Sunday, 17 September 2017

wiggle room for our brothers and sisters




The Early Church had an incredible amount of diversity to try to hold together. It was a movement that was supposed to transcend human barriers that usually divided the rich and the poor, free and slave, men and women, Jewish and non-Jewish. In Christ a new humanity came into being. All people were invited to be embraced by the one Kingdom under Christ. The church is the embassy of this kingdom.

This one new humanity is the spiritual reality, but there is a lot of work to be done to live it out. In Christ they were all one new humanity, but there were practical issues that needed to be worked out.

Say you grew up in a Jewish home never eating pork as a part of your commitment to God. Not only that, but you never even sat at a table with someone who doesn’t eat kosher. Then you become a follower of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah and you have these non-Jewish people becoming followers of Jesus, but they are still eating pork and maybe eating pork they got from the market that came from pagan temple sacrifices.

And eating kosher is only part of that picture. There are also Jewish festivals, which are mentioned in the Bible. There is the mark of circumcision, which is the symbol of the covenant of Abraham, a mark Jesus himself had. Now you are in a Christian community that includes non-Jewish people who aren’t eating kosher, aren’t celebrating the festivals, and aren’t circumcised.

Maybe some of your Jewish-Christian friends stop eating kosher. It seems like Paul had stopped eating kosher, particularly when he was with non-Jewish people. What does it feel like to be a part of that community? Wouldn’t it feel like people aren’t really dedicating themselves to God? Wouldn’t it seem like they want to have their cake and eat it too? Wouldn’t it seem like they want to follow Jesus, but they don’t really want to change their lives that much?

For others they felt freedom in Christ to eat whatever they like. Jesus said, 
“there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mk 7:15). To them they weren’t concerned about food as much as they were concerned about what their words exposed about the inner recesses of their hearts (Mk 7:21-23). They were more concerned about words spoken in anger or gossiping. The person who seems obsessed about food and festival days might seem a bit spiritually shallow. 



The church is full of issues to disagree about. Take music, for example. Some love the older hymns. They love the majestic language and the profound theology. They are songs that have lasted the test of time and have shaped the worship of the church for many years. They look at the new worship songs and they think they are shallow and repetitive, both musically and theologically.

Those who like the newer music think it speaks more to contemporary life using modern language. It is more upbeat and has a greater emotional impact. The repetition allows the words to sink deeper into the soul as we have opportunity to meditate on them and aren’t constantly being confronted by new thoughts. To them, the older hymns are often boring and use too many archaic words. The older songs don’t always connect to our contemporary culture and can be alienating to those who come in off the street not even sure if they want to be Christians yet.

In the Christian world we can disagree about how we pray- do we use written prayers or should they all be spontaneous. We can argue about liturgy- should our worship feel informal (like a family gathering with our loving Father) or should our liturgy be more formal (like we are gathered respectfully before our Holy King). Is it okay for a Christian to smoke tobacco? Drink alcohol? What happens when weed is legalized?

There are some things that we should agree on as Christians. There are some things that cause us to say this person is a Christian and that person isn’t a Christian- not as a judgement, but just as a description. For example, I would say that belief in God, and belief in Jesus as a historical person, are pretty essential to being a Christian. I would also say that belief in the resurrection and in the authority of the Bible to guide our lives should be essential, as well as a number of moral actions. For example, we should all agree that murder is wrong.  Deciding which issue is essential and which is not can be tricky sometimes.  Paul’s point is clear that there are some things we should agree on as Christians, but there are lots of gray areas that we don’t have to agree on.


Paul said, 
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (Rom 14:1-3).
 (It might be helpful to say that the easiest way to eat kosher is to be a vegetarian, which is probably what the reference to vegetables is about.)

Paul obviously has an opinion on the matter. He sees the “strong” faith person as being the one who isn’t bothered by the food laws, and the “weak” faith person as being the one who is keeping the food laws. Paul doesn’t say that the person should be thrown out of the church. He says there should be room for a difference of opinion.

He’s actually giving a warning to both of them. Those who don’t consider the food laws important anymore should not despise those who still follow the food laws as if they are backwards thinking people who don’t take the New Covenant seriously. Similarly, the person who follows the food laws shouldn’t judge the person who doesn’t eat kosher as somehow not taking the biblical law seriously, or as being unwilling to stand out from the culture.

Later in chapter 14 we read, “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died” (Rom 14:15). And in the next chapter Paul says, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbour for his good, to build him up” (Rom 15:1-2).

What Paul is saying is we have an obligation to one another. Our freedom is not to be selfishly used for our own gratification. We don’t use our freedom and rub it in the faces of those who disagree with us.

Imagine you go out to dinner with someone and they are a recovering alcoholic. Do you order wine with your meal? You certainly have the freedom to do so. You aren’t the one with the alcohol problem, after all. … Paul might say that if you chose to have the wine and the other person is bothered by what you drink “you are no longer walking in love” (Rom 14:15). Those who have freedom have an obligation to bear with those who are bothered. They should not use their freedom to offend others.

C.S. Lewis says something about this in the Screwtape Letters. The demon Screwtape is writing advice to a demon in training who is trying to tempt a man away from God. He says this, 
“I think I warned you before that if your patient can't be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don't mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better. … The real fun is working up hatred between those who say ‘mass’ and those who say ‘holy communion’ when neither party could possibly state the difference … . And all the purely indifferent things-candles and clothes and what not-are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men's minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials-namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application. You would expect to find the ‘low’ churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his ‘high’ brother should be moved to irreverence, and the ‘high’ one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his ‘low’ brother into idolatry. And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labour” (Letter XVI).


This is a pretty tricky teaching in our society. We are swimming in consumerism and individualism which means we are constantly surrounded by messages that tell us that we should be able to have things our way. Our society tends to emphasize my rights, rather than my responsibility to others. The churches in North America are often churches of the like-minded- Churches full of people who like a particular kind of music, a particular style of worship, or who are from a particular ethnic background.

Whatever it is that we think divides us, it cannot be allowed to be more powerful than our unity in Christ. We are called the “body of Christ”. That is not just a metaphor. We are in a mystical unity with the very life of Christ. We have a unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ that has transcended all kinds of barriers to get to us here in Red Deer. We dare not insert new divisions when Christ has transcended so many. When we are not dealing with essentials we should allow freedom of conscience. Whatever our sister or brother thinks will honour the Lord, we should give them the freedom to do so. We might not agree on everything, but as Christians we all agree on honouring Christ.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Conflict in the Church




We can sometimes have a tendency to be a bit romantic about the early church. That is probably because we read passages like Acts 2:42-47: 
“[the believers] devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

Just about every serious Christian I know wants to have a church like that. They are devoted to the teaching of the apostles, which for us is found in the Bible. They are also dedicated to the community, so they have strong relationships in the church. They even held property in common. They would sell things to help the less fortunate among them so that poverty in their community was eliminated. No one lacked necessities. They lived with each other rather than just knowing each other as acquaintances. Miracles flowed from their leaders, the Apostles. They knew God was with them. They worshipped and prayed together. They had communion together. They ate together, and their community seemed to keep growing. … Imagine being a part of a church like that.

What we usually do is we imagine that early church and we compare that image to the churches we are a part of and we start beating ourselves up. … We don’t study our Bibles deeply or often enough. We aren’t very dedicated to the community- We don’t really know each other’s stories, and we don’t really spend much time together. We aren’t as engaged as we could be in changing the practical living conditions of those around us- there is too great a gap between the rich and the poor even within our own congregations. The miraculous doesn’t seem to be very commonplace in our churches- Maybe there is something wrong with the spiritual life of our leaders, or something wrong with the way we worship, maybe we haven’t really given our hearts to really truly worshipping God. Our churches are usually shrinking and not growing- God doesn’t seem to be adding to our number day by day. … As faithful Christians we long to be a part of the church described in Acts.

No doubt the early church had amazing moments, but we should be careful about being overly romantic about that time. If we read through the New Testament we get a more full picture of a very human church. God works through it, yes, but I suspect that was often in spite of the messiness. We see Peter and Paul fighting about circumcision and how the Gentiles are to be included in this Jewish Christian movement. Paul writes his letter to the Corinthians because of numerous divisions in the church there- some say their spiritual gifts are more important than others, some have an issue with eating meat dedicated to idols. There’s even a guy in a sexual relationship with his step-mother. Similarly, Paul’s letter to the Galatians seems to be written because of some people who were coming to the church and teaching them they have to essentially become Jewish before they can become Christians. So there is division there around how to deal with the Mosaic Law. …. It can make you wonder how much of the New Testament we would actually have if it wasn’t for conflict in the churches that gave rise to these letters.

So while there were beautiful and inspiring pockets of the early church, we have to be careful about assuming that every church was a utopia where there was no conflict. The early churches dealt with its own issues, just as we deal with our own issues.

Personally, I find that strangely comforting. We like to aim at that utopian vision from Acts, but it’s also good to know that we aren’t as bad as we sometimes think we are. God’s people throughout the ages have grumbled in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses. We can be like God’s people who turn to God, then take God for granted, then turn away from God, then turn towards God when life gets hard. We can be like those who approached the prophet Samuel asking for a king so they could be just like all the other nations. God’s people have a long history of messiness.

Given the history of God’s people, we are going to deal with conflict at some point. We are going to deal with sin and differences of opinion and hurt feelings and just the messiness of living life together. I think it is comforting that this was not a shock to Jesus. Jesus knew it was going to happen so he gave us a way to deal with it. In our Gospel reading today from Matthew 18 we are given a way to deal with someone who sins against us.

We don’t usually talk about someone “sinning against us”, so I’m going to talk about being hurt by someone. However, “feeling hurt” doesn’t necessarily mean someone has sinned against us. It might be a misunderstanding, for example, but for the sake of what we are talking about let’s say we are hurt because someone has sinned against us.

When we feel like someone has hurt us we often react in a few unhelpful ways. We might suck it up and do the nice thing and try to forget it happened. It festers inside us, but we don’t want to create conflict so we don’t bring it up. We might even spiritualize it and tell ourselves that we have forgiven the person. … The other thing we might do when someone has hurt us is talk about it with all our friends, maybe we send out a mass email describing the horrible things the person has done. Maybe we post something on facebook.

When someone hurts us Jesus gives us a pretty specific method for how we are to respond. First, we go to the person and bring it up with them. If they don’t listen, then we bring along one or two others, if they still don’t listen then we bring it to the church. If they don’t listen to the church, then we treat them like someone who doesn’t belong to the church. … It is a pretty simple process.

When we are hurt by someone the first person we should go to is the person who has hurt us. Just the two of you. … That is not usually our first instinct. We want to tell our family, or our friends, but confronting the person who hurt us is uncomfortable and stressful. … Even if we were to talk to the person who hurt us, we usually want to wait until they come to us. We want them to grovel and apologize, and then we MIGHT accept their apology and forgive them. … But Jesus tells us that when someone sins against us we are supposed to go to them and confront them with their fault.

And what is our motivation for us going to them? The motivation isn’t our own healing, or some sense of justice… Our motivation is to regain our brother or sister. … Which means they lost, in some way.

We don’t regain them by coming to them and pretending we weren’t hurt or by pretending they did nothing wrong. The hurt is real and the sin is real and we only regain them when they are willing to admit that.

Jesus cares about the person who has been hurt as well, but Jesus often calls us to endure all kinds of wrongs as a part of living as disciples of the one who was crucified. Being wronged does not necessarily damage your soul. Sinning and not being willing to repent does great damage to your soul, so that person seems to be the one Jesus is concerned about. That person has put themselves in great peril. That person needs healing. That is the attitude we come to them with.

One of the Early Church Fathers St. Chrysostom (who lived in the late 300’s) once pointed out that Jesus does not say, 
“’accuse him’ or ‘take him to court’. He says ‘correct him’. For he is possessed, as it were, by some stupor, and drunk in his anger and disgrace. The one who is healthy must go to the one who is sick… be earnest toward his cure, not toward satisfying your anger and hurt feelings”. (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 60.1).

Similarly, St. Augustine says, 
“If you fail [to confront him], you are worse than he is. He has done someone harm, and by doing harm he has stricken himself with a grievous wound. Will you then completely disregard your brother’s wound? Will you simply watch him stumble and fall down? Will you disregard his predicament? If so, you are worse in your silence than he in his abuse. Therefore, when anyone sins against us, let us take great care, but not merely for ourselves. For it is a glorious thing to forget injuries. Just set aside your own injury, but do not neglect your brother’s wound. … for the harm he has done is not primarily to you but to himself” (Sermon 82.7).

We don’t want to ignore the person who was sinned against, but the assumption is that they are still in a good position before God and are able to endure wrongdoing because they are united to Christ. The person who has sinned has begun cutting themselves off from Christ and is the one in more danger.

That is the attitude we are to adopt when we go to someone who has hurt us. It will probably take time and prayer to get ourselves into the right attitude before we approach the person. … Usually talking to the person who hurt us (with the right attitude) is enough to restore the relationship.

If this doesn’t work and the person is unwilling to own up to the wrong they’ve done, then we are supposed to bring along one or two witnesses. … Who should we bring? Well don’t bring your friend who you’ve known since kindergarten who wants to tear a strip off the person who hurt you. Bring someone who was saw the situation. That way they can say what they saw happen. Or bring along someone who both of you respect. They might be able to bring some level of objectivity. You might find that you both need to apologize to each other. Maybe there was a misunderstanding that this other person can help identify.

If that doesn’t work then bring the issue to the church. We have a Corporation (made up of the Wardens and the priest) and a Parish Council that represents the church and acts on its behalf. The church leadership will then look into the issue and talk to those involved. It might be that a members of the Parish Council knows something that might bring clarity to the issue. Or maybe the person who has sinned will have a sense of the seriousness of what they’ve done since the church leadership is now involved.

And if they still won’t listen, then they have basically excluded themselves from the church by not being willing to acknowledge their sin and not being willing to work towards restoration of the wounded relationships. This step will make a lot of us squirm, but Jesus basically says we treat them like someone who isn’t a part of the fellowship- like a stranger.

So they are to be treated like a Gentile who was usually a Pagan that did not follow the Jewish God. Similarly, they are to be treated like a tax collector who betrayed their own people to make a profit for themselves while working for the occupying forces that were oppressing their people.

Now this is not going to happen over something small. This is going to be real evil in the midst of the community that someone is unwilling to recognize and seek forgiveness for.

Paul suggests this to the church in Corinth regarding the man who is in a relationship with his step-mother in 1 Corinthians 5. “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Cor 5:2). But what is the reason Paul gives- “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5). The idea is that the shock of not being a part of the community will help the person recognize their sin and seek forgiveness. It is for the person’s own good. We might think keeping them in the fellowship is merciful and kind, but if it keeps them in their sin and they are not willing to deal with it, then have put themselves in a place where their soul can’t receive healing because they are unwilling to admit they have a wound.

This was probably more effective when there was only one church in the city and you couldn’t just go down the street to another church where no one knows who you are. So this step and the motivation behind it can sometimes be more complicated in our situation.

This sounds very harsh. Treat the person that sinned and refused to listen to you like a gentile or a tax collector. It sounds like we turn our backs on them and refuse to have anything to do with them, but then we have to think about how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors. The Apostle Matthew, who tradition tells us wrote this Gospel, was called by Jesus when he was a tax-collector. Jesus was primarily called to Israel, but he also worked miracles of healing for Gentiles and applauded their faith. After the resurrection he commanded his followers to go to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all people. So, to treat a person like a tax-collector or a Gentile is to love them and go to great lengths to help them be restored to a strong and healthy relationship with God.

Sin in the church is a spiritual matter that has an effect beyond just the immediate people effected. The sin of Christians presents a particular image to the rest of the world- We have the label of “hypocrites” in our society because sin is often left unchallenged within the church. … Sin also effects the culture within the church. It changes how much we trust each other and how safe we feel with each other. So really every Christian has an invested interest in the sin of other Christians for a variety of reasons, including concern for the sinner. Paul talks about the Church as being the body of Christ (1 Cor 12). We are all parts of that body and we have an effect on one another. If we stub our toe the rest of our body reacts.

I know a theologian and pastor named Gordon Smith who served a church where two people had a long standing feud that stemmed from a church split over 30 years before he met them. The two did not interact at all, but still came to the same church. They just avoided each other. On one level they might have believed that their issue was between the two of them and it was no one else’s business. But, he and others at the church were convinced that their feud was a sickness in the church that had a spiritual effect far beyond the two of them. Sin has an effect on the church that runs deeper than our individualism wants to lets us believe.

This process is really about radical love. How do we live a life of compassion for everyone around us, even when they hurt us? Can we love the sinner even when their sin burns us? … If we think about it from the other side, isn’t this exactly how we would want to be treated if we were the sinner? How would it feel to have someone genuinely approach you with compassion when you have harmed them through your sin? The church may not be a utopia, but if we learned to treat each other with this kind of love then we would truly be light shining in a dark world.

AMEN

Sunday, 3 September 2017

The Way of the Cross- Matt 16



It is a great privilege to be here with you here at St. Leonard's and to serve Christ with you.

 The lectionary gives us a bit of a rough reading for my first Sunday with you. Peter Rebukes Jesus and Jesus in turn calls Peter “Satan”. That is a hard Gospel reading to ignore.

You might remember that just last week Peter declared Jesus was 
“the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). And Jesus gives a glowing response to Peter’s decoration of who he is- 
"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [which means Rock], and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt 16:17-18).
Any of us would be thrilled if Jesus said this kind of thing about us. Jesus declares Peter to be receiving insight directly from God and is then called the rock upon which the Church is built. That is a big deal!

The gospel of Matthew then tells us 
“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt 16:21).
Peter experiences a kind of whiplash here. Immediately after declaring Jesus is the much awaited messiah, Jesus says he is going to die.  Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him. “Rebuke” isn’t a word we use very often. It’s not something you want someone to do to you. Peter is basically scolding Jesus. Jesus rebukes a demon in the next chapter (Matt 17:18). So this is a pretty strong way for Peter to speak to Jesus.  Peter is obviously shaken up.

There are a few reasons this has hit Peter so hard. One, is that Peter just loves Jesus and doesn't want to see him suffer and die. 
But another reason is that it doesn’t fit the traditional ideas of the messiah that Peter has grown up with. In Peter’s culture the messiah was the Son of David and so he was a warrior king like David was. He was supposed to raise up an army, kick out all foreign oppressive forces and unite the people of Israel under one powerful king. 
The idea of suffering and dying was in direct contradiction with Peter’s understanding of the messiah. The messiah was a superhero who beats the bad guys, he isn’t someone who dies by their hands. A cross is not needed in Peter’s understanding of the role of the messiah. 

Jesus receives Peter’s rebuke as a temptation to live out his calling without the cross. It has the ring of an earlier temptation in Matthew chapter 4, where the devil offers to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world without having to go to the cross. Jesus’ response to Peter “Get behind me, Satan!” (16:23) is an echo of Jesus’ earlier reaction to the temptations of the Evil One. Peter, unknowingly, is filling the role of Satan, God’s adversary.

We shouldn’t be too quick to scold Peter here. It is a presumptuous way to treat his master, yes. But, this is the way disciples have often treated Jesus throughout the church’s history. (you may want to look to the Grand Inquisitor by Dosteovsky- https://youtu.be/om6HcUUa8DI
 ). 
The followers of Jesus often have a vision that is too small. Peter sees the Roman Empire and a unified country of Israel. Jesus is looking to the defeat of Sin and death (not just the Romans) and to the salvation of all humanity (not just the people of Israel). Peter’s idea of the messiah was too small. 

So one reason Peter rebukes Jesus is that he doesn’t conform to the traditional image of messiah. But, it might also be that Peter understands that if his master is supposed to suffer then he is going to suffer as well. Jesus confirms that this is the case because right after rebuking Peter he says, 
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:24-25).
This is bad PR for a new movement. If Peter is going to be the rock on which this new movement is built, then it is his responsibility to help direct it. Jesus should know that this is no way to build a church. Who is going to join a movement where you are promised a cross? … Paul recognizes this when he says that they “preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23).

The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, 
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship).
 The church is often with Peter in rebuking Jesus for his hard call. Bonhoeffer spoke about churches that offer “cheap grace”. It is an easy Christianity where we are never challenged. He says, 
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without … discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate”.
 Bonhoeffer recognized that you can’t chose to be a Christian without being a disciple. And being a disciple requires picking up your cross and following Christ.

For many in the early church this was a literal death. The tradition tells us that all except one of the original apostles were martyred (see CT article). We are told that John was exiled to an island. For the early believers picking up your cross and following Jesus could have been a literal possibility. And we should not forget that it is a literal reality for some of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world- we have seen a vicious example of that under ISIS.

This call of Jesus confronts our desire for a comfortable life. A Jesus that doesn’t expect anything of us is a pretty attractive Jesus for many in our culture. A Jesus that allows me to live the way I like, but then grants me an afterlife in paradise is a pretty attractive Jesus. A Jesus that gives me comfort in the midst of my trouble, but never expects anything from me is an attractive Jesus. ... However, that is not actually the Jesus we have. The Jesus we have is the Jesus who calls us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him. He expects that there will be a cost to our discipleship. We don’t want burdens that Jesus doesn’t actually want us to carry, but he does call us to follow him. And the path he calls us down… well, he almost promises that suffering is awaiting us.

And that is where Peter inside us wants to pull Jesus aside to rebuke him. “Jesus, you want these people to come back next Sunday don’t you? They aren’t going to if you keep talking like that! Say something about you being the good shepherd and how you take care of them! Don’t talk about them having to pick up a cross and follow you!”

That is a hard message to hear. It is an even harder message to try to live. What does it even mean in Red Deer to pick up your cross and follow Jesus? It doesn’t just mean suffering of any kind. It means suffering because of Jesus.

I met a man who became a Christian in Iraq. He was being trained to be an imam and take over the mosque from his father that had been in his family for generations. He was kicked out of his family and was on the run for fear of his life, but didn’t deny Christ.

I know a woman who inserts herself into a family to help care for children who are living a very difficult life. She has become a kind of aunty. She could have ignored this family and done all kinds of other things with her time that her peers are doing, but she has decided to love these kids by being a part of their lives. Even though it is emotionally difficult and messy.

I know a man who owned a garage. Being a disciple of Jesus made him operate with integrity and to give people help who needed it who sometimes had a hard time paying. He would sometimes volunteer his own time to help people out with his skills.

There are many other examples of people around us sacrificing for their love of Jesus. It is not easy work. It requires effort. It sometimes means not making as much money as you could. It sometimes means being involved in the emotional drama of the people you are around, but could easily ignore and walk away from. It might mean being wronged. They do these things in Jesus’ name and the suffering attached to it is in his name too (as big or small it seems).

Picking up our cross is important. It is essential, even. It is so important that Jesus attaches these questions to his statement to amplify his direction to deny ourselves- 
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” 
Jesus says it is so important that it is like gaining or losing your soul. In a sense, picking up your cross and following Jesus is the most important thing you can ever do.

There is a cost to being a disciple, but we should never forget that there is also a cost to not being a disciple, and that cost Jesus seems to imply (frighteningly) is our soul. So as intimidated as we might be about picking up our cross, we should be even more intimidated by the alternative.

Jesus doesn’t ask this without some sort of promise. He says, “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:25). There is a death needed for our false self, so that the true self can live. The false self that is deceived by the ways of Sin must die and give way to the self that reflects the ways of Jesus. Jesus wants our joy to be full (Jn 15:11). Jesus wants nothing less than a full life for us, but to get there requires self-denial.
AMEN



Monday, 28 August 2017

Being a Living sacrifice- Rom 12





When I think of human sacrifice what comes to mind is the movie Joe Versus The Volcano. 



Tom Hanks plays a man who works in a dreary factory. One day Joe is diagnosed with a terminal disease that will kill him within 6 months. Joe quits his job and tries so spend his remaining time well. He is approached by a man who says he has been trying to extract a certain element from an island, but the islanders will only let him put a mine on their island if he provides a human sacrifice for them. The rich industrialist promises to pay for whatever Joe wants for him to live his last days as long as he jumps into the volcano as the needed sacrifice so he can start mining. … I won’t ruin the ending for you in case you haven’t seen it. 
 It is probably one of the more humorous examples of human sacrifice that come to mind. 

That is what it would mean to be a dead sacrifice- to throw yourself into a volcano. … What does it mean to be a living sacrifice? It no doubt takes as much courage and dedication. It takes more actually, because you have to make that decision every morning. It means handing your life over and it is no longer yours. It means handing over all that is yours- all your wealth, all your talents, all your strength. 

This is a shocking idea in a world where we often treat Christianity like a hobby- Some people golf on Sunday mornings, other people go to church. This is amplified because we often treat Christianity from the basis of consumerism- comments like "I didn't get much out of that service" or "that didn't feed me" betray this attitude.  

Are we willing to be living sacrifices? Are we willing to be like Joe, but instead of jumping into the volcano, to be living sacrifices- every day offering ourselves, our talents, our time, our treasure, and our will to God?

We should remember that a sacrifice isn’t a waste. There is a kind of return. For ancient Israel, sacrifice had to do with their relationship with God and that meant sacrifice often had to do with dealing with sin. A sacrifice was for something. You gave your animal as an offering to be healed from your sin. To be a living sacrifice means that there is something to receive as well as give.

Romans chapters 12 to 15 is where the rubber hits the road after reading Romans 1 to 11. Paul sees Christ’s death and resurrection as a new beginning for humanity. He sees all of the world split into two at that point. We either belong to Christ and his kingdom or we belong to the world and its kingdom. There is no gray area- you are in one kingdom or the other. Christ’s kingdom is everlasting. The world’s kingdom is doomed for destruction as it is under the power of Sin. Do we stay in Egypt, or go to the Promised Land? Even as we join Christ’s kingdom we still battle sin, but we are given the power of the Spirit to live in God’s ways. 

To give our lives over to God as living sacrifices means that we give our lives to Christ and his kingdom, which will last into eternity, rather than remain in a kingdom ruled by Sin that is doomed for destruction.

Maybe this is an overly simple example, but I sacrifice a bit of money to get an ice cream cone. I offer something and in return I get something I want more. I want the ice cream more than I want the couple dollars in my pocket. That is what sacrifice is about. We don’t focus on what we give up as much as we focus on what the effect of the sacrifice is. That all sounds very economic, but at its most simple that is kind of what we are dealing with. The ancient Israelites didn’t think as much about the sacrifice they offered as they did about the relationship with God they wanted. That has to be it, or they wouldn’t have done it.

If we are going to truly sacrifice, we have to believe that what is received is better than what we offer. We offer up our sin-sick lives in exchange for eternal life. That doesn’t just mean heaven when we die. It does mean that, but it primarily means eternal life right now that won’t end. It means a life energized by God’s Spirit- A life transformed into the image of Christ. It means giving up the life that is ruled by the power of sin and receiving instead a life filled with the fruit of the Spirit. 

We sometimes burn through the list of the fruit of the Spirit so quick we don’t really think about what kind of life that is. So I invite you to truly think about what that life looks like. Imagine a life primarily marked by 
 love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23).
 Regardless of what you think you would be giving up in sacrifice, wouldn’t you ultimately want a life like that? A life filled with love… joy… peace… patience… kindness…goodness… faithfulness… gentleness… and self-control… Isn’t that the kind of life we try to use our money to buy? Isn’t that really the kind of life we are always trying to get- A life that is happy and joyful? A life that is under the rule of peace and patience rather being ruled by our anger and constantly feeling like there is someone we are in a scuffle with? A life filled with kindness and goodness without worrying about being taken advantage of, or of our fragile egos being wounded? A life where we give up our anxiety and instead are filled with faithfulness, trusting that God has things under control no matter what the circumstances look like, and that He loves us and only wants good for us? A life of gentleness where we don’t feel the need to push and shove to get our way? A life that isn’t ruled by our addictions to pleasures, but is filled with self-control? …

Isn’t that the kind of life we ultimately are trying to have? … What if we can only truly get at that life by giving up our life to God? Jesus said, 
“If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it” (NLT Matt 16:25).

The way we usually try to get at that life doesn’t really work that well. We can’t really buy happiness. We can buy things, and trips, but they are fleeting and (given enough time) you can be bored on a yacht just as you can be bored in a shack. You can give into your urges for pleasure and allow drugs and alcohol to rule your life, but that ultimately leads to a destroyed and hollow life. You can try to use anger to control others and get your way, but that leads to a life of pain and alienation- people don’t really want to be around you, you are always in a fight with someone, and people are afraid to be honest with you. 

The life we really want is the life God is offering us. The trick is that we try to get at that life by saving our life and not losing it. Wouldn’t you rather be happy in a shack than sad on a yacht? What if the way we try to get at that life is all wrong? What if we have to sacrifice our life to get that life?

If that is the life we want then we should present our 
“bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God”. This means “not [being] conformed to this world”. When the Bible speaks about “the world” it doesn’t mean the rocks, trees, birds, lakes, and sky. When the Bible talks about “the world” it means human society organizing itself while trying to ignore God. It means profit at the expense of human lives. It means pleasure at the expense of morality. It means exploitation, abuse, apathy, and corruption. It means short term gain, in exchange for long term pain. It means life polluted and ruled by Sin. 

To be a living sacrifice requires being 
“transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God”. To be a living sacrifice means being in a continuous state of discerning and giving yourself over to God's will. It means to be constantly saying with Jesus “not my will but your will be done” (Lk 22:42). 

To say otherwise means that we don’t trust God. To not be willing to give ourselves to God's will means we don’t trust in God’s will. We think that God’s will is ultimately not for our good. ... That's what it looks like inside me. When I pray to fully give myself over to God's will there is a twinge of fear that God will hurt me, or hurt my family, or people I care about. Some part of me doesn't believe God wants good for me.  

The Christian life is a life of transformation. A life of trusting in God’s will for us. A life where we sacrifice our own ideas and plans when God has other plans. That is why humility is the basic virtue to the Christian life. Pride is having our way regardless of what God wants because we know better, or our will is more important. If we aren’t willing to submit our will to God, then we have chosen to remain in “the world”. We have chosen to believe that we know better than God. We have chosen to believe that if we don’t look out for ourselves no one else will, and God certainly won’t.

But this isn’t a life we can live all on our own. This is a hard way to live. It is a way of life that will look foolish to "the world". It is always easier to be a fool when you are with others. There is a scene in the movie "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" where St. Francis and his brothers are begging and singing in the streets in the rain. People slam their windows, yell at them, and throw things at them. But when I watch that scene I feel like I would much rather be in the rain than in any of the houses. Mostly, though, it would be because I wouldn't be alone begging and singing in the rain. We need Christians around us to inspire us, to give fellowship in the midst of what looks like foolishness. 

"For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness."
But we also need Christian community because living life with others forges our character. We need people to rub against us to teach us patience. When the Bible speaks about being a Christian it assumes this is a life lived with a community. As St. Cyrpian (b.200AD) said, 
“He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother”.
 We need each other to live this life... as messy as that is. Paul says, and this is not the only place, that to be one with Christ is to be one with his Body. It means to be intimately interrelated with other followers of Christ, all of whom are ideally trying to be living sacrifices and serve Christ in others.

The life we are asked to live as Christians is a life of extreme dedication- so extreme that it looks like a living sacrifice. There was a little boy who fell out of bed one night and his father asked him, “How did you fall out of the bed?” The boy answered, “I guess I slept too close to where I got into bed”. We are called to a deeper walk with God. We are called to be continuously transformed into a greater likeness to Jesus. If we stay too close to where we got in (keeping a simplistic faith that asks nothing of us), like the boy, we are in danger of falling out of bed. We will fall back to the old ways of the world instead of the way of the Kingdom. Paul tells us what it means to be a Christian. It means that when we get involved with the living God we are transformed. When God’s Spirit truly gets a hold of us we are never the same- Our minds become his mind, our bodies become his Body, and our ways becomes his Way. And in that we will find the true satisfaction for our deepest yearnings. As Augustine said to God, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”. Let's trust that God knows the way to satisfaction for our hearts. 
AMEN

Monday, 21 August 2017

Charlottesville, Jesus, and the Canaanite woman



In Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12th we were reminded that racism is far from dead. Some of us are privileged enough to tell ourselves that it is a thing of the past, but when we are confronted with young white men waving swastikas that becomes an impossible story to believe. They shouted slogans like “blood and soil” which is a translation of a German phrase having to do with racial national identity that became particularly popular just before the Nazis rose to power in Germany. There were a number of white supremacist groups represented in Charlottesville protesting the removal of a confederate statue. People were seen doing the Nazi salute. These people were not hooded. They showed their faces and came with protective armor, and shields.

In case we think this is something that is only in the United States. Alberta has been called the center of the white supremacist movement in Canada. I remember being 20 years old in Red Deer and making a new friend who showed me his Nazi flag and box of Nazi propaganda. As a teenager I knew people who were skinheads. This stuff is around us.

Ask anyone who is aboriginal and they will tell you that racism is a reality they live with. That community is often stereotyped with the same kinds of things the African American community is labelled with.

This stuff is sneaky. I don’t think any of us want to think of ourselves as racists, but it sneaks in if we aren’t careful to keep it out. If we have to introduce a statement by saying, “I’m not racist but…” then it has probably snuck into our minds. The phrase “I’m not racist but…” has become a phrase we use to introduce a racist statement without feeling racist about it.

I would like to look at the Gospel today and see what it might have to say about all this. It is worth pointing out that Jesus and all his disciples were Jewish and that should confront any anti-Semitic notions right there. We can never ignore Jesus’ human nature without becoming heretics. So we should beware of any interpretation that tries to undo the incarnation and take away Jesus’ humanity in favor of some kind of more “spiritual” Christ. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, 
"has God rejected [the Jewish people]? By no means!" (Rom 11:1).

In our Gospel today Jesus is confronted by a Canaanite woman. She asks for help for her daughter and in response Jesus says, 
"It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." 
Gentiles would sometimes be called dogs. There was no such thing as racial sensitivity at this time and this kind of attitude was rampant in the attitudes of the region on all sides. But it is a surprising thing to hear Jesus say. Sure Jesus was called to the children of Israel first, and then to the Gentiles next, but did Jesus really just call this woman a dog because she’s not Jewish?

This is why it is important to look at biblical readings in context. We have to see what is said before and after an incident if we want to understand it. Right before Jesus encounters this woman Jesus is teaching about defilement. For the Jewish people of Jesus’ time there were ways to become ritually unclean. For example, if you touched a dead body, or if you entered the home of a Gentile (a non-Jewish person), or you ate food that wasn’t kosher, you would be defiled for a certain amount of time. During that time you were forbidden to participate in certain rituals especially in the temple.

What Jesus says would shock his community- 
“it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
 This confronts the whole kosher system. The Pharisees, in particular, were very particular about being careful to eat in a way that didn’t allow them to come close to breaking one of the food laws. They even invented new rules to prevent them from getting even close to breaking the kosher laws  Jesus is basically telling them that they are wasting their time. It is not what goes into the mouth that matters. What you eat doesn’t matter- Not in terms of spiritual defilement anyway. This was something that divided Gentiles and Jews and usually prevented them from eating together, which was a big deal.

Jesus isn’t saying there is no such thing as defilement. He says there is actually such a thing as defilement, but you are defiled by what comes out of your mouth. Jesus says, 
“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile."
 So at this moment we are told to be on the lookout for the words, actions, and intentions of a person if we want to determine how defiled or clean they are. We are not to look superficially at what a person eats. It is not a stretch here to say that this teaching implies that we are not to look at superficial things like skin colour, since food was often related to an ethnic identity.

It is at this moment the Canaanite woman comes along asking for help for her demon-tormented daughter. Jesus doesn’t answer her shouts and his disciples tell Jesus to send her away. I have a very hard time believing that this isn’t some sort of test for the disciples regarding the teaching he just gave regarding defilement. If that is the case then we should be careful to consider her words and actions in relation to her supposed defilement.

She calls out asking for mercy. She does not believe she is entitled to his help. She approached him with humility even while being persistent. She calls Jesus “Lord” and uses the messianic title “son of David”.

Jesus says he was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel, meaning the Jewish people.

She then kneels before him, but in the Greek the word to “kneel before” and to “worship” are the same, so we could even say she knelt in worship before Jesus.

And this is where we meet the phrase we mentioned at the beginning, 
"It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

She responds with faith, even to this. 
"Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."
 Notice all through this passage, the disciples don’t even call Jesus “Lord”. They don’t kneel in worship before him. They even tell him what to do by telling him to send her away. When we look at her words and actions we can see if she is defiled or not. She calls Jesus the “Lord” multiple times. She uses the title of the messiah for him. She is persistent, humble, and worshipful. These are the qualities Jesus desires in a disciple. She has showed that she is not defiled. Her heart is full of faith.

And so Jesus responds, 
“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
 And her daughter was healed instantly.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, 
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”.
 Where did King learn this? I believe it is something he learned from Jesus.

Right from the beginning the Bible speaks about one human family with common ancestors, Adam and Eve. The Bible assures us that we are one human family created by one God. 


We don't have time to go through all of the bible this way, but there are many instructions in the Bible like we find in Leviticus 19:34 
"You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt". 

Jesus confronts racism when he answers the question, “who is my neighbour?” The hero of his parable was a Samaritan (Lk 10). In Jesus’ day this was a hated group of people that were considered both Heretics and a people with an impure bloodline. To a first century Jew a “good Samaritan” was an oxymoron. You might also remember Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4). Jesus asks the woman for a drink from her bucket, but she is shocked because Samaritan and Jews don’t share dishes because of defilement issues. And yet, Jesus doesn’t have an issue with her being a Samaritan.

And we can also look at the legacy of Jesus’ disciples. The Christian movement quickly became an incredibly diverse group embracing all peoples who wanted to put their faith in Christ. Religions of the past were often tied to race, nationality, and geography, but Christianity broke past all those barriers. Paul taught the Galatians, 
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:27-29).
 For Paul Christ transcends all those identities and unites us across them. There is neither Jew nor Geek in Christ. It is not a barrier that divides them. I think Paul would be horrified to see what we have done in the church by making Scottish Presbyterian churches, and German Lutheran churches, and Dutch Reformed churches, and English Anglican churches. And we see this still happening with Korean Presbyterian Churches, and Egyptian Coptic churches, and Russian Orthodox churches. It would have been easy for the ancient Church to have a Jewish Christian Church and a Gentile Christian Church, but Paul would not have it. We are supposed to be transcending these barriers in Christ’s name. But we seem to be going back to that pre-Christian practice of having a God connected to an ethnic identity and a national geography. As if that matters more than our identity in Christ.    

Jesus taught his disciples that, 
“out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person…”.
 Racism is at best slander and false witness. At its worst it becomes murder, which we saw in Charlottesville, but which we all know is only the most resent in a long line of horrifying crimes that have plague human beings. It is not the superficial that defiles. It is what comes out of our hearts. Let our hearts be full of a faith that transcends all prejudice.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Joseph and the hidden God





Joseph’s story is one of the greatest stories ever told. like all great stories, we can’t predict the end from the beginning. Things often seem to get worse before they get better. What happens to Joseph doesn’t match what we think he deserves, which builds up a cry for justice within us. Joseph doesn’t seem to deserve any of the awful things he gets. He gets thrown into a pit, then he is sold into slavery. He is falsely accused of trying to rape his master’s wife and then is thrown into jail. (I’m skipping ahead in the story a bit, but I think Joseph’s story really can only be told with the end in mind).

The story of Joseph is for all those who struggle to see God’s action in their lives. Joseph’s story is a reminder that just because things are difficult and messy it doesn’t mean that God has forgotten about us. Joseph’s story is also a reminder that God’s will is bigger and more complicated than we can understand. Our ideas of God’s will are often overly simple and stereotypical. We can equate God’s will with our ideas of success. If God is active in our lives we shouldn’t have any money worries. We should be free of family drama. We shouldn’t have to deal with serious illnesses. Not to mention the mess of the world we live in.

The Bible confronts this simplistic understanding of God’s will in many places. The most famous example is probably Job. The story of Job is about a good man who deals with horrendous circumstances that are not deserved in the least. Jesus, is the central figure in our faith. Jesus himself deals with rejection by his people, betrayal by one of his own disciples, and a torturous death as a criminal on a cross. All of this is what happens as he follows God's will.

Actually, the church has often seen the story of Jesus as foreshadowed by story of Joseph. Joseph is the beloved son of his father. He was sold by his own brothers for pieces of silver (Judah/ Judas). What they thought they were doing was getting rid of him, but it is this very action that ultimately results in their salvation. Through being sold into slavery Joseph eventually works his way to being the most powerful man in Egypt (besides Pharaoh). From that vantage point Joseph was able to organize Egypt to store food on a mass scale, which saved them from a terrible famine, which he anticipated by interpreting Pharaoh’s dream. An action that eventually saved his family. Likewise, Jesus is betrayed by one of his own and killed by the leaders of his own people. He is killed on the cross, but it is through that cross and his resurrection that Jesus makes salvation available to humanity. In both Jesus’ story and Joseph’s story, there was a greater outcome that human beings are unable to see from the immediate circumstances. 

But, I digress. I was trying to make the point that the Bible confronts the idea that God's will for us matches our ideas of success.  Jesus’ own disciples deal with rejection and imprisonment as we see over and over in the book of Acts. Paul also had to endure difficulty. There’s a part of his 2nd letter to the Corinthians that I sometimes remind myself of when I start feeling sorry for myself. Paul, talking about living life following God’s will, says-
 “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor 11:24-28). 
That is what following God's will looked like for Paul. In this sense Joseph’s story is not that unusual. God’s servants endure hardship. It doesn't stop with the Bible either, when we look into the lives of the saints it seems like their path is filled with difficulty and suffering.    

We should be careful to make a distinction here. I don’t believe God causes bad things to happen to us. We live in a broken world where sin is active. We move through this brokenness as we live our lives. As we follow God’s will, we have no guarantee to be spared pain or difficulty as we bump into that difficulty and get infected with the sin. Joseph’s story shows us that God’s will is much more complicated than we can imagine. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says, 
"And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (8:28).
 We trust that God knows what He’s doing, regardless of what it looks like to us. As Isaiah reminds us, 
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9).
 We are called to trust God not because of the circumstances we are in, but sometimes in spite of them. 

Living in this world requires faith. We need it when we look at the mess of the world. We need it when we look at the mess of the church. We need it when we look at the mess of our lives, and the messy lives of the people around us. In Hebrews 11 we read, 
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).
 Faith is seeing beyond the circumstances towards the future promised by God and trusting God has the power to bring it into reality.

The Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman commenting on Joseph’s story says, 
"in the contingencies of history, the purposes of God are at work in hidden and unnoticed ways"… 
"the God of [Joseph’s] narrative does not appear, speak, act, or intrude. But there is no doubt about his governing intent and capacity."
 It is only at the end of Joseph’s story that we see God’s hand in it. All the way through the story God seems to be absent. This is often how our lives feel. We don’t often see God’s plan. We don’t usually hear God’s voice directing us in an obvious way. The circumstances of our lives might leave us feeling like God is absent, rather than deeply present. Joseph’s story is a reminder of God’s deep and profound presence in our lives.

It is easy to say that from the end of Joseph’s story, but the trick in our lives is to be able to trust God in the middle of the mess. … Before he’s sold into slavery Joseph has dreams. To him they must seem like visions of God’s will for him. Joseph's dreams speak about the authority he would be given. His family would bow down to him. As expected this kind of a vision doesn’t go over well with his older brothers. Joseph’s brothers are quick to take advantage of the opportunity to rid themselves of this favorite son of their fathers, so they sell him into slavery and tell his Father he was killed by an animal. … What is Joseph to think of the vision God gave him as he travels to Egypt as a slave? What would any of us think? We might blame ourselves. Have we sinned in some way to cause God to reject us? Maybe we blame God. We shake our fist at the sky. Maybe we blame the people around us. They are sinners getting in the way of God’s will.

Many of us have felt that kind of disappointment. We might not have been sold into slavery, but most of us have at some point in our lives felt as if our future has been taken from us. You have a time in your life when you see a really bright future ahead of you. It might have been a relationship, or a pregnancy, or it might have been a job. Whatever it was- you had your hope tied to that person or that position and then you feel like that robe was stripped from your shoulders.

We are hit with a sickness, or we lose a friend, our partner dies, and we wonder if God is present at all. We want to believe in a world where honesty and truth triumph, but often instead it seems like victory goes to the highest bidder, or the one with the biggest muscles, or the person with the hottest temper. It seems like the slave trader and the jealous brothers win.

God can sometimes be hard to spot, but the empty wells we get stuck in are very real. The voice of God can go unheard, but the shout of the slave master and the snap of the whip on our backs feels very real.

We haven't seen the ending of our story yet, but we do have the benefit of seeing the end of Joseph's story. We see that he does not end his life as a slave, and in fact the dreams God gives him come true. We also see that if Joseph's brothers had succeeded in killing Joseph, they would be taking away their own future. Joseph's blessing resulted in the blessing and survival of many families including the whole family of Israel.

God can seem hidden in Joseph's life, but by the time we get to the end we realize that God was involved all along. God was working the whole time to preserve the promise that He made to the family of Abraham. However, God's activity went unseen. God used whatever circumstances were present to preserve the dream He had given Joseph. God was able to use and transform the brothers' hatred and jealousy. God was able to even work through and transform Joseph's slavery to the end that Joseph's dreams come true.

This story is a powerful reminder that though God can seem hidden in our lives, that does not mean that God is not active. God is active and faithful to bring about what he has promised. The ways of God are at work regardless of the actions of Egypt, his brothers, or Joseph himself. God works mysteriously and unpredictably, but unstoppably towards the end He has determined.


Don't worry if you can't see God's obvious actions in your life right now. God is always at work. He was active in the life of Joseph in spite of jealous brothers and slavery. God is active even when it seems as though He couldn't possibly be present- such as on a cross or in a tomb. God is at work. Though He may be hidden, He is at work. And for those who dream the dream of Jesus' kingdom they will find themselves part of an overwhelming reality that cannot be stopped. AMEN

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Wrestling with God



I think sometimes we present the Christian life a bit too simplistically. We can sometimes make it sound like becoming a Christian will solve all your problems. We can respond to people’s complex problems with cliché’s like, “Let go and let God”. We can walk away feeling like we have reassured the person, but they are still left with their problems. When we oversimplify life with God we can run the risk of becoming like Job’s friends who tried to give Job simplistic explanations for his suffering. However, at the end of the book God says to Job’s friends that only Job spoke rightly about God, while the friends spoke falsely. Job brought his complex troubles and questions to God. We need to be careful about oversimplifying the Christian life.

Sometimes things do seem to go well and simply. We have moments in our lives when it seems like there is a flow. Our prayers are constant and easy. We read our Bibles and we are grounded and inspired. We meet life with faith, hope, and love. Hopefully we have long stretches of our lives that are like that. But, if we are serious about our life with God we will have times and seasons when we struggle.

At times life is a struggle. At times it feels like we have to fight for every breath, and for every inch of ground. It might even feel like we are wrestling with God. I know that’s not the pious thing to say. We are supposed to say that God is on our side. He is fighting for us, not against us. He loves us. He has our best interests in mind. … I believe all that, but I also know that sometimes I can feel like I am wrestling with God.

In Genesis 32 we read, 

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’”

We don’t know who the mysterious stranger is, but after the event it is implied that Jacob has wrestled with God and has seen God face to face and survived. After this encounter Jacob is given a new name that will mark God’s people for the rest of history- Israel. The name “Israel” is difficult to translate. It can mean either “triumphant with God”, or it can also mean to “wrestle with God”. Given that the story where Jacob gets his name involves wrestling I’m inclined to lean towards the definition being “wrestles with God”.

If that renaming is accurate then perhaps we are overly simplistic in the way we describe the Christian life. Perhaps we are meant to have moments where we have to understand our relationship with God as a struggle- even as a wrestling match. I’m sure Job felt like he was wrestling with God. He was innocent and had done nothing to deserve his pain. He called out to God for justice and to explain his suffering. Perhaps even Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane felt like his human side was wrestling with God. His human prayer was to have the cup of suffering removed from him so that he would not have to endure the cross. The stress of the struggle caused him to sweat drops of blood. Eventually his human will was drawn in line with his divine self, but the struggle was very real. His prayer to have the cup removed is an unanswered prayer spoken by Jesus’ own lips.

Saints are those who have a deep relationship with God and they will resist easy and simplistic descriptions of life with God. John of the Cross, when writing on the life of prayer, wrote extensively on the Dark Night of the Soul. The Dark Night is a painful experience of the absence of God and of having all joy taken away. No pleasure is found in anything. It is a spiritual and emotions desert. Prayer feels like a waste of time in this moment. St. John tells us that God permits the Dark Night ultimately to purify the soul, but it is a painful experience.

I’m sure we all have moments in our lives that are full of doubts about God, the Church, and our faith. Doubt is a normal part of the life of faith if we are honest. Usually doubt is found at the edge of our faith. Doubt is where our faith is being challenged to transform and grow. Sometimes we struggle because we know what we should do but we really don’t want to. St. Augustine once said, “Lord, grant me chastity… but not yet”. He knew what God wanted him to do, but he resisted doing it. He wrestled with God. We might experience trials, such as sickness, or depression, or abuse, or the death of a loved one, and we are challenged to understand how this works with God’s world and God’s creatures and God’s permissions.

It’s strange that we can so simplify the Christian life when at the very center of our faith is a bloody man on a cross. It is an image of the separation of God and human beings, and the tremendous cost required to repair that division and reunion. It is an image of struggle- an image of suffering love. Not love alone- Suffering love. The life of faith is a life of struggle- even, at times, struggle with God.

I know in my own life I feel like I am sometimes struggling with God. There is part of me that resists God. There are times when prayer is hard and even painful. There are times when prayer feels like wrestling. It drains my energy. There is a darkness I am keenly aware of that fights with God. There is a part of me that doesn’t want to submit to God.

We hear some of Jesus’ words, “whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). “Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:33). There are plenty of other passages I could read. Isn’t there a little part of you that says “No, I won’t”? Isn’t there a little part of you that begins wrestling with God when his commands threaten our pleasure, or our security, or our bank account, or the comfortable lives we have built for ourselves? Isn’t there part of you that resists and says, “No, you ask too much”? 
 In the Hymn Come Thou Font of Every Blessing the third verse says, 
“Let thy grace Lord like a fetter Bind my wand'ring heart to Thee Prone to wander Lord I feel it Prone to leave the God I love Here's my heart Lord take and seal i Seal it for Thy courts above”.
 That verse always strikes me so powerfully because I feel the truth of it in my bones.

While there is a part of me that fights against God, there is also another part of me that refuses to let go. Job’s wife tells him to give up the struggle and just “curse God and die”- Just walk away from God and stop the struggle. Sometimes that seems like the easier thing to do rather than be constantly dealing with the tension of being drawn into God’s will.

As Jacob is wrestling with the strange God figure we read, “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’”. Jacob was wounded in the struggle- a wound that would cause a limp for the rest of his life. The stranger told him to let him go, but he still hung on. He refused to let go until the stranger gave him his blessing. I sometimes feel like Jacob. There is a blessing there and even though I might be tempted to walk away I refuse to because I believe there is a blessing. I want to fight for that blessing. I refuse to let go. The fight itself could be seen as a kind of intimacy- a kind of embrace. The Medieval Jewish Commentator, Rashi, said, “for so is the habit of two people who make strong efforts to throw each other down, that one embraces the other and attaches himself to him with his arms.”

Jacob meets the mysterious stranger when he is on the way to meet his brother, Esau, who wanted to kill him 14 years earlier. In some ways it would have been easier to stay where he was, but God had promised a blessing of land and family and that God would use his family to bless the world. So Jacob returns to his father’s land to face his brother. He knows it is God’s will for him, but no doubt it was a meeting that produced anxiety. To soften up his brother he sends gifts ahead of him, hoping that Esau’s vengeance would be extinguished by the gifts before they actually met. Jacob, no doubt is consumed by anxiety. Jacob wrestles with his own anxieties about meeting his brother and to pursue God’s promise. It was an internal struggle. That is when he wrestles with the mysterious stranger and receives both a wound and a blessing that comes with the new name, Israel. As Jacob left his family and travelled to find a bride he encountered God and saw a vision of angels moving between heaven and earth. Now as he returns home to the land of promise and to his family, he again encounters God, but this time it is a struggle. Having faced God, Jacob finds the courage to face his brother.

This passage is strange and mysterious. We don’t usually think about God this way. We want to think about God as the peaceful Good Shepherd. 
C.S. Lewis seemed to get this side of God. In his book The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe the children are nervous about meeting Aslan the lion (the Christ figure)  and they ask if he is “safe”. The beavers reply, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” The God Jacob met was not safe, he was left with a limp, but he was good in that he received a blessing and God was faithful to His promise.

C.S Lewis grabbed onto this idea and used it over and over in his writing. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the character Eustace is full of character defects- he is greedy, selfish, and a coward among other things. Without getting into too much detail Eustace gets into trouble because of his selfishness and greed. To his horror, he ends up being transformed into a dragon. Aslan eventually guides Eustace to become human once again. This begins by the dragon shedding his skin like a snake, but eventually Aslan has to help remove the dragon flesh. Eustace says, “I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt.” Eustace is a changed person after this encounter. He is healed, but it was painful.



Like Aslan, God is not safe, but he is good. He is not about meeting all my wants and making me feel warm and fuzzy. He will struggle with us, and tear at us. In a way, he is even dangerous. But, ultimately God’s efforts are to transform us. He will tear away our sin and struggle against our self-destructive desires. He will fight against all that is bad in us- all that will destroy us, even if we want it desperately. We might walk away with a limp, but in a more profound way we will also be more whole.
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