Sunday, 29 December 2013

What's wrong if we are not happy?

Lectionary Passages for January 5, 2014.  Jeremiah 31:7-14, Ps 84, Eph. 1:3-6, 15-19a, Matt. 2:13-15, 19-23, or Luke 2:41-52, or Matt. 2:1-12
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

The word "happy" jumps out from Psalm 84. It's a great word to stimulate thinking in the aftermath of the season of gift giving, the 'most wonderful time of the year.'

There is a lot of happiness Christmas Eve and morning as we watch children. The excitement, the toys, the engagement with friends and family. There is, however, the other side of all the frantic activity. The frayed nerves, the overtired, overstimulated, sugar loaded toddlers, the tired parents/grandparents who have hosted houses full of visitors, those who had to navigate crammed airports and icy roads, exhausted retail workers, relatives who don't get along but had to spend time together...

So what is happiness? Is it those moments where everything is fun and the difficult realities fade to the background? Is it a goal to strive toward? If we are not happy, what is wrong?

Psalm 84 mentions happiness 3 times. In verse 3 the ones who live in God's house are the happy ones. That sounds like a future thing, like heaven. (At least if we think of God's house as somewhere other than earth-as an ultimate destination.) That makes some sense, but feels a bit to far away for application here and now.

Verse 4 says those whose strength is in the Lord are the happy ones. This sounds more like a state of being, something achievable today. However, to get it we have to give up self-reliance. That is hard. The verse goes on to say that the happy have their hearts set on the pilgrim way. Here, being happy is relying on God for strength and walking roads that might be unknown, maybe not safe, and definitely will be a lot of work. (At least that's what the word pilgrim seems to suggest.) So maybe the happy people are the ones who live what God asks as best they can and allow themselves to be challenged. Somehow, these people live through the tough stuff and are still happy. Verse 5 continues the thought. In it, people going through the desolate valley (not anyone's definition of happy) find surprising places of renewal. They find these because their strength is not their own, but God's. It doesn't depend on limited human understanding or strength. So even though people are in hard places, they can still be happy. It seems incongruous, but I like the idea that travelling hard roads does not extinguish joy, but allows us to discover the true source of lasting happiness.

Finally, the Psalm ends with the key statement; "Happy are those who put their trust in You!" Happiness here is not a fleeting feeling, but a deep set attitude, a belief that God has all of life in hand. It is an understanding that can buoy us through the difficult times and help us to keep our eyes open so we will not miss those surprising bits of joy where it is not expected.

I feel some relief that the busy season (for pastors, but also for teachers,  retailers, emergency workers...) is over, but also some of the "bleah" of cleaning up and resuming regular time and duties is certainly going to set in. Am I happy? Absolutely. When I remember to rely on God (and actually manage to internalize that), when I trust that God is there in the valleys, and when I look with hope to the future (instead of worrying or complaining) I truly do have the happiness of Psalm 84. It isn't a superficial thing, happiness is a gift from God to help us walk that Pilgrim journey.  The times when I can recall true .unhappiness, there has been something wrong. Those are the times when I've relied more on myself than God, and isn't a good place to be when things go wrong.

Happy are those who put their trust in YOU!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

We Need More Floor Scrubbers!

Lectionary Readings for Dec. 29. Isaiah 63:7-9, Ps 148, Heb. 2:10-18, Matt. 2:13-23
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

I hadn't expected to find anyone else at the church. It was early on a Saturday morning and I, the youth pastor at a smallish church in Ontario, was going to do some preparation for Sunday. When I unlocked the front door, however, I found our senior pastor (and he was a senior) down on his knees scrubbing the foyer floor. When I asked why he was cleaning, he simply replied that it looked dirty.

One of the lessons I learned from working with this particular man was that the pastor has to be one of the people. Real, practical, and not exempt from any of the ministries we expect others to do in and for the church and its people. We have to be able to get our hands dirty alongside everyone else. While all have different gifts, no one person is worth more than another. None of us is above scrubbing the floor or the toilet if that is the job that needs to be done. That levelness or commonality among people is what helps us relate to each other, to feel we can share in each others pains and celebrations with genuine empathy.

When I read Hebrews 2:10-18, I couldn't help but think of how my pastor scrubbing the floor was doing the same kind of thing Jesus did-albeit on a smaller scale. Paul, in his usual convoluted style, tells us how Jesus humbled himself to become one of us. "Therefore he became like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God..." v. 17.  God certainly did not have to become human, but in doing so, Jesus was able to relate to us in a very special way-as a brother. He shared what it means to be human, the joys, the unfairness, the dirt. That willingness to be right beside us, to participate fully in humanity, makes God approachable. It gives us a realistic model that  we actually have a hope of imitating. Jesus, our brother, shows us how to be truly human in a way that connects us to each other and to God.

I love verse 16. "For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham."  He came to help those of us least able to help ourselves. Because he knows what it is to suffer, he is able to help those who are mired in their own circumstances.The ones who least deserve God are still fully able to relate to Jesus and to find a helpful and compassionate friend.

The Isaiah and Psalm pieces praise the God of creation and are bursting with joy. I had a hard time reading the Matthew piece after those beauties. In Matthew, Joseph and Mary flee and spend years in Egypt to avoid the infanticide an enraged Herod inflicts on the people. It's a horrible story. It shows the contrast between the love of a God who is willing to live among the people and the hate of a jealous man bent on his own exaltation. This is one of those events that leaves me wondering about why God ever gave people free will.

I hope the example Jesus sets in becoming one of us, in helping the poor and broken, and in being willing to give up himself proves stronger than our needs for aggrandisement, status, and power. The world is definitely better off with more floor scrubbing leaders than people who are worried about keeping themselves on top!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

God With Us

Lectionary Scriptures for Dec. 22. Fourth Advent. Isaiah 7:10-16, Ps 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

God with us. That is the meaning of the name Immanuel, the name given to the promised saviour.

Isaiah is speaking to king Ahaz when Judah's enemies are forming powerful alliances and surrounding them. He says a child will be born, and that even before this child is old enough to make good decisions, the lands of those enemies will be deserted. What kind of reassurance is this? The threat is immediate, and king Ahaz is only offered the possibility of a baby saviour who has to grow up a bit before anything happens. (And I really don't get this curds and honey thing-guess I'll have to do a little research to understand that reference!)
How is the land of the enemies deserted, do they just walk away? What happens with the immediate crisis? Why would the future hope of a little kid reassure a king and his people whose "hearts are shaking as the trees of the forest shake before the wind?" (1:2b)

The answer is in the name of the child. "God With Us". Isaiah is reminding the king and all of Judah that they are in God's hands, regardless of what goes on around them. Jumping back in the text to verse 9, we read; "If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all." There is a powerful message here that God is in charge, that human armies and powers will not, in the end, matter. The idea that God's hope can come as a child saviour emphasizes this point. Judah may need to wait. They must have faith. And their redemption will look a lot different than anything they can imagine! God is doing something unique, and it is rather difficult to understand as the people watch the enemy surround them. They must accept, by faith, that God is with them.

Where the Isaiah message is corporate, for a whole people, Matthew 1 puts the "God With Us" into a very personal setting. Here we get a glimpse of the struggle Joseph is having with his choice of wife. This is a personal, family agony. Things aren't right and Joseph is simply trying to do the best he can during his family turmoil. The angel tells him (in the midst of his agony) that God is with us. Because God was with him, Joseph's choice looked a lot different than it would have if he had relied on his own decision making.

The Christmas story offers us reassurance, as a whole earth, and as individuals. May we be granted the faith to stand firm, to believe that God is with us in all our problems, no matter their size. Redemption just might have a very different look and timing than we can ever imagine!

Friday, 6 December 2013

Certainly Not a Saint. Mandela inspires Ordinary People.

Lectionary Readings for Dec. 15, 3rd Advent. Isaiah 35:1-10, Ps 146: 5-10, or Luke 1: 47-55, James 5:7-10, Matt. 11:2-11
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Yesterday Nelson Mandela died. Today, on CBC radio, the morning was dedicated to reviewing his life and talking with people who knew him and his work.  By all accounts, he was an extraordinary man, a great inspiration to many ordinary people.

I've thought about him in the context of these passages, and wondered what his life has to say to the questions they raised for me. All the passages speak out of a context of oppression. Isaiah prophecies to a captive people, encouraging them to hope in God. Psalm 146 and Luke 1 are about food for the hungry and justice for the down trodden. James calls for patient hope to endure suffering. Matthew, through an imprisoned John, affirms that Jesus brings healing to the hurt and good news to the poor. 

How do we as First World people hear these words? We are free and fed and individualistic in outlook, so how should we hear this? How do we hear words of hope originally preached for groups of oppressed people when we are rich? What part of the message of hope are we called to?

This is where Mandela's story is interesting, because he lived both points of view. He knew what it was to be part of an oppressed people. He also rose to the highest pinnacle of power in South Africa. and knew what it was like to hold the reins of power and prestige. Mandela could speak from the side of the poor and oppressed, and also from the side of the rich and powerful. When apartheid was in full swing, Mandela used his skills and position for the good of others, trying to bring about justice. When he was finally released from jail and apartheid dismantled, he still tried to use his skills and positions for the good of others. Wealth and power did not make him a bystander, they were just new tools to use in tackling injustice.

Most of us haven't lived the life of the captive, the racially oppressed, or the desperately poor. We especially haven't lived that way as part of a whole segregated society. We also haven't lived the life of a president or the super wealthy. We do, however, live lives of relative ease, warm and fed and educated among a population that is generally very well off. I think we become satisfied bystanders, content to look inward to our individual pleasures and convinced that problems that do exist are too big for us anyway, so we don't get involved. Mandela's example is fantastic. When he was poor, he did what he could. When he had power, he still worked for others. What do we do with our power?

It was helpful today, to hear some of the interviewees say Mandela was not a saint and that he would have been among the first to admit it. He was an ordinary man who used what he had for others. Now he seems so much bigger than life, but the interviews reminded me that he was surrounded by people who shared his causes, helped him, and suffered alongside him. That he was a family man, and there were failings and pains for him there too, like there are for ordinary people. That once Mandela was president, issues became more complex, and it was more obvious that he wasn't perfect. He had to deal with economic chaos, political corruption around him, and the difficulties of international issues. He had contradictions in his views on non-violence and the use of force.There are people who call him a communist and accuse him of terrorism. But the fact remains, he led the charge to get rid of apartheid, and he did it well.

The scripture passages call us to think about hope in terms of changing things for the better for all of God's people. They come from places of pain, they speak to peoples who need hope. They speak to the powerful and the ordinary too. We are all part of the people, how do we hear and implement this hope for others? How do we take our ordinary and put the extra in front of it?

Friday, 29 November 2013

New stuff out of old stumps.

Lectionary Passages for Dec. 8, 2nd Advent. Isaiah 11:1-10, Ps 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matt 3:1-12
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Isaiah is familiar reading territory for Advent. If you attend church around this time of year, you know the bit about the shoot from the stump of Jesse. A few years ago, another pastor told me he doesn't like preaching during this season, because the repetitive themes get old for him. I see his point, I have that worry too, but so far (I think I've preached about 15 advent seasons) it just hasn't happened. Each year there are different things going on in my life, the church, and society, and each time I read the same old scriptures, new things strike me.

This year Isaiah 11:3 seems fresh, how have I not noticed this before? In describing the coming messiah, Isaiah says that he will not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear....That's odd. Right away my mind jumps to the idea that "God judges the heart", but that's not the answer contained in this passage. Here the answer is that he judges with righteousness. That seems less about heart than about how the people have acted. This answer is given to whole peoples, not to individuals. When God comes, the poor and the meek will be rightly treated and the wicked will die. It's a righting of national relations, a setting up of a new governance that puts what is right before what is profitable. And somehow that new system will be prosperous. A huge, mysterious hope for something very different than the world we know.

Psalm 72 also lifts up the cause of the poor and underprivileged, talking about prosperity in practical terms like abundant food and peace. Here David (the psalmist) envisions justice as something that might be channeled through an earthly king, he wants God to give the king  (himself) the ability to act righteously. The final sentence of the Psalm, however, makes it clear that David knows that all good ultimately comes from God, David knows who the king really is.

Matt. 3 is the familiar story of John the Baptist preparing the way. This year, however, I notice some parallels to the Isaiah piece. In verse 8, John tells the corrupt religious leaders of the time that they are to "bear fruit worthy of repentance." Again, it is less about the heart than it is about how the people are acting-what the results are evident. Verse 12 does the judgment bit too, the grain is gathered while the chaff is burned. Of course, we assume we are grain...

Romans is a bit different than the other scriptures, what I notice here is again the corporate nature of the message. Paul is speaking to a divided church, a church where two cultures (Jew and Gentile) have come together. How do we get along with whole different cultures within the church? More than ever, we are seeing great cultural diversity in our society, and in the Christian church. How do we truly listen to, respect, and value each other? Paul claims the "root of Jesse" for the Gentiles in verse 12. Those adopted into the faith have every bit as much claim to God as do those whose faith is inherited.

So, the new challenges for me in reading these scriptures this time.
1. The passages are written to groups, to nations. How do I hear these out of my context living in an individualistic culture? What does group justice look like today? Is it all about laws, or is this a challenge for the church as a group to take on? (In a time when churches are more congregationally minded and thinking less of denominational structures, is there something here we need to pay attention to?)
2. No matter what is going on, God judges in a way that is beyond human eyes and ears. That is encouraging for the times we feel misunderstood, but can also be humbling because there is nothing that can be hidden from God. God expects us to bear fruit-are we doing that?
3. I'm struck, again, by the heavy emphasis on good news for the poor. the Advent message is a challenge to change systems, to work toward eliminating poverty and to involve all types of people in the church. I can't help but hear the words of judgement in Isaiah and Matthew and wonder if our actions (as mostly wealthy people) are simply inadequate. There is a need for John's repentance message for all of us!

Friday, 15 November 2013

Those scary rapture verses

Lectionary Readings for the First Advent, Dec. 1. Isaiah 2:1-5, Ps 122, Rom. 13:11-14, Matt. 24:36-44
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

"Then two will be left in the field; one will be taken and one will be left...." For so many of us these words bring up memories of bad movies, sensationalist books, and cold-stomach fear. (Okay, I admit I am quite biased! I really can't stand stuff that plays on emotion and uses it to scare people into belief.) Often this passage tends to hijack the rest of the message with the panic and the worry that ensues.

People don't like the idea of not knowing, of being unsure of what is in store for them. In the Believers Church Bible Commentary, Richard Gardner says that people have tended toward 3 responses to apocalyptic literature like this. One is to attempt to "assemble all the jigsaw pieces", to document and explain and predict. A second is to disregard the corporate nature of the message and turn it into a reason for an individualistic "get right with God" thing-getting scared into heaven. A third is to completely spiritualize the message by saying the judgement and resurrection is all part of the here and now, but isn't a physical time or place or event.

Gardner says all three tendencies are largely unhelpful. The message here is that God is determined to redeem us, and we are invited to get involved. Absolutely central to the message is the assertion that Jesus IS coming again, so why keep waiting to get ourselves aligned with God's work?

I still have trouble with the "rapture" verses. I guess I want explanations too, but if "even the son" doesn't know what is coming, why should I be any different?  It's best instead, to listen to what Jesus says in verse 36, that no one can know the day or hour when things end and begin. We have to trust God, not our crazy explanations and mental gymnastics.

The scriptures for First Advent always include some apocalyptic, some acknowledgement that humans are messed up and that without God's intervention, we are lost. The Romans passage is rather interesting in what it suggests might be happening among the faithful. It emphasizes the need to wake up to what is happening and there is a call to join God's side. Paul urges his readers to put aside works of darkness, to live honorably and not be caught up in drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, and jealousy. Wow. Makes me wonder what was all happening in that community. The early church certainly had its share of dysfunction and compliance with the bad parts of current culture! They needed God so desperately that they were seeing the "end". Our world is different in the technological sense, but at it's core, we have the same desperate need for God that means that the apocalyptic scriptures still resonate for us. God will help us, we are called to wake up and join in, and we have to wait and trust.

On first Advent, we cry out for God to intervene, to show us again, where Jesus is being born into lives and offering redemption. We cry out to see the hope that we crave.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Positives from Apocalyptic

Lectionary Readings for Nov. 17: Malachi 4:1-2a, Ps 98, 2 Thess. 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

It's funny how people often seem  to interpret the times as getting worse. I know I do it too. For example; I think that when I was growing up, I did a lot more playing outside, had more face to face interaction with my family and friends, and was responsible for more work than most children today. I worry about what the hours of video games, the "virtual" communication of social media, and the delayed onset of adult responsibilities is doing to society. Likely these are true observations, and my worry has some justification, but my parents could have said the same things if they compared their growing up to mine. (And I think my generation largely turned out okay!)

It's natural for us to worry and wonder about the next generations and their directions, but why is it that we get stuck in negatives? When I look at my own children, I certainly see some issues with the world they are growing in, but if I think about it, I see amazing positives as well. They are much more aware of the world and issues than I was at their age. They interact with a greater variety of cultures and different people than I ever did and they do it naturally. They learn at a higher level at school we used to. They are better at articulating their faith in well-reasoned ways than I was. They engage questions well and own their beliefs instead of just memorizing the "right" responses. They handle grey areas better than I did at their age.

The Luke passage is apocalyptic. Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple, a story which is also in Matt. 24:3-14, and Mark 13: 3-13. It isn't an easy piece to read, it can cause anxiety, it can cause us to focus on some very real negatives. There are, however, positives here as well. Verse 9 says that when we hear of wars we should not be terrified...the end will not follow immediately. There is time. And when God's people are persecuted for their faith, this results in a positive. Verse 13 says this is an opportunity to testify. Verse 14 gives assurance that the persecuted will be given the right words, they will have the support they need. Testimony changes people, it can change situations. Then, even when the whole world, including friends and family, does not follow God, endurance will result in a saved soul and everlasting life.

So the positives; there is time. There is opportunity for testimony. There is support. And, when all else fails, God saves. God is still there for us.

Another positive is that new good things can grow, even out of destruction. The destruction of Jerusalem (verses 20-24) symbolizes the "time of the Gentiles". The followers of Jesus are scattered, which spreads the gospel. The message now goes out in a wide way, to the non-Jewish world. (Remember also, that Luke wrote this gospel 10-20 years after the fall of Jerusalem and the temple. There is some hindsight here. In Acts 28:28 he writes: Let it be known to you then that his salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.")


(Verse 18 is a positive too, it says not a hair on your head will perish. I didn't include this one, because it's a bit difficult to figure out. If it is speaking in a spiritual sense, talking about everlasting life, it works. If it's talking about a purely physical hurt, a this world thing, it's harder to understand. The disciples hearing this were certainly not exempt from physical persecution and harm. Fred Craddock, a New Testament scholar, discusses this problem in his commentary on Luke. He says; "In any case, faithfulness and endurance under threat, under arrest, and under penalty of death are the qualities of disciples during this time of witnessing . Disciples are not exempt from suffering...")

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Humbling and helpful

Lectionary Readings for Nov. 10, 2013.  Job 19:23-27a, Ps 17:1-9, 2 Thess. 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

I was in a magazine store (waiting to fly home from a Canadian Mennonite writer's workshop) when the cover of the fall issue of "Scientific American" caught my eyes. It REALLY caught my eyes, as the front cover is an optical illusion that pops off the page and crawls in snaky circles. It's totally captivating!

The issue is devoted to perception. After 112 pages, I can't trust that what I see is what is actually there. I'm astounded by the mind's ability to be mislead, tricked. Even with the scientific explanations in front of me, my eyes tell a different story and my reactions and feelings are keyed to the perceptions of my obviously incorrect vision.

I'm left wondering, if my eyes can be fooled, what about my other senses? What about my thoughts and feelings about the reality of the world and relationships? It's humbling to know that they could be quite different than reality, yet there are what I must use to inform my decisions and to navigate life.

These thoughts were still kicking around when I read these lectionary passages. In all four, judgement is best left to God. Job's friends are off base when they assume his guilt. It's impressive that Job, instead of submitting to internal self-hate or externally lashing out at his friends, says what he thinks and then trusts God. He testifies to his faith and tells his friends that God will be their judge too.

Psalm 19 is similar. The Psalmist can't see that he's done anything wrong, so he petitions for God's help. (Interesting how both Job and the Psalmist are not shy about claiming innocence!) Again God is trusted to provide vindication.

2 Thessalonians 1:5 (I didn't skip verses 5-10, they are important to the theme) affirms God's judgement. The church is suffering persecution, and it is affirmed in perseverance, but take a look at verse 9. This leaves me uncomfortable, it sounds nasty.  Here some of the Thessalonian's true feelings come out. These believers aren't superhuman, they aren't above the feelings of rage and revenge that we would feel. The good thing is that they control their actions. Instead of acting poorly as a result of their indignation, they leave judgement and punishment to God. That is helpful in considering the flimsiness of perception. It doesn't ultimately matter if our perceptions are correct-(although we strive to do our best), God is the one who ultimately acts and our job is to persevere in trust.

Finally, the Luke passage is the much loved story of Zacchaeus. Here Jesus sees past the illusions everyone else is caught up in. He sees something worth redeeming in Zacchaeus and is able to draw the good out of him in a way Zacchaeus couldn't manage himself. Jesus exposes the real Zacchaeus, the one who is willing to give to the poor and sacrifice his wealth to make up for past mistakes. 

All in all, a message to ultimately trust in God. Humbling and helpful.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Active Confession!

Lectionary Readings for Nov. 3. Isaiah 1:10-22, Ps 32:1-7, 2 Thess. 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

The passages for November 3 carry a strong theme of forgiveness, but this isn't cheap forgiveness. It's not enough to say "I'm sorry." This is forgiveness after long struggles. The psalmist says: "when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was upon me." He is being eaten from the inside out by guilt. If the psalmist is indeed David, he's got a lot to confess. He's responsible for many deaths and there's the Bathsheba situation-wrong on so many different levels. The surprising thing is that for a long time David resists, he stays quiet, he does everything in his power to keep from confessing. Finally, he lets go of his feelings of self-importance and opens up to God, and that's when he is at peace. (I always marvel that this deeply flawed, and in many ways terrible, man was "after God's own heart. David must have possessed an incredible ability to self-reflect, realize his sin and actually hand himself over to God.)

Isaiah rails against meaningless offerings that people use to 'buy' cheap forgiveness. God clearly does not want their gold or incense or animals because the people are not sincerely offering their lives. The prophet addresses his audience as "rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah", peoples notorious for ignoring justice and the rights of the poor (not primarily for sexual practices as the stereotype goes!) Isaiah's people are going through all the outward motions of faith, assuming that is all that is required. It is cheap forgiveness if all it takes is an appearance/performance at the temple. What is required is much harder. "Stop doing wrong, learn to do right. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow." v. 17

Ps 32 and Isaiah 1, when read with the story of Zacchaeus, shine a light onto verses 8-10. This is where Zacchaeus"confesses" with his actions. He gives half of his possessions to the poor and he pays back, with 400% interest, the people he has cheated. Jesus tells the crowd, (many of whom do all the right things according to their religious laws) that this tax collector has received salvation. It certainly didn't come cheap!

Showing up for services, and dropping money into an offering plate, are meaningless things if there is no sincere confession, like David's, or no action for others like Isaiah asks for and Zacchaeus does. These stories of forgiveness are stories of a lived faith, they challenge us to think about what it is we are doing to"confess with our actions!"

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Simple but challenging!

Lectionary Readings for Oct. 27. Psalm 84, Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22, 2 Tim 4:6-8, Luke 18:9-14
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

The story Jesus tells about the Pharisee and the tax collector is short and simple. Our thinking about it should not be. It's tempting to say this is easy to understand and that it clearly divides people into "be like this" and "don't be like this."  The message, however, is much more challenging if we let it soak in to our hearts and minds.

In Jesus' day, the Pharisees were looked up to as examples of how to live. Everything the Pharisee says in his prayer is true. He does fast and pray, he is a good person, he is fortunate not to be in a position where he is pushed into desperate living, such as the thieves and rogues he mentions. What is offensive, is that he thinks this makes him more worthy of God's love, than anyone else.

The tax collector held a job that left him despised by the populace. He took their money for the government, and even if he did this honestly, he would not be liked. (Tax collectors had a reputation for padding their incomes by overcharging, which certainly did not endear them to society.) When he prays, he doesn't compare himself to anyone else, he simply asks God for mercy. 

(I wonder what comparable vocations would be used to tell this story today? Maybe Bible bookstore owner or pastor and a used car salesperson? We certainly are not free of stereotyping people according to their jobs!)

As a kid, I always thought the Pharisee was bragging loudly and the tax collector was quiet. Nope. The Pharisee may have been loud, but verse 11 states that he was standing by himself. He wasn't doing anything very unusual. The tax collector was further away, but was certainly not quiet at all and was not acting normally. He was "beating his breast"-an action that would draw attention. (One commentator even says this action was more common to grieving women than it was to men. The tax collector certainly wasn't trying to hide! He was a bit of a spectacle!)

At our Bible study/preparation meeting for the Oct. 27 service, the leader handed out a bit of commentary about this parable. I'm going to quote it here-it's good stuff. Sorry, I don't have the author's name. (if anyone needs that information, let me know and I'll track it down)

"Two basic truths underlie the meaning of this story.: God loves us and we are all sinners. The Pharisee understands only one of them-God loves me. He sees only his strengths and good deeds and tells God all about them. It is a one sided conversation. The tax-collector however understands both of them. He is well aware of his weaknesses and sins. (Lots of people point them out to him regularly.) If that was all he knew, he wouldn't be at the Temple at all. But he also knows that God loves him in spite of this sins. So he comes to God to confess and leaves OK with God."

This is a simple parable,but it's challenges are significant. We are challenged to accept that God loves us, no matter how we compare to others. (Hard for those with low opinions of themselves.) We are challenged to be humble and not think of ourselves as better than others, even when society gives us that message. (Hard for those with high opinions of themselves.) We are challenged to openly confess. (Difficult for everyone.) There is some of the Pharisee and tax-collector in each of us, and we are encouraged to bring ourselves to God.

In 2 Timothy, Paul believes he has done the best he can. He doesn't fault others for their lack of support when he is brought to the judgement of the authorities. He relies on God for true judgement and says; "to him be the glory forever and ever." Today's scriptures encourage and challenge us to find that place of feeling good about ourselves, not condemning others, and surrendering control and judgement into God's hands.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Wrestling all Night.

Lectionary readings for Oct 20. Genesis 32:22-31, Ps 121, 2 Tim. 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

The idea of wrestling all night isn't completely strange. It is at night, when bodies are still and distractions have quieted, that our minds conjure up adversaries. The worries and conflicts of the day have louder voices at night and the resultant inner struggle keeps us from sleep. Jacob is scheduled to face his estranged and powerful brother Esau the next day and he knows he's the one in the wrong. No wonder he's up all night wrestling!

A mysterious man wrestles with him, a man whose identity is never revealed. Both commentaries I looked at say this story remains unclear and open to interpretation. Perhaps that is why it so powerfully captures our imaginations. It doesn't quite satisfy. It is a lot like the things we struggle with, we sometimes aren't quite able to name what is wrong, or who the adversary is. All we know is that we struggle. There isn't a clear line between victory and hurt. For Jacob, his refusal to quit struggling results in both blessing and curse. He is blessed by the stranger and given the name 'Israel' which means something like 'God preserves.' He is also permanently crippled by his struggles. He limps for the rest of his life.

So many of life's wrestlings produce mixed results. Like Jacob, we often don't see God in it all, until the dust clears a bit. At the end of this little story, Jacob says he has seen God face to face and yet "my life is preserved." I have to wonder if he fought too hard. If Jacob had given in and spoken to the stranger earlier, could he have been blessed and avoided the injury? Why did it have to come to a fight? I've always kind of assumed (and heard) that Jacob's refusal to give up here was admirable, but I question that.  If Jacob hadn't always been fighting and taking the best for himself, he may not have had enemies in the first place. He may not have needed the poke in the hip to put him in his rightful place. Then again, there is value in struggle too. When something is important, a "stick to it" ethic allows us to fight through to eventually find answers and perhaps keeps us looking for God.

How does this story speak to you?

Friday, 4 October 2013

Contrasts and Parallels, A Remarkable Story!

Lectionary Passages for Oct. 13, Thanksgiving Sunday.  2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c, Psalm 111, 2 Tim. 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Who would ever, in reading 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' to children, stop at the part where Goldilocks happily settles into a soft bed? The story isn't over! We need to find out how the bears react, and what Goldilocks does/learns. So why do we quit reading the story of Naaman at the point where he is healed? The story isn't over at all, there's still a reconciliation, a conversion, greed, and betrayal yet to come.

This story of healing is remarkably complex and well told. It kicks off with the striking contrast between Naaman, the mighty warrior who has the direct ear of King Aram and the little girl taken from defeated Israel and slave to Naaman's wife. The slave girl is as unimportant as a person can be, yet she knows how to solve something that stymies "all the kings horses and all the kings men". Even more remarkably, she cares enough to offer her knowledge. Naaman, like many with incurable disease, is willing to try anything, even listening to a slave girls advice.

Naaman is desperate, but still rather full of himself, his position, and the assumed superiority of his people. He shows up at Elisha's with a full military escort, expecting to be treated like the royalty he is. Elisha doesn't even come out of the house, and insultingly, sends Naaman to wash in the muddy Jordan as if Israel's water is better than that of the foreigners. Of course, Naaman is enraged. (I wonder how scared Elisha's messenger was when he/she delivered the news? This could have ended very badly for everyone!)

In a parallel to the slave girls advice, Naaman's servants (not his advisors!) urge him to follow the simple, if humiliating, advice. Remarkably, maybe out of desperation, he listens and is healed. Now the story gets even more interesting! Naaman's rage evaporates, replaced by deep gratitude and reverence for the God of Israel. Naaman's conceit is gone, and he is reconciled to Elisha. He offers gifts, which Elisha refuses. (A commentator, Richard Nelson, makes a neat observation; saying that as Naaman stand in humility before Elisha, so Elisha stands in humility before God, refusing to take payment for something that is God's doing). In another fun parallel, Naaman's humble request for two mule-loads of dirt stands in beautiful contrast to his earlier disgust with the muddy Jordan. The dirt allows him to bring a bit of Israel's land home to Syria-that he might worship the God of that land.

Finally, there is a little parallel story about one of Elisha's servants. While Naaman's servants are portrayed as honourable and helpful, Elisha's servant, Gehazi, is devious and greedy. He goes behind Elisha's back to take the gifts Elisha refused. Why this little postscript of a story?  I can't help but think it's there to guard against Elisha's people claiming any sort of superiority for themselves. Naaman was brought "down to earth", and God's people are supposed to stay firmly planted on earth as well. They are not to take on airs of superiority or claim they are any better than their enemies. Wherever there are people, there are temptations, problems, and dysfunction. No group of people is exempt from humanities struggles.

Thanksgiving day. How do the lectionary passages tie in to our celebration of Thanksgiving? The Luke piece, about the ten healed lepers where only one comes back to say thank you, is obvious, likely many preachers are going to go for this scripture for Thanksgiving Sunday. In a neat parallel to the Naaman story, however, it is again the outsider who "gets it" and responds with gratitude. Perhaps there is something here for us regarding humility. Are we truly grateful for what we have or do we think we are deserving? Like Elisha, we might have to be careful of the attitudes we carry within our own houses!

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Viewing from the Ramparts

Lectionary Passages for Oct 6. Habakkuk 1:1-4. 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-9, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

The week has gotten away with me, I'm sorry I'm so slow getting to the lectionary blog!

Habakkuk is not common reading, but it's message has common resonance for anyone who has an ear to world news. The prophet is distraught over violence indiscriminately perpetrated by the uncaring powerful against good people. The law seems "paralyzed and justice never prevails."

I've heard this lament taken up as reason to stop believing in God. After all, how can a loving God not intervene and stop human madness? It's impossible, if we only read the lectionary verses, to see where Habakkuk goes with this. The book is only a few pages long, so I read the whole thing.

In verse 5, the Lord is portrayed as answering the prophet, saying the Babylonians will be sent in as a violent, conquering people in order to get rid of the violent, law-defying people. Habakkuk replies in the rest of the chapter by challenging the idea that more violence is a solution. The Lord replies again in chapter 2, urging Habakkuk to wait and watch, that someday the Lord will set matters right and the evil ways of people will stop. "Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and  establishes a town by crime."  And Habakkuk waits. Chapter 3 has him praising God, and asking God to intervene by renewing God's deeds of old. It's quite clear that Habakkuk believes God will eventually do something. He fully knows that the violence and force of human ways is not the way to lasting peace and justice. He lays aside his distress and takes up hope in the midst of brokenness.He rejoices in the strength God provides for him to make it through each day.

3:17-18 are poignant. "though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord."

A postscript: My husband and son recently went on a mountain hike in which they walked over many false summits before finally reaching a viewpoint. From there, they could see the whole landscape, all the way down to the highway. The distance gave them a vastly wider perspective than what they had at the start, beside the highway. At the highway's edge, the rushing traffic overwhelms one's senses. At the summit, things fall into perspective and the cars are small and far away. This is a great image for me when I read Habakkuk 2:1. Habakkuk stations himself on the ramparts where he can see, where he can get a wider perspective and perhaps understand what God wants. Habakkuk removes himself from the overwhelming rush of the immediate traffic of issues to listen for God. Sometime he will have to go back down, back to everyday life, and maybe back to dodging cars. However, his glimpse of the wider sweep of God's domain gives him hope, patience, and even joy to take back into that life.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Talking about money.

Lectionary passages for Sept. 29. Amos6:1a, 4-7, Ps 146, 1 Tim. 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Talking about money is always touchy. A few years ago, after I preached on passages like these, I had a number of people make comments. For some people, they hadn't heard pastors preach on this topic, they said it was usually the treasurer or some representative from an outside church organization. Others said they thought it was courageous to take it on. Still others thought it should be done more often. Of course there were many quiet people, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of them would rather that pastors just keep quiet about matters of wealth. What happens for you? Where do you have discussions about money and it's use?

The lectionary passages this week won't allow us to keep quiet about the use of wealth. They urge us to think deeply about wealth, generosity, contentment, and what sort of importance we place on riches. If we are really honest about what we read in the Bible, we should probably be studying and preaching a whole lot more about these themes! We should be talking about money in our families, with trusted friends, and especially among people of faith. (Just for fun sometime, I'd like to see a 'red letter' edition of the Bible that highlights all the passages talking about poverty and riches!)

We don't like to talk about money because we've convinced ourselves it is a private matter. We hesitate to ask each other what we earn, or spend, or give, or waste, or hoard. There are some good reasons for that, but the extent of our silence also means we are not able to hold each other accountable, it's hard to encourage or support positive changes, and it's hard to know how to help or who needs help, or how to ask for help. Our economy drives all of us and it's hard to handle money whether we think we have too much or too little of it.

One thing that makes me hesitant to preach about the use of wealth is the risk of sending out "guilt trip" kind of signals into our community. Guilt isn't the best motivator for right living and sharing. Love and true caring are far superior, longer lasting, and more joy inducing for the community of believers. I'd rather be in a poorer community that is giving happily and out of love than in a wealthy one that gives out of obligation. (Of course, usually there is a mix of these feelings going on. I hope we strive for and encourage the more joyful direction.)

It's interesting to think about how these scriptures characterize the wealthy. None of them condemn the rich for having money. Amos says; "alas for those who are at ease...and are not grieved". It's okay to have your needs met-but not if you don't care about others. The Psalm says that happiness comes from trusting God. Timothy says that if you have food and clothes, you should be content. That in "eagerness to be rich some have wandered and pierced themselves with many pains." Not all the rich are lost, but some are. In Luke, the rich man is never condemned for being rich. His problem is that he has walked past the poor man every day not even sharing the crumbs that fell from his table. In all the readings, the problem is the focus on self-riches and lack of concern for others.

I am quite intrigued by Luke's encouragement to be content. What does this take? How can we be truly content? Is it easier to be content when you are rich, or poor, or somewhere in between? Once the basic needs are met, like Luke says, I think contentment has a lot more to do with trusting God than anything else. Riches or lack of, health or lack of, life and death, these happen to everyone. Contentment does not happen to everyone, we have to work at it.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

You Cannot Serve God and Wealth

Lectionary passages for Sept. 22: Amos 8:4-7, Ps 113, 1 Tim. 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

My Bible has a little introduction about the book of Amos. It says that there had been a time of peace and prosperity for Judah and Israel, but that the prosperity was full of social corruption.

This text is aimed straight at those who take advantage of others in order to increase their wealth. It's scary stuff, because we live in a place of peace and prosperity too. This sounds familiar. Our gap between rich and poor is growing. The text makes us wonder if we value money higher than people, if our good fortune comes as a result of the needy being trampled. Overall, Canada seems to have a pretty good system, but we know that our governments and corporations are certainly not exempt from corruption, and in a democracy, that's our responsibility too! We can't allow our prosperity to make us complacent about what is happening to others.

Psalm 113 continues the theme of God as a champion of the poor, raising them up from the dust. I can't help but think of the prejudice our culture (all of us to some extent at least) that tends to blame poor people for their predicaments. And yes, sometimes people make bad decisions that land them in bad places, however, of the billions of poor people in the world, I'd be willing to bet that it is a very small percentage who deserve their lot. For that matter, I'd also be willing to bet few of the wealthy really deserve it either. I've had every advantage in life, a close family, good education, supportive friends, jobs when I needed them, good health. I don't think I really deserved any of that, I am just fortunate. That puts me into a place of prosperity, a place that is my responsibility to handle well.

A few weeks ago, on my way to an appointment downtown, I met a distraught man limping out to the sidewalk from behind my doctor's building. He told me that the lady building manager had just kicked him out of the alley where he was picking up bottles to sell. She had yelled at him to go get a job. "But I can't work", he said. He showed me his colostomy bag. "I've had surgery, I'm messed up."

I felt badly for him. He had health problems, and I'm guessing mental issues as well. He had been doing what he could, working to get bottles and cans to take to the recycling place for a bit of money. Apparently, in the eyes of the building manager, that doesn't count as real work. She didn't want his sort hanging around in the alley, picking up cans wealthier people were too lazy to recycle themselves. I sympathized with him and gave him the five dollar bill I had so he could get some breakfast. Obviously, I didn't solve his problem, but he helped me see a bit of what he was up against, and hopefully I made his day a bit better.

Spending time this past summer visiting with people at a drop in center, I learned about why people end up on the streets. The stories of abandonment, abuse, mental illness, bad luck, and bad choices really could happen to any of us. Some of these people do manage to pull themselves out of it, if they have some help. Others stay stuck. But now, I can't really blame many of them. I can look at my society and blame it for not caring enough. Sure we have wealth and relative peace. What are we doing with it? Do we really care, or do we think that somehow we deserve more than others do?

The Bible doesn't teach that being wealthy is a crime. Timothy reminds us to pray for leaders and all those in high places, they face many pressures, temptations, and hard decisions, but there are good people there too. They need support, accountability, and prayer. Wealth isn't bad or good in itself, it is getting wealthy on the backs of the poor is sinful. So is not sharing what we have with those who need help.

The last verse in the somewhat confusing Luke passage is a good one. "You cannot serve God and wealth." But we can serve God with our wealth.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

God changes, so we can too!

Lectionary Readings for Sept. 15. Exodus 32:7-14, Ps. 51:1-10, 1Tim. 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

"And the Lord changed his mind..." Ex. 32:14

I love this line! Even God's plans have contingencies and are open to change! The empowering thing is that the change happens because Moses intercedes, his prayers and arguments make a difference to God! It kind of shakes up our complacency about things if we take this story seriously. (And there are other Bible stories where the mind of God is changed too. My favorite is the one about the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. She argues with Jesus and he relents.) One of the things I love the most about these sorts of stories is that they set such a strong example. Too many times people "stick to their guns" instead of gracefully accepting that another position might be the better one. If even God can change, there should be hope for us!

This week the news about Obama's "red-line" and forceful threats have been everywhere in the news. This morning one report talked about the appearance of weakness if Obama would back down or change his mind. What is that!!! Being able to back down, or admit a mistake, or change course in a case like this should be seen as strength, not weakness.

It is, however, so very hard to back down. So often in our statements and actions we burn bridges behind us, making it feel impossible to change.

In Psalm 51, the poet implores God for mercy. To paraphrase him; "God, I deserve the punishment, but please change Your mind about me! Restore me." In the last verses, the poet shifts the focus from himself individually, to include the welfare of his people as well. He wants some wholesome change and isn't shy about asking for it, starting with himself.

The Timothy scripture reminds us of the incredible change that is possible. Paul is the "worst" of sinners, yet God changed him and he becomes an example of God's mercy.

All these scriptures assure us our calls to God are efficacious, that change is possible, and that mercy exists even where it seems impossible.Then the passage in Luke gives us the story of the Lost Sheep. It's not by accident that this story is told to grumblers. The pharisees and scribes were annoyed with the way Jesus extended mercy to sinners, after all, that's not what they deserved. By their unchanging attitudes, (burnt bridges) these leaders couldn't extend mercy, couldn't see the benefits of what Jesus was doing, wouldn't consider new ideas, and were completely resistant to possible change.

When are we the grumblers and resistant to changes God is calling us to make? What changes are we asking of God? And perhaps, as a follow up question, what things are already good and should stay the same?

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Coming Home, but Something has Changed!

Lectionary Passages for Sept.8  Deut.30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Sept. 8th will be my first time back in the pulpit since returning from a 4 month sabbatical. It's a coming home after an absence that included significant experiences, some of which will impact how I think and work. The question comes up then, about how I reintegrate into work and share those experiences. How will that sabbatical time, and the changes in me, fit back into First Mennonite?

Philemon is a story of a changed man going home. Onesimus is a runaway slave. (At least that's the assumption of most scholars-there are some disagreements. Whether he is a runaway, or maybe Philemon's estranged brother, it doesn't change that he is going home a different man and he's not sure how he will be received!) Paul says that Onesimus has changed, that he is now a brother in Christ who will be helpful to the church.

Can you imagine how Onesimus felt as he headed home? Perhaps he was constantly checking his pocket to make sure he hadn't lost Paul's letter. He is very unsure of how he will be received. If he is a runaway slave, Philemon is within his rights, and maybe expected, to treat him harshly as an example to others. If he is an estranged brother-he could be going home to a lot of awkwardness, and maybe outright painful rejection. In verse18 of the letter, Paul offers to pay for any "wrongs" or debts Onesimus left behind. That sounds ominous, there is likely some bad blood between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul isn't above a little manipulation here to increase Onesimus' chances of being accepted. (If I was Philemon, I might be a little annoyed with Paul!) It's obvious that Onesimus has a powerful advocate in Paul, Paul believes in him and the good of what has changed.Paul is willing to stand up for him.(In verse 22, Paul uses nice words to tell Philemon that he is coming to check up on him!)

Things could go very well for Onesimus, or this could be a disastrous homecoming. Onesimus is courageously (or desperately) going home.Will that be okay or not? Will the changes in him prove to be helpful for his community, or rejected by them?

I definitely do not put my experiences on the level of Onesimus, but his story has helped me to reflect on the idea of coming home different than I left. Being with homeless people and those who work with them was a profound experience, some of my thinking has subtly changed. I need to figure out what to do with that. How do I share my experiences so that I am useful to my community?

There are many people in our church who have had shaping experiences this summer. Some have lost loved ones, some have travelled to new places and met new people. Some have had time to pray and think, or listen to a friend, or read something intriguing. I spoke with a young person who worked at Camp Valaqua all summer and she expressed that there is difficulty in leaving Camp behind and reintegrating into home and school. There are faith learnings and skills that she's developed that are incredibly good (useful!) for our church community. So while she is sad that camp had to end, she looks forward to moving on with what she has gained.

How is each of us changed by our summer experiences? What do we bring back with us that might be useful to the church? Are there things we are worried might not be accepted?  Are we able to be advocates for those among us who have changed, or learned, or are somehow different than they were before? (Or maybe a better question is, are we able to let people change?)

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Blessed are those who will not be repaid!

Lectionary Readings for Sept. 1. Ps. 112, Proverbs 25:6-7, Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16, Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

There's a problem in Psalm 112. Verse 3 says; "Wealth and riches are in their houses..."  It sounds like prosperity gospel teaching that says if you are good then you will be rich.

Ick. Bleah. I need to read further to get a fuller picture of what's going on here.

There are so many faithful people who are poor that it's quite astounding to me that anyone would read a verse like this and feel justified or condemned based on their financial state. (My own experience, in the encounters I've had with poor people, has shown that the poor often have faith that dwarfs mine. They know how to rely on God for everything!)

The "problem" tends to fade into the background when the whole text, and all today's readings, are taken into account. The psalm goes on to define the righteous as those who are gracious and merciful. They share generously and justly. They give to the poor. These verses "dwarf" the idea that the "good" are wealthy.

The Hebrews reading goes on to list more characteristics that should be found in the Christian community, and again, sharing, caring, and justice feature prominently. Verse 5 urges that lives be "kept free from the love of money".

Luke urges the faithful to be generous too, and specifically generous to those who cannot reciprocate. Verse 14 says; "you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

Wow. Riches are important in all these passages, but only when they are generously shared in ways that lift up those who cannot help themselves. I'm struck again and again, when reading almost anywhere in the Bible, that it constantly talks about dealing justly with our wealth. When we in the church argue over all sorts of other issues (important as they might be) I can't help but suspect we are spending time on specks and ignoring logs.

Yesterday I bought shoes and clothes for our growing (very fast) boys to go back to school. Today we have to pay (upfront for the year!) for bus passes for them. It's very expensive. We can manage, but many cannot. Maybe this is a direct call from the scriptures to me. I'm lucky enough to be able to pay, I think I should help someone else who can't.

Where do you feel called to give generously where you cannot be paid back?

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Time For a Little Impropriety?

Lectionary Readings for August 25.  Isaiah 587:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Heb 12: 18-29, Luke 13:10-17
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

These readings are a call to proper worship. While they don't prescribe elements or order of service, they are descriptive of the intended character of the community of faith.

When I was a child, there were certain unwritten, very firm ideas of what was proper for Sunday worship. Men wore suits (or at least shirts with ties), women wore dresses. The idea that one wore their "Sunday best"applied to more than clothes. It was also for language, habits, and topics of conversation,during worship. The intention was worthy, to show respect for God and the church, but it could easily lead to feelings of falseness and a "dress-up" righteousness, a Sunday faith. When what is "proper" becomes too much of a focus, it can make gatherings into places where poor people feel embarrassed about their thrift store look, or where people with problems (relationship, addiction, etc...) feel unwelcome. While it is important to be respectful of each other and God in our clothing choices, behaviour, etc...I am happy to see jeans and shorts mixed in with the suits and dresses on Sundays. It's good to see people caring for each other in their hurt and shame and/or talking openly about difficult issues. We still, however, easily get stuck in our "proper" ways of doing things and occasionally we need to be challenged.

Isaiah challenges what we think is worship. He is disgusted with acts of humility and religious practice that are all about looks. He calls for action. The whole point of worship, according to this piece of scripture, it that it results in feeding the hungry, doing what is just, and caring for the poor. Everything else is secondary.

I can't help but think of the disagreements that divide churches, and wonder if we are too caught up with what is "proper". I heard a report on CBC, an interview with a Catholic priest who has long supported and campaigned for women to become priests. He was defrocked for his improper views. Many other priests have told him they share his view, but they do not speak up for fear of punishment. I wonder about drawn out discussions on theological topics and Biblical interpretations. While I think these are important and relevant discussions to have, the reality is that our "forever" discussions mean we may put off the doing of justice and the showing of compassion. If we are so terribly concerned about getting things right and righteous before we act, we may never act at all. 

Maybe it's time to be a little improper, to be radically welcoming and inclusive in our worship. In Luke 13, Jesus heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath. It is completely improper-after all, he could have waited a day till the Sabbath was over. She had been crippled for 18 years, what's one more day? But Jesus was making a point. The Sabbath is about justice, about being set free. Jesus didn't say that one more day was okay-he said it's been too long already. The entire crowd is said to have rejoiced at what Jesus was doing. That would include those leaders who had originally chastised Jesus.

Is it possible for churches to live respectfully in some disagreement with each other, while still working together on the many things where we have agreement? Can we let these scriptures challenge us to make our worship more present and practical  and real on Sunday mornings and all week long? 

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Competing Messages

Lectionary Readings For August 18. Jer. 23:23-29, Ps 82, Heb. 11:29-12:2, Luke 12: 49-56
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Jeremiah's discussion of false prophets who claim they should be listened to because; "I had a dream..." makes me think of some of the drop-ins to the church office over the years. There have been several men who have dropped in to talk to us about their prophecies/visions that they feel God wants them to share. Some First Mennonite people might remember the young man, a visitor, (I think this was about 6 years ago now) who got up during sharing time to talk about the new Bible God told him to write. Another time, at the end of a church service, Tim had a visitor talk to him, at length, about prophecies of doom that he felt called to deliver to pastors. Once I had a man come to the office on a weekday, by appointment, to share his prophecies. All of these "prophets' were unknown to our community, they just dropped in once to say their piece, then disappeared.

Jeremiah is warning about false prophets, but he is also encouraging those "who have my word to speak it faithfully." v 28. How are we to know the difference? Of those I mentioned above, the first young man was obviously suffering from mental issues. He was in need of compassion and help, he obviously had "delusions in his own mind' v.26. (He was disruptive during the service, and left very quickly after it. How would we have responded to him had he continued to come to our church? Are we able to have compassion and offer some support while being firm about protecting the rest of our people from his obvious dysfunction? It's always an interesting balance, feeling out how to respond well in these situations!) The second man had no desire to interact with us either. He just dumped his doom message on Tim and left. That left a bad taste and we did not take him seriously at all-he clearly didn't take us seriously either, because he wasn't interested in dialogue, he just wanted to tell us what to do. It's hard sometimes, not to resent the time this sort of thing ends up wasting! The third man also only dropped by once, and didn't get to know our community either, however, he was a bit different. His "prophecy" was based in scriptures. He discussed various passages with me (I don't remember exactly which ones) and was mostly concerned that churches pay attention to scriptures. I appreciated his message. He pushed me to think, he didn't claim that he had any corner on truth himself, and the idea that we interpret scripture and prophecy as a church community felt at home in our conversation. He never claimed "he had a dream" so that his message would supersede all others, he just wanted to share what was on his heart to share, and leave it to God. It felt like he was trying to speak faithfully. He didn't immediately raise my defences, he engaged me in God's word, and challenged me respectfully. Even if we couldn't see eye to eye on all his points, this felt faithful and good, it felt like church listening to God. Of course, it's also hard to do much with someone like this too-I had no idea who he was, and he knew nothing of our church. That makes it easy to deal with-because I don't have to deal with him again-but it leaves me wondering about something. How do we deal with our own "prophets"? Do we really listen to our own people, who know us well, when they feel called to push us to discussion and discernment? Is it only listening if we agree with them, or can we really discuss and discern things well with each other? (Actually, this will always necessarily be a growing edge for any healthy church. I think we're doing some good things in learning how to discuss and agree and disagree. It's certainly not easy, but it is one of the things we are called to do as a faith community.)

There are so many competing messages in our lives every day. It's hard to know which ones to listen to, which ones to give the time and effort. Jeremiah warns us not to jump on the dramatic "dream" bandwagons, but to listen to the faithful voices, the humble voices, the voices that speak of justice and not personal advancement. There's no easy way to always know what is of God. The people in Jeremiah's time also struggled with knowing which voices to listen to-our situation is not new!

Monday, 5 August 2013

No Shortage of Faith

Lectionary Passages fro August 11. Gen. 15:1-6, Ps 33:12-22, Heb. 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

I had a conversation with a friend recently where we talked about religion and our faith. We both grew up in Mennonite churches, went to a Mennonite Bible school, and are still involved in Mennonite churches today. We're both in our mid-forties now, and the idealism of youth has been tempered by experience and continued learning. Well, maybe tempered isn't quite a strong enough word, maybe snapped is more accurate! Lots of what we believed has significantly changed. Sometimes belief has grown, and sometimes it has disappeared. He said some things that really intrigued me-things that point out some of the differences between religion, beliefs, and faith.

What is faith anyway? Hebrews 11 says it is; "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." The passage lists a number of examples of faithful people, and then in a twist, says in verse 13 that these people were still all living by faith when they died. In their lives they did not receive what they hoped for, but saw and welcomed it from afar. Hmmm. They lived and died in hope-but that doesn't tell us if they ever got what they hoped for. It's also hard, in today's world, to accept that we can be certain of anything.

Faith and beliefs were simpler when we were children and hadn't had to figure much out for ourselves. In addition, we were still living in a time when the church held a lot of power over everyday life, most people went to church and basically "toed the line" (at least publicly) even if, in their hearts, there was no real belief. The practices that made up church life were straightforward, there was wrong and right and maybe a tiny bit of grey area. For both my friend and I, as we've aged, the grey area is the part that has really spread and pushed away a lot of the black and whites that made things easy. When we talk about our beliefs now, my friend says he doesn't have many, at least he doesn't believe in most of the "religious" stuff, the traditional beliefs of the church. While that may come across as shocking to some, it's exactly what has always happened to established 'beliefs' of the church through history. The flat earth belief was part of the church at one time, and when scientists were able to prove "flat" was incorrect, there was a crisis in the establishment. But faith persisted and the church lived on.

The Church as an institution is in crisis again. We are an increasingly secular society and there is, once again, new information and situations (like our incredible multiculturalism) that will change our collective beliefs and practices-and that is often, admittedly, uncomfortable. Right now, society is not particularly 'church-going'. Churches and church organizations are struggling. There are issues with all of this, but I don't think faith in God is one of them. People are spiritual beings, many people now don't go to church or profess religious belief, but if you ask them if they believe in a God or higher power, they say yes. They are just unwilling and unable to describe much more than that. Some, very rightly, have issues with religious tradition and institutions. Faith is alive, it's just changing again. The church is going to look different, but I certainly don't want to predict what it might be. I guess I have faith in something I cannot see, and maybe won't live to see.

My friend rejects (or at least doesn't put his faith into) a lot of the traditional Christian beliefs he was raised with.At the same time, however, he believes there is life after death and that God is. I'm certainly with him in a distaste for platitudes and blind acceptance of doctrine and practices that simply don't make a lot of sense any more. I do, however, still hold on to hope that the church (in some form) is important and the study and interpretation and reinterpretation of scripture needs to happen within communities of people striving to live faithfully, in hope for ongoing life with our Creator.

Another definition for faith from this passage is in verse 14. People are "longing for a better country-a heavenly one." If faith is longing for something better, we can be certain that there is no shortage of it in our world.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Time and Chance Happen to Us All

Lectionary Passages for August 4. Eccl. 1:2, 13-14, 2:18-23, Ps. 49:1-12, Col 3: 1-11, Luke 12:13-21
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

We're back at home now, after spending a month in Quebec and Ontario as part of our sabbatical. The bulk of our time away, 2.5 weeks, was spent in Montreal. We lived at the "House of Friendship" (supported by Mennonite Church Eastern Canada until recent budget cuts), and volunteered at the St. James Drop-In Centre, a ministry for street people. One of the directors there is Alain Spitzer, an associate member of our church in Edmonton. We wanted to get to know the people at the centre, spend time with Alain, and think about how faith and life fit together.

In presentations Alain does with various groups, he emphasizes that anyone can end up on the street. Anyone, even people like us. And we saw the truth of that. Among the men we met were incredible musicians, artists, people with university educations (even professors), young good-looking guys, those who were clean cut and articulate, and those who were dishevelled and smelly. Recovered and current addicts. Some were mentally disabled. Some had dysfunctional families, some had families trying to reach out to them. They end up on the street for a variety of reasons including; lack of support, addictions, mental illness, financial crisis, and often simple bad luck. The St. James Centre isn't a "hand-outs" place, it is involved with it's members for the long haul-developing relationships and a supportive community.

Reading Ecclesiastes, I can see some of these people and myself. (I read the whole thing-if you just read the bits suggested, it leaves no room for hope and I wanted to find out what made life worth living for the author!) 9:11 says; "...The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all." What a clear summation of the people at the centre-and people like me who seem to have it made. It's humbling to face the fact that our successes and failures have more to do with chance than personal merit or deservedness. The author states repeatedly that "there is nothing better than to do good and be happy while we live-God is in charge." 3:12-13  There is a call to contentment, to doing good, and to crediting God whatever our lot. No room for puffed-up self satisfaction in any of life, all of us are on the same footing with God. This gives value to the downcast, and I think, pushes us "haves" to be realistic and quit deluding ourselves that somehow we deserve our good fortune. We are perhaps the deluded ones, to think we deserve what we have. Those who have nothing understand some things better than we do.

The other readings fit well with Ecclesiastes, and help push toward repairing the feeling of "meaninglessness" expressed there. Psalm 49 levels the field between rich and poor and verse 13 warns of the fate of those who trust in themselves, and verse 20 says that a man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish. Obviously, meaning is not to be found in riches or social status. The story of the rich fool in Luke personifies the issue.

Colossians emphasizes that meaning is found in God. "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things." 3:2  It then urges righteous living, a life that stops hurting others, and understands that "there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all." 3:11. This is a helpful ALL, again emphasizing that we all have equal worth before God, and that is meaningful!

None of this is new thinking-it's material that we've heard in church many times over the years. (And it's not unique to the church, we hear this in human rights talk too.) It is, however, so much more real and resonant for me when I hear these scriptures while thinking about the people I met at the St. James Centre. I so much appreciated meeting them face to face, hearing some of their ideas and hard stories, laughing with them, and just being God's people together despite the chances that life has thrown all of us. Many of the members at the Centre have significant problems they have to take responsibility for, but really, so do I. Mine are just hidden a little better, from others and myself. Maybe together the "haves" and have-nots" can figure out a meaningful way to respond to each other and to God.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

For the sake of ten...

Lectionary Readings for July 28. Gen 18:20-32, Ps 138, Col 2:6-19, Luke 11:1-13

Here at the Maison de l'amitie (House of Friendship), a well-situated guest house in a "happening" area of Montreal, the internet wasn't happening for me this week-so I'm a little late with this!

This week I'm struck with Abraham's discussion with God in Genesis 18. He pleads for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah-pleads for the sake of the few righteous among the population, arguing that it is not fair for them to be destroyed for what they did not do. So the Lord responds that for the sake of 50 righteous, the rest will be saved. The discussion goes on and Abraham finally haggles the number down to 10. If there are 10 righteous people to be found, the whole city will be spared.

Montreal, like so many of our big cities and towns, is a place where a lot of the edgy side of humanity is on display. I guess I've seen a bit more of it here than at home in Edmonton because the hot weather is conducive to people being out on the streets and on display. I'm also downtown instead of in the suburbs, and Montrealers are great walkers and users of public transport. It seems to me that Montrealers are less modest that Edmontonians. While hot weather is part of it, it's certainly also a different culture. When I mentioned to one person that maybe Montreal is Canada's Brazil (think skimpy bikinis) she laughed, but didn't dispute it! There is also a great availability of alcohol-every street corner sells it and the street side bars are hopping every night. We've also been hanging out with people who've seen the worst of what society has to offer. Many of the people who live on the streets have been abused, dished out abuse, been victimized by drugs/alcohol, suffer from mental illness...but in the middle of all of this too, we've met some amazing people. The righteous who give of their time to care for the hurting, people who advocate for change, people who don't condemn others but see the good in them.

Reading Gen. 18, I think there is a call here for God's people to be those 10 that Abraham argues on behalf of. It's not that these good folks can necessarily change things, but cities are made liveable because of them, other people benefit from their work even if they don't realize it. For the sake of a few, the whole can be saved. Instead of reading the story as a tale of depravity, we can read it as a tale of encouragement. God is merciful. There are good things, if small, happening that we should be aligned with. And, like Abraham, our petitions on behalf of others make a difference!

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Who Shall Abide in God's Sanctuary?

Readings for July 21: Gen. 18:1-10a, Ps 15, Col. 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42.
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

We've been in Montreal for 5 days now and have spent 3 of those at the ST. James drop-in-centre getting to know the men who call it theirs. This is an interesting place. While it's called a drop-in, it's not really for just anyone. Who can be part of the centre? The men who use the centre become members of it, agreeing to certain behaviour guidelines, pitching in to help where they can, and deliberately becoming part of intentional community. This is a way to develop long-term relationships and belonging. If they treat others poorly, they are asked to leave. Alain says that when some of the men get back on their feet and don't need the help anymore, their space get freed up to take on a new member, but they always try to keep some spaces in case a man needs to come back for awhile. Getting off the streets and on your feet sometimes is a matter of try, try again.

There is a very wide variety of men using the centre, from a few who are quite mentally or emotionally disabled, to some who seem (at least at first glance) to be completely "normal". (Whatever normal is). It is really neat to get to know some of the personalities behind the appearances. It has taken away some of the "fear" I might have had in approaching a ragged looking person. There's one man I noticed that gives off a first impression that he is scary, rough, and who knows what else. Then, when you speak with him, he has the most gentle eyes, an engaging personality, and he's almost painfully polite. It's a good lesson not to judge people by their appearances! What matters here is how people treat each other, not how they look.

"O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on Your Holy hill?" Ps 15:1. The Psalm talks about what membership in God's family involves. There is nothing about how wealthy a person is, or what they wear, or how they smell, or what has befallen them in life. There is nothing about how smart or talented or appealing someone is. Membership involves committing to certain behavioural guidelines, truth telling, and treating others with respect. God's "tent" rules involve actions that build community with no mention of status or deserving-ness, other than that each member treat the others well.

On another note, it's been interesting to see the vast number of beautiful old sandstone cathedrals here, yet the population does not go to church. Church has a negative stereotype in this culture. Alain says that church planting here does not work according to old mission models. Here it has to be about long term relationships, slow growth, and community. Hard, long term work!

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

From Easy Answers to Difficult Actions

Lectionary Passages for July 17:Deut 30:9-14, Ps 25:1-10, Col 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

I'm blogging from a room in the Maison De L'Amitie (House of Friendship) in Montreal on Tuesday, July 9. We've had a warm welcome here. (Very warm in our room, even 2 fans aren't cooling it off much!) I'm hoping to keep the blog up while we are here for the next three weeks, but since I'm never quite sure where and when I'll have time and access to the internet, I apologize if I am a bit hard to predict!

Today I read Luke 10-the story of the Good Samaritan-knowing that the next two weeks we will spend a lot of time interacting with homeless people at the St. James drop in centre a few kilometres from here.

The lawyer asks his first question; "what must I do to inherit eternal life", not to really hear the answer. He did it to test Jesus. (Lawyers, according to the study bible I have here, were experts in Mosaic law and were teachers of it.) In response, Jesus asks him a question about what is written in the law, a question the lawyer can't resist. He gives the simple answer every Jew knows. Jesus affirms him and says; "go do it and you will live."

Now the lawyer is hooked. Jesus really tricked him into answering his own question, and the answer sounds too easy-something every child knows and the lawyer doesn't want to end up looking like he asked a stupid question. So the lawyer pushes Jesus, "who is my neighbour?" After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus gets the lawyer to answer his own question again. Once again, the answer is clear, but this time it is far from easy because it carries implications for how the lawyer is living. The lawyer is a respected religious person, like the priest and levite in the story. And like them, he would be loath to make himself ritually impure by touching a body that was almost dead. Yet, if he is to be the neighbour and merit eternal life, he has to make himself like a Samaritan. The Samaritan wasn't worried about his status. He just quietly went out of his way to help the unfortunate man he found by the road.

We are privileged people like the lawyer. We don't often have to get our own hands dirty-we can pay others to do the things we don't want to, to take care of the poor. Often, that giving is a good thing, but if that's all we do we stay a 'clean' arms length from the real people and issues. Our understanding is largely head knowledge that may or may not really affect our hearts. Tomorrow, and in the weeks to come Tim and the boys and I get to meet some of the less fortunate, hopefully hear their stories, and also meet the people who run a drop in centre that helps them. I wonder what motivates these 'samaritans' and what helps them to reach out. I wonder what sorts of things we worry about, our status as individuals, faith groups, etc...that get in the way of what should be the simple acts of loving God and our neighbours.

Once again, I am struck by how the lectionary passages are helping me to think about things that are happening in my every day life.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Sharing, not comparing.

Lectionary Passages for July 7. Isaiah 66:10-14, Ps. 66:1-9, Gal 6: (1-6), 7-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Tomorrow morning our family leaves for Ontario and Quebec. The "feature" part of our month long trip is to spend 2 weeks in Montreal with Alain Spitzer and his family. Alain was baptized at First Mennonite and is an associate member of our congregation. He is the director of a drop in centre for homeless men. We are going to stay at the Mennonite "House of Friendship" and spend our days seeing what goes on at the centre and helping out where we can.

Reading Galations 6 is an excellent preparation. The ideas of carrying one another's burdens, sharing, not comparing, and doing good to all people are helpful in developing a mindset ready for learning. I expect to do a lot of listening to stories from people in very different situations than my own. I am looking forward too, to hearing our kids use their French skills and I want to listen to what they learn from all of this. So often I am impressed by the observations and ideas that young people make.

I wonder how verse 9 reads for the people, like Alain, who do this ministry and work all the time. "Let us not become weary in doing good..." When we do feel tired, or ineffectual, or plain burnt out, where do we turn? It is an incredible blessing for me and Tim to have sabbatical time to reflect and rest and think about the ministry and work that happens in our church, but really, it's not a "break" from ministry. As Christians ministry is a life orientation. Sabbatical is different than working at the church, but it's not a holiday from ministry. It's a break from the usual and a chance to experience new aspects and insights into God's work in the world. It's a way to keep from getting weary, to find new ideas and energy, a way to keep going and being positive. This Galations passage leaves me feeling positive and encouraged.

The past few weeks I've had time to be there for a friend. I'm thankful for the time to be there, but also for the ability to be mentally/emotionally there too. Verse 2 says; "Carry each others burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." There is so much of this, people supporting each other, in our church community. Most of it is 'off the radar', non-programmed, informal. This is God's work and something we are all called to do for each other. I am so very thankful to be part of a community where I find people who take this ministry to each other seriously. People who don't only help their close friends and family, but are willing to offer help where ever it is needed. It is sometimes, quite literally, a lifeline. There is always a challenge here, however, because there are people who don't seem to get the support they need, they "fall through the cracks." How do we open ourselves up so that people feel we are approachable when they need a shoulder to lean on? How do we open ourselves up to ask for the help we need instead of feeling disappointed or angry when we need support and it doesn't seem to be there?"

My intention is to keep up with the readings and blogging while we are away from home. I'm looking forward to reading the scriptures in a new (for me) environment. I'd love to hear some of your comments about what you see in your readings, whether you are at home this month, or doing some summer travelling too!

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Little Stories of the Freedom to Serve.

Lectionary Readings for June 30: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21, Psalm 16, Gal 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

These readings feel like a grouping of short vignettes, so that's how I've looked at them.

1 Kings-This is the story of Elijah naming Elisha as his successor. It is notable that Elisha is found out in the field working alongside his farm workers. This suggests that although he is a man of means, he is not above doing the same work as those in his employ. When Elijah calls him, he first goes and puts his affairs in order, saying goodbye to his parents (getting their blessing?), symbolically burning his plough, cooking his oxen, and giving the meat to the people. An amazing attitude for a public servant!Even if Elijah was well-known, Elisha gave up a comfortable life to serve others.

Psalm 16. A psalm attributed to David offering praise and thankfulness to God. A bit of odd trivia distracts me in verse 10. "You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will your holy one see decay." Is this one of the verses that led to some religious orders (Middle Ages I think) claiming the bodies of saints didn't rot? There was a great deal of excitement around the idea that certain corpses mummified instead of rotting. (Strange stuff, but interesting to read how various traditions and odd beliefs get started and persist. Last year I read a book called; Rag and Bone, that was all about the obsession people have had over the years with relics. Perhaps there is a good caution in this history about how we interpret any one verse!) I'm not sure why this Psalm is included today-the other passages speak of the giving up of self for others. Does anyone else see a connection I'm missing?

Galations 5: A beautiful and well known passage that speaks to the purpose of freedom in Christ. A reminder that true freedom is not narcissistic, but concerned with others. Freedom should be defined by the fruit of the Spirit-love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (I think sometimes in the church we've made these into "doormat" qualities, These qualities should not make us into pushovers, but into strong, calm, and capable people. Sometimes the courage to speak up and address an issue at it's beginning may feel harsh, but in the long run it is often the gentler and more helpful course.) The emphasis on service to others is a strong parallel piece to read alongside the story of Elisha's calling.

Luke 9. Here are two stories. Luke 9:54 is a favourite of mine because of the reaction of 9 year old campers at Camp Valaqua one summer when I was a chaplain and talking about this. I paraphrased the disciples words into something like; "Jesus, do you want us to turn around and blast them!" The kids all roared with laughter-it sounded video-gamish to them. It also, however, showed that the disciples were testing out their power, wanting to force people to see things their way. The kids understood the attraction! Power corrupts, even power that starts out good can quickly become self-serving. Jesus is disgusted with John and James, tells them so, and they peaceably proceed to the next village. Again, a small story that shows freedom and power used in service to others, not to put them down (even when they may have deserved it!)

In the following verses, Jesus teaches his disciples, telling them that the road he walks will be difficult. He has power, he is on the side of right, but he will not be coercive. He will have " no place to lay his head."

There is an interesting bit in verses 61-62. Elisha was allowed to go back and say goodbye to his parents, and get rid of his possessions. Here Jesus refers to both family and the plough in a different way. Elisha, however, was clearly leaving his old life behind. Are these people Jesus speaks to trying to cling to the old?

Sunday, 16 June 2013

If Jesus helps, would you send him away?

Lectionary |Readings for June 23. Isa. 65:1-9, Ps. 22:19-28, Gal. 3: 23-29, Luke 8: 26-39
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

It's a familiar creepy scenario. A "crazy" person lives nearby. Kids are scared to go past the house, parents won't talk about it, teenagers dare each other to ring the doorbell and run. No one really knows the back history of that person (usually elderly, usually alone) in the run-down house on the corner. Dark, overgrown trees shade the porch in scary shadows even at high noon.We all recognize the stereotypical set-up for what is either a horror story, or a story of discovery and redemption-depending on who is writing it. Luke writes about redemption from horror in a way that leaves us thinking about whether we are able to choose a healing change, or whether we are comfortable with what is.

This is scenario Luke paints, but Luke ups the stakes. His crazy is demon possessed by a legion, too delusional to wear clothes, to strong to be chained, and living in a cemetery. The man is far beyond human help or control and it's easy to imagine how the neighbours would be terrified and disgusted by him. This is the man (naked and scary) who throws himself at Jesus' feet and his demons shout at the top of his voice.

Jesus reacts with mercy. He doesn't flinch from fear, retch from the smell, pull out the chains, or send the man away. Jesus orders the unclean spirit to leave and then he listens for its response. The demons (not the man, he is obviously not in control of his wits) petition Jesus not to send them into the Abyss (we aren't told what that is). The demons ask instead, for permission to enter a herd of pigs and Jesus allows it.

Jesus extends mercy to a man that no one else could help, it is a miracle of healing and new life. But it could also be said that Jesus showed mercy to the demons, after all, he didn't send them to the abyss. There's more going on here than we can know, but Jesus' actions are humbling when I think of how society in general (and sometimes each of us in particular) responds to the "crazies" we encounter. Like the stereotypes I mentioned in the opening, we might choose to avoid or mock the troubled person, or call the authorities with their restraints. We so often don't know how to help, so we don't even try.

Jesus listens and helps. He listens to the undesirable and scary and has mercy. The people watching can't accept that.

In light of this humbling and effective display, the reaction of the regular people is embarrassing. They are afraid and ask Jesus to leave.|Apparently, it felt safer to keep things as they were, as imperfect as they might be, than to entertain the idea of change.This week I heard a true story of a person who, after being alcoholic for years, was able to stay sober for a significant time. His family then gave him a gift of booze, and now he is back to destroying his body with it. It seems that the change, even though it was needed, was a hard adjustment for everyone involved. The old alcoholic rut was the well-worn and well-known path. It is the worse path, but it is the one everybody knew how to navigate. The devil we know...we keep it around because it is scary and hard to change. Jesus offers to help, do we keep him around or ask him to leave?

One final note on the story of the healing of the demoniac. In verse 39 Jesus asks the man to go to his home and declare how much God had done for him. The man, instead, tells everyone how much Jesus had done for him. (I checked the NIV and the NRSV, and both have this wording.)  There is an important difference here between what Jesus asked and what the man did. Jesus always pointed worship and devotion toward God, not toward himself. He didn't want worship for Jesus the man. There's something important here for ongoing thought!

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Power, Manipulation, Forbidden Relationships, It's all There!

Lectionary Passages for June 16. 2 Sam. 11|26-12:10, 13-15, Ps 32, Gal. 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Here is a story that could be torn directly from some smutty popular ebook. It is dark desire, forbidden pleasure, corrosive power, and manipulation. The hero becomes the villain when his weakness creates a crisis that spreads out and drowns others in concentric waves. As readers, we want the hero to experience a redemption, but is this possible at all?

The Bible certainly doesn't shy away delving into human darkness. It warns that even the very best of us, like David, can be monumentally short sighted and cruel. Our selfish actions can, and do, destroy others. In the Bible, unlike a trashy novel, David cannot dwell unnoticed in guilty pleasure. Just like the Bible doesn't skirt the nasty bits of human nature, it is also blunt about the horror of consequences. (Whoever assigns the lectionary verses, however, certainly tries to ignore the horror-verses 11 and 12 are hideous, but they need to be read! The severity of David's actions should not be glossed over or hidden. Vulnerable people, innocent people, get hurt when power is abused, and they need to be seen and remembered instead of hidden. David has destroyed many lives. How can this ever be forgiven?)

To David's credit, he confesses. In verses 13-14, God forgives David, but David still has to live with consequences. He has made enemies. His son dies. Who knows what sorts of difficulties plagued his family life after all of this.The forgiveness God offers here is unfathomable. I think, when I hear of horrible violent crimes today, that it is only God who can forgive and redeem. Humanly, it is impossible.

Psalm 32 is attributed to David, and in it he expressed incredulity in the knowledge that he is forgiven. He knows he doesn't deserve it, he knows people cannot forgive him, he knows he will live with consequences. But he knows he is forgiven. Reading this Psalm right after the story in 2 Samuel gives it weight and substance. I can't get my head around this kind of forgiveness, but being human and having my share of weaknesses, I am so thankful that God can do it.

In Galatians, another hero of the faith, Peter, is shown as fallible too. Paul chides him for being duplicitous, backing off on his support of the mission to the Gentiles when he is surrounded by his Jewish supporters. Maybe we aren't quite on the level of darkness that David was, but here is another example of fallibility. David confessed, did Peter?

Finally, in Luke 7, Jesus is ministered to by a woman thought of as sinful and corrupt. He accepts her attentions and forgives her sins. This is a remarkable moment! Jesus treats this lowly, despised woman as an independent moral agent, someone worthy to make her own decisions. In that society, and especially for a woman such as this, extending this respect was rather shocking! (Unlike David and Peter, this is not a person who has sinned from a position of power and privilege! Those in power, the pharisees and their guests here, have questions! Would they have questioned David or Peter's deserving? This makes us think about how we assign blame and acceptance in our lives too!)

I find it interesting that Luke 8:1-3 is included in this reading. I wonder why? Maybe to show that Jesus is different from the usual powers that be. He widens the boundaries of the gospel and extends good news to those who were always on the outside. And they respond! These women support his ministry out of their own means.

These passages are an interesting combination. From the high and mighty (and horrible) David, to the powerless low-down sinful woman, there is forgiveness available. How did they respond? How do we respond?