Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Don't worry - be blessed!

Perhaps this makes me a bit of a hack, but every time I come to this passage (Matthew 6:24-34) I cannot help but think of the Bobby McFerrin 1980's hit, "Don't worry, be happy". I like the song: it’s simple and it is catchy, especially the whistling bits. But As I re-listened to it now some twenty five years later, something struck me. There is nothing behind the reason for people not to worry. As another song of my youth might say, "we're here for a good time not a long time, so have a good time; the sun doesn't shine every day." So long as we can have a good time, so long as we are having fun we are okay. Don’t let life get you down, don't get bummed out.

Early in ministry, I would talk to friends who were commissioned and ordained at about the same time as I was and we would essentially say the same thing… if we could only have as easy as doing beach ministry. There would be lots of fun and sun with lots of time in the water and in the sand. Then life and ministry would be good. Instead we get to worry about who we are going to get to Vestry meetings, and how we are going to fix the hot water tank at the Rectory and how are we going to stay on budget and… well let’s agree that the list is long. There are lots to take care of and lots that can be worried about without putting too much effort in the find of issues.

Even in the Church we have our concerns about how to be salt and light in the world, how we are going to fulfill the Law, how we are going to handle our anger and deal with reconciliation when we have messed up. We are going to have to consider how we deal with our adulterous hearts. We are going to have to have to hope that the strength comes to us to be able to withstand persecutions so that we can expose unjust authority. We are going to have to learn to love those who don’t love us, and that we don’t want anything to do with. We are going to have to figure out where our allegiances are and decided what paths we are going to take. There is so much to take in some times.

In this very moment Jesus calls us, his body, his Church to something more, something deeper than a life of beach ministry or a ministry through a life of worry and potential misery:
″If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds. ″Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them".                                 - Matthew 6:25-29 The Message (MSG) Copyright © 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Coming into the life of the kingdom is not like trying to make your way in the world. The world wants to compete with God for the desires and affections of the human heart. This is probably the single biggest challenge the Church faces. People aren’t so much looking to for something deep spiritually, something that might fill the void they feel and try to fill. Often people seem to be looking for a good time that reaffirms what goes on in the rest of life. In fact I can remember a parishioner some time back telling me, “Preach what you want, but don’t talk about cabins. I love my cabin and I need my cabin. Don’t tell me I cannot have my cabin.”So I asked, “Who has your heart then, God or your cabin?” All of us faces these battles for our affections, it is not unique to just one our two of us.

This is why are challenged to seek and search for God and make God first. When we seek God and make God our first priority, we find that what we need (not what we greed for) comes into focus and into play. When we ask according to the will of God, God has promised to provide. When we seek out God we will find him because he is right near us. And when we are ready to walking through those doors all we need to do is knock because God can open every door that is closed to us otherwise.  

God calls us to trust him because he knows what our needs are – he knows that we need our daily bread and God is willing to give it that we would be nourished and sustained. And if we know that God is going to sustain us then how should we face the day ahead? We still have those things to face but at the very least we can recognize that we do not face them alone. We may never be responsibility and worry free, but we can trust God to be there with us, to guide us and protect us. God will certainly be there to empower, embolden and to bless us in the risks that we need to take so that our hope increases and our faith is encouraged and livened up. Most of all remember that we are not asked to do the impossible. We are asked to do what God has asked us to do and leave the rest to God. As the Late Mother Teresa once said, “If you cannot feed a hundred then just feed one.” So don’t just worry: take courage and be blessed!  

Monday, February 21, 2011

Going to hear the Rev.!

I came across this during sermon prep this week and thought that it might be interesting to consider, especially since I have done a lot of itinerant preaching in my early years o ministry. I give thanks for my current parish whom I have know for some time know and for the ways in which we have conversed over the years. It is helping me to perfect my craft as a preacher. 

One of the main things we do as a Christian community, is gather for worship. Ideally, the one who is pastor to the community should also be the preacher.Of course, pastors need Sundays off for a variety of reasons and so around this neck of the woods, I often get invited to preach.I call it “preaching around” which sounds vaguely promiscuous.” That’s because it is. I've always understood preaching as an intimate act between pastor and the gathered community. Preaching at its best happens when the preaching springs out of the life, the hurting, the joy, the passion of the community. It’s almost in the category of pillow talk.I don’t feel good about preaching except in my own home congregation. In other congregations, I go in, have my say and leave. That’s it. I don’t know who they are. They don’t know who I am. And I’m not there afterwards to pick up the pieces.Do I enjoy it? Of course I do. And the feedback I get from the congregations where I preach is that they like it too. I can whomp out a pretty good speech.

But when they discreetly hand me an envelope with a cheque in it, I wonder if there’s a bit of a gigolo in me. I get my jollies. They get their strokes. I take my money and leave. Wham! Bam! Thank you Ma’am.

Of course that’s overstating the case. But every theology of preaching I’ve ever read says that preaching is not entertainment and it’s not education. Preaching is not a sacrament, but it is sacramental in that through it the Word may happen. When a sermon is faithfully preached and faithfully heard, there is the Gospel. I’m not convinced that happens when I go into a strange church and do my thing. I've wondered about that when I find myself worshipping in another congregation. When I’m traveling, I visit lots of different churches and I've heard sermons that were mostly entertainment, or mostly education.

Some are almost caricatures. High profile preacher. Lots of pizzazz. Lots of jokes. Lively, entertaining sermon. “You gotta come and hear our Rev,” the folks are saying. “Really good!” So people come and “hear the Rev.” The best two-buck show in town. Those churches are full on Sundays. But the people in the pews are an audience, not a congregation. The other extreme. Sermons are well-researched, reflecting the latest relevant social concerns. Every point is tightly argued. A few in the congregations find this very helpful. Most shut off their minds. The sermon dies on the steps of the chancel. It’s all good, worthwhile stuff but it gets nowhere.

On the other hand, I have worshiped in congregations where I felt like a guest in someone else’s home. That’s exactly as it should be. There were in-jokes and references and history and relationships I didn’t understand. The sermon was not designed to impress me. I was welcome to listen but the preacher was in conversation with the community. The sermon sprang out of a deep and caring relationship. On many of the faces I could see deep participation. I recognize this and warm to it. I know it from my home congregation. A community confronting the Gospel together.

From “Sermon Seasonings,” Wood Lake Books, 1997

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Generous Life

"Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.”
What does a life that is lived generously look like? Jesus seems to now change his tone and begins to examine the things that have been done out of the law as a way of making justice and keeping order within society. “You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye” but then Jesus takes that standard and turns it inside out, “but I say to you, love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you.” It is generous of a Christian person to become a supposed door mat for someone who is going to treat them badly? What is it with this whole “offer the other check also” stuff?

In ancient times, the way to keep someone in line was to make sure that any harm that was inflicted was met with an equal among of harm. So if you caused another person’s eye to go blind, then it was the injured party’s right to take one of your eyes. If you injure someone’s arm and they cannot use it anymore then they have the right to injure you in the same fashion. In this way judgment is passed and justice was seen to be done. It is called lex talions or the Law of retaliation. For justice to have been done, the punishment must befit the crime committed.

Jesus turns this standard inside out not just upside down. Jesus tells his people, his Church that if they want to be holy, if they want to be like God, then they must choose to love and have mercy on the people whom they do not like and whom they would count as their enemy. As followers of Jesus, we are not taught to overcome evil with a greater evil nor are we to repay evil with evil. We are expected to overcome evil with good and with love. We are called and expected to be holy people. And lets remember that holiness is not solely about personal piety alone; it is primarily shown in the relationships that we keep with God and with others. We are to mirror in our own daily lives the holiness that we have in being in relationship with the Lord Jesus, reflecting it for the world to see. We need to be reminded daily of this simple thing: in the kingdom of heaven, mercy triumphs over judgment. We need to show how God’s love, active in and through the Church overcomes the troubles and hatreds of this sinful and separated world. We are challenged to overcome evil by doing good; overcome hatred with love; overcome violence with mercy; overcome strife with peace.

The demand that we be perfect like God is an acknowledgement that we are on the way to the kingdom, into eternity, and into the deeper presence of the Almighty. It is not that we will be perfect in this life, but that we strive towards that goal. We are responsible for living a life that is generous both in love and in mercy. God will make us what we ought to be in his way and in his time. We will be, as St. Paul points out, brought to our perfection and completion on the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6). The call to holiness and to perfection is a demand for consistency on our lives through consistently loving those we must love. This is what it means to live life as a follower, as a disciple of the One who lights the way to the kingdom. A generous life then is one that is willing to give what is necessary to help others see who God truly is and to offer what has been given that those around us will see, will know and will respond to the grace love and mercy that we ourselves have been afforded by God. After all, as the soldiers crucified the Saviour, didn’t Jesus ask the Father, “Forgive them; they do not know what they do”? Is that not the generous life?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Beyond the "gooder" life

Over the past few weeks we have been hearing at least two things (and there could be many more) from the Gospel of Matthew: (1) there is a great danger, even for the Church, if faith is reduced to a formula and (2) that the Church is in great danger if it tries to avoid offering itself fully to both God and to neighbour. This is why Jesus tells his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount that he has not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. The purpose of shinning light on how we live is to get us to live God’s way and not our own.

Jesus’ coming to us was not to make things easier or even better. The purpose of the Jesus coming and of shedding light on our way of living is so that we can live life differently – in an altered and transformed way. We are not just to go through the motions so that we obey the rules, we are called to live because we are being drawn into the kingdom of heaven, into God’s presence, and thus into eternal life.

The Gospel this week reminds us that we need to be aware of what is going on in our own lives. It is not enough to say that we have not done certain things like commit murder or adultery. We have to examine ourselves concerning the thoughts, feelings and attitudes we hold in our hearts. It is not enough by kingdom standards, to say that we have obey and not physically harmed someone, when we have held anger, hate, mistrust, slander, false humility, lack of generosity and hospitality, arrogance, lust and impiety. It’s not just a matter of what we do and don’t do on a day by day basis as important as such things might be. Our emotions and attitudes come into play as well. And if this all this a bit much to take in, we need to remember how this sermon started a few weeks back. Blessedness is not just happiness and it is more than just a simple blessing. We are not blessed because we are always right or that we are even doing this particularly well. We are a blessed people precisely because of where our hearts and lives are going and who it is that go with us. New life in Christ is more than daily rule keeping; it is a life that is dedicated to service and offered in loving sacrifice. Our life is empowered by such living and such living enlivens and raises the level of prayer and of worship precisely because it is a life that is coming towards the kingdom and to eternity.

Living a life that interprets the Law the way that Jesus does causes us to move beyond the demand to make our lives the service and the sacrifice that honours both God and neighbour.  Reframing our faith and relationships in the way that Jesus calls us to causes us to confront some of the easy truces we make with ourselves. We commend ourselves for not doing things we shouldn’t do, like committing murder or adultery but then do something else that causes injury like slandering a neighbour behind the back.  We pat ourselves on the back for not going outside the martial relationship to satisfy sexual desire but then build relationships with other people, with television, with work, with sports, with the computer and internet that exclude the one we promised to love above everyone else Such actions render us unable to offer our gifts to God or to anyone else until such a thing is dealt with. We are called to live such a high standard.

The work of this holy season of Epiphany calls us to see Jesus for who he really is and to recognize we are not called to a “gooder” life. We are called to transformation, beginning with ourselves. Lets live out life this week in his strength and in Christ grace and peace.