Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pentecost 2 - Year A

NB: some of the exegesis is from
Reading Corinthians: A Literary and Theological Commentary
by Charles H. Talbert.

The city of Corinth that Paul visited in the first century was a city with no old traditions. The old city of Corinth, having been destroyed in 146 BCE by the Roman Consul Mummius, had to re-build from the ground up.

No longer bound to established customs and beliefs, the Corinthians were free to explore their own ways of living, to manufacture their own rituals and beliefs, to discover the excitement of re-inventing themselves.

In Corinth, history, culture, religion, politics, art – all these were up for grabs just waiting to be re-created. It was the city of innovation and novelty. Corinth was where anything could happen. The possibilities were as endless as their buildings were new. If you wanted a fresh start in life, if you wanted to re-invent yourself, if you wanted to live your life as creatively as you wanted, if you wanted your parents off your back, Corinth was the place to be.

And people flocked to the city. They came looking for better paying jobs than what they could find back home. They came looking to grab some of the Corinthian prosperity for themselves while it lasted. They came because they didn’t want to pinned down by old expectations, old orthodoxies. They had bigger dreams for their lives than what their parents had for them.

They wanted their life-story to have a different ending then the one that was given to them. They wanted to create that story for themselves.

That was Corinthian culture. People soaked in that culture. That culture stained on the hearts and minds of all those arriving, searching for a new life. A culture Paul’s church found sitting in their pews.

“…let no one boast about human leaders,” Paul says in the ramp up to today’s reading, “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to you and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God,”

“Think of us in this way,” Paul goes on to say, “[Think of us] as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. ”

Paul knew what he was up against; a culture that said that if YOU weren’t gonna make something of yourself, no one else will.

It was no wonder the good folks at First Church Corinth couldn’t get along. Who was the church to tell them how to live? I create my own world, my own reality, thank you very much. I relate to God in my own way. I don’t need some pastor to tell me who God is. I just need the government out of my way so I can do my own thing, raise my children MY way, make a living the way I want to. No one has any say as to how I live my life than ME and how I choose to live it. It’s my BIRTHRIGHT to make life decisions for myself. I create my own destiny.

Sound familiar?

I think a 21st Century Albertan would be very much at home in 1st century Corinth. Prosperity and personal choice, that’s what we call “freedom.”

But Paul reminds them, “You are servants of Christ, not of yourselves. You are stewards of God’s mysteries, not your own appetites.”

“Stewards of God's mysteries.” I love that phrase. Especially when I don’t know what it means.

What do you think when you hear the word “steward”? In ChurchSpeak, stewardship usually means money. A “Stewardship Campaign” is a euphemism for fundraising. But as soon as people say that they are quick to add “but stewardship is not JUST about money.” lest they leave the impression that Christians are only interested in peoples' bank accounts and not the state of their souls.

Or we think of stewardship of the earth, taking care of God's creation and not treating it like a rental car.

But Paul talks about being “stewards of God's mysteries.” Being 'caretakers' of God's mysteries.

When I was ordained the bishop asked me “Will you preach and teach according to the Lutheran Confessions as a faithful exposition of Holy Scripture?”

To which I answered, “Yes, and I ask God to help and guide me.”

Then he asked, “Will you be diligent in the use of the means of grace.”

“Yes, and I ask God to help and guide me.”

These two promises – or vows – I think, are the most important part of the ordination liturgy. They make up the heart of what I do and who I am. They make up the heart of our life together. Word faithfully proclaimed and sacraments duly administered. Maybe this is what it means to be stewards of God's mysteries.

I often wonder if the baptism liturgy should look more like an ordination service – or visa versa. My robe, my collar, by stole – all these things are to remind YOU of who YOU are – yoked to God through Jesus. Servants of Christ, and stewards of God's mysteries.

It's my job to equip you to be Christians in the world. Lately, I've been thinking how to do that more effectively. I think being a Christian in today's world is tough. Not because of the atheists, or the tiny minority of folks who are hostile toward religion in general and Christianity in paticular. I think it's tough to be a Christian today because the world is so seductive. It's so easy to get sucked into grabbing with two hands the what the world is offering.

The idolotry of the world is a terrible temptation to Christians. The idol is money and what we think it can provide: comfort, security, pleasure, esteem, power. It's what Jesus talked about in today's gospel, We cannot serve two masters...we cannot serve God and wealth. It's either one or the other. You can't have it both ways.

So this idol has been laying around since forever. It's not getting dusty. It's constantly being put before God. And God doesn't like what money does to us.

In Halifax, a recently widowed member of the congregation donated a substantial sum in memory of her husband. The council received it with thanks. But then we spent hours debating – fighting – over what to do it. Then other members of the congregation chimed in:

“It MUST go into the endowment fund!”

“We need to tithe the money to Canadian Lutheran World Relief.”

“The money's to go into the building fund!”

And on it went. For months. The voices rising, along with peoples' temperatures.

Then, the woman who donated the money said, “It's MY money. I'll decide how it's spent.”

“It's MY money” she said. “MY money.” And God wept at the sight of this sad spectacle. As servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries, we failed bitterly, falling into the tempter's snare. Not a tempter with a pitch fork and red pajamas. A tempter with a dollar sign stamped on it's forehead.

I often think about that troubled time in the congregation and wonder what made good, faithful Christians – servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries- behave like greedy children.

It's because we're both. At the same time. We're faithful Christians AND we're greedy children. We DO serve two masters. We have dual citizenship. We're citizens of heaven and taxpayers on earth. That's who we are.

But God has a way of making us more than who we are.

After fighting for months over the money, and the donor threatening to take the money back. And after our council chairperson called a special prayer meeting, it was agreed that the money would go to re-model the nursery.

A group of moms (and a token dad) got together with a fancy interior designer to figure out what to do with room that had peeling paint, 50 year old toys, and a broken crib.

Like most church projects, the job took twice as long as it needed to. But the result was stunning. It's amazing what a fresh paint, new carpet, a few leather couches, and a box of new toys can do. The nursery rivaled the sanctuary for being the most beautiful room in the church. In fact, I stopped meeting with people in my office, directing them instead to the nursery.

But this makeover was also symbolic of something new that was happening in the church. The re-made nursery told the congregation and to everyone who came through our doors that we trusted God's future. That God transformed the fights of the past into a hope in God's promised future. Everytime we walked past that room or stuck our head in, we were reminded that God is still making all things new. That God is still in the business of bring people together, that God is still re-creating the world.

At the church, we may have forgotten that we were servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries. We may have forgotten that we can't serve two masters. But God didn't forget. God remembered God's promises. And out of something ugly and hurtful, God created something beautiful and loving.

Stephen Ministry can be a lot like that. The best Stephen Ministers are the ones with scars. The ones who've been wounded by life, and maybe by God. The best Stephen Ministers are the ones whose lives have been visited by tragedy and by grace. The best Stephen Ministers are the ones who know what its like to be hurt. And they minister out of that pain. Out of pain and loss, God able to create love and renewal.

The folks in Corinth learned that freedom came NOT from what they can create for themselves, but from what God was creating in them. The church in Halifax learned that even when they forget that serving two masters will leave them bitter and fractious, God is still putting things back together, renewing what has been broken.

So, for us, as servants of God and stewards of God's mysteries, even when one door of opportunity is closed, God is asking us to remember that we still belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. That God still has promised us a future with hope.

May we be found trustworthy when God re-opens the door of possibility. Amen.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Easter 7 - Year A

I don’t know about you, but for me, Jesus’ prayer in the garden is a powerful challenge. Yes, it’s important to strive for Christian unity. Being unified in the gospel is a tremendous witness to God’s love in action in a constantly fragmented world.

But I get tired just thinking about it. For me, Christians getting together is like the family reunion that you dread. There’s Aunt Peggy who smells like Windex and talks to you like you’re in kindergarten. Uncle Joe is pounding back his sixth scotch and it’s only 2:30 in the afternoon. Your cousin Jim is still nursing the grudge from 20 years ago when you gave him ex-lax and told him it was a piece of chocolate. And you know it’s only a matter of hours before Aunt Sheila and Grandma Jones will start their yearly screaming match. If you have family reunions, you know what I’m talking about.

Christian unity, to me, is a lot like that. When Christians get together I know what most of the conversation will be. From the United Church, I’ll be asked to defend Martin Luther’s involvement in the Peasants’ Rebellion of 1524. From the Anglicans I’ll be teased about our “fixation” on Martin Luther. The Roman Catholics will try to make pleasant conversation, not really knowing what to talk about, like the introverted uncle who sees you only once every five years. And the evangelicals will natter on with a curious mixture of superiority and inferiority. At least that’s how I experience it.

Then there are the voices that are NOT there. Other Lutherans who shall remain nameless, for example.

But so often, Christian unity, or to use the fancy church word: ecumenism, tends to be about creating wonderful documents affirming common areas of interest, theological congruities, and historic similarities, with high level denominational officials meeting, often with the greatest of ambitions and the highest of hopes – organic union; a merger, an organizational return to one world-wide church of Jesus Christ.

And every once in a while, someone writes a book about how God is tearing down denominations, and that Christians will, at last, be unified in the gospel. All divisions are breaking, dividing walls are crumbling, and God’s one universal church is rising from the rubble.

Maybe I’m just too cynical. But I always roll my eyes at self-proclaimed prophets declaring a mystical union of Christian churches. Perhaps it’s not just cynicism. It could be muddy-booted pragmatism.

If all Christians are going to be the same, how will we worship? Whose liturgy will we use? Will we use a liturgy at all? Christians can’t even agree on what DAY to worship let alone HOW to worship.

What bible translation will we use? Which confession of faith will undergird our church life and doctrine? Can you imagine the nightmare of working all this out?

Besides, I LIKE being a Lutheran. It’s where God has called me to serve. I feel nurtured and fed by our rich theological tradition. And I think our tradition is a gift to the rest of the Christian community. It’s something we lose at our own peril, and to the diminishment of the worldwide church.

I was at a Deans’ meeting in Mississauga in 2002 and Eastern Synod Bishop Mike Pryse was telling us Deans about what was happening with the agreement between the Lutherans and Anglicans that was signed the year before.

“We have some kinks to work out,” he said.

And I knew what he was talking about. In Halifax our church had a service remembering “Take Back the Night” and we invited members of the community who worked in the social service sectors, especially those who worked with abused women and children. We wanted to pray for them and thank them for all their hard and often thankless work on behalf of hurting people, being a voice to voiceless.

I invited a female Anglican priest from town to preside over Holy Communion, since Rebekah was on maternity leave. I wanted a woman clergyperson at the table because many of the people attending said they’d never experienced communion offered by a woman before. However, this priest said that she needed permission from her bishop to preside at communion at another church.

Ummm. Okay. So she received conditional permission from her bishop. “He just needs a copy of the liturgy before he gives is final ‘okay’” she said.

Ummm. Fine. So I emailed the bishop a copy of the liturgy we were using that night, which included a communion prayer written by Janet Morley, an Anglican poet.

A couple weeks passed and I hadn’t heard anything from the bishop so I assumed everything was kosher. But then I received a message on the church answering machine the day before the service. It was from the Anglican bishop. He was informing me that the Eucharistic prayer was not one of the “approved” prayers of the Anglican Church and therefore he was not giving his permission to have this priest preside at Holy Communion at the service.

My Lutheran blood boiled. “I beg your pardon Lord Bishop, but did I just hear you say the words, ‘approved prayer’? How dare some bishop decide what prayer can and cannot be said in this church! How dare he stick his nose into my church! How dare he act like…like…an ANGLICAN!” Rebekah talked me down from sending the bishop a nasty, un-Christian email.

Bishop Pryse was right. There were “kinks” to be worked out.

“The Waterloo Declaration [the agreement between Lutherans and Anglicans] was like a marriage ceremony,” Bishop Pryse said. “Everything was fun and romantic. And you have a wonderful honeymoon. It’s only after you’ve started living together that you run into problems and discover that the other person isn’t as perfect as you’d like them to be.”

True enough. But where does that leave us?

Bishop’s Mike’s assistant then noted that there weren’t any other Full Communion talks with other churches on the horizon.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Not enough money,” she responded. “Too expensive.”

“Too expensive for what?”

“For the meetings, the papers to be written and presented, the agreements to be circulated, these things all cost money,” she said.

“But how much does it cost put on a pot coffee and chat?” I pondered.

But I wonder if her response was more a convenient bureaucratic smoke-screen than an honest answer. I think she knew that the experience with the Anglicans was proving harder than anyone thought it would be. And they simply didn’t have the energy to start the process with anyone else. Christian unity IS hard once you get past the platitudes.

In 2007 I preached at the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service at McKillop United Church. In my sermon, I noted that Paul doesn’t see Christian unity as one option among many, but that God has MADE us ONE body. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul scolds those Christians who were creating division in the church, those believers who believed they were better than others because of what they believed and how they worshiped.

But Paul was having none of it, “Whether you like or not,” Paul more or less says, “you are a church family. You are Christ’s body. For all your faults, for all your disagreements, for all your mistakes, you are the only visible form the risen Christ has in the world.

That’s quite the rebuke, don’t you think? But a rebuke and a promise. It tells us that no matter what we do to each other, no matter how much we fight and disagree, no matter how far we stray off the beaten theological path, we can’t escape each other. We’re Christians. We’re stuck with each other, like it or not.

“Does that sound like good news to you?” I asked.

Then I paused. And I noticed that NOT ONE PERSON was nodding their head “yes.” People couldn’t decide whether Paul’s version of Christian unity sounded like good news or bad news.

So, I let the question just hang there like a wet sock. Then people started to giggle – uncomfortably. Then I said, “You had to think about it for awhile didn’t you?”

I think that, behind and beyond the platitudes and good intentions, Christians aren’t comfortable with each other. We know that Christians don’t have a very good history of getting along. We know that, despite all the papers written and all the official statements, Christians still fight with each other.

But it does sound like good news to me. But I had to dig around for it. If Christian unity were easy, then Jesus wouldn’t have had to pray for it. We can only be unified when the Holy Spirit makes us so, not when we come up with authorized agreements and institutional declarations. We are unified when God says we are.

Today we conclude our worship series, Living the Resurrection: The Fruit of the Spirit, based on Galatians 5. We wrap this up with the Spiritual Fruit called “generosity.” I think that’s very fitting. I want you to see this Fruit as an affirmation. Good Shepherd is a tremendously generous congregation. Good Shepherd is generous with its compassion and care, generous with love and faithfulness, generous with peace and patience. And yes, generous with finances.

I think this congregation is so generous because we know we couldn’t have achieved so much on our own, that we need God’s ever-present Spirit to guide us and strengthen us. That knowledge brings humility, and from humility comes generosity. And from generosity comes a willingness to reach out to other Christians in friendship, and to the whole world with God’s love.

As we continue to live the resurrection it is my prayer love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control guide us in our life together, and in our witness to the new life we have received in Jesus, sharing that fruit with a hungry world.

May this be so among us. Amen!