Friday, March 26, 2010

The Life of the Church

Many in the Church today are worried about losing the Church and complain that the Church is dying. As I move around the church I hear about a lot. And then I enter into something good that is going on and people cannot figure out why it is not growing and bigger because of what they have discovered. Most often there is a joy that has been revealed and those who find it cannot understand why others won’t enter into it. Such is the case of Jesus, serving his disciples and washing their feet. Why would hands that have flung stars into space and formed the mountains and divided night from day want to do something as menial as wash someone else’s feet? And why wait until you are around the table and after an excellent meal that the ACW has prepared to do this debasing task? It would seem that there are at least two reasons: (1) the temptations are just as great when you are at the Table with Jesus as they are when you are out in the middle of nowhere with the Devil and (2) when you know that you time is nearly down and life is coming to an end, whom will you serve?

Maundy Thursday is that last moment that Jesus has to teach his self seeking, “me first!” disciples what they are going to need to do in the days ahead. He looked forward to this meal and this moment that he might show all of them (the Twelve) how much he really cared about and loved them. The die was already cast; Judas was waiting for the opportunity to fulfill his plan. Knowing that everything was under his control now he chooses to show his love and teach them one last time. Getting up from a place of honour, Jesus takes of his outer clothes and puts on slave clothes and takes a position of a slave, going from one reclining disciple to the next, washing their feet. How would they have reacted? And the Twelve certainly did react! Was there laughter and teasing as Jesus went about his task? Where there uncomfortable glances with the silent query, “What on earth is he doing,” flashed around the table?

Then Jesus comes to Simon Peter who of course has to speak out, “Are you going to wash mine too, Lord?” It seems that Peter thought this task was beneath Jesus and beneath him as well. Peter was interested in saving some pride both him and for Jesus. So Peter refused to allow Jesus to do what he wanted, “No sir, not me, you will never wash my feet.” Then Jesus told Peter, “Unless I do, I will have to abandon my companionship with you.” Jesus wanted Peter to look beyond himself to see what this would mean for the future and the life that would need to be led. “O! Well then! Wash my head and my hands too!” Jesus points out that Peter doesn’t need that because he is already been bathed (baptized) so this is not that. And then Jesus washed Peter’s feet and when on to finish his task, get re dressed and return to his place of honour. You need to do these things for each other – there is no excuse. If I can do it for you and I am your Lord and Master then you need to do it for each other.

Such is the true nature of the new, Christian community. We are encouraged and expected to love one another as Christ loves us. And in doing so we make know Christ’s presence amongst us. I watch the churches (Anglican and others too) that do this and they are the churches that are vibrant and growing. These are the churches that are growing and doing ministry in the name and presence of him who is amongst us as One who serves. The Church who chooses to serve themselves instead of seek to serve Christ as he is encountered in others is a church that lives to itself. And the Church that lives for itself dies unto itself.

The Church is not unified because we all believe the same kinds of doctrines or because the walls are painted the right colours. The Church is united by a deep and abiding love in the Christ who enables them to serve and to live the risen life each of us needs to live. The Church is strengthened out of the uncommon love we have for the Saviour and are bound to each other because we serve the same Jesus. Out of this love comes what we believe and how we live with each other, knowing that Christ is present amongst us. The Church cannot serve Jesus until it has been served by Jesus. It needs to experience the love and devotion of its Master so that it can be anchored and enabled to stand. Otherwise it is lost and adrift on a wild and tempestuous sea. Are you tempted to live your own way and serve yourself? Or would you rather try to be more daring and live your life by giving in the service of the King for a day? You decide. Its getting late and it is getting dark outside. They are coming.   

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Getting your elbow off the Button

There is a story told about a young couple who are “dating” or “courting”. This was the second date and there was the expectation of the first kiss. The couple stood under the light of the front door and the young man leaned up against the wall. The young man asked the young lady if he could give her a good night kiss. The young lady was not so sure, telling her young man “Daddy might not like it.” After a couple moments he asked again if he could kiss her goodnight and she replied the same way, “Daddy won’t like it.” After a couple more moments of awkward silence a crackly voice came over the intercom. It was the young lady’s sister who counseled her sister in this way, “Oh for goodness sake give the boy a kiss! And Daddy told me to also tell you that if you don’t want to I can come down and do it for you. If necessary, Daddy will come down and do it for you. But please whatever you decide, get him to take his elbow off the intercom button!”  

Much happens in those moments of the upper room where Jesus gathers with his disciples. We have many labels for it including “the Lord’s Supper “and “the Last Supper”. And it got me to thinking about how we connect with those moments here in the present. It is particularly striking in that we as Christians come and gather around a table to hear the Word proclaimed and preached. We come to be filled so that we might be ready for service in the world. We come that we might be sent again to participate in the coming of the kingdom of our community.    We will do that around the tables of our various churches and congregations empowered by the thoughts of the risen Jesus and the new life that is offered in him. Maybe that is why I find it hard to realize what it is that John’s Gospel is trying to communicate to us through the experience of having to let Judas go way from the table to finally and unavoidably move things to the cross.

Judas had been given all kinds of chances to change his mind. He was one of the last to be picked and Jesus in choosing him knew what was in Judas’ heart. Judas was invited to become not only one of the inner circle, of the famed twelve who were the closest to Jesus, he was entrusted with the money and purse of the group. He was given this task in spite of the fact that he was known to be a thief and that he was talking money out of the purse for himself.  He was able to teach and to preach, to heal and do the things that the other members of the Twelve can do. He was even treated as an honoured guest by Jesus at the dinner that night, Jesus himself serving Judas “the sop”. It was all to no avail. Judas still chose to go his own way, to do what he thought was right in spite of the appeals to change his heart and his path. Seeing that he was bent on doing it, Jesus let Judas’ go to his errand.

Judas being who he was, he had the desire (as did the rest of the 12) to be strong and powerful in this world and in the government he thought Jesus was going to inaugurate. Jesus was not exactly co-operating. Jesus had put forth a vision of the kingdom but it was not supposed to be that way and so Judas was determined to make his vision happen. He was will to force the issue and Jesus to use some of the great power he had to make things happen the way in which he wanted them to. In announcing that he is about to be betrayed by one of those closest to him, Jesus forces Judas’ hand, forcing the choice as to which way he will go. Judas chooses himself. Jesus honours that – allows him to go and fulfill his murderous plan.

In the middle of all this is the rest of the Twelve and other disciples. They are only interested it would seem in who the traitor amongst them is and then there is, at least for the moment there is no further action or reaction. The fact that Jesus restrains Peter to keep him from killing the High Priest’s servant later in the garden continues to show that Jesus is in charge and will give up his life on his terms and in his way. Nevertheless, the strain on Jesus is now evident and he is sharing that with those around him.

And so Jesus gives them a new way to live. He commands them to love each other as he has loved them so that the rest of the world will know that they belong to Christ and can see and know that Christ lives amongst them. We are not just to love our neighbours as we love ourselves, we are to love them better than that, we are to love them without reserve as Christ as loved them rather than being like Judas who seek to fill his thirst and lust for position and power.

So where does this leave us? This whole experience of encountering this text reminds me of how we will gather around the Table on Sunday to celebrate with these questions still on my mind:
  •           Will we be like Judas and desire the glory and the power seeking it on our own to get if we think it is necessary? We might want the glory but will we deal with the mess the world is in?
  •            Will we be like the early Church, who needs to heed the call of the Master to love as Christ loves us?
  •     Will we desire to experience rebirth into the life of the new creation that God is bringing to fruition? There is one Door through which we will enter and one table at which we will receive the sop and be asked, “Do you love me? Will you serve me now and always? 
  •            Will you let Christ’s life and light be reflected in you and your life? Remember that as you go through the doors of this church this evening into the gathering gloom that you decide whether or not you will seek Christ and his kingdom or serve yourselves. You are invited to follow him, to serve him and to remain with him.
              Your elbow is on the button - its your move. 

A Moment of Praise

In recent years I have often wondered where Palm Sunday went. Growing up, the congregation would meet in the community hall next to the church building and our service would start there with music and palms and palm crosses we would follow the cross out on to the side walk and over to the church and then inside where we would consider the man would be King for a day: Jesus. There wasn’t any consideration of the Cross until Good Friday. Palm Sunday was all about the parade and the King for a day.   It was about being glad to see the glory and majesty of the one called the King, even if it was only for a moment.

I don’t know of too many who don’t get excited about parades. Everybody likes a good parade it would seem. Luke’s gospel devotes 10 chapters to one the longest parades I know of – the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. And it is only when they get really close to the city – passing the garden where the time of prayer and the arrest take place that people get swept up in the emotion and really celebrate what they think is going to be their salvation. We think we see and know but we have not yet understood that God is doing a new thing, then and now. We haven’t seen anything yet! Nevertheless, it is through the seemingly small and insignificant events of our time and history that God is working to bring about the new creation and the establishment of his kingdom. Our inability to see God at work does not mean that God’s isn’t at work or that he is defeated by our lack of foresight (and perhaps insight). There will be a parade, a procession of a small, unremarkable seed, brought to a hill to die and then to be planted in a hole in the earth so that it might grow again – and this time, imperishable.   

And what kind of kingdom will it be anyway? It will be a kingdom where there is compassion and companionship; a kingdom where those who serve will rule and have power; a kingdom where healing and redemption are offered. Most importantly, it will be a kingdom that comes in God’s own way and God’s own time. It will not be rushed. So we, as servants of the King, need to work at recognizing the ways in which God is working in the world to bring about his new creation so that we can participate with him. God has marked his time with us in the person of his Son. Time is not a predator, ready to shred and devour us. Time is a companion that reminds us of the importance of seeking God out and serving him where we find him. So we ought not to fight to escape this world but rather work to draw others into the new creation where God’s will is done on earth and in heaven.

There was a time when all this was kept a secret and the King told his friends not to tell others who he was. That was then and this is now. Now is the time and today is the day to proclaim Jesus is King. And if we will not then all of creation, even the very rocks that are under our feet will call out and proclaim God’s glory. Or as I like to think of it, I have a friend who has a large stone by the front doorway of his house and on the rock is painted this inscription, “If you won’t, I will”. Take a moment this week and thank God for all he has done and whistle a little tune of praise so that you can join in the song of creation. If birds can sing and brooks can babble can’t you offer God a moment of praise? 

Friday, March 19, 2010

What's that I smell?

There once was a priest, a very pious and devout man, who regularly asked God in prayer to be shown what heaven and hell were like. God eventually granted his request and he was in a dream led to an unmarked door which bore no name. As he stood there trembling, the door swung open and he could see a large room with a table set for a great feast. The aromas and smells of the food filled the room and made the mouth water. Diners sat around the table with spoons in their hands and yet they were unable to eat. These people were miserable, gaunt with hunger and worked very hard at feeding themselves but were unable to. They despaired and cursed God for the spoons were too long for the self feeders to be allowed to eat. They could not reach their own mouths.  So these self feeders starve while the great feast lay in front of them on the table. Then the door closed before the priest eyes.

Next, the devout prelate found himself in front of another nameless door. He began to be in pain and despair as the memory of the first room lingered with him – he did not think he could endure another such experience. As the door to the second room open he saw the same room with the same table and the same great feast with the tantalizing aromas wafted around the room. The people gathered had the same dreadfully long spoons and yet there was great joy and laughter that filled the air. There were no cries of anguish, no curses uttered in despair. These people were feed each other, reaching each other’s mouths with the food on the table. And their joy was overflowing.

The anointing of Jesus at the table with his friends is an important moment in the telling of the story of Jesus. Mary has been at the feet of Jesus before, when he was in the house and was telling those closest to him. It is a profound moment for both he who is being anointed and she who is doing the anointing. Mary’s gentle act of devotion fills the whole house with the fragrance of what she is doing. Perhaps, even if it is only for a moment, she gives without hesitation or reservation to do what a practical person would call foolish or wasteful. Mary does what we are supposed to do as individuals and as Christian community, be not only devoted but give love and help when it is needed. Was Mary aware of what was just ahead now, the cross and the grave? No one knows or can tell. All she knows for certain is that this is a moment that she has been waiting some time for.

It hasn’t been all that long since the where worry when Jesus gave the order to remove the stone from her brother’s tomb. They did not want to deal with the stench of death. And yet here sits her brother Lazarus, laughing joking and eating. Mary needed a way to say thank you. Mary needed away to express her gratitude and show her devotion to the Master. She went and found a very expensive jar or spikenard oil and used it. Something that must have been very important to her, maybe to have been used to bath in prior to her wedding day or maybe it was purchased to embalm her brother with when he died. Whatever the case it was something that had cost her a great deal and now she lavishly shares it with Jesus. She devotes herself right down to the last lock of hair on her head.

How does it feel to watch someone perform an act of devotion? Embarrassed? Restless? Listless? Awkward? Into this act of love and devotion comes Judas, someone who seemingly only cares for himself and will look out for only number one. Was it that he was really after a portion of the money that could have been wrought from the sale of this precious item or was it that he saw something in Mary that he lacked in his own life and walk with Christ? He wanted position and power and all that comes with it. And that might have made him a good contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice” but it could suspected that he is still going to get fired because he can only think of himself.

Mary helps Jesus to bring about the sweet smell of sacrifice. She is not anointing to be a king or a prophet. She was helping help to be ready for the grave: for the moment when he would surrender his life to the Father as a “full oblation of himself once offered, a full perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”

Where do we fit into this? We have to choose: which smell we do we what to be attached to us. Do we want the fragrance of devotion or the smell of death? The Church needs to recognize that even if we choose life and it is a great fragrance to God and to those who are living a life towards God,  it will not be so for those around us who who do not know Christ. They still smell the wafts of the grave. To them, the Church, as it lives out its mission will smell like death. It is why we can proclaim, "If we have died with him we shall live with him, if we hold firm we shall reign with him". We are called to serve that others might come to know the fragrances of Christ sacrifice for them, to help them breathe in depth and truly begin to live. So the next time you smell something good, ask yourself, "Are you ready to serve?"          

Friday, March 12, 2010

A tale of two brothers and their father

It’s a tale of two brothers and a father.  It’s a tale of extravagance, of woe and of mercy and forgiveness.
The older brother believes that he has to be the responsible one, doing his duty towards his Father and being the good one because of what he thinks of his brother. After all, his brother is a handful! And the younger brother tries to be good but often fails in the eyes of his sternly mannered, often disapproving brother. And so to get attention, even if it is negative attention from his family, he acts out in ways that are not acceptable. He even goes as far as to say to his Father that he wants his share of the property and considers his Father as being as good as dead to him. He wants to be able to use his share while he can use it and enjoy it.   The Father appears to be reckless in the giving of such assets to the younger son who goes his own way, spending lavishly all the while trying to not live up to the image that his older brother has for him.

It is telling that for all of the good that the older brother does and wants to do, his life is not any happier than that of his fun seeking younger brother. He perceives his Father’s actions to be recklessly indulgent – not a gift of generosity but of foolishness. It has the potential to wreck the family’s good name and reputation in the community. He is alone out in the fields amongst the hired hands and the flocks of his Father wondering why he has to work so hard when his brother gets away with near murder.

It is only when the younger son finds himself in the depths of pain and despair, wanting for everything and possessing nothing that he remembers the house of his Father and begins the hard and long journey home. Along the way he learns a bit about humility and contrition and so he practices what he will say to his Father when he finally sees him, “Father give me, for I have sinned against you and before heaven and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The situation and the now repentant does raise an interesting question:  what does a child need to do when he or she has injured a parent baldy and knows it? Some will be critical and say that the younger son was simply self serving in his actions and in trying to save himself from the harsh realties of what he has done to himself. The son accepts that his Father will more than likely reject him but hopes to find some small hope of at least being able to serve his Father and thus in some way make amends and serve his Father.

All this makes the reaction of the Father and the welcome home of the prodigal son that much more over the top. The Father has been waiting and when he receives the news that his rebellious son has returned home, he runs to him and grabs him and hugs him for all that he is worth not waiting to hear what the young man has to say for himself. It is only after the embrace and a proper welcome that the act of contrition is made and forgiveness and adoption extended. The extravagant love of the Father both fulfills  and offends our senses of right and wrong – generosity is shown willingly to the one who does not by human standards deserve it while the one who has been at home and diligent does without.

Will the older brother enter into the joy and happiness of the house and into the celebration of new life that his brother has found? Will he learn to have the joy of life and be able to teach the obedience that is necessary to live out that new life – only time will tell.

What does this tell us about God? First it ought to tell us about a heavenly Father who is more interested in giving us what we need rather than what we deserve. While we have been away from God we have been, as the song says, “looking for love in all the wrong places” God has waited and looked for and continued to love us. Second, this parable tells us that God is far more ready to forgive and forget than we often are ready to admit. And by receiving such forgiveness we are enabled to let go of those things, those hurts and pains of the past and therefore can let go of the need for punishment and revenge. Forgiveness is more than a moment – it is a habit. And if God can forgive our ways and sins, should we not be prepared to do the same for each other?

What kind of church will we be: like the younger brother who finally comes to himself and realizes that his Father is not dead and comes home alive himself or will we be the resistant older brother who has lost its joy and is worried about what he will lose now that the younger brother is alive and back in his Father’s life? Will we be too proud to try and sustained ourselves by going back out to the fields with the flock thereby depriving ourselves of the celebration of life that is rightly ourselves well? Only time will tell. I hear the music and I have my guitar. I’m going in. Are you coming?      

Friday, March 5, 2010

Time to be merciful

Have you ever noticed that we don’t have a reality show on the television, to determine who will be a Survivor for eternity? Or a show to determine who the biggest sinner is? Wheel of Fortune has not put a category that allows someone to get into heaven quickly or to be dropped into perdition (hell) for a visit. Jeopardy does not have a category that does the same things. Maybe it’s because we might be scared to do so. After all we are all good people, right? No one of us are sinners like a Jeffrey Dalmer, Clifford Olson or Paul Bernardo. Our sins are only little sins and really don’t amount to much. We aren’t like the people who have had earthquakes and tsunamis. We haven’t been evil, and not even particularly bad people who swindle others out of their money like Bernie Madoff. We haven’t stolen money from the public trust like politicians and bureaucrats. Really, we aren’t “bad” people.

And while we may not be like these people or others that we could think of or mention to each other, there is one thing that is perfectly clear: all of us are in the same boat when it comes to sin and therefore all of us know the need to repent. Let’s be blunt for a moment, repentance is more than just saying one is sorry for what has been done (or not done as the case may be) though it is linked to forgiveness. Everybody is sorry for things that have happened and have had to apologize for it: amateur and professional athletes, politicians at various levels and other public figures including pastors and evangelists. Jesus makes it clear that there is not one of us who is not in need of repentance – to change one’s mind and attitudes. If we are going to be new people, then we need to stop doing the old things. Otherwise we keep experiencing the same troubles, the same problems over and over again, causing suffering and tragedy in its wake.      

What is there that we can learn from suffering and tragedy? We have seen something of that in the past while. Someone told me recently that the earthquake in Chile was so powerful and released so much energy that the earth’s axis was changed and our day has been shortened by one eighteenth of a second. We have seen the devastation of the earthquakes in both Chile and Haiti. We have seen what war is doing in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and what mudslides and tsunamis (tidal waves) have done in Indonesia and South East Asia. We are still feeling the effects of the attacks of September 11th and think about what could have happened if terrorist had been successful in places like Toronto. Even in our own community, people struggle with lives that are burden by drugs and alcohol, different forms of abuse, poverty, greed and gossip.

We like to think that we are safe and it is only others who are afflicted. We believe ourselves to be nearly invulnerable to suffering and disaster and others suffer because they are weak or somehow less than the rest of us. Our society likes to help believe that it will all get better and if not there is always a purple pill to pop. The Gospel strips that false sense of security away and causes us to really examine the truth about our lives. It may be that the reflect starts with a tragedy in someone can do that. Encountering deep poverty, distress and mental illness can do that. Experiencing the suffering and pain of another in a hospital bed or at a kitchen table can lay us bear as we share with one another. And it ought to make aware of the need to depend upon God.

Is one kind of tragedy worse than another? Is it because some us are good and others are not so good that some suffering is deeper than others? Is one person a worse sinner than another? Jesus puts those kinds of things to one side and reminds us that we are all going to face judgment. Therefore all of us are in need of healing, in the need of grace and in need of repentance. All of us are in need. And the great thing is that there is time and that God offers those things that we need, without money, without price. It is easier to understand a God who is angry with sinners and who wants to meet out just punishment for sins and wickedness. It make God predictable and somewhat more understandable. If I am good, act properly or at least if I am neutral then I avoid being punished. It is hard to understand why God would go so far for people that he would offer himself in atonement for our waywardness and or shortcomings. God desires to be merciful. God desires to draw you to himself and to live with you – will you let him? There is not only forgiveness for those things done and left undone; there is mercy to allow for the amendment of life and time to bear fruit. And not only to we need to bear fruit fitting of repentance but also the fruit that the Spirit enables to grow and flourish as we mature as Christians and followers. So this week let us be perfect in mercy to others as God is merciful to us.