Sunday, June 30, 2013

Pentecost 6C

The year was 1996. I was in my second year of pastor’s school - aka “seminary”- and a friend from my music school days invited me to a Halloween party. Always up for a good time (and fee beer) I agreed. For the life of me I can’t remember what I dressed up as, so don’t ask.

I arrived around 10:00 that night and the place was already packed. From the pot-bellied math student dressed up as Britney Spears, to the half-naked first year women trying to get attention, I made my way to the living room to meet my friends.

Along the way I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and there was Scott, a friend of a friend. He was wearing a crisp business suit, with a wad of Canadian Tire money sprouting out of his breast pocket, and with a crown of thorns jammed on his head.

“What’s this?” I asked gesturing to his outfit.

“I’m a profit,” he said smirking. “

I stared at him. He looked back at me. Neither of us blinked.

“O wait a second,” he said as he reached into his inside coat pocket. He pulled out a name tag and a marker, and wrote the word “profit” spelled “p-r-o-f-i-t” on the name tag and pasted it to the breast of his coat.

“See?” he said pointing to his crown of thorns and motioning to his suit, “I’m a profit! Get it?”

“Yeah...I get it...funny...” I dead-panned.

“What’s the problem?” he asked.

“Don’t you find that a” I asked, being a humourless seminary student at the time.

“Not at all. This is who I am. 

“What do you mean?”

“It’s my religion,”

“What’s your religion?” I asked.


“Capitalism is your religion? Really?”

“Absolutely! My religion is capitalism,” he said.

“Wow. That’s a bizarre thing to base a religion on,” I replied.

“No, it makes perfect sense. Just like in the bible you know you’ve done religion right if you go to heaven, in capitalism, you know you’ve done everything right if you make money. It provides meaning to life. It builds a society. I’ll have you know that capitalism is the best form of wealth creation in the history of the world.”

He smiled at me as to say, “Self-five! I win!” 

I almost punched him. Not for his religion being capitalism. But for being a smug jerk.

“Besides,” he piled on, “Jesus was a capitalist.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The parable of the talents. The employee who yielded the best return for his boss got the biggest reward. The lazy one who was too chicken to invest any money got thrown into Hell. Clearly, the story means that God rewards those who work hard and invest, and punishes those who don’t. God likes a winner just like everyone else.”


“Also, the creation story clearly tells us that we are to enjoy everything God has created. And capitalism is the best way for everyone to get a chance to do that. Capitalism is a great equalizer. Everyone can gets in. All they need is a good idea and some elbow grease and they can live the life of their dreams! God wants us to be self-sufficient, not to rely on handouts. That way everyone can live with dignity. Capitalism does this. It’s a great force for social good!”

I was surprised that he knew these bible stories, but somewhat alarmed by how he understood them. It could have been that these scripture passages were intentionally mis-interpreted by some business writer esteeming the moral virtues of an unregulated market, in a book that he had read. Or maybe Ayn Rand wrote a bible commentary and I hadn’t seen it. Who knows where he was getting this stuff from?

At first I thought this was schtick, him playing the part for which he was dressed for Halloween. 

But as he went on and on I began to realize that he wasn’t playing dress-up. There was no Tickle Trunk from which he pulled this costume. His was no costume at all. He wasn’t lying when he said his outfit was an expression of who he was. It represented his “religion” the way my alb and stole represent mine.

“God created us to live up to our fullest potential and enjoy everything life has to offer, and capitalism is the ONLY way to make that happen,” he said. I almost expected him to offer a hearty “Amen!” at the end of his impromptu “sermon.”

“If that’s what you get out of Jesus’ life and ministry then - wow! - I don’t know where to start,” I said.

“What do you mean?” he asked

“The Jesus who told that story about the talents (btw you totally missed the point of that story) is the same Jesus who wandered around homeless relying on the kindness of strangers,” I said.

“No he didn’t. That’s just stupid,” he replied.

“Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” I said.

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

“Jesus said that as a way of scaring people off. He told them straight out what it will cost them if they dropped everything and followed him.”

“Say that again,” he said.

“Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no where to lay his head.”

“The ‘Son of Man,’ that’s referring to Jesus, right?”

I nodded.

“So, in other words he was telling them that if you’re join his team it means you’re going to live a life of homelessness and hunger.”

“Well..that’s what he told those who said they wanted to be his followers,” I said.

“He said that they’ll be homeless and hungry.”

“It certainly looks like that,” I replied.

“Well...good luck with that,” he said. Then he held up his glass and said. “Cheers!” before walking away to approach two women dressed as mermaids.

I tell you this story not JUST because I like showing off how I correct peoples’ theology, I tell you this story because Scott is not alone. His perspective is not unique. I think we all have a little bit of “Scott” in us, especially when we read this story from today’s gospel. Jesus does sound a little unhinged, and seems to overreact to some pretty reasonable concerns. 

His popularity was growing. And some might say that it was going to his head.

Jesus is walking down the street and people are throwing themselves at him.

“Hey Jesus, I’ll follow you wherever you go!” shouts one enthusiastic supporter, probably looking to deepen his relationship with God.

“Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no where to lay his head, so if I have no home where do YOU expect to sleep?”

“Jesus, I’ll come follow you. But first I gotta go to my dad’s funeral,” said another. But Jesus isn’t moved. “Let the dead bury their own dead. You go tell people about God’s Kingdom and leave the dead alone.”

“Jesus, as soon I go home and kiss my mom good-bye, I’ll come and be one of your followers,” said a third.

“Don’t bother. It’s either one or the other. Either you’re committed to your family or to my mission. It’s either life with them or life with me. You can’t have it both ways.”

At this point I can imagine each one of them saying “Well...good luck with that,” and walking away to an encounter more to their liking. I know I would have. After all, Jesus’ demands seem totally unreasonable.

A guy wants to follow Jesus and Jesus shoos him away, why would he discourage such an earnest faith?

Another buys into Jesus’ message, and all he wants to do is bury his recently deceased dad before venturing out with Jesus, and what’s wrong with that? He’d be an awful son if he baled on the funeral to join a wandering preacher.

Yet another just wants to say good-bye to his family before leaving everything to follow him, and why is that all of a sudden a bad thing?

Jesus’ behaviour makes no sense. And the bible study commentaries on this passage aren’t any help in trying to figure this out. Most bible scholars and preachers take Jesus’ side, they think that Jesus’ unreasonable demands are just fine. They don’t see what the problem is. They all pretty much say the same thing: “Jesus’ demands are meant to highlight our failure and our need for Jesus to claim a victory that is denied us.”

But I don’t think that’s it at all. That’s not a fair interpretation because Jesus keeps moving the goal posts. It looks like Jesus is TRYING to create fault where there wasn’t fault before. It appears that Jesus is more interested in pushing people away than in drawing them in to God.

And that’s not the Jesus I know. I think most bible commentators and preachers work backwards from a pre-conceived idea of sin, and shoe-horn it into this passage. 

“Since God is always good, we must be always bad” the thinking goes. Most preachers think this passage emphasizes OUR failure so that God will have a victory.

But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. I think this passage is meant to highlight OUR faithfulness and YOUR faithfulness. This passage is meant to encourage you, not to shame you.

“Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no where to lay his head. So if I have no home where are YOU going to sleep.”

We are resting in you, Jesus, that’s where we find our home.

“Let the dead bury their own dead. You go tell people about God’s Kingdom and leave the dead alone.”

We have Jesus, because you have made us alive.

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

We have journeyed with you all these years, Jesus, and we have the muddy feet, blistered toes, and calloused hands to prove it.

This passage isn’t targeted at those who have failed. This passage is directed at YOU, who because of Jesus, have succeeded. You who have kept the faith, you have watched the world change and spin out of control, but whose trust in God has remained solid.

You who have walked all these years along side Jesus, with your hand on the plow, working the fields of God’s vineyard, toiling under the sun, not because you have to, but because you delight in seeing the fruit with every harvest.

You who are alive, with eyes to see and voices to proclaim to the wonders of God’s kingdom, where love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control flourish. Jesus is lifting YOU up. Against these things there is no law! That is the abundant life that God has for YOU.

You who may have stumbled, but because of Jesus you have risen. 
You who go through life proud of your bruises because they remind you that you are still alive, 
you who have calloused hands and softened hearts, 
you who have earned every one of your scars, 
this passage is for you.

You are NOT your failure. You are NOT your shame. Jesus has called you by name and made you God’s own. Jesus’ hand is on the plow, and because of him, you will never look back. your feet and wash your hands, you have been faithful on your journey.

May this be so among us. Amen!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Pentecost 4C

Who do you want to keep out of God's kingdom? Everyone has their list of people whose names they'd like crossed out of the Book of LIfe.

Even now, I'll bet there's someone in your mind that you hope will be nursing eternal heat blisters while you're enjoying celestial bliss.

We ALL have names of people in our heads whom we'd like to see on the outside looking in on God's heavenly banquet. Everyone carries a list.

"You know, pastor, " he said. "There are a lot of PEOPLE in our churches but there aren't very many CHRISTIANS."

"I beg your pardon," I replied.

"There are too many people who go to church but don't live by God's law, they live just like everyone else. They're fake Christians," he said.

"Is that right?" I replied, turning my chair to indicate that this was a conversation I no interest in being a part of. But he didn't take the hint.

"Yeah, too many people think they're Christians but they really aren't. There's no repentance. No outward evidence that they they believe in God. There's too much immorality. Too many concessions to the secular world. They don't believe in the Truth of the bible."


"Really?" I replied, hoping my monosyllabic answers might discourage him. But they seemed to do the opposite. He was just getting started.

"People think that they can sin and still be part of Christ's church. The bible is clear, God HATES sin. God demands obedience from us, not disobedience."

"But didn't Jesus die for our sins?" I asked.

"Jesus may have died for our sins but that doesn't mean we can still go on sinning and expect to go to heaven," he replied.

"So, we can stop sinning if we just put our minds to it?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "God gave us free will so we can choose to sin or not to sin."

"If God has given us the freedom to sin or not to sin then why did Jesus have to die for our sins, why didn't he just say, ‘Hey folks, don’t sin...’? Wouldn’t that have been easier?"

And from there it was on. He had pushed my last button.

This was a conversation I had with a young man at a synod convention. It's a conversation I regularly have with people.

People who see more sin in the world than grace.
People who emphasize obedience rather than freedom. People who use Christianity to control other peoples’ behaviour rather celebrating the faith that brings new life in Jesus’ name.

People who want to divide the world into two competing camps: those who deserve God's love and forgiveness, and those who do not.

And they usually know which camp they fall in to. And they're glad to tell you where you spiritually stack up.

I share this story not to show off my stellar debating skills, but to show you that Pharisees, like the religious leader in today’s gospel, are alive and kicking.

People who don't really believe that faith can make us well. 
People who don't trust that God is active in the world and in their neighbours' lives.

People who just want to condemn others and feel superior to everyone else.

Just like we heard in today's gospel.

Jesus is having dinner at a pharisee's house. And during the salad course, a so-called "woman of the city" (and you know how THEY can be!) bursts in, lets down her hair, falls all over Jesus, kissing and caressing his feet, which is all too much for the religious people at the table to take.

"WELL....If this man were a real prophet," Simon the religious leader said in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, "he'd know what kind of woman this is. He’d see that she's a sinner!"

And after asking a pointed question about forgiveness of debt, Jesus asks another, even more sharpened - yet also cryptic question. He asks the religious leader, "Simon, do you see this woman?"

“Ummm....yeah...she’s under the table doing who knows what to you...”

The implication is that the host, the self-righteous religious guy doesn't really see the woman. He only sees a "sinner." That's all he sees. When he looks at her he only sees “sin.”

But when Jesus looks at her, he sees something altogether different. Even though he knows who she is, and he knows everything she has done, and everything that has happened to her, when Jesus looks down at this woman at his feet, he sees a "daughter of Abraham and Sarah." A member of the family. Someone who has a claim on God's goodness and mercy.

Jesus sees what the pharisees cannot: a precious child of God. The religious leader only sees walking, talking, sin.

If you're listening closely, you'll notice that I might fall into the trap of reverse-phariseeism: passing judgment on the pharisees - the religious leaders - as if I'm somehow better than them. It's easy to condemn self-righteous religious folks for the sin of condemning others.

But if we're honest with ourselves we'll know that we're not any better. We have a foot in each camp. We're the self-righteous religious leader who makes up lists of who is in and who is out. And we're the sinner in need of forgiveness. Both. At the same time.

The challenge for us today is to see in ourselves both the self-righteous religious person and the sinner. That's not easy. We're too close to ourselves. We can't always see in ourselves what others see in us. We make excuses for our own bad behaviour while magnifying the flaws we see in others.

Thankfully, we have a God who sees us differently. Despite everything we’ve done, despite all the hurt we’ve caused ourselves and each other, despite those times of dishonesty and doubt, despite the promises broken and our moments of faithlessness, when Jesus looks at us he sees children of Abraham and Sarah, sisters and brothers of Jesus. Precious children of God who have a claim on God’s goodness and mercy.

The fellow who cornered me at convention couldn't see other Christians as fellow followers of Jesus. When he looked at other people, he could only see sin.

And I have to admit, I had trouble seeing him as a member of the family, a brother in Christ. I didn't want him at the same communion table as me.

I like to think of myself as better than him, more inclusive, more welcoming, and more accepting.

I like to think that MY vision of God and MY vision of the world is bigger than his. And even if that were to be true, the problem is that I think that that makes me a more faithful Christian than he is.

I want to keep him and people like him out. That makes me no better than him.

I only want people around me who think like me, that way I won't have to be challenged.

I only want to spend time with people who affirm what I already know, so I won't have to be pushed.

I only want people beside me who see the world the same way I do, that way I won't have to grow.

I am the self-righteous religious leader in this story. And that - also (ironically) - makes me the woman in this story, the sinner in need of forgiveness.

So I'm glad that I'm not in charge of who gets in and who stays out of God's kingdom. I'm thankful that that's a job for someone much more forgiving than I am.

And I'm glad it's not up to you, either.

We human beings are better at latching gates than we are at unlocking doors.

We're better at putting up fences than we are at opening borders.

We’re better at drawing lines than pushing boundaries.

Our limited vision makes us barely past our own spectacles. But God's vision is as expansive as eternity. God's mercy never ends.

It’s God who keep challenging us, pushing us, stretching us, and inspiring us, enlarging our vision of what is possible.

Erasing the lines that keep us needlessly divided. Opening our eyes to see grace at work in peoples’ lives. Lifting up our hands in celebration of the faith that makes us well.

God gives us eyes to see new life abounding in the lives of those around us, and ears to hear the good news that people proclaim with everything they have.

It’s God who keeps edging us further and further from our comfort zones, so that - one day - we ALL will behold the glory of God.

So, who do you want to keep out of God's kingdom? Who's in the Top Ten?

I want you to hold on to that list of people whose names you'd like erased from the Book of Life. That list is now your prayer list. Those are the people God wants you to pray for. And as you pray for each person on that list, those people might also be praying for you.


Sunday, June 02, 2013

Pentecost 2C

If you like a good fight then you only have to look as far as today’s second reading and today’s gospel.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul is alarmed that some of the members of the church have been listening to other preachers, preachers who have a different message from the one he’s been giving them.

And Jesus, in today's gospel, says that a presumed enemy of God’s people has more faith than they do.

Paul was angry because the church in Galatia, the church he started, invited a guest pastor and no one thought to look at his resume. It seems that when he opened his mouth, all sorts of weird nonsense about God came out. And the problem was that people believed him and decided that St. Paul was wrong.

Fewer things made Paul’s head explode faster than his people under his care being led away by false preachers peddling weird ideas about God. It wasn’t his own ego that he was worried about, it was what the Christians believed about God that concerned him. And these people were being given some BAD information.

So Paul writes this letter to sort things out and put things back to where they were. And he gets right to the point:

“I am ASTONISHED that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9As we have said before, so now I repeat, if ANYONE proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let THAT one be accursed!”

People were being pulled too far from what Paul believed to be “the true gospel.” And he was reminding them where the boundary lines were. He was bringing them back to where they belonged because people were led too far away from where God wanted them to be.

So, in many ways, this letter from Paul is about creating a definition of what a Christian is.

Where Paul was trying to tighten the boundaries on what a faithful believer is, Jesus is pushing them further to the edges and challenging everything people believed to be good and true.

Jesus heals a centurion’s slave. Jesus, in healing this slave, not only saves the slave’s life, but does the centurion a HUGE favour. This centurion was clearly not a member of the Jewish community. In fact, he was an oppressor. He was a high ranking officer in the occupying Roman army. He was the enemy.

Centurions were known more for their muscles then their grey matter. Their job was to keep the peace through any means necessary. They were brutes who gloried in the violence of what they were asked to do. They loved the smell of blood.They weren’t afraid to break a few bones or hang a few troublemakers if it meant keeping everyone else in line.

But this guy was different. He wasn’t like the other centurions. He was respected by the Jewish leaders because he treated THEM with respect.

When they needed a house of worship, he put on his tool belt and hammered a few nails. When neighbours feuded, he stepped in to negotiate a fair solution.

There was something about these Jewish folks that endeared them to him.

If his strategy was to win the hearts and minds of the locals, we can say, “job well done.” For an enemy, you could a lot worse.

It was on the Jewish elder’s recommendation that Jesus decided to help this guy out. But, for some reason, this centurion, not known for their humility, decided he wasn’t worthy to have Jesus in his house.

“The centurion sent friends to say to Jesus, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and the slave does it."

Jesus never meets the centurion. He heals the slave from down the street. And Jesus says, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."

In other words, “This guy gets it, and he’s not even one of ours.”

This Roman Centurion, this enemy occupier, had greater faith in Jesus then those who were closest to him.

So, what was it that Jesus saw in him? Was it his public service to the Jewish community? Was it his ability to see with concrete clarity what needed to be done, then resolve to do it? Was it the eyes he had to see what Jesus could do?

Could be all of that.

But also, I think it was the centurion’s humility that Jesus saw. It was the ability to look beyond the stories he’d been told about what Jewish folks were like. After all, as a Roman citizen he’d been told that he was superior to everyone else on the planet. Especially these Jews. But this centurion didn’t believe what he was told. He saw the goodness and beauty in them.

It was his ability to look for creative ways to resolve conflict. It might have been easier to unleash his sword on these Jewish folks when they stepped out line.

He could have used his military training to bring down the force of the Roman empire on the tops of their houses. Instead, he chose to help build their community.

He immersed himself in their lives. He became their friend.

He could have mocked their religion, demanding that they worship Caesar (like he did) instead of the God of Israel. But instead, he saw in Jesus the power of God to heal.

He looked past the narrow vision that he was given, the narrow way of believing what he’d been told about himself and the world. And he was opened to new possibilities - God’s possibilities.

And Jesus only had to hear the story of this outsider, this pagan Roman centurion, who by definition, should be his enemy. And all Jesus could say upon hearing about this man was, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."

In other words, “This guy gets it, and he’s not even one of ours.”

Those who knew the centurion probably nodded their heads in agreement. But I’m sure there were others who who were aghast at what Jesus said. After all, the centurion was not under covenant with God and God’s people. He was an oppressor. He was the enemy. He was no one to look up to. At least that’s what he looked like on paper.

He’s not alone.

Last week Pope Francis preached a sermon where he said: "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! 'Father, the atheists?' Even the atheists. Everyone!"

What I took the Pope to mean is that God can and does work through ANYONE because God will not be limited. If atheists are feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and giving to the poor, then they’re doing God’s work more than those who sit at home and read their bibles all day, and never their get their hands dirty. He was trying to bring people together by doing common good.

And while folks like me didn’t think he said anything controversial, vatican officials felt compelled to send out a statement “correcting” the Pope saying, “Yeah...well....about that....umm...actually, atheists are still going Hell no matter what the Pope says...”

In the other words, “the line has been drawn, and their lack of belief has permanently kept atheists out of God’s kingdom.”

I don’t know if atheists are going to Hell or not. But I do know that belief will not limit God. God does whatever God wants to do. And God will use whomever God wants to use.

The centurion had respect for Jewish belief and traditions. But there’s no evidence of him joining their community, or getting baptized and following Jesus. We don’t know if he renounced his worship of Caesar to worship the God of Israel. But Jesus said of him, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."

In other words, “This guy gets it, and he’s not even one of ours.”

For me, this is not a story of healing. It’s a story of seeing great and new possibilities for our lives, our church, and our world. The centurion teaches us that God can break open old boxes of our thinking and present us with new ways of looking at the world.

The centurion shows us that God will not be bound to our human traditions, but is finding new ways to challenge us and make us grow.

The centurion shows us that God can use anyone - ANYONE - for God’s kingdom purposes, and we can - once again - be surprised by faith.

The centurion reminds that we can rest in our faith, but also that our faith is always on the move, it is always growing, pursuing unfamiliar avenues of expression, taking us on new and exciting adventures, and finding creative and imaginative ways to declare the nearness of God.

The apostle Paul understood the same thing, to circle back to the beginning. It turns out that the false preacher in Galatia was trying to turn back the clock (which you will hear about next week). Paul knew that God was doing a new thing. And he was angry that this guest preacher was telling his church that God was still demanding people worship in ways that no longer had meaning, and that their God wouldn’t accept them the way they were. That they weren’t good enough. That they weren’t worthy.

But as we now know from the centurion, God can make ANYONE worthy. It’s not about right belief, or proper behaviour. God makes you worthy because that’s what God wants to do. God is always more ready forgive then you are to sin.

God will not let yours or anyone’s failings get in the way of using whomever God wants to advance the glory and power of God’s kingdom. The kingdom of new possibilities, the kingdom of healing for our selves and the earth, the kingdom of life for everything God has created..

May this be so among us. Amen

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