Tag Archives: faith

Following Jesus in a Stranger Danger World


Today at church we read from Matthew 2 about Jesus calling the tax collector named Levi son of Alphaeus. I actually went to the first and second service today, so I heard this twice. On second reading, I got thinking about doing a children’s story on the reading.

First, I thought I might just go up to the kids in the pews with their parents and say, Follow me.” In my own church, this wouldn’t help to make my point about how amazing it was that he did follow Jesus because the kids all know me and likely would be quick to follow me. They might stop at the door if I tried to lead them out or off the property.

My next thought was to suggest a number of scenarios with a stranger asking them to follow. Maybe a person coming up to them at the park, or at school. I might describe them as dressed in different types of things, black masked with dark clothes, a person all dressed up, a person in jeans and at shirt. Though they may be more inclined to go with someone in a police or fire department uniform, I realized that, perhaps more than ever, the kids would likely say no to anybody new who suggested they leave what they are doing and go along with them.

But in both Mark 1 and 2 there are stories of Jesus walking past people and just calling them to follow him…and they did! Fishermen followed, leaving their nets, boats, and families with seemingly not a second thought. Perhaps this seems less likely with a busy tax collector, both because of his activity, and because he would have be considered persona-non-gratis amongst the Jews of the time. Did he not wonder, “Can he be talking to me? I am a great sinner!”?

Jesus is still out there calling us to him, children and adults alike. The question that comes to my mind is, in such a troubled world in which we see daily footage of violence, kidnappings, and accidents, is it even less likely that we would pick up and follow without question? As a Christian, I would like to think that I would hop right up, but then maybe not.

Have you followed? What made you follow? Did you keep following? Do you think people would be likely to follow you to God?

Nightmares and Praises


I recently had a horrible dream. It was the night before a new treatment started and over a series of very odd events in which scenes were short, intense, and highly charged. In very quick succession I experienced paralyzingly fear, violent rage, crushing grief, and generally amounts of confusion. And then the strangest thing happened.

In the final part of the dream, there were dozens of people in hospital gowns awaiting radiation treatment. With each patient there were one or two family members or friends. Then we were in some sort of assembly. I was by myself, barely aware of what was happening as I was totally depleted and hopeless. And then one man began to sing a song of worship.

As the song began I wasn’t really aware of it, and the crowd began to join in. Then I found myself quietly joining in with a harmony line. As we sang I felt my spirit return, lifting me back up, and calming my emotional wounds. The worship reached a huge climax with the same man leading.

In the silence, I began to sing a simple prayer of hope. The very act of the worship had led me back to hope.


I often have very vivid memories of my dreams, and this day was no exception. The events and images from the first part of the dream continued over the next couple days, and yet as much as they were disturbing to me, the hope remained. This can be the power of worship and prayer in our real lives as well, and for that I am profoundly grateful to God!

The longest Psalm/ mindless repetition?


3631902258_3fab33242d_mI follow a reading plan through which, in 365 days, one reads the whole Bible. Most days there are 2-6 chapters to read each day. One day in June I came to a day that had only 1 chapter to read. Twelve columns later I had read the entire 119th Psalm in one sitting. The next day I looked for more information on the Psalm and read that it was intended to be read, like a devotional book in our day, rather than sung or recited. I continued thinking about this, the longest psalm, for days, weeks. I started thinking about the fact that we only ever encounter short sections of 119 in the lectionary cycle, and wondered how to include it all in one, or a series of services. So here we are!

This Psalm is different from other Psalms, not only because of its length, but because it was most likely written out rather than developed orally, and its focus is not on God’s acts and his rule over the world, but rather on his word or the Torah. This Psalm is a highly structured piece of poetry. There are 176 verses, 22 strophes or stanzas, each of which could stand alone with no problem!  The whole thing is an acrostic with each section beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I bet we have all been asked to write an acrostic poem at some point in our school years. “Write your name down a page and then have each line start with that letter.”

Every line of this poem has essentially the same message. How many of you have heard, or said, “You call that music!?! They just keep saying the same words over and over!” Much as people may complain over hearing the same thing over and over again, repetition is not always a bad thing. Think of music.  Composers work hard to keep a balance between repetitions, essential in order to hold the piece together as a single unit, and contrast to give variety. The first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is based entirely on one short rhythmic pattern and one interval; three eight notes and a half note, and a descending major third. It holds together so well, in fact, that even people with little or no music training could respond to the first pattern with the next.

With all 176 verses saying basically the same thing, the repetition is well in hand.  So where does the psalmist provide variety? First with vocabulary. In the Hebrew there are eight central words (seven when translated to English) used throughout the Psalm to give subtle tweak to the meaning of the one word, Torah, which could have been used in all cases. There are two different Hebrew words that translate as word, and then law, judgments, testimonies, commandments, statutes, and precepts. Rather than tell of God’s mighty acts, these highlight two aspects of God’s word, his directives for our lives, and his promises to us.

Second, variety comes from the form of each statement. Within this one Psalm you can find examples of all the types of Psalms; individual prayers for help, “94 I am yours; save me, for I have sought your precepts,” petitions, “116 Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope,” expressions of ones troubles, “95 The wicked lie in wait to destroy me, but I consider your decrees,” assertions of trust, “103 How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” and vows of praise, “175 Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me.

            In the Interpretation Series book Psalms, James L. Mays lists four key points about the psalmist’s single-minded focus on God’s word. The first is that “God’s instruction is important because it is God’s.” This is a fairly simple statement. Having already read all the other Psalms which talk of God’s power in creation, in redeeming his people time and again, and in his rule over all the nations, readers of this Psalm should be ready to consider God’s word first in everything. The fact that he had to continually redeem his people is testimony to the fact that people did not, in fact, put it first but got caught up in the words of man, in the statutes put in place by human rulers and the tempting statements of believers in other gods. The Psalmist knows well that God’s word is most important, and yet throughout 119 we read that even he struggled with this. Pick a random verse after verse 8 from this Psalm and find the word used for Torah. What word goes with it? These nouns are always prefaced with the word, “his,” or “your” in order to maintain the readers focus on God. In the introduction and conclusion sections it says things like, “the law of the Lord,” or, “his statutes.” He never said our laws, or the laws, or the commandments.

May’s second point is that “The word of God requires obedience and faith and does not accept legalism.” Obedience is not a strong suit for many of us, and we know that we will fail in being completely obedient, but God’s word calls us to obey anyway. With respect to legalism, it is all too easy to lose focus on God himself and start watching out for any little infraction to his law in order to judge and punish the person responsible. This became so prevalent that perhaps it is why, long after this Psalm was written, Jesus simplified things into the New Commandment, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34). Only God is to judge.

The third point is that, “God’s word is given but never possessed; we need to seek and study constantly and pray for teaching and learning.” So we read the Bible, at least in worship, and before we do so we ask that he reveal his message to us, that he use the word to teach us and that he help us to learn. I think of a part of Tevye’s song from Fiddler on the Roof, “If I were a rich man…If I were rich I’d have the time that I lack to shit in the synagogue and pray. Maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall. And I’d discuss the Holy books with the learned men seven hours every day. That would be the sweetest thing of all!” The usual connotation of the word rules would be of limits on freedom and on punishment. But, like Tevye, the writer of Psalm 119 clearly did not see the Torah as an onerous duty, but as a source of delight.

92 If your law had not been my delight,
I would have perished in my misery.
93 I will never forget your precepts,
for by them you have given me life. 

May’s fourth point is that, “The word comes from God, but must become a part of us, it requires a conversion of the heart.” This Psalm itself is an example to us of what that means. “The author had a theme that filled his soul, a theme as big as life, which ranged the length and breadth and height and depth of a person’s walk with God.”(John H. Stek) And so his Psalm is not some arbitrary exercise in acrostic poetry but a pouring out of his heart. It is not a lifeless, repetitive annoyingly long reading, unless we make it so.

By the end of the service today we will have heard, read, or sung, not quite the whole Psalm, but at least a part of every strophe. Remember that God’s word is important, that much is required of us, that we need to study and reflect on it, and that we need to allow it to seep in and become embedded in our hearts, a part of us.

 

Abingdon Press.,. New Interpreter’s Study Bible-NRSV. Abingdon Press, 2003. Print.

Barker, Kenneth L and Donald W Burdick. The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1995. Print.

Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994. Print.

 

Grace; how do we get it?


checklistIn case you have not read the last two posts, we have been talking about grace.  The first week we defined grace as the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God which means that, “God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love” (Yancey). And last week we focused on the issue of whom this grace is for.  Our answer from Colossians was that “God wanted everyone, not just Jews, to know this rich and glorious secret inside and out, regardless of their background, regardless of their religious standing…”

 For today, we change our focus again and look at the issue of what we need to do in order to receive God’s grace for ourselves. Today’s quick answer is, say yes, thank you! “In his article entitled Opening Ourselves to Grace: The Basics of Christian Discipleship, Steven W. Manskar said,

 “This life (of Christian discipleship) begins with forgiveness of our sins. When we acknowledge who we are (sinners in need of forgiveness), we can begin living into the lives God desires for us as his beloved children.  With forgiveness comes freedom – from sin and death – so that we can love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love those whom God loves; as God loves them, in Christ.  All this is God’s gift to the world – grace.”

 As we hear in that description, before we can receive forgiveness of our sins we need to admit that we are sinners in the first place.  This is why our service of worship always includes a confession of sins.  If we feel that we are justified in all our acts without God then we will not need grace at all. This admission of our sinful nature is also a part of the summary of Louis B. Weeks’ chapter on following Jesus in his 1941 publication To Be a Presbyterian, 

“In the sequence of trying to follow Jesus we are first enabled to repent, to recognize the sinfulness in which we exist and call upon God for forgiveness. We are then permitted to sense that God does not count our sin against us, because Christ intercedes for us.  Then we experience the falling away of sin, the restoring of our relationship as children of God.  Finally, we move in the process of following Jesus.”

Having accepted that we are in need of forgiveness, we move on to receiving the gift.  First, as a gift that is offered freely and without price, it must be received and accepted as a gift.  As our Gospel reading says today, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Think for a moment about the last time someone gave you a compliment. Maybe they thought you looked good, your clothes were nice, or your work was well done. How did you feel? Happy or proud right? Or maybe you felt awkward or undeserving. Does this sound familiar to anyone? “That is an awesome shirt!” “Oh, I’ve had it for ages.” or “I got it from a bag of things my friend was getting rid of.” Somehow in our society we have come to think that accepting a compliment with a simple thank you is somehow prideful, and pride must be avoided. If we have this much trouble with a simple compliment imagine the challenge in accepting that all the things of which we are most ashamed in our lives have been erased with no penalty.

 Some theologians say that if we are seeking God, it is only because God has planted in us the desire to seek him, and that it is God rather than man who seeks relationship.  God is looking for us, desires a relationship with us, and has grace waiting for us when we are ready to accept it, all we really need to do is ask, or knock and then stay on the step expecting the door to open.  When you ask for something, as I tell my kids all the time, you need to be prepared to accept the answer whether it is positive or negative. In this case you ask in faith knowing that the answer will be yes.  I think that when we ask for grace, in this context, what we are really asking for is God’s help with accepting the gift.

The reformed tradition of Luther and Calvin teaches us that justification, being made right with God through forgiving grace, is received through faith alone, that we do not need to make ourselves good enough through doing the correct number of good deeds in order to receive God’s forgiveness. In fact, none of us are capable of making ourselves good enough for God. Remember that grace is freely given and unmerited.  In our humanity and in this world of corruption and greed, it is difficult for us to accept that anything is freely offered, that there are no strings attached. 

 “Congratulations, you have won a free trip to the Caribean…”

The idea that anyone, even God, can love us despite our sins and flaws seems ludicrous and then adding that there is nothing in it for them is just more than we can fathom.  We have so much trouble forgiving ourselves and those who slight us in any way that it may be beyond our imaginations that God would forgive even the direst of sins.

Manskar points out that, “we are not always faithful, patient, or available to God.  God provided us with the means of grace, gifts given to help us make time and space for God in our lives.”  One of these means is in prayer, both private and public.  Through prayer we can ask for help with accepting grace.  Where faith is the only requirement for justification, we can follow the example of the father of an epileptic boy in need of healing who said, “”I believe; help my unbelief!”  We might pray the words of our call to worship from this morning, “May we drink deeply, and receive your grace. May we stand in trust, and receive your strength. May we open our hearts, and receive your healing love.” In public and in private we can not go wrong by praying the way Jesus taught in today’s reading from Luke.

 Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

For we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

 The bottom line today is that there is nothing we can do to receive grace for ourselves except for making ourselves open to that forgiveness, and trusting that it will come.  Our real struggle will be with our human nature and our inclination to doubt.  For help with that we have but to ask. In the words of John Wesley;

“O that we mayst all receive of Christ’s fullness, grace upon grace;

Grace to pardon our sins, and subdue our iniquities;

To justify our persons and to sanctify our souls;

And to complete that holy change, that renewal of our hearts,

Whereby we may be transformed

Into that blessed image wherein thou didst create us.”


S2856293801_b4fd8f405chepherds and Sheep

Our texts today refer to the relationship of sheep and their shepherds.  In Psalm 23 we read perhaps the ultimate statement of individual intimacy with God and the comfort and protection offered by the divine shepherd.  While it refers to troubles and the valley of death, it is more about God-centered living than about death. And in Mark, as in Matthew and Luke, we see God the Son as the compassionate shepherd who, even though he had been trying to avoid the crowds, could not turn his back on the people but taught them and healed them.

Let’s look at this image from both sides.  There are sheep…and there are shepherds.

Sheep are simple animals who spend their days grazing on grass and growing long coats of hair which are later sheared off.  Used for their wool, their milk, their hide, and their meat; they are of great value to their owners.  Sheep have a strong flocking instinct finding the greatest safety in the center of the flock.  Having no means of defence other than running away, sheep are easily startled, and when frightened don’t really pay attention to where they are going,  getting easily caught in brambles or finding themselves separated from the group. Lost sheep have a much lower chance of survival and need to be returned to the herd quickly.

Are we like sheep?  In our readings today the sheep in the texts were metaphors for the people of God.  In Psalm 23 we are grateful sheep, given rest and comfort and assured of the continued presence and guidance of the greatest shepherd.  In Mark we are the crowd, or the flock, seeking Jesus and his presence, teaching and healing.

Shepherds make their living by tending to the sheep.  They are responsible for making sure that the sheep are well fed, kept safe from predators, that ewes give birth safely, and making sure that none of the sheep get lost or stolen.  Shepherds live with the stock, they do not just put them in pens and go into nice cozy houses for the nights.  It is lonely work with no vacation days and certainly no storm days.  For these people, the sheep come first, they are their primary concern.  Think about the human shepherds in the Bible.  Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and King David all worked as shepherds of real sheep.  They also all made great contributions to the advancement and well-being of the Israelites.

Why skip over the stories of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water?  These are both great examples of shepherding. Jesus provided good grazing, if you will, for the people who had gathered around him and he walked out onto the water when he saw that his disciples were straining at the oars on their boat.  These are big front-page stories and risk taking the focus off of Jesus’ compassion.  We are not just an employer’s sheep here; we are his own sheep whom he loves.

Being of the television generation, several mental pictures immediately spring up when discussing sheep and shepherds.  First is the series of cartoons with the wolf and the big sheepdog checking in on their time clocks and heading out to work, the wolf to try to catch and kill the sheep, and the dog to protect them.  The second is of Babe the pig herding the sheep in the sheepdog competition into separate pens by communicating with them in their own terms.  He knew the magic words…”Baa-ram-ewe”

What dangers do we need our shepherd to protect us from?  We could list hundreds of temptations, and dangers such as muggings etc here, but the only real danger is that we become separated from God.  Sin separates us from God and so we need the shepherd to steer us away from sinful things…to keep us on the straight path.

God sent Jesus to live among us as one of us just as the sheepdogs and Babe did.  Jesus knew our own language.  He knew what we were going through because he lived it.  People could feel this, perhaps the reason he drew such large crowds of people wherever he went.  He knew the magic words.  He was one of us, not trying to make himself much more than us.

A shepherd is a guide.  If you have travelled to new places at all you will realize how much easier it is to get around, how much more comfortable you feel, with a guide who knows the area.  Whether this be a jungle safari or a trip to the Montreal Jazz Festival, it is easier to take in the event when someone else is taking charge of keeping you from straying off.  Someone who has been there before.

God knew this and planned to give us just this sort of guide.  Jesus is such a good shepherd because he also has been a sheep.  While Jeremiah foretells the shepherd, John 1:36 refers to Jesus as, “God’s Passover Lamb” and Acts 8:32, “As a sheep led to slaughter, and quiet as a lamb being sheared,”  Lambs are used to symbolize innocence and only perfect lambs were acceptable for sacrifice to God in the Old Testament.  He has been here before and He knows the way.  It is for us to put our faith in Him and follow in his ways.

 

Psalm 23  The Gospel- Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56

Grace, what is it?


Kingsclear-20110612-00079

I really started thinking about grace one summer, around nine years ago, when I was visiting my sister outside Montreal.  She said that she had heard the term used in church for years but realized she didn’t think she really understood it. I had been doing some theology courses and she asked me what I knew about it. I shared the little bit I knew about the grace of God as shown in the forgiveness of sins, but it felt a bit lame, lifeless somehow.  A seed had been planted. Since then we have both watched out for books and articles on grace. One of the first books I read was Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace.

When dealing with a concept such as grace, people often start with the word itself.  I was surprised that when I Googled for definitions of grace the first seven definitions were secular; it wasn’t until the eighth definition that God was connected with the word.  Of course, from my egocentric view of the world, it is hard for me to imagine why the people writing these dictionaries didn’t understand that without God’s grace the other meanings might not exist and certainly wouldn’t be as powerfully positive.

As a noun, grace is defined as; elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action; a pleasing or attractive quality or endowment; favour or good will; a manifestation of favour; mercy/clemency/pardon; favour in granting a delay or temporary immunity; an allowance of time after a debt or bill has become payable granted to the debtor before a law suit can be brought.

When I look in my five volume Bible dictionary, the entry for grace is ten columns long. I will spare you the details. Theologically, grace is defined as the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God; the influence or spirit of God operating in humans to regenerate or strengthen them; a virtue or excellence of divine origin.

For most people, even those who are not Christians, the first thing they are likely to think of when asked about grace would say that it is the thing you say before you eat a meal.  This was definition 10 in the dictionary listing. The next most familiar references may be the many idioms in English.  We think of ‘falling from grace’ when we have done something wrong or disappointed someone; of having grace to do something like hold the door open for someone; of being in someone’s good graces; of doing things with bad grace making it clear even as we comply with a request that it is against our will; and the very familiar idiom, “there, but by the grace of God, go I.”

In an article entitled “Opening Ourselves to Grace: The Basics of Christian Discipleship”, Steven W. Manskar says of grace. “Grace is God’s unmerited, unconditional love and acceptance freely given to all.  This grace is incarnate in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). This grace is free, but it is not cheap.  It comes to us at great cost to God: the suffering and death of God’s Son on a Roman cross.  We must always remember and be reminded that the grace God gives is a costly grace.”

We read a story of grace in Luke 10:25-37.  A familiar story in which we usually focus on the fact that a Pharisee was trying to trick Jesus once again, and that we are to love everyone, not just those who are the same as we are, but there was grace.  The poor beaten up naked man lying in the ditch did nothing whatever to deserve anyone’s help.  We don’t even hear that he cried out, presumably he was little able to do that as he was left “half-dead”. 

The first two people who walked by were religious men a priest and a Levite.  We read that they went by on the other side of the road. Perhaps they were afraid of being seen with this naked man, afraid that he might indeed be dead and would cause them to be unclean, or perhaps they were just busy and distracted and didn’t want to take the time.  Imagine them muttering to themselves as they continued on their ways, “there but by the grace of God go I.” They may have been thinking about grace, but did not carry it through beyond themselves to their neighbour.

This Samaritan man, who by rights should not even have been seen talking to a Jew, covered his body, cleaned his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn.  He cared for him until morning and then, without promises of being paid back, he arranged for his care at the inn until he recovered, even if it ended up costing him more than he had already given, which according to one source was enough money to pay for a month’s stay at an inn at the time.  This story illustrates grace; unmerited, unconditional love, free but not cheap.

Amos 7:7-17 seems, on the surface, to present a view of God who was vengeful, the antithesis to grace.  In this passage God sent his prophet Amos to bring a message of doom.  When the king attempted to make Amos stop doing what God had told him to do, the message became even worse.  Having already allowed for intercession on their behalf, God said this time that he would not pass over Israel again. They would have to pay for abandoning the faith and practice of their ancestors. The judgement declared was focused on three places; the high places where they had been worshipping false gods, the sanctuaries where they were no longer worshiping, and the house of the king whose line was to be destroyed by the sword. 

During a discussion about what makes Christianity unique, at a British conference on comparative religion, C.S. Lewis summed it up, “Oh that’s easy. It’s grace.”  It is in Christianity alone that we find the love of God poured out for us freely without merit.

So, what is grace?  After 69 pages Yancey “…attempts something like a definition of grace in relation to God.  Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more-no amount of spiritual callisthenics and renunciation, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries and divinity schools, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes.  And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less – no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder.  Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love.”

Defining grace may be very difficult, but experiencing grace, if we are open to awareness of it, is not.  John Newton, a reformed slave captain, certainly knew what grace was in his life.  He knew just how low he had gone, and knew the feeling of being lifted out of that dark place and being given a new start.  He did not write a definition of grace, but he wrote of his experience in the now famous and well-loved hymn with which we began our worship today;

Amazing grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

 

Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace?. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997. Print.

Manskar, Steven W. “Opening Ourselves To Grace: The Basics Of Christian Discipleship – Umcdiscipleship.Org”. Umcdiscipleship.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 3 July 2016.

Just keep moving/ Elijah not Dory


the-long-road-home         Let’s review the events that precede today’s Elijah story. Elijah was a prophet of God, and like other prophets was not bringing the messages Ahab, king of Israel, wanted to hear. Ahab wanted approval for the Baal worship which he and most of Israel had adopted from his wife Jezebel; but they brought warnings. The warnings went unheeded and eventually, God brought a drought on the land. Ahab ordered that all prophets of the God of Israel be rounded up and killed. Elijah ran and escaped, ending up in the home of a widow and her son all of whom were fed by God. After a time, God sent Elijah back to Ahab. As he was coming close he ran into Obadiah, a close advisor of Ahab who remained faithful to God. Obadiah had great news to share. Not only had Elijah escape the killing, but Obadiah had managed to hide away 100 other prophets of God! Even though the people of Israel were not faithful, Elijah was not alone in his faith in God.

            Following that, there was the scene on Mt. Carmel where he challenged the prophets of Baal and God sent a consuming fire to show his presence and his power. The people acknowledged God as their god and king, and at Elijah’s order set about to capture and kill all of the prophets of Baal who were present. Then Elijah called on God to send rain, and boy did it rain! Both Ahab, in his chariot, and Elijah, on foot, headed back at high speed for Jezreel where today’s story begins just as they were shaking off the rain.

            When Ahab told Jezebel that Elijah had all the prophets of Baal put to death, she was furious and cursed him, saying that he would be dead in 24 hours. Despite God’s great display of power on Mt Carmel, and grace in ending the drought with fresh rain, Elijah was terrified and ran for his life. The primal survival instinct kicked in and he was off. He ran to Judah, the kingdom ruled by Jehoshaphat, when he got as far as Beersheba he left his servant behind. After one more day’s journey, he couldn’t go any further! He sat down under a broom tree, a big tree which is almost always pictured all alone on a barren plain,  and he prayed to God saying, “I’m no better than my ancestors.” and asked God to end his life. He must have been exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and feeling like a failure. He went to sleep with no intention of doing anything more and was woken by an angel with food and drink ready for him, a cake baked on a stone and a jar of water, just what he had asked from the widow of Zarephath, and which God had continued to provide for them.

          After eating, He didn’t do anything else, like hiding for instance, but went back to sleep. When he was woken a  second time he  was not only fed but told that he would need food to sustain him for his journey. Remember, Elijah was planning to lay there until he died, but he didn’t seem to have batted an eye at the statement that he will be on a journey. The writer doesn’t give any indication that he received directions for this journey. It was almost as if a sleepwalker set out and, with no further food, walked south for 40 days and nights until he arrived at Mt Horeb. He spent the night in a cave, possibly the one in which Moses had stayed and met God. There. at the end of his flight from Jezebel’s anger, Elijah met God.

          God asked why Elijah was there. Elijah poured out his story of service, feelings of isolation and failure and God told him to go out on the mountain because he would pass by. From inside the cave, where he had stayed, Elijah observed a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire, but God was not in any of those. It wasn’t until silence fell that Elijah wrapped his face in his cloak and stepped out. Once again God asked Elijah why he was there and Elijah replied just as he had before. This great display of power, the events at Mt Carmel, and the 40 days of testing on his journey had done nothing to shift Elijah’s state of mind, and yet when God told him to return and head to Damascus he set out without questions.

          Today is Aboriginal Sunday and I want to tell you about a friend of mine.  Hugh Akagi is the chief of the Schoodic Band of the Passamaquoddy nation. He lives in St Stephen.  In the year 2013, there were approximately 300 known Passamaquoddy people residing in New Brunswick. Hugh was elected as chief in 1998 and is the great grandson of a Passamaquoddy hereditary chief, John Nicholas. There is no question that Hugh is an indigenous person, and yet, when he is in New Brunswick he is not recognized as one.  He used to joke that when he drove from the US into Canada he felt himself becoming invisible. It is a neat image, but not funny by any stretch!

          “Traditionally, the Passamaquoddy lived seasonally on both sides of what is now the international border (Canada/USA) and traveled freely from place to place. They are recognized as Indigenous Peoples by the United States government, but the Canadian government has denied their Indigenous Rights under Canadian law. The Government of Canada does not recognize the Passamaquoddy Peoples as Indians, entitled to be registered under the Indian Act. Neither Canada nor the Province of New Brunswick recognize Passamaquoddy Aboriginal Rights nor Aboriginal Title to land.” ((“Passamaquoddy Recognition: Background Information”) The nation and band have continued to work for recognition in Canada. In a letter to the NGO Committee of the United Nations, he stated, “As Native people we will continue to practice our traditions and culture and we will defend to the end our right to exist and we will resist any attempt to separate us from our homeland, our ancestors and our heritage.” (“Passamaquoddy Recognition: Background Information”). Given the lack of change on this issue, it is reasonable to assume that Hugh has had some “Elijah moments” over the years, but the band continues to work for recognition.

          At Mt Carmel, “Elijah had won, but it hadn’t brought him peace.” ((Miller) Somehow he felt that he had failed at his life’s work and he was despairing and ready for it all to end. One component of depression is not being able to see the future, not looking forward to anything, no way forward, no way out. Elijah so no way forward so he sat down ready to die. But even though he couldn’t see a way, he trusted God. He asked God to let him die, but when God had other plans he moved on, not seeing the way himself but letting God direct him.

          We all have times in our lives when we are tired, discouraged, when we can only see the walls that hem us in. No matter what our problems are or have been, no matter how loud and chaotic our lives become, God is present and has plans for us. Elijah took the long journey back to Israel, to the wilderness of Damascus, anointed the next kings of Judah and Israel, and passed on his ministry to a successor. Hugh is still fighting for recognition for his people. We may need to take breaks, to hide in a cave for a little while sometimes, but we also need to maintain hope and trust in God.

We may not know the way forward for us, but Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the light…” (John 14:6) Follow him!

 

Miller, Dr. Susan. “June”. Churchofscotland.org.uk. N.p., 2016. Web. 21 June 2016.

“Passamaquoddy Recognition: Background Information”. Newbrunswick.quaker.ca. N.p., 2016. Web. 18 June 2016.

Of Nightmares and Pardons


   Kingsclear-20110524-00031  If you asked a person what was their worst nightmare, children’s answers may include; scary animals or bugs, being abandoned, getting lost, kidnapped, or trapped. As we grow older the focus may change to include being unable to do anything to save a loved one. This isn’t something we usually talk about during worship. Who wants to think about nightmares? For many of the people from Fort McMurray they may have lived through their worst nightmares in the past month and I pray that those refugees who are crowding onto questionably seaworthy boats to flee real life nightmares have faced the worst already.

     In 1Kings 17:8-24 and Luke 7:11-17, we read two parallel stories of women living their own worst nightmares. Situated in cities miles apart and some 690 years apart in history. Both women are widows who had only one son. They both came in contact with a strange man at the gate of the city and both stories end with sons being brought back to life and being returned to their mothers. In the end, both healers are hailed as prophets of God.

     There is some significance to the setting of the stories. Zarephath was a city on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea in Phoenicia between Tyre and Sidon in what is known as Lebanon today. In this area people primarily worshiped Baal. This would have been enemy territory for Elijah. Nain was further south inland in Galilee, near Nazareth, where people primarily worshiped God. In theory, Elijah faced the greater challenge, bringing a Baal worshiper to believe in God, than did Jesus who was working in the very heart of the Land of the people of God.

     The women met Jesus and Elijah at the city gates. If this were a modern story with no walled cities and dozens of roads leading into the city, they might have met downtown, or in a city square. City gates served a number of purposes in the Middle East throughout Biblical times. The most obvious of these being an entrance to a walled city and thus, as a part of the defense of the city, they would be guarded.

     The woman in Zarephath was at her worst the day she met Elijah. God had sent Elijah to continue his hiding in a place that wouldn’t be expected. When he asked the woman for a drink and then something to eat he opened the floodgates to her story. She was a widow with only one young son. Due to the drought and her poor circumstances they were down to their last bit of flour and she was fully expecting that she and her son would die of starvation after they had eaten this last bit. Elijah assured her that the Lord God of Israel will not allow the jar of meal or the jug of oil to run out until the drought was over. What a relief she must have felt, pardon from a death sentence!

     She was relieved, but she was still uncomfortable having this man of God living with them. And then her son got sick and died. She was, perhaps, more grief stricken at this time than she would have been earlier. She had already come to accept that they would die, and was prepared. But now, coming as it did after the great relief of the pardon, she was angry and she lashed out at Elijah. “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

      The second woman lived in a small, little-known town near Nazareth with her only son. We approach these city gates just after his death. A large group of mourners is coming out of the gate, possibly blocking the way. Her son is on a stretcher and the mother and other women follow crying and wailing. No one says anything to the large group of people waiting to enter the gate. No notice is taken of Jesus or his followers. But Jesus takes notice. He sees the woman, bereft and alone in the world now that her final provider has died. He feels compassion for her and, as we would be inclined to do, he says, “Don’t cry.” What else would he have said in that moment? Are there words that can take away the pain? 

            While Psalm 30 speaks of crying out to God, being heard, and being revived, neither woman asked for help. The woman in Zarephath, having already given up hope once, blamed Elijah for making God take her son from her. She wasn’t about to ask him for anything, let alone God! This woman was very much in the anger stage of grief. The woman at Nain was more likely in the depression stage. Her adult son, her sole provider, was dead and was about to be buried. All hope was lost, his death was the end for him, and for her as well.

            Despite the anger and depression; despite the hopelessness felt by both these women, God was not finished in their lives. In Zarephath, Elijah took the boy from his mother and took him upstairs. He cried out to the Lord! He asked that the child’s life be returned. God listened to Elijah and the boy revived. In Nain Jesus did something shocking. He reached out and touched the body on the stretcher. He told the man to get up, and he did. The man sat up and began to speak! Elijah took the boy back downstairs and, “gave him to his mother.” Jesus took the young man and, “gave him to his mother.”

            The reactions to these events were proclamation and praise. The woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”(v24) The crowd around the city gate with Jesus were amazed and, “glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!” (v16)

       By restoring these sons to life God did far more than heal one person. He brought life back to mothers and sons. Life, hope, and a future. God, through Elijah and Jesus, was with these women through their worst nightmares and brought healing and hope and he is with us also. We may not walk out of our nightmares with the kind of healing that happened in these stories, but we do have hope, and healing will come.

            “Burton-Edwards suggests in his notes on 1Kings 17:8-24 that the Lord God’s command to Elijah to “Go now to Zarephath” and live there with the widow in Sidon is basically a call to go and live with a vulnerable person. The command is not to go and do something FOR your neighbors who are vulnerable, but to go and BE WITH those persons. In other words, be in real relationship with them, which implies mutuality: spend time with them, love them, treat them as people from whom you have as much to learn as to teach, and from whom you need to be fed as much as you need to be feeding. (service planning notes GBod.com)

     In the words of a familiar hymn;      

             My hope is built on nothing less

             than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;

             I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

             but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

 

             When darkness hides his lovely face,

             I rest on his unchanging grace;

             in every high and stormy gale

             my anchor holds within the veil.

God is that present hope in our worst nightmares, lean on him, and cry out to him! “May the God of hope fill us with joy and peace in believing so that by the power of the Holy Spirit we abound in hope!” (Living Faith 10.7)

Are you ready for Baptism?


  Pentecost Banner 

      In John 14 we read that Jesus promised that God would provide a friend for us so that we would never be alone. This friend was the Spirit of Truth. Today is the season of the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. Happy Easter everyone, and happy birthday!

     In his Interpretation series book Acts, William H. Willimon discusses a number of views and perspectives on the Pentecost reading. It is interesting to note, as he does, that the actual event of Pentecost is far overshadowed the sheer number of verses, by Peter’s immediate interpretation of the events for those shocked disciples and for the even more bewildered crowd. One of the interesting things he spoke about was the value of looking for parallels between the creation story, the birth of Jesus, and the birth of the church. The Spirit was the instrument of God’s power in all three of these events. Setting aside the creation for a moment, both the birth of Jesus and the birth of the church were foretold in the works of the OT prophets. They were both made possible through the power of God and through the work of the Spirit. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. The church was the culmination of the promise of Easter and was given life and inspiration by the breath and flame of the Holy Spirit.

     The Pentecost scene in Acts concludes with the first Christian sermon proclaimed by Peter. Peter’s sermon followed a three-step pattern which is common in the church even today. He explained the day’s events in terms of scripture, he proclaimed The Gospel of Jesus Christ, and he encouraged all in attendance to be baptized.

     In The Message translation, Acts 2 says, “Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.” The power that had breathed creation into being empowered the disciples on the day of Pentecost. They had been in hiding since Jesus arrest and crucifixion, had been with Jesus for 40 days, had the scriptures opened to their understanding, but were still not ready to proclaim the message without this gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of wind and flame.

     Who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is generally thought of as God’s presence in us. In the reading from John today, Jesus called the Spirit an Advocate which may be translated as: “Comforter”, “Counselor,” “Helper.” He also refers to it as the Spirit of Truth and tells us that not just anyone can receive the Spirit because not everyone sees and knows the Spirit. We are only able to receive the Spirit through first knowing and believing in God (God being in Christ and Christ in God).

     Why was the Holy Spirit represented in the Biblical account of the birth of the church as wind and flame?  We first met the wind in Genesis 1:2 where the wind swept over the waters. Winds can do many things; they may blow, stream, issue, freshen, gather, bluster, sigh, moan, scream, howl, and whistle. The wind has been called a breath or an aura. We have read throughout the Bible stories with winds, perhaps most notably the two stories of Jesus and the disciples on the sea in a storm. In both cases, Jesus was able to calm the storm and the disciples marveled over his having power even over the wind.

     Fire has frequently been used as a symbol of the presence of God in the Bible. We see God in the burning bush as the fire that burns but does not consume. This very image is used as the symbol of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The Jews were led by God in the form of a pillar of fire in the desert at night. We know that fire is one of the main reasons for the success of the human species on our planet. We cook with it, we heat our homes with it. We think of flames, blazes, conflagrations, but we also think of enthusiasm, verve, kindling, igniting, inspiring, and arousing.

     There were Jews and proselytes from all over the world, which is to say from every direction, in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. If each one spoke in their native languages they would have been unable to understand each other because, since the days of Babel, there were many different languages. Most of the people in the Roman Empire were able to speak Latin or Greek in order to communicate, but still, they had not been able to hear the message of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection in their own native languages until this event. To hear the good news in terms familiar to you since birth. Centuries later, this was the goal of Luther who wanted the Bible translated so that the common people could read it for themselves. This desire to meet the word in our own tongue continues. We have the Bible in its original Hebrew and Biblical Greek, King James English, contemporary language of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s etc. and as of Nov 2014 the Bible Society has translated the whole Bible into 531 languages, and 2,883 languages have at least some portion of the Bible; the work on translation continues.

     What was the big news that the disciples began telling in many different languages when the Spirit entered them? This is the good news…that God sent his only son to be one of us. That Jesus suffered and died on the cross to atone for our sins that we may have eternal forgiveness and that Jesus, who returned to the Father in heaven asked God to provide us with a comforter, a supporter, and inspiration to stay with us forever…the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ was and is in the Father and the Father was and is in Christ. Those who believe will continue in the mission of Jesus in the world. Jesus will do whatever we ask in His name so that the Father will be glorified through Him.

     Many of us, here today, were baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Some of us were baptized as babies, some later on or even as adults. This is the third section of Peter’s sermon, “repent and be baptized every one of you…so that you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
Are we ready to begin a new life today? Are we ready to have the Spirit blow through us, and through our lives, consuming all the dust and waste in the incinerators fire, and refreshing us as a gentle breeze in the summer? For those who may be new to the Good News, are you ready to let that spark ignite into action? Are you ready to follow Peter’s challenge and be baptized? For those of us who have been there and done that, are we ready to be aroused, to feel again the enthusiasm for the work of Christ? How do we receive this gift? Believe in God, and in the precious gift of his son Jesus Christ, and open your heart and you mind to the indwelling Spirit and begin to feel the warmth of the flames in your soul.

Baptism of Christ: First ask why


3631902258_3fab33242d_mThoughts for Baptism of Christ Sunday

Read Luke 3:15-22

Think back to your own baptism if they were old enough at the time to remember it, or the last baptism you witnessed to. If you have not been baptized, fear not and read on.

The other day I attended the Presbytery workshop based on the book Your Church Can Thrive by Harold Percy. I was glad to be attending but it didn’t occur to me that I would be finding anything in that time which would find its way into my message for the next day, but there it was. One of the first major points Percy made was that it is important, before getting to how to make change, to ask why we do what we do. So that is what came to church with me this morning.

First, we ask, why?

Why was Jesus baptized? Really, think about it? Had he sinned? We baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He is the Son so it doesn’t really seem like he should need to be baptized. On one hand, the answer to this one is simple, he didn’t need to be baptized but he chose to be baptized! Christian writers over the years have been uncomfortable with the idea of the divine being baptized. In the 2nd century Ignatius stated that he was already pure and so the purpose was to purify the water. Justin Martyr explained that he was baptized “for the sake of humanity.” One might also say that it was a symbol or affirmation of his true humanity.

Why do we baptize? According to Living Faith we baptize as a sign and seal of our union with Christ and with his church. Through it we share in the death and resurrection of Christ and are commissioned to his service.

Secondly, we ask, what?

What was baptism in Jesus’ time? In the Old Testament immersion had been a form of returning to ritual cleanliness. In the New Testament, John announced “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” or purification of the body after the soul was cleansed by righteousness. Before immersion in a river John required prior repentance and performance of good deeds.  In Jesus’ day baptism was a radical, counter-cultural act. Luke highlights this with his mention of the fact that Herod was made so nervous by John baptizing people in the Jordan, and people questioning whether John may be the Messiah, that after John called him out on his marriage to Herodius he had him arrested, imprisoned and eventually killed.

Jesus was already an adult when he went to the river where John was baptizing. Since it was just a couple weeks ago that we celebrated the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, it is sometimes hard to remember that there was no cute little white dress, or white suit, candles and Godparents.

Jesus’ baptism was public but with no big hoopla or special notice. In Luke’s account it is just slipped in. John explains to the people there that he is neither worthy to unlace the Messiah’s sandals, nor able to baptize with anything but water; while the one who was coming would baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. The actual “story” of the baptism is no more than one line stating that the people and Jesus had been baptized and then it jumps to an undetermined time later when Jesus was praying. It is at this point that heaven opened up and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We are given no indication that anyone other than Jesus himself is witness to these signs and statements.

What is baptism in the Presbyterian Church in Canada? Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Presbyterian Church. Living Faith 7.6.3 “By the power of the Holy Spirit God acts through Baptism. It is the sacrament not of what we do but of what God has done for us in Christ. God’s grace and our response to it are not tied to the moment of Baptism, but continue and deepen throughout life. It is a sacrament meant for those who profess their faith and for their children. Together we are the family of God. 7.6.5 Baptism assures us that we belong to God. In life and in death our greatest comfort is that we belong to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.”

Lastly, we ask, how?

How do we decide to be baptized? As Christian parents people make the decision to raise their children in the church and the first step in that is to have them baptized. One PCC document says that, “When people seek baptism later in life, it means that the Holy Spirit, as a guide and friend, has moved them to claim the grace and love of God in Christ, and faith in a new way. It is a courageous action.”

How are we baptized? Living Faith 7.6.2 “In Baptism, water is administered in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The water signifies the washing away of sin, the start of new life in Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

How are we meant to live out our baptisms? 7.6.4 “Baptism is also an act of discipleship that requires commitment and looks towards growth in Christ. Those baptized in infancy are called in later years to make personal profession of Christ. What is born may die. What is grafted may wither. Congregations and those baptized must strive to nurture life in Christ.”

We begin when the Holy Spirit ignites a passion in us. We seek to discern our vocations, we seek to grow in our knowledge and understanding of the ways of Jesus, and we attempt to live in such a way that people see Christ in our lives.

The thing with seeking to answer the big questions is that more often than not we are left with a whole list of new questions. This can be very frustrating, especially if we want to leap right into the action phase of a project. Remember that we are not alone. We have our church family and most importantly we have God. Jesus said he would always be with us through the Holy Spirit. We can continue to have conversations with others and it is vital that we continue the conversation with God in prayer. When we face the next question in living out our baptisms go back to the beginning, start with why and listen for God’s answer.

 

Your Church Can Thrive: Making the Connections that build healthy congregations by Harold Percy, Abingdon Press 2003

Living Faith -https://www.google.com/url?q=http://presbyterian.ca/resources-od/&sa=U&ved=0ahUKEwjuiavu-Z_KAhUkUKYKHX1TCjQQFggEMAA&client=internal-uds-cse&usg=AFQjCNFxxynHAbwDAa92okqQqlWM4Kj4SQ