Monday, 4 December 2017

The Spirituality of Apocalypse

Advent throws a lot of us off. For most of us Advent is about preparing for Christmas. We are putting up Christmas lights on our houses, and our Christmas trees in the living room. We are starting to hear Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby echo in the stores. We settle into the fact that winter isn’t going anywhere, and we even hope for a white Christmas.

Then we come to church and it is doom and gloom- 
“in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken”.
 … It’s a far cry from “baby, it’s cold outside” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. It seems like every year we are caught off guard. We want to jump into Christmas carols and there is some liturgical Grinch holding it all back and telling us we have to think about this thing called Advent.

Advent means “coming” or “arrival”. It is the season when we think about Jesus “coming” to us. We think of both his first coming, which is the first Christmas, but we also think about his second coming. We are fine with the first Christmas. That is what we primarily think about this time of year. … It is usually the Second Coming of Jesus that doesn’t sit very well with us. The Second Coming brings with it judgement against evil, and descriptions of dramatic events like the sun and moon going dark and the stars falling. It all sounds very apocalyptic. “Apocalypse” is a word we associate more with “zombie” than with “Christmas”.

So what do we do with these more apocalyptic aspects of Advent? First, I think it is important that we don’t get carried away with obsessing over predicting when the Second Coming will happen. There are people who seem to spend their lives trying to determine when this will happen. They put together detailed charts and orders of events. They comb through the news trying to find any events that might connect to a scriptural prophecy. … I remember seeing this guy on TV when I was a kid. During the Cold War he was sure that the Soviets were a part of the anti-Christ’s efforts to take over the world. I remember my Opa telling me about similar predictions during World War 2. Whoever the ‘bad guys’ seemed to be at the moment, these people seem to find a way to connect them to biblical prophecy. …

I really don’t think that’s what Jesus meant when he told us to watch and wait. … All those who have made predictions about Jesus’ second coming have one thing in common… they’ve all been wrong. According to Jesus’ own words, the first thing that says you’re wrong is that you make a prediction at all. Jesus says it will be a surprise. He will come like a thief in the night. In our Gospel Jesus says, 
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come”.
 I take from this that it is a waste of time to try to make predictions about when it will happen.

Those who work hard to connect prophecy to the daily news often also misunderstand the highly symbolic nature of what is written. Jesus says, 
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24-25).
 … In the ancient world the sun and moon and stars were seen as divine powers that controlled empires and human lives. We still see a remnant in this in the horoscopes published in the papers. It is the idea that what the stars are doing in the sky determines your future, they control the empires that crush you, but when Jesus comes the sun, moon, and stars will lose their power. It is a symbolic statement that when the greatest power in the universe shows up even the greatest powers in the sky are no match for him. They are darkened and they fall. Then we will see 
“'the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” He will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven”.
 Jesus comes in God’s power and God’s glory and he is in command of God’s angels and does the kinds of things the Old Testament says God will do. It is a highly symbolic language that relies on knowing the symbolism of the Old Testament and the ancient world. 

I’m less interested in predicting the timing of the Second Coming. I’m much more interested in the spirituality of apocalypse. By that I mean, in the context of all this talk of the ‘end time’, what attitude do we carry with us? What ‘big picture’ do we see? What gives life meaning? What is our place in the universe? How do our actions matter?

I think the concept of apocalypse touches a deep and powerful place in the human heart. The themes of apocalypse are interwoven in an incredible number of our stories. This is especially true of fantasy and superhero movies. In these movies earth is confronted with an incredible evil. It is an overwhelming evil that threatens to destroy humanity. It is too much for human beings. All we can do is place our hope in someone to save us. Think about Darth Vader and the Empire in Star Wars. Or, think about the robot Ultron in the Avengers movie who wants to make a peaceful planet by destroying all humans, or think about an advanced alien species attacking earth. … Then someone arrives and beats back the impossibly strong enemy and saves the day. Often this is a superhero like superman, or the Avengers, or Luke Skywalker, but some of the best stories tell about unlikely heroes- like little powerless Hobbits who defeat Sauron and his armies in the Lord of the Rings. … I believe this story keeps getting retold because it is placed deep in the human soul. Apocalypse is about the world seeming very bleak and hopeless, but just when things look like they can’t get any darker God saves His people and is proven to be more powerful than any adversary. It is a story we find woven throughout Scripture and throughout humanity.

A spirituality of apocalypse will recognize that there are problems in the world that we are unable to solve. We need to call on God to save creation. The moment we really internalize that reality we are able to relax as we realize that we don’t have to be the messiah. It’s not up to us to solve everyone’s problems. As we watch the news and we see wars and environmental disaster it is pretty easy to be overcome by fear and anxiety. The problems we face are too big for us. Obviously, this doesn’t mean we do nothing, but it is healthy for us to recognize we can’t solve all the world’s problems. So we recognize that we can’t do it and call on Christ to save the world.

In a spirituality of apocalypse it would also be important for us to live in a way that recognizes that Christ will come again soon. He could come an hour from now, or 1000 years from now, or 10,000 years from now. … I like what C.S. Lewis says in his book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Aslan the lion is the Christ character in the books, and Aslan says to Lucy, 
“’Do not look sad. We shall meet soon again.’ 
‘Please, Aslan’, said Lucy, ‘what do you call soon?’ 
‘I call all times soon’ said Aslan…”.
… Christ wants us to consider his coming to be “soon”. Even if it is in 10,000 years, Christ still wants us to live as if he is coming tomorrow. To live in that reality means to ask ourselves, what would we be found doing if he came tomorrow? How can we make today count? Would he find us doing something that matches his mission to save the world? Would he find us loving people- children, our families, strangers, our church? Would he find us spreading hope? Would he find us peacemaking? Would he find us helping hurting people? Would he find us doing something that shapes us into people that love God more? Would he find us loving our neighbour? Would he find us making the world a more caring and kind place? If we believe Christ is coming to save the world then are we acting in a way that are in line with the Christ we believe in? Are we acting in a way that matches that saving action? Are we agents of the goodness of Christ, rather than agents of destruction and selfishness? … A spirituality of apocalypse recognizes that everyday counts because it might be our last day to do something beautiful for God.

This is what I think Jesus means by telling us to watch and wait. It isn’t passive. It is an active waiting. In our Gospel reading Jesus says, 
“It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
 The waiting he is speaking about is an expectant waiting. Servants who are waiting for their master to return are actively performing the tasks that were given to them so that when the master returns they are found at their work. That is what waiting means for the servants whose master is gone.

A spirituality of apocalypse might also be called an Advent spirituality. It is an attitude of the soul that is grounded in the reality that we are unable to solve all the world’s problems. Christ is the one who will save the world, not us. But that doesn’t mean we do nothing. We act and think in ways that are consistent with Christ’s saving action. We might not be able to solve everyone’s problems, but we can show love and care to one. This Advent may God bless you with a heart ready to meet our Lord who is coming soon.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Christ in disguise

This is a challenging passage of Scripture. I think everyone who cares about being a disciple of Jesus hears these words and feels a little twinge of fear wondering if we are doing all we can.

Jesus is going to judge all of humanity, and what is the basis on which he going to judge humanity? He is going to judge humanity on the basis of how they treated him when he came to them in a kind of disguise. He is disguised as the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.

There are a couple of ways we can interpret this passage. To the original hearers they would have probably heard Jesus speaking about his disciples going out to the nations. Jesus speaks about the “least of these my brothers and sisters”, which would most likely refer to his disciples. You might remember that when Jesus sends out his disciples in Luke chapter 10 he gives them directions saying, 
“Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, … Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ … And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide” (Luke 10:4, 5, 7). 
The disciples were very much reliant on the hospitality of those they met. What this passage is saying is that how his disciples were received or not received is experienced by Jesus very personally. It’s as if Jesus was in the clothes of his disciple experiencing being accepted or rejected.

Think about Paul before his conversion while he was still persecuting Christians and then Jesus appears to him on the road to Damascus. Paul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” And Jesus says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). Jesus says that what Paul was doing to his followers, he was actually doing to him. Jesus didn’t say “you are persecuting my people” he says that Paul was persecuting him.

As his disciples go out to the peoples of the world to share the gospel they will be treated hospitably or not. So at the end of the age all the peoples of the world will be gathered together and they will be judged on the basis of how they received the followers of Christ. … if you are a follower of Christ and someone has mistreated you because you are his follower it is taken personally by Jesus. He takes it so personally that what has been done to you he considers it done to him personally.

This is both good news and quite challenging for us. It is good news in that it means that Jesus has our back. As we try to follow him and minister to those around us- as we try to be Christians in the world for the sake of others- Jesus sees himself as right there with us. For those who receive us, Jesus sees them as receiving him. For those who reject us, Jesus sees them as rejecting him. … Jesus is with you in a powerfully intimate way. It shows the deep identification Jesus has with us.

This is also challenging for us though. It means that how we treat our fellow Christians is how Jesus sees us treating him. If we gossip against a fellow Christian we are gossiping against him. If we quarrel with a fellow Christian, we are quarreling with Christ. If we ignore a Christian teenager, or get upset that a child in church is a bit noisy- Jesus sees us as doing that to him. This goes across denominational lines as well. How do we feel about Roman Catholics, or Baptists, or Pentecostals? If we look down on other kinds of Christians because of their style of worship, for example, Jesus sees us as looking down on him. If Christians in other parts of the world are being persecuted, as they have been under ISIS, and we ignore their cry, then we have ignored the cry of Christ.

On the other hand, when we serve fellow Christians across the world, especially when they are in trouble, Jesus sees us as serving him. When we bless and love our Christian brothers and sisters in other denominations, then Jesus receives that love as being directed to him. When we treat our brothers and sisters in our own church with honour, love, and respect, then Jesus sees that as being directed to him. … So in this interpretation of the “least of these” as the disciples of Jesus we can feel both the good news and the strong challenge.

The second way we can interpret this passage is to see the “least of these my brothers and sisters” as the suffering of humanity. This is the way Mother Teresa has interpreted this passage. She often called poverty the “distressing disguise” of Jesus. The Rule of St. Benedict directs the monks to welcome every stranger as if they are welcoming Christ (Chapter 53). While the first reading would be a more accurate reading historically, reading “the least” as being the poor in general is also in line with the call of Jesus, and in line with the thrust of the Scriptures in general.

Often throughout the Old Testament the prophets call judgement on the people for the way they have treated the vulnerable. In Isaiah 58 we read, 
“Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, … if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday” (Is 58:5-7,10).
 Psalm 68 says that God is the “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows” (Ps 68:5). Exodus explicitly commands, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child” (Ex 22:22). Deuteronomy 10 says, God “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (Deut 10:18). God rescues a group of slaves and makes them the people of God. We could go on, but I think we can see from a few examples that God has a particular care for the vulnerable. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t care for the rich and powerful, but there is particular attention given to the poor and vulnerable that live on the margins of society.

Jesus too was particularly concerned with those on the margins who fell through the cracks- those who had been rejected or written off. Women were often not treated well in the ancient world, but Jesus’ treatment of women was incredibly generous in comparison to the societal norm of his day. Children were often ignored and treated as a nuisance. When Jesus finds out that his disciples are trying to keep the children from bothering their master he tells them to let them come to him. In Matthew 18 Jesus, 
“calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, 'Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:2-6).
 Jesus often directs people to help the poor and even commands us to do good even to our enemies. So clearly a second way of interpreting the “least of these my brothers and sisters” as being the vulnerable and needy of humanity is not out of line with Jesus and his teachings. It has actually been an ancient way for Christians to interpret this passage.

What is Jesus saying with this teaching? He is saying that he comes to us in need but somehow disguised and we help him or we don’t and we will be judged on that basis. It is about how we treat Jesus in the other person. I suspect Jesus is concerned with our character and how willing we are to love the other. If we didn’t know Jesus how would we receive Jesus on the basis of our character. Have we developed into the kind of people who would receive Jesus and help him if he came to us and we didn’t know him? If we lived in ancient Palestine when Jesus was roaming around the countryside preaching, how would we receive him. Would we bring food out to him and his disciples, or would we see him as a nuisance and a distraction from our work? Paul doesn’t seem to have ever met Jesus, but he definitely persecuted the disciples of Jesus, and in that action Paul exposes himself as the kind of person who would have also persecuted Jesus.

We could interpret this passage to say Jesus has a mystical connection with his followers or the poor and vulnerable, but I suspect what Jesus is really getting at is what kind of a person is being exposed when we encounter those in need. Is a loving, hospitable heart exposed? Is it the kind of heart that would receive and serve Christ if he were to come to us? His words to those who gather will be “come… inherit the kingdom” or “depart from me”. Those who welcomed the presence of Christ will receive more intimacy with Christ in his kingdom. And those who rejected the presence of Christ will get more of what they wanted- they will depart from the presence of Christ who is the source of all good things.

So may we recognize Christ in each other. May we recognize him in the stranger. In the refugee. May we see Jesus in the teenager at church who is always there but we have never had a conversation with. May we serve Christ in the shut in. May we love Christ in the poor and rejected. May we receive the stranger as if it is Christ himself walking through our doors because it just might be him- in his distressing disguise.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

What do you do with what God has given you?

We find our parable today surrounded by teachings having to do with Jesus’ second coming and how we are to live in the meantime.

The parable before today’s reading is about the ten bridesmaids. Five were wise and were prepared with enough oil to last through the night, but five were not wise and their oil ran out. While they were out buying more oil the groom arrived and the wedding began without them. The lesson is to be prepared for his arrival. The second coming of Jesus is the groom’s arrival.

Next week our Gospel lesson is about Jesus separating the sheep and the goats depending on what they have done for Jesus in the guise of those who were in need- the hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, those in need of clothing, or a stranger. The lesson here is that Jesus has so identified with those in need that whatever we do for those in need it is as if we have done it for Jesus himself. And, as much as we haven’t served those in need we haven’t served Jesus either.

The parable about the talents finds itself tucked between these two lessons about being prepared for Jesus’ coming and serving those in need.

Our present parable is about a man who goes on a journey and entrusts his wealth to three of his servants. He doesn’t distribute the wealth equally, one receives 5 talents, the next 2, and the third gets 1 talent. The master probably had a sense of what his servants could handle and he distributes his wealth accordingly. The master didn’t owe them this money. It was entrusted to them while their master was away.

This was not pocket change either. A talent was worth 15-20 years wages for a day laborer. In modern money it would be almost a million dollars. So, they are entrusted with a lot of money. Even the servant who was only given 1 talent was still given a lot of money.

 The talents have been seen not only as wealth, but also as particular abilities like artistic abilities, or construction, or organization, or numbers, or teaching. 
One commentator said that our English word “talent”, which refers to a gift or ability, actually came from this parable.The early Church Father Chrysostom says these talents could represent something as simple as our senses, or our ability to speak, our hands and feet, the strength of our body, the understanding of our mind, or our listening ears. … If your back was broken and you couldn’t walk how much would you be willing to pay if someone could make you walk again? We often take these things for granted until we lose them. So each of these abilities is an incredible gift to us.

We do have different abilities, and we deal with different life circumstances, and perhaps that tells us something about the 5 talents, the 2 talents and the one talent. Some are given incredible abilities. I went to seminary with a guy who could pick up any instrument and start playing it. He couldn’t read music, but he could play anything. He was given great talent in the area of music. Someone like Bill Gates was given great intelligence which has also led to him being granted great wealth. We might think of people like them as being given 5 talents.

Sometimes we are given what we have the ability to handle. We might not all have the ability to be responsible with vast amounts of wealth. That takes a very strong character. We might not have the 5 talents. We might have 2. Two is still absolutely significant and valuable. Even one is significant and valuable. 

The significance of the talents is to say that we have been entrusted with great wealth- our own lives, material wealth, and spiritual wealth (The Gospel, The kingdom of God, The gifts of the Spirit, forgiveness of sin). It has all been entrusted to us to be used for God’s purposes in the world.

The master leaves to go on a trip. (If we see Jesus as being the master then his leaving is probably his Ascension to the Father after he is resurrected.) The servants are given complete freedom regarding how to deal with their master’s money. The master doesn’t micromanage. Eventually the master returns and he calls his servants before him (That is Jesus’ return at the second coming).

The one who has 5 talents invested it and turned it into 10. The master replies, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (That’s what we hope to hear when we meet Jesus, isn’t it?- “well done”).

The servant who was given 2 talents also invested it and turned it into 4. The master says the exact same thing to that servant- “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” More power and responsibility are offered to the first two servants and they are invited into the “joy” of their master. The word for “joy” can also be translated as “feast”. What is probably being referred to is the heavenly banquet. Even though they were given different amounts, the master rewards them both the same way. What matters isn’t so much how much you are given, but how faithful you are in putting to work the grace you are given.

The master comes to the third servant who was given one talent and it is revealed that the servant didn’t make the talent fruitful at all. He actually buried it, which was considered a good way to keep valuables safe at the time. Not only did he not make the talent fruitful, but he also attacks his master’s character saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” The servant didn’t lose the money. He didn’t waste the money selfishly. He was safe. He was careful. … What he wasted was the opportunity. He was driven by fear and he was not willing to take a risk. His sin is the sin of omission. In the confession we say, “we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” The sin of the third servant is in what was left undone.

The sin of omission could also be called the sin of sloth. Sloth isn’t just laziness. Sloth is not using what God has entrusted into your care. It is to not use your abilities, or resources, or time for God’s purposes.  Sloth is refusing to use what God has given you. 
Sometimes we are most slothful when we make ourselves so busy that we are distracted from what God wants us to do. Sloth is putting your lamp under a bushel basket (Matt 5:15). We sometimes bury too much kindness, time, treasure, and talent. The third servant was punished for his inactivity, not because he did something wrong, but because he didn’t really do anything. 

I read an interesting article on tithing once. They give some American statistics that mention that 10-25 percent of a normal congregation tithes. They state that at the time the article was written Christians were only giving 2.5% per capita, while during the Great Depression they gave at a 3.3% percent rate. Then in the article they imagine the impact on the world if American Christians tithed 10%. They estimate there would be an additional $165 billion for churches to use and distribute. Assuming the churches were good stewards with those funds they imagine the global impact: $25 billion could relieve global hunger, starvation and deaths from preventable diseases in five years. $12 billion could eliminate illiteracy in five years. $15 billion could solve the world’s water and sanitation issues, specifically at places in the world where 1 billion people live on less than $1 per day. $1 billion could fully fund all overseas mission work. $100 – $110 billion would still be left over for additional ministry expansion.[1] Could this be the overall effect of what happens when we bury our talent? … I don’t think the world’s problems are all solved by throwing money at them. And I don’t think Jesus is wagging his finger at Christians as much as he is seeing the wasted opportunity.

What this parable teaches us is that there is no such thing as sitting on the sidelines. We are all in the game. There are no bleachers, and there are no fans, we are all in the game. There are consequences to our actions, even if our action is choicing to do nothing. To follow Jesus means to invest in his way of life deeply. That comes with certain risk. …. But… not investing and not playing has risk as well. We might think that we don’t have a lot to offer. We don’t have the wealth of Bill Gates. We might not have artistic talent. We might not have organizational ability…. But, we all have been given some grace- a talent. And every talent is like a million dollars. Every one of us have been given something valuable. I think it was Mother Theresa who said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love”. God isn’t looking for quantity. God is looking for what you have done with what you have given. … We have been given a tremendous opportunity. God has entrusted us with grace. We are invited to put that grace to work in the world and by doing so we are invited to cooperate with the kingdom Of God and in the end to hear the words of our master- “well done good and faithful servant”.

[1]

Monday, 13 November 2017

Remembrance Sunday

Before I begin, I just want to say that not everyone is going to agree with what I'm about to say, but I hope that leads us to deeper conversation and thought.

I find Remembrance Day to be a difficult day, which is probably how it should be. I would like to share a bit of that struggle with you this morning. I think it is important to remember the suffering endured in times of war. It is important to remember how fragile peace can be. It is important to remember the sacrifices of those who tried to do something to bring peace because to sit back and do nothing was a worse evil. It is also a day to remember Jesus' words to us about violence and enemies.

When I think of Remembrance Day I primarily think of my grandparents telling me about their time in Holland. My Opa spoke about being dragged out of bed at gunpoint in the middle of the night and being robbed by Nazi soldiers. My Oma tells me about her brothers playing in the wreckage of an aircraft that had crashed into their fields, and how she would sleep with her pillow over her head to muffle the sounds of bombs exploding near their house. I think of my wife’s grandfather who was a rifleman that helped liberate a concentration camp and would only speak about the war late at night until tears filled his eyes and he would suddenly go to bed. … My last name is “Roth”, which is German. My ancestors had immigrated to Canada, but I wonder about any Roths that remained in Germany and what they endured in the war. I also think about my Jewish great grandmother whose maiden name was “Goldstein” and had slipped through the Nazi’s nets probably because of a peculiar Dutch spelling of her last name.

On Remembrance Day I also consider what it means to be a Christian when faced with war. What was happening in Germany was horrible and something had to be done about it. A decision had to be made to help those who were suffering. And the action that was decided on was not the easy option. Those who went to fight risked their lives trying to do something about what was going on.

War has always been a difficult thing for Christians to participate in. For the early Church killing was not something Christians were permitted to participate in, which made being a Christian in the Roman Army a controversial thing.

The question of Christians participating in war became more difficult after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity in 380. Before this Christians lived in the empire, but they really didn't have any power. An empire uses violence for things like maintaining order, defending its borders, and defending its citizens. Suddenly, there was a need for an understanding as to how a Christian empire can use violence.

Here is where St. Augustine put his mind to work. He came to the conclusion that we could separate outward actions from inward motivations. In defense of an innocent person I may actually use violence against an attacker, even kill them, but I did not sin if inwardly my motivation was to protect the innocent person being attacked. I did not want to kill the attacker. It was a kind of accident that occurred as I was defending the person. For St. Augustine, we can participate in a “just” war. What makes it “just” is that our internal motivations are correct. I won’t spell out all the details of Just War Theory, but basically if I am motivated by a desire to protect the innocent rather than out of violent anger and revenge, then I am justified in participating in violence against an enemy.

On top of this, St. Augustine believed that the social order we exist in is part of the natural order ordained by God to give us stable and peaceful lives. God meant society to be organized under rulers. God meant for there to be empires and kingdoms. Jesus’ words to us as individual Christians about how we treat our enemies are perhaps not applicable to the ruler of a country when considering defending their people against an aggressive military force (see Romans 13:1,4; and 1 Peter 2:14).

This does not mean that St. Augustine was bloodthirsty. Augustine clearly saw it as a last resort to be used only when all other means have failed and when the other nation compels a defensive response. War is always seen as the lesser of two evils. The suffering and evil of allowing the enemy to destroy at will with no opposition is seen as too great an evil to endure. Entering into war amounts to less evil overall.

The Just War Theory is a compelling argument that Augustine put together. It should be said that to go against this theory is to go against the vast majority of Christians throughout history (as CS Lewis’ essay Why I Am Not a Pacifist explains). But, there are problems with it. I will give two examples. First, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas once said, "I just want to know when the Just War theory has led Christians to say 'no' to a war?" Just War theory often provides a way of justifying wars, but doesn't really ever seem to have the power to prevent a nation from entering into war. In fact, the ethicist Robert Brimlow, in his book What about Hitler? shows how Hitler might have even used the Just War Theory to justify the actions of the Nazis.

A second problem with the theory is that it separates our motivations from our actions. Jesus taught that our actions flow from our inward dispositions. The act of adultery begins through the lust in our heart. Murder begins through the anger in our heart. If we love our enemy our actions will flow from that disposition. Our actions will not contradict our inward disposition. Loving our enemy is turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate us. It seems strange to see an act of inward love expressed through a balled fist swung at an enemy's nose.

Jesus' words about our enemies are pretty plain. Jesus says in Matthew ch 5, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." (Matt 5:38-44).

We have to ask, "did Jesus really mean what he said?" Is there any way that we can follow Jesus’ teachings to love our enemy and then punch our enemy in the nose?

For most of us, asking the question about what we would do if war was at our doorstep is fairly hypothetical. But, we should remember that there were many events that led up to the Second World War. The ethicist Robert Brimlow says, "If the question is asking how a pacifist church should have responded to the horrors of the Holocaust, the answer surely lies in being a peacemaking church long before the holocaust ever began. The church should have preached and lived a love of the Jews for many centuries before the twentieth; the church should have formed Christians into the kind of people who do not kill Jews, or homosexuals, or gypsies, or communists, or other Christians, or Nazis, or whoever else was victimized by the war. The church should have lived and taught in such a way that the First World War would have been incomprehensible in a largely Christian Europe and, failing that, should have railed against the Versailles Treaty and the vengeance it embodied in favour of forgiveness and reconciliation. The failure of the church and of Christians to be peacemakers in 1942 is horrible precisely because it is a result and culmination of centuries of failure."

Brimlow is telling us that the next World War might be prevented by our serious and intense discipleship to Christ right now. The sacrifice we expect of our soldiers, we have to be willing to make for the Gospel. The seriousness and vigor with which we try to live as people of the kingdom right now is precisely what the world needs to prevent future wars.

We don't know what lies in the future, but if human history is any indication of the future we can expect that war will continue to be a part of human reality. … But we have choices to make now. We are called to live Jesus' way right now and to deal with the seeds of war that sit inside us. And we have to deal with those seeds with the same diligence and sacrifice a soldier gives to participating in war. If we don’t ferociously deal with those seeds of war within us, we make war inevitable for our children and grandchildren and all those that come after us.

The seeds of war sit in each of us. We see them when we hold grudges against others. We see them when we are unwilling to deal with our anger and contempt towards others. We deal with these seeds when someone offends us and we use the opportunity to practice peace and reconciliation by not shooting hurtful words back. We deal with them when we see someone being hurt by someone else and we use the opportunity to be a peacemaker. We deal with the seeds of war when we are tempted to push others around to get our own way and we use the opportunity to practice self-sacrificial love. We deal with those seeds when we are cut off in traffic and we learn to deal with our anger and bless the other driver, rather than curse them. We are called to deal with the seeds of war within us, and instead to plant the seeds of peace.

We are not to look down on the decisions of those who have gone before us. They had hard decisions to make. We have no clue how difficult those decisions were. They should be remembered for not taking the easy way out, and for being willing to die to do something about the suffering they saw. …. However, as Christians, we also need to notice the contradiction of the belief that war leads to peace.

The peaceful world the prophet Micah speaks of, where the people of the world "will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; [and] Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they train for war" - That world will come about as God works through us. When the Sin that infects us and causes war is fully healed by the blood of Jesus and we are transformed into people who see each other as bearers of the image of God, then war will truly end.

I find some comfort in reminding myself that Jesus is not surprised by war or the complexity of the world. Jesus has given us his teaching precisely in order to live in this world, not some imagined utopia. Jesus said, "These things I have spoken to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (Jn 16:33). May we remember the effort of those who have fallen by making a courageous effort towards peace. And may those who come after us know effort, and love, and courage, but not war. Amen.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Who is St. Leonard?

I have to admit that I didn’t know anything about St. Leonard before coming to serve here with you. November 6th is believed to be the day of his death and that is the day he is remembered. So today is the eve of his feast day.

During the Middle Ages one of the most widely read books was called The Golden Legend. It is a collection of stories about the saints that was written around 1260AD.

The Golden Legend tells us that St. Leonard was born around the year 500AD and died around 570AD. Leonard came to be so highly thought of by the king of France that any prisoners Leonard visited were released from prison. The King tried to make Leonard a bishop, but he refused the offer, preferring solitude for prayer. He lived at a number of places from central to South Western France (especially Orleans, Aquitaine, Limoges). It is said that many miracles happened through him. The Golden Legend also shares a few specific stories.

One day, Leonard was walking through the forest when he heard a woman crying in pain. Moved with compassion, Leonard went to see if he could help. He found that it was the queen giving birth in the king’s hunting lodge. The birth was not going well and the queen’s life was in danger. The King invited him in to pray for the queen and child and both got through the birth safely. … This story might be why Leonard is sometimes connected to pregnant mothers.

The king was so thankful that he offered Leonard a lot of money, which he refused telling him to give it to the poor. Leonard told the king that he didn’t need money and that all he really needed was to live in the forest and serve Christ. The king then offered to give Leonard the whole forest. Leonard said he didn’t need the whole forest, but he asked for as much as he could ride around on his donkey in one night. It was there that his monastery was built, and Leonard lived there with two other monks.

Primarily, Leonard is connected to prisoners, especially prisoners who are wrongfully held.  It was said that prisoners who invoked Leonard’s name saw their chains unlocked and were able to walk away free without anyone trying to stop them. These people would then bring their chains to Leonard, and many ended up staying with him. After his death miracles continued to occur and many people would visit his tomb. Former prisoners would continue to leave their chains at Leonard’s tomb.

One story is told that a certain nobleman created a very heavy and uncomfortable chain that was mounted to a beam that jutted out from a tower. It would be fastened around the neck and the person was left uncomfortably exposed to the elements and eventually died. The extravagance of the chain was supposed to strike fear into the heart of any would-be criminal. One man had the chain fastened around his neck, but had done nothing wrong. Before he was about to breath his last breath, Leonard appeared, and the chain fell off. Leonard then told the man to pick up the chain and follow him to his church. The large impressive chain was then laid at the saint’s tomb. … You can hear echoes of Peter’s story in Acts where he was released from prison by the angel.

Leonard had such a reputation for freeing prisoners that one tyrant made special plans to thwart him. The man said, “That Leonard frees everybody, and the strength of iron melts before him like wax in front of a fire. If I put my man in chains, Leonard will be on hand at once and will set him free. If, on the other hand, I manage to keep the fellow, I will get a thousand pounds’ ransom for him.” So the man dug a deep pit under the tower and he chained the prisoner in it so that even if his chains were removed he still wouldn’t be able to get out of the pit. The tyrant was proud of himself for having outsmarted the saint. … But, one night Leonard arrived and broke the chains and carried the man in his arms out of his prison. Once out, they walked and chatted like friends on the way to Leonard’s monastery.

Now these stories are fun and interesting, but we don’t know how much of this is historical. I tend to be a bit of a romantic, so I tend to believe that these kinds of things can happen. … I should say that you can be a perfectly fine Christian without believing these stories.

The historical nature of the stories aren’t primarily what I’m interested in. I’m interested in how the Gospel shines through the stories. I’m interested in how these stories inspire me to be more like Jesus. … The theme of captives being set free is a strong theme throughout the Bible.

The central story for the identity of the Jewish people in the Old Testament is the Exodus story- The story of an oppressed group of slaves who cried out to God for justice. God then sent Moses and worked miracles to free the Hebrew slaves from the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Once free from Egypt, though, there is still another freedom needed. While they are physically free, in that the slave master’s whip was no longer at their back, they still had to deal with an internal slavery. … When Moses was on the mountain they made a golden idol to worship. They were still enslaved to the idols and worship of Egypt. … They still longed for the food they had as slaves, rather than relying on the provision of God in the wilderness. … Even when on the threshold of the Promised Land they trusted in their own lack of ability rather than trust in God’s direction and power. … They may have left Egypt, but they were still enslaved to the mindset of Egypt. The rest of the Bible could be seen as God’s mission to liberate his people and the world from slavery.

For the first thousand years the major way to view the cross was to see it as Christ rescuing humanity from slavery to sin and the devil. It was seen as a liberation from bondage. The cross was God trading Himself as Jesus to the devil in exchange for humanity who became enslaved to the devil when the first couple trusted the serpent’s voice rather than God’s and ate the forbidden fruit. … Jesus couldn’t be contained, however, and broke the chains of death in the power of resurrection. … A very old story called the Gospel of Nicodemus tells about Jesus breaking the gates of Hell and freeing Adam and Eve from their prison and leading them to paradise. It was doing theology through story. … So this freedom from bondage is a very persistent theme throughout both Christian and Jewish tradition.

Baptism can be seen as a kind of liberation from slavery. In baptism we reject three kinds of slavery- the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The “Devil” is to say that there is evil that comes from an unseen reality that doesn’t have anything to do with human beings. There is an unseen evil power that seeks to do harm to God’s creatures. It means that if you add up all the personal evil that every person on the planet does, there is still an unaccounted for evil. In our tradition this usually manifests as destructive and lying thoughts whispered into our souls. That doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of generating our own negative thoughts, but the traditional place of these evil creatures is to tempt us in our thoughts. … When we are baptized, we reject that power and declare it to be an enemy.

The “world” is not the fish and the trees and the sky and the mountains. The “world” is human systems that try to organize themselves apart from God. It is human systemic oppression. The “world” is what caused the systemic oppression of people in the southern United States. The “world” is what created economies that relied on the literal slavery of human beings. The “world” is what causes apartheid in South Africa, and the damage of Residential Schools. The “world” is the way we organize ourselves as a society that results in us not treating human beings as creatures bearing the image of God, and not treating creation as the masterpiece of the Creator. … Part of being a Christian means fighting against this power that destroys people and creation. When we are baptized we vow to step out from under that power and to make it an enemy. … (Liberation Theology has a strong focus here in trying to side with the poor against oppressive governments and corporations.)

We also reject the “flesh”. This isn’t our physical bodies. The “flesh” is our internal desires that drive us away from God. Our desires are broken. We want things that will harm us. Our loves are disordered. We recognize that not only is there systemic human evil out there in the world. There is also brokenness right inside of me. These desires are often summed up in the Seven Deadly Sins- pride, lust, gluttony, greed, envy, wrath, and sloth. … I also believe lies about myself- that I’m worthless, and good for nothing- That God rejects me because I’m not good enough- That if people knew every dark corner of my life, they would reject me. … So when I reject the flesh, I reject all those desires and lies that try to drive me away from God. Not only to I reject them from my own life, but I make them an enemy so that I work to become a force for good to help others fight against those desires and lies that enslave people.

So when I think of St. Leonard, I think about where I need to be liberated. What imprisons me? Are there habitual sins I need to be freed from? Are there repetitive negative and destructive thoughts that need to be broken? Are there lies I believe about myself and others that need to be confronted with the truth? We can live in many different kinds of prisons.

When I think about what it means to be a church bearing St. Leonard’s name. I think about how we can be a force for liberation for those around us. How can we become known as the ones who help people find freedom in Christ? What prisons do we see around us? Addiction is a prison? Poverty is a prison? Loneliness can be a prison? Fear can be a prison? Trauma? Un-forgiveness?

As Christians we can be saved, but if we don’t allow Jesus to do that deeper spiritual work in us we can still be enslaved. We might not live in slavery in Egypt anymore, but our minds might be still trapped in Egypt. We might be saved by Jesus on the cross, but we might not be living in the kind of freedom Jesus wants for us. God is your liberator.

This is one of the main purposes behind the spiritual disciplines, and practices like spiritual direction. God desires for us to be free. God wants us to be freed from the lies and habits that imprison us, so that we can live lives under the dominion of God. God wants us to live victorious, liberated lives, so that we can be a force of liberation in the lives of others.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Give to God the Image of God

An old proverb states, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. This is the kind of logic used against Jesus by the Pharisees in our Gospel reading today. The Pharisees are no friends of the Herodians, but since Jesus is a common enemy to both, they found a way to work together. So representatives of both groups come to Jesus with a trick question.

The Herodians were a faction at the time that was loyal to King Herod and they wanted to play nice with Rome. King Herod embarked on numerous impressive building projects, which included building cities for the pagan population living in the area. Herod even erected a golden eagle at the entrance of the temple, which was a symbol of Rome’s dominion. He also spent lavishly on gifts for Roman officials. The Herodians embraced this kind of politicking. They saw it as practical, and as the way to live with Rome.

King Herod did not impress the rest of the Jewish population. Erecting pagan buildings in the Holy Land was not making him any friends among his own Jewish people. Neither was placing a golden Roman eagle at the entrance of the temple. The Pharisees, along with others, were very critical of Herod for many reasons.

The issue of paying taxes to the Roman Empire was one of those lightning rod issues of the day. If you wanted to start a fight, you started talking about that issue. For us those issues would be issues like abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and in Alberta’s economy we could talk about oil pipelines, fracking, the oil sands, and maybe vegetarianism. I’m sure a few of us felt our heart jump just at the mention of the topic. In Jesus’ day, this discussion around taxes was one of their issues. The way you answered put you on one side or the other.

A representative of the group comes to Jesus under the guise of having a genuine question. They ask, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matt 22:16-17). They are asking if the Law of Moses allows for this kind of tax. They know full well that this question puts Jesus in a very difficult spot.

If Jesus says, “no, it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar” then Jesus seems to be siding with the revolutionaries- the violent zealots. It was precisely this issue that resulted in a revolt by Judas the Galilean when Jesus was just a little boy. The revolt was violently put down and those who were part of that revolt lost their lives on crosses. If Jesus told them “no, it isn’t lawful to pay taxes to Caesar” the Herodians would make sure King Herod heard about it and Jesus would then be seen as dangerous to the stability of the region. That answer would probably bring Jesus favor with the people. Though, his life would be in danger.

On the other hand, if Jesus says, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar”, then Jesus will seem to be a traitor to the people. He is siding with the oppressive Roman forces. It would be like a Palestinian saying they should accept new Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It would seem like Jesus is siding with the Romans rather than God’s dominion. They are occupied by Pagan forces and they cannot see that as being their destiny as God’s people.

It is a very binary trap. Pick A or B. … Either way they get Jesus in trouble. Either he’s in trouble with the political powers of the day as a rebel, or the people reject him as a prophet and teacher. So what is Jesus going to do?

First, Jesus points out that he knows they are trying to trap him.

Then, he asks for a coin used to pay the tax, and they give him a denarius. (It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t have one of these coins on him.) Jesus then asks whose image and inscription is on the coin. They reply that it was Caesar’s image and inscription.

The coin itself is interesting. Caesar Tiberius would have been the face on the coin. Keep in mind that this whole conversation is happening in the temple courts. A graven image like the face of Caesar would have been a violation of the 10 commandments. … Then, we look at the inscription which reads “Tiberius Caesar, son of divine Augustus”, which implied that Tiberius is claiming some kind of divinity, since his father is divine. …. Another inscription read, “pontifex maximus” and meant that Caesar was the high priest and highest religious figure in the empire.[1]

To have something like that on the grounds of the temple would have turned the stomach of most Jewish people. After considering the coin it would have looked like a dead rat to them. They would have probably felt uncomfortable touching it, and they definitely wouldn’t want it on the temple grounds. Having such a coin, not to mention valuing it, brings them dangerously close to idolatry.

The implied question back to them is, “why do you have such a thing with you?” “Why do you value such a blasphemous thing?” … The Emperor controlled the production of gold and silver coins in the empire, and they were officially his property. So Jesus says, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's”. Give Caesar back that filthy thing. Why would you want to hold onto it? …

Of course Jesus knows that all things ultimately belong to God. And in that sense, nothing belongs to Caesar. If God is “Lord”, then everything comes under God’s sovereignty. There is no such thing as a separation of politics or economics and religion. Though there is some measure of authority given to political powers, and due respect is to be given so long as it doesn’t contradict your life with God. As St. Paul says, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom 13:7).

The second part of Jesus’ answer is important. “Render to God the things that are God’s”. Caesar’s image was imprinted on the coin. … But, we are made in God’s image according to Genesis 1:27, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Like the coin, we bear an image- God’s image.

Enough about Caesar. What does God want from us? What do we owe God? … Our whole selves. If God is our Creator, Sustainer, Saviour, and Sanctifier, then how can we owe God any less than all of our very self. … And that is much more demanding than the taxes Caesar asks.

What does it mean to give God ourselves? It means that there is no part of our life that stands outside of God’s loving rule. If we truly call God “Lord” then there can’t be any part of our life where God doesn’t have the final word.

God guides our ethics. God guides our politics. God guides our relationships. God guides our parenting. God guides our driving. God guides us in our spending. God guides us in how we spend our spare time. … There is no part of our life that we say is off limits to God.

We might have questions about how God guides us in all these areas of our life, but the first step is a matter of willingness. … If we knew what God’s guidance was in all these areas, would we really allow God to guide us? … If we aren’t willing to say, “yes” then we have to stop calling God “Lord” because it’s just not true.

St. Paul says it this way, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers [and sisters] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:1-2).

The life we are asked to live as Christians is a life of extreme dedication- so extreme that it looks like a living sacrifice. Which in some ways is harder than giving ourselves over to a sacrifice where we die- We only need to make that decision once. But, to be a living sacrifice means we have to give ourselves over again every morning.

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. If we stay too close to where we got in, like the boy, we might fall out of bed. We will fall back to the old ways of the world- Instead of the ways of the Kingdom. …

Ultimately, this demanding call is not a call to drudgery. It is a call to joy. God calls us to this because He knows that this is where our joy will be fulfilled. As St. Augustine said to God, “Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you”. And as the 2nd century St. Irenaeus said, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive”. What God desires is for his image embedded in us to shine brightly into the world. And, while it is a demanding call, it is also a call to a life marked by deep and profound joy.

[1] Matthew, Ben Witherington lll, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, p412 

Sunday, 15 October 2017

The uncomfortable wedding feast

I saw a movie once called “Dogma” (1999). I’m not necessarily recommending the movie, but one part of the movie that was memorable what when the Catholic church unveiled their “buddy Jesus” statue. It is a comedy, but sometimes what we laugh at tells us something about ourselves.

The comedian George Carlin plays a cardinal and unveils the “Buddy Jesus” statue saying, “Now we all know how the majority and the media in this country view the Catholic church. They think of us as a passé, archaic institution. People find the Bible obtuse… even hokey. Now, in an effort to disprove all that, the church has appointed this year as a time of renewal… both of faith and of style. For example, the crucifix. While it has been a time honored symbol of our faith, Holy Mother Church has decided to retire this highly recognizable, yet wholly depressing image of our Lord crucified. Christ didn’t come to Earth to give us the willies… He came to help us out. He was a booster. And it is with that take on our Lord in mind that we’ve come up with a new, more inspiring sigil. So it is with great pleasure that I present you with the first of many revamps the ‘Catholicism WOW‘ campaign will unveil over the next year. I give you… The Buddy Christ”.

It's a silly satire, but I think it is pointing out something. Namely, we lean towards the comfortable teachings of Christ and lean away from the uncomfortable teachings. Our Gospel reading today definitely falls into the “uncomfortable category”. But, we don’t do ourselves any favors by not dealing with these difficult teachings. … For the sake of us having healthy souls it is important that we look at both the comfortable and uncomfortable parts of the Gospel.

This parable isn’t comfortable because It doesn’t say what we want it to. We want a nice story about God throwing the doors open to everyone to join his party. We don’t want to talk about judgement, or demanding holiness, or weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Let’s look at this parable in a bit more detail and see what blessing are there for us there. The Parable is about a feast. The kingdom of God and the arrival of the messiah was often spoken about in Jesus’ day as a feast. In Jesus’ day passages like Isaiah 25 would have described this feast, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food …, of aged wine … . … He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces” (Is 25:6-8). It was a massive banquet that included the Gentiles.

This passage was nearly offensive to the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ day. The thought that Gentiles would be welcomed was unthinkable. There were interpretations of this passage (The Targum) that said it would actually be a trick and the Gentiles would come to the meal only to then be afflicted with plagues, or to have the angel of death strike them down (1 Enoch 62:1-11). The community that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls believed that only those Jewish people who observed the Law would be allowed and that not even people with a physical disability would be present (IQSa 2:5-10; 2:11-22).

So when Jesus starts telling a story about a king throwing a wedding feast for his son it was no doubt seen as the feast at the arrival of the long awaited Messiah, to which only the most observant Jews would be invited to. When the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other important leaders heard Jesus mention this feast, they would be assumed to be there at the meal.

There is a scholar named Kenneth Bailey who has spent a lot of time in the Middle East trying to understand Jesus’ teachings through the middle eastern culture. He says that in a Middle Eastern village the servants would go out to invite specific people to an important meal. Generally if a social superior invited you to a meal, especially a king’s wedding feast for his son, you can’t refuse except. There are very few excuses you could give that would be considered valid. To not come and to not have a valid excuse would be deeply offensive. The servants would come back to the host of the feast and let them know how many people would be attending and them the host would arrange for how much food to make. When the food was all prepared he would send out his servants a second time to gather those who had been invited. At this point attendance is not optional. If you have received the invitation and there is no family member on their deathbed, you must go or you offend the host. In an honour shame culture that is a big big deal.

In our context it would be a bit like this- You invite people over for a dinner party. Before the meal people sit in the living room having wine and coffee and when you come to tell them that the food is now on the table guests start telling you that they have to leave. It would be offensive, unless they received a phone call that someone was in a car accident or just went into the emergency room.

The servants would have been interpreted as the prophets, or perhaps John the Baptist and maybe Jesus, as well. Those invited guests would be the leadership of Israel. It is the stereotypical story of the prophets that they are often not listened to by the important people of Israel.

We read that the servants go out to call those who had previously been invited “but they will not come”. The king then sent other servants to urge those who had been invited to let them know that the luxurious feast has already been prepared. It says they made light of the invitation and went off to their farm or business. Some ignored the servants while others mistreated them and killed them.

There is a very similar parable to this one in Luke 14:15-24. It too has people who refuse to come to a feast. One says that he has bought some land and has to now go see it. But in a Middle Eastern context it is an incredible careful and involved process that can take months or years. No one would buy land without seeing it and knowing it in a great deal of detail. So the excuse is not valid. It would be a bit like saying you’re late for supper because you bought a house over the phone and now you have to go take a look at it. To not have a valid reason excusing you from the feast is to publicly insult the host.

Similarly, in the parable from Luke 14 one person says they have bought 5 yoke of oxen and have to now examine them. But, like the purchase of land, no one would buy a yoke of oxen without first testing them out carefully. If they can’t pull together they are useless. So again, it is not a valid excuse.

The final reason for the person not attending in the Luke 14 parable is quite crude. He says that he has married a wife and can’t come. I’m told that that way of speaking about his wife is crass and against Middle Eastern chivalry that causes one to speak with respect about one’s wife. It would be something like saying “I’m busy with a girl out back”.

Matthew doesn’t go into detail about those who refuse to come, but they seem to nonchalantly reject the invitation. Some even abusing the servants, even killing some of them.

This is deeply offensive to the king who invited these people to the wedding feast. They nonchalantly reject his invitation without any valid reason, which is a purposeful and deliberate offense. They also abuse and kill his servants. It is hard to overstate the level of offense this would cause a king in an honour shame culture. The expected response is what happens- “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city”.

In this action, many later readers would see a warning about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD after the leadership rejected and killed both John the Baptist and Jesus.

I wonder if we can see ourselves in this parable here. Aren’t there times God calls on us, or we promise something to God and we sort of nonchalantly walk away from God’s call, or flat out walk away from what we told God we would do? … Are there times when we are the Levite or the priest who avoids helping the man who was beaten up and left in the ditch, like in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10)? … Are there times when we don’t feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite the stranger, and clothe the naked (Matt 25)? Even when we have committed ourselves to being followers of Christ? …. I know that feels like me sometimes. There are times that I haven’t followed through and I had no good reason not to. I just got busy. Or something more pressing caught my attention. And it is troubling to think about the offense that causes God in light of this parable. It’s not even the consequences I’m worried about as much as I care about the offense I’ve caused.

The king will not be put off by those who have rejected him. He will not let them ruin his son’s wedding feast. So he tells them, “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet. Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests”. The servants go to the wrong side of town and they invite the tax-collectors, the prostitutes, the riff-raff, the nobodies, the blind and lame, the forgotten and rejected of society. Jesus probably has in his mind Isaiah 56:8 when God “gathers the outcasts of Israel”.

I think I can see myself here too. I can see myself as someone unworthy of this kind of generous invitation. I look back on some of the things God has done in my life and I’m left wondering why do You pay attention to me? Why bother with me? Why bother with a high green-haired punk kid that barely got through highschool, who constantly rejected Christianity? Why give that shy person a role to speak in public every week? …. I suspect you could say something similar when you look back on blessings God has given you. Why have you given us the people in our life? The health in our bodies? The friends we have? The years we have lived? The abilities we have? … God is incredibly gracious. Who am I that Jesus Christ would be willing to die for me, in order to save me. I don’t deserve that kind of love.

God’s invitation is generous. It goes out to everyone. Everyone is invited to the King’s feast. It doesn’t matter what your nationality is. It doesn’t matter what happened in your past or what kinds of things you did. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, male or female… you are invited.

That’s sort of where we want the parable to end. Everyone is invited and we have a big party. But then we read this, "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen." It’s not the high note we would like to go out on. It’s not the way “Buddy Jesus” would end things.

I remember being with some friends who wanted to stop by a wedding reception to congratulate the couple they knew. We were on the way to their house in the country. I was not invited and I was not prepared to go to a wedding reception, but my friends said it was an open invitation and not to worry we would walk in say hi then walk out. So, I walked into the hall with them. This was when I was a teenager and had green hair. Soon my friends saw people they knew and left me to go say “hi”. There I am, alone- a punk kid with green hair at a wedding reception in rural Alberta surrounded by strangers. I was soon approached by very angry people telling me to leave. I know what it is like to be that person too I think. I definitely saw the gnashing of teeth.

For the parable to work we have to assume that everyone has a wedding robe available to them, but this person chose not to wear one. Perhaps he assumed that because it was the kind of party that was letting just anyone in that there was no expectation about preparing yourself properly to be there.

Jesus reaches out to where we are, but his love won’t let us stay as we are. If love wants the best for us, then love includes growth. He loves us even in the midst of our sin, but he loves us too much for us to just stay that way. We are called to respond to his invitation as well. This is sanctification. There is a spiritual formation process that happens in us when we focus on Jesus intently. It shapes our character into a more spiritual, moral, kind, generous, and loving person. The wedding robe is this sanctification. It is working with God to be shaped into people that are Christ-like.

The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks about cheap grace, which is coming to the party and not thinking there is anything expected of you. He says, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship).

Of course Jesus’ words are hard for us to hear, but sometimes the words we need to hear aren’t the words we want to hear. Christ loves us more than we can imagine. He has offered the invitation to the feast, and yes, he has some expectation that we will be prepared, but ultimately that is so that our joy, and his will be complete.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Giving thanks in a broken world

The other day my family was at Kraay Family Farms near Lacombe. It is a fun place. We went through the corn maze, took a look at the animals, and we ran through the obstacle course. Then my boys lined up for a chance to fire a small pumpkin out of a cannon at an old school bus. As I watched a pumpkin shatter off the side of the bus a thought passed through my mind. … How can we have so much while people in the Sudan are starving? How can we have so much food that we fire it out of cannons, while other have nothing?

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. How can we celebrate thanksgiving when people in Mexico have been dealing with the aftermath of a massive earthquake, and those around the Gulf and in the Caribbean have been dealing with hurricanes? … My parents just came back from Las Vegas, which was a very different experience as a place people go to for fun. A friend of mine recently told me that in the last 477 days there have been 521 mass shootings in the United States, which is defined as an attack on more than 4 people. Nearly every day I used to drive past the place where the police officer was attacked in Edmonton.

It’s not like the world has ever really been that different. Go back a few years and we are dealing with the rise of ISIS, then the attack on the Twin Towers. Go back a bit farther and we are dealing with Rwanda, and Cambodia, then Nazi Germany, and so on. When we are confronted by tragedy we have to sadly say, “it has always been so”.

So what does it mean to give thanks in a world like this? Some might suggest we shouldn’t give thanks at all. Maybe we should just lament and mourn on behalf of the suffering in the world. How dare we be happy and celebrate in such a world?

In the ancient world there was a heresy called Gnosticism. One of the general beliefs of Gnosticism is that it believed that the world we live in was created by an evil power and we needed to escape this world to become free to go to the good immaterial world created by God. The physical world is a kind of a horrible prison for our souls.

The Gnostics were named a heresy by the early Church because Scripture states that the world was created by God, even though it is broken in some ways. God looked at the world and said it was good. And we affirm that the world is good, while still recognizing it is infected by sin and lacking some of its original goodness.

It is tempting to get lost in this judgement on the world for its brokenness and sin. Life is suffering. Life is tragic. There is so much pain in the world. How dare we celebrate? How dare we feast when there is so much pain in the world?

I have noticed a tendency in the psychological world, and it has had an effect on those interested in spiritual formation. You sit with someone and it seems like the only really valuable insight has to do with pain. When I was training as a chaplain people often joked that we did our job well when we left people in tears. We touched pain and therefore we touched something real. For some reason we thought that being happy was a mask over the pain. Happiness was a mask. Only the pain was real. … I learned to journal as a part of my formation and it seemed to me that the more pain I explored, the more meaningful it was. It was seductive. I could get lost in the pain.

We don’t want to ignore the pain. We are dealing with real pain and evil in the world. … But, we cannot ignore the original goodness. We are called ultimately to look to the future promised by Jesus. We are to live now out of that promised future. That means we are called to joy. It has been said that Christians are like trees who have their roots planted in the future. Our energy comes from that future reality God has promised, where all the wrongs have been put right.

One of my favorite theologians, Alexander Schmemann, once said “of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy”. If the Atheist Frederick Nietzsche encountered a Christian community without joy, then he encountered an incredibly broken community. St. Augustine said, “The Christian should be an alleluia from head to foot”. As a community, Christians should be joyful. It is one of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5), after all!

In John 15 Jesus said, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). As Christians we are to look through the pain and suffering to the prophetic joy when all things will be made right.

God’s people are commanded to celebrate and feast throughout Scripture (Ex 12:14; Lev 23:4, 37; Num 10:10; Ps 126:2; etc). This includes a weekly observation of the Sabbath. Regardless of what they were dealing with and what was going on in the nation they were commanded to take regular time to celebrate and remember the goodness of God.

C.S. Lewis clued into this truth about God. In one book he said, “It is a Christian duty … for everyone to be as happy as he can”.[1] … In the Screwtape Letters, another book by by Lewis, he imagines things from a demon’s point of view. The demon Screwtape laments that they are not able to produce any real pleasure to tempt people with. They have to take the pleasures God has created and twist them before they can be used for evil ends. The demon complains about God saying, “He’s a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are ‘pleasures for evermore.’ … He has filled His world full of pleasures. … Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side”.[2] … God created a world full of pleasures.

Again, this isn’t to diminish the pain and suffering in the world, but our call to joy is a call to believe that God’s goodness will overcome the pain of the world. Resurrection will overcome the cross. The kingdom of God will overtake the Empire. … The prophets talk about a time when God’s justice will overtake the suffering and evil in the world. For God’s people to celebrate in the midst of a world full of pain is a protest against the darkness. It is a declaration that God will overcome, and evil will not have the last word. … We sit down to a thanksgiving dinner in protest against the darkness in the world. We celebrate to express our faith that God is good and created a good world.

The Eucharist is a thanksgiving meal. To this day if you want to say ‘thank you’ in Greece you say, “eucharisto” (pronounced ‘efharisto’ in modern Greek). Every Sunday what we are doing is having a thanksgiving meal. We are remembering what God has done for us. We look through the pain of the cross to the resurrection and we declare that pain and suffering and brokenness will not have the last word. God ultimately has things under control. It is in celebrating the Eucharist that we remember our true nature as created beings. Again, the theologian Alexander Schmemann says, “When man stands before the throne of God when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks. Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man. … Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven.” … Thanksgiving is our true and eternal nature as we respond to all God has done. The suffering and pain is temporary and we dare not treat it as eternal. What is eternal is thanksgiving and that is the reality God’s people are called to live- that is our true identity.

The pain and suffering of our world is real. But the goodness of God is more real. The goodness of the creation will outlast the brokenness of creation. The cross is overshadowed by resurrection. Jesus has called us to be eucharistic people. We are people of thanksgiving, and into the midst of the darkness we sing our songs and celebrate because we are a people with our roots in God’s future. AMEN

[1] A Severe Mercy, 189  
[2] The Screwtape Letters, 112-113

Monday, 2 October 2017

The Humility of Christ- Phil 2

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians today we are being taught something that is central to the Christian life. We are being taught about being shaped into Christ-like people. In the Western tradition this is called “sanctification”. In the Eastern tradition this is called “Theosis”. It is not becoming some abstract kind of “holy”. It is becoming like Christ. Paul says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus”. We are to have minds that are Christ-like.

We are always in the process of having our souls shaped, but we do have some choices regarding what forces shape us. A stone is always in the process of being shaped, but it is shaped differently if we choose to leave the stone in a dry windy desert, or place it under a waterfall, or throw it into a volcano. 
Likewise, we can choose to sit in front of the TV and watch reality tv shows and have that force shape our soul. Or, we can choose to read our Bibles, or serve someone in need and have that shape our soul. An important question for every Christian to ask is, “What forces are shaping my soul?” It’s important that we are purposeful about which forces are at work in us. 

The saints have sometimes talked about the formation of the soul as the dynamic between pride and humility. Humility is considered the root of all virtue, and pride is considered the root of all sin. Movements towards God produce humility within us. Movements away from God produce pride. Paul talks about not acting out of “selfish ambition”, which is related to pride. In contrast to this Paul says we should count others as more significant than ourselves, which is related to humility (Phil 2:3). Humility is other-centered, rather than self-centered.

We see this thread weaved throughout Scripture. For example, we read in Proverbs 3:34 “God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble”. David was chosen to be king, but was the smallest among his brothers. The prophets constantly remind the people that they were slaves in Egypt as a basis for telling the people to be kind to refugees, widows, and orphans. Jesus’ sharpest words in the gospels were directed against the religious people who were full of pride. He told a parable about a prideful Pharisee praying next to a humble tax collector and declared the tax-collector forgiven (Luke 18:9-14). He said to the prideful religious Pharisees, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matt 21:31). He called the religious pharisees proud hypocrites who like to be seen by others to be holy, but who are inwardly full of sin. They may seem to have their lives together, but the root sin of pride was planted firmly in their lives. St. Gregory the Great believed that pride was the source of all other sins. In stealing we think we deserve to have something someone else has. In murder we believe we have the right to decide if someone should live or die. And so on. All sin has pride at its root.

Humility opposes pride. Humility is to see yourself as you truly are through God’s eyes. It is not a tall person pretending she is short. Or, a smart person pretending she is dumb.[1] 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 God 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 that 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.” If humility isn’t present, then whatever virtue seems to be there is faked. 

To really have our souls shaped in the virtue of humility Paul advises us to contemplate Christ. Jesus is the ultimate example of humility so Paul quotes what many scholars think is a Christian hymn that was sung in the Philippian church. Since Paul was writing around 20 years after Christ’s resurrection, this is probably one of the oldest examples we have of what the earliest Christians believed about Jesus.
“Though he was in the form [or nature] of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [held onto, or exploited] but emptied himself, by 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, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:6-11).

The hymn Paul is quoting identifies Jesus as equal to God in some mysterious way (they hadn't come to the concept of of the Trinity just yet). Jesus had the resources of God to draw upon, but chooses not to do so. Instead he becomes a human being, and not just a human being, but a servant. Jesus has a kind of divine power pack he can choose to turn on[2], but chooses not to use it to benefit himself even when confronted with death- and not any death, but a torturous and humiliating death on a cross. Jesus could have come with overwhelming power, but instead chose to come to us in vulnerability. In the end he returns to his rightful place and the hymn quotes Isaiah 45:23 where God says “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance” and the hymn makes this all about Jesus.

I once heard a story about a soldier who was with a team that was rescuing a group of hostages. The team broke into the compound where the hostages were held and eventually worked their way to the room where they were all huddled together in a terrified mass. The soldiers burst into the room with their body armor and guns and the hostages all cried and froze with fear and confusion in a heap on the floor, holding each other. The team had to work quickly to get the hostages out, but they were scared and there was a language barrier. The team was at a loss as to how to get the hostages to follow them out so they could rescue them. … One of the soldiers got an idea. He took off his body armor and put down his gun, then he walked over and laid on the floor next to one of the hostages, looking her in the eyes. Something changed. The hostages suddenly looked to the soldier who had come to them in vulnerability, rather than power, and he was able to lead them out of the room to safety.

Jesus did not exploit the power that was rightfully his. He didn’t use it for his own benefit, he emptied himself so that he could come to us in a way that he could serve us and draw us to himself. If Christ did this, then the body of Christ should follow his example. We are to have the mind of Christ, which means being willing to bow ourselves down to serve someone else. We have rights and privileges, but we are to willingly set them aside to be able to serve others. As followers of Christ we are called to put aside our power and be vulnerable so we can serve another. Paul says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4). As followers of the incarnate God who was willing to die on the cross to show His love for us, we don’t always have to have things our way.

As human beings we often feel like we are supposed to be trying to put ourselves ahead of those around us. We try to get things done our own way. We are trying to get up the next rung on the social ladder. We do it at school, at work, in politics, and pretty much anywhere else we bump into each other. But, Jesus turns this on its head. He teaches us that to be great in God’s kingdom we paradoxically have to become last- we have to become a servant. It is a lesson Christ exemplified with his own life- identifying with the rejected, the least, and the zero’s on the social totem pole.

God’s people are to be shaped by God’s character and example. As Bishop NT Wright has said, “as you look at the incarnate Son of God dying on the cross the most powerful thought you should think is: this is the true meaning of who God is. He is the God of self-giving love”.[3] At the center of all reality is a God of self-sacrificial love. If we focus our minds on that God, who is constantly pouring Himself out in love, we will be shaped, just as a stone is shaped when it is placed under a waterfall. We will be shaped into the humility of Christ. AMEN

[1] CS Lewis
[2] A description I heard from theologian John Stackhouse
[3] (Wright, ... For Everyone series commentary on Philipians, p103)
Follow @RevChrisRoth