Reality Check

We’re going to spend the next several weeks reading various prophets. Before we dig into Elijah, I want to spend some time talking about prophets generally. This reflection draws on the work of Walter Brueggemann and his work on prophetic imagination.

In the ancient Hebrew world view, the temple was the centre of life. The priests controlled every aspect of life—food and dietary laws, cleanliness laws which directly related to health but also had a social component, relationships, rituals relating to birth, coming of age, marriage and death. The priests functioned in a way similar to our media. They told people what to think, who was acceptable or not and who the threats to the community were. They prescribed behavior for so many aspects of life.

Sometimes the priests and temple authorities would get so caught up in maintaining the law that they wouldn’t notice how it hurt or oppressed the people. Sometimes they were distracted by the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Sometimes they were caught by their own greed or power.

Because of their power over so many aspects of life and because they were God’s representatives on earth, few would question their authority. The way the world and the culture functioned was seen as God’s will and there was no alternative. People lost their ability to see or imagine the world in any other way.

In the midst of this environment, the prophets had the role of imagining something different, speaking in a different way on behalf of God and then finding a way of engaging people in being faithful.

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From: childrenschapel.org/biblestories/elijah2.html

This part of Elijah’s story (1 Kings 17:1-24) begins with a drought. Drought is simply a matter of fact and people are starving all over the land. There is no alternative and yet Elijah finds a place where he has access to water and food. When that food and water disappear he travels to a town. There he finds a widow and asks her for water and food. Her reality is that she is on her way home to cook the last bit of flour and oil before she and her son starve to death. There is no alternative for her. Elijah tells her that the flour and oil will not run out. She cooks for Elijah and sure enough there are leftovers for another day. She does not starve to death. The woman’s son becomes ill and dies. His death is her reality. Elijah comes–does some type of resuscitation and the child lives. The widow’s reality becomes life. Things are not always what they seem. What seems like a certainty does is not necessarily true.

 

In our culture, we are told: “The church is irrelevant.” “Young people don’t go to church anymore.” “There are too many other things on Sunday.” We are told the result of these things is that churches are shrinking, congregations are getting older, financial givings are dropping. We are told that the ultimate reality is that in the not too distant future, most churches will disappear. Apparently this is a reality.

But is it true? I would argue that the church is only irrelevant if we are out of touch with our communities. When we look around this congregation, we see young people and families engaged in their faith, looking for ways to connect their faith with their lives and wanting to pass that faith to another generation. When we engage in mission locally and globally, people support that with their time, energy and money. Most Sundays I look out at the congregation and see at least one or two people I don’t recognize. This tells me that, there is possibility to engage people in their faith and that this congregation is speaking to the community and inviting people to reflect more deeply on their faith and to live that faith in the community. I believe that this congregation and other churches that engage their mission will thrive well into the future. This is also reality.

Which reality do we choose? The first reality has no power. It has no ability to transform individual lives or community. It has no future except what currently exists. The second reality suggests that God is still at work. There is hope for a future in which God’s people continue to live faithfully.

The widow couldn’t see anything beyond her immediate reality. She couldn’t see more than a few hours or days ahead. She could not imagine anything different. She could not hope that life would be different. As a congregation, part of our work is to look beyond our immediate reality and seek hope. We are invited to be prophets in a world that needs an alternative. Our world desperately needs to hear that we don’t need to be afraid of each other, afraid of difference. Our world needs to hear God’s love for each person and all creation. Our world needs to hear hope and peace in the midst of violence. As prophets, we can offer space where everyone is welcome and safe. As prophets, we can feed people who think they won’t eat today. As prophets, we can welcome the stranger and newcomer to our land. As prophets, we can love those who feel unlovable. This is the reality that we can make true.

I invite you to reflect on the reality you hope for in this congregation, Yorkton and the world. Together we can be a prophetic voice and an alternative to fear, hatred and violence. As you make your pledges of time, talent and finances you make a commitment to bringing a different reality to life—you make a commitment to hope.

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God’s House

2sam7We’ve been following the story from creation, through slavery in Egypt, to wandering in the wilderness and receiving the 10 commandments. Through this time the people have been nomadic—wandering from place to place, conquering the people already in the land. The judges have acted as God’s representatives. Now we are moving into the time of the kings. Last week we heard the story of Samuel’s birth. Samuel became the last of the judges and the first prophet. He anointed the first two kings of ancient Israel—Saul and now David.

Now, in 2 Samuel 7:1-17, the community is becoming more settled. The story begins with King David, who is now living in a cedar home, realizing that the Ark of the Covenant is still living in a tent. When the ten commandments were written on stone, the were placed into an ornate guilded wooden box with carrying poles. This ark was carried around as the people moved from place to place and housed in a tent when they were not travelling.

David wants to do something about this. Why? Is it because he feels bad that God is living in a tent? Is it so that God will continue to support his reign and continue to bless him? Did he want to build the temple out of gratitude? Was he trying to pay God back for the blessing so far? Was it so he would be recognized as the great king who built God’s temple?

Nathan—the prophet at that time—tells him to go ahead and build God a house.  That night Nathan has a dream and realizes that he got caught up in the moment and excitement of building a temple—a house for God. After he dreams, Nathan must go back to David and tell him not to build the temple. David doesn’t need to build a house for God so that God will build his house.

David is already living in a house of cedar but God is going to give him a new kind of house. The Hebrew word we translate as house also means: palace, household, temple, family, dynasty and even a prison.

God is already with David and has placed him on the throne and protected him from his enemies. As part of the promises God makes to David, ancient Israel will receive a place of safety. According to Nathan’s dream, David will have an heir and one of his descendants will always be king.

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever. (2 Samuel 7:12-16)

This is in no way dependent on anything David will or will not do. It is not dependent on David building God a temple. It is not even based on David’s descendants being faithful. There are no conditions to this promise.

When we get to the gospel of Matthew a few centuries later, the writer of Matthew takes great pains to trace Jesus’ genealogy all the way back to David because of this passage. We sometimes hear Jesus referred to as the Son of David. The writer of Matthew wanted to give Jesus credibility and create an image of him as the fulfilment of the promise made to David.

David was by no means perfect in his leadership or in his personal life and yet God remained with him and that love continues to endure and be made known in Jesus. Just as God’s commitment to David was unconditional, Jesus’ and God’s love for each of us is unconditional. We don’t have to do anything to earn God’s love. God’s love isn’t taken away from us when we make mistakes but God is always building something new in us: a home within our hearts and our world that is filled with love and compassion. It is a home built on the hope and trust in God’s promise to always be present and always love.

Hannah’s Song of Faith

Here is another story of a woman who desperately wants a child (1 Samuel 1-2:10). Like the story of Sarah from a few weeks ago, Hannah is in a situation where the other women in the relationship have children and she does not. As a result, Hannah feels as if God has abandoned her. Because she is childless in a world where a woman’s value was measured by her male children, Hannah prays for a child—a child that she will give up. She weans this child, Samuel, and leaves him at the temple for God.

In our context, it is unusual for parents to give up a child unless there are reasons why they can’t care for that child. For Hannah, just giving birth to the child was enough. She didn’t need to raise the child or look after him once he was weaned. So often when we receive something that we long for we want to hang on to that person or possession but Hannah has something to teach us. She reminds us that there is value in letting go. Hannah birthed Samuel and then let the priests and life in the temple shape him and form his life. But she didn’t just let him go. She placed him into God’s care—into an environment where the focus of his life would be on God. She prayed before he was conceived. She prayed after he was born. She prayed when she let him go. She let him go into God’s world.

You would think having a child that she wanted so much and then letting him go would be heart breaking. Instead Hannah praises God. Because she chose to give her child to God she was able to give thanks and witness to God’s work in the world. The words we find from Hannah in this passage are very similar to the words that Mary offers when she realizes she is pregnant with Jesus. These women share a sense that God transforms things. God has the ability to transform things that should be painful into something else that might be a blessing.

Hannah wanted a child so badly—something painful. She received that child—something joyful. She gave up that child—God worked through Samuel as he anointed the first 2 kings of ancient Israel. We see Mary finding herself unexpectedly pregnant—something painful. But in visiting her cousin Elizabeth she recognizes the miracle of life—something joyful. Her baby, Jesus, went on to change the world.

Once Hannah had the child she so dearly wanted she saw what God was doing as about so much more. She could see that God would not just change her life but change the world. And her prayer reflects that vision: (Paraphrase from Laughing Bird)

You, LORD, disarm the powerful,
and redistribute their strength to the helpless.
Those who consumed to excess are now queuing at soup kitchens,
but those who were deprived now feast in splendour.
Infertile couples are having children, one after the other,
while those who flaunted their children
find their families falling apart.
You, LORD, can make us or break us;
you can put us on a pedestal or knock us off.
You lift up those who have been trodden into the dirt;
you put the poor and outcast back on their feet.
You give them a place among the guests of honour,
a seat with the dignitaries and celebrities.

This prayer reflects a vision where the world is turned upside down and the unexpected happens. It reminds us that the world will not always continue as it is. The hope is in God’s ability to transform the unexpected. Sometimes the transformation happens when we are able to let go. In order for change to happen in the world, we need to be able to let go of what we treasure most.

Hannah’s song alludes to this.  In order for those who are hungry to have food, those of us who are fed will have to give up some of our food. In order for those without power to have a voice, those of us with power will need to listen and let go of our power. In order for the stranger to be welcomed, those of us at the table will need to extend the circle.

stewardship2Both Hannah and Mary challenge us to do these things. They see that a world with extremes cannot be viable. You can hear their frustration and their hope. As we look around our own world we might also hear frustration and hope in the voices of people around us. We might hear our brothers from White Spruce Training Centre wondering how they will survive when they get released. The cards are stacked against them. Can the world change for them? Is there any hope that life can be different? Many of them have made difficult choices and like Hannah have given up many things in hope of something better.

There are so many layers and complexities. There is no one reason why they are in jail but usually multiple layers. Some of these reasons relate to personal choices and circumstances. Some of these reasons have to do with the structures of our society that keep some people poor because of race, mental illness or disability. It has to do with poverty and addictions, access to education, good support systems. When we give up on people, when we give up on changing the world, hope ends.

Scripture tells us over and over again that the world changes. It tells us that the people who are weak become strong and the strong become weak. It tells us that those who are fed become hungry while those who are hungry are well fed. It tells us that those who are excluded will be included. It tells us that the world we live in is not a perfect world but that God is always at work transforming the world into something better.

Today is world food day. We look around and see that there are people in our own communities who are hungry. We look further away and see that there are people hungry in other parts of the world and many of us have an abundance of food. How can this reality be transformed? How does God work through us to create a more just world? It might require us to give up some of our food and some of our power.

Hannah’s song also relates to stewardship. It requires us to decide where we want to spend our resources. When we let go of our resources and send them out into the world, do we want them to go towards maintaining structures that oppress and harm people and the earth or do we send our resources of time, talent and money into places in the world where lives can be transformed and where ultimately, the world will be transformed by God’s grace.

What are We Worshiping?

Pick an action figure—any action figure. Can it love you? Can it give you a hug? Can it make you feel better when you are sad?

The people Exodus 32 lost sight of God. Moses, their leader, had gone off to visit God and they were left alone. They couldn’t see God anymore. Before they left Egypt they saw signs of God in the plagues. They followed God out of Egypt by following a pillar of fire and smoke. Now God seems to have gone and they are alone in the wilderness.

All they seem to have left of value is the gold and wealth that they carried out of Egypt. They have nothing left to lose. They want something that will make them feel better and less alone. They really miss God’s presence so they try to make God tangible by using what thy have left. They take the wealth that they have and transform it into something that reminds them of God’s presence. The translations of this passage are uncertain. Some scholars think that they were trying to create an image of the God they already know as a way of focusing their attention or creating a centre point to draw the community around. We do the same thing when we build big churches with stained glass and pipe organs. The intent is not to create something to replace God but something that represents or reflects God and acts as a rallying point for God’s people.

The wealth that the people carry out of Egypt provides the resources they need to create something that draws the people together. In the same way, the people who built the St. Andrew’s building and contribute to its upkeep and various renovations have done so as a way of enhancing the community’s ability to worship and serve God. We always need to keep in perspective that neither the money that allows us to maintain this building nor the building itself replaces God.

The people in the wilderness got themselves in trouble—not because they created the golden calf—but because they worshiped and sacrificed for it. They were no longer worshiping God and sacrificing for God. They lost sight of God again.

We get ourselves i100_1479nto trouble when we hoard our money or possessions or when our church building becomes more important than our worship and service to God. Its all about keeping things in perspective. Money on its own isn’t a bad thing. Having a big ornate building isn’t a bad thing. Worshiping and serving these instead of God is a type of sin that harms ourselves and our community.

That’s part of why we do stewardship every fall. It helps us to put things in perspective. It’s a chance to re-evaluate our priorities. Are we worshiping and serving God as individuals and as a congregation or are there things we need to do that allow us to be more faithful? Are we worshiping
our resources and the things we create from them or are we using those resources to serve God?

Our money and our building don’t love us back no matter how much energy and time we put into them. The people around us offer love and companionship on life’s journey as we seek to follow God faithfully. When we serve and love each other, we serve and love God. May we seek those opportunities to worship and serve the love of God.

Salt and Light

saltlight-its-here-300pxThis week, the congregation I serve is beginning a time of learning about stewardship and congregation giving using a resource called “Salt and Light”.

If we look closely at the reading (Matthew 5:13-16) one of the first questions we might ask is: How does salt lose its flavour? Table salt is stable and maintains its flavour but Dead Sea salt could leave a bad taste in your mouth because of the other minerals in the water. Jesus and his followers lived around the Dead Sea and may have been used to salt that was contaminated with these other minerals. In Jesus time, there would be no way to separate the minerals so the contaminated salt would be thrown out.

We also know that our bodies need a certain amount of salt to function properly. Too much or too little and we might find ourselves with health problems. We need salt in moderation. Our bodies need it. It can also be used to preserve food. It is used to help bread rise. It is used in healing remedies. Salt has many purposes.

Jesus tells us that we are salt. We have many purposes and are necessary. Sometimes it can be hard to see the value and worth in ourselves or others. Sometimes it can be hard to see that we bring many gifts to the world. Sometimes, we can get caught in grief or anger that consumes us. It becomes difficult to see ourselves except through that lens. Sometimes we become unhealthy—physically, emotionally or spiritually—and have trouble seeing ourselves as salt. We have trouble seeing ourselves as people who can heal, can bring out the best in others, can help to create a better world.

Jesus also calls us to be light. We are called to let the light of Christ that is within us shine for the whole world to see. The spark of God is within each one of us. We don’t turn on a light and then put a box over it to hide the light. We turn on a light so that there is light. God puts light within us and so we cannot hide that light. Sometimes we need other people to reflect our light back to us so we can see it clearly. Sometimes it is hard to see our own light but watch for people in your life who can help you see your own light. Imagine a dark room. Imagine lighting 1 candle. It will give you a pinprick of light. Now imagine lighting more candles. The light spreads more and becomes brighter. Imagine a Christmas candle service. Maybe that’s why we like those services. It reminds us of how we are light in the world.

In my own life, I haven’t always had a sense of my own light or the gifts I bring to the world. I’ve needed other people to reflect light back to me and to help me identify what I have to offer. What I have come to know is that as I use the gifts I know about, I find others that I didn’t realize I had.

We all have something to offer the world. Some of us have an abundance of time and talents. Some of have an abundance of financial resources. We are called to use whatever gifts we have been given in the world God has created.

I am passionate about the life and work of St. Andrew’s and I love being in ministry in this congregation and community. Part of what makes this such an amazing congregation is that I am not doing ministry in isolation. I am blessed with other co-workers who also share their gifts. We bring different gifts and yet what we offer enriches this congregation. In addition to the staff, this is a congregation with a high level of lay participation. People are excited by their faith and by the ministry that we are doing within the congregation and the community. These are examples of salt and light. Many people are letting their lights shine and so the congregation shines brighter and is able to do more effective ministry.

I also believe in the work of Mission and Service because God works beyond this congregation. There are needs in other places in Canada and around the world that we wouldn’t know about or that it would be difficult to support as individuals. Mission and Service allows us to pool our resources as a church to better serve God’s people.

In addition to time and talents, I support the work of St. Andrew’s and Mission and Service with financial gifts. Even though my spouse is no longer working full-time, we believe that these ministries are important and have committed to increasing our givings in the coming year. We give to the church and Mission and Service through PAR because it is convenient. In our busy lives it is challenging to remember to write cheques and pay the church regularly but it is also a sign of the priority we have for these ministries. I invite you over the next few weeks to consider your own priorities about the church and the ministries that happen through this congregation and Mission and Service. Supporting the church with our time, talents and financial resources will allow this congregation to flourish for many years to come.