Thursday, 23 January 2020

The Gift of Service

Service was a big part of the ministry of Jesus. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians we read that Jesus, “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7). He ultimately served humanity by becoming the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). … Jesus' whole life is an integrated act of loving service to us and to his Father. His birth, baptism, teaching, healing, exorcism, cross, resurrection, and ascension are all about Jesus' loving service.

Once at a meal he got up and served his disciples by washing their feet, which was completely unheard of for a Rabbi to do for his disciples (John 13). That was usually the job of the lowest ranking servant. We read, 

“After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:12-15).
 … Elsewhere Jesus says, 
“whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Matt 20:26).
 This is a message that Paul continues to teach his churches, 
“For you were called to freedom, brothers [and sisters]. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).

Service is something all Christians are called to. To serve is to be other-centered, rather than self-centered. Service is exerting our energies for the benefit of another. It is love in action. The author Richard Foster says that being a servant enables a person “to say no to the world’s games of promotion and authority”. It frees us from the game of having to feel better than others. Service is good for our soul.

Today we are continuing our series on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. As I just said, all Christians are called to serve, but there are some who have the gift of service. … In the book of Acts some were designated as deacons (Acts 6:1-7). They were seven individuals who were selected to distribute food to widows. St. Stephen was among those chosen. Even today we continue that order of clergy- the deacons. They have a particular calling to service in the world, but the spiritual gift of service extends beyond that group of people.

So how might you know that you have the spiritual gift of service? Those with the spiritual gift of service are very hands-on and practical, and they often like to operate behind the scenes. They get joy from being helpful to others- It isn’t drudgery.

Those with the gift of service often have an uncanny ability to see a need. It’s almost as if they are looking for it. If someone is speaking and they cough, someone with the gift of service is up to grab a glass of water for them. They are often setting up chairs and tables before a funeral. They are cooking in the kitchen, and cleaning dishes afterwards. They are fixing the building and repairing the fence. They are shoveling the snow and mowing the lawn. Generally, this is a source of joy for those with the gift of service. Many will help with these things because they know they have to be done. But those with the gift of service are usually enjoying themselves (if they aren’t over committing themselves).

They often have a good memory. They will remember how you like your coffee. They remember birthdays and anniversaries. They are usually tidy, and they usually complete the jobs they commit themselves to, but they want to do the job well, so they don’t like being rushed.

Each gift also has its own dangers. For example, those with the gift of service often have a hard time saying “no” to requests for help. This means they can get overwhelmed by all that they have committed to do. They might even involve themselves when they have only been asked for advice. Someone might say their car is having a hard time starting. Instead of saying “well, you should check your battery, then check your starter if you are still having problems…”, suddenly the person with the gift of service finds themselves elbow deep in the engine. …. A person with the gift of service will often have responsibilities at home that get neglected because they put the needs of others ahead of their own. … The person with the gift of service needs to be careful to ask God where they should exercise their gift of service, otherwise they will find themselves over-committed and that will suck the joy out of their gift.

That means they might have to let go of some things, and that means others might do them but not do as well as them. Someone with the gift of service might have a hard time watching their child make a sandwich. Their eyeball starts to twitch as they watch them scoop out too much peanut butter and clumsily apply it to the bread… unevenly. They know they could do it better and faster, so they are tempted to do it themselves.

Another danger is that sometimes an immediate practical task can overshadow a greater good. For example, we can look at Mary and Martha when Jesus visits their home in Luke 10. Martha seems to have the gift of service. She is running around being the hostess. She gets frustrated with her sister, Mary, who isn’t helping. She is learning at the feet of Jesus. Martha gets frustrated with Mary and says to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Jesus responds by saying, 
“Martha, Martha… you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
 … Those with the gift of service are generally on Martha’s side. And there is nothing wrong, generally, with what Martha was doing. She was exercising her spiritual gift of service. The problem was that she became frustrated when she saw Mary slacking. Martha thought the more important thing was to help host Jesus and the disciples. Jesus said she got her priorities wrong this time. Sometimes there is something more important happening.

That’s probably a danger for all of us, no matter what gift we have. We can be inclined to see the world through the lens of our spiritual gift. If we have the gift of serving we might think that Christianity is really about service and everything else is not as important. Serving might even overtake what is practically helpful. Someone with the gift of service might ‘overhelp’. They might empty your dish washer for you, but then you can’t find your soup ladle for 6 months.

Those with the spiritual gift of service are a beautiful gift to the Christian community. They show love in very practical ways. They inspire us by the difference they make and the selfless ways they expend their energy (which they seem to have an endless supply of). They are joyful as they work for the good of others and for the benefit of the community. They even do things that we don’t always notice, and that can (maybe) be hurtful. But God sees it all and no loving act of service goes unnoticed by Him. Ultimately, God is the one they are serving in their actions. … The Lord of the universe washes our feet, and in return he doesn't ask that we wash his, He asks instead that we wash each other's feet. Our service and love to him is shown in our love and service to each other. And this is how we become known- it is by our love. We aren't shown to be followers of Jesus by the way we dress, or what we eat or don't eat. We aren't shown to be followers of Jesus based or our rituals, or our rule following. … We are shown to be followers of Jesus by our love for one another- by our willingness to serve each other. Thank God for those with the gift of service among us who show us how to do this. AMEN

Sunday, 12 January 2020

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit- Intro and Prophecy

Today we are beginning a sermon series on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost the church received a special filling of the Holy Spirit, which inaugurated a new age in the life of God’s people. Part of the receiving of the Holy Spirit, was that members of the church were given certain abilities for the sake of serving. They build up the church in love, and they honour Jesus.

When Paul talks about the spiritual gifts in our reading from Romans (and in other places as well- like 1 Cor 12-14; Eph. 4:11-16) he uses the image of the body. Different parts of the body have different abilities. The eyes see. The ears hear, and so on. When each part of the body is serving the whole, the body is healthy and functions properly. … It is a good image to use for the church since the church is also called the body of Christ. The church, empowered by the Spirit, continued the work of Christ on earth. It is a “differentiated unity”. There are different abilities all used for the unity and mission of the whole. … Likewise, when we are all free to use our gifts in the community, then we become a much more healthy community. And a healthy church is much more able to bless those outside their church community.

In 1 Corinthians 14:1, Paul says, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts…”. What are these spiritual gifts we are supposed to desire? There are many different kinds of spiritual gifts and it doesn’t seem like Paul had a set list of gifts. He gives different lists in different places (Romans 12:6–8; 1 Corinthians 12:8–10; 1 Corinthians 12:28–30; Ephesians 4:11) So, what he seems to be doing by giving these lists is he is giving us examples of the kinds of gifts the Spirit gives God’s people. In our reading from Romans he talks about prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, giving, leadership, and mercy. But other lists include things like wisdom, healing, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, administration, visions, evangelism. Some people would include interpretation of dreams and artistic gifts. … We probably don’t have to limit the Gifts of the Spirit. There are probably others that aren’t named, but it is good to have a few examples to consider.

When we say that these are “gifts” we mean that you don’t get to say which ones you get. It is the free choice of the Holy Spirit to distribute these gifts to the church. … It may be that we have to actively receive these gifts through prayer, expectation, and desire… but, the Holy Spirit is free to distribute these gifts and doesn’t owe them to us.

It is probably also true that we can develop the gift we have been given. If we have been given the gift of administration, we can develop that gift so we can do it even better. … It might also be the case that we have natural talents that the Holy Spirit then supernaturally enhances.

It is also possible that we are given an ability for a certain period of time (or even for a moment) because the church was in need of that gift, but then we no longer need it to serve the church, so it leaves us. So, you can speak prophetically in a particular moment when it is needed, but it might leave you if it is no longer needed or if a prophet arrives. … For the person with the gift of prophecy it seems like it is a more regular (even life-long) occurrence. …. Really, it’s not about the individual though. It is a gift for the benefit of the community- for the body of Christ and the mission of the church.

We have been talking generally about the Spiritual Gifts and now I would like us to consider one gift in particular, Prophecy. It is a good one to start with because prophecy is mentioned in all of the main lists of the gifts (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:10; Eph. 4:11).

In the book of Acts St. Peter quotes from the prophet Joel describing what happened at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples of Jesus-

“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).
Prophecy in the Old Testament seems to have been the ministry of an exclusive few. In the New Testament it is now possible for all the disciples of Jesus to prophesy, though there still seems to be certain people who exercise this gift with regularity so that it defines their ministry. They are called “prophets”. The Bible often says that these people act or speak “full of the Holy Spirit”. There was a time when there were travelling prophets, and prophets that seemed to stay put in the churches. As the early church started to have more of a structure, the leaders (bishops/priests, or deacons), were often considered to have the gift of prophecy.

Prophecy is a bit tricky to define because it can look like a lot of different things. Generally, prophecy is some kind of proclamation inspired by the Holy Spirit which expresses the mind of God. It reveals truth. … This might take the form of an oracular utterance or action, which might be poetic, obscure, or unclear (think of Peter with the sheet full of animals). A prophet might receive a supernatural revelation through dreams, visions, supernatural voices, maybe even through angelic visitors.

The content of the message might be about something in the future, like predicting a famine, or that someone is going to be arrested if they go to a certain city. That’s not a necessary part though, mainly the prophet is communicating something from God. God wants you or the church to know something and God uses the prophet to communicate that message. It might be that God wants you know that you are loved, or forgiven. It might be that God is giving direction to the church. It might be fairly simple message, but there is something about the weight of the words that make this message different. The purpose is to encourage, instruct, and comfort the church.

Some say a sermon can actually be prophetic if the preacher is interpreting the Bible passage with the help of the Holy Spirit. In that moment God’s Word is being communicated to the church. It is God’s mind- God’s heart- being expressed to God’s people.

This is obviously something we want to be careful with. We don’t want to believe everything someone says just because they say they are a prophet. But we don’t want to reject a true message from God either. The New Testament is constantly warning us about false prophets. And we are told to constantly test what they say. In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians we read, “not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything…” (1 Thessalonians 5:19–21). How do we know if someone is a prophet? … Traditionally the church has said that a true prophet won’t contradict the Apostolic teaching. Prophets call people to be more faithful to Scripture, interpreted correctly. We should also take Jesus’ advice and look at the fruit of their lives. Do they build up the church, or do they cause destruction wherever they go?... A document from the first century called “the Didache” says that a true prophet will exhibit “the behavior of the Lord”. Another early Document called the “Shepherd of Hermas” says that a prophet is “meek, gentle, lowly-minded, refrains from all wickedness and evil desire of the world, and makes [themselves] poorer than all…” (Hermas, Mandate 11:8). Those are a few helpful hints from the Early Church who thought about this a lot.

How might you know if you have the prophetic gift? The first thing to do is pray and ask God … But these might be some hints- Do you ever have a burning desire to speak to the church, or to certain members of the church about thoughts or images that don’t easily leave you? Do you feel that message burning away inside you? Do you want to encourage, love, and comfort the church with God’s truth? Then you might have the gift of prophecy. If you want to learn to use this gift start with prayer. Ask God to show you how to do this. Then find a small group of friends you can trust and tell them that you are going to make mistakes, but that you would like to try this out with them. We seem to learn when we push ourselves into uncomfortable situations. … It may be that you are being trusted with words we desperately need to hear. AMEN

Sunday, 5 January 2020

John 1- The Deeper Nativity

Watching a ball bounce across a room is very different than hearing a physicist explain the same event. The physicist would describe gravity, the density of the floor, the rubber’s ability to bounce (called the “Coefficient of Restitution”), the force at which the ball was thrown or the height it was dropped from, maybe even variables like the temperature of the room, etc. All of that would be communicated through a swirl of numbers and letters drawn into mathematical formulas that explain what we watched happen with our eyes. It doesn’t mean that watching the ball bounce across the room is less true, they are just different ways of explaining the same event. The physicist’s explanation is more abstract, but also provides a kind of truth that isn’t available to us by simple observation.

The opening of the Gospel according to John is a bit like this. Most of us know the Christmas story. The images sit easily in our minds- Mary and Joseph next to a baby in a manger; Angels; and Shepherds. It is a story that is grasped fairly easily even by children, who can even repeat it after they hear it. That story is accessible to just about everyone- From the young and simple to the mature and very educated. It’s like watching a ball bounce across the room. Children will throw the ball and chase after it, but they have no clue of the deeper reality behind what they are doing. There is a layer of reality they aren’t aware of.

In the first chapter of John it’s as if the physicist comes in and begins to describe to the children what they are doing and begins to describe the forces that are behind the ball’s behavior. That maybe sounds a bit cold and boring, so maybe mix the physicist with a poet and Gandalf the wizard. That maybe gets us a bit closer to John. John’s Gospel was written after the other Gospels and that means John had more time to understand and unpack his experience with Jesus.

John brings us right back to the beginning. Not the pregnant woman on her way to Bethlehem, but back to the very beginning. John’s opening words are 
“In the beginning” (1:1) which brings to mind the book of Genesis- 
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1).
 John begins, 
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God” (1:1).
 The “Word” John is speaking about is the creative and organizing principle of the universe. God created through His “Word”. 
“All things came into being through [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being” (1:3).
 … God’s Word is one with Him, but it also emanates from Him. John equates Jesus with the “Word”.

John can be abstract, which can make him hard to understand. It’s easier to think of Mary and the child in the manger. It is an image that ignites the imagination. John can be confusing. How can the Word be both with God and be God? It’s a complicated statement. And to help us understand it the Church eventually came to describe God as a Trinity. There is one God. There is one nature, but there are three persons. Each person is both with God and is God. They have unity, but in their persons there is a distinction- The Father is not the Son; The Son is not the Holy Spirit; and so on.

And as we start to describe the Trinity you might feel like the physicist/poet/magician has entered into the room where the children are playing. Some feel like the children’s game is being unnecessarily interrupted. It can feel like confusion is being introduced to a very simple story. Why not keep it simple? … I want to suggest that if we want to love God not only with all our heart, soul, and strength, but also love God with all our mind that we should pay close attention to what John is saying here about the Christmas story. Understanding what John is saying is not easy, but if we want to understand God deeply I think we need to follow John into the abstraction. Just as if we want to understand what is happening with the bouncing ball on a deeper level, then we will need to follow the physicist into the abstraction of mathematical formulas. … As John reflected on his experience with Jesus he came to understand that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14).

One of the most difficult things John says about Jesus is that in a unique way, to meet Jesus is to meet God. “The Word is God” (1:1) and the “Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). John isn’t unique in saying this. There are hints all over the New Testament, and Christians have worshipped Jesus of Nazareth as God right from the very beginning. What I would like to do is just to run through some of the reasons Christians believe Jesus is also, in some mysterious way, God. This can be difficult to understand, and there are also some who challenge this belief, so It’s good for us to understand why Christians say this.

For example, in the Bible, when Jesus forgave a man’s sins there were scribes who said, 
“Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7).
 Another time Jesus said, 
“Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58) 
and people picked up stones to kill him. (“I AM” is the name of God revealed to Moses in the burning bush). In the letter to the Colossians we read, 
“[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).
 In the letter written to the Hebrews we read, 
“[Jesus] is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:1-3).
 “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” (Phil 2:6).
 There are lots of other examples I could give from Scripture.

I want to also say that from the very beginning Christians worshipped Jesus as God. Early Christians in their writing began treating Jesus’ name with the same reverence as their Jewish counterparts treated Yahweh’s name (YHWH). There was a particular way of writing it where it was abbreviated. Usually the first and last letter was kept and the rest of the word was replaced with a dash and a line was drawn above the word to indicate it referred to a holy name (Nomina Sacra). Early Christians did this with words like “God”, and “Lord”, but also “Christ”, and “Jesus”.

There was a really early example of this found in the 1990’s. In Palestine in the city of Megiddo they uncovered what is probably the oldest Christian building that we know of. They dated this building to the 200’s AD (as early as 235). In it they found a broken table that was probably used for communion. Around the table there is a mosaic in the floor. The writing indicates that the table and mosaic were donated by a woman named Akeptous. Part of the mosaic says this, 
"The God-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial."
 And the writing uses the same method for referring to holy names of God, as well as blatantly referring to Jesus as God.

Another example is from a less friendly source. It is anti-Christian graffiti that was found in Rome near the Coliseum that also dates to the 200’s. It makes fun of a Christian named Alexamenos. It is a picture of a man worshipping in front of a man on a cross. The man on the cross is drawn with a donkey head. It also has the words 
“Alexamenos worships his God”.
 So not only were Christians worshipping Jesus as God, but even those hostile to Christianity understood Christians to be worshipping Jesus as God.

C.S. Lewis once famously reflected on the idea that Jesus Christ was a good teacher, but merely a man, and definitely not God. In his book Mere Christianity Lewis said,

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God."

We are left with the option to see Jesus as a liar, or a lunatic, and all those early Christians who followed him as liars, fools, or lunatics for telling us to worship Jesus as God, …OR we can see him as Pope Benedict XVI (J. Ratzinger) describes him- 
"This God shows himself to us; he looks out from eternity into time and puts himself into relationship with us. We cannot define him in whatever way we like. He has 'defined' himself and stands now before us as our Lord, over us and in our midst”.

If we are going to understand what it means to be Christians, then we had also better understand Jesus as deeply as we can. If we get it wrong then we have no hope of understanding what it means to be Christians. And that doesn’t mean we have to have perfect understanding, but we had better try our best to love God not only with all our heart, and strength, and soul, but with all our mind as well. To miss out on the divinity of Jesus is to make a very fundamental error. As children of God we receive Jesus as the true light that has come into the world. We receive him, and believe in him, as he is presented by our spiritual ancestors. AMEN

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Matt 2- The death of the innocents

Our Gospel lesson today is not the sentimental picture we are used to seeing associated with the birth of Jesus. In the life of Jesus danger seems to be always looming. The birth of Jesus disturbs the balance of power. The messiah will bring with him a kingdom that is in opposition to the oppressive powers of this world.

The powers of this world are not comfortable with Jesus. The Pharisees are bothered by him. The priests, the Sadducees, and eventually the Roman Empire, represented by Pontius Pilate, are all disturbed by the presence of Jesus. Those who have power in this world do not want to give it up, and don’t like having their power challenged.

Jesus will deal with constant opposition from the powers in this world and we see the beginning of this in our Gospel reading. King Herod was a bit of a puppet king placed in power under the Roman Empire. One of the things rulers like Herod are most paranoid about is loss of their power. Herod even killed three of his own children for treason near the end of his life. We see this same sort of paranoia in Pharaoh in the Exodus story when he commands the killing of the Hebrew children out of fear that the Hebrews will rise up against him. In Herod we see a man with great power who is paranoid about the potential loss of it. He realizes how fragile his power actually is. And so, when he hears about the birth of this particular child, he is especially afraid.

Strangers arrive in Herod's kingdom. They are stargazers or magicians, and somehow from a distant land they noticed something that has happened right under Herod's nose, and Herod has missed it entirely. A new king of the Jews has been born. And of course where else would the king of the Jews be born but in the powerful city of Jerusalem, so that is where they go to look for the child. Herod, the present "king of the Jews" hears about the newly born king from strangers, who arrive from another land, and who are foreign Gentiles. When King Herod hears this news he is surprised and frightened.

Herod gathers his scholars to find out where Scripture says the child king would be born. His scholars report to him that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. Herod then secretly calls the magi to him to pass on the information. The last thing he wants is for the people to flood into Bethlehem and replace him with a mere child. So he secretly calls them to himself and after finding out how old the child would be according to when the star appeared to the magi, he sent them off saying, 
"Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."
 And when we hear Herod say this we should hear a hiss. He has no plans to pay homage. He sees the child as a threat and would have the messiah killed to protect his fragile throne. He would use the magi to find the child, but when the magi escape Herod's manipulative tactics, he turns to violence killing the children two years and younger in and around Bethlehem.

The Gospel is describing the kind of world Jesus is born into. Jesus is born into a world where a powerful king will kill children out of fear. Jesus is born into a world where children are killed to protect the power and control of tyrants. He is born into a world where the powerful get their way- regardless of right and wrong.

We still live in a world where the powerful get their way. Even killing children who threaten their power, control, and ideals. We look back to Nazi Germany and we see Jewish children being killed for the ideals of Nazism. More recently we can look back to the genocide in Rwanda where children were slaughtered over the ideals of an ethnic group. In China there have been strict and brutal policies concerning who is allowed to have children and how many. If the child didn’t fit into the government's ideal of the 'one child policy', or the social ideal of having sons rather than daughters, then the child may be killed. Sometimes they aren't killed. Sometimes they are offered as living sacrifices. We sacrifice children in sweat shops as we seek cheap clothing. In some places children die as they seek clean water while we complain about cell phone connectivity. … 
Did you know that Iceland has almost completely eliminated Down’s Syndrome?  Through prenatal screening they can tell if the child will have certain disorders and they have an almost 100% termination rate when the child has been confirmed by these tests to have a disorder. I get that this is controversial, but shouldn’t we stop and ask ourselves what this says about how we value people that don’t fit into our image of success? … Many children are sacrificed because there are considered inconvenient in the society we have created. There have always been vulnerable people sacrificed for the sake of certain images of success.

This image recurs in modern stories too. Harry potter is the boy who stands in the way of Voldemort getting what he wants. In the Mandalorian, "Baby Yoda" seems to be a threat to the empire and they seek to eliminate him.

Lest we feel too self-righteous, Herod can sometimes live inside us as well. He lives in us when we abuse our power, and conveniently overlook the vulnerable. Our culture gives us a certain vision of success. Sometimes we put that vision of success ahead of people’s lives, and sometimes that leads to people suffering. The homeless, those with mental illness, the elderly, those who are severely disabled, children, and the unborn are all potential victims when people try to hold onto a particular image of success over the value a person. The vulnerable are usually those with little voice and little ability to fight back when confronted with oppression. When we place society’s vision of success ahead of people that can't defend themselves the Herod within us is exposed. … If we were to follow the Christian vision of love, then instead of seeing people who are threats to our power and success we would instead see people created in God's image.

The child, Jesus, and the movement he starts will challenge the power of tyrants. Yes, Jesus is born into a world of violence and manipulation. … Jesus is born into a world that needs to be saved. … The power of Jesus breaks that voice we live with that says that the powerful always get their way. There is another kind of power available now.

When the Magi were searching for truth. God gave them a sign in the sky. King Herod tried to manipulate the magi to help him find the Messiah in order to kill the baby who is his competition. However, God used King Herod and his scholars to point the magi in the right direction using the Scriptures. It is God's will that prevails, not the tyrant’s will. God then uses a dream to protect the wisemen. And then another dream is given to Joseph, the baby's father, which thwarts Herod's plans to kill the messiah. God's will prevails.

Eventually, the child is ready to face the tyrants of this world. Jesus chooses to stand before them. They give Jesus all the brutality they can muster. The powers of the world torture and kill Jesus on a cross. And when they are tired and believe that the threat of Jesus is behind them, three days after the battle Jesus comes out of the tomb, and dusts himself off. And they have nothing more to throw at him. Jesus took it all onto himself, and he came back.

The power of tyrants will come to an end. … But, the power of Jesus is the power that created the stars and keeps them in existence. He was not born in a place of power, like a palace in Jerusalem. He was born in the humble town of Bethlehem, and placed in a manger used for feeding animals. He will eventually enter Jerusalem on a donkey, not a war horse. He will rule, but it will not be the rule of a Tyrant. Jesus will rule like a shepherd who loves his sheep. He will choose followers, but they will not be Herods, or Pharoahs, or Roman emperors, each with an army. The followers he chooses will be fishermen, tax collectors-  ordinary people. They were the vulnerable- uneducated, and from a people under the boot of an occupying army. The kingdom Jesus sets up is an alternative power- its people work differently, its politics function differently. In the kingdom, power is not used to crush the defenseless. Jesus even says that it is in the least that we find him and serve him. He identifies with the vulnerable.

Jesus' kingdom and his people cannot be destroyed because that kingdom is Jesus himself and the people are the Body of Christ, which though they may lay in the tomb briefly, will eventually rise again. We, as the followers of Christ, have the power available to us to stand against Tyrants who use their power to kill toddlers to protect their fragile throne. AMEN

Friday, 27 December 2019

A Christmas Carol- Christmas Eve

Image result for a christmas carol wiki

Tonight, I would like to reflect on one of my favourite Christmas stories. As you probably remember, the opening lines of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens are 
“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that”.
 … Marley was Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner. Marley has died, but I think there is an implication that even in life Marley was “dead”. Scrooge was Marley’s only friend, and it seems to be the case that Marley was also Scrooge’s only friend. Even so, Scrooge seems to be more concerned with getting a good deal on the funeral, than mourning for his dead friend. Dickens describes Scrooge saying, 
“…he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”
 His sole purpose seems to be to accumulate wealth and not disperse it. Scrooge is a dark and joyless man. He is indifferent to the needs of others, especially when caring might draw from his wallet. He is law abiding, but lifeless. His world is small. All people “worship” something. They all hold something as their highest priority- their highest principle. Scrooge has chosen money as his god to serve, and all worship shapes us. His worship of wealth shaped him into a greedy and lonely miser. He sees life through the pinhole of economics.

A mission is initiated to try to save Scrooge’s soul. First, he meets Marley’s ghost. … In Luke 16 we read about a parable with Lazarus, the poor man at the rich man’s gate, the rich man dies and pleads that he would be able to leave his place of torment and warn his brothers, so they won’t end up where he us. The rich man is denied saying that his brothers have the warnings of Moses and the prophets. Unlike the rich man in the parable, Marley’s ghost is permitted to go to Scrooge and warn him about his place of torment and to tell him to prepare for three ghostly visitors.

Throughout the story clocks are constantly chiming, reminding Scrooge that his time is running out. Through out the season of Advent we have been reminded by our readings that our time, too, is running out.

Changing the way we think is not easy and Scrooge is no different. He does not want to believe he is seeing a ghost. He scrambles to hold onto his worldview, where what is real is money, and economics, not ghosts. So he doubts his senses, looking for a more scientific explanation- perhaps the ghosts are a result of something he ate, just vivid hallucinations.

But the ghosts come.

The Ghost of Christmas Past comes and reminds Scrooge of what has been. …This is an important spiritual practice. It is important that we take time to seriously look over our life. Socrates once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. And that teaching is echoed in many spiritual traditions. Take time to look over our lives. Consider our past choices, and our relationships. How have we been treated? How have we treated others? What are our regrets? What fears have driven us? Who are we asked to forgive? What kind of people have we become on the basis of the things that have happened to us and the choices we have made?

The spirit takes Scrooge on a journey through his past. He sees the joy he felt at Christmas as a child, even if he was a lonely child. Scrooge is shown that he received both cruelty and generosity. As he grew older and began to work, he sees his generous employer Mr. Fezziwig who treated him so well, and Scrooge reflects on how shamefully he treats his own employee, Bob Cratchit. … He was loved by a girl who wanted to marry him, but he choses money over her. … He sees that he chose to be alone. … It can be painful to face the past, and Scrooge feels the sting.

The Ghost of Christmas Present comes as joyful, kind, and bountiful- a personification of Christmas tradition, like Father Christmas. He is surrounded by decorations and all that would be needed for a perfect Christmas feast. … Scrooge could afford to put on a celebration like this, but instead, on Christmas Eve, he sits in the dark eating gruel beside a stingy fire. …

The Spirit helps Scrooge to consider his present. He helps him to think outside himself. This, too, is an important spiritual practice to develop compassion. We often focus on something that hasn’t gone well in our life. Perhaps we weren’t able to find that perfect gift for our loved one. We should consider that some don’t have their loved one this year. Some are facing persecution and can’t celebrate Christmas in the open. Some are living in the midst of war, or famine. Some are fighting addiction, or are living on the streets. We do well to consider what struggles others face. Hopefully, we can come to a place of spiritual maturity where we “Share one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2).

The spirit and Scrooge visit his employee, Bob Cratchit, and his family. They are very poor, but they seem to be full of Christmas cheer, none the less. They are a loving and happy family. Scrooge sees Cratchit’s son, Tiny Tim, whose health is not good, but whose spirit is strong. As Scrooge overhears, Bob privately relates to his wife how Tim wished that people who passed by might see his crippled state and be reminded of the healing miracles of Jesus. … They are a poor family, but they focus on what they have and are grateful for it. The saintly generosity of Tim overflows- he doesn’t just ask God to bless his family, he asks God to “bless us, everyone”.

Scrooge’s heart is touched and he asks the spirit if Tim will survive. The spirit replies that he will not if his situation doesn’t change, implying that those that have the means to help (like Scrooge) are not willing.

Scrooge’s words about the poor come back to haunt him- when asked for a donation for the poor he says the poor should go to the prisons and workhouses. The man collecting funds replies that many of the poor would rather die than go to those places. Scrooge responds, 
“If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population”.
 … The poor were an economic reality to Scrooge. They were a line in a budget. … It is easy to see poverty, refugees, and addiction this way when we don’t see a face and a name and a story. It’s easy to just see politics and budgets and the effect on business. … But now, for scrooge, the poor had a face. His self-imposed ignorance of their struggles has a real effect on a real life. … Scrooge has started to see outside himself, and to see how he effects others, even through his ignorance.

The Ghost of Christmas Future reminds us of the Grim Reaper. He is death personified. Contemplating our death is another important spiritual practice. Such reflection urges us to spend our short time on earth well. It reminds us that we will face the choices we have made in this life. We see that we have become a certain kind of person through these choices, and that is the person who will face judgement. Judgement will be about our lives facing Ultimate Reality. Have we lived according to that Ultimate Reality? Or have we lived contrary to that Ultimate Reality? There are consequences for how we have lived. That, too, is a teaching across the spiritual traditions of the world.

Though he is unwilling to see it at first, Scrooge faces his own funeral. The only people who consider attending his funeral are miserly, miserable people like himself that will only go if lunch is provided. His room and corpse are scavenged by thieves. No tears are shed for him, and no respect is given. … The world seems like it might even be better with him gone.

The spirit then shows him Tiny Tim, who has died. Jesus’ words seem to come alive here- 
“unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3).
 Tim’s body is lovingly kissed and wept over. Though they try to be strong, the Cratchits are crushed and the pain is made worse by the fact that this could have been prevented if someone had just shown some charity towards them.

… This vision of his future, lacking love and tenderness, brings about repentance in Scrooge. He wakes up and is born again. With tears streaming down his face, he is a new man. He has died to his old life and has now found true life (Matt 16:25). Scrooge springs into action. He sets about making apologies and is, in turn, forgiven by others. Scrooge is now full of joy. He is playful, and generous. … And, through his newfound generosity, saves Tiny Tim’s life.

I love that story, and I hope you don’t mind me retelling it. Why does this story matter? Why does it touch us? … Why is it a mistake to use economics as your only lens to view the world? Why does it matter to care for the poor?

In John’s biography of Jesus, we read about the Word or the Logos. The Logos is the rational principle that orders the universe and gives it meaning and purpose. The Logos is why there isn’t complete chaos. It was through this Logos that God created to universe. John describes how that same Logos was going to come to live with humanity. Not as a great warrior, a king, or an emperor. … The Logos, the principle that holds the universe together and keeps it ordered, comes as a baby, born to a young unmarried girl named Mary, betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter. When he was born he was placed in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. When he was presented at the Temple, the offering his parents gave was the offering of the poor. In this act, God declares the incredible value of all people, even the poor, perhaps even especially the poor. Jesus would grow to teach that as we have done to the least of these his brothers and sister, we have done it to him (Matt 25). … Serving Tiny Tim is serving Christ, himself. … This is not something the ancient Pagan world would have found conceivable (See here). The warming of Scrooge’s heart towards the poor would not have made sense in the ancient Pagan world. We would not feel our hearts warmed by the conversion of his heart unless God’s logos had placed incredible value on the poor through the Holy Family, who soon became refugees as they fled a vicious king. This theme is carried throughout Jesus’ life. In Phil 2:6-7 Jesus is described saying, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant”. He taught his disciples that if they wanted to be great that they should serve others (Matt 20:26). Mary, his mother sings about God, “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52). … Scrooge’s story would not inspire us if God was not born to this poor couple, and if Jesus had not taught us to serve and love others as if we were giving service to him. There is always the present danger that to cease valuing the Gospel story is to eventually lose the meaning in Scrooge’s story.

The Franciscan Friar, Richard Rohr has said, “When we say ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ on this Christmas Day, we are preferring his Lordship to any other loyalty system or any other final frame of reference. If Jesus is Lord, than Caesar is not! If Jesus is Lord, then the economy and stock market are not! If Jesus is Lord, than I am not!” That is precisely what Scrooge learned, and it is in bowing at the manger that Scrooge’s story has meaning. AMEN

Monday, 23 December 2019

Advent 4

The stores are packed with everything you need to have the perfect Christmas. The variety is staggering- shelves and shelves of evergreen branches, Santa statues, and lights for your house. The stores ring with Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby singing Christmas songs. The magazines on the stand boast perfect holiday dishes and decorations.

While some are planning the perfect Christmas experience, others are finding it difficult to get in the mood. Some have experienced a death that the holidays seem to highlight with an empty chair at the table. Some are dealing with family problems that just never seem to get better. Some don’t even really know why they aren’t into it, they just aren’t feeling much cheer. They feel out of step with what is going on around them. Everyone is planning a perfect holiday and their lives feel so far from perfect they don’t even want to try.

The first Christmas was more of the out of step variety. God often seems to move out of step with the usual expectations. God interrupts and invades people’s lives. Moses is going about taking care of his flocks when he sees a burning bush. Moses, who had no ambitions for leading anything more than a flock of sheep is trust into leadership to lead people out of slavery. … And it is no different in the Christmas story. … Things would go a lot smoother if it was the High Priest’s wife the angel had come to visit with news about being pregnant with the messiah. She would have already been married and they could avoid that awkward pregnant and not married thing. Joseph wouldn’t have to struggle with what to do with his pregnant fiancĂ© and her story about an angel. The whole thing is absolutely scandalous. It’s not the life Joseph and Mary had planned for themselves.

That’s how God seems to work. God interrupts our comfortable lives, and turns our expectations upside down. When the angel comes to Mary and tells her she will have God’s son she eventually sings a song in response that includes the lines, 
“he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Lk 1:51-53).
 The normal order of things is upset. God disturbs our comfortable social expectations. … If we expect God to move in our lives, then we should expect to be made uncomfortable. We should expect our usual ways of being to be disturbed. We should perhaps even expect scandal.

Mary could have said no to the angel and went back to living her ordinary life. … Joseph could have dismissed the pregnant Mary and gone on with his life- a life in keeping with the social norms of his community- a life that didn’t rock the boat. He could have went on to have a family and use his trade to support them. Instead Joseph is thrown into scandal. He even has to become a refugee and flee to Egypt. This is not the plan he made for himself.

Matthew chapter 1 tells us that Joseph planned on quietly divorcing Mary, until he has an angel tell him not to. … I think we can be a lot like Joseph. We want to go about our business. We want to accomplish our modest goals and not cause too much trouble. We want to be good people. We want to avoid having too much drama in our lives if at all possible. We want to be comfortable. Most of us don’t feel the need to be famous, or to strive to be billionaires. We just want enough money that we don’t have to worry about it and can have a few nice things. We want family and friends that are healthy, and work that keeps our interest without being overwhelming. That’s what most of us want. … I think we can understand Joseph wanting to dismiss Mary quietly, can’t we?

But imagine what he would have missed? Joseph would have missed his calling. He would have missed his call to be a father to the Messiah. He would have missed out on the heroic task of keeping him and his mother safe. He would have missed teaching Jesus how to be a man. He would have missed playing an incredible part of God’s story in our world. Joseph would have missed out on who God made him to be.

Is it possible that we miss out when we decide to keep our lives normal, according to plan, according to social expectation? When we choose to not have our comfortable lives disturbed is it possible that we are missing out on what God is doing right in front of us? Is it possible that we are missing our calling because we have chosen comfort instead? That part of our life that we want to just go away, is it possible that that is exactly where God is trying to speak to us?

Joseph found that sometimes being faithful meant being at odds with society. It was in those unusual circumstances that Joseph saw God working in his life. Joseph stayed faithful to Mary even though society made him feel that he should walk away from her. It was in violating convention that Joseph found himself in God’s will. God often seems to work in the unexpected. He works in the interruption.

Joseph took a chance. He had a dream where an angel spoke to him and told him to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife (1:20). It was fear that was holding him back- fear of what people might say- fear of his life being disturbed- fear of his life not going according to his plan. Joseph decided not to allow that fear to lead him. Instead he chose to follow the dream that strangely spoke about a baby that would save people- with no clue about how that was supposed to happen. He wasn’t given a map of where they were going. He was just asked to walk through a door with only a vague idea of what would happen after that. He was off his map, but he was on God’s map.

Many of us live our lives wondering where God is and what God is doing. Maybe… just maybe… God has been trying to interrupt our lives. Maybe he has come to us as the irritating interruption, or the inconvenient neighbour. Maybe He comes to us but answering Him means deviating from the plan we have drawn up for ourselves. What if we are left wondering where God is and what God is doing because we have been expecting God to work with our plans and in the convenience of our lives? Maybe we miss out on what God is doing when we aren’t willing to be interrupted.

The poet David Whyte has a poem called The True Love where he says, the call “will not come so grandly, so Biblically, but more subtly and intimately, in the face of the one you know you have to love.”[1] Perhaps as we prepare for the perfect Christmas we can make ourselves ready to be interrupted- more willing to be confronted by “the face of the one [we] know [we] have to love”. Perhaps as we rush from one thing to the next we can notice God trying to speak to us in some unusual way- calling us off our own map and onto His. Perhaps we can decide not to allow the fear to decide for us. Maybe we can become willing to be made uncomfortable and, in that, find God. AMEN

[1] David Whyte, “The True Love,” from The House of Belonging

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Advent 3

Our Gospel has a pretty surprising question being asked by John the Baptist. John, who baptized Jesus and seemed pretty confident that Jesus was the one they were expecting, was now sending his followers to ask if Jesus is the one they were expecting. Why is John suddenly doubting?

There might be a few reasons for John’s doubt. One is that John has been thrown into prison. It is probably normal to be full of doubt while locked away in prison.

Another reason may be that Jesus wasn’t behaving in expected ways. His disciples weren’t following a strict habit of fasting the way John’s disciples and the Pharisees did. Jesus also kept questionable company. He gained a reputation for hanging out with tax collectors and other sinners. He was called a glutton and a drunk. This was not the expected behavior of the messiah.

The other reason for his doubt might have to do with what he thought the mission of the messiah was. The Messiah was to bring judgement, then blessing and healing for God’s people. John might rightful be asking “where is the judgement?” “where is the army?” “If wrongs are being set right, why is John still in jail?” “Why hasn’t Herod been dealt with yet?” “The messiah is the true king and Herod is still sitting on the throne”. These are the kinds of thoughts that might reasonably be going through John’s mind.

John might be expecting Jesus to act like Elijah before the prophets of Baal. He challenges them to a face to face showdown before the people of Israel.

Jesus seemed to be rewriting some of what was expected. In answer to John’s question Jesus replies by referring to Isaiah 35. The expectation was that there would be a judgement, then there would be blessing and healing. But Jesus seemed to be coming with the blessing and healing. Jesus says that the fruit of his ministry is “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt 11:5). … Jesus doesn’t come out and say, “yes, I’m the messiah”. But, he does messianic things. He heals, he teaches on his own authority. He has chosen 12 disciples, which symbolizes the renewal of the 12 tribes of Israel. … This is the true calling of the messiah. To be a blessing to God’s people.

The expectation was that after the judgement, God’s people would truly be set free. They were set free when they were rescued from slavery in Egypt, but their grumbling and continuous disobedience over the years showed that their souls continued to be enslaved. Jesus, in his first coming, brings blessing, healing, and freedom. … His second coming will be about judgement. He seems to have changed the expected order of things.

Judgement is good too. It is through judgement that we can determine what change is needed. Judgement puts its finger on the thing that we think is a blessing, but is actually a curse. It is the thing that is holding us back.

Jesus goes on to talk to talk about John the Baptist, and (through him) he also is talking about who he is. He has to be careful though because if he comes right out and says, “I am the messiah, the true king” and King Herod gets wind of that statement, his ministry might be cut short and he might find himself locked away with John … or worse.

Jesus says, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses” Jesus might be referring to Herod here. The reed was the symbol of Herod Antipas. It was the symbol on his coins. Jesus speaks about soft clothes and king’s houses. He is juxtaposing John and Herod. Jesus goes on, “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. … Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Bishop NT Wright uses an interesting illustration to explain what Jesus is saying about John. He imagines John as the best horse drawn carriage maker in the world. … But, with the coming of the automobile the time for that kind of work is coming to an end. The lowest position on the totem pole in the factory making cars will still be at work, while the best and most talented horse drawn carriage makers will be out of work. … Jesus isn’t saying John is a failure. Actually John is a success. John and all the prophets before him were building to this time when things would change. John has prepared the way for the new thing. From Abraham and Moses until the present was a preparation. The new reality is now here. And the least, who accepts God’s kingdom and lives in it by following Jesus, they are a part of that new reality.

John was the greatest because he had a very special calling (Malachi 3:1). He was the last prophet. He was there for the overlap of the old to the new.

If John is that prophet, who prepares the way, then that implies that he is the messiah. Jesus also seems to want people to figure it out. He doesn’t seem to want to force himself on people.
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