How to Train Your Dragon, Sabre-Tooth Tigers, and (Irrelevant?) Preaching Professors

Abraham almost sacrificing his son… What a great Fall Fellowship story!  Right?

We here at Grace are doing a 4 year plan to cover most of the Bible’s major stories, and we are currently in year 3.  Hence why we get stories of child sacrifice on the day that we give Bible’s to 3 year olds!

Ash and I have 3 children in our family, ages 6, 4 and 1.  And sometimes, when I reflect on what life was like before kids to now, I notice many changes, obviously, but there’s one change that was quite unexpected.

When I watch TV, or movies, or sometimes even commercials, I cry way more than I ever have.  More like, all the time.  Every time there’s any plot line involving kids or parents, I imagine myself or my kids in those roles, and I just start bawling.

how to train your dragon.pngFor example, the other day we were watching “How to Train Your Dragon”, and sure enough, Hiccup is in the middle of fighting this really, really big dragon, and I started crying.  My kids looked at me:  “Daddy, why are you crying?”  “Because, the dad just told his son how proud he is of him, and that he loves him, and I love you kids so much and I am so proud of you.”    But at this point they’ve already forgotten about me and my tears and are watching Hiccup and Toothless defeat the big Red Death dragon.  And Ashley is looking at me from the other side of the couch, and I’m not sure if she’s filled with love and admiration for her husband, or if she’s wondering what happened to the man she married 12 years ago.

So when I read this story in Genesis 22 about a Dad going on a 3 day journey )to sacrifice his kid because God told him told, oh my goodness, what a horrible story.  I mean, what kind of dad is Abraham?  Tying your kid up and reaching for your knife?  Because God told you to?

And it’s even summarized as a “test”.  That Abraham passed the test with flying colours.

What kind of sick God puts people through tests like this?

If I believed God told me to kill my kid, I would not do it.  And neither should you.  Think of the trauma we’d inflict on our children, and ourselves.

What kind of God would tell you to kill your child? 

Well, as we hopefully know by now, what’s the first question we should ask when reading some of these strange Bible stories?

Why was this story written down?

When we look at this story through our 21st Century eyes, we are rightfully horrified.  But notice how Abraham didn’t put up fight?  He didn’t protest against God?  Because sacrificing your children to the gods was something that was normal and expected all those years ago.  It was just what you did.  No big deal.

I heard it explained years to me when I spent a weekend with Rob Bell and Richard Rohr, and I’ve said it here once before, but I found it so profound, I’m quite alright saying it again.

Very quickly in our development as humans, we discovered that our very survival depended on the whims of nature.  Too much rain, we die.  Too little rain, we die.  We meet at sabre-tooth tiger in the forest?  We die.

And so we ended up giving offerings and sacrifices to the gods in the hopes of us getting the right amount of rain, sun, and to limit the sabre-tooth tiger encounters.

If our harvests are bad, or a sabre-tooth tiger attacks our cousin, it might be because we didn’t offer enough food and sacrifices.  The gods might be angry!  So next time, we offer more.

If our harvests are great, and we don’t have to send anyone to the hospital because of sabre-tooth tiger attacks, great!  Our offerings and sacrifices worked!  The gods are not angry!  So next time, we offer a little more, just to be on the safe side… you know, to stave off the wooly mammoth attacks as well.

It’s a never ending cycle of us offering sacrifice to the gods, of us not knowing where we stand with the gods, of us living in constant anxiety that the gods are angry with us, and so we kick up offerings.  From fruit to bread to chickens to goats to cows to our income tax refunds and eventually, what’s the most important thing we can sacrifice?  Our children.  That’ll make the gods happy.  We can’t offer anything more.

This is Abraham’s world.  God says to go sacrifice your children. Sure. That’s what we do.

But this story ends differently, doesn’t it.  It doesn’t end with Abraham killing his son.  It ends with God providing.

So if we ask the question, what kind of God would tell someone to kill their children?

The answer here, is, not this God.

This God is about something different. This is a story about a God who provides.  This is a story about us ending the never ending anxiety of wondering if we’re doing enough to make God happy.

But this story in Genesis is just the beginning of humans understanding this new type of God.   There’s still the sacrificial system, and then Jesus.  But this story is the beginning of a trajectory.


With Mel gone on Sabbatical, I can tell a Mel story (I do miss him, though).

We have our staff meetings on Tuesday mornings, and after talking about the latest sports news from the weekend (like how the Bombers beat the Riders at the Banjo Bowl), he usually brings a question to the meetings.  In the past, they’ve been like, “What do we learn more from, success or failure?” or “I was reading Thomas Merton personal journal this morning, and he suggests that every time we’re insulted or angry that’s just our ego defending itself. What do you think?”  Or something else deep and profound like that.

But with him gone, I’ve been making the staff meeting agendas.  And when we get together it starts like this “Well, I changed two dirty diapers this morning, one of the kids made it to daycare without any shoes, the baby ate some unknown food off the floor, but we made it to the bus on time, so that’s something.”

Regardless of the seasons of life we find ourselves in, the full or not so full, the beautiful or the not so beautiful, the busy or not so busy, I am grateful for a God who provides.  A God who is not angry. A God who puts us on a better trajectory.

And I am grateful for a church community that gathers and doesn’t heap guilt on each other for not offering enough.  A community we can come to who will try to love each other and the world, even when we feel inadequate or that we’re not doing enough, or that we haven’t read Genesis 22 since we were children, or that we’re in spaces where find it hard to pray and trust and believe.   A church community that knows we’re in this thing called life together.


The last time I preached on this story of Abraham and Isaac, it was for my preaching class in university.  (I remember that class quite well because I didn’t read the textbook, got an email from the prof telling me that if I skipped one more class I’d be kicked out, and I STILL managed to pass the class!)

When I was preaching on this text, we were graded on both delivery and content.  And I remember my prof, who was an Old Testament buff, said to me, “Kyle, you failed to mention that some scholars think that the mountain Abraham climbs with Isaac is the same place that Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well in the gospel of John.”  I remember my outside self, nodding and saying “Yeah, okay.”  And my inside self was screaming, “YOU ONLY GAVE ME 10 MINUTES TO PREACH, AND AIN’T NOBODY BUT OLD TESTAMENT PROFESSORS GOT TIME FOR THAT!”

Well, some years later, I think, maybe, I might have been wrong.

As Anabaptist Christians, we read Scripture through the lens and words and actions of Jesus. At the center of our Bibles is Jesus, and getting to know Jesus is how we best know God, and so if that mountain is the same place that Jesus talked to Samaritan woman at the well, then, this gets kind of fun.

Because at that well, Jesus points the Samaritan woman in a new direction.  He says to her, “You worship God, but there’s one or two things I think you’re inaccurate about.  I’m just going to reorient you a little bit, and once turned, you’ll see me.”  – John 4:21-26 (my very loose paraphrase)

So Abraham is worshipping God, and God reorients him to not kill his kid.  And the Samaritan woman is worshipping God, and Jesus reorients her to focus on Jesus.


I now think that the story of Abraham and Isaac is a great story for Fall Fellowship, a Sunday when we symbolically kick off our fall.

It’s a story that reminds us that we are enough.  That God does not have unrealistic expectations of us.

And it’s a story of a God who is always pointing us in new directions, always reorienting us to look at the way of Jesus.  To quote one of my favourite singers,

“The heart of God has been revealed… to bring love and not hate, to pour out and not dominate, to forgive and not blame, to make whole and not shame.”  – Alana Levandoski

Maybe this is a great story for Fall Fellowship because it’s a reminder that when we put our trust in God, we open ourselves up to seeing God provide for us. That when we do our best to be faithful to God, however that looks… when we sacrifice a morning of sleeping in to come to church, when we teach little children or meet new people at a potluck (which I know is tough for a lot of people), when we give money to help a family from Syria make a home in Steinbach or make sandwiches for local school kids or sing at nursing homes, or say all sorts of prayers for all sorts of people… I think that in all the different ways that we show up, they’re all little acts of faithfulness… they’re acts of trust in God.  And this story is a good reminder that if we trust in God, God will provide.

Grace and Peace.

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A bunch of evangelical Christians wrote a statement about lgbtq folk (seriously… again?). I have a question.

I’ll be quick.

Earlier this week, a bunch of Christians got together and wrote a document called the Nashville Statement. Basically, it’s one long document about biblical interpretation and same-sex marriage and lgbt inclusion in the church.  Or rather, how those things shouldn’t be in the church.  Most of the prominent names on it aren’t a surprise to most of us in churchy world.

Besides being a document that is quite harmful to lgbt individuals, and besides reinforcing the notion that lgbt individuals and their supporters aren’t welcome in church as they are (they are in some of our churches!), I have another question.

Why in the world would anybody look to these folk for guidance on biblical interpretation or morality?  Many of the names attached to the Nashville Statement are names that have supported Donald Trump as president.  If they can support an unrepentant liar (517 false statements, as of mid-August) who advocates the sexual assault of women, appears on the cover of Playboy magazine, and speaks the language of white supremacists (this list could go on and on and on and on), what moral authority do they still have?  What integrity do they have left?

Why should I pay attention to the apparent speck in my own eye (or that of my queer sisters and brothers) when they have a gigantic maple tree in theirs?

As wise Richard Rohr said a year ago, “The evangelical support of Trump will be an indictment against it as a Christian movement for generations to come.

For much better statements, check out the Denver Statement or the Liturgists Statement   (I put my name on the Liturgists Statement.  You can too!).

And to my lgbt friends:  You are loved as you are.  You are beloved.

Grace and Peace,

Kyle

PS –  And James Dobson is the biggest hypocrite of them all here. Which is too bad, because I love Adventures in Odyssey. He wrote a letter about Bill Clinton in the 90s and said, among other things, “As it turns out, character DOES matter. You can’t run a family, let alone a country, without it. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! Nevertheless, our people continue to say that the President is doing a good job even if they don’t respect him personally. Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible. In the Book of James the question is posed, “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring” (James 3:11 NIV). The answer is no”).

 

Can I Punch A Nazi?

On my vacation, I spent 3 weeks not on Facebook or Twitter, and it was glorious.  Just great.  I chose to read the Harry Potter books, so my mind has been filled Quidditch and Hogwarts and teenagers yelling “Stupefy” more than any other news source.  Which has also been simply delightful.

But as I was coming back to work this week, I started to pay a bit more attention to the news on the weekend. And I saw something about a Nazi/KKK/white supremacist rally in the States as they protested a city taking down a Confederate statue, and someone driving a car into a crowd of counter-protesters.  And then I logged into Facebook and Twitter, and I said, “Oh… I need to pay attention to this.”

I know a lot of words have been said about this, but I will do my best to tailor this to us here at Grace (if you’re reading this and don’t know me, I’m the associate pastor at Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach, Manitoba).

And, I’ll start by building on Mel’s words from 2 weeks ago on Ephesians 6.  He talked about the belt of truth, and how us speaking the truth is more than us not telling lies, but us being aware of and naming the realities in front of us.

I can start by naming some of the truth of race and skin colour in my own life.

I am white.  I am half-Mennonite, with that side of my family coming from Russia to Steinbach in the late 1800’s.  I am half-French, with that side of my family coming to Canada from France to fight the English in the mid-1700’s (we should really screen those violent immigrants a bit better, eh?).

Most of my family is white.  Most my friends are white.  My ultimate team and curling teams are all white, and most of us here at Grace Mennonite Church are white.

I can name that.  My world is pretty white.  Naming reality is part of what it means to wear the belt of truth.

I’m also going to share with you some of the stories and experiences I have with skin colour, racism, and me being white.

Truth #1 – Harvard Implicit Association Test

Years ago, Phil Campbell-Enns, the Associate Pastor here before me, told us about the Harvard Implicit Association test.  It’s an online test that measures how quickly you associate positive or negative words while looking at faces of different skin colours.  And it turns, I have a slight preference for white people.   Yes. Your pastor prefers white people over black people.  I’m a bit of a racist.

Now, that sounds terrible, right?  I like to think I’m not racist and that I treat everyone the same, and I have family and friends and people in my church who aren’t white that I love with all my heart… But for whatever, whether it was who I grew up where, or where I grew up, or where I live, or the skin colour of my family, what this test means is that unconsciously, I prefer white people.

Now, by myself, that might not make a difference.  But what happens if there are 100 of us here in this building who all have an slight unconscious preference for white people?  What happens if 10,000 of us in Steinbach?  15 million of us in Canada?

Me knowing that I have a slight, unconscious preference for white people is a really important truth to name.  And it helps me dismiss any notions that racism isn’t alive and well.  It helps me remember that just because I’m not carrying a torch yelling things, it doesn’t mean I’m not part of the problem (or the solution).  It helps me repent of the racism both in our society and in ourselves.

Truth #2 – White Privilege

In my late teen years, I spent a year with MCC’s Serving and Learning Together program in Zimbabwe.  When we were in Akron, Pennsylvania for our training, MCC brought in their anti-racism staff.  And they showed us a video.

They took a white man and a black man, both who had similar education, similar job experience, similar family statuses, lived in the same neighbourhood.  They sent them separately to do 3 ordinary tasks: Buy a car, buy some insurance, and rent an apartment.  And of course they followed them with a hidden camera (which, back in the day, would have been a suitcase with a hole cut into it for the lens).

They went to the same car salesman, and he was going to sell the car to the white man for several hundred dollars cheaper than the black man.

They went to insurance agent, and it was the same deal. The exact same insurance was going to cost them different amounts.

The black man tried renting an apartment, and he was told there were no vacancies.  The white man walked in immediately after, and was offered an apartment.

Now, in all of these situations, if there wasn’t a hidden camera, THE WHITE MAN WOULD NOT HAVE KNOWN THAT WE HAS BEING TREATED BETTER THAN THE BLACK MAN!

We were taught that is called white privilege.

White privilege is the idea that a white person will receive benefits in society that other skin colour will not.

3 examples of white privilege in my own life.

  1. When my non-white friend and I were teenagers, and we split up in a store, whom do you think the staff people followed?
  2. When I was working landscaping in Winnipeg, my boss was… not the greatest. We were working on a house that belonged to an East Indian family, and he told us that he quoted them $1000 more than he would have if they were white.  The family didn’t know they were charged more, or the white family we went to next didn’t know they were getting charged less, but there was a definite price difference.
  3. And thirdly, one of my friends was flying from Toronto to Philadelphia, and the customs folk ended up taking her to a different room for extra questioning. As she was waiting in the side room for her turn to be questioned, one of the security guards look at her and asked, “What are you doing here?  You’re white!”  And she looked around, and sure enough, she was the only white person in the room.

White privilege is real.  It’s not something that most of us white want to receive intentionally, or something that we expect, or something that we want, but it is real.  And that’s the truth.

Truth #3 – “Where are you?”

Last year on my Sabbatical, Ashley and I went to a conference called Why Christian, and it featured, women, people of colour, and LGBTQ speakers, and they were all trying to address the question of why they were still Christian when the church had long given them reason to leave.   As it was in Chicago, they invited a few African American women from Chicago to speak, and let me tell you, they dragged us pre-dominantly white folk into black church with them for the weekend.

And one of the questions that was asked was:  “White Christians, where are you?”  She said, “Sisters and Brothers, we are literally dying because of racism.  We have been for hundreds of years, and we still are.  Slavery.  Lynching.  Jim Crow laws.  The Civil Rights movement.  Black Lives Matter.  The industrial-prison complex.  Our people are literally dying because of racism.  Where are you, our brothers and sisters?  I know what we’re talking about in our churches.  What are you talking about in your churches?”  And then she walked up and down the aisles of the church calling out all the name of the unarmed black men who had been shot by the police that year.

If we begin to understand that:

1)  Many of us have unconscious biases towards our own skin colour, 2)  What white privilege is, and 3)  That some of our sisters and brothers are asking, “Where are you?  We are dying.” Then I think that’s a pretty good start in naming some of the truth of racism.

So let’s try to bring this to us here at Grace this morning.

When Paul is talking to the church in Ephesus about the armor of God, he says that “our struggle isn’t against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm.”

Our struggle isn’t against flesh and blood, but against the dark powers and spiritual forces of evil.

I’ve been sitting with this phrase this week.

What does it mean when our struggle isn’t against flesh and blood, but against dark power and evil?

Well, on one hand, it can be really easy.  We can name racism as evil, as a dark power, as contrary to God’s will, and how discriminating against someone because of their skin colour is not something followers of Jesus do.  We can name this, we can preach this, we can teach our children this.  Racism is evil.

We can acknowledge how sometimes we makes mistakes, that we’re part of big systems and histories that have benefited white people for year. We can acknowledge how we might unconsciously prefer people of our own skin colour.  We can name these and repent of them and do our best to work for equality.

We can also name nationalism as a dark power, as evil idolatry.   Any thought, conversation, Facebook page or meme that says “Canada first” or “America first” is idolatrous to us Christians.  We seek the Kingdom of God first.  God is for everybody, not just some of us. Not Canada first, not white people first, but for everybody.  And that means that we can like Canada, but our country is NOT first, because if it’s put our country first, then we have made our country into an idol.

We can do these things.  We can name racism and nationalism as dark powers and as evil.  We can name them over and over again and repent where we fail and work hard at this.

But what does it mean that our struggle isn’t against flesh and blood when we see people carrying torches and nazi flags?

White-Nationalist-Rally-Charlottesville

Can we punch them?  Can we punch a Nazi?

When some of the things that we have named as evil, as idolatrous, are being promoted, lived out, and acted upon by flesh and blood, what do we do?  We know we’re probably not supposed to kill them, but can we at least punch them so they can’t spread their hate as easily?

Well, if we’re into punching Nazis and white supremacists, I think we risk becoming what we hate.  Can you condemn violence with violence?  We don’t want to fuel their violent rhetoric, or give them a reason to think their violence is justified.

And when we read about the armor of God in Ephesians 6, about struggling against evil, we notice that almost all the pieces of armor Paul names are actually defensive – shield, breastplate, shoes, belt, and helmet.  The only one that’s offensive is the sword, which Paul says is the word of God.  And as Anabaptist Christians we believe the word of God made flesh is Jesus.

And then Paul reminds his readers that in all occasions, they should pray.  For everything.   With all kinds of requests.  And from there it’s not a big step to connect praying for everything and remembering Jesus’s words on praying for our enemies.

I’ve been pondering what prayer and enemy love looks like this week in the face of Nazis and the KKK.  It’s a probably a similar question that people were asking in the Civil Rights movement. It’s a probably a question many of our older folk here were asking during World War 2.  What does enemy love look like when dealing with flesh and blood people who are advocating and spreading evil and hatred?

There is no easy one answer, here, obviously.  We’re not going to solve racial violence or discrimination or hatred in an hour of church in August (although one good Facebook post just might do it :).

But I’m going to offer a few ways forward, and quite specifically for us at Grace.

In the face of such overt threats and violence against minorities, like we saw last weekend, maybe it’s not the immediate responsibility for minorities to love their enemies.  Maybe their immediate responsibility is to survive.   I hope we can all be open to what reconciliation looks like in the long term, but if the KKK are chanting “Death to Jews”, I think survival becomes a first response for African Americans and Jewish folks.

But what about those of us who are white and Christian?  Men?  Those of us who aren’t the direct targets of hate?

Maybe one of our immediate responsibilities is to pray for our enemies.

And long term, I wonder – Can we love the Nazi out of people?  Can we love the racism out of them?  Can we create communities and relationships that don’t further ostracize and marginalize angry men?  Can we create communities where they can come home?

To expect an African American to create a redemptive relationship with the KKK is unfair and dangerous.  But engaging racists is something we can do, isn’t it? (And if we don’t know any KKK members, I’m sure we can find someone in our circle of influence who is unaware of the Harvard Implicit Association test and white privilege).

Can we create off-ramps so people can leave the high way of racism and violence?  Places where we can love the Nazi out of them?   (Thanks Hilary Watson from www.gatheringthestones.com for this, and everything else you write).

Can we offer Nazis something other than punches?  What does it look like to offer hospitality towards those whom believe things that we despise?

I’ll end with a story, and then, our course, prayer.  (On a side note, I told someone that my sermon title was “Can I punch a Nazi?”, and they responded “You’re gonna make us pray for them, aren’t you?”  Yes.  Yes I will.)

10 years ago, I was talking to an older man who was born in Germany.  I asked when he moved to Canada, and he said after World War 2.  I said, “Wow, you were in Germany during World War 2?  Tell me about that.”

He said,

“Kyle, I was a teenager then.  I was in Hitler’s youth brigade.  I loved Hitler.  We all did.  Even after the war, we all still loved Hitler.  And then I met my wife and moved to Canada, and Kyle, let me tell you, I still loved Hitler.  For years.  I couldn’t say anything publically, but I thought Nazi Germany was great.”

23-year old Kyle sat in silence for a while.  That doesn’t happen too often.

I finally asked:  “So what made you change?”

He smiled.   “God.  My wife.  My church.  Love.”


Below is a prayer I learned from Richard Rohr that helps us find ways to pray for people we struggle with.

I’d invite you to sit a comfortable position and put your hands out like you are receiving a gift.

As you close your eyes, take a few breaths. Notice your breathing.

Begin by finding the place of loving kindness inside your heart, the place where God’s love and affirmation for you is as real as it can be.

Drawing upon this source of love, bring to mind someone you deeply care about, and send loving kindness toward them.

Now direct this love toward a casual friend or colleague, someone just beyond your inner circle.

Continue drawing from your inner source of loving kindness and let it flow toward someone about whom you feel neutral or indifferent, a stranger.

Remember someone who has hurt you or someone you struggle to like. Bless them. Send them your love.

Gather all these people and yourself into the stream of love and hold them here for a few moments.

Finally, let the flow of loving kindness widen to encompass all beings in the universe.  Imagine God’s love reaching into every corner and crevice of the universe.

Amen

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.