Monday, 29 February 2016

Rubbing my nose in it!

Lectionary Passages for March 6, 2016. Joshua 5:9-12, 2 Cor. 5:16-21, Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32, Ps 32:2

"Oh great. Of course it had to be this story right now. God must be laughing."

Those were my initial thoughts when I realized the prodigal son was the main story for this Sunday, a Sunday I am scheduled to preach. For the last 3 weeks I've been quietly chewing through some personal resentments I would rather not admit to having and this story has been niggling at me. My sympathies reside with the older son. I don't like the idea that I might be standing in his pouting, immature shoes. I don't like the idea that I might be very much like him right now. He doesn't come off very well in the parable. We never do find out how he responds to his father's assurance that "everything I have is yours."

Perhaps I'm even a little annoyed that God would fill my head with this story for 3 weeks, and then toss it into the preaching rotation at exactly the time I don't want it. My Dad used to use the phrase; "rubbing your nose it in." Yup, that's what this smells like to me. I'm kind of forced to deal with my own mess here even though I'd rather stay outside of the "prodigal's party" and continue my self-indulgent pouting, thank you very much. (I suppose I could preach on one of the other pieces...but no. Preaching isn't all about telling other people what they need to hear, often its the preacher grappling with her own stuff, letting God speak through the scripture, and hoping that in the sharing we all grow.)

Our Lenten theme is "living ink", and this story is certainly alive for me. When I read, I always find myself identifying with a character, trying to feel and think like them. When I write, I try to put myself in the head space of whichever character I'm working with at the moment. As I read this story again, I started wondering about Jesus as it's author. Did he put himself in his character's shoes? What would that tell us about Jesus and his message for us?

This was a new way to think about the parable for me, as the author inhabiting the characters.

Jesus tells this story to Pharisees and scribes who are complaining that he "welcomes sinners and eats with them."

When Jesus talks about the Prodigal son, he puts himself in those sandals. Like the prodigal, Jesus is heir to a great wealth. He walks away from it and goes out among people considered to be very much "lower" than his own family. He is accused of gluttony and drunkenness and he talks to women that he shouldn't be seen anywhere near. He is a servant to others. When he returns home, he is welcomed without reservation. "My son was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found." (verse 24)

Jesus can also understand the dilemma and resentment of the older son. After all, he never wavered from his service, he worked like a servant, never asking for anything for himself. His reward?

Finally, Jesus puts himself into the character of the loving father. Although mistreated and rejected by his sons, he continually invites both of them (the one lost away from home and the one lost at home) to take part in the celebrations, to be part of the inheritance. The father is an incredibly complex character, nothing like what the Pharisees expect. This father is not dignified. Instead of disciplining his son when he rudely asks for an early inheritance, (as was expected), he allows himself to be humiliated. When the son comes back-he precludes any apology by running to him and kissing him. Running, hugging, and kissing, these are more "motherly" than fatherly in that culture! It is even possible that the apology offered by the son is insincere. His words in verse 21 echo the words Pharoah spoke to Moses after the final plague-those hearing this parable would know that Pharoah was a liar! This son might be lying too-out of self interest/survival. Even with this possibility, the father still throws a party for the miscreant! Jesus does not hold up the normal respectable middle-eastern patriarch as a model for God-instead, this father is kind of prodigal himself. Unbelievable unconditional love on a scale that doesn't make sense! This love does not hinge on proper behaviour or contriteness.

Henri Nouwen has an incredible little book called; The Return of the Prodigal Son. In it, he thoroughly allows the parable and it's characters to "read him." He recognizes his own failings in the failings of the sons, especially the older one, and he realizes that we are called to get over ourselves and grow up. God loves us no matter what, however, we are meant to be heirs. To be an heir means we are to emulate the father, eventually doing what he does.

Nouwen asks; "How will the elder son look when he is free from his complaints, free from his anger, resentments, and jealousies?"

This week I will allow my nose to be "rubbed in it".  I'll read and research and soak in it. How will I allow this story, this ink, to live in my life, turning resentment to wonder? Will I allow myself to be found by God in this, and accept the responsibilities of a heir?

Question: Which character do you most identify with at this point in your life? Why?

Check out this link for an interesting "new" take on the parable as author, Debie Thomas, writes "Letters to Prodigals."

Thanks to Elizabeth Wall for drawing my attention to Debie Thomas' article!

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Why do you spend money for that which is not bread?

Lectionary Passages for Feb. 28: Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Cor. 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

"Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?" (Isaiah 55:2)

What a great question for a people with too much stuff and too little time! The constant pursuit of money and things and experiences expresses a deep longing of the soul. While we mentally acknowledge that more stuff or another trip won't make us "happy" many people feel driven to keep searching, sometimes looking futilely in the same places again and again and coming up less than satisfied. Our spirits remain thirsty for meaning, do why do we keep searching with the desires of our bodies?

Verse 6 goes on to advise; "Seek the Lord while he may be found, let the wicked forsake their way and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them return to the Lord...he will abundantly pardon."

Somehow, I doubt that seeking the Lord involves buying a vacation home, swimming at a beach I've never visited before, working so hard I have no time for anything else, seeing every movie that titillates, trying every new restaurant, or escaping reality with alcohol. Yet these are so often the things that keep us busy.

I'm not advocating the ascetic life, denying all pleasure for the sake of righteousness, but simply noting that we often swing the pendulum the other way. Our culture is ridiculously self indulgent! There is a desperate thirst for meaning and purpose everywhere, but finding fulfilment is an elusive thing.

I always ask people in marriage preparation sessions to tell me what gives their lives purpose. I'm often saddened that they struggle to answer, or that the answers are tenuous and flimsy. If life is just a pursuit of certain accomplishments, prestigious jobs, the chance to buy fancy cars, why bother? Those people do not stay happy for long. Those who can say that love of family and friends gives them meaning are a little better off, but what happens when family and friends die or betray us? Then where is meaning? The people able to extend that love concept beyond family and friends to encompass their neighbours have a desire to make the world a better place-those are the ones who seem the most content, the happiest. Love beyond ourselves is to acknowledge God. Love beyond ourselves makes it possible to repent, to be humble, to be satisfied.

Verse 8; "my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways..." is sometimes used to say that God is mysterious and beyond human understanding. It can be misquoted to people who are suffering-sort of minimizing their trauma or dismissing it. I don't think that's the point here. God isn't being described as beyond us, but as something we are invited to join. God's ways are different, and we are invited in to them, to partake in the everlasting covenant, the eating of that which is good, and the listening to words that speak of life.

God invites repentance, a turning away from being constantly distracted from real meaning and purpose. God invites us to care for the poor (or be cared for), to feed the hungry (or be fed), to comfort the sorrowful (or be comforted.) A world that does those things participates in God's ways and will "go out in joy, be led forth in peace..."

The 1 Corinthians passage is amazing. It starts by reminding the people that their ancestors all ate the same food, and drank the same drink. (Reminds me of being a kid and realizing that movie stars, and royalty, and my school teachers were actually human too. They had to eat and go to the bathroom just like me!) This is a reality check-a way to remind the people they are no better than their ancestors, but that they have an opportunity to learn from them. Immorality, testing God, and complaining separated our predecessors from God, and these continue to plague our relationship with the Divine. (Isn't it interesting that complaining is listed alongside sins that seem so much more serious?)

"If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall." (1 Cor. 10:12) This verse is a clear warning against self-righteousness. A warning that should make us humble, cause us to hold on to our opinions lightly, and help us realize the need to always learn. Why is it, that even with examples (from history, from others, from our own lives) that it is so hard to avoid making the same mistakes?

Pushing on to verse 24; "Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other."

Question: How would you describe the meaning and purpose of your life? What satisfies your
spiritual hunger and thirst?

For a "relief" from the longing and searching, read Psalm 63 and participate in the Psalmist's discovery of longing fulfilled.

P.S. I'm not quite sure how the story of the barren fig tree fits with these others, but it is encouraging to me that even as messed up as that useless tree is, it still gets another chance!

Friday, 19 February 2016

Courage Like a Chicken

Luke 13:31-35. For Feb. 21, 2016

I love chickens. Most people love chickens roasted, or fried, or baked in sauce. I like them that way, but I love them when they are alive. I raised them when I was a kid. I had fancy chickens that laid blue shelled eggs, I had the regular brown hens, a few leghorns, and many fat broilers. I gathered eggs, crowed at the roosters, and set hens on nests to hatch out chicks. I spent hours watching chickens interact, figured out the "pecking order", taught a rooster to fly up onto my arm, and sold eggs. It was a great hobby and learning experience for a kid.

I think it's my experiences with chickens that draws me to this story of Jesus in Luke. Here are a couple of short "chicken stories" that help me understand the Luke piece.

When a mother hen senses danger, she crouches down, holds her wings out slightly from her body, and calls. The chicks instantly run to hide under her wings. She shelters them, holding very still and hoping the danger (hawk or other predator) won't see her.

I once had a hen that hatched out 5 duck eggs. When the hen sensed danger (maybe saw our dog or a cat) she would call out. Unlike chicks, however, ducklings scatter when their mother sounds an alarm. (I guess it works when you are on a pond...) My poor hen ran all over the pen desperately trying to gather her "chicks" but they did not listen. She was the most distraught and confused chicken I ever saw!

Another time, I let a mother hen with small chicks out into the yard so they could hunt for insects. I was across the yard when our dog noticed them and started to check out one of the little chicken nuggets. The hen squawked, the chicks ran for the shelter of her wings. When the dog kept on coming, that hen didn't hesitate, she attacked the dog. She flapped right into it's face, making as much horrible chicken screamy noise as she could. Surprisingly, the dog backed off.

The story Jesus tells is amazing. He longs to shelter the people of Jerusalem and is distraught that they scatter despite his efforts. He is willing to give his life for the sake of his children, willing to face down an impossible opponent to give us a chance to find and accept shelter.

A chicken is an unlikely hero, but so is Jesus. He has no selfish ambition. He serves God, refuses to use coercion, and offers himself up as a sacrifice so that others may live. He made a lot of noise with his life too, inviting people to take up what he offered, and also scaring those who held power.

Another interesting bit with this scripture comes in verse 31. Some of the pharisees warn Jesus that Herod is out to get him. They encourage him to flee Jerusalem. Jesus could run, he could leave like the mother hen could leave, but that is not his nature. He is protective. I like seeing this side of the pharisees too. Just like we don`t expect courage from a chicken, we might not expect co-operation from a pharisee. So often they are portrayed as the enemy of Jesus, but here we see something else. Here we have to recognize that there were pharisees, likely many, who followed Jesus. It's a great reminder to think around the stereotypes, to be open to seeing more than we expect in people.

Finally, another bit that I enjoy, is that Jesus calls Herod an"old fox" just before he refers to himself as a mother hen. He knows there is a fox in the hen house. He knows what will happen. And he still offers himself. Amazing.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Tangled Interpretations and Temptations

For Feb. 14, 2016. Psalm 91, Deut. 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13, Romans 10:5-15

I took the dirty kitchen laundry home after the youth groups' Shrove Tuesday pancake fundraiser at church. When I pulled them out of the washer, the aprons strings were incredibly snarled, tied up in a Celtic-knot bundle with the long sleeves of one of Tim's nice shirts. It was a tricky un-tie job so they could go into the dryer!

The story of the temptation of Jesus, read every year during Lent, is also a tangle. The story is full of different strings we could follow,  There are so many interpretations, images, mythologies, parallels, and applications tangled up here. It's also a story so familiar, that one wonders whether there is anything new to be gleaned from it.

This is a story chock-full of opportunities for a preacher, there is so much packed into 13 verses. Should I focus on the parallels with other "40" stories? (Israel 40 years in the wilderness, 40 days of rain for Noah, 40 days fasting for Moses, Elijah's 40 days in flight to the mountain, ...), the anthropomorphising of the devil, (the whole good vs evil and what is the devil), meticulous interpretation of each of the temptations, ancient literary form analysis, (contest of wits), or a discussion of what the temptations look like to us today?

This is such a tangle, which string do I pick at first? Is pulling on this one going to help unsnarl things, or tighten up the troubles?

Personally, I do not want to interpret this story in blacks and whites. I don't think it is so very clear. I have some trouble with the way the "devil" is so conveniently and completely demonized. (That sentence sounds funny-demonizing the devil!) The word "devil" is problematic, because we right away imagine a horned, pointy eared, goatee wearing, goat-legged, red male with a pitchfork. That characterization means that we can dismiss what the devil suggests as completely evil. But that isn't quite right. These temptations are real and...tempting. They flirt with danger rather than marry it. If they were completely and obviously evil they wouldn't so hard to resist.

I find it more helpful to replace the word "devil" with words like "adversary", "slanderer", "deceiver"...and others like that. (These are actually good translations of the Greek. The word devil is only one of the possible translations/interpretations.) I find it more helpful, because then I admit I am not always able to discern what is right and what is wrong. The world of temptation is not always clear. Temptation is difficult stuff, a bunch of strings twirling around in the wash. How do we keep things clear, workable, healthy, faithful?

The temptations Jesus faced were very real, very tempting. They made sense in some practical ways. Here he is, just baptized, full of the Holy Spirit (verse1), contemplating his goals and how to get to them. The adversary offers realistic choices. It would be much easier for Jesus to gain his following if he were the provider of bread, or a charismatic and powerful head of state, or a celebrity whom angels miraculously protect. All these means to the end, however, are deceptive and somewhat coercive. They don't require followers to believe or do anything other than to jump onto the new bandwagon!

I will highlight two things I found strengthening as I read this story again. One is that Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit throughout the whole testing and temptation. The Spirit never leaves him alone to face tough decisions.God does not leave us alone either. The second is that the most beguiling temptations will come to us when we are weak. That is when the voice of escape or the easy path is strongest. When we are at the bottom in our wilderness experience it is hard to make good decisions. Jesus still manages it. We can too. (I take courage in knowing Jesus was human, he easily could have made a wrong choice, but he did not.) I've sometimes heard people interpret this story by saying that Jesus was too God-like to fall to temptation here. I don't think so. This is encouraging precisely because it was real temptation and it was (is) humanly possible to resist.

Finally, the deceiver leaves Jesus alone; "until an opportune time" (verse13). That is a foreshadowing, possibly to the time in the garden when Jesus prays for the cup to be taken from him (an easier way out), but he is able to resist that temptation too.

Question: How do you handle temptation, especially when you are at a low point in your life? Who helps you sort it out?

For a great podcast that engages the Luke 4 story of the temptations, click the link below.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Overworked "moms"

For Feb. 7, 2015. Acts 6:1-7

Isn't it usually easier to just do it yourself? It's hard to teach people how to do something, divide up a task, and then trust that those doing it will do the job "right."

I remember trying to teach my children (when they were small) how to do household chores. It takes longer to do the dishes, cook meals, clean, and get laundry done when children are involved. They need instruction, supervision, encouragement and pushing. Sometimes, in the interests of efficiency, getting it done my way, and avoiding unpleasantness, I would just do it myself.

In the long run, however, I hurt both myself and them by doing it all. I get grumpy and overworked, while they lose out on learning important life skills and the satisfaction of contributing to the home.

This morning I am feeling incredibly blessed. There's a list of chores and everyone is working. It's a happy atmosphere, everyone understands why they have to be a part of the work. I'm glad we stuck with the times of teaching and equipping our kids when they were younger, we can accomplish so much more, so much more pleasantly, when we work like this.

In Acts 6, the disciples find themselves as "overworked moms and dads." Their faith family has greatly increased as lots of "newbies in the faith" were joining up. Many hellenists (Greeks) were joining the Jesus following community and the needs were growing exponentially. The disciples find themselves attempting to do everything for everyone and failing to keep up. They are especially frustrated when the more menial task of distributing food to the needy falls on them on top of their work of preaching and teaching.

They consult the community to decide how to handle the problem.Together they decide to equip and empower new leaders for the ministries of caring for the poor, administering charity, and spreading Jesus' love through very practical means. The disciples are then freed up to spend more time doing the things they are uniquely equipped to do-preach and teach.

It's an amazing and hopeful story-but it's also hard to do. Sometimes I really don't want to give up certain tasks because I like the way I get it done and I don't want to give control to someone else. I also can be a little conflicted about delegating to others, especially when "delegating" might seem like a buzz word for handing off the things I don't like. No one person can do everything, no one person has all the skills or time, and just like in families, it hurts both individuals and communities when we concentrate all the know-how in any one place.

This Acts story is a good example of how to grow a healthy faith community. The community is involved in the decision, there is no authoritarian protecting his or her own turf. The unique abilities and gifts that different people bring are used to their full potential and not wasted in doing things that someone else is equipped to do. The people for each task are specially chosen by the group for the skills they bring. The delegation of ministries and tasks means that more and more disciples are gaining in ability and skills-this is the only way the church will grow and thrive.

How often should any community shake itself up and re-organize? This Acts community has discovered a good way of doing things, but does that mean they should stick with it forever? Ongoing discernment and reorganization according to the presenting needs makes sense. Having the group work to decide and bless leaders makes sense.

What things do you control that you should be equipping others to do? What could your communities (family, neighbourhood, church, etc...) look like if they re-organized in the way that this Acts community did?