Saturday, June 16, 2007

Pentecost 3 - Year C

I hate to bring up controversy on this beautiful spring day. Especially when summer’s peeking its head around the corner and we’re almost in vacation mode.

But today’s reading from Galatians raises a pretty important issue facing the church. We have a national convention next week and there will be some other contentious issues being raised. And we need to talk about them. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about. I can see some heads nodding.

Of course, what I’m talking about is: male circumcision. And whether we should let uncircumcised males become members of our church. I can see some of our new members squirming “There was nothing about this at the meeting!”

But that’s the fight that the church in Galatia was threatening to tear itself to pieces over. The pews in the Galatian church were filled with converted Jews who didn’t like all these dirty gentiles stinking the place up.

They liked to see their church grow. They just wanted the right people through their doors. They wanted all the new folks to behave like good Jewish Christians. And for the guys, that meant a little snip-snip where the sun was not meant to shine.

Paul couldn’t believe what he was hearing. How could cutting a little piece of skin bring them closer to God? How could they have Christians in first class and Christians in coach?

But that’s what they wanted to do. I wonder if we’re not the same.

It’s one thing to say that “yes, Jesus loves sinners. After all, everyone’s a sinner. Everyone fails in God’s eyes.”

It’s another thing to name the sin, to put flesh on it.

The website Triple X Church dot com sells a T-shirt that announces that “Jesus loves porn stars.” Swish that around in your mouth for awhile. What does it taste like?

What if I came to see you in the hospital wearing a badge that said “Jesus loves pedophiles”? Would you throw me out?

How about a baseball cap that read “Jesus loves Paul Bernardo?”

I don’t know about you but that makes me squirm in my shorts.

When we say that Jesus loved porn stars do we mean that Jesus loves porn? Of course not. But that’s the first thing that pops into our heads, isn’t it?

When we say that Jesus loves pedophiles do we mean that Jesus looks the other way when they victimize our children, taking the side of the oppressor over the oppressed? Obviously not.

When we say that Jesus loves Paul Bernardo, do we mean to say that Jesus doesn’t think his crimes were that big of a deal? Clearly, not the case.

But what does your gut say when you hear that God loves even the most loathsome creatures among us?

The Apostle Paul heard these same arguments from the Galatian Christians, so he let them have it by saying: “But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor.”

That’s the Oxford Debating Society’s way of saying, “Jesus loves me even when I’m a sinner. He may not love what I do. But he loves me anyways. Even when I screw up.”

But it’s easier to side with our Galatian cousins. We may pay lip service to the fact that all sins are equal in God’s eyes, but our attitudes and actions sing a different song. Even though, for God, a sin is a sin is a sin. No one sin is worse than another.

I recently heard an interview with the guy who manages the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan and he said that, in Canada, white collar criminals don’t go to jail when convicted. In the States they do, but not in Canada. And no one seems to care - even though millions of dollars and people’s life savings are being stolen.

We pick and choose our moral umbrage. We shrug our shoulders when a VP of a major corporation dumps his stock two days before announcing plant closures. But Paris Hilton better spend the ENTIRE 24 days of her sentence, after all she did drive with an expired driver’s license.

We joke with each other about how we weren’t completely honest when filling out our tax forms. But we are morally outraged when Prince Harry plays tonsil hockey with a bartender in Calgary.

I don’t know why it’s easier to point out people’s sins rather than see God working in their lives. I don’t know why it’s easier to condemn people’s failures rather than rejoice in their victories.

I don’t know why it’s easier, but it is.

Maybe it’s because we like to see ourselves farther down the path of righteousness than other folks. Or the farther away someone’s sins are from our own the fewer stakes we have in condemning them. So we can be morally outraged with little or no cost to ourselves. It’s easier.

I received a letter this week from a fellow thanking me for my Christian witness to a mutual friend we have in Ontario, a friend from university who recently came to faith in Jesus.

When I think of our friendship I think I was more an accomplice to sin than a witness to grace. Yet somehow, God was able to speak to his life through me.

And when I think of my own life, and what evil resides in the inner-chambers of my heart, I wonder how I can have the audacity to stand before you here and preach against sin; much less have the temerity to suggest that I am somehow an instrument of God’s goodness.

But maybe God doesn’t want me to be perfect. Maybe that’s what Paul was getting at.

A group of church commentators have suggested that the church should be more like Alcoholics Anonymous and less like a Broadway musical. I think they’re right.

In Halifax, I got a phone call from a guy wondering when the Gamblers Anonymous group was meeting at the church. He said that he just blew his mortgage payment at a VLT.

Knowing some of the people in the GA group, I knew this fellow would be welcome, because they had all been there.

I’ve been told that you can show up drunk to an AA meeting and no one will bat an eye because they all know what it’s like to fall off the wagon. But how about if someone came to church reeking from cheap scotch?

We’re all broken. None of our lives is perfect. We trip on our way up the mountain. Sometimes we lose our footing and fall to the ground.

And when we do slip, we know that there will be a crowd cheering our descent. Just ask Paris Hilton, Conrad Black, or Dick Dewert.

But I also hope that there will be a small group of believers who will reach out with scarred hands and broken bones to lift us up. Then, together, as a family of believers, we hold each other up by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we hear Jesus’ words to us sinners: “your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Trinity Sunday

An inhabitant of the ancient world might well be astonished that we talk so little about Lady Wisdom.

In Jesus' day, Wisdom’s name was Sophia. Greek was the common language of the Mediterraean peoples, and the Greek word for Wisdom is Sophia. The Hagia Sophia – the ancient Orthodox Christian church in Turkey – is named for her. Sophia was recognized as important to our understanding of God throughout the Jewish world, but also within the Christian world, and not just because of the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs and other wisdom literature.

In John chapter one, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...all things came into being through him was life,” all clearly echoes Proverbs 8. The Word is the divine principle of reason that gives order to the universe and links the human mind to the mind of God. And Jesus claims himself as a child of Wisdom in Mt. 11:19 & Lk 7:35. Wisdom was used in the early church either to evoke Jesus the Word or the Holy Spirit the giver of life. Songs celebrating God's wisdom were sung; festivals celebrated.

So what happened? Why do we so rarely hear of wisdom?

Maybe it’s because Wisdom is too hard. It’s easier to think that God will give us signs and wonders, and Wisdom asks that we get off the couch and get our hands dirty.

I have a friend who was stringing two women along – one of them his finance - and rather than weigh his options, read the bible, draw on the sage advice of his elders, take a break and get some exercise, eat properly, and get a decent night’s sleep, - or even pay attention to common sense, he tried to puzzle his way out by looking for supernatural signs from God.

He thought God would let him know what to do by pointing him in the right direction, not through Wisdom, but through signs. And while the sign from God hadn't yet appeared to let him know what to do about his big dilemma – which of two women he was stringing along should be with – he believed that if he submitted himself to God's will in the small things, eventually God would speak to him about the big things. It got to the point where he'd be earnestly praying about which way he should walk to school – this path, or another? What socks did God want him to wear? Did the Almighty desire that he wear blue or white underwear?

Then again, how did he know what God wanted him to do? Did he find his red socks lying stately on his chair? Did his blue goochies float out of the drawer? Was it just a feeling in his gut? A voice booming from the clouds? A celestial thumbs up or thumbs down?

He was obsessed. He wanted a sign. But how would he recognize it? Instead of actually resolving his problem, my friend was lost in a quagmire of his own making, and both women got tired of waiting and walked away. Which worked out for me because I married one of them.

God has not promised to answer every human dilemma with a sign from God. In fact, I've checked, and NO WHERE in scripture are we promised a sign from God, although we ask ever so earnestly. When signs appear they usually appear out of no where and completely unexpected. Many of the events that occur around us and folks in the bible happen “by chance” (So, for example, in the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10: “Now by chance a priest was going down that road...”). God simply does not allow us to read and interpret all of the signs of the times; Ecclesiastes makes it clear that trying to make sense of it all leads to feeling life is futile. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanities” as the King James put it; translated in today's language, “Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11). God's may be working in the world, but we don't get to figure it all out.

We ARE, however, promised God's Wisdom – in fact, we first receive the promise in our baptisms, in the passage taken from Isaiah 11:2: “The spirit of the Lord be upon you, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the awe of the LORD.” From numerous passages, we know God is wisdom (Job 9:4; Isa 40:28; Dan 2:20); and we also know that God wants to give us wisdom (Proverbs, but also James 1:5-8). Wisdom, not mysterious signs from God, is the best way to make the best decision.

Which leads us to another reason why I think we've neglected Lady Wisdom over the past 15 hundred years or so. Lady Wisdom was exiled by the Church’s overactive paternalism. No longer were believers expected to have their lives guided by seeking out wisdom. Instead, the Church knew all. Don’t question. Just believe.

No other wisdom – such as ways other than bloodshed to move towards a more just society – was offered by the Church, and so it was no wonder that the great revolutions of the world, particularly the French and American revolutions, rejected the Church as a place of wisdom for their new just society. Church was marginalized, and it has continued to be so.

The solution is not for the Church to seek to be in control again, but to become the salt and light and, yes, the fount of wisdom that Jesus wanted us to be. We won't get anywhere by imposing our wisdom, but by being wise. Wisdom calls out, raises her voice to all peoples: come and learn and grow. Be filled.

Which leads to the fifth reason we've lost Wisdom. Wisdom is something you can wisdom is acquired in all the ways you usually learn. Studying. Reflecting on experience. Discussing ideas with others. Listening. Prayer. Worship. It's work. Hard work. And it may point out how unwise you really are.

We're not good at these things, at least not in areas as personal as our lives with God. We may do alright in studying for a biology exam, but are you up to learning with humility in your spiritual life? How are you at learning from your past mistakes? Trying new ideas that may make you look like a fool but may also lead to wisdom? Waiting in prayerful silence for insight on a bothersome concern?

No, I'm not too good at those either.

In the passage from Proverbs for today, we see Wisdom was there at the beginning; at the very creation of the world, Wisdom was there beside God. The actual image, in v. 30, is a little hazy – is Wisdom like a master worker beside God, or like a well-loved child?

In either case, Wisdom was God's joy, rejoicing in what God had made, then at the beginning and even now.

You can see some wise implications for us right there. Do we treat each other as though Wisdom were the grounding and God’s creative companion during its formation? Do we see each other as formed out of God's infinite Wisdom – and therefore deserving of our respect and care?

This world and we ourselves have been declared a delight by Wisdom. Wisdom likes people because it’s through people that she lives. This wisdom is what we call Trinity, or at least the gas in its tank. Just as the Trinity is bound together by God’s Wisdom and love, God wants us to be bound to God by Wisdom – Sophia.

Some may long for the old direction of the Church, who'd tell us what to do with our lives, or the false direction of signs and wonders. But God believes in our maturity. God believes that we're able to learn Wisdom, that though we often reject her, She will keep calling for us until we respond, until we bind unto ourselves, the strong name of the Trinity.

It's good to know that though we may not believe in ourselves, God – and God's Wisdom – continue to believe in us.