Sunday, 28 August 2016

Luke 14- humility and hospitality



There is a story about a university professor who went to visit a Zen master to learn about Zen Buddhism. The master served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the tea overflow until he could no longer restrain himself, “It is full. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” the master said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
The professor was full of himself. In a similar way, the Pharisees were full of themselves. In Zen Buddhism they teach that there is no such thing as the “self”. There is no soul. There is no person, ultimately. In Christianity, the teaching is self-forgetfulness. There is a self, but the self is not the focus. The focus is to be other-focused- towards God and neighbour.  The Pharisees were self-focused.   
Jesus saw the Pharisees choosing their places at the table according to how important they thought they were and he says,
"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host;  and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” (14:8-10)
On one level Jesus is just speaking about good manners in a society that was constantly ranking one another. In the first century, there was this constant sort of social ranking.  For example, there was a religious sect at Qumran (who are believed to have written the Dead Sea Scrolls). They were known to annually rank each member of the community according to the worthiness of each person.[1] … Imagine each year you are given a number that ranks your worthiness as a member of this church. “You’re 1, well done. And, you’re number 50, you better start trying a bit harder, you’re at the bottom of the pile. You’re 10. You’re 5.” “Oh, you moved up 3 ranks this year, keep up the good work”.  …  
You might remember in Luke 9 and again in chapter 22 the Disciples were arguing about which of them was the greatest. It seems childish. But they were just doing out loud what we tend to do quietly in our heads. We have learned not to be so obvious (probably because of the effects of the teachings of Jesus on our culture). We sometimes rank on the basis of money, or how prestigious a job they have, how beautiful they are, maybe what family they come from, religion, volunteer work, gender, ethnicity, education, etc. We might not even realize we are doing it. … We might see how strong this instinct is in us by how much time we are willing to give to listen to a person, or how willing we are to be interrupted when we are in conversation with this person. Maybe even how willing we are to correct a person, or offend a person. Our tone of voice can change. Our eye contact will change. Have you ever met someone at an event and they were constantly looking over your shoulder for someone more important than you they can go talk to? Compare the way you might treat a person asking you for spare change, to a family member, then to meeting one of your heroes. How willing are you to be interrupted when you are being asked for change compared to talking with a hero. We do this ranking very subtly- we don’t even realize we are doing it.
So on one level, Jesus is teaching good manners in a society where people were overtly and constantly ranking each other. Don’t think of yourself as more important than you ought. And when in doubt, take the less important position.  Actually Jesus is really just restating Proverbs 25:6-7 which says, “Do not put yourself forward in the king's presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”    
On another level I think he is talking about something like what the Zen master was talking about. If you are full of yourself no more tea can go in. If you are full of your self God is less able to teach you or use you for His Kingdom. This was the main problem with the Pharisees. They thought they knew all the answers. They wanted Jesus to behave and fit into their understanding of how the world worked. They wanted him to fit into their box. They weren’t willing to humble themselves to be able to see truly what Jesus was teaching and how he turned everything upside down.
 You might remember the story Jesus told about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18 (v10-14)- “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” … In a sense, the tax collector standing before God knew he brought nothing. He was emptied of himself. He knew God owed him nothing and so he stood before God with empty hands. God was able to fill his empty hands with forgiveness and mercy. … The Pharisee’s hands were full of his own accomplishments. Hands that are full cannot be filled.  Jesus’ way of saying this is, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (14:11).
Jesus pushes this a bit further. In the ancient world towns were smaller and people tended to stay in the same town for generations, and so everyone sort of knew everyone. You knew who the important people in town were and you knew who the not so important people in town were. When you had a dinner party you usually invited people about as important as you, or if you were honoured, those who were more important than you might grace you with their presence. Jesus says, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:12-13). He’s not saying never have your friends or family over. He’s again pointing to this instinct to rank each other. He’s noticing the tendency to leave out those who were considered less important. When Jesus spoke about the poor, crippled, lame, and blind, those who were listening all had faces and names come to mind. Jesus even says a greater reward comes from inviting those the world thinks of as less important because they often can’t pay you back by inviting you for dinner. Instead, your reward will come from heaven.   
Jesus is not necessarily wanting us to just grit out teeth and have dinner parties with people we would rather not be around. Jesus is wanting us to break our pride that ranks people into these different categories in comparison to ourselves. To Jesus there is just one category- a person made in the image of God, a sinner. Those who are invited to the heavenly banquet are people made in the image of God, who are also sinners. That is the category he is inviting us to use as we encounter people.
The sin we are talking about that has this tendency to rank people, and especially to try to think of ourselves as being more important than other people is good old fashioned pride. It has been called the root sin from which all other sin comes. We can have a life full of good deeds, but have that root firmly entrenched in our lives. That was the case with the Pharisees. The Catholic Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “If my own eternal salvation were conditioned upon saving the soul of one self-wise man who prided himself on his learning, or one hundred of the most morally corrupt men and women of the streets, I should choose the easier task of converting the hundred. Nothing in all the world is more difficult to conquer in all the world than intellectual pride. If battleships could be lined with it instead of with armor, no shell could ever pierce them.”[2]
Kenosis is a Greek word that means “emptiness”. It is used in Philippians 2 to talk about Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [or exploited], but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil 2:6-10).   Jesus humbled himself- he emptied himself in a way that we can’t even imagine. What does it mean for the Son of God to take on human flesh- to lay as a baby in an animal’s feeding trough, and to allow Himself to be killed on a cross? Jesus emptied himself so that he could be filled with grace and used to bring about salvation. He is our example. We humble ourselves- we empty ourselves- and by doing so God may exalt us.  We come to God with empty hands, hoping that God might fill them.    



[1] Larry Hurtado
[2] Sheen 41

Monday, 22 August 2016

from 1961- "The Hidden Failure of our Churches"



So a friend of mine has a Maclean’s magazine from Feb 25th 1961. (For those of my non-Canadian friends, Maclean’s is ‘the’ Canadian magazine). My friend was kind enough to lend it to me and I thought I would give a bit of a review of it.
First, the title-
“The Hidden Failure of our Churches: Despite the so-called religious revival, the churches themselves- Catholic and Protestant- are afraid they are losing their place in Canadian life”.
The first thing that struck me was the idea that these are “our” churches, rather that “the” churches. There was an identifying with the church on the part of, not only the author, but seemingly of the magazine.

The magazine is from 1961- the year JFK became president of the United States, and John Diefenbaker was prime minister. The Cold War was worsening and some families were building bomb shelters. 1961 saw the beginning of the building of the Berlin Wall. This was also the year of the first direct involvement of the US in the Vietnam War. Bonanza and Andy Griffith were on TV and you may have heard “surrender” by Elvis playing on the radio. We hadn’t landed on the moon yet (1969), and the ‘free love’ we would associate with Woodstock and the sexual revolution hadn’t yet reached its height.

The article begins with a subtitle- 
“Our Christian churches look healthy. But within, church leaders themselves fear the churches are unfit: too lazy, too social, too weak. Ralph Allen reports on where they’ve gone wrong and what they can still do about it”. 
The first line states, 
“When this year’s census, the first since 1951, is made public it will contain the statement that at least nine Canadians in every ten are adherents of a Christian church or have been committed to one by their parents or guardians.” 
(I’m not sure of the exact wording of the survey, but I believe the present Canadian statistic is somewhere around 20% of Canadians attending church once per month of more).

“In the answers … of professing Christians may lie the fate of all mankind. Against such other gigantic forces as communism, materialism and thinly sheathed militarism, the Christian church is widely held to be the most hopeful protector of the human race, physically as well as spiritually.” You won’t find that statement in a modern major publication!

After speaking about the growth of the Christian churches in Canada the author says, “But almost without exception the leaders of the Christian churches are the first to admit that the statistics are misleading. … in the heart of Quebec, which by all known standards of arithmetic is the most thoroughly Christian society outside the Vatican, an eminent Roman Catholic priest told me sadly a month or so ago: ‘If the province were isolated from Anglo-Saxon Canada, if it were truly a Roman Catholic island like Cuba or Spain or Mexico, it would already be on the brink of the same kind of revolution these other Catholic countries have had. … Thousands of Catholics have been allowed to forget that the Church’s real concern is for human souls and human welfare, and see it chiefly as an officious nag telling them perpetually when they can take a drink, when they can sleep with their wives, where they should spend their money, what they should teach their children.’”
The Very Rev. Angus James MacQueen, past moderator of the United Church says in the article, “On the whole the church is not doing a very creditable job. … In many areas of her life she is unfit for the tasks of the hour. She is too comfortable and too well adjusted to the status quo, and too ready to equate it with the Kingdom of God on earth. She is too preoccupied with her own denominational projects and ambitions, and even with her own congregational budgets and buildings. She is too divided in her own structure to launch much of an assault against evil, or to preach unity and reconciliation to the world. And she is too pietistic and irrelevant in the face of the real stuff of life and great issues of our day- the feeble guardian of personal decency and the fount of tranquility and optimism.”

The executive secretary of the Student Christian Movement of Canada, the Rev. Roy G. DeMarsh stated to the Canadian Council of Churches, “in some universities, the Christian group on the campus is hardly visible any longer. … There is a sort of hidden spiritual hunger (among the students). They know that there is more to life than the secular realm and getting a good home with a two-car garage and a beautiful wife or husband. They know there is more to life than this, but they are only mildly interested and there are many distractions.” In an interview with an agnostic student, the former head of a Christian group on campus, he says that those who go off to university are not prepared for the challenge they meet there. Many who have blindly followed the words of their churches are unprepared to reply to any academic criticism or engage in critical thought in the area of religion.

Among the important changes facing the churches of 1961 are the “shift in population since the war; the rush from the rural areas to the cities and the rush from the cities to the suburbs” which made it nearly impossible to keep track of their people, let alone tend to them. They note that people move with increased frequency and change churches frequently as well, not always remaining committed to the denomination.

The article also mentions an effort on the part of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada to survey their people to find out areas of weakness. Among them was discovered a growing rift between clergy and laity. Aidan Gasquet, the English cardinal and church historian, once pointed to one of the hazards in this relationship. ‘What is the position of the layman in the church?’ a priest was asked. ‘To kneel before the altar and to sit beneath the pulpit,” the priest replied. The cardinal’s wry comment was that the layman is sometimes granted a third privilege: to put his hand in his pocket.” In Quebec, once abandoned by France, the largely uneducated people found themselves without much leadership. The clergy often found themselves put in positions of authority and leadership beyond their usual pastoral duties. This led to a kind of authoritarianism that increasingly became resented by the laity. The end result seems to be an increasing privatization of religion where the clergy no longer help determine how a person votes (among other public matters). The clergy continue to have authority in the religious realm, but a decreasing authority in public affairs or education. Their authority retreated to the home and church in the eyes of many Catholics. The influence of individualism, a desire to be thought of as an individual with their own thoughts and feelings rather than just a part of the flock, seems to be a trend in the criticism of the church’s use of authority as well.  

The article collects a number of self-critical quotes from church leaders as it searched for the ‘disease’ afflicting the church. Some name the institution. Some name the non-involvement in the plight of the suffering. Some blame career ambitious clergy, or even a lack of clergy:

“There is … no place in American society where a person with moral, social or racial blemish is more penalized as an intruder than in the church- more than in schools, in industry, or government. In the most crucial issues of life, friendship and love, marriage and home, death and burial, and the Christian obeys submissively the dictates of American culture and public opinion rather than the claims of the Christian Gospel”- Dr.Jitsuo Morikawa, secretary, American Home Mission Societies, New York.

“May I point out the pitfalls into which sometimes the home, the school, the Church collectively or individually may have fallen. It is that in our desire to pass on the faith which we ourselves hold so dearly, to give of the vision which we ourselves have formed, we have imagined that it was sufficient to tell the children. We have sometimes been satisfied with the externals, with performance rather than virtue; with verbosity rather than vitality, with recitation rather than reaction. In the very zeal of the action of the home, the school and the Church on the young we have a terrible temptation to over-protect, to over-teach, to over-coddle.”- The Very Rev. G. Emmett Carter, principal, St. Joseph’s Teachers’ College, Montreal.

“To find the Christian style of life for the twentieth century- this is the task today; not to find new forms of Church work, bigger and better groups, organizations, movements and programs. All these call men out of the world into the artificial and hothouse world of ‘Church.’ Now here is the crux of the matter: if the Church is understood as the training ground for action in the world, that is good; but if it is regarded as an end in itself, that is evil.”- Dr. Joseph C. McLelland, professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, Presbyterian College, Montreal; associate Professor, McGill.

“Americans more than ever see the churches of Jesus Christ as competing social groups pulling and hauling, propagandizing and pressuring for their own organizational advantages.”- Dr. Eugene Blake, executive head of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

“The church, instead of being a goad, is by and large at peace with society. Throughout the world the church has tended to sanctify the regime. Jesus meant the church to be the yeast that leavened the whole loaf. But the vast majority of laymen and many of the clergy see the church as the sanctifier of the status quo.”- The Rt. Rev. James A. Pike, Episcopal Bishop of California.

“The traditional forms of instruction in our churches have not provided most Christian students coming into the university with a grasp of the faith sufficiently mature to serve as a basis for their intellectual life. Common reactions among them are: to abandon Christianity for some form of liberal or scientific humanism; to attempt to put Christ and faith in a watertight compartment far removed from intellectual activities; to drift into a state of indifference where religion loses its significance; to live in a state of unresolved tension or despair.”- Commission on the Church and University, Canadian Council of Churches.

In terms of the lack of clergy, in Montreal in 1961 they required “one priest for every 700 souls”. A tall order for a priest! In my opinion a healthy ratio is 1 priest for every 100 parishioners. Montreal was not able to get the desired ratio and instead had a ratio of 1 priest for every 3000. “In 1911, in a diocesan population of 600,000, the number of new priests ordained was 25. In 1960, with the population at two million, there were only 27 ordinations. … a far cry from the ancient Catholic tradition that it is every family’s ambition to give a son to the priesthood. And because of its sheer structural size and its concept of the wide range of its duties and rights, a scarcity of priests, nuns and monks means far more to the Catholic Church than a shortage of people to preach sermons, serve the mass, offer communion and hear confessions. It means a shortage of people to run its multi-million-dollar business affairs and physical plant, of teachers at its schools and universities, of nurses for its hospitals, of scholars as well as clerks and even corner-lot hockey coaches.”

The author outlines a few changes the Catholic Church was making in order to deal with these issues, including: a papal decree to absolve churchgoers from fasting overnight before taking communion; masses spoken in the vernacular rather than Latin; including responsive readings to help the congregation participate in the liturgy; making the confessional more secret; getting priests to liven up their sermons and make them less condescending. (Keep in mind Vatican 2 didn’t happen until 1962.)  The article quotes one young man, “I finally quit the church because it just wasn’t talking to me; it became as much a matter of boredom as of disbelief. I am not an atheist, I am not an agnostic, I am not a Catholic. I don’t know what I am except that I have lost interest.”

The article reports that the Protestant churches face “a conflict of goals- the tug between a highly concentrated religious gospel and what the fire-eating revivalists Billy Sunday used to call the ‘godless social service non-sense’ of progressivism”.  Commenting on the numerous non-religious activities sponsored by the churches (Scouts, etc) Dr. Joseph C. McLelland (a prof at Presbyterian College in Montreal) said, “The suburban style of life is a refined bourgeois style, a hangover from our protestant past but without the ‘Protestant principal’ of reforming adventure at its heart. Therefore it is being sucked into the devouring maw of Religion; it is being fooled into thinking that more Church work means more Christianity”. The author remarks, “All the Protestant churches share an uneasy feeling that their basements and halls may be getting too big and their altars too small.” The Rev. L. E. Mason, stewardship counselor of the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec, commented, “[the church is] too much like the world outside. Instead of the church turning the world upside down, the world is turning the church upside down.”

The article includes a survey conducted in Guelph, Ontario. The survey concluded that most people “believe in God and in their churches- or say they do- in much the same way as did their fathers and the fathers of their fathers.    But in their everyday lives they are paying very little real attention to their churches and taking very little guidance from them. … Many, perhaps most, of them like their churches but don’t take them very seriously.”


“It’s a common saying,” Dr. James Gallagher, general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, points out, “that Christianity is never more than a generation away from extinction. So long as we keep reminding ourselves of that, we’ll be here for a long time”.                

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Who wouldn't want to be a prophet?



There is a pattern in the Bible that we often see when prophets first receive their call from God. God calls the prophet. Then the prophet will protest that they should not be the one to do what God is asking. God then reassures them that He will be with them to help them carry out their task.

I find it very interesting that these faithful people show a reluctance to respond to God’s call. When God first calls Moses out of the burning bush, Moses responds, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Ex 3:11); “What if they do not believe me or listen to me … I have never been eloquent … I am slow of speech and tongue… Please send someone else” (Ex 4:1, 10, 13). We see a similar reluctance from Jeremiah who responds to God’s call saying, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young” (Jer1:6). In addition to Moses and Jeremiah, we see this reluctance in the stories of Gideon, Saul, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. … We see this in the lives of saints as well. St. Augustine of Hippo was dragged against his will to his ordination as bishop.

Certainly, being God’s prophet is a rare privilege, and so in some ways reluctance is a bit of a surprising response. There can be a certain prestige to being a prophet. People listen attentively to the prophet who they believe hears messages directly from God. If the prophet is speaking positive words from God then the prophet is much loved and respected. This desire to be regarded with honour and to have people’s attention has sometimes led to the rise of false prophets. False prophets speak the words people want to hear rather than the words God wants to be communicated. They like the spotlight. False prophets desire to please people. They speak falsely declaring peace when disaster is on its way. … The desire to be held in high regard by the people as a prophet who speaks the words of God can be powerful. Sometimes their desire to please people overpowers their ability to give an accurate word from God.

Certainly there is an attractive side to being God’s prophet, but there are also reasons people would not want to be a prophet. Quite often they speak words from God that seem foolish. Their words sometimes go against the grain. Sometimes the words they speak are not pleasing to hear. Prophets often point out sin and corruption that has been accepted as normal, or which is hidden. Sometimes they bring upsetting messages that point towards future destruction. Their message is often countercultural. … And because their message is not pleasing to the people the prophet will sometimes be persecuted and rejected, sometimes even killed. This might be why many of the prophets felt reluctant to accept God’s call. The life of a prophet is not an easy life.

I sometimes think of the difference between true and false prophets as being something like the difference between a good acquaintance and a good friend. Acquaintances generally want to make you feel good and they usually want a peaceful relationship, so they will say nice things about you, or at least they won’t say anything negative. They might even bend the truth a little in order to make you feel good. It is kind. A good friend, however, will tell you the truth- even if that truth is hard to hear. A good friend will encourage you, but they will also give you a kick in the pants when you need it. And speaking that hard word will be difficult for a good friend because they care about you. (If an acquaintance criticizes you it doesn’t often involve much pain on their part- or, if it does, it is has more to do with the discomfort of the situation.) A good friend will tell you what you need to hear, but not always what you want to hear. … That is what a prophet will do. They will tell you what you need to hear from God, but not necessarily what you want to hear.

This was certainly true of the prophet Jeremiah. He was called the “weeping prophet”. He was given the difficult task of calling the people back to God or be destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. It was a difficult task because it was bad news the people didn’t want to hear, which naturally brings opposition and rejection, but it was also hard because he saw the pain they were about to walk into. He was like a man yelling at people he loves who were about to walk off the edge of a cliff, but they laugh at him and wave him off. Eventually, things became so bleak that his prophetic message was about two choices- go into exile at the hands of the Babylonian Empire, or resist and be killed.

The reluctance of the prophets to respond to God’s call might have something to do with having to speak difficult words to people who would rather not hear them. … But, I think there is also something else going on here. Numbers 12:3 says that “Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth”. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Moses was considered was both extremely humble and one of the greatest prophets to walk the earth. There is something about humility that allows God to work through us in particularly powerful ways.

As we read through the Bible there are certain general principles about God’s character that are expressed. One of these principles is God’s desire to work through the humble. In the book of Proverbs we read (3:34) “God opposes the proud, but shows favour to the humble”. … What is it about humility that matters so much?”

One way to answer this is to look at the opposite of humility, which is pride. Pride has been called the root of all Sin. It is that part of us that turns away from God and rejects Him thinking we can do better on our own. Pride is feeling better or more important than other people. Pride causes us to use people for our own ends. It is essentially selfishness. It is pride that caused Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. And it is pride that ultimately leads us to all other sin. In stealing we think we deserve to have something someone else has. In murder we believe we have the power to decide if someone should live or die. In not honouring the Sabbath or our parents we believe we are self-entitled and deserving of what we have received and so have no desire to give thanks and respect. All sin has pride as its root.

We should say something about pride and self-esteem. In our society we often think the root of a person’s negative behavior is their negative view of themselves- which we often call bad self-esteem. Usually what people feel inferior about, however, has nothing to do with a sense of moral or spiritual lack. The Jewish Psychologist Solomon Schimmel says, “Although many people suffer from feelings of inferiority, it is not usually because of their sense of moral or spiritual inadequacy. They don’t typically ruminate about how unkind, dishonest, or insensitive they might be, but about how incompetent, ugly, or professionally unsuccessful they are. They do not aspire to greater virtue but to greater recognition. This sense of inferiority and self-deprecation is not what the moralists want to cultivate as the basis for humility. On the contrary, the person who feels inferior about his social status, wealth, or looks is accepting values which from the religious point of view are inappropriate as a criteria for evaluating true self-worth. What the moralists want us to feel inferior about are our ethical, moral, and spiritual faults.”[1]

If pride is where all sin originates, then it makes sense that the opposite of pride, humility, would be the source of all virtue. Humility is marked by selflessness, and respect. Humility is not depression or self-hate. Humility is seeing yourself clearly before God. Humility is being aware of your limitations and sins, but it does not mean rejecting your strengths. It means the reason you do something is less about you and more about others. Humility is not a tall person pretending he is short. Or, a smart person pretending she is dumb. It is seeing yourself as you are before God. It is remembering that you are mud made into the image of God. Humility is recognizing that we are creatures- created by an amazingly wise, powerful, and loving God. Humility is recognizing that we are His and that He knows how best to live and that He deserves our love, respect, and service. Humility is the natural position of the human heart in the presence of God. The saints thought humility was so important St. Augustine said, “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues, hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”

Christ was the perfect example of humility. He is the King of kings, but was born as a human baby to poor parents and laid in an animal’s feeding trough. Christ did not deny the reality of who he was. He did not have low self-esteem or pretend he wasn’t the son of God. Humility is seeing yourself accurately. That is how Jesus can say “before Abraham was, I AM” (Jn 8:58) and say in the gospel according to Matthew (11:29), “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” There is no contradiction between his knowing he is the son of God and being humble. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians Christ’s humility is set as an example for us (Phil 2:8)- “being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” Jesus selflessly places the good of others and the glory of God before his own wellbeing and comfort. Jesus also instructs his students saying, (Matt 23:12) “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus exalted humble fishermen and tax collectors and made them his apostles. He ate with outcasts and those on the fringe of society. Jesus valued humility greatly and so did his early followers.

St. Paul says (Romans 12:3) “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” Paul is teaching us to see ourselves accurately. The development of humility was extremely important for the early church.

The pursuit of humility has been a major pursuit by Christians throughout history. It is the historic belief of the church that humility is essential for a person to be used by God in a powerful and ongoing way. So Christians have sought to purify their hearts and minds from egotistical actions and desires so they can better be used by God and so they can be drawn closer to Him. Through a variety of practices, like prayer and fasting, Christians have sought to learn that they are completely reliant on God for their existence. They want to live in that knowledge at all moments. Of course the Holy Spirit is already working in us to draw us to humility, but this is where we can be effective with our effort. When we work with the Holy Spirit and allow ourselves to be made humble by the Spirit we will become like someone kneeling before God with our hands open and empty. When our hands are not full of our own ego then God fills them.

It is this empty-handed humility that we see in Jeremiah and that is why God can use him so effectively. If Jeremiah was made to be a prophet, but was full of his own pride, then it would be easy for him to not hear God and hear his own desires instead. If he was full of his own pride, then he might use God’s message to gain wealth or prestige instead of glorifying God and calling people to serve Him. If God was to try to use Jeremiah when he was full of his own egotistical desires, then he would not be able to handle the desire to misuse God’s power living in him. Only a humble self-less person is capable of having God’s power dwelling in them and not being overcome by the desire to twist that power to their own ends.

The philosopher Peter Kreeft said it this way, “Spiritually, our strength is our receptivity, our active passivity to God, our emptiness … if we come to God with empty hands, he will fill them. If we come with full hands, he finds no place to put himself. It is our beggary, our receptivity, that is our hope.”[2]

Jeremiah’s reluctance is evidence of his humility. Jeremiah recognized his humanity before God’s power. Jeremiah knew his people and knew that God would ask him to do something that was not in his power to accomplish. Jeremiah knew that he had nothing within himselff to accomplish the task. Only God’s power working through him could do what God was asking.

It is the way of God to use the humble to do great things- To use a shepherd boy who was the smallest of his brothers to be the greatest king of Israel- To take a group of slaves and make them His chosen people- to use fishermen and tax collectors to be his apostles- to use a man on a cross to bring salvation to the world. I wonder what God could do with a little church?
               



[1] Schimmel, 43
[2] Kreeft, back to virtue, p105

Sunday, 14 August 2016

drawing the line - Luke 12



Our image of Jesus tends to be a very gentle image. There are pictures of Jesus walking along with a flock of sheep with a little lamb in his arms. We tend to think of Jesus as incredibly accepting and non-judgmental. We tend to view him as a very nice man that wouldn’t hurt a fly.

So when we hear readings like we have today it can be a bit shocking. 

 "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! … Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Lk 12:49,51). 
Those are not the words we tend to hear on Jesus’ lips.

We tend to gravitate towards the comfortable teachings of Jesus and avoid the uncomfortable teachings. We love the story about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8). Jesus faces off with a crowd that wants to stone the woman according to the law. Jesus replies that those who are without sin should throw the first stone. Of course no one does. It is the image of the non-judgmental Jesus- The accepting Jesus. … But, we usually forget his final words to the woman, “Go and sin no more”. Jesus was not accepting of sin. Jesus was giving her a chance to repent and change her life- a chance she would not have if she was executed. It was mercy, yes, but he was not easy on sin.

In fact, there are a number of times that Jesus actually makes the law harder. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says that you might think you aren’t a murderer, but your unchecked anger at someone might condemn you as a murderer even if you don’t commit the act. You might think you have never committed adultery, but the lustful thoughts you entertain in your mind condemn you as an adulterer even if you have never committed the act (Matt 5). In first century Judaism divorce was quite easy, but Jesus said he didn’t allow it (Matthew’s gospel adds ‘except for sexual unfaithfulness’, but Mark doesn’t give an exception) (Matt 19; Mark 10). Sometimes, when Jesus seems to be altering part of the Law, he actually makes it harder, which is counter-intuitive to our usual understanding of Jesus.

In Matthew 25 we read about Jesus separating people into the saved and the condemned at the time of the final judgement based on who has helped those in need and those who have not. He talks about a narrow road that leads to salvation and a wide road that leads to destruction. Jesus talks about a coming judgement and a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. He says that those who want to follow him must pick up their cross and die to themselves. That isn’t the Jesus we often think about. We don’t want to overemphasize this, but if we are going to have a clear image of Jesus, then we have to include the uncomfortable bits as well. We don’t like to hear about judgment, or warnings, or the severe expectations of holiness.

So before we get into this passage we need to just admit to ourselves that there is an uncomfortable side to Jesus that we often try to ignore. Even our Sunday readings often avoid these kinds of uncomfortable readings.

As I mentioned before, Jesus in this reading is speaking about being the cause of division. He says that he will even be the cause of families being split up. In the early church this was a reality on a number of levels. The early followers of Jesus were mainly Jewish, but began to live in greater and greater tension with the Jewish synagogues. Eventually these Jewish Christians were not welcomed in synagogues. This could meant that a family was divided between those that believed and those that didn’t- and we shouldn’t under emphasize the impact of that. In our world we tend to be okay with everyone believing a variety of things. In the first century families were tighter and there was more of an expectation that the family will have the same beliefs. Belief in Jesus as the Messiah could divide families. … In the non-Jewish world when people became Christian there was an expectation that they wouldn’t participate in certain parts of public life because it often involved Pagan worship. That might mean looking strange to business partners, and officials. They also would have had different ethical and religious standards. Their sexual ethics would have to change, for example. And that would put tension on existing relationships.

There was also tension regarding the way to live in Israel under the influence of the Roman Empire. Jesus taught a way of non-violence, but many desired a violent uprising led by a warrior messiah that would remove the Roman forces from Israel. Israel, in Jesus’ day, was in a state of incredible tension (some things don’t change much). The land was occupied by the forces of the Roman Empire and they were growing tired of the continuous rebellion and resistance of the people to their presence and rule. Some of the Jewish people continued to plan rebellions to try to defeat the Romans and drive them out. There was believed to be a lot of corruption in the leadership, as well as a wealthy and arrogant religious elite. There was tension on numerous fronts.

In the middle of it all Jesus is teaching a way of non-violence and calling people to repent and join a Spiritual Kingdom of people living God’s way. He sees the crisis looming and he sees the destruction coming. This is the coming storm Jesus says they should be able to predict. The people chose the way of violence against the Roman Empire and in 70AD the people are crushed, the nation is destroyed, and the temple is demolished never to be rebuilt. So part of the division Jesus is speaking about may be about the division between those who choose the way of violence and those who choose the way of peace. Those who chose not to pick up arms against the Romans might have been considered traitors.

But every generation has this tension to some degree- the tension between the ways of the Kingdom and the ways of the world. There will be moments in our lives when we will be asked to side with our culture or with the ways of Jesus. … Our culture will want to say everyone has their own truth, or maybe even ‘there is no Truth’. The kingdom will have us say Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Our culture will tell us that sex is a recreational activity for two consenting adults and is no one else’s business. The kingdom will tell us that sex has a design and it’s not to be misused without serious consequences. We might be being told by our family or friends to fear refugees. The kingdom says to welcome the stranger even if it’s dangerous to us. Our culture will say spend your money how you like, you deserve it. The Kingdom says, God owns it all- give it away so you have treasure in heaven. The more we are committed to following Jesus, the more tension we will probably feel with the standards and expectations of our broader culture.

If you try to talk to your friends and family who aren’t Christians about Jesus and the way he taught us to live, there will be moments of tension. It is likely that ‘religion’ will become a taboo conversation topic marked by uncomfortable silences, eye-rolling, or heated arguments.

But the division doesn’t stop with our culture and our family and friends. We will also feel divided in ourselves. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom 7:18-19). We live with tension as we try to live in the ways of the kingdom. We will find ourselves frustrated with ourselves. We will find that a sin will haunt us that we don’t seem to get mastery over. Maybe we are tempted to act out of arrogance, maybe we gossip, maybe we constantly are judging people, maybe we struggle with pornography, maybe we allow our thoughts to get lost in hopelessness, maybe we act in selfish or greedy ways, etc. We all tend to have something. The friction between wanting to live in the ways of the kingdom and the internal desires we live with can feel like a fire. So as we follow Jesus we will not only have division with our culture and maybe our family and friends, but we may even feel divided inside ourselves.


This division isn’t what Jesus wants, but he knows that at some point we will have to make a choice between following Him and following some other voice. Following him is what is best for us and for our world.  We might be able to live our lives free of this tension at times, but there will be times when we will have to make a choice as to which kingdom we are going to be a part of, and when that happens we will find ourselves divided from those who have chosen a different path. May God grant us discernment to know when these times are, and may we be granted the courage to stand for the Kingdom, even if it means those around us. AMEN

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Be Watchful- Luke 12



One day I was going through a box full of things from my childhood. I came across a picture I drew and as soon as I saw it a memory flooded my mind that I hadn’t thought about for years. I think I was about 8 years old and it was a picture on me reaching for a yellow belt. It brought to mind a belt test I attended as a part of my Karate class. I didn’t pass the test. I remember feeling crushed by that experience (which was the inspiration for the picture I drew). But, I received numerous belts since that time and I studied martial arts for quite a few years, so when I look back on that picture it’s actually quite embarrassing to see how worried I was by that experience. I felt that embarrassment numerous times going through that box of memories. It didn’t get any better when I found my journal from when I was a teenager. I look back on those fears and worries that haunted my mind and they seem fairly trivial now, even to the point that they embarrass me to remember them.

I wonder if we will feel the same way looking back on our lives from our deathbed? … or from the point of view of eternity with God? Will we look back at our present fears and worries and feel embarrassed that we spent so much energy on them?

What if you could write yourself a letter from the afterlife? What do you think that letter would say? What advice would you give yourself? What would you tell yourself to do? What would you say to yourself about your present worries from that eternal perspective?

Jesus is wanting us to be our eternal selves right now. He wants us to live our lives now from the perspective of eternity right this moment.

Throughout Luke 12 Jesus is calling us to reexamine out priorities. He brings to mind many things that we could be worried about and then shows God’s perspective. Are we afraid of dying? Jesus reminds us that God does not forget even a sparrow who dies, God will take care of us even in death. He values us so much that He has every hair on our head numbered (Luke 12:4-7). Are we so afraid of our uncertain future that we disregard the needs of others in order to accumulate possessions? As we saw in Jesus’ parable last week, the rich man who had so much wealth he tore down his barns and built new barns could not take his wealth with him when he suddenly died (12:13-21). Are we worried about food or clothing- starvation or nakedness? Or, are we consumed by specialty coffees, designer clothes, fancy cars, and other signs of success and comfort? Jesus reminds us to not let these worries distract us from what is most important- Life is more than food and clothing. What is most important is striving for the kingdom of God (12:22-31). Place your attention on eternal things, not temporal things. God is taking care of you. God cares even for sparrows. God even desires to give us His kingdom. God is for you, he is not against you. You don’t have to worry.

The kingdom is not something God is trying to keep away from you, and it is not something we earn by being “good enough”. God wants to give us the kingdom. But, there is a way to live as children of the kingdom. He wants us to live with a broader kingdom perspective. Don’t just think about next week, or next month … think about eternity. There is a line from Amazing Grace, “When we’ve been there 10,000 years bright shining as the sun, we’ll have no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun”. That is the perspective Jesus wants us to live with- Live today with eternity in mind. Jesus is teaching us that the fears and worries we have evaporate when we look at them through the eyes of eternity.

In terms of finances, don’t think about your earthly bank account as much as your heavenly bank account. Use your resources to build up your heavenly bank account. “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Lk 12:33-34). God wants us to be rich in a heavenly way.

Jesus is also calling us to be in a state of watchfulness so we don’t miss out on the blessing we might receive. What does he mean by that? I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “Jesus is coming…. Look busy”. Surely we’re not to just fill our lives with frantic activity. … What does it mean to be ready and watchful? Surely action is part of it. We should be constantly ready to do good. We should be ready and waiting for opportunities to show God’s love to people.

Early Christians believed this watchfulness went deeper than actions- even though actions were very important. Jesus spoke a lot about the roots of our actions. He says to be careful about anger because it is the root of murder. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement (Matt 5:21-22)

He speaks about lust as the root of adultery. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27-28).

Jesus also speaks about those who give but who do so to impress others rather than to help others. Jesus says that people who give trying to show off have received their reward and shouldn’t expect a reward from God. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 6:1). We see this kind of thing happening in our reading from Isaiah. They are offering sacrifices and worship, but their hearts aren’t right. Their lives don’t match their worship. “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. … Trample my courts no more; When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Is 1:11-12, 15-16). How we live our lives has an effect on our worship. The people in Isaiah were worshipping, but not living according to how God directed them, which made their worship pointless.
Our actions, good or bad, have their origin in our thoughts and attitudes. We should pay close attention to our thoughts and motivations. Our sin begins there, and our thoughts and motivations can undo the good we wish to do. The early Christians understood this and were careful to monitor their minds and hearts.

One monk said we need to have the watchfulness of a spider. Set your web and still your mind and you will catch even small flies. Small flies are like small thoughts that enter your mind. Those thoughts and feelings will result in words and actions and habits and character.

Others thought of our soul as a walled city. We should be careful to have diligent guards at the gates so we know who is going in.

There is a long tradition of practicing watchfulness in the church. In the Eastern Church they will have all night vigils. We have a remnant of this with our Christmas Eve service and Easter Eve services. Sometimes we call them vigils, but a vigil really is giving up sleep for the night. The church did this in memory of the night Jesus was arrested and the disciples were asleep instead of praying. The vigil is a very literal way of being watchful.

But, I don’t think Jesus means for us to never sleep again, so how do we do this? In our Gospel reading Jesus says, "Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks” (12:35-36). How do we do this? We have to sleep sometime. So he can’t mean that we just shouldn’t sleep. How do we remain watchful?

First, it is important to have regular times of stillness. Rush and hurry will work against this kind of watchfulness. In the stillness notice your thoughts. Notice where your mind is drawn. Notice patterns of thought. Notice positive thoughts and negative thoughts. As we bring an inner stillness to the rest of our lives we will be more able to notice our thoughts and deal with them. …

When you are standing in line at the grocery store notice the thoughts that come into your mind- are you annoyed by having to wait? Are you having judgmental thoughts about the other people in line, or the cashier? Once we are still enough to be aware of our thoughts, then we can begin dealing with them. You can replace a judgmental thoughts with a prayer for the person reminding yourself that this person is made in the image of God and someone for whom Christ died.

Have regular times of prayer and Bible study, but don’t break the stillness while praying and studying. Regular times of prayer will keep God in your mind and heart, more than if you don’t have regular times of prayer. Studying the Bible will help you to learn the mind of God and that will help you compare your thoughts with God’s thoughts. Which will help you shape your thought life.

St. Ignatius in the 16th century taught his people to do an “Examination of Conscience” at least every day. To do this you begin with reminding yourself of the gifts of God’s love throughout the day. Then we ask for the Spirit for discernment and we watch for what the Spirit brings to our attention as we think and pray about our day. In the Examen we review our day and see how faithfully we lived that day. When were we present to God and when did we feel far from God. We confess any sin and then we make practical choices to live more faithfully to God the next day. It might not sound very fun, but the alternative is going through your life in a kind of spiritual sleep.

Above all we can’t do this on our own, so we need God’s help. Invocation of God should be constantly in our mind and heart. An ancient prayer Christians have used for almost 2000 years is the Jesus Prayer. It goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. It is repeated over and over. My sense when I pray it is that I’m not so much repeating it as trying to say it, with my full consciousness, once. It is a way of praying that brings your mind to Jesus constantly. As it is recited over and over it begins to live inside you. Your heart begins to beat with it. You begin to breathe it. In that way Christ is always a thought in your heart and on your lips.

We might be tempted to say to Jesus, “well those are beautiful words, but I live in the real world. What you’re saying just isn’t realistic.” … But, if Jesus really is who he said he is, then he knows the real world better than we do. The people Jesus originally spoke to probably had much more to worry about than we do. It might seem daunting to transform our minds and hearts this way, but we can start small. When we learn to think with an eternal perspective in little everyday things, then we will eventually be able to deal with bigger worries this way.

Jesus’ goal in these teachings is that we will not be enslaved to the worries of this life. He wants us to see a greater horizon than the one we often use. When we are able to see with this greater, eternal perspective we will find that our fears and worries evaporate. Then our attention is free and we are fully available to receive what God wants to offer us. And we will be ready when he comes. Amen

Monday, 1 August 2016

The power of the powerless, the powerless powerful



I would like to look at both our Luke and 2nd Kings reading this morning because I think they relate in an interesting way.

In 2nd Kings we read about Naaman. He is an important commander in an army of one of Israel’s neighbouring countries (modern Syria). In fact, he seems to have been an enemy (at least at one time) since he stole an little Israelite girl in one of his raids, which means he or one of his men may have killed her parents. He kidnapped this little girl and made her a slave for his wife.

This powerful man is powerless when it comes to his health. He has leprosy. In Israel, and I suspect in the surrounding cultures, this was more than a skin disease. In Israel, Leprosy also meant you were quarantined. You were separated from your family and friends and the rest of the community. You became an outsider. You lost everything. I’m not sure what this meant for Naaman, as he was from a different people and a different religion, but it seemed to be serious enough that he was desperate for a cure. So when this little Israelite slave girl offers hope in the form of prophet of the God of Israel, Naaman jumps at the chance. He follows the word of a little slave girl.

Naaman approaches his king, who then gives him permission to go to Israel. The king sends gifts, money and clothing (750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, 10 sets of clothes), as well as a letter to the King of Israel. One important and powerful man sends his commander to another important and powerful man- assuming he has power to command and control the prophet. The king of Israel finds himself helpless to heal the commander, Naaman. Just as the great commander Naaman found himself helpless when faced with his Leprosy, so the great king of Israel found himself helpless when faced with Naaman’s leprosy.

The prophet Elisha hears about Naaman and sends a message to the king to send Naaman to him. Naaman’s procession, his horses and chariots full of money, and servants arrive at Elisha’s door. The important and great commander arrives at the door of the prophet and Elisha doesn’t even go out to meet him. He sends his servant to tell Naaman to wash in a muddy river. Naaman is offended that the prophet doesn’t put on a dramatic show, or even come out to meet him in person. Naaman is so offended he is ready to leave. But his servant stops him with the thought, “if the Prophet asked you to do a difficult think wouldn’t you have done it? Why not do this easy thing”. Naaman follows the prophet’s direction and he is healed.

Notice where Naaman would be without the slaves and servants. The slave girl who mercifully told him about the prophet. The servant who gave the message to the king of Israel to send Naaman to Elisha. The servant who gave Naaman Elisha’s message to wash in the Jordan River. The servant who convinced the indignant Naaman to turn back and try the cure he was too offended to try. All the way along it is slaves and servants who make the healing possible. As we read the Bible we will see this thread running through it. God uses the little and seemingly unimportant. God identifies with the little and seemingly unimportant. God chooses a people for himself- a nation of slaves in Egypt. Little David defeats the giant Goliath. Jesus is born the son of two people who would otherwise disappear into the mists of time. Jesus chooses followers from fishermen and tax collectors.

Now when we use this lens to look at Luke 10 we find this same thread. Jesus sends 70 disciples to go ahead of him into the places Jesus will be going. He says the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few, so they are being warned that there is too much work for so few of them. Then he tells them he is sending them out as lambs in the midst of wolves. They are going out purposefully vulnerable. They are to not carry money, nor a bag, nor even sandals. They are sent out completely reliant on the kindness of others. They aren’t to greet anyone on the road. Middle Eastern customs of hospitality say that greeting someone on the road could possibly mean staying at the person’s home for a few days. Jesus wants them to be focused. When they get where they are going, they will enter a house and will offer peace hoping the host will offer the same. They are looking for people of peace. They will remain with their host rather than jump from house to house seeking better meals or more spacious arrangements. They remain with who offered them hospitality first and will eat and drink whatever is offered to them. They come with an incredible vulnerability- reliant on the kindness of strangers for a place to sleep and for food and water.

It is out of this position that they go about doing the work of the Kingdom. Jesus tells them to cure the sick and to tell them “The kingdom of God has come near to you”. And Jesus will so identify himself with his disciples that whoever welcomes them, welcomes him, and whoever rejects them, rejects him.

When we read Luke 10 and we try to find ourselves in it, I believe the only place we can see ourselves is as the 70 disciples. We are disciples of Jesus. There is no such thing as a Christian that is not also a disciple of Jesus. So what might Jesus be saying to us through this?

One thing I think he’s saying is get rid of this idea that you have to be “a somebody” to do his work. Sometimes we think, “well, who am I that God would have me do something like that?” But, that is exactly who God uses in his work. Sometimes we think we have to have a degree in theology, or be a professional speaker, or an incredible musician, or whatever. Even Moses told God to find someone better because he wasn’t a good speaker. Some think he had some sort of speech impediment. So, if you think you aren’t “anyone special” then you are exactly the kind of person God works through.

Another thing we learn is that we don’t have to have big expensive programs to do the work of the kingdom. The disciples were sent out in poverty- no money, no bag, not even sandals. To survive they had to eat what others gave them and sleep where there was an offer. We would want to raise a large sum of money to pay for their food and maybe get a tour bus, or at least pay for hotels for them. We would want to put on a large show- special lighting, musicians, videos, posters, radio ads, etc. The disciples went out in simple poverty looking for people of peace who would be willing to have an open ear and an open heart to what they are saying about Jesus and his Kingdom.

If we don’t think we are anyone special, and if we don’t feel like we have the resources to do anything special, then that is exactly how Jesus sent his disciples out. It may be how he wants to send us out.

What we do need is the courage to be vulnerable and to find people of peace who are willing to receive us. If people are not open to you, they are not people of peace, move on until you find people of peace who are open- who the Holy Spirit has prepared. We need the courage to accept the hospitality of those we wish to serve. We have to have the courage to see what God is up to around us without having things under our control. We need to get out of our safe bubble if we want to be a part of what God is up to.

As a church we lament that our culture seems to be rejecting the Gospel. When you watch television Christianity is constantly shown in a negative light. Crystal and I used to play a game when we watch late night TV- especially crime drama. When a pastor or priest appeared we would guess if he was a pedophile, a murderer, a thief, a Satanist, or just a na├»ve moron. 99% of the time he was one of those. Representations of Christians (and their leaders) on TV are becoming increasingly negative and show us to be out of touch with reality, foolish, or even dangerous. A former head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC, Michael Wakelin, commented that, “in 1986, religion was certainly more high-profile on TV…I’m afraid the media do tend to treat religion as a problem, and only as a problem. In some ways, [it is] like only covering football from the point of view of hooliganism and never actually showing the game being played”.[1] When most people in our culture wake up on Sunday morning church doesn’t even pass into their minds as a possibility for how they might spend their morning.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying go and invite people to church. I’m also not saying we should hand out tracts, or tell everyone you meet about the 4 Spiritual Laws. I don’t think we should have a pre-packaged plan. … I’m saying that we need to start thinking about ourselves as missionaries in a foreign culture. Just as missionaries would have gone off into foreign countries to do the work of the Kingdom, so we are now (I believe) being invited to be doing the work of the Kingdom where we are.

What does it mean to do the work of the kingdom where we are? It might mean finding ways to get to know your neighbours- maybe you have a block party. Maybe there is someone just up the street who is having a hard time getting along and could use a listening ear and a cup of tea, or someone to cut their grass. Maybe we need to walk around our block, or up and down the hallway, praying for our neighbours. Maybe we need to pray for eyes to see people of peace in the places we spend our time- where we work, where we live, where we meet with friends, etc.

I’m not sure what God will show us, but we should also be a bit wary of having a plan. The disciples Jesus sent out didn’t know what they were walking into. So maybe we should pray and open ourselves to who God prompts us to meet. Eventually we might see how we can be people of the kingdom where we are. What does it mean for the kingdom to come for this person? Do they need emotional healing? Maybe they need a listening ear and someone to pray for them- even if you pray for them secretly.

What does it mean to be God’s people in the places where we are? What does it mean to be vulnerable with the people we meet? Jesus is calling us into uncomfortable and unknown situations. But if we are willing he will use us to do great things, just as God used servants to lead the commander Naaman to healing, so God will use us to lead others to healing. It will be risky, and we won’t always have a plan, but we have Jesus’ promise that he will be with us- so much so that to welcome us is to welcome him.

AMEN



Bailey, Michael. “Media, religion and culture: An interview with Michael Wakelin.” Journal of Media Practice 11.2 (2010): 185-189.

Monday, 27 June 2016

freedom of "sin" and freedom of the spirit







I heard a quote from Sitting Bull, who was a Lakhota leader in the 19th century. He said, “Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins I answer, the one I feed the most.”

This isn’t too far off from what Paul says. Paul says that there are two natures at war within us. One is the spiritual nature, the other is the sinful nature. The spiritual nature is both God’s Spirit within us transforming us into who God had created us to be, and the part of us that is transformed and desires God. The spiritual nature is the part of us that has been renewed. The sinful nature is that part of us that resists God. Paul uses the Greek word “sarx” to refer to this sinful nature. You can translate the word literally as “flesh”, but Paul isn’t just talking about the body here as if the body itself was an evil thing. He is talking about a deeper reality. It is that part of us that continues to be ruled by sin.

Both the Spirit and the Flesh promise freedom. And both the Spirit and the flesh say the other way is slavery.

The “freedom” the flesh promises is: “fornication (forbidden sexual intercourse), impurity (like an unclean spirit), licentiousness (inclination towards lust), idolatry (worship dedicated to something other than God), sorcery (using drugs and making spells), enmities (related to the word enemy, hatred or hostility), strife (contention, expressing enmity, rivalry, fighting), jealousy (intensely wanting what another has), anger (very agitated, wrath, revenge, explosive anger), quarrels (strife, selfishness, rivalry), dissensions (divisions, “standing apart”, dissension), factions (sects, heresies, following self/ personal preference/ personal advantage), envy (displeasure at prosperity of another- jealousy wants it, envy wants the other deprived of it), drunkenness (intoxication), carousing (drunken partying, revelry), and things like these” (5:19-21).

I think this is often what we are taught to think freedom is- freedom from moral restrictions. Freedom to follow every desire and every appetite. We feel like this is the way of fun. We look to the way of the spirit and it looks like the way of nerds, the way of restriction, of self-denial rather than self-expression.

Those of us who have lived the way of the flesh know that the fun doesn’t last. The way of the flesh is also the way of numbing pain, of broken relationships, of children conceived in unstable relationships, of STDs, of tiring drama, of violence and danger. The preacher Frederick Beuchner says it this way, "To obey our strongest appetites for drink, sex, power, revenge, or whatever leaves us the freedom of an animal to take what we want when we want it, but not the freedom of a human being to be human."

The freedom the spirit promises is: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:22-23). That last one grabs us as particularly opposed to freedom. We live in a world that has a hard time seeing self-control as being part of a life of freedom. Really it is essential. To be truly free we must choose what makes ultimate sense rather than what my immediate desires are. This is sometimes called “delayed gratification”. You are willing to deny yourself something you want right now, in order to have a greater good later on, or to prevent an unwanted consequence.

The way of the Spirit is the way of mature freedom. St Augustine said, “love God and do what you will” (in a sermon on love- 1 John 4:4-12). That is the freedom of the Spirit. Ultimately there is only 1 thing necessary- Love God. Now, if we love God we will treat our neighbour with kindness because they are a work of God’s hands and created in God’s likeness. If we love God we will care about the directions God has given us to live our lives. That means really where we get in trouble is when we love something other than God best- self, money, prestige, etc.

The New Testament scholar Gordon Fee says, "Freedom is not to be free for self, but for others. The real question is not whether an action is 'lawful' or 'all right,' but whether it is good, whether it benefits. Truly Christian conduct is not predicated on whether I have the right to do something, but whether my conduct is helpful to those around me".

Again, Frederick Beuchner says it this way, "The old prayer speaks of God 'in whose service is perfect freedom'. The paradox is not as opaque as it sounds. It means that to obey Love himself, who above all else wishes us well, leaves us the freedom to be the best and gladdest that we have it in us to become. The only freedom Love denies us is the freedom to destroy ourselves ultimately."

Ultimately, the way of the Spirit leads to life in the Kingdom of God. The way of the Flesh, Paul says, does not inherit the kingdom (5:21). We hear this from Jesus in our Gospel passage. The kingdom is for those with an unwavering dedication (Luke 9:62). We deny ourselves in this life, even enduring the cross, because there is a greater good. We delay our present gratification, for a future greater gratification.

So maybe you believe that the way of the Spirit really is the way of freedom, but you just don’t know how to live that way. Maybe your anger is too explosive and you don’t know how to replace it with patience and kindness. Maybe your lust feels too strong and you don’t know how to replace it with self-control. Something that I’ve learned is that we have to plan for this. I used to think I could just wish it and then someday God would just transform me and I would wake up different. God is very involved in this transformation, but we do need to plan for it and work towards it. Going back to what Sitting Bull said, how do we feed the good dog and not the mean dog?

Dallas Willard was a spiritual teacher who had a particular interest in personal transformation into the way of the Spirit. He uses the Acronym “V.I.M.”, which stands for “vision”, “intention”, and “means”. First, he says we need the “vision”. We need to see Christ and his ways as being the best way to live. We must have a desire to see Jesus as king of the world, but especially of our lives. To allow Jesus to rule in your life means you are at that point living in his kingdom. The kingdom is where what God wants done is done- not just at some point in the future, but now. We need to have a desire and love for Jesus that outweighs everything else. We need to be convinced that the way of the Spirit really is freedom- even if we don’t feel like we have the ability to live it. We have to want to live it.

Next is “intention”- We have to intend to live this way. We have to resolve that this is a way for us. We have to decide that not only that this is a good way to live, but that this is the way to are going to try to live. You have to choose it. You have to trust Jesus as your king. You have to trust that he really does know the best way to live. We intend to obey him as our king- to follow his example and teaching. Willard says, “no one can actually believe the truth about him without trusting him by intending to obey him. It is a mental impossibility. … In fact, you can no more trust Jesus and not intend to obey him than you could trust your doctor and your auto mechanic and not intend to follow their advice. If you don’t intend to follow their advice, you simply don’t trust them. Period.”.[1] This means that we live according to our beliefs. If we are living the way of the flesh, then we are believing something more than Jesus. If we really believe Jesus, then we must intend to follow his ways and actually decide to do it.

Lastly is “means”- these are the methods we use to become the kind of person that naturally has the fruit of the spirit as a part of their character. First, we should be specific. We should look at ourselves honestly and name what ways of the flesh are present in us- Anger? Resentment? Lust? Quarrelling? Drunkenness? We won’t always be able to just grit our teeth and do otherwise. We should aim at become the kinds of people who naturally act as Jesus would have us act. Because of who Jesus was, the easy thing for Jesus was to forgive people from the cross- the hard this would have been to curse them. Our outer actions are expressions of our inner being. That’s why Paul talks about the “fruit” of the Spirit. They are an expression of an inner reality. We intend to become the kind of person that has the fruit of the Spirit. That means we examine and learn to transform our inner being- our thoughts, feelings, habits, and relationships.

There are a number of means of transformation God uses. For example, spending time in prayer and meditation before God concerning an enemy might lead us to see our enemy differently. Perhaps God allows us to see their motivations and good intentions. Maybe we see their abuse at the hands of their parents. Maybe we see some sort of disorder that causes them to act in disruptive ways. Maybe God will remind us of a time someone else forgave us when we hurt someone. We can study Scripture and meditate on our enemy as being made in the image of God, or we can meditate on Jesus forgiving those who nailed him to the cross and imagine our own enemy and ask ourselves why we are so unwilling to forgive. We can meditate on the logical consequences of not forgiving. Fast forward your life 10 years and see where the un-forgiveness leads, or where the habit of not forgiving leads. You might consider places where un-forgiveness is the norm- maybe Israel and Palestine- Has un-forgiveness led them into a life you want? Perhaps read about the lives or the saints, or read their writings and learn from their many years of dedication to way of Jesus. Maybe take up the practice of fasting to teach your soul to be sweet and kind when you don’t get what I want.

Transformation is possible, but we have to want it. We have to have a vision of where we are heading in our spiritual life, we have to actually decide to start walking the way of the Spirit, and we have to use every means God has put at the disposal of the church. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and this is what it means to be a subject of the kingdom of God. Of course God is with us every step of the way and we need to rely on Him for strength and guidance. Anything else is not what Jesus meant by following him. AMEN



[1] Renovation of the heart, p87, 88
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