Thursday, 26 May 2022

If not now, when?

How much longer do we wait for something to happen?


We pray, we talk, we think, but we don’t really do anything more. We don’t act, we just wait, wait as if for something magical to happen. Is that what we do?


I didn’t give that any context, but I bet you’ve already given it some. It could be any number of things in the world today: the unspeakable tragedy of gun violence in schools and communities, racism, hate, war, climate change, inflation, poverty, housing, healthcare - the list is seemingly endless. And the few I mentioned are certainly not in any order of priority because that can change with our experience.


I want to talk about the disciples of Jesus for just a minute, though, and where they found themselves in the story when Jesus leaves them for the last time, ascending to heaven. They’d lived with Jesus for a few years, traveled and wondered and learned with him, experienced him and got to know him. Then he’s arrested, dies, is alive again and now says he’s leaving - again - and tells them that they will soon receive the power of the Holy Spirit. Then he ascends to heaven.


I imagine them, after all that, wondering exactly when that spirit thing will happen. It’s just a few days on our calendar, but what were they doing? Were they just sitting and waiting for the spirit to happen to them?


All that time they’d been with Jesus, learning to be Jesus, the times Jesus sent them out, told them they were to be Jesus to others, to share all that Jesus was about, not just in words, but in action. “As God has sent me, so I send you,” he’d say, and “love each other as I showed you to love.” He’d breathed the breath of life to them, offered them peace (the peace of God, not just a worldly peace) and said “receive the Holy Spirit.” And now, they should just sit around and wait to be empowered?


I’ve always felt that the story of Pentecost, of the disciples “receiving” the Holy Spirit and suddenly being able to communicate to people in their own language (metaphorically, I think, as well as linguistically), wasn’t really about something being done to them, but something finding its way out of them. We’re made in the image of God and of the earth: the divine spirit is already in us, equal with our earthliness, we’ve just not been very good at letting it out. It’s all part of our factory setting being love, not sin.


So why wait?


What if they were already at it, already living what they’d learned, being Jesus to each other and the world? What if they were already following Jesus’ instructions to love as he showed them, to live as he showed them, to be what he showed them? What if the Pentecost story is simply the moment of that being revealed to the wider community?


Let’s give that a different context. Imagine how different the world would be if we didn’t wait for some magical moment of inspiration to solve a problem that could have been avoided if we’d put love, creativity and life before hate, destruction and death - right now. What if we didn’t wait for some outside force to move us or some public opportunity to make a difference, but, instead, loved right now. What if we didn’t let apathy or fear, shyness or cowardice guide us, but instead broke out all the love that is in us and poured it into every moment of our living, overwhelming the culture of power, control, greed and selfishness that seems determined to make our world?

Thursday, 19 May 2022

What did you say?

“I hate it when that happens.”


Do you, though? I know it might seem like a little thing to some, just a casual expression and all. But it seems like there’s already so much hate in the world. Maybe we could pause for a moment and think about how easily, how casually and how readily we throw that word around. Maybe we could even spare a moment to wonder at what hate really is.


It’s being so vividly and graphically displayed in the world, that slipping it into casual conversation seems, at least, disingenuous. I hope. We’re becoming more and more accustomed to throwing around incredibly volatile language, employing rhetoric that encourages conflict, not relationship. It seems so pervasive.


Our language, like our world, has become incredibly complex. And misunderstood. And inappropriate. But hate, that's something that's still as simple as it's always been.

Hate isn't about personal taste, opinion, dislike or disagreement. It’s just not. The roots of hate are in fear, ignorance, power and rejection.


It was just a few weeks back that we celebrated Easter. Jesus is alive, we shout, and we say it’s a good time to look around and see how Jesus is alive in the world today. (By the way: anytime is a good time to do that.) I remember saying that Jesus is alive in each of us, in the love and caring we show for each other, how we share things, how we respect each other, how we live as Jesus taught us to live. Together.


To be honest, it can sometimes feel hard to say that convincingly when the world seems determined to show something different.


And what we say and what we do are intrinsically linked, aren't they?  One of the fairest criticisms levelled at the church - and governments and institutions and societies - is that we don't live what we say. We don't "walk the talk."


We should. There isn’t an excuse for that. We should. But we should also be as sure and sincere and authentic as we can be about our talk before we walk it out. How much of the bad that happens in the world today is inspired by words that are essentially hate born from ignorance and fear?


Jesus' answer to hate is love. Hope-filled, determined, life-giving love. The love that's at the heart of Jesus' teaching is about compassion and justice, it's about sharing in relationship, it's about being open to the new and different in order to know it and understand it, it's about bringing people together to share life, not just behave the same. Jesus' love is about respect and dignity for all. Jesus' love is God's love, and God's love is for all.


You cannot say that God loves everyone and then say “except those people.” Nor can you say God's grace is for everyone - but I don't have to forgive. Or that at the end of this life, only God judges us - but I can tell you where you're going.


Wholeness can't be achieved just by doing, it must be in what we say, too. And we should think about that first, and share it with God.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

How Are You Known?

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)


On a sunny spring Sunday in May, sitting on a comfortably padded pew, surrounded by people you know in a brightly lit church with the smell of coffee waiting to be shared, these words can sound like some real warm fuzzies. A blissful paradise of community in which everyone gets along, everyone shares, everyone, well, loves. It feels good to hear it.


But Jesus says these words to the disciples on their last night together before his arrest. This little piece of the story begins back at John 13:1 with “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” It includes supper with the disciples, a diverse group that probably didn’t always get along and who, now at least, seem pretty confused and upset about what’s happening. It includes dinner with Judas, who, the story says, betrayed him, and Peter, the one who promises to follow, but who will deny him. As night falls, the threat of arrest looms and the violence of the cross is coming.


That’s the context of Jesus’ words. I don’t think they were meant to be words of comfort and reassurance, but a call to action, a challenge to live “just as I have loved you.” The command to love wasn’t new, those words had been round for awhile. What made it new was the example Jesus gives in living it. Jesus didn’t love when convenient, nor was he selective about who should be loved or how they should be loved. He didn’t judge worthiness but loved all, especially the broken, the sick, the outcasts and the enemies. In Jesus, love becomes the all encompassing manner in which we engage the world to create positive, living, life-giving relationships. Right now.


It sounds great to say “love one another” but let’s just acknowledge right here that it’s hard. We fail often, sometimes spectacularly. History’s full of evidence to suggest that, often as not, people should know that we are disciples of Jesus - Christians - by our hypocrisy, our insularity, our selfishness, our judging of others and our own sense of self-righteousness. But that’s not who we are if we are disciples of Jesus. What would it take to change that perception? That people might know we are Christians by our sincerity, our care and respect for others just as they are, our kindness, our grace, our humble recognition of mistakes that have been made, our repentance - real repentance - for less-than-loving behaviour. What would it take? It would take love.


Yes, it would take love when it’s easiest, with people who look, sound, think and believe like us, when there’s no temptation to be selfish or vengeful or see anything but equality or when our love is welcomed and love is returned. Of course it would. And it would take love when it’s hardest, when we’re afraid of difference and change, when we’re afraid of hurt, when we’re tempted to be selfish and unforgiving, when it’s easier to withhold ourselves and refuse to engage others. It would take love in moments when hate is easier, separation is more appealing and aggression and power seems to make us feel strong. It would take love when we’re most vulnerable and when we’re feeling most powerful. It would take love.

Thursday, 5 May 2022

How Wool You Know God?

Come in the front door of our church and one of the first things you’ll see is sheep. A lot of sheep. Of all different shapes and sizes. Cuddly ones, ones big enough to sit on, funny looking ones, cute ones, fluffy ones and shaggy ones, and one which even has a real identification tag on their ear. I should probably also mention that they’re stuffed.


You can’t miss them. They live above the coat rack in the lobby. If you’re an adult, they might not be the first thing you see - that might be the stained glass or the rainbows, but children, they like to grab a sheep as they go by or scope out which one they’ll grab later.


It all started a few Easters back with a couple of big fluffy ones used in a story. They were just the right size for the littlest people to hug and sit on (and occasionally ride around on). Then there were a couple more. And each year after that there were more, different shapes and sizes and styles, all brought by adults in the congregation.

 

Some children have their favourites and some like to pick a different one each time. They hold on to them in church, or lie on the bigger ones. They're great companions for a movie night and a friend to play with when there's not much going on.


Comforter, friend, companion, protector. They’re whatever a creative spirit needs them to be.


The 23rd Psalm is one of the most familiar and most loved passages of scripture. “The Lord is my shepherd,” it begins. God makes sure that I want for nothing that I need and God is with me wherever I find myself in life - green pastures, gentle streams, even the shadowy valley and at table with my enemies. God comforts, cares, accompanies and protects me all the days of my life, just like a shepherd. And when this life is done, I will be at home with God.


I love the 23rd psalm. Like so many others, it’s one of my favourites and a “go to” for comfort, strength and support. God is with me always: what more could I need. I’ll be honest, though, it’s not the shepherd image that does that, it’s everything else.


Since Sunday school as a kid, through many a bible study, sermons and seminary classes, I understand the point of the shepherd image in this context. I also understand that the author wrote from the perspective of a sheep to this shepherd. I also understand that, as intimately meaningful to the author as it might have been then, it isn’t to me now. With all due respect to shepherds, sheep farmers, keepers of sheep and sheep themselves (not to mention 10th century BCE authors of psalms), I don’t have the same personal relationship with shepherds that they did. And isn’t that the point: the intimate relationship of love and care, a presence that brings peace and grace to every step of our life's journey: a comforter, friend, companion and protector.


Perhaps the shepherd and sheep is a meaningful metaphor for you. Perhaps not. If it's not, how about imagining your own 23rd Psalm. What image of relationship brings that meaning to you? Maybe it's a child with a treasured stuffed animal. Or an elderly person in their last days holding a stuffed bear, the gift of a child. Perhaps it's a farmer and their land, a teacher, a mentor, a partner, a lover, a home. How do you imagine your relationship with God?

Thursday, 28 April 2022

A Flash of Light

“I was blind, but now I see,” John Newton famously wrote in Amazing Grace. It’s an inspiring story, how Newton had been a slave ship captain but “saw the light” and became a priest, an abolitionist and an ally of William Wilberforce, the British politician who led the movement to abolish the slave trade. Ironically, Newton went physically blind, but was spiritually enlightened.


Saul saw the light, too. Saul was a devout Jew who pursued the earliest followers of Jesus in the years after the first Pentecost. They were called people of The Way, then, and Saul, like many others, saw the new sect as a threat to his faith. He was on his way to Damascus to arrest more and “bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2) when it happened to him.  There was a flash of light “from heaven” that knocked him down and he hears the voice of Jesus asking him why he’s persecuting him (Jesus) and telling him to go into the city where he’ll be told what to do. Saul’s blinded for three days until a disciple named Ananias, told by God to visit him, comes to him and says “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17). His sight returns and he’s a changed man. He later adopts the name Paul and becomes the great builder of the earliest church communities.


The thing is, I think, we often portray these “see the light” moments as just that, a moment. A sudden flash, a light bulb goes on and everything’s changed.


If only it were that simple.


John Newton marks a moment in which he called out to God during a storm at sea in March of 1748 as the beginning of his spiritual conversion. He continued working in the slave trade until a stroke forced him to retire in 1754, though he continued to invest in it for a few more years. He became a priest in 1764. Amazing Grace (and other hymns) appeared in 1779. It wasn’t until 1788 that he began to speak forcefully against the slave trade and he lived to see the Abolition Act passed in 1807, dying shortly afterwards. He would acknowledge, late in life, that it took him many years from that moment at sea to find his way.


Saul’s moment was a beginning, too, and not just three days of blindness. I think it took him a while to really get into that conversion moment. Conversion, by the way, comes form a latin word meaning simply to turn about. He certainly did that. He stopped what he was doing, but he needed to learn things, he needed to experience things, he needed to find his way from being a good Jew to a good follower of Jesus. He needed to understand what was happening. And that was a challenge at first because the very community he wanted to join was afraid of him: they didn’t believe that he had changed (Acts 9:21-30). It took some time.


Conversions begin with a change - a change of heart - but it takes work to live into the change and make transformation happen. We begin to see more clearly and hear more deeply, we learn and experience, we taste life and we live it with all our senses, not just sight. That’s what leads us to what is true.


It takes time and, of course, that means uniquely our own time. Finding love, grace, respect, compassion, truth - these aren’t new things. They’re already in us. This isn’t about religious dogma or tradition or culture, it’s about finding what’s true in each of us and following that path. We are each unique individuals, but we are one in being created in the image of God and God is love. There are many paths to God.


These conversion experiences don’t make something new out of nothing. They make something truly you out of everything you are.

Thursday, 21 April 2022

In and Out

Jesus is alive! This is the good news of Easter Day. Each of the four gospels tells their version of the story: the tomb is empty on the day of resurrection, angels announce Jesus is risen (as he said) and Mary meets Jesus. It's a new day, the first day of the week, a day of new life, a day of celebration.


But not that first day, not for the disciples. They didn't believe Mary's story. Even those who saw the empty tomb didn't get it. They were afraid and they hid "behind locked doors" (John 20:19). They didn't believe it until Jesus appeared to them in that locked room.


We've traditionally focused on Thomas as the one who doubted, but they all did. "Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you.' After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord" (John 20:19-20).


"Then" the disciples rejoiced. Maybe Thomas is held up as the example of all of them who didn’t believe at first, but he’s also the example that lets us know that doubts and questions are okay and need to be asked and tested. I think he was even the bravest of them all because I think he was already out starting to live the life that Jesus had taught. Perhaps Jesus' death inspired him to greater living.


But let's get back to the other disciples. Things seemed to have come to a sudden and tragic end. They locked themselves away in fear, not knowing what to do next. Surely they would be safe if they just stayed indoors and kept to themselves, with a good stout door between them and the world.


Jesus wasn't having that, though. He appears to them, offers the peace which he had promised, the peace of his presence, and, literally, breathes life into them. "Jesus said to them again, 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'" (John 20:21-22). It's John's version of the Pentecost story. There's no wind or fire or speaking in tongues, but only the peace of Jesus' presence and the breath of his spirit.


And there’s one more thing: the command to come out. Like Lazarus, they are not dead and this locked room will not be their tomb. There’s living to be done. Jesus sends them to do what God sent Jesus to do: to bring love, grace and life to all.


In the midst of a chaotic, struggling world, I want to suggest that we think about how often in our lives we lock ourselves away, or build walls, thinking that we'll somehow be protected from it. But that doesn't protect, it imprisons.


Or we build structure into our lives that we think is only bringing order and sense and yes, it does, and we appreciate that.  But sometimes, if we don't constantly challenge ourselves with the need to go out into the world, it becomes rigid, restrictive and confining.


Jesus sends us out into the world to love. The peace he offers isn't an absence of conflict, but the assurance of God's presence. The spirit he breathes into us is inspiration, potential and possibility. For individuals, yes, but also for communities, cultures, nations: for a fearful world in need of new life.

Saturday, 16 April 2022

Outside the Tomb

It really is unbelievable. With our usual sense of what is and isn’t real, you can certainly see why no one believed that Jesus was alive.


And no one in the story did, not just poor old Thomas who gets saddled with that doubt label, after the fact. The tomb was empty, the body was gone. But no one - no one - believed Jesus was alive until they saw him or touched him or talked to him. 


The women who first came to the tomb and found it empty wondered who had taken the body and where. When they told the other disciples, they didn’t believe it either. Not until they’d seen Jesus in person and touched him and talked to him.


I would have thought that, having spent all that time with Jesus, seen him doing the things he did, knowing him the way they did, they might have been more inclined to believe Jesus when he told them what was going to happen. Even the angel at the tomb reminded the women that he was alive, “as he said.” Weren’t they paying attention? Peter was just “amazed.” John’s gospel even suggests that the other disciple, who followed Peter, believed but didn’t understand.


Maybe that’s just it. We struggle to understand that Jesus is more than flesh and bone, broken on the cross, more than words, more than story or teaching or behaviour. We can say that we follow Jesus by trying to be like Jesus, to model our behaviour after Jesus, even to try and live like Jesus. But that’s not being Jesus. 


Jesus is not confined by a tomb, nor a body or the physicality of this creation. Jesus is about being. Jesus is about being love and grace, showing us how that is possible in this form which, like us, is both divine and human. 


I believe that when the gospel of John tells of Jesus describing himself as “the way, the truth and the life,” it’s not asserting that the way is Jesus, but that Jesus is being the way. To be love and grace is the way which is true and life giving. That “way” can exist in more than Jesus. It has existed in more than Jesus, we just always come back to a comparison to the original and nobody makes that cut. But comparison was never Jesus’ point. Meeting a particular standard that always seems slightly out of our human reach was never Jesus’ point. Connecting with the divine and human that is in all of us, embracing the love that’s there, the life-creating, life-engaging, life-giving love that’s there, and being that in the world, that’s Jesus point. That brings us into relationship with God, with each other and with all that is.


Perhaps that seems unbelievable. It certainly seems like the first to discover Jesus was alive felt that way. At first. But they lived into it and they found the way. They lived outside the tomb and we can, too.