Thursday, 4 August 2022

Ready to meet Jesus

Are you prepared to meet Jesus?

That’s a loaded question. You might hear it like “ready to meet your maker” or a similar metaphor for the next life. Certainly, we’d like to feel we’re ready for meeting Jesus there. When our time comes. Whenever that is.

You might hear it as an allusion to the second coming. Jesus said he’d be back. Maybe not like the Terminator’s iconic “I’ll be back,” but it might raise a similar level of anxiety to hear that we should be ready for Jesus to return at “an hour you do not expect” (Luke 12:40). Whenever that is.

Both situations - the end of this life or the second coming - could be anxiety inducing since the question certainly makes it feel like either is imminent rather than eventual. The people who first heard Jesus talk about a “second coming” certainly thought it was soon. As time went on, it seemed like it could be anytime in the future, but, even with more time, there’s still no indication of when or how or where. What if I’m not ready? What does it even mean, to be ready? Ready for what, exactly?

Hang on a minute, though, and take a step back. What if Jesus didn’t mean either of those things? Remember, this is the one who was teaching us how to live the love, grace and goodness that’s in all living things, the one who tried to inspire us to see that we, too, are both of the earth and the divine spirit, the one who constantly tried to describe what he was about rather than specifically who he was. What if he meant all of that rather than just simply “me, this figure, Jesus?”

What if Jesus meant we should be ready to see all those things he is to us in the world around us, in the people we encounter? What if Jesus really meant that we need to be prepared to see love in our neighbour as well as be love to our neighbour. And everyone’s my neighbour, right? The easy to love and the hard to love, people just like us and people so different it might be a little scary. Wouldn’t that be meeting Jesus? How do you prepare for that?

When Jesus says things like keep your lamps lit or be dressed and ready for action or be ready to open the door for the master of the house when they come home (Luke 12:35-38), I think he’s just trying to say keep busy with living like I showed you: be a light for others, be ready to love and care and show grace to others and, most important of all, be open to the promise that all that Jesus is, is alive in you and the world around you. Keep an open heart and mind, give that possibility a chance, hope to meet it, encourage it and inspire it.

We are constantly meeting all that Jesus is. See it, make that connection and build relationships on it. Live it and make it an everyday occurrence, not a once in lifetime experience.

Now, go back to those two anxiety inducing moments where we started. Live well, you’ll be ready.

Friday, 29 July 2022

Are we there yet?

The title of our churches’ summer children’s program this year was Holy Moses! Each day of the week, we shared a story from the life of Moses, one of the most important figures in Hebrew scripture. Some were retellings of the story in the Bible and some imagined moments inspired by the story.

One of those stories imagined what it must have been like for the Hebrew people packing up and leaving Egypt. After all the “persuasion” needed to convince Pharaoh to let them go, when it finally was time, we wondered how the people were feeling. They’d been there so long none of them knew any life other than as a slave in Egypt. For better or worse (or much worse), it was their home. They’d lived with the hope that one day things would change, but it had been a very, very long time. Now they were leaving. Wouldn’t they have questions? Like, now what? Where are we going? How do we get there? Is it far? Will it take long? And, of course, what can we bring?

We imagined how Moses would have to explain that they were leaving in a hurry, they were walking (most of them, at least) and they wouldn’t be able to take anything but the most important things with them. After a lengthy list of requests of what they wanted to bring (some more ridiculous than others, of course - it was a story for children, after all) it came down to a little girl reminding them what was most important: we’ll have each other and our freedom. God is with us. “Any more questions?” asks Moses, and off they go.

The simple point we wanted to make with the story was that when you’re in the same place for a long time, you might collect stuff that you think is important. But what’s really important is living, free to be who we truly are, who we share our life with and how we share our life with others. That becomes the theme of the wilderness time: discovering those things and how to be a community together. And at the heart of that is God.

What was just as important was where the conversation after the story went. We talked about how hard it can be to let go when it’s the only thing you’ve known. Even when that thing might not have been a good place or a good experience or a positive part of our lives. We talked about how scary it can be to know that you have to move on but you don’t know exactly where you’re going. We talked about how that’s made much more difficult when it seems like you have to move quickly - too quickly. We talked about how you can be happy and excited as well as sad and scared all at the same time. We talked about how that’s okay, and where we might look to find support and care. We talked about where we find God in all this. And it brought us back to the little girl at the end of the story.

God is the love that creates, cares, inspires and brings life. We might experience that in people we meet, the creation we wonder at, and the simple sense of God’s presence - that we are not alone. 

Thursday, 21 July 2022

You get where you're going with practice

There doesn’t seem to be any universal understanding of what exactly is the difference between perseverance and persistence. Even folks who claim “the dictionary definition” can’t agree on a dictionary or a definition. The best I can do is suggest to you that I think the difference maybe, might possibly, perhaps, be that persistence relates more to repeated action and perseverance to dedication to a belief or cause. I might throw in that persistence is more focused on the goal to be achieved, whereas perseverance is about the journey. Oh, and persistence tends towards shorter periods of time and perseverance to longer periods of time. But those are just my thoughts.

To be honest, I think they’re related anyway and I’m not sure that there’s that much difference in how we use them, particularly over the last few years of pandemic and now, in the world of its aftermath. I wonder if that isn’t because we almost invariably use persistence and perseverance in the context of what we need to overcome, the roadblocks and opposition that we see in our way.

Stick with it, keep calm and carry on, one foot in front of the other, we’ll get through this - there’s a host of encouraging words and slogans that we use. Encouraging, but still seeming to focus on the obstacles in our way, the hard experiences keeping us from “getting through.” Even little orphan Annie reminds us that “the sun’ll come up tomorrow … come what may.”

What if we could see persistence and perseverance in a different light?

A musician learns skills and techniques, but it’s only by putting them to use in constant practice that music is made. Similarly with artists, dancers, actors, writers, athletes in any sport. In fact, I’m having a hard time thinking of anything where constant practice doesn’t lead to something greater. 

But practice isn’t just repetition. It’s not just hammering away, sticking with it or getting through. Practice requires intention and engagement, a sincere desire to learn, a passion for what you practice and a willingness to go where the practice takes you. Obstacles aren’t battled, overcome or defeated, but engaged, embraced and incorporated into our journey, leading to a deeper and more wholistic life.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus encourages his followers to be persistent in prayer. In response to a request to teach them how to pray, he offers them words we recognize as The Lord’s Prayer (we know it from Matthew’s version). But, as often as we share them together or offer them in private prayer, I wonder if we’re engaging them each time. I wonder if Jesus might ask if we’re just repeating the words or practicing prayer.

“First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament” isn’t a literal translation of scripture, but a new telling of the story in keeping with the oral traditions and cultural imagery of indigenous people. In Luke, the translators share that Jesus encourages his followers to keep “dancing” their prayers: “answers will come to the ones who ask, good things will be found by the ones who search for them, and the way will open before the ones who keep dancing their prayers.” More than repetition and movement, dance requires intention, engagement, an awareness of self and context, passion and spirit. It’s more than just a beautiful image or ritual, it’s a practice that invites the connection to the journey prayer takes us. However you dance, be persistent and see where it takes you.

Thursday, 14 July 2022

Why tell the story?

The Good Samaritan isn’t the only Bible story that’s made its way into everyday - or near everyday - use. There are lots of characters, lots of phrases and stories that have become familiar, not for their place in the Bible, but their place in our everyday lives. All exemplary, but not all positive.

Look at Mary and Martha. The gospel of Luke shares a brief story about Jesus stopping at a village where he’s welcomed by Martha, apparently with the traditional hospitality of a first century Hebrew home. Martha bustles about busily, distracted by her household tasks, while her sister Mary just sits at Jesus feet and listens to him speak. Martha’s a little put out and asks Jesus to tell her to help him. His response is that Mary has chosen to focus on the only thing that’s really needed, while Martha is distracted from it by her work. Apparently.

Marys are dutiful disciples. Marthas are, at best, industrious and hard workers. They’re also the caste of household servants in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” They’ve also, in many a sermon, born the brunt of making the wrong choice.

That’s assuming, of course, that you see this little vignette as an either/or moment, where one is in the right and one, well, not so right. Listening to the teachings of Jesus are more important than the work of our daily lives. 

What a useful scripture passage that would be for pastors! It sure seems as if Jesus is saying “whatever you’re doing that you think is so important, it’s not really. What’s really important is listening to the Good News from Jesus.” So, get thee to a church on Sunday morning!

But is that really the point?

Personally - and I know I’ve said it a lot - I don’t see Jesus as an either/or kind of guy. I think Jesus is an and/with. At the very least, I think Jesus means to say that, in this moment, I’d rather you stop working and visit with me, but I see that the work of hospitality is important. In fact, we need both and need to make time for both. “Look at my life,” Jesus would say, “look at my life.”

The word and the work need each other. There must be time for learning, for reflection, for rest, just as there is time for the hard work of healing, showing compassion, working for justice and helping the oppressed and broken down. Remember how we are all created with the divine spirit and of the earth?

And maybe the issue isn’t really the work itself anyway, it’s the distraction, how it’s overwhelmed Martha. Perhaps the real point here isn’t just the need for both, but the balance of both and the integration of both. That’s what makes wholeness in our lives.

Our lives. That’s another great feature of this story. It’s not two of the chosen disciples that are made an example. Neither is it two unnamed random characters who demonstrate it. It’s not a parable. It’s an encounter between Jesus and two women, they have names and they are family. The balance of word and work doesn’t just bring wholeness to our selves, but to our relationships, to our families, and to our world.

Thursday, 7 July 2022

Who do you love?

It goes without saying that the story of the Good Samaritan is one of the best known of Jesus parables. Even if you’re not familiar with the Bible story, you know the expression. It's even become something of a cliché. We use the expression "a good samaritan" to describe someone who does an unsolicited kindness for another person who is in need.

Knowing the expression’s a good start. It's important that we understand the need to be compassionate and caring about others in need, even - perhaps especially - if we don't know them.  After all, everyone is our neighbour, Jesus says.


That's where knowing the story goes from valuable to important. Jesus' idea of "everyone" isn't just those people that are easy to deal with, it's, literally, everyone. And, in this story, that’s not just anybody. Others have passed the man by, others who should have been more than willing to help but don’t. The one who does stop to help - the hero of the story - isn't your friendly everyday Judean, as Jesus' audience might have expected, it's the hated and despised Samaritan. It’s the least likely person who would stop to help. At least, that’s what we would assume if we were first century Jews.

“Good” Jews knew Samaritans were to be despised. They were Jews, kind of, but the wrong kind of Jews. Jews who didn't believe "right." Among other things, they believed God resided on a particular mountain, not in the Temple at Jerusalem.

Sigh. Hard to believe, isn’t it? (No pun intended.) Okay, so let's put that in a contemporary context and tell the story for you, personally. There's a person lying in the street. They've been assaulted and they're severely injured. The first two people to come by are people who should be willing to help, but they don’t. Maybe it’s, say, a pastor and a lawyer. They could have good reason, we don't know. It does seem like they should want to help, given what they do. It’s likely they were just too afraid to stop. Dangerous neighbourhood, maybe. But then along comes … 

So who is it? Who's your "samaritan?" To be blunt, who have you learned to hate or fear, from life or culture, experienced or imagined? Who is it that you "wouldn't cross the street" to help? Is there someone?

That's who Jesus wants you to love. Not just your next door neighbour you get along with or your friends or people who are easy to love, but the hard to love, the difficulty to get along with, the people we’ve learned to not love, even those that live far enough away that we don’t know them, we just think we do. Who is that for you?

And don’t just stop there. Relationships are always a two-way street and, like any good story, we aren't always the hero. Sometimes we're the victim. Would you accept the gift of compassion from that very same person?

What happens when we're the "samaritan" in someone else's eyes? How hard will we try in the face of rejection? It's easier to walk away than fight to care, but Jesus still calls us to do so, because building relationships demands it.

This isn’t just a story about being kind and compassionate. It’s not even just about being loving. It’s about building a relationship of love with those we find the hardest to love. Especially when what makes them hard to love isn’t them: it’s our own ignorance or prejudice.

Friday, 1 July 2022

Let's Go Together

A few years ago, I wrote a short script for a skit telling the story of Jesus sending out "the seventy-two” (Luke 10:1-20). Jesus sends seventy-two of his disciples out ahead of him to spread the Good News and lay the ground work for his own travels. He sends them in pairs, telling them not to take anything with them and warning them that it's going to be a tough job, first, because there's so few of them and, second, because people aren't always going to be welcoming to them.

As you might expect from a Bible story, there doesn’t seem to be any questions, nor is there any indication that Jesus had any trouble at all finding volunteers. In fact, there’s not much description of their mission, either, other than to say that they returned with joy because they’d been so successful.

In my version, Jesus, clipboard in hand, is pairing people up and assigning them places to go. Some people aren't happy with their destinations, but even fewer are happy when they find out that they can't take anything with them. Even less are thrilled with Jesus' warning about what might happen. "I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves," he tells them (Luke 10:3).

Let's review: tough job to do, no supplies for the job, not enough people for the job. Anyone want the job? Well, no, as it turns out. In my version people are reluctant, to say the least. Until one little boy says "okay, I'll go, who wants to come with me? Jesus loves me and I want to share that with others," he says, "no matter what."

Like so many of the observers in the stories we tell about Jesus, we might be tempted to focus on the power Jesus gives them to act in his name, the miracles, the healings, the "authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy" (Luke 10:19). And, of course, the great success of the mission. That’s what we most aspire to, isn’t it? But maybe there's a few features here that are just as important, if not more so for us.

First, Jesus sends them in pairs. Everyone has a companion. Someone has their back, there's someone to lean on, talk things through with, share the load. There's a team. No one is by themselves. Second, Jesus calls on them to rely, not just on their relationships with each other, but on the hospitality of those who hear the message they bring. So those relationships they build are key to the task Jesus gives them. 

I wish there were more said about how people got together, how they worked together, how long they were together because together isn’t always easy. And that’s the third thing. I don’t think what’s important in this story is the power Jesus gives them or its success.What’s truly important is “together.”

No one is alone here. Everyone is reaching out, perhaps not always as successfully as is implied, connecting with people and with God. What we aspire to as the Kingdom of God doesn’t come with a flash of light and the invocation of Jesus’ name. It comes in the slow and steady work of building relationships of love and grace. And that can be real work. It’s also more likely to be a journey than a quick visit. But it’s a road worth taking.

Thursday, 23 June 2022

Things just got real

There’s a pivotal moment in the Gospel of Luke when the author writes that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” It’s the moment, for Luke anyway, when Jesus moves from his ministry in Galilee and intentionally begins the journey to Jerusalem, knowing “the days drew near for him to be taken up.”

Even though Jesus has already been busy, it feels to me like a “time to get down to business” moment. There’s an increased intensity and it feels like things have escalated.  Things just got real, you might say.

It may be that it’s the beginning of a journey, not just geographically to Jerusalem, but to being “taken up” — the author of Luke isn’t just anticipating death and resurrection, but the eventual departure of Jesus’ person. It may also be that Jesus is beginning to attract more attention, not all of it good. Or maybe it’s something more. Two things happen as Jesus sets “his face to go to Jerusalem.”

First, they’ve sent news ahead that Jesus is coming to a Samaritan town, but the people there aren’t interested in Jesus. Of course they aren’t. Samaritans and Jews are enemies. Samaritans were originally Jews, but they’re Jews who believe that God resides on Mount Gerizim, not in the Temple in Jerusalem, amongst other things. Jesus is headed to Jerusalem. 

But the disciples are offended and annoyed and ask Jesus if they should call down “fire from heaven to consume them.” No, says Jesus, let’s just move on.

Second, Jesus and the disciples next encounter three people: one who says they want to follow Jesus, and two that seem to have other priorities to take care of first. In each case, Jesus’ gruff response feels designed to dissuade them, rather than invite them in.

So what’s going on here?

Well, let’s remember that while we revere the divine Jesus and hold up (sometimes in more ways than one) the Son of God, there is Jesus’ humanity too. I think the key purpose of Jesus - divine and human - is to show the divinity and humanity that we are all capable of and inspire us to live more fully into it. So, as Jesus begins the journey to Jerusalem, he acknowledges that we’re all on a journey and our journeys are our own, they’re complicated and they’re not always easy. 

I wonder if, after the disciples wanted to “smite” the Samaritan town, Jesus might also have said that they find their way to God their own way, and that’s okay. In a later chapter, Jesus will tell the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus seems to want us to know that not only are other faith traditions still part of the family of God, but that we can learn from them and be inspired by them to live more fully into our own.

I wonder, too, if, with the others, Jesus is pointing us again to this truth: God is life. The divine spirit is in all things and if we don’t understand, appreciate and engage that, then what we are doing is simply behaviour. To live like Jesus is to live with love at the heart of everything, to understand that divine spirit is in every fibre of our being and every action we take, however we know God, however our religion understands it, however our traditions engage it. For Jesus, that’s as real as it gets.