Friday, 31 January 2014

How do you explain what you believe?

Lectionary Readings for Feb. 9, 2014. Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112:1-9, 1 Corithians 2:1-16, Matt 5:13-20
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

What would you say if someone asked what you believe?  I asked this question in a discussion group recently, and we all felt a bit awkward. "Who is asking the question?" "Where do I start?" and "Do I even know how I would articulate the answer to myself?"

Some churches push their people to have an eloquent 'testimony' ready for when they are asked what they believe. They may even have the "steps to lead someone to Christ" memorized. Our church doesn't do this. We don't care for formulaic responses, and we don't want to give the impression that we have the whole truth or all the answers. This humble approach, however, can leave us with the problem that we have no idea how to share our faith verbally. Not good.

In 1 Cor. 2, Paul shares his faith, and he says he doesn't do it very well. "I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom..."

Those of us without a memorized faith speech understand the trembling! Paul emphasizes that it's not the polished delivery, the fancy words, or the well-argued points that make the difference. God does. "...your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God." I find this immensely encouraging. I don't have to have perfect words, I don't have to second guess my ability, I don't have to be highly educated. I have to trust God.

Having said that, we are not excused from being equipped to verbally share our faith. When someone asks what I believe, I want to be able to respond, so I do need to think about this. Another encouragement from Paul is that it is okay (maybe even best) to start very simply. Paul reduced his initial message to "Jesus Christ and him crucified." He simply says he believes in Jesus. That's a great place to start. Jesus loves me, this I know.

Of course, later on Paul does get deeper. Verses 6-16 get into some fancy wisdom discussions, and that's fine-not many of us are willing to stay in the very simple place. There are lots of pastors and scholars willing to get into the more chewy parts of the discussion, but that's not required, especially at the beginning. The point is not to worry, but to trust that God adds the necessary understanding and power to our fumbling attempts. If someone asks me what I believe, I am fully capable of starting simply! Perhaps then, in later conversation, we'll go deeper.

The Matthew scripture reminds us that we need to be true to who God says we are. "You are the salt of the earth." If that's true, we have to look like it, sound like it, and taste like it! Part of being a "salty" Jesus-follower is being able to share when someone asks what I believe. This week, I've been challenged to rethink what I would say if/when I am asked about my beliefs. How would you respond?

Monday, 27 January 2014

Petulant, Snarky Children!

Lectionary Readings for Feb. 2, 2014.  Micah 6:1-8, Ps. 15, 1 Cor. 1:18-31, Matt 5:1-12
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld


"Words from this minor prophet have made a major impact on public life. When Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as President of the United States in January of 1977, he took his oath of office on a Bible opened to Micah 6:8 and quoted those words; He hath showed thee, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God. (KJV)"
(Hosea-Micah. Interpretation Bible Commentary. James Limburgh. 1988)

I imagine most Mennonites know this verse, but haven't got much of a clue about it's setting. We tend, like Jimmy Carter, to pick the one verse out of it's context and use it alone. While this verse does work well on its own, it is still helpful to understand the larger context.

The first six verses is a court case. God vs. the people, with the people as complainant. In verse 3 we hear the accusation, that God is being unfair, burdening the people. This sounds like whiny children whose parents have provided food, clothes, a clean home, music lessons...yet somehow they still think they have a valid complaint! In verses 4-5, God responds, reminding the people of what has been done for them.

Verse 7 is the voice of an observer, maybe even the complainant. Try reading this in the snarky tones of a petulant child who feels entitled to the "good life." Now read the patient, tired (he's said this so many times...), response that God gives in verse 8.

All we (the petulant children) have to do is be fair to our siblings,to be willing to be merciful when we think we've been wronged, and to humbly listen to the advice of our parent who is taking care of us.

Now, we have to keep reading to find out if the "children" understand and take the advice.

In verses 9-16 God comes in as the judge. The people have been cheating each other, the rich taking advantage of the poor, all the people are lying to each other. It doesn't sound at all like a society that is doing justly, loving mercy, or walking humbly!

Verse 16a is the accusation-that the people have followed another's law and not that of God. Verse 16b is the sentencing, the punishment. The good parent is going to stop doing all the work to prop them up. Now he will give them over to ruin and they will be the scorn of other nations. It is their fault. They were told, they knew better, yet they did not listen.

Doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God is the way we pitch in and do our share as children in a household run by God!

While the Micah passage is the one that engaged my mind this week, it's Psalm 15 that has really lived in my soul. It echoes Micah 8 in theme in a practical way, and it helps with the humble! The question of who can live with God is answered in a way that should make the reader wonder if they really measure up. Who of us is blameless? Verse 4 encourages us to honour our oaths even when it hurts. Hard to do, but this kind of integrity is what makes for a solid foundation.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Are You Contagious?

Lectionary Readings for January 26, 2014. Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Cor.1:10-18, Matt. 4:12-23
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Is your faith exciting enough to be contagious?

When Jesus calls out to Peter and Andrew, saying; "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people," they immediately drop their nets and follow. Jesus was exciting somehow, the men were receptive, and disciples were created.

Wow on many levels. Jesus obviously had the charisma, the attraction, and something desirable to offer. Andrew, Peter, James, and John were able to quickly make the decision to drop everything and follow.

Excitement, decisiveness, and action. Does it sound like the faith life of your church? Of you as you witness in your home or community? Where are you seeing the excitement of people following Jesus?

Anyone who's been part of a nominating committee, or trying to get people to come to a Bible study, or begging for volunteers to help out with an event or charity might read this story with longing and perhaps jealousy! Jesus calls, and the disciples answer. Why do so many of our calls, our messages, our asks on behalf of the church get met with rejection or reluctant acquiescence?  Could it be that we are not excited enough, or joyous enough, or believing enough in what we are inviting others to join? Perhaps we miss the boat in the way we invite people into our ministries. Of course all the work church groups need isn't "exciting", but if we see it as meaningful and life-giving for others, it seems willing workers would find a way to say yes with joy. And where are the exciting, edgy parts of the work? Are there things people are waiting to be asked so that they can drop everything to get involved? There should be.

If we can't answer the question about what excites us about faith, we have a much more serious problem than empty spots on committees!

The Matthew account of the calling is sparse. The calling occurs early in the narrative, right at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, so here the disciples may not have seen miracles, or heard very much of Jesus' preaching or stories. It's hard for us to draw many conclusions about why the disciples were so quick to follow.

Perhaps one clue lies in the fact that the book of Matthew emphasizes the importance of teaching. Jesus, a rabbi, offers teaching about life with God to these fishermen and they are hungry for it!

What are people in our context hungry for, faith wise? I'll hazard a few guesses (obviously limited!) and say that people are looking for connection with others, for a sense of meaning in life beyond themselves, for hope for humanity and the planet, for an authentic connection with God that changes them. Faith is about growing toward God's kingdom.

Douglas Hare, New Testament scholar, says; "Our task is to share a faith that is exciting enough to be contagious." (Interpretation Bible Commentary. Matthew. John Knox Press. 1993. pg 31)

What excites you about your faith?

Monday, 13 January 2014

All on the same side.

Lectionary passages for Jan. 19, 2014. Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

The new testament readings catch my eye this week. They both, in different ways, speak about unity and the goal of the followers of Jesus.

In Corinthians, Paul spends the first chunk of his letter (9 verses) in greetings and warm thoughts. In verses 4-9, he names the particular strengths of the church. They have grown in speech and knowledge and in their faith in Christ. They are not lacking any of the spiritual gifts necessary for them to live out their lives and to face any difficulty (including persecution) that will come their way.

Have you ever felt suspicious when someone is too gushy in their praise, leaving you wondering what difficult thing they are building up toward saying? Read verses 10 and following! Paul really wants to get at the issue of divisions in the church. Apparently people are arguing over which leader they follow. Paul is frustrated because understands his goal as a leader is to present the gospel, not to become a 'god' of some sort! He is frustrated when the divisions distract from what the church is supposed to be doing.

At a Christmas Eve service about 3 years ago, I greeted a visiting couple. Their church didn't have a service so they came to ours. The man leaned toward me and joked; "we're from the competition!" That comment has always niggled at me. Other churches shouldn't be competition, we're all, hopefully, on the same team. We might have different styles, and some disagreements, but ultimately we have the same goal. It's not to glorify ourselves, but to point people toward God.

While Paul is definitely wanting to get on with the chastising, we shouldn't forget those first 9 verses of warm praise. Problems can take over our psyche and occupy more than the legitimate amount of attention at times. Paul does a good thing in pointing out what is working well, it is a way of establishing a basis from which to get to work at what needs doing.

In the John passage, Jesus' public ministry is just beginning and he is gathering disciples. His first followers are remarkable because they were John's before they came to Jesus! John identifies Jesus and points him out. It's a remarkable selfless and authentic faith act on John's part. John was a wildly popular evangelist, yet he has absolutely no designs on keeping his followers or building his "fan" base. His message was always about Jesus, and when Jesus shows up, John steps back.  Andrew and Simon Peter, likewise, make good decisions based on what they see and hear. Their switch over to following Jesus isn't a rejection of John, it's an embracing of God's message. There aren't "sides" to chose between, it's all about following God, and John really gets that.

There's a lot to think about in these passages!


Friday, 3 January 2014

A brood of vipers?

Lectionary Readings for Jan. 12, 2014. Isaiah 42:1-9, Ps 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matt 3:13-17
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Any pastor should feel some discomfort reading this passage from Matthew, at least if they start reading back at verse 7. It makes us take a good hard look at our motivations, our actions, our results. We don't want to be like the scribes and pharisees who get called a brood of vipers.Why does John do that? Surely some, if not most, of them are truly committed to their calling. They see themselves as doing what is right, they work hard at it and they are concerned about their people, just like pastors.

John tells them to produce "fruit in keeping with repentance." Perhaps they were so concerned about keeping the public appearances just right that their words and actions no longer matched their inner calling. Maybe they were more concerned about keeping their places of honour than of making changes as needed. I wonder if they were just trying to jump on the latest "ministry fad bandwagon". (Always a temptation as we look for ways to 'fix' the church, keep the youth, invigorate the services....) John was popular, so maybe they were hitching their wagons to his team to benefit themselves while the excitement lasted. Who knows?

John certainly isn't impressed, but I wonder if there is any way the pharisees and scribes could have approached him and gotten a positive reaction. Was John just railing against the establishment, or did he have a valid complaint?

No matter what we think is behind this exchange, the point is our lives must match our confession. John felt the Pharisees and scribes weren't managing this congruency. If we repent of something, we must leave it behind. If we claim to believe something, our lives have to be congruent with that belief. (An example: we might claim to care about the environment, but the refusal to change our lifestyles puts the lie into our claims!) John goes on to say that God can raise up children (followers) from the stones-none of us is to think we are better than anyone else or have the corner on the exact way to be God's children.

Starting at verse 13, John has another complaint about a baptism request. Here, he wants to refuse Jesus for the opposite reasons he wanted to refuse the Pharisees. Jesus is too good! John offers a baptism of repentance, but feels he should be confessing to Jesus, not the other way around.Jesus, however, convinces John that this is an important thing, to fulfil righteousness (or the right way to go about things.)  I think the baptism here takes on a larger significance for Jesus. It's not really about turning from the old life of sin, but turning from his childhood and preparation to full ministry. So while baptism signals a new start for the people, for Jesus it is also a new start, but it is a commissioning instead of a confession.

The theme of acceptance and equality and right living is also apparent in Paul's words in Acts. God has no favourites, anyone who believes and lives it is saved, even the Gentiles, even those whose redemption surprises our traditional sensibilities. These passages are clear in their message. We are to be humble, knowing that God is the leader and we (even the leaders, especially the leaders among us) are followers. Our calling is to act on what we learn, so our lives are about glorifying God not ourselves.

I apply this Matthew message to pastors, but it is for leaders of all sorts. Whether you are a teacher, a parent, a friend counselling another friend, or any sort of "voice" to another person, you are in a place of trust and leadership. Your words and actions should be congruent. These passages are a call to self-examination, a check-up to make sure we are on the right path for the right reasons.