Grandma’s Cookies, Ice Cream, and Pirates

A sermon based on Galatians 1:13-17, 2:11-21.

Think about the best handwritten letter you’ve ever received.  Well, that may be tough, because many of us don’t even know the last time we received a handwritten letter, but try… Or at least imagine one.

I think about all the letters Ash and I mailed to each other when I was living in Zimbabwe… We had little 32 page notebooks that we’d mail back and forth.

Or I imagine a grandparent sending a care package to a grandchild in university… grandma’s cookies lovingly packed in box, a little note saying how much they love the grandchild, and how proud they are.

Or I think about my own kids will draw pictures for their friends and cousins, we’ll put them in the mailbox, and then a few weeks later we’ll get a reply letter, often filled with Paw Patrol stickers.

Don’t all these images make your heart warm, and filled with love, and nostalgia for the lost art of letter writing?

Now imagine taking all those warm memories and feelings, putting them in a box, wrapping the box with love and care, lighting it on fire and throwing it in a dumpster, because that might best describe how the apostle Paul is feeling in his letter to the Galatians.

Paul is mad.

He is writing this letter in a rage.   Like, punch the air and kick things and pull out your hair and muttering obscenities rage.

See, the story of Paul and the church in Galatia is that Paul was a Jewish Pharisee who made a living of going around and killing Christians.  And then Paul had this dramatic conversion experience, met the Spirit of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, realized that he was a murderer, and then became this missionary of sorts.

But what’s important to remember is that Paul saw his work as bringing the good news of Jesus not to the Jews, but to the Gentiles.  And if you’ve never heard these terms before, a Gentile was basically anybody who wasn’t a Jew.

There were quite strict laws within the Torah (which we now call the Old Testament) about how Jews and Gentiles were to interact, and how you could tell them apart, how they ate different food, and how their lives were supposed to be different from each other.

And since Jesus was Jewish, and all his disciples were Jewish, Christianity started off primarily amongst the Jews.  But, as the spirit seems to be in the habit of doing, all sorts of barriers and boundaries were being broken, and very soon there were followers of Jesus who were Gentile, not Jewish.

And this was Paul’s work… to go share the good news about Jesus with the Gentiles.

So, he went to the Roman province of Galatia, which is now modern day Turkey, and he helped set up a church amongst the Gentiles there.

And then, he went on his way to go tell other people about Jesus.

But when he was gone, some Jewish Christians showed up to the church in Galatia and said “You know… Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, so if you really want to be followers of Jesus, you have to become Jewish first and obey our laws, and that includes what kind of food you should eat, and that includes circumcision.”

So then, when the apostle Paul found out that some people had come after him and undone some of his work, he was irate.

Kind of like when your kids ask seven times to have ice cream, and you say no seven times, and then 5 minutes later your partner comes home from work and shouts, “Let’s have ice cream!”

Infuriating.  Because just like that, all your hard work is undone.

So Paul, when he’s writing this letter, just goes bananas.  He writes that he sent by God, not humans, and that he was set aside at birth for this task (which is really quite the claim).  He writes about how that other apostle, Peter, is a raging hypocrite, and how he called Peter out on something, and that Peter was wrong and I, Paul, am right!  And then he goes into this deep theological rant that ends with him saying, “And if I’m wrong, well then, Christ died for nothing!”

Sometime, the apostle Paul and I aren’t friends.  Like, the guy comes across as a raving egotistical maniac who demands his way. And this isn’t even one of his letters that comes across as sexist or homophobic, or where he seems to contradict himself.

In my office last week, as I was reading and learning about Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and his anger and his ranting, I called Mel to my office.

Mel! 

Yes, Kyle.

I hate preaching on the apostle Paul.  In the book of Galatians, he’s just angry and ranting and yelling at people. 

Oh really.  Tell me more.

Yeah.  He thinks that anybody who thinks differently than him is wrong. 

Keep going. 

And then he just goes about how God has sent him, and he just uses that to give more credibility to his own worldview.  It’s all ridiculous. 

Hmmm… Interesting.  Does that remind you of anybody?

Go away Mel.  I’ve got a sermon to write on the apostle Paul, and you’re not helping.

At the core of this angry letter and this conflict between Paul and others is the question: Are there markers of following Jesus?  What are they? What are the signs?  How do you know you belong?  Are they external, like food laws and circumcision?  Are they internal, like love and justice, and how do we define those?  At first glance, these might be quite shallow things to worry about.  But on a deeper level, we need to remember these were sacred questions of identity that they were trying to sort out.

Questions of identity… now that’s question that we’re still answering today, aren’t we?

To get a hold a how intense this debate, maybe the best modern day example is the question of same-sex marriage in Steinbach.  They’re very different issues, and I’m not going to go into that this morning, but you know how it brings out all sorts of raw emotions and intensity… Yeah.  Imagine that.

Okay. Back to food laws and circumcision.

Who’s in and who’s out?  What does one have to do to be “in”?  Can you break the rules enough so that you’re not longer in?

I was thinking about these questions of identity, or markers, and us here at Grace.

Do we have any identity markers?

Like, historically, in Mennonite world, there were external markers: No dancing, no combining on Sundays, no drinking, no movies, no motorcycles… I’d venture to say most of these don’t apply anymore.  When Grace Mennonite Church started 50 some years ago, if I’ve heard the stories correctly, we were known as the TV church because we let people own TVs.

Piercings, clothing, hairstyles, tattoos… marital status, job, wealth… Meh.   I don’t think any of us would include or exclude based simply on those.

And then I was thinking about internal markers that would determine if one belonged or not.  Like doctrinal statements or creeds or mission statements.  Sure, we can make them, and we do, and we can strive to uphold them, but in reality, we know that we’re a diverse bunch here.  We all hold different postures an attitudes towards pacifism, communion, baptism, marriage, heaven and hell, biblical interpretation… And very few of us are quite excited to go and be the doctrine police and make sure everyone is believing the right things…  That if you don’t agree with a 7 point statement, you’re out.

We Mennonites do have a Confession of Faith, which nicely lists 24 things about faith and life, and it’s actually quite decent! But even in the introduction of the Confession of Faith, the book itself states that this is a guideline to interpreting Scripture.AAEAAQAAAAAAAALoAAAAJGY3MzQ5ZjcyLWQyYzQtNDhlNC04YjllLTA0Njk2MjdmOTIzNQ

Kind of like the Pirate’s Code from Pirates of the Caribbean.  They’re more guidelines than actual rules.

Well, this all kind of feels like shifting sand, doesn’t it?

Well, we might feel like those Jewish Christians Paul was so mad at. If we don’t have the markers of food laws and circumcision to define who we are, which our sacred scriptures are really clear about, what do we have?

And here is where the apostle Paul, in all his anger and ranting, does something remarkable.

He starts using words that we read in our Bibles as justification.  Now, you need to trust me a bit on this, but trying to figure out what he was trying to convey in Greek, and how we translate that words into English…  It’s a tough slog for the experts, let alone us.

One scholar suggested that perhaps the best way we could try to get at what Paul was saying was that every time we read the word “justification”, we replace it with the word “belonging”.  (Mary Shinkle Shore over at Working Preacher was really helpful here).

So then it reads like this:

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person belongs not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might belong by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will belong by the works of the law.

But it gets even better.

We read the phrase “Faith in Christ”.

Verse 16 says:  We know that a person belongs not by the works of the law but through faith in Christ.

Here, if our Bibles have decent footnotes, we read that it can also mean, “faithfulness OF Christ.”

So then, it reads..

We know that a person belongs not by the works of the law but through the faithfulness OF Christ… We belong because of the faithfulness OF Christ.

When we read it as the faithfulness OF Christ, it speaks to the relationship that Jesus had with God the father.  A relationship of mutual love and trust… A trust that Jesus had in God the Father throughout his entire life, even when trusting God meant dying.  (See Working Preaching again, and also Pete Enns in The Sin of Certainty).

“Paul is interested in telling his readers not about what we do, but about how Jesus lived, about the faithfulness of Jesus.

God’s grand act of faithfulness is giving his only Son for our sake.  To use a poker term, God is all in.

Jesus’ grand act of faithfulness is going through with it for our sake.  Jesus is all in.

Now it’s our move, which really is the point of all this.

Like God the Father and God the son, we are also called to be faithful.  On one level, we are faithful to God when we trust God.  But faith doesn’t stop there.  It extends to faithfulness to toward each other – in humility and self-sacrificial love.” (Sin of Certainty, p. 101)

“Humility, love and kindness are OUR grand acts of faithfulness and how we show that we’re all in.” (Sin or Certainty, p.102)

So belonging, first and foremost, isn’t about any externals:  circumcision or food laws or TVs.

Belonging, secondly, isn’t really even about doctrinal statements or confessions of faith.  These serve important functions, they give us structure and help set up healthy boundaries for us to interact with… They help us try to discern how to live faithfully as followers of Jesus.

But the primary piece of belonging, the primary thing that marks us as followers of Jesus  – Trust –  .  Do we believe things ABOUT God?  Or do we trust God?

Paul is advocating TRUST as the basis for belonging.  Relationship.  Connection.

Or, to quote wise Richard Rohr, it’s not about being correct in what we think about God, but rather, it’s about our connection with God.

Now, I know the apostle Paul didn’t write this for us here at Grace Mennonite Church in 2017, but if we think about it…  I think it works.

We have almost no external markers that distinguish us from others.  We’ve actually been a bit of a refuge from that sort of legalism over the past 50 years.

We have very few specific group internal markers, as we try to practice the idea that unity doesn’t mean uniformity.  Any doctrinal statements or confessions of faith that we do believe or aspire to, we know that others might not, and that coercing belief systems on people runs contrary to who we’re trying to be.

So maybe the one mark that we all have is us trying to trust God, a trust like the faithfulness OF Jesus.

As Jesus the Son trusted God the Father with his life, we are to trust our lives to the way of Jesus.

Do we trust the way of Jesus? Do we let Jesus tell us how to live?

Now, those are questions of identity that I think are worth writing letters about.

 

Stupendous Soup’s On Volunteers, Teenager Lovers, and Missing Bible Verses

Last week, I popped in for coffee break on Tuesday afternoon with the stupendous Soup’s On volunteers, and I asked them a question.

“When you’re at church on a Sunday morning, do you like the sermons to be challenging or comforting?”

The week before I had preached about climate change and how some scientists say that we’re living through the 6th mass extinction our planet has seen, with the last one being the when all the dinosaurs died, so I thought they’d say,  “Comforting.”

Turns out I was wrong.

They said “Challenging. With some good insights into the Bible.”

“Perfect,” I laughed.  “Because I’m preaching on Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.”

If you don’t know the story, now would be a good time to read Acts 8:26-39.


Here at Grace, the texts we preach during worship are part of a 4 year cycle called the Narrative Lectionary, where over 4 years we’ll cover most of the major stories throughout the Bible.

And this week is the story about Philip being led by the Spirit to baptize the Ethiopian Eunuch.

And I cannot assume that we all know what a eunuch is.

A eunuch is/was usually a male who had been castrated. Although for some eunuchs, they would been born without testicles, but for most of them, the removing of their testicles as children would have been intentional.

Why would people do this?

Well, sometimes it was to ensure that they could sing really high.

Other times it was because a slave or servant was to guard the royal harem because it was assumed that a man who couldn’t have sex likely wouldn’t sleep with one of the king’s women.  They were called “Bedroom Guards.”

And sometimes, the non-first born males of royalty were castrated.  The thinking was that many kingdoms had rules against eunuchs not being king, since they couldn’t have children, so any sibling of the king who was a eunuch was considered to be trustworthy, since they couldn’t become king if they tried to kill the king.

In this story, we don’t know why the Ethiopian was a eunuch, whether it happened at birth, or was intentional.  All we know was that he was one.

Now, here’s where we get to ask the question:  Why does that matter?  Why do we have this story about the Ethiopian Eunuch?

Well, the Soup’s On Volunteers wanted biblical insight, so back to Deuteronomy we go!

Deuteronomy 23:1 – No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.

According to the law, this eunuch was not allowed to go to the temple to worship.  Banned.  Forbidden.  Here are the rules, they are very clear, and you are on the outside of those rules.  Tough nuts, eh?  (Or I guess I should say, “No nuts.”)

This, is a great example of where people quoting Bible verses to other people, especially ones from the Old Testament, especially out of context, might not always be the best.

Because I could read Deuteronomy 23 and go and tell the eunuch that he is not welcome and still be following the Bible.  But what we might miss is that Isaiah, still in the Old Testament, actually kind of undoes Deuteronomy 23, by declaring the following:

This is what the LORD says:

And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”

 “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.

Isaiah 56:3b-5

It’s like God saying “Here are the rules”, and then God saying “And here’s how we’re going to break them.”  It’s like God makes the rules, and then God breaks the rules.

And this happens quite often.

I’ve heard sermons on Deuteronomy 5:8, about how God punishes our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren for our sins, but those sermons seem to also have neglected Ezekiel, where he says that God is no longer punishing children for their parents sins (Ezekiel 18:20).

I’ve heard sermons about how if we follow God’s law, we’ll get blessings, like health and wealth, and how if we don’t, we’ll get curses.  And these are all based on long lists of blessings and curses found Deuteronomy 28.

But then Jesus comes and undoes that in Matthew 5 by telling us that God causes the rain to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous, because if we only love those who love us, what kind of people are we?

Or the time Jesus undoes “an eye for an eye” by telling us to love our enemies, or how some food is unclean and then it’s clean, or when Philip baptizes a eunuch when the eunuch was clearly an outsider?

So when we, as Christians, quote Bible verses at each other as proof that we’re right, and that others are wrong… Sometimes it can be us who’s quite wrong.

But here’s the beautiful thing about Christianity… here’s the beautiful thing about the Bible.

We still have Deuteronomy 23. And we still have Isaiah 56. And we have Acts chapter 8.  We could look at these contradictory stories and say it’s all a bunch of hogwash and walk away from it all.

Or we could look at it and say:  “Our story is a story about growth. Our book is a book about movement.  Our faith is a faith that is alive and going somewhere.”

We do our best to discern who God is, what God’s doing in our world, and how we get on board. And because we’re human and have terrible memories, we usually write it down.  But we need to remember that whatever we write down, God’s probably going to find ways to get around our rules and our creeds and our constitutions.  God is going to help us make the rules, and then God is going to help us break the rules.

Because our story is about growth.  And our book is about movement.  And our faith is alive and going somewhere.

But where’s it going?

Well, that is a good question.

The book of Acts is about the story of Jesus changing people’s lives, and then those people taking that story outside of Jerusalem, to all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.

So the story of Jesus is going to the ends of the Earth, by hook or by crook.  Or by the Spirit.

Now, when we read the word “Spirit”, those of us who consider ourselves somewhat logical and down to earth get a little quiet.  We don’t always know what to do with this character named “Spirit”.

I mean, like, we know what we don’t want to name as Spirit.  Teenagers breaking up with each other and saying God told them so… yeesh.  Kings and Queens and Presidents and Prime Ministers consulting God before they declare war (and conveniently God seems to always says “Yes” to them) – Yeesh.

We are rightfully skeptical when people claim God’s leading or intervention in all sorts of ways, and I think what we tend to do, or at least what I tend to do, is to just drop the phrase entirely.

But when we do that, when we stop talking about Spirit leading, I think we risk missing something life changing and life giving, because, maybe it’s the Spirit that drives our growth, our movement, and is taking us somewhere.

Philip was one of the 7 chosen to wait on tables so the other disciples could preach the word of God.  And what does Philip end up doing?  Preaching the word of God to the Ethiopian.

The same thing happened to Stephen, that we read about last week.  Chosen to distribute food,  he ended up preaching the word of God.

Phil was told by an angel to stand out on a desert road.  And then the Ethiopian drives by.

And then the Spirit tells Philip to go near the chariot.

And the Spirit was present when Philip was baptizing the Ethiopian.

The Spirit seems to be doing all sorts of things.  Things we’d expect, things we wouldn’t expect… my best summary of this in the office this week was with throwing my pen in the air, saying “Spirit’s gonna do what Spirit’s gonna do.”

But, oh we try to get things right, don’t we? I do all the time.

We like to have answers and familiarity and a way to do things and routines and predicable processes.

Here’s a great example of this:  If you go home and read Acts chapter 8, you’ll read verses 34, 35, 36, 38, 39 and 40.  Our Bibles skip verse 37!

Why do our Bibles skip verse 37?

Verse 37 was added to the manuscript centuries later, because the early church was trying to get a hold on this whole Jesus movement, which books to include in the Bible, how the whole baptism thing worked, and what the core beliefs of Christiantiy were, how Christians were to respond to Empire… And they decided that a verbal confession that Jesus is the Son of God was required for baptism.  They probably got that idea from Romans 10:9, “If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will saved.”  So after the question, “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”  they added verse 37:  “If you believe with all your heart, you may.  The eunuch answered:  I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”   (Here we go again, writing things down and figuring it all out.)

BUT… the original story doesn’t have the Ethiopian making any sort of verbal statement.  So what’s stopping him from being baptized?

Nothing.

Actually, the baptism story of the Ethiopian actually runs against much of what we do in the today’s Mennonite church.  There’s no membership for the Ethiopian, there’s no church there to receive him with open arms, there’s no mutual submission, there’s no liturgies to say together, there’s no catechism or faith exploration classes or mentors.  There is nothing but Philip and the Ethiopian and the Spirit.

And Spirit’s gonna do what the Spirit’s gonna do.

And so Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, the sexual minority who was once excluded, and, 2000 years later, some historians attribute his work to the both the creation of Ethiopian church and the Sudanese church, which all thrived for centuries without European missionaries.

Spirit’s gonna do what Spirit’s gonna do.

It all feels a little bit loosey goosey, doesn’t it? 

Yup.

Loosey Goosey probably describes the books of Acts quite well.  Loosey Goosey also describes the early church quite well too.  And probably even Grace Mennonite church.

When we stop to think about it, maybe our lives are all a little bit loosey goosey, aren’t they?

We have things figured out, and then they change.  We have some answers, and then we don’t. Life’s humming along, and then it’s not.  Life is really hard, and then that passes too.

But I think it helps to remember that the Christian story is a story that allows for movement, for change, for growth… From Deuteronomy to Isaiah to Acts, the Spirit is nudging us somewhere. 

And that nudging seems to center on the story of Jesus, and its effect on our lives and our communities.  That the story of Jesus, somehow, is good news to the world.

And when the loosey goosey nature of it all it feels like a lot, when it feels like we don’t know what’s solid rock and shifting sand, when it feels the carpet has been pulled out from underneath us, when the Spirit is nudging us to grow in ways that we don’t understand, I think it’s helpful to remember:

The early church was messy and beautiful and tragic and hopeful…and God was there and God was faithful.

And our church is messy and beautiful and tragic and hopeful… and God is here and God is faithful.

Our lives are messy and beautiful and tragic and hopeful…and God is here and God is faithful.

And if we remember that, we’re probably on a good road together.

 

Orangutans, Paleo Diet, and Sympathetic Listeners

In February, Ash and I were on vacation and we had the chance to take our children to the San Diego Zoo.  What a great place! We saw elephants and tigers and gorillas and giraffes and rhinos and pretty much all the animals.

My highlight was the orangutan.

IMG_6521

When we started the day, we went on a double decker bus tour, which my kids were really excited about.  We sat on the top, because that’s obvioIMG_6483usly where you want to sit when you’re on a double decker bus, and the bus driver/tour guide was showing us the animals and telling us about the zoo’s conservation efforts.

And as we were going on, she said “Such and such an animal is currently being threatened by climate change.  And yes, folks, climate change is real.  And we humans are the cause of it.  And we know this because science tells us.  And yes, science is real.”

I just looked at Ashley, who teaches high school biology, and we started laughing.  Of course science is real!  How can it not be? Every day we rely on science for our cell phones and our pain killers and our cars and our drinking water. You can’t just picks which parts you like and which parts you don’t.  It’s a methodology!   Who doesn’t believe science is real?

We’ll come back to this question in a bit.

But first, let’s draw a circle.

empty_circle.jpg

Let’s say this circle represents us.  As individuals.  Central to our functioning as normal humans is the belief that for the most part, we’re good people making good decisions.

If I were to ask you to turn to the person beside you and ask them, “Are you a generally a good person?” I think most of us would say “Yeah.  I’m not perfect, but I’m pretty decent.”

And if you were to ask the person beside you “Do you make good decisions?”  They’d probably answer. “Most of the time.  Sometimes I eat too much cake, but most of the time I make good decisions.”

Central to our functioning as humans is the belief that for the most part, we are good people making good decisions.  This is normal and necessary and true for almost everyone.

So, what happens when we receive information or feedback or experiences that challenges the notion that we are generally good people making good decisions?  What happens when someone says that our beliefs and behaviours aren’t the best?  What happens when someone tells us that we spend too much time on our phone?  Or that we spend our money unwisely?  Or that we kill frogs and bees when we spray our yards with chemicals?  Or that we voted for the wrong political party?  What happens when someone tell us that we might be racist?  Or that you doesn’t take the Bible seriously?

When we receive information or feedback that challenges our current beliefs or behaviours, psychologists call it cognitive dissonance.   A really simple definition of cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort experienced when we encounter new information that contradicts what we already believe.   It’s the mental discomfort of having two opposite stories competing in our brains. 

What do you mean I vote for the wrong political party?  I’m still a good person.

What do you mean I kill the frogs and bees in my backyard? I’m a good person who just wants to create a weed free back yard for my kids!

What do you mean I’m racist?  I’m a good person.  I have a black friend!

What do you mean my church don’t read the Bible?  We’re good people!  Look at all the good work we do!

When we experience cognitive dissonance, we don’t really like that discomfort, so generally try to get rid of it through a variety of ways.

Sometimes, we attack the person who creates this discomfort.  We get defensive.  We shoot the messenger. We try to discredit them so the information they’re given us has less weight.  For example, sometimes I can read people’s Facebook comments when I put my sermons online. When they write negative comments, I immediately click their profile and create a mental list of everything that is wrong with that person.  “Oh, you don’t like my sermon?  Well, you spend too much time playing Candy Crush, your shoes don’t match your belt, and you’re probably a terrible person.”

This is very normal reaction, but I’m quite confident in saying it’s not very healthy or helpful (and if you find yourself doing this ALL the time, I’d highly recommend getting a spiritual director).

Another thing some of us do when we encounter cognitive dissonance is we reinforce our pre-existing beliefs, trying to prove that we are good and right. And in 2017, this is primarily done by typing what we already believe into Google and looking for an article that proves that we’re right. We look for Bible verses, we look for blog posts, we look for authors, we look for studies.  Ahhh… studies.  Especially food studies.  Studies say that coffee is good for you.  And then one says it’s not.  And then one study says that a low-carb Paleo south-beach gluten-free juice diet is good for you.  It’s the best!  And then another one says no.

Now, things might be good for us, or they may be bad for us, but usually, (and if we’re honest with ourselves), we’ll just search on the internet for what we already believe, or what we want to believe.   And what’s especially troubling in 2017 is that Google and Facebook do such a good job predicting what they think we WANT to read that they’ll pull those posts up first and not show us contradictory posts.  So any idea that we’ve done balanced research on the internet is probably a sham, because Facebook and Google want us to click on things simply for their ad revenue. So they’re most likely not going to show me articles or pages about how war is good and Jesus is fake and ultimate Frisbee isn’t a sport, as I’m probably not going to click those.

Another way that we deal with cognitive dissonance is kind of like an involuntary cognitive trance, where the physiology of our brains alters so that any feedback that challenges our identities simply goes in one ear and out the other. 

If you tell someone that they’re racists, the most likely won’t say, “Oh…. Right.  Sorry about that. I’m going to not be racist anymore.”

If you tell someone that they’re sexist,  they’re probably not going to say, “Oh… Right. I’m going to flick off the sexist switch in my brain and turn on the equality one.”

Or what happens if you tell a lifelong Pepsi drinker that Coke is better?  Well, they’ll probably lash out and attack the bearer of bad news.  But if they’ve calmed their inner beast-mode, they most likely will just ignore it and keep drinking their Pepsi.

And we can’t even get mad at people for this, because sometimes, it’s physiological.  Our brains just do it! We all believe that we’re generally good people making good decision, and we will simply ignore most of the information that challenges that.

So how does this relate to science and climate change and Earth Day?

Well, let’s go back to circle.  Let’s make it represent something a bit bigger.

empty_circle.jpg

Let’s make it represent the groups that we belong to, the tribes that we identify with.  Our church, our faith, our city, our school, our gender, our political parties, our sports teams, our country… whatever groups that we identify with, they will all hold some common beliefs, and rooted in all of those is that, yes, there might be some flaws, but we generally believe that they are generally good, and making generally good decisions.

Canada?  Generally a good country.

Steinbach?  Generally a good city.

Christianity? Anabaptism?  Grace Mennonite?  Generally all pretty good, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

And then let’s draw another circle over her.  Smaller.

empty_circle.jpg

empty_circle.jpg

This is a group that identify as climate scientists.  They’re generally believe they’re good people too, but they have knowledge that most of us don’t have. They have fancy schmancy thermometers and the scientific method and peer reviewed research, and over 95% of them say things like “climate change is real and is cause by humans.”  They say things like “16 of the past 17 years have been the warmest on record.”  They say things like “We are seeing more extreme weather patterns.  More intense droughts, more intense storms, more intense floods.”   They say things like “We are seeing the ice caps melt, we are seeing permafrost melt, and these are going to fundamentally change how our world works.”

And then the climate scientists and the paleontologist and the evolutionary biologists all got together and say things like “The planet has gone through 5 mass extinctions, and at the rate we’re currently losing species, we are currently living through the 6th.”

They say things like “If we don’t change something, we’re going to be in trouble.”

But those of us who aren’t climate scientists… we still believe we’re good people! What do you mean that some of our actions are bad for the climate?  So we’re either going to discredit those scientists, or we’re going to type into Google why we think they’re wrong and claim “Science isn’t real!  The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to steal our jobs!”, or we’re just going to simply ignore them.

Let’s draw a third circle.

empty_circle.jpgempty_circle.jpgempty_circle.jpg

The easy way to describe this circle is “the poor”, but that’s a clunky, loaded term that is ideal.  So we can also think of this as the “global south”, or the under-served population, or those who are more exploited or historically looted, or however you want to put it.  Those with less access to resources to than others.  (And notice how much bigger it is?)

What are they going to do if food prices rise?

How are those who grow their own food going to respond to more intense droughts?

How are those on islands going to respond to rising sea levels?

How are they going to respond to floods when they can’t afford insurance like we have?

How are Northern communities, like Pauingassi, going to survive without ice roads?

Climate change is going to have a greater effect on “the poor” than the rich.  And with great confidence I can say that over the past 100 years, the rich have been more responsible for climate change than the poor (currently, the poorest 50% of the world are responsible for about 10% of the world’s carbon emissions).

But we’re good people!  Making reasonably good decisions!

I think in this case, when we hear stories from small scale farmers in Zambia, we don’t attack the messenger.  Or when presidents of small island nations say that that their home will literally disappear if the ice caps melt, we don’t really type into Google why they’re wrong.   Rather, we deal with the cognitive dissonance simply by ignoring it.

This is all, kind of depressing, isn’t it?

Well, there is some good news in all of this, especially for those of us in the church.

While the climate scientists and those with less resources are articulating their concerns, and most of us here in the first circle are busy ignoring them, their messages ARE heard by some people in the first circle.  The sympathetic listeners.  And if these sympathetic listeners are able to translate these concerns to the rest of their circle, maybe, just maybe, the rest of us will listen and take action.

But these translators must do one thing: They must continue to affirm the general goodness of the group, otherwise the group will not listen. 

These translators are bridge builders, not bridge burners.  The other circles don’t necessarily have to be bridge builders.  But the sympathetic listeners must be.

They are the ones who must be able to say, “Hmmm… These people might be saying something important, and we’re all good people over here, so maybe we should listen to what they’re saying and try to build a better world together for everyone.”

There is significantly less cognitive dissonance in that message, isn’t there?

We’re all good people trying to make good decisions, so let’s keep doing that.

And I think, those of us who are part of the church, we can speak to our circle by saying things like:

“The Bible says that God has given us stewardship over the Earth.  What kind of stewards are we if we trash the place?  Are we like a bunch of teenagers who throw a party when they’re parents are gone?”

Or we can say:  “The Bible has over 2000 verses about the poor.  We should listen to these voices and take action because the Bible says that God cares about the poor.”

Or we can say “Jesus tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves.  I wonder how we’re loving our neighbours when some of their homes will no longer be there?  Or if they can’t adapt to climate change because they lack the resources that we have? We’re all good people here trying be faithful by loving our neighbours as Jesus says, so how can we best do that?”

And the church, when it’s a tad unhealthy, is really good at divisiveness and guilty and shame and excluding and telling others why they’re wrong.

And the church, when it’s a tad healthier, is really good at loving its neighbours and affirming people’s goodness and working at justice and working with people we disagree with in very redemptive ways.  We can listen to these voices and work together for a better world by affirming each other’s goodness.

If you feel a bit less depressed now about climate change now, and our role in it, then great.

But I’ll throw one more wrench in here.

These people here, the climate scientists… They probably would read this “bridge building” sermon and say “That’s nice and all, but it’s about 20-30 years too late.  We are running out of time.”  So to those of us who are here, trying to translate this message, and to those of us who are trying to love our neighbours as ourselves, especially those with less access to resources, “We’re running out of time” is certainly a difficult message to translate nicely, isn’t it?

So, yes, science is real, our climate is changing, and human activity is the cause of it.

And yes, our actions, both big and small matter. And they matter because they are all faithful attempts on our part to love our neighbour as ourselves, especially those who in the world who have less access to resources.

I could end this sermon with a list of things we can do:  Bike to work, garden more, compost more, reuse things more… Just type the words “Green” or “Earth Day” into Google and you’ll find lists and lists of things we can do.  If my 6 year old knows how to be Earth friendly, I think most of us know there are things we can differently.

So instead of lists, let’s end with a prayer of confession.

Let’s pray.

Confession:

When we are unkind to people,
when we are careless with animals,
when we choose the cheapest or easiest,
when we don’t care about the consequences of our choices,
when we waste energy and water,
when we lack respect for the Earth,
when we are complacent and overcome by apathy:
forgive us, O God, and reconcile us to yourself,
to one another
and to the Creation.

May the wind of the Spirit blow through our lives
and enable us to be good stewards of Creation,
now and forever.  Amen.


Sources:

For all things climate change related, check out Katherine Hayhoe’s work, especially her “Global Weirding” video series.

For the piece on cognitive dissonance, there are many more than the three responses.  Those are just the 3 that I think are quite common.  I picked up the “involuntary trance” part, and the circles, from the Liturgists podcast “Prophet or Ass?

The confession is from the Canadian Foodgrains Bank worship material

Seinfeld, CTV, and Rocks

As we work through the gospel of Luke, our text this week is the parable of the Good Samaritan.  I usually have about 3 sermons going on in my head at a time, so weeks ago I was thinking to myself:

“Great.  What am I going to say about one of seinfeld_prison.pngthe most famous stories in history?  One that we’ve heard over and over again?  The story that even Seinfeld used to for the series finale, where Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer all ended up in jail for not helping someone in need…” I know others didn’t, but I rather enjoyed seeing Baboo again.

I thought about the different ways to look at the parable of the Good Samaritan… We could talk about how the religious leaders knew all the rules and laws and beliefs of their faith, who was clean and unclean and how to stay that way, but they absolutely missed the point in how to treat their neighbour.

We could talk about how Jews and Samaritans hated each other, and the Samaritan crossed all sorts of boundaries and barriers and taboos to help someone in need.

But then, when I was on vacation last week, CTV called our church.  And after some pondering by the pool side, I stood up and declared to Ashley – I’ve just finished my sermon for next week.


 

About a month ago, a man with a gun walked into a mosque in Quebec City and killed six Muslims while they were praying.  While all stories of violence are hard to listen to or understand, stories of violence in places of worship seem to impact me on a deep level.  Most of us don’t show up on a Sunday morning fearing violence, but that is a reality of many people of faith around the world.  From African American worshippers in the States, to Muslims in Canada, to Jewish Synagogues and community centers receiving bomb threats, there is a certain level of risk in simply showing up to practice your faith.

After the shooting in Quebec City, a few of us at Grace were wondering how we can best show support and solidarity for the Muslims in our community.  Anti-Muslim rhetoric has been around for centuries, but over the past 16 months, here in North America it seems to have made a jump from the “comments section” to the main stream.  Recently there was even a protest against Islam outside a mosque in Toronto.welcomesign

A Mennonite Church in the USA noticed the increased hostility towards Muslims, and in their context, Latinos, so they made some “house for sale” style signs for their congregation.
In Spanish, English and Arabic, “No Matter Where You Are From, We’re Glad You Are Our Neighbour.” And since then, this sign, or adaptations of it, have appeared all over North America by a variety churches and faith organizations.image1[3224]

And so, a few weeks after the mosque shooting (and it took a few weeks because getting anything printed in Arabic in Steinbach is a bit of a challenge), the sign you currently see ended up on our parking lot (And yes, we are aware of the grammar mistake in Arabic.  We did our best, but something got lost in translation from talking with our Syrian neighbours to the printer).

I received a picture of it while on vacation, and made a little bit of a post of it on Facebook and Twitter, which many of you liked and shared.

After about an hour, I sent a text to Audrey (our superb administrator):

“Twitter is enjoying our sign.  I hope the media calls Mel.”  (I’m such a kind and gracious co-worker.)

And then a few hours later I received a text from Audrey:  “Media would like a contact.  They’re on their way.  Mel is gone today.  Please advise.”

At this point Audrey and I facetimed, made a bit of a plan, and CTV in the end decided that coming to Steinbach just wasn’t worth the trip (mostly because we didn’t have anyone ready to talk).

But when Audrey and I were talking about what to do, I asked what the CTV reporter had said.  Audrey replied:  The reporter said that the sign was amazing!  That this was big! And that they wanted to help get the message out there!

It struck me… A sign stating that we like our Arabic speaking neighbours is considered “amazing” and “big”.

Okay, so partly I get it that she was trying to convince us to go on air with her.

And I get it that it’s a bit of a charged atmosphere lately, especially with our neighbours to the South of us.  And so a statement like this offers a different narrative to the xenophobia and racism and violence that we are seeing these days.

And I get that sometimes the relationship between Christianity and Islam has been a bit strained over the past thousand years, and churches sponsoring Muslim refugees is significantly better than what happened during the crusades.

But honestly? With a sign like ours, I wish we wouldn’t have to use the words “amazing” and “big” for our sign… I wish could rather use the words “normal” and “meh.”

I mean, as churches we believe we’re the Body of Christ, and so being good neighbours is what we’re supposed to do.

And look around Steinbach – Which church isn’t sponsoring or helping refugees?  We are, SMC, the MB’s, Efree, Kleefeld EMCs… And I know that some of the smaller ones who are most definitely giving money to support organizations that help settle refugees.  The sign could appear in front a bunch of churches in Steinbach and not be out of place.

This is what we’re supposed to do because this is who we believe Jesus calls us to be.  Do to others as you would have them to do you, right?

Here’s the thing about the parable of the Good Samaritan and the words of Jesus… About loving your neighbour as yourself.

There’s a certain pre-emptiveness and pro-activeness to it.   Bruxy Cavey is a pastor in the Toronto area, and he told a story at Mennonite World Conference.  He was sending his kids to camp, and told his kids that when trying to love people, don’t be a rock.  Rocks just sit there.  Sure, they don’t harm others, they’re not rude, they don’t hurt other people’s feelings.  They don’t do anything bad. They don’t sin.  They’re rocks.  But they also don’t do anything good. They’re rocks.  They just sit there.

Loving your neighbour as yourself goes beyond the ethics of a rock.  Love is an active choice.   Put yourself in someone else’s shoes, imagine how they’d want to be treated, and then do it.  (I know this is much easier said than done, but I think it’s a pretty good starting point).

Part of this Anabaptist tradition that we find ourselves in is that we believe we are judged by the fruit we produce, not solely our beliefs.  This is why Jesus praises right actions more than right beliefs, this is why Jesus separates the goats and sheep not based on having the right words, but the right actions, and this is why Jesus has harsh words are for the people who had the right beliefs, like the priest and Levite, but not the right actions, like the Samaritan.

So to a very kind CTV reporter, a church trying to love its neighbour is apparently a big deal.

Maybe that’s a bit of an indictment on us as the church, isn’t it… Maybe we have to be reminded that churches are often seen as places that care more about right beliefs than right actions.  Maybe it’s a reminder that we should view church primarily not as school of answers, but rather as a school of love, where we practice how to love each other and love the world.   And that through these loving relationships, we might find some right answers together.

Or, as the Roman Emperor Julian commented 1700 years ago, “The godless Galileans feed our poor in addition to their own.”  That looks like a good marriage between actions and beliefs, doesn’t it?


We’re entering the season of Lent, the 6 week period before Easter.

This year, maybe we can view Lent as a bit of reset button… A chance to realign our trajectory.  That all of our worship, all the social media and ice caps and wine we give up for Lent, all the spiritual practices we participate in… they’re all a part of us joining in God’s great restoration project… or us participating in God’s school of love…. Of working to learn and live into God’s grace and into God’s peace and to share that with to every person and every community. A chance to re-align our trajectory.

Every Sunday throughout Lent, you are invited to participate in communion.  We here at Grace believe that the table is the Lord’s, not ours, so thus you are all invited.

And as we receive communion this morning, we can do so with the following as our prayer, our plea, our re-alignment:  God help us to love you, help us to love our neighbours, help us to remember the way of Jesus, and when we hear stories of people crossing all sorts of barriers and boundaries to offer compassion and kindness, may we find the strength and courage to go and do likewise.

Grace and Peace,

Amen.

 

Big Foot, Elephant and Piggy, and “Shake it Off”

Today I get to speak to you while wearing both my parent hat and my pastor hat.  I am quite excited about this prospect.

When Ashley and I were living in Winnipeg, we lived about two blocks from the church where I was working, so often I would walk to work.  And on my way to work I walked right past the local elementary school.

One day, while I work, I received a phone call.

“Hi Kyle. Can you help us lead the Lord’s Prayer before school starts? We’d love a pastor to be there.”

What was I supposed to say?

So the next week I found myself in someone’s living room, drinking weak coffee and eating dainties, coming up with a schedule to lead the local school children in the Lord’s Prayer.

Now, I’m usually quite grateful for the diversity within Christianity.  I’m quite okay with different denominations and different expressions of spirituality.  I grew up Roman Catholic in Steinbach with a brief Pentecostal stint before I found my way here to Grace Mennonite, and those are all very valid expressions of Christianity that helped shape me.  And to quote Peter Dick, my high school Sunday School teacher, in relation to all the different denominations:  “A shoe that fits one person, might pinch another.”

However, when the faithful volunteers started discussing who was going to lead the Lord’s Prayer on Halloween because they were all boycotting that day at school because it was a dark day, it became quite apparent to me that they probably didn’t yet know that they didn’t want me to lead their children in the Lord’s Prayer.

So I ended up offering to lead it twice a month.

Every other Thursday, I’d show up to the multi-purpose room, tell a story about me canoeing or when I was in Zimbabwe, and then we’d say the Lord’s Prayer.  When the weather was warm, we had about 40-50 kids, and when it was cold out, we had close to 100 (which shows that dodge ball is better than the Lord’s Prayer, but the Lord’s prayer is better than playing in -20 degrees C).

If you know me, I like kids, but I’m not that good with them.  Especially elementary school kids. I like to laugh and give high fives, but I usually talk too fast and use big words… When thinking of gifts for Arianna’s teachers, my first impulse is to buy them a gift card to the liquor store.   So, those Lord’s Prayer mornings were usually a bit of a circus with kids throwing things in one corner and other kids wrestling in the other corner.

And so, one day, I was a bit frustrated at the situation, and I said, “Alright!  I have a question to ask you!  How many of you go to church on a regular basis?  Like, Sunday School?”

I didn’t see one hand stay down.  As far as I could tell, almost every kid went to church!

And then I asked them another question:

“How many of you say the Lord’s Prayer with your families before you go to school?”

Not a single hand went up.

Now, I know that getting everyone out the door in the mornings with their clothes on and teeth brushed and lunches packed can be quite the gong show, as most of my mornings these days consist of me saying very slowly, “Arianna, please put the food in your mouth and chew it or you will miss your bus.”  Or maybe they said their prayers as a family every evening… but zero?

The thing about the Lord’s Prayer at this school was that it was a DOUBLE permission slip.  They needed to get enough parental signatures to ALLOW the Lord’s Prayer before school started, and then each and every kid had to hand in a permission slip to ATTEND Lord’s prayer.

I was/am shocked and perplexed and curious and wondering about how this was such an important ritual that parents signed two separate permission slips, but then sent their children to pray with pastor who dresses up as Big Foot and chases kids down his driveway on the dark day of Halloween (don’t worry… I only chase the teenagers who are too old to be trick or treating).

I finished that school year, and never led any Lord’s Prayers exercises at school again.  (But just this week it dawned of me that didn’t ask me to come back either, so maybe it was a mutual parting of ways.)

Because here’s the thing about kids and faith and how they grow in their faith.  The number one influence in kids and their understanding of spirituality is their parents.  Surprise, surprise, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

As parents, there is a direct correlation between nurturing our own spirituality and nurturing that of our kids.   And there is also a direct correlation between the quality of our relationships with our kids and whether or not they model their lives after us.  So every prayer we say by ourselves, every prayer we say with our kids, every candle we light, every time we ask how Jesus would respond to a global refugee crisis, every time we go swimming with our kids or cheer them on playing hockey, every time we cuddle and read stories of Jesus or stories of Elephant and Piggy, it’s all part of what it means to nurture our kids and their spirituality.

The other thing that really matters in nurturing the spirituality of our children is whether or not the adults in their church CLAIM the kids as their own, and invest in them and pray for them and give them high fives.  They’ve even found the ideal ratio:  5 adults for 1 kid.  5:1. If there are 5 adults in a community investing in each child, it means the world to them.

Years ago, some sociologists sent a young-ish looking reporter to go undercover in a high school to document life as a teenager, and what they discovered really surprised them.  They found a world where the adults weren’t nearly as present as they thought they would be.  Most schools have a ratio of 1 teacher to 20 kids, and if you include all the staff in school, it’s between 5-10 students to 1 adult.   And in the absence of an abundance of adults to model their lives on, the kids started looking to each other for guidance and support and role-models.

And while some kids can thrive under this, others of them go all “Lord of the Flies” on each other.

This was teenagers a few decades ago.

I was talking to an educator more recently, and they didn’t know about this study, but they made an observation of their elementary school.  They said “It seems to me that there are less and less adults in these kid’s lives, and the kids are turning to each other for guidance and support.”

Some of these shifts have been slow, like decades, but they’re not insignificant. Both parents often work (like Ash and I, so no judgment from us), and often longer hours, we have smaller families so there are less uncles and aunts around, we’re more mobile so we now have more families living across several provinces, we have more entertainment options so Netflix replaces crokinole and the TSN JETS four times a week replaces Hockey Night in Canada once a week, let alone how’re on our phones… And even those of us who enrol our kids in activities, while there are some great coaches and great stories out there of adults investing in kids, I am also quite realistic that many coaches are teenagers who are being paid and won’t invest in our children in the off season.  I know for myself, when Ash and I coach ultimate, I end up saying “I’m just glad that I get to teach these kids how to throw a Frisbee for two months, and that I don’t really have to care about them beyond that.”  (Although Ashley cares, since she’s a great teacher.)

So where are the adults?

I’m not going to suggest that the way forward is some idealized past, or how parents these days don’t know what they’re doing.

But what I am going to suggest is that a really big part of what we’re doing here today, of dedicating our kids, of giving them Bibles, is that we’re trying our best to create a community of adults that is looking out for our kids.  As parents, we are giving you, the congregation, permission to invest in our kids.  We are not trusting strangers leading religious exercises at schools to nurture our kids.  We’re trusting you.  That is your job. And by virtue of you being here, and participating in child dedication with us, you’re kind of stuck here doing it.  It’s like a Mennonite draft of sorts.

This is why, when we as church families go swimming or to the Moose game, you’re all invited.   We want you involved in the lives of our children.  This is why I invite so many adult to come with us to Pauingassi.  Because our teenagers need to part of a community where the adults serve.    This is why we need you to help us lead children’s church.  We want you to share with our children how the story of Jesus has changed your life.

We’re trusting you. Not strangers.  You.

Ashley came back from the women’s retreat in the fall just excited about faith and church and this great group of women, and she told me that on the way home, she and another mom were talking about role models for our children.  And Ash said “We are so grateful that our daughters have these strong women as their role models.”

We’re trusting you.  With our children.

In my house these days, we often have these epic dance parties while making and cleaning up supper.   We usually let the kids pick the music, so we often end up dancing to Shake it Off by Taylor Swift, Roar by Katy Perry, and All About that Bass by Megan Trainor.  It’s quite delightful.

But for the last month or so, we’ve been singing the soundtrack from Disney’s Moana.  (On a quick aside, we are just really thankful that Disney is finally starting to create strong, independent female characters.)

And there’s one line in that soundtrack that has actually led me to tears while dancing in my kitchen.

In a song about a bunch of South Pacific Islanders exploring the ocean and finding new islands, they sing a song called:  We Know the Way.

We read the wind and the sky when the sun is high.

We sail the length of the seas on the ocean breeze.  At night, we name every star.

We know where we are.

We know we are, who we are.

We know the way.

We know where we are.  We know who we are.

We know that we are here, in this place called Grace Mennonite.  We know that we are here, with you.  And because we know where we are, we know who we are… and whose we are.

We know that we are beloved children of God, together. We know that we are followers of Jesus, together.    We know that we are lovers of the world, together.  We know the way, together.

And with my pastor hat on, I wish you much grace and peace.

And with my parent hat on, I say “Thanks.”

Saskatchewan, Petulant Toddlers, and Abe’s Hill

Today’s story of Jesus teaching in the synagogue, and then people trying to throw him off a cliff, is one of my favourite stories in the Bible.  But in order to understand what’s going on, we need to understand Isaiah chapter 61.  And to understand Isaiah 61, we need to understand Leviticus 25.

Let’s go.

Leviticus 25 – Deep within quite possibly one of the most boring books of the Bible, there is this life-altering society-changing passage about something called the Year of Jubilee.  Basically, every 50 years, the Israelites were supposed to hit a giant “reset” button.  All debts were cancelled. All slaves were set free.  All land was returned to its original owner.  They were not allowed to take interest on any debts (which might throw a dent in the long term plans of their local credit union).  The Year of Jubilee was a mechanism created to ensure that nobody was ever really, really poor, nobody was ever really, really rich, and that every family would be given an equal chance in life to prosper.   It was basically a great redistribution of wealth.

And, historians have given us their best estimate of how often the Year of Jubilee actually happened.

Zero.

They just simply didn’t do it.  Why some people just don’t follow what the Bible clearly says is beyond me <smile>.

Isaiah 61 – Now, in order to understand Isaiah 61, we need a map.

Old Testament times.  Israel was one kingdom under King David.  And then eventually they were two kingdom, the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom. And then they all a whole series of kings and queens, some of them good, but most of them bad.  And then eventually the big bad Assyrians came and destroyed the Northern Kingdom, basically wiping them off the map.  And then the big bad Babylonians came and not only beat the Assyrians AND the Southern Kingdom, but they took the Jewish people as captives back to Babylon.  After living in exile for 70 years, then the Persians came and beat the Babylonians and let the Jewish people return home.

Now here’s where Isaiah 61 fits into here.  Some scholars tell us that the book of Isaiah that is currently found in our Bibles wasn’t written by one dude named Isaiah, but rather was written by three different prophets, and chapters 55-66 are compiled by someone named Trito-Isaiah (so exciting, I know), and generally speaking, his words can be attributed to the time when the exiles were returning home.

They were going home!  After spending 70 years in a foreign land, they were going home.

Imagine coming home with all your family, your friends, your people, after 70 years… These words take on a whole different level of meaning.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God… Isaiah 61:1-2

As the Israelites returned home to rebuild their lives and their community, Isaiah was using language from the Year of Jubilee to describe it.  Freedom for the captives.   Good news to the poor. Release from darkness.   Year of the Lord’s favour.

By invoking the words of the Jubilee, Isaiah was calling for nothing less than the radical undertaking of re-ordering the human community (Sharon Ringe). (and we complain when our hydro rates go up).

It was Isaiah’s rallying call:  This is how we’re going to live!  Good news for the poor!  Freedom for the oppressed!  Release from darkness for the prisoners!  Day of vengeance of our God!

We are free, and we are going to build a good life.  God is on our side, God has rescued us and God’s gonna stick it to those evil Babylonians.

This all makes sense when we think about what 70 years as prisoners in a foreign land will do to one’s psyche.  (Can you imagine what we would say if Manitobans were held as prisoners in Saskatchewan for 70 years?)

Enter Jesus.

Jesus shows up at the temple and opens the scroll of Isaiah, and he starts reading.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. – Luke 4:18-19

He rolled up the scroll and sat down.  Luke explicitly mentions that Jesus was done.  It was like a modern day mic drop.

But do see what Jesus did there?

He left out the line about the day of vengeance of our God.

And then he goes on to say: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

He goes and places the Year of Jubilee… upon himself.  He takes the triumphalistic rally cry of the returning exiles found in Isaiah 61, this radical re-ordering of the human community…. And places it on himself.

But he leaves out the call for vengeance, the call for revenge, the call for God to smite our enemies.

It’s kind of like Jesus is rebooting Scripture…. If Leviticus was Jubilee version 1.0, and Isaiah was Jubilee version 1.1, these words of Jesus is like Jubilee version 2.0.

It’s this giant leap in how Jesus read Scripture that cannot be overstated.   It’s the beginning of a whole series of how Jesus quoted Scripture. “Jesus consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and triumphalistic texts in his own inspired Hebrew Bible in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty.”  (Richard Rohr)

The Bible isn’t a flat text.  It’s moving somewhere.  Luke knows this.  So he quotes Jesus quoting Isaiah, but as part of a movement from here to there.

Jesus is taking a text about judgement and turning it into a text about mercy.

It’s like Jesus saying:  We used to be okay with calling for God’s vengeance on others, but now we’re not.  We’re moving somewhere.  Get on board.  Because “if the gospel isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody.” (Rob Bell).

And how do you think the people in the synagogue reacted to Jesus selectively quoting their sacred scripture, and turning their text of judgement into a text of mercy?

Oh… no big deal.  They just tried to throw him off a cliff.

2012_03_abes_hill

Abe’s Hill, Steinbach

Let’s bring this closer to home, and talk about mature and immature faith, healthy and unhealthy religion, and tie it into human development.  And then at the end hopefully you won’t throw me off a cliff. Or, since we’re in Steinbach, roll me down Abe’s Hill’s.

One way of looking at healthy human development is this (I got this from Ken Wilber):

We move being ego-centrism to ethno-centrism to world-centrism.

Let me explain.

Here at the ego-centrism stage, we are primarily concerned about ourselves.  Life revolves around us, and when we think it doesn’t, we get really upset.  This is the stage of petulant toddlers who have just learned to say ‘no’.  It’s my way or the high way, and I’m going to throw a hissy fit if I don’t get what I want.  Selfishness and narcissism rule the day here.

Thankfully, most of us grow out of this stage.

And then we move into the enthno-centrism stage.  This is where we realize that life doesn’t only involve us, but also others.  I sometimes use the word “tribe.”   My family, my friends, my church, my gender, my skin colour, my religion, my country.  However we define the various tribes that we belong to, there is usually a clear and defining definition of who’s in and who’s out.  And then we base all our thinking and acting out of concern for our tribe.

On one hand, this is a huge, massive, important leap in maturity because we now know that our world is bigger than us, and this will hopefully stop us from acting like a bunch of children throwing temper tantrums and taking everyone’s toys.  But on the other hand, if we stop here, we can end up with racism, sexism, family feuds, treating others like they don’t belong, owning slaves, and wars between countries.

And then the next movement is to the world-centrism stage.

This is where we understand that and in anything we do, we know that there are both intended and unintended consequences, and we care about how it affects others. All the others.

This is the realm of what we call the common good.  

This is the realm of Bomber fan saving the life of a Rider fan who is choking on a hot dog.

This is the realm where Christian churches and Jewish synagogues sponsor Muslim refugees in Canada.  Historically, this is a pretty big movement.

This is the realm where Muslims on a bus in Kenya protect the Christians sitting beside them from gunmen.

This is the realm of Nelson Mandela inviting his prison guards to his inauguration.

This is the realm where churches feed people with no strings attached.

The is the realm of the civil rights movement in the States, where protesters proclaimed that their ability to endure suffering and still love is greater than the energy of those causing the suffering.

This is the realm of non-violence, because how can you care about someone you’re dropping a bomb on?

This is the realm where a pizzeria threatens to not bake pizzas for a gay wedding, and then the pizzeria gets tons of bad publicity and threats and is forced to close down, and then the pizzeria starts an online fundraising campaign, and amid the furor a lesbian couple gives the pizzeria twenty bucks and write:  “As a member of the gay community, I would like to apologize for the mean spirited attacks on you and your business… We are outraged at the level of hate and intolerance that has been directed at you and I sincerely hope that you are able to rebuild.”

But when we make this move, when we go against the rules of our tribes to seek the welfare of others, even if they are different than us, even if they are “opposed” to our tribe, we run the risk of our own people wanting to throw us off a cliff.

Healthy human development will move us from ego-centrism to ethno-centrism to world-centrism.  But there probably will be a cost to it. And that cost will probably come from our own tribe.

Now, healthy and mature religion should move us along this path from ego-centrism to ethno-centrism to world-centrism as well.  I believe this is the exact same movement that Jesus was doing here in Luke 4.  They had their Isaiah 61 text, about good news for the poor and freedom for the captives and the day of God’s vengeance for others.  That was a very ethnocentric understanding of faith.  God is with us, and will rescue us, but is not with “them.”

But then Jesus comes and pulls them into a new understanding of God, and faith, and salvation, and it involves EVERYONE.  Throughout the gospel of Luke, from the angels talking to shepherds, proclaiming good news to everyone, to Jesus forgiving the thief on the cross, Luke keeps making this gospel about everyone.  It’s a world-centric understanding of faith.

Isaiah 61 promises material benefits for the believing community.  Jesus shifts the text from “Here is what you will receive” into “Here is what you are expected to give.” “I am the anointed one of God,” says Jesus, “and to follow me you must engage in proclamation, justice advocacy and compassion.” This shift irritates the congregation who are still focused on what they will receive if he is the Messiah. (Kenneth Bailey)

It’s not about what you’re going to get.  It’s about what you’re going to give.

A quick word about world-centrism and advocating for justice.  And I am speaking to my own tribe here.  If we are not actively seeking the welfare of everyone, even those we disagree with… if we are participating in Pride marches to stick it to conservative churches, if we are participating in protests to stick it to the racists and the sexists and to the people who voted differently than us, if we are unable to at the very least offer kindness to everyone, then while our causes might be good,  and our causes might be right, we’re probably acting out of an egocentric place and hiding it with world-centrism language.   We can’t hate the haters, because if we hate the haters, we have become what we hate.

If we don’t transcend beyond our ethnocentrism, I think we’re missing the big picture that Jesus is inviting us to.  And if we don’t transcend beyond our ego-centrism and our desire to “stick” it to people, even those whom we disagree with, I think we’re missing the big picture that Jesus is inviting us to.

How then, in a world full of injustices and oppression and inequality, how do we genuinely move from ego-centrism to world-centrism?

I don’t really have a great answer right now.

But my best answer is that in all of our attitudes, in all of our actions, in all our conversations, in all of relationships, everything we do, can we pray the following prayer with integrity?

As the morning casts off the darkness, Lord, help us to cast aside any feelings of ill will we might harbour against those who have hurt us.  Soften our hearts to work toward their conversion and ours.  Amen.

If we can pray this prayer, I think we’re on the road with Jesus to a more healthy and more mature expression of Christian spirituality, which I think that our world so desperately needs.

Baby Sleep Patterns, Hockey Night in Canada, and Participation Trophies

A sermon based on Luke 2:21-38, Jesus being presented at the temple.

Jesus is taken to the temple as a boy, and Simeon and Anna are there, and when they see baby Jesus, wow, do they ever nail it.

When they were holding Jesus, they used words like salvation, redemption of Israel, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, the glory of your people, and I can now die in peace.

 My youngest child is 5 months old, and the most used words Ash and I use around him are us fighting about whose turn it is to change his diaper or put him back to bed.  “It’s your turn.”  “No it’s your turn.”   “I have to work tomorrow.”  “I gave birth to him.” I somehow always seem to lose this one.  His sleep patterns are more likely to cause the ruin of one of us than the salvation of God’s people.

We’ll be reading through the gospel of Luke for the next few months, and there are two things worth pointing out at this point (shout out to Sheila Klassen-Wiebe at Canadian Mennonite University for these).

The first is that Luke sees the story of Jesus as a fulfilling of God’s larger plans and purposes as read in the Old Testament.

We often make the mistake of assuming that our stories have a definitive starting point.
As Mennonites, we sometimes forget that there is 1500 years of church history before the Protestant Reformation and then Menno Simons.

As Canadians, we forget that the history of this land didn’t start in 1867, or didn’t start when white people showed up in the 16th century, but that there’s this history involving First Nations of people that goes thousands of years back.

So when we read the gospel of Luke, the author works really hard to show his readers that this story of Jesus is part of a much larger plan that didn’t start when Jesus was born, and didn’t end with Jesus ascended into heaven.  It’s a really important piece, and for those of us who identify as Anabaptist we can say it’s the most important part, but it’s not the only part of the story.  So when Luke tells us of Jesus being brought to the temple, of Jewish priests and prophets saying great things about him, when Jesus is described as the glory of Israel and redemption of Israel, Luke is reminding his readers that Jesus is part of God’s ongoing work in our world, that Jesus is God’s fulfillment.

The other piece that we need to know about Luke as we go forward is that he keeps using the word “Salvation.”  Of all the gospels, Luke uses this word the most.

But when we read the word salvation, he’s not talking about us getting tickets to go to heaven when we die.  Rather, the word is so much bigger and deeper and better that that.  Salvation is about how we live now and into the future, about how we right any part of our life that is not as God intends it to be.  This can include physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, social… Salvation is about all of it.  It’s about how we participate in the Reign of God.  It’s about how we live, and how we live together.

And so when the righteous and devout Simeon sees Jesus and says that he has now seen God’s salvation, Luke is telling his readers: “Hey!  Pay attention to this Jesus kid!  He’s going to show you how to live!”  And when the Jewish prophet Anna says that this child is going to be the redemption of Jerusalem, Luke is telling his readers:  “Hey! Pay attention to this Jesus kid!  He’s going to how you how to live!”

As I was pondering the story of Simeon and Anna praising Jesus as the salvation of not only the Jewish people, but all peoples, I kept coming back to one word.

Open.

Anna and Simeon were open.

Anna and Simeon were open to God.  To salvation.  To new ways of looking at faith and life.

Simeon and Anna were open to Jesus.  To redemption. To being part of God’s big story.

Anna and Simeon were open to the Spirit.  To God’s glory. To something out of the ordinary showing up.

Kind of like us on January 1st, where we look ahead to the new year with a sense of hope for the best, with openness to what the year will bring, wondering how we’re going to be part of God’s big story, pondering what salvation means for us and our world.

Okay, connecting the story of Anna and Simeon to New Years might be a bit of a stretch, but I keep coming back to the word Open, wondering if we’re open to God… wondering how we’re open to God’s salvation this year.

I’m going to offer three ways that I think we can make ourselves more open to God’s salvation, or something out of the ordinary showing up.   And all three of them involve us showing up.

Show up to PlacesMy first observation is that Anna and Simeon weren’t at home watching Hockey Night in Canada (I know that criticizing Canada’s second religion is dangerous, but I just want to be sure to name that while I like HNIC, realistically the only enlightenment we should expect from HNIC is how inconsistent the Jets are).   They showed up and met Jesus at the temple.  Especially Anna, who apparently never left the temple but worshiped day and night.  Which is pretty intense.

But to be open to God breaking into our world, to be open to seeing God in new ways, to be open to seeing a different aspect of God’s salvation, I’m going to venture to say that showing up to places is part of the journey.  I know I’m preaching to the choir as we’re the ones who are here on New Year’s Day, but when we live and work and play in different places, we are apt to have little less sense of control, and be a bit more open to the unexpected.

To quote Cheryl Strayed from the book and movie Wild, “There’s a sunrise and a sunset every day, and you can choose  to be there for it.   You can put yourself in the way of beauty.”

Show up to People – Secondly, Anna and Simeon showed up and were present to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, even though they were strangers.  They left their comfort zones, invested in the people around them, and were able to speak  words of hope and reality and truth.

Now, on the introvert/extrovert scale, I’m on the extreme end of extrovert, so talking to new people is as easy to me as tying my shoe.  But I know that’s not all of us.  But no matter where we find ourselves on that spectrum, we can still ask ourselves “How do we add value to those around us?”  So maybe part of us showing up and being present to the people around us means saying “Hi” to the person we don’t know sitting beside on Sundays.  Or maybe it means during coffee breaks at work to intentionally ask co-workers how they’re week was, and maybe even ask some follow up questions.  Or maybe it means sending a card to someone thanking them for something.  Are we open to adding value to people’s lives?

I that that when we’re open to the people around us, we might be a bit more open to the unexpected.

Show up to Prayer

Luke made sure to write down how righteous and devout and prayerful Anna and Simeon were… That they’re lives were filled with and shaped by their praying.

I came back from Sabbatical with a deeper appreciation for prayer, specifically contemplative prayer, and its necessity for some form of sanity in my life and in my faith and in our world.

I also came back from Sabbatical with a deeper appreciation for how hard contemplative prayer can, how it’s sometimes hard to understand, how hard it is to carve out time, how frustrating it can be.

When I say contemplative prayer, I simply mean prayer practices that include some sort of silence, stillness, or solitude.   Some people call it mediation, some people call it mindfulness. I like calling it contemplative prayer, because those of us who find ourselves in a faith tradition have been praying for thousands of years.   But contemplative prayer isn’t us praying to God asking for things, but rather us learning to wait, to listen, to ponder, and to let go as we seek union with God.

So I truly believe that if we want to be open to what God is doing in our lives, we need to carve our space and time for contemplative prayer.   When I was on sabbatical with almost nothing to do but change diapers and read books and build a canoe, I was amazed at how if I didn’t intentionally create time for contemplation, it simply didn’t happen.  At least when I go to church once a week I know that I’ll have some time to pray there, but when I didn’t go for 3 months… I would be lying to you if I said that praying was easy.

But the good news for us today is that I’m not just going to tell you to go and pray more. We’ve already done it!

We’ve already had some contemplative prayer time this morning through Lectio Divina, and we will be doing Lectio for the month of January.   And if you’re interested in praying at home, there are nice little prayer cards from the Gravity Center that we put out in the foyer for you to take home.

If we want to be open to God’s salvation and being a part of God’s reconciling work in this world, I am becoming more and more convinced that that showing up for prayer is a necessity.

And, some more good news for us this morning:  “A rule in contemplative prayer is that everyone who shows up gets an A+” (Ian Morgon Cron).  It’s like participation trophies for everyone!

If we want to be open to God’s salvation both for us and for the world, and do our best to love God and love our neighbours, then we should do our best to show up to places, show up to people, and show up to prayer.

Amen.