Friday, February 26, 2010

Interrupting dinner

I remember sitting one cold January morning having a nice cup of tea with Auntie Anne. She love to laugh and tell stories. This particular morning, I thought I would make her laugh by telling her of the previous night’s adventure. You see that particular Rectory was heated by wood. I would have to say up until midnight so that I could load the stove up and not have to rise again until six o’clock to fill the wood stove again. But to prevent having to go outside at an early hour, There was a box in the office that I would fill with firewood so that I would not have to go outside in cold weather (minus 40°C to minus 45°C) . Over the day the weather had warmed up (to a balmy minus 3!) and so in my bare feet at midnight, I went out for my wood. As I was picking up my second arm load of wood, I came nose to wet nose with a silver-tailed fox. Carefully and purposefully I moved to back away from the animal, dropping my load of wood inside the door and closing it. Grabbing the broom I used to sweep the wood chips off the deck, I gave it a swing and yelled at the fox, “Go on, and get outta here!” I proceeded to chase that fox up and down the length of the bridge (porch) for the next several minutes, swinging my broom and telling the fox in no uncertain terms that he was not welcome. At the end of my rope, not sure what to do I took an extra hard swing, missing the fox but not the pillar that was between us. And having between so cold for more than a week and then suddenly warming up the plastic broom exploded like a gunshot into tiny pieces all over the neatly stacked wood. The fox darted off into the darkness. Anne roared with laughter, “You interrupted uncle’s dinner!” I was silent for a moment and then asked, “I interrupted the fox’s dinner?” “Yes! You interrupted him chasing the rat under your feet which was to be his dinner!”  

Over the years I have reflected on that discovery. You see the rats in that part of the world are mean and furry and have much fouler tempers than their southern cousins. I could have easily been bitten by a foe I had not seen. I had not anticipated or contemplated what might have been.  Anticipation and contemplation of the future seem to be big topics of discussion in the Church today. We like to think that God is in charge of the future, especially eternity, while we are in control of this moment; this present situation. The reality is that we are not in charge. We aren’t even completely aware of the whole situation! We believe we are because we see the fox and we have the broom in hand. But we aren’t aware of even the possibility that there is a wider picture and that there is a greater danger right at our exposed feet in the form of a rat.

Jesus was concerned for the City. After all what can one say about a group of human beings that think God is dead and Elvis is still alive. The people of the City have not come to realize yet that despite knowing who they are, they have forgotten whose they are. God has sought them out in the person of his Son to renew relationship and covenant with them.  They haven’t realized that they are back in the time of “Ichabod” (1 Samuel 4: 12-22). They have not noticed that the glory of the Lord has departed. God isn’t here anymore and that what they have now is empty.

We need to remember not only who we are but also whose we are. Religion must be by its very nature something more than a bunch of rules and actions that people agree to. There needs to be a relationship between people. “GO tell that fox” is a sign from the shepherd that he will not be dissuaded from caring for the sheep. People try to move Jesus by throwing a potential scare into him – you’re going to die… be afraid, very afraid, Jesus. Only problem is he already knows that the City and that hill loom large in his future. Jesus is aware of the bigger picture. He can see beyond all that to the resurrection and what lies beyond that.  Maybe it is foolish to thumb your nose at someone as powerful as Herod Antipas but it is vital and important that the ministry to which Jesus gave himself and the ministry to which he calls you and I goes on, unabated.

What this world needs is not a Church that is relevant. The Church can look and sound good to the world and will still fail. The world and its various figures from Tiger Woods to Mr. Toyoda to the latest politician caught in scandal will claim that they are sorry but who is going to offer mercy? Who is going to offer grace and hope? We must remember that the cross of Christ was firmly rooted in this earth so that the earth in us could be redeemed and shown mercy. We are what is wrong with this earth. And we need to decide as Church whether we desire to conform to this world and accept expediency or will we turn and accept that there needs to be a transformation of the Church that will put us in conflict with the ideals of our society because we are being led to serve and to know God by the Spirit.    

Whose desires will prevail, God’s or ours? The threat does not come from individuals but from the City. As Simeon noted when he saw Jesus, he said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35). Jesus followed the path he chose to show us the deep love he has for us even in the face of threats of violence and death.

Where does this leave us as Church in the Lenten season? Do we worry about the future? Do we try to be relevant to the world around us? The Church is not here so much to be “relevant” as to be proclaimers of the good news that Jesus is Lord. We need to boldly speak his name and gently live his life in us. The church is not to shrink back in fear because threats are made to its structures, its budgets or even its personnel.  As church we are called to live out our lives with courage which means that we show up, we listen; we tell the truth (that Jesus is Lord) from our hearts and we let go of the outcome and the future. Such things don’t belong to us any way. And we hold on to Christ through our faith because we are with him in this moment to be guided along the path that we must take in order to follow him. After all we are headed to the table and the feast, are we not? Let us take heart and courage and boldly speak and gently live being aware of who and what is around us this week.     

Friday, February 19, 2010

What kind of Church shall we be?

What kind of Church will we be? I am thankful that we have come through another year (2009) and that all of the annual meetings are completed. We are ready to go again. And so the question needs to be asked – what kind of Church will we be this year? In order to answer that question, we need to figure out where we are. The bad news, if you wish to think that as bad news, about our location is that we are out in the wilderness. We are beyond the usual paths and we are out in places where people don’t normally go. The good news is that we are with Jesus. We begin the observance of Lent in a lonely place and what we have with us is Jesus. Is that a bad place to be – I don’t think so. It might be a hard place to be but not a bad one. The wilderness is a place of testing or tempting. And Jesus is the one who needs to take the test. He is not taking to see whether he passes or fails but to discover what kind of Jesus he is going to be. Temptations are test to see what we know and who we are going to turn to when the going gets harder. And test doesn’t test what we don’t know or where we are weak. No, most often we are not tested where we are weak but where we are strong.

That’s why the devil doesn’t ask Jesus to go way out on a limb – that will come later. The old devil tests Jesus to see whom he will serve: others or himself. The devil recognizes Jesus for who he is and he is tempted to do something that is easily within his power to do – turning stones into bread. After all the one Jesus is looking at, looks like what he wants; a loaf of bread. It would be simple enough to think it or to snap his fingers and make it happen in his own strength to satisfy himself and his own needs. But he rejects that, choosing instead to depend on God to feed him and care for him.

Then the devil wants to know if Jesus will try and be impressive for the people, using the tricks he has up his sleeve. Will his ministry be shallow, giving the people what they want instead of offering them something that they really need? After all who wouldn’t be impressed by someone who survives a tumble like that? Will Jesus choose to be popular with the people and not so worry about what the Father asks of him? Jesus rejects the idea of testing the father and his love for him in that manner. He knows that the Father loves him and will defend him. Without that trust then the cross might not be possible. After all, isn’t the decent into the grave the great leap and fall of all?

Will Jesus bow to someone else other than the Father and the Father’s will? Would he prefer to put someone else in the place of his Father? Would he do that, knowing the place that the Father has in his heart and the place he has in the heart of his Father? What is the world worth to him? Wouldn’t it be easier, simpler just to transfer one’s allegiances and avoid the pain and suffering? It would be easier and simpler but not better and certainly not righteous of Jesus. And so Jesus rejects the devil again. Easy might draw people but it will not help them to stick and to stay. Cheap grace makes for weak Christians and that is not what Jesus is here for.

Temptation doesn’t raise just choices. Temptation raises questions. That’s why the Word and prayer are so important. How do you know what God wants of you and of us, if you and we together don’t ask him? And so the question comes to us: what kind of Church will we be? Will we take the risks to be like Jesus: serving ourselves before serving others; will we operate in a shallow manner so as to be popular; will we try to test the limits of God’s love and forgiveness that divine grace and mercy may more abound; will we allow others to replace the Father in our hearts or forget that we are beloved of our heavenly Father? We have to choose. It is time to decide. Tempted? Then, let us pray.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Changes for Lent?

Maybe you have noticed that there is a change since Sunday. After all it is only Wednesday and here you are back in the church building again for another moment of liturgy. And this is a moment that is dramatic enough that it draws us here in the middle of the week.  So what has changed since we were on the mountain top with Jesus on Sunday? We make the turn towards the city of Jerusalem now and head to towards that little hill with a cross on it; forward to that grave and what will happen beyond it. There is a purpose in where Jesus wants to lead us.

And yet the lessons we have for the day are not dramatic. It is something that could be read and taught on at anytime of the year not just as we begin to move to the cross and the grave. What is there in this that we need to learn? Lent is a time to learn and that is where our observance of the Lenten season comes from. It was a time when those to be baptized at Easter began their final phase of preparation for the Paschal mystery. We still do and remind ourselves of these things. But why these lessons; why the Sermon on the Mount at the lead into the journey towards Easter.

The Gospel calls on the believer to three things: prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Prayer is, or at least should be, something that we find easy to do. In our quiet places, in our rooms and maybe in the closet we are fine to talk to God, just so long as it is just one on one. What about prayer when we are gathered? That is more risky. I am not talking about the prayers that are taken from the internet or the long laundry list of things that we ask. That too we should find easy. What about being quiet long enough to let people really pray? What about having a liturgy that allows space to have silence so that we can together pour out what is on our hearts to God? What about earnestly talking time to pray as a community for the community and for things in the world that we need to draw God into? Prayer is more than the muttering of a few simple lines written in a book – it is the attitude that we keep when we move from within those sacred walls of the church building and from those places and spaces where we feel close to the divine presence. We need to remember that we have come back down the mountain and we know who it is that we are following. We need to practice the presence of God amongst us and earnestly pray so that in turn God might use us as an answer to prayer because some of them might be our own.

We are called in Lent to fasting and there is the inevitable call to give something up for the season. I cannot help but wonder, if we can do without whatever it is that we give up for Lent then why do we take it back at Easter? Fasting should help us to retune and refocus our lives on God and help us to let go completely those things that take away from God and what God desires in us and for us. Fasting should allow us to renew our devotion to God and to one another. We find ways to give up things but put nothing there to replace the void that helps us to renew and enable the development of the relationships that are vital to us. What if we, instead of giving up chocolates and sweets for Lent we gave up gossip. What if we gave up desiring what someone else has in favour of helping someone who needs help with something in our lives. What if we choose to pray for someone we know needs the touch of the presence of God in their lives instead of worrying about how much time we spend on our electronic devices or how much hydro we use? What if we turn the forty days of lent into a journey into a joyous trek to the resurrection instead a drudging to duty to the cross? Wouldn’t that be a walk worth taking?
We are also called into almsgiving in Lent. Now begin a younger person and not know exactly what “alms” were, I decided to do some investigating. Giving “alms” means doing a material favour to assist someone in need because you are prompted by love (charity). It means that we render an offering to another human being in the name of Christ for the sake of serving Christ himself. IN order to do that we need to be near those are in trouble and in need, to come alongside people in their pain and suffering and know something about it and give real assistance to those who are in need of it. And in giving to them, we need to draw them closer to the mercy of God almighty. Making them aware that God is here and present in what you are trying to do. Our faith and our blessings that we have received from God demand that we share what we have been given. And this is not an unhappy duty that we must perform. It is a movement of love from God through God’s people into the world that God so very much loves.

The purpose of this season is to help ourselves through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, to come closer to living the cruciform life that every believer needs to live. The question isn’t about what you are going to give up but rather where do we need to be washed and cleaned?       

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Beloved and Chosen

There once was a boy who going out of Church one Sunday morning, said to his clergy at the door, “I am going to be a minister someday too!”  Beaming with pride, the clergy smiled and asked the young man, “What made you decide that? Was it the sermon this morning?” The prelate was disappointed to find out it was not the preaching. “So was it the worship and the music?” again the clergy was disappointed because the answer was still no. “What made you decide to become a minister then?” asked the stymied priest. “Oh, God spoke to me about it, “answered the boy.

Jesus is the beloved and the Chosen one – not just fickle emotion and not just any choice. Jesus came to us, to this earth to be the focus of a new exodus and a new community. He is not just some brilliant man who chooses to martyr himself for fame and a lost cause. Christ’s presence and ministry in this world are here to make a difference in the lives of the people God loves. In this lesson we learn that God is active in everything that Jesus is doing confirming his direction and choices affirming the path to the cross as Jesus have already told them.  From the little baby in the manger at Christmas through the early parts of his ministry we have learnt why he has come. We are reminded at this moment that his mission is not complete, especially being able to see the City of Jerusalem from afar and high up on a mountain. They are in the presence of God’s Son and what is about to happen to him is within God’s will for him and for us.   

Coming down the mountain, no one spoken of what had happened. Could it have been that Jesus commanded his three disciples not to speak, as Mark tells us? Perhaps. But I don’t believe that the rest of the 12 Apostles were kept in the dark. There is a moment just before Jesus turns and faces the journey to Jerusalem with determination. Why does he do that? After the experience of the mountain the disciples begin to argue amongst themselves as to who will be the greatest amongst them in the new kingdom. They too realize that the Son of God has chosen them to be with him as he makes this journey and shows the true nature of God to the world. But maybe the lesson from the mountain had not been learned

Why connect the mountain top with what happens down below? It is simple. The mission continues as it did before the experience of Peter boldly proclaiming Jesus as Messiah and Jesus through his transfiguration absolutely confirming his identity to his followers. So why the mountain top experience? It is a moment for others to gain clarity as to what will need to happen in the days after the crucifixion. We ought not lose sight of that very fact. Jesus is preparing his disciples for what happens after his is finished his work and theirs is to begin. It also should remind us that while we think that it is “business as usual” where the Church is concerned – in reality, we are with Christ and we need to be actively working at making his presence known and felt by the community around us. Truth and light need not only to be received, truth needs to be lived out and light needs to be lived in. This moment is to pull back the curtain giving us a glimpse of the light and to know the truth so that we can go and live it.   

We live in a time of the history of the world where we human beings do not know how to respond to the troubling and even catastrophic things around us. People have eyes to see evil and to understand that they are separated from God but not to see or to know God in this moment. There are many in the world that think there is no God or worse that God has abandon us and we are at the mercy of the powers of destruction, of death hell and the grave. The ministry of the Christ and that of his Church are to be about making people aware of how he is and why he has come, why he is here in the midst of us. Christ and his Church come to make manifest the presence and power, the mercy and the grace of God almighty that those who need it can find it.  And seeing people find these things they need ought to be encouragement to the Church to keep going with Christ as he makes the journey to the city. We are his beloved and we are called and chosen by him. We know where we are going, so let us go with Christ to that little hill outside the city and see what kind of Saviour we have and be ready outside the tomb for the light and the truth to come forth.     

Friday, February 5, 2010

When evil comes to call

In the cold light of last night’s disaster and the loss of our fire department and in the wake of the Haiti earthquake and what we have been striving to do in the face of human suffering near and far, I thought that it might be good to respond to some questions that have been brought to me around the question of where is God in the middle of disaster? Where is God when we are hurting and suffering?  I want to acknowledge that I have been reading a fair bit of Bishop NT Wright’s work lately and so I thank him for his thoughts as I try to work through what I am hearing in making some sort of response.

First of all, we like to think that we live in an inherently good world. In fact there may be some who will point out that God call creation not only good but very good when he was finished. What we fail to recognize often is that this creation not only humanity but all of creation has been affected by the fall and the entrance of sin into creation. It is no small matter that the Saviour needs to enter into our humanity and work redemption through the frailty of human flesh so that God can freely offer salvation to anyone who wishes it. The restoration of righteousness (of the relationship between God and humanity) comes with a price. There was a need to deal with the falling short on the part of humanity because we chose to depend on ourselves rather than to trust God to provide. We chose ourselves over having a relationship with God. In the process, the good that was in humanity and that of the rest of creation was marred. The image was still present but spoiled. And so in order to restore that image and that relationship, grace had to be given, mercy had to be shown and salvation has to be offered.

A word does need to be said about how we fell and the role of evil in that fall. Evil’s greatest strength is not in the manufacturing of evil, but in the subversion of what is best. What this means is that evil can do evil but it is more likely that evil would rather tempt humanity so that they choose good over the best. The serpent’s conversation with the woman shows us that we might have already been leaning towards wondering what it might be like to be more like God, wanting to be on our own. Evil showed us that this is possible that we could achieve things on our own and that we could in some manner be self sufficing. In doing so we have put ourselves and our own wills ahead of what God desires for us. And at the same time we have lost many of the qualities within the sustaining relationship with God that we so desire – health, long life blessings. Through Christ, God has made the way back to him possible. It should also be said that evil is not the opposite of God – God is above both good and evil. There is nothing equal to or with God. Not evil and not the devil.      

Second of all we like to think the world is getting better and better. This is a recent idea called “process theology”. We seem to believe that evils are solvable like an equation or some kind of scientific experiment and therefore can be handled by technology, education and the development of the rest of the world into the westernized ideal of democracy and capitalism. Everyone else has to be like us and that way everyone will be better off. We continue to ignore evil until it smacks us in the face and then we are surprised by its appearance. The reality is that we don’t know how to deal with the presence of evil in our communities or in our own personal lives. We thought it had been taken care of. So  when disaster strikes, like the earthquake in Haiti, genocide in Yugoslavia or Germany, a tidal wave in South East Asia, a teenage girl is murdered by a peer or a community loses its fire station to a fire we struggle with how to react.  North American society has been rocked in the last 10 years by so many things that reminds of how life is outside of our comfy, insulated cocoon.  

Third of all, spiritually the war is won, but life beyond the cross is a “mop up” operation. Bishop Wright would point out that we in those moments tend to react and lash out because we are hurt. We hit back without considering what the consequences would be and we move to fight wars without considering whether they are just, accuse people of selling themselves to the devil without being prepared to wage spiritual warfare on their behalf. Jesus offered himself on the cross as an offering for sin, “once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” Evil has been totally defeated. But like in any conflict there is “mop up” to be done. Evil still has the ability to tempt and to thwart as it always has, but it can no longer win. Evil can still hurt and destroy but it cannot overcome love nor corrupt the truth. People ask where is God in the midst of all this? God is here with us. He is with the parent who sits in the dust of what is left of a shanty home and cries over the loss of children. God is with the solider in the fields of Southern Afghanistan who lies broken and dying after being attacked with an IED. God is with the firefighter who can only stand back and watch as the station house he has spent so much time to build up as it goes up in flames and smoke. God is with those who recall a young life that was too shortly lived.

We are promised that someday heaven and earth will be brought together and the sea between them will be no more. There will be nothing of the former life and that every tear will be wiped away. We will come to that which we are promised in God, someday. In the meantime, let us make sure that we concentrate on God and on announcing that Jesus is Lord to this world that needs a Saviour so much and live as the message of hope that this world is so desperate to hear.