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!