Sunday, October 30, 2016

Looking Forward to November 6, 2016 -- Remembrance Sunday, The Story of Jonah

This being the first Sunday of the month we will be celebrating the sacrament of Communion.

The Scripture reading this week is Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10; 4:1-11. But it may be helpful to read the whole book, it is not that long all together -- in fact this reading is only missing the 10 verses of chapter 2.

The Sermon title is Love Your Enemies

Early Thoughts: How do you move past a tribal God? How do we love our enemies and accept that God also loves our enemies?

Jonah is a great story to explore these questions.  Because it is about far more than the big fish (the word whale never actually appears in the text).

Jonah is called to witness to the people of Nineveh. It is only slight hyperbole to say this is akin to a mid-20th century Jew being asked to go witness to the guards at Auschwitz. Nineveh is the seat of the Assyrian empire:
If you visit the British Museum, you can see spectacular wall reliefs depicting Assyrian sieges. The famous siege of Lachish shows multiple images of Judeans being impaled, and stacks of Judeans heads (yes, disembodied heads) that were counted by Assyrian scribes, presumably for a pay per head policy with the soldiers. Archaeologists discovered this relief in Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh (you can read about them more about Sennacherib in 2 Kings 18-21). [SOURCE]

And so Jonah makes an entirely logical decision. Rather than walk to a place where he is likely to be slaughtered (what ARE you thinking of God?) he goes the exact opposite direction. Then there is a storm at sea, Jonah takes the blame, gets thrown overboard and is swallowed (through God's grace and protection) by a large fish.  That is the part of the story we know best.

After three days in the fish belly Jonah relents. And he goes to Nineveh to preach their imminent destruction, something I have always thought Jonah is looking forward to watching.

But there is a problem. The king and people of Nineveh take Jonah seriously. VERY seriously. And so they put on sackcloth and ashes and show that they truly repent of their wickedness. Upon which God takes their repentance as valid and chooses not to destroy the city and slaughter the people.

Poor Jonah. He is most distressed at the very idea that God would show mercy to those horrible Assyrians.

Which brings us to our opening question. How do you move beyond a tribal God?

For most of the Jewish Scriptures God is, essentially, seen as a tribal God -- The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of Israel. This is the God who actively fights for the tribe, as in the story of the Exodus. But over time a new understanding of God erupts. Most often see it in the writings that come during and after the Exile, when the people discover (almost as a surprise) that even though the temple has been destroyed God is still with them.

They re-understand God as much more the a tribal God, they start to see God as, well, God, the God not just of Israel but of the people. And I have to believe that in some ways this forces them to start to wonder how they should see other people.

Then along comes Jesus saying:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:43-47)
Once we see that God is not just the God of our tribe, our people, those who are like us then we are forced to admit that maybe we should love them.  Even if for no other reason than because God loves them. In this month when we pause to remember, when we remind ourselves Never Again, when we recall the horrible cost of hatred and fear of the other, it is good to remind ourselves that we have moved past a tribal God. And that God calls us to a higher way of living:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)

Monday, October 24, 2016

Looking Forward to October 30, 2016 -- Sustaining Abundance, Elijah with the Widow

The Scripture Reading for this Sunday is 1 Kings 17:1-16

The Sermon title is God’s Provision

Early Thoughts: There was a famine. Nobody had enough. How dare this man ask for some of the last little bit of food the widow had to feed herself and her son?

This passage is a pair of stories about God providing in the midst of true scarcity. As I read them I am reminded backwards to manna and quail in the desert and forwards to the feeding of the multitude in the Gospels. I am also reminded of the Jesus who tells his followers to stop worrying and to live with (through? on?) faith and trust.

Do we trust in God's abundance?

In a world where there are always people telling us that we lack something, that there is not enough to go around, do we trust God enough to use up the little bit that we have left?

The widow would have been justified in telling Elijah to get lost.  That is the reaction we would expect isn't it? But for some reason (we are not told why) she listens to Elijah who tells her to let go of her fear and is blessed as a result.

IT makes no sense. But sometimes the thing to do when we are sure we are running out is to share it. You never know what might happen.


Monday, October 17, 2016

Looking Forward to October 23, 2016 -- David is Promised a House

The Scripture Reading this week is 2 Samuel 7:1-17

The Sermon title is David’s Heir?

Early Thoughts: The civil war is over. Israel has an undisputed new king. Now what?

David's first thought, it appears, is to build a Temple, a dwelling place for God.  Sounds logical, and in fact the court prophet Nathan is in agreement.

Turns out God is of another opinion. "I don't need a house" says God (at least for now -- a few verses later God mentions that David's son will build God a house). Instead God talks about how God has been with David and about what will happen.

The people will be given a place to live in safety (though it later seems that this promise only lasts for a while).

David's name will become great.

And David's house will be established for ever and ever (amen?).

From David will come Solomon. And then after Solomon the kingdom will break apart but the line of David will remain on the throne in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Then in a later era the promise will be remembered again. And as the people wait and hope for a Messiah, for one who will restore Israel to what it once was it will become an assumption that the Promised One will be from the line of David. As Isaiah will say "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots" (Isaiah 11:1).

And in a few short weeks we will hear again the angels say "For unto you is born this day in the City of David..."

All because David is favoured by God. All because God's grace lies on this one-time shepherd boy. Not because David is some paragon of virtue. Not because David's son will be some wonder of virtue. Neither of them are. Because God chooses to act through David and his house.

2 months from now we will again celebrate the birth of the heir of David. After centuries where it sometimes seemed that the line of David had been reduced to nothingness, where the promises of God seemed distant, where the nation was enslaved and almost destroyed the heir will arrive again.

And a new start will come.

Part of teh Christian story is that Christ will come again. Part of the Christian story is that the Kingdom will be established "on earth as it is in heaven".  David never created the Kingdom of God. Solomon never created the Kingdom of God. (It can be argued that David and Solomon, rather than creating God's Kingdom, created the circumstances under which the Kingdom of Israel would be broken apart). But David's heir, what does he create? What does he announce?

We continue to await the final work of the heir of David. And as we wait we remember:
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not reached by the frost
From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the shadows shall spring...
The crownless again shall be king.
(Lines from the poem Bilbo Baggins wrote about Aragorn son of Arathorn, Isildur's Heir in The Lord of the Rings)

Monday, October 3, 2016

Looking Forward to October 9, 2016 -- Thanksgiving Sunday, The Golden Calf Episode

The Scripture Reading this week is Exodus 32:1-14

The Sermon title is Grateful

Early Thoughts: The people have been led to freedom. But the journey is not going quite as they had expected. To put it frankly, the people are NOT impressed.

A few chapters earlier they have been grumbling about the lack of food and water (they are in the desert after all) and some of them mutter that they may have been better off as slaves in Egypt.

Now Moses has been gone a LONG time up on the mountain. Is he still there? Is he still alive? Is he ever going to come back?

Well just in case, we should have a back up plan. And so they (with the assistance of Moses' brother Aaron -- either willingly or under coercion) melt down their gold, much of it "liberated" from their Egyptian neighbours, and make a calf which they worship.

God is not impressed. God has to be talked (or arguably shamed) out of destroying the whole lot of them.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

I mean really, what link could there possibly be...

Actually I think that this is the most egregious in a series of events which show that the people have forgotten what God has done for them. They move into wanting everything to be just right and complain about what goes wrong. Their gratitude, which was very evident as the sea closed and drowned Pharaoh's army, seems to be lacking in much of the rest of the journey.

Of course we would never do that. We would always be thankful.  Right?


Sometimes I think we also are lacking in the gratitude department. Sometimes we find other idols that get in the way of our recognizing what God has done in our lives. When do we need to be reminded to be grateful?

Freedom! (A Newspaper Column for October 21)

About 24 years ago a theologian shared these words in song:
This ain't comin' from no prophet
Just an ordinary man
When I close my eyes I see
The way this world shall be
When we all walk hand in hand...
We shall be free
Admittedly, few people would call Garth Brooks a theologian, but in the song We Shall Be Free he paints a picture of what the world would be like when the Kingdom of God is made real and actual among us.

The story we find in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures is the story of a God who is trying to free God’s people from chains that bind.

We see it in Moses confronting Pharaoh and leading the people of Israel to freedom, an event so central that they remember it every year with the feast of Passover.

We see it in Cyrus of Persia, telling the exiles that they can go home again.

We see it in Jesus of Nazareth, standing in a synagogue and saying “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). We see it in Jesus healing a woman who had been bent over and crippled by an unclean Spirit for 18 years and asking “...ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage...” (Luke 13:16)

We see it in the writings of Paul, telling people about God’s grace and forgiveness.

As people of faith we tell these stories over and over again to remember where God has brought out freedom. We also tell them to remind ourselves that we are a part of the continuing story of God bringing freedom to the world. People are still in chains, bound, enslaved and God continues to help us break those chains.

Indeed, one question that is still used at baptism in some traditions asks “Desiring the freedom of new life in Christ, do you seek to resist evil, and to live in love and justice?”. To follow The Way of Christ is to follow the path of freedom.

Which makes me ask, what do we need to be set free from? What are the chains and bonds that we find in 2016? I think there are lots.

Some are personal and individual. Some are cultural and societal. Some of us need to be freed from addictions and unhealthy habits. Some need to be freed from cages built from shame and poor self image and low confidence. Some of us need to be freed from social structures that aim to keep people ‘in their place’, structures that discriminate against people based on their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status. And if we are honest, some of us need to admit that we are a part of putting our neighbours in chains.

Recently I realized again that the Christian tradition has been responsible for a lot of chain building. The Western Church has tended to cling to interpretations of Scripture that often preference Christian, European, straight, cis-gendered [meaning not transgendered], males with money. Conveniently the leaders and power-brokers of Western society have historically fallen into those same categories. Too often we have chained people in the name of the same God who seeks freedom for all by claiming God supports our positions of privilege.

On the other hand, Liberation Theologians from the last century read the Scriptural account and pointed out that consistently God appears to have a preference for the oppressed, for the underclass, for those cast aside by society. This is the God who is working toward freedom. This is the God who has steadily been at work in the church and in wider society over the last several decades to break the chains of racism, sexism, hetero-sexism, religious triumphalism, economic disparity, and trans-phobia. God challenges all of us to break chains, to stop putting chains on ourselves and others.

As people of faith we affirm that freedom is coming. We trust that the God who wants God’s people to be free is at work in the hearts and souls of individuals and in the structures and norms of society. Some of us find the path to freedom in The Way of Christ, some through Islam, or Hinduism, or Sikhism or any of the other faith traditions we may meet. As Brooks point out in song, one of the signs of the Kingdom is “When we all can worship from our own kind of pew”.

Thanks be to God, through whom we SHALL be free!