March 13, 2018

God’s Great Love

There are days when I hear John 3:16 and I just cringe.  We see it at football games and hockey arenas, we see it on soapboxes and t-shirts, we hear it hollered at us on street corners and on our front doorsteps.  We see it on the letters tucked in our front doors that say, ‘neighbors, we are inviting you to come and celebrate the death of Jesus.’  Ick.  We hear it preached at funerals when the pastor stands up and says, ‘So and So is sitting at the foot of the throne of Heaven, and you will never see them again unless you have accepted Jesus as your personal savior.’  This scripture has been used and abused.  As the United Church’s Song of Faith puts it, “The Spirit judges us critically when we abuse scripture by interpreting it narrow-mindedly, using it as a tool of oppression, exclusion, or hatred.”
When we interpret scripture, when we come together to hear it and wrestle with it and hear it again, we in the United Church do our best to look at scripture in its context rather than an individual verse here or there.  How many times have you seen a poster that said John 3:17 on it? Or even John 3:14-21?
Context is important.  In this case Jesus is having a late-night debate with a Pharisee named Nicodemus.  Nicodemus snuck over to visit Jesus and ended up staying a long time.  Just like when we have a visit with a friend or family member that we haven’t seen in a while and before you know it, the clock has struck midnight and it’s time to call it a day.  Nicodemus didn’t want to meet publicly with Jesus for fear of what his friends and co-workers might think.  He wanted to be anonymous.  Jesus told him that people who are afraid, who do things in secret, who hide their actions and their thoughts, well, they might just be following an unhealthy spirit that will get them in trouble.  Genuine God followers are brave, and they show up in broad daylight, following the God of Truth and light.  The God that sent Jesus, not to condemn the world, but to save it.
The God that wants to make a covenant of love with us, not a covenant of shame, fear and resentment.  The God that wants to liberate us into a life of freedom.  A life of forgiveness, hope, healing and even, dare I say it, happiness and community.  A life of amazing grace.
Too many of us are living lives that are dead, too many of us are the children of rebellion.  One translation of Paul’s words says the children of wrath, of anger.  How often do we let our anger, our jealousy, our resentment, our frustration and our fear get the best of us?  We say things and do things that cannot be undone, that destroy relationships, that hurt and diminish the lives we live and the community we have.  We forget to be servants to those who need healing.  Too often we live in hiding, afraid to tell the truth of who we are and what we’ve done.
But when we step up to be honest, when we stop hiding, amazing things happen.  I was at the Pride conference yesterday at the Seniors Center and talked from my heart about why I believe we need to stop judging our neighbors and start loving them no matter what their body parts are and how they use them.  I read some scripture from Isaiah that talked about blessing folks who are not heterosexual, who diverge from what we label as normal.  One person came up to me afterward and hugged me so hard that the cherry tomato I was holding got so squished the juices started running down my hand.  And afterwards, they were brave enough to give their name to the Advocate reporter who took their picture.  Talk about coming into the light and being full of truth.
We are saved not by magical incantations of special words, but by the abundant love, the grace that God showers us constantly, if we are only brave enough to accept it.  And this is no namby-pamby love that can teach the world to sing.  Oh no! It’s braver than the two ladies who walk down Whyte Avenue holding hands even though they know they will be insulted and whistled at and harassed by the people around them. 
It’s braver than the young people who have the hutzpah to ask for a Gay Straight alliance in their schools, and it’s more passionate than the horniest teenager ever to walk the face of the earth!  Kahlil Gibran wrote a much more realistic description of God who is Love in these stirring words:
“When love beckons to you follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you yield to him, Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you. And when he speaks to you believe in him, Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden. For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth......
But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure, Then it is better for you that you pass out of love's threshing-floor, Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears. Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires: To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night. To know the pain of too much tenderness. To be wounded by your own understanding of love; And to bleed willingly and joyfully.”
May we have the hutzpah, the courage and the honesty to step into the light and accept the great gift of God’s grace and love.

March 01, 2018

Questing and Questioning

The Olympics have been pretty great, haven’t they? I watched a little of the figure skating one day and was fascinated by the Slovak lady’s figure skater.  She reminded me of photographs of my grandmother with her round face and high cheekbones.  I can remember when we got lost in Bratislava when I was a kid, and our car broke down.  Someone found us, brought us to his flat and phoned up the rental car agency, telling them that they had given us a lemon of a car.  He went upstairs and brought down a figure skater that knew some English, and once they had figured out that we were from Canada and that my mom’s parents had come from Slovakia, they treated us like royalty.  The figure skater was lovely to us, and it was a real relief to find someone that spoke a little English in what at the time was a communist country.  So I always remember Slovaks being very kind to us as we were travelling through the country. 
We were wandering, like Abraham and Sarah.  They had left a safe home where Abraham was part of a wealthy family, and was the first-born son, destined to inherit his father’s business.  Yet he and Sarah were restless for adventure and traveled into what their family must have considered the most uncivilized and dangerous of circumstances.  Even still, they remembered to practise hospitality to people they met.  And every time they gathered with others, even strangers, they would hear God’s message to them of great promises.  Promises to have children, many children, nations that would carry their DNA into the future.
Paul got that.  But he went deeper.  For him, writing to the early Roman church, it wasn’t just about DNA or following the complicated holiness code of the Jewish rituals, it was about faith.  So he made an extraordinary claim, that said that Abraham’s children weren’t just the folks who carried Abraham and Sarah’s genetic code, but about folks who gathered together in faith and trust.  
No, he was writing to a congregation that was divided by their races, that their new community was to be more than a club for folks who had similar language, culture and shared the same eyes and noses.  He wanted them to be united in worship of God regardless of their ethnicity, their DNA.
Paul said that Abraham had faith, and that anyone can be part of Abraham’s faith, but that is such a loaded word.  The Greek word for faith was pistos, which can mean faith, belief, trust, being convinced, having commitment to.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t test things or question things.  Abraham and Sarah laughed when they heard God’s message of hope.  They didn’t trust that message at first and went through all kinds of messiness to push their own solution forward rather than trusting God.  It was abusive.  Sarah forced Hagar, her servant, to become a surrogate mother for Abraham, and later bullied Abraham into banishing Hagar and her son Ishmael be from the family camp.  Abraham wasn’t much better, and he too had difficulty trusting that God had a covenant with them.
Paul knew his people in Rome would struggle to trust that God had a plan for them too, that this tiny community could come together and rise above their differences to become a nurturing place that would help each other survive in the very heart of the Empire.  Rome thought it was more powerful than Jesus.  But today Rome no longer worships Jupiter or Minerva.  And we no longer believe that our political leaders are gods, the way that the Roman Emperors encouraged their people to do.
Abraham and Sarah laughed at God’s plans, but eventually after many questions and debates, trusted that something new was just around the corner for them.  Paul trusted that something new was in store for his friends in Rome.  We are given that same opportunity. 
We gather together to worship God and share our stories of how new things are in store for us when we decide to take a leap of faith and trust that God is doing something new.
Too often we try to do everything ourselves, but we forget that we are imperfect creatures.  I found out that the wonderfully hospitable Slovaks can often make life very difficult for the Roma people who live in the country, and that for the Roma, becoming a country separated from the Czech republic has not improved their living standards or the racism that they deal with on a constant basis.  The Americans are trying to make a country where everyone is part of the melting pot of what they call the United States and yet there have been seven school shootings since the start of 2018 down there and no one seems to know how to address it.  In Canada, we are realizing that justice is not what first nations people can assume they will get when young women go missing or young men get caught up in violence.  We have become certain that we are gods that can fix the world, and that we can only trust ourselves.  But we come to worship to connect with something bigger than ourselves, someone that we can trust in ways that maybe we can’t trust even our own biological families.  We come because we want to trust the one who fed the multitudes, and who turned simple bread and wine into a glimpse of a holy and powerful community.  We come to worship God and when we worship, we are indeed part of a new thing that continues to transform us and our world in new and wonderous ways.  Let us continue to quest for God, and question God as we allow God to shape us into a faith community that follows in the footsteps of Abraham, Sarah and Paul, a community that can laugh at God’s promises but then be awed at God’s amazing transforming actions.  May it be so for us all. Amen

February 21, 2018

Spiritual AND Religious

I love reading the letters to the editor in the Observer Magazine.  This month had a scathing comment about the great divide between the Spiritual but not Religious and the Religious but not Spiritual, sometimes known as the Frozen Chosen, or as Jesus bluntly put it, hypocrites.  Linda Moffat wrote, “Religious but not spiritual Christians are, by definition, fearful of any personal growth.  This can be a serious problem when they act to limit opportunities for … spiritual growth… Many faithful people, young and old, are deeply offended by the shallow, sometimes punitive and often joyless approach to the Christian faith of the RBNS in our midst.”  Ouch! 
Lent is the time when we take stock of where we are.  Are we being too spiritual and not religious enough? Or are we being too religious and not spiritual enough?  Rev. Anthony Robinson once asked a fellow minister, “why are African American worship services so different from our services?” His friend responded, “you whites think that God needs you.  We blacks know that we need God.”
Ouch!  But as Dr. Phil likes to say, we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge.  Or as AA and Al Anon say, make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.  Now I would be the greatest hypocrite in the world if I said that I had all the answers and knew how to make life easy.  But if we are to be followers of Jesus, we need to be prepared to follow him into the wilderness to wrestle with our angels and demons.  There are a lot of people who are living in chaos or feeling like they are drowning.  People who are imperfect and flawed.  People like you and me.
Are you drowning in fear, anger, grief or resentment? North American culture loves to deny that we are drowning. 
No, we are pretending to be perfect Noahs, sailing over the stormy waves of life in a massive boat we’ve built ourselves, happy in the certain knowledge that we are God’s favorite person, and we can float above everything life can throw at us, proud of our superiority and how we have our acts together.
We ignore the fact that what helped Noah rise above the dangers that threatened to destroy the world was Spiritual practices, in other words prayer.  He was spiritual but not religious.  Again and again, he turned to God.  How big do I build this boat? What kind of wood should I use? How do I get the animals aboard?  How will I know that it’s safe to leave the boat?  Noah was also very patient, for that was a huge project when you don’t own a chain saw or a lumber yard.  But he was also very independent.  There’s no record of subcontractors helping out.  And there’s no second opinion either.  Noah is not seen as a hero by many rabbis, on the contrary, they much prefer Abraham who bargained God down from wholesale destruction of humanity by asking God to remember compassion.  Noah never protested, never argued, and never showed compassion for his neighbors or community.  Noah was not religious; he did not worship God in a community committed to support each other in developing their relationship with God.  Maybe Noah fell into the temptation that he was the only one holy enough to deserve being spared the chaos of the waters.  Ouch!
God saw differently.  God looked at the world and saw, not a fresh start, but the despairing mothers trying to push their babies onto the highest rocks they could find.  God saw the husbands trying to keep their wives’ heads above the water.  God saw children in terror for their lives.  The art here is not the cute two by two parade we think of when we hear the Noah story, but the stark reality of what a dreadful thing a flood is.
God rejected Noah’s complacency and indifference to his neighbors.  God rejected violence as a solution to violence.  God chose relationship with imperfect humans rather than destroying them.  God chose to nurture community and relationship.
People who think, like Noah, that they are perfect, that they have all the answers, aren’t much different than the people who think they have the right to go into a school with loaded guns, or that they have the right to execute trespassers and thieves on their property.  People who think that their truck or their snowmobile are worth more than a human’s life, and that they are right to be executioners when their property are threatened, are not following Jesus.
Jesus calls us to follow him into the wilderness of Lent.  We are called to challenge our assumptions and deepen our relationship with God and our neighbors. We are called to be both spiritual and religious, practicing our faith and exploring our bibles and our prayer lives.  This Lenten season, join me in adding a spiritual practice to your life.  Practice seeking signs of God’s covenant in this beautiful world.  Be brave enough to examine your lives and bold enough to ask God and neighbors for help when you feel like you are drowning.  Experiment with trusting God’s covenant that the powers that bring hope out of chaos are still here, still available for anyone who is brave enough to admit that they are not perfect and follow Jesus into the wilderness of Lent.  Amen.