Sunday, July 29, 2007

Pentecost 9 - Year C

I haven’t yet seen the Simpsons Movie, but I plan to. I’m a BIG Simpsons fan. Not only is it a great show, it is a WEALTH of sermons illustrations. After one too many Bart and Homer references, someone pulled me aside in Halifax and gently asked me to lay off the Simpsons in the pulpit.

I love the Simpsons, not just because it’s funny and well-written, but because it’s a thoughtful commentary on today’s culture. The Simpsons cartoon is not just a satire of its time, but also a ground-breaker for pop culture, says Chris Turner, the Calgary writer of Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation.

The Simpsons is my generation’s narrative. It’s our story. Most folks older than me hate it, and most people younger don’t quite get it. It’s not their story. So, my story and other stories rub sandpaper-like against each other.

It’s easy to get sucked into competing stories. And one of the defining characteristics of today’s world is that there is no BIG STORY linking us together like there once was.

The US told the story of revolution leading to freedom. Canada’s story has been a battle between English and French, Anglo and Quebecois, east and west.

Now we are told that we choose our stories. That the old stories don’t work.

This isn’t really anything new. Just look at today’s second reading. It looked like the church in Colossae was in danger of forgetting their new story and returning to the old one. So Paul reminded them:

“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”

In other words: Remember your story. And your story is Jesus’ story.

It’s hard for Paul to break out of his Jewish upbringing. But then again, he didn’t feel the need to. When he wrote this passage he was probably thinking of a passage from Deuteronomy:

Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gate.”

In other words, Continue to live God’s story. Continue to live God’s love. Every moment of every day is supposed to be filled with God’s Word, with the story of who God is and what God has done. We should so indwell this story that it permeates our whole being, so that it is constantly on your tongue and at the heart of every conversation. The cadences of this tale should become your native tongue (adapted from Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keemaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire)

Paul was reminding the Colossian Christians that their story is found in Jesus’ story. But how does Jesus’ story become OUR story.

Last Monday, Cathy and I went to the special synod that bishop Ron called to talk about the “Way Forward.” And as people talked about what should be our priorities for the next while, there was widespread agreement that “biblical literacy” should be at the top of our agenda as a church.

It makes sense. Who could disagree with that? Who else are we going to know how to be Christians except from studying the bible? Especially when many folks in our churches don’t know the difference between the Old Testament and the New.

That aside, when folks kept hammering away on biblical illiteracy and we need more rigorous scripture study in our churches, I found myself asking “Why? To what end?”

Do people think that if they simply study the scriptures then sinners will fall in line? That our divisions will be healed? That we’ll all suddenly agree with each other? That sin will suddenly be silenced?

Or is it just another way of bossing folks around? Using the bible as a club to beat people with? A set of rules and regulations that dictate to people how they should live?

Or will studying the bible help us enter into God’s story as it’s unfolding all around us?

New Testament scholar NT Wright talks about the task of reading and living out the biblical story in terms of an unfinished six-act drama.

In Act One the scene is set with creation. The author’s intentions are revealed. Then Act Two is the crime or break in the relationship. The Garden episode with Adam and Eve is the first instance of plot tension.

The remainder of the story, which consists of a torturous route to resolution, is divided up into four further acts. Act Three is the story of Israel and Act Four is Jesus. Act Five is the Church and Act Six is the end, where the Author’s brings it all to an end.

Or so it seems. If that were true then the story would have finished 2000 years ago. Where do we fit into the story? If we are actors in this story, then we need some fresh lines.

So we turn to the Author and ask for more script. And the Author says, “Sorry, that’s all I’ve written – YOU have to finish the story. But I have given you a very good director who will lead you to the end.”

So here we are with an unfinished script. But the only way to finish it is to know the story that came before. (NT Wright via Walsh and Kessmaat)

To learn from the prophet Ezekiel who ate the script so it became a part of him.

And to follow Jesus’ command to consume him; to eat his flesh and drink his blood: the Word made flesh, for he is our script.

So how are we going to finish the story? As actors in God’s drama, a divine Goodfellas, or sometimes, God’s romantic comedy, - a celestial Hugh Grant saga - how are we going to bring it to an end? How is it going to resolve in your life and the world?

That’s the question that God is asking us, and the question I think we are asking each other. But answering that question takes time, discernment, and heavy doses of prayer to hear the Director’s voice calling us to a deeper interpretation of our role, and a greater love for the Author.

May we have ears to hear it. Amen.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Pentecost 8 - Year C

If you know me, you know that I don’t like taking vacations. At least not extended ones. I just need a day or two with a couple good books or a few Family Guy DVDs and I’m ready to be back in the office.

While a vacation is supposed to be relaxing, rejuvenating, and restorative, to me it descends into boredom…and the blahs.

Last year I found the week long ChristCare Training more energizing than a week at my in-laws (due respect to my wife’s parents).

And last summer I found the time in Mexico with our young people more relaxing than spending a week in Ontario enjoying my mom’s cooking (sorry mom).

I just get bored if I’m not doing something.

So, for me, it’s not about being virtuous, or claiming to have a superhuman work ethic. I don’t stand in moral judgment over those who actually LIKE to get away and go camping or whatever. I just find that twiddling my thumbs for four weeks a year causes more me stress than it relieves.

And I know I’m going to get hassled for saying this. I always do. People are rightly concerned that if I don’t take care of myself and my family I won’t have anything to give in my job as your pastor.

I know that clergy and church worker burnout has been a concern for Bishop Mayan. Other than him looking out for the well-being of those under his care, he’s also looking out for the future of our church. His fear is that people won’t be interested in ordained ministry if they keep seeing pastors quitting because of their work load.

It’s not just church workers that are being strained. I’ll bet each one of you can tell some pretty harrowing stories of 60 hour weeks and deserted families. Just as most people are working longer hours, there is a small cottage industry of resources helping us overworked souls from collapsing under the weight of our industriousness.

Lately, I’ve noticed a lot books being published on the neglected art of Sabbath keeping. This has nothing to do about whether we should stop in at Wal-Mart after church, or if we should go back to the Lord’s Day laws making it illegal to shop on Sunday. At least not directly. But Sabbath keeping is about taking time for prayer and rest one day a week. It’s about connecting with the one who is connected to us through baptism.

It’s about being Mary instead of Martha.

It’s easy to get angry at Mary. Especially if you’re a Martha. Martha was action-oriented, she was a doer, she was the one you called upon when you wanted a job done right.

Mary was the dreamer, the philosopher. She just liked to sit around and think great thoughts. Some may even call her a slacker.

So, who do you side with?

If you like to get up early and get things done, then you’re probably with Martha.

If you are looking to change the world one conversation at a time then you sit down with Mary.

But folks probably didn’t know what to make of it when Jesus took lazy Mary’s side. “Martha, Martha,” Jesus said after Martha told him to ask Mary to get up off her butt and do something useful.

“Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away.”

So, is Jesus telling Martha to chill and take a vacation or she’ll burn herself out? On the surface that’s what it looks like. And certainly many preachers have interpreted this passage that way.

But I’m not convinced.

Because the key to unlocking this passage is hidden in plain sight.

The story says, “Martha had a sister named Mary who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”

What on earth was a woman doing sitting at a place where only the disciples were allowed, what was she doing thinking that a great rabbi – or ANY rabbi - would want her as his student, especially since women weren’t allowed to be educated? Why would he waste his time and energy with this woman who was just going back to the kitchen anyways?

That’s why Martha was ticked. She didn’t want to come right out and say it, although that’s probably would everyone else was thinking, except for Jesus.

It’s like she was speaking in code. “Um, Jesus, that’s not where she’s supposed to be. Guys only, remember. She needs to come back to the kitchen with me.”

Jesus picks up on the code, “Relax, Martha, you can be here too if you want. You can be my disciple as well.”

The other disciples, the ones with proper anatomical make-up probably weren’t impressed with any of them. Martha kept interrupting Jesus’ lesson. Mary sat where she didn’t belong. And Jesus didn’t do anything to stop any of it.

It’s easy to say that this little interaction was a cultural thing. That in today’s enlightened 21st century world, women don’t have those sorts of problems in the church.

Well, last year when Katherine Jefferts Shori was elected on the fifth ballot to be National Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US (“Episcopal” is what Americans call “Anglicans”) there was an outcry among certain factions:

“Leave it to the Episcopal Church to elect a WOMAN as bishop!” one church commentator spewed, as if electing a woman as bishop was some sort of moral outrage. He wasn’t alone. Many church journalists and bloggers openly criticized the choice of Bp. Schori simply because she was a women. “It’s a liberal conspiracy!”Of course, anytime a woman is elected to a position in the church, it has to be motivated some politically correct plot. It COULDN’T be her resume, could it?

But such attitudes aren’t reserved for American Anglicans. We in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada or ELCIC haven’t completely gotten over women in leadership either. Even after 30 or so years of having women pastors.

When Rebekah arrived in Halifax to be installed as pastor of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection a few folks who didn’t like her particular chromosomal make-up left the church and asked another Lutheran body to send a missionary to the Halifax area to start a church, a church where they didn’t have to listen to a woman pastor. So our membership received phone calls from this mission pastor inviting them to join this new “biblically faithful” congregation. Nice, eh?

And we know that our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada has elected Pastor Susan Johnson to be our National Bishop. Another controversial choice among certain folks.

When I was talking with a group of Lutheran pastors in southern Alberta about who we wanted as a bishop, one of my colleagues asked “Would we be okay with a woman as bishop?” A bizarre question, no brainer, I thought.

But one of my other colleagues said “No way!” He then went on to complain about there being “too many women in leadership” positions already. And he moaned about what he called the “feminization” of the church, too many women in the pews chasing men away. The church isn’t manly enough. We have too many women as it is.

To me that sounds odd. As a man, I like having women around.

Here at Good Shepherd we’re working on getting a men’s group going. And if some of the literature on getting a men’s ministry happening is to be believed, then my friend is right. These men’s ministry experts say that women in leadership positions scare men off and that we need mainly men as leaders if we want to attract men here at Good Shepherd.

But I don’t think the literature is to be believed.

But what this passage comes down to is this: “Who can be a disciple of Jesus and who cannot?” That’s the question that Jesus is throwing down at our feet. Jesus decided that Mary and Martha could be disciples even though they didn’t fit the biological job description.

And this question doesn’t just affect women.

This evening, Cathy, Wayne, and I are heading to Red Deer for a special synod gathering that Bishop Ron called to talk about the same-sex blessing motion that was narrowly defeated last month in Winnipeg.

A controversial issue to be sure. Some folks say this issue is about biblical authority, while others say it’s about social justice. Some say it’s about defending the traditional family and others say it’s a case of human rights.

I see it as a discipleship issue. We are being asked who can be a disciple of Jesus and who cannot. And what does that discipleship look like when it comes to ministering to and with gay and lesbian people?

We have people in our synod and in this congregation on both ends of the spectrum: folks who seem to think homosexuality is the unforgivable sin and there are folks who believe homosexuality is a special gift from God, and everywhere else in between. We couldn’t be more divided on this ONE issue.

So, we need your prayers. Pray for the special synod. Pray for Cathy and I. Pray for each other. Pray for those who share your position and pray for those with whom you strongly disagree. Pray for your friends. And pray for your enemies. Pray for wisdom. And pray for compassion for those you think are wrong.

Maybe this is the time we can learn from Mary and sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to the voice of the saviour, so that we can live together as disciples of Jesus, to help each other choose as Jesus says, “the better part which will NOT be taken away.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Pentecost 5 - Year C

“Let the dead bury their own dead,” Jesus says.

Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson, in their book Age of Propaganda offer this advice for those aspiring to become cult leaders.

Number One: Create your own social reality, usually meaning to cut all ties with family and friends, making the cult your immediate family.

Number Two: Create a granfalloon, by which they mean to create an “in-group” and an “out-group,” constantly reminding the “in-group” that if they want to be part of the chosen group then they must think and act like a chosen group.

Number Three: Establish the leader’s credibility and attractiveness by creating myths or legends concerning the life and times of the leader. The more fantastic the better.

Number Four: Send members out to proselytize and fundraise.

Sound familiar?

“Follow me. Let the dead bury their own dead,” Jesus tells an earnest God seeker. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

To the naked eye, Jesus sounds like the cult leader that the book describes. And maybe he sounded that way to this man and his family as well.

All the guy wanted to do was bury his dad. He wanted to say good bye to those at home. Jesus had him hooked and dangling on the line. This guy was willing to follow Jesus.

But Jesus cuts him down and throws him back. Not good enough. Too committed to family. Didn’t have full devotion to this wandering guru who came out of nowhere.

That’s pretty harsh, don’t you think? Is that what Jesus REALLY expects of us? What would happen if people followed Jesus that way now?

“What kind of horse manure are putting in my kid’s head?” a very angry dad roared as he burst into Dean Willimon’s office at Duke University Chapel.
“What are you talking about?” Willimon asked, innocently.

“She’s changed her major from business to social work. And now she’s signed up to squat in some third-world jungle for two years, digging ditches, teaching kids how to read, and helping start churches. And she says that it was at YOUR bible study that she realized that this is what God wants her to do! I didn’t pay her Duke University tuition to have her throw her life away in some bug infested swamp! I’ll thank you for not sticking your big nose in my kid’s life. That’s MY job!”

“Wait just a second,” Willimon protested. “Why are you blaming me? You’re the one who took her to be baptized, right?”


“You’re the one who told her bible stories growing up, didn’t you?”


“You’re the one who drove her to Sunday school and church youth group, correct?”


“Then why are you surprised when she wants to live like a Christian?”

“I just wanted her to get a little religion, some moral guidance,” the dad shouted. “I just didn’t want her going out and getting drunk or sleeping with her boyfriend. I didn’t want her life turned inside out!”

In other words, he wanted the dead bury their own dead; and not proclaim the kingdom of God.

This is what happens when peoples’ expectations and God’s call collide.

A preacher was asked whether he, as a Christian could support the war in Iraq.

“No, I can not,” the preacher said. “I could never support bombing, particularly bombing civilians, as an ethical act.”

“That’s what I expected you to say,” the man said. “That’s so typical of you Christians. Always on the moral high ground, aren’t you? You get so upset when a suicide bomber kills innocent children in a crowded marketplace, but you get your knickers in a knot when someone tries to do something about it.”

“You know, you’re right,” the preacher said, “It isn’t a particularly Christian reaction, is it? It isn’t only Christians that have qualms about the war. What would be a distinctly CHRISTIAN response to the Iraq situation? Maybe a Christian response would be for our denomination to send 1000 missionaries to Iraq. After all, we’ve discovered that Iraq a fertile field for the gospel. We know how to send missionaries. That’s at least a CHRISTIAN response.”

“You can’t do that,” the man said.

“Why not?” the preacher replied.

“Because the government issued a travel alert for anyone going to Iraq. You won’t be able to get a visa.”

“No, that’s not why,” the preacher said, “I’ll admit that we can’t go to Iraq but not because the government won’t let us. We can’t go because we no longer have a church that produces people who can do something this bold, like we once did.”

In other words, we’re forgotten that the dead are to bury their own dead; so we can go proclaim the kingdom of God.

I don’t know about you, but to me it seems that North American Christianity has devolved into nice-ianity, where people watch their language, don’t get too passionate, don’t become some religious nut.

But I think Jesus is asking us to re-kindle the fire of our faith. Maybe even shaking in fear as follow the poor man from Nazareth.

CS Lewis was an atheist who taught at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England who came to faith in Jesus through his friendship with JRR Tolkien. Lewis then wrote the well-know and widely read Chronicles of Narnia where Lewis tries to explain what it would look like if God entered the world. In his story, Jesus is a lion named Aslan.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, four children magically enter Narnia, and they first hear about Aslan from Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. They were frightened to learn that he was a lion and asked if he was tame.

“I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion,” said Susan, one of the children.

“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” asked Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you...? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king.”

Mr. Beaver is right. Jesus isn’t safe. That’s what that grieving son learned. Also the angry dad and preacher’s interrogator.

Jesus can’t be pinned down. He may ask us to do crazy things in his name, all for the kingdom of God.

But may not be safe. But he is good. He may have looked like a cult leader, but if you concentrate, he never draws attention to himself. He always points beyond himself to the kingdom God. The kingdom life and peace, mercy and forgiveness.

So pray for courage. Pray for boldness. So when Jesus asks you to put your hand to the plow, your eyes may be fixed over to the horizon where the kingdom of God is beginning to peak.

May this be so among us. Amen.