Thursday, 26 January 2017

Start With The Beatitudes

On January 22, our church gets to do something wonderful. We get to celebrate our relationship with the Edmonton Christian Life Community Church (formerly called the Edmonton Chinese Mennonite Church). Each year we have a joint worship service followed by a shared potluck where the food is always amazing!

This year, Pastor Ken Tse will give the message. One of his scriptures is the Beatitudes from Matthew 5:1-12. This is a passage that Mennonites have traditionally placed a lot of value on, it's almost a theme scripture for us. It is humble, it is active in support of the downtrodden and hurting, it encourages purity of heart, peacemaking, and the pursuit of righteousness even when it is painful.

The Beatitudes were read as a blessing by Rev. Samuel Rodrigues at the opening of the inauguration of US president, Donald Trump.

That strikes me as wrong or ironic, I'm not sure which feeling takes precedence. I've read news bits that say this must have been read as an indictment. Other news bits seem to feel that it was a blessing. Here's a piece I found by a Rev. Erik Parker. He "rewrites the Beatitudes According to Trump." Click this link for his whole article.

“The poor are a bunch of losers,
for they deserve to be poor. Get a job! Which I alone can give.
“The hungry, what a bunch of lazy bums,
just get some food, I mean c’mon.
“Sad people, the worst, the worst,
sad poeple haven’t done anything for the world, let me tell you.”
“But rich people, I love rich people,tremendous.
I love just ‘em. I am really rich, by the way.
“And people with lots to eat,We gotta protect people with lots to eat.
We gotta do something for them.
“And happy people, happy people are the best
I will be the greatest president for happy people. No one else will be a better president for happy people”
“Now listen, we are going to make things great again, trust me.”
Unfortunately, I can hear Trump's voice in my head as I read that satire!

Before the ceremony, Trump listened to a sermon by preacher Robert Jeffress. In this sermon, Jeffress compares Trump to Nehemiah, a builder who raised a wall around Jerusalem. It is horrifying, in my opinion, that the Old Testament is co-opted in this way to bless and encourage Trump to build the wall between the US and Mexico. It is horrifying that he is encouraged to ignore his critics (that's blatantly ridiculous in a real democracy). I find it bizarre that Trump and Pence can be called great leaders on par with Nehemiah, they haven't proven themselves yet. What we do know of their past, to me, doesn't sound too great. You can read the sermon here:

Another thing that I find frightening is the idea that Trump's Christianity might be the so-called "prosperity gospel" which basically purports that if you are faithful, God will make you rich.

So, what are we to think and do as followers of Jesus who remember that Jesus walked with the poor and outcast? Who remember that Jesus refused to set up an earthly kingdom to replace the Romans? Who remember that Jesus died, forgiving us and showing us how to live?

We do well to remember and read the teachings of Jesus. This week, I start with the Beatitudes.
Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven...

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Hope for fractured and fractious world.

January 22, 2017 is World Fellowship Sunday. It is a time to consider our relationships with churches of the Mennonite World Conference as well as people of all cultures, religions, and situations around the world.

The stories of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9), and the hearing in their own languages (Acts 2:1-18) are intriguing when read parallel to each other.

In the Babel story, the people are described as of one language, but more than that, they are of one mind. It's a culture of self-aggrandisement. They want to make themselves great, to raise a tower into the clouds. With their amazing technology, being able to make bricks as hard as stone, they can build bigger and faster than ever before. When you consider that they thought the mountains were the dwelling places of the gods, it is quite clear that they seek to become gods themselves, they are aiming for that level of control over their own destiny.

But who will stand on the top of that tower? Everyone who builds it? Not possible. And if you think of how humans tend to build these wonders (think pyramids, Roman roads, castles...) it's not so wonderful. They were so often build on the broken backs of slaves and poorly paid and overused workers. Unfortunately, this isn't just ancient news, Here's a page from fairly recent, (late 1800's) Canadian history.

Although Chinese played a key role in building the western stretch of the railway, they earned between $1 and $2.50 per day. Unlike their fellow white railroad workers, the Chinese had to pay for their own food, clothing, transportation to the job site, mail, and medical care, leaving barely enough money to send home. Chinese workers were delegated the most dangerous construction jobs, such as working with explosives. Not only did families of those killed workers not receive any compensation, they were not even notified of the deaths. Sadly, many of these Chinese men spent their remaining years in lonely and poor conditions because those who did survive working on the CPR often did not have enough money to return to their families in China.

Nation building has always been about connections, communications, new technology, and most of all, power and control. It's always the case that only a few have it-but we're all in pursuit of it. In the Bible, it's always the case that people get in trouble when they try to take the control that belongs to God. Control over both themselves and others.

The tower of Babel is never finished. The people cease to be able to understand each other and they are scattered to the far ends of the earth.

The Acts story begins with a scattered  and subjugated (under Roman rule) people travelling to Jerusalem to worship God at Passover. They are people of many languages because they are from many places, but also because that is what happens to conquered peoples and powerless nations. They have their own "mother-tongue", but they learn the languages of their neighbours and conquerors as well. So in Jerusalem their problem isn't the multitude of languages-there are probably enough common languages at the temple for everyone to understand. The problem is that so many people are not hearing in their hearts, They are still subjugated, sidelined, hopeless, and disorganised. They are listening to words and ideas that simply are not their own.

The miracle of "each hearing in their own language" is that with the coming of the Holy Spirit, they all hear in the language of their heart. They are valued, at home, invited into the core of faith instead of pushed to the periphery.  This is a people without control or power who are blessed to experience the control and power of God. When God is in control, the scattered are brought together to share a common message-a message of the good news of Jesus. And it makes sense to them. This is the leader who will not make them carry bricks, will not build his fortunes and power on their backs, and he will not make them great in the ways human rulers seek to do.  This is a leader who will give his life for them and show them the power of love that brings scattered people together. He doesn't set up a new political power, but invites them to give God control. Not a message the human powers want to hear, but a message that speaks a new kind of power. Sharing instead of greed, love in place of hate, welcome instead of closed borders. It's wonderful and very hard at the same time.

Our world is so complex. We have unprecedented access to information in our little phones. The wealth of a few (8) rich individuals exceeds the combined wealth of 50% of the earth's population (I heard this on the news this week-sorry -I'm not citing a source other than my memory here) and in the wealthy countries we seem pretty self-aggrandising. Power is centralised. It sounds pretty Babel like doesn't it? It will, like Babel,not be sustainable.

On this world fellowship day, it is good to think of how we, as people of God, might come together and hear God right into the core of our beings, in the mother tongue of love for God and each other. That is where hope and unity reside in a fractured and fractious world. When the human towers fall, it is because God is in control. When people come together and hear their heart language, it is also because God is in control.

Thursday, 12 January 2017


For January 15, 2017. Isaiah 49:1-7, Ps 40:1-11, 1 Cor. 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

Can you imagine a professional sports team called the "Lambs?" Big, burly football players running onto the field to the pounding of drums and shouts of "GO FLUFFIES!"

Nope. It just doesn't work. We expect a team name to reflect some power, dominance, or toughness. (Toughness is the only way I can understand 'Penguins' as name. 'Ducks?' That still makes me laugh.)  Predators are understandably popular for team names. Lions, Panthers, Sharks, Coyotes, Knights, Devils, Kings...those names all imply some threat or dominance.

But Lambs? It would never work. We don't expect a lamb to be anything but cute, or needy, or dinner.

Last week the Isaiah passage presented a gentle leader who wouldn't even break a reed, yet he is tough enough to bring about justice for the nations. A hard concept to wrap our heads around.

This week, Isaiah 49 continues the description of the leader God sends to change the world, and it is still hard to understand. It speaks of a leader shaped and called and poured into a mission to gather God's people. He is to be a light to nations and kings will bow to him. However, that leader also will feel they have laboured in vain (v 4), and will be despised and abhorred (v. 7). It's not a happy bandwagon, the servant leader is not an easy answer to the world's problems.

It is so hard to understand the kind of leader God invites us to follow, it goes against our 'common sense." We want our leaders to be strong, courageous (in certain ways that agree with us), and to take no crap from outsiders. In short, we want confident, powerful, ethical people who defend our interests. A lamb doesn't fit the bill. (However, it is important to remember that a lion doesn't fit it either when it turns around and eats it's followers.)

Followers of a lamb are at risk of being misunderstood. Yielding, gracefulness, putting others first, refusal to hurt others, and being willing to be sacrificed...these things should not be mistaken for weakness. It takes more courage for a lamb to speak into a roomful of other beasts than it does for a lion. Lamb leadership is a very different kind of leadership that expects a lot from it's followers.

In John 1:29-39, John the Baptist introduces Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The people of that time were used to lambs being sacrificed as sin offerings in the temple. Who would want to follow this leader? Apparently quite a few of John's disciples, and Andrew, and Peter, and Philip and Nathanael. They were ready to pitch in; "GO FLUFFY!" Did they know how very different from other leaders Jesus was?

I don't think we understand how bizarre this is. If are to be disciples, to follow Jesus the lamb of God, it means being a lamb too. It means sometimes being sacrificed for others, it means we believe in the power of love even when, in the short term, violence and hate seem stronger and more efficient. It means having patience beyond our short lives. It means believing that God is in charge. It does not mean giving in to the lions, but it might mean getting eaten by them.

It means working toward a very different understanding of society, an upside-down kingdom. And somehow, even with my confusion about how this works, it feels like very good news. We so desperately need something different to rule our world.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

I hit him hard...I am gentle. Contradiction?

Hmmm....sorry about this! I had this drafted and ready to go last week and just never hit the "post " button. I guess this becomes a retrospective, a review of one of last weeks readings.

For January 8, 2017

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matt 3:13-17

I hit him hard with the flat part of the big metal file I had in hand. He grunted, dropped his eyes, and I finally had the control to do want I wanted to do.

True story, but it sounds awful doesn't it? It certainly doesn't sound like I am a gentle person. I hit him hard...but I am gentle.

So here's the context. I was trimming my horse's hooves. It doesn't hurt the horse-it's like trimming your fingernails. It is very hard work for me. (Imagine doing a squat, holding a horse's leg between your own, then using a huge clipper and file to shape big, hard nails!) On this particular day, my horse was impatient. He kept trying to pull his leg away, sometimes lifting me right off the ground. When that didn't work, he'd lean on me. NOT GOOD! I told him to quit. He ignored me. Finally, I dropped his back leg, wound up and hit him hard across the flank with the flat of the large metal file. It made a huge smacking sound. He knew he deserved it, he didn't jump or get scared, just grunted. After that, he stood perfectly and I never had a problem trimming him again, He let me take control and neither of us got hurt. (Horses kick each other all the time to establish dominance. My hitting him like that was language he understood.)

I tell this story because it helps me understand Isaiah 42. When I read that the servant of God; "will not cry or lift up his voice...a bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice..." This sounds incredibly gentle, even "touchy-feely". It clashes with the next bit that says; "he will faithfully bring forth justice."

Contradiction? How can such a gentle, caring soul deal with the cruel rulers who are causing the injustice? How is he going to release the prisoners and bring justice to the nations? Is he going to love, pet, and cuddle and appeal to their good senses? Verse 4 says; "he will not faint of be crushed until he has established justice..."

Well, if I had loved, petted, and cuddled my horse at the point he was misbehaving, I may have fainted from the effort and been crushed under his weight. He never would have gotten the trim he needed...maybe causing lameness for him, and he may have become dangerous to me and others who handled him in the future.

There are contradictions and contrasts in this Isaiah piece. The servant that God provides is not a wimpy pushover, he is love incarnate. He is tough love. He will be different than the human powers because he will not crush the weaker ones like they do and he will firmly challenge them. He will somehow bring about justice and straighten things out without creating more victims. This will be hard, there is a threat that he might be crushed or faint from effort---he will have to be incredibly tough to do things differently. And his followers have to start looking for a different kind of "reign of justice". I'm not sure we truly have a good idea of what this kind of "just" ruler would look like. How can a ruler be in control if they are good to the powerless? How will they ever gain control over the unjust who are violent and forceful? Perhaps the answer lies in the response of the followers. How will we respond when God's servant uses some tough love on us? For those of us with lots to eat, good shelter, and money and time, following means sharing more than we have in the past. How will we respond to God's gentle, yet demanding servant?

This Isaiah passage is tough love, not wimpiness. I can't help but think of Psalm 23. We should never forget that our caring Shepherd carries a rod and staff. Those are for discipline. We can be whacked hard on the flank for our own good. It doesn't mean our Shepherd isn't gentle. It means he is concerned about our behaviour long term. We have to, for our own good and for the good of others, acquiesce to the discipline, drop our eyes, and allow God to be in control.

I've been tough and gentle training the horse I have right now. As our partnership continues to develop, I am able to use less and less pressure on him. He has happily accepted me as his leader and he trusts me. It's so much fun for both of us. It's a good model to help me understand my relationship to God. If I quit resisting and let God take control, what kind of partnership might develop?