setting – the best seats for the best-dressed

what happened to “the last shall be first”? Had they forgotten so soon?

James comments are a harsh judgement on what the church was becoming –

a place to honour those who honoured themselves – who found themselves worthy…

and the church encouraged that attitude,

by recognizing the well-dressed as honoured guests,

and shunning those who most needed acts of charity, compassion and justice.

The church seems to have learned some of those lessons,

and certainly (in most places) is much less conscious of physical appearances:

the homeless are welcomed into many of our urban congregations,

we are learning to worship side by side

with people of different cultures, intellectual capacities, and sexual orientations –

it continues to be hard work – it will always be important work –

But I don’t think the problem is ever far from us.

When we dig our heels in

about the things we believe are necessary in the life of the congregation –

whether that is a particular style of worship, or a specific time (or place) for worship;

when we get hung up on music, or ritual, or leadership styles;

when we pay more attention to how many there are,

than to the needs of those who are with us;

Whenever we ask ourselves (or explain for someone else)

what we think the church is, or does,

we flirt with the same sins that James accused his readers of committing.

We favour those who think like us – whose fashions (or actions, or attitudes) keep us comfortable.

New ideas (and new people) frighten us – they are unknowns –

their fashions and customs seem strange to us –

and we have to keep up appearances!

The church must be familiar – comfortable – respectable – influential.

In our struggle to ‘maintain’ the church, we are in danger of forgetting the principles Jesus lived and died for – we abandon the life Jesus offers us at his rising.

The only appearance we need to keep, is that of loving one another.

In love should all justice be administered.

In love should God’s people gather – in love, be fed –

and while love is easily demonstrated to those who share our sympathies,

the test of love is in how we receive those whom we do not understand.

James’ question becomes our test –

does our activity reveal the glory of Jesus the Christ ? –

this is the only true test of our love.

This simple question should be the measure of all our actions as God’s faithful people –

regardless of the model of worship that we follow, the kind of music we sing,

or the way we wear our hair when we meet…

Is our task important? I certainly believe that it is.

Should we take seriously the way we worship, what we sing, where we gather and how we order ourselves? Absolutely!

But I believe James’ warning gives us a reason

– or perhaps permission is a better word –

to loosen our grip on the familiar and comfortable fixtures in our congregational culture that keep us from basking in (and sharing) the glory that we find in Christ.

Let us be, for Christ’s sake, who we are –rather than who we think we ought to be,

and let the world praise God because of what they see in us.