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.

Jail, Cosmopolitan Magazine, and Paw Patrol Stuffies

Traditionally, the third Sunday of Advent is called Joy Sunday, where we are supposed to rejoice in all things.

And the primary scripture passage used for this Sunday used by churches around the world is…

The_Beheading_Of_St_John_The_Baptist_sm.jpgJohn the Baptist in jail, right before King Herod orders his head on a platter.

Rejoice, right?

And to make it even worse, in this passage John the Baptist is questioning whether or not Jesus is the Messiah.  John the Baptist!  The baby who leapt in his mother’s womb when he met Jesus in Mary’s womb… The guy in the wilderness who preached about repentance and paving a way for the Lord… The guy who was unfit to until the sandals of Jesus!  And here is, doubting his entire life’s purpose.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jail, violence, and questioning one’s existence.

Rejoice, right?

Last week, we rea that John knew who Jesus was when he baptized him in the wilderness.  He knew that Jesus was the one.

Or at least he thought he was the one, because at this moment in his life, he appears that he was profoundly disappointed in Jesus.

It’s a theme that actually occurs over and over again the Bible… We want Jesus to be one thing, and instead, we get another.

In this case, Jesus’s response points us in that other direction.

When asked if he was the one that the Jewish people were waiting for, he answered:

“The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

When Jesus is asked if he is THE one, he points to the blind, the lame, the sick, and those without a lot of money.  He points to those on the outside.  He points to those without power.  He points to those whose lives are often hanging on by a thread.

You want to know if Jesus is the one we’re waiting for?  Don’t look over there… Look over here.  Don’t look for those whom the world calls winners. Don’t look for People of the Year.  Don’t look for Consumer Choice Awards or Year End Best of Lists. Don’t look to the covers of Cosmopolitan or GQ magazine.  Yes, all of them are beloved children of God.   But that’s not the direction that Jesus points to.

Look over here instead.  Look at the unwed pregnant teenagers giving birth behind the house. Look at families fleeing for their lives because of war.  Look at those of us who wonder where their next meal is going to come from.  Look at those of us are grieving.  Look at those of us whose lives are hanging on by thread.

If you want winners, look to politics and sports and magazine covers.  If you want Jesus, you have to look elsewhere.  And if this is tough, well, that’s why Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

Here’s the challenge for us today.

Often, we end up placing ourselves in the shoes of Jesus, especially at Christmas. We give extra, we volunteer more, we make toy mountains at malls and share more. All really good things.

For example, this year at mu daughter’s school, the students were invited to donate a stuffed animal for the kids at Steinbach Family Resource Center.  So I loaded up my kids in the van and off to the store we went, in an attempt to teach them that it is better to give than to receive, and that the point of life is to give back all that we have received. (Although when they picked a Paw Patrol animal and at the til I realize it was $15, all I could mutter to myself was “this is highway robbery.”)

We often cast it upon ourselves in the role of Jesus and spread Christmas cheer to the world.

I think the challenge for us isn’t to stop spreading Christmas cheer, because sweet mercy me we need people’s generosity and an extra dose of kindness every year, but rather the challenge is for us to see it as a first step.

I think the next step for us is to move from trying to “be” Jesus to others and start trying to “see” Jesus in others.

The movement is from “being” Jesus to “seeing” Jesus.

Jamie Arpin-Ricci, a pastor and author whose voice I listen to, considers the significance of this shift:

“If you encountered a homeless man and decided to act like Jesus toward Him, what might that look like?  Perhaps you would feed him, clothe him, affirm his dignity, and tell him that he is loved by God.  Without question this is beautiful and important.  However, consider it from the other side:  if you encountered a homeless man and decided to treat him in the same way you would treat Jesus, what might that look like?  How might your posture be different?  The contrast becomes clear.  [If we try to be Jesus], we are still more or less coming to the man with a posture of superiority, aren’t we?  The haves coming to help the have-nots, so to speak.  We are the savior.”

But when truly treating him like he is Jesus, everything would be reversed.  Suddenly, our approach to the homeless man is not as someone who is in need of what we have to offer, but this perspective recognizes that this person has as much to offer us as we do him, maybe even more.  It is in this way that we need the poor more than they need us. Or, more honestly, as we humbly relate to the poor, our own poverty is exposed.  Either way, in treating the homeless as Jesus, the transformation is mutual, not one-sided.  It is a beautiful twist, as we attempt to treat the other as though we are serving Christ.  When we see Jesus in the least and act accordingly, it is only then that we ourselves begin to be like Jesus in appropriate ways, becoming servants of all.”  Vulnerable Faith, p. 137-138

I love this movement from “being” Jesus to “seeing” Jesus, because while we can still spread Christmas cheer, it also allows ourselves to be open to some sort of transformation.

It’s Christmastime, and we’re already bombarded with lots of expectations and more than enough guilt, so I’m not going to tell you go and find a homeless man and see Christ in him (Although if you do, good job!).  I don’t want to add yet another thing to the list to overwhelm us at Christmas.

But what we will do this morning, is spend a minute in prayer thinking about all the people that we are going to see this Christmas, at work, at home, and family gatherings, and ask God to help us see Jesus in them.  Because if we can see Jesus in the people around us at Christmas, I’d say that’s a pretty good start to understanding the story of God coming to us as a baby in a manger.

Join with me in prayer:

Notice your breathing.

As your breath in, imagine breathing in all of the fullness and goodness of God.

As your breath out, quietly say to yourself, Lord Have Mercy.

Think about all the people in your life.

As they come to mind, imagine how God looks at them.

Ask God to help you see Jesus in them, and treat them as such.

Amen.

Locusts, Indiana Jones, and Elsa

The story of John the Baptist takes place 30 years after the birth of Jesus, and yet we read the story of him in the wilderness every year on the second Sunday of Advent.

Part of me is always frustrated that I have to try to make connections between the birth of Jesus and this wild man who eats locusts and preaches some pretty harsh words of judgment. jbaptistbaptizing2

But… the other part of me is thankful that I get to use this picture every year.

John the Baptist’s words are harsh, and for many of us, bring up these terrible memories or associations of angry preachers banging the pulpit threatening hell unless we get our acts together. Words of fire and ax and judgement and winnowing forks don’t always sit very well with us.

I’m with you on that.

This week via Facebook and a few in person conversations, and I asked people what words/phrases came to mind when they heard the words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near!”, and more than half of the responses I heard were about fear, judgement, a white-bearded male looking down the from the sky shaking his finger at us, the crusades, quite a “repent or burns”…indiana-jones

Although my favourite one was someone conjuring an image on Indiana Jones, trying to reach the Holy Grail, repeating, “Only the penitent man will pass…KNEEL!”  And then he stops Nazi Germany (or something like that).

But John the Baptist still did tell everyone he met that they should repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.

As I was pondering these words this week, I had an epiphany.

The gospel of Jesus is meant to be good news for everybody.  The angels bring the shepherds good news of great joy that will be for ALL people.  God coming and living among us through Jesus is supposed to be a good thing (thanks Captain Obvious).

But can we salvage the good news of Jesus from all the negative associations we have with the word “Repent!”

I’ll give it a whirl.

First of all, I think the word “near” means more like it’s in close proximity, not time, so we can say, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is close by!”  This moves the repentance in fear of a future moment to repentance in the present, one where we’re waiting for God to come, to one where God is already here.

Secondly, I like to define the word repent as this: To turn. To do a 180.   So John is telling his listeners, “Turn around, for the Kingdom of God is close by!”

That’s more palatable, isn’t it?  I think that’s a pretty good start.

And we usually associate the word “Repent” with “Stop Sinning!”, which is probably a good thing when we’re killing people and stealing their cars, but can get a little tedious when the preacher gets to decide what’s a sin and what isn’t, and gets to decide who’s sinning and who’s not (and usually it’s not the preacher).

So what I do with this text is think of repenting in terms of not only turning, but specifically of letting go.  Of us letting go of what we are clinging to tightly.  That with all the things that we’re holding tightly onto, we change direction, and let go of them.

One of the greatest myths of life in North America is that we can just keep adding things to our lives.  We can just add more peace and more harmony on top of watching sports on top of Christmas shopping on top of church on top of loving our neighbours.

I don’t think it’s true.  We can’t add without subtracting.  We can’t take on more unless we are willing to let go of something else. We can’t live in a world of more love, peace, joy and harmony unless we let go of all that which is hindering those things.

So then the phrase becomes, “Let go of what you are holding on to tightly, because the Kingdom of God is close by.”

Well, that’s certainly different. I kind of like it.

Let go of what’s holding you back from living into the good news of Jesus.

In my early years as a pastor, I spent a few weekends at St. Benedict’s Monastery hanging out with some nuns and spiritual directors, learning how to rest and how to pray, and every year the first question that was asked of us was this:

“What is God calling you to let go of?”

We can’t live in the Kingdom of God unless we are willing to let go of things.

Our selfishness, our pride, our indifference, the security we find in our wealth, the feelings we cling to when we think about how that person did us wrong yesterday, our own sense of rightness…

The idea of letting go runs a bit contrary to the belief that “I’m okay. You’re okay.”  It actually says, “No. We’re not all okay.  The world is not all okay. We’re all a part of this.  What do we need to let go of to live into God’s new way of living?”

John the Baptist said:  Repent, for Kingdom of God is near.

Today, we can say:  Let go of what you’re holding on to tightly, because it might be keeping you, it might be keeping us, from living the life that God wants for all of us.elsa

And if you have little children, Queen Elsa from Frozen says:  “Let It Go!”  (My 6 year old daughter asked if we would be singing this song today.  I replied, “Your mom told me a long time ago that it was best for everyone if I didn’t sing from the pulpit.”)

What is God calling you to let go of?

As usual, let’s light a candle and pray through that.

Open your hands like you are receiving a gift.

Notice your breathing.

Imagine God looking at you with kindness, tenderness, and love.

Ask the question: “God, what is it that you want me to let go of?”

If something comes to mind, ponder it.  Don’t be mad at it, don’t be embarrassed by it, simply ponder it.

And, when you’re ready, imagine holding it in your hand, and then letting it go.

Amen.

Good news.  The Kingdom of God is close by.  And my hunch is that if we turn around, God will be there waiting for us with open arms.

The word that best describes my sabbatical…

I wrote the following as a “report” on my sabbatical.


Regarding Rhythms:
Sabbath for Rest.
Retreats for Reflection.
Vacation for Recreation.
Sabbatical for Renewal.

As you by now know, I am back from a three month sabbatical.  I’ve been thinking for weeks and weeks as to how to best describe my time away, and I keep coming back to the same word, over and over again:  Gift. A gift.

The timing worked out well, and Milo was born my first week off of work.  Both Ash and I got to be with Milo for his first three months of life in a way that very few parents get to do.  That was a gift, and I am thankful.

During my sabbatical, it was reaffirmed to me that this church called Grace Mennonite is a gift… This community of people is a gift.  I know all of our warts and all the silly things we do, we’re not perfect, but let me tell you, there is no other place that I would be, no other place that I’d want to raise my kids, than here.

Ash and I were in Chicago in September for the both the Enneagram Conference and the Why Christian Conference, and one evening we were on the 94th story of the John Hancock Center doing the touristy thing, and one of you sent me a message.  You told me that tomorrow was Orange Shirt Day, a day we invited to wear orange to remember all the residential school survivors, and you told me that even though you didn’t own an orange shirt, you were going to put some orange flowers on your desk to tell the story.  With tears in my eyes in front of some European tourists taking selfies, I looked at Ashley and said: I love our church, and we get to be a part of this.

While we were away, my 4 year old nephew had to have open heart surgery to fix a hole in his heart.  We were told it was a fairly routine surgery, but when we stopped to think about it, it was terrifying.  We were able to shoot a quick email to a bunch of you to ask for prayers, and instantly we were reminded that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and that we do not walk alone.  My nephew’s surgery went well, and all your prayers were a gift.

When I was gone I didn’t give very much of my money away to charities… Just a couple bucks to some cancer walk here or a natural disaster fund there.  I wanted to reflect on what not giving money to church would feel like… It was kind of empty.  I was reminded that giving some of our money every month to church is far more than simply paying for the heating bill or Mel’s pension plan.  Giving money here is a one stop shop for a whole host of initiatives and community building.  Here we get to have conversations on poverty and reconciliation with First Nations and mental health, here we get to go to Pauingassi First Nation for family camp, here we get to walk with people as they grieve loved ones, here our children get to have extra grandparents in every corner of the church, here we get to sponsor schools around the world and support refugee families in town and help host Soup’s On and English classes and have a free thanksgiving dinner with 200 people. When we were in Chicago, I would be talking to strangers about our church, and I would explain who we are at Grace, and who we try to be, and they would look at me and say:  “You’re church sounds pretty awesome.  I want to come.”    I get to be here… You let me lead here… That is a gift.

When I was gone, I had some time to intentionally pray and reflect on this Christian faith that we find ourselves in.  One thing I read was that the role of religion is simply, to tell us, and to keep reminding us, of who we objectively are… That we are beloved recipients of God’s grace and peace, and we get to offer that to the world.  That is a gift.  We get to do that!

I could talk a lot longer about all of this… I think that when I got back to work last week I was like a fire hose… Poor Mel and Audrey.   If you want to hear more about all I did and learned, definitely be in touch.  And if you don’t, well, it’ll come out in my sermons for the next few years.

But back to the word that I keep coming back to…  Gift.  It reminds me of the definition I use for grace.  Grace is a gift, undeserved.

And I am grateful to be part of a church that has named itself grace. That is a gift.

PS – Plus, I built a canoe.  That is also a gift.

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