Thursday, 15 June 2017

Curious things.

This morning I read some things that pique my curiosity. In the reading; Matthew 9:38-10:8, why would Jesus give Judas the same power and authority as the other disciples, tell them to 'go nowhere among the Gentiles, and why would the lectionary reading stop at verse 8?

1. Obviously this was written well after the fact because the writer includes an editorial comment that Judas was the betrayer. At the time Jesus commissioned the 12 to teach and heal, Judas was presumably a fully trustworthy member of the team. Later on in the story, at the last supper, Jesus seems to know who will betray him. He stops short of naming Judas, and he does nothing to prevent it. This is a curiously humbling story. Anyone of us, no matter what circles we run in, no matter what commissions, awards, or accolades we have had, could go sideways. Instead of condemning Judas and dismissing his story, I find a lot of value in the cautionary aspect. If we all realise that we are capable of the same misdirection/greed/ or whatever it was, we are more likely to be accountable, humble, and helpful to each other.

2. It is curious that Jesus would tell his disciples not to go into Samaria, not to go to the Gentiles, but to concentrate on the "lost sheep in Israel." This is intriguing on a few levels. One is, of course, that we think of Jesus as all-loving and inclusive. This jarring command to stick to Israel causes a reflexive "explain it away" mindset for us as we try to reconcile our idea of an inclusive Jesus with the exclusive words. I think, however, it is important for us to see Jesus as living within his culture. He too, has to deal with prejudices. (Then look at the turn around in Mat.. 28:16-20..."go and make disciples of all nations...") What has changed?

It is also interesting that he sends them to the"lost sheep" not to the leaders and important people. He's not very good at playing politics is he? Perhaps this example is important for us too. Very often in our organisations, and even our churches, the ones who get the attention are not the ones who are most needy. How can we empower those who aren't "lost" to spend their efforts on reaching out to those who are?

3. Finally, I'm not happy with the lectionary reading cutting off at verse 8-although I am pleased it didn't cut off at 7! Verse 7 emphasises proclamation and 8 is the practical work of healing and caring for those who need help. I'm glad to see proclamation and practise kept together, but it's still odd to cut this off mid paragraph. Jesus goes on here to instruct them on doing this good work without pay other than what is necessary-sufficient food and shelter. Perhaps this is the first notion of the central place that volunteerism plays in the community of faith!

What piques your curiosity?


This Sunday there will be a Father's Day Hymn Sing at First Mennonite instead of our regular service. Read Psalm 100 in preparation! Many of our people will travel down to Camp Valaqua for it's "Garden Party" and worship service. That's where I'll be!

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Faith keeps on seeking and asking

June 11 is "Trinity Sunday", the first day after Pentecost when the Christian church traditionally celebrates the doctrine of God as "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Or to use less patriarchal language,(and in my opinion better descriptive language), celebrates the doctrine of 3 in 1 as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

Doctrine is a word that implies stuffiness and rigidity to most of us. It feels like a matter of "right belief", if you don't say yes to these particular statements, you are out. Doctrine, understood this way, doesn't make sense in a post-Christendom world. It doesn't make sense or feel relevant to millenials or their parents who experience the world and faith in shifting shades of grey. (Can I still use that phrase or has it's meaning been changed by cultural relevance?) It seems to me that faith relevant to today's world has to be much more about right action and loving others than it is about believing exactly the "right" doctrines.

In his (lengthy but very good) blog, Andrew Prior takes on the doctrine of the Trinity, reminding us that these scriptures for June 11 significantly predate any doctrine. (You can read it by clicking the link below.) The idea of only one God was hugely important to Jesus and the disciples.  So...what do we do with the idea that in today's scripture, Matt. 28:16-20, the disciples are worshiping Jesus? I won't rehash Prior's discussion on this, except to point out one thing. Prior draws attention to verse 17; "When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted." These are the disciples, the ones who acknowledge the resurrection and have stuck with Jesus. Prior points out that even among the faithful, worship and doubt co-exist, and they coexist well.

https://onemansweb.org/matthew-trinity-and-me-which-song-shall-i-sing-matthew-2816-20.html

This idea that doubt and faith work well together is a great corrective to 'stuffy ideas of doctrine.' Prior suggests that a more helpful understanding of doctrine is to think of it as guide rails along the path to a mountain viewpoint. They will lead you safely to a particular great view, but they are porous boundaries that also also allow you to go off the trail to discover new places from which to observe and understand...and yes, perhaps fall. This idea of doctrine as guidelines, but not the only way to truth allows for the diversity, questioning, and practical engagement that, I think, is coming to characterize a church and faith that is relevant and vital today.

Here is a quote from Daniel Migliore's book; "Faith Seeking Understanding" that encourages the believer to embrace their doubts and keep asking questions.

Christian faith is at bottom trust in and obedience to the free and gracious God made known in Jesus Christ. Christian theology is this same faith in the mode of asking questions and struggling to find at least provisional answers to these questions. Authentic faith is no sedative for world-weary souls, no satchel full of ready answers to the deepest questions of life. Instead, faith in God revealed in Jesus Christ sets an inquiry in motion, fights the inclination to accept things as there are, and continually calls in question unexamined assumptions about God, our world, and ourselves. Consequently, Christian faith has nothing in common with indifference to the search for truth, or fear of it, or the arrogant claim to possess it fully. True faith must be distinguished from fideism. Fideism says there comes a point where we must stop asking questions and must simply believe; faith keeps on seeking and asking.

On June 11, we will be having a baptism and membership service. I love that this passage puts the disciples on a mountaintop with Jesus where faith and doubt are together. The commitments made on this day are a promise to remain engaged with questions of church, faith, and the ongoing challenge of being a disciple in an ever changing world.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Keepers, Sharers, and Shapers.

For June 4.

The church season is now post-Easter and the scriptures, like Acts chapters 1 and 2 (from last week and this week), deal with the beginnings of the church as we know it.

But it didn't start out looking as we know it today.

It started with Jesus' disciples and followers having to deal with Jesus leaving them to carry on his work without him.They organize themselves. They receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and people of many different cultures and languages are included in the hearing of the story of Jesus. The story spreads and the church takes shape as the keeper and sharer of it. As more and more people hear the story, more and more want to join in. 2:42 says they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to breaking of bread, and prayers. They also shared their possessions with each other, praised God, and had the "goodwill" of their neighbours.

Some of this sounds like the church we know. Good food, good fellowship, times to learn, pray, and worship together, and opportunities to share generously with others who have needs. Some of it, however, is wildly unfamiliar to us. They did not have the New Testament yet, except as oral tradition. Their scripture was the Torah, the laws and the prophets. Very few people were literate. Many were still Jewish and had a long scriptural tradition. The mixing of Jewish and Gentile Christians caused a lot of issues-who brought the pork to potluck? Who didn't ritually wash their hands...politics, culture, and the new ways of the church were problematic. They were very much a strange minority at the time.

The early church was radical. It clashed with the established religions and cultures. It was strange to be a place where rich and poor, slave and free, male and female....all had a voice. Women were leaders, deacons, in the early church. That was unheard of. Slaves were considered "moral agents"and able to make their own faith decisions instead of just following whatever their masters adhered to. That was unheard of. This was a radical thing and it was appealing, but not easy. The clashes with culture definitely found their way into the early believing communities. We hear bits of it in Paul's letters when he urges unity and love and when he struggles with issues of slavery and women's voices.

It is amazing that it survived. That thousands of years of church organization followed and eventually resulted in a Christendom that, instead of being radical and counter cultural-became rather conservative, normative, and formed the culture. And this formation and reformation continues.

The church will not stay looking as we know it today.

The church (in North America at least) is past it's "heyday". We keep hearing that churches are graying and shrinking, that generations X and Y (those born after the baby boomers) and millenials (those born around the year 2000 and after) are no longer seeing the church as the hub of spiritual and community life. That doesn't mean that Jesus' message is irrelevant, or that the church is dead. It does mean that we might, once again, be a strange and somewhat radical minority. (still with issues too-that just goes along with being human.)

Jesus' message of radical love for all, and especially the poor and disadvantaged, is hugely relevant and needed today, but perhaps the shape of the church as an institution is changing again. Maybe we are living into a time of new relevance, of a renewed awareness of a radical message that speaks against consumerism and individualism. Maybe we are living into a new awareness of our need for community and diversity that has more to do with practicing love for neighbour than it does in arguing about right doctrine. Some of this still sounds like the church we know, but a re-reading of the beginnings of the church challenges us to think about new beginnings for new times.

After reading Acts, what do we imagine our faith community might look like as it reorganizes itself for living into today's world as keepers and sharers of Jesus' story? How are we shapers of the church today?


Note: This Sunday, our congregation will be taking part in the "Blanket Exercise" and learning some of the story of Canada's Indigenous people. As we think about the institution of church then and now, how are we challenged to begin anew? How are we going to be part of the faithful re-shaping of the church as we come to new understandings?

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Stone buildings and heavenly dwellings on mother's day

May 14 is Mother's Day. Churches all over the world will be honouring mothers in their worship services. While I don't think it's a bad thing, it does kind of make me wonder about focus in worship. Mother's Day was not in existence when the scriptures were written and compiled. It began in 1908 when a woman named Anna Jarvis held a memorial service for her mother, Ann, at the St. Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. Ann had been a peace activist, caring for wounded soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War. In 1914 Mother's Day became officially recognized in the USA.

The observance of Mother's Day is a relatively new thing, yet we pair it with ancient scriptures to celebrate mom in our worship time. I have no problem with celebrating mother's day in church, as long as the focus of worship is God and the scriptures are used authentically, not stretched into whatever shape serves our 'Hallmark Card" idea of mother's day. May 14 is the 5th Sunday after Easter and the scriptures assigned to the day have nothing to do with the authors thinking about their moms. John 14:1-14 (In my father's house are many dwelling places...I go to prepare a place for you...) 1 Peter 2:2-10 (...like living stones, let yourself be built into a spiritual house...)

Having said all that, I do like the way these verses talk about building family and that is quite a good theme on mother's day. We all have different experiences with our mothers, with being a mom, with not being a mom... We may cling to our cultural ideas of what a family is. The church is meant to be family-not the biological kind or household kind of family, but a kind of family that is not about the boundaries of genes or circumstance. It is a family lead by God as parent (Mother/Father-for this Sunday I will focus on the mother part of this identity). It is a place where all who commit to it are brothers and sisters, and it is about building each other up into community. The passage from 1 Peter is about building that community, being family to each other and building something strong together with Christ as our cornerstone. The John passage speaks of what God is building for us-emphasizing the care of a parent. I love this passage for mothers day at First Mennonite when we traditionally have a dedication service where parents dedicate their children to God and the church dedicates itself to being faith family for them. In the passage, Thomas worries; "Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?"

When we dedicate children to God, we commit to letting them go follow God 'even to the ends of the earth." That's a commitment full of worry for every parent! Jesus assures Thomas that he will not be lost because he knows the way, the truth, and the life. We also can feel that assurance that our children (and ourselves) will not be lost for the same reasons. When we build the church as family and treat each other as such, no matter where we go, we will have brothers and sisters to walk alongside under the watchful eye of our mothering God.

A Prayer on Mother's Day

Here's a mother's day prayer that acknowledges the complexity of feelings for this day. It is for everyone, whether they are looking forward to mother's day, or dreading it. We have all of these people in our church family-let's surround them all with the love of the family we build together.

"I want you to know I'm praying for you if you are like Tamar, struggling with infertility, or a miscarriage.
I want you to know that I'm praying for you if you are like Rachel, counting the women among your family and friends who year by year and month by month get pregnant, while you wait.
I want you to know I'm praying for you if you are like Naomi, and have known the bitter sting of a child's death.
I want you to know I am praying for you if you are like Joseph and Benjamin, and your Mom has died.
I want you to know that I am praying for you if your relationship with your Mom was marked by trauma, abuse, or abandonment, or she just couldn't parent you the way you needed.
I want you to know I am praying for you if you've been like Moses' mother and put a child up for adoption, trusting another family to love your child into adulthood.
I want you to know I am praying for you if you've been like Pharaoh's daughter, called to love children who are not yours by birth (and thus the mother who brought that child into your life, even if it is complicated).
I want you to know I am praying for you if you, like many, are watching (or have watched) your mother age, and disappear into the long goodbye of dementia.
I want you to know that I am praying for you if you, like Mary, are pregnant for the very first time and waiting breathlessly for the miracle of your first child.
I want you to know that I am praying for you if your children have turned away from you, painfully closing the door on relationship, leaving you holding your broken heart in your hands. And like Hagar, now you are mothering alone.
I want you to know that I am praying for you if motherhood is your greatest joy and toughest struggle all rolled into one.
I want you to know that I am praying for you if you are watching your child battle substance abuse, a public legal situation, mental illness, or another situation which you can merely watch unfold.
I want you to know that I am praying for you if you like so many women before you do not wish to be a mother, are not married, or in so many other ways do not fit into societal norms.
I want you to know that I am praying for you if you see yourself reflected in all, or none of these stories.
This mother's day, wherever and whoever you are, we walk with you. You are loved. You are seen. You are worthy.
And may you know the deep love without end of our big, wild, beautiful God who is the very best example of a parent that we know.
Amen."
- A prayer for Mother's Day, originally written by Amy Young, adapted by Heidi Carrington Heath 



Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Friday, 14 April 2017

Empty tomb, empty churchy words?

Easter Sunday. Matthew 28:1-10, Colossians 3:1-4

"So, if you have been raised with Christ..." (Colossians 3:1a)

What in the world does "raised with Christ mean?" Seriously, how do you explain it?

I've been a student of theology for most of my life, and it will take me awhile to think this through so I can articulate it clearly and simply. It's one thing to talk about this on Easter Sunday to pews full of Christians, but how would I explain myself to my neighbours?

"Risen with Christ" is insider language, churchy words that are easily as empty as the Easter morning tomb unless we know what we mean when we say them. There are a lot of churchy words being tossed around this weekend, and we assume those of us in the church understand them. Maybe we do, but even with my M.Div. and years of church work, I still struggle with the language of blood, justification, sanctification, substitution....etc...used at Easter. They are not the words I use everyday and it's hard to know how they are relevant outside of the church doors. Some of the language is outdated, but my problem is a bit more basic than that. I don't tend to like language that is broadly general and avoids specifics and explanations. I need my expression of faith to be relevant. I need understandable and relate-able ways to express why I believe what I do, who I believe Jesus was and is, and why it matters.

I don't think it should be so difficult to explain ourselves, sometimes we make faith needlessly confusing. It's easier to co-opt "churchy" words than it is to find an authentic and simple way to explain ourselves. Those churchy words seldom make any sense to someone who didn't grow up in a church-and I wonder if they really make sense to church folks either.

Ever had a teacher get after you for not using your own words to explain a concept? I feel a bit like I am doing that, but I am lecturing myself as much as I am my fellow "churchies."

A few years ago, I spent a week as a chaplain at Blue Bronna, a horse-back riding camp that exists to introduce people to God in a natural setting. It was a mother-daughter camp and I've never spoken to a more diverse group. The age range was from 8-69, some were long time Christians, some had never opened a Bible. Some were happy and healthy, others were in the midst of traumatic family crisis. I had carefully prepared what I thought were simple devotionals. It didn't work, it couldn't because we shared no common story and attention spans ranged as widely as the ages and emotional states. I had to switch gears. At the last campfire, the staff took the children to do some age-appropriate Bible stories so I had the adults to myself. I very simply shared my story of faith. No churchy words, no complex theology, just why do I believe there is a God. It boiled down to simple things. I can't look at creation without believing in a Creator. I believe that love is the greatest power in the world and for me, another name for love is God. Because we are creations of love, I believe there is hope for fixing the broken things. The best story I have ever heard to express the way that creation, love and hope work is that of Jesus. When I hear the story of Jesus, I am invited to be an active, conscious part of sharing that hope and love and joining with the Creator now and forever.

That was it. Then we talked and shared experiences when/if we felt God was near, when life made us ask deep questions, where we search for answers.

That experience of having to make my explanations really simple was helpful for me. I don't want convoluted big words that feel empty. I want to hear why something matters right now and why I should care about it.

So, back to my first question. what does "raised with Christ" mean? Obviously we are speaking about an event that occurred thousand of years ago, so what does it mean now?

I go to the story of Jesus. When I read any story, I find myself identifying with the characters somehow-trying to understand what they do and why they do it. Jesus inspires me. I love the way he asks questions, loves people, upholds the traditions that are good for the people, and challenges those that are not. He refuses to back away from doing what is right, even when he knows it will not be popular. He gives us a way to live that builds up communities, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, touches the untouchables, and teaches the hungry-minded. This is the way to conquer sin and trouble in the long run. This is the way of sacrifice-Jesus' love for others gets him killed, but the story doesn't end in the tomb. God raises Jesus, love never dies.

To be raised with Christ, we have to die with him first. That means following in his footsteps, with an attitude of loving others, willing to heal and be healed, to learn and teach, to be fed and to feed. To devote our lives to love, to trying to do what God wants-to act in love toward God and each other. It is a life of giving and of self-sacrifice (not the dour, grumpy kind of sacrifice, but a willing generosity toward others). When we "die" to the world of selfishness we are truly alive, "raised" with Jesus, to be a part of what God is doing in life, in death, in forever.

That's my attempt to say it simply. When I share my faith with my non-churchy friends, I don't want churchy words. In fact, the best and simplest way to explain "risen with Christ" to them doesn't start with words. It starts when I show them love-the Jesus living in me. When they see me living with joy, hope, and purpose and we share with each other, that is when I understand what it is to be risen with Christ.

Note: For the record, I like big words. I like churchy words when I am studying and reading-if they are used well and backed up with practical examples. Deep thinking and hard questions are important. I like the academic stuff, when I'm with academics. I need that deep level of discourse for my own learning...but it's also so much more important to keep it real and relevant to regular people when I speak than it is to preach it to the 'choir.'

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Mixed up and trepidatious

Trepidation.

It is the perfect word for Palm Sunday.The account of the "Triumphal Entry", the celebration of Jesus, does not soften what is to come. We know the rest of the story. It starts with hope and moves through treachery and despair before hope is rekindled. On Palm Sunday, for those of us who know the story, our hope is mixed. We know that in a few days we will be in the uncomfortable part of the story, the part that makes us wonder about humanity and about our complicity with evil.

For preaching Palm Sunday, the lectionary suggests either the donkey and palm branches of Matt; 21: 1-11, or the Matt. 26:14-27 story of the last supper which features the plot to betray Jesus. I don't want to focus exclusively on either the story of joyful hope, or the darkness of treachery. Both are present and important to the story and wholeness of faith as we approach the core story of Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Another reading for Palm Sunday is Philippians 2:5-11 which contains the familiar words; "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus..." In a 'working preacher" post, Melinda Quivik does a great job of combining the joy and sorrow of Palm Sunday. She says;

"The brilliance and wisdom of Phi. 2:5-11 becomes especially poignant when the worship honors both the pageantry of the palm waving and the darkness of the passion celebrated together on one day, for the admonition to live in the mind of Christ Jesus entails both adulation and sorrow."

What a mixed up and "trepidatious" (yes, I made up the word) time in our church season. We want to celebrate the coming of a gentle king who upsets the powers that oppress, but unlike the crowds who welcomed Jesus on the donkey, we know that the way he upsets the system will get him killed. We know he is misunderstood and that he is being cheered as he goes to his torture and death. We also know that we are invited to "have the mind of Christ", to be involved in upsetting today's oppressive systems by following his example of love and self-sacrifice. It is daunting, disturbing, and yet because we know the ending, it is also amazing and a cause for deep hope.

Rob Fringer, a lecturer at Nazarene Theological college in Brisbane, Australia, says that Paul invites the Philippians to consider a God who yields power rather than wields power. This must have been received with mixed feelings by that early church. They were being persecuted, so the idea that their saviour was also weak according to the world's standards might have made them feel understood and encouraged in new ways of being strong. Or perhaps it made them feel hopeless. Possibly they were encouraged to continue in the hope of resurrection beyond earthly struggle. Likely all of these feelings were present.

As we move through scripture and worship toward the events of Easter, it is good to be a part of both the joy and trepidation of the central story of our faith. Our joy comes from God, a God of peace who is the answer to and the salvation from the mess humanity makes in our striving for power. Our despair is real, the Bible story shows us how humanity failed and our newspapers show us how the failure continues. Then, as now, the ultimate hope is in a God who continues to love, re-create, and resurrect-always inviting us to be a part of the story that ends in life.