Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Christmas is a mixed bag season.

Fourth Advent. Dec. 18, 2016. Isaiah7:10-16, Psalm 80:-1-7, Matt 1:18-25, Romans 1:1-7

The Christmas season is a mixed bag for many people. While we look forward to festivities and family, often we dread the same things.

While we love to build memories and wax nostalgic, memories of the loss of loved ones and "the way we used to do it" can be painful. There is always a sense of past and future bound in the present. It is so obviously present when the elderly, middle aged, and the young gather for the exchange of thoughts, gifts, blessings and hopes. It is special and wonderful and sometimes totally not up to our expectations. I think the Christmas season is most meaningful, helpful, and truly joyful when it gets beyond the glitter and deals hopefully and realistically with the mixed bag of life.

Reading today, I am taken captive by the Isaiah piece. Usually we read the familiar; "...look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel" out of context. We take it as a happy prophecy and then quickly skip to "away in a manger no crying he makes." That keeps us in a false happy place and robs the chance for deeper meaning and real joy to surface.

There is so much more here. There is so much that mixes past, present, and future with the hopeful and the hellish. It's a mixed bag.

The passage begins with King Ahaz of Judah refusing to ask for a sign from God, and framing his refusal as an act of piety. It is, however, more of a refusal of what God is offering. He doesn't want to hear what God is going to say. He wants political answers, power and security, not faith and trust. Isaiah gives the sign anyway, and it is ambiguous, with both good and troublesome implications. Isaiah promises a child, not a warrior king, and maybe this is why Ahaz didn't want to hear it. Ahaz has his own ideas of what is best for Judah, and it certainly isn't trusting in a God that offers a king in diapers.

Judah is in a hard spot, Ahaz is truly up against a wall and acting like any government or powerful (and scared) ruler would act. Both Israel (Ephraim) and Egypt are hostile and Ahaz has (held his nose?)  and allied with the powerful Assyria. It seems to make sense, except that Judah is like a mouse accepting protection from a cat. For Ahaz it seems to be the only way, and right now the cat is preoccupied with Egypt and Israel so it appears to be the best short term choice. But what happens when the cat gets hungry and remembers the mouse? Read Isaiah 8:1-15, it spells out the Assyrian invasion.

The sign of the child promises that within the time it takes for this child to be weaned, (2-3 years), the problem of Israel and Egypt will disappear, a good thing. But then the cat, the king of Assyria, will turn and shave Judah bald and the rich vineyards will become thorny, only good for wandering cattle and sheep instead of a settled and civilized place. Isaiah calls for trust in God for sanctuary.

This kind of trust, trust in a non-warrior God within a warrior culture, is an incredibly difficult thing to accept. It's a wonderful promise, that God is in control, that we can trust our God, that the powers of mankind cannot last, but God can. It's a wonderful promise that God's people, both then and now, mostly struggle with understanding. If Ahaz had asked for a sign, had trusted God and not formed an alliance with Assyria, would anything have turned out better? Would Egypt, Israel, and Assyrian turned the other cheek, become good buddies, and all would be peace? I doubt it. The one thing that would be different, however, is that Judah would have been right with God. Squashed maybe, but faithful. (And if that isn't a mixed bag too...)

Fred Gaiser, (Luther Seminary, St. Paul Minn. OT professor emeritus), says that this text brilliantly reminds us that God's coming is both promise and judgement. He says there is always both continuity and surprise in how God's word comes to God's people.

Continuity and surprise. Promise and judgement. A mixed bag to take into our seasonal contemplation. I like this. I like that the promise is real, but so are the dangers of complacency or aligning with the powers of this world. This season of faith, with all it's promise, is not easy. It is, however, hopeful. We hope for new starts, for demonstrations of love, for hope that we will catch on to the signs God wants to give.

Answers to the mixed bag? I'm still looking, but I am doing that looking assured by the hope that God keeps on speaking then, now, and into the future.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Offensive PJs?

Isaiah 35:1-10, Ps 146:5-10, Luke 1:46-55, Matt. 11:2-11, James 5:7-10

The waiting during the Christmas season is full of delicious anticipation. The smells of the baking, the fresh piney tree, the waft of hot-chocolate that steams up your glasses.The whispers and shopping bags whisked into rooms.The scheduling for parties and guests. The advent calendar chocolates. The promise of holiday idleness.

Most of us love the build-up to the big reveal, the family feast, the office party, the opened present, the time off from work and school.

But what happens when the gift/event/promises don't live up to our expectations and the hype?

I remember back to a Christmas when we let our 5 year old open one present on Christmas Eve. (We open everything else Christmas morning). With great anticipation he ripped open the gift bag, reached in, and pulled out.....pajamas. He stared at them for a moment, then tossed them over his shoulder with a disgusted; "I DON'T WANT PAJAMAS!" It was quite hilarious-although we did try to muffle our humour. The gift did not live up to his hopes. He didn't want them, but he did need them.

These advent scriptures are all about the unexpected. They may not be at all what we want, but there is a lot of what the poor majority of the world hopes for and needs.

Mary's song in Luke is justice for the oppressed, a redistribution of power and wealth. That fits the "desperately needed, but not truly wanted"category. The implications of this fair distribution would make many of us unhappy with this gift.

Isaiah is a reversal of fortunes like Luke. James says to "have patience in suffering" as you wait for the Lord (and don't grumble about it). Both of these rank even lower as wanted gifts than Christmas PJs for a 5 year old!

Then there's the Matthew story. John the baptist finds himself in jail, questioning if Jesus is the "gift" Messiah they've waited for. I think he is disappointed that Jesus isn't a completely obvious Messiah. (Like looking in the bag and seeing pajamas. This is it? It's not what I was looking for!) It must have been a bit difficult for John to get his head around the fact that this Messiah, the one that he said he wouldn't feel worthy to tie sandals for, was walking through the countryside talking to the poor and healing the crippled, and offending the establishment. No wonder Jesus added the comment; "blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

What do you (we) need for Christmas? While we wait with hope for what the world needs, we also have to be able to accept that what we need is likely quite different than what we want.

Endurance, restitution for the wronged, healing for the broken, help for the poor, pajamas for the kid who wants a toy.

How will we receive what God provides? How will we help Jesus in giving what is needed where it might cause offense?

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Which are we?

Lectionary Passages for Advent 2, December 4, 2016. Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Matthew 3:1-12, Romans 15:4-13

Every Christmas pastors have to speak on the same passages, and every Christmas I'm always amazed that there is something new to think and say about these same old passages.

This year I am wondering who these scriptures are meant for and what audience do I and my people assume we are a part of?

So much of the advent scripture is about hope for something better, and release from our bondage to the dysfunctions of the world. My question then is which side are we on? Are we the oppressed, the needy, the imprisoned, the poor, the meek like those named in Isaiah and  the Psalm? If we are not those, then are we the oppressors, the rich, the enforcers of power? Matthew names the Sadducees and Pharisees as a "brood of vipers". Isaiah, in the iconic peace passage that has the lion laying down beside the lamb, also says that God will kill the wicked. These bits should cause us some concern. The Pharisees and Sadducees were seen, by themselves and others, as the upstanding citizens, the religious law-followers, the good folk. Yet Jesus names them vipers. We might not think ourselves wicked, but maybe our complacency and consumerism is enough to put us into the wicked category too. It is easy, when life is mostly comfortable, to think we deserve it. To protect our comforts and ideas, to turn a blind eye to injustice and pretend it isn't our issue because, obviously, we are living right and others are not.

I don't think I am in the needy categories. I have food, shelter, safety, the support of friends and family. I even have health and insurance. If things go wrong, I will not be on the street or shunned by family or discarded by the systems in my Country.

So how do we listen to good news for the poor, if we are not them? Good news to the poor might be bad news for the not-poor....unless we can be part of the change, part of the sharing, part of the reconciling and welcoming of the other like what is encouraged in Romans.

The acknowledgement that humans fail, but there is always hope in God is a powerful message that needs repeating each Christmas. How we are recipients of that hope is worth rethinking again and again. From what perspective do you hear the news as an individual? As a part of a church? As a privileged Canadian? If I am not in obvious need of the kind of hope promised, how am I helping (or hindering) the delivery of God's promises to others?

P.S. A little side note. When I read the Isaiah piece again this year, I was struck by the sentence; "he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked." Not good news for the earthy or wicked! The most interesting bit for me is that the wolf, leopard, lion, bear, and asp are not in the "wicked" category at all. A lot of our literature, especially children's stories often categorize these predators as evil. Not here at all. If they are metaphors for people, perhaps the categories of wicked and not wicked are fuzzier than we think. Good thing God looks at the heart!

Another little note; I can't help but reflect on the advent scriptures in light of the election politics we see in the US, and the attitudes and issues, especially this "white-lash" thing being expressed in our culture. When I think of who the scriptures are for and who they are against, I recall the nasty things I heard said about democrats, and those said about republicans. I don't think the lines are that clear. There is good and evil on both sides-the stereotyping of whole categories of people is unhelpful and could even be hugely destructive to the process of positive change. So, when I think of the categories of oppressed and oppressor, I am leaving grey areas in my categorizations. What I really want to avoid, however, is the assumption that all the good parts of the scriptures are for me while the hard stuff is for someone else. I think that unless we face the nasty parts of ourselves, our communities and world will have a hard time seeing the true hope that God promises in these Advent scriptures.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

A good mess-up

For November 20, 2016. Malachi 4:1-2, Psalm 98, 2 Thess. 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

I messed up this morning. When I read through the scriptures that Ken will be using for preaching this Sunday, I read 1 Thessalonians instead of 2nd.

It was a good mess up for me. On a morning when I can use some encouragement, this mistake was perfect.

Like many others watching and talking about the train-wreck election in the USA, I feel terribly discouraged about people. I am disheartened about the nasty rhetoric and alarmed by the seeming mainstream validation of racism and sexism. I have trouble understanding the way that people so willingly take up baseless rumours and accusations without proof. Horrible statements are glossed over. Logic and common sense seem in short supply. While I understand and support the need for free speech and protest, I decry the destructive ways that this happens. I have trouble claiming the name "Christian" when it is used to prop up or excuse decidedly un-Christian actions and claims.

These issues aren't only coming at me from our Southern neighbours. In the past weeks, both women running for the leadership of the Consersative party withdrew their candidacy because of the excess of abusive and sexist opposition they were targeted with.

Even closer to home, someone close to me has had to respond to horrible inappropriate social media posts coming from a relative. Ironically, in trying to respond in a constructively critical way, she/he has been accused of being an attacker.

Then, finally, I still hurt over some of the things that went on/go on in the church community I love. Hurtful rumours, blame, defensiveness, gossip,...all these destructive things go on wherever there are people. Even in gatherings of good and faithful people, we are often less than charitable or just with each other.

So, I was in a place to need encouragement. In 1 Thessalonians 3, Timothy has just returned from a trip to visit the Thessalonian church. His report back to Paul is about the faith and love he has encountered in the church. I don't believe the Thessalonians were perfect, I do believe that Timothy is focusing on the positives, and that has given everyone joy and energy.

When I think of the USA, my country of Canada, my province, my community, and my church, there are definitely problems. However, instead of letting those things keep me dragged down in the mire of complaint, I can chose to look to what is good. When I do that, I find so much to be thankful for.
In fact, if I make lists of problems and blessings that I experience, my list of positives far outstrips the negative.

This is not to say I am able to ignore the negatives, or remain quiet, it means that I am encouraged to work at them from a place of strength. In 1 Thessalonians, the early church community is suffering persecution-yet they are boosted up and able to keep working because they acknowledge the faith and love that surrounds them in the larger community. As a faith community we can do the hard work together because we have so much of what is good in common.

So, today I blog about the wrong scripture, not the one you will hear on Sunday. But it's a good place to start. Let's come to our worship on Sunday thanking God for the faith and love that surrounds us, thankful for our country, our communities, our church, and strengthened to continue the good work that benefits us all.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Bones, broken promises, and new life.

For Nov. 6 2016, at First Mennonite Church. John 11:1-45, Ezekiel 37: 1-14.

Bones. Dead, dry, and disturbing because they hit us in the face with thoughts of mortality and helplessness in the face of death. We don't usually have to look at human bones because they are hidden under muscle and skin. When we see our bones, it means something has gone wrong. Something is horribly broken or long dead or neglected. We hurry to cover the bones up again with bandages or 6 feet of dirt. We don't want to see them and be reminded that things go wrong. It is unpleasant to feel responsible, or sad, or face up to brokenness.

Indigenous peoples know all about brokenness and cover-ups. Last week I had an opportunity to listen to Papaschase Chief, Calvin Bruneau, and Millwoods historian Catherine C. Cole talk about the history of the land that our church sits on. This land is part of Treaty 6, and is part of the parcel given to the Papaschase band as their reserve in the late 1800s. Through a variety of nefarious means, including starvation, money (scrip) tied to membership loss, government officials rewriting rules to "legally" remove rights, and settler pressure, members of the band had treaty rights taken away and they were scattered into the care of other bands-almost erased from history. For a quick summary of this history click on the link:


The scriptures today talk about the impossible, the dead coming back  to life. When I read these passages through the lens of the history I have just heard, they do come to life in new ways. I think of the bones Ezekiel looks at as the First Nations people who were almost erased from this land. The Papaschase are working hard to recover their history, to dig up both the physical and metaphorical bones of their people. Chief Bruneau has long been involved in the Rossdale burial site-where the remains of some of the original Papaschase inhabitants of Edmonton are buried He spoke of how, when there are construction projects in the Edmonton area, burial grounds are still sometimes uncovered. Sometimes the powers that be try to cover them up again-finding bones means slowing down construction projects. But maybe a bigger reason for the cover up is that if the bones are acknowledged, then the reality of a Papaschase people with roots and history and claims in this area must be acknowledged! The reality of broken promises and the responsibility for change is daunting, but of great and even sacred importance for all of us.

In both Ezekiel and John, new life seems impossible. It only happens when people listen to God, hope beyond hope, and acknowledge what God is doing.

I am particularly struck by the story of Lazarus. Jesus raises him from the dead, but then instructs the watching crowd, Lazarus' family, friends, and community, to "unbind him and let him go!" God does the impossible life-giving piece, but those around Lazarus have work to do now so that Lazarus can truly live among them again. Lazarus is alive, but the people around him have to acknowledge that, approach him, let him go, and then live with him among them.

The Papaschase people are alive, they are here. Are there ways that we, as their community and as fellow Treaty 6 people, can unbind them?

In July 2016, Mennonite Church Canada voted to 'repudiate the doctrine of discovery.' I think this is part of the important call to the work of unbinding. The doctrine of discovery is the colonial mindset (and laws) that allowed Christendom to claim superiority, to take lands and subjugate indigenous peoples. While we no longer officially claim these things, we have inherited a mindset of settler superiority and rights and racist attitudes that we are finally starting to understand and reject. The repudiation is a starting point, but seriously, the language of repudiation and doctrines (while important) sounds pretty stuffy and distant. How do we make it real and practical?

Here are some initial thoughts of how to start doing the work of repudiating/unbinding/partnering with our indigenous neighbours as we, together, come to new life.

1. Read the history. Support the uncovering of First Nations history that has been buried and hidden.
2. Listen to First Nations speakers, authors, historians....without offering a "fix." (We already have a long history of European settler "fixes" that have not been helpful. If something new is to happen, we have to stop doing things the same old ways.)
3. As our church considers what to do with our parcel of land, how can we acknowledge who this land was stolen from? What is our responsibility now that we have knowledge?
4. Stop complaining, and blaming, and naming. Listen.
5. Be willing to consider giving something up, or back, in the name of reconciliation.
6. Read the recommendations coming out of the Truth and Reconciliation process.
7.Find out about the issues in your neighbourhood or province and speak up. (For example: recent news reports have said that indigenous schools in the North receive less funding per student than other public schools. This is wrong and we should speak out.)

Other ideas?


https://dofdmenno.org/  a website with good, up to date anabaptist thoughts and resource

Wrongs to Rights. A special 2016 issue of "INTOTEMAK" magazine that engages the question; "How churches can engage the United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples." Our church library has a copy, and it can also be obtained through the Common Word Bookstore (this is our Mennonite Church Canada Resource Centre. Google will take you there.)

Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry. Edited by Steve Heinrichs. 2013. Herald Press. A collection of essays and responses dealing with; "conversations on creation, land justice, and life Together." Our church library has a copy, Common Word Bookstore has it too.


Friday, 28 October 2016

Institutional Renovation

Sometimes, even in the best of houses, renovations have to happen. The wallpaper that was so stylish in 1973, is an offense to the eyes in 2016! The bathroom has mold in the walls, the 5000 gallon flush toilet is a dinosaur and should be helped to extinction, and the kitchen desperately needs brightening. Once the renovation is done, it is amazing how much better everything functions.

Sometimes our institutions need renovation too.

On Sunday, October 30, pastor Tim will be preaching the 2nd in a 3 part series of messages that reflect on decisions made at the Mennonite Church Canada 2016 assembly. His theme is based on the
Future Directions Task Force recommendation that was passed by delegates: See below.

"That Mennonite Church Canada approve in principle the directions proposed by the Future Directions Task Force Final Report, and collaborate with the five Area Churches (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Eastern Canada) in developing a more integrated nation-wide church body along the lines envisioned to better resource all levels of our church in responding to God’s call to live out and share the peace of Jesus Christ with local through global neighbours."

Mennonite Church Canada, faced with shrinking budgets, changing cultural expectations, and a continued desire to be a strong and united church body, is undergoing restructuring.  

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Matt. 22:34-40, and 1 Peter 2: 1-10 all give some helpful "thought background" to focus our restructuring thoughts, to move us away from the anxiety of change into a hopeful building phase.

Jeremiah speaks of a "new covenant written on your hearts." Instead of a legalistic structure focused on authoritative leaders, the new way will be within each person. Leadership here changes from top-down to something different. Responsibility is spread through all the people. It is a new system that still focuses on the same core, God, but it will function in a new way.

Things change again in the New Testament with Jesus' ways of challenging the system. The Matthew piece is an example. It again focuses on the core of faith, put pushes for action based on it. Jesus repeats the greatest commandment that everyone agrees on; "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." Then Jesus goes on to make it practical, by saying the second commandment-to love your neighbour as yourself. 

In 1rst Peter, the individual "living stones" are piled together to make each other stronger, keeping Christ as the cornerstone.

There is an intriguing interplay of individuality and togetherness in the passages, an interplay that seems to always need some tweaking, some reinvention according to the challenges the people are facing.

As we move into an "MC Canada renovation", I pray that we will allow for individuals, unite in strength, and keep God at the core of all that we do.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Oct. 23 at FMC. Grey Areas of Grace

Sunday morning our worship service was based off of the "Being a Faithful Church" resolution passed at our national assembly this past July. I preached a message entitled; "Grey Areas of Grace: Unity in Our Differences" which was a combination of Bible Study based on Romans 14 and 15 and stories to help challenge our thinking about being a united church in spite of conflicting views on contemporary issues.

I did a lot of reading in preparation for Sunday. Here is a list of the resources I found most helpful. (If you only have time for one, skip down to the bottom of the list and read through Josiah Neufeld's article in the Walrus!)

I am also willing to share copies of my sermon if requested.The recording is available from our church office. For an electronic or print copy, please contact me either through comments on this site, or by email at: <pastor@edmonton1st.mennonitechurch.ab.ca>

"Being a Faithful Church" (BFC) was a 9 year process focused on building our communal ability to discern and make decisions together as a Mennonite church. It encouraged congregational participation throughout, using scholarship, Bible Study, feeback from churches, historical and contemporary case studies, and more. The motion presented in Saskatoon was formed out of the context of this 9 year process. To see the complete BFC document go to:


A 2014 article by Glenn Brubacher and David Augsburger asking the question; "Does Romans 14-15:7 contain helpful instructions to address the current divisive subject of covenanted same sex relations?"  is a helpful piece. This article provides guidance for constructive listening and practice.


A Letter to my Congregation, by Ken Wilson, I would call a "must read" book as congregations struggle with the idea of inclusion, no matter where you or your church finds itself on the issue. Wilson is an evangelical pastor. Faced with real people of real faith who struggle with their sexuality, Wilson responds with love, and questions himself. Through thorough Bible study and a humble love for God, the church, and individuals, his journey through the question of inclusion is compassionate and inspiring. He's also a good writer, which makes this book a pleasure to read! (Our church has several copies. If you can't find one, ask me for my office copy.)

The Canadian Mennonite Magazine did some excellent reporting at Assembly 2016 where the BFC motion was passed. Go to the July 25, 2016 issue for coverage of the Assembly.


Finally, I loved this article in the Walrus. "Mennonite Pride; Lessons in lgbtq Rights from a Surprising Source." by Josiah Neufeld. Neufeld grew up in the Mennonite Church, but as an adult, left it and Christianity behind. As an observer at Assembly 2016, however, he found himself impressed by the way the church is working at its issues. I found that his outside the church view was incredibly inspiring. From the inside, we might only see the frustration, the slowness, and the pain. Neufeld also sees hope and an example for the world. His article is very well written and a great read!


Thursday, 6 October 2016

A Border Crossing, Multicultural Effort

Now the United States of America was commander of the free world. She was a great country, in her own sight and in the sight of others, highly regarded, because through her the Lord had given victory. She was a valiant warrior, but she had leprosy.

This paraphrase of the story of Naaman, brings the ancient tale into a vivid contemporary focus. Yes, the re-telling is American, but it resonates with my Canadian soul. Author Adriene Thorne boldly points a finger at her great country's sickness, a sickness that will destroy it if it isn't treated.

Click the link below to read Thorne's article.


I am particularly struck by how hard it is for the mighty Naaman to "lower" himself. He is only healed when he listens to advice from a little slave girl, when he travels to the land of his enemies for help, when he leaves his anger behind at the advice of servants, and when he does the ridiculous "7 dips" in the muddy Jordan.

Naaman has to acknowledge and rely on the wisdom of foreigners. He has to learn that money, success, and social status do not make him better than others. Healing only happens when all the different people actually respect each other in lived-out ways.

It's useful to follow up the Old Testament reading of Naaman's story by reading right to the end of 2 Kings chapter 5. Just in case any of us starts feeling this is only a cautionary tale for the rich and powerful, we get an epilogue story of the greed of a lowly servant. None of us, no matter our station in life, is exempt from the lessons here. The finger is pointing at us and naming the sicknesses we all share. Are we all going to try to share in the healing?

Lectionary passages for Oct 9, 2016 are: 2 Kings 5: 1-3, 7-15, Psalm 111, 2 Tim. 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

If it seems to tarry, wait for it.

For Oct. 2, 2016 Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 37, 2 Tim 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

This week I can't help but read these passages in light of the situation of Syrian Refugees.

Saturday, I spent the day with the family our church is sponsoring. They arrived in Canada 2 weeks ago, only speak Arabic, and there are 4 children under 10 years old. They waited 3 years in a refugee camp before finally coming to Canada. They are happy here, but it's going to be a long and difficult road to learn the language, find jobs, and start all over in this strange to them country.

We spent a fun afternoon at a community garden/farm, digging vegetables, playing with kittens, riding a horse, and eating together. In the evening, we had an interpreter and we could visit a bit over a cup of tea at the families new apartment. The father sent photos to his brother in Lebanon. The brother sent a message back, thanking us (not just me and Tim, our whole church community), for taking care of his brother's family. There are still so many people waiting in the refugee camps. Waiting to escape the violence and poverty. Waiting for a chance at peace. Waiting for help for their children.

Habakkuk says; "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?" 1:1.  In chapter 2:2 the Lord answers: "Write the vision...if it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay." In Habakkuk, "help" is being sent in the form of the Chaldeans, the enemy. It is beyond understanding. But somehow, there is trust in God in the midst of the trouble. The problems are listed...then the writer says; "yet I will rejoice in the Lord..." 3:18

Habakkuk is a hard message. Obviously the waiting is interminable, and then there is this assurance that help will not delay. Perhaps God has a different timeline, but this is crazy hard to understand when the waiting never ends. I don't get how help comes with the enemy, when that enemy comes and creates more homelessness, more death. Our Syrian family has come here, but their extended families and friends and country is in the throes of violence and waiting. I can't understand the scope of the issues. I have trouble seeing where God is in all of this mess.

I can, however, rejoice in the bit of good that I see. The excitement of the children when they played in safety on the farm, the gratefulness of the parents and their family in Lebanon, and the gift of hearing a bit of this one family's story were all reasons to rejoice.

I don't understand the waiting or God's plans, but I do want to live in hope.

Psalm 37 highlights the theme of waiting and gives some practical advice.

"Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security."

It was amazing to speak with the family and share the incredible thought that their children have a chance to grow up in a peaceful country. That they will not have to lose their homes and run from violence.  That they will have education and opportunities. And that we will all be richer because of our friendship.

On Sunday, we will have speakers here who have worked for many years in the Middle East, working for the Mennonite Central Committee. It will be good to hear where they see hope.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Can't Wait!

Luke 13:10-17, Psalm 46. For September 25, 2016 at FMC

"I can't wait!" If you have driven somewhere with a small child you dread these words. You are familiar with the whole frantic discussion that ensues; "Can you hold it for 5 minutes? Why didn't you say something sooner? Why didn't you use the washroom before we left?"

None of the talk changes the fact that something must be done. It's not fair to the child to blame them and ignoring the problem invites worse issues. Sometimes there is a convenient and conventional solution, like a handy gas station. Other times you have to get creative-a detour, a ditch, a lone bush in a park....the situation simply must be dealt with no matter what passers-by might think.

Jesus treats the woman's situation with this "it can't wait" kind of urgency. He is teaching in the synagogue when he notices her. He interupts his teaching and calls her over, puts his hands on her, and she is healed. She immediately praises God. But this was a Sabbath, a day when good Jews refrained from work. The leader of the synagogue goes after Jesus for breaking with this tradition, berating the woman for coming on the Sabbath and categorizing Jesus' actions as work. This leader uses complex rules and regulations and theological understandings to argue about what and how and who...leaving a woman outside of the community.... for 18 years.

Jesus has a great response. He reminds the synagogue leaders that if an animal needs to be untied to be taken to the water on the Sabbath, they would do it. So why should this woman not be untied from her bondage on the Sabbath as well? She should not have to wait any longer. Jesus is thoroughly Jewish, accepted as a teacher, and is pushing traditional boundaries and understandings. He puts compassion ahead of proper "theology" as it was understood. Jesus pushes a deeper understanding of God's "rules."

Emerson Powery, a professor of Biblical Studies at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, says;

But this story is not told in order to discuss that theological issue. Rather this is a story about the role and function of our religious traditions, our claims about what could and should be practiced on the “Sabbath” or who is allowed within the walls of our synagogues and religious communities. Special religious practices may become hindrances to inclusion. We must be diligent to recognize what theological ideas we hold dear that disallow full participation from others.

I like Powery's question that urges us to think about how our traditions and ways we do things might become hindrances to us and actually block our effectiveness in responding to needs.

Our congregation is currently going through a number of changes, challenges, and re-examination of structures and ways of doing things. A visioning process is beginning. It is an opportunity to do things differently, but there is also a danger of simply putting a new cover on the same old book. How are we going to gracefully allow new things to happen so that we can allow Jesus to "untie" the things that cripple us? 

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Big But

For Sept. 18, 2016. Ephesians 4:1-16

Does this explanation make my "but" look big?

Yes, yes it does.

In verses 1-6, Paul begs (his word) the faith community to live in humility, gentleness and patience. They are to make every effort to maintain unity and peace because they all have the same God.

Then in verse 7 we see the big but.

 I looked in four different translations, and all of them (NRSV,NIV, New KJ, NASV) have the but. Someone told me once that we can ignore everything coming before the but in almost any sentence. "You look nice, BUT those clothes aren't appropriate for a wedding." "The kids were good, BUT they wouldn't go to sleep at bedtime." "Her marks were great, BUT not high enough for getting into the program she wanted."  The important comment, the focus of the statement tends to come after the but. After a but, there is always work to be done, something has to change. The clothes need to be changed, the kids need a different schedule or less sugar, an alternative program choice has to be made. Buts always require adjustment, and usually it wasn't our first choice.

So when I read Paul's words, the focus is clearly on the grace that follows the but. The before the but stuff expresses a hope, an ideal, BUT he knows that it never quite happens so he has to move on he has to help people figure out how to make the best out of the reality of things not being perfect.

We get stuck when plans fail because we don't have a "plan B" for after the but. We so often do not follow up failures with concrete, life-giving ways of dealing with each other. Paul reminds the people that God's grace to our community is the abilities given to it's people. When people use their diverse God given abilities to build up the whole body, we find a unity and we stop being tossed to and fro by fads and selfishness. When the pastors, teachers, evangelists, and workers all do what they are good at, the body can grow.

What I take from this passage is simple, yet hard to implement. I see the see the hope expressed in the direction that humility and gentleness and patience can take a faith community and I want to set myself in that direction. Then I also see the reality that these are ideals and humanly we will always run into a but. How do we deal with our failings, our frustrations, our disagreements? Do we keep resetting to focus on hopes and dreams that never quite work out, or do we start working on the big BUTS and gracefully do the hard work of figuring out how diverse giftings and opinions can somehow build each other up into a unity?

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Bizarre old stuff and renewal

For Sept. 11,2016

Numbers 35:22-28, Romans 12:2, Ephesians 4:1-16

Bizarre. So many bits from the Old Testament, like this Numbers piece, are full of ancient weirdness that can leave us feeling like the Bible is irrelevant. Our times, our culture, our ideas are all so different from what we read in Numbers. This idea of a "city of refuge"for innocent perpetrators of accidental deaths doesn't make sense in Canada, a lawful society and a culture of individualism Before we dismiss a passage like this, however, we need to remember that our situation and truth isn't the whole story of God's people.

We have so much to learn from our African brothers and sisters. Some of the stories I've heard from our South Sudanese brothers and sisters make me look at the Old Testament in a fresh way. South Sudan, in many ways, is a lawless place. Years of war and struggle have destroyed both physical and social structures. Corruption is rampant. People have to rely on their families, friends, and the church. because everything else has failed. Sudan is a multi-cultural country, with over 65 distinct (if I remember correctly) tribes. Tribal connections are hugely important, individualism doesn't function there like it does in Canada. This tribalism and heavy reliance on family connections for social security is much closer to the culture of the Old Testament than anything I've ever experienced in Canada. Feuds and blood-debt, like that mentioned in Numbers, still happen. They understand what the Old Testament is talking about because they've got stories of revenge killings. of retribution, of having to defend/run for their lives. Because of their backgrounds, they can read Numbers 35 and see the grace and newness that is offered. They understand this stuff deeply. That there is an option other than revenge. That there is a limit (the length of the priest's life) to how long a blood-debt is valid, that there is a starting place for ending feuds that are otherwise endless, there is a community decision making that could preclude family feuds. There is mercy that takes the place of revenge without ignoring the harm that was done. These things are good news. They are needed.

In many places in the world, these ancient texts don't feel old. Perhaps we need our Sudanese brothers and sisters to do the preaching on these so that we can gain in understanding, so they can make these pieces fresh to us. I think they have a lot to teach/remind us about when it comes to thinking as a community instead of as a bunch of self-interested individuals.

Romans 12:2 tells us to "not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your minds..." It's clear in Numbers that some renewing is happening, that fresh ways of thinking and acting are coming into practice. These ways of limiting harm and ending feuds are obviously beneficial to all the tribes.

So, in what ways might we in today's society and church need some new structures and ways of doing things? Who are our innocents who need places of refuge and limits to punishment? How can we discover communal ways to be refuge to those who are hurting?

I see some clues in Ephesians 4. Here the writer emphasizes the need for unity and reminds the church that the gifts held by various individuals are there for the purpose of building the whole, not for individual gain or fame.

This week I've been wondering about renewal for the church in our society. There are those of us who still cling to and value the "traditional" church structure. I mostly love the church I grew up in, it's structures, it's programs, it's regularity and dependability. It does, however, have problems too, and some of those have to be addressed, they have to speak into today's situations with refuge and healing. For me it feels like perhaps our old ways are not going to work for much longer. In post-Christendom, the church "ship" has downsized to a boat, and then a canoe, and now I wonder if we are sitting on a raft. A raft is kind of fun for awhile, but is pretty useless for navigating rough water or long distances. At least we have the raft right now, but what happens if it sinks? Does everyone have to swim only relying on their own power? How do we do things together? How do we use gifts for building the whole if the whole is completely scattered?

Many young adults don't attend church anymore (across all denominations). It's not that they don't value their faith, many have a strong faith. It's not that they don't value the church, many speak highly of growing up in the church and they return to it for their weddings, or to speak to a pastor when they have a crisis, or to check-in at Christmas. They want the church to remain, they just don't want to do all the administration and grunt work and politics that seem to accompany institutionalized faith. I don't blame them for that, however, how do we keep the connections, and ministry, and all the good stuff going?

The first generation to leave, (but still value and lean on), the church isn't the one that worries me much. They grew up in community and have that solid foundation that they fondly remember and draw on when needed. What about their children? How is their faith going to be shaped and expressed? Is faith of the future even more about individualism than it is at present? Is there some renewing of understanding or changing of ways that could get people excited again?

I don't think our traditional way of doing church has to be the answer, although it's hard for me to think of what might replace it because it's the way I have experienced a vibrant faith life. What renewing might be happening? What gifts might other cultures, old stories, and new ideas offer?

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Ragged Edge of the Crowd

Cities are crowded. Where is God in the crowds? This is the question for our Sunday worship. I'm not the speaker, but I read through a few of the scripture lessons to get a feel for the topic. (Luke 8:43-48, Mark 10:46-52, Matt. 25: 31-46)

I don't like crowds. I am impatient waiting in line, I don't like full campgrounds because they feel like I haven't left the city, and I like to visit restaurants mid-week. My discomfort likely has less to do with convenience than it does with a fear of the unknown and an accompanying feeling of a lack of control over what might happen to me in a crowd.

The increasing number of terrorist attacks at crowded bars, restaurants, and festivals have made crowds seem even scarier. I use the word "seem" because I have no real evidence to say that crowds are more dangerous now than at any other time. It could simply be that our ubiquitous, instant, and repetitive media coverage makes everything seem worse than it used to be when we had to wait for the 6 pm news. For instance, this past week when there was an attack in Madrid, I heard about it at least 7 times in few hours immediately after it happened. Plus it was reported in papers the next day and has been mentioned many times in the news since. Add to this coverage that everyone has a recording device now, so there is video record of every bit of bad news. No wonder crowds feel scary.

Jesus is constantly pursued by crowds. Some people are genuinely seeking faith and learning, some are gawking, some are desperate for healing, and some are plotting against him. The crowd is also composed of the "less desirable", those people who are on the streets. The cripples, the mentally ill, those without work, foreigners, and the poor have the time and reasons to follow the crowds. The scripture stories I read were striking in that they all feature . these outsider people as main characters who receive blessings.

In Luke 8 Jesus is touched by the woman with a hemorrhage and she is healed. According to Jewish law, her bleeding made her unclean. She should not have even been in the crowd. She definitely should not have touched an important person, touching him made Jesus ritually unclean as well. He and the crowd could have legitimately condemned her. Instead, she is healed. And more than that, Jesus commends her faith and blesses her in front of those she was afraid to face. Her illness does not make her unacceptable in God's sight. Her illness is no longer something silent and hidden.

The setting of this story is important. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus was ministering and healing among the pig-feeding, demon-possessed, Gentiles. The story of the woman is surrounded by the story of the synagogue leader's daughter. She dies, but Jesus touches and reanimates her. Touching a dead body would also make Jesus unclean. A clear point is being made through the setting; Jesus crosses boundaries and the outsiders become insiders.

Jesus touches the ragged edges of the crowd. The Gentile outsiders who were unacceptable to the Jewish religious leaders and the unacceptable insiders (bleeding and dead women) were all touched and blessed by Jesus. When crowds try to shush blind Bartemaus, Jesus makes sure to single him out for healing. Those who were in positions of religious power and working hard to be righteous in the traditional way must have been getting more and more frustrated with Jesus' improper contacts. When we read the old stories, we have to be careful not to "tame" Jesus. He was a radical, a trouble-maker, and a person who was not afraid to associate with those who were outcast or unclean or foreign.

Where is Jesus today in our crowded city? I think he is likely still inhabiting the ragged edges, touching lives that others cannot or do not consider worthy. Jesus loved crowds, or at least we know he loved the individuals that make up the crowds.

Can we see those individuals too? Can we see past our fear of the unknown to allow a ragged woman to touch us and tell her story? Can we reach out of our fears of rejection and touch the hem of Jesus' robe? What illnesses might be freely spoken of so that those who suffer can be blessed instead of pushed aside?

Note: From July 31 to August 22 I will be on holiday and most likely not posting a blog. I'll get back at it for the worship service on August 28!

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Healing in the city

As part of our summer series; 'God in the City", this Sunday will focus on thinking about where God is in our health care systems. Here is the list of passages that will help get your thinking going on the topic:  Rev. 2:1-5, Mark 2:1-12, Psalm 103: 1-5, Luke 6: 17-19, John 5: 1-18.

This morning a man came to our church doors to ask for help. He is a middle aged AISH (assured income for the severely handicapped) recipient who lives with his mother. He is divorced and has two adult sons, one lives on the streets in another city, and one is always far from the city and working on oil rigs. This son sometimes helps out, but is largely unavailable by choice.. The man was diagnosed with diabetes a year ago, and is struggling to develop healthy habits.

He came to the door almost in tears. His first words were something like; "I feel so ashamed to ask for help, but it is so difficult." Over and over he expressed shame and guilt as he apologized for asking for a grocery voucher.

We sat down and talked for awhile. I feel a lot of empathy for this man. My husband was a case worker for AISH about 17 years ago. Even back then, the $800.00 or so dollars was not enough to pay for rent and food, let alone phone bills, transportation, and entertainment. If recipients earned a bit of money on the side, it was clawed back from their AISH. Caseloads were so high, that caseworkers had minimal ability to help clients, people who by definition, could not adequately help themselves. It doesn't sound like anything has improved in 17 years, perhaps it has even gotten more difficult.

I could easily see this man as one of the crowd in Luke 6, pushing to touch Jesus in a quest for healing, except he is not physically able to get to the front of the line. He is more like the paralytic in John 5 who needs help into the healing waters of the Bethsaida pool, but he is terribly reluctant to ask for that. He certainly doesn't have friends, like those in Mark 2, to lower him through a roof and into the presence of a healer. What he does have is ill health, special needs, an elderly mother, broken family relationships, and insufficient money.

The stories of Jesus healing people are wonderful, yet frustrating to me as I search for an understanding of how an individual Christian or a church is supposed to be part of the healing ministry. Jesus healed with a touch, then moved on to the next town. What happened to the healed people? What ongoing help did the former paralytic require to adapt to a new life? Job training? Housing? Community connections? We can't just heal with a touch and move on. Very few healings are instant or complete.

Jesus also did something much bigger than physical healing. He forgives sin, which is a harder thing to do than to heal a body. Jesus said, "Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, "stand up and take your mat and walk?" Mark 2:9

We, in both the singular and plural senses, are called to be a part of the ministry of Jesus. To reach out with physical touch and healing, and with forgiveness to one another. It's not easy. It's not instant. It is important.

I tried to listen compassionately, acknowledging the difficulty the man had in asking for help. I was able to give a grocery voucher to help with his immediate need for food. I prayed for him. He seemed to be less distraught, he was smiling when he left our church. I hope this was a small touch of healing and hope, but it will take more for him to be healed. Maybe I, and the church I represented today, managed to give him a band-aid. What would it be like to offer a more complete healing?

What is our healing ministry in our city? How can it be more than responding to symptoms, but offer complete healing?

Thursday, 30 June 2016

What's up with talking about wealth?

Matt. 19:16-28 "The Rich Young Ruler", Acts 5:1-11 "Ananais and Sapphira", Luke 21 1-4 "Widows Mite", Matt. 27:57-61 Joseph of Arimathea

Who do you talk about money with? Family? Colleagues? People at church? Your financial adviser?

What do you talk about? How to make more? Spend less? What others should do? What and where you can give?

Money is a hard thing to talk about, probably because the ways we need-desire-use-it say a lot about who we are and what we value. We want to avoid looking selfish, but we all have ways we like to indulge ourselves. We want to be generous and helpful, but are afraid of those who might take advantage of us. We want to give, but we want to control how our donation is used. We are constantly faced with the reality that money is power and security for some, and the lack of it for others. Wealth is an intimate topic, something close to our hearts. How we use our wealth (not just money, health and time too) shows what we care about.

A few months ago, I had an interesting conversation with a leader of a non-profit charity. He was struggling with how to think about and lead a divided constituency where most of the money was coming from one part, and the leadership and thinking from another. The groups were of very different opinions on the current lgbtq issues. What would happen to the people the organization helps if the two sides could not find a way to work with each other?

This leader was frustrated. He lamented the lack of conversation about sexuality issues in the church, saying this is the one topic we can't talk about.  While I shared his frustrations, I disagreed, saying that we talk a lot about sexuality issues, we just haven't found a way to do that and still keep agreeing on the many things we have in common. The thing we really can not talk about forthrightly yet is money. What we earn, what we spend, how we use our time, all these things are considered so deeply private that they are hard to confront.(or, are these things hard to confront because it means speaking into the face of power?) What is the right balance between want and need?

The Bible constantly talks about wealth and our use of it. The Old Testament is full of stories of the land and how it is to be cared for and shared. We often think of the OT as violent (and some stories are) however, there is an incredible amount of material that requires God's people to share the land, to care for the poor, to seek justice.In the New Testament, Jesus addresses issues of wealth by telling stories. The four listed above are only a small sample, there are more.

I love this Jesus way of answering questions. He doesn't point fingers, he doesn't lay out black and white rules for everysay that wealth is bad, but he does warn that it is easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Matt. 19:24.  That little story acknowledges the tremendous power that money can have. Love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. 1 Tim. 6:10 There is however, also the example of Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man who uses his wealth well. And the examples of rich women, like Lydia, Acts 16:1316, who use their wealth for others are great examples for us.

This Sunday we will talk about wealth by retelling some of the stories Jesus told, and then thinking about how these stories speak into our situations today. So, to answer some of the questions I started with; we will talk about money with other church people. Together we will try to let Jesus challenge and encourage us to make God first in our lives so that our wealth is used faithfully to bring healing and hope to the world.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Empty Streets Are Not Peaceful Streets

Zechariah 8:3-8

It was kind of eerie, and at first I couldn't put my finger on why it felt that way. In 2010, I was part of a small group on a learning tour to South Sudan. We had visited the capital city, Juba, as well as a number of small villages.

Then, finally, I could articulate the oddness. All the local people seemed to be the same age, that 25-40 age range. Not old, not young. And absolutely no one was overweight-or even a bit heavy.

We didn't see any old people at all. We didn't see many children.

This is what civil war and its aftermath look like. Empty streets. The old and sick do not survive. Many children do not survive. Malnourished children do not run and play in the streets. Toys are not a priority at all when survival is at stake. When people are afraid, they hide.

The streets were empty and quiet, but it wasn't peaceful. It was desperation. It was hunger, It was fear.

When I read Zechariah, the picture of old people sitting in the streets surrounded by running children is a picture of happiness. There is food, there is safety, there is positive energy. It certainly isn't quiet. There are probably balls thrown through windows, parents exasperated with exuberant children, old folks complaining about "children these days..." There are shouts of "grandma, watch this" and "suppertime" and "wait for me...."

In one village, our group saw a couple of children running with a toy on a string behind them. Our guide smiled and commented that it was so good to see that, that a few years earlier, it would not have happened.

Zechariah dreams of Jerusalem returning to a state of health. When God is in the city, when the people obey, then the city rebuilds on the foundation of hope.

Where do you see hope in Edmonton? Do you feel our streets are full of healthy noise, or eerie silence? What do you do to be part of the healthy noise?

Note: (added June 25) Here at First Mennonite, the South Sudanese Mennonite Church is preparing to hold a memorial service for people killed in South Sudan in April of this year. The violence goes on and on. Many of these people here today  lost relatives in the massacre. Uncles, aunts, siblings, parents, even many children were killed. In the face of this ongoing tragedy, I am humbled by my Edmonton Sudanese brothers and sisters and their determination to be a peace church. I am also immensely grateful to live in a peaceful city like Edmonton.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Imagining Heaven...A City?

Revelation chapters 21-22:7, Hebrews 7:10

Where do you see God? I bet you are thinking of mountains, rivers, white-tailed deer leaping logs in the forest...

Do you ever think "in the city?"

This summer, the worship theme at Edmonton First Mennonite is; "God in Our City." For this Sunday, June 19, the scriptures we look at give us a "glimpse of glory", a little visual teaser of what heaven might look like......and a central metaphor is the city.

I've got two mental roadblocks pestering my imagination on this subject.

First, I have a hard time imagining heaven at all. Second, I have a hard time "seeing" God in the traffic, pollution, rushing crowds, and street news of the city. My holidays, the times of peace and discovery and rejuvenation always involve getting out of the city!

Imagining Heaven.

Orson Scott Card has an alternative fantasy history novel series centred around a character named Alvin Maker. This man has special creative and shaping powers, he is a "maker." The novels follow Alvin through his growing years as he learns to use his powers wisely, to create, to heal, and to build healthy communities. All the while he is opposing the powers of "unmaking" that are endemic in the world. Alvin's ultimate goal is to build the "Crystal City", which sounds suspiciously like heaven on earth, like the picture in Revelation 21.

And Card loses me with the Crystal City stuff. At first, I thought this is just Card being Card. I really love a lot of his work, and he totally had me with Alvin's story, till Crystal City. I have sometimes critiqued Card because he seems to fizzle with story endings, and this Crystal City stuff fizzles for me. As I think about it more, however, I don't think it is a problem with Card. I think it's a problem with the concept of heaven.He can't write a convincing heavenly city for me, not for lack of talent, but for lack of any human way to grasp the concept.

Heaven is beyond our human imagination. It is not part of our experience, It is alien, foreign, and totally other. Have you ever heard someone say that heaven sounds boring? I think that's because we simply can't imagine something so good without a contrast for comparison. Dinner tastes better when I've experienced hunger. Rest is more exquisite after hard work.

I'm a fan of Joss Whedon's short-lived space-western; "Firefly." In the movie wrap-up (Serenity), there is an experiment involving the hoped for creation of a utopian society. The people of a certain planet are given a drug that removes all ambition, aggression, and competition. It's supposed to create a perfect society, a kind of Crystal City. When the crew of the spaceship, Firefly, land on the planet, they find it littered with corpses. The people, lacking drive, desire, and discomfort, simply ceased doing anything and died in place at school, work, and home.

When I read Rev. 21:4 "...death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more..." I can not get my head around it. The absence of pain sounds like the Firefly thing-what is left then to motivate, to interest, to make the food taste good and the rest  feel sweet?

The remainder of verse 4 is helpful; "...for the first things have passed away."

This heaven, or Crystal City, or whatever stands in for the wonderful ever-after, is definitely a second thing-something we can't describe or understand yet, we can't even quite imagine it convincingly.

God in the City

So I come to my second roadblock, God in the city. My own best imaginings of heaven or paradise go to the images from Genesis, from the garden of Eden. Creation, nature. Isn't that where we imagine perfection, the idea of creation before the fall? That picture isn't quite complete for me either. God creates humans to live in that garden, and humans are inherently relational. We live in groups-cities. So somehow, the clumping together of people I think is part of this original picture too. As soon as we put people together, however, there is conflict and things are constantly is some state of sideways!

My imagining here isn't so much impossible (as above), just difficult. I have to get rid of my stereotypes and assumptions. I have to start understanding the city as part of creation, a place where God is revealed.

In the ancient world, the wilderness was scary, vast, and unknown. The city was civilization, a place for help, it was safer than the wild. (A very tiny taste of this might happen when someone gets lost hiking and has to be in the bush for a few days. The comforts of the city take on a heavenly aspect!)

The vision of the New Jerusalem, in Rev. chapter 1, isn't some vision of the 'second things', it is a gift coming down from heaven to be on earth. Instead of something unattainable, it is a vision of unity and harmony on earth between all peoples. It is an earthly thing made possible by God. It is still a far-off ideal, but at least we can start to imagine what an ideal earthy city might be like.

"I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord..." So, where do we see the Lord in the streets? Perhaps in the creation that is the city and is in the city. In the humans, the created images of God that are meant to live together in groups.

I'm looking forward to exploring this topic of God in our city more this summer. I hope to be challenged by the scriptures and speakers. I hope to catch glimpses of God in Edmonton in ways that I haven't imagined in the past.

How do you see God in the city?

Saturday, 11 June 2016

The power of confession

Lectionary passages for June 12, 2016 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15; Psalm 32; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Sexual scandal, abuse of power, manipulation of public perception, lies, theft, cover-ups, arranged murder. King David did it all. I have trouble believing such horrible acts can be forgiven. 

The story in 2 Samuel 11-12 is awful. Bathsheba is completely at the mercy of the men around her. David makes his demand that she be brought to him while her husband is away and serving with David's army. The Hebrew verb used is:"he took her." This is rape. It could also be theft-as she is Uriah's (her husband's) property under the law. When she knows she is pregnant, she sends a message to David. This is troubling information for him, because with Uriah away, David could be exposed. 

I can't help it, I think David was a grasping and awful man, drunk with his own power. He had many wives and concubines of his own, including many beautiful women. Why did he do this thing to his faithful soldier Uriah and his vulnerable wife Bathsheba? Why does he so abuse the people he is supposed to care for?

When his indiscretion threatens to become public, David multiplies it with attempts at cover up. Uriah, however, in a stunning contrast to David, is the "quintessence of fidelity" (Walter Brueggeman. Interpretation Commentary on First and Second Samuel.) He obeys David by coming to him, twice, yet he "disobeys" by not going home to Bathsheba. David engages in the bawdy talk between men;

 "He sends Uriah to his house, to Bathsheba, with a euphemistic suggestion that Uriah have sexual intercourse: 'Wash your feet." (v. 8) What must have appeared to Uriah to be familiar talk between joshing military men is in fact a crucial part of David's strategy." (Brueggeman)  A second attempt by David, has him making Uriah drunk, but Uriah still refuses to go home. (The 'joshing' and goading here is quite repulsive. Something that objectifies Bathsheba-never mentioning her by name or feelings, or rights. This is all about David trying to manipulate his reputation.)

This "disobedience" is righteous. Uriah is a team player, he refuses to eat, drink, and be with his wife when the rest of the troops are suffering in the field. (I have to also wonder if Bathsheba had sent a message to her husband as well as David. Did Uriah know what had happened? Is he worried about her or his own reputation or both? It doesn't really matter to the point of the story, that David was unfaithful while Uriah was faithful...but I still wonder what all is going on here.)

Frustrated, David plots murder. He has underlings, like his hatchet man commander, Joab, who carry out his sinful plans. Likely they feel they had no choice. Like Bathsheba, they are at the mercy of the king....unless they choose death instead. This illustrates the idea that no one powerful person acts in a vacuum. David's horrendous acts are supported by a corrupt system, by a collusion of power that is willing to do anything to keep itself intact. It isn't only Uriah that dies, the troops sent with him, stupidly, to the wall, are killed too. All of these lives lost because David acted selfishly and cruelly in taking Bathsheba.

I don't understand how David can be forgiven. He does the "right thing" by marrying Bathsheba. (Taking care of her and not leaving her destitute. That probably looked good to the public, so I am cynical.)

I would write David off, but God does not. God sends the prophet Nathan who helps David to see himself clearly, to understand that he is dead wrong. Nathan, unlike Joab, is willing to say the things that might get him killed. He stands outside of the corruption and condemns it. The shocking thing is that David listens. He repents. And God forgives. 

Reading Psalm 32 now, in light of this horrible story of a man who is humanly unforgiveable, is amazing. David writes that; "While I kept silence, my body wasted away...then I acknowledged my sin to you ....and you forgave..."

Incredible. I can't understand how God does this. This psalm is the power of confession!

In Luke, Jesus forgives a woman with whom the upright and respectable would not associate. Jesus challenges them to see her the way God does. To see her as truly repentant, and fully aware of what she has been forgiven.She is the one who experiences great love, joy, and salvation. She has heard, accepted, confessed, and is free.

There is an incredible challenge for us in these stories of God's forgiveness. I do not think any of us humans can manage what God does in being able to forgive, but perhaps we can manage the true confession that both David and this woman come to. If an awful and powerful man like David, and a lost and low sinner like this unnamed woman, can truly confess and be forgiven and be loved by God, what an amazing and freeing message it is when we confess!

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Old, The New, The Now

Two of the stories that show up in the lectionary this week are about healing, about people being raised from the dead. We are tempted to dismiss these as fantasy, as stories that don't fit our scientific world view.

But what about their meaning? Not understanding the "how" shouldn't stop us from looking for the "why" in these stories.

A few years ago, I imagined a third story of healing. I tried to take the situations of the characters of the Old and New Testaments and imagine what story of miraculous hope an equivalent character today might tell.

This was presented in place of a sermon. Three women stood across the front of the stage, to tell this story from the point of view of the Old, the New, and the Now. (minimal stage props--the widow of Zaraphath was the oldest and wore a scarf over her head. The widow of Nain was a bit younger, but in a conservative looking dress. The divorcee was in dress slacks-very fashionable and contemporary.)

I hope you are blessed by this different way of looking at the scriptures.

The Old, The New, The Now (From 1 Kings 17:17-24, Luke 7:11-17)

1:  I am the widow of Zaraphath. Mine is a well known story in your Old Testament, but you don’t know much about me personally, except that I am a widow and Elijah helped me. You probably apply all the usual stereotypes, like poor, dependent, hopeless. Please…don’t. I was a woman of means, and a little cantankerous because I know that I am good at what I do. Even after my husband died, I remained the mistress of my house, in charge of finances, servants, and raising my son. My house is a fine two story building, one of the best in town. My son was strong and smart and would take over once he was of age. Things looked good for us. Losing my husband was awful, but I still had hope.

The New (Luke 7:11-17)
1:  I am the widow of Nain. Never heard of Nain? I’m not surprised. It’s just one of thousands of little Jewish villages outside of Nazareth likely to be forgotten by history. The details of who I am will be forgotten too, I’m nobody special. When my husband died, people rallied to support me emotionally, but they didn’t have to do anything else. My son was a capable young man. He had taken up his father’s business, and we were doing well.  I was eyeing the young women of our town and working on a little matchmaking. According to our customs, when my son married, we’d build another level on my house and they’d move in to the main area and I would be in the "granny suite." I could hardly wait. I made it through the tough years and now life looked good again. I knew I’d be the best grandma ever! Losing my husband was awful, but I still had hope.

The Now
1:  I attend your church.  I’m one of those regular folks sitting beside you in the pews most Sundays. I’m a single parent, you might know what I do for a living, you might have taught my son in Sunday School or eaten my famous spicy chili at potluck.  (I’ll take this moment to apologize right now for the heartburn caused by my last jalepeno stew! Next time I’ll put a label on it!) A number of you helped me during that dark time after my husband left. Sometimes people were…less than helpful, but I know it was difficult for you to understand too. There’s no perfect way to deal with that kind of pain. There’s a lot that you still don’t know about me, a lot I haven’t felt I can share. My husband leaving was awful, but I had my job and my son. I know other people who have had hard times too, and survived. I saw some possibility for healing. I had hope.

The Old
2: I lost it all when the drought came to our land. It was relentless, destroying everything. First, I used all my reserves. We ate some of the sheep, the rest died because there was no grass. I let all the servants go. Finally I sold my jewelry and the furniture. My son scrounged for firewood, but there was nothing to find. Our economy tanked because no one had anything left to buy or sell.  My neighbours were desperate and starving, many walked away from their homes.  There was no charity available, even for a widow. We were down to our last bit of oil and flour and knew we were going to die. Then my son got sick. Hope was dead.

The New
2: I lost it all when my son died. The pain of that loss was unbearable. A parent shouldn’t have to bury a child, it’s just not the way things are supposed to happen.  After my husband died, my son was everything to me, my happiness, my livelihood, my future. When he died, the business and my income disappeared because I couldn’t do it without him. I would be a charity case for the rest of my life. My hopes for grandchildren and the continuation of our family were gone. I didn’t feel I could even get up in the mornings.  I just had to make it through the funeral, to honour him, then I could curl up and die. Hope was dead.

The Now
2: I lost it all. You know how it seems sometimes that things happen in 3s? When the economy bottomed out, so did the job I thought was secure.  Then some of my bad choices came back to bite me. The expensive house, the new car, furniture, and some embarrassing habits, caught up to me and demanded payment. I was reeling with the pressure, the stress, the demands from every direction. I tried to hide it from my son and everyone else.  A lot of it was embarrassing financial stuff, so most of you at church had no idea what was going on. I was holding together by a thread that was rapidly fraying. Then my son, my only child, got hit by a car on his way home from school. I rushed to the hospital, to be beside him.  This was the last blow for me, hope was dead.

The Old
3: I blamed that foreigner, Elijah. From that day he met me at the town gate, he was a problem. We had to share our last bit of food with him and give him a room. He said it was a miracle the oil and flour didn’t run out, but if it really was a miracle, why didn’t God give us something better, like have the ravens bring us some meat or something. Why didn’t God end the drought? Yahweh wasn’t my god anyway, I had always worshiped Baal. Then, my son became deathly ill and I knew he was dying.  I thought that was because of Elijah too. Elijah’s presence in my house brought the attention of his God to me to punish me for my past sins.

The New
3. I didn’t know who to blame, the grief was too much. I was angry with God, but I couldn’t say that out loud in front of the priests. I’d have to rely on them for charity. I wasn’t sure how my neighbours would react if I was honest with them, I was just so alone with the pain in spite of all the good people around me. Then a man met me at the town gate. Just as the funeral procession was heading out to the cemetery, he walked up to me and said; “Do not weep.” I couldn’t believe the audacity, what a thing to say to a mother at the funeral of her son! Then he stopped the whole procession by putting his hand on my son’s stretcher. I was horrified, but didn’t know what to say. None of us knew how to react.

The Now
3. I blamed myself. I was too distracted, too busy to walk my son home from school. I could have arranged a ride, I should have been there! I made a quick phone call to a friend from church. She met me at the hospital doors, then sat with me in the waiting room during the long hours of surgery. She called the church and people started praying. My friend brought coffee and Kleenexes and hugged me. The waiting was endless. I felt like I could die.

 The Old
4.  Elijah took my son and went upstairs. I couldn’t see him, but I heard his voice pleading with his God. But what’s the point? People this sick, especially children, always died. Then I heard heavy footsteps coming slowly down the stairs. I began to cry for my loss, my anger, the future, my poor son. But Elijah was carrying a living boy! My son’s fever was gone, his eyes were bright and he smiled as Elijah gave him to me. I told him that now I finally believed he was a man of the true God! With this God making an appearance in our land, I have hope that things are going to change!

The New
4.  We were standing there confused, when the strange man loudly told my son to rise up. I was shocked at those words, but more shocked when my dead son sat up. Very much alive, he began to talk to us! The crowd was greatly afraid, but I was just about flattened with joy! I reached out my arms and the man gave my son back to me and the whole crowd started to praise God and proclaim that a new prophet, as great as the old ones, had arisen to bless our people. Within days the word had spread everywhere and there was new hope in our land.

The Now
4. After what seemed an eternity, the doctor came through the white doors. I stood, scared of what I’d hear. With compassion in his eyes, he gently told me that my son had come close to dying, but that somehow, it looked now like he was stable and would pull through. We went in to see him. God gave my child back to me. Where I thought life was ending, it would begin again.

The Old
5.  My story is thousands of years old. It’s recorded in the Hebrew scriptures and has been used in temples and synagogues. It comes up once every three years in your Christian liturgy too. I think you can tell that, like every good story, it’s been shaped and polished. It’s there to serve a purpose. To witness to the wonder and truth of a God who gives hope to the hopeless, has power over death, and whose message is going to spread to the ends of the earth.
You don’t hear anything about the rest of my life. But I’ll tell you, it wasn’t all miraculous. We lived, we struggled, we laughed, and eventually we died. The thing that changed for us is that we did it all with a hope in a caring God for whom death is not an ending, but a beginning for new life. God didn’t always give me what I wanted, but I always had what I needed.

The New
5. My story is old too, almost as old as the story of Elijah that it is patterned after. Did you notice the parallels? The stories are almost exactly the same, there is even a direct quote from I kings in it for those who know their Old Testament. The message is the same. It was repeated because people needed to hear it again. They needed a message of hope that fit for their times. Just like Elijah was sent from God to bring new hope to the ancient world, Jesus was sent to bring new hope to my world. I guess you’d call mine ancient too, but for us it was pretty immediate!
You don’t hear anything about the rest of my life. But I’ll tell you, it wasn’t all miraculous. We lived, we struggled, we laughed, and eventually we died. I wasn’t always the best grandma, my son’s kids were....challenging. The thing that changed for us is that we lived each day with hope in a God that brings healing out of chaos, life where we see only death. God provides what we need.

The Now.
5. My story is now, it might even be your story, or have parts of your story in it. It’s not written down in scriptures that have been used in synagogues and churches. Perhaps instead of being black ink on white pages, the stories you and I tell about our lives right now are like living scriptures, informed by and interpreting the history of God’s people. They are a way that we carry God’s story forward in time. The parallels are clearly there. They move us forward, the message still gives hope when there is nowhere else to turn.
I can’t tell you about the rest of my life, because it’s in progress, it’s not a finished piece of scripture, it won’t ever be part of church liturgy. I can tell you that my son lived. He’s learning to walk again, and with every hard earned step forward, we thank God for life. We thank God for the community that stood by us, that helped us keep going.
We’ve got a long way to go, a lot of struggles to get through. I’m thinking about maybe talking to my deacons or pastor about my bad choices and my financial problems.  I don’t know yet if I can do it. One thing I do know, is that even in the darkest places, God is able to give life. I think that now I can trust God to provide for what I need.

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.