Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Scandal of Christmas

We look at Christmas cards and the picture we usually see depicting the birth of Jesus is very sentimental. A soft warm glow rests on a warm stable full of fluffy hay. A cute lamb and other very clean creatures quietly lay near the holy child.  Mary looks like she just came from the spa rather than having just given birth. That is the image that usually hangs on the walls of our lives. But, that image really doesn’t give us a sense of what Christmas is about. That image really doesn’t give us a sense of the scandal of the Christmas story.  
          The Bible teaches that the “Logos” (logoV) or “Word” came to be personified as a child on Christmas. To the Greeks the Logos was the organizing principle of the universe. The Logos is what keeps the planets in their courses and held matter together so we all didn’t fall apart into a puddle of goo. God’s Word (or Logos) caused the universe to spring into existence. His Word results in the Big Bang, and also sustains the universe. The Word causes the law of gravity, and regulates the speed of light, and causes the forces that holds atoms together, and causes all the intricacies that govern the universe and hold it together like a living tapestry. God’s Word (Logos) holds together everything in existence.  

          We read about God’s Word in the Gospel according to John,
“In the beginning was the Word [logoV], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1-3).

          Christianity makes the shocking claim that we have experienced God’s Word as a human being.        In the letter written to the Hebrews we read,
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things [how many things does that exclude?], through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:1-3).

          And in the letter to the Colossians we read,
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:15-17, 19).

          And in the letter to the Philippians we read that Jesus,
“though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” (Phil 2:6).

          That is what we are talking about when we talk about “the Word”, or rather “who” we are talking about. God’s Word will never cast away the human flesh he has taken to himself. The Word has unified himself with humanity and will forever be experienced as Jesus Christ of Nazareth. After Christmas, there is no way to encounter the Word of God without also encountering a human being, and therefore a physical human body.
It is an absolutely outrageous claim that the creator of the universe came to us as a human child. It would be outrageous even if he became the child of a Roman Emperor (who was the most powerful person in the world at the time). But, Christmas piles scandal upon scandal because God’s Word comes to us not as the child of an Emperor, but as a baby born to Jewish parents in occupied Palestine- People like us that history wouldn’t even recognize in a footnote.  It is a shocking claim that a God who is so universal as to create the universe itself, would become a particular Jewish man living in a particular place, and will speak a particular language. The Word of God would learn to speak. This is the scandal of particularity.  

          In coming to show himself to humanity the Creator of the universe became a particular kind of human. There is a political message tied up in his birth. Caesar Augustus and his Roman Empire ruled most of what they knew of the world. It was a massive empire that encompassed the territories around the Mediterranean and beyond- England to Iraq. Caesar’s “gospel” message, his “good news”, was one of “salvation” for all people. (He used these kinds of words.) The Caesar claimed to bring peace, but it was at the point of a sword. Caesar considered himself divine and claimed to bring immeasurable blessings to the world. He claimed to be the greatest savior that ever was, or ever would be.
          By contrast, the “Good News” of the angels to the shepherds is “to you is born this day … the Savior” (Luke 2:10-11). They announce the arrival of the true Saviour, not born in a Roman palace, but identifying with the poor and laid in an animal’s feeding trough- a manger. News of his birth came to social outcasts, which is what shepherds were. He was born to a woman under threat of stoning for being an unwed mother. He was born among an oppressed people in a land occupied by a foreign army.
He does have royal blood though. He belongs to the family of the great King David, but like David he would be an unexpected king. He will be a threat to royalty. King Herod is be willing to kill children to eliminate threats to his rule. Caesar is willing to crucify threats to his rule. Jesus would not rule by the point of a sword, but through self-sacrificial love.
          This is the same story we are told by present day Caesars. Where does salvation come from in our world? Those with the biggest army, the greatest technology, the most devastating bomb? Isn’t that who has the power to create peace? Isn’t that the story we’re told? That was the same story Caesar was telling.  
          It is an amazing story. The Creator of the universe came to us as a human being, but not just any human being. He came into a life of poverty, to an occupied country. But for many of us it remains a sentimental picture that hangs on the wall of our home. It is familiar and mildly comforting, but not often challenging or shocking.

There was a painting that had been in the family of a man named Martin Kober for a long time. It is a picture of Jesus in the arms of his mother after having been removed from the cross. It was an old painting that had always been a part of the background of the family. It hung on the wall for many years until one day the painting was knocked off the wall when the children were playing with a tennis ball. The family left the painting behind the couch, perhaps to keep it from being knocked to the ground again. There the painting sat for nearly 30 years, unseen, gathering dust.
            One day Martin decided to have the painting appraised to see if it had any value. He blew the dust off and took it to an art expert. To his surprise the expert confirmed the family legend. The expert believed that the painting was the work of the Renaissance painter, Michelangelo, and was painted around 1545. It could be worth as much as 300 million dollars.

          I think this is what the Christmas story is sometimes like for us. For some of us the story about Mary, Joseph, and the baby laying in the manger in Bethlehem can be part of the background of our lives. It is like a painting that hangs on the wall of the family home. It is always there, and because it is always there it rarely draws our eyes. It is familiar. So, we don't really pay much attention to it. It's just part of the background of our lives.  
          For some of us the painting has fallen behind the couch and is gathering dust. We haven't gotten rid of it, but it is out of sight and out of mind. Once in a while when we vacuum under the couch we come across it. But, for the most part we're not quite sure what to do with it. We don't really want to get rid of it, but we don't really place much value on it either.
What if we learned that that painting had more value than we thought it did? What if that story about Mary, and Joseph, and the baby laying in the manger in Bethlehem was more valuable than we could imagine?
          When Martin Kober found out that his family's painting was worth 300 million dollars it was no longer part of the background of his life. It was no longer sitting behind the couch gathering dust. And it was certainly placed out of range of flying tennis balls. Suddenly the painting moved closer to the center of his vision.  He gave it a place of great importance and protected it. He treated it as if it was precious. The painting that was just part of the family's background became the family's treasure.
          What if we found out that the Christmas story had incredible value? I imagine it would move into the center of our vision. We would treat it like a treasure. We would contemplate it more. We would learn more about it. It would no longer gather dust behind the couch. It would no longer be a part of the background of our family homes. It would be front and center. If we discovered that that story had unfathomable value, our lives would be centered on that story, and on that person at the center of it.
If what John is saying is true, then Jesus is the force that keeps both our hearts beating and the stars shining in the sky. He is behind the force that keeps the planets in their orbits and causes atoms to bind to other atoms to make molecules. He is that ancient force that brought everything into being, and he offers new fresh life every minute to the universe. Jesus' story is the story of the universe-maker.
          The tragedy of Christmas, John says, is that "He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him." He came and was rejected. He was given no value. His painting was thrown to the curb with the rest of the garbage. Ironically, he was rejected by the world he made and the people he loved.
          The joy of Christmas, John says, is that "to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God". To those who recognized his mysterious and incredible value he invited them to become his family.
Tonight he invites you to receive his life from the manger- His body given for you. To those who take his story from the background and place it in the center of their lives he invites them to become, mysteriously, children of God. He invites us into his story and it is there we find who we were created to be.
          So this Christmas I invite us all to consider where His story is in our life. Is it back ground- Always there but never really considered? Is it behind the couch gathering dust- out of sight and out of mind? Is his story out by the curb next to the trash? Or is his story on a stand in front of the sofa in the middle of the living room? Or maybe it is folded up and placed in your shirt pocket next to your heart and you take it out throughout the day? If it is true that "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" then Jesus' story has infinite value.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Our assumptions about God's will

     In Genesis chapter 12, God calls Abraham to leave his family’s home and go to a land that God will show him. God also promises to make him a great nation that will bring blessing to the whole word. This promise to Abraham is a thread you can follow all through the Old Testament. You can follow it as the promise is passed on through the patriarchs. You can watch Abraham’s descendants grow and become a nation in Egypt until they are persecuted under Pharaoh, which is when God steps in with Moses. At that point they have become a nation, so that part of the promise has been fulfilled, but then they still need to get to the land that was promised to Abraham. They enter the land under the leadership of Joshua and they start the long process of occupying the land (which sounds pretty aggressive, but the alternative was to go back into the dessert). There was the time of the Judges where they fought skirmishes and at other times they coexisted peacefully with the peoples already in the land. Finally after many years, under the leadership of King David the whole land is unified. He finally conquers Jerusalem, which seemed to be unconquerable, and makes it his new capital. It is the beginning of a time of peace. It seems like the next promise to Abraham has been fulfilled. They are a nation, and now they have procession of the land God promised Abraham.
            No doubt David is filled with pride and accomplishment. And now in this time of stability and peace that he has won for his people David looks to do something for God by proposing to build a temple for God. The Ark of the Covenant is the throne of God on earth and it has been travelling about in a tent since the time of Moses. To David it doesn’t seem right for him to live in a palace while the Ark of God is in a tent.
But, David might have had other reasons for wanting to build the temple. In the 4th century the Roman Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople. Many columns, doors, tiles, statues and art were taken from the temples of the empire and used to decorate the new capital. These building projects were a political move on his part to establish his new capital. David might be doing the same thing. We don’t really know what his motive was, but it would be completely natural for him to have mixed motives.
The idea made sense. The new capital needed to establish itself as a place of political power. But it also made sense from a devotional standpoint to want to honour God by building a place of honour for Him. Part of the problem though was that David made a huge assumption. It made such logical sense to him that he just assumed that God would support the idea. David decided for God, then let Nathan the prophet know about the plans. The usual order of things was for God to tell Nathan God’s plans, then the prophet goes and informs the king of what God has in mind. In this temple building episode it is completely reversed, David tells the prophet, and they both assume it makes such logical sense that they assume God must be for it.
I think we can probably act in similar ways as well. Something might seem like it makes such logical sense that we don’t take the time to take our plans to God. So we might have great logical plans about a new job, or a new house, and it is so logical we just don’t even check with God. Sometimes our love for God might lead us to want to do something extravagant for Him, but we still don’t take those plans to God. So in our love for God we might just want to trop everything and go as a missionary of love into the slums of Calcutta, but we don’t actually check those plans with God.  We can sometimes make too many assumptions about what we think God wants us to do.  We read in Isaiah 55:8-9, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
The word of God comes to Nathan in the night. God says, 
“Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?” Notice God doesn’t say, “Go and tell the king”. 
He says “my servant”, which is intimate, but it also reminds David of his place. God continues, 
“I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’” 
God questions David’s assumption that a temple should even be build. He never asked for it. As God speaks you can almost hear that He likes the mobility of the tent because He can “move about among all the people of Israel”. Having a temple in a stable place might even start to seem like they are controlling God to bless the new capital, so it would assure God’s protection. God is not into being controlled and put into a box.
Now God reminds David of who he is and who has given peace in the land- 
I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies.” 
God reminds David that all of this is because of God. David was just a shepherd boy and the runt of his family. All this is God’s doing. The land and the peace is all because of God, not David’s skill.
And then God turns the tables on David. David wants to build a temple, or a “house” for God, but the prophet says, 
The LORD will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” 
David is promised an everlasting dynasty.

 One of the lessons here is to continuously seek an attitude of humility. We should be very careful of thinking we can speak for God. We should be especially careful when we feel most confident in God’s will on a matter. We should be careful when we feel sure of God’s plans. Over and over again God confuses human expectations. God often surprises the faithful. God catches us by surprise.
David’s son, Solomon, eventually did built a temple for God in Jerusalem. But, after 400 years David’s monarchy fell. There were prophecies about a messiah who would be a “Son of David”. And of course God’s people assumed they knew exactly what that meant. This son of David would be a great military leader who will lead a rebellion against Rome and reestablish the monarchy in Jerusalem and rule over a unified Israel- Just like David did. It made logical sense, but once again God doesn’t meet their expectations. Jesus is part of the lineage, or the house, of David. But God has set His sights higher than his messiah being a mere military leader to grant independence to the land of Israel. His messiah is to have a world-wide effect. In the beginning of the Gospel according to John we read the “Word became flesh and lived among us” but a more literal translation would be “God tented among us”, or “God tabernacle among us”. The tent of the Ark was probably made of animal skins and woven rugs. God once again moved into a tent made of skin to move among His people in a unique way. God tented among us as a human child.
With a tent comes a certain vulnerability. If you have ever gone camping and heard a large animal in the woods beside you, then you know how vulnerable you can feel in a tent. Tents are torn by the wind. God came to be vulnerable, and to endure the wind as one of us. He came to move among us as one of us- to sleep where we sleep, and eat with us. God’s tenting in this way was not expected. No one thought this was who the messiah was going to be.

So may God Confound your expectations this Christmas. May you realize your vision is too small. May you be humbled in your understanding of God’s will. May God meet you in ways you don’t expect. And may you be blessed because of it.    

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Dangerous and Subversive Song of Mary

In some parts of Medieval Europe there was a liturgical festival called the “Feast of Fools”. It was a brief social revolution in which power and status were reversed. Roles and positions of honour were exchanged, and the idea of the fool was celebrated. Paul spoke about being a “fool for Christ” (1 Cor 4:10). Christ announced the arrival of an upside down kingdom where the last would be first and the first would be last (Matt 19:30; 20:16). He spoke about thieving and corrupt tax-collectors and prostitutes entering this kingdom before the religious elite (Matt 21:31). There would be liturgical plays. One was called the “Feast of the Ass” which was about the holy family fleeing to Egypt on a donkey, but it also included other donkey stories from the Bible (like Balaam’s). A little girl would be led through the town and into the church riding on a donkey. The donkey would be led to rest beside the altar and the congregation would reply to the priest with donkey noises instead of the regular liturgical responses.    
          There is a profound truth found in the feats of fools. There is a kind of ‘topsy turvy’ nature to the arrival of Christ’s kingdom. We see this right from the beginning. When God announces this most important moment in history he brings the message to the world through two women.  According to the early Jewish historian Josephus, women at this time in this culture were not even considered reliable witnesses in a court of law. In the eyes of the world, they are very plain women. Elizabeth is too old to be pregnant. Mary is young and not married enough to be pregnant. However, the first to receive God’s message of the coming kingdom are these two pregnant women.
God doesn’t give the news to the Roman Emperor. God doesn’t give the news to a governor, or to one of the temple’s high priests. God doesn’t put up billborads, or go on CNN. The first to really grasp God’s Good News are two pregnant women. Elizabeth carries the messenger, and Mary carries the Message- These are two seemingly ordinary women that would have vanished into the mists of time except for being drawn into an extraordinary plan. It is a very backwards way of making an announcement that will change the world forever.
God’s plan is to shake the world right to its foundations. These are plans to turn the world upside-down. In Mary’s song we hear about the lifting up of the marginalized and the lowering of the powerful.
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
       he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
  He has brought down rulers from their thrones
       but has lifted up the humble.
  He has filled the hungry with good things
       but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)
      Mary sings about the God who saved a group of slaves from the powerful Egyptian nation and chose those slaves to bear his name. Mary sings of God who scatters the proud, who lowers powerful rulers, who raises up the lowly, who feeds the hungry, and turns away those who allow their fellow human beings to go hungry when they have plenty. This is a message that turns the world upside down. The high are brought low and the low are brought high, the first will be last and the last will be first.

Mary’s song foreshadows her son’s teachings. In the Gospel according to Luke (6:20-26) Jesus preaches these words:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Mary’s song is known as the Magnificat. Its power and implications were realized by the Guatemalan Government during the 1980’s when they banned speaking it in public. It was banned because it was seen as encouraging rebellion and a danger to the powerful and oppressive state. Isn’t that fascinating? The song of a young pregnant woman is a danger to the state? … . I think the Guatemalan Government of the 1980’s actually has a grasp of Mary’s song that we sometimes miss in the church. Guatemala is not the only place that this has become banned- It was banned in Argentina when mothers rose up to cry for justice for their missing children in the 1970’s. During the British rule of India, the Magnificat was supposedly banned from being sung in churches. And, in Nicaragua the Magnificat is often kept as an amulet by poor peasants.
The Magnificat is a threat to tyranny because tyrants want to feel powerful and in control, and they often treat the people like cattle whose lives are dispensable. Mary’s song says otherwise. Her song says that the oppression of the poor is not the will of God and that when God’s kingdom arrives fully the tyrants will have no power. The power of the Magnificat is the revealing of the truth that God picks sides and if you are a tyrant you will find yourself standing against God … and you will not win that fight.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who faced the Nazis and was executed by them, said the following about the Magnificat:
“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.” (A sermon in Advent 1933)
This song as a call for justice and resistance that trusts in God and the arrival of his kingdom through Jesus, even in the face of oppressive and unjust governments. Mary’s song is the song of a young pregnant woman living among a people oppressed by an occupying force.
          The arrival of the kingdom of God began humbly. The message was given to the poor and oppressed. When the Roman magistrate Pliny the Younger was looking for some Christians to question about their religion he looked among slave women. Pliny would have never guessed that the followers of a crucified criminal would within two hundred years overtake even the Roman Empire (Pliny d.112- Constantine d.337).

          Jesus followers have continued to change the world as God’s kingdom continues to break into the world. In David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions, he corrects the sloppy history of some of the New Atheists. Hart is under no illusions. He knows that the Christian message does not transform entire societies overnight, or instantly turn every cruel person gentle. It’s not that people who are a part of the Jesus revolution haven’t dropped the ball, or done horrible things. (The irony is that the teachings and spirit of Christianity condemns such actions). However, the world would be a drastically different place without the followers of the Christian God.
Hart argues that the world would not be a better place. The Jesus revolution transformed the ancient western world- Hart argues that Christianity gave freedom from fatalism, fear of the occult, it gave dignity to human beings who might not have otherwise had any (like slaves, women, and children) it gave rise to numerous moral communities of people, and elevated charity above the virtues (xi). The Jesus revolution has throughout history cared for widows and orphans, gave rise to almshouses, hospitals, orphanages, schools, homeless shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies, the abolitionist movement that worked and works to end slavery, The civil rights movement (under people like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and the list doesn’t stop there. Someone like Mother Theresa cannot really be understood apart from her love for Christ. To attempt to understand her biologically is to see her as wonderfully broken- she would have to be seen as having a kind of illness where the compassionate part of her brain has misfired- causing her to have compassion beyond reason.

Hart states, 
“the quality of charitable aid in the world today supplied and sustained by Christian churches continues to be almost unimaginably vast. A world from which the gospel had been banished would surely be one in which millions more of our fellows would go unfed, unnursed, unsheltered, and uneducated” (15). 
Hart argues that our modern notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providing for the poor, legal equality, and basic human dignity would have been largely unintelligible in a pre-Christian Europe. Hart says, 
“It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things- they would never have occurred to us- had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren” (33).     
A world transformed by God’s love and justice is what causes Mary’s heart to burst into song- "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”. When God’s kingdom arrives Mary saw God performing acts of justice and humbling the proud and oppressive. God gives dignity and worth to the humble, food to the hungry, and He removes dictators from their thrones. This is the world Mary sees ruled by the Messiah. But it is an upside down world.

       Obviously, it is a project that is not finished yet. There is more to do. We are still waiting for the time when the kingdom of Christ will fully envelop us. Hart says, 
“If the teachings of Christianity were genuinely to take root in human hearts- if indeed we all believed that God is love and that we ought to love our neighbours as ourselves- we should have no desire for war, should hate injustice worse than death, and should find indifference to the sufferings of others impossible” (17).
       The Christian Gospel looks upside down to the world- it looks like a feast of fools where a homeless beggar sits on the king’s throne, and the master of all is the servant of all. It is strange to the world. The first will be last and the last will be first. The low will be made high, and the high will be made low. God announces the arrival of his kingdom through two pregnant women, not the emperor, or the chief priest. It looks backwards and upside-down. But, perhaps it is the world that has really been upside down all along and God has arrived to put it right side up. Amen.  

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Into the Wild- Trying to get out of the mess

I preached a child-centered (and hopefully Christ focused) sermon this week that won't really work as a blog, so I thought I would share an older advent sermon. If you would like to hear the children's sermon it is here- SERMON

I saw a movie last week called “Into the Wild”. It is based on the true story of Christopher McCandless. When he was 22, he graduated from college, and then walked away from his privileged life and disappeared from his friends and family. He burned his identification. He disposed of his car. Burned all the money in his wallet, and gave his savings of over $20,000 to charity.

While on the road he spends his days hitchhiking and taking odd jobs. As the movie unfolds we learn that Christopher is running away from a life of lies. He learns that his parents lied about how they met. His parents met in an adulterous relationship. His father left his wife to marry his mistress, who was Christopher’s mother. He learns that he has siblings that he has never met. He becomes suspicious of society. In his view it seemed to be a complex arrangement of lies and illusion. He was suspicious of consumerism and refused to buy into the World’s idea of success. He eventually gets sick of it all and wants to run into the wild. He wants to escape the sinful world. He wants to abandon the lies, and so in 1992 he heads for Alaska to live in the wild. He wants to live alone, off the land, in some pure state, away from the polluted, self-deluded, and sinful world.

He is one in a long line of people through the ages. Many have sought to escape the world and all its trappings; its seemingly pointless politics; its web of lies and false relationships; its unending complexity. They have sought to escape the lax morals and blatant cruelty; people abusing children; commercials saying you need this thing to be successful, or beautiful, or desirable, or cool.

I can relate to his desires. The problems of the world are just too big. Let’s just go somewhere, a place in nature, untouched where there are no people, where we can live in peace and simplicity. There maybe the problems can be dealt with. At least there you can get your head around the problems. What do I eat today? How do I keep warm? Where can I find water? No more worries about mortgages. No more worries about school, or taxes, or the car breaking down, or politics, or messed-up families, or the destruction of the forests, or the failing health care system, or terrorism, or Iran having nuclear weapons. I can relate to the desire to escape all that. Just the wild and me. It’s simple. It’s understandable.

The thing is that people who escape into the wild soon discover that they haven’t really escaped. They soon realize that they have brought the “World” with them. The brokenness follows them.

In the true story of Christopher McCandless, in 1992 he finds his way into the wilds of Alaska. He escapes into the wild. He finds an old abandoned bus in the middle of nowhere that had been at some point used as a makeshift hunting cabin. He soon discovers that he is not in harmony with nature. He shoots a moose, but fails to preserve the meat properly before it is filled with flies and maggots. He uses a field guide to forge for food, but ends up poisoning himself by gathering the wrong plant. He attempts to flee the wild and return to society, but a river that had been a little more than a creek when he arrived was now a raging torrent. Instead of discovering true happiness secluded in the wild, he discovers that happiness is only meaningful if it is shared. The brokenness and disorder of the world followed Christopher into the wild. His body, along with his journals were, discovered two weeks after his death.

Those who attempt to escape the brokenness, chaos, and sin of this world find that it follows them. When the London Times Newspaper invited a number of authors to write articles answering the question “What’s wrong with the world?” G.K. Chesterton replied. “Dear Sirs: I am. Sincerely Yours, G.K. Chesterton”. We cannot escape the corruption of the world because it has crept into us. We bring it with us wherever we go.

Now it has become fashionable to underplay this. We’re all just human, we say. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. And it’s true. However, there are consequences. Take a lie for example. Or even just a broken promise. Everyone has made a promise with the best intentions, but have been unable to keep it. We get busy, or we just plain forget. Think about what that does to the world. … People become a little less trusting. The world becomes a little more suspicious. Our word becomes devalued. When our word is devalued we need some sort of system to make us keep our promise. Soon our “Yes” or “No” is no longer good enough. We have to promise by signing on the dotted line with witnesses signing under us, and agreeing to consequences that will then motivate us to keep our word. Take any little seemingly meaningless sin and multiply is across the world- Everyone committing “little” sins here and there everyday all over the world, and we are left with a very broken world.

When we say “nobody’s perfect” to justify our mistakes and not feel bad about them or do anything about them we are justifying our contribution to the mess of the world.

Are we going to make mistakes, yes. But, we must take the consequences of those mistakes seriously. We must own the fact that we make the world a worse place, because of our failings. I’m not okay. You’re not okay. And that’s not okay.

This doesn’t mean we go around with long sad faces feeling sorry for ourselves. That’s hardly the point. The point is that God wants to change it.

The Israelites had this sense of failure. The Israelites lost their Promised Land when Babylonian empire took the people into captivity. The prophets tell us that the people had turned their back on God. They had ventured off the path set for them by God and they had fallen into a pit. They messed up. And, because they messed up they lost their land, and it seemed God was no longer with them. They walked away from him. Even when they returned from Babylon nothing really seemed to change. They were back in the Promised Land, but there was no glorious kingdom like King David’s or Solomon’s. They were oppressed by a foreign power- the Roman Empire. There were no more prophets giving good or bad news. There was no word from God. God was silent. They had walked too far away from him to hear. They messed up, and there were real lasting consequences. The people who were to bring the light of God to the world, were homeless and scattered, and they had no idea where God was.

Finally, after 400 years of silence, they saw another prophet. He was in the wild, by the Jordan River. John the Baptist received the Word of God and was proclaiming it to the people. God has broken the silence.

3:3 [John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
3:4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
3:5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
3:6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

The Word of God through John the Baptist told the people to “get ready”- “Prepare!” Don’t you see he’s coming any minute? Get ready. Stop what you’re doing. You’re not too busy for this. There is nothing more important than this. The Greek word translated as “Repent” (metanoia) means change your mind. Stop. Re-evaluate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. God is reaching out to you! What are you going to do about that? Are you going to grab his hand? Or, are you going to keep on doing what you’re doing? […]

Just when we might become depressed as we reflect on our sins and shortcomings. Just when we realize that we are a part of the problem God has to deal with, we hear a voice crying out from the wilderness. We hear a voice saying that we can be changed. We can be made ready for God’s coming. We can change our minds and hearts. The road to be made straight for the Lord leads right through our hearts. As we are confronted with God’s coming presence we can’t help but look at ourselves. If God is going to rule the world, he has to rule our hearts first. John’s prophetic voice is crying out telling us that we have been given another chance to change our ways- to align our hearts with God’s heart. John’s baptism is about that new start. It is about washing away our old way of life and taking on a new way. It is about changing the direction we are headed in.

But John’s baptism was of water. John’s baptism is about admitting that you’re part of the mess. John’s baptism is about recognizing your part in oppression, and tyranny, and Sin. But that recognition doesn’t give you the power to change. It recognizes that you want to change, but it doesn’t help you to act any better in the future. No, if we are to be truly changed we need more than water.

John’s baptism is only a shadow of the baptism that is to come. He helps you prepare. He helps you recognize how you need to be changed. John points away from himself to one who was greater than himself. John points to the one who will come to baptize the repentant with the Holy Spirit. The one who will come will fill you with God’s power. He will fill you with God Himself. He will bathe the people in God Himself. He will not only wipe the slate clean. He will give you the strength to live as people of God’s kingdom. He will not only forgive and wipe away your sins. He will empower you and use you to change the world. He will make it so that God will live in you and change the world through you. God deals with us by transforming us into his people. That is what it means to be baptized by Jesus with the Holy Spirit. To be baptized by Jesus means that you become one of those places where God breaks into the world. You become one of those places where God’s rule comes into the world.

Right now many of us are preparing our homes to receive guests this season. We put up decorations. We keep the counters a little more clean. We keep the house smelling a little more fresh. As we prepare our homes, let’s prepare our hearts to receive God. Lets pray a little more. Reflect on our priorities a little more. Lets expect God to show up in real ways in our life. As we get the guest room ready and cook cookies and finish up what has to be done for work or school before the holidays. Lets get ready for God. When he knocks on our door lets make room for him. Lets not tell him that there is no room in our inn. Set aside the business. Refocus. Let’s prepare. He told us he’s coming. Lets make room. Let’s expect him to show up. Jesus wants to be born again into our lives, if we are open to him. Let’s prepare.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Things going wrong doesn't mean God is gone

During my first few years as a Christian things seemed to fall into place a lot. Life seemed to go smoothly. I had a lot of coincidences (or God-incidences) in my life. There were a series of coincidences when I was preparing for seminary that seemed to assure me that that was the place I was supposed to be. Seemingly miraculously, Crystal found an incredible job that was a 4 minute walk from our front door. We had no furniture and a bunch of furniture was left in the apartment we were moving into. Over and over things seems to slide into place. My now mother-in-law would often comment that I had horseshoes hidden somewhere on my person.
The last couple years have been a bit strange. Things aren’t smooth lately.  We’ve had two vehicles stolen, our pets have died, family members have gotten seriously sick with a heart attack and cancer, one of my sons was in the hospital, some family members have sadly passed away, we have had issues selling our house, and the list goes on. At times it’s felt a bit like getting pecked at by a swarm of sparrows. They aren’t ravens or eagles. They are small birds, but annoying. I think we all know what it’s like when things seem to be not going your way. It feels like hit after hit. Nothing seems to go smoothly. Everything seems to be a battle.
Many are dealing with problems that are way more serious. Some of you are dealing with swarms of ravens. Some people are dealing with serious illnesses and are facing serious medical procedures, and are dealing with home and work problems that are life shattering. Even that seems little compared to the horrifying reports about the persecutions in Iraq under ISIS.   
The temptation when things go badly- whether it is a small series of annoyances, or something more serious- is to think that we have somehow fallen out of favor with God. We ask, are we out of God’s will? Has God forgotten about us? We might even wonder if God is punishing us. The assumption is that if we are following God’s will then everything should be going smoothly and in our favor. But, when we look at the New Testament we don’t see a lot of justification for this way of thinking.
Jesus himself was crucified. Tradition tells us that all the original Apostles died for their commitment to Jesus, and the one who wasn’t martyred was exiled on an island. St. Paul describes what it was like for him to live out the gospel in his second letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 11 & 12). He was imprisoned, flogged, lashed, stoned, and beaten nearly to death. He says, 
“Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. … In Damascus, the governor … set a guard on the city … in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands”. 
Paul then is caught up in a vision of paradise, but isn’t allowed to talk about it and says, “to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’" 
So how’s that for being in God’s will? Paul doesn’t see suffering as evidence that God has abandoned him. In fact, he says, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
Christ invited his followers to pick up their cross and follow him. He wasn’t necessarily talking about the everyday pains of life, but the pain of living and speaking the Gospel. The norm for faithfully living the Gospel will be suffering- a cross. The Gospel of Mark chapter 13 is about Jesus warning his followers about their suffering. He talks about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which happened in the year 70AD. Jesus says in the future 
“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:7-13).
 Jesus does not promise to save us from difficulty. He actually promises the opposite. He says that following him will lead to suffering.
This probably seems like a strange thing to be talking about as we prepare for Christmas. Advent is about preparing and waiting for the messiah. We remember the Jewish people waiting and longing for a messiah. They endured exile in Babylon. They suffered under the Seleucid Empire, then the Roman Empire.  God gave prophets visions that told their people to hold on. The forces fighting against good are strong. There seems to be no justice. Things seem to get worse and worse. But hang on, you might not feel like you can hang on any longer, but hang on, God is still in control. Things are not out of control. God will have the last word. God will step in and set things right. The messiah was born, but that wasn’t the end of suffering, that was God joining us in our suffering.
Advent is about remembering our spiritual ancestors suffering and waiting for a messiah, and Advent is about us suffering and awaiting the return of our messiah.
There will be suffering. And that is not a sign that God is not with us, or that we have done something wrong and are being punished. When this happens we will be tempted to give up. Those oppressive powers want to lull us to sleep and become hopeless. The prophets, and Jesus himself, remind us that there will be suffering, but there will be an end to it.
Jesus says, “‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24-25). In the ancient world the sun and moon and stars were seen as divine powers that controlled empires and human lives. We still see a remnant in this if you ever check your horoscope. It is the idea that what the stars are doing in the sky determine your future, they control the empires that crush you, but when Jesus comes the sun, moon, and stars will lose their power. It is a symbolic statement that when the greatest power in the universe shows up even the greatest powers in the sky are no match for him. They are darkened and they fall.
Then we will see “’the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven”.
Jesus comes is God’s power and God’s glory and he is in command of God’s angels. We don’t know when this day will come. My Opa tells me that during World War 2 people were talking about it being the end of the world and that Jesus would be returning any minute. Jesus didn’t say he was going to come with a series of calamities. He just said that calamities will come. That is just the way the world goes. Expect it. Expect suffering.   
But Jesus wants us to be ready. He wants us to be actively waiting. He wants us alert and active like servants who are given tasks while their master is away.
We don’t know when he is coming back. The first sign that a person is wrong about predicting the 2nd coming of Jesus is that they predict it at all. Jesus says it is a mystery. It will come like a thief in the night. Or like a master suddenly arriving home after a long trip. Destruction and suffering will happen, but the end is still to come. Jesus’ instructions to us in the meantime are “keep alert”, “keep watch”, “keep awake”.       
This is not a passive waiting. This is attentive and active. It is like a fisherman eagerly waiting for the fish to strike the lure. Or, like servants keeping the house in order and ready for the return of their master.
I was reminded this week that Christ also comes in the midst of our suffering. He will bring good out of the suffering even.  He will eventually come to end all suffering at his Second Coming, but until that time he will come more subtly. A very wise man this week pointed out that I may have been seduced by an idol of prosperity. I was seduced by the idea that being in God’s will meant that everything went smoothly- it flowed gracefully. But that is a false idol. In the midst of my swarm of sparrows God is using that annoyance I feel to destroy that idol- that is his mercy. God does not cause suffering, but God will use it. The persecution of the early Christians put on exhibit the courage of the followers of Christ. This led the Church Father Tertullian to say, “The blood of Martyrs is the seed of the church”. God does not cause suffering, but in his mercy he will bring good out of it.   Out of the cross God will bring resurrection.  God will bring good out of suffering, but at Advent we also recognize that there will be an ultimate end to the suffering because Christ will come again, and there is no power that can stand against him. And so in the midst of suffering we cry to God to come and transform our suffering, or to bring the ultimate end of all suffering. Come Lord Jesus.    



Sunday, 16 November 2014

what are you going to do with what God has given you?

We find our parable today surrounded by teachings having to do with Jesus’ second coming and how we are to live in the meantime. Last week we heard about the ten bridesmaids. 

Five were wise and were prepared with enough oil to last through the night. But five were not wise and their oil ran out. While they were out buying more the groom arrived and the wedding began without them. The lesson is to be prepared for his arrival. 

Next week our Gospel lesson is about Jesus separating the sheep and the goats depending on what they have done for those who were hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, in need of clothing, or a stranger. The lesson here is that Jesus has so identified with those in need that whatever we do for those in need it is as if we have done it for Jesus himself. And, as much as we haven’t served those in need we haven’t served Jesus either. The parable about the talents finds itself tucked between these two lessons about being prepared for Jesus’ coming and serving those in need.

Our present parable is about a man who goes on a journey and entrusts his wealth to three of his servants. He doesn’t distribute the wealth equally, one receives 5 talents, the next 2, and the third gets 1 talent. The master probably had a sense of what his servants could handle and he distributed his wealth accordingly. It’s important to note that the master didn’t owe them this money. They didn’t earn it. It was entrusted to them while their master was away. Also, this was not pocket change. A talent was worth 15 years wages for a day laborer. To us it would be almost a million dollars. They are entrusted with a lot of money. Even the servant who was only given 1 talent was still given a lot of money.

 I read one commentator that said our English word “talent”, which refers to a gift or ability, actually came from this parable. The talents have been seen not only as wealth, but also as particular abilities like sewing, or building, or drawing, or teaching. The early Church Father Chrysostom says these talents could be as simple as our senses, or our ability to speak, our hands and feet, the strength of our body, the understanding of our mind, or our listening ears. We can get quite complicated or quite simple and perhaps that tells us something about the 5 talents, the 2 talents and the one talent. Some are given incredible abilities. I went to seminary with a guy who could pick up any instrument and start playing it. He couldn’t read music, but he could play anything. He was given great talent in the area of music. Someone like Bill Gates was given great intelligence which has also led to him being granted great wealth. We might think of people like them as being given 5 talents. I have heard people say, “If I had Bill Gates’ money I would be able to do great things with it.”  I wonder. Sometimes we are given what we have the ability to handle. We might not all have the ability to be responsible with vast amounts of wealth. That takes a very strong character. There are some who are extremely talented musicians, but it takes a lot of character to not use that talent for selfish gain alone. We might not have the 5 talents. We might have 2. Two is still absolutely significant and valuable. Even one is significant and valuable.

The master leaves to go on a trip. (If we see Jesus as being the Master then his leaving is probably his Ascension to the Father after he is resurrected.) The servants are given complete freedom regarding how to deal with their master’s money. The master doesn’t micromanage.  Eventually the master returns and he calls his servants before him (Jesus’ return). The one who has 5 invested it and turned it into 10. The master replies, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” The man who was given 2 talents also invested it and turned it into 4. The master says the exact same thing to that servant- “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” More power and responsibility are offered to the first two servants and they are invited into the “joy” of their master. The word for “joy” can also be translated as “feast”. What is probably being referred to is the heavenly banquet. Even though they were given different amounts, the master rewards them both the same way. What matters isn’t so much how much you are given, but how faithful you are in making what you are given be fruitful for the master.

             The master comes to the third servant who was given one talent and it is revealed that the servant didn’t make the talent fruitful at all. He actually buried it, which was considered a good way to keep valuables safe at the time. Not only did he not make the talent fruitful, but he also attacks his master’s character saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” The servant didn’t lose the money. He didn’t waste the money selfishly. He was safe. He was careful.  What he wasted was the opportunity. He was driven by fear and he was not willing to take a risk. His sin is the sin of omission. In the prayer of confession we say, “we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”  The sin of the third servant is in what was left undone.
The sin of omission could also be called the sin of sloth. Sloth isn’t just laziness. Sloth is not using what God has entrusted into your care. It is not to use your abilities, or resources, or time for God’s purposes. It is refusing to use what God has given you. It is putting your lamp under a bushel (Matt 5:15). It is not letting this little light of mine… shine. We sometimes bury too much kindness, time, treasure, and talent. The third servant was punished for his inactivity, not because he did something wrong, but because he didn’t really do anything.  

As I said this parable is nestled between two other parables- The parable of the ten virgins, that teaches us to prepare and be ready for the return of Christ, and the parable of the sheep and goats, that teaches us that serving those in need is the same as serving Christ and not serving those in need is the same as refusing to serve Christ. The sin of omission is to bury our talent. It is to not invest in the Kingdom by refusing to care for the needy and refusing to spread God’s gospel of love.
 I read an interesting article on tithing recently. They give some American statistics that mention that 10-25 percent of a normal congregation tithes. They state that at present Christians are only giving 2.5% per capita, while during the Great Depression they gave at a 3.3% percent rate. Then in the article they imagine the impact on the world if American Christians tithed 10%. They estimate there would be an additional $165 billion for churches to use and distribute. Assuming the churches were good stewards with those funds they imagine the global impact:  $25 billion could relieve global hunger, starvation and deaths from preventable diseases in five years. $12 billion could eliminate illiteracy in five years. $15 billion could solve the world’s water and sanitation issues, specifically at places in the world where 1 billion people live on less than $1 per day.  $1 billion could fully fund all overseas mission work. $100 – $110 billion would still be left over for additional ministry expansion.[1] Could this be the overall effect of what happens when we bury our talent? I don’t think Jesus is wagging his finger at Christians as much as he is perhaps seeing the wasted opportunity.  

What this parable teaches us is that there is no such thing as sitting on the sidelines. We are all in the game. There are no bleachers, and there are no fans, we are all in the game. There are consequences to our actions, even if our action is a choice to do nothing. To follow Jesus means to invest in his way of life deeply. That comes with certain risk. …. But… not investing and not playing has risk as well. We might think that we don’t have a lot to offer. We don’t have the wealth of Bill Gates. We can’t play like Jung-Suk, or sing like Leah or Brett, or Emily. But, we all have been given a talent. And every talent is like a million dollars. Every one of us have been given something valuable. I think it was Mother Theresa who said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love”. God isn’t looking for quantity. God is looking for what you have done with what you have given. The servant with the one talent would have received the same reward as the servant who had five if only he had used what was entrusted to him.    
There is a principle in the 39 articles of Anglicanism that says this: “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” This means that as we read and study a part of scripture we have to also hold the rest of scripture in our heads as well.  This particular parable might leave us fearful, feeling guilty, and wondering how we have invested our talent, but we also have to remember that Christ came not to condemn the world but to bring it life that will never end (Jn 3:16). He came into the world for the sake of saving sinners, not condemning them (1 Tim 1:15). And even now he advocates on our behalf, just as on the cross he dealt with our sin (1 Jn 1:1-2).  We have to hold this parable in tension with Jesus’ teachings on grace. Jesus has expectations and hopes for what we could be, and for what the church could be. He hopes that we will invest what he has given us and that we will always be ready for him to return.

[1]

Monday, 10 November 2014

Remembrance Day- Christianity and violence

I feel the need to remind you that you can disagree with me in my sermons. I always welcome a friendly discussion, especially when we disagree about something. There are better Christians than I who think very differently than me on this topic.

I find Remembrance Day to be a difficult day, which is probably how it should be. I would like to share a bit of that struggle with you this morning. I think it is important to remember the suffering. It is important to remember the high cost of war- then and now. It is important to remember how fragile peace can be. It is important to remember the monsters that live inside of us that can erupt into hate and violence. It is important to remember the sacrifices of those who tried to do something about the suffering because to sit back and do nothing was a worse evil. It is also a day to remember Jesus' words to us about violence and about how we are to treat our enemies.

War has always been a difficult thing for Christians. The early Christian Tertullian wrote in 204,
"I think we must first inquire whether warfare is proper at all for Christians... Do we believe it lawful for a human oath [of military allegiance] to be superadded to one divine [baptismal vows to be a follower of Christ]...? Should it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in battle when it does not even become him to sue at the law courts? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs? ... Shall he keep guard before the temples which he has renounced? ... And shall he diligently protect by night those who in daytime he has put to flight by his exorcisms, leaning and resting on the spear with which Christ's side was pierced? ... You may see by a slight survey how many other offences are involved in the performance of military officers which we must hold to involve a transgression of God's law." (De Corona IX).

For Tertullian, and many other early Christians, war and violence were not something the Christian was permitted to partake in. However, it is a question as to how many Christians were involved in the ranks of the Roman army. Some suspect Christianity spread in part due to to Christians who were also Roman soldiers. The question became more difficult after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity in 380. Before this Christians lived in the empire, but they really didn't have any power. The empire felt the need to use violence to maintain itself. They felt they had to squash rebellions internally and to fight enemies who attacked the empire externally. Suddenly, there was a need for a Christian understanding of how a Christian empire can use violence.

Here is where St. Augustine put his mind to work. He imagines the parable of the Good Samaritan. There is a man travelling on the road who is attacked, robbed, and left for dead. A priest and a religious person pass by, not helping the man, but someone you wouldn’t expect to help is the one who helps the man bleeding and dying in the ditch. Jesus uses this story to talk about loving your neighbour. St. Augustine wonders what would happen if the Good Samaritan came upon the man as he was getting attacked. How would the good neighbour respond? Surely the good neighbour wouldn’t look away and ignore the beating. He came to the conclusion that we could separate outward actions from inward dispositions. So as I defend someone from an attacker I may actually kill the attacker, but inwardly my actual motivation was to protect the person being attacked. I did not necessarily want to kill the attacker. It was a kind of accidental consequence that occurred as I was defending the person. So to St. Augustine the sin to be found in a war is really internal- it is to be found in motivation and inward disposition. The act of killing is somewhat neutral since all humans die anyway. It is the inward disposition that motivates the act that determines if the act is moral or not. If I am motivated by a desire to protect the innocent rather than out of a desire for cruelty and violence, then I am justified in killing.

On top of this, St. Augustine believed that the social order we exist in is part of the natural order ordained by God to give us stable and peaceful lives. God meant society to be organized under rulers. So we read in Romans 13:1,4 that “…authorities that exist have been instituted by God… the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” God meant for there to be empires and kingdoms. Since God placed these authorities over us, we are to obey rightful authority. In fact, since God ordained this order, obedience to the rightful ruler is actually obedience to God himself. It is the duty of the ruler to maintain order and peace and at times this means war. If order and peace in a nation are part of God's will, then it also becomes God's will to partake in war which seems necessary to maintain that order and peace. War in itself is not good. It is something that causes bloodshed and suffering, but it seems to be necessary to maintain the peace and order of the state, which is what God wants for his people. War is really a means to an end. And, the end justifies the means. For the sake of maintaining peace and order war is permitted.

This does not mean that St. Augustine was bloodthirsty. He put together a theory of Just War at a time when his people were being killed and raped by foreign armies. He spelled out principles, which are still used today, under which circumstances a nation can justly go to war. Augustine clearly saw it as a last resort to be used only when all other means have failed and when the other nation compels a defensive response. War is always used as the lesser of two evils. The suffering and evil of not defending and allowing the enemy to destroy at will with no opposition is seen as too great an evil to endure. The suffering of war would be less than the suffering of not going to war. Entering into war amounts to less evil overall.

It is a compelling argument that Augustine put together. It helped the empire to resolve the moral conflict. But, there are problems with it. I will give two examples. First, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas once said, "I just want to know when the Just War theory has led Christians to say 'no' to a war". Just War theory often provides a way of justifying wars, but doesn't really ever seem to have the power to prevent a nation from entering into war. In fact, the ethicist Robert Brimlow, in his book What about Hitler? shows how Hitler could have convincingly used the Just War theory to justify the actions of the Third Reich based on their inward dispositions, beliefs, and motivations.

A second problem with the theory is that it separates our motivations from our actions. Jesus taught that our actions flow from our inward dispositions. The act of adultery begins through the lust in our heart. Murder begins through the anger in our heart. If we love our enemy our actions will flow from that disposition, our actions will not contradict our inward disposition. Loving our enemy is turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate us. It seems strange to see an act of inward love expressed through a balled fist swung at an enemy's nose. When we separate our inward dispositions from our outward actions we start down a dangerous road.

The German Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced the Nazis and had his own struggle with non-violence. (He was arrested for his part in a resistance group that also attempted to assassinate Hitler). He speaks about when Jesus tells the rich young man to go and sell all he has and give it away to the poor and then to follow him. It bothered Bonhoeffer that Christians commented on that text by dividing action and inward disposition. They would say that what Jesus really wants is for the rich young man to have an inward detachment with regards to his money. And we take this attitude to Jesus' other commands. Bonhoeffer says,
"Perhaps Jesus would say to us: 'Whosoever smiteth thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.' We should then suppose him to mean: 'the way really to love your enemy is to fight him hard and hit him back.' ... All along the line we are trying to evade the obligation of single-minded, literal obedience. ... When orders are issued in other spheres of life there is no doubt whatever of their meaning. If a father sends his child to bed, the boy knows at once what he has to do. But suppose he has picked up a smattering of pseudo-theology. In that case he would argue more or less like this: 'Father tells me to go to bed, but he really means that I am tired, and he does not want me to be tired. I can overcome my tiredness just as well if I go out and play. Therefore though my father tells me to go to bed, he really means: 'Go out and play'." (p89-90- Cost of Discipleship). 
Bonhoeffer is drawing our attention to the way we twist Jesus' words to mean what we want them to mean because what he says seems too hard.

Jesus' words about our enemies are plain. Jesus says in Matthew ch 5, 
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. ... “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven."

Now we have to ask "did Jesus really mean what he said?" Is there any way of dividing a person so that inwardly they love their enemy, but outwardly they strike them across the cheek? I have heard plenty of interpretations of people trying to wiggle around what Jesus said. (I've no doubt been guilty of it myself). His words make us uncomfortable. His words don't seem realistic. He is asking too much of us. He's asking us for everything. He's asking for our very lives. ... He is. ... He is asking for everything from us. We shouldn't try to wiggle around what he's actually saying, and make him say something else. Our only question in response to his teaching is "will we follow him? Are we willing to give him everything?"

This makes us uncomfortable because we imagine ourselves during World War 2 and we wonder what we would do. We have people we care about who we want to protect from an invading army. There are atrocities being committed in the borders of Germany and we want to help. We ourselves might be in danger and we don't want to die. 
We have members of our church who have faced war- in Iraq, in the Congo, in Syria, and no doubt they have a perspective we need to learn from. As disciples of Christ we are called to be peacemakers and to turn the other cheek. What do we do? 

We are called to a third way. We are not to partake in killing, but neither are we to do nothing. We are to sit in those hard questions and pray. And in prayer we are to have faith that God will provide a third way. It will not be predictable. It will not always be safe. It will not always be rational. It won't be a formula that can be applied to every violent situation. It won't even necessarily be the right action for similar situations. We have to rely on God through prayer to give us the right way- To give us a third way. Jesus' way of love led to his own death, but there are worse things than death for the Christian. The third way will mean that we are with Jesus walking in his footsteps. Sometimes that will mean we are on a cross with him. In the big eternal picture that is the safest place to be. His way may lead us to death, but it will also lead us to resurrection. We follow Jesus' way because we are disciples who want to follow Jesus and we know that ultimately peace and freedom come not from war, but from God.

When thinking about war we often think of ourselves put in the middle of an existing battle, but we have to remember that there were many events that led up to the war. The ethicist Robert Brimlow says, 
"If the question is asking how a pacifist church should have responded to the horrors of the Holocaust, the answer surely lies in being a peacemaking church long before the holocaust ever began. The church should have preached and lived a love of the Jews for many centuries before the twentieth; the church should have formed Christians into the kind of people who do not kill Jews, or homosexuals, or gypsies, or communists, or other Christians, or Nazis, or whoever else was victimized by the war. The church should have lived and taught in such a way that the First World War would have been incomprehensible in a largely Christian Europe and, failing that, should have railed against the Versailles Treaty and the vengeance it embodied in favour of forgiveness and reconciliation. The failure of the church and of Christians to be peacemakers in 1942 is horrible precisely because it is a result and culmination of centuries of failure."

We don't know what lies in the future, but if human history is any indication of the future we can expect that war will continue to be a part of human reality for the time being. We have choices now. We are called to live Jesus' third way right now. The violence, hatred, suffering, and sacrifice that we remember on Nov 11th is a part of each one of us. The seeds of war sit in each one of us. When someone offends us we are given the opportunity to practice peace by not shooting hurtful words back at them. When we see someone being hurt by someone else we are being given the opportunity to be a peacemaker. When we are tempted to bully people we are being given the opportunity to destroy that seed of war within us. When we are cut off in traffic we are asked to notice and deal with the anger within us that can lead to murder. We are called to live the third way right here and right now. Dare we believe that Jesus meant what he said?

We are not to look down on the decisions of those who have gone before us. They had hard decisions to make. We have no clue how difficult those decisions were. They should be remembered for not taking the easy way out, and for being willing to die to do something about the suffering they saw. However, we also need to notice the contradiction of the belief that war leads to peace. The peaceful world the prophet Micah speaks of, where the people of the world "will hammer their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks;[and] Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they train for war." That world will come about as God works through us- When the Sin that infects us and causes war is fully healed by the work of Jesus- and we are transformed into people who see each other as God's children- brothers and sisters of Christ under one Father. 

Jesus is not surprised by the wars or the complexity of the world. Jesus has given us his teaching precisely to help us live in this world (not some imaginary ideal world). He is always with us. He will help us. Hear Jesus words, 
"These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage; I have overcome the world."

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