Sunday, December 26, 2010

The other side of Christmas

I am going to ask you to consider the message that we heard from the angels on Christmas Eve… “Do not be afraid…” Perhaps it is not the first thing we think of when we think of Christmas and the great celebration. It has been my experience that as soon as we sit there in the midst of a stack of gifts and a pile of wrapping paper, we begin to think if not to operate as if Christmas is finally over and we can start getting back to some form of normalcy. After all we have been dealing with all this since the first of November haven’t we? Too often, we are ready to put our Christmas away the tree and the decorations. We fail to consider the other side of Christmas.

I read somewhere recently that 30 years ago that school age children had certain fears: (1) animals, (2) being in a dark room, (3) high places, (4) strangers, and (5) loud noises. Do you know what children these days fear? (1) divorce, (2) nuclear war, (3) cancer, (4) pollution and (5) being mugged. So think in this moment we need to ask ourselves, “What do we fear? What do we fear knowing that we are on the other side of Christmas?” we would move heaven and earth to help our children to feel safe and secure. We would work our fingers to the bone to make sure that we give them a good place to live and food to eat and to try and remove anything that might make them afraid.

This thinking brings us to Joseph of Nazareth. He has had to move through lots, especially if it were to be found out that he wasn’t the father of Mary’s baby. He was afraid of what people in the community were already thinking, seeing Mary with child before they came together. It was too much. He had decided to quietly end the betrothal stage of their marriage. Then God stepped in through Joseph’s dreams and encouraged him to have faith… to trust in what was happening because the child to be born was going to need him and his faith. Joseph listen to the news of his dream, changed his mind and remained faithful to his vows and to Mary. In being faithful, Joseph in his own way helped God to bring about the birth of Christ in the way that honoured what had been spoken of so long ago.

The magi who came seeking Jesus and who had heralded the news to Herod the Great that the real king of the Jews had been born and in Bethlehem. The magi were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod and tell him more. They changed the path of their journey and so protected the child they had found and his parents from what was to happen next.          

In the days right after Jesus’ birth Joseph had another dream, that he was to take the child and his mother and go hastily to Egypt, to a place of safety so that they could wait out what was to come next. Joseph was obedient to what he heard in his dream and so Jesus was protected against the jealousy and rage of Herod. Some might ask about the children of Bethlehem who had to face the rage, why were they protected. It is a good and reasonable question and one that is hard to find an answer to; or at least answer that is not trite. Of this I am certain, it is why Jesus came. And those children have not been taken from God though their lives were ended in a blaze of fear and hatred of one man who thought he was the rightful king and that no one was going to usurp his power and throne.

After Herod’s death Joseph was commanded to bring the child home to Israel. The wait must not have been too long for Jesus was still only a little boy. Joseph was warned not to go back to Bethlehem and so he took Mary and Joseph to Nazareth.

Now you might wonder what all of this means to you personally and to us as a church? Christmas is a season of dreams and we need to listen and be obedient to them. If one man, being obedient to what we hear from God can protect the life of his family what can God do with a Church that is doing the same thing. There are many things that we might fear as a Church – failure in particular. This moment is a signal from God that we are to stop and to listen to what he is saying to each and to all of us, that we would hear and obey him. This is life on the other side of Christmas! When we stop to consider that our lives are not that different from the life of Jesus, that God desires to fulfill both his will and his promises in us, that we are in his care and keeping to make that happen, isn’t that good news? We need to recognize that we and others are going to resist some times what God calls on us to do. Like Joseph we have to learn to listen and then to change and then to obey.

We also need to recognize that our Canadian society is fearful of what Christ (and his Church) are going to subvert the order of their lives, taking away their power and their order – that the Church is going to upset the world in favour of a better order – God’s order. Yet we through our Christmas faith continue to believe that God has the ability to reign in a world where the dominance of the proud and the powerful seems apparently unshakable. We trust that what has been spoken by God has and is being fulfilled and that what has been promised is being made reality both in us and through us in the world. Here on the other side of Christmas, we can not only dream the dreams we can hear and respond to God that the world of Christmas would be fulfilled and finished, in God’s way, in God’s time. And that is something worth celebrating.   

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Make way for the King!

Royalty makes for great characters in dramatic narratives. Unwedded pregnancies to young women in small town, And yet, here is one such young couple from the out of the way places who find themselves having to make a long and dangerous trip to his home town so that they can be properly registered with the government so that they can be counted and taxed. To make matters harder, the conception was virginal and caused by the operation of the Holy Spirit. Mary and Joseph are very deep into their faith. Both have worked hard to be faithful and to do what God has asked of them in their lives. The news of the baby’s coming is a shock. Sure they had planned to have kids but not until after the wedding. Anyone finding out that they weren’t fully married would have asked some hard and difficult, even embarrassing questions. Yet Mary and Joseph are prepared to welcome this little one into their lives and to be faithful to him as his parents. It is not only the right thing to do, it is the godly thing. And after all, they did go on to have the wedding and to have more children of their own. So they lived “normal” lives afterwards, didn’t they?

It is important for us to recognize that God has a plan for us – corporately as community and as individuals. God has desires for us just as we have desires for our lives and things that we want to do and accomplish. So does God. There are things that God wants to accomplish not only for us but also for himself. God desires to retrieve, redeem, and recreate his creation. We look at all this and then look at the child he sent to do this thing and we find it all, well unexpected if not a tad disconcerting. More importantly though, are we going to allow ourselves to open up and receive the Christ child into our own lives as Mary and Joseph did? Are we going to be willing to take the risks that come with being associated with this Child bring in this day and age? Like Mary and Joseph, we have opportunities to decide whether we will accept or reject Jesus when he comes to us. We will have choices to make. And we need to recognize that each decision carried with it consequences. The news of the coming birth would have been news for certain – but what about how people responded?

The annual celebration of this great feast does not mean that God was “one and done” and that Jesus now sits in a heavenly chair, watching as we struggle along… by no means! Christmas reminds us that God is active in the world today to change lives, starting with you and with me. Christmas reminds us that God is faithful to all of his promises and is working to see them fulfilled. And because this is so we are not left alone. God is faithful and keeps his word, even if it is not done as fast as we would like to see it happen. Redemption of this world is at hand and it is nearer now than it was a year ago. God is at work and calls us to join in.

God comes to us in deep humility and calls us in great vulnerability to come and follow him. We should also acknowledge that it is good staging on God’s part. After all, what can more easily move or if necessary melt the human heart than the face of a child? What relationship can see and make more change in the life of one human than that of friendship with another human being? The trees, the lights, the presents, the faces of family and friends are all signs of the hearts and lives that God is moving and drawing to the kingdom.

So this Christmastide, let us make the season about more not less – more presence not less. Let those who are close to you and near to you in the community see and feel the presence of the Child who was born for all of us in Bethlehem. Maybe some of them will see and hear him for the first time. They will find his actions unexpected. Perhaps they encounter the love of their new born king. Tell them that God has made them some promises and that he wants to be faithful to those promises and to them. Then be ready to pray and to expect the unexpected presence of Christ himself. Be ready to respond with Good News! Oh and make way for the King!

Monday, December 20, 2010

"Fear Not" A Christmas Sermon from Canterbury

There seems to be a great wealth of sermon material for this time of year. I found the following sermon from his Grace, Rowan Williams, The Archbishop of Canterbury. Make sure you read it all! 
'Fear not', says the angel to Joseph, to Mary, to the shepherds. It is recurring motif in the Christmas stories, and a significant reminder that the overwhelming news of God the Saviour's coming is both all that the human heart could hope for and also something that powerfully disrupts the way the world goes and the way our lives go. There is something to be afraid of in the renewal of a world: I may not welcome being reconstructed or interrupted.
Religious commitment of any depth is bound to say to the world around it that the assumptions and habits of that world are not beyond question. It isn't all that surprising if a secular environment looks at religion not only with suspicion or incomprehension but with fear. The proposal to ban Muslim headscarves in French schools suggests that there is still a nervousness about letting commitment show its face in public, lest ground be given to some threatening irrational power that will take over the world of reasonable people. President Chirac himself has defended the proposal by claiming that a school must be a 'republican sanctuary' in which children are protected from the cold winds of sectarianism while they absorb the proper values of their society. Religious belief is not banned, but its outward expression – the crucifix on the wall as much as the headscarf - has to be strictly controlled so that the purity of the nation's values may be preserved. Faith must be invisible.
And at the same time, the Chief Rabbi of France encourages the men of his congregations to avoid wearing the skull cap in public because of the spiralling of anti-Semitic incidents. There's more than one reason for religious commitment to be made invisible; sometimes invisibility is sought. Here, then, are two quite different aspects of the public face of religious belief and the complex reactions and feelings it produces – a secular world determined to protect itself against any show of religious faith; a religious community fearful about proclaiming its identity in public because of hatred towards its members. Different problems, different motivations; but behind both lies one central and urgent challenge to do with the public face of religious belief in the modern world.
For all our talk about pluralism, many still feel in all kinds of ways uncomfortable when religion makes a visible difference in public life – so that in turn religious people may feel excluded or threatened if they are visibly identified as members of a community of faith. Discomfort about religion or about a particular religion may be the response of an educated liberal or, at the opposite extreme, the unthinking violence of an anti-Semite; it isn't easy to face the fact that sometimes the effects are similar for the believer. And in case we think the whole debate is just a French problem, we should recognise just a little of the same unease in the nervous sniggering about the Prime Minister's religious faith which ripples over the surface of the media from time to time, or in the blustering irritation aroused by something like Joanna Jepson's whistleblowing about our assumptions around abortion.
The fear of faith itself is part of what can breed fear in a vulnerable or minority community, of whatever tradition. And before we rise up and angrily deplore this, it's worth pausing to ask just why faith provokes such a passionate protectiveness. Historically, the answer, is, alas, that religious faith has too often been the language of the powerful, the excuse for oppression, the alibi for atrocity. It has appeared as itself intolerant of difference (hence the legacy of anti-Semitism), as a campaigning, aggressive force for uniformity, as a self-defensive and often corrupt set of institutions indifferent to basic human welfare. That's a legacy that dies hard, however much we might want to protest that it is far from the whole picture. And it's given new life by the threat of terror carried out in the name of a religion – even when representatives of that religion at every level roundly condemn such action as incompatible with faith.
The believer says to the secular world, 'Don't be afraid!' Yet religion has appeared as something fighting to take over territory in the human soul and the human world – an empire pushing at the frontiers, struggling to defeat the independence and dignity of people. You may remember Swinburne's famous lines – 'Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean! The world has grown grey with thy breath.' That sums up what a great many people at least half believe. It comes from a highly selective version of history, yet it has enough plausibility to need an answer at the very deepest level.
And this is what our Christmas story and our Christmas faith offer. Why should Joseph and Mary and the shepherds not be afraid? Because what happens when God comes to earth is not something like the first landing of an occupying army, the first breach in our defences by a powerful enemy who wants to take all that is ours. The truth is as different as could be; and the clue is in those simple words, simple words that invite a lifetime's joyful reflection, 'The Word was made flesh'.
When God comes among us, he doesn't first of all clear humanity out of the way so that he can take over; he becomes a human being. He doesn't force his way in to dominate and crush; he announces his arrival in the sharp, hungry cry of a newborn baby. He changes the world not by law and threat but by death and resurrection. Robert Southwell's poem wonderfully captures this overturning of all our terrors and apprehensions: 'His batt'ring shots are babish cries, His arrows looks of weeping eyes'. And the anonymous mediaeval lyric puts it unforgettably: 'He came al so stille, Where his mother was, As dew in Aprille, That falleth on the grass'.
He comes in stillness. He comes in dependency and weakness. He comes by God's absolutely free gift. Yet he comes from the heart of our own human world and life, from the womb of a mother, from the free love of Mary's heart given to God in trust. And this is mysteriously the same thing as his 'coming down from heaven'. He is utterly different, the human being who lives God's own life; he is utterly the same, like us in all things, as the Bible says.
The manner of his coming tells us so many things – but not the least is that human nature, bruised and disfigured as it is by sin, is still capable of bearing the life of God. In the birth of God in flesh and blood, we see what we were made to be – carriers of divine love. And with this birth we begin our journey back to where we belong, back to God, back to what we were made to be. To live in peace and delight with God does not mean that our humanity has first to undergo such radical surgery that it barely seems human any more, that our nature has to be beaten into submission by a divine aggressor. He came all so still; he came to his own.
Here then is the real Christian response to the modern secular person's fear. God is no hostile alien, snatching away what belongs to us. Faith is not either a perversion of human freedom or a marginal and private eccentricity. It is human freedom raised to its fullest by the fact that God has embraced it in love –'from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace'. The Word, as St John makes plain in this morning's gospel, is no stranger in the world; he is the very centre and energy of creation itself, the heart of every heart.
So Christian faith does not seek to carve out a territory to defend for itself, nor does it look to take over a potentially rebellious world and subdue it by force. It simply witnesses to the world that the world will never be fully itself except in the glad receiving of God's presence and the recognition of the 'true light' at the centre of all human, all created life. If this makes us afraid, the Christian will say, that is because at some level we are afraid of ourselves, of what we really are and might be; afraid of a destiny for human beings more glorious than we could imagine; afraid that we may have to change our lives unrecognisably in order truly to become ourselves.
No, it isn't comfortable, it may be terrifying. 'He came to his own', yes, 'and his own would not receive him' – and 'his own' in this context is all of us who are made in his image and who yet can't cope with his promise. And because we people of faith have so often behaved as though we had never heard or understood the Christmas gospel, we can't expect the secular world to believe us straight away when we say that they have nothing to worry about and that faith is the flowering of human dignity not its opposite. First we have to show that we truly are on the side of humanity – by patient loyalty to people in their need, by courage and sacrifice for the sake of justice, by labour for reconciliation, setting people free from the threat of violence. God comes to 'his own people', religious people, and we have often failed to know or receive him.
And then, supposing we have cleared away the fears that arise from the way religious people have failed to witness fully to their God – then the deeper fears can and do come to the surface, the fears of what faith may demand of a person. Nothing will take away the challenge here; we can only hope that there are enough lives showing joy and humanity to make the challenge worthwhile – lives in which the eternal Word will speak. Such lives will have about them the great mark of God's action in Jesus which is that he doesn't invade, doesn't push us out of the way, doesn't reduce or demean us; he invites, he opens up to us his own infinite hospitality, drawing us into his world, his life. He makes us more than we are, not less. 

And that is what the true person of faith will show in their life. When the life of faith is visible in the public world, it is not something threatening the integrity of the supposedly neutral and obvious moral principles of the secular state; it is a glimpse into the depths of all morality, all principle and commitment, into the depths where the holiness and faithfulness and love of God secretly nourish the essence of human life, that life which is made for the destiny of becoming children of God. It is a glimpse into a richness surrounding all that we are, without which all our vaunted values and principles would soon corrupt and die.

All our great religious traditions say something of this – which is one reason for Christians, Muslims, Jews and others to stand with each other and speak out for each other in times of stress or harassment. Yet the uniqueness of our Christian faith is that it is inscribed for us not only in a text but in a living human presence in which dwells all the fullness of God. We may confidently say to a nervous secular world, 'Fear not!' God is not coming to abolish but to fulfil the hopes of liberty and human dignity. But we ourselves as believers need to hear the same words we speak to others: 'Fear not!' 

We don't have to fight for our claims in such a way that all the world sees is another power-obsessed and anxious human institution; we have only to let the Word be born in us and speak in us. A lifetime's work, but also a moment's gift, in the sudden grasp of the mystery of this celebration of God made human, in the words we hear from the gospel, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist: 'from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.'

© Rowan Williams 2003.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Jesus comes - for judgment and for grace

I came across this quote from Bonhoeffer in my reading this week and thought it worth sharing. (For those who do not know, Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian in Nazi Germany and was executed by the Nazis for his part in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.) 

We have become so accustom to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we longer fell the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.

Only when we have felt the terror of the matter can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses us and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. God makes us happy only as children can be happy.

God always wants to be with us, wherever we may be – in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone. God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home has moved into us. Therefore we adults can deeply rejoice within our hearts under the Christmas tree, perhaps much more than the children are able. We know that God’s goodness will once again draw near. We think of all God’s goodness that came our way last year and sense something of this marvelous home. Jesus comes in judgement and grace.

-          Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Coming to one's own good senses

What makes for a great story? Is it the writing? is it the well though out plot with credible, well developed characters? It seems that you need a great subject to talk about, perhaps a king or queen? So isn't it interesting that there are no major players except God in the story of the birth of the Son of God. There is an unknown young woman who is pledged to a man in a small town in the northern Israel who are faithful to each other and to God. and because of their courage, their willingness to be servants, we know God and know his Son in our lives. Maybe to illustrate you might watch the link below. It is from A Christmas Carol:    

Christmas is a moment in time for us when we stop to consider that God has come to us. Indeed God does come to us in the person of Jesus Christ and Christ comes to us in deep humility and great vulnerability. After all what can move the heart of a person more than the the face of a new born child? What can possibly affect change in the life of a curmudgeon more than that of a B.F.F. (best friend forever)? 

Let God give you his presence this Christmas that you might go out into all the world both to proclaim that Jesus is born in Bethlehem and that he is living present to us and our community today. Be the presence of God in the places and spaces you will live in this Christmas. Maranatha!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

How should God act?

How should God act? Many of us have from time to time wondered if we have believed in vain. We find ourselves in hard spots and in dark times and we wonder, sitting in whatever prison we are locked up in… and we question whether it was worth it or not.  This is where John the Baptizer certainly was when he heard what Jesus was teaching and preaching and doing. Jesus wasn’t acting like the Messiah. He was acting far too weak and wimpy. The Messiah, once he was revealed, should be confronting all the people who were making life difficult for the chosen people kicking butts and taking names – preferably in that order. But Jesus wasn’t doing any of that. So he asked one of his followers to go and speak with Jesus to find out who Jesus really was. Had John made a major mistake? Did he back the wrong horse? He couldn’t help but wonder because he thought God wasn’t acting like himself.  

Advent gives us an opportunity to hear the voice of Jesus and to be more aware of his presence in our lives, both individually and corporately. We need to hear his voice and listen to what he is saying to us. Then we need to start being the people Jesus is calling us to be. This does not mean that we can think of ourselves as better (much less perfect) when comparing with other people; far from it! We are called to live within his will and to do his will in our everyday lives. And as we listen and try to do his will we need to open ourselves to the presence of the Holy Spirit that we would be filled with the strength to serve Christ in our neighbour and clothed with his love that we would make the world aware of how much God loves them. In essence, we need to hear, live, act.

Why is it important to do this? Because we tend to live with the idea in the West that the world is albeit slowly getting better, day by day, day after day. But is it really? We have a lot of technology that can help with life and do things for us but does it fundamentally change who we are as people? Will we ever see the secular utopia that we think we want? The future that God is building in his realm is very different from the one that the world thinks it is coming to. Even in the Church there are great demands made for the Church to be relevant and to “get with the times”. I would rather think that the Church – if it wants to be relevant rather than reactive to the latest trend in society – needs to be what God calls it to be: His own. The Church, in order to be relevant in our current society needs to speak and to demonstrate those things that are consistent with the nature of a holy and loving community because we are in relationship with a holy and loving God. Moreover, the Church needs to be reminded that salvation is a joy to be shared with the world and not just a prize to be won.

Isn’t this why Jesus told the sent disciple to go back to John and tell him that he needs to recognize the presence the kingdom; to know his presence in the world because the blind are gaining their sight, the lame are walking upright, the lepers are being cured, the dead are being raised to life and the Good news of the growing realm of God is being made known to those who desire it and need it. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me telling him to have some patience and wait… the realm of God will come, even if it does not come in the ways and means most expect it to and on human terms.

In this moment, are you willing to continue to believe and to be the person that God has called you to be, hearing his voice, living his life, and acting according to the leading of his Spirit? Are you willing to expect the unexpected from God and live it out? Are we as a church, willing to stake our common life and work to endure for the coming of the full version of the kingdom (in essence, heaven and earth 2.0)? Come and see him who is present in us and is with us, our Immanuel. Then go and share the joy of knowing him with others. And in the going, hear, live and act like God.              

Thursday, December 2, 2010

... In line to see the King

This must be a Sunday for preachers. And I say that in light of who we have to focus on this Sunday in terms of the text: John, the one who baptizes. Which immediately makes me want to stop and ask, “Do you know a preacher when you see one. No doubt that you know a preacher when you hear one, but the rest of the time, would you know a preacher if you saw him or her?

The nation of Israel seemed to know him. The people had not heard such a voice nor had they seen such a sight in 400 years. The prophetic voice reverberated through the cities and towns. The people were drawn to this preacher and his wilderness pulpit, if for no other reason than he had to be seen and heard for one’s self. They came from all over the country to see this man out in the middle of nowhere who was boldly preaching and calling people to repentance – to their Wabush. This man who is dressed in a way that no one else would dress to show that he is different and determined; that he is not afraid to be who he is and to boldly proclaim the message he is sent to bring. This audacious preacher was nowhere near the places of preaching in the city or at the center of religious life. And like any popular preacher he made many glad and many more people mad with what he had to say.

Wherever the preacher John found sin, disorder and evil he confronted it boldly and with great passion. Whether it was in government, in religion or in everyday living he was willing to call people from their complacency to turn around, to see God, and to make their lives different. He did not preach solely a message of condemnation. After all, wouldn’t you run like a snake whose home is being burnt to the ground? Who blames the rat for wanting to get off the ship when it is sinking? The preacher John held out the standard to which all of us are called to live by God and challenged his generation to live the way that God expects them to. It is important to confront sin and evil in our lives. It is also important that we have a standard that we can live up to not just to be told that we are bad and beyond help. John was, in a real sense a light in a dark place, a voice to call people to right living and a sign post to help others to find and know God. He helped people to know the presence of the Messiah. Preacher John pointed his life and his preaching to show people the one true King.

That reminds me… there will be line ups to see Santa Claus over the next few weeks. Who will be lined up to see the King when John points him out. Will we have the courage to seek his presence? Will we go to be with him and to follow him?

And what about us? Have I bothered to preach any of the six sermons that will get me fired? If not, am I doing my job where preaching is concerned? As you and I bring the presence of Christ into this world in this Advent, let us call people to turn around, to see God and to move into his presence. And let us make sure that as we do this, that we do it in genuine love of and for them. Let us come to people in deep humility and true tears know that what we have to offer them is the real presence of the King and his love for them.

Along with everything else you have to offer others, especially those you love, this Christmas offer the presence of yourself to others and in the process, help them to get in line to see Jesus. He came not only with good gifts. He came to offer us his “everything”. Give those you love the presence of Christ this Christmas. Whose going to line up first? Who can hear his voice?

Coming home - Maranatha!

It has been said that, “you can never go home again.” And while there is some truth in such a statement, it also falls short where the Christian faith is concerned. There are lots of songs that we are going to hear in the coming weeks with phrases like, “I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me.” Christmas is more likely to register in bank accounts (pun intended!) than it is in the lives of the people around us. And many more will welcome the quiet of the week after Christmas because of the blitz that most of us have endured since All Saints Day. That is if they are not out to Boxing Day Sales, bravely hunting with the crowds for more bargains and treasures for another occasion including next Christmas. Somehow it seems as though we have tried to fill that emptiness we feel inside ourselves with everything the but the One presence we really need. That’s why I believe there are still lots of people who make the effort to go to Church services that one night of the year. People pause for a moment to see if there is something more to Christmas than what they have been able to find at Wal-Mart™. In some sense they are looking to go home again but have forgotten their ruby red, glass slippers!

If we are to come home again we need, as Church to believe and to know that the purpose of Christmas is to change lives; that the presence of Christ does make a difference in the world to enable change. And if change is still possible then that means life as usual will not be possible. But where does it all start? Believe it or not, it starts with you and me. We have to be willing like Isaiah to stop and see the coming King and his approaching kingdom. We need to be ready to live in the light. We need recognize that Christ is the light and that we are called to live in his light. This means we need to actively look for him not just passively peruse the glitz, glamour and glitter in front of us.

Isaiah demands that we see past all that the world has to offer to gain a fresh sight of what it is that God is calling us to so that we can be enabled to help God draw into this world the coming kingdom. We are called to take a step back and look at the big picture to see what God is doing in all the world and what God might do in the future so that we can be ready and participate in the things God calls us to do.

The coming of Christ into the world means that life in the Church cannot be business as usual. We are his hands, his feet, his face and his heart in the world. We are the ones who bring Jesus in to the places and spaces of our community. We cannot expect to live in the field of dreams anymore where we can build a building and expect people to come and fill it. We as the Body of Christ must reach out and be real with those around us so that we can draw them into Christ and into our fellowship.

This Christmas, in the midst of your business, remember to give the most important thing you can give – presence! His presence! Make his presence known for the sake of the world and the coming of his kingdom. He is coming home again and soon. Maranatha!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Are you coming or are you staying?

Where would you look for a powerful king? In a castle? On a boat? On a throne, dressed in dreadful splendor and wearing a crown of mighty splendor? Where would you look for your king? Would it be in a place of crying? Would you find him on a hill of pain and suffering; on a tree of agony and death? Where would you look for and find your king?

I have to admit that I was surprised when I realized where the Gospel was going to take us this week. Good Friday seems like it was so long ago and yet here is it in all of its brutal reality. The people who wanted him dead stand there now and observe the pain and suffering that has been inflicted. They acknowledge, however tacitly, that he is the king or more likely that he pretended to be the king and they challenge him to be great and terrible one last time. “He has saved others. Let him now save himself” some of the onlookers scoffed! Most of the crowd watched in silence as they stood by and did nothing. They leave that awful place beating their breasts and wonder, “Oh God, what have we done?” everyone including his own followers believe that this is the end of it all. All the hopes and dreams of the future are nailed to that terrifying tree with its victim. We haven’t fully realized yet that god in his Christ is on a mission and that this mission cannot be deterred, diverted or stopped by us. We can ridicule it. We can refuse to participate in it. But we cannot and will not stop the mission of God in Christ.

And as we stand there on that ugly little hill outside the city looking up we only begin to realize that our secret is out: that we aren’t the people that God wanted and created us to be. That we have become in a real sense the very opposite of what we were intended to be. In this king and in this little realm this is how God is going to draw us in and bring us back to him and to ourselves. Our hope does not live within ourselves except that it comes from acknowledging the mercy that only the king can provide. From his mercy he gives us grace and in that grace we find the peace he provides. And in know the king’s peace we find that hope and that life which is so freely offered. Those who live in denial, find it easier to stand there and mock the savagery we have inflicted while we fail to recognize the brutality we have become.

So as we stand there in the lowly, blood stained realm of our king… which will you choose? Will you go with him or will you stay behind with the mob? Your king makes this demand of you in this moment, “Are you coming or are you staying? It’s up to you. This is not a democracy. I am your king. Do you love me or do you reject me. Are you coming or not?” there will always be moments to be powerful – at least by human standards – and there will be moments to be impressive or to look intelligent. These are all fleeting, mere shadows of things.   

I welcome you to the throne. This is our king. Are you coming or are you going? You decide. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Its the end... but not just yet!

Perhaps you have seen the large desk diaries that many of the clergy carry with them. I know that mine is very important to me and I cannot think of what I would do without it. I have carried one since the summer of 1990 when I was given my first one by a supervisor and was encourage to write everything I need to do and everything that I had done down on paper. It has helped me to do things and get things done. My calendar has even helped me to have the occasion rest on a day off and get me organized for an annual holiday. I’d like to think that my life because of this particular book is organized and helps me to be productive for the Church and therefore faithful in my priesthood to God.

And then I reminded that it is the end… but not just yet. I was recently reminded that the Church is what you have left after the building has burned down and the clergy has fled town. I often think of a particular moment in ministry when I walked into the local store to get things for New Year’s Eve and the little gathering we were planning with friends at their house. There was lots of fear that particular year around the turn of the century because of something known as Y2K. Remember the Y2K bug? People were discussing the heavy subject of the end of things, time in particular when I walked in the store. Of course when I was spotted, some said in a loud voice. “O look there is the Minister. Ask him!” One of the regulars came to me and asked the question they all want to know, “What’s the world coming to, sir?” In one of moments of clarity, I pulled off my cap and scarf and boldly pronounced, “An end.” The once bustling store, thrumming with enthusiasm and excitement fell suddenly quiet. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

Realizing I said something that could be earth shattering to the folks around me, I asked for a few minutes to go and get what was on my list and then I would come back to them and we would talk.  This gave me time not only to pray, furiously, it gave me time to organize my thoughts so that I might help these folks understand that thought things are crumbling, God is still with us. And having just come through the feast and were still in the season of Christmas I realized that something really powerful had happened. God’s salvation had come to us in the form of a child; someone who is small, is weak and who to most of the world anyway is hidden from plain sight. And look at what the Church has grown into. It has grown. There was a time in the life of the nation of Israel where the place of meeting was a tent. Yet we as humans fell the need and desire to manage things. And because we take charge the walls once soft and supple, allowing the Spirit to billow through have instead become stiff, rigid, calcified. The tent has filled with lots of furniture. And the Church builds its weight and height until it is unmanageable and is ready to topple in on itself.

Jesus calls to those who live in the rubble of this exiled age and invite them to follow him into a new way. A way that is not easily determined nor is it found with quick decisions or undemanding choices. Jesus offers the courage and the trust necessary to way a new way of life, a life that will in the face of the culture and society that we live in will face ridicule and persecution. And some of those who will pursue you will be those you would call family and friends. Yet, we to not walk this new path alone. Jesus walks the path with us. Jesus has promised that we will not be alone. He has promised that he will be with every step of the way. Whenever we gather in twos and threes for prayer in his name, he will be there. Whenever we gather to share in the bread and wine through thanksgiving, he will be there. When he is actively proclaimed by word and deed, he will be there. Whenever the least, lost and the last of his brothers and sister is served, it is him we serve. And we wait for the kingdom that is here and yet we are still waiting for it in full. Until then Jesus is with us and we are not, in the face of disaster, alone. That is in short, what I told those folks at the store more than ten years ago. I told them it was the end... but not just yet. He is with us and we are not alone no matter what date or time it is, no matter what the calendar says. Thanks be to God Christ is with us.  

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

God is making all things new

When I was last out to my home, I had to opportunity to go through the two neighbourhoods where I lived as a child. It wasn’t hard to tell that things were different from when I lived there. But then that was – relatively speaking – a long time ago. Of course there had been more development in the last 30 years. There were a lot of houses in the fields where my friends and I road our bikes and played. There are no more backyard rinks to skate on. No roar of the go-cart engines as we putted around our homemade track. There was no game of ball hockey out in the middle of the street. There were parents teaching their kids how to ride their bikes, chasing behind them as the rider learned to hold the balance. Families and individuals have come and gone from the neighbourhood. Some have grown up and moved away while others have died and still a few remain as if lingering and waiting for something. I fill in the people that I remember and fill in their place… how they sounded; the things they used to say and do. I remember the way things used to be.  

Things are much quieter now than I remember. To my eyes, things in the old neighbourhood have grown old and tried. Things have changed and we wish that they could have stayed the same, thinking that we could be forever here and forever young.  I wish that I could make it all new again. I wish I could walk down those familiar streets, seeing familiar faces and greeting friends. I wish I could go for one more ride with my dad to the local arena and score one more goal to be able to feel the thrill of it all. I wish I could make my family and friends young again and take away the pain and struggles that time has placed on them. I wish I could but I can’t. I wish I could do these things but I can’t. But God can. In fact he promises that he will make all things new.

This is why Christ came at Christmas and that is why we not only remember his death; we also proclaim his resurrection from the dead and his ascension to glory. In fact we celebrate that through this month – that Jesus is King and that he is coming again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead. Christ came to begin the process of the new life and the new creation. It is why he was found in a manger by shepherds and crucified by spiteful people who wanted a demonstration of power before they would believe the message, and though his death was the sign that he wasn’t able to deliver. But they were wrong, way wrong. They took Christ’s death as his defeat. It was the path Christ had to walk to free those who would believe from sin and death. We need to stop and realize this is going on today; that the new creation and the new life starts here and is still coming. God is still working out his new creation that Christ made possible through his incarnation. God still works to make all things new. Thanks be to God that he does and that he calls you and into this work with him.    

Thursday, November 4, 2010

I just wanna be a sheep - and a saint too!

When I was leading a ministry to and of children a few years back, traveling across Southern Ontario, I would teach the following song to children (and adults too!):

I just want to be a sheep, bah, bah, bah, bah

I just want to be a sheep, bah, bah, bah, bah

I pray the Lord my soul to keep,

I just want to be a sheep, bah, bah, bah, bah

I realize that being a sheep these days is probably a negative thing. It is used for people who just follow the rest of the flock and never critically consider what is going on. No… in this day and age everyone is expected to be a hero or heroine; a person who is master of the destiny and who takes orders and nonsense from no one. Everyone has to be super. And you cannot be super if everyone else is super. And this is as true inside the Church as it is outside of the Church.

Now I not suggesting that everyone give up the hopes and ambitions, fall back in line with bowed heads behind the Shepherd, unless you find yourselves in the position that you need to. In fact I would encourage us to ask and try to imagine what this world would be like if the Church really was following the Shepherd. What kind of difference could we as Church make in the world if we were the sheep we ought to be, as often as we can be?

Christians are supposed to be people through whom the grace, love and mercy of God flows; the Church are people through whom the Son shines. In a word, we are supposed to be saints. Saints, not sheep. There is nothing particularly holy about sheep until you stop and consider that the Shepherd is also the Lamb. And that the Lamb surrendered his life so that we as his sheep, his flock might live. We follow the Lamb through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and we recognize his power to feed us, to clam us and to and protect us. We know that he has the kind of grace and mercy that will pursue us right into the House of God. That is the kind of sheep, the kind of shepherd he is.

As sheep, as people who are living the risen life, we can live in ways that take us beyond the limits of just life because we know the powerful grace of a willing Saviour and the love an eternal Father. Eternity is not just what happens at the end of life. It is happening right here in the middle of life, just as God has intended. Heaven is no reward for being a nice or even a good, law abiding person. Life with God is not an extension of this life. This life and this world have been overcome by Christ through his death and resurrection. This means that the old has going and the new is coming. And in all this, God binds them together, guiding us into the new life in the new creation. God still lives, still works, continues to transform and to reign in the lives of his people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. People like you, like me. We are made God’s people, God’s flock through the Spirit of Christ who is leading us on the way to home pastures. So, may you find yourself whistling, humming or sing, I just want to be a sheep and discover that you are a saint too!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The humble path

Bishop Fulton Sheen once said, “I am certain that there will be three surprises in heaven. First of all, I will see some people there whom I never expected to see. Second, there will be a number whom I expect to be there who will not be there. And, even relying on His mercy, the biggest surprise of all may be that I will be there.” I find that as our generation ages, we start to concern ourselves with things beyond this life. I have people ask me what I think will happen after death. I have people ask me how long I think this world will last. I have people ask me what I think the lives of our children and grandchildren will be like. And I have people ask me if there will be a church in the future.

Yes, I believe that there will be life after the life after death. That is to say that I believe that there will be a resurrection and that following the resurrection the will be judgment. And after the judgment, there will be a new life in the new heaven and the new earth. I believe that this is made possible by the life of Jesus Christ who came down to us, bled, suffered and died for us, and now lives to sustain us into the new life. Like Bishop Sheen I will be surprised at not only who is there in the new heaven and the new earth but I will be more surprised at who is not. And I will be most surprised, that through the tender mercy of God, I might find myself there too. But how do I get there? Will I get there by being a good parish priest and pastor? Will being a good husband and father make possible for me to enjoy the new life? I believe that the new life is offered to me through Christ because of what Christ has done for me. It is not about who I am, what I have done or if I am worthy. All that God asks of me is that I live into all that he offers. So how does one do that?

At the risk of making a “to-do” list or worse a “ta-da” list (you know… the kind of list that allows you to try wowing someone by telling them how great you are list), the path seems to begin with not just being a religious person. It seems to begin with being a humble person. Is it possible that the truly religious person is a humble person? There is no doubt that a humble person is thankful to God because they acknowledge before God who they really are: a mortified sinner and a beloved child. The humble person will acknowledge freely that they have received the grace and mercy of God when they could have been overwhelmed by whatever circumstances they found themselves in.  In short, the person who wants to live with God will aim at living towards God every single day.

The clarion call of the gospel is not to be religious by yourself. We are called by God through the Gospel into the community of the Son to live out all of life in the midst of that community so that we might learn the humility that will be needed in the new life of the new creation. If we aren’t willing to live such a life out now, to learn the humbleness we need before God now, why would we be satisfied to do it later? Does this not tell us something about what God expects of us and about our own nature as human beings? Like the Pharisee, we cannot depend on being religious or spiritual and think that this makes God happy. And at the same time, we need to do more that simply stand back, thump our chests and cry out mea culpa, mea culpa (my fault, my fault). This is as true for us as community as it is for us as individuals.

We need to consider that God does not just judge the clothes, the lips or even the words of our prayers. God looks past all that and judges the heart. The Pharisee in the parable is absolutely right: he is not like other men. He is not only religious; he is in his own way, righteous. And yet it is the tax collector that goes way having found mercy and forgiveness. And if this has meant anything to him there is going to have to be room for change. Does this mean that he will go out and admit to everything he has done? We are not told that he did. But perhaps the life of this particular tax collector has been changed so that he will begin to change his ways and thus transform the lives of those around him. Perhaps in time he will make restitution to those he has harmed. Maybe he will work to make things better for those around him. Perhaps he will be more honest in what he does in the name of Rome. Only time will tell. What is certain is that the heart that is open to God at least has the possibility of new life in the new earth while the heart that is full of pride for itself only needs the sound of its own voice.

Perhaps this is a moment when we can stop and consider how we pray and what we pray as individuals and as a parish. How do we build ourselves up in prayer and how do we plead for mercy both for others and for ourselves. Then let us take the opportunity to go and find out what this means: “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”  If we can seek mercy and grace of God with some humbleness and humility, then new creation, new life and the life of the Church will be in better focus for all of us. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Life in the home office

Ah, life in the home office. Or at least that is how I think of the Parable of the Talents from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 25.14-30). The Boss is going away on a long trip to other places where he is needed and there is a need to keep things up here in the home office. So what will the troops be doing while the Boss is away? Well, in a real sense, it depends on who it is that we are talking about.  The Boss calls a staff meeting and has his people join him. To one, he gives the responsibility of five bags of gold. To another employee, the chief gives three bags of gold. To a third person, the Boss gives a single bag of gold. He encouraged them to work hard and to do well with what they were entrusted and then the Boss left on his trip.

When the Boss returned to the home office, he called another staff meeting and brought together his staff to see how things had gone in his absence. The first worker came and brought came and presented 10 bags of gold. The original five bags of gold where turned over along with five more that had been earned. The Boss was very please and invited the worker to come along to the great return party that he was throwing. The second member of staff came along and with his three bags gave back three more bags of gold. The Boss was very please indeed to see the bags of gold that had been earned while he had been away. This second worker was also invited to come and join the party to celebrate the Boss’s return.

Then came the employee who had the one bag of gold. He had been afraid to use it, to do anything with it and so he kept it safely hidden and tucked away and put that single bag of gold back in front of the Boss. The Boss rose in a great rage and said to this employee, “You wicked and lazy worker. You knew did you that I was a hard person to work for? You knew did you that I expected more of you that simply to hide my money away? Even if you had put it in the bank it would have gained a little interest! Get out of my sight. You are fired!” And with the press of the button in came two burly men who took the lazy worker and flung him out in the street and into the night. The unemployed worker found and lamp post sat down beneath it and began to cry his eyes out.     

Now let us remember that Jesus told this parable to show what is going to happen to the person who tries to live his or her life in a sort of religious paralysis. Jesus chided those who wanted to bury what God had given them so that when the time came, they could hand it back to God in the pristine condition in which they received it, leaving it unused.  We need to in the Church stop and realize that we too can be guilty of such a thing. We think that our non participation in the life of the Church is okay and acceptable. Or we look at someone else and think I can participate because I am not like him or her. I could do such a thing so I won’t do anything. I am not good enough. I am not smart enough. I am not bold enough. We look for an easy way out and a reason not to act putting ourselves and thus the Church into a kind of spiritual paralysis.

This parable pointes out at least two important things to the Church. First it reminds us that all of us have gifts and talents that we can offer. And we are also reminded of where these gifts have come from – God almighty. God has gifted all of us that we might work together for the building up of the Church and to enable the coming of his kingdom here on earth. When some of the members of the Church don’t offer what they have to give or absent themselves from participating in the work and from the fellowship, it diminishes the work and life of the Church.

Second, the Church needs to remember that it is trusted by God to come and to fulfill the calling to which it is being drawn. Isn’t that amazing? We often think that we have to learn to trust God and we do. If we go even deeper than that, we are trusted by God to move, live and to be his people, his Church in the world. God trusts us. Such trust should engender the courage to act and to use what we have been given, so that we can extend the kingdom of God in this place. Not everyone is gifted with the same amounts or types of gifts, talents and abilities. Where we are equal is in the effort we can put forth in using those gifts that we have been given and use what we have to the advantage of God and of others. If we are afraid of being judged, does it not make more sense to work and to live faithfully, even if it means making mistakes and taking the risk that we might lose it all? Isn’t that the mistake the fired employee made? Moreover, isn’t true that the reward of ask well done is another task to do? This is not the time for the Church to rest and relax – this is the time to serve! The one who is punished is the one who refuses to serve. If you refuse to do it you cannot lose it. You will not risk it. You will not do anything with it. And everything that God gives is meant to be used to benefit others and to build up the kingdom. Whatever you have, whatever it is that you possess, be prepared and willing to offer it.

Or maybe you will end up like a young man who was courting a young lady. As they stood in front her parents’ front door and under the light of the door way the young man asked if he could kiss the woman. She beamed brightly and batted her eyes at her young beau. Uncertain of what to do exactly, the young man cautiously asked again if he could kiss her. And a second time, she smiled, hoping that he would lean forward. But he didn’t. And when he asked the third time because he had not sensed a response if he could kiss her,  she responded, “ I don’t know. Are you paralyzed?”

That’s life in the home office!     

Monday, October 18, 2010

Where prayer is focused, power falls

I was once taught that where prayer is focused, power falls. I believe that! I wish I could recount the number of times that I have seen prayers answered both in my life in the lives of people around me. Sometimes it is a little prayer that gets uttered in total desperation that eventually turns out to be a much bigger thing later on. And sometimes we think the world is about to cave in and then discover it was not as bad as we thought it was at first.

But what does this phrase mean exactly? Where prayer is focused, power falls. Well first of all we need to operate as Christian people who have their eyes wide open. We need to really see what’s going on. Oh it is easy to pray what I would call the King James type prayers; the kind that every one speaks of when things are going well and we are thankful for what we have and what we’ve got. They usually we praise God with something like “well, bless God!” Or something like we “just” praise and thank you God because … what do we pray when things are not going our way? More importantly are we going to keep praying for what is necessary and requisite for the body as well as the soul when things get rough. Are we going to pray to remain and be faithful or are we going to pray for Christ to come and bail us out of all this mess? Neither of these is wrong. We should in fact move to pray both for the strength to stand (because we would be calling on God’s strength and not our own) and for the Kingdom to come because it is the Father’s world and Christ’s kingdom that is coming to this world. It is not either – or. It both – and kind of deal.

For me, the parable of the persistent widow is about two things – what are we focused on and how ready is God to respond to our prayers. In the parable the widow wants justice and mercy for her situation. She pursues what she wants doggedly, even to the point where a judge who does not fear God and does not respect any other person, is willing to give this woman what she wants. He will give it to her just because he begins to be fearful about what others might think of him because of what she is saying to him and about him to others. He does don’t want or need a black eye on his reputation as a adjudicator or as a man. The woman’s persistence will do just that.

Are we willing to persist in prayer as this woman has pursued justice for herself? Are we willing to go after what we believe we need and keep asking and keep driving towards that goal until we have an answer? Let’s us not forget that answers to prayer are not always immediate. God will answer our prayers in his way and in his time. It’s not like a 3 minute egg or instant oatmeal. Some answers to some prayers take time to be answered and require us to persevere and pray. Not only that, prayer requires not only a response from God, it affects us. It should cause us to be opening the call to be an answer to some of the prayers that are made.       

And let’s not forget the work of the Holy Spirit in the midst of all this – that the Spirit opens windows and closes doors. We as Christian people need to be ready to climb in, not just to walk through the door. By having a heart that is open to the move of the Spirit we can be use of God to be in those places and spaces where we are needed so that we can be an answer to somebody’s prayer. And maybe its our own.

Most of all, let us remind each other of how good God is and how ready God is to answer prayer – the opposite of the unjust judge. God waits for us to pray so that he can respond and so that he can move us to be in those places and spaces he needs us to be as his Church so that we can know him and be a blessing to others who are in need. Never forget: where prayer is focused, power falls.  

Taking time to give thanks

What does it mean for us to be thankful? I have had to stop and ask myself that question. What does it mean to be thankful? And that’s when something that was taught to me many years ago came back to me: a thankful heart sings. If there isn’t some song in your heart, then you need to find out why. When you find out then it is necessary not only to deal with whatever has stopped the music, but we need to start a song again. I find most of the time, that it is fear that steals the song from a person’s heart.  The cause of the fear will differ from person to person. But fear is most often the root cause of the loss of song.

May be it will surprise you that Thanksgiving Day is very much a Newfoundland and Canadian tradition. Much is often made of how the Puritans celebrated their first thanksgiving at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621 and how they brought that north to Halifax when the British took over Nova Scotia from the French.  The earliest account of a North American thanksgiving feast, giving thanks for safe passage across the Atlantic was held in Newfoundland by explorer Martin Frobisher in 1578. In Canada we used to celebrate Thanksgiving Day on November 6th. In 1957, Thanksgiving became a national holiday in Canada and is celebrated on the second Monday of October. Why is it important to have a day of National thanksgiving? Well in simple terms, we need to be reminded to be thankful. In a country where we have so much and have been so blessed we need to be reminded to be thankful. It is as if when we drink the water, we forget the glass. And unfortunately, there are times that we live our spiritual lives in the same manner. We forget how fortunate we are until something happens and we are jolted back to the reality that not everyone is as blessed as we are. We take the time to remind ourselves that God has given us the fruits of the earth to use and we have eaten and drank and had our fill.  And because we have been filled we want to return to the source of that blessing to be filled again and again.

So what does it mean when we have had our fill and we still go looking for Jesus – it means that we might just be looking for something a little deeper than another slice of bread or piece of fish – as good and as tempting as those might be. Seeking out Christ when we have had our fill means that we want to seek out the source of our blessing and to continue to be blessed; that we would continue to eat and to live.  So take an opportunity to give thanks, not only for what you have been given, but also for the fact that God desires to continue to bless you and that you have the opportunity now to go and be a blessing in Jesus’ name. 

A lesson in Christian Stewardship

If we stick to the understanding that we need to consider what the parables say about God, what does the parable of the shrewd manager tell us about God? William Barclay tells us that there are at least four lessons in this parable that we as Christian people need to learn to function in this world and prepared for the next. What are these lessons?

First we need to recognize that the children of this world are better at living in this world and this society than are the children of the light. They know how to live in it and to maximize the benefits of being here in the moment. It is what they live for. The children of the light are not as adept at looking after themselves as are the children of this age. But then the goals of the children of light are different from those of this age. Which begs a question – how are you planning? Are you planning for the next 20 years or for the next 20 light years? There is a difference in what you will be ready for depending on your plan.

Second, are you prepared to use what you have as possessions to build relationships with others, including God? There some who don’t like the clergy to talk about money and possessions from the pulpit but not to do so is to ignore a large portion of the Gospels and the teaching of Jesus. It is possible to use materials to build relationships. Just the other night my son and some friends were playing a youth group game. The group was split into two teams and each team was given a tooth pick to trade for something else that could be given and did not needed back. As a result one team traded up from a tooth pick to a large comforter from the tooth pick while the other team managed to trade up to an old love seat. It is amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it.  And that is the whole point. We need to be wise in the ways in which we act so that we can actively and intelligently extend the ministry of the Church and the reach of the kingdom.

Third, anyone that that does small things and tasks well, can be trusted to do big things well. And let’s understand that the goal here is not to find people with skills alone. The goal is to find people who can act and walk humbly and with integrity. Skills and be learned and they can be gifted from God. Yet there is a reality that the most gifted people in the world, without integrity and a bit of humility and other things that engender trust, are some of the haughtiest people the world has known. People can see and know the nature of other people. We must be careful to consider the nature of the person when dealing with them – wise to know where they are coming from and where they could be headed. And we can bring material wealth and goods to bear on situations that would help promote relationships, not only with each other but also and more importantly with God.

Fourth, we need to know where our focus is and get our heads “in the game”. We need to decide who it is that we are serving and then focus on our master to the exclusion of others. This kind of focus changes what we do from duty and transforms it into worship. What we do and what we say becomes worship because it is offered to and on behalf of who or what our focus is and what we have assigned worth to. How you give and share your time, your talents and gifts, your treasure and material possessions, your little piece of creation and your tears and compassion matter. They are all gifts from God and we need to be wise in how we use them.      

How does this relate to God and what we might learn about living a godly life? Greg Rickel tells a story about a man who collects pearls. One day he was walking on a town street and spotted in a store window the most beautiful, the grandest and largest pearl his eyes had ever seen. He knew that he had to have it. So he enters in though the store and an old man comes out from behind a curtain and the back room. The collector addresses the store keeper, “That pearl. I want it. How much is it?” the storekeeper answers, “What do you have? How much do you got? ” the collector said excitedly, “well I have three hundred dollars in my wallet!” 

“Great,” said the storekeeper, “I’ll take that. What else have you got?”

“I have my sports car outside – 1966 Corvette. A real classic.”

“Good, I’ll take that too.” said the ancient.  “What else have you got?”

“I have 30,000 dollars in investments and GICs” said the collector.

“Good, I’ll have that too. What else do you have?” by the time the deal was struck the collector had given everything away to the store owner. They man took the pearl and was about to walk out the door when the shop owner called out and said to the man, “ look I don’t need a family and a big house in St. John’s. I don’t need a fast car or investments. In fact come here I and I will give you back your three hundred dollars. I give them back to you but remember they are mine. Take them and care for my family and use my wealth and possessions wisely. Care for them for me won’t you?”

The man left the store with everything he had before he entered the store and now he had a pearl of great price. But there was a difference. None of it was his now to own. He went in with everything and come out with nothing. Everything he had was now a gift. That is how we ought to live. That is Christian stewardship.      

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Release your faith

There is an interesting little story from The Presbyterian Church of Fremont NE. newsletter, “The Bell”. On May 24, 2007, this story was found in its pages:
A popular television show from the past featured the husband and wife team of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Gracie was always causing George grief through her confusion over the simplest things. On one of the programs, Gracie became upset because her new electric clock kept losing time. She called a repairman who immediately discovered the problem; the clock wasn’t plugged in. Gracie’s response was, “I know that. I didn’t want to waste electricity, so I only plug it in when I want to know what time it is.”

We need to discover what time it is. At least I suspect we need to learn what time it is and thus we need to learn to not only how to get plugged in, we need to stay there once we do. And we are not alone. We often look at people who are considered to be spiritual giants and think that we could never be like them; that we could never do what they do. We think that we cannot talk like them or be able to live the kind of life that a spiritual Goliath can. And somehow we think that because we cannot do that, that its okay to disconnect ourselves and not try.

The Twelve must have been horrified by what they had heard from Jesus. They must have wondered what they had gotten themselves into. They didn’t believe that they could live the kind of life he was calling them to. Jesus calls on those who follow him to live their lives in such a way that they do not cause others to stumble and sin in their faith and lives. Jesus was calling them to do things like making forgiveness a habit and not just the occasional thing, if one is willing. They perceived that they didn’t have the resources or the strength of will to live that kind of life. And so they asked for greater faith to live out what they were being asked to live out. What came next must have been a shock.

Jesus then tells them that they already have within them that which they need to live up to what they have been called to. Jesus tells them that if they have faith the size of a mustard seed – the size of a grain of sand – they could go and take trees and plant them in the salt water of the ocean and the trees would grow and flourish. Now we know that trees of any kind are not going to grow in salt water… or can they? Maybe we need to stop and consider that faith isn’t so much about what you have, as it is that you have the opportunity to do something with what you’ve got.   And as we move to do things we need to keep in mind that we are called to do our thing not a great thing. We as Christians are not called to do the great thing of faith. Greatness belongs to God and God alone. No, we are called to do our thing, the common thing. We are called to do the common thing with unbounded joy and unending enthusiasm so that others can see our joy and enthusiasm and be drawn at least to what we are doing if not to us. And from there we can share what we have with them – whatever that might be. Food. Joy. Shelter. Compassion. And yes in the right time, we can share what moves us to share with them and share our faith too.

It’s not that we as a church or even as individuals need more faith to do what needs to be done but rather that we need to have what is within us released. Faith only has power when it is backed by someone powerful. A $1,000 bill is printed on a piece of paper that costs a single penny. It has the power of a $1,000 bill because it is backed by the federal government who guarantees that the bill is worth more than the paper it is printed on. Faith works in much the same way. It is worth something because it is within us. And at the same time the power of faith comes from God because God guarantees the gift he has placed within each of us. God backs the faith he has put in us. The power of faith comes from an ongoing connection that allows us to be empowered and to, in effect, know what time it is.

So as we wait for the Master, what should we be doing with this little bit of faith we have discovered inside of us? We need to do at least two things. First we need to wait patiently and be filled with hope. We do not need not to consume ourselves with what we have or don’t have in terms of faith (and other spiritual gifts). We need to live the faith that is within us. In doing so, we can show others the joy that they need in their lives to drive out the fear they know in their own.  We can show them a God in whom they can delight and who takes great delight in them.

Second we need to believe and to trust that God has a vision got the future that includes us. We need to trust that in time God’s plan and vision will find their fulfillment. We need to remember that being faithful means that we choose be joyful even when everything is taken away: when the crops are gone, when the animals have died and the barn is burnt to the ground, when the very ground is washed out from under your own feet you still choose to rejoice. You choose to fan in to flame again that gift that is within you and to release your faith, plug into your relationship with God and live.   

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How rich are you?

I recently found a website called "," where we can enter our salary and find out where we fall on a global list of the richest people in the world. I entered a few numbers and found that any salary over $33,700 puts us in the top 5% of the world's population, and a salary over $47,500 puts us in the top 1% of the richest people in the world. Many of us fall there. How does it feel to suddenly be thrown into a grouping with the Forbes list of the richest people?

And from a spiritual point of view, what should we do with the wealth that we have and have accumulated? What should we use it for? Who should it benefit?  And in asking these kinds of questions we need to keep in mind that the story of Lazarus and the rich man is spoken to those who consider themselves in positions of power and blessing because they are good people – and this includes the disciples and the Twelve. We are not told that the rich man was dishonest in the building up of his wealth nor are we told that Lazarus is particularly pious as he lays there at the gate, unable to fend off the dogs who are licking him.  Is it possible that maybe the rich man was good and Lazarus was once the rich man’s servant and that is what puts him at the gate – outside of the fellowship he once enjoyed? We are not told who these men where or how they got to be where they are now. But we are warned about the kinds of choices that we make and what we do with what we have been entrusted with in terms of material possessions. And why are we warned? Because possessions or thinking that we have possessions can be a dangerous thing. Having possessions affects our “I” sight. We will suddenly become very myopic when we believe that our possessions (and therefore our identity and our security) are threatened. We lose sight of everything else and focus in on what we believe is ours. And in being so focused on our selves we find ourselves insulted and isolated from the needs of other people.

So what gets you to pay attention to the neighbour? Is it the noise of a party last night in the backyard? Is it when he drives his truck across your lawn? Is it when she is in the driveway struggling to carry in groceries?  Is it when she is aged and left all alone with no one to “look out” to her? This story is not about having the right theology and the rules so that you don’t have to endure hell. This story is about being careful to not be unaware of the people around you, not allowing anything to come between you and your neighbour so that you become unresponsive to them and therefore to God.  Let us remember that there is a gate between the rich man and the outside world beyond those gates that includes many Lazaruses and Miriams. The guard dogs could see the languishing state of Lazarus and they did what they could: they licked him. And believe it or not the salvia from a dog’s mouth has curative properties. This story is about what happens to people who choose to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to other people’s needs and struggles. We cannot claim that we did not know either. There is lots of instruction in the Scriptures about how to handle such things. Moses and the prophets include numerous provisions for decent treatment of the poor and vulnerable:  
·         Jews are not to mistreat aliens, widows, or orphans (Ex. 22:21-22; 23:9; Lev. 19:33; Deut. 24:17-18).  
·         They are to leave gleanings to the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22).
·          They are to bring tithes to support Levites, aliens, the fatherless, and widows (Deut. 14:28-29; 26:12-15).
·         They are to cancel all debts every seventh year and to be openhanded to the needy (Deut. 15:1-11).  
·         They are to include aliens, the fatherless and widows in their celebrations (Deut. 16:9-15).  
·         They are to observe justice (Isaiah 5:7-10; Micah 3:1-3).
·          They are not to exploit workers (Isaiah 58:3).
·          They are to plead the case of the fatherless and to defend the rights of the poor (Jer. 5:25 -29).
·         They are warned about using dishonest scales (Hosea 12:7-9) and taking advantage of the vulnerable (Amos 2:6-8; Malachi 3:5).

So what do we do then? How do we begin to work this all out? We as the Church need to be a sign of hope – buying a plot of land when there is no earthly reason to expect there to be a return. As a community of faith and as individuals we must be aware that God is faithful in the present and God is going to be faithful in the future too. God is going to be there on the other side of judgment and so we are called to Trust in God in the moment. Moreover we need to be familiar with the reality that being a sign of hope is costly. It is costly and the patience to wait for what is to come is demanding. And in coming closer to the new life and the kingdom that God offers is hard because we have to go through judgment so that we can be tried and found justified in Christ. Faith and trust are not the same as surety and security. We have to take risks and to be willing to live and to die when necessary that we might rise again in Christ. We need to live not only the life, we need to live his death and resurrection too.

The first step is to open the gates to our lives and to let people in who really need us. And then we need to go through those same gates  and invite them to table with us that they too can enjoy all the blessings of this life and God’s inestimable love.  How rich will we all be then?