Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Anger at God. Appropriate for Advent?

Lectionary Scriptures for Nov. 30, 2014. First Advent. Isa 64:1-9, Ps 80:1-7 and 17-19, 1 Cor. 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

There's some real anger toward God expressed in the Old Testament readings, but you have to read the omitted parts to really get it! (Besides, it makes no sense to leave out 3 verses of the Isaiah chapter. Verses 10-12 are the concluding statements.)

Isaiah 9:5b says; " were angry and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed." Isaiah complains that God has been too hidden, that the people haven't seen great wonders like they did in the past. Then he blames God for the people going astray. Anger and blame are all directed at God.

In Psalm 80:8-16 the writer complains bitterly against God. Why has God bothered to save and relocate a whole people, and then, "give them tears to drink...make us the scorn of our enemies, and break down our walls?"

The writers don't hold back, they express their frustration with God. I wonder if these uncomfortable feelings are left out in Bible readings so often because we feel they are wrong somehow, as if speaking them might give them power, might drive people to wallow in anger and turn away from God. We don't know what to do with our doubts and questions and anger, so we don't read those pieces, it's easier to pretend we have solid beliefs and unwavering faith. But I wonder if not addressing our deepest angers and doubts actually gives them more power over us than less because we never deal with them. Anger festers and grows when it is hidden. How many people feel huge amounts of guilt, as they sit in church, because it seems that everyone around them can simply believe while they themselves struggle? How much anger is internalized and then blows up in misplaced and hurtful ways if we never legitimately work on it? If our answer must come from God, why does it seem God is hidden?

Advent is a great time to acknowledge anger, disappointment, and our deepest fears. It really isn't about warm fuzzies, softly falling snow, and pretending the "good will to all' is real. In Advent we come face to face with the reality of a screwed up world and our own inadequacies. Like these OT writers, we know something has gone wrong, that we aren't seeing God the way we want. These hard pieces give me permission to be real, to stop pretending I can fix things, to accept that my community and church and country actually need help. When we stop pretending things are great, maybe then we can get involved in living in healing ways. (What is that cliche, that an addict has to first admit they have a problem before they can start fixing it?)

Acknowledging our reality, our failings, our anger, our desire for God to show up, these all set the stage for the needed incarnation, the birth of God into our world that we celebrate at Christmas. Being real is appropriate, necessary, at Advent time. We wait and hope for God to become real in our world. The Psalmist, after expressing anger, concludes with; "Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved." Advent is a realization of need, a plea for help, and a waiting in great hope for the God of love to come down and be known.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Do I Look Fat to You?

Lectionary Readings for November 23. Ez 34:11-24, Ps 95, Matt 25: 31-46, Eph1:11-23

Today's reading follows beautifully from last week! Last week there was a strong warning about the dangers of complacency, a kick to our "collective complacent butts." The Ezekiel reading goes further. Here the rich and strong are not just comfortably ignoring the poor, but shown as actively hurting them. They are like fat sheep that eat and drink their fill, then spoil the pasture and water for those who had to wait. They also push and butt with their horns, scattering the weaker sheep so they do not have the protection of the herd.

The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. In our rush to grow the economy and maintain (arguably unsustainable lifestyles) countries ravage the environments. fouling land and water. We displace aboriginal people, move the voiceless poor when they are inconvenient (every Olympic city has done this), and cut social programs for the disadvantaged at the same time as taxes are decreased for big business.

When I think of those in "power" in our society, it is the rich. It would be exceedingly difficult for anyone to run for public office if they were poor or even middle class. While I believe there are some excellent people in our governing bodies, I also believe it is very difficult for anyone to work against a status quo that tends to protect itself. When Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, (Mark 10:25) we all have to think what that means for us. While I can easily point at other people as "rich" in comparison to my family, we certainly aren't poor! I have a vested interest in the status quo too-I like my comfortable home, my recreation options, etc...I am comfortable enough to be complacent, to ignore others who need help. Am I defending my way of life by complacently accepting things that "foul the land and water for others?" Am I a fat sheep in the herd? Maybe we have to ask others to help us with the question; "do I look fat to you?" Is my life a blessing to those around me, or am I taking more than my share and hurting others?

There is excellent encouragement in Matthew 25 for us "maybe fat"sheep. Here those who make a lifestyle out of helping others are commended and rewarded. The funny thing is that they don't even realize that they've been helping. Feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and clothing the naked is something so built in to their lifestyle and who they are, that it just happens.

I love the way this lifestyle feels so natural, and so naturally contrasts with the complacency condemned in the readings. Here is encouragement for the healthy sheep, the ones who aren't too fat or too thin, Instead of striving to become part of the elite, the healthy are those who turn away from that striving to reach a hand out to those who need help. They know when they have enough, and they use their "extra" to help others have enough too.

This last Sunday of the Christian Calendar year (before Advent) is called "Christ the King" Sunday. It is the day we celebrate Jesus as King of all, our lives and the world. It's amazing that we celebrate a caretaker king, a shepherd. This king is interested in the economics of relationships, in the health of all his subjects. He encourages his flock to live justly, but when they do not, he will step in.

Friday, 14 November 2014

A kick for complacent butts!

Lectionary Passages Nov. 16, 2014.  Zephaniah 1:7-18, Ps 90: 1-12, 1Thess. 5:1-11, Matt. 25:14-30

I'm amazed at how often the scripture readings resonate with current events or ideas.

This week I've been wondering about the correlation of wealth and the demise of organized religion. I notice it in society, in my church, and in myself. When people are comfortably wealthy and safe-not worrying about where food and shelter come from, we tend to feel in control of life. We question the need for God, we blame others for their situations and congratulate ourselves for what goes well in our lives.

I was at our church's seniors gathering last Wednesday when participants were encouraged to bring a book to share. One book was "The Lessons of History" by Will and Ariel Durant. An exert of the book observes that Christianity is declining, just like other religions in the past, when situations change. They say; "If another great war should devastate Western civilization, the resultant destruction of cities, the dissemination of poverty, and the disgrace of science may leave the Church, as in A.D. 476, the sole hope and guide of those who survive the cataclysm."

Wow. It takes tragedy for people to turn to God.

That idea, that people will cling to religion when they are in desperate need, is something I've seen too. When I visited South Sudan in 2009, I met people who had nothing and they lived in constant uncertainty and violence, however, their churches were vibrant places of belief, hope, and change for the better. Even here in Edmonton, people seem to reconnect to their faith at times of sickness and loss and need, rather than when they are "fat and happy."

I've been wondering about the wealth in my congregation, and in my life. Where is the balance point between spending our extra on fancy houses, recreation, lessons...and working to better the lives of others and investing time and money in making our church community a vibrant place of belief, hope, and change for the better? Sometimes wealth hurts our community. It fragments us as we spend time at cottages, on numerous vacations, at too many events. Sunday worship and time together get pushed to bottom priority-how does that help us or others? Are we building God's kingdom as we spend on ourselves, or are we escaping the needs we  have at home, at church, in the world?

Zephaniah's words speak into wealth. (He is writing in Jerusalem, at a time of prosperity and religious corruption. Wikipedia has a good, short, description.) I was struck by verse 12. "...I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, 'the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.'"

These people are wealthy and disinterested in God. They are effectively atheists, saying that God is irrelevant. They are a picture of complacency.

I feel pretty complacent too, my life is good. I have a little extra for luxuries.  Zephaniah speaks into that too. In verse 8 he references "those who dress themselves in foreign attire." He is talking about luxurious imported fabrics and clothing that the rich and stylish are wearing. This reference is a call to simplicity instead of waste. I think we should pay attention, we who eat Californian strawberrries in the winter, guzzle African and Colombian coffee, travel constantly for "fun", and regularly update our wardrobes with clothing produced in foreign sweatshops.

I struggle to know how to live and preach this message! I do try to live simply, to find a faithful balance between sinful self-indulgence and ridiculous austerity. I want to live generously, acknowledging my need for God, sharing what I have, loving and laughing-not getting caught up in the delusions of control and individualism. I am called, as a believer and pastor, to challenge people to live justly, but it is difficult.

Zephaniah, Jesus, and many other Biblical prophets speak out strongly ( and often offensively) against the use of wealth for self indulgence. They kick us in the butt of our complacency, they advocate for the powerless. It's a hard message. It's desperately needed. How can we engage and stop resting on our dregs?

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Escapism or Engagement?

Lectionary Readings for Nov. 9, 2014. Amos 5:18-24, Psalm 70, 1 Thess. 4:13-18, Matt. 25:1-13

I like to read "fluffy" novels before I sleep. I like fiction, fantasy, and fun in my late night reading because it takes me away from the worries of the day past and the day to come. I've noticed that when I am under stress, I read more of this stuff and I tend to go back to favorite books. It an escape for me, a mini-vacation where I don't have to think before I get back to the reality of daily life. I know, however, that this is not reading that helps me engage life's issues when morning comes. It doesn't help me to deal with my issues, it just postpones them. In the daytime, I have to fill my mind with substance, with reading the real stories, and scriptures, and thoughtful writings that build me as a person and equip me for service to God and my communities. The daytime is for engaging in what is real.

I began the scripture readings today with Amos, with darkness. The NRSV version I read from subtitled this section; "The Day of the Lord a Dark Day." This is definitely not late night material!

Judgement, punishment and darkness are not things a church like ours tends to focus on. We think of ourselves as people of the light. God is love. There is more grace than condemnation. There is good reason for our focus on the positive, however, I think that sometimes we do this almost as an escapism. An excuse to stay away from hard thoughts, from consequences, from having to think too hard about ourselves and changes needed in our lifestyles. We want to stay comfortable.

It's easy to read this Amos passage and think it is for others, for those not in church. We remember the last verse; "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" but forget who Amos was speaking to.  This was spoken to Judah-God's people, as well as to the surrounding people of Samaria and to Gentiles.It is all inclusive!

Amos is graphic. We might think that changes we've made and our faith is enough, but he says it is as if we've fled from a lion, and run into a bear! It is good to get away from the lion, but that doesn't end the need to be end vigilance or assume that we've "arrived" at the right place. It's not enough to believe the right things and do the rituals (avoid the lion) Amos calls for right living-to actually work for justice (avoid the bear). It's not good enough to assume that God will come and do the justice thing-we have to do it too (see 5:12)

Truly asking ourselves how our lives oppress others is a humbling business when we are wealthy, comfortable, and living in the suburbs.We live a life of escapism, not having to see much of the degraded environment, hear the beggars, eat beside those who have no food, or shiver with the homeless who get turned away from the full shelters.

Some escapism is necessary-we need a bit of time to relax our bodies and minds, but when and where and how do we engage? How do we keep our "escape" time from taking over?

In Matthew we read the familiar parable of the ten bridesmaids. They are all 'believers' there to support and cheer on the wedding party. But half of them are only half committed. They are there for the wedding, but not for the work it should have taken to get there.

(check out the series of 4 parables contained in Matt. 24:45- Matt. 25:46. All of them end badly for characters that who oppress others, don't prepare, don't bother using their gifts, or ignore the poor.)

It's important to take these scriptures seriously, to not escape from them. They are directed, not at some other evil people in the world, but at God's people, at us. We aren't all the bridesmaids with the extra oil, I wonder if the majority of us might even be the ones who come up short. If we take these warnings seriously, we will continually be looking for places to put our belief into action, we will truly live in this world instead of searching for ways to escape it's realities.