Posts Tagged ‘witness’


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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November 13, 2016

“Not one stone will be left upon another…when you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified…nation will rise against nation…there will be dreadful portents…but before this, they will arrest (and ) persecute you.”

Odds are, these are the things that jump out at you when Luke 21: 5-19 was read a moment ago; nothing but the promise of destruction, disaster, hatred and betrayal – what a combination!  And it’s possible that they would have drawn your attention even if the past week hadn’t featured an American election which marked the conclusion of a campaign that made it easy to imagine that the end – of something – was  near.

The news services, and our various social networks (both the electronic and the flesh-and-blood kind) have not been shy about their assessment of recent events.  Liberals, conservatives and everything in between, have offered opinions and presumed motives and dared to prophesy; all with very little regard for fact.  “Now we’ll see some real change!’, says one.  “Not my President!” says another.  I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that both voices are wrong.

What we always fail to hear when the voices of culture cry doom is the voice of Jesus – who reminds us (in Luke’s gospel this morning and elsewhere) that troubling times bring an abundance of voices, strong with certainty, designed to carry over the din of our desperation:  “the time is near! – I am HE!”

Remember what Jesus said about those voices?  “Beware that you are not led astray…Do not go after them.”

We can convince ourselves not to follow those who make outrageous claims; The ragged street-corner preachers, or the nay-sayer who writes ten letters a week to the local paper no longer get our sympathy.  We have grown discerning in the twenty-first century.  It takes information to sway us – THIS is the information age, after all.  We are now drawn to slick media campaigns; we are ‘engaged’ (and I use that term very carefully) by public ideas that invade private spaces in a way that Walter Cronkite could never have imagined.

Some would have us think that this is progress.  We can inject our opinions into any debate we choose, and we do.  It is easy to ‘play along’, because governments, businesses, even religious organizations have discovered that the evening news is not enough; they must establish a presence across a variety of social media platforms to ensure that their ’message’ is conveyed, considered and properly controlled.  And that message?  “the time is near!”  “the enemy is everywhere!”  “we have the solution!”

Sound familiar?

It can be unsettling when the lessons chosen for a particular Sunday resonate so strongly with current events – people of otherwise good sense loose their faithful minds when this happens.  Suggestions and theories about the nearness of the end of days are trotted out for consideration.  But times like this can be instructive, if we would remember something very important: although Jesus has something to say to us, his message is not exclusive to the state of affairs in November 2016.

These moments of situational harmony (fairly frequent occurrences, if I’m honest) between ancient Scripture and modern life are signals to us that human social problems are unaffected by the passage of time – we are inclined to make the same mistakes, over and over again.  And from the perspective of those who would follow Jesus, those mistakes quite often have large social and political consequences.  And from across the ages, Jesus’ message is the same; “Don’t fall for the trap!”  “Don’t be led astray!”

That is all well and good, Jesus, but what we really want is a strategy for response to those voices of doom – those smooth-talking sources of our anxiety.  What should we DO?  How do we respond?

The answer is not what we expect.  Jesus claims that times like these – times of upheaval and uncertainty – will provide a chance for the faithful to testify to the sovereignty of God, but…don’t think about what you will say.  Don’t prepare in advance.  What kind of advice is this?  We are inundated with information; we have our opinions; surely a carefully crafted response – an impassioned speech, or a well written article – is just what is required here…

“Don’t play the game”, is what Jesus seems to be saying.  Not “preparing words” is not the same as not being prepared.  Jesus has been preparing his disciples from the beginning of their time together, not to excel in the debate, but to live according to the principles of God’s reign.  Jesus has instructed us in compassion, humility, justice and grace, and often enough, those things require our presence.  Words are what got us in to this mess.

Words that categorize and divide and injure or insult.  And when there are so many words that none can be properly heard, Jesus calls us to be present.  To stand before the barrage of words, ideas, and policies; to stand with those most affected by these frightening situations, and simply witness to the glory of God that is found in the weak and the weary – the outcast and oppressed.  “You will be hated by all because of my name”, Jesus says, but you will not be harmed; “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

This goes against the grain, doesn’t it…but it is the same strategy that Jesus will use when faced with the power of a state whose policies made prisoners of citizens – whose power was widely acknowledged – whose leaders acknowledged no rivals for their adoration.  Jesus’ witness to the power of God, the reign of God and his love for the people of God, attracted the wrath of all manner of earthly powers.  The death sentence pronounced by those whose voices seemed loudest was not the final word.  The noise of the crowds is silenced, every time, by the quiet power of the love of God; whose love promises life, abundant and eternal, in every generation.

The disciples heard the voices of doom and wanted to know; “when will this happen, Jesus?” –  but they were asking the wrong question.  It has happened – is happening – will happen.  Such is the human condition.  And in every generation – to every situation, Jesus offers the same advice;  Stand firm – be patient in faith – and do not be afraid.  God’s love will not – has not – cannot fail.

The least of these…

June 19, 2016

He had demons, this guy – naked, homeless (living in the tombs, in fact, which is worse than homeless), and introduced to the narrative as a raving thing – shouting at the top of his voice “What have you to do with me, Jesus – son of the most high God?  I beg you, do not torment me…”

Let’s consider this strange scene for a moment.

Jesus has come some distance – to a strange place (one where he is not known, one supposes). Jesus suggested this trip – during which the boat meets a storm and the disciples are terrified etc – (none of this has much affect on Jesus)  – and oddly, the minute he steps ashore, some lunatic identifies him – recognizes his holy mission and purpose – and then begs not to be tormented

I smell a trap, and it’s a trap set by the author of the gospel.

Luke’s account brings Jesus across the lake into gentile territory, where he soon meets someone who makes everyone uncomfortable.

Information about the cultural prejudices of Jesus day can be found in a multitude of ancient sources – but most of our information comes from Scripture, which does it’s best to remind us that Jesus is doing everything he can to undo, ignore, or otherwise subvert those prejudices.  Jesus does this by seeking out those people that have been isolated, ignored or evicted from the public eye.  So a trip to the tombs is on the agenda – to maximize the possibility that he and his entourage will encounter someone or something that his contemporaries hold in great disdain.  The poor – the disturbed – the deranged.  Never mind that they are also in the presence of hog farmers, a reminder that this province is full of outsiders (ie. those who are not Jewish).  Information about the usual treatment of the outcast of the time is found in the plea of the demon-posessed man; “…I beg you, do not torment me…”

Was it so common for the righteous to take a ‘slum tour’ – to mock the unfortunate inhabitants of the region, so that they might feel better about themselves?  I wonder.

Many of the assumptions we make about the life and times of the folks who lived in Roman controlled Palestine have the uncomfortable sound of truth – even those that we cannot confirm.  The Jewish population had reached an uneasy equilibrium with their Roman conquerors.  They were allowed their religious institutions, for the most part – so long as their devotion didn’t get in the way of their subservience to Rome.  Occasionally, someone would try to incite the citizens with wild ideas of God’s deliverance.  These kinds of rebellions were swiftly dealt with – no one messes, militarily, with Rome.  But in Jesus we are shown a different kind of uprising.  It’s not military, and it doesn’t seem overtly political – Jesus claims no power for himself, and even pays lip-service to the reality of civil authority – give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s, and all that.  No, what Jesus is promoting is a rebellion of personhood.  He visits the outer precincts, honours the outsider, the cripple, the lunatic fringe.  There is no power here (or so it would seem) to counter the power of Empire.

In truth, Jesus seems a joke in the political sense, because no one takes these people seriously…except Jesus.

“I beg you, do not mock me.”  And Jesus honours that request.  He asks the man his name.  He treats him as no one else has done for a very long time; Jesus honours his individuality.  Not ignoring his affliction, but refusing to let the man’s condition define him.  The result is a man transformed; clothed and “in his right mind” – and the ordinary citizens are terrified.

Why are they afraid?  He is no longer a threat – he is quiet, he is eager to honour  Jesus by becoming his disciple.  well, they are afraid of Jesus.

He has presented them with a way of relating, one to another, which is life changing – a radical shift in their well-established way of seeing the world, and it terrifies them.

So what does it mean for us?

In the church, we make it a habit to say that we are about love, justice and the way of peace.  We gather to honour God who is all these things and more.  But when our boundaries are challenged, and crisis threatens the comfort of our long-held ideas about ourselves as the collective voice of reason, moral authority and the way things ought to be, we are quick to revert to much older habits.  The church, which began in a community led by Jesus, a welcoming community that shared what it had, welcomed all comers, and challenged the right of the powerful to define justice, has always struggled with the all-too human tendency toward limit and control.

Some of the early moves to define the faith and ensure that all in the community were committed to the same cause came from a very real fear of violence and death.  The stories of martyrs for the faith confirm that, although some were willing to die for the cause of Christ, most preferred the opportunity to spread the gospel by their living witness.  While there are still places where the proclamation of the gospel brings the threat of persecution and death, the real fear is still among those who hear (and see) that the power of God is the power to change lives – to change relationships – to change (ultimately) the way we see and engage the world.

If this miracle – this story of a mad man freed of his madness – doesn’t terrify you, then I’m not sure what to say.  It is easy to be thrilled by stories of Jesus making people well – we are given hope that the power of God might serve us in our time of need, and that is part of the beauty of Holy Scripture.  But when I notice that the people whom Jesus makes well – the poor, the wild; the wicked and the rest – I am reminded that these are the inhabitants of the kingdom of God, and I have done my best to set myself apart from them – and that is a problem.

This is the legacy of a church that wants its own way – a church that sets rules and has standards – a church afraid of losing its way, and so keeps the expectational bar – for membership, for attendance – for involvement – set precariously high.  It becomes, without meaning to, an place that people don’t feel ‘good enough’ to belong.  and that should frighten us too.

He had demons.  A frightful, raving, naked menace – until Jesus dared to treat him like a child of God.  It may seem too much to ask of a people scared for the future – scared of failure – scared of somehow disappointing God – but such interest and compassion toward those whom society has abandoned – those who have been denied justice – the least of these – is the only thing that Jesus asks of us.

An anniversary message from Mark 4: 1-9

May 28, 2016

A sower went out to sow.  Jesus offers this parable to a curious group who have crowded him off the beach and into a boat.  Mark’s gospel offers an interesting image; a crowded waterfront, busy with people doing what people do – an empty boat serves as an unlikely pulpit – and a puzzling message is offered to ‘those who have ears…’

For his students and friends, Jesus will later offer an explanation of this event – a starting point for the discovery of truth in all the parables that follow; analogy / allegory / metaphor – all these play a part in the understanding that is possible – and we know the standard explanation, don’t we…

The seed is the word, and it either takes root or it doesn’t; it flourishes or it struggles, all according to where it falls.  But I would like to take a moment to consider the utter carelessness that can be found in this parable – and I would like to thank God for such carelessness, especially on the occasion of the anniversary of this congregation.

Some of you will know that my vocational path took a turn through the farm equipment business – not as a farmer, but as a friend of farmers.  My high-school classmates and best friends worked the land in Southwestern Ontario; I worked closely with the technology that makes modern farming possible.  And from that perspective, I have to tell you that the carelessness of this ‘sower’ is almost criminal.  I don’t know anyone, ‘professional’ farmer or casual gardener, who willingly lets seed fall to anything but well prepared ground.  Even considering the more primitive (by our standards) farming practices of Jesus’ day, there is no excuse for it.

Seed is precious!  Seed is expensive!  Seed is a farmers life-blood – the guarantee of another harvest, and it only makes sense that you ensure none gets wasted.  So Jesus offers this curious parable – and I have some questions.

The Word is precious, isn’t it?  The Word – the gospel promise is life-giving and life-affirming, and shouldn’t we go to great lengths to see that it never goes to waste?  But still, this sower keeps on sowing – hard ground, thorny ground, good ground; it’s all the same, apparently.  Are we missing something?  Is Jesus giving us ‘answers’, or clues?   Perhaps, another parable will help.

A preacher went out to preach, and the word was a blessing, and soon, within this community, a congregation was gathered.  Funds were raised, and a building too – and all was as it should be.  But the community suffered hardship; work in the mines was difficult, and all too often, tragic.  The congregation survives a denominational divide, and then the loss of a new building.  members are welcomed, and members are mourned.  preachers come and go – and for one hundred and forty two years, the word has been a blessing.  Through the rough patches, the celebrations, the tragedies and triumphs, from invocation to benediction, God is present, praised and (served).

This is no invention of mine.  The ‘parable’ is one you yourselves told, not that long ago, in the profile that brought you a new minister – where you said (among other things):

“St Andrew’s Westville … has been, for many of us, a safe place to wrestle with our doubts. Worship and work together is more than just a habit – we find, in our congregation, a place of security borne in our long personal histories with this place…”

This weekend’s celebration is your reward for the ‘careless’ sowing of the seed!  And so it is for the whole church.  Not for us the perfectly prepared ground, or the carefully tended rows, straight and true, that are the envy of the neighbourhood.  No, we have been called to ‘spread the word’, with due respect for the important nature of the work, and the lively nature of the material, but also ‘without a care’.  Yes, we may take our turn ‘at the plow’, tending the ground, raising our children up in the way they should go,

but worship and proclamation are the main duties of the body of Christ, and that requires that we throw caution (and ‘seed’) to the wind more often than not.

The word of life – the gospel of grace – spread with wild abandon, offered in your work and witness – in playfulness and in more serious moments – that word entrusted to all who follow Jesus is bound to fall in some interesting places.  Perhaps it lays there only long enough to encourage one person; maybe it is faintly seen through the tangle of life’s troubles, and so one more battered soul is soothed.  And once in a while, it falls to fertile ground, where it bears fruit that lasts – fruit to feed a multitude – though no credit to the sower, for God’s is the growth, and the harvest, isn’t it?

No, we don’t look for credit, though this day I offer my own thanks into your celebrations; thanks for years of Christian witness, for years of your ‘carelessly faithful’ sowing of those seeds of hope and grace  – those nuggets of Christian wisdom – that will continue to bear fruit, God willing, for many years to come.

Risen and ascended.

May 1, 2016

We’re an Easter people – you’ve heard me say that before.

The resurrection is our meeting place

and our identity is found in Christ’s dying and rising.

But the Easter season is coming to an end – and there’s a change in the air.

Jesus has been hinting to his disciples for weeks –

even before they gathered for their last meal –

that everything would soon be turned on end.

The meek would inherit the earth – the poor would seem rich

and yes, the dead would stand among them.

That was the Easter promise – the mighty miracle.

So what could be more astonishing…?

Risen, yes – and ascended!

Taken from their sight – gone in a wisp of cloud and a blaze of glory.

Their new-found courage can hardly stand it,

as they are left staring skyward,

and wondering what it all means…

Their time with their Risen master must have been pure joy;

for the one they thought was lost had returned.

They may have been tempted to think

that this was the point Jesus had come to prove;

that having overcome death, the lessons were finished,

and now the kingdom life could begin.

The kingdom life, however, is just beginning,

and the learning will continue…

for you see – Jesus cannot stay.

The point that God has made

through the life and death and resurrection of Christ

is simply this: God is both willing and able

to live, suffer and die as we do…

and as a result, we are invited

to experience life in all its fullness;

life as God intended.

God’s great lesson is wasted if Jesus remains – ageless, tireless –

an eternal traveller in life beyond death.

That resurrection glory would eventually seem ordinary.

“blessed are those who believe and yet do not see..”

Jesus has been honest with his friends and seeks our honest faith –

hinting even to Thomas that his triumphant return was only temporary;

and so stories and memories and the witness of the faithful

will have to carry the message as the kingdom comes.

We need Jesus at Easter – full of new life and God’s Glory.

We need to be reminded that our ancient enemy – death –

has no more power over us.

But believe it or not, we also need Jesus ascended:

removed from our sight, off into the great unknown

because that absence; the earthly absence of those whom we love

also holds fear for us, and that fear needs to be overcome.

Our promised eternity – our new life in Christ –

does not consist of an endless repetition of the same old thing:

our journey with Christ, beyond death, and in this life

continues full of surprises and new sensations,

moving from wonder to wonder,

delighting in the gracious presence of God

and so through Christ, God offers us a path to follow

beyond what we can see, and touch, and taste.

Our joy comes at the defeat of death – at the empty tomb –

in our Risen Saviour.

Our hope comes when we understand

that not even this life –

a short season lived in the brilliance of Jesus risen presence –

can contain the new life we now share in Christ.

And while we wait – staring into the sky in silent wonder –

we would do well to remember that there is work to be done.

Our lessons as God’s people continue,

and we welcome the opportunity

to live out our wonder, our joy and our hope –

gifts that are ours to share.

Our apprenticeship in Jesus approach to life,

in God’s way of truth, continues.

We are distracted in our waiting;

by the needs of our neighbours,

by the condition of Creation,

by the cry for justice and the pursuit of peace,

but these distractions are signposts –

evidence that we are entering ‘God’s territory’.

“This Jesus, who has been taken from you”,

promise those mysterious strangers,

“ will return in the same way…”

in the meantime, there is work to do –

a story to share – a gift of power to receive.

And so we wait, knowing that even those first frightened disciples

found purpose in their waiting.

Like them, we  reluctantly turn our eyes back to earth,

bringing our attention back to this life

that, thanks be to God, will never be the same again.

Baptism of Jesus (from a different angle)

January 10, 2016

All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.  Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom 6: 3-5)

So Jesus – the one who John says will baptize “…with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” first must be baptized himself.  Fair enough.  It’s a little strange, I’ll admit, but there is an argument that says you cannot offer something that you do not have – so; Jesus is baptized, and while he prays, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in physical form – and if you need help imagining what that moment looks like, the gospel writers ask you to picture a dove landing on Jesus…

Have you ever seen a bird land on a person?  Parrots on shoulders, Falcons on leather gloves – there’s always a great deal of commotion; feather’s flying and the human target trying to stay upright – the goal is to provide a stable platform – because if the human target is not ready…or nervous…or moving about, it can be disastrous.

A similar disaster is suggested by a church sign that a friend in Halifax told me about this week.  She reports seeing a sign that, in addition to announcing the service times, stated quite boldly “You will be baptized by the Spirit”.  We agreed that this didn’t sound like a comfortable process – or much of a gracious invitation; more like an expectation or a requirement.  A close reading of Scripture suggests something less…rigorous.

Luke’s gospel makes the baptism of Jesus something of a non-event.  Sure, there are a great many people crowding the riverbank, but John seems to be the focal point – albeit against his will.    Luke gives us a lot about John, talking about how he’s not Messiah, but this is what Messiah will be like.   Then our attention is drawn to Jesus, one of many who have been gathered by the call of John, now sitting apart from the crowd; newly baptized and praying.  There is a heavenly voice – meant only for Jesus, but duly reported by Luke – that identifies Jesus as a much loved son.

And for the Baptism, that’s it – except that Luke then makes another connection for us.  For all who failed to hear the voice – to any who doubt the connection that Jesus has with the almighty, Luke offers (post-baptism) Jesus family tree. (see Luke 3: 23-38)

It is a little one sided; son of…, son of…, son of…, but the point is to link Jesus to God in the most intimate (and culturally legitimate) way possible.  So while his baptism places Jesus among the ordinary seekers of forgiveness and righteousness that have flocked to John’s call, because it is an act of humility his baptism also provides a “stable platform” for the Holy Spirit – setting the stage for that spectacular revelation (You are my beloved Son…) which is how Luke reminds us that there is nothing at all ordinary about him.

So what, you might ask; Jesus is extraordinary – everyone knows that!  Jesus has this effect on the people around him – he makes others more aware of the presence of God – more attentive to the voice of God – more easily able to discern the Spirit of God – and here, in his adulthood, is where those particular traits of Jesus make themselves known.  And because everyone doesn’t know it – the task of the church is to continue to tell this incredible story; that into a time and place where all seemed bleak; to a people who imagined that God may have passed them by – from the midst of them, in fact – God works in and through the particular person of Jesus, and offers a new connection – a stable platform for the landing (and launching) of an incredible work of the Holy Spirit.

In the end, it doesn’t matter who heard the voice – or who might have seen this incredible moment of transformation.  What matters is that Jesus lets us see how God can work.  Although this is the One who created with a word – who brought order from chaos – whose voice can shake the wilderness – God’s Spirit comes gently, to those who are ready and willing to receive the gift.  The Spirit is often unexpected, but never unwelcome.  Jesus’ example suggests to me that humility is the attitude most likely to encourage the arrival of the Spirit, and it is in that same humility that we are invited to offer this remarkable Gospel.  Though it may be tempting to expect everyone who hears Jesus’ story to be instantly transformed, we should remember that even in Jesus’ time, it didn’t happen like that.  The Spirit settled on one person that day – one who was patient, praying, and who presented the Spirit with a safe and stable landing place.  And from that moment came the start of something wonderful and new.

A new way to encounter the power of God – a new attitude toward the coming Kingdom of God – new hope, new life; all this comes thanks to the humble and willing witness of Jesus.  May his example become our habit, that the Holy Spirit might find, in us, a welcome place to land.  Amen

Faithful witness

October 31, 2015

What does it mean to “love God and glorify God forever”?  To attend worship services and become ‘involved’ with the life of a congregation is only part of the challenge.  Yes, worship and Christian service in the world are made possible (and “easier”) if we are working together toward a common goal or purpose, but as we know, gathering together is easier if you have a building; and buildings are expensive to maintain; and money is increasingly hard to come by when the number of givers (or their economic circumstances) change.  In these times, it doesn’t take long before our energy is directed to worries about maintenance, and finances and the search for “willing workers” becomes a quest for “warm bodies” – and the church becomes just another organization with its hand out, rather than a place where people can be encouraged and nourished and discover the gift of God’s love in Jesus.

If you don’t believe me, ask yourself when was the last time you talked to someone about something that excites you; chances are it was the Blue Jays, or the recent election.  Do any of us get excited about what we do together as the people of God?  Do we brag up the soup lunch (sometimes), or cradle roll (we should)… or do we rave about how a worship service challenged or changed us…?  I didn’t think so.

It’s not that we’re not faithful – and I’m not doubting that your lives have been affected by your encounter with God and your faith in the Risen Christ.  Your willingness to return to this sanctuary, week after week – year in and year out – tells me that there is something here that you need – something that feeds you – something that you cannot resist.  I know that it isn’t me – I hope that it’s not me – because it is my task to point you to the source of all joy; The hope is that we might all encounter the majesty of God in Christ – and I pray that such an encounter changes each of us.  Because the church that we say we want – a church brimming with life and love and the activity of the faithful – is only possible because of what others see in us (or hear from us).

The witness of the faithful in every season can have enormous consequences in the community of the curious; and we are surrounded by curious people who have little or no understanding of the church except that the church is always raising money for something.  What might those consequences be?  Let us consider our Scripture lessons from a moment ago

First, there is Jesus’ encounter with a scribe of the law (Mk 12: 38-44)  The scribe ‘tests’ Jesus understanding of the law of Moses: “What commandment is the greatest?”, he asks, and Jesus offers good, solid orthodox teaching.  The scribe praises the teacher and affirms his statement – a solid case of one persons witness affecting another part of the community.  They have discovered a point of unity between them.  But when Jesus returns praise to the scribe, who repeats Jesus answer and expands on it slightly, Jesus’ praise goes beyond mere back-slapping.  “You are not far from the Kingdom of God…” he says.  What a witness – what generous praise – what a way to open the door to a stranger!  The further results of this conversation are not recorded – but can you imagine; two potential adversaries (the scribes were always nervous of “new” teachers and their potential for upsetting the faith community) discover that they are allies!  the community is strengthened; the call to consider these two (equally) great commandments can now be shared by what were two formerly separate communities of the Jewish faith – bound together by a desire to love God and neighbour.

And in case you are still sceptical – after all, it’s easy to talk about faith with other people of the same faith (Jesus and the scribe are both Jewish, after all…) – consider the story of Naomi and her daughter in law Ruth.

A woman of faith – Naomi – far from home and in desperate need following the death of her husband and both of her sons – Naomi is still living what I will call a ‘life of attractive faith’.  Her daughter’s-in-law are doing their best to stand by her in her distress.  Ruth is so taken by the example set by Naomi that she renounces her home, her family and the religion of her childhood to accompany Naomi back to Bethlehem.  Naomi’s must have been a powerful witness for God even in deep distress and misfortune, for Ruth’s life to be so radically changed. “Your people will be my people; your God will be my God.”  There is no evidence that Naomi compelled her son’s wives to follow in the family religion – there was something about the way Naomi faced her troubles that helped Ruth choose such a risky path.

The church today faces a risky path forward, and it is hard not to lose our way in despair.  But the beauty of the Christian faithis that risk and struggle should not be offered as excuses for failure – indeed, it is in our struggles that our faith should be MOST EVIDENT!  The church is not struggling because of the culture – and the ‘death of Christian culture” should hold no fear for us.

We are disciples of the risen Christ – we believe that death is not to be feared – furthermore, our faith insists that death is a necessary step on the journey toward life abundant; life in the Kingdom of God.  Physical death is only one way to achieve the promised gift of God – but Jesus teaches that the death of certain ideas also propel us toward the Kingdom; and so Jesus praises an approach to the law that focuses on God’s love and our emulation of that love – and Ruth follows her faith-filled mother-in-law into foreign territory; and throws herself on the mercy of a man who follows the principles of love laid down in the law; and we can take a lesson from these Scriptural examples.

Instead of striving for survival at any cost, or wringing our hands in despair at the signs of decline in our churches, perhaps we should embrace the death of things that do not satisfy, do not glorify, and do not nurture faith in our risen Saviour.

That sounds like a terrifying thing as I write it – (I’m not sure I’ll have the courage to say it out loud) – but the truth of the matter is that faith is an eternal gift (not to mention a sign of God’s presence) and the community of faith is a large, unwieldy and fluid thing, but the idea of “church” as a stable, permanent, constant fixture in the culture is dead, dead, dead.

If that troubles you, it shouldn’t, because the signs of that death have been with us for years.  And the death of “Christendom” (the cultural prerogative of Christian people to make the rules and set the standards) is, for many people, something to celebrate.  A culture that neither understands Christianity nor defers to it, is a place that frees people of faith to start from scratch – to tell people about Jesus (rather than explain what WE are all about as ‘the church’…) – and I think that is a thrilling place to be.

It has always been hard to “be the people of God”, no matter what we tell ourselves. But in those times when the challenges seem most severe, we are given ample opportunity to express that faith – to acknowledge that not even human indifference can (destroy) the Church of Christ.  For Christ’s church is not the work of human hands; it is a work of the love and majesty of God. Thanks be to God, we are not responsible for the survival of this venerable institution. The “future of the church” is entirely in God’s safekeeping.   The challenge that we CAN accept is to share the good news; to tell the story. The future of our faithful witness rests in our willingness to be challenged and changed by the truth of Christ’s victory over death.

I love a parade. (part two)

November 2, 2014

Is this really a good time for Jesus to start a parade into town? He has been putting the powerful in their place at every opportunity; reframing their questions and suggesting that the answers only point to a strange kind of revolution – one where the least shall be great, and the weak are the most powerful. Jesus is the one that eeryone is talking about – the headline news in certain circles: “have you head about how he treated the Pharisees?” – “ a different teaching – with authority!” – “I was blind, but now I see…” – in a time before instant messages or constant news, the rumour mill was the height of technology, and you cna be sure that Jesus’ exploits have been shared (and possibly ‘liked’) by a large percentage of the population.

So is this good marketing, or a singularly bad idea:

Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.”

Because we are used to reading this text in Holy Week, we know that there will be a price to pay for this sort of cheek; Mocking the powerful and accepting the people’s praise is going to get you the wrong kind of attention. There is more than one ancient prophecy about to be brought to life, and it is an important feature in the drama leading up to Jesus crucifixion, but what is the point of this kind of behaviour? It is more than just the opening act of Jesus passion – a ‘king’ on a donkey; a passionate preacher trashing the furniture at the entrance to the temple – what’s the real story here?

Jesus has asked his followers for something different; he has challenged their understanding of the law of Moses; he urges them to reconsider their ideas about who God is and how God can be approached. He is trying to redifine righteousness, touching the untouchable, eating with the unclean, ignoring the habits of faith that separated the “chosen” from the forgotten. In a region ruled by Roman might – among a people with long memories (for the liberating promises of God) but little experience (beyond opression and captivity of their own generation) – the ideas of Jesus (who is only too happy to practice what he preaches) are not just religious nonsense – they are political propaganda.

So when you act out of your convictions, you draw attention (and potentially harm) to yourself and your ideas. When you question the religious practice of long standing (selling ‘perfect/acceptable’ offerings [at a profit] is a method of controlling both the style and substance of worship) the frozen chosen are not likely going to rush to your defence when the authorities come calling. Jesus is working under the shadow of destruction long before the cross is laid on his sholders – and that, I think, is the REAL story.

As the passion story meets us in the long season before Advent, Matthew’s gospel reminds us that everyone who chooses to follow this (comical) king who longs to see holiness represented in the temple – everyone who is attracted by a kingdom founded on love where even the poor and the outcast have a place – all of us who take Jesus as our model are working under the shadow of the cross. Destruction is assured; the establishment will not be mocked; power does not easily lose its attraction for those who hold it. We are pledged to what seems like a losing cause.

Consider the discussions we have – the dreams we have for the church as a voice of reason, and a place of influence. We are told that this is how it used to be, but a church in “power” is not what Jesus called into being. Jesus started a movement that spoke truth to power, and suffered for it. The “main-stream” is not where we were meant to swim, and we need to accept that.

Jesus is not given a heroes welcome on that day in Jerusalem – this is a parody of a parade. His real business is revealed in his actions at the temple; rearranging, not just the furniture, but the focal point of God’s worshipping people. “a house of prayer, not a den of robbers”. This is not a blow to the Sunday shopping crowd, but a wake up call for those whose defence is “we’ve always done it that way”

So we are not the hottest ticket in town. Crowds don’t rush to our services (just our dinners). Our strength – indeed, our only purpose as the gathered people of God is prayer – worship – praise. And we must find a way to continue to do those things – in spite of the burden of our buildings, and the burden of our expectations of ‘success’. Our buildings are too big, and too costly to maintain – let’s find smaller buildings. There are too many churches for such a small population (some say) – Let’s unite with our neighbours in faith. Let’s put aside the notion that worship can only happen on certain days, at certain times – ideas that mean we are routinely excluding folks who work weekends, or rotating shifts. Jesus saw that the faithful had fallen into a trap – the safety and security of something familiar, which had strayed from its original purpose – and he challenged them to return to that purpose. We are drawn into that same challenge.

The church still has work to do – the gospel of Christ still has the ability to change lives and offer hope. Our community needs what we can offer, hospitality; compassion; celebration; and of course, an opportunity to seek the Holy One in all those activities. We must keep Jesus’ challenge before us – we must approach questions of sustainability and existence from positions of prayer and praise. Our work in worship must inform our work in the world. When it does – when faith is revealed in all its power and majesty – that will be reason enough for a parade.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Amen

Spiritual but not religious? You should read this.

May 25, 2014

There are countless ways that we can make music, and many of them can be found in my home. I own an $8000.00 saxophone, and a $10.00 clay whistle. There are two guitars, several plastic recorders, a flute, two clarinets (one, an unplayable antique), and three fairly decent singing voices – not to mention the wide variety of electronic gadgets that play an even wider variety of recorded music. And the latest edition – a perfectly wonderful electronic organ; a gift from friends.

Yes, we are a musical household – but not ‘musicians’; there is a difference, at least in my mind. Music is a personal joy rather than a professional obsession. When my music and my vocation intersect, it is helpful and joyful and occasionally even appropriate, but most often the two pursuits occupy very different parts of my brain. You see, I studied music long enough to understand the basic principals behind good music making – and I made some pretty good music along the way – but I realized early on that to pursue a career in music – to be a musician – required more of me than I was willing to give. The idea of good music still excites me – it lifts my spirits and soothes my soul; but I am just as happy to hear someone else make that music.

So it seemed to Paul, newly arrived in Athens, where religion was concerned. Paul finds himself in Athens on the strength of a vision. While waiting for his friends, he continues the mission, meeting first in the synagogues, then in the markets, with Jew and gentile alike, pleading Jesus case. But Athens is different from the other places; a city of learning, of culture, whose citizens are used to hearing (and debating) new ideas – a fertile field, you might say; the perfect place for a guy like Paul. And in this place, he notices something; everywhere, there are idols, temples and things of religious significance – and as a faithful child of Abraham, he is discouraged. His own faith and experience tells him there is but one God, who has been revealed (in spectacular fashion, to Paul) in Jesus of Nazareth. Paul knows that he must offer them his story…but how?

It is a stroke of genius, really; he has noticed, among the vast array of religious artifacts, including an altar ‘to an unknown god’, and he uses their respect of religious things to share the Gospel with them. His speech moves some of them to join him and become believers (Acts 17: 34).

And how can this be of any use to us, you ask?

We inhabit a time and place that couldn’t be more different than Paul’s Athens. Modern conveniences and the lessons of history have convinced us that we are, in fact, in a much better time and place. Our habits as human beings however are not so different Technology has turned us into ravenous consumers of information – we spend our time doing nothing “but telling and hearing something new.” (Acts 17: 21). This knowledge has (among other things) connected us with a wide variety of religious and spiritual practice and tradition – and our sense of ‘liberation’ has freed us to be consumers of these ideas. Failing the usual methods of religious expression – worship, ritual and service offered out of new understanding – we make new beliefs out of old and misunderstood practices; so on the ‘religion’ shelf at most bookstores we find everything from Roman Catholic prayer books to palm-reading and tarot card guides. Our defense for this is that we are “Spiritual, but not religious.”

I used to consider myself in that category. It was a reflex against the hard (and often dangerous) work of religion, which is divisive and clearly defined by necessity – Spiritual seems so much gentler; more humane. No Spiritual person would prosecute a crusade, or launch a jihad. Spirituality is surely the realm of compassion and good feelings, while religion denotes rigid structure and self-righteousness. The choice is easy, and that’s the problem.

There is no genuine spirituality without religion – and every effective religion produces spiritual change (and practices) in its followers. We separate the two because religion demands hard work of us, and we prefer to be aficionados – we are happy to be surrounded by the trappings of religion, so long as we are free to use only what suits us. As I grew in my faith, and began to study, I realized that the hard work was necessary for me to truly appreciate the spiritual benefits, and so I took a path to Ordination. Which is why I appreciate the genius of Paul’s argument in Athens.

Paul speaks as an ‘expert’ – as a musician among music lovers. In a city full of curious people, Paul appeals to their respect for the products of religion; the rituals, the objects, the prayers that offer protection. Paul apeals to their hunger for something ‘other’ – a hunger that is present in all of us.

We are among those whose hunger has been satisfied – and like a musician in a room full of instruments, it is hard to resist the urge to make some music. Sure, it is easier to be in the audience; to appreciate the gift offered by “the experts” among us – and yes, even the experts need to be fed. But in a world that wants to take the easy way out, we are all experts in the gospel. We are religious and spiritual, every one. And we have been called by Christ to witness to the gospel.

It is hard work; dangerous work by times. It requires dedication and determination to move past the simple solutions and accept that, in Christ, God has done an amazing and mysterious thing. But our religion has produced spiritual fruit, and it is our job to feed the hungry.