What God will you Serve?

 

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How do we serve faithfully when we find ourselves in difficult places? How do we trust in God in those moments?

Since the creation story last week, we skipped several stories but Genesis continues to be concerned with figuring out who God is and defining the relationship between God, humans and the creation. Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14 is a very dark story. We might find it offensive that God would command someone to kill their own son as a sacrifice and it creates some challenges for us.

 

In the time that this story comes from, most cultures believed in many gods and it was not uncommon to perform human and child sacrifices to appease those gods. So in the story, we see Abraham heading off with his son, Isaac to offer a sacrifice. You might remember that Isaac is the child of Abraham and Sarah’s old age. He is the child that was promised to them—the child that would produce a great nation.

One commentator, B.W. Anderson suggests that this story was included “to justify the Israelites’ break with other ancient cultures’ practice of child sacrifice.” (Inclusive Bible, Footnote Gen 22:1). The book of Genesis is concerned with the relationship between God and the creation. This story sets the relationship up as something unique and different. This is not a God who demands child sacrifice. That’s not to say that God won’t ask difficult things from us or that we won’t find ourselves faced with difficult choices.

I suspect that as Abraham and Isaac were walking, they both had questions. I imagine Abraham arguing with God is his mind: You promised me a child who would produce a great nation. Now you are going to take that child away? What kind of God are you that makes promises and then breaks them?

Isaac voices his question out loud. “We’re going to make a sacrifice, but we have nothing to offer. How could my father be so unprepared? Even I know that you have to take something along to sacrifice.” The characters question. We might also question God. There are times when we just don’t understand what it is that God is up to. We don’t understand what God is asking of us or how something will work out in a way that is actually life-giving.

When we participate in baptism, we offer trust in God. We don’t know exactly what God is up to in our lives. We don’t know exactly what God will do through us, but we affirm our belief in a God of love who is mysteriously at work in us and the world. We affirm our belief in a God that is in a relationship with us. We affirm our willingness to serve that God in the world. Just like Abraham who didn’t know exactly what God is up to we serve, stepping faithfully into the unknown.

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In the Beginning…God saw that it was Good!

 

We’re starting at the beginning! The first story of creation. It is one of 2 creation stories in the Bible. There are two stories because even in the beginning there wasn’t consensus on how things happened. Our Bible is very good at holding multiple viewpoints and multiple stories in tension. When we read scripture, we need to remember this important concept. There isn’t one version of the story. The Bible does not have one perspective but rather gathers multiple responses to God into a collection of writings. When we read the Bible, we need to listen for all these voices and then figure out how we make sense of them for our time and place.

We start at the beginning. There is a formless void and darkness. Some translations use the word chaos. But in the center of this chaos is God. God isn’t out there at a distance but at the center. And from this central place in the chaos, God creates. God sweeps over the waters. In this story, God has the ability to act and to speak. It is God’s action that creates. God said, “let there be light.” And God saw that it was good. Day and night are created. Then God separates the sky from the water. Then God separates the water and the land and God saw that it was good. Then God created all sorts of plants and trees and God saw that it was good. Day and night and seasons are created next–sun, moon, stars. And God saw that it was good. Then there are creatures–birds, fish, land animals—every animal you can imagine.

And then God made people. The Inclusive translation reads: “let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. . . . Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them.” In Hebrew, the original language of the Bible, God is actually a plural word. It could mean that the original authors were imagining God with an angelic court or, as was common at the time, that there were actually many gods involved in the creation. It also means that when God is creating humans, there are many images of God being reflected. In this version, men and women are created together and that God is reflected in a community of people.

God offers a blessing to the humans: “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” We need to think carefully about what these words mean. I attended a Canadian Theological Schools conference when I was a student. I remember talking about these words with other students. One of the people involved in this conversation, said that God gave the earth to humans to subdue and have dominion over. Therefore we can do whatever we want with it. It was a gift to be used however we see fit. I was shocked and horrified. I have always understood this passage as having an implicit message of care for creation. In light of climate change and degradation of the earth’s resources, where we start with our reading of scripture matters. This first story sets to the tone for everything that comes after.

If we see this story with humans at the center with the God given right to use the earth without concern, to rule over the earth, it sets us on a path that depletes the earth’s resources, and creates havoc with the earth’s natural systems. We need to rethink this original story. We need to understand that it is God—not humans—at the center of everything that is. It is God—not humans—who calls creation into being and forms life from chaos.

The inclusive translation puts the blessing this way: “bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the earth—and be responsible for it! Watch over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things on earth” (Gen 1:28) I like this translation because it is explicit in naming our responsibility as humans. Caring for the earth is no longer optional. It is part of the creation story—an expectation given to us at the very beginning. When hear about climate change and other natural disasters, we need to ask ourselves whether we are being responsible stewards of the earth we’ve been given. Are we using our voices and our power to protect and sustain the earth or are we using our power to destroy the earth?

Christianity has done much to destroy the earth because we have misread this original story and skewed our role in the story. Many other spiritual paths have stayed much closer to this original story. First Nations traditions have been close to the land. Through colonization much of the knowledge and understanding that Indigenous people have about what it means to steward and care for the earth was lost. The video we saw a few minutes ago, show one program that helps Indigenous and non- indigenous people relearn that knowledge.

The story gives hope. As God creates, the writers repeat a mantra making clear God’s intention: And God saw that it was good. God continues to see that creation is good. God continues to see good in humans because we are created in God’s image. One of the central themes of scripture and of the Christian story is that of repentance—meaning to change direction. The work being done through the Paris accord requires us to repent, to change direction. To follow through on changing our lifestyles and our actions is actually faithful living because it reminds us and the creation that we are created in God’s image and God sees that it is good.

Christianity: Cause of Brokenness and Source of Healing

9723852665_0e4058295c_o_arrWednesday was National Aboriginal Day. Sometimes we forget that the history with First Nations in Canada is tied in with our theology and how we read scripture.

Passages like Galatians 4:1-7, 5:16-26 contributed to some of the history. The passage begins by saying, “heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father.” In the early relationship, Europeans saw that even though First Nations lived on the land they didn’t use it or manage it in the way Europeans would. This led to an understanding that they needed guardians and trustees to manage their land and resources. This, in turn, led to the Indian Act and reserve system which is still in place. One of the first pieces of legislation related to First Nations was the “Civilization of Indian Tribes Act” in 1857. According to this legislation, if an Indian man could prove English language skills and the ability to manage his own affairs he would be able to vote and own land as long as he gave up his identity as an aboriginal person. Our scripture could be interpreted to support this belief.

This passage also makes reference to people who are enslaved by elemental spirits. In Paul’s time, there were some who wanted to return to local deities and worshiping the sun, the moon, the animals. In early Canadian history, the traditional aboriginal teachings were seen as worship of the elements. This worship was seen as against God and therefore needed to be stopped. There was genuine concern for the souls of aboriginal people, a want to bring them into Christianity and to “civilize” them. Out of these beliefs and values came the residential schools.

Christian theology was instrumental in creating and supporting the broken relationship that has developed between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. Christian theology also holds hope for a future that looks different from what currently is. This passage goes on to tell us that the fruits for the spirit, the things that come from living faithfully are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the things that lead to healthy communities and relationships. We need to love our aboriginal neighbours. We need to seek peace. We need to have patience with each other as we tell stories, listen and learn from each other. We need to be kind. We need to be generous as we seek to live faithfully with our current reality. We need to speak and act with gentleness and compassion. We need to practice self-control as we look for ways to walk in a good path.

We need to understand that, as Christians, we do not have a monopoly on the sacred or on God. The traditional teachings of indigenous spirituality are very necessary as we learn how to care for the earth. Those of us who are immigrants and descendants of immigrants have much to learn from indigenous peoples. Our scriptures and theology have been used to tear down and destroy. Now we need to use those same scriptures and a new theology to build and to heal.

All are Welcome

 

There’s conflict in the early church again! In Galatians 2:11-21 Paul has been working with a congregation for several years and in that time they have welcomed people regardless of their religious background. Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians are working and worshiping together and the community is flourishing. But then they have some visitors from outside the community. These visitors feel that by having Jewish Christians sharing the table with non-Jews, they are breaking the purity code of the Jewish tradition. Cephas has been part of the community and has been comfortable sharing the table with many different people. Once these visitors come, he starts to distance himself and refuses to share the table. Then others join in and the community is divided. The Jewish Christians aren’t about to eat with sinners who don’t keep the law.

Paul goes on to argue that everyone, whether Jewish or not, is sinner. To identify as a sinner isn’t always a comfortable place. To have sin pointed out to us isn’t always comfortable but sin simply means that we have missed the mark, that we have made a mistake, that we haven’t lived up to who we are meant to be. Sin may be very personal but it also has impact on community.

Sometimes it is difficult to identify the sin. Initially, in this story, the sin is seen as breaking the purity code and not following the tradition of a segregated table. In order to resolve this break in the code, the Jewish Christians refuse to eat with non-Jews. Paul challenges this and suggests that the real sin is refusing to share the table. Paul flips the idea of sin on its head. The people who are accusing others of sin become the sinners.

We want to keep nice neat boxes which allow some people to be insiders and others outsiders but the Holy Spirit is messy and doesn’t conform to our ideas of who should be welcome in our communities. The sin for which Paul holds people accountable is the sin of exclusion and division. We continue to struggle with this challenge. Any time we tell someone that they are unwelcome, we sin because it breaks the body of Christ. It is easy to point to others and say that they are sinners and should be unwelcome but neither Christ nor Paul would support that attitude.

This video from the United Church of Christ shows what happens when we believe we are better than others and want to maintain a closed community without sinners.

When you watch this video, where do you see yourself? Do you think you are one of the ones who might get ejected or would you be the person who moves further down the pew so as not to be in the way when people are tossed out? If would could eject people from this congregation, who would you eject? Where would you stop? Perhaps someone would eject you. If you were the one being ejected, how would you feel? We need to have compassion for each other.

The point of this story is that in God’s eyes we are all equal. None of us is more or less worthy to be a part of the community. None of us should live in fear of being ejected because of something we have said or done or because of who we are. We are all special and we are all loved. The church is Christ’s body and all of us are members of the body. All of us are welcome.

 

A Spirit for Change

Pentecost is an ancient Jewish celebration. Pentecost means fiftieth day and there were several fiftieth days or Pentecosts in the tradition. From Passover to the Pentecost of New grain was fifty days. From that date to the Pentecost of new wine was fifty days and then another fifty days to the Pentecost of new oil.

In Acts 2, the disciples have gathered to celebrate the Pentecost of new grain. They are celebrating the way they do every year. There is nothing out of the ordinary. But suddenly there is a violent wind and flames have appeared out of the sky.

The crowd that has gathered is from many different places and they speak different languages but they can understand what the disciples are saying. Just like in this version of the Lord’s prayer. It sounds different but the words have similar meanings regardless of language. We can experience the Holy in multiple languages. We can speak of God, of Gitchi Manitou in several first nation languages, of Allah in Arabic but we end up in the same place…the Holy, the one who is creator and sustainer of life.

In this Pentecost experience, that creator sends a spirit of action and animation among people who have already had experience of the person of Jesus and of the risen Christ. This experience of Pentecost, of being filled with the spirit then sends them out into the world to act for the Risen Christ.

Skip forward about 60 years to the story of Paul. You might remember from a few weeks ago when we heard the story of Stephen’s stoning that Saul was watching and approved of the killing. Saul had an experience of the Risen Christ in which Christ speaks to him and asks why he is persecuting the Christians. It is an ah ha moment for Saul. He becomes Paul—a Christian missionary who travels around establishing churches everywhere he goes.

The second scripture is from Galatians and Paul is describing his life before and after the moment of his conversion. Before he met the risen Christ, he was devout in his belief. He was actively engaged in seeking to destroy any Jesus followers he could find. In Paul’s time, it was important to maintain the status quo. Change was actively avoided and Saul was part of that active resistance. The fact that Saul had an experience that changed him so profoundly would met with a healthy dose of skepticism. He would have to be able to justify the change. In the passage we heard this morning, that’s exactly what he does.

He says, “God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.” When broken down this statement picks up various passages in Isaiah and Jeremiah. You might remember Jesus also picking up themes from the Hebrew scriptures and applying them to himself in order to find credibility amongst people who knew their Bible well.

Paul claims that this change within him was a result of his experience of the risen Christ and a call directly from Christ. He claims that God knew him before he was born and that God was revealed to him in his vision of the Risen Christ and the he is sent to proclaim God to everyone everywhere.

One of the things that is fascinating about this is that Saul/Paul’s sense of call went from maintaining the status-quo and removing anyone who threatened that status-quo to a call to change the world. He went from trying to keep people thinking, believing and practicing their faith in the same way as they had for centuries to being an voice that changed how people thought, believed and practiced their faith.

Paul didn’t start life as an advocate for Christianity. As new information presented itself, he was able to be open to a God that continued to speak to him and unsettle him. That God, completely changed the direction of his life. We need to be open to a God that continues to speak to us in many ways. We don’t always know how the Holy spirit will speak to us or touch us. We don’t always know what the spirit will say to us.

Things that we think are true and right, may not be so. People that we think are our enemy, may not actually be our enemy. The spirit turns our world upside down and inside out. It is difficult to remain faithful by maintaining the status quo, by keeping things the same. The world changes, our lives change. God calls us as individuals to different things at different points in our lives. We might have a moment where we can look back and say…it changed there. Sometimes the change is more gradual and we find that we are in a completely different place from where we thought we would be.

The church is no different. God calls the church to change over time. We are changed by people who come and go. We are changed by events in the world around us as we seek to respond faithfully. If Constantine hadn’t made Christianity the official religion of the roman empire, if Martin Luther hadn’t posted his theses, if no one else had challenged the beliefs and practices of Christianity, it would not have evolved into the faith we have today.

The Holy Spirit inspires and encourages us to be bold and faithful for Christ. It encourages us to seek ways of living that respond to challenges in our world and yet are grounded in who we know God to be. The spirit is among us—moving and faithful.

Who Belongs?

At it’s heart, this story in Acts 15:1-17 is about a community trying to define itself. Does it want to be known by the rules it keeps or by radical inclusiveness?

The story starts with a group of new Jewish-Christians arriving in Antioch, which is where Paul and Barnabas are. This group, insists that non-jews who want to become Christian must adopt Jewish law and customs. Paul and Barnabas argue about this with them. Eventually, the community decides to refer the matter to the apostles and elders who are in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas head off to Jerusalem for a consultation.

There was a big debate. We think of debates as having rules. This was basically everyone weighing in with their opinion at the same time, all shouting over each other. Once the argument had blown itself out, Peter steps into the silence and speaks. He suggests that the law was central to the Jewish faith but that something new is emerging which is not based on the law but on Jesus. It is the relationship with the Risen Christ that is central to this new faith.

The early church struggled to make sense of who they were. Would membership be based on old traditions passed down through generations or would it be based on something different? Jesus consistently questioned laws that were interpreted as a way of keeping people outside of God’s grace. Peter wanted the early church to follow in Jesus’ footsteps of creating a community based on relationship.

In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Since that time, Christianity has been associated with governments and power in many places around the world. Christianity was the religion of colonization. Christianity was the rule of the land. Initially, there was little separation between Christianity and government and even though we identify as having separated religion and politics, there continues to be an assumption of shared stories and history.

At the time of the reformation, Martin Luther asked whether the church would be based on rules and traditions that had become a burden or would it be based on something new and different? Martin Luther wanted individuals to have direct access to God without having to go through a priest. This was about the same time that the Bible started being translated and printed into multiple languages so it became accessible to more people. These were radical things but they shaped the protestant church that we have today.

The separation of church and state is a fairly recent phenomenon. We haven’t needed, until recent history, to define ourselves because there was an assumption that everyone around us was Christian even if they weren’t practicing the faith. There have always been a variety of denominations and beliefs within Christianity but always based, to a certain extent, on shared stories and history.

What was at stake in the early church was a question of membership based on following the rules that had been handed down or membership based on relationship with the Risen Christ and the community. In the end, the relational form of membership won out. When Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire it was no longer a relational faith but a faith of government and power and rules. Martin Luther recognized that the faith was falling into the old habit of using rules to keep people away from the Holy and wanted to return to a form of faith where relationship with the Risen Christ was central.

Within our culture, we no longer have the shared history or the familiarity of biblical stories that once could be assumed. How do we define ourselves and our membership without these common touchstones? I believe this is a great opportunity for us to really examine what it means to be a faith filled community. Are we a faith filled community because we all believe exactly the same thing? Are we a faith filled community because we have a set of common rules that all of us follow?

How do we decide who belongs and is fit to be part of the community? Historically, people believed (or at least gave lip service to belief), which led to what was considered appropriate behavior and as a result they belonged. If they did not maintain a lip service to belief or stepped out of appropriate behavior they no longer belonged. My grandmother was raised as an old order Mennonite and when she married outside the faith she was shunned. She didn’t believe in the right way, didn’t behave in the right way and didn’t belong.

A new model of church membership flips this order. We belong. We are welcomed and loved. We have relationship with the Holy and the community. This leads to belief that there is something beyond us and that the spirit is active and present in the world. This belief then shapes our behavior. I like this model because it begins with an assumption of belonging. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. We always belong to God. If our community is faith-filled then we always belong here too. Belief and behavior flow from this sense of belonging.

This is what the early church was trying to get at. In God’s family, everyone is welcome without having to know the shared history and stories. As people are immersed in Christian community, everyone is transformed. Newcomers and long-timers alike are transformed by their interactions as they seek new ways of being faithful in a changing world.

Sharing the Faith

In Acts 8:26-39, we hear about Philip, who was named as deacon along with Stephen. Philip is given direction by an angel to go into the wilderness. There is no one for miles. It is a deserted road. On this road, he meets an Ethiopian eunuch who is the royal treasurer. He was travelling in his chariot and reading the scroll of Isaiah but he doesn’t understand it.

As Philip listens outside the carriage he is moved to speak to the eunuch. They spend time together and the eunuch is moved by what Philip says to him. The eunuch is baptized by Philip. The eunuch understood that he couldn’t learn and understand the faith by himself. He needed someone to teach him and help him to understand.

W510 - picture009 - CopyWe cannot learn the faith by ourselves. We need each other to help us learn and grow. That’s one of the reasons we always baptize in community—because we recognize that parenting and raising children in the faith is difficult. We invite families to choose God parents whose primary role is to encourage and nurture children and their parents in deepening their faith. As a faith community, we commit to supporting individuals as they grow in faith. We learn about our own faith as we worship and other times when we talk together can be even more powerful for deepening our experience of faith. Bible study, children’s programs and even moments of pastoral care can be powerful experiences of learning the faith.

Learning the faith is not something that stops when we become adults. It is something that should be an on-going part of our lives until the moment of our death when we discover what comes next. The eunuch was curious about a faith he knew nothing about and was drawn into learning. That learning was transformative for him. Learning with others needs to shape our own faith. saturday worship 4

Sometimes we are hesitant to share our faith with others. Maybe they don’t think like us and will disagree with us. Maybe we worry that someone won’t like us any more. Religion was on the list of things to not talk about when I was growing up but we need to get over this discomfort of speaking about our faith with others. Philip didn’t wait until he knew the eunuch well. He didn’t wait to find out where he had been worshiping. Instead he approached and said, “can we talk?”

We need to be bold in talking with others about our faith. There are many different kinds of Christianity. I believe that the world needs to hear a message of faith that holds rationality and mystery in tension. The world needs to hear a message that is inclusive and welcoming. The world needs to hear a message of faith grounded in compassion and love. This is a gift that we have to share with the world and the world needs this message. We need to be bold in sharing our faith, speaking truth and offering hope in a hurting world.

As we learn, we find the boldness and confidence we need. As we speak and proclaim the gospel we continue to be shaped in the spirit of Christ. We are transformed and the world is transformed.