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?

Monday, 3 June 2013

The Old, The New, The Now

Lectionary Readings for June 9: 1 Kings 17:17-24, Ps 30, Gal 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

The lectionary has a 3 year cycle and 3 years ago, I was preaching and found myself drawn into the two stories about widows whose sons died and were brought back to life. These are the kind of tales that leave today's reader feeling incredulous. We are sceptical about miracles and struggle with the relevance of such ancient tales for faith that fits our world, our understandings. In studying, I discovered many parallels between the two, the story told in Luke is very much a retelling of 1Kings. Each story, however, is written for a particular audience, to get the message across in a way that speaks to the people of the time.

I preached this in the form of a 3-character readers theatre.The widow from 1 Kings, the one from Luke, and a present day widow alternate in telling their stories. They each give some background, talk about their descent into hopelessness, and then end with how God brings their hope (and their children) back to life. Hope and healing aren't just ancient needs, so how do we experience God's touch where it is needed today?

It was a powerful experience for me to think about the theme of rebirth after despair and how this might be real for a contemporary church goer. How is the scriptural truth of God's healing experienced (even for, and maybe especially for those who can't accept the miraculous as it is told in the ancient text?) I imagined a young single mother today, struggling to make ends meet, trying to be a good parent, and dealing with a child in crisis. A retelling of the Luke story in a contemporary setting.

The sermon concluded with the following sentence: "Be encouraged to think of your life as a continuation of the story, a picking up and reliving of the great themes of God's people throughout history. The hope, the new life, the continuation of God's love is apparent in the Old, the New, and the Now."

Psalm 30 speaks of how the psalmist is lifted out of the depths, he calls on God for help and he receives healing. "O Lord, you brought me up from the grave...weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning."

Read the stories, absorb the themes, imagine how they apply to your life and to others who may be encouraged to find themselves in them too.

(I still have the sermon/readers theatre. If anyone wants to read it through, please contact me and I will send it by email.)