Living Faithfully in a Post-Christian Culture

This is a reflection based on 1 Peter 3:13-22, thinking about we live faithfully in our own context.

As I said in last week’s reflection, it is easy to be comfortable with how things are because we benefit. And yet, many of us look around the world and see situations that do make us uncomfortable or that we know are wrong. Living faithfully is an on-going challenge. It isn’t something we figure out once in our lifetime but a constant commitment to looking carefully at the world around us, seeing our place in that world and then asking ourselves what is the good or right thing to do in a particular situation.

And that is what this week’s passage struggles with. Sometimes doing what is right or good leads us into the uncomfortable. Doing what is right or good leads us to give up certain things. Doing what is right or good leads us to places where we feel like we are a lone voice. In extreme cases doing what is right or good leads us to suffering, violence and even death.

In this video, Do We Need Persecution? Nikki Hardeman talks about how being immersed in a culture where Christianity is the norm actually makes it more difficult to practice our faith.

The early churches really were in a place where holding onto their beliefs—living rightly—really could mean death. In the United Church, we often find ourselves in a strange place. We identify as Christian in, as described in the video, a post-Christian culture. In some ways we fit with the culture…we don’t have particular dress that sets us apart, we watch TV shows that are part of our culture including reality TV and many of our values of inclusivity and tolerance are shared by the people we interact with around us. These values of inclusivity and tolerance are the same things that can sometimes make us uncomfortable in interacting with our Christian brothers and sisters. It sometimes feels like we don’t fit in either place.

So what is the right thing to do? We want to avoid suffering. In our culture, this is sometimes understood as avoiding conflict or trying not to upset anyone and yet this reading reminds us that if we are doing the right thing, we can expect suffering. We can expect conflict but we are often taught to avoid conflict. As a child, I was taught to ignore the bullies. It didn’t stop the bullying or make me feel any safer. Now, we try and teach people how to stand up to bullies. It isn’t an easy thing to do. It can be dangerous but we recognize that it is the right thing to do.

As a church, we need to find that voice of standing up for what is right. We’re pretty quiet in how we respond to things in our community. It is sometimes easier to talk about problems on the other side of the world than address issues right here in our own community. Talking about what’s happening here is more likely to create conflict for us because it touches our own lives. Harvey Milk, an early gay activist (who was assassinated for his work) said “If you want to change the world start in your own neighbourhood.”

As a church we need to be talking about issues that affect us here in Yorkton. We can talk about poverty, affordable housing, immigration, racism, homophobia, our relationship with First Nations, climate change, violence and many others. We have some of these conversations amongst ourselves but we need to take this conversation to the wider community and not be afraid of offending or hurting others.

Often when we are afraid of offending people it is because we already have a relationship that we are worried about damaging and we want to avoid what we perceive as suffering. We forget that by remaining silent, someone else is hurt. The most vulnerable among us need people that will choose to be in relationship with them and speak with them for justice. It takes courage and a willingness to risk conflict.

I am excited about living in a post-Christian culture. I think that it really pushes us to decide what it means to live faithfully and how we practice our faith on an on-going basis rather than taking for granted beliefs and practices that have been passed down to us. Finding how to live faithfully in this culture may mean that traditional Christianity no longer fits and that we take a step aside from the culture around us while remaining engaged with it. An important part of our participation in the faith community is challenging each other about our choices, about where we choose to stand in this world in which we find ourselves.

My hope and prayer for us is that we will continue to find our voice with courage and conviction and that we will take our faith beyond the doors of our church regardless of the suffering and conflict it brings to us. May we choose what is right.

 

Joseph: Savior of the People or CEO of the first Empire?

 

Remember the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis? You might be familiar with it as the story of Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat.

It begins with Joseph, one of twelve brothers, being singled out as a favorite of their father Jacob by being given a fancy coat, commonly described as a coat of many colours. Joseph tells his brothers about the dreams he has. In these dreams, Joseph will be great and the brothers will all bow down to him. You can imagine how popular Joseph is with his siblings.

The brothers are out together and they beat Joseph up, throw him into a dry well and then sell him into slavery. Joseph ends up in Egypt where he works for Potiphar. He is accused of seducing Potiphar’s wife and ends up in jail. He continues interpreting dreams until, one day, Pharaoh has a dream that no one can interpret. Someone remembers Joseph. He interprets Pharaoh’s dream and announces that there will be seven years of plenty and then then seven years of famine.

Pharaoh gives Joseph the task of managing the country during this crisis. Joseph gathers all the grain and stores it. During the famine Joseph’s family comes to Egypt looking for food and the family is reunited.

And then we pick up the story from Genesis 47:13-26

The famine is severe and the people are starving. We often associate famine with drought or some other natural disaster. Famine simply means to be hungry. The Hebrew consistently translates as hunger and does not say anything about how the hunger came to be. There is a time before the hunger when the people have much food. It is during this time that Joseph and Pharaoh gather the grain. Taking the grain means that there is no food for humans, no food for livestock, no grain for planting. Of course the people will be hungry. Their sustenance is now owned by the Pharaoh.

The people go to Joseph for food and so Joseph sells their food that they had already grown back to them. The people are left with no money. The next year, the people ask for food and so all the livestock is exchanged for grain. The next year the people come and ask for food and Joseph takes all the land and the people become slaves—peasant farmers—so that they can survive.

We had a lively conversation about this at Bible study this week. If it weren’t for Joseph everyone would have starved. He did a good thing for the people and ensured their survival. Everyone had enough.

In the process of saving the people Pharaoh, and presumably Joseph, become very wealthy. They own everything while most people have nothing except their survival.

Did Joseph do the right thing here? Could he have responded to the crisis differently and still kept everyone alive? Most commentaries on this passage either breeze over it without much depth or they justify Joseph and lift him up as an example.[1]

When we read this at Bible study, for some of us there was a sense of outrage that Joseph stole the livestock and the land. For others there was a sense of equitable sharing. It raises questions about whether the end justifies the means. It also raises questions about whether or not the famine was actually created as a way for Pharaoh to gain control of the land.

This is the first example of an empire recorded in the Bible and yet we can see parallels with our own time. Thinking about Africa as a continent, we know that many countries established independence from European control following World War II.  At the same time industrialization increased, there was an increase in access to education and healthcare, increase in life expectancy and literacy rates. Then came what were called structural adjustment programs which encouraged privatization of economies and public services. Multinational corporations and financial institutions barred government subsidies to agriculture and investment in social infrastructure, tariff barriers were removed on imports and multinationals were able to access natural resources and local labour at cheap costs because the people had few options.[2] Is this really any different than what happens in the story of Joseph?

People are going along and living their lives. Development seems to be happening in Africa, there is access to education and healthcare and then a change in policy means that the basics of life are in jeopardy. Multinationals and international finance organizations are able to justify their involvement on the grounds that they are providing jobs and hope to people who would otherwise be without. What is forgotten is that many people wouldn’t be in so much need if it weren’t for their policy and involvement in the first place.

All of us benefit from the work that these multinationals do….cheap access to many grocery items that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible, much of our technology contains “conflict minerals” which come from parts of the world where there is conflict and human rights abuses.[3] It might seem like these policies and practices are beyond our control and yet we benefit from these actives. Multinationals and other international finance organizations are able maintain their practices because we benefit and are not vocal in speaking against the practices of oppression. The people of Egypt who sold their livestock and their land to Joseph and Pharaoh didn’t have many choices and were focused on their survival. But there must have been a whole structure in place and many people that worked for Joseph that would allow him to buy everything. These people may have benefitted from jobs that gave them extra security or prosperity. Maybe they were threatened or coerced by Joseph. The structure that allowed people’s livelihood to be confiscated benefitted someone else. 

Where do we see ourselves in this story? Are we the ones who are near death and looking for someone to rescue us? Are we the ones who benefit from concentrating the world’s resources in the hands of a few? Are we the ones who use our leadership to take the resources for ourselves?

I see myself as someone who benefits from the current system. In the grand scheme of the world’s wealth, I am wealthy. Just to put this in perspective I found a website[4] which allows you to calculate where you fall for income on world scale. I come out as being in the top 2.2% of the wealthiest people. In Joseph’s system, I would have been one of the people working to gather the grain and livestock and pass it over to Joseph and pharaoh and I’m sure I would have gotten paid something to do that work.

I’m not telling you all this to depress you or create despair. I want to take us back to Joseph’s dreams. Joseph, a poor shepherd dreamed of greatness. There was absolutely no reason why he should be any greater than anyone else but that’s what he dreamed. What do you dream? Do you dream of being great? Do you dream of being wealthy or famous? Do you dream of a world where the wealth is shared? Do you dream of a world where everyone has enough? Joseph dared to dream and his dream became a reality. Do you dare to dream of a world where everyone eats? Do you dare to dream of a world where everyone has medical care and access to education? There is no reason why these dreams for a better world shouldn’t become reality. There is no reason that Joseph’s dream of greatness became real and the dream of a better world remains a dream.

Dare to dream…Dare to imagine… As individuals our dreams become dreams for ourselves. As a community of faith our dreams become a dream for the world. We cannot make our dreams for the world a reality by ourselves. We need to join with each other in this faith community and other places to dream and live in a better world. Dare to live the dream of a better world into reality.

[1]. For examples see http://www.unionchurch.com/archive/032600.html and https://bible.org/seriespage/proper-perspective-poverty-and-prosperity-genesis-4713-31

[2]. Firose Manji, “New Media, New Truths, New Lies: Popular Struggles in Africa and the Media” pg 22 of CODERSIA Bulletin, Nos 3 & 4, 2013, http://www.codesria.org/spip.php?article1898&lang=en

 [3]. For more details see http://www.sourceintelligence.com/what-are-conflict-minerals and http://www.dailyfinance.com/2011/12/07/the-ugly-truth-about-the-materials-in-your-cellphone/

 [4]. Giving what we can. http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/get-involved/how-rich-am-i

 

The Building Blocks of Christian Community

This is a reflection based on Acts 2:42-47 about the early church and the building blocks for the modern church.

This passage from the book of Acts gives us a snapshot of the early church. The priorities for the early church were learning the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread together, and prayers.

 Mizti J. Smith writes that it is “important that community building starts on the right foot.”[1] Learning, fellowship, communion and prayers were the building blocks of the early church and they need to be central to the present church.

It was important for the early church to wrestle with the stories that they heard about Jesus. It was important for them to understand the relevance of the gospel message in their own lives and in their own community so they committed themselves to learning and study. They grounded themselves in the Hebrew scriptures and put the stories of Jesus within that context. Then they had to wrestle with what all of this said about their own lives and community. What they discovered is that their faith required them to be in community with other believers and that their faith required them to live differently than those around them.

One of the ways in which the early church identified itself was through its fellowship. We hear fellowship and think coffee or potluck. The greek, koinonia, that is translated as fellowship is translated elsewhere as sharing. It shares its root with Diakonia which means to serve. So the idea of fellowship with coffee and potluck as we understand it is too narrow. Fellowship includes a commitment to sharing and to serving. Smith goes on to write that, “koinonia signifies mutuality and commonality among the new believers beyond potluck meals.”[2] Potluck fellowship encourages us to know one another. Koina pops up again when we are told that the early church shared “things in common” and that resources are distributed to anyone who has need.

Communion was a central way in which the early church remembered and grounded themselves in the story of Jesus. Communion was not celebrated at the Jewish temple where the early Christians worshiped as part of the Jewish community. Communion was celebrated separately in homes where Christians gathered and was one of the things that identified the Christian community as distinct from the Jewish community.

And then there are prayers…praying together. For the early church it would have been important to pray for strength to be faithful when there were so many pressures encouraging abandonment of the Jesus movement….It would just be easier to remain Jewish. People who were not Jewish but wanted to become Christian needed to convert to Judaism and follow the Jewish law. There was pressure within the Roman empire to squash the early church and we see examples of this throughout the book of Acts. Prayers to stay the course in the midst of these struggles would have been important. Prayers were an important part of the healing process and so praying for individuals would also have been important.

As I was reading this passage and the commentaries about it this week, I was reminded of my own call to Diaconal Ministry which comes from the words koinoia and diakonia. In the United Church diaconal ministers are called to a ministry of education, service and pastoral care.

When I was doing my training for diaconal ministry, we were always taught to make sure and offer refreshment whenever we gathered for any reason. At learning circles we took turns putting on coffee and providing snacks for the day. That has carried over into the ministry that I do. When people drop into the church asking for money or food I start by offering a cup of coffee and listening to their story. A woman said to me a few months ago that she has been to many churches and has never been offered a cup of coffee. She said it made her feel human and respected.  So whenever we gather here, regardless of who is present, I want to bring a sense of hospitality and welcome to the ministry that we do together.

Diaconal ministry includes an emphasis on education and learning. The early church grounded themselves in the scriptures and we need to continue doing the same. Sunday morning hardly scratches the surface of learning about scripture. I love scripture and the way it continues to speak to us in our own context and what’s happening around us. For example, the passage we heard this morning brings us back to the basics of being a Christian community. But it also requires us to look at the broader picture of the world. Since the first biblical stories there has been violence and inequality. Humans have been trying to figure out how to address and eliminate these experiences. Scripture tells that story. As humans listen to God word and spirit they find themselves given wisdom, courage, desire and an ability to challenge injustice and support and encourage those amongst us who are most in need. And we return Diakonia and service. Our learning about scripture and the world should lead us directly to a ministry of service and action. It should lead us to be generous with anyone who has need.

Finally in the early church, they prayed. Prayer is a way of opening ourselves to God’s spirit. It is a way of setting our intention for how we will live. It strengthens and encourages us on days that are painful or exhausting. It reminds us of God generous and abundant love for us and connects with other people of faith who share those prayers.

My hope and my prayer for us is that we will hold the basics of the early church in our collective memory and that these building blocks will be what supports and shapes our future. Amen.

 

1.  Mizti J. Smith. Commentary on Acts 2:42-47http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=895

 2. Mizti J. Smith. Commentary on Acts 2:42-47 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=895