Sunday, August 26, 2007

Pentecost 13 - Year C

NB: With help from my lovely wife.

In Waterloo where I went to university, I’d often be stirred from my Saturday morning slumber by the clippity-clop of horses hooves; the Old Order Mennonites were on their way to market. They figured that by keeping to the way of their ancestors, they’d be less tempted by the things of the world. And better able to devote their time to God.

Since I didn’t see any horses and buggies parked by the church door, I ask: What do you do in your life to hedge away some time or some place to devote yourself to God?

Do you steal away with your bible each morning before your husband wakes up? Do you pray in your car on the way to work? Do you read a good book on the bus?

Clearly, you come to church to connect with God. Just like Jesus did.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is in church where he heals a woman on the Sabbath, a day supposed to be devoted to God. And some leader of the synagogue got his socks in a bunch over it.

Sabbath means “seventh” – the seventh day of the week, a day of rest set aside from ordinary days, a day to remember their stories and to pray.

For Jews, that day was and is Saturday. Christians switched it to Sunday to honour the day Jesus rose from the dead.

But whether it’s Saturday or Sunday, the command is the same: Honour the Sabbath.

So when preacher Jesus should have stuck to his script and distributed the pretty God-words they came to hear, Jesus had the temerity to heal someone.

“Hey there Jesus, that looks a lot like work to me,” the synagogue leader, probably the council president (sorry Herman) said, “You’ve got six days to do that healing the sick and raising the dead stuff. Today is for worship.”

The synagogue leader lays it on thick. How ‘bout it, Jesus? Do you pray enough? How much bible do you read everyday? How is your quiet time with God? You should know better. Is God that unimportant in your life?”

How would you have answered this synagogue leader? What do you do to hedge away some time or place to devote yourself to God? How do you honour the Sabbath?

And while we spit and sputter some kind of answer, Jesus is already on top of it, answering for us: “You hypocrite! Don’t you care for the people and creatures in your life that you love and depend on? Don’t you care for them even on the Sabbath?

The odd thing here is: Jesus wasn’t doing or saying anything radical. He was giving a classic Jewish response. This is what any wise Jewish person would say. What’s the 3rd Commandment? “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” And you don’t keep something holy by refusing to touch it with a 16 inch stick. You celebrate it! You refrain from working not because work is so awful that you need a day off every now and then, but because it gets in the way of a good party.

On the Sabbath, Jews would go for a picnic rather than cook up a storm. They would go to worship to sing! And even dance!

Hasidic Jews have a tradition of dancing with the Torah – the law, the first five books of the bible, literally taking up the scrolls of the bible and dancing with them in the aisles, celebrating the gift of God’s word.

(I thought about giving you a demonstration but I’ll need a few more months at the gym to be able to dance around with this 100 pound behemoth in my hands.)

The ancients believed that you also give your workers as well as yourselves a day of recovery – snoozing and relaxing. The Sabbath was the great equalizer. Everyone was supposed to get a rest. It didn’t matter if you were the lowliest grunt or the Big Boss Man. You got a day off. That’s keeping the Sabbath holy.

The synagogue leader didn’t get it. If trying to impose rules on celebrating – gotta do it right, according to the book – you end up with an awfully dull party.

And what’s worse, he forgot that there was a human being involved. This woman had been bent over in pain for 15 years. 15 YEARS! What were you doing 15 years ago? And can you imagine being in such pain that you couldn’t stand up straight for all that time?

But that didn’t matter to the synagogue leader. All that mattered to him was that a law had been broken. A rule had been transgressed. Maybe even a sin had been committed. And Jesus couldn’t believe his ears.

For Jesus, refraining from work on the Sabbath wasn’t about NOT angering the Almighty if you stopped in at the office to check your email on the way home from church.

The Sabbath was about celebrating God’s good news, so you can be restored and refreshed, so the people around you can be restored and refreshed as well.

I know what some of you are thinking, “Physician heal thyself.” This is a matter of do as I say and not as I do. As is well known, I don’t like taking a day off. I get bored and cranky. I don’t find it refreshing or restoring.

I never have. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Ontario where the Sabbath day laws were considered quaint. A throwback to a puritanical age when those crabby Presbyterians ran the show for the first thousand years. Irrelevant. Or even economically dangerous.

I was delighted when the laws changed. That meant I could work on weekends and save the weekdays for school and band practice. “Who needs a day off?” I thought. There’s a great big life to be led!

Call it a cultural condition.

So you can imagine my culture shock when I moved to the east coast. On my first Sunday in Halifax I went to pick up some groceries after church. I wanted to make my new wife a special Sunday lunch. But the doors at the SuperStore were locked and it was dark inside.

“Something must be wrong,” I muttered to myself. “The power must be out.”

So I went down the street to the Sobey’s. There too, the parking-lot was empty and the lights were out.

I thought I might have been early so I checked to see when the store opened.

Monday at 8:00.

I said a bad word.

“What kind of poe-dunk, hillbilly, backward, burg did I get stuck in?” I yelled at our dog when I got home.

“The stores aren’t open on Sunday,” Rebekah said, overhearing my conversation with the dog. “Nova Scotia is the only province that doesn’t have Sunday shopping. I think that’s a good thing.”

I rolled my sanctimonious Ontarian eyes. And mine weren’t the only eyes that rolled. Folks from Ontario and elsewhere moved into the province and demanded that the government change the laws.

The crazy thing was that the government would have changed the laws in an Alberta minute if they thought it would help the economy. They weren’t worried about folks going to church. The Sabbath wasn’t on their minds. They said there wasn’t enough money in the economy to justify a seventh shopping day. The same amount of money would be spent each week. It would just be spread out over seven days. The real losers in this fight were the small businesses who would have had to pay extra overhead costs for no profitable gain. The big boxes could more easily absorb the extra cost.

It was a nasty fight. Eventually, the government caved. And it’s meant some boarded up windows downtown on Spring Garden Avenue.

But I don’t think that a Sabbath can be legislated any more than a celebration can be governed by rules. And I think that’s what Jesus was getting at.

I began by asking what YOU do in your life to hedge away some time or some place to devote yourself to God? How do YOU keep the Sabbath holy?

But as I think of it, I wonder if that’s the wrong question. I think the only thing we can do is present ourselves to Jesus and trust that he still wants to put us back together when we break.

I wonder if Jesus is asking us this: Do you need refreshment and renewal? God is seeking out ways to surprise you with the joys of creation – a day in the mountains to marvel at their beauty. The joy of fellowship and warmth of friendship.

And even more deliberately, God pours over you the waters of baptism, washing away your sins, bringing you out of the cold, clean water, ready to begin again fresh.

Are you hungry and thirsty, tired of foraging for food and slaving in life’s hot kitchen? God invites you eat from the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation, Christ’s own food to satisfy our deepest hungers

And instead of struggling to find the words you need to solve your problems, God speaks to you God’s word, God’s wisdom.

The Sabbath is a mini-resurrection. We gather as God’s people to confess our sins and receive forgiveness. We come to be fed when we are hungry. And I think we’re all hungry for something. We come to be a new creation.

Like the bent over woman maybe we come to worship asking Jesus to heal us from what has us doubled over in pain. We come looking for something to help us begin again.

And Jesus is waiting for us. His eyes may be closed in prayer but his hands are open ready to receive us.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Pentecost 12 - Year C

NB: With help from Willimon’s Pulpit resource

Why do you come to church? Do you come seeking comfort and quiet consolation? Is your life on fast forward, awash in a sea of change and innovation, out of control? Are you looking to slow down, centre yourself, to touch base with something stable and dependable, if only for one hour?

After all, church is supposed to be a place were we tie things down, slow down, cool down, quiet down, and settle down. This is, of course, church.

If you came for that reason than that’s a good call. Especially since we call this room, this worship space, the “sanctuary.”

Some say one of the smartest things our church has done is install air conditioning here in the worship space to make it more sanctuarious (did I just make up a word?).

Who could disagree? With the crazy heat we’ve had for the past two months who wants to sit in a stuffy, overheated church when you could go to the air-conditioned mall?

We come to church to be soothed, comforted, solidified in our values, and strengthened in our faith. We come to celebrate as God’s people how God is building our lives and families. We come looking for peace and joy. That what church is.

And then there’s Jesus.

“I have come to cast fire on the earth,” Jesus says. “Do you think I’ve come to bring peace!? NO! I’ve come to bring division! Strife! Loathing! I’m here to divide homes, break up families! Get kids in trouble! I’m here to start a fire!”

I’ve always wondered why these passages pop up during the summer. Especially when folks are in vacation mode. Wouldn’t more comforting passages make more sense as we sit by the water sipping our umbrella drinks?

Maybe the folks who put together the lectionary – the weekly bible readings – knew that churches were only half full because everyone’s away camping for the weekend listening to Robert Schuller instead of coming to church.

Or do passages like these pop up during holiday-time BECAUSE people are in vacation-mode? A little subversive bible poke when we’re just getting comfortable. They want to shake people out of their hotdog induced stupor. All that fresh air is making them soft. They need a taste of fire.

And Jesus is ready to set fire to your tongue. Conflict. Trouble. Loathing. That is what you can expect if you want to live like a Christian.

Methodist Preacher Will Willimon says that he was a campus pastor for over 20 years. During that time he said that no parents called him to say “Help! I think my son is an alcoholic.” Or “Help! My daughter is sleeping around,” though such are huge problems.

No, he says, but he did receive maybe a dozen - often angry - phone calls, saying something like “Help! I think my daughter’s become a religious fanatic.”

“Religious fanatic” being defined as going along with the Catholics to Haiti to work in a literacy program.

Jesus said, “I have come to bring division. I have come to bring fire. Even your parents may not understand. But follow me anyways.”

Years ago when it was still East Germany, a pastor who suffered terribly under the communists was being hassled about an influx of young, angry, disaffected rebellious young people into his congregation. Some folks said that they were ready to walk out if the pastor didn’t tell those hippies to cut their hair, put on a tie, take a shower, and take a seat at the back.

“We’re a closed society,” the grizzled old pastor said, “There is nowhere for their dissent to be heard but in the church. It’s the only place to take out their anger with the government. So, they buy denim jeans, grow their hair long, and come to a place where they are free to be angry.”

He may have lost some members, but he didn’t care. Jesus loved them, not some watered down, family-friendly version of who the church thought they should be.

Jesus said, “I have come to send fire to the earth.”

In my first parish, there was a woman who was very involved in the life of the church. I figured she had been around the church forever. I couldn’t picture the church without her. The kitchen was her territory; if you didn’t know where to put the cups and saucers after coffee hour, she would tell you.

But it turns out that she stopped going to church a year after she was married. Her husband didn’t like her going to church. He drank, and he “just knew” that folks at church were talking about him.

For a while she went to church anyway, knowing that a mean, angry drunk was waiting for her when she got home.

Finally he had enough. And probably the biggest gift he ever gave her was leaving her for another woman.

Jesus said “I have not come to bring peace but division.”

So, what consequences do you bear as a Christian? What does your life proclaim?

Is the church a place where we sit up straight, hand on our laps, listen politely, and do what we’re told?

Or is the church a place where we are set on fire?

When I toured the new Christian radio station here in Lethbridge the station manager proudly promised that this station would be safe to listen to, in-offensive to anyone who might stumble upon their number on the dial.

“Is that what Christianity’s come down to?” I thought to myself. “Safe and inoffensive? Does that mean that we won’t hear readings like the one from today’s gospel? Or will they be glossed over with a Disneyfied version of our faith?”

When the church becomes a safe place, a middle-class refuge for secure stability, water douses the fire that longs to dance on our heads, and we are not the incendiary fellowship Jesus incited us to be. And we won’t make the impact that God wants to make. We won’t put a dent in the universe.

Jesus says, “Anyone out there want to start a fire? Anyone out there frustrated with the world as it is? Anyone out there want to break something up, start something new, dive head first into a new adventure? Then come, stick your hand in the fire and see what happens. Be a spark that will ignite the whole world with love and compassion, with faithfulness and trust and risk. Be a flame that will spread to the edges of the earth, setting fire to injustice and warming those who are shivering in the dark.”

How does that sound?

So I ask again, what consequences do you bear as a Christian? What does your life proclaim?

Whatever cost we pay as followers of Jesus, BBT reminds us, “There is good news here for those with the nerve to hear it. The gospel is not a flashlight but a fire. It can warm and it can burn. The gospel is not a table knife, but a sword. It can set free and it can divide. The gospel is not pabulum. It is powerful stuff, powerful enough to challenge the most sacred human ties, but as frightening as it is, it is not finally to be feared.

“The peace of God is worth anything it takes to get there, and anyone knows that [peace is not merely the absence of conflict]. The good news is that in Christ God has given us someone worth fighting about, and someone with enough clout to end all our fighting, for his word is like fire, like a hammer that breaks rocks into pieces.”

May that fire ignite us to set the world on fire with God’s love. Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Pentecost 11 - Year C

”Do one thing everyday that scares you,” says Eleanor Roosevelt.

When I was in my twenties that seemed to be my tag line. This became apparent when I started seminary and had to take a gaggle of psych exams to make sure that I wasn’t a serial killer. One of the outcomes of those tests was that I was an OFF-THE-CHART risk taker.

When asked to explain myself all I could say was that it wasn’t that I was consciously taking risks. I just did stuff.

They asked if I ever quit a job without having another one lined up. Yes.

They asked if I’d ever moved to a new city without knowing where I was going to sleep that night. Yes.

They asked if, in a relationship, I was the first one to confess my love even without knowing how the other would respond. Yes.

They asked if I ever cold-called businesses when looking for a job, if I ever took a job that was beyond my abilities, if I ever asked a boss for a raise. Yes. Yes. And Yes.

And on it went.

What I thought was simply “living” some psychologist thought was extreme risk taking.

Now look at me. 12 years down the road I seem to have lost my edge. I don’t take as many risks as I did as a young punk. I wonder what happened.

I wonder if I’ve grown-up - matured - developed out of my risk-taking phase.

Or I wonder if having children causes a person to drive slower, plan the day more carefully, and check the water before jumping in.

Or maybe it’s because I became a leader in the church, where safety and stability are rewarded, and risk is punished.

There may be something to that.

It’s been said that Christian churches are the most conservative organizations in the world. By this they mean that churches are more resistant to innovation than most other organizations.

Some say that’s because we always look to the past for our strength and identity. After all, our story is over 2000 years old.

Others say it’s because of fear of the unknown. While the world is being turned upside down and old certainties are being decimated in favour of newer philosophies, where the sum of human knowledge doubles every 5-to 10 years, where people change jobs or careers on average of every 2-3 years, where families are crumbling, technology changing the way we talk, at least the church will guard against soul-crushing innovation, at least the church will be a sanctuary brimming with ancient wisdom, opening our eyes when the blizzard of change blinds us

So God tells Abram in the midst of change, “Do not be afraid, for I am your shield.”

Nice. Comfortable. Words.

But Abram is still afraid. Anyone would be. God has asked him to pick up his life and move halfway across the planet. God says that his nonagenarian wife is pregnant. And God tells Abram that his life is just beginning while his pension cheques arrive in the mail.

God is asking him to risk. To trust. To have faith.

I’m guessing it was a hard sell, even for God. That’s why God had to show Abram the pay-off. “Look up at the sky,” God says, “see the stars. You will have as many descendants as the stars you see in the sky.”

Very cool.

So God waited for an answer. I’m guessing that Abram didn’t jump up and snatch the offer on the table right away. There was a lot to consider. He was tired. He worked hard all his life. Someone younger would be better at it. Also, he had a geritol-sipping wife who probably wouldn’t be doing backflips at the thought of getting pregnant and slogging across the known universe all because her husband heard a voice in the sky.

Abram decided the risk was worth it. If for no other reason than he’d spend the rest of his life wondering what he’d lost because he didn’t accept God’s offer.

And it is said that God reckoned that risk- that trust, that faith – God reckoned it as righteousness.

In other words, because Abram risked and trusted God’s promise, it was like Abram didn’t sin - ever.

That’s how much God values trust and risk.

But now, so much in the church is about preservation and survival. So much in the church is about safety and comfort.

Pastor Bill Hybels of WillowCreek Community Church, shamelessly stealing from business writer Jim Collins, called them “BHAGs.” Great word, isn’t it? It means “Big Hairy Audacious Goals.” And Hybels says that it’s the church’s job to set goals so big that it’s only through God’s help that they can be achieved.

Sacred wisdom? Or nice sounding spiritual words from a master communicator?

I like to think of it as setting goals that push us to greater commitment and a stronger vision of the impact we can make in our community.

Doesn’t sound quite as sexy as the way Hybels says it, does it?

So maybe I’ll put it another way: I think God is asking us to risk. Maybe God is saying that if our goals aren’t making us collectively fill our pants than we aren’t risking enough, trusting enough, pushing our faith to the limit.

But we need to remember – and Hybels would agree - that risk is not a whimsical disregard for commonsense or a delusional dream of an egomaniac bent on world domination.

Risk follows a vision of what life can be, a vision of what God wants the world to look like, and how we can help God build that world.

I would like us to start thinking about how God is asking us to risk. I think God is asking us to dream God-sized dreams. I think God would even like to see us fail- and fail spectacularly. I often wonder that if we aren’t failing, we aren’t risking. We aren’t trusting God to catch us when we fall.

I’ve shared this quote by Marianne Williamson with you before, but it bears repeating:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you NOT to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

So, what’s the one thing you’ll do today that scares you? What’s the one thing we as a church can do that will scare US?

Sometimes I wonder if we have TOO MANY opportunities and our problem is choosing just one or two of them.

Other times I wonder if the dreams God has for Good Shepherd are so vast that we shrink from our call to be kingdom builders with God, preferring the safety of a well-run organization to the chaos of faith and trust.

We may hear God tell Abram not to be afraid and hope it applies to us as well.

However, I think that despite God’s best intentions we will be afraid. We will always be afraid.

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? That’s who we are. Without fear there is no trust. Without fear there is no faith.

Some define risk as pursuing a goal without being sure of the definite outcome.

Or the writer of Hebrews in our second lesson puts it this way: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Sounds also like a great definition for “risk” and “trust” doesn’t it?

Abram never saw God’s vision for him fulfilled because it’s still being fulfilled. Jesus’ followers are still waiting for the Son of Man to re-appear. And we are wondering what our church will look like 5, 10, 50 years down the road. We don’t see the definite outcome.

But I think God is asking us to look at the sky and count the stars while being dressed and ready for action.

And Jesus says to all of us who are shaking in our sandals, “Do not be afraid, little flock.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Pentecost 10 - Year C

“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!” shouts the teacher. A little cynical, don’t you think? He might as well say, “life’ tough…then you die.” Not exactly a hopeful message, is it?

This teacher is quite the whiner, isn’t he? He says that he worked hard his whole life to help his people grow deeper in wisdom, only to see them through it all away. Why even bother? He seems to be saying.

Maybe you teachers, on your bad days, in the congregation can relate. You work your fingers raw trying to get into the hearts and minds of our young people only to see them waste their time and talents on PlayStation and third rate underground punk bands. Or their parents’ ambitions for their children were decidedly smaller than the talent you saw blossoming inside them. Despite your best efforts, some folks just didn’t get it.

I wonder if Paul worried about the same thing in the second reading. He had his knickers in a knot about something in this passage. But then again, when WASN’T Paul angry about one thing or another? Is that what Paul does best?
When I was in seminary, it was hip to hate Paul. They said he hated women, he was too full of himself, he was homophobic. Some folks thought they had better theology than the first apostle to the gentiles.

I never really understood the animosity toward the guy who articulated the whole “grace through faith” thing, but if you can’t be sanctimonious in seminary, when can you be sanctimonious?

It was passages like this one in today’s second that got peoples’ shorts in a bunch. Here is Paul at his rhetorical best, or some might say worst. He trots out the biggies, the sins that that some thought were the worst of the worst. He seemed to hate everything that gave life flavour, anything that made for a good movie. If it was fun, Paul was against it. It’s like he wanted us to be pure disembodied souls instead of real, live, flesh and blood human beings.

Fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed? Put to death whatever is earthly? Wrath for the disobedient? For those trying to condemn Paul, there’s a lot to work with here.

And they wouldn’t be alone. You don’t need to know the bible to be uncomfortable with this passage.

If a person just walked off the street they’d probably ask an usher if they were bold, “What fascist wrote that little piece of moral instruction?” If they were unsure about this whole Christianity thing to begin with, they’d probably sneak out the back door when nobody’s looking.

If they knew a bit about Christian history, they’ll probably say, “Here it comes: I’m going to Hell because of all the good things in life. Typical Christians, draining the passion from human existence.”

That’s certainly what it sounds like, doesn’t it? Paul comes down pretty hard on the sensual things of life, as if he wants us to live a life that’s plain as an Amish breakfast.

And I would imagine that Paul letter caused quite a row in the pews of the Colossian church. Just like it does today.

We don’t have to go any further than the recent controversies over homosexuality in our denomination to see that Paul can still get under peoples’ skin.

On the one side of the issue: let’s call them “liberals” or, as they like to be called “progressives,” for lack of a better term. We hear some say, “Keep your puritanical beliefs about sex to yourself. The issues facing the world are economic. People around the world and in this community are starving to death and you’re worried about sex. The earth is overheating and is driving human existence to extinction and you’re worried about how two people love each other. You can’t tell me who I can have sex with, but I can tell you what to do with your money.”

On the other side, the “conservatives” for lack of a better term, we hear, “Sexual issues are at the heart of who we are as human beings. Personal morality is what keeps us from chaos. The economic issues are a smoke screen concealing the real problems facing the world. When AIDS is destroying Africa because of promiscuity and adultery, when sexual free-for-alls are creating disorder, don’t you talk to me about my wallet. Don’t tell me what to do with my money, but I’ll tell you who you can and cannot have sex with.”

Two VERY different ways of looking at the world.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. But I think it contains a kernel of truth. Each side can use today’s bible readings to justify their position. But thankfully it doesn’t end there. There’s enough in today’s second two reading to annoy just about anyone.

Jesus goes after a prosperous farmer for committing the crime of – O Horror of horrors – being prudent and responsible. He was condemning the rich man for planning for the future, putting a little something away for a rainy day. He was coming down hard this guy for having retirement savings, first century investment plan. He says this kind of financial planning is being “greedy.”

It sounds like someone is out of touch with reality.

Did the rich man get his money by dealing dirty with folks? Did he make money for money’s sake? Did his vast wealth take God’s place in his life?

We don’t know. Jesus just says he’s greedy.

But I think that, neither for Jesus nor for Paul, can life be separated so easily. For Paul and Jesus there is no separation between the personal and political, the micro and the macro, individual sexual ethics and global economic realities.
In other words, the world cannot be sliced in pieces too evenly. Everything is connected. Every action has consequences beyond ourselves.

So, Paul wasn’t just trying to suck the joy out of life, and Jesus wasn’t just trying to be difficult. Both of them were reminding us what the Teacher said at the very beginning, “vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”

To say it another way, “life is frail. All our accomplishments and acquisitions mean little or nothing in light of eternity. So focus on the things that will last, not the momentary pleasures that last just a moment then die.

It’s easy to stand here and tell you to ‘remember the important things in life.’ It’s quite another to actually do it. It’s easy to talk about it, harder to live it.

But I’ve noticed that it usually takes a tragedy to remind us of what’s important. A parent’s death. A traffic accident. The baby’s born but not breathing. These stop us in our shoes and shift our eyes toward those treasures that only God can keep from perishing. Our shelf life may be limited. But God’s isn’t.

At the end we realize that the lives we lead are not our own. We forfeited our lives when we were baptized. Paul reminds us in Galatians that it is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me.

For some, that might sound like a chain around the neck. But for those who’ve received a second life in Jesus, it spells Freedom.
May this be so among us. Amen.