Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pentecost 15A

An article, by American preacher Lillian Daniel has been circulating widely among religious professionals. In fact I think half my clergy friends on Facebook and Twitter provided a link to it because it speaks to a common frustration among church folks.

The article has the provocative title “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” In it she takes on those who create their own spirituality on their own terms. She scolds those whose heartfelt theological reflections lead people to the deeply profound and radical conclusions that they “find God in the sunset” or “during walks on the beach” or “while hiking in the mountains” as if we Christians never thought of finding God in nature before.

She waves a finger at them chiding them saying “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself...”

I understand her frustration. As one who has dug deeply into the Christian theological tradition, and discovering its riches, it can seem downright insulting to centuries of thoughtful theological reflection being diminished in favour of a “I find God in the sunsets” kind of kindergarten spirituality.

And we - YOU - as a church, who gather regularly to hear God’s word and receive the Holy Sacraments, who work hard to build a strong church, who give so much of your time, talents, and treasure to ensure that the proclamation of the gospel is heard between these walls and lived out in the community.

Those of you who’ve lived, breathed, and died the gospel message, might be offended to hear that some folks believe their self-styled “walk along the beach” spirituality is a more authentic expression of faith than you who have holy dirt under your fingernails.

In my job I encounter these folks with self-created spiritualities all the time, folks who dismiss or challenge institutional religious traditions. But the weird thing is that they want me, as a religious leader to affirm their religious rants, no matter how bizarre they are.

A conversation usually goes like this, “Look, pastor, I know you are a Christian, but I believe that the earth is just a school for us to learn how to live on a higher plane of existence when we die, after which we exist as pure energy. And when we suffer it means we were meant to have that experience because in a past life we hurt someone and we need to feel the same thing. That’s true right? RIGHT?”

And, of course, if I disagree with them, I’m forcing my religion on to them, being the typical despotic preacher who demands intellectual obedience, as if they weren’t doing the same to me.

I find those conversations annoying, if not insulting. As if their random musings are at the same level as thousands of years of deep theological refections.

Many religious commentators have chimed in on why this phenomena is happening. Some say that it’s because of boring church services with long, tedious sermons that are out of touch with peoples’ daily lives.

Others suggest that we speak a religious language that does not compute in the brains of non-believers; that the words we use get lost in translation when they reach secular ears.

Yet others blame the growth of a multi-cultural society, where there’s no moral or religious consensus, and so the spiritual waters have been so muddied that folks are forced to create their own spiritual meaning.

Still others blame a self-centered consumer society, where people get to pick and choose everything else in their lives, so why not their personal spirituality?

While I’m sure that there’s truth in all of these theories, I wonder if the rise of self-styled and self-created spiritualities is the unintended consequence of Christians behaving badly. Our cultural memory is long, and history doesn’t forget, and it hurts our proclamation and our reputation as good news people.

People remember the Crusades and the Inquisition. The know about the sexual abuse scandals and Residential Schools. The or complicity or silence of Christians during the Holocaust.

People remember when the church was more interested in protecting its cultural and political power than in setting people free in Jesus’ name. People remember the angry, judgmental sermons and the mean Sunday School teacher. They remember being forced to memorize scripture, and they saw the vitriolic TV evangelist.

They experienced a Christianity that was about controlling peoples’ behavior, demanding social conformity. They experienced a Christianity that celebrated obedience rather than freedom. They saw preachers who used their positions and pulpits for financial gain at the expense of the gospel.

So, it’s not as if this is happening in a historical vacuum. People are rebelling against an institutional, authoritarian Christianity that hurt them, which is the only kind of Christianity that seems to make the news. Should we be surprised, then, when people walk away and claim spiritual independence for themselves?

As a church leader, there’s something therapeutic in criticizing self-styled spiritualities. But criticism can easily devolve into smugness. It’s tempting to look down my nose at those whose faith has as much spiritual nourishment as a Big Mac with fries.

It’s easy to ask, “Why can’t these folks just see what they’re doing, and then get back on board with traditional Christianity?” But that question speaks as much about what we’ve lost as much as our concern for those who are wandering in the wilderness searching for spiritual food that sustains.

Today is supposed to be called “Back to Church” Sunday, where we’re encouraged to invite people who have not been to church for a while. It’s supposed to be an evangelistic exercise designed to help churches return, once again, to a place of institutional prominence.Which is why I decided that Good Shepherd will NOT participate in Back to Church Sunday.

Back to Church Sunday, to my eyes, focuses our vision on the past - on what we’ve LOST rather than what God has for us in the future. The program wants to bring “BACK” our previous successes rather than to turn our gaze to what’s ahead.

To me, it’s clear that God is doing something new, by doing something old. God is calling us away from the cultural captivity of western culture, and asking us to learn again, what Paul was trying to teach the church in Philippi.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility, regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others...”

While I think Paul overstates the issue when he says to “regard others as better than yourselves,” calling the church to humility, I also think he was on to something when he reminded the church that the heart of our life together is humble service to others, just like Jesus lived.

Paul goes on to quote from an early Christian hymn:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human likeness, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross...”

As followers of this one who humbled himself, that is our calling. I’ve always said that the church of the future will be smaller, but stronger. As we break free from our cultural captivity to power and success, as our institutional structures crumble, God will raise up a new church that is marked by humility, and revitalized by a deep spirituality rooted in ancient practice but with eyes open for God’s future.

We will no longer feel threatened by people with self-styled spiritualities or feel endangered by world religions. We will no longer worry about being a minority, but will embrace our small numbers. We will no longer look to the past with longing, but will look to the future with anticipation.

Because having been set free from institutional shackles and cultural entitlement, we will once again be a movement of good news people, joyfully proclaiming God’s message of life and salvation, freedom and forgiveness, justice and joy.

We will grow as a resurrection people. And then one day, we will see that every knee will bend and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

May this be so among. Amen!

Labels: , ,

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pentecost 14A

I have trouble believing Paul in today’s second reading. Not because I think he’s dishonest, but because, given his circumstances, I can’t see why he can be in such a good mood. This letter EXUDES joyful praise of God, and offers encouragement to a struggling church that he just started. His worry wasn’t for himself. His worry was for this new church in Phillipi that was trying to keep afloat.

I have trouble believing Paul because it sounds like he’s trying to talk himself into not being afraid of being executed. He’s sitting in a Roman jail, chained to the wall, and what does he have to think about all day? He’s thinking about when his end will come, and what it will look like.

“It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death...” he says.

That’s a bold statement. Especially from someone who could be taken away and executed at any moment. Some might say that he’s masking his fear with heroic religious language, trying to convince himself that the promise of new and everlasting life with Christ was not a mere fantasy, but a present reality waiting for him just on the other side of the jail cell door.

Others might say Paul is declaring his strong, confident faith in difficult circumstances, defiantly staring death in the face, proclaiming the mighty acts of God in a world opposed to God’s kingdom.

Maybe it’s a mixture of the two.

“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain,” he goes on to say. “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer.”

So this is a win-win for Paul. If he lives, he knows that he will continue his productive hard, building churches. But if he dies he’ll be with Christ. He doesn’t know which one is better. He can’t decide which one he wants: doing rewarding, effective work on earth, or being with Christ in heaven. It’s a tough choice for Paul

But not for me. I know what I’d choose. Dying isn’t something I’m looking forward to. Although I trust that God will know what to do with me when it happens, the thought of closing my eyes with only the hope and assurance of everlasting life doesn’t sit well with me. So maybe I don’t have the confidence of Paul. Or maybe Paul is putting on a strong religious face for his people - or even for himself.

What really worries me about this passage, is that we might be tempted to reduce our faith to the prospect of being with Christ when we die, and we miss Paul’s other great joy: being fruitful in this life. Which I think is the real point he’s trying to make.

I hear too many well-meaning Christians who seem to say that this life doesn’t matter, that all that we do here in this life is just a set up for the life that is to come, that our time here on this planet is nothing more than a warm-up act for the main event which is heaven.

And if we misread what Paul is saying we could find ourselves even further from his message. Paul seems to be saying that suffering is GOOD! That we should rejoice in our suffering! But, of course, the suffering that Paul is talking about is the suffering of persecution, not just any old suffering.

But that’s not always clear. And again, I’ve heard many Christians talk about how suffering is the evidence of our evil and sinful world, and that we should just accept it because, in the next world, our suffering will end. We just have to be patient.

But that’s NOT what Paul is talking about because that is to completely miss the point of what God wants for us. God doesn’t want us to keep our gaze continually turned toward heaven. God wants our eyes set on the race that is before us. God wants us to focus on the task at hand. God wants us to love the life we’ve been given because that life is such a precious gift.

To diminish the life we have today is to diminish the value of the gift of life that God has given us the world God has so lovingly made.

That’s why Paul tells them to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Not as an act of obedience that will get you into heaven. Not as a burden meant to give you worth. But as a gift to give you life.

The gospel is love. The gospel is forgiveness. It’s peace, justice, mercy, and grace. These are the values that Paul is talking about when he says to live your lives in a manner worthy of the gospel.

It is because you have been given love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and peace, that you can live them. It is because of Jesus, you ARE worthy of the gospel. It is because God has named and claimed you as God’s own, that you can live your life in Christ.

And that means something difference for everyone. Everyone has a different task. Maybe God is asking you to pray for others. Maybe God is asking you to talk to a stranger. To heal a broken relationship. To write a letter of encouragement to someone you know who needs it. To pick up the phone and share some good news.

No matter who you are, and not matter where you are, God is calling you to live a life worthy of the gospel, because that is who you are, that is who God in Christ made you to be, so now you are agents of God’s healing mercy and forgiving love.

And today, God has claimed Ziya Jaye-Lynn in the waters of baptism. In these waters God has made her worthy to live her life in Christ. God hand is upon her, and will NEVER be let go. It is because of God’s good work in her, that she will do good work for others. God has set her on a path that leads from the joys and challenges of this world, and into the world to come.

So, live YOUR life in a manner worthy of the gospel. Life YOUR life in a manner that reflects God’s grace, live YOUR life in a manner that reflects God’s mercy, that reflects God’s forgiveness and peace. LOVE the life that God has given you. Shine with God’s brilliant light.

Jesus is the one who set your free from sin and death, so live your life knowing that you’re worthy, and one day, you will depart and be with Christ.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Pentecost 13A

I’m not one who believes that God is pulling the strings of a puppet-like universe, but I have to wonder how this gospel popped up on the Sunday which happens to be the 10 year anniversary of the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. I don’t know if I should read anything inappropriate into the collision of events, as if God had manipulated the lectionary to tell us something about how to process our memory of that September morning.

There are many who believe that there is no divine collusion between this morning’s bible readings and this particular event. Many of the worship planning materials and sermon help websites suggest changing the gospel for this Sunday into something more palatable.

After all, how can we talk about forgiveness after such a terrible and horrific attack? How can we read this passage in light of the hostility, violence, and death that took place that morning? How we hear Jesus’ call to reconciliation with our enemies when our enemies are filled with so much fanatical hatred?

This text cannot speak to this moment, they say. There must be a more appropriate text to mark the day.

Preach about God’s comfort for the grieving. Preach about the need for community and human connection. You can even talk about the human longing for peace. But you cannot talk about forgiveness. Forgiveness opens up a wound that was calloused over. So, they say, find a better text.

But I can’t. This text jumps out at me at this moment because it goes to the heart of what we believe as Christians. It speaks to the very essence of who we are as believers. After all, we are the beneficiaries of God’s costly, self-giving love. How can we NOT give to others what we have received?

In most of our day-to-day decisions, we’ve become followers of Reinhold Niebuhr, the 20 century American theologian who coined the term “Christian Realism” which basically says, that, yes, God does make some great and grandiose promises to the world, and yes, Jesus calls us to an ethic of love and compassion for our neighbour as well as enemy. And yes, as followers of Jesus we are called to shine God’s light in the dark places of the world.

But let’s get real. You cannot create foreign policy from Matthew 18. The best we can do is create and achieve “approximate goals” in Jesus’ direction. To take Jesus’ love ethic and transpose it to the realm of politics and policy would lead to disaster. To impose the bible’s standards of love on to the public realm would simply get people hurt. Jesus’ words may INFORM our decisions. But they should never DICTATE. Niebuhr was just being realistic.

However, the problem with Christian Realism is that it lets us off the biblical hook too easily. It makes no real demands on us as followers of Jesus and bears no witness to the world God has in mind for us.

While it tries to create a Middle Ground where the Christian voice can be heard at the decision making table, it’s really an escape clause,where we as Christians can dismiss Jesus’ call to love and forgiveness under the guise of security and freedom. It’s a backhanded way of saying that we don’t really trust what Jesus says when his words are put under the harsh light of human conflict. It’s like we’re saying that the world cannot be saved through love.

And even as I say this I know how hopelessly naive it sounds. It sounds like some hippy-dippy, new age, left wing nonsense that doesn’t take seriously world realities or the human capacity for evil. I know there’s evil in the world and there are people who wish to do us harm.

But to fail to ask the question: “What would the world look like if our decisions were based on forgiveness rather than revenge or or self-interest or even self-protection?” is to fail to take our Christian vocation to love our enemies seriously. It is to fail to ask how our Christian faith informs our lives. It is to fail to ask how we Christians are different from others.

And we’re not the first ones to fail to ask this question and we won’t be the last. Peter, in today’s gospel, wanted a number. He wanted to know how exactly many times he needed to forgive his enemy before he could indulge in his base human desire for revenge. What would be an appropriate amount of forgiveness to fulfill Jesus’ commands before the other guy could get what’s REALLY coming to him?

That’s our natural instinct. It’s our human inclination. We’re hard wired for revenge. In fact, I read a National Geographic article recently that said that a region of the brain known as the “dorsal striatum” which controls enjoyment or satisfaction, is activated when test subjects experienced giving punishment to someone they deemed to deserve it. In other words, yes, revenge is biologically sweet.

Of course men gained a greater sense of revenge satisfaction than women. Take from that which you will. It could explain the swaggering tough guy posturing that a lot of guys like to display.

What this study tells me though, is that our revenge inclinations aren’t something to deny or be ashamed of, but neither are they something to nurture. And they are something to be aware of. Revenge may be our human way. But revenge is not God’s way.

I’ve always been challenged by my Mennonite friends, and their tradition of pacifism. And if there’s one thing our society hates almost as much as terrorists, it’s pacifists.

I know a few faithful Mennonites who have been regularly harassed for their beliefs. They’ve been taunted and teased, just to see how far they can be pushed before they lash out. I even know some who’ve been beaten, just to see if they’d fight back.

And of course if they do fight back or protect themselves, they’d be exposed for the frauds they are, and it would be a triumph for brute force.

It’s as if the mere notion of not wanting to participate in a violent culture is so offensive to some, they faithful Mennonite Christians become targets for brutal attacks. It’s as if we, as a culture, believe that the most moral way to protect ourselves and solve our problems is through violence.

But Jesus doesn’t believe that. Jesus believes in loving his enemies, even if it meant his death. Jesus is more interested in repairing broken relationships than in inflaming them. Jesus is more interested in bringing life and hope to the world rather protecting what is his through violence. Jesus is more interested in forgiving others than in exacting revenge.

It’s a hard way to live. And I’m not going to stand up here and pronounce everything violent as evil. I’m not so naive as to think that world peace can be achieved through a few kind words and an outstretched hand.

But today, I can’t help but ask the question because I believe it needs to be asked even if we can’t get a clear answer: What does forgiveness look like in light of 9/11?

I don’t really know. It could mean a lot of things. It could also NOT mean a lot of things.

It could mean NOT scapegoating all Muslims for the acts of a few extremists. It could mean NOT glorying in the deaths of their leaders. It could mean NOT giving in to the human compulsion to vengeance.

And it could also mean building bridges between us and those who are different. It could mean listening to other viewpoints with patience and understanding. It could mean loving others more deeply rather than allowing the actions of others change you into who don’t want to be and who God did not make you.

It could mean taking up God’s challenge to live in the love and freedom that you have in Jesus. It could mean looking to God’s future with joy rather than in fear. It could mean serving others and the world God made, so that others may receive the same mercy and grace that you’ve been given.

Today, God is reminding us that forgiveness is at the heart of who we are as Christians because forgiveness is at the heart of who God is. And, as we know from God, forgiveness is not forgetting. And forgiveness is not condoning.

Forgiveness is repairing, repairing that which is broken. And in our fallen world, a world marked by so much hatred and violence, maybe our job as those who’ve been forgiven, is roll up our selves and start fixing things.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Pentecost 12A

Whenever I’m asked to explain Holy Communion, I always start with this story from the Old Testament. And I usually get the same confused stare that you’re giving me right now.

But this story is what Jesus was enacting when he instituted Holy Communion in the night before he was executed. He was being a good Jew. And as a good Jew he was celebrating passover with a special meal called a “seder” meaning “order” or “arrangement” referring to the ritual customs of when and how the the food was to be served, the traditional prayers said, and questions asked and answered . Each item and each event represented something in the story.

They gathered as a family of Jews to remember a terrible night in Egypt thousand of years before. They remembered how their people were slaves. They remembered how they cried out to God for so long that they assumed that God had abandoned them.

They remembered Pharaoh's cruelty and God’s silence. They remembered the bricks made without straw, the monotony of hard labour, and the welcome freedom of death.

They remembered Moses, the burning bush, and the plagues.

And they remembered that awful night when they were told to put lamb’s blood on their doorposts because something terrible was coming.

So they slaughtered their best lamb, and painted their doorposts with its blood.

Who knows what they saw that night, but I can imagine what they heard. The hysterical wailing of mothers whose firstborn children were killed during the night. The angry cries of fathers whose heirs died before the sun rose. They heard loud voices crying out for justice for their generation of dead.

And they remembered that they were safe, because the lamb’s blood that covered their doorposts told the angel of death to pass over their homes.

They remembered Pharaoh telling them to leave. And they had to leave so quickly that their bread didn’t have time to rise. It was unleavened bread that they took with them on their road to freedom. They grabbed it from the window and ran before Pharaoh changed his mind.

This was how the nation of Israel was born. This was the story that they remembered that night.

And then, Jesus, turned that story around and pointed it at himself.

He took a piece of unleavened bread, the bread of freedom, and said the traditional prayer,

“Blessed are you, O Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

He ripped the bread in half as the disciples bowed their heads in reverence.

Then Jesus broke the silence and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. When you eat it, remember ME.”

Remember him? What was he talking about? They were remembering the Exodus story. Why would he ask us to remember him?

Then he took the cup of wine, red wine to remember the lambs blood on the Hebrews’ doorposts, and he said the traditional prayer,

“Blessed are you O Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who gives us fruit from the vine.”

The disciples probably knew something was up, but didn’t know what. As Jesus passed the cup around, he said, “This is my blood of the new and everlasting covenant, which is poured for you. When you drink it, remember me.”

As the disciples ate and drank and remembered, they probably wondered what Jesus was saying. They knew the Exodus story. That story was as much a part of them as the dirt under their fingernails.

But Jesus was saying that the Exodus story didn’t end at the final chapter of the book. Or when they reached the land of promise, or when they finally had a king, or...

Jesus was saying that the Exodus story finally ended with him. He was the passover lamb that would save them from sin and death. As they eat of his flesh and drink of his blood, death will pass over them, and indeed, pass over the whole world.

His death is your death, my death, the world’s death. His blood which is poured out, is painted on the doorposts of the world, so that the world will be saved.

Even Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus, ate Jesus’ bread and drank his wine. Some traditions have him as the first occupant of Hell for his betrayal of Jesus. Other Christian traditions regard him as a Saint for his role in salvation history.

Because of Jesus, that freedom story is now your freedom story, it’s now my freedom story. The world’s freedom story. That’s why we eat the bread of freedom and drink the cup of salvation.

Because of Jesus the tyranny of sin and death is defeated, the chains of slavery to the powers of this world are broken, the cries of those held in bondage are heard.

Because of Jesus, you are fee. You are free to live your life as a child of God. You are free to ignore other peoples’ opinion of you and other peoples’ expectations of you. You are free to love as Jesus loved. You are free.

Freedom is something we like to hear about and talk about. But it’s often not something we welcome. We spend more time drawing lines, building walls, putting parameters around our ordered lives, than we welcome the responsibility of freedom.

It’s easier to know our place, to know what we can and cannot do, rather than trust that God is guiding our lives, working inside of us, transforming us from the inside out.

We’re afraid of freedom because we’re worried it might descend into chaos, rather than build us up, make us grow, and help us reach the potential that God has given us.

We often shun freedom, and stay mired in captivity. We stay stuck in our painful pasts rather than look to God’s future. Our depression and grief can feel like chains we can never break.

Our feelings of unworthiness or shame keep us from grabbing on to the freedom that God has for us. We don’t trust God’s freedom because we don’t trust ourselves. And tyranny is often more comfortable than freedom.

And as the people of Israel found out, freedom isn’t easy. Freedom costs. Freedom demands creativity and initiative.

Freedom is scary because it can feel like you’ve lost control. But freedom trusts that you know what to do with it when you receive it.

In Christ, you are free. Jesus trusts that you know what to do with your freedom. You have been entrusted with gifts and responsibilities. Because you have been set free, you can use your creativity energy, in communion with the Spirit of God, to bring life to the world.

Because the angel of death has passed over you, you can embrace life with the joy and passion of knowing that you are building something new and beautiful in the world. You can trust that you are contributing to God’s ongoing creation. You can trust that God is using YOU for wonderful things.

You can trust that your labour brings life to others. You can trust that you are a witness to God’s love and mercy.

So, your job, as a follower of Jesus, is to speak words of liberation and healing, from your own experience of liberation and healing.

Live your freedom, knowing that God’s Word is growing inside you, knowing that God’s law is written on your heart, knowing that the blood of the lamb is on your doorpost.

Live like you KNOW that your are God’s child, named and claimed in the waters of Holy Baptism, joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

When you come to the table this morning, you receive the bread of freedom and the cup of salvation. That is God’s liberating work within you. As you receive our Lord Jesus in the bread and wine you are trusting that the tyranny of sin and death is defeated in your life. That the shackles of your past are broken. That you have been liberated from captivity of your grief and pain. That you belong to Jesus who belongs to God.

And as you depart from the table, Jesus has one simple request: Now go live your freedom.


Labels: , , , ,