Building an Ark for Our Time

This reflection is for December 1, 2013 and is based on Matthew 24:36-44.

Today we enter the season of Advent, a time of waiting and preparing for Christ’s coming among us. It is tempting to jump straight to Christmas but Christ’s coming among us, while anticipated cannot be pinpointed to a specific date and time…but the passage we just heard reminds us that we can’t say when God will appear to us in human form. When we jump straight to Christmas we miss the preparation necessary to actually see the Christ in our midst. We forget that Jesus comes among us every day in many different forms.

The scripture takes us back to an earlier time, the time of Noah. People were going about their ordinary lives, just living. They weren’t paying attention and so missed the warning signs that something big was about to happen. Noah on the other hand, was actively listening to God. He got the message and did something about what God said to him.

It’s so easy for us to be complacent and do what we’ve always done. It’s comfortable: we know the routine, we know what’s expected. Sometimes we are just busy and don’t have time to pay attention to God.

So are we the people forgetting to look around and see the signs? Maybe we see the signs but don’t know what they mean. Maybe we see the signs but don’t want to know what they mean. I’m sure the people could see the clouds building, could feel the winds picking up. They knew something would be coming their way but either were too busy with their lives to prepare or uncertain how to prepare.

Noah, on the other hand, saw the storm coming and was open enough to God to pay attention. He was able to respond and do something wild and crazy like build an ark in a desert.  He took big risks because it was what God required of him. He went out on a limb with a sense that after the flood and his response to it, the world would never be the same.

How willing are we to take risks, to go out on a limb? Over the last week in several different places and contexts, I’ve had conversations with people worried about the future of the church: this congregation, the United Church of Canada and mainstream Christian churches generally. We can look around and see the signs: congregations are aging and shrinking, costs of maintaining buildings are growing, the culture is becoming more secularized and technology is changing the way we communicate. As a church, it is tempting to pretend we can keep doing what we’re doing but maybe it’s time to build an ark. Noah was preparing for the end of the world as he knew it and he survived. The people who failed to prepare did not survive.

Further on in the passage we hear that there will be a time when two people will be side by side doing exactly the same thing and one will be taken and one will be left behind. Following from the conversation about Noah, perhaps the distinction here is that one person was open and listening to God as they went about their daily life and the other was unable to hear God’s voice. One person is working in a field because it is their job, the work that is required of them. The other person is working with a sense of gratitude for the sun and rain and earth that nurtured the seed to create the harvest. One person was grinding meal as a chore, a requirement. The other was grinding meal with thanks for the meal it would provide and those who would gather and be nourished by the grain.

They do the same thing but their sense of God’s presence and motivation are different. How often do we simply go through the motions of a task without really focusing or being aware of God’s presence? As a church community, it is easy to get caught in being busy and forget to be grateful to God for what we have. It is easy for us to get caught in trying to survive that we lose sight of God’s mission and purpose for us.

Noah was called to build an ark so that the people who were aware of God’s presence in their lives would be saved from the flood. We live in a world that is increasingly secular. The threat is not a flood per say but climate change, war and violence are all threats to our own survival and the survival of the planet. What will save us from these threats? Perhaps we need to build an ark and invite anyone who seeks God’s presence, not just those who are already here, to help us build this ark.

We may not be able to save the whole world, but as a faith community, we may be able to build an ark in Yorkton where people can find safety, love and compassion to help all of us navigate the challenging times that we live in. The scriptures are full of stories of people who think that they live in the worst time ever and that the world is falling apart around them. We might feel the same at times. The other part of our scripture always contains a word of hope. The world is not ending, and even if it is, you are not forgotten and you are not alone. This passage is no different. It reminds us that by paying attention to God we may be strengthened in faith and given courage to take the risks required to live faithfully, weather a storm, and on the other side of that storm, thrive as Noah did.

We build an ark by refocusing our priorities. We need to get away from focusing on our tasks and routines, what we always and refocus on what God needs us to do here and now. We need to remember that we do not know when Jesus will come or in what form but that Jesus comes amongst us every day. Noah followed God but he was not able to keep the world as it was before the flood but he survived the flood. We will not be able to keep our church as it was before but the faith community will survive the storm of whatever comes, if we have the ability to risk building an ark.

Building an ark for our faith community requires us to think outside the box. It requires us to risk letting go of what is comfortable and known. In order to do this we need to go back to the very basics of our faith: spiritual practice and prayer—individually and in community, regular study and reflection, strengthening our relationships and building new ones.

With these tools we prepare ourselves for the storms that are coming and the changes that are upon us. We need to remember that we are not alone in the midst of what feels like chaos. It is our awareness of God that identifies us as people of faith and our awareness of God that will strengthen us into the future.

Tools for Peace

This is a Remembrance Day Sermon based on Micah 4:1-5. It’s based around the idea of changing swords into ploughshares.

I struggle every year with Remembrance Day. I remember with despair all the people who have died in wars and I wonder why, when there are still wars going on. It seems to me like a vicious circle. We have armies because there is war in the world and we feel a need to protect ourselves. We need to protect ourselves because there are armies in the world who would do harm to us and others.

For most of us war is something that happens somewhere else and when we are engaged in war we see ourselves as Canadians rescuing other people from terrorism and unjust leaders. And yet the reality is that war always breaks people. People leave home knowing and trusting that they are going to save and encourage others and come home, if they come home, broken in body, mind and spirit. And they leave behind in another place the brokenness of lives they couldn’t save.

The prophets are all very good at naming the reality. In Micah’s time the reality is that the community has evil rulers and lying prophets. Israel had been captured by the Assyrians and Judah was paying tax to them. Micah was an ordinary person. He had no status that would get him in to see the king or other leaders. He came from the people and he preached to the people. Barbara Essex describes the situation this way: “The people believe that they can do anything they want because God promised an eternal dynasty to David’s family; that is, there will always be a descendant of David in charge in Judah. Further, the people believe that Judah will always stand as an independent nation because God dwells in the capital city of Jerusalem. Surely, God will not let anyone or anything destroy the divine residence. The people and their leaders live with arrogance and believe their transgressions will be forgiven, that God will never forsake them.” This is the reality that Micah names.

And in Canada we talk about how lucky we are to live in a free country. We assume that this will always be the case. And yet we have unjust leaders, we have forgotten God’s commandment to love our neighbour. When violence touches our community we blame “those people”: the immigrants, the “Indians” and other riffraff. If they would either go away and quit bothering us or become like us there wouldn’t be a problem. But the prophets, including Micah, know something different. They know how to dream. It isn’t a dream where everyone becomes the same. It isn’t a dream where those with wealth and power are left alone to do whatever they want.

It is a dream of something fundamentally different . . . In a perfect world . . . This could be one of our gifts to the world. The ability to dream and to imagine is part of the gift of faith. Unless we imagine something different we are stuck with what is. Scripture—particularly the prophets—tells us what the reality of the situation is and then dares to imagine something different.

It isn’t intended as a day dream that simply stays in our head as wishful thinking but a dream that gets lived out in our reality every day.

One of the first things we need to do is learn God’s ways. There are many ways of phrasing this. One of the best known comes from the gospels: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength, with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself. It seems like such a basic thing but it is so hard to do. Naim Stifan Ateek, a Palestinian theologian, writes that to live with righteousness is to “live compassionately in the midst of the complexities of social and political life, seeking God’s loving presence for our neighbours as well as ourselves. Such living implies a true understanding of the common humanity of all people and God’s justice and mercy as extended to all.[1] Seeking compassion for those that we know and that live next to us and those that we don’t know whether they are here in Canada or in another part of the world.

 

All people are capable of compassion. As Christians, this sense of compassion has been instilled us through teaching and action. Our responsibility is to encourage compassion for all people and creation even when our instinct is to push away, to close out, to blame, and to look away. Our faith calls us back again to loving our neighbour.

Micah imagines a world where swords are turned into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Ploughshares and pruning hooks represent the human ability to cultivate the earth both for food and for beauty. Over a trillion dollars are spent every year around the world on creating better, more efficient weapons to destroy life but what would happen if that same money was used instead to encourage and nurture life? And we can say that we need to protect ourselves but how much of the threat that requires an armed response is real and how much is imagined? Does it start by governments getting rid of armies or does it start with communities imagining different responses to violence? Maybe instead of simply putting people who have committed violence in jail and forgetting about them we need to ask questions: difficult questions of them, of ourselves and our communities. As we seek answers to these questions we will find many more questions and many actions that require our attention. Our courage lies not in locking people away but in engaging with them.

One of the things we may find in seeking answers to these questions is that dignity has been lost somewhere along the way: maybe in this generation, maybe in a previous generation. All of us need places where we know we belong, where we know we are safe to be ourselves.  In the Hebrew scriptures when people have their own vine and their own fig tree the community is safe. There is stability, there is food, shelter, water. When the vine and fig tree are destroyed there is violence and war.  In our own culture the vine and fig are not central but we can certainly understand the concept of having food and shelter, of being safe physically and emotionally and spiritually. When people don’t have adequate access to these basic needs there is a loss of dignity that goes along with that. If you go to the food bank, you get the cheap food that people donate whether you like it or not, you don’t get choice and you can only go at certain times. If you can’t afford rent for a good home or mortgage you live in a tiny room somewhere or you give that up and live on the street.

Many of us who live comfortable middle class lives are afraid when we see people like this—the rifraf – either of the person or what their life represents to us. Our courage lies in looking directly at another person and seeking answers to the difficult questions another person’s life poses for us.

And finally Micah speaks of tolerance. We will walk with our God and be faithful and others will walk with other names for God and be faithful. Peace does not come from eliminating difference but of tolerating and embracing the difference.

Micah is quite specific in what he sees as the building blocks for peace:

  • following God, in other words, having love and compassion
  • instead of putting resources into war and weapons put our resources of time, energy and money into nurturing life
  • ensure that everyone has their basic needs met in ways that build up dignity
  • embrace difference and walk faithfully

 

And here we are at another remembrance day…remembering war, people who returned from war broken, and people who did not return. Our thanks must be followed by our action which works towards eliminating the need for war. Micah imagined a world where there was no need for war. Are we able to imagine it? See it clearly in our mind and live faithfully into the vision that Micah had for the world: a world of compassion, love and safety for all people.


                [1]. Naim Stifan Ateek, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990), 144.

 

 

Who’s sharing your table

This is a sermon from November 3rd 2013. It is based on Luke 19:1-20—the story of Zaccheaus trying to see Jesus.

Let’s begin by looking at the story of Zacchaeus. Jesus is travelling to Jericho. You can imagine big crowds gathering to see Jesus. The roads become clogged with people all trying to see him, talk to him, touch him. And Zacchaeus, being small person doesn’t have a hope of getting through. And so he looks around and decides the best thing to do is climb a tree. From up there he will be above the crowd and have a good view of everything that’s happening.

What do we know about Zacchaeus? We know he was a tax collector and we know he was wealthy. We can assume that he is Jewish and that he was collecting taxes on behalf of the Roman Empire. It was common practice for tax collectors to make their profit by collecting extra taxes (cheating people). Zaccheaus was someone who probably didn’t have many friends. The Romans would have had a working relationship with him but he would not have been accepted and welcomed in their community. The Jewish people might have seen him as collaborating with the enemy. He was not welcomed anywhere.

And Jesus finds interesting friends. He has a tendency to make connections with people that no one else wants around. This story is no different. With Zacchaeus sitting up in the tree, Jesus walks underneath looks up and says “I’m coming to your house.” Of all the places Jesus could choose to go, he chooses the person who is unwelcome on both the Roman and Jewish communities.

And so you can hear the crowds start to grumble. They start to talk about Zacchaeus: how much money he has, where it came from, maybe his family history. They also grumble and whisper about Jesus: Does he know who Zacchaeus is? Why would he visit Zaccaheus? Maybe someone should tell him who he is. Maybe someone should they stop him from going to visit Zaccheaus before he makes a fool out of himself.

And once a couple of people have decided that Jesus and Zaccheaus don’t go together most of the crowd gets in on the conversation. They already had an opinion about Zaccheaus and aren’t quite prepared to see things Jesus’ way just yet.

And in the midst of the crowd that has gathered according to many translations Zacchaeus says something along the lines of “I will give half of everything I own to the poor and I will repay four times what I’ve cheated.”

There’s another translation based on the fact this is the only place where the Greek phrases are in the present tense which David Lose says “Zacchaeus is boasting (probably in response to the grumbling of the crowd), “Look, half of my possessions I give to the poor…[and] I pay back four times” — as in right now, already, as a matter of practice.”[1]

The Message puts it this way:

“Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does he have getting cozy with this crook?” Zacchaeus just stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”

Does that change our perspective of Zacchaeus? Zacchaes is already doing what Jesus is teaching. Maybe the reason Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus is because he’s a big fan. Zacchaeus who is outcast from his community is already very intentional about doing the justices that he is capable of and which Jesus calls all of us to be about. Perhaps Zacchaeus wants to talk with Jesus so he can learn more about what else he can do to be just. Maybe he wants to strategize about taking the gospel farther. The point is that the meeting with Jesus did not transform Zacchaeus from a sinner into a righteous person. And we can identify people that we know personally in our community and people we know only by reputation who are wealthy and share that wealth with others.

But Jesus’ parting words to Zacchaeus are also important to us: “Salvation has come to this house.” Zacchaeus doesn’t give up being a tax collector but he does continue working at living in right ways. David Ewart writes that “salvation does not require, nor result in, perfection. Salvation in this lifetime is not about the end state. Salvation is the process, the healing and reconciling that is needed for creating right relationships.”[2] Salvation is not a one time event but something that we continue to live into and struggle with throughout our lives. Zacchaeus was well on the path of salvation before he met Jesus and he continued figure out how to live faithfully within the context of his life. The reality is that as much as we strive to live lives of justice and compassion, none of us will ever have it down completely or do it perfectly. The crowd’s judgement on Zacchaeus reflects their own sense that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who live good lives and those who do not.

But how do we know who lives rightly? If none of live lives of love perfectly then how do we set those boundaries of who is worthy of our association and who is not? Part of what this particular scripture reminds us is that the boundaries we set are somewhat arbitrary and just like the crowd we have some choices to make about who is welcome and who is not.

There are a couple of options here:

  1. The crowd could change their opinion of Jesus and Jesus could become one of the outcasts along with Zacchaeus. At least Zacchaeus would have company. Jesus was willing to take this risk.
  2. The crowd could change their opinion of Zacchaeus. By association Jesus draws Zaccheaus into the community. Because Jesus is enthusiastic in his relationship with Zaccheaus, Zaccheaus would become a welcome member of the society – not because he is perfect, not because he lives every aspect of his life in the right way but because he is accepted by God as a child of Abraham for who he is at this moment.

When we think about our own homes and who we invite into them: we tend to invite people we know and like, people who are at least somewhat like ourselves. It is much easier to offer hospitality to those we suspect are similar in outlook and action than those who are obviously different from ourselves. This story reminds us that everyone of us has areas of our lives that we need to constantly be learning and growing in and that we are still loved by God and still worthy of being part of the community.

Sharing a meal or a home with someone is an intimate opportunity so it is easy to understand why we want to limit those experiences. Life is much simpler if we only associate with those we perceive as being good and yet Jesus challenges those assumptions and asks us to do the same.

Who are the people in Yorkton that might need to be welcomed? We have a gay community here in Yorkton and yet it is a very difficult community in which to be open about our sexual orientation. We have a large immigrant population with people from a wide variety of faiths and I have heard many expressions of fear towards other faiths.  We have a large aboriginal population which, in many ways, tends to be segregated from the rest of the community.

Are we able to stretch the boundaries in our own faith community and lives? Are we willing to re-evaluate our own sense of right living knowing that others are trying as much as we are to live lives of love and compassion? Are we willing to take the risk that Jesus took in which we choose to be with people who are less welcome in our community? Are we willing to risk our own place in the community so that someone else will be welcomed?

And as we stretch those boundaries we need to always hold within our vision a conviction that we are all loved by God no matter where we are on our journey. If we can hold that conviction it will allow us to more easily stretch the boundaries of our welcome.

 


[1] David Lose. Dear Working Preacher. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1556

 

[2] David Ewart. www.holytextures.com

 

 

Heaven and Hell on Earth

This sermon is from September 29, 2013 and is based on Luke 19:16-31. The text tells the story of Lazarus and the Rich man who live side by side in very different realities.

Imagine the most luxuriously dressed people you can think of… perhaps a movie star. Think of someone easily recognizable. You know this person’s name and face. In the story from Luke there is a rich man. We never hear his name.

On the other hand we hear about a poor man named Lazarus who is covered in soars and eats the garbage that the rich man doesn’t want. It is interesting that Lazarus has a name and the rich man does not. I think it says something about the author’s priorities and who the author believes Jesus sees as the most important in this story. Naming is so important….It allows us to be in relationship, it allows us to be known. Being unnamed means that we are invisible, unseen, unimportant. In this story, Lazarus is given a name. The author wants us to see Lazarus, to see the world from his point of view.

How many of you have walked in the inner city of a large city like Toronto or Vancouver or Winnipeg or even Saskatoon and Regina? How many of you have been asked for change? When I first went to school in Winnipeg, I was approached for change many times. At first it was scary and disconcerting. Then it was irritating and annoying and I’d simply ignore the people. Then I started at the very least making eye contact and greeting the person.  Sometimes I’d give change or snacks that I might be carrying. It’s very easy to not see the people in need around us. Here in Yokrton, it’s not always as obvious. There are very definitely people here who live in poverty but many of us would be hard pressed to know their name and something about them. Most of us do not have relationships with people who live in poverty, even though they live in our community.

Lazarus did not choose to be poor…We don’t know his life story but we might imagine that he was an orphan, or that his parents were poor and he didn’t have opportunities, perhaps he was an immigrant from another place, maybe had a disability that prevented him from working…We don’t know, but we can assume that he did not choose a life of picking through the rich man’s garbage.

In the parable both of them die. Except that what happens next is not what we expect…It is Lazarus, the one who in life would be unseen and unknown who ends up in with angels and the rich man who would be well known in the community ends up in Hades. Somehow we have learned that material wealth suggests we are living a good, upright and faithful life. For those who live in poverty, there is often a perception that they are alcoholic, often they are aboriginal or immigrants, live with some type of mental or physical disability, or they are violent…There are stereotypes around poverty in our own communities and for many of us, interacting with people who live in poverty may be scary and uncomfortable. Most people don’t choose to be poor but circumstances and the place we start in life play a huge role in shaping where we find ourselves financially as adults.

I want to unpack the story a bit and think about the concepts of heaven and hell. Lazarus dies and is carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. In thinking about this, we need to remember that the concept of life after death for the writers of the gospel is quite different from our own concepts. Within the Jewish tradition, which Christianity comes from, the concept of any life after death was a relatively new idea.  Heaven was where God and the angels lived. For the early Christians, heaven was the place of God and the angels, and the place where Jesus went to be after his death. The concept of heaven as a place for Jesus’ followers is a later tradition. Instead, all the spirits resided in a place called Shoel which was a shadowy half-life. For Jesus and the early Christians it seems that heaven was the place where God resided and that at some point heaven and earth would merge. Think about the Lord’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and not says N.T. Wright “in heaven once we’ve escaped earth.” [1]

 

 There was a concept that at some point in the future, God would come to earth and bring heaven to us. As people of faith, we trust and believe that there is some part of our spirit that continues after death and most of us would agree that in some sense we are reunited with God and the people we love. What we don’t know for certain is what form that reunion takes or how we will experience it. While it is evident that Jesus and his followers believed in an afterlife, they were more concerned about life on earth. Marcus Borg writes that what is central to our Christian faith is “a relationship with the Spirit of God that transforms lives in the present, not … a reward that only comes later.” (meaning of Jesus 246).

So in the theology of the early Christians, when Lazarus is taken to be with Abraham it is a great privilege…one that most people don’t receive. Lazarus, the poorest of the poor, who is to be unknown and unnamed is taken to be with Abraham and the angels.

Meanwhile, the rich man remains nameless and ends up in Hades or Hell – depending what translation you read. This also needs some explanation. Again, you need to remember that the early Christians did not have the same conceptions of heaven and hell as we have. Outside of Jerusalem is Gehenna which, when translated becomes Hades. Originally, this site was one where the worshipers of Moloch practiced human sacrifice. There is a history of violence and fires for burning sacrifices. By Jesus’ time this same place had become the city garbage dump.  This is the place where anyone who couldn’t live within the city was forced to live: anyone with skin conditions like leprosy, anyone who was too poor to afford accommodation, anyone who might have evil spirits – what we might now consider epilepsy or mental illness or physical disabilities, orphans or widows. And in order for people to live there would be cooking fires and fires to keep warm and so you get this image of a firey place with smoke where people live and are tortured because there is already a perception the people living in that place are inferior. This is where our image of hell with heat and flames comes from.

This story flips what we think we know about the world. The people that the culture said were the least valuable, not even worthy of being named become the people with special privileges while those who are well known and wealthy are the ones who suffer.  Now we know that people who live with disabilities and mental illness are good and valuable members of our society, and we work hard at creating welcoming and inclusive communities. But there is still often stigma attached and many of us carry stereotypes.

I want to take the image of the garbage dump seriously. If you look at pictures from the Guatemala city dump or other dumps around the world you will be able to see people if you look carefully. There are millions of people living in the city dump. There are schools for the children and people make their living by combing the dump for things to be reused, resold, recycled somehow.

For Jesus, this image of Hades, what we think of as hell, had a very real and very concrete existence. It wasn’t a metaphysical place for the dead. It was a real place for the living. For us too, hades or hell can be a very real place in our own world. The same type of experience of the garbage dump that Jesus was referring to continues to exist in our own time.

According to Kari Jo Verhulst, “Jesus is describing the effect of living by the chasms of our world, not prescribing God’s eternal response to our sin.” [2] The story is not about two people who end up in heaven and hell. It’s about two people who live side by side in very different realities. Jesus is saying that the rich man is creating hell on earth. He can’t see it because he doesn’t live with the realities of that life. By creating hell, he is cutting himself off from God. The poor man on the other hand lives with the realities of hell on earth everyday and has access to God.

Would you think that the rich man ends up creating Hades? Ends up creating his own hell?  By ignoring Lazarus he is creating hell on earth. And so for those of us who have money, and power and privilege, we need to make a choice about whether we will create heaven or hell. Money in and of itself is not evil. The issue Jesus has with money is not that we have money but that the money is not shared with people in need.

And there are variations on this experience of Hades and hell around the world and in our own community. We have people in our community that struggle every month to pay rent and find food. We have people in our community that live in abusive relationships or struggle with addictions.   You might say, it’s not my problem. We have government programs for people in need. We have food banks. I didn’t make them poor. The problem’s too big and I can’t do anything. Here’s the thing though. We’re not being asked to fix the problem. We’re being asked to make a choice. Do we go along with our governments and business practices that are creating hell on earth? Or do we make a different choice? We are being asked to choose which side of the chasm we want to be on. It’s our choice.

The parable refers us back to the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures – Moses and the prophets. If we go back and look, we know what we need to do. The prophets tell us again and again: look after the poor, the widows, the orphans, anyone who is on the fringes of society. If we are not doing that we are creating hell on earth. 

Following Jesus and prophets means that we are going to be ridiculed at times. It’s not an easy journey. Sometimes we are asked to do things that don’t seem to make a lot of sense. And sometimes we’ll be asked to say and do things that appear to get us into trouble with authority, with our friends and neighbours.  And psalm 91, that we began worship with reminds us that God is our refuge “My rock in whom I trust.” Even when things look bleak and rough, God is there. God is with us as we choose to take a stand.

Our choice is whether we create heaven or hell. What will you choose?

 

 

Further Reading:


[1].Marcus J. Borg and N.T Wright, Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1999), 200.

 

[2]. Kari Jo Verhulst Sojourners: Faith in Action for Social Justice, http://sojo.net/magazine/1998/09/agents-kingdom