Sunday, April 27, 2008

Easter 6 - Year A

Do you remember the day when you received your driver’s license? How did it feel? Wasn’t it a glorious day?

I didn’t get mine until I was 19, and until then, I was content just taking the bus everywhere. Living in a city where the transit system didn’t suck, I got where I needed to go in good time and got a lot of reading done along the way.

But then my feet started to twitch. No matter how hard I scratched them, the twitching never stopped. I didn’t like being at the mercy of the bus schedule. I didn’t like having to carry around change, worrying they’d fall through the holes in my pockets. I didn’t like always having to remember to but new bus tickets every couple of weeks. I wanted to go where I wanted, when I wanted. I wanted my freedom.

Freedom. It’s how we define ourselves. We are free people. We live in “the true north strong and free.” If our freedom is intruded upon, we fight back. If our freedom is threatened, we resist.

Freedom is a right. It was hard won. Our fathers and mothers, our grandmothers and grandfathers, and even some of you, paid an incalculable price for our freedom. And we honour that sacrifice.

So we say our freedom is sacred. Putting a Christian colour on it. Something to respect, and rightly so. Freedom, after all, is a Christian virtue.

But then again, do we really know what “freedom” is? Has some of it’s biblical shine worn off?

What our culture means by “freedom” and what the bible says “freedom” is may be two very different things. Our culture talks a lot about freedom of choice, especially when we go to Superstore or Wal-Mart. We demand, as consumers, the right to choose what fabric softener is best for our family’s delicates. We choose between Coke and Pepsi. We choose between organic apples or those freakishless perfect apples pumped with steroids and dipped in wax. No one can tell us what to buy or how to live or whom to love. It’s our birthright to make our own decisions for ourselves and families.

We call it “freedom.”

A few weeks ago folks were encouraged to participate in “Earth Hour.” Here at Good Shepherd we had something in the bulletin about it, and Corrine Jerke made an announcement on behalf of the Kairos Christian social justice group. So, Earth Hour was on our church radar.

“Earth Hour” took place on a Saturday evening from 8:00 – 9:00 where people were encouraged to turn off the lights and unplug other electrical appliances for one hour, to demonstrate how much energy we use and how much money we can save just by simple modifications to our habits.

Well…in the Herald a week or so later, there was a letter to editor blasting “Earth Hour.” You might have seen it. “How dare I be asked to adjust my lifestyle to support an environmental agenda? How dare others suggest that my lifestyle is hurting the world! How dare the persistent march of economic growth be compromised!”

The pursuit of a more prosperous and comfortable lifestyle. They call it “freedom.”

Some cultural observers have noted that today’s generation is the first one in history to define ourselves not by what we create, but by what we consume. Freedom equals the opportunity to buy what we want, when we want it.

It’s referred to as the “Starbucks” economy. Others call it the “Experience Economy.” I think those are great names. Just sit for a few minutes in Starbucks and you’ll see what they mean. No two orders are the same. Everyone has their own twist on how to enjoy their caffeine jolt, their own unique taste requirements. Coffee is not longer coffee. It’s a personal statement. It’s what makes Starbucks, Starbucks. And people will gladly pay $5 for a cup of the “Starbucks experience.”

When I go I have a Grande-size, gingerbread soy latte with no whipped cream, but with nutmeg sprinkled on top. (did you get that? Now you know what get me when you go through the new Drive-thru on Mayor McGrath Drive)

What do you have? I’ll bet you a Frappicino it’s not the same. Creating our own consumer experiences is a massive change in the way our world works.

Some call it a greater democratization of the economy. They say that a participation oriented economy is a force to create democracy in the world. Just look at the massive changes happening in China, they say. Pay attention to the giant democratic leaps in India. People are being empowered economically and that’s helping the movement toward democracy. It’s helping the cause of freedom all over the world.

But others call this move to an experience economy a lunge toward greater self-centredness. That we’ve become so fixated on our own needs and wants that we are losing a sense of the wider community. We’re too worried about what to get for ourselves that we don’t really care about our neighbours.

I think they’re both right. Greater democratization AND more rank self-centeredness are the logical consequences of what we say drives our economy and our experience of the world.

They call it “freedom.”

Today we are up to our knees in what bible scholars call “Jesus’ farewell discourse.” In other words, he’s saying good-bye to his friends.

For three years they’d been wandering around with Jesus while he taught them all about who God is. Jesus showed them first-hand what God’s love can do.

The saw healings and raisings from the dead. They witnessed exorcisms and heard potent sermons. They were safe behind the wall of Jesus’ power to explore and experiment with what it meant to be Jesus’ disciple. Their spiritual wagons were circled by God’s authority.

Now it was crumbling down around their ears. I’m sure the disciples’ didn’t know what hit ‘em.

“I’m going away,” Jesus says as the disciples look sideways at each other, wondering what they’re going to do next.

“But I’m not going to leave you on your own,” Jesus adds, maybe sensing their rising temperatures, “I’m giving you another Advocate. Someone who will guide you when I’m gone.”

Advocate. Counselor. Comforter. Guide. These are all words to describe the same thing; the Holy Spirit.

But I think Jesus deliberately left out one other appropriate adjective: disturber. The Holy Spirit that Jesus was talking about does comfort, counsel, and guide us, but that same Spirit also disturbs us.

That Spirit disturbs us out of our self-centredness. That same Spirit reminds us that the earth does not spin on OUR personal axis. The Spirit turns our gaze away from our own navels, to a broken, hurting, and sin-stained world in need of the power of Jesus.

That same Spirit teaches us that freedom is not just getting what you want, when you want, and how you want it. In fact, this Spirit sets us free from the tyranny of my own needs and wants and teaches me to live as Christ lived – in love with the world. Spirit teaches us that real freedom is a life lived in love.

When Jesus wanted his followers to love each other as he loved them, I think Jesus was talking about what we would give up for each other, what would we give up for the sake of the life of the world.

But then again, this sounds all nice and romantic. Who could be against love? But if we really sit down and think about what Jesus was talking about I think that we’d be just as confused as his first followers. Love, the way Jesus talks about it, is hard. It often doesn’t make sense, and may, at times get us into trouble.

Love is a verb, at least it is in the bible. Love isn’t just something we feel in our hearts. When Jesus asked his disciples to love one another, he meant he wanted them to do something.

So, for us as Christians, love is something we DO. Whether it’s at the soup kitchen or a kitchen table, whether it’s at a hospital bedside or food court, whether it’s with a hammer or a helping hand, whether it’s a prayer or a parking lot conversation, God’s love is given hands and feet when we don’t just verbalize God’s love, but make God’s love into a verb.

Jesus wanted his followers to show the world God’s love through the way they loved and cared for each other, within their small, intimate, community. He wanted everyone to share in the joy of salvation.

That was their mandate then. And it’s ours now.

It’s what Jesus calls “freedom.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Easter 5 - Year A

NB: With help from Willimon

“Show us who God is,” Phillip impatiently demands from Jesus.

If you could sum up all human longing in one sentence, I think that would be it. “Show us who God is.”

I would guess that’s why most of you are here at church today– especially on this snowy Sunday – is to see who God is.

You come hungry or merely curious, with great need or simply out of habit, but the unspoken words on your lips as you gather here for worship are “Show us who God is.”

“What are you drawing?” a teacher leans over and asks a little girl who was drawing a picture in school one day.

“God,” the little girl responds.

The teacher laughed and said, “No one knows what God looks like,”

“They will when I get finished with this drawing,” said the little girl.

You gotta love that confidence, don’t you?

So what do you think God looks like? If you could draw a picture of what God, what would God look like?

Would you draw a person? A bearded octogenarian with ripped abs scowling on a cloud, lightening bolt in hand?

Would you draw a nature scene, with radiant sunbeams shining luminously through soaring trees, with just the right mixture of light and dark to signify presence and absence, intimacy and mystery?

Would you draw a self-portrait, believing that since we are all created in God’s image, God looks just like each one of us?

Would you draw Jesus? Or at least what you think Jesus would look like?

If you take today’s gospel reading seriously, that’s just what you might do.

“Show us who God is,” Phillip demands. “Show us the grandeur and majesty of divine glory. Show us God Almighty in splendor and magnificence. Show us ultimate cosmic power. Show us God’s brilliant light in a dark and sinful world.”

“Show us what the world and existence is all about. Show us that our lives are connected somehow to Eternal Life. “Show us that God really cares about us. Show us that God is somehow active in the world and in our lives.”

“Show us goodness in world filled with evil. Show us life everlasting in world consumed by death.

“Show us wisdom in a world filled with mere information and knowledge. Show us compassion in a world filled with self-centredness.

‘Show us wealth in a world weighed down with mere riches. Show us something more than what we see in our daily lives.”

Isn’t that really what Phillip was asking? Isn’t that maybe what you came here asking from Jesus? “Show us who God is.”

“Are you really asking me that?” Jesus asks, not really believing Phillip still wasn’t getting it.

“You been with me all this time and you STILL haven’t figured this out? If you want to know who God is, just look at me. Look at what I do, listen to what I say. God is in me and I am in God.”

God is in Jesus and Jesus is in God. Christians believe that in the life, death, and resurrection, we have seen God. That’s the grand claim of today’s gospel. When we see Jesus, how he lived in the world, when we hear Jesus, the words he spoke to his first followers, the words he speaks to us today, we know, by the power of the Holy Spirit opening our minds and tugging at our hearts, that we have seen, heard, and felt God. Emmanuel. God with us.

We have a God who loved us too much to remain distant and unapproachable. “Show us who God is.” Phillip asks.

“If you want to know who God,” Jesus responds, “just look at me. I am the way, the truth, and the life. If you want to get to God, you get to God through me.”

That’s where Jesus loses some people. In our PC world, this often sounds some alarms. (You know what I mean by PC, don’t you? Politeness and Civility, of course).

People often hear this as hopelessly exclusive. And many Christians have taken this passage used it as a bullet to load theological gun with. People have been killed over this verse. Wars fought. Countries conquered. I’m not sure that that’s what Jesus intended when he said it.

Theologian Emil Brunner says that most claims to truth are really claims to power. Sadly, I think he’s right. What he means by this is that when most people demand ultimate, absolute capital “T” Truth, folks usually mean that their truth is THE TRUTH, and therefore, they’re somehow superior to others. Truth becomes a hammer, a weapon used against ‘lesser people’ who do not have THE TRUTH.

Brunner is like the philosophers who tell us that we’ve moved from the ‘modern’ era into the ‘post-modern’ era, where truth is filtered through human experience.

For example, me, as a white, middle-class, educated, male, living in Canada sees the world much differently then a poor, illiterate, female, factory worker living in Zambia.

We all see the world through the eyes of our history, our life experience, the stories we’ve heard and the people we’ve met. How we view the world and truth is filtered through what surrounds us.

This drives some Christians NUTS. “Truth is Truth. It’s absolute, unchanging, eternal, no matter where you are or where you’ve come from,” they say.

To which I always want to respond, “Why do you want to bring Plato into the conversation?” Before your eyes glaze over, let me explain.

Whether we know it or not, much of our western understanding of truth and even God come from Plato, not from the bible. When Plato says, here is truth, he offers ideas and concepts that we can understand without them ever touching our lives.

When the NT says, “here is truth” it points to Jesus. If you want to know what truth is, just look at Jesus.”

That may be hard for some to grasp. I know it was hard for me. Especially when most theology sounds like a page from Plato’s playbook than from the bible.

But I think, like Pilate asked Jesus, the world is asking “what is truth?” And our job is to Jesus and say, “he is truth. He is the way, the truth, and the life. If you want to find your way to God, he will take you there.”

The Way is the cross, the Truth is the God who walked among us, and the Life is Jesus wrapping a towel around his waist and kneeling down to wash the disciples’ feet.

That’s what power looks like. That’s “the way, the truth, and the life.” Three different ways of saying the same thing.

If you want to see God, just look around and see where Jesus is and what Jesus is doing. You may not see him at first.

And you might want him to be doing more than he is. But Jesus asks that we have patience with him, great patience, because the hard work of renewing the world doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and toil.

Jesus is at the hospital bed holding someone’s hand and saying a gentle prayer.

Jesus is sitting with the confirmand and faith mentor sharing each other’s lives, growing in faith – together.

Jesus is at the funeral home, wiping away tears.

Jesus is downstairs teaching Sunday school. He’s setting up coffee in foyer. He’s making quilts to send CLWR. He’s all around us doing the servant work of God. Under the radar. Behind the scenes. So be patient. His work is finished, but is yet to be complete.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus says, “If you want to find your way to God, I can take you there.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Easter 4 - Year A

“That just blew my mind!” shouted the young woman. “Turn around I need to look at that again.”

The pastor looked down to see what t’shirt he was wearing. It’d been since high school that he thought he owned any t’shirts that could be considered “mind blowing.”

The offending t-shirt was from the Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist Campus Ministry. Not exactly the risqué material that folks usually see during the summer. Considering what people wear – or don’t wear - on their bodies these days, it seemed odd that she stopped a stranger to comment on a church shirt.

The shirt had words written on the back – the words that “blew her mind” “Serve the world” alternated three times with “worship God, with arrows connecting them like a recycling symbol, creating a circular motion.

“Worship God…Serve the world….Worship God…Serve the world…Worship God…serve the world.” It was more than she could take. It blew her mind.

“I just don’t see how you can do both,” she said. “The way I see it, if you worship God you can’t serve the world because the world is too tempting; it’s too evil. It’s nothing like how God wants it to be.”

What do you say to that? Especially in the middle of the candy aisle at the 7-11? He did his best, saying that service to the world is a demonstration of our love and God’s love for the world and everything that Jesus died for. He tried to explain that loving God and serving the world are linked because that’s what Jesus did. We serve the world because God loves the world. Even when it’s sinful. Even when it’s nothing like God wants it to be. But there are limits to convenience-store theology.

But he realized that the “mind-blowing” slogan on the t-shire was really a question about the gate that Jesus talked about in today’s gospel reading. How much of the world do we risk encountering knowing how much evil and death there is in the world? How high, strong, and impenetrable do we want the gate to be in order to protect us from the world? How can we live in the world without letting the world claim us; without letting it determine who we are and what we do?

Those are questions that I struggle with. Not because I see the world as inherently inhospitable to God and what God wants to do in the world. But because the question of Christianity’s relationship to the rest of the world hasn’t been really been answered.

Within Christianity, you get both extremes and everything in between. On the one hand you get fundamentalist Christians who, like the woman in the convenience store, see the world as evil and depraved. “The world isn’t to be served,” they would say. “The world is to be resisted.” And they pray for the day when God will destroy the earth and all evil doers before lifting the righteous into heavenly bliss.

On the other hand, there are Christians who see the world as essentially good, and use the trappings of culture to get the Christian message across. Christians who live pretty much the same as non-Christians, except they might read the bibles, pray, and go to church on Sunday. But are personally, deeply invested in the world’s workings.

And there are those in between. We all ask these questions, whether we know it or not.

Some say that pastors shouldn’t use secular counseling techniques with people because they’re not ways healing people used in the bible. But these same peoples don’t have a problem with using secular accounting and auditing methods to administer finances.

We’ve been wondering how to welcome new people into our family of faith, to make our church more friendly and warm, hoping that our worship is accessible and easily understood. Yet I don’t know if we realize that our worship vocabulary can’t be easily translated into non-church language, which will inevitably exclude some people who will wonder if we’re speaking a foreign language – which, I guess, we are.

So what IS our relationship to the world? For me, that is a hard question. And I think part of the problem is that Jesus was giving us mixed messages.

Jesus turns over the tables in temple, driving out the money changers, wreaking havoc at the centre of Jewish life and faith. But he also healed the Roman soldier whose ear was chopped off while he was trying to arrest Jesus.

Jesus stood in obstinate silence in front of Pilate, suggesting unspoken hostility toward those pagan Roman oppressors, yet expressed amazement at the faith of the tyrannical Roman guard whose son Jesus had healed, a guard who was probably never going to renounce his Roman religion and become a Christian.

And when backed into a corner and asked point blank if it is lawful and good to pay taxes to that disgusting wretch, Caesar, whose god-like image was stamped upon every financial transaction, Jesus had the opportunity to lay it all out on the line where he stood in relationship to the powers of this world. Instead he gave a non-answer. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” H’uh? You’ve muddied the waters so thoroughly that nothing seems clear.

So, which is it, Jesus? Are we to embrace the world or reject the world? Are we to be salt and light for the world or are we to challenge its idolatry? How do we remain faithful in a faithless world? Jesus doesn’t seem to know what he wants from us.

All he says is, “I am the gate.” Not a lot of help, is it? Gates do a lot of things. They keep people in and keep others out. What does he mean that he’s a ‘gate’?

But Jesus is a gate that swings open and stays open. That’s not much of gate. It’s not keeping the good guys safe, and it’s not keeping the evil ones out. But maybe that’s the point. The gate is open because he wants us to go back and forth, in and out. To be faithful is to go from side to side, from Jesus to the world, knowing the threats, but doing it anyways. Because we can’t be faithful Christians without the being threatened by those things which aren’t of God.

Jesus wants us to be safe behind the fence, but also wants us to go back into the world, where it might be dangerous, where we might be lured away by other voices. He wants us to be citizens of heaven and tax payers on earth. One foot in each world, on each side of the gate. Sometimes two feet.

And Jesus knows that the danger is not so much that we’ll be putting ourselves at risk as much as he’ll be risking inviting the thieves and bandits through the gate.

Maybe that’s what he wants. He is the gate that leads to abundant life. For thieves and bandits as well as for us. Through the gate is forgiveness and transformation. Through Jesus, through the gate, we can worship God AND serve the world.

And may God blow their minds through us. Amen